You never know who’ll show up in a Stephanie Chalice dream. If you read the first installment of this series you saw that Batman proposed marriage to our gal. And now . . . how about cameos from Madonna and Bear Grylls? I hope this one brings you a few chuckles. If you like it, pick up The Brain Vault and see where this adventure takes her.
“No showboating, Stephanie—get a good strong grip and hold onto the wing strut with both hands.”
“Wing strut? Showboating? What the hell is going on here?” And then the darkness opened up around me and I saw where I was. “Oh, Jesus!” I was thousands of feet up in the air, holding on for dear life, under the wing of a single engine plane with miles of absolutely nothing beneath me. I made the mistake of looking down. “Oh dear God.”
“Huge mistake, Stephanie, focus straight ahead; don’t let your nerves get the better of you.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“Think of something that will distract you—Scotsmen playing bagpipes for instance.”
“Scotsmen playing bagpipes; are you insane?” Wait a minute, who am I talking to anyway? I turned my head. “Bear Grylls?” This guy was everywhere. “What in the name of The British Special Forces are we doing here?”
“We’re flying over the African Savanna, Stephanie. Not to worry, I’m going to talk you down, but until we’re over the drop zone, I want you to hold on firmly with both hands.”
“Both hands…right.” I grabbed hold of the strut with my free hand just as the plane banked hard to the right. “Better?”
“Much. You wouldn’t want turbulence to shake you loose at the wrong time—God knows where you’d land. You might end up in a jagged ravine or in a crocodile infested river. I once broke my back in three places making a routine jump. I must say, holding on with one hand was awfully cavalier of you. You must have ice water in your veins. Most first timers would be absolutely petrified.”
“Trust me, I’m paralyzed with fear. I don’t think I can do this. I’m going to climb back into the plane.”
Grylls threw a glance in the direction of the pilot’s chair. It was empty.
“Where’s the—” The plane nosed down just as the words were coming out of my mouth.
“That’s our cue, Stephanie. Ready to go?”
“No!” I was shaking my head frantically.
“Right then—on my count: one, two, three, drop.”
Grylls let go and began freefalling. As he did, the plane began to plummet. “Oh Christ…Geronimo.” Now, I admit the first few seconds were terrifying, but then the adrenaline spike leveled off and I realized that falling through the air was kind of cool. I mean I was still alive and I did have a parachute. “I have a parachute, right?” Grylls was next to me, his face fluttering violently against the wind. “You look like your face is going to fly off.”
“Never has before.”
The British: so droll. “So what about the parachute, have I got one or am I destined to become a street pizza?”
“Packed it myself.” With that, Grylls reached over and pulled my ripcord. “Enjoy the ride, Stephanie. The view’s spectacular.”
I bounced hard in my harness as the parachute filled with wind. Grylls on the other hand was dropping fast, and growing tinier and tinier by the second. Oh God, there it goes—I finally saw his parachute open. I was hoping he’d wait for me down there. The African Savanna didn’t sound like the type of place I’d want to navigate on my own. The ground was growing larger as I looked downward, coming at me fast.
I heard Lido’s voice. It sounded distant, too distant to pay attention to. I almost didn’t hear it. I just knew he was calling me. And then I was back.
“Stephanie, you scared the hell out of me.”
I saw Lido through narrow slits. My head ached like hell as I opened my eyes. It took a second before I realized that I was in the hospital. “What am I doing here?”
“You smacked your head pretty good. You’ve got a concussion.”
Gus hugged me. His warm skin felt good against my cheek, but I only gave myself a second to savor his embrace. The light outside told me it was morning. “Doe, did he make it?”
“I was out all night?”
“Uh huh. I found you flat on your back, lying next to Doe. What the hell happened?”
“I was—” I was only minimally miserable, until I felt the bile rise toward my mouth. I looked around frantically for something to hurl into. I grabbed a plastic water pitcher and let go. It took a moment before I came up for air. Lido looked as if he had just seen me eviscerated. He was pounding the hell out of the nurse’s call button and looking like he needed a hit of oxygen himself.
“Are you okay?”
I nodded but remained silent. I wasn’t exactly feeling my oats and needed a moment to regroup. Hospital staff’s great when they know they’re taking care of a cop. A nurse came flying through the door.
“She’s awake,” Lido announced.
