“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.
Cliff headed toward a little cafe in the neighborhood which boasted the best cup of coffee in town and was only a short walk from the hospital. Most of the staff knew his face well enough to have his coffee poured by the time he sat down, and he tipped well enough they’d look the other way when he set up camp for a while.
Ducking under the bell attached at the top of the door frame, Cliff nodded a greeting to Stefano in the kitchen and took a quiet booth in the back. In short order, a worn-down beauty with a tired smile set a heavy stoneware mug in front of him and poured.
“Hey, stranger. You just getting started?”
“Hey, Emmy, how’s Sonny?”
She gave him a grateful smile. “Oh, he’s hanging in there, Cliff.” She pulled a rolled-up set of silverware out of her apron pocket and placed it in front of him. “He’s still got three more treatments, but he’s bearing up like a little man.”
Cliff patted her hand. “Well, I’m keeping you both in my thoughts.” He nodded toward the cook. “Stef make any hash today?”
“Sure did, coming right up.” She dropped a couple of creamer pods on his table and went to put his order in.
While he waited he sipped coffee and closed his eyes, replaying the visions. Files which meant nothing to him and an altercation with a man whose face he couldn’t see; nothing struck him outside of the vague feeling that something about the man seemed familiar. He opened his eyes when Emmy set his hash down.
“Anything else, Cliff?”
“Let me kill some time here?”
She smiled. “Sure.” She whispered, “you can refill your mug if I don’t get to you.”
He dug into his hash and thought about his ability to pick up people’s thoughts. The dubious gift – not his word – was relatively new and he was a clumsy practitioner. Most of the time it only caused him grief, but on rare occasions it brought him good things, like his friendship with Emmy. But the situation with Shayla… Nothing he could do would assuage his guilt, but if he could figure out what made her run into traffic, it might lift the burden a bit.
While raising his fork, he heard it again.
“Can you help me?”
He grew very still and shut his eyes. Who are you? he aimed his thought at the voice. After what seemed like several minutes he almost gave up, then-
“You can hear me! Who are you? Can you tell me where I am? What happened to me?”
He almost laughed at the absurdity. I’m Cliff. Please slow down. I’m freaking out that you can talk in my head.
“I can’t move and it’s dark.”
What’s the last thing you remember doing?
Cliff forked some hash, then thought better of it and pushed the plate away. How could he eat when he was hearing voices in his head?
“I remember coffee. I spilled it on those files.”
Files. His heart slammed against his chest and he forced himself to calm down. He pushed his thought toward her, Is your name Shayla?
“Who are you? How do you know my name?”
How to tell the woman you put in a coma who you are? Cliff chewed his lip and sipped his cooling coffee. Only way to do it was to do it.
I’m the guy who hit you.
He waited for seven minutes. Unable to bear the silence he usually craved, he got up to fill his mug. Before he got to the machine, another vision flooded his mind.
Shayla was running down the hallway. She bypassed the elevator and ran into the stairwell, darting down the steps too fast. Out the door into the building’s lobby- Cliff recognized the security desk – she looked behind her and pushed out the front door, ignoring the security guard’s greeting. She stopped briefly on the sidewalk, looking both ways and then she spotted a bike cop on the other side of the street – Help! – she headed straight for him, and-
Cliff sank onto a bar stool at the counter. She had tried to get to help. And she ran straight into his cab.
Shayla. He shut his eyes and rubbed his temples. What was in those files?
She flooded him with spreadsheets and document pages which made no sense to Cliff.
Wait, please. What is all that stuff? I don’t understand-
“Legal paperwork. He’s cheating the city. Millions. I saw. I saw the numbers.”
“Harrison. Harrison. He’s -”
He jumped and splashed coffee over the counter. Trudy bit her lip and took a small step away from him.
“I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to,” she grabbed a handful of napkins, “here let me clean this up.” She dabbed at the spilled coffee, darting glances at him.
“Trudy.” Cliff shook his head. “What are you doing here?”
She took a shaky breath and then looked at him. “I followed you.”
