I never planned to become a hero; it was an accident. I just wanted to disappear for a bit.
I was dozing in and out when the woman’s desperate scream jolted me out of the black, dreamless void. I was on my feet in an instant; the scream echoing through my sleep-fogged brain.
What happened? I scanned the surroundings, taking in the looming silhouettes of HVAC equipment, spindly trees, and loose construction material. Nothing moved; no one was there.
Where was there?
Right, I thought, taking in the half-finished rooftop garden. The University Hospital. Not surprising. It was the tallest building on campus, and I often climbed it when I was too lazy to Run to the ROX radio tower.
A vague memory of yelling at my cell phone flitted across my brain, and I winced. After screaming myself hoarse in a fit of juvenile rebellion, I’d powered the phone off and climbed the roof’s access ladder with a driving need to escape. Then I’d settled onto the half-finished patch of park sod to watch the sunset and…I must have fallen asleep.
Then did I imagine that scream? Dream it?
It was late at night—far later than Sara’s new curfew allowed—so the school had long closed. And with the ER and Trauma Wards under renovation for another two weeks, there was no reason for someone to come looking for medical attention.
Maybe it was a girl returning late to her dorm? Predators weren’t uncommon on campus despite the numerous revisions to security.
Excitement mingled with adrenaline in my stomach. If some drunk girl was screaming, then she probably needed help. A voice in my brain quickly reminded me that I was a young college girl myself, even younger than most, but I shoved it aside. I wasn’t just ‘some girl,’ and if I could help, then I would.
I hurried to the edge of the roof. Bright lights illuminated the empty campus, giving me a clear glimpse of the open sidewalks and barren Green that lay peacefully surrounded by various college buildings. The Unity Fountain sat in the center of the Green where the brick sidewalks all came together to form a central hub. Nothing moved but the water. Moonlight mixed with the wrought iron street lamps, designed after the university’s original gas lamps, casting thin shadows that gave little room to hide.
My brow furrowed, and I set my hands on the roof’s edge, leaning over to scan the sidewalk just below. Still nothing. I frowned. It was a dream after all. I tried not to be disappointed.
A flicker of light caught my attention, and I leaned further over the side, using my knees as an improvised clamp to keep from tumbling off the edge of the roof. One of the third-floor rooms had a light on, and I squinted. I could make out vague shapes against the white curtains, people it seemed, and at least one of them had their hands raised.
Didn’t the third floor have the labs? X-rays and blood work and such? Why was someone in there so late?
A gunshot exploded in the night, accompanied by a chorus of screams as the lighted window shattered.
Well, that escalated quickly.
I pulled myself back onto the roof; the time for thinking over. It didn’t matter why or who or how. I needed to act before someone got hurt.
I slipped my hand into the back pocket of my jeans, my fingers closing around my phone as I ran for the door. I hesitated.
I’d told Sara I hated her not an hour before. I doubted Kale would appreciate that. But he wouldn’t leave me here to fend for myself would he? Not if someone was in trouble. Right?
I reached the roof’s metal door and tried the latch. Locked.
“Judo,” I swore, trying the handle a few more times. I could go down the ladder and come back up through the hospital, but that would take time I didn’t have.
What about the broken window? But no, that wasn’t likely. The window as almost four floors down, and I had nothing to anchor me if I fell. I needed help.
Gritting my teeth, I pulled out my phone and hit Kale’s number. It rang. And rang. And rang.
Shouts filtered through the broken window. I rushed to the edge to listen but the voices were too distant for me to make more than a few shouted words. I heard someone sobbing before a woman cried out in shock, and a man suddenly shouted. Was he defending her or menacing her?
“Please, Kale,” I begged. “I’m sorry, okay? So please, please pick up.”
The phone clicked.
“Kale!” I exclaimed as quietly as I could. “Thank Judo.”
“That’s all you have to say?” Kale returned, his voice dark and gravelly over the phone. “Sara’s been crying herself into hysterics for hours, Angela. Do you have any idea how worried we’ve been—?”
“I know you’re mad, Kale, and I’m sorry. I swear I am.” I leaned over the parapet again, trying to see into the broken window. Why hadn’t anyone else reacted to the gunshot? The hospital stood apart from the rest of campus, but not that far. At the very least, hospital security should have responded. “I need your help.”
Kale scoffed. “Of course you do.”
“I’m at school,” I said, scraping my nails across the concrete ledge as my body itched to move. “On the roof of the hospital.”
“How in the seven—”
“Someone broke in,” I said, feeling a dull ache in my fingers before I abruptly stopped scraping. The last thing I needed was to leave my DNA at a crime scene. “They have a gun.”
Kale swore. And not one of the watered-down kiddie ones he used for Sara’s benefit. “I’ll call it in ASAP. You did good letting me know.”
