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Daniel Buchanan closed the door behind him and exited the building where he spent most of his waking hours. He'd planned to leave hours ago. Now, in the still hours of early Saturday morning, he was finally heading home.
Outside, the chill of the approaching autumn reminded him that he should have put on his coat. He walked down the steps quickly, heading directly for the only car that remained in the parking lot.
He started the car before he reached it, hoping that the interior would be a bit warm by the time he crossed the forty or so feet to get inside. When he reached the car, he immediately stepped inside, closed the door and pulled out of his reserved spot.
A few minutes later, the cool, mellow croon of the late Luther Vandross serenaded him as he cruised along the almost deserted streets. Thirty minutes and he'd be at the apartment.
The next two days were his days off and he had all intentions of spending them doing nothing but reading and watching a movie or two. Jerome, the teenager he mentored, was in Washington, D.C., on a school tour, so his Saturday would be free. But he missed him. He'd grown so accustomed to the boy being a part of his life that having a weekend schedule that didn't include Jerome left him feeling strange and somewhat empty. He did have some cleaning and laundry to do, so he'd take care of those chores first. After that, he would rest.
He didn't sleep much. Even after three years, sleep came in spits and spurts.
When Daniel neared his building, he instinctively reduced speed. The empty apartment didn't appeal to him, but he knew he had no choice. Nothing could replace the home he'd built with his wife, Lorraine.
After the funeral, he'd sold the house he and Lorraine had built together. For a year, he'd roamed around the U.S., only to settle in Chicago, closer to his boyhood home in Oak Park.
It was now September, a little more than two years since he'd arrived in Chicago, and though he enjoyed his job, he still felt no sense of belonging.
Sometimes in the stillness of the empty house he heard Lorraine's voice. Sometimes he heard her whisper his name. His wife.
Even after almost three years, he still considered her his wife. Late wife was more like it. But saying the words, as he did now, made him ache with an intensity he thought would have diminished over time.
He had just turned onto the street where he lived when he caught a glimpse of someone being dragged into the alley just ahead. Then he heard a cry, sharp and filled with fear.
He stopped when he reached the alley, turning to point his car inward. The lights startled them both. A man and woman were struggling.
As Daniel rushed from the car, the man pushed the woman away, and Daniel saw her head connect with the wall before she crumpled to the ground.
The man scowled at him, turned and raced down the alley.
Instinctively, Daniel reached for his cell phone, aware that several other cars had stopped, as well.
Dialing 911, he quickly informed them of the problem, only hanging up when they told him that help was on the way.
He looked down at the woman on the ground. No, not a woman, she was just a girl. She couldn't be more than sixteen.
He knelt, taking his jacket off, noticing the blueness of her skin and the frailness of her body. She was all skin and bones beneath the flimsy dress she wore. Blood flowed from a wound on her head.
In the distance, he heard the sirens. Good, help was on the way.
He searched for her pulse. It was weak but steady. She'd be okay, he hoped.
Daniel looked at the innocent face and wondered what a young girl would be doing out so late. He experienced a familiar sadness when the answer dawned on him.
Behind him, the ambulance stopped and he became aware of the people who had gathered at the entrance to the alley. A voice demanded that they clear the way.
He stood, making room for the paramedics. He watched them closely, intent on discovering whether the girl would be all right or not.
For some reason, when he looked at her face, he remembered the times he had dealt with teenagers runaways. In his ministry, working with teenagers had been his calling. And now, at The Hope Center, his tasks surrounded the teenagers who needed him the most.
Strange that at this precise moment his past would rear its head. He tried not to think of his life in Brooklyn. Most other nights at home, though he could not sleep, he'd almost perfected the ability to keep the images from his past just where they belonged in the past. Except on the rare occasions when he heard those whispers in the night.
Daniel watched as the paramedics placed the girl on a stretcher and lifted her into the ambulance. Moments later the ambulance sped away, its blue lights flashing, its siren screeching in the quiet of the early morning.
He moved quickly to his car, started it and headed in the direction of the fading sirens.
Vincent Memorial, the hospital where the girl was being taken, was only about ten minutes away.
His hands trembled on the steering wheel.
He'd didn't particularly want to go to the hospital, but he knew that he finally had to confront his demons.
Renée sipped from the glass of lemonade, which had long lost its chill. She forced the drink down, knowing that she would more than likely not get anything else in her stomach before she reached her home in a few hours.
It was after midnight and she was tired; the night had been a long one. Her job as one of four social workers on staff at the hospital was not easy, but she loved the work she did. However, moments like these always left her with a sense of loss.
The telephone's strident ring pulled her from her musings.
"Renée," the voice of Cheryl Archer, her best friend and the hospital administrator on duty, greeted her, "we need you to come down to emergency immediately."
When the line disconnected, Renée quickly dropped what she was doing and headed to the Emergency Room. She dreaded these calls. She prayed that she did not have to deal with death again.
Downstairs, Cheryl greeted her with a tired smile. "I can see that you're feeling just like I am. Four more hours and we'll be on our way home but duty calls. We admitted a young girl an hour ago. She's awake, but we can't get any information out of her."
"A runaway?" Renée asked.
"Looks that way. I'm not even sure if she's in any condition to tell us anything at the moment. She is conscious right now, but I'm not sure how long that will last. She took a hard blow to her head. Maybe you can see what you can find out." She touched Renée's hand. "I know today wasn't easy for you."
"It's fine. It's my job."
