At AJ’s words I looked over at Hannah to see she had a worried look in her eyes and a green tinge to her already pale face. I scooted my chair over a little closer and put my arm around her and suddenly she leaned over and I could feel her crying though she didn’t make a sound.
“That was later though,” AJ said softly, almost regretfully. Any regret he had didn’t stop him from continuing however. “The fire from the factory district had started to spread and my apartment building was in its direct path. I threw a few more things in another duffle bag with the idea I wouldn’t be coming back and looked around one last time. We were almost out the door when I stopped Hannah and had her put on one of my dark hoodies; despite the fact she’s nearly a head taller than you Riss it was still long on her and we had to waste time rolling up the sleeves so she could use her hands. But we didn’t have a choice, that red hair would have acted as a beacon and having to stop and fend off would be kidnappers or attackers would have slowed us down.”
Hannah sniffed and sat up. “I’m … I’m sorry. I guess I’m more tired than I thought. Riss? Do … do you mind if I go lay down?”
“Of course not. You want me to come with you?” I asked, worried at the dark circles and deep sorrows in her eyes.
“No,” she answered shaking her head. “Just finish listening to the story. I just want to sleep.”
I looked at AJ after I had watched Hannah to the top of the stairs and then turn into the room we’d put her in. “I better not be hearing that some man hurt her. Hannah may seem silly – and she can be – but she never let it get her into trouble with the opposite sex.” I said with dead seriousness in my voice.
AJ sighed and shook his head. “No. But it was close, and from an unexpected source. I’ll get to that part of it in a bit.” I nodded and he picked up the thread. “We had just made it down to the ground floor when I heard a roar and saw another explosion in a building not too far away; the fire was starting to catch the natural gas lines. Not too many people had been prepared for the explosion and I went down along with a bunch of other people. Must have cracked my head on something because the next thing I know Hannah is trying to drag me off of the side walk and into an alley to keep me from getting trampled by the panicked herd of humanity around us. I crawled the rest of the way when I couldn’t get my legs under me and then tried to get the ringing out of my head and the blood out of my eyes. I’d cut my scalp on something and it was bleeding like a … er,” he stopped when he saw Kerry was watching him wide-eyed. “It was bleeding a lot.
I started to scoot my chair back to take a look and AJ grimaced. “No way Riss. You’re worse that Cheryl and besides, it’s been long enough that the scab has already come and gone.” I sighed but then relaxed when I realized Adona would probably have him by the ear soon enough. He must of seen it in my eyes because he grimaced again before saying, “We finally got it to stop bleeding but I looked a mess. But so did almost everyone else on the street so I was in good company. The smoke was getting bad enough that a lot of people had started to tie stuff across their nose and mouth so Hannah and I did the same. It didn’t help much then but long term it kept most of the crap in the air out of our lungs.” He stretched his neck and moved his shoulders and by the sound they made I could hear how tense he was getting. “It was late in the afternoon by the time we had gotten away from my apartment and the number of buses and foot traffic as people tried to get home from their workplace or volunteer location only added to the confusion. As we passed the Western Union kiosk I saw a kid about to take off out of the city. Lucky for me he liked the color of my money and we made a quick exchange and that is how I got the message out to you.”
Alec shook his head, “It isn’t like you to be so trusting. He could have taken your money and simply bolted.”
“No, those kids that Western Union hires are as good as the ones that used to work for the Pony Express. They take their personal reputation seriously and are always trying to one up the regular in-town messengers. He probably just took it as a challenge and the bling I gave him was just icing.” Dino and I made a face when Kerry asked what “bling” was.
“Nothing for you to worry about Squirt,” was AJ’s response. “It was night time before we were able to maneuver our way to my warehouse just ahead of the street patrols who were bashing people to get them off the street for curfew. There was going to be a fight but some shots over the heads of the crowd had them running for cover. After letting myself in I wasn’t surprised to see most of the ground floor was ransacked. I figured that the workers would take what they could and scatter. Hannah was pretty upset though. Kept going on and making all sorts of noised about loyalty.”
