The cramped helicopter rattled and wrestled with itself as it tried to gain altitude in the cloudless night sky. Madison glanced out the window behind her to confirm they were actually rising instead of falling. She then turned back to the narrow gurney and her wounded friend upon it. He looked rough.
"Hang in there, Skyler," she shouted over the ruckus of the chopper. His blue eyes opened for a moment as he grasped at the hand she had pressed to his bandaged chest.
Madison studied him as she thought over their failed assignment. She couldn't understand what had happened. It went horribly wrong. Someone must have set them up. Her team followed the rules and conducted themselves flawlessly. They walked right into a trap. It had to have been. Now, Skyler was hurt and Morgan made the choice to stay and complete their assignment on his own.
With her free hand, she tugged at the ring hanging from the delicate gold chain around her neck. She wasn't supposed to wear the engagement ring during assignments. It might give away her identity, or Morgan. Tucking it back into her shirt, she looked again to the window and wished her love to stay safe and hurry back to her.
On the outskirts of Miami, the light of the full moon glinted off the exterior of the abandoned factory building. There wasn't any illumination from within the three story structure beside the pier, but Madison knew it was active despite the darkness. She peered at it and searched for any hint as to where Morgan might be.
Then, without warning, there was an explosion. The building was engulfed by a fireball that sent debris in every direction as it reached skyward. The helicopter shook violently as the pilot veered away from the growing flames.
Everything went silent. She could no longer hear the struggling chopper or the desperate ramblings of the pilot or the concussion of the blast. She flinched away from the window and choked off a scream.
Madison awoke breathless from the repeated nightmare. The seemingly inescapable images stained her memory and held her thoughts. Another night lost to the eight-year-old haunting.
The frigid night air was an instant reminder as to where she was. She stared at the window she had left open to the Chicago winter once again. A breeze drifted to where she lay beneath the refuge of blankets. She shivered and watched as wisps of her exhaled breath danced lazily, giving her frantic pulse time to calm. The warm body curled against her back didn't move.
"I think it's snowing, Victor." She reached back and petted the charcoal-gray coat of the large cat. He only purred in response, still not relinquishing his shelter from the cold.
A glance at the clock on her nightstand told the time. Three-eighteen. It was too early to head to her usual bakery for a fresh breakfast, but not too early to start the day. She had given up long ago on trying to go back to sleep after the unrelenting nightmares.
Madison dragged the heavy window shut and latched it. She pulled on her sweats in the dark, managed to get the sock cap over her thick, brown curls, and laced up her sneakers. An early morning run would fill her time until the bakery opened.
The slushy streets of her Little Italy neighborhood were far from inactive. That was one reason she loved the area. She wasn't Italian or even related to any Italians, but she still felt welcome in the family-oriented community. Everyone knew everyone. In her five years of living here, she had become comfortable.
It was still earlier than she hoped by the time she rounded the block of her favorite bakery. It was not yet time for the family-owned establishment to open, but they invited her in anyway. They were there, already working on the offerings for the day. She sat at the counter with a cup of hot coffee and chatted lightly with the husband and wife team as they moved easily about the open kitchen.
The two never slowed. Gloria tended to trays of pastries, her graying hair pulled tight in a bun on the back of her head. Her plump, red cheeks always made her look cheery. Gerry, much taller and thinner than his wife, had his sleeves rolled up and kneaded dough vigorously.
Their conversation was mainly about the weather and the few happenings in the neighborhood. Madison stocked their newspaper shelf when the day's edition was dropped off. She then returned to the counter and related the headlines to the couple as they finished their first batch of goodies.
"How is Victor doing these days?" Gloria asked as she passed a buttered scone to Madison. The cat was originally from the alley behind their bakery. He was a just kitten when they found him. They couldn't keep him themselves and Gloria nearly worried herself sick trying to find a safe place for the tiny kitten. Madison took him in readily and had him ever since, shy of three years now.
"He's a cat, Gloria. He's fat and happy," Gerry called from his place beside the large oven.
Madison laughed and thanked Gloria as she took in the aroma of the scone. "He is fat and happy," she said. "He is also under house arrest."
Gloria shook her head, "That poor cat. What did he do to deserve that?"
