See DISCLAIMERS. This section contains Act III spoilers.
A LONG DESERT ROAD
A year and a half later
The bus was late, but Katja didn’t think anything had gone wrong with the plan. Though she probably shouldn’t, she trusted her connection implicitly. Of course, when she thought about it, the reason why she shouldn’t trust Agent Lopez was the same reason she was on this road.
She suppressed the urge to growl, took another sip of a barely cool formerly iced tea, and listened to the music in her air-conditioned car.
Forty-five minutes later, a dust cloud miles down the road caught her attention. It took another ten minutes for the dust cloud to materialize into a watery mirage of a vehicle, and several more for it to solidify into a bus. Finally, with a groan Katja could hear all the way inside her sealed car, the bus slowed down to a crawl and then parked alongside the wide spot in the road where Katja waited.
She sighed, preparing herself for battle.
It was a full-sized prison bus though it only held the driver and one passenger, as agreed. The driver, a burly bald man in an overstuffed uniform, turned off the engine and walked to the back of the bus. Katja couldn’t see what he was doing, but she had some idea.
She stepped out of the cooler air of her car into the warm sun and winced at the smell of exhaust in the air. The bus was so old it was an ethanol hybrid, not a fully electric model, and the dust it had kicked up blew behind her sunglasses and into her eyes.
Katja was surprised to find herself nervous, perhaps even afraid though she didn’t want to admit it. This could go badly, and she didn’t want it to.
She steadied herself, tipped her sunglasses atop her head and leaned against the side of the car.
A creak signaled the opening door of the bus, and the driver stepped out first. He gave Katja an assessing look of disapproval, then stepped aside, barking orders into the bus.
A lone prisoner shuffled to the front of the bus. Penelope wore the standard, unflattering and ill-fitting orange jumpsuit of the federally incarcerated. Her wrists and feet were both bound and connected by a long chain. She maneuvered the steps of the bus with a curse, and then shuffled away from the door.
She glanced at Katja, then shook her head and looked up the road the way she’d come.
“And here I thought I was about to get two in the back of the head.”
She looked underweight, which was saying something since she’d always been thin. Her voice sounded the same, though.
“Or is that what this is? Too tricky to kill me in custody, so you paid off this guy to bring me out here?”
That hurt. Even after everything that had happened, it’d be a cold day in hell before she’d deliberately hurt Penelope. Katja couldn’t imagine a scenario where that would even be a possibility, but perhaps Penelope now thought differently.
Penelope didn’t look at her. Instead she squinted at the wide desert around them. It didn’t escape Katja’s notice that Penelope took deep breaths, and she wondered if this was the first fresh air she’d had in awhile.
“I wanted to see for myself that you’re okay.” Katja knew that wasn’t the best way to put it, but she couldn’t find better words.
“Oh, that’s rich, coming from you, considering you’re the reason I’m wearing these fucking chains.”
It was true. If Katja had been with Penelope that night, instead of going after Lopez, Penelope would never have been captured, but it was all said and done now. She didn’t take the bait.
Penelope sighed and shuffled halfway across the highway.
“So, how’d you get me out of the hole?”
Katja winced at that news. She had hoped the feds were treating Penelope decently enough. If they were keeping her in isolation, that wasn’t the case.
Then she realized that she was stalling. Penelope wasn’t going to like the answer, but she didn’t want to lie.
Finally, Penelope looked her right in the eyes, her expression as cold and pale as her eyes. “You’re fucking kidding me.”
Katja crossed one leg over the other, trying to appear nonchalant, but she felt the tremble in her knees.
“Let’s just say I took advantage of an opportunity presented to me.”
Penelope didn’t need to know about all the wheeling and dealing she’d had to do with Lopez, and what she’d had to sacrifice just to see a federal inmate for ten minutes.
Penelope looked like she wanted to toss her arms in the air the way she usually did when she was angry, but the chains wouldn’t allow it.
“From that bitch? What the fuck, Kat?” She shifted to the side as if to begin pacing, but couldn’t move fast enough and nearly tripped. “Goddamnit. I don’t want shit from her. She’s the reason you left me high and dry.”
“I didn’t -“
“You did! You left me there with those asshole loyalists of Renault’s.”
Katja seethed. This wasn’t why she’d come all this way and done so much to make this happen. “Will you just fucking listen for once?”
