She awoke with a start, bolting upright, her heart thumping in her chest. The sun was just starting to peek through the cracks in the blinds, so the room was splintered into fragments of pale light and shadow as she gasped and caught at her breath, the remnants of the nightmare fracturing and drifting away in the gloom of the morning. Her hand came up to brush away stray strands of her long, blonde hair from her eyes as her other hand instantly dropped underneath her pillow and felt the reassuring coolness of the metal of her gun. Her chest was still pounding as her pale blue eyes searched the room, darting from shadow to shadow. For a second, on awakening, she could have sworn she felt another presence in the room, someone watching her…
Then a cupboard door slammed from somewhere else in the apartment, and she relaxed slightly and silently groaned in frustration. Cooper was awake, and he was probably hungry. He must be ransacking the kitchen for snacks. He was getting less and less sleep as the chase persisted. She was starting to get concerned that his dreams were keeping him up more, that he wasn't sleeping as much as she was, which was already little enough.
She crawled out of the queen size bed and stood up and stretched, her back popping in protest. She didn't feel like she had gotten any rest at all, but her internal clock was screaming at her that it was past time to go. They had only gotten in early this morning to grab the few hours of sleep that they had. Or that she had. She looked over at the open doorway out of the bedroom. She worried that the day may come when she could not take care of Cooper anymore. She was usually good about waking up when he did, or earlier…she didn't like him off by himself without her watching over him. It was a bad sign that he had been up long enough to have wandered off to another room. He could hurt himself inadvertently, or worse; draw attention to them. Attention they could very well not afford right now.
She worried too much. She knew that, but honestly, it was what had kept the two of them alive these past few years (has it really been years, she thought sadly). These long, lonely years of just the two of them. They had become fugitives on the run when the arrest warrants had somehow inexplicably turned into bounties. They were hunted by mercenaries and bounty hunters, wanted by most metropolitan police departments with any sort of current bulletin, and the last time she had gotten on a computer, she quickly found that they were on the FBI's wanted list. They were pretty low on that list, but it still meant that their names were being tagged at the federal level. The full extent of the hunt made little sense, but there was little she could do to find out what it was really about. It was all she could do just to figure out where their next meal and shelter was coming from. Their only defense against all this madness (she inwardly winced at the expression) was her incessant unease and their ceaseless mobility. She never let them stay anywhere longer than a few days, even when there seemed to be no reason to suspect danger. But she was getting so tired. This was taking its toll on both of them.
She leaned over to pick up her belt from the floor and her platinum bangs fell forward, briefly obstructing her view. Her hair was a complete mess, it felt tangled and knotted. She tried to pass a hand through it, a sigh escaping her full lips. At least she had managed to kick her sneakers off her sockless feet before she had passed out, still exhausted from their flight this morning. She was still wearing what she had passed out in last night; greyish combat fatigues that should've been baggier and a faded black t-shirt that hugged her curvy figure. She rubbed her elbow. It was still sore from where she had shattered the glass. Which reminded her…
She glanced over at the window as she slipped the 9mm out from under the pillow and into the holster, then strapped it on so that it tucked snugly under her left breast, hiding it from sight. The heavy camo jacket she had stuffed in the hole was still there. By the time they had made it inside she was almost done caring if they had been noticed or not. But her cursory inspection didn't reveal any signs of disturbance to the jacket. Lucky.
Former Air Force Captain Emily Michelle Paul walked over to the window and pulled out her coat. The temperature in the air dropped dramatically as she put it on, patting all the pockets as she did so, double-checking to make sure nothing had fallen out. Inside one of the pockets clips of ammo clanked dully together. She was getting sloppy. In the old days, and especially back when she was still in the field, she would never have allowed that tiny bit of noise. The ammo clips were supposed to have been wrapped to prevent them from making a sound. But it was getting worse, there didn't seem to be an immediate end to all this running in sight, and she was letting some important details slip. In the end, the exhaustion would win. She couldn't afford to let it. Someone had to keep Cooper safe. That's why they were here. She really hoped they found better luck today. An old friend from the academy used to live around here, back when she used to have a life, and Emily was pretty sure she remembered the code to her alarm system. And if not, she'd improvise. She hated to steal, especially from someone she once considered a friend, but they were getting desperate. There was nobody there for them anymore. They had no car, no home, no money, no safety. It was getting harder to dodge the bounty hunters. If it hadn't been for Cooper's vision, the last one would've had them. She was very apprehensive about where they had hidden the body, though. She knew the man must have accomplices who would be looking for him. They'd find him soon, if they hadn't already. And if they were good enough, they might be able to track them here. She and Cooper had to go.
