Author's note: Thank you very much to Lilmizmoz, tlh45, Herrera, mav32, gluegirl56 and SMACkedHuddy for your kind reviews - this chapter is for you!
This is the one chapter of which the title may - or may not - be a lie. You'll know by the end of the story!
Chapter 3 - "Angel of mercy"
Mac Taylor, early Tuesday morning
"Let's just take a shortcut."
The orderly smiled as he opened a door to a brightly-lit stairwell, bypassing the early morning crowd waiting in front of the hospital elevators.
For a few minutes, Mac Taylor followed the man through Angel of Mercy, while bantering with Don on Stella's phone. He was elated to be back on his feet again so soon after what had gone down at the bodega last night. Although still a painful reminder, the knife wound beneath his ribs wasn't as serious as he had feared at first. Instead, he had used the incident as a much-needed final push to overcome the self-doubt that always held him back when it came to Stella. Thinking back to their furtive kisses in the bathroom, he had to admit he was pretty pleased that he had finally made his move. Why the hell hadn't they done this years ago?
His mind was already racing ahead to the prospect of seeing Stella again, and it was quite an effort for him to stay focused on his conversation with Don. He shook his head with a grin, hoping that she was being serious and not just looking for some fun. Don had been rather startled to hear that he was planning to take the day off. He could only imagine what everyone else's reaction at the lab would be when Stella announced the same intent. Hating the complications of an office romance, he hoped they still somehow had time to come up with a plausible cover story.
As they turned yet another corner, Mac stopped for a minute to put his hand against the wall, already winded from their brisk walk.
"Are you okay?" he heard the orderly ask. "You need a wheelchair? It's actually hospital policy -"
"No, I'm fine, really," Mac interrupted, briefly placing the phone against his chest. "I don't need your help." Setting off again, Mac rubbed the dull ache under his ribs, hoping it wouldn't spoil the day Stella had planned for them.
In passing, the orderly pointed to a "no cell phones" sign, and Mac decided to wrap up the conversation with Don, slipping the phone into the pocket of his sweatpants. He looked down at his faded gray sweats and smiled. Stella had certainly sabotaged his return to the office, and once again his mind lingered on what she could possibly have in mind for the rest of the day. He'd have to cancel a couple of meetings, of course, including a particular tiresome one with Sinclair, but that would actually be a welcome relief.
When he looked up again, Mac realized that not only had he had lost sight of the orderly, but he no longer knew where he was. Frowning, he turned around to look at the empty corridor behind him. They had only been walking for ten minutes, but he hadn't been paying attention to where they were going, and now he stood alone in a seemingly deserted part of the hospital. Thinking back, he realized it had actually been a while since they had passed anyone else on their way.
The silent hallway was lined with what appeared to be broken hospital equipment. Still short of breath, Mac put his hand on an empty bed parked next to two swing doors marked "Laundry Room". Something wasn't right, he thought, looking around again. What the hell kind of shortcut was this? They had to be miles from radiology. Feeling uneasy, he instinctively looked up to check for surveillance cameras. Finding none, he pulled the phone out of his pocket again, debating what to do now. Since he was holding her phone in his hands, there was obviously no point in calling Stella. He stared at the phone, trying to recall if his own phone - still back in his hospital room - was switched on.
At that moment, he heard a sudden noise right behind him. Turning around, he received a crushing blow to his forehead, which sent the phone flying out of his hand and spinning across the hallway floor.
An excruciating pain exploded like a depth charge inside his head. Instinctively, he pressed both hands to his forehead, feeling the blood seep down through his fingers, soaking into the sleeves of his sweatshirt. He knew he needed his hands to defend himself from another blow, but it felt like his head would come apart if he removed them. With a gasp, he staggered backwards and stumbled through the swing doors into a dark, windowless room.
Blinded by the blood in his eyes, and deafened by the ringing in ears, he felt another fierce blow crack the ribs on his right side. Doubled over now, he took another few steps backwards and tripped over something bulky lying on the floor. He landed heavily on his back, expelling most of the air from his lungs. Struggling to inhale again, he rolled over onto his hands and knees. He tried desperately to get up, but his hands kept sliding on the bloody floor beneath him. Eventually, he slipped and landed awkwardly on his injured right side. Trying to regain control of his breathing, he lay still and listened for the whereabouts of his unseen attacker.
Mac's vision slowly adjusted to the darkness, and he saw the outline of a person backlit by the green glow of an emergency exit sign. The man was sitting motionless on the floor directly in front of him, and for a while Mac heard him still breathing heavily from the exertion. Gradually, though, the sound faded away, and now all he could hear was his own rasping breath. Why is he just sitting there? Is he deciding what to do next, or just waiting for me to die?
