Slowly, Justin realized that he was regaining consciousness. But where? he wondered. As the darkness faded from his mind, he became aware of voices above him. Opening his eyes, he saw the grinning faces of Leland and Aaron, two of his Guardian buddies, looking down on him.
“Where am I?” he asked them, raising his head slightly and trying to look around.
“Where are you,” replied Leland. “Well, right now, you’re laying on your back in the middle of a forest clearing.”
Letting his head fall back to the ground, Justin could not keep the tears from spilling out of his eyes. “That means I’ve failed,” he said. “Somehow, I did something wrong, and I’ve failed.”
Leland and Aaron looked at each other and smiled even more broadly.
“I wouldn’t tell the hospital that, ” said Aaron. “Right now they think they’ve just had the most miraculous recovery in the history of medicine.”
Justin snapped his head back up from the ground. “You mean she’s alive? ” he asked in wonder.
“Oh, she’s alive all right,” replied Leland, “much to the chagrin of the doctor who is at this moment getting an earful of why he needs to release her, posthaste. To wit: ‘I feel perfectly fine, thank you. In fact, I’ve never felt better in my life, thank you. And I see no reason for hanging around here just so you medical types can spend the next day or so running more tests and making more money from a perfectly healthy body just so you can tell me what I already know…thank you.’ Now, if you’ll give me your hand buddy, I’ll help you up off your back. ”
Justin did so.
“Great,” he said, suddenly. “Samantha’s alive and well, and I’ve got no way of getting to her any time soon.”
“Aaron and I run a taxi service on the side.”
“You’ve got a car?” asked Justin, looking around.
“Better than that,” said Aaron. “Take my hand and don’t let go. I would hate to lose you along the way.”
Justin took his hand, and suddenly had the same sensation he had the first time he tried his Vision power. Looking around when the sensation passed, he was not surprised to find himself standing outside of the hospital.
“This good enough for you?” chuckled Leland.
As soon as Arnold Curtis learned of Samantha’s hospitalization, he saw a door of opportunity opening. Of course it was sad-for her and her family, anyway-that she was in the hospital. For him, it presented a chance to insert himself further into her relationship with Billings. He would buy some flowers, and give them to her personally at the hospital. Her family would probably be there to witness the event, which would be good for him. And if Billings happened to be there also, so much the better.
On his way to the hospital-with the bought and paid for flowers lying on the back seat of the car-he went over the upcoming scenario in his mind. He saw himself walking into the room, flowers in hand and, of course, a humble look on his face. ‘Hi,’ he would say to her parents, ‘I go to school with Samantha.’ Then, showing her the flowers, he would offer a simple apology for his behavior that one day at school. Of course, her parents would be curious as to what he was referring to, so he would explain, then apologize to them also for the way he had treated their daughter. How to word the apology, though, he wondered. I was a…dork? Jerk? Heel? Boorish? I was boorish? Yes, he liked that one. ‘I was boorish, and I’m sorry.’ There was a certain nobleness to the word that the other words lacked. Turning the music on the radio up a little louder, he pumped his fist in the air a couple of times. This should more than make up for the setback he had suffered in the hallway that day at school, he thought, happily.
As Justin walked into the hospital, he decided that after seeing Samantha, he would give the Barbers a call in case they hadn’t heard the news yet. Then, anxious to see her, he increased his pace.
“Hey, Lady Fair,” he impathed. “How are you doing now?”
“Where are you?” she asked.
“On the way to your room, as we speak,” he told her.
“Good,” she replied. “The stupid doctor won’t let me out, although he did agree to let more than one person at a time in here. That helps.”
“Smart man not letting you out,” Justin told her. “Doesn’t want that wicked sense of humor of yours to inflict the rest of humanity.”
“I missed you,” she told him.
“Only for thirty seconds more, you have,” he replied.
“Justin’s on his way up,” Samantha announced happily to the room. “He’ll be here in about thirty seconds.”
Smiling tolerantly, knowing that their daughter must be confused, Ian explained, “He’s still in Prospect. When I called the Barbers to tell them the good news, they said that Justin was in the forest, and that they would bring him here as soon as he called. He had Lloyd’s cell phone.”
