All I could think about was Washington Square Park. True, I wasn't supposed to be there for another four hours. But emergencies notwithstanding, today was my day off. Free as a bird, as Lynyrd Skynyrd would sing - and this bird wanted to flock down to Washington Square Park.
I was on my way out of the clinic when my beeper once again sang its miserable song. I sighed and checked the number. It was Hester Crimstein's cell phone. And it was coded for an emergency.
This couldn't be good news.
For a moment or two, I debated not calling back - just continuing to flock - but what would be the point in that? I backpedaled to my examining room. The door was closed, and the red lever was slid into place. That meant another doctor was using the room.
I headed down the corridor, turned left, and found an empty room in the ob-gyn section of the clinic. I felt like a spy in enemy camp. The room gleamed with too much metal. Surrounded by stirrups and other devices that looked frighteningly medieval, I dialed the number.
Hester Crimstein did not bother with hello: "Beck, we got a big problem. Where are you?"
"I'm at the clinic. What's going on?"
"Answer a question for me," Hester Crimstein said. "When was the last time you saw Rebecca Schayes?"
My heart started doing a deep, slow thud. "Yesterday. Why?"
"And before that?"
"Eight years ago."
Crimstein let loose a low curse.
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Rebecca Schayes was murdered last night in her studio. Somebody shot her twice in the head."
A plunging feeling, the one you get moments before you fall asleep. My legs wobbled. I landed with a thump on a stool. "Oh Christ..."
"Beck, listen to me. Listen closely."
I remembered how Rebecca looked yesterday.
"Where were you last night?"
I pulled the phone away and sucked in some air. Dead. Rebecca was dead. Oddly I kept flashing to the sheen in her beautiful hair. I thought about her husband. I thought about what the nights would bring, lying in that bed, thinking about how that hair used to fan across the pillow.
"Home," I said. "I was home with Shauna."
"And after that?"
"I took a walk."
I did not reply.
"Listen to me, Beck, okay? They found the murder weapon at your house."
I heard the words, but their meaning was having trouble reaching the cerebrum. The room suddenly felt cramped. There were no windows. It was hard to breathe.
"Do you hear me?"
"Yes," I said. Then, sort of understanding, I said, "That's not possible."
"Look, we don't have time for that now. You're about to be arrested. I spoke to the D.A. in charge. He's a prick and a half, but he agreed to let you surrender."
"Stay with me here, Beck."
"I didn't do anything."
"That's irrelevant right now. They're going to arrest you. They're going to arraign you. Then we're going to get you bail. I'm on my way over to the clinic now. To pick you up. Sit tight. Don't say anything to anyone, you hear me? Not to the cops, not to the feds, not to your new buddy in lockup. You understand?"
My gaze got snagged on the clock above the examining table. It was a few minutes after two. Washington Square. I thought about Washington Square. "I can't be arrested, Hester."
"It'll be all right."
"How long?" I said.
"How long what?"
"Until I get bail."
"Can't say for sure. I don't think bail per se will be a problem. You have no record. You're an upstanding member of the community with roots and ties. You'll probably have to surrender your passport-"
"But how long?"
"How long until what, Beck? I don't understand."
"Until I get out."
"Look, I'll try to push them, okay? But even if they rush it - and I'm not saying they will - they still have to send your fingerprints to Albany. That's the rule. If we're lucky - I mean very lucky - we can get you arraigned by midnight."
Fear wrapped itself around my chest like steel bands. Jail meant missing the meet at Washington Square Park. My connection with Elizabeth was so damn fragile, like strands of Venetian glass. If I'm not at Washington Square at five o'clock...
"No good," I said.
"You have to stall them, Hester. Have them arrest me tomorrow."
"You're kidding, right? Look, they're probably there already, watching you."
I leaned my head out the door and looked down the corridor. I could see only part of the reception desk from my angle, the corner near the right, but it was enough.
There were two cops, maybe more.
"Oh Christ," I said, falling back into the room.
"I can't go to jail," I said again. "Not today."
"Don't freak out on me here, Beck, okay? Just stay there. Don't move, don't talk, don't do anything. Sit in your office and wait. I'm on my way."
She hung up.
Rebecca was dead. They thought I killed her. Ridiculous, of course, but there had to be a connection. I visited her yesterday for the first time in eight years. That very night she ended up dead.
What the hell was going on here?
I opened the door and peeked my head out. The cops weren't looking my way. I slid out and started down the corridor. There was a back emergency exit. I could sneak out that way. I could make my way down to Washington Square Park.
Was this for real? Was I really going to run away from the police?
I didn't know. But when I reached the door, I risked a look behind me. One of the cops spotted me. He pointed and hurried toward me.
I pushed open the door and ran.
* * *
I couldn't believe this. I was running from the police.
The exit door banged into a dark street directly behind the clinic. The street was unfamiliar to me. That might sound strange, but this neighborhood was not mine. I came, I worked, I left. I stayed locked inside a windowless environment, sickened by the lack of sunshine like some dour owl. One parallel block from where I worked and I was in totally alien territory.
I veered right for no particular reason. Behind me I heard the door fling open.
They actually yelled that. I didn't let up. Would they shoot? I doubted it. Not with all the repercussions in shooting an unarmed man who was in the midst of fleeing. Not impossible - not in this neighborhood anyway - but unlikely.
There weren't many people on this block, but those who were there regarded me with little more than passing, channel-surfing interest. I kept running. The world passed by in a blur. I sprinted past a dangerous-looking man with a dangerous-looking rottweiler. Old men sat at the corner and whined about the day. Women carried too many bags. Kids who probably should have been in school leaned against whatever was available, one cooler than the next.