"He roughed up the chihuahua from the first floor. I'm sure it asked for it, but it is the landlord's dog, so Victor got in trouble."
"As much as I don't like cats," Gerry said lightly, "I like those yappy dogs even less."
Madison shrugged. "Yeah, well, at least it finally convinced them to replace my window screens. No more Victor going out and no more flies coming in."
Gloria smiled and set a brown paper bag on the counter. "I made him some breakfast as well. I'll have to stop by some time and see how big he has gotten."
"Any time." Madison nodded. "I'm sure he says 'Thank you' for the goodies."
Gerry grumbled at the two, "It's just a cat." They chuckled to themselves as Gloria scooted the bag closer.
Madison visited with the couple a little while longer, finishing her cup of coffee and welcoming a few more early morning regulars. She ordered two more of the fresh scones to go and went her way. The jog back was brisk. The streets were alive with the start of a new day.
Back at her building, she made her way up the three flights of stairs toward her floor. The familiar smells and sounds varied at each level. The first floor always smelled of bread and sausage and not just in the morning. She could hear the landlord's little dog barking until she started up the second flight. That floor offered a more smokey smell mixed with coffee and a hint of fresh laundry. It was also a quieter floor even though the canary two doors down sounded out its happy song.
The third floor was home. She tip-toed past the first door in hopes of passing undetected. Holding her breath, she fumbled for her keys and turned the lock. The sound of the neighbor's door opening told her she was caught.
"Morning, Enzo," she chirped before the young man next door could come with his usual greeting.
He stepped out into the hall and shook his head. "I offer to run with you in the mornings and you still go alone. It isn't safe for a nice, young woman like yourself to roam the streets. Madi, I mean it, I'm only looking out for you."
Madison paused in opening her door and turned to him with a shy smile. She was running out of excuses. Enzo was a nice guy and a friendly neighbor, but he had made it clear he was interested in much more. She had made the mistake of striking up conversations every time she saw him when she first moved into the building. It was his thick Italian accent that she loved. But now, he was the one dropping by unannounced and looking for reasons to spend time together.
"It's ugly out there this morning," she started as she met his honey brown eyes. "It's so cold and wet I regretted going out." Madison held up the bag of scones and handed it to him. "But I brought you some breakfast, Gloria and Gerry's special."
Enzo took the peace offering and shifted towards his door. He inspected the contents, then looked back to Madison with a nod. "It is a little cold out. I didn't hear you leave so I thought you finally took a morning off. Maybe next time."
"Maybe next time," she said and stepped into her apartment.
She leaned on the door as she closed it, breathing a sigh of relief. She listened carefully to the happenings on the other side. Enzo hadn't shut his yet, unless she already missed it.
There was a light rapping on her door, startling Madison as she concentrated on the hall behind her. "Lock your door, Madi. Just looking out for you."
"Thank you, Enzo," she called through the door that divided them as she engaged the three locks, doing so loudly just to satisfy the man.
After giving Victor a portion of the goodies Gloria sent, which he ate while purring thunderously, Madison moved about her modest apartment to get ready for the day. She didn't mind the cramped kitchen where she ate her meals alone at the counter. Nor did she mind the sparsely furnished living room with its small television and the matching potted plants beside the two windows. Even the humble bedroom which was just big enough for her queen size bed and a nightstand was all she needed.
Her little apartment had the one thing she was looking for in a home. It had a beautiful view. At night she could see the lights of the Chicago skyline in the distance over the top of the buildings across the street. It wasn't a waterfront or a park view, but the lights were dazzling. She didn't have to be in the heart of the bustling city to get that.
She was a city girl. She would never deny that. She had grown up on the east coast and spent her most memorable years in Miami. There she knew she would spend the rest of her days with Morgan. Her plans didn't include their line of work getting him killed and her being run out of town. She didn't even know what she was running from, but she didn't stop until her lack of funding prevented her from catching another plane.
Madison took on a new identity and picked up honest work. No more safe cracking. She learned that one has to work twice as hard when it's honest. Her identity card said she was now Meredith Turner, but she still went by Madison. She never was any good at false identities. But she played by the rules and kept her nose clean and now had a life of her own to prove it.
