Like Batman and Commissioner Gordon, they met on a rooftop, but unlike comic book chumps, they met on a distinctly dark rooftop—without a spotlight even. Smog and storm clouds choked out the stars, making a pale and blurry smudge of the full moon. The only light leaked up from the city below. Headlights filled the nighttime throughways like low-hanging stars moving ponderous as planets through the clogged traffic.
And Sherry stood with her back to him, her hands in gray, knit gloves and held tight against her chest. She didn't even pretend to smile, her face drawn with seriousness—and worry. Somebody honked down on the streets, and the monotony of sound on the roof fell back into a distant, automotive humming. Jake went to cough in the quiet—
"Jake," she started instead, finally facing him. "I really need your help." She asked for it in a conspicuously un-Super girl fashion without any of the polite demanding that dragged him around the world from cold Eldonia over Christmas last year to Lanshiang freaking frying in June just a few months ago. There were also some—'Uh…'—months spent in a research facility too, but, 'that's not really her fault.'
The urban glow lit her face from below, an unhappy shining in her eyes, and she looked like she might actually cry. The girly fluffiness of her civilian clothes made it worse. Jake broke eye-contact for just a moment, frowning.
[- - -]
When he'd tracked these guys to Chicago, he had hoped they'd actually be in Chicago, nothing like a high-flying rescue mission tearing through the windy city by the lake, see the sights, shoot up some bad guys, but this shit—this shit was almost fucking Indiana.
'And I don't want to go back to Indiana,' Jake thought dryly. Because there was jack shit in Indiana, except this warehouse apparently. He opened his PDA, which politely informed him, via its internal GPS, that he was still in Illinois, rural Illinois but Illinois none the less. 'Well, thank God for that.'
Sherry's plea for his help had turned out rather simple for all the fuss she raised asking for it. Somebody had kidnapped her friend, and she couldn't do anything about it. The friend was a small-time political figure and activist working in 'anti-bioterrorism-related human rights issues,' as Sherry's notes described, but the politics of the situation ended up delicate, dicey enough that the Secret Service tied her hands.
"I don't have any real intel," she had said that night back on the roof. "I can't even tell you a name, because agents aren't supposed to get involved. But—but I can tell you where my friend was seen last and—"
"Man, you take me on bad dates," he had said, early November turning his breath to fog. "Fine. Gimmie what ya got."
A day or so later, he camped out in a crop of trees at the corner of four barren cornfields, laid to brown and lifeless waste by the autumn harvest. The sky did nothing for the ugly, dead country as it stirred slow, and gray, and bleary overhead. A wind blowing south pulled through the winter-parched copse, agitating branches and shaking down their leaves. Across the scarred cornfield, acres of broken stalk still cutting up from the unturned earth, a trio of black SUVs parked at the doors of the only facility in a half-finished industrial park. The still-coming punches of recession had crashed its development hard, and the abandoned walls and beams of a second building sat above the ruin of the corn like the empty bones of a long exposed rib-cage.
Meanwhile, Jake waited for night to fall, blue and early, as a fourth car appeared from the highway and pulled into the lot, and a single, ghostly streetlight appeared at the edge of the park-road. With the long expanse of field satisfyingly dark, he stood up from his spot and hit the ground running.
Breaking into the facility was easy enough; the guards posted in the cars and the entryways were very human and certainly not expecting him to drop by. So, the welcome party was a little lackluster, and he left the dozen or so grunts he found patrolling the empty complex in an office in a pile, wrists zip-tied and guns dismantled. He believed in leaving lessons behind for thugs; the summer of 2013 had left him something of a changed man, and ever since, he felt a quiet duty to others in his ruthless line of work. So, after the men lay deeply sleeping and bound in the dark, he turned on a nearby desk-lamp and pointed its spot of light at the 'message' he had left for them on the floor, written in the pieces of their weapons: 'Don't kidnap people, assholes'.
