High Noon Chapter 31

Duncan stood outside with Phin, a few feet away from the rest of the family. ’’They're okay. Nobody's been hurt. She keeps him talking, keeps working him around. I swear to God, I don't know how she does it.’’

’’It's been nearly four hours now.’’

’’I know.’’ He could see the snipers from where he stood, see them on rooftops, in windows, doorways. What if they opened up? What if Ma or Loo got in the way of a bullet?

The idea of it had him lowering to a crouch on legs that had gone to water. ’’If it was money-God, why isn't it about money? I'd-’’

’’I know.’’ Phin hunkered down beside him. ’’I know, Dune.’’

’’Phoebe, she... She keeps bringing him back to the hostages. Asking how they're doing, talking to him about letting some of them go.

She asked if we could have their names, but he doesn't know, doesn't care. I don't know if that's good or bad. I just don't know.’’

’’It's taking too long.’’

’’I don't know that either.’’ He laid a hand over Phin's, linked their fingers. ’’Take care of the family. You take care of the family, and I'll go back in, see if there's anything else I can find out, anything I can do.’’ Despite the air-conditioning, the air in the boutique hung hot and thick. The door opened and closed countless times as cops pushed in and out, so the steamy heat crawled in and set up shop. Sweat gleamed on Phoebe's skin as she studied the situation board, read over her own notes, made more. In a desperate attempt to keep some part of her cool, she'd snagged a tortoiseshell clip from a display to yank her hair up. She chugged down water as she stared at the red X's marked on the layout of the jewelry store. Kill marks, she thought. Move him to any of those locations, and Tactical had the green light.

’’We've had experts move in at the rear door,’’ Harrison told her. ’’Examine the rig there. They think they can defuse it and circumvent the alarm.’’

’’But they don't know.’’

’’They're pretty damn sure.’’

’’Because they're getting impatient. You know as well as I do everyone's wanting to move, to act. That's the danger of long negotiations. I need more time. He's going to have to move those people soon. Bladders only hold so long, and that's our best option.’’

’’Sergeant Meeks wants to know how his boy's doing. You can't blame him.’’

’’He won't tell me.’’ Phoebe swiped one of the baby wipes Liz had passed her over her face to mop up the sweat. ’’Tell him I'll try to find out next round.’’

’’If you don't move him within the next hour, I'm going to let the bomb squad take that rig. He's not coming out alive, you know that. Bringing him down's the only way to minimize casualties.’’

’’I'll move him, damn it. It may take a little longer, but I'll move him.’’

’’It takes much longer, you'll make a mistake. That's why you work in teams, Phoebe. As long as it's only you and him, you're going to tire out and make a mistake.’’

’’He wants me to make a mistake. And the theme of this party is he doesn't get what he wants. He's not ready to end it yet, because he wants something from me first. And until he is ready, those people are as safe as we can make them. I'll know when he's ready.’’

Harrison walked out as Duncan walked in. Phoebe lifted her eyebrows as she spotted the bags of takeout.

’’Figured food would come in handy.’’

Even the thought of eating made her nauseous, but eating was necessary, and might keep her from making that mistake. ’’You're my hero.’’

He set the bags down, where they were attacked by cops, then moved to her. ’’Whose turn is it to call?’’

’’I'm letting him make the move.’’

’’Okay.’’ He rubbed her shoulders. ’’I talked to your mom. Everyone's all right there, some worried about you. This, ah, siege is all over the news.’’

’’That's one of the things he wants I couldn't stop.’’ She let her head rest on his shoulder, rested her mind there. ’’I haven't had anyone take care of me in a long time. I could get used to it.’’

’’You'd better.’’

’’How's Phin-and the rest of them?’’

’’They're terrified. I'm not.’’ They both knew it was a lie, but it was a comforting one. ’’I know you'll get them out safe.’’

’’What do you hear when he talks?’’

’’He goes up and down, right and left, b u't...’’

’’But?’’

’’Under it all? I guess what I hear is satisfaction.’’

’’Yes, you listen well.’’

Ma Bee's back ached, her head throbbed. Pretty, blond Patsy had given up crying and was now curled up on the floor with her head in Ma's soft lap. There were murmurs and whispers among the hostages-something the man in charge didn't seem to mind, or maybe didn't tune his ears to hear.

