It was late; well past midnight when a lone BMW's lights cut a bright swath through the darkness. The light from the lamp posts dotting the street seemed to emphasize the smattering of stars scattered across the heavens.
Stretching out of sight on either side of the road were almost identical houses, each with a path running down the side. They might, she thought, be architecturally undistinguished, but at least they were modern and in-built with the best technology had to offer.
The front windows of her house were square and turreted, a long vista of ramparted respectability. Even the landscaping was part of the appeal and contracted to professionals for maintenance. Attention to detail and minimal involvement in upkeep was what drew Charlotte Gardner to the housing complex. She had too much to do already, it was easier to just write a cheque and not have to worry about micromanaging people for a change.
The car glided smoothly up the driveway, idling quietly as she pressed the button on the automatic garage door. For a moment, Gardner closed her eyes and allowed herself to relax into the heated seats, her shoulders protesting as she tried to disturb the knot of muscle which seemed to have taken up permanent resident in her spine.
Taking a deep breath in, she opened her eyes and watched the garage door silently unravel. Easing her foot off the brake, the car slipped across the threshold. Grabbing her bag, heavy with devices, paperwork and seemingly weighed down with all her not inconsiderable worries, Gardner exited her vehicle.
As the wintry air swirled around her, Garden pulled her coat closed and tucked her chin downward. Pressing the button to close the garage door, she blew out a breath, visible in the air. The icy walkway crunched beneath her heels as she walked quickly towards the front door.
The door was metallic, opening with a subdued hiss as the biometric scanner and numeric keypad accepted her credentials.
She'd set the heating to kick in before she left the office, the gentle warmth like a soothing balm after experiencing the midnight frost. Lights turned on intuitively as Gardner walked through the hallway.
Her house looked like a cut out from an Architects Today magazine. Everything was geometric, which she guessed others could say about almost any abode with square windows, but on this house you couldn't help but notice it. The windows took up entire walls with only polished steel beams to break them into yet more rectangles. The look would have been entirely metallic, like a mini downtown skyscraper had it not been for the cedar beams of the external porch and the matching raised plant beds that contained only white blooms. Despite spending an inordinate amount of time at work, she was actually quite house proud.
Dumping her bags on the kitchen table, Gardner shrugged out of her jacket, poured herself a well-deserved glass of red wine and made her way into her office.
The computer set up was impressive, but only in-as-much as the cost of the technology and software. She was not a hacker, in fact she found the very idea distasteful. It soured the wine in her mouth enough for her to leave it on the table.
She respected Blume's engineers, valued their experience and expertise. It wasn't the technology which was dangerous, it was the people who used it for their own purposes. And she was getting tired of saying the same practiced lines in front of the cameras while feeling her face about to crack.
Having to fix that genial expression on even though she'd love to roll her eyes at the inane questions from journalists. What did Chicagoans want? CtOS had made their lives better, had improved the functionality of the city. Never did they speak up when an ambulance saved a life because ctOS-controlled traffic lights made their route quicker. But like heckling piranhas they swam to the surface and bared their teeth when there was a minor hiccup. It was exhausting defending a system she wholeheartedly believed in.
And then there was DedSec, hacktivists who created anarchy because they believed Blume was some evil empire. Maybe if they built a moat around Blume's building and created a castle they'd have better luck selling their children's stories that monsters lived inside.
She believed that the real monster lurked like a benign presence on the streets of Chicago. Aiden Pearce was a monster camouflaged as an antithesis hero. The public applauded the havoc he wrecked upon the streets, silently, and sometimes not so silently, approving of his efforts to demonstrate how inept CPD was. And the sticking point? CPD hadn't ever really come close to capturing him. She'd seen the video footage, meshed together from Police dash cams, ctOS footage and wobbly video from the public as his blurred image attacked and evaded like some kind of distorted ghost. But a ghost with the technical capability to outwit CPD's finest.
It wasn't like they hadn't tried to capture him. What seemed like the entire Police force had hounded him through the streets recently. Despite helicopters, squad cars, even ctOS's own system working against him, Pearce appeared to flow through obstacles like they weren't even there. How he'd managed to bury himself so deeply inside their systems was a mystery. None of Blume's techs had been able to figure out how he used ctOS for his own whims. Every time they tried to deny him access, Pearce just found another way to bypass their attempts. It was infuriating. The man had no scruples, and used Chicago's streets as his own person playground for whatever vendetta he'd locked on to.
The people were the key. If the tide turned against him, he'd find himself swimming amongst sharks willing to sell out his location for a mere thousand dollars. But even Blume's attempt to influence the public against him had back fired. Showing footage of him fleeing from the Police, the cars he hit slowed down for effect, the faces of people as they witnessed him shooting in the middle of Parker Square. Gardner had been proud of that presentation. But her smugness soon turned to bitterness as polls showed people had pointed out CPD's incompetence to catch one man, and shone a spotlight on Blume's failure to keep ctOS safe from hackers.
Sitting on the computer chair, Gardner felt a tired sigh scrape past her lips as she booted up her computer. As late as it was she still had work to do. The last few days had been a nightmare. Another human trafficking ring had been exposed and once again the Club were in the middle of the controversy. Not to mention Blume's own CIO Julian Collins found dead, throat cut right in the middle of this whole fucking mess.
Hearing the words, Gardner let out an involuntary shriek and pitched to the side. The handle of her desk chair groaned as she dug her fingers into the plastic. The chair wobbled precariously but held, obviously made of sterner stuff than her nerves.
Spinning around awkwardly, her legs flailed dramatically as she tried to find any purchase. Her heartbeat stampeded up her throat, catching there and making it hard to breathe. Her eyes sought out the aberration, latching on to a dark figure sitting quite at ease in her chaise lounge chair tucked into the corner of the room.
She reached up to her neck, massaging her throat in an attempt to knead the anxiety down to an acceptable level. She watched as the dark figure reached over and flicked on the lamp next to the lounge.
Light spilled over the stranger's face, and any attempt at calm slipped like a silk ribbon between her fingertips.
Aiden Pearce was in her house.
How the fuck did he get in? Not that it mattered, he was inside, but concentrating on that inane fact let her mind grapple with the idea that the very man she'd been musing about was here. As if her thoughts had conjured him, like some demon made flesh.
As he leant forward, Pearce's eyes caught the light. They were the most startling green, like emerald stones only cut from the same hard exoskeleton as a diamond. Sometimes it was difficult to believe he was real, like the Vigilante was an urban legend carefully constructed as a warning to criminals to keep them in line.
Only Pearce was real. If she so desired she could walk over and touch him, but since she rather liked her hand attached to her arm, she resisted.
"What are you doing here?" Gardner asked, swallowing past the lump of apprehension which seemed to have permanently wedged in her throat.
Though Pearce didn't exactly smile, his mouth quirked in a way that suggested he knew exactly the effect he was having.
"Let's just call this a mutually beneficial exchange," he said in a deadly caressing purr, deep voice wrapping around her with a faintly threatening manifestation.
Nervousness lined the back of Garden's throat, grating unpleasantly as she attempted to reorganize her concerns in order of priority.
"You have nothing I want," she remarked, pleased with the level tones.
Crossing her legs, Gardener placed her hands in her lap and met the Vigilante's gaze. Slowly, she felt able to reel her confidence back in, wrap it around her tightly. It was like showing fear to a predator, the less they sensed you were afraid, the more power you had over the encounter.
Pearce chuckled quietly. Despite his obvious amusement, there was something distantly intimidating about the sound. Anger was slowly surpassing the fear she felt. How dare he come into her home and think he could intimidate her. Pearce wanted something, that was obvious, he wouldn't have exposed himself otherwise. Well, she'd do her best to deny him.
"You're running for Mayor."
Garden remained silent, even as her mind ticked over like a cooling engine. Was that what he wanted, to hinder her campaign?
He didn't seem to require her answer, and continued in his deep, almost hypnotic voice, "You've got a lot going for you. First woman, black woman," he amended but she got no sense that he was being racist, just stating facts, "to run for Mayor. The backing of Blume, polls show people support your stance against hackers, people seem to actually like you," he said, putting an insulting emphasis on actually. "The public are fickle creatures, if something came out which might make them reassess their opinion of you, it might impact on your campaign. This is all purely speculative of course."
A quick smile cut across Pearce's face, having the same kind of threatening effect as if he'd flashed a weapon. Tilting his head, his face settled into a comfortable frown, which looked far more natural than the smile he'd flashed moments ago.
