Ann was silent as they drove away from the secret medical facility run by Robert’s old employers. She hadn’t dared see her regular doctor while she still bore the worst of the wounds inflicted by the Black Riders. Her right shoulder still ached, but the bullet wound in her left leg was healing beautifully. Today’s trip had been the last, to confirm that her hand was mending properly and that no permanent damage had been done. The bandages were off, but she was left with a wound that would not bear close scrutiny. Matching round scars on palm and back could only mean some foreign object had passed through the hand. Ann hoped no one would be rude enough to ask.
Robert kept most of his attention on his driving, respecting his fiancée’s solitude of spirit. He had gone through torture himself, and he knew that the only true healing for such an ordeal was done in the privacy of the soul. One decided for oneself if one could face the world or would retreat. But he adored her, and he’d vowed to stand between her and the horrors of the world, and he’d let her down. It didn’t help that the enemies who had harmed her had been solely her own and had been looking for her anyway. He had asked for her help and the Black Riders had found her because of it. She’d seen terror and grief and the breaking of vows she’d made for very good reasons, and all because she’d followed him when he asked. And she had killed. It had been self-defense and the defense of innocents who surely would have died themselves if she hadn’t done it. That didn’t change anything. She had still crossed the one line most people believe should never be crossed, that of taking another human life.
At the next stop light, he looked over at her. She looked troubled, and he saw her flexing her right hand cautiously. "Does it hurt?" he asked quietly.
"A little," she admitted. "But I think it’s a good hurt. Everything moves right, and nothing hurts more than anything else."
"Good," he nodded, relieved. To his surprise, though, her look of worry deepened. "What’s wrong?"
She sighed deeply. "Would you pull over up there, please? I need to get out and think for a little."
Silently he complied, wondering what she had to think about that she had to do it away from him.
They were near the East River docklands, with a promenade along the water. Not many people were out on a blustery March afternoon. Robert found a parking space, then Ann got out and walked slowly to the railing overlooking the water.
She still limped on her left leg, Robert saw anxiously. She seemed so small and frail out there by herself, against the expanse of water and skyline. He couldn’t help remembering the quiet, withdrawn woman he’d met last August, holding her stillness as a shield against the world. He’d drawn her out of her protections, invited her to see the glories of the world and allow him to see them alongside her. And this was her reward, to see the pains that lurked at her gate. If he’d left her where she was, if he’d thought better of his arrogant assumption that he knew what was best for her—but no, they’d have come for her anyway, the enemies of her past. They’d have taken her just when she thought herself safe. Much better to have them come for her when she had him at her back, willing to commit mayhem to protect her.
God, he loved her. And why was he so terrified that what she was thinking about all by herself was him? He got out of the car and went to join her, unwilling to respect her wishes when he was certain she was trying to decide if staying with him was wise. He’d once thought he’d go quietly if she ever asked him to. He should have known better, he never let the world go along without trying to influence it.
He went to stand beside her at the rail. She stared out over the East River, her hands clasped in front of her. He saw, with a sick feeling in his stomach, that she was fiddling with her engagement ring under her leather glove. He’d promised her that she’d never see harm because of him. The Riders had found her when they did because of him. Perhaps she was deciding that the risks outweighed whatever benefits she found in being with him. Was she only waiting for the right moment to take the ring off and return it to him?
Ann glanced at him, then blinked in surprise at the anxiety on his face. "What’s wrong?" she asked, startled.
"I’m afraid of what you’re thinking about so seriously." He hated putting himself on the line like this, but… "Are you reconsidering being engaged to me after the grief I’ve brought to you?"
"That you’ve brought to me?" She stared in disbelief, then hurried to him. "Beloved, no! Dearest God, if it weren’t for you—" She broke off, unable to think about what the Black Riders would have done to her with enough time on their hands and no one to come searching for her.
He hugged her tight to him, relief overwhelming the cautious cynic in his heart who kept hinting that he was exposing too much of himself. "Oh, my sweet love…" He savored the feel of her for several moments. "Then what has you so worried?"
Ann leaned against him a moment, then pulled away and returned to the railing overlooking the river. There were words she had to say that were sticking in her throat, that were struggling with her soul to be said.
"What is it?" Robert asked, seeing her struggle.
