Red Dragon Inn
Catacombs => The Catacombs => Life on the Other Side => Topic started by: Simon Toews on May 15, 2018, 01:35:04 AM
(OOC: This story will contain material a lot of people may find disturbing. Fair warning.)
The young boy ran and ran and ran, rain pouring down on him in torrents. He was cold, wet and it had been days since he’d had a bite to eat. It was rare that he’d been caught stealing, but Old Man Hester had been on the ball. The last thing he’d expected was for the portly, old guy to bust out a shotgun.
Glass had shattered behind him as he let the door slowly close when he ran, the buckshot barely missing the boy. The kid ran, clinging to whatever edibles he could keep from dropping out the pockets of his hoodie. He ran until his legs felt like they might give up. And then he ran some more, a trail of junkfood behind him.
Hester hadn’t a prayer of keeping up with him, not with that big ol’ gut. The young boy dared a look back, just in case. His eyes should have been forward. He slammed into the unseen body of a man in black. The kid hit the pavement with a harsh grunt, the contraband falling from his pockets.
His eyes traveled up and up and up the tall figure, his face still shrouded in shadow. A hand reached out for him, sending up every red flag the young man had built in his young life. He was in survival mode. Quickly, he swatted the hand away and tried to scramble back, trapping himself in a corner.
“Easy, son. Easy.” The man said soothingly. “I’m not gonna hurt ya.”
Those big hands were held up placatingly, a cigarette burning between two fingers. It was then that he saw it. A clerical collar. His all-black outfit that of a priest. He had a kindly face, but the boy had seen enough of those in his time to know it didn’t mean he was safe.
“Are you alright, lad? Are you hurt?” the priest asked.
The frightened young man just stared through wild, blue eyes, waiting for this man to make a move. The old man peered from behind glasses, noting the food scattering the ground around the boy. He couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11, he thought.
“That what you’re runnin’ for? You steal that?” he asked, but there wasn’t a hint of judgement in the old man’s voice. The boy didn’t answer. He just watched.
“I tell you what. How about, you come inside. Get a warm meal in you, Get out of this rain.” he suggested.
The kid’s fists tightened into little fists. “*** you. I ain’t stupid! I know you’re just gonna turn me in.”
The old man’s brow furrowed. “You shouldn’t talk like that. That kinda bile shouldn’t be coming out a young man’s mouth.” His lips upturned in a little smile. “I tell you what. I’m going to head in. I have a pot of stew cooking inside. If you want to come join me? Please. You are more than welcome. If not...well, then you go right on your way. Sound good?”
The boy didn’t answer. The man just stubbed out his cigarette and put it in a receptacle. “If I don’t see you...good luck, my son.”
With that, the old man went inside. The boy sat out in the rain a long time, soaked to the bone. It was getting colder lately. The past few nights had been spent under cardboard boxes grabbing whatever scraps he could to make a blanket to sleep on. The father hadn’t been lying...he could smell the stew from out there. It might have been some bachelor chow junk, but to a starving boy, it smelled like heaven.
Slowly, he got up off the ground, took one look around for his pursuer, and headed inside. It was dead quiet, but for the sound of rain upon the roof and a crash of thunder. He looked around cautiously, the smell of food beckoning him into the kitchen. Every step seemed to take a lifetime as he slowly made his way in, just waiting for someone to grab him and haul him off to a home.
But it never came.
When he arrived in that dining area, the priest was pulling out a second bowl for the boy. He froze in the doorway, quiet as can be. The old man didn’t even glance back. “Sink is over there. You don’t have to, but I recommend you wash up a bit. Do you like soda? You’re welcome to whatever’s in the fridge.”
Once again, no response from the boy. He just cautiously made his way to the fridge. He’d almost forgotten the taste of anything that wasn’t dirty water or the backwash left in a bottle. Those sharp, blue eyes taking the bounty before him in like it was the holy grail. His hands shook as he took an orange soda and cracked the top.
The boy chugged it vigorously, greedily. Nothing before and nothing after would ever taste so sweet.
“Easy now. You don’t want to go upsettin’ your stomach, lad.” The priest smiled,, setting a small portion for him on a chair. The kid didn’t move immediately of course, but eventually the call of cooked food was too tempting. He started over finally.
“Oop.” the father said, halting the boy. He nodded to the sink. Reluctantly the kid went and washed his hands and face. The water was warm, clean. It took every ounce of restraint for him not to put his head under the faucet and just drink.
The priest smiled, watching him as he finished. The little urchin stepped over and immediately dug in like a hungry dog. This kid hadn’t had a good meal in a LONG time, he thought. “Take it easy, son. Nobody’s gonna take it from you.”
The boy looked feral when his eyes shot up to him, but he softened and slowed down.
“My name is Father Benjamin Mulcahy.” He introduced himself. “This is my home. You are welcome to stay here as long as you need. What’s mine is yours.”
Those eyes showed he didn’t believe it. The kid was a tough nut to crack, Mulcahy thought.
“I know. It seems to good to be true, right?” He said with a self deprecating tone. “It ain’t a 5 star hotel or anything, but...it’s warm. It’s dry. It’s got food. You stick around, help out a bit...and I think you’ll see it’s not too bad.”
God, but he was a quiet one. The boy still not speaking. He just shoved in another fork-full of stew.
“You got a name, my son?”
Again, silence. Mulcahy nodded slowly. “I understand. When you’re ready, you can tell me.”
The priest tucked a napkin onto his lap and started eating. For a long time it was silent between them. Just the sounds of forks clanking on bowls and the occasional chewing noise. This Mulcahy didn’t seem to have any ulterior motives. If he did, he wasn’t showing it. He just minded his business and enjoyed his meal.
Mulcahy perked, looking up from the bowl. “What’s that?”
“My name is Simon.”
November 14th, 2017
It’s funny how quickly things can change. How what you think you know can be flipped on its head. Coming home had been blissful...until it wasn’t. The moment he’d seen her in the arms another man, carried into his car and driving off...something broke. It didn’t take a genius to figure what most likely happened next. He knew who she was. How she was.
Even if he was wrong that night, he knew it wouldn’t be long until he was right. So, Simon did what he often did. He left.
In the past, he’d have gone to war. Used his fists to “solve” the problem. But he just didn’t have that in him. Simon Toews was tired of fighting. He left behind a picture and a note with a brief message. “I hope he’s enough.”
Simon found himself with his few earthly possessions, sat behind the wheel of that beat up Charger, unsure of where to go. All he knew was that returning to that penthouse was absolutely out of the question. Simon was lost, and the phone currently occupying the bottom of bay ensured he would not be found.
Winter would be there soon, and it would be a bitterly cold one. A daunting concept when one was without a home. It wasn’t like he didn’t have friends...he probably could have given Orchid a call...but he knew what would likely happen if he did. And that wasn’t what he needed right now.
Almost instinctively, he reached to his pocket for a pack of cigarettes and found it empty. That was odd. He was never without a pack on him. To be honest, the last time he could remember lighting one up was back...back in Noble.
Funny how that podunk little town and that tiny farm could have had such a profound effect on him. He thought about what Kate and Millie were up to now. He hoped they had found more peace back home than he had.
Simon cursed under his breath. It just made him picture what was likely going on at that very second. He didn’t know the man currently spending an evening with the woman he’d sacrificed so much for. Frankly, he didn’t want to know.
Stop it. Focus on the next step, he reprimanded himself. Find somewhere to stay. The more he thought about it, the clearer the option became. The one person he never would have thought he’d have to depend on.
With a weary sigh, he turned onto the highway and gunned it to the only place he knew nobody would think to look.
Corrine Paige entered her living room, clad in yoga pants and a red tanktop. Paige liked her place neat and ordered. She wasn’t obsessive about it, she just liked everything in its place. Her feet were propped up on the ottoman, relaxed as one of the dozen or so crime procedurals she so enjoyed played out on the screen. They never got it right. There was always some sort of “triangulating” or hacking going on...and why in the hell would they allow an analyst to join the assault team? Who said that was a good idea? Still, it was entertaining enough.
The doorbell almost startled her. She didn’t get many visitors, so she wasn’t at all expecting it, especially at this hour. With a grumble, she pushed herself up with her one arm, the bell ringing again.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m comin’.” She muttered, limping on over.
The last face she expected to see was on the other side of that door. Her lips parted, staring up at the man before her. Yes. Definitely the last person she would have guessed. Simon stood there, looking a bit like a lost puppy. His face was stoic as always, but there was a pain in his eyes she hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
“Hey, Corrine.” He said softly.
She eyed him a long moment. “Toews. What, uh... “ She considered him a moment, her brow furrowing. “What the hell you doin’ here?”
“Um…” he wouldn’t meet her eyes. In fact, he looked pretty much everywhere she wasn’t. “I need a place to stay.”
That was discomforting. The only time Toews ever contacted her was when he was in trouble. And even then he NEVER came to her house. Corrine was almost afraid to ask the obvious.
“Well,” she said, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t you have a big-ass penthouse you’re shacking up with the blonde chick in?”
Simon was silent. It was as if the words were there, but he couldn’t make them leave his lips. It wasn’t difficult to suss out what happened. She could see it in his eyes. Against her better judgement, she stepped aside, making room for him.
Simon forced an appreciative smile and stepped on through, a dufflebag slung over his shoulder. Paige followed him with her eyes, shutting the door behind him. He seemed lost, unsure of where to go and what to do. She was pretty sure he hadn’t expected to get in through the door.
“So.” She said, deciding to cut that tension. “You in some kinda trouble again? There a blonde out there handcuffed to a train I need to go rescue?”
“Oh, she might be handcuffed to something, but it probably ain’t a train…” he tried to joke, but it just came out hollow.
Suspicions confirmed. She nodded. “So, what, you run outta **** buddies to crash with?”
He set his bag down and leaned against the wall, letting out a sigh, the weight of the past few hours finally hitting him. “I’m sorry to come here like this. I don’t mean to inconvenience you or nothin’. I just needed to go somewhere...safe.”
“Safe from what?” She asked, trying not to pay too much attention to the boots that were on her clean carpet.
“From me.” Simon responded. “Normally, you’re right. I’d just go out, crawl into a bottle or on top of a stranger...maybe find a face to mess up with my fists...but…” Blue eyes slid shut and he shook his head slowly, wearily. “I just can’t do it anymore.”
He was hurting bad. The blonde must have done quite a number on him. Now didn’t seem like the time to push.
“You can stay here tonight.” She said. “I’ve got a spare bedroom down the hall.”
“Thank you.” he managed, hefting that bag up and starting down the hall.
“Toews?” She called after him, the man freezing where he stood. “You gonna bring trouble my way?”
He glanced back over his shoulder, his eyes meeting her’s. “No. I promise.”
Paige gave him a stern look that told him “You damn well better not.” Finally, she gave him a curt nod.
As he started away again, she called him once more. “Toews.”
Once again, he met her eyes. “Take your damn shoes off in my house, what do you live in a barn?”
That first night at Mulcahy’s parish was the best sleep Simon had in weeks. He hadn’t told the man what brought him there. He hadn’t told him of the images that stuck in his head. The screaming of his foster mother. The low, stomach turning grunts and gurgles of his Tim...the drunken, violent man who had been his foster father. The sound as the bat connected with flesh and bone and blood.
He was almost certain he’d killed him. Though, through the grapevine, he’d found out the son of a bitch lived. If he had the chance, Simon would have finished the job. Too many nights, he’d heard their fighting. Seen her with black eyes, bruises, a broken finger. Too many nights, he’d gone to bed to the music of her sobs. Even at 11, it ate him up. He might have been a child, but for years he cursed himself for not doing anything.
That night, Simon did something.
The church was quiet in the morning. The sounds of the world outside filtering in to the perfect acoustics of the chapel. Light shone in through the colorful, stained glass windows. It occurred to him that he’d never actually set foot in a church as he moved through the oaken pews, his fingers trailing upon the wood. He stepped on up the altar and gazed up a the man upon the cross. The Ingrams hadn’t exactly been practicing Catholics, though they identified that way. Even holidays, they’d neglected their faith. A big no-no, or so he’d been told.
“Did you sleep well?” Mulcahy’s voice echoed into the large room, startling the boy.
Simon whipped around, gripping the altar tight. That flight response kicking in almost immediately as he looked for exits. It took a moment for him to calm himself. He just nodded.
Mulcahy nodded with that friendly smile upon his face. “I managed to find you some clothes in the donations that should fit you. After breakfast, maybe you can go through them? See if there’s anything you like.”
Breakfast. Oh GOD, did he miss breakfast.
All throughout the day, he waited for the other shoe to drop. Mulcahy gave him little chores to do. Halfway through the day, they had cheeseburgers. The priest even complimented him on a job well done. It should have uplifted the boy, but it just made him more suspicious. As the sun set, it became apparent that this man wasn’t going to throw him out onto the streets.
Mulcahy talked to him, tried to pry more than a word or two from his young friend. It was mostly in vain, of course, but he shared about his life growing up in poverty and getting into trouble as a youth before taking his vows and choosing another path. He talked about his parishioners and how they impacted his life. Simon just listened.
Every now and again, the priest snuck in a cigarette. It seemed odd, the boy thought. A judgement the father seemed to notice. Mulcahy held up the burning butt with a frown.
“We’ve all got our vices.” He explained. “I’m a priest. Not a saint.”
Simon woke the next morning, memory of the previous night blissfully forgotten for just a moment. He turned and reached for the spot Tahlia would have occupied only to discover an empty space. The confusion and panic lasted for only a second, but it set his heart racing as he sat up quickly.
The pristine room around him seemed unfamiliar in the morning light. It was quiet. Only the sound of a clock gently ticking away occupied his ears. Simon let out a sigh. She was gone. Moved onto the next guy. He’d seen her. Push it down, he told himself. There would be time for this later.
When he finally made his way downstairs, Paige was already there. Paperwork was spread all over her kitchen table in neat piles as she thumbed through her tablet. She merely glanced up to him, offering a nod in greeting.
“Coffee’s fresh if you want some.” She offered, returning her attention to her work.
“Thanks.” He said, pouring himself a cup. For a moment, he almost took it black, but he remembered Kate and Millie. A smile spread across his face as he took the cream and sugar and poured.
Paige quirked a brow at him. “Thought you took it black?”
“I did.” He nodded, stirring. “Apparently, it tastes a lot better this way.”
“No ***.” She responded, her lips upturning in a lopsided smirk.
Simon took a seat across from her., glancing out the window as he sipped.
“So? What’s the plan?” She asked, flipping through her screen.
“Honestly?” He said. “I don’t have a ****in’ clue.”
Paige clearly didn’t like that idea. Her eyes upturned from her tablet. “That’s not great.”
“I just need to figure things out.”
Corrine’s expression turned cautious. She knew what that meant. “Oh no. No, no no.”
Simon grinned, one brow rising. “What?”
“Look. I’m all for hospitality and helpin’ a brother when he’s down...but I ain’t runnin’ a half-way house for heartbroken ex-cons.”
“I won’t stay long. I just need to find work and get some money and I’ll be out of your hair. I swear.”
Paige rested her hand on the table. “You think I’m stupid? I know you. Trouble follows you like flies on ****. I worked my ass to the bone to get what I got. My debt to you, far as I’m concerned, has been repaid tenfold. I ain’t puttin’ my life or my career on the line for you again.”
“I’m not asking you to. I’m just asking you, as a friend. Just let me crash here for a while. I won’t cause you any trouble. I promise.”
“Oh, we’re friends now?” she said with a bitter little laugh. Paige shook her head. “You call when you need somethin’. I ain’t your friend, I’m your safety net, Toews. I don’t think you know what a friend IS anymore. I’m just the one thing with tits and two legs you ain’t tried to bed.”
She wasn’t entirely wrong. He knew it, too. Simon blinked, lowering his eyes. “I’m trying to be better. I want to be better.”
Whatever had happened since that night he wiped out Vicelli’s organization, Simon Toews wasn’t the same angry lost soul she’d gotten released from prison all those years ago. This was a different man. He was distraught...but not broken.
“You know…” she began. “I waited a long, long time for you to...I don’t know...try again. Kept my eye on you best I could. Saw you drinkin’ yourself stupid. Saw you disappearing and coming back around all beat up. You had a lotta potential, Toews.”
Corrine sighed, shifting her eyes out the window. It seemed like minutes as she stared out into the world outside. “I think there’s a decent guy in there. Maybe you’re finally lettin’ him out.”
Simon studied her, a bit of hope rising within him. “I’m tryin’.”
The one-armed P.I. mulled it over, chewing lightly on the inside of her cheek. Finally, she turned to him. “You can stay. But there are rules in my house.”
Simon smiled. A few hours ago, it felt like he never would again. This took him slightly by surprise. “Absolutely.”
“One...you do not smoke in my house.” She said, pointing at him. “Two...you come in blind stinkin’ drunk? You’re out.”
So far so good, Simon thought.
“Three.” She leveled her gaze on him, those eyes intense and serious. “You don’t bring women here. You want to go get laid, you get a hotel room. I ain’t facilitatin’ that ****. You got it?”
Sex was the LAST thing on his mind. Even thinking of it brought up unpleasant images that turned his stomach. “That won’t be a problem.”
“Four. You clean up after yourself, keep your room neat and you keep it clean.” she said, tapping her finger to the table. Simon nodded along, agreeing to every bit of it.
“Last...I find out you been fightin’? I see you come in here bleedin’ with a black eye, a hitch in your step...so much as a scraped knuckle...and I’m going to be very. VERY...upset. That **** is over. You get me?”
Simon nodded. “I do. I swear. I will not let you down. I will do whatever it takes.”
Paige let out a breath. She knew this was probably destined to fail. She wasn’t even sure why she was once again sticking her neck out for him. She knew his history. She knew about the things he’d done. But Toews had a way about him. He drew people to him. Made them want to help him, be around him, even if it might not be the smartest choice.
“Alright, Simon.” She said quietly. “You can stay.”
It was weeks before Simon got truly comfortable living with Mulcahy. Almost two months before he really let his guard down. Mulcahy was a decent man and he treated him well. Simon helped maintain the church, working hard for the man, even beginning to enjoy the structure living there provided him.
Mulcahy took time out of his day to educate the boy. Some days, they would go to the local park and play a little basketball. It did wonders to comfort Simon. Eventually, he began laughing again. They had long talks about life and the world. Looking toward the future.
Simon had found a home. Simon felt safe once again.
Simon rose up from the sink, water splashed upon his face running down his skin. A deep breath left the man slow and long. The past six months had been a game changer. It was difficult to fight every urge he’d always indulged, but he did it.
Living with Corrine Paige had turned out to actually be a decent situation. She was a good roommate, and when she wasn’t being a smart-ass or a hard-ass, she was actually pretty fun.
A knock at the door stole his attention away. “Yo! You ready?” her voice called out.
Simon stood up and took one last look. He was dressed in a black suit. Just the mere hint of his tattoos creeping out from the rim of his collar. He adjusted his suit jacket with a little shrug of his shoulders.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good.”
A few minutes later, they were in the car, Simon behind the wheel. Paige had her tablet balanced on her lap. “Alright. Client’s name is Tessa Bradley. You heard of her? Young singer, climbing the charts.”
“I don’t think I’m exactly her demo.” He said with a snicker.
“Not unless you’re secretly a 14 year old girl.” Paige smirked.
“She’s 17. Bit of a wild child. Last four bodyguards bailed, citing reckless behavior and extravagant demands.” Paige read from the digital file. “Frankly, she sounds like kind of a bitch.”
Simon smirked, turning the wheel. Paige had pulled a LOT of strings, called in a lot of favors to land him a job as private security. His jobs were often one-nighters, or at most a week. The Bradley Job would be at least a month. If he was successful, longer.
“Uh oh.” Paige said. “Sounds like we got a stage mom.”
“Overbearing never-was trying to live through her vastly more talented kid?” It was more of a statement than a question.
“Bingo. Mary Bradley. 48. Former nail technician turned manager.” Paige continued. “Dollars to donuts, she’d got an iron grip on that kid’s finances...when she isn’t blowin’ it on stupid ****.”
“Sounds like a dream.” He muttered.
Paige smirked over to him. “You sure you’re ready for this?”
Simon snorted. “I’ve faced down mobsters with guns. I think I can handle a 17 year old girl. Besides. I’m good with kids.”
Paige rose her eyebrows and slowly laughter built from her until she was full on belly laughting. “Oh...sweetie. You poor, optimistic man.”
He made a face and glanced over. “What?”
She suppressed her laughter and focused ahead. “Nothin’. We’ll talk when you get home.”
The shrill roar of a sold out stadium washed over her as she rose her hands into the air. Her cheeks hurt so bad from smiling so damn much, she wanted to scream. Thousands of young girls screamed for her chanting her name as the colorful spotlights traveled all over the stage. She was vaguely annoyed, noticing that it shone off the beads of sweat.
“Thank you! I love you all! Good night!” She said in that saccharine sweet voice, that “aw-shucks” southern accent dialed up to 11.
Tessa husseled of stage and slowly the lightshow ceased, marking the end of the evening. Immediately, the act dropped. The cheerful face was suddenly filled with disdain as one of her endless line of assistants rushed up.
“That was great, Tessa! You were amazing!”
Tessa looked at her as one might look at a bug in their path. “Ugh. Water.”
“I’m sorry?” the girl looked confused.
“Why are you talking to me and where is my WATER?”
The girl stammered, looking horrified. Tessa reached out and put on that sweet voice again. “Sweetie? Sweetie? Look at me.”
The girl finally managed to meet her eyes.
“Listen, sweetie. You’re stupid as ****. And I don’t really feel like putting up with that. So...you’re fired.”
Tessa mocked her, repeating her words. “No. No, no. Go on. Get your stuff and get away from me. Bye bye.”
The assistant rushed off in tears as her mother sidled up with a cold bottle of water for her. She was cold, distant, barely looking up from her phone. The pair of them walked down the hallway side-by-side.
“I don’t know what you call that display tonight, but it sure as hell isn’t singing.” the older woman said. Tessa rolled her eyes and took a long pull off her bottle. “If you WANT to blow your contract and wind up a punchline some snarky series about remembering has-beens, by all means. Keep it up. But I will not allow you to embarrass me.”
The backstage crew gave them a wide berth as they passed.“You have an interview in 45 minutes. Get yourself cleaned up, you look like a whore at closing time.” Her mother muttered icily, pulling out a cigarette case and placing one between her lips.
Tessa shoved her way into her dressing room, leaving her mother behind outside, continuing to futz on her phone when the cigarette was lit. She barely noticed the pair who approached her.
“Excuse me, Miss Bradley?” The woman said.
Her eyes trailed up to her, she was a slim, pretty woman with dark skin, nice eyes, big hair...and one arm. Most people with common decency would at least pretend not to notice. Not Mary Bradley. She stared at it and scrunched up her face like she’d smelt something offensive.
Paige leaned into her view, giving her no option but to look her in the eye.. “I’m Detective Corrine Paige. Nice to meet you.” she offered her hand. The older woman glanced down a moment and plastered on a phony smile.
“Forgive me for not shaking. Idle hands.” She said, cigarette bobbing between her lips as she held up her phone.
Corrine kept professional, but this bitch clearly did not know death when it was 2 feet away. Mary’s eyes turned to her counterpart, taking Simon in. That impeccably tailored suit barely hid those sprawling tattoos, but Mary saw them and she did NOT approve.
“This is my daughter’s bodyguard? What gutter did you scrape him out of?” She said, appalled.
“Only the very best of gutters, Ma’am.” Simon said before Corrine could get in a word. “You’d be right at home.”
She either didn’t understand or ignored the insult, turning haughtily to Corrine. “And what are his qualifications?”
Paige’s brow furrowed, glancing to Simon and then back to Mary. “Qualifications? What, you want to know if he attended the Juilliard of kicking ass?”
“If I’m going to trust my daughter’s life to this….” She made another face that made Corrine just want to choke the life out of her. “This man, if you can even call him that...I want to know if he’s good at what he does.”
Corrine and Simon exchanged amused grins.
“He’s more than capable.” Paige assured her. The conversation was interrupted as the door opened and Tessa stepped out into the hall, much of her stage make-up removed.
Baby blue eyes swept over the scene in front of her. Her mother held the smoke between her fingers, that obnoxious ****ing look on her face. The other two she didn’t know. The black woman had that look about her that screamed “cop”. The man, however… He told a different story.
“Who is this?” She asked, keeping that cold cool in her voice as she regarded him.
Her mother gestured to them. “This is the bottomfeeder the agency has found to protect you. Don’t get cozy with him.”
Simon chuckled softly to himself. Tessa could see that it pissed her mother off. She liked that. She smiled sweetly to him and offered her hand.
“Hi, I’m Tessa.”
He took it, giving a firm squeeze. “Simon Toews.”
He could see the look of disgust on her face as she felt how rough his hands were and the misshapen form of his knuckles. To her credit, it was only momentary. She hid it almost immediately with that charming, phony smile.
“Nice to meet you.” She said, that sweet exaggerated accent affecting her voice.
A darkness crept into her mother’s eyes. Mary Bradley didn’t like this man, and Tessa revelled in it.
Mulcahy liked his booze. It was hard for the young Simon not to notice, and it didn’t exactly sit well with him. The Priest did his level best to keep it from his young charge, but a night or two had come when Simon found the man passed out with an empty whiskey bottle in-hand.
Every man had his vices. Mulcahy certainly had his. But he wasn’t a violent man. The second he laid a hand on Simon, the boy decided he would be gone. For now, he could take the evening disappearances of his friend. He could deal with the fact that the man would stumble home late at night and find sleep curled up with a bottle. Over the course of a year, he even became accustomed to it.
It was a hot afternoon, the summer sun beating down upon him as the boy did his chores. The parking lot needed cleaning, so out with his broom he went. A lot of work went into the cleanly facade of the place, removing the trash and grime that always threatened to consume it. But it was important, Mulcahy told him, that it serve as beacon to the lost in hopes of something good and pure.
Simon was sweeping up spent cigarette butts when the shadow slowly loomed over him. Something about it gave him a chill, even in that searing heat. The boy glanced over his shoulder to the man who stood behind him.
He had a kind face, eyes hidden behind a pair of a dark sunglasses. Taller than Simon, but not a tall man, topping off at 5’9”.
“Hello there.” He said, the hints of an accent Simon couldn’t place.
The boy didn’t respond immediately. Something about him just didn’t sit right. That smile seemed plastic and phony. The facade didn’t fool Simon. Somehow, he could sense the rot beneath the surface.
“You should respond to an adult when he addresses you.” The stranger told him, that smile faltering only slightly. “You must be Simon.”
Simon clenched his broom with white knuckles. He knew his name.
“Father Mulcahy’s told me a lot about you.” He said. “I hear you’re quite the worker. That’s good. A boy should have a good work ethic.”
Simon wanted to hit him with broom and run. Run and never stop running. The stranger’s eyes flicked to the broom, one corner of his mouth twitching upward.
“Jakob.” Mulcahy’s voice rose from the doorway, stealing the man’s attention.
“Father.” he said in greeting. “I was just meeting your friend.”
“Come on inside.” Mulcahy said, a cautious tone in his voice. “You finish up here while we talk, Simon.”
Everything in that tone confirmed what Simon had suspected. This man was dangerous. Jakob looked down to the boy with a grin.
“Be seeing you. Simon.”
It wasn’t the last of the stranger Simon would see. Over the coming months, he would pop in and out on occasion. Simon would keep scarce when the man came around, though it wasn’t always so simple. He would catch a glimpse, plaster on that fake smile, and try to strike up a conversation. Simon would remain silent and Mulcahy would always place himself between the man and the boy. Whatever else could be said about the priest, he was protective of the boy.
The pair of them sat down for dinner one night after such a visit. Silence had settled over the dinner table, the sound of silverware tapping dishes echoing throughout the kitchen. Simon couldn’t get the image of the man out of his head. That tailored, pleasant facade couldn’t hide what Simon saw in his eyes. He’d seen them before, even at 12. He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A predator.
It was odd. He wanted nothing to do with the man, cowered in his presence...yet, he wanted to know more. Like the sight of a dead body in a car wreck, he was something he both did and did not want to see. A paradoxically alluring figure.
Blue eyes turned up to Mulcahy, watching the older man eating for a moment. The curiosity was too much to ignore.
“Who is he?” Simon asked.
Mulcahy looked to the boy, dread in his eyes. He’d feared this conversation for a while now, but it could no longer be avoided.
“He’s a very powerful man.” Mulcahy told him. “A dangerous man.”
Yeah, no ****, Simon thought. “But who is he?”
“His name is Jakob Falk. He deals in information...and other sordid activities. Do you know what that means?”
Simon shrugged. “Bad stuff?”
Mulcahy smiled, but there was a sadness behind it. “Precisely. Information is the most powerful currency in the world, my son. And he collects it on everyone. There isn’t much that goes on in this city that he is unaware of.”
“So, he knows things?” Simon asked as if it were a ridiculous assertion.
“Knowing the right things about the right people can bring empires to their knees.” Mulcahy explained. “Do you remember what I told you about vices?”
“That all men have them.” Simon nodded.
“Yes. Well...he is aware of this as well. Powerful men tend to have these vices and want to keep them a secret. To have them brought into the light would be disastrous. Jakob knows how to weaponize them.”
Simon realized now exactly how dangerous such a man could be. There was no doubt in his mind that Falk knew about his foster parents and what he’d done. If the man so chose, he could have Simon’s ass in juvenile detention by the end of the day.
The boy’s brow furrowed as he mulled it over. “But...how do you know him?”
“I watched over him.” Mulcahy said. “I was the headmaster of his orphanage.”
“He’s an orphan? Like me?” Simon asked.
The priest was quiet. He just nodded. “Very much like you.” Mulcahy said distantly. “He was a troubled young man from the start. No families wanted him. When he finally came of age, Jakob chose the only path that lay before him.”
That wasn’t the whole story, Simon knew. He wasn’t stupid. He squinted at the older man.
“So? You knew each other when he was a kid. Why does he keep coming here?” Simon asked.
Mulcahy had somewhat underestimated the boy. A pained look crossed over his features. He ran his hand over his lips, letting out a deep sigh. “A few years back...I...I made some bets.”
Simon quirked a brow. “But...but aren’t priests supposed to be poor? Isn’t that part of the thing?”
“As I have said...I have my share of weaknesses.” He shook his head slowly. “I lost. I lost big. I didn’t know the money would be going to him.”
The boy considered this, his young brow furrowed as the wheels in his mind turned. “He came to get it?”
Mulcahy nodded, keeping quiet, shame in his eyes. Most of that payment came out of church donations. If anyone ever found out, he’d be ruined.
Simon nodded slowly and took in a breath as if to steel himself. “Okay. So what do we do?”
“We?” Mulcahy said, eyes narrowed. “No no no. You stay away from Jakob Falk.”
“Father, we can't just let him get away with it!” Simon demanded.
“I said no.”
Simon didn’t like his response, but could see it was pointless arguing. They just sat and ate in silence.
Simon recoiled as he pushed the door open. Crowds of prepubescent girls waited outside for Tessa outside, their high pitched joyous screams were damn near deafening. They were everywhere, hands reaching out for her. A bodyguard’s nightmare.
Tessa made a peace sign with both hands and let out a long “woo!” The crowd, somehow got wilder, louder. Those blue eyes alert as ever, he maneuvered the girl out into the stairwell. Their car waited, twin barricades leading right to the door. Simon did his damndest, putting himself between the crowd and the girl as best he could, and batting away grabs when he could. Absolute pandemonium.
The girl laughed as she piled into the car, Simon slamming the door and rushing around to the driver’s seat. Tessa immediately climbed up, and stood out of the sunroof. “See ya next time, Y’all!” She shouted, waving wildly to ear-splitting shrieks. Simon’s shouts to get down were drowned out by the deafening, high pitched roar of the crowd..
She plopped down into the seat and let out a breath. As the car rolled away, her entire demeanor changed. “Ugh. There ain’t enough fire in the world to get the grime from their filthy little claws off me…” She said, scrubbing hand sanitizer on herself like mad. “Why are they ALWAYS ****ing sticky? Bunch of ****ing bumpkins in this ****hole town.”
Simon’s blue eyes flicked up to the rearview,staring at the spoiled little brat. If she was his kid, he’d smack the **** out of her. But, of course...she wasn’t. Frankly, he had no idea what to talk about with her, but the silence was getting a bit uncomfortable.
“So.” He said, making the first step. “You been in the business long?” He immediately cringed. He could almost hear his teenage self tell him to **** off, so her response was almost not surprising.
Tessa looked disgusted. “Ugh.” She exhaled. “Who told you you were allowed to talk?”
Yes. Almost not surprising. His eyes narrowed into the mirror. “Excuse me?”
“Listen.” She said, that obnoxious little bad-girl sneer on face, and her dripping with condescension. “The only reason you’re here is because you piss off my mom and I think that’s funny. I’m not looking to find myself some half-assed ex-con surrogate brother. You are a punchline. Got it?” She asked him with that spiteful venom on her lips. “So, stop talking and drive the car like a good boy.”
Simon gripped the wheel tightly. It was no wonder this girl had been through a half dozen bodyguards in the past year. She was a terror. His eyes moved away from her and back on the road while she took selfies, a smug look of self-satisfaction on her face as she read the anger in his body language.
Paige sat with a couple of her coworkers at the bar as Simon stepped in around 12 AM. She could see it in his eyes. A long night carting around his charge had taken its toll. Corrine wasn’t a sadist, but she couldn’t help the sly little smirk that formed on her lips as he approached.
“Hey, there, Toews.” She said, leaning around the tall man in front of her. “How’d it go?”
Simon grunted and settled onto a bar stool. “Scotch.” he told the bartender, almost telling him to leave the bottle.
Paige quirked a brow as her companion glanced back. He was tall, handsome. His clothing impeccably tailored and fine. His beard was neatly trimmed and short, brown hair flawlessly combed. Unlike Simon, he looked like he was MADE to wear a suit. Simon kind of wore them with disdain.
“Simon, have you met Sam Piper?” Paige introduced the men. Piper swiveled around, every inch of the man screaming ‘COP!’ as much as Simon screamed ‘criminal!’ Sam’s winning smile probably charmed many a lady, but it made Simon weary.
“Hey, Simon. How’s it going?” He offered a hand to the weary bodyguard. It took a moment before Simon took the offering and shook his hand.
“Pretty *****y. Nice to meet you.” He said, offering a nod of thanks to the barkeep before taking up his drink and taking a swig.
“Sam is my boss at the agency.” She said. She left out the “So behave”, but it was HEAVILY implied.
“Coworker.” Sam corrected her over the rim of his beer bottle before taking a swig. He glanced over the tattooed man. “Corrine tells me you’re on the Tessa Bradley job. Not a great gig, I’m guessing?”
Paige suppressed a smirk as Simon let out an exasperated sigh. He wheeled around on them. “THAT girl and her mother are about the worst people I’ve ever met. She’s rude, she’s mean, she’s a complete fraud...I mean, you should hear how she talks about her fans.”
Corrine’s brows raised amused. “Wow. She really got to you, huh?”
“No!” Simon exclaimed. “I’m not mad-”
“You’re just disappointed?” Sam finished, one corner of his mouth upturned in a lopsided grin.
Simon was not amused. He just looked between the two obnoxiously amused detectives and tilted back his glass, downing its contents in one gulp. “Screw y’all.”
Corrine couldn’t help but laugh. “I told you, Toews. You might be able to face down a room full of armed gunmen, but you ain’t prepared at ALL for a teenage girl.”
Simon put in for another glass of scotch. Another man sauntered on over to them. He was older, a bit stockier with a bit of a belly on him. His head was shaved bald, his dark skin gleaming in the soft light of the bar.
“Who’s dealing with a teenage girl?” He asked them.
“Simon here’s working with Tessa Bradley.” Sam told him.
The older detective’s eyes widened as he let out a long breath and a little laugh, popping a cigar between his lips. “Oh, ****...” He chuckled and shook his head. “Good luck with that one, kid. Bunch a thugs might leave you with some bruises and a few scars, but teenage girls will go for the damn soul. I’ll take a gunman over that **** any day.”
Paige grinned and gestured between the two. “Barry, Simon. Simon, Barry.”
“Cole.” The older man corrected her. He hated his name. Barry Coleman. It was too close to the guy from Diff’rent Strokes for his liking. “Simon Toews?” Cole asked him, running through the rolodex of his mind.
Simon glanced over with a quirked brow. “You know me?”
“Only by reputation.” The detective said around his cigar. “Heard you took down old man Vicelli.”
“That’s the rumor.” Simon nodded.
“And, back in the day, Cameron Cotter.” He added.
Simon took a sip and nodded.
“Also heard you were a bit of a troublemaker.” Coleman said, that warning tone in his voice. Old man SOUNDED like a cop.
“You hear a lot, Barry.” Simon shot back, cooly.
“Well, I keep my eyes and ears open, Junior.” He nodded, a measure of distaste on his face for the tattooed bodyguard. Those dark eyes flicked to Paige. “He your buddy?”
Paige glanced over and shrugged. “He’s more like a roommate. Or a lead weight.”
Simon smirked and took another sip. “You love me and you know it.”
Paige chuckled. “You’re tolerable these days. I’ll give you that.”
Cole grinned to himself and gestured to the bartender to pour him what Simon was drinking. “So, what makes Simon Toews: Troublemaking destroyer of criminal empires go straight?”
Simon plastered on a phony smile. “I just wanted so very badly to follow the good example set by such virtuous men as yourselves.” The sarcastically earnest tone did not go unnoticed.
Cole smirked and eyed him a moment. “Girl. Had to be a girl.”
Simon rolled his eyes and let out a sigh. “It wasn’t-”
“It was.” Paige interrupted.
“It was not!” Simon protested.
“Please.” Corrine snorted. “The second she dumped your ass, you stopped ****in’ everything with tits and two legs.”
“First off,” Simon said. “I stopped that when we got together. And second...I left her.”
“Ohhhh, that’s right.” Paige said, horribly amused by the whole thing. “Simon here caught her with another man, leaves a note, and winds up on my doorstep.”
Coleman snorted, looking slightly perplexed. “That’s some passive aggressive **** for a guy who burned down two crime families.”
“Three.” Simon croaked.
Cole exchanged glances with Paige, the latter signalling that it was a long story.
“I just got tired of being angry all the time.” Simon said a bit distant.
Cole lifted his glass in a toast. “Love. Ain’t it a bitch?”
Simon stood in the elevator, steeling himself for the day ahead of him. The kid didn’t cheap out on accommodations, that was for sure. The penthouse had to cost an arm and a leg, he thought. It was the kind of place Tahlia would have just salivated over, richly appointed, high class, the ultimate in luxury. To him, it was a little bit ludicrous.
The ding announced his arrival on her floor. And it was her floor. The penthouse took up the entire top floor of the hotel. Because apparently, a teenager needed that amount of space. Simon stepped off and immediately heard the screaming argument between Tessa, her mother and a man he didn’t know.
“You better shut that little bitch’s mouth before I do it for her!” He called out, backing into the room.
“**** you!” Tessa shrieked back at him.
Whoever he was, the guy was built solid. He clearly took care of himself, but something about him just screamed of insecurity. For all his muscle, his tank-top clad form bore no visible scars. This guy had probably never seen a fair fight in his life. Simon appraised him silently as he approached, running a hand over his shaved head. He lifted his chin in greeting.
“What’s up?” He said to Simon, that faux tough-guy tone in his voice. “You the new guard?”
Simon remained passive, unimpressed. He could destroy this guy in three hits if he so chose. And something about this guy made him want to. Simon nodded once slowly.
The stranger looked him over, clad in that suit he hated, eyes hidden behind a pair of aviators. Simon didn’t look intimidating to him. Any hint of lean muscle was well-hidden beneath that outfit. If anything, he thought this new bodyguard was scrawny. He gestured to the couch in the main living area.
“Take a seat.” He offered. “Tess will be out in a minute.”
Simon strode over and took a seat, the brawny douchebag taking one across from him, making sure to show off his muscles as he sat.
“Everything okay up there?” Simon asked him.
The guy scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Little **** is runnin’ that big ****in’ mouth again. Oughta keep her thoughts to herself.”
“What thoughts would those be?”
He narrowed his eyes at Simon, hoping to intimidate him. “What’s your name?”
“Simon Toews.” He responded. “You?”
“You her father?” Simon asked.
Tony snorted and shook his head. “No.”
Simon slowly pieced it together. “Mom’s boyfriend?”
“Yeah, somethin’ like that.” Tony nodded.
One corner of Simon’s mouth upticked. “Somethin’ like that.” He repeated the man’s words.
Silence hung between them, Simon’s face unreadable behind those glasses. He enjoyed how uncomfortable he made this guy. The insecurity raging within this alpha male wannabe was hilarious to him.
“So.” Tony said. “You some kinda tough guy.”
Simon smirked and glanced toward the sound of stomping and muffled voices. “Real tough guys generally don’t go around telling people how tough they are.”
Tony grinned and nodded, like they were bonding or something. “Yeah!” he pointed with a chuckle. “I feel that! Listen. That girl’s got a big mouth and bad attitude. You ever need to smack some respect into her, you just gotta steer clear of her face, yeah?”
Simon was still, his fists clenching. “You put your hands on her?”
Tony didn’t see death sitting a few feet away and just laughed. “Gotta do what you gotta do, y’know?”
“I do.” Simon nodded slowly. “I once knew a guy. Tough guy. Had this wife with a mean streak and a uh...difficult attitude.”
“Sounds familiar.” Tony said with that slimy grin of his.
“She used to have to hide her black eyes behind a pair of sunglasses whenever he beat the **** out of her.” Simon told him.
Tony chuckled. “God, I wish.”
Simon’s restraint was being sorely tested. He wanted more than anything to lunge over and beat the life out of this dirtbag. Instead he kept his voice level, his rage tempered.
“See...he made a mistake.”
“Yeah? What? He leave the broad with a gun?” Tony asked.
“No.” Simon told him. “He hired me to protect her.”
Tony suddenly didn’t look so amused. He got the distinct feeling he’d just been threatened. Before he could say or do anything about it, Tessa came down the stairs in a huff, dressed and tressed to the nines.
“Let’s go.” she demanded.
Simon stood up, giving Tony one last look before following her over to the elevator. Simon stood in front, removing his glasses and locking eyes with the man as the doors slid shut, Tessa immediately getting on her phone.
It was a warm night in Summer when Simon's life changed forever. Mulcahy sent him out on a few errands in preparation for the weekend's festivities. The church was putting on a festival, bringing the community together for a night of food, games and fun.
A festival Simon Toews would never see.
He knew the cars that sat, parked along the street before he even saw their owners. That gnawing feeling at the pit of his stomach roared to life immediately as he approached the entrance, bags of groceries clenched tight in his fists.
The voices he heard echoing from within were exactly those he expected. The young lad kept quiet as possible as he approached the kitchen. When Falk came around he always thought it best to keep a low profile. Slowly, he leaned up against the doorway, listening in.
"It's really not what you think." Mulcahy said, that familiar raspy voice tinged with fear.
"It isn't?" Falk asked, an almost genuine curiosity in his voice. Simon knew better to believe it. "By all means, Father. Enlighten me. Because it appears to me, that rather than pay your debts, you've opted to...organize a little carnival?"
This was not good. He could almost see the fear in Mulcahy's eyes.
"My money." Falk interrupted.
"The money belongs to the church." He said, foolish bravado sneaking into his tone.
Falk was silent a long time. Simon feared the worst. Was he taking out a gun? A knife? Was it time to run? Briefly he considered running out and getting help. But then he remembered what Father Mulcahy had told him about Falk. Who *could* help against such a monster?
"Benjamin..." Falk said. "Am I an...unreasonable man?"
If Mulcahy responded, Simon didn't hear it.
"Have I not been patient and fair regarding your rather sizeable debts?"
"You know what happens to those who don't pay me what I'm owed?" Falk asked.
Mulcahy knew and Simon could guess without being told, but the man went on. Simon could hear his shoes upon the tile.
"Once a man refused to make good on what he took. So, I sent some of my friends to his home." Falk spoke calmly and evenly, but there was no missing the menace in his voice.
"You killed him." Mulcahy practically spat.
"No." Falk said. "We didn't lay a finger on him. I let him watch. He got to see his wife...his children. He watched as I collected what I owed through them. And when there was not much left of them? The debt was paid. Death is easy, Father. So..." he searched for the word, "Final."
Simon was trembling wildly barely able to move.
"Not good for business." Falk said, the smile on his face evident in his voice. "There is no 'Church's money while you still owe me."
Mulcahy worked hard to even out his voice. His sins had come back to bite him in the ass and he knew it. "I will pay you back in full afterwards. I promise."
Falk chuckled lightly. "I have your word on this?" He asked. "As a man of the cloth?"
"Yes." Mulcahy said firmly. "On my honor."
Once again silence settled over the room. Simon swore he could cut the tension with a knife.
"Honor." Falk said with bitter amusement. "The honor of a man who swore an oath of poverty? The very same man now begging to pay off his debts with money he stole from the people who entrusted him with their salvation? Tell me, Father. What honor do you believe you have?"
Simon swallowed hard and tried to peer in through the crack in the door. His mind rushed a mile a second, trying to come up with some way to save the day. But he was a child. There would be no such heroics.
"If you're going to kill me, get it over with." Mulcahy rumbled.
Simon could see them now. Falk stood inches away, hands in his pockets as a little smile crossed his lips.
"No, Father." He said quietly. "As I said. Death is too final."
Simon didn't have time to think with what happened next. A big hand grabbed him from behind and roughly shoved him forth. His head slammed against the door, knocking it open and sending him stumbling in, spilling the groceries all over the ground before him.
For a moment, he could only think of the pain in his head and where he'd landed upon his arm.
"Well." Falk said in that cool, light voice. "Hello, Simon."
Simon stood backstage, leaning up against the hallway wall, waiting for her to finish whatever saccharine, phoney interview Tessa was doing now. The girl certainly knew how to play her audience. Those people just ate it right up.
If she had been around 12 years ago, he was sure he'd have been subjected to the Tess show with Cici. Those inane but catchy tunes blaring everywhere they'd go, sticking in his head like a bad migraine that he just couldn't shake.
No, he told himself. Cici had better taste than that, even back then. It was a lie, of course. The little girl loved her some High School Musical. It was impossible to get away from it. Try as he might, she never quite took to the 80's ballads, 70's rock, and Johnny Cash tunes he tried to get her into. Though, she DID enjoy some Zep, "Immigrant Song" being a fav.
Cici. The thought of her brought a smile to his face. It had felt like such a long time since he'd smiled thinking about his daughter, he barely recognized the feeling. Usually, it just brought pain. Loss. He'd only had her a relatively short time, but there wasn't a second of it, he'd trade. And there wasn't anything he wouldn't give to have her back.
The sound applause brought him back to the moment, Tessa stepping off-stage with that big, sweet smile, dropping it immediately as stage-hands rushed up and set to unclipping her mic.. Damn, she was good. She kept up the glamour exactly as long as she needed to. It was almost impressive.
Simon approached her with her jacket, holding it for her to slip into.
"Ugh!" She sighed. "I need a drink."
"I can stop somewhere on the way back. Get you a soda." He said, voice devoid of any discernible emotion.
"Uh, No." She said in that obnoxious little sing-song that dragged out the end of the sentence. "I need a DRINK. Vodka, tequila, rum. ****ing SOMETHING strong."
"Yeah. That's not gonna happen." Simon dismissed her.
She adjusted her hair, looking back over her shoulder, aghast. "Excuse me?"
Simon smiled to one of their contacts as they passed, accepting an envelope. Something to deliver to her people the next time they met.
"Who do you think you are, telling me what I can and cannot do?" She asked incredulously.
"I'm the guy in charge of keeping you safe. And you're not getting wrecked and into **** on my watch." Simon was all business, checking the hallway, running over the path to their exit in his head.
"How DARE you!" She said as if he'd asked her something inappropriate. "Let's get this straight, *Simon*, you're here-"
"Listen. I dig the bitchy mean-girl thing. Really. It's very cute." He told her. "But we've got a schedule to keep. So, you wanna bark? Do it while walking."
Tessa searched for JUST the right comeback, but it wouldn't come. Usually, they just cowered and quit. She wasn't used to this. She wouldn't go without SOME duress, of course. The starlet let out a disgusted groan. "This is SUCH bull ****."
"Yeah. Life's full of little tragedies." He said, dripping with sarcasm.
"Yeah, well, you're gonna be living one when I get you thrown out on your ass, you trailer trash." She muttered.
Simon stopped and glanced back, a dangerous look in his eye. "What was that?"
Tessa recoiled like she expected to get hit, but stayed resolute. Simon could see that in her eyes. It didn't take a genius to figure out where she'd picked that up. She kept her head high and just passed him, heading down the hall. Simon watched the girl go, keeping quiet.
Once again, there was a massive crowd awaiting them as they stepped outside. The studio valet had the car waiting and a few armed officers were struggling to keep the crowd at bay. There would be no autograph line tonight. Simon placed a hand at her back and ushered her forth, trying to move quickly.
"Come on." he told her, moving briskly.
It was deafening, oddly claustrophobic. It felt like flood waters were just waiting for the damn to burst and sweep them away at any moment. It was a powderkeg. One little spark...
"HEY, TESSA!" A male voice called out. "**** you, whore!"
Simon didn't see where the bottle came from, couldn't here which direction the voice originated. All he knew was that something sailed right past his ear and shattered upon the metal fencing keeping the crowd back. Screams rose up and the pushing began. A few of the security officers abandoned their posts moving into the crowd.
He knew what would happen next before it did. Those who weren't trying to run were rushing in. Simon wrapped his arms around Tessa from behind shielding her as the bodies piled in at them. A mob, even one formed out of admiration was a dangerous thing. They didn't think about those around them, nor their own size and weight as they descended upon the object of their admiration. Simon pushed forward as the hands grabbed and pulled and scratched. His shoulder brought to bear against the throng, moving slowly forward in the symphony of shrieking teens and tweens.
Even in that chaos, Simon could feel Tessa clinging tightly to him, her own screams of terror drowned out in the sounds and buried against his chest. That pretense of the tough girl dropped pretty damn quickly now that her life was on the line.
Simon lurched forth, a body landing on his back. Whoever it was beat at him wildly, screaming "Let her go! Let her go!" in a shrill voice. Some dumb kid, way too fired up on hormones, adrenaline and sugar. He didn't want to hurt her, so he tried to shrug her off as best he could, but she was on him like a tick on a dog. Finally, one of the officers grabbed her and pulled, but took Simon with her just enough for Tessa to be exposed. An adult male, doughy, unkept and clearly under the influence shoved through the crowd. His arms wrapped around her waist as he pulled her away.
Simon stumbled forward as the girl was finally removed from his back, to his horror seeing Tessa being dragged away, a doughy hand clamped over her mouth, terror in her eyes. He snapped right to action, shoving his way through the crowd Tessa reached out to him as best she could.