She blended in on the bus and the train, even in her work uniform. Her coworkers respected her. She was yet to take a sick day and never turned down overtime. Her boss regularly teased her about the vacations she never took. She was always looking at travel brochures claiming they were for time away, but she was simply keeping her options open. She had been in this city for some time now and being still made her nervous. After running for three years straight, it was still hard for her to feel safe.
As a security guard at a privately owned treasury, Madison used her knowledge of safes in a different way. Where she once discovered a safe's weakness and exploited it, she now insured no one would be able to access a safe or vault without the proper means. She didn't have any specialized titles or classification, but she had nonetheless gained recognition within the company. They recently placed her in charge of the security detail concerning certain items trusted to the facility. She took her job very seriously.
The day at work passed rather uneventfully as usual. A quiet day was a good day. The newest recruit felt otherwise, drilling the other workers for their knowledge of more hectic times with the company. Madison and another coworker, Bradley, didn't give the new guy anything he was looking for. Only two of the older officers could recall minor incidents during their time but nothing worthy of the evening news.
Bradley started the same time she had four years ago. They attended the same night school where they received their certifications and then were recommended to the company. Madison considered him a friend. He was a single dad with two kids who demanded much of his time. She admired his focus. His kids were obviously the reason for his existence. She adored his kids and they seemed to return her sentiments. Jeremy was fourteen going on thirty. Evelyn was nine and surprisingly sweet despite being the only girl in her house.
Madison clocked out at the end of the day and stopped by the office to confirm the schedule for next week. She was given the day shift of Sunday to Thursday once again. She preferred working nights though her boss insisted on her taking the days. He said it was because of her better people skills.
She made her way to the bus stop and was surprised to find Bradley waiting. The noticeably tall man was looking at his watch and huddling against the post as she approached him, his sandy brown hair tousled by the wind. She called to him over the noise of the passing traffic, "Need a ride home?"
He looked up and smiled. He always appeared nervous to Madison when she would catch him off guard. "No," he stammered as he gestured at the parking garage, "I was just making sure you could still make Jeremy's ceremony tonight. I understand if you're busy. I should have said something earlier."
"I'll be there," she said with a shake of her head. She had forgotten about it, but would have remembered when she saw the note she left on her closet door so she wouldn't stand up the fourteen-year-old genius.
Bradley's smile heartened. "Good, he is so excited. Evelyn too. They have big plans for tonight. Do you want me to pick you up?"
"No, thank you. I'll take the train."
"All right then, see you there," he said as he started for the garage.
"See you there." She watched him trot away as it began to snow.
The bus ride seemed to take forever. She knew she was pushing it if she was to get to the school across town on time. The weather wasn't a hindrance, but it was Friday, and Fridays were always busy in the city.
Madison changed and hurried to catch the train. She dodged another barrage of questioning from Enzo as she took the stairs two at a time. He offered to walk her to the train. She didn't even slow as she reasoned she was already late and couldn't spare another moment.
The train came into the station as she stepped onto the platform. She found a seat as soon as she was aboard and plopped down to catch her breath. She tugged off her hat which refused to keep its place as her winter teased curls rejected any attempt to be contained. The brown spirals tickled her cheeks as she watched the station signs zip by.
She was ten minutes late by the time the train came to her stop. Madison rushed as best she could down the crowded walkways and sidewalks. The neighborhood was warm even though it had a fluffy layer of new snow all around. Families filled the sidewalks and the restaurants she passed by. She returned each cheerful smile and greeting she received along the way. The school finally came into view a few blocks from the train station.
The auditorium was full for the award ceremony. Madison stood in the back as she scanned the audience for Bradley. There were so many cheering people waving their arms as different names were called and she wondered if she would be able to find him within all the commotion.
Much to her relief, Evelyn came skipping up the aisle to her. She smiled widely as she took Madison by the hand and guided her to their seats. She followed the little girl with her long, blonde hair in pigtails as she led her down close to the front.
"Sorry I'm late," she whispered as she shuffled past Bradley. Evelyn sat between them.
"Just in time." There was a gleam of pride in his eyes as he pointed out his son who waited beside the stage.
