All it took to change my mind was Imogen Hollow.
If not for the poor marksmanship of a Taliban sorcerer’s sniper, I might never have met her. For that matter, if his aim had been a hair worse I might not have met another birthday. I’ve heard that called fate, or God, or destiny. I call it sheer dumb luck.
It was in my eleventh month in Afghanistan. I was three weeks short of going home when our convoy was ambushed escorting medical supplies to a hospital in Jalalabad. I took a bullet in my left shoulder that was probably meant for the driver next to me, and a sizable portion of my left leg was broken when the second bullet didn’t miss and our Humvee flipped over.
I’ve got a touch of training in combat thaumaturgy myself and happened to have precisely enough juice in me for a well-aimed Newtonian exponential amplification. He was a stripe of blood and viscera on the sand in nothing flat. Our unit mage got the rest of them while I was napping under about 5,500 pounds of motor vehicle, but that was that. The combat career of Sergeant Josephine Worth, over and out.
I spent six weeks in a VA hospital in Richmond, Virginia before they let me out on my own. My dad left me a not insignificant amount of money when he kicked the bucket, so I packed everything I owned in the backseat of my Honda Civic, drove up to Washington and went about hunting for an apartment and a job.
Temporary lodgings were easy enough to come by. I got a rent-by-the-week, fully furnished studio outside the city in Alexandria and started scouring the Web for job opportunities for ex-Hospital Corpsmen with bum arms and limps. EMT work was out, considering my leg and shoulder. If I went back to school I knew I could swing a nursing degree, but I wasn’t willing to coast on Dad’s money for rent and tuition both, so that was me back around to job-hunting.
A few months later I got the cast cut off my leg and my arm out of the sling. I’d landed a stopgap job working security at a local bank. The pay wasn’t terrible. If I could just get a roommate, I could shuffle my budget enough to afford school.
All in all, I was doing alright, if you disregard the nightmares and shakes and constant pain and slight tendency towards aggression when startled. I’ve never been a fan of therapists, and war didn’t change my mind. I still prefer the old-school method of suckin’ it up and shuttin’ your mouth.
So I did. I limped into work, stood in the corner, and stared at the people moving in and out without seeing. I felt myself go to rot a little bit more every day, mind and body both.
Now, don’t tell this to the cops. Or the press. Or anybody, really. It’s not the kind of thing people like to see from someone who often works for the criminal justice system, no matter how true it may be.
Whatever anyone thinks of me for saying it, the theft of the Eleazar manuscript was the best thing that ever happened to me.
It didn’t start so fantastically. After all, “On the ground, hands in the air” is not a sentence a girl longs to hear on her first day of a job, particularly when that girl’s a jumpy combat veteran.
They came in well-planned. They broke out the guns not five minutes after the security shift changed over, and judging from the direction the first of them came from I had a feeling my relief had been neutralized.
I probably wouldn’t have even been in the building if I hadn’t gotten slowed down dropping my focus totem after changing. Like an idiot, I put it in my pocket instead of back around my neck. Not that it would’ve made much of a difference. I saw them drawing maybe half a second too late to get it out of my pocket.
The lot of us were herded into an office, where they left three of the seven of them to stand guard. Right off the bat they demanded we empty our pockets and hand over all our purses, wallets, backpacks, et cetera. Once, I might’ve been able to palm my totem. But nerve damage in your dominant arm means clumsy fingers, and I didn’t fancy being the first hostage shot. So I dropped my little obsidian wolf into someone’s handbag, settled down in a corner with my legs stretched out in front of me and took a look around.
We were thirteen: eight men and five women, plus our three new friends with the masks and guns. No crying kids or little old ladies, thankfully; everybody looked between twenty and sixty. No wheelchairs, asthma attacks or seizures so far. More likely than not, the biggest cripple in the room was yours truly. Oh how the mighty fall.
Next to me was a thin, dark-haired woman in a purple sundress. She stuck in my head for some reason, and I didn’t cotton on to why until I realized I was clenching and unclenching my hands into fists to work out the tension in my limbs, but she...
She wasn’t scared.
Everyone else was wide-eyed and shaky, or crying quietly into their hands, or looking round wildly for an escape route they knew damn well they wouldn’t take. I myself have to own up to being scared shitless. You get used to guns at your head in a war zone, but it’s different at home. But this woman in the purple was calm. Still.
Her eyes flicked towards me and back at the guards. She sighed. “I’m not an accomplice,” she said in a low voice.
I gave a start and swiveled my head a half-turn towards her. I like to keep armed threats in at least my peripheral vision. “What makes you—”
“You’re ex-military, Marines, at a guess, and medical. Some thaumaturgy too. You’ve been surveying the room in a fashion that implies training for hostage situations. Naturally you would notice me, as I do not look much like a hostage. The assumption follows.”
At any other moment, that bit of showing-off and knowing-too-much would’ve severely weirded me out at the least. Like I said, I keep my nose out of where it doesn’t belong, and I’m not a huge fan of people who don’t. I find that the people who are tend to wind up hurt in numerous and varied ways. Generally, when confronted with the overly-inquisitive, I bid them a good day and get the hell out.
