The minutes were ticking away and I was a bundle of nerves. I'd already gone to the bathroom twice to piss away all the coffee and milk I'd drunk so hastily. Slowly, I quartered the room with my pacing. How long would it take for Clark to fly to the Cave of Silence and access SARA's files? I stopped dead.
Damn. He could log on right at Mrs. Kenyon's desk. Why hadn't I thought of that? Okay. So he could be on his way right now. I had to be ready to be professional. I'm a reporter and a good one so that's how I'd play it. Keep focused on the story and my scoop on who was behind the assassination.
Suddenly the walls began to close in on me and I opened the door to the shadowy hallway and ventured down the stairs. I located the light switches behind the bar and found the one that lit the farthest pool table. Checking to be sure that it couldn't be seen from the street, I removed the cover from the table and set the balls out on the green felt.
Choosing a nice straight pool cue, I broke the balls and concentrated on the lay of my shots. Taking one shot and then another, I found myself playing better than ever before. In the back of my mind, that little voice was screaming at me that Keith had been gone too long. With no back up, I was dead meat as soon as the killers showed up.
But I ignored my survival instinct and kept setting up my shots. If I survived this and went on the road as a trucker, maybe I'd be able to make a little money on the side while I was traveling. That might be fun for a while. I froze at the sound of the back door knob turning almost soundlessly.
I'd locked it but I was willing to bet the bad guys had a lock pick and knew how to use it. Taking a deep breath, I suddenly had a craven urge to crawl under the table but controlled my shaking hands by clutching the cue in a death grip. Okay, so it wasn't much but it was all I had against the guys with the automatic weapons.
Suddenly I thought of all those things I should have planned for earlier. A tape recorder to record the phone calls I'd made, not to mention the killers when they came in. A letter to Clark telling him I didn't have any bad feelings even though he'd gone back to Lois. Of course, that would be a lie and also way too melodramatic but it occupied my mind while the lock was picked and the door slowly swung open.
"Well, well, what do we have here? A blackmailing faggot. Oh, this is too sweet. And all alone. Right, Joe?" It was the hard eyed one who'd stayed by the back door that night. He touched his ear-piece and nodded without taking his cold eyes off of me.
"I don't suppose you're here to pay me the money I asked for?" I kept my voice even with a supreme effort and was actually proud it didn't shake at all.
"Nah, why pay good money to a dead man."
"I see. Would you care to satisfy my curiosity then? Which one was it? Yonkers or Basinger?"
"Boy, you are so full of shit. Why should I tell you and whatever tape recorder you've got hidden?"
"No recorder. No one else here. Just me and a plan that didn't work." I sighed and laid my cue stick on the table. Just my luck, I wouldn't get to finish this game. Story of my life.
"Never had a chance, boy. It was one of those right wing conspiracies in which everybody's involved." He shook his head and raised the shiny black automatic. "At least this will be quick for you and the evidence will burn right along with this perverted bar."
"NO-O-O-O!" The cry and the gunfire came simultaneously. But I didn't have time to find out who else had dealt themselves in because the bullets had punched me into the wall and I was too busy burning.
Agony radiating out in ever increasing circles.
Fire in my chest. I couldn't feel my arm anymore. The buzzing in my head was getting louder and the beat of my heart was slowly beginning to fade. Strong arms around me. I forced my eyes open to see Clark's face. His lips were moving but I couldn't hear anything. And the night was closing in and my eyelids were just too heavy.
Late again, Jimmy. No trucking for you.
Just my ...
Bright lights but no noise. I couldn't feel my body so maybe all those New Agers were right. The afterlife is a big light at the end of a long tunnel. Wait a minute, where was the tunnel? Hey, maybe I'll find out who my mom and dad were. At least I'd left behind the pain with my body. Too bad I wouldn't be able to do an article on this one.
So tired. Weren't you supposed to leave that kind of thing behind?
Hey, who was that? Wow, she's beautiful. And warm. And she's hugging me close.
Whoosh - whoosh - whoosh - whoosh
It was cold. And there was a weight on my chest that wouldn't go away. I also couldn't move. Well, shit. Just my luck, they managed to bring me out of the warmth back into the cold, cruel world. And I just bet that when the drugs wear off, it is going to hurt like hell.
What was it she said?
Not your time. //I love you, sweet pea.//
I miss her already.
Click - click - click - click
"Mr. Olson. My name is Dr. Layton. If you can hear me, would you please move your left hand?" The tenor voice sighed after a long pause and spoke again. "How about a finger? ... Anything at all?"
It was a kind voice and I contemplated it for a long moment or maybe I just fell asleep again. When I reawakened, I searched for it with my ears since my eyes had been glued shut while I was sleeping. There was someone there, I could hear them breathing and I tried to turn my head towards the sound ...
Shit, shit, shit.
That hurt. Don't do that again, Jimmy.
"Jimmy! Don't move." The voice sounded very familiar and I searched my memory for who it could be, while he opened a door and called for a nurse.
