The man sat alone at the head of the giant mahogany conference table. Enveloped in a haze of cigarette smoke, the room was dark except for the single desk lamp that illuminated his reclined form.
"She's been located in Atlanta," he said into the phone. A long pause and then, "I already have people in place. We should have what we need within the next 6 hours." He crushed half of his cigarette in the ashtray, immediately reaching for another. "Who's she spoken to? The number is small, two or three people. We're contacting them as well. She thinks she can protect what she's found." He took a long drag from the cigarette, letting the smoke waft around his head. "Another common citizen trying to save the world," he added, sounding almost amused. "Rest assured this matter will be resolved within the next 48 hours."
Without waiting for the other party to respond, he replaced the receiver in the cradle. He left his cigarette to burn away in the ashtray and switched off the lamp, easily making his way out of the office in the dark.
Another sleepless night. At first it really hadn't bothered him--long hours were part of the job description--but almost two weeks had passed and he had yet to sleep a solid three or four hours. It wasn't the lack of sleep that was really bothering him, though. It was the dreams. Dream. Nightmare. The same damn thing every time he closed his eyes. Even for him, the nightmare was disturbing, and that was saying something. Today he had actually thought of going to a shrink. Maybe it was some sort of delayed reaction to all the crazy shit he'd seen, been a part of, subjected to, whatever.
It boiled down to the simple fact that Alex Krycek was losing his edge, and that was not something he could afford to do. Not if he wanted to stay alive. Tonight, instead of tossing and turning in his bed, trying to sleep, he'd find other distractions. Beer, a pretty girl, maybe work out his frustrations on some unsuspecting chump.
He drove for almost an hour before something caught his eye. He was in the warehouse district, having long ago passed the regular nightclubs, with all the Gucci-clad hopefuls standing out front, guys trying to look cool, girls trying to look twenty one, getting out of their SUVs and sports cars. The place he saw was a converted warehouse, and had it not been for the bright blue neon sign that said "SANCTUARY" he would have kept driving. A sanctuary was exactly what he was looking for.
He pulled his car into the makeshift parking lot and eyed the surroundings. At first glance, Sanctuary did look a little like the clubs he'd passed earlier, people standing around outside, smoking and talking. The difference here was the vast diversity of the crowd. Sure, some of those yuppies from the other clubs were there, but there were also goths, bikers, street toughs, hippies. A crowd he could disappear into. He got out and strolled into club past two large bouncers who merely nodded at him, not noticing the slight bulge under the left arm of his jacket. Good thing they didn't do metal detectors or he'd have been screwed. Of course, all he would have done was pull out one of several false IDs and proclaim himself NSA, CIA, US Marshall, FBI even. But he would have cringed from the attention.
Loud rock music blared from the massive sound system as he made his way through the writhing dance crowd to the bar. A small girl wrapped her arms around his neck and asked him to dance with her, the lights glinting off the uncountable metal studs and rings decorating her face. He shook him head and slipped out of her grasp. Christ. In a crowd like this he almost felt normal. He spun around when he felt her hand on his ass, but she had already disappeared back into the crowd.
His order to the attractive female bartender included a wink and a five dollar tip. She smiled and poured him a double shot of whiskey, charging him half price. Yeah, he was a charmer all right. Charm you right out of your life and that's why I'm so damn good at what I do. He tossed back the drink, hissing as the bitterness slid down his throat straight to his gut. The second one went down slower, was less harsh. He turned on his stool to watch the rest of the club. Lights swirling, bodies moving, all shapes, colors, and sizes. Everyone having a good time. Then the lights seemed to still, all the laughing faces turning solemn, looking at him, accusing...
He squeezed his eyes shut, steadying himself against the bar. No. It was bad enough to see it when he was asleep, he didn't need to see it when he was awake too. He wondered if maybe he stopped to think about the nightmare, about what it could mean, then it would go away. Good in theory, but lousy in practice. Every time he even thought about it, his mind would look the other way. Nope. No self analysis here. Just hide until the monster goes away.
When he opened his eyes everything was back to normal. Everyone was back to normal. Well, except for that woman sitting at the end of the bar, looking as worried and upset as he felt inside. Even in this crowd she stood out from the rest. Expensive black pantsuit, flawless make up, short raven hair tucked behind one ear to reveal her pretty face. She was sitting as far away from the other patrons as she could get, scribbling in an organizer while she talked on her cell phone, and looked to be in total despair. What is wrong with this picture? Out of curiosity, he continued to watch her. Mysteries were good. Mysteries got his mind off his own problems.
She couldn't have been any more than thirty, average height, slim build. Right now her full lips were drawn in a thin line, a frown marring the smooth skin of her forehead. She had an exotic beauty about her, South American or Native American he couldn't tell. A man approached her, placed his hand on her shoulder, began whispering in her ear. Her eyes flashed angrily as she jerked away, dismissing him. The "get your hands off me" was obvious even from where he was sitting. Then she went back to her phone conversation, lips moving too rapidly for him to make out any of the words.
His glass was full again so he downed the amber liquid, groaning silently when his bladder began to protest. Until his eyes lit on the bathroom sign and he realized that he would have to walk right past her. He stood and threw some money on the bar for his drinks, glaring down the guy beside him who actually had the nerve to reach for it. He made his way to the bathroom, never once taking his eyes off her face. Why was she in such distress? Over the music he could hear her soft voice on the verge of tears as her movements became increasingly agitated. A strand of hair fell into her eyes and she pushed it absently behind her ear before toying with the brilliant diamond stud there. As he passed, he slowed down to glance at the organizer that she seemed to be so fascinated with. What he saw nearly made him stop dead in his tracks. After a barely noticeable pause he continued past the bar and rounded the corner to the bathrooms.
Shit. Was she watching him? Was she trying to send him a message? He leaned against the wall, apprehension overwhelming his need to use the bathroom. Where did these people come from? Why couldn't he ever get a moments rest? And then, the thought so small it took him a moment to comprehend, what if she was an innocent in all of this? He needed to know who she was, what her intentions were. But first, how to get her out of the club without causing a scene?
He pushed himself off the wall and went back the way he came. As he rounded the corner he found himself staring at an empty seat.
Where the hell did she go so fast? His eyes darted across the crowded dance floor, trying to focus under flickering lights. Pushing his way to the exit, he scanned the lot and saw her standing next to a late model burgundy sedan. She was digging through her bag, likely searching for elusive car keys. He hurried to his own car and started the engine, waiting for her to leave the parking lot. A minute later he was pulling out after her, careful to stay a few car lengths behind in case she was checking for tails. They drove for only fifteen minutes before she entered a residential area and pulled into the driveway of a two story house. He continued halfway down the block before flicking off the lights and parking four houses down. He watched as the woman let herself in and turn on the lights as she went from room to room. He was contemplating his next move when the decision was made for him. A black van came around the corner and stopped in front of her house. Two men got out, both dressed in black, both easily weighing over 200 pounds. They didn't look friendly, and they sure as hell didn't look like pizza delivery. Before he realized what was happening he was getting out of the car and reaching for his gun.
In a move that was second nature, he stuck to the shadows as he approached her house, sliding the safety off on his way. He found the door slightly ajar and slipped in soundlessly, noticing her bag laying on the floor just inside. A corner of the organizer was peeking out the top, and he resisted the urge to grab it and run. Muffled yells were coming from somewhere in the house and he concentrated on finding their location.
The kitchen was spotless, as was the living room. It barely looked like anyone lived here. He was halfway up the stairs, gun at the ready, when a loud crash came from the room ahead and a body was barreling toward him. They collided and tumbled down the remaining steps. He grunted as his head knocked against the banister, and then he was laying at the bottom, a female body sprawled across his chest. She scrabbled to get up, painfully digging her knee into his ribs and not seeming to care. And he had lost his gun
"If you just tell us where they are, this will go a lot faster."
He searched frantically for some place to hide as the voice neared the top of the stairs. He crawled around to the side of the staircase and pressed himself against the wall, hoping he wouldn't be noticed right away. As heavy footsteps descended, his eyes lit on the chair beside him. One of those mahogany Queen Anne things. Not to heavy for him to lift, but heavy enough to knock someone unconscious. He cursed himself for not having another gun. Backup firepower would have made things a whole lot easier.
"Don't come near me, or I'll shoot." He recognized that trembling voice, the hint of panic. She must have picked up his gun.
"Whoa there. No one wants to get hurt." Yeah right, Alex thought. No one wants to get hurt. But that doesn't mean it ain't gonna happen.
"Just tell us where they are, and we'll leave. It's as easy as that."
That voice was strangely familiar. He stretched up on his toes and peered through the banister railings. He should have known. They were Spender's men. The taller one, Stevens, he'd worked with him once, ages ago. Stevens wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he punched like a Mack truck. If Spender was using his thugs, he must have been really desperate to get his hands on the information that this woman had. Back in the day he would have used finesse, sent Alex in to steal it without her knowing until it was too late. And if Spender wanted the information that bad, well, that gave Alex even more incentive to get it for himself.
Before he could think too much about the foolishness of his actions, he grabbed the chair and rounded the staircase, swinging as hard as he could at the nearest body. Stevens turned at the noise, mouth rounded in a perfect O of surprise before flying back into his partner. A gun went off, and his head snapped up to look at the woman. His gun was in her shaking hand, and she was staring in horror at the three men in front of her. That's when Alex noticed the growing pool of blood beneath Stevens and his partner. I don't believe it. She shot one of them. Of course Spender's going to think it was me. Maybe I should finish off the other one. Leave no witnesses. He glanced down at the slumped bodies and knew he couldn't do it. He couldn't just shoot an unconscious man. Everyone has standards.
He stepped over to the woman and jerked the gun out of her grasp. Wide, unseeing eyes turned on him, but he didn't have time for comfort, for explanations. He stuffed his gun back in its holster.
"What's your name?"
She began to focus on him, awareness slowly seeping across her face. Behind them, someone stirred. "What? Serena."
"Look Serena. We're getting out of here right now before they wake up." He grabbed her arm, relieved when she put up no resistance. He guessed she was still in shock over shooting one of the men. He began to pull her along, hurrying to the door.
"Wait. My bag."
Like he was going to forget about that. It was half the reason he was here. "Got it," he said, scooping it up on their way out. She veered off toward her car, but he shook his head and tugged her arm a little more firmly. "We'll take my car. They know yours."
This time he took no care keeping to the shadows. Sometimes finesse was all about knowing when to get the hell out. He urged her into the passenger seat, then got in and started the car. From the corner of his eye, he saw a large, wobbly figure emerge from the side of her house. She gasped when she saw the man lurch towards them, and clutched her bag to her chest. Alex backed out of the drive and sped away, too fast for Stevens to catch the distant license plate.