Simon grabbed her hand and tried to tug her free, but the man just kept holding on. The abductor wasn't giving her up without a fight. It was a poor decision. Simon drew back his fist and threw a vicious right, straight into his face. He didn't have to hear it, her FELT the nose break from the impact. He saw the blood burst as he landed another punch. The man's grip loosened then. He was done. Simon ripped Tessa from his arms and pulled her to him, the cops clearing enough of a path for them to get to the car. He put her inside as carefully as he could.
"Lock the door!" He ordered her and slammed it shut. Tessa scrambled immediately, making sure every one of the rear doors was locked, taking panicked, strained breaths.
A teenaged boy climbed up onto the hood of the car and began kicking at the windshield. As his leg lifted up to kick again, Simon grabbed the other and yanked it out from under him, the young hooligan faceplanting into the roof with a solid thud. He dragged the kid off and threw him down onto the pavement. Quickly, he did a full on 70's cop movie slide across the hood and to the driver's side. They'd gotten lucky. Nobody had tried to climb in through the driver's side.
Reinforcements arrived and cleared a path for them to drive. Simon hit the gas and took off into the night.
Monsters aren't real. It's told to children to assure them they are safe. Secure. It is told to assure them that nothing bad can possibly happen to them.
It's a lie. The first lie children are told. Monsters are real. They don't hide in closets or under beds. No. They hide under the skin. Behind plastic smiles and shining eyes. They hide behind gentle voices and easy laughs. They hide behind the charismatic, outgoing personalities of so-called "good men." Monsters are real.
They towered over the young Simon like a nightmare made flesh, Falk at the center. The boy tried to scramble backwards and bumped into the man who'd thrown him into the room. He was surrounded.
"I suppose you were eavesdropping a while, my young friend?" Falk asked, but there wasn't much in way of question in his tone.
Simon looked to Mulcahy for help, but the man wouldn't meet his gaze. He would be no help.
Falk lifted his chin to his goon, the big man yanking Simon to his feet. Falk leaned down to Simon's height, hands upon his knees and looked him in the eye.
"Do you understand what's happening?" He asked the boy. "Do you understand why I'm forced into this position?"
Simon didn't respond. He stared hard at the man. Even in that moment, he showed no fear. He was like a cornered dog, waiting for any reason to lash out. Falk had to admit, he admired the kid's courage.
"Leave. Us. Alone." Simon snarled with as much bravado as he could muster.
There was something resembling pity in Falk's smile. His head hung low for a moment, it was quite the performance. "You can thank the good father for this. You think I want to do this? Believe me, Simon. I take no pleasure in splitting this happy home up. But debts...must be paid."
Falk nodded to his men. They reached down to grab the boy, but Simon was quick. He slipped right out of their path, making a beeline towards the other side of the kitchen. The boy felt his collar catch at his throat as Falk grabbed him.
"Get your hands OFF of him!" Mulcahy shouted, attacking Falk from behind, his arms going around his neck. It was enough of a distraction for Simon to yank himself free and reach the other side of the room.
A loud crack accompanied a painful yelp as one of the goons took a baton to the back of the priest's knee. The old man crumbled as Simon desperately grabbed for a knife, Falk gaining ground.
"Simon!" Mulcahy shouted, just as Falk was on him. Simon whipped around and slashed blindly. That razor sharp blade cut deep through Falk's right cheek from ear to cheekbone. Blood poured freely and splattered across the wall as the man howled in pain.
Simon moved toward him, ready to end it, ready to kill. Falk crouched low, blood streaming in red rivulets through his fingers. The boy brought the knife up, ready to plunge it directly into Falk's heart. He didn't notice the figure behind him. Strong hands gripped him, twisting the weapon from his weaker grasp. He did his best to fight back, but he was no match.
The thug's grip was like a vice clamped upon his arm, the other hand fumbling for the boy's face or neck. This was his chance. Simon opened his mouth and bit down upon that hand as hard as he could. Teeth pierced flesh and muscle, blood ran down his chin and onto his shirt. The grip upon him loosened and he ran for it as best he could...but he was not quick enough.
The last thing Simon Toews remembered was the sight of Mulcahy watching in horror as the boys body was thrown like a rag doll into the table. He reached out as if it could stop what was about to happen. It would be the last time he'd see the man.
As the back of his head connected with the table, Simon's world went black.
"What the hell were you thinking?"
Corrine Paige was livid. The one-armed detective paced around the room, running her hand through her dark curls in frustration. Simon sat before her upon a couch, looking a tired and more than a little bored. Mary Bradley's rented penthouse was richly appointed with a beautiful view of the city, though neither of them was exactly appreciating it now. It had been a long night and an even longer morning. It wasn't long before word spread of the violent crowds following the girl's late night appearance. Footage of Simon taking down a teenage boy from several different angles played out over the news. It was not a good look, Corrine decided.
Simon sighed, leaning forward wearily on his elbows. "Look. It was chaos. I had people grabbin' and clawin' at me from all angles and then this guy gets up there and starts tryin' to kick in the windshield. What am I supposed to do? Reason with him?"
Paige's brows rose, a little laugh. "No, you're right, that car needed an indent in the shape of his face on the roof. Good call." She SO badly wanted to cross her arms in that moment, but settled on placing her hand upon on her hip. "You could have pulled him down without hurting him. That boy's parents are pressing charges."
Simon scoffed. "Yeah, well, maybe they should spend more time disciplining the little bastard..."
"You broke his nose and fractured his eye socket." Corrine leveled her unamused gaze upon him, almost daring him to speak.
"I was tryin' to protect her." He muttered, shaking his head.
Paige sighed, her fingers pinching together at the bridge of her nose. He had a point. He'd done an exemplary job of protecting his charge. And it wasn't like she didn't know what she was getting into with him. Simon was not subtle. He wasn't a scalpel. Simon was a hand grenade. She shouldn't be surprised that he'd hauled off and laid an attacker out in a riot.
Their conversation ended when Mary Bradley, her boy-toy Tony, and her assistant came in, phone to her ear. "Yes." She said to the other end of the call. "Excellent. Thank you."
Mary didn't bother greeting them. She barely even looked up as she ended the call and went right to texting. Simon and Corrine shared a glance. Neither of them was a huge fan of Tessa's mother. Frankly, Corrine often stuffed the urge to break a bottle over the bitch's head. But, that might not be great for business.
"I talked to my lawyers." Mary said, disinterestedly. "The kid's family is willing to drop charges if we pay his hospital bills and kick a little extra their way."
She seemed a little too casual about all of it. Rich people, Corrine thought. No way could she just blow that kind of scratch like it was nothing. If she ever did, Corrine was fairly certain her Mama would come back from the grave and slap her silly.
Paige cleared her throat and stepped forward. "Ms. Bradley, I'm very sorry about what ha-"
"Why?" Mary asked, looking perplexed.
Corrine was unprepared for the question and just blinked. "I'm sorry?"
"Yes, I heard that part." Mary waved her off. "But why? You can't buy this kind of publicity."
Simon looked up, his expression bordering on anger. Had she really just said that. This bitch's daughter was almost kidnapped and...god knew what else. The girl was terrified and in danger and her mother seemed to think it was all theater.
"Well..." Corrine, stepped forward all the same. "We'll be in touch with the security teams at the venues from now on. Draw up multiple extraction routes."
Mary glanced up with a crooked eyebrow. She stared at Paige as if she just did not get it. "That won't be necessary."
"Excuse me?" Simon said, rising from the couch. Paige could tell from his body language that he was agitated and on the verge of something stupid. She held up her hand as if to say 'Let me handle it.'
"With all due respect, Ma'am." Corrine said, turning to Mary. "We were hired to protect your daughter. The crowds make that difficult."
Mary sighed heavily and gave a withering glance to Tony. The sketchy man just shrugged in agreement. Mary put on her most condescending little smile. "Listen. Sweetie?"
Paige narrowed her eyes. "Detective Paige." Sure she was retired, and it wasn't an official title anymore, but...**** this lady.
"Detective." Mary corrected herself. "Let me explain how this works. Tessa is an entertainer. She's in the public eye, and the more the public sees of her, the more people that show up, the longer she gets to STAY in the public eye."
A muscle below Corrine's jaw shifted as she clenched her teeth, her knuckles cracking as her fist tightened into a little ball. "They're a danger to her life, Ms. Bradley."
"Well, that's why your trailer trash friend is there, isn't it?" Mary said, dripping with that condescendingly sweet tone. "If he can't handle it, I'll find someone who can."
"You can't be serious." Corrine said. "You approve of this?"
Simon was fuming, like a balloon about the burst. His eyes narrowed, his body tensed and those battered fists clenched tightly. Mary Bradley didn't see death five feet from where she stood. She finally tucked her phone away and stepped up, looking Corrine in the eye.
"Sweetheart." She said. "Who do you think told them where to find her?"
"You sold out your own daughter?" Simon asked, but it came out in a snarl.
Mary scoffed at him like he was a child. "I guaranteed her the sympathy of millions. This is how it works in this business. Don't like it? Go guard a mall. But don't think, for one second, that you get to judge me. I do what's necessary for that little brat, and I'd do it a thousand times over."
Corrine was almost tempted to step aside and let Simon do what he wanted. Almost. She turned to him and gave an almost imperceptible shake of her head. He didn't like it, but he followed her lead.
"If you'll excuse me. We have a meeting with a record exec." Mary said, scooping up her jacket. "I trust you can see yourselves out?"
Paige nodded to the woman and watched her and her boyfriend leave. It took a moment for her to process what she'd heard. All the slimy, disgusting details of it. It made her sick to her stomach to even think about.
"God, I hate that bitch." Corrine spat.
"Should've let me slug her." Simon said.
"Yeah. That would've been smart." Paige snorted. "That woman would see us out on our asses without a penny to our names for the rest of our lives."
"Still." Simon said. "It'd have been worth it."
Corrine lowered herself onto the couch, her body drooping with a heavy sigh. Her hand ran down over her lips as her head shook. "Yeah..." She let out a bitter little chuckle. "What do we do about this?"
Simon stepped over to the large window, staring out over the city. "Maybe we should quit. Find another gig."
Paige laughed. "Yeah. Right."
"I'm serious." Simon told her with a furrowed brow.
Corrine didn't buy it a second. She just rolled her eyes and glanced up at him, a wry, knowing smirk on her face. "No you aren't."
"How do you know?" He asked, annoyance in his voice.
"Because that's not you." She said. "Never has been. You see danger, you run right into it. You see someone...like Tessa Bradley....like Tahlia Faras...like Lyla Cotter, " she said, "Hell, like that farmer chick you were shacked up with. You see them in trouble and you HAVE to help them. You're the big hero."
"I'm not a hero." He demanded grimly. "That's not me. I just get pulled into this ****. Maybe I'm tired of it."
"Maybe." Paige shrugged. "But I don't buy it." She glanced his way. "I think you heard her loud and clear. If we bail, she'll just find someone else. And someone else probably won't give as much of a **** as you. Someone else might get that girl killed."
"That woman's gonna get her killed." Simon insisted. "Why should I stick my neck out?"
"Because." She said simply, hitting every word for impact. "It's who. You. Are."
Simon was quiet a long moment before he obstinately shook his head. "No."
Paige stood up and leveled her gaze at him. "You want to pretend you don't care? Go right ahead. But I don't buy it. Sorry." She said, picking up her purse and slinging it over her shoulder. "I'll meet you at the house later. I've got some running around to do."
She started toward the door, stopping with her hand upon the knob. She didn't look back at him, but still addressed him. "Simon?"
He glanced her way, remaining silent.
"If it wasn't you. If you weren't the guy I said you are...I wouldn't be here." She said, throwing a look back of her shoulder. "I wouldn't be here at all. Just think about that."
Paige opened the door and stepped out into the hall, leaving him to think about that. They didn't talk about that day very often. Neither of them enjoyed thinking of it. She'd lost an arm and a career and he'd lost...everything. But it was because of him that, because he took care of her until the ambulance arrived that she even had a future. Despite the **** she gave him, despite the fact that she found him irritating, he would always be a hero in her eyes. Even if he didn't see it.
The dingy light fixtures above passed by with lingering tracers as young Simon was dragged down the hall. Whatever drugs they'd given him had rendered his legs useless and his head woozy. Even if he could think straight, his limbs were just not responding. Simon was completely and utterly trapped.
The cell door screeched like nails on a chalkboard as it was dragged open. The sound hung in Simon's head for far too long afterwards, needling away like tiny miners hacking away in his brain. His captors were not too concerned with being gentle, as soon as the gate had opened, he was tossed onto the damp, filthy concrete floor. He lay there, trying to breathe normally as the ringing in his head finally began to fade.
The boy couldn't be sure how long he lay there, but eventually, the world began to clear and feeling returned to his limbs. But, along with it, came the ache. Everything in his body hurt. Spots where his limp limbs had banged against doorways or scraped against the ground were raw and sore. He was certain that, beneath his clothing he was bruised all over. Simon winced as the pain at the back of his head pierced through that dazed fog, his hand reaching back and returning smeared with formerly dried blood.
His arms shook as he tried to push himself up, but the drugs in his system weren't quite done. He felt his limbs betray him, dropping him face first into the floor like marionette with its strings cut. Simon did his best not to think about the acrid smell in the air and wetness of the ground.
Where was Mulcahy? What had they done to him? Surely, he wouldn't just let them take him without a fight. The Father was his friend. He'd come for Simon soon, the Police in tow and take every one of these bastards down. The boy just knew it.
Hope. It was a precious commodity, especially there. It was hard fought and easily taken, as Simon would learn. Once again, he tried to get up, but was halted by a small hand at his back.
"Don't." a girl's voice said softly. "You've still got that stuff in you. You need to relax."
For the first time, Simon noticed the other kids in the cell with him. There were about 6 of them there, ages varying from 10 - 13, boys and girls. Most of them were looking everywhere BUT his direction. Some of them were cowering, some were glaring, some barely paid him any mind whatsoever.
"Here." the girl said, slipping her small hand under his shoulder and rolling him onto his back. "Better?"
The girl above him was pretty, he thought. Probably a year or so younger than him. Freckles dotted across her nose, her red hair was greasy and dirty in the tight ponytail she kept it in. Pale skin was marred with small scratches, bruises and dirt.
He nodded, wincing once again as the sharp pain stabbed to the forefront. The stranger grabbed a blanket and made a makeshift pillow for him. "Just rest." She told him. "You're gonna need it."
Simon watched her push up onto her feet and start away.
"Where are we?" he called after her.
The girl stopped and glanced back at him, a sad smile on his face and pain too great for one so young behind her eyes. "Later. Rest now."
"What's your name?" He asked.
"Anna." She said. "My name is Anna."
He needed a drive, just something to blow off steam. He climbed behind the wheel of the black Mercedes, no destination in mind, just a long, quiet drive to clear his head. Hero. What a bunch of bull****. As far as he was concerned, Simon was just a guy with *****y luck. Paige had made it sound like he actively looked for the situations he often ended up in. Like it was a choice. To hell with that. That wasn't him.
Not at all.
The lights of the city glowed bright in the dark night sky, a patchwork of whites and yellows and neon, reflecting off the sleek lines of the car. The one time Simon dared turn on the radio, he heard Tessa’s voice blaring out through the speakers and immediately shut it off. “I need a drink.” He thought, and for once it wasn’t referring to booze. Ahead, he could see the glowing signage and fluorescent lighting of a convenience store, almost violently cutting through the dark, beckoning him to it. The Mercedes slipped into a spot, and Simon stepped out, walking into the store. The lights were somehow brighter once inside. God, he hated fluorescent lighting. Clad in the shirt, vest, and pants of his suit, he wandered the aisles before grabbing himself a drink from the fridge.
Tahlia had been wandering, rather aimlessly of late. On her own, and slowly divesting herself of her usual distractions, she'd found herself out of her usual haunts. Pulling the Spitfire over, she parked, not sparing a glance for the glossy Mercedes in the next spot, and walked into the convenience store. The place was small, cheap and quick - and she looked a little out of place in designer ripped jeans, and a flowing shirt that somehow managed to cling to her generous curves. She hadn't thought to bring anything to drink, and though the day was cooler than anything had been in a while, driving with the top down still left her thirsty. Grabbing a bottle of fruit-infused water, she turned and made her way to the counter, a little in her own head.
Simon made his way to the counter,bottle in hand and glancing up at a pack of smokes. It had felt like years since he lit one up, and given the past week, the temptation was strong. He hadn’t even consciously decided to quit, it just worked out that way. He’d have figured he’s miss it by now. Ah, hell, he thought. No sense in ruining a good streak. With a sigh, he just moved on with the sale, forcing a smile for the clerk’s benefit..
If he was more observant, he'd have heard the red-soled heels clicking across the tile as she stepped up behind him, not really paying attention, herself. He'd have smelled her perfume. He’s have sensed her there and glanced back. And he’d have high tailed it out of there as discreetly as possible. But tonight, Simon Toews was not on his guard. He slid over the bills to pay for the bottle of water clutched in his right hand, reaching back and tucking his wallet in a back pocket, running on autopilot.
"Your change sir." The clerk said.
"Huh?" Simon glanced up, still not all there. "Oh yeah. Keep it, man." He nodded and put on that empty smile again. He could have chosen any other shop that night. Any other convenience store where she wasn’t. Simon wasn’t a big believer in fate or the existence of forces outside of his control, but tonight was sure as hell about to make him question it.
He took his bottle and spared a nod to the guy. "Have a good one." With that, he spun around, almost bumping into the woman behind him. "Oh, ****, sorry!"
Tahlia took a quickstep back, trying to avoid being stepped on, or run over. She'd been looking over the store, and found herself staring at a brand of beer she rarely saw anymore. One that brought to mind a long-destroyed factory, and cold chinese food. A life she'd thought, maybe, she could have been content with. But life had made other choices.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we have lost cabin pressure.
It took a second, but the face that greeted him stopped his heart. It felt like he'd been dealt a massive blow to the chest by Mike Tyson. His breath caught in his throat, his eyes widening in panic. He hadn't planned on this ever happening, let alone tonight. Some naive part of him thought he'd be able to dodge her forever and go about his days lying to himself that it ever happened. That he could have pushed that gnawing guilt and pain deep down. Hidden forever.
Pale jade eyes flashed, ready to give the guy a piece of her mind. Recognition came as she was opening her mouth, and stole the words right out of it. The face staring back at her, looking just as shocked as she was certain she did, was one she never thought to see again. Some part of her had wondered if he were dead, or had gone back to that little farm in that one horse town he'd told her about.
Stunned, she nearly dropped the bottle, but managed to recover. Still, there was no help for the breathless whisper that was all she could manage. "Simon?"
Simon fought to find the words in response, but they were just not coming. He just stared at her. She looked a little different, but God damn, she was still painfully gorgeous. Still the woman he'd known and loved. Even after everything, seeing her sent that familiar, ache flooding through his stomach. He'd faced down agony and death in his life, but it had been a long time since he was actually afraid. The reformed prizefighter couldn't help the flood of memories that rushed through him. Her laugh, the taste of good, expensive bourbon on her lips, that mischievous look in her eye when she was up to something...the curl of their bodies together-
Do not fall down that rabbithole, Simon. He shook his head just slightly, snapping out of it. Simon cleared his suddenly dry throat and finally managed to croak out. "Hey..."
"H-hi..." She was nearly shaking, and hoping he didn't notice. The clerk, wisely, had found something else to do, and was leaving them to their awkward reunion. Ducking her head for a moment, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. A tiny gesture, one he'd probably seen a thousand times.
No ring, on either of them, not that that was much of a surprise. Otherwise, she looked, surprisingly good, if likely a little paler than he remembered. Her curves were somehow smoother, hinting at even more muscle beneath. She couldn't help it, her free hand sliding over her ribs, smoothing over things he couldn't see. He did look good, himself. He'd always looked good, and she could just catch that all too familiar scent. But there was something healthier about him. Not covered with smoke, or the miasma of booze and drugs, just him, all the more intense for the lack of anything else.
She wondered if he tasted the same, if his arms would feel the same. Taking a sharp breath, she tried to shake it off, and stammered out something that sounded utterly inane even as she said it. "You're not dead..."
He wanted to look away from that appraising gaze, but his eyes just stayed on her as if she might lash out at any moment and rip his head clear off. Dry lips parted to say something, but they just curled upward, as a low chuckle escaped him. "No." He said, giving a little shake of his head. "Not dead.” Given his life, that wasn’t always a guarantee, he thought. “Not yet."
He brought a fist up, scratching lightly at the well trimmed beard along his jaw. He might have been dressed finely and lacked the haze and scent of booze and smoke, but some things didn't change. Those knuckles were still that distinctive mess they'd always been, the tattoos snaking out from under the rolled up sleeve of his shirt. There were even fresh red marks from Tessa's would-be abductor. Though, if he was still fighting in the ring, his face bore no signs of it, but for a little scratch or two.
"You look...you look fantastic." It felt lame even leaving his lips, but damn it, he didn’t know what else to say. It was amazing, even now, after everything, she still took his breath away.
"So do you. I mean, not that you ever didn't...but...jesus, Simon...it's been..." Almost a year. Almost a year, and she couldn't bring herself to say those words. There were so many questions. So many questions. She just...couldn't bring herself to ask them in the middle of a convenience store. "Do you...do you want to go somewhere?"
Her eyes fell to his hand, and her bottom lip was caught between her teeth. She remembered all too well what those hands were capable of - on her, and on anyone who dared to cross him. "Catch up, maybe?"
Life had become so hectic in the time after he'd left, he scarcely realized it had been so long. Again, that guilt came rushing on back. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, let me buy your drink." He wasn't giving her an option. He turned to the cashier and slid a bill to him, offering a wave to turn down the change again.
"You don't...thank you." She accepted, with an awkward grace that wasn't her usual MO at all.
"Uh..."He awkwardly stammered and then gestured for her to lead the way. It wasn't often someone caught Simon Toews completely off his game, but here, tonight? She was getting the full effect.
Catching the gesture for what it was, she headed out, pausing as the bell jingled over her head to make sure he was still there. Drink in one hand, she reached out to him with the other. A subconscious need to make sure this time he didn't disappear, and she quickly dropped it back to her side.
Tahlia walked past the cars, heading across the street to a small park, half hidden from the rest of the neighborhood by tall shrubs, and dotted with benches. Simon followed, suppressing that little voice in the back of his head that said "**** the car, RUN!" He busied himself, unscrewing the cap from his bottle and taking a swig. He found himself a spot across from a bench, leaning his back against a thin birch tree.
"So...have you been here the...I mean...since..." She stopped, no idea how to finish the question.
Thankfully, he made sure she didn't have to finish it, almost interrupting. "Yeah, I've been around. Uh...I've been at Corrine's place."
"Cori....oh! The one-armed cop you had..." Yeah, that thought wasn't going to end anywhere good, and she flushed, unscrewing the top of her drink and taking a sip.
Immediately he knew how that would sound, his hands reaching up defensively. "Not-not like that. It's..." He stammered trying to explain it better. "We're roommates is all."
There was NOTHING between Simon and Paige. Hell, they were BARELY friends, but he knew how their arrangement looked. They worked together lived together. Two attractive , single people under one roof...it was almost expected.
"Good. That's...good. That you have someone. To watch your back." She was normally so smooth, and now she was acting like a tongue-tied teen. He'd always been able to do that to her.
"Oh! Hey....um...before I forget..." Reaching for her purse, she rifled through it, pulling out a business card from the First Goblin Bank of Rhydin, with a number scribbled on the back. "I...didn't know where to find you. McAllister gave up, after a few months. But I thought...maybe..."
His brow furrowed as he took the card, studying it a moment. "What's this?"
He asked, grateful for the change of subject.
"It's...I sold the apartment. After you left. I couldn't..." There was no safe ground for them, was there? "It's in an account, in your name. Probably a decent amount of interest. Close to seven hundred thousand, maybe..." She hadn't checked the balance recently. It wasn't, as far as she was concerned, her money. Tahlia let go of the card, her fingers hovering as if she wanted to touch him, before drifting back.
His brows rose in surprise, his eyes flicking up to her from the card. "Holy ****. Are you serious?" He knew the penthouse was expensive, but DAMN. That kind of money was a massive windfall. It could be his ticket out of Paige’s place and a step toward one of his own.
A million thoughts ran in his head, a million ways to say it, but it just came out. "Well...damn. Thank you."
"I bought it for us. I have the penthouse, anyway. Two apartments didn't make sense." For now. Who knew how much longer she'd be able to keep her Seaside aerie if things didn't work out. Waving a hand, she turned pink, and focused on the water.
He smiled and tucked it into his pocket, taking another swig of his water. "How've you been?"
"Ok, I guess. It's been a crazy year. More time on my own than I think I've ever spent before…”
Tahlia didn't much like feeling vulnerable, and he had clearly moved on. Not that she hadn't, on the surface at least, but there was still a dull ache that she didn't think would ever go away. Her hand found her ribs again. "So. Anyway. You look like you landed on your feet."
There was something in that sentence that hit him somewhere deep inside. It felt almost like an accusation. There was a time when he'd have taken offense and immediately jumped to the defensive...but he just didn't feel it tonight.
"It took a while." He muttered, scratching lightly at the back of his neck. "A long while."
Now it was her turn to look away, stung, and trying not to lash out. He was the one who had left her, and hadn't even had the courage to tell her to her face. She'd thought she was over it, but she could feel the salty burn of tears against her lashes. "Figured you took off back to that dust bowl..."
"No." His head gave the slightest of shakes. "The last thing those people needed was me." For a long moment, he just stared, letting the silence hang between them. That guilty ache in his stomach tore through him. There were times it came and went. He could just bury it and forget it. But tonight… he just couldn’t. "Tahlia..."
"Yes, Simon?" She looked up before she could blink away the sparkle of tears. Dammit, she hadn't wanted him to see how much she hurt. And yet...part of her wanted him to know about every sleepless night, every time she'd cried until she was exhausted...
He didn't know exactly what it was, what he could say...but he had to say something. There would always be feelings there. Even after all this time, he still felt...protective of her. Close to her.
Say something, you dumb redneck!
It happened before he knew what his body was doing. Quickly, his arms wrapped around her, pulling her into a tight embrace. The words wouldn't come, so he did the next best thing. He held her like she might float away if he let her go. He'd missed her far more than he'd let on.
Far more than even he knew.
For her part, she had held back, since she'd seen him in the store, the moment they'd gained the relative privacy of the tiny park, from the desire to reach out and touch him. But he'd made the choice for her, and she buried her head in his chest, soaking through the front of his vest with a sudden burst that surprised even her. Her arms wrapped tightly around his ribs, one hand knotting into the fabric across his broad shoulders. Clinging to him like he'd disappear if she so much as breathed funny.
"Jesus...killer...I've missed you." There it was, the little nickname she'd given him that first night, and held to ever since. She'd never given it to anyone else, and never would. And missed was so much easier to admit to than the rest.
His eyes clenched shut as he clung to her with everything he had. "Me too." He whispered. For a long moment, he just let that moment settle. Romance wasn't on his mind, but whatever she was, Tahlia was his friend. Paige was alright, but she was often about as cuddly and sweet as a wasp’s nest toward him. Losing Tahlia, and everything that followed may have improved his health and general well being...but it was a lonely existence. He'd missed this.
"I'm sorry." He said, holding her back a bit. "I'm sorry I went the way I did. You deserved better than that. Far better."
"It wasn't...what you thought. Not then." She couldn't deny it had become what he suspected, It still was...at least, assuming Eddie didn't do exactly what she was most afraid of. He'd come to terms with what had happened. If it hadn't been that night, it would have probably happened eventually. Eventually, she would get another job. That job would require her to do things he couldn't live with anymore, and they'd be here anyhow. Though, it did strike a chord that he'd been wrong. At least...that night.
"I was trying...broke contracts. I went back to The Line...I wanted..." She sniffled, and shook her head. It didn't matter what she'd wanted. Not anymore. Without a word, she took one of his hands, and slid it up under her shirt, just along the ribs on her left side. He would feel the scarring - the oak leaf burned into her skin. She just hoped he remembered. He almost recoiled to tell her to slow down when he put his hand under her shirt...but then he felt it.
"You...you branded yourself?" he asked
There was no way she could miss the flinch, but he hadn't let her go, and neither had she. "The ink wouldn't stay...unless I thought about it, it kept...seeping out. So I...I got the brand." She kept her gaze lowered. "I didn't...I thought maybe the physical pain would make it hurt less. It did, for a little. But I never forgot. I didn't want to..." Alone, away from her usual areas, she let out a breath, and let go of her glamour for the first time in ages.
One corner of his mouth upturned as she let go. The lopsided smirk that was his and his alone took over. "I'd almost forgot you can do that."
"You used to love me this way..." She chanced a hesitant smile, looking up at him from beneath her now-crimson bangs. "I'm sorry, Simon...I tried. I really did. I just...I don't think I understood then...."
For months he would have killed for this apology. But now that she was here...he didn't want it. His hand came up, trying to halt her. "Tahlia...we were different people then. I was different..." He trailed off a bit, lost in his thoughts for just a moment. "I think...I think we were both confused about what we wanted...who we were..." He let out a long, shuddering sigh. "We were going through a lot. I was...raw. Confused. And when I saw you with him...and that jealousy showed up...I didn't know how to handle it."
Few things had ever hurt him as much as that night. The old him would have gone to war...but after everything with Vicelli and then with Kate and Virgil...he just didn’t have the fight in him anymore.
"I knew that if I stuck around, I'd have become...THAT guy again. I'd have done something...bad." He didn't need to explain to her what. She'd seen what happened with Vicelli. It wasn't hard to imagine what he'd do to the man who stolen the woman he’d loved.
"It...I don't want to think about it. I would have lost one of you. And I don't..." She'd seen what Simon could do, yes, and she'd seen what Eddie was capable of since then. "I guess, I lost you anyway. It...it nearly killed me. I guess, in my own way, I did what you did...I ran away. Only I just...went back to what I thought worked. Only it didn't, this time. I think I'm done, Simon. Whether Eddie comes back or not." She hadn't mentioned the giant Selkie, not directly, not until then. But he'd threaded through the conversation. "At least...I want to be."
"Do you think, maybe...Killer, I don't want to lose you again. I need a friend in the worst way, and there isn't anyone I trust here as much as you..."
Simon smiled and rested his forehead to her's, a hand settling at the back of her head. His eyes slid shut, just enjoying the closeness. "Absolutely.” It came out as a relieved breath. Suddenly, he wondered exactly what he’d been dreading the past year. Suddenly, he felt a weight lift from his shoulders and he couldn’t help the smile the graced his features. “I'm not gonna lie, it's been pretty lonely. The closest thing I have to friends are the PI's Paige is working with. I'm hanging out with a bunch of cops."
Forgive her, the burst of laughter caught her off-guard. "You? Hanging out with cops? Oh, Killer...you have changed..." Shaking her head carefully, so as not to dislodge anything, she let out a slow breath, and relaxed against him. He'd always been her safe place. "What's she got you doing?"
He forgot he hadn't told her...though, if she saw any footage of the other night (or of Tessa Bradley in general the past few weeks), she could have seen him in the background. "You know who Tessa Bradley is?"
"Some little teen pop star, right?" It was her business to know these things, although the music wasn't her style and she tended to pay less attention to female celebrities much less than the men, for obvious reasons. She shuddered as he stepped back, and clutched at his hand. If she was holding him, he couldn't vanish.
He had to admit he found it endearing and just let her grasp onto him. "That's the one. Well, guess who got assigned as her bodyguard?"
And he was ever so happy about it, too. It certainly wasn't a living nightmare that never seemed to end! Not at all!
"Oh...oh Killer...I'm so sorry." She didn't need to see much to know the girl was a nightmare. Rumors spread, and Tahlia still had access to the right ears, and the right lips. "Does it at least pay ok? Can you free-lance?"
"Actually...yeah. It pays pretty well." He chuckled. "She's a pain in the ass...but she's a walk in the park compared to the mother. I've never wanted to hit a woman before..."
"I'd heard something about her...we don't run in exactly the same circles, obviously." For a moment she considered asking Adder to hire him away, but that...wasn't necessarily smart. No, if things went horribly wrong, she wanted to make sure Simon was well out of it. "So that's what you're up to these days...I might actually have to check out one of her shows..."
That was an image... "Yeah, hope you like songs about friendship and high school drama. Talented kid, but...writing needs some work." He laughed. To be fair, the girl had pipes. She just didn't have to experience to sing about anything more than the teeny pop garbage.
"But yeah, she's obnoxious. I had to clock some old pervert who tried to grab her the other night. Be on the lookout for THAT one. It's bound to be all over the tabloids." He said. "Then, she's got this step dad who pretty much admitted to me he hits her...I had to kinda put him in his place and...."
SImon sighed and shook his head wearily. "Paige says I've got some bull**** hero complex or something."
"You do." It was almost immediate, and delivered with a wry smile. "I mean, probably not for the same reason, but...she's not wrong" She'd have to remember to ask Bret to get her a copy of that one. And see about getting her tickets to the girls next show. And earplugs. She didn't actually intend to listen to such drek, but a VIP pass might give her the chance to make Simon's life a little bit easier.
Well, that took the wind out of his sails. He let out an exasperated sigh and stepped back, dejected. "Oh, Jesus Christ...not you too."
Oh no, she wasn't letting him get away that easy. Taking two steps, she wrapped herself around his ribs, and smirked up at him. "The motel, the fire...those people in the dustbowl...Paige...even with Cotter..." She bit her tongue, knowing that was a sore subject. "You're not a cold-hearted man, Simon...you never have been. Why..." She took a deep breath. "Why do you think I fell for you so hard?"
It didn't sit well with him, that title. He didn't want it at all, despite all evidence to the contrary. "I just fall into ****. And then...I see something wrong and...what the hell am I gonna do? Turn my back? I don't WANT it, and I sure as hell don't need it. That's not heroism. It's...bad luck."
"Yeah, you fall into it. But a lot of people would walk away. You don't. Even when it costs you." Letting go of him, she took a step back, a bit embarrassed that she'd admitted as much as she had. Taking a long swallow of her water, she glanced back up at him. "Why did you come to the hotel, that night...?"
"You asked. And I'm good at burning things." His talent for deflecting with humor hadn’t diminished.
"Yeah, but you didn't need to. We'd ****ed a few times, sure. But you would have found another piece of ass quick enough. You carried me out of there, lit the place on fire...you could have dropped me on a corner, or at the Inn. You took me home. You..call it what you will, Killer...you aren't the type to walk away from a damsel in distress..."
"That's a little dramatic..." He chuckled. Try as he might, he had to admit...she wasn't wrong. "But maybe you have a point."
"Of course I have a point. I'm not just a pretty face..." Tahlia scoffed, a half smile lingering on her lips. He graced her with that easy smile as he leaned back against the tree. It was so easy, just to fall back into old habits. But he was right, they'd both changed. Still, there were things...things she needed him to know. "Simon...I meant what I said, after...after you got shot."
Simon glanced at the ground a moment to watch his toe move a little pebble around before turning up to her. That twinge of guilt was back with a vengeance. "I know. I did too."
"I still...I guess I still do, maybe I always will. But it's different now. It's been...well I guess we both grew up a little. But...it’s true what they say: you never forget your first."
She took another sip of water, and ran a hand back through those garnet strands. She gave him a long look, and then a bright laugh broke from her lips. "Jesus, Killer...how'd you get better looking?"
He grinned again, running a hand through his short hair and shook his head. "I uh...I haven't had a cigarette since....well. Since. And I drink, maybe once a month. It's kinda cleared a lot up. Evened me out."
"Is that the trick? Maybe I'll try that..." She knew she wouldn't, although she had cut back, and was spending more time doing things like....yoga. Not quite the party girl anymore. "And you're working a legitimate job...no more fights." It wasn't a question.
He almost said no. He stopped himself, squinting. "Well....not intentionally? I cold cocked some fat old pervert the other night for trying to grab Tessa. " Simon couldn't help the smile forming on his face. "Like riding a bike."
"Not like you were though. Knights have to fight for their damsels, Killer...even if they're getting paid." Winking, she kept just out of arms reach. She wouldn't put it past him to try and ...tickle her or something. "It's ingrained. Who you are. Even if you use those powers for ... good... now..."
Simon smirked, he still wasn't on board with that term, but he didn't argue. "So...what have YOU been into? I don't imagine you've exactly settled down."
"Not...exactly? I'm...actually cutting back on clients...still working at The Line. They have me running the book once a month at the Hold." She'd always be a little grey, it was just how she was.
Somehow it was a comfort to him. At least she was dependable. "You DO seem like you're doing better. You look good."
"Thanks. Nearly dying a few times will really make you look at things.." She shrugged, doing better was one way to look at things. "Still have the penthouse, you'd probably love the Panamera...maybe if you're nice, I'll let you drive it."
"Oooh-hoo-hoo. Tempting." He chuckled. "They hooked me up with a Mercedes. Quick little bastard. Lotta space. The other day a kid jumped up and tried to kick in the windshield and I faceplanted his ass into the roof."
"Sweet." Chuckling at the thought, Tahlia ran a hand back through her hair, and looked at the strands for a moment. It was strange how unfamiliar the color looked now. With a thought, she switched it back to her usual blonde. She looked back up at Simon, one hand sneaking under her shirt to brush the black pearl nestled in her navel. "Wait...Mercedes...wasn't that the car at the beach?"
Simon pushed off the tree, memories flooding back of a time they jacked a car and took it on down to the beach to...well...they took it to the beach. . "It was indeed. Though...I didn’t have to break into this one." He took a seat at one of the benches, eyes up to her. "Paige REALLY straightened my ass out. Like, the second I got there she laid down the law. 'No smoking, no getting drunk, no drugs, no crime....
"Well, I guess that makes sense, her being a cop, or former cop, and...well...everything right before. You could get your own place, now...if you wanted..."
He cracked a sheepish little grin. “No women."
"No women? Wait...so..." Careful, Tahlia, finishing that sentence might not be a good idea. Even if she suspected they were now both thinking the same thing.
He laughed and nodded, "Said I had to get a hotel if I ever picked up a woman. Not that I've exactly had time since moving in. Most nights, it's the two of us eating pizza watching one hour dramas on HBO."
"...really?" She couldn't help the note of disbelief. "Killer...how are you not sneezing dust? Once a night was never enough, you used to keep going for hours..." Aaaaaaaand now she'd kicked the door open, hadn't she. Flushing deeply, she ducked her head, and focused on her water for a minute. "Sorry..."
He didn't seem offended. No this was amusement. He just laughed. "I know, I know! It's amazing how a busy schedule makes you kind of forget about things. Honestly, it's not that bad." It really wasn't. He didn't feel the constant need to bury himself in sex and substances anymore. "To be honest, the smoking and booze was harder. I mean, I snag a drink every now and again, but it's been...well, since us that I've REALLY gone out on a bender."
"Yeah, I guess we were positively made up of sex, drugs and bad decisions, weren't we..." And she'd loved every minute. But some part of her had known they couldn't stay like that forever. "It's...better now. I guess. I don't believe quitting smoking and drinking was harder than sex, though." It was her own worst addiction, she knew, and she was a little surprised at how well she was handling her own relative dry spell.
He was quiet a long moment, a little smile forming slowly. "well....I'm not saying it was easy...but you know. I can go out and buy a pack of smokes and a bottle, but I can't...well...I'm not willing to go out and buy myself a woman."
The smile faded then, a more somber look in his eyes. "Plus...I was a mess. Wasn't really in any place for it. I used to do that and it left me kinda...hollow."
"I used to have this...this hole. This big emptiness inside of me. And I filled it with all this destructive ****. Women, drugs, booze, fighting. And after everything the past couple years, I just...I don't have the hole anymore."
There was a moment of silence, her eyes wide, staring at him in thinly veiled shock, and hurt. She knew that feeling, knew it well...but it had never happened with him. Still...the little blonde looked away, closing her eyes to take a deep breath, and try to push everything away. Her free hand slipped over the brand on her ribs, and she let the air out, shaking. "Yeah...I...that's good, right?"
He could sense something was wrong He wasn't entirely clueless. He stepped up to her, placing a hand on her arm. "It's because of you, y'know?" He looked her in the eye, speaking softly. "I went around just looking for death and punishment, and then you showed me there could be something more, regardless of how things ended."
She didn't want to cry. Even with her current uncertainty...things were...good. But they'd never gotten to do this, there had been no fight. He had just been....gone. "I didn't know I could. I mean...I hadn't, ever. You were just supposed to be a one-night stand, and then...you weren't. I didn't even know what was happening, and I tried so hard not to, cause I didn't think you did, or would..." Eyes shimmering, she reached up, and brushed the backs of her fingers along his jaw. "I guess we showed each other..."
He reached up and took her hand, placing a kiss at her knuckles. "I think we were exactly what both of us needed...at the time. It just..." He sighed, still holding that hand. "We burned hard. Fast. I think a little too hard and fast. I don't think we could have lasted..." There was a hint of sadness, though, he'd accepted this a LONG time ago. But that little grin returned. "But, damn were we good together."
"Yeah...we were...I still..." It wouldn't be her if she didn't dance on that line, swept away in the moment. And the memories were right there. But he was right. They'd been intense, and explosive, sometimes literally, and they'd left a path of destruction behind them. "Well, you know." Keeping a hold of his hand, she bit her lip, pale green eyes staring into blue ones that she used to think held the whole world.
Those baby blues turned up to her, taking her in the moment, remembering every second they had together in almost crystal clarity. his free hand reached up, thumb rested behind her ear gently. He leaned in...and pressed a lingering, gentle kiss to her forehead,.
She'd meant only that she still thought of him, of the same moments that were probably running though his memory. They'd never had a problem in that area, but for the first time...she was perfectly content with that kiss on her forehead. She'd missed more than just the physical, with him. She'd missed her friend, her confidante. Especially now, when she was alone, and playing a dangerous game with no backup. But the rest...that was in the past. Smiling, she turned her head and brushed a kiss to his palm. "Still friends?"
He looked her in the eye, that solemn expression on his face as he smiled. "Always."
Simon wrapped his arms around the woman who had once been the devil on his shoulder and his guardian angel all at the same time. It had been a long, messy road to get there., but it felt right. After a long year, Simon finally felt that weight leave his shoulders. Tonight, he was happy.
Tessa stared out the window as cars, buildings, and people whipped on by. Simon eyed her a moment in the rearview. She'd been quiet the past few days since the incident, keeping mostly to herself. He had to admit, it was a welcome reprieve from the constant yammering on her phone and the incessantly bad attitude she usually put on around him...but something had changed in her. She was afraid. Not that he could blame her. It wasn't every day you found out your own mother was willing to put your life at risk to drum up publicity.
Eventually, the silence got to be just too oppressive. Simon reached over and flicked on the radio The voice of Chris Cornell singing "Shadow On The Sun" radiated from the speakers, and Simon settled in. Tessa's eyes snapped forward, annoyance written all over her face. Simon did his level best to just ignore it.
"Turn this crap off." She demanded.
Simon smirked to himself and reached over, turning it up.
"Look, *** hole. I don't feel like listening to your sad old bastard music, alright? Turn it off!" She shrieked.
Simon began quietly singing along as he made a turn. It absolutely infuriated the girl, but at least it seemed to take her mind off of things. She slumped back in her seat with a disgusted sigh and glared out the window. He could barely hide the amused smirk on his face, glancing back at her.
For a long moment, she just sat there, hate-****ing everything in sight as they passed. Finally, she turned back to him "What even IS this ****?"
"It's called music. You should try it sometime."
Tessa laughed sarcastically and rolled her eyes, turning her attention back outside as he muttered something under her breath. She surprised him as the silence that followed didn't last long.
"Who is this?" She asked, a bit of the edge leaving her tone.
"Audioslave." He responded. "Chris Cornell. One of the best voices in rock history."
Tessa snorted. "The best?"
"One of 'em." He asserted.
"Doesn't say much for rock history, does it?" She jabbed.
"Well, there aren't any computerized pitch changes to hide the singer's lack of talent, so I can see why *you* might think that."
The girl's brows rose incredulously. "Excuse me? I happen to have an AMAZING voice. I don't NEED computers to sound great. And I sure as hell don't need to drown it out with guitars!"
"You don't need to." Simon nodded. "So, what's the deal? You just LIKE to...or?"
He knew he was just poking the bear and probably could have just let her be sullen. But what was the fun in that?
"I do what the record company wants. They want auto-tuning, they're gonna do it." She defended herself.
"Wow. That's some artistic integrity you've got there." he said, the sarcasm dripping in his voice.
"Tell you what, Simon." She said. "When you're running with a million 30 million dollar contract and dealing with your mother and her *** hole boyfriend as your managers, you can talk to me about artistic integrity."
Well, damn. Could've gone without that little guilt trip. Subtly, he flicked the controls on the steering wheel, turning the volume down a bit.
"She always been like that?" he asked, his tone becoming less antagonistic.
"What? A straight up opportunistic bitch?" Tessa spat back.
"Sure." He nodded.
Tessa glanced out the window, eyeing a little girl walking with her mother, hand in hand. "No. She actually used to be kind of decent. A bit intense...but...not like this."
"The money get to her?" Simon asked.
"I think so?" Tessa shrugged. "Plus, I think she never had the talent or voice to make it herself. So..."
"She's jealous. And being in control of you is as close as she's going to get to the spotlight." Simon finished for her. It was a common tale of child stars, from what he'd heard. Overzealous parents with no discernible talent of their own living vicariously through their kids and losing sight of reality, running their kids and their careers into the ground.
Tessa glanced his way, unsure of his new tactic, and unwilling as of yet to let her guard down. "Yeah. Yeah, probably."
"Well, I'm gonna tell you something, and if you tell her I said it, I'll deny it...but your mother's a lowlife." He said. "If I didn't live by a strict code of honor, I'd take great pleasure in smacking the everloving **** out of her."
For the first time since they'd met, she actually smiled, a little laugh escaping her. The corners of his mouth tugged upwards into a grin. "From now on, I've got your back. No matter what bull **** she tries, I won't let anyone lay a hand on you ever again. Cool?"
The girl looked a little confused, but not at all disappointed. "Cool." She nodded.
That self-satisfied grin remained on Simon's face as they sat, driving. It was then he heard shuffling from behind. Tessa leaned over the seats and reached forward and turned up the radio without a word said, letting the song blast out.
(TW: References to sexual assault. Violence against children)
The voice immediately preceded the loud clanking sound of the cell door opening. Simon slowly woke up, groggy and sore from the uncomfortable, filthy concrete floor. Sleep had come eventually, and for too short a time, he was elsewhere and this was all some bad dream. Reality, though, came rushing in. The muted aftereffects of the drugs left him a bit hazy, and the light piercing.
"Get up! They'll beat you if you don't." Anna said through grit teeth, trying to yank him up to his feet. Simon took his time, but rose beside her, his neck aching from his awkward sleeping position.
The man who walked down the aisle of children was built big and solid, his black t-shirt straining against muscle. "Wake up, you bunch of pussies! On your ****ing feet!"
The kids all snapped to, fear in their eyes as he passed. The large guard stopped in front of one kid who dared look up at him instead of staring at the floor. He turned. "You eyeballin' me, ******?"
The kid immediately turned his eyes down. "No sir."
The big man glared down and suddenly lashed out, grabbing the boy by the neck and slamming him against the chainlink fence behind him. He lifted the kid effortlessly and looked him right in the eye. "Don't you ever ****ing eyeball me, you little ****! You keep your ****in' eyes on the ****in' ground, understood?!"
The kid tried to look away and nod that he understood. He knew better than to try and claw the hand from around his throat. That would only make things worse. The guard dropped him roughly, the boy coughing and sputtering in a heap on the ground.
"Look at this bunch of whiny little *****. Wouldn't last a second in a fight with a real man." He spat on the ground. As he turned around, Simon realized he recognized him. He was the guy who'd shoved him through the door and into Falk's clutches. Suddenly, a dark desire began to bubble in his young heart.
"We have fresh meat today, boys and girls!" He shouted. "This is Simon. Don't get too used to him being around. This weak little ****'s not going to be here long. Look at him. This scrawny twerp was shacked up with a low life, degenerate priest when we found 'im." He grinned and walked up to him.
"The good father give you a little diddle, there kid? Take ya into the confessional booth and make you cry to God?" He laughed at himself. Simon's rage overrode his common sense and he glared up at him. Mulcahy was his friend. His only friend. The man who'd saved him from dying in the cold in some filthy alley.
The guard's brows rose and he chuckled derisively. "Oh-ho-ho-ho...look at little Billy Bad-ass over here. You wanna take a swing at me boy? Huh?"
Simon's fist clenched almost involuntarily, the fire in his belly rising.
"Go on." The guard said, leaning down and pointing to his chin "Give me your best. ****ing. Sh-"
Simon's fist lashed out in a jab, catching the bigger man in the throat. It took the guy by surprise, his voice catching upon impact. He gasped for air, stumbling back. Simon knew better than to let him recover and leapt, grabbing him around the neck, Anna screaming "NO!" behind him.
He clutched with his weaker arms, trying to choke the life out of him, running on pure rage. The bigger man reached behind him, grabbed him by the shirt and pulled him from his back. With a violent, rough throw, he slammed Simon onto his back, the concrete sending pain radiating through him as the breath left his body. He was utterly defeated.
"Let him be a lesson to you, you ****ers!" The man shouted, rubbing his throat. "You might win a battle...but you'll lose the ****in' war!" His boot met Simon's ribs, drawing an agonized grown from the boy.
"If you face him in the ring today, be sure to give Simon here a nice warm welcome." Again, he spat, this time a wad of phlegm and saliva splattering on Simon's cheek.
"Get yourselves ready." He said. "It's fight night."
Simon moved around backstage as Tessa was performing for a packed audience. He was keeping his eye on every aspect of the event, trying to run down a production assistant as they were going about their business.
"Excuse me." He called out to a girl in her twenties wearing a headset. She was distracted, but turned to him.
"What can I do for you?"
"I need you to check on the situation outside. North exit." he requested.
She let out a put-upon sigh and started away. "Look, I don't have time-"
"If we get out there and there's another mob awaiting us, you're going to wish you made the time." He said firmly. "Check the exit."
She glared up at him and pulled on her headset. "Jerry, can you check the north exit for me? Yeah, for the girl." The young woman crossed her arms, staring daggers at the man before her, but he didn't seem to care. He had bigger fish to fry tonight.
Slowly, her face softened, melting into a concerned grimace as the color drained from her complexion. It was all Simon had to see to know exactly what the scene awaiting them would be.
"It's-" she began.
"Yeah." Simon nodded. "We'll need another exit. Who's your chief of security?"
"Great. Take me to him."
Simon followed her through the busy backstage, dodging crew members as they passed. As they ascended the metal staircase to the security head's office, he glanced down. Tessa was belting her heart out for those people, and damned if they didn't love her for it. Off-stage, she was unhappy, withdrawn, and a bit miserable. But there, in front of 30,000 screaming fans, singing her heart out, she was alive.
