Ghosts in the Shadows

The air by the river was crisp and quiet. A faint wind brushed past Claire’s skin, and she felt the hairs on her arms rise in response to the cold. She cursed herself silently for not having worn a jacket, but she gave no noticeable response to the chill in the air. She didn’t want to give Jonny the satisfaction. It was actually his fault that she hadn’t worn anything other than her old baggy black t-shirt, and equally ancient faded jeans, tonight.
If he hadn’t have made a point of telling her to put something warmer on, then she probably would have.

“Oh for god’s sake you’re acting like it’s minus seven outside,” she’d said, smirking at him. “Pull yourself together, you big baby.”

He’d just raised his eyebrows at her, slung his heavy leather jacket over his arm, and walked straight past her and out the door.
Really, he hadn’t even given her a chance to change her mind. She scowled into the darkness, careful not to show her sudden change of mood to Jonny, who stood at her back.

The river, which ran straight through the town centre, was flanked on both sides by concrete walkways, dotted with trees and wooden slated benches. Usually, they would never agree to conduct business in such a public area, but it was well past one in the morning, and the raised embankment which bordered the river shielded them from view of any stray passers-by. They stood on the eastern bank of the river, backs towards the wall of the road above. The river rolled lazily, a snake of black and silver coils. The sky was clear, a comforting midnight blue, but the light of the city blocked all but a few bleak stars from view. Claire sighed, wistfully. You couldn’t even enjoy something as simple as looking at the stars anymore.
“What’s wrong?” Came a voice from behind her, tinged with an edge of concern.

Claire nearly jumped, but contained herself. Her musings had almost caused her to forget about the 6’ 1” hulk of a man, that was Jonny Wright. She turned her upper body to face him, but kept her feet firmly planted towards the river. She crossed her arms over her chest, raising an eyebrow at him in silent question.
“Don’t give me that look, Claire.” He sounded exasperated.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
It was his turn to sigh then, though it was less wistful and more irritated. “The sigh?”
His voice made it a question.
Claire shrugged. She wasn’t particularly open to sharing her thoughts with him, just now. Star gazing. It was hardly a masculine hobby.
“Tyler’s over an hour late,” she said, in what she hoped was a bored, indignant tone.
“I’ve got better things to do than wait around for some no-good time waster”.
Jonny’s light hazel eyes bored into hers, searching. She stared into the sea of gold, willing him to leave it be. She wasn’t in the mood for sentiment tonight. She just wanted to get the job done. He didn’t believer her, she could tell. But he let it go, and turned back to looking up and down the narrow pathway.

She was grateful. After all, Jonny could read her like an open book. He could have called her out on her shit, if he’d wanted. They’d known each other for too long, been through too much together, to be able to lie to one another. But then, she wasn’t really lying, she was getting pissed off at Tyler. Nonetheless, that didn’t mean she wanted to have a deep conversation about the tragedy of losing the stars to modern technology, even just to fill the time. Claire wasn’t an avid conversationalist at the best of times, which Jonny knew. It was one of the few areas where they differed. He could pull off the big, cold and imposing look when he needed to, with his herculean muscles, tall stature and square-set jaw. But inside he was as soft as a kitten. A kitten that would happily spout poetry at you, or lecture you on how “the beauty of the theatre could never be replaced by modern television”. A true romantic. Ergh.

She followed his gaze up and down the river bank. There was no one else in sight. Her annoyance towards Tyler was growing all too real. Claire let out a low growl of frustration, and walked over to join Jonny by the wall.
She rested her back against the cold brick, lifting her leg to place one foot on the wall behind her, resting her weight on her left leg. Her Glock 19 dug into her lower back, but it wasn’t too uncomfortable. She hadn’t really expected to need it tonight, but she’d brought it anyway. You never know when shit’s going to hit the fan. Besides, she never went anywhere without it. Just feeling it tucked against her back made her feel safer, more at ease. She wasn’t the best hand-to-hand fighter, and while her high endurance meant she could run long distance at a steady pace, she wouldn’t make much headway if she had to make a fast get away. Not to mention the fact that something about Claire seemed to make men either want to square up to her, or leer at her. Neither of which she particularly appreciated.

