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not throwing away my shot

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“I was thinking maybe this weekend, we go to that shooting range in town and you can teach me how to shoot a gun,” Debi says conversationally over fried eggs and orange juice one Saturday morning, in the latest rental condo they’re staying in as they make their way slowly cross-country in a lazy trip away from anywhere Michigan. Martin puts down his newspaper.

 

“There is absolutely and totally no need for that,” he says, just like he said the other five times she asked to learn how to shoot. "They’re terrible for self-defense, past experience notwithstanding, and having them around doesn’t make anyone safer, it just increases the chance of gun violence. There are lots of statistics. And lots of NRA propaganda no one should listen to.” He says all this like there’s a checklist in his brain for everyone who isn’t him who wants a gun.

 

Debi waits for him to finish. Once he gets started on a topic he usually feels the need to finish it completely, and she’s felt sorry for that therapist he had back in New York for reasons completely unrelated to Martin being a contract killer.  Finally, she says, “I don’t want to learn to shoot for self-defense or so I can keep a gun in my purse for when I have road rage or so I can be a dues-paying NRA member. I want to go, with you, to a shooting range, so that you, the man I love, can share an experience with me that you’re good at."

 

“People shot at you, and you want to go be around more guns?"

 

“Strictly speaking, they were more shooting at you and my dad, I was incidental. And look, Martin, you've come to the radio station. You like hanging around and watching me be good at that, right?” She knows he does, because when she delivers a zinger on air to some call-in question or request, he smothers his laughter and makes damn sure none of the microphones are hot before he tells her exactly how much he does like her. “You like being a part of what I’m good at. I want to be a part of something you’re good at."

 

“I’m… good at fixing cars, we could get a classic car to fix up!” he tries.

 

“No, honey, you’re not,” she replies. “I had to get the brake lines replaced after you changed my brake pads last week. The mechanic wasn’t sure how you made them leak like that.” Martin’s eyebrows go up like he’s suddenly seeing her careening off a cliff in her brake-less car, and she wonders how many brake lines he’s cut to make just that happen. She pushes the thought away. “No, it was fine, they just felt spongey after you changed the pads so I took it in, it never got to be a problem."

 

“Are you sure…?” he asks, clearly still troubled.

 

“Yes,” she says emphatically. “And we’re not talking about the car, we’re talking about the shooting range."

 

He sighs. “If this is really not about you carrying a gun for protection…"

 

“It’s not,” she says, “if it was I’d be going to therapy to get over what happened, not using a deadly weapon as a good luck charm.” That’s mostly true. She still has nightmares about that horrible day her house, that had been safe throughout her whole life, was invaded by killers and torn apart by bullets. It stopped being safe and whole that day, and something changed in her that day too, like an innocence or trust in the world she didn’t know she still had was broken and couldn’t be fixed. She still wonders if people looking at her in the street are checking her out or if they’re Martin’s enemies, waiting to take her out. She watches the way he checks all the rooms he walks into for first and second exits and started imitating him. When they go out to eat, they sit on the same side of the table like lovebirds, and they both face the door. She went to therapy when she was questioning everything in life after high school, and she still married a fuckup just for a change of pace and then divorced him, so she’s not sure she’s quite ready to go to therapy about her ex-assassin fiancé. Boyfriend. (They’re still working that out.)

 

“And anyway, you’re still carrying a gun for protection,” Debi continues, pointing out the obvious. 

 

“Yeah, because I know what I’m doing! I’m not just some asshole,” he responds with some heat. Debi raises her eyebrows. “I just feel… naked without it. I’m working on it!"

 

“Okay, well, while you’re working on that, let me see what you got, Mr. Die Hard. There’s this whole thing in your life, this thing you’re really good at, that I’ve never seen outside of laying in a bathtub being pretty sure I’m about to get killed while you’re fucking telling me you’re in love with me, okay? It wasn’t exactly a clearheaded moment. Can we go to the shooting range?"

 

“Fine! We’ll go to the shooting range.” He folds his newspaper and puts the section back with the rest of the Saturday paper, before leaning over to scrutinize her face.  “Unless, y’know, you became a contract killer too while I was away and you’ve been laying low, taking your time, waiting for a chance to whack me."