That wasn’t really an option at this point.
I cleared my throat. “Okay. Then what are you?”
“Depends on which psychiatrist you ask,” she said, frowning at the door.
“Can I get the Cliffnotes?”
She met my gaze for the first time. I noticed her eyes right off the bat: green, startlingly so, almost bright enough to unnerve.
“Let’s just say I’m...moderately abnormal.”
And she grinned.
Three men ready to punch her full of holes, trapped in a tiny room with thirteen terrified people, and she grinned. I almost pulled away right there, back into my own business, minding my own problems.
Instead, I grinned back.
She answered my question before I asked. “Imogen,” she said. “Imogen Hollow.”
“Now,” she said, narrowing her eyes at our captors, “how are we going to get your totem back and light these bastards on fire?”
DC’s finest made their appearance ten minutes later. Through the glass door I could see one of the robbers with a phone to his ear. He’d set his gun down on the counter next to him. Negotiations had begun, then. Go time.
I let forth with a terrible gasp, clutched my chest, and proceeded to feign the least accurate asthma attack this world has ever seen.
Hey, I never said I was an actress.
Thankfully, the frightening gentlemen in charge of pointing guns at us did not appear to know what an asthma attack is supposed to look like, and were appropriately alarmed at the sight of one of their hostages apparently suffocating to death.
I gestured at the table and tried to vaguely indicate the purse my totem had wound up in. “Inhaler—in—” I took another shuddering breath.
Imogen Hollow raised her hand. “I-I’m a nurse,” she stammered. “I—don’t shoot, please, I’m a nurse, I can—I know what an inhaler—”
The gunmen exchanged a look and shrugged. One of them raised his gun and pointed it at Imogen. “Get it fast and sit back down.”
“Okay, okay, okay.”
She picked her way over the people around the floor and rummaged through the pile of bags. I let out a few more melodramatic wheezes and a nasty cough or two.
“I-I-I got it, here, I have it, I—”
She tripped over someone’s outstretched leg and went down, coming down hard. Something flew out of her hand and skidded across the floor. I trapped it under my hand and shut my eyes.
Your first week of basic training, you’re given a list of thaumaturgical equations you’ve got to memorize and informed that from this day out, you’ll be sleeping with a totem and tracking precisely how much power is stored in it at any given moment.
At that point, you’re young and don’t know how to keep your mouth shut. You’ll probably bitch about how hard it is to memorize all the funny numbers and how much tireder you are in the mornings when you’re letting an attuned focus totem siphon off the potential energy you accumulate in sleep. You’ll dream of punching your CO in the nose after the ninth time you’re running a mile in the rain because it took you a minute to remember how much was left in your totem after you burned a chunk of it up walking across a lake.
Then your buddy gets shot through the gut and realize you don’t even have to think to remember the precise calculations that will staunch the bleeding without sealing his intestines up backwards. You can pull from your totem without fearing you won’t have enough energy to stitch up the next guy, because you know exactly how much you have and how much you’ve just used.
I take particular pride in my ability to jam three Smith and Wesson .38’s in under a second.
Obsidian totems don’t glow, but I felt it heat up in my hand just in time.
Three guns clicked. Several woman screamed.
I sighed and hung my totem around my neck. We’d gotten close, my little wolf and I.
“Well done Jo,” Imogen said. She got her feet under her, patting me on the shoulder as she went. “Real good job. Oh, and you might want to just go ahead and put the guns down. The local police seem to have mysteriously discovered your, ah, equipment malfunction.” She pulled a cell phone from the front of her dress, tossed it in the air and caught it with a grin.
One of the men took a step towards her, raising his revolver threateningly. She caught him by the wrist and twisted his arm around, not quite hard enough for him to drop it, but enough to render a pistol-whip difficult.
“My friend,” she said patiently, “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s an angry thaumaturgist in the room.”
“I’ve got nineteen serts of energy to go,” I chipped in.
“Are you sure you want to—ah. Too late.”
There came the sounds of doors banging open and police shouting from the lobby. Imogen released the man’s arm.
“If you’d like to go surrender, I’m sure that’d be helpful.”
She gave him a little shove away from her just before the office door burst open and half a dozen shouting policemen with guns poured in.
“On the ground! Hands in the air!”
I relished the irony.
As they cuffed our captors and perp-walked them to the waiting police cars, Imogen grabbed my shoulder and hauled me to my feet.
“You. I like you. Come with me.”
I blinked. “Um—”
She sighed. “The robbers. I know what they were here for, and they’ll have gotten away. Come on.”
She huffed. “I can’t prove anything here. You’ll have to trust me.”
“For the—I risked my life to save yours, is that enough? Now come on!”
She pushed past the paramedics escorting the other captives outside, keeping hold of my sleeve all the while.
It was never really in question, I think. I was always going to follow her. As to whether or not I ever came to regret it? Now that is still in question.