The prologue I posted a few weeks back from what Sutter calls the fourth “Laura book” was apparently not enough. Not one soul called with any information regarding its rightful owner. At this juncture, I have no choice but to post Chapter 1.
(Sutter, are you at all catching on to how this is done?)
With a loud ding, the elevator opened and completed its delivery of Detective Laura McCallister to the second floor of St. Michael’s Hospital. Its disinfectant smell and hushed voices always made her nervous. She recalled keeping vigil some months back after Officer Phil Jansen had been hit in the head by the serial killer they hunted. She remembered more recently pacing the hall when her reporter friend, Kate Sutter, had emergency surgery for a ruptured appendix. But, she also knew she’d never forget Officer Rick Jessop’s face as he pointed out his newborn son in the nursery. Still, to say she detested hospitals would have been a delicate but wasteful choice of words.
After an uneasy scan of the hall, she swiftly approached a county deputy standing at the nurse’s station completing a report.
“What’s up, Nichols?” she asked him with a slight nudge to his elbow. “What do you need?”
“Sorry about getting you dragged in on a Sunday night, Detective,” he said as he cautiously looked up at her. “We’ve got a woman who just wrecked her car. No ID, but she had your business card in her back pocket. We’re hoping you recognize her. The doc says he needs next of kin, and I’d like to finish my report.”
Nodding her assent, she followed him to Room 217. He held the door for her, but she hesitated. She wiped her hands on her sweatpants and took an inconspicuous deep breath. With a stretch, she leaned her head into the room. The dim light did little to provide an adequate glimpse; she figured as much, but she had hoped nonetheless.
“Why don’t you go finish your report?” she suggested. “I’ll go take a look at her.”
He stood there, awaiting her passage, and when he realized she was not budging, he retreated. “Yell if you need me,” he said and headed back to the nurse’s station.
She forcefully wiped her hands again, berating herself for being ruffled by something undeserving of such a swell of emotion. Again, she took a fortifying breath and then entered. Slowly, she approached the bed, her steps marking every third beep of the machine that validated a beating heart.
A young woman, who looked to be in her early twenties, lay still, except for the consistent heaving of her chest. Bandages covered her arms and half her forehead. Bloody and matted hair gave enough indication that on a good day it was dark blond, wavy, and shoulder-length. A long, lean nose jutted between high cheek bones. A craggy split ran upward from her lip.
McCallister did not recognize her, and yet, she could not stop staring. Something tugged at her. As a homicide detective, she found looking at the dead easier than witnessing utter vulnerability. She broke her gaze and hurried into the hall.
“I’m sorry, Nichols,” she said upon approach. “I don’t think I know who she is. Can you tell me what you do know?”
He stood up straight and grabbed his notebook from an inside pocket. “A man saw the accident. He said she swerved to miss a deer, taking the ditch instead of hitting the deer or him head-on. She hit a tree. The doc says no alcohol or drugs in her system.” He unnecessarily paused to allow her time to ask questions and then continued, “Fire gutted the car, so she probably had ID somewhere. All we got is what was on her: your card in her back pants pocket and over ten thousand in cash in her jacket pocket.”
“Ten thousand in cash!” McCallister repeated. “You’re kidding.”
Nichols shook his head. “I checked the VIN, and the car belonged to a man in Arizona up until a week ago,” he explained. “He said a young woman paid cash for it. He’s got the name ‘Rachel Hillman’ on the bill of sale, but both the driver’s license number and address are bogus. A temp tag isn’t registered.”
“So she’s running from something or hiding something,” McCallister surmised.
“I’ve got a check into Missing Persons, and I’m seeing if there are any recent crimes that could account for the cash.”
“Sounds like you’re on track,” she said. “I guess you’ll have to wait until she comes to. Did the doctor give any indication?”
He turned to the nurse and asked whether there was any new information on the woman’s condition. Instantly, the nurse summoned the doctor from the room behind the station. He came out and introduced himself to McCallister as Dr. Eric Lythegow.
“She has a concussion, bruises, burns … the standard injuries from an accident like this,” he explained. “I have her sedated because when she came to she was extremely agitated. Again, that’s common after a trauma, but we couldn’t get her to calm down. I’d rather be sure she’s stable before we stop the sedatives.”
“But you think she’s going to make it?”