A surge of indignant anger clenched her teeth together as the implication of Pearce's insinuations slowly tricked through.
"You have nothing on me," Gardner hissed, leaning forward for emphasis but also making sure to scoot closer to the drawer.
Gardner locked eyes with Pearce, but immediately realized who she was tangling with. She found the emptiness of his gaze disturbing. It wasn't a blank look or even an uncomprehending one. Just utterly devoid of anything resembling emotion. Eventually, his stare eroded her own challenging gaze, ripping apart the layers of her resistance.
Glancing away, Gardner smoothed out her already immaculate skirt, trying to restore the cracks in her poise.
"You think the public are stupid enough to buy into whatever it is you think you have on me. Blume will discredit it within hours," Gardener paused and looked over, even as a sliver of doubt impacted her statement. "So whatever it is you think you have, it's worth nothing. However, you obviously need something from me. It might, as you suggested, be mutually beneficial for me to consider the prospect, especially since you're in my house, but I need assurance that you won't harm me. I'm sure we come to some agreement …"
Swinging the chair around so she could angle her body towards the desk, Gardner had started the conversation by building some animosity, then injected some amiability and hopefully piqued his curiosity with the trailing sentence so she could try to reach the desk without him noticing.
"It's not loaded," Pearce remarked, amusement lacing his tone.
Gardner froze, looked over and watched the corner of his mouth tuck into a smile.
"Maybe you can stop playing games and we can get to the real reason I'm here. But by all means, don't trust my word, go for the revolver you keep in the top drawer."
Straightening her shoulders, Gardner used her heel to spin the chair around to completely face Pearce. She didn't give him the satisfaction, didn't bother with trying to reach for the gun. Even though her skin itched with the compulsion to just check.
"What I said still stands, you have nothing on me,"
"Maybe not," he conceded, "but I'll let you decide how it might affect you regardless."
Retrieving his phone, Pearce looked down, attention on whatever he was doing. She contemplated running, launching herself from the chair to reach her phone she'd foolishly left in her bag, in the kitchen. But it was a fleeting consideration. Even as he'd taken his attention away from her, she wasn't able to fool herself into believing he wasn't aware of her movements, or that she'd likely even make it to the door.
Startled, Gardner flinched as the screen behind her brightened suddenly. Turning her head, she watched as the cursor appeared to scroll over the screen as if by itself. Even as she felt a seething resentment at this invasion of privacy, it was followed almost immediately by a deeper disquiet as she tried to think of what Pearce had access to. The Blume engineers who'd set everything up assured her that it'd be almost impossible to hack into. Impossible for anyone but Aiden Pearce. It was a belated worry because he'd likely downloaded whatever he'd found of interest. Blume's private security contracts, laws they wanted passed she could help with as Mayor.
Shaking those thoughts off, Garner realized that her most immediate concern was the criminal sitting a few feet away and what exactly he had planned for her.
A media player app appeared on screen. With a lingering look in Pearce's direction, Gardner, interest piqued despite herself, turned her back on him to concentrate on the screen. She felt his gaze on her and repressed a shiver because she didn't like not knowing his whereabouts. But, if he wanted her dead, he'd be unlikely to engage in small talk about some media file.
The app was paused. Gardner frowned and leaned towards the screen, trying to identify the people in the room. Her lip curled when she recognized Julian Collins holding a woman hostage, a knife at her throat.
As the file played, and Julian implicated himself so completely in the human trafficking ring that Gardner realized it would be impossible to untangle the web he'd woven, no matter how she spun it.
"…. Lucky's ideas were just that, ideas. I re-worked Bellwether's code to suit my needs. I came up with the idea to use it to lure women out so Quinn's men could kidnap them. Sure, I may have used the Club's resources and Blume may have provided the hardware but I created Klockwork."
As Gardner suspected, Julian was using Blume's resources for his own gain. She could never prove it, and even in death he was screwing her.
"And the Digital Drugs?" Gardner heard Pearce ask on-screen, surprised by the anger she heard in his voice.
"Already being distributed I'm afraid. You couldn't stop the auction and you can't stop the drugs."
Digital Drugs? What was Julian talking about?
"What now? What do you want from me?" Pearce asked.
"Your scalp. Fucking Charlotte Gardner is on my back. If I bring you in, she won't be able to touch me. Imagine the accolades I'd get if I capture the Vigilante. Dead of course, can't have you telling any secrets."
The media player paused and Gardner suppressed a groan. The bastard just had to implicate her on camera didn't he? Maybe, she might, a huge might, have been able to spin the story, play the ignorant card and appear contrite that a respected member at Blume's employ had inappropriately used their resources to commit such heinous crimes. But Gardner already knew the media would crucify Blume, not to mention her specifically since it looked like she had knowledge of his actions. Even if it wasn't true, the implication was there and it'd be enough for the media to make the connection, however tenuous it was.
Already the press was having a field day over another human trafficking ring being exposed, each tripping over the other to write clever little headlines. "How sex slavery is BLUME(ing) despite Chicago's advanced digital surveillance".
"Doesn't paint a good picture does it?" Pearce asked, voice so close she felt it like a spiked stroke down her spine.
Gardner couldn't help but wince at Pearce's proximity. Unbeknownst to her, he'd snuck up to stand behind her chair. Turning slowly, she lifted her head to stare at him. He was taller than she realized, having to crane her neck to actually look at him. A candle flicker of a smile lit up his face, but as soon as it was extinguished, darkness settled over his expression.
"How did you get this?" she asked, waving towards the screen. "I was told the video was unrecoverable."
An uncompromising smile ghosted his lips. "Does it matter?"
No, she supposed it didn't.
"What is it you want?" she asked, the muscles in her jaw aching from the anger she was suppressing. It would do her no good to antagonize him, even if the urge was there.
"Like I said, this can be a mutually beneficial exchange. If you agree to co-operate."
Her reply sat heavy on her tongue, dissolving slowly to leave a bitter aftertaste as Gardner began to see the future she'd so carefully planned out, shatter into a million shards at her feet.
"And if I don't?" she asked, but it was a verbal reflex to deny him and she lacked the resolve to put much hostility in her tone.
One brow arched in silent challenge and Pearce didn't bother to answer. Looking back down at his phone, Pearce loaded another screen. Gardner let out a small sigh and turned back around, took her time reading.
"So you want me to do what exactly? Because of this video you think I'm going to help you, because Julian made some vague reference to me?" Gardner asked, crossing her legs, pasting a synthetic smile on her face.
This was an interesting development. She could use this material for her own gain. To certain types of people, giving them personal information was the same as giving them a loaded weapon. And Aiden Pearce had given her just that.
Pearce remained silent, an indomitable figure staring at her with those disconcerting green eyes. She could see the calculating intelligence, far too perceptive for his own good, but even more frightening was the violence clinging to him, fitting him even more seamlessly than that battered coat he wore.
"Is that a risk you're willing to take?" Pearce rumbled. "Especially when it's revealed this video was leaked from your home computer. Blume's been able to conceal the fact that one of their employees was involved in human trafficking so far, but that could change…."
He'd chosen the words carefully, wrapping them in a tone so casual that it took her a moment to comprehend the implication behind it. Gardner sucked in a surprised breath. She was just now beginning to feel the sharp edge of all the angles he'd covered.
"I can't do it," Gardner motioned towards the screen and the documents he'd loaded, "you're asking too much."
But even as she refused, Gardner knew there was no use trying to outmaneuver Pearce, she'd played his game and was intelligent enough to understand that she'd lost. If she didn't give instead of try to take, he'd destroy her career. And that was far more important to Gardner than some small, fleeting victory over the Vigilante. She had a small starting point anyway, whether he realized he'd given her that or not.
"No I'm not. This is what I need and you'll do it. I've already set up the connection to upload this video to SystemsLeaks and WKZ News. I've made sure it's an easily traceable connection which will lead right back here. It's completely up to you whether this is made public or not. As long as you keep up your end of the deal, so will I."
Gardner snorted. "Right, so you have this video you can release at any time and I'm just supposed to agree to your terms."
Pearce shrugged. "You can take the chance, you might just be able to sidestep the fallout, but I doubt your Mayoral ambitions would survive."
So she'd been outfoxed. The random thought made a laugh graze up her throat at the witticism but she stopped it before it reached her lips. It wasn't particularly funny, in fact, it felt like there was a slightly hysterical edge to the humor. Gardner wasn't even sure she could do what he was asking.
"It'll take time. I'm…not sure how to go about it," she admitted. "If it's even possible. The Cops are involved, there's an investigation now."
