A HOST OF LOW TRUTHS
It was the itch that eventually pierced a gap in the fog shrouding her from the world around her. A few times it had thinned slightly, as if it were beginning to dissipate, but before her brain could register more than a distant, echoing ripple of mingled sounds it had closed in again, leaving her with nothing more tangible to hold to than the dull, heavy ache of her body. But now the persistent, infuriating tickling from dry, cracked skin was too much to ignore. Slowly, she fumbled with clumsy fingers towards the bridge of her nose, but when she feebly tried to scratch, they touched something smooth and her hand slipped. Again she tried; again the obstacle impeded her. She let out a whimper of frustration at being thwarted and swatted impotently at it.
"Hey, hey, hey. Wait a second. Slow down." The words were distorted, but she heard them and felt the firm grip of hands that stilled her own. "Steady, Miss Marshall. Look at me. Look at me, now."
As she felt the plastic cocoon of the oxygen mask lifted from her face, Ros's eyes blinked open. Her hand felt leaden, but she groaned with relief as she finally managed to drag her fingernails across the bridge of her nose. She felt something dabbing gently at her eyes, and the blurred shadow looming over her resolved into the smiling face of a woman in pale blue scrubs.
"Welcome back, Miss Marshall." More dabbing, and Ros's nostrils flared at the scent of the wet wipe that the nurse was applying to her face.
'Water.' Her tongue felt huge, and she could produce nothing beyond a pleading gurgle. The woman disappeared from her view for a moment, but before Ros could summon up the strength to protest, her eyes slid down the wall opposite her as the bed-frame was cranked into a more upright position.
"Here." The nurse leaned towards her. "Slowly. Let me help." She held the plastic beaker, and Ros sipped with painful weakness at the water. When she choked on it, the nurse wiped her lips and waited patiently until Ros had regained the strength to drink again.
"Are you in any pain?" she asked, when Ros feebly gestured that she had finished.
Stupid question.Ros gave a tiny, cautious shake of the head and groaned as the room yawed nauseatingly.
"Good." The nurse turned to scrutinise the monitoring machines alongside the bed. "I'll call your doctor." She glanced over her shoulder, and as she moved aside, Ros realised that they weren't the only people in the room.
"Who - " Her throat was still so sore that she could barely croak the words; the water she had drunk seemed to have been absorbed by the dryness like a shower in the desert. "Who's … that?"
The nurse followed her gaze towards the sleeping man slumped in a chair in the far corner of the room. His chin was stubble, his hair rumpled, and a hospital blanket was draped untidily over his legs.
"Your friend Liam. He's been a permanent fixture ever since they brought you from the ICU."
Liam? The effort to think straight made Ros's head pound, but she knew that wasn't right. She closed her eyes for a second against the throbbing, and a voice whispered Lucas. It's Lucas.
"Would you like me to wake him?"
"Yes. Please." Ros forced her eyes open again and watched as the woman crossed the room and shook the man's shoulder. "Mr Newton. Mr Newton!" At first his head merely rolled sideways and the shaking produced nothing more than a muffled grunt, but she persisted until he finally lifted his head and mumbled something incomprehensible.
"Rachel's awake!" The nurse was speaking in the over-bright, encouraging tones that she would have used to announce the arrival of breakfast to a confused geriatric. "Look here!"
'Liam' shook his head like a dog emerging from the river and squinted across the room.
"Shit!" He leapt up, fought his feet free of the tangled blanket and strode across to the bed.
"Ro - Rachel." He grasped her hand, and Ros winced as the pressure of his grip caused the oxygen monitor still clipped to her finger to dig painfully into it. "God, at last!"
His eyes were puffy, bloodshot and encircled by dark rings of exhaustion, but despite the momentary slip of the tongue, she could see the warning in them.
"Hi … Liam." His lips curled in a fleeting smile at her response. Behind him, the nurse bustled briskly out of the room and closed the door behind her. Ros waited until her footsteps could be heard fading down the corridor.
"Where?" It hurt both her head and her throat to speak.
"St Thomas'," Lucas answered. "Nearest Harry could wangle to Thames House."
"He … all right? H – Harry."
"He's fine. Fine," Lucas answered. He poured another beaker of water, and Ros drank thankfully.
"How … long?"
"A week, give or take." She noticed a couple of dressings protruding beneath one rolled-up shirtsleeve and a row of stitches in his right temple. "You were in intensive care for three days."
Ros swallowed the last of the water. When Lucas went to take the beaker she mumbled 'I can' and reached out to replace it on the bedside table herself. The sudden stab of pain the movement caused in the region of her sternum made her yelp. Lucas snatched the cup from her.
"You can't," he said fiercely. "Lie still; you'll pull your stitches."
Ros subsided, waiting for the ripples of pain to ebb. She wanted to ask what stitches? and learn what had been done to her, but a combination of pride and weakness stifled the words. She closed her eyes for a moment, gathering her strength.
