Exiled heart, p.12

Exiled Heart, page 12

 

Exiled Heart
 



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  It stung, just as Claire had expected. She couldn’t say a thing.

  Arms now resting on the table, Sonja glanced around before softly speaking. “Look. I personally prosecuted that case. I saw what you saw, right? Sure, I didn’t live it, but I saw the evidence. I can understand why you feel the way you do.”

  At least she agreed with her. “Good.”

  “But you’ve got to let it go. It’s done. Off into the sunset. Don’t punish Ziad just because he’s Muslim.”

  “Easy to say. Hard to apply.” Claire slouched in her chair and crossed her arms. She didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

  “I know.” Sonja nodded. “Trust me, as an African-American who’s seen her share of racism, it’s hard not to bite back.”

  Elizabeth opened her journal. “Sounds like we need to add Ziad to our prayer list. And you too, Claire, darlin’.” She made a notation. “How are you doing this week?”

  Claire smiled, but it faded. On Friday, it would be five years since her husband and son perished in a fireball that had taken their lives. “I don’t know.”

  “Do you need anyone to go with you to their graves?”

  “Emma’s going with me.”

  “You know you can call any of us at any time, right?” Sonja said. “Matter of fact, I’ll call you Friday night.”

  “Thanks.”

  Elizabeth jotted that down. “We’ll pray for you. I know this isn’t easy. And it never will be.”

  “Yeah.” Claire swallowed hard. No, it’d never get any easier. Not five years down the road. Probably not even ten. She just prayed she wouldn’t come apart at the seams—again.

  14

  Thursday afternoon, on the heels of Eddie Davis, his mentor, Ziad burst through the sliding glass doors of Potter Hospital’s Emergency Department.

  The cop skidded to a stop at a counter in the lobby. “Minnie, hey.”

  “Well, Eddie Davis.” A woman, one side of her head shaved and the other flopping over her ear, leaned a hip against the counter. “What brings you here?”

  “We’re looking for the OD case that just came in. Clem Joyner.”

  Her eyes widened. “Trauma bay four. He’s in bad shape. His parents—”

  “I’ll be back.” Eddie bolted down a short hall behind the counter. He whipped around a corner and peered into a trauma room. “Is this…”

  A cardiograph hummed an ominous monotone. Before them, a doctor in scrubs shook his head. “Time of death, 5:26.”

  Ziad’s stomach tightened.

  The doctor drew a sheet over his patient, then glanced at them. “Too late, gentlemen. He coded out.”

  “Your thoughts?” Eddie asked.

  The doctor held up a finger as the nurses disconnected a cardiograph and IV line. Once they’d gone, he hit a switch, and the sliding door that transformed the bay into an emergency operating room slid closed. “Sorry, but I didn’t want to discuss this with everyone around.” He scrubbed his face with his hands. “I’m thinking we saw another case of Zap.”

  Ziad stared. “You are sure?”

  “Not officially, no. The ME’s exam will tell us. But he had the same symptoms. We came close on this one.”

  “How so?” Eddie asked.

  “The kid made it to the ED in his car. You see it out front?”

  Ziad shook his head. While in prison, he’d lost those observational skills he’d honed over the years.

  Eddie cast him a glance, which added to his shame. “Kind of hard to miss seeing it’s half on the sidewalk. That was fifteen minutes ago. We were the first cops here.”

  Meaning, they now had a crime scene outside.

  Eddie’s radio crackled, and he murmured into it before saying, “I’ll go secure it right now. Backup is on the way.”

  The doctor continued as if he hadn’t heard him. “Just as he hit the lobby, the kid collapsed and started convulsing. We got him back here—we’ve been treating these cases like traumas—and within ten minutes he coded.”

  Suddenly realizing Eddie had left, Ziad began scribbling notes. He nodded toward the body. “May I?”

  “Of course.” The doctor eased onto a stool and began making his own notations.

  Ziad lifted the sheet. He grimaced.

  A young man, probably in his twenties. A head full of dark, thick hair. So peaceful now. Maybe normal except for the streaks of foam coming from one corner of his mouth.

