I don't understand myself sometimes, lying here in the dark, watching the clock cast neon shadows, all alone save for the ghost in the corner who watches me with a too-knowing look. I don't have to open my eyes to know he's not happy with my brooding, my introspection. It's been two years since the Witchblade found me...a year since I made a choice that I'm still not sure was the right one. I could have turned back time, saved everyone, but something told me not to, that the price I'd pay would be far greater than the good. Everyone I cared about in that year is dead. Me, I'm still alive, and my dead partner haunts me.
I don't know if I would still make the choice I made a year ago. Moments like these, when the grief is nearly too much to bear, I think that maybe if I had, Gabriel and Jake and Danny would still be alive. Then I remember everything that’s happened since then, the things I’ve come to know about causality and divergent timelines and how their deaths helped me nail Irons and Nottingham and, later, Captain Dante and the Red Bulls to the proverbial wall...and I can’t go back. I know everything happens for a reason, and yet...it doesn’t change the fact that I miss my friends. There are cops who hate me for ratting out the thin blue line, and my new captain’s still wary of me. I think he thinks I’m some kind of psychic freak, but he can’t argue with my success, so he leaves me be.
I still don’t know why Danny, out of all of my dead friends, haunts me. He says it’s some kind of ghostly rule — he wasn’t done with his life’s work yet. I can’t say I want to be someone’s afterlife pet project, but in some ways, knowing he’s around, even if he’s not allowed to tell me what’s going to happen, makes my life a hell of a lot easier. I know he doesn’t like it when I’m like this, too wired to sleep, too tired to keep my shields up, and with far too much time to think.
In a few hours, I'll drag my ass into work, hope that I can get through the pile of cases on my desk and try to make up some time. I'm supposed to get a new partner come Monday. I already know I won't like her; but the 'blade says she'll be good for me. How, I have no idea, but this thing's saved my life, helped me out when I needed answers. I don't always look down the portal of time. Some part of me doesn't want to know, but I couldn't resist this once. I know already that I may have changed things by looking; what I expect will be may not. Sometimes I feel like I’m living out an ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times.
Maybe. Maybe the ‘blade has different ideas about who should wield it, and I’ll wake up in the morning to find it gone. I’m scared it might leave me, but I know now that if I hold it closer than I would a lover, it will keep me alive. It’s in its own best interest, at least for now. I’ll die before I give this cursed thing up — and I mean that. It’s fused to me; tearing it off me would probably hurt in ways that I don’t even want to begin to contemplate. Even if it wasn’t…well, let’s just say I’m used to it now in a way that makes me understand why someone who’d wielded it once went insane wanting it again.
I used to joke about the voices in my head. Not any more. Not since the voices got digital, high-def TV visions to go right along with them. My own personal ghost shakes his head at me, but says nothing. He worries that I haven’t recovered emotionally from everything that’s happened. I don’t trust shrinks, having been through one too many mandatory consults, but there are other people I could talk to instead. Maybe Danny’s right and I should at least pick up the phone, make that call that I’ve been debating to make all night.
I'm alone. It's three a.m. I don’t have to be alone; it’s my choice. There’s a man waiting patiently for me in a hotel room uptown; all I have to do to not be alone is call him. It’s a hollow feeling, wanting sex just to fill the emptiness, but I take a deep breath and reach for my cell phone, exhaling as I dial the numbers from the business card he’d handed me.
He’s not a prostitute. I know some cops would use them, even if it meant their shield. I’m not one of them. No, the number belongs to…someone I wouldn’t necessarily call a friend. He’s one of the FBI’s top men, the one they call on when there’s a suspicion of a serial killer, especially the kind of killer who makes heads roll. I met him in the course of my last case, and I’m still not sure what made him decide to give me his business card, to tell me to call him. For the moment, though, I don’t think too deeply about his reasons for wanting me to stay in touch, and I pick up my cell phone from its place on the nightstand.
He shows up within twenty minutes of my call, dropped off by a taxi. I let him in. The ‘blade whispers in my ear that he’s not as young as he seems, that he has a history that involves swords and lightning and fighting. I don’t care if he was the poster child of Renaissance fairs, and I shove aside the ‘blade’s mini-films as I welcome him.
“Thanks for coming, Matthew.”
He smiles crookedly. “I wondered if you would call.” He studies me closely, then takes me into his arms and holds me. I don’t want to shatter, not now, not when we barely know each other, but I can’t help it; the grief’s too much for me to bear, and I am being held in a strong man’s arms, held and supported as the tears pour out of me.
