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Authors: Melanie Mitchell

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BOOK: Out of the Shadows
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“Dad and I didn’t get a chance to thank you,” he said as he halted beside her. He took her hand in both of his; his light brown eyes were now warm and friendly. “The doctor said that his blood enzymes are good and that the nitro and aspirin probably prevented something really serious. If he does okay tonight, we’re going to fly to the States tomorrow or the next day.” His tone was sincere.

Leslie smiled. “That’s great news. I’m just glad I was able to help.” There was an awkward pause, and she tried to remove her hand, but he didn’t let go. “I’ll try to stop by in the morning before we leave.”

Justin’s eyes raked over her with a new type of interest. This change in manner and the look in his eyes made her much more uncomfortable than his earlier arrogance had. “Say, why don’t I try to say thanks properly?” he asked. “We haven’t really had an opportunity to break the ice.” He smiled, revealing perfect white teeth. “Since we’re both stuck here for the night, how about a drink? And then we can talk about dinner.”

“Uh, well...” His suggestion made her nervous. It sounded like a date and she hadn’t dated since Brian’s death. She looked down at her rumpled skirt and simple white blouse—her standard uniform for the clinic. “I don’t have a change of clothes,” she managed, fairly certain he wouldn’t be deterred by the excuse. On reflection, though, maybe dinner with Justin would work out. She was hungry, and she only had about twenty dollars worth of Kenyan shillings in the bag.

Glancing toward the hospital’s entrance, she spotted Ben and waved to him with her noncaptured hand. He approached and gave a brief nod to Justin. Leslie was confused by Ben’s angry expression; she wasn’t sure what was wrong, but he didn’t look happy.

Justin, too, was caught off guard by the intense glower in Ben’s green eyes. Feeling momentarily threatened, he dropped Leslie’s hand and took a step backward.

Ben eyed them both before he concentrated on Justin. “How is Bill?” Despite his heated stare, his voice was mild.

Leslie glanced uneasily from one man to the other. Although Ben seemed reserved, she sensed an element of menace directed toward Justin. She tried to deflect the tension by answering. “He’s going to be fine. Right now he’s in the coronary care unit, but Justin just told me that they’ll probably fly home either tomorrow or the day after.”

Ben continued to watch the other man as he listened. Cooper nodded in agreement with her explanation but didn’t comment.

Clearing her throat and wishing for enlightenment, Leslie turned to Ben and said, “Justin just mentioned going to get something to drink...and...well, maybe dinner.” She looked back at Justin and added, “We all need to eat.”

Justin recovered quickly. With a short laugh he responded, “Yeah, sure. Murphy, you probably helped save Dad’s life. I guess I owe you dinner, too.”

Probably?
Leslie didn’t really like Ben, but there was no doubt that his quick decision to commandeer her, coupled with his ability to get Mr. Cooper to Nairobi in a short period of time, had been more essential to saving the man’s life than anything she had done. She blinked and glanced back at Ben, disconcerted to see that his attention was on her.

Desperate to break the awkwardness of the situation, she took a breath. “Uh, Ben, you mentioned a hotel nearby. Could you help me check in? I’d like to wash up a little. Then perhaps we can meet Justin in an hour or so.”

“Yeah. Sure. Actually, I’ve already gotten us both rooms at the Hilton.” Ben turned to their companion for a response.

Justin gestured toward the bank of elevators across the lobby. “That should work. I need to check on Dad first.”

“The hotel is a couple of blocks south and one block east of here,” Ben replied. “You can find it.” He motioned to the door. “Let’s go, Leslie.”

Feeling as if she were being herded, Leslie gave Justin a friendly smile. “Then it’s settled. We’ll see you in about an hour in the lobby at the Hilton.”

“I look forward to it.” Justin seemed to have tuned out Ben. His eyes skimmed over Leslie appreciatively, and his tone was more than a little flirtatious.

Ben took her elbow and all but dragged her through the hospital exit. Leslie had to practically jog to keep up with him as he pulled her down the brick steps, away from the large building and onto the sidewalk.

Finally, she slid to a stop. “Wait just a minute!” Making no attempt to hide her irritation, she tried to loosen her arm, but his grip did not slacken. Her canvas bag slipped off her shoulder, and she repositioned it.

He wheeled around to face her and huffed, “What now?” His tone was just as irritated.

Leslie took a few seconds to absorb the busy city avenue. The air was still warm outside, despite the darkening sky. The sidewalk was packed with people jostling about, and the street was crowded with cars, motorbikes and the ubiquitous
matatus.
Horns blared, signaling the displeasure of impatient drivers.

She returned her attention to Ben. “Lighten up for a second, will you? Why did you pull me out the door like that?”

“Leslie, he’s married!” Ben squeezed her arm and glared at her.

She shook her head and gaped at him in confusion.
“What?”