"Mr. Olson. I'm Nurse Green. Can you feel my hand?"
Her fingers were warm and I tried to squeeze them.
"Yes, I felt that. Now, let me take your pulse the old fashioned way. You're doing just fine, even if it doesn't feel like it." Even her voice was warm and it brought with it a memory of another feminine voice that had cradled me before sending me back.
"Ah, Mr. Olson. Back with us. It's about time. I'm Dr. Layton. Do you think you could open your eyes for us? Nurse,
please dim the lights for now." A damp cloth covered my eyes for
a minute and it felt like it washed some of the glue away.
So, I tried. I mean, he sounded like a nice guy and he was probably used to having his patients do what he told them to. My eyelids had gained weight while I was out and it was a real struggle but I finally managed it. The room was blurry but I could make out a dark head hovering over mine.
"Oh, very good. Now, swallow for me."
Well, damn. That felt like broken glass instead of spit.
"Have an ice chip. It will help. We took out the incubating tube yesterday but your throat is still raw. One of your assignments is to start drinking something every hour. I promise it will be easier by tonight."
The ice felt like heaven and the little bit that trickled down my throat hurt but also numbed. I was willing to try another one and the doctor must have read my mind because another one slipped between my dry lips to melt on my tongue.
"Very good. Now, could you open your eyes again for me?"
I hadn't realized I'd closed them so I pried them open while he cheerfully ran me through a few tests to make sure I had the use of my whole brain. And while he poked and prodded me, he talked. He ran over the shooting, my cardiac arrest, the CPR done, the operation that removed two bullets and the fact that I'd been out for three days.
"Doctor, did you by any chance fail Bedside Manners 101?" The familiar voice sounded on the other side of the nurse and I realized that it was Keith.
"Darn. You caught me. I failed it twice and my instructor finally just gave me an incomplete. He thought it might come with age." Dr. Layton joked while continuing his through examination. "Better you know up front what went on while you were out, Mr. Olson. That way there are no surprises. And I have to tell you, for a briefly dead guy, you're doing very well. Most of your reflexes are coming back nicely."
"G-g-good." I managed.
"Oh, excellent. Vocal and auditory seem to be fine as well. Follow my finger." He moved his index finger up, down and side ways. So long as I didn't move my head, I was good to go. "Now, the muscles from the damaged shoulder are attached to your neck so that's why there's pain when you try to turn your head. We'll try a little heat later and see if we can't loosen them up. Any questions?"
He read my short question correctly. "You're one step from ICU. Another day of improvement and you'll be moving down a floor to a private room for another six or seven days. There's no sign of infection and aside from a tendency to fall asleep without notice the next day or so, you'll be feeling better shortly."
I managed a smile for all three of them before I fulfilled his prophecy and fell asleep.
When I woke up this time, Mrs. Kenyon was sitting by my bed doing something with a needle and a long thread of royal blue. I watched her pull it up through a white cloth for several soothing moments before she noticed I was awake.
"Welcome back, Jimmy." She laid the needlework aside and reached for a covered container. "Try some ice chips to whet your throat before you get all dried out. I'm so glad you're all right."
The ice chips felt like heaven but her kiss on my cheek reminded me of a fading memory. I swallowed hard and tried to speak. She shushed me and fed me some more ice. After several swallows, I was finally able to talk in a whisper. I told her about the white light and my mom hugging me.
She had tears in her eyes and her hands cradled my left hand against her cheek. "I'm glad it wasn't your time, Jimmy. You'd have left some broken hearts behind you. But I'm so glad she was there for you. How nice to know that your mother is your very own guardian angel."
I smiled and fell asleep again.
This time I woke up when a nurse changed my IV bag. She smiled cheerfully and fed me some more ice without even asking. They went down a bunch easier and when I rolled my eyes to the left, I saw Keith sitting there, smiling gently at me.
"It's good to hear your voice, Jimmy. I'm sorry, I didn't get there in time. The FBI stalled until it was almost too late. They got a jump start when the boss came in from D.C. Now, there's a man who knows how to kick ass." Keith leaned over the side rail so I could see him more easily. I actually chuckled out loud.
He grinned and offered me a glass with a bent straw. Iced grape juice trickled down my throat soothing all the dry tissues. I finished half the glass before he put it back on the table. He chattered quietly about the FBI, Mrs. Kenyon and Superman. I didn't even feel a twinge when he talked about arriving at the Solitary Cyclist and finding Superman giving me CPR while the shooter lay silent against the back wall where the Man of Steel had thrown him.
I fell asleep remembering how those lips had once felt on mine.
It felt late when I next woke and I wondered what had wakened me.
"You've got nerve. I'll give you that." Keith seemed to speak through clenched teeth.
"Excuse me?" Clark's voice flowed over me like honey.
"It's not enough you break his heart. Now, you show up while he's down."
"What?" Clark sounded so bewildered.
