The Barbers got the word while Justin and Samantha were picnicking in the forest. A colleague of Robert Billings called and informed them that Justin’s father had been killed in an automobile accident earlier in the day. “No funeral date has been set yet,” he said, “but when one is, I’ll contact you.”
“Did Robert tell you about the arrangement my wife and I had with him concerning Justin?”
“Yes,” said Robert’s colleague, “He spoke very highly of you and what you had done for his son. As I understand it, he was compensating you for Justin’s wages while Justin is with you.”
“Yes,” said Lloyd, “but I’m not worried about the money right now. With his father gone, I’m concerned about Justin’s need to be with the rest of his family. He’s never talked about them, except to inform us that his father was an attorney, so my wife and I don’t know anything other than that.”
“Justin’s parents divorced years ago,” the attorney said. “She’s living in another state, now. We’ve contacted her, but she hasn’t given any indication about wanting to see her son. As for siblings, Justin is an only child.”
“I suspected as much,” said Lloyd. “Well, I appreciate you calling, and please keep us informed about the funeral. We’ll see that Justin gets there.”
“I will do that, Mr. Barber,” said the man.
As soon as he and Samantha walked into the Barber’s living room, Justin knew something was wrong. Lloyd and Connie were looking more somber than he had ever seen them.
“Have a seat on the couch,” said Lloyd. “You too, Samantha.”
Waiting until they were seated, Lloyd continued. “One of your father’s associates at the law firm called earlier,” he said to Justin. “Your father was killed in an automobile accident this morning. We don’t know when the funeral will be yet, but they will contact us as soon as they know-and we’ll get you there. I’m very sorry, son. I know how hard this must be for you.”
After a minute of silence, Justin arose from the couch. “I think I’d like to be alone for awhile,” he said.
As Justin walked out the door, Lloyd caught Samantha’s eye and motioned with his head for her to go with Justin. She did so, catching up to him as he was going into the hay shed. “I am so sorry, Justin,” she said to his back, “I can leave you alone if you’d like.”
Justin turned around, opening his arms to her. His face, she could see, was wet with tears. “Please stay,” he said as they embraced. “There’s some things I’d like to tell you.”
Justin arranged a few hay bales into a make-shift couch where he and Samantha sat down, holding hands.
“My father and I were never very close,” he began. “Most of that was my fault. When it came to being a jerk, I was the total package. One of my regrets is that he never got the chance to see how I’ve changed and the kind of person I’m becoming. I think he would have liked that. I guess what I feel the most regret over though, is that I never got the chance to tell him how sorry I am. I-” Justin stopped, struggling with his emotions and loosing.
Samantha shifted her position on the hay bale, putting her arms around him. Together then, they held each other, and together, they cried.
When their tears were spent, Samantha looked into Justin’s eyes. “Not long ago,” she said, “a very special guy stood on this property and announced to the star-lit night that he was in love with me, that someday soon I would let him tell me of his love, and that I would tell him the same. Then he looked up at the stars glimmering in the night sky and said, ‘Thank you’.”
“Yes,” said Justin. “I remember. And everything I said came true.”
“Then do the same for your father, Justin. It’s not too late to let him know how sorry you are. Some night when the skies are clear, come out and tell him. He’ll know. I really believe that he’ll know.”
Justin pondered Samantha’s suggestion. “I think I’ll do that,” he said, peace coming into his voice. “I think I’ll do just that.”
As they headed back to the house, hand in hand, Justin glanced at this amazing girl he was in love with, and who loved him just as deeply. “You are some woman, Lady-fair,” he told her, “some woman.”
That Justin had been crying, and Samantha crying with him, was obvious from their eyes. Lloyd and Connie looked at each other knowingly. Open emotion at this time was good-very good.
“How are you doing, son?” asked Lloyd, concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I’ll be alright,” Justin reassured both of them. “I just need a little time to adjust is all. It’s kind of rough realizing that of my immediate family, I’m the only Billings left. But thanks to you folks, and this wonderful young woman here, I’ll be okay.”