Me, I was running away from the police.
My mind was having difficulty wrapping itself around that one. My legs were already feeling tingly, but the image of Elizabeth looking into that camera kept shoving me forward, pumping me up.
I was breathing too fast.
You hear about adrenaline, how it spurs you on and gives you uncanny strength, but there's a flip side. The feeling is heady, out of control. It heightens your senses to the point of paralysis. You have to harness the power or it'll choke you down.
I dove down an alleyway - that was what they always do on TV - but it dead-ended into a group of the foulest Dumpsters on the planet. The stench made me draw up like a horse. At one time, maybe when LaGuardia was mayor, the Dumpsters might have been green. All that remained was rust. In many places the rust ate through the metal, facilitating the many rats that poured through like sludge through a pipe.
I looked for some outlet, a door or something, but there was nothing. No back exit at all. I considered smashing a window to gain access, but all the lower ones were barred.
The only way out was the way I'd come in - where the police undoubtedly would see me.
I was trapped.
I looked left, right, and then, oddly enough, I looked up.
There were several above my head. Still mining my internal adrenaline drip, I leapt with all my might, stretched high with both hands, and fell flat on my ass. I tried again. Not even close. The ladders were far too high.
Maybe I could somehow drag over a Dumpster, stand on it, and leap again. But the tops of the Dumpsters had been totally eaten away. Even if I could get footing on the piles of trash, it would still be too low.
I sucked in air and tried to think. The stench was getting to me; it crawled into my nose and seemed to nest there. I moved back toward the mouth of the alley.
Radio static. Like something you might hear coming from a police radio.
I threw my back against the wall and listened.
Hide. Had to hide.
The static grew louder. I heard voices. The cops were coming closer. I was totally exposed. I flattened myself closer to the wall, like that would help. Like they might turn the corner and mistake me for a mural.
Sirens shattered the still air.
Sirens for me.
Footsteps. They were definitely coming closer. There was only one place to hide.
I quickly discerned which Dumpster might be the least foul, closed my eyes, and dove in.
Sour milk. Very sour milk. That was the first smell that hit me. But it wasn't the only one. Something approaching vomit and worse. I was sitting in it. Something wet and putrid. It was sticking to me. My throat decided to do the gag reflex. My stomach heaved.
I heard someone run by the mouth of the alley. I stayed low.
A rat scrambled over my leg.
I almost screamed, but something in the subconscious kept it in the voice box. God, this was surreal. I held my breath. That lasted only so long. I tried to breathe through my mouth, but I started gagging again. I pressed my shirt against my nose and mouth. That helped, but not much.
The radio static was gone. So, too, were the footsteps. Did I fool them? If so, not for long. More police sirens joined in, harmonizing with the others, a true rhapsody in blue. The cops would have backup now. Someone would return soon. They would check the alley. Then what?
I grabbed hold of the Dumpster's edge to hoist myself out. The rust cut my palm. My hand flew toward my mouth. Bleeding. The pediatrician in me immediately scolded about the dangers of tetanus; the rest of me noted that tetanus would be the least of my worries.
No footsteps. No blasts of radio static. Sirens wailed, but what had I expected? More backup. A murderer was on the loose in our fair city. The good guys would come out in force. They'd seal the area and throw a dragnet around it.
How far had I run?
I couldn't say. But I knew one thing. I had to keep moving. I had to put distance between the clinic and my person.
That meant getting out of this alley.
I crept toward the mouth again. Still no footsteps or radio. Good sign. I tried to think for a moment. Fleeing was a great plan, but a destination would make it even better. Keep heading east, I decided, even though it meant less safe neighborhoods. I remember seeing train tracks aboveground.
That would get me out of here. All I had to do was get on a train, make a few sudden switches, and I could probably manage to disappear. But where was the closest entrance?
I was trying to conjure up my internal subway map, when a policeman turned into the alley.
He looked so young, so clean-cut and fresh-scrubbed and pink faced. His blue shirtsleeves were neatly rolled up, two tourniquets on his bloated biceps. He started when he saw me - as surprised to see me as I was to see him.
We both froze. But he froze for a split second longer.
If I had approached him like a boxer or kung-fu expert, I'd probably have ended up picking my teeth out of my skull like so many splinters. But I didn't. I panicked. I worked on pure fear.
I launched myself straight at him.
With my chin tucked tight, I lowered my head and aimed for his center, rocketlike. Elizabeth played tennis. She told me once that when your opponent was at the net, it was often best to slam the ball right at their gut because he or she wouldn't know which way to move. You slow down their reaction time.
That was what happened here.
My body slammed into his. I grabbed hold of his shoulders like a monkey hanging on to a fence. We toppled over. I scrunched up my knees and dug them into his chest. My chin stayed tucked, the top of my head under the young cop's jaw.
We landed with an awful thud.
I heard a cracking noise. A shooting pain ricocheted down from where my skull had connected with his jaw. The young cop made a quiet "pluuu" noise. The air went out of his lungs. His jaw, I think, was broken. The flee panic took total control now. I scrambled off him as though he were a stun gun.
I had assaulted a police officer.
No time to dwell on it. I just wanted to be away from him. I managed to get to my feet and was about to turn and run, when I felt his hand on my ankle. I looked down and our eyes met.
He was in pain. Pain I had caused.
I kept my balance and unleashed a kick. It connected with his ribs. He made a wet "pluuu" sound this time. Blood trickled from his mouth. I couldn't believe what I was doing. I kicked him again. Just hard enough to loosen his grip. I pulled free.
And then I ran.