Once they were out of the suburb, he slowed down to the speed limit. The last thing he needed was to get stopped by a cop. Good evening officer. No, I haven't had anything to drink, but I did just participate in a shooting, and then I kidnapped this woman. And if you go check your computer, you'll find that there's a warrant out for my arrest, and I'm wanted in several different countries for murder, treason, etcetera. Yeah. That would go over well. Despite his confidence that they weren't being tailed, he still checked the mirrors every few seconds. You could never be too careful.
Alex glanced at his passenger, noting her tense posture, the way she was cradling her side, staring straight ahead. She could have hurt herself when they tumbled down the stairs. Maybe Spender's goons worked her over a little before she got away.
"Are you injured?" he asked. She turned her head, staring at him like he'd just grown another ear in the middle of his forehead. "Are you hurt?" he repeated. Hoping to shake her out of her stupor, he reached for her shoulder. She flinched and knocked his hand away. Finally, signs of life. Her light brown eyes were brimming with tears, and he sent up a silent plea to whomever was listening that she wouldn't start bawling. He'd take a shape-shifter over a crying woman any day. At least he knew what to do with a shape-shifter.
"Who the hell are you?" she hissed, sounding scared and angry and confused all at once.
"I'm not going to hurt you."
She didn't believe him, he could tell. How many times had he been faced with that look of incredulity? Too many times to count. As if the truth would make her feel any better. What was he going to say? 'Hey I noticed you in the club, and when I walked by I happened to look at your notes, and saw something important, so I followed you home hoping to steal it the first chance I got.' You charmer, you.
"What do you want from me?"
He kept his eyes on the road and remained silent. Now she was showing too many signs of life. Why couldn't she have been stupid? Or extremely complacent? Why did his life always have to be so difficult?
"You want what they wanted, don't you?" When he didn't answer, she yelled, "Who are you?" tears finally spilling down her cheeks. She huddled against the passenger door, as far away from him as she could get. For the time being she seemed content to ignore him while she sniffled and whimpered.
"Why is this happening to me?" she whispered to herself.
Honey, he thought, I ask myself the same question every single day.
Alex continued driving with no real destination in mind. Getting information from someone who was hysterical and likely in fear of her life was going to be next to impossible. Of course, he could always just grab her bag and kick her out of the car. So tempting . . . But if she had any smarts, she'd have kept the important facts in her head, so that getting the information required keeping her alive. Which meant that if he was going to get any information out of her, she was going to have to be in his presence without being deathly afraid of him. She was going to have to trust him. Getting people to trust you was easy. All you had to do was tell them what they wanted to hear. For a brief while, he'd had the trust of the most paranoid and suspicious FBI agent in the country. Compared to that, this would be a cakewalk.
Serena slowly straightened in her seat, trying to cover up a wince by smoothing her hair back from her face. She'd definitely hurt her side during that trip down the stairs. The tears had left faint makeup tracks down her cheeks but she ignored them, staring resolutely ahead. Damned if she let this man get the best of her. She took deep breaths to steady her frazzled nerves, the soreness of her eyes indicating an impending headache. Great. Could this night get any worse? Then she thought of the two big men chasing her through the house, threatening her. Her hands clenched reflexively on her bag. She knew what they wanted, knew she wasn't going to let them get their hands on it.
She leaned back against the headrest, wanting to close her eyes but not daring to. He said he wouldn't hurt her, but how was she supposed to know that? After a minute she opened her mouth and began to speak.
"Let's supposed for one minute that I actually believe you don't mean me any harm." She glanced at him from the corner of her eyes. "Do you expect me to believe you're just some good Samaritan willing to run to the rescue and risk your life for a total stranger? I mean, would you believe that if you were me?" Her voice grew quiet at the end of her speech.
So maybe she wasn't quite as 'hysterical' as he first thought. In fact, she was being downright reasonable. Just tell her what she wants to hear. Be logical.
"Look, I know that it sounds like total bull, and if I were you I'd probably tell me to go screw myself." He thought he saw the corner of her mouth turn up in a tiny smile. Moving in for the kill. "But do you think that if those goons had their way you'd be sitting here having this conversation, or would you be bound and gagged, in the back of their van?" She kept quiet for so long that he began to wonder if he was getting through to her. He sighed audibly. "If you want, I can take you back, but how long will it be before those men come calling again? And from the way things went down back there, someone is very determined to get at you." Please don't let this backfire. She could be the key to what he was looking for: a way to bring down that smoking bastard and his Consortium for good.
No matter how much she hated to admit it, he had a point. He'd gotten her out of the house alive, and had made no move to harm her. Still, she doubted he would actually let her out of the car if she asked. He was slick, but not so slick that she missed the fact that he had avoided part of her question.
"So why do you care whether or not I'm bound and gagged in the back of a van?"
Without missing a beat he answered, "Honestly? It was instinct. I used to be cop." It wasn't a total lie--FBI, KGB, Consortium--they were all in the law enforcement business, so to speak.
"Here in Atlanta?"
Right, then she'd ask him to take her to the police station, and he'd look like a big idiot when he didn't know where it was. He shook his head. "Washington DC"
She relaxed another degree, only to hiss in a breath as she shifted her weight in the seat.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
She wondered why he hadn't hurt himself going down the stairs. He'd fallen backwards, and she had landed none-too-gently on top of him. Why was she the one suffering? The pain behind her eyes was working its way up from a dull ache to a pounding throb. So many things didn't add up, but she was too tired to think clearly. So much had happened. She'd been threatened, chased, she'd shot someone, and was currently being kidnapped by someone claiming to be an ex-cop. Maybe I'm in shock. Maybe that's why I'm not still in hysterics. I shot someone. He could be dead. But it would be self-defense, wouldn't it? They were the ones that came into the house and ...
The sound of a car horn startled her out of her thoughts. Her kidnapper was mumbling under his breath about 'some people's driving.' If he really was a cop, maybe he could help her. If he even believed her story. Or maybe she would just bolt the first chance she got.
"So, where are we going?"
Gotcha, he thought, trying to suppress a grin.
"The safest place for us right now is my hotel."
Her lips tightened into a thin line. He was taking her to his hotel? Out of the arms of hitmen into the arms of a rapist. She shook the thought away. She just wasn't getting that vibe from him. From the way he'd taken out the two guys at the house, she could tell he was dangerous. But her gut was telling her that he wasn't dangerous to her. That still didn't stop the tiny shiver of fear that raced down her spine. He still had a gun.
So, they were going back to his hotel. With the way her luck had been going, she pictured them navigating chalk outlines and bugs the size of cats just to get to the front door. After all, her captor looked a little worse for the wear. Not the type to have a secret bank account in the Cayman's. Especially not if he really had been a cop. Still, the car was pretty nice. Unless he had stolen it. An ex-cop wouldn't have stolen a car, would he? She took a good long look at the man who claimed to be helping her. Black pants, expensive leather shoes. His suit jacket was slightly wrinkled, and a days growth of stubble darkened his cheeks. The shadows under his eyes testified to the fact that he hadn't slept in days. She wondered what was keeping him awake at nights.
Her surprise was nearly palpable when he continued downtown and pulled into the lot for the Omni Hotel at the CNN Center. Wow. This one was full of surprises, wasn't he? Something told her that they weren't all good ones, but she'd worry about that later. Right now a soft bed sounded like heaven. With each jolt of the car, the throbbing in her side increased tenfold. Her ribs had to be cracked--broken wouldn't hurt so much, and now she was going up to the hotel room of a stranger who had a gun. Just add it to the list of 'crazy shit' that life had thrown at her in the past month. Mind you, she'd deal with all the crazy in the world if this mind numbing pain would just stop.
Alex decided to forgo valet parking in favor of choosing his own spot, conveniently located next to the stairs. The Krycek way--always thinking ahead. A planned and hasty escape route had saved his ass on more than one occasion. He eyeballed the door, knowing that the paltry hotel security would be no match for his lockpicking skills. Then a tiny whimper drew his attention to the woman beside him, and he swore to himself. She looked like she was about to pass out. So much for taking the stairs. He felt momentarily guilty. She should have been in the hospital, but he couldn't risk exposing himself in public like that. Exposing both of them. He'd just have to try his hand at playing Florence Nightingale.
The only other way to get to the room was the elevator, and that meant going through the lobby. He knew there was a real chance that given an opportunity, she would run or start screaming her head off. He was really not in the mood to kill a rent-a-cop.
"Look," he said. "We're going to have to go through the lobby to get to the elevators. The less you do to draw attention to us, the better. We'll be safe here." For the time being, he added silently to himself. Serena swallowed and finally nodded. She was much too pale for his liking.
He got out of the car and went around to the other side to give her a hand, but she was already out, leaning against the door for support. He slipped an arm around her middle, mindful of the ribs. She made a feeble attempt to push him away and he finally stepped back, letting her have her way. When she slung the bag possessively over her shoulder she winced, squeezing her eyes shut. He almost groaned in sympathy. He'd had his share of bruised and cracked ribs. There was a bright purple bruise on her wrist, but she pulled her jacket sleeve down to cover it.
"Lead the way," she said.
"Remember," he whispered as they approached the front doors. "Don't do anything to draw too much attention. Don't say anything. If anyone asks, I'll tell them you've had too much to drink." He let his hand hover over the small of her back, just in case he had to catch her. It was a good cover. She wobbled enough to be drunk.
The security guard gave them a cursory glance as the bell hop held the door. Alex nodded and tipped his head toward his companion, rolling his eyes as if to say, "Women. They're such a handful." Both men caught his meaning and chuckled as they entered the hotel lobby. With the exception of the desk clerk, the place was empty. She barely looked at them before turning her attention back to a magazine. Thank God for small miracles.
Suddenly his captive stopped dead in her tracks. He thought she might just be taking a small breather, but his hand instinctively went for the gun. He didn't want to cause a scene, but at this stage of the game he'd discretely force her up to his room. "Something wrong?" he asked, voice low and dangerous.
She looked around for a second, staring at the oblivious desk clerk, and then at him. Her eyes widened as she looked at his hand hidden inside his jacket. She wasn't stupid. She knew what was in there. He thought he might have heard her whisper "No." After a second she started moving toward the elevators.
He paused at the nearest one and pushed the call button. He made a show of leaving his hands out where she could see them. No need to scare her any further. She got the point. He didn't want to hurt her, but he would if he had to. She swayed a little, and didn't argue when he put his arm around her shoulders. Come on. Don't pass out on me now. Hold on just a little longer. The ding of the elevator interrupted his silent prayer.
He thought it was his turn to faint when the doors slid open and he came face to face with a cop. Not some pansy assed hotel security, but a real police officer.
Shit! He maintained his outward calm while shaking inside. If this was DC, he'd be in handcuffs by now. And if Serena was going to make her move, now would be the time to do it.
"Are you all right, ma'am?" the cop asked, frowning at her appearance.