“Justin,” said Connie, “Lloyd and I have talked about it-actually, we’ve been kicking the idea around for some time now-but we want you to know that you are welcome to stay here for as long as you’d like. We can discuss options when you return from your father’s funeral-assuming that you do want to come back, of course.”
“Oh, he’ll be back,” interrupted Lloyd, grinning. “He’ll have to return our car to us. Which reminds me: the law firm called back while you two were outside. The funeral will be held Tuesday at one o’clock, with the viewing the night before, of course. The man who called offered to put you up at his home Monday night, unless you have some place else to stay.”
“No,” replied Justin, “I don’t have any place to stay. None that I want to stay at, that is. Were you serious about me taking your car?”
“It beats the bus,” said Lloyd, “and you’ll get there and back quicker. Besides, the cows will miss that persuasive call of yours.”
The following day at Smith’s, Justin discovered that small town clannishness sometimes equated to a closeness that big cities were usually not capable of. Throughout the morning, it appeared that everyone who came into the store made it a point to stop by Justin’s usual table and offer their condolences.
He finally got a reprieve when Samantha showed up and suggested that they move to their favorite picnic table at the park.
“I’ve had a totally crazy idea in my head since yesterday,” said Justin as they sat down across from each other and held hands in the middle of the table.
“A totally crazy idea,” repeated Samantha. “Do I want to hear it?”
“I think so,” said Justin. “I would like you to come to the funeral with me. The thought of driving there and back all by myself is not very appealing. We could leave Monday right after school, and come back Tuesday after the funeral. That way, we’d only miss one day of school.”
“If you want me to come with you,” answered Samantha, “then I’ll come. I would love to come, in fact.”
“Will your father agree to that?” asked Justin.
“I think he will, since it’s only one day of school.”
“Good,” said Justin, happily. “Before we part company today, I’ll go to your house with you and ask him.”
“Very noble of you, Sir Knight,” said Samantha. “I could ask him myself, but that wouldn’t be as much fun.”
And so it was that later in the day, Justin asked his Lady-Fair’s father if she could accompany him to the funeral.
“I don’t know,” replied Ian with a twinkle in his voice. “That’s a pretty hard request you’ve laid on me. I mean, trusting you with my only daughter. I may have to think this one over for awhile.”
“Oh, Great One,” said Justin, as seriously as the humor of the moment would allow him to sound, “Sir Lloyd is trusting me with his only car, so that should speak to my credentials as a protector of your daughter.”
“Lloyd is actually trusting you with his car?” asked Ian. “Well then, that settles it. Sir Justin, your petition is granted.”
“Just great,” muttered Samantha, not knowing whether to laugh or scowl. “First Mr. Barber refers to me as a ‘critter’, and now my own dad is comparing me to a car.”
“Have a seat, folks,” said Aaron. “Leland will join us shortly. We haven’t met for some time, so I think it would be appropriate to bring all of you up to speed about what’s going on.
“Samantha has finally declared her love for Justin-and good job on that one by the way, Sisters. We were all beginning to wonder if she would even speak to him again after her first experience with him.”
“As were we,” interrupted Sister Isabelle, “but thanks to a brilliant idea from Sister Charity , everything worked out just fine.”
Smiling, Aaron continued. “Justin’s father was involved in a fatal automobile accident just a day ago earth time. Right now, his Guardian is showing him around heaven, but we probably won’t be seeing him as far as I know.
“Samantha will be attending the funeral with Justin, so you two Sisters will have the opportunity of seeing Justin’s old stomping grounds. I haven’t been told of anything unusual happening on their trip, but keep alert anyway, just in case. I-ahhh, welcome, Brother Leland. I was just updating everyone on the status of our charges. I can fill you in later, if you’d like.”