She clenched her hands together, feeling the ring biting into her fingers. What price the keeping of an ideal? But she couldn't continue depending solely on him to bail her out of trouble. If she was going to be more than a junior partner in this marriage, she was going to have to stand on her own two feet.
"Robert," she asked very quietly, "would you teach me how to shoot?"
"Darling, are you sure?" She hated guns, only reluctantly accepted their necessary evil in his life, despised the mystique surrounding them.
"Yes," she said reluctantly. "You may not always be handy. If there's going to be an arsenal in the house, I'd better know how to use it." The next sentence made her feel actually ill. "And I think I'll take you up on that birthday present you offered."
He put his arms around her again. He was relieved, but at the same time profoundly sad. She'd sworn she'd never own a gun. "When do you want to go shopping?"
"Now? If I wait I'll change my mind."
"I'm not going to join the NRA."
"Fine. I never have."
Eddy's Midtown Range occupied the top floor of an old sewing factory. What set it apart from other shooting ranges was its discretion and low profile. There were no posters on the walls touting patriotism and manliness as a reason to own a gun. Political statements were confined to a desk in the corner where various petitions and bulletins from several political spectra circulated.
Ann looked around nervously, half-expecting Rambo clones and rabid 2nd Amendment fanatics to be lurking. What she did see were executive types checking small cases in and out at a counter behind heavy glass doors. A receptionist's desk sat in front of the doors. Robert smiled at Ann reassuringly and walked up to the receptionist.
The woman looked up and smiled. "Well, Robert, I haven't seen you in weeks."
"Hello, Edwina. How's business?"
"Ever blooming, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. How can we help you today?"
Robert tugged Ann closer. "My fiancée has decided it's time to learn to shoot." Ann blushed and felt like he'd just announced she wanted to try snorting cocaine.
"Your fiancée? Well, congratulations. When's the wedding?"
"End of April. Shall I send you an invitation?"
"No, my son's leaving for his mission around then, I'll be a nervous wreck." Edwina studied Ann and her averted face. "Hello, I'm Edwina Bacardi. I own this place."
"Ann Marshall," Ann replied automatically. "You're Eddy?"
"It sounds more outdoorsy." Edwina became sympathetic. "You don't want to learn to shoot, do you."
"Not really, but I don't think I have a lot of choice."
"His idea or yours?" She grinned knowingly at Robert. "He may not get off on guns the way some men around here do, but he still thinks they're neat."
"They're a useful tool, Edwina," Robert said mildly. "No more. Some men collect wrenches."
"Well, you don't need a permit to carry a wrench under your jacket." She pressed a buzzer and led them through the glass doors. "But, Ann, if he's talked you into this against your will..."
"No, it was my idea," Ann said reluctantly.
"An unwilling convert, huh?" Edwina looked at her understandingly. "Some nasty revelation has told you it's time to have a few more teeth at your disposal. A lot of women come here with that story. Of course, they're not normally backed up by a man whose stack of permits must fill an entire filing cabinet."
Ann felt herself relaxing under the woman's calm acceptance of her discomfort. She didn't look like a peddler of evil.
Edwina stepped behind the counter and pulled out a form. "Do you have a pistol?" she asked briskly.
"Uh, no, not yet."
"I thought it would be best to see what she can handle," Robert said. "I think a .45 would break her wrists, but a .22 is useless."
"Not necessarily, not with the right load," Edwina commented. "If you're accurate enough, a .22's perfect. But I'll let you test drive a few. Do you want to start the paperwork for the permit now or do you want to wait till you find a pistol?"
Robert looked at Ann, who shrugged. "We'll start it now," he said.
Ann accepted the form and pen and studied the questions as Robert discussed calibers, muzzle velocities, and the like with Edwina. So businesslike, so mundane. She pulled out her ID and started on the questions.
When she was engrossed in bureaucratese, Robert leaned a little closer to Edwina and lowered his voice. "Would it be possible to use the small range later?"
Edwina's eyebrows rose very slightly. "For her?"
He nodded. "I want her to know how to use the things that are going to be kept in the house, and I want her to know what they're capable of."
"Good idea. You gonna warn her?"
Edwina glared at him. "That's a nasty thing to do to someone who's not ready for it. You're not a nice person."