  Mindful of his need to avoid contaminating the body, Ziad drew the sheet further down and glanced at his arms. He easily spotted the IV’s mark. Then more bruising further up. “Did he have any personal effects?”

  “Over there.” The doctor gestured to a counter.

  Ziad found a messenger bag. After pulling on gloves, he undid the clasp and began sorting through it. Cell phone. Wallet. Papers. All sorts of small trash. A vial.

  He lifted it from the satchel and studied it. Clear. Maybe. He set one of the sheets of white paper on the counter, then placed the vial on top. A faint, almost fluorescent green tint to it.

  Zap. Once suspended in water, it adapted that eerie hue. Ziad swore under his breath.

  The surgeon raised his head.

  Eddie joined them. “Backup’s secured the scene outside. Detective Rothschild’s on his way. Whatcha got?”

  Ziad gestured to his find. “For sure it is Zap.”

  Eddie cocked his head. “How so?”

  “This vial.” Ziad held it up. “It has the same tint as Zap.”

  The doctor crammed in for a look. “How do you know that?”

  “I am from Jeddah. I worked this case while there.”

  “Dang.” Eddie began shaking his head. “Crap’s going down in my town, and I don’t like it.” He sighed. “We’re on hold for now. Evidence techs will be in here shortly. Next of kin have been notified, and they’re an hour out. I’ll secure the scene here if you don’t mind grabbing me a coffee or something.”

  “Where is the café?”

  Eddie rattled off the directions, half of which Ziad missed.

  He headed out. Oh, did he yearn for a smoke! But he’d quit when he’d left for Columbia.

  It took a couple of wrong turns with friendly nurses providing the right directions before he found his destination. It fairly hummed with activity, which meant no place to sit unless he wanted to cozy up to a family of a patient in the middle, sit next to a doctor who read a journal and drank a cup of coffee at a small table in the corner, or sit with a woman in a flight suit who had her back to him. She had dark hair caught up in a braid. Wait. Her straight posture gave her away.

  Claire.

  Case suddenly forgotten, his pulse quickened. His focus sharpened. Was she still angry with him? Would she make a scene if he greeted her?

  Gathering his courage, he approached the table. “Claire?”

  She glanced up. No anger in her eyes, only weariness rimmed with something he couldn’t define. “Ziad, hi.”

  “How are you?”

  “Fair to middlin’.”

  He raised an eyebrow.

  “I’m okay.”

  Time to seize the moment before he lost all courage. He blurted, “May I join you?”

  She smiled. “Please. I’m on my break right now. Just a couple of more hours, and then it’s home to bed for me.”

  He snagged a cup of coffee and brought it to the table. “Has it been a long week?”

  “Try two weeks. If I remember correctly, it’s been a long couple of weeks for you too.”

  “Exactly.” He popped off the lid and sipped the dark liquid. Not the best, but it would do. “I returned Friday night and have spent the past few days at my clerk job in the morning and working with a mentor at the police department in the afternoon.”

  He didn’t care to go into why he was at the hospital.

  Beside her on the table, a radio crackled softly. Her gaze shot to it, then returned to him. “Sorry. I’m a flight nurse, so I’m having to keep an ear on the radio in case I get called.


  “What does a flight nurse do?”

  “I go out on the helicopters that pick up critically ill patients.”

  “I see.” Ziad sized her up in a second. Not a speck of anger seemed to remain in her. It intrigued him. Why? “Did you receive my letter?”

  “I did.” She lowered her gaze, then raised it. “Thank you. I appreciate your apology.”

  He moved his cup in little circles. “I realized I must have scared you. I did not mean to do that. You forgive me?”

  “I do. Your apology meant a lot to me.”

  His shoulders relaxed. “I am glad.”

  She sipped her drink. “How are you settling in?”

  “What does your mother say? It is a process?”

  She smiled. “That’s right. What’s the process?”

  “Buying furniture. Buying clothing.” He left out the way his jaw had dropped when he’d received quotes for someone to do his cleaning and laundry. Too expensive, even with his SANG pension and convenience store salary. “A lot to remember.”

