Lightning Page 2


The stranger put the pistol on the dresser and produced a coiled length of sturdy rope from one pocket. He reached beneath his coat and withdrew a short, wide-bladed knife that was evidently kept in a sheath attached to his belt. He cut the rope into pieces with which, no doubt, to bind Markwell to the chair.


The doctor stared at the pistol on the dresser, calculating his chances of reaching the weapon before the gunman could get it. Then he met the stranger's winter-blue eyes and realized that his scheming was as transparent to his adversary as a child's simple cunning was apparent to an adult.


The blond man smiled as if to say, Go ahead, go for it. Paul Markwell wanted to live. He remained docile and compliant, as the intruder tied him, hand and foot, to the needlepoint chair.


Making the knots tight but not painfully so, the stranger seemed oddly concerned about his captive. “I don't want to have to gag you. You're drunk, and with a rag jammed in your mouth, you might vomit, choke to death. So to some extent I'm going to trust you. But if you cry out for help at any time, I'll kill you on the spot. Understand?”


“Yes.”


When the gunman spoke more than a few words, he revealed a vague accent, so mild that Markwell could not place it. He clipped the ends of some words, and occasionally his pronunciation had a guttural note that was barely perceptible.


The stranger sat on the edge of the bed and put one hand on the telephone. “What's the number of the county hospital?” Markwell blinked. “Why?”


' 'Damn it, I asked you the number. If you won't give it to me, I'd rather beat it out of you than look it up in the directory.“ Chastened, Markwell gave him the number. ”Who's on duty there tonight?“ ”Dr. Carlson. Herb Carlson.“ ”Is he a good man?“ ”What do you mean?"


“Is he a better doctor than you-or is he a lush too?” “I'm not a lush. I have-”


“You're an irresponsible, self-pitying, alcoholic wreck, and you know it. Answer my question, Doctor. Is Carlson reliable?”


Markwell's sudden nausea resulted only partly from overindulgence in Scotch; the other cause was revulsion at the truth of what the intruder had said. “Yeah, Herb Carlson's good. A very good doctor.”


''Who's the supervising nurse tonight?"


Markwell had to ponder that for a moment. “Ella Hanlow, I think. I'm not sure. If it isn't Ella, it's Virginia Keene.”


The stranger called the county hospital and said he was speaking n behalf of Dr. Paul Markwell. He asked for Ella Hanlow.


A blast of wind slammed into the house, rattling a loose window, whistling in the eaves, and Markwell was reminded of the storm. As he watched the fast-falling snow at the window, he felt another gust of disorientation blow through him. The night was so eventful-the lightning, the inexplicable intruder-that suddenly it did not seem real. He pulled at the ropes that bound him to the chair, certain that they were fragments of a whiskey dream and would dissolve like gossamer, but they held him fast, and the effort made him dizzy again.


At the phone the stranger said, “Nurse Hanlow? Dr. Markwell won't be able to come to the hospital tonight. One of his patients here, Janet Shane, is having a difficult labor. Hmmmm? Yes, of course. He wants Dr. Carlson to handle the delivery. No, no, I'm afraid he can't possibly make it. No, not the weather. He's drunk. That's right. He'd be a danger to the patient. No ... he's so drunk, there's no point putting him on the line. Sorry. He's been drinking a lot lately, trying to cover it, but tonight he's worse than usual. Hmmmm? I'm a neighbor. Okay. Thank you, Nurse Hanlow. Goodbye.”


Markwell was angry but also surprisingly relieved to have his secret revealed. “You bastard, you've ruined me.”


“No, Doctor. You've ruined yourself. Self-hatred is destroying your career. And it drove your wife away from you. The marriage was already troubled, sure, but it might've been saved if Lenny had lived, and it might even have been saved after he died if you hadn't withdrawn into yourself so completely.”


Markwell was astonished. “How the hell do you know what it was like with me and Anna? And how do you know about Lenny? I've never met you before. How can you know anything about me?”


Ignoring the questions, the stranger piled two pillows against the padded headboard of the bed. He swung his wet, dirty, booted feet onto the covers and stretched out. “No matter how you feel about ”, losing your son wasn't your fault. You're just a physician, not a miracle worker. But losing Anna was your fault. And what you've become-an extreme danger to your patients-that's your fault too."


Markwell started to object, then sighed and let his head drop forward until his chin was on his chest.


“You know what your trouble is, Doctor?”


“I suppose you'll tell me.”


