Freedom means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. To Zora Matthews, freedom meant ‘not currently incarcerated’. It was a low bar to set, but her life had always been full of low bars. She was, in many respects, the limbo queen of expectations. Some people would have been depressed by that, but failure had never depressed Zora. Failure was to be expected. Success, now that was something worth worrying about.
Sitting on a saggy, lumpy, generally dilapidated mattress, Zora was about as happy as she’d ever been. She and Savage had their own apartment. It was clean and very tidy, but dingy. Scrubbing pads and cleaning products could only get surface dirt off. Much of it had sunk into the paint over the years, in smears of grease and dirt that gave the place an ambiance of slow decay.
She itched her back where the scratchy green woolen blanket pulled drum tight across the mattress had touched her exposed skin. Savage made the bed that way every morning with the same precision. In much the same way, the dishes were done after every single meal: washed, dried and put away in the cupboard missing half a door. Thanks to Savage, there was order in the ghetto.
Their subsistence lifestyle didn’t allow for many treats, but that evening she’d managed to sneak away a little something to reward herself with, something that was stuffed into the back of her waistband, something she planned on getting into when she had a moment to herself.
Just as she finished adjusting her little prize, Brett Savage, ‘Savage’ as she still called him in her mind, exited the bathroom after his shower. The towel wrapped around his midsection left his upper body pleasingly bare, so she was treated to the sight of his hard abdominal plane moving in rhythm with his steps. You could have used him to teach an anatomy lesson, he was that well defined. His hard jaw was clean shaven and his dark hair was cut in a close crop. Even half naked, he still looked like a military man. It couldn’t have been more obvious if the word ‘MILITARY’ had been stamped across his forehead.
“What are you looking guilty about, Matthews?” he inquired in a low rumble.
She grinned. “I’m not looking guilty. I’m happy to see you.”
A thick dark brow rose at her. He always knew when she was lying. He seemed to have a second sense where she was concerned. Of course, he had a second sense where almost everybody was concerned. Savage’s instincts were second to none. Zora wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that he could out-sniff a sniffer dog, if he had to.
He glanced at the hand that she’d left behind her back, the one checking to make sure her hip flask was well secured. Savage had been the one to declare their freedom, but that hadn’t stopped him from imposing limitations on her behavior. The one he was strictest on was the ingestion of alcohol.
Zora liked a drink. She liked several drinks. She was, perhaps, a slight alcoholic, but at least she was a functioning one. Everyone had flaws.
None of those rationalizations flew with Savage. He insisted that she go dry and she sort of did, most of the time. There had certainly been a complete dearth of binges in recent months. The most she’d managed was a few sips at a time, just enough to whet her palate.
She knew she was caught, even before he actually came over and demanded to know what she was hiding. He held out his large hand, snapping his fingers back towards his palm in an impatient gesture. “Hand it over, Mathews.”
“Hand what over?”
He didn’t reply, not verbally anyway. The crease between his eyebrows deepened just a fraction. That was enough.
She reached around and pulled out the flask, showing him the gleaming silver. “Isn’t it pretty?”
“Zora!” Savage exclaimed, surprise and disappointment both tingeing his tone. “Where did you get that?”
“I liberated it,” she explained. “With freedom.”
He snapped his fingers again. “Unliberate it. Immediately.”
Zora’s lips formed a pout. “You’re being snappy. I don’t like it when you’re snappy.”
“I don’t like it when you break the liquor ban,” he said, reaching for the flask.
Zora snatched it away and bared her teeth at him.
“Savage!” she mimicked his outrage. It was not a wise move, but she was beyond wise moves.
“Young lady, you are headed for trouble,” Savage warned.
“I am not; I am teaching you about freedom,” she said. “You don’t know how to be free, that’s your problem.”
He made another attempt to recover the flask, but she took evasive maneuvers, rolling off the bed and onto her knees and forehead, curling around the vessel like a prickleless hedgehog.
“Freedom means being able to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it!” she shouted her message at the carpet.
“That is not what freedom means,” Savage disagreed, applying a hard slap to her bottom.
She yelped and tried to squirm away, but she was unable to locomote very far, owing to her forehead making a very poor transit surface. “You hate me for my freedom!”
He snorted. “Zora, fair warning. Hand it over or face the consequences.”
“That wasn’t a warning,” she said, quite correctly. “That was a vague threat.”
His hand connected with her bottom at speed, the power of his muscled arm transferring through her cotton covered flesh with ease.
