Brian jogged along the well-lit path winding through the campus grounds, passing the dining hall and the new gymnasium to round the corner by the all-girl’s dorm. He’d met Marcy in her Freshmen year in a calculus class. She saw him as another dumb jock with a supercharged libido and the ego to match. She’d shot him down when he asked her for her phone number. A week later, she met Seth and fell head over heels for the brother with the brains and the bad sense of humor.
Let it go, he told himself, pumping his arms as he sprinted along the pavement leading toward the open courtyard. He’d survived three years in college on a computer-generated track scholarship he should have claimed legitimately if not for a sprained ankle that kept him from the state finals and out of the limelight when the scouts came hunting for new talent.
This time he dug himself in a hole so deep he needed all the help he could get to climb out. “Nothing worthwhile comes easy,” Dad would tell him. And now more than ever he needed Dad’s advice.
Throughout his life, he’d met physical, mental, and spiritual challenges head on, but nothing could compare to the decision he faced now. Figuratively speaking, he’d hit a wall at eighty miles an hour. Jumped from a cliff into shallow water. And landed on his head.
Nothing he could tell Seth would change what happened. A moment of weakness between himself and Marcy was just that, a moment, a single point in time when two adults made a bad decision, together, based on pure emotion without logic or reason or forethought about the impact their decision might have on others.
He ran faster, imagining he could sprint across the pond outside the arts and sciences building. He’d dreamed it many times: sprinting for a race with no finish line until he ran across a body of water, his feet barely touching the surface as he watched the ripple effect move outward from the point of impact. The dream was nonsense, of course, and he knew this, the way he knew he had no choice but to tell Seth the truth and beg his brother’s forgiveness.
* * *
Seth clutched a bouquet of roses with baby’s breath sprinkled between pink petals and flashed his student ID to the resident assistant on duty in Marcy’s dorm.
“You’re not allowed after hours,” the resident assistant told him flatly.
“I just want to drop these off.”
“You guys never learn, do you?” the resident assistant replied. “Hurry up.”
Seth headed for the stairs, his pulse pounding when he reached Marcy’s room and knocked softly on the door. When no one answered, he tried the door knob and found it locked.
He knocked again, checking his watch.
“She’s not there,” a girl in a wet towel and flip-flops told him.
“Do you know where she went?”
“I think the library.”
“Do you know when she’s coming back?”
The girl shook her head. “If you leave those by her door, I’ll make sure she gets them.”
Seth placed the bouquet on the floor with a sealed note in the middle. She’s probably with her parents, he told himself, frustrated for not texting her first.
He left the dorm empty-handed and empty-hearted. The speech he’d memorized fell flat like a bottle of old soda. He’d rehearsed his lines before he bought the flowers, hoping a visible gesture of good faith would help his words sink in. But now his master plan ended where it started with no one to blame but himself for the awkward situation he found himself in.
Back in his own dorm, he entered his darkened room with the crunch of broken glass beneath his feet. He found a busted lamp shade on the floor and his beloved MacBook upside down in his chair.
He groped for the light switch and felt the rush of air as the door slammed shut behind him. “What the—”
“About time,” said Roland, stepping out of the shadows.
“I tried to tell you,” Dimetrie added. “But I guess you college boys don’t think so smart.”
Seth walked backward. “Hold up,” he said with his arms extended. “We can talk about this.”
“You wanna talk,” said Roland, “Call Oprah. Your ring was fake.”
Seth took a wild swing at Roland and missed, enduring a bone-crunching punch to the front of his face, where a gold pinky ring left a small indentation in his chin.
* * *
Brian slowed from a finishing sprint to a steady jog. Covered in sweat from the five-mile run, he unzipped his sweatshirt and let the December cold circulate about his core. Shifting to a fast walk, he stretched his arms above his head.
He paced in front of Seth’s dorm, contemplating his decision over and over in his mind. Chances are, the baby’s Seth’s. Then again, what if I don’t tell him? What if Marcy doesn’t keep the baby? What if, what if, what if… Just suck it up and tell him.
He arched his lower leg back and grabbed his foot, stretching his quadriceps. His muscles felt tight when he bent over and touched the ground with his palms. What happened, happened. He could rehash the past or get on with the future. Either path would be a tough row to hoe.
He climbed the stairwell entrance, stopping at the second floor to drink from the water fountain. His legs felt like Jell-O. His head felt stuffy.
What would Seth do if the roles were reversed? The fact that Seth and Marcy split up for two weeks didn’t justify what happened, but it was something Seth should know.
