Finder Seeker Chapters Eleven to Fifteen

 The long-awaited fourth book in the Thieves Series

 By Ella West

copyright Ella West 2013

Eleven

There is a knock at the door. Tim, with Mutt dribbling on his leg beside him, pauses mid-sentence at his laptop. The knock is repeated before he finishes the sentence and shuts the laptop lid, sighs and wipes the dribble of his leg and gets up.

When he opens the door he finds a teenager waiting.

“Is Nicky here?” he says, uncertainty in his voice.

“No, she’s not,” Tim says.

“I just thought she might be.” The teenager turns to leave, his shoulders hunched.

“You’re Jake, aren’t you?” Tim says stopping him.

“Yes.”

“I’ve got some cold beer in the fridge. Do you want one?”

Tim pops the tops off two bottles of beer and hands one to Jake then sits back down at the table, pushing the laptop to one side. Jake cautiously sits down opposite. Mutt flops on the sofa watching them both.

“Nicky went home three weeks ago,” Tim tells him. “She’ll be back mid-September.”

“Home?”

“New Zealand. She lives with her parents during term time, goes to school over there. In the holidays she comes back here.”

“Because you’re her boyfriend?”

“I have a girlfriend but it’s not Nicky,” Tim says, grimacing. “My girlfriend is a lot older. Anyway, Nicky has her heart set on someone else and it’s not me. I’m FBI, that’s why she comes here.” Tim pulls out his badge and slides it across the table. Jake doesn’t pick it up.

“So, she’ll be back mid-September?”

“I could give you her flight number if you want. You could meet her at the airport.”

“Until then I can do what I want?”

Tim pockets the badge again and drinks from his beer instead of answering.

“So how does Nicky know you?” Jake asks.

“I helped her when she needed help. There was a plane that crashed here, in LA last year. Nicky was involved in seeking out the people who brought it down. I was working the case as well. She got shot, well a bullet grazed her really, and I happened to be there.”

Tim lifts the beer to his lips again, giving himself time to watch the teenager’s reactions to what he has said. He had noticed the suddenly bristling at the word “seeking”, now Tim was waiting for the rest of what he has said to sink in. But Jake, his eyes studying the table, is quiet.

“I remember that,” he says finally. “It was a terrorist group wasn’t it? The Project were contracted to find them and she did.”

“Yes.”

“She never said anything about you.”

“And I never told anyone about her, about what she and the rest of you at the Project could really do. When everything happened and she escaped, she drove here. She had a car stashed somewhere in the desert, and then she seeked me out. I took care of the car, took her to the airport. She had already phoned her parents and they were flying in. I managed to get them all back on the return flight without going through the border so there was no record of her leaving the country, or her parents visiting. She travels now under a different name.”

“Thank you,” Jake says finally. “Thank you for looking after her.”

“You’re welcome,” Tim says, finishing the beer.

“So she’s safe? No one knows what she does? No one is going to find her?”

Tim looks up and see’s Jake’s eyes. He’s close to tears.

“She’s as safe as I can make her.” He watches Jake nod, hang his head. “Hey, I’m hungry. You want to grab some pizza?”

Tim locks the apartment door behind them and waits until they are outside the building before he says anything more. It’s late afternoon, the traffic crawls past on the road, joggers and swimmers head towards the beach after the end of the working day.

“So, what do you think of LA?” he asks Jake.

“It’s okay, I suppose.”

“Where are you from in the States?”

“Canada.”

“Sorry. We don’t know a lot about you. Not even a last name. Of course you’ve flown under the radar for the past few years when you were with the Project.”

“I was never with the Project. They had me, we were their prisoners.”

“I know. Sorry. When Nicky said she had seen you on the pier, we tried to find you.”

“I know.”

“She wanted to talk to you.”

“I only saw her the two times. She was running along the path, on the beach.”

“Did you seek her out? Is that how come you were there?”

“No. Crazy isn’t it? Someone like me, someone like her and we just bump into each other.”

They stop at the lights, waiting for the signal to cross. Tim wonders if leaving the apartment was such a good idea. Jake is opening and closing his hands, looking around, as if any moment he is going to run.

“I’d thought about it, seeking her out, seeking all of them out, but I’ve been too afraid. I don’t know what happened, I don’t know why it happened. I thought everyone was dead. And then, after I saw her, I seeked her out to your apartment but then I figured out people were following me and there were new cameras on the pier and everywhere and then she was gone.”

“School was starting. She had to go home.”

“I just wanted to talk to her. Didn’t she want to talk to me?”

The signal turns green. They make it across the road, dodging the people coming the other way. On the other side is a small park, a seat. Tim points it out to Jake and they sit down.

“She was going to seek you out that night. She made me agree to it but something happened.”

“But you said she’s all right.”

“Yeah, well, she’s grumpy. I talked to her earlier this afternoon on the phone and she’s grumpy about a whole lot of things and feel pleased, you’re at the top of the list.”

“But she’s all right?”

“That day, because I was worried you would seek her out and I didn’t know what was going to happen or anything about you or what had happened to you in the past year, forgive me, but because of that we went to Northern California to find this small plane that had gone missing.”

“I wasn’t going to do anything to her.”

“I just didn’t know. I’m sorry.”

“So what happened?”

“I thought up there you wouldn’t be able to seek her out. It was too far away. Anyway, the plane that was missing, had hit a mountain which we didn’t know, and when Nicky travelled to find it the slope she ended up on was pretty steep and she slid partway down it and broke her ankle.”

“So she couldn’t travel back?”

“No. You can’t do it when you’re in pain, can you?”

“No.”

“We had a helicopter so it was okay, I could go pick her up, but she couldn’t seek you out like she had planned that evening. Believe me, she really wanted to.”

“Seeking out a plane in the mountains a pretty crazy thing to do.”

“I know that now. Remind me not to let her do something like that again. It was her idea.”

“It usually is.”

Tim finally sees Jake give him a half smile.

“Come on, let’s get that pizza.”

The slices are big, the restaurant crowded and noisy letting Tim and Jake huddle in a corner table and talk unable to be heard by anyone. Tim watches Jake. He doesn’t eat hurriedly, he’s not thin. He’s living somewhere and getting by.

“So, you’re staying in LA?”

“I work for a scrap metal guy in Santa Monica. I’ve got a one-bedroom place a couple of blocks away from work.”

“Just you?”

“Just me.”

“How do you work without papers?”

Jake drops his wallet on the table and pushes it towards Tim. Tim opens it up and sees a US driving licence.

“I have a social security card in the same name.”

“Jake Johnson?”

“It’s a name.”

“How did you do it?”

Jake raises his eyebrows and takes back his wallet, stuffs it into his jeans pocket.

“So you don’t need anything?”

“I’m doing okay. The money’s not great at the junk yard but you know.” He takes another bite of pizza.

“You can always steal money, I suppose, if you need to. I mean, travel and steal stuff you need.”

“I wouldn’t do that.”

Tim glances up and sees Jake looking at him, defiant.

“If there is anything you need, anything you want, just get in touch. Okay?”

“Get in touch with the FBI?”

“With me.”

“Same thing isn’t it? Are you going to tell Nicky, about me? Are you going to ring her?”

“I don’t know. She’s going nuts over you at the moment, letting her know that I’m sitting here having pizza with you probably won’t help. She’ll want to be on the next flight out. You could talk to her on the phone. I could give you her number.”

“No, it would be too hard. I don’t do phones.”

“Neither does she.”

“September?”

