~ Julie ~
Friday, September 27, 2013. Detroit. Evening.
The man lying on the bathroom floor was bleeding out much faster than Julie expected. The red spread across the white-and-black checkered linoleum and all Julie could do was stare. The same red on the floor also dripped unnoticed from her hands but those little droplets felt minor next to the disaster bleeding out beside the sink. Julie was immobile.
Fortunately, the same could not be said of her roommate. He too stopped in the doorway, he too took in the blood on the floor, the pallor on the stranger’s face, and the purple and blue marks on his cheeks, chin, eyes. Then three years of nursing school took over and Sebastian mobilized.
“We gotta slow the bleeding,” he said, kneeling beside the stranger. “Julie, how did this happen? How did this guy get here?”
He spoke quickly but evenly.
“Julie,” he said when she didn’t respond. “What happened? Look at me.”
Her eyes left the man on the floor and Julie could move again. Her hands found her forearms and gripped them tightly, racing brain not even registering that her hands were covered in blood.
“I didn’t—I didn’t know what else to do,” she said. “Everything happened really fast. There wasn’t anything I could do!”
“We need to call an ambulance. This is a gunshot wound, we can’t keep him here,” Sebastian said. “Why didn’t you call them in the first place?”
“He told me not to,” Julie said.
Her eyes returned to the bleeding man, mouth opening and closing uselessly several times as speech failed. Sebastian noticed and put a stop to it.
“Julie,” he said. “Look at me. This guy’s been shot. We have to call the police and we have to get him to a hospital. He’s going to die if we don’t.”
At this the man’s eyes fluttered open. They were blue-gray, and looked even worse than earlier. His pupils changed size erratically as he fought to lock on their faces. Sebastian recognized something in this that Julie didn’t and swore.
“We don’t have much time—” he said, reaching for his pocket before realizing he’d left it in the car. “Julie, call 911—”
“No!” the stranger rasped. “Call no one… I’m sorry… The people after me will leave you alone if you get rid of me… Throw me out… I’ll manage… Please… it’s the only way—the only way.”
Julie met Sebastian’s eyes, her hand frozen, poised halfway into the pocket of the coat she had forgotten to take off. Neither of them moved. They said nothing.
Wednesday, September 25, 2013. Detroit.
The day kicked off with both Julie’s professors for both her Wednesday classes showing up late for their own lectures. The mumbled apology of the first professor blamed it on the buses. The second didn’t even offer an explanation, but Julie’s neighbor turned to the girl sitting next to her and remarked, “This is like the third time this has happened to me today. I think it’s the buses.”
“I hope it’s not the buses,” the other girl said. “I gotta get halfway across town after this.”
It turned out that it was the buses. Julie’s was late, to the point where she considered calling her boss at the law office where she was a receptionist to let him know. She had three bosses at the firm of Terrar, Knox, and Waston, but Mr. Terrar was the most easygoing of the three. Fortunately, the No. Six showed up only seconds later. Julie shuffled on and was able to get a window seat by herself for once.
Weird thing number two for today, she thought wryly, but didn’t question it.
It was mid-afternoon so traffic was light. Julie sat back and looked out the window as the bus made good time, watching the buildings outside her window get bigger and grander the closer they got to the heart of Detroit’s roaring financial district.
All of it was new of course. Intellemental was founded in Detroit in the late eighties against all popular wisdom, and the man behind the company, Petar Zherandion, began a tireless campaign that resuscitated a withering city. Nearly thirty years later, Detroit was the jewel of the Midwest. Even Chicago was jealous, or so the old joke went.
The corporate law firm where Julie worked was located at John R. and Centre, in one of the “new” skyscrapers by the old opera house. New was, of course, relative. The building had gone up in 1992, the year Julie was born. It’s placement put the firm only a quick jaunt from Detroit’s true beating heart — Intellemental Plaza.
Intellemental Tower was the tallest building in the city, and the gleaming stone plaza that surrounded it was one of the biggest and most beautiful open spaces in a downtown that was known for its beautiful open spaces. Of course, anything that Petar Zherandion put his mark on had to be beautiful, but the fact that he also made the space readily available for public use spoke well of the man.