Samantha looked at her father, and smiled sweetly. “Fifty bucks, Pops. Bet?”
“Bet,” said Ian, positively. “and this is going to be the easiest fifty bucks I’ve ever-”
“Hey all,” said Justin cheerfully as he walked into the room.
“You know,” said Ian after recovering from his surprise, “you could have been less cheerful when you walked in here. Your fiancé just took fifty bucks off me.”
“Ah, dad,” requested Samantha, “would you and mom mind getting lost for awhile? Justin and I have some catching up to do that requires the absence of an audience. Thanks.”
Looking at his wife, Ian said, “I have a sudden craving for a cafeteria snack. How about you?”
“I was just thinking the same thing,” she replied.
After they left, Justin pulled a chair up to the bed and sat down, holding her hand.
“You look a lot better than when I was last here,” he told her.
“I’m famous,” Samantha told him. “The doctor says I made one of the most miraculous recovery’s he’s ever seen, or heard of.”
Justin smiled at her comment. Someday, maybe he would tell her about it, but not today. Today, he was going to bask in the happiness that they were both alive, and that they would be spending the rest of their lives together. “The miracles of modern medicine I guess,” he said.
“Maybe so,” said Samantha. “Now, are you going to kiss me, or do I have to lay here and pout?”
On purpose, Arnold Curtis had gone borderline lavish on the bouquet. What he had aimed for was something in the really nice category. He had succeeded, he thought, quite brilliantly. He had to believe that if Justin had given Samantha flowers at all, they would not measure up to what he was bringing her.
The first snag in his plan occurred as he was passing the nursing station. As soon as they saw the bouquet, they informed him in polite but stern words that no flowers were allowed in the room. Reasoning with them got him nowhere. Neither did getting a little upset and informing them of just how much he had paid for the bouquet. Reluctantly, he left it at the nurse’s station for, as they informed him smilingly, everyone to enjoy.
Not pleased that he had lost the use of the flowers, he stepped into Samantha’s room. As he had hoped, not only was Samantha’s family there, but Billings also. Though his plan would not go as well without the bouquet, he thought he could still pull it off.
“I hope I’m not intruding,” he told them, then offered, “but if I am, I can leave.” Naturally, everyone-including Justin-assured him that he was welcome to stay.
“I brought a bouquet with me,” he informed them, “but they wouldn’t let me bring it in the room.” Turning his attention to Samantha, he said, humbly, “the bouquet was meant as an apology for my boorish actions in school the other day.”
“I smell a rat in the works,” Samantha impathed to Justin. “This guy doesn’t know when to quit.”
“I’ll get rid of him,” Justin told her. “Tell him how much you appreciate his thoughtfulness.”
“Oh, how sweet of you. Don’t you think that was nice of him, Justin?”
“Yes I do,” Justin replied to Arnold. “It takes a big person to admit when they’ve done something wrong. Too bad she can’t see the flowers.”
“Now ask me to go out and look at the flowers so that I can describe them to you,” he impathed Samantha again.
Struggling to keep from laughing out loud, Samantha said, “Justin, would you be a dear and go look at the flowers he brought me? I think it would be rude if at least one of us didn’t admire them.”
Justin did so, and was back within 15 seconds.
“Very nice,” he said to everyone in general. “I’m not a horticultural expert, but they look good to me.”
“I appreciate your thoughtfulness, Arnold,” Samantha told him, “and I wish you could stay longer, but we have some family things to discuss. Thank you for coming to visit me.”
“Yes,” said Justin, “thank you for coming. I’ll see you to the door.”
On his way out the open door, Arnold paused, giving Justin the coldest glare he could manage. “This isn’t over yet,” he said softly.
Justin smiled and winked. “Later champ,” he said.
As soon as door was closed, Samantha began giggling almost uncontrollably. “I’m not a horticultural expert, but they look good to me,” she repeated Justin’s description.
“Yeah,” said Justin. “I don’t think he liked that very much.”
Clearing his throat to get their attention, Ian asked, “Can someone please tell me what that was all about? ”
After dropping Justin off, Leland and Aaron returned to the clearing.
“Aaron and I run a taxi service on the side?” said Aaron, mimicking Leland’s statement to Justin.
“Well, how would you explain what we just did for Justin?”