  “I’m sure.” She muffled a yawn. “Sorry. I’m wiped out.”

  An idea popped into his head. “May I make amore with you?”

  She stared.

  Oh, no. Not another blunder! As her lips began twitching upward, the heat rose in his neck.

  She began laughing softly. “Make amends, maybe?”

  That was the word. “Uh, yes. Make amends. May I visit you tomorrow?”

  “Sure.” Her answer came instantly. “I’m actually off all day. What time do you get off?”

  “Five in the afternoon from my reserve officer job.”

  “Come by when you—” Her radio beeped a long signal. She held up a finger and listened to the message coming across the speaker. A frown marred her face. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. There’s been a bad traffic accident at the I-95 and I-26 interchange.”

  “Be safe, yes?”

  “I will be.” She rose and collected the radio, then paused. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

  Ziad watched her leave and headed to the counter for Eddie’s coffee. Suddenly, he realized they hadn’t set a time. Oh, well. He’d see her soon. Then maybe he could get to the bottom of whatever sadness had tinged her gaze.

  #####

  “Emma, I’ll be fine.” Claire stood on the screened-in porch of her house.

  Her sister cocked her head, and her brow knit. “You’re sure?”

  “Promise. Thanks for going with me this morning.” Emma’s presence had saved her as she’d wept at Jackson’s and Little Jack’s graves. “And for keeping my mind off things by dragging me around downtown.”

  Emma’s eyes sparkled with more unshed tears. “Oh, I don’t think I dragged you.”

  Claire grabbed her in at hug.

  Emma sniffled. “I could hang out with you.”

  She pulled back. “All I’m going to do is draw. And Ziad’s coming over later.”

  “Oh?” Delight briefly lit her sister’s eyes. “When?”

  “Tonight. He said something about making amends after The Yard Sale Incident. Except he called it amore by accident.”

  That got a giggle. “I’m glad. Call me if you need me to come over.”

  “I will. Promise.” Claire hugged her sister again, then watched as she headed down the back steps. A moment later, her Honda hummed to life. The sound faded as it headed down the road.

  Once inside, Claire kicked off her sandals and wandered into her studio. Drawing. Good therapy because it required every bit of her concentration. She slid onto her chair and for a moment stared out the window. On the water of the harbor, a sailboat slid by underneath cloudless skies. Such a perfect day, so much like that day five years before.

  No. I’m not going to think about it anymore. She selected a picture of three-year-old Randy, her youngest nephew, at the beach. A perfect present for Allie’s birthday.

  Three hours later, no sleep, stress, and crying for an hour straight that morning had combined into a migraine. She set down her drawing pencil and winced as she rubbed her temples and stared over the bay. Ugh. Only ibuprofen and sleep would take care of this baddie.

  She reached for the folder where she kept pictures used for past drawings. Her fingers snagged one side.

  “Oh, no!”

  The whole thing fell to the floor. Like playing cards, the photos scattered across the tile. She groaned, knelt, and began gathering them to her. Emma and an Arabian mare a sheik had given to her. Rainbow Row at sunset. Faith and Grace in period costume when they’d worked at Sutton Hall one summer.

  She gazed at the last one. Her oldest nephew, Tripp, at age two. Unlike Randy, who had sandy hair and fair skin, Tripp had inherited the Catawba genes of the Montgomery line and sported the same dark hair and tan as Claire. In this picture, Claire held him on her lap as he grinned big and wide for the camera.

  So much like Little Jack.

  The photo fell from her suddenly numb fingers and fluttered downward.

  Grief attacked her from all angles. Her headache worsened. Her chest tightened, and a lump built in her throat. “No!”

  She fled diagonally across the house to double doors she only opened once a year. Chest heaving, she burst inside and collapsed onto a barrister chair. Yanking three scrapbooks off the lowest shelf of a bookcase, she dropped them on the desk. Dust rose in an evil plume.

  Her chest heaved with sobs as she flipped to the back. There, Mama had placed the articles and obituaries about the accident.