“September 18. So how did you get out?”

The change of tack doesn’t seem to bother Jake. It’s almost as if he expected it. He finishes his mouthful, wipes his lips with the paper napkin, watches the table next to them.

“I got out, there’s not much else to say.”

“Nicky said she wanted you to travel after her, to the car.”

“I couldn’t travel that far, I couldn’t follow her. She knew that.”

“So what did you do?”

“After she left, the bombing stopped.” Jake swallows hard, as if a piece of pizza is stuck in his throat. “I was trying to find my sister, and Tina, she was another traveller.”

“And Paul, the fifth traveller?”

“Paul was dead. He was gone.”

“So what happened?”

“There was smoke everywhere, people yelling, screaming. I couldn’t find anyone and then they,” Jake stops again, “they had machine guns, assault rifles, AK47s, I don’t know. They started shooting everyone.”

“What do you mean everyone?”

“Everyone, whether they were lying on the ground or standing or running. Just everyone. I was, I was in a doorway. I could hear them coming closer and there are a group of rocks, just outside the base. You could see them through the fence and I travelled to them and then I travelled to the furthest point away from them that I could see and then I did it again and again and again. And then it got dark so I had to stop because I couldn’t see anything in the distance and then in the morning I just kept going until I found a road and then I hitched and eventually I got over the border and came here.”

“They killed everyone?”

“Yep. The town, there was a town nearby, where everyone lived who worked at the base, and their families. I could see it in the distance. There was this big black cloud over it. They had bombed it too.”

“I haven’t been able to do a lot of research into what happened. There’s not a lot of information plus I don’t want to send up any red flags nosing around but if you look at the satellite pictures of where the base was, there’s nothing left. There’s just desert. It’s like they dug a big hole and pushed whatever was left into it.”

“That’s probably what they did.”

“Why? Do you know?”

“I don’t even know who did it. My sister, Shelley, and Tina. Do you have any information about them?”

“I’m sorry, there’s nothing, nothing that I can find.”

Jake puts the remains of the slice of pizza he’s eating down on his plate and looks at it then glances again at the table next to theirs. There is a guy and a girl at it, they’re obviously dating, laughing together at something.

Tim is silent.

Jake goes to say something, goes to pick up the slice of pizza again, but stops. Swallows hard again.

“Nicky doesn’t know any of this,” Tim says. “She thinks that not everyone died, that the ruins of the base are still there, that the town is still there. That they were just targeting the travellers.”

“If everyone died, then there is just her and me and you that know what we can really do, isn’t there?”

“Possibly. I don’t know who destroyed the base, what they knew, what were the reasons but no one here, except me, knows what Nicky can do. The people I work with, just know this girl appears out of nowhere and that’s it. Others know we have a tool for finding missing people but they think it is some sort of computer programme. They don’t think it’s a person.”

“So we could be safe?”

“She as safe as I can make her.”

Jake watches the couple at the table next to them again.

“Nicky, what does she do when she’s here?” he says at last.

“She goes to the beach, she runs, she swims in the sea, gets a tan, goes to the mall.”

“But what does she really do?”

“Maybe it would be easiest if I showed you. Is that all right? You’re not doing anything tonight?”

Jake shrugs his shoulders.

Tim gets out his phone.

“Hey, yeah, it’s me. Could we put a team together for tonight? Yeah, I know. Maybe just five. Yeah, five would be good. We’ll be about half an hour?”

Jake watches him put his phone away.

“What was all that about?”

“You finished that pizza?”

“Yep.”

“Then let’s walk back to the apartment. We need the car.”

“What is this place?”

Tim watches Jake look around, take in the TV monitors and the desks and the phones and the computers.

“It’s an operational centre. Nicky and I use it at night. Everything’s turned off. There’s no cameras, no record of us being here. It’s wiped clean. Here, have a look at these.”

Tim hands Jake five folders. He opens the top one, looks at the photo, reads the one sheet of paper.

“What is this?”

“They’re five people who have all gone missing the past twenty-four hours in the city. We’ve selected them at random.”

Jake spreads the folders out on the table, looking at the photos.

“Why?”

“If you want to, we could find them. That’s what Nicky and I do here, she seeks out missing people.”

“But how do I choose? Which one of the five?”

“Nicky doesn’t choose. She does all of them. She usually does about twenty a night. I stop her after that. She wants to find everyone.”

“But she doesn’t know where she’s going. These people could be anywhere. Anything could be happening to them.”

“I know.”

“What you asking me to do, it’s really dangerous. Nicky shouldn’t be doing it.”

“Tell her that. I keep her as safe as I can. Here, this is a tracking unit so I know where you are. Just keep it in your pocket and you can talk to me on this.” Tim hands the tiny earpiece to Jake along with the GPS unit. “You just fit it in your ear. I only need seconds to get a fix on your position. If the situation is bad you just head straight back here.”

“And then what happens?”

“Two things. I alert some people who let the local cops know where the person is and secondly we wipe any surveillance cameras in the area that might have caught you appearing out of nowhere. That’s why we do it at night. Less chance of anyone seeing you.”

“This is crazy.”

“It’s what Nicky wanted to do.”

“And you let her do it.”

“We’ve found a lot of people. Saved a lot of lives.”

Jake opens one of the folders again. There’s a picture of a man, hair starting to grey and thin. He’s wearing a green T-shirt. Has a tan, well built, grey eyes that look like they smile a lot, white teeth.

Jake looks up from the photo to Tim who is standing waiting.

“I can’t do it,” he says.

Twelve

It’s been a long flight. It’s always a long flight. From Auckland to LAX it’s a sleeper: leave Auckland in the evening, arriving in LA in the morning, try to get some sleep along the way. I am getting better at it but it’s still a long flight watching continuous movies while everyone else snores around you. And my ankle hurts. I’ve been waggling it this way and the other way and making circles and getting out into the aisle and stretching my calf muscles and my Achilles but it still hurts. Not a sharp hurt, more of a dull ache. It won’t stop me travelling but it’s annoying.

At least it’s good to be able to get off the plane and make your way straight through immigration without having to wait for a suitcase. It means I’m one of the first in the queue. My American passport which I use when I’m here must have something special on it, some FBI tag that comes up when it’s swiped because I’m never asked any questions. Just straight through Miss, hope you enjoy your stay, have a good day. I could just get a taxi from the airport to the apartment, it wouldn’t be a problem, but Tim always insists on picking me up. I don’t know why. Some days it’s obvious he’s had to leave work to get me. It would be easier for me just to get a taxi, let myself into the apartment with my own key and deal with the Mutt’s slobbering embrace on my own than have to haul him out of whatever he’s working on.

So when I get through border security, or whatever they call it here, I’m fumbling with my passport, trying to put it back into my carryon bag, limping (embarrassingly) and inside I’m sighing because Tim will be waiting for me when he doesn’t have to be. I finally look up, search the faces of the people on the other side of the barrier, who are all excitedly waiting for friends and family off the plane, to find where he is impatiently waiting for me and I see him.

Jake.

Then I’m running because I can’t get to him fast enough. I’m in his arms and he’s swinging me around and I’m laughing and crying and so is he and everyone is looking at us and then he kisses me.

Jake.

We’re both crying and holding each other so tightly that I know he will never let me go again ever and I won’t let him go. Ever.

Jake.

Slowly he pushes the hair off my face, wipes the tears from my cheeks with his fingertips, and looks at me and I look at him.

“I love you,” he says and then we’re both crying all over again.

