– Erika Wolfe –
He twisted her expensive scarf, jamming it between his teeth just after he’d had a mouthful of her husband’s best whiskey. Among streamlined Verner Panton furniture and an Angelo Mangiarotti chandelier, Marcus Hunt sat and dripped blood from his upper arm onto the floor. On the first night she met him, he had a callous handshake and demeanor.
He was a tall brute, dark and wildly hairy. He gripped the gleaming silverware with a closed fist and shoveled buttered gnocchi and smoked eggplant from the imported European plates into his trough of a mouth. Tonight was no exception to his usual behavior.
She still hated Marcus, would never like him, but seeing the wound as he rolled up his sleeve… The hole at the top curve of his bicep was no bigger than a nickel, streaking blood down his arm like accent lines. His arm swelled, raised like an anthill where the redness gathered in the muscle of his arm.
Tulle crinkled beneath her satin skirt as she knelt beside him. She wanted to demand what he was thinking when he came to her house, not a hospital, like any normal person would have. But she knew all along Marcus was not an honest man. If he went to the hospital, he’d leave in handcuffs.
Still, three private schools and a college degree in fashion design didn’t prepare her for gunshot wounds. The only reason she recognized it at all was because her father brought home a dead deer when she was just eight. He’d been trying to drag it from his truck by two-horned antlers; a bullet hole nested in its dark auburn chest and dried blood caking the fur together. Erika locked herself in her room for six hours.
She could think of only one thing to say. “Alright,” she began, leveling her gaze at him and resting her hands on her knees. “What can I do to help you?”
“Pliers,” he grumbled around the eighty-dollar accessory, the dainty silver bangles jingling at both ends. And she had just washed it. “Tweezers, something.”
Even now, with an unsavory man bleeding in her living room, she felt vindicated—Her husband had the worst taste in friends. Perhaps if Jonathan didn’t choose his friends from the city subway, they wouldn’t come over with a bullet in their arm and blood trailing on the Ethan Allen carpets.
“Are you,” Erika paused. No rational person would consider this an option. Why else would he be doing it? “Going to pull the bullet out?”
“Yeah,” he grunted with another jingle. “Gonna need another scarf.” He held out a bloodstained hand to her and she pulled her hands back.
“Absolutely not.” She drew the line, getting to her feet. “I’m calling the hospital.” Her wine red Valentino shoes clicked against tile as she crossed the sitting room to the kitchen for the phone.
“No,” he grunted and tore the scarf out of his mouth, leaving it damp in his lap. “Wait.” The receiver to her ear, she glared at him. Rarely did she have to do more than that to get her way. With it, she made her father rethink divorce and convinced her former boss to hand over high profile projects.
Both were men in designer suits with mugs made of recycled materials on their desks, which they filled with imported coffees. Marcus wasn’t either of them. “It’s not that simple, Erika.”
“Fine, Mrs. Wolfe. It’s still not simple.” He could sound stern all he wanted, his face only got paler. Honestly, men. Over so many years with three brothers and her father, Jonathan alone listened to reason. Marcus leaned on the cream rose loveseat beside him, his uninjured arm against it. “You can’t just call and tell them a man’s been shot. They’ll want to know why.”
“Well, then.” She rested the phone back onto the base. “Why were you?”
His dry exhalation hardly counted as a laugh.
“Then allow me to make a suggestion,” she said, seating herself at a stool and crossing her legs. “You were out geo-caching when it happened.” He squinted at her, and it said enough. “Think of it as urban scavenger hunting,” she clarified. Marcus blinked.
Her husband’s whiskey sat on the Lexington glass coffee table, the broad copper-toned cap on its side next the sloped bottle. She could set out two crystal glasses, pour a little in each. An entirely innocent occasion for anyone who didn’t pry. “And let’s say you had something to drink beforehand, so you weren’t in a sound state of mind.”
His dull eyes tried to focus on her logic. A task no easier for the hole in his arm, but that was another reason to hurry. If not for him, then for the cleaning staff. “I’ll make it simple, Marcus. You don’t remember who shot you and I didn’t even hear it.” She paused, but his distant stare persisted.
“I’ll make the call,” she resolved, picking up the phone and dialing the hospital.
– – – – – –
It was a nice neighborhood, real upscale. Pink blossoming trees bent in early dusk shadows, hunching over the ambulance as they passed. Mailboxes sat nested in sculpted stone pillars and elaborate gardens poked over dark wood fences. Some of the driveways had digitally locked gates with speakers like the ones in movies. Hardly any emergency calls came from here, he figured.
Sound Shore Medical had a reputation for affordable care, so these richer types didn’t need them. But that wasn’t his to worry about. Arthur Phillips was just an EMT with that fresh-from-med-school smell.