It’s a long time before I step back. From somewhere in that trench coat of his, he produces an honest-to-God handkerchief and hands it to me. I use it liberally, unashamed, as he strips off his coat to drape it across the coffee table. He guides me to sit down on the couch, and pulls me back against him. He’s warm and solid, and I’m hyperaware of how it feels to be held.
“Been a long year?” he asks quietly, when my breathing’s no longer ragged and the tears are mostly dry. His Southern accent makes the words somehow more solicitous, and I take a deep breath before answering him.
“Make that two years,” I tell him. “Two years ago today, I lost three of my friends. They were all killed trying to help me.”
“Sorry to hear that,” he says sincerely. “I know how that goes.” He pauses. “I wondered why you weren’t happy when we closed the Sinclair case earlier this week.”
I shake my head. “Some things are just harder to do when it’s an anniversary you don’t want to celebrate.” I start to rise and turn, but he presses my chest down.
“Shh, stay there. You’re not heavy, and it’s easier to talk this way.”
“What makes you think I want to talk?”
Though I couldn’t see it, I could almost feel his shrug. “You called me at an ungodly hour of the morning. Since you don’t seem to be the type to want to sleep with someone you just met, I have to go with the only other option: you need someone to talk to.”
I chuckle. “I can’t say I have much to talk about.”
“No?” is the amused reply. “What made you want to be a cop?”
“My dad was one. I wanted him to be proud of me, and I couldn’t think of anything else I wanted to be.”
“What, no pink tutus or dreams of being a doctor?” Matthew asks, sounding genuinely interested.
I laugh softly. “Never even crossed my mind. Why do you keep doing it?” I keep getting flashes of history as I lay against him. Something makes me say, “And why do I keep seeing you in Sherwood Forest?”
He chuckles. “Maybe you’re just thinking I would fit the part of Robin Hood, come to rescue the fair maiden.”
I knew the moment he said it, he was lying. For a brief moment, I think about raising my arm, revealing the ‘blade, but something tells me I'm better off letting the lie stand. Besides, if I reveal my secrets, he might still not reveal his, and if he really had something to do with Robin Hood…he’d had a long time to practice not saying anything. Any other night, anyone else, I might be more inclined to push. Matthew, however, makes me want to keep up the pretense we're nothing more than two soldiers of the same side.
“Maybe,” I answer him. “You certainly came when I called.” I pause. “Why did you come?”
“You asked,” he says simply.
I turn to look at him, surprised. “Do you always show up when someone asks you to?”
A gleam of mischief lights his eyes. “Not always,” he answers honestly. “Sometimes I find reasons to be elsewhere.”
“So why’d you give me your card if you didn’t know if you were going to show up if I called?” I pull out of his embrace warily and sit back on the other side of the couch.
He shrugs. “Do you always know which way you’re going to go when someone asks you for a favor?”
He had a point. Grudgingly, I admit, “No.”
He leans forward. “You’re an attractive, smart, intuitive woman. I liked you during the investigation; I wanted to get to know you better. I figured if nothing else, we might be friends. I don’t worry about the rest.”
I take a long, hard look at him, the way I’d do if I was cataloging a suspect. Dark brown hair caps a long, narrow face with an angular jaw, straight nose, and deep-set brown eyes. He has a medium build and looks like the kind of guy who works out, but not in some yuppie chain-name gym unless he has no other choice. He wears a dark green button-down shirt, jeans, and leather shoes that had probably cost more than I’d ever dream of spending on shoes. He is a few inches taller than me, but not by much. I am suddenly struck by how much honesty he radiates, even as his eyes hint at secrets he isn’t willing to share. There's no way I’d mistake him for a criminal; he has that cop bearing that comes out of being a cop for too many years to count. And yet, deep in my gut, I know he is a killer. I don’t need the ‘blade to know. Still, I trust him, and I can’t fathom why.
As if sensing my confusion, he reaches out to touch the wrist upon which the bracelet rested. “Sara, don’t ask. Not unless you want me to ask how this cursed thing found you.”
I chuckle humorlessly. “Hell of a friendship if we both have secrets,” I tell him.
He doesn't smile, but slowly shakes his head. “Alliances have been made on less,” he reminds me.
“Is this what we’re doing? Building up favors to trade later?”
“No.” The word is bluntly spoken. “This is just me, letting someone know she’s not alone. Not unless she wants to be.”