It was said that he allowed charities to host events there for free, and it was a place where musicians and artists could busk without getting harassed by the cops. The few times in the past when that had happened, Intellemental had released statements defending the artists’ rights to perform in the plaza, and ever since then the plaza had become something of a haven for street performers, making it an interesting mix of gleaming corporate sheen that was host to a dozen different genres of incredible music at any given time. In the summer, Julie would sometimes take her lunch there. It was a bit of a walk though, so she didn’t do it often.
Julie got into the office with time to spare, relieving the previous receptionist and clocking in. TKW was a small firm, just the three lawyers, four part-time receptionists, and an indeterminate number of clerks and assistants. Of course, the office wasn’t the entirety of the firm, Julie knew, but it wasn’t her job to know more.
Shortly after Julie sat down, the door to the conference room opened and Mr. Terrar stuck his head out. The youngest and most approachable of the three lawyers, Terrar was the one Julie preferred dealing with. He was much friendlier than the ever-scowling Waston but not quite as friendly as the waggish Knox.
Terrar looked around, saw Julie, and smiled, stepping into the front office and closing the conference room door. “Julie, good. Hello. How are you this afternoon?”
“I’m good, Mr. Terrar. How are you?”
“Just great, thanks,” he said with a quick smile. “So we have a meeting going on now, but I forgot to ask Ellen to get some files together this morning. Very embarrassing. Could you pull them and bring them in? We’ll need six copies of a few of them. Here, I’ll write down all the numbers.”
He took a sticky note from the pad on her desk and quickly scribbled down a couple of case numbers from memory. Julie had long suspected Terrar had an eidetic memory, but she’d never thought to ask him. It just never seemed like he stood still long enough for that sort of casual chitchat.
Case and point, he finished writing the numbers, handed her the sticky note, flashed another smile, “Thanks, Julie”, and was right back into the conference room. He never stood still for very long.
Julie pulled the files, made copies of the ones that Terrar had indicated on the note, and quickly assembled them all in their own manila folders. Then she took a breath, straightened her blouse, and knocked on the conference room door.
Two seconds passed before Terrar opened the door. “Wow that was fast,” he said, stepping aside so she could enter, the folders tucked under her joined arms. “Come on in.”
Julie returned his smile quietly. It was rare that the part-time receptionists were asked to come in during private meetings, and usually only if the clerks and PA’s were out. All the same, Julie knew the drill. She was seen but not heard, and anything she happened to overhear in these meetings she was sworn into secrecy over by the NDA she signed when she took the job. Thus she kept her manner unusually demure as she stepped inside.
There were six people seated around the table. The three lawyers sat on one side, with Mr. Knox in the middle, backs to the wall. Across from them were three men in suits who sat with their backs to the windows overlooking the city beyond. Since they were only on the tenth floor in the thick of the financial district, the “city beyond” was mainly the sides of other skyscrapers. But it was a nice day, so even that didn’t look half bad.
All six men in that room wore suits and most were silver-haired or graying. Terrar was the youngest looking one there, closely followed by the man sitting directly across from Knox. Terrar still had a full head of brown hair but it was thinning slowly. The man across from Mr. Knox had gray at his temples but the rest of his hair was jet black and full.
Julie felt a few of their eyes on her briefly but she didn’t look up. She moved counterclockwise around the table, reaching through the spaces to set the folders down. The meeting continued meanwhile.
The gentleman on the right of the window-side was currently talking. His words were longer than they had to be and interspersed with the usual corporate buzzwords (“…Intellemental…” “…expanding interests…” “…anti-capitalist scandalmongers…”). While Julie could probably make sense of what he was saying with little effort, it was in her best interest not to. No one paid attention to her, and Julie embraced their indifference to further her invisibility.
She finished with the side along the wall and continued around the table, placing a manila folder in front of the man who was still talking, his manner as grandiloquent as his tone. He didn’t notice her and she moved on. Julie now stood behind the dark-haired man. She reached between him and the loquacious one, leaning forward a little to set the manila folder on the table in front of him.
