Date of first publication for serial: May 18, 2012
Date of first publication for collected book: December 24, 2014
Amazing cover art created by the talented Snowzapped:
I dedicate this book first of all to my wonderful husband, without whom it is doubtful the book would ever have been completed. Thank you for standing by me every painful step of the way, and for supporting and encouraging me when I felt I couldn't, or didn't want to go on.
Also, I'd like to thank all of the authors I've known and worked with over the past few years. Your support of what I do has been invaluable, as has your help and suggestions. You are some of the folks who have made me feel like I could really accomplish something that seemed as far away as a completed book, and your good wishes buoyed me along in getting there.
Last but not least, I dedicate this to anyone out there who has been, or is, trapped in an abusive situation. For those of you who are out, you have my congratulations and sincere regard. For those still stuck, my heart is with you. Do whatever you can to survive and escape, and please know that life can get better afterwards. I've written this story with all of you in mind, as a way to show how the trials by fire we've survived can leave us stronger in the end, even through the daily struggle to recover.
Chapter 1: First Interview
Running. She could feel the muscles tensing in her legs as she launched herself over the small step that represented the divider between the living and family rooms, her gaze fixed on the back door. She felt herself frown as the foot flung in front of her caught her eye, shod in those stupid sneakers—pink with flowers—her mom had picked out for her. She’d managed to cover them with enough mud and grass stains by now so that you couldn’t see what they used to look like, though.
Running for her life. She could taste the harsh metallic tang in the air that had set her to running, but she hadn’t looked behind her yet, not even when the shouting had started. She knew what was back there. He was always hounding her. Her heart thumped painfully, as if trying to escape her ribcage, and she could feel her arms vibrating with adrenaline as she pumped them, trying to propel herself forward faster. Faster, faster! Couldn’t she go any faster?
Running for her life. Again. Her foot slipped a little on the carpet, and she knew she wasn’t going to make it this time. She looked sadly at the back door, just a few feet away, but realized why she’d stumbled as her shirt slid up under her chin and closed off her throat. She only had a chance to turn her head part of the way towards him—slowly, so slowly!—until it snapped back around as a huge hand slapped her hard enough to rattle teeth. She could taste iron and copper now and her eyes had closed by themselves, but she considered the furious face that had burned into her mind before that: Dad.
She sat up quickly on the couch, breathing heavily, but otherwise silent and listening. She could still taste that familiar tang of blood in her mouth but decided after checking that it had just been in the dream. The feeling that her father still lurked nearby bothered her, though, so she got off the couch a little stiffly and moved cautiously around the condo until satisfied that she was the only person home.
A look at the clock told her it was one thirty in the afternoon, and she sighed. Another currently fruitless morning of job hunting out of months of such mornings, and she had lain down at eleven to rest her eyes for a minute. Heading for the bathroom, she turned on the light over the mirror and looked at herself for a moment. She didn’t really see the shoulder-length auburn hair or dark green eyes; her gaze lingered instead on the tiny, half-moon bite mark under her lower lip that she had gotten as a toddler. She wore a blue tank top and grey biker shorts that day, since it was hot even inside, and they showed off her five-foot-four, lean, muscled frame, but her eyes only saw the faint scar lines found mostly on her upper arms and the sides of her thighs from where her father had cut her during beatings.
He was mostly a blunt-force guy, so there weren’t too many marks, but there was one near the middle of her right forearm that seemed more spectacular than the rest. It looked old and faded in the way scars get, but this one, somewhere between a nickel and a quarter in size, had uneven waves around the edge, and the center was still a bit redder than the surrounding area. It looked as if it had been caused by something sharp poking through the skin, and for a moment she remembered how it had happened, not really seeing herself in the mirror at all. Finally, she shook her head as she rubbed the scar carefully and then looked her reflection in the eye.
“I should stop thinking about this shit,” she growled, the sounds echoing in the too-quiet room. Looking into the mirror with new determination, she turned on the tap and then threw some cold water on her face to help herself wake up before going to the kitchen to make some more tea.
She stood by the window, staring distractedly out at the street below until the kettle sang. When she’d refilled her tea cup, she inhaled the berry scent before she sipped it, settling back in front of the computer to resume her job search. Finding an e-mail she’d been waiting about a week for, she anxiously opened it.
“Ms. Alexandra McKilliam,” it read, “thank you for your interest in the position, but it has already been filled.”
A sigh escaped Lex’s lips as she put her head on her folded arms on the desk next to the keyboard. Not enough experience, not enough schooling: there was always some excuse made about why they didn’t want her. After a few moments, she breathed in a steadying breath, sat back up in the chair, and continued looking. She checked the job boards, sent out résumés to the few new entries she qualified for (all short-term contract positions, she noted resignedly), and followed up on some résumés she’d sent out over the past few days. After finishing that, she looked at the clock—two fifteen. Her eyes traveled to the suit that, in a burst of hopefulness, she’d just had dry-cleaned with her quickly dwindling savings but that she hadn’t had any use for recently. Suddenly, another wave of weariness passed over her, and she looked at the couch again.
Just relaxing for a little while should be fine
, she found herself thinking…
Running. She could feel the forward movement as her right leg reached out. She could sense her lungs opening wide and sucking in as much air as they could handle, full of the scent of desperation and sweat, and her panicked eyes located the back door, only a few feet away.
Running for her life. Could she ever get away from the monster following her? Her thumping heartbeat crowded out all other sounds, and every inch of her vibrated from the massive burst of adrenaline that had been dumped into her system. Need to go faster.
