Death Angel (Chapter Nineteen)
The charge came from the foot of the bed. Andie opened her eyes, and hovered for a moment between asleep and awake, reality and…other reality. Her perception of time, space, and what was real had been radically altered, the defining lines gone. Maybe with time, and once she no longer needed any painkillers at all, she would regain the sharpness of now, though she didn't want to lose her sense of connection to the other place.
In the now she had to deal with the surgeon, Dr. Meecham, who was sprawling in a chair a couple of feet from the foot of her bed. His arms, big and muscular and hairy, were revealed by the short sleeves of his scrubs-and they were crossed over his chest, telling her he was feeling stubborn and in the mood for answers.
She ignored him for the moment, her gaze drifting to the windows. Sunlight poured through the glazed reflective glass, which made the sky look as though a thunderstorm were forming but gave her both sunlight and privacy. It was nice to have an actual room, to see the progression of sunlight to darkness, nice to have a little more privacy even though the nurses had the extremely annoying habit of leaving the door open. Someday soon she'd tell them to close it.
But not now. Not today. Telling them would require talking, and she couldn't bring the words up. Speaking to Dina had been driven by need, and the effort had exhausted her. Answering the surgeon's questions didn't meet that level of need.
Besides, he'd cut down on her drugs while she still needed help battling the Great Bitch. Let him stew.
"You might be interested in what happened to Dina," he said.
Was she? She thought for a moment and decided that, yes, she was. She'd cared enough to speak, cared enough to make the words travel from her brain to her mouth, across an empty no-man's-land. Slowly she brought her gaze back to him.
Despite his callousness with the drugs, she liked him. He had a calling, and he was ruthless about answering that call. He went into battle every day, plunging his hands into bloody body cavities and working to help people live, then doing what he had to do to get them back on their feet. So she would have liked a couple of more days of help in fighting the pain; weighed in the balance, she would rather have pain than develop a drug dependency. Maybe she'd forgive him.
On the other hand, he really needed to stop screwing around on his wife.
"Dina took the stairs anyway," he said, his sharp gaze watching her closely. "But she said she felt uneasy about what you said, so she was extra careful. She kept an eye out for anyone who might be hiding in the stairwell, and she held on to the stair railing. She usually runs down the stairs, but this time she held on to the railing. She was on the third flight when she slipped. If you hadn't warned her, if she hadn't been holding on, she'd have gone to the bottom of the flight and could have been really hurt. As it is, all she has is a mild ankle sprain."
That had worked out, then. Good.
He was silent a minute, she guessed to give her a chance to talk if she were so inclined. She wasn't.
Giving up on that tactic, he uncrossed his arms and leaned forward, watching her intently. He opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, and rubbed his hand over his jaw. Andie watched him with faint puzzlement. He acted as if he was perturbed by something; surely he wasn't that upset because she hadn't made this huge breakthrough in speech.
"What was it like?" he finally asked, his tone suddenly hushed, a little unsure.
Her own mouth almost fell open. She blinked at him in astonishment and a tide of red washed into his face. "Never mind," he muttered, getting to his feet.
Was he asking about the other place? Surely he wasn't crass enough to ask what it was like to have a tree puncture her heart. Besides, he was a surgeon; traumatic injuries would be nothing new to him.
He knew she'd been dead, that the medics hadn't made a mistake. Yet here she was, a living, breathing, walking-well, sometimes, when they made her-miracle, and what she'd said to Dina had somehow tipped him off that she'd been to that other place. Maybe he'd seen it before. Maybe another patient had told him about it, and he was curious. Maybe he wanted her to say that she didn't remember anything, so he could put his trust completely in science, where he felt most comfortable.
She lifted her hand to keep him from walking out the door, and a beatific smile lit her face. "Beautiful," she managed to say, the single word taking so much effort that she felt winded.
He stopped in his tracks. Swallowing, he came to stand beside her bed.
"What do you remember? Can you tell me?"
He looked torn, as if he wanted to hear something that would allow him to disregard what she said as an oxygen-deprived brain producing hallucinations, but at the same time he wanted to believe in something more.
