“I need you,” the woman he’d never seen before whispered as her eyes drifted closed again.
He patted her cheek, “Come on, stay with me, okay?” He looked at the crowd growing around the scene of the accident. “Someone call nine-one-one, now!” He struggled out of his jacket and covered the woman, tucking it around her gently. He leaned down, made sure she was breathing. That was the first time he heard the voice.
Startled, he looked up, but no one acted like they’d spoken to him. He spotted her phone on the street near her shoulder, and without thinking, he pocketed it. Her eyes fluttered, but she remained unresponsive.
A young woman emerged from the crowd and rushed to his side. She took off her scarf. “I’m in nursing school. Maybe I can help?” With careful hands, she placed the scarf over the woman’s legs. Turning wide eyes on him, she said, “I saw the whole thing. It wasn’t your fault.” She patted his arm, “I’m Trudy.”
He blinked away the moisture in his eyes. “Cliff. Thanks for that,” he looked back down at the prone woman, “but it doesn’t really help.”
“I know… I know. She just came out of… nowhere.”
“Yeah, she did. Wonder why she was so hell for leather?” Where the hell were the police?
Trudy checked the unconscious woman’s pulse while maintaining a steady stream of chatter. “It all happened so fast, you know? Why would someone run out into the middle of the street like that? Do you think she’s going to be okay?” She glanced at the woman. “I don’t know her or anything, but it looked like she was kind of scared.”
Cliff felt a burst of frustration. His nerves were shot, and this girl was talking a mile a minute.
“I’m sorry, Mist-”
“Cliff, just Cliff.”
“Sorry, Cliff, obviously she was scared. I just,” she blinked, and a tear plopped out of her eye, “it just scared the hell out of me. So loud, and I just… I thought…”
“Look,” Cliff placed his hand on her shoulder, “don’t worry about it. He looked down at the woman laying so still between them. “I’m as scared as you are.”
Trudy studied his face for a moment. She started to say something when sirens redirected their attention. He took the opportunity to slip the pilfered phone into the pocket of her backpack.
“Finally.” Cliff stood protectively over the fallen woman while Trudy stood up, her eyes never leaving his face.
“I’ll stay with you the whole time.” Her eyes glistened as she studied him, “I’ll make sure they know what happened, that it wasn’t your fault.”
He thanked her offhandedly, which didn’t dampen her devotion one bit. As promised, Trudy stuck by his side as if they were glued, until night turned into morning, all through the preliminary questioning at the scene, right through to the police station where they were necessarily separated; she to a witness room, and Cliff to an interrogation room.
“Clifford Jan Yates,” an Officer Mills read from the tablet in his hand, “says here your license is pretty old. You really been operating a cab for,” he looked over his readers into Cliff’s face, “twenty years?”
Cliff held his gaze. “I’m older than I look.”
“Must be. I’d figure you to be about thirty-four. That would mean,” the officer narrowed his eyes at a spot just over Cliff’s shoulder, “you obtained your cabbie coin when you were fourteen. And that,” he looked back at the tablet, “is illegal.”
Cliff retained his right to silence.
Officer Mills seemed unhappy with his choice. “We have a witness says you didn’t even touch your brakes when you hit that woman with your twenty-year-old license.”
Anger surged through Cliff. “You and I both know your witness didn’t say that. The woman ran between two parked cars straight into heavy traffic.” He swallowed hard. “I slammed on my brakes. It was just too late.”
A slight shift played over the officer’s face. “As you well know, we can hold you overnight until forensics comes back with preliminaries…”
Mills cleared his throat, “no but. You’ve had the same address for twenty years. No history or priors. In short,” he looked down at the desk top, “we’re done for now.” His mind worked, and he glanced back up at Cliff. “Did she say anything to you? Anything at all?”
Cliff shook his head. “Nothing.”
The officer looked far off for a moment and then collected himself and studied Cliff. “I don’t think we’ll hold you. But don’t disappear on me. Got some paperwork …” He rose heavily from his chair and pulled the tablet into his side. As he went through the door, he called back over his shoulder, “stay in touch.”
The request was no problem for Cliff, he intended to keep on top of the investigation.
True to officer Mills’ word, the police department released Cliff within the hour. He spotted Trudy in wait for him by dispatch and thanked her for sticking with him. When she hugged him, he easily slipped the phone he’d stashed out of its hiding place.
