"I tell you, I'm all right." Ross Donovan did his best to be emphatic and forceful, but it was hard when you were sitting on the edge of a gurney with your bare rear end hanging out of a hospital gown. "I don't see double. I don't hear bells ringing. I know what day it is and who's president. It was just a blow on the head. I've had worse than that playing football. Now let me have my pants. I have an appointment to keep."
The intern might have been young, but she knew she was in charge, and she refused to back down. "Mr. Donovan, the citizen who called the ambulance said a man was beating you with a club. That's assault, and it's a crime. I've notified the police, and they're sending someone to take your statement. You can't go until they're through with you."
This wasn't medicine, this was law, and now Ross was in his element. Talking to the police wouldn't help, and he knew his rights. "Doctor, I have no obligation, legal or otherwise, to talk with the police. This was a mugging, interrupted by a passerby. I have no idea who my attacker was, I'm not going to press charges, and it would take the police about five minutes to put any paperwork generated by my report into a drawer and forget it."
Ross gathered his dignity, reaching behind him to hold his gown closed. "Do you have any medical reason to hold me? Are you going to force me to sign out AMA?" He figured that having a patient leave the hospital against medical advice would make the young doctor fill out a ream of paperwork, and he hoped this would be the leverage he needed.
She chewed on her lip for a moment before opening his chart and starting to write. "If you have a headache that Tylenol or Advil doesn't relieve, if you start seeing double, if you begin vomiting, if you find yourself stumbling or falling . . ."
Ross half-listened to the rest of the instructions. They had taken his watch along with his clothing and other valuables, but the clock on the exam room wall told him that if he hurried he would only be a few minutes late for his appointment with Anna. And after the events of last night, that seemed more important than ever.
Anna looked at her watch again. Nine-thirty. She tapped once more on the door of Ross's office, knowing there wouldn't be any response. The lights were off, and when she pressed her ear against the glass of the upper part of the door she heard only silence.
All sorts of scenarios ran through her head. Ross had hinted of danger last night. Had something happened to him? Was he lying behind the locked door, maybe in a pool of blood? She pulled out her cell phone and hit the "redial" button. She counted the rings as she heard them, slightly out of phase, first the buzz of her phone and then the electronic ring inside the office. She hung up when Ross's answering machine kicked in.
Try his cell phone again? There'd been no answer when she arrived here early for her appointment and anxious to hear Ross's news. She was punching in the numbers when she heard a "ding" from the elevator nearby. A few seconds later, Ross rounded the corner.
She almost didn't recognize her attorney. His clothes were rumpled and dirty, his hair mussed. He was unshaven. Her first thought was that he'd been drinking again, and her stomach clenched. What would this do to her case? She was already formulating alternate strategies when a sense of shame hit her. She'd completely ignored the possible consequences to Ross if he had slipped back into his old pattern of alcoholism. How could she be so self-centered? This was a man who had gone out on a limb for her, apparently put himself in danger last night. No, whatever he'd done, she'd help him through it. They'd deal with it together.
"Anna, I'm so sorry to be late. Let's go inside."
He pulled a small ring of keys from his pocket and opened the door. The smell of liquor made Anna's nostrils quiver. The office smelled like a distillery—or, at least, what she imagined a distillery would smell like. She'd been around lots of alcohol in her life, sometimes at parties, more often in the emergency room as she dealt with drunks and accident victims. There was no mistaking the aroma. She felt a tear form in her eye, but not just from the fumes. No question, Ross had been drinking. The lawyer moved quickly to the window and fumbled for a minute. "Oh, man. I forgot. These windows don't open. Let me get rid of this." He picked up the wastebasket and carried it out the door. He was back in a few moments, drying his hands on a paper towel. "I'd like to leave the door into the hall open to let this place air out, but we need some privacy. Can we go to the coffee shop downstairs? I could use some coffee anyway."
"Yes, I bet you could," Anna said. "And maybe we can stop at the drugstore and get you some vitamins. I don't drink, but my colleagues who do tell me that large doses of B vitamins help them get over their hangovers."
Anna could see Ross's expression change from confusion to understanding to indignation. "Anna," he said, "I haven't been drinking. Actually, I was tempted to drink yesterday, but I dropped the liquor, glass and all, into the wastebasket. Apparently, the cleaning lady decided to skip this office last night."