After thinking for a minute, Aaron answered, “I guess that describes it as well as anything. And now that they are living happily ever after, are we ready to return to the office?”
“The office?” repeated Leland dryly. “Make fun of my taxi service statement, then ask if we are ready to return to ‘the office’. But yes, we are returning. By the way, I’m going to speak to the council when we get back, and I’d like you to accompany me.”
“I’m honored,” said Aaron, seriously. “I’ve never had occasion to meet with them before. What will we be doing?”
“I’ve given this a lot of thought. You may recall that in one of our earlier team meetings, I talked about the Battle Team wanting to take care of Cerberus.”
“Yes, I remember that.”
“I said that in order to do so, we had to have an outrageously good reason.”
Chuckling, Aaron said, “and I also remember you stating that Justin and Samantha’s resourcefulness had made that a very difficult, if not impossible, task.”
“I’d say that impossible has become the operative word for that now,” Leland informed him. “The trouble is, he and Samantha are just going to continue getting better at it. However, I think I can use that to our advantage when we address the council. Your inspiration to make them official team members may prove to be the biggest help of all.”
Aaron smiled. “Good to see that one of my offbeat ideas is actually going to have a practical use.”
“Let’s hope so. Now, shall we get back to the, ah, office?”
Though it was nearly midnight, Samantha was still awake. She still didn’t remembered much of what had happened after she was shot. She remembered Justin pleading loudly with her to talk to him, and saying something about transferring her to an ambulance. She was aware of a long time passing, like drifting in a foggy nothingness. Then at the end, suddenly feeling life returning to her, bringing her out of the fog and into full consciousness-very full consciousness, actually. Within minutes of realizing where she was, she had wanted to pull all the tubes and other paraphernalia that she was attached to, out of her body and get on with living.
An impath message. “Hello sister of mine,” she replied back. “What’s up?”
“Sister Charity and I would like to visit you in person. Would that be okay?”
Laughing, Samantha asked, “Sneaking out of the dorm after midnight are we?”
Returning her laugh, Sister Isabelle said, “We didn’t want to startle you, was all. And there’s no such thing as night in heaven.”
“Touché,” said Samantha. “Now show yourselves.”
After a few seconds, they appeared in the room.
“I want to learn how to do that,” said Samantha, then suggested that they continue to impath instead of talking out loud. “If the nurses think I’m talking to myself, they might keep me in here longer.”
“We can’t stay long,” Sister Charity told her. “We had to see for ourselves how you’re doing.”
“Yes,” said Isabelle, “that was one of the most noble and romantic acts of courage I have ever heard of.”
Confused, Samantha asked them, “What did I do that was so noble and romantic?”
“Not you,” said Isabelle. “Justin. Didn’t he tell you?”
“Tell me what?”
“It figures,” said Charity. “Trust men to stay tight-lipped about the romantic stuff-and he was doing so well up until now.”
They told Samantha about Justin going to the clearing, and about what happened there. Samantha only interrupted them once. “Do you mean to tell me,” she asked, “that he could have died by giving me his life force?”
“Yes,” said Isabelle, “and he knew it. In fact, he went into the clearing assuming that’s exactly what would happen. According to Brother Aaron, Justin’s last words before passing out were, ‘Forgive me, Lady Fair, but you deserve to live more than I do.’ Isn’t that just totally romantic?”
“So, Justin has superpowers,” said Connie.
“Yeah,” replied Lloyd. “Now we know how Superman’s parents must have felt.”
“The difference being that Superman is a fictional character.”
To Senior Angel Aaron’s surprise, the building the council met in was much smaller than he expected. Informing Leland of his observation, Leland replied, “You’ll find that none of them puts on airs. I asked them one time why they didn’t have a bigger building. They told me that it was a meeting place, not some palace to show everyone how important they are.”
“Come in, come in,” said one of the council members pleasantly. They were seated at a half-round table, shaped like a capital ‘D’, the council occupying the twelve chairs around the half-circle of the table. “Brother Leland, it’s good to see you again, and Brother Aaron, it’s nice to finally meet you. You’ll find that we’re not real big on ceremony here. Take a seat, brethren. Now, what can we do for you?”