She stopped to consider Cooper's vision for a moment in the midst of braiding her hair. They had been taking a breather in an abandoned alley when he had become animated all of a sudden, gesturing and grunting at the locked door next to them, not even able to fully vocalize what he wanted to say. She had reacted instantly, thinking he had seen something, but she hadn't realized exactly how wrong she was. After a few frantic moments spent pulling ineffectually on the door and searching the adjoining alleyway, she had turned to find him staring into space, his eyes glazed over. And looking indistinct, like his pupils were disappearing. She had panicked, and slapped him. He had reacted with hurt at first, but at least the look had faded from his eyes. And then he had dove for her legs, knocking her off balance and making her fall on top of him. She didn't have time to rebuke him, however, because at that instant she had heard the thwap of a silenced bullet strike the wall above her.
The resulting firefight had sent Cooper skittering in fear to one corner. They had come away unharmed and the body had been disposed of in a dumpster, but she knew it was only a matter of time before they were tracked down again. And had to run again. It never ended.
"Cooper?" she called out. No answer. The sounds of activity from the kitchen had either stopped or become less frenetic, she couldn't tell. Either he had gotten bored and was exploring more of the place, or he had found something to satiate his hunger and curiosity. She hoped it was the latter. She had done a quick once-over when they had come in to make sure it was abandoned, but she really hadn't been able to do much more than that before collapsing. While she had been investigating Cooper had crawled into the big bed and had fallen right to sleep. She still had no idea what was in the apartment, or even how long they had before the owners returned. She was just lucky there wasn't a pet. She hated to kill innocent animals, but she couldn't risk discovery or one of them biting Cooper. The apartment was a slum, but appeared to be well-kept, so the chances of the owners coming back soon were pretty good. There was that feeling from before, from when she had woken up. She frowned, thinking of it, then shook her head. That had just been the remnants of a bad dream that she couldn't even remember anymore.
She tied off the braid and curled it up on top of her head, She reached down and picked up her blue ball cap from where it had dropped next to the bed and put it on, securing her hair under it. She slipped on her tennis shoes quickly and quietly. As she did so, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Carefully, she widened her peripheral vision and slowed her movements down to be able to imperceptibly grab the gun. The movement also stopped. She turned her head quickly to catch whoever it was and stared right into her own widened eyes. After swallowing the scream that had bubbled up inside her throat she was able to discern that it was a cheap floor-length mirror standing in the corner of the room. She finished lacing up her belt and went to stand in front of it, looking approvingly at herself. The cap made her blue eyes stand out brilliantly, and wisps of blonde hair were escaping from the right side of the cap to frame her face. She was not a vain person, but she was confident about her looks and her body, and even in the days before the madness she had enjoyed keeping herself fit and looking good. She allowed herself a small smile, thinking of those care-free times, before she returned to the immediate future.
Emily strode out of the room.
"Cooper? Cooper, don't wander off. Where are you?" She called out again, vague unease crossing her face. She walked quietly down the unfamiliar dark hallway, using her acoustic memory of the clatter Cooper had made to guide her to the kitchen. She didn't bother to turn on any lights. Years of being on the run along with her specific military training had instilled in her a reluctance to advertise her whereabouts, even to anybody friendly to her. She stepped carefully, noting the clutter of toys in the hall. So there was a kid, or had been. She again thanked the Lord that the place had been empty. She couldn't deal with another hostage situation like what had happened three months ago. She found the room she was looking for and stepped just inside the open doorway. And caught her breath.
