The traffic was horrendous on Massachusetts Avenue, but then it was always horrendous at this time of day. Rush hour. God, how she hated those words. Especially today. She slapped the palm of her hand on the horn and muttered under her breath, “C’mon you jerk, move!”
“Take it easy, Nik,” Barbara Rutledge said, her eyes on the slow moving traffic. “One more block and we’re there. Mom won’t mind if we’re a few minutes late. She hates it that she turned sixty today so the longer she has to wait for the celebration, the better she’ll feel. I don’t think she looks sixty, do you Nik?”
“Are you kidding! She looks better than we do and we’re only thirty-six.” She leaned on the horn again even though it was an exercise in futility. “Just tell me one thing, why did your mother pick the Jockey Club for dinner?”
“The first crab cakes of the season, that’s why. President Reagan made this restaurant famous and all her political friends come here. If you want my opinion, thirty bucks for two crab cakes is obscene. I can eat lunch all week on thirty bucks if I’m careful. Mom pitched a fit last week when I took her to Taco Bell for lunch. We both ate for five bucks. She was a good sport about it but she can’t understand why I don’t tap into the trust fund. I keep telling her I want to make it on my own. Some days she understands, some days she doesn’t. I know she’s proud of me, you, too, Nik. She tells everyone about her two crime fighting girls who are lawyers.”
“I love her as much as you do, Barb. I can’t imagine growing up without a mother. I would have if she hadn’t stepped in and taken over when my parents died. Okay, we’re here and we’re only thirty minutes late. This isn’t the best parking spot in the world but it will have to do and we’re under a streetlight. In this city it doesn’t get any better than that.”
“We really should hit the powder room before we head for the table. Mom does like spit and polish, not to mention perfume and lipstick,” Barbara said, trying to smooth the wrinkles out of her suit. Nik did the same thing.
“I spent the day in court and so did you. We’re supposed to look wrinkled, messy and harried. Myra will understand. Ooops, almost forgot my present,” Nik said, reaching into the backseat for a small silver-wrapped package. She handed Barbara a long cylinder tied with a bright red ribbon. “Your brain must be as tired as mine. You almost forgot yours, too. What about this pile of books, Barb?”
“They’re for Mom. I picked them up today at lunchtime. You know how she loves reading about murder and mayhem. I’ll give them to her when we leave.”
Myra Rutledge was waiting, a beautiful woman whose smile and open arms welcomed them. “My girls are here. We’re ready to be seated now, Franklin,” Myra said.
“Certainly, madam. Your usual table, or would you prefer the smoking section with a window view?”
“The window, Franklin,” Barbara said. “I think tonight in honor of my mother’s birthday you two can have a cigarette. Just one cigarette after dinner for both of you. I will of course abstain. Yes, yes, yes, I know we all quit but this is Mom’s birthday and I say why not.”
Myra smiled as she reached for her daughter’s hand. “Why not indeed.”
“This is so wonderful,” Myra said, sitting down and leaning across the table. “My two favorite girls. I couldn’t ask for a better finale to my birthday.”
“Finale, Mom! Does that mean when you go home, you and Charles won’t celebrate?”
“Well ...I...perhaps a glass of sherry. I did ask Charles to come but he said this was a mother daughter dinner and he would feel out of place. No comments, girls.”
“Mom, when are you going to marry the guy? You’ve been together for twenty years. Nik and I know all about the birds and the bees so stop blushing,” Barbara teased.
“Yes and it was Charles who told you two about the birds and the bees,” Myra smiled.
Charles Emery was Myra’s companion slash houseman. When his cover was blown as an MI 6 agent his government had relocated him to the United States where he’d signed on as head of security for Myra’s Fortune 500 candy business. His sole goal in life was to take care of Myra, a job he took seriously and did well. Both girls were grateful to his attention to Myra, lessening her loneliness when they went off on their own.
Myra’s eyes sparkled. “Now, tell me everything. Your latest cases, who you’re dating at the moment, how our softball team is doing. Don’t leave anything out. Will I be planning a wedding any time soon?”
It was what Nikki loved about Myra the most, her genuine interest in their lives. She’d never invaded their privacy, always content to stand on the sidelines, offer motherly support and aid when needed but she never interfered, or gave advice unless asked. Nikki knew Myra enjoyed the times the three of them spent together, loved the twice-monthly dinners in town and the occasional lunches with her daughter or perhaps a short stroll along the Tidal Basin.
