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Right now, Shannon was hurrying along Pacific Avenue, barely aware of the typical early morning dusting of coastal fog, on her way to open up the doors of the Last House on the Block, the small storefront she'd founded two years earlier. It offered legal and other services to the indigent and the powerless, and her position as its sole full-time lawyer carried a lot of responsibility with it.
And did she need to play catch-up this morning! She'd taken three days off—totally unlike her—for a family celebration up in Santa Barbara. Now here it was, six-thirty on Tuesday morning, and she was at least a day behind. She made a mental list as she hurried along: two petitions to file with the court, investigations to get under way, a new summer intern to supervise. Her heels produced a click-click-click noise along the sidewalk as she made a beeline for the doorway, her key poised to unlock the top bolt. But just short of the door, she stopped, her attention grabbed by what looked like a bundle of rags several storefronts farther along, partly on the pavement, partly on the curb. No, she realized as she hurried quickly toward it, not a bundle of rags. A person. Most likely a homeless person.
A dead homeless person?
Setting her bag and briefcase down next to thebody, which was facedown, she reached over to place two fingers on the side of his neck. Good, she thought with relief, there was a pulse. A weak one, but at least he wasn't dead. When she pulled her hand away, she noted the blood on her palm. Now she saw what she had failed to observe right away—reddish-brown stains on the ground near his head. Matted hair covered his face, but she pulled several strands away and observed more bruising on his bearded face.
With a start, Shannon realized that—even in profile—she recognized him. It was the Man with the Haunted Eyes, as she'd come to think of him. The homeless guy she passed every morning on her beachfront jog as he sat on the same bench and watched the sun rise over the Pacific. He wore ragged clothing and both his hair and beard were black, streaked with silver. From the first time she'd seen him—a couple of weeks ago?—something about him had called to her. Two or three times, she'd stopped and tried to talk to him. Always, he'd answered in grunts. He never smiled, was always guarded.
But oh, his eyes! A pale silver-gray, nearly translucent. Beautiful eyes, really, and intelligence shone from them. But they were also filled with more pain than she could imagine feeling and still wanting to live. Shannon had tried to get him to talk about himself, but he'd pretty much shut the door on her efforts, so she'd stopped trying. Some of the homeless were beyond wanting their lives to be any different than they were, that she'd learned from experience, so it was useless to continue.
She hadn't seen the Man with the Haunted Eyes since Friday morning, and now here he was, beaten nearly to death. Probably by some gangbangers having a little "fun," or by a drunk whose secret rage grew with each shot of cheap whiskey, or even another street person fighting over turf—a shopping cart or small sleeping corner. Tamping down her own anger at the injustice of it all, she shook her head instead as she withdrew a sani-wipe from a package she kept in her purse and cleaned her hands with it. How she wished she could wave a wand and make all the violent and cruel, greedy and selfish people in the world go away to an island or another planet. But as she couldn't do that, she could do the next best thing—be an advocate for their victims.
She pulled a cell phone out of her purse and dialed 911.
Where he was it was dark. So dark. Blackness swirled and whirled around him like a living being. Where was the sun? He wanted the sun, but it was denied to him. Which was only what he deserved.
Help me, Daddy.
Night then, pitch-black, no stars, no moon. And cold. God, but he was cold! Every part of him was shivering. He was alone and cold in the swirling night with nothing to cover him. No, wait There it was, the sun. A strange sun, not round but longer, and barely visible behind a purple-gray mist. And not warm.
Help me, Daddy.
Had he traveled to outer space? Or his grave?
He heard someone groan. Was it him? It seemed to come from far away. The groan again. Yes, it was his throat that made the noise.
Help me, Daddy.
No, he begged the voice silently. Please, no more. Was there nowhere he could go to escape the voice?
Pain ripped through him. The sun—the light, whatever—got brighter. Bad pain, lots of it. That was good—it meant he was alive. Or was it good? Wouldn't he be better off not being alive, not feeling, not hearing the voice?
Help me, Daddy.
Another loud groan propelled him up through the gray mist, fighting up to consciousness. His eyelids felt swollen shut, but he managed to raise them enough to see a long rectangular fluorescent light fixture overhead. He was in a hallway of some sort. Shivering, he heard other voices murmuring, crying, more groans, not his. He closed his eyes again. Pain. It hurt to breathe. Shifting his head slightly—not too far; it also hurt to move—he forced his eyes open again.
There were others around, bodies in some sort of hallway. A hospital hallway? his fevered brain wondered or the entrance to the afterlife? He tried to raise his head but searing pain made it fall back again. Better just stay still, he decided. He became aware of more pain, different kinds, not just in his head and neck. His back. His ribs. His wrist. It hurt to breathe.
Then if he was breathing, he must be alive. More groans. From him, from others? He closed his eyes, returned to the dark.
Help me, Daddy.