"But what about your appearance? You have to admit, you look like somebody who's been on an all-night bender."
"Let's get that coffee," Ross said. "I have quite a story to tell you."
"Good morning. Coffee?"
"Yes, please." Ross turned over the empty cups on the table and inhaled the rich aroma of strong coffee as the waitress poured. "Do you need a few minutes?" the waitress asked.
"Orange juice and an English muffin," Anna said without opening her menu.
"Two eggs over easy, wheat toast, crisp bacon." Ross drank deeply from his cup of coffee, then lifted it and held it out to be topped off. "And please keep the coffee coming."
After the squeak of the waitress's shoes faded, Ross leaned forward and fixed Anna with a steady gaze. "First, do you believe I haven't been drinking? I'd ask you to smell my breath, but since I haven't brushed my teeth since yesterday I think that might be unwise."
A hint of a smile flickered across Anna's face. "Okay, the alcohol smell was in your office but not on you, so I guess you're clean. But look at you. Why were you late?" Her eyes traveled over him, and Ross became acutely aware of his wrinkled suit and a day's growth of beard.
He looked around, confirming there was no one within earshot."Right after I talked with you last night, someone hit me over the head and knocked me out. I might have ended up in the morgue, but apparently a passerby saw the attack. Their shouts scared offmy assailant. I ended up in the emergency room at Parkland, where I practically had to fight the intern to retrieve my pants and leave."
"Who was the intern?" Anna shook her head. "No, never mind. Doesn't matter. Are you sure you're all right now? No double vision? No throwing up. No—"
Ross held up both hands, palms out. "I'm fine. I had a mild concussion, that's all. I've been given all the warnings. The important thing is what I found out before I was attacked with a club."
"And that would be . . . ?"
"When Green showed us that pill bottle with your name and Eric Hatley's on it, I noticed the pharmacy it came from. Yesterday, it dawned on me that I knew one of the pharmacists working there. I'd defended him on a DWI charge that almost cost him his license to practice. He still owes me big-time, so I called in the favor and got some information."
The waitress returned with their food. After she set down the plates and refilled their coffee cups, Ross continued. "The pharmacist—his name is Glenn—had an AA meeting last night, and I arranged to meet him in the neighborhood. If anyone saw us together, it would just be two alcoholics headed for a meeting. He sweated bullets the whole time we talked, and he couldn't get away fast enough after we were through, but I hit pay dirt with him."
Anna paused with her muffin halfway to her mouth. "What did you find out?"
"Glenn said a man approached him, one he'd seen a couple of times at AA. The man wanted a prescription inserted into the files at the pharmacy and a vial made up with matching data. No need to dispense the medication. When Glenn unfolded the prescription the man handed him, there were five one-hundred dollar bills inside."
"So he did it." Anna said.
"Actually, it took a little more than money to persuade him. The man said Glenn could cooperate and make a little money, provided he kept his mouth shut. If he didn't, Glenn's boss might find out about his alcohol problems. I really think that was the deciding factor."
Anna's face lit up. "So if those policemen come after me, we have a witness who can testify that I was set up." Her smile was quickly replaced by a frown. "And Glenn didn't give you the name of the person who approached him?"
Ross emptied his coffee cup and shoved it aside. "At AA meetings it's first names only, but Glenn didn't even recall that much about the man. So we know he exists, but we don't know who he is. He's probably only a go-between anyway, but if I could locate him I might be able to find out who he's working for."
Anna wiped a crumb from the corner of her mouth. "How can you do that?"
"I've already started. Last night, after I talked with Glenn, he went on to his AA meeting. I slipped in a bit later and sat in the back. He was supposed to give me a sign if the man was there. He wasn't."
"So we're at a dead end."
"Temporarily. But now we know that someone is trying to direct suspicion toward you, laying a false trail that diverts the police away from himself. And the attack on me tells me two things." Ross said. "One, our Mr. X is worried that we're getting close to him. And two, it's someone who knows I'm representing you."
"Someone followed me last night. They didn't just happen to be there when I walked out of that AA meeting. They knew that you were trying to get at the truth, and they knew I'm your lawyer. Now, who could that be?"
