Vigilant, page 1
Text Copyright © 2012 Anna Benefield
All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publication.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious.
Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
Vigilant/Angel Lawson-1st ed.
1. Urban Fantasy
2. Adult Fiction
Book Cover by Samantha Marrs - AngstyG.com
TO THE YOUNG MEN AND WOMEN
WHO HELPED INSPIRE THIS STORY.
What kind of person robbed a hardware store?
That was Ari’s first thought as she lay on the cold dirty floor. Her second was to keep her eyes down and away from the armed robbers.
The linoleum floor felt cool under Ari’s cheek. Once white, it now had a filthy, grayish tint. She tried not to think about the last time it had been cleaned. Not that that was her big worry at the moment, anyway. She focused on the men running through the store, shouting orders and making demands.
Ari took a deep breath, exhaling hot air across the slick floor producing a light sheen of fog. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on her. Ari spent her days working with the criminals of this city, and now, on her day off, she walked into the middle of an armed robbery at her neighborhood hardware store. It was only a matter of time before she became a victim to Glory City’s incredibly high crime rate. Again.
A noise nearby reminded her that she wasn’t alone in her position on the floor. She looked at the customer closest to her. His panicked eyes darted around, while he clutched a sliver wrench in his hand. Great, she thought, this guy was going to get killed over a leaky pipe.
She’d been shopping in the tool aisle, looking for a Phillips head screwdriver when the armed robbers burst through the front door, yelling and making demands. Like everyone else, she dropped to the floor, never looking back at the men, because if working with a full caseload of juvenile delinquents had taught her anything, it was to never be able to identify an attacker. Instead, she put her head down, allowing her short hair to obscure her face, and she listened to the robbers demand money from shoppers.
They roamed the aisles. Well, at least some of the aisles. Multiple voices had shouted when they’d entered the store and Ari had caught a glimpse of at least two guys. At the moment, though, it seemed clear there were more than that. She heard two across the store fighting with an employee while at least two others trolled through the aisles.
“Give me your wallet.”
“Here…take it…” said a trembling voice on the other side of the shelf.
Ari heard feet shuffling and raised voices near the counter. The cashier cried out, something about not having a key to the safe. A loud thwack echoed through the store. Ari flinched at the sound of metal against flesh.
As the struggle continued over the locked safe, the other men patrolled the rows of hardware, stopping at each customer asking for their money and jewelry. The escalation in violence kick-started Ari’s heart and she began to panic, too. As the men came closer to her row, she looked at the antique diamond ring on her right hand, and with a resolved ‘hell no’ under her breath, slipped the ring off her finger and shoved it in her mouth, pushing it into her cheek with her tongue.
She nudged her purse in front of her face. They could take her money—the little bit that was in there. She just wanted to get out of here alive. For five years Ari worked as a caseworker for Glory City. The job had taught her several things: always pay attention; never turn her back, not even for a minute; and always wear shoes she can run in. She flexed her toes in her black leather boots and cursed the blind spot she had from her position on the floor. Congratulations Ari, at least you have two of the three…
Her self-congratulatory thoughts dissipated and her heartbeat quickened as the footsteps came closer to her row. She glanced up and caught sight of the stocking cap and shaggy hair hanging out from underneath. She knew that kid. Jace Watkins. He wasn’t on her caseload but he’d been in the office. He had a reputation and Ari could have sworn he’d been remanded over to the adult system and had been in prison. Obviously not, because he was definitely one of the robbers. He turned his head, and for a brief moment, their eyes locked.
She’d broken rule one.
Trying not to freak, Ari braced herself for Jace’s approach, running her tongue along her grandmother’s ring for confidence and pressing her palms flat against the floor. Maybe he didn’t recognize her.
That thought was short-lived as a pair of boots kicked her bag aside and warm, calloused hands wrapped around her mouth. Another hand grabbed onto the waist of her jeans from behind. Ari’s body slid across the floor backwards. She fought back, twisting and kicking, trying to make contact. Whoever had their hands on her was too strong and very fast.
The four rules Ari just thought about vanished because there was one rule that trumped all the others.
Never get moved to a second location.
Past the point of panic, Ari bit the inside of her attacker’s palm. He cursed but didn’t move his hand. She heard a low whisper in her ear, “Trust me.”
“Screw you!” Ari yelled, or tried to, into his hand.
A commotion across the store made Ari jerk her head in that direction. Four guys ran through in baseball caps and sunglasses. Jace held a gun to an elderly man’s head and asked him for keys to the office.
Four? The guy who had her was a fifth. Not one she’d counted before and not one seeming to work in conjunction with the others.
Her abductor stopped at the back of the store and hoisted her against his chest. Ari’s mouth was still covered, but she watched as his free hand covered the door handle. The muscles in his forearm flexed as he twisted it and again, she noticed how strong he was. Her eyes widened as the knob stopped at the locking point, but he continued rotating until there was a sharp crack, breaking the metal off in his hand.
