Authors: James Grippando
IT WAS ALMOST LUNCHTIME WHEN SHE HEARD KEVIN’S VOICE IN THE
hallway. He’d kept his promise. With him was a detective from Boston PD.
“John Bolton,” he said in a voice that was just right for a police station, a little loud for the ICU.
Peyton shook hands, careful not to yank out an IV tube. “Thanks for coming.”
“No problem.” He said “no” like a cow, a long moo with an “n.” The closer Peyton looked, the more apt the bovine analogy seemed. He was a large man, undoubtedly muscle-bound in his younger years, simply thick in middle age. The face was round and full. He wore a necktie with the top button of his shirt unbuttoned, not to be casual but because the jowls made it impossible to button it. As he removed his coat, Peyton noticed the burly folds of skin on the back of his neck, little steps that led to his crew-cut head. He had a set of matching steps on his forehead.
“Some water?” Peyton offered, with a nod toward the pitcher on her bed tray.
“Nah, I’m fine,” said Bolton. “I know you’re not feeling a hundred percent, so I’ll make this quick. I read the accident report, so I know just about everything there is to know, except what you can add.”
“Did you find out who pulled me out of the car, who called nine-one-one?”
“The call came from a pay phone. The guy did tell the operator he was the one who pulled you from the water, but he didn’t want to give his name.”
“Isn’t that a little odd?”
“Not really. In this day and age, a guy dials nine-one-one and leaves his name, next thing he knows a hotshot lawyer is suing him for smearing some woman’s makeup as he pulled her from a burning building. You can’t blame people for not wanting to get that involved.”
“I guess not,” she said, thinking of Felicia’s lawsuit against her and the hospital.
“Anyway,” said Bolton, as he removed a pen and small pad from inside his coat pocket. “The nurse is going to kick me out in five minutes, so as best you can remember, tell me what happened.”
Peyton glanced at Kevin for reassurance, then began. “It was around three
I remember it was snowing hard. Harder by the minute. I stopped at a red light and dialed in for messages on my cell phone.”
“At three in the morning?” asked Bolton.
“It’s about the only free time I get, but that’s not important. The light changed. I turned down Riverway and right before it becomes Jamaicaway, a car flew past me.”
“Were you still on the phone?”
“No. I had just hung up.”
“Was that the only call you made, the one for messages?”
“Actually I returned one of the calls, but I don’t see what difference that makes.”
“Details are always important. Who did you call?”
“Dr. Simons. He runs the clinic in Haverhill where I work four days a month. Where I used to work, I guess I should say.”
“Why do you
you should say that?”
“That you used to work there.”
She hesitated. “What does that matter?”
“I’m just trying to get the whole picture. You’re stopped at a red light and dial in for messages. Something so important comes up that you call Dr. Simons at three o’clock in the morning. If it was a medical emergency, it could have distracted you. If it was a personal matter, it could have upset you. Any of these things impair one’s driving ability.”
“If you’re implying that this accident is somehow attributable to the fact that I was on the phone, you’re wrong.”
“Maybe. But what was the nature of the call?”
Peyton thought for a moment, choosing her words.
“Did it upset you in any way?”
Kevin said, “I don’t see how her phone calls have anything to do with this investigation.”
“I think you know where I’m going with this,” said Bolton.
“Can you answer the question, Doctor?”
“All right. I was upset.”
“I see.” He jotted something on his pad. “So we have you turning through an intersection. Continue.”
“Then a car flew past me driving way too fast for the conditions.”
“You mean the same conditions under which you were driving with one hand and talking on the phone.”
“I told you, I had already hung up the phone.”
“How much earlier?”
“Maybe a few seconds.”
“So you were still upset?”
Kevin said, “Why are you making her defend herself?”
“I’m sorry,” said Bolton. “I have to confess, cell phones are one of my pet peeves. Personally, I think they cause more accidents than drunk drivers.”
“It didn’t cause
accident,” said Peyton.
“Okay. You tell me what happened.”
She collected herself and said, “I hung up the phone. If you must know the details, let’s just say that the call was kind of awkward.”
“How do you mean?”
She definitely didn’t want to get into that. “I spoke to Dr. Simons’s answering service, but my message was—inartful, you might say. I was debating whether to call back again to clarify. That’s when I noticed a car coming toward me driving very fast. Maybe a hundred yards away.”