Some of them dozed, as if they might open their eyes again and find this had all been a strange, awful dream.

’’Phin must be so scared,’’ Loo said quietly. ’’Livvy. He wouldn't tell Livvy. I don't want her to be scared. Oh, Ma, my baby.’’

’’She's fine. You know she's fine.’’

’’Why doesn't he do something? When the hell is he going to do something?’’

’’I don't know, honey. But I gotta do something. I gotta pee.’’ There were murmured agreements, even a few weak laughs. ’’I'll ask,’’ Loo said.

’’No, let me. Motherly type might have better luck. Mister!’’ Ma called out before Loo could object. ’’Hey, mister! Some of us here need to use the facilities.’’

They'd called out to him before and been ignored. But this time he turned, the phone in his hand, and looked at Ma with dead eyes. ’’Been hours now,’’ she reminded him. ’’Unless you want a big puddle down here, you're going to have to let us use the bathroom.’’

’’You'll have to hold it awhile longer.’’

’’But-’’

He raised the gun. ’’If I put a bullet in you, you won't be worried about pissing. Now shut up.’’

He'd had a schedule, and he'd slipped up. Hour three break was when he'd meant to shuffle the hostages, one by one, into the toilet. Whether they wanted to go or not. But he'd forgotten, and now it was time to make the call, goddamn it. So they'd hold it until the next break, or they'd piss themselves.

F*k them.

’’What if I want ten million dollars?’’ he said to Phoebe. ’’Do you want ten million dollars, Jerry?’’

Listen to her, he thought, butter wouldn't f*king melt. ’’Let's toss it out there, kick it around.’’

’’All right. What do I get for the ten million if I can get that for you?’’

’’I don't shoot a hostage in the head.’’

’’Well now, that's a negative response, Jerry. You know if I could, and I can't promise I can, but if I could convince my superiors to approve that ten million, there'd have to be a more positive quid pro quo.’’

’’What if I said for ten million, I'd think about releasing the female hostages.’’

’’You'd consider releasing the women if I can offer ten million? That's worth talking about.’’

’’I bet it is.’’

’’The thing is, Jerry, you've got an injured man in there, too. You did tell me Arnold Meeks was injured.’’

He looked down where Arnie slumped, dried blood on his face, tape slapped over his mouth. And explosives strapped on his body. ’’He's had better days.’’

’’Before I can approach anyone about the money, I have to be assured that Arnold Meeks is alive, and his injuries aren't life-threatening. You know who his daddy is, Jerry. I've got some pressure on me here.’’

’’Cocksucker's alive.’’

’’I appreciate you assuring me he's alive, but I'd have more muscle if

I could hear him tell me himself. If I can pass along I've heard his voice, they'll get off my back and you and I can concentrate on the important business.’’

’’Fine.’’

He set down the phone, stepped over, leaned down and ripped the tape from Arnie's mouth. Arnie's blackened, bloodshot eyes rolled up. ’’Say hi to Phoebe, asshole.’’ Walken snatched the phone, held it to Arnie's ear. And jammed the barrel of the gun under Arnie's jaw. ’’Say this: Hi, Phoebe, I'm the cowardly asshole who kicked your murdering ass down the stairs.’’

Arnie's eyes, full of rage and terror, stayed on Walken's as he repeated the statement.

’’What are your injuries?’’ Phoebe demanded. ’’How bad are you hurt?’’

Arnie moistened his lips. ’’She wants to know about my injuries.’’

’’You go on and tell her, f*khead.’’

’’He pistol-whipped me across the face. I think my cheekbone's busted. I'm cuffed, and he's got a goddamn bomb strapped to me.’’

’’Is it on a timer? Is it-’’

’’That'll be enough,’’ Walken told her. ’’Now about that ten million.’’

’’You want ten million dollars to release the hostages.’’

’’Ten million to release the female hostages.’’

’’Ten million to release the women. How many women are there, Jerry?’’

’’Eleven. That's less than a million a head. Hell of a deal.’’

’’Eleven women, who you'd release if I can offer you ten million dollars?’’

’’Stop f*king echoing. I know the drill.’’

’’Then you know that I'd have a stronger chance of getting you what you want after a show of faith. If you'd release some of the hostages now, including any of those injured or with medical conditions, I'd try damn hard to get you that ten million.’’

