SITTING ON A private jet is a new one for me. I’m knee to knee with Axel and sitting beside Everett. The tension is more than I want to deal with at the moment. Neither of them have divulged information for the reason we’re traveling to D.C. Avoiding both of them and their silence, I keep my focus set out the window. “You’re going to need to find something nice to wear for dinner tonight,” Axel tells me.
I glance at him, likely with a bit of annoyance written on my face, which mirrors what I’m feeling. “Dinner?” Is he talking about the two of us? Because that’s going to make for a really awkward conversation in front Everett. Not that I would be surprised if Axel would intentionally cause that kind of scene.
“Yes, we’re meeting with the man who runs and funds our organization,” Axel says like it’s nothing. If this guy is working out of D.C., has a private jet, and from what it seems like, an unlimited cash flow, I feel like I need a minute to digest the information. “He likes to meet with us once a month, and he’s looking forward to meeting you.”
Leaning my head back into the leather seat, I close my eyes. It’s a full week since I ended up here with these guys and I could never have imagined my life spinning in a completely different direction so fast.
I dozed off for a bit, now I’m waking up to Axel and Everett with their laptops out, both working on something. For some reason, the sight of this surprises me. I was starting to think the only thing they do is beat the shit out of people then eat and drink it off. I can’t see either of their screens because they both have those filters that block the view unless you’re looking directly at the computer. Releasing a heavy sigh, I pull myself up against the seat I slouched into.
“We should be landing in about twenty minutes,” Axel says, looking at his watch. I had no idea I slept that long, but it would have been better if I slept for twenty minutes longer.
“Did you see the one that just came in?” Everett asks Axel. He’s in work mode, and when he’s work mode, none of Everett’s true personality shines through.
“Yeah,” Axel says as he runs his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know how we’re going to pull this one off.”
Everett closes his laptop and slips it into his bag. “Let’s just get through tonight first,” he suggests.
Axel closes his laptop too and puts it on the seat next to him. “Yeah, good point.”
I’ve been looking between the two of them, back and forth, trying to figure out what the hell they’re talking about. As always, though, everything is a secret until I’m shoved into a room with a demented asshole. When their conversation ends, they look over at me and my “don’t give a fuck” expression. If they think I don’t care, they’ll be more inclined to tell me. And if they don’t tell me, I’ll have to forget about it.
They’re beginning to gather their things, preparing for landing. Since my ears are popping, I’ll assume we should be hitting the ground within a few minutes. I’m not used to a pilot who doesn’t update the passengers on what’s happening. It’s uncomfortable. Plus, I don’t like to fly.
Almost the moment the wheels hit the ground, Axel and Everett are out of their seats, slinging their bags over their shoulders. I wait for the plane to stop and take my bag to follow them. We’re not at an airport, so I’m not sure what to expect once we step out of the jet, but my assumptions come close when we step out onto the tarmac. There’s a car waiting for us.
The irony of traveling to D.C. is that it took just over two hours to get here by Jet, and just less than two hours to get to our hotel in the middle of the city. I feel like I’m ready for a nap, rather than dinner with this guy.
The three of us quietly check into the hotel and Axel hands me a key with a room number written on the front. “Why didn’t Declan and Luke come with us?” I ask as we approach the elevator.
“They never travel. They take care of things at home while we’re gone,” Everett says.
“So, you travel a lot?” I ask. The elevator doors open and though we’re in what must be a five-star hotel, this gold swathed space inside barely holds the three of us. I’m a foot shorter than both of them and this is just plain uncomfortable. Everett managed to stain his shirt with whatever he ate for lunch…probably doesn’t even know it. Then there’s Axel, who managed to step off a two-hour flight without a wrinkle on his shirt. I’m not sure how that’s even possible.
“Yeah, we do, and you will be too,” Axel says.
“How about asking me? I’m not your puppet,” I tell him. “I can quit, and walk away from all of this like I’ve been trying to do for the past day.”
The doors open and only Axel and I step out. “I’m one floor up,” Everett says as the doors close between us.
“You’re right. I apologize for speaking to you that way,” Axel says. I look down at my key and up at the room numbers, finding my room at the end of the short hall. I let myself in and Axel follows me, rather than finding his room.
“What are you doing?” I ask him, knowing what he’s likely about to do after what’s happened today. How is today still today? It’s been the longest goddamn day of my life.
“Making sure your package arrived,” he says, stepping in front of me and walking into the main part of the room. “Good.” He pokes his head into the bathroom and flips the light on. “Everything you need for tonight is here. I had it delivered.”
I walk over to the king size bed and a big flat box catches my attention. “What is this?” I lift the cover of the box off, revealing a maroon dress, one that is not going to go on without a struggle. “Is this necessary?”
“When you see where we’re eating tonight, you’ll understand why it’s necessary,” he says, eyeing the dress.
“Who picked this out?” I ask.
“Doesn’t matter,” he quickly replies.