“And you were still thinking about the previous call?”
“Okay. So this car is coming toward you while you’re sort of preoccupied.”
“I wasn’t preoccupied.”
“Whatever. What happened?”
Peyton paused, the image coming back. “It was strange. The oncoming driver had his bright lights on, so I flashed him. He flashed back. Then he disappeared.”
“What do you mean?”
“I couldn’t see him anymore.”
He looked at her strangely. “Just vanished into thin air?”
“Then he reappeared.”
“I see. Kind of like David Copperfield.”
“Not at all. He had just switched off his lights. And I guess my own headlights were so covered with snow that I couldn’t see very far. I lost him. And then when he reappeared, there was this sudden blast of light. Pointed right at me. He was in
Her voice was trembling. Kevin took her hand. Peyton continued, “And he just kept coming, as if he were some kind of missile locked onto me. He was determined to either run me off the road or slam into me head-on.”
Bolton scratched his head. “And you swerved out of the way, I take it.”
“Yes. That’s when I lost control. I wasn’t on the phone. I wasn’t distracted. I had to do something, or he would have flattened me.”
“You’re sure he was in your lane?”
“Yes. He was right in front of me.”
“I understand. But as you just pointed out, you had been on the phone, you were upset. It was dark and snowing hard, and the roads were covered with snow and ice. Is it possible you were in
Peyton paused, as if she hadn’t ever considered the possibility. “I don’t see how.”
“You don’t?” he said, sounding as if he did.
“Why would he have turned off his lights and then flashed me like an incoming jet.”
“Maybe it wasn’t even the same car. You said yourself the conditions were getting worse by the minute. Maybe you didn’t see what you thought you were seeing. The car you were watching at first could have pulled into a driveway—disappears, as you put it. Then another car pulls out from a different driveway or maybe a side street. You’re driving in his lane. He flashes every light on his vehicle to make you move out of his way. You overreact and end up in the pond.”
“I didn’t overreact.”
“I’m not saying you’re a bad driver. In these conditions, the slightest error can have disastrous consequences.”
“Tell me this,” said Peyton. “Why wouldn’t that car have stopped after running me off the road?”
“He might not have even known you lost control.”
“I think he was trying to hit me.”
“Dr. Shields, if that were the case, we’re talking about a suicide mission. My gut doesn’t tell me that somebody’s out there looking to trade his life for yours in an intentional head-on collision. Now, I might be more concerned if you were Jennifer Aniston or Shania Twain. Not that you weren’t pretty. Aren’t pretty, I mean.”
Peyton caught the slip but let it go. Nothing pretty about bandages. “What about that man I got arrested at the Haverhill clinic? Didn’t Kevin tell you about him?”
“He did. Took two minutes to check that one out. That
boy’s still in jail. Didn’t make bail. No way he could have run anyone off the road.”
Kevin asked, “Isn’t there something the police can do to put us at ease?”
Bolton asked her, “Did you get a license plate number?”
“Make and model of the car?”
“No. Could have been a Ford. Maybe.”
His “I sees” were getting on her nerves. “You think I’m paranoid,” said Peyton.
Bolton softened his tone. “I think you’ve been through hell. The best thing for you to do is rest and get well. Stop worrying about whether someone is out there trying to get you.”
She sought out Kevin’s eyes, but he seemed to agree with the detective. He laid his hand atop hers and said, “You’re going to be fine.”
Bolton left his card on the tray beside the bed. “If there’s anything you’re concerned about, you call me. Good luck to you, Doc.”
Peyton watched quietly as the two men shook hands and stepped into the hall. She took his card and read it. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was best to stop worrying. She took another look at his card, however, and committed his phone number to memory.
Just in case.
THE SHRILL RINGING OF AN ALARM CLOCK PIERCED THE DARKNESS. A
long, languid arm swung from beneath the covers and silenced it. For a moment, he lay motionless beneath the bulky blankets. He had slept for several hours, but it hadn’t been restful. This was not his normal bedtime, and he’d fallen asleep chiefly from exhaustion. Three straight days was a long time to go without sleep, even for him.
