Cold rain pelted the windows as the first of October’s storms powered across the nation’s capitol, leaving fallen tree limbs and electrical outages in its wake. Inside, away from the cold and wind, the room brightened periodically as lightning struck somewhere, close or far. The rumble of thunder followed at varying intervals, its volume muted by triple glazing. Inside, except for the lightning flashes, the hospital room remained dark and eerily quiet. In this antiseptic cave, only the soft rhythmic beeping from the monitor in the corner, the wheeze and gurgle from the ventilator, and an irregular, soft clack from the IV regulator broke the near silence. Soft light illuminated a single bed and its occupant. With her shattered left leg elevated, her mouth obscured by the ventilator, a neck brace, and her head swathed in bandages, Ruth Harris would be recognizable only by those who knew her well enough to recognize her eyes.
But they were closed.
Charlie Garland shuffled his feet and did his best to ignore the pervading odor of disinfectant. He disliked hospitals and everything they represented—pain, fear, and death. He had but rarely visited one during a happy occasion, the birth of a child, the recovery from a serious illness. As a bachelor with no immediate family, those moments did not often fall to him. But this night he was oblivious to the sounds in the room and those outside. His concerns were focused on his friends: the deathly pale woman in the bed and a perfectly healthy Ike Schwartz.
Ike stood at the foot of the bed, as if carved from gray New England granite, eyes red-rimmed, weary, and fixed on Ruth. Charlie shifted his gaze away from the green lines that snaked hypnotically across the monitor’s screen and directed it toward Ike. He reached out and touched his raincoat sleeve, still damp after four hours indoors.
“Ike? You should get some rest. There is nothing more we can do here tonight. You need sleep.”
Ike did not move or speak. Charlie didn’t really expect that he would. He could only imagine the pain Ike felt. Five years previously, Eloise, Ike’s wife of a hundred days, had died in his arms, a victim of an errant assassin’s bullet. It had taken him three years to begin to put that behind him. The woman who now lay deathly still in the bed had been in large part responsible for his recovery, for his reentry into life, as it were. Charlie feared this could end as very bad déjà vu.
“She can’t die, Charlie,” Ike said, his voice husky, uncertain. “No, Ike, she can’t.”
They spoke as if somehow they could, by sheer exercise of their will, assume control of the physiological events taking place in Ruth’s broken body. Charlie realized that, indeed, if he could, he would. The IV drip clacked as if to disabuse him of this presumption.
It is bad enough to lose one person you love to mindless violence, but two? Ike, he feared, may have had enough. And Ike said it, she can’t die. God only knows what Ike must be thinking.
“Ike, we should go.” Again, Ike did not move.
A tired looking nurse wearing rumpled purple scrubs and sporting a disordered blonde-going-to-gray ponytail slipped into the room.
“Gentlemen, I have to ask you to leave. I have to change some dressings and check the patient’s catheter.” She paused and peered at Ike. “It is past two a.m. and time to shut this down for now. You can come back in the morning.”
Ike did not budge.
“We have your contact information, sir. I promise I will call you if there is any change in Ms. Harris’ condition.” She spoke in a voice worn smooth from saying those words many, perhaps too many times. “Now you really must leave.”
“Ike,” Charlie took him by the arm and turned him so that he faced away from the bed, “Ike, we have to go. Let me buy you a cup of coffee and then we’ll eat something, rest up and be back first thing in the morning.”
“She can’t die, Charlie.”
“No, Ike, she can’t and she won’t. Come on. Nurse…” Charlie squinted in the dim light to read the nurse’s name tag, “…Nurse Annie Struthers will call you if there’s any change.”
The nurse graced him with a ghost of a smile and nodded, then stepped to the bed. She reached for the draw drapes and proceeded to close them, blocking their view. That seemed to break the spell that had Ike frozen in place. He nodded and allowed Charlie to lead him out into the hall and to the elevators.
“Coffee and breakfast,” Charlie said.