“Is this just a ploy to take me out tonight?” I tease.
“I wouldn’t have brought Everett along if I were trying to trick you,” he says, walking toward the door. “We need to leave here at six, so you only have an hour.” He opens the closet door before leaving, kicks a shoe box out, and slides it over to where I’m standing. “Get dressed.” He leaves the room, and I hear the door in the next room over open and close. Did he ask for connecting rooms?
He’s probably going to barge on in right when I’m squeezing into this damn dress that looks like it’s meant for a barbie doll with no hips. Well, at least this is one more thing I can add to my job description. Forcing people to kill themselves and dressing like a game show host’s assistant. Fucking awesome.
I slip out of my clothes and into the dress, zipping it halfway up my back. It’s going to stay halfway up my back because this thing is tight and I can’t reach the damn zipper. He had this all planned, I swear to God. Forgetting about the zipper for a minute, I step into the bathroom and find an array of cosmetics, which include: makeup, perfume, mouthwash, and deodorant. Well, someone wants me to smell nice tonight. I am his puppet!
Huffing out my frustration, I use every product, covering up my wounds from that bitch the other day, and forcefully make myself look human. I guess it is still possible. It’s just that when I look in the mirror, all I see is a criminal, one who should be sharing a cell with Dr. Philips.
I shake the thoughts away like I do a dozen times a day and head over to my next box of death. Already assuming what’s under the lid of this box, I slide it out and confirm my thoughts. Four-inch black pumps. Couldn’t be three inch heels. They have to be four, so maybe I’ll break my neck tonight. This isn’t me. I’ve never been a fan of dressing up and looking like an adult version of a doll. I enjoy getting my hands dirty and not caring what people think of me. Or maybe that’s what I’ve become accustomed to over the years. I have trouble remembering what my life was like before I got involved with Dr. Philips.
I swallow the lump in my throat and knock on the connecting door. It takes a minute, but Axel opens it. He opens it without concern for the fact that he’s only wearing boxer briefs. I can feel the heat spreading through my cheeks as I awkwardly turn away with shock. How is he that tan? When does he even have time to be in the sun with a shirt off? Or go to the gym for that matter because he has more abs than…I don’t even know. It’s a lot. It’s more than I thought possible. Damnit to hell, I’m in a bad situation.
“Do you need something?” he asks, completely unaffected by this situation.
“My zipper, it’s stuck.”
He circles his finger in the air, telling me to turn around. I do, fully aware that most of my back is bare. He pulls the zipper up seamlessly as his knuckles sweep against the back of my neck. “I honestly couldn’t get it up. That’s the only reason I knocked on your door,” I say, turning back to face him.
“Well,” he says through a soft laugh as he scratches at the slight stubble on his chin. “That may be the same reason I knock on your door tonight too.” Either he gets a kick out of making me redder than a fire hydrant, or he’s serious. By the way he’s undressing me with his eyes at this moment, I can safely assume it’s the latter part of my assumption. “I knew that dress would look amazing on you.”
“What are we doing, Axel?” I back up toward the edge of the bed. “I work for you, don’t I?”
“There is no hierarchy between any of us, despite what you might think. We’re all equal.”
“So why do you always have to act like you’re above everyone all of the time?”
He comes toward me, and I find myself scooting backward on the bed. “Someone has to be in control at all times, and I happen to be good at controlling things. It works for all of us.”
While I know he’s talking about the work we’re doing, I can’t help but consider the double meaning in his description of control. Is he warning me?
“I guess we have that in common,” I tell him. “I like to control people’s thoughts and you like to control people physically. Am I right?” I’m fighting the nerves, knowing they always cause my face to light up like a Christmas tree.
“I have to get dressed,” he says with an intense glare. Almost every part of me wants to beg him not to do that, but I shouldn’t be asking for more trouble just as I’m catching a break. God knows, the only thing the two of us together would cause, is trouble.
He walks back into his room, leaving the door open. Whether it’s an invitation or not, I’m putting it out of my head. I need to keep my focus solid tonight while I meet with this man who is evidently responsible for keeping me off the street.
I grab the remote and turn the TV on, drowning out the noise of Axel’s razor. I typically ignore the news. Avoidance is ignorance and sometimes it’s healthier not to know what’s going on in this world.
I zone out, staring through the TV, remembering every reason why I choose not to know what’s happening around me. But there’s a woman with a microphone standing in the middle a street, talking about a new piece of evidence on an open case. It could be about anything. It could be, but it’s not.
“It has just been revealed that Dr. Mason Phillips, the former CSO of Dove Research and well known Boston University professor who was charged with manslaughter after conducting secret research within both Dove and Boston University, had a counterpart. Details are still emerging, but right now, investigators tell us that this counterpart is still at large. However, the investigators do say they were just tipped off as to her whereabouts, and we have a photograph of what they believe this dangerous woman looks like. The woman’s name is Isabelle Hammell, and if you have any information, please call your local police or FBI field office immediately.”