 

Debi stands up to get another cup of coffee and punches him in the shoulder. “I think I’ve mentioned the psycho thing before, but has anyone ever told you you’re paranoid?"

 

“No, actually,” he tells her.

 

~~~~~

 

At the end of an hour, Debi actually discovers she has fairly decent aim, in that she can get most of the rounds through the paper target at ten yards, and that she definitely doesn’t have the arm strength for pretty much anything of the calibre Martin likes to use. He had brought a smaller gun for her, and it still tries to jump in her hand, but she can squeeze the trigger without it kicking back so hard the bullet goes into the ceiling insulation while she wonders if her shoulder is okay. “No no no, don’t put your finger on the trigger until you’re going to actually shoot, and don’t point it at— not at me! Only point it downrange! Don’t ever point the gun at anything you don’t mind shooting the shit out of!” he had told her before they started, when she picked up the first gun she’d held since the day her house was raided. 

 

“It’s not even loaded yet!” she protested.

 

“It doesn’t matter, you act like it is. Look, this one’s not loaded,” he said, picking up a heavier gun and showing her the lack of a magazine. He pointed it downrange at the target, sighted along the barrel, thumbed the safety off, and squeezed the trigger. Debi was glad of her ridiculous orange earmuffs when it went off with a reverberation that vibrated through her chest. “Whoops!” said Martin, setting the gun down again, “guess there was one in the chamber!"

 

“Okay, okay, point taken, life isn’t an action movie. Even if I’m pretty sure you did all the things you just told me not to do a few weeks ago."

 

“It was a bad situation where I was distracted and I’ve picked up some bad habits over the years, symbolic of my subconscious and creeping disenchantment with my choice of profession and lone-wolf lifestyle, and my continued existence as a whole."

 

“Did your therapist tell you that line, or have you been pondering that one a lot, possibly in your chronic dreams about telling me about your life?"

 

“Mostly overthinking it. Not as an explanation for you, just because I was getting lazy and careless making dumb mistakes, and those are what dead assassins do. I had to figure out if I was actually trying to be a dead assassin or not."

 

“But now you don’t want to be dead or an assassin?"

 

He kissed her. “Got it in one. Speaking of—“ he loaded a magazine into the smaller handgun, “—you want to try to hit the center of the bullseye?” 

 

One round hit the bullseye that first time; in the rest of the clip, another one got just outside it, three hit the paper at all, and the other five disappeared somewhere at the far end of the range. In the lane next to hers, she watched as Martin pushed the switch to send his paper target much farther downrange than hers was, and raise a much heavier gun, one with a scope on it. He emptied the entire magazine in one go with his arm jerking barely at all, even though every shot made her reflexively squeeze her eyes shut. When he brought the target back, she only saw three holes in the center of the target. 

 

“They let you do this for a living when you can only hit it three times?” she asked doubtfully. 

 

“It’s not like there’s a licensing board,” Martin said. “And I didn’t. All of them went through those same three holes."

 

She arched a skeptical eyebrow at him. “All the molding in my dad’s house has to be replaced, we’re paying a drywall guy enough to send his kids through college, half the doors were shot off their hinges, and you killed a man with a television in the kitchen and just left him there. Don’t try and convince me you don’t spray those bullets like a defective fire hose. Bad situation, my ass."

 

Uncontrolled situation, and besides, you can only blame me for, like, a fraction of those. Okay, if you don’t believe me, hand over your gun there.” He stepped into her lane, and sent her target back out again before reloading the gun she’d been using. “Keep your eyes open this time.” Before she could ask how he knew, he fired the entire round into the target. This time, with effort, she kept her eyes open for some of them, watching the bullets hit the same spots on the  paper, over and over.

 

“How did you do that?” she demanded. “You hit my shots! Right through that one bullseye I made!"

 

“Practice,” he said. “It’s not like a social life was taking up my time."

 

She snorted. “Now I understand everything about you.” He grimaced at her theatrically. 

 

So for the next forty-five minutes, he had stood behind her and braced her arm for balance, and told her how to breathe out and drop her shoulders, to not lock her elbows, and to let everything else but the motion of her hands and her target fade out of focus until the way her mind had been racing since he first knocked on her studio door calmed. This was a side of him she had seen glimpses of before, but never for long; even when they were teenagers, there was a nervous energy about him, and a sense that he was standing on the threshold of life, wavering between coming in and escaping. She loved their push and pull dynamic, but this— she could love this, too, this stillness that he let her share. She knows where it comes from: ten years of waiting til the right moment to squeeze the trigger and kill someone was what distilled his moments of peace into a habit. When the center of the target was finally all she saw, and she bent her elbows against the recoil, relaxed her shoulders, and exhaled slowly as she settled into a solid stance with her feet apart, and squeezed, she knew she held a deadly weapon in her hands, and she knew that she could accept that. The stillness she found before firing the gun didn’t have to take her into the world that had obliterated the safety of her childhood home. 

 