“I would like to begin with a brief summary,” Leland said. “As you know, for some time my Battle Team and I have had an interest in a mortal by the name of Cerberus. In his sphere of influence, this man has been the cause of much suffering and wickedness on earth. All of you, I believe, have read my team’s report on this man?” Most of the twelve nodded their heads in acknowledgement. Leland continued, “Not long ago, I was temporarily assigned to Aaron’s Guardian team, where I became acquainted with the excellent work they are doing with Justin Billings and Samantha McCallen. My Battle Team and I have since uncovered information which links Justin with Cerberus.”
Leland noticed that the council became more alert upon hearing his last statement. Leland told them of the altercation Justin had with Cerberus and the resulting animosity Cerberus developed towards Justin.
“As a result,” he said, “three attempts have been made on the lives of Samantha and Justin. The last attempt nearly succeeded. Samantha ended up in the hospital, and may very well have died had it not been for Justin giving his life force to her. Because of his unselfish act, he was granted new life.”
Leland paused as the council looked at each other. They all knew who had allowed Justin to give his life force to another, just as they knew who had granted Justin new life.
Continuing, Leland said, “I tell you this because I know that Cerberus will not cease in his efforts to take Justin’s life, and probably Samantha’s also. As a side note, Justin recently proposed marriage to Samantha, and she has accepted. And that, brethren, is the situation as it now stands. I believe that Brother Cornelius recently informed you of the two new additions to Senior Angel Aaron’s team?”
Council heads again nodded in acknowledgement.
“Thus, besides the new gifts they have, Justin and Samantha are also honorary Guardian Angels. With their gifts, I believe that Justin and Samantha have the potential of doing much good on the earth. More so, perhaps, then even a guardian angel could, because they can react directly with other mortals, instead of indirectly as Guardians do. And, I think that they will be most effective if they don’t have to worry about who Cerberus is sending after them next.”
Leland paused, sweeping the council members briefly with his eyes. “I am here at this time,” he said, “to ask that my Battle Team and I be allowed to put a stop to Cerberus. Our feeling is that evicting the evil that’s in him should be sufficient. No loss of life will be necessary. Thank you for considering my request.” Leland leaned back in his chair, signifying that he was finished.
“Thank you Brother Leland,” said one of the council members. “The words of a Battle Angel always carry weight with us, as you know. Brother Aaron, do you have anything you would like to add to what Leland has said?”
“Actually, there is something I would like to say. As a Guardian, I had several dealings with Justin in the years before he turned his life around. Without going into detail, I will say that I was less than impressed. But now, and even greater than the distaste I felt towards the old Justin, is the admiration and respect I have developed for the new Justin. As much as I’m looking forward to having him and Samantha on my team permanently, I fully support Leland’s request that it happen later rather than sooner. And if I may point out the obvious, the fact that Justin was given new life indicates to me that this new life was meant to be a long and productive one. I submit that he and Samantha will make it a productive life if we do our part to ensure that it’s a long life. That’s all I have to say. Thank you.”
“And thank you, Brother Aaron. Both you and Brother Leland had made very compelling presentations. As you pointed out, Justin was granted new life, a gift that this council is certainly not going to trample down by inaction on our part. Battle Angel Leland, your request is granted with our blessing. We look forward to hearing your next report. Thank you both.”
“Hey there, Lady Fair. Are you ready to get out of this place?” Justin walked cheerily into the hospital room.
A very somber Samantha was sitting on the edge of the bed.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Close the door, please,” said a small voice.
Doing as she asked, he sat on the bed beside her.
“My two Guardian sisters visited me last night, in person.”
“Lucky you,” said Justin.
Samantha went on as if she hadn’t heard him. “They told me all about my miraculous recovery.”
“Oh, is right. When were you going to tell me?” Her voice was growing stronger, as was her irritation.
Sensing that he was headed for trouble, Justin decided to be truthful with his answer. “Never,” he said.
“I see,” she replied. “So is there a reason you have suddenly decided not to be honest with me? Because if there is, I’d like to hear it.”
Pondering her demand, Justin finally answered. “Sometimes, there are things a Knight does that his Lady Fair never learns of. This was one of those things. But now that you know, I’m going to tell you that if I had it to do over, I would not change anything.”
