Chapter 3

 


Samantha found a heavyweight cotton t-shirt and threw it over her head and strong shoulders. It was like her body was on autopilot. She dried her hair as much as time would permit, before she retrieved her FBI credentials and slid her pistol into its Gould & Goodrich concealment holster on her right hip. The agent opted for a lightweight pullover to provide an extra layer of concealment. Samantha pulled her raven black hair into a ponytail and threaded it through the back of a faded blue REI ball cap.

The telephone in Samantha’s room rang three times before her ears acknowledged its shrill bite. "Yes?" The agent had neither the time nor the inclination to engage the party on the other end in a conversation of any length.

"Ms. Christopher? This is the concierge’s desk. There’s a gentleman here from… uh, KarKaddy, Unlimited? He say’s he’s got a delivery for you-- and you need to come down for inspection and release."

"Great! I’ll be right down." Samantha couldn’t believe her luck that her car had been delivered ahead of schedule.

"Oh, wonderful! Thank you ma’am. I’ll tell him you’re on your way." The young man obviously hadn’t been a concierge for very long, as Samantha detected the relief in his voice at the agent’s explicit understanding of his instructions…that or the hotel had never had a guest’s vehicle delivered, UPS style, to the front door.
 


***


 


"Ms. Christopher?" The deliveryman soaked in the natural beauty of the dark woman standing before him. "My name’s Henry, I’ve got the papers right here. If you’ll follow me we’ll run through the inspection before you sign them."

"Sounds good, thank you." Samantha followed the man she was now willing to refer to as a knight in shining armor out the glass and brass doors of the hotel lobby. The bright sunshine assaulted her tender blue eyes, forcing her to withdraw a pair of Vaurnet sunglasses from the front collar of her pullover. When she and the shining knight stopped at the Mustang the dark agent blew out a sigh of relief. The gesture drew the attention of the deliveryman and when he looked up at the agent he was struck by the familiar resemblance she bore to a dark panther. The large cat moved with a graceful sleekness to shroud its predatory viciousness, and her piercing eyes were now hidden under the cover of dark glasses. The deliveryman offered the agent her long-awaited car keys and shuddered when the tips of the woman’s fingers brushed against his hand as she stole away with the keys.

Samantha prowled around the perimeter of the candy-apple red Mustang and took in its sleek lines and polished chrome accents. She checked for any scratches, nicks or aberrations in the paint job, and finished by peering through the right passenger window and surveyed the black leather interior before she approached the deliveryman.

"She sure is a beauty." He admired aloud.

"She certainly is. Henry? The release papers?" Samantha coaxed the young man from his delirious awe.

"Oh, yes ma’am. Here ya go."

"Thank you very much, Henry." Samantha offered a charming smile and handed the young man a 100-dollar bill as a tip along with his copy of the release form. The pen with which she signed the form was her own, and she replaced it to the collar of her pullover.

Samantha melted into the driver’s seat, whose leather was supple and always felt like it was contoured to fit her sleek body alone. She inhaled deeply and drifted for the briefest of moments to the sanctity of long peaceful rides with the black convertible top pulled down… her hair blowing behind her. The comforting smell of the Mustang’s leather always had a way of relaxing her, but never to distraction. She raised her lids, not realizing that her hands were tightly fixed around the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Sam tightened her jaw and suddenly had the urge to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway or down Harbor Drive to 209 and out to the Cabrillo National Monument. The view from Point Loma would be amazing this time of year. The dark agent looked at the passenger seat and realized that she wanted to make that trip with the detective whose friendship was threatening to be ripped from her heart. She better be okay. Your fate’s sealed either way, Mr. Mars. You had your chance to leave well enough alone, you have finally fucked with the wrong wild cat. Kat… The dark agent’s heart lurched once more at the ironic play on words. She turned the ignition switch and reveled in the loud purr from under the hood. The horsepower that rumbled under her feet brought a devilish grin to her face and she tore out of the driveway, leaving a trail of white smoke in her wake.
 


*****


 


It was 12:30 when the dark agent stalked her way through the emergency room waiting area. She stood near the admissions desk scanning the waiting room for Sgt. Kintrell. When she didn’t find him she begrudgingly approached the admissions nurse to ask for assistance. Without much thought to any kind of discretion, she retrieved her credentials that identified her profession but not her dark nature.

"I’m Special Agent Samantha Christopher of the FBI. I’m here concerning an SDPD detective who was involved in a traffic accident."

"Oh yes, senora." The heavy set Puerto Rican nurse softened her features allowing a warm glow to settle her deep mocha eyes. The glow quickly gave way to a wave of sadness, which startled the agent. When the nurse became aware of the fear that cleared Samantha’s eyes she smiled faintly. "I’m sorry senora. I don’t know anything of her condition. It’s just that my son is a policia. I always worry for him… tell him to be careful of the bad people that want to cause harm for him. I have a special place in my heart for the policia… especially ones like my son and little Miss Gabriel. She’s so sweet… every time she come in here to talk to the doctors about one of her, you know, victims—" The devout Catholic nurse crossed herself. "Oh Dios mio! It’s just not fair Miss FBI lady! You catch him though, no?"

"Yes ma’am. I will most definitely catch him." The darkness that crept over the FBI agent’s face shook the nurse and made her swallow hard. "Ms. Rosa?" Samantha read the name on the nurse’s breastplate. "Is there a big man here from the police department. He has brown skin and thick gray hair… kind of scary looking?"

"Sgt. Kintrell… yes senora. He’s in the private waiting room. I put him there myself. Come, I show you."
 


*****


 


"Senor Kintrell. Miss FBI lady ask to—"

Kintrell spun around with his hands in tightly balled fists; he looked like he was ready to pummel the first person that crossed his path. "Agent Christopher… thank you for coming."

Ms. Rosa looked up at the FBI agent and waited for a silent nod before she withdrew from the private room designated for the family of critically injured patients. Sam understood that if Kintrell was pacing the floor of this particular room, that the young detective’s life was in serious jeopardy.

"Sgt. Kintrell. How is…" The agent’s voice faded, forcing her to look down and swallow saliva that simply wasn’t there.

"Agent Christopher—"

"Samantha. Please, call me Samantha."

"Samantha. She’s in surgery. There was a lot of hemorrhaging. The Doc’s trying to stop the bleeding. Um, they feel sure she’s got broken ribs, maybe even a broken breast bone… concussion… uh." The strong sergeant couldn’t continue, his harsh façade was crumbling as he spoke. Samantha approached him and put her hand on his trembling shoulder.

"Sgt. Kintrell. I am so sorry. Is there anything I can do?" Samantha wanted to crawl into a hole and fill it with her own tears, but she bit them back and offered her strength to the sergeant. She was sure he hadn’t been able to do anything since he’d gotten to the hospital. "Has her family been notified?" Kintrell wasn’t able to offer anything but a shaky nod. Samantha pressed on. "Are they local? Can I pick them up at the airport?" Sam felt like an idiot asking these questions but she was determined to offer all she could to help the young detective.

"Uh, no. You don’t understand. There is no family. I’m all she has left." Kintrell collapsed onto the couch behind him and dropped his head into his hands.

Sam’s bottom lip trembled, an uncontrollable response that she tried to hide with her right hand. She brought her eyebrows together and closed her eyes. The dark haired agent found it hard to understand how someone with so little in their life could offer so much to so many. Samantha couldn’t explain it but Katherine Gabriel had captured a part of her heart. It was like they were somehow connected… destined to be-- but it was falling apart…and there was nothing the agent could do to stop it.

Several hours passed. The two people in the waiting room endured the passing time in silence. Only leaving their respective places on the couch to use the restroom, or to look out the window at the beautiful autumn day that continued to breathe life into the world in spite of the fragile soul trying to fight its way back from the gates of heaven.

"Sgt. Kintrell? Oh…I’m sorry, I didn’t realize anyone else was in here." Samantha looked up to see a well-muscled man in green surgical scrubs and protective cap enter the room.

"Oh, Doc. That’s okay. This is a friend of Kat’s. Samantha Christopher." Sam looked at the sergeant with a furrowed brow. He returned her look with relaxed eyes and a warm smile, before he gave a slight nod. It was like he somehow understood the connection between the two women.

"Ms. Christopher… I’m Dr. Michaels. Nice to meet you." He offered his hand to the raven-haired woman and directed her and the sergeant back to the couch. "She made it through surgery and she’s recovering in CCU." Dr. Michaels smiled at the deeply inhaled breaths that were simultaneously released by the two people on the couch. "She’s not out of the proverbial woods yet. We’re gonna keep her in CCU overnight. I’m not expecting any problems, so if we can down grade her condition in the morning, she’ll be moved to a private room. She is an amazingly strong woman. She must have a lot in this world worth living for." The doctor took a steady breath and was sure to make eye contact with both Samantha and the sergeant. "Do you have any questions?"

"Dr. Michaels... Can I see her? Is there any way—"

"Ms. Christopher, I’m really sorry, but that would be—"

Kintrell interrupted the doctor. "Angelo… c’mere for a second." Kintrell stood and led the doctor toward the door. The two men whispered amongst themselves, leaving Samantha on the couch, her frustration growing at being left out.