"What - " a gasp of fear throttled her question as a series of powerful bangs – albeit slightly muffled by the double-glazing – sounded outside and the percussion wave rattled the windows.
"It's all right." Lucas tightened his grip on her hand as she trembled. "It's all right. It's just fireworks. There's a display on the South Bank. Look, you can see the lights. It's all right, Ros."
Unseen under the sheets, Ros screwed the edge of her hospital gown into her fist, and took several deep breaths to steady herself. Lucas's eyes were anxious.
"What … what about … Low -" she stopped in frustration as the man's name slid tormentingly, just out of reach of her memory, "… Home Sec?"
She knew the answer from the way Lucas lowered his eyes before he spoke.
"They did their best but he died in theatre, Ros. I'm sorry."
She looked away from him and stared out of the window at the reflected sparkle of exploding fireworks dancing over the dark swathe of the river.
Harry's sacked.You're my security chief now. The man had been a politician, calculating, duplicitous, with an eye to the main chance, like all of them. It was the nature of the beast. But he had shown courage too; Ros remembered him urging her to leave, and then trying, despite the effect of the drug, to lessen the burden on her as she struggled to haul him down the corridor to safety.
How long have we got, Ros?
There was another muffled crump from outside, so similar to the sound of the bomb exploding seconds after he spoke those words that Ros could barely contain the wave of panic that broke over her. She felt Lucas's hands enclose hers.
"Ros. Ros?" She looked round, but said nothing. "I'm sorry I left you." He bit his lip. His eyes were dark. "I should have stayed. It was cowardly."
"It was … your job. It was an order." She coughed and flinched. "And it was right. No … guilt trips."
"I was coming back. I thought there was time."
Ros pointed shakily at his arm. "Is that … how you got hurt?"
"It's nothing." Lucas shrugged dismissively. "Flying debris. Concussion. Few cuts, sprained ankle and a bloody sore arse when I landed on it. Nothing like yours."
Ros was about to ask what exactly that meant when the door re-opened and the nurse came in, followed by a young doctor. Both deferentially made way for an older man dressed in a suit and tie who entered in their wake, obviously in the process of finishing a conversation on his mobile. He slipped it back into his jacket pocket and approached the bed. Lucas rose, nodded to him and took a few steps back.
"I was your surgeon, Miss … Marshall, is it?" The man spoke briskly as he eased the bedclothes down.
For the moment. "Yes. Rachel Marshall," Ros added helpfully, as the surgeon impatiently waved Lucas out of his way.
"So, how are you feeling now you're finally back in the land of the living?"
"All right," Ros said cautiously. "Tired … little bit woozy."
"Well, neither of those are unexpected after what happened to you." The surgeon snapped instructions at the nurse and the curtains were hastily pulled around the bed as he continued his examination.
"What did happen?" Ros ventured. She wasn't sure that she wanted to hear too much detail, but the days that had passed since the last thing she could remember were a complete and unsettling blank, like the uncharted territory on a medieval map. Whatever dragons might be roaming it, she wanted to know about them. As she spoke, the surgeon had been removing a large dressing on her chest. Now the last of it came away, and she bit her lip to stifle a gasp at both the stinging sensation and the sight of a pattern of stitches that looked like a grid for an oversized game of noughts and crosses.
"Hmm. Good. Good. Healing well." He rolled the sheet and blanket down to the very end of the bed and inspected her legs; only then did Ros see the extensive bruising and cuts. A wide dressing ran from her left knee almost to her ankle, and again he removed it and scrutinised a healing gash underneath. "Yes, good." His penetrating gaze rested on her face for a moment. "Sit forward for me, please."
With his help, Ros managed to do so. She felt him repeat the same inspection procedure and heard him cluck his tongue. "Can you raise your right arm, please? Slowly. It'll be stiff."
Ros obeyed. He was right; it also ached, and instinctively, she stopped trying to raise it higher.
"Right, lower it, thank you." She did, and tried to suppress a shiver. The surgeon re-tied her gown, for which she was grateful; although it was far too thin to provide any warmth, it did at least restore some of her dignity.
"How much do you remember of what happened?" he asked.
"The explosion," Ros answered. "After that, nothing."
"Well, it seems that you were knocked unconscious by the blast. By the time you were found and rescued from the hotel you had lost a great deal of blood. We had to do extensive emergency thoracic surgery," he gestured towards the stitches, "transfuse, and deal with several nasty gashes from flying debris – one on your leg, a particularly bad one on your back – and a lot of minor ones. You also had a badly dislocated shoulder, although that didn't seem to be from the explosion."
Trying to move the Home Secretary. Suddenly the man's name popped back into her mind. Lawrence. Andrew Lawrence. She was aware of the surgeon watching her intently. "You went into cardiac arrest in the operating theatre, and again while you were in intensive care. We had you on respiratory support for three days. You're a very fortunate young woman, Miss Marshall; you're lucky to be here. I actually warned your father that he was probably going to lose you."
My father? Ros stared at him. "He's been here?"