Jake.

I don’t know how long we stand like that, together. It doesn’t matter. It’s me and Jake and that’s all that matters. Together. And he’s okay, he’s not dead, he’s not hurt. He’s here and he’s with me, touching me, holding me.

Jake.

He puts his arm around me and starts to guide me through the people and the noise of the terminal to the heat outside and there is Tim waiting in the driver’s seat of the car and he has to drive us like he’s a chauffeur because neither of us can let the other one go so we both have to sit in the back seat. I can see Tim looking at me every now and then in rear view mirror, a smile in his eyes.
When we get to the apartment building he parks outside.

“I’ll drop you off here. You’ve got the afternoon together. I’ll be back when it gets dark,” he says, looking back at us.

“No problem,” Jake replies and we get out.

At the door I have my keys ready and I’m also ready for Mutt’s usual sloppy welcome. And I’m right, he’s there waiting for me.

“Hey, settle down,” I tell the shagginess. Jake gives him a pat too which is nice.

“You probably want to get some sleep,” he says. “Tim says you’re still no good at sleeping on planes.”

“Yeah, sleep would be nice.” I wonder briefly what else Jake and Tim have been talking about but my mind is too tired to work much. Instead, my fingers still curled around Jake’s, I wander into my bedroom and half fall on the bed. We lie together, just looking at each other. We have only the afternoon together, that’s what Tim said. We should be doing something, swimming at the beach, talking, at least talking, not just lying here doing nothing.

And then I fall asleep.

Jake wakes me with a kiss.

“Tim will be back soon, you might want to have a shower.”

I groan and sit up, my hair falling everywhere. I need more than a shower. I need a makeover.

“You’re still here,” I say.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he says, bending over to kiss me again.

In the bathroom I wonder about the extra toothbrush in the glass. The hot water feels good, the clean clothes feel good and I’m hungry. I hope Tim is bringing food before he makes me go to work.

He does. Hamburgers and not the McDonalds fast food type hamburgers but really good ones with huge meat patties and lots of cheese and pickles. I like LA.

“How’s the ankle?” Tim asks me, picking out the pickles from his burger. Jake sees me glance at the evicted pickles and smiles. It’s just the same as always, we like pickles and everyone else doesn’t.

“It’s okay,” I say, my mouth full.

“Can you run?”

“I wish. The physio said another month or so, although if I had to I probably could, just don’t tell her that I said that.”

“Well, hopefully you won’t have to run. You can travel okay?”

“I’ll be fine. Are we getting into it tonight?”

“You’re only here for two weeks.”

I look at Jake when Tim says that. Two weeks, it’s not very long. It’s no time at all. And now, the burgers finished, Mutt taking the last morsel of Tim’s burger, I have to leave him and go to work with Tim. Will I see him again tomorrow? Will I see him again at all? I shouldn’t have slept through the afternoon.

“Right kids, let’s go,” Tim says getting up.

Jake follows him out of the apartment. Obviously we’re dropping him off somewhere on the way. The car is in the building’s parking lot. Jake slides into the back seat again and I follow, our fingers entwined again.

But we don’t drop Jake off anywhere. Instead we drive through the evening watching as the lights come on around us. At Tim’s office, Jake walks right in through the side door we always use and down the corridor to the ops room as if he knows where he’s going. I give Tim a “what the hell’s going on look” and he just smiles back. On the table the boxes are gone. Instead there is a neatly stacked pile of folders.

“There’s thirty there,” Tim says seeing me spot them. “Divide them up however you want to.”

Now I stare at Jake but he’s already thumbing through the first folder, ignoring me. Tim continues turning on the lights and then he places two tracking units and two earpieces on the desk.

“Why is there two?” I ask slowly.

“Jake hasn’t told you has he?” Tim finally says. He’s almost got his laptop set up.

“She slept all afternoon,” Jake says. “I was going to.”

“Tell me what?”

“Here you do this one,” Jake says passing me a folder. I glance at the photo. It’s of an old woman.

“I’ll do this guy,” he says, showing me the photo of a man, his face covered with tattoos.

“What?” I don’t know what to say first – why the hell is Jake doing my job or why do I get to do the little old lady while he gets the mean looking man? But it’s too late to protest about anything. Jake has already travelled.

“I’ve got you located,” Tim tells him, speaking into his head set. Watching the laptop screen he passes the other earpiece to me. I don’t protest, I’m too stunned. I put it in my ear and listen.

“Yeah, there’s flies,” Jake is saying. “He’s in a pile of rubbish next to the skip in the alley.”

“Okay, on to the next one then,” Tim replies and seconds later Jake has travelled back.

“Are you going to do one or what?” Jake says laughing at me.

But I’m not laughing, I’ve got the shivers. I haven’t seen someone travel for so long and even though it is Jake, I’ve got that queasy feeling in my stomach and a sour taste in my mouth and a multitude of bad memories swarming around in my head.

“Hey, babe, it’s okay. It’s just me.” He instantly knows what I’m going through.

“Yeah. Just give me a minute. I forgot what it looks like.”

I lean back against the table, conscious of Tim watching me.

“Little old lady missing from rest home,” Jake says. “Her name is Nancy. Go and seek her out.”

I swallow hard, look at the photo again and then I’m gone.

The first time I do it, when I get back to LA, it’s always different. Like riding a bike when you haven’t hopped on one for a year or so. You know how to do it, you just have to remind yourself what it feels like. I don’t travel at all when I’m home. Not since I’ve been in the States. It’s not worth it if anyone saw me and I don’t need to and I just don’t want to. I like leaving it all behind when I get on that plane to New Zealand. So first time, it’s always a bit crazy, not having done it for ten weeks. It’s even crazier knowing that Jake is watching. I wonder if he got the shivers too, like I did.

He must of because straight away I hear Tim in my ear asking him if he’s all right. I can’t hear Jake’s reply, he must have taken the earpiece out. I’m right because the next moment Tim is telling me that Jake is puking in a rubbish bin and then he asks if this is going to happen every time we watch each other travel.

“Just give us some time,” I tell him. “We’ll be okay.”

“I hope so. I’ve got a fix on you by the way. You can come back now.”

I look around. It’s dark. There are lights off in the distance, street lights perhaps. We’re on a beach of some sort, I think. There’s gravel under my feet and what could be water a couple of hundred metres away. It’s hard to tell, it’s so dark. Maybe it’s not the sea. It could be some sort of lake, or a large pond.

“Tim, I don’t see her.”

“Is she alive?”

“I think so. I just can’t see her. It’s really dark. I should have brought a torch.”

“Don’t hang around if you don’t feel safe.”

“No, it’s okay.”

“I could send Jake. He’s finished throwing up now.”

“We can do that now, can’t we?’

“It makes me a lot happier about all of this.”

“Hey, Nicky, what’s up?” Jake’s voice is in my ear.

“You shouldn’t have watched me travel,” I tell him.

“You watched me.”

“It wasn’t fun.”

“I know.”

“We’ll get better at this.’

“You and me, travelling the world together,” he replies.

It’s our old catch phrase. Jake would say it to me when I needed to keep my chin up, stay brave. The words were always meant just for me. I feel a tear slip down my cheek remembering.

“Come back, I’ve got your position,” Tim says.

“Just give me a minute. I want to make sure she’s okay.” I start walking in a direction that feels right and stumble. It’s so dark I can’t even see what almost tripped me up. I reach down and there she is, lying on the stones, and she’s cold. I feel around until I find her wrist, search for a pulse.

