By Kathi L Schwengel
It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.
Fletch sprinted after Alexis as the girl bolted back the way they had come. He grabbed her around the waist and hauled her back from the top of the stairs as another dull thud vibrated under their feet and the ceiling started coming down.
“Let me go!” she screamed.
“It’s too late.”
She flailed her arms as Fletch dragged her backwards, pummeling him with her fists as she twisted in an attempt to break loose from him.
“Damnit all, knock it off!”
“It’s too late, kid.”
The building shuddered. Fletch didn’t think, he just threw the girl to the ground, and covered her with his body as debris reined down on top of them — a deafening roar the last thing he heard.
Fletch came to with a start. His brain scrambled to make sense of the situation. Not a sound reached beyond the ringing in his ears. He got his hands beneath him, one on either side of the girl, and shoved upwards against the weight on his back. Pain shot through him, and he sucked in a ragged breath that only made it worse. He heaved again, his arms shaking with the effort. Whatever had landed on him dislodged, and Fletch rolled off the girl.
He hissed at the stabbing pain in his side as he tried to catch a decent breath. “Fuck.”
The faint wail of sirens made their way through his shell-shocked haze. Foot patrols would likely beat the heavy equipment to the scene.
Fletch reached out a hand and nudged the girl. “Hey.”
Nothing. He swore again and forced himself to sit up. His head swam when he did, and he swallowed bile, grateful he didn’t taste blood with it — cracked ribs he could deal with.
Alexis sprawled on her back. Fletch brushed hair and plaster off her face, and laid his fingers against her throat. Her pulse beat strong and steady.
“Hey, kid, we gotta get moving.”
Her eyes fluttered opened, focused first on nothing, then on Fletch’s face. Confusion and anger gave way to horror as memory returned, and she lurched to her feet, stumbling over the wreckage.
“We’ve gotta help them!”
Fletch heaved himself up and grabbed her wrist before she could get far. When she whirled on him, ready for another fight, he held up a hand to stop her.
“Gimme a second.” He let go of her and bent over, hands braced on his thighs as he worked at not passing out.
“Are you okay?”
He looked up at her from under his brows. “Look, like it or not there’s nothing we can do for them. You hear that?” He paused, waiting until he knew she deciphered the plaintive scream of the sirens. “We get caught here we’re dead, and all this is for nothing. Everything your dad believed in — what he gave his life for — we have the proof now. You can do something with that.”
She wanted to argue with him, he could see it, even as tears cut tracks through the dirt and blood on her face. She looked back over her shoulder where the basement stairs might have been.
She nodded without looking at him, and turned to walk away.
“Other way,” Fletch said.
He straightened slowly, and followed her as she picked her way through the carnage. Every now and again she’d look back, and Fletch would gently nudge her forward. She didn’t bristle at him when he did. Her shoulders were slumped, and she looked — dull. Better that, he supposed, than fighting him every step of the way. Getting out of the Tracks had just gone from risky to damn near impossible.
It got worse as soon as they stepped out the back door. Fletch pulled Alexis back into the shadows to avoid the flashlight beam that swept across the porch. He counted three heavily armed military types in the brief look he got, and from behind them, the sounds of someone moving through the rubble.
The girl opened her mouth, and Fletch covered it with his hand and shook his head. Her eyes were wide. The look in them way beyond scared. He eased her deeper into the shadows and turned to check the progress of the patrol. They’d fanned out, approaching the building with caution. Fletch turned the girl and maneuvered her back through the door. He made sure she couldn’t be seen, signaled her to stay put, then moved to the opposite side and slid a knife from the sheath behind his back.
The flashlight beam cut past the girl’s hiding spot, and Fletch saw her shrink back even more. Something clattered to the ground behind her and the flashlight swung back. Fletch moved. He put a hand over the guard’s mouth from behind, jerked his head back, and sliced through the arteries with practiced ease. His ribs screamed as he lowered the man’s body to the ground, and he grabbed at the wall to keep on his feet.
Movement caught his eye — the girl stood slowly, watching him with a layer of uncertainty over the fear. He didn’t have the time to deal with it. There were still two guards outside that door, and he had no idea how they were going to get past them.
Then voices broke out, followed by several shots.
“This way!” somebody yelled. “He headed toward the river.”
Fletch didn’t waste any time. He grabbed the girl by the hand and dragged her out the door. He paused long enough to make sure both guards were in pursuit of whatever phantom they’d spotted, then cut across the lone patch of light and into the darkness beyond.
He kept a firm hold of the girl’s hand as they made their way from one alley to another, avoiding the patrols that were rushing to the city center. He had no intention of losing Pete Wallace’s daughter. She could be the catalyst he’d been looking for, and besides, he owed it to Pete to see she stayed safe. She made no attempt to break his hold. Even when they had to stop for Fletch to catch his breath — which happened more often than he liked — she kept her fingers wrapped around his.
The sky had begun to lighten with the first whisper of dawn by the time they reached the manhole that would lead to the tunnel out. Alexis helped him slide the cover out of the way, and then peered into the depths, her brow furrowed.
“You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?” Fletch asked, only half joking.
She looked up at him and shook her head. “Not if it gets us out of here,” she said.
“Good.” He nodded toward the hole. “After you.”