By the time they run out of ammunition, Debi rolls up the paper target with ten holes punched through it as a trophy of her marksmanship. Martin carries his gun case in one hand and holds her hand with the other as they return their ear protection to the manager and head out the parking lot. 

 

Sitting on the hood of her car is a woman Debi has never seen before, smoking a cigarette and watching them. As they approach, the woman slides off the car and drops the cigarette, grinding it out with her heel. 

 

Martin speaks first. “Marcella, what are you doing here? I said I’d find you later, once things had blown over.” He pauses. “Wait, how did you find us here?"

 

“I see all, I know all, there is nothing hidden from me,” she replies. “What, you thought I wasn’t going to keep an eye on you, sir?” She turns her attention to Debi. “Debi Newberry! It’s so nice to finally meet you after all these years. I’m Marcella, Martin’s executive assistant. Former executive assistant. Recently retired.” 

 

“Nice to meet you too,” Debi says, very uncertainly, and drops Martin’s hand to shake Marcella’s. “Do you, uh, kill people for a living too?"

 

“Nah, just for sport,” Marcella responds. “Up until we closed the office, I handled all the paperwork, travel details, ordering supplies— you know, administrative work, just like anywhere else. I also kept the records, until I destroyed them, which is where our problem comes in, boss."

 

“I’m not your boss anymore."

 

“You’ll wish I was still working for you when you hear about this. You remember the Jack Auburn job last year?"

 

“Yeah, embezzled too much from the wrong people, he was in South Carolina someplace."

 

“Turns out he was also laundering money for the Chechens on this side of the Atlantic, Ruslan Labazanov’s people in particular. Labazanov just got killed last week, probably by the Russians, but I’m hearing chatter that your name is coming up connected with his business."

 

Martin rubs his hand across his face, suddenly looking haggard. “Fucking Chechens. I don’t fuck with those guys, you know? The Russians handle their shit, I handle shit over here, all the unemployed Stasi fuckheads go wherever they’re most annoying, and everyone stays happy. Or dead."

 

“The Chechen mob is neither of those things right now. And I don’t have the receipts to prove that whoever retained us for the Auburn job wasn’t involved with us for this."

 

“So what are we supposed to do? Fly to Grozny with flowers for the funeral and say it wasn’t me?"

 

Marcella purses her lips. “Depends how permanent you were looking to make your retirement, sir. And we’ve got another problem."

 

“It gets worse than vengeful Chechens?"

 

“Only in proximity. They’ve been on my tail since Indianapolis, I had to ditch my car out of town. They don’t know where you live right now, but it’s only a matter of time.” She points at a suitcase that wasn’t in the back of their convertible before. “Can you give me a lift?"

 

“Yeah, sure, where you want to go, the airport? We’re a little short on boats and trains around here but I’m sure we can get you out of here some way,” Martin says conversationally, just like they’re any other travel plans. Debi wonders if this is what his casual conversations have been like for a while. 

 

“I’m more concerned about how soon you can get out of here. Probably not by plane, though. I’ll be fine flying, I just think they may be pulling some strings with some airport security people and you could get flagged."

 

“Get in,” Martin says, and Marcella hops in the back with her suitcase. Debi takes the passenger side. “We’re going to stop by the condo to grab our stuff, and on the way we’ll figure out how to split up."

 

“I’m not splitting up,” Debi responds immediately. “We’ve already been through shit together, I’m sticking with you."

 

“I’m not,” Marcella remarks. “No offense. I just know where I’m best, and it’s in some anonymous office relaying information over an encrypted line."

 

“And that’s where I’d prefer you, Marcella. I’ll need you to keep an ear to the ground and let me know what the Chechens are up to, if you can."

 

“I’ve still got some friends in the Russian embassy in L.A.,” Marcella assures him. “I can get them to give me a desk in a closet, can’t be much safer than there."

 

“How do you feel about a road trip, honey?” Martin asks as they go down the highway, shouting over the wind.

 

“Maybe in a different car, but sure, I’m up for it, sweet cheeks,” Debi yells back. 

 

By the time they’re off the highway, Debi is twisting around in her seat to talk to Marcella. “Did you and Martin sneak into the Russian embassy to kill a guy or something? Is that how you know people there?"

 

Marcella laughs. “I used to for the State Department. It’s a good chance to travel, but let me tell you, you won’t find so many Ivy League kids with graduate degrees competing for secretarial work anywhere else. When Martin killed the Italian diplomat I was assisting, the one who grabbed my ass too many times for me to count, I just asked him if he needed an assistant so I wouldn’t have to deal with the paperwork of being transferred again.”

 

“Marcella! You’re not supposed to bring up the Italian!” Martin looks pained.

 

“I also wasn’t good at keeping my mouth shut about US foreign policy I didn’t like, so my transfer options were limited to Burkina Faso, where I did actually spend some time,” Marcella continues faux-blithely. “This was about seven years ago.” 

 

Martin groans. Debi puts it together in her head. Martin had said he’d been in business for himself for five years.

 

Ah. 

 

“You should visit for more than just death threats,” Debi tells Marcella, grinning. “I want to hear more about your life one day."

 

“Absolutely,” Marcella says, “I’ll bring Martin’s cat for a visit. My sister adopted him, by the way, and she doesn’t want to give him up."

 

“The cat’s a him?” Debi asks. 

 

“Some people have no value for privacy,” says Martin.

 