’’Ah, screw ten million. Let's make it twenty.’’

’’You're yanking my chain, Jerry.’’

He let out a laugh. ’’I thought about killing you, Phoebe. A thousand times.’’

’’If you thought about it, why didn't you do it?’’

’’A thousand ways. A bullet in the brain. Much too clean. Grabbing you like I did Roy, doing you like I did him. But I don't like repeating myself. Beating you to death, or keeping you alive for days, just putting holes in you. But then it'd be over for you, like it is for Angie. You don't deserve what she got. How about this, you come on in here. Just you, and I let them all go. Every one of them.’’

’’You know they won't let me do that.’’

’’You come in, seventeen people live.’’

’’You'd trade all the hostages for me. Is that a real offer, Jerry, or are you yanking me again?’’

’’You won't do it. You're nothing but talk.’’

’’But if I would?’’

’’They wouldn't let you. You think I'm stupid? You think I've forgotten how it works?’’

’’I don't, but have you forgotten that you've got Sergeant Meeks's son in there, injured. He's got pull. Is it a real offer, Jerry? Me for all seventeen?’’

’’I'll think about it. But you're going to do something else first.’’

’’What else would you like me to do?’’

’’You're going to go out there, in front of all the cameras. You're going to give a statement on how you killed Angela Brentine. How you're responsible for her death. How you cared more about running your mouth and playing big shot than saving her life.’’

’’You want me to speak to the press, Jerry, give a statement about the death of Angela Brentine?’’

’’You're going to say exactly what I tell you to say, exactly when I tell you to say it. Then we'll see about the money and the hostages.’’ He hung up.

Before she could rise, Duncan pulled her right out of her chair. ’’If you even think about trading yourself, I'll knock you out, lock you up until you get your senses back.’’

’’You thought about it when it was you.’’

’’It's my mother in there, the only one I've ever really had. And screw this, I'm not debating or arguing, or anything else. You're not going near that building.’’

’’Chill out,’’ Sykes ordered. ’’She's not trading herself. We don't work that way.’’ He looked hard at Phoebe. ’’Not ever. This isn't Hollywood.’’

’’You bought it.’’ She jabbed a finger at Duncan, then at Sykes. ’’You know better, but you bought it. I promise you he did. He wasn't expecting me to consider it. He was screwing with me again, and I threw him off by giving the demand any credence. He bought it, he's thinking about it. What he wanted, expected, was to get me to agree to make the statement. Or to refuse. I do either, it's over. That's what he's waiting for, my public confession. But now he's thinking what it would be like if I came inside. If he had me in there. So how do we use it?’’

’’Show of faith,’’ Sykes said.

’’That's first. Get him to release some of the hostages-and before there's any agreement or refusal on the statement. Because that was his green light. We stall. Put us on the same side on this issue. I want to go make the statement, but they're kon***ing around on it. I want to go in, but they're stonewalling. I'm trying to work it so he gets what he wants. I'm frustrated because it's taking so long to get the go on it. He's used to following a plan, an outline.’’ She looked at Vince.

’’I guess, yeah. Ah, it's training. You have to adjust, sure, to think on your feet, but it's all within the outline. You train for variables. But he likes... order? I guess that's the word I want. He's not real impulsive. He'd rather figure it through.’’

’’He's doing that now. Does he want to go through with his original plan-blow it all up, himself included, while I live, disgraced but breathing? Or, if he gets the opportunity, wouldn't he rather take it down to the two of us? The hostages aren't anything to him, but they're everything to me. That was the idea. But to be able to look me in the eyes when he sets off that bomb, that's going to be tempting.’’

’’He's tired,’’ Duncan added. ’’You can hear it in his voice. So are you. He probably hears it in yours. He's getting closer to ending it.’’

’’Yes, he's closer, bringing up the press statement, that's his lead into the final stage. Now this has given him something else to chew on.’’

’’Activity inside.’’ Sykes held up his hand for silence as he listened to his radio. ’’No visual on the subject, but the hostage identified as the owner is untying two of the women. Got a clear view. One hostage, female, black, middle age, walking toward the rear.’’

’’It's Ma Bee,’’ Duncan murmured while fear closed a vise on his heart. ’’It's got to be.’’

