I don't care what his nametag says, the young man standing by my bed can't really be a doctor. He wears the standard medico uniform—a white lab coat open over dark slacks and button up shirt, stethoscope draped around his neck. His nametag identifies him as Kevin Henderson, MD.
But he doesn't look a day over sixteen.
While he natters on about my discharge instructions, all I can do is focus on the brush of baby fine hairs along his cheekbone. Sunlight slants through the window and highlights them, a golden, delicate fuzz. I want to ask him if he's old enough to shave but he hasn't pissed me off quite that much.
"Now, Ms. Keslyn," he says. "You qualify for some in-home nursing care, so someone will be coming by tomorrow—"
"No. They won't."
I've been polite; I've listened. Now I'm done. From my position, seated on the edge of the bed, it's fairly easy to slide my feet to the floor. The place in my belly, the one that has refused to heal properly despite weeks in the hospital, makes itself known as I stretch, but I'm pretty sure I haven't let the pain show in my face.
My right leg is another thing altogether.
It's damnably weak despite all the hours of physical therapy I've endured, and when I put weight on it I swear to God I can feel the pins creaking in the bone. The knee buckles. When I tighten my muscles to correct the fall the pain in my belly flares. I gasp and grimace before I can catch myself
Dammit. Rule number one— never let them see your weakness.
Dr. Henderson puts his hand under my arm, although I've already steadied myself.
"Oopsy daisy," he croons, as though I am a child, then calls out into the hallway, "Can I get a wheelchair in here?"
He doesn't know how close he comes to a healthy slap on that baby soft face. My fingers itch with the impulse, but he's saved by my grasp on reality. The blow would knock me flat on my ass and they'd probably tie me down and order in mental health. I'd have to tell lies to pass their little tests, and I'm just not in the mood for fun and games.
So, I smile. Apparently my smile, at least, remains the same, because the condescension is wiped off his face and his adam's apple bobs. Ignoring his hovering, I bend for my bag, feeling the pulling of the fragile flesh, willing my knees to hold me. I manage to straighten up, wondering for a minute who’s put weights in the bag and then realizing that it's the same as it’s always been.
I'm the one who has changed.
Dr. Henderson takes the bag from me. "No lifting, Ms. Keslyn, remember? No bending. I knew you weren't listening –"
"I heard every word."
"Could you repeat it back to me?"
"I mustn't lift. I mustn't bend. I can bear weight on the leg but no jogging or jumping. Watch for redness, swelling, increasing discharge or signs of a foul odor—."
He opens his mouth to speak but I ward him off with a gesture of my hand. "Wait – I forgot the last and most important. I must avoid any remotely useful activity that might lead to a meaningful life."
"Ms. Keslyn, I'm sure your life can have meaning. Have you given any thought to the referral I made to counseling?"
I tune him out. I've glimpsed a figure lurking in the hallway. Black skin, black suit, black sunglasses. If I listen I can hear him pacing, just outside my line of vision. A military pace, broken by a slight hitch and drag on the left.
"Ms. Keslyn? You're not listening again."
Poor child, he's feeling unimportant and neglected, but it can only do him good. He's too young to be getting the almighty doctor treatment, it will only go to his head. Let the nurses fawn on him. I have business in the hallway.
"I'm sorry, Doogie. I've got to go."
He looks at me blankly.
"You don't even know who Doogie Hauser is, do you? My God."
"Wait for the wheelchair, Ms. Keslyn."
"My ride is here."
I limp out of the room. I am not going to meet Abel sitting in a wheelchair, or pushing a walker like some decrepit old woman.
He's marking time down the hallway, hands clasped behind his back. Twenty paces, then he swivels in my direction. His shaved head glistens in the glare of the fluorescents. Dark glasses hide his eyes, but I know he's seen me. There's a predatory tilt to his head, a tightening of the muscles.
He wants something.
"Well, this is a surprise," I say. "If you'd like to take my bag from the good doctor here, we can be on our way."
"You need a wheelchair," Dr. Henderson protests. "And the nurse still needs to sign you out –"
"I'm walking. If somebody wants something signed, present it before I reach the door." I see freedom and I'm not looking back. Abel's car will be waiting outside. If he wants to talk, he can give me a ride home. It will be quicker than a taxi.
The nurse is almost my age, grey hair in a smooth helmet over her head, no nonsense green uniform. Thank the stars she's said no to teddy bear prints or other falderal. She catches me halfway down the hall and presents me with a clipboard and a pen.
No point making her life more difficult. I sign, and then I'm in the clear.
The door seems too far away, like a destination in a dream. I walk and walk and don't seem to get any closer. I hear wheels behind me and I know that infernal doctor has either sent somebody after me with a chair or is pushing one himself.
My left leg feels like rubber, the right is full of lead weights. Sweat slicks down my back, my breath keens in my chest as though I've been running for miles and my heart is throwing a tizzy.
None of this matters. I am walking out that fucking door, and I'm doing it under my own steam.
I hear Abel's voice behind me. "Lose the chair, doc. She'll fall over dead before she'll sit in that thing." His steps lengthen and pick up speed until he's at my side, my bag dangling from his fingers like it's filled with feathers. Rage over my own predicament supplies a little extra boost to muscles thinking of surrender, and I make it out into the lobby.