The doctor nodded his understanding to the sergeant and crossed the floor back to Sam. "Okay Ms. Christopher… but only for a few minutes. She really needs her rest." Dr. Michaels squeezed Sam’s shoulder and offered her a smile with his eyes. He left the room as quietly as he had entered.

Samantha was dumfounded and completely confused. There was a growing easiness in her heart, though, that belayed any misgivings she’d had about the secret meeting between the two men. "Kintrell? How’d you get him to agree? What’d you say to’em?"

Kintrell quirked his eyebrows and gave a look that said ah, what the hell. "I told’em you were lovers."

"You did what?" Samantha knit her brows together in surprise, not anger. The slacked-jaw completed the unique look and brought a playful grin the sergeant’s face.

He reached up and placed three fingers under the agent’s chin and eased her jaw up, closing her mouth. "Bats’ll come flying outta there one day if you keep the damned thing gaped open like that."

Samantha reached up and clasped the sergeant’s hand before smiling the feeling in her heart. Lovers huh? Her smile gave way to a puckish grin at the thought, although she knew she didn’t deserve that kind of love in her life, or any kind of love for that matter, and certainly not from the angel Gabriel.
 


*****


 


Kintrell walked up to CCU with Samantha and Dr. Michaels and stood by the dark agent’s side while she pulled her senses together and mustered the courage to enter Katherine’s room.

"Go on girl, before Dr. Michaels changes his mind." Kintrell gave Sam a gentle push in the small of her back. "I’m gonna go on home, she doesn’t need to see my ugly mug."

"I’m sure she’d want to—" Sam offered with earnest eyes.

"Nah, she’s gonna have enough to deal with when you go in there," The sergeant shot a quick glance at Michaels and tried to ease the doctor’s growing look of concern with an I’m just kidding grin. "I’ll be back in the morning to see her, besides, I’m sure you’ll take real good care of her." The last comment was said through a wry smile, again for the doctor’s benefit.

Before Kintrell could wander off, Sam caught him by the arm and looked deep into his eyes. "Sgt. Kintrell… thank you." She realized that Kintrell was sacrificing potentially precious moments with Katherine, knowing that Dr. Michaels would have allowed him to see her, somehow realizing that the doctor and Kintrell were friends. Although she was grateful, she felt guilty for the sacrifice because she knew she didn’t deserve the gesture.

"Al… please, call me Al." The words caught in his throat, and the tears in his eyes spoke volumes for the love he felt for the critically wounded detective.

Seeing a man the likes of Kintrell on the verge of breaking down tugged at Samantha’s heart and she unknowingly reached toward him and consumed him in an embrace. Kintrell returned the hug and whispered in Sam’s ear. "Tell her I love her."

"I will, Al. I will." Samantha released the sergeant and turned to walk into a room that held the secrets of her destiny.
 


*****


 


Katherine was lying on her back, her petite form fitted snugly under hospital sheets. Her face had several tiny lacerations from the Jeep’s broken windshield. There was an IV in her left arm and several sensor patches affixed to her chest, monitoring her vital signs. The tiny tubes running from her nostrils were offering her a higher concentration of oxygen to help carry her through the crucial hours that would determine her chances for a complete recovery.

With the exception of the facial lacerations, which looked very minor, and all the tubes running to and from her body, the tiny detective didn’t appear to be injured at all. All this did was cause Samantha’s heart to sink even further. She knew the damage was internal, causing her prognosis to be all the more difficult to predict.

The few moments Sam stood at the door, inside Katherine’s room, seemed to last an eternity. It was as though the walls were closing in on her, and the air was being sucked from the room. The solitude she felt at that moment was deafening as the beeping from the monitors thundered in her mind and caused it to run away with her thoughts.

The last time she had dealt with anyone’s mortality was when her brother was killed. The agent had lost count of all the people who’d died by her hands, but the only death to have had an impact on her psyche, her very being was the death of her brother. The image of her brother seemed to call Samantha to the hospital bed on the far side of the room. A gentle breeze drifted from nowhere and encircled the agent. It seemed to soak into her and chill her to the bone, and fade to a warmth that relaxed and comforted her. Slowly, the breeze became a force, willing the agent to cross the room and stand along side the bed.

Samantha didn’t remember approaching the detective, but she found herself standing next to her right side, in silence, her voice betraying her, not allowing her to speak out to the silent patient. The breeze danced around her again and lifted her heart from the depths of her tormented soul. The breeze was beyond reason and despite her instinct to run from it or fight it she allowed herself to embrace it. There was a familiarity in its gentleness, in its calming effect. Sammy, it’s gonna be okay.

"Samuel…" she breathed, barely audible.

The breeze was gone.

Samantha looked around the room wild-eyed, her eyes finally drawn to the resting form of the unconscious woman.

The agent swallowed hard, trying to focus her dazed eyes and trying to make sense of what had just happened. All of a sudden her mind cleared and the atmosphere in the room returned to normal, she was certain that she could hear the walls retreating and air rush into the space around her. Samantha reached out to the detective and stroked her forehead, brushing her thumb along her right brow.

The angelic expression on Katherine’s face brought a peaceful serenity to Samantha’s heart and allowed the tears welling in the agent’s eyes to flow freely.

"Sam… Samantha—" the voice was surely born of the gods.

"Katherine?!" Samantha’s heart reeled. "Oh my God. I didn’t mean to wake you, I’m so sorry."

"What happened?" Sam realized that Katherine’s voice was too strained and she shouldn’t be wasting her energy like this.

"Shhh. Go back to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning." Samantha continued stroking the detective’s brow until the small woman drifted back to sleep. Oh, thank you God. I can’t lose her, not now. The silent prayer was offered to whomever was listening. Sammy, it’s gonna be okay.

Samantha spent the rest of the evening in Katherine’s hospital room, in a cushion chair that she’d slid up to the bed. She was finally forced to take her eyes off the detective when a relentless sleep beckoned her from her conscious state, just before dawn.

Dr. Michaels had looked in the window of Katherine’s room and watched Samantha’s silent vigil. He somehow knew that the patient’s friend would never consider disturbing her. He also knew that allowing the dark woman to stay where she sat would be as therapeutic for her as it would be for the patient. Dr. Michaels left for the night with explicit instructions to the evening charge nurse: Ms. Christopher stays where she is… for as long as she wants.
 


*****


 


Samantha had been barely cognizant of the nurses who came in to check on Katherine throughout the night. Shortly after 7 am the next shift of nurses arrived on the hall and made their rounds. Katherine’s nurse entered the room and in a failed attempt to be quiet she awoke Samantha from a dreadful dream…

The orders had been urgently precise. ‘The target would go down on the date and time indicated—no deviations’. The Huntress had operated under such directives before so there were no reservations or reasons to be concerned. The perch was a rooftop 500 yards away and would offer the perfect angle. The distance and surrounding buildings would allow for sufficient distortion of the muzzle blast, as this particular assassin detested the use of silencers. She was convinced that they countermanded her precision, and the only time she afforded their use was in up-close-and-personal assignments. The PEST-B-GONE EXTERMINATOR jumpsuit was worn over a pair of Levi 501’s and a Panama Jack t-shirt and would slip easily over her Adidas trail response running shoes when the disguise needed to be discarded. Her intention after the assignment was to blend into the crowd because after it was all said and done she was on her own. There could be no connection to the Agency if there were any possibility that she might get caught. There would be no one to pull her out of the lion’s den if she were captured. This predator’s skill for the hunt was almost a vision of beauty though and, quite frankly, costumes and disguises were a moot point for the Huntress.

She was in place for nearly an hour before the crowd of people started its influx to the popular Los Angeles Park; it was one of the few places in the area that offered autumn colors near the West Coast. The lush green of the oak trees was long forgotten in light of the gold and red leaves that clung hopelessly to the branches that bore the tales of all the people that had languished in their shade over the years. The tales were of love and hate, anger and fear, life and… The tales that would be offered up for the trees today would have a profound affect on the storytellers; an affect that would divert the very course of their destinies.

"This isn’t right." The Huntress whispered from behind her binoculars.

"What are you talking about? He’s right on time, as usual. There he is in the blue Dockers and white oxford."

The Huntress regarded her partner and PEST-B-GONE co-worker with a scathing glare. If she hadn’t been wearing those Vaurnet sunglasses her ice-blue eyes would have cut him to the quick. "I am quite aware of who the target is… and yes, I am even aware of his current attire," she returned her attention to her binoculars. "There are entirely too many children down there with him."

"Oh Jesus. It’s not like were taking any of the kids with him!"

"Shit! That’s his daughter! Oh for God’s sake, it’s a birthday party. Why weren’t we told about this!"

"Samantha. Calm down. The daughter is NOT the target, Heinrikkson—"

"Dammit, Mars! I know who the target is, but I will not take him down in front of his daughter on her birthday! It would be no better than reserving his bullet for her. I don’t accept assignments on women and children… and I will not do this in front of her. Not like this!" The Huntress was emphatic and her partner should have accepted her flat denial.

"Sonofabitch! I knew this would happen—" Mars sighed under his breath.