At 5’ 7” she wasn’t small, but her height wasn’t particularly intimidating either. She was sturdy though, ‘big-boned’ her mum had called her. She’d always rolled her eyes at that. It just seemed like a polite way of saying fat, though she wouldn’t have called herself that either. Her hips and shoulders were naturally wide set, and the rest of her had just sort of filled the available space. Her waist was slightly synched in, giving her a curvaceous look. Unfortunately, she was also rather…well endowed. Though that was fixed easily enough by minimiser bras and baggy t-shirts, her go-to wardrobe; It was hard to be taken seriously otherwise. But at least she understood what drove the pervy ones. Some men just plain did not like her, though she’d never been able to figure out why.
“It’s your resting bitch face,” Jonny had once chuckled, when she’d brought it up. “Maybe try smiling once in a while.”
She’d scowled at him and walked off. Which, to her dismay, had only made him laugh more. She always wore her long dark brown hair up in a pony tail, partly to tame the unruly curls, but mostly for practicality. It did give her face more of a severe edge, highlighting her high cheek bones. But she felt resting bitch face was a bit harsh; she couldn’t help it, she was just a serious person.
Whatever the case, having a gun was just a good insurance policy against the many muppets of the world.

Jonny suddenly stepped forward, breaking Claire out of her reverie. He was looking left down the river, reacting to something in the distance. “Incoming,” he whispered to her, over his shoulder. Speaking of muppets. Claire pushed off from the wall and went to join him. Yep, it was definitely Tyler. The lanky blonde approached them at a leisurely pace. Every time Claire saw him she had stifle a laugh. He sauntered towards them in a manner that suggested that either, one of his legs was significantly shorter than the other, or that he had simply shat himself. The way his trousers rode low on his legs suggested the latter. His arms swung around him like a chimpanzee. He looked, put quite simply, like a colossal arse-hat. An opinion she’d held for the last three years, ever since she’d first met him.

Claire had first met Tyler McKenzie when she was 23. Back then, she had been a Detective Constable with the Met police, the youngest detective on the force at the time. She’d been working on an investigation into a drug smuggling cartel, and had busted Tyler for possession with intent to supply a class A drug. He had been 19 at the time, and had a mostly clean record, apart from a caution for cannabis possession a few years prior.
Claire recalled how ridiculous he’d been in interview, repeating ‘No Comment’ like they were the only two words in his vocabulary. Smug, cocky and arrogant, he had thought he’d be released within no time. But he’d been caught with 50 grams of coke in ready-to-sell wraps, as well as being seen in a number of surveillance tapes interacting with members of the suspected cartel.

Once he’d realised just how much the detectives had on him, and how much jail time he’d been facing, he cracked. Begged and pleaded not to go to jail; he’d have done anything to avoid it. So he became a CHIS., an Informant. With his help, and with the evidence they had already collected, they’d managed to bust one of the cartels imports of cocaine, arresting three people and seizing millions of pounds of merchandise. Tyler went free, and even got paid for the privilege of avoiding jail, something Claire did not entirely agree with. Paying a criminal for being a criminal. Yeah, that makes sense.
But then Claire wasn’t with the police anymore, so she didn’t have the right to comment. She did miss it, but being a private eye had its perks. With the police you were only issued a gun when it was needed, you didn’t get to take it home with you. Not that it was exactly legal for her to carry a gun now, but needs must and all that.

After what seemed like an eternity of ‘swagger’, Tyler came to a stop a couple of yards in front of them. His oversized ego was tangible, wrapping around Claire as Tyler’s eye’s roamed over her. He licked his lips and smirked at her. God, Claire thought. Does he think he’s being seductive?
“Good to see ya, Claire-bear.” He said, winking at her.
He’d taking to calling her that after she left the force. Some sort of power-trip, she suspected. It didn’t really bother her, but she felt Jonny’s shoulder’s roll in agitation beside her. Tyler must’ve noticed too, because he turned his attention away from Claire and acknowledged Jonny with a quick head raise, jutting his chin into the air, top lip curling slightly in contempt.
“Sup, muscles.”