He hailed a taxi and headed straight for the downtown emergency room. Pulling the woman’s cell from his pocket, he turned it on and swiped. A text thread loaded on the screen. “Look, Shayla, men are all…” the text read. “Shayla,” he tried the name aloud. What were you running from, Shayla? Before he could puzzle it, the cab pulled up to the curb of the hospital. He handed a twenty to the driver. “Keep the change.”
The street door to the ER was grimy with dried condensation and exhaust fumes; it grumbled and squealed, needing lubricant in its sliding track. Once it opened wide enough, Cliff strolled through and walked over to the directory, pretending to study it. He noted no security in the lobby and only a scattering of scrubs-clad employees. He spotted the perfect one at a desk cramped into an alcove by the elevators.
“’Scuse me, beautiful,” he beamed at the volunteer wearing too much rouge.
She favored him with a beatific smile. “Hello, young man, how may I help you?”
“I’m here to visit someone, but I don’t know her last name.” He shrugged in apology. “Work friends, you know?”
“Oh, dearie…” she tapped keys with two fingers and looked at the computer screen, “that’s so common, anymore.” She smiled up at him, “what’s her first name?”
More tapping, then the woman’s face fell. “Oh dear.” Mouth downturned, she reached a hand over the counter and patted his. “Terrible accident. She’s in ICU. Visiting hours are one hour, from seven to eight.”
Cliff patted the woman’s hand. “I’ll be back. Thank you, young lady, you’ve been very kind.”
The woman blushed and shook her head. “Oh, you go on, now.”
He winked and withdrew his hand. He had a lot to do before seven.
The moment he stepped onto the sidewalk in front of the office building, he heard the voice again. Where am I? He stopped and looked around. No one paid him any mind, only business-class people bent over their phones, and harried city dwellers rushing to cabs.
Cliff shook it off as a trick of his hot-wired nerves, depleted from lack of sleep. He put his hand to the door and an electric buzz spread up through his forearm, like touching an exposed wire, and a vision took shape in his mind.
The girl, Shayla, hunched over an open desk drawer, one file spread on top of the stacked ones, taking rapid cellphone pictures with shaking hands…
She did work here, then. Standing in the lobby, he tried to make himself inconspicuous. He walked past the security desk, spotted a ball cap and filched it, slipping it on his head in one move. An unopened package lay atop the rolling desk chair. He grabbed that too and tucked it under his arm, then ambled toward the directory. He had no idea where a “Shayla” would work.
A middle-aged man hiding his starter paunch under a tailored, dark grey suit stopped next to him. “Can I help you find someone?”
He smiled, embarrassed, and ducked his head in pretense of reading the package. “Uh, Shayla?” he made his voice halting and unsure.
The man smiled wide. “Ah – Avery’s assistant. That would be third floor. Hang a right at the elevator. Their suite is the last one, door’s at end of the hall.”
Nodding his thanks, Cliff watched as the man entered the elevator. “Going up?” Grey Suit called as he reached for the button panel.
Cliff hooked a thumb at the stairwell. “Leg day.” He pushed through the door, and vaulted up the three flights two steps at a time. Cautiously he opened the door and scoped the landing, hoping Grey Suit didn’t emerge from the elevator. The doors slid open, and he pretended to study the package while several people stepped out. No Grey Suit.
He joined the small crowd headed down the hallway. One by one, every person he walked with disappeared into the suites lining the corridor. Dropping the hat and package on a chair as he passed a brightly lit waiting room, Cliff stepped up to Shayla’s suite and checked through the window. No one manned the reception desk and the suite was dark, unoccupied. Grabbing the door handle, another vision filled his mind.
A man held Shayla’s wrists and pressed her back into a large filing cabinet in the corner of the room. He let go with one hand and seized her face, right over her mouth. His fingers bit into her cheeks. They struggled; Shayla groped at the filing cabinet handles, finally pulling the top one straight out. The cabinet toppled, catching the man on his calf as it fell. He let go of Shayla and she ran for the suite door-
Cliff felt a slight stir of air whisk past him; he turned as it went by. No wonder she was scared. He stood there in the hall, mind working the scenes she’d shown him. She had taken pictures with her phone; the one that now sat in his coat pocket. He needed to get to a quiet place – somewhere away from this office building – where he could relax his mind and work his way through what she’d shown him; comb everything for the smallest detail.
Then he’d take a crack at her phone.
# Continue reading