"You what?! Are you telling me you knew about this… about the party? Why…the fuck… didn’t you tell me?"

"Samantha. It is essential that he go down here and…" Damon Mars was invoking a wrath that he was not equipped to handle.

"It is essential for me to beat the shit out of you for keeping this from me. Damon I won’t do it. As godforsaken as my profession is, I will not allow that child to suffer like this." Samantha was still looking through her binoculars and cursing under her breath. She didn’t see her partner remove her .308 Remmington 700 PSS sniper rifle from its case. He released the mini bipod and snugged the butt of the rifle into his shoulder. Samantha became aware that Damon had stopped arguing with her and she drew back from her binoculars and rotated her head in his direction. "Damon, noooo!"

The Huntress lunged for her partner but the trigger had been pulled back by the time she was air born and the rifle’s message was delivered to the unsuspecting being on the ground. She crashed into the dark haired man and drove him into an aluminum roof flange. In one fluid motion Samantha Christopher rolled off the man, who’d just betrayed her trust, and darted for her binoculars. They were pressed against her eyes before Damon had a chance to pull himself off the mangled piece of metal.

"You bastard!"

"Samantha… he had to go down, it was imperative—"

"You’ve never made a shot from this far—"

"Ya gotta start somewhere. As long as I hit my mark, what does it matter."

Samantha tightened her grip on the binoculars and clenched her teeth together, displaying the rigid jaw muscles under her high cheekbones. In three elegant strides she stalked her partner and hefted him to his feet by the back of his curly head.

"What the fu—"

"Why don’t you take a look at your mark!" She hissed as she shoved the binoculars at his chest.

"Samantha, we need to leave."

"LOOK!" Her voice boomed off his eardrums as he put the specks up to his eyes, his ears still ringing. The scene on the ground was sheer pandemonium. People were running and trying to find cover. He saw his target… still alive- holding the body of his ten-year-old daughter; her skull had been ripped apart by a 168-grain BoatTail hollow point, shot by his hands.

"Goddammit…"

"Nope, he’s not gonna be able to help you outta this one asshole. You better pack up your shit and get your sorry ass outta my sight before I break every rib in your body and rip your god damned heart out of your chest and throw it over the side of this building."
 
 

"Oh my goodness! You okay, dear?" The nurse was slender with Asian features and hair as black as the midnight sky. She walked over to Samantha, instantly drawn to the panicked looking agent.

"Yeah, I’m fine. What time is it?" Samantha was trying desperately to clear her thoughts. That particular dream had ingrained itself into the fabric of most of the agent’s nightmares. On the nights that it infiltrated her subconscious she normally awoke in a frenzied cold sweat, cursing her existence. She was a killer, pure and simple. Samantha Christopher stalked and hunted her prey with a natural precision that made her the dream child of the CIA’s most secretive of covert ops segments. Instead of mourning her brother’s death, 10 years ago, she embraced the lifestyle of the kind of monsters that had ripped him from her life and the CIA took full advantage of their newfound prodigy, and turned the already established agent into a murder.

This particular morning was almost no different for the agent, in that her body was shaking; her t-shirt soaked with perspiration under her pullover. The difference this morning, though, was the fact that Samantha found herself recovering from the darkness almost instantly at the thought of the angelic creature lying in the hospital bed next to her.

"It’s okay, dear. It’s about 7:15…you sure you’re okay?" The nurse had a natural talent for her profession.

"Yeah, yeah, I’m fine—"

"You don’t look fine…" The sound drifted from the heavens.

"Wha- Katherine?!" Samantha sprang out of the chair and displaced the smaller nurse with a gentle shove of her hands. The agent stood along side the bed, her breathlessness renewed. "You… you’re awake?"

"No small feat considering the ruckus you just made. That must’ve been a helluva dream. You’ve been thrashing in that chair for a half hour." There was a golden hue to Katherine’s eyes and the life warming essence had returned to her cheeks.

"Ruckus? I’m so sorry, I never meant to wake you."

"It’s okay, you didn’t. I’ve been awake for a couple of hours." Watching you sleep. Katherine’s last thought went unspoken.

"Honey… looking at your chart, you should still be unconscious! You were in surgery for 4 hours and with all the medicine they’ve been pumping—" The nurse’s proclamation was interrupted.

"Hello people. What’s going on in here?" Dr. Michaels entered the room, visibly irritated at the activity around his critically injured patient. "Ms. Christopher, you weren’t supposed to disturb her."

"Dr. Michaels, I’m sorry—"

"Samantha! Would you stop apologizing… you didn’t wake me. Doctor…?" The color in Katherine’s cheeks was warming even more, as her own irritation continued heating her blood. Samantha looked into her eyes and recognized the darkening greens that were drilling into the doctor.

"Uh, Ms. Gabriel… Dr. Michaels, I’m you doctor. And I told Ms. Christopher," Dr. Angelo Michaels tried to divert the focus of Katherine’s glare to the real culprit. "That she could visit as long as she didn’t disturb—"

"Dr. Michaels. Ms. Christopher did not disturb me. I’ve been awake for better that 2 hours. Hell, I don’t think I really slept at all last night, with all the nurses coming and going; waking me for my sleeping medicine." Katherine furrowed her brow at the astonished looks on the three faces staring back at her.

"Katherine?!" "Ms. Gabriel—" Samantha and Dr. Michaels spoke simultaneously.

"What? Why are you all gawking at me?"

"Ms. Gabriel…to be honest, I still expected you to be unconscious—"

"Some doctor you are. So much for confidence in your patients." Katherine was starting to look restless.

"Katherine. You were involved in a horrible traffic accident. You had several broken bones… a concussion… internal bleeding. You were in surgery for four hours for God’s sake!"

"Well, I feel fine. Actually, I’m starved!" Katherine started casting her eyes about the room, like she was searching for something to trap and eat.

Samantha looked up at Michaels with her eyes knit together. The dumfounded doctor returned the look and was simply unable to speak. Michaels broke his stare and took Katherine’s chart from the nurse. After flipping through the pages he handed the chart back to her and approached Katherine. He started a ritual of poking and prodding, ignoring the protests of grunts and grumbles from the golden patient. Samantha stood back watching in pure amazement. "How does that feel? And here?" Dr. Michaels spoke as he palpated Katherine’s sides and sternum.

"Well, I’m normally pretty ticklish there… you’ll excuse me if I don’t burst out laughing—"

"So it hurts when I push there?"

"Nooo, it doesn’t hurt, but your hands are freezing."

Samantha’s muffled laugh didn’t go unnoticed by the doctor. He shot a glare over his shoulder before addressing his grinning nurse. "X-rays and an MRI. I’ll write it up. Let me know when she’s done." The choppy sentences were all he could offer before retreating from the room.

"Young lady, there’ll be an orderly here in just a few minutes to take you downstairs." The nurse smiled and shook her head as she left the room, behind the doctor.

Samantha continued looking at the door after they left the room. It was almost as though she was scared to look back at the hospital bed for fear that this was the worst of dreams and that she would awaken to find her friend still unconscious.

"Hey you! Ms. Pompous? You gonna stare at that door all day?"

Not a dream… When Samantha turned to face Katherine she found the woman propped up on her elbows, trying to sit up. "Whoa! What are you doing? Lay back down."

"But I’m not comfortable laying down, I wanna sit up. Hey, do you see one of those bed-control-switch-thingys?

"Katherine! Lay back down." Samantha raised her hands and put gentle pressure on Katherine’s shoulders to ease her back. "Regardless of how you feel, your body’s been through hell. You need to try and rest."

Katherine was clearly listening to the dark haired agent and considering her words. "The wreck… I remember." Katherine looked up and met Sam’s eyes. "I felt like crap. Julie said she’d arrange for someone else to do the scene; told me to go home. I was driving down Broadway and that’s when I saw the car."

"A charcoal gray Volvo…" Samantha’s words were barely audible.

"Yeah. How’d you know? Did someone witness it… did they get his tag?" The detective was a born investigator.

"No, there were no witnesses." Samantha answered, her jaw muscles flexing. You’re gonna pay Mars. For as long as Samantha had known Damon Mars he’d always driven a Volvo…charcoal gray.

Katherine knit her eyes together but continued in spite of the agent’s tone. "Anyway, I finally caught him in my rearview mirror, but I felt like crap! 102.4! Can you believe it? God, I hate being sick. The Advil never took effect… I guess that’s how he got so close before I realized he was there. I think I started to black out. I was light headed and dizzy. I sorta felt a jolt; then I went flying across the road. That’s the last thing I remember—" Katherine hesitated when she looked up at Samantha. The dark agent was crying. "Sam? Are you crying? Honey, why are you crying?"

"Ka—Katherine. I…am so sorry." Her words shook as she tried to inhibit the tears that threatened to fall from combined feelings of worry and anger…and guilt. She realized that Mars had finally decided to follow through with his shallow threats from so long ago. Sam ended his career wit the Agency a year ago after she’d detailed his actions on the rooftop. Samantha was his target now, but Katherine had gotten in the middle. As long as Mars breathed, Katherine was in danger.