He kept quiet and helped prepare the patient for travel. The patient was broad shouldered with a mess of brown hair, that Marcus Hunt guy he sometimes saw at Fireside Pub. The place was cheap, a complete dive, and so it worked well for Philips and the recovering addicts who went there. He never knew until now that Hunt had a tattoo of a hawk on his back.
Philips could only see the wingtip from under the rolled up right sleeve, but he recognized it as an accipiter, possibly a Cooper’s hawk, from the rounded wing. He loved ornithology growing up, and everything he learned about birds in elementary and middle school never quite left him.
All in all, he’d seen people who looked worse. But not many who looked better than the tearful Mrs. Wolfe speaking with his boss. He asked her for Hunt’s name, address, medications, all the routine information. But she dressed like she was at a ball, every curl of silken fabric highlighting the bell shape of her body.
When she nodded, another tear fell and a dark blonde curl at her temple bobbed. From the expensive clothes to the neat bun wound tight on the back of her head, she looked like a princess.
To imagine her sitting down to a drink with this guy only made sense when you knew Mr. Hunt was a friend of her husband’s. And her husband was a damn lucky man. Pictures of the couple dotted the walls, the mantle, and sat in custom stone coasters on glass end tables.
They never smiled at the camera, only at each other and the red-yellow flowers blooming around them, fireworks sparking among thick snowflakes, or barn owls squatting on their gloved forearms.
Arthur looked down to the red spot on the bandage and wrapped it one more time. His education said he should try to put the patient at ease, but… Hunt sat stiff on the stretcher, his breathing and circulation becoming less stable as he bled out his arm. This was his first bullet wound outside of pictures in a textbook, but he was sure the bullet should’ve gone through.
That would have left a mess of an exit wound, and he couldn’t have missed that. It was something to ask the doctor he worked under when they got back and Hunt was stabilized.
In the meantime, the patient looked ready to sleep off the injury or strangle someone. Hunt’s thick brown eyebrows creased at the middle, and his left hand clenched at his side as blood dried onto his sleeve. He took occasional deep breaths, almost seeming not to breathe between them.
His right arm was over his head to prevent more bleeding and the bandage was tight to keep pressure on. By the books, this was an emergency, and they’d leave for the hospital as soon as he told his coworkers to move the stretcher to the ambulance.
“What did you say happened again, Mr. Hunt?”
“I was geo-caching,” Hunt repeated in a dry tone. He didn’t make eye contact with Arthur often, and when he did, it wasn’t with any gratefulness. Closer to how one would look at road kill, he thought. “And then I got shot.”
“That’s all?” They’d been through this twice already, but he couldn’t think of anything Hunt would want to discuss. “You sure you didn’t see anything, Mr. Hunt?”
“Yes, Phillips. I’m sure.”
– Jonathan Wolfe –
“Why hello, there, Mrs. Wolfe.” John came in at midnight, his tie loose and first button undone. He liked coming home as a charming, well-dressed mess, greeting her like it was a decent hour. It brought him back to their college days where he could show up at her dorm at two in the morning with lilies and he wouldn’t leave until the sun was up. Then again, those days never really ended.
There she was, his saving grace in a silk nightgown with a laugh on her lips. He liked her best like this. Wavy dark golden hair twisting out of her bun, no makeup, little pearl drop earrings even though she was going to bed— Their upcoming anniversary only made her sweeter.
He swung his arm around her, the briefcase still in hand as he leaned down to kiss her through their smiles.
“We’re not newlyweds anymore, John,” she teased, slipping out of his hug and moving towards the winding redwood stairs. The second floor held the study, the guest room… Their bedroom.
Sliding his briefcase next to the navy blue armchair by the door, he followed. “Don’t know about you, but I’m still feeling the bliss,” he answered, smiling. Only when he undid his tie the rest of the way did he see the stain on the living room floor.
“What is that?” He let the tie hang like a misshapen scarf and moved toward the stain. Erika met him halfway, stopping him with a hand on his shoulder. She threaded the tie through her fingers slowly, glancing up at him. It was cruel of her; he was still learning how to say no to that face.
“Don’t worry about it, sweetheart,” she comforted him, bringing her other hand up to his cheek. He could smell the spring blossom perfume on her hands. When she tilted her head for another kiss, all he could do was lean into it. “We’ll have it cleaned up in the morning.”
Their noses were almost touching, and her deep green eyes were most of his world. She smiled, maybe thinking his quiet laugh was part of their nighttime games. “You only call me sweetheart when you lie.”