The nurse took in the scene before her. “Relax, I’ve got it,” she said to Lido, “Go get some air—you look worse than she does.”
I smiled in spite of the way I was feeling.
“I’m Greta,” the nurse said. She ripped open a pack of wipes and started cleaning my face like I was a baby. “Sorry I wasn’t in the room when you woke up.” She took the smelly pitcher of spew from me. “Do you still feel like vomiting? How do you feel?”
“Like I’ve been run over by a truck.”
“You may be nauseous for a while. You’ve got a huge lump on your noggin.” She turned to Lido. “Seriously, handsome, amscray. I’ll take care of the lady cop. Why don’t you get yourself a cup of New York’s worst coffee. Anything will taste good in the condition you’re in.”
Greta looked to be in her late fifties. She was thin, blond, and looked like she had been on the victorious side of many a bar brawl.
“I’ll be back in a couple of minutes,” Gus said.
“I seem to be in good hands. Take your time.”
We both watched until Gus was out the door. Greta cleaned me up a bit more and then checked my blood pressure.
“He’s a good man,” she said. “Stayed up all night running back and forth between here and the ICU. Tell me, where do you find a man like that? I’ve been married three times—never latched onto a man worth keeping.”
Greta’s comment warmed my heart, but I kept my mouth shut. I wasn’t up to snuff and didn’t want to say anything I’d end up regretting. Greta glanced at me over the top of her glasses as she pumped the blood pressure cuff. Her look indicated that she was waiting for me to fess up.
I shook my head.
“No need to.”
“Look, Honey, I’ve been nursing for thirty years. I’ve seen couples married for decades where the husbands weren’t as concerned about their spouses as Detective Lido is about you. Your blood pressure’s fine. If you don’t mind me asking, you came in here wearing one of the shortest gowns I’ve ever seen—you working some kind of decoy detail?”
“You asking if I was dressed as a hooker?”
“Yeah, I see that on TV all the time.”
“No, I tore the hem off my dress to make a tourniquet for John Doe.”
“Oh, that was pretty quick thinking.”
“You had a busy night.”
“I did indeed.”
I waited patiently while Greta checked my pulse. “You look like you’re strong as a horse, Honey. How’d you hit your head?”
“I’m not sure but I think I was Tasered. The last thing I remember was lying on my back in the middle of Central Park, staring up at the moon.”
“No crap? Did they get the son of a bitch that did it?”
“Beats me, I’ve been asleep. I think he got away. Do you know how John Doe’s doing?”
“Not a clue, Honey. I only know what Detective Handsome told me. I think the poor SOB’s in a coma. I’m gonna check your temperature.” She slipped the thermometer probe into a sanitary plastic sleeve. “Open wide.”
I guess I had about thirty seconds of peace and quiet before Greta started prying into my private life again. I still felt light-headed and it took a special effort to put my thoughts together. I tried to reconstruct the sequence of events that took place the night before, the sprint through Central Park and finding Doe sprawled out in the middle of the Strawberry Fields Mosaic. I pictured myself checking Doe’s vitals, just before Lido left to direct the EMS team. Doe’s pulse was getting weaker. I rolled him sideways to see if he had a back wound, when… I spit the thermometer out of my mouth.
“Hey, you’re not finished.”
“There’s no time for that now. Get Gus, I need him now.” I threw back the sheets and started to get out of bed. Greta tried to stop me, but she saw the look on my face and backed away in a hurry. My heart and my stomach had discrepant ideas. The pitcher wasn’t handy enough—I lost it on the linoleum, missing Greta by mere inches.”
“Are you nuts, Honey? Get back into bed. I’ll find your partner right after I clean up the mess.”
“No, I need him now.”
“Okay, okay, just let me get the floor—”
“Leave the floor. I need him now.”
I think I scared Greta out of the room. She took off running.
I tried to assess my physical condition, my state of readiness, because I’d be leaving the hospital shortly if Lido answered the sixty-four thousand dollar question incorrectly. What I really needed to know was if Lido had seen the skull, the one that was lying under the bushes last night. I had seen it for a split second just before noticing the Taser plug in Doe’s back. I’m sure Lido and the EMS team had other things on their mind, like saving Doe’s life and mine. All the same, there was a crucial bit of evidence that I needed to get my hands on, and get my hands on it I would, even if I had to carry a barf bag every step of the way.