Ma walked back to the bathroom as directed. She moved slower than she needed to, even hobbled a bit though it hurt her pride.

He made her leave the door open, which seriously offended her sense of propriety. Still, she peed like a racehorse and looked around for a weapon of any kind while her grateful bladder emptied.

She wasn't a fool. He was going to kill them all. If she could hurt him, even a little, she'd have some satisfaction on the way to Jesus. But there was nothing to grab. A bottle of liquid soap, a little dish of potpourri that wasn't worth the throwing at the man's head. In any case, he had that damn gun in that security guard's ear.

She shuffled out again, kept her eyes downcast as if cowed. ’’I'm Beatrice. They call me Ma Bee.’’

’’Shut up, get back in the circle.’’

’’I just wanted to thank you for letting me go first, before I embarrassed myself.’’

’’You don't shut up and go sit back down like I tell you, you're the last one who goes.’’

She did as she was told, but she'd seen he had another gun, and more ammunition, in one of the boxes he'd wheeled in. More important, she'd seen what she thought had to be the detonator.

’’Has to be the bathroom break,’’ Sykes told her. ’’The way they're moving from the circle to the rear, one at a time. First hostage is back. She's... Tactical says she's signaling. Signing. Three handguns, one rifle, ammo, detonator, rear right corner with bad guy, injured guard.’’

’’Count on Ma,’’ Duncan whispered.

’’Get us the hell out of here,’’ Sykes finished and pulled out a smile. ’’I'm calling him back while he's moving them back and forth, while he's got to divide his attention. Let's push him on the deal.’’

The phone rang, three times, four. Just as she was worried he wouldn't pick up, his voice snapped on. ’’I don't want to talk to you now.’’

’’But, Jerry, I wanted to tell you about the deal. I can't promise yet, but... If you can't talk to me now, I'll wait and tell you later.’’

’’What? You're not going to snow me, tell me you're going to make the statement, make the trade, just like that.’’

’’I'm not trying to snow you, just keep you in the loop. I don't want anybody to get hurt. The chief doesn't like the statement-politics, you know how it is. But I'm working on it.’’

’’Politicians like their scapegoats. You tell the chief if he doesn't give the go on it, if you're not in front of those cameras inside the hour, we're down to sixteen hostages.’’

’’I'm going to tell him, Jerry. I'm going to tell him that all you want is for me to make a statement about my responsibility for Angela's death, and you'll let everyone go. Is that right, Jerry?’’

’’I got a change of plans. You come in. We'll use one of these camera phones for the statement, transmit it. That's how we're going to do it.’’

’’You'll trade me for the hostages, is that what you're telling me?’’

’’You come in.’’

Still not going to let them go. ’’ Arnie's daddy's pushing for it, like I expected he would. I haven't even had a chance to think it through myself and he's banging his fist. Jesus, he's a hard case.’’

’’You burn, his asshole son doesn't. No-brainer.’’

’’For him, maybe. I just want to talk to you, Jerry, I just want to find a way out of this. If talking to me face-to-face can help... But you know they want something up front. How many would you give us?’’ There was a brief hesitation, and in it Phoebe read the lie.

’’You in, they're out. That's the deal-if I decide to make it. Keep your eyes on the ground like I told you!’’

’’Sorry, what?’’

’’Not talking to you.’’

’’I was just... hold on, hang on, they're bringing me something.’’ She clicked the phone to mute it, and prayed she was right in going with her gut.

’’He's not going to let any of them out, even if you could make the deal. You're tired,’’ Sykes continued, ’’maybe you can't hear-’’

’’No, I can. I can hear it. Tell them to move on the rear, but not until I signal. To move in, front and back, but not until I give the go.

You're right,’’ she told Sykes. ’’He's not going to let any of them out for this. But if I can move him far enough away from the detonator, they can take him-maybe take him alive. Go in, front and back, they can take him. On my say.’’

’’What are you doing?’’ Duncan demanded.

’’Taking a chance. Jerry? Sorry, Jerry, you know how it gets. Jerry, I've got her diary. I have Angela's diary.’’

’’You lying bitch, she didn't have a diary.’’

’’I'm not lying, Jerry. You know I have to be able to back up what

I say. She was a woman in love, and she couldn't tell anyone who you were, or the way things really were between you. So she wrote it down. That bastard Brentine didn't tell us about it, just like he didn't tell us she was wearing your ring when she died. Had to save his pride and reputation. They got a warrant, and they found it. She called you Lancelot.’’

