Author's Note: The aim of this opening chapter is to introduce Lisa's mental state with regard to Jackson and the dreaded events of the Dallas – Miami Red Eye flight, so there is some exposition I'm afraid, more perhaps than I would have liked. But it hopefully serves as a proper foundation for the rest of the story to come. This chapter is also pretty long – which might well mean the whole story ends up longer than I first thought actually – so apologies in advance. I hope you bear with it.

Apologies too if there are elements of this story which come across as 'unoriginal'. Although this is not a shipping fanfic per se, there is certainly a 'relationship' of sorts which gradually emerges between Jackson and Lisa. It is the ramifications of that relationship which interest me, most particularly with regard to what we learn about the background to Jackson's 'career', hopefully introducing a thriller element to the story.

I expect the story to be told almost entirely from Lisa's POV. This is predominantly her story, her emotional journey – although obviously this might change as the story progresses. I hope you enjoy!

THE REAL DEAL

CHAPTER ONE – Inklings

A shaft of cool morning sunshine was streaming through a gap in the curtains, piercing the grey darkness. From the warm confines of her bed, Lisa Reisert watched, as luminous particles of dust kept swirling and spinning within the ray of light, a constant, endless chase, which was soon to be swamped by the bright light which flooded the room, once Lisa had swung open the curtains – a signal that her day was to begin.

At first, this morning felt no different to any other. Lisa was tired and cramped from sleeplessness, reluctant to drag herself from bed, to embrace the day.

But just moments after waking, a strange and frightening recollection chilled through her – one she hoped would dissipate as the warmth and bustle of everyday life took over.

Last night had seemed like any other night she endured these days.

She had fallen into bed, exhausted from a long day's hectic work as manager of the Lux Atlantic, one of Miami's most prestigious hotels. She had slept fitfully for a few hours, waking just after 3.00am. She had grimaced in annoyance at the blinking red digital display on her radio/alarm clock.

It was always the same.

Some nights she had to get up, walk around the house, watch some TV, have something to eat. Anything to force out the welter of dark and dangerous thoughts which crowded into her mind. Other times, she froze, succumbed to her fear, reliving over and over, in compulsively vivid detail, the horror that had been her life just six months ago.

Lisa had been flying home to Miami from her grandmother's funeral in Texas. At the airport, she had met a man, a man who had turned her life upside down in the cruellest possible fashion. A man who, at first, seemed charming, attractive, a man with whom she had flirted, enjoying his company. These facts she acknowledged, albeit grudgingly.

But this man, Jackson Rippner as he called himself, was in reality a 'manager', hired to organise high profile assassinations, and his target in this instance was Keefe, the deputy director of Homeland Security, and his family, who happened to be staying at Lisa's hotel in Miami. Rippner's sole aim aboard the Dallas to Miami Red Eye, was to force an unsuspecting Lisa to call her hotel and authorise a change of suite for Keefe - a suite targeted by a lethal guided missile. And if she refused to comply, Rippner coldly warned, her father would be murdered.

Florida's S.B.I , the F.B.I., Keefe's own department, everyone had praised Lisa for her quick thinking, her tenacity, in double-crossing Rippner, ensuring Keefe's escape – and also for her fearless self-defence when Rippner, blood boiling with angry revenge and wounded pride, then attacked herself and her father at her father's home in Miami. Rippner had been injured in the process – eventually shot by Lisa's father.

But Rippner hadn't died.

Neither had he been charged for conspiring to murder Keefe and his family, contrary to all the evidence Lisa had scrupulously submitted to the prosecution. This failure to charge Rippner appeared to be an incomprehensible and wholly confusing U-turn from the police authorities.

And in a further disturbing development, a number of key witnesses from the Dallas to Miami Red Eye flight, had decided to change their testimony, or even forgo testifying at all.

It was as though the assassination attempt had never happened.

There had, of course, been some charges levelled at Rippner, based on Lisa and Joe Reisert's complaints that he had forcefully entered their home and attacked them, prompting their acts of self-defence. But at the preliminary hearing, Lisa had become awkwardly aware that there were a number of questions being raised, inferring that her and her father's behaviour, had itself bordered on the criminal.

This was disconcerting to say the least.