– Michelle Steele –
Marcus had never been particularly bright or good-looking. But he was exceptional at killing people, hunting them down, making them desperate. Whether he wanted to believe it or not, that talent for murder was in him like people had lungs. She let out another sigh of smoke, watching it twist in the dim light.
“I wish you’d put that out.” The doctor spoke out of turn, but in a voice that expected to be hit. Children on the streets spoke like that, but the only adult with that wounded voice was the good doctor. Rocking forward on black boots, she approached the lanky man from his right. In the near-darkness, he wouldn’t see her until she stood next to him.
She placed her hand near his on the overcrowded table. Littered with stacked telephone books and so many magazines, papers, notebooks, and pens that might not even work, it creaked against the extra weight of her hand.
“I wish you’d do your job, doctor.” She held the cigarette away from him anyway. Sometimes, when he got stressed enough, his lungs would seize up and he would cough for two, even five minutes. If it got that bad, she’d have to get him water. All of it being time wasted. “Do that favor for me and I’ll consider your request.”
Like most men, he couldn’t keep his eyes on her face. They kept flicking down to her belt where the .45 auto rested in its holster. He twitched something like a nod and she smiled for him. “Good man,” Michelle assured him coolly, taking her weight off the table with another creak. It coincided almost perfectly with the whining pitch from the computer against the far wall. Three flat screens glowed serenely in the dark, but only one had the flashing red box in its center.
“Herr Doktor?” They shared the language, but using it was just another part of her empty hospitality. They both knew she would just as soon be courteous as shoot him. Even so, he accepted her gesture and went to the screens. He tugged idly at the top button on his shirt as he quieted the machine, little displays reflecting in his dingy blue eyes.
“Someone called in for a shooting victim, but the patient is Jacob Smith,” he trailed off, poking at the keys with two or three fingers at a time.
“Look at his description, Dr. Keller.” Her silhouetted finger pointed at the report crowded into the bottom left hand corner of the monitor. Nearly seven feet tall, twenty-six years old, hazel eyes, brown hair, a B+ blood type, and a bird tattoo on his back— “How many men like that do you think are being shot tonight, doctor?”
“Not many,” he admitted quietly, wiping his hands on his khaki pants. “Not many at all.”
“Send me the address,” she ordered and turned from the room. Her cell phone was in her hand before she was through the door, texting the signal to the few allies she trusted—
And for the entire walk to the parking garage, her phone buzzed with ‘ya rly’. Except for one text from the gunman under the alias of Noah Brown.
About fucking time!
– – – – – –
A massive brick building with brown overhangs above all the main doors, Second Shore Medical enjoyed its muted tones as much as its sprawling, smoke-free campus. What little difference that made when she could walk right in with a simple change of clothes. Tight jeans and a tan canvas jacket kept suspicion at bay, especially with autumn creeping slowly into New York.
Putting a black lunch bag on the main desk, she asked for a Mr. Jacob Smith. They were friends from college, they shared a literature class. The bright-eyed woman at the desk laughed with Steele over tired jokes and signed her in— Annette Claire. Third level, the sixth door on her left, but he’d be on pain killers. It was fine, Steele said gently, he was always a little out of it.
Conveniently, he was sound asleep when she got into his room. The fake plants pressed into the corners and onto quaint wooden tables tried too hard to make the place seem comfortable. Partly open curtains allowed the early morning sunlight to slide in and rest on the breakfast tray by his bed. He looked at peace there, if only for a moment. The pain killers didn’t seem to be sparing him any.
With a practiced quiet, Steele took out a refillable plastic bottle, some sports logo plastered on the side, and moved to his bedside. The water falling into his glass made more noise. But he didn’t blink, didn’t move, for another half hour.
It bought her time to go to her safehouse, remove the disguise, and change location again before turning on the morning news.
“—Medical Center, a male patient dies through food poisoning. Meanwhile, gas prices double overnight in Florida and the scandal of Dr. Daniel Bell, an economics professor from Cornell University, causes a stir among incoming students.” It was the same line-up from every news broadcast, but this carried special meaning for Steele.
She propped her black boots up on the glass end table and indulged in the best box mix pancakes she knew— Bisquick. With strawberries, cream, and syrup, it was shaping up to be her best morning in years.
“The patient arrived at Sound Shore Medical Center last evening at 11 p.m. with a bullet wound in his right arm. His doctors initially decided to keep him overnight to prevent infection, but would he have been better off at home? In the middle of his breakfast, Mr. Jacob Smith lapsed into respiratory paralysis and died in a matter of minutes. Hospital officials say—”
Her phone buzzed on the coffee table with a text from Noah Brown.
Way to go, Steele! That’s what I call style.