“To the same old story? It’s bullshit, Kat. Those agency bastards always stick together, so I don’t buy a single word of it. Why did you do it, Kat? Did you even think about what might happen?”
“That’s not fair -“ Katja regretted her word choice instantly.
“Don’t talk to me about fair!”
“None of it was supposed to go down like it did, but I couldn’t get back to you in time.”
Penelope sneered. “Was it easy for you to choose her over me?”
Katja clenched her hands into fists. “I didn’t choose her over you. I would never do that.”
“But you did. You heard she was in trouble and you went running, even though it left me exposed.”
Katja laughed, a biting unpleasant sound even to her own ears. She stalked forward, meeting Penelope in the middle of the road.
“Don’t even think to play the damsel in distress with me, Pen. You could have handled those guys just fine by yourself if you’d been paying attention, but you weren’t, were you? Did you get greedy?”
Penelope took a threatening step into Katja’s personal space. Even chained, Katja knew she was dangerous, but she hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
“I was protecting your goddamned interests, the way I always do,” Penelope said.
“We had enough, Pen! We’d made back all the money we’d lost. Hell, we made more than that – twice, three times over. We were good. You could have pulled the feeds as planned, but no -“
Penelope leaned toward her. “Do you have any idea what they did to me, Kat?” Her voice dropped to a low, scathing register. “When they finally got me back here? The weeks of interrogations by people way worse than Foster? The junk they got me hooked on that took weeks to flush out of my system? The bullshit I had to deal with when they tossed me in the pit with the rest of the animals?”
Katja kept herself still, but inside, she cringed. For so long, even though it wasn’t necessary, she’d thought it her job to protect Penelope from the madness in their world, to keep her away from the monsters Katja took it upon herself to rid from the earth. Penelope could take care of herself, but there was something about her that Katja had always wanted to keep safe.
And though it hadn’t been her fault, not really, she looked deeply into Penelope’s eyes and knew. Penelope wasn’t going to listen.
No matter how much she tried to explain, even though every awkward word was the truth, Penelope was never going to believe her.
She turned around without another word and walked toward the car.
“That’s it? You had me dragged all the way out here for that?” Penelope sounded incredulous. “You’re just gonna send me back to rot?”
That wasn’t the plan, but Penelope couldn’t know that.
Katja kept walking.
Katja wanted to leave. She didn’t want to hear another word – not about what had happened after Penelope’s capture, not the truth of Penelope’s words, not the crowding thoughts of Lopez in her own head.
But she missed Penelope, and there was so much between them.
She turned on her heel and walked back to Penelope, not stopping until Penelope had taken a rattling step backward.
“I’m gonna say this one last time, Pen, so I want you to hear me.” Her voice was low and crisp. This was the way she spoke to those who defied her, to those who would never hear another thing after she’d finished talking.
She’d never spoken to Penelope like this, not in the entire time they’d known each other, but this time, this one time, Katja needed to be heard.
Penelope needed to understand, and if she didn’t, they were done, no matter how the plan unfolded.
“I didn’t know they were coming for you.” She watched the words land, though Penelope’s expression didn’t change. “I didn’t know they were anywhere near you. I thought you were safe, and I thought you could handle those goons who were supposed to have your back, even if they turned on you. Unlike the rest of those jokers, I know who you really are and what you’re capable of.” She stared into Penelope’s eyes, hoping to see that she was finally listening.
Penelope stared back.
Katja tipped her head down, emphasizing her point. “The only reason I went after Lopez was because I knew Marsh was going to kill her. Not arrest her. Not detain her. Not surrender her to the Gendarmes.” She lowered her voice. “That fucker was going to kill her and leave her as bait for the rats in the sewers, and I could not let that happen.”
She still wasn’t ready to say just why yet, but this much, she knew Penelope already understood.
“I didn’t choose her over you, Pen. I thought you were safe, and I knew she was going to die.”
One more thing to say, and she prayed that Penelope would hear the truth.
“I would never, ever leave you in danger if it was in my power to save you.”
Penelope’s eyes widened by millimeters, and Katja tried not to sag in relief.
Penelope finally understood.
Katja stepped backwards slowly towards the car. “Take care of yourself, Pen.”
She turned around and walked to the driver’s side of the car as she heard the door of the bus open.
“I’ll miss you at Thanksgiving,” she said as she climbed in the car.
She drove away without another glance.
All rights reserved.