And, more worrying still, soon after, doubts were raised that there had ever been a man called Jackson Rippner. The 'intruder' to the Reisert home was instead publicly identified as a Mr John Doyle from Connecticut – supposedly in Miami on business – who claimed to be present at the Reisert home, only because he had witnessed Lisa's ramming a man (as yet unidentified, although Lisa knew him to be a hired killer) with an SUV, just moments earlier. Doyle claimed he was offering assistance, in what he had presumed was a terrible accident.

Lisa was humiliated by a steady stream of inferences, suggesting that Jackson Rippner might never even have existed. After all. Just what kind of name was JACKSON RIPPNER? Who in their right minds would call a kid that? It didn't add up. Lisa argued that it was clearly an alias. This man was a hard-boiled assassin. A cold-blooded killer.

But she could feel her case, her cause, gradually slipping away.

And Lisa had finally caved into despair when all media coverage was unexpectedly halted and a number of dark-suited, slick-tongued lawyers were suddenly drafted in for Rippner/Doyle's defence.

Strangely, no one, not even Rippner, dared bring charges against Lisa and her father on Rippner/Doyle's behalf. And the prosecution failed to charge Lisa in connection to the death of the unidentified man she had mowed down, outside her father's house. This was all the more peculiar, because by now, the rapidly changing tone of events had led Lisa to dread that she, the victim in this scenario, was to be painted a criminal instead.

As for Jackson Rippner himself, Lisa never once laid eyes on him throughout these proceedings. Straight after the shooting, Rippner had been transferred to an out-of-state infirmary. Lisa was never informed where.

She soon learnt that Rippner had been discharged. But still, he never made an appearance at the court hearing, which was promptly shut down with what seemed to Lisa to be undue haste.

In some respects Lisa was relieved that she didn't have to face Rippner. She dreaded the thought of seeing him again – his chill, blue eyes, his insolent gaze.

But she was terrifyingly aware that this had been a bewildering miscarriage of justice. She wondered who Jackson Rippner really was. Who did he work for? And was she still in danger?

After all, Rippner was still out there, somewhere. And despite the constant assurances from her father, and her therapist, and the handful of police officers who had sympathised with her position, that Rippner would be a fool to return – to 'steal her' as he himself had once put it – she could not stem the gut-churning fears which gripped her, robbing her of any peace of mind, depriving her of sleep.

'Bad things happen to good people' Rippner had told her in a calm, laconic tone.

But why her? Why Lisa Reisert? Why was she to be haunted by her past? These spectres of cruelty – Rippner himself and an unknown, uncaptured rapist who had tormented her in a car-lot two years previous – they were both still out there. Watching. Waiting. Biding their time.

These thoughts continued to torture Lisa, eating away at her through these long nights, these vigils of fear, compounded by the bitter knowledge that in the event of an attack, she was defenceless.

It was so unfair.

Last night had been no different it seemed. Darkness riddled with paranoid fears. She had lain frozen, bathed in cold sweat, clutching her comforter close to her body, her heart beating frantically inside her chest. She had become, once again, a small child, hiding under the bedclothes, fearful of the boogieman coming to take her away – to 'steal her'.

And at times, in the deep, dark silence of the night – last night - she had fancied she could hear his breathing, soft yet urgent, slightly rasped, close by her.

It was as though she could feel his eyes, cold cerulean blue, boring into her. Watching. Waiting.

She hoped, of course, it was fanciful fear, getting the better of her. But it had felt so darned real, so imminent. So close.

By the time that first ray of sunlight had strayed into her bedroom, she was drained, exhausted and desperate.

XXXXXXXXXX

'You look terrible,' Dana, one of the receptionists at the Lux Atlantic hotel mumbled in sympathetic greeting to Lisa as she arrived for work an hour later. 'Had a bad night?'

'Worse than ever,' Lisa mumbled, filing quickly through the pile of mail Dana had handed her. 'Any overnight disasters I should know about?' she added casually.

Dana shrugged. 'One of those delightfully uneventful nights you'll be glad to know.'

'Good,' Lisa breathed, heading into her office with the mail. She called back to Dana. 'Could someone grab me a latte?'