“Oh, yes. I certainly believe so. I don’t think we missed anything.”
“Then why the rush for the next of kin? Why not wait and just ask her?”
“Just one of those gut things, I guess,” he said. “If you could have seen her … the look in her eyes. She was absolutely terrified. I was just hoping someone could be here when she wakes up. It might make her feel better. Then again, she might wake up just fine.”
“Doc, I know you mean well,” she assured, “but it could be she’s running from something and maybe has a reason to be afraid. Maybe this family you’re looking for is precisely what she’s running from.”
After a moment’s thought, Dr. Lythegow nodded empathetically and said he would wait until morning to let her awaken. She instructed him to give Nichols a call when she started coming around. Nichols, in turn, asked her to be present.
She exited the hospital as quickly as possible, and once outside, she filled her lungs with the night air and looked to the vastness of the night sky. As she meandered to her car, she scoured the sky for a constellation she could put a name to. Settling for the lone crescent moon, she made for home.
Before her feet even brought her through the doorway, Holly said, “Please tell me it wasn’t another kid.”
“It wasn’t. Thankfully.”
“Okay then, they found the missing boy. He’s okay, but he’s in big trouble. They brought you in to read him the riot act.”
“No,” she answered as she removed her jacket.
“Well, it must be something big to justify calling you in on a Sunday night.”
She smiled at her endless line of reasoning and then told her, “A woman had a car accident. She’s unconscious. No ID.”
“And that qualifies for a detective how? Was she run off the road?”
“She had my business card in her pocket.”
“‘Uh oh’? Why ‘uh oh’?”
“You’re a detective—a rather yummy one—and she has your card. She either needs a detective—it’s never a good thing to need a detective—or she’s looking you up for another reason.”
The comical way she emphasized “another” led her to ask, “And what kind of reason would that be?”
“Because you’re yummy.”
She laughed. “Hol, if I’m yummy, it’s only because I usually taste like you.” She extended her hand. “Come here and remind me what we were doing when the phone rang.”
“We were kissing,” she said as she neared. “We were lying on the couch kissing.” She cupped her face and kissed her very slowly. “I’m glad you’re home.”
“Should we pick up where we left off?”
“Without question,” she answered as her hands glided over Holly’s silk-robed back. Lingering on her firm buttocks, she added, “But I was thinking bed, not couch. And I was thinking hot chocolate.”
She kissed her again. “That could be arranged. Go get ready for bed, and I’ll make the hot chocolate.”
“You’re good to me.”
“I won’t be if you’re not in bed before I get there. Scoot!”
She threw her jacket to a chair and hurried down the hall to the bathroom. She changed into the white nightshirt that matched Holly’s, and despite knowing what hot chocolate would do, she brushed her teeth. Then as she washed her face, her mind drifted to the woman in the hospital. She hoped she’d be okay and that she’d satisfy her curiosity as to why she had her card. Was there ever a good reason to have a detective’s business card?
When she heard the tea kettle whistle, she dashed to the bedroom, readied the bed, and climbed in to wait for Holly.
They talked, laughed, sipped, and made love before they succumbed to sleep.
In the morning, they repeated the sacred process, this time with coffee McCallister snuck into the kitchen to retrieve from the maker timed to go off mere minutes before her alarm.
With a promise to come home as soon as possible, they kissed goodbye, and McCallister headed to the station. She was in the midst of a routine briefing when Deputy Nichols called to summon her to the hospital.
By 10:30, she again found herself uncomfortably staring at the woman.
Her breathing was heavier and faster. Her head occasionally twisted from side to side. As a precaution, a low dose of sedative was administered, and her wrists were tethered to the bed rails.
A nurse, Dr. Lythegow, Nichols, and she simply waited.
The woman’s level of agitation proved a gauge for her level of consciousness. The closer she came to the world, the more distressed she became. McCallister suggested Nichols wait in the hall, in case his uniform upset her.
The woman groggily blinked numerous times, and then suddenly, her eyes shot open like angry blinds on a dirty window. She screamed deeply, an obvious fear of something inside and not a reaction to unfamiliar surroundings.
“It’s okay, miss,” the doctor assured as he gently pushed his hands to her shoulder. “You’re safe. You were in a car accident. You’re in the hospital, but everything is okay. I’m Dr. Lythegow.”
