Footsteps. The sudden onset of footsteps commanded my attention for a moment as Portia approached me. I knew her gait, her cadence, now. Usually it took me about a week to fully identify someone by their footsteps, but I'd spent so much time with Portia lately and I was so edgy that it seemed to just come to me, this time around. Before she could reach me, a flood of other images rushed to my mind with the speed and force of a Mack truck. The desert. London. Ritchie's house in London. A bar somewhere in Maryland. Norman's shooting range. Everything I saw seemed to be a part of my life but somehow fragmented and disconnected, like pieces of a half remembered dream. Yet I couldn't get them out of my head. They kept coming at me, circling around my head, mixing in with that one, horrifying moment that seemed to define my entire life at the moment. Mixing in with the scent of the leather upholstery in my car, the feel of my black sweatshirt as it protected me from the bitter cold--cold, yes, it was...january? february? February. Yes. February twentieth--and the weight of my silenced pistol inside the pouch-style pocket. The key card. The gun. Her face. The trigger. The blood. Oh, h---, the blood! I'd never seen that much blood in one place, never in my life.
"D---, there was so much blood!" I breathed, rubbing my forehead.
"Ace," Ritchie began. "I know you want to try remembering things, but that's probably not something you want to remember...take a deep breath and focus on what's around you. Do you remember how I taught you to do that?" He spoke so softly that if someone was standing in the living room they likely wouldn't hear him.
"I can't get that image out of my head, Ritchie, I can't! Every time I close my eyes, she's there, looking back at me!"
"Then don't shut your eyes. Look at me." When he received no response he said, just a little bit more sharply, "Look here, Ace. Right here. Hey." Finally he locked my green eyes with his by physically twisting my face up to look at him. "That wasn't you, Ace Matheson. That bast--- Norman made you do it, and i mean that in the most literal way that I can. You had no say in the matter, not even the wherewithal to conceive of the idea that you didn't want to do it. You knew of no other option because that's the way Norman set it up. He designed you as a weapon, not a soldier. Now. Understand that what happened there was not your doing. Is that clear?" Ritchie spoke with a firm edge to his voice, but it was well meaning.
"Mm-mm. For all intents and purposes, you did not kill Laura Noland. Take it from the one person here in their right state of mind--sorry Portia," he said, turning to her and then back to me. "it wasn't you."
It didn't change the fact that I could still see her face, the blood, her pale body, those images in my head. It didnt' take away the guilt. But what Ritchie said made me realize that I was far deeper in this mess than I could have ever imagined. It made me realize that things, strange and bizarre things, were happening and I was standing in the middle without much control. Somehow, in the smallest way, that was comforting.
Until my attention snapped back to Portia. My bloodshot green eyes turned to her; they widened as if I discovered some new horror. Those PI's were right. She was involved. Not directly, of course, but her name floated around amidst all the facts and evidence and suddenly it occurred to me why they thought we were connected. They knew she wasn't there that night, but they must have thought she'd given me her card. Oh, how I wished i could tell them otherwise. She'd be cleared, she'd be free....or would she? Something told me there was no way out of this one.
"Oh Portia...I'm so sorry...those men that came after you, it's my fault. They're after you because of something I--"
Ritchie stopped me. "Norman, not you."
I paused. "Something....done in my name."
"That's the spirit."
"I wonder..." I mused, sniffling and wiping my salty, teared face with my Carhartt sleeve. "If I confessed, If I told them what I did, it'd clear your name...."
"And get you killed!" Ritchie warned. "I don't know how Norman would treat you--you're kind of a multi-million dollar investment, but take it from me--when people in his organization even thought about opening their mouths, he used to call me in. Now he calls Dom, or one of his lower level....employees. And trust me, you don't want that. If you came forward and tried to pass it off as your own independent crime, people would look into it. They'd look into it and find out that your'e legally dead. They'd start digging, and if they were any good, they'd get back to Norman somehow. That's a bad plan, Ace."
I sighed, my breath coming out in a quivering huff. "I'm sorry you have to be involved in this, Portia," i apologized again. "I want to make it right somehow. I don't know how, but d---it, i'm gonna try." I bit back another wave of nausea and wiped away the last of the tears from my face--gracious, i needed a good shave--and, under Ritchie's wordless suggestion, i forced down a mouthful of orange juice. I wanted nothing to do with food or drink--except maybe a shot of scotch, but that was hardly productive. That would come later.
"Portia..." Ritchie said, his hand still resting on my shoulder as he turned to look up at her. "I don't know if you've considered it before, but i think it'd be beneficial for you to...start carrying some form of defense. I'm not saying it has to be a weapon--not everything has to be damaging to be a defense. But considering the kind of people you're tangling with, you can't always rely on your wits and flight or even Ace to protect you. Don't get me wrong, he's well trained, but every soldier can fall. I can give you a gun if you'd like one, or, alternatively, a tranquilizer gun. I don't suggest pepper spray. Anyhow, it's something to think about before you leave," he offered.