XXXXXXXXXX

Safely ensconced in her office, Lisa sunk heavily onto a deep black leather sofa, wondering how she was going to cope with the long day ahead of her. She was panting slightly, and her chest felt strained. She rubbed her throat, gulping for air.

She soon recognised these symptoms as the precursor to a panic attack. Her therapist Miriam had told her repeatedly to think nice, clear thoughts, take deep breaths, even cup her hands over her face, ensuring she had plentiful oxygen.

Gradually the rising sense of hot panic which was welling up inside of her subsided. She continued to breathe deeply, eyes tightly closed, ignoring the brash clamour of the telephone on her desk, which demanded her attention.

The ringing persisted.

Lisa saw a bright red light on top of the phone was illuminated, indicating this was in-house. She sighed heavily. It was probably a problem with housekeeping or a troublesome guest. Still. It was her job to deal with it.

She grabbed the phone in some irritation.

'This is Lisa. How can I help you?' she said in brisk, clipped tones.

There was silence.

'Hello?'

But there was still no reply.

'Hello?' she repeated, barely able to suppress her annoyance. Lisa momentarily checked the receiver, tapping it, just in case it was a dodgy connection. She was about to disconnect and call Maintenance, when she heard it.

Soft, light breathing. Not quite the urgent intensity of last night's fears, but eerily present, eerily there, all the same.

'Hello,' she repeated, a little more tentatively, quizzically, trying to dampen the sudden surge of alarm which prickled through her body.

'Is – is someone there?' she faltered.

But there was no reply. Just the steady rhythmical cadence of soft, light breathes. Except ... except, if she listened carefully, above the pounding of her own heart, there was a slight shushing wheeze, a faint underlying trace of huskiness, barely discernible, but certainly there.

Lisa gasped, a cold shiver of recognition washing over her.

She slammed the phone down onto her desk, jumping back and away from it, as if it was alive and dangerous. As if the breathing, HIS breathing, for somehow she had no doubt who had called, could magically materialise before her, invade her - Jackson Rippner's sinewy self, bristling with malice, with menace, with dangerous intent, taking physical form.

XXXXXXXXXX

Lisa ran into reception. Dana noted her alarm, but was occupied with a customer. She subtly raised her eyebrows in reassurance. Lisa smiled weakly.

Luckily Eric, her long-serving head of security, was exiting the elevator and was lumbering across the lobby towards her, a broad grin lighting up his face.

'Great news Lisa!' he chortled. 'My little Suzette's done it! It's another little grand-daughter for me and Cherry!'

Lisa's features brightened at his news, even though her insides were still quivering with sickly dread.

'That's wonderful, Eric. Really, truly wonderful. That … that makes three grandkids in all now, doesn't it?'

Eric was normally better known for her his solemn morosity – a man who took his job very, very seriously. Lisa marvelled at the sunny change in his demeanour.

Eric nodded. 'Three little darlings … and all girls too!'

'Well,' said Lisa chirpily. 'If – if you want to take an extended lunch today Eric, go visit them … it's really no problem.'

Eric's eyes widened. 'That's real kind of you Miss Lisa. And why don't you drop by sometime yourself? Suzette's always asking after you.'

'I'll do just that. I promise.'

Lisa shuffled awkwardly, ashamed to undermine Eric's buoyant mood.

'One thing Eric – before you go.'

'Sure. Fire away.'

'I – I just received an odd sort of call – a crank call I think.'

Eric's thickly seamed forehead furrowed in concern. Since the missile attack on Keefe's suite six months ago, Eric had become ever more vigilant, even perhaps a little obsessive, about anything he deemed to be a potential security breach.

He had also developed a strongly protective streak towards Lisa, who he felt had been treated most unfairly by the Miami Police department – something which had shocked him to the core, seeing as he was an ex-cop himself, with, in general, a strong allegiance to his old work buddies.

'I see. Exactly what KIND of call? Was it a threat?'

Lisa chilled at the thought of it. The soft, sighing breathes. Nothing else. Nothing one could truly construe as a threat per se – but sinister none the less.

'No … not really.' Lisa's eyes darted frantically around the lobby. Just in case.

'You know Eric. I'd feel better discussing this in my office. It'll only take a moment.'