  The one that had taken the lives of her husband and only child.

  And her future.

  Resting her elbows on the desk, she clamped her head between her hands and wagged it back and forth.

  “Why, God? Why? Why did you take them?” Her shouted words bounced off the twelve-foot ceiling.

  The sobs came in a torrent.

  “And why did I have to lose the last vestige of Jackson? I don’t understand. I don’t. I don’t. I don’t!” Claire bolted to her feet. She stumbled down the short hall to the kitchen. Tears pouring down her cheeks, she ripped open the freezer door. A couple of packs of frozen vegetables fell to the floor as she fumbled for the cans of piña colada mix left over from when Emma had stayed with her.

  She grabbed some rum from the shelf of a high cabinet.

  It took a moment to mix herself a pitcher. She poured a generous amount into a tall glass and drained it almost in one long pull. She poured herself another.

  “God, it’s not fair. It’s not! Why me? Why them?” She croaked those words and straightened. A puffball of warmth unfolded in her stomach. That light-headed feeling hit. She wandered to the couch on the screened-in porch and worked on her second glass. Head resting against the cushions, her world began spinning. Maybe now the pain would go away.

  15

  Early Friday evening, Ziad bounded up Claire’s front porch steps.

  Time to make amends. Perhaps the bouquet of yellow roses he held would cheer her up. An invitation to supper would help. Then maybe he could get to the bottom of what had ailed her the day before.

  He rapped on the screened door frame. “Claire?”

  No answer.

  Strange, especially with her Mustang beneath the house. Sure, they hadn’t set a time, but she’d said she’d be home all day and evening. It would be hard to cheer her up if she weren’t there.

  “Claire?”

  Still no answer.

  Moisture suddenly sheened his hands. His heart sped up as he slipped inside and locked the screened door behind him. No lights on in the family room and kitchen. He tried to quash his rising fear. “Where are you?”

  “Ziad, hi.”

  Claire stood in the doorway of the open French doors leading to the screened-in porch. “What are you doing here?”

  Relief fought with confusion. She was alive and well, but… “I thought you invited me to come over.”

  “Did I?” She shrugged. “Guess I forgot.”

  She wobbled ins
ide.

  Something didn’t seem right. He nodded at her half-empty glass. “What are you drinking?”

  “Oh, piña colada.”

  Whatever that was.

  She moved toward the kitchen and staggered when she bumped into a couch. “Oops! Guess there’s a couch there.” She steadied herself before squeezing between him and the island. “I’m glad you came by.”

  He instantly recognized the odor emanating from her breath.

  Alcohol.

  “Have you been drinking?”

  She stopped. “Huh? Oh, uh, yeah. Piña colada, right? I told you.”

  “How many have you had?”

  “I dunno.” She smiled broadly at him, then nodded toward the bouquet he’d clutched to his chest. “Whatcha got?”

  He held it out. “A gift for you.”

  She took it and tossed it on the bar like it was garbage.

  His eyes narrowed. “Why are you drinking?”

  “‘Cause I want to.” She poured some more into her glass and sloshed half of it onto the counter. “You wan’ some?”

  “I have already had my drink for the night. Of coffee, that is.”

  She guffawed, then snorted. “Sorry! You’re funny.”

  She wiped her hand across her mouth and drained half the glass before grabbing his hand.

  He tensed and tried to pull back.

  She tugged him toward the den. “Oh, don’t be so scared of me. C’mon! Tell me how your day was.” She drew him closer to her. “You sure you don’ wan’ one? Come to the couch.”

  She lost her balance and staggered into him.

  Coldness hit his chest as most of the liquid sloshed onto his shirt. He flinched. “Claire!”

  “Sorry!”

  Ziad pried himself loose and stumbled against the island. “You need to go to bed.”

  She pouted. “No, I don’t.”

  Before she could react, he snatched her glass from her fingers. “Yes, you do.”

  “No!” She sat down on the floor and crossed her arms like an angry child.

  “Why are you so difficult?”

  “I’m not dif… diffi…” She started giggling. “Can’t talk straight.”

 
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