She needed to talk. She needed to get through this barrier, once more make the connection between the world inside her head and the world on the outside. The breach had been helpful, giving her the time she needed to adjust, but now it was time for her to fully rejoin this world, because it was the only world she had.
With that thought, her surroundings suddenly popped into sharper focus, as if everything had been blurred while she lingered between both places. She had made the final decision to stay, she realized. Until now, she had been in a limbo of sorts, lingering there while she thought things over, but now she had decided: she would stay here, and try to earn herself a place in that other world.
Talking suddenly became easier, a Mission Possible, even though it was still an effort.
"I remember everything."
Relief washed over his face. "Was there a tunnel? With light at the end of it?"
Describing the other place wasn't going to be easy, because words literally couldn't impart the utter tranquillity and joy, the quiet beauty. But right now he wasn't asking where she'd gone, just the process of getting there.
"Light. No tunnel." Had she missed out on something, or had she gone too fast?
"Just light? Hmm."
There it was, the doubt, the instinctive fallback on the science he knew. Bright light could be explained by a misfiring, dying brain. She wondered how he could square that with her lack of brain damage. Because she didn't want to steer him wrong, and because she held a grudge against him, she voiced the random thought that had earlier popped into her head. "Stop screwing around on your wife."
He paled, then turned red again. "What?"
"She's going to find out, if you don't stop." Suddenly irritated, she pulled the sheet higher, as if she wanted to shut him out. "If you don't love her, then get a divorce, but keep your pants zipped until then. Act like a grown-up."
"Wha-? What?" He said the same word for the third time, his mouth opening and closing like a guppy's.
"Believe me now?" She scowled at him. She would have flounced on her side and turned her back on him, but flouncing was out of the question. Instead she just narrowed her eyes at him and silently dared him to deny her accusation, though he was more likely to tell her to mind her own business.
She could see him struggling not to do exactly that. He was in his early fifties, a man who had spent his entire adult life perfecting the science and the skill with which he saved lives. Like most surgeons, he had a healthy ego, which was a polite way of saying it was monstrously huge. Doing what he did required a huge helping of self-confidence, and he was accustomed to being the boss. Finding himself abruptly called on the carpet by a woman whose life he had saved, and who undoubtedly owed him a large amount of money for his services, wouldn't go down easy.
He started to snap back at her. She saw it, and scowled harder at him. "Don't start doubting just because I didn't see a tunnel. I guess some people do. I didn't. I had a tree stuck through me-a small one, but still a tree-and I went fast. So sue me."
He crossed his arms again and rocked back on his heels, a man who wasn't inclined to surrender without a fight. "If you had a real near-death experience, you're supposed to be mellow and happy."
"I didn't have a 'near death' experience, I had a death experience. I died," she said flatly. "I was given a second chance. So far as I know, having that second chance doesn't mean I have to fake being in a good mood. If you want to know what I remember, how about this: I remember looking down and seeing a guy go through my purse, then steal my laptop. Did he get all my money?"
He was so easy to read, even now, when he was trying to school his expression. His shock was evident, at least to her.
"No, I believe there was a considerable amount of cash still in your purse, but no ID, and no credit cards."
She hadn't had any credit cards, but she didn't tell him that. So only her ID was missing? Strange. Why take her driver's license and not her cash?
"You didn't have any vehicle registration in your car, either. I believe Detective Arrons wants to discuss that with you."
She imagined he did, plus the bogus license plate. She'd worry about that later. For now, she waved it away. "If the money was still there, it can go to my hospital bill. I'm not a charity case."
"I'm not worried about-"
"Maybe you aren't, but the hospital is."
"While you're in such a chatty mood, what's your name?"
"Andie," she said promptly. "What's yours?"
"Travis. Last name?"
She had always thought fast on her feet, but all of a sudden she was drawing a blank. Nothing, absolutely nothing, came to mind. She simply couldn't come up with a fake last name. She stared at him, frowning. "I'm thinking," she finally said.
His brows knit a little. "You don't remember?"