“Who said I’m letting you know?” I said. The raised voices escalated and somehow I just knew…The gun went off, and the woman screamed denials. My grip tightened on the phone. “I’m requesting backup.”
“Angela!” Kale said, his voice distant as I pulled the phone away. “Don’t do anything stupid!”
“Stupid?” I laughed dryly. “When have I ever done anything stupid?”
I ended the call, cutting him off. It was time to do something stupid.
The Good, The Big, and The Ugly
I ducked the fist aimed at my head while holding my Bluetooth in place with two fingers. Big, Bad, Ugly, and Junior were giving me a decent fight, though it would have gone better for them if they knew how to coordinate.
“Yes, Doc, I did my homework.” I let go of my Bluetooth as I twisted beneath Ugly’s overextended arm. “I even had Justice check it before I came out.”
Down on one knee, I threw my elbow back and nailed him in the lower ribs, and the bones gave slightly beneath the strike. Ugly half-groaned, half-choked, and I pulled back before he collapsed and/or threw up on me. Neither would pleasant; never mind both.
“Oh, don’t you give me that tone of voice. Do you know how many times I’ve gotten calls from the university this month alone? If you have to repeat classes, you won’t graduate in time!”
Bad leaped at me, though I couldn’t tell if he was shaking from anger or fear as he roared something half-intelligible about revenge. Or he could have been swearing at me. That seemed more likely.
I sidestepped and held out my arm. Bad was far taller than me, so I had to jump up and forward to reach his throat, but that just made my arm-bar all the worse. He tipped backward, choking, and I hooked my elbow around his neck, dragging him to the ground as I landed in a crouch. He reached for my arm with two meaty hands, but I trapped him between my elbow and knee.
“Seeing as I’m only seventeen, I doubt graduating ‘on time’ will be an issue. Don’t most people finish college in their twenties?”
Bad was turning an interesting shade of reddish-purple—puce?—and it would only be another second before he was out. Scraping shoes on asphalt told me I wouldn’t have that second.
“Most people don’t drop out of high school.”
“I did not drop out.” I rolled away from Bad just in time to avoid Big’s size fifteen boot. It was a nice boot too; black leather with steel-toes and no cumbersome zipper. If they came in ‘little-girl’ sizes, I’d get me a pair. “Dropping out implies I had no intention to finish.”
I swept at Big’s ankles, but he took a single step back, putting himself out of my range. I grunted and rolled back to my feet. I hate being short.
“Do you intend to finish? Because I’m not so confident.”
“That’s an unfair question,” I said. “Since passing my GED would imply that I have finished. Now I’m expanding.”
I kicked out behind me, catching Junior in the chest and throwing him to the ground. He curled in on himself, gasping. I stepped up to him; hands propped on my hips. He really did look young, maybe seventeen or eighteen. I shook my head.
“Do yourself a favor and stay down,” I said. “In fact, get out while you can. It will only get worse from here.”
He glared at me, still clutching his chest where my heel had driven into his torso. He’d be lucky if his ribs weren’t broken. He spit at me. The spittle barely made it through his lips and instead dribbled down the side of his mouth. I sighed and turned away.
“Oh please.” Sara scoffed. “Don’t even go there.”
Big and Ugly had recovered from my hits, but they kept their distance. That was a good idea, if not annoying. My greatest asset had always been my size and stature. Being only 5’2” and weighing in at a dramatic 103 lbs., people naturally dismissed me as a threat. That gave me the advantage of surprise, but only for so long. It looked like my time was up.
“Hey, Doc,” I said, using Sara’s codename. “Can we finish this discussion later?”
“Why?” Sara asked, wariness creeping into her authoritative tone. “Are you hurt? Should I get Kale?”
“I’m not hurt.” Not yet, anyway. “I just need to concentrate a little more. I’ll call again when I’m done.”
“Call Kale. I’m going to bed.” That wasn’t unusual. Sara worked swing shift in the ER at the University Medical Center, often putting in overtime, so she crashed hard when she got home. It surprised me that she’d hung on so long. It was almost 4:30.
“Will do,” I said, keeping careful track of Ugly, who was trying to circle behind me.
“You know me.” I hung up before Sara could retort and pulled the Bluetooth from my ear, tucking it into my back pocket. “Sorry about that, boys. Where were we?”
Big scowled, and Ugly froze in his predatory circling when I pinned him with an unimpressed stare. I had just dispatched two of his companions while casually chatting on the phone. Did he really think I’d let him get behind me?
Wait. Why was Junior the only one huddled on the ground?
What happened to Bad?
I heard the sharp cut of displaced air and threw myself to the ground. Bad grunted and swung again. I rolled to the side, and Bad’s rebar slammed against the sidewalk with a ringing crack. Where did that come from?
“Really guys?” I jumped to my feet and put my back toward the brick wall. Best not to let them get behind me. “Here we are having a friendly brawl, and you go and pull a weapon?”