Madison sat back and joined in the applause as the announcer continued with the list, pausing as each student made their way across the stage. Jeremy's turn came and Bradley and Evelyn cheered and jumped to their feet. Madison mirrored their enthusiastic display. The lanky redhead turned as he accepted his award and gave a quick wave to his family, then strode off the stage.
The ceremony rolled on. Madison watched absentmindedly after a time. She felt out of place. She was surrounded by happy families of all ages and sizes. Her scattered past didn't include a family. The concept was foreign to her. She was bounced from one foster home to another until she finally set out on her own. The closest thing she ever had to a family was when she found Morgan. Her first real home was with him and Skyler. She reached up and tugged at the ring at her neck at the thought.
Evelyn clung to her arm and brought her back to the present. "I love you, Madison," the green eyed girl whispered as she cuddled closer.
She put her arm around Evelyn and gave her a hug. "I love you, too." Madison usually didn't know how to respond to kids and easily admitted to the fact that they made her nervous. She was oddly comfortable with both Evelyn and Jeremy for some reason. She had even watched them on a few occasions when their regular sitter could not.
The ceremony concluded with another applause as the honored students filled the stage. The audience stood and cheered one last time before everyone began to shift about either in exiting or collecting their family members. There was a new hum of activity from the large crowd.
Madison stood with Bradley and Evelyn as they awaited Jeremy's return. The father and daughter were busy discussing dinner when Madison's attention strayed once again. She felt as if she were being watched. Her eyes carefully searched the churning mass of people though she was not sure what she was looking for. She couldn't identify the source of her unrest, but neither could she shake the feeling.
"Are you all right?"
She forced a smile and turned to Bradley. "Yes, there's just a lot of people in here. Would you mind if I waited outside?"
"I'll go with you!" Evelyn said as she snatched up her coat.
Bradley answered before Madison could. "I thought you were my date tonight."
"But, Daddy ..."
"You're fine right here. We'll catch up when we find your brother." He nodded to Madison and shuffled aside to provide her an escape.
"Thank you," she mouthed as she squeezed by and into the aisle.
"We won't be long." He offered a smile before she turned and moved on.
Madison wove her way through the crowded aisles and into the front hall of the building. She still sensed the spying eyes on her as she stepped out into the frozen night. Another glance around turned up nothing. She was surrounded by unfamiliar faces, but none of them seemed to even notice her.
She walked a short distance from the busy school and stood with her back to a pillar. The falling snow gave everything a hazy glow beneath the street lights. The cold didn't touch her as she continued her watch. The sounds of the cheerful people and the passing cars filled the scene around her. She strained to single out anything that might seem out of place, but nothing held her attention.
"I found you!" The excited shout seemed to come out of nowhere as Evelyn wrapped her arms around Madison with little warning.
Swallowing her start, she playfully hugged her and ruffled her pigtails. Evelyn continued to hold her as Bradley slowly made his way through the assemblage, Jeremy bobbing along behind him. Where the crowd began to thin, Jeremy bounded around his dad and hurried to Madison.
"You made it!" he said after a quick hug.
She straightened his red and white checkered tie. "You were great."
Bradley gradually caught up and put his arm around his son. "So, where is dinner?"
The still beaming boy looked to Madison and shrugged. "Where do you want to go?"
"It's your night, Jeremy, you pick."
He shook his head, "I always have to pick. You're the guest tonight."
"Ah," she stalled as she glance about the three waiting faces. "What would I want if I were a fourteen-year-old brainiac who just won the coveted science award and will one day invent time travel ..."
"Time travel doesn't need to be invented," Jeremy said. "It already exists. We simply have to harness it."
Madison acknowledged the correction and mockingly bowed her head to him. "Well, if I were to one day harness time travel," she started again with a chuckle, "I would want ..." She paused and narrowed her eyes and matched his stare, "Pizza!"
"Pizza!" Jeremy and Evelyn both threw their hands up in victory.
"Pizza it is," Bradley consented as he pulled out his keys. "I'll get the car."
Jeremy bolted in front of his dad, "Can I drive?"
"Sure, when you harness time travel." He patted Jeremy's hatted head and gestured for them all to follow.