She heard his choked breath. ’’Read it to me. Read it, so I know you're not lying.’’

Phoebe flipped through her notes so it sounded like flipping pages, and pulled out the information she had on Angela. ’’You gave her pink roses-they were her favorite. She's got a pink rose pressed in the pages here. She loved when you cooked for her, loved to watch you.’’

’’Read it. I want her words.’’

’’Tit for tat, Jerry. I want to give you her words, but you have to give me something.’’

’’Read a page, and if I know it's her words, I'll let a hostage go.’’

There, she heard truth. ’’Let five hostages go, I'll read a page. She wanted to build Camelot with you. Let five go and I'll read it. Let them all go, and I'll find a way to bring it in with me and you can read it yourself.’’

’’You bring it out where I can see it. Nobody goes out until I know you've got it.’’

’’You want me to bring it out? I can try to work that. If I bring it where you can see it, what will you give me?’’

’’Three of them. Bring it.’’

’’Three hostages go out if I bring her diary where you can see it? Is that right?’’

’’Now!’’

’’Let me clear it. I'm going to start down there with it, and try to clear it on the way. I'll have to call you back on my cell. Is that all right?’’

’’Do it now.’’

’’I'm on my way.’’

She shoved up, grabbed her cell phone. ’’Somebody get me something that looks like a diary, a journal. Nothing too big. I want you patched in,’’ she told Sykes. ’’When I say: It's all 1 can do, Jerry, that's the go. Exactly those words, Bull. I won't say them if there's another way, if I believe we can talk him down or take him alive.’’

’’This do?’’ Duncan offered her a fancy address book with an embossed red leather cover he'd grabbed off a display.

’’Perfect, unless she hated red.’’

’’How did you know he'd go for this?’’ Duncan asked her.

’’It's personal, intimate. Something that was hers. Her speaking to him, and something he hadn't factored in. He'll trade for it, there's a good chance he'll trade for it. I need to coordinate with the commander.’’

’’I'm going with you as far as I can go,’’ Duncan added. ’’What's to stop him from just shooting you the minute you're in view?’’

’’He wants the book. More, if he gets a bead on me, they'll have one on him. He shows a weapon, they'll end it. He's distracted, people are moving around. He hasn't stopped the bathroom break. He's off his stride now, churned up, and he's made a mistake. We have to capitalize on it. Commander, I can move him away from the detonator.’’

She explained her plan, shrugged into the vest someone passed her. ’’Once he's away, I'll keep him there, or, if I'm lucky, bring him closer to the display window. When the rear door's clear-’’

’’We'll take it from there. You move any closer than I've cleared, it's over, we sweep you out.’’

’’Understood.’’ She turned to Duncan. ’’You can't come with me.’’

’’You'd better damn right come back to me.’’ He gripped her hand. ’’Not negotiable.’’

’’Deal.’’ Her fingers tightened on his, and in his eyes she saw both his fear and his faith. ’’I love you,’’ she said, then walked away.

He might take the shot, she knew, if he was quick enough, smart enough. Odds were against it, but she hadn't been completely truthful. She ordered herself not to look back, because Duncan might see the lie in her eyes, and the fear with it.

His mother, she thought, his sister. His lover. What happened in the next few minutes would determine if any, or all, of them came back to him.

She pulled out her cell, called Jerry.

’’I'm heading down now. You need to get the hostages ready. Three hostages, Jerry, that was the deal.’’

’’I know what the damn deal was. I see you, I see it, before anybody gets out.’’

’’You see me, but you won't see Angela's diary until three people are out. You have to work with me, Jerry. You'll still have fourteen. You didn't know how many people would be in there when you planned this. There might only have been fourteen to begin with. You're not losing anything, and you're proving to me you keep a deal. I show it to you for three, and I'll read you a page for three more. Then we'll talk about the trade. That's a fair deal, Jerry.’’

Lies, she thought, she was full of lies now. Did he hear them? If she failed, could she live with it? Could Duncan?

She heard the chatter through her earpiece. The rear rig was boobytrapped and set with an alarm. It would take time she wasn't sure she had to bypass and defuse.