“From where?” He mentally retraced his steps. “I left you at the police station an hour and a half ago.”
“I know.” She perched on the stool next to his. “I want to help you.”
He looked askance at her. “You have. You told the cops it wasn’t my fault. That helped.”
She avoided eye contact with him and picked at her backpack handle. “I work in the building that woman works in.”
Cliff narrowed his eyes. “I thought you said you didn’t know her.”
Trudy shrugged. “I don’t. But I’ve seen her.”
“Did you tell the cops?”
Her eyes welled up. “Yes, of course.” She looked out the window. “But they weren’t interested in what I told them.”
“Trudy,” Cliff felt his neck hairs stand on end, “what did you tell them?”
She took a deep breath and swiped at her eye.
“There’s this guy, in our building. He’s kind of a … player. He hits on all the executive assistants.” Cliff looked at her in question, but she shook her head.
“Not me. I clean offices. I don’t think I’m his type.”
Cliff grabbed her a mug and filled both their cups with coffee. “Did you ever see this guy around Shayla?”
“Shayla. That’s a pretty name. That’s her, huh?” She stirred her coffee. “Once. He was sort of hovering over her and she looked annoyed.” She blew on her coffee and looked at him as she sipped.
“Can you describe him, Trudy?”
She snugged her shoulders up and closed her eyes, then studied him.
“He’s shorter than you, like maybe four inches. He’s thin, and he fake tans. But he’s not, like, athletic. You know?”
Cliff didn’t know, but he didn’t want to get her off track.
“Do you know what floor he’s on?”
She nodded. “Yeah, he’s on the same floor as Shayla.” Trudy smiled, “I have clients all over the building, so I know a lot of faces.”
They sat in quiet for a moment. Trudy narrowed her eyes.
“I want you to tell me something now.”
Cliff glanced sideways at her. “What’s that?”
“What are you doing spying around the building? Going to the hospital? Why’d you grab that woman’s – Shayla’s – phone at the accident and stash it in my backpack?”
On the walk to the hospital Cliff told Trudy as little information as would satisfy her and repeatedly urged her to stay away from the whole mess. He left out the parts about the voices and visions. Trudy was on his side; he didn’t want to change that.
Cliff followed her through the squeaky ER door.
“When we get to the ICU, let me do all the talking, okay?”
She turned and gaped at him.
“I’m a student nurse, Cliff! I might actually be useful here.”
They were already attracting more attention than he wanted. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into the corner. He leaned in close.
“Trudy, give me a break. I wanted to do this on my own but here you are. So just,” he shook his head. “Just – trust me, okay?”
She blinked rapidly, and a blush rose in her cheeks.
“Yes, sure, Cliff. Anything.” Her eyes softened, and her lips parted slightly.
Cliff studied her a moment and then he pulled back.
“Wait a minute. What… what are you up to?”
She darted her eyes away. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Yes, you do. First, you’re just a random bystander, then you tell me you work in the same building as Shayla. Now, you’re desperate to help. What’re you after Trudy?”
Her face reddened and she bit her lip, avoiding his eyes.
“I just… I mean, I want to,” she covered her face with her hands and let out a groan. “I’m sorry, I have – I have to go!” She pulled herself from his grasp and hurried back out the door.
He watched her leave, confused, and then started toward the elevator bay, stopping short when he saw Grey Suit striding over to the volunteer greeter from earlier. He hung back against the wall just around the corner and watched.
Grey Suit obtained his information, thanked the woman, and walked away a few paces before turning around.
“Which way to the gift shop?” he asked.
She pointed and gave him some directions Cliff couldn’t hear. He waited until Grey Suit disappeared down the hall before ducking back around the corner and following him.
Cliff slid into an aisle just the other side of Grey Suit at the counter and busied himself with a display of over-priced city souvenirs. The cashier came back out with a bouquet and asked Grey Suit if he liked it. He told her it was perfect and gave her his credit card. The cashier finished his transaction and asked if he wanted to fill out a card and the man told her “just write ‘Shayla Galloway’ on the front, no message.”