“I found her. She’s alive but she’s unconscious.”

“I’ll get an ambulance.”

“They won’t be able to find her. It’s really dark.”

“They’ll have lights.”

“But what if they don’t spot her?”

“You see, this is the problem I have with Nicky,” Tim says.

“I know what you mean,” Jake says.

“Are you two talking about me?” I interrupt.

“Just travel back, Nicky,” Tim says.

“But what if they don’t find her in time? What happens if she dies out here? What was the point then in me seeking her out?”

“They will find her. I’ve got an accurate fix, they are on their way now, their ETA is six minutes, they have lights.”

I travel back. Jake shrugs his shoulders at me, hands me another folder. Tim is talking to someone on the phone. He doesn’t look up.

Jake and I make our way through the pile of folders. There’s kids missing, teenagers, old people, young people, everyone. We travel to where they are, figure out if they are alive or dead, make sure

Tim has an accurate fix and travel back. Ready for the next one.

Jake has been going one to one with me but the last three he hands to me. I can see he’s exhausted.

Teenage guy, alive, in an apartment building, seven-year-old girl, dead, in woods by a gravel road.

The last one, a 24-year-old man, I can’t do.

“He’s too far away or something,” I tell Tim, and that’s the end of the evening. We pack up, head back to the car. Tim suggests ice cream which is good because I’m really not ready to say goodbye to Jake for the night before heading to the apartment.

We go to one of those places where they mix the ice cream with chocolate and M&Ms or whatever you want with those metal paddles. I always take ages to choose. In the end I opt for strawberry ice cream with chocolate pieces and real strawberries in a waffle cone. Jake has got some mint chocolate concoction and Tim always has the same thing – maple and walnut.

It’s still hot so we sit outside by the street in metal chairs around a table.

“So, tell me, just how long have you two been doing this for,” I finally get to ask between slurps.

“Eating ice cream after work?” Jake asks innocently.

“You know what I mean,” I reply half trying to kick him under the table.

“About six weeks,” Tim says.

“And how did it all happen? I mean, when I left to go back home, you didn’t even know where Jake was, you couldn’t even find him on the street with surveillance and people watching and everything.”

“He knocked on my apartment door looking for you.”

“You did what?” I turn to Jake. He’s catching a drip with his tongue as it runs down his hand.

“What else was I meant to do? I waited three weeks. You were gone.”

“I had to go home.”

“But I didn’t know that.”

“He’s been getting better,” Tim says. “When we first started we were doing about five, six people a time. Tonight you did how many?”

“Twelve I think.”

“You’re taking over my job?”

“There’s always more people missing, Nicky. If I had ten of you we wouldn’t be able to keep up.”

“But you didn’t tell me, you didn’t ring me. The last time we talked on the phone you said you hadn’t found him.”

“I hadn’t then. It was later that day he knocked on my door.”

“But you could have rung me.”

Thirteen

I am mentally prepared once again to say goodbye to Jake but instead we drive all the way back to the apartment. Jake gets out with me and Tim and all three of us walk up the stairs. Maybe Jake is coming in for a coffee or something. If he is, it won’t be for long. He looks exhausted.

“I’ll see you guys in the morning,” Tim says and heads to the bathroom. Five minutes later he’s out of there and into his bedroom, Mutt with him, the door shut. Jake and I look at each other.

“I still can’t believe you’re here,” I say.

“It’s was a long time waiting for you, believe me. And I did think about ringing. Tim was going to give me your number.”

“If you had I would have wanted to get on a plane right there and then.”

“I know.”

“You did the right thing.”

“It was hard.”

“Just as well my flight wasn’t delayed this morning.”

“I couldn’t have done that. It was bad enough as it was. Do you want to use the bathroom first? I can wait.”

I stare at him, trying to figure out what he’s saying.

“You want to use the bathroom,” I say slowly.

“Yeah, I’m really tired. But if you want to go first.”

“You live here?”

“I’ve got the other bedroom.”

“What?”

“I used to have my own flat but it was a bit of a dive and then Tim offered. Look, I’ll use the bathroom, I’ll only be seconds.”

When he comes out I still haven’t picked my jaw off the ground.

“Night, see you tomorrow,” he says and kisses me and then goes into what I thought was the empty spare room.

Sometime during the night, he clambers under my bed covers, his body next to mine.

“What are doing?” I whisper, only half awake.

“You were crying out. Bad dream,” he mutters back and we both must fall asleep again because the next thing I know it’s morning.

Tim has already left but the Mutt is waiting for us on the sofa. He half clambers half falls onto the floor, finds his feet, and walks over to us, slobber ready.

“Tim says he’ll back tonight for us.” Jake is reading off a piece of paper on the kitchen bench and pushing Mutt away at the same time.

I’m a little bit annoyed that Jake is getting Mutt’s attention first instead of me. Hey, remember dog, who you get the hugs from. But Mutt wanders over soon enough and I give him extra special attention while Jake washes his hands before filling up the toaster. We land on the sofa, with plates piled high, and Jake grabs the remote to turn on the TV.

It’s one of the news channels. There’s a report about a missing eight-year-old boy who had been found late last night after apparently running away from home.

“Mine,” Jakes says, his arm going up as if he’s celebrating a win.

“That was one of yours from last night.”

“I know. That’s why I said mine.”

I don’t reply but keep watching, munching toast, Mutt’s head on my lap. Jake has already pushed him away so I’m still second best but at least I let him do what he wants. I’m sure the dog will figure it out sooner or later. He’s not that dumb. On the TV they’re talking about a petrol price rise and then it switches to an alleyway with a dumpster in the background and police everywhere. A woman is talking into a microphone and saying something about a notorious gangland boss being found dead and fears were rife for retaliation. A picture of a man flashes onto the screen.

“Mine,” Jake yells again, fist pump to the ceiling again. “Tattoo guy. Two zip.”

“What?”

“They’ve had two of mine from last night on so far and none of yours.”

“They might have been on before.”

“Doesn’t matter. Two zip.”

“It’s not a competition.”

“Who says?”

I push Mutt off me and get up shaking my head, collect our plates and take them to the kitchen bench.

“Any plans for the day?” Jake asks over the noise from the TV.

“No. Just the usual.”

“But it’s not the usual is it? Usually you’d go for a run along the beach.”

“But I can’t can I? Crappy ankle, remember.”

“Then I’ve got the next best thing. Running clothes on please.”

He leads me out of the apartment building and onto the street. It’s hot already. The footpath is cooking us from the bottom up. We walk a couple of blocks and then I follow Jake into a large building. It’s a gym. Air conditioning and music blasts us as Jake swipes two cards to get us in. He waves one at me. It has my photo and American name on it.

“Surprise. You can thank me afterwards. I’ll just go over to the big boy weights. Catch you soon.”

I watch him weave his way through the gym to the back where the weights are. He says hi to a guy as he passes, another one waves hello. Most of the females’ eyes are following him too.

Sighing, I chose a bike and start the routine my swim coach set out for me. After so many weeks it’s ingrained in my head, I don’t need her notes. And I don’t need the trainers at the gym back home to push me either. By now I’m too good at doing that myself. I recognise most of the equipment. I’ve never been to an American gym, I’ve never been to any gym outside New Zealand but all the equipment seems to be the same. The way you push the little pins into the weights to choose whether you want to be lifting 25kg or 30kg or 35kg in the machines and how you always look at the weight that the person who was using it before you was lifting. If it’s like 80kg you mentally roll your eyes, if it’s only 10kg you smile to yourself.

