Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 38): Silent Witness
I shiver, filled with a fear of being exposed so intense, I imagine Gibbs appearing through the sheet of rain like a determined avenger, his glacial gray eyes harboring a thirst for mayhem. I blink again, and the ghostly image is gone though not the sense of foreboding.
Max shakes me. “Hey! You okay? You see something?”
“Gibbs . . . thought I saw him.” I shake my head, trying to clear it.
Max tucks me under his arm protectively and turns us, striding toward the return path. “Let’s go. You coming, Eric?”
“I’ll walk down with you, but then I have to get back.”
I’m numb. I allow Max to lead me, barely able to traverse the rock-strewn, mud-slicked passage to the bottom of the cliff. My ankle goes over once, but I push through the throbbing pain and keep on. All the while, I remain silent, listening to the volley of commentary between Max and Eric.
Max echoes my thoughts from earlier. “ . . . you think his aim is? Is he trying to ferret us out or playing a game of cat and mouse while he heals up?”
“Don’t know, man. Never trusted the guy far as I could pitch him. Not close to anyone, definitely not a team player, but feared—even by those above him. General Smith said someone high up is protecting Gibbs. Maybe someone’s helping the fucker survive.”
“Yeah, well, his luck is running out. If I ever lay eyes on him again, he’s as good as dead. ”The icy growl in Max’s tone is both comforting and scary.
“Amen to that, bro! Between the stab wound and the fall down the stairs, he shouldn’t be hard to take out.”
“My question is how he got access to the key to Marie’s collar. And did he always have it, or is this a new development?”
“Can’t exactly ask.”
“Maybe we need to set a trap—let Gibbs think he found us.”
Max’s idea shoots a burst of adrenaline to shoot through my veins, and I grip his arm. “But—” Before I can voice my objection, he stops walking and cups my wet cheeks between his palms, planting a kiss on my protesting lips.
“Don’t worry, China. Like Eric said—he’s injured. And I’m careful.”
Even though rivulets of cool water drip down my face and neck to soak my shirt, heat blooms in my belly, which does a thrilling flip when I gaze into Max’s eyes. They’re the most colorful things in the barren landscape, transparent twin aquamarines. His effect on me is intense; maybe he’s even using that fact to his advantage. But I know I can’t stop him from following through with this plan any more than he could stop me if I were determined to set the trap. I swallow hard and nod. “Okay.”
“That’s my brave girl.” He kisses me again, deeper and longer, his lips warm against mine despite the squall surrounding us.
Eric clears his throat. “PDA alert! Fall down the damn hill alert!”
Max pulls his mouth from mine, steadying me by the shoulders, and lunges toward Eric. “Throat punch alert!”
Eric feints to the right, laughing.
We part ways at the base of the cliff, exchanging promises to get in touch soon and work out a plan.
The return trip to the power plant is without incident though I can’t stop myself from panning the area for anything unusual. Max does the same thing, taking us on a circuitous and, at times, repetitive route home.
Once we’re safely ensconced in our private haven, Max tells me to grab some fresh clothes then leads me to the shower room. He runs the water, allowing steam to gather while he undresses me and then himself.
Taking my hand, Max helps me into the stall and closes the door behind us. He pulls me into his strong embrace and holds me as the soothing water sluices over us, slowly easing some of the tension.
I close my eyes and sag against him. “I’m so exhausted.”
“I know.” He places a chaste kiss on my forehead. “Let’s turn in early tonight, okay? I just—I need to hold you.”
I smile against his pec. “I’d like that.”
Drowsy and sated from the shower, we make our excuses, wrap up in each other’s arms, and drift to sleep.
In my dreams, a couple strolls along a cobblestone sidewalk in a stormy deluge, steam hissing and rising as fat drops strike the pavement. I follow behind, unconcerned about the pouring rain because for some reason, I seem protected, walking the edge of the storm.
The man holds an umbrella, angling it so he can keep dry but leaves the woman exposed to the stinging rain. I hurry after them, compelled to catch up both to reprimand him for being ungentlemanly and to find out who they are. There’s something eerily familiar about them. The clothing they wear seems odd—him in a casual shirt and shorts, her in a flowered sheath with upswept hair. Although they walk arm in arm, they seem ill-matched.