Work with what you've got, she reminded herself.

’’Tactical needs to see the three hostages, Jerry. They've got me blocked;they won't let me through until they seem them.’’ Movement. Three females... moving toward the front.

She got the nod, stepped out from cover. In the swampy heat, her flesh goosebumped with ice. ’’I'm here, Jerry. First part of the deal. Now your part. Let them go.’’

’’I don't see you.’’

’’If I come any closer, Tactical's going to swarm me and push me back. I'm at the southwest of the building. I can see the display window, and make out one-no, two people standing just to the right of it.’’

’’Stupid to wear a vest, Phoebe, when I'd put one in your head.’’

The awful amusement in his voice stripped all the moisture from her throat. ’’I know, but rules are rules. Let them out, Jerry.’’

’’I want to see the diary.’’

She kept her hand behind her back. ’’I kept my word, time to keep yours. Then it'll be my turn again.’’

The locks clicked, the door flew open. People ran or stumbled out, weeping, shouting, ’’Don't shoot!’’ Cops in body armor rushed to pull and drag them to cover.

Out of the corner of her eye, Phoebe saw Ma Bee, and sent up a quick prayer of thanks.

Duncan's mother was safe.

’’My girl's still in there,’’ Ma shouted. ’’He's hiding behind her, hiding behind the others. He's got the detonators. He's got two of them.’’ The prayer died in her throat. She watched a wild-eyed woman come forward and shut the door again.

’’That's three. Show me the book.’’

’’All right, Jerry. Tactical needs to clear the civilians out of the inner perimeter. That's a clear.’’ She brought the book from behind her back. ’’I have Angela's diary.’’

’’Open it. Open it and read. That could be any damn thing.’’

’’I need three more hostages.’’ And though it went against her heart, she followed training. ’’I need the injured man with this group, Jerry.’’

’’F*k him. He stays, just like the rest. Want to see him, Phoebe?’’ She saw the movement, and Arnie stumbling forward as if he'd been shoved. His face was gray, the blood on it dried to black. As Roy's had been, his torso was imprisoned with the bomb.

Through the barred glass, his bruised eyes met Phoebe's.

’’You read, or I blow him. Going to take a few other people out and bring serious hurt to the others. But what the hell, I'll blow the big one, too, and that takes it all. You read now or it's done. No more negotiating.’’ She opened the book, stared at the blank pages. Women in love, she thought, spoke the same language. So she read from her own heart.

’’I know what love is now. How could I have thought I knew before him? Everything before is pale and soft and foolish. Now, now that I know love, the world's bright and strong and real. He makes me real.’’ She closed the book. ’’Send three people out, Jerry, and I'll read more.’’

’’No more out! No more. You read what she wrote. I want the cameras on you while you read what she wrote.’’

’’Jerry-’’

’’F*k you!’’ He screamed it out so all his rage seemed to fill Phoebe's head. ’’You read what she wrote, then you're going to give the statement. You do it now, you start it now, or I pick one and take her out.’’

Phoebe stepped a little closer, got the sharp order through her earpiece to stop. Looking past Arnie, she could see part of the line of hostages. And she saw Loo. So tall, Phoebe thought. All that gorgeous hair. Such a good shield.

’’I'll read it, Jerry.’’

’’I want to see the rose, the rose she put in it.’’ He was weeping. He was lost. ’’Ask for a goddamn hostage, I do one. You understand me? Ask for another, I pick one and put one in the back of their head. You show it, you read it, you tell the goddamn world how you killed my angel. Then it's done. Then this is done.’’

Death, his longing for it as much as his lover, vibrated in his voice. And he would take, she knew, fourteen people with him.

With her gaze steady, she turned the book, flipped pages. ’’She saved your rose.’’

’’I can't see it.’’

’’I'm holding it up. I'm doing what you want. I can't come closer, they're holding me back.’’

’’Two steps forward. Everybody, two steps! Hold it up! Goddamn it.’’ She shifted, turned the book only a fraction. In her mind she saw the red X's on the sketch. She saw him shove Loo's head to the left so he could get a better view. And meeting his eyes, just for an instant, she said, ’’It's all I can do, Jerry. ’’

Go.'

The sound of the shot cut straight through her. She barely heard the screams, the shouts, the running feet that followed it.