"I'm sure you'll manage," Pearce said, his hardened tone alluding to the consequences if she didn't.
Fixing her with a penetrating stare, Pearce cocked his head to the side. "We have a deal?"
It was like agreeing to a verbal contract with the Devil, Gardner could already feel the flames burning her as she signed her soul away.
"Yes," she nodded.
Tucking his phone away in his pocket, Pearce turned away without another word.
"Wait," Gardner declared. "What's these Digital Drugs Julian talked about? What's Klockwork?"
Pearce stopped but didn't turn around, tiling his head slightly towards her, the only concession he'd made to her request. He was silent so long, Gardner didn't think he'd answer her.
"It's called Gnaural. I tried to stop it hitting the streets but…it's already out there. Don't mistake Gnaural for Digital Trips. It's digital dopamine, giving a similar high to a heroin hit. The Club were the distributors, but since I'm not sure what's left of them…."
He shrugged, but it was a quick jerk of his shoulder and Gardner sensed anger in the movement.
"I'm working on it."
"And Klockwork?" she asked.
Pearce made a low sound in his throat. "You figure it out."
Gardner watched Pearce walk out of the door without a backward glance. She blew out a breath she wasn't aware she'd been holding. The tension he'd left in his wake felt suffocating, so much so it took a full minute before Gardner felt able to stand.
Making her way to the kitchen, she picked up her phone and called 911.
"Tony's Pizza, how can I help you?"
Gardner opened her mouth, mumbled an apology and disconnected the call. With slightly shaking hands, she redialled 911.
"Tony's Pizza, how can I help you?"
This time Gardner disconnected without saying anything.
Even the light conspired to imprison her, teasing her as it cast striped buttery shadows over the wreck of a mattress and thin wool blanket. At night the light would disappear into the blackness so she felt completely trapped. Trapped with the cold and the ever-present draught under the thick oak door.
Cr0w had been in her 'cell' for what she thought was a little over a week. Time seemed to have an odd type of elasticity to it. Pliable, it stretched and pulled, moving slowly only to quicken at other times, until she'd lost track completely.
The room was completely reinforced, with no way out. And she'd tried. There was one window, too high for her to reach. Covered with steel bars there was no way, even if she could reach it, she'd be able to squeeze through.
Eventually Cr0w resigned herself to her fate. Because the more she thought about the situation, the more it became apparent that while her imprisonment wasn't exactly a step up in the world, she was at least safe. Well, safe was a relative term. Maybe protected from the outside world and the fuck load of trouble she'd got herself into.
It wasn't like she'd been abandoned completely, left to rot and starve. The man with the goatee, Jordi, appeared haphazardly with food. Always with an air of amused indifference, a crooked half smile on his face, almost daring her to act. Like he knew exactly what she'd been thinking about and found it entertaining.
And she'd considered testing him. Had built the moment up in her mind, knew exactly when she'd act. When he first entered the room, he was carrying a tray of food with one hand and had to take a step down. If she hid behind the door, tripped him in that unbalanced moment when he'd taken that step. But she had no warning of when he visited. Couldn't hear him approach, the only way Cr0w knew he was coming was when the door creaked open. And she didn't fancy sitting behind the door all day on the unlikely chance she'd surprise him.
Cr0w must have fallen asleep, because the creaking sound from the door pierced right through her unconscious mind. She'd sat up before her brain even registered she was awake. Instantly on alert, heart contracting as adrenaline spiked. Every time that door opened she expected death.
She was under no illusions. If Pearce decided she wasn't of any use to him, this Jordi guy would have no compunction killing her. She'd seen it in the dark recesses of his brown eyes, that unsettling detachment as he gazed at her, completely unconcerned whether she died in this room. She was a job, nothing else.
It took a few moments for Cr0w to focus on the man who'd stepped into the room. It was dark, the light from the hallway spilled into the room, sketching a different outline to what she'd been expecting. She took a deep breath in and held it, fingers digging into the mattress as she waited.
Flipping the light switch, Pearce carefully closed the door behind him and stepped inside. Cr0w studied him silently. He stood there, all sharp angles with a languid apparition of danger, hardened expression just as unyielding as she remembered.
Pearce slipped his hands into the pockets of his jacket, a careful movement designed to project a relaxed composure, but Cr0w nevertheless noticed the coiled tension he'd tried to conceal. The thin coat of indifference had been hastily affixed, but did nothing to hide the strain, the bruises on his face or the chilling volatility she saw in his gaze.
"Are you here to kill me?" Cr0w asked, finding it difficult to manifest the appropriate reaction to the prospect of her own death.
His gaze touched on her face with that disconcerting awareness, a brief smile flickering.
"Depends," Pearce said, sounding like he'd swallowed gravel.
"On what?" she asked warily, hope flaring despite her best attempt to keep it banked.
"On your answers."
Cr0w swallowed apprehensively, felt the brush of danger caress the space between them. She didn't like looking up at him from her position on the floor, like some cowering foe he'd beaten into submission. She deemed herself far from submissive, but beaten? Well, she was lucky that all she'd sustained from their last encounter was a broken finger.
Pearce could have done a lot worse. Her finger still ached, she hadn't been offered any medical assistance, so it hadn't been reset and Cr0w knew she'd have trouble with it for the rest of her life. So seeing him standing there, oblivious or rather, unconcerned, with how she'd suffered, made her quietly furious. But if her tangle with Pearce had revealed anything, it was that he was the apex predator and could pick her off easily. She'd survived on the streets long enough to recognize a threat, so she wasn't stupid enough to test him. Yet.
"Did you know who hired you to create the Klockwork site?"
Cr0w hesitated, but then shook her head. "No."
Pearce arched a disbelieving brow.
"Not at first," she admitted.
Cr0w had anticipated Pearce would ask about her involvement with the site, had cultivated some careful responses which would deflect him away from aspects of her life she'd rather he not look at too closely. But that plan seemed rather redundant now. Whatever answers she'd prepared were flimsy at best, using the holes in Pearce's knowledge to redirect his attention away from her. Now that her continued existence was dependant on her responses, she was reluctant to tell shaded half-truths.
Pearce stared at her in expectant silence. It wasn't a particularly comfortable silence, she could feel his impatience buffering against her, so much so that it was difficult not to feel uneasy under that unwavering gaze.
Maybe a week spent in this shitty room, with her mind conjuring all types of cruelties Pearce or the Fixer could inflict, had impacted more than she realized. She'd been so ready to tear into Aiden Pearce the moment she saw him again. But a creeping fear had untangled all that anger because she knew what Pearce was capable of. There was only one way out of this room and that was giving him what he wanted.
"Hindsight is the mother of all bitches you know, I never would have accepted the job if I'd know the fuck ton of shit I'd be in."
Looking up at Pearce, she gave a renouncing shrug. "When I took the contract, it was good money, more than I'd ever earnt for just one job. I set up the Botnet, linked it to Klockwork, it wasn't that hard. The CGI web proxy was a sticky piece of work though because of the security attached to the site. I got curious about who'd pay that much for a simple Botnet and traced the money back to an account, found out it was a holding corporation owned by the Quinn's. It didn't bother me, I've accepted money from worse people than the Mob. I got paid by the day too, so every day the proxy ran without interference they'd add 5k to my account. It seemed like easy money. But then…"
"Do you know what Klockwork is?" Pearce interrupted suddenly.
Cr0w looked at Pearce sharply, the deadly inflection in his voice melting across her senses to harden like ice.
"No. I could never hack in, it was too well protected."
Pearce gave Cr0w a measured stare, weighing her words on the scales of his own assessment. She stared back, muscles bunched instinctively against the attack she thought was coming.
"Then the Club put a hit out on you."
Cr0w sucked in a surprised breath, dizzy from trying to keep up with Pearce's leaps in conversation. If he was doing it to keep her off balance, it was working, leaving her little time to compose her expression. Regardless, she must have passed his test. Cr0w knew, in that moment, her life was contingent on her answer.
"Yeah, I guess they must have."
His head titled questioningly. "I … wasn't sure," Cr0w replied carefully.
Pearce grunted. "Because you've got Fixer's on your tail too. It's not the smartest move, blackmailing corporations."