"I'm parked right outside the door," Abel says, and sure enough I can see his car through the glass doors, exactly the car to match the suit and glasses, a black sedan with tinted windows arranged at an angle in a NO PARKING, AMBULANCES ONLY zone.
I'm grateful for his arrogance – I wouldn't have made it across the parking lot.
He opens the passenger door but lets me struggle in without offering a hand, and I know for sure he wants something. Abel doesn't act out of kindness and decency. Never mind that his FBI badge puts him in the good guy camp or that he focuses his predatory nature on harassing the dark side. If he wasn’t out to garner a favor he'd have plunked me into that wheelchair, or picked me up and carried me.
Sweat-soaked and shivering in the chill of an October afternoon, I catch my breath, corral the pain, and prepare myself for whatever it is he's going to throw at me. Abel slides in behind the wheel, puts the key in the ignition but doesn't turn it. "Can we talk?"
"Care to tell me why Ed isn't picking you up?"
"He doesn't know I've been cut loose. Which brings me to a question –"
Abel starts the car, pulls out onto Division and heads south, the direction of my house.
"I badgered the doctor," he says. “That’s how I knew you were getting out today."
"Why?" It's not out of any special concern for my wellbeing, that's certain.
"Something for you under the seat."
"I'm not supposed to bend."
He makes a rude noise of dismissal, and I am--of course--already defying both the doctor and my body’s pain messages. My fingers fumble with the edges of a hard plastic box before I'm able to get a grip and drag it out into daylight.
Rugged plastic. Black. I open it to find two items inside: my revolver, and my FBI guest ID. Cold shock settles over me as I realize what it is he wants, and then I start to laugh. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, but you do realize I barely made it to the car?"
"Would have been a shame to call an ambulance before you'd even left the grounds."
I am not going to ask him what exactly it is he thinks I can do in my condition, so I shut up and watch the world go by. Only three weeks out of commission, but everything looks both new and strange – as though I've pulled a Rip Van Winkle and slept a hundred years. The world has moved on fine without me, a fact hammered home when Abel pulls into my driveway.
During the time I have been gone, the leaves on the big maple have turned to crimson and begun to fall, drifting across the lawn. Frost has touched the flower beds, and only the marigolds are still in bloom.
In the driveway, parked beside my Jag convertible and Ed's much more sober Beamer, there's a minivan. Company.
I note the minivan, but it's the Jag that draws my full attention. Doesn't look too bad from this distance, other than the bullet holes and fractured glass in the windshield and the dent in the front fender. It needs a good wash, but at least Ed's had the decency to put the top up so it's not full of leaves and dirt.
There will be blood stains on the seat covers, though.
Memory rocks me, hard. The slug-like paranormal oozing between me and the steering wheel, its tentacles probing into my belly through skin and then muscle, eating at my innards. Bullets slamming through the windshield. My hunger for air as my lungs fill with blood. And then nothing. The before and the after are a blank.
This sudden flash hurts more than any of the physical pain and I fight it back. Not now. Not with Abel observing every nuance of my behavior. Not with Ed emerging onto the porch.
He stands there, hands in his pockets, black hair lightly frosted at the temples. He's sixty-five and still a beautiful man. I feel like I'm looking at him backwards through a telescope, small and distant. I'm still trying to decipher the look on his face – surprise, disappointment, unease – when a woman steps out behind him, putting a questioning hand on his arm.
She sees me and freezes, mouth curved in a round O of understanding. A breeze presses the velour pantsuit over a body matronly rather than voluptuous, and she puts her other hand protectively up to hair so shellacked it won't be blowing anywhere anytime soon.
"The doctor told me you'd be released next week," Ed says.
"I'm a fast healer. Who's your friend?"
For the first time he glances back at her, as if surprised she’s there. She's the one who answers me. "I'm Glenda. You must be Maureen."
Indeed I must. And this is my house, and somewhere in my kitchen there is a bottle of wine, and I am going to have a drink. As I hobble toward the porch the two of them draw together, unconscious of their own body language but it's clear to me, and I'm certain to Abel. They do not want me in the house. I avoid Ed's eyes, don't offer even a token kiss. This is before I realize the extent of the betrayal.
The house is no longer mine. There are crocheted afghans hanging over the back of the couch, needlepoint cushions decorating the easy chair. Plants have invaded. Someone has been burning candles in a heavy, floral scent that makes me cough.
Coughing should have been on the list of things I must not do, although I suppose even the good doctor knows there's no point warning me against this one, and when the paroxysm clears I've got both hands pressed against my belly and I'm looking around through a haze of involuntary tears.
I smell Ed behind me. Thirty years of close proximity and you learn the scent of a person. "When were you planning to tell me?" Thank God my voice is steady. I have no intention of letting him see me cry.
"I tried –"
"Funny, I don't remember any mention of this." Anger comes to my rescue and I turn on him. "An affair, I can understand. Always half expected you had a woman snugged away somewhere. Moving her in while I'm in the hospital? Did it occur to you I might need to make some living arrangements?"