"Oh...oh my goodness," she exhaled, after an astonished moment of consideration. The room was in complete shambles. How she had slept through most of this was unbelievable. The dead would have been jolted awake. Pots and pans were scattered all around the room in various configurations, presumably where they had been tossed or just pulled out. Boxes and cans that were too hard to open or looked unappetizing (she glimpsed a dented can of string beans) were strewn haphazardly on the counters and on the ground, joining the appliances and dishes carefully stacked from the cupboards above. The refrigerator door was hanging open, looking to have been already ransacked and found wanting. Entire shelves had been removed and were laying beside the fridge, along with a slowly melting open box of ice cream, a spoon still stuck in the middle of it. By the indistinct light of the dawning day streaming in from the window in the dining nook on the far side of the kitchen, she was able to make out a figure crouched behind a cupboard door on the far side of the room, still rummaging inside, the sounds of rustling giving away its presence.
"Cooper, is that you? What are you doing? Come out from behind there, let me see what you're doing. What'd you find to eat?" Emily took a tentative step into the room, pushing aside an open bag of potato chips with her foot. The sound paused briefly, then the figure shifted and stood up. Emily couldn't help but smile as she gazed at her loved one ruefully, taking in his disheveled hair and clothes attesting to the fact that he hadn't bothered to clean up or even change when he had woken up. He was clutching an open can of mixed fruits with one hand, most of its contents in his mouth and the rest running down his shirt and falling in clumps from his pants. His unfocused eyes skittered around the room, trying to find her, before settling on a spot close to her right elbow by the doorway. It had been days since he had eaten anything other than fast food or lukewarm microwave dinners…he was probably enjoying the sweet food far more than she would.
"Emy? I found food! It's good and slimy!" Cooper was obviously very excited and proud of his accomplishment, and he rushed forward to her, the can held out to her. She smiled sadly at him and reached out to take the can from his shaking fingers. His hands clutched at hers and engulfed them, long graceful fingers that once created complicated programs entwining with hers. She peered up into his dark brown eyes, eyes that used to be so expressive and used to look lovingly into hers, eyes that now couldn't focus on her. His tall lanky form towered over her, a man comfortably in his early thirties, his eyes roving around the room trying to find a place to settle on. Emily suppressed a sob as she admired her loving unhinged husband. His shaggy brown hair looked unkempt and stringy, his bangs continually falling into his eyes. His clothes were wrinkled and nondescript, brown cargo pants and a black and grey checkered button down shirt hanging open over a green t-shirt. His large feet, clad in dingy black and white converse, shuffled impatiently. She didn't think she could love him anymore, and the heartache that those empty eyes brought her always threatened to overwhelm her and make her curl up into a fetal position.
"Thank you so much, baby. You are so thoughtful." And she bravely tilted the can to her lips as he beamed victoriously at the refrigerator.
She felt herself start to tear up, and ruthlessly squashed it. There was no time for remorse. There never had been. They had to get out of here. They had to keep moving. There was no telling how close that mercenary's friends might be. They had to leave this area now, and hopefully find her friend's house. They'd be hitchhiking today if she hadn't seen that they had to take the bus, the time saved would make a huge difference. It would strip them of what little precious money they had left, but…
Emily froze as she heard the barely audible tinkle of a bell outside the doorway behind her, one of the children's toys. With barely any hesitation, she threw herself forward. Her left arm shot out to shove Cooper roughly back onto his rear as a harsh cough barked behind her and a chunk of the cabinet next to her exploded into wooden chunks. She spun around in mid-air and landed on her back with an inaudible oomph, pistol already in hand and pointed down the length of her body at the entrance as the camo-garbed figure with a black ski mask darted into view. The bulkiness of the fatigues betrayed the presence of personal armor. It swung a modified PS90 with an elongated barrel into the room, trying to pinpoint her position. Before he could register her, a hole appeared in his forehead through the ski mask and he fell back, dead before he hit the floor. Stupid to wear body armor and not protect his head. She was already moving, however, rolling forward onto her feet and spinning to sprint for the window and the fire escape beyond it. She barely marked the look of bewilderment on Cooper's face as she caught up to him, and she grabbed at his arm as she passed by and dragged him after her. She shot once at the window, shattering the glass and startling the man creeping up the metal stairs, his eyes wide with surprise behind dark sunglasses. He was wearing a charcoal grey suit and holding an M32 grenade launcher slung over one shoulder and a micro-Uzi in the other hand. He tried to recover quickly at her sudden arrival and swung the submachine gun up at her, but that moment of hesitation was all she needed to get the drop on him. She shot him twice in the chest and once in the shoulder holding the Uzi. He grunted and reeled back, his weapons dropping out of his hands as they lost strength. The Uzi dropped to the floor but the grenade launcher went end over end down the stairs. She was already sliding out the window and pulling Cooper out behind her. She let go of him and grabbed at the man's body as he slumped towards her. He was a big man, a little on the heavy side, and she knew that under normal circumstances she wouldn't have been able to budge him. Quickly she spun the man's body around, using his own momentum to fling him at the window. He staggered as he slammed into the window frame, obstructing it completely. She followed quickly with her shoulder pressed to his back to hold him upright, his body shuddering as hidden slugs slammed into him from inside the apartment. Emily turned her head to look at Cooper and found him examining his hands, blood pooling on both palms.