The four walked across the snow covered parking lot to the small car. The kids gathered snow off the roof of the vehicle and threatened a snowball fight, but Bradley's fatherly glare defused it before it could begin. Madison waited for her door to be unlocked, taking a moment to glance around again, the feeling of being watched still potent. She ducked into the car as soon as it was opened to her.
The feeling finally passed as they were sitting in the pizzeria. Madison let herself relax again and joined in the clever conversing of the family of three. The dinner was lively without a dull moment to be had. Evelyn and Jeremy were full of riddles and word games. Bradley even had a few to share.
It was getting late when they had devoured the entire monstrosity of a pizza. Madison was stuffed and she felt if she laughed much more she might explode. She passed on dessert except for the cherry from Evelyn's ice cream. The little girl wouldn't touch the treat while the cherry topped it.
She had planned to take the train home, but Bradley insisted on driving her. Because of the disturbing feeling for most of the night, she was a little wary of public transportation and thus secretly grateful for the ride. She enjoyed the extension of her time with him and his kids, and was a little saddened by how soon they pulled up in front of her building.
She bid Evelyn and Jeremy a goodnight as she got out of the car. Bradley walked her to the front step. She waved at the kids when they stopped beside her building, then looked at Bradley. "Thanks for inviting me tonight. It was fun. You have a sweet family."
He gave a half smile and one sided shrug, "I think I'll keep them." He laughed at himself and reached for the door, "Thank you for coming. I know the kids enjoyed your company, and so did I."
"My pleasure." She turned to go in as he slowly opened the door.
"Madison," he called her back. "I know we work together, and I don't mean to make things awkward, but I just wanted you to know, I'm here if you are up to spending more time with me, or the kids if you just like me for my kids."
She gave a warm smile as he fumbled in his delivery. "Thank you, Bradley. That is really nice of you, and it's not just the kids." She fell short in her own reasoning. She hadn't told him of her lost Morgan. She hadn't told anyone. Still, she clung to his memory with all her heart.
He shuffled his feet when she tugged at the ring on her necklace. "I'm sorry," he said shyly. "I didn't know if that's what that was, I wouldn't have ..."
"You don't have to apologize. It's fine."
"Where is he, if you don't mind my asking? I don't mean to pry. He's a lucky guy. I was just wondering."
Bowing her head, Madison tucked the ring back into her shirt. She shifted and swallowed the lump in her throat. "He died," finally finding her voice.
Bradley frowned, "Oh, I'm sorry."
She shook her head and gave another forced smile, "You're fine."
"Aren't I on a roll?" he said with a nervous snort. "What a way to ruin the evening, huh?"
Madison pet his arm to let him know he hadn't bothered her. He apologized again and pulled her to him in a tight hug. He didn't hold her long and stepped back just as quickly. His expression was sympathetic and he puffed out another nervous breath.
"Don't worry about it, Bradley, really. I'm fine. It's just that I'm ..."
"Not ready to move on just yet," he quietly concluded. She gave a nod and another smile. "I understand. I can respect that."
He backed towards his car and stuck his hands in his pockets. Madison accepted his exit and turned for the door.
"Madison," he called out in a meek tone. She looked to him. "If you need anything, you know where to find me."
"Thank you. I appreciate it."
He gave a deep nod and turned to his car. Madison watched him go, half laughing when she realized the windows fogged up where the kids had their faces pressed to them. She waved from the front step while the family pulled out and drove off down the street. The snow and slush squished noisily beneath the tires.
She was greeted by Enzo as she climbed the last step to her floor. He studied her and she acknowledged him without a word. "You're out late," he began. "Who is he?"
"He's a friend," she answered as she put her key in the door lock.
"What does he have that I don't?"
He let out an unamused laugh. "Would that be a real badge or like the one you have?"
"Goodnight, Enzo," she said, letting her irritation sound in her tone.
"I'm just looking out for you," he grumbled as he moved to his opened door.
Madison paused with her door partially opened. "Enzo, did you follow me tonight?"
The tall man looked to her with a puzzled expression. "You told me to stop following you."
"Yes, I know. And thank you for doing so. You were here all night?"
"I stepped out for a bite with the guys, but other than that, yes."
She softened and offered a weak smile, "Goodnight."
"With you home safe, I will rest easy. You too my dove."