"You can stay here as long as you need." The woman sounds like someone's grandmother. Ed wraps his arm around her waist, protective. Good God, she's not even young and sexy. Old lady hair, waved and colored, magenta nails, a pantsuit that looks like it's lingered since the 50's. My chest burns and my voice is drenched in acid.
"How about you wait outside? This is between me and my husband."
She makes a bleating noise and Ed pats her, comfortingly. There is a softness in his face that I haven't seen before. "She's not going anywhere, and I won't allow you to –"
"Bullshit, Ed! This is my house. Not hers."
"Actually, it's in my name." His tone has gone logical and annoyingly calm. "Remember? You were gone so much we agreed it would be easier that way. I'm not going to be a bastard about this – when we sell it I intend to give you half. And you can stay as long as you need –"
I turn around and walk back outside. Abel leans against his car, arms crossed, waiting. He opens the door when he sees me coming and I slide in without a word.
He drives in silence for several blocks, while I stare out the window and try to come to terms with the fact that I am aging, wounded, and homeless.
"Ready to hear my proposition now?" he says.
"You're a cruel bastard. You could have told me."
" You needed to see for yourself."
"I can't imagine what you think I can do for you."
One hand on the wheel, he reaches behind the seat and pulls a folder out of a briefcase and drops it in my lap. I know these folders. There will be pictures - contacts, locations, things I will see, memorize, and burn when I'm through.
I open the thing and stare in disbelief. "You're insane." Right on top is a picture of smiling old people with golf clubs and Bermuda shorts. Behind them is a clinical looking building with the words "Shadow Valley Manor" blazoned across it.
This stings. I know Abel is missing most of the softer feelings but this—this is outright enemy territory. "Stop the car and let me out."
He doesn't even blink. "You'll be working, not vegetating. Your contact is Phil Evers."
Now there's a name I haven't heard in awhile. My skin warms at the thought of him, even after all these years, and my stomach does an inappropriate little butterfly dance. I squash it.
"Lies. Phil's been out of the game for years."
"He said you'd say that. He also said to remind you that you owe him."
"You talked to Phil."
"I did. He bought the Manor. Apparently, it came with a bit of a problem." The twitch of his lips looks suspiciously like a smile.
Not surprising. Phil Evers is something of a legend in our world, the 007 of Paranormal Investigators. Smooth, smart, and with a voice that can melt a whole lot more than butter. If he's involved in an investigation after all these years then it's going to be a whole lot bigger than an intestine eating slug.
For the first time in my life, I'm not up for that sort of danger. I feel vulnerable and frail and have a sudden strong urge to get on a plane to someplace tropical with a beach.
"I don't care who my contact is. I am not going to any place called Shadow Valley."
Abel is too sharp for his own good. He sees right through me. "You can handle this. All undercover. Easy. No danger."
"Do tell." Undercover is good, as it means they'll pay my expenses and I'll have a roof over my head. But there's more to this story; there always is.
"Really. That's it. You hang out, keep your eyes open."
"Who else is in?"
"Just you. He asked for you. I'm your chain of command."
"Does he know?" I gesture at my leg, my ruined body, unable to articulate the damage.
Damn the man. Phil could always play me with a well-placed word. The man knows his mark. Just with that one phrase - he asked for you - I know I'm in. I feel needed. Despite my years and the distance between us I find myself preening like a cat.
"What am I looking for?"
"He said he'll brief you himself."
"Small town. Perfect place for a little rest and recovery."
"No need. You're hiding in plain sight."
"Shadow Valley Manor. I don't know, Abe." Better judgment is trying to make itself heard, kicking and screaming for my attention. There are two possible explanations here. One, Phil heard about my disaster and still cares enough to offer me a way to salvage my pride. Two, Phil is up to something dangerous and he means it about me being the best person for this job. Which scares me. Even in the days when I knew he loved me he would have risked me in a heartbeat for the good of an operation.
And I'm not at all sure that I'm up to the task.
"You have a better idea?" Abel asks, and that's where he has me.
My medical bills are going to be steep. I don't have the money to buy another house. I've got about another seven years to go before I can collect what I've earned in retirement benefits. I know, and Ed knows, that I'm not going to accept a single dime from him. My savings are not going to last long if I have to pay rent, and the social security I've built up is enough for subsistence living only. In this market, it's going to take awhile for the house to sell so I can get my share.
At least the ignominy of Shadow Valley offers a paycheck and an illusion of purpose.
Or death. I can't shake that cold chill that tells me I'm walking into a trap.
"Tell you what," Abel says. "Take a couple of days to think – we'll put you up in a hotel, cover your expenses."
"Fix my car."
"You'll also get my car fixed, good as new, and hire some movers to put my belongings in storage. I'll make a list of what I want to take with me."
And there it is. I lean my head back against the seat and close my eyes. I always knew getting old would suck, but I'd managed to visualize tropical beaches and a continuation of good health. Maybe an arthritic knee, but still active and kicking ass into my eighties.
Anything I might have dreamed on the dark side wouldn't have come close to what I've just agreed to do.