And then I realize what’s really bothering me about the couple, other than his overt rudeness. She’s leaning away, exposing herself to the elements in order to avoid drawing close to him.
No matter how fast I walk, I always seem to be half a block behind. “Hey!” I call out in desperation, sure they won’t hear me over the storm.
The man stops, yanking back on the woman’s arm when she tries to keep going. They stand with their backs to me as I break into a run, stopping a few feet away, my heart booming like a kettle drum. The longer they remain frozen in place, the more certain I become that something is very wrong.
“Hey . . .” The word is barely a whisper.
The man grips the woman’s bare arm hard enough to leave bruises and leads her around until they both face me.
I’m held in thrall by calculating gray eyes laced with a tinge of amusement. It startles me to see Gibbs dressed in preppy street clothes, face clean-shaven.
A deliberate smile widens his mouth. “Sweet Marie.” He grips my jaw while holding onto the woman’s arm. This should be impossible, considering the umbrella, which now floats in mid-air, protecting him. “Did you really believe I’d let you win?”
I struggle, but he refuses to let go, forcing my face toward the woman. “Look.”
I stare into her desperate eyes. My eyes. A silken ribbon encircles her neck—a red ribbon with a gold key dangling from the center.
“No!” I struggle, wrenching my jaw from his grasp.
Gibbs fingers the key hung around her neck and laughs, a low, satisfied rumble. “See? I can get to you any time I choose.”
I sit up in bed, startled and breathing heavily. Max grumbles in his sleep and tugs me back to the bed, wrapping his arms around me again. He sighs when I try to wiggle away but doesn’t awaken.
Realizing there’s no way to extricate myself without disturbing his much-needed sleep, I lie wide awake for a long time, heart pounding, imaging all the ways Gibbs might derail our happiness.
In the morning, I wake up alone and bleary-eyed. Spending half the night contemplating the many ways Gibbs could hurt us did not have a restorative effect. I yawn widely, stretching both arms toward the ceiling. When I open the door, Grace is lying in the hall, guarding my room. She rises, nudging her wet nose into my hand.
I kneel and scratch her behind the ears. “Good morning, Grace! Are you watching over me?” She stares earnestly into my eyes, as if trying to convey the depth of her love, then licks me from chin to forehead with several long laps.
Wondering where everyone is, I check the usual places and find them deserted. Eventually, I head for Tek’s command center. Even if I don’t find anyone there, I’ll be able to check the camera feeds. Grace pads along beside me, meeting my eyes often, leaving me to wonder what’s going through her mind.
We step off the elevator and follow the now-familiar labyrinth. The control room door is open, the conversation between Max and Tek drifting into the hall.
“ . . . deferred to you because you’re her brother, but this? Hell, no!”
Tek interrupts, raising his voice. “No, you listen. I won’t be part of it. Do you intend to tell Marie?”
I pause, stepping into a darkened doorway so I won’t be seen on camera. Grace follows obediently and sits next to me. I’ve never been one for eavesdropping, but this is a conversation I need to hear.
“Fuck!” There’s a loud slam. “I don’t want to tell her either, but I have to! Ali’s fragile, though. She doesn’t go out much, so I don’t understand why we need to worry her unnecessarily.”
“She’s not as fragile as you think. Besides, she’ll sense if I’m not being honest—you’re a much better liar than I am.”
“Thanks,” Max answers, heavy on the sarcasm. “Just keep your mouth shut.”
I hear Tek say, “I can’t agree to that,” followed by a much louder, “Get your hands off me!”
Scuffling ensues, along with a bevy of muffled curses.
I break cover and rush into the room, Grace trailing behind. Max has Tek pinned against the wall. I place a hand on Max’s shoulder. “Hey!” When neither of them acknowledges me, continuing an intense stare-down, I tighten my grip. “Max! What the hell?”
Max glares at Tek a few seconds longer before stepping out of range and holding his hands up. He looks at the floor, jaw tight, muscles rigid, chest rising and falling rapidly.
