The Birth of June Monroe
The whine of the motorcycle sounded like a roar in my ears. The eyes of our pursuer smoldered like coals.
He was directly beside me, reaching out, but I fought back, kicking the motorcycle so that is slammed into the cement pillar: a twisted heap of metal and wreckage, the body lying lifeless on the pavement.
A wall loomed before us. We were going to crash.
"Aaron, Aaron, Aaron!" I screamed, before toppling us to slide painfully to a stop. Aaron was still, too still, and a strangled scream arose in my throat as I turned him over.
He was dead.
"Aaron! No! Don't leave me!" I screamed, shaking him. But he was gone. "Aaron!!!"
"Marta," came a horse, hollow voice, accompanied by the scraping of metal on cement.
I looked up. The once lifeless body of the man had now arisen, standing slowly, a horribly mangled corpse.
I backed myself up against the wall, trapped, as he took as shaky step towards me.
His eyes were like fire.
I awoke with a cry, bolting upright, my hands floundering on the bed and my breath coming in short gasps.
"Hey, its alright! You're safe! It was just a dream." came Aaron's soothing voice, and my thrashing arms were seized in Aaron's strong grasp. "I'm here. You're okay."
"That man—he was alive!" I gasped, still trapped in the fog of my nightmare, feebly attempting to fight Aaron off, still not quite realizing that it was him. "And Aaron—" I broke off with sob. And Aaron's dead, my heart cried out.
Aaron restrained my efforts to push him away, grabbing my arms and pinning me to the bed. "Marta, look at me!" He cried, bringing his face up inches away from mine. "You're safe! It was just a dream."
And just like that, the fog cleared, and I stopped struggling.
I did look at him. My eyes devoured him. There, on his lip, was the small cut I had put there during my Self-Defense lesson, a memory that still made me smile.
You're alive, I thought, tears springing to my eyes with relief.
It was only after Aaron frowned that I realized that I had said it out loud. He sat back on his heels and surveyed me, while I put my head in my hands trying to erase the image of Aaron's cold lifeless body, broken on the pavement.
"Manila?" he asked quietly, still frowning.
"Yes," I whispered between my fingers.
"I remember my first time—the first person I killed." I opened up my fingers a crack and peered at him. "I was on a surveillance op in Smolensk. My cover got blown and I found a hit man waiting for me back at my apartment." He paused.
"My hands were still shaking five hours later. I didn't even know his name......." This last part was said so quietly, and his eyes drifted down to his hands as if he still expected them to be shaking. And for just once, he let me see how broken he really was.
Its easy, with his lightning fast reflexes, training, linear-thinking tactical mind, and straight face, to assume that Aaron is but a cold-hearted calculating assassin; but that's just not the truth. Its a front, a survival method, because underneath all that he is just as human as you and me.
The memory of the nightmare was slipping away, following the fog of sleep that was steadily evaporating, leaving behind it a deep pity and understanding for Aaron. He and I, we were now in the same boat, both figuratively and literally.
I dropped my hands to take Aaron's, lacing my fingers between his, feeling the calluses and scars, each bearing a story and a history of a hard life. He stared at our intertwined hands as if mesmerized, turning them slowly as he compared my delicate smooth one to his broad rough one, absentmindedly running his thumb over my knuckles. My livelihood had lain in the delicate point of a needle, his: the cold barrel of a gun.
"I see their faces at night—all the people I've killed." he whispers. "They never really leave you. You replay their death in your mind over and over again, wondering "was there another way?" "could I have spared their life?""
I held my breath. What he had described—I felt that now. How many times had I asked myself those same questions?
"But you cant do that to yourself. I learned a long time ago that doing that—dwelling on the past, it will destroy you." He looked at me, holding my gaze, his eyes surprisingly calm and at peace. "You cant blame yourself, Marta. All that guilt you feel, you have to let it go. It's was you or him, and he made his choice."
I dropped my head. I wanted to believe him, I really did, but that still didn't change the fact that I killed someone.
I killed someone.
The face of the man who's name I will probably never know resurfaced again in my mind. I had looked into his eyes, and had seen no soul. He wasn't a man, but a mindless robot, drugged into doing the bidding of whatever corrupt politician.