“Okay, but first we go to the precinct station and ask for a copy of the accident report. If Ruth lost control of the car, I want to know where, when, and how. She had a lead foot, Charlie, but she drove like she might have taught Driver’s Ed. Accidents did not happen to her.”
“Okay, accident report, then food, then sleep.”
# # #
The beefy desk sergeant seemed singularly unresponsive to Ike’s request.
“Who are you, and why should I give you a copy of an accident report? It’s official police business. You a lawyer or something?”
Charlie saw the muscles in Ike’s jaw flicker and hoped he wouldn’t pop off to this thick Metro cop. He wouldn’t blame him—enough was enough. Ike’s jaw muscles flexed and then relaxed.
“As it happens I am, but that is not why I’m asking. It concerns my fiancée. I want to know what happened.”
“You think that’s going to work? Look, trust us to do our job, okay? And if you’re thinking about lawsuits, you’ll have to go through channels to get the report.”
Ike drew in a breath and let it out slowly. One…two… three…four…“Okay, Sarge, how about you give it to me as an act of professional courtesy.” Ike slid his badge across the scarred desk surface.
The cop peered myopically at it and smirked. “Wee-hah, a sheriff. Where’s your posse, Sheriff? Listen, this ain’t the Wild West, Bunky. Go through channels.”
Charlie had, in the not too distant past, witnessed his friend at work in the field. So, before Ike could reach across the desk and land the punch that he knew could cause some serious dental mayhem, he stepped between both men and dropped his CIA ID on the table next to Ike’s badge.
“How about we try this,” he said. “You make a copy of that report right now, this minute, or I make a call. I do that and this house goes into twenty-four/seven lockdown until our friends from the Hoover Building discover which of your compadres is leaking information to a local terrorist cell about the routes the president’s car takes.”
“What the hell. You can’t do that. There’s nobody in this precinct that has any access to that kind of information.”
“There, you see? The very fact you know that convinces me that there really is a leak. Now, do I make the call to the FBI, or do you surrender a copy of the accident report to my friend here?”
“Son of a—”
“Tsk, none of that, now, Sergeant. Think of yourself as a dedicated advocate of the Freedom of Information Act who was happy to accommodate Sheriff Schwartz. Who knows, someday he may pull your chestnuts out of the fire and you will be happy he is a friend of yours.”
“Yeah, and I’m Matthew McConaughey.” Moments later the Sergeant handed Ike the report. “Okay, on your way, Cowboy.”
Ike skimmed the report and fixed the cop with a look that could etch glass.
“What kind of bullshit is this? There are no witness statements. No site analysis—skid marks, speed estimates. Who ran up this piece of crap?”
“Look buddy, we had a slick street, the car was wrapped around a utility pole, it’s raining cats and dogs, and it’s dark as an outhouse at midnight. What else is there to know? The driver lost control, the car skidded and slammed into the pole, end of story.”
“If your guys were working for me, they’d be back out there at that accident scene and wouldn’t come in again until they either caught pneumonia and died, or filed a complete report.”
“Right. Happy trails, Sheer-if.”
The two left and found an open Denny’s. Charlie ate breakfast. One of life’s absolutes—Denny’s might be a major contributor to the nation’s dangerously elevated cholesterol levels, but they knew how to do breakfast. Ike sipped his coffee and, when he’d sufficiently cooled down, began to read. At three thirty a.m. Ike slammed the report against the table, stood, and headed for the door.
“I need to see the car.”
“Ike, it’s too early, the facility where they towed the car will be locked up tight, and you haven’t touched your food. Besides what can you see in the dark?”
“They screwed this up, Charlie. Come on. We’ll find a way to take a peek.”
“No we won’t. Sit down. We’ll eat, rest a bit, and when they open at eight, go visit your car.”
Frustrated, Ike slumped back in the booth, his eye glued to the clock over the order pickup window while a perfectly good Grand Slam cooled and congealed before him.