No. There’s no way. I’ve been so careful. There’s no way. I want to close my eyes and face away from the TV, but I can’t. My eyes feel forced open, drying out, burning as I stare at the photograph being blown up on the screen. The woman has short, blonde hair, glasses, heavy-set, and dressed nicely. She looks nothing like me. I’m a slim brunette without glasses; a person who wouldn’t be questioned in comparison with the photo they are showing. Relief is slight, but it’s better than the alternative—my actual photo being shown. I don’t know how they made such a mistake, and the good person I once was should save this woman for being blamed for the crime I’m responsible for. Am I still a good person, though? Axel will be disgusted in me and Everett won’t crack a smile at this. Dr. Philips took all of the blame when he should have taken none. It was all me. I caused the death. Ironically, I’m doing the same thing all over again, but the people I’m dealing with now, are convicts, deserving of the outcome I can control. My college roommate of four years was not a convict or deserving of her outcome, though. She just showed up and said she wanted to get involved. They called our lab a torture chamber. It was never our intention. Our only goal was trying to help those people who had nothing but mental suffering to live with. I didn’t know what I was capable of doing and I didn’t tell her she was the focus of my research and study. I ruined her life. Mine in return. Now, Dr. Philips is taking the blame.
Axel walks back into my room, clasping the cufflinks of his white pressed shirt. “You okay? You look like you’re going to be sick. You don’t need to worry about Mr. Johnson. Regardless of his stature, his financial state, and the fact that he’s a retired congressman, he’s a pretty down to earth man. He works hard to give people the justice they deserve. He helps the good and exploits the bad. He’s a good guy, trust me.”
Exploits the bad. He must know every criminal there is.
“I think I need to go home,” I tell him, standing up from the bed while wringing my fingers around my wrist. I feel like I might be breaking out into hives. I’m itchy and burning up. “I need to leave.”
Axel places his hands on my bare shoulders, tilting his head to the side as he offers me a questioning look filled with a kindness I haven’t seen with him. “What’s going on?”
“Look,” I exhale heavily. “I know you think you know everything about my history, but there’s something you don’t know.”
His eyes narrow and the corner of his lips quirk. “Isabelle, I know about the lab room. And your friend. I know Philips took the blame.” How? How could he know any of this? There was no proof…until today, I guess. Has he known this all along? Has he seen the news?
“You’re protected under our care—my care,” he says softly. “Mr. Johnson already knows. There’s nothing to worry about. To me, you’re Isabelle, but moving forward, you’re Harley, and we respect that. You’re not a murderer. You’re a scientist and a researcher who helped take studies too far. Like I’ve said, we need you, Isabelle.”
“We?” I ask, looking up into his softened gaze.
“I need you,” he says. I want to rebuttal and tell him I’m the last thing he needs. I want to tell him he doesn’t know a thing about me because I have done my damnedest to make sure no one knew a thing about me—Harley—the person I have become. The government, though, if there’s one thing I should have known better, they know everything, whether we think so or not.
“I might need you too,” I admit. I need him to do what he said and keep me under his protection so I’m not found and thrown into prison.
As my thoughts clear, the scent of his cologne pierces my nose; it’s entrancing. And my chest is aching with fear, and need. Can he tell what I’m feeling? My question is answered as his hands slip from my shoulders down to my elbows. For the fact that I’ve kept my secrets sealed up in the confines of my mind for far too long, it’s hard to realize I’m suddenly not so alone. There is finally a person I can talk to, defend myself, explain my past, admit my mistakes, and defeat. The loneliness that has captured every part of me this past year is fading. Should I let it fade, though? Running may be a better option. Hiding as a homeless woman in a dark alley would most likely keep me just as safe.
“Okay then.” Axel places his hand on my back and ushers me toward the door. “Be yourself tonight. You don’t need to hide anymore.”
“I don’t know if I can be myself,” I tell him. I don’t know who I truly am now.
Before we step out into the hall, Axel places his hand on the door. “Look at me.” I do. I’m sure he sees the fear I feel inside. “You have watched what we have done all week, correct?”
“Convincing criminals who were snatched from execution to take the blame for something they didn’t do?” As the words are coming out of my mouth, I have an epiphany and understand everything. His confidence. His sureness. His assurance. What he has done to protect me.
“Isabelle Hammel will be arraigned tomorrow. They have her in custody. She’s already pleaded guilty.”
“How?” is all I can manage to ask, feeling a burn behind my eyes.
Axel grins proudly. “We found a woman who was being executed for being a serial arsonist. She killed everyone in her path, including her own family. She’ll be okay, though. Your fifteen-year sentence was better than the death she would have gotten. Not to mention, she’ll never know of her past, moving on as Isabelle. I’d call it a win.”
“You used Dark Dove to save me?” I ask.
Axel’s grin turns into a smile. “Seemed fitting to me?”
Please note: these episodes are not edited.
Copyright 2016 - Shari J. Ryan