Cr0w felt a sneer pull her lips back. "And I'm supposed to believe you know what constitutes a smart move? From where I sit, you've got quite a few blemishes on your record. Just what exactly has your one-man crusade against the Club achieved, except to make you enemy number one? Because organized crime will always exist, regardless of your inconsequential efforts. Is it a smart move to piss off DedSec, because I think they hate you more than they hated Defalt. What about the Cops, they'd do anything to bring you down, since you've probably injured more than a few during one of your escape attempts. And of course, there's Blume, who despise everything you stand for and your constant meddling in their systems. So I'd say that my effort to blackmail one person at Blume pales in comparison to your efforts. Forgive me if I don't take advice from you."
Her chest rose and fell, resentment extracting itself from her pores. No way would she let Pearce make such a cheap shot. Like he had the right to lecture her about the decisions she made in her life when he was the poster child for poor choices.
Sucking a breath in, Cr0w looked up at Pearce. She could map out the anger on his face, trace the lines of tension in his neck. Fuck being cautionary, she wouldn't grovel for her life. She'd had enough of that in her teen years and resolved never to let it happen again. If Pearce was going to kill her, so be it.
But his lips tipped up into a humorless half-smile. "Touch a nerve did I? I own my life choices, what about you?"
Cr0w glanced away, disconcerted by how easily he'd interpreted her outburst, brushed past the anger to reach right in to the true reason behind her bitterness.
Suddenly, Pearce took a step forward and dropped down onto his haunches, making Cr0w flinch away from his proximity. His gaze settled on her face, any animosity had dissipated and all she saw was that intractable expression which gave nothing away.
"I have an offer. Are you willing to hear me out?"
Cr0w's head jerked back in surprise. Amusement teased his lips at her reaction but failed to reach his eyes.
"And If I don't?"
Pearce shrugged. "I let you go."
Cr0w choked on her response, but Pearce hadn't finished. "But if I were you, I'd seriously consider what I'm offering. You're running from very powerful enemies who have some skilled and ruthless people after you. If you take me up on my offer I can guarantee your safety. Or you can take your chance with the Club's Fixers, or Blume's private security. But we both know that's not who you're really running from. You've got some skill, that's what kept you alive so far, but for how much longer?"
"You mean guarantee my safety like you guaranteed Clara's?" she hissed, shielding her sudden vulnerability behind anger.
It was an ineffectual taunt, since she'd already tried using Clara against him. The insult didn't seem to faze Pearce at it, it merely slid off him like water.
"Clara's a cautionary tale. She's what happens when people cross me. You want to hear what I have to say?"
After Pearce had finished outlining his plan, Cr0w merely blinked at him, incredulous. Her first instinct was to rebuff him. But the problem was, she'd run so far she was out of asphalt, there was nowhere else for her to go. Despite her dislike for Pearce, he was giving her options, maybe not any she'd have willingly chosen herself, but compared to the people who were chasing her, it wasn't death. But his plan was worse in some ways.
Annoyingly, Pearce was right, she didn't own her choices and the consequences were rearing their ugly heads. But if she took him up on his deal, could she trust Pearce enough to keep up his end? Did she have any choice?
Swallowing apprehensively, Cr0w nodded. "Yeah, we have a deal."
The smile he flashed her wasn't all that reassuring and it instantly made her regret her decision.
Hayley knew she was in a hospital long before she opened her eyes. She'd spent a lot of time in rehab after she was injured in Iraq and somehow, hospitals all over the world managed to smell the same. Carbolic soap and disinfectant. Mix in despair and your mind assimilated the hospital ward before you even opened your eyes.
Thoughts had a distinct fuzzy edge to them. There was only a distant sense of pain. Whatever injuries she'd sustained were being masked by some pretty strong narcotics. Not that she was complaining. The chemical drag of sedatives pulsed through her bloodstream, adding an unpleasant earthy taste to her mouth every time she woke.
Time moved slowly, seemed to have that thick, impenetrable feeling like molasses. Sleep overrode her more often than she would have liked. It was difficult to determine days, even hours. By the time she was able to stay awake for a sustained period, Hayley suspected she'd been out for quite some time.
Most times, she woke alone, baring the odd visit from a Nurse. So it surprised her when she opened her eyes to discover she had company. The pain was a distant throb, nothing too extreme but it was still there.
White coat, grey-flecked hair, stethoscope. She'd take a wild stab in the dark and assign this guy as her Doctor. Seeing she was awake, he gave her a quick, practiced smile and moved towards the bed.
"You're awake. Good. My name is Doctor Flores."
Hayley made a dubious sound in her throat, disagreeing with his assessment that being awake was good.
The Doctor flipped open a cover on his tablet and looked down. His eyes skimmed over the screen and Hayley waited for him to speak. She shifted, trying to lever herself up on the pillows but a sharp pain cut through the fog clinging to her mind and she hissed. The Doctor looked up at her, eyes narrowed.
"I'd try to resist moving too much, you're lucky to even be alive."
A mirthless laugh crawled up her throat. "Yeah," Hayley agreed, "So I've been told before."
And she had, by a Doctor in Iraq. That Doctor had the same gruff, aloof attitude as this one, and Hayley wondered if it was an affectation taught in Medical School. 'Be superior to thy patients' should be added to the Hippocratic Oath.
The Doctor looked over at her speculatively, clearly wondering what she was referring to. Or maybe thinking the drugs were affecting her adversely. She waved her uninjured arm.
He cleared his throat, looked at the tablet then back at her.
"I was the surgeon who operated on you. Like I said, you're a very lucky young lady. When you'd arrived at Chicago Med you'd already sustained a Class 3 Haemorrhaging. That's a loss of four…"
"To five pints," Hayley finished for him. "Jesus," she whispered.
She was lucky to be alive. The body only had about 7 pints in it, depending on the size of the person. The Doctor looked at her expectantly.
"I trained as a Nurse and combat medic," Hayley explained.
Doctor Flores inclined his head. "Well I won't pull punches with my explanation then. So the bullet wound you sustained impacted your clavicle. The bone fractured and the bullet rebounded. I had to screw a metal plate on to realign your collarbone. There was no exit wound, so I had to remove the bullet fragments which resulted in some internal injuries. Your lung collapsed, the fragments causing a tension pneumothorax. So I had to insert a chest tube to drain the blood and air from around your lung, and to help your left lung to re-inflate. You'd also sustained another grazing shot to your right thigh but since that only required eight stitches, I'd say it was a relatively minor wound in comparison"
Hayley blew out a long breath and closed her eyes. Listening to the Doctor's explanation was sobering. When Aiden left her, she never expected to wake up again. Had thought death had finally caught up with her, wrapping her cold fingers around her, dragging her away screeching a victory since she'd escaped her fate over in Iraq. But here she was, again lying in a hospital bed. Alive.
But what now? Where was Aiden? Was she under arrest? The lack of a Police presence or even handcuffs seemed to suggest not. Pain was slowly edging past the drugs, flowing through her body so it became difficult to concentrate. For such a short amount of time conscious, she was incredibly tired.
"I couldn't help but notice…." Doctor Flores started.
Hayley's eyes flew open, latching on to the Doctor.
"…your other injuries. This isn't the first trauma you've been involved in."
"No," she acknowledged quietly, "It isn't. Being a soldier in Iraq isn't conducive to good health," she shrugged. "How long have I been out?"
Doctor Flores nodded like she'd confirmed his suspicions. "Almost five days. You'll need to stay in here for a while still. I've put a sling on your arm so try to not to move too much. You'll need physical therapy." He paused, gaze passing over her face. "I'll send the Nurse in, she can show you how to work the morphine drip."
Flashing another, quick professional smile, Doctor Flores turned and walked away. Fatigue washed over Hayley, she fought it for a moment but then decided it wasn't worth the battle.
When next she woke, she noticed two men in her room. One hovered near the doorway, the other sat opposite her bed. As soon as he saw she was awake, he rose. Hayley skimmed over his appearance, noticing a few important details. The suit the man wore was Department store quality, not shabby exactly but not expertly fitting either. She recognized a familiar bulge near his armpit – a shoulder holster.
Hayley sighed a little, unable to keep the wariness out of the sound. Cops. It wasn't unexpected, she just didn't really feel like dealing with them. The Cop closest to her approached the bed. His eyes, a clear blue color, roamed over her face.
"My name is Detective Sutter," he paused and motioned behind him, "and this is my partner Detective Booth. Can we ask you a few questions?"
Hayley couldn't prevent an amused sound from escaping. Despite the Detective's polite demeanor, he wasn't asking permission.
She shrugged, feigning a casualness she didn't feel. "You'll have to be quick Detective. I feel another nap creeping up."