Jonny made no movement or sound in response, he just continued to stare down at Tyler, expressionless as a rock. They stood for a few moments that way, staring each other down, jaws locked. A battle of wills. Tyler, who was even shorter than Claire, and with as much fighting experience as a worm, would not have stood much of a chance in a fight against Jonny, so she didn’t know he was bothering to challenge him. Even the numerous gold chains around his neck looked to heavy for him, weighing him down so that he stood slightly hunched over.
Just as she was starting to get tired of the male bravado, Tyler broke the eye contact. He kissed his teeth at Jonny, and turned back to Claire.
“If you ever get bored of the tall and silent type, you just hit me up. Yeah, baby?”
Claire almost snorted out loud. Brave words, but he was giving Jonny little sideways glances, as if waiting for him to pounce.
“Enough, Tyler.” She was tired and cold, and she just wanted to get this over with. “You realise you’re over an hour and a half late?”
“Aww, you know how it is babe. Places to go, people to see, ya know?”
“No. I don’t know,” She was starting to get pissed off now. “Can we just get on with this so we can all go home? Have you got any information for me, or not?”

Claire froze. “Come again?” she chocked.
She was sure she hadn’t heard him right. Tyler may have been a slime ball, but he’d always delivered when she needed him to. That was partly why she hadn’t gotten annoyed about the wait, until now. She’d play his little games if it meant she got what she needed.
“Couldn’t find anything on him,” he said in his most irreproachable voice. Claire suspected if snakes could talk, that was the voice they’d use to lure mice into their clutches. “Nobody’s seen him.”
“Bullshit!” She couldn’t help it; she was all but yelling at him now. He looked way too smug; he knew something that he wasn’t telling her. “Jason’s being investigated, Tyler. He’s all over the radar. He’s been linked to two assaults just in the last week, yet here you are telling me that he’s gone underground, and no one’s seen him? Sorry, not buying it.”
“Mate, I dunno what you want from me,” He shrugged. “Can’t tell you what I don’t know.”

She stepped towards him, ready to make him tell her what she wanted to know. But Jonny grabbed her wrist and held her back. Tyler took a quick step back, white Nikes squeaking on the concrete. He eyed her warily from a safer distance.
Just then, a phone started to ring. ‘Nigga’s in paradise’ was blaring out of the pocket of Tyler’s grey trackies. Seriously? Claire thought, mild amusement pushing through her anger. He fished his phone from the pocket and stared at the screen.
“Gotta take this,” he mumbled, without looking up.
Claire had been about to tell him to put the damn phone away, but Jonny spoke up before she could.
“Be quick about it,” Jonny barked at him. “And don’t go far. I don’t want to have to chase you down.” The smile that he gave Tyler was not a pleasant one.
Tyler turned his back on them and answered the phone, talking in a low voice so that they couldn’t hear him.

Jonny spun Claire around to face him, hands on both of her shoulders, dragging her slightly further from Tyler as he did so. He looked down at her, and she brought her dark brown eyes up to meet his.
“I get that this case is personal Claire, but you need to cool it.” His tone was even, steady and calming. “You’re not going to get far with this if you let your emotions get in the way.”
She took a deep breath in through her nose, and exhaled through her mouth. When she’d calmed down enough to talk she said, “Yeah, I know. But he’s lying, Jonny. He’s knows something, I know he does.”
He nodded his agreement. “I think so too, but shouting at him isn’t going to make him give the information up. He probably just needs a little extra incentive.”
Claire’s eyes sparkled with the possibilities of what that ‘little extra incentive’ could be. She wasn’t always the violent type. Honest. But then, Tyler did tend to bring out some of her not-so favourable traits.
Jonny gave her a disapproving look. “We both know that is not what I meant.”
“What?” She asked, in as naïve a voice as she could muster. “I didn’t say anything.
“No, but it’s what you were thinking that has me concerned.”
Claire grinned at him. He knew her so well.
“Ooh get you,” She teased. “Jonny Wright, private eye and mind reader”.