Jake shut the office-door and returned to his job. They had tucked the hostage away in another office at the end of the long hallway cutting through the second floor of the warehouse. The door was sealed with a key card, and luckily, he had four key-cards to pick from in the pockets of the guys back in the other room. Jake slid his new access card through the reader-slot, and it screamed, a long, agonized, unchanging bleeeeeep—
He squinted like Eastwood, his lips a concrete line, and told the lock: "I don't like you either." He pried out the pins of the hinges, drew his body back a step, and devastated the door with a hard, solid kick to the lock. The door snapped forward, cutting off the card-reader mid-eternal-bleep and spraying splinters of veneer across the commercial carpet tiles. The shrapnel stopped just short of a shape tied to a chair in the darkness. Jake felt for a light-switch, and a swaying fluorescent tube poured light down in flickers across the room. The hostage slumped against his chair, his chest and arms bound in rope with extra wraps of duct tape on his wrists and ankles, and a black, fabric bag tossed over his head. Jake hunkered down on one knee, split the duct-tape binding the hostage's legs, and rooted his knife under the rope.
"Anyway, how do you do today, sir," he said, working the bonds loose. "I am your independent third-party contractor." After some sawing, the rope thinned and broke, falling in a loop around the chair. He belted his knife and hoisted the hostage out of the chair and over his shoulder. "I operate on a variable pricing scale," he explained, heading for the door, "and for a group like Terra Save, that'll be 45k per man extracted and delivered—"
Jake had been wrong, and her knee, sharp with bone, and her kick, strong with muscle, punched, with a downright cruel calculation in his opinion, into his stomach for it. Jake gasped—"Shit."—and cringed against the doorframe, and she slid off his shoulder, finding her footing again.
"Terra Save is a non-profit without the resources for overpriced rescues," the woman said, shucking the duct tape from her wrists. "I'm sure they can pay you 5 grand for cutting some ropes, but I can walk the rest of the way." She worked her hands under the hood and dragged it up and over her head. An auburn, mussed ponytail fell free of the bag and over the hostage's shoulder, her blue eyes dancing in the unfamiliar brightness.
Jake squashed the pain twisting his gut through the tightness in his lungs. He coughed, his chest loosening and his body remembering it had breathing to do.
"Bunch of lawyers can't spare some pocket change—" He spluttered at the edge of his sentence.
"I said we are a nonprofit," she repeated and tossed the black hood away. Like many hostages, she hadn't dressed for the occasion, and wore long, dark gray slacks, that moved like water with every step she took, and a red knit sweater, silver winks and shines woven in the cables, with a yellow corsage at her breast, a flattened golden rose and a lemon-colored carnation over a spout of baby's breath. She wore no shoes and stepped carefully to the side on nothing but black, nylon stockings. She found a path for herself through the shattered wood to a desk on the far side of the room cluttered with boxes.
"I was abducted from a taxi on my way to the Next Step conference," she started and then shook her head, like it was funny. "I was going to take the L-train to McCormick Place, but my colleague thought I'd get mugged—if only she knew." She looked through the first of boxes and turned up a black leather purse and a jacket that clearly belonged to her. "Did you see a pair of Nine West's around here?" She knocked the empty box unceremoniously off the desk and searched another.
"Those shoes?" Jake asked.
"Yes—never mind," she said, producing a pair of sleek and polished matte-leather boots. "And you're Jake Muller, right?"
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
"Sherry told me about you," the woman said. She hiked up the flowing leg of her pants and slipped into the first of her boots. It zipped up smartly, the fabric falling graciously over the cut of the boot. "I'm Claire."
"Huh, Sherry told me about you. Claire Redfield—Esquire?"
"Yes," she said, smiling slightly. "Technically." She stood up straight on her finished boots and shrugged on her jacket. "Sorry about the kick." She tugged the jacket into place and made for the door, the length of hallway beyond stretching long and shadowy. The clouds had parted, and a bolt of waning moonlight filled the far window. "It's just—$45,000 is not a funny joke, and I haven't been in a hostage situation for a long time. I sat for three hours last night listening to my cellphone battery die and wondered if I would be—next this time, and—" She sighed, deep and irritated, and stopped in the threshold.
'What,' Jake thought, trying to parse out that bit about dying cellphones and actually dying, but hostage situations always made people a little loopy. The trapped often made unusual associations in the silence of duct-tape, the dark of hoods, and the embrace of chains.
"Are you coming?" she asked.
"Yeah, I'm coming," he snapped, catching up to her with just a few strides. Trickles of Sherry's 'super girl' ego suddenly seemed connected to a well-source.
"Okay, don't contact Terra Save about this," Claire continued as they walked, gray doors with room numbers wrenched off and office names defaced passing by. "We don't have the HR or the budget ready to deal with this. Contact Sherry, and I'll get back to you through her. You'll be paid—"
"Yeah, no, it doesn't work like that, lady," Jake said, halting in the hallway. "You pay, or I put you back in the office and let the goons loose again." She threw a hard look back at him, her eyes narrow.
