Saturday, January 23
A dark blue haze engulfs me. I’m vaguely aware that I’m horizontal but can’t guess why. It feels as if someone is knocking a bowling ball repeatedly against the side of my head when I realize that the pain is coming from within. The room sways as if we’re on a ship in rough seas. I try to focus and feel the pressure of needles stabbing at the back of my eye sockets. Everything aches. My lower half is totally immobilized. The strength in the rest of my body has been completely drained; it takes enormous effort just to wiggle a finger. Something is terribly wrong with me.
My eyes wander downwards to find a needle taped to the back of my hand. To my right, a metal bar rises from the floor where a clear plastic bag hangs above me leaking fluids into my system.
So I’m in a hospital. But why? I struggle to remember, but it’s hopeless. The mere effort fatigues me and I give up.
With my poor eyesight and the lack of light, I can only make out shapes and shadows. I scan from right to left, and then I spot something odd: a figure sitting in the darkness. I part my lips to speak, feeling the skin crack and tear at the corners of my mouth. My throat and tongue are parched to the point of excruciation, the skin inside like sandpaper. I can only utter a dry, hoarse moan.
The figure rises anxiously, and I can see now by the long straight hair and slender shape that it’s a woman. She moves silently to the door and is gone. I keep watching the door waiting for the figure’s return, but the longer I stare the more convinced I become that I’ve simply imagined it. My head is still spinning and nothing makes sense.
I shut my eyes and feel the weariness pull me back into the darkness.
Walter’s hushed conversation with his son seems to go on for an eternity. It doesn’t look good; Walter’s got a hand over his face and appears to be shaking. I realize that nothing good can come from my being here and so I grab my jacket from the back of the chair and go for a walk to clear my head.
I peek into Amy’s room; nothing’s changed. There’s an odd smell in the air though, a light women’s perfume. I attribute it to one of the night shift orderlies and withdraw to the hallway. I roam around aimlessly for a few minutes, nodding to the orderlies and nurses I pass. Most of them know my face by now and shoot me brief glances of recognition.
A young receptionist behind the counter is staring bug eyed at her computer screen. From the audio, it seems to be a homemade video from one of the recent riots. People are shouting and guns are going off in the distance. The noises rattle from the speakers and tumble through the stark, sterile halls.
There are rapid footsteps behind me, and I step to the side of the corridor to let them pass, expecting a nurse with armfuls of medical supplies. Instead, it’s a woman in civilian clothes. Her long bangs cover her eyes and she stares at the floor as she walks. She’s gone a moment later, but as I turn to head back to Amy’s room, there’s the sound of crunching paper beneath my shoe.
When I inspect it, I find that someone has scribbled the following message:
Luke, meet me in 10 minutes. Level C. White Tacoma.
I hurry to the walkway from the west ward and ride the elevator down to the carport. I get off at the third level and meander through the mostly empty lot. I find the Tacoma at the far back behind a green concrete wall. With a glance over my shoulder I realize that it’s one of the few spots hidden from the domed security camera overhead and I’m guessing this isn’t a coincidence.
I approach the vehicle cautiously from the rear, my academy training kicking in on instinct. I briefly consider returning with my squad car and firearm, but decide against it. I can see through the rear window that there’s only one person inside–the driver. I approach the passenger’s side door and hear it unlock with a thunk. I reach for the handle and slide inside.
The woman with the long bangs from the hallway sits in the driver seat and says nothing. She won’t even turn to look at me, but it doesn’t matter. I’d recognize those eyes anywhere.
It’s Eva Richards.
She’s dyed her hair black and let it grow out a little and seems to have lost a lot of weight, but it’s definitely her.
“You’re alive,” I say dumbly as the shock subsides.
“It wasn’t easy, finding the time and place to talk to you. Cameras just about everywhere. When I found your wife was in the hospital, I figured this would be the safest place to meet. I waited in the room for an hour, but you were nowhere to be found.”
“That was clever, with the note.”
“It was the only way I could think of where we wouldn’t be seen talking to each other. And I couldn’t text you, of course. They’re monitoring everything,” she explains, her head still facing forward as her eyes dart from mirror to mirror. “I’m taking a huge risk meeting you like this, but I felt that I had to do something. You helped me before, and now I’m returning the favor. But just this once. It’ll be too dangerous to try again.”
“What’s going on?” I ask.
“You’re working with a federal agent on a case, right?” she asks quickly. I’m not supposed to talk about it, but my silence is as much confirmation as she needs. “The guy you’re in contact with. He’s tall, jet black hair, creepy eyes, right?”