He chuckled, and she laughed with him. She loved that about their friendship; they only laughed with each other, never at one another. The laughter trailed off, and his eyes grew serious once more. He slid his hands off her shoulders, down her arms, taking both of her hands in his. His large hands engulfed her slender ones, but she never felt intimidated by his size and strength. If anything, it made her feel stronger.
“We will find him Claire, I promise.” His eyes were earnest, his voice so sincere. It was reassuring. She beamed up at him.
Tyler cleared his throat awkwardly from beside them. Claire looked at him in surprise; she didn’t remember hearing him finish his call.
“You two wanna get a room, or what?” Tyler grumbled.

Claire looked back at Jonny, and realised why Tyler seemed so uncomfortable. She wasn’t sure how it had happened, but Claire found her self stood right up close to Jonny, bodies mere inches apart. They were so close that she could feel the warmth of his skin radiating through his clothes. She wasn’t sure which of them had moved towards the other. The look Jonny was giving her was an unreadable mix of emotions. Her pulse quickened against his hands, and she felt herself blushing. Thank god it wouldn’t notice against her tanned skin in the darkness. Her hands dropped from Jonny’s hold. She took a step back to put some space between them, and Jonny mirrored her actions. Despite having moved to a much more respectable distance, Claire felt the warm flush on her cheeks continued to spread across her face and down her neck. So much for professionalism.

“Right,” Claire said. Her embarrassment and irritation towards Tyler made her voice come out clipped and harsh. “What is it going to take for you to talk, Tyler?”
Her eyes narrowed, and she smiled humourlessly at him. She could tell it wasn’t quite as good as her normal ‘dangerous’ look, but it was as good she could muster in the moment.
Tyler squirmed where he stood. “Look, I really d’know where Jason is right now Claire, Okay?” Claire almost groaned in frustration, but he continued. “But…”
Jonny asked the question, stony faced. “But, what?”
“But, I suppose I could take you to where I saw him last.”
Claire nodded her agreement.
“Fine. I’ll take what I can get,” She said.
“For a price, that is.” Tyler didn’t miss a beat.
“Of course,” Claire muttered bitterly, at the same time as Jonny asked, “How much?”
Tyler shrugged. “Give us another £100 and I’ll take you where ya wanna go.” He grinned Claire, then. “You know me, Claire-bear. Not the greedy type.”

Claire snorted her derision as she took out her purse and dug out the right amount of cash. She’d brought some extra money just in case, but she wasn’t thrilled to be giving over such a substantial amount, especially as she’d already given £50 to the slim-bag with the promise of information in return.
“Give over, Tyler. You’re the biggest money grabbing bastard I’ve ever met,” she said as she handed him over the money.
His smile broadened. Knowing Tyler, he’d taken it as a compliment.
“Let’s get a move on then,” Jonny sounded exasperated. “I would like to sleep before the sun comes up.”

They walked in silence towards Tyler’s mystery location. Tyler strolled along in front and Claire and Jonny trailed him, walking in step with one another. Thankfully, one of Tyler’s legs seemed to have miraculously grown long enough to match the stride of the other, allowing him to walk at a more reasonable pace, and look like less of a dick at the same time. Small mercies.
They made their way south along the riverside, which eventually sloped up into a pathway around the edge of town. The buildings were silent, the town void of any life, not even a stray animal made an appearance. The only sound was the swoosh of their clothes and as they walked, the scuff of their trainers across the floor, and the occasional hum of a stray car cruising along the distant carriage-way.

They walked for a mile or so before they passed out of the town centre, but still they kept going. Claire didn’t bother to question Tyler, and Jonny didn’t seem inclined to either. Truth was, she was rather enjoying the walk: the revitalising fresh air nipping at her skin, leaving a trail of frozen kisses up her arms; the calming night sky, a soothing blanket adorned with shining stars that burned brighter now that had left the town centre; walking beside Jonny, arms lightly brushing against one another as they walked. That was probably the part Claire was enjoying most, though she’d never admit it to herself.
She and Jonny had always been close. Friends since they were infants, they’d seen each other through the good and the bad. They’d grown up together, their individual families having moulded together over time to form one close-knit unit. His house had been hers, and vice-versa. She’d been there for him when his mum had died: comforted him during the funeral; been his shoulder to cry on when the days without her got too much to bare. He’d supported her through the ups and downs of depression in her teens, and later helped her quit the drug problem that had lost her her job a few years ago.