The people are not the same though. At my gym at home there’s everyone from school kids like me to grannies who use walkers to get to the gear to guys whose necks, thighs and shoulders are all the same diameter. And everyone wears the most uncool gear. Old shorts with T-shirts or baggy sweats or not even gym gear at all. Some of the old people just wear their normal clothes. I saw a woman there once in a cardigan and skirt and pantyhose. Whatever rest home she had escaped from I don’t know but she could sure make that rowing machine work.

But here, in Santa Monica, everyone is young and tanned and gorgeous and wearing beautiful exercise clothes. And they all look like they live in the gym. I have never seen so many toned, glistening bodies. In my running shorts and white tank top, which is kind of going grey, I feel very, very out of place. I concentrate on my sets of twenty.

Then I start to notice other people around me, people working out just as hard as me, pushing themselves just like I am, but they’re missing legs or arms. Instead they have shiny metal replacements, just as shiny and metallic as the gym equipment they’re using. Maybe Afghanistan or Iraqi? They’re all young, it’s possible. I think again about Tim jumping in and out of that helicopter the way he did. I still haven’t asked him.

I’m finishing up my last set when I see Jake walking towards me. His arms are pumped, glowing with sweat and he’s walking straight towards me smiling. In this room full of beautiful people, almost everyone’s eyes are on him. He’s not, not in front of all these people, is he? Please no. But he does. He bends down and kisses me. Not on the cheek, or my hair or anywhere else. This is one big, full mouth kiss on the lips. And everyone is watching.

“Finished?” he asks when he finally lets me go.

I nod yes. I am definitely ready to leave and like, right now.

We forego showers and walk back to the apartment to get changed into bathing suits and hit the beach.

It’s gorgeous and, now that it’s summer, breath taking. This is why I come here. This is why I do what I do. It’s because of this huge stretch of sand with its lifeguard huts dotted along it and these perfect waves and this blue sky and this amazing incredible sunshine. Jake follows me as I walk over to my favourite life guard hut and lay my towel down carefully on the sand.

“What are you doing?” he asks. “Let’s just get in.”

I laugh and follow him towards the water. The soft sand is hard work with my bad ankle but once I slip into the water I’m a fish and it’s forgotten. He jumps a wave and then dives under the next as I let the surge take my body up and then down as it passes me, washing the sweat from the gym out of my pores. Even the water is the perfect temperature.

Summer.

We swim together for about half an hour and then stagger up the beach to our towels. The life guard in his hut waves at me and I wave back. He’s remembered me.

I lie down on my carefully spread out towel and close my eyes. The sun is warm on my skin. No, it’s hot, but in the nicest of ways. I stretch out, dig into the sand with my toes, feel the salt water dry on my legs and feel every muscle in my body, every synapse in my brain relax one by one on their own.

It’s as if my body is sighing with pleasure.

“Thank you, for staying alive.”

I open my eyes and look over at Jake. He’s lying on his side on his towel facing me, his head propped up by his hand. He’s deadly serious. There’s no smile on his face, no joking in his eyes.

“What do you mean?” I ask unsure.

“Exactly what I said. When I saw you that last time, at the Project, I told you to get out, to look after yourself and you did and because of that we’re here together, now.”

“I wanted you to come with me.”

“I couldn’t travel that far, you knew that.”

“I wanted you to try.”

“I had to find my sister.”

“Did you find her?” I sit up. “Did you find Tina and Paul?”

“Paul’s dead. I couldn’t find the others.”

“Are you sure he’s dead?”

“Yes.”

My eyes well up with tears. I don’t meant them to, it just happens. I loved Paul once, and even though he betrayed me, he was still my first real love. Before Jake, before L.A., and although I know I will never forgive him for what he did, I had still hoped he had made out alive.

“I’m sorry,” Jake says as I brush the tears away.

“It’s fine. Just . . .”

“I know.”

“So what did you do?” I change the subject.

“I travelled. Those rocks you could see in the distance through the fence, I travelled to those and then I travelled to the furthest thing away that I could see and kept doing that until I found a road and then I hitched.”

“Why?”

“What do you mean why?”

“Why did you leave your sister there, and Tina?”

“I said, I couldn’t find them.”

I stare it him. There’s something he’s not telling me and he knows I’ve realised it. He lies back down on the towel.

I reach out and take his hand.

“Thank you for staying alive too,” I tell him. A seagull wheels in the bluest of blue skies above us.

“Do you think we’ll ever find the others?” I ask, watching the bird.

“I don’t think so. I don’t know.”

“Have you ever tried, seeking them out?”

“No. I didn’t know where I’d end up.”

“We should try it one night, with Tim.”

“You do realise just how dangerous what it is he’s gets us to do is, don’t you?” His hand is clenched around mine, a fist.

“I know.”

“We can end up anywhere, in any situation, any place. We have no idea where we’re going seeking out these missing people.”

“I know, I broke my ankle, remember.”

“He asks a lot of us.”

“He tries to make it as safe as he can. Anyway, you don’t have to do it.”

“But you do it.”

“It was my idea to start with. I wanted to do it, not Tim. And you don’t have to do it just because I do.”

Jake sighs.

“I just want you to stay alive,” he says at last.

“I know. I intend to.”

“Well just, just travel back as soon as he’s got a fix on you. You don’t have to stay there and find the person or something. You don’t have to save them. Just seek them out and then get back. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“You’re a worry, you know that don’t you?”

“I’m a good worry I hope.”

Jake shakes his head frustrated at me and lies down on his towel again, closing his eyes.

“It says this guy is FBI.”

We’re in the ops room. It’s night. I’ve already seeked out two people, Jake is onto his third.
I look over Jake’s shoulder at the folder he’s holding. The photo is of a young guy. Blond, spikey hair, a grin, blue-green eyes.

“I know,” Tim says.

“So why wasn’t he top of the pile?”

“Because we don’t do that. It’s random, remember.”

“Even for guys like this? A guy you work with?” Jake’s tone is incredulous.

“I don’t work with him. I don’t even know him.”

“What, doesn’t the FBI have big Christmas parties together?” I ask, having fun.

“No.”

I start reading the pages in the folder and quickly see why it is that Jake is concerned.

“He could be missing because he’s important. He could have been kidnapped, anything.”

“Or he could have got lost because his car ran out of petrol when he decided to take his dog for a walk,” Tim says.

“According to this, George doesn’t have a dog,” Jake says, he’s re-reading the file over my shoulder.

“His wife reported him missing,” I add. “They’ve been married a year. She’s pregnant with their first child. She says here that George didn’t come home from work this morning. He was doing a night shift.”

“So he didn’t come home from work and you think because of that there’s a problem with national security?”

“Newly married men don’t leave their pregnant wives.”

“In your ideal world they don’t.”

“So he empties rubbish bins or something? He’s that unimportant,” Jake says.

“No, he’s an analyst. He sits at a desk. He knows nothing, he does nothing. He’s low level. He’s of no interest to anyone. I’ve checked him out just like I check out everyone else I give you to find so can we please just do our jobs? We have a lot more folders you will force me to go through and I want to get home before midnight.”

Jake and I share glances. Maybe Tim’s right. There’s nothing to worry about. The guy is out in the hills somewhere lost. Car broken down. Maybe he went to see the sunrise on the way home from work and got a flat tyre and the jack was missing from his car. Maybe, there’s lots of maybes, including the one that Tim is wrong.