“Was that too vague?” He asked the question, but she didn’t have to answer it, on account of it was rhetorical and she was too busy yelping anyway.
His hand came down on the back of her neck, holding her in place as she began to break position, her bottom arching up as she tried to escape. He slapped her cheeks again, catching her across the middle of her backside. The slap echoed around the room, quickly followed by a cry of distress.
“You may take my drink,” she shouted as she abandoned the flask in favor of scurrying away as fast as her hands and knees would take her. “But you’ll never take my FreeeddddDOOOMM!”
Unfortunately for Zora, Savage was no longer interested in the flask. He was interested in tanning her disobedient hide. Before she got more than a few feet, she was arrested by his arm looping around her waist. A moment later, his hand began to fall like hard rain against her bottom, leaving her a squirming, squealing mess.
She really should have known better. Savage had never been a man to give quarter, and he certainly gave none as he spanked her into not quite submission.
“Okay!” she wailed when she’d had enough. “I’m sorry!”
“You are not sorry,” he said, reaching down to push her hair out of her eyes. “Your bottom is sorry, that’s about it.”
“My ass speaks for me on this one,” Zora replied, breathing heavily. The altercation had taken it out of her, as it always did. Struggling against Brett Savage was always futile. He always got what he wanted. Always.
Fortunately for her, he seemed to be in a forgiving mood. He allowed her to turn over onto her back, protecting her bottom for a moment. His hand rested on her stomach as he gazed down at her, shaking his head.
“When are you going to learn?”
“A quarter past never.”
Sighing, he stood up, helping her do the same.
“So,” she said, watching as he bent and swept the flask up from the floor and put it on the nearby bench. “Are you going to get ready for work?”
His response was almost less pleased than it had been when he caught her with the flask. His brow furrowed, his eyes fell into a glower and a certain tension filled his frame. Savage was not a man built for minimum wage. Oh he could do dirty, tough, tedious work for little reward, but the daily monotony of ordinary life was too much for him. He was a man born for action, as suited to the fray as a tank was to a battlefield. Sending Savage out to deliver pizzas was akin to taking a Panzer to the grocery store. It was a matter of being extremely overpowered for the task at hand.
“We’re free,” he’d said. And they were free – in the way that scuttling rats are free, in the way that escaped convicts are free. They were free to run, free to hide, free to do their best to keep their noses clean and avoid coming to the attention of any authorities.
“You hate it, don’t you,” she said sympathetically. “This isn’t a life, not for you.”
“It’s fine,” he said, clamping his jaw hard as he shed the towel and began to get dressed. It was quarter to ten at night and he was about to go out and do the graveyard delivery shift. It was the only job that had been going spare – a job nobody wanted because it was just as dangerous as a military incursion, but without the hazard pay.?
“I thought I was supposed to be the one who said things were fine when they’re not?”
“Drop it, Zora.”
She stopped talking, largely because it was pointless to say any more.
He was already shrugging on his hi-vis delivery vest, complete with pizza logo on the back. It was an incredible look that she would have laughed at, if he weren’t so miserable, and if she wasn’t so certain that it was all her fault. If they’d never met, he’d still be a decorated officer, he’d still be protecting his country. If not for her, the world would probably have been a much better place.
She sat back down on the bed, resting her elbows on her knees and her chin in her palms. The most depressing thing wasn’t their shitty apartment, or the dubious neighborhood, it was her. Just her.
“I’ll be back at the usual time,” he said. “Keep the door locked.”
“Sure,” she agreed.
“Hey,” he said, getting her attention.
She looked up at him and he reached down, cupped her chin in his hand and pressed a kiss to her lips. “Cheer up, Matthews,” he winked.
She tried for a smile as he left. It fell off her face as soon as the door shut behind him.
A siren outside the window sent her nerves into momentary overdrive. Hiding in a city was a great deal different from what hiding in Iron Horse had been like. The city was crowded and smelly, especially in the neighborhood where they’d chosen to hide out. Power was intermittent, water quality was variable and they’d gotten used to the sound of cars backfiring interspersed with occasional gunshots. The only small comfort was that the rent was cheap – which was just as well because they had to live off the grid. That meant cash work. Cash work meant low wages. It meant the same jobs that usually went to illegals.