“So what I want doesn’t mean anything to you, then.”
“Oh for Pete’s sake!” said an exasperated Justin, a little more strongly than he had intended. Unable to sit any longer, he arose and stood facing her. “Your wants mean everything to me. You know that. I’ve just never felt that I was under obligation to report to you about every little thing I do. Trust has to come into play somewhere.”
“You mean like, me being able to trust you to tell the truth?”
“Come on Samantha,” said Justin, obvious impatience in his voice. “That’s not the same thing and you know it.”
“Oh really?” asked Samantha, who had her face set on stubborn mode. “To me it is.”
Sighing, Justin countered her statement. “Okay then,” he asked, “when did I ever say that your miraculous recovery was none of my doing?”
“That’s the problem,” she told him, her green eyes like ice, now. “You didn’t say anything about it, so I was believing something that wasn’t true-and you would have let me continue to believe that. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the same as lying.”
Ready with another counter answer, Justin had a sudden, small flash of intuition. How would he feel if she had almost died for him and hadn’t told him, letting him learn of it from someone else instead? Sitting on the bed beside her, he put his arm around her, and pulled her close.
“Lady Fair, sometimes, I can be pretty thoughtless. I should have told you and I didn’t. I’m sorry. When I was in the clearing, I didn’t know if you were even aware that I was impathing you. I shouldn’t have decided not to tell you, though. I guess I thought I was being noble somehow by keeping quiet about it.”
“Actually,” admitted Samantha, softening a little, “I can kind of understand why you did it.” She paused, thinking. “Just don’t let it happen again, Buster.” With that, she gave Justin a playful but sharp jab to the ribs with her elbow.
“Am I to imply from that jab that I’ve been forgiven?” Justin asked.
“That wasn’t a forgiveness jab,” she told him. “That was a warning jab, a physical exclamation point at the end of ‘Buster’. You want to know how I forgive? For you, I do it like this.”
Twisting her body towards him, she placed her hands on his shoulders and shoved. As he fell back on the bed, she followed him down, pinning him there.
“For you,” she repeated, her voice low and seductive, “I forgive like this.” Placing her lips softly on his, she gave him the longest kiss he had ever received from any girl. He resisted the urge to put his arms around her, sensing that if he tried, she would immediately break off the kiss.
“Knight of mine,” she said when they were sitting up once more, “your restraint was admirable.”
“Lady Fair,” he replied, giving her a hard but not unkind look, “you have no idea.”
Laughing with delight, she told him, “but I do have an idea, Sir Knight.” Growing instantly serious, and with her face coloring slightly, she said softly, “I put everything I had into that kiss. Just don’t expect another one like it until after we’re married.”
Grinning mischievously, he said, “Good plan. I don’t think I could restrain myself like that again. Now, what say we get you out of this place?”.
“What mode of travel are we using,” she asked.
“Well,” he told her. “I was thinking of bringing the Hicksville Beater, but decided that her name was an apt description of her personality: on level stretches of road, she drives slow like a Hick from sticks, and you practically have to Beat’er to get her up even the smallest incline. So, we’ve got Lloyd’s car.”
As the police had told Justin, Daekkin was given a psych evaluation. The psychiatrist the police used had enough years of experience to determine rather quickly if he was being conned or not. In the case of Daekkin, it didn’t take long for him to determine that the man he was interviewing was genuinely not sane. The evaluation was recorded, of course. The man’s mental condition was unusual enough that the psychiatrist made a copy of the recording for personal study later on. After giving the police their copy, he summarized his assessment of the interview. “Very unusual and interesting,” he told them. “This man seems to have distanced himself from himself. When I expressed curiosity about his having only one name, he denied having any name at all. When I asked him if he knew anybody by the name of Daekkin, he literally began sweating and acting as if Daekkin was someone he genuinely feared. That’s when he began speaking of himself in the third person. I think you’ll find the recording very interesting. He went into great detail about the things this Daekkin had done. He appears to be rambling some of the time, but when he speaks of Daekkin I believe he’s telling the truth. In short, and despite what he may have done in the past, I don’t believe this man to be a danger to anyone else. I also believe that he no longer has the mental capacity to care for himself. Whatever happened to him in that forest you told me about, the trauma was massive enough that he will be this way for the rest of his life.”