Tek sighs and straightens his shirt. I can’t help but compare the two—Max broad shouldered and muscular, Tek lanky and about fifty pounds lighter—and be somewhat amazed by the way Tek stood up to Max.
“What’s going on here?”
They both look everywhere but at me. Grace sits in front of me and whines, clearly unhappy with the tense atmosphere.
Max cups the back of his neck and starts pacing. “Shit, shit, shit!”
I ball both fists on my hips. “If one of you doesn’t start talking, I’m going to get Ali in on this.”
Max levels an angry gaze at me, managing to be intimidating from across the room. I have the urge to take a step back but force myself to stand my ground.
A low warning growl rumbling in Grace’s chest interrupts Max’s fury, and he covers his face with both hands. “Shit, China, I’m sorry.” His body sags as some of the tension melts from his muscular frame. He lowers his hands and reaches for me. Grace rises to her feet and bares her teeth, the rumbling growing louder. Max sinks to his knees. “It’s okay, girl.”
Grace lowers her head and sniffs the air, eventually shuffling forward to lick his hand. She glances my way and whines as if torn. Max ruffles her fur and gazes up at me with repentance.
“You’re such a good girl, Grace.” I use a soothing voice, speaking to her while looking into Max’s eyes. “Everything will be all right.”
Grace relaxes, putting both paws on Max’s shoulders and lavishing him with wet kisses.
Max rises and reaches for me. This time, Grace doesn’t object, and I lace my fingers between his. He pulls me against his chest, wrapping an arm around me, and kisses my temple. “I’m sorry.”
I smile into his shirt. “You already said.”
The leather chair squeaks as Tek sits before the bank of monitors and opens a laptop sitting on the desk. “What’s it gonna be?”
Max releases me from his embrace, keeping our fingers linked. “Do it. Show her.”
We gather around the computer, and Tek taps the track pad, the screen flaring to life. With a few clicks, he starts a program that brings up a window split into quarters, each block containing a “play” symbol to start a video.
“These clips were captured by the cameras we placed at the industrial park.” Tek hovers the cursor over the upper right square and taps the pad. A new window opens, filling the entire screen.
My heart speeds even though the little blue circle is still whirling. If there’s footage to show, the existence of which nearly caused Max and Tek to come to blows, it can’t be good news.
A cavernous warehouse appears. The concrete floor is littered with broken-open, overturned crates and hulking construction machinery. Tek fast forwards until a dark shape appears at the edge of the screen. “It starts here.”
A tall figure in a black hoodie and pants skulks along the perimeter of the room. His face is hidden inside the hood, obscured in shadow, but something about the way he moves causes my pulse to race.
“Is that . . .?” I don't finish the question.
“Yeah.” Max's tone is grim. He lays a comforting arm around my shoulders and kisses my hair.
Gibbs makes a few passes by the camera, occasionally going out of view. Tek forwards through another section of unoccupied warehouse footage. When he stops, the lighting has changed in the room, perhaps heralding the end of the day.
Gibbs appears, head still covered, carrying a small lantern and bedroll in his arms, a backpack hanging off one shoulder. Putting his things down, he maneuvers some of the broken crates into a pile between two huge pieces of equipment, building himself a hideaway.
Tek skips ahead several hours. The warehouse is dark, the grainy image turning a greenish hue since the camera switched to infrared mode. A bobbing circle of light dances around the room. A scuff sounds nearby against the concrete, and I realize for the first time how careful Gibbs must have been—the sounds of his earlier activity never registered.
A soft metallic click precedes a shadowy figure being driven to its knees a few feet from the camera.
“Ooph! It's me, dumb-ass!”
Gibbs morphs into the frame, the barrel of his gun pointed at the back of the other man's head. “I'm sorry, who's the dumb-ass? You shuffled in like a herd of water buffalo—could have taken you out before you knew what happened.” He expels an ugly laugh. “They sure as fuck don't train 'em like they used to.”
“Put away the toy, eh?” The figure, also garbed in a dark hoodie, rises and turns to face Gibbs, shoving the gun to the side. “Asshole.”
“What do you want?”
“He's not happy. You basically fucked things up over a piece of ass.”