"Had a little too much to drink," Alex explained. Serena glanced up and nodded weakly.
Apparently satisfied, the officer wished them a good evening and strolled away. Alex urged Serena into the empty car and waited until he saw the cop leave the lobby before pushing 10. When the doors closed she pulled away and propped herself against the metal wall.
"Pretty scared of a fellow officer of the law," she observed. If she wasn't in such pain he was sure she'd be smirking at him. He didn't know what disturbed him more: that she was secretly laughing at him, or that she'd seen past his calm facade.
"Glad to have brightened your day."
"You ruined my day."
"No, actually I saved your day."
She glared at him as best she could, knowing he very well might have been right, and hating it. "Well in that case, do you have a name, or can I just call you John Wayne?" She adjusted the bag and gasped as the pain hit her like a runaway train. Stupid stupid stupid, she chanted mindlessly as the floor went out from under her. He was at her side in an instant, with his damn arm around her. She was dimly aware that they had stopped moving, and he was holding the doors open, waiting for her to recover. When the pain dulled from an 'oh God I'm dying' to an 'oh God kill me now', she glanced up and was caught by his jade colored gaze. They stared at each other for a beat before he spoke.
"My name is Alex. And I'd carry you to the room, but I'm pretty sure that would only hurt more."
She nodded in agreement, and let him steer her down the hallway. They took their time, slowing and even stopping whenever the throbbing threatened to overwhelm her. She was amazed that they hadn't run into a single person since getting on the elevator. Then again, it was the early hours of the morning, and what was she going to do anyway? Pour out her tale? She'd sound like a nut. She'd had her chance with the cop in the lobby. It would have been so easy to throw herself at him, tell him she was being kidnapped, held against her will. She wasn't entirely sure why she'd kept silent. Because there's probably more men with guns waiting for you back at the house, a tiny voice inside her insisted.
After what seemed like hours of walking, Alex reached into his pants pocket and produced a key card. He swiped it through the reader and turned the knob when the little light turned from red to green. He shut the door behind them, obviously comfortable in the pitch black. He set her down in a padded chair, and she heard him shuffling around for a few minutes. When he was done he flicked on the lights and she squinted into the sudden brightness, head aching.
Under any other circumstances, she would have paused to appreciate the room. Thick beige carpet, heavy, luxurious looking drapes, polished mahogany furniture. At the moment her mind was occupied by one thing. The bed. As in 'a bed'. As in 'the only bed in the room'. If he thought he was getting her into that bed, he had another think coming. Even if it did look warm, and soft, and inviting ...
Alex disappeared, she heard the sound of running water, and then he was beside her, holding out a glass of water and some pills. "Figured you could use these."
She glanced at the pills and turned her head the other way. "I'm fine."
"You don't seem fine to me." He took her hand and deposited the pills in her palm. He actually expected her to take something from him? Like she trusted him that much. Like she trusted him at all. Who knows what those pills really were? What had she gotten herself into?
"For Godsake, it's only Tylenol. If I wanted to kill you, I would have done it hours ago."
If I wanted to kill you ... Now there was a reassuring sentiment. Against her will, a tear leaked out the corner of her eye. When had life gotten so out of control? What had she done to deserve this?
"I'm allergic," she said, wishing her voice was a little more steady. It was true in a way. He just stared at her, expression doubtful. Then his lips tightened into a thin line, and he banged the glass on the table beside the chair, startling her with the thump. She cursed herself for being so jumpy--for showing him how nervous she was. Another tear rolled silently down her cheek.
"You're allergic to Tylenol?" From the sound of his voice he obviously didn't believe her.
"Codeine," she whispered. The pills lying in her palm were Tylenol 3. They'd probably kill her.
He looked at her for a few more moments before his expression softened. He'd finally noticed how frightened she seemed.
"I--I'm sorry. Look, I'm only trying to help."
She ignored him, setting the pills beside the water glass. With difficulty she stood and headed toward the bathroom, bag in hand. Once the door was closed and locked, she leaned against it for a second and then forced herself over to the sink. Every movement, every step, every bend, every turn caused her pain. Her ribs should have been taped up, but her hesitating search for a first aid kit turned up empty. With a whimper of frustration she realized that she didn't have any painkillers of her own and fought the urge to fling the bag across the bathroom. In the very bottom of the bag, her fingers brushed against cool plastic. Her cell phone. Maybe she could call the police, they'd storm the place and rescue her. And then ask her why there was a dead man back at the house. The house. Oh God. Blue, she thought frantically, digging out the phone. She imagined if it was her coming home to a trashed bedroom, bloody floor ...
The phone rang four times before the answering machine picked up. Serena glanced at her watch. Damn. She was still at the club.
"Hey, this is Blue. I'm either asleep, shopping, or at the club, but all my calls are important so leave me a message and a number where you can be reached, and I'll get back to you ASAP. Laterz."
She hesitated a few moments after the beep. What should she say? Blue didn't know anything that was going on. Didn't know that the reason she'd come to Atlanta was to hide. And if Blue knew, she'd be in danger as well. She turned the tap on full blast so that her voice wouldn't be heard and shakily began. "Hi Blue. It's me. I just wanted to let you know that I'm--I'm okay. I shouldn't say anything else. I'm okay. I'll try to get a hold of you later."
She glanced at the locked door again and gingerly settled herself on the edge of the bathtub. She hit the second speed dial and muttered, "Come on Gabe, pick up." After another four unanswered rings another familiar message blared in her ear. After the unusually long beep, she said, "Gabriel, I've been trying to reach you now for the last 24 hours. I'm trying not to panic here, but nobody knows where you are." She gave a nervous little laugh. "You say I fuss too much, but I need you to call me. It's beyond urgent now, and I need to know you're alright. You can yell at me later for being such a worry wart, okay?" She had to pause a second to catch her breath as her side throbbed. "Call me on the cell 'cause I'm not at Blue's. If I don't answer, connect with me on the alternate route as soon as you get this. Love you, mean it." Serena pressed the end button and got to her feet unsteadily.
She swallowed a few mouthfuls of cold water and accidentally caught her reflection in the mirror. She almost didn't recognize the woman staring back. She moistened a facecloth and began to wipe the tear tracks and smeared makeup from her face. Even then, the face in the mirror was pale, haggard. And she had specks of something on her neck. The towel came away dotted with red. Blood. But not her blood. She felt momentarily nauseous before forcing it down. Don't think about it. Just don't think about it.
Serena braced her hands on the counter to steady herself and began to speak, confident she couldn't be heard over the running water. "House made of dawn, house made of evening light. House made of the dark cloud ..." Her voice trailed off uncertainly. It had been so long since she'd felt the need for prayer that she struggled to recall the rest. "Dark cloud is at the door. The trail out of it is dark cloud. The zigzag lightning stands high upon it." She shook her head and splashed another handful of icy water across her face. Concentration was almost impossible because of the pain in her side. "Restore my feet for me. Restore my legs for me. Restore my body for me. Restore my mind for me. My interior feeling cool, may I walk. No longer sore, may I walk, impervious to pain, may I walk. Being as it used to be long ago, may I walk" She squeezed her eyes shut against a particularly vicious throb. She almost stopped the prayer--obviously it wasn't working. Then the pain seemed to lessen. "May it be beautiful below me, may it be beautiful above me. May it be beautiful all around me. In beauty it is finished."
Glancing once more at her reflection as she turned off the tap, she steeled herself and left the security of the tiny room. If she thought it would have helped, she would have stayed in there indefinitely. Alex was just hanging up the phone. "I ordered some food in case you were hungry. The kitchen is closed, so it's just sandwiches."
She was hungry. Starving, actually. But she wasn't going to tell him that. Was he actually expecting a thank you?
When it became obvious that she wasn't going to say anything, he cleared his throat and continued. "With your ribs, you'll probably be more comfortable in the recliner." She gave him a look. He kidnapped her and then didn't even let her have the bed? When you put it that way, it sort of made sense, but still. Chivalry was dead. "Trust me, if you get into that bed, you won't be able to get out of it until you've healed."
Reluctantly, she ambled towards the recliner, gingerly removing her suit jacket. He made a move as if to help her, but her icy glare stopped him in his tracks. She let the jacket fall to the floor and settled herself in the chair. If she positioned herself just the right way, the pressure on her ribs eased up a little. Her wary eyes followed his movements. When he came toward her with some blankets she tensed, fingers tightening on her bag. He gently draped the blankets over her and sat on the edge of the bed. It was then that she noticed the television was on, volume all the way down. After five minutes she still didn't know what was going on, but Alex seemed engrossed. Maybe he could read lips.
'Bastard,' she mouthed silently, startled when he didn't even turn his head to reply.
"My parents were married."
'Son of a bi--'
"And my mother was a God fearing woman."
Well. That answered that.
A few minutes later there was a knock at the door, causing her to jump. Alex moved to the side of the door, hand inching inside his coat. "Who's there?" After the muffled reply, he peered through the peephole and opened the door. The kid from room service, gawky, no more than seventeen, handed him a tray of sandwiches and chocolate milk. When Alex stuck a tip in his hand, two sets of eyes widened. A twenty dollar tip for some sandwiches? Her gaze quickly narrowed as she studied Alex, reevaluating him. The 'I'm an ex-cop' story was growing more suspicious by the hour. She'd known enough cops in her time to know that cops rarely tipped. They thought that being a cop was enough of a tip, and that everyone else should feel grateful to them.
Alex held out a sandwich, which she was prepared to ignore until her stomach grumbled and gave her away. Grudgingly, she began to nibble on the corner. Soon the whole thing was gone, and she was feeling drowsy. If she didn't move, she could almost pretend like she wasn't hurt at all. Almost. She tried to keep her eyes open, not liking the thought of being asleep and vulnerable while Alex was in the room. Inevitably, her eyelids drifted shut, and she faded into the heaviness of sleep.
Alex was aware the minute she fell asleep. Her breathing became even, and her head fell forward, chin resting against her chest. It was the perfect opportunity to perform a quick search. Instead, his feet carried him to the bathroom, where he went about the everyday task of getting ready for bed. He brushed his teeth, washed his face, stared at himself in the mirror and wondered what the hell he'd got himself into. Smokey would be looking for them already, and while he'd always been able to get himself out of any jam injured or not, he'd never had to deal with an injured partner who was also untrained and uninformed.
She'd wake up in a little while, crying out in pain because she didn't trust him enough to take some Tylenol. He glanced at the bottle of Tylenol 3 that he'd been using unsuccessfully as a sleep aid. Had Serena been lying to him for some reason, or was she really allergic to codeine? Not wanting to risk it, he dug around in his shaving kit for the other sedative he knew was in there. His backup. In case the nightmare became too much. He rarely opened this bottle. It was too risky for him to sink into such a deep sleep. His survival counted on being able to wake at the sound of a pin drop. He shook two pills into the palm of his hand, then a third after a moment's consideration. With the butt of his gun he ground them into a fine white powder and scraped it all into a cup. If he could get her to drink that, she'd be out like a light for a few hours at least. Give him some peace while he tried to figure out where to go from here.