I close my eyes at that, hearing the unspoken question in his words. I blink back the sudden rush of tears as I realize just how long it had been since someone had offered comfort without strings…two years is too damned long. Swallowing hard, I open my eyes and try to smile. “If it’s not too much to ask, would you hold me and talk to me tonight? I don’t know if I can sleep, but maybe…maybe if you’re here, I won’t…” I take a deep breath, hating to admit any sort of weakness. “Maybe I won’t dream.”
“My pleasure,” he says easily, as if he’d been expecting the request, and rises to his feet. As gallantly as any knight, he extends his hand and helps me stand, then leads me to the bed. As I stretch out on one side, he strips off his shoes and takes up position on the other side, pausing only to pull up the comforter and sheets I’d kicked off in my previous aborted attempt at sleep. Pulling the covers up, he settles them around us before he slips his right arm underneath my head, and positions his left loosely around the area just below my ribcage. I slip down the bed somewhat so we aren’t knocking noses.
“So what made you decide to be a cop?” I ask curiously, figuring any question he asked me isn't off limits.
“Family tradition,” he tells me. “I couldn’t imagine being anything else.”
He chuckles. “Guilty. Even after all I’ve seen, all the hoops I have to go through, I can’t imagine doing anything else. My father would have been so proud.”
“My dad didn’t want me to become a cop at first. Then he saw how determined I was, and…” I pause as old grief hit like a ton of bricks. “Some days, I think he’d be ashamed of me, cowering in fear like this at shadows.”
“Tough guy, huh?”
“Yeah. It got him killed. One of the local bigwigs in the crime scene took him behind an alley one night and shot him. Nobody could prove it, nobody knew anything, so it took years before I was able to close the case on who murdered my father.” I blow out a breath. “Then someone decided to ‘assist’ the killer in committing suicide.”
“You know who that ‘someone’ is.”
I glance up at Matthew. “Knowing it doesn’t change anything. I can’t prove it, and I can’t say I’m not glad it happened that way.” I can almost see the wheels turning in Matthew’s head. “And before you ask, that someone who assisted the killer is currently in jail for another crime.”
He is silent a moment before he asks gently, “So why do you blame yourself for doing nothing?”
“I don’t,” I say angrily. “I just wonder if maybe if I’d been more open with my friends, maybe then they’d still be alive. They wouldn’t have just thought I was going crazy.”
“And if you could go back and change how things happened, would you?”
I glance at my wrist. “No,” I answer quietly. “No, I wouldn’t, because they were meant to die when they did. Too many other things would be wrong if they lived.”
“And if they were here, would they be kicking your ass because you’re dwelling in grief?”
Nothing in my life was random anymore, this much I know, and I can't shake the feeling that knowing that matters more tonight than any other. Right now, I wasn’t entirely too happy with that fact, or that a stranger knows me this well. “Danny would be,” I admit. “So would Jake and Gabriel, now that I think about it.” I chuckle, remembering. “Gabriel was convinced that the longer you grieved, the harder it was for the soul to move on. He was barely twenty, and yet, he was the biggest believer in the mystical I’d ever met. He dealt in rare antiquities: the odder, the more unusual, the more something was the stuff of legends, the better, and sold them to the highest bidder.”
“Did he always believe in what people claimed the items to be?”
“He said it didn’t matter, but I could tell when he got in something pretty exotic; he’d be bouncing off the ceiling trying to tell me about it.”
“So who were Danny and Jake?”
It seems easier, somehow, to lie in the dark in a stranger’s arms and remember my friends as they were, than to shed useless tears alone. “Jake was my partner. He was assigned to me after Danny was killed. I found out later he was undercover for the FBI, trying to bust a bunch of crooked cops who’d been crooked since my father’s time on the force.”
“You sound like you’re still mad at him for that.”
I half-laugh. “Yeah. It explained why the hell a champion surfer went all the way to New York from California, and why he didn’t seem to be fazed at the whole ‘we’re partners’ thing every time he tried to flirt with me.”
“And did he ever succeed in taking you to dinner?”
I let myself remember. “Once. Then we got paged in the middle of this fabulous feast, and we never spoke of it again.”
“That leaves Danny,” Matthew reminds me.
I don’t need to look over Matthew’s shoulder to know Danny stood in the shadows, listening, watching. It makes me raise my head slightly to meet Matthew’s gaze.