Sutter's eyes hardened briefly, before he smiled congenially at her. Just as she suspected, the nice guy act was just that. An act. Hayley gazed steadily back at the Detective, noticing out the corner of her eye, Sutter's partner had walked further into the room and was watching her carefully. Tag-team tactics. One would ask the question, the other would watch her reactions carefully.
"Lieutenant Parker, I'm sure you've figured out why we're here."
Hayley gritted her teeth at the use of her rank. It needled that he'd addressed her that way but she couldn't work out why.
"I'm guessing it's not overdue parking tickets," she quipped.
By the hostile glance he launched her way, she could tell the Detective didn't appreciate her rather flimsy attempt at humor.
"Well, I gather it's rather difficult to get parking tickets when you haven't been tracked by ctOS these last few months."
The Detective's words settled across her skin like permafrost, seeping into marrow and freezing her in place. Hayley remained silent, despite the sudden influx of chaotic thoughts careering through her mind.
She feigned a yawn, giving herself time to gather her thoughts. Which was more difficult than it should have been. The pain meds were strong, messing with her mental faculties. She didn't feel sharp enough to have this conversation. She needed to delay. She wasn't even sure if she was under arrest. Might be if she fobbed off the Detective. Still, she'd make him for work any answers.
Detective Sutter stared at her steadily, letting the silence wrap around them. Hayley merely stared back, unaffected. As opening moves went, it was a clumsy one. Sutter might have scored a hit with the ctOS inference but using silence as an intimidation tactic wouldn't work. She'd spent the last few months with a man whose use of silence felt stifling, like a choke hold. In comparison, the Detective's silence felt like a warm summer breeze.
"Where have you been Lieutenant? CtOS logged you in at O'Hare where you took a Cab and visited your brother in Palin Correction Facility, but after that? No record. You simply vanished."
Hayley shrugged. "I went to ground."
Sutter's brow quirked, but to his credit he kept the skepticism from his face. The incredulity in his tone, however, still managed to seep through.
"Indeed. And just what tech allows you to manage that?"
She smiled. "It's Military in design Detective, I can't disclose the specifics."
It was utter bullshit and Sutter knew it. He was angling to catch her in her own net of lies. And Hayley realized that was far easier for the Detective to do since she had no knowledge of events after she'd passed out. Hayley felt like she was in a dark room, blindly groping for the light to try and illuminate the situation with any kind of accuracy.
But, Sutter could press her about her methods all he liked. If Hayley inferred she was using a Military device, then she was bound by laws and contracts he couldn't hope to bypass. The Military guarded their secrets possessively, so the public really had no clue what kind of tech they designed or had access to. Even if Hayley was technically employed by the Army, she would still be unable to provide any enlightening information, the contracts she signed were legally binding even after her service ended.
Sutter's jaw clenched, he looked set to argue then obviously thought better of it. Hayley was a little confused about his line of questioning, she expected to be read her rights and carted off to the nearest holding facility.
After all, she had been found in a room with Blume's CIO, his throat slashed, and with two other people who died from obvious gunshot wounds. Not that she'd killed any of them, but given the opportunity... It was semantics anyway, and Hayley wouldn't implicate Aiden in their murders. It'd make her situation worse, admitting to cavorting with Chicago's most wanted criminal, and likely add more charges.
"Why?" Sutter asked.
Hayley breathed in deeply, the subdued fatigue which had plagued her throughout the conversation, was slowly building until she felt it trying to drag her down. She didn't have the mental reserves to play these kind of verbal games with Sutter. So instead Hayley just stared, waiting for Sutter to clarify what he meant. The morphine was wearing off, she'd have loved to press the drip again but the pain had the odd effect of filing down the fatigue and sharping her mind, if only for a brief time.
"Why go to ground?" Sutter clarified, no hint of the displeasure at her stunted responses.
"To search for Jenna Goodman."
Sutter blinked, his gaze turning inwards, likely searching his brain for the name she'd provided. "My brother's girlfriend had a cousin who went missing. He'd been trying to trace her whereabouts when he was falsely arrested. I was just trying to find her and clear his name. He suspected human trafficking with Blume involvement and he was right. Was Jenna one of the women rescued?"
In the time she'd spent awake, Hayley had created a cover story, knowing the Cops would eventually talk to her. It was flimsy at best, but Sutter himself had provided validation for part of her story. If he pulled the Prison audio logs of her talking to her brother, it'd confirm her story.
Sutter looked over at his partner, who scrambled for his phone. He spent a few moments thumbing through it before looking back up. Detective Booth flicked his eyes over to her before nodding at Sutter.
Hayley let out a shaky breath. It had been a calculated risk, but Jenna was the only tangible reason she'd be tied to this situation. Why else would she attempt to dismantle a human trafficking ring by herself? Of course the Detectives suspected, if not knew, she'd been involved with Aiden. But they needed evidence, and she wasn't sure what the Cops had on her. Trespassing possibly, murder if they could pin Julian's death on her.
"Regardless of your good intentions," Sutter said, dubious emphasis on good. "You were still found in the same room as the now deceased Julian Collins, Blume's CIO, his bodyguard Levi Marcello and ex-Blume employee Angela Balik. Not to mention the dead and injured men littered around the facility. It's rather incriminating wouldn't you say?"
"I didn't kill them," Hayley replied quickly. Too quickly really, she'd just slathered guilty all over her forehead.
The Detective let his gaze rest on her, blue eyes frosted over with the same warmth as a frozen lake.
"Who did then?"
Looking down, she avoided the Detective's gaze and tried to school her features into blankness. It was difficult, memories flashed like a camera, fast and blinding. The pain of the bullet, taste of blood in her mouth, the fear, waiting for her throat to be slit.
The panic built like a cluster of spark plugs in her abdomen. Tension grew in her face and limbs, her mind replaying everything. Her breathing became rapid, shallower. In these moments before her personal hurricane, she would do anything to stop the primal surge of adrenaline and loss of control.
The heart machine beside her beeped rapidly, but it barely registered. All of her fears tumbled out unchecked by her brain, like she was in some kind of mental free-fall, unable to analyze or assess risk. Hayley could hear the Detective talking but it was a hollow sound, the words muffled. Closing her eyes, Hayley shut out the world, let the suffocation reach a tipping point, body and mind fighting until it realized she wasn't in immediate danger. She'd learnt not to fight the reaction, just rode it out until it passed.
When Hayley opened her eyes, the Nurse stood next to her, worry etched into her face. Glancing away, she saw the two Detectives had retreated to the furthest part of the room, eyeing her warily.
"Are you okay?"
Dragging her gaze back to the Nurse, Hayley nodded numbly. Sutter walked towards the bed but the Nurse turned, put a hand up.
"No. Enough questions for today."
Sutter's jaw flexed as he glanced briefly at the Nurse before turning back to Hayley.
"Look Detective, I really don't feel up to having this conversation right now. I'm in a lot of pain and I'd prefer to wait until I'm out of Hospital to talk. Am I under arrest?" she asked, genuinely interested in the answer.
Detective Sutter didn't bother to hide his contempt. "No," he said, voice clipped, "you're not. We will need to chat with you after your release."
Hayley thought she did a poor job of hiding her shock, open mouthed surprise notwithstanding.
"I just have one question before we leave."
The Nurse bristled beside her, glowering at the Detective, but he ignored her.
"Do you know Aiden Pearce? The so-called Vigilante?" He said the word Vigilante as if it was something he'd scrape off the bottom of his shoe.
"I know of him," she replied non-committedly.
A defiant sneer crawled across Sutter's face. "Yeah, I know you do. Talk soon Lieutenant."
With that ominous insinuation left to simmer inside her head, both Detectives walked out. Hayley blew out a nervous breath, heart thumping wildly in her chest. The Nurse watched the men leave, a disapproving frown on her face.
Turning back, the Nurse cast an appraising gaze over her face. Emotionally drained, both from her confrontation with Sutter and her recent panic attack, Hayley didn't have the reserves to keep up the façade. The effects of her PTSD hadn't surfaced for months, but it wasn't surprising that it was edging its way back.
"You've over-exerted yourself," the Nurse stated. "Did you need me to get the Doctor?"
Hayley snorted, the sound flecked with tiredness. "No, it's fine, I can handle it. Can I make a call?"
The Nurse pursed her lips. There was a landline next to her bed but Hayley had no hope of reaching it. Eventually the Nurse nodded, bringing the phone over to place it within easy reach.