Fletch waited — his gaze flicking from the hole, to the street, up the alley, and back again — until she reached the bottom, then he followed her down. He braced himself against the slick wall to drag the cover back over the hole and plunge them into complete darkness. The strain ripped the breath from his lungs and he gasped.
“Fletch?” His name echoed around them, the panicked note in Alexis’s voice loud and clear.
His knees gave out as he dropped to the ground beside her and he fell back against the wall. He wouldn’t have seen her even if his eyes had been open, but he felt her move up close to him. She laid her hand on his chest, and he wrapped his fingers around hers and shoved off from the wall.
“Come on,” he said, his voice rough.
He walked with his left hand trailing along the slime covered wall so he wouldn’t miss the recessed handle to the door that would lead them out. Alexis kept tight hold of his right one with both of hers, apparently not wanting to risk losing him.
Pops looked up as the bell above his door announced their arrival. His gaze swept over Alexis first, registering relief, and then landed on Fletch.
“You look like hell,” he said.
Fletch leaned his shoulder against the doorframe. It’d taken almost as long to get through Greylands as it had to get out of the Tracks. Cops were everywhere. His ribs throbbed, making each breath something he had to pay for. If he had to take one more step, he’d fall on his face.
He tipped his head toward Alexis. “She’s got the proof,” he said, and his voice cracked.
“You better sit down, son.”
But he didn’t move. Not until Alexis took him by the elbow and helped him to the stool by the counter. When she got him situated she dropped to her knees beside Pops.
“It was there, like my dad said, but they’re gone,” she whispered. “Jack. Mav-”
A sob ripped out of her and she buried her head in her hands. Her body shook with the force of her grief, and Pops glared at Fletch over her shoulder.
“I didn’t do it,” Fletch said, though he would have, given the opportunity, and Pops knew it. He closed his eyes, propped his elbow on the counter and rested his head on his hand.
“It should’ve been you.”
Fletch looked up. For an instant he saw someone else standing there, her tear-stained face ravaged with pain that would never leave. He blinked and it became Alexis, facing him off, her hands balled into fists at her side. He hadn’t even heard her get up. She looked for all the world like she wanted to take a swing at him — and then she did.
Fletch barely got his arm up in time to block her. Trapped between her and the counter, he had nowhere to go, and sucked wind through his ravaged ribs when she sent another punch toward his gut. He snarled, and grabbed her wrist. Shoving off the stool, he spun her around and jerked her arm up between her shoulder blades. She cried out as he bent her over the counter and held her there. Pops yelled something when he saw the knife in Fletch’s hand, but Fletch had no intention of using it on Alexis. Instead, he stabbed it into the counter next to her head and left it quivering there.
“Do it right,” he said in her ear, and backed away from her into the center of the room.
Alexis hesitated, then wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the knife and wrenched it free of the wood. She turned to face Fletch, assuming a fighting stance undoubtedly learned in Bull’s class. Fletch raised his hands and coaxed her forward.
“C’mon,” he said. “You want to take me down? This is the best opportunity you’re ever gonna get.”
“Knock it off!” Pops wheeled his cart between them and glared up at Fletch.
“I can do it,” Alexis said.
Pops swung to face her. “Are you daft, girl? He’ll kill you before you figure out what you did wrong. And you,” he turned back to Fletch. “Got you pegged for a lot of things, son, but child killer ain’t one of ’em.”
“You’d be surprised,” Fletch said.
“What happened tonight?” Pops looked from one of them to the other. “We got a start here. We got something we ain’t had in a long time. Yeah, we lost a lot — more than just Jack and Maverick — and we’re gonna lose a lot more before all is said and done. But we got a chance to make good. Got a chance to prove ol’ Pete wasn’t some crazy fool. More than one of us in this room wants that.”
He fixed Fletch with a hard stare. “Time to pick a side, son. You’ve been after something long as I’ve known ya. I think you found it. Now you just need to decide if it’s worth keeping.”
“And if it’s not?”
Pops gestured at the door. “Don’t come back.”
Fletch lifted his gaze to Alexis. She still held the knife but the fight had gone out of her, and she looked about as tired as he felt.
“Your dad was a good man,” he said. “I owe him.”
“Enough to have my back, and not the knife in it?” Alexis asked.
The corners of Fletch’s mouth twitched in an uncharacteristic grin that he quickly squashed. The girl had a lot of her dad in her.
“Yeah,” he said. “And then some.”
She flipped the knife and held it out to him by the blade but Fletch shook his head.
“Keep it,” he said. “Maybe I’ll even teach you how to use it the right way.”
Pops made a noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. Fletch grimaced at the squeal of the cart’s wheels as Pops turned and headed toward the back room.
“When you two’re done kissing and making up,” he called back over his shoulder, “get your asses in here. We got work to do.”
The Tracks recovery crew picked through the rubble beneath City Hall, the light from their head lamps cutting through the dim haze that had settled over the debris. More than once they stopped their efforts as the building shifted, and more bits of it showered down on them. They would have left altogether if they hadn’t been instructed to find something to explain the catastrophe. An order they didn’t dare ignore.
“Over here,” someone called. “I think I’ve got something.”
Three of them congregated, and the combined light illuminated a hand jutting up out of the wreckage. For a space of several breaths no one moved — until the fingers did.
“Let’s get busy, lads!” the foreman yelled. “Looks like we’ve got a live one.”