She watched Loo run out, on her own, and straight for her. The force of the embrace knocked Phoebe back two steps. ’’Oh God, oh God, oh God. I thought I was going to die. I thought he'd kill us all.’’

’’You have to get clear now, Loo. You have to move out of this area.’’

’’You saved my life.’’ She drew back, gripped Phoebe's face in her hands. ’’You saved us all.’’

’’Ma Bee's over that way. You need to get clear, go to Ma Bee.’’

’’You saved us all,’’ Loo repeated as cops hustled up to pull her away. Phoebe dropped the book, turned. And there was Duncan pushing his way toward her. ’’How did you get through?’’

He held up a laminated ID. ’’I stole it.’’ His arms came around her.

’’I love you. Still a bomb in there, right? Let's get the hell out of here, let's go home, let's go to Acapulco.’’

’’Yeah, but for now, let's just move far away from the building with the bomb inside.’’

’’Your hand's shaking.’’

’’Yours, too.’’

’’Not just my hand.’’

’’I have to sit down, Duncan. I have to find a quiet-quieter-place to sit down for a minute.’’

She moved through the aftermath with him, nodding, acknowledging those who congratulated her. Good job, nice work. Then she stopped short when Sergeant Meeks stepped into her path.

He said nothing, simply looked at her. Then he inclined his head and strode away.

’’He ought to be on his knees to you,’’ Duncan muttered. ’’Not his style, and I don't give a damn anyway.’’

Duncan led her back to the boutique, nudged her into a chair.

She breathed out. ’’Can you give me five here?’’ she asked the rest of the team still inside. ’’Five to clear my head, then we'll finish this up.’’

’’No problem, LT.’’ Sykes jerked a thumb toward the door, paused on his way out. ’’Hell of a job.’’

’’Yeah.’’ And in the relative quiet, she breathed in again as Duncan crouched in front of her.

’’Honey, you look like you could use a drink.’’

’’I could use several.’’

’’I happen to know an excellent pub.’’ He lifted her hands, kissed them, then just buried his face in them. ’’Phoebe.’’

’’I was never in any real danger. Not me.’’

’’Tell that to my guts.’’

It was so cold in here, she thought. How had it gotten so cold? Only her hands were warm, where he'd kissed them. ’’Duncan, I've never discharged my weapon. I told you that. But I killed a man today.’’

’’That's bullshit.’’

’’I did. I gave the go on the kill shot. Not officially. But everyone involved knows I maneuvered him into position and gave the go. No choice. He was going to-’’

’’I know.’’ He kept her hands gripped in his. ’’I know.’’

’’I couldn't find another way, so I'll live with it. I used the love he had for Angela to manipulate him. And I'll live with that.’’

He picked her up out of the chair, then sat with her cradled in his lap. ’’It wasn't love. It was too selfish, too self-serving for that. And you know it. You were smarter than he was, that's what it comes down to. And you were braver at the heart of it. You stood out there, and he hid inside, behind innocent people.’’

He turned his face into her hair, pressed his lips to her temple.

’’Don't you sit here and feel sorry for him, or sorry for your damn self either.’’

’’That's telling me.’’

’’I got a hell of a woman here.’’ He sat, wrapped around her, stroking the cold from her arms. ’’When Mark D's back in business, we're going in there and picking out a ring.’’

’’I can't afford Mark D.’’ But she managed a smile. ’’I never thought about why they were in there, Ma Bee and Loo. I never thought about the why-I couldn't let it in. Oh Duncan, you were meeting them so they'd help you pick out a ring for me. If you'd gotten there before-’’

’’Not thinking about that. I didn't, and everyone's out. Safe. That's the priority, isn't it, in your line of work?’’

’’It is. And I have to do the rest of my job now.’’

’’I'll wait. After you do that job, make sure you tell whoever you need to tell that you're taking the next three or four days off.’’

’’Why?’’

’’My woman just saved the lives of seventeen people, so what are we going to do next? We're going to Disney World.’’

She didn't smile. She let out a quick, shocked sound that became a rolling laugh. ’’Oh God, thank God I found you.’’

’’I found you,’’ he corrected. ’’I'm a lucky guy.’’

She put her arms around him, put her head on his shoulder. He gave her peace, and solid ground, and that shoulder to lean on.

She was damn lucky herself.


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