The door opened and a rotund man in an illfitting uniform sat before a wall of screens, sucking back on an extra large soft drink. One of the screens had a rerun of some 70's cop show playing. The PA knocked and peered in. "Mr. Desmond?"
Desmond wiped his pudgy, greasy fingers on his stained shirt, barely glancing back. "Yeah?"
"Mr. Toews asked to speak to you?" It was more of a question than a statement.
"Tessa's bodyguard." She explained.
"Oh. Right, Whatever." He mumbled, waving them in.
Simon hated the guy immediately on sight. Something about the careless, slovenly way he carried himself. This guy was there for a paycheck and nothing else. Simon moved toward him, eying the screens.
"Help you?" The fat man muttered.
"We're going to need an exit." Simon told him.
"You've got one." He pointed at the screen showing the already gathered mob. If looks could kill, Simon's glare would have splattered the man all over the room.
"Do you see all those people?" Simon asked incredulously.
"Eeeyup." Desmond said, clearly disinterested.
"A few days ago, my client was attacked in a mob like that. That's NOT happening again." Simon was furious, but the guy clearly didn't see death two inches from his face.
"Look," Desmond rolled his eyes and swivelled around to face him. "The girl's mother or manager or whatever called ahead and told us the plan. You got a problem with it? Take it up with her."
"Mary Bradley set this up?"
Desmond gestured to him as if to say "Get it now?" Simon could feel his blood boiling. In his time, he'd met countless despicable people, but none of them fueled his rage quite like Mary Bradley.
"You done?" the non-plussed security head asked dismissively.
"I need another exit." Simon demanded.
"Again." Desmond rolled his eyes. "You have a problem, talk to-"
Simon grabbed him by the shirt and rolled him back against a wall, his right fist cocked back and ready to slug him. But he caught himself, seeing the sudden rush of fear in the man's eyes. Beating the living hell out of this guy wouldn't make Tessa any safer. In fact, it would probably cause more problems for the girl. Didn't mean he couldn't use that fear though.
"Does it look like I'm asking?" Simon growled.
Desmond's chest was heaving, his entire body shaking. "W-w-west st-staircase! Take it down, th-here's garage! Lets out on the other side! Okay?!"
Simon shoved him back into the seat, letting him go and stormed out and down the stairs just as Tessa finished her final encore. He pulled out his phone and told his contact with the car the new plan just as the girl walked up, chugging a water bottle and wiping the sweat from her brow. Simon hung up and handed her a jacket. It was a lot chillier when you weren't under stage lights and pyrotechnics.
"God *damn*, did you see that?" She said, beaming as assistants converged and took the mic pack off of her. "Haven't had a show like that in months!"
Simon's smile was genuine but distracted. "We've gotta get going."
"Okay...can I at least get some of this makeup off first? Maybe a change of clothes because I'm sweating like a pig." She said, that petulant tone still in her voice.
"No. I'm sorry. We need to move quick." He said, all business.
The shadow of panic crossed her face just then, memories of the other night flooding back to her. "Is something wrong?"
Simon eyed her a moment, debating how much to tell her. "Not if I can help it." He said. She didn't need to know about the dirty details. Not right now. To her credit, Tessa swallowed her fear, set her jaw and zipped up her coat. The corner of his mouth twitched into a grin and he canted his head to the left.
"Come on. Follow me."
The pair moved through the bustling backstage and down a stairwell. Outside, the crowd was getting restless. Hundreds of fans had gathered outside along with paparazzi. There were, of course, the troublemakers interspersed looking to do just about anything to make a scene. Even 15 minutes of infamy was enough for some people. The chants began, Tessa's name shouted over and over and over. The longer they waited, the more restless they got. The metal barricades were barely holding them back as the crowd shook them. Security was already on edge, lining the sides and desperately trying to keep order.
Simon and Tessa stepped out into the empty underground garage as the black Mercedes pulled up in front of them. Simon's contact stepped out and handed him the keys.
"Thanks." He nodded and slipped inside. He glanced in the rearview to see the girl sliding in back. "Buckle up, keep your head down."
Outside, the damn burst and the crowd poured in. It was utter chaos. Later, they would find out 3 security guards were hospitalized along with several over-enthusiastic fans. But Simon and Tessa simply drove away unscathed.
They were on their way to Tessa's penthouse when the phone rang. Simon glanced down, eyeing the screen. Mary Bradley. Great. He hit the accept button, letting the bluetooth pick up. Tessa was going to hear this.
"Yeah." Simon said. He could sense the irritation before she even spoke.
"Where the hell are you?" She asked.
"On our way to the hotel."
"Yeah, well, why am I watching the news and NOT seeing you two?" She asked.
"Plan changed." Simon said, making a turn.
"You don't have the authority to do that!"
"Job's to protect her. I'll do what I have to." He was in no mood for this woman's bull ****.
"Your job is to do what you're told! When I set something up, you follow it to the letter!"
Tessa's eyes went wide. She scoffed and leaned forward, her voice a bit shakey. "Hey, Mom?"
There was silence then. Her daughter was NOT supposed to hear this. "Tess? Sweetie? Thank God you're-"
"Mom!" She interrupted.
"Yes, sweetheart?" Mary laid the concerned, loving mother act on pretty thick.
"**** off." Tessa leaned forward and pushed the red button to end the call. As she leaned back in her chair, a smile spread across her face, the slightest bit of laughter leaving her as she stared out the window.
Simon glanced back at her, quiet for a moment. "You alright?"
"Screw 'er." the girl said flippantly.
"I'd rather not." Simon cracked with a smirk.
Tessa chuckled and nodded up to him. "Put something on. I'm not big on silence."
"Sure." Simon nodded. "Anything in particular?"
"Whatever, dude. You've got good taste. Surprise me." She said.
Frankly, he was unprepared for such a compliment from her. For a moment, he sort of gawked. As he pulled up some Johnny Cash, a genuine smile worked its way to his lips. There would be consequences for tonight, but right now he didn't care. The girl was happy and safe.
(CW: child abuse)
There is a story in Greek mythology of a boy named Icarus. The boy and his father, Daedalus wished to escape imprisonment within a labyrinth. Daedalus created wings of wax and feathers to accomplish this. In his hubris, Icarus ignored his father's wisdom and flew too close to the sun. Icarus would see his wings melt and find himself drowned, his freedom short lived.
Tessa Bradley has never heard this story.
She and Simon had their little victory. He took the girl out for a bite to eat, but eventually, she would have to go home. She would have to face her mother...and worse, her boyfriend. As they neared the place, dread began to set in. Of course she'd seen her fair share of trouble over the years, but this was different. She wasn't certain she'd be able to leverage her stardom to get out of this one.
It wasn't so much her mother, she knew what the woman was capable of. The most she'd get was a stern talking to and a lot of empty threats, but she was too much of a self serving coward for any sort of follow through. But, Tony, on the other hand...
She'd caught him several times, leering at her half dressed. When she told her mom, she was accused of exaggerating if not lying and told to stop trying to cause trouble. He came home one night, drunk off his ass, and barged into her room and made a pass. When she told him to go sleep it off, he became enraged and tried to choke her. Tessa ended up smashing a mirror over his head. Even then, her mother sided with him. She called her a liar and accused her of attacking the man.
He had to get more creative after that. In the rare moments they were alone, he was verbally abusive. Called her a slut, a tramp...and a lot of other names not exactly glowing with praise. He (and her mother, to an extent) made it clear that no matter what happened, nobody would ever believe her. The first time he'd really hit her, she was 14. She mouthed off to him while he was getting ready for his job (back when he had one.) Tony ripped his belt off and whipped her across the stomach. The leather had pierced the skin and left a bruise for weeks. He simply told her to hide it or it would get worse for her.
So it went on. Tessa would get pissed, say something and he'd hit her somewhere it could be hidden. But she didn't scream. She never let him hear how much it hurt. **** him. Tessa could see the frustration in his face. He wasn't getting what he wanted. She promised herself, he never would.
Simon stood behind her as the elevator made its slow ascent to the penthouse. She could feel his eyes on her and for once she felt safer because of it.
"You gonna be okay?" He asked.
Tessa breathed in through her nose and glanced back. She plastered a cocky smile on her face for his benefit. "Nothing I can't handle."
"How bad is this going to cost you?"
Tessa stared ahead, that confident facade crumbling. "I don't know."
"Well, I'm here." He assured her. It wasn't that she didn't appreciate the sentiment, she just didn't particularly cling to hope that it would make any kind of difference.
The doors slid open, revealing the hallway to those big wooden doors. Suddenly, her feet seemed to weigh a ton and every step closer was a struggle. Simon could tell her all the reassuring tough guy platitudes he wanted, but eventually he would be gone and it would just be the three of them. If her mother wanted him gone, he'd be gone. With a police escort if she so chose.
No, this wasn't going to be his fight in the end. Just as it hadn't been all those other nights she'd swallowed her pain until Tony was gone and cried herself to sleep.
It took all she had to push that door open. Tessa steeled herself, drawing every last bit of that false bravado as she stepped inside. Mary stood at the big window overlooking the city, a cigarette in her hand. If she heard anything, she didn't show it. Suddenly the room felt like a minefield.
"Great," she thought, "how long before she goes off?"
Mary dropped the smoldering cigarette and stamped it out. Tessa could see the rage coursing through her stiff body, mixed with, no doubt, copious amounts of wine.
"I suppose you both thought that was terribly clever." She said, that vicious edge to her voice.
Tessa decided she wasn't giving into it. Let her play her power game. The girl knew she was in the right. "I'm going to bed."
"No!" Mary snapped, turning on her heel. She looked ragged, angry. She was like an animal, ready to lash out. "You're going to stand right ****ing there and you're going to tell me who the **** you think you are."
Tessa's jaw dropped, a disbelieving laugh escaping her. "Who I think *I* am? I'm Tessa Goddamn Bradley! Who the **** are you, you raggedy, talentless parasite?!"
Mary took a step towards her hissing through clenched teeth. Simon stepped in front of the girl, a barrier between her and her mother. Mary stopped dead in her tracks. She could see the look in him eye. He was not going to let her anywhere near her daughter.
The older woman glared up at him. "And you. The big, bad protector. You think you get to ignore my orders and keep this gig? You're an employee *** hole. You're to do what you're told. When I say do, you ****ing do."
Simon locked eyes with her, he didn't hit women if he could help it, but if she put her hands anywhere near the girl, all bets were off. "Guess again."
Footsteps came from down the hall, Tessa's stomach doing a barrel roll. Even the sound of his footsteps sounded drunk. "There you are, you little bitch! Where the **** you been?"
"Piss off, you lush." Tessa managed.
Tony looked at her, bleary eyed for a moment. She could smell the whiskey on his breath from there. "What'd you just say to me?"
The girl's fists clenched and she readied herself. "I said, Piss. O-"
He snarled and lunged toward her, but Simon intervened, grabbing him by the collar and driving him back up against the wall, hard.
"Big man." Simon said in a predatory tone. "Want to try taking a swing at me?"
Tony broke free and threw a wild punch. Simon ducked it and immediately gave him a shot to the gut, knocking the wind from him with that mangled, rock hard fist.
Mary immediately shrieked. "Get off him!"
Tessa rushed over to Simon, grabbing him and pulling him back. "Simon! Don't!"
Tony looked like he was ready to try again despite barely being able to breathe.
"Come on!" Simon challenged him as he was pulled away.
"I'm calling the cops!" Mary shouted. "You're fired, you white trash piece of ****!"
"Mom! Please!" Tessa pleaded. "Hang up the phone! Simon!"
He barely seemed to register her, so she gave him a shake. "SIMON!"
Finally, his eyes snapped back to her. She looked him straight in the eye. "This won't help me. I need you to go."
"No." He growled.
She couldn't have loved him more in that moment. She wished he would stay and protect her from these rotten people. But he just made things worse with this. When he did go, it would be amplified tenfold.
"Please." She said softly. "Just go."
Simon looked from her to Tony and shook his head. Tessa's hand took him by the jaw and made him look at her. "Yes. I need you to go. Now."
She could see the turmoil in his eyes. She really did feel for him. The girl tried to tell it all with a look. "It's okay. I'll deal with it. It'll be okay."
He didn't calm, but he acquiesced. "He lays a hand on you, a single finger..."
Tessa smiled up at him. There wasn't much hope in the smile, but it was filled with appreciation. "I know. Go."
It took a moment, but eventually, he started backing away. Tony clutched his gut, staring daggers. "Yeah, walk away, you cheap shotting cuck! Go back to the gutter!"
"And don't come back!" Mary joined in.
But Simon kept his eyes on Tessa. She knew she only had to say the word and he'd let loose with the Simon Toews of old. "Go." She mouthed.
She knew how this would end. She just didn't count on how painful it would feel. Once again, she was alone. That night would go on, and the pain would continue. Only this time, the drunk bastard didn't need to hide it. When it was over and she lay battered and bloody , part of her wanted to call Simon. Get him here to wipe Tony, her mother and this whole ****ing nightmare out of existence...but it wasn't his fight.
This was hers. And , though she felt beaten, Tessa was not broken.
The roar of the crowd could be heard from the cages. The kids were stuffed in there, and a grim demeanor swept over all. Simon's body was wracked with pain from the beating he'd received, and the panicked confusion at what was happening.
The door creaked open, the kids all cowering as two burly men forced their way into the crowded room. The two of them looked over the throng.
"Two." One said to the other.
There was general panicked murmurs as they all tried to make themselves small. Except for a few. They were the ones who lived for this. Hardened fighters who saw the only freedom they had in these fights.
They moved through them, touching the shoulder of one of the meek young ones. The kid immediately started bawling and trying to escape as he was dragged off. Simon's heart pounded against his chest as the men moved further in.
They were coming for him. He just knew it. The hand reached out for him. He clamped his eyes shut and waited for the inevitable.
But it didn't happen. Instead he felt someone from behind push past him. A bigger kid that looked like he'd seen more than his fair share of fights. Maybe it wasn't his time. Not yet.
"You need to stay small." The familiar voice behind him muttered quietly.
Simon turned to find Anna, fading back into the shadow as best she could. Try as she might, , the brilliant mess of red hair gave her away.
"I did." He replied.
"Really?" She said, annoyed. "You looked them in the eye. That's the dumbest thing you can do. You might as well send up a flare and yell 'pick me, pick me.'"
He wasn't sure why the rush of embarrassment rushed through him just then, but he could feel the burning in his face.
"They're gunning for you." She said, a thousand yard stare directed through the locked door. "You embarrassed Stills the other day. You get in that ring and he'll make sure you hurt. Bad. Probably put you up against one of the bigger kids."
Simon felt the need to act tough. Whether it was genuine or if he just wanted to impress her, he couldn't say. "I can take care of myself."
He felt her hand grab his shoulder and yank him around hard. The girl was strong. "Listen, you dumb bastard! I'm trying to save your stupid little life! You have no idea what's in store for you. You think you're tough because you landed a lucky punch? They will beat you into the ground and leave you mangled and bloody. And then...then it gets worse."
There was a distant look in her green eyes that sent a chill through him. Anna had seen true horrors in her young life. Horror he could not imagine. Before he could enquire further, the roar of a crowd flooded in, the doors opening and a limp, battered body dragged along. The burly man carrying him tossed the unconscious kid in a corner like a sack of potatoes.
Anna got low, keeping her eyes to the ground, so Simon followed suit, his eyes on her tattered, filthy sneakers.
"Round two, mongrels!" The man shouted. Simon heard the clang of the cell opening and almost flinched. Whimpers resounded as the adult pushed through the group, looking for their next fighters.
A laugh that sent chills up his spine came just before he heard "You."
For a moment he was certain his time had come. But the hand didn't touch him. He allowed himself to calm as he heard someone move through the crowd of children to go into the ring. One of the bigger, more aggressive kids, he was certain. God help his opponent. He dared let his eyes flick up to Anna. It was as if she could sense his gaze. She turned those bright green eyes up to him, and offered the barest hint of a smile.
But it suddenly faded, replaced with...something else. She quickly looked away. Before the confusion could fully set in, a rough hand jerked him back around. The big man sneered down at him. "Yeah. Stills is gonna love this. You'll do nicely."
Simon's heart seemed to stop. As he was being dragged forward, he panicked, trying to resist against the much stronger man. "You better knock that **** off before I get angry kid!" He snarled.
Simon reared back and spat right in his face. The backhand that followed took the young boy off his feet and had him stumbling into the others. His face stung and his eyes were a bit blurry when he was put into a headlock and dragged out toward the arena. He clawed and pulled to no avail, stopping only after catching eyes with Anna. She looked sad and a bit defeated, giving the slightest shake of her head.
Then, he just stopped, watching her slowly disappear into shadows.
The roar was deafening, the sudden flood of bright lights disorienting. Simon found himself tossed aside onto the ground, dirt puffing up in a cloud around him and into his mouth. His ribs ached as he coughed it up. The dazed boy looked around, men and women in suits, the rich and powerful, all surrounded him, cheering and blood thirsty. It took him a moment to gather his bearings as he pushed himself up onto his feet. He could see the splatters of blood all around the ring from the previous fight. Distantly, he wondered if the boy they'd brought back had been alive at all.
The thought was short lived as he beheld his opponent. The kid had him by 9 inches and probably about 30 lbs. Scars littered his shirtless body. This wasn't some scared welp. This was a pubescent gladiator. He stared at Simon with a burning hatred the young man had never known before. It was almost enough to make him turn tail and run.
Stills walked around the caged-in arena, holding a cordless microphone. "Ladies and Gentlemen! We have a fresh face in the pit tonight!"
The high-priced lowlives all screamed in excitement, holding fistfuls of money like Simon had never seen.
"Let's give a warm welcome...to SIMON!"
Again, that crowd roared.
"And in the other corner. You know him, you love him...Nicholas: The SKULL SPLITTER!" The cheer that erupted was loud enough it hurt Simon's ears. He winced and backed into his corner, desperately looking for a way out. The entire arena was caged in with razorwire wrapped around the top.
"You know the rules, folks. And what are they?" Still rose a fist, prompting them all to shout "NO. RULES!"
Simon turned and grabbed the chainlink fencing and pounded for all he was worth. "HELP! PLEASE! GET ME OUT OF HERE!"
He knew it was futile. He could see in their eyes this just enticed them further. No, he would not find salvation here. These weren't decent people. These were privileged, sick animals. They wanted blood. His blood.
It was only the rising cacophony that alerted him to his approaching opponent. The older boy lunged, grabbing for him, but Simon managed to duck away, backpedaling quickly. He held his hands up to Nicholas. "Please! Please don't!"
The older boy stalked toward him, a predatory look in his eyes. If he felt any sort of pity, it did not show. Simon was screwed. The only thing he decided he could do was try and run. Climb out where maybe the razor wire had a gap. He turned to do exactly that, but found a hand gripping tight to his hair. Simon's head snapped back as he was yanked by Nicholas. He could feel strands ripping out from his scalp, his body falling helplessly to his back.
The boy they called "Skull Splitter" quickly straddled him and grabbed his throat. Simon wriggled and struggled, trying in vain to pry the stronger hands from around his neck. White bursts of light flashed in his eyes as his brain was deprived of oxygen, his eyes bulging from their socket. In a last ditch effort, he clenched a fist and threw a blind punch. Knuckles connected with throat and Nicholas' grip on him loosened. Young Simon gripped his attacker and shoved him off to one side of him, coughing and sputtering as he tried to crawl away.
But the older boy was not out yet. He jumped onto Simon's back and gripped him by the hair, smashing the smaller boy's face into the ground again and again and again to thunderous applause. Dirt mingled with blood running from his temple, Simon trying to do everything he could to fight back.
Finally, a closed fist backhand caught Nicholas in the jaw. It hurt Simon almost as much as it hurt his opponent, his hand aching from the impact. Nicholas just got angrier. He pulled the younger boy to his feet and lashed out, jabbing him the face. One. Two. Three. Lighting quick punches that didn't drop him, but kept Simon from holding any sort of ground.
The people surrounding them howled. They were loving this completely one-sided fight. He finally fell back against the fence, clinging to the links to even stay vertical. Nicholas appeared to him in double vision, his head swimming from the beating he was being dealt. The older boy cocked a fist back, ready to deliver an ending blow, just as Simon's vision came back to normal.
Simon ducked away immediately, Nicholas' fist slamming into a pole and letting out a telltale crack that said he would have to learn to be a southpaw for a little bit. Simon moved in quick and threw a punch. It connected with the bigger boy's face, but this time, Simon knew he was hurting more. Agony shot up his arm, his fist feeling like a ball of burning white pain. He clutched his wrist with his free hand, screaming. He'd broken his hand. My god, he'd broken his damn hand!
Nicholas was sent reeling from the blow, but he knew how to take a punch. He turned to Simon, blood trickling out of a fresh cut from his cheek. The younger boy was more concerned with his injured hand than the towering monster before him. Simon looked up just in time for Nicholas' heel to connect with his chest. The smaller fighter was sent flying back into the cage, the back of his head clanging off a pole.
Simon's body crumpled to the ground, exhausted and battered. "Skull Splitter" was on him immediately, kicking him hard in the stomach and chest. Simon tried all he could to ball up to protect himself, but it just was not working. He just lay there, wheezing and groaning until Nicholas had finally had his fill.
His hands shaking, his body in utter agony, Simon tried crawl away to the boo's of the crowd. Nicholas pulled him up onto his knees and held him like a fisherman showcasing his latest catch. They roared in approval.
Simon wanted every last one of them dead. He wanted their lines ended, their empires crushed. He wanted to burn every man and woman in that room to the ****ing ground.
Nicholas' fist connected with his face, Simon's head snapping to one side and jerking back after the blow. It took a moment for the flashing white light that accompanied Simon's pain to go...but then the world just went dark.
Simon lay upon the ground, still breathing but out for the count. He'd gotten the tar beaten out of him...and these people loved it. If it was the last thing he did he'd get even with them. With all of them...especially the man who'd put him there. One day, Falk would pay.
“What the Hell happened?"
Corrine was livid. The one armed woman paced back and forth as Simon sat like a little kid getting chastised by a parent. One moment, she was finishing up some work at the agency and the next she was getting word that not only had Simon been fired, he'd actually attacked Tessa's...well, she wasn't entirely sure what he was,beyond Mary Bradley's boytoy.
Simon knew the deal. No fighting. But Corrine knew how hard he'd been working at changing. Maybe he deserved the benefit of the doubt. Didn't mean she had to like it, of course, but some credit was due. Those brilliant blue eyes turned up to her. The shame in them wasn't from what he'd done to the man. It was the feeling he'd let her down. That was new.
"They were deliberately putting her in danger." He said. "I protected the girl like I was supposed to and they fired me."
"Yeah" Paige's brow cocked. "And when, exactly, did suckerpunching the boyfriend come into play?"
She saw defiance in his eyes when he looked up, sharply. "When he was moving in to hit her."
Corrine balked at him, her brows rising high. "He's hitting her?" She asked incredulously. How the hell dumb were these people that they would risk injury to their meal ticket? She'd met Mary Bradley. The woman was about as warm and cuddly as a rattlesnake, but she certainly LOVED the lifestyle that girl's talent provided for her.
"He bragged about it to me the day I met him. I made it pretty damn clear what would happen if he ever did." There wasn't a word strong enough to describe the hatred Simon had for that man. "He's a predator. He got less than he deserved."
Corrine sat beside him, finger and thumb to the bridge of her nose. There was a small part of her that still didn't quite believe him. But the rational part had met Tony, and he seemed every bit capable of what Simon described. Plus...it WAS kind of the tattooed mess's MO.
"We need to get her out of there." Simon said.
"You get the girl to come forward, sure." Paige said. "You think you can manage that?"
Simon grimaced. He'd seen that look in her eye. It was one he'd had in the past. This foolish idea that only the weak reported abuse. The strong survived it and turned it on their abusers. Tessa Bradley was not one to ask for a savior. She was in control of her own destiny, her own survival. She would handle her parents in her own way.
"That might not be so easy."
"Then we may be **** outta luck." Paige said grimly.
Darkness had enveloped him. The world went away. He'd been beaten, and badly. Consciousness was slow to return, but with it, was pain. Every bit of him ached, the sharpest pain in his hand. It was cold and damp in the cell, the concrete floor harsh and uncomfortable. It was the cold rag on his face that fully brought him to.
Panic filled his bloodshot eyes, red like and ink stain around the bright blue iris. The result of a burst blood vessel. Simon had to squeeze his eyes closed to shut out the blinding light from above.
"Easy." Anna said, wiping his forehead gently with the rag. "Just relax. You took a pretty good beating."
Simon's eyes eventually adjusted, taking her in. She had scrapes and bruises and her knuckles were scabbed over and red, but for the most part, the girl looked fine. Those red locks pulled back in a loose ponytail that left a few strands hanging.
"Are you okay?" He croaked out reaching his good hand toward her face. The girl shied away and brushed his hand aside.
"I'm fine." she insisted, a hint of impatience in her voice that took him aback. He didn't have much time to consider it, though. A stabbing pain tore through his arm distracted him as he tried to move.
"It's broken." She told him. "Try not to move it too much."
"I don't think that's going to be a problem." He responded wryly.
Anna didn't so much as crack the slightest grin. Her mind was elsewhere at that moment. Simon watched her wash her hands in a bowl The everpresent sadness within the girl was hard to miss, but even in those moments, she was still kind to him.
"Thank you." He said quietly. "For taking care of me."
She froze a moment, her entire body tensing. Anna refused to make eye contact. "Don't." She muttered, scrubbing harder. "Don't thank me."
"But, if it weren't for you, I don't think I'd survive this." He said, wincing as he sat himself up.
"You won't." She said. "And if I was REALLY doing you a favor? I'd have put that pillow over your head while you were asleep. You think it's bad now? Because you got a few broken bones? You have no ****ing clue."
His battered brow furrowed in confusion. "Then why?"
"Because you're weak." Her voice took on a disgusted, annoyed edge. "And I don't need your death on my conscience. Not if I can do something about it. Not yet."
"You're...pitying me?" Somehow, that hurt more than his bruised and beaten body.
"Good a word as any."
He didn't know what else to say. Or if there was anything else to say. He just blinked and lowered his eyes.
Once again, the clank of the cell door called their attention away. Anna had the look of prey in the presence of a predator as a figure stepped into the room. Simon's eyes were still struggling to adjust and he couldn't quite make out the man. Not until...that voice.
Calm. Easy. Just the hint of an accent he couldn't place. "Anna? It's time."
Falk. He'd never forget that voice. One day he swore he'd hear it beg him for mercy. Mercy that it would not receive.
Anna closed her eyes and took in a deep, bracing breath. She pushed herself up onto her feet and made her way over with as much dignity as she could muster.
Simon looked from Falk to her and back, panic meeting with a sense of inevitable dread. "Wait. Anna, where are you going?"
She didn't answer. Didn't look back.
"Anna!" He called after her trying to get to his feet. His legs were still too weak, and pain ran wild through his body. He collapsed onto the ground with a yelp.
Falk gently placed a hand on Anna's back, guiding her out toward the corridor, watching as she was escorted away by Falk's men.
Falk stood silent, his back to Simon. His suit was immaculate, his dark beard and hair perfectly coiffed. Simon glared up at him, propped on his one good hand.
"Where are you taking her?" He snarled.
Falk glanced back, staring at him. He gave a little whistle and a lackey came up with a folding chair, brushing past him and setting it up near the wounded boy. Falk put his hands in his pockets and ambled on over, taking a seat. He leaned forward, elbows propped upon his knees, keen eyes studying the boy.
Simon felt like an animal in a zoo. Trapped.
"How is your hand?" Falk asked as if he gave a rat's ass.
"Where did you take Anna?" He said with as low a growl as his young voice could muster.
Falk continued on as if he hadn't heard. "They tell me it will be some time before it's properly healed."
"WHERE IS SHE?!" Simon demanded, trying not to wince at the sudden stab of pain in his ribs.
Falk eyed him like a disappointed parent. "Manners. We'll have to work on manners."
"**** your manners. Why are you doing this?"
Falk pulled his lips between his teeth, controlling his own temper before again addressing the boy.
" I am simply a broker, boy. Do you know what a broker is, Simon?" He asked patiently. "A broker provides things of value to those who are in a position to request his services. My clientele have...particular demands. I fulfill their needs in exchange for my own payment."
"By pitting children against one another? You're a monster."
Falk quietly sniffed a laugh. "Don't be naive. There are no such things. There are just people. People with desires and needs. It is not my place to judge them, just as it is not my place to deny them."
"You're killing us. We're only kids!" Simon argued.
Falk regarded him curiously, his brow furrowing. "Let me tell you a story, Simon."
The boy clearly didn't want to listen, he just glared. Falk went on, nonetheless.
"When I was a boy, I lived in a small village in Istovia. Not a town of much importance, just a little hamlet right in the middle of nowhere. The first 8 years of my childhood were happy. Typical, storybook fare. My father would take me hunting, camping...generally, a good man. But when I turned 8, there was a revolution. The Separatists overthrew our government, and began hunting down those who dissented. My father was one of them. When they arrived that winter with their tanks and their guns, we fled into the woods with nothing but the clothes on our backs and a rifle. We were nearly frozen to death every night, scarcely daring to light a fire lest they see us. They hunted us like dogs for a month before they finally caught up. Mother did not survive. A bullet to the back of her neck brought her down. When I tried to rescue her, my father dragged me away. It took him hitting me in the face to calm me. I can still feel the tears freezing to my cheeks."
Falk inhaled deeply, lost in the memory. "'Never show them, Jakob.' he told me. 'Never let them know they've hurt you. Your tears will not help. They will not bring your mother back.'"
Once again those green eyes settled on Simon, back in the present.
"Father became ill after that, coughing blood every night into his handkerchief. He lasted only two weeks. One night, I tried to wake him when a patrol came near, but he had died in his sleep, his eyes wide open and lifeless when I turned him over. So, I took my father's rifle and I ran. I ran until my lungs felt on fire, but they were still coming for me. So I climbed a tree and I waited. When they came into the clearing, I took aim with my rifle...and one-by-one, I killed them. Then, I was alone again. I've never known a chill so harsh as that year's winter. I spent months in that forest, hunting them as they hunted me, killing as I went, taking shelter where I could. Frostbite took two of my toes by the end, and I'd been shot 3 times, always scraping by and surviving by the skin of my teeth. When the spring came and the snow went away, so, too, had the patrols. The revolution had ended and the Separatists were, themselves, overthrown and executed. I was 9 years old. A child, but not anymore. I was a survivor and I was stronger for it. And so, too will you be...if you have the will."
Simon stared at him, finally he'd gotten to the point. It did little to quell the disgust for the man.
"I learned as a child that my blood could spill just as easily as an adult. Age is merely a number of little consequence. Life is a privilege meant for the strong. It must be earned and the weak do not survive because they do not *deserve* to. One day, hopefully, you will understand that." Falk said, rising from his seat, folding it shut and walking toward the cell door.
As the guard let him out, the older man turned to face Simon. "Rest. Recover. This is just the beginning."
Falk took his leave then, the guard locking the door behind him. Simon lay there, the words of Anna and Falk both echoing in his head. Anna had called him weak, and maybe she was right. He HAD been weak. Scared. Emotionally dependent upon her. In that moment, he swore to himself he never would be again. He would earn his right to live.
Simon sat outside the highrise, waiting for his new client to come down and meet him. Some bigshot CEO, he'd been told. That world never really interested him, outside of the paycheck, but a gig was a gig. It had been weeks since the blow out with Tessa's parents. Corrine pulled some serious strings to get him here. Part of him considered taking the generous chunk of money Tahlia had kicked his way and live off that for a while...but two weeks without work and he was going stir crazy.
Simon wasn't a "sit around the house" kind of guy. Part of him missed life on Virgil's farm. The routine had done him a world of good when he'd needed it most. He rearranged the condo twice before Corrine got home and tore him a new one. He'd never admit it, but if we was honest, he spent most of that time looking for any information on Tessa. He saw that she had tour dates, so she must have healed up since that night. Simon couldn't get her off his mind. He felt responsible, as if he'd abandoned her. It ate at him every second he wasn't occupied with something else. The day Paige told him about the new job was a gift. The sentiment would not last.
The client exited the building. He was tall, in decent shape. Not a single salt and pepper colored hair was out of place. His impeccably tailored black suit accented with a red power tie. Simon could see him talking before he heard him, yacking away into the Bluetooth headset on his ear. On first sight, Simon could tell he didn't like this guy. Just the way he moved reeked of an excess of unearned confidence.
The client yanked open the door and slipped in without so much as a "Hello."
"Triton Corp.". He said. "123rd and Gale. Radio off."
Like he was a ****ing cab driver. Simon eyed him in the rearview with silent disdain, images playing through his head of dragging the man out of the car and beating him to a pulp, but he just reached over and turned to volume down to zero. The man went right back to talking way too loudly to the person on the other end. Simon summoned up every last bit of patience he had and put the car in drive.
For a half an hour he listened to every racist, misogynistic, homophobic and braggadocious thing this jerk off said, hating him more and more by the second. Simon was actually grateful the son of a bitch barely spared him a glance, let alone a word.
To say the rest of the ride was in silence would be inaccurate, with the client bragging to whoever was on the other end of that call about some hooker he'd ****ed. Simon couldn't help but notice the wedding band around his finger then, the bile rising again. Flashes of men he'd known in his past came in waves. Vicious, soulless men who never quite left his mind. Their faces forever etched upon his being, haunting his dreams. That he was now forced to protect one of them made him sick to his stomach. Suddenly, Tessa Bradley was a breath of fresh air in comparison.
The day went on, Simon playing chauffeur to his deplorable client. Running into convenience stores and getting his food for him, the urge to quit rising by the second. But he needed the work. Grin and bear it, he decided. And if all else fails...just lock him in the car and drive it in the river!
He was forced to escort the man to some meeting with other such bigwigs, but was not allowed in the room. He wound up sitting in the waiting room, alone with the secretary. Pretty girl with auburn hair done up in a professional, tight bun. Ice blue eyes kept flicking his way. Whether it was out of nervousness or intrigue, he couldn't tell. Simon was aware of the positives and negatives of his appearance and his effect on other people. Some women saw a tough, sexpot. Others saw a possible danger that was more likely to be escorted by cops than leave of his own volition. He just offered that mildly bemused little smile and nodded her way whenever he caught her.
The secretary forced a polite smile and went back to work, burying her head in her typing. Simon watched her out of the corner of his eye a moment.
"You like working here?" He asked her, disliking the silence.
She looked up, almost startled, her brows rising upwards. "Hm?"
"Working for these guys. You like it?"
"Oh..."She said, a bit awkwardly, glancing back toward the door. "Uh...yeah. It's got its moments."
That amused little smirk crossed his face. He could tell she was lying. "Does it?"
For a moment she looked unsure, almost offended. She went to speak, but the words didn't come. Instead, a little grin came over her features.
"I gotta tell ya," he said "If it's half as fun as my job, I'm thinkin' you and me should go halfsies on lobotomies."
A little chuckle left her, but she immediately tried to suppress it, lest they somehow magically were listening.
"Guy's a ****in' nightmare..." Simon chuckled. "What's your name?"
"Bridgette." She said, visibly relaxing a bit.
"Simon." He said, hand to his chest.
"What do you do, Simon? Personal assistant?"
"Bodyguard." He responded.
Those blue eyes of her's ran over him and she nodded. "Yeah. That makes sense."
"Yeah?" Simon said wryly. "Tell him that. ****er thinks I'm his goddamn go-fer."
Bridgette glanced back at the door a moment and leaned forward conspiratorially. "To be honest, they're all like that." She said with a roll of her eyes. "I swear, another one of them walks by and stares at my chest like they're the damn stock market, I think I'm going to scream."
Simon grinned and nodded. "What is this place? What do...uh...what do they do?"
"Oh. We oversee a lot of the trade coming into and out of the city. Or...they do, I suppose." She muttered.
"But not you?" He said.
"I fetch them coffee and bring them papers." She practically pouted.
"Not the dream job." He nodded.
"No. Not at all." she grimaced.
"Well, sister. I feel your pain." He said standing up from that Italian leather chair and started toward a cubby hole in one corner of the room, stopping and glancing her way. "Coffee?"
There was a moment of panic in Bridgette's face then. "Oh. Um...you-" she glanced back at the door. "I should really be getting that for you."
Simon made a face. "Come on. Old friends like us? I can do you a solid." he joked.
"No. I could get fired." She said firmly. It stopped Simon in his tracks. "I shouldn't even be talking to you like this."
Simon frowned. What a life they lead. Terrified of losing something they hated. Part of him thought he would have been better off if he did. As much as the world put forth the idea that people are all in control of their own destinies, he knew better. Men like his client, like her employer...they had real power. They had sway. Simon could take a life, end it quick, but these men could take a livelihood. Bleed people out until they had nothing. Make them wish they were dead.
The door opened and the businessmen filed out talking and laughing loudly, making sure everyone could hear how clever and hilarious they weren't. Bridgette immediately ducked down and went back to typing. The client didn't even address him upon exiting, just walked right past him. It was a nigh imperceptible glance, but he caught a look from her. Wordlessly, they said to each other "Good Luck."
The road to recovery didn't last nearly long enough for Simon's liking. Before he knew it, he was on his feet again. Every Saturday, they would be loaded up into trucks and taken away to a new fight. Simon stuck on the sidelines, watching.
Anna had withdrawn from him in the weeks that followed his discussion with Falk. He tried to engage her, ask her what happened, but she just rolled over and turned her back to him, refusing to even speak. Eventually, he took the hint and backed off.
If they time did anything for him, it gave him perspective on the other kids and the way they fought. He analyzed their habits, their strengths, formulating plans should he face them. Because plans ALWAYS survived in combat, right?
He lay on the cold, dirty ground, asleep when he could manage. But even the whispers of the others woke him. He heard the name "Anna" and it piqued his interest. Slowly, cautiously, he peered over through slit eyelids. Two of the bigger boys stood over her sleeping form. She didn't work, didn't fight anymore. The head guard issued threats that they would all be punished if she continued her refusal, but it didn't seem to phase her.
"I think she's asleep." one of them said to the other.
"Good. It'll be easy, then." Simon knew the voice. Nicholas had put him out of commission for weeks and now it seemed he wanted to do the same to Anna. The taller boy reared back ready to stomp Anna's face in. But he wasn't paying attention to what was happening behind him.
Simon caught him from the side, the full weight of his body slamming into Nicholas' waist and taking him down. The older boy caught unaware, Simon managed to climb up and straddle his torso. He brought back that still-healing fist and just started punching. Something inside of him must have dulled the pain, because he hit and hit and hit as hard as he could while his opponent sputtered blood and flailed about in a panic.
The other kid's arms wrapped around his chest, pulling Simon off of Nicholas. His bloodied nemesis began to rise, but Simon kicked out both feet, connecting with the boy's face and sending him careening back, his head cracking loudly against the concrete.
His new attacker, threw an arm across his throat, Simon struggling and clawing to get some air. But the boy just gripped harder, Simon's eyes beginning to bulge as it started to get dark. He tried to jab backwards with a few thrown elbows, but they were inconsequential. His limbs weakened and his body began to sag. God knew what they'd do to him while he was out. Were he more present of mind, he might actually be able to worry about it.
Suddenly, the grip loosened. Anna kicked out the boy's knee from one side. She grabbed him by the head as he dropped, and kneed him hard in the face, knocking him onto his back. Simon coughed and struggled to regain his breath. His eyes widened as he saw Nicholas approach from behind. He tried to shout, but the words didn't come out.
Anna struggled against the stronger kid to little avail. She shrieked like a wild animal, so he tried to clamp a hand over her mouth. The girl immediately bit into his hand, hard as she possibly could, drawing blood along with a scream. As soon as his grip loosened, she threw her head back, cracking him in the face. Anna tore free from his grasp, whipped around and grabbed a handful of hair, holding his head in-place while she punched him in the face again and again and again. His blood ran down her chin and sprayed on her with every impact of her fist.
Finally, Nicholas was able to get his arms around her waist and tackle her to the ground, making use of his weight advantage. Anna clawed as best she could at his face, but he knocked her arms aside. Before he could do anything else Simon launched himself through the air and slammed into him, bringing him down to Anna's side. Simon beat on his face as hard as he could, hitting him over and over again. He was out for payback. He was out for blood.
"What the **** is *this*?!" A booming voice rang out. Stills lumbered into the cell, shoving the other kids aside. Simon didn't stop. He was going to get as many hits in as he could before the inevitable came. He cocked back his fist to throw another punch, but Stills grabbed him from behind and dragged him off of the unconscious, bloodied Nicholas.
"Goddammit, boy, you just don't ****in' learn, do ya?" Anna was on pure adrenaline, running over and trying to grab her friend out of the big man's grasp. She clawed and punched and kicked, doing little more than annoying him.
"Oh, you want to join him, sweetheart?"
Stills hauled off and back handed her to the ground, and threw Simon into the wall. Simon took the blow and turned ready to attack. Stills pointed at him, the boy stopping in his tracks. "You calm the **** down and don't ****in' move!"
Still looked over the mess Anna and Simon had left of the two boys, running a hand through his thinning hair. "Jesus Christ. Look at this ****." He muttered, shaking his head. "Vincent! Eddie! I need a hand here."
Simon and Anna watched as the two men came in dragging the unconscious boys from the room, a little grin offered to each other. Stills stopped at the cell door and turned to the two of them pointing. "You little pricks want to fight, you do it in the ****in' ring! I see this **** again, and I'm putting you both through the ****in' wall! Clean yourselves up!"
The door slammed shut with a clang.
Anna was a mess, covered in blood and sporting a fresh bruise where she'd been backhanded by Stills, but there was a big smile on her face.
The client's assistant called Simon at 7 am, waking him from a dead sleep. He was to accompany the businessman to a gala event that evening. Great. He'd get to spend the evening with the obscenely wealthy and people just like or worse than his client. One was bad enough, this sounded like a wide-awake nightmare.
Still, he took in a breath and confirmed that he would be there. The phone hung up, he ran his hands down his face before brushing one through his short-cropped hair. With a deep cleansing breath, he pushed up off his bed. Living with Paige had him keeping the room damn near spotless. A far cry from his old place, an abandoned factory in the industrial district. That place was a bit of a hole. It looked better now that it was burned down, Simon often joked.
He shuffled out, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, making his way down the hall toward the main living area. Corrine sat at the table, flicking through the news on her iPad, giving him a glance as he entered. "Mornin'." she greeted him. "Coffee's on the pot."
"Thanks." Simon said, a bit groggy. "You need breakfast?"
"You makin' breakfast?" She smirked back. The months they'd lived together had developed an easy, mellow routine for the two of them. They were comfortable with each other, and Paige would never admit it, but she appreciated having the company.
"Yeah, what the hell?" He shrugged and started gathering the accoutrements for the meal. "That guy called."
"Yeah." Simon muttered unhappily. "Guess who gets to hang out with the rich and powerful tonight."
Paige snickered. "Oh, you'll love that."
"****in' nightmare." Simon shook his head. "I swear. This gig lasts much longer, I'm going to boot this dude out the door in the middle of a bad neighborhood."
Corrine glanced up from her iPad, an unamused look in her eyes. "Toews. Don't you **** this up. I'm warning you."
"Come on." Simon complained. "He's a dick."
"He's a wealthy, powerful dick who can shut us down if you **** with him. So, for me...just deal for now. Please." She pleaded sternly. "Besides, you make more contacts tonight, and maybe we might be able to find you something better."
He didn't like it, but his options weren't exactly in abundance. "You're gonna owe me somethin' fierce for this." Simon told her.
Paige looked at him like he MUST have lost his mind, a derisive laugh leaving her. "Yeah, we'll take it out of the massive pile of debt you currently owe me, Toews."
(Cw: sexual assault)
Fighting became a way of life. Together, Anna and Simon would spar whenever they could, honing their skills, readying themselves for the inevitable call to the ring. Through the hell and misery of life under Falk's ownership, the sparring sessions became the highlight of their days. At least it was something to keep their minds off of the reality in which they lived, an escape where they had control over something.
Fight night came every week and week after painful, brutal week, Simon was on the losing end. He spent more time getting patched up than.any one person should. But he found, as time went on, he was getting in more and more hits, dealing more and more of his own punishment to his opponents. He was becoming stronger, more resilient. The bigger kids were slowly, but surely becoming less and less big.
Tonight, though...the losing streak came to an end.
His opponent was about his size. A tough-looking boy with his short hair shaved into a mohawk. He probably had a name, but Simon didn't care to learn it. He tried not to anymore. He was just "Mohawk". For 15 minutes the pair of them wrestled and grappled, punched and kicked, each trading the upper hand back and forth. Finally, in an exhausted moment between the lunges, Simon saw his opening. Through the blood,sweat and pain, he reached out, grabbed Mohawk by the shoulders and drove his knee into the boy's stomach. The air rushed out like a rapidly deflating balloon, but Simon never gave him a moment to recover. He immediately began a torrent of jabs to his opponent's face,pushing him back, back, back into the cage. Left followed right, then doubled up randomly so Mohawk couldn't see the pattern.
Finally, Simon drew himself low, and with every last bit he had threw a vicious uppercut, connecting with the kid's jaw. Mohawk's head snapped back and he went still. For a terrifying moment, Simon thought it had landed with no consequence. But then, he crumbled, hitting the ground with a resounding thud.
The boy lay on the ground, an unconscious heap of limp, broken meat.. Silence settled over the crowd for what felt like an eternity, and was then shattered when the crowd erupted in shouts and cheers. Simon stood stunned, staring at the results of his victory. As much as he hated these people, this whole situation...he found himself overcome with a rush of pride and adrenaline. The roar of the crowd filled him with something he would spend years trying to replicate. He'd tasted victory and he loved it.
He was ushered away by some of Falk's big goons, swept up in the idea that, for once, he wasn't being dragged in a beaten, bloody mess. The kids all waited in the cage, muttering to each other in surprised tones. They all looked excited and impressed...except for Anna. Simon's grin fell when they made eye contact as he was taken past the cages. There was something grim and forlorn there. Something knowing and painful. He kept his eyes on her as they moved onto the next room, the sad face of his only friend fading off into the distance as the joy and thrill of victory slowly drained from him.
The shower they let him take was heaven. Warm water, soap, even a clean towel when he was done. A fresh set of clothes lay in wait. If these were the perks of victory, he could get used to it. But the image of Anna's expression refused to leave.
He'd come to know Dr. Comstock well I'm all of his losses. The good doctor was never without a cigarette hanging from his lips. A craggy-faced man with white hair in his fifties, he had that raspy voice that stood at odds with a disarming, pleasant demeanor. He was one of the few people he didn't actively hate. The doctor patched him up, bandaging his wounds. "I saw your match." He said. "Very well done."
Simon couldn't help the smile that came. "Thanks."
The doctor glanced up at him, a little smirk forming. "Must feel good to walk out of there for a change, huh?" He chuckled.
"Yeah, pretty good." Simon sniffed a laugh despite himself. The doctor finished up with a butterfly bandage and moved to a cabinet, digging through its contents, removing a needle and vial. When he turned , there was something in his eyes that filled Simon with a vague sense of dread.
"What's that?" He asked.
"Just something to calm you." The doctor brushed away his concerns, forcing as convincing a smile as he could muster. "Your arm please?"
Something inside didn't sit right. Warning bells went off in his head, but still he offered his arm to the older man. The doctor tied him off, swabbed his forearm and stuck in the needle. Simon was surprised that the pain from the injection felt like nothing after all he'd been through. When he was finished, Comstock stood and disposed of everything.
"Now, I want you to just relax a bit. You need it, okay?"
Simon nodded as the man left the room. As the seconds ticked by, he found himself unable to focus his eyes, a faint dizziness suddenly rising up in him. The adrenaline wearing off, he thought. It was only when the room began to spin that he realized something was wrong. He attempted to push himself up off the examination table, but his legs immediately gave out and crumpled to the ground. Every sound seemed dulled, like he was hearing it from under water. Even his arms began to weaken and all he could do was lay there, conscious, but paralyzed.
The sound of the door opening reverberated in his head like a distant explosion, making him wince. He barely made out the shape that entered the room. From the low pitch, it had to be a man. The shade picked him up and lay him on the table, panic rushing through his entire body. The shape muttered something he couldn't make out and placed its hands upon him. Suddenly he knew what was about to happen.
The next hour would be a helpless nightmare. He was used, he was violated, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He now understood Anna's defeated, thousand yard stare. He knew where they took her those nights and what they'd done to her. He sank into despair trying to only focus on his empathy for her and not on the horror being inflicted upon him. They took his freedom. They took his innocence. And now, after everything...they had taken his hope. They had finally broken him.
He felt helpless. Weak. Dirty. Even victory now came at a price. The shame was unbearable. Everywhere he went, he was certain everyone knew and everyone was judging. They saw his weakness, his filthiness. He couldn't even look Anna in the eye.
She sat over him, watching as he withdrew into himself, refusing to eat or drink. Refusing even to sleep. She knew his pain all too well. The perverted rich and bored paid top dollar to bed the young "gladiators". Those first few times were soul shattering, but once the hope of salvation went, it became just a part of the whole, messy situation. Hatred filled you, not just for the abusers, but for yourself.
Some embraced it, just to cope. Some couldn't handle it and let it consume them until they just let themselves die. Others, like herself just learned to live with it. Somehow, they forced themselves to survive. To her, there were no other options.
Simon lay there night after night, a despondent lump. Even the slightest affectionate touch made the boy recoil and she withdrew. Letting him have his space.
Anna sat at his side, hugging her knees to her chest, just listening to him breathe. Finally, she stole a glance at his back. "I know it hurts." She said softly. "I know you feel like nothing will ever be good again."
Simon didn't respond.
"I know you want to give up and just let the end come. I wanted the same thing. I wanted to show them they could take everything, but my life would be my own to take." Her voice quivered. "But if I did that...if you do that...they'll just replace you with another. If you wither away...give up...they win. And **** them, Simon. You can't let them have this. You can't. You need to be strong. Even when you feel like you just can't be. If you want to beat them...you need to get back up, look them in the eye, and say 'Is that the best you can do, you cowards?'l
Simon didn't so much as stir.
"And if...". She paused, reconsidering her words. "WHEN you do...I'll be here. Right beside you. To the end. I promise." She said.
"Please, Simon." She whispered. "Don't leave me."
She leaned down and kissed the top of his head, going to move again and give him some space. The last thing she expected was for his hand to grab her's. He didn't look back, but pulled her toward him. Anna didn't fight it, she just slid in behind him, curling up against his back, and held him. His body shook as the tears left him, but she just held tighter, resting her forehead against the back of his. He would survive this, she decided. They both would.