The Nurse hesitated, eyes darting between Hayley and the phone. She let out a small sigh, nodded and walked out. Hayley watched her, unable to keep a small smile from escaping. Of course her phone calls were being monitored, that they had left her an open line of communication was suspicious enough. Not that the Nurse's behavior didn't tip her off. Hayley dialled the number that was in no known phone records.
"Identify yourself," came the terse command from duty officer who answered.
The duty officer was silent as the voice recognition program took a few moments to verify her.
"Lieutenant Parker who can I transfer you to?"
"Lieutenant Colonel White please."
Sirens filtered through the inner city traffic, cars congested, horns blaring in ineffectual frustration. Hayley stood outside the hospital, watching the tide of patients flow through the automatic doors. Provided with a prescription for more pain killers, an after-surgery care plan, Cab voucher and clothes, since hers had likely been discarded, too caked with blood to be of any use.
Adjusting the sling, Hayley winced as her shoulder gave a sharp reminder not to move too much and the dull throb of pain accelerated into a persistent ache. She hadn't heard from or seen the Detectives again and wasn't quite sure what to do. But it was no use waiting outside the Hospital to be arrested. Hayley hailed a Cab.
"Where to?" the driver asked.
Opening her mouth, she caught herself just in time. Right, best not to give the address of Aiden's safe house. Where to indeed. The driver glared at her in the mirror, so she gave the address to her apartment complex.
Hayley stared out the window, watching the city blur as the driver picked up speed. In a matter of minutes, one impulsive decision, and all of her careful plans for the future had unravelled. The universe was playing a cruel joke, likely laughing at her expense. What the point of everything then? All her suffering, struggles, literally life or death, to be left standing, barely, holding nothing but the tattered remains of a questionable future. Unlike her flesh, the threads of her life couldn't be stitched back together so easily. So what now?
The Doctor had warned her she needed to be aware that she might relapse with her PTSD, and depression may be an effect of the trauma her body underwent. Hayley knew herself well enough to realize she wasn't in the best frame of mind, but didn't seem to have the energy to care. Of course she was grateful to be alive. But that didn't mean there wasn't a justified reason to feel disheartened, at again, having her future snatched away so cruelly.
There was a hard knot of hurt and self-recrimination inside her, bound together by trauma and tragedy, an intricate ball of pain and regret which she just couldn't untie.
Her body kicked into auto-pilot, numbly handing over the Cab voucher, waiting outside until someone with a keycard let her in. Barely even feeling the cold. Talking to the apartment manager, shrugging carelessly when he mentioned the $180 fee for a keycard replacement.
The apartment, which had been home once and was so familiar, felt stale, lifeless. The curtains had been left open, allowing light to stream through. Thousands of dust particles danced and swirled in each ray of light. It was cold, the central heating had been turned off. The refrigerator hummed quietly in the background, the only sound which permeated the saturating silence.
The past few months Hayley had become accustomed to background noise. The almost continual tapping of a keyboard, the whir of computers, sports coverage on the TV. Now she felt that absence, the lack of someone else's presence. There was a cardboard cut-out, leaving a blank space where she was so used to Aiden's presence. And Hayley felt it, acutely, the loneliness from the lack of heartbeat which irradiated an otherwise lifeless space.
Sighing, Hayley forced her limbs to move, to push past the heaviness to switch on the heating.
A knock at the door startled her. She looked over and wondered who the hell knew she was there. Likely the manager again. When Hayley opened the door and saw the two men she least expected, she let out a slow breath as her ambivalence slowly crumbled under the prospect of being arrested.
"Detectives, what can I do for you?" Hayley asked equably.
Detective Sutter's gaze drilled into her, she could feel his animosity hidden beneath a genial smile.
"We need to take your statement. Can we come in?"
Hayley hesitated, considered calling a lawyer, but decided she could always request one if needed.
"Sure," she opened the door.
The two men entered the apartment, she gritted her teeth as she felt their gazes roaming over her space, likely making judgements and assessments. Hayley walked past the men as they hovered in the living room and motioned to the couches.
The two Detectives sat down on the couch, but Hayley made a point of waiting for them to sit, a superfluous victory in this tug of war for dominance. She'd likely spent too much time with Aiden, everything was about superiority and it looked like she'd also adopted that trait. Sutter's jaw clenched, but he said nothing.
Hayley sat down on the couch opposite the two men. Sutter reached inside his jacket, pulled out a USB and slid it across the coffee table. Her gaze was pulled down as it thudded to a stop against some books.
Looking back up at the Detective she traced her gaze over his face. Something flashed beneath the surface of his hardened expression, but it was gone before she could register what caused the sudden shift.
Sutter motioned towards the USB. "Would you like to know what's on that?"
Hayley remained silent, feeling increasingly like she was sparring with an unknown opponent, dodging and weaving, unable to implement any kind of counter-attack.
"Nothing," Sutter continued, cadences of bitterness lurking beneath the surface.
Looking up at her, one eyebrow quirked up. "But there was. Thing is, the file disappeared once I watched it. Curious isn't it? And CPD techs say the file is unrecoverable."
Sutter gave her a long appraising stare. "Would you like to know what was on the file?"
She bristled at the question, felt a wave of anger cresting over her seeing the contempt on the Detective's face.
Seeds of doubt spread dark roots in her mind as Hayley tried desperately to comprehend the significance of what the Detective had seen on that file. She had her suspicions but…
"It was security footage from the night of the auction. Specifically from the room the medics found you in."
Her breath hitched slightly as Sutter continued. "I had no idea at first what I was looking at. I watched you enter the room and do…whatever...you were trying to on that console."
"Open the doors to the cells," she whispered.
Sutter cocked his head and stared at her, a calculating expression settling across his face. "So Angela Balik shot you."
Hayley shrugged. "I think so, I can't remember much."
Sutter let out a rumbling sound full of cynicism. "Do you remember Julian Collins sticking a knife to your throat?"
She snorted. "Unfortunately that memory is clearer than others."
"That file was quite enlightening. Fortuitous for you actually. If it wasn't for that video you'd be charged with numerous counts of murder. I guess we can just add those charges to Pearce's rap sheet. There was no audio, so I couldn't hear what Pearce and Collins were talking about. What I can't work out is why Pearce would even bother to send me this file. The only conclusion I can draw is that you must mean something to him to do this. I didn't get much of a chance to analyze the footage, but I saw enough. People are expendable to Pearce, I've seen the disregard he has for people's safety. Yet he was concerned about you, I saw it in his expression, enough certainly to let himself be disarmed. Curious…"
The spectral essence of a threat wavered in the air, winding around Hayley and squeezing the breath out of her. But even as Hayley fought her instinctual reactions, she realized that Sutter was angling for answers, casting out a hook and expecting her to take the bait. He had no proof. If he did, he wouldn't be in her apartment for a casual chat.
She scoffed dismissively, even if the foundation of her argument was held together with glue. "I don't know why he'd send you that file. Maybe he didn't want me to be charged for something I didn't do. He's called the Vigilante for a reason. Besides, if I meant something to him, why leave me there?"
"Exactly, why did he leave you there? Maybe you should think on that for a while. Pearce cares only about himself, saving his own skin. Might make you more open to telling me the truth about your association with Aiden Pearce."
Hayley felt her patience stretch until it snapped and she barked, "What would you like to hear Detective? That I'd shacked up with the Vigilante? That we were sleeping together and the sex was fantastic? I told you why I was at the auction and it had nothing to do with Aiden Pearce. We just happened to cross paths. In fact, I'm glad we did, he saved my life."
Sutter gave her an arch glance which seemed to suggest he believed nothing of what she'd just said.
"It's a nice speech, well-rehearsed. It doesn't matter, this subterfuge achieves nothing. We both know that you had a relationship with Pearce. Don't expect me to believe you both separately happened to unravel the same human trafficking connection and be there at the same time."
Careful of her shoulder, Hayley leaned forward and locked eyes with the Detective. Saw the anger he was trying to suppress in his blue eyes, little chips of ice cold fury. Dropping all pretence of innocence, she said very quietly, "Prove it."
A ripple of resentment lashed across Sutter's face. His jaw clenched, neck straining as he fought to control his reaction. Hayley knew she was skirting around dangerous territory, had let this Detective goad her more than she should have. But Cops operated within the bounds of the law, needed evidence and due diligence and all that entailed. Hunches crumbled under lack of evidence, even if Sutter's suspicions were on point.
Hayley sat back and crossed her legs. "So I'm not being charged?"
Detective Booth sent a quick look at his partner who glowered at Hayley silently. Booth cleared his throat.