Ross picked up the carafe the waitress had left behind and poured more coffee for both of them. He could see Anna concentrating, ticking offpeople on her fingers.
"Let me see," she said. "There's your ex-wife. She's the one who referred me to you."
"No motive there, although I'm sure there were times she would have liked to take a club to me, probably with good reason."Ross stifled a wry grin. "But let's put her aside."
"There's my chairman, Dr. Fowler." Anna ducked her head. "He knows about my problems, of course. And he has access to everything in the department, including my office and prescription pads." She looked up at Ross. "When I told him about you, he didn't seem too impressed that I'm being represented by an alcoholic. He offered to give me another name if I wanted one."
"We'll add him to the list."
Anna pursed her lips. "Then there's Nick."
"Who's Nick? Is that the doctor you told me about? The one who wants to help you?"
"Yes. He knows pretty much everything we've found out. But Nick's fond of me. Surely he wouldn't try to harm me. He . . ."
Ross waited, but Anna apparently decided to let that thought go unvoiced. Nevertheless, he certainly wouldn't give Nick a free pass just because there seemed to be some sparks between him and Anna. Time to move on. "You're forgetting some people."
"The police and the DEA. I've dealt with both agencies on your behalf. And my name is all over their records, so we have to consider them. And not just the people we know. There could be someone behind the scenes who has access to the information. Maybe more than one someone."
Anna looked up at Ross, an expression of utter hopelessness covering her face. "So I can't really trust anyone." She grimaced."Except you, I guess."
Ross forced a smile. "Well, you know what they say. God works in mysterious ways." ANNA WAS IN HER CAR, HALFWAY HOME FROM HER MEETING WITH ROSS, when her cell phone chimed out the theme from Law and Order. She pulled it from her pocket and flipped it open, careful to keep her eyes on the road. "Ross, can you hold on? Let me pull over."
"Probably a good idea. You won't like what I'm going to tell you."
Anna inched her way to the right-hand lane and aimed toward the parking lot of a church, almost empty on a Thursday morning. As she brought the car to a stop, her mind ran through the possibilities for bad news. They seemed endless.
She picked the phone offthe seat where she'd laid it. "Okay, I'm parked and I'm sitting down. Tell me your bad news."
"I keep a little portable TV in my office. I flipped it on to see if my attack made the news. It didn't, but something else did—something that cuts our legs out from under us."
Anna felt her throat closing up. "What?"
"My witness, Glenn, works at a 24-hour pharmacy. He was due to come on duty at six this morning. When he didn't show up and didn't answer his phone, the pharmacist he was supposed to relieve got worried. He finally convinced the manager of the apartment where Glenn lived to use his passkey and check. He found Glenn lying on the living room floor, the back of his head caved in. The police are calling it robbery, but I don't think so. I think it was the work of the same person who tried to club me to death last night."
Suddenly, Anna couldn't catch her breath. She rolled down the windows but still felt oxygen-starved. "So we have nothing."
"No," Ross said. "We have something. We know what's happening. We just have to find out who's behind it."
"You mean you're still going to keep looking? Ross, you were attacked. The man you were with last night has been killed. You could be next. And if they come after you, they could come after me! We need to drop this. Now!"
"And give your friends Green and Dowling a free hand to railroad you right into jail? Anna, the police apparently aren't going to let go of the idea that you're involved in something dirty."
"But they're wrong. And we know their evidence is either circumstantial or manufactured. So I'd never be convicted. Right?"
Ross's tone was that of a teacher explaining something to a particularly dense pupil. "Assuming you'd be found innocent—and the first thing they teach you in law school is not to assume that—do you want to be arrested, have to make bail, get dragged through the mud and tried in the newspapers before the case ever comes to court?"
Anna sighed. Ross was right, of course. "How long do we have? Nick meets with the detectives tomorrow afternoon. I don't think his statement will give them any new information, but you know how it's possible to pressure people into saying things that can be misinterpreted."
"I think getting that statement shows us they're about ready to move," Ross said. "They're dotting a few 'i's' and crossing one or two 't's' before they go before a judge to request a warrant for your arrest. I'd be surprised if they let it go until Monday. And it would be totally in character for them to make the arrest in time for the late news, leaking word to the local stations so there could be live coverage. I can see the video now. You in handcuffs, taking a 'perp walk,' flanked by Green and Dowling, who'll be smiling into the cameras."