The weeks since Simon's departure from her life were fraught with fear. After she recovered from the aftermath of Tony's abuse, she was assigned a new bodyguard. This one was much more loyal to her mother than Simon. He barely said a word, took her from place to place, and really didn't show much interest beyond collecting his paycheck. She'd tried to form some kind of bond with him, but damned if he ever listened or so much as responded beyond a single word.
When her mother arranged to get her to an invite to a party thrown by some of the most powerful and influential people in the city, it was almost a gift. Anything to get out of that penthouse for a night, even with her disinterested shadow in-tow. She was meant to go, network with some of the bigwigs, and generally do anything to further the Tessa Bradley brand. The attendees were all dressed to the nines, drinking exorbitantly expensive drinks and dining on finer foods than even she had ever had. A live band played quiet, mellow music over the chattering throng of suited old men and dolled up women of influence. Somehow, she got the feeling there wasn't a soul to be found among them.
Tessa had never felt more out of place. The people there largely ignored her, aside from some leering glances from some the old men. The looks that weren't leering were filled with disdain. How she was supposed to network with these people was beyond her. She glanced around the party, craving some manner of excitement or at least mild entertainment. Tessa picked at a plate of caviar, taking a quick taste and immediately wincing at the flavor. Not her kind of food.
"It's disgusting isn't it?" A male voice came from behind.
Tessa glanced over her shoulder finding a younger man standing there, a little older than herself. Something about him reminded her of Simon, be itthe blue eyes, the dark blonde hair, or his ruggedly handsome features. But mostly it was the fact that, though he wore a suit, he seemed like he wore it with a certain amount of disdain. She offered him that winning smile, washing down the caviar with a gulp of water. It was only slightly disingenuous, as she was glad to have SOMEONE around her age to talk to.
"Mm. I can't say I'm a fan." She responded.
He grinned and nodded. "You think they'd kick us out for ordering a pizza?"
"Maybe get a giant sub delivered?" She played along with a smirk.
"As long it's entirely bologna." He added.
Tessa laughed. "But not the good kind. The stuff that comes in the yellow container in the drug store."
The young man chuckled. "I think they'd riot."
Tessa laughed and looked around. "Can you imagine these stuffed suits in a riot? They'd knock over a glass and be all â€˜Alright now, Penelope, let us not get carried away.'"
He laughed in response and offered a hand. The boy clearly worked for a living, from the shape of his hands. A rarity in a crowd like this. "Miles." He introduced himself.
Tessa gingerly took his hand. "Tessa. Tessa Bradley."
Miles sniffed out a little laugh. "Yeah, I know."
"You know?" she said feigning surprise.
"You're kind of a big deal, y'know?" He said.
Tessa's smile faded slightly. "I'm not, really. Not to these people anyway."
"These people still think Elvis is the epitome of popular entertainment." Miles countered, looking around with distaste.
Tessa couldn't help the smile that came to her lips. "Solid point." She was actually enjoying herself, and for once, her shadow was nowhere to be seen. If she didn't dislike him so much, and enjoy talking to miles so much, she might be upset at how s***ty her bodyguard was at his job.
"What do you do, Miles?" She asked, plucking a glass of champagne from a passing tray. Nobody was paying enough attention to care about the underage girl drinking.
"I'm in personal security." He responded, picking a jumbo shrimp from a platter at the table.
"You're a bodyguard?" She suddenly felt like a magnet for men in that line of work.
"Yeah, but Personal Security just sounds a lot fancier." He nodded.
She grinned, bringing the glass to her lips. "You don't strike me as the fancy type."
"I don't? Look at this suit. Probably cost...a hundred dollars!" He said with mock arrogance.
"Ooh-hoo-hooâ€¦.Fancy!" Tessa laughed.
"Damn right. Only the finest JC Penney menswear for this guy." Miles joked.
"Come on. Level with me. You got it off a dead guy." She quipped.
His smile faded as he looked around theatrically, as if he'd been found out. "Tell no one."
Tessa really laughed, that smile 100% genuine for the first time in weeks. She was about to respond when she saw a face, she was sure she'd seen the last of. Simon entered the room behind a man in his 50's. He looked equal parts bored and tired. He very clearly didn't want to be there. For some reason, that felt endearing. He wore his heart on his sleeve and she loved that about the man. Again, she looked around to find no bodyguard and turned to Miles. "Excuse me...I see a friend of mine I'd like to say hi to. You gonna be kicking around here a bit?"
"Unless I want to get fired, yes." He answered, offering that charming grin to her.
"I'll come find you." She promised, starting away.
"I'll make sure nobody takes any of your caviar." He said as if he were being noble.
"Oh, yeah, no. That's alright. Hey! Maybe feed it to the garbage?"
Miles chuckled. "I'll see what I can do."
Flirting had hardly seemed like a possibility for her in this crowd, but there it was. She made her way through the partygoers toward Simon. Her former bodyguard was at the bar, ordering two fingers of scotch. Despite the way everything had ended, she still held a warm place for him in her heart. He'd tried, and that was more than she could say for most people.
"Drinking on the job?" She said, a faux air of judgement in her tone. "Tsk tsk tsk. I expected better of the great Simon Toews."
He slowly turned, the look of annoyance on his face shifting to surprise. "Tessa? What are YOU doing here?" He exclaimed excitedly as she wrapped him in a big hug.
"Ugh. My mom." She rolled her eyes, stepping back. "Said it would be a good place to make â€˜contacts'."
"What, are you starting a fortune 500 company or something now?" Simon asked.
"Oh yeah, you haven't heard? I'm making bad hair pieces for the ultra rich."
Simon looked around catching a few glimpses of bad rugs among the crowd and let out a little laugh. "Business must be booming."
"Hey, denial...river in Egypt and all that." She joked before her expression softened. "How are you?"
"Really?" She quirked an incredulous brow at him.
Simon took one look around, the grin fading. "Uh...no. No, I'm pretty miserable."
"New guy's not as fun as me?" She said with a little pride.
"No, he doesn't quite have your winning personality." Simon said with that mischievous little smirk. "How are you? Things get any better at home?"
Tessa frowned. "Not really. Tony hasn't hit me since that night, but, he's made more than a few threats. And mom isn't doing dick to stop him. They saddled me with this total flatliner. Might as well talk to a wall."
Simon let out a little chuckle. "Not a stimulating conversationalist, huh?"
She crinkled her nose and shook her head. "Not quite. And his taste in music sucks."
"Super into reggae?"
"No, has none. We listen to right wing radio. Very informative." She deadpanned.
Simon cringed. "Oooh...yeah. Not entertaining. He looking after you? I haven't seen a lot of Tessa related riots."
Tessa shook her head, "Word got out that I've got a badass bodyguard who doesn't tolerate that s***. They always give me a secluded exit now."
Simon couldn't help the swell of pride mixing with the sense of loss. If he couldn't protect her in person, at least he could by reputation. "Must piss your mom off."
A wicked little smile crossed her face then. "Livid."
"Good." Simon said. "That woman-"
Simon's face fell, something haunted and horrified in his eyes that she had never seen before. It scared her. "What?"
She glanced behind her, not seeing any obvious threat. When she turned again, he was trembling. Fear had turned to rage, his chest rising and falling rapidly. "Simon?"
He did not respond.
"Simon!" She yelled shaking him. The sound of her shout silenced the room around them. His eyes snapped to her, the ghosts of his past still in his eyes. "Simon, what is it?"
Before he could answer, a voice came from behind. "Hello, Simon." The voice of Jakob Falk uttered softly. "It's been a long time."
Three years passed. Three years of fights and abuse. Three years of blood, broken bones and broken bodies at the hands of the wealthy. Simon learned to internalize it. To retreat within himself when it happened. To shut out the pain and degradation. After three long years, he began to accept that even victory had it's price, and that maybe, it was all he was truly good for.
All through it, Anna remained. When she started to develop, they began to doll her up a little more for the crowd, sexualizing her, even in the brutal violence of the fight. She was an object, a product they were selling. The perceived pampering drove a wedge between her and all of the other kids. All but Simon. It was Simon who cleaned her up after a loss and kept her sane through the victories, just as she had done for him time and again. The pair were a team in the ring and out, always protecting one another. The more they won, the more popular they became. Soon they were winning almost every fight, earning the ire of their peers and the vicious, lustful love of the crowd. The fights were their sanctuary. The one place they could let out their rage and have some manner of control. Everything before and after would be a nightmare, but in the ring, that time was theirs. They lived only for the fight and each other.
Rumors circulated about them amongst the other kids and some of the audience. Some romanticised pile of crap that it was an inspiring, heart-warming tale of young love. The kind of morbid delusion that could only be cooked up by the ignorance of privilege and extreme wealth. They ignored the brutal, vicious reality to attach some made-up narrative to kids who were, in reality their victims. THEY allowed this. This demanded it. Were it not for the crowd, Simon and Anna might be living in foster homes with families who cared for them. Their biggest concerns might be dealing with classes in school instead of worrying about dying in a ring surrounded by the soulless rich. But no. They were clinging to one another simply to survive the hell these people created and perpetuated for them.
The two of them paid it no mind. Rumors weren't exactly a concern for them. However, as time went on, the more desperate they became to escape. Their relative fame put targets on their backs. Some of the other kids made attempts on them in fits of misplaced jealousy. They were met with swift retribution from the two of them. During the day, they did what they were told, towing the line for Stills, but in the dark of night, they conspired. They would whisper their plans as they lay, wrapped close together for warmth as well as comfort. The illusion of safety was everything in those days. Were they wiser, they might have been quieter, or more selective of where they spoke. It was youthful naivete to think they couldn't get caught, and blind dumb luck that it hadn't happened already.
Anna lay on her left hand side, her leg draped across Simon's hip, her head resting on his slowly rising and falling chest. The sound of his breathing relaxed her and often sang her to sleep at night. Her green eyes turned up, glancing at him. He'd become lean, strong, and tough. Scars decorating his body liberally, his fists a busted mess that would never properly heal. A far cry from the boy she'd seen dragged into the cell 3 years ago. She had been certain he wouldn't last a week, let alone 3 years. He'd come in a wad of cookie dough. Now he was carved from granite. Simon was her rock, the one thing she could always count on. The girl didn't quite understand or even think she had the capacity for romantic love, but she felt in that moment that maybe she did love him. Maybe that's all love was, trusting someone and having them trust you through anything. Even through this nightmare life of theirs.
One day, they'd be free of this place. One day, their lives would be their own again. Maybe then, she'd begin to understand. Maybe then, she could figure out what she felt. Until then, Anna lay at his side, safe with Simon.
Tonight was the night. Tonight it would all end. Before her fight he wished her luck and the two clasped hands and wished each other luck as they always did. But this time, she pulled him in, wrapping her arms around him and whispered. "If it goes bad. Don't forget me."
They dragged her off, before she shoved their arms off of her, giving them every bit of attitude a warrior of her stature had earned. "**** off me. I know how to walk, asshole."
With one last glance and a nod, she went off to the ring. As her fight went on, he could hear the crowd. Anna was dominating as she always did. The girl was relentless.
His nerves were on edge. So much rode on his fight. He'd have to end it quickly for it all to work as planned. The sound of cheers told him her fight was over. It wasn't long before they came for him, Stills himself pushing through the crowd for him.
"You ready, kid?" It wasn't a question, Simon knew.
"Point me to him." Simon said, full of bravado.
Stills grinned and nodded approvingly. "You know. You used to be a weak-ass little s***." He pointed at Simon like he was considering something. "But you...Nah....you are a goddamn pitbull, ain't ya."
Simon smirked. "Maybe one day you'll find out."
The burly man laughed and nodded. "Be the last day of your ****in' life, kid."
Simon only rose his brows, as if he was playfully challenging him. A lopsided grin formed on Stills' face. "Let's go."
SImon walked out into the arena. He could have slept walked through the fight. The kid was all balls no brains. He almost felt bad for him, but when it came to tonight, he knew he could only think about himself and Anna. When the kid lay on the ground, battered and bloody, Stills came out and hoisted his arm up in victory, Simon barely sweating and not even breathing heavily.
He knew what would come next. It always did after a fight. An injection to weaken his resolve, though he'd learned to charm the men and women who bought his company. They wouldn't completely knock him out like that first night. Not that it would problem tonight. The sick ****er who bought him would have to go home disappointed.
Guards led him down the hall to Comstock's examination room. The old doctor waiting for him with that ever-present cigarette between his lips. He put on that fake, friendly smile that had lured so many kids into a false sense of safety upon seeing the young fighter.
"Mr. Toews! Good to see you. How'd it go?"
Simon spread his arms out, showing nothing more than a red mark or a blossoming bruise here and there. "Answer your question, Doc?"
Comstock grinned and stubbed out the cig. "Atta boy."
He patted the table beside him. This was business as usual. He had a lot of people fooled, but not Simon. SImon knew exactly what he was. He barely managed the friendly smile in response and walked up, settling in as the doctor went to work with the syringe.
"Tell you what, kiddo. You keep that up, you're gonna be too big a deal for us to keep around here." The doctor said. "I hear 'em talkin' about ya. Got yourself quite a following."
"Yeah?" Simon nodded. "Wouldn't know, myself."
Comstock acted as if he was boosting his confidence. "I'm tellin' ya! You're all the rage out there, so I hear."
SImon eyed that needle a moment, glancing up at that ****ing smiling old face. He hated him. Every smile, every stupid joke and ego stroking line of bulls*** he'd offered before sending Anna and himself and God knew how many kids off to get raped and ruined. Comstock was as bad, if not worse than all of them. He'd once heard Mulcahy say that the greatest evil is perpetrated by those who could stop it and do nothing. Comstock most certainly fit that bill.
"Arm please?" he requested.
Simon's eyes were dangerous even as he looked up to him. If the doctor had been paying attention, he might have noticed it and avoided what came next. He swabbed the injection site with alcohol and tied him off. It seemed like an eternity as the needle came nearer and nearer. Adrenaline flowed wild through the boy's body like a raging river. His heart pounding rapidly beneath his breast.
Before it could touch his skin, Simon lashed out, quick as lightning, grabbing him by the wrist and redirecting the old man's arm. The needle plunged into his jugular and Simon hit the plunger. Shock registered in the old man's eyes as Simon glared into them with blind, vengeful rage.
"You look tired, Doc." Simon snarled at him.
Confusion turned to rage, something he'd never seen in the old man's eyes. "You...little...****!"
SImon kicked him in the chest, knocking him onto the ground. That cocktail was fast working, but SImon grabbed two syringes of it, and straddled his chest. The doc fought back weakly, but the boy managed to knock his attempts aside before jamming them in his neck and injecting him. He stayed there until those eyes went blank and the old man's heart stopped.
FInally, he rose up and moved over to the medical equipment, digging for a weapon before his eyes set upon a scalpel. Outside, the guards waited for the signal to come get him. It was taking longer than usual, but then again, the doctor did like to gab. Finally that knock came. They turned and opened the door, stepping inside.
"Jesus, Doc, you havin' a heart to heart with the-" The guard froze, seeing the doctor laying dead on the floor with two needles in the his neck. "What the fu-"
Before he could finish the sentence, Simon slashed his throat, sending a splatter of crimson against that pristine, white-painted wall. The second guard's eyes widened. This was not supposed to be able to happen. Simon planted his forearm in the man's throat, driving him back into the hallway and stabbing wildly into his belly. When the big guy dropped, he made one last stab and pulled, cutting his jugular.
SImon pulled a collapsible baton and pistol from the dead man's hip. He'd never used a firearm, but...then again it wasn't rocket science. Time was wasting, he had to move quickly. Carefully and quickly, he moved down the corridor to one of the suites he'd spent so much time in post fight.
He knew her room would have men outside. Someone to keep track of the client's time and make sure it never got out of control. He almost got himself caught as he rounded the corner to find them halfway down the hall. Quickly, he ducked back to safety. Going loud was not an option at the moment. He tucked the gun in the back of his pants and gripped the baton and scalpel.
What the guards saw was a dazed, drugged fighter stumbling around the corner. It wouldn't be the first time a kid had gotten out and bumbled around like an idiot. The pair of guards glanced to each other and chuckled. "Look at this ****in' guy. Hey. Kid. Who let you off the shortbus?"
The boy tried to speak but all that came out was numb gibberish. He stumbled before them, falling at their feet. It just made them laugh harder. "Alright, alright, dips***. Come on, let's get you back where you belong." One of them said, approaching.
As he reached down, Simon flicked out the baton and hit him behind the knee, dropping him to the floor. The boy pushed up with one leg, swiping with the baton, catching the other guard across the face. He switched quickly to the scalpel, whirling it into a reverse grip, jamming it in the first guard's throat, and ripping it out roughly. He was thankful the room were soundproof at the moment.
The second guard came around, just in time for Simon to drive the blade up through his jaw, cutting through his tongue and into the roof of his mouth. With his spare arm, he covered the guard's mouth, muffling his gurgling attempts at screams, before shoving him to the ground.
The guards disposed of, he fished out a set of keys and turned to the door. Anna was in there, and God knew what he'd find when he went in there. He tried to convince her to get out first and meet with him later., but she refuse. They would get out together or not at all.
The world was a dull, hazy blur. Everything that moved trailed, all sound was muffled. Thank **** for that, she thought. She could tell even then that his weak, nasally voice would have turned her stomach more than his paunchy, hairy gut hanging out from the robe. The "client" was a cherub-esque man with a bad toupee. He was pouring them wine, really trying to romance the thing up. He whispered something to her she couldn't make out and offered her the wine.
Hurry the **** up, Simon. She thought, weakly smiling for him. Her hands shook, reaching out. One doughy fist wrapped around her's, holding the glass steady and raising it to her lips slowly, a skin-crawlingly creepy smile on his fat, mustachioed face.
Suddenly, he whipped around in surprise, the glass falling from his hamfisted grip. Her distorted vision took a moment to make sense of what she was seeing, but eventually, the out of sync figure melded into the visage of SImon, and he was carrying a pistol. The fat man rose a fuss until Simon pointed it at him, then he cowered and shrunk into a corner of the room.
Simon moved to her and checked to make sure she was okay as best he could. The fat man was shouting, this was not what he was promised. Her friend helped her to her feet, tucking away the gun, and helping her toward the door. Her hearing was just good enough to hear the disgusting client screaming and getting closer to her. The entitled son of a bitch was actually running for them. Well, she decided. **** that.
She grabbed the pistol from the back of Simon's pants and turned it on her would be assaulter. The barrel leveled at his forehead, his eyes going wide with shock just one moment before she pulled the trigger.
That stunned look remained as the back of his head burst against the expensive mahogany woodwork. She thought she would feel something, some regret or remorse from it...but there was nothing. Just a cold indifference as he crumbled lifeless to the ground.
Simon stared in silence, slowly taking the weapon from her. "Come on." She barely made out.
The adrenaline was pumping, and the drugs wearing off but she was barely able to keep up as they rushed down the hallway, head pounding. They just had to make it to the stairwell and they'd be home free...and then who the hell knew what would happen?
Anna allowed herself to hope for once in her life. That was when she felt it. SImon was ripped from her arms, her legs giving out, sending her to the cold marble tile of the hallway. She shook off the daze from the fall and looked to see Simon being thrown against a wall by Stills. The larger man grabbed him by the throat and lifted him from the ground.
She should have known better.
Simon pounded on the stronger adult's arms, trying in vain to pry them from his neck. Stills' muscles bulged, straining against the weight of a 15 year old boy. Her friend's eyes bulged with panic and anger. She willed her limbs to move, crawling toward them, but completely unsure of what she could possibly do.
The boy tried kicking, but it just made Stills angrier and squeeze harder. Anna was almost certain he'd break Simon's neck before he could even fully strangle him. She knew it was because of her. They had to have heard the gunshot. She grit her teeth, willing herself to crawl faster on those trembling, weakened limbs.
Simon was weakening by the second....and then she saw it. The scalpel gleamed upon the ground, the light reflecting red with the blood staining its blade. Go. Go, Anna! Move your ****ing ass!
Stills grinned, watching the light begin to fade behind the boy's eyes. "I've wanted to do this since the moment they dragged your sorry ass in here, you little ****!" He shouted moistly in Simon's choking, strained face.
Anna plunged the blade into his spine with every last bit of her energy, the big bruiser's body going ramrod straight as he yelled in agony, her ears clearing just in time to hear it. Simon fell coughing and gasping as Stills dropped to his knees. She struggled to her feet and reached for him, Simon propping an arm on the wall as she helped him up. The two of them hobbled away, but then Stills grabbed him by the ankle and Simon almost fell, but she kept hold of him. Stills was filled with rage, roaring at them both in what seemed like a different tongue. He pulled Simon toward him, but she wrapped her arms around his chest, trying to pull him back. Simon clenched his jaw, seeing red and kicked him in the face with the heel of his boot.
Stills' head snapped back and slammed onto the tile. Simon pulled free from her grasp and put two arms upon the wall, propping himself up as he stomped on the back of Stills' head again and again and again and again. He poured every ounce of pain and suffering he'd been put through in the past 4 years into it. Every touch, every punch, every bit of despair. He stomped as hard as he could, as viciously as he could. He stomped on him until the resistance gave way and his foot met bone and floor. The sight left her queasy. Somehow it gave her comfort to know that there were still things that could disturb her.
Finally, she wrapped her arms around his waist and pulled him back. "SIMON!" She managed to say. "Please..." It was all she could manage.
Simon panted, staring down at his big kill. It wasn't enough. He deserved worse. They all did. But it was time to go. It was time to run and leave this place in the rearview. He looked to the weak, sickly-looking Anna and took her in his arm, both hobbling to the stairwell.
They were free. They were finally free.
It didn't seem real. For a moment, he thought he was seeing a ghost or having a terrible nightmare, but there he was. Jakob Falk. The years had brought grey creeping into his hair and more wrinkles to his face, but it was him. Still impeccably tailored and well put together. That same calm, unassuming voice that belied the rot and evil within. Every fight, every perverted rich **** who'd treated him like an object for their own sick desires came rushing back to the forefront of his memory. Suddenly, deep down, something terrible began to claw its way out.
"Tessa." Simon said, barely keeping the seething rage out of his voice. "You need to leave. Now."
Falk politely passed off the glass of champagne to the suited, short haired woman beside him. She eyed SImon as if just waiting for him to make a move., The older man took a step forward, that smile fading into disappointment.. "What? Have you no words for an old friend." he asked with that put-on charm. Like he hadn't been responsible for every horrible, nightmarish thing that happened in Simon's youth.
Tessa looked confused, but the look in Simon's eyes told her that they were anything but "friends". This was a man about to explode, and knowing Simon, she had an idea of how, exactly that might go down.
"...Simon..." she said, a hint of fear in her voice.
"Now!" He growled through clenched teeth, the girl recoiling from him. He started slowly, walking toward him, every fantasy he'd ever had of tearing Falk limb from limb playing out in his head. That warm, sadistic smile drove the blood up into SImon's ears. He'd swore to himself that one day, Jakob Falk would pay. Today would be that day.
"You look good." Falk nodded to him. "Age has been kind to you, eh? Unlike..." The older man gestured to his aged face, the scar Simon had given him decades ago still visible. "Time, though. It gets the best of all of us, does it not?"
Simon suddenly and quickly grabbed him by the jacket, Tessa and Falk's companions gasping with a start. The glaring woman moved just slightly, but Falk just waved two fingers, halting her. She would not be needed, apparently. Simon's eyes were aflame, burning with a rage most of the world could never fathom. "You stole my ****ing life. I'm gonna rip your ****ing heart out of your chest, you sick ****." Simon snarled,
Falk looked almost disappointed in him, his voice taking on a tone of reproach. "Come now, Simon. We needn't resort to such uncivilized behavior."
"I'm not feeling very ****ing civilized right now." Simon said, his voice hoarse and trembling.
Falk's voice lowered, an edge that was not there. "Look around you, boy. Do you see the men upon the balcony with weapons? Do you see the fellows near the doors, reaching into their jackets right now? Who do you think these men work for, Simon?"
Simon spared them only a flick of his eyes. He'd only really noticed Falk's companion, who looked like she was a hair's breadth from attacking.
"Who do you think is throwing this little soiree?" Falk grinned.
"You know what I'm capable of. You think they can draw on me, land a bead before I snap your ****ing neck?" Simon challenged. He didn't care about them. He'd happily die in a hail of gunfire if it meant he could send Falk screaming to Hell.
The older man laughed. "No. No, I suppose not. But...your friend...Ms. Bradley...I'd hate for her to be caught in the crossfire. Wouldn't you?"
Tessa stood behind him, frozen in fear. She'd only seen him like this once and it wasn't nearly this bad. He's almost forgotten she was there. Falk was enough of a bastard to see to it that she was taken out to punish him. They probably wouldn't even shoot for him before they took the girl down.
"That's it." Falk said, soothingly, easing Simon's hands from his jackets. "Now. Let us talk as gentlemen, yes?
Those mangled fists clenched white knuckle tight, his body shaking with restraint. "You took everything from me." He rumbled.
"I made you strong, boy." Falk said, as if the man was being unreasonable. "I made you a fighter. A warrior. I made you tough."
"You made me a *thing*! To be used and discarded by your perverted ****ing friends! You made me a killer!" Simon insisted.
"*I* made you a killer." Falk said, in disbelief. "I made you kill those boys in the ring? I made you kill Cameron Cotter? I made you kill all of his men? I assume you blame me for you killing the Viscellis as well. I suppose your foster father being beaten damn near to death was also my fault. *You* did all that. You chose to. I merely made you strong enough to do it. I made you a survivor, Simon."
He couldn't believe it. Falk had completely squared everything that had happened with himself. He even saw it as a good thing.
"You want to play the big hero, Simon? The good guy. But you aren't. You're a killer because you choose to be. Because that's what's always been inside of you. I didn't make you a killer. You've always been one. Don't pretend that you're some bastion of honor and decency. You are a blood thirsty beast." Falk set his jaw, firm in his assessment of the younger man.
"You're a sick **** who deserves to be put down like a ****ing rabid dog.." SImon spat back. "You prey on people. Turn them into your slaves. Sell them to your friends to beat and **** whenever they want."
"I merely provided a service." Falk said, "No questions asked, because that is what was required of me. Did I ever lay a hand upon you? Did I ever hurt you or touch you in any way? I think not."
"I was passed around like a ****ing party favor!" Simon fired back.
"I was grooming you for greatness. To stand at my side. To remove the frivolous, romantic ideas from your head. I taught you the value of sacrifice and how to manipulate those around you. And how did you repay me? You...and Anna?"
"Don't you EVER say her name!" Simon was on the razor's edge.
"She spoke about you." Falk said. Immediately, he saw the look on the bodyguard's face, a grin spreading across his own. "When she came back to me."
That was it. Simon grabbed him by the throat with one hand, the other cocking back to stove his face in. Now, he didn't care who else suffered for it. He was going to kill this man. He was going to have his revenge.
Before he could throw the punch, he felt a hand grab his wrist. Simon's head snapped in the stranger's direction to find another fist rocketing at his face. It wasn't the girl. No, this was a man. The world flashed before his eyes, pain blooming across his face. Whoever it was had a DAMN good punch.
"MILES!" Tessa shrieked.
Simon's vision was slow to unblur, but he could just make out Tessa's new friend before her hit him three times, fast as lightning, the entire party grinding to sudden, decisive halt. He stumbled back, trying to regain his composure. Falk's companion immediately pulled the older man aside to safety, a wall of armed guards filling in around them. Finally, he managed to block the next attack and threw a haymaker, but the younger boy leaned out of the way, jabbed him in the throat and then threw and uppercut that had him seeing stars. Simon was vaguely aware of Tessa begging his attacker to stop, but Miles was not listening. Simon squared off on the kid, moving in and threw some easily blocked punches. Miles was quick, blocking, ducking and hitting him in the ribs with quick shots. The kid was measured, precise and calm. Simon was just sloppy, running on pure, unadulterated rage.
The kid came at him, and Simon ducked a punch, landing a solid hit to his face that would have dropped any other opponent. But the kid shook it off almost immediately and followed up with a rock hard crack to Simon's mouth, his teeth biting into his lips hard enough to draw blood. He stumbled backwards, hand to his bleeding mouth, but keeping his eyes on Miles. With his free hand he threw another punch, too slow, too sloppy. The boy dodged, hit him under the arm and quickly threw a few punches to his abdomen. Breathing became difficult, but the kid didn't let up. His fist slammed into SImon's face again and again, but he didn't fall. Finally, Simon landed another hit, connecting with Miles' face and putting him on the defensive. The older fighter drove him back, keeping his aim on the head until the boy fell against a table, knocking glasses and plates shattering to the ground.
Simon was on him in a second, but the kid grabbed a plate and bashed it across Simon's temple in an explosion of porcelain. While he was dazed, Mile's kicked him in the chest, knocking him back before getting on his feet. He grabbed Simon by the lapels of his suit jacket, wheeled him around, and threw him into a table. As Miles approached, Simon grabbed a glass and quickly winged it at his attacker. Miles protected his face with a forearm, the glass shattering on his suit jacket. His older opponent smashed a wine glass on the table, and came for him. Slashing with his makeshift knife. God damn the kid was quick. He dodged, ducked and weaved away until finally getting a hold of Simon's wrist with one hand, keeping the older man's arm extended as he popped him once in the throat, the glass dropping to the ground.
Simon gasped for air just before being thrown to the ground, glass and shattered porcelain cutting into the skin of his hands as he tried brace his fall. Pushing through the pain he tried to rise. Blood obscured his vision, but he could see Miles coming toward him. The kid grabbed him by the hair and readied to drive his knee into the man's face. Simon's arms crossed in front of him, blocking the attack. His arms spread quick and hard, knocking Miles' hands away. With his wounded palms, he hit the boy hard in the solar plexus, shoving him back, and rose to his feet.
Miles looked pissed. He stormed toward Simon, but the older fighter was quick, slipping around the younger fighter's attack and putting him in a chokehold. Miles drove his elbow back into Simon's ribs again and again and again until that grip loosened. He threw his head back, connecting with SImon's face, dazing him for a moment before flipping him over his shoulder and onto the tile below. The kid threw himself on top of his opponent and wailed on his face like he was tenderizing meat, every punch landing like a goddamn mack truck.
"ENOUGH." Falk said firmly, his voice echoing throughout the room. Miles froze, his arm cocked back to deliver a crushing blow. SImon lay there, wheezing, his face a bloody mess. He'd been completely taken off-guard and been quickly put down. His vision was blurred red from the blood, the coppery taste of it leaking down his throat. The room around them just watched. Tessa just stood by, horrified.
Falk broke through the guards and hovered over him, hands stuffed casually in his pockets. "As I said. I wanted you and Anna to stand by my side. To serve as my right and left hand." Falk said forlornly. "Well...as you can see...I found others."
Miles stared down at him just waiting for the order to kill him, the woman directly behind him. It became clear that they were exactly like Simon. Only, they hadn't escaped. Even now, there was a slight swell of pity for them both.
"I didn't want this. I truly did not. My friends here were supposed to have an easy, fun night. They deserved it. Damn you for forcing them into this position."
Simon tried to move, to grab at the man, but Miles forced a taught, muscular forearm to his throat, pinning him down. Falk shook his head and nodded to the woman. "Get him out of here."
She moved on him quickly, he was too weak and too dazed to even fight back. He muttered "I'm gonna kill you" over and over and over again. Falk turned to the partygoers and rose his hands. "It's alright, everyone. Show's over! Let's not allow this unpleasantness to upset our festivities! Please! Enjoy your drinks, the night is young!"
Tessa stood stock still, watching in terror as he was dragged off by Miles and the woman. The music started again and the people began conversing as if nothing had happened. Her bodyguard approached her, placing a hand upon her shoulder, startling her in the process.
"Ms. Bradley." he said. "It's time to go."
The world was so big outside of that place. Simon had almost completely forgotten. Anna, it seemed had never known. She never talked much about her past. It made him wonder if she'd ever truly seen anything outside of Falk's little kingdom. She looked around with wide eyes. It was all so beautiful, so overwhelming in scope. People went about their days, no fear of death or punishment constantly weighing them down. They were completely unencumbered.
A chill had settled into the air around the city. Winter was fast approaching, and the filthy, ill fitting clothes they wore made them stand out like a sore thumb. Anna's old tanktop and ripped up old jeans weren't going to cut it. Simon lead her to a thrift store, securing them a new wardrobe.
Anna stood in front of the mirror, staring for a long time. It had been a long while since she was able to for more than just a passing glance. Often Falk's people would doll her up for the clients, never really giving her a chance to look. She didn't quite recognize the girl in front of her. Her red hair had faded slightly, her fair skin marred by scars. The girl in the mirror was skinny, but muscular. She skated the edge between thin and malnourished, probably by design. They would often deprive her of meals, marketing her for a specific kind of clientele, she was sure. She, of course knew about the curves, Falk's people weren't exactly shy about how they'd sought to highlight those. But Anna, herself, hadn't truly appreciated just how much her body had changed in all that time.
What she saw in that mirror wasn't a victim. What she saw was strong and beautiful, and not for what they'd done to make her look a certain way. She saw a survivor who refused to back down. For that, she was proud.
Anna pulled a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo of someone called "The Ramones" over a long-sleeved, white waffle knit and pulled on a pair of clean jeans. Immediately, she felt better. Amazing what a clean set of clothing could do. Aside from being outfitted for one of Falk's clients, the kids she'd grown up with were issued new clothing as they grew out of the old ones. New clothes were a luxury seldom afforded. She left the booth, stepping out to find Simon, dressed in a pair of cargo pants and a green and black flannel. An old, black peacoat missing some buttons thrown over it all. He reached out, handing her a jacket himself, a maroon, thigh-length wool coat with black accents. It, too was missing a few buttons and had some light staining, but it was might as well have been a ball gown to Anna.
"You look good." Simon said, eyes tracing over her. For some reason, it sent a warm feeling through her belly.
"You too." She said, a bit sheepishly. And he did. The boy cleaned up nicely. Anna cleared her throat and looked around. Back to real life. "So...what now? We just run out of here with this stuff on?"
Simon grinned and shook his head. "Nope. Already paid for."
Anna balked a moment, staring at him suspiciously. "And where did you get money?"
The boy pulled out a wad of money he had pinched from Stills' wallet. "Compliments of Stills."
She couldn't help the laugh that escaped her. "You took it from him?!" She said, trying to keep it quiet.
"Not like that piece of s*** has any use for it anymore." Simon shrugged.
She couldn't shake the image of what Simon had done to him. Stills got the least of what was coming to him, but it was such a vicious, relentless attack that she couldn't quite shake it. Anna shook it off, trying a smile on. After everything he'd put them through, having his money fund their little shopping spree was a pretty sweet slice of karmic justice, she supposed. She'd killed before, but, though it was always about survival, it never sat well with her. Even shooting that fat pervert in the face made her queasy, and she didn't even want to think about what he would have done to her. All the planning and the fantasies didn't matter when she was confronted with the real thing.
The pair stepped back out into the approaching cold. They would need a place to bed down for the night, but first, Simon had a stop he was dying to make. Simon lead her to a diner, holding the door as she passed. An old Elvis song blared over the radio as waitresses in vintage uniforms made the rounds. The smells and lively nature of the place absolutely enchanted Anna. People sitting, chatting, laughing over plates of REAL food. God, she couldn't remember the last time she'd had a real meal that wasn't the disgusting, gloppy gruel they'd slopped onto styrofoam plates for them.
Even then, she couldn't relax. Every smiling face was one that could turn on them, get them put back in Falk's hands. She couldn't do that again. She'd rather kill herself than go back to all of that. Her eyes darted around as they slid into the red, vinyl booth, glittery sparkles twinkling in the fluorescent lights above.
The menu was just so expansive. She didn't know what half the foods listed even were, let alone if she'd like them. Her brows knit with concern as she read it over, glancing up to find Simon grinning.
"What?" she demanded.
"Troubles?" He asked.
Anna let out a frustrated sigh. "I don't know what any of this is. What's good?"
"Oh." He said. "Burgers. You gotta get a burger."
"Burger? That's meat, right?" She asked, legitimately unsure.
Simon breathed out a little laugh and nodded. "Yeah, that's meat."
The waitress arrived, and took their orders. Anna couldn't be sure if the brassy, gum-smacking attitude was at all put on or just her personality.
"When I was out on the streets, I used to steal food from the back of this place all the time. Really good stuff. You'd be amazed at the things people just throw away."
Anna shifted in her seat a bit. There wasn't usually much conversation between them, beyond their plans and what came next. They NEVER talked about their pasts. This was uncharted territory.
"How long were you on your own?" she asked.
"About a month and a half." He said.
"Really?" To her that sounded like freedom. She didn't have much concept of homelessness and not having a roof over your head.
"Ran into this guy. A priest."
That just sent off warning bells in her head. She'd dealt with men of the cloth, and it was never pleasant. The desires of repressed men were terrifying.
"Good guy." Simon continued. "Took me in, fed me. Gave me a place to sleep. Then...well." He opened his hands and gestured to her and then himself. She could guess what that meant.
"I'm sorry." She said.
Simon shrugged. "Sooner or later...everything ends."
That sent a chill through her she did NOT like. It made a scary amount of sense.
"Yeah." She agreed. "I suppose it does."
The first bit of snow fell that night. Winter had come, finally. The chill of a flake landing upon his face brought him to consciousness. Those blue eyes red, puffy from the beating he'd been dealt. It took him a moment to even realize where he was. Simon lay in the gutter, surrounded by trash. Every inch of his body ached, dried blood cold upon his face. Sitting up was an endeavour, a pained groan leaving him as he tried.
His breath came out in a wheeze, his hands shaking as he clutched his ribs, certain at least one was broken. The fresh, searing sensation of an open cut on his face had him sucking in air through grit teeth.
"****." He hissed, wincing. Slowly, he rose to his feet, finding a hitch in his step. The suit he wore did little to block out the cold, his wool coat left behind at the party. The sounds of the city pounded in his eardrums, the lights seeming almost blinding as different colored suns. His eyes clenched shut as he made his way out onto the sidewalk. What the hell had happened? How did he get taken so completely by surprise? He needed to get the hell out of there. Simon reached in his pocket for the keys to his car, but they were long gone. God knew where they'd ended up.
Okay. Okay, SImon. Easy. What next?
His phone. He could always call a cab or something. The battered bodyguard reached into his pocket and pulled the phone out...to find it busted. The screen was cracked and dead. Because tonight NEEDED to get worse, apparently.
At least he still had a wallet. Thank god for small miracles.
He hobbled down the street, every step producing a fresh pain reverberating through his left leg. "Now what?" he asked himself.
Home. He had to get home and get patched up. Surely Paige would understand. He hadn't gone out to get into a fight, and given the circumstances, how could she blame him? His eyes searched the passing traffic for a cab, flagging down the first available, and climbing carefully in. Those injured ribs hurt like hell, but he managed.
"Jesus, you look like you've had a rough night." The cabbie said into the rearview.
"Yeah, you think?" Simon said wearily.
"Where ya headed, slugger?"
"234 Ventura." he gave Paige's address, settling in as comfortably as he could.
"You got it."
Simon's head lolled to one side, his eyes staring out into the cold winter's night, as they began the long drive home. How quickly everything had changed. He always knew Falk had to be out there somewhere. It was only a matter of time. He'd clung to the fruitless hope that maybe someone had taken the son of a bitch out without him knowing or hearing about it. The man had clearly moved up in the world. No longer just the low-level purveyor of entertainment for the rich, bored and vicious, he was rubbing elbows with some serious power players. The thought scared him more than anything.
And who in the hell was that kid? No doubt one of the unlucky ones who'd survived. Couldn't have been past his early twenties, the poor bastard. ****er had a mean right hook. Suddenly Simon was aware of how his opponents felt over the years. That kid hadn't just beaten him, he'd demolished him. He'd lost fights in the past, but never that badly, and never so soundly.
Before he knew it, a half-hour had passed and the cab rolled to a stop in front of Paige's house. He paid the driver and gingerly rose from the vehicle. He knew the cars parked out front. Piper and Coleman. What the hell were THEY doing here? Well...at least there were witnesses if Paige tried to kill him, right?
He limped to the front door, realizing again that the keys were gone. With a deep, hoarse breath, he knocked. The door opened to reveal Coleman. The large man's face fell when he saw the mess of a man in front of him. Somehow, though, Simon got the gut feeling that it wasn't entirely his state that caused the detective's dismay.
"Jesus, kid. You look like s***."
"Thanks." Simon said, hobbling on in, leaving Coleman behind, watching after him.
Piper sat on the couch, leaning forward with his arms propped upon his legs. He looked exhausted. No...not exhausted...this was something else. Paige had her back to him, her arm wrapped around her waist.
"Corrine...I have to-" he began. She whipped around and on her face was not concern. No, this was rage.
"What the **** did you do?" Paige said, her voice practically a growl.
"I'm sorry." Simon managed, shame settling in. He knew he'd broke the rules. He'd have to own it. "I-"
"You tell me, Toews!" She said, storming over to him. "You tell me why I just got a call that we're being ****ing shut down!"
Simon blinked. Paige waited for an answer.
"Your client ****ing dropped us and I get a call that our license is being revoked, and we're getting evicted from our ****ing office because YOU created a scene at some party!"
****ing Jakob Falk. It wasn't enough that he'd beaten the s*** out him, he was taking down those around him.
"Corrine, I swear to God, it's not like that."
"No, I'll tell you what it's like." she said, fueled by a rage he'd never seen in her. "You show up, you get cozy and then s*** goes sideways. You're a ****ing albatross, Toews! Everything you touch turns to absolute s***!"
He couldn't find the words to respond. Honestly...he couldn't even argue against it. She was right.
"You fancy yourself a knight in shining armor? Tell you what. You wanna save someone? Then stay the **** away from them!" Paige glared up at him. "Get your s*** out of my house. Now."
Simon stared at her, more pain added onto the mountain he already had. He'd never meant to bring this down on her head. But then...he never did. Not to Lyla, not to Cici, not to Tahlia....but it always did.
Sam looked up at him, pain in his own eyes mixing with pity. There wasn't accusation there, but it didn't matter. He was just another casualty of Simon Toews. "I'm sorry." he managed, moving to the room and struggling to pack a bag. Everything he owned fit into one duffle. Kind of sad, when he thought about it.
Simon caught a glimpse of the damage done in the mirror. What a mess. The worst part was that he felt he deserved it. Paige was right. The best thing he could do now was get as far from her as possible. He'd done enough damage.
They were still there when he came out, the weight of his bag hurting his ribs. Paige refused to even look at him. Piper offered a sympathetic glance and a nod. Simon managed half a smile and nodded back. "I'm sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen."
Nothing was left to say, so he started toward the front door. Coleman leaned against the wall, eyeing him a moment before following him outside. "Where you gonna go, kid?"
"I don't know. Away."
"Not a very specific plan." Coleman said with a lopsided grin.
"I've caused enough damage."
"Yeah. Yeah, you stepped in it big, boy. But ain't nobody beyond redemption." Cole smiled to him.
"Yeah, well you don't know me, pal." Simon grumbled.
Coleman gave him that knowing, sympathetic look. "Get yourself patched up, kid. Give her some time to cool off and...we'll see what we can do."
"No." Simon responded with a shake of his head. "I'm not taking anyone else with me. But thanks."
Coleman nodded. "You gonna be alright?"
Simon started limping down the sidewalk. "No. Probably not."
The door to a room at the Deckard Discount Motel creaked open, Simon stepping in with a bag full full of medical supplies from the drugstore and his duffle strapped over a shoulder. He limped in, setting the bags down on the bed and headed into the bathroom, turning on the shower.
He turned and looked at himself in the mirror. The dried blood had been washed away, but the bruising was beginning to set in and those cuts and gashes remained. He could see red blooming at the bottom of his white dress shirt. One by one, he undid the buttons of his shirt, exposing the damage the boy had done. The brown and red spreading beneath the skin over his ribcage told him all he needed to know. At least two broken ribs. A cut at the right side of his stomach had slowed bleeding, but was still fresh. He'd definitely need stitches.
Worst of all, though, he was alone. Completely and utterly alone. For a moment, he considered getting a burner and calling Tahlia...but that was swept aside.
"Everything you touch turns to absolute s***!" he heard Corrine's voice in his head. "You wanna save someone? Then stay the **** away from them!"
No. Calling Tahlia was out of the question. He wouldn't drag her into his mess, not again.
Falk would probably have people looking for him. He was on the run once again. He couldn't help but remember the last time he was here. But that was a long ago...when he wasn't alone.
Simon stood nervously in a sleazy motel reception office. Tom Deckard, the too-thin scraggly old man behind the counter regarded him dubiously. One so young didn't exactly come asking for a room very often, but he had money. Anna waited outside, ready to run at a moment's notice. For a moment, he thought they were pinched. The clerk would call the authorities and they'd end up in lock up until Falk dragged them back into that hellhole.
But finally, the man slid the key across the desk. "Room 4."
Suddenly a weight lifted from his shoulders. They weren't exactly out of the woods, but they were both exhausted and this seemed like the best plan at the moment. He snatched the key and nodded. "Thanks."
"Behave." The man said to him pointedly. SImon merely nodded and walked outside.
"Come on." he said to Anna.
"Wait." Anna ordered, eyeing the clerk as best she could through the curtains. Only when she saw him settle back down to watch TV did she join him, walking toward the room. A bed, two night stands, and a small couch decorated the room in front of a TV on a dresser. In the back was the bathroom. The accommodations weren't exactly the lap of luxury, but to them, it might as well have been a 5 star hotel.
Anna checked outside the window again, making sure nobody had followed. Falk would no doubt be looking for them now. They couldn't stay more than the night. Simon gently placed a hand on her arm. "It's okay. We're alright." he assured her with a slight smile.
Anna eyed the boy a moment before she seemed to ease up, a smile crossing her lips as she eyed the bed, those green eyes flicking back to him. He smirked and both of them rushed over, sinking down onto the mattress side by side, letting out a long drawn out "ahhhhhhhh". The pair of them giggled at one another,. It was the first time he'd truly heard that come out of her. In that moment, he decided it was the most beautiful sound he'd ever heard.
"This is amazing." She said, not only referring to the bed, but the day they'd had..
"Right?" he responded blissfully.
"People actually live like this?" she asked as if it were a revelation.
Simon rolled onto his side, facing her. "Well, get used to it, sister. It's real beds from here on out. No more concrete floors and folded up, ratty clothes for pillows."
Anna grinned. She couldn't help but appreciate his optimism, even if she knew better. She turned her head, looking to him. "I never said thank you. For saving me."
Simon's eyes lowered a bit, a hint of bashfulness there. "Part of the plan, right?" he tried to play it off cool.
"Yeah." She said, smiling warmly at him. "Part of the plan."
Simon's blue eyes flicked back up to her, catching the look in her's. She wasn't at all buying it.
"If it weren't for you...I don't think I would have made it. I'd have probably just...given up. Let them kill me and end it all a long time ago."
Simon blushed. He wasn't sure he deserved such a compliment. "I don't think that's true.." he said. "You're the strongest person I know. And...and if I didn't have you, I wouldn't have lasted more than a week."
Anna shifted onto her side facing him, propping herself up on one arm. "I don't know how much I helped. I was cold. Mean, even. I still think about the things I said that one night." her voice was quiet. "You needed a friend and I was-"
"You were exactly what I needed." Simon said. "At all times. You made me stronger. What they did to us...it was...." his eyes shut, trying to push away those images.
She reached over and brushed her fingers across his cheek. "No." She said. "We're not thinking about that. Not now. Not ever again." Her fingers ran through his hair gently, a thumb running over his eyebrow. Simon's eyes closing, grateful for the distraction. "We're free."
It was all so overwhelming, the thought that they'd never have to go back to that place, to have to fight to survive as they had. It had been a pipe dream for so long and now it was real. Tears welled in her eyes and he couldn't help but join her. Anna wrapped her arms around him and pulled him to her, the two of them clinging tightly to one another for dear life, all the pain of the past years melting away into something else. Something warm, comfortable and intoxicating.
Their foreheads pressed together, as they slowly calmed. His eyes opened, finding her's staring back, a sudden tightness in his chest. Anna looked at him, as if for the first time seeing him, those green eyes darting back and forth over his face. She was memorizing that moment, just as he was. The person she trusted most. The ONLY person she trusted, here with her in the world outside. This was perfect. This was their's.
He saw something new in her eyes. A decisiveness mixed with nervousness. Anna leaned in, her lips lightly pressing to his. For a moment, he panicked inside, but eventually, he melted into that kiss. Those lips were soft, gentle, a bit moist...they were the most wonderful things he'd ever felt. But then the images flowed in. Lips on his, rough, chapped and stubbled. Rough hands upon his body. The dull, numbed ache in his body when they did what they did. His heart began to pound, those flashing images becoming more and more intense.
Simon pulled away suddenly, gasping and rolling onto his back. He lay there a moment catching his breath. It was all too much. He just wasn't prepared at all. Anna stared at him, her face flushed red.
"What is it? What's wrong?" She asked in a concerned, breathless little voice. She propped herself up on one arm.
Simon's brow furrowed as he searched for the words to explain. "It's just...I can't...." He just turned those eyes up to her. "What are we doing?"
Anna couldn't deny that she understood his fear. Neither had been allowed to choose such intimacies. But here and now, she wanted something they had power over. To take back what had been taken. Her fingertips ran along his cheek softly. "Whatever we want. Nothing we don't."
Something was reassuring in that, Simon decided. A warmth seemed to fill his body, an electric charge he'd never known before running through him. Once again, Anna was comforting him, making him feel safe. He wanted exactly what she did. He turned onto his side, facing her.
"Slow." he said, voice shaking with nerves.
"Are you sure?" she asked, fingers returning to his cheek.
Anna smiled then, those emerald colored eyes locking on him. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life. All my life, I've never had a choice, Simon. In anything except you. I choose this. With you. But only if you want."
The smile remained, but a hint of worry and need crept into her eyes. He had his fears, of course. It wasn't like his experiences had been at all pleasant. But this wasn't one of them. This wasn't someone using him. This was Anna. He couldn't imagine anyone he trusted more. Anyone he'd ever cared for more. He reached up, fingers moving along the scar at her cheek. Finally, he gave in, their lips connecting once again.
The kiss deepened, that desperate desire creeping in more and more. Hands wandered and clothes were shed, exposing their bruised and scarred bodies to one another. That night they saw each other in a way they never had before. Passion mounting as they came together. It wasn't out of obligation or against their will. It was pure, unadulterated desire. A desperate need to feel something good, something theirs and theirs alone. To feel some semblance of love where they had only known pain, shame and degradation. Simon and Anna found solace in one another once again. They would fall asleep in each other's arms, as they had so many nights before, but this time, there was no fear. This time they were safe.
The memory of that night lingered in his mind. He'd give anything to have her here now. Reassuring him, comforting him, wiping away all of his fears. But Anna was gone. How Falk had gotten his hands on her, he didn't know, but the thought made him sick to his stomach.