"Of course I remember. It's there. Give me a minute." If Rafael thought she was dead, there was no reason for him ever to check to see if anyone with her name popped up anywhere. To be on the safe side, though, she should use a different name. Would that be completely screwing up her second chance, lying to protect herself? Maybe lying was bad when it hurt someone else, but not so bad otherwise.
She should have asked for training, or at least a set of guidelines.
"Andie," she said again, hoping for inspiration.
"You've already said that. Is it short for Andrea?"
"Yes." What else could she say? She couldn't think of any other female name that started with A-n-d. She wasn't about to tell him her last name was Butts, no matter what. Finally she gave up, shrugging. "Maybe tomorrow."
He had his pen out, making a note on her medical records.
Immediately her attention zoomed in another direction. "I'm not brain-damaged," she charged irritably. "It's all your fault. I'm just drugged enough that I can't think, but not drugged enough that it stops me from hurting. Have you ever stopped to think how it feels, having your chest sawed open and pulled apart and your heart manhandled? Huh? I have staples in me. I feel like a legal file or something, I have so many staples in me. You could build a house with my staples. And what do you do? You cut down on my painkillers. You should be ashamed of yourself."
She stopped, confused by her own lack of control. She never went off on anyone like that. She smiled, and acted sweet. Why was she turning into a bitch? But she also stopped because he was laughing. Laughing.
She could be friends with this man. "Sit down," she invited, "and I'll tell you about the other place."
SIMON HAD MADE a lifelong habit of resisting temptation, but this one wore him down. The idea was always there, nagging at him, and he couldn't let it go.
He couldn't forget Drea's death. He couldn't forget her face, or the way her expression had suddenly lit with joy just as she died. He couldn't forget her. Her death had left an ache in him that he couldn't explain, or get rid of.
He'd shown Salinas the picture he'd taken with his cell phone, showed him Drea's driver's license. Salinas had blanched when he saw the picture, then sat silently for a moment. Finally he said, "Tell me where to wire your fee."
"Forget about it," Simon had said. "I didn't do the job; she had a wreck." He'd tracked her, though, and driving too fast trying to escape him was why she'd had the wreck. Had it been anyone else, he'd have taken his fee without hesitation. While he hadn't killed her, he had definitely caused her death; still, for the first time he couldn't take a fee for someone's death.
This was different.
He didn't want it to be different. He didn't want to feel as though a huge hollow had opened up in his life, as though he'd lost something so important he couldn't even begin to imagine the depth of that loss. He wanted to forget the utter bliss with which she'd met her death.
But he couldn't, and in the weeks since, he'd been driven by a gnawing compulsion to find her grave. There had been more than enough cash in her purse to pay for a decent burial. Would the state try to identify her first, keep her in a morgue while a slow-motion search for family was made? Or would she be photographed, DNA samples taken, then promptly buried?
If it was the first, maybe he could claim her body. He'd buy the most beautiful, serene cemetery plot he could find, and put her there. A granite headstone would mark the beginning and end of her life. He could put flowers there, and visit her occasionally.
And if she'd already been buried, he could make certain a stone was put there, and he could still take flowers to her. He just needed to know where she was.
Finding her should be easy, he thought. He knew where the accident had happened, so all he had to do was check the newspapers for the area. A traffic fatality, an unidentified woman-five minutes, tops, and he'd know.
He gave in to temptation, and sat down at his computer. Finding her didn't take five minutes. It took two minutes and seven seconds.
He read everything twice, shaking his head in disbelief. It wasn't possible. The newspaper had got it wrong; happened all the time. He checked the next day's edition for an update, a correction. Instead, it said the same thing. Her name wasn't known, she was a Jane Doe, but-
God. He felt as if he'd grabbed a live wire and had the hell knocked out of him. The shock was so great that he realized, with an odd kind of remoteness, that he was breathing hard and fast, and his vision had narrowed until he saw nothing but the lit computer screen. It wasn't possible. He'd watched her die, watched her eyes dull and her pupils fix. He'd felt for the pulse in her neck, and there hadn't been one.
But something had happened. Somehow the medics must have revived her, kept her going long enough to get her to a hospital. He didn't know how, it had to be a fucking miracle, but right now the how didn't matter.
Drea was alive.