"I spilled the tomato sauce again, Emy," he said ruefully, turning one hand over to reveal the black outline of a tattoo of a wedding band on his ring finger. Emily's breath caught in her throat as she grabbed them gently and surveyed them. Just some small cuts from the glass, where he had gripped the windowsill to vault over. She released her breath. They would have to be bandaged up soon, but it was something that would wait. She glanced down the metal scaffolding, ensuring there was nobody waiting at the alley this fire escape emptied into was deserted except for the occasional dumpster full of garbage. Beyond the corner of the large apartment building, she could see the flow of morning traffic. They were on the fourth floor, a long way down those stairs. She quickly squatted down and picked up the Uzi as she tucked her 9mm back into its holster. She turned to her husband.
"Come on, baby, it's time to go. You wanna race down the stairs? Race, Coop?"
But Cooper had noticed the man's body while she had been distracted, and was staring at it in horror as it fell away from the window to reveal more camo-clad figures cautiously entering the room. He seemed paralyzed by the sight. She swore under her breath and whirled him around away from it. She grabbed his hand and hooked it in the waistband of her pants.
"Keep hold, Cooper. Don't let go," she yelled back at him as she started down the stairwell. He followed quickly, unwilling to let her go once he had the tactile sensation of her under his hand. They would be out the window within seconds, and she needed to put as much metal between her and them as possible. It was difficult to tell exactly how many there were. She thought she had seen at least three. And all of them were armed with silenced submachine guns and advanced military gear and moved with the efficiency of special extraction teams. And that grenade launcher was only used by the Marines, as far as she recalled. This was far more than she had anticipated. Thank God her reflexes, honed from years of military service, were still in evidence. What was going on to require this level of lethal firepower and manpower? It obviously had something to do with Cooper...this wasn't the first time she had been lethally targeted and he had been left alone.
She reached the fallen M32 on the next landing and scooped it up, never breaking stride. The sound of their footsteps beating on metal nearly drowned out all other noise, but she was still able to hear when the fighters passed through the window. She stuffed the micro-Uzi down the front of her pants so that she could hold onto the larger weapon easier.
The metal clanged as they sped down the stairs, and now the ringing of bullets on metal joined the cacophony as the men appeared at the landing above, firing wildly down at them. The metal railings were nowhere near enough to keep them from getting hit from that many automatic weapons, and even as she realized that a bullet went through the bill of her cap, tearing it off. Emily glanced down at the fluttering bit of fabric and saw something that made her stop in place, two floors away from the advancing party and still another landing up from the ground. She quickly judged the height, and then turned and pushed Cooper over the railing. His expression was comical confusion as he disappeared over the edge.
She gripped the grenade launcher firmly in both hands and leaped out after him, twisting in mid-air so that she was facing up. As she fell backwards she looked up and saw the gaggle of men standing on the landing, most disguised in the camo outfits, but another one in a grey suit and sunglasses. Their surprise was evident by the way they moved as they aimed semi automatic weapons down at her. She smiled at them and thumbed the safety off the gun. She saw their mouths forming O's as she pressed and held the trigger down, unloading grenades at the landing in their general vicinity. The recoil catapulted her past Cooper.