"No, I'm not. I almost lost her a few weeks ago, I want her better able to defend herself. But she's also got to know what can happen." He chuckled at her displeasure. "She's not as frail as you think she is."
"No, she's not, if she's willing to marry you." Edwina shook her head and laughed. "You getting married. I think I saw a horseman of the Apocalypse go by."
"And you say I'm not nice." He saw Ann looking puzzled. "What's wrong, love?"
"Do I want a permit to carry the thing, and if so, why?"
"Yes, you do, and self-defense is good enough for now. If they need more information they’ll ask."
She studied him. "How many of these forms have you filled out?"
"Several. I have permits for everything." He saw the faint doubt. "Yes, everything. It's much simpler that way. I wouldn't ask you to house anything that illicit."
"I'm glad you're trustworthy. Well, I guess that's that. Now what?"
Edwina took the form and looked over it. "Now you test-drive some pistols to see what suits you. The .38 and the Sig Saur 9 mm, you said, Robert? Smith and Wesson makes one designed for women."
"How revolting," Ann said. "That's as bad as cigarettes designed for women."
Edwina laughed. "I know, pretty cold of their marketing people, isn't it? But it is smaller and lighter. I carry one, I can't get my hands around most others."
"Why do you carry one?"
"I carry valuable weapons around a lot. I'm a good target, though most times I'd rather just hand them the inventory and report it. I've only needed it once, and that was because a druggie who wasn't thinking straight decided he wanted more than just my gun case."
Ann licked her lips. "Did you shoot him?"
"No, thank God, I didn't need to. He ran when I pulled it. I would have, but just in the arm or something. I could probably shoot to kill, but I haven't had to find out yet." She tapped the wooden counter lightly.
"I don't think I'd have a problem," Ann said softly, remembering Queens and why she hadn’t replaced her nunchuks. "But being almost a black-belt always seemed dangerous enough."
"You've got to let them get in arm's reach, though. Better if they never come that close." Edwina patted her hand. "Just shooting a couple won't corrupt you beyond hope of redemption."
Ann was still caught up in the memory of that dark joy that took her when she destroyed something in karate class. She had been taught to kill and she had used that knowledge. She was afraid of getting to know that part of her psyche better. Robert tried to tell her that it was just the satisfaction of coordination and skill, but she knew the depths of her mind better than she'd admit. "What I'm afraid of is if I enjoy it."
Edwina silenced Robert with a look. "Nice girls don't play with guns, right?"
Ann relaxed slightly under the understanding. "Right. Most especially, they don't like it."
"What if you do? That doesn't mean you'll start hanging out in windows picking people off in the street."
"Not to say you won't want to, some days," Robert muttered knowingly. "But civilized people resist the urge. It's just a tool, love. If you'd rather, you can keep it in a box in your desk. I just want you to know how to use it if you have to."
"That's reasonable. And maybe it won't be so terrifying." Ann smiled at her fiancé wistfully. "I just can't help hearing that little voice saying, 'Go on, how do you know you don't want to if you've never tried it.'"
"If I'm going to corrupt you I'm going to find a much more intriguing way of doing it."
Edwina chuckled at the look she gave him. "Yes or no on the Ladysmith?"
Ann thought a moment. "No. I will not be a party to callous fearmongering ad executives."
"Good enough. I'll be right back. Go on through. Robert, you checking anything out?"
"Perhaps later. I have mine with me."
"You do?" Ann said, surprised.
"I frequently do, didn't you know?"
"I guess I just didn't want to think about it."
Robert kissed her lightly, then conducted her through the barrier.
The next room was a locker room. Ann checked her bulky purse while Robert perused a rack of ear protectors. He checked a couple on her head before being satisfied. She balked at the eye protection.
"You said this was safe."
"It is safe, love. It's safe because people take precautions. Once in a rare while you get a misloaded round that can literally blow up in your face. Hopefully the only place you'll ever have to fire anything is in here, therefore the odds of something happening are higher here. Thus the eye shields."
Edwina appeared with two small cases and a clipboard. "Sign here, please."
Robert handed the cases to Ann. She blinked at how heavy they were. A last wave of reluctance went through her, like the first time she'd bought booze for someone under age. This was wrong, this was against the rules, she wasn't supposed to do this. Except this was perfectly legal, and the only rule being broken was one she'd set herself. She didn't want to give the violent part of herself any more exercise. But she had to, if she wanted to stand on any kind of equal footing with her future husband.
