London, England; December 20th, 2011
Janie Campbell had never been one of those people who involved herself in other people’s business. However, even she knew when it was time to intervene, namely when it concerned the murders of two local men. The twenty-year-old girl had run from her hiding place near the museum until she was doubled over and wheezing back at her hotel, letting her camera swing heavily against her chest. She clutched the pictures in her hands so tightly her fingernails had drawn blood, staining the stiff paper.
Janie was an aspiring photographer from a Texas university, abroad on a school trip with her Creative Arts class. She was of average height and tanned from the Southern sun, a feature that made her stand out in London, where it was often raining. Her face was soft and round with glowing hazel eyes and her hair was long and auburn, tied back in a braid that hung against her spine. Tremors violently shook her body, despite how warm she felt from the run. She was far from stupid, but, after this ordeal, she didn’t credit herself as the most intelligent person she knew; after all, the thought that London was colder than her favorite state had never entered her mind. Therefore, she was clad only in thin leggings, a button down blouse, and a pair of high-top sneakers.
The power hadn’t returned yet, the reason behind her journey to the museum in the first place. Her roommates had fallen asleep hours ago when there was nothing left to do. Janie was bored, but she couldn’t get to sleep. Instead, she’d taken her camera and gone to photograph the beautiful sights around the city. The museum’s beautiful architecture had struck her from the beginning, and she’d innocently only wanted a few photos to bring back to her parents. Now, she’d stumbled upon something that would change her life forever.
“Oh my…God,” she sputtered, erupting in a fierce coughing fit.
As she tried to catch her breath, she realized that her sweaty palms were beginning to sting. Reflexively, she loosened her tight fists, allowing the developed pictures clasped in them to fall clumsily to the floor in crumpled balls. Her hands were crisscrossed with paper cuts from the offending photographs, and she saw that the ooze of red had soaked onto some of the pictures. Trying to push the pain to the back of her mind, she collected the pictures back into her hand, smoothing them out so she could study the faces of the man and woman who’d infiltrated the museum. She clung to them like a lifeline, willing the images trapped inside to become anything else.
The first picture was of the woman with blonde hair and the face made of ice. She stood in the window, watching the man in the mask stalk the guard with a smile on her face.
The next was of the man, unmasked and horrorstruck, staring straight into Janie’s lens without seeing it.
The next three were taken with only a second’s interval. Dressed in their stolen uniforms, the thieves hid under the brim of their hats as they passed the genuine guards with blank expressions. They strode nonchalantly toward a silver car at the end of the street.
The last picture, the most important, was a perfectly clear image of the license plate.
A situation like this was never something brought up when she’d heard the “Right and Wrong lecture” from her parents. Internally, Janie could feel herself losing any shred of calm essential at a time like this, and she feared that she’d be heaving her dinner into the potted plant behind the hotel entrance at any moment. Lips pursed, she staggered through the lobby in search of a garbage can to vomit into. When none could be found, she leaned over the large pot and allowed herself to finally relax. The question she couldn’t answer was always the same: What was she going to do? What do you do when you witness a murder in a foreign country?
Stupid girl, she told herself, you should know this. Her muscles twitched, and she eventually allowed herself to slump into a heap on the ground, finally unable to support her own weight.
It happened so fast, she recalled with a silent whimper, wrapping her arms around herself and shutting her eyes tightly. It didn’t help. The tighter she shut her eyes, the more vivid the image of the guard’s death seemed to be as it replayed itself in her head, over and over again. She wanted desperately to assist the police in the search for the killers. But, at the same time, she really just wanted to forget the whole thing ever happened. Even if she did search for help, where would she go? Other than what her class’s tour guide had showed them, she was entirely ignorant of where help was in this city. More than that, she wished that she could go back to the way things were yesterday, when she didn’t have to think about death.
The sound of quiet footfalls in the ear she’d pressed to the floor hinted that she wasn’t alone in the lobby; she jolted upright, gasping for breath.
“Miss, are you alright?” a male voice inquired from beside her.
Janie wobbled on a weak neck, glancing around the room. She hadn’t stopped to notice before, through her reeling thoughts, that the lobby was lined with bellhops and other workers. It was the manager who stood behind her, concern and annoyance warring behind his eyes as he shot fleeting looks at the pot through the dark. Janie couldn’t find a way to put her situation into words that would express its severity. Rather than stumble through an explanation, she shook her head.
“How can I help, Miss?”
