The first time she saw him, he was in a bookstore, one with a coffee shop attached. He was relaxed, slouched over an old oak table and sipping a cappuccino. He was sitting there, brown as the table he was leaning upon as people milled through the cafe, but her focus was planted firmly on him. She sees glimpses of him, punctuated only by flashes of red, orange and yellow as the uniformed staff flitted in front and behind clearing tables. He was lost in another world, immersed in his reading.
A friend had once told her that bookstores were the ideal places to meet men.
“Just stand near the volumes you’re interested in, and strike up a conversation.”
Today, she’s putting his advice to the test. Tired of loneliness and willing for romance, she’s seen him here before and makes her move. She orders a skim latte and sidles onto the wooden bench opposite him. He looks up briefly and she smiles.
“Good book?” The lameness of the question immediately embarrassing, as if he’d read a bad one.
He nods, smiles, and returns to his reading. She’s barely sipped the froth from her latte, the heat from the glass burning her fingers when hearing’s pierced by noise and the smashing of glass which precedes the blast, launching both drinkers and coffee from their table.
She remembers being brought to her senses, him leaning over her and whispering, “Are you OK?” His hand behind her head. She's been flung flat on her back amid the shattered glass of the bookstore window. Hundreds of pages flutter surreally and gently to the floor.
“What happened?” She's groggy but otherwise unhurt. The ringing in her ears testament to what can only be described as a massive explosion.
“I don’t know but keep down,” he whispers amid the mêlée.
They both scramble behind the table, now balancing precariously on its side, peeking to its side, observing the situation around them. People crouching, men shouting, women screaming but all she hears is the tinnitus in her ears.
The only time she'd experienced this sensation was when dumped in a raging surf and the swirl of foam had muffled all sound, terrified her actually, as she was tumbled like so much linen in a washing machine before emerging above the white horses to suck in much needed air.
That particular event proved to be a rehearsal for the sensation she's currently feeling; muffled noise and partial deafness. Surely lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice - today it has. She's confused and stunned, he pulls her back to the floor behind the safety of their makeshift screen and his body covers hers. Her panicked gaze meets his and she’s surprised to see the gentle concern on his face. The moment freezes as the weirdest thoughts run through her head, and his hands run through her hair. "Does he like blow-jobs?" Dumbest question on the face of the planet she thinks, yet she's surprised that in a moment of destruction and panic, all she wonders about are his sexual preferences.
What seems like minutes, is in fact seconds and both are sobered instantly from any lascivious thoughts or concerns for personal welfare, as three Balaclava's on legs swing through the broken plate window. Each is heavily armed and firing automatic weapons into the air.
"Stay down, shut the fuck up or we'll show you the way to glory!" one yells as everyone complies.
Her rescuer finds himself blanketing her more closely. Those blue eyes are piercing hers. And while she can barely hear what the Balaclavas are saying, their intent is clear and concern turns to terror for them both.
The bullets quiet as patrons lie on the floor, their hands behind their heads. He whispers, "It'll be fine, think of something else, think of something quiet and peaceful. Stay calm."
In stark contrast, the remaining thugs divest every punter of their large and small change and clearly feel that there's not enough violence in their intrusion, and so begin tormenting terrified customers.
Still she focuses on calm and imagines being with him. She feels his body warmth, his breath on her neck, warm and comforting. It reminds her that it's been a while, a long while and she imagines the morning after the night before. They're sharing English breakfast tea and a cigarette. She hopes he's not the kind to run. It's then she's brought back to the moment as a balaclava motions him to move off her with the muzzle of a gun.
She's permitted to bring herself into a sitting position purely to access her purse, and fumbles through the huge Dolce and Gabbana bag, pushing aside a folded magazine with the smiling supermodel and burying the small bottle of 'medicinal' vodka, before finding her wallet.
