I stumbled outside and cast off the smoking blanket, greedily sucking in a lung full of fresh air and looking back in amazement at the flame engulfed house. My relief was short-lived because my body was suddenly racked by a fit of coughing which doubled me over. I did not see the first of many neighbors come into the yard. I didn’t hear him either. He startled me with a hand on my shoulder as I straightened and I must have jumped ten feet into the air. The man raised his hands in a placating gesture to show that he meant no harm but my nerves were shot. I backed away from him so hurriedly that I stumbled over my own feet and fell backwards into a bush. He approached and offered to help me up but I flinched away from his extended hand.
Fortuitously, the gun at the small of my back worked itself free, as I struggled to regain my footing, and fell down inside of the bush. He asked me if anyone else was inside of the house. I tried to answer but couldn’t seem to stop coughing, so I nodded. The harder I struggled to breathe, the more forcefully I coughed. My head began to spin. I must have fainted because the next thing I knew, a nurse was bending over me in a hospital bed. She kept calling me Tammy. I lay there gazing perplexedly up at the woman, wondering about the identity of this Tammy person. I coughed and my hand reflexively went up to massage my raw throat. It felt as though cinders were lodged inside. I unsuccessfully fought the urge to continue coughing with each intake of breath. The nurse smiled sympathetically at me.
“You’re suffering from smoke inhalation Tammy. You must have been trapped inside that burning house for several minutes. I’m sorry to say your friends did not make it. An officer left his card. He’s going to want to ask you a few questions about what happened when you’re feeling a little better.”
I nodded glumly, trying not to allow the dismay I felt show. The last thing I needed to do was to get cornered by a cop asking a lot of questions. I needed to get out of there post-haste. My purse was sitting in a stolen car near the scene of a suspicious fire set to cover two murders and there was a gun, with my fingerprints on it in the backyard of the crime scene, containing bullets matching the slugs in one of the victims. With any luck, the heat of the fire would melt the slugs. I supposed it depended upon how quickly they put out the fire. I suddenly remembered my appointment with Hiromi and the stuff I had stashed in a building across town. What time is it? I tried to get up and was halted by a wave of nausea and dizziness. The nurse came rushing back from the doorway and urged me back into bed.
“Please lay back down Tammy. You’re in no condition to be up moving around without assistance. If you need something just stay put and activate your call light. Someone will be right in to help.”
“Why do you keep calling me Tammy,” I asked between gasps.
“That’s your name. See, it says so right here on your arm band. Looks like you’re still a bit disoriented. Try to get some rest. I’ll be back to check on you in a little while.”
I lay back gazing at the ID bracelet wonderingly until it slowly dawned on my muddled senses that I had been carrying my attacker’s purse when I emerged from the burning house. I supposed that we were around the same age, though hard living was etched under her eyes and at the sides of her snarling mouth. What with my mussed up hair and sooty face, I wagered any distinguishing features on my face were blurred or at least softened when the paramedics checked her driver’s license and copied her information onto my medical chart. Add to that the distracting chaos created by a burning building and gawkers milling around.
I had unwittingly assumed a dead woman’s identity. If I could avoid detection by anyone who knew her then I could hide out in her world for a little while. At least until the dental records came back. If she was planning on running away and starting a new life elsewhere with Canfield then I just might be the only other living soul who even knew she was in his house. I lay there replaying in my mind the events that lead to my hospitalization and suddenly, I wasn’t so anxious to meet with Hiromi. Canfield’s admonishment came back to me. As much as I hated to admit it, he was right about everything. How could I have been so stupid?
Desperation and loneliness had caused me to take leave of my senses. I lay in my hospital bed replaying countless situations during the past few weeks in which people had made me uneasy and I chose to make excuses because that was easier than asking questions and risking confrontation. All my life, I avoided conflict because I couldn’t stand the thought of anyone being mad at me. When I was a child I worried myself sick trying to please everyone around me. The fact that I was still spinning my wheels sounds pathetic, but it’s the truth. I didn’t want to risk losing Plum. Of course, my near death experience forced me to finally accept the fact that our so-called friendship was completely one-sided. I gritted my teeth in anger at the thought of Plum and her partners in crime laughing at me behind my back.
Fear had caused me to squander countless opportunities to ask questions which could have stopped me from ruining my life. Thinking back over the way things were before Plum and how bleak my situation seemed, for the first time I could see all the ways I could have turned things around if I’d only had the courage to step outside my comfort zone. I recalled with fondness the plodding predictability of my former life. I suddenly missed the stability of it; having a peaceful place to return to at the end of a long day and a safe place to rest my head at night. I felt tears begin to sting my eyes and quickly blinked them back. There will be plenty of time for regret when I’m old and gray, I told myself.
The first order of business was to take steps to ensure that I survived long enough to grow old and gray. It was important to figure out who if anyone was trustworthy. I knew nothing about Hiromi other than her name and relationship to Plum. If I was completely honest with myself, I didn’t know much more than that about Plum. My knowledge consisted of what she chose to tell me. Before I handed anything over to Hiromi, I needed to know who I was dealing with. Until the identities of the bodies were uncovered, Plum would believe that Canfield and I were dead. That should buy me enough time to level the playing field a little. In order to do that, I needed to do a little digging and find out who had my back and who was trying to sink a knife into it.