He turned out the lights and took off his jacket, scooping Serena's off the floor and onto the end of the bed. On his way he grabbed another sandwich and a carton of chocolate milk. He set his holster on the night stand, but left the gun in his lap as he settled onto the bed. He felt a bit guilty for practically ordering her to take the chair, but she'd thank him for it later. His shoes fell silently on the thick carpet as he toed them off. As he watched the TV, chewing on his ham sandwich, his eyes kept straying to Serena. That bag was right there, in her lap. It would be so easy to grab her notebook and copy it. Find out how much she knew without accidentally revealing something she didn't know. And didn't need to know. Still he remained on the bed, eyes moving between the silent TV and his silent guest. No, this operation required patience. And if it resulted in the kind of payoff he was hoping for, then he could be patient until the cows came home.
Besides, maybe Serena wasn't all that bad. She might turn out to be pleasant company. Once you got past all the whining and indignation of course. She had guts beneath her tears and wide eyes, he could tell. That would come in real handy when dealing with the Consortium. And she was definitely easy on the eyes. He looked away quickly. Don't go there. This isn't playtime, Alex. This is serious. Don't screw it up by doing something stupid like being attracted to her.
He didn't know he'd fallen asleep until a piercing scream rent the air, startling him awake. Serena struggled to get out of the recliner and sprinted to the bathroom, oblivious to the pain her injuries must have been causing.
The wretching cleared the fog from his brain, and he was on his feet in an instant. He found her hunched over the toilet, heaving up the sandwich she'd eaten earlier. He ran a towel under the faucet and knelt beside her in the tiny space, gently rubbing her back. He didn't know how long they stayed like that: him rubbing, her dry heaving. Eventually her heaves turned into body racking sobs, and he whispered words meant to soothe. He wasn't entirely sure if she was even hearing him. She shook her head back and forth, mumbling under her breath. He tried to make out her words, but they were too low, too rapid, maybe not even English.
His hand moved to massage the delicate column of her neck. The crying had stopped. Now she was trembling. Slowly, he reached out and flushed the toilet, stealing a glance at her bowed face. At least she had some color now. He nudged the towel against her arm and she took it silently, wiping her face. He stood and grabbed the glass on the counter, filling it with water. The power didn't entirely disappear, so he swirled it gently, and knelt down again.
"Here. Drink this."
To his relief she took it from him without hesitation and slowly gulped down the whole thing. Her "Thanks," was scratchy and hoarse.
"Come on. Let's get you back to bed. This is going to hurt."
She nodded, bracing herself against the counter as he helped her to her feet. With an anguished cry she was finally upright, letting herself fall against him for support. Together, they shuffled back to the recliner and settled her in it. He tucked the blankets around her, noting that the bag was on its side next to the chair. It would be so easy. He could even see the top of the notebook peeking out. But she was watching him, and the look in her eyes told him she could go hysterical again at any moment. He set another glass of water on the table beside her and turned off the TV. Even in the darkness he could feel her eyes.
He wondered if he should have thrown more than three pills into the mixture, but she soon fell asleep. He leaned back against the headboard, replacing the gun in his lap. He stared at the spot where he knew her bag was laying. Minutes later he was asleep.
The house was quiet, empty, but for the slow clicking of someone's shoes over the linoleum. The sound became sharper as the feet reached the hardwood flooring, pausing at the messy blood stain near the foot of the stairs. There was a slight trail leading back towards the kitchen, like the body there had been dragged away.
He should have known better that to send two clowns. The task seemed simple enough. Then again, who knew Alex was going to be here? That man had the infuriating habit of showing up at the most inconvenient time. And now he had the information. The question was, what was he going to do with it? If he knew Alex, he'd feed it to Mulder bit by bit, trying to help, but wanting to drive the man crazy at the same time.
A blinking light drew his attention, and he stepped into the living room. There was one new message on the answering machine, and when he pushed play he almost didn't believe his luck.
"Hi Blue. It's me. I just wanted to let you know that I'm--I'm okay. I shouldn't say anything else. I'm okay. I'll try to get a hold of you later."
That was her. So she was with Alex, apparently alive and well. And planning on calling back. He reached into his suit jacket and extracted a cell phone. Without greeting he rattled off the address. "I need a tap and a trace. And I want it done as soon as possible." He immediately hung up and reached for the answering machine again, replaying the message so conveniently left by their target. When it was done, he erased it.
It was at that exact moment that the front door opened and a voice called, "Serena? You awake?"
After a moment the owner of the voice came through the kitchen, doing a double take as she saw him standing in her living room.
"Uh, yeah? Who are you?"
He reached into his jacket again, this time coming up with a wallet and a four by six glossy. He normally didn't carry ID of any kind, but this was a situation that he'd been anticipating. "I'm a Special Agent with the FBI. Have you seen this man?" The picture he held in front of her face was an old surveillance photo of Alex.
She frowned, forehead scrunching up. "No, I don't think--Oh my God." He followed her gaze to the floor by the stairs.
"What's going on? Serena!"
She started for the stairs, but he took her arm. "There's no one else here. Come. I think you better sit down." He guided her into a kitchen chair and then sat, preparing to launch into his dialogue. He sat the picture on the table between them. "Do you live with someone?"
"No, but I have a friend staying with me for a few days."
"Could you describe her?"
"Well, average height. Short dark hair, brown eyes. Very pretty. What is this all about?"
"Earlier on tonight this man was seen leaving your house with a woman matching your friend's description. This man goes by the name Alex Krycek. He has several other aliases, and he's wanted by the FBI on charges of terrorism and several counts of murder. He is a very dangerous man. Is there any reason why your friend would be involved with him?
She went very pale. "Like I said before, I have no idea who he is. Serena's just a professor--she wouldn't be involved with anyone like him."
"It is possible that this is a case of mistaken identity. Krycek may have confused Serena with someone he was after."
"After? I've got to call the police. What if that's her blood?"
"You can't call the police, Miss. Catching this man depends on keeping our operation extremely low key. We'll take care of everything else. For now I'd suggest spending the next few nights somewhere else, in case this Krycek comes back. If you think of anything, or if Krycek or your friend get a hold of you, call me." He scribbled a phone number on the back of the picture and pushed it towards her. "Please remember not to talk about this to anyone." He pushed back his chair and stood. "I have to be going now. You have somewhere to go?"
"I'm already gone," she said.
"Wonderful. It was nice meeting you, Miss Bluefeather. Don't worry. We're exhausting all our resources to find your friend."
When Serena next opened her eyes, warm sunlight was streaming though the open drapes, and for an instant she thought she'd had an awful nightmare. I dreamt it all. I'm warm and comfy and peaceful all in my own bed. As soon as the fog of sleep began to burn off, her eyes focused on her surroundings and she remembered her plight. If that wasn't enough, the soreness in her ribcage served as a further reminder. The digital clock read 9:14 am, and the empty bed looked unslept in, except for the body-shaped imprint in the middle. It's comforter was wrapped snugly around her body. Tentatively, she slid out of the chair and got to her feet, testing her injury. To her surprise all that remained was a dull ache and some tenderness. She felt a bit woozy, but the shooting pains in her side were gone. Her ribs must not have been as badly injured as she suspected. She felt a hint of panic as she realized she didn't have her bag. A moment's search revealed it sprawled on the floor by her chair. Well that was interesting. It looked untouched. Maybe Alex was trustworthy after all.
It was then that she remembered waking in the middle of the night, dashing for the bathroom overcome with terror. He'd stayed with her, comforted her with soothing words. She could still recall the warmth of his hand on her back, on her neck. The idea that he was trying to help her began to take hold. She knew he wasn't telling the whole truth about himself. But how much could an ex-cop do anyway? She couldn't deny that she needed help. Lately she'd done nothing but get herself into trouble.
Her stomach growled, distracting her from her train of thought. She didn't suppose her gracious host had called down for breakfast. There was no food in the room, not even any of those left over sandwiches. The TV was on again, volume down so that the soap opera was accompanied by the sound of the shower running through the bathroom door. What was it with this guy and sound? It was like he was always listening for something else. She turned her attention to the door, wondering how much longer Alex was going to be in there. God, she couldn't wait to let some steaming water wash over her body. She felt grungy and unclean, physically and mentally. A hot shower would be the best way to wake her up and make her feel better. An added bonus would be a toothbrush to get rid of the awful taste in her mouth. Well, that would be easy enough to remedy. There was a store downstairs, just off the lobby.
She slid on her black pumps and reached for her jacket, shrugging it on gently. She found some hotel stationery and scribbled a quick note, letting him know she'd be back in a few minutes. There was an open duffel bag on one side of the bed, so she placed the notepad there where he was sure to see it. She eyed the bathroom door again, expecting him to come barreling out and stop her at any second. But the water kept on running. With her leather bag clutched firmly under her arm, she crept quietly out of the room. The click of the door locking as it closed behind her made her realize she had no key. Dammit. Well, most likely he'd be there waiting for her to come back. He wouldn't just take off, would he? That would be counterproductive to his helping her.
Serena headed to the elevator, toying with the idea of getting her own room. She valued her privacy. Give her a chance to think away from those watchful green eyes. And her side wasn't bothering her much anymore. She didn't need to be supervised. She'd be safe here, wouldn't she? Nobody knew where she was. But she'd thought the same thing about Blue's house. And yet someone had known, had come for her. The sound of a door slamming startled her, and she glanced quickly back and forth down the empty hallway. You can do this, she told herself. It's just a quick shopping trip. You don't need Alex to hold your hand like--
Oh God. Gabriel. She stopped dead in her tracks and pulled out her cell to check her voice mail. After a few seconds the computerized voice said, "You have no new messages," and her heart sank. Too much time had passed since her last conversation with her brother, and she knew Gabriel wouldn't go this long without contacting her, unless he couldn't. And if they had come after her ... No, she wouldn't let herself go there, not now.
As she waited for the elevator, she made another call. She should have thought to call Blue's cell last night, instead of the house. She was disappointed when she heard the recorded voice on the other end, and not the person she was trying to reach. Still, the comforting familiarity of her friend's breezy tones seemed to steady her. After the beep she spoke quickly.
"Hey Blue, it's Rena. I just wanted to let you know I am okay, I know you freaked when you saw your house and I wish I could tell you what the hell was going on, but the thing is I'm not really sure myself. I left a message on the machine at the house, but I thought you may not have gotten it in all the excitement." Excitement. This was anything but exciting. All she wanted to do was go home, go back to her normal life. Forget everything that had happened. She paused a moment to swallow back the tears that were about to overcome her.