She can't see his face but she can see his eyes. He's smiling beneath the balaclava. She fumbles and hopes he'll do the right thing as the muzzle of his weapon drags slowly along her leg and lifts her skirt, her rescuer looking agitated. She musters cold reserve from a place she didn’t know existed and pulls the fabric across her knees. Her demeanour changes from fear to frenzy. She's had enough of this army of assholes.
The other two are harassing a young cashier and she's now cognisant enough to take a chance. Still fumbling in her bag, she grabs the gun she's never used, flicks the safety whilst it's still harboured in the shelter of her bag and jumps to her feet, the barrel of her own gun now firmly planted against the jugular of her abuser.
"Lick my ass fucktard… " She whispers with hot but venomous breath into his ear. His eyes cease to smile and she foists the gun from his own hand. Her rescuer also jumps to his feet among the prone punters and disables the balaclava by pulling his right hand hard against his back. The once cavalier intruder now groans in pain, "Shut the fuck up lapdog, what happened to the Rottweiler within? You chicken shit piece of ass!"
"Gone" gasps the now less confident balaclava, with a gulp that makes his Adam's apple rise and fall beneath her grip.
Charles passes her a quizzical look and a momentary smile at this surprise aggression.
Jesus!" cries one of the two harassing the cashier, "They've got Tom!"
The remaining two thugs have their attention distracted, she takes control.
"Jesus is dead boys, ain't gonna help him or you now, drop your weapons and hit the floor."
Charles has a firm grip on the smiling eyes and she's snatched the asshole’s weapon and is now pointing his SKS at the remaining men.
"Move away from the girl, hit the floor!' she screams, killing any carnal thoughts once held by the cashier’s harassers. The girl stops crying inches backwards, ducking below the counter.
She's poetry in motion as she strides towards them. Strong, armed, dangerous and deaf. They're not used to confrontation, let alone by a woman in a short skirt. The concussion has awakened something in her, memories of letters and ballistics, a past life a different history. Even as she moves towards them, she's remembering something so long buried its empowering even if it is unclear. Now so close she can feel their breath, their hands in the air, it's her turn to trace their thighs with the muzzle of the SKS as she lifts the gun between the legs of one and presses hard against the softness in his crotch. It’s her turn to strike fear as she puckers her lips and blows an air kiss in their direction before firing and slamming each so hard back into the counter they linger like marionettes before dropping to the floor, little more than two piles of used clothes, stained and unwanted, riddled with red leaking holes.
She comes up for air, much the way she did in the surf, as she did after the explosion. It's exhilarating and frightening as if God's tried again to show her that life is a rehearsal and she can keep playing new parts until she gets it right. An odd feeling of déjà vu grips her as the role she plays is strangely familiar but long forgotten.
The sirens fall silent as the police finally arrive. One perp hostage, two dead and the punters slowly rising, shocked and bewildered from the floor. She drops the SKS in hand, and it clatters on the polished tile as another is pointed at her head.
A voice from behind commands, "Hands behind you where I can see them!” She lowers her head and complies. The voiced grabs her shoulder and turns her round to face it.
"Kerry? Kerry Stanhope?" he appears to recognise her but she hasn't a clue who he is.
"No, the name's Damjanov, Dana Damjanov . . . . who’s asking?"
He remembers her from back in the day. She was indeed a hot thing at the agency but he'd never had the courage to approach her. He ended up in Special Ops and honed the art of sniping. She'd moved somewhere else, nobody knew where, but there was talk of her being 'placed' overseas. He lowers his rifle.
"David Bryant. I went to the Academy with you. Well I thought it was you."
But for now pleasantries will have to wait, there is carnage to clear and a crime scene to seal. Another loose cannon enters and cuffs her.
"She's cool," says Bryant, still confused about the name change but sure it's Kerry. He'd had a hard-on for her for that year. Only shyness prevented him from acting upon it.
"She's standing here with a loaded gun in a veritable shitstorm Bryant, I'm bringing her in.”
His superior isn’t taking any chances. Bryant acquiesces to his senior's demands and applies the cuffs before scratching his head and muttering, "I'm sure she's Kerry Stanhope.