He knocked on the door outside his room. “It’s Brian,” he shouted above the noise from a live band rehearsing down the hall. He entered the ransacked space and found his brother on the floor, spitting blood in a trash can. “Seth…”
Seth smiled through a fat lip and a swollen cheek. Blood seeped from a cut on his chin. “You’re late.”
“What happened to you?”
“What does it look like? I got my ass kicked.” He touched his hand to his mouth. “I think I have a loose tooth.”
“Did you call security?”
Seth got up and stumbled to the mini fridge. He shook a handful of ice from the freezer tray and wrapped the cubes in a towel. “And tell them what? I owe money to a pair of psycho loan sharks who are going to kill me if I don’t pay them back.”
“For starters.” Brian picked up the broken lamp and placed it on the desk. He dug his phone from his pocket.
“Don’t… The last thing we need are police snooping through our school records.”
“Who said anything about our records? Just tell them what happened.”
“There’s nothing they can do.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Have you looked in the mirror?”
“It’s not that bad. I think we reached an understanding.”
Brian threw his hands in the air. “About what?”
Seth cringed. “I give them five grand by tomorrow or they break my legs.”
“Five thousand dollars? Are you shitting me?”
“I can make it work.”
“One of the numbers should have hit. I had it right this time.”
“How much money do you have in the bank?”
“A few hundred dollars.”
“What about your credit card?”
“I’m tapped out.”
Brian shook his head. “So am I, but we’ll figure something out.”
Seth pushed a finger around in his mouth. “We better do it fast.”
“Does Marcy know?”
“What are you going to tell her when she sees your face like this?”
“The same thing I told her last time. I got in a fight and lost.”
Burns rode the hospital elevator to the sixth floor entrance with the man she thought she knew; a man she’d read about and studied; a man she’d heard about from other sources; a man who clearly had his mind on something other than his job. “Whatever personal problems you’re sorting through, I suggest you leave them at the door.” She stared at McLeary to gauge his reaction, searching for anything to indicate he’d heard and pretended to care. She watched his eyes, cold and unflinching as the stony expression on his face.
McLeary glanced over his partner’s shoulder to see a silver-haired doctor approaching from the waiting room area.
“Agent Burns?” the doctor asked, extending his hand. “I’m Doctor Jones. We spoke on the phone.”
“Shannon Burns.” She pointed to McLeary. “My colleague, Jim McLeary.”
“If you’ll come this way.” Doctor Jones brought them to a sparsely furnished office and took a seat behind his desk. “What can I do for you?”
Burns withdrew her black memo pad and flipped to a clean sheet. “We’d like to ask you about your former patient, Arthur Stevens. He was a witness at the Navy Credit Union robbery we’re investigating.”
Doctor Jones removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Arthur was admitted two days ago with upper respiratory pain. Please, sit down.”
“Did he say anything about the robbery?” Burns asked, still standing.
“The robbery? No, not really. He complained about a bad sinus headache and said he felt dizzy off and on. I ordered a CT scan to rule out concussion and consulted with the emergency room physician who’d examined him the day before.”
“You read patients to ascertain the root cause of their physical symptoms. I read people to ascertain the truth. Now, did Arthur say anything at all to you about the robbery?”
“Agent Burns, we’re walking a fine line between professional courtesy and doctor-patient privilege.”
“Former patient,” Burns added. “And you were the last person to see him alive.”
The doctor looked at McLeary. “She’s a firecracker.”
“Don’t sweat it,” said McLeary. “She’s all smoke and whistle but no bang.”
Burns shifted her weight from foot to foot, pondering the notion of her fist in McLeary’s face. “Just answer the question, doctor.”
McLeary held his hand up to disrupt the antagonistic vibe Burns kept putting out. “I think what my partner’s trying to ask is whether Arthur Stevens had anything to say at all, anything other than his medical complaints?”
“Not really. He seemed agitated. Said he was angry at how the police had inferred his involvement in the robbery. Apparently they had concerns about whether or not he knew the men who attacked him.”
McLeary made a note. “How sick was Mr. Stevens when you saw him last?”
“He presented with a fever and congested nasal passages with swelling of the facial glands. I diagnosed the flu and sent him home. Told him to stay off his feet and rest. Drink plenty of fluids. The usual.”
“Cause of death?” asked Burns.