“It’s my turn,” Jake says and takes the folder from me. I bite my lip to stop me saying anything more and watch Jake look at the photo again then put the folder on the table. Tim turns to his computer screen ready to track him but nothing happens. Jake stays standing there.

“I can’t do it. He must be too far away.”

I sigh and grab the folder off the desk, stare at the photo, put the folder down on the desk again.

“I don’t think you should do it,” Jake says quickly.

“Why?”

“Because.”

I stare at him, my face one big question mark. Seriously, it was okay for him to do it but not me?

“Just don’t travel too close to him, just in case,” Jake says.

I nod slowly and I’m gone.

I swear, unintentionally, then swear again. I am so high up and heights lately are not my thing. I’m standing on the edge of a building. My toes in my sneakers are hanging over the edge into darkness, and it is a very, very long way down to the street lights. The first thing I do is take a step backwards.

“Where are you?” Tim’s voice is in my ear.

“I don’t know, about twenty storeys up at least. I’m in this high rise. It’s like it’s still being built. There’s just concrete, no walls, no windows.”

And a huge drop down which I’m not going to look at again. Instead I look outwards and see the lights twinkling on the hills in the darkness. There are no other buildings, not this tall.

“Do you see George?”

“Who?”

“The missing guy.”

“Um,” I’m still feeling giddy from the height so take another step backwards and my foot connects with something, something metal and which makes a loud noise as it rolls away from me. I turn around to see what it is but instead I’m looking at a lit up room and a group of men about fifty metres away all staring at me, and George, who’s tied to a chair. He doesn’t look so great.

“Nicky?” It’s Tim I my ear.

“This isn’t good,” I mutter.

“Who are you?” One of the men yells at me.

“I’ve got your position. Travel back now,” Tim orders.

“Nicky, just do it,” Jake’s voice is edged with panic.

“I can’t, they’re watching me. They’ve seen me. They’ve got George.”

“What are you doing here?” the man yells again and starts to move towards me.

“Nicky, run.”

Fourteen

I take Tim’s advice without thinking. The first step, the first leap forward into the shadows is fine until I land on my bad ankle and pain shoots up my leg. There’s stairs over to my left, by the outside of the building, in the darkness and I make for them, half stumbling, half hopping, my ankles in an argument with each other on just how to get there.

“She can’t run, you know she can’t run,” I hear Jake shouting at Tim then Jake’s shouting at me to travel, to get out of there, to not worry if anyone sees me, just do it and then he stops mid-sentence and I’m guessing Tim has turned off his microphone because then I only hear him muffled, in the distance, through Tim’s mike.

“Tim?”

“I’m here.”

“My ankle hurts real bad.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t think I can travel.”

I’ve made it to the stairs but I can only go down one step at time, good leg, bad leg, good leg, bad leg. Behind me I hear the sounds of running.

“Can they still see you?”

I glance over my shoulder. It’s dark but not that dark. There must be a moon or something. The men are right behind me.

“Yes, but I can’t travel.”

“Nicky, listen to me and do exactly what I say.”

“Yes.” My heart is pounding, my breath short. I can only manage the one word.

“I have a fix on you. I want you to take the GPS unit out of your pocket and the earpiece and I want you to lose them both.”

“Tim?”

“Just do it.”

“No,” Jake cries out in the background.

It’s the last thing I hear from them both as I chuck the two pieces of equipment, the only two pieces of equipment that I have that keep me safe, off the side of the building. It’s a long way down. They will shatter on impact and I won’t see or hear it. I’m so high up.

I don’t have to look backwards anymore. The footsteps are right behind me and then there is a hand grabbing at my left shoulder, stopping me, yanking me round.

I’m marched back up the stairs, my pathetic attempt at escape over with. The two guys who grabbed me both have guns. They make me put my hands on my head and I limp upwards, back to George.

The man who first yelled at me is waiting at the top.

“Who is she?” he asks.

One of the guys pats me down, searches my pockets.

“There’s nothing on her.”

“I just was up here looking,” I say, my voice sounding weird.

“Looking for what?”

“Nothing. Looking at the view. I thought the view would probably be pretty good from up here.”

“So you just wandered up? In the dark?”

“Yes.” I’m trying wildly to think of more excuses, more reasons to be in this half-built building late at night, but nothing comes out.

“Bring her over here.”

One of the guys behind me pushes me forward and I awkwardly step onto my bad leg, pain shooting up from my ankle again. I limp after the boss guy. He’s heading towards the circle of lights and George who’s still tied to the chair.

Closer I can see it’s those plastic ties that is keeping his hands on the arms of the chair, his ankles against its legs. His shirt is gone, red marks against his rib bones. His head is flopped down against his chest, as if he’s sleeping.

“Ask him if he knows her,” the boss guy says and one of the other men starts doing something with a machine next to George. There’s wires pulled out of the electrical cable hung on the wall going into it. Another guy pulls up George’s head by his hair, starts slapping his face.

“Hey wake up, we’ve got another question to ask you.”

George’s eyes slowly open, focus, and then he starts shaking. This whole body shake. Sweat stands out on his shoulders which are heaving as if he is having trouble breathing but he’s not. His ribs are rising and falling as if he’s running a hundred metre dash.

“You know this girl?” the guy asks him, pulling his head, still by the hair, round towards me.

George stares at me. I can see the terror in his eyes, the darkness.

“I don’t know,” he says slowly, hesitantly.

“Do it,” the boss guy says and the one by the machine brings out this thing which looks like what you connect to a car battery when it’s needs recharging and places it against George’s chest.

“No,” George protests but the word becomes a strangled scream as his body goes rigid with the electricity.

“Don’t do that,” I yell but no one is listening to me. The only reply I get is the barrel of a gun shoved into my back. I shut up.

At last they take the thing away from his skin and George’s body relaxes, his chest heaving again as he sucks in air.

“So, do you know this girl?” the man repeats the question.

“Yes,” George gets out between gasps.

“Who is she?”

“I work with her. She has the desk across from mine.”

“No, I don’t,” I say as the boss guy turns back towards me. “I don’t work with him. I don’t even know him. I’m a kid. I wanted to see the view. That’s why I’m here. I just wanted to see the view.”

“Who’s telling the truth, George?” the man asks.

George is silent, his ribs going up and then down, his eyes on the floor.

“Shock him again.”

“No,” George protests. “I told you, I work with her. She’s in the same office.”

The man has his gun out and is pointing it at me. This close he doesn’t even have to aim.

“You came to rescue George. How did you know he was here?”

“I don’t know him.” I’ve started walking backwards, towards the edge of the room, towards the drop.
For every step I take backwards, he takes one closer to me.

“You can do better than that,” he says.

I glance back at George. His head has slumped down onto his chest again, his eyes closing. The rest of the men are watching me. I can’t walk backwards anymore. There is no more floor, only the edge and the nothing beyond it. The man with the gun circles around me.

“Turn around,” he says.

I do as I’m told and once again I am facing outwards to the darkness, the warm air from the street far below rushing up past my face bringing the smells of the huge city with it.

“We’re going to play a game,” he says. “You’ll like it because you get to do all the choosing. Either you choose to tell me how you found us here tonight, or you can choose to jump off this building. If you do neither of these things I will shoot you. Do you understand?”

“I don’t know him.”

He’s standing across from me, to my right. His gun is in one hand, his arm outstretched, the gun pointed at my head. I look out into the night sky and search for stars but there are none. The smog must be bad tonight. I wish I could see the stars.

“Choose.”