“Cooper is
married!
” Ben was practically shouting.

Leslie simply blinked. “Oh... Well, okay... So what?”


So what?
He was coming on to you!” Ben finally let go of her but continued to glare.

“No, he wasn’t!” she snapped back. “And even if he was, it’s none of your business!” Absently, she rubbed her arm. “And besides, how do you know he’s married?”

“He was wearing a ring earlier. He probably took it off for your benefit!” Ben gestured toward her in an aggravated manner; his tone had quieted only slightly.

Leslie glanced around and saw that they were attracting attention. She sighed and tried to calm them both. Softening her voice, she held up a hand in a motion of peace. “Ben, I don’t care. It doesn’t matter, except that I feel sorry for his wife. I just want to eat something and then go to bed.” She shrugged and added tiredly, “Look, I’ll never see him again... And besides,
you’re
coming with us.”

Ben closed his eyes for a second and took a deep breath. “You’re right. Sorry. I guess I was bothered that you might fall for his line.”

“You’ve
got
to be kidding!” Her exasperation welled up again. “I’ve seen
you
in action, Mr. I’ll-take-two-Frenchwomen-here-and-a-bleached-blonde-there! And
you’re
warning
me
about some guy I have absolutely no interest in?” She huffed her annoyance and barely avoided rolling her eyes. She could not believe his hypocrisy. How dare he suggest that she might fall for some sleaze or be interested in a married man?

Ben rubbed his eyes with one hand and sighed. “Oh, hell.” His frustration evaporated. “Thanks for pointing out the irony.” Suddenly, and unexpectedly, he grinned. “You know, I could eat, too. And since Cooper is paying, steak sounds good.”

The grin caught Leslie off guard. It was genuine, and it changed his face—in a way she liked. He wasn’t classically handsome like Justin, but he was extremely attractive. His green eyes glittered with mirth, and his expression was boyish. She was charmed despite her own misgivings.

With a slight nod, she laughed as she commented, “As long as it’s not eland or Cape buffalo, that sounds like a plan. Lead the way.” She followed as he started up the street.

CHAPTER EIGHT

T
HE
PAIR
HAD
COVERED
about two blocks when Leslie fell a few steps behind Ben. The variety of people on the street fascinated her, and she slowed her pace to take in the sights, sounds and smells. Besides, Ben’s stride was long, and she was too tired to scamper along beside him. A number of vendors displayed all kinds of foods; some she recognized, some she didn’t, and some she regretted that she did. Did they
really
eat monkey? Other vendors showed clothing and sandals, one was selling small appliances, and several were hawking cigarettes.

She was captivated by the schoolchildren in their colorful uniforms. Sometimes they tagged along behind parents, but many were in the custody of older siblings. She stopped and watched three small boys being herded by what appeared to be a bossy older sister. She was holding the hands of the two younger boys and trying to keep the oldest moving forward—not entirely successfully, as she had to repeatedly call to him to follow.

Smiling, Leslie looked up and realized that Ben was nearly half a block ahead of her. She had taken a couple of quick steps in his direction, intending to catch up, when suddenly she was struck hard from behind; the blow knocked her to her knees. A rough hand to her back shoved her farther down onto the dirty sidewalk, and her canvas bag was yanked from her shoulder.

Stunned, she pushed up on her hands and knees just in time to see a skinny man running back toward the hospital clutching her bag. “Stop him!” Her first cry barely reached a few yards, but she jumped to her feet and started after the man, furious. Her second shout was much more effective. “Stop him! Stop that man! He has my bag!”

She had taken only a few steps and was preparing to shout again when she was grabbed from behind, immobilized by two strong arms. A hand clamped over her mouth, and a voice growled in her ear, “No! Shut up!”

Abruptly, anger transformed into terror, and she frantically tried to break away from the powerful grasp.

“Stop it! Be still! It’s me!” Ben’s voice was insistent, spoken directly into her ear.

She stopped struggling and jerked her head, trying to convey that she understood. He released her and she whirled to face him. Her anger returned, and she pointed in the direction of the hospital. “He stole my bag!”

Since she had been looking at Ben rather than watching the thief’s progress, she missed what happened next. She heard loud yelling, followed by running feet, then the sounds of muffled groans and thuds. She turned toward the noise.

“Damn it! Wait!” A low string of oaths came from Ben as he pulled her roughly back, trying desperately to turn her away from the melee. But he was too late—she had seen the mob and what they were doing. And despite Ben’s efforts to shield her, she could hear the noises coming from about a hundred feet away.

A crowd of at least twenty men and women had descended on the thief. He was down on the ground, and they were taking turns kicking and punching him. In that brief glimpse, she saw that his eyes were closed and he was bleeding profusely from his mouth and nose.

Frantically, she tried to pull away from Ben. “No! Ben, no! We have to stop them!”