Simon shut his eyes and pushed it away a best he could. He wondered if she was still alive out there. If she was, he hoped she was happy. He hoped she was safe.
Tessa lit up on stage, it was where she felt most at home. The rush of a crowd cheering for her, feeling every word of her songs, singing the words along with her. It was amazing, fulfilling, even though she would know it'd go away once the show ended. She finished that second encore, thanked the screaming crowd, and walked backstage, waving both hands. Those people loved her...or at least the persona she put on for them. If they knew the REAL her, she was certain they wouldn't be quite so thrilled.
Her bodyguard waited there in the wings, texting away on his phone, looking bored to death. "Go get that s*** off your face." He muttered.
"You're a hell of a conversationalist." She said, brushing past him. He suddenly grabbed her by the arm, just hard enough to hurt but not hard enough to leave a mark.
"Hey. How about you watch your ****in' mouth, kid."
Tessa glanced down at his hand, a dangerous look in her eye for a moment. She tried to pull out of his grasp, but he didn't let go.
"'Sorry' is the word you're looking for." the guy said.
The girl glared up at him. "I'm sorry." she spat at him sarcastically. "Can you get your hand off me now?"
He let go of her roughly and went back to his phone. "Go."
Tessa was absolutely fuming, storming her way through the busy crew. She got to the dressing room door and slammed it behind her, immediately letting out a primal, frustrated scream. She was trapped, surrounded by people who didn't give a s*** about her beyond what she could provide for them. There was just no way out.
"You've got a helluva set of pipes."
She screamed, startled and backed away from it, bumping into the wall. Miles sat on the sofa, clad in street clothes. She stared in wide-eyed terror at the man she'd seen demolish the one person who was ever decent to her. Part of her was certain he was here to do the same to her.
"You!" She said. "Get the **** out of here!"
He winced and stood up, holding his hands out. "Wait. Please. I want to explain."
"If you even come NEAR me, I'll have my bodyguard down here in a second to take your ass out." She said.
Miles suppressed the urge to chuckle at that. She knew damn well that dude wouldn't last a second against him. "Don't worry. I'm not going to hurt you. Okay? I'll just...I'll stay over here."
She calmed just slightly, but grabbed a bottle just in case. "How did you get in here?"
He smirked, his brow furrowing. "Do you know who I work for?" he asked as if her question were ridiculous. "I can get in anywhere. Listen...the other night...I didn't want you to have to see that."
"See what? You beating the s*** out of my friend?" She asked.
"He attacked my boss." Miles said defensively. "It's my job to protect Mr. Falk. So...I did."
"Yeah, well I've heard rumors about your 'boss', and he sounds like a sick ****." She said.
"Mr. Falk gave me a home when I had nothing. Gave me purpose. You can't believe everything you hear." he said calmly.
He was so calm, so genuine that she wasn't sure what to believe. He certainly had a natural charm to him. "Why are you here?"
"Because...I liked talking to you." he said. "It's been a while since I've had that. I hate that it was ruined by that fight and I wanted to apologize."
Tessa's grip on the bottle loosened, confusion setting in and taking hold. What the hell was his game? Why was he doing this? And, most importantly...why was she so completely buying it? He was apologetic...somewhat meek even. It was in complete defiance of the guy she'd seen turn Simon into a bloodied mess.
"Hey." He said. "You wanna get outta here?"
The girl blinked, her hands going to her eyes and rubbing. "I...I can't. I've got this bodyguard, and he's-"
He could tell it was an excuse. She could see it in his eyes, in that charming little smirk.
"Don't worry about him." Miles told her. "What do you say?"
"What, I'm just supposed to go with you and...what? You gonna take me to somewhere and try to-"
"No." He said firmly. "I was thinking...maybe we get a bite to eat. Then I take you home."
Her head was swimming. What the hell was this?
"You mean...you want to go out on a date with me?"
"You just seem like you could use a night out." he explained. "So...what do you say? Wanna come?"
She shouldn't trust him. She knew that. He was a wolf in sheep's clothing if she'd ever seen one. So, when she nodded, it came as a complete surprise. Miles grinned and stood up. He seemed taller than she remembered, but every bit the ruggedly handsome young man from the party.
"Alright." He said. "Get ready and I'll wait out in the hall, yeah?"
Again, she nodded numbly and watched as he walked out the door, letting it close behind him.
When she came out, clad in a pair of form-fitting dark blue jeans and a white, loose grey turtleneck., he was waiting. She pulled on her navy blue wool overcoat and went to work tugging her long, blonde hair into a ponytail. Miles smiled, giving her a once over.
"You clean up nicely." He said.
"This is cleaning up?" she said with a quirked eyebrow. "I believe this is what they call dressing down."
His head bounced from one side to the other as if considering. "Ehhhh...I think I prefer this. Seems more...you."
"Oh," she chuckled. "You can tell what's 'me' from two conversations?"
"Yup." He answered plainly. ****, but that boy was confident. She couldn't stop that little flutter inside of her, a grin forming on her lips.
"Alright, smart guy. So. How we getting out of here without my shadow getting in the way?" She asked, trying to take some semblance of control back in the situation.
Miles reached out and took her hand. "Follow me."
He lead her down the corridor, away from the stairs that lead to her planned exit and the bodyguard no doubt impatiently awaiting her. They approached door labeled "Authorized Personnel Only" in big, white stencilled letters. He reached out and turned the knob, but it didn't budge.
Tessa snorted a laugh. "Good call, Houdini."
"I told you." He said, reaching into a pocket and producing a tool. "I can get in anywhere."
As he started on the lock, she heard the bodyguard's voice echoing down the hall from atop the stair. "Hey! Let's go! I don't have all ****ing night!"
Oh s***, she thought. "Hurry. He's coming."
"I hear him." Miles said calmly, focused on the task at hand.
"YO!" The guard's voice rang out again. "Bradley! You deaf?! Let's go!"
Footsteps on metal stairs now echoed through the hall.
"Miles. Now would be a good time!" She said as quietly and urgently as possible.
"Don't. Rush...."The door clicked. "Art." He smirked over his shoulder and pushed the door open. His hand closed around hers, ushering her inside just seconds before the guard would be able to see them. Tessa's heart was pounding as they hustled through the pipe-laden utility tunnels, Miles leading her the whole way through. She had no idea where he was taking her, but, despite herself, she found it exhilarating. They ran down bend after bend, taking turns through labyrinthine maze of tunnels until he reached a ladder. Miles went up first, pushing aside a manhole cover. After a peek around, he glanced down to her. "Alright. Come on."
Rung by rung, she climbed up, part of her still dreading what she might find. When she felt the cold, wintery air hit her face, she found him standing beside a pristine, black Audi RS7. Her eyebrows rose a the sight of it. Apparently, there were a few perks to his position.
"This is your's?" She asked.
"Mine-ish." He responded with a smirk, moving around to the driver's door and sliding in. Well, she'd come this far. What the hell? She slipped into the car, settling in beside him and shut the door. It even still had that new-car smell, the rich leather interior cool to the touch. The lights came to life as the engine roared with the push of a button.
"Might want to buckle up." He said, glancing to her with a smirk. She pulled the belt on as Miles threw the car in-gear and took off out of the alley, merging into traffic and heading out into lights of the city.
Three months. They had Three months together. Three months of passionate nights, exciting days and unbridled joy where they answered to no one and apologized for nothing. Those three months were theirs, spent in hotels, diners, and bars, performing little odd-jobs and the occasional pickpocket here and there to provide when Stills' money ran out. For three months they were happy and free. Anna had never known anything like it. Certainly, she'd never experienced such a blissful state of being as she did with Simon at her side. Slowly, nightmares dissipated and became dreams. Eventually, when she closed her eyes, she no longer saw terrors. And always right beside her was Simon. Clutching her, keeping her safe and warm, chasing away all of those fears and doubts. They were happy, truly happy for the first time in their lives. But still...in every moment of joy, there remained that lingering, faceless fear. How long could they live like this? How long before they slipped up? How long before, as Simon put it, everything ends?
They stepped off a train, into the hustle and bustle of the mid-day crowd. Something about being lost in a sea of people was a rush as well as a comfort. She was a part of the ebb and flow of society for the first time, a normal...ish girl. The people staring at her were reduced to those just seeing a pretty girl or noticing the scar upon her cheek. She'd had enough time in the spotlight. Here, she could just blend into the crowd.
They moved through the station, the smell of exhaust in the cold air mingling with the scent of various food kiosks and a kaleidoscope of different perfumes and colognes as they entered they entered the warmth of the building. Simon insisted they stop for a couple slices of pizza. It had taken their stomachs a little while to adjust to actual, substantial food, but now she was able to truly enjoy it. It was piping hot when they arrived, too hot to eat. The pair of them stepped through the front doors and out into the chill of the city. The buildings didn't help the cold, creating a huge wind tunnel that blasted them right in the face upon exiting the station. Anna's hair whipped wildly in her face, her eyes and nose scrunching up as she froze his face, loudly trying to blow them aside. When she finally cleared it, tucking the offending strands back with her knit cap, she caught Simon grinning
"Don't you DARE laugh." She said.
"I didn't!" He protested with a chuckle.
"There! You're doing it right now!" She said with a put-on anger.
"I am not!" He was. He so was.
Anna grumbled something and walked on ahead. At least the snow had stopped, she thought. Nothing worse than getting sandblasted with ice. She was about to take a bite out of her pizza when she saw a pair of figures, huddled against a building. One adult and a one smaller. The boy was young, younger than them. He couldn't have been more than seven. Both wer bundled in several filthy coats of varying states of disrepair. Something in her heart broke for them.
"What's up?" Simon asked, noting that she had stopped in her tracks. Anna looked back at him with a sorrowful look in her eyes. She turned from him and walked up to the two of them, crouching down low. Simon tilted his head, just watching he a moment.
"Hey, there." She said in a soft, soothing voice. The pair of them looked up, cold and hungry. "You look like you could use this more than me."
She offered her slice of sausage pizza to the boy. The boy's mother beamed up at her, and turned to her son and nodded. He happily took it from her and immediately took a big bite out of it, the thick cheese pulling in strings. Simon glanced down at his own food. He'd been craving that damn thing all morning. Just giving it up was not exactly the plan he had in mind. He blinked then, flashbacks of Mulcahy running through his mind. No way could he just walk away. He sighed and walked over to the mother. "Yeah. You can have mine."
The woman seemed stunned, overwhelmed by what he'd done. "Thank you." She said in a shakey, meek little voice. Suddenly, something inside of him warmed. It was the best feeling he'd ever felt in his entire life. No pleasure before or after would ever feel so sweet.
Anna stayed crouched, smiling at the boy. "What's your name?" She asked him in between bites.
"Christofuh." he said with that little kid mangling of vowels.
"Christopher? I like that name. Nice to meet you, Christopher." Anna grinned brightly and held out a gloved hand. "I'm Anna."
The boy glanced to his mother again, and she nodded approval. Anna took his small hand and shook. "You take care of your momma, now. Okay?"
His dirty little face lit up and he nodded. Anna turned to the mother. "I wish the best to both of you. Sorry we can't give more."
"Bless you." The mother said and looked to Simon. "Bless you both."
Anna nodded to her and mussed her hand over the boy's cap before standing up. "Be good, Christopher."
She wrapped her arms around Simon's arm and walked on down the street. It wasn't enough for her, but it was what she could do. Something deep inside called to her, "Do it again."
They spent the day in museums, shops, and seeing the sights. They visited sights Simon had told her about over the intervening months. Anna took it all in with wide-eyed wonder, learning just how big and storied the world around them truly was. Through it all, it became clear that she just wanted to know more. Things he'd taken for granted were astounding to the girl. He found it all incredibly endearing. They stood a pier overlooking the breeze blowing in from the sea. Anna huddled close to him, staring out onto the horizon.
"I want to go out there some day." She said.
"Where?" Simon asked.
She gestured outward. "There. I want to see all of it."
"You going to become an explorer?" He asked with a grin.
Anna shrugged. "Why not?"
He thought a moment, looking out there among an entire world of possibilities. Mulcahy had told him about the men and women who sailed the high seas, coming to Rhy'din from all manner of places. It was a romantic image, he'd built up. He couldn't deny that, someday...he might like to see it himself.
"Can't think of a single reason why not." He turned to her with a smile. Anna looked up to him and leaned up, planting a lingering, soft kiss upon his lips, her gloved fingers running through the shaggy, sandy blonde of his hair. He'd let it grow out, longer than usual. She had teased him about it, but really...she liked it on him.
"Food." She said, parting from him. "I need food."
They moved back into the city proper and found themselves a little diner. People of every station were gathered in the place. Men in suits or simple clothes, women in dresses or jeans and sweaters, The young and old alike. Simon secured them a table. They settled in and ordered, awaiting their meal. Anna looked a little uncomfortable sitting there, a paleness to her he'd begun to notice in the past few days.
"You okay?" He asked.
"Hm?" she looked up to him, the smile returning. "Oh. Yeah. Just been dealing with some stomach issues lately."
"Yeah..."he said, looking a little concerned. "I heard you this morning."
"It's just a bug or something." She said confidently. "I'm sure it'll pass."
The last thing he wanted was for her to get sick. They'd dealt with a fair bit of it under Falk's watch, and it was never pleasant.
"So." she said. "After this, what do you say we catch a train...go back to the motel...and...um...get warm?"
That was an offer he'd never turn down. He never thought he'd find physical intimacy quite as alluring as she made it, given their pasts, but they'd worked through it. They were almost like two normal teenagers these days...without any supervision. Their burgers and fries were set before them before the waiter departed.
"I think I can get behind that. Yeah." He smirked to her. Anna grinned up at him, chowing down on a fry, her brows raising teasingly. Simon's teeth sunk down into the bun, cheese and meat. Their new diet had left him less skinny and lean, and he found himself far less cold all the time. They could no longer count their ribs beneath their skin at any time.
He looked up, catching a look in Anna's eyes. She wasn't looking at him...and she seemed suspicious. .
"What is it?" He asked in a whisper.
"There's a man...he's looking at you." She said, matching his volume. "Don't look."
Warning bells sounded in Simon's head, suddenly concerned. His eyes flicked up, trying to see in the decorative reflective surface of a wall mirror, but he couldn't spot the figure she was seeing.
"It's alright." She said calmly, eyes returning to him. "I think we'll be safe here until we leave...but I suggest we make a quick getaway once we're out."
Simon nodded slowly. The rest of the meal was spent in tense silence. Simon swore he could almost feel the man's eyes on him. Slowly and cautiously, he hid the serrated steak knife up his sleeve. They cordially paid the bill and looked to each other.
"Ready?" she asked him. Simon nodded, and the pair rose, quickly, but casually making their way to the door, the man rising as well. There was no doubt as to his intent. They tried to go quicker, pushing through the door and out into the crowd on the sidewalk.
"Simon!" the voice called out, Simon grinding to a halt. He knew that voice. It haunted his dreams. He could still hear it...whispering. Telling him to relax. That he was going to be alright. That he wouldn't hurt him. He could feel the dulled sensation of man's hands upon him. His lips upon him. He could feel everything he did to him. That first night when he'd tasted victory and the Comstock drugged him and allowed the man to have his way.
"Simon..." Anna said, fear creeping into her voice.
Simon turned slowly, murder in his eyes as he beheld the man who'd taken his innocence. He'd never caught the man's name, and nor did he care to. He'd gotten fatter, grayer, but there was no mistaking him. The old man smiled at him with those crooked teeth and suddenly Simon could almost smell the bourbon on his breath from that night.
It suddenly dawned on Anna...there would be no running for him. She grabbed his arm and pulled. "Simon, please..." she begged.
"It's been a while, eh, kiddo?" The man asked as if greeting an old friend. "You look good."
It made his skin crawl, his blood boil, and his sight turn red. Simon found himself striding toward him, and the man's face fell. Again, Anna pulled on his arm, but he wrenched free, breaking into a sprint. Simon leapt at him, the crowd on the sidewalk, suddenly alert and aware of them. Simon tackled him to the ground, his grayed head bouncing off the concrete. Pure rage fueled the boy as he knocked the man's hands aside and hit him with every ounce of hatred in his body, breaking his abuser's nose with those mangled fists of his, blood coating the misshapen knuckles. How he'd thought this would end for him was not reality. Simon wailed on him as people screamed and scattered. The older man wriggled and struggled in vain, gurgling blood as he was beaten to a pulp.
Anna screamed for him to stop, but he just wouldn't, couldn't. She again tried to pull him off of the man, but Simon pulled free and reached in his sleeve. The man gasped for air, his eyes opening wide in terror....just before Simon sank the serrated blade into one of them with a vicious, feral roar. He buried it to the hilt, screams of the bystanders filling the air. The boy glared down into the man's one good eye and watched the light leave it.
He panted heavily, his body shaking with the adrenaline coursing through him...but slowly, he came down. He was covered in blood and people were staring in horror. They scattered, screaming as he stood, looking back to Anna. The look in her eyes brought him back to reality...and broke his heart.
"Anna..."He said, reaching out, but she shied away. They'd been free. They had a chance...and he'd just taken it away from her.
"We need to go." She said in a sickened little voice. "Come on."
Simon looked down at the ruin of a man. He didn't regret what he'd done to him...only the consequences they would now be facing. He'd killed him in broad daylight in front of a crowd of onlookers.
"Come on!" Anna screamed, turning and running. It was a second or two before he joined her, leaving the corpse he'd just made behind him. They ran as fast as they could, making their way toward the train station, Simon shedding his blood-soaked jacket and leaving it in a trashcan. What they did from there was still up in the air, any plans they'd had were shot. They ducked through alleys and side streets, keeping away from any authorities until finally the doors to the station were in sight.
Simon shoved through the door with his shoulder, throwing it open, Anna right behind him. They looked around at the schedule for a train. Any train that would carry them away from there. The rush hour crowd was in full effect as they pushed their way through the sea of bodies, tickets secured and Simon clutching her hand all the way.
The train was in-sight, but it was going to be close. Simon had almost reached the doors when he felt her hand rip from his. Anna screamed. He wheeled around to find her being pulled at by two men. He'd seen them before, back in the cells. He knew who they worked for. He lunged forth and gripped her hands trying to pull her away. "LET HER GO!" He shouted.
Tears streamed down Anna's face as he struggled in vain. "Simon." She said, all time seeming to stop. Seconds felt like an eternity.
"I love you." She said.
Her boot connected with his chest and kicked him backwards, his hands leaving her's. He stumbled back, through the doors and into the train, watching her disappear into the throng of bodies...and the doors slid shut.
They'd gone all over the city, until he stopped at a high-class whiskey bar. Tessa had worried about getting in, but the bouncer seemed to know Miles and let them right in. She had to admit...she was impressed. A woman, impeccably made-up like a 1940's singer, but for the tattoos on her arms. She had a voice like silk, crooning out a swaying, melancolie tune. The men were all in suits and ties, and she could see in their coats that they were all armed. Likewise, the women were impeccably dressed, Something about them said they were every bit as dangerous as the men.
Tessa could feel her phone vibrate in her pocket and knew exactly who it was without looking. Her mother must have been losing her mind. She reached in and silenced the device. As they moved into the dimly lit, vintage tavern, she became aware that there were many sets of eyes upon her. She felt super underdressed.
Miles found them a table toward the back, pulling her chair out for her. She smiled up at him and took a seat. "Gentleman. I like it." she said.
"If I had a hat, I'd doff it." he joked, sliding into his own seat. A candle flickered beneath a maroon colored shade in the middle of the table.
"So. You can get anywhere, huh?" She said, leaning back in her chair.
"That's the rumor." he said with a shrug.
"How's that work?"
"Incredibly well." He said, nodding with a playful sincerity.
Tessa grinned, stifling a laugh. "No, I mean-"
"I know what you mean." Miles chuckled. "Mr. Falk has a lot of pull in this city. He does business with a lot of folks in power. Means we earn certain privileges."
"Like the layouts of concert venues?" she quirked a brow.
"Among others." A waitress in a form-fitting 40's style cocktail dress stepped up to them.
"Good Evening." She said, a hint of French in her accent.. "Welcome back to the Atlantis, sir. May I get you a drink?"
Miles smiled up to her, a familiar vibe between them. "Sophie. Good to be back. We'll take two glasses of Glenfiddich 1937. Please."
"Oui, Monsieur. A splendid choice. Right away." She said with a bow of her head.
Tessa was completely out of her element, but Miles was right at home. "Mercie." he responded before the woman left. Tessa watched her sway away from them. That woman knew exactly what she was doing and how to do it. She turned to her new friend, quirking a brow.
"And you speak French now?" She asked him.
Miles scrunched up his face and held up his thumb and forefinger a tiny bit apart. "Un petit peu."
She couldn't help the laugh that left her. "Man. If you were going for impressing me, you coulda stopped at the door."
"Hey, nothin' wrong with swingin' for the fences, right?" He asked, that little smirk on his face.
"So...how did YOU end up working for Jakob Falk?" She asked.
Miles seemed to consider that. It wasn't that he had to think about the answer...more with how much to say. In the end he decided to trust her. "I've always known him."
"Always?" She asked.
"Since I can remember." Miles nodded.
"So...you just slid on into this...position?" The waitress returned, sliding a pair of glasses before them. Tessa smiled up to her, but the woman, had a hint of something...disapproving in her own smile. She did not belong. Not yet.
Miles nodded to Sophie and took up his glass, taking a sip of the exorbitantly priced whiskey. His gaze again fell on Tessa. "I earned it."
There was something dark in his voice. A sort of harsh pride, that was borderline insulted by her insinuation. "With Mr. Falk, you are handed nothing. It took a lot, but...I convinced him of my worth."
Tessa's smile fell, then, feeling she'd crossed the line. "Sorry."
Again, that charm returned, Miles looking apologetic. "No, I'm sorry. It's, uh...I get a little...defensive about it. He took me in, made me the man I am today. I owe him everything."
Tessa forced a smile and took a sip of the scotch, her eyes widening as it burned down her throat. She was certainly not used to that, and started coughing. Miles laughed.
"Not a big scotch girl, huh?" He asked with a grin.
Tessa finished her coughing fit and chuckled. "Mm. No. Not exactly."
"It's an acquired taste." He nodded. Tessa blew out a lungful of air and took another sip, this time taking it a bit better, her eyes narrowing just slightly. "So. How'd you get into the music biz?"
Tessa shrugged. "My mom. As soon as I could talk, she had me in voice lessons. Entered me into competitions and school plays and all that stuff...."
Miles lifted his chin, getting a read on her. "Oh...so let me guess. Wanted to be a singer herself, but-"
"Never had the talent?" Tessa finished for him. "Bullseye."
"And she saddled you with the career she wanted. Class." He scoffed with a shake of his head.
"I mean, don't get me wrong...I love singing. I love creating music...but..."
"Sometimes you just want to be a normal girl?" he tilted his head.
Tessa was stunned by how observant he was. He read her like a book. She nodded slowly. His eyes flicked to one side and then back. It was so quick, she almost didn't notice. Almost. She looked where he had, the short-haired woman from the other night standing at the bar, glancing their way. Unlike the other women in attendance, she wore an impeccably tailored suit, those sharp features regarding her like a flea.
"Ruby." Miles said, calling her attention back. "She trained me. Only other person to sit at his side. Not big on conversation, but a good person to have backing you in a fight."
"You get in a lot of those?" Tessa asked.
"My fair share."
"You know, most people's fair share of fist fights generally sits around...zero." Tessa snickered.
"Yeah, I guess." He responded with a grin. "But you learn a lot about yourself in a fight. Ever been?"
"You inviting me?" She asked with a quirked brow.
Miles laughed and held up his hands. "Nonono. Wouldn't ever dream of it."
"You think I couldn't handle myself?" She asked, feigning offense.
"I think you're a decent person." He eyed her intently.
"I'm not. I'm really, really not."
"Who told you that?" He asked.
Tessa wasn't entirely sure how to respond, her lips parting and eyes dropping. She knew exactly who told her. Her mother, Tony...it wasn't until Simon that she actually felt she could be better.
"They hit you?" Miles asked gently.
Now, this was getting freaky, she thought.For a moment, she was certain he had to have been spying. He could see it in her body language, the way she suddenly seemed wary.
"Okay." She said, narrowing her eyes. "What is this?"
"What?" Miles asked, genuine confusion in his eyes.
"Are you ****ing with me or something?" Tessa asked.
"What? Tessa, no."
"Then how do you know all this s*** about me? You can't possibly." She insisted. "Are you watching me? Are you spying on me?"
Miles shook his head slowly. "Tessa...I don't need to. I can read it in your eyes. I see it in the way you carry yourself. You've been through...something awful. And I'm willing to bet it was because of them. It doesn't take a mind reader or a spy."
"You swear to me." She demanded.
"Tessa, it's my job to figure people out on the spot..."
"Swear!" She said, standing. "Or I'm leaving."
"I swear." He said, holding his hands out placatingly. "Please. Just sit. Stay."
The girl wasn't sure how to handle it all, but there was no lie in his eyes. She sighed and slumped down into her chair. "I'm sorry. It's just...it's not something I like to talk about."
Miles regarded her compassionately, quiet a moment. "Step dad?"
"I'm sorry." He said. Silence settled over the table until she looked up to him.
"Can we go?" She asked.
"Of course." He said, rising and calling to the waitress. "Sophie?"
The Frenchwoman nodded to him. "On Mr. Falk's tab. Absolument."
The pair grabbed their coats and headed out, Ruby's hawk-like eyes following them until the door shut behind them The ride home was silent. He seemed to know when conversation wasn't called for. They'd touched on an uncomfortable subject, and instead of trying to fix it, he let her have her space. The Audi rolled to a stop in the guest drop-off area. They sat there a moment, quiet.
"I'm sorry if I ruined the evening." Miles said, sparing her only a glance.
"No. It was...I actually really enjoyed myself. I'm sorry I'm a bit of a mess." She said.
"You were great." He assured her. Again that silence settled in. "Can I walk you to your door?"
Tessa couldn't help the grin that crossed her lips. "Walk me to my door? Am I going to get jumped on the way or something?"
Miles sniffed out a laugh and turned to her. "I'd just...feel better if I did. Can I?"
Tessa opened her mouth to say something sharp...but it didn't come out. "Yeah. Sure." she agreed.
They rode the elevator up to her floor and walked down the hall to the double doors of the penthouse. She turned to him, a hint of bashfulness suddenly taking her. "Well...I really did have a nice time. Thank you."
"You're welcome." Miles said. "Thank you for a nice evening. I promise, if we get to do it again, I'll keep the conversation a little lighter."
She laughed quietly and nodded.
"There will be a next time, yeah?" Miles asked hopefully.
"Oh...Definitely." She nodded sincerely.
Before another word could be said, the door was whipped open. Mary Bradley stood on the other side, haggard without her make up.
"Where the HELL have you been?!" She demanded of her daughter. "I have been CALLING you for the past two hours! Your bodyguard said you ran off on him at the concert! What the hell is wrong with you?!"
Tessa glared and walked in right past her. "Mom, not now."
"No, God damn it! I want to know! You're not to be on your own and you know it! You're not running around with that guttertrash Toews anymore. I'm not having you end up on some ****ing tabloid, ruining this for me!"
"Ruining it for YOU?!" Tessa shouted back in disbelief. "You think this is about you?!"
Tony came swaggering out of their room. "Oh, here we go. Let's hear it. Run your ****in' mouth again you little tramp. Come on."
"**** you, Tony." Tessa muttered under her breath.
"What was that?" He asked, hands going to his belt buckle.
Miles stepped in then. "Mrs. Bradley. Hi." He turned to Tony. "Hello, there."
The adults turned to him. Why was he addressing them? Probably another redneck piece of s*** like SImon, they thought.
"Who the **** are you?" Tony asked.
Miles played it aloof, smiling to the man. "Oh. My manners. I apologize. My name is Miles. Tessa and I went out for a bit tonight. Just to blow off some steam. I assure you, I took good care of her and, I'm sure you'll be pleased to know, made certain she was never in any danger."
Tessa gave him a pleading look, but he just gestured, saying he had it well in hand.
"So you're the little son of a bitch who helped her get outta there?"
Miles tilted his head to one side, eyeing the man curiously. "Sir. There's no need for that kind of talk."
"Listen, you little needle dick, you have exactly five seconds-"
"I'm sure Mr. Falk will be happy to confirm the strength of my character." Miles said, with a smile, looking Tony right in the eye.
"Mr. Falk?" Tony said, stopping in his tracks, a shadow of fear creeping across his face. "Jakob Falk?"
"Yes." Miles said amiably. "My employer."
A wave of realization came over Mary and Tony. This was not Simon Toews coming in guns blazing and cowing to their daughter's demands. This man could see them ruined beyond the physical.
"Now...Tessa just needed a night out to relax. I assure you there was nothing untoward going on, and as you can see, she has arrived safely. Farbeit for me to...intrude upon your parenting, but I believe you should just let her get some rest. Wouldn't you agree?" He looked from one to the other, that fear set deep in their eyes.
Tony swallowed hard and nodded. Miles smiled to him, like they were old friends. "Excellent. I'm glad we could agree."
He moved into the room, over to Tessa. "Again. I had a great time. We'll have to do it again soon." He leaned in and kissed her cheek. She was completely taken aback at the change that had come over her parents. They were actually scared.
"Ms. Bradley." He nodded to Mary and then Tony. "Sir. It's been a pleasure."
He started toward the door, stopping as he reached the handle. "And I just wanted to make sure you understand...I'll always take good care of your daughter when we're out. Mr Falk would be very upset if I allowed something to happen to her." He glanced back and looked at Tony. "Anything."
Tessa was almost certain the man was about to piss his pants. That macho bravado was a distant memory all the sudden. He nodded and Miles smiled to him.
Winter was in full effect, blanketing the city in sheets of white, a chill moving through the air even in the sunlight. Simon pulled his peacoat closed as he stepped outside, his breath visible as he exhaled. Falk taking down Orion Investigations was a warning. Once again, the people in his life were in danger because of him. There was no one to run to. Nowhere to turn for shelter. Over the past year, every car he'd stashed aside, every weapons cache he'd hidden throughout the city had been turned in and impounded. Now, he was regretting it. Time was, he'd just steal a new one, but even in this desperate state, he was pretty sure that was no longer him. It was time to leave. Time to pack his bags and never come back. He couldn't beat Falk. Not alone. And he most definitely WAS alone.
His Uber waited for him in the parking lot, a blue Honda Civic painted with the white of road salt. Simon pulled the door and slid inside, exchanging a few words and directions with the driver before they headed out onto those crowded, busy streets. Memories had come rushing to the front of his mind since Jakob Falk walked back into his mind. Most of them were unpleasant, but every now and again, one good one popped back up. Usually, involving Mulcahy. He wondered if the old priest was still around. Over the years, he often thought back to him, wondering what happened after he was taken.
The Civic ambled down the street, Simon spotting Old Man Hester's store. Or, rather, the porn shop that had once been Hester's. It had been decades since he'd been near this part of town. It was never what you'd call "nice", but it had gotten a lot more run down in the intervening years. He saw a dumpster he'd once eaten from on those months he was alone. Before Mulcahy. Before Falk. A little over a mile away was the industrial district and Falk's little dungeon. Being so close to it again was an odd feeling. A sense of dread creeping into the back of his mind. He was 35 years old now. He'd taken down criminal empires and gangs. He shouldn't be afraid of them capturing him again. Yet, here he was, feeling again like he was that same 15 year old boy, on the run for his life.
The old church came into view and something inside of Simon swelled. "Stop." The driver hit the brakes as Simon stared at the place. It had fallen into disrepair over the years, Some shoddy paint work that barely covered the graffiti on the walls, litter strewn all over the parking lot and clinging to the chain link fences. A high window had been broken and just boarded up, rather than being replaced. Simon paid the driver and stepped out of the car. If Mulcahy was alive...he might be in there. Right across the street. He could almost see him now as he did that first night. A tall, strong figure in the light of the moon, a cigarette between his lips. That night, he'd given Simon a roof over his head. Over the next few months, he'd given him purpose. Try as he might, Simon still never blamed him. It had been gambling debts that put him in Falk's possession, but Simon understood a fair bit about compulsion and how it affected one's life.
He stepped across that street, watching for traffic. He could remember Sundays after service, out there sweeping after everybody had left. Now they were buried in snow and leaves from Fall. Nobody had seemed to be trying there anymore. Standing outside and looking up at those massive, ornate oak doors still made him feel small. His boots sank into the pile of snow as he ascended the stairs, giving one of those doors a push. They had seemed so heavy back then. It was like trying to push a car. Now, of course, they were no big task. The inside wasn't much different than he'd remembered, aside from there being a bit more dust on everything and that big organ's pipes were showing hints of rust. The door shut behind him with an echo ringing out in that cavernous room. He walked down the aisle, fingers trailing along the pews. He could see there was damage to the pulpit, chips in the wooden corners, as if it had been knocked down a time or two. That life-sized cross with the realistically painted Jesus remained, just as it had over 20 years ago. Simon wasn't a believer, but somehow, seeing it gave him a comfort he couldn't explain.
"Sir?" A voice echoed through the room. "Can I help you?"
There was an age to it. A weakness. But that rumble was unmistakable. Simon turned slowly, gazing upon the face that greeted him. He was hunched a bit, clinging to a cane. Glasses covered his blue eyes, one clouded over almost completely with milky white. Wrinkles had carved into him and his hair had gone completely grey. But there was no mistaking him. It was Mulcahy.
"Can I help you, son?" He asked.
"Yeah." Simon said, stepping toward him. "I'm looking for someone."
"Well...not many people come around here anymore, but I'll see if I can help." Mulcahy smiled. God, he looked so frail. So weak.
"Tall guy. Brown hair. Blue eyes." He said.
Mulcahy chuckled. "Not much to go on."
"Decent fella. Old friend of mine." Simon continued. The old man squinted, still trying to figure him out. "You'd like him, Father. He's priest. But not a saint."
Mulcahy's face fell, his breath shuddering as he stepped back, bumping into the pew. He remembered those words and who he'd said them to. He couldn't forget the boy, even as age and life took so much from him, Simon Toews remained. "No." He said. "No, no. It can't be."
"It's been a long time, Father." Simon said, a smile spreading across his face as he reached out and steadied the old priest. Mulcahy took his arms in his hands and stared at him with saddened eyes. So many years had separated them. So much life. So much loss. It clearly hadn't been easy for either of them. Tears streamed down the old man's eyes as he wrapped his arms around Simon, pulling him close and clinging to him, completely overtaken. "I'm sorry." He said, his voice shaking. "I'm so, so sorry."
Simon was taken aback a moment, but slowly returned the hug.
Mulcahy was hard at work, preparing coffee for his guest. Simon sat at the old table, looking around and remembering. He could see the spot where Falk's goon had thrown him and knocked him out. There was a gouge in the wood where he'd connected and, for a moment, that pain felt fresh. He shut his eyes and shook it off. Even the kitchen was messier. Mulcahy moved across the tile with a severe limp, favoring that cane greatly. Things had certainly gone to s***.
"What the hell happened here, Father?" he asked, shaking his head.
The old man glanced over his shoulder. "Falk, I assume." he said. "Let leak certain lies about you and me and your disappearance." The rumors of impropriety had been especially painful. Never once had he behaved in an untoward manner with anyone. He prided himself on being someone who could be trusted. "People stopped coming around. Soon, they started moving with their kids to the other side of the street when I came around. Eventually, I got vandals and thieves...had to start locking up at night."
Simon frowned. He might not have been a man of faith, but such disrespect to a church still seemed wrong to him. Mulcahy ran a hand through that silver head of hair, as beleaguered sigh escaping him as his shoulder slumped.
"This town started to change after that. Businesses got boarded up. Crime went through the roof. Wasn't uncommon for me to go to sleep at night to the sound of gunshots. Just..." The priest turned to Simon. "There's a rot in the heart of this city and Jakob Falk is at the center of it all."
The old man looked to his leg and grimaced. "Even if this place weren't going to Hell,...hard to get out and clean graffiti and trash with a bum leg. Tried for a bit, but it got to be too much. And it gets even harder when you start getting older. Eventually, everything else starts falling apart."
The coffee maker beeped, signifying it was finished. Mulcahy turned and grabbed two mugs.
"How'd it happen?" Simon asked.
Mulcahy lowered his eyes, propping himself up on the counter, silent for a moment. "You don't remember? It happened that night."
Simon didn't have to be told which. Not many nights they'd spent around each other were exactly worthy of the tone in the old man's voice. It would be one of the last things SImon saw before being knocked unconscious and dragged away. The Father trying to protect him and taking a vicious blow to the back of the knee.
"Musta hit me just right, because he whacked me with that Baton and I never got right again. Doctor said there was a dislocation, torn muscle and some nerve damage and...just a mess." Mulcahy shook his head, letting a weary breath flow from him. "That night changed everything here. It all fell apart so damn quickly..."
Simon furrowed his brow. "I gotta ask. After was 24 years... Why stay?"
Mulcahy turned and looked him in the eye. "Because, I don't give up. I won't let men like Jakob Falk see me run. Not again. I still believe in the good of people. There's a lot of decent folks out there in need of guidance, and I intend to be here to give it to them to the best of my abilities. There's a lot of darkness in the world, Simon. It's never too late to be a light."
Simon had to admire his optimism, even if he didn't quite share that outlook on the world with his friend. After everything he'd seen and lost...he was pretty sure people were just people. Neither good nor bad, but capable of both. It just seemed like, more often than not, the bad deeds far outnumbered the good.
Mulcahy approached with the mugs. "Still take it black, I assume?" he asked.
A smirk spread across SImon's lips. "No, actually. Two cream, two sugar. Thanks. "
"My. You HAVE changed." Mulcahy joked, getting a laugh out of Simon.
"So..." Mulcahy said. "Tell me about yourself. You married? Kids? Any of that?"
A bitter little laugh left Simon's throat as he smirked to the priest. "No. Not exactly. Had a girl for a while, but things went south. Like they always seem to."
"Sorry to hear that." Mulcahy eyed him, sensing there was more.
"I...I had a daughter." Simon said quietly. Mulcahy just watched him and listened. "Sweet girl. Smart. Her name was Cici."
Mulcahy hazarded a little smile. He could feel the love in Simon's voice as he spoke of his daughter...but he noted his young friend referred to her in the past tense.
"I got into some trouble with a fella named Cotter. I crossed him and Cici and his wife paid for it. Threw the woman to her death and...and burned my little girl alive."
"God, I'm so, so sorry, Simon." Mulcahy whispered. "What did you do?"
Simon glanced to him. For a moment he considered whether or not to tell, but deep inside...he felt no shame for his response. "I wiped out every last one of those mother****ers out. Cotter, his men, his whole operation."
"That was you?" Mulcahy asked "I remember hearing a bit about that here and there."
Mulcahy was silent. It wasn't that he approved of it...but he could certainly understand.
"Besides," the Father said, "God forgives us all, even in our moments of greatest weakness, as long we repent."
Simon turned his eyes up to Mulcahy then, a fire burning behind those baby blues. "I'm not looking for forgiveness. He took everything from me. So, I took everything from him. My only regret is that it didn't last long enough."
Mulcahy could hear the pain in his voice. The rage that had burned nearly all his life and never completely went away. He felt for him. Part of him wished he'd been there during that time. To talk and console him. Maybe help keep him out of a life that would destroy the person he loved most. The younger man, sighed and stood, finally removing his jacket. The sleeves of tattoos covering his arms were revealed, disappearing under the sleeve of his t-shirt. Mulcahy paused a moment, looking at them.
"Mother of God, son. What are those?" He asked.
Simon shifted his gaze to his arms a moment. "Reminders."
"Every fight I ever won...and lost." He said, a bit distant. Mulcahy stared at the elaborate designs that snaked all across the canvas of Simon's skin.. They covered his arms and he could spy them creeping out from beneath his collar. He noticed, for the first time then, Simon's hands. There was no missing the fresh black eye and the fresh stitches, but this was...horrific. Raised scars littered his forearms beneath the inked skin. "Some of them are pretty recent. Some of them...some of them go back to our mutual friend."
"Jesus, Simon. What did they do to you?" Mulcahy asked sadly, not entirely sure he wanted to answer.
"Locked me up. Put me into cage matches with other kids. Had to get real comfortable with beating other kids half to death. Sometimes all the way. Eventually, you had to just square it with yourself that it was survival. That you couldn't really be blamed because some 8 year old would never take another breath because you crushed his windpipe with your foot. Didn't always work so well. Lost at first more than I won...that was pretty bad." Simon said. "But the worst nights were when you won. See...some men never see consequences for what they do...so they think they can do anything. Take anything. Well...they took from me. Me, Anna...all of us."
Mulcahy tilted his head, something perking him up. "Anna?"
Simon nodded slowly, his eyes lowering. "She was my friend. More than that, really. She kept me sane. Kept me alive...gave me hope. We escaped together. Made it 3 months on our own before I slipped up. We had to make a quick getaway and Falk's people were on our backs. Almost made it to the train when they grabbed her. I tried to save her, tried to pull her away...but she just knocked me into a train car right before the door closed."
"You ever see her again?" Mulcahy asked.
Simon shook his head. "Tried to make plans to go back and rescue her, but Falk had people out looking for me. I couldn't get close without them spotting me. Even had a few near misses over the next few months, but always managed to dodge it. When they found my room at a motel, I had to leave for a while. Eventually, they must've given up, because I stopped seeing them around. Even when they were gone, I wanted to go back, but...I was just too afraid."
"You don't have to explain yourself to me. I completely understand." the Father had heard rumors about what went on in Falk's Fighting Pits. It was a poorly kept secret, but nobody with any real power seemed to give a damn. He seemed to mull something over in his head for a moment before he finally spoke. "Tell me more about this Anna."
"Not a ton to tell." Simon shrugged. "We fought for him, got each other through the aftermath, and tried to survive. She was strong. One of the strongest people I've ever known. Smart. Kind. Even when she was trying not to be, it was...somehow still kind, if that makes sense."
The younger man smiled, remembering her. "She could be funny when she wanted. Kind of a dry sense of humor, but my God, Father...when she smiled..."
A lopsided grin formed on Mulcahy's aged face. "I...I need to ask you something, Simon." he said.
"Shoot." Simon said, sipping his coffee.
"Did...did she have red hair?"
Simon tensed visibly, the mug lowering slowly from his lips. "How did you know that?"
"And...a scar on her left cheek in the shape of a T?" He didn't need a verbal confirmation. The look on SImon's face was enough. "I know her."
Everything he'd said about her was dead on, as far as Mulcahy was concerned. She was every bit the strong, funny, kind soul Simon described. The younger man blinked, processing everything he'd just been told.
"Wait...you said...know. Not knew. You...KNOW her?" Simon asked.
Mulcahy nodded, that little smile returning. "We write twice a year."
He didn't know exactly how to process it. Anna was a piece of him he was certain was just gone for good. To hear she was not only alive, but well? That was a prospect he hadn't counted on.
"You ought to look her up." Mulcahy said.
Simon's gaze shifted up to the priest and he shook his head slowly. "I don't think that's a good idea."
Mulcahy barely missed a beat. "Why?"
Those blue eyes turned downward. "I shouldn't even have come here. Everything I do, everything I touch suffers because of me. I can't do that to her. Not again."
They were silent a moment, Mulcahy just watching his old friend. The weight of so many dead and hurt sat on Simon's shoulders, dragging him down.
"I think you should go see her." Mulcahy said. He took Simon's hands in his and looked him in the eye. "I think it will help."
"I can't." Simon insisted.
"You know that isn't true."
Simon opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out for a moment. He would kill to see her again. But he just knew it would bring the mess he'd created crashing down around her. "What if I go...and I just lead him to her?"
"You think he cares about her anymore? He didn't when she came to me." He said, softly.
Simon tilted his head curiously. "What do you mean?"
"Not my place to say." The old man said. "Not my story to tell."
God, the conflict boiling inside was on the man's face as clear as day. "Simon." He whispered, gripping his hand a little tighter. "Sooner or later, you're going to have to stop blaming yourself. Go. Talk to her. I promise, you won't regret it."
Miles walked up the steps to his apartment, the memories of the night before fresh in his mind. After leaving Tessa at her apartment, he went out, wandering the city, spending his time in a few low-key bars and eventually stopping at a 24 hour diner. He wasn't big on sleep, and only did so when absolutely necessary, but tonight was different. He was still running on his 6th cup of coffee. His night out with the young starlet had been one of the best he could recall. It wasn't something he was used to. Part of him couldn't quite process what was so different. When he talked, she actually listened, rather than waited for her turn to speak. As far back as he could remember, people expected something of him. Usually, it was his body, his worth boiled down to simply fighting and sex. It was all he knew. Only Tessa seemed to genuinely enjoy being around him. She demanded nothing, expected nothing and he didn't exactly know how to react. He supposed that was why he'd insisted on walking her to her door. Why he'd put on that display with her stepfather. But even then, she didn't seem grateful for the subtle threats of violence. She seemed concerned. He couldn't understand that. That man would never lay a hand on her again, and she seemed...sad. Never let it be said that Miles had an understanding of the fairer sex.
His keys jingled in the door, unlocking it and giving it a push open. He could sense her there before he even walked in. A dark figure silhouetted by what light could pierce the drawn shades. Ruby sat in a chair, still in her immaculately tailored suit, those sharp, cold eyes showing a hint of disapproval. Miles took a moment to look at her. Those high cheekbones, full lips, and light green eyes locked on him with a steely gaze. Her short, dark brown hair was parted on the left, hanging longer on the right. The somewhat androgynous Ruby was petite, hiding her athletic form beneath those suits, the hints of her tattoos sneaking out from under the sleeves, but he always found her to have a sort of severe beauty. Most underestimated her, but he knew what she was capable of.
"Ruby." He said, casually, shutting the door behind him.
"What the **** do you think you're doing?" She asked him coldly.
"How'd you get in here?" He ignored her question and moved into the kitchen, scavenging in the fridge for a drink.
"Through the door." she said, eyes narrowing. "Answer the ****ing question. What are you doing with that girl?"
"None of your ****ing business." He said, pouring himself a glass of orange juice.
"That isn't your job, Miles." Her eyes trailed to him, disapprovingly.
"Never said it was. I met a girl, we had fun. End of." He said calmly.
"Tessa Bradley is a high value asset. Nevermind her connection to Toews, she's a public figure. People see you out there and it can bring the wrong kind of attention on Mr. Falk." She explained, standing up and walking over to the counter, stopping across from him. "If you need companionship, talk to Mr. Falk and he will arrange for it.
"I don't need him to get me a girl." He said, staring daggers. "And I don't need his permission."
"Your job is to serve as Mr. Falk's right hand. Your loyalty is to him and him alone. There's no room for this young lovers bulls***. Either you're with him or you're not." She said cooly.
"I've given my life to him." Miles eyes darkened. "My loyalty is beyond question. As for the girl...don't worry about it. She's fun. But that's it" He knew it was lie even as the words left his lips. He didn't know why, of course. It wasn't like he'd ever experienced anything like it before.
"That so?" She asked, a knowing smirk on her lips. "Let's say, for the sake of argument, Mr Falk has use of her with Toews, I can't help but wonder how firmly that loyalty lies. Would you turn her over? Harm her? Kill her if he had need? Personally? I have my doubts."
Miles stared daggers at her. She'd been there since the beginning. A fighter a few years older than himself. One of the fiercest to come up through Falk's ring. The first of the men who tried to bed her ended up castrated. When asked about it afterwards, she only bared her bloody teeth. It solidified her reputation among the crowd as a girl not to mess with. The men certainly kept their distance, which suited her fine. She was more interested in the women anyway. She never allowed herself to be their victim. When put in a room with them, she controlled it all, just as she did every weekend in the ring. There was a sick pleasure for her in taking power away from the powerful. When Miles had become strong enough to win, he rapidly became her biggest competitor. Even in their brutal climb to the top there was a measure of respect there, despite a complete lack of warmth between them. Still, he knew that she would relish the opportunity to take him out if given the chance.
"Mr. Falk doesn't need to worry about me. When called upon, I'll get the job done."
"Of course you will." She said, those bright, cold eyes never leaving his. Miles didn't so much as blink. Ruby stepped back from the counter.
"You're being watched, Kid. Watch your step. All I need is a reason." she said quietly and walked across the room.
Miles stared straight ahead and not at her. "Ruby?" He called after her, the woman halting at the door. "Don't ever threaten me again."
A smirk played across those sharp features and she brought her middle and pointer fingers to her temple, throwing off a little salute to him, leaving him alone as she stepped out.
Once again, the grey dreariness of the city was in his rearview, SImon behind the wheel of a rented Ford sedan. He expected there to be a weight lifted, like the last time when he met Kate, Virgil and Millie. He was running again...but this time there was no relief. This time, he was headed for something, completely uncertain of what awaited him on the other end of it. Anna would be there, but what would he find when he got there? The expanse of fields were now blanketed in miles and miles of snow, the sun hidden behind a grey veil of clouds. How the hell had he let Mulcahy talk him into this? One moment, he was heroically swearing off putting his friends and loved ones in danger, and the next, he was packing his bags.
After everything he'd seen and done, he was surprised to find himself nervous at the prospect of meeting her again. Mulcahy hadn't exactly been forthcoming about what she was up to, other than the fact that she was unmarried and reasonably happy in whatever life she'd carved out for herself. Part of him wanted to just turn around before he ****ed it up for her. But curiosity, and some nameless desire drove him onward. He had to see her, even if she immediately sent him packing, he had to know it was really her.
His car slowed to stop at the crossroads, a sign pointing North reading "Haven".
"Bit on the nose, Anna." He chuckled to himself, flipping on the turn signal and cutting the wheel. She was on the far outskirts of town, Mulcahy had told him. The actual town took him back to Noble for a moment. That small, rural, salt of the Earth kind of place. He could definitely see the appeal. He passed through following the road as it became increasingly flanked with snow-covered pines. She lived in relative seclusion out here. Close enough to society to keep herself fed, and far enough away to be left alone. She was always the smart one, he thought. If he'd had half a brain, he'd have cleared out years ago. Maybe he could have avoided all the pain he'd been through in the past decade and change.
He travelled up the snowy, ill-plowed road until he saw the ranch. It was bigger than he expected. Stables and a large barn were off to the left and right of a large two story house, wider than it was tall. Wooden fences flanked the road, stopping in the large area in front of the house Three or four different cars were parked in along one side of the house, one of them a big, beat-up pick up. Lanterns hung upon the porch cast a warm light in the approaching night. Smoke rose from a chimney over the left side of the building, and he could see different people of multiple ages walking around inside through the windows. Did she have a family, he wondered? Hadn't Mulcahy mentioned she was unmarried? Maybe the old man got mixed up, he thought. Good for her, if she did. If anyone deserved it...
