Chapter One: A Pink Lady
"Kari Samantha Grant!"
The shrill voice sliced through the brisk morning air and caused Kari's shoulders to tense, she forced herself to smile before she turned around to the booming repetition of her name.
Janelle Smith dashed across the poorly paved parking lot, skirting the scattering of potholes nimbly despite her heavy frame.
"Kari… you forgot…. your…. cake," Janelle said in labored staccato syllables, her breathing taxed from the unaccustomed exercise.
The cake in question was nestled in a blue lidded container and slathered with a thick layer of yellow buttercream that oozed over the sides, adorned with billowy soft fondant roses that were slightly squished from the pressure of the square plastic lid.
The vanilla sponge cake was stuffed to the gills with an orange pudding filling and garnished with brilliant purple roses. Lisa Klimner, an orthopedic technician, one floor over made one every year for the upcoming Superbowl. The frosting and filling in homage to the competing team's colors.
Kari had shown up for her night shift without the usual sort of malaise that seemed to plague her whenever she clocked in. She could see the cake Lisa had made as she slid her bent and scuffed identification card into the reader of the Intensive Care Unit at Mercy Medical.
Kari's eyes fell upon the sugary roses trapped under the lid as Janelle prattled on about her children performing in a kindergarten play. Kari hoped she was nodding in the appropriate places as her mind was already in vacation mode.
Her shift had been busy, and she'd only had enough time to shove a piece of cake in her mouth before moving to her next emergency admit. The frosting was so cloyingly sweet it made her teeth hurt.
Kari had clocked out with a bounce in her tired feet and was already thinking of how she was going to spend her three weeks off. It was her longest vacation to date, and she told anyone who asked that she had a sprawling list of travel plans, shuttle pickups and flights scheduled. She had capitalized on her perceived busyness to beg out of pool parties, cocktail hours and backyard barbeques.
In actuality, she was going to get much needed quiet time at home. Kari had been craving a lessening in the everyday stimulation and wanted to stay up late, sleep in even later and it was all going to start when she got home.
She fantasized about the near scalding bubble bath she was going to take, maybe something stronger in her coffee to start her time off in a warm soothing manner. She unlocked her midnight black sedan and drove home with the sticky sweet cake sitting shotgun, nestled next to her hot pink stethoscope and matching blood pressure cuff. Kari pressed and massaged her fingertips against her temples when she got to a stagnant red light and let out the breath she was holding when the light finally turned green.
Her drive home on Saturday's were always the quickest and the roads this morning were especially devoid of cars. She made it home in record time and waited to cut the engine until she heard the broadcaster's top of the hour news report.
Kari shifted the plastic container with the sinfully sweet dessert before squatting to pick up the newspaper that she was relieved to see had avoided the waterline of her neighbor's sprinkler. Her two-bedroom home promised peace and quiet and a full DVR, near bursting with a plethora of movies and a scattering of documentaries. Kari paused to look at her brightly blooming floral beds that needed a good soaking. She recalled someone at work talking about rain in the afternoon and looked up at the clear sky that betrayed no sign that it was going to darken with bloated rain clouds. She heard a murder of crows calling from the neighbor's dying maple tree that was now skeletal in appearance as she fished her keys from her purse.
Kari smiled in the direction of the birds with their glossy black feathers, "a good sign," she thought to herself. She thought back to the bet she had made with Janelle at 3am for the outcome of the Superbowl on the first day of her vacation with an eccentric musical lineup scheduled for the halftime show. Kari's feathered friends were close cousins to the team she had fifty dollars riding on to win by a touchdown. Lisa, the hospital's resident pastry queen, of course was a steadfast fan of the colors red and gold. The three of them had gotten to friendly pregame bantering and eventually a bet while placing a catheter into the difficult bladder of a sedated trauma patient.
She opened her front door while trying not to drop her full purse, cake and ad crammed newspaper.
Kari will later recall everything about the exact moment the toe of her hot pink orthopedic shoe crossed the threshold.
"Not a sound Miss Grant."