Keith scoffed at him. "Come on. He finds you kissing Lois in the news room and he's supposed to just brush it off?"
"Oh, no. He saw that?"
"Of course, he saw that! Why the hell do you think he came to me? He cried his eyes out on my shoulder while telling me that it was all his fault. You really don't deserve him." Keith was scathing.
"It was a bet." Clark sounded so unsure. "Joe Riley bet Lois that she couldn't get me to kiss her in front of witnesses. Did he hear what Perry said?"
"Yes." Keith was probably standing there with his arms crossed, eyeing him like a hostile witness. "What are your intentions, Clark? If you're still confused, you'll only hurt him more."
"I don't want to hurt him. He's my best friend." Clark sounded as if he was right beside me.
"He deserves to be loved. As a friend and a lover." Keith's voice was closer, too.
"I know. He's so open about himself and his emotions. I've never been able to talk about what I was feeling. But I'm not confused any more. When I saw him standing so bravely in front of the gunman, I thought my heart would break."
Warmth enveloped my right hand and I swear I could tell it was his touch. Opening my eyes, I watched these two men who were my friends square off over my hospital bed. A bet. Joe was a notorious prankster who was always setting up a practical joke. All that anguish for nothing. Figures.
"I promise to try and never hurt him again." Clark had that iron jawed, Superman look about him. Why no one else can see through his persona to the Man of Steel is beyond me.
"And love him? With all your heart?" Keith was as serious as I've ever seen him.
"Yes." That deep voice made me shiver and he must have felt the tremor through his hand that was still lying gently over mine. Those beautiful eyes dropped and even still doped up, I could see the love shining there.
"Hi. I love you." Was that breathy voice really mine?
He leaned over and brushed a soft kiss over my dry lips. I felt the warmth tingle through me, melting the cold spot I'd been harboring inside since I thought I'd lost him. It seems a reprieve had been granted in more ways than one. But when I felt the moisture on my cheek, I tried to move back to see what was wrong.
Bad move. Pain stabbed through my shoulder and I groaned.
"Don't move, Jimmy. Remember what Dr. Layton said about heat? I'll go find the nurse and see if enough time has gone by." Keith dashed out and left us alone.
Clark was brushing away the tears from his cheek and looking at me with his whole heart in his eyes. "I keep hurting you and I'm never there when you need me. You should hate me."
The pain throbbed away but the euphoria of knowing he wanted to be here with me pushed it back to manageable levels. "Never. Just need you to let me love you."
He smiled and kissed me again, using his free hand to gently stroke the neck muscles not covered in bandages. Warmth seeped in every where he touched me. Finally, the antiseptic smell of the hospital room was replaced with his scent and I breathed it in like pure oxygen.
"Only if I get to love you back." He spoke simply and I felt my stomach lurch. It was the first time he'd said the "L"- word and I could feel it reverberate through my whole body.
"Please." My whisper brought a broken smile to his sad features and he kissed me slowly, tasting me until I opened and let him slide inside. It was heaven to feel the languid strokes of the rough edge of his tongue against mine. When he pulled away, I protested.
"Ssh-h-h. The nurse and Keith are coming back." His hand moved up to my hair and he began a gentle massage that soothed the ache.
Meeting his eyes again, I tried to explain why I'd spilled my guts to Keith but he just hushed me with a smile. The nurse who entered ahead of my friend was one I recognized from before.
"I hear that a little heat would be appreciated." Nurse Green grinned at me and motioned Clark away so she could take his place. I watched him join Keith for a low voiced conversation while she placed a small fabric covered pillow gently against the juncture of my shoulder and neck. It seemed to vibrate with heat.
"Wow. That feels wonderful." I sighed in relief.
"I know. It will last about twenty minutes then it will be an hour before we can replace it with a new one. Anything else you need for the moment? Besides some more grape juice?" She laughed and held the glass for me while I sucked the last of it through the bent straw.
"Nope. I've got everything I need right here." My eyes went back to Clark, only to find him watching me. The silly grin on my face made her smile and lean over a bit to whisper to me quietly.
"He's a hunk and a half. The other nurses have all fallen in love with him the last few nights. He only came when everyone else went home. I don't know how he got permission but he stayed all night, every night from the moment you got out of surgery. He's a keeper."
"Yes, he is." I vowed and she winked at me before leaving. He was by my side instantly, his hand warm on mine.
"Well, Jimmy, I can see you're in good hands. I'm off to see if that good looking FBI man needs some suggestions for dinner." Keith waved from the end of the bed. "I've discovered a new appreciation for men with authority. Not to mention the sexy bald look." And with a wink, he whisked himself out of the room.
I could feel myself falling asleep again but I fought it with all my strength.
"It's all right, Jimmy. I'll be right here when you wake up. I promise." That voice was so hypnotic, I felt myself slide right into slumber, his kiss lingering on my lips.
Safe. So very safe.
End of chapter six