He made his choice.
I looked up at Aaron.
His frown, deep and thoughtful, returned, and he picked at a loose thread on the coverlet for a few moments.
"We all did." he answered in a low whisper, and contrary to his usual practice, he didn't look up to gage my reaction. It was almost as if he was afraid of what he would see.
The cabin was silent for a while as both of us were lost in our own thoughts, the poor thread on the coverlet suffering under Aaron's fingers as he mercilessly plucked at it. When it finally broke off in his hand he stared at it absentmindedly, twisting it between his fingers, before he suddenly broke the silence.
"Marta....." he began, speaking hesitantly and looking up at me with a cautious, almost shy glance that was, in itself, so uncharacteristic of his usual cool confidence that it gave me my first warning of what was coming. "That first night in Manila.....Why did you stay?"
I didn't have a ready answer.
To be honest, I had been avoiding asking myself that same question, telling myself that it was irrelevant: the fact that I had stayed was all that mattered. But now, with his storm-blue eyes asking for answer, I was forced to find one.
Why did I stay?
One solution was that he was sick, deathly sick, and everything in my nature rebelled against leaving him alone in that exposed and vulnerable condition. Another was that, lets face it, he was, and still is, my best chance at survival; without him, I wouldn't last three days.
Both motives were valid, and answers I knew that Aaron would accept, but I also knew that those weren't the only reasons. There was something else, something I didn't really understand myself, or want to make an effort to.
I didn't want to leave him, and deep down, I hoped that he thought the same about me.
"Because......" I cautiously began, summing up my courage to look him in the eye. "Because we needed each other."
A small smile formed on his lips and his eyes softened as he once more looked at our still intertwined hands. "That we did." he whispered so low, that I questioned whether I had heard him right. But then the smile faded and he grew serious.
"Marta, I cant ask you to follow me—to risk you life and any chance you might have to rebuild it......there's still time to leave. In the morning, when we dock at Zamboanga, I can have you on your way to any country you want. I can get you money, clothes, a new ID.....just stay low until I clear all of this up, and then you should be safe. You can start over, make a new life for yourself, forget all of this ever happened........" He trailed off, waiting for my answer as he had seen the resolution in my face.
"You don't get it do you?" I said stopping him short. "Aaron, we still need each other. All of this," I gestured vaguely to cabin. "Us running for our lives, its just as much my fault as it is yours. Yeah, I loaded the gun! And you pulled the trigger! I'm staying with you, and we end this together."
He looked at me in silence for a long while, his face completely unreadable. At last he gave a curt nod.
"Marta," came the whisper and gentle shake. "Marta, wake up."
I rolled and opened sleep bleared eyes. Aaron stood over me, fully dressed and with the backpack slung over his shoulder.
Shortly after our discussion during the night, Aaron had ordered me to sleep, claiming that I would need rest as it would be a "long day tomorrow". I had complied, climbing under the blankets once more while he curled up on the floor, but sleep was long in coming. My mind was full of plans, fears, and possibilities, and just wouldn't turn off. Aaron also, I knew to be awake as his breathing was uneven and he would stir occasionally, as if restless and eager to be on the move. Once, when sleep was just coming upon me and I was beginning to drift off, I heard the faint opening and closing of the cabin door as if in a dream, and now as I stared up at him, I wondered if he had slept at all.
"Where are we going?" I asked sleepily, rising to my elbows and skipping the pleasantries, for if he was going somewhere, as he obviously was, there was no way I was staying behind.
A flicker of a smirk crossed his face as he noticed my sentence in plural, but it disappeared as quickly as it had come.
"Get dressed, we're leaving. The boat will be docking at Zamboanga in five minutes."
Five minutes. In five minutes Aaron and I would be leaving the boat that I had come to love so much. The period of rest and safety was over, and it was now time to jump back into the reality that we were being hunted for our lives and were about to wage war against one of the strongest intelligence agencies in the world.
"Five minutes, huh?" I drawled, sitting up and trying to hide the sudden fear and sadness I felt under a smile.
He raised an eyebrow, looking me over, and the smile faded after I made accidental eye contact with him.