Julie was moving back when, to her surprise, the dark-haired man turned and met her eyes. His were pale blue, set into a handsome face only faintly lined at the corners of his eyes.
“Thank you,” he said softly, with a small smile.
His eyes were startlingly blue, some of the bluest she’d seen. Julie smiled back, but it was uneasy. She quickly looked away, ducked her head, and moved on. She finished the circuit of the table and ended up back at Mr. Terrar’s side, where she bent in to speak softly to him, not having to bend very far.
“Do you need anything else, Mr. Terrar?” she asked. She could feel the gaze of the blue-eyed man on her briefly, but when she looked up, he’d already looked away.
“You’ve been with us a while now, right, Julie?” Mr. Terrar asked quietly.
Julie nodded. “Fourteen months,” she said, just as softly.
“Good, so you know how these sorts of things work. The clerks are busy. We might need you, so keep an ear out and be on standby, but you can go back to your desk. I’m sure there’s work there you have to do,” he said.
Julie nodded and stood. She looked up and found the man with the pale blue eyes flipping through the manila folder, apparently absorbed. Julie didn’t want him to catch her staring, so she left, leaving the door cracked open so she could hear them if they called, and made her way back to the front desk. She wasn’t even five feet down the hall when she heard footsteps and turned in time to see Mr. Waston slam the door.
Well okay then, Julie thought, and quickly got back to work.
Work proceeded as normal. Julie answered the phones, filed, typed up notes, and made herself generally useful. Still, the day was slow with all the clerks otherwise engaged, and Julie passed the time checking the news on her phone.
It seemed that the bus delays had become a thing. There were at least two Free Press articles about it, and the seriousness of the tone the articles took made Julie giggle. It must’ve been a slow news day if this was what the Free Press was freaking out about at CNN-levels of silliness.
Julie checked her personal email at three-thirty, double checking the schedule for her other job at a bar in Midtown. She was on shift tonight, tomorrow night, and Friday but not at all for the weekend. This would be her first free Saturday since the term started, and she wanted to be sure of that before she sent a text to her friend group’s group chat saying she was finally free to go out.
The response was immediate. Of the nine other participants in the group, about five down with classes for the day, and their replies flooded in:
Julie smiled as she started to type a response. Even with as fast as she was typing, the conversation was still moving faster, turning into Derrick ribbing Allison for her recent obsession with replying not in words but in strings of emojis. She had almost finished her reply when she got another text, this one from Alton, her coworker at the bar.
While they did occasionally text socially Alton never texted Julie in the middle of the afternoon unless it was something to do with the work schedule, so Julie opened it at once, leaving her reply to her friends unsent.
Julie sighed. There were the little dots below the message, showing that Alton was typing, but they kept going away and coming back. Despite this, Alton’s response was short. This was typical of how he texted and Julie had learned to accept it. Still, it could be annoying.
More dots. More typing. Then they stopped. Julie counted to ten and when they didn’t reappear, she figured that was it.
More dots. Then no dots. Ten seconds. Probably safe to reply.
Julie returned to the group chat, which had since turned into a philosophical debate about the merits of nontextual communication, with Allison holding up her end in emojis and doing a surprisingly good job. Julie deleted her original message, asking where they were going Saturday, and instead weighed in with her “expert opinion” as the linguistics major of the group.
While she was going back and forth with her friends, the door to the conference room opened and the three lawyers and their clients filed out. Julie was so absorbed in the debate that she realized this too late, and had to very guiltily put her phone down, but not before all three of her bosses saw her texting. Her smile dropped at once into a blatantly guilty looking blush. Two of the clients didn’t appear to notice, absorbed in a very agitated discussion, but the man with the pale blue eyes noticed and gave a small, amused smile.
Before Mr. Waston — the oldest and by far the grouchiest of the group — could say anything, the man with the pale blue eyes turned to the three lawyers, holding his hand out to shake each of their hands in turn, starting with Waston.