"No. The evidence we received clears you of the murders of Angela Balik, Julian Collins and Levi Marcello. Blume owns almost all of Brandon Docks and have decided not to press charges for trespassing."
The rest of the interview was completed by Detective Booth, while Sutter's acidic silence burned uncomfortably in the air around them.
Booth asked normal procedural questions. The trauma induced amnesia was a convenient way to distance herself. No, she was not involved in the shootout with the Club. Hayley figured if Aiden sent the USB to the Detective, implicating himself in the three murders, it was his way of giving her consent to incriminate him in order to keep herself out of prison.
When the interview was finished, and Hayley followed the Detectives down the hallway, she wasn't the least bit surprised when Sutter stopped suddenly, turning around to take a quick step into her personal space. She craned her neck slightly to look him in the eye, not intimidated by the man, despite his bulk and the anger which burnt on an ever quickening short fuse.
"I'd be careful from now on. If we know you're connected to Aiden Pearce, then others do too," Sutter said, sinister threat sliding behind his words.
She felt the implication penetrate through her, despite her determination to remain stoically indifferent to Sutter's taunts. He didn't need to threaten her with anything, the inference was enough; she was a target now. Without another word, both Detectives left.
Dread slipped up from the pit of her stomach to close its vice-like grip around her throat. Her hand shook slightly, the adrenaline from the confrontation with Sutter draining away to leave her feeling weak and light headed.
The knock at her door made her jump. Sutter's warning rebounded in her mind, but Hayley refused to be scared in her own home. Slowly, she opened the door.
A young guy stood outside, mid-to-late teens, chewing on a piece of gum. Loudly. It smacked annoyingly with every chew. He tossed his hair back over his head and dragged his gaze over her but said nothing.
"Can I help you?"
He chewed on the gum for a few seconds more, and appeared to contemplate her question. The kid looked like someone whose brain automatically went into screen saver mode when someone wasn't punching his keys.
He grunted and nodded. Hayley sighed and despaired for the future. It seemed this generation of teens were actually regressing, using primeval grunts to communicate in lieu of any available electronic screen. The teen reached into his jacket pocket and Hayley tensed, but he just pulled out an old flip phone and held it out for her.
"I think you have the wrong apartment."
The kid shrugged. "You Hayley?"
A little bemused, she nodded. "Yeah."
He shrugged again. "Then this is for you."
Reaching out, Hayley grabbed the phone. She flipped it open, looked back up, but the teen was already halfway down the hallway. She closed the door and walked inside, inspecting the phone. The message tone beeped. It was so unexpected she fumbled and the phone dropped to the ground. She winced as it thudded on the floorboards.
Picking it back up, she blew out a relieved breath when it still appeared to be functional. She read over the message.
Parking garage. 7:00 PM
Hayley was armed. A Beretta 93 FS hidden in the back of her jeans. Not that she could do much besides point and shoot. She felt safer with it, regardless. But, Sutter's implication shadowed her, hushed as the night, dancing between the flickering lights from the cars in the garage.
Maybe it was the case of a self-fulfilling prophesy. All that energy and time spent worrying that someone would discover her relationship with Aiden had actually willed it into reality. While it may only be conjecture at this stage, there was enough there for others to make the connection, certainly enough speculation to make Hayley feel uncomfortable. Like she was swimming in a shark tank full of predators she couldn't see.
The cold stung her skin as Hayley shifted restlessly, trying not to jump at every sound. Behind her back, her clasp tightened against the pistol's grip, flexing in agitation every time a car drove past.
When she looked over to her right, Aiden was no more than a distortion of the light, a human cut out of blended color against the melting darkness. All of her worries peeled away, like shedding an outer layer of skin.
As if pulled by a magnet, she walked towards him, a figure so familiar to her she could close her eyes and map out every curve of him like an artist melding clay. She reached out with one arm and wrapped it around him. As Hayley settled her face against his chest, she felt Aiden bring his arms around, careful of her injured shoulder, and lay his cheek across her forehead.
She held on tight, face pressed against his chest. Hayley let herself relax, soaking up the warmth from Aiden's body like osmosis, chasing away the lingering chill from the fear, worry, and anxiety of the past few weeks.
The screech of tyres perforated their cocoon, made Aiden jerk his head up and unwrap his arms. He stepped away from her, gaze sweeping the garage before turning back to her. His eyes lingered on her sling. Aiden reached out, settling a hand on her back and Hayley let herself be guided further into the parking garage.
"Where are we going?"
Aiden looked over at her briefly, before he let his gaze rove over the garage in restless scrutiny.
"We shouldn't be out in the open," he replied tersely.
Hayley snorted. "You sent that kid to me with a flip phone? I suppose it's better than carrier pigeon."
Looking over at her, Aiden's mouth crooked into a half-smile. "They're harder to hack," he explained.
"Pigeon or the flip phone?"
Aiden let out a dry laugh. "Both." He gestured towards an SUV. She missed the move he made on his phone but the car beeped.
When Aiden opened the passenger door, Hayley raised an appreciative eyebrow. "If I'd known getting shot was the key to you being a gentleman…"
Immediately, she regretted her flippancy as his face lost any traces of amusement, dissolving to set into hardened stone. Hayley sighed quietly and felt Aiden put a hand on her elbow and help her into the seat. He closed the door, walked around the front of the car to sit in the driver's seat.
The car was parked well into the corner, the lights barely reacing them. Aiden didn't start the car, just sat quietly next to her.
"Are we going somewhere?" she asked uncertainly.
Aiden glanced at her, shook his head. "No. Your apartment is being watched. I can't risk it."
She looked around in alarm. Aiden made a soothing noise in his throat. "It's ok. Just the Cops, they're sitting outside the building."
That certainly didn't make her feel any less threatened. Although it wasn't unexpected, it was still unsettling.
"The Cops know Aiden. About us. I don't think they can prove it."
An uncompromising smile ghosted his lips. "No," he confirmed, "they can't."
It was said with such conviction, Hayley couldn't help but he persuaded. But then, she'd always had a tendency to be swept away by Aiden's certainties.
"Two Detectives came to see me today."
Hayley looked over at Aiden sharply. He shrugged. "I hacked into their phones, switched on the audio to listen. I must thank you for your glowing recommendation."
She looked at him blankly.
"The sex was fantastic," he quoted, amusement curling around the words.
Hayley laughed, but it was clamped off quickly when she realized exactly what Aiden must have heard.
"Aiden, I didn't mean what I said. About you leaving me. I told you to go. I don't blame you."
His expression betrayed nothing, but Hayley knew better than to believe Aiden felt nothing. She reached across tentatively and put her hand on his thigh, felt the muscle jump and the immediate transference of tension.
"I don't blame you," Hayley reiterated.
Aiden looked over at her, met her gaze. "I know," he said, the growl in his voice doing little to convince her. His eyes flashed, a dangerous concoction of emotions, but he looked away before she could say something. Hayley sensed all the loose, unravelled threads get reeled back inside, clamped shut and tucked away more tightly than before.
She let out a wistful sigh and pulled her hand back. In some ways, Aiden's steely composure was more alarming than the anger and outright aggression. She'd learnt that the razor edge of control was there for a reason. Because his mind was busy planning whatever atrocities he'd conjured up for those who had the audacity to challenge him. She wondered what he had planned for the Detective, who had obviously succeeded in pushing Aiden's boundaries. Sutter had set his sights on Chicago's most wanted criminal, for whatever reason; accolades, it gave him a hard on, wanting career advancement. Hayley got the feeling Sutter would have set her on fire, figuratively speaking, waiting for Aiden to come and put it out. She was just lucky he could get none of the charges to stick.
"Are you okay?" Aiden looked across at her, eyes darting quickly to the sling before landing purposely on her face.
"The pain's not too bad. I've had worse. I'll need physical therapy. The surgeon bolted a plate onto my collarbone," Hayley explained quickly, trying to gloss over just how seriously close she'd come to dying. "You sent the Detective that USB. I'm guessing you've been working hard to keep me out of prison?"
Aiden inclined his head. "He's a tenacious bastard that Detective Sutter. Blume," Aiden smirked quickly, "had been putting pressure on him not charge you. He wouldn't let it go, he was going to charge you with manslaughter and trespassing. I suspect it was more about trying to lure me out to see what I'd do if you were charged. So I had to provide proof you didn't kill Collins."
"Why would Blume not want to charge me?"
Aiden smiled. It was a knowing, dangerous smile which sharpened his expression and allowed violence to beat like a pulse in his eyes. "They were persuaded otherwise."