They both landed in the dumpster underneath the stairs as the explosions buffeted them from above. Luckily, the garbage truck hadn't been by this particular alley in a long time; either that or the residents of the nearby apartments threw out a lot of trash. They were both unhurt, but many of the trashbags had burst open at their impact, disgorging their contents all over the pair. She scaled the wall and tumbled out, sore all over, and looked up at the blasted and ruined stairwell. She couldn't be sure if the ringing in her ears was from the blast, or from the shrapnel fallout from the fire escape. With dismay she saw that one of their pursuers had managed to survive, the one in the grey suit. He was stumbling down the remains of the stairs, blood dripping down his face and his left leg a bloody hunk of tissue. He brought up his PS90 with one hand and shot down at her as she ducked down behind the dumpster wall. The bullets ricocheted off the metal walls. She had lost the grenade launcher and Uzi in the fall, but swiftly drew her pistol and slid the cartridge out to check her ammo. Only a handful of shots left in this clip. Cooper's hands appeared at the dumpster edge as he tried and failed to climb over. She skirted around the big receptacle and fired two shots at the oncoming suit. He jumped straight off the stairs out of sight somewhere behind the dumpster. She leaped up onto the dumpster, landing with her belly on the edge next to her husband. She reached down, grabbed Cooper's waistband and pulled as he pushed up, and they both tumbled to the ground.
Emily was on her feet in an instant and pressed her back against the dumpster, worried about Cooper but more worried about that last gunman. With his leg in such bad shape he shouldn't be able to move very well, but all he would have to do was get line of sight on them with that bullpup automatic. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the Uzi sticking out of a ripped garbage bag amidst some rotten noodles. Carefully she eased her hand inside to grab it, suppressing her nausea as she felt the slick decomposition engulfing her hand. Cooper by now had gotten to his feet and was mournfully looking at his filthy clothes. He wasn't attempting to get under cover at all, but just started scrubbing the worst of the trash off of himself. Emily looked at him irritatedly, but then her eyes widened when she heard the distinctive squawk of a radio. The merc was calling for backup!
The next few moments were a blur. Cooper stopped brushing and gazed off into space, his expression curiously intent. His hands raised up and plucked at the air in purposeful motions, as if pulling in wisps of cotton. The sounds of a rough voice murmuring in the distance suddenly increased to a barely audible buzz that seemed to be centered around him. Emily stared in shock at what she was hearing and seeing.
"...bzzz...on the loose and...bzzzz...only me left...buzzz...send a crionaich team to..."
Cooper closed a fist and the sound abruptly cut off. Emily heard a curse from beyond the dumpster, and then a commotion. She finally got a hold of the Uzi and jumped out from behind the dumpster, but it was too late...the man was gone. Of course he had been on the side of the dumpster close to the street. Their luck appeared to be piecemeal this morning. A greyish white cat sat at the entrance of the alleyway, watching her intently.
Emily hesitated. There was a lot to take in, and she wasn't sure which bore immediate scrutiny. Glancing up at the wall of the apartment and seeing all the windows and frantic activity their battle had generated, she made up her mind. They needed to vacate the area as soon as possible before the actual authorities arrived and found them. She would've liked to track down the last bounty hunter to find out who had sent this well-equipped team, but there was no telling which way he went. And they needed to get clean. She turned back to Cooper to find him standing next to her, grinning and reaching out his hand.
"I love fireworks, Emy. Did you like them? Did you see the one that went boom?" His excited face was lit up, but he wasn't entirely focused on her, but through her. She studied his face for a moment, wondering what was happening behind her husband's handsome face, then grabbed his hand. A flicker of pain crossed his face, and she remembered. She put the Uzi underneath her jacket and zipped it up to hide it.
"Come on, Cooper. Let's go get some Bandaids for your hands."
They turned the corner and walked briskly away down the sidewalk. The cat watched them for a few moments more, its eyes indifferently blinking. Then it started to blur at the edges. A ghostly clone of the cat started moving away, following them. The cat itself copied its movements a moment later, leaving yet a second image of itself behind, which promptly emulated the other two. The cat and its doubles walked down the middle of the sidewalk, unconcerned amidst the growing morning crowd. Sirens blared in the distance.