Valley of Shadows-Chapter Twenty-Four

Richard lay in his bed gingerly touching the tight stitches closing the split in his scalp.  The aspirin they had given him in the hospital only blunted the pain.  He supposed he was lucky that all he walked away from a fight with an ex-con with was a split scalp and mild concussion.

Richard didn’t know what angered him more; his sister’s betrayal or the callous way she had burned a great lead.  No doubt, by morning that warehouse would be vacant.  If word had gotten to Nicole, she might start looking over her shoulder.  That would make it harder to tail her undetected.

The more he thought about it, the angrier he got.  Richard couldn’t sleep.  He lay in the darkness and fumed.  He needed to get out of the house and get some air.  One by one, his family retreated to their rooms and eventually turned out their lights.  When the house had quieted down, he crept to the door and peered into the hallway.  He held his breath and listened for any movement.  The last thing he wanted was a lecture from one of his well-intentioned family members about getting some rest.  After a few moments of silence, he slipped into the hallway and made his way downstairs taking care to close and lock the front door softly.

He drove back to the liquor store and climbed into Carl’s car.  Richard started the engine and wrinkled his nose.  The interior smelled like stale cigarette smoke.  He drove off, headed for the warehouse district. If he could find something useful before they cleared out, then the night wouldn’t have been a total waste.

Richard didn’t hold out much hope, when he parked up the street and climbed out. He had already been away for a couple of hours.  The night air had turned chilly. Richard spied Carl’s baseball cap and jacket lying on the backseat and pulled them on.

On approach, he could see the building was a hive of activity. Men were loading up trucks with furniture and equipment.  All of the pandemonium emboldened Richard.   Remembering the security cameras, he crossed the parking lot at a diagonal, with the baseball cap pulled low over his eyes.  He reached the propped open front door as two men walked out with a desk hefted up on their shoulders.  Richard was able to walk in on their blind side.  He strode to the first closed door on the right and slipped inside.

He stood still for a few tense moments, anticipating the sound of footsteps.  When no one came in, Richard turned around and took in the large room furnished with a surgical table and glass-fronted metal cabinets stocked with medical supplies.  Opening a cabinet door, he took out his cell phone and paused long enough to make sure the labels on the bottles were in focus before snapping a picture of the medications inside.

Richard was walking around the opposite side of the surgical table when the floor under his feet was suddenly sticky.  He looked down and jumped back.  From the looks of it, someone had done a sloppy job of wiping up a large amount of blood.  Richard took the sight as evidence that he and Rachel had actually seen a dead body being hauled out of the place.

He shook his head in disgust before taking a second quick pass around the room.  Screwed into the side of the table was a metal nameplate with the address of the medical supply company that had either sold or rented it out.  Richard had just snapped a picture of the nameplate when he heard voices in the hall and looked around for a place to hide.

The footsteps came briskly towards the room and he had seconds to hide behind the opening door before two men came in and carried the surgical table into the hall.  Richard waited for the voices to recede before emerging from his hiding place.  Wanting to see what else he could find before everything was carted off, he headed away from the front door.  He was halfway down the hall when a man suddenly emerged from one of the rooms.  Richard spun around before the man looked up, heading for the front door and praying the other two men would be busy hauling the surgical table onto the truck.

“Hey man, where you going?  Come help me carry this bed.”

Richard walked faster.  He was almost to the door when the other two returned.  By now, the man behind him was shouting at him.  Richard panicked and bowled himself between the two men, breaking into a sprint.  He heard their footsteps pursuing him and hurriedly fished out Carl’s car keys.

He started clicking on the key fob to unlock the doors as soon as the car was in sight and made use of the automatic start button.  Richard got to the car and pealed away from the curb as two of the men caught up to him.  One of them had their hand on the door handle, when he sped off.

He sped towards the highway with his heart palpitating, running a couple of red lights in an effort to put distance between him and the silver truck that came roaring after him.  Every time Richard thought he had lost his pursuers, its grill would fill his rearview mirror.  He mashed the gas pedal and Carl’s economy car skipped forward, narrowly escaping the push bar of the charging truck.  A small space opened up in the lane beside Richard and he quickly forced his way into it, ignoring the blaring horn.  The truck pulled alongside him and he resisted the temptation to look over at his pursuers, not wanting them to see his face clearly.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the passenger window of the truck slide down and one of the men leaning out with a gun in his hand.  Richard tapped his brakes a couple of times to warn the driver behind him to slow down and then suddenly braked.  The driver of the truck beside him was slow to react and the truck went rocketing past.