“That won’t be necessary, thank you,” said Leland, whose demeanor was more serious than usual. “Brother Lynn impathed your updates to me as you were giving them. I do need to address the group when you’re finished, though.”
“We were about to discuss future plans for Justin and Samantha,” said Aaron, “but the floor is yours.”
“Thank you,” said Leland, walking to the front of the room. “I’ve just come from a meeting with the counsel.”
At his statement, the team’s interest level increased noticeably.
“Justin’s life is in danger-grave danger. A certain evil mortal would like nothing better than for Justin to not make it back from the funeral alive. This mortal calls himself Cerberus. Anyone here know what that name means, by the way?”
Sister Charity raised her hand. “Cerberus is Latin for Demon of the Pit.”
“Well done,” Leland told her, smiling slightly. “Demon of the Pit. None of you here would know him, but my Battle Angels have had confrontations with him before. He’s particularly crafty and Machiavellian. Peel away his enticing and showy outer layers and you’ll find only blackness inside.”
“And this Cerberus is after Justin?” asked Aaron.
“That’s correct,” said Leland. “I don’t know all the details, but Justin and Cerberus were involved in an incident several years ago that didn’t go Cerberus’s way. Thus, when it became known to Cerberus that Justin was going to his father’s funeral, Cerberus saw this as an opportunity. Actually, Samantha is going also, at Justin’s request. I will be accompanying them there.”
“So that’s why you were assigned to our team,” said Aaron. “As protection for Samantha and Justin. A Battle Angel as a personal body guard. That’s heavy.”
“Oh,” said Leland, innocently. “I’m not going along to protect them. I’m going along to make certain that Cerberus succeeds.”
Justin was both excited and somber as he brought the Barber’s car to a stop in front of Samantha’s house-excited because of the time he and Samantha would be spending together, and somber because of the circumstances that had brought about the journey they were taking. Giving the horn a couple of quick presses, he got out of the car and walked up to the house. Samantha met him at the door, luggage in hand.
“Getting too lazy to knock on the door now?” she teased.
“Actually,” said Justin, “I honked so you could start getting excited about seeing me again.”
Samantha stepped onto the front porch and looked around as she set her luggage down, then grabbed Justin’s shirtfront and pulled him closer for a lingering kiss. “I’ve been excited about seeing you again since about one minute after you left here last time, buster,” she said in a low voice.
“Do I need to say hi to your parents before we leave?” asked Justin.
“Dad’s at work,” said Samantha, “and mom…well..I already said goodbye for both of us.”
“Okay,” said Justin. “Might as well head out, then.”
After passing beyond the city limits, Justin and Samantha looked at each other and smiled.
“I figure we’ll be rolling in about 8:00 this evening,” Justin told her. “The viewing goes until nine, so we should be okay.”
Sighing, Samantha said, “It’s too bad that our first trip together had to be under these circumstances.”
“I know,” said Justin. “I was thinking the exact same thing earlier.”
The next two hours were very pleasant for Justin. He and Samantha shared childhood experiences-stupid moments, thrills, discouragements, unfulfilled aspirations, and such. Though the topic of marriage didn’t come up specifically, they did discuss marriage things, and found that there was little they didn’t agree on. Though neither verbalized it, both knew that marriage to each other was down the road. It was just a matter of when.
After a time, the conversation slackened, and was replaced by a pleasant peace.
The sun was beginning to set, and with no clouds in the sky, the departure of the light would not be the spectacular and colorful exit it sometimes was.
Samantha found the lever that allowed the seatback to recline a little, then laid back and closed her eyes, her hands clasp and resting in a relaxed position on her stomach. Justin glanced at her occasionally, thinking that he had never been more content in his life. The realization that such a wonderful girl was deeply in love with him seemed almost extraordinary. He recalled telling Lloyd that he had found a girl who was worth changing his life for, and each day was proving that statement to him over and over.
“Are you asleep?” he asked Samantha quietly.
“No,” she said.
“Have you ever noticed,” he asked, “that we never use endearments when talking to each other, even in private?”