“Your trouble is you never had to struggle for anything, never knew adversity. Your father was well-to-do, so you got everything you wanted, went to the finest schools. And though you were successful in your practice, you never needed the money-you had your inheritance. So when Lenny got polio, you didn't know how to deal with adversity because you'd never had any practice. You hadn't been inoculated, so you had no resistance, and you got a bad case of despair.”


Lifting his head, blinking until his vision cleared, Markwell said, “I can't figure this.”


“Through all this suffering, you've learned something, Markwell, and if you'll sober up long enough to think straight, you might get back on track. You've still got a slim chance to redeem yourself.”


“Maybe I don't want to redeem myself.”


“I'm afraid that could be true. I think you're scared to die, but I don't know if you have the guts to go on living.”


The doctor's breath was sour with stale peppermint and whiskey. His mouth was dry, and his tongue swollen. He longed for a drink.


He halfheartedly tested the ropes that bound his hands to the chair. Finally, disgusted by the self-pitying whine in his own voice but unable to regain his dignity, he said, “What do you want from me?”


“I want to prevent you from going to the hospital tonight. I want to be damn sure you don't deliver Janet Shane's baby. You've become a butcher, a potential killer, and you have to be stopped this time.”


Markwell licked his dry lips. “I still don't know who you are.”


“And you never will, Doctor. You never will.”


Bob Shane had never been so scared. He repressed his tears, for he had the superstitious feeling that revealing his fear so openly would tempt the fates and insure Janet's and the baby's deaths.


He leaned forward in the waiting-room chair, bowed his head, and prayed silently: Lord, Janet could've done better than me. She's so pretty, and I'm as homely as a rag rug. I'm just a grocer, and my corner store isn't ever going to turn big profits, but she loves me. Lord, she's good, honest, humble . . . she doesn't deserve to die. Maybe You want to take her 'cause she's already good enough for heaven. But I'm not good enough yet, and I need her to help me be a better man.


One of the lounge doors opened.


Bob looked up.


Doctors Carlson and Yamatta entered in their hospital greens.


The sight of them frightened Bob, and he rose slowly from his chair.


Yamatta's eyes were sadder than ever.


Dr. Carlson was a tall, portly man who managed to look dignified even in his baggy hospital uniform. “Mr. Shane . . . I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, but your wife died in childbirth.”


Bob stood rock-still, as if the dreadful news had transformed his flesh to stone. He heard only part of what Carlson said:


“... major uterine obstruction . . . one of those women not really designed to have children. She should never have gotten pregnant. I'm sorry ... so sorry . . . everything we could . . . massive hemorrhaging . . . but the baby ...”


The word “baby” broke Bob's paralysis. He took a halting step toward Carlson. “What did you say about the baby?”


“It's a girl,” Carlson said. “A healthy little girl.”


Bob had thought everything was lost. Now he stared at Carlson, cautiously hopeful that a part of Janet had not died and that he was not, after all, entirely alone in the world. “Really? A girl?”


“Yes,” Carlson said. “She's an exceptionally beautiful baby. Born with a full head of dark brown hair.”


Looking at Yamatta, Bob said, “My baby lived.”


“Yes,” Yamatta said. His poignant smile flickered briefly. “And you've got Dr. Carlson to thank. I'm afraid Mrs. Shane never had a chance. In less experienced hands the baby might've been lost too.”


Bob turned to Carlson, still afraid to believe. “The ... the baby lived, and that's something to be thankful for, anyway, isn't it?”


The physicians stood in awkward silence. Then Yamatta put one hand on Bob Shane's shoulder, perhaps sensing that the contact would comfort him.


Though Bob was five inches taller and forty pounds heavier than the diminutive doctor, he leaned against Yamatta. Overcome with grief he wept, and Yamatta held him.


The stranger stayed with Markwell for another hour, though he spoke no more and would respond to none of Markwells questions. He lay on the bed, staring at the ceiling, so intent on his thoughts that he seldom moved.


As the doctor sobered, a throbbing headache began to torment him. As usual his hangover was an excuse for even greater self-pity than that which had driven him to drink.


Eventually the intruder looked at his wristwatch. “Eleven-thirty. I'll be going now.” He got off the bed, came to the chair, and again drew the knife from beneath his coat.


Markwell tensed.


“I'm going to saw partway through your ropes, Doctor. If you struggle with them for half an hour or so, you'll be able to free yourself. Which gives me time enough to get out of here.”


As the man stooped behind the chair and set to work, Markwell expected to feel the blade slip between his ribs.


But in less than a minute the stranger put the knife away and went to the bedroom door. “You do have a chance to redeem yourself, Doctor. I think you're too weak to do it, but I hope I'm wrong.”