Shayla Galloway. At least now he knew her last name.
Cliff followed Grey Suit all the way back to the office building, careful to keep his distance. He went into the lobby and waited until the man got into an empty elevator, then he watched the counter tick off the floors. Number Three. Funny; earlier Grey Suit hadn’t exited at the third floor. Had he tried to evade Cliff’s notice? Cliff went to the directory and scanned down the names and suite numbers. His eyes caught and held a name: Harrison D. Burroughs in Suite 322.
He took the stairs again, feeling the sleepless night. He’d been up since four yesterday morning; over thirty-six hours. How could he rest with Shayla’s voice in his head? For whatever reason, they were connected; he wouldn’t let her down. He slipped out the third-floor door and turned down the opposite hall this time, following the fake wood plaque with an arrow pointing left, and “Suites 301 – 322” written on it.
The suite was brightly lit; a man in pressed jeans and a suede jacket with a Bluetooth headset blinking at his ear paced back and forth in a big foyer just beyond the hand carved wood entry door. Aside the door an etched glass window read “Burroughs and Lehigh, Architectural Solutions.” Beyond reception, Cliff could see a row of tilted desks, intent workers bent over them, and several people milling about. Lots of polished chrome, glass, and heavy wood. Everything he saw screamed money.
The man with the Bluetooth looked right at him and stopped pacing. Cliff pretended he’d gotten turned around and headed back down the way he’d come. Before he’d gone a third of the way, the guy opened the door and called out to him.
“Hey, there. Something I can help you find?”
Cliff waved over his shoulder and said, ‘wrong building.’ He turned the corner at the elevator bay and waited to hear the heavy door shut before continuing down to Shayla’s suite. He touched the door knob, bracing for another vision, but nothing came. Glancing back over his shoulder he leaned in and lifted the knob while pushing. Nothing happened. He sighed and grabbed his wallet, fishing out the thin instruments a lenient judge in juvenile court once told him he’d have to give up and went to work on the lock. It took him a tense several minutes, but he got it opened.
Once in, he pushed the door closed and began his search. For what, he didn’t know; but he figured it would come to him the same weird way everything else had for the last day and a half. The filing cabinet had been set aright, but the contents were haphazardly stacked, some on top of the cabinet and some on the desk and chair. He pulled on the top drawer and it screeched. It was dented all to hell and probably needed replacing. Just past the desk, a small hallway led to more closed doors.
Cliff slipped down the hall, taking careful steps, and listening as he went. The office was truly deserted. He tried the first door. It opened into a tidy powder room. The rest of the doors but one had names on them and were all locked. The one exception opened into a combination copier and storage room. He was just about to leave when he heard the suite door creak open. He pushed the door closed and flattened against the wall. Downtown was closing for the day, but it still wasn’t dark enough outside to conceal him. If whoever it was came in, he was screwed.
The insulation in the walls must have been thick. Cliff couldn’t hear anything. He could feel the sweat making a path down the middle of his back, though. Whoever was out there was terribly quiet. He brushed his fingers across the doorknob, feeling for a lock, but it had none. The knob started to turn so he grabbed it and squeezed hard with both hands. After a long thirty seconds, the person gave up. Cliff heard a footstep or two outside the door and then silence. Just as he thought about making a get-away, a shrill voice interrupted the quiet.
“What are you doing in here?”
A deep voice replied but Cliff couldn’t make out the words. As the higher pitched voice made reply, his knees went weak. Trudy.
The intruder passed his hiding place and Cliff heard him say, “It’s okay, I didn’t mean to startle you. Avery and I are good friends. He asked me to check on…” Cliff couldn’t make out anything else.
Very carefully, Cliff cracked the door. Trudy was escorting the man out of the suite and scolding him for interrupting her cleaning schedule. He had to admit, she was quick on her feet. When the suite door closed, he cautiously stepped into the hall. As he approached the reception area, he heard soft shuffling noises and some furniture movement.