"Would you stop apologizing! This is not your fault!"

"Yes it is. You were nearly killed."

"Yeah, because some freak tried to run me off the road. This has nothing to do with you—" Katherine was sitting up again.

"Yes it does, it has everything to do with me." Samantha’s eyes were iced over, her senses pricked when the door opened.

"Hola ladies!" A cheerful black man walked in the room dressed in all white. He wore a thin mustache over bright white teeth. He was light-skinned and his eyes were such a light shade of brown they almost looked red. "My name is D’Shawn and I’ll be your tour guide for the morning. If it pleases the group, we’ll tour the X-ray room first then we’ll take in the sights at the MRI suite." D’Shawn had evidently worked at one of the many parks in southern California while growing up; that or he hated tourists and he was just being a smart-ass. Either way, he was oblivious to the fact that the two women had been engaged in a conversation prior to his entry. D’Shawn didn’t wait for their approval, nor did he acknowledge the patient’s protests at being wheeled out of her room.

"Samantha! We are not finished talking about this! D’Shawn… you really have piss-poor timing, pal!"

"Sorry Miss Thang! Doctor’s orders. Not to worry though, my dear. This’ll be quick and painless… so long as you keep your arms and legs inside the bed at all times. And, please, above all else…do not exit the bed until it has come to a safe and complete stop."

Katherine rolled her eyes. "Lemme guess. Disneyland?"

"Nope! Knotts Berry Farm."
 


*****


 


It was close to 11 am before Katherine finally returned to her room, under the watchful eyes of D’Shawn the tour guide. When the door opened Samantha sprang to her feet and offered to help guide the patient through the door.

"Good Lord, woman… you ‘bout scared me half to death!" The tour guide wasn’t expecting anyone to be in the room. "I can’t believe the Doc ain’t run you off yet."

"It’d take far more than Dr. Michaels to run me off. Besides, Kintrell is down the hall with him right now. I think Michaels is scared of him." Sam quirked a smile to match Katherine’s.

"Most people are scared of Kintrell."

"I know that’s right!" The tour guide agreed with the patient as he slid her into her spot on the far wall. "Well Ms. Thang… it was real, and it was fun, but—"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it wasn’t real fun. Good grief man… you need to get some new catch phrases!" There was a refreshing glow to Katherine’s face and Samantha was relieved to see the golden flecks dance about her eyes.

"Yeah, Ms. Thang. Ya know, you’re probably right. But look at it this way… I got you to smile didn’t I?" D’Shawn flashed another million-dollar grin and slid out the door, barely escaping Kintrell as he walked in with Dr. Michaels.

"Al!" Samantha regarded the sergeant with a warm smile.

"Hey Sam."

"Ah hah… we’re on a first name basis, are we?" Katherine was still feeling rather sure of herself.

"Hey Squirt… when you’re stuck in a waiting room with someone for nearly five hours you tend to make way for some small talk. Especially when you’re there for the same reason." Al tried to sound stern but the sight of his friend smiling back at him melted his heart, pure and simple.

"I’m touched." And she meant it. Katherine had been on her own for most of her life. Even when her father was alive she had to maintain the roll of caretaker. The cancer that had imbedded itself into his fragile body kept him from enjoying his only daughter’s youth. Katherine lost that youth in the face of forced maturation, but she miraculously held fast to her internal innocence. Most people would have become absorbed in self-defeatist cynicism, but Katherine maintained her reverence for compassion.

The shroud of death blanketed her father a year ago, leaving her alone in this world, save the presence of her mentor and his small family. As far as she was concerned, the only people in this world who truly cared if she lived or died were Al Kintrell and his wife and daughter, but now she was faced with a another person; offering to care, to be concerned about her.

Samantha had apparently come to the hospital as soon as she found out about the wreck; the agent had also stayed with her all night keeping a silent vigil. Katherine was struck by this show of concern and compassion for her well being. She knew Kintrell cared for her unconditionally but she didn’t think it would ever be in her future for another to care for her in such a way. It was happening though. Samantha Christopher cared and had yet to ask for anything in return. Emotion swelled within the detective again, this notion of a predestined connection to the dark agent. The tears started to rise, liquefying Katherine’s hazel eyes.

"Oh… now you know I can’t stand to see a woman cry!" Kintrell wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself. He leaned over the bed and placed a gentle kiss on the detective’s forehead.

"I love you—" Katherine whispered the words into his neck as she reached up and pulled him into a hug.

"I love you too, Squirt."

"Oh all right, already! Ya got the FBI in here watchin’ me act like a woman!" Kintrell’s mock anger did nothing more than draw a smile from each of the women in the room. "Kat, I gotta get back to the office. Michaels has my pager number, Sam you do too." Samantha nodded her acknowledgment. Al directed his next comment to Katherine. "Young lady… you behave yourself! Michaels has his knickers in a knot over you this morning. He doesn’t know what to do with you. Ah hell, I don’t know what to do with you."

"You’ll get over it old man!" Katherine sniffled the last of her tears, trying to regain her composure.

"Yeah, I suppose I will. I’ll stop in later to check on ya." Kintrell smiled and looked up at Sam and expressed his silent gratitude for staying with his friend throughout the night. He turned and walked out of the room.

Sam glanced over at Katherine. "Don’t go anywhere I’ll be right back." The return look was most unpleasant and almost forced an audible chuckle from the agent. Sam stepped out the door to Katherine’s room and scanned the hallway near the elevator. She saw Kintrell reach out and press the button requesting service to the ground floor. "Kintrell! Hold up a minute." Sam broke into an easy sprint to catch the sergeant before the elevator doors opened.

"Hell, woman! I’m surprised you can stand, much less run, after the night I’m sure you’ve had."

Sam quirked her brows in agreement. "It’s been a long one. What did Michaels tell you about her condition?"

"He doesn’t know what the hell to think. As far as he’s concerned she should still be unconscious. He expected a full recovery, and all, a speedy one at that because of her physical conditioning prior to the wreck. But, he can’t explain what’s goin’ on in there. ‘Course, I say ‘don’t knock a gift horse in the mouth.’ I’m just glad she’s gonna be okay."

"Me too…" the words were simple and sincere.

"Hey, what is it with you two? It’s like you’ve known each other forever. Even back on the IceMan scene, when you snipped at each other… "

"Kintrell, I can’t explain it either." Samantha allowed a fleeting moment of quiet reflection on her last statement. "I can tell you one thing’s for sure… I’m gonna get the bastard who did this."

"I don’t know how… there were no witnesses, no tag number, nothin’."

Samantha’s eyes were cold, and Kintrell didn’t have to ask… he knew the agent would succeed. "Look, I think her safety has been compromised. It’s complicated, but I believe the piece-of-shit got her tag number and followed her to work from her house. If that’s the case—"

"Then she can’t go back home." He finished her thought.

"Exactly…not till he’s been fingered."

"Not a problem, she can stay with me."

"Thank you Sergeant Kintrell, but I’d feel better if she stayed with me. I’ve got a bad feeling about this guy. She’s already in danger and she’d never forgive herself if anything happened to you because of her." Sam wasn’t prepared to tell Kintrell about her suspicions regarding Mars, she knew his protectiveness over the young detective would will out and force him on a warpath after Damon.

"Good point, but how can you keep her safe in a hotel?"

"I can’t. But I spoke to my real estate broker while Katherine was in X-ray. My house is ready."

"Your house? What are you talking about? How could you have possibly had time to house hunt."

Samantha quirked a smile to herself at the irony of his last word. "Al, I grew up in San Diego. Well, actually Imperial Beach. When I went with the Bureau a year ago I had a house built in Coronado… it was like a childhood dream. I knew I’d be spending a lot of time on the West Coast."

"I don’t get it. If you had a house across the bay…why the hotel."

"I’ve spent almost the last six months at Quantico in Intensive Behavioral Analysis training. When the call came to assist your department, there was no time to get resettled. I packed what I had in my dorm room and caught the next flight out. Hell, I had to have my damn car ‘Pony Expressed’ across the country." When Samantha left the CIA to go work for the Federal Bureau of Investigations, she pretty much got to write her own ticket; because of the circumstances surrounding her departure from the Agency. She got to pick her home base and she got her choice of service pistols. The FBI had recently adopted Glocks as their weapon of choice for field agents, but Special Agent Christopher carried a Sig Sauer P229 .357-Sig pistol. The weapon’s nickel slide bore a mirrored finish and seemed never to be marred by the slightest of fingerprints. Every time she looked upon the weapon she was reminded of the brightness that shone from her brother’s face.

"From I.B. to Coronado… that’s quite a step up. How much are the feds paying you, anyway?"

"Let’s just say I made some acquaintances with sound financial standing over the past 10 years. I’ve invested very wisely."

"Gotcha—You know she’s not gonna go willingly." Kintrell looked up at Sam without raising his head.

"Huh?"

"Katherine. She’s not going to like the idea of relying on you for protection. It can be frustrating at times, but she’s one of the most independent, strong-willed people I’ve ever known. She does not like asking for help."

"Well, I’ll just have to convince her then, won’t I?" Samantha’s blues sparkled at that proclamation. Kintrell returned the sentiment with a quirked brow.