Simon pulled to a stop in the nearest clear space, remaining in the car for a moment. Once again, that fear came back. What if she told him to go away. What if she took one look and couldn't fake it enough to see him? He didn't think he could handle that. Part of him just wanted to turn around and leave. Let her live her life happy. Without him.
His eyes closed and he just breathed. In. Out. Let it go, Simon. Get out of the car.
The car door creaked open and he stepped out into the cold. His boots crunched in the snow as he made his way to the door, every step feeling like it weighed a metric ton. He was one the verge of running when that door opened. Simon froze.
Anna stood there. Her green eyes softer now, her red hair healthy-looking and tied in a loose bun. She wore a cream colored sweater under a slightly oversized rancher's jacket and a pair of blue jeans, slightly faded from wear. The scars remained, but they were less noticeable now. She was beautiful. More beautiful than he remembered. Just looking at her, his heart ached. She stared back, like she was seeing a ghost. He couldn't decide if the look on her face was sadness or happiness. Maybe it was a bit of both.
"Hey, Anna." he said quietly.
Her eyelids fluttered and a small laugh left her. "Hey, Simon."
The redhead smiled then, stepping forward and down the steps to him. Immediately, her arms wrapped around him and pulled him close. In an instant, the past 20 years disappeared. Simon held her just as tight, clinging to make sure she didn't disappear, the ensure he wasn't dreaming. Then...something inside broke. Wave after wave of emotion hit him hard and the tears began to come. Simon couldn't stop it. It just came. His breath came out in a quivering whimper, his eyes clamping shut. Anne just held him tight as his body shook, wracked with sobs.
When she finally pulled back, her eyes were glistening with her own tears, a hand reaching up and stroking his cheek. A chuckling breath left her and she sniffed, smiling up at him. "I guess we have a lot to talk about, huh?"
(OOC Note: Written to this music, if it helps. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wt_IoFlvKFA Writing this scene utterly destroyed me)
The house was as warm and welcoming as he'd imagined. The sounds of people going about their tasks filled the air. The scent of a warm meal wafting out from the kitchen. All over were pictures of kids and adults alike. In all of them, Anna stood with them, that warm, gentle smile on her face.
"Take your coat?" She offered Simon with a glance over her shoulder, pulling her own jacket from her shoulders.
Simon kicked the snow off his boots and stepped inside, removing that peacoat and handing it off. "Thank you."
Anna carried them to a closet and putting them up on hangars. A little girl came running through the room to her, bright eyed with a big mess of curly blonde hair. "Ms. Anna."She begged her attention.
Anna smiled brightly to the girl, her tone raising sweetly. "Yes, Miss Daisy."
"Can I feed the horses, pleeeeeeease?" She tugged on Anna's sleeves excitedly.
"Yes, sweet girl." Anna grinned and kissed the top of her head. "Yes, you can."
The little girl looked absolutely blissful at this gift of a chore, letting out a little "Eeeeee!" in response.
"Did you say hi to my friend?" Anna asked the little girl. Daisy shrank a bit, suddenly shy looking at him.
"Hi." She said a bit sheepishly. Simon crouched down to her level and smiled, offering her his hand.
"Heya, Daisy." He said. "I'm Simon. Anna and I are old friends."
The hint of a smile formed on the girl's face as she placed her tiny hand in his.
"Nice to meet you." She said politely.
"Likewise." He nodded. "Don't let me keep you, kiddo. Those horses were giving each other funny looks out there. I think they're getting pretty hungry."
Daisy giggled and ran off.
"Hat and gloves!" Anna called after her. Simon quirked a brow to Anna and smirked.
She held her palms up and shrugged. "Kid loves 'em."
"Oh yeah,He chuckled. "I'm sure she's the only reason you have them. Anna graced him with teasing little smirk.
"Yknow...Somehow, I didn't see you becoming a farmgirl."
"You and me both. But...that's a bit of a long story."
Simon imagined there were a lot of "long stories" for them to delve through. But for now...he had one thing gnawing at his mind. "So...uh...Daisy there?"
"Mmhmm?" Anna responded closing the closet and slipping out of her sneakers.
"She's one of my kids." Anna nodded, not yet sure of what he was asking.
"Oh." Simon said, his brows raising. "You, uh...you had kids, huh?"
Her brow creased as she looked to him curiously. Then she got it. "Oh!" She laughed. "Oh, no, no, no. Not like that. She and her mother stay here. They got caught up with a, uh...well."
"Not a nice guy?"
"No. It was a bad situation. They had to get out of it, so they came to me." She explained, leading him into the busy kitchen. A large man at the stove cooking up a stew, Anna gently placed a hand on his elbow as she passed the pair of them sharing a friendly smile. "S'cuse me, Otis."
"Ms. Anna." He nodded to her. "Grub's almost up."
"Smells great. Thanks, Otis."
Simon and the big man shared a glance, a slight defensiveness in the stranger's eyes as he regarded the tattooed newcomer. Simon nodded to him, a bit awkwardly. Otis sized him up and lifted his chin. Anna glanced over her shoulder.
"Get you a drink? Coffee, soda, water?" She asked.
"Coffee sounds good." He nodded. Anna poured them each a cup, handed his off to him and lead him through the house. Kids were playing games, an elderly couple sat at a chess board, and a few women were chit-chatting. They pushed their way through a set of double doors into a dining room, Anna sliding into a chair.
Simon looked around, taking it all in, flashes of Virgil and Kate's running through his mind. It was as every bit as cozy, but there was an energy to it, a life in the atmosphere of the place. He sank down onto a chair, mixing cream and sugar in his cup. "What is this place?"
Anna thought a moment. She'd never put a name to it, really. "Well...it's...kind of a half-way house. A refuge for..."
"People like us?" He finished for her. The smile on her face dimmed. It was impossible to leave the past behind, though they'd both tried like hell. Some days they could even convince themselves they'd buried it.
"Yes." She said, those emerald colored eyes dropping to the brown liquid in her mug. "Lot of people out there going through a lot of bad stuff. Sometimes, they just need a helping hand. If I can provide that...well, I feel like it's my duty."
A smile crossed his lips, watching her. Even when they were locked up together, she was a protector of the weak and damaged, himself included. He should have guessed this was where she'd end up. Suddenly, the image returned to him of the last time they'd seen each other, the girl being dragged off into a sea of people as the doors of the train slid shut. When their eyes connected again, he could tell they were thinking the same thing.
"Anna..." he said.
"Simon..." She protested, but he pressed on.
"Please." He said. "I need to know what happened."
Her eyes slid shut, Anna remaining silent for a long moment. When she opened them again...she was there.
The world around her was muffled beneath a burlap sack secured over her head. Her hands were bound behind her back with zip ties. They were tight. Too tight. The rigid plastic dug into her wrists uncomfortably. Simon had been right. The time had come when everything fell apart, just as he'd said it would. Part of her was furious and sickened at what he'd done. It was the cause of all this. But, deep down, she understood. What that man had done to him...to so many other young boys...he deserved to face justice for what he'd done...but she knew it offered no satisfaction. How many men had used her just like that man had used Simon? How certain had she been that putting a bullet between her abuser's eyes would assuage any pain and shame she felt over what had happened? Killing him did not make it go away. It just left her feeling hollow. But, still...she understood.
Anna was roughly yanked to her feet and pulled out of the car, immediately going limp. She couldn't escape, but damned if she was going to make it easy for them. Her boots scraped against the concrete floor, the barest hints of light visible through that scratchy burlap hood. It was the smell that told her where she was. She knew it all too well. Three months hadn't been enough to wipe it from her memory. The men dropped her to the ground, the girl landing on her side. The familiar, cool, damp concrete sending a chill through her bones. Anna did her best not to panic. It was time to take things a step at a time. The only certainty she had...was that she would not fight. Not ever again. No matter what they did to her. She would find a way.
How long she laid there, she couldn't tell. Minutes, hours, it all blended together. When the door creaked open, she flinched at the sudden sound. A pair of hands grabbed her and put her on her knees. She jerked her body out of their grasp, defiant to the end. Footsteps approached, but she didn't have to guess whose. He was humming a tune to himself. Quietly muttering the words.
"We'll meet again." he sang. "Don't know where..."
Her hands began shake, and she tried her best to still them.
"Don't know when...but I know we'll meet again some sunny day..."
The hood was pulled from her head, the light blinding her for a moment. Slowly, she began to make out the figure in front of her. Jakob Falk sat in a metal folding chair, that fancy suit flawless and clean, his scarred face regarding her pitilessly.
"Hello, Anna." he said calmly. "Welcome back."
She didn't respond, just glared a hole through his face. He did not seem bothered by it at all. He took in a lungful of air, letting it out in a long sigh. "Anna, Anna, Anna. You and Simon caused an awful lot of trouble."
Her eyes remained locked on him, something predatory in them mingling with pure, unadulterated hate.
"I had such plans for the both of you." he said, turning his eyes up at her. "You were to sit at my side. Want for nothing. Fear nothing. But you just. Couldn't. Be patient."
The tears that welled in her eyes were not out of sadness. They were the expression of unfettered rage. Still, she never broke eye contact. She would not cow to him.
"Did it feel good? Killing Mr. Stills? Killing Mr. Larkin? Was it worth it, Anna? For some silly idea of freedom? Eeking out a living on the scraps of society?"
"No." She said, finally. "Because we never were free. Were we? No matter what we do, we'll never be free of you. Will we? You made sure you branded us for life."
"I made you stronger."
She sneered at him. "You truly believe that, don't you?"
"I do." He nodded.
"You sad, sad little man." she shook her head. "It ends now."
Falk was not amused. "No. No, my dear. It's just the beginning."
She remained defiant, smiling right in his face. "I'll never be what you tried to make me."
"Oh? Well, let me tell you what you *will* do. You will go back into the cages. You will fight. You will repay your debt to me. And if you survive...then I'll decide what use you are to me."
"No." She said confidently. "Never again."
His brow furrowed. "Come now, Anna. You know what happens in the ring."
"Better than you do." She fired back. "And I won't lift a finger."
"You'll die." He said plainly.
"Then I'll die on my own terms."
Falk wasn't sure how to handle this. She was utterly defiant and unafraid of him. Whatever Simon had gotten up to with her out in the world, he'd given her a strength Falk had not seen before.
"If that is your fate." He nodded slowly. "Then so be it."
He stood then, slowly and started toward the door. As he reached for the knob, he glanced back to her. "Don't worry about Simon." Falk said. "It's only a matter of time. He can't hide forever."
Once again, he began humming the tune to "We'll Meet Again", low, slow, and haunting as he stepped through the door.
The girl was obstinate. Rebellious. But then, she would have had to be to make it as far and as long as she had. Jakob couldn't have that. That fire would have to be quashed somehow. Anna was fearless. It would take work to find her weakness. It was easier before, all he had to do was threaten Toews. Now she was emboldened, a sense of purpose achieved. Many had come through there with the confidence she possessed, but that was at the beginning when they had no idea what awaited them. Eventually, they all cracked. Anna knew exactly what world she'd reentered and still, she practically dared him to come for her. Jakob's lifeblood was control. Anna legitimately scared him.
He stood in that finely appointed office, the scent of fresh coffee and leather mingling with mahogany in air around him. Falk stared out the window overlooking the city. Grey skies showering everything in white, fluffy flakes. A world blissfully unaware, ripe for the taking to his mind. If only he could have grabbed Toews, this would have been so much easier. He underestimated the girl. Figured she'd beg for him, do everything in her power to stay with the boy and doom them both. From what he'd been told, it had been her own choice that separated the two of them. Granted, after seeing what the kid had done to Tobias Larkin, he was vaguely relieved. Falk had never cared for the man, himself,. In fact, he thought very little of the men and women who partook in his fighters, but the leverage and power it gave him over the rich and powerful was priceless. After everything that had happened, he couldn't have the boy in a room with them again. Simon was willing to kill, even if it wasn't in self defense. Putting him back in rotation would pile up bodies and questions would, inevitably, start getting asked. Attention he didn't want or need would be cast in his direction. Still...he wanted some retribution. Simon Toews killed his men. Made him look foolish. Dead, he was of little use. No. Jakob wanted him to hurt and the girl was not enough for him. Scars and bruises could heal, but the heart wasn't so easy to mend. He'd find a way. It was only a matter of time.
A knock came from the door, stealing away his attention. Jakob threw a glance toward the pebbled glass, a male outline on the other side, a white lab coat just barely recognizable upon his person.
"Come." He called out.
The door creaked open and Dr. Steinman, his new medical examiner entered the room. Tall, wiry, and always a little twitchy. His brown hair kept short and always on the messy side. Bags darkened the underside of his eyes, a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow on his gaunt cheeks. The good doctor had his license revoked after prescription meds went missing, his recreational habits becoming a liability to the hospital. But the man had skill. The combination of talent and an exploitable flaw was like catnip to a man like Jakob Falk.
"Mr. Falk." he addressed his employer. Jakob offered that amiable smile.
"David. How may I help you?" He greeted the man.
Steinman fidgeted a bit, his eyes lowering and refusing to make contact with Falk's, "Um...it...uh...The girl." He struggled.
Jakob folded his hands behind him, stepping out around his desk. "Yes. Anna. Is there a problem."
"What?" He asked, the barest hint of panic in his tone. "No. No, nothing like that?"
"Excellent. I want to get her back in rotation as soon as possible." Falk nodded. "Wouldn't do to have a sickly wretch out there infecting the clientele."
Steinman scratched at his neck, clearly high on his own stash again. "It's...I-I don't think that's a...uh...a good idea."
Falk squinted, eyeing him a moment. "And why, may I ask, not?"
"Well...th-the girl. She...she's um...she's...pregnant."
Falk's interest was piqued. "Pregnant?"
"Y-yes, sir." Steinman nodded.
"Positive. About...3 or 4 weeks along." the doctor confirmed.
Well, that was a development. There was no doubt in Jakob's mind who the kid's father was. Given the timeframe, there was only one person it COULD be. A small smile played across his scarred face. In an instant, his concerns went away. He had his way in. Anna had something to lose.
It didn't take long for the girl to figure out what was happening to her. Her body began to change and when she started to show, there was no doubt what was happening. Every day she waited for some pervert to barge in and force himself on her. But it never came. She never received visitors, aside from the doctor to check up on her and the people who dropped off her meals. It was not what Anna expected at all. Falk had her put up in a decent room, not unlike the motel she and Simon spent those months in. She was well fed and cared for as the pregnancy continued. For the first few months she rarely slept. Most nights, she paced the room, trying to come up with an escape plan. The door was locked from the outside. Falk had her on lockdown. She wasn't even certain where she was, but she was sure that if she could get through that door, she'd find a guard and the long hallway waiting her. Escape was not an option.
It wasn't just the hopelessness of the situation or the utter confusion of her circumstances that was the most difficult. It was the loneliness. Never having anyone to talk to or confide in was torture. Denying affection or even the slightest amount of joy made even the doctor's visits an event to look forward to. Falk excelled in these kinds of mind games. Months passed and her body kept changing, new aches and pains cropping up that the junkie doctor told her were normal. Aside from that, the conversation was limited to the clinical. Whenever she tried to talk about anything else, he either ignored her or interrupted, saying "We're not allowed to talk about that." There were people who saw childbirth as a miracle. Something to be excited about and look forward to. That wasn't going to be her experience. When she wasn't trapped with crushing lonliness, she dreaded the thought of what Falk would do with the kid once it was born. Would he be evil enough to kill it? Would he hold it hostage while making her do his bidding? The worst she could imagine was the man raising her baby to be like her and Simon. Put into the ring when it came of age and made into a fighter and sold to the highest bidder for those nights of terror she was subjected to in her own youth? It chilled her to the bone to even consider it.
Some nights, she'd talk to Simon as if he were there. Imagining his side of the conversation. In those moments of delusion, he'd promise he was coming for her. That he'd take her away from all this and they could live happily with their child, far from the reach of this hellish place. As comforting as the thought was...it wasn't what she wanted. She hoped Simon was far, far away. Living safely, never to be hurt again. One of them had to get out alive, and she firmly believed he deserved it most of all. Whatever they did, she would take it. She would be strong and persevere, even in the face of Falk's emotional tortures. Other nights, she found herself with her hands on her expanding belly, talking to the unborn child within. She told it about its father. About who they were and all their hopes and dreams. She apologized to her future baby for the world it would be born into. She apologized that she couldn't save it.
Nine months passed. She was awoken from a rare moment to true slumber by a sudden rush of wetness and stabbing pain. For a moment, she thought she was being attacked, but when she found nobody there, she realized what was happening. As she stood, the contractions hit like a mack truck, the agonized groans leaving her of their own accord. Panic filled her as she doubled over, sinking back onto the bed. The guards must have heard her, because moments later, the doctor barged into the room. He spoke to her encouragingly and gently, getting her to lie down. It was rare to see him when he wasn't strung out on something, and tonight, she was grateful for him. There would be no epidural or pain management here, but he stuck with her through it all. Over the next 9 hours, it felt like the kid was ripping her body in half.. The agony was like nothing she had ever experienced, even in her short, painful life. It was only sheer will, adrenaline, and determination that she finally pushed one last time and the baby was out.
Exhaustion doesn't begin to even touch what she felt. Her body felt destroyed, her throat hoarse from screaming. She found herself trembling uncontrollably as her head swam wildly, the room spinning in a kaleidoscope of color and light. Try as she might, she couldn't catch her breath. Dimly, she was aware of her newborn's wailing. Weak and listless, she grabbed for him with one arm, but her body refused to respond in any way that might make a difference.
The room began to get dark, the world fading away as she was injected with something. The last thing she heard before losing consciousness was the doctor's voice.
"It's a boy."
Simon stared at Anna, heartbroken for her but also for himself. They had a son. Somewhere out there was a boy he'd never known. His flesh and blood. It took a moment to process. Anna wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, pushing away the tears that streamed down her cheeks. She ran her fingers through those red locks, pushing them behind her ear and regaining her composure.
"They patched me up, got me healed and the next thing I knew, I was out on the street." Anna told him. "No...taunting. No goodbyes. Nothing. Just went to sleep and woke up in an alley in middle of nowhere. I tried to find him. To rescue him from that son of a bitch. But he'd gone. The old factory was empty. Completely cleared out. I spent the next 2 years trying...but after a while, I had to give up."
"Jesus, Anna..." Simon muttered, reaching out and clasping her hand. "Why didn't you come find me?"
he asked gently.
Those glossy green eyes turned up to him. "I didn't want to drag you back into it. I thought you'd be better off not knowing. You were safe."
"We could have gone after him together." He insisted. "Taken him down and gotten our son. We could have had a life with him."
"Simon. How? Storm whatever fortress Falk built for himself? Have you kill a dozen or so men or die trying?"
"If I had to." He said it as if it were common sense. Anna sighed, her face falling into a frown and shook her head.
"I didn't want that for you." She said. Her brow creased, images of their escape had never left. "You know...when I saw what you did to Stills...and then to that...that man...I was scared."
"I'd never have hurt you." He said.
Anna smiled sadly, a shake of her head loosening a few strands of those red tresses. "I wasn't scared for me."
"They had it coming." He insisted, a darkness in his countenance.
Anna's eyes closed, a bitter laugh escaping her. "See...that is exactly what I'm talking about. I didn't want you to become...THAT. This cold...distant...killer. You're better than that."
Simon seemed confused, his hand leaving hers. No. Not confused offended. "You don't know that. You don't know what I've done."
"No. You want to know who I am? You think I'm the good guy? This is what I do. People come for me and I make goddamn sure they don't get a second chance. I've taken down ****ing empires, Anna. I've killed so many men I lost count."
"Yeah?" She asked him. "And how's that worked out for you?"
"Pretty damn good." he said defensively.
"And there's always another one. Isn't there?" She said quietly. "Always more violence. Always more death. Always more blood on your hands."
"I do what I have to."
"Oh, bulls***." She said. "You know what happens when you surround yourself with violence? When you go out looking for the next fight? And the next. And the next? And the next?" Anna asked him. "You find it or it finds you."
"You don't know that." He shook his head obstinately.
"Oh, I don't?" She nodded bitterly.
"They came after you and me. I took care of it. They killed a terrified woman, just trying to escape her piece of s*** abusive husband. And I took care of it. I had a girlfriend and they came for her. Took care of it. They took my..." His voice caught in his throat. "They murdered my daughter. My sweet, baby girl. And you know what I did? I wiped out every. Single. Last. One of those mother ****ers, and I'd do it again in a ****ing heartbeat."
Anna softened visibly at the mention of Cici. "I didn't know you had a daughter."
"Her name was Cici. And in a world full of darkness, that kid was a ****ing light brighter than the sun. She was innocent and she was good, and they killed her like she was nothing and made me watch. All because I helped some scumbag criminal's wife. So I did the same to them. I sent those bastards screaming to hell. Because THAT is who I am."
Anna blinked, quiet a long moment. "I'm sorry." She said. "I'm sorry that happened to you. MY heart sincerely breaks for you, Simon."
"I tried, Anna." he said sadly. "I really did. But I didn't know anything else. When we got separated, I wound up running with a couple crews, getting into that life...but when I tried to get out, something always just pulled me back in."
"Don't you see?" She asked him gently. "You went right back into it. Running with crimelords and criminals...You could have gotten your daughter away from all that. You could have gotten help. For Cici, for that woman you mentioned. You could have run. Gotten somewhere safe. And I'm not saying you're to blame for her death. But you chose this life. You chose to surround yourself with violence and death and darkness. I've been there, Simon. I know. It's all we had. But that life only begets more pain. More blood. You need to break that cycle or one day, it is going to catch up and consume you and everyone you hold dear."
He didn't know how to respond. The defensive part of his brain wanted to contest it, but she was right. Every single time something bad had happened, it was because he'd exacerbated a situation into a needless, bloody conflict and it ended up hurting the people around him. Paige had implied as much.
"You can be better." Anna told him. "You can be SO much more. I know you have it in you. You always have. You just have to see it in yourself, like I do. You have to want it."
"I can't." He said simply, his voice breaking.
"Simon." She said, taking his rough hands in her's. "Look at us."
She stared into his eyes, her face marred by scars that seemed dim compared to the ones people couldn't' see. "Look at what what he made us. How much more do we have to give before we stop letting him control our lives?"
Something in the core of him ached. It sounded so easy when she said it. He wanted so very much to believe it was possible to well and truly let go. To put Falk and everything he'd taken from them behind. But he couldn't. The hatred, for Jakob Falk and for himself was too much. He didn't deserve peace.
Anna could see it in his eyes, sadness settling in as she released his hands. She'd never give up on him, but he had to want her help if she was ever able to make a difference.
"Do me a favor?" She asked.
Simon glanced up to her.
"Stay." She said. "Just a few days. And keep an open mind. Think about what I said."
Simon nodded slowly. "Okay."
"Yeah!" That smile returned, bringing out his own. There was still some kind of love in those green eyes. Some affection. "It really is good to see your face again."
The weary fighter ran a hand through his short cropped hair. "You have no idea."
The snow-covered city sprawled outside the window of Falk's office, a crackling fire giving warmth while outside, it was frigid. Was hunched over his desk, going over reports of some kind. The sort of business Miles found terribly dull and uninteresting. He was a physical creature, with not much of a mind for numbers or the complicated ins and outs of running an operation like Mr. Falk's. His role was simple. Go there. Hurt that person, or bring back information. He didn't need a degree to do that. He'd had his education growing up under Falk's watch.
Ruby sat, her Italian Leather booted foot propped upon a vintage, ornately carved coffee table as she sharpened the little flip-out knife in her hand. The whetstone scraped along the sharp edge of that blade, ending with a "shink!" each time. The sound was beginning to grate on him. Miles knew she did it on purpose. If one didn't know the truth, they'd think it was almost flirtatious. But the reality was that there were rules to working for Jakob Falk. In-fighting amongst his inner circle was forbidden. No matter the ill will. Those who broke the peace paid for it dearly. So, they skated the fine line. Passive aggressively poking and prodding each other in small ways. Part of Miles thought it was in the attempt to get him to slip up and try something stupid. Give her permission to put him down.
Miles was elsewhere today. His mind on the blonde pop star he'd be seeing tonight. On things far more exciting and fun than standing around in dreary silence. The scribbling of pen mixed with the ticking clock and the "shhhhhhhink!" of Ruby's knife. Over and over again, seemingly onto infinity.
Falk cleared his throat and closed his ledger finally., leaning back in his chair, hand going to his forehead as he sighed. Heavy weighed the head that wore the crown, Miles supposed. He turned to his boss.
"Alright?" he asked.
Falk swiveled around to face him, eyes upturning to the young man. "Mr. Grieger is short again."
Miles knew what that implied, what would need to be done. Those who didn't come through on their debts faced a varying scale of retribution. Jonathan Grieger was a wealthy CEO of a failing company. Falk had seen to it that he had the funds to keep going...for a bit of a kickback. Thus far, the good Mr. Grieger was not living up to his end of the bargain. Twice before, he'd failed to pay up on time. This was strike 3.
"You and Ruby." Falk nodded to the assassin on the couch. Those predatory, hawk-like eyes glancing up from her blade, sweeping that a bit of hair from the short bob behind her piercing-riddled ear.. "I want you to go talk to him. And if there are any issues...make it quick. He's a friend. We owe him as much."
Friend. A swift death was the mercy being Jakob Falk's friend earned you. Ruby closed the knife and slipped it into her back pocket, standing up from the couch. She was always game for a hit. But, Miles...he had a date. Falk saw the hesitance on his young protege's face, his head tilting curiously.
"Something troubling you, my boy?" He asked him, those eyes burning into his very soul,that laser focused intensity that leaving him feeling utterly exposed..
Miles snapped out of it and shook his head. "No. No...just...um. I had a thing."
"A *thing*?" Falk's eyes narrowed slightly.
"He wants to go off and plow the Barbie doll." Ruby smirked, pulling on her suit jacket. Miles shot her a dangerous look. Dangerous for her...and himself.
"Miss Bradley." Jakob said and nodded slowly, rising from his chair. "You've become quite close, is that right?"
"Yes,sir." Miles said, his nerves on-edge, a terror growing at what Falk might do.
"That's good." Falk smiled to the young man, patting him lightly on the shoulder. "In this life, we must take what pleasures and joys we can. They're so easily snatched away."
Something about the way he said that chilled Miles to the bone. Falk walked to the window, hands clasped behind him as he looked out over his domain. "I worry though, that you have misplaced your priorities. Ms. Bradley has not yet outlived her usefulness to us, Miles. Toews lives. Until we can dispose of him, he is a danger. We will need...leverage. The girl is that leverage."
Miles smirked, putting on a false bravado. "Didn't seem too tough to me."
Falk turned to him, he did not look amused. "You were lucky. You caught the man off guard. Next time, you won't be so fortunate."
"I can handle him." Miles was almost insulted, his eyes narrowing.
"You aren't listening. Do you have any idea what Simon Toews IS?"
Even the LOOK on the man's face had Miles take a step back. He just shook his head in response. He'd heard bits and pieces about Simon Toews. The boy who'd dominated in the ring. The one who'd escaped. Falk had done a good job of keeping the rumors and legend at bay, lest they inspire some other misguided kid to try the same. Now, though, he was confirming every rumor Miles had ever heard.
"He's a bomb waiting to go off. He's the storm that leaves ruin in his wake. You have no idea what he is capable of."
Miles had never heard Falk speak like this about someone. The man was always so self assured and confident in his untouchability. Falk feared nothing, but he was afraid now.
"Toews was like you once. Groomed for the position you now hold. A man of singular purpose. Focused. Determined. He's brought men of immense power to their knees and wiped entire empires off the map." Falk looked him in the eye and spoke quietly, but gravely. "We live in a world of gods and monsters and the only thing I truly fear is Simon Toews unleashed. Do you understand me?"
Miles swallowed hard and nodded. "Yessir."
"You would be a fool to underestimate him." Falk said. He reached out and placed his hands on the young man's shoulders, looking him hard in the eye.
"You'll continue your relationship with her. Keep her as close as you wish. But...when the time comes, I expect you to do your duty.." That steely gaze never left him. Falk was capable of terrible things. With a word, he could see Miles dead in the gutter or just flat out disappeared. As if he'd never existed. He hated the idea of using Tessa. To make her a pawn in this game just felt wrong. She was sweet. Innocent. She deserved better.
"You will call her on your way. Reschedule, yes?" Falk asked him, though it wasn't a question. Miles nodded again, slowly. "And then. You will go and do your job."
Miles pushed the doubt deep down as he'd done many times in his young life. With one last nod to Falk, he turned and walked out into the hallway to join Ruby.
Joan Jett blared in Tessa's dressing room, the blonde bopping along to "Bad Reputation" as she dressed for an interview. Simon had broadened her musical tastes quite a bit and lately she noted a different style creeping into the songs she wrote. It caused arguments with the label, but she was determined to take control of her own life.
The music was interrupted by the incoming call, Tessa getting annoyed before she saw Miles' name on the screen. A smirk crossed her face as she picked it up. "New phone, who dis?"
Miles snickered. "Hey, Tess." She could hear the sound of a car engine in the background, he must have been busy.
"This is. Who is this?" She said playfully. On the other end, Miles grinned.
"That really, really...ridiculously handsome guy from the other night. Remember?" He played along.
"Mm....no. Doesn't ring a bell."
"Alright, alright. I'm the toothless hick who wouldn't leave you alone." He said, pretending to clarify.
"Oh, MILES!" She chuckled. "What's up?"
"Listen, uh...I've got some bad news, babe." He said. "I can't make it tonight."
"You're standing ME up?" She said with mock offense. "I'm KIND of a big deal, you know?"
A rueful smile crossed his lips. "Yeah, so I've heard. I'm sorry. I hate to bail on you, but...I gotta work."
To say she was disappointed was an understatement. She could only guess as to what that "work" required of him. Whatever it was, she was certain it wasn't pleasant. Still, she kept a stiff upper lip. She liked the boy. Something about her putting her at ease. He was the perfect blend of dangerous and sweet that just hooked her in, made her want more. "Well, you'll just have to owe me a night out, then won't you?"
Miles breathed out a laugh. "Guess I will. Alright, I gotta go, but I'll call you later, yeah?"
"You better." She said before hanging up.
Miles stared at the phone in his hand a long moment. He could feel Ruby's eyes on him, that mocking little smirk. "Oh, Miles, you big knight in shining armor" She said in a high pitched, mocking voice. "Let me come over there and suck your cock and **** you on my Disney princess bed sheets!"
"Shut up." He glared at her, no playfulness to him at all.
"You're ****ing disgusting." Ruby said. "What is she, like 12?"
"17." Miles responded, an annoyed tone in his voice.
"Yeah? You like 'em young, huh?" She smirked. The girl was only two years his junior, but she loved to push his buttons. "Tell me...what's it like getting Toews' sloppy seconds?"
"I said shut the **** up." Miles snapped at her. "You say another word about her, I'll ****ing kill you."
Ruby scoffed, that taunting little sneer on her face. She pulled the wheel, turning down the long road to Grieger's mansion. "Yeah. That'll be the day."
The car rolled to a stop out front of the posh estate. Ruby slid a clip into her H&K USP compact, slipping it into a holster mounted on the back of her belt. "Put your game face on. Don't need you going all pussy in there."
"I know my role." He said simply.
Ruby side-eyed him. "Yeah. We'll see."
Once inside, they were greeted by a doorman. A tall, polite man in his sixties. Every bit the stereotype. He ushered them into the parlor to wait. Ruby immediately plopped down onto a huge, comfy looking couch, her feet unceremoniously propping up on a disgustingly expensive looking coffee table. Miles looked about the pristine, white room, scanning over the sparse, modern decor. They must have spent a fortune on so little, he thought. People like this made him sick.
"Hello." Came the voice from the room's expansive archway. Johnathan Grieger was a handsome man, y'all, in fantastic shape. His dark brown hair kept short and perfectly coiffed. He had a five o'clock shadow that Miles was certain was deliberate. The loose, linen shirt exposed the hint of chest hair rising from beneath. Everything was image. Everything was false. The man was rich, yet he couldn't fulfill his financial obligations to Falk? Bulls***. It was nothing less than pure, stubborn impudence. And Jakob Falk did not stand for disrespect.
Miles glanced over, his jaw tightening. "Mr. Grieger. Good afternoon."
The rich man made his way over, shaking hands with the goon Falk had sent, making certain to squeeze extra hard. This was his house and he would not be intimidated in his home. But when the young punk squeezed back, it was like his hand was in a vice. It took every ounce of restraint to not flinch, let alone yelp in pain.
Those piercing blue eyes stared at him, Miles letting him know exactly who was going to be in charge here. A wave of relief rushed over Grieger when The boy released him from his grasp.
His face dropped at Ruby, lazily reclining on the couch and those boots on his furniture. "Excuse me, young miss?"
Ruby shot him a narrow eyed glance, the corner of her mouth screwing up into smirk that just chilled him. He thought better of asking her to remove her feet from the table.
"Can I fetch either of you a drink?" He course corrected, trying to reclaim what scraps of dignity he had left.
Miles picked up a round, perfectly smooth stone ball from a decorative glass bowl. It's surface was polished, black and white marbling throughout. What purpose did this even serve? How much money had the supposed millionaire pissed away on this thing. He turned his gaze to the man, staring a moment before shaking his head slowly.
"Mr. Falk is very unhappy with you." He said quietly.
Grieger put on something vaguely resembling remorse, his head hanging low. "Ah. Yes. I apologize. Money is rather...tight these days."
Miles cracked a grin, approaching the man. "Is it?" He looked around the room seems like you're doing pretty well for yourself to me."
Those dark eyes rose to meet Miles'. "Appearances are not always what they seem. I've dealt with labor difficulties and the constant badgering of shareholders. Not to mention renovations and the bloody, goddamned lawsuits. Now, I will pay what I owe to your employer. But it will take a while. I have to move some things around. I just ask Mr. Falk to be patient."
"Mr Falk has been patient. Time and again. He's tired of waiting." Miles said, locking eyes with him.
"I don't have the bloody money! What do want me to do? Pull it out of thin air?" Grieger insisted.
Ruby chuckled to herself. "Aw, would you look at that? He thinks we're here for money."
Grieger's face paled noticeably, his dark eyes flicking back and forth between them. "Now, now, now..this doesn't need to turn so grim. I can grab my checkbook-"
"You had your chance to pay up." Miles shook his head. "No more chances."
Grieger set his jaw, a grim look upon his face. "I had hoped we could be civilized about this. That we could settle this as gentlemen."
Four armed men, clearly mercs, stepped out behind from the two exits. They wore tactical vests and carried automatic weapons. A smirk formed on the millionaire's face as Ruby shot up to her feet, no longer wearing her trademark grin. "But you wouldn't have that. Would you?" Grieger said triumphantly.
Miles glared, his adrenaline suddenly flowing, his blood pounding in his ears. Ruby eyed the mercs one by one, calculations and trajectories running wild through her head. Miles glanced back at her, those sharp, alert eyes of Ruby's connecting with his. An entire conversation had in an instant, silent, between the two of them. As one they moved, Miles grabbing Grieger with one arm and pulling a pistol from behind with the other while Ruby drew her blade and let it fly without looking. The merc's opened up, perforating Grieger's chest with a burst of bullets and knocking Miles onto his back. Ruby's blade sank into a merc's throat before he could get a shot off, but the man beside him let loose. Ruby was already dropping dlow behind the couch as the bullets tore through the upholstery, shredding the couch like tissue paper.
Miles leaned up, still behind his gasping, bleeding human shield. Grieger was dead, he just didn't know it yet. Miles opened fire on his foes, making them duck for cover as the bullets ripped into the drywall, sending dust and debris flying about the formerly pristine room.
Ruby's remaining enemy turned his sights on Miles, the younger man laying back and aiming as best he could with his vision upside down. Ruby was already on the move, propelling herself off the coffee table, over Miles and Grieger, and dropped into a roll. Mile's pistol discharged one shot, two shots, three, connecting with the lone merc's armored stomach, chest and then finally, connecting with his thigh. Ruby came up on one knee, drawing another blade just as the remaining mercenaries came back for the kill. She redirected the first man's weapon skyward. She stabbed upwards through the back of his arm, slicing through flesh, muscle and severing his brachial artery. The other wheeled around on her, ready to blast her full of holes. Ruby ducked under his bleeding, agonized comrade's arm and behind him just as the trigger was pulled. The force of the gunfire, knocked them both against the wall, her human shield's body armor absorbing the burst of gunfire. She grabbed his arm, still clutching the rifle and forced him to fire upon his teammate.
The last remaining mercenary, stumbled back against a pillar as Ruby ripped the blade free. Before he could recover and fire upon her, she stabbed upward through his jaw, a gurgling scream rent from the man. Ruby glared at him, blood spattered and vicious, and then struck the handle of the knife with her palm, slamming his jaw shut and driving the blade up into his skull. The mercenary dropped, his lifeless body twitching involuntarily.
Miles ripped Grieger's body from him. The man was still alive, gasping and wheezing. Miles checked himself for wounds, finding only Grieger's blood staining his clothes. The mercenary Ruby had stabbed through the arm clutched his wound, bleeding freely. The androgynous assassin took up a rifle and put him down with the merciless pull of a trigger.
"You good?" She asked Miles, businesslike.
"Five by five." He responded, glancing back to Grieger. The mortally wounded man was crawling to the couch, leaving a bloody trail behind him, with a great deal of effort, managing to prop himself up and lean back against it. His eyes flicked wildly about. Everything he'd planned, every bit of power he'd THOUGHT he had was up in smoke. Miles knelt before him.
"John? Can you hear me?" He asked. "John."
Those eyes snapped to him. Miles frowned, watching him gasping his last breaths. "This could have been avoided. I'm sorry it had to end this way."
There was a sudden panic in his eyes then...but he wasn't looking at Miles. The young fighter glanced over his shoulder and back at Ruby. Behind her was a woman, her blue eyes wide with terror, and behind her, a boy no more than 10.
"Daddy!" he screamed.
Miles heart sank. This was not part of the plan. The family was supposed to be gone. Ruby whipped around as the mother ushered her son down the hall as fast as she could. Ruby didn't think. She just shouldered the rifle and stormed after them.
"Ruby!" Miles called after her. "RUBY NO!"
The sound the rifle burst echoed through the cavernous mansion...followed by a pair of thuds. Miles stared in wide-eyed horror at what had just happened. Ruby, though...she thought nothing of it. Miles tried to control his heartbeat and breathing.
Calm down. Find your center. Don't panic.
Grieger finally died with a bottomless, unfathomable sadness upon his face. He'd watched his family murdered just before he finally slipped away.
Ruby regarded Miles coldly. "You going to sit there and gawk or are we getting the **** out of here?"
Miles despised her more than ever in that moment. The way she looked at him was so cold, emotionless, like she was reading his mind. For a moment, he thought she might use that weapon on him. He could see she was considering it, her finger leaving the guard and hovering over the trigger.
"I heard what you said." He snapped. Now was not the time. "Let's get the **** out of here."
Anna woke up before the sun rose, as she always did. She showered and dressed in a lavender colored sweater and faded old blue jeans, readying to wake Simon. She had to admit a playfully antagonistic eagerness to wake her surely spoiled and lazy city-dweller old friend to acclimate him to life here. Anna pulled her hair back into a ponytail and stepped out of the room.
"Simon?" She called out, opening his door a crack. But Simon didn't answer. She gave the door a little push, stepping inside. The bed was made and he simply wasn't there. A chill of disappointment ran through her then. Had he really gone already? That was when it hit her. The smell of coffee.
She descended the staircase and walked into the kitchen. Simon was stood at the counter, a dark grey sweater clinging to his slim, athletic form as he poured cream into his cup. Anna had to admit, she was impressed. Her old friend glanced over his shoulder. "Morning. Coffee?"
A smile tugged at her lips, she walked in. "Please." Anna made her way to the table, sliding into a seat.
"You're up early." She noted.
Simon sighed, pouring for her.. "Yeah. I know." He said with a chuckle. "I spent some time on a farm a year or so ago. Got used to the early mornings. Now I can't sleep past 4 or 5 most days."
Anna narrowed her eyes in mock suspicion. "Man, what IS your life?"
"Chaos?" He responded, turning around with their cups and walked over, setting it front of her.
"How'd you like it?" She asked.
"Honestly?" he said. "Best time I've had...while it lasted."
Anna didn't need clarification of what probably happened. She could guess.
"Having that kind of structure and...purpose every day was the most peaceful I've ever felt." Simon said, taking a sip from his cup.
"What?" She feigned offense, tucking a loose strand of red behind her ear, "Our time in and out of motels, running from our captor WASN'T peaceful?"
That little smirk crossed his lips. "Not exactly."
Anna put her hand to her chest and gasped. "I'm heartbroken."
Simon snickered and shook his head. "How the hell'd you end up out here?"
Anna eyed him over the rim of her mug. "Our mutual friend. Was still kinda busted up from...well. I was in bad shape. Heard tell of people going to men of God in their moments of need. Mulcahy helped me out. Guy was a wreck after what happened to you."
Simon pitied the old priest. He never wanted that for him
"I think he was just happy to have someone visit and confide in him again. Someone who hadn't even heard the rumors." Her finger trailed along the ceramic rim, thinking back. "Anyway. He got me healthy again. But once he figured out where I'd came from something changed. He was scared. Took a while before he told me about you."
"You tell him about us?" Simon asked.
"Not specifically." She admitted. "Wasn't even sure it WAS you, and I didn't want to pry."
Anna sipped her coffee and sighed. "Anyway. He told me I couldn't stay. That being with him was dangerous. But he knew a guy out west, farmer with a wife. They owned this land. Good people. Took me in gave me a home in exchange for my help around the place. When I got old enough, I started bringing home what he called 'strays'."
"People in trouble." Simon pieced it together. "And these people, they didn't mind this?"
Anna shrugged. "Not really. They saw how much it meant to me."
Simon grinned. "So, you got them hidden around here, or what? I'd love to meet them."
Anna's eyes turned downward. " Would if you could. They were older, he was sick. Six years after I showed up, he passed, and after that...well. She wasn't far behind. Left me everything. Time went on and I developed a bit of a rep."
"The savior of the ass-end of nowhere." Simon said theatrically.
Anna snorted, finishing off her cup. "I do what I can."
Simon couldn't help but smile. Her life had become real, whole. Something he'd spent decades chasing and never could quite get ahold of. "Are you happy?"
Anna looked around, catching sight of the orange sun peeking out of the horizon, a warm smile forming upon her lips. "Yeah. Yeah, Simon, I am." She returned her attention to him. "Are you?"
He knew damn well she knew the answer. His silence was all the response she needed. "Come on." she said, pushing off from the table. "Let's get to work."
Jakob was talking to some politician Ruby didn't recognize when she arrived. She didn't keep up with such things, nor did she care who the man was. They were pawns. Objects in Falk's grand game to be moved and utilized as he saw fit. Disposable.
Falk caught sight of her and immediately excused his guest, shaking his hand with that winning, fake smile before sending him on his way. Ruby's predatory eyes followed him coldly out the door before returning to her boss. Falk leaned back against his desk, smiling pleasantly to her.
"So?" He said.
Ruby raised her brows. "Done." she told him. "Son of a bitch laid a trap for us. Knew we'd be coming. He had some boys waiting for us."
"Given that you're here talking to me, I assume it went well." Falk said.
Ruby nodded, screwing her mouth a bit. "It got messy. Wife and kid saw it."
That didn't sit well with him. It wasn't panic on his face, but there was concern there. "And?"
"They won't be talking." She assured him. He knew exactly what she meant by it.
"Unfortunate." He said. "But necessary. Where's Miles?"
"Said he had something to take care of." She said distastefully. "Jakob...I don't get what you see in that kid. He's weak, and that girl is only making him weaker. Sooner or later he's gonna be a liability."
Falk's expression darkened. "The boy is loyal. He's earned his place at the table."
"He shies away from what needs to be done. He hesitated. That ****er should NEVER have been able to call in his mercs. And when the kid and Grieger's wife showed up? You should have seen the look on his face." She said. "I almost put him down right then and there."
"You will not lay a finger on him unless told to." Falk said. "I have use for the boy. And I will not have you fowling up my plans, do you understand me?"
"No!" Falk slammed his palms on the desktop and stood up, suddenly cutting an imposing figure. "You do not ask questions. You do as your told. As does the boy. If and when his usefulness to me is at an end, then...and ONLY then will he be cut loose. Until then...you will not touch him. Is that understood?"
Ruby didn't like it. Nor did she like the way he was talking to her. But she was aware of the hierarchy. She respected it. Finally, she nodded.
Falk turned and walked to his window, calming himself. "That will be all."
Ruby watched him a moment. Miles would get him killed someday, she thought. And it would be all his fault.
Her mother and Tony had gone for the night. Since Miles put them in their place, they gave Tessa a wide berth. She preferred it that way. Tony's eyes stayed off of her when she was around and her mother barely spoke to her at all. The conversation was not missed.
She sat in her room, strumming her acoustic guitar. Tessa was learning a new song she wanted to cover, her fingers plucking the strings slowly. Her voice lowered a bit, smooth and warm. "Tell me somethin' boy..."
She ran her tongue across her lips. "Aren't you tired tryin' to fill that void?"
The song put images of both Miles and Simon in her head. "Or do you need more...ain't it hard keeping it so hardcore?"
She took in a breath, eyes closing slowly. " I'm fall-ing...and in the good times, I find myself longing...for change."
Her eyes opened then, looking out the window at the chilly city. "And in the bad times, I fear myself..."
Before she could belt out the chorus, a knock came from the door to the hall. Instantly she was taken out of the song, a grimace on her face. She hated interruptions. With a grumble, she rose off the bed and walked down the penthouse steps.
As she peered out the peephole, her heart leapt. Tessa threw open the door lunged forth, her arms wrapping around Miles's neck. "Hey, you!"
He didn't seem prepared, stumbling back and barely managing to avoid crashing to the ground as they collided. As she pulled back, she didn't see a man happy to be there. No, he looked pale. There was a pain in his eyes she didn't expect. A far cry from the fearless, cocky boy she'd been spending time with. "Miles? What's wrong?"
A voice deep inside of her was certain he'd come to end things. She almost didn't want him to answer. His eyes finally met hers. Something had changed in him. Something was broken.
"Miles?" She said again, her voice small and afraid. Those strong arms wrapped around her and pulled her close, his mouth pressing to her's. The kiss was desperate, needy and passionate. Whatever was on his mind, he needed to escape.
Tessa was a bit confused at first, but eventually instinct took over and she reciprocated. They backed into the room, furiously making out, hands tugging at clothing, baring flesh as they went across the lavish penthouse. The moment they hit the big, cozy couch, all her worries and concerns went away. She'd worry about that look in his eye another time. For now, it would just be about them. Coming together in a moment of need that was solely for themselves.
Anna stepped into the stables, finding Simon already hard at work. A brush was in his hand as he groomed one of her horses. The man never ceased to amaze. She tugged her brown suede, wool-lined coat shut and crossed her arms watching him, a crooked smile on her face.
"Well. Look at you." She said.
Simon glanced back at her, grinning. "Hey."
"You look right at home." She told him, walking over to the horse and running her hand along its neck before giving it a pat.
"One of my jobs when I was on that farm." He explained. "One of my favorites."
"You're good with him." Anna said. "You ride?"
Simon made a face and wavered his hand, so so. "Let's just say I won't be entering any competitions any time soon."
The grin that formed on Anna's lips unsettled him. She stepped past him and the horse to a chestnut and white mare, leading her out from the stall. "Come on, Nevy. That's a girl." She cooed to the giant beast.
Simon cocked a brow up at her. "Going for a ride?"
"Yes." She said. "We are. Saddle Brutus up. Let's go."
She took a sort of sick enjoyment at the look of slight panic in his eyes them. She wanted to see just what other fun secrets her old friend was hiding. "I mean..." he said. "There's a lot of work to do..."
Anna rolled her eyes, pulling herself up onto horse. "All work and no play. Come on, Sally. Let's go!"
With a "Yah!", she kicked the beast into motion, galloping out of the barn into the snowy field. Simon watched her as she went, a rueful look on his face. "Yeah. This is a good idea..." He muttered sarcastically and pulled himself onto Brutus's back and chased after her.
Snowy chunks kicked up behind him as he pursued after Anna. Despite the chill in the air whipping by him , it didn't bother Simon. The property was huge, Anna leading him across the sprawling snow covered fields. As he pulled beside her, she glanced over with that crooked little grin on her face. Simon couldn't help but laugh. She was loving this.
Suddenly, she broke off to the right, Simon struggling to follow suit. Brutus made an annoyed sound as he turned. Simon swore he shot him a dirty look over his shoulder before taking off again.
Anna and Nevy shot into the woods, following a trail. She'd clearly run this path before, ducking under twigs and branches before they even came close. Simon barely escaped getting clotheslined by a branch.
"Heads up!" Anna called out teasingly behind her. The pair of them tore through the wooded trail, Simon catching up alongside her. He had to admit, it was exhilarating. Anna's face was aglow. This was where she belonged. Finally they burst out of the tree line, heading up a hill. When they finally came to a stop, Simon looked out over a vast canyon. Winding and impossibly deep into the earth, a brilliant display of reds and browns, forged by millennia upon millennia.
Simon's breath left him in a mist, the sight overwhelming him. He'd never seen anything quite like it.
"Helluva view, isn't it?" Anna said breathlessly. Her green eyes were shining, possibly from the cold, but also the sight. "This is where I used to come when I first came here. It just made me feel like, everything we went through was just a blip in time and everything would pass. It gave me hope."
Simon was happy for her. She deserved something like this. Looking out into the winding valleys and cliff faces, he completely understood. "It's beautiful."
"Yeah," She said with a wistful smile. "It is."
For a moment they sat and took in the splendor of it all. Soon after, they were riding back at a leisurely pace. "You ride well," she told him.
"Not as good as you." Simon snorted. "When did that start?"
"I was about...17 I think?" She looked to him. "Sam and Maggie saw how much I liked the horses, so Maggie started taking me out."
"Well, you clearly took to it." He said.
Anna laughed bitterly. "Took my fair share of falls. Got tossed a couple times. Spent about a month with a busted arm thanks to one particularly ornery horse."
"Eeesh..." Simon responded through clenched teeth.
"Yeah. Not fun." She said. "Brutus likes you. I think you made a friend."
Simon chuckled "Yeah, right. I think he was about to dump my ass into the canyon."
Anna rolled her eyes. "Oh, he was not. You're pretty good. I half thought you'd have him walking backwards half the way there."
"No, I'm not THAT bad." He snickered. "He's a lot of animal to move around."
"Yeah." Anna smiled. "He's my big boy."
"You ever miss the city life?" Simon asked.
Anna shrugged. "Not really. The city's a place of bad memories for me. Out here, it's peaceful. Safe."
He could understand that. How different would his life have been if he'd found her earlier? How much pain would he have avoided if he'd just left with Cici?
"Plus, you'd probably piss a few people off racing a nearly one ton animal down Main Street."