I’m only one step away from the edge. It would be easy to do. One step on my useless ankle and the darkness would swallow me up and it would be over. I think of Jake. It is best that I’m thinking of him when I die. He would hope that I was. I wish I still had the earpiece to tell him that I am.

I take a deep breath, close my eyes and start to make the step.

There’s a noise, a whirlwind of sound and lights and yelling and I open my eyes and see a helicopter only metres away, the side door slid back and a soldier sitting there with a rifle and then it goes off and I turn to my right and the man that had held the gun to my head is lying there dead next to me. I turn back to the helicopter and the soldier motions to me to get down and I do, sinking to my knees but my ankle pulls me up short and I instead end up rolling backwards, my arms over my head as bullets fly above me. The concrete floor is hard underneath me but if I could I would have buried myself as deep as could into it. At last the noise of gunfire over the helicopter rotors stop and I glance upwards. The soldier is giving me an okay sign with his gloved hand and I nod back. The helicopter then slowly lifts upwards and out of sight, the noise and the lights going with it.

Suddenly I’m hauled to my feet. Soldiers are coming from the stairs and one has grabbed me. He pushes me behind him, his rifle raised. I almost trip up and have to grab onto the back of his body armour to steady myself. He waits until I find my footing and then we move slowly as one towards the centre of the room behind the others, rifles raised.

“Clear,” one of them shouts after a few minutes, followed by the same word coming from the others. The same tone. The soldier lets me go, lowers his weapon. I stand there, on my good foot, trying to take in what has happened around me, what that word clear meant.

There are bodies everywhere. Clothing and the people wearing them shredded, blood turning everything red. My stomach heaves.

And then somehow Jake is there, and Tim. Jake has grabbed me into his arms but my head is whirring and I still want to throw up and I’m trying to look around me and work out if I’m safe or not.

I’m safe. I must be. Tim is here. And there are soldiers with guns. And they’ve killed everyone.

“Are you okay?” Jake keeps on asking me.

“I’m fine,” I say at last, even though I’m not. But the nausea has left and I haven’t got any bullet holes in me and apart from my ankle, nothing hurts, except my ears are ringing and I feel empty. This hollow emptiness that something awful almost happened but somehow didn’t happen and it included me.

Tim is looking me up and down, doing his usual visual assessment, knowing as usual not to trust anything I say.

“I’m fine,” I tell him.

He doesn’t reply, instead turning back to George. The soldiers have untied him from the chair, have got him on the ground. He’s not moving, his eyes are closed, his skin under the lights pale. Someone rushes up with medical gear. They tape plastic points to his chest and his chest leaps off the ground as they shock him.

“No,” I yell.

“It’s okay,” Jake tells me but it’s not. I know they are trying to get his heart started, that he is dying, but not this way. Not after what the men did to him. They shock him again and I’m crying, holding onto Jake’s arm that is clasped around me tightly, and then they put an oxygen mask onto George’s face and inject him with something and someone has arrived with a stretcher. He must have come back to life. They wouldn’t do that if he was dead.

Then Tim is looking at his phone, talking to one of the soldiers. He comes over to us and shows us the screen, swipes it with his finger starting a video. The soldier in the helicopter must have had a headcam on because there I am, on the screen, on the edge of the building, staring straight ahead, the guy with the gun pointed at my head is pulling the trigger and then he somehow falls sideways, against the floor and then I’m getting down on my knees, collapsing backwards with my bad ankle, hugging the floor as everything behind me is obliterated in gunfire.

I don’t see what happens next because Jake has pulled my head into his shoulder and he’s yelling at Tim, just yelling and yelling and yelling but I don’t know what about. I can only hear the words muffled through his body and I don’t care.

It’s a long walk up the stairs to the helicopter sitting on the roof.

“George, he said he knew me,” I tell Tim. “He doesn’t know me does he? He doesn’t know anything about me?”

“No, he doesn’t. He said that?”

“They thought I was there to rescue him. They asked him if he knew me.”

“He doesn’t know you.”

“He said he did.”

“They were torturing him, Nicky. He would have said anything.”

“But he doesn’t know me, does he?”

“No.”

“Is he going to be all right?”

“He should make it.”

Tim again checks my seatbelt is on and swings shut the door to the back of the helicopter, jumping in the front seat. Jake is sitting in the back with me. I watch the lights of the city as we fall off the top of the building.

There are still no stars.

Fifteen

We’re on the beach. My body is sore from the gym. Jake wanted me to sleep in, to rest, to look after myself but I wanted to go to the gym. I set all the weights higher than normal and added five lifts to each set. And now my body hurts as well as my mind. At least they are in sync.

My bad ankle is strapped and I’m back on crutches, for just when I need them. Tim had taken me in the car to an all-night medical centre on the way back to the apartment to get checked out. Nothing broken, just strained. I shouldn’t run, the doctor tells me. I started to say something but Tim hustled me out of the room before I could.

And now we’re on the beach, Jake and me together, and I don’t want to talk about it but that is all he wants to talk about and I’m angry and upset and scared and all I want to do is cry but for some reason I can’t. Not on the outside. But I’m crying on the inside and no one can see that and I can’t wipe away the tears and soon I will drown in them. My lungs will fill up and I won’t be able to breathe. I know that.

At least Jake is silent now. We’re both lying on our towels, our bodies still wet from the ocean, staring up at the sky and the blueness and the gulls and not saying anything. Everything has already been said. The accusations, the yelling, the what ifs. He’s done them all including the “you almost died, don’t you realise that?” He’s done that one several times. Tim shouldn’t have shown him the soldier’s headcam footage on his phone. Then he wouldn’t have known. I wasn’t going to tell him.

Jake says I’ve got a death wish. That I want to die and that’s why I almost fell off a mountain side, that’s why I almost ended up with a bullet in my head trying to save a lowly FBI analyst. I yelled back I hadn’t been trying to save George, I was trying to stop anyone knowing what we could do, that I couldn’t travel in front of those people, that I was trying to save myself and him and possibly Shelley and Tina wherever they are. And then he shut up, when I mentioned them, I don’t know why.

So now we’re lying on the beach. At last, not talking.

His phone rings. I keep staring up at the sky while he searches through his bag to find it and then wanders off answering it. I watch him go. His head bent down over the phone, turned away from me, and then he’s heading back in a hurry.

“Tim’s going to pick us up from the street outside the apartment in half an hour,” he says.

I nod, collect my gear, swing my bag onto my back and lift my crutches up out of the sand.

We’re showered and ready on the street for Tim. He picks us up and I get in the front seat, forcing Jake to take the back without me. Tim glances over at me but says nothing. I stare out the front window, watch the traffic, where we’re going.

Where we’re going is a gun club or rifle range or something like that. I’ve heard about these but never been to one. We don’t have them back home. At least not like this. Tim grabs a large bag out of the boot of the car and motions Jake to grab the other one and we go inside out of the heat. Tim pays a man behind a counter and we follow him along a corridor and into a room. He puts the bag on the floor and then takes the bag off Jake, zips it open and starts sorting through its contents before handing one of the plastic packets to me.

“What is it?” I ask.

“Open it, try it on,” Tim says. “It has to fit properly. I’m not sure if I have the right size.”

I tear open the plastic and look at the vest.

“It’s body armour,” Jake says with disgust.

“Yes it is,” Tim says, passing one to Jake.

I slip my arms into the holes, do up the front.

“I think that one is too big,” Tim says watching and then searches through the bag again.