He swung the door open and pushed her inside a small, cluttered closet, lit by a single blub hanging from the ceiling. Ari turned quickly, looking for an escape, but he had her blocked. Anger welled up inside her chest, surpassing the fear. But, instead of a gun-wielding criminal, Ari found herself face-to-face with him.
He wore a baseball cap under a thick black hooded sweatshirt. The brim shaded much of his face and Ari couldn’t see his eyes. All the same, she knew it was him. His sleeves were pushed up to his elbows, revealing muscular brown arms and on his left wrist, she saw a blur of letters tattooed in dark ink.
“What are you doing?” she whispered, working around the ring in her mouth. She spit it into her palm. He ignored her and started to leave. Ari realized he was going back out to the front of the store.
“Hey,” she said, gripping his arm.
He turned sharply and put a finger to his lips. She looked up at his eyes, which were shadowed completely by the bill of his cap. Despite the obscurity, she was mesmerized by the intensity and control brimming from within, and Ari found herself nodding, willing to do whatever he asked her.
“Don’t leave until the police get here,” he said in a gruff voice. He closed the door, leaving only a sliver of light between it and the frame. Ari pressed her back against a wall, catching her breath.
Within moments, Ari heard a loud smashing sound. Shelving? The shouting increased, and the distinct sound of grunts and curses exploded from the oth
She should’ve been scared, but she wasn’t. He was a legend, a myth. Even though she’d never laid eyes on him before, she knew. It was him. Although there were documented accounts of his existence, there was no solid proof. Ari now knew the truth. He was real.
He didn’t have a name. Well, obviously he did but not publicly. He was that guy who walked in the shadows and appeared in the nick of time. He helped drowning babies and appeared out of nowhere to help those in need. He was on the playground when the bad guys tried to sneak away with other people’s kids. He was like Batman or Superman or The Green Arrow, but not the made-up fantasies of men who never grew up and who sketched their heroes into comic books. He was real, and he’d just saved Ari from four armed gunmen.
He was the Glory City Vigilante.
Ari sat in the familiar office waiting on Detective Bryson. Nothing much had changed since the last time she was there four years earlier, except the pictures of his wife now included two children.
She’d given her statement at the robbery, claiming to have hidden in the closet while the men ransacked the store. She lied in her report, not including any information about the mystery guy singling her out. She wondered if this was why Bryson had asked her to come to the station, or if it was about her parents. He hadn’t said.
“Thanks for waiting,” Detective Bryson said, closing the door behind him. They met when she was twenty-one, when he showed up at her apartment, grim and bearing bad news. “How have you been?”
“Pretty good,” she answered. “Busy with work.”
He sat behind his desk, shuffling some papers around. When he looked up, he frowned and said, “You cut your hair.”
Ari ran her hand over her short hair. The last time she saw him, her hair went halfway down her back. Now it was short, other than the long pieces she tucked behind her ear. “Spontaneous decision,” she said.
“It looks nice.”
They looked at one another over the top of the desk. Detective Bryson had rich brown skin and pretty, grayish eyes. She barely knew this man at all but he’d seen her at her worst. “So,” she said. “Any particular reason you called me down here?”
“I’ve been assigned to this robbery you witnessed and wanted to ask you some follow-up questions.”
Ari breathed a sigh of relief. Not about her parents. That had been put to rest. She saw no need to open that wound again. Good. “Sure, how can I help you?”
“The report says you didn’t see the guy that stopped the robbery.”
“The mystery man?” Her face reddened when she said the made-up name out loud. “That’s what I call him. You know, since no one knows who he is.” Ari took a deep breath. “No, I didn’t see him. I wasn’t aware there was anyone in the store other than the robbers and the customers.”
“He disabled three of the men, but one got away.”
“Jace Watkins. I recognized him from our office.”
“Do you think this ‘mystery guy’ would have let him go for some reason?”
Ari frowned. “Why would he let him go? Isn’t that kind of his thing? Stopping bad guys?”
“That seems to be his motive but between us, we don’t know what this guy is up to. It’s important for us to cover all angles and get him off the street. Vigilantism is never a good thing. Unfortunately, he’s as much of a suspect as the other men.”
Ari was as pro-police as a person could get, but she didn’t agree about the mystery guy. He seemed to do what the police couldn’t. They had rules and procedures that kept them from catching criminals without wading through a pile of bureaucracy first. Regardless, she kept this opinion to herself. “Well, I didn’t see anything, promise. Once I saw Jace, I hid. I’d worried what would happen if he’d recognized me.”
“Good thinking.” Bryson smiled and flipped the file on the top of his desk shut. “So how have things been for you other than armed robberies and ‘mystery men’?”
“The same. Still living with Oliver and trying to keep the juvies out of trouble. Clearly, our work with Jace Watkins wasn’t much of a success story.” She saw the concern in his eyes and cut him off before he could bring them up. “I’m taking it one day at a time. Or more like one week at a time now, I guess.”
