Gabriel shook his head and blinked to clear the blood trickling into his right eye. Wiping his face with his sleeve, he refocused on the building. Another time check; five past nine, were these people ever going to go home? He’d been watching from the car for thirty minutes and could feel himself getting weaker second by second. Suppressing a grunt, he gritted his teeth and lifted the towel he’d wedged into the hollow of his left shoulder. The sharp iron tang of blood filled the car. Not good; the towel was soaked through. Pressing it back into place, he peered out into the dusk. If only he had his phone. It lay smashed to pieces in that deserted warehouse and he couldn’t exactly stroll into a shop and buy another one when he was dripping blood all over the place.
Aha, that looked promising. A group of people came out of the building, laughing, chatting, and calling to each other as they got into their cars.
“Yeah, it was good. She’s good, isn’t she? Have a good weekend, see you on Monday.”
“Don’t forget the PCT consultation meeting, George. First thing Monday…do try to be on time for once!”
George obviously had trouble being punctual. Gabriel’s breath hitched at a fresh stab of pain. He really needed these people to leave – quickly. Only two cars left in the car park now, time to get moving. He eased himself out of the black Audi, keeping his left arm clamped to his side. His eye stung. Blinking away the blood, he shut the car door as quietly as he could. He’d stolen the car from the long-term car park at the airport and ended up in this godforsaken provincial town with barely a litre of fuel left in it. His blood was all over the upholstery though gloves ensured he’d left no prints. Still, the clean-up boys were going to have to torch this one. He couldn’t risk his DNA falling into the hands of the police. Lucky for him the car was likely to stay unnoticed here over the weekend, giving LaSalle’s team time to do their work. That this was about the only lucky thing to happen to him today did not pass him by.
Gabriel moved closer to the building and watched from behind a convenient hedge. Most of the lights had now been switched off, only the reception hall and the sign above the door were still lit up:
Central Medical Practice – Midlands PCT.
Turning up at a hospital was out of the question. He would break in here and patch himself up then wait until he regained enough strength to get himself back to his own people. Failing that, he’d use their phone. It was a win-win strategy; he’d done the same thing many times before. Gabriel stiffened, alert as two more people exited the building. Damn, they weren’t locking up. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep himself upright.
The man was tall and carried a doctor’s medical case and an armful of files. The woman was slender and taller than the average human female. She wore a green uniform and his sharp eyes caught the word ‘Paramedic’ on the sleeves.
“Thank you, Miss Smith,” said the man, “I can’t tell you how valuable that training may prove to be. You have no idea how the crime rate has shot up in this part of town… gangs, drugs, you name it. It’s only a matter of time before we get some kid rolling in off the street, dripping blood.” The man struggled with his load.
The woman took some of the files. “Here, let me help you with those, really, it’s fine, glad to help. If you have any further questions, just call. You have my contact details.”
Gabriel watched the pair make for the cream Mercedes at the far end of the car park; that meant the woman’s car must be the red Mini. He waited, poised to slip into the building the moment they were far enough away. He would have to move fast, but that wasn’t a problem. Injured as he was, he could still move quickly enough to evade them.
“Perhaps I could call you and we could go for a drink. Or something…”
Now the man had his hand on the woman’s shoulder. She moved away seamlessly, subtly changing the angle of her body.
It was a neat, evasive move; Gabriel gave a silent laugh. A blonde like that probably got hit on all the time. He couldn’t see her face, but her figure certainly looked all right. Even in that awful uniform.
“Well, you have my number at the hospital…” Their voices faded as they crossed the car park.
This was his chance. Gabriel darted to the building and pushed the door open with his good shoulder, making sure he left no drips or smears of blood behind. Glancing around, he spotted the only room with the lights still on. The sign read, ‘Treatment Room’. He headed into it, moved out of sight of the door, and leaned against the treatment table. Plan B – the second lucky break – he would get the woman to treat him, then wipe her. He reached into his boot with a grunt; no knife. Of course, he’d left it stuck in the neck of the big red-headed bastard, no time to pull it out before that bullet in his shoulder sent him spinning. God, he was going to be in so much trouble. He’d walked into that ambush with no back-up, but at least he’d managed to kill three of them. LaSalle would have his arse, and Ysabeau… Gabriel shook his head; he didn’t want to think about what she would do to him.