Besides all the bad, every single one of Claire’s best memories featured Jonny in some form or another. He’d been at every birthday, every family celebration. He’d taken her to prom, as friends- even though he hated big crowds- because he’d known she wouldn’t want to go without him. All he had been through had made him a serious person, and yet he had a great sense of humour. He was both the most gentle, and the strongest person she knew. They’d shared some incredibly intimate moments- they shared a flat for Christ’s sake- and yet they had only ever been friends; mostly, she thought, because neither of them had been ready to be anything more.
But the way Jonny had looked at her earlier… Claire wasn’t sure in that moment, if their relationship really was just a black and white friendship. She wasn’t even sure what she wanted them to be. What did she feel for Jonny? She cared for him, she knew that much. Maybe even loved him? But was she in love with him? She shook her head; she just didn’t know. They’d have to talk about this. But it could wait. First she needed to find out what she could on Jason. For now, she could just enjoy the simplicity of their walking together. Friends and business partners, up in the middle of the night hunting the bad guys. That was their normality, and she was content with it, for now at least.

By the time Claire’s internal debate about her feelings for Jonny had concluded, they had found themselves at a large industrial estate, just outside of town. What on earth would Jason have been doing here? Claire wondered. They walked through the middle of the industrial estate, past various lorry’s and warehouses, each with the unique markings of their individual companies. Pictures of smiling happy customers stared and waved at them as they walked by. In the dark their faces seemed quite sinister; smiles false, laughter staged. The various eyes seem stay with them as they passed. Claire shuddered, and turned away, focusing on the road directly ahead.
“Are you cold?” That was Jonny. Obviously. Tyler wasn’t likely to think about the comfort of anyone other than himself. Claire looked over at Jonny. His face was full of his concern for her. Her lips stretched into a small smile, and she shook her head. There was only a slight chill in the air; the buildings around them shielded them from the worst of the wind. Besides, the cold hadn’t been what caused her to shiver. Jonny frowned like he didn’t believe her, and started to shrug off his jacket. She put a hand on his arm to stop him, resisting the urge to roll her eyes at him.
“Really, Jonny. I’m fine.” She tried to put as much emphasis in her voice as possible so that he would listen. He didn’t. Ignoring her hand on his arm, he continued to take the jacket off. Claire made a small noise of protest, but the look Jonny gave her shut her up, and she gave in. He draped the heavy black leather jacket over her shoulders. It was still warm from when he’d been wearing it, but it felt hot to the touch against her bare skin. She must have been cold after all. She pulled it closer around her, resisting the very embarrassing urge to breathe in the smell of it, and immediately felt the muscles in her arms begin to loosen. Jonny gave her a triumphant smile.
“Not cold my ass,” he said smugly.
Claire tried to frown at him, but she couldn’t help but smile. “Yeah, yeah alright. You win.” It was her turn to be concerned then. “Wont you get cold without your jacket, though? You shouldn’t have to give me yours. It’s my own fault for not bringing my own.”
The smug look on his face deepened. Crap. It was her own fault; she should not have brought up their earlier conversation.
“Well, I hate to say it but-”
“Don’t even.” Claire interjected, giving him a warning look.
“I told you so.” He finished, victoriously.

Claire punched him in the arm. It was a pathetic, playful punch, but Jonny pretended to be hurt, making a little ‘oomph’ noise and rubbing his arm comically in protest. She laughed, prompting a boyish grin from him. Jonny was only 26, the same age as her, but he so often looked older. Pain and loss had aged him. But right in that second, he looked like a teenager. It made her smile even more.
“It’s over here,” Tyler called out to them. They must’ve slowed down while they’d been talking, because Tyler was standing facing a building 50 yards ahead of them. They made their way over to him, and found themselves stood in front of a small warehouse, no bigger than 100 metres square. The corrugated metal exterior was rusting in some places, the heavy looking doors seemed unlocked. There was no logo identifying it, no lorries or vans in the small accompanying parking lot. It appeared to be abandoned.
Claire’s earlier thought surfaced as a question. “What on earth was Jason doing here?” She asked, directing the question at Tyler. He shrugged nonchalantly in response, though something about his innocent act was not entirely believable.
“You tell me,” was all he said.