It was more than she could stand. Anna's shoulders began shaking. Her eyes felt moist. She breathed faster and faster.
"Anna, are you there?" There was concern in Ross's voice.
She fought for control. "Yes, I'm here."
"Go home. Get some rest. I'll call my private detective friend and see if he can get any helpful information for us. I'll get back to you later today."
Anna made the drive home on automatic pilot as she struggled to find a way out of the net that appeared to be closing around her. The net. Made of threads. Tangled threads. She recalled the diagram she'd made the night before. Her address, Hatley's address, and the address for the bogus charge accounts in her name were all in the same neighborhood. Maybe this was the loose end she could pull to unravel the mystery. She'd go home, sit down with what she had, and pull on that string with a vengeance. It was important. Actually, it could turn out to be a matter of life or death—hers.
Nick straightened his back, squinted, rubbed his eyes, and rolled his shoulders. He'd spent most of the afternoon glued to the microscope, and it was time for a break. The slides stacked before him represented previously living tissue, cut into ultrathin sections, stained with special dyes, waiting for him to study them and render judgment. The chemistry lab down the hall might have reached a level of sophistication that allowed machines to carry out analysis and spit out the results in cold, impersonal numbers. That wasn't the case here. In this room, the fate of patient after patient depended on Nick's eyes and brain. Was the nucleus of that cell too dark? Were the natural borders of that tissue breached by invading cells? If this specimen represented a cancer, was it an aggressive type?
The ring of his cell phone startled Nick. Despite the jealousy he'd felt when he discovered she had assigned a special ring tone to her attorney, Nick had followed suit and given calls from Anna a unique ring. Right now he was listening to the faint tones of the old John Denver hit, "Annie's Song."He pulled the phone from the pocket of his lab coat and said, "Anna, what's up? Are you all right?"
"For now," she said. "Things are getting crazy, though."
"Like what?" "Never mind. I just wanted to ask a favor."
"Just like that?" she said. "Aren't you going to ask me what I want?"
Nick leaned back in his swivel chair, pleased that Anna had called him rather than Ross Donovan. "Nope. If it's humanly possible, it's yours for the asking."
"I . . . may need to borrow your gun."
Nick leaned forward and his feet hit the floor with a slap of leather on vinyl. "No. Absolutely not." He took a deep breath."I mean, why would you want—? Anna, you don't know how to handle a pistol. You don't have a permit. What could you possibly need a gun for anyway?"
"I don't really know if I should tell you. If I get into trouble over this, I want you to have what the politicians call 'plausible deniability.' "
"Anna, I lost that when you asked to borrow the gun. If you're into something that serious, then the only way you're going to get my gun is with me on the other end of it. Now, will you tell me what's going on?"
In the silence that followed, Nick could picture Anna chewing on her lip and trying to decide what and how much to tell him. Finally, he heard her sigh. "Okay, I'll tell you this much. Last night I was going over my latest credit report and noticed there were a couple of accounts in my name with a different address."
"Do you think it might be someone with a similar name?" "I think it's more than that," Anna said. "That address is in this neighborhood, about halfway between my house and Eric Hatley's. I'm not sure what's going on, but it seems to me that whoever stole my identity has some connection with this part of town. I intend to find them, and the place to start is the address on those new charge accounts."
"No. No 'buts.' I don't have time to waste. Ross told me I may only have a couple of days before the police arrest me. The charges are ridiculous, and he thinks we can probably beat them, but there's no guarantee. Besides, I don't relish the idea of jail time while the legal battle plays out. So I've decided to take matters into my own hands."
"Look, I can't get away right now," Nick said. "I'll come by tonight. We can have dinner together and talk about this. Remember, I'm in this along with you. I have been ever since Hatley died."
It was as though Anna hadn't heard his last words. "Maybe you're right about the gun," she said. "I think I'll do a little surveillance first, and I shouldn't need a gun for that. Thanks."
"Anna—" Nick heard a click and found that he held a dead phone. He replaced it in the pocket of his coat and turned back to the stack of slides, already calculating how quickly he could go through them without sacrificing accuracy. He needed to get to Anna's before she did something foolish.