His face was implacable as he held her tightly, struggling to keep her eyes averted. “Honey, we can’t,” he whispered in her ear. “There’s nothing we can do now.”

Leslie started sobbing and managed to turn her head toward the mob, which had grown even larger and more vocal. As she watched, a young boy, probably about ten or eleven years of age, appeared to rise from their midst. Incredibly, he was carrying her canvas bag. Leslie ceased struggling, but she was still sobbing when the boy reached them. Grinning, he proudly presented the bag to Leslie, and she robotically took it from him. Ben let go of her long enough to reach into his pocket to grasp a handful of shillings. He did not stop to count them, but simply thrust the money at the boy before he grabbed Leslie’s arm to drag her away from the ugly confrontation.

Stunned, Leslie clasped the bag to her chest and continued to cry as she allowed Ben to pull her down a side street. The noise of the beating had attracted considerable attention, and a large group of people had gathered around to watch or participate. Fortunately, the gawkers ignored Ben and Leslie, and they moved unhindered away from the throng.

* * *

B
EN
WANTED
TO
put as much distance between themselves and what had transpired as quickly as possible. Walking rapidly, they covered several blocks, turning a couple of times to move in different directions. The streets became considerably less crowded, and they could no longer hear the sounds of the beating. Finally, he stopped and turned to Leslie.

“Oh, dear God!” His whispered response was panicked. She was covered in blood. The canvas bag was wet with thick streaks and large splotches, which evidently had come from the thief’s wounds. Leslie clutched the bag to her chest and, as a result, some of the blood had rubbed off on her hands and bare lower arms and permeated her blouse. One of her cheeks was smeared. She was no longer crying, but her eyes were oddly vacant. Ben could recognize the signs of shock.

Blood.
In most circumstances, a little blood was no big deal. It was certainly not a big deal to Ben, who’d been exposed to various injuries and even death on many occasions. And blood would not bother Leslie, whose passion and livelihood involved dealing with the substance on an almost daily basis. But Ben had lived in Kenya for years and knew that blood could bring death. AIDS was pervasive, and exposure to even just a drop of contaminated blood on an open wound could infect. Ben also knew that a significant percentage of Kenyans had the virus.

Ben had observed both Mama Joe and Leslie enough to know that they were extremely cautious about avoiding direct contact with body fluids, always wearing gloves, aprons or gowns, and sometimes even masks, to protect themselves. He had taken precautions himself whenever he anticipated being exposed. Anything less would be stupid. But Leslie wasn’t in any shape to think through all that right now—he doubted she even realized there was a problem.

Hastily, he scouted the area. They were near an outdoor café that was rather quiet, with only a few patrons this early in the evening. Keeping hold of Leslie’s arm, Ben drew her to a cloth-covered table that appeared to have been recently vacated. On it was a half-empty glass of soda and a nearly full glass of water, sitting next to a couple of used plates and coffee cups. Swiftly, trying to avoid attracting attention, Ben moved the dirty dishes onto a chair. He stripped off the tablecloth and held it toward Leslie, who was staring blankly in his direction.

“Honey, drop the bag onto the cloth.” He was grateful that she did not question him or argue, but merely obeyed. He wrapped the cloth around the bloody bag and set it on the table before reassessing Leslie. “Hold out your hands,” he commanded. When she complied, he poured the remains of the soda on her hands and forearms; this was followed by most of the water. He wet a napkin and gently washed the smear off her face. Her blouse needed to come off, but there were too many people around, and he had nothing to replace it with.

He grabbed the cloth holding the canvas bag in one hand and Leslie’s damp hand in the other and pulled her in the direction of the Hilton. Their circuitous route from the mob beating had not taken them far out of their way, and they reached the hotel in only a few minutes.

Hugely relieved he’d reserved rooms earlier, Ben steered Leslie straight to the elevators. Fortunately they were alone in the car, and he pushed the button for their floor. He took those seconds to assess her again and was alarmed by her white face and blank expression. He realized that she had not said anything since witnessing the brutal beating.

They exited the elevator, and he quickly led her down the corridor to the room where he’d stored his backpack a short time earlier. He opened the door and ushered her into the room before he closed and locked it.

Just inside the room, he dropped the tablecloth containing the bag and grasped Leslie by her shoulders. “Honey, we need to get you undressed,” he cajoled. She shook her head, apparently not understanding, so he tried again. “Leslie, there’s blood on your shirt. You need to take it off and go have a hot shower.” He reached up and started to unbutton the buttons, but realized he would have to deal with the blood. To avoid further contamination and speed the process, he simply yanked the tail out of the waistband of her skirt, and without an explanation, ripped the ends apart, rending all the buttons off at once. Her chest was fully exposed, covered only by her bra, which also bore splotches of blood where the fluid had seeped through.

