Sarah hurried to her car parked in the drive and got in. She sat behind the wheel and took a few long breaths to calm herself before she started the engine and backed out. She shouldn’t have gone to Jim’s last night. It had only made seeing him with Alexa today that much more difficult.
She decided not to drive through the heart of Pacific Beach because even on a Wednesday night at seven o’clock, the partyers would be taking over the streets. Her nerves were like frayed electrical wires, snapping and arcing, and she was not in the mood to worry about hitting jaywalking drunks.
She navigated her way back to Felspar Street which led on to Mount Soledad Road. She decided it would easier to drive over the mountain and through downtown La Jolla to go home. As she swung up the mountain’s long steep grade, she considered stopping at Trend for a drink. The bar offered half-priced appetizers on Wednesday night, and it was a big draw for businessmen in the office buildings near by. Maybe she’d pick up someone to spend the night with, and maybe he’d be interesting enough to take her mind off Jim cooking supper in Alexa’s kitchen.
But that was the trouble with Trend. She couldn’t go in now without wishing Jim were there, too. The bar had always been one of her favorite spots for picking up the men who rotated quickly through her life. She hated to think her interest in Jim had ruined that forever.
She reached the top of the mountain and began her descent. The BMW purred happily along the sharp bends and twists on the downward slope. She steered into the curves and let herself admit the truth: she wanted off this case. The emotions it conjured up in her slammed her to the ground, day after day. It brought back the dark days of Joey Menendez, a place of horror that she never wanted to revisit.
She was now on the steepest part of the descent. Her feet reached for the clutch and the brake to slow the big car into the hairpin turn. The brake depressed, but her speed didn’t change. Automatically she pumped the brake. Craig, Lewis had required its high-profile criminal lawyers to learn advanced driving techniques. She felt confident even in the emergency.
But the brakes remained unresponsive. She still had the clutch engaged, so she pulled the stick back to third gear. But nothing happened. Suddenly she was covered in cold sweat without time to think. The brakes and her clutch were gone, and she was hurtling toward a hairpin turn at sixty miles an hour. She frantically pumped the brakes and tried to steer away from the stone wall directly in her path. At the last minute, the car somehow made it around the turn without flipping over. Another lay just ahead.
She continued to hold the wheel as she reached for her last hope, the emergency brake. But, it too, was gone. The car continued to pick up speed, and she braced herself for the coming turn. And then nothing.
* * *
Jim Mitchell left Alexa’s around 10:00 that evening. The long day of waiting and wondering if Alexa would really get to go home had left him exhausted. The tension of not having anything to use for her defense was wearing him down, inch by inch. He needed to find that nanny.
He hurried home, downed a fast tumbler of scotch, and fell into bed at 10:30. When his phone went off at 1 a.m., he opened his eyes long enough to see the call wasn’t from Alexa. He didn’t recognize the number, so he pushed the dismiss button and went back to sleep. But the phone shrilled again, determined not to let him rest.
“This is Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. Someone whom we believe is a friend or relative was in a car crash tonight. The police found your name among her things. She’s here in the hospital. Sarah Knight.”
Panic seized him. How badly was she hurt?
* * *
She was sitting on the side of her bed, trying to sign something with her left hand. She had a white gauze bandage wrapped around her forehead and her right arm was in a sling. She looked angry and annoyed.
“What are you doing here?”
“Making sure you’re ok.”
“How’d you find out I was here?”
“The hospital called. My name was the only one they could find in the car. Apparently you don’t carry the names of your next-of-kin on you.”
“That’s because I don’t have any.”
“Well, I’m filling in tonight. Get back in bed. What are you trying to do?”
“I’m signing myself out and going home.”
At that moment the door whooshed open, and Jim remembered all the recent nights with Alexa in the hospital. He’d had enough of them, but he knew Sarah should stay put.
“I’m Tom Barrett,” the forty-something, square-jawed, salt and pepper haired doctor in the white coat strode in with a smile and an out-stretched hand. No wedding ring, Jim noticed, and the kind of George Clooney face women find irresistible.
“You must be Mr. Knight?”
“No, a professional colleague.”
Was that a spark of relief in the good doctor’s eyes? Jim didn’t want to think about it.
“Well, Sarah here has had quite a blow to the head. She’s lucky to be alive at all. Very lucky. She’s sprained her right arm; but more importantly, she’s got a mild concussion and shouldn’t go home tonight. Maybe you can get her to see reason.”
Tom Barrett turned to Sarah, who was frowning at his handsome face. “Put that down and let me take a look at you.”
“You are not fine. Any nausea or dizziness? Double vision? How’s that headache?” He proceeded to shine a light in her eyes, in the face of her silence. He smiled, “You aren’t going to tell me, are you?”