XXXXXXXXXX

'It's probably nothing to worry about. But I got this call just a few minutes ago … just someone breathing,' said Lisa, twisting her hands in anguish as she spoke.

'HEAVY breathing?' Eric asked gruffly, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.

'No. Just … breathing.'

Eric stuck his bottom lip out thoughtfully. 'Might it have been a misdial Miss Lisa? Some folks get a bit stuck for words.'

'No. No Eric.' Lisa pushed her auburn hair which had flounced onto her face, away from her forehead, which was a little warm and clammy. Again, she was fighting panic. She knew it.

'It was HIM,' she blurted. 'I know it was. And he's here. At the hotel.'

Eric's brow creased in concern. He reached out a steadying hand to Lisa. She looked at him directly, directly into his kind, age-worn eyes. And she saw his sad, fond scepticism.

'Check the internal numbers,' she urged. 'You'll see that someone called my office just, just ten minutes ago. Probably less.'

'But normally an in-house call can be identified by its origin Miss Lisa. On caller display. Was it a room number, housekeeping?'

'None of those. Just INTERNAL.' Now that she was saying this out loud she realised how ridiculous this might sound to others.

Eric shook his head slowly. 'You know Miss Lisa. I can't see how that's possible. But I can assure you I'll get the boys to sift through your calls. See if anything's out of the ordinary.'

Lisa smiled weakly, then said in desperation. 'Thanks Eric. But can it be now? This instant? Because I, I think he might still be here, if, if it's who I think it is, and …'.

Eric sighed. 'Right away Miss Lisa. As you say.'

He stepped out of the office, almost colliding with Lisa's assistant manager Cynthia, who was clearly coming to see Lisa, armed with a sheaf of papers in one hand and a latte for Lisa in the other.

'Hey Lisa,' she said merrily.

Lisa momentarily cheered at the sight of her friend's fresh, young face and wide-mouthed, exuberant smile, even though her heart was still beating hard, and her mind was racing.

'OK, OK, so I've got stacks of nasty paperwork for you to get through, but I've got some really cool news too,' Cynthia said breezily, allowing the papers to slide out of her arms and onto Lisa's desk. Her tone faltered in response to Lisa's stricken expression.

'Are you alright?'

Cynthia's genuinely kind and caring tones always had a nasty habit of undoing her.

Lisa flopped onto the sofa, her hands resting neatly on the knees of her smartly tailored black pants. She gulped back a ghastly urge to cry, to scream.

Cynthia carefully placed the latte on Lisa's desk and sat next to her. Her hand rested on Lisa's.

'A bad day, huh?'

Lisa nodded mutely, struggling to swallow, afraid that the hot tears welling up in her eyes might spill over.

'I'm terrified,' she gasped quietly. 'I can't help myself. I just got a call. A strange call. And I'm pretty darned sure it was HIM.'

Cynthia's hand clutched Lisa's anxiously.

'You sure about this?'

Lisa looked at Cynthia. Her eyes clear and soulful. 'I think so.'

Cynthia whistled softly through her teeth, her eyes darting from side to side.

'Geez Lisa. What did he say?'

'Say? Oh. Nothing. He … he just breathed. He was just … there.' She broke into wild laughter. 'Or rather, he was HERE. So close. So very close. He still might be.'

Cynthia was looking very worried.

'What makes you say that?'

'Because it was an in-house call.'

Cynthia's face puckered a little. 'And … you know, for certain, it was Jackson.'

Lisa cringed a little at the sound of his name.

'I've no doubt.'

'Even though he didn't speak to you.'

'Like I said. I heard him breathing.'

'And … HIS breathing sounds so very different to any other person's, right?'

'Look Cynthia. I know it was him. Eric's gone to check the phone log.'

Cynthia put a reassuring arm around Lisa's shoulders and drew her close.

'Lisa. Lisa. You know how this sounds, don't you.'

'Yes. Yes. Of course I do,' Lisa replied in irritated tones. 'I'm not dumb, you know.'

'Is it possible you're just a little tired and kind of upset, and … maybe, maybe your mind's playing tricks on you?'

'He's out there Cynthia. He's haunting me.'

'I know, I know,' Cynthia said in placatory tones.