Hayley grunted and looked away. Chose not to ask about what he'd done, who he'd threatened or whose career he'd ruined so she could walk free.
"Oh, what about my phone? The Cops have the phone you gave me. Their technicians must have broken the encryption by now."
The phone hadn't been returned to her, and there were enough illegal apps Aiden had loaded on to it, to charge her. Least of which included breaches of ctOS. Odd that the Detective hadn't mentioned it.
Aiden's mouth twitched into a smile. "No," he disagreed, "they wouldn't have. The phone will be a charred mess by now."
He chuckled in genuine amusement. "It's a failsafe I install on all my phones, in case they fall into someone else's hands. There's an app on there, it wipes the phone then overheats the battery, conveniently destroying any evidence even on the off chance the wipe doesn't stick."
"Right," but she said, not overly surprised. "What's happening with the Club?"
"Quinn's dead. Complications during surgery."
It took a long few moments for Hayley to understand the relevance of Aiden's last statement. His voice was toneless, hollowly indifferent but with enough inflection for Hayley to feel the hairs on her arms stand to attention as a militia of chills marched down her spine.
It felt like the breath had been sucked out of her lungs, not because she knew somehow, Aiden had caused Quinn's death, but because the sudden influx of relief was so overwhelming.
She supposed it would be easy enough to do. Blume had outfitted Chicago Med with all the latest medical devices. And Aiden knew Blume tech probably better than their own developers. Slip in to their system, cause a fatal overdose, it was relatively easy for someone of Aiden's skill. Was it wrong to feel grateful that Aiden had committed murder for her? To keep her from prison, from being charged for crimes she had committed? Regardless, Hayley found she just couldn't bring herself to feel guilty that Quinn wasn't walking around, able to hurt anyone else.
"That doesn't upset me," she said, lightly dismissive.
Aiden passed a critical gaze over her face. There was the barest glimmer of a smile, but it was more a rueful acknowledgement of what she wasn't saying, rather than any expression of humor.
"And Gnaural?" Hayley asked. Aiden's jaw tensed until the bone was silhouetted through his skin like old ivory.
"It's been released. I can't find the distribution point."
"I'm starting to wonder if we achieved anything. Sure, Quinn and Collins are dead, but the digital drugs have been released, my brother is still in prison and half of my collarbone is now metal."
Aiden gazed at her steadily, eyebrow raised in silent but potent disapproval.
Blowing out a frustrated breath, she raked a hand tiredly over her face. "I'm sorry."
Silence settled around them, uncomfortable as a prickly jumper. It made her want to itch her skin.
"You're not staying in Chicago."
Hayley jerked her head up, sucking breath in between her teeth when her shoulder reacted to the sharp movement. It wasn't voiced as a questions and Hayley realized that the idea had been there for a while. Slipping like a ghost into her mind, wavering and indiscriminate at first, but gaining traction and form the more she gave the idea life.
"I …. It's … I don't..." she stumbled over the words, her tongue refusing to form the letters. "I don't know yet," she said honestly, looking over at Aiden. He'd sat back in the seat, darkness veiled his expression, conveniently cloaking what he was feeling.
"I feel vulnerable, too many eyes on me."
A mirthless laugh crawled up her throat, but the artificial humor burned out before she could express it. If she was in any other city but Chicago, her last statement would sound like the ravings of a paranoid schizophrenic, but Hayley knew all too well Blume's almost unlimited access to people's lives.
"I phoned my CO. He was a little … annoyed at me. Anyway," she waved a limp hand, "he's offered me a position. Training a new team. After I heal. And pass the physical. And psych test," Hayley felt her lip peel back at that prospect.
"Are you going to accept?" Aiden asked, voice bare of any inflection, like he was asking her if she thought the weather was nice.
"Do you think I should?" she countered, a sharp sting to her voice.
"I think you need to do what makes you happy."
The words were delivered tonelessly, the lukewarm sentiment falling flat between them.
"This doesn't make me happy Aiden," she snapped, pointing a finger at her shoulder. "Or this," she waved a hand indicating the two of them. "Knowing if it wasn't for my impulsive decision none of this would have happened. Everything is complicated because of my fuck up. So no Aiden, happy is not the word I'd use."
She was breathing hard, the pain in her shoulder slowly creeping into her awareness.
"I don't know how you managed to keep me out of prison, but I am grateful. It's just … I don't think I can stay here. Looking over my shoulder, wondering if a Fixer might try to grab me to get to you. Knowing Blume and the Cops are watching me. It's not a life I wanted. I can't be here, be in the same city as you and not see you," Hayley commented quietly, feeling her voice break on the sharp edge of pain in her throat.
For a brief moment, the desire to throw caution to the wind, to stay in Chicago with Aiden, rose like spectre, insubstantial but fleeting. Hayley realized Aiden had probably done the least selfish thing in his entire life, working behind the scenes to keep her out of prison, probably knowing that it'd mean they couldn't be together.
He could have just let nature take its course, let the Cops charge her and organize to take her from the Hospital before she was transferred to prison. But that would have meant she'd be a fugitive, and that was something she didn't want. As much as it hurt to know she couldn't be with Aiden, the thought of a life on the run was infinitesimally worse. Two decisions which had life changing consequences regardless of which one she picked.
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"You don't need to be. This isn't all on you, it's not just your burden to carry. It's easier to sit back and pick apart our choices now."
Hayley got the distinct impression he wasn't just referring to their raid on the auction.
Aiden shifted in the seat so he could face her. "I'm working on getting your brother's sentence reduced. But, Chicago isn't safe for you. And you're right, you'll be monitored closely. Maybe in a few months' time Blume or the Cops might back off slightly, but you'll never have the same freedom of movement. There might not be evidence of our relationship but there's enough speculation for others to make the connection. If you stay in Chicago you'll be living like a fugitive anyway. I can't guarantee your safety, I have too many enemies who would use you against me."
Without Hayley really noticing, a tear had escaped to roll down her cheek. Maybe that's what she'd been waiting for, not permission as such, but acceptance from Aiden. To leave him, to move on with her life without him.
As much as it was about self-preservation for her, she realized it was also Aiden's way of distancing himself from her decision. Sure, he was shifting the pieces on the chess board so that she could see she was out of options, but ultimately she was making the choice to leave. She should be angry that Aiden was still playing these kinds of games with her, but if it was his way of coping, did it really matter?
Aiden's phone beeped once, sharply. He looked down at the screen, a frown tightening his face.
"I have to go."
But neither of them moved, reluctant to part, knowing they'd likely never see each other again. Aiden rolled his shoulders irritably, like he was trying to shake off the last of his reluctance. He got out the car, but Hayley was slower. When Aiden came around to help her, his hand closed around her arm and she felt the warmth from his fingers.
He didn't let go of her arm when she got out. The air crackled between them with something too passionately volatile to touch. Leaning down, Aiden kissed her. It was bittersweet, she could taste the regret on his tongue. Then he pulled away and all that she was left with was the lingering sense of him of her lips.
When Aiden cupped the side of her face with one hand, she felt an unexpected emptiness inside, like every emotion had slowly been leaking through her skin and there was nothing left. The last two times she'd left Chicago, Hayley had been running from something; her mother's death, then from Aiden. Sure, she may be running again, but this time felt different. For all his faults, Aiden had never abandoned her. He'd even helped her heal her fractured mind. Had changed her, for better and worse.
Aiden turned around, but stopped when she spoke.
"Don't get yourself killed," she remarked, forcing levity into her tone.
A small, sardonic smile flirted with the corner of his mouth. "You either Hayley."
As Aiden's form was swallowed by the darkness, Hayley knew they would both need to reassess the direction of their lives. Like the same process used in defragmenting a computer. It was about maintenance, but rather than identifying and discarding unusable files, it was about cleaning up the fragments of their plans. Systematically categorizing what was viable for their own futures. It might not be together, but they were alive. That's the most they could ask for.
I have mixed feelings about finishing this story. I've been working on it for 2 years. That's a long time to complete a story and I've grown rather attached to the characters. But, I've decided to continue writing in the WD universe and will continue Aiden's story with a series of shorter arcs. I'm aware there are a few loose ends but they're deliberate. They'll lead into other stories I have planned. If you've read this story, thank you for taking the time. It's been a pleasure to write, sometimes frustrating, but I'm happy with the way it turned out. Please feel free to leave a comment, and for those who have left reviews/likes - thank you, I really appreciate it.