“A pleasure as ever, gentlemen,” Julie heard him say. “Until next week, Kenneth, Ben.” That was Waston and Terrar. He turned to Knox. “We’ll speak more later, Dean. Walk with me?”
The lawyers dispersed to their offices as Knox saw the visitors out. Only once they were all gone did Julie realize that the man with the pale blue eyes had saved her from any reprisal from the crankier of her three bosses, and rather skillfully too. She picked her phone back up and texted the group,
Julie didn’t wait for the questions to stop before she replied,
Naturally it would be Jeremy who mentioned the buses. It was a tangent that was quickly picked up.
According to the Free Press, the buses were still in crisis by the time Julie headed home at five thirty that day, but the No. Fifty-Two was definitely on time when she got on it. She started out standing but by the second stop she was able to take a window seat. On the third stop, a young guy in jeans and a classy sports coat came on and sat next to her. She took one look at him and had to report it to the group.
The man glanced over at Julie and they exchanged a quick smile. That’s when she realized that his eyes were actually two different colors. One of them was a light piercing blue and the other was a very sharp gray, almost silver. She was reminded immediately of a cat before she remembered that huskies also could have eyes like that. She did a double take. He noticed and smiled.
“You can go ahead and say it,” he said. “I’ve heard it all.”
So she did. “Your eyes are really cool. Heterochromia, right?”
The handsome man smirked. “All my life.”
The next few stops passed in silence. Julie could see the texts coming in from her friends, at first about the reported bus hottie, before inevitably veering off on another tangent. In a group chat with ten people, they never seemed to hold onto any one topic for long. All the same, now that contact had been initiated, Julie didn’t dare check those first messages, just in case he should happen to glance over and read them.
Her caution paid off a few stops later.
“Excuse me,” the man next to her said, out of nowhere.
“Hmm?” Julie looked up, maybe too quickly.
“I…” a small laugh, “I’m almost embarrassed to ask… what road are we on?”
“What– Oh! This is Woodward right now.”
“And if I were heading sharp north, would this be the road that I take?”
“Um, no. Woodward kinda slopes. We’re going more northwest right now.”
“I see,” the man said. “Well, this should still get me where I need to go. Thank you, Julie.” He gave her a smile that made Julie’s ears grow warm and turn pink. He was a very handsome man. It was only after she got off at the next stop and had started up the street toward home that she stopped and glanced back at the departing bus.
Hold it. Did I tell him my name?
She couldn’t remember. But she must’ve. How else would he have known it?
Today is just too weird. I’m going home, having a beer, and writing a paper before anything else happens, she decided, and so set off resolutely toward home. Hopefully the rest of the week would be a little less odd.
~ Jeff ~
Wednesday, September 25, 2013. London. 21:02 GMT.
Jeff got back to his hotel room with little time to spare. His satchel was sitting on the bed, packed with the few belongings he had. Jeff quickly changed into jeans and a t-shirt, pulling it on over the black beaded rosary around his neck. Once dressed, Jeff reached into the pocket of his other pants and pulled out a small black cube. The hidden catch opened under his fingers, revealing a simple ring of polished black obsidian.
Jeff took the ring out and threw the box into the bag. He removed the rosary he wore and threaded the ring onto it, letting the black band rest against the black cross. He put the rosary back around his neck and tucked it under his shirt. One last scan of the room and he was set. All that was left was his jacket on the bed, his sneakers by the door, and his gun and holster on the dresser.
He was counting the banknotes in his wallet when the phone rang. He answered without speaking.
“Hello, Mr. Petroski?” a woman’s voice asked, and paused.
“Alicia at Front Desk, sir, hullo. The cab you requested is waiting for you outside.”
“Thank you. I’ll be right down. Please make sure the driver knows I’ll want to leave immediately. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
“Of course, sir,” she said.
Jeff checked the clock; just after nine. They were probably here. He had at most ten minutes before they found the room. Jeff’s hand idly touched his chest, where the black cross rested beneath the fabric of his t-shirt.