"Yeah, there's always that." she laughed.
Tessa lay, pressed up against Miles' side, her head resting upon his chest, just listening to his heartbeat. Her fingers trailed along a scar along his ribcage, one of many that rose here and there upon his body. A rough thumb stroked her shoulder gently. For how aggressive and passionate the night had started, now he was incredibly tender. Those blue eyes peered up at him, taking him in. Miles stared up at the ceiling, looking lost in thought.
What was going through that head? What had charged him up so much that he needed this so badly? It took a moment for him to sense her gaze, his eyes flicking down to the blonde wrapped in his arm. A warm smile spread across his face, the mask back on. His lips pressed to her forehead. "Hey, there."
Tessa's eyes closed, a contented smile upon her lips. "Hi."
"You okay?" He asked her.
Tessa rolled over, her arms draping over his chest, her chin upon her hands. "Mmhm." She nodded. "Are you?"
Miles made an odd face, a little scoff leaving him. "Yeah, I'm good."
"Good." She grinned. "Can I ask you something?"
Tessa licked her lips, working up to the question. "Not that I'm not completely satisfied with it...but...what brought this on?"
That smile of his faltered just a hair. It was almost imperceptible, but she caught it. He mulled it over in his head before finally speaking. "I just had one of those days...where nothing goes quite right. I wanted something...perfect."
Her brows rose. "Perfect, huh?" She smirked. "Lil' ol' me?"
Miles grinned and shrugged. "Eh. You're alright."
She swatted his chest. "Dick."
Miles chuckled and adjusted his position, getting more comfortable. Tessa rested her cheek upon his chest. "Is everything alright?"
"I think so." he nodded. "Just a bad day."
Tessa's brow furrowed in concern. "You'd tell me if it wasn't...right?"
Miles' fingers ran through her hair. "Yeah...Yeah."
Nothing in his tone exactly convinced her, but he clearly didn't want to talk about it. She lay there and tried to quiet her mind. She didn't know what he did for Jakob Falk, but she was certain it had something to do with all of this.
Paige tried the number once again. For days, she tried to get ahold of Simon, but the man was a ghost. A long talk with Coleman left her ill at-ease with how they'd parted. Words had been said that stuck in her head. He didn't deserve them, least of all from her. In her heart, she knew the kind of man Jakob Falk was. The rumors persisted for decades as he built his stranglehold over the city.
Over the intervening days since his departure, she was able to piece together what must have happened. Fall played Simon like a fiddle and she, with her coworkers, was a pawn in this game. It had worked. Simon was separated from those closest to him. God knew where he'd gone to hide and regroup, but it didn't take a psychic to figure out what would come next. War would break out in the streets, and Simon would be leading the charge. It was only a matter of time.
Contacting Toews was an exercise in futility. Corrine's shoulders sank with a heavy sigh, the phone pressed to her forehead as she shut her eyes. In her fantasies, she could convince him not to go through with it. She could spare him more pain and blood. She knew better. Once Simon Toews set his mind to something, he saw it through to the bitter, blood soaked end. Even if she didn't, he wasn't picking up.
"Is Teen popstar, Tessa Bradley off the market?" She heard from the television. Corrine's attention was pulled to the screen, some gossipy garbage entertainment news show showing video of the girl singing on stage.
"Sources have spotted her with a mystery man getting cozy at popular night spots throughout the city for the past few weeks. But who is he?"
Paige's breath caught in her throat. The boy with her looked just like a young Simon. She had to rewind and pause the image. It was the eyes. She knew those eyes. As quick as she could she pulled up his number, listening to the ring anxiously.
"Pick up. Come on, Toews. Pick up the ****ing phone!"
"This is Toews. Leave one." She'd heard that damn voicemail message a hundred times. Left messages that were never returned.
"Toews, it's Paige. You need to call me back! I know I ****ed up, you need to hear this! Call me back."
She ended the call, knowing full well he wouldn't. Her head was spinning. She needed more. She needed something else. Corrine went to the first name that made sense.
"Jordan." She said as the girl who worked as the clerk and bookkeeper at the agency picked up. "I'm sending you a picture. I need an ID."
"I don't exactly have all my files..."
"Just do what you can. Please. This is important."
It was a long shot, but Jordan knew her s***, and research was like her drug. She knew how to dig up dirt. It was just a hunch, but if it meant what she thought, it could change everything.
Simon sat at the kitchen table across from Otis. The man was built like a wall, arms as big as Simon's head. And that face was stoic as a statue. His cards were dwarfed by his huge hands, the big guy just staring. Simon studied him in vain. Otis betrayed absolutely nothing.
Those sharp blue eyes, shot to his hand. Full house. Good hand. Otis stared like he was looking at a hidden image poster, waiting for everything to become clear. Simon chewed lightly on the inside of his cheek and made his decision. "Welp..." he said. "Call up Danny Tanner...cuz, it looks like we got ourselves a Full House."
He laid that full house on the table. The moment Otis saw his hand, his facade cracked, those brows rose and a cocky smirk came to Simon's face. That was...until the slow, low laughter started rumbling from the man across the table. Otis layed down a straight flush, and Simon's face fell.
Otis laughed loudly, collecting the pot. "Better luck next time, Uncle Joey."
"Hey." Simon said firmly. "Uncle Jessie. At least give me that." Simon joked bitterly.
Anna walked into the kitchen ,pouring herself a glass of water. "Otis, you scamming Simon?"
"Just a friendly game, Miss Anna." He assured her.
Simon made a face. "Yeah, tell that to the five hundred I'm out now..."
"Hey, live by the sword, die by the sword, little man." Otis collected his winnings with a chuckle and stood up, leaving the room.
"I'll be wanting a rematch!" Simon called after him.
"Any time, anywhere!" Otis called back.
Anna grinned watching the big man lumber away. "Sorry. Shoulda' warned you. Otis used to play professionally."
"Yeah, I kinda figured that one out the hard way." Simon muttered, dejected.
Anna chuckled, making a pouty face. "Aww...poor baby."
Simon shook his head, laughing quietly. "Where'd you find him?"
"Otis?" She said. "About five years ago, he made a lot of the wrong people angry. Hurt some folks pretty bad out East. He needed some place to lay low and get away from it all. I took him in, and he just.... fit. He's a good worker, and he's great with the kids. Plus anyone has trouble follow them to my doorstep, they take one look at him and think twice. He's kinda the papa bear around here."
Simon nodded and laughed. "Yeah. He's a good guy."
"He is." She agreed. "So, what about you?"
"What about me?" He asked.
"You seem pretty happy here. Fit in pretty well with the group. And I won't lie, I'm alright having you around. Think you might wanna stick with us?" Anna asked.
Simon's heart ached at the question. As much as he enjoyed this place and being with her again...it wasn't him. Not yet anyway.
"I really don't think I can." he sighed.
Anna's shoulder slumped as she sighed. "Why not? Isn't this better? Isn't this enough?"
"I have unfinished business, Anna." He insisted. "I left a girl...someone I swore to protect...out there with him. I can't just run away forever."
"A girl. Of course." Anna nodded, her green eyes slid shut as she attempted to compose herself. She could understand wanting to help. Hell, it was her entire life's work. But she knew his methods. She knew how he'd go about it. "Okay. So...what's the plan?"
"What?" Simon asked.
Anna took in a deep breath, shrugging her shoulders. "You go back. And then what?" She asked him.
"I finish it. Once and for all." There was that naive righteous, macho viciousness in his tone that unsettled her.
"More killing. More bloodshed." She shook her head. Exactly what she'd assumed. "You didn't consider a Goddamned thing I said the other night, did you?"
"Bigger, more powerful men than you have tried, Simon." Anna interrupted him. "And still...there he is. What do you think you're going to do? Go in guns blazing, like some one-man army and take him down? Try to kill your way to the top. see how far you get?"
"It's worked so far." he said defensively.
"Has it?" She nodded doubtfully, bitterness in her voice. "Simon, he'll kill you."
"Not if I kill him first." Simon knew the risks. It didn't matter, he was resolute on seeing the life leave the man's eyes.
"Okay. So let's say, by some miracle, you make it through his people. You kill Jakob Falk. Then what?" She asked.
"What do you mean?" Simon looked perplexed
"You kill him. He's gone. And then...what? You wait for the next one? Bide your time living some...half-assed life you don't really want until the next damsel comes calling so you can repeat the cycle again? Because there will always be a war for you. Always someone to save. Always a reason for you to jump back into it all."
Simon didn't know how to answer right away. "I...No. No, when he's gone, then I'll be free."
Anna's eyes narrowed at him. He just didn't't see it. "You truly believe that?"
"You're damn right I do." he insisted.
"Because that's worked out SO well, thus far, right?" She shot back. "With Cotter, with this Vicelli, with that...hick out in the boonies. That freed you from it all, right? You were 'free' then?"
Simon didn't have a response to that. "Simon, answer me one thing...Has anything you've done in these pursuits of vengeance actually made your life any better?"
He thought a moment, a sinking, anguished feeling hitting him. "For a bit..." he whispered. "But then..."
"But then." she nodded, speaking quietly. "Do you think Cici would be proud of the man you've become?"
Anna could tell from the look on his face, it was a shot to the gut. Maybe she'd gone too far, but it was a fair point. She reached out and took his hand in her's. "Look...you can do what you have always done. Get attached, get involved, find someone to fight, and end up at yet another war. Or you can choose a different path. Well and truly free yourself of him. Of this anger and shame. You can be *more* than he brought you up to be."
Simon's eyes lowered to the table. What other choices were there? "How do I do that? This girl is an innocent. She has a chance at a good life...but if he gets his claws into her...I can't deal with that, Anna. I can't leave her to that."
"And I'm not telling you to." She said softly. "You get your friend...and you leave. Leave the city, leave Falk, leave it all behind. Just let it go."
"And he still gets to stay?" Simon asked incredulously. "Gets to hurt other people? Other kids?"
Anna sighed. She once thought like him, in the early years. But reality had to set in. "I know you want to change the world. Break the system down and create something better. But sometimes...you have to know your limits. Falk dies, another takes his place. You can't save everyone, Simon. But you can save her."
"Is that enough?" Simon asked quietly.
"It will be everything to her." Anna responded. "Trust me. I know."
He'd saved her once. Fought for her, gave her a reason to keep going. It meant more than she'd ever told him. It was why she was the woman in front of him today. Jakob Falk had tried to make her a slave. A killer. Simon Toews' kindness had made her human. He had made her whole.
"He wants this. He wants you to be...this." She looked him in the eye. "Don't let him win. Don't let him keep dictating who and what you are."
Money was getting tighter as time went on. After the agency shut down, there wasn't much work to be found for a former cop with one arm. Paige was just lucky she knew how to save and live relatively frugally. Most of her days were spent looking at the help wanted ads, but nothing her disability would allow for. She was not a woman comfortable with a sedentary lifestyle. She had to work, had to stay busy.
While the days were spent in pursuit of a new gig, her nights were spent in research. Falk's rise was damn near mythic. He'd come from nothing. An orphan, much like Toews. He'd spent the first 16 years of his life in an orphanage, but from there, he was a ghost. No criminal record to speak of until one day he emerged as an associate of Byron Mares, a man with suspected mob ties throughout the city, every bit as elusive as Falk would come to be. When the Mares died, he took over. Something about it sent chills through Corrine. She had no doubt that Falk had something to do with his passage into the great hereafter, though the official reports were that he died in his sleep. After that, Falk's legend grew. Vague stories and unconfirmed reports of illicit activities he always had a way of dodging. She'd heard them all, even considered looking into him early in her career, until she was advised to back off.
There was frustratingly little in the public record. Only his investments in several profitable businesses and connections to big names in high society. Certainly nothing illegal. Right now, everything counted on Jordan's ever-so thorough digging.
Paige stared out the window of her car, eyes on the building that served as his legitimate headquarters. A beautiful, old limestone tower, looming over the streets. The son of a bitch was in there somewhere. She had no doubt if she went in to question him, she'd never make it past the front desk. Even so, on what authority would she do it? She wasn't a cop. She wasn't even a detective anymore.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a limousine pull to the side of the street and slide to a stop. Her pulse began to race as she waited, that detective's intuition telling her who was inside even before he rose from the back, fashionably dressed in a fine suit and cashmere overcoat. That calm arrogance that he carried in his bearing at all times on display. Even looking at him out on the street, he was intimidating. A man afraid of nothing. To hell with authority, she decided, and threw open her door.
Falk was striding towards the glass doors of his building when she got within earshot. "Mr, Falk!" She called to him.
The woman at his side whipped around to eye Corrine dangerously. As the former detective approached, Ruby's hand drifter subtly back, those beautiful but sharp eyes locking with Paige's. It was enough to give her pause. Ruby shook her head slowly, Paige stopping in her tracks. Falk slowly turned, and amiable smile on his scarred face.
"Good evening." He greeted her. "Is there something I can help you with?"
Paige's eyes stayed on his bodyguard a moment before turning to him. That woman emanated danger. "I'd like to ask you a few questions, if I may."
Falk was a consummate gentleman, nonchalantly nodding to her. "I'd love to, Miss...?"
Like he didn't know exactly who she was. "Paige. Corrine Paige."
"Ah. Yes. Miss Paige." He smiled as if suddenly remembering an acquaintance. "I'd love to entertain, but I'm afraid I have urgent business to attend to. If you'd like, you can call and make an appointment with my secretary. I'm sure we-"
"Please, Mr. Falk, it'll only take a moment."
"As I said, Miss Paige, I'm extraordinarily busy, so if you'll-"
"It's about Simon Toews." She said. That seemed to trigger a response. He glanced to Ruby who spared him the slightest of glances. When he turned his gaze to the one armed stranger, the smile was back.
"Alright. I suppose I can spare a few moments." He said. "Please. Join me."
Ruby kept that predatory gaze on the woman before her, letting her know, in no uncertain terms that she was being watched and one false move would see her dead before she hit the ground. Paige betrayed no intimidation, meeting her gaze head on and following them into the building. Stepping through the doors was like entering a different era. The original designs dated back to the 20's, and the place had been kept immaculately. Only the barest hints of modern tech adorned the lobby. It still had full,ornate wooden phonebooths among all the marble and fine decor.
As they rode the elevator, Corrine began to wonder what, exactly, the hell she was thinking. She should run as soon as they exited. Really, she should never have even approached him. Seemed Toews' impulsiveness had rubbed off. Falk and his companion remained silent as they rose to his penthouse, the tension so thick, you could cut it with a knife and spread it on toast.
Falk's office was every bit the sophisticated lair the rest of the building would imply. Say what you will about the man himself, he surrounded himself in beauty and class. Falk hung his coat on a dark, oak rack, making his way to a little bar along one wall.
"Please. Make yourself comfortable." he gestured to the vintage, carved wooden maroon velvet upholstered couch. "May I fix you a drink?"
Paige wave him off, taking a seat. "No thank you."
"Are you sure?" He asked. "This scotch is old enough for retirement." he joked pouring a glass of Glenlivet 50.
"No. I'm good." Corrine said. No way in hell was she going to imbibe something from him. Besides, she needed a clear head.
Ruby stood at the door, her arms crossed, watching over the proceedings with laser-like intensity. Paige could practically feel her eyes on the back of her head. Falk settled in across from her with a groan, slouching in comfortably in his seat, a lazy smirk on his lips. "Do yourself a favor, Miss Paige. Don't get old."
"I'll do my best." She smiled back politely.
Falk let out a mirthless laugh, eying her a moment. "So. What can I do for you?"
"I was wondering if you'd seen Simon Toews lately." She said, carefully phrasing it casually.
Falk shrugged and shook his head. "Should I have?"
"Well, I understand there was an altercation." Paige said.
Falk sipped his scotch, an unfavorable look upon his face. "Yes. Unfortunate. Mr. Toews was guest at an event which I was hosting. I was not hoping for such unpleasantness."
"Mind telling me what happened?" She pushed on.
"Not much to tell. We spoke, he attempted to assault me, and my bodyguard was forced to intervene." Falk explained.
"Your bodyguard?" Paige quirked a brow. Hard to believe even a girl like Ruby could take Simon down.
Falk seemed to read her mind and chuckled. "No. Not my associate, Ruby."
"You have other bodyguards?" Paige asked.
"I have many."
"Why's that?" Paige tilted her head, playing up innocent curiosity.
"Come now, Miss Paige. I'm well known. A public figure. You don't get where I am without making a few enemies." He said amiably.
"So, Simon is an enemy?"
"He seems to believe so." Falk grinned, taking another sip.
Falk rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Mr. Toews is an antisocial misfit. Surely you know this. I once tried to help him, and it didn't work out, through no fault of my own. Apparently, Simon is still carrying a chip upon his shoulder."
"Yeah, that sounds like Simon, alright." She smiled to him. Falk grinned and raised his glass in agreement. "So..." she began, "Simon attacked you and you just let him go? No charges pressed?"
"I think my point was well made." Falk said. "I saw no profit in vengeance. I'm a reasonable man, Miss Paige. There was no need for further unpleasantness. Simon is a troubled fellow."
"That he is." She nodded.
"What is your interest in Mr. Toews, Miss Paige?" Falk asked her.
"He once saved my life." She said, knowing he knew full well who she was to him. "You might call him a friend."
"Well, we can all be thankful for that." Falk plastered on that fake smile.
"We can indeed." She nodded. "So, anyway. Friend goes missing, I'm gonna want to find him before something bad happens."
"Something bad?" Falk furrowed his brow, feigning confusion.
"Surely you're aware of Simon's...reputation?" She said.
"Mm." he responded with a mouthful of scotch.
"Then you know what he's capable of doing to those who wrong him?" She said. "And his friends."
Falk's lips curled in a tight smile. He did not miss the implication that he'd wronged the man. "I'm not worried about Simon Toews. I'm well taken care of here."
"There are many men who might disagree with that assessment...if they were still alive." She said.
Falk betrayed no hint of concern, just smiled and sipped his scotch. He shifted to contents of the glass a moment, watching the carmel colored liquid swirl around, his tongue pulling the excess from his lips. "I sincerely hope you find him...and get him the help he needs."
Corrine's smile faded. It took her moment to realize she glaring at the man. Jakob Falk had become accustomed to being untouchable. A primal part of her wanted to watch him burn in the aftermath of Simon's inevitable onslaught. He more than deserved it. But, the rational brain took over as it always did. Watching his world crumble, leaving him powerless and rotting in a cell for the rest of his life would be FAR more satisfying. She forced a smile.
Before another word could be said, a knock came at the door. Falk's eyes flicked to the door as Paige almost jumped with a start. The man returned his attention to her, rising from his seat.. "Now, as I said, I have a prior engagement." he gestured to the door.
"Thank you for your time." Corrine stood up and followed him to the door,
"A pleasure to meet you, Miss Paige." He said, offering a hand.
Paige took it, giving him a firm squeeze. As she looked the devil in the eye, she thought "I'm going to see you burn." But all she actually said was. "Pleasure was all mine."
As she turned to the door, Falk spoke again. "And, for what it's worth, I was sorry to hear about your agency. Nasty world, business."
It took her aback. She wasn't prepared for him to betray his ignorant facade so blatantly. He knew exactly who she was, and he no longer cared that she was aware. The smile never left his face, even as she nodded, forcing one of her own. Ruby pulled open the door and Paige turned around. Before she could take another step, she was greeted with a very familiar face. Miles turned those eyes, Simon's eyes, up to her. A chill ran through her body as they passed each other and he moved into the room. Paige watched him walk off, Falk's hand upon his back as the door shut.
Penelope Jordan was a bookworm. A petite, plain, blonde girl with grey blue eyes most didn't give the time of day to. But, as a former clerical aide turned investigator, she had been responsible for taking more than a few extremely dangerous characters off the streets. She lived for it, devoted all her time to the job. When the agency was shut down, she found herself forced back into the humdrum monotony of the nine-to-five workforce. To say it was not idea was an understatement. So, when the Corrine Paige called her to look into the young man seen galavanting around with Tessa Bradley, it was an absolute godsend.
It wasn't easy, operating outside the system. Most of her old resources were lost to her, and her access to certain contacts no longer an option. But if there was one thing Jordan loved, it was a challenge. It had been one of the reasons her boss, Orion Parker kept her around before her sabbatical. The boy from the picture was certainly that. There was little she could find on him. The few in law enforcement who WOULD talk to her had nothing. No criminal records to speak of. In fact, no official records at all. It was like he just appeared out of nowhere. Not exactly an uncommon story in these parts, but still strange enough for her to question how someone from nowhere managed to find himself in the company of a girl like Tessa Bradley.
Jordan rubbed her tired eyes, running on her ninth cup of coffee. Her apartment was far from clean, files and documents spread all around. Aside from a fully stocked bookcase, there wasn't much to the decor. There were even a few leftover boxes from when she'd moved in far too long ago. The girl was hardly home anyway, she couldn't imagine when she'd exactly need her old yearbooks or the ancient quilt covered in ponies and cows her grandmother had patched together for her. Reading over the screen in front of her, yet another dead-end article about Bradley scrawled on some sketchy gossip site, she grabbed another slice of pizza,stuffing it quickly into her mouth.
She felt like she'd pored over every damn one of these sites in the past two days, reading some of the most ignorant, racist and frankly, creepy posts in the comments. Dudes were gross, she thought. Save for one or two, namely Coleman and Sam, she did not enjoy their company. After the thirtieth slut-shaming post, she sighed and collapsed back against her couch with a sigh. What she wouldn't give for unfettered access to the police database right now.
A rapping of knuckles on her door stole her attention. Jordan pushed up off the seat, readjusting the messy bun that barely held her blonde hair in check. "Yeah, yeah..." she said as the knock repeated. As she opened the door, Paige practically pushed her way into the room, all piss and vinegar. Jordan blinked.
"Yeah, come right in. Make yourself at home. Good to see you too..."She muttered sarcastically to the oblivious former detective.
"You're not gonna believe this..."Paige said, pacing.
"What's up?" she asked, watching her friend with a quirked eyebrow.
"I sat down with Jakob Falk." Corrine said breathlessly. Jordan's eyes widened.
"No." She said, disbelievingly. "And you're still alive? What happened?"
"I saw him outside his building, and I made him talk. He brought me inside-"
Jordan shook her head and waved her hands around. "Whoa...whoawhoawhoa! You went INSIDE with him?"
Paige nodded, frantically. "Yeah."
"Are you CRAZY?" She exclaimed. "Have you HEARD some of the rumors about him?"
Corrine furrowed her brow, almost annoyed. "Jordan. Focus."
Once again, Jordan quirked that brow. Did the former detective not know how much danger she'd placed herself in? Whatever, now was not the time.
"So," Corrine started again. "I talk to him, and...really, just as I thought, he was calm, cool and pretty much useless as ****."
Jordan's brow creased, letting the silence hang. "You came rushing over here because he was useless as...eff?" Not a fan of swearing, Jordan. There were rare moments when she'd allow herself profanity, but those were few and far between.
"Well, hold on." Paige said holding up a finger. "I'm walking out the door...and who do I see?"
Jordan blinked, apparently she was supposed to guess. "...Elvis?"
Paige gave her a withering look. "Our guy."
Jordan shook her head as if in a daze, her fingers going to her temples. "No, Wait. What? How...what?!"
"I'm about to walk out and he's on the other side of the door." Paige said slowly, a grin forming across her lips. "He works for Falk."
A wave of realization crossed over Jordan's face. She practically charged for her laptop, plopping down onto the couch, her fingers flying over the keys in a frenzied pace. How she worked so fast, Paige would never understand. Computers weren't her strong suit, even when she had two hands. Within moments, Jordan had dozens of pictures pulled up. Falk at various events over the years, and in the past 3 years a familiar face began showing up at his side. The boy never spoke publicly, never appeared as more than a face in the background.
Jordan grinned brightly, a giddy laugh leaving her. "Oh, it is ON now."
Paige pulled off her jacket and tossed it on a chair, taking a seat beside her and the two of them went to work.
The past was never far from him. In his dreams, Simon relived the most vivid parts. Some good, some bad. The horrors of a life spent in conflict after conflict left more than a physical scar. He stirred in his sleep, the images of Anna, Cici, Brianna, Tahlia, Millie and Kate rushing through his mind's eye. Horrors inflicted upon them, lives destroyed. He saw them suffer, those who survived and those who did not. The fire of his own making burned them all. His breathing escalated, his body twitching and writhing. Cries of agony echoing through the room.
Anna couldn't help but hear. It wasn't an uncommon occurrence given the lives of the people who often showed up at her doorstep. Trauma was practically a prerequisite. It was when she located the source when something deep inside ached. She quietly cracked the door open, peering in. Simon lay on the bed, his shirtless torso exposed as he jerked as if against some unseen attacker. It was the first time she'd seen the tattoos and scarring spread all across his upper body.
"Jesus, Simon. What kind of hell has your life been?" She thought.
As she approached, she made a few of them out, the most prominent over his heart. "Cici." Beside it was a bullet wound that probably should have killed him. He was always stubborn, but apparently death couldn't even make him do something he didn't want.
Simon grunted painfully, muttering to himself. "Anna...Anna! No!"
He was dreaming of her. Suddenly the memories flooded back and he was that scared kid she'd known in her youth. It was hard not to get lost in it. Carefully she approached him, gently reaching out.
"Simon." She whispered, her hands coming closer to an inked bicep. He stirred again, gasping and turning on his side away from her. Anna recoiled at first, but calmed herself. Again, she reached out, swallowing her concerns, the moment her fingers touched him, he went silent,calm. A little smile spread across her lips. "How about that...still works."
She went to leave, but again, as soon as her hands left him, he started up again. Anna swallowed hard, watching her old friend. "Okay." She whispered.
As she had so many times in their youth, she slid into bed behind him, slipping up close with her arm wrapped around his waist. Simon eased into the warmth of her embrace, all the tension and fear in his body melting away. She rested her face against his shoulder, letting her eyes slide shut. Unconsciously, his hand slipped over her forearm, holding on gently. For a moment, they were kids on that cold, filthy floor, clinging to each other in the one escape they had from that life. It was warm, familiar, and comfortable. It felt right. It felt safe.
Hours passed, public records were scoured, and several slices of pepperoni were devoured. For Paige, fatigue was setting in, but Jordan was a machine. The girl was an endless fount of energy, every new bit of information gleaned like fuel, sustaining her for another hour. Paige paced around the room, trying to keep the adrenaline flowing. She studied her former colleague's place. Mainly its perpetual state of disorder. Newly washed clothing hung wherever she could find space after doing the laundry. Near the front door was a pile of take-out boxes and two or three plastic trashbags that she kept forgetting to take out to the dumpster. Along the back wall, boxes were stacked, with various rooms and the contents scrawled in red permanent marker. The only one that seemed open was marked "dishes".
"So, you just move in, or...." Paige asked.
Jordan glanced over her shoulder, a mouth full of pizza, her eyebrows raised curiously. "Hm?"
Paige gestured to the boxes and Jordan realized what she was asking. "Mm!" she exclaimed, swallowing the big chunk of cheese and dough as her head shook. "No. Been here a few years." She covered her mouth and then wiped her lips with a napkin.
"Seriously?" Paige said incredulously, looking at the scattered files, makeshift furniture and stacks of paperwork. Their boss, Parker would have a nervous breakdown if she ever came here. "How do you keep track of everything in here?"
Jordan smirked and tapped her temple. "Got a system."
"A system." Paige quirked a brow. "Does it involve lots of never finding things again?"
"Hey, you do what works for you and I do what works for me." Jordan said. "Frankly, MY record speaks for itself."
That wasn't up for argument. Jordan had a hand in bringing down some seriously bad dudes, including a serial killer and few drug kingpins. Corrine shrugged and walked to a stack of magazines. Tech publications mingled with old issues of Cosmo and one issue of "Guns and Ammo". Penelope Jordan was an enigma. In the office, she was meticulous, almost obsessive. Everything put in its exact right place. She supposed that was Parker's influence at play. Or the girl's insistence at always being on her good side. Paige always assumed she was probably the ultimate teacher's pet back in the day.
Jordan snapped her fingers repeatedly, waving Corrine over. "Hey. Heyheyheyhey, check this out, check this out." She pointed down at her screen, an obituary on-screen. Benjamin Comstock, disgraced doctor, died of an overdose right around the time they knew Simon to have escaped.
"Yeah?" Paige didn't see the connection. "And?"
Jordan closed the window to show a picture from the funeral. In attendance were Jakob Falk and several known accomplices. Paige suddenly found the thread her younger friend was following. Simon hadn't mentioned names, but he'd mentioned a doctor once or twice during their discussions while he was locked up. If everything Toews had said about his time under Falk's watch was true, they would need a doctor to patch the kids up. And if Comstock was dead, there had to be a replacement.
Jordan reached for another slice, finding the box completely empty. "Aww..." She frowned in disappointment, but pushed on. "Any way, I've got a few leads. Nothing concrete."
"Well, from what Toews told me about what went on there, no respectable doctor is going to take up a gig like that." Paige yawned. "Can you pull up anything about doctors who lost their licenses from around that time, specifically within the city?"
"Who you talkin' to?" Jordan smirked brightly, given the shot in the arm she needed. For the next half hour she was in her element. Paige's pacing eventually came to an end. She curled up in a loveseat, her eyelids getting heavier and heavier. She was almost asleep when she heard Jordan speak again.
"Hey. Aurora" she said to her friend. Paige's eyes snapped open.
Corrine struggled to sit up, her brow furrowed in confusion and discomfort. "Aurora?"
"Yeah. You know? Sleeping Beauty?" Jordan said as if Corrine were the weird one for not knowing this. Paige just stared. "Jesus, watch a freakin' Disney movie, woman..." she grumbled.
"You wake me up just for Disney trivia?" Paige asked.
""Fun as that sounds...I Found something." Jordan grinned.
Paige groaned as she stood, stretching her back. "What's up?"
"23 results, most of them dead." Jordan told her. "But these three..."
She turned to computer toward Corrine. David R. Olsen, 72. Patrick T. Healey, 58. David K. Steinman, 55. "Olsen runs a car lot and Healey's in real estate...but Steinman...he's a bit of a ghost. Lost his license for pilfering his hospital's stash. Somebody loves him some oxy..."
"Yeah? That's a good start. Work history?" Corrine leaned forward, her arm propped on her knee.
"After getting s***canned? Nada. That's where the well runs dry. I have a residence, though. Owns an apartment on the North Side from what I can tell. Not a bad neighborhood, either." Jordan said, glancing over her shoulder. "Too nice for an unemployed junkie."
"You think somebody's bankrolling him?" Paige inquired.
"Well, he ain't running a fortune 500, that's for darn sure."
That detective's intuition was kicking into overdrive. That was their guy. Something inside of her just knew it. But hunches didn't amount to much in the real world. They needed proof. "It's not enough." Paige sighed.
"Then, we need to find something more. But...I'm kind of at a wall here." Jordan muttered.
Paige smirked up at her, teasing. "Wow. Penelope Jordan. Admitting defeat. Never thought I'd see the day."
Jordan scrunched her name. "Ugh. Don't call me that." She despised her first name. Jordan just sounded so much cooler. "Besides...there are some things even I can't do." OH, did she ever lay on the haughty, self-satisfied tone.
"Mmhmm." Paige shot her a look, barely suppressing the grin. Those wheels in Paige's head turned at mean rate. They could pore over public records until they went blind or mad, but eventually, they'd need someone who could do what they could not. Someone who knew how to operate beyond the legitimate and get into places...and company they could not. And Corrine had a feeling she knew exactly who to turn to.
Sunlight shone in through the windows of Anna's house, stirring Simon from the first good night's sleep he'd had in what felt like years. He rolled onto his back and rubbed his eyes, noticing just then that the other side of the bed was warm. More than that, it was the scent. A mixture somewhat like strawberries and vanilla. It took a moment before he placed it. Anna.
For a moment there was panic. Had he gotten drunk and-
No. No, he hadn't gotten so much as tipsy since he got here. Slowly, bits and pieces flooded back. That warm, safe feeling invaded his nightmares, fighting them back and letting him enjoy a peaceful, dreamless sleep. The same feeling that had kept him sane and alive as a child, a feeling from the past rushing back, every bit as effective as it had been then . He must have been squalling something fierce. She'd come in the night and held him, stayed with him once again. All these years later, and it still had the same affect.
He ran a warped hand through his short-cropped hair, letting out a sigh. Part of him was certain there would be awkwardness between them. That, somehow even unconsciously, he had crossed a line. Still, he forced himself out of bed and dressed. If he had to face it, better to get it out of the way. The moment he stepped out into the hallway, Anna was exiting her room, her hair still wet from the shower. The pair of them freezing in place. For a moment, he was sure she'd tell him to go. Leave and never come back. Instead, she just smiled, shutting the door behind her, those green eyes staying on him.
"Good morning." She said softly, leaning back against the doorway tucking a strand of red behind her ear.
Simon searched for the words, running through a thousand different things he could say to her. All he managed was "Hey."
Anna's smile brightened as she let out a little laugh. She knew him too well not to notice the tension radiating off him. "It's alright, big guy. Relax."
Simon couldn't help the little grin that followed.
"Sleep well?" She asked.
"Better than I have in a long time." He nodded.
For a moment, she just appraised him. So much of the boy she'd known was still in him. Even after all he'd been through, the women he'd spent time with and battles he'd fought, Simon was still...Simon.
"Good." She nodded, pushing off the wall. "Figured I'd let you sleep in today. Not a ton to do anyways."
Simon watched her go off, wanting to say something. Anything.
"Thank you." He managed, finally.
Anna stopped and glanced back at him over her shoulder. She knew it wasn't about letting him sleep in. "Always."
With that, she walked down the stairs to the kitchen. As they gathered for breakfast, there were a couple looks his way from the younger kids, but the adults were mostly understanding and simply greeted him kindly. They must have heard him in the night. It wasn't an uncommon occurrence to most of them. A lot of trauma came through Anna's doors. They understood and they didn't judge. It was odd, he'd rarely felt that. People who saw his damage and said, even wordlessly, "I get you." The last time he'd felt it was with Tahlia. He looked around the table, dishes being passed from smiling face to smiling face. These people loved each other and helped each other. It wasn't hard to tell why this place was starting to feel like home. The young Daisy sat next to him, helping herself to some waffles. She beamed up at him, her smile missing a few baby teeth. Simon grinned back at her and passed the syrup, Anna's eyes on him, a certain smugness in her countenance.
After breakfast, Simon set to work on his chores, clearing snow from the paths, feeding the horses and livestock. The horses were his favorite part, Brutus especially. He and the animal had bonded, the horse always eager and approaching the end of his stall when he walked through the doors. Simon ran a hand along the big beast's neck, giving him a pat.
"Hey, there, boy. How you doing?" He said quietly, smiling up at him. Brutus chuffed favorably at him, nuzzling towards his face. Simon chuckled, gently pushing him away. "Alright, alright, sweet boy."
He hung the feedbag up for his newfound friend, giving him a little rub along the cheek. From further back in the barn, there came a clang, stealing Simon's attention away. He leaned out trying to get a better view. Brutus gave him a nudge, drawing a little laugh. Simon patted him again and walked toward the sound.
Further in the barn was a big tractor, Otis hard at work, bent over the engine compartment. The sleeves of his grease-stained thermal were rolled up big, muscular arms. Thick overalls were doing the bulk of the work of keeping him warm. His work-gloved hands pulled at a socket wrench. If he heard or saw Simon come in, he didn't show it.
"Hey, Otis." Simon called up to him.
The big man barely spared him a glance. "Simon." he rumbled in that low baritone of his. The man had a way about him. You were never quite sure where you stood. Sometimes, he was cordial, full of smiles and laughs...but then there were times when he'd regard you as if he might beat you to a pulp. Simon had seen more than his share of fights in his day, but he was certain he didn't want to be on the receiving end of a beating from Otis.
"How's it going?" he asked, leaning against the tractor and looking up at the man.
"Pump went out during harvest this year. Finally getting around to replacing the damn thing." Otis said distractedly.
"You have experience with this stuff?" Simon inquired.
"Engines?" Otis said. "Yeah. Worked for a guy once, fixing up cars and trucks."
"Sort of." Otis said. "Chop shop. Took in a lot of cars, some of them needed fixing."
"No s***?" Simon grinned. "Who for? I might'a known 'em."
"Ain't much for talkin' about it. Just some bad dudes. Did a lot a' stupid ass s*** I ain't proud of." Otis said, glancing down to Simon. "You know what that's like? Doing a lot a' stupid thing you ain't proud of?"
Simon couldn't help but notice the hint of accusation there. "I do." he nodded.
"Mm." Otis, eyed him. "You leave it behind ya?"
He didn't have an answer for that. Frankly, he knew he hadn't.
"See, Simon...we're simple folks here. Just tryin' to get by. Miss Anna been good to us. Now, I left that life behind me. Messin' folks up who cause trouble. But anybody...*anybody* does anything to hurt that woman..." Otis' eyes narrowed. "Well, it ain't gonna turn out good for 'em. You understand me?"
Simon's brows knit together. "I don't know what idea you're getting from me but-"
"She's different with you." Otis said. "I seen a lotta folks come through here, but you...you got some kinda hold on her. Now, I don't know much about you, you act decent enough...but I think you carryin' a lotta trouble with you. You just make sure that trouble don't come down on her."
"You're very protective of her." Simon noted.
"God damn right I am." Otis said. "Miss Anna saved my life when I needed it. Gave me a chance, gave me a home. I owe her more 'n I can give. So, I see a dude lookin' like you roll in here, get her all outta sorts...I get a little ancy."
Simon grinned and waved his hands. "Whoa, whoa, whoa...it ain't like that. We're just-"
"Friends?" Otis finished. He didn't quite buy it. There was history between them that couldn't be erased. A bond that time and age did nothing to diminish. "Just sayin'. You hurt her, you and I gonna tangle. Got it?"
Simon wanted to argue, but he just nodded. A moment of silence hovered over them before Simon broke it. "You need a hand?"
Otis looked a bit perplexed a moment before a low laugh left him. "Yeah. Yeah, come on up here and hold this in place."
Simon clambered up beside the man, and the two of them set out, repairing the engine of the tractor. The rest of the day they would work side by side, chatting sparingly outside of the jobs at hand. Otis was alright, Simon thought. The big man was every bit as protective of Anna as he was. He adored her, and would do anything to protect her. For that, Simon was grateful.
Miles stepped through as the elevator doors parted. Jakob had called him in earlier in the day, forcing him to leave early from a nice lunch with Tessa. He hated breaking plans with her, but when Falk came calling, you didn't say no.
The doors to Jakob's office opened as he approached, Ruby on the other side, eying him with her usual disdain. Miles only smirked to her as he passed. It pissed her off that he didn't fear her and he knew it.
"Miles." Falk called out fondly. He approached, clasping the young man by the shoulders, smiling as he appraised him. "You look well. Doesn't he look well, Ruby?"
Ruby only rolled her eyes as the door shut behind her. Falk patted his arm. "Love suits you, boy."
Falk's phone beeped and he turned and walked to his desk. A sense of foreboding rose within Miles. He couldn't place it, but something was off.
"Yes?" He said into the receiver, listening for a moment. "Thank you."
Falk hung up the phone and turned to the boy. "Miles. Will you join me in a meeting?"
Again, that sense of dread rose like bile. Miles pushed it down with a smile. "Absolutely."
Falk was leading him down to a meeting room on the 5th floor in silence, Ruby standing at the doors before them. He didn't dare glance to Falk. In his head, he was making plans should something go down. Ruby would have to go first. That wasn't the part he struggled with. Killing her would be damn near satisfying. But Jakob...could he go through with it? The man was the closest thing he had to a father, to family. Before he had time to consider further, they were entering the room. Sat at the long table were the high ranking members of the Gargano Crime Family. They had run a sizeable portion of illicit business in the west of the city. Gambling, racketeering, drugs, prostitution, weapons and human trafficking among others in their trade.
"Gentlemen." Falk said amiably to them, ever the gracious host.
"Mr. Falk." Carlo Gargano greeted him. The man was well dressed, well put together, his thinning black hair slicked back, a permanent scowl on his round, doughy face. Falk took his seat at the head of the table, gesturing to Miles to take the open chair at his side.
"It's good to see you all here. Welcome to all of you." Jakob said. "I'm hope you're all well."
Gargano smiled to him as one of Falk's staff filled everyone's glasses. "Same to you."
"Have you met my friend, Miles?" Jakob gestured to the young man at his side. "Miles here has been my protege for some time now. Loyal...trustworthy...and one hell of a right hook."
Laughter spread throughout the mobsters sat around the table. "Pulled him up from the pits. Long, long climb, eh, Miles?"
Miles offered only a tight, nervous smile in return. Falk eyed him like a prized possession. "Loyalty. It's all I ever ask."
"Hear hear." Gargano raised his glass to murmurs of agreement amongst the others.
"Mr. Gargano and I go way back. See, when I was coming up, younger than even you, Miles...Carlo and I ran together. Back to...what was it, Carlo? Beverly Street?"
"Back in the old neighborhood." Carlo smirked, his thumb rolling across the ring on his pinky, gaudy and overlarge. "We used to laugh at this guy, call him the neat freak. Never liked getting his hands dirty."
A chuckle spread through them all, even Falk. He grinned and raised a hand. "Guilty as charged." He said. "I was the delegator. Give the jobs to the workers, make sure they get done. Play to your strengths. That's always been my motto. I never was much of a fighter, but Carlo here...well, he was like you, Miles. Tough. Bold. You set him to a task, and he delivered. Have a fellow who refuses to talk? You send Carlo Gargano in. That fellow has a knife? Carlo had a gun."
"Guy had a gun, I brought a ****in' tank." Gargano laughed with his men.
"So." Falk said with a grn. "When I took over operations, I remembered Mr. Gargano. Because...loyalty matters."
A long silence held the room as Jakob eyed the boy. The smile returned as Falk raised his glass. "To loyalty."
The others rose their own, repeating the word. Miles brought his glass up, but before he could bring it to his lips, he felt a hand touch his forearm. His eyes shot to Falk, who also did not drink. Slowly he became aware of what was happening.
"In our world, loyalty is key." Falk said. "Discretion is key. And if I ever found a friend...showing a lack of discretion...or betraying my trust..." Falk's head cocked to one side, suggesting something brutal would happen.
Gargano chuckled...and coughed. His face turned from jovial to concerned, his hand rising to his throat. Again he coughed, as did the others in his party. Falk rose from his chair. "My trust is not freely given. It is earned."
The coughing fits continued, giving way to gasping and wheezing as foam began to build in some men's mouths.
"A pity Mr. Gargano could not live up to my expectations." Falk said, staring into the betrayed, confused, terror filled eyes of Carlo Gargano. "Should I ever find that anyone...and I mean anyone in my employ is betraying that trust...as Mr. Gargano has..."
Gargano climbed out of his chair, struggling to breath as his eyes turned blood red, his face beginning to purple as he clasped the table so hard Miles thought it might crack to wood. The man jerked violently and suddenly vomited blood and foam all over the polished wood. His men clawed at their throats, blood running out of their nostrils, ears, mouths and eyes, their bodies convulsing violently. Ruby looked down in disgust as one of the mafiosos crawled to her feet, kicking him over into his back.
Falk turned his eyes on Miles, and not on the horror show going on around them. "Should someone forget the price of my trust...forget the fortunes I've granted them...should they seek to betray me...supplant me...offer me up to my enemies..."
Carlo Gargano fell to the ground, his blue face, splattered and streaked with arterial red as he spasmed wildly upon the floor.
"And I will strike back at them a fire hell could scarcely imagine. I will burn their world and all those within it to glass." Falk said. "Let this be a cautionary tale, Miles. Should you forget your place and how you got there...I will not hesitate to remind you."
Gargano went still, his eyes red with burst vessels, staring lifeless up at the ceiling. Falk stood, smoothed out his clothes, and headed to the door, stepping over the lifeless corpse of one of Gargano's men. Miles was left there with their bodies, frozen in terror and disgust. He never did find out the specifics of what happened to warrant this retribution, but then, he didn't need to. The point was made. Jakob Falk showed him well and truly what he was that night. It was a lesson he would not forget.
Steinman was a skinny, jittery wisp of a man. Narrow shoulders and long limbs combined with the gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes giving him the appearance of a cancer patient on his last days. Years of drug abuse had reduced him to a shell of a man, his hair thin and in dire need of a wash. David Steiman wasn't exactly out breaking hearts all over Rhy'din. It was doubtful that he'd ever felt the touch of a woman that wasn't paid to do the deed. Those beady eyes never seemed to meet those of the rare person he conversed with, always low or s***ing around in that damn near skeletal noggin of his. Long fingers fidgeted nervously as he nursed a bottle, his system clearly struggling with the lack of whatever substances he usually snorted, injected, or inhaled into it.
The doctor had secrets, decades of them, buried within that drug-addled mind of his. Secrets that could bring down one of the most powerful men in Rhy'din's criminal underworld. All it would take was a little prodding, a little schmoozing...and the application of fear to loosen his lips.
"Nowhere To Run" by Martha and Vandellas blared over the dingy bar, mingling with the sound of pool cues and boisterous talk of self-proclaimed alpha males. Neon lighting cut through the haze of cigarette smoke. Tahlia Faras had risen and fallen a hundred times in her life - now, she was heading her own empire, gotten through the proper application of stealth and smarts, and being in just the right bed at just the right time. It was a skill she excelled at, or had, before she'd entertained, and finally executed her transition from entertainment to mogul. It was also not a skill she could have been paid any amount of money to display to David Steinman.
No, tonight she was there to exercise talents under a very different umbrella. Leather pants tucked into stiletto boots, a purple tank top riding low enough to perfectly frame curves that men had both killed and died for, and a leather jacket over it all. The boozed up eyeballs of most men in the joint turned to the bombshell who'd just come sauntering in. Equal parts angel and devil stealing their attention away from the game and conversation. The aged, doughy barkeep eyeing her a moment too long. Girls like this didn't often set foot in his establishment, but he sure as hell wasn't upset to see her. Blonde hair swept her shoulders, and she sidled up to the bar. "Bourbon, please - most expensive thing you've got..."
"You got it." he said, flashing a gapped grin.
The most expensive thing on his shelf might as well have been rotgut to her refined tastes. Hands that seemed large as catcher's mitts upended the bottle and filled her glass to a normal human's two fingers before setting it down. She'd drunk worse - but it had been a while. Laying a twenty on the bar, and assuming that it would be enough,
Steinman scratched at the back of his neck, a glass of whiskey on the rocks sitting before him. He must have thought he was being sly as he glanced her way out of the corner of his eye. There was no confidence there, none of the swagger that men who had been lucky enough to occupy her time possessed.
Tahlia brought the amber liquid to her lips, and took a sip. It was not in fact, the worst she'd ever had, and if it burned more than she was thrilled about, it didn't show. Selecting a stool just one down from her target, she was quiet for a moment...evaluating. Weighing. Deciding on a course of action. Spying a bowl of long abandoned nuts, or pretzel nuggets or...something. The what didn't really matter. What mattered was that when she touched his arm, he met her eyes as she asked him to pass it to her - every desire the fool had ever harbored playing across her irises.
Damned if he wasn't twitchy. Her slightest touch, snapped his gaze to her almost like a beaten dog. It wasn't just the body, built to make men weep...it was the eyes... So skilled at bending even the strongest men to her will without even a word spoken. It took a second for him to calm and force an uncomfortable smile, but he didn't speak. That, alone was probably the most action the man had seen in a long time. Well, she figured, this wasn't going to be quite as easy as she'd expected...the problem with beaten dogs is that they are almost immune to pain. And they don't trust kindness. But if Tahlia excelled at anything at all, it was being precisely what she needed to be to get what she needed.
"Hi...you ok? You look like you've had a rough week..."
A nervous laughter escaped him, the grin faltered back and forth into existence. "Y-yeah. Uh, no. No. " It was almost sad. This was a guy utterly controlled by some...or all manner of substance. Those dark, sunken eyes had seen things, none of which were quite as pleasant as her.
She almost felt sorry for him. Almost. But she was here for a reason - for the only person who meant anything near what the giant Selkie she shared her life with did. The only person for whom she would work for free. Not that he knew she was here. But he would. Her fingers danced across his sleeve until she found his wrist. Her touch sent a wave of endorphins cascading around within him. Only in his wildest, most depraved dreams would a goddess like this even look upon him, let alone make contact.
"Really, David, what I think you need...is a friend. Do you want a a friend?" Something in that smoke-sweet voice implied he very much wanted to answer 'yes'.
It almost overrode his paranoia...but then he realized she'd used his name. That faltering smile came and then went, replaced with suspicion in his eyes. "H-how...how did you-"
The smile was sugar sweet, but there was a honey glazed edge to her voice. "Know your name? I told you - you look like you could use a friend. And I'm really good at being a friend - you know what I mean? Especially when people have things I want. Like information. I can be very, very friendly - if you give me what I want."
That hope and excitement were now replaced entirely with fear. The warning bells in his head were going off like fire alarms. The skinny little junkie moved to pull away from her, but she was also stronger than she looked.
"Aw, David...you're going to make me cry. And I'd like you to think, just for a minute, what might happen to you if I start bawling in the middle of this bar right now." Her free hand moved, caught under his chin and locked the silver edged jade eyes on his. "Don't you want to help me?"
She could feel him trembling in her grasp. Those beady little eyes darted around wildly. Any one of these bruisers would take great pleasure in beating this little man into a pulp to gain her favor. Frankly, they all seemed vaguely creeped out by him. He swallowed hard, her eyes beckoning him.
"What do you want from me?" he asked, his voice quaking with primal terror.
"Just some information. About a child. About...20 years ago, now? He works for your boss. Who I think we can agree should go unnamed." Tahlia did not let him go, even as she moved closer, her head bent to his. "Boy's name is Miles. I need to know everything you know..."
His chest rose and fell rapidly, the fear coursing through his veins, his eyes wide and damn near feral. "I tell you anything and I'm a dead man."
Tahlia let out a laugh. "Trust me, sugar. I know that boy's daddy - you DON'T tell me...and you're a dead man. You play nice and talk to me...and your boss never hurts anyone ever again."
"You have no idea what he's capable of. He'll find you. He'll find everyone...everything you care about. Everything you love. There is no running. No hiding. I talk to you, and he'll find me." He was panting like an overheated dog. "And when he does, I'll only wish I was dead." A five-o'clock shadow had grown over his morning shave...but a small cut was still visible. Those shaky hands probably were the culprit.
It was barely a whisper, but the cut obeyed, leaking just the slightest trickle against his skin. "I don't need to. I know where Miles got those eyes. And I know what Simon Toews can do, when he has reason." She tapped his chin with a finger. "The Vicelli's are gone, and you know why. So is Cameron Cotter. Everyone who has ever crossed my friend has ended up in a pine box, six feet deep. Your boss is next - you can either go with him, or you can live long enough to go to rehab once you tell me what I want to know..."