"Better you than me!"

"Yeah, you’re probably right. Look Al, the reason I’m telling you this is because she trusts you. She doesn’t strike me as the type of person who lets many people in and it speaks volumes about your character to me that she’s opened herself up to you. She’ll need someone at the department to know where she’ll be, but you have to swear that this knowledge goes no further than you and me. Not your wife, co-workers, DA’s office, no one. If this guy’s got any connections in this city, which he apparently does if he had accesses to DMV files and pulled her address from running her tag, then she’s in a lot of danger. I’ll keep her safe, but I’ll need time to track this guy down."

Al nodded his approval. "Not a problem. One thing’s for damn sure, though. If we find out who this asshole is, he better pray to God you get to him first… ‘Cause I’ll drop him, and I’ll drop him hard." The darkness returned to Kintrell’s eyes.

God wouldn’t be able to help him if Samantha got to him first. Samantha reached around Kintrell and pressed the ‘down’ button. "Well then… it’s settled. You and I have a mutual enemy… and a mutual friend."
 
 













Chapter 4


 


With Kintrell safely tucked away on the elevator, Samantha started back to Katherine’s room. Upon entering she found Dr. Michaels hovering over Katherine’s bed, and her heart dropped. In a timeless second she slid to the other side of the bed and relief warmed her heart when she saw the verdant spheres willing the doctor to disappear from the room and leave her alone. Neither patient nor doctor realized the agent was watching their exchange until Samantha exhaled a sigh of relief.

"Samantha!" "Ms. Christopher—I didn’t hear you come in."

"That’s ‘cause you were too busy poking my sides! Dr. Michaels I feel fine, I’m not in any pain."

"Dr. Michaels, have you gotten any results from the X-rays or MRI?" Michaels stopped his examination assault on the detective and cocked his head toward Samantha. In lieu of speaking he bit the corner of his lip.

"Go on Doc, tell her what you just told me." The critically injured patient prodded.

Samantha waited patiently for the doctor to formulate his next words. "Well, uh." He cast his eyes from Samantha to Katherine and back to the agent. "She’s in perfect health."

"Excuse me?" Samantha’s eyes went wide, for some reason half expecting his response but still not believing it as the words rolled off his tongue.

"She’s in perfect health, the surgery incision notwithstanding. No broken bones…no concussion…no internal damage, nothing, except an attitude…" He glared back at Katherine before continuing. "Two other doctors have checked the results behind me. When I showed them her chart they looked at me like I was an idiot. They actually thought I was playing a joke on them. I can’t explain it Ms. Christopher, but there are no residual effects from the accident. It’s like—"

"Like I don’t need to be in the hospital! Dr. Michaels when do I get to leave?"

Michaels drew a deep breath before starting again; in as even a tone as he could manage. "Ms. Gabriel, I’m going to have you transferred to a private room upstairs, but I am going to keep you at least overnight to run a few more tests, just to be safe."

"Dr. M—"

"Katherine… it’s just to be on the safe side."

"Not you too?"

"Katherine, 24 hours ago you were involved in a near fatal car wreck. Now it’s like nothing happened. I’m sure if the doctor’s tests don’t reveal anything odd…" Samantha looked at Michaels for a reassuring nod and continued. "You’ll be released?"

"Yes, yes, yes. She’ll be released."

"And you’re gonna stay with me for a few days—" Samantha thought she’d throw that in, hoping the detective wouldn’t quite catch it.

"What?!"

Well, that didn’t work.

Michaels raised his eyebrows in a high arch. "Oh Ms. Christopher, you are a brave one, aren’t you?" He shook his head and laughed on his retreat from the room, knowing full well that the little detective wasn’t going to go without a fight. And he’d fought with her enough for one day.

"Stay with you? The Hyatt’s a nice place and all, but I can take care of myself. Besides, I’ll be more comfortable at home."

"Home… Katherine, that’s just it…he knows where you live. It’s too dangerous for you to stay there."

"In case you’ve forgotten, Sam, I’m a police officer. I am trained to catch the ‘bad guy.’ How effective could I consider myself if I ran and hid from him?" Kat’s head was cocked to the side.

Samantha eased herself to the head of the hospital bed and planted both hands on the side rails. "Katherine. He isn’t just one of the bad guys. Quite frankly, I believe he may be evil incarnate. He’s a monster and he has an agenda. It’s a long story, but he’s after me, and now you’re guilty by association. When he finds out you’ve survived, he’ll come after you. He won’t stop until he’s finished his assignment." She didn’t mean for the last to come out like that. In his twisted mind, you’ve become his target. Her last thought definitely went unspoken.

Katherine drew her eyes together at the new paleness in the agent’s eyes. "Assignment? What do you mean?" The tone in Katherine’s voice no longer bore her feelings of irritation; instead she was becoming concerned.

"Another long story. I’ll explain it all when we get you outta here… and tucked away at my house."

Kat’s expression lightened to a display of curiosity. "House?" and at the brief hesitation expressed by the dark agent she added. "Yeah, okay. I gotcha…long story."

Grrruummmmbblleerruummmmbbblllle…

Samantha shot a look at her midsection and brought her apologetic eyes up to the amused detective. "Uh, sorry. I guess I haven’t eaten anything since, uh Saturday—"

Katherine retorted with a sardonic look of her own. "And I’m supposed to let you take care of me? Good grief, I’ll starve to death with your eating habits."

"Hey! I’ve been a little preoccupied."

"Okay, point taken. Why don’t you get outta this godforsaken little ring of hell and get yourself something decent to eat? I expect to see you first thing in the morning… I’ll need a ride to this safe house of yours. Seems my Jeep’s gonna be at the shop for a while." A golden sparkle danced across the detective’s eyes at the peaceful smile that shone down at her from above.

Samantha released the bed’s rails and brushed the back of her fingers along Katherine’s cheek. The warmth of the detective’s skin transcended the touch and warmed Sam’s heart, easing the color of her eyes to a deeper blue. "Behave yourself. And be nice! Dr. Michaels still has to sign your release papers, ya know."

Katherine was suddenly comforted, easing a release of a breath that she wasn’t aware she had been holding, as the agent drifted from the room.
 


*****


 


Samantha coasted the downtown streets squinting at the bright sunshine that darted in and out of the cloud cover. She reached up and retrieved her sunglasses, suddenly aware that her eyes were enduring needless pain. With a deep breath the dark agent also became aware of the exhaustion that should be seeping into the marrow of her bones. In the past two days she’d slept maybe 10 hours, had eaten only once, was united with the soul she was sure would bring her redemption and was faced with the near loss of that soul.

The anger that was swelling within her was keeping her going but it was clear to her that she was dangerously close to regressing to the predator that was beckoning from inside of her. Samantha had spent 10 years of her life as the most ruthless of assassins and that 10-year degradation of her soul was ignited by the murder of her brother. Samantha Christopher had walked away from the CIA a year ago in the face of Damon Mars’ betrayal and the memory of Heinrikkson’s daughter; a wasted life for which she would always feel responsible.

This last year of Sam’s life was spent in a desperate atonement for the lives lost by her hands. Samantha Christopher saw herself as a serial killer and sought out a position that would let her keep her brethren killers off the street. Being a profiler for the FBI was the perfect penance. She helped rid the world of people like herself but she was constantly reminded of what she was.

Although Sam swore to abandon the monster within her, it was merely being repressed, and she was constantly struggling with its desire to free itself from the confines of her conscience. For 10 years her purpose for existing had been the constant hunger for the transference of pain. It was a hunger that couldn’t be sated, no matter the people who died by her hands. The hunger was beginning to resurface; it was gnawing at her soul. "I will not lose that smile, Mars!"

Samantha arched a brow as she pulled into the hotel parking lot. She withdrew from her Mustang and flexed her jaw, still pondering the existence of the threat against her friend. It took less than three minutes for the agent to pack her room, as she tended to never ‘make herself at home’ when she was forced to stay in a hotel—the need for a speedy retreat always loomed over her head. The agent kept her sunglasses on as she removed her bags from the room and went down to the check out desk, and they continued to shield her unforgiving eyes as she signed herself out of the hotel. Declining the bellhop’s offer of help with her bags, Samantha hefted one over each shoulder and loaded them into the trunk of her car.

Samantha made her way to the Coronado Bay Bridge, with the sound of Sheryl Crowe’s Sweet Child of Mine pounding through the Bose sound system. She kept her left hand wrapped around the steering wheel as she shifted through the gears. The music, intertwined with the revving rpm’s, brought a sense of exhilaration to the agent’s body that made her appreciate the freedom of driving. As she crested the bridge she could see as far as Mexico to her left had she been interested enough to look. Her mind was racing, however, trying to absorb everything that had happened over the past 48 hours, while keeping a watchful eye on her rearview mirrors.

"Ma’am. Ma’am?"

"Huh?" Samantha didn’t realize she’d stopped.

"The toll, ma’am. I need a dollar before you can move through—" The toll booth collector’s face was washed in shear boredom; the highlight of his day certainly not serving another damn tourist. A clueless damn tourist at that. God I hate my job.