"Call me on my cell when you get this, I really need to talk to you, please. Bye." Because you might be in danger too, she silently added. Remembering her message to Gabriel, she exchanged her cell for the palm pilot in the side compartment of her bag and searched hopefully for new emails. Nothing from Gabriel or Blue. She dropped the palm pilot back in her bag, exchanging it for a tissue to wipe her eyes. She was just blowing her nose as the elevator pinged and she looked up, expecting the it to be empty. She was thrown off guard by the seven or eight faces that were looking at her curiously. Remembering Alex's words not to draw attention to herself, she ignored everyone, and soon their eyes went back to the floor indicator. Well, almost all the eyes. Beside her was a small child who looked to be about six years old. She had a round face with shoulder length brown hair, and the most beautiful blue eyes, like clear azure. When Serena looked down the girl gave her warm smile, causing her to smile back. She felt her spirits lift ever so slightly.
When they reached the lobby, the child's mother led her from the car toward the front doors. The little girl turned back to Serena and smiled again, waving goodbye. She waved back, suddenly remembering why she couldn't just go home, couldn't just forget everything. People were depending on her.
Glancing at her watch, she walked out of the lobby in the direction of the stores and restaurants in the Center.
When the bathroom door opened a cloud of steam escaped into the room, followed by a boxer-clad Alex. He glanced quickly over at the chair piled high with rumpled blankets and continued to towel off his wet hair. Those sedatives sure did the trick. He'd barely heard a peep from Serena in over 24 hours. That had left him plenty of time to make a few phone calls and pick up some supplies. He'd resisted the urge to go through her bag, even though half of its contents had fallen out and were laying on the carpet. He wanted her to trust him--he was sure that was the only way they'd get through this. So he avoided even looking in the direction of the chair, for the most part. It helped to reduce the temptation.
He settled on the end of the bed and reached in his duffel bag for a pair of jeans. Instead, his hand encountered a notepad and a sense of foreboding quietly overcame him. He knew he hadn't put it there, and there was only one other person here. But she was sleeping, right? He grabbed the notepad and felt the color drain from his face when he read the neat, precise writing. This was not happening. It had to be a joke. Shopping? Was she nuts, this wasn't a vacation. This was hide and run for your life. Maybe she'd also bumped her head when they tumbled down the stairs and it had left her temporarily insane.
Alex stalked over to the chair and grabbed a handful of blankets, ripping them away. The chair was empty. She was gone, and so was her bag. "God Dammit!" he hissed between clenched teeth. What if she got herself captured, and he'd been too stupid to take her organizer?
He pulled on the jeans and yanked a blue t-shirt over his head. The shoes from last night were nowhere to be seen but he remembered the white Nike's he'd been wearing before he went to the bar. He dropped to the floor and groped under the bed for a second before finding them. He shoved his bare feet into the shoes and grabbed a denim jacket from the closet. He didn't have time for the holster, so he tucked the gun in the back of his jeans and scooped his key card, car keys, and wallet off the bed. He didn't wait for the door to close behind him before making a mad dash for the elevator.
Serena stepped up to the cashier and placed her purchases on the counter. Toothbrush and toothpaste, shampoo, soap, a comb, ibuprofen. She hoped she wasn't forgetting anything. This little jaunt was taking too long as it was, and she hadn't bought any clothes yet. What kind of fashion statement said 'ignore me, I'm nobody, I know nothing, please don't kill me'? Was there even a statement for that? Maybe she should be going for the non-statement statement.
"Will that be all ma'am?" the clerk asked. Still caught up in her thoughts, she mindlessly passed the girl her credit card and signed the receipt. Her suit was a mess, and pumps were definitely not made for running. Jeans and sweaters would do the trick, maybe a pair of running shoes. She stopped short when she realized how flippantly she was taking this whole situation. Two men had broken into Blue's house and tried to kill her. It wasn't just some bungled burglary. They knew who she was, what she knew. Had someone followed her all the way to Atlanta? How long had she been watched?
"Ma'am? Ma'am? Are you all right?"
She snapped back to attention at the sound of the clerk's voice. The girl looked concerned, and Serena realized that there was a long line of people behind her, waiting impatiently as she stared off into space.
"Oh, uh, I'm fine," she stammered, flushing. She rushed off, looking for the clothing store she'd passed earlier when her side sent her a warning twinge. Not healed yet, better take it easy. I hope Alex takes long showers.
When the trip down seemed to take forever, he wondered if he should have taken the stairs instead. He fidgeted with apprehension as the elevator inched toward the lobby. When the doors finally slid open, his hurried exit was cut short by the crowd of people waiting to step onto the car. A few turned to look at him curiously as he rushed by and he felt the urge to kick himself. So much for staying inconspicuous. He forced himself to slow down to a reasonably brisk pace and headed toward the stores. After a few minutes he spotted Serena browsing through a pile of sweaters. His sudden relief at finding her was enough to overshadow his anger at her apparent idiocy. Almost.
As he approached, a saleswoman came by to aid Serena in her fashion selection. Every person that saw them was one more person Spender could use to find them. His jaw clenched when he got close enough to see that she already had a couple other shopping bags.
"If you would like, we've got a fabulous collection of--"
"We're fine," Alex interrupted, wrapping his hand around Serena's arm and giving the clerk a look that dared her to argue with him. Serena gasped and spun around to face him.
"What are you doing?"
"I'm taking you back upstairs."
"Well--if you need anything, just let me know," the saleswoman said as she slowly backed away. After a second she balked under his stare and hurried off to another part of the store.
Serena's eyes flashed angrily. "What happened to 'the less you do to draw attention to us, the better'?"
He tried to keep his expression neutral as he practically dragged her from the store. He didn't miss the flash of pain on her face, the way her arm came up to cradle her side. He quit tugging on her, but kept his grip firm. "The sooner you get upstairs, the less attention you'll draw."
"I've only been here for five minutes. I need clothes and you're making a scene." She tried to pull out of his grip to no avail. Reluctantly, she let him lead her to the elevators.
"You don't need clothes," he growled quietly, before smiling at the desk clerk who was watching their progress with a careful eye. If you'd have bothered to look in the duffel bag ...
Thankfully, she kept her voice as low as he did. "What am I supposed to do, wear this outfit forever? I noticed you're not wearing the same thing. Face it, I'll draw more attention to myself in a hotel like this looking as though I haven't changed clothes in days."
He suddenly realized what a picture they made. She was in her designer suit looking worse for the wear, he was in faded jeans and sneakers, and he'd just dragged her from a store against her will. Shit, he thought. What was it about the woman that drove him up the wall? He slipped his other arm around her waist to make it look more casual. Unfortunately, she stiffened and managed to spin out of his arms, ruining the whole 'out for a casual stroll' thing he had been going for. Maybe it was time to tell her just who they were up against. Scare some sense into her. Once Spender entered the picture, life as you knew it no longer existed.
Serena deliberately marched ahead of him toward the elevator. If she was trying to irritate him it was working, but at least she wasn't fighting him anymore. The desk clerk continued to watch them as she picked up the phone and spoke briefly. They stepped onto the elevator and just as the doors were about to click shut a nightstick appeared and stopped their progress. Alex held back a groan. The gun in the waistband of his jeans suddenly seemed like it weighed twenty pounds.
A security guard that he had never seen before glanced between them and asked, "Is everything all right here?"
Oh, sure. We're on the run from a secret government agency, and she's going to get us killed. Everything's just peachy.
The guard grew more suspicious as the silence stretched out. His eyes narrowed and finally settled on Alex. When it became clear that Serena wasn't going to say anything, Alex threw up his arms in desperation.
Serena's head whipped up to scowl at him. "I'm impossible? You are the most arrogant man I've ever met!"
"See what I mean?"
"You are such a bastard. I can't believe I let you drag me into this--"
"I didn't drag you into anything, honey," he argued. Serena continued to berate him, and a subtle glance at the security guard's now amused face let him know they were going to make it.
"Why don't I let you two continue this in your room?" he said, almost smiling. He turned around, shaking his head. "Must be newlyweds," he commented to himself, but loud enough that they both heard. Serena's venomous glare quickly focused on the guard's retreating back until the doors slid shut.
Sometimes he wondered why he hadn't become an actor. It wasn't a far leap from that to spy. Alex leaned against the back wall of the elevator with a sigh, almost chuckling when her blue eyes swung back to him. What a glare. If looks could kill ... Well, if looks could kill he'd have been dead long before he ever met Serena. That thought made him laugh out loud this time.
"What's so funny?"
"Just thinking we should take this show on the road, you know? Make a few extra bucks."
She crossed her arms over her chest and make a disgusted sound. He laughed again, tension draining from his body. Serena was safe, her notebook was safe, he was safe. He admitted to himself that he may have overreacted a little, but in his line of work you could never be too careful.
They stopped at the third floor, and then the seventh, before making it to ten. As he expected, Serena bolted from the elevator as soon as the doors opened, and he almost had to jog to keep up with her quick pace. She was waiting for him at the door to their room when he rounded the corner with the key. When she barged through the doorway without so much as a 'thank you', he felt his amusement fade marginally.
She was pacing back and forth at the foot of the bed as he shut the door and tossed his keys in a heap on the bed. She was too busy muttering angrily to herself to notice when he tugged the gun out of the waistband of his jeans and set it gently on the bedside table. He had been all ready to forgive, but that idea went up in smoke when she turned accusing eyes on him.
"How dare you come running after me like I'm some errant child! You make such a big deal about staying inconspicuous and then you drag me out of the store like--like a caveman!"
"Caveman? I'm not the one who just put my life on the line for the sake of fashion! This is not a vacation. There are no shopping trips. You are running for your life! Don't you understand that?" Damn it! He wanted to shake some sense into her. Took a step forward to do so, until he realized that throttling her was going to get them nowhere. Even if it would make him feel better.
"How do you know that those goons didn't follow us here? What if one of them had been waiting for you downstairs? You would have been gone before either of us could bat an eye. Is that what you want?"
"Well, it's kind of hard to tell who the bad guys are. After all, you've got a gun too and I don't think you're afraid to use it!" If I want to live, he thought to himself. He watched her entire body still as she spotted his gun. Her eyes went to him, and then back to the table. If he didn't know any better, he'd say she was thinking about making a dive for it. Goddamn. Here he was, trying to protect her, and she was thinking about shooting him. Her shoulders tensed and she took a deep breath, but before she could move a muscle he snarled a low warning at her.
"Don't. Even. Think. About. It."
Her eyes snapped to his face, and for a minute she looked truly scared. He realized that he'd taken another step toward her, hands clenched at his sides. He tried to relax despite the anger bubbling up inside. So this was going to be the cause of his death. Insanity at the hands of some woman in trouble over her head.