Shannon made her way quickly down the hallway toward the emergency area, glancing at her watch as she did. Eleven-thirty. Her lunch meeting was in an hour, but she had to satisfy her curiosity about the Man with the Haunted Eyes. He'd seemed near death as the ambulance had taken off with him hours before, and she just had to see it through.
Of course, she didn't really know what she'd do if he was still alive, or even if he wasn't. Try to find out who he was? Search for a relative who might want to know what had happened to him? She would decide that afterward; for now, she was here, at the hospital where they handled emergencies in theVenice/Culver City area, and which was, conveniently, only a couple of blocks from the courthouse where she'd filed her petition this morning. It wasn't a big deal to stop by, see what was up.
Click-click-click. She was at the desk.
"Hi," she said to the person at reception, a sour-looking young man with acne and short, spiky hair the color of orange Jell-O.
His return gaze telegraphed total disinterest. "May I help you?"
"I'm inquiring about a man who was brought here about four hours ago. He seemed to be indigent and he'd been beaten pretty badly."
What else is new? his expression read. "Yes?"
"How is he? I'd like to know the status."
"I don't know."
"Are you a relative?"
"Just a friend."
The receptionist's bored expression shifted just slightly into mild disdain. "You're his friend and you don't know his name?"
Even though Shannon's irritation spiked, she told herself to be patient; she knew her request sounded weird. But she was never pleased when she encountered bureaucratic resistance of any sort, an odd little quirk in her personality.
She tried again, with a smile this time. "Look, I'm a concerned citizen. I was the one who found him. Just tell me how he is, that's all, and I'll go away."
"I'm sorry, we can't release that information unless you're a relative."
She stared at him a moment longer, drew in a breath, expelled it and nodded. "Okay, fine."
Whirling around, she marched over to the double doors under the Emergency-Authorized Personnel Only sign, punched her fist against the button on the wall that had the handicapped symbol on it and watched the doors swing open. The sound of the receptionist calling, "Hey, you can't go in there!" was soon drowned out by the click-click-click of her heels.
As she walked she was surprised and yet not surprised to find herself in a dimly lit hallway with gurneys lined up on both sides, all of them containing bodies in various states of ill health. Some groaned; some mumbled; one said weakly, "Nurse, nurse," while another croaked, "Help me." Dear God, it was a scene straight out of Dante's levels of hell.
Shannon always tried to be a realist; she knew emergency rooms were in short supply and that public hospitals were seriously understaffed and underfunded. And she saw by the official-looking people dashing by that everyone was doing the very best they could, but still
Okay, this sucked, big time. If Shannon could have waved her magic wand there would be plenty of clean rooms and gifted doctors, with first-rate medical care for all. However, she had no magic wand—hadn't had one since early childhood and her one appearance on a stage as a fairy princess—so, firmly in the world of grownups, she narrowed her focus to her reason for being here.
She found the Man with the Haunted Eyes—eyes that were presently closed as he lay on his gurney. It didn't appear he'd been tended to yet. Dried and crusted blood covered his cheeks, his forehead, his filthy clothing. One eyelid was puffy and red; there were bruises forming on his neck; the skin behind the bruises was pale. Too pale. He was still dressed in his rags and had a thin sheet over him, but his body shook with tremors. She put a hand to his forehead. He was burning up. He needed to be seen and soon. Again, she stifled her anger. Everyone in this hallway of anguish needed to be seen, but she'd learned to pick her battles.
Click-click-click. At the end of the hall she found another desk with three nurses in flowered coats huddled around a coffeepot, all of them sipping cups of the brown brew.
"Excuse me?" she said.
They looked in her direction, then lowered their line of vision.
She sighed, inwardly, used to this. Yes, she was short, even in three-inch heels that hurt and that she wore only on court days, and which made her a whopping five foot two, give or take. She was short, she'd always been short, would always be short. It was her cross to bear because most people didn't take her seriously. At first.
The youngest of the three women said, "May I help you?"
"I hope so," Shannon said with a grim smile.
"There's a man with major injuries and a high fever lying down the hall on a gurney. He's probably going to die if nothing is done for him and soon."
A taller, older nurse, the kind with a face that had frozen in disapproval somewhere around the Ice Age, took over. "There are many people lying on gurneys," she drawled in the voice of a heavy smoker, "and just so many doctors to tend to them. We're doing the best we can."
"Actually, the three of you are having coffee."
"It's our break. We get breaks and we need them."
"I sympathize, really I do," she said, meaning it. "I understand all about working real hard and needing breaks."
She snapped open her briefcase, found a business card and set it on the desk. "Please," she said, summoning up the closest she could get to a tone of calm non-confrontation, "I would deeply appreciate it if one of you could take a look at this man just as soon as you're finished with your coffee. I'm his lawyer," she added.
She said nothing else, waited to see if the final sentence and its implicit threat of legal action did its job.
It did. The youngest of the three nurses, also tall but who had kind eyes and rosy cheeks, set down her coffee cup. She came out from behind the desk, looked down on Shannon from her much superior height, and said, "Which one is he?"