Then he walked out.


For ten minutes, as Markwell struggled to free himself, he heard occasional noises downstairs. Evidently the intruder was searching for valuables. Although he had seemed mysterious, perhaps he was nothing but a burglar with a singularly odd modus operandi.


Markwell finally broke loose at twenty-five past midnight. His wrists were severely abraded, bleeding.


Though he had not heard a sound from the first floor in half an hour, he took his pistol from the nightstand drawer and descended the stairs with caution. He went to his office in the professional wing, where he expected to find drugs missing from his medical supplies; neither of the two tall, white cabinets had been touched.


He hurried into his study, convinced that the flimsy wall safe had been opened. The safe was unbreached.


Baffled, turning to leave, he saw empty whiskey, gin, tequila, and vodka bottles piled in the bar sink. The intruder had paused only to locate the liquor supply and pour it down the drain.


A note was taped to the bar mirror. The intruder had printed his message in neat block letters:


IF YOU DON'T STOP DRINKING, IF YOU DON'T LEARN TO ACCEPT LENNY'S DEATH, YOU WILL PUT A GUN IN YOUR MOUTH AND BLOW YOUR BRAINS OUT WITHIN ONE YEAR. THIS IS NOT A PREDICTION. THIS IS A FACT.


Clutching the note and the gun, Markwell looked around the empty room, as if the stranger was still there, unseen, a ghost that could choose at will between visibility and invisibility. “Who are you?” he demanded. “Who the hell are you?”


Only the wind at the window answered him, and its mournful moan had no meaning that he could discern.


At eleven o'clock the next morning, after an early meeting with the funeral director regarding Janet's body, Bob Shane returned to the county hospital to see his newborn daughter. After he donned a cotton gown, a cap, and a surgical mask, and after thoroughly scrubbing his hands under a nurse's direction, he was permitted into the nursery, where he gently lifted Laura from her cradle.


Nine other newborns shared the room. All of them were cute in one way or another, but Bob did not believe he was unduly prejudiced in his judgment that Laura Jean was the cutest of the crop. Although the popular image of an angel required blue eyes and blond hair, and though Laura had brown eyes and hair, she was nevertheless angelic in appearance. During the ten minutes that he held her, she did not cry; she blinked, squinted, rolled her eyes, yawned. She looked pensive, too, as if perhaps she knew that she was motherless and that she and her father had only each other in a cold, difficult world.


A viewing window, through which relatives could see the newborns, filled one wall. Five people were gathered at the glass. Four were smiling, pointing, and making funny faces to entertain the babies.


The fifth was a blond man wearing a navy peacoat and standing with his hands in his pockets. He did not smile or point or make faces. He was staring at Laura.


After a few minutes during which the stranger's gaze did not shift from the child, Bob became concerned. The guy was good looking and clean-cut, but there was a hardness in his face, too, and some quality that could not be put into words but that made Bob think this was a man who had seen and done terrible things.


He began to remember sensational tabloid stories of kidnappers, babies being sold on the black market. He told himself that he was paranoid, imagining a danger where none existed because, having lost Janet, he was now worried about losing his daughter as well. But the longer the blond man studied Laura, the more uneasy Bob became.


As if sensing that uneasiness, the man looked up. They stared at each other. The stranger's blue eyes were unusually bright, intense. Bob's fear deepened. He held his daughter closer, as if the stranger might smash through the nursery window to seize her. He considered calling one of the creche nurses and suggesting that she speak to the man, make inquiries about him.


Then the stranger smiled. His was a broad, warm, genuine smile that transformed his face. In an instant he no longer looked sinister but friendly. He winked at Bob and mouthed one word through the thick glass: “Beautiful.”


Bob relaxed, smiled, realized his smile could not be seen behind his mask, and nodded a thank you.


The stranger looked once more at Laura, winked at Bob again, and walked away from the window.


Later, after Bob Shane had gone home for the day, a tall man in dark clothing approached the creche window. His name was Kokoschka. He studied the infants; then his field of vision shifted, and he became aware of his colorless reflection in the polished glass. He had a broad, flat face with sharp-edged features, lips so thin and hard that they seemed to be made of horn. A two-inch dueling scar marked his left cheek. His dark eyes had no depth, as if they were painted ceramic spheres, much like the cold eyes of a shark cruising in shadowy ocean trenches. He was amused to realize how starkly his face contrasted to the innocent visages of the cradled babies beyond the window; he smiled, a rare expression for him, which imparted no warmth to his face but actually made him appear more threatening.

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