Yes, Myra had a life, a busy life, a life of her own beyond her girls. She sat on various charitable boards, worked tirelessly for both political parties, did numerous good deeds every day, was active in the Historical Society and still managed to have time for Charles, Barbara and herself.
“You staying in town tonight, Mom?”
A rosy hue marched across Myra’s face. “No, Barbara, I’m going home. No, I didn’t drive myself. I took a car service so don’t fret about the trip to McLean. Charles is waiting for me. I told you, we’ll have a glass of sherry together.”
“No birthday cake!” Nik said.
The rosy hue crept down Myra’s neck. “We had the cake at lunchtime. Charles needed a blowtorch to light all the candles. All sixty of them. It was very . . . festive.”
“How does it feel to be sixty, Mom?” Barbara asked reaching for her mother’s hand across the table. “You told me you were dreading the day.”
“It’s just a number, just a day. I don’t feel any different than I did yesterday. People always talk about ‘the moments’ in their lives. The special times they never forget. I guess this day is one of those moments. The day I married your father was a special moment. The day you were born was an extra special moment, the day Nikki came to us was another special moment and then of course when the candy company went
500. Don’t laugh at me now when I tell you the other special moment was when Charles said he would take care of me for the rest of my life. All wonderful moments. I hope I have years and years of special moments. If you would get married and give me a grandchild I would run up the flag, Barbara. I don’t want to be so old I dodder when you give birth.” Nikki poked Barbara’s arm, a huge smile on her face. “Go on, tell her. Make your mother happy on her sixtieth birthday.”
“I’m pregnant, Mom. You can start planning the wedding, but you better make it quick or I’ll be showing before you know it.”
Myra looked first at Nikki to see if they were teasing her or not. Nikki’s head bobbed up and down. “I’m going to be the maid of honor and the godmother! She’s not teasing, Myra.”
“Oh, honey. Are you happy? Of course you are. All I have to do is look at you. Oh, there is so much to do. You want the reception at home in the garden, right?”
“Absolutely, Mom. I want to be married in the living room. I want to slide down the bannister in my wedding gown. I’m going to do that, Mom. Nik will be right behind me. If I can’t do that, the wedding is off.”
“Anything you want, honey. Anything. You have made me the happiest woman in the whole world. Promise that you will allow Charles and me to babysit.”
“She promised me first,” Nikki grinned.
“This is definitely ‘a moment.’ Do either of you have a camera?”
“Mom, a camera is not something I carry around in my purse. However, all is not lost. Nik has one in her car. I’ll scoot over there and get it.”
Nikki fished in her pocket and tossed her the keys.
“I’m going to be a mother. Me! Do you believe it? You’ll be Auntie Nik,” Barbara said, bending over to tweak Nikki’s cheek. I’ll ask Franklin to take our picture when I get back. See ya,” she said flashing them both an ear-to-ear grin.
“I hope you had a good day, today, Myra. Birthdays are always special,” Nikki said, her gaze on the window opposite her chair. “Knowing you’re going to be a grandmother has to be the most wonderful thing in the world. I’m pretty excited myself.” She could see Barbara running across the street, her jacket flapping in the spring breeze. “Do you remember the time Barbara and I made you a birthday cake out of cornflakes, crackers and pancake syrup?”
“I’ll never forget it. I don’t think the cook ever forgot it either. I did eat it, though.”
Nikki laughed. “Yes, you did.” She was glad now she had parked under the streetlight. She could see several couples walking down the street, saw Barbara open the back door of the car, saw her reach for the camera, saw her sling it over her shoulder, saw her lock the door. She turned her attention to Myra, who was also staring out the window. Nikki’s gaze swiveled back to the window to see Barbara look both ways for oncoming traffic, ready to sprint across the street at the first break. The three couples were almost upon her when she stepped off the curb.
Nikki was aware of the dark car that came out of nowhere, the sound of horns blowing and the sudden screech of brakes. Myra was moving off her seat almost in slow motion, her face a mask of disbelief as they both ran out of the restaurant. The scream when it came was so tortured, so animal-like, Nikki stopped in her tracks to reach for Myra’s arm.
The awkward position of her friend’s body was a picture that would stay with Nikki forever.
She bent down, afraid to touch her friend, the friend she called sister. “Did anyone call an ambulance?” she shouted. She heard a loud, jittery response. “Yes.”