His voice was harsh, but quiet as he continued. "You've got to listen to me. You've got to trust me. I'm keeping us alive, and anything you do to screw around only puts yourself in more danger. I can take care of myself perfectly well, but I can only be in one place at one time. I can't protect you unless you do as I say."
She stared at the carpet a moment before replying softly, "I needed clothes."
"You didn't need clothes!" he shouted, making her jump. In a fit he grabbed the duffel bag off the bed and threw it at her feet. A few pairs of socks fell out as it landed on its side. His chest heaved with the effort of keeping his hands away from her neck. "You didn't need clothes."
He hadn't sat around and watched her sleep the whole time. He'd been busy making calls--they needed supplies, Serena needed new ID. And he'd have them by tonight if she didn't get them killed first.
He clenched his jaw as she slowly picked up her shopping bags and headed for the bathroom, refusing to look at him. The door slammed behind her, and the picture over the TV crashed to the floor, almost covering the sound of his frustrated yell.
I don't believe him! Who does he think he is? I'm not some child! He can't just order me around. How was I supposed to know he'd bought me clothes? They probably didn't fit, and I would've had to go get some anyway. She slammed her bag on the counter and winced at the warning ache that her ribs sent her. The pain was still there, but nowhere near as bad as it had been. Sleep can do wonders ...
She'd have a long hot shower, take some ibuprofen, and curl up in the bed. Not the chair. But first she'd kill that goddamn sonofabitch. She had been so close to lunging for his gun. Then she remembered what had happened the last time she had a gun. A bang, blood spreading over a polished hardwood floor. With shaking hands she removed her watch and rings and turned on the shower. Serena desperately wanted to soak in the bathtub, but was afraid she'd drift off or not be able to get out because of her ribs. And she was absolutely not asking Alex to help her bathe. That was down on the bottom of her list, right along with 'swim with crocodiles' and 'have fingernails pulled out with pliers'. She reached into one of the shopping bags and pulled out the shampoo, and the receipt came with, fluttering to the floor. She reached down and glanced at it, eyes widening when she noticed the date. Her receipt said Friday. But yesterday was Wednesday. Wasn't it? This had to be a mistake. She checked all her other receipts as the steam began to swirl around the bathroom. They all said Friday. Her mind flashed to an image of Alex handing her a glass of water.
"Here. Drink this."
Her eyes flashed angrily. That bastard ...
She flung open the door, stepping out into the relative coolness of the room. The damp receipts were clutched tightly in her hand. Alex was sitting on the bed staring at the TV. There were glass shards surrounding it, and a broken picture frame was laying on the floor.
"What did you do?"
He didn't bother looking at her. "What?"
"What did you do!?" She waved the receipts in his face. "I seem to be missing a day. You drugged me, Mr. 'you have to trust me'!"
"You needed the rest to help your ribs heal," he said flatly. "And something for the pain--you needed it--"
"You could have killed me! I told you I was allergic to codeine."
"I didn't give you codeine, obviously," he replied sarcastically.
"What was it then?"
Her voice nearly lowered to a growl. "How much?"
His head finally swiveled to look at her. He still had that murderous gleam in his eye that had frightened her before. "Thirty milligrams."
Her eyes widened. "Thirty? Amitriptyline decreases brain activity. You could have killed me!"
"So you said. What, are you a doctor or something?"
"Yes," she answered. Well, not a medical doctor, but he didn't need to know that.
They stared each other down for a full minute before Alex sighed at the ceiling. The muscle in his cheek was twitching. "Look, I'm sorry," he started, not sounding sorry at all. "Sorry about the amitriptyline, and about what happened downstairs. But I don't think you realize how much danger you're in."
"So you keep saying. And you know all about it because you just happened to be walking by the house and decided to come to my rescue." She narrowed her eyes. "You do know, don't you? It wasn't coincidence that you were there."
"I know some. Enough to know that you're going to get us killed if you don't start listening to me. Look, Serena, if we want to get through this, you're going to have to trust me. We're going to have to trust each other."
She quelled the urge to roll her eyes. "What is it exactly that we're going to be going through? And how can I trust you when you lie to me? Who are you, really? Who were those men that were after me?"
"You're using up all the hot water, you know," he said, glancing toward the bathroom. The tension eased somewhat but she still wasn't ready to give up. No matter how badly she needed that shower. When he realized that she wasn't going anywhere, he sighed again. "How about you go have that shower? I'll get us some food, and then we can talk."
Alex glanced at the bathroom. She'd been in there for almost 45 minutes. What if she'd passed out, or fallen ...
He gently eased open the door, and was immediately assaulted by a thick cloud of steam. Once he could see again, he noticed her bag on the counter amid a pile of clothing. There was that temptation again. And here he'd just made a speech to her about trust. Damn his big mouth. This would all go so much faster if he could just read that notebook of hers. The words he'd glimpsed in the bar were permanently etched in his brain. ... shows definite telepathic abilities above and beyond anything seen before. Reports indicate that there are ...
And right after that, the letter 'G'. He curled his hand into a fist to stop from reaching out. He was here to check on Serena, not to steal from her. He stuck his head just inside the door and listened to make sure she was still moving around. Slowly, his ears picked up a tiny sound. It sounded like a sob. He strained his ears to listen. There it was again. She was crying. Alex backed out of the room as quickly as possible without making any noise.
Let her cry for now. Because there won't be time for tears later. There was still a chance that her life could go back to a relatively normal state. She could give Spender what he was looking for, and be on round-the-clock surveillance for the rest of her life. They'd never kill her unless it looked like she was going to talk. But after today there was no going back. They'd never let her live once she knew everything he was about to tell her. Once she'd told him what she knew.
He felt guilty for a moment. He was effectively giving her a death sentence. But if she didn't have all the information she didn't stand a chance of survival. And he couldn't protect her properly if he didn't know all the facts.
He eyed his watch impatiently. He'd been promised that the ID would be ready by tonight. They would go to get it, pick up the supplies, and move out. They wouldn't be able to fly out--Spender would have men all over the airport--but he'd been at this hotel long enough. They'd get a car and drive west. But that was seven long hours away. In the meantime, Serena's soup had gone cold and her ice tea had gone warm.
His mind began to drift back to why he had ended up in Atlanta. The whole idea had been to choose a place that had no ties to anyone or anything in his past. No FBI, no Consortium, no government conspiracies. It seemed the perfect place to get lost in for a while. No one knew him here. He could walk down the street without looking over his shoulder every two minutes. Now he only had to glance back every five minutes.
Yeah, this had started out great. For five days life had been good. He had even thought about buying a little place here. Hell, he had enough money stashed away to buy a small island if he wanted to. Then something had happened. He'd had a nightmare and went out to relax. Now, by some strange twist of fate he found himself trying to keep his old boss from murdering some damn stubborn women that he followed home from a nightclub. And just like that the old Alex Krycek was back on active duty.
Alex heard the water shut off in the bathroom, and began preparing himself for their conversation. As an afterthought, he took his gun and slipped it under the pillow, out of sight.
Serena emerged from the bathroom puffy-eyed, hair clinging to her cheeks, but head held high. Her shirt and jeans looked slightly damp from the steam bath they must have had in the bathroom. He was impressed when she calmly perched herself on the edge of the recliner and pinned him with a steely gaze. He didn't wait for her to say anything, he just started talking.
"Those men that came after you in your house, they work for a man who heads up a classified government organization. You have information that he either needs, or doesn't want anyone to know. He'll do everything he can to get to you."
"How do you know?"
"I used to work for him." He paused, letting it sink it, giving her the opportunity to speak.
"You said you were a cop. You lied."
"I was an FBI Agent. I didn't want to scare you off."
"Since when is the FBI a classified government organization?"
"It's not. This man is above the FBI, NSA, CIA. He recruited me while I was an Agent."
"Why don't you work for him anymore?"
There were so many reasons that he wasn't sure which one to pick. Car bombs. Missile silos. The end of the world as they knew it. "Irreconcilable differences." From the look on her face, she knew it was more than that, but let it drop.
"When you say he'll do everything he can ..."
"He'll threaten your friends and family, turn your allies against you."
Her composure cracked for a brief second. What wasn't she telling him, besides everything? "Serena." She seemed startled by the use of her name. "What is it? You've got to tell me."
"That wasn't my house the other night. I'm not from Atlanta. I-I was staying with a friend."
He ran a hand through his hair. "Is your friend involved in any of this?"
She shook her head. "No. She doesn't know anything."
There was something about the way she said it, the emphasis on 'she'. "But someone else does," he ventured.
Serena looked away and swallowed before answering. "My brother. He's the one that told me about-- About it. I haven't been able to get a hold of him." She turned a worried gaze back to him. "Do you think ...?"
Her brother. Christ. There was two of them. There was a good chance that her brother was a lost cause, but she didn't need to hear that right now.
"The only way I can help is if you tell me what you know." He leaned forward. Time to get this mess straightened out. "Serena, you have to tell me what you know about Gibson Praise."
"How did you know?" she whispered. "Were you looking for me too?"
He shook his head. Nothing could be further from the truth. As far as freak coincidences went, this was one of the freakiest. "I was at that club, Sanctuary. I caught a glimpse of your notebook. Took an educated guess on what you were writing about."
"You weren't that jerk that tried to get me to dance, were you?" she asked with narrowed eyes.
He chuckled quietly. "No. I was the jerk that followed you to your friend's house hoping to steal the notebook."
Her sights immediately flew to the bathroom. He could see her bag sitting on the counter.
"And no, I haven't read it. Not even while you were asleep."
"What do you want with Gibson?"
"I don't 'want' anything with him, other than to keep him away from that smoking bastard. The man I used to work for," he clarified when she frowned.
"Why is he so intent on getting him?"
"You know what Gibson can do, don't you? What he is?"
"What he is? He's a boy. A boy with extraordinary powers, mind you--"
"And if those powers were to fall into the wrong hands? Do you know where he is? Does your brother?"
"Yes. And there's more."
He waited for her to continue, but impatience won out. "More ...?"
The simple statement was like a blow to the gut. More kids like Gibson. Spender must have been salivating at the idea. The only word he could get out was, "Where?"
Serena crossed her arms over her chest and frowned at him. Okay, so maybe she didn't trust him that much, but at least they were talking. It was a start. He put up his hands.
"Okay, you don't have to tell me where they are. But are they safe? Protected?"
"Gibson and the girl are. My brother was taking the other boy and his family somewhere safe. That's the last time I heard from him. It was two--no, three days ago."
He sighed. "They have to be hidden away. They can't become specimens for the government to poke and prod."
"Don't you think I know that?" she snapped. "I know that! Otherwise I would have published my findings in every goddamn journal that would have accepted them. I would have held press conferences. I would have let people see the truth."