He had about sixty quid left in cash. His plane ticket had been bought in advance and that left him with enough to pay the cab fare and tip the cabbie generously. Jeff was about to put the man’s life in imminent danger, though it was unlikely he knew it. If all went as planned, he wouldn’t find out and would simply be pleased to receive such a large tip for a simple trip to the airport. No doubt he’d think Jeff was just another American confused by British currency.
That’s if everything went as planned.
The corridor outside was empty but Jeff moved with caution. He headed for the elevator, passing the stairs but taking note of their location. He was ten feet away when the doors opened with a ding and two men stepped out.
They could’ve been ordinary guests but Jeff recognized the way they walked and turned as calmly as he could while they were still getting out, toward the stairs, hoping they wouldn’t—
Nope, they did. Jeff broke into a sprint as he heard one of them speak into a radio, local muscle by the accent: “We got ‘im. On seven makin’ for the west stair.”
Jeff reached the doors but just as his hand closed around the latch, the first man grabbed him by the arm and dragged him away. Jeff staggered back, hit the wall, and looked up to see the man raise his hand, reaching for Jeff’s face. Jeff could see the faint silver lines spreading across his skin like frost across a windowpane. The lines emitted a faint, almost imperceptible light.
He knew what was coming before he heard the telltale static crackle but he still waited half a second until he heard the sound swell. Then he ducked, right as the shockwave ripped through the air and hit the wall where his head had been. The blast wasn’t meant to be lethal so it packed no physical force; when it hit the wall, it broke and washed against it without leaving a mark.
But Jeff knew too well that had the blast hit him, it would have stung or stunned him at best and completely decked him at worst. He avoided it only narrowly, bending at the knees, before driving up like a spring, burying his fist in the other man’s gut with all of his weight. The hired thug doubled over with a grunt, only for Jeff to drive his knee upwards, connecting with the man’s chest. The man staggered back. Before he could reset, Jeff made a break for the stairs. He turned and nearly met the fist of the second man. Jeff dodged just enough to avoid getting hit full in the face, and settled for a glancing blow to the cheek.
The second man didn’t stop at one and swung again with a wide hook. Jeff pivoted with the motion of the strike and aimed a low roundhouse kick at the inside of his thigh. The knee buckled a little and it was just enough of a pause for Jeff to step in with an uppercut, landing it and doubling the man over, allowing him to loop his arm about his attacker’s neck, apply the right pressure to the vital points on the throat, and render him unconscious. Five seconds from the first punch to the last choke and the man was out.
No matter who Bandon sent after Jeff, none of them were ever going to be fast enough.
Jeff let the thug drop and turned to the first guy, who was recovering and starting toward Jeff, reaching into his coat. Before he could draw, Jeff closed the distance and delivered a sharp kick to his knee. There was a horrible crack! and the man dropped to the ground with a howl of pain.
“Give your boss my regards,” Jeff said contemptuously.
He glanced at the stairs. They’d radioed backup already, telling them his location. It was a gamble, but Jeff hurried at a brisk walk toward the elevator, called it, got in, and watched the lamed man crawling toward his unconscious partner, the one who had the radio, until the doors closed and the elevator sped down toward the lobby.
Jeff reached the lobby and found it full. A large group of tourists were checking in, mostly families with young children and non-English speakers with interpreters. The scene was noisy and chaotic; a more ideal situation for an exit Jeff could not have imagined.
He identified his attackers’ partners with ease and a practiced eye. Nondescript men, large and plainly dressed. They intentionally presented as bland and forgettable, but their manner and posture gave them away. They stood too straight, shoulders drawn back, hands crossed in front of them, eyes darting around the lobby.
They stood near the stairs, on the other side of the lobby from the elevators. An elderly Korean couple and two families with five to seven children combined stood between Jeff and his pursuers. He tried not to smirk, pulled his coat about him to hide the gun in his side holster, shoved his hands in his pockets, and started across the lobby.