Shaking his head, the psychologist said as an afterthought, “I sure would like to know what it was.”
Cerberus sat at his desk staring at nothing, as if in a daydream. In reality, his mind was analyzing the information it had about the Billings kid and his girlfriend, Samantha, and why the two were still alive after three attempts. The first failed attempt he was willing to attribute to a combination of luck on the part of the boy and the girl, and stupidity the part of Clark and his friend. The second failed attempt he attributed to foolishness on his part for giving Clark a second chance. The third failed attempt was the one he had no answer for. A man who was one of the best at what he did, if not the best, goes into a forest perfectly sane and comes out a mental wreck who seems afraid of his own shadow. This intrigued Cerberus greatly. And, though the girl had ended up in the hospital and appeared near death, she had experienced a very quick and miraculous recovery.
Though Cerberus never allowed himself to show weakness in the form of worry, the events that surrounded the continued good health and well-being of the boy and girl, concerned him. He had, he decided, two basic choices: cease his pursuit of them, or attend to them himself. The first option, of course, was totally unacceptable. That left only the second option. Only a few in his organization saw him on a daily basis, and were used to occasional absences on his part. Upon speculation, he decided that one week’s absence-two, at the longest-should be sufficient to accomplish what three other attempts had failed to do. There was no rush however. He had a few business matters to take care of first, and the boy and girl were not going anywhere.
By the time Arnold Curtis arrived in Prospect after his unfortunate setback at the hospital, he had changed his mind about trying to win Samantha. That didn’t mean he had lost interest in her-just that his focus had changed. If she couldn’t see quality when it was standing right in front of her, he decided, then perhaps a little unseen settling of some scores would be even better. Not only with her, but also that egotistical boy friend of hers with his smirky grin and condescending ‘later champ’. Then there was her ‘Justin could you be a dear’ and sending him out to look at the flowers for her. And last of all, her ‘I’m sorry you can’t stay’, brushing him off like some insignificant nobody. Well, there were ways of cutting the legs out from under a high horse-or two high horses, in this case.
The forty-five minute drive from the hospital had given him plenty of time to plan. The talk around school was that Justin and Samantha were inseparable. He had even heard rumors that they were planning on getting married. By the time he was through with them, however, Miss Uppity Samantha and Justin the Jerk could very well be doing solo acts.
Though it was not Saturday, and Samantha was not with him, Justin fired up the Hicksville Beater and drove to the clearing. Taking a seat on the conversation log, as he and Samantha had christened it, he wondered if he should really do what he was about to do. Not sure if Senior Angel Aaron would be upset, he decided to proceed anyway. Last time the guardian team had visited, he had sent his Vision into the middle of the group just before they faded from sight when they left. What he had found interesting was that with his Vision activated, he could not only see the invisible shaft, but was able to watch as the team was pulled up into it. If the shaft could transport a Guardian team, he reasoned that it would also be able to send a simple impath message. Looking up into the shaft with his Vision, he brought up Leland’s aura and sent his impath message into it. “Leland,” the simple message said, “this is Justin. I need your help.”
“If this works,” he muttered to himself, “it may cause quite a stir among the Guardian team.”
Justin was right about the stir.
Leland was in the middle of informing the team about what had occurred during his and Aaron’s meeting with the counsel.
“… and as Aaron has found out, the council really does their utmost to accommodate our wishes. They decided to-”
Stopping suddenly in mid-sentence, he remained silent for a short period, concentrating. Then, to the surprise of the Guardian team, he said, “I have just received an impath message from Justin.”
“What’s he doing in heaven?” asked Aaron quickly.
“He’s not in heaven,” Leland informed them. “He’s in the clearing on earth. He says he needs my help.”
“Wait a minute,” said Brother Lynn. “The only way to send an impath message from earth is through a conveyance tube. How did he find the one in the clearing, and how did he know how to use it?”
“I don’t know,” said Leland, “but I think I’d better find out. Senior Angel, if you would finish what I was going to tell them…?”
“My pleasure,” replied Aaron. “Then, I think we’ll just wait here until you return so you can fill us in on what’s going on. As Leland was saying…”