Surfacing from a yawning pit of blackness, her eyes adjusted to an unfamiliar room: cream vertical blinds, cream walls, television on a shelf bolted high on the wall, blankets covering what must be her feet, wood veneer footboard.
A hospital room.
Her heart clutched. She thought of surgery. Pain. Inside her head was a long, silent scream.
Automatically, her hand flew up and touched the bandage wrapped around her head. One eye was covered. She didn’t know why, but it wasn’t the first time she’d blacked out. Far from it. But this time she’d hurt herself, maybe badly. What had happened?
She had a terrible moment of not knowing who she was.
Then she remembered.
I’m lucky, she thought, memory slipping back to her, amorphous, hard to grasp, but at least it was there. At least some of it was there.
And she was angry. Hot fury sang through her veins though she couldn’t immediately identify the source of her rage. But someone had to pay. She knew that.
A nurse was adjusting a monitor that was spitting out paper in a long, running stream. Red squiggles wove over the paper’s lined grid. Her heartbeat. Respiration, maybe? She closed her eye and pretended to be sleeping. She wasn’t ready for the inquisition, yet. Wasn’t ready to find out the whys and wherefores of how she’d come to be at this hospital.
She heard the squeak of the nurse’s crepe soles head toward the door. A soft whoosh of air, barely discernible, said the silent door had been opened. Not hearing it close, she carefully lifted her eyelid. As suspected the wheelchair-wide door was ajar. Anyone could push inside and stare at her which consumed her with worry. She had to stay awake.
The last vestiges of what seemed to be a dream tugged at her consciousness and she fought to hang onto the remnants but they were slippery and insubstantial, spider threads. She was left merely with the sensation that she was heading for a showdown, some distant and unwelcome Armageddon that was going to shatter and rearrange her world. Maybe not for the better.
But then she always felt that. Always awoke with that lowgrade dread which followed the gaps in her memory. Maybe someday she would wake up and not know who she was at all. Maybe her memory would be gone for good.
What would happen then?
The door swung in noiselessly and a man in a light tan uniform entered the room. He was with the county sheriff’s department and seeing her looking at him, he said, “Hello, ma’am. I’m Detective Will Tanninger with the Winslow County Sheriff’s Department.”
She nodded, eyeing him carefully. He was in his mid-thirties with dark brown hair and serious eyes, but she could see the striations at their edge from squinting them in either laughter or against the sun. “Where am I?”
“Laurelton General Hospital. You’ve been admitted as a Jane Doe. Could you tell us your name?”
He was steely polite. Alarm bells rang. What had she done? It took her a long moment to come up with her name. “Gemma LaPorte.” She hesitated, almost afraid to ask. “Are you here to see me?”
“We don’t know how you got here, Ms. LaPorte. You walked into Emergency and collapsed.”
Her hand fluttered to her head once again. “Oh... ?”
“Did someone bring you? Did you drive yourself?”
Gemma moved her head slowly from side to side and she felt a twinge of pain. “I don’t remember.”
Will paused, regarding her with dark, liquid eyes. She could sense his strength and knew he was good at his job. A tracker. Someone who never gave up. Someone dogged and relentless. She shivered involuntarily as he said, “You don’t remember the circumstances that brought you here.”
“What’s your last memory?”
Gemma thought about it a minute. “I was making myself breakfast at home. Oatmeal and cinnamon. I was looking out the window and thinking we were drowning in rain. It was a downpour. The dirt was like concrete and the water was pouring over it in sheets.”
The deputy was silent for so long that Gemma felt her anxiety rise. She sensed that he was deliberating on an answer.
“What?” she asked.
“It hasn’t rained for three days.”
Will Tanninger regarded the woman with the scared green eye and stark white bandage with a healthy sense of skepticism. Her skin had paled at his words. He understood about trauma-induced amnesia. More often than not, serious accident victims couldn’t remember the events that led to their hospital stay. But they usually lost a few hours, not days. In Gemma LaPorte’s case, he couldn’t tell if this was a ploy or the truth. The half of her face he could see was swollen and bruised, blue and purple shadings of color already traveling from her injured side to the other. Even so, he could tell she was rather extraordinary looking. Smooth, prominent cheekbones and a finely sculpted nose beneath a hazel-colored eye that glinted green when hit by the hard morning light coming through a twelve-inch gap in the hospital drapes.
According to the staff, her injuries weren’t as severe as they looked. Concussion. Bruising. Her face had run into something --- something that could very likely be a steering wheel. Was she the woman who had purposely run down Edward Letton yesterday morning? Had she sustained those injuries in the crash? She didn’t really look much like the woman described by Carol Pellter, the young soccer player who’d narrowly missed being mowed down by the hit-and-run driver (That was Pellter with two l’s, Carol had informed him seriously when she saw him writing her name down incorrectly). She also said it “scared the shit out of her, to quote my father,” of which said father looked decidedly uncomfortable when those words shot from his daughter’s young mouth. Carol, however, was decidedly happy to be able to use the language. Her description of the driver was fairly generic: older woman, wearing a baseball cap. Upon questioning both Carol and her parents, Carol’s father made it clear that ‘older’ to Carol meant anyone over sixteen. Will had taken Carol to the sheriff’s offices to meet their office’s one and only sketch artist, a talented amateur not on the county payroll. The artist had tried to draw a picture based on Carol’s description. In the end Will had put the woman anywhere from her mid-twenties to her late-thirties.