"I’m sorry. Here—" Sam offered the dollar fee for using the bridge as passage from San Diego to Coronado.

"Thank you. Have a nice stay."

Stay…? Nah kid, I’m no tourist. Hell, I’ve probably spent more years on this island than you. Samantha slid through the gears as she continued her long-awaited drive to her home. The sky seemed clearer on the island, almost as though it were welcoming the agent into the fold of palm trees and Spanish style haciendas. She opted for the longer route of driving out Orange Avenue toward the Hotel Del, before cutting back up Ocean Boulevard.

Samantha had always been drawn to the beach along Ocean Boulevard. Perhaps it was because of the summers she’d spent there as a lifeguard desperately trying to escape the abusive home of her childhood. The beach offered her an amazing sense of freedom that she couldn’t find under the scathing eyes of her drunken father and parade of stepmothers. It was kind of ironic that her first job centered on the ethic of saving lives, considering the monster she eventually became. Samuel was the one who’d gotten her hooked up with lifeguarding in the first place and she was always grateful to him for it. The time they’d shared on the beach was so very precious; their lives renewed each time they walked in the sand. She remembered how the sound of the waves crashing, bringing in the tide, would always ease the pain of the hurtful words her father would volley at her.

Samantha inhaled deeply to absorb the smell of the ocean, finally allowing a gentle smile to relax her face. She continued up Ocean Boulevard toward Sunset Park until she reached the nearly hidden driveway that led to the haven that was soon to become her Den. She was actually looking forward to the thought of settling herself into a home, a place to which she would be able to retreat when the world threatened to exact it’s cruelty on her.

The A-frame was perched on an expanse of private beach that shouldered up to a carved section of cliff. The cliff’s natural barrier helped to enclose the Den into a fortress that would offer the agent her desired level of security. An intruder’s assault would have to travel by sea or down the heavily gated driveway. The iron bars of the gate and 12 foot bar-and-brick fence that encircled the property were electrified and would deliver 1200 volts of viciousness to whoever decided to invade her world. The ADT alarm system was hooked up to every door and window and would alert the monitoring center if there were any breech in the integrity of the structure’s perimeter. Strategically located motion detectors would offer further protection and were run off separate control panels. If an invader managed to infiltrate the electric fence and the perimeter sensors, his body heat would trip a final alarm whose very power supply was fed off a hidden breaker box and would be impossible to disarm from outside.

Samantha had insisted on the A-frame style house because of her constant yearning to be free. The fortress she’d created for herself over the past year was a necessity because of the nature of her past profession, but she hated being closed in. The entire back of the house that looked out at the blue-green vista of the Pacific Ocean was 2 and a half stories of Lexan bullet resistant glass. Although it offered yet another layer of protection, it allowed the sun’s life saving rays the ability to reach into her home and brighten her dark world. Huge expanses of skylights were scattered throughout the 4,000 square feet of the Huntress’ Den, inviting Apollo into the folds of her home.
 


*****


 


Samantha cleared the security codes at the gate and parked her Mustang in a garage that was large enough to accommodate 4 vehicles. She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly before cutting off the 289 hi performance engine and dragging herself out of the car. As the garage door closed, whisper quiet behind her, she approached the left wall and checked the thermostat. 72 degrees… perfect. One of the many things she’d insisted on during the planning stages of her house was for the garage to be temperature controlled. It was imperative that her vehicles be stored comfortably, especially her midnight blue vintage Harley Sportster. The agent slid over to the gray canvas bulk at the far end of the garage and gently lifted the canvas up and over her motorcycle. The blue paint shone eerily under the florescent array from above. The bike was so deeply polished that the reflections cast between the paint and chrome accents caused an endless pattern of sights that seemed to dance together and meld into a picturesque field of color. The agent could have watched herself in the mirrored surface of the tank for hours, and not for vanity’s sake, but because she was drawn to it, as a moth was drawn to flame.

Her Harley was yet another form of an escape from the evil deeds of the world. Samantha embraced the danger of soaring across the open road without the safety net of a car’s steel body to protect her from the unforgiving pavement. Perhaps it was Sam’s way of toying with her own mortality, the urge to compete with the road’s yearning to open up and swallow her whole. All it would take was a shift in her body weight as she rounded a sharp curve and all the pain she’d suffered over the years would be wiped clean, and the depths of hell would hunger no more for the Huntress. Something always kept Samantha Christopher from losing her balance, though. It was like a voice from within her mind beckoned her from the edge of her impending extinction. Sammy, it’s gonna be okay. "Sapphire, I’d say it’s about time I took you for a spin, girl." Sam whispered the words as though she was speaking into the ear of a horse that’d been stalled for far too long.
 


*****


 


Samantha eased herself away from the motorcycle that she hadn’t ridden in a year. It was a ride that had nearly brought her face to face with the devil himself.

"You bastard, Damon." Sam whispered the words to herself for Damon Mars had long escaped her wrath when he fled the rooftop. She peeled the jumpsuit from her lean body and folded it into a neat roll to be stored in the hidden compartment of her rifle case. With her equipment packed away Samantha made her retreat from the murderous vantagepoint atop the building. She never looked back over the ledge, as she was sure the image of the child’s lifeless body would be forever ingrained into her tortured mind’s eye.

Sam descended the staircase to the service elevator and rode it down to the third floor where she exited and completed her trek in the stairwell to the building’s lobby. When she finally emerged through a fire exit, whose alarm had already been disengaged, she sauntered down the sidewalk toward the sound of sirens, and in the opposite direction of the park. The rifle case was handed off to a faceless man in a nondescript dark business suit. He could have been anyone, a face that would never be described by eyewitnesses because he was perfectly average. After discarding the tool of her trade Samantha found the gray four-door sedan that had been left for her escape. As it blended into the flow of traffic Sam drove away from the pandemonium and toward freedom. Her freedom today would not be a debriefing meeting intended to take place only in the face of her undetected escape.

Today’s freedom would be found at the helm of Sapphire, a machine that obeyed its mistresses every command. Samantha found the motorcycle in the parking lot of a grocery store 5 miles from the park. The sedan was left for whomever was interested enough to notice that it had been abandoned. Sam eased the car’s door shut just as she’d been trained to do, despite her desire to crash it closed with the strength of her fury. The dark agent retrieved her helmet, but not because she intended for it to protect her fragile head. She only wore it to further ensure that a safety-conscious police officer wouldn’t feel the need to pull her over for violating the helmet law. No, this piece of personal-protective-equipment would be discarded the instant she crested the mountain road that she intended to be her final resting place.

Sam waited until she’d cleared the bustle of the city streets and then she opened the bike’s engine and roared the machine toward her destiny on Highway 2, in the mountains east of Los Angeles. As she climbed the mountain she ignored the wind that was pleading with her to slow her pace. The sun’s rays were desperately trying to warm her soul and melt the ice that had claimed her heart. Sapphire’s voice whined as her rider forced the clutch, demanding more speed to complete the ascent of the mountain. Sam’s mind was racing under the pelting berate from the wind, the tears that were pooling in her eyes began to cloud her vision resulting in the agent ripping her helmet from her head in total frustration.

The curve started to fill the agent’s view as a wicked grin spread across her face. Sam leaned into the handlebars trying to will herself closer to the devil’s embrace. A whisper brushed across her ears. "Wha—" Samantha brought her eyes together and, without realizing it, eased off the accelerator. Sapphire responded to her rider, silently grateful that her mistress was coming to her senses. Sam’s mind fought with its subconscious desires. She wanted, more than anything at that moment, to rid the world of the Huntress. She was compelled, though, to stop, to ease off the gas and straighten her stature. As Samantha rode into the curve that crested midway up the western face of the mountain she jerked the brakes back and nearly lost control of the bike. The loss of control had been the original purpose for coming up the mountain but Samantha now found herself trying desperately to avoid the wipeout, using all her strength to pull the rear end of the motorcycle back under her. Sapphire allowed herself to be reigned in just seconds before plowing into the small blond woman trying to change the tire on her black Jeep Wrangler…

"Oh my God—" Samantha stopped just short of the garage door that led into the pantry just off the cook’s kitchen in her home. The dark agent was frozen, still replaying the mental picture of the last ride she’d taken on Sapphire. Her azure eyes were darting about the vista in her mind. The whisper that called out to her before entering the curve, and the moment just before she lost total control of her motorcycle, the look in the stranded motorist’s eyes. Those eyes… Katherine. "I don’t believe this…dear God, I nearly killed her—"

Rrrriiiiinnnggggg…

"What the? Ah, shit!" Samantha dropped her house keys as she fidgeted with the front of her pullover, trying to get at the flip phone attached to her belt. "God… dammit! Hello?!"

"Christopher? What the hell crawled up your ass?" Kintrell’s voice was covered in static as he assaulted Sam’s ears with his gruffness.