There was something about his eyes. Perhaps it was the way there always seemed to be a storm raging on its surface, making it almost impossible for me to guess what he was thinking. Or maybe it was how his eyes took in every detail in everything, constantly scanning for threats, emotions, information.........
Either way, when his eyes met mine, it seemed that they were staring through me; reading my thoughts, sensing my fear at leaving the security of the boat, and regret that our "vacation" as it seemed, was over. Something I couldn't put a name to flickered across his face, and then he was back to his cool, confident self.
"Be ready. I'll come and collect you in that time." And with that he turned and left the cabin, closing the door behind him and leaving me sitting on the bed.
"Collect me?" I questioned quietly after the door had closed, before sighing and rising from the bed to put on my jacket and shoes. Once my hair had been combed back with my fingers and pulled into the messy ponytail that I was coming to hate, there was nothing else I really had left to do so I settled for making the bed and tidying up the cabin until Aaron appeared.
He had come up so silently that I didn't even know that he was there for a time, and I started when I finally did notice him watching me in the doorway.
"Last chance to walk away." He said in a low voice, his face a careful mask.
I cast one more glance around the now clean cabin, and tightened my ponytail.
"I told you already: we do this together."
He shrugged, and then held the door for me as I exited the cabin.
My senses were suddenly flooded with the sights, sounds, and smells of a bustling wharf in Zamboanga. People were everywhere: fishermen unloading crates and tending to their nets and boats, solicitors loudly shouting out their wares and produce, and natives going about their own business affairs while steadily droning on in Tagalog. Amongst the crowd I could pick out a few tourists as well, craning their necks to peer at everything and clinging to their purses or belongings as if they expected them to be snatched away at any moment. Everyone seemed to be in a competition to be heard over the crowd and the noise was incredible. Over all was the pervading scent of fish, sweat, and sea water.
I was struck dumb for a moment but Aaron's strong grasp on my hand, firmly leading me across the deck and down the gangplank, brought me back into reality. I quickly swiveled my head to take in one last glance of the boat I had come to love and saw Lauro and his son standing on the deck. They were busy looking at a chart, Lauro occasionally pointing to something on the paper as if instructing his son, but when they both glanced up and caught my eye, I raised a hand and waved goodbye. They were waving back when I turned away to follow Aaron into the crowd.
"If at any time you feel uncomfortable," he spoke over his shoulder to me, his voice at the perfect pitch that it could be heard over the noise of the crowd but that a passerby would have a hard time distinguishing his words. "I don't care if someone looks at you weird, if something feels out of place, or if you just feel wrong—you let me know, and we're gone."
This statement, simply said, reassured me and made me truly feel like we were more of a team—he trusted my instincts, he trusted me.
As Aaron spoke, he lead me through the crowd, keeping always a firm but comfortable grip on my arm, his head swiveling and his eyes bright, as he scanned the crowd constantly for threats.
"Our first stop will be a market. We need to stock up on supplies, and I don't know about you but I need a fresh set of clothes and a stick of deodorant." I laughed and he smiled. Clean clothes sounded heavenly right now, but what I really wanted was a hot shower. I assumed that would come later, when we rented a room for the night. "Second: keep an eye out for a electronic department store or an internet cafe." That was a strange choice for someone on the run, but before I could ask for his reasoning he was moving on.
"When we are done here, we move on and circle back to Manila. It will be dangerous, as the city will probably be crawling with Byer's assets, but it is also the last place that they will expect us to be. By now its safe to say that they know we left by boat, maybe even that we took Lauro's. It's only a matter of time till they track us here, so speed is everything." He turned and gave me a grin. "Lets give them a hard trail to follow."
An hour and a half later Aaron and I were exiting a large market place, backpack filled with supplies and two shopping bags filled with new clothes, shoes, and yes, deodorant. I had to hand it to the man: he knew how to shop. Aaron could speed shop, and I mean speed shop. He knew what he wanted ahead of time, and he would track it down till he was satisfied with the quality and price. If any begrudging manager ever took too long in haggling over a price or tried to rip him off, all it took was one glare from Aaron, and he was walking out the door with the item he wanted, for far less than the usual price and in eight minutes flat.