His head snapped up as his acute hearing caught the engine of the Mercedes as it drove away. A few minutes later, he heard the double click of the door bolts. Gabriel pulled out his Glock with the suppressor fitted on the end, and waited.
Hera sighed, shot home the door latches, and rested her forehead against the door. She’d started to think she would never get rid of Doctor Robbins. The man was like an octopus and she’d been fighting off his unsubtle advances all day. Thank god for female solidarity. The practice nurses had been her back-up during coffee breaks and lunch, but she’d been dreading the doctor staying to ‘help her pack up’. Luckily, she’d persuaded him she could pack her own kit away, lock up, and hand over to the security staff by herself. Persuading humans was an easy task.
She leaned against the door and let her breath out in a long, controlled exhale. The training she’d delivered had been intensive and exhausting, but practices like this had to learn to cope with first response to gunshot injuries while waiting for paramedics like her to arrive.
Time to pack up. Hera pushed herself away from the door – and froze. Oh. She turned around slowly. Something had changed and her inbuilt warning systems flashed red. Standing still, she checked from left to right. Danger, she could sense it swirling around her like a black fog. Hugging herself, she inched forward, her rubber-soled boots silent on the worn carpet. The corridor leading to the consulting rooms was dark and quiet – nothing there. She took another step and felt the fine hairs stand up along her arms. Her breathing grew shallow. Someone was here. She knew it. Her instincts were never wrong. She checked beyond the reception desk and noted the light was still on in the Treatment Room. Had she left it on when she saw Doctor Robbins out? Yes she had, she was sure she had. Danger waited in that room. She should run, she should run now, but she kept moving forward. This was what people did in horror films shortly before being horribly murdered. She was always the first to wonder why they didn’t run away.
“Is anybody there?”
Dead silence. Was she being fanciful? After all, she was very tired. No, her senses never failed her. Now she stood in the doorway of the treatment room and the feeling of danger was so strong, she could almost touch it. Her heart was attempting to beat right out of her body, but she couldn’t turn, couldn’t run. Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the room. What she saw made her grab the desk for support as her breath fled her lungs in a startled cry.
The man leaned heavily against the treatment bed. He had multiple injuries, but what grabbed Hera’s attention was the gun pointing steadily at her head.
She raised her trembling hands level with her shoulders. “Please, please, there are no drugs here,” she managed to gasp out, barely able to breathe.
“That statement is inaccurate, this being a large medical practice, but I am not interested in drugs.”
The gunman’s voice was low and controlled. Hera couldn’t place his accent, but it sounded vaguely Eastern European.
“What are you interested in then?” She couldn’t believe this was happening.
“Isn’t it obvious to your trained eye? I need medical treatment. You are going to patch me up as best you can.”
Hera took a step forward, freezing again as the man raised the gun imperceptibly. Her head cleared; she’d helped treat dangerous patients numerous times in the course of her career. Taking a steadying breath, she folded her arms and tried to hide the trembling. “I will do nothing while you point that gun at me.” Never show your fear, a little voice whispered in her head.
The man gave a small, wintery smile. “I do not think you are in a position to negotiate.”
Hera lifted her chin; she needed to stand her ground. “Then you can bleed to death,” she pointed to the blood dripping from the man’s arm onto the floor, “If you want me to patch you up, as you describe it, you can put that gun down. That’s the deal.”
The man scrutinized her for an age. His eyes were dark, almost black, the lashes around them as thick and black as his hair. He looked…military…it was the only word she could think of. He was certainly tall, at least six four or five, and exuded danger as though someone had stuck a warning sign on him.
Seconds ticked by then the man nodded, clicked something on the gun, ejected a clip and offered her the weapon. “Deal. Here, as a sign of good faith. Now, I think I may keel over very shortly.” His body sagged and he bent over with a moan of pain cut off almost as quickly as it left his mouth.
Hera leapt into action, all fear forgotten as her training kicked in. She took the man’s weight against her hip and shoulder, one hand on his abdomen, her voice low and reassuring. “All right, it’s okay, I’ve got you. Now I need you to get onto this bed so I can have a better look.”
She helped him ease back onto the treatment table, his breath coming in shallow gasps. Mentally, she re-calculated, six feet five and hard muscle through and through. She’d spent years working in military hospitals and she would swear this man was a soldier. His head fell back and he shut his eyes.