Doctor Jones crossed his arms and leaned back in his swivel chair. “He came back the next day complaining of severe chest pains and frequent nausea. I admitted him and ran a battery of tests. The results were inconclusive. His blood panel came back normal. I gave him Tylenol to combat his fever, but ultimately his body couldn’t fight the infection.”
“Then simplify it.”
Doctor Jones uncrossed his arms and sat up to grab a rubber ball off his desk. He squeezed the stress-relieving toy and looked at Burns. “Arthur Stevens died of respiratory complications.”
“Is that common?” asked McLeary.
“It’s rare, but it happens. We’ve lost three patients to the flu this season, including Mr. Stevens.” He pushed his chair back. “If you’ll excuse me, I have rounds to make.”
Burns closed her memo pad. “Thank you for your time.” When her phone beeped, she glanced at the caller ID and saw Kriegel’s name appear. She answered the call and heard her boss’s instructions as she followed McLeary from the doctor’s office to the bank of elevators outside. “That was Kriegel. INOVA Fairfax just admitted a patient with a large caliber bullet wound to his upper thigh. Kriegel believes it’s the robber you shot—the one who got away.”
Still dressed in green scrubs, Doctor Lewis pulled the curtain around his John Doe patient in the hospital’s intensive care ward. He knew first-hand the damage a bullet could do to human flesh and bone. In this case, the bullet had fractured his patient’s femur and tore the artery supplying oxygenated blood to the lower extremities. After eight hours of surgery and several liters of AB negative, John Doe endured a miracle of miracles by not dying on the table.
He clipped his pen in his front shirt pocket and paid homage to the vending machine for another snack. Too old to pull double shifts and too young to know when to quit, he felt a cold coming on. His throat had been dry and itchy for days. His temperature had risen two degrees in the last half hour. You don’t have time to get sick, he’d told his third-year med students on their surgical rotation. If God can’t afford a day off, neither can you.
He pushed three quarters in the vending machine outside the closed cafeteria entrance. Then he felt the urge to vomit.
Like a migrant worker running with the bulls, he sprinted for the men’s restroom and burst through the nearest stall, hugging the porcelain bowl. The sight of dry diarrhea speckled on the inside rim kept the purge process flowing. He blew chunks of corn and rice along with remnants of a Caesar salad he’d eaten for lunch. Wave after wave, the vomit came, burning his esophagus and leaving a foul aftertaste in his mouth.
He’d endured the flu enough times to remember how bad the symptoms felt and how long the process lasted. But this time his symptoms felt different. More pronounced. More acute in his chest and throat. Symptoms he dismissed as a direct result of his cold medication wearing off. Go home. Drink water, get rest, and load up on Vitamin C.
He grabbed his coat from his office and approached the nurses’ station.
“Some folks were asking for you earlier,” a nurse said without looking up from her computer screen. “I was about to page you on the intercom.”
“Tell them I’ve left for the day.”
“They’re with the FBI.”
Doctor Lewis glanced at the woman in a dark suit by the drinking fountain down the hall. Tall and slender, she wore an hourglass figure with a gun on her hip beside her badge. “Great,” he told the nurse. “I finally spot the woman of my dreams and she’s packing heat.”
“You still afraid of guns?”
“Only when they kill people.”
He approached the FBI Agent by the water fountain. “I’m Doctor Lewis.”
Burns flashed her badge and pointed to McLeary. “I’m Special Agent Burns. My colleague, Jim McLeary.”
McLeary gave a perfunctory nod. “You recently admitted a patient with a gunshot wound to the leg?”
“John Doe. He’s in intensive care. I pulled a slug from his upper thigh. Nearly bled out on the table, but we managed to save him. Paramedics brought him in with a suspicious injury.”
“Suspicious how?” asked McLeary.
“The wound was at least a couple days old. Looked like someone tried to patch him up with an old shirt and a roll of duct tape. He’s lucky to be alive.”
“We’d like to ask him a few questions,” said Burns.
Doctor Lewis escorted the agents to John Doe’s room and pulled the curtain back to reveal a black male with curly hair and teardrop tattoos under one eye. His bandaged right leg hung in traction with an intravenous drip for the pain medication.
“These people are with the FBI,” Doctor Lewis explained. “They’d like to ask you a few questions.” He reviewed the patient’s chart. “Now might be a good time to remember your name,” he said before he left the room.
McLeary touched the bed rail. “How do you feel?”
Burns inspected the ream of gauze bandage wrapped around the patient’s thigh. “What happened?”
“What the fuck does it look like.” John Doe pointed his finger at McLeary. “That motherfucker shot me.”