“Trudy don’t be-”
“Shit!” Trudy raised up and bumped her head on the mangled cabinet drawer that Cliff left open. “You scared the hell out of me!” She rubbed her forehead and stared daggers at him.
“I apologize.” He stepped over and shoved the drawer back in place. “Can I have a look?”
Reluctantly she moved her hand and turned toward him.
“Well, you scraped it, but it’s not bleeding.” He looked at her. “I thought I told you to stay away from this.”
She straightened. “One, you’re not my boss. And two, I’m doing my job. I am literally supposed to be here.” She glanced away from him. “You’re the one in the wrong place.”
“You work in this office? This suite, this business is one of your clients?” Cliff folded his arms over his chest. “Have you told me anything that wasn’t a lie?”
Her lower jaw jutted as she continued to avoid eye contact with him. “No. Okay? No. They aren’t one of my clients.”
“How did you get in here?”
Trudy looked at the door and then back at him. “You must have left the door open. And not just for me, either.”
Cliff walked over to the door and peered out the slim window. Two men stood in the hallway just beyond the landing. “Who was in here?”
“That slime ball, the one I told you about.”
“We have to go.”
Cliff opened the door and slipped out with Trudy close to his side. The two men seemed absorbed in their conversation and Cliff thought they might make it to the stairwell undetected. Just before they got to the landing, the man facing them sidestepped the other man and headed their way. The other man turned to say something and stopped, his eyes narrowing first on Trudy, and then on Cliff. Grey Suit. Only he had his jacket off. His mouth tightened but he just turned and headed back into the Architectural office with the carved wood door.
“We’ve been spotted.” Cliff took Trudy’s elbow and steered her toward the elevator. “Was that the slime ball?”
“Yeah, that was him.”
“Trudy, this ain’t good, kid.”
She shrugged his hand off her elbow. “I’m not a kid.”
“It’s just an expression.” He sighed heavily. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I want you to stay close to me.”
She blushed and looked away from him. “Why? I thought you wanted me out.”
“I think that guy is dangerous. I think he recognized me from this morning, and he thinks we know something.”
“Wait. What does he have to do with anything? Shayla was distracted, she ran into traffic, and you hit her, end of story.”
The elevator doors opened, and a few people stood waiting. Cliff put a finger to his lips and gave a slight shake of his head. Trudy dutifully followed him out and into the fresh air before she said anything else.
“What’s this about, Cliff?”
He pulled his cell out of his shirt pocket. “Here, give me your number.”
Trudy recited it for him and he called her phone.
“You’ve got mine now.” He glanced around the plaza. “Visiting hour starts soon. I have to be at the hospital, which means you have to be there too.”
After a moment, a sly smile spread over her lips and Trudy wrapped her arms around Cliff’s. “Fine with me. Consider me glue.”
The city darkened like a curtain falling. Daytime industry, like a shift-change, surrendered to inhabitants more accustomed to working in the dark. Cliff’s shoulder stood in place of a pillow for Trudy’s lolling head.
“Hey,” he nudged her, “you going to make it?”
She sat up and looked out over the duck filled pond in the quiet Medi-park.
“I’m fine.” She looked at him. “Maybe a little hungry.”
“There’s food in there.”
In unspoken agreement, they got up and made their way to the hospital’s cafeteria. Cliff filled a cup with stale machine coffee and grabbed a pre-made sandwich off the rack along the line. Trudy turned her nose up at the vague meat salad filling. She grabbed a cello wrapped salad from a bed of ice.
“How can you eat that crap?”
Cliff glanced down at her salad bowl. “Everything in mine’s been neutralized with preservatives. You have to trust your raw stuff has been properly washed.”
Trudy tossed her salad back on the ice and grabbed a brownie from the desserts. “This’ll do.”
Cliff thought she looked a little green.
“I was just kidding. Get your salad.”
He reached for it, but she grabbed his hand. “No, no thanks. You’ve already ruined it for me.”
They ate in exhausted silence. His coffee was horrible, but Cliff rather enjoyed the sandwich. Down to a quarter he offered Trudy a bite. She rolled her eyes, but then snatched it from his hand.