~~~~~

 

In the end, they drive all the way to Little Rock to put Marcella on a redeye flight to Los Angeles, then store Debi’s convertible and acquire pickup truck instead, before they start heading east. Martin has an old safe house in Martinsville, Virginia. 

 

“You put your secure location in a town with your own name?” Debi asks. “Seriously?"

 

“See? You think it’s too dumb to even consider. That’s what makes it perfect."

 

“And still dumb,” Debi teases, leaning her head back. “Let me know if you want me to take over driving for a little while, I’m going to nap."

 

When she wakes up, the sun is just barely over the horizon. “I need to pee,” she tells Martin, “and you definitely need coffee. Want to find a gas station?” 

 

They’re in central Tennessee, and the convenience store has coffee that looks like it was brewed fairly recently, or at least within the past six hours. While Martin fills up the gas tank and tries to connect to Marcella, Debi uses the restroom and then gets two cups of coffee, a box of powdered donuts, and a bag of pork rinds, because they sound disgusting and she wants to give them to Martin. When she gets back out to the truck, Martin is on the phone. “Yeah, he started tailing us just outside of Memphis. Black Ford Escort. License plate is Kentucky, bravo-alpha-alpha, three-nine-oh-five. Could just be someone headed in the same direction, but he’s at the gas station across the street, so I wanted to make sure."

 

Debi slides back into the truck and puts the coffees in the cupholders in silence. So they have a follower. It was somehow more ominous that the day the men had come to kill her father; that, at least, had been a surprise. With this, just because she knows they’re in danger doesn’t mean she knows what’s on the road ahead of them. 

 

When Martin hangs up, his face is expressionless. “Seems like that’s our guy,” he says, motioning with his chin to a man pumping gas at a black sedan at the gas station across the road. “Labazanov’s younger brother, Ruman, he’s the one behind all this." Then his face changes. “Hey, you got me pork rinds? How did you even know?"