“Really. Name me one endearment that’s better or more fun than ‘Sir Justin’, or ‘O Great Knight’. And, I’ll have you know, ‘My Lady Fair’ is the greatest endearment of all time, as far as I’m concerned.”
Justin thought for a moment. “Did I just lose the argument?” he asked.
“We weren’t arguing. I was making a statement of fact, and you were getting ready to agree with me.”
“Yes, of course I was,” said Justin. “How stupid of me not to have realized that.”
Another period of quiet ensued, until a road sign announcing an upcoming rest area prompted Justin to awaken his Lady Fair. “Rest area ahead,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but my legs could use some stretching out, among other things.”
Samantha returned the seatback to its original position. “My first priority is the ‘among other things’, she said. “Then I’ll stretch my legs.”
This rest area was nothing fancy, Justin saw as he pulled to a stop. But then, as long as it took care of the basic needs, it would get his vote. Utilizing the tilt-wheel steering, he raised the steering wheel up all the way to make getting back in easer. Then he and Samantha got out and began walking towards the building.
Had the Guardians been here, Leland knew, there was a good possibility that Justin would not have stopped at this rest area-pulling in and slowing down perhaps, but receptive enough to the impressions of danger from Aaron and the Sister Guardians that he wouldn’t have stopped. Even just the absence of the Guardians would possibly not have been enough to prevent Justin or Samantha from sensing trouble here.
Thus, the necessity of Leland’s presence.
As Justin and Samantha got out of the car, Leland placed an aura of well-being around them, enough that they experienced no sense of unease. He would stay until events played out, but essentially, his part in this incident was finished.
As Samantha and Justin walked towards the restrooms, Leland offered a sincere and vocal apology which, of course, Justin couldn’t hear. “Forgive me for changing your life forever,” he said. “I’ll make it up to you, Justin. Somehow, I will make it up to you.”
“Well,” said Samantha as she emerged from the restroom, it’s not luxury, but I’m not going to be choosey. What are you looking at?”
Justin was examining a state map and other material on a bulletin board. “Just perusing the propaganda,” he said. “Have we had enough fun here?”
“Yeah,” replied Samantha. “I don’t think I could handle any more excitement.”
Before walking out of the building, Justin took a comment card and wrote on it. In answer to the question about the cleanliness of the facility, he wrote, “Beats an outhouse.” Dropping the card in the slot, he said, “now we can go”.
The facility was pretty well lit, but with no other cars making use of its offerings, and not much traffic this time of the evening, the safety of those stopping there wasn’t guaranteed.
As Samantha walked to the passenger side of the car, two men who had taken up a position on the side of the car that was not viewable from the building, revealed themselves.
“Give us the keys!” one of them shouted. The other one grabbed Samantha in a bear hug from behind, pinning her arms to her sides. The one who had demanded the keys produced a gun, pointing it at Justin. “Throw me the keys,” he yelled. “Throw me the keys right now!”
Justin did as he was told. “We’re not going to give you any troub-” he began, but was cut off by the man with the pistol.
“Shut up!” he said, unlocking the car. “Now, both of you get in! You up front with me, the girl in the back! Now!”
As Samantha was being shoved roughly into the rear of the car, Justin trotted to the passenger side. His thought processes had kicked into hyper mode. The man with the gun would wait until he, Justin, was in the car before getting in himself. Since the other man had shown no weapon, Justin assumed that there was only the one. Just as he suspected, the man with the gun waited until he was in the car with the door closed, before getting in himself.
Or, trying to get in.
The man bent down and placed one leg in the car, keeping the gun pointed at Justin-just as Justin had hoped he would. In one incredibly swift motion, Justin lunged and grabbed the barrel of the pistol with one hand while latching onto the man’s hand with the other. Before the man could react, Justin jerked the barrel of the gun around in such a way that the gun discharged into the roof of the car at the same time the man’s finger broke. “Geeze!” exclaimed the man in pain, then, “Clark!”
