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stockholm pic-defenseless

“I can get you Casey Assim,” I said, since at this point, I would have promised both my grandmothers. Not that I’d actually deliver them to this madwoman. But I’d lie up and down Main Street if it would buy me a few seconds. All was fair in love and at gunpoint.

“They just brought her in,” said the killer. “She’s in labour. It’s her due date. I know it’s her.”

Faulty logic, but my shoulders jerked as my hindbrain calculated, That’s a man’s voice. This is a man, not a woman. A man dressed in a burqa.

He was crazier than I thought.

I was deader than I thought.

“Okay,” I said.

“Get me to her room, or I’ll kill you, too.”

He wasn’t that much taller than me. Maybe five foot eight, but stocky, like a wrestler, with wide shoulders and firmly planted feet. And did I mention that gun?

“No problem,” I said, an expression my dad hates. He says, There’s always a problem. Why would you say there’s no problem? He had a point, especially when I was nose to nose (okay, back of head to nose) with Mr. Death.

Dad. I’m sorry. I love you.

I felt Mr. Death jerk his head toward the doorway. He knew that was the main entrance to the case room. He knew how to get there, but he wanted me to lead him, like a little Dr. Gandhi, while he kept the gun trained on my temple, the thinnest area of my skull.

He wanted me to play hostage.

Part of me thought, No. Run.

If only I’d run in the first place, when my subconscious brain must have recognized that the way he moved and the breadth of his shoulders didn’t jibe with a pregnant woman.

Now it was too late to run. The emergency department and hospital front desk had security guards. Obstetrics had nothing.

I must have glanced or somehow turned left, toward the elevator, because the bastard cocked his gun, and I felt as well as heard the hammer shift.

I don’t know guns, but I’ve seen enough TV shows to figure out what’s fatal.

I froze in place like an Arctic hare dropped in downtown Tokyo.

stockholm-runners-373099I’ve actually listened to a podcast about what to do when an active shooter enters a hospital. Running is your best option.

But running with a bullet in your brain? Not possible.

Without taking my eyes off the gun, I took a step toward the doorway. Toward triage.

“That’s it, bitch,” Bastard whispered.

I gestured at Stan’s unmoving body, which lay five feet away from us, blocking the doorway. I could smell Stan’s blood.

I have a strong stomach, but I had to hold my breath and not-think, not-think, not-think if was going to survive even the next few minutes.

Bastard didn’t answer, except to keep his gun pressed against my cranium.

I walked.

I walked with Bastard’s body cemented against my back. Have you ever had an unwanted guy grind behind you on the dance floor? Like that, times a billion.

I had to glance down as I/we stepped over Stan’s body, carefully picking my way to avoid his sprawled arms and the ever-widening pool of blood.

Stan’s yarmulke clung to his curly hair a centimetre above the bullet hole. I scanned the green felt for dots of blood and possibly brains. Then my eyes slid south. Was it possible that I glimpsed the pale, folded surface of cerebral cortex under the pool of blood dripping from the entry site?

stockholm-blood spatter file000666127574No. Probably my imagination. I clung to the fact that his religious symbol remained intact. Maybe he and I would, too. I sent a brief prayer toward Stan and any available deity: Please.

People have survived gunshot wounds to the head. I’ve never seen it, but I remembered a neurosurgery resident explaining to me, in detail, how a high-velocity bullet could hit a non-critical area of the brain and come out the other side, necessitating surgery, ICU, and a lot of rehab, but not a one-way ticket upstairs/downstairs.

The bullet had hit Stan in the occiput, so bye-bye occipital lobe. But I thought it was higher up than brainstem, which would have spelled instant death. So it was possible, if not probable, that he might pull through. But the longer he lay on the ground, the lower his chances of any meaningful recovery.

At least by drawing the gunman away from Stan, I was allowing the emergency crew to make its way toward him.

On the other hand, it meant I was drawing the gunman toward a bunch of defenseless pregnant women.

I might have yelled for them to run, but the fire alarm was doing all the screaming for me. The sound invaded my head, made it hard to think anything except Shut up.

My body walked anyway, with the diaphragm of my stethoscope banging a drum beat against my chest. I held my hands up in the air, both to calm down the gunman and so that anyone looking at me would immediately compute that something was wrong. Flee. Now.

The case room hallway looked deserted.

It didn’t feel empty, though.

First door on the right. Triage. I imagined all those exhausted pregnant women and men, plus the triage nurse, holding their breath and barring the door. I walked a little faster, hoping that Bastard wouldn’t pause and knock on that door.

He didn’t.

Now we’d reached the nursing station on our left. The long, white counter hung with tinsel, which the elderly ward clerk usually sat behind, answering the phone with her crystal-studded acrylic nails, and which I stood in front of to write my charts or answer my pages: empty.

Behind the counter, the communal wooden table and small alcove, where the nurses sat to chart and to watch the fetal monitors mounted to the wall, under Christmas balls dangling from the ceiling: empty.

Everyone had taken off. Or was at least out of sight, for the moment.

Bastard exhaled.

I tensed. He could easily yell, “Bring me Casey, or I’ll kill this chink!”

And then, if no one answered, he’d shoot me out of spite.

The alarm screeched on. Overhead, the hospital operator intoned, “Code Black, Fourth Floor. Code Noir, quatrième étage.”

Bastard’s left hand relaxed on my shoulder while he held the gun to my right temple.

Was he letting down his guard? I could try to break away from him now.

But which way should I run? Back toward the elevators and Stan? He’d shoot me before I got ten paces.

Around the hallway’s U-shape to the OR and then the ward rooms? Much, much farther. And at least fifty feet of hallway, where I could get shot.

Under the desk, so I could hole up like a mouse before he executed me?