"Kintrell?" Samantha snapped back and realized that she’d already unlocked the pantry door and had opened it slightly. In her startled state of dropping her keys and grasping for the phone… she’d forgotten about the…

Wwwhhhheeeeemmmm, wwwhhhheeeeemmmm, wwwhhhheeeeemmmm…

"Jee-sus, woman! What the hell is—"

"Oh for the love uh… It’s the damn alarm! Hold on a second." Samantha pushed through the doorway and pounded out the alarm cutoff code. Silence. She entered a second round of numbers delivering a secret message to the alarm-monitoring center that the alarm activation was accidental, and was the fault of the homeowner. No need for police to respond to the Huntress’ Den. "Kintrell… you still there?"

"Yeah, I am. My ears ain’t, but I am. Ya know, it would help if you deactivate the damn thing when you open your door." Samantha arched a brow as she listened to the sergeant’s sarcasm.

"Nah, ya think? What’re you doin anyway? Aside from making me set off my alarm system. Wait a minute. Katherine…" Her heart skipped. "Is she okay?"

"Yeeessss, she’s fine. A thorn in the Doc’s side, but she’s fine." The smile in Kintrell’s voice was silently matched with the one on Samantha’s face. "I just talked to Dr. Michaels, he paged me to let me know that he plans on releasing her in the morning… probably after his a.m. rounds. I’ll tell ya, the little squirt’s got’em stumped. Hell, she’s got me stumped. I mean, yesterday at this time you and I were hunkered down in a waiting room, not knowing if she was gonna live… or, uh—"

"Yeah, I know." Samantha broke in, knowing that Kintrell still wasn’t ready to face what had happened. "She’s gonna be okay, though; that’s all that matters. Hey! I’m glad you called. Aside from the fact that you delivered some good news…I needed to ask you something."

"Shoot, lady. What can I do ya for?" Kintrell was educated but he often regressed to a form of the English language that was typically associated with older male police officers.

"You can ‘do me for’ a favor. Is there anyway you could gather up all of Katherine’s case files on the IceMan murders? I’ve got the bare bones of the files, but I never got the chance to compile the cases in their entirety."

"Yeah, I guess all hell decided to break loose, huh? I’ll get everything together today. Where do ya want me to bring’em?"

"That’s okay, I’ll pick’em up at your office on the way to the hospital in the morning."

"Consider it done."

"Al?"

"Yeah, Sam?"

"Thank you—" Sam’s gratitude went deeper than even she understood, for she would one day owe this man far more that she could ever repay.

"No problemo! I’ll see ya in the mornin. Get some rest by the way. You looked like crap this morning." Kintrell offered a stifled laugh to ease the last comment on the agent’s ears.

"Yeah, okay…whatever! I’ll see ya!" Samantha clicked off the cell phone and prowled through the kitchen and into the room that would come to occupy most of her waking hours. She inhaled the fragrant eucalyptus leaves that decorated the sunken living room while she took in the soft grays and blues of the room’s décor. A faint smile tugged at her lips as she was thankful that her real estate broker remembered her fondness for the plant. The broker had apparently taken it upon herself to fill the house with several of the plants after Samantha had made the notification that she was finally moving in.

The view that greeted her through the huge expanse of the A-frame window was breathtaking. It held her tired eyes in a mesmerized stare and drew her toward the French doors on the back wall of the living room. The tide was bringing the seafoam into the shore and begged the agent to slide the doors open and invite its soothing sounds into her home.

She obeyed the ocean’s call and unlocked the door, before sliding it open as far as its track would allow. Her senses were brought to life. The salty air danced about her nose and filled her body with the sea’s essence. Samantha closed her eyes slowly and allowed the waves to ease her tension far away, to a place she hoped would capture it forever. The agent’s eyes eased open despite her desire to keep them closed. With one final deep breath, Samantha stepped away from the glass doors and found the fully stocked bar along the wall that separated the living room from the kitchen.

The agent had had the designs for her home on paper for most of her adult life. It had been a dream, a vision that she never expected to realize. But here she was…standing in her living room with the sound and smell of pure happiness at her back. And in front of her was the essence of pain that had sculpted much of who she would become in later years. Her father’s alcoholism tortured her heart growing up and threw her into a hole of isolationist self-cynicism. Her brother was the only true bright spot in her life, and although he had kept her from drowning in the amber ambrosia on more occasions than she could count, here she was. Aside from the stocked master bathroom, the bar was the only set of shelves that held anything consumable in her home.

Samantha bit back her feelings of self-defeat and removed a textured crystal tumbler and filled it two-finger-widths-full of Glenfiddich Scotch. The amber liquid heated her throat before she even realized the glass was pressed against her lips. Another drink slung back in the same fashion warmed the agent’s chest and eased a slowly drawn breath from her lungs past her quenched lips. Sam reached under the bar to a self-filling ice chest and retrieved 3 rounded cubes of ice and plunked them into her glass. The single-malt Scotch bottle was upturned again, this time filling the glass nearly to capacity.

Samantha eased her way to the lower portion of the living room and melted into the pillowy couch. She struggled to pry off her running shoes without taking the time to unlace them. Several sips of Scotch later the agent laid down on the couch until she was on her back with her left arm behind her head. The French doors were still open; inviting Poseidon’s serenade to lull the agent away to an unconscious state that would allow her body to absorb the precious hours of sleep needed to rejuvenate her weakened frame.
 


*****


 


The sun brought forth a new day as the glowing red sphere peeked above the purplish-blue mountains in the eastern horizon. The fearful night retreated in the face of Apollo’s assault, as a golden hue danced upon the glossy surface of the San Diego Bay and the cone-shaped brightness that was cast upon the water grew until it lightened the harbor’s expanse from shore to shore. The morning’s light found its way to the angel Gabriel as she lay in a peaceful sleep in her private hospital room. The room was on the eastern face of the building and the blinds had been pulled up…or had just never been drawn. The detective’s breathing was deep and even, without sounding forced. As the sun continued to rise it sang out to the petite form, calling her from her dreamscape.

"Miss Gabriel?"

"Hmm? What?" Katherine struggled to open her eyes and confront this rude interruption of her dreams.

"Miss Gabriel? How are you feeling this morning?" The nurse’s voice was soft and inviting.

"I’m feeling ready to get out of here." Katherine’s hazel eyes were focusing on the same nurse from yesterday morning. "What are you doing here? I thought you were in CCU. Oh, whoa! Wait a minute! That quack of a doctor didn’t put me back there did he?"

"No, no, no…you’re right where you remember. No hon, I just wanted to come up and check on you. You are one in a million, ya know. I’ve never seen a patient fluster Dr. Michaels like you did. Between you and me…he needed a wake-up call. Don’t get me wrong. He’s one of the best surgeons in the country, but if it’s not spelled out in black and white, it throws him for a loop. And you, Miss Gabriel are far from textbook."

"Glad to be of service." The wry comment enticed a sparkle from the detective’s eyes. "So, where is the fine doctor, anyway?"

"He’ll be in soon. You take care of yourself…and be careful out there." The words were a sincere declaration of the nurse’s understanding of the nature of the detective’s profession.

"I will, thank you." Katherine returned a soft smile to the nurse before she left to return to CCU.
 


*****


 


When Samantha finally awoke, she was rested but extremely stiff. It occurred to her that her body had not moved at all throughout the night. Her left arm was still tucked behind her head and her right hand was palming the scotch tumbler as it rested on the floor next to the couch. Sam forced a stretch and pulled herself upright before checking the time on her Breitling Colt Diver's watch. "Holy shit! It’s already 6 o’clock." The agent blurted into the early morning dimness. She rubbed her face with her right hand as she rotated her left arm, hoping that the motion would bring the blood flow back through her shoulder to the tingling extremity.

Sam stood up, feeling a little dizzy from the whiskey that had assaulted her empty stomach the night before. She maneuvered her body haphazardly around living room furniture and worked her way upstairs to the master bedroom. The agent had barely a recollection of taking a shower much less changing into the tailored gray suit. "Hmm, looks FBI’ish enough." Sam said aloud as she surveyed the ensemble in the full-length mahogany mirror in her bedroom. Before navigating the staircase the agent retrieved two…hmm, perhaps this was a 4-alarm headache, then two more Advil tablets from the recessed medicine cabinet in the master bath. The pills were such a regular staple of the agent’s diet that she put all four in her mouth and swallowed them without the benefit of a liquid wash-down.

It was 7:30 by the time Samantha found herself sitting behind the steering wheel of her Mustang. The engine came to life and rewarded it’s owner with the comforting purr that seemed to do more for the throbbing behind her eyes than the medicine she’d taken. Samantha negotiated the downtown streets while munching on the egg McMuffin that was sure to bring on a bout of viscous indigestion. She finished the last of her coke as she parked her car in a space designated for visitors of the San Diego Police Department.

The dark agent entered the police station with a guarded sense of purpose and approached the front desk to request an audience with Sgt. Kintrell. Before she was able to address the desk attendant she felt an unseen presence at her back and a slight tap on her right shoulder. Samantha spun around on one heel hoping her heart would catch up with the rest of her body.

"For God’s sake woman, calm the hell down!" Kintrell scoffed, silently amused at his affect on the agent. A brief smile tugged at his lips as he watched Samantha regain her composure.

"Kintrell, do you make it your habit to sneak up on armed agents of the US Government?" Samantha inhaled, now hoping her breakfast wasn’t going to insist on a return visit to the world.