Gibbs lunges forward, bumping chests with the other man without using his hands. The hood slips from his head, the side of his face appearing like a specter. “What. Do. You. Want?”
Even in the scant light, I can tell how angry he is. I can't control the lump of fear that lodges in my chest, evoking the urge to escape even though I know he's not really here. Reading my body cues, Max tightens his hold and strokes my hair.
“To put you down like the dog you are, but that's not my decision.”
Gibbs laughs off the insult. “No, it's not your decision, is it, Lee? State your business and get the fuck out.” He brushes past, slamming his shoulder hard into the other man.
Lee slips a backpack from his shoulder and unzips it, handing things to Gibbs one by one. “Antibiotics. Requested toiletries. MREs. Cell phone.”
Gibbs accepts the items, placing some of the packages on the floor. He slips the cell phone into his pants. “And my other request?”
“Denied.” Lee's tone is laced with barely concealed glee.
Gibbs lets off a colorful string of curses. “Why?”
“He said you need to focus on what's at stake, forget your petty revenge fantasies. You should be leading soldiers, not hiding out like a fugitive.”
Gibbs fumes for a moment, a muscle in his jaw twitching. “You give him a message for me. Tell him this goes much deeper than revenge. There's another group out there, and it's a lot bigger than we anticipated. Dangerous.”
“Whatever. Take your anti-Bs, and try not to die from sepsis while the rest of us are pulling your weight.”
“Get out, maggot.”
Lee starts walking away then turns back to Gibbs. “Oh, he wanted me to give you one more message.”
Lee slams a fist into Gibbs' face, sending him stumbling back a few feet. Without another word, Lee slips from view, leaving Gibbs to cradle his bloodied nose.
“You'll pay for that,” Gibbs mutters.
Tek stops the feed. “And that's about all there is to see on that one. He disappears for a while then returns and settles into his nest to sleep. He only spent one night there. We caught some footage of him sleeping in one of the other buildings in this video the next night, and I'm not sure where the hell he's staying now.” Tek's finger moves from the lower left square to hover over the lower right. “We didn't catch anything on this one.”
I nod slowly, still stunned by the sight of the man who tried to rape me. Echoes of that awful day tease at the edges of my mind, but I shove them away. The last square in the upper left, the one most people would have chosen first, remains unmentioned.
I point. “What about that one? Is it blank, too?” Even as the question leaves my mouth, I already know the answer.
This video is what Max and Tek were fighting about.
Tek looks to Max.
Max faces me and tips my chin up. “It’s not blank. I don’t want you to watch it.” He already knows my answer; the resignation is plain on his face. “Do what she says, Tek.” His lids flutter shut, and he waits.
Tek taps the track pad, and the video fills the screen. The camera is on a shelf in a supply room that’s been pretty well picked over. There are ransacked boxes and garbage littering the floor, metal shelving pulled away from the wall at a haphazard angle, and overturned office chairs. A corner of the room has been cleared of debris and set up with a sleeping bag, lantern, and backpack. A few MREs are stacked next to the wall.
Gibbs saunters in and flops down cross-legged, pulling out his cell phone. He appears to be texting though I’m not sure. His nose is swollen, a rainbow of reds, blues, and purples decorating his face. I can’t help but feel a twinge of triumph and hope the pain keeps him awake at night.
He puts the phone back and rises, moving toward the camera. He rummages on one of the lower shelves and freezes when he stands up, staring directly into the lens. His intense gray eyes look even creepier than I remember, cold and cruel. A slow smile spreads across his bruised face, and he plucks the camera off the shelf, holding it in his palm.
“Is that you, Sweet Marie? Are you watching me? Because I’ve been watching you.” He lowers his voice, going for smooth and seductive. “Do you miss my touch? Think about me when you lie in bed at night?”
My heart stutters. I want to look away, tell Tek to stop the video, but it’s as if I’m hypnotized.
His gray eyes fill the screen, a glint of amusement and something much darker sparking in their depths. “I have something to tell you, Sweet Marie, something to hold close on all those lonely nights. There are things that need to be done, but I haven’t forgotten you—and I can reach out and touch you wherever you are whenever I want.”
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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook