Authors: M.P. McDonald
March Into Hell
BY M.P. McDonald
Copyright January 2011 by M.P. McDonald
Published by M.P. McDonald
Cover art by Imogen Rose
Mark Taylor clenched his jaw in an attempt to bite back the anger and hurt. He turned his back, unable to watch as she packed her bags. Already the apartment seemed emptier, as though all the energy had been sucked out. He wandered to the dresser and picked up the photo of the two of them in front of the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. What a great day that had been, his first carefree day in almost two years.
He faced her. "Why? Can you give me that much, Jess?"
She paused as she zipped the suitcase, her blond hair forming a curtain
that hid her face
from his view, but he heard the catch in her voice. "I just need some time to clear my head."
After closing the suitcase, she tossed her hair over her shoulder. The tears swimming in
tore at him, and if he could take away her pain, he'd do it in a flash.
"It's not you, Mark." She bit her lip, her expression wavering as she spread her arms. "It's everything. The camera, your CIA job, the dreams...I thought I could handle it, but I was wrong."
"It's not really a job, I only pass along info that might be important, and the other stuff...you knew about all that. Hell, you're the one who urged me to start using the camera again."
"I wish you hadn't listened to me."
She hauled the biggest bag off the bed, and out of habit, he moved to help her, but halted. If she wanted to move out, he couldn't stop her, but damned if he was going to help.
"I'll pay my part of the rent for the next couple of months; by then you should be able to find a roommate or someone to sub-let the loft."
"I don't want to move and I sure as hell don't want a roommate." Mark flung the picture onto the bed, but the soft thump of the frame hitting the pillow lacked the power to assuage his anger and hurt, and he immediately regretted his show of anger when she flinched.
He approached her and caressed her cheek, looping her hair over one ear like she did so often. "I
a roommate." Mark pulled her forward and kissed her forehead, closing his eyes as he drank in the light floral scent of her skin and hair. "I'll wait."
Tears tracked down her cheeks as she pulled away. "I'm sorry, Mark. You don't deserve this...but I feel like I'm trapped in a spy novel or something. Clandestine meetings, coded phone calls...and don't get me started on your future photos."
It always came back to the camera. Everything that went wrong in his life the last four years stemmed from his use of the damn future-capturing camera, and yet, he'd tried to put it aside--tried to ignore it. He couldn't. It was like an addiction. If he went more than a few days without using the camera, he was plagued with confusing nightmares of people dying. Surreal mixed up nightmares that left him in a cold sweat. During the day, he was jumpy and irritable--like a crack addict in withdrawal. Jessie knew that.
"What do you expect of me, Jess? You're a detective, your work isn't so much different. Would you just ignore clues and let a murderer go free just because doing your job might interfere with your personal life?"
"Of course not; but that's different.” She tapped her chest. “That's my job."
"Well, dealing with the future photos," he thumped his own chest, "is
They glared at each other in a standoff. The battle had been brewing for the last few months, beginning when Mark developed a photo that showed a shootout at a high school. In trying to prevent it, there had been a skirmish, and he'd been slightly injured. That was only four months after the Wrigley Field incident, and now she was skittish whenever he developed a future picture.
She shook her head, her arms dropping to her sides. "I give up. Yours isn't the same as my job, but you won't see that. I have backup." She began ticking off on her fingers as she continued, "I have regulations, training, procedures--procedures that have been tested. At the high school thing, you decided that police weren't doing enough and took out the shooter yourself. Instead of just breaking your arm, you could have been killed. You...you just rush in all by yourself, like you're back in the Wild West."
Mark recoiled as the sarcasm in her voice speared through him. Is that how she saw him: as a maverick cowboy? He held his hands up and stepped back. "You're wrong, but I guess you've already made up your mind."
Turning, he stalked out to the living room and stared out the window. He was losing her...again, only he couldn't blame the government this time. This time, they weren't torn apart by outside forces. Now, it was personal.
* * *
It didn't make sense. Mark tossed the collapsible light reflector into the back of his van where it bounced off his other camera equipment. He slammed the tailgate down and strode to the driver's door and climbed in. With a squeal of tires, he backed out of his parking spot. A passer-by jumped back as Mark roared past, and chagrined, Mark tapped the brakes, feeling foolish for driving like a reckless idiot. At the first red light, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, allowing the air to ease out. In the month since Jessie had left, he'd felt off balance, adrift. She'd been his anchor, his safe harbor.
He opened his eyes and watched the cross traffic whiz past him. As difficult as it was, he had to quit thinking about her. Yeah. Right. Might as well think about not breathing while he was at it.
He fished in his pocket for his cell phone and called the studio as he accelerated on the green light. Voice-mail answered, and he left a message, "Hey, Lil, I have one more thing to do, then I'll be back to close up."
Lily Martin had been an acquaintance before his time in prison. She'd worked some of the same jobs he did when big events called for multiple photographers. He'd always gotten along well with her, and one day she'd come into the camera shop where he'd worked. After some brief catching up, where he'd skimmed over the prison issue, she'd asked him if he was still shooting. After that, she began calling him with jobs she couldn't take on. For the last four months, they'd been partners in a studio. It worked out beautifully and to top it off, there was a vacant loft above the studio where he and Jessie had moved.
Everything had been going great, which left him even more confused about why Jessie had left. No sooner had he put his phone back in his pocket and contemplated grabbing some Chinese food for dinner, when his phone rang. He checked the number that flashed on the screen.
Lily. His shoulders slumped. After a month of no calls, he should be over expecting that every time his phone rang it would be Jessie, and it wasn't like he didn't like Lily. She just wasn't Jessie.
"Hey, Mark. I just got back to the studio and there are at least a half dozen messages from some reporter named Denise Jeffries."
A reporter? Had someone finally decided to print a story about how his name was cleared in the enemy combatant thing? Part of him wished for some public acknowledgment, but the rational part wanted the whole thing to go away forever--to be forgotten by everyone on Earth, including him. "What does she want?"
Lily sounded puzzled. "She didn't really say on the messages. Just said it was important and for you to call her back as soon as possible."
"Okay, I'll call her when I get back to the studio. I was just going to pick up some Chinese food for dinner, and then head back to develop my film."
"If you pick up enough for two, I'll keep you company while you eat, and I'll even help you develop the pictures."
She sounded innocent, but Mark wasn't fooled. He laughed. "You're just curious to know what the reporter wants. Admit it."
He heard the smile in her voice as she answered, "You better believe it, and if I can get a free meal and satisfy my curiosity at the same time..."
"Sure. I'll even get some of those stinky egg rolls you love so much."
"I think I love you," she said, her tone light and teasing
Mark smiled. "Yeah, right. See you in a bit."
He brightened at the prospect of not having to eat alone. If the timing had been right, he might have seen Lily in a romantic light. Her bright red hair that she wore in tousled spikes gave her a fun look matched by the sparkle in her green eyes. He had met her years ago though, and at the time, she had a steady boyfriend. Later, when they had partnered up in business, he'd had Jessie. Neither had anyone at the moment, but it was too late; they'd grown into a comfortable friendship.
Twenty minutes later, he plopped the bag of food onto his desk in the office of the studio. Lily was at her own desk retouching photos on the computer. Mark found that aspect of the job tedious and was thankful that she loved doing it. She wasn't crazy about photographing kids and babies, so he took most of those shoots. It worked out well.
Lily glanced up. "I have the trays set up in the dark room. You want to do your special photos now or after we eat?"
"After. Not much point in rushing to develop them since I won't know details until I go to sleep anyway."
It was the other thing he loved about Lily. She accepted that his first priority lay with changing the photos and the dreams. Before he agreed to go into business with her, he'd told her about the camera. After not telling anyone the first few years he'd had it, and then getting locked up as an enemy combatant, he'd learned his lesson. He shared the information with a few people now. It lightened the burden.
She thought it was wild that he dreamed about the photos and had asked him all kinds of questions at first. Questions like how did he remember the dreams? How did he know they weren't just regular dreams? Did he have to do anything specific when he looked at the photos, like meditate or pray or anything? She had offered to try and meditate on a few, hoping to have the dreams too, but it hadn't worked.
The first few times he'd used the camera or changed an outcome when she was with him, she'd been in awe. Now, it was old hat.
"Sounds good. I'm starved." She stretched her arms above her head. "Oh, wait. Don't forget to call that reporter chick." After a bit of rifling through papers and proofs, she dug the paper out from under her coffee cup and thrust it towards him.
"Reporter chick?" Mark chuckled as he took the paper, wiping it on his jeans to get rid of the ring left by the cup. "Is that who I should ask for?" He sat at his desk and pulled the phone close, opting not to use his personal cell phone.
"Smart ass. Her name is right there." The twinkle in her eyes belied the false toughness in her words.
Mark nodded and winked before dialing the number. It was answered after just one ring.
Surprised at the quick answer he stuttered, "Ah--uh, yeah. This is Mark Taylor. I had a message from a Ms. Jeffries?"
"Yes, this is Denise Jeffries. I'm a reporter with the Tribune. I have a few questions, if you don't mind." She didn't wait to find out if Mark minded or not. "I found some very interesting tidbits about you while researching a Good Samaritan."
The hairs on the back of Mark's neck swept up in a chill. "Tidbits?"
"Yes. For instance, you're the same Mark Taylor who was held as an enemy combatant."
It was a statement, not a question, so Mark kept silent.
"Hello?" Jeffries sounded as if she expected some kind of confirmation of the information.
Mark shot a look at Lily, who made no pretense about not listening. She'd pulled her chair right up to the desk and had her chin in her hand, her eyes glued to him.
Uncomfortable under the scrutiny, he glanced away. "I'm still here."
"Well what? You didn't ask me a question."
"Ah, I see. Can you confirm that you are the same man who was held as an American enemy combatant?"
"Yes. That's true." Mark felt Lily watching him, but he kept his eyes averted. She knew about his time spent in prison, but he rarely spoke of it.
"And...? Why did they let you out?"
He clamped his lips into a hard line as he felt anger build. "No comment."
"No comment? But according to the records, you were held for fifteen months, and from what I've learned about enemy combatants, it couldn't have
been an easy time
His release had been secured, but he'd had to sign a statement that he wouldn't go public about his experience. Since he'd been eager to forget it anyway, the silence contract had been easy to keep. "Sorry. No comment. Now, if that's all--"
"No! Wait, I have some other things I'd like to ask you."
Taking his silence for a go ahead, Jeffries launched into an avalanche of questions. "You were injured when you interfered with an undercover officer making an arrest back in early 2001. Is that true?"
She sounded exasperated when she said, "I have a whole string of similar incidents that I've found. The incidents are spread over the city, and it seems I'm the only one who connected them back to you."