He felt a grin turn up the corner of his mouth. Ah, the elusive truth. "You're a researcher?"
"Yes. I study paranormal phenomena. And don't laugh at me. It's serious work."
He sobered instantly. "I know." Probably better than you do. "You just reminded me of someone I--knew."
On impulse he quickly closed the distance between them. She stiffened as he loomed over her sitting figure, so he knelt down in front of the chair. "We're going to keep these kids safe, okay? What they've already done to Gibson--" He stopped abruptly as anger washed over him. "If those bastards so much as go within a mile of these kids, they won't live long enough to regret it."
Serena had been sleeping peacefully in the bed for almost an hour now. After eating her cold soup, she'd gone to the bathroom to take some ibuprofen and had emerged with the organizer in her hands. She'd scrutinized him for a minute before holding it out to him.
"You can read it. I didn't write down the children's names, or where they live. And no, before you ask, I'm not telling you."
It was a test of trust. She'd given him the book, then laid down. After a moment she had sat up with his gun in her hand. He'd forgotten it was under the pillow. With an arched brow she set it on the table and fell asleep. He had the information he wanted. There was nothing stopping him from walking out on her right now.
With a quiet sigh he sat down and began flipping through the book. An hour later he was looking at Serena's sleeping form in a whole new light. She was a full professor at Duke University, despite being young, and a woman, and a member of a visible minority. Her organizer was crammed full of appointments and meetings with Dr. This, Professor That, important sounding committees and organizations, a few of which he had heard of. She was heading up a research project on telekinesis and post-traumatic stress disorder, and had a couple grad students under her wing. The first jot note that really caught his attention was from a month ago.
Meet Gabe at Ch airport. Testing.
Gabe must have been her brother. There were other vague blurbs all throughout the calendar, but at the back he found a more extensive version of what had happened in the past month. Serena's brother, who was apparently a schoolteacher, contacted her about a boy in his class who displayed some unusual abilities. The testing that Serena carried out wasn't written down in detail, but Alex knew the results anyway. They would have been the same as the results of the tests that Scully had put Gibson through. Through the boy, Serena and her brother somehow became aware of the existence of two other children. She only used initals for names and locations. G, obviously, was Gibson, who was in WH, where ever the hell that was. The other boy, A, was in R, and a girl, A, was in T. Well, only two states started with the letter T. But if T stood for a city, or a town ...
For some reason, Serena had become concerned about the fate of the children, and destroyed all traces of the search and the children's test results, leaving nothing but her organizer. Someone had trashed her office, and her home, and she'd fled to Atlanta about a week ago. When she warned her brother, he promised he'd take A and his family somewhere no one would find them.
Alex let the book fall closed on his lap. It had to be destroyed, just like all the research. Serena sure had gotten herself in over her head. He rubbed tired eyes and stood up to stretch. He'd have to wake her up soon, so they could go get her new ID. He wanted to go by himself, but wasn't going to take the chance of leaving her alone. Who knows what kind of trouble she'd get into?
As he bent down to work the kinks out of his lower back, he spotted a small piece of paper half under the bed. Out of curiosity he picked it up. One of Serena's receipts. Then he realized that an illegible signature was scrawled across the bottom--a credit card receipt. Sonofa ...
He rushed over to the bed and gathered up his keys, slipping the gun in its holster.
"Serena." He put his hand on her shoulder and shook her slightly. "Serena. Wake up. We've got to go. Now!" Spender had to know where they were. He could be in the lobby, on the elevator, walking toward their door.
She sat up groggily and blinked sleep-filled eyes at him. "What? Why?"
"Because," he said, shoving both of their belongings into the duffel bag, "someone went shopping and used her credit card."
He tried to control the volume of his voice. He could be angry later. Now it was time to haul ass. He half expected to hear a knock on the door any second. As if Spender would be polite enough to knock.
Understanding dawned in Serena's eyes. "Oh God. I'm so sorry--"
"Save it for later. We've got to get out of here." The urgency in his voice propelled her out of the bed. She pulled on her shoes and got her bag out of the bathroom. He grabbed her arm as she began packing up the rest of her clothes. "Leave them." There was no room for argument. He scooped up her organizer and shoved it in her bag as he urged her to follow him. After a long look out the peephole, he eased open the door and stuck his head into the hallway. Empty.
They began trotting toward the stairwell when a strident alarm filled the hallway. Serena gave a little shout of surprise that complimented the pounding of his heart. Shit. Was the fire real, or just a diversion so Spender and his men could get to them? He had two second to decide.
He turned on his heel, heading back the other way. The hallway began to fill with panicked guests, and Alex urged Serena to stay to the side as they pushed their way through the crowd.
"Where are we going?" she yelled above the din.
"Hello? In case of fire use stairs?"
He pulled her along until they reached the elevators. "Do you think it's just a coincidence that the fire alarm has been set off, hours after you used your credit card downstairs?"
She frowned at him. "How can you be sure there's not really a fire?"
"I'm not," he replied evenly. "Keep on the lookout for anyone who's following us."
Her eyes widened as she looked around. "You mean they're here?"
"They're trying to flush us out." He handed her the duffel bag and instructed her to stand to the side. The hallway was nearly empty, so he pulled out his gun and aimed it at the doors. They probably wouldn't be on the elevator--they'd be searching for them on the stairs, where they were supposed to be. But you could never be too careful.
"Alex--" she gasped.
The ding couldn't be heard over the fire alarm, so there was no warning as the doors began to slide open. He tensed his finger on the trigger, prepared to shoot anyone who rushed out. The car was empty. He slipped the gun back in his jacket as they got in.
"What happens if there's really a fire and we get trapped in here?"
"Then we'll get out. I've been in worse situations."
"How reassuring," she quipped. He silenced her with a dark look. If they had been able to take the stairs, they would have come out not twenty feet from his car. Now they had to make it through the lobby. Hopefully there would be a panicked mob rushing for the front doors, and they could slip by unnoticed.
He readied his gun once again. Without a word Serena clutched the duffel bag to her chest and moved to the corner of the elevator. The doors slid open on a panicked mob, just like he was hoping for. He put the gun away before it could be noticed, and took the bag from Serena. He reached back and felt her hand slide into his as they ventured into the lobby. His eyes scanned the area as they were pushed and pulled toward the exit. There. A man was pushing his way against the crowd, trying to get in rather than out. He tugged Serena close.
"There's a man by the doors trying to get this way. He's one of them," he whispered in her ear. She nodded and glanced around fearfully. There was a small gap in the crowd, but as Alex tried to barrel his way through, a thick hand suddenly wrapped around his windpipe.
"Where do you think you're going, Krycek?"
He felt Serena squeeze his hand almost painfully, then kicked out as hard as he could. He wished he had his boots on, but the sound of bone crunching under his sneaker was satisfying enough. The man let go to clutch at his shattered knee and they rushed past. He heard another yell, and lost his grip on Serena's hand. When he turned to look he saw that the man had grabbed a fistful of her shirt. He was trying to get his hands on her bag. She struggled against his grip before lashing out with her feet, landing blow after blow with her pointy dress shoes. The man howled in pain and went down for good this time. Before he could do anything, Serena was clutching at his arm and pushing him toward the door.
He looked up, searching for the other man. He hadn't made much progress into the crowd, but as fate would have it he met Alex's gaze. His struggle to reach them increased tenfold. There was no way they'd get past him to the front doors of the lobby.
Alex fought his way out of the crowd and veered off into the stores. Serena didn't bother to question his motives--she was just trying to keep up with him. He could hear angry shouts and pounding feet behind them. So much for trying to get to his car. And he liked that car, dammit. He navigated his way to the emergency exit by the bathrooms, and they burst into an alley, skidding to a stop on loose gravel. Serena looked like she was ready to pass out. This running couldn't have been good for her ribs, but she hadn't complained. He gave her a second to catch her breath, but to his surprise she started toward the busy street, pulling him after her. Smart girl.
Seconds later they reached the sidewalk, and Alex headed toward the Nordstrom's across the street. Once inside, they slowed their sprint to a jog and didn't stop until Alex found a women's washroom that was empty, and locked the door behind him.
He leaned back against the door, while Serena bent over and wrapped her arms around her middle. For five minutes the only sound was their ragged panting.
"You were right about the fire," she choked out in between gasps.
"Yeah," he grinned in relief, patting her bowed back. Alex rubbed his throat thoughtfully. Talk about a close call. Outside, someone pushed on the door, and began knocking when it wouldn't open.
"Hello? Is anyone in there?" Whoever it was sounded like Dame Edna.
Alex ignored the noise and crossed to the sink to splash some water on his face. He gestured for Serena to do the same. She took a moment to smooth down her hair in the mirror. He plunked the duffel bag onto the counter and began pulling out clothes.
"We need a quick change until we get out of the area." He handed her his black sweater. It would be bulky enough to conceal her figure. Then he tossed her a worn hat. "Pull it down low. We don't want anyone to see your face. Do you have sunglasses?" She pulled a pair out of her bag. "Good," he nodded. "Put them on as soon as we step outside." She was too pretty to go unnoticed in a crowd. He slipped his own glasses onto his nose.
"Hello? I can hear you in there! Open this door!"
"Take a hike, lady!" he shouted. She had a voice like nails on a chalkboard. Now that they had some breathing room from their pursuers, he felt his irritation flood back.
"I'm going to get security!"
You do that. He stood behind Serena, staring intensely at her reflection over the rims of his sunglasses. "You did good back there." She started to brighten until he leaned in close and settled his hands on her shoulders. "But from now on you don't do anything without asking me first. You don't talk to anyone. You don't do anything. You don't go anywhere. You don't buy anything. Without. My. Permission. Got it?" He punctuated his statement with a hard squeeze and she nodded, not breaking eye contact.
Satisfied that she would actually listen to him, at least for the next few minutes, he stepped back and picked up their bags. "Come on. Let's get out of here before the cavalry arrives."
As they were leaving the store, they passed a tiny old lady and two security guards. "The door was locked," she was saying. "And there was a man inside! In the women's washroom! He probably had some poor girl locked up inside. Who knows what was going on ..."
Serena put on her sunglasses as soon as they stepped out onto the densely populated sidewalk, and both of them began to scan the sea of faces for anyone who seemed out of place. He didn't like being exposed like this. Especially since Serena's apprehension was so obvious. She was twitching at every little sound. Horns blaring, laughter, buses stopping. Jesus! A car backfired up the street, and it took all his willpower not to react. Yeah that's what both of them really needed to complete their runaway paranoia, just great. Serena spun around, looking like she was about to bolt.
"Calm down," he whispered, adjusting his grip on the duffle bag and sliding his arm around her shoulders. "Inconspicuous, remember? We're just two people walking down the street."
