Death Angel (Chapter Twenty-one)

SURGICAL POST-OP WAS ONE FLOOR DOWN, SO SIMON TOOK the stairs instead of dealing with the elevator. He preferred the stairs anyway; they gave him two directions of escape, while an elevator not only trapped him in a small box, it followed its electronic commands in the order in which it received them. If it was going "down" and had already received a call from a lower floor, he couldn't punch the button for a higher floor and make the elevator go "up" instead.

The hospital's general shape was a giant T, but it was lying down instead of standing up. He came out at the end of the long hallway and systematically walked the floor. Each room had a small plaque outside the door with the patient's last name as well as the doctor's name, which was damn convenient for his purposes.

The nurses' station was situated at the intersection of the T, but the nurses couldn't see down the hallways unless they stepped out from behind the divider. At the moment, with the shift change just ending and the morning meals being delivered, the hallways were a beehive of activity and he blended into the general hubbub. He kept an easy pace, looking into all the rooms with open doors but taking care to move only his eyes and keep his head steady, so to the casual observer he wouldn't be paying any attention to the patients.

At least half the doors were closed, but with one reconnaissance he was able to eliminate all of those patients whose doors were open, because none of them were Drea. As he walked he noted the rooms that had Dr. Meecham listed as the doctor, marking their location in the three-dimensional map of his surroundings that he carried at all times in his head.

Then he saw the name "Doe," and he almost stumbled.

Room 614. Meecham was the doctor listed.

The door was closed, but he knew he'd found her. She was there, just on the other side of that door. He knew it was Drea. There were people with the actual last name of "Doe," but what were the odds one of them would be on this floor, at this time, with Meecham as the doctor?

His hand closed around the door handle almost before he realized he was reaching for it.

Slowly, carefully, he forced himself to release the handle. If he walked in there she'd scream the place down-assuming she recognized him. He still didn't know her mental state.

The name "Doe" didn't tell him anything. If she'd come through without brain damage, she would take full advantage of the circumstances and not tell them her real name. If she did have brain damage, which was likely, then she might not know her name.

Belatedly he noticed the sign on the door: No Visitors.

There were two layers of meaning to the sign. The first was obvious: no visitors. The second was "why not?" Who had put it there? The hospital, because curiosity-seekers and/or the press had been annoying/agitating/gawking at the patient, or had the patient herself requested the sign be posted? Drea certainly wouldn't want any press, and she would want to keep any cops at bay, too, until she had cooked up a suitable story and felt able to handle them.

But he now had the name she was registered under, and he knew her room number. He'd be able to find out everything he wanted to know. He didn't have to actually see her, didn't have to talk to her; he could safely ignore the weird compulsion he felt to do exactly that.

Looking down the hall, he saw that the big cart laden with food trays was just three rooms down. The door to the room next to Drea's was closed, too, so he moved farther down and leaned against the wall right outside the door, as if a nurse or tech had gone into the room to perform some duty and asked him to wait outside. He kept his gaze on the floor.

The cafeteria lady worked quickly, delivering the food trays to the proper rooms. She pushed the cart toward him, stopping it just past the door to Drea's room. He glanced up, ready to give a quick, polite smile if she looked at him, but she ignored him as if he were so much furniture. People who worked in hospitals saw a lot of people leaning against walls.

She pulled out a tray, which looked as if it held only orange gelatin, fruit juice, coffee, and milk, but any food at all meant Drea was capable of feeding herself, rather than being fed by a tube. The cafeteria worker knocked quickly on the door, then opened it without waiting for an answer.

"Is that real food?" he heard Drea ask, her tone grumpy.

The cafeteria lady laughed. "You've graduated to Jell-O. If your stomach handles that without any upset, maybe tomorrow you can have mashed potatoes. We just bring what your doctor says you can have."

After a brief silence, Drea said, "Orange! I like orange Jell-O."

"Would you like to have two?"

"Can you do that?"

"Sure. Any time you want more, just let us know."

"In that case, yes, I definitely want another Jell-O. I'm starving."

While Drea was talking to the cafeteria lady and concentrating on her food, Simon straightened away from the wall and walked quickly past her door, not turning his head to look at her.

For a moment he was walking blindly, and did not see the young woman who stepped out of a room until he bumped into her. "Sorry," he said automatically, without looking at her, and plowed ahead.

The next thing he knew, he was crushed into the back corner of a crowded elevator and had no memory of getting on it. He, who always knew not only exactly what he was doing but what everyone around him was doing, who even studied a public restroom from a strategic standpoint before entering it, had let himself get so wrapped up in his thoughts he hadn't paid any attention to what he was doing or where he was going.

He exited on the ground floor, but the elevator he'd taken wasn't in the same bank as the one he'd used going up. Instead of coming out close to the emergency room entrance, he was in the main lobby, which boasted a soaring, two-story atrium in which live ficus trees grew.

Numb, his brain sluggish, he walked to the exit until he remembered his rental car was in the parking lot outside the emergency room. He stopped, looked around, but didn't see any signs pointing the way to the ER.

His usually infallible sense of direction told him to take the left corridor, so he did. He wanted to laugh, and he never laughed. Relief fizzled in his blood like champagne, making him giddy. His heart pounded in his chest, the cage of his ribs feeling too tight, as if it were closing in around his heart and lungs, restricting them.

A discreet sign caught his eye and he paused. On an unexplainable impulse he opened the door and stepped in.