“Danny was my partner. We went through the Academy together, got partnered with other people for a while, then requested to be put together. We were partners for years, ‘til one November day when I insisted we check out a lead, and he was shot before my eyes. Now his wife won’t talk to me, and there’s nothing I can do to get rid of his ghost.”
Matthew doesn’t say anything for a few minutes. “I was chasing a suspect across country once,” he finally says. “I was so sure I would catch him. My partner got hurt, and still I went chasing after the suspect. I caught him, but by the time I went back to check on my partner, he was near death. We were in a place where medicine wasn’t as accessible as it could be in other places, and he begged me to shoot him, to put him out of his misery.” There’s a hitch in that smooth Southern-flavored voice as Matthew finishes with, “Some nights I can still hear that shot ringing across the valley.”
In a gentle voice, he adds, “There is so much death and sorrow in this life, Sara. We see more of the darkness than some of the folks we swear to protect, but it doesn’t mean we have to sink down into that pit. Friends help keep me sane because they help remind me that there are people I want to protect.”
I breathe deeply. “I lost so many people in one year. I don’t want to go through that again with someone else.”
Matthew pulls me closer. “The alternative, Sara, is that you become a shell of who you are. And then one day you’re staring at your gun and wondering if you shouldn’t point it at yourself, since there’s no one to care if you live or die. Please don’t go down that road.”
“I…thought about it,” I admit. “Decided I was better off calling you instead.”
“I’m glad you did.”
A long silence ensues, and I start to relax. Suddenly, I remember Matthew’s not only a fellow cop, he’s also an FBI agent, and someone in a position to make my life interesting, if he so chooses. “Promise you’ll tell no one about what I said?” I ask in sudden panic.
He stiffens, insulted. “Of course I won’t say anything. I’m not interested in ruining your career. Not when I like you enough to show up at three in the morning.”
I chuckle at his phrasing. “I suppose not. I had to ask.”
He shrugs and relaxes his body. “It’s okay, Sara. I’ll even still respect you in the morning, when your hair is all mussed up and my arm is numb.”
He makes me laugh again. “Thanks, Matthew.”
He kisses my forehead. “You’re welcome. Go to sleep, Sara. I’m here.”
And somehow, I do exactly that. I wake to find myself alone. A note is tucked to a grande Starbuck’s coffee cup next to my cell phone. As I sip the coffee, only mildly surprised that it's precisely my preferred concoction since the nearest Starbuck’s is in the building across the street, I read the note.
Sorry, I couldn’t be there when you woke up. My pager went off while you were sleeping; they need me back home on a case in Baltimore. Call me on my cell phone when you’re ready.
P.S. I hope you had pleasant dreams.
I glance at my watch, note the time, and realize it was Saturday. For a moment, I hesitate; if Matthew had been called in on a case on a weekend, it had to be pretty gruesome. Still…. My fingers are punching redial before I finish thinking. Baltimore isn’t that far away.
“Morning, Sara,” he greets on the third ring. “Sleep well?”
In the background, I can hear street noise, cars passing by, but he makes me feel like there is nothing else going on in the world. “Better than I have in a few weeks, yeah. Listen, I don’t want to keep you if you’re busy, but I wanted to tell you thank you. I really appreciated what you did for me last night.”
“You’re welcome.” There is a pause, then he says, “If I can get this wrapped up in the next few hours, I’d like to have dinner with you.”
It's on the tip of my tongue to refuse; two years’ worth of pushing people away is a hard habit to break. “Are you sure you’re going to wrap your case that quickly?”
Matthew chuckles. “This isn’t anything I haven’t seen before,” he says easily. “My partner just wanted to be sure it was what she thought it was.” Wry amusement laces his voice as he adds, “I can pull rank and make her fill out the paperwork.”
“I see,” I say carefully, not wanting to reveal that I’d pulled the same trick a time or two myself.
“I thought you might,” Matthew returns. “I’ll pick you up at six.”
I murmur agreement, and hang up the phone. The ‘blade seems oddly content with my decision to call Matthew. Its lack of protest makes me wonder what role he’ll play in my life. Before I can let that thought drive me crazy, I push it aside. It’s been a long time since I had a date.
In the corner of my room, I can see Danny smiling encouragingly. I scowl, because it’s expected, and because there’s nothing worse than a ghost whose after-life mission is to keep me from going crazy. Still, I can’t quite stop the smile that tugs at the edges of my mouth as I start preparing for the day.
-- finis 6.24.07