Rather than switch on the lamp, he simply allowed his eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room. Half-opened venetian blinds cut the moonlight into slats on the opposite wall. Across the room, another slat of light streamed from beneath the closed closet door. On the nightstand beside the bed, the alarm clock’s glowing green numbers announced the time: 10:55
He slid out of bed and walked sleepily, but dutifully, to the closet. The tile floor was cold beneath his bare feet. As he reached for the handle, the light from beneath the closet door stretched all the way to his toes, giving them a reddish pink hue. From the other side of the door emerged the faint but familiar humming noise, trapped inside. He opened the door and was suddenly bathed in red light.
The sight of his computer brought a thin smile to his face, as if he were seeing an old friend. The closet had been completely remodeled into a computer workstation. Speakers rested on the
shelf overhead, like bookends for a neat row of CDs. On the floor was a subwoofer, next to his tower and external zip drive. The twenty-one-inch monitor was in the screen-saver mode, which accounted for the colored lighting. The screen was aglow with one of those strange hues that only a computer could generate, somewhere between the pitch red of roses and the brownish red of blood.
He pulled up his computer chair and by merely touching the keyboard made the red disappear. An array of icons dotted the screen. The clock in the corner said 10:58. Just two minutes to spare. Just a mouse-click on his browser brought up his high-speed Internet connection. He skipped past the advertisements, news broadcasts, and other images that cluttered his home page. He clicked the icon marked “Instant Chat.”
He was a regular visitor to chat rooms on the Internet. The concept had long fascinated him, these so-called rooms in cyberspace that Web surfers could enter or leave as they wished. Once inside they could exchange typewritten messages with people they’d never met before or just read the messages others were sending to each other, like reading a transcript of a telephone conversation. The real beauty, of course, was the anonymity. People hid behind screen names like Cowgirl or Bad Ass. It reminded him of the CB-radio craze in the 1970s, when, from the backseat of his family’s station wagon he would listen to his dad chatting with other motorists who were on the lookout for smokies. They all had their own “handle,” and it seemed every other jerk was a Burt Reynolds wannabe named Bandit, no one really knowing who the dolt really was on the other end.
was the lure of the modern-day chat room.
It was exactly 11:00
Rudy entered a chat room where, each night, a dozen or more fans of old movies gathered to chat online. Tonight they were debating whether it was the Americans who had pioneered moviemaking or the French Lumière brothers. Rudy had no interest. For him, this nightly chat room was just a meeting place, like hanging out at the corner of Fifth and Vine
because you knew the woman of your dreams passed by this very spot at the same time each night. The small box on the right of his screen indicated that twenty-two people were in the room with him. He didn’t recognize her usual screen name among the list of participants, but that wasn’t conclusive. She could have created a new one—an alias traveling under an alias. He typed his message in typical chat-room style, all lowercase, letters or numbers substituting for words.
“r u there?”
The message appeared in the dialogue box, right after his screen name, RG. He waited for a response, but deep down he wasn’t all that hopeful. It was a one in a million chance that she would visit tonight, right after the accident. Strangely, not so long ago he would have bet his whole computer on her being there at precisely eleven o’clock. She was that dependable. But that was before their whole world had changed.
“is who there?”
The reply was from someone called Windjammer. Maybe that was her new name. Or maybe it was just a stranger eager to strike up a conversation. The problem with such large groups was that your message could be read by everyone in the chat room. Only after you linked up with the person you wanted could you break off into a private chat room, just the two of you.
“is that u, ladydoc?” That had been her screen name up until the accident.
A minute passed. The online debate over the Lumière brothers continued. Line after line of transcribed text appeared on the screen below his query. The diehards were ignoring him as irrelevant. He stared at the screen as if willing a reply, but as the film aficionados rambled on, it became ever more clear that she wasn’t there.
That wouldn’t stop him from trying again tomorrow night. Nor would it stop him from telling her how he felt—tonight.
“i’m so sorry,” he typed, then paused for several seconds. Rudy’s apology was a total non sequitur in the film debate, but
if she was out there waiting in silence, she would know what he was talking about. She knew his screen name. She would know he was apologizing to her. And she would know what he was sorry about.
It was breaking protocol to use anything but a screen name, but invoking a real name might help convey the depth of his feelings.
“it’s from the heart, peyton,” he added, then clicked his mouse and exited the chat room.