So many bad choices, so little time.

The only thing I didn’t consider was running for a case room or triage. He’d whack me, then take potshots at anyone and everyone else in the room.

But he didn’t want me. He wanted Casey Assim.

The fastest way to figure out her location was by circling behind the desk to view the whiteboard linked to the desktop computer, which faced away from the hallway to protect it from prying eyes. That information would lead him right to her room.

So many women are killed by their partners and ex-partners. Should I aid and abet a murderer, plus get caught in the crossfire?

Um, no.

“Where is she?” Bastard said. He was still so close that I could feel the shift of his head as he glanced up and down the hallway.

Hiding from you, you maniac.

The fire alarm cut off suddenly, leaving my ears ringing.

That, too, was strange. Usually, the alarm goes on forever, and everyone has to close the exam room doors until the Second Coming, or at least until the operator says, “Code Red, all clear. Code Rouge maintenant terminé.

Were the police on the way?

“I don’t see Casey,” I said, which was true. I couldn’t see any living soul. Maybe if I acted useless enough, he’d leave me alone.

Or shoot me. This was turning into a Choose Your Own Adventure where 90 percent of the endings left me unconscious and bleeding. I was not a fan.

“Go get her,” he said.

How could I delay him?

Light bulb moment. I pointed to the beige phone sitting on the counter, its receiver slightly blackened and greasy from numerous hands. Less than ten minutes ago, I’d been answering Stan’s page on that phone.

That phone could be my lifeline to make contact with the outside world, if he let me.

My cell phone buzzed twice in my pocket. I couldn’t answer Tucker or Ryan or anyone else right now, but I wished them safe and far, far away. Tucker was just one floor above me, tending to his internal medicine patients at this exact moment. Strange to think of the fifth floor as a world away, and that I might never see him again.

“What if I called locating and asked if Casey’s registered?” I asked. “They might be able to give me a room number.”

I didn’t have to give him the room number. Well, maybe he’d rip the phone away from me and threaten the operator to get it. But first, I might be able to speak to someone who could call the cavalry, if they hadn’t already. And the more I delayed, the higher the chances that the police could storm in here.

Bastard shook his head. “I already tried that.”

Right. And he’d created enough of a ruckus that the clerk had asked for Casey in Manouchka’s room. They never do that. My first tip-off that something was awry.

“I’m a doctor,” I said. “They might give me more information, especially since I’m calling from within the hospital.”

Bastard snorted and glanced up and down the corridor. “I know she’s in here some place. I should just bust down the doors and shoot everyone.”

My heart thumped in my throat, but I tried to speak calmly. “You might hurt Casey by mistake.”

He stopped to think about that. I could tell from the stillness in his body, even though I was facing away from him and he was still covered in a burqa.

He took a step back from me. My heart leaped, but he just repositioned the gun from my head to my T-spine, between my shoulder blades.

Still. He was giving me some space. That had to be a good sign. Also, my mother would be proud how straight I was now standing, trying to edge a few millimetres away from certain death.

“If she’s registered, we can just go to the right room. That’s all we need. Right?” Now I was promising him Casey’s head on a platter again. I could hardly speak, my mouth was so dry.

I could hear Bastard’s glower through his voice. “I don’t want you calling the police.”

“You can do the dialing. You can even hold the phone, if you want.” The more non-gun things he used to clutter up his hands, the better.

Then I thought I heard a sound. Was it from Manouchka and June’s room?

I tried to glance over my left shoulder, at their closed door opposite the nursing station, but the muzzle boring a hole in my spine reminded me not to move.

Nothing to see, anyway. June had probably hurled the door shut at the first sound of gunfire. With any luck, she’d barricaded it.

The gunman noticed my head twitch, but instead of blowing me away, he said, “Is she in there?”

“What? No. Not the woman you’re looking for. It’s someone else.” I stared straight ahead at the wall above the nurse’s table, petrified that even a quick look could sentence someone else to death.

“You’re lying.”

“I’m not. That’s the one patient I saw before you. Her name’s not Casey.”

“Casey. Casey Assim. That’s who I want.” He grabbed my left arm and jerked me sideways, walking me the few crucial steps so I was now facing the first case room door. Obviously, all he heard was Casey’s name and nothing else. He was like a missile locked on detonate. “Get her out of there. Or get me in. I don’t care. She’s gonna have my baby.” He placed the gun at the back of my head now, which made me think of Stan.

Stan. Dead Stan.

Don’t think that way. He might still make it. Come on.

At close range, I finally recognized that insistent stink emanating from Bastard’s pores as marijuana. Lovely.

I forced myself to speak in a low, well-enunciated voice. “She’s not there. Let me call the operator. I’ll find you Casey.”

He pushed the gun a little harder against my occiput. “Open. That. Door.”

I stared at the edging etched into the white wood of the first case room door. If he shot me, could the bullet drive right through the wood and hit Manouchka or June too?

My hand dipped toward the metal door handle, but a sound caught my ear.

Not just any sound. A whistle.

On our right, echoing off the empty hospital corridor walls.

Someone whistling in the midst of blood and terror. It was as startling as if a bluebird had launched itself above our heads in this hospital hall of horror, singing a tale of joyful spring in mid-November.

I knew that whistle. My nails cut into my palms to stop myself from yelling. My breath rasped in my throat, and I know this sounds strange, but my nipples hardened.

I even recognized the song, “What a Day for a Daydream.”

It was the stupidest, most inappropriate song for this scenario, and that would have told me the whistler’s identity even if I’d been blindfolded and gagged.

It was one man I didn’t want trapped with me.

I wanted to scream, Run, Tucker.

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Read Chapter 1 here.

Chapter 2 here.