Richard took the next side street he came to and drove around until he found a parking garage.  He chose a dim corner and pulled into the last space.  It felt good to let go of steering wheel.  Richard hadn’t realized how hard he was gripping it.  He lay down on the seat, straining to hear over the pounding of his heartbeat.  Richard tensed, expecting to hear the roar of the truck’s engine approach at any moment.  The minutes seemed to crawl.  His spike of adrenaline dropped off and he suddenly realized that he was exhausted.  Richard closed his eyes, intending to rest for just a moment.

The shrill wailing of a car alarm jarred Richard out of a deep slumber early the next morning. He sat up slowly, rubbing his bleary eyes. The ache radiating from his head competed for attention with the crick in his neck. As he rolled his stiff neck and flexed his bruised knuckles, the events of the night before came flooding back. Richard chuckled, congratulating himself on eluding capture.  He was starving but decided to make use of Carl’s car while he had it.  He’d tail Nicole for a while and see if she led him to anything interesting.

Richard decided to find an inconspicuous spot outside of her place of employment rather than tail her there from her home. He spent an uneventful morning waiting for Nicole to emerge from the bank where she worked.  He passed the time using his cell phone to surf the Internet and research the medications he had photographed at the warehouse.  Richard was surprised to learn that the majority of them were immunosuppressant medications used to prevent the body from rejecting transplanted organs.

Nicole finished work and ran a few mundane errands. Richard reached the end of his patience when she pulled onto a grocery store parking lot.  He was exhausted and ravenous.  The burger that he’d managed to get at lunchtime was long gone.  When Rachel texted him that Carl needed his car in order to make the night shift at his job, Richard decided to return the car.

He pulled up in front of the house and sat there a few minutes, debating whether or not he should leave the keys under the floor mat and walk away.  Some foolish impulse made him walk up to Carl’s front door and ring the doorbell, rather than just dropping the keys through the mail slot.  An elderly woman opened the door and Richard awkwardly held out Carl’s keys.  Her pleasant expression darkened.  She gazed at him sternly.

“So you’re the young man who attacked my Carl,” she said.

“With all due respect ma’am, I was coming to my sister’s aid when he attacked me.”

“Oh, so you’re Rachel’s brother.  That woman has caused my boy no end of heartache.”

“What I saw last night was a man trying to overpower a woman.”

“Oh please, that…that woman is always leading him on.  One minute she’s coming on to him and the next she’s crying wolf.  It’s disgraceful for a married woman to carry on so with another man.  If you ask me, a woman like that deserves whatever she gets.  She’s not the one who needs saving.  My boy needs to be saved from her.”

“I didn’t come here to argue with you.  Let’s agree to disagree.  I just wanted to return his keys.”

“After what you put him through, the least you could do is hand them to him yourself.  Come on in and I’ll get Carl.”

Richard hesitated a moment.  The last thing he wanted to do was make a big production out of returning the keys.  Carl’s mother left the door open and walked to the foot of the staircase, calling for her son.  Richard resignedly stepped across the threshold and closed the door behind him.  She turned and motioned for him to follow her into the kitchen.  Richard stayed put.

“Ma’am, I really just came to drop off the car and return his keys.”

“Don’t be silly, you can sit down a moment and have a cup of tea.  Or do you prefer coffee?  I’ll cut you a slice of pie.  Besides, how were you planning on getting home?  Didn’t think about that did you?  Just wait a few minutes and Carl will drop you off on his way to work.”

“Oh no ma’am I couldn’t impose. I’ll just walk.”

“I insist, now come on in here and take a load off for a few minutes.”

Richard reluctantly followed her into the kitchen, silently chastising himself for ringing the doorbell.  He should have followed his first mind and dropped the keys through the mail slot in the door.  Midway through his slice of pie, Carl strolled into the kitchen.  Their eyes met briefly and Richard could see anger and shame in Carl’s eyes.  His face was bruised and swollen.

“Ah, there you are son.  Richard brought back your keys.  Wasn’t that nice?  Do you hear me talking to you boy?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Okay then, don’t be rude in front of our guest.  Now I want the two of you to shake hands and put this whole thing behind you.  Go on now, you need to get going so you can drop Richard off on your way to work.”

The two men grudgingly shook hands.  Richard suddenly remembered that he was wearing Carl’s hat and jacket.  He took them off and handed them to him.  Carl’s mother urged him to finish his pie and he bolted it down so that they could be on their way.  Richard waited in the hallway while Carl kissed his mother goodbye.  He felt compelled to thank Carl for the ride home but the man brushed past him and stalked through the front door pulling on his hat jacket as he went.

Richard stuck his head in the kitchen and expressed to Carl’s mother his appreciation for her hospitality.  A moment later, the sound of gunshots had them both running for the front door.  Carl lay sprawled on the pavement at the foot of the porch steps.  Richard looked up in time to see the receding tail lights of the truck from the night before speeding off with the gunman still hanging out of the passenger side window.