They made their way over to the entrance of the warehouse. The large double doors were stiff with age and rust, and Claire struggled to pull them open enough to get through. Jonny very gently set her aside and pulled the door open fully, without exerting much effort at all.
Show-off, she muttered, internally. Tyler stepped inside the open door and Jonny and Claire followed suit.
The warehouse was cold, stale and pitch-black inside. Tyler didn’t hesitate, continuing to walk forward, seeming confident that he knew where he was going. He disappeared into the darkness. Jonny and Claire exchanged a quick glance before leaving the safety of the light in the doorway to follow Tyler. About 10 metres in, the darkness was thick enough to cut. Claire raise her hand in front of her face, to stop herself from bashing into anything, and couldn’t even see it.
“Tyler?” She called out, hesitantly. “Tyler, where are you?
“Wait there,” He called back after a moment. “I’m just going to find the light switch.”
Claire let out a sigh of relief. She’d been beginning to wonder if Tyler had just lured them in to the middle of nowhere in order to lose them and make off with her money. But he was still there, and seemingly making himself useful for once.

Slowly, Claire shuffled her way through the thick darkness, keeping her arms stretched out in front of her in a comedic zombie fashion. As she continued forward, she felt someone brush up against her arm. Claire jumped, and turned towards the faceless person beside her.
“Jonny, is that you?” She whispered, low enough so that only he could hear. The faceless man reached down, feeling for her in the darkness, seeking out her hand and taking it in hers. Claire felt only the briefest moment of relief, and then recoiled in horror. The hand which had taken hold of her hadn’t been Jonny’s. It was too bony, slender and dry, with prominent knuckles.

Just then, bright light’s clicked on over head. The flare of light was a stark contrast to the deep dark of just moments before, and Claire was temporarily blinded. She closed her eyes and lifted her right arm to shield herself from the harsh light. The sound of the warehouse door slamming shut behind made her drop her arm. She swivelled around to see what had caused the door to shut; it was too heavy to have swung shut on it’s own. She turned so fast, Jonny’s jacket fell from her shoulders and into a heap on the floor. Claire blinked back the watery black spots in her vision, trying to focus. A large, bald man was standing in front of the door, which was about 20 metres away now. The man had a very grave face, and did not react when Claire turned to look at him. All but his hands and face was covered in black clothing. His hands were presumably free in order to hold, what looked like, an MP5 Carbine rifle between them. Great.

Claire didn’t particularly want to give her back to the rather intimidating armed man at the door, but unfortunately she was pretty sure he wasn’t the only threat. Besides, the way he held it, loosely in his hands, made her think he didn’t really expect to use it. A small comfort. She could feel other eyes watching her around the room. She turned to face the hooded man beside her who had grabbed her hand. He, too was dressed all in black – helps with the skulking around in the dark, she guessed- with the addition of a pair of leather gloves. Under the hood, he wore a black bandana, embellished with white skulls, over his mouth and nose. His eyes were shadowed by the hood, but she thought they were a dark brown. The man didn’t say anything to her, though she could feel him studying her, dark eyes intense. She thought he seemed familiar, but couldn’t be sure.

She caught some movement out of the corner of her eye and turned towards it with a gasp. Jonny was on his knees between two more men clad head to toe in black. His pale face was already blooming a few green-blue bruises, which looked angry in the harsh light of the warehouse. There was a large gash above his left eye, and blood was streaming down the side of his face, dripping red stains on to his blue jeans. She didn’t think the the wound was particularly deep, but even minor head wounds bleed a lot. He looked unconscious, and the way the each of the men had a hand on his shoulder’s, propping him up, suggested he probably was. Claire gave Jonny a quick once-over, searching for any other wounds. She couldn’t spot anything serious and figured would be ok, he’d taken worse beatings, after all. Neither of the men beside him seemed to be armed, which Claire was immensely grateful for. One trained monkey with a gun was enough.