Janie wrung her hands. “The police. Call the police. The museum’s been robbed.”
His eyes bugged, clearly not expecting this twist, but he quickly obliged, pulling a cell phone from the pocket of his uniform. He stepped away from her to make the call, leaving Janie with her thoughts.
Upstairs, her roommates, Sarah and Charlotte, were asleep in their beds, dreaming blissfully of dates and celebrities while she was living what could only be a nightmare. She wanted to go upstairs to her third floor room and sleep. At least, there, she could pretend everything was normal. She could call her parents and beg for advice. Of course, it would be misguided and without prior experience, but she knew her mother’s calm and determined voice would be soothing in itself.
“Miss?” the manager’s voice broke through her thoughts.
She lightly shook her head, but found the real world to be an unpleasant place. It was dark, and it tasted like bile. “Ya?”
“Someone will be here to ask you some questions in a little bit, but we were told to assure you that the museum has not been robbed.”
Janie silently shook her head. Ya, right.
The lights didn’t come back on for the rest of the night. When the flash of the police cruiser appeared out the window it was like the light of God. The manager had pried Janie off the floor earlier and allowed her to lay on one of the elaborate couches around the lobby. She heard, rather than saw, the officer enter the building while she studied the pictures in her hands with disgust. Sitting up, she pulled the blanket given to her more tightly around her shoulders and waited for him to approach her.
“She’s over there, sir,” the manager mumbled from across the room.
“Thank you,” the gruff voice of another man echoed back. “If you wouldn’t mind, sir, if you could move your staff out of the lobby so I can ask her some questions, you’d be making my job a hell of a lot easier.”
“Of course, officer.”
The echo of footsteps died away as the room emptied, leaving her alone with the phantom officer. Janie pulled her knees to her chest, hiding the photos in the folds of her shirt. She couldn’t shake the feeling of impending malice as the officer ominously kept up a steady rhythm of step…step…step.
The shadowy figure cleared his throat. “Ma’am?”
She met his veiled face, silhouetted by the bright flashing lights of his cruiser through the window. “Yes, sir?”
“My name is Officer Smith. I just came from the museum.”
She jumped up, standing in line with his shoulder. “So you saw them?” she gasped.
“Ma’am, please sit down,” he muttered forcefully. Reluctantly, she did. “Now, who did I see?”
Mouth agape, Janie whispered slowly, “The bodies.”
He placed himself stealthily into the chair before her. “What’s your name, Ma’am?”
“You didn’t see them?” she shrieked, bolting to her feet. This time, the pictures came fluttering down from the heavy wool blanket, skidding across the floor in every direction.
He jumped up as they fell around his feet. “What are those?” he demanded, stooping to pick one up.
Janie threw her body to the floor, rushing to pick up her pictures while the officer struggled to see the image in his hand. Without light, he was having difficulty.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Miss…” he trailed off, looking up over the photograph to study her face.
“Campbell,” she hissed, balling the pictures in her fists. “Janie Campbell.”
“Miss Campbell. The museum is completely fine. When we got the call from the hotel, we checked it out first thing, nothing’s out of place and there weren’t any,”—he coughed—“bodies.”
“That’s impossible! I saw th—”
Officer Smith held the picture up to light of the window, illuminating the right half of his face. Janie suddenly couldn’t breathe. Paranoia may have been behind the chills Janie felt run up her spine, or the familiar face she saw in the light from the window, but, whatever the reason, Janie didn’t trust the man across from her. Her eyes burned, flickering around the room as she realized that there was no one around to hear her if she screamed, and there was nowhere to run.
Calling forth any prior experience, she tried to think of a way out, though her options had drastically decreased. She thought fast, pushing away all her doubts of the things that could go wrong, just like everything else that night.
While he was studying the picture in his hand, Janie kept a firm grip on her photos and let her body crumple to the floor in a heap. “Ouch!” she vowed, putting her fists to her ankle. Weakly, she began to pull herself up by the arm of the couch and swayed unsteadily on her feet. She made a show of limping and falling back to the floor.
“Jesus Christ!” he yelled, rushing to stand over her. “Are you alright?”
“My ankle—” she began, but halted as she recognized that the cold face from her pictures was now in line with hers.
She gasped for breath through the new obstruction in her lungs but resolved to get out of his grasp at any cost. Janie bit the inside of her mouth, scowling into the eyes of “Officer Smith.” Smith wasn’t looking back; he was reaching out for her “twisted” ankle when she leaned backward a few inches and cracked her head swiftly, but violently, into the man’s nose.