The surgeon gave a thin smile as he picked up the medical file clipped to the end of her bed and read the latest data.
"Certainly he's been here. He hardly left your side while you were in the ICU, Miss Marshall, except when Mr Newton replaced him. He slept there all three nights – in so far as anyone can sleep in these damned chairs. I don't think he even tried; just sat there, talking to you or watching you, hour after hour. You're lucky to have someone who cares so much." He slotted the file back into its place. "I think we can safely say that you're through the worst. Your stats are good and your injuries now are just a question of convalescence and time."
Ros swallowed, and forced out the most frightening question.
"How much time?"
"That depends to a great extent on your own determination," the surgeon answered, and Ros felt a spark of irritation at the evasiveness of his reply. Bloody man should be a politician. Grudgingly, she reminded herself that he had saved her life. "I'd say a couple more weeks with us – you're going to need physio to rebuild your strength – and we'd normally offer you trauma counselling as well; it's available to anyone who's caught up in a terrorist attack. As far as returning to work goes … I imagine that's up to your employers at the Foreign Office."
You can keep the sodding counselling. If she had to go through that, she would have it done at the 'Foreign Office' where she wouldn't be mistaken for a junior diplomat on protocol duty. Ros nodded. "Thank you. I - er – I appreciate all you've done. My … father will, too."
"Just my job." The surgeon gave a quick, professional smile, his mind, no doubt, already on his next case. "After the nurse has re-done your dressings, perhaps you might like to contact him. I'm sure he'll be glad to hear of your recovery. Get as much rest as you can. It's a good healer." He whisked a corner of the curtain back and was gone.
Ros leaned, turned, raised and stretched compliantly as the nurse expertly cleaned her wounds and applied new dressings. Her head wasn't co-operating very well with the rest of her; it pounded and swam at all the wrong moments, but Ros gritted her teeth and kept silent, determined not to let the nurse become aware of her discomfort. She strained to get a glimpse of the wider room through the crack in the curtain, wanting to know if Lucas was still out there.
"Liam's gone to phone your father," the nurse said reassuringly. "He was on notice to contact him at once if you came round." Ros tried not to wince as she cleaned her injured leg gently but thoroughly, and asked, as casually as she could: "Did he – ow! – did he come alone … my father?"
"Most of the time." The nurse ripped open a fresh package of dressings. "Your cousin came with him once. Eliza, was it?"
Eliza? Ros took a guess. "Dark-haired, blue-grey eyes, long skirts?"
"That's the one." The nurse rearranged the bedclothes. Ros had been getting thoroughly chilled, and she pulled them close around her with relief.
Ruth. Which meant her 'father' was Harry Pearce. Jocelyn Myers would have been accompanied too, but by at least one prison officer from Wormwood Scrubs. Just for a moment Ros felt a wave of melancholy wash over her. Her father hadn't responded to any of her attempts to make contact with him for five years; all her information about him came indirectly through Harry, who had once served in army intelligence with the prison governor. He was a vengeful man who could keep a grudge warm for years. She knew that. But still she had hoped … just for a few moments, she had let herself hope that he might have cared enough to come, despite it all. For an awful second she felt the prickling of tears in her eyes and swiftly looked away from the nurse as the woman cleared up the debris of discarded packaging. Weakness, that's all. Snap out of it. Wallowing won't make him care.
The thought brought back the words of the surgeon. You're lucky to have someone who cares so much. As the nurse pulled back the curtains Ros looked around for Lucas, but the room was empty. She tried to crane towards the door and was rewarded with an admonitory spasm of pain in her shoulder.
"Don't worry, he'll be back soon." The nurse smiled. "What would you say to a cup of tea?"
Ros's normal answer to that would have been a sarcastic put-down. She hated tea – strong Colombian coffee was her drink of choice – but now the idea was the answer to prayer.
"I'd love one. Thank you."
She leaned carefully back into her pillows as the nurse trotted out, and stared out into the darkness. She had no idea what time it was, or, she suddenly realised, what day, come to that. She tried to remember on what day the bombing had occurred and count forward. Had the crisis been resolved? Maybe, if Lucas had got the Pakistani president out in time, but then with Andrew Lawrence dead … The attempt to weigh up the ifs and maybes made her head spin, and she closed her eyes and let her mind go blank again. She was drifting helplessly towards the outer edges of sleep when she sensed rather than heard movement and turned her head in its direction.
"Ros." She blinked her eyes open and waited for her view to swim into focus. Lucas was standing there, holding a tray with a mug of tea and a plate bearing two slices of toast. He still looked like a tramp who'd been kept on a regime of sleep deprivation for a week, but he was smiling. As he bent to place the tray on the table, Ros saw the man behind him. His usual velvet-collared overcoat had been replaced with a crumpled raincoat that looked as if it had been thrown in haste over jeans and a sweater, but a dishevelled Harry Pearce was beaming at her.
"Ros," he echoed. "Welcome back."
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