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Pretend we’re at an event, where I’m doing a book reading, even though I’m only pretending to talk into a mic in the above photo. (It’s actually a lamp.)

The photo was taken ages and ages a few years ago at a real Sisters in Crime meeting.

In any case, you can hear the reading now! 🙂

Or read along with the author.

Chapter Eight

I was in the bottom of a well, looking up. It was night. I could see the stars. I was cold. I was wet. It was a long way to the top. Voices. The sound of voices echoed down the well. They made my head throb.

I tried to yell, but nothing came out.

Someone’s beeper went off. Voices and a beeper. They were driving me crazy.

At the top of the well, a woman’s face appeared. She smiled at me.

“Melanie?” I called out. “Melanie?”

A spotlight blinded me. Not again. Please, don’t hit me again. Please …

“Melanie,” I mumbled.

“Shhh. Lie still.” Words spoken in a low and reassuring tone. Someone touched my wrist, someone with cool hands. I opened my eyes. I wasn’t in a well. I was on my back, a nurse standing beside me. She was taking my pulse. I lifted my head a bit. Curtains hung around me. Where they parted, I could see people in white coats and hospital scrubs. Machines beeped. I put my head back down.

“Hello,” I said, the word stumbling off my tongue.

“Hello,” she said. She looked me over in a way that was both appraising and concerned. She seemed to exist in a zone of calm, which she shared with me.

“Will I live?” My voice sounded bizarre and unnatural. It seemed to be out of sync with the movements of my mouth. My own voice dubbed into the movie of my life.

She smiled. “I think you have a few more years left in you.” Her voice had a Midwestern twang making me think of apple pie.

“Yay. I’m gonna live.” My voice came out in a singsong. Far away, someone laughed. Suddenly, I felt very tired. I drifted off into a dreamless sleep.

I woke up again in a hospital room, my mouth so dry, I could have sworn there was dust in it. When I tried to sit up, my head and abdomen protested. It was light out, but it must have been early evening. The TV was turned on low to Access Hollywood. Russell slept in a chair.

“Russell?” I croaked. His head snapped up, and he opened his eyes, blinking. He appeared to be as disoriented as I was.

“Oh, thank heavens,” he said. He rubbed his face, as if to wipe the fatigue off.

“How long have you been here?”

“Since the ambulance brought you.”

I felt swelling in my belly and probed it. Tender. “Where am I?”

“Laurel Hospital.”

“You look awful.”

He did an exaggerated double take. “You should talk, missy.”

I chuckled, then cringed. God, my throat was parched.

“You’re kind, Russell. Go home. You shouldn’t do this to yourself.”

“Who else is there?” he snapped.

He glared at me, in that disapproving way of his, then his look softened. He never stayed mad for long. “I thought it was important for someone to be here when you woke up,” he said.

“You’re a real friend, you know that?” I whispered.

He stood and walked over to me. “We all need friends.” He stroked my hair, looking at me with a mixture of concern, gratitude, and relief.

For a moment, I feared I’d burst into tears.

A nurse came in to take my vitals. She had water. I wanted to chug it all, but she made me sip it. Then a doctor joined us. He said intestinal bleeding caused my abdominal swelling. A bruised kidney was the worst of it. I had a mild concussion and a serious knot on my head. In short, I was extremely lucky.

I felt good, all things considered, until he said they’d probably keep me for at least a week.

“But I’ve got a business to run,” I said. “I can’t lie around here for a week. My clients depend on me.”

“You’re not going to be able to take care of them until you can take care of yourself,” the doctor said.

I was so exhausted, I didn’t want to think, let alone argue with the guy.

Russell stayed after the medical staff left. “Let me get together with that woman in your office. If there’s anything we need to reschedule, we’ll handle it.”

“OK,” I said, forcing myself to remember what I had on my plate for the next few days. No court dates, but there were a few meetings. “Sheila has a spare key to the office. Now, she doesn’t work for me, Russell, so don’t expect too much from her. My calendar’s on the desk. And Jamila’s number is in my Rolodex. Maybe she can lend a hand.” I lay back on the pillow, my head spinning.

“You’ve got to relax,” Russell directed. “Even after you get out of the hospital, you’ll need time to recover.”

“Jesus.” I always wondered what I’d do if this happened. Self-employed people should always have a back-up plan, someone to turn to if they’re incapacitated. I felt as helpless and small as a bug on its back, trying to get upright. I was lucky I had friends I could depend on.

The first few days were tough. Once I got off the painkillers, I started to feel better, but it was still an effort to get around. Russell brought books and magazines. Jamila stopped by and offered to fill in for me on any cases that needed immediate help. While she took care of the legal minutiae, Russell cleared my calendar of meetings and other stuff for the next few weeks and looked after Oscar. It was both gratifying and nerve-racking. I’ve never felt such a lack of control.

As the week crawled by, I improved slowly. I took extended walks around the floor as soon as I could, partly out of boredom and partly to show everyone how great I was doing. They wiped me out at first, but I got stronger each time. Near the end of my stay, I won’t say I was ready to run a marathon, but I was definitely moving better. I was also anxious to return to the outside world, despite being told by the police when they interviewed me that I should lie low for the immediate future.

When the doctor told me I could go, I almost jumped for joy.

“But you’ll have to take it easy,” he warned. “Don’t push yourself, or you’ll end up back here.”