 

“What the fuck are pork rinds? How do you get the rind off a pig?"

 

“No idea,” says Martin, crunching on one after ripping open the bag. “I had to camp out in a barn waiting on a horse breeder to show up for ten hours once, I got addicted to these things. I don’t want to know what they’re made of."

 

“I’m not kissing you with those on your breath,” Debi warns him, and he swigs down some hot coffee. 

 

They keep heading east. 

 

~~~~~~

 

Their tail catches up with them in a rural landfill just across the West Virginia border, tapping their back bumper hard enough to make them veer off into a ditch. Martin pushes Debi out the passenger door and follows, pausing only to take spare ammunition from the glove box and shove it in his jacket pockets. He’s got a gun in a side holster that hasn’t moved since they left their condo more than twelve hours before. Together, they run through the woods, and Debi thinks they’ve nearly made it away when a spray of splinters is shot off a tree just in front of her, and she can’t help the startled shriek she lets out. 

 

The woods break on a green hill, the far side of which is nothing but gradually settling garbage. Martin swerves to avoid going over the edge of a garbage canyon wall, but Debi isn’t quite as lucky. Their pursuer dives, catching her legs, and she topples to the ground. By the time Martin sees what’s happened, the man has dragged Debi to her feet and has a gun pointed at her head. 

 

“Get over here,” Ruman Labazanov yells. “I kill you like you killed my brother, or I kill her and then I kill you."

 

“I didn’t kill your brother!” Martin yells back. “I don’t give a shit about your brother!"

 

“Maybe not the way to phrase that right now!” Debi shouts, acutely conscious of the gun on her. Martin is aiming just above her, and she’s confident in his ability to hit a target. But a paper target isn’t the barely contained energy of the man gripping her arm. 

 

“Let her go, we’ll talk about this, about how I wasn’t even in Chechnya last week or for years, I wouldn’t have killed your brother even if someone paid me because then I’d be enemies with everyone, and nobody paid me,” Martin counts off the reasons he didn’t kill anyone, walking slowly closer. Debi’s captor steps backwards, further out onto the trash. Something catches her eye, and while Martin keeps talking, she sags in the Chechen mercenary’s arms. “Also I’m not a professional anymore, I’m not in the business anymore, I don’t kill people for a living. Haven’t for over a month. Ask around, nobody’s hired me."

 

Debi’s fingers curl around the handle of a frying pan, sticking out of a pile of kitchen appliance debris.  

 

She’s been her own woman for years, on her own and making her own decisions. Then Martin Blank swept back into her life, and that was suspicious and great, and then she found out what he was and she wasn’t going to be his redemption story. She wasn’t going to be the girl that was just some plot device in his revelation about life. She was her own person, living her own story. And then he’d saved her and her father, without any real hope that she was in the mood to take him back, and she had turned out to be the turning point in his redemption, and he was finding this new life with her, and it was great.

 

But she could let him protect her forever, because she was the adoring side character in his story, or she could be who she always had been. 

 

She swings the frying pan upwards, hoping to any deity that will listen she doesn’t hit herself in her own goddamn face. One must hear her, because it connects with Labazanov’s nose, and he releases her arm to stagger back. With one look at Martin, she knows she needs to get out of the way, and she drops to the ground. 

 

Three shots ring out, echoing off the trees around them, and Labazanov drops the gun he’s been holding to Debi’s head and goes down backwards, then rolls down the steep hill like a broken doll. 

 

Debi tosses away the frying pan. "That's a good pan. Cast iron and everything. We should get a pan like that for our kitchen."

 

"We don't have a kitchen," Martin observes.

 

“Maybe we could get one of those too," Debi decides, trying to still the shaking of her hands. She breathes in through her nose, holds her breath, breathes out through her mouth; a few more times and she can almost feel like she hasn’t just had her life threatened again after twenty-eight years of absolutely no life-threatening experiences whatsoever. 

 

“You okay?” Martin asks. 

 

Debi forces a smile, but that doesn’t mean it’s a fake smile. They’re alive. “Yeah. I mean, ask me again in an hour if you want a completely true answer, but yeah, I’m okay.” 

 

He kisses her, quickly and urgently. “I’m not going to lose you again,” he promises, after he’s done.

 

“That’s not really up to you, but thanks for the sentiment.” She reaches for his hand and squeezes it for a second before dropping it again. “Should we do something about him?” She nods towards Labazanov, down the hill. Martin grimaces. 

 

“Yeah. The FBI are probably the only guys who might be interested in him, but we want to be on our way to somewhere else if they ever turn him up,” Martin says. “I’m gonna go see if I can do anything with him, you stay up here.” He picks up the gun that Labazanov dropped before he fell. “You take this, you remember what I taught you about where to point it and when to put your finger on the trigger—"

 