“I’m going home.”
“You are not going home. You can’t drive.”
“I’ll call a cab. I’m going home.”
Tom Barrett sighed and turned to Jim. “See if you can talk some sense into her.”
Jim sat down on the chair beside her bed as the door closed behind the doctor.
“Hand me the paperwork.”
“Not, yet. Tell me what happened.”
“The car hit a wall going over Mount Soledad on my way home.”
“Were you drinking?”
“No, I’d just left Alexa’s.”
“So why did the car go out of control?”
“Don’t know. The BMW people took it to the shop. Ask them.”
“I will. But you know what happened. Tell me.”
“Hand me the papers.”
“Not until you tell me.”
“Ok, ok. The brakes failed.”
“And you have a manual transmission. Why didn’t you down shift?”
“So no clutch, either?”
“Someone just tried to kill you.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“And now you want to sign yourself out of the hospital and go home in the middle of the night?”
“Don’t argue with me. Hand me those papers.”
Jim studied her wiry determined form, swallowed by the white tent of the hospital gown. He watched her try to scribble with her left hand.
“Come to my place instead. I’d rather know you were in my guest room.”
“Nope. Going home.”
“So there’s nothing I can say to change your mind?”
“Okay. Then I’ll drive you.”
* * *
She was fading, Jim noticed, as they turned into her drive. Her fierceness was no match for the medications Dr. Barrett had given her. He wondered if she’d fall deeply enough asleep to let him take her home with him. She had not been able to get her clothes on alone, so the hospital had let him wrap a blanket over the cavernous hospital gown.
She seemed to read his mind about taking her back to his place. Her eyes popped open. “Don’t even think about not letting me go inside.”
“You just seemed to have passed out here in the car.”
With a mighty effort, she heaved open the passenger side door with her left hand.
“Wait. Let me. Where’s you key?”
“In my purse.”
“Come on, then. Lean on me. If you don’t, you’re going to fall and send yourself right back to Dr. Barrett.”
She gave him a small, mischievous drunken smile. “I think he’d like to have me back.”
“He definitely would like to have you back. He knows you need to be in the hospital.”
“No, he liked me. I could tell. He liked me.”
“You’re on a lot of medication right now.”
“Doesn’t mean I don’t know when an attractive man likes me.”
“Okay, okay. He liked you. Why don’t you let me take you straight back to the hospital then?”
“Because I’m tired, and I want to sleep in my own bed. He’ll call me tomorrow. He has to find out how I am.”
Jim suppressed his annoyance and helped her make her way up the walk in the chilly October morning dark. He realized the drugs were talking and exposing the lonely, vulnerable side of her life, something she kept expertly hidden.
She leaned on him while he turned the key in the lock. He stepped into the hall, drew her inside, and closed the door behind them. She smelled of antiseptic and her usual gardenia perfume. He put his arms around her and thought of a bird’s small bones as she sagged against him.
“Come on, then, let’s get you into bed.” He reached out and flipped the switch for the hall light.
“Oh, my God!” Sarah lurched toward the living room, which had been turned upside down. Lamps lay smashed on the floor. The end tables had been overturned. Someone had used a knife to rip open all the sofa cushions and scatter down everywhere.
Jim tried to grab her before she got beyond arm’s reach but was not successful. She stopped in the doorway, and Jim saw her legs sag as she grabbed the door frame.
He hurried to put his arms around her before she could fall.
“Turn on the light,” she commanded.
“No, don’t look.”
“I want to see.”
Reluctantly Jim reached out and switched on the overhead recessed lighting.
She shook her head in disbelief. He saw tears in her eyes. But his training immediately made him pull her close.
“We have to get out of here,” he whispered close to her ear.
“Sh-h-h. We don’t’ know who did this. And we don’t know who might still be here.”
She opened her mouth to say something, but he picked her up and hurried out to the car. He didn’t have time to go back and clear the scene, and it would be dangerous to do that alone, anyway.
He bundled her into the car, and backed out of the drive quickly, still afraid someone might yet be in the house. Shock on top of the medications had silenced Sarah. She slumped against the passenger’s door and closed her eyes.
Jim’s mind raced through the possibilities of who could be responsible. Had the same person who’d cut her brakes been the one who’d gone through her house? And what about Alexa? He’d left her ready to sleep. Had they gone after her, too?
He drove through the dark, deserted streets wondering if he should swing by Alexa’s. But it was 2:30 in the morning, and she’d been instructed to call if anything seemed amiss. Right now getting Sarah to rest had to be his top priority.
He pulled into his garage, closed the roll-up door behind him, and got out of the car. Fatigue and fear had finally done gotten the best of her. He carried her into his guest room, pulled back the sheets and tucked her in. She smiled in her sleep but never woke up.