“What will body armour do?” Jake says.

“In combat shootings, something like eighty percent are to the chest area.”

“He was going to shoot her in the head.”

“I know that.”

“What would body armour have done then?”

“Nothing, but there will be a lot of times when it will protect you.”

“There aren’t going to be a lot of times.”

Tim comes over to me with another vest and I hold out my arms as he puts it on, does it up.

“That’s a better fit,” he says, pulling at it. “This type is light weight and won’t show under your clothes. No one will know you have it on.”

“Will it stop a bullet?” I ask. I can’t believe something as thin as this could do that.

“Depending on how close, what sort of calibre, it will still probably hurt. You might get thrown backwards by the force of the impact, you might even break a rib or something but you will stay alive. That’s the idea.”

I move around in the vest, swing my arms. It feels okay. I just wish there was more of it, that it went up to under my chin, down at least to my knees, and yeah, somehow covered my head. Why couldn’t they make body armour hoodies?

Jake is still staring at us, shaking his head. He hasn’t tried his on. Tim and I turn to him and he opens his mouth as if to say something then shoves the vest on, does it up.

“There, it fits,” he says then pulls it off again.

Tim takes the vests off us both and then turns his attention to the other bag, the heavier one.

“I don’t want you to carry weapons when you’re travelling but I want you to be able to use one, if you have to,” he’s says then starts placing different guns on the table. Now my insides turn cold. We’re at a gun range, I should have guessed, and Tim wouldn’t have taken us to a FBI one because he keeps us away from all that. This is it, I’m going to learn how to properly fire a weapon, whether I want to or not.

I glance over at Jake. He’s staring at the guns then he goes over and picks one up.

“That’s a nine millimetre,” Tim says watching Jake turn it over in his hands, feel the weight.

“I know what it is,” Jake says.

Tim shrugs and reaches into the bag again and brings out a box of ammunition, shows us how to load the clip, push it back into the handle of the gun. The sound it makes is final.

“I’m going to teach you the Weaver stance which is proven to be the best way to fire a handgun.” He walks Jake over to the side of the room, to a half door which looks out onto the range. There are targets at the far end. “Okay, you’re right handed so hold the gun in your right hand out straight and use your left hand to support it, just bend that elbow a little. You want to be pushing the gun away from you with your right hand and pulling it back with your left. It stops the muzzle flipping up when you fire. Now line up the target using the gun sights.”

Jake is holding his breath, his finger on the trigger. Tim slips earmuffs onto Jake’s head and onto his own and then passes a third pair to me. I hurriedly slam them onto my ears just as Jake pulls the trigger. I don’t want to watch.

Tim patiently corrects his stance, makes him move his feet so his left foot is in front, his right foot to the side, so that he’s leaning slightly forward. Jake shoots again and then again and again and again. Then he moves onto semiautomatic rifles and lastly an AK47. With that he showers the range with killing power. I know what Jake is doing. He’s shooting the man who held the gun to my head last night over and over. Tim knows it too. But he’s not going to ask, when Jake has emptied the gun’s magazine, if he feels better now. He’s not that type of guy. And me, if I haven’t actually crawled under the table next to the wall, I wish I had. I wish I could. I’m drowning from my tears inside.

When Jake has finally finished, Tim beckons me over and places the nine millimetre into my hands.

It sits there comfortably. I’ve done this before. I know this gun’s shape and weight, its feel against my skin, its smell. He corrects my stance a little and then I shoot the whole clip at the target as he watches.

“You’re a natural,” he tells me. It’ the wrong thing for him to say.

The rifle and the AK47 are harder to use but I do my best, shutting down my senses, not thinking about what I’m doing, that I’m learning how to kill someone, or worse, someones. With the AK47 it is definitely lots of someones. At least Tim hasn’t brought a missile launcher to the range.

At last it’s over. Tim’s packs the guns away again and we head to the car.

Jake entwines my fingers in his and we sit in the back seat again. I can see Tim’s eyes in the rear vision mirror smiling at me. I don’t smile back. I’m still drowning.

We go back to the apartment and I shower but I can’t get the smell of the guns off my hands. Somehow we’ve missed lunch. Tim suggests pizza for tea instead and then, if it’s okay, we’ll go back to work. I nod. We only got a few folders done last night. We’re behind.

Over pizza (pepperoni – Tim believes Hawaiian pizza is an insult to the island state and to pizza), Tim tells us about George. He’s going to be okay. He’s out of intensive care and was asking about the girl who tried to rescue him.

“What did you tell him?”

“That she was fine but she hadn’t been there to trying to rescue him. She had just wandered into a bad situation by mistake. He apologised for saying that he knew you.”

“Does he realise it almost got her killed.”

At least the restaurant is full and the noise around us from the other tables deafening. No one will overhear our conversation.

“He doesn’t need to know that. He wanted to see you but I said it was not procedure.”

“So why did they have him? Who were they? What did they want?”

“We still don’t know but it was nothing to do with you or what you can do or anything. It was an uncontrollable situation that I sent you into. It was my fault.”

“But you can’t stop it happening again, can you?” Jake asks.

“Probably not. No.”

The pizza arrives and we each take a slice. In New Zealand pizza is considered one of the healthier fast food options. Lots of veges and tomatoes and a little bit of meat and a scattering of cheese. Here, it is covered in so much cheese we could all die of heart attacks before the night is out. But then that would be better than dying of something else.

Jake finishes his first slice before he says what I’m sure he’s been thinking ever since Tim took us to the gun range.

“I want to travel with Nicky. We’ll go together, every job. That’s the way it’s going to be from now on.”

“I can’t let you do that,” Tim says sighing. He’s expected it, just like I have, but I didn’t know what his answer would be. “Anyway, you couldn’t travel to where Nicky went last night. It was too far away.”

“Then we don’t go. It’s the two of us or not at all.”

“It’s not negotiable, Jake. I can’t lose both of you.”

“But losing one of us is acceptable?”

“Of course not. But what are we going to do when she goes back for school? Are you just going to sit around and do nothing until her next holidays because you have to seek people out together?”

“It’s not about me, it’s about Nicky.”

“And you haven’t had your fair share of bullets fly past you?”

“What?” I choke on a piece of pepperoni.

“You haven’t told her have you? About that time when you ended up in the middle of that bank robbery or how about when you got almost got shot grabbing that girl who had been held by the maniac who was raping her every night.”

I turn to Jake with a please explain look on my face.

“Hey, you’ve been here what, two days and you think I should have told you about everything I’ve been doing?”

“You could have told me about those.”

“Why? You think I like remembering them? You think I want to scare you by telling them?”

“No, but it would have been nice to know I’m not the only one who is accident prone.”

“You’re not accident prone,” Tim interrupts. “It’s just I’m sending you into uncontrollable situations and I can’t do anything about it. I spend most of my day going through the folders ready for you both each night. I check out everything I can to make sure these people are simply missing, that I’m not sending you into dangerous situations and when I do, if you hadn’t notice, I have a lot of fire power at my disposal to go and rescue you.”

“That helicopter arriving the way it did was pretty cool,” I admit.

“Just as well it arrived when it did,” Jake says, glaring at me.

“Well, really, if it had got there sooner it would have been better. Not as dramatic, but better.”

Suddenly I’ve got the giggles. I can’t help it. Just over twenty-four hours ago I was given a choice of jumping off a building or getting a bullet in my head and now, after we’ve finished this massive pizza, we’re going to do it all over again.

Laughing is definitely better than crying.

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