The grave words were delivered with a voice that held a slightly harsh European accent and was accompanied by the unmistakable click of the .357's hammer being pulled back. The click resounded in her ears and Kari's eyes fell upon the barrel of the titanium firearm inches from her face. Her eyes opened further than they ever had, and a single mascara lacquered eyelash fell onto her cheek.
Kari's gaze traveled the butter soft leather clad length of the outstretched arm holding the gun and found an unblinking set of brilliant blue eyes fringed with dark lashes. She jumped when air whooshed past her face as he slammed the door shut and engaged the deadbolt. The movement brought him closer and she detected the faint scent of the blood orange and honeysuckle soap from the dispenser in the downstairs bathroom. A brief surge of indignation swirled within her at his audacity to use her soap and touch her things. The feeling dissipated and gave way to profuse sweating, she swallowed hard as her body temperature rose. It was suddenly too bright, and she couldn't find her breath.
"It'd be in your best interest," he reiterated with zero inflection to his voice as Kari's eyes rolled back and she felt the ground rush up to meet her before she was enveloped in nothingness.
"Shit," he muttered as he stared down at her unconscious form.
He quickly tucked the gun back into its custom appendix holster and grabbed a dishtowel off the kitchen counter. He saturated the faded floral towel and moved back to Kari's still form. She had dropped awkwardly, and he moved her around until she was laying on her side. Her breathing was shallow and rapid, and he could see the darting movement of her eyes under her closed lids.
He rubbed the wet cloth across her forehead and down the bridge of her nose, he had not properly wrung out the water-logged cotton fibers and a few drops escaped to land on her pale skin. He draped the towel across her neck and watched as an errant drop of water traveled down her face, first looking like a rolling tear and then settling on her upper lip.
"Shit," he said again, louder, rising to his feet and pulling a matte black encased phone from his inner jacket pocket.
He left her laying there with the cool towel resting against her heated skin while he depressed the plastic numbered buttons and waited for his call to connect.
Kari slowly began to regain consciousness; her first sense was the blessedly cool tile under her cheek. Her stomach began to cramp as she replayed the moments before falling to the floor, she strained her ears and could hear someone talking. A sudden and violent vision of blue eyes and a handgun caused her to groan audibly and the voice immediately ceased, his approaching footsteps pounded out a staccato rhythm that bore into her hollow mind. She forced herself to open her eyes.
Kari's vision was blurry as she rolled her eyes up to find him staring down at her, almost studying her. She coughed and found her mouth dry, accompanied by a scratchy throat. She desperately wanted water and yanked at the washcloth around her neck, pressing the damp fabric against her dry lips, all with him standing as a silent audience.
Kari watched him move from her line of sight and heard the squeak of a cupboard closely followed by the sound of a mug being lifted from the copper hook which suspended it above her plain white dinner plates. She didn't have the energy to frown as she listened to him fill the mug with water and then bring it back to her side. She hated that he went right to the cupboard where the glasses were, asking herself if it was coincidence or had he already known where they lived.
She gratefully took a few small sips of the tap water before letting her eyes fall closed again, his gaze was too assertive, and his silence was overwhelming with certain hidden motivation.
He watched her patiently take a few more sips, taking in her pallid tone.
"Are you okay?" he asked evenly.
Kari scoffed and shifted uncomfortably on the cold floor as he repeated the question.
She cleared her throat. "I don't know. Am I?"
His expression never changed, "that's all dependent on you Miss Grant."
"I don't have a lot of money," she said on the tail of a ragged sigh.
"I'm not here for money," he said without a trace of emotion, watching as color began to return to her face.
Kari struggled to sit up as the room began to tilt, she swatted away his offered hand and sagged heavily against the wall. Retrieving the fallen washcloth, she wiped at her face, neck and hands and smoothed her hair down while her mind frantically reeled.
"What then?" she managed as a wave of nausea rolled over her.
Kari blinked slowly as he fixed his attention on her and spoke casually, his face plastered with an unreadable expression.
"I am here for you."