The ripping of her blouse jerked Leslie from her stupor. She gasped loudly and pulled away from him, urgently trying to pull the garment back together. “What are you doing?” Her voice cracked, and alarm was evident in her expression.

Ben stilled her hands and managed to keep his voice calm and insistent. “Leslie, your blouse and bra are covered with blood. You’re risking exposure to HIV. You need to take them off and go have a hot shower.” His eyes held hers, and he was relieved that she seemed more alert.

“Okay.” She looked down at her tattered, bloodstained blouse and nodded. Her words were quiet and flat. “Yes, okay.” She turned her back to him and slipped off the blouse, and it fell to the floor between them. “The bathroom... Where’s the bathroom?” Her voice was devoid of inflection and her movements were erratic.

Ben’s mouth went dry as he stared at her nearly bare back. After catching his breath, he pushed past her, leading the way into the bathroom, trusting that she would follow. There he turned on the shower full blast and adjusted the hot water as high as he could stand it. Pulling a large towel from the adjacent rack, he turned back to face her and saw that she had followed as he hoped. But he was dumbfounded to find that she had blindly complied with his instructions and removed the bra.

He tried—he really tried—to keep his eyes on her face, but he didn’t quite succeed. His breath caught. He could feel his face darken, and sweat beaded on his forehead. Seconds passed before he thrust the towel at her and walked quickly out of the room. “Use a lot of soap and shampoo. I’ll find something for you to wear,” he said as he practically slammed the door.

He waited outside the bathroom door until he heard her get into the shower. His hands were shaking as he silently berated himself.
Get a grip! She’s not for you!
He knew he had to get his responses to her under control.

After he’d assured himself that she was okay and his heart rate had slowed a bit, he grabbed his backpack from the closet and rummaged through it, trying to find something she could wear. The best he could do was a pair of worn gym shorts and a clean cotton shirt. He left them on the bed and went to scrounge through the contents of the minibar, all the while listening to the sounds in the bathroom. He pulled out a beer, a Coke and a couple of candy bars.

He heard the shower cut off. Returning to the bathroom door, he snagged the shirt and shorts. He knocked lightly. “Leslie, I have some clothes that you can wear for now.”

She cracked the door just wide enough to reach through and take the items from him. “Thank you.” Her voice was barely audible.

A few minutes passed with Ben staring at the closed door. His mood was foul, and he was halfway through the beer when she emerged. The tails of his shirt fell nearly to her knees, and it was buttoned almost to the top; the sleeves were rolled up to her elbows. Her hair was wrapped in a towel, and she was holding the shorts with one hand. He took another swallow of the beer.

“Um, I’m sorry to bother you,” she said. Her voice was still small and flat. “But I need a pin or staple or something to hold up the shorts.” Ben set down the beer bottle with a thud and leaned over to dig through the backpack. Amazingly, he was able to produce a safety pin.

Leslie turned her back to secure the shorts. When she accomplished that small feat, she faced him and quietly asked, “Do you have a brush or comb?”

More time in the backpack produced a small brush, which Ben handed to her. “Thank you,” she whispered, then returned to the bathroom. A short time later he heard the sound of the hair dryer. That struck him as a positive sign—she could manage something routine like grooming. He sighed with relief.

When the hair dryer turned off, he knocked on the door. “Leslie, come have a Coke and candy bar. Or if you want, I’ll call down for room service.” When she didn’t answer, he knocked more loudly. “Leslie!” There was no response, and he roared, “Leslie, I’m coming in!”

Fortunately, she had not locked the door, so he was able to enter without the added drama of breaking it down. But he was alarmed anew to see her staring at the mirror, her expression stark, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Oh, baby,” he mumbled. He drew her into the bedroom and gently pushed her to sit on the bed. Handing her a glass half-filled with Coke, he said, “Drink this.” Obediently, she took a sip while staring at the carpet.

His gaze followed hers and then moved across the room to where he had dropped her bag—the source of her extreme consternation. Quickly, he pulled the bag, tablecloth and all, onto the room’s small desk. Carefully avoiding touching any of the contaminated spots, he opened the bag and rifled through its contents, sorting through bottles of medications. He recognized the names on about half of the bottles and finally found one that would work—
Diazepam, five mg
. He opened the bottle and took out a tablet, glanced at Leslie and took out another. She had drunk about half of the Coke, and he held up the candy bar. “Would you eat a Snickers?” She shook her head. “Okay. Here,” he said, holding out the medication. “Honey, they’re Valium. I got them from your bag. They’ll help you rest.”

In slow motion, she took the tablets from him and swallowed them with a sip of the Coke. Finally, she looked directly at him; her eyes were tear swollen and bleak. “Ben, I don’t know what happened.... I didn’t mean for him... I didn’t know...”

BOOK: Out of the Shadows
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