She nodded slightly and took a few calming breaths. He was actually surprised at how quickly she reined in her emotions. The sweater was at least two sizes too big and she had to keep pushing up the sleeves, but nobody paid them any undue attention. After what seemed like an eternity without incident, Alex manouevered them to the curb and hailed a cab. He made Serena get in first and tossed the bag in after her. He took one last look around before sliding in beside her.
"Where can I take you folks this evening?" the driver asked, settling firendly smiles on them. His brain was whirring a mile a minute. Where were they going? They certainly couldn't stick around here, and that meant no fake ID, no background check, and no supplies. God dammit. This is exactly why he worked alone.
"The train station," he finally said.
"The train station?" Serena whispered, taking off the sunglasses. "Where are we going?"
He continued to scan all the windows as though he expected someone to jump out and stop the cab at any second. "I'll tell you when we get there," he replied equally quietly. When she pulled her cell phone out of her bag he grabbed her wrist. "What are you doing?"
"I need to check my messages. If my brother or my friend have called I need to let them know I'm okay."
He shook his head, still gazing out the window. "You can check your messages. But no calls. And make it quick."
She sat back to glare at him. "Look, I really need to contact my friend and let her know what's happening. She's got to be worried sick."
"Is your memory that short? Do you not remember the conversation we had in the bathroom twenty minutes ago?"
Serena tossed a manicured hand in front of her face. "I can't leave town without telling her--she already knows something is wrong, and knowing Blue she's already tried to file a missing persons report."
Alex took the sunglasses from her and settled them back on her face. "Another excellent reason for you to keep these on."
She whipped them off. "Screw the damn glasses. I need to call my friend."
"If they think she knows anything, she's dead," he hissed. He was about to tear into her when he realized their hushed tones were now very audible. The driver was watching them suspiciously in his rearview mirror. Even through sunglasses, the man felt Alex's glare and turned his eyes back to the road.
Lowering his voice he continued. "You said you'd listen to me. For five minutes won't you trust that I know what I'm doing?"
"Alright," she finally breathed. "But only for five minutes."
He clenched his jaw as she checked her messages. Though he couldn't see her face, he could tell from the slump of her shoulders that there were no messages. Then she pulled out a palm pilot. He stiffened, but she had anticipated his reaction.
"I'm just checking for messages. Not sending." Once again, there was no word waiting for her. "I don't get it," she muttered to herself. "Why hasn't Blue tried to call me? Unless ..."
It was obvious where that thought was going. Unless 'they' had her. And it was a distinct possibility, but they had other things to worry about. He told her so.
She turned to stare at him, eyes bright with tears. "Don't you have any friends? Don't you care about anyone?"
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that people who associated with him would probably end up dead, but decided against it. Not much of a vote of confidence. He was saved from answering as the cab slowed to the curb.
"Here we are folks," the driver said with forced cheer, still watching them with some scrutiny.
Alex was still staring at Serena. "The sunglasses," he said quietly. When she put them back on, he turned to smile coolly at the driver and pulled a fifty dollar bill from his wallet. Just as the man was reaching for it, he snapped back his hand.
"Have you ever seen us before?"
The man frowned. "Well, I take a lot of passengers ..."
Alex added another fifty and repeated himself. "Have you ever seen us before?"
Understanding finally dawned on his face. "No. No Sir."
He handed over the money with a curt "Keep the change," and took Serena's hand, pulling her after him. He surveyed the sidewalk for a moment, hefting the duffel bag over his shoulder. When he was confident that all was clear he ushered her into the station. This had been the most peaceful five minutes he'd experienced since meeting her. And that was including when she was asleep.
They got into the shortest line, which was still over ten people long, and began to wait. Serena took off her sunglasses when he did.
"Are you going to tell me where we're going now?"
Alex shook his head and glanced around. They had to be careful. Spender might have men here, as well.
"You are the most paranoid man I have ever known."
"And you're alive, aren't you?" he snapped quietly. Thankfully, she remained silent as the line moved along quickly. They were at the ticket window in a matter of minutes.
"When does the next train leave for New Orleans?" Alex asked the woman in the booth. Serena glanced at him sharply, but he ignored her.
"At 8:05. Would you like to purchase tickets?"
Alex glanced at the clock over her head. It wasn't even seven yet. "There isn't anything sooner?"
"I need two tickets. Do you have any private cars available?"
After a few keystrokes the clerk replied, "There is a private car available. Will that be round trip or one way?"
As he paid and waited for the tickets to print out, he felt Serena tug on his sleeve. "Alex," she whispered.
"What is it?" She looked frightened as she stared off into the crowd. As he followed her gaze, he spotted a very large, very angry looking man rushing toward them. There was nowhere to go. Alex tensed and reached into his jacket. The man began hollering at them.
"You! You sold me the wrong ticket! Now I've missed my train!" God. He wasn't coming at them. Alex grabbed his tickets as the man breezed past and began to yell at the ticket clerk. They slipped away unnoticed, and Serena let out a shaky sigh. She looked a little pale.
"It's all right," he reassured her. "We've got a couple hours to wait. You hungry?"
She nodded and followed him as he quickly made his way to the restaurant. He selected a booth near the back that still gave him a view of the entrance. It would only take them a few seconds to get from their seats to the kitchen and out the back exit if they needed.
The waitress appeared, somehow managing to look bored and frazzled at the same time. When Serena remained silent, he ordered soup and salad for both of them. She was staring at her lap, tearing the napkin to shreds in restless fingers. He took a breath. All this 'caring' bullshit was going to make him lose his edge.
"Are you all right?"
Instead of answering, she asked, "Are you going to tell me why we're going to New Orleans?"
There was nothing stopping him now. No one close enough to hear. "I have a contact there. If we fly anywhere, you're going to need new ID. She might have heard what's going on with the kids." Serena's eyes flicked briefly up to his before settling on the table top. "She has access to information I don't. She might be able to find out what happened to you brother." He expected that to get some sort of reaction, but she didn't even twitch.
When the food finally arrived, they'd been sitting in silence for ten minutes. Alex dug into his salad, wondering if she was going into shock. It seemed unlikely--they'd been chased, but there were no gunshots, no fight-for-your-life tussle, no injuries ... Shit. He'd forgotten about her ribs. He thought her chalky complexion was because of fear. Now that he paid close attention, her breathing was a little shallow, and she was leaning to one side. The adrenaline had probably dulled the pain until now. He thought of his shaving kit sitting in the bathroom of the hotel, and the amitriptyline inside.
He leaned forward to try to get her attention. She was picking half-heartedly at the salad. "Serena. Are you okay?"
She blinked a few times, glanced around, and shook her head. Then she winced.
"Your ribs?" Of course it's her ribs you bonehead. He cursed himself. They should have been wrapped that first night he took her to the hotel. And she probably would have said something if you weren't being such a prick about being in charge. He tried to tell himself that being a prick was keeping them one step ahead of the game, but she was just a girl. She'd never been on the run before. She'd never had her life threatened. She lived in a world of academics, of debates, of professional conduct. And she was still going to drive him insane. One minute he wanted to throttle her, the next minute he felt sorry for her.
He threw a twenty on the table and went to her side, holding out his hand. "Come on." The fact that she didn't question him or argue was a testament to how much pain she must be in. She needed a whole handful of painkillers, and he needed to find some bandages so they could tape up her ribs. They stepped carefully through the station, and Alex bypassed the gift shop for the convenience store. He left Serena leaning delicately against a Coke machine while he found a first aid kit. He glanced over at her continuously, paranoid that she would be gone the next second. And would that be so bad? He shook his head. Even he wasn't so cruel to strand her, injured, in the middle of a train station.
He paid for the kit and returned to her, slipping his arm around her back. He could send her to the bathroom to wrap her ribs, but he was fairly certain she wouldn't be able to do it herself. Looks like they were going to have to pull a bathroom trick again. Serena seemed to understand and headed blindly for the ladies room. Alex spotted a separate handicapped bathroom and ushered her toward it. He locked the door behind them and Serena ambled to the toilet, closing the seat before gingerly setting herself down.
Alex got the bandage from the first aid kit as she struggled to get out of the sweater. After a few muffled curses it was lying on the floor. Alex grimaced and picked it up. Mental note: wash sweater before wearing it again. He tossed it over his shoulder and knelt beside her. "I hope you don't take this the wrong way," he said, reaching for the hem of her shirt. She jerked away, biting her lip with pain.
"Fine." He held out the bandage. "Do it yourself."
She took it from him, and glared pointedly until he turned away. Every few seconds she would gasp and it was at least a minute before she gave a frustrated whimper. Well, he couldn't say she wasn't determined. He turned back and saw that the bandage had fallen from her hands and unrolled near his foot. He picked it up and knelt back beside her. His fingers were just pulling up her shirt when she spoke.
"If you get one ounce of pleasure out of this," she ground out between clenched teeth, "I swear I'll rip out your eyeballs."
He ducked his head to hide a grin. No use pissing her off when she was in pain. At least she'd said *eye*balls. But his humor quickly faded as the vivid bruise over her ribs appeared. She tensed as his fingers skimmed over her skin, hissed as he probed the bruise. "Sorry," he said absently. It was like an ugly purple stain on her olive-hued skin. It was a handspan wide--his handspan--and disappeared up under the elastic of her bra. And she'd been living with it for two days. Feeling something like sympathy, he started to wrap the bandage around her slender torso, careful not to touch anything that would get his eyeballs ripped out. "This is going to hurt at first," he warned her. "It's got to be tight."
She nodded and bit her lip, remaining completely silent as he wrapped her ribs, fastened the loose end of the bandage, and gently pulled her shirt down. He helped her put the sweater back on, and rolled up the sleeves so they didn't hang past her fingertips. She dry swallowed some ibuprofen and closed her eyes briefly.
"I wouldn't let you make any calls because they can trace the call. Yes, even on a cellphone," he said in reply to the unasked question. "And once they get a trace, they can pinpoint our location. We need to dump your phone. You can make as many calls as you want once we get to New Orleans. And soon, we're going to have to destroy your organizer."
She opened her mouth to protest, but he cut her off. "It's too dangerous to risk having around. If they get their hands on it, they might decide that they really don't need you around. Without it, all that precious information is in your head, which they need. Intact," he emphasized. Of course, this was all a moot point if they had her brother and had gotten the information out of him. But the very fact that they were coming after Serena seemed to indicate that they were still mostly in the dark.
"Thank you," she croaked, letting her eyes fall shut again. When she finally indicated that the pain was starting to dull, he helped her to her feet and glanced at his watch.
"They'll probably start boarding soon. We should get out to the platform."
"New Orleans in February," she mumbled to herself. Alex ignored a couple of strange looks as they came out of the bathroom together. "I've never been to Mardi Gras."
Okay folks, that's it! The next part is already in the works and is titled Redemption: Journeys, so keep your eyes peeled!
Eve and Rachelle