The first thing she did once inside her apartment was to start a bath. She let the water run while she rechecked her shopping list since tomorrow was grocery day. There weren't any messages on her answering machine, so she hovered about her kitchen and poured a glass of wine.
Madison eventually made her way to the tub. She soaked in the hot water and sipped the wine. She was determined to chase away the chill from the cold day and the more gloomy thoughts that weighed on her mind.
Bradley's offer was in the forefront. It should have made her happy. She was flattered and admittedly tempted to take him up on it. He was a good friend, one of the very few she dared to spend time with outside of work. She recalled his charming smile and all the times he walked her to the bus stop after their shifts when she wouldn't let him drive her home. He would stand with her and claim he was giving his car time to warm up, but then he would fidget and the sound of his keys jingling in his pocket told a different story.
He always found some way to spend time together from the very beginning, like arranging to meet somewhere to study for class. Working with him meant coffee breaks on a regular basis. He also made sure she received a personal invite to all the kids' activities. He was honest and sincere, and she was comfortable around him. That comfort was ironically what made her hesitant to allow herself to get any closer to him. It wasn't just him or because he was her colleague, but her situation as a whole.
Her current hold on life was too good to be true. She loved her job and cared for those she worked with, especially Bradley. It was once something to keep her busy and a distraction to fill her time until she could find another city and life to slip off to. She had gotten caught up in this make-believe life. Now she was reluctant to leave this place and those she had come to know. She knew she had stayed too long. No more than a year, that was what she used to limit herself to remain in one place. It might have been because she was tired, but this time she lingered. It had been so long since she last felt this way, and she wondered, could this be home?
She wasn't ready to call it home. The title was taken and that home had been lost. It seemed that the passing of time did little to soothe the aching she felt for Morgan. There was a hole in her life and she came to doubt it ever being filled again. The void took the place that was once occupied not only by her loving relationship with Morgan, but also the unwavering companionship of her best friend, Skyler. They were her whole world and she struggled with the knowledge that those attachments were gone.
Madison caressed the gold chain and admired the simple ring as she wiped the soapsuds away. It was the only thing she took with her from the shattered life. The round diamond shone true to this day. She didn't know if the ring still fit. She hadn't taken it off the chain in eight years. And during those eight years, the chain had not once left her neck.
The dark memories that plagued her sleep and forced an early start to the day came to mind. How could she move on with that day still so potent? What was meant to be the easiest assignment given to their small team ended up stealing away everything she treasured. Yes, looting crooks wasn't a safe profession, but they had never been caught before. Even if they were suspected, who would a crook report them to? And that specific job was to be their last. They wouldn't have had to befriended another reprobate and Madison wouldn't have needed to crack another safe. That vault supposedly held bonds that would have covered them for years to come.
No amount of valuable bonds measured up to what that botched job cost her. And their safeguard, the inability of their chosen targets to go to the authorities, ended up being her final undoing. Who was she to go to for help? She had taken Skyler to a clinic to be patched up and was scrambling to get him to safety when a call came through. But it was on Morgan's phone that had somehow ended up in her pocket. She answered it; it was his handlers. They said that it was up to her to get them what Morgan had lost. They knew her name and where she lived with Morgan and Skyler. At last the full spectrum of her devastation began to set in. She panicked. There was only one thing she could do to save both her and Skyler, a desperate move that would leave her crushed. Vanish.
Taking a dry sip from the empty wineglass brought Madison back to reality and convinced her to give up on the cooling bath water. She was well ready for bed by that time, not wanting to think on those haunting days any longer.
The window stayed shut tonight, and the blinds were closed. She turned her back to the hidden skyline as she settled in the covers. Her heart wasn't in the city this night. It was on the shores of Miami.
Her dreams revisited her past once again. They were far less painful. She was strolling along the beach with the rising tide, hand in hand with Morgan. His low voice mixed beautifully with the rhythm of the waves as he spoke. His deep brown eyes sparkled with the sunset and left her spellbound. She held him, nestling as close to him as she could, wishing she actually could feel the warmth of his dark skin against hers. "I love you," she whispered as he wrapped his strong arms around her. She closed her eyes and breathed in his scent and the scent of the salty air around them.