The ‘cop’ fell to the floor with a cry, holding his nose and blinking away the sudden moisture in his eyes. Janie ran, but she didn’t know where to go. The thieves had the police in their back pocket! Who else would try to hurt her if she told? She didn’t have time to think on it, as a roar behind her hinted strongly that the man was getting up, and he was out for blood. Hers.
By the time her assailant had peeled himself off the floor, Janie’s legs were carrying her faster than ever before toward the stairs. She didn’t know where the hotel staff had migrated to, but the whole building seemed to be abandoned. Fatigue had already stolen her edge, but she pushed herself to the third floor, knowing that her roommates would still be there. Despite her speed, she could hear, loud and clear, the unmistakable sound of a wooden chair smashing against the step just below her foot. She stumbled once when she felt the splinters become lodged in her thinly-clad calf. Nevertheless, a shriek of fear was her only clever remark in the face of danger.
The photos were crushed in the palm of her hands. Breathing heavily, she reminded herself to hide them once she’d gotten to safety; if she could get to safety. As she watched her room approaching, she pushed harder against the floor, ignoring the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach from emptiness and unadulterated terror. She slid on the carpet when she finally allowed herself to stop before the door, pounding her fists against the thin barrier with a volume that could’ve woken the entire corridor.
“Let me in! Charlotte! Sarah! Somebody, please, help me!” she sobbed into the wood of the door, repeatedly beating her only gateway to salvation. She waited for one of the girls to allow her entrance, but neither did. “Help me!” she repeated, unclenching her fists.
The pictures fluttered to the ground in the dark, and she fell to the floor to save her only lifeline. Three found her fingertips, but the last evaded her. As she backed away from the door, hoping to find the lost photo, her back hit another potted plant. The footfalls of the man in the hall echoed through her head, coming ever closer. She desperately shoved the pictures into the pot and grabbed for the other. Relief spread through her blood like a potent drug when her fingers met paper, but she had no time to seek out the pot again. Concluding that she’d run out of options, she shoved the photo down her shirt and pulled herself to her feet, shaky from the adrenaline. In a last ditch effort, she flattened herself against the wall, praying to God that the darkness would save her. Maybe he wouldn’t see her…. Maybe he would pass her….
Janie’s head was screaming. Around her, the occupants of the other rooms began to stir from the noise. The hall was too dark for her to see when the man caught up to her, she only felt it when he grabbed her and pushed her up against the wall, her feet dangling limply below her as she meet his full height. “Where are the pictures?” he snarled, wrapping one hand around her neck and slamming her skull into the wall once, then twice. Precious oxygen left her deprived lungs.
Her head swam; she couldn’t put together a coherent sentence. “Pictures—” she mumbled in answer. Her eyes began to roll back into her head, but he shook her out of her daze.
“Where are the pictures you took at the museum?” he demanded, shaking her harder by her hair.
She shrieked in protest. “No pictures,” she finally gasped, pulling her head away from him, though it only hurt her worse when his hand held tight. “Only one.” She was aware of how bad a defense she was making, but she said nothing else. She couldn’t see a way out of this. He hit her again and the taste of blood filled her mouth as he split something. Her first idea was to give up the photos before she came to a disturbing epiphany:
This man would kill her. Her only chance at surviving rested with the bargaining chips she held.
“What’s going on out there?” another voice yelled through the dark. “Who’s there?”
Janie didn’t know the voice; it had to be another patron of the hotel. “Help me!” she pleaded. Her voice came out low; a hand was still pressing against her windpipe.
“Shit,” her attacker cursed, moving his hand away from her throat to wrap around her waist. As he lifted her into his side, he was already running headlong back to the staircase. Other patrons of the hotel stepped out into the hall to investigate but they were easily pushed to the side with Janie’s body. Kierlan wasn’t happy to be going against the plan he’d created when he first intercepted the girl’s call; he’d planned on killing her then going to pick up his payment for the job at the museum. All of that was shot to hell, now. He could only hope that their mission could be salvaged by Natalia’s…irrefutable…methods of persuasion.
The next few minutes passed in a blur for Janie before a purposeful collision between her head and the wall drowned her in painless sleep.
The officer, who’d arrived on the scene the previous night, woke at dawn on the sidewalk, stripped of his uniform and his car missing.