Aaron led me to a public bathroom where he intended that we change into our new clothes, and after doing so in the ladies room, washing my face, brushing my teeth, and applying a coat of deodorant, I felt like a new person; though I was still craving that shower. I emerged to find him waiting for me looking significantly cleaner himself while also wearing his fresh set of clothes. He even styled his hair.
"You look nice." he said grinning.
I scoffed, though his comment made me blush a little. "You don't look so bad yourself." I replied, hitting him lightly in the chest. His grin widened.
"We're going in there." he said, pointing to a large department store window where an array of electronics were displayed. Aaron began to lead me into it, walking straight to the phone rack where he bought two cheap flip phones.
"In case we are ever separated, you call me on this phone." he said putting one into my hand. "One call, and then you ditch it somewhere. Got it?" I nodded, slipping the phone into my pocket.
"Good." And then he was moving again, this time towards the computers on display for "test drives". Firing one up, he opened up the web browser.
"Watch the door." he muttered and I complied, though not just a little curious.
When next I snuck in a glance at the computer screen, he was on some bird watching website with a username of brownrecluse5 opening up a chat box with someone named luckycat467.
brownrecluse5: I have another sighting, Aaron wrote.
And then sat back in his chair with a deep frown on his face, waiting, his eyes flicking up defensively towards the door.
"What are you doing?" I asked, unable to stem my curiosity.
Aaron never took his eyes off the screen.
"Contacting someone." was his cryptic answer.
Contacting someone? Wasn't it Aaron who told me that I couldn't contact anyone? That they would become a target if I did? And why was he on a bird watching sight? I was just about to press Aaron further, when a response from his mysterious contact appeared on the screen.
luckycat467: I'm listening.
Aaron jumped for the keyboard, his fingers flying.
brownrecluse5: It's a pair of Endangered Species. They're on their way to Manila.
luckycat467: A pair? That's unusual behavior for our bird.
brownrecluse5: It's unusual circumstances. Our bird picked up a female along the way.
Aaron flashed a quick glance towards me.
luckycat467: How long till our birds reach Manila?
brownrecluse5: Two days. Though I have a feeling they wont be staying for very long, there are poachers on their tail.
luckycat467: And where is their nest?
Aaron thought for a moment, his gaze instinctively falling towards the door.
brownrecluse5: Pier 67. They usually roost at dusk.
luckycat467: I'll be there.
At those words, Aaron speedily began deleting the messages and his browsing history before powering down the computer.
"Time to move." he said, taking my hand once more and pulling me towards the door.
"Aaron," I cried softly, "what were you doing? Who was that?"
"You'll see, soon enough." Was all he said.
We found a bus station and boarded one, and what followed was a very long, tedious journey back to Manila. Aaron never stayed on one bus for more than an hour, and was constantly alternating our mode of transport, going from bus to bus, hailing taxi's, even riding a ferry for a short distance. More than a few times he would board a bus, only to exit out the other side, as if to shake any tail we might have. Throughout our passage he hardly spoke, his eyes bright as they scanned faces and kept a close watch on where any hands might rest.
By night fall, I knew that we had covered quite a distance and had left a difficult trail to follow. Aaron seemed satisfied, though not for one second did he let his guard down. Only when we had rented a room in some hole-in-the-wall, did he even slightly relax.
This time there were two small cots, one on either side of the room, and Aaron took the one that faced the door and also had a vantage point by the window.
"Sleep." he ordered. "We leave first thing in the morning."
I was too tired to argue, and almost as soon as my head hit the pillow sleep began to wash over me, making my aching limbs feel like liquid and my eyes lead. My last conscious sight was of Aaron, sitting with his back propped up against the wall facing the door, his eyes close and his head back, his hand lying loosely over the loaded gun in his lap.
Aaron woke me at dawn, his hair still wet from the quick military shower he had taken.
"I got you this," he said, holding up a box of blonde hair dye. "With our pictures on the police radar and possibly even the news, the less we look like ourselves the better."
His reasoning made sense, and I took note of the dark shades and baseball cap on his bed, but I was rather fond of my dark locks.
"You're the boss," I sighed, taking the box from his hand and the backpack from off the floor, before retreating to the bathroom.
Following Aaron's example, I finally, finally, took that hot shower I had been looking forward to for so long now, before getting dressed into my new clothes. I stared rather loathsomely at the box on the sink counter, I confess, but the thing had to be done.