Zora worried about Savage when he was at work. He wouldn’t allow her to go out and get a job. He said it was because it wasn’t safe, but she was pretty sure it was out of a misguided sense of chivalry. He liked the idea of keeping her safe – no matter what it did to her. He’d have put her in a glass case and fed her through a straw, if he thought it would help matters.
She glanced across at the flask of vodka now sitting on the bench top. She was free to drink it if she liked, but she wasn’t really in the mood any more. Wandering off to the bathroom to relieve herself, Zora paused a moment to look in the mirror. Life on the lam rather suited her, she thought. It had been quite a long time since her cheekbones were so prominent, due to a calorie restricted diet comprised of precisely no pizza. Savage was a hard ass about nutrition, so even though there were plenty of opportunities to feast on the nectar of the urban gods, they pretty much never took advantage of them. Her hair was dyed a couple shades darker than usual, nearly black. She kept it tied back, out of her eyes and out of her mouth.
Was she pretty? She sort of thought she was. She was getting older; there was no doubt about that. Unlike Savage, who looked more distinguished with lines about his forehead, lips, nose and mouth, she was starting to look like a piece of paper that had been crumpled up. Okay, so it wasn’t that bad yet, but under the bare fluorescent light there was no hiding her journey into middle age.
Keys rattled in the doorway.
Zora zipped out of the bathroom and reached for her gun. The gun Savage insisted she keep on her. The gun she had exactly zero intention of firing.
The keys rattled once, twice, three times.
Zora put the gun away again, just as Anja let herself into the apartment. Anja had once been part of Savage’s elite unit. Now she was a dropout, just like them. Zora had once been jealous of Anja and her Nordic good looks. These days she couldn’t be jealous of Anja’s pretty blue eyes, because she recognized the hunted expression in them all too well.
If Savage was having trouble adjusting to low grade civilian life, Anja was just barely making it. She was thin, she was jittery and she was paranoid. The irony was that of the three of them, Anja was the most free. She was not wanted by the military. She was not on anybody’s radar. She was just a soldier with a medical discharge. She could have gone anywhere and done anything, but she refused to leave Savage. It wasn’t romantic love that kept her tied to the man she still called ‘Captain’, it was something deeper than that, the kind of faithful devotion that keeps a hound tied to its master. Anja lived with them, sleeping on a cot in the corner of the one room apartment.
It was the sort of issue that would have put a serious spanner in the works of a traditional relationship, but they had more pressing problems than Anja. Besides, Anja was useful. Whilst Savage worked and rested, she kept watch. One of them was always on a patrol of some kind; they’d loop around blocks, go up to the roof, sit in windows and just watch the world go by. Zora thought it was sort of silly, but if it made them feel any better, and if it kept Anja out of her and Savage’s hair, she wasn’t going to complain.
“Hey,” Zora said. “I was just about to watch Wheel of Fortune.”
Anja glanced over her shoulder, checking the door, then lowered her voice and spoke in a harsh whisper.? “They’re coming for us.”
It wasn’t the first time that Anja had announced that people were coming for them. She announced it at least once a week.
“Movie title,” Zora said calmly, watching the tv screen. Like the rest of the apartment, the television set had seen better days. The reception was decent though, which was all that really mattered. “Two words. What do you reckon?”
Anja peered out the peephole, muttering something to herself.
“I’m going to go with a vowel,” Zora said conversationally. “O, for oarsome.”
“They’re coming,” Anja repeated, taking cover beside the door, her long legs crouched like a grasshopper. “Gather supplies. Man the turret.”
“F for Filadelfia,” Zora said, trying to distract Anja with bad spelling. “Y for Wyoming.”
Anja made a low whining sound and started rushing around the apartment. Savage had prepared several ‘go bags’, backpacks that could be grabbed at a moment’s notice if they needed to run. Anja began going through them all, checking them with a fixed look of supreme concentration on her face.
Zora left her alone to do it. If organizing things made Anja feel any safer in the world, well, that was fine by her. It turned out that neither Y for Wyoming or F for Filadelfia were in the title, which turned out to be ‘Shawshank Redemption’.
THUMP THUMP THUMP
Heavy footsteps pounding up the stairs got Zora moving. Not in any particularly useful direction, just generally moving back and forth behind Anja – who didn’t seem to notice or care. She was focused on the task at hand, even to the extent that she didn’t look up when a heavy hand laid hold of the door handle. It was left to Zora to defend the apartment. The gun was too far away, so she grabbed a fork. In her defense, it was a pretty sharp fork.