Stood to the right of the room, behind Jonny and the other men, was a very nervous looking Tyler. Claire swore loudly, and started to make her way over to him, face like an avenging storm. The hooded man put a gloved hand on each of her arms, holding her back.
“Tyler! You traitorous bastard!” She roared at him, trying to fight off the firm grip keeping her in place. Tyler made a small whimpering sound in the back of his throat, shrinking back into the wall, trying to get as far away from Claire’s fury as he could.
“I’m sorry!” His voice was mournful, full of regret. Hadn’t felt bad enough not to take her money and lure her into a trap though, had he?
“Aww. Don’t be so hard on him, C.” Said the cloth-muffled voice from beside her. “We didn’t exactly give him any other choice but to bring you.”
Claire stopped struggling then. Her heart welled with a mix of anger and despair, tears pricked at her eyes. She knew that voice.
“Jason.” She breathed, without turning to look at him. She didn’t need to; she knew it was him.

He released her arms, and came round to face her, taking off the bandana and hood, revealing his face. His mahogany eyes glittered almost black with something resembling humour, striking against his dark brown skin. His hair was shorter than she’d seen it last, tight black curls cropped close to his head. The handsome, stubbled face grinned at her, white teeth dazzling against his tanned skin.
“Long time no see, Claire,” he mused, voice low and devious. “I have to admit, I was hurt you didn’t recognise me, but I suppose you’ve redeemed yourself now- better late than never.”
Jason had always had a dangerous edge to his voice. Born to be a gangster, Claire acknowledged bitterly. It was a voice that held an edge of power, commanding compliance from everyone, without the need to shout. Well, almost everyone. Claire wasn’t about to let herself be intimidated.
“Like you said,” Claire said, evenly. “It’s been a long time, Jase.” Thankfully, she didn’t sound nearly as shaken as she felt.

Jason nodded, “Fair enough.” The smile he gave her was not a nice one.
“What is going on Jason?” Claire asked, voice thick with resentment.
“I hear you’ve been sticking your nose around in my business, C.” He shook his head. “I can’t have that.” His voice was even, emotionless as he continued. “I brought you here so I could tell you, in person, to stay out of things, before you get yourself hurt.” That last word was heavy with the promise of danger.
“Dammit, Jason. I’m trying to help you.” Claire almost screamed in frustration. “I want to help you get yourself out of whatever mess you’re in, before you’re in too deep.”
“I don’t want your help, Claire.” Jason sneered at her. “And since when do you care? I thought you gave up on me a long time ago.”
That last comment hurt like a kick in the teeth, but Claire ignored it. She stared into his, once youthful, eyes and felt another little pang of remorse.
“Jason, either you let me help you or I turn you into the police. I’m not going to stand by and watch you keep hurting people, so those are your choices.”
Jason’s eyes were hard and cold, like a cornered serpent. “I don’t like being threatened, Claire.”

He looked towards the men that flanked Jonny’s unconscious body. The fact that he was still out-cold was beginning to worry Claire; she had thought he would have come-to by now. As if they had been given some hidden command, the two men straightened Jonny’s limp body, so that his back was straight. The man on the left of Jonny switched the hand he was using to hold him up, freeing his right hand to pull his head back, using his hair for leverage. Leaving his neck exposed. A flash of silver next to her caught Claire’s attention. Jason had pulled out a knife. The blade was stainless steel, about 7-inches long, and as sharp as a razor. Jason smiled sickeningly at her.
“I think you need to see just how serious I am, Claire.”