I stared at my face in the mirror.
The less we look like ourselves the better.
If I was going to commit to one change, I might as well go all the way.
Twenty minutes later, the reserved doctor Marta Shearing no longer existed. In her place, was the confident June Monroe. She wore a white thick-strapped tank top covered up by a light, pastel blue cardigan, with jeans and brown knee high, flat-soled boots. June Monroe's hair was a short, free cut, its ends just brushing her shoulders in a loose braid, while its color was a sunny blonde, textured by steaks of brown that highlighted her hazel eyes.
Gone were the bangs, the dark curls, gone too, was Marta Shearing.
A knock sounded on the bathroom door.
"Marta," came Aaron's teasing, though slightly anxious voice. "You about done in there?"
Taking one last glance at myself in the mirror, I took a deep breath and opened the door.
Aaron blinked. Took a double take. Blinked again. Looked me over from head to toe.
"Well?" I prompted.
"Wow." he said, still staring. "You uh—you look really different! I wouldn't even recognize you........"
"I thought that was what we were going for."
He jolted as if awaking from hypnosis. "Yeah. Yeah, we were." he parroted, talking almost as if himself, and running a hand through his hair.
A girlish desire for his opinion suddenly came across me. "So, um, you like it?"
"I do." he nodded, looking into my eyes, suddenly serious. "Really!"
But then he smiled that snarky grin of his. "I'll miss the curls though." And he gave my braid a playful tug before turning back to his bed, thankfully missing my deep blush.
"We have to get moving," Aaron called out to me by the window, as he put on the baseball cap and shades, effectively hiding his face. I nodded and handed him the backpack from inside the bathroom and he slung it over his shoulders.
Three minutes later, we were out on the street hailing a taxi.
The day was passed much the same way as the one before it: bus hopping, hailing taxis, and riding ferries till, at long last, we entered Manila about two hours before dusk. I had never seen Aaron so tense as he was now. As for me, I would jump at the slightest touch.
I was painfully aware of the fact that the bustling city we were in right now was crawling with people that actively sought to destroy us, and for all I knew, could be closing the distance at that moment. I was suddenly very thankful for the extreme measures I had taken in disguising my appearance. Aaron kept us either in the abandoned alleyways, or in the thickest of crowds, never in the middle ground where a face could be seen, remembered, or recognized. When once he found a group of American tourists, he kept us close behind them, as if we were among their party.
At first I wondered where Aaron was headed to, as he obviously had a fixed destination but was choosing the safest route, but then I remembered his messages with his mysterious contact.
Pier 67. They usually roost at dusk.
Dusk was now fast approaching.
We were nearing the ports, and the crowd was thinning. Suddenly it disappeared all together, but still Aaron continued along the docks, the sound of our footfalls echoing on the wooden planks. Up ahead, a large roofed structure led out a distance into the water, and at its base were scrawled the letters: 67.
It was now dusk.
"This is it." Aaron whispered, and slowly he stepped into the structure with myself sticking close behind him.
Inside, it was significantly darker as the dock was relatively closed up by the roof and large beams that supported it. High up in the rafters, pigeons roosted, cooing softly amongst themselves while the waves lapped gently against the pier. At the far end, it opened up to a gorgeous view of the water and the sunset as it just began to dip below the horizon. Silhouetted against the backdrop was the quiet form of a woman, her back to us.
"You know," the woman said, as she stared out over the water. "I never thought pigeons would become an endangered species."
"Especially after how much you feed them." was Aaron's quick reply.
She turned, and faced us, a delighted smile upon her lips. "Hello Aaron."
Aaron's own face was lit up by a smile. "Hello Nikki."
Much to my amazement, the distance between them was rapidly covered, and in no time they were in each other's arms in a tight embrace.
"I missed you Aaron," the woman whispered, her head resting on his shoulder.
"I missed you too," was his affectionate reply. And then, as if he suddenly remembered my presence, he broke away from the woman and turned towards me.
"Nikki," he began, one arm wrapped loosely around her waist. "Meet Doctor Marta Shearing." The woman smiled at me.
"Marta," Aaron continued. "Meet Nicolette Parsons, my sister."