Moving at an even clip, Jeff wove an easy path directly through the groups, taking care not to disrupt the crowd so much as blend into it, at least to the extent that he could. Jeff was a tall lean man, Caucasian, about an inch over six feet and athletically built. He’d past the mark of mid-thirties two years ago but good genetics and active living were aging him well. His hair was medium brown, worn short, and he still had all of it. This already made him stick out in the crowd. Most of the men were graying, many were shorter than him, and none of them moved so directly and confidently, with the measure of grace and agility that comes from training of the martial kind.
The two hired thugs spotted him. The lobby was full of shiny objects and plates of polished brass ornamented the walls and pillars. Jeff kept an eye on their reflection as he moved and he saw them make him. But by the time they did, Jeff was more than halfway to the door. He’d checked out with the front desk before going up for his stuff, and they’d already called him the cab.
Jeff continued toward the door, easily slipping between people and through the crowd. Behind him, his pursuers hadn’t seemed to have mastered the art to such a fine degree. They pushed their way through and though they attempted to do so as efficiently as possible, it still ended up causing a mess.
Jeff reached the front door and the doorman opened it for him with a polite nod, wishing him a good evening. The cab was waiting, the only one there right now, so Jeff went right up to it, opened the door, and slid into the backseat, setting his pack next to him.
“Name, sir?” the cabbie asked politely.
“Right, sir. Airport, is it?”
Jeff had bought two plane tickets at two different airports. Both went to the same destination but one airport, Heathrow, was the more obvious choice. It was closer and had more renown. The second was Gatwick. The men pursuing him had likely been briefed on his prior tricks. This wasn’t the first time Jeff had pulled this switch and in the past he favored the less likely choice.
“Yes,” Jeff said. “Heathrow, please.”
“Right, sir. Off we pop.”
The cabbie already had the engine running so he put it in drive and pulled off. Jeff glanced back as they pulled away, just in time to see the two thugs burst through the doors and onto the sidewalk, looking all around for Jeff. He smirked and sat back, stretching his long legs across the backseat and making himself comfortable for the drive.
~ Julie ~
Friday, September 27, 2013. Detroit. Evening.
“Throw me out. I’ll manage,” the stranger rasped. “Please… it’s the only way– the only way.”
For a moment, neither Julie nor Sebastian moved. The two roommates stood there, staring at each other. Julie’s hand was halfway into her pocket but she seemed to have forgotten about it or about retrieving her phone. Julie broke the stillness first. She shook her head. “We can’t,” she said, her soft voice cracking a little.
Sebastian understood her meaning. He didn’t offer comment, trusting her decision. He pulled off his jacket. Under it he wore jeans and a plain black t-shirt. He’d just come from work.
“I’ll get the first aid kit,” he said. “Get his shirt off. If we can’t take him to the hospital, then we have to get the bullet out ourselves.”
Sebastian pushed past her toward the living room closet. Julie also removed her coat, throwing it unceremoniously on the floor. Then she took a deep breath and turned to the bleeding man, carefully kneeling in the last patch of floor not covered in blood. She still had Alton’s penknife in her pocket so she pulled it out and took a handful of the stranger’s t-shirt.
“Sorry about this,” she said, and cut the shirt right down the middle. “You’re too heavy to lift. I should know. I had to carry you up those stairs!”
The man said nothing but when her eyes flitted to him, she found his were already on her. He gave a small, weak smile. This gave Julie the courage to continue. “My name’s Julie,” she told him. “Julie Anders.”
She had his t-shirt split in half and pushed as far down his shoulders as she could. He tried to help her but moving only made the blood gush faster. The stranger was clearly in a lot of pain and Julie could hear when he spoke, but he still met her eyes, trying to keep his focused on her.
“Thank you for your help,” he said, “but really you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.”
Recalling the events of earlier that evening, Julie nodded even as she suppressed a shiver. She definitely hadn’t thought any of this through. “Probably not,” she said, “but I guess we’ll find out. You got a name? You never said.”
He seemed to hesitate for a moment before he finally replied, as if he had to decide whether or not he should. “Jeff,” he said finally. “Jeff Petroski.”