"Ready?" Robert asked.
"No." He looked at her patiently, willing to give in. His understanding of her squeamishness steadied her. "But yes."
"Earmuffs on, then."
The rest of the top floor was given over to the shooting range. Ann was surprised to see that a good half of the people at the firing stations were women, and respectable, middle-class housewives and businesswomen at that. For some reason she'd been expecting that the kind of woman who came to these places would be the sort who found tractor pulls and stock car racing interesting.
Even with the earmuffs on, the sound of gunfire ricocheting off the sound-baffled walls made normal conversation all but impossible. Robert consulted with the range master, who pointed to a booth near the far wall.
Between the walls of the booth, it was possible to make oneself heard without shouting. Robert saw to the fit of the eye coverings, then unsnapped the catches on the first case and opened the lid. He pulled the pistol and clip out and examined them.
"This is a 9 mm semi-automatic," he explained, "which means it will fire as often as you pull the trigger and you don't have to cock the thing."
"What makes something automatic?"
"You hold down the trigger and it fires continuously until it's out of bullets."
"That's it. A semi-auto would be best because it takes strong thumbs to cock a pistol quickly, and if you freeze on the trigger it won't go spraying bullets all over the place."
"That would be embarrassing." She shut up at the look he gave her. "Yes, I know, it's not a joking matter. I'm nervous, all right?"
She stared at the thing. While she'd frequently seen Robert's gun, she'd always avoided touching it. Feeling like she was signing a membership pledge to the Ku Klux Klan, she took the pistol from his hand. It felt awkward in her grip.
"It's not loaded, that's why it feels odd. But keep it pointed that way, even without the clip in it, there could be a round in the chamber."
"How do you tell?"
"There are various ways, they differ from pistol to pistol. But always assume a gun is loaded, and never depend on the safety. Here's the clip."
All she wanted was to say "No more" and leave. She even knew he'd understand her rank cowardice and not hold it against her. But she'd said she'd do this. She took the clip and held it awkwardly. "Look, how badly can I screw this up here?"
He smiled faintly and brushed a finger across her cheek. "Not that badly, I won't let you. I have no interest in embarrassing you."
She relaxed a little. Part of her nervousness had been caused by that grim look on his face. "Now what?"
He showed her how to load and unload the pistol, chamber a round, and tell if there was already a round in the chamber or not. When she started feeling comfortable with the feel of the pistol in her hands, he turned her to face the targets. Standing behind her, he showed her how to hold the thing and how to sight.
"It'll make a very loud bang and jump in your hands. Try not to close your eyes. And don't worry if you miss completely. You can't hurt anything down range." She nodded silently, and he took a look at her face. Martyrs at their own burnings looked more pleased with their situations. "Darling, put it down."
"You don't want to be here."
"You're right. But I'm going to do it anyway."
He reached around her and took the pistol out of her hands, setting the safety, and put it on the counter in front of them. "Look," he told her, making her face him, "nothing will be proved by tormenting yourself like this."
"Only that I am not a complete coward who needs to hide behind you."
He nodded in acceptance. "All right, then, pick it up and aim. Remember to take off the safety."
Ann took a deep breath and sighted down the barrel at the target. Robert put his hands over hers, just in case she lost control when she fired.
"Don't hold your breath," he instructed. "Just squeeze the trigger."
The bloodthirsty she-wolf in her mind stalked closer, driving the civilized lady back. For some reason, the faces of her mother and grand-mother flashed in her thoughts. But Robert at her back steadied her nerves. She pulled the trigger.
Noise, the faint lick of flame, a tendril of smoke, and stinging palms.
"Ow," she said in mild surprise. "Was it supposed to make that much noise?"
"Oh, yes. And it won't hurt once you figure out how to go with the recoil."
She blinked in some astonishment at herself and looked at the noise maker in her hand. "Gosh. Did I hit anything?"
Robert smiled and kissed her forehead. "Missed it completely, I'm afraid. It takes practice. Do you want to go on?"
She thought seriously, putting the pistol down carefully, making sure the safety was on, and started rubbing her fingers. How many movie heroines had she watched pumping lead into their enemies? Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hamilton had awakened stirrings of emulation. Reality turned out to be full of work. Now that she'd shot a gun and hadn't dropped dead from sheer surprise, she wanted to get good with the thing.