“Agent Meade,” I mumble.
Eva scoffs. “He’s dangerous, Luke.” I’m not surprised to hear this, but I wonder at the effort she’s gone through to pass this message along.
“I did a lot of digging when I was still at The Herald. He’s almost impossible to track down. There’re so many contradicting reports about his past, and I think it’s been done purposely to muddy the waters. But what I do know is that he goes way up the chain of command.”
“Funny, he told me he was a nobody.”
“I’m sure he’s told you a lot of things. Good luck separating fact from fiction.”
“I thought he might’ve been the one that killed you, actually,” I add.
“I’m sure it would’ve crossed his mind if I hadn’t beat him to the punch. The wreck and fire were staged, of course.”
“Not incredibly difficult, but the planning was pretty meticulous.”
“I can only imagine. So you’d been planning it for a while, then,” I say, feeling a mix of irritation and amusement. “You could’ve told me first, Eva. I was worried sick. I thought I was partly to blame.”
“I’m sorry, but it was the only way. Trust me, I considered every possibility, but it was too dangerous. I couldn’t risk telling anyone. If the feds suspected anything they would’ve just kept looking until they’d found me. As it is, my skin is crawling half the time. I constantly feel eyes watching my back. I can barely sleep or eat.”
“But if you knew you were going to run off why did you call me the night before?”
“I just wanted to be sure you were on my side. Originally I planned to keep working on the story, once I could stop running from them. I thought you might be able to help me. But then… It just got too crazy.”
“So how’d you do it?” I ask. Eva smirks slightly, though her eyes are still glued to the mirrors.
“The first thing was setting myself up financially. I had to slowly siphon enough out of my bank account to set up a second life. It was done over a period of months. I wasn’t sure if they were watching my bank account, but I certainly wouldn’t put it past them. Anything sudden and they would’ve known what I was up to.
“Then I had to get myself a new driver’s license. That part was surprisingly easy. I met up with a kid I found online and he had one for me in a few days. Then I set the day for the wreck. I knew, when I met you at the motel that night, that it would have to be soon. The feds had ransacked my place and it was just a matter of time before I was in custody or dead. And with all the latitude the feds have been given regarding interrogation practices, I would’ve preferred the latter.
“I had the spot picked out for the crash in advance. I purchased an electric scooter and parked it under the bridge as a getaway the day prior. I loaded the backseat of my car with a few milk jugs of lighter fluid and lit the upholstery on fire. Then I tied the gas pedal down and let it crash over the embankment.”
“And the body?”
“A cadaver. I had a friend at the morgue. I paid her well and she didn’t ask questions.” A few moments of silence pass as I mull over all she’s telling me.
“Sounds like you thought of everything. So why are you back?”
“To tell you that whatever deal you have going with that agent, get out of it. Cut your ties. Run away if you have to.”
“Run away? My wife’s in a coma fighting for her life. How am I just supposed to up and run?”
“I don’t know, but you have to think of something. Whatever promises he’s made you, he’s lying. There’s a pattern with him, where he makes these deals with people, and then in the end, once he’s got what he wants, he burns them to cover his trail. He’s ruthless, Luke.”
I mull over this for a moment, hearing echoes in Eva’s words of what Walter told me just a minutes ago.
“And what about you?” I ask.
“I’ve made some contacts who own a small compound upstate. They’re stocked up with weapons and plenty of resources and I convinced them that with my knowledge of government and politics, I have something to offer. They’re willing to take me in.”
“A compound?” I ask warily.
“They’re preppers. Survivalists. They’ve been working on this camp for years and covertly recruiting online.” I close my eyes and shake my head silently. For the first time, Eva turns to stare at me, a scalding look in her eyes. “What?” she asks, her voice on edge.
“It’s just all this talk about the end of the world… Do you really believe it?”
Eva pauses long enough for me to see just how much the last few weeks in hiding have aged her. Long creases line her face and eyes. Gaunt cheekbones jut from her features and cast deep shadows over her cheeks. “I don’t know, Luke, but I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m terrified.”
We gaze out the windshield at the still parking deck for a few moments without speaking. “Well, I appreciate the warning,” I say softly.
“I had to come back. I know you risked a lot, helping me like you did.”
I nod. Eva glances at her watch. “I’m sorry, but I’ve got to go. The longer I stay here…”
“No, no, it’s fine,” I say. “I understand. Thanks again.”
Eva gives me a somber look. “Take care of yourself, Luke.”
I exit the car and watch her drive off and I know it’s the last time I’ll ever see Eva Richards.