“Good,” he said. He stood up and she did the same, thankful the meeting was over. Ari had no intention of reliving the accident again today, and being with Bryson brought her emotions to the surface.
“It was good to see you,” Ari told him.
“You, too,” he said. “Please let me know if you remember anything, okay?”
“Sure,” Ari said. She left Detective Bryson in his office, hoping she wouldn’t be back at the police station for a long time.
* * *
Ari scrambled up the steep incline of steps to the court house with only minutes to spare. Inside the dated, 1970s style industrial building, she waited in line behind a mother and her three small children, each having to pass through the metal detectors and a search by the security guards before being allowed inside the building.
“Good morning, Carl,” Ari said to the guard, dropping her black leather satchel, keys, and phone onto the conveyer belt. They disappeared behind the curtain and into the x-ray machine.
“Ms. Grant,” he replied and waved the wand over her body. No alarms rang and he allowed her to pass through and gather her things.
“Is she here?” she asked, eyes darting to the courtroom over his shoulder.
He nodded and said, “She just arrived. I saw her Mercedes pull into the parking lot.”
“Thanks.” Ari walked across the crowded waiting area and found a seat near the judge’s chambers. She hoped the wait wouldn’t be long. Judge Hatcher had a notorious reputation for being late, but as Carl had just confirmed, she might be on time that day.
Ari rummaged around in her satchel and pulled out a small stack of paperwork she needed to catch up on. She also took a moment to search the room for Hope’s family. She didn’t see Hope’s father, which wasn’t that surprising, but she thought perhaps her grandmother would make it for the hearing.
Sixteen-year-old Hope had been on Ari’s caseload for over a year. Half feral, she’d spent over nine months at a long-term detention facility for an assault charge. Hope had been out for three months and had been doing well until Ari received a call on Friday night that the girl had been arrested for prostitution.
The idea that Hope sold herself was upsetting, but not a stretch. Almost all the girls on her caseload had prostituted themselves at one time or another. It was a common practice for them. Too common, and this wasn’t the first time Hope had been charged. That had been a while back, and Ari had thought they were past this type of behavior.
Ari opened the file and reviewed the information in preparation for the hearing. It would determine if Hope could return home or if Judge Hatcher would send her to an out-of-home placement—possibly detention.
Twenty minutes later, the bailiff came out of the courtroom and announced Hope’s case. Ari slid her file back into her bag and followed him into the room. She nodded to a different guard before sitting down on the long, narrow bench in front of the judge. Judge Hatcher sat above the room at her podium. She caught Ari’s eye and smiled. The two of them had a history of working together on behalf of Glory’s children. There were days when they each had to be tough and break hearts, but doing so had been a necessary evil. The tiny judge was dark haired and pretty. On first sight, most of the kids thought she’d be easy to manipulate, but they were mistaken.
They had the same misconception about Ari.
For the first year, Ari faked it. Pretending
Ari wasn’t tiny by any means, but slim and tall. Her short, black, cropped hair, streaked with red made her appear less girly, and she wore her makeup heavy on her eyes, but light everywhere else. Scattered over her body were a dozen tattoos.
The minutes ticked by while the judge spoke quietly with the lawyers, and they all waited for Hope to exit the back hallway and enter the courtroom. The door near the front of the room opened and a corrections officer brought Hope in. Dressed in standard blue coveralls and generic tennis shoes, she shuffled over to the seat behind the defendant’s desk. She looked exhausted and her normally well-kept hair was a tangle of knots at the back of her head.
Ari offered Hope a wary grin but was met with a heavy eye roll and a snarl. Ari stared back, refusing to feel guilty about the girl’s choices. Hope’s reaction wasn’t exactly shocking. Ari cared for her, as much as she could allow herself, but the lifestyle Hope led tipped the scales out of her favor. Not just illegal, prostitution was risky—often deadly. As her probation officer, Ari’s job was to make sure Hope stayed on track and she worked diligently to help her stay in school, get a job, and stay off the streets. Ari couldn’t do that if she was in jail.
With a bang of her gavel, Judge Hatcher announced to the court the start of the hearing, reading Hope’s full name aloud and reciting the numbers of her case. Ari waited in the galley, behind her client. It was now in the hands of the judge to determine Hope’s fate.
* * *
Ari’s job in court, as she informed each of the children when they came on her caseload, was to tell the truth. What she revealed to the judge was really up to them. In this situation, Ari had no choice but to explain to Judge Hatcher that Hope had been in violation of her probation for the last six weeks. She’d missed appointments, broken curfew, and failed to take more than one drug test. Her grandmother called Ari repeatedly expressing concern about Hope staying out all night. The last time they’d spoken, Ari had threatened to put her back on the electronic monitoring bracelet if she didn’t cooperate. Obviously, the threat didn’t work since she disappeared for two weeks before being picked up by police.
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