Confusion covered his face as he reached a quivering hand to the bleeding cut. His fingers returned, glistening with blood. He stared at it a moment and then turned his gaze up to her, silently asking the question he already knew the answer to. "What are you?"
That saccharine sweet smile crossed her perfect lips, peaches and cream sweetness touching her voice. "Me? Well, darlin'...I'm your guardian angel. And that right there? That isn't a tenth of what I could do to men like you. Men like Jakob Falk." Her voice dropped into a low, ominous purr. "See... I'm not some weak, pathetic piece of s*** who needs to prey on children. You think your boss is a monster? See what happens when I don't get what I want."
There was nothing in her voice or her bearing that said she was bluffing. Tahlia was an angel of death...and she was giving him an option. "So - David - I ask you....do you think I am terribly worried about what am underhanded coward with a small dick and delusions of grandeur can do to me?"
Oh, the terror behind those substance-addled eyes. It was what she needed, what she wanted. He would talk. Jakob Falk terrified him...but Tahlia Farras put the fear of God into the emaciated little man. He spilled everything.
Corrine Paige leaned against her car, parked outside the casino. It had felt like a lifetime since she'd picked Tahlia up from that train station. She'd never figured she'd see the woman again after that night, but once again Toews had drawn them back into each other's lives.
It certainly wasn't her first choice. And certainly wouldn't have been the route she'd have taken operating inside the law. Ms. Faras didn't have quite the squeaky-cleanest of reputations...but treading in dangerous waters as she was...Tahlia was the exact right kind of disreputable.
Tahlia was dressed not too dissimilarly to what she'd worn at the bar - purple silk instead of the tank top, and that blonde hair swept up into a ponytail. Her casino - and it was nearly open. Meetings - so many meetings, but she'd made a point to step away when she knew Corrine was downstairs. Crossing over to the former detective, she smirked, and rolled her eyes. "You know...you could have come in."
Corrine put on that tight little smile. "Mm...not my scene." Her eyes trailed over the glowing lights and glamour of the place. She'd spent enough time as a cop to know there was always something under the glitzy beauty of a places like these. But the grin that peeked out was clearly teasing.
"Been a while, Ms. Faras." She said, the smile becoming a little more genuine. "Looks like you're comin' up in the world."
"Please - you handcuffed me and pulled me off a train. I think you can call me Tahlia." Nevermind what had happened after. Vicelli. Simon. The bastard FBI agent. Her hand rubbed across her ribs, over her oak leaf seared into her skin. "Yeah - well. Being the last mistress of an entertainment tycoon has some perks." What else Samuel Adder had been she left unsaid. "You looking for a job, Corrine?"
A little laugh left her. "Don't imagine you have much use for a one-handed card dealer." She had a feeling Tahlia was at least vaguely aware of the situation with the agency, but said nothing of it.
You didn't get to Tahlia's position without having a bit of knowledge...especially about friends and acquaintances.
"Actually - I meant as security. I need people I can trust. And - well, Simon trusts you." It went without saying that if Simon trusted her, Tahlia did too. After all, she hadn't turned either of them in. And yes, she did. She knew a great many things she should, and shouldn't. All knowledge, as far as the blonde was concerned, was worth having.
"Tempting." She made a little show of considering it, clenching her lips between her teeth, before shaking her head. "But I've got other plans." She offered a smile to the blonde.
"So." Corrine continued, "Find anything interesting?"
The usb drive was small, and slid out from under the edge of her bra, before being held out to the other woman. "I think this is everything you were looking for. Possibly more then. The man was - chatty, after he realized where his interests were." And Tahlia had been as good as her word. There was a paid spot for him in the best rehab in Rhydin.
Corrine took the drive and stared at it a moment. Her eyes shifted up to her. "This information could put you in a lot of trouble with that man. You put yourself in a lotta danger getting this. Thank you."
Tahlia smirked, and shrugged, rolling her shoulders. "You know what he did, for me. Falk can't touch me. I won't let him touch Simon. Or anyone else."
"I hope you're right." She said gravely. "I'll go through this...pass the info onto a friend I can trust. See if we can't put a bit of a hurtin' on Falk's business. You find anything on the kid?"
"Miles? Yeah. It's what we thought." Tahlia looked over to where the valet was bringing up her little Spitfire. "If you need anything, call the casino. Ask for Pop Tart. He'll get you what you need. I have a little trip I need to take."
The corner of Corrine's mouth twitched upwards into a little smirk as Tahlia passed. She knew exactly where Tahlia was headed. The former detective glanced over her shoulder just barely. "Tell Toews I said hi."
"Will do." Tahlia saluted, and turned on her heel, tossing a wink back over her shoulder as she took the keys from the valet, and slid into her second favorite ride.
"Tahlia?" She called after her, turning around to face her before she could shut the door. "And tell him I'm sorry."
She regretted sending him off the way she did. There was no telling what was to come or if she'd ever get the chance to say it herself. She didn't want to die without apologizing to the man. With one last look she nodded. "Good luck."
Tahlia closed the door and fired up the engine. She nodded to the one-armed detective. "You too."
"You mean to take your business elsewhere?" Falk said into the receiver of his phone, an unamused look upon his face. On the other end was a manufacturer he'd had in his pocket since the old days. The very idea that this man now felt confident that he didn't need him was concerning to say the least.
"I don't think I need to tell you what a bad idea that would be,Thomas."
"I'm not afraid of you, Falk." The man on the other end insisted. "Your days as the king of your sad, little hill are numbered."
"Do you have any idea the destruction I could rain down upon you with a mere word? The devastation I can bring to your doorstep if I get even the slightest whim?"
"Yeah, go ahead. Make your threats, Falk. I'm out."
Falk's hands trembled, rage contorted his face and his hands clenched the phone like a bludgeon. "You are out when I say you are out. Do you understand me? I own you, you pathetic little worm! You call me a king? I am no king! To you, I am a god!"
The line disconnected. Falk raged, slamming the phone on the desk repeatedly, ringing sound lingering in the air afterwards. He clenched his jaw and tried to breathe, tried to calm himself.
"Jakob." Ruby's voice came from the other room.
"WHAT?!" He snapped.
"...you better come in here." She said, a hint of fear in her voice.
Falk pushed away from his desk and stormed into the room. "What do you want? I'm incredibly busy."
Ruby turned those sharp eyes to him and nodded at the TV. On the screen police were seen busting up one of their drug operations. The scrawl beneath told that it was the third such bust that day. Suddenly things made sense, and for the first time in longer than he could remember, Jakob Falk felt fear. He stared blankly, Ruby looking to him for orders.
"Call Steinman. Tell him to close things up and move the merchandise." He ordered as calmly as he possibly could.
"I tried. He's not answering his phone." Ruby informed him.
The noose was tightening and he was beginning to fray. For once in his life, there was no plan. "Call anyone you can. We need to move quickly. Make certain to remind our connections who they work for. I want this shut down now."
Ruby nodded and went to work. It was only a matter of time before they tied everything back to him. Jakob rushes into his office and immediately picked up the phone and dialed.
"Pick up. Pick up, God damn it!"
"Hello?" Miles' voice came from the other end.
"Miles, where are you?"
"Jakob? You alright? You sound weird."
"I said where the **** are you?!" Falk exploded.
"I'm with Tessa, why?"
Falk paced like a feral beast. "Have you seen the news?"
"No, we're heading into eat. What's up?" Miles asked.
"Somebody screwed us. The police are hitting a lot of our operations."
"Holy s***. What do we do?"
Falk thought a moment before continuing. "Keep an eye on the girl. We're in a dangerous place. I'll take care of everything."
"...alright. Do you need me to come in?"
Falk stared out at his city. Someone was trying to take it from him, and he just wasn't going to have that. "No. Just look after her. We may need her."
Finally, he hung up the phone. Ruby stepped into the room, silent. He didn't even look back.
"Find Steinman. Silence the little Judas."
Ruby smirked and nodded before turning and disappearing out the door.
(Thanks to Tahlia for her help with this one!)
Snow blanketed the entire area in a sheet of frosty white. Night was falling and the moon cast its glow over the widespread landscape. Aside from the barely plowed roads, there were no signs of civilization out here, the nearest town several miles back. If he’d been looking to disappear, he’d chosen a helluva place to do it. The path to Anna’s place was even less maintained than the main roads, the Spitfire struggling against the snowy path. If it weren’t for the tracks previously made by a truck, She might have lost it into a ditch.
The warm lights of the ranch came into view as she exited a clearing, smoke rising gently into the gathering dark from the chimney. Cozy little place with a barn and tons of land. Not the sort of joint she’d ever expect to find a guy like Simon. His scene was more dingy, raucous clubs or some rathole basement where he could pound some poor bastard’s face in. Little House On the Prairie was not exactly what one pictured.
She'd piloted the Triumph through a lot. If this trip broke her baby, Simon was going to be in for a lot less friendly greeting. But she made it, and sat in stunned silence, just staring at the house for a moment. The farm. The..."For ****s sake - " She was having flashbacks of the months she spent hidden away at the ranch, with Tex. Months only made bearable by the time she'd spent sinning like their lives depended on it with Simon.
Sighing, she stepped out of the sports car, grateful she'd grabbed a fur-lined leather jacket, and looked around at the rural edition of My Blue Heaven. "Killer, if you ever for a minute, doubt how much you mean to me again..." Not that he was there to hear her.
The sound of hooves upon the snow came from behind, one of the horses letting out a little snort, sending the steam of its breath jetting out in a mist through its nostrils. Astride one of them was a woman. Fair skin marred by a few scars, yet undeniably beautiful. Her red hair was tucked under a light grey knit cap. She looked down at Tahlia with caution in her green eyes, as she often did with strangers on her property. But it was the other rider Tahlia would recognize. A few weeks of beard was upon his face, more than she’d ever seen him with, but those eyes were undeniably Simon’s. His brows knit in confusion,beholding the woman before him.
"Heyyyyyyy Killer." She turned, and there was a long slow blink. "Oh. Wow. I should have brought you one of Tex's hats." She had one. Or two. Nevermind how she got them. There was a flick of silver-green eyes to the woman, but, really, she'd come to see him. Anyone else was incidental. If Tahlia was capable of feeling overdressed, or out of place, she might have been. But she was, for the moment, mission focused. "Surprise."
Simon slipped off his horse, boots crunching in the snow as he immediately strode toward her and threw his arms around her. He clung to her tightly, a smile on his rugged, scruffy face. For a moment he was content to just embrace her, earning an...interesting look from the woman upon the horse. He looked and felt healthier than she'd seen him, even compared to their last meeting. He'd always felt a little thin, lean. His time on this farm, eating good home cooking and working hard every day had clearly done him a bit of good.
She hugged him tightly, burying her face into his shoulder and tucking her nose against his skin. The smoke and booze and everything else was gone, replaced with hay, and clean air - but he was still him beneath all of it. She hadn't bothered with gloves, and light caught an obviously expensive purple and gold band around her left ring finger as she clung to him. "You look good, Killer. Real good. Not sure I like the beard though...scratchy in the wrong spots..."
He pulled back and looked her over, a smirk on his face. "You don't like the Grizzly Adams beard?" He chuckled, running a hand over it.
"I do not." She was smiling though, and reached up to run a hand along his jaw, her thumb just at the corner of his mouth. Finally, her gaze pulled to the other figure, "Guessing it's not for me though..."
Anna threw a leg over one side and climbed down from her steed, approaching them. "Simon's a man of manners, isn't he?" She said sarcastically and offered a gloved hand. If this was who he had shacked up with, she was as far from Tahlia as he could get. None of her glitz, glamour, or expensive fashion sense...yet it worked for her. "Anna Simmons. Welcome."
"Nice to meet you. Tahlia Faras. For a little longer, anyway." Actually, she and Eddie hadn't discussed names. Tahlia Blake wasn't too bad either. She hadn't, however, let go of Simon, not least of which because she was cold. "He's better than he was, before..." Of course, then...well best not to think about that.
Her grip was strong. No doubt from running this place for so long. There was an intensity to her that was hard to miss. Polite, certainly, but she carried herself with confidence and strength. Yeah, in that at least, she was definitely his type. "Pleasure." She said.
Simon noticed then, for the first time, the ring. His eyes widened as he looked her in the eye. The corner of his mouth upturned. “Really? Tahlia Faras is getting hitched? Holy s***.”
There was a, well, bashful was about the only way to describe that look. "Yeah, shocked us too. Golden Gala he just...decided I needed one. Didn't...actually ask. But apparently there's some Selkie tradition." They'd at least been able to talk about the reality of how she and Eddie had become she and Eddie, so that helped. A little. "You're coming." It wasn't a question.
The cir***stances that had led to it all were left in the past. Whatever pain he had held onto from their initial parting was ancient history as far as he was concerned. The smile on his face was 100% genuine. "Wouldn't miss it."
A low voice came from behind. "Miss Anna?" Otis asked curiously. "Everything alright?"
Anna turned her eyes up to Otis and a polite nod offered. "It's fine, Otis. We have a visitor. Mind taking the horses back to the stable while I welcome our guest?"
The big man was happy to oblige, taking them by the reins and leading them off. "Thanks, O." She said fondly, approaching Tahlia and Simon. "What say we get out of the cold? Dinner should be about ready if you're hungry."
"Dinner? Oh I...it's a long drive back. I actually came out here to deliver some information. I have, unfortunately, a casino to rebuild and open." Tahlia took a step back, keeping her hands clear. There was a - readiness - that hadn't been there before. A subtle shift of weight and focus that Simon might recognize, or Anna - it was the way you moved when things had consistently, actively, tried to kill you, recently. Tahlia had always been a fighter. A killer. Now she was becoming a warrior. It took effort to stand down, and she gave a half smile. "Not to be rude.."
Simon shot her a curious look, but didn't get a chance to say anything before Anna interjected. "Well, at least come out of this cold. You've come a long way. I insist." She smiled to the relative stranger. Never one to let a tiny bit of jealousy get in the way of being a gracious host.
"That I will do. And thank you. I didn't realize I'd be surprising Ki-Simon with company. Although from the looks of it, he's yours, and not the other way around." Tahlia winked, and looped her arm into Simon's for the walk to the house. For balance. Those heels were not meant for rough terrain.
The house was warm in more than temperature. It felt alive, in a way. The smell of a beef stew and sounds of mirthful conversation emanated from the kitchen. Not just men and women, but children as well. Simon slipped off the olive green ranch jacket from his upper body, his thick, waffle-knit henley straining against the added muscle the place had graced him with. Before he could address Tahlia, a small girl ran up to him.
“Simon!” She said in that little, excited voice.
“Miss Daisy.” Simon smiled down to her. “What’s up?”
She was practically vibrating with excitement. “I gotta show you what I learned!”
Despite all the stories he’d told her, everything she knew about him, Tahlia had never seen him with a child. He held a finger up to Tahlia. “One second. I’ll be right back.”
Daisy grabbed him by the hand and dragged him off, Anna watching after them. She undid her scarf, glancing sidelong at the blonde visitor. “So. You’re Tahlia. Simon’s told me a lot about you.”
"Has he now...and I would be curious to know just what that was." Those oddly ringed jade green eyes fell on Anna as the jacket came off, revealing purple silk and leather. There was the hint of a brand peeking out as she fluffed her hair. This was...just Tahlia. No glamour.
Anna slipped that slightly oversized jacket off and hung it on a coat rack, a little grin on her scarred lip. "Don't worry. Not ALL bad." Beneath the coat was a loose, pink knit sweater that hung down to her denim-clad hips. "He cares a lot about you. Said you saved his life...in a lot of ways."
In the other room, she could see the girl placing a cashew on one end of a spoon and instructing Simon. When he brought his fist down on the curved end, it launched the cashew into the air and Daisy managed to catch it in her mouth. Simon made an impressed face and gave her a theatrical slow clap.
“My turn.” He insisted. Daisy rushed over and set it up again, firing it off. Simon had to get under it, but he managed to catch it, throwing his arms up like a referee. “That’s it. We’re the greatest. Greatest in the world.” he said in a matter of fact tone.
Daisy giggled and exchanged high fives with her older friend. Anna smiled at the little scene before turning her attention back to Tahlia. "He's come a long way, Simon. We both have. He's seen enough pain. I hope you're not here to cause him any more."
Her eyes were on the scene in front of her, but if it tugged any chords, there was no sign. Her voice sharpened, just a little. "Pain and joy can come together. And sometimes - you can't get to that joy, without it hurting a little. Or more than a little. I have an empire to run, and a wedding to plan. Do you think I would be here if what I had to say could be said by anyone else?"
Anna nodded slowly, just observing her a moment. She wasn't threatening or accusing, just trying to suss the strange woman out. But there was also no fear. Anna had the look of a woman who had stared the Devil in the eye and never once blinked.
"There's only one other man in the world I would do more for, and I'm marrying him." She said it matter of factly, one hand falling briefly to the pearl that nestled in her navel.
"We have that in common then. When I had nothing, not even the will to keep living...he was there. He's a good man. Even if he doesn't want to believe it. Ain't a thing I wouldn't do to protect him."
Simon came wandering on back before they could continue their conversation. "Sorry about that. So, what's up?"
Anna offered that tight, uneasy smile to him. "Why don't you two take the nook. Give you some privacy.”
Simon lead the way through the darkened family room. Worn leather couches and bookshelves adorned the space, a small overhead light dimmed to almost nothing. Through a set of glass double doors, was round, sturdy oak table before a big bay window looking out onto the rear of the sprawling property. The cozy, rustic quality of the place might never seem like "him", if you knew Simon. But then, the Simon before her didn't much LOOK like the man she'd known. His bulkier, muscular physique aside, his smile was easier and there didn't seem to be as much weight upon his shoulders. Those eyes, once always so alert and haunted were at ease. Comfortable. What horrors he'd been carrying most of his life seemed to be left in the rear view.
Tahlia followed him into the room, those strange pale eyes of her playing over a form at once intimately familiar and all together different. There was a time they'd known every inch, every scar on each other's bodies with more intimacy and familiarity than they'd known their own. A lot had changed though, since then. She hadn't had the same silver cast to her eyes, and the blonde she'd used as camouflage then was permanent now. Her glamour was gone. But if she hadn't gained the same serenity he had found, there was a sense of permanence to her now. His Tahlia had been a forest fire - sudden and fickle, burning out and popping up elsewhere at a whim. Uncontrollable. He'd been the one to show her the value of finding a hearth to call home, but it had taken something else - someone else to turn her into the creature who stood before him now.
She didn't know just where to start - not with him. Anyone else and she just would have blurted it out, feelings and consequences be damned. But this was Simon. "Killer..." It was his nickname, only his - sighed out of her like it would somehow make this easier.
As he turned to face her, his face lit up. Those arms, bigger and somehow stronger than they had been wrapped around her again. There was a time when they would have just been tearing each other's clothes off, but now it was different. He just enveloped her. "Christ, I missed you."
Her arms found their place around his ribs and she held on tight, head on it's natural spot on his chest, the one she'd always think of as hers. "I missed you too. You know you've always got a place if you want it." She knew, seeing him here, like this, that he wouldn't come back. More importantly, he shouldn't come back.
"I can't believe you came all this way." He said with a little chuckle. "Ride's a rock polisher, ain't it?"
"Out here? Yeah - worse than the ride out to Tex's..." Of course, the last time she'd done that drive had been the night she still didn't like remembering. "I can't believe you're playing country mouse, Killer..."
His scruffy cheek rested against her blonde hair, a little snicker leaving him. "You and me both, sweetheart." She still smelled and felt the same. No matter what she did or how her life had changed, he could still remember the smell of her hair and the feel of her embrace.
"Turns out? I'm pretty good with horses. Who'da thunk it?"
"It's that animal magnetism of yours."
Simon smirked down to her "I like it though. Hard work, good people, great food. Obviously good food." He said joked regarding the additional bulk he'd put on.
"I wasn't going to mention it..but since you did - you look good though. And I was also not going to bring up how much s*** you used to give me about being out in the sticks. Playing at being a good girl." There was a definite bubble to her voice, laughter hiding just below the surface. She didn't want to let go yet, so she didn't - he'd always have a piece of her, and since she didn't know how the conversation was likely to end, she wanted to soak in every minute she could. Lifting her head, she snuck her hands up to comb through the new-to-her beard. "Yeah...think I'll remember you without this though..."
Part of him had forgotten about all the drama with Tex. It felt like a lifetime ago. It was amazing how quickly time could change a man. There were things he'd done and said back then that would make him cringe now. Still, though, he could smile and laugh, shaking his head. "I think Anna agrees. She said I look like I should be out brewing beer or chopping down trees."
"She's not wrong." She wouldn't, maybe couldn't, say the other woman was right though. Maybe someday, if the four of them ever sat down with drinks and a fire, five, if they could convince Corinne to come out, six, seven, if she and Eddie dragged Pop Tart and Lola out with them, a little nature would do them good. Thinking about her strange little family led her back to the one armed cop, and why she was here. "I saw Paige. She said to tell you she was sorry."
He blinked at that, eyes lowering a little. A million things had to be going through his head in that moment, but he just returned to her with that warm little smile. "How is she?"
Tahlia considered her answer for a moment, and just - shrugged. "She's herself. Ok, I guess. Sticking her nose in things, although she said she hasn't had to pull anyone off a train lately..."
He managed a slight laugh at that. Not his finest hour or best decision considering it almost got him killed.
"We didn't uh..." his brow furrowed a bit as he searched for the words. "Didn't really part on the best of terms."
The admission brought a nod. "I know. I saw the tape." Of course she had, even if it hadn't made the news. Her web, never insignificant, was substantially larger now.
It was the first time she'd seen him frown since being there. A bit of the old Simon crept to the surface. "Yeah. Little bastard jumped me. Gotta hand it to the ****er. He was quick. Damn good right hook."
It was an opening, too perfect not to take. "Pretty sure that's hereditary. His daddy used to be a bit of a badass. Hell of a fighter." Some perverse little voice wondered if he'd gotten his father's other skills, but she was an all-but-married woman now. And she sure as hell wasn't curious enough to ask Tessa.
"How the hell do you know his-" Lightbulb. Suddenly things came together. Everything Anna had told him about the baby she'd lost all those years ago, even what little he could remember of the boy's face. It hadn't been chance that Falk brought him there. He was set up. It was all a show, to pit his son against him. Even if he'd won, he'd have been crippling, possibly killing his own flesh and blood. Yeah...that had Jakob Falk written all over it.
"You're certain?" He asked, full well knowing the answer.
"He's got your eyes." Research and corroboration aside, she'd known as soon as she'd seen those eyes staring out from a different face. A hundred years from now, she'd still recognize them anywhere. "Yeah, Killer. I'm certain. I've forgotten a lot of things, but not that blue. And you know I wouldn't have come all this way if I wasn't." Nevermind that if she'd sent anyone else, he wouldn't have believed them.
There was war behind those blue eyes now. Whatever emotions that were coursing through him, though, were kept in check. "Corrine sent you. Didn't she." It was true, he wouldn't have believed anyone else. Paige knew that damn well. It wasn't even a question, it was a statement. Simon was quiet a long, long moment before looking up to her. "What do I do?"
It was an odd question coming from him. Once upon a time, he'd have rushed back, armed to the teeth and burned Falk's world to the ground...or died trying. But...this was different. HE was different. For the first time in a long time...he was afraid. Jakob Falk wasn't some lowlife mafioso. Falk had scarred him in a way nobody ever could. He'd spent most of Simon's childhood hurting him, and his entire adult life haunting him. And now, he just didn't know what to do.
The tiny blonde reached up, thumbs resting along the hinge of his jaw, her fingers laced lightly across the back of his neck. Gently, she brought his head to hers, forehead to forehead until those silver-tinged green eyes locked onto the blue she knew better than anyone. There was a slow, soft breath before she answered, her gaze never leaving his. "You let me handle it. Okay, Killer? You stay here, with her, and these people, and the horses, and you let the monsters fight it out. He doesn't know what he's up against, now." It was maybe the first time he'd heard her own her heritage, but not the first time he'd heard that anger-tight quaver in her voice. "Paige and I, we'll get him out, and then..." The smile, the smile was new. Vicious. Predatory.
For a moment, he almost agreed. It would be easy to stay here. Live in this bliss and pretend that a war wasn't going on and his friends weren't likely dying or hurt. To let someone else fight his war. If he stayed he'd be safe. Anna would be safe. But he'd always carry the spectre of Jakob Falk. The monster might be dead, but he'd always be there for him.
No. Simon had to see it through.
He simply shook his head. "I'm coming with you."
"You're not. Someone taught me this great little trick for keeping people where you want them. You remember Rocco, don't you - what I did to him? That little piece of s*** motel you got me from? Killer..." Tahlia took a breath, fighting every instinct she had - the truth was that with Simon on one side, and Eddie on the other, nothing could, or would, stand against them. But she knew in her heart that she and Eddie couldn't live any other way than the one they had. They didn't want to. Simon had a chance, here. "I didn't save you in Vicelli's office so you could keep fighting the same war."
"This...isn't...the same." he said sternly. There wasn't just the rage and vengeance-fueled maniac that Simon used to be in his voice. It was something she'd never seen or heard from him. This was a father. Regardless of how long or how well he'd known him, Miles was his son. "It's not enough that my son survives. I want him to live. I want him to know who I am. I want him to know that when his father found out about him, he did everything in his power to be there. To protect him. I won't sit quietly and wait for someone else to save my son. Not when I can make a difference. I need to look Falk in the eye and tell him 'no.'" That fire was back in his eyes. "'No, you did not break me. You do not own me.'"
His voice tinged with pain, becoming more frantic and agonized. "I need to go to sleep at night and not see his face. I need to know that I can close my eyes and feel safe again. I need to be free of him. Once and for all.”
He searched her eyes, pleading. “Can you understand that?"
If it had been anyone else, Tahlia would have reminded them just who and what they were talking to. As it was, the smoky-sweet purr hardened and cooled. "An entire village lost to history, entire bloodlines erased. All for the loss of one woman. Because she was my mother and she was all we had in the world except each other. And you ask me if I understand?" Her fingers flexed, and for a moment, images flashed and flickered against jade-tinged silver instead of the other way around. Just a heartbeat, and then it was gone.
They'd held each other as they fought their own demons, and sometimes each others - as they clawed their way to each other sleeping or waking. She knew. For him to even question that she would stung, and she took a step back, letting go of him and raising her chin, drawn up to her full, still petite height, even in heels. "Fine."
He was hurting. That much was obvious. He hadn't meant to question her. Not really. He looked her in the eye, the one person he trusted as much as Anna. "This has to end."
Simon turned, and stopped in his tracks. The scarred redhead stood in the doorway, her expression a mixture of anger and unfathomable sadness. She'd heard everything. He could likely hear the walls slam back up and into place the moment she was aware of Anna's presence. Letting him see beneath her armor was one thing. Anna was a stranger. She'd seen too much already, and the only reason there was, would be, no consequence to that was out of love for the man between them, and the people she watched over. Everyone needs a sanctuary.
No doubt, Anna would try and stop him. Tell him to take Tahlia up on her offer and stay safe. To finally just let go of it all.
She held up a hand then, stopping him. Silence settled over the room as she took in a deep breath. When those green eyes opened, she looked into his in that way only she and Tahlia could. Deep down into the depths of his soul.
"Bring our son home." her voice was quiet, quavering, but resolved.
She had her own people to protect, and she had learned to let Falk go a long, long time ago.
Anna looked to Tahlia, then. Not a word spoken, but a plea in her gaze. "And please...bring Simon home, too"
There was a sharp nod, those eyes once more silver glazed with green beneath the sweep of gilded bangs. There had been too many losses. Enough to stain the sands of her favorite beach red. That battle wasn't over yet either, although she felt the pull of it. Wedding. Casino. War. One wasn't acceptable, not when they were her people. Hell was going come to Jakob Falk, and God help anyone who got in their way.
Steinman was a ghost. The man ran to the right people, Ruby had to admit. Jakob was laying low, his building like a fortress and his staff armed to the teeth ready to unleash armageddon upon anyone who was stupid enough to come to their doorstep. His empire was in grave danger, many of his various operations either falling or going dark for the time being. Desperation was setting in and several of his “clients” were reminded of why they served him in the first place. Ruby paid a visit to many of them, looking for anything on Steinman’s whereabouts. Eventually, she found her lead.
The Golden Pearl Casino glowed outside the window of her Audi, it’s flashing, brilliant lights obscuring her angular face from the outside world with their reflection. Ruby hated the places. They were a beacon for the foolish and deluded who might as well set fire to their wallets in exchange for a slim chance at a relatively minor profit. Ruby never liked to gamble. She disliked situations she couldn’t control. This place was, in every sense of the word, a shining example. Faras and her partner, Blake were not among those under Falk’s shadow, despite her boss’s constant scheming to wrangle them in. Not only that, but the pair had themselves a small army and the joint was well-guarded. It was unlikely she’d be able to get in the door without a scene, much less make it through the rest of the security measures in place. Casinos were always heavily surveilled, and this would be no different.
Ruby’s jaw tightened, a million scenarios running through her brain at a feverish rate. None of them ended in her success. The doors to the casino opened and a familiar face appeared, speaking to a man Ruby estimated to be about the size of a goddamn semi-truck. If the mass of braids didn’t give her away, the hobbled steps and stump of a left arm most certainly did. Corrine Paige.
Of course she was behind this. Ruby’s contact with her was severely limited, but she had an immediate dislike for the crippled little girl scout. Many cops could be bought, or otherwise brought to heel, but Corrine Paige was not one of them. She was a rogue element, a wrench in the cogs moving their plans forward. There wasn’t a doubt in her mind that she was to blame for everything that had happened in the past 24 hours. Ruby would have taken great pleasure in gutting the bitch right then and there. But that was not the plan, and those were not her orders.
Nimble fingers flew over the numbers on her phone, dialing up her boss. The phone rang twice before he answered, silence following before a cold, emotionless voice responded a “hello”.
“Jakob. I found him.” She said.
“Has he been dealt with?” Falk inquired.
“No. They’ve got him shacked up at Tahlia Faras’ casino. This place looks ready for ****ing war. There’s no way in hell I’m gonna be able to work my way in there.” She told him.
“Jakob?” She said, uncomfortable with his silence.
“Come back.” He ordered, finally. “I’ll deal with her. I still have friends in the Commission. We do this the hard way.”
“You’re going to get her license revoked?” Ruby said with an arched brow. It seemed...improbable, even for him.
“I’ll see that bitch run out of town by the end of the week. And when that happens, we can waltz in and take what’s ours.”
It wasn’t her style, but sneaking in a slaughtering everyone wasn’t exactly in the cards.
“There’s another problem.” Ruby said. “Paige is here.”
“Of course she is.” He replied. The woman had threatened to bring him down and Toews was off playing house in the middle of nowhere. Who else could it be?
“I have eyes on her. Want me to take her out?”
Falk was quiet. No doubt, he’d relish in having her off his back. But, instead, he simply replied “No.”
Of course, Ruby thought. We can’t do anything the easy way. If Jakob had a fault it was his sense of poetic justice. It wasn’t enough to kill his opponents, it had to be sadistic. They had to know why they were dying and who ordered it. They had to despair. One quick slash with her blade and Paige’s guts would decorate the sidewalk like a busted pinata, but Falk wanted to toy with his prey.
Ruby’s fists clenched on her steering wheel, but she shoved down her distaste for his games and responded. “Understood. On my way.”
Her thumb pushed the button, starting up the ignition. She could feel it before she saw it. Paige’s eyes were on her. There was no way she could have made out Ruby’s face through the reflections on the tinted window...but there was a smirk on her face that said otherwise.
“Keep grinning, bitch.” Ruby snarled and threw the car into drive, taking off into the night.
Simon rose up in front of the bathroom mirror, water dripping from his face. The beard was gone. He barely recognized the face looking back anymore. He’d finished packing minutes before, deciding that he really needed to up his wardrobe. Almost every stitch of clothing the man owned was in one bag. Kind of sad when he thought about it.
He knew something would drag him back there. Even as he grew more comfortable here, he knew something would go wrong and he’d be right back in the game. It was just a matter of time. Only, this time, he really didn’t want to go. It wasn’t something he’d expected, but nevertheless, the ranch had become home. He belonged here. People liked him and wanted to help him get better. He could breathe here. Here, he was free.
Simon knew he could die going back to the city, and everything he’d discovered here would be lost to him. Fate brought him the one thing that could bring him back. The kid might have been a little s*** who beat the living hell out of him, but he was still Simon’s son. And he was Anna’s. The two of them had created a life. Something amazing out of the horror that brought them together. But Falk took that from them, too. There was only one more thing could take, and if it had to happen, Simon wasn’t going to sit and wait for some goon to come and try to kill him in his sleep. That was never his style. There would be no more hiding.
A figure appeared in the doorway. Of course it was Anna. Her arms wrapped around herself as she studied him, a distant look in her eyes. Simon cast his gaze to her in the mirror, watching her force a smile that quickly faltered.
“Hey.” He greeted her. Immediately he chastised himself for the lameness off it. He never was much of a speaker.
Anna spared a slight smile for him. “Hey.”
There were a million things both wanted to say, but neither could vocalize. “She’s right, you know?”
Simon tilted his head curiously.
“The beard. You look better without it.” Anna grinned, but it looked as hollow as it felt.
Simon chuckled and ran a hand along his freshly shaven jawline. “You gonna be alright?”
“Why? Cuz you’re leaving?” She said with mock indignation. “I’ve been doing just fine without Simon Toews for decades now. I think I can manage.”
A laugh left him and he nodded. “Right. Business as usual.”
“Damn right.” She responded, clenching and shaking her fist like a boxer.
The joking bravado faded the longer they stared. Both knew things had changed. Reuniting had given them both a piece of something they’d lost long ago. Neither was really ready to let it go again. Simon stepped forward, Anna following suit. They embraced tightly, as if it could stop everything that was to come.
Anna rested her head upon his chest, a million thoughts in her head. “Come back.” She whispered.
He knew it was a promise he couldn’t be certain he could keep. He wouldn’t be going in alone and Paige and Tahlia had his back, but Jakob Falk wasn’t going down quietly. He could die there. Frankly, he wouldn’t be surprised if he did. But his main concern was not with himself.
The pair pulled back. “Be careful.” Simon said. “By now, he probably knows where you are.”
“He probably does.” Anna nodded.
“If he sends people, trying to hurt you to get to me…”
“Then they’ll regret it.” Anna said. “I know how to defend my own.”
Simon knew from the look in her eye that it wasn’t bluster. Anna lived with the knowledge that he could have come for her at any time. She was prepared.
“So…” she said, that fake smile trying in vain to hide her sadness. “This is goodbye.”
“Nah.” Simon brushed it off. “Just...catch you later. ”
Anna nodded and grinned. “Yeah. Catch you later.”
Once again they embraced. If the last memory he had of her was the feel of her arms, the scent of her hair and the warm, safe feeling she always left him with, he supposed that was more than enough.
The sun was just beginning to rise when Miles awoke. Blonde hair draped over his bare chest, tickling his skin. Tessa’s arm draped limp across his scarred abdomen, her breath warm and humid upon his collarbone. She was out cold, but her body was hot as an oven. Amazing how someone so tiny could produce so much heat.
Sleep had been fleeting of late, and Falk’s vague, open-ended phone call had done nothing to calm the young man’s anxieties.
“We may need her.” Jakob had said. The words repeated over and over in his head, pounding away like a jackhammer. What did he need her for? What plans did Falk have for Tessa? Given the news, Miles assumed it was anything but good. For as long as he could remember, Falk was there for him. When the fights ended and in the aftermath of certain victories, Falk had been there to help nurse him back to health. When he was younger, the man was a calming, safe presence. But as the years went on, he began to see through that exterior. Falk was powerful, and Miles respected and admired that, but the more he saw the more he began to fear the lone father figure in his life. Jakob Falk was ruthless, remorseless. The things Miles saw him do and plan could only be described in one word: evil.
Tessa brought him into a new world. A world where he had worth as a man, and not just as a tool. When she looked at him the way she often did, he felt alive. He felt whole. For the first time in his life, he felt, not only loved, but like he could love. If Jakob ever tried to take her from him…
For a moment, he panicked as if someone there would hear his thoughts. It was a fear he’d had a lot whenever questioning his boss. Jakob’s reach was long, somehow it seemed possible that he could even see into the boy’s thoughts. It was ridiculous, of course, but fear and reason rarely went hand in hand. He looked down at the slumbering blonde, her lips parted slightly as she breathed evenly against him. Nobody will ever touch you, he promised silently. Not Ruby, not Falk, not even the gods themselves would ever harm her. Not if he could help it.
Tessa’s bright blue eyes opened slowly looking up at him in the darkened room. A smile curved her lips, love and warmth in those eyes. The growing light from the sunrise behind her cast an orange glow over the snow-covered city. A hell of a view.
“Hey there.” She whispered.
It took a moment for him to stop staring and will his own smile to appear. “Hey.”
“You okay?” She asked, reaching up and brushing her fingers along his jawline.
Miles traced her face, etching every inch of her into his memory. “I am now.”
Tessa’s face lit up the way it always did when they were together, the young starlet climbing upwards and pressing her lips to his. Tessa let the kiss linger before finally parting. Miles’ fingers ran through her hair and along the back of her slender neck, his thumb grazing her earlobe.
Miles stared down at her, images of the room full of men Falk had slaughtered fresh in his mind. He couldn’t help but picture her among them. Tessa saw it in his face.
“What is it?” She asked. “What’s wrong?”
Miles wanted to tell her. Just spill everything. The family he’d watched Ruby kill, the boardroom, the lives he, himself had taken over the years. But he couldn’t bear to even imagine her looking at him in horror. If she knew what he’d done, what he’d allowed to happen, she’d justifiably run.
“What if we left?” He said. “What if we just got in a car and left town?”
“And go where?” She chuckled.
“I don’t know. I don’t care. Just...what if we hit the road and left all of this behind?” He asked. “Would you?”
She looked at him as if he were crazy. “We can’t just leave. You have your job, I’m under contract…”
“**** my job. I want to be with you. I don’t care about anything else.” He said.
“Miles…”. She started.
“Tess, I feel like something really bad is gonna happen.” He interrupted.
Tessa stared at him, that fear he dreaded coming into her eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“I don’t know. I just have a really bad feeling.” He said. He couldn’t tell her exactly why. Not without risking losing her.
She took his face in her hands and placed a kiss upon his lips. “Miles. Everything is going to be fine. I promise. And...maybe later, I’ll finish out my contract here and then...then we’ll go and see the world together. Okay?”
He didn’t answer. He could only see a million terrible things happening to her.
“As long as we’re together, they can’t hurt us, right?” She smiled and stroked a thumb along his brow.
Miles desperately wanted to believe that. He’d have given anything to make it true. But, Tessa was dead set on staying, and he would have to do what he could to protect her. Even if it killed him.
The city seemed so much bigger and louder now. The quiet of the ranch was peaceful, only broken by the happy sounds of those with whom he shared it. It felt faster, more alive here. But, he noted, it also felt angrier, dirtier. The rot of this place was deeply ingrained in the city’s being, causing him no small amount of anxiety. Winter was nearing its end, the snow turning from fluffy white to a slushy grey. At least the bite of the cold had dulled some.
Tahlia was off making arrangements while he was holed up in her casino. The Golden Pearl would have been his kind of joint just a year prior. But Simon wasn’t the same person anymore. He felt out of place here now. It was as if he’d been wearing blinders and finally taken them off. Despite the flashy, bright veneer, Simon saw through to the darkness inherent in this place. He pitied the folks sitting in front of slot machines pouring money in the slim chance that their fortunes could change. He saw men and women at the tables blowing the kind of coin that could feed everyone on the ranch for months or even open an entire other, bigger location.
He’d seen poverty before. Hell, most of his life was lived in poverty. He’d barely touched any of the money Tahlia had left him, except to help buy supplies when Anna allowed him to. She was a stubborn, proud woman. She preferred to pay her own way when she could. Plus she was reticent to take money she thought might be I’ll-gotten. But times were tough, and even dirty money could keep the lights on.
Simon stares out the window of the penthouse suite, looking at the bright, twinkling lights of the city. Somewhere out there, Jakob Falk was plotting his next move, hopefully unaware of what was coming for him.
A knock came from the door. He took one last look and moved to the door. His heart sank when he saw the one-armed detective standing on the other side. The pair of them just stared a moment, unsure of what to say.
“Corrine.” He finally said, in a hushed tone.
She was usually the most unerringly confident woman he’d ever encountered, but here, she seemed...ashamed. Her eyes struggled to meet his.
“Heya, Toews.” She said. “Mind if I come in?”
Simon blinked and stepped aside. Paige entered the lavishly appointed suite and looked around.
“Jesus.” She muttered. “Tahlia doesn’t **** around.”
Simon took it in as if for the first time. “No, she does not.”
Her fingers trailed over the marble top of a fully stocked bar, her back to him. The detective glanced back and managed a smile. “You look good. You put on some pounds?”
“Yeah. Turns out hard work and good food will do that.”
Paige’s smirked. “Who knew?”
Simon chuckled and crossed his arms, leaning against the back of his couch. “You sent Tahlia for me?”
Paige nodded. “Figured you wanna see a friendly face.”
“Coulda been your’s.” He said.
Corrine’s smile faded, her eyes lowering.
“Yeah.” She said. “After the way we left things, I didn’t think you’d be too thrilled to see me.”
“So you sent the woman I broke up with via note and ran out on?” He quirked a brow. “Solid plan.”
Paige laughed, but her expression turned somber again. “Simon, I’m sorry.”
“It’s in the past.” He reassured her.
“No...no. I was wrong. I should have let you explain. I didn’t listen to your side and-“
“Corrine.” Simon stopped her. “He played us. Falk played us both. And...to be honest, it worked out for the best.”
Paige knew about Anna in only the vaguest terms. He’d mentioned something about her during their visits while he was still in lockup and she’d heard her name during one of his night terrors. She knew he’d found her again.
“What’s she like?” Paige asked.
“Strong.” Simon said quietly. “Smart, funny. Stubborn as hell, but in an endearing kinda way. Still beautiful.”
Paige smiled. “Working on a little crush, are you?”
Simon snorted. “No. No, come on.”
“Mmhm.” Paige leaned her hip on the counter. “You’ve become a s***ty liar, Toews. What’d they do to you out there?”
She saw right through him. The truth was, Anna centered him. She showed him a part of himself he’d thought was buried and gone.
“She gave me purpose.” He said. “She gave me a reason to live.”
Paige walked over to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. He looked happier and healthier than she’d ever seen him. For that, she was grateful.
“It’s damn good to see you again, Toews.”
Miles gripped the wheel of his Mercedes, his mind preoccupied with Falk and the increasingly dire situation at their feet. Two more of their operations had fallen and his boss was not handling it well. That confident, cool facade had begun to show cracks. He wasn’t sure how this would all play out, but Falk repeatedly assured him it would be fine. Miles wasn’t so sure. Worse than that, he wasn’t sure if he cared. After all he’d seen and done, the kid wasn’t certain he wouldn’t enjoy seeing the old man get taken down. A lifetime in lockup was the least he deserved.
Tessa sat beside him, humming along to the song on the radio, blissfully unaware of the whole crumbling mess. God, he loved her voice. Smooth like velvet. Part of him wanted to tell her, but another was glad she didn’t know. Being with him was dangerous for the young starlet. When Falk did go down, he’d be sure to create as much collateral damage as possible. She’d be better off if he just disappeared, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Tessa centered him, made him feel safe. She made him feel like he was more than Jakob Falk’s blunt instrument. Like he had a purpose beyond doing damage with his fists. Giving that up might kill him.
The girl had come into their room, all fired up and talking about a new gig. Whenever Tessa got excited she’d pace around the room and let loose, rapid fire, speaking so fast it was hard to keep up. It was hard not to smile along with her. The Golden Pearl was under new management and they wanted her there. He didn’t know much about the place, but he was certain his boss did. He knew about everyone and everything, it seemed. He supposed he should have told Falk where they were going. He’d probably be pissed to know they went somewhere so high profile without his discretion. Personally, Miles didn’t care. Where Tessa went, so would he. Falk didn’t have to know.
The Golden Pearl was lit up like Christmas. A bright beam of light in the inky black night of the city. Not really his kind of place. He preferred the cigar lounge. That old-fashioned, quiet, refined sort of setting with a smoking hot singer crooning out a mellow tune over the well-dressed crowd. A uniformed valet met them at the front, politely helping Tessa out of the vehicle. Miles stepped out into the cool night air, still alert in case they were being watched. The streets were clear. If there were unfriendly eyes on them, they were well hidden. Miles smiled to the valet and handed over his keys.
The warmth of the casino wrapped around them like a hug as soon as they passed the threshold. Music piped through speakers all over and the sounds of slot machines filled the cavernous room. An impeccably groomed gentleman in a fine suit greeted them as they entered the main lobby.
“Ms. Bradley. Welcome to the Golden Pearl. We’re honored to meet your acquaintence!” He said.
Tessa put on that beaming smile of hers and affected that slight southern twang she used at her shows. “Why thank ya! It’s absolutely beautiful!”
“Ms. Faras wishes me to direct you to the elevators, but if there’s anything I can get for you, food or drink?”
“Oh, bless your heart. No, thank you, I think we’re fine.” She said polite as can be.
Miles almost interrupted to ask for a scotch, but decided against it. Better to keep his wits about him. The man walked with them, talking about the history of the casino and its previous owners, but Miles was hardly listening. This place was a nightmare for someone like him. Plenty of places for an attacker to hide, lots of noise and light pulling at the eye. It was distracting. Distraction was bad. Distraction got you killed.
They stepped through the elevator doors and their guide placed a card into a slot. “Ms. Faras will see you upstairs, this elevator will take you directly to her office. Please, enjoy your evening.” the man said.
“We will. Thank you very much for your hospitality.” Tessa smiled to him. Miles only offered a tight smile and terse nod. The doors slid closed and the elevator began to rise.
Tessa immediately dropped the act, her eyes going wide. “SOMEBODY likes his cologne. Jesus.”
Miles chuckled despite himself. She looked over at him with a smirk. “Oh, come on. You know you were thinking it.”
“Maybe a bit.” He joked.
Tessa stared at him for a moment. “You alright? You seem kinda tense.”
Miles turned to her and forced a smile. “Yeah. Hell yeah. Just...new place, new people. I’m much better when I know where I’m going and who I’m dealing with.”
She wrapped her arms around his and rested her cheek against his shoulder. “Relax. It’s gonna be fine. I’ve done, like, a million of these things. Plus...if anyone gives us crap...you can always just beat ‘em up.”
Miles couldn’t help but smile. He turned his head and laid a kiss on her forehead. The elevator pinged, announcing their arrival. The doors slid open to reveal the reception area of Tahlia’s office. The receptionist looked up from her screen, looking professionally immaculate, aside from the headphones. She smiled to them. “Ms. Bradley?”
Tessa smiled. “That’s me.” she said in a little sing song.
The receptionist smiled politely and turned to Miles. “And Mister…?”
“Miles.” He said simply.
She stared a moment, taken aback. “Mister...Miles. Alrighty then. Ms. Faras will see you now.” she said gesturing to the double doors.
Miles took point, reaching the doors first. He didn’t notice the woman glance over her shoulder with a look concern before he turned the knob and gave the door a push. The face on the other side was decidedly NOT Tahlia Faras. It had been months and his hair had grown and he’d packed on some muscle, but he knew that face.
“...Simon?” Tessa said, confused.
Miles immediately snapped. He charged at the blonde stranger, his forearm hitting Simon’s chest, driving him back into the office. Simon went with it until he sidestepped and threw Miles into the back of a couch, his abdomen slamming into the hard backrest. The young man grunted in frustration and a twinge of pain.
“Miles!” Tessa screamed in shock.
The boy swing wild, backwards at Simon’s head, but the older man leaned away and stepped back. Their first fight had caught him by surprise, but now Simon was in control. He kept his distance, staying as non-confrontational as possible while Miles squared off.
“Don’t, kid.” Simon said. “I’m not here to fight you.”
“**** you!” Miles said, throwing a punch. Tessa watched in horror as Simon knocked the attack aside, blocking everything her boyfriend was throwing at him with ease, but he never retaliated beyond a push. Miles grew increasingly frustrated as they went. With a feral yell, he threw a vicious right cross, but Simon leaned past it and shoved him into a glass shelf. Bottles of expensive liquor fell to the ground, shattering with the shelves at they fell. Oh, he’d definitely owe Tahlia for that one.
“Simon, please, stop!” Tessa begged him.
“Ain’t up to me, kid.” Simon said plainly. He kept his gaze on Miles. “We don’t have to do this.”
“Yeah. Yeah, we do.” Miles growled, He charged at Simon, tackling him over the couch, flipping it in the process. The pair of them rolled onto the floor, Simon clutching him by his jacket’s lapels. Miles had the upper hand, finally. His fist connected with the older man’s jaw, hammering his head to one side. It was a good hit. Simon was almost proud.
Before Miles could throw another punch, Simon rolled and pinned him. “Stop! You don’t need to do this!”
Miles snarled and ripped an arm free, once again, hitting Simon in the face and knocking him off of him. Tessa turned to the doors, moving to get help, but found them locked. “Help! Help, please! They’re going to kill each other!”
Simon scrambled away, putting some distance between the two of them. Blood ran from his lip, his eye already red from Miles’ last punch. He breathed heavily, eyes on his son. “Please, Miles. Don’t make me hurt you.”
But the boy wasn’t hearing it. Once again he tried to tackle Simon, but the older fighter’s leg braced backwards for it, taking the blow to his abdomen. Miles struggled against his superior strength. The farm had done Simon some good after all.
Miles laid a few hits to Simon’s ribs, but he just took it. Finally, he’d had enough. Simon grabbed him by the shirt, whirled him around, hooked a foot behind Miles’ ankle and slammed him down through a glass coffee table. Tessa’s scream echoed through the room. Simon stumbled back against Tahlia’s desk, clutching his ribs and gasping for breath. Miles stared up at the ceiling surrounded by broken glass.
“Look at us.” Simon panted. “Look...at what he made us.”
Bits of glass cut into Miles’ hands as he tried to push himself up. His jacket was tattered and cut, blood seeping from his back. For the first time, he really looked at the man before him. Scars on his face and on those tattooed arms. The same kinds of scars Miles bore all over his body. Scars earned through the blood and tears of the boys in the pits. Scars he’d be given as muscle for Jakob Falk, collecting from his victims and punishing his enemies. And those eyes...they seemed haunted. But most of all, they seemed familiar. Like mirrors of his own.
“Who the hell are you?” Miles asked, wincing as he sat up.
Simon eyed the boy before him. The son he’d never known existed, a piece of him right before his eyes. A perfect reflection of himself and what he might have become had he not escaped. The son he could not save.
“I’m your father.”
(If anyone's still interested, I will no longer be updating this story here.