"I'm grateful you saved me," Claire said. "But my organization cannot pay $45,000—"
"Well, then what can you pay?"
Claire paused, her defenses slackening and her—frankly—lawyer-speak backing off. 'I…didn't expect this,' she thought and shook free of her dumbstruck.
"I told you already," she said. "I can pay you $5,000 and—" She dug in her purse suddenly, forced open her wallet, and pulled out a plastic card decorated in a spread of oak leaves, perfectly blended red and orange, and a round and golden pumpkin pie dolloped with organic whipped cream. "—and this."
"TerraSave 'gifts' me a prepaid card for a pie from Whole Foods, if it's still November—I can pay you $5,000," she said. "$5,000, and that."
"Classy bonus," Jake said and took the gift card from her. Claire stared blankly at where it had been, a dizzy blurriness creeping in from her peripheral vision. A cut, long and thin, slanted down her right index finger and into her palm; it stung when she stretched her fingers.
Jake dipped the card into the inside pocket of his jacket and said, "I'll think about it."
Claire's vision sharpened massively, the dull hallway of the warehouse coming into astronomical focus.
"You'll think about it?"
"Now's not the time. Let's go already."
[ - - - ]
Jake had been right—that wasn't the time, and Claire's adrenaline leveled off with the roar of the bike beneath her even if she wasn't the one driving. The bleak, dried out countryside skipped away along 394, houses rising from the trees and tightening together into neighborhoods disrupted by explosions of towering factories, high-rises, and cathedrals as the city rolled closer, rippling cement walls pulling up between them and the subdivisions lining the highway.
An hour into the cold and wind-blown ride, Jake said, "Up there's your extraction point."
The bike drifted along the shoulder of the highway and up a ramp into a curl of road sliding across the bridge overhead. Jake braked and cut his engine, the bike rumbling low through the city night. Claire, unfamiliar with riding as a passenger, stepped shakily onto the curb.
"Oh, Claire!" a voice called, and as Claire's ears shook off the perpetual hum of the bike, Sherry dashed over from the puddle of light beneath a streetlight.
"Extraction point, and escort," Jake said. "I think that's more than worth 5 grand."
Claire shook her head, ignored him, and met Sherry with an easy smile while rapids of white headlights, the blinding eyes of dark, sharkish cars, coursed underneath the overhang.
"I'm glad you aren't running off by yourself anymore," she told Sherry.
"But I'm not glad he's charging," Sherry said, and she glared back at Jake. "5 grand, Jake? Why?"
"She talked me down from 45k. I'm running a frigging Black Friday special for you two."
"He seems nice," Claire said, taking the conversation back from the two of them. "And he did a good job," she added a little louder for her independent contractor to hear.
"I knew he would," Sherry said with a sweet confidence, and Claire's gaze grew heavy and serious.
"But you risked a lot to do that for me, even having him do it."
Sherry looked down at the gray tips of her boots. "I couldn't just let you—"
"I wasn't going to die—"
"I knew that—they weren't very good kidnappers," Sherry said. "I looked into everything I could get into, but—the BSAA wouldn't act—Chris wouldn't—"
"I'm going to—talk to him about that. Doing this isn't your job—" Claire put a hand on Sherry's shoulder.
"But I'm an agent now," Sherry reminded her, her voice light and sober at once. "Saving other people is my job." Claire smiled again and squeezed Sherry's shoulder.
"Then, thank you," she said. "For getting involved."
"Of course! I'm glad I got you back before the holiday!"
Claire let go and swung back for a look at Jake.
"Speaking of holidays," she said, crossing her arms over her chest, "do you two go anywhere for Thanksgiving?"
Sherry chewed her lip, suddenly quiet.
"Home," Jake said.
"Where's home?" Claire asked.
"Wherever I feel like it."
Claire laughed lightly for the first time in days, and it filled her like the first warm breath taken after breaking through ice. Her lungs almost hurt, the heat invigorating and overwhelming, as her teeth seemed to buzz and chatter.
"You both should come to my place then."
"Really?" Sherry asked.
"Yeah, I'll cook," Claire promised.
Jake leaned back on his sports-bike and stroked his chin.
"I don't know—"
Claire reached into the pocket of her jacket and produced her Whole Foods gift card with a fox's grin, sharp and sly.
"Don't you want your pie?"