Authors: Courtney Kirchoff
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #Psychological, #Suspense
Text and graphics and cover copyright
2011 Courtney Kirchoff
All rights reserved. Published by Talons.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
By Courtney Kirchoff
For Bertie, Jaden’s first reader.
I wish you could be here.
“There is neither happiness nor unhappiness in this world; there is only the comparison of one state with another. Only a man who has felt ultimate despair is capable of feeling ultimate bliss. It is necessary to have wished for death in order to know how good it is to live...”
(The Count of Monte Cristo)
Libby needed drugs. Obvious signs of misery approached, and if she didn’t get her hands on four ibuprofen soon, she would spend the rest of the day in agony, cursing the heavens and all its residents. Restocking her mobile pharmacy (her purse) with a dozen pills for situations like this had never slipped her stupid mind before. Except today. She hated herself.
Her iPhone found the nearest drugstore in Seattle: a pulsing blue button of relief. When she arrived, her first impression of the place caused her to turn up her nose, cluck her tongue, and made her wish she had her gun. With a regretful glance at the woebegone store, she swallowed a healthy dose of who-cares and went inside.
The door toned a sour
when she entered. Lingering fumes of tobacco and dirty diapers wafted about the place. Slanted mirrors joined the upper walls with the ceiling, reflecting a distorted and unflattering image of herself. She tried not to look, but was morbidly fascinated by her squat appearance. Libby followed a logical path to the drugs in the corner of the store.
She grabbed a box and read the label. How was this pain killer better than the box for half price?
A man came and stopped beside her, presumably browsing the shelves. Without looking directly at him, Libby observed his slightly less than average height, lean stature, and dark hair and long beard. She wanted to get a better look at him, but told herself to concentrate on her imminent anguish. He was probably just a construction worker on a break. Not interesting.
She replaced the box and picked up another, annoyed with her indecisive tendencies. Why did it matter, and what did she know about drug compounds? This box was the same as the last, but half the price. It was a no-brainer.
The man stared at her. She kept her eyes averted, pretending to read the box, but his staring was persistent. Granted this skirt did make her buns look great, and she’d used the shampoo that made her hair bouncy and shiny, and her blouse hugged her in all the right places, but he could look at other things occasionally, and try to pretend he wasn’t staring. Admittedly, though, it was flattering.
Libby turned her eyes to him, her head followed.
A beard and long, black hair framed his angular face. Eyes of soft gray stared back at her, not creepily, but with desperate curiosity. A bruise was forming on his right temple, but that seemed out of place. Though his clothes were old and threadbare, they were clean. He reminded her of a homeless man, but his hair was glossy, his skin free of dirt or grease. He was odorless.
Libby regarded him and raised her eyebrows, curling her lips slightly.
“Hi,” he said in a deep, gravelly voice.
She gave him a demure half smile, and he turned away. “Sorry,” he mumbled. An apology for the staring? He tore his eyes from her, retuning his attention to the shelf.
Her drug of choice decided, Libby made to leave when she noticed blood dripping from the man’s nose.
“You’re bleeding,” she said to him, pointing to her own nose.
He put his fingers to his nostrils, then pulled them away to find blood. At first he appeared unconcerned, bemused even. Then his face contorted in agony. Blood drained freely, and Libby was alarmed to see blood dripping out his ears. The man clutched the sides of his head and roared in pain.
He stumbled backwards, his legs wobbling. Libby grabbed his elbows to keep him from falling too hard, but instead fell with him when he crashed to the ground. Now shrieking, the man shook, as if seizing.
“Someone help!” Libby yelled. She kneeled beside him, watching him shake, not knowing what to do.
“What’s going on?” asked the clerk.
“I don’t know! I think he’s having a seizure, call an ambulance!” she yelled.
The shaking subsided to a low rumble, the color drained from his face. His bloodshot eyes locked onto hers as he breathed laboriously.
“Hang on,” she said, taking his hand. “We’re going to take you to the hospital.”
“No,” he mumbled, lips quivering. “No.” His eyelids drooped, but he fought to keep them open.
“You had a seizure or something.” she said. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.”
But he shook his head and tried getting up. “No, I can’t.”
“You’re bleeding from your nose and ears and you fell down shaking. That’s not a symptom of a migraine,” she told him. His hand trembled in hers, but its grip weakened with each passing second. Libby was confused; she’d never seen anything like this.
Phone to his ear, the clerk requested an ambulance and tried describing the symptoms of the fallen man.