“I’m going to prepare. Try to relax.” Hera laid her palm on the man’s forehead, sensing his pain, anxiety, and utter weariness. He would cope better if he was calm. She sent him what he needed.
Gabriel’s eyes snapped open. He watched the woman warily as she moved about in a controlled, precise way, all her actions economical and efficient. She prepared the equipment she needed, put on a white coat, scrubbed her hands, and pulled on surgical gloves. His forehead felt warm from her touch. Oddly, he felt better. Calmer.
He tensed as she approached him with a pair of scissors. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to cut your shirt away so I can assess your injury. It’ll hurt you too much to take it off properly. Is that okay?”
Gabriel nodded, and the woman cut through his shirt quickly, removing it piece by piece from his body, taking care as she eased the blood-soaked fabric away from his shoulder. Smith; the doctor had called her Miss Smith.
“No marks, so you’re obviously not a drug user. What are you? A drug dealer? Are you Russian Mafia? Is this some kind of turf war?” Miss Smith sounded preoccupied as she worked round the wound, her eyes sharp and her expression one of intense concentration.
Gabriel sighed. He could do without an interrogation. “No, no, and no. Please do not ask questions. What is the damage?”
The woman stepped back, her gloved hands raised in front of her. “What shall I call you? I can’t say ‘you’ all the time.”
“Gabriel, my name is Gabriel.” What did it matter? Miss Smith wouldn’t be able to pass that on once he was finished with her.
“Well Gabriel, I would no doubt be wasting my time saying you need to be at a hospital,” the woman gave a quick nod at his bleak glare, “Thought so. You’re lucky, the damage should be worse, but curiously, it isn’t as bad as I’d expect. I’m going to have to get that bullet out and make sure the wound is clean before I stitch it. The thing is, Gabriel, I have no anaesthetic here and no access to morphine. I’m sorry, but I’m afraid this is going to hurt.”
Gabriel sneaked a glance. Miss Smith wasn’t afraid anymore. She looked at him with compassion and he experienced a creeping admiration for the way she was handling the situation. “Please, just do it. I will manage. You do the procedure, I will cope with the pain.”
They had become a strange partnership.
Miss Smith gave a sharp nod. “You will need to keep still. I’ll be as gentle and quick as possible, understand?”
True to her word, she worked quickly. Gabriel kept his eyes shut and rode out the pain; forcing his breath through his compressed lips in gasps. He wasn’t sure how many minutes passed by before he heard the metallic clink of the bullet being dropped into a stainless-steel dish.
“There now, bullet out and in one piece. No debris. That’s lucky. I’m going to close it up and dress it.” Once again, Miss Smith rested her hand on his forehead. “There, nearly done. The worst is over. You are brave, Gabriel.”
Gabriel felt it again, a lingering warmth and comfort flooding him like a balm. His pain eased and his tension dissipated. The woman had clearly chosen the right profession. “No, it is you who are brave, Miss Smith. I cannot think of many who would remain calm in this situation.”
Miss Smith leaned in, murmuring as she concentrated on the wound and worked with neat precision. “Please, my name is Hera. I trained in a military hospital. This isn’t brave, it’s just training.” She stepped back as she finished the dressing and scrutinized her work through narrowed eyes. Evidently satisfied, she nodded then changed her gloves and transferred her attention to his blood-covered forehead, continuing in that low, quiet tone. “Mmm…this looks much worse than it is. Head wounds are always bleeders, but I think you’re a tough nut to crack, Gabriel. What did they whack you with?”
She carried on cleaning away the blood from his face, hair, and eye.
“Knuckle duster.” Gabriel sighed, he shouldn’t have let the guy get in so close, but it had been hard not to when he was spinning round for a flying kick while simultaneously shooting the blonde one wielding the semi-automatic. Really, he was lucky to have got out at all.
Hera glanced at him in momentary horror then carried on patching-up the gash on his forehead. Her face was very close to his and he watched her surreptitiously. Her eyes were large and of an unusual greeny-blue colour; Ysabeau would probably call them turquoise. They were filled with the same intense concentration as the rest of her face. Delicate and fine-boned, with a generous mouth pressed hard as she worked, Hera was beautiful. Damn, this was a hell of a time to be having thoughts like that.
Gabriel shook his head and Hera tutted. “Please, keep still while I work! Did I hurt you?”