As Clark got out of the car, the gun also came flying out, landing on the asphalt in a spinning skid before coming to a stop about five yards away.
Justin knew he had mere seconds to turn the situation in his favor. Using the man with the broken finger as a shield, Justin literally bulled his way out of the car, pushing his human shield into Clark. “Run, Samantha!” he yelled as he raced towards the gun. His exhilaration at getting to it first lasted not even a second. No sooner had he scooped it up, than a loud crack hit his ears at the same moment something hit him in his side, turning him partially around and facing the car. He had been wrong about there being only one gun, he saw. Clark had one also, and it was pointed directly at him. Justin opened his hand, letting his gun drop to the asphalt.
Seeing that Clark was in control, the man with the broken finger called to Samantha, who had stopped and turned around to see what was happening. “Unless you want to see your man dead,” he said, “you’ll come back here.”
Shock was beginning to set in, Justin knew. His breathing was labored. “Samantha, don’t!” he managed to yell before doubling over in pain. “One of us has to get away! Please! If you love me, you’ll run for me!”
Crying and stumbling, Samantha turned and ran into the safety of the night, out of the revealing lights of the rest area. She could hear the cursing and yelling of the two men, then another shot.
“You fool,” she heard one of the men say, “you weren’t supposed to kill him here!”
“Well,” the other man said, “he broke my finger. I’ve never seen anyone move as fast as he did. Caught me completely off guard. Go check him, just to be sure. Geeze, my finger hurts.”
Samantha stopped, listening in agony. An eternity passed in the space of seconds. Then: “He won’t be breaking any more fingers. Let’s dump him behind the building and get out of here.”
“What about the girl?” asked the other.
“We won’t find her in the dark, and we need to put as much distance between us and this place as possible. Now let’s go.”
Samantha heard the sound of something being dragged, then a minute later car doors being slammed. Only when she saw the car’s rear lights growing smaller in the darkness did she venture towards the back of the building. She was sobbing almost uncontrollably. Reaching into her purse that she had pulled from the car when Justin had told her to run, she dug around until she found her house keys. The key chain had a small LED light attached. Activating it, walked to the rear of the building. She spotted Justin’s body immediately. Slowly, she walked up to the body, then fell to her knees, placing her hands on him. “Oh, Justin,” she sobbed. “What have they done to you? You were my Knight in Shining Armor. How could you leave me like this?”
Something cold and round pressed against her neck.
“Now ain’t that precious?” said a familiar voice sarcastically. “You didn’t really think we’d just drive off and leave you here, did you? Here’s a novel idea for you: it only takes one person to drive off in a car while the other person stays behind and get the girls-or girl, in this case.”
“I don’t care what you do to me,” replied Samantha, angrily. She was about to lay into him more, but decided that she wouldn’t give him additional fodder to torment her with.
“Oh,” he said, “we’ve got big plans for you. We were supposed kill you when we killed your friend, but we figure that our boss won’t begrudge us a little fun first. You know what they say-what he doesn’t know won’t hurt us. Now, up and at ’em!”
Samantha stood up. “Are you just going to leave him there?” she demanded.
“Eh,” said the man. “In a few days, I expect that someone will find him quick enough.”
As she walked back into the light of the rest area, she saw the Barber’s car pulling in. Without a fight, she opened the back door and got in. Whatever they planned for her, she knew that death was at the end of it. Forgive me, Justin, she thought, for not running for you. Her hopelessness was total as the car pulled out of the rest area and onto the main road. Whatever happens, she prayed fervently, let it happen soon, and let it happen fast. I deserve that much, at least. She had one last thought before her emotions completely deadened. I’m coming to you, my Knight in Shining Armor. Please help me find you. As the car drove into the blackness of the night, Samantha willed her mind into its own private world, where everything was perfect and Justin was always with her. The real world as she had known it, she decided, was gone forever.