“You’re welcome.” He smiled and after she swallowed the last bite, she smiled back.
“You’re right. It wasn’t half bad.”
Cliff reached over to ruffle the top of her head but stopped in mid-reach at the sight of Trudy’s face paling.
“What, are you going to be sick?”
She gave a slight shake of her head. “He’s here.”
Cliff fought the urge to turn around. Trudy’s breathing increased, and her knuckles shone white from gripping the table edge.
Finally, she let out a breath and ducked her head. “He saw me. He stopped right in the hallway and just stared at me.” She looked back up at Cliff. “He smiled, Cliff. Like he wanted to spit on me.”
He reached over and peeled her fingers off the table.
“It’s okay, Trudy. I won’t let him hurt you.”
“How can you say that? We don’t-”
“He’s here! He’s in this hospital!”
Cliff jumped at Shayla’s voice in his head. “She knows! Shayla knows!”
“Shayla knows what? Cliff, what’s going on?” Trudy grabbed at his coat sleeve as he started to get up.
Cliff tugged away. “I don’t have time to explain, Trudy, but I promise I will. Just,” he glanced quickly around the brightly lit cafeteria, “just stay here! Don’t leave until I come back, okay?”
“Cliff, I can’t just…”
He didn’t hear the rest, too intent on getting to the ICU. He had to stop Burroughs from getting to Shayla. His soles squeaked on the terrazzo as he took the labyrinthine turns to get to the nurse’s station. He had to grab the desk to slow himself down.
“Can I see Shayla, uh, Galloway? Please, now, please?”
The nurse furrowed her brows. “I’m sorry, sir, but please, quiet down. Only three minutes.”
He pounded his fist on the counter and the nurse cocked an eyebrow.
“Please! Look,” he craned his neck to see back into the sequestered unit, “okay. Can you, uh, can you just go check on her? Please? I just…I think she might be in …danger.” He let the last word fall, feeling hopeless.
The nurse was not moved. “I can see right here on my monitors. Calm down and go wait, or I’ll ask security to escort you out.”
Cliff dropped his head onto his arms, catching his breath. He dragged himself off the counter and walked over to the small bank of chairs by the vending machines. He’d no more than sat down when the nurse skewered him with a withering glance and announced, “You may go back now.”
He followed her terse directions to the second to last room. He paused as the glass door slid quietly on its track. Her machine beeped along at a steady pace and she looked peaceful, at rest. No trace of worry creased her brow or marred her features.
Why had she warned him?
He approached her bedside and took her hand in his. I’m so sorry, he pushed the thought toward her.
But no voice returned to him.
He sat down in the only chair and put his head in his hands. Minutes later, his phone roused him from what must have been an upright nap. Groggy, he fished it out of his pocket and glanced down. Trudy.
“Hey, Trudy, I’m -”
“So, you’re the reason she wouldn’t go out with me.”
Cliff’s heart slammed, and he stood quick enough to make the blood rush to his head. “Who is this? Where’s Trudy?”
“Oh, you know who I am. You’ve been following me around all day.”
No. He’d left Trudy alone, unguarded. And now-
“Where is Trudy, Burroughs?”
The man made a “tsk” sound. “Now we’re negotiating Cliff. I’m not just going to give up my side without a little compromise on your part.”
“I don’t have anything you want.”
“Oh, but you do. Shayla had something of mine. I think she gave it to you. You give me what’s mine and I give you Trudy. Simple.” Muffled noises came from the phone and then, “Shame, Cliff. Two-timing your comatose girlfriend with this little girl.”
“You’ve got this wrong, I’m not,” he sighed. The man was a criminal. There was no reasoning, he held all the cards. “Just tell me what you want, and I’ll give it to you. Just don’t hurt Trudy, she doesn’t know anything.”
“I want the files, Cliff. My files.”
Files. Shayla had showed him the first vision of taking cell phone pictures of files. He pulled it from his coat pocket and pushed the power button, but the phone came up on the lock screen. Panic filled his chest, but he forced himself to stay calm. “Fine. Where?”