Burns smirked at McLeary. “Why don’t you start by telling us your name?”
John Doe grimaced, presumably from the pain in his leg. He pressed his thumb on the analgesic drip machine.
That’s gotta hurt, thought Burns. “We’ll run your prints and get it either way.”
“How do I know you won’t kill me?”
“Because it’s outside our job description.” Burns made eye contact with McLeary who handcuffed the patient to the bed rail and clamped the tube to shut off the self-administered pain medication.
“Hey! You can’t do that!”
“Your name?” said McLeary.
“Rodney. Rodney Nito.”
McLeary held the clamp in place. “What was your involvement in the robbery?”
“I want a lawyer.”
McLeary kept a straight face. “I want a vacation in Aruba.”
McLeary squeezed the bandaged leg until Rodney cried out.
“Maybe we can help you,” said Burns, pushing McLeary’s hand away.
“What kind of help?”
“The kind you’re not going to get with a lawyer in the room. Tell us what you know, and we’ll take the death penalty off the table.”
“I didn’t kill nobody.”
Burns looked at McLeary and winked. “One of your shots at us went long and took out a soccer mom in a minivan. She died at the scene.”
“You can’t put that body on me.”
“We already have. We recovered your weapon from the bottom of the river and matched your gun to the bullet we pulled from the woman’s neck.”
Rodney grimaced. “I didn’t mean for that to happen.”
“Doesn’t matter. You discharged a firearm in the commission of a felony. You’re still culpable for her death. Besides, we already have you on attempted murder for taking shots at us. You’re looking at the death penalty either way.”
“You’re full of shit. This state won’t kill me for something I didn’t do. My lawyer’ll make sure of that!”
McLeary sighed in disgust and said, “The good news is, the state won’t have to.” He locked the door to the intensive care room and brandished his .45. He cocked the hammer and pressed the muzzle to Rodney’s head.
“What the fuck? You said you wouldn’t kill me!”
“I changed my mind.”
“I was there, all right?”
Burns scribbled on her notepad, ignoring McLeary’s draconian tactics despite her instincts to the contrary. “Who hired you?”
Rodney talked faster. “I never saw the dude who hired me. Only spoke to him by phone. He offered cash up front. More when the job was done.”
“How much?” said McLeary.
“Two grand. All I had to do was drive.”
“Who were you working with?”
“I don’t know. Two guys. One had an accent. The other acted nervous all the time like he never robbed a bank before.”
“What kind of accent?” McLeary pressed him.
“Hindu, Pakistani, whatever. Some gibberish I heard before.”
“And where were you?”
“I drove the truck. The other two went inside to do the deed.”
“What did they look like?”
“I never seen their faces. They wore gas masks the whole time.”
“Give us a name,” said Burns. “Who set this up?”
Rodney winced. “Man I told you I don’t know. I never saw their faces. The whole deal was set up over the phone.”
“Who paid you the two grand?”
“I don’t know. I found an envelope in my car.”
“And you don’t know anything more about these mystery men who hired you?”
“Like I told you, they kept their shit private.”
“What about the caller?” asked Burns. “Did he sound white, black, Hispanic, Asian?”
“He talked like a white dude. All serious. Stiff. Like your partner with a stick up his ass.”
“What did you do with the money?”
“Never had it.” He swiped his hand across his sweaty face—the pain in his leg unbearable. “Someone must have grabbed the dough.” He swallowed hard. “Man, either shoot me or turn the juice back on! My fucking leg is killing me!”
McLeary holstered his gun and released the clamp on the morphine drop. He held up pictures of Gordon Gentry and Ali Muheen. “Have you seen either of these men before?”
“I said I ain’t ever seen them before.”
Burns took McLeary aside. “This is a waste of time.”
“Hold up,” Rodney pleaded. “What about my deal?”
“So far you’ve told us nothing we don’t already know,” said Burns.
Rodney looked up at the ceiling. “One dude had a funky eye. Fake, like it was made of glass or something. He would take it out sometimes. Made me sick to watch him do it.”
“I thought you never saw his face?”
Rodney stared at the red dot in the hospital window and pointed.
McLeary glanced at the red laser beam reflected off the glass beside the bed and tackled Burns to the ground. “GET DOWN!”
Pulverized glass erupted in a fine mist when a supersonic bullet pierced the window and impacted Rodney’s head, exploding his skull on the hospital wall.
McLeary rolled away from Burns and drew his weapon in vain, unable to prevent what had happened or fire back at the sniper who’d pulled the trigger.