"I know, Ms. Dedicated," Cheryl said, forcing a pained smile.
"Oh, so I'm the dedicated one. And here I was thinking that honor was yours. At least I leave the hospital on my off days. When is the last time you went home?"
When her friend did not respond, Renée knew she'd struck a nerve.
"Cheryl, when is the last time you went home?" Renée asked again.
Her friend hesitated before she answered.
"Four days. But you know I have a bed I can use," Cheryl answered before Renée could object. "I didn't have a reason to go home. Julian is away on business. And we were dealing with that little boy's case. We had to move fast. By the way, the police have arrested his mother's boyfriend."
"I know. I'm glad they finally caught the bastard," Renée replied. "Let me go visit with Jane Doe and see if I have some success."
"I'll wait out here until you're done."
Renée turned from her friend and entered the examining room.
When she entered, the girl looked up.
A pretty girl despite the bruises, Renée observed. And scared, too, though she tried to hide it with a brave face.
"Hi," Renée said softly.
The girl relaxed noticeably, but did not reply.
"I'm Renée. What's your name?"
Again, no answer, only a silent stare. Her distrust was evident.
"Okay, you don't have to tell me. Can we call your parents? Relatives?"
"I don't have any," the girl finally said, averting her eyes. "Where's the man?" she asked. Her gaze darted to the door as if she expected him to appear.
"The man?" Renée replied. "The man who attacked you? "
"No, the one who saved me."
"I don't know. I'll have to ask."
"I want to tell him thank you."
"Okay, I will see if I can find him. Now, tell me something about yourself. What's your name?"
"Don't want to talk. My head hurts." The girl turned her head and closed her eyes.
Renée looked down at her. She knew she would get nothing more from the girl, not tonight. Maybe tomorrow she'd be luckier. If she could find the mysterious man who'd rescued her, maybe then she'd talk.
Turning to leave the room, Renée stopped when she heard a soft whisper.
She hadn't heard properly, but it sounded as if the patient had whispered the word Angel.
Daniel felt his stomach churn. He hated the antiseptic odor of the hospital. A wave of nausea slowed his steps. He stopped, breathed in deeply and forced himself to continue.
The corridor echoed with the firm staccato of his footsteps on the spotless white tiles. He stifled the overwhelming urge to tiptoe, knowing that he was being ridiculous.
Why couldn't hospitals have some color? Maybe red or yellow for cheer. The dull gray reminded him of a night he didn't want to remember. Daniel forced the memories from his mind.
He'd reached the end of the corridor. The lights shone brighter here. Flowers, vivid red and yellow, languished in tiny vases on tables in the waiting area to the left of the nurses' station. He headed to the nurse on duty, nodding politely at those in close proximity, aware of the eyes that smiled back at him, and those that lingered.
He never ceased to be amazed that women found him attractive. He, an ordained minister. Well, he was no longer of that vocation, but it still caused him discomfort when women stared at him so boldly. For that reason alone, he missed his collar.
His last embarrassment had taken place just a few days ago at the Center. One of the assistants had left him a gift, a bottle of his favorite cologne. She was almost fifteen years his junior, but he'd noticed the way her eyes seem to devour him. He could not imagine what a girl of her age could find appealing about him.
That night, he'd stared long and hard at himself in the mirror, realizing that he didn't look quite bad for his age. His brothers were known for their good looksand he did look a lot like them. He had that tall, lithe but well-toned frame and amber eyes that women seemed to love.
The nurse cleared her throat, drawing him for his momentary lapse.
"I've come to get some information about the young lady that was just brought in?" he said quickly "We did just admit a few young girls, sir. Can you be a bit more specific?"
"Sorry, the young lady who was beaten up?" he replied.
"Are you a relative?" she asked, her eyebrow raised.
"No, but I'm the one who stopped the attack. I wanted to make sure she was all right."
"I'm sure the doctor will be by soon, but I'm not sure "
"I'm a minister," he interrupted her, reaching for the ID he still carried in his pocket.
She looked at him down her nose, her eyes assessing him critically, but she did not take his card.
She turned to him again, her eyes wary. "Listen, I'm not sure if you're telling the truth or not, but you did help. I'll let the doctor speak to you as soon as he's done with her."
"Thank you. I'll just sit over there until he comes."
Without waiting for a response, Daniel turned and headed to the waiting area.
He sat, noticing that he was trembling. He didn't like hospitals. He closed his eyes and slowed his breathing. But memories from his past kept him from becoming calm.
He saw his wife and his daughter. He heard Lorraine's constant laughter, saw her stomach round with their child. He'd always wondered what she'd seen in him. He had been too serious, too fanatical about his faith. The past few years had taught him that much.
Daniel knew that he'd changed; not only because of the anger that he felt at his loss, but because he had discovered so much about the person he'd been. A lot of it he didn't much care for. He'd been self-righteous and single-minded. Oh, he had been kind to his congregation, but his own family had borne the brunt of his fanaticism.
Yes, Daniel still felt angry with God. He still wondered why his wife and child had been taken away from him.
A noise at the nurses' station distracted him and he turned to see a tall woman standing there, her back to him.
When the nurse pointed at him, she turned and the strangest thing happened. For a moment, he could not breathe.
She moved toward him, her hips swaying from side to side. He did all he could do to control his reaction.
When she reached him, she stopped, a cautious smile on her face.
He immediately stood, not liking the fact that she towered over him while he sat.