But the reason Will was here now, with this mystery woman, was that she’d shown up at the hospital with a head injury consistent with one caused by an automobile accident --- a ramming automobile accident . She fell loosely inside the right age bracket, and she had the right length of brown hair, and timing-wise, her injuries could have occurred yesterday morning.
But Will was reluctant to ask her directly about the hit-and-run. He didn’t want to feed her information until he was ready. He was hoping she’d trip up and tell him something herself. Maybe something she wanted him to know. Was desperate for him to know. Such as that Edward Letton, who was languishing in this same hospital with multiple fractures --- the most serious a crushing head injury that had required emergency surgery to stop the bleeding in his brain --- had been driving a van equipped with ropes, chains, handcuffs and items of well... torture. Dog-eared pages of crude child pornography were tucked inside the vehicle’s pockets. The workshop of a predator about to strike.
Carol Pellter was damn lucky Gemma LaPorte, or whoever, had thwarted Letton from his sadistic purpose. If the man had grabbed the girl... Will’s mind clamped shut. No need to go there.
But was the driver Gemma LaPorte? If so, he would have no choice but to charge her with attempted murder at the worst, reckless driving at the least. According to Carol she’d run down Letton intentionally, but though the deed must have been in full view of the fields, with all the noise and attention diverting the players and bystanders, no one saw much of anything except a silver car driving a little faster than it should, the tires squealing a bit. That silver car had not been found.
So, was it intentional? Will was inclined to believe so. Carol was pretty sure of herself. And her parents, scared that Carol had nearly been run down, had been all about finding that driver and throwing the book at her. Until they’d looked through the open door of the van and seen what Will saw. Before that viewing they’d been instrumental in dialing 911 and getting an ambulance for Letton; they’d probably helped save him from dying at the site. It wasn’t until Will and another deputy were on the scene that anyone really looked inside Letton’s van. Then the Pellters stood silent and sober, possibly regretting their good Samaritan actions. When Carol wanted to see what was inside, they’d pulled her away, Carol all the while protesting that it was “unfair”, and that she heard her mom say, “oh, God,” and her dad say, “shit”, like they were both really, really scared, so she, Carol Pellter, deserved to know what was in that van!
Mom and Dad Pellter ignored her, staring at Will hollow-eyed, holding onto the whirling dervish that was their daughter in a protective grip that finally seemed to penetrate the spirited girl’s annoyance and she stopped fighting them and grew quiet.
Letton’s van had been impounded.
Now Gemma LaPorte was looking at him, her eye more hazel than green as the line of exterior light had shifted to illuminate the bruises on her forehead. “What’s the date today?” she asked.
“Three days,” she repeated.
A heavy-set nurse entered the room, caught Gemma’s expression and turned officiously to Will. Before she could berate him for upsetting her patient, he nodded at her. “I’ll check back with you later,” he told Gemma, then headed into the hallway.
The nurse said to Gemma, “You look like you could use some more pain medication.”
Gemma was staring after Will. She felt like she could use some more pain medication, but she didn’t dare. She needed to keep her wits about her.
“Administration will be calling for your billing information,” the nurse added with a slight grimace. The duties and functions of a hospital were well-known.
Hospitals... pain... she experienced a terrible moment with she saw a plastic mask descending over her face and smelled the scent of some drug.
“Do you know why that deputy came to see me?” she asked shakily. “He didn’t really say.”
Nurse Penny had seen a lot of patients in her forty years on the job. She prided herself on her judge of character. Had only been fooled by someone once, and that was the bastard she eventually married and divorced. She hoped he rotted in hell somewhere.
She could certainly feel this patient’s reluctance and fear, but there was no sense of maliciousness or criminality emanating from her. She knew what that felt like. She’d been cajoled and lied to by an assortment of bamboozlers over the years and she’d seen right through them. No. This girl just seemed scared. Maybe angry. She’d muttered some vile things in her sleep, but Nurse Penny believed she was a good person at heart. “There was a hit-and-run. A man was seriously injured. They’re looking for the vehicle that ran him down, and the driver was described as a young woman about your age.”
Gemma felt cold. She absorbed the news silently. The nurse frowned, not liking the sense that the girl felt guilt. Could she have been wrong about her?
Gemma kept her silence as the nurse bustled around the room. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep, not fooling Nurse Penny for a minute. Eventually, though, the nurse had to return to other duties and she left the room, pausing for a moment to look at the girl in the bed. She shook her head and left, a faint disturbance of air marking her passage.<