The sergeant bit back a laugh and motioned Samantha to follow him to his office. "Come on, let’s get those files so you can get outta here."

Sam had no complaints there, she was eager to get to the hospital and relieve Dr. Michaels of his patient. The agent took in another shaky breath as she wondered where this odd sense of expectation was coming from. The sugar and caffeine from the coke…that’s it, right?

"Alrighty then. Here ya go, dear…the IceMan files as requested." Kintrell splayed his hands in the direction of the far wall, in his cramped office, that was stacked with 10 or 12 oversized filing boxes. Samantha’s eyes widened as she winced to herself. "I’ll go get us some help carrying these down to your car."

"My God. Kintrell, those won’t fit in my car." Sam spoke without taking her eyes off the boxes. "Vintage Mustangs aren’t exactly made like U-Hauls."

"Vintage Mustang, huh? I knew there was a reason I liked you. Give me just a second and I’ll get an extra set of keys for Kat’s Crown Vic…that should be plenty big." Kintrell excused himself and pulled the door shut as he left.

Samantha allowed herself to snoop about Kintrell’s office while he was gone. His walls were scattered with a variety of certifications and commendations and a few plaques from a various community service projects. The only item she found in his office that bore any sense of personal sentiment was a single photograph in a silver and brass frame that was a strong contrast to the oak décor of the room. Sam eased around the corner of the desk to get a better look and stood in quiet understanding.

The picture had apparently been taken in a beautifully landscaped back yard that she assumed was Kintrell’s, and the subjects of the photo were obviously enjoying the day and each other’s company. Sam immediately recognized the young blond haired woman with her soft features and those hazel eyes that stood out even in the picture. Katherine was laughing with her left arm draped around the shoulder of an older woman that Samantha somehow knew was Kintrell’s wife. The small detective’s right arm was extended toward a third woman as if she was trying to ward off a mock attack. On the other side of the older woman was a girl that looked to be about 18 or 20 years old. Samantha recognized the strong jaw line and figured that she was Kintrell’s daughter. Her shoulder length dark hair was cut in an angled bob that draped forward, barely concealing the wicked grin that was spread across her face. The young woman’s hands were planted firmly on her hips and a brow was stamped in a high arch.

Sam found herself escaping into the depths of the picture, wondering what the women had been doing to bring such expressions to their faces. The closeness between them was obvious even through the two-dimensional surface of the glossy paper. The smile on Katherine’s face was so familiar to the agent that she found herself staring at nothing else. She didn’t hear the door open, nor did she hear Kintrell step up to the desk.

"Sam?" Kintrell realized what she was looking at and didn’t really want to break her away from her thoughts. "Samantha? You ready, young lady?"

"Huh? Oh God, I’m sorry. Is that your family?" Sam was trying to hide the fluster in her voice but the faint flush that crept up her neck gave her away.

"Yep, that’s them." No explanation was needed; Samantha knew what he meant. "That was taken early last spring. The little squirt had just shot off a cherry bomb and scared Jessie ‘bout half to death. Damn daughter of a detective falling slap out of her chair…landed square on her ass. Oh my God, she was so pissed off. She must’ve chased Kat around the yard for 10 minutes. Squirt finally flew in behind Alice for protection. Jessie knew better than goin’ toe to toe with her momma, so she just stood there. I still can’t believe I was able to hold still long enough to get that picture. I never laughed so hard in my life." Kintrell was grinning wide as he related the fond memory, but the smile gave way to something else, something…almost painful.

Samantha waited for him to continue realizing that his thoughts were drifting to a pained place in his mind. He pursed his lips and inclined his head before speaking again. "That was the most I’d seen Katherine laugh since well before her daddy got sick." Stark blue eyes darted to the sergeant’s face and she watched him inhale. "I know it was the first time I saw her really smile since he’d died a few months earlier."

"A few month’s earlier? Al, when did her dad pass away?" Sam glanced at the photograph before returning her eyes to the sergeant.

Kintrell’s dark eyes never left the glossy 5x7 photo as he spoke. "About a year a…wait a minute. Shit! What’s the date?"

"Huh? Um, it’s the 14th. Why? What’s the matter?"

"Sonofafuckingbitch! God damn it!"

"Kintrell, what the hell are you talking about??"

Al inhaled deeply and closed his eyes before turning his face heavenward. "A year ago today. This is the first year anniversary of her father’s death."

"What?" Was the agent’s one word reply.

"Yeah. Dammit. I’m gonna be in command staff meetings all day, too. I had intended to keep my schedule free for this day." He was working his jaw muscles now, in total disgust. "How could I forget. If we ever catch the damn IceMan I’m gonna kick his piece-of-shit ass."

Samantha reached up and placed her hand on his arm, giving it a gentle squeeze. "It’s okay Al. I’ll take care of…" Sam’s words were interrupted.

A slight knock at the door. "Uh, Sgt. Kintrell? Mike said you needed some help moving some stuff." A dark haired young man poked his face through the door. His angled features framed deep brown eyes that sparkled at the sight of the agent next to Kintrell. "Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was with you."

Sam dropped her hands to her side and straightened her shoulders as she tried to order her thoughts. It’s gonna be a long day. The agent thought to herself before she eased away from Kintrell’s side and approached the boxes on the far wall.
 


*****


 


The last of the boxes were tucked away in the white Crown Vic which was parked in the employee’s parking deck. The officer who had helped them offered his polite salutations and left the sergeant and the dark haired woman next to the car. Sam took the keys from Kintrell and noticed a duffel bag on the ground next to his feet. "Here, take this too." He lifted the bag and handed it to Samantha. "I went to Katherine’s place last night and put some clothes together for her. I’m sure it’ll help her feel more comfortable."

"Yeah it will. I didn’t even think about that. I mean she’d have been welcome to whatever’s in my closet—"

"Pfffttt. She’d drown in your clothes!" Kintrell started to laugh at the thought, which brought a tug of a smile to Samantha’s lips.

"Yeah, the whole six foot banana thing." Sam took the bag and put it on one of the boxes in the back seat. When she turned back to face Kintrell she was struck by the solemn look that had overtaken his face. "Al, I know how much she means to you. I’ll take care of her, I promise. I also know you have no reason to trust me, hell, I can’t explain it myself, but I’ll protect her with my own life—"

"Sam, I know that. Not trusting people comes with the territory of this job, but for some reason I know I can trust you. It's just that…her dad—" Kintrell was examining his shoes.

"She took it pretty hard when he died?"

"No, that’s just it. I mean, her dad was everything to her. But when he died…Sam, I never even saw her cry. Not when I came into the hospital room and saw her cradling his body…not even at the service. He was cremated because she wanted to scatter his ashes at a little retreat in the San Gabriel’s—"

"The mountains just east of LA?" Sam thought back to a year ago when she roared Sapphire up Highway 2 and nearly sideswiped a stranded motorist. That couldn’t have been the same day, Katherine was alone…

"Yeah. There was a spot up there he loved to go to whenever he was feeling well enough to sit through the drive. He used to tell everyone that whoever discovered the range must have had his daughter in mind because of the beautiful…"

"Is that where the service was?’

"No. There was a small service here. Just Kat and us. She’d insisted on taking the ashes up to the mountains by herself." There was a twinge of regret in Kintrell’s voice for not insisting that he go with Katherine to the mountains.

Damn it. Samantha found the same interesting speck of nothing on Kintrell’s shoe. "So, she’s held it in all this time?"

"Yeah. I mean, I don’t know how she’s acted when she’s alone…but I can say that she’s never cried on anyone’s shoulder. Maybe, today’ll be no different, but one thing I’ve learned in the 20 years I’ve done this crap…if you keep burying all the pain and stress, one day you’ll just explode."

Samantha understood his meaning all too well.

"Ya know, it’s funny. She stood by her dad through his illness. She’s always been there for my family. I know she’s made my daughter’s god-awful transformation to adulthood a lot easier. Anytime people up in the Detective Bureau have a problem, they always go to her. And she listens, she makes their problems her own and she makes their lives easier for it. But…Something’s gotta give, Sam."

Samantha looked up at the sound of her name.

"She’s got a helluva lotta shit of her plate right now." He sucked in a deep breath and looked around the deck as if searching for answers that simply weren’t there.

"Al. Between you and me, we’ll get her through it. Whatever her breaking point is, we’ll help her fix it. You’re forgetting what I do for a living…I’m a mind reader, remember." She let her eyes widen just a bit, hoping to help Kintrell relax.

"Damn profilers." Another breath. "All right. Here, take this too." Al fished in his shirt pocket for another business card. He scribbled his home number on the back and handed it to her. "This way you’ll have all my numbers. You or Squirt need me for anything, day or night—"

"I’ll call. You better get back inside…I know how the upper echelon can be when it comes to their little meetings."

Kintrell rolled his eyes. "Tell me about it." He turned and started to walk away but turned and regarded Samantha for a moment. "Tell her I love her."

"I will." Was the soft reply as the dark haired agent got into Katherine’s car. She watched Kintrell slip into the stair well before starting the engine and heading off for the hospital.


Taiko's Scrolls of the Xenaverse