Jason started stalking towards Jonny, his pace was unhurried, filling the room with suspense. Claire stared at him as he walked towards Jonny, struggling to decide what to do. She really didn’t want to hurt Jason, but she couldn’t let him hurt Jonny either. Jason was almost at him, she had to act now. In one swift motion, Claire drew her Glock from the holster at her back, turned and fired at the door guard. Always take out the most dangerous person in the room first. He was about 20 metres away, further than Claire would have liked. But she was a good shot and the bullet it him square in the stomach. He went down, gun clattering to the floor underneath him. Claire hoped he wasn’t dead, but she knew it was a stretch; the 9mm rounds were small, but they packed a punch.
The sound had distracted Jason, as she knew it would. She turned on her heel back to where he stood, quickly aiming and firing another round straight into his foot. He let out a loud shriek, cursing loudly. The knife clattered to the ground at his feet, and he too fell to the floor, rolling around and holding his foot in pain.

She wasn’t sure if it was the noise that brought Jonny back to consciousness, or whether he had only pretended to be knocked out to begin with, but suddenly he was on his feet, fighting off his captors. He elbowed the guy on his right in the groin, doubling him over in pain, and freeing his right hand to grab hold of the guy who was still holding his neck back at a painful angle. He wrenched the guys hand out of his hair, using his momentum as he rose to his feet to throw the guy to the ground. He stamped on his face once, a calculated blow. There was a sharp crack, most likely his nose breaking, and the guy lay still; unconscious, but alive. The first guy was beginning to rise to his feet, some of the pain in his crotch having presumably subsided. Without hesitating, Jonny walked round the back of him, wrapping his right arm around the guy’s neck. Grabbing his right hand with his left to give him extra leverage, he squeezed forearm and upper arm together at the elbow, trapping the man’s neck in a choke-hold. The guy’s eyes rolled back in his head, lack of oxygen causing him to quickly fall into unconsciousness. Claire just stood and watched the scene; she wouldn’t have been a great deal of use without her gun, and she didn’t particularly enjoy the idea of shooting anyone else. Besides, Jonny could clearly handle himself.

When the fighting was over, Claire walked over to Jonny, ignoring Jason’s agonized moans as he continued to cradle his foot. She embraced him, wrapping her arms around his waste and burying her cheek in his chest. His arms enveloped her, pulling her closer to him, resting his head on top of hers. They stood like that for a few moments, both just enjoying the fact that they were still alive, still had each other. Claire raised her head, resting her chin on his chest to stare into his eyes, golden flecks glinting in the bright light of the warehouse.
“Well, that could of gone worse.” She said, voice thick with relieved humour.
Jonny laughed, “You are a master of understatement, Claire Faulkner.”

She grinned at him, giving his arm one last squeeze before stepping back. Jonny moved with her, keeping their bodies close. She looked up at him, puzzled. Gripping the top of her arms gently, he dipped his head down, planting one brief, sweet kiss on her lips. She didn’t even have any time to react before he pulled away again, his eyes staring intently into hers. She let the confusion show plainly on her face, and he gave her a small, complicated smile in return.
“I’m glad your alive,” was all he said, voice breathy and thick with emotion.
“Ditto,” was all she said back. She couldn’t really think of what else to say. It had been a long night and she was very confused. But they could figure things out later.
“Hey, where did Tyler go?” He asked, suddenly. Menace was creeping in to his voice as he spoke. “I’d like to have a few words with him.”
Claire growled her agreement, but she didn’t know where he had gone either.
“He must have slipped out when the fighting started,” she concluded.
“Of course he did.”

A noise behind them stopped Claire from saying anything more on the matter. Jason stood there, balancing all his weight on one foot, gun in hand. Claire swore internally, it hadn’t looked like he had any weapons. But then he’d pulled out the knife without her knowing; clearly she was getting complacent.

“You should have stayed out of it, Claire.” Jason said, sounding resigned but determined. He had a look in his face that said nothing was going to stop him pulling the trigger, so Claire didn’t bother to say anything back. He couldn’t quite look her in the eye as he said, “I’m sorry it had to be this way.”
Claire gave him a small, sad smile. She still had her Glock in her hand, but she couldn’t bring herself to shoot him, not even to save herself.
“Me too, little brother.” She replied, quietly. “Me too.”

Jason met her eyes, and pulled the trigger.

© J. E. Fitzgerald

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