Gabriel smiled, he had no business thinking about or noticing her looks. “Not any more than you already did.” A paltry attempt at a joke, but it seemed to please her because she paused for a moment and smiled down at him. A slow, beautiful smile that made his heart lurch in a disconcerting way.
“Now that’s what I like in my patients, a sense of humour. Shows you don’t feel as bad as you look. Oh! That came out wrong.” She fixed the last steri-strip into place and once again, stood back to check her work.
Gabriel tensed as Hera completed a gentle, but thorough examination of his chest and torso then took both his hands in hers and squinted down at them. “No broken ribs. Everything feels okay, but you’re going to have some nasty bruises, they’re already coming up. Your knuckles are bruised and abraded. Uncomfortable, but they’ll heal…they don’t need any dressing.”
Hera stepped back and peeled off her gloves then set about tidying things away and disposing of the blood-soaked swabs and pieces of shirt. Gabriel noticed them going into bins marked ‘For incineration’. Good, one less bit of evidence to worry about, less for LaSalle’s men to clean up.
He started to pull himself into a sitting position and Hera dropped what she was doing and rushed to his side. “Stop that. You’ll spoil my handiwork. Here, I’ll help you to sit. Please swing your legs carefully over the side and lean your weight on me…that’s it…”
Her skin smelled of jasmine and her body felt slender and delicate against his. Gabriel hitched a breath as his stomach flipped. God, he was having the typical male reaction to a pretty nurse.
“You are quite small and slight to take my weight,” he said, grunting as she heaved him expertly upright, “And you are really very bossy. You remind me of -” He stopped; this was getting altogether too cosy.
Hera steadied him as he swayed. “Easy now, you’ve lost a fair bit of blood. And I’m five feet nine, that’s tall. And don’t be fooled by my slightness. The thing is, Gabriel, we’re going to have to make a decision. The security guys will be here to do their checks soon, how do you intend to move on from here?”
She stopped and Gabriel detected her quick pulse and noticed the tightness about her features. Now that she’d finished working, Hera was afraid. He heaved himself to his feet then immediately reached out blindly as the room swung around him. Damn, he was still too weak to get himself out the usual way and he needed…
Hera’s arms tightened around him as she leaned him back against the treatment table.
“That’s it,” she said, firm, decisive, and in control again. “You are my patient and you’re not fit for anything at the moment. More blood loss than I thought. I don’t want you to shoot the security guards so this is what I propose. I would say I’m your best option, so don’t do anything stupid.”
Fifteen minutes later, Gabriel stretched out his tall frame as well as he could in the front passenger seat of Hera’s Mini and watched her hand over to the security firm. He couldn’t comprehend how the balance of power had shifted. Still, Hera’s plan made sense and the final outcome would be the same. He’d make sure she didn’t remember a thing. He cracked the door open, hearing every word as she made a joke and wished the men goodnight without a trace of distress or a word of betrayal. Hera Smith was an unusual woman.
As they headed along the dual carriageway on the way to Hera’s house, Gabriel glanced at her profile. He’d missed something, but he was too weary to care and he had bigger problems to worry about than this slender woman he could kill in a second. It was odd though, that she should care about a stranger who’d threatened her with a gun. The world was a dangerous place; she ought to be more careful.
He broke the heavy, intimate silence. “Why are you doing this, Miss Smith? If you were my sister I would tell you that you were completely crazy.”
Hera gave a quick, rueful smile and kept her eyes on the road. “Well, I guess you must be a good brother. I don’t have one, at least, not anymore. The thing is, you’re my patient and I’m not happy about your condition so, in all conscience, I couldn’t leave you on your own. Also, I don’t believe you’re going to kill me. I don’t think you kill unarmed women. You need to rest, and then you can go. That’s it. We’re nearly there. And do you think you could call me Hera?”
Her words had come out in a rush. She threw him a glance and concentrated on driving. Gabriel felt another rush of admiration. Hera, the goddess of marriage, women and family; the name suited her. She was a nurturing person. Taking a deep breath, he let it out slowly. She was right; he needed to rest. Whatever happened, he was safe with this woman. Perhaps he should reassure her a little.
“Hera, I will repeat what I said earlier. You are brave, a brave and compassionate woman. And you are correct, I never intended to kill you.”
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