“I’ll be in the basement, Cliff. Just outside laundry. Don’t keep me waiting.”
The nurse rounded the corner and, spotting the phone at his ear, frowned, and pointed to the exit. “You can’t use that back here! Get out. Go!”
Cliff hustled to the lobby and looked around. He spotted a different volunteer behind the help desk and headed over. “Excuse me, can you point me to the business office?”
The basement was dank with humidity from the continuous thrum of industrial washers and dryers. Cliff edged his way along the wall, worried he might run into an orderly who’d make him turn back. His throat was dry, and he couldn’t focus for guilt over leaving Trudy a sitting duck. He turned a corner and there she was. She looked okay, save for the redness around her eyes.
“It’s okay. I’m here. I’m going to get you out of here.”
Burroughs tilted his head from behind her. “There’s the delivery boy.”
He nudged Trudy closer, and Cliff realized he had a gun.
“I thought you looked familiar when I noticed you skulking around the gift shop. Where are my files?”
Cliff pulled the phone out and held it up. “This is the only thing she gave me.”
Burroughs jabbed Trudy in the back and she let out yelp of pain. “Quit fooling around. Give me my files or I shoot her right here.”
“Stop! I’m telling you – this is what you want.” He pressed the power button and brought up Shayla’s pictures. He pulled up the pictures of the files and held it out. “See. She took pictures. I don’t know what she did with the hard copies.”
Burroughs stepped closer and switched the gun to his other hand. When he got within two feet of Cliff, he grabbed the phone and shoved Trudy into him hard enough to knock them both into the wall. Cliff palmed Trudy behind him and faced Burroughs.
“You got what you want. Now let us go.”
Burroughs looked at the phone, and back at them. “I’m afraid not. You know too much.” He raised the gun. In a rush, Cliff dived and grabbed Burroughs’ gun, both falling onto the damp concrete in a heap.
“Trudy run!” he shouted at her. She ducked around the corner while Cliff struggled, trying to keep the gun pointed away from either of them. “Give up, Burroughs. She’s going to the lobby. You won’t make it out of here.”
Burroughs managed to squeeze several aimless shots that sparked over the concrete. Cliff forced another one. Only two more. He threw his leg over Burroughs’ forearms and managed to force another shot. One left. Cliff let go with one hand and rolled, trying to get Burroughs in a headlock. Mid roll the last shot went off and Cliff felt an urgent warmth spread through his torso. He tried to tense his arms, but they felt like all electrical impulse scattered in unfocused directions. He slumped into the wall and as his vision faded, he saw Burroughs stagger to his feet and disappear around the corner.
I’m sorry Shayla…
“Wake up, Cliff. We want to see you.”
Cliff tried to stretch his eyelids open, but they stubbornly stuck tight. He felt the soothing sensation of a warm washcloth swipe over his forehead and around his face and he finally forced his eyes open.
A woman in a hospital gown looked on him with rich brown eyes, a wondering smile playing about her mouth. “There you are.” Shayla.
He looked past her and saw what set his heart completely at ease.
Trudy slouched against the doorframe. “Hi, Cliff. I’m glad you’re back.”
“Trudy. You’re okay. I thought,”
“Yeah. I know. We got him, though, Cliff, we got him.”
He closed his eyes and breathed deep, feeling at rest for the first time in-
“Hey, how long have I been out?”
Shayla smiled. “Three days.”
Cliff smiled back. “Best sleep I’ve had in four.”
Shayla’s eyes misted; she brought his hand up and placed a soft kiss. Cliff blushed and glanced at Trudy.
The girl groaned loudly and threw her arms up in the air. “Ugh! I suppose you two will get married now! God!” She turned and walked out of the room, saying something about wedding cake.
Shayla chuckled softly, then her face grew very still. “Thank you for hearing me, Cliff. You saved my life. I’m Shayla, and I’m so glad to finally meet you.”
Cliff’s throat thickened. “Hi, Shayla, I’m Cliff. And I think you saved my life right back.”