When the apartment door opened, Zora was pleased to see that it was Savage. If it had been anyone else, they would have gotten the sharp end of three tines.
“This is supposed to be locked,” he glowered, tossing his pizza delivery vest onto the floor, where it almost certainly didn’t belong.
“Anja opened it,” Zora said as he swung up his pack. “What’s going on?”
“We need to go. Now. Get your bag.”
Zora obeyed, slipping on the backpack Anja had prepared for her. She couldn’t help but notice that it was much smaller and lighter than the ones Savage and Anja had.
Savage gathered all the little papers, receipts, rent notices and other miscellaneous items in the apartment, tossed them into the kitchen sink, doused them in lighter fluid and set them on fire. They went up in a puff of smoke and a bright orange flame, which he then put out with a liberal application of cold water.
“Come on,” he said. “Out the fire escape onto the roof. Let’s move.”
And that was how Zora found herself clambering over rooftops at nearly midnight. Their escape plan was fairly flawless. Savage had mapped out an exit strategy, which involved running from roof to roof, making use of boards handily left atop the buildings for the purposes of creating spur of the minute gangways.
Zora was not overly fond of shaky wooden bridges, but she didn’t have much time to question the plan. Savage took point, Anja brought up the rear and Zora was shuttled in the middle.
It occurred to her, as they ran, that Savage might just have lost his marbles. There were no people obviously chasing them, no helicopters hovering over the city. Even the police sirens, which were usually fairly constant, seemed to have taken a break.
Then it clicked. It was quiet. Far, far too quiet. It was as if some great predator was crouched, listening, waiting for signs of movement.
The thought made a trickle of fear run through her chest and into her stomach.
“Shhh!” Savage stopped in the middle of the roof of an unfamiliar building and pressed his finger to his lips. He grabbed Zora by the arm and pulled her into an open stairwell. Anja followed suit, pressing her slim body hard up against the wall.
“What?” Zora hissed the question and was rewarded with a brawny hand clamped over her mouth.
Then she saw it, a halo of light passing over the rooftop. It could only have come from above, from a helicopter hovering silently in the sky. Her eyes widened as she realized just how close they’d come to getting caught. Only Savage’s keen eyes and survival instinct had saved them from being discovered.
He relaxed his hand, allowing her to breathe through her mouth. Fear was hitting her like ocean waves, making her knees tremble and threaten to buckle as she gasped for breath. She did not know who was after them; it didn’t really matter anymore. The dark malevolent force that was always lurking at the edge of consciousness had raised its head once more and she, and Savage and Anja were all prey to it.
Strangely, Savage and Anja showed no outward signs of distress. They both were alert, yet calm, and ready to act. The tables had been turned. Where she had been strong, they had seemed weak, and now that they were strong, she was the weak one.
Savage sensed her discomfort and drew her against his body, sheltering her from the hunt.
They stayed in the stairwell for what felt like hours, although it was probably only thirty minutes. Zora stood with her head pressed against Savage’s chest, listening to the steady slow beat of his heart.
“I’m going to look after you,” he murmured softly. “Just do as I say and we’ll get through this.”
She nodded, believing him. Savage had never let her down. Even when they’d been separated for months on end, he’d kept his promises. He’d come for her. If he said they’d get through it, they’d get through it.
“Who are they?” she whispered the question against his chest. “Military? Mercenary? Tex’s people?”
Savage shook his head, indicating that he either didn’t know or didn’t care to tell her. “Later,” he responded.
It was cold up there, the only warmth was Savage’s body pressed against her. Zora shut her eyes and rested her forehead against the slab of muscle that was his chest. She’d hoped this sort of thing was over. She’d hoped that the freedom Savage had talked about had arrived. Even in the form of a dingy apartment in a dangerous neighborhood, it had been better than anything that had come before it.
She realized that it had all been wishful thinking. Anja wasn’t paranoid, and Savage wasn’t overly protective. They were the ones reacting appropriately to the situation. She’d been sitting around with her head in the clouds – because she’d been protected, because Savage and Anja had taken the brunt of the stress and work upon themselves.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into his chest.
There was no response. Savage didn’t care about apologies, or self-inflicted guilt trips. He had only one thing on his mind – the preservation of their oh so tenuous freedom. Looking up at his hard face, only partially visible in the moonlight reflected off a nearby AC unit, Zora saw an expression of complete resolve – an expression that told her one thing. Come what may, they would not be captured again.