“No! No! No!” Myra screamed over and over as she dropped to the ground to cradle her daughter’s body in her arms. From somewhere off in the distance, a siren could be heard. Nikki’s trembling fingers fumbled for a pulse. Her whole body started to shake when she couldn’t find even a faint beat. Maybe she wasn’t doing it right. She pressed harder with her third and fourth fingers the way she’d seen nurses do. A wave of dizziness riveted through her just as the ambulance crew hit the ground running. Tears burned her eyes as she watched the paramedics check Barbara’s vital signs.
Time lost all meaning as the medical crew did what they were trained to do. A young woman with long curly hair raised her head to look straight at Nikki. Her eyes were sad when she shook her head.
It couldn’t be. She wanted to shout, to scream, to stamp her feet. Instead, she knuckled her eyes and stifled her sobs.
“She’ll be all right, won’t she Nikki? Broken bones heal. She was just knocked unconscious. Tell me she’ll be all right. Please, tell me that. Please, Nikki.”
The lump in Nikki’s throat was so large she thought she would choke. She tried not to look at the still body, tried not to see them straighten out Barbara’s arms and legs. When they lifted her onto the stretcher, she closed her eyes. She thought she would lose it when the young woman with the long curly hair pulled a sheet up over her best friend’s face. Not Barbara. Not her best friend in the whole world. Not the girl she played with in a sandbox, gone to kindergarten with. Not the girl she’d gone through high school, college and law school with. She was going to be her maid of honor, babysit her baby. How could she be dead? “I saw her look both ways before she stepped onto the curb. She had a clear path to cross the street,” she mumbled.
“Nikki, should we ride in the ambulance with Barbara? Will they let us?” Myra asked tearfully.
She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what the sheet means. How was she going to tell Myra her daughter was dead?
The ambulance doors closed. It drove off. The siren silent.
“It’s too late. They left. You’ll have to drive, Nikki. They’ll need all sorts of information when they admit her to the hospital. I want to be there. Barbara needs to know I’m there. She needs to know her mother is there. Can we go now, Nikki?” Myra pleaded.
“Yes, officer,” Nikki said. She loosened her hold on Myra’s shoulders.
His voice was not unkind. He was too young to be this kind. She could see the compassion on his face.
“I need to take a statement. You are...”
“Nicole Quinn. This is Myra Rutledge. She’s the mother . . .” She almost said, “of the deceased,” but bit her tongue in time.
“Officer, can we do this later?” Myra interjected. “I have to get to the hospital. There will be so much paperwork to take care of. Do you know which hospital they took my daughter to? Was it George Washington or Georgetown Hospital?” Myra begged. Tears rolled down her wrinkled cheeks.
Nikki looked away. She knew she was being cowardly, but there was just no way she could get the words past her lips to tell Myra her only daughter was dead. She watched as police officers dispersed the crowd of onlookers until only the three couples remained. Where was the car that hit Barbara? Did they take it away already? Where was the driver? She wanted to voice the questions aloud but remained silent because of Myra.
Nikki watched as the young officer steeled himself for what he had to do. He worked his thin neck around the starched collar of his shirt, cleared his throat once, and then again. “Ma’am, your daughter was taken to the morgue at George Washington Hospital. There’s no hurry on the paperwork. I can have one of the officers take you to the hospital if you like. I’m . . . I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am.”
Myra’s scream was primal as she slipped to the ground. The young cop dropped to his knees. “I thought she knew. I didn’t... Jesus . . .”
“We need to get her to a doctor right away. Will you stay with her for a minute, officer? I need to get my cell phone out of the car to make some calls.” Her first call was to Myra’s doctor and then she called Charles. Both promised to meet her at the emergency entrance to GW Hospital.
When she returned, Myra was sitting up, supported by the young officer. She looked dazed and her speech was incoherent. “She doesn’t weigh much. I can easily carry her to the cruiser,” the officer said. Nikki nodded gratefully.
“Can you tell me what happened, officer? Did you get the car that hit Barbara? Those couples standing over there must have seen everything. We even saw it from the restaurant window. Did they get the license plate number? I saw a dark car, but it came out of nowhere. She had a clear path to cross the street. He must have peeled away from the curb at ninety miles an hour.”
“I ran the license plate one of the couples gave us, but it isn’t going to do any good.” “Why is that?” Nikki rubbed at her temples as a hammer pounded away inside her head.
“Because it was a diplomat’s car. That means the driver has diplomatic immunity, ma’am.” Nikki’s knees buckled. The young cop reached out to steady her.
“That means he can’t be prosecuted,” Nikki said in a choked voice.
“Yes, ma’am, that’s exactly what it means.”