“Not at you, and only when I intend to shoot something,” Debi recites.

 

“Close enough,” says Martin. “Keep watch. I don’t want any other surprises while I’m taking care of him.” He half slides, half walks down the hill of trash towards the body. 

 

Debi tries to find the horror in herself that she had the first time she saw Martin with the body of someone he had killed, or when he told her he did it on a regular basis. That at points in his life he had liked killing people, or at least got satisfaction from a job well done. It was still awful that people could become stiffening, cooling meat in the blink of an eye, but that left Debi more sad than shocked or horrified. Ruman Labazanov had killed people before too, and had probably thought that having a piece of land or an ideology could justify killing people, killing kids. She didn’t hate that Martin had done what no legal system probably ever would have in any fair way. 

 

She pulls herself out of musing on morality and looks around to make sure no cars are approaching or that their attacker didn’t have any backup. They seem to be very much alone, here in the mountains. Somewhere on the horizon, a mountaintop was being strip-mined, but that seemed to be the only sign of nearby activity. 

 

When she looks down again, Labazanov is rolling over and pushing himself to sitting upright. Somehow three bullets in his chest didn’t finish him off completely, and they didn’t know about the second gun he pulls from a back holster beneath his jacket. Debi’s mouth is dry, so dry that her shout comes out as a croak, and Martin has his back to Labazanov as he tries to drag over an overturned sofa. 

 

Time seems to slow with the rise of her adrenaline as she raises the gun, heart pounding, and pulls the slide back to make sure there’s a round in the chamber, but not far enough back that it gets ejected, then thumbs off the safety. She still doesn’t have a finger on the trigger; she’s not ready. She braces the hand holding the gun with her other hand, and makes sure she’s standing on solid ground, and not on any garbage that will shift under her. Sighting down the barrel, she relaxes her shoulders, her back; she bends her elbows and holds the gun steady on Labazanov’s chest, and finally, finally, lets her finger rest on the trigger. 

 

She’s done all the things Martin taught her to do when they were at the shooting range, barely more than two days before but so long ago, now. She feels the focus settle over her that she felt when she put bullets through the bullseye of a target. But this isn’t a target: this is a man. This is a man who is raising a gun to kill the man she loves, a man who just threatened her life, a man who she firmly believes should not share the ability to walk the same planet she does. 

 

Debi doesn’t believe Ruman Labazanov shouldn’t be killed, but she also doesn’t believe that she is a person who can make that happen. “You don’t get to have me,” she had told Martin the night of the reunion, when she had stomped out of his life for what she thought would be forever, and god, had she meant it. Whatever changes he was thinking of making in his life, whatever his self-realization status was, it didn’t mean that he got to win her just because of it. She wasn’t something to be earned as a prize during his trip to redemption. She had chosen him after, yes, but that was on her. And now? His past didn’t get to have her, either. The habit of killing didn’t have to claim her, to become something that she did. Even if it was just for defense. The only targets she was ready to shoot were the kind that didn’t breathe to start with. 

 

See? Martin wasn’t the only one who could have a journey of self-discovery about the person you become after surviving the first years of adulthood.

 

Debi raises the gun slightly and fires over Labazanov’s head, then dives to the ground, using the slope of the hill as shelter. Martin instantly drops the couch, drawing his gun and turning. Labazanov had turned towards Debi’s shot, firing vaguely in her direction, and in doing so left himself open to Martin’s final shots. 

 

This time, he doesn't get up again: Martin makes sure he won’t. 

 

Debi launches herself up and trips down the sharp incline of garbage, ignoring the wetness on her cheeks and just hoping she slides directly into Martin. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she finds herself babbling when she gets to him, “I’m sorry I made you kill someone when you stopped, I’m sorry I couldn’t shoot him, I tried, I just couldn’t really shoot a person even someone like him, I’m sorry—"

 

He holds her firmly by the shoulders. “Hey. Hey, listen to me.” She nods and looks at him. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for. You figured out you couldn’t kill someone and you figured out something better to do instead."

 

Choking out a small laugh, she says, “So I’m doing better than you on prom night, then?"

 

“God, I should fucking hope so,” he says with fervor. “Hey, you want to help me move this couch over a dead body, then set the whole thing on fire?"

 

Debi considers. “That’s gross and you’re still kinda a psycho, but I think I can manage it."

 

Together, they haul the ancient sofa over and flip it upside down over the body. Martin pulls out a lighter. “Hopefully there’s enough methane venting in this place to explain a fire.” 

 

They don’t stick around to watch the couch go up in a blaze, but walk out on the level ground to find their way back to the car.

 