With effort, the stranger gasped in a hoarse voice: “Don’t let them take me!”
The desperate declaration made her shiver. Libby stared into his feral eyes, which moments before had been kind. He shook his head violently, not from a seizure, but to reaffirm his unwillingness to be taken anywhere. With one last shallow breath, his eyes closed.
Heart booming in her ears, Libby put her fingers under his beard to his neck. The pulse was steady; he’d only lost consciousness.
She tried rousing the man with a firm shake, but he didn’t wake. The store clerk and a few shoppers hovered over them. The bleeding had stopped and his breathing was steady. In fact, if she hadn’t seen what had just happened, she would have assumed he was sleeping. It was bizarre.
After several minutes, she heard a siren. Libby wiped the blood from the man’s nose and ears with a damp towel the clerk gave her. She brushed away some of the man’s hair to see his face. The bruise on his right temple, was that why he collapsed? Head trauma? It hadn’t bothered him while he was watching her, why did it affect him so suddenly?
The paramedics asked the usual questions, but she could give no answers. No, she didn’t know him. No, she didn’t know if he was allergic to any medications. The man carried no identification, not even a library card. His wallet contained only cash: twenty-two dollars and fourteen cents. He had no phone, business cards, or coupons. There were no house or car keys in any of his pockets.
Libby watched the medics load him into the ambulance. She chewed on a fingernail and thought. She hadn’t told the medics what the man had said.
“What hospital?” she asked.
“Virginia Mason,” a medic replied. They slammed the back doors and were gone.
She plugged the hospital into her phone, getting directions as she walked to her car, intending to drive there. But why? She didn’t know the stranger. Everyone carried
with them, only those needing to remain anonymous left everything at home. Citizens who went incognito were criminals. Reason dictated the man was a fugitive. Did that not fit with his words?
Don’t let them take me
. Like the police.
Something bothered her. He didn’t carry a phone or keys. Even criminals had keys. It didn’t jive.
Maybe he was a clean homeless man. Not all homeless were dirty, were they? Was she being too judgmental? His healthy hair was long but trimmed; white teeth, straight, and sparkling, old clothes clean, immaculate. Now that she thought of it, when she got close to him to check his pulse, he smelled like a spring day. Either he was the cleanest homeless man ever, or he wasn’t homeless at all.
But no house keys...perhaps he was married or had a roommate and didn’t carry keys because someone could let him in. Yet if he had someone at home, then he would carry ID, should an emergency arise and friends and family need notification.
There was no wedding band on his finger. As a single woman, she checked all left hands of men her age out of habit. He wasn’t married.
Which meant he had to be a criminal, someone on the run, like a mass murderer, serial rapist, arsonist, or thief.
It still didn’t seem right. He wasn’t creepy. Yes, he had stared at her. Honestly, though, she looked fabulous today. Humility aside, she was an attractive woman. Men were bound to notice. He stared neither hungrily or savagely, and when she caught him, he turned away with a faint smile around his eyes, a little embarrassed. Not the MO of a serial rapist.
Oh, what do you know about any of that?
True, her experience was limited when it came to hardened criminals. Television shows were fictional. Not all bad guys prowled the streets with tattoos and devious countenances. In fact, the worst bad guys didn’t seem menacing at all: they were charming, affectionate, charismatic and secretive.
Libby parallel parked near the hospital, amazed she found an empty spot.
She watched people filtering in and out of the hospital’s front doors. This wasn’t any of her business. She didn’t know a single thing about this man except what he told her. He was afraid of something or someone. Hospitals were police magnets; he would be spotted here. Clearly, he didn’t want to be found.
She should drive away, take the next ferry across the water and continue her day. There was so much to do: a weekend to plan, clients to answer to. But something anchored her there: a curiosity bordering on responsibility. He was a semi-tall, dark, and mysterious stranger. She wanted—no—she
to know who he was.
With a sigh, she got out of her car and made her way into the hospital lobby. He should be in the ER. She went there.
Dozens of people sat in the waiting room, some bored, reading out-of-date magazines, others obviously struggling with discomfort. She went to the reception desk to inquire.
“Hi,” she said to the nurse at the desk. “I’m following up on a man who collapsed in a store. I don’t know what’s wrong with him, and the medics didn’t either. He didn’t carry any identification, so I guess that makes him a John Doe? Could you check the system for me?”
Without responding, the nurse entered some keystrokes into her computer.
“Yes, they have him here in a shared room. Only family can see him.”