Big scowled. “Smash her masked face in, Jay.”
“Well, now you’re just being rude.”
Bad didn’t hesitate to swing again. I ducked, moving the opposite direction of the swinging bar to twist around behind Bad’s back. I threw up my elbow, cracking him on the back of his head in just the right spot. He collapsed.
“Oww!” I wailed, clutching my reverberating elbow. “What is your head made of? Titanium?!”
Being unconscious, Bad didn’t respond. Junior inched across the ground, reaching for the rebar. I slammed my booted foot down, pinning the bar to the ground.
“Really?” I asked, my annoyance pulsing with the pain in my arm. “Do you want me to break your upper ribs too? They’re harder to reach, but I don’t mind the practice!”
Junior swallowed hard and released the bar.
“Good boy.” Slipping my boot beneath the bar, I flipped it into my hand. “So, do we need to keep doing this?” I asked, pointing the rebar at the gang’s last two would-be enforcers. “Or will you sit still and let me cuff you?”
Big and Ugly ran.
I tossed the rebar onto a pile of garbage bags and sighed. “Why do they always run?”
Pulling out two lengths of rope from my utility belt—there’s no other word for it—I quickly settled Bad and Junior against the alley wall, situating Bad so he was lying as comfortably as possible when I tied his hands and feet together.
“You too, Junior.”
He reluctantly pushed to his feet and stumbled over. I instructed him on how to sit to avoid agitating his injured ribs as I tied him up.
“Here,” I said, setting a typed slip of paper on his lap. “Hand this to the nice police officer who comes to pick you up.”
“‘I require the following medical attention’?” He read before looking up, confusion marring his young face. “Thank you?”
I grinned and patted his head. “You’re welcome.” I stood. “Stay in school.”
Junior nodded dumbly, good enough for me, and I ran toward the alley wall. Jumping at the last second, I kicked off the wall and ricocheted toward the rusty fire escape. I grabbed the lowest bar and pulled myself up and over the railing.
It was a quick climb to the top, and I jumped directly from the fire escape to the adjacent roof. If there was one thing to say about living on an overpopulated island, it’s that the buildings are all tall and close together. Which may not be an upside to most people, but I found it to be very convenient.
I raced across the flattop roof in the direction the two men fled. If I was lucky, they’d have followed their limited common-sense and split up. That would let me surprise them one on one rather than having to fight them together.
Reaching the edge of the roof, I launched myself from the ledge to the lower building across the gap. I tucked and rolled to absorb the shock and came up running. I continued that way, moving from roof to roof as I peered into alleys and listened for the sound of frantic feet and panicked breathing. I figured they would follow the alley until the first turn; people tend to duck and weave when chased, but they almost always follow a pattern. It was just a matter of figuring out which pattern these men had fallen into.
I could see signs of their passage, recently toppled trashcans or spooked rats scampering across the dirty streets. Another trashcan fell with a crash, and harsh whispers followed. It seemed they hadn’t split up as I’d hoped.
Moving carefully, I crossed my current roof and looked over the side. Big and Ugly had come to a dead end and were debating whether they should double back or continue forward.
“We lost her, man,” Big said as Ugly paced, muttering to himself. “If she was gonna catch us, she’d have done it by now.”
Shows what you know.
Unfortunately, getting down would be a problem. The building was only four stories, but I couldn’t see a fire escape, and I’d left my backpack with Bad and Junior. I could just drop down onto Big, he was certainly large enough to break my fall, but that would probably kill him.
I looked across to the next roof. It was only about six feet, narrower than most and an easy jump, but jumping the gap wouldn’t help me. Jumping against the wall, however…
It was a crazy idea, and I’d never practiced it, but some things just had to be learned in the moment. Trial by Fire and all that.
I took a deep breath and shook myself out. Ugly was calming down, Big’s arguments seemed to work. Good, that would give back my element of surprise. Standing on the lip of the roof, squinting into the shadows cast by the setting moon, I shrugged off my sense of self-preservation and jumped.
I fell at an angle, reaching for the far wall with one leg. My booted foot connected with the wall and I bent my leg, pushing off. I fell again, this time in the opposite direction, and hit the wall with my other foot. I bounced twice more, keeping a careful eye on the approaching ground, but shifted at the last second so both my feet were flat against the wall. I shot forward like a bullet, my shoulder slamming into Big’s stomach. He grunted, thrown back, and connected hard with the alley wall. He slumped against the debris-scattered street.
A quick check revealed a strong, steady pulse, and I sighed in relief. That last move had been risky for both of us. I stood slowly, doing my best to appear menacing despite my diminutive stature. Ugly stared at me, his face twisted into an unflattering gape.
“So, are you going to come quietly? Or do I need to hit you too?”
Ugly swallowed hard and raised his hands.