As soon as he closed the door behind him he felt the silence, as if the room was soundproof. The unceasing noise and motion of a hospital halted at that doorway, as if he had entered another realm. He stood there a moment, wanting to go but feeling compelled to stay. He wasn't a coward. No matter how ugly reality was, and it was often a real bastard, he'd always dealt with it and in it. Mercy wasn't one of his qualities, with himself or with others. Some people misled themselves about their true nature, but Simon never had. He was what he was because no life, his own or anyone else's, had ever meant anything special to him.

Until now.

Until Drea.

The room was dim, there were sconces on the side walls, and on the front wall a panel of stained glass was backlit, bathing the small room in color. The air was cool and fragrant, the scent coming from a bouquet of fresh flowers sitting on a table in front of the small altar. There were three padded pews, each large enough to hold maybe four people, but he was the only person in there.

He sat down in the middle pew and closed his eyes, letting the silence wash over him and calm him. There was no music. If hymnal music had been piped in, he probably would have left, but there was only the peace and the silence.

Drea was alive. He couldn't yet take in what that meant, hadn't yet been able to accept that the ground beneath his feet had caved in and he was clawing at air. Just for a moment he let himself relax, the softly glowing light of the stained glass painting colors on the inside of his eyelids. The scent of the flowers enticed him to take deeper breaths, drawing the cool air deep into his lungs, easing the constriction in his chest.

Ruthlessness was as much a part of him as his skin. His own character made it impossible for him to shrug off what he'd seen, what he knew. Drea had died. He'd heard her last breath, seen the light leave her eyes. He had felt the difference in her flesh when he touched her, because dead bodies immediately begin cooling. Her soft skin had lost its heat, its vibrancy. On an even deeper level he'd felt her absence, the absence of the person, the spirit, the soul, whatever you wanted to call it. Without that animating spark, the body is different, and no longer that person.

He'd stayed there with her too long to think he'd somehow been mistaken about her death. She hadn't had a pulse, and she hadn't been breathing. By the time the emergency vehicles got there, at least half an hour, maybe longer, had passed. She should have been long past resuscitation; the brain began dying after just four minutes. She would have been completely brain dead, beyond even the most heroic efforts to revive her. The guy in the waiting room had said the medics had been packing up their stuff when she began gasping on her own. Had they even tried to revive her? Add that to the length of time she'd been dead.

Yet she was sitting in a hospital bed, obviously alive, talking normally, rejoicing in the fact that she'd been given orange Jell-O to eat.

That she was alive at all, in any condition, was a miracle. That she had come through the ordeal with no apparent brain damage was a second, even larger, miracle. He didn't believe in miracles. If he'd had any philosophy in life it ran along the lines of the classic "shit happens." Usually it was bad shit, sometimes it was good shit, but it was always random shit. You lived your life, and when the run was ended, that was it. Nothing.

But this…this was something he couldn't explain. This had him by the throat and balls and wouldn't let go, and he had to face it.

Something had brought her back to life.

He opened his eyes and stared at the stained glass, looking but not seeing.

Could there be something between birth and death, something more than an organism reaching the end of its viability? Could there be something with enough power to give life back to a cooling body? If so, that meant…that meant there was something after death, that death here wasn't the end.

If there was life after death, then there had to be another place, another when and where. If death truly was a passing on to that other place, then it followed that how lives were lived really did matter.

Good, bad-the concepts had never meant much to him. He was who he was, and he did what he did. The average person on the street was perfectly safe from him. He meant them no harm, felt no contempt for them; he might even have sometimes felt distantly fond of citizenry in general, because they carried on with their lives no matter what. They worked, they went home, they ate dinner and watched some television, went to sleep, got up and went to work again. Armies of them went through that routine, and the routine was what made the world work.

Those who preyed on these ordinary people were the ones he held in contempt. They thought it was okay to take what these people had worked for, that only fools and idiots worked for a living. For his part, he thought it was okay to kill the scum.

And yet, if he looked at it logically, his life was much worse than theirs-not in a material way, but in the wasteland that was his soul.

The black chasm beneath his dangling feet was what awaited him, what he'd earned, and yet he had this chance to change the course of his life here. Because of Drea, he saw things he'd never seen before, accepted that there was more. Was there truly a God? Was that what this was?

Because of Drea, he saw that Death walked with its arm around him. If he went on as he was, he knew what would be waiting for him. But if he could judge himself, walk away from that life, would the outcome change?

It sounded simple enough, but the concept was a complete sea change.

A huge, choking pain filled him, and his throat closed on a sound like that of a wounded animal, helpless and suffering.

A door off to the side of the small room opened. Simon hadn't realized it was there, a lapse on his part that was unbelievable, and unforgivable, because such a lack of awareness could be deadly.

"I don't want to intrude," a man's quiet voice said, "but I heard-"

He'd heard the muted howl of agony. Simon still didn't turn.

"If you'd like to talk…" the man began again, when Simon didn't respond.

Slowly Simon stood, feeling as weary as if he'd been awake for days on end, as battered as if he'd fallen off a cliff. He turned and looked at the small, middle-aged man who wore a regular suit, no vestments or white collar at his throat. Physically the man was unprepossessing, slight and balding, but there was an energy to him that kept him from being insignificant.

"I'm giving thanks for a miracle," he said simply, and wiped the tears from his face.