"Yes, I want to go on."
By the end of the first clip she'd stopped cringing when the thing went off. By the end of the second, she was hitting the target and beginning to put shots within a foot or so of where she intended. Robert told her to take a break, then he shot off a couple of clips with his own pistol. His skill and apparent nonchalance burst her growing bubble of self-congratulation and made her determined to go on.
Robert made her try the .38, just to show her the difference. "If you can handle the 9 mm I'd prefer you to go with that," he said. "I want you as heavily armed as we can make you. But a .45 is a very big gun with a very unpleasant kick."
"What's the range on these things?"
"A .45 magnum is good for several city blocks. A .22 is useless beyond a few dozen feet. A good rifle is accurate for approximately a mile."
She blinked at him. "A mile?"
"Um hm. If you can see it, you can hit it."
"My god," she whispered. "I'm not going to want to sit on the roof for awhile."
He hugged her briefly. "You have to be very good to hit someone at that range."
It was on her lips to ask him if he was that good, but that was way over in the "None of your business" column.
By the end of the hour, Ann was approaching accurate and developing something close to fondness for the 9 mm.
"Enough here," Robert said. "What do you think?"
Ann unchambered the round and took out the clip, just like she'd been taught, and put the pistol in its case. "I guess it's time to knock down another shibboleth and buy one."
"I know where to get a good deal."
"I imagine you do." Under the circumstances she decided to venture a question. "All that stuff you've got. Are private citizens really supposed to have them?"
"I'm an odd sort of private citizen. I tell the truth on those forms, and the government is willing to be reasonable. It's a federal license for some of those things, and the feds don't ask too many impertinent questions of certain retirees." He looked at her, and his expression made her a little uneasy. "Are you up to a little more?"
She consulted with her hands and her wrists. "Not much, but a little. Why?"
"Edwina has a smaller range downstairs for uncommon weapons. I want you to see what some of them can do."
"Stuff like you've got?"
He nodded. "Just in case."
Edwina met them at the door. "How did it go?" she asked Ann.
"Well, I didn't drop dead of fright, and paper has a reason to be afraid of me."
"May all you ever shoot be practice targets."
"Amen," Robert murmured. "Is downstairs available?"
"Yes, the Midtown Automatic, Combat, and Heavy Ordinance group left half an hour ago."
"MACHO?" Ann asked disbelieving.
"I don't name them, I just try to keep them from hurting themselves." As Edwina took the pistol cases from Robert, she asked softly, "Do you still want the full targets?"
"Either you tell her or I will."
"Edwina – "
"One of the reasons I have a separate range is so people can get a better idea of the actual damage the weapons can inflict. Besides the paper targets we have life-sized dummies of the same density as the human body. It can be a bit freaky if you're not ready. I wanted to be sure you knew before he sprung it on you."
"Thank you," Ann said, a little confused.
"On second thought," Robert said, "give us back the 9 mm. She's leaning towards that one."
The stairs down to the next floor were around a corner away from the main reception area. Edwina went with them, sorting a keyring as she went.
"What do you want?" she asked, going to a strongroom with a heavy metal door. The rest of the floor looked like the range upstairs except for fewer shooting booths.
Robert glanced at Ann assessingly. "An Uzi and an AK."
"You own those?" Ann asked. He nodded silently. "Why?" begged to be asked, but she bit that back hard. He said she had the right to ask questions, but some things she just didn't want to know.
Robert took her hand. "They're sometimes necessary," he told her quietly. "Not often and only under very extraordinary circumstances."
"I wasn't going to ask."
He helped Edwina with the large cases, and she carefully locked the strongroom behind her. "Hit the buzzer when you're done, and I'll come put them away. You know the rules, Robert."
"What rules?" Ann asked as Edwina went back upstairs.
"Simple range etiquette." Since they were the only ones on the range, Robert put the cases on a nearby table. "This is an Uzi. Terrorists like it."
The thing was horrifyingly small, blocky and ugly. Robert went through the procedure of loading etc., then directed Ann to the firing station. She glanced at him curiously at his tension. "What's wrong?"
He looked at her grimly, then hugged her. "I keep forgetting you're not a trainee. It's those special targets of Edwina's. You won't like what happens when you hit them. But you need to see what can happen."