I told him, “It wasn’t what they did. I’m sure she understood that. But for whatever reason Hannah has started to see you as … as a … I don’t know, a friend, mentor, protector, Lord knows what at this point. She probably saw what they did as a kind of threat to you and because of that to herself.”
He shrugged and said, “I’m not sure she knows what she thinks of me either but someone needs to look out for her, her family certainly hasn’t. And if I hadn’t been there who knows what would have happened to her. As it was I left her alone when I shouldn’t have.” He was tense and angry but I was beginning to realize the anger was directed at himself as much as it was at whatever he was about to describe.
“I know I closed and locked the door so they must have gotten in through the basement or monkeyed in through a roof panel. Or maybe they had gotten locked in somehow. Regardless I shouldn’t have assumed that just because I had to use a key to get in that the place was clear. I’d gotten too used to being able to hire security and letting them handle things; I was out of practice thinking that way.” He cracked his knuckles simply by balling his fists and his eyes took on a cold look that told me he wouldn’t make that mistake again. “I told Hannah to wait by her work station while I went upstairs to the office area to see if any of the flashlights or lanterns remained. I found what I was looking for and was on my way back down when I heard Hannah scream. I go barreling down the stairs like an idiot and was jumped as soon as I stepped onto the floor. I heard a gun shot and my blood ran cold but I was in the middle of a fight for my life. The scuffling reopened my head wound and when the guy tried to grab my hair for leverage he lost his balance and we fell away from each other. I heard the gun go off again. She’d gotten them both. That little red-headed spitfire had kept her cool and gotten them both.”
His voice was tinged with surprised respect and I understood it but it only proved that he’d been underestimating Hannah. I knew what that red hair could mean. Harry had taught me and I knew Hannah had it in her too … but their father had instilled in them the need to control it at a very young age. I’d only ever seen Hannah lose her cool once and that was at some boys that had come after Harry with BB guns. Hannah has a good arm when she is angry and one boy had to get stitches where she’d cold cocked him with a big rock. Nothing ever came of it, most of the townsfolk already had grievances against the family of those boys and Josiah Calvert put the fear of God in them in a way his daddy never could.
“It took me a few moments to get Hannah’s attention. I didn’t dare draw too much of her attention until I was sure that she wasn’t going to startle and shoot me as well. Then she got real still and said, ‘There was a third one but he ran. I can’t believe they’d do it. I can’t believe that Jimmy tried to … tried to ….’ She suddenly ran off to the lavatory and I had to follow her in because she wouldn’t answer me.” He looked at me and said, “See if she is really all right. It was three young men she’d made friends with working in the warehouse. I can’t say for sure but I think who it was bothers her more than what they tried to do. They’d had time to rip her clothes up pretty good as they jumped her as soon as I went upstairs. Her scream was to warn me because they’d all heard me coming down the stairs and had said they were going to kill me. She refuses to tell me if it went further than rips.”
He shook his head and you could see there was more to it than that but I’d have to get it out of Hannah. His next words broke into my thinking. “We were too exhausted to go on but too wired to sleep. I decided to try and wait the worst of the exodus out. The streets were full of the rats leaving a sinking ship. I didn’t really want to be out in it and on foot but there would be no getting a car out until the roads cleared a bit. Across the street from the warehouse was a below ground parking garage where I stored my emergency transportation. I’d utilized a utility tunnel that ran between the warehouse basement and the underground parking garage by making a false wall on either end and storing some getaway items. Remember that old suburban Alec?”
At Alec’s confused nod AJ turned to Dino and I. “Alec and I converted and then restored this old Chevy Suburban while he kept me from going off on another drunk after … after my divorce. I kept that thing as a reminder to never let the bottle get me.”
“What?!” came Alec’s surprised squawk.
“What? Did you think after all those hours we spent putting it back together that I’d ever be able to see anyone else have it?” He snorted and shook his head. “Leaving it in that thicket felt like I’d had to put a faithful pet to sleep.”
“What thicket?” Alec asked still obviously confused.
“I’m getting there. Have some patience.”