Running for her life. Again. She glanced quickly behind her and then forward once more, sorry that she’d looked. Her six-foot-six dad was pursuing her, face red and howling wordlessly in rage. But this time she had her hand on the doorknob. She slammed the back door open, and the screen door swung to without a hitch as she pushed against it. She could see the two dogs in the yard, and they immediately focused on the mismatched pair: the short, skinny girl and the tall, massive, shouting man. The black shepherd and white husky began running over, barking furiously. She could feel her father slowing behind her, and she took that moment to put on an extra burst of speed she didn’t know she’d had. She fled down the long backyard toward the chain link fence, scrambled quickly up it and over, and ran away into the dappled afternoon sunlight of the woods behind her house…
Sitting up, Lex caught the end of her cell phone’s ring. Shocked momentarily, she sat a bit dazed on the couch and then lunged for it. As she answered, it occurred to her that in all of the many times she’d dreamed that dream, she’d never escaped before. “Hello,” she said into the receiver, trying to sound like someone who hadn’t just been napping on the couch in the afternoon.
“Ms. McKilliam?” asked a crisp, cool, businesslike female voice.
“Yes, this is she,” Lex answered, trying to identify the voice and realizing that she couldn't.
“My name is Clara Pingham and I work for Mr. Sauer, who is the main sponsor for the M Agency. We received your résumé and are interested in interviewing you for a position with the team.”
Lex sighed and rubbed the space between her eyebrows. One of the reasons she’d been having a hard time finding work was that a while ago she'd decided not to take Defense Department or intelligence work. In Washington, DC, during a time when the US had armed conflicts going on in a number of different places, this made the jobs Lex would accept a small subset of the available work. She’d struggled with the decision at first, but Lex had had lots of time to read the news and think about the situation in the country. She'd tried to examine every angle carefully and had come to the uncomfortable conclusion that there seemed to be a few distinct purposes behind these wars: to use the poor in the US as cannon-fodder, to take the natural resources of poorer or weaker nations, and to suck the country's treasury money into the pockets of private corporations for something that was of no benefit to the citizens. Once that realization had settled in her mind, Lex knew it would be impossible for her to honestly do any defense work. Since she’d never heard of this agency and hadn’t applied to it, she found herself assuming she knew why they were contacting her.
“Thank you for calling, Ms. Pingham. I don’t remember putting in an application to your agency, but I am interested in finding out what kind of work would be involved. Could you please describe it to me?” Lex asked, figuring she probably already knew the answer.
“Actually, Ms. McKilliam, we culled your résumé from another government agency that you applied to. M Agency doesn’t accept applications; we recruit. Unfortunately, I can’t fully describe the position to you unless you fill out a confidentiality agreement. Does this impact your willingness to come for an interview?”
Lex sighed. “Unfortunately, it does. I’m not looking to do any intelligence or Defense Department work, so if that’s the nature of the job, I’m going to have to turn the interview down since I wouldn’t want to waste everyone’s time.”
There was a sound on the other end of the line, so faint that Lex couldn’t be sure she’d actually heard it. A smothered laugh, maybe? She didn’t have time to think about it, however, since Clara quickly began speaking again. “Ms. McKilliam, I can assure you that the position you would be applying for will not require you to do work of that kind. If you are interested, we would like to interview you today. Would 4:00 p.m. suit you?”
Lex stood up to look at the clock on the computer, which read 2:35. Internally she swore at herself for being so lazy today, but she responded, “Four would be fine. What’s the address?”
Writing it down, along with a number that Clara told her to call in case she got lost, Lex raised an eyebrow at the last statement and asked her final question, “Should I ask for you or Mr. Sauer once I arrive?”
“You can ask for either of us. Anyone who answers the door should know where to bring you,” Clara replied.
Answers the door?
Lex wondered, but shook the thought off. “Thank you, Ms. Pingham; I look forward to meeting you this afternoon.”
Shoving all thoughts out of her mind except getting ready, Lex quickly looked the address up on the internet; it was in a dicey neighborhood along the waterfront, but the nearest metro stop was only about two blocks away. Cheering her luck on, she ran into the bathroom, started the shower up while undressing, and then stepped into the water, shivering gratefully at the lukewarm spray cooling her down.
Fifteen minutes later, with her freshly cleaned suit and her favorite shoes on, Lex ran out the door and down the stairs. She slowed a bit after the first flight, thinking about the heat and not spoiling the effect of the shower, and pulled her cell phone out of her purse. Before she’d finished walking down the remaining four flights, Lex had left a voice mail for her fiancé to let him know about the interview when he checked his phone after work. That done, she put the phone away and pushed open the door leading outside.
As the sun shone harshly down on her, Lex let out a little sigh that quickly became a cough as the hot, moist DC summer air hit her lungs. She squinted against the blazing light in order to navigate the sidewalk—crowded with people in suits talking self-importantly on their cell phones and mothers pushing immense strollers—ducking in and out of the high-end shops that lined the street. Lex gazed upwards, seeing only tall, new buildings with a lot of glass and polished stone reflecting the sunlight back down at the street. She sighed again, telling herself that she should be grateful, that she’d never be able to afford to live in such a nice area on her own, but inside she remained unconvinced, thinking especially of the shooting that she could hear most weekends in the neighborhood just a few blocks away.
, she thought as she got on the down escalator,
at least the metro’s close.