A horrible suspicion came to her. "She said these were dummies. They are, aren't they? Just dummies?"
"Yes, they're just dummies." He debated, but they'd promised to try to be as honest as they could with each other. "There are places where you can get targets that aren't dummies, but this isn't one of them."
She'd lived in New York all her life and she'd thought she couldn't be dismayed anymore. "Dead or otherwise?" She swallowed at his look. "Never mind."
"Excellent idea." He pushed a button on the wall of the booth.
If the lighting in the range hadn't been so bright, the dummy might have looked too real for comfort. It hung heavily from the hook that ran along the track to a position in front of the booth. It was a featureless gray, the size and shape of a human body. When the hook stopped, it swayed for a while.
"Remember, this is a fully automatic weapon," Robert said briskly. "Take your finger off the trigger when you want it to stop firing. Ready?"
The Uzi was heavy in her hands, heavier than anything else she'd tried. "Does it have to be with this first?"
"No, of course not." He watched her secure the Uzi and prepare the pistol. She didn't seem quite so terrified of the pistol anymore, but she still treated it with a very healthy respect. "Whenever you're ready," he said when she had the pistol loaded.
Ann took a deep breath and leveled the weapon at the target. Just a gray dummy. She wished it would stop moving, though. Just a target. She aimed for the center of the chest and squeezed the trigger.
A spray of red blossomed out of the chest and the dummy swung violently with the impact. Ann clamped her left hand over her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut, unable to look at the crimson stain covering the front of the dummy and running onto the floor. Robert silently took the pistol out of her hand and put it on the counter in front of them, then put his arms around her. But Ann pushed away from him and went to the bench near the stairs. Robert didn't stop her. He pushed another button, and the dummy was towed back to the side of the range to be replaced. Then he went to sit next to her.
"You knew it would do that," she whispered, bent over her knees.
"And you weren't going to tell me."
"I wasn't sure."
"Would you rather find out what it looks like by shooting a living, breathing person?"
"I don't think I can ever point that at anyone."
"No, I think if you ever had to, you would. But now you'll be very sure there's no other way if you're ever forced to. That lesson can't be taught any other way."
"I want to go home now."
"You can try the other two on paper targets. I won't ask you to face the other targets again." She shook her head. "All right. I'll tell Edwina we're done."
Ann stayed on the bench as Edwina and Robert put the weapons away. Edwina gave the silent woman a worried look, but Robert's head shake told her to leave it to him.
Edwina left, and Robert sat down beside Ann. "I'm sorry," he said simply. "We can go whenever you're ready."
Ann stared at the floor between her shoes, absently rubbing her right hand. "I still need a gun."
He looked at her in shock. "But, I thought ..."
She shook her head. "The reason I asked for this is still the same. I am not letting them get that close to me again. And I needed to see this." She nodded at the range.
"It was too brutal to spring on you right now."
"Is it any different from what I did to that man in Queens?" she said softly.
"No," he admitted.
"Just a different method."
Robert studied her sadly. Most people, when contemplating a man they'd killed, were consumed in horror and grief. Ann, though, calmly considered the means and reasons. "I brought you to this. There is something about my world that despises gentility. I'm very sorry."
"You didn't do this to me, Robert. Angmar didn't do it. The first time I looked Lady Death in the eye and said 'No, not now,' that's when it happened." She smiled faintly. "All you did was remind me that I am not sheep material."
Something in Robert relaxed. It was all very well to see the world with trust and faith, but calm practicality in the face of difficulties was generally more useful. He wanted to protect her, but knowing that he didn't need to protect her reassured him that marrying her wasn't criminally negligent. Though he was still willing to die before letting danger get anywhere near her. "Are you ready to go home?" he asked.
"Don't we have shopping to do?"
"Tomorrow will be soon enough to make you lethal."
She gave him a concerned look. "Does it bother you, me wanting the wherewithal to do this sort of thing myself?"
"For all your accusations of my treating you like a tea rose, helpless women never appealed to me. You are still you, no matter what weapons might be in your hands, and I love you."
"Don't let me lose myself, though. My urges to violence frighten me, sometimes."
He took her damaged hand and kissed it. "As you guard me, so I shall guard you."
She smiled at him. "Sounds fair."