Lisa pulled away and stood up, staring fixedly at her friend who remained seated on the sofa. 'You do believe me, don't you? You're not like all those other bastards who figure that Jackson Rippner was some kind of figment of my imagination?'

Cynthia looked incredulous. 'How could you think such a thing? I've never doubted you for a minute.' She paused, then added hesitantly. 'No-one - no-one who matters - has ever really doubted that this guy … this JACKSON … broke into your Dad's house, and, and, he likely deserved what was coming to him too.'

Lisa looked exasperated. 'Except there is no Jackson Rippner, apparently.' The tears which had threatened to spill over, now fell. 'Just this John Doyle character. Who the police seem to believe over me and Dad.'

'Who's jumped state.'

'Who was REMOVED from the State of Florida … don't forget that,' Lisa interjected menacingly. 'And I would dearly love to know by whom.'

Cynthia looked awkward, even fearful, at what she was about to say next.

'Look Lisa. I sincerely do believe you that this guy was some kind of terrorist or something … I got your call, remember? But surely you can see that there is no real evidence connecting the man you met on the plane and this, this intruder? The police have been over and over this stuff already.'

'So you DON'T believe me.'

'No, I do. I do,' Cynthia said firmly. A look of bitter resignation swept across her face. She had had this same conversation over and over. 'Maybe you should go home, get some rest. Take the day off. You look beat.'

Lisa smiled wanly. She pushed her hair out of her eyes, gazed about the room.

'Maybe I should,' she muttered. 'Even though it's the Diamond Club Ladies Annual Dinner this evening. And you know how very, very particular Mrs Moncrieff is about getting everything just so!'

Cynthia grinned, leaping to her feet. 'Well I can handle Mrs Moncrieff, and her precious ladies. Don't worry about a thing. Leave it all to me.'

Cynthia headed for the door, but before heading out, she paused, briefly turning back to Lisa.

'You still seeing that shrink Lisa?'

Lisa laughed. 'OK. So you DO think I've lost it!'

Cynthia was about to leave when Lisa remembered.

'Cynthia!' she called. Cynthia swung round. 'What was the good news?'

Cynthia's face lit up. 'Bradley's asked me to marry him. And … I said yes!'

XXXXXXXXXX

Lisa settled herself onto the well-worn faded chintz couch in Dr Miriam Greenbaum's office. Miriam was a short, dumpy woman, in her late fifties, with a kindly manner and warm, gentle eyes, now gazing thoughtfully at her anguished young patient.

'It's so kind of you Miriam to see me at such short notice,' Lisa said, picking nervously at her fingernails.

'Not at all,' smiled Miriam. 'To tell the truth, I was very concerned when you called this morning.'

Lisa smiled in return, a close approximation of her confident, beaming smile. Her 'people pleasing' face.

Miriam didn't seem convinced. She eyed Lisa thoughtfully.

'So you think he called you,' she said. 'Is this the first time?'

Lisa pondered for a moment. 'I believe so. Yes.'

'And you're SURE it was him?'

'I can't know for sure, of course, but … my instincts tell me,' Lisa replied.

'Well dear, if this is the case, shouldn't you be informing the police department?'

Miriam's words rang out as a challenge, Lisa thought. She doesn't believe me. She doesn't believe me. She thinks I'm a kook.

'I … I'm not sure … I don't think they'll take me seriously.'

'Why ever not? This won't be the first time you have claimed he is following you.'

'Stalking, more like,' Lisa muttered venomously, failing to conceal the rising impatience in her voice.

Miriam smiled serenely. Behind her was a large window, opening out onto a swathe of freshly mown green lawn, wetly gleaming in the bright sunshine, as a sprinkler constantly swooshed, round and round, drenching the grass.

'And you say he was in your house. Last night.'

'I said he MAY have been. I don't actually know. It – it just felt like he was.'

Lisa could feel the mild throb of a headache dinning at her temples.

'So, it wasn't necessarily a physical manifestation of Mr Rippner. More, perhaps, your fears. Getting the better of you,' Miriam said in soft, soothing tones.