~~~~~

 

A week later, they’ve just arrived at a beach house in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. They haven’t stayed in one place too long because they want to make sure no one else comes looking for them, but Debi hopes that maybe, just maybe, they can linger here for bit. The house looks lovely, and there’s nothing but them and the ocean. 

 

Debi and Martin sit on the back of the car with his mobile phone on speakerphone with Marcella. “I had a talk with the Labazanovs, boss. It’s getting to be more clear that it was either a family matter or a hit from the Russians. Only one guy was real gung-ho on the idea of it being you, and you just put him in a landfill. His sister thanks you, by the way.” 

 

“Are we going to have to worry about her now?” Martin asks, frowning. 

 

“No, that wasn’t a sarcastic comment or anything, his sister really is glad, the guy left a bloody axe in her door once and kidnapped her son another time, so she’s got one less problem to deal with."

 

“We’re glad to have helped her out,” Debi says. “So we’re in the clear now?"

 

“Completely free and clear. Of these guys, anyway. I’ll let you know if I hear anything else."

 

“Marcella, it worries me that you’re still involved with all of this,” Martin says. 

 

“I’m not, really, I just made a lot of friends along the way. Well, people I yelled a lot at, anyway. Some of them still owe me favors. I like keeping in touch with ‘em, it’s more company than getting custody of your cat every other weekend."

 

Debi stifles a laugh. Martin is never getting his cat back. 

 

After goodbyes, Martin slides off the trunk and holds out a hand to help her down, which she doesn’t need but takes anyway. “I got you something,” he says, popping the trunk open and taking out something round wrapped in a towel. “Um, before you look at it—"

 

“No, I want a present,” Debi says firmly, taking it out of his hands, but she doesn’t unwrap it yet. It’s heavy. 

 

Martin gestures towards the beach house. “That house… it doesn’t have to be just a place to stay. I already proposed once, and no rush on answering that, you can take your time. But… if you wanted a kitchen to put a frying pan in, well, there’s a pretty nice kitchen in there.” He pulls the towel off her present.

 

It’s a cast-iron frying pan solid enough to brain someone with. 

 

“And if you want to share that kitchen, with me, we can do that,” he finishes. 

 

It’s the most romantic proposal she’s ever heard. Granted, she’s had three real ones: one from her ex-husband, who had to get really drunk to present her with a quarter-carat diamond, one from a stalker she had for a year, and then the time Martin shot up her house, killed a man with a television in the kitchen, and then leaned into the bathroom dripping his own and other people’s blood and asked her to marry him. Nobody’s ever asked her to be their partner in potential frying-pan bludgeoning before. 

 

“Yeah," she says, “yeah, I would like that. A lot. A real house and kitchen of our own."

 

“And a dog,” Martin says. “I want a dog to be really nice to. A rescue dog. I’ve got some karma to make up for."

 

“We can get a dog,” Debi says, and kisses him.