His words offered her no comfort, no calm, no sense of reality. She thrashed violently as the doctor fought to keep her prone and calm. He ordered the nurse to ready more sedative.
McCallister neared the head of the bed and sought to help him. She smiled at the woman, although she figured she probably didn’t even really see her. “If I was in a hospital, I think they’d have to hold me down, too. I hate hospitals,” she said, and then loudly, she asked, “Do you want me to get this big guy off you?”
Abruptly, the woman stopped resisting. She nodded, and her screams immediately turned into sobs.
“Do you promise to be calm?” McCallister asked with wide eyes and a smile. “He’ll sit on you if you won’t be. I wouldn’t mess with him. You promise?” When the woman nodded and made eye contact, she asked again, “Promise?”
“I promise,” she affirmed.
Dr. Lythegow eased away from her just as McCallister sat on the other side of the bed.
“Is that better? Are you okay?” she asked with a reassuring smile.
Again, the woman nodded, and McCallister could see her relax onto the bed.
“Like the doc said, you were in an accident. You avoided hitting a deer and landed in the ditch. You got pretty banged up. Do you remember?”
Nodding turned to vehement shaking.
“The doc will probably tell you that’s normal. I’m sure it was pretty scary. It’ll come back to you if it needs to,” she explained. “What’s your name anyway?”
She looked into McCallister’s eyes but didn’t answer. Thoughts seemed to overtake her.
After a couple of moments, McCallister said, “Your driver’s license must have gotten lost in the accident. We don’t know who you are. We were hoping we could call someone for you so you don’t have to be alone.” She tried to figure out what was on the other side of those blue eyes peering into hers. The stare wasn’t blank. It wasn’t fearful. Pleading maybe, she thought. But for what?
“My name is Laura McCallister,” she told her. “Detective Laura McCallister.” She paused to see whether the title elicited any fear or discomfort. When she realized it didn’t, she said, “You had my business card in your pocket. Did you need my help with something?”
Her eyes squinted in thought. Then, she shrugged and looked away.
McCallister cautiously laughed. “You just collect business cards, then, I take it. Mine are pretty boring. They could have at least given me raised letters, don’t you think?”
“I like the blue, though,” she said. Her eyes suddenly widened, and she whipped her head to peer into McCallister’s eyes again. “I like the blue!” she shouted. “I like the blue!” She started crying from somewhere deep inside.
“Tell me about the blue, then,” McCallister tried, completely uncertain as to the significance.
“I remember the blue. … I don’t know why I remember the blue … but I do.”
McCallister shot a pleading look to the doctor and then to the restraint on the woman’s wrist. He nodded and removed it as McCallister reached into her jacket pocket to retrieve a card. She handed it to the woman, asking, “Is this what you mean? Is this the blue you remember?”
She studied the card. After a moment, she nodded and asked, “Do you know if I needed your help, Detective Laura McCallister?”
“I’m sorry. I don’t. Perhaps if you told me your name, it might—”
The sobbing returned full force. Then, she blurted, “I don’t seem to remember my name. I don’t seem to remember anything.”
McCallister turned to the doctor and asked him to help the woman understand.
He neared her and smiled gently. “You got hit in the head pretty hard, miss. Traumatic amnesia can occur from something like that, but it’s transient … temporary. It should clear on its own. Your scan was fine, but we’ll be running more tests this morning. We’ll figure it all out.”
McCallister got up while the doctor explained the tests they would be performing. She poked her head out the door and told Deputy Nichols that his return would not cause problems. When he entered, the woman looked at him, squinted her eyes in thought, and then directed her attention back to the doctor.
When the conversation lulled, McCallister introduced Nichols as the deputy in charge of dealing with her car accident. Then, she said, “If you happen to remember that you did need me for something, just give me a call.” She smiled at her. “I hope you feel better soon.”
“Do you have to go?” she asked. A mix of sadness and fear swept over her face that McCallister did not like.
“Your case is with the Ledder County Sheriff’s Department, ma’am. I work for the City of Granton,” she explained. “Deputy Nichols will help you. Just trust him. I do.” She smiled again. In mid-turn toward the door, she added, “And behave yourself so the doc doesn’t have to sit on you.” When she got the smile she wanted, she told her to take care and took leave.