Lisa felt tears of frustration pricking her eyelids. Twice in one day was not good, she thought. Not good at all. She took a deep breath. Miriam leant forward from the beige leather armchair she was sitting in, opposite Lisa, and gently stroked Lisa's hand.

'That's it dear. Let it out. Let it out.'

Instead Lisa sniffed back the tears, pulled her hand away, and sat, straight-backed. She forced a smile.

'I hope you don't think I'm having a psychotic episode,' she laughed mirthlessly.

Miriam smiled. 'Hardly psychotic! … Neurotic maybe.'

Lisa grimaced.

Miriam continued. 'No Lisa. What is happening to you is perfectly understandable. What you have gone through – and I mean EVERYTHING, not just Rippner – would have undone most people. You, however, have responded admirably. A little tiny bit of unravelling now and then is allowed I should think.' She smiled indulgently.

Lisa pulled a face. 'You say that.'

'You don't have to be Superwoman,' Miriam said tartly, almost as a reprimand.

Lisa gave a twisted smile. Oh, but I do, she thought wryly.

They fell into silence, punctuated only by the rhythmic swishing of the sprinkler beyond the window.

Miriam pursed her lips tightly, as if in deep concentration. Then, out of the blue.

'Lisa, do you think you might actually WANT to see him again?'

A flicker of panic, almost excitement, shuddered through Lisa, but she suppressed it, fixing a smile of disbelief, of revulsion, on her face.

'This man tried to kill me. He attacked my father. Why would I want to see him? I fear and hate him.'

Miriam said nothing in return, simply keeping her eyes trained on Lisa's face.

'You mean …. Do I want to exact my revenge?' Lisa said, rolling her eyes dramatically. 'Because … because I don't. Not now. I DID. But. That's passed. It's over.'

Miriam continued to gaze at Lisa.

Lisa looked down. 'Like I said. I just fear him, that's all,' she said in a small voice.

'Sometimes Lisa,' Miriam said. 'We have to face our darkest fears. Because they are part of us. Jackson Rippner is your nemesis. You thought you had faced him down. But he got away. So he has come to represent the unbidden murky depths of your ID, if you will. Your psyche.'

Lisa looked bewildered.

Miriam smiled, adding empatically. 'Your dark side.'

Lisa now listened closely.

'And perhaps, there is a part of you Lisa – as with anybody – which is secretly drawn to that dark side. The thrill of it all. The horror. The power. Perhaps you truly want him to appear, as if by magic, so that you can try to understand him. Understand yourself.'

'No,' Lisa said steadily. 'It's not like that. Not like that at all.' Her eyes momentarily clouded. 'I just want to ask him one simple question.'

'And what's that my dear?'

Lisa screwed up her face in sudden anger. 'Why me? Why did he have to choose me? What did I ever do to him? And … and just who is he? And why does he make me feel like this? Why is he always here? Always present? Always with me?'

Miriam nodded sagely. 'I thought you said ONE simple question my dear.' She patted Lisa's hand affectionately. Lisa was now sobbing hard.

'That's it Lisa. Let it out. Let it out.'

XXXXXXXXXX

Maybe Miriam was right, Lisa thought, as she drove home to her small house in the suburbs. Maybe there was something in her that wanted to meet Jackson Rippner again. So much so, she was perhaps developing these wild fantasies. Imagining him watching her, calling her.

But Lisa didn't quite buy that either. She'd always been a level-headed girl. Not inclined to flights of fancy. Sure, she felt kind of rudderless, adrift at times. Like life had no meaning … or at least one she could get a handle on. But she moved through her life, her days, with gritted determination to somehow keep in control, to get by. Come what may.

Miriam was right of course. Other people had experienced far less than she had, and had keeled over with post-traumatic stress syndrome, or whatever it was they called emotional breakdown these days. Lisa didn't despise these people. In some ways she admired them – admired their courage to just cave into their feelings, their fears, to 'let it out'. But she couldn't do that. She couldn't simply succumb. She was made differently.

She wanted to confront these feelings, her primeval ID, or whatever it was Miriam had called it, head on.

But of course that meant confronting Jackson Rippner. She knew she couldn't find him herself. Bitter experience had taught her that this man was capable of defying his own existence.

But she knew he was coming for her. Of that she was sure.

All she had to do was wait.