“Sure. I understand.” Nod and smile, I thought. And get the hell out of here.

Russell picked me up. My calendar was clear for the next two weeks. I expressed my eternal gratitude. When we got to my apartment, I remembered that I needed to buy food. That’s what started this whole mess, going out for groceries.

When I mentioned it to Russell, he said, “Stay here. I’ll do your shopping.”

“Russell, I can do this—”

“Shut the hell up and make a list.”

Who was I to argue? After he left, I lay on the couch and watched TV. Same as I could have done at the hospital, but somehow, it made a great deal of difference that I was home.

END READING

Want more? Here you go! 🙂

The next day, I went to the office. I’d been out a mere week, but it seemed a lot longer. Besides, I couldn’t depend on the kindness of friends forever. I needed to check in.

Sheila stopped what she was doing when she saw me. “You’re supposed to be resting,” she snapped. “What are you doing here?”

“It’s just for a little while.”

I couldn’t believe the fuss Sheila made over me. Even Milt Kressler, my landlord, roused himself from his desk long enough to ask how I was. I assured them I was fine and slipped upstairs to my office as quickly as I could. I would have to remember to come during off-hours next time. Placating them was more exhausting than work.

It felt good to be in my office. Familiar and ordinary. I walked in, switched on my computer, and started through the stacks of mail. Sheila or Jamila had already checked for important-looking stuff and set it aside. I had only a few voice mail messages, and more than a hundred e-mails, mostly junk. There was nothing from Ray.

Stop being such a hardheaded idiot. Pick up the phone and call him, I thought. I got through to his secretary, who said Ray would be gone for the next few days.

“You have a case coming up with him, Sam?” she asked.

“It’s not urgent.” I kept my voice more matter-of-fact than I felt.

“He took leave on short notice and we scrambled to cover his cases, so I wanted to make sure we hadn’t missed yours or something. His wife had to go to San Francisco on business, and he decided to go along at the last minute. Must be nice, huh?”

“Yeah. Must be nice.”

I hung up and sat there a while. I had no right to feel angry, sad, or disappointed. I had no rights at all. Finally, I gathered some files and went home.

I spent most of the day doing research, writing letters, and making phone calls. I couldn’t just lie around the apartment. When you come down to it, very few things are more therapeutic for me than work.

The next morning, I slept late and made pancakes for breakfast. I was still sore, so I did some light stretching. Don’t know if it really helped, but it was nice to know I could do it. I read the paper while sipping my coffee, then did some work, still in my PJs. That only lasted about ten minutes. I changed into shorts and a T-shirt, feeling better for doing so. I can’t work in pajamas.

Around ten thirty, I checked my office voice mail. Someone named Jenna Pulaski had left a message earlier that morning. She was one of the people I’d called about Melanie.

I dialed the number she left and got through to her desk at work.

“Oh, hi,” she said. “Look, um, something’s come up.”

“What is it? Have you heard from Melanie?”

“Yes,” she said. “She called last night.”

I’d begun to think I was about as likely to find Melanie as I was to find the Holy Grail, so she had my full attention. “Where is she?”

“She wouldn’t say exactly, but she sounded strange. I told her you called.”

“And?”

“And nothing, really. All she could talk about was coming to Chicago.”

“What?”

“She said she was in a real bind.” Jenna sounded distraught. “She made me promise not to tell anyone. I kept asking her what it was about, but she wouldn’t say.”

I swore under my breath. “When’s she supposed to get there?”

“She’s leaving this morning by bus. She may have already left.”

“Damn.”

“I should have called you last night, but she asked me not to tell anyone she was coming. She was … very emphatic about that.” Jenna paused. “Melanie and I go way back. I’d do anything to help her, but I need to know what’s going on.”

It was my turn to hesitate. “I don’t really want to get into the details. You did the right thing calling me.”

“Is she in trouble?”

“Yes. I’m afraid it involves the police.”

“The police? Oh, my God.”

“Did she say what time she was leaving?”

Jenna sighed. “Not the exact time. I know she’s taking Greyhound.”

“OK. I really appreciate your calling. I don’t mean to cut you off, but I should probably check on whether her bus has left.”

“Sure. Wow, I had no idea how serious this was. I can’t believe Melanie committed a crime.”

“Right now, we don’t know that she has,” I said. “But going to Chicago is not her best move.”

After I hung up, I got onto the Internet. Within minutes, I discovered Greyhound had only two buses going to Chicago from Maryland that morning—one from Silver Spring, the other from Annapolis. Both had already left.

Was Melanie running from the law? From the Mob? Chicago wasn’t going to be nearly far enough, in either case. From Chicago, it would be easy to get to Canada. Maybe the plan was to connect with her Canadian friend. But the law had extradition, and the Mob wasn’t going to stop at the border if they wanted her.

Why hadn’t she called me when Jenna told her I was looking for her? The cynical side of my brain kicked in. What if she planned the entire thing? She could have planned to kill Garvey. She could be using stolen money to bankroll her escape.

But that box of files. Why the hell would she kill Garvey, then leave the files in her apartment? Maybe someone was trying to give her away? Or maybe someone was setting her up?

So far, I had plenty of questions. If I were going to get answers, I’d have to find Melanie.

*****

Available in audio! 🙂

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