"Who ... are ... you?" Mac managed to gasp, almost inaudibly.
His words were met with a long silence. Had the man not heard him speak? Was he even really there?
"Angel of mercy," came the ominous reply.
Mac didn't consciously hear the man's words, but their underlying menace swirled around in his dazed mind. It was as if the oxygen had been sucked out of the air in the darkened room. As he felt his strength slowly seep out of him, a chill crept over him and he started to shiver.
Suddenly he felt his wrists being yanked together and bound tightly. Then a pair of hands grabbed him under his arms and dragged him backwards across the room and into the bright light, before pushing him up onto a gurney. Furious at the injustice of being injured again so soon, Mac felt a sudden surge of adrenaline pull him back from the edge of consciousness, and he started to struggle against his attacker. Blinking the blood out of his eyes, he saw a dizzying rush of bright fluorescent ceiling lights pass over his head. He kept trying to get up, but the man held something firmly down against his throbbing forehead, effectively pinning him down on the gurney. Finally, he felt his breathing ease a little as he began to teeter on the very brink of an enclosing darkness.
Late Tuesday afternoon
When Mac woke up again, he could tell that he was lying flat on his back on a hard floor. He groaned and kept his eyes tightly shut. Where am I? The pain in his head was still overpowering, and every breath sent agonizing jolts down both his sides. His left hand seemed to be constrained, caught on something around the wrist. He stretched out his free right hand and noticed that his fingers were stuck together. Not good. He brought his hand up to his face and ran his fingertips across the painful welt on his forehead, counting twelve stitches. What the hell happened?
The last thing he could remember was walking behind the orderly through a maze of hospital hallways and stairwells. After that, only a few incoherent memories swam into focus. Frowning, he recalled bright lights shining into his eyes, and then an angry Asian face shouting at him to lie still. Who on earth had that been? And then, after that, there was ... nothing, except a gaping void in his mind. There was no explanation for why he would be lying here on this floor right now.
Reluctant to open his eyes just yet, he strained to listen to his surroundings instead, but the room seemed to be silent. No voices, no footsteps, no traffic. Gradually he noticed the faint tap-tap of water dripping into a metal sink, and then a small motor began humming somewhere in the room. Next, a dog started barking furiously somewhere outside, and he was certain he was not at Angel of Mercy any longer.
Finally, he opened his eyes and found himself staring up at something blurry stirring right above his head. He blinked several times, trying to get his mind to register what his eyes were seeing. After a minute or so, he realized that he was looking up at a curtain, wafting slightly in the draft from a broken window above him. Then he saw that he was lying next to a large cast-iron radiator under the window. The window itself appeared to have been crudely boarded up with plywood, and its edges cast the only rays of daylight into what was a large, unlit room.
He turned his head to his right and saw an old kitchen table and two wooden chairs close to him. Craning his neck, he looked up at the wall behind him and noted several kitchen cupboards, a metal sink, an old stove, and - at the far end - an open door leading into another room. From where he was lying, however, the angle was too shallow for him to see into the other room. The wall opposite was empty, except for a wall calendar and an old fridge in the corner. Across the brown linoleum floor from the window, there was a wide doorway leading into a dark hallway.
Turning his head back again, he noticed for the first time that his left wrist was in fact handcuffed to the radiator. What the hell -? He pulled several times on the handcuffs, which clanked louder than he had expected against the painted radiator pipe. Groaning again, he rolled over on his left side and ran his fingertips along the pipe, discovering small, criss-crossing scratch marks that had scraped most of the paint off. Had he done this himself? he wondered, his panic rising. How long had he been lying here already? He felt the linoleum floor below the pipe with his fingers but found no paint chips or scrapings, and he calmed down again. It couldn't have been him after all, he thought with relief.
He rolled onto his back and held up his arms, trying to work out what exactly had happened. He squinted as he studied the bloodstains on his sleeves and the blood caking his hands. Was all of this really his own blood? He didn't seem to have any defensive wounds, so he must have been caught completely by surprise. For whatever reason, he must have had his arms raised for his attacker to get such a clean swipe at his ribs. Bracing his aching ribs with his right arm, he slowly raised one knee and looked down at the blood spatter on his sweatpants. Everything he could see was consistent with him being struck on the head while standing up, and then continuing to bleed heavily while lying on his right side. That meant that some time had passed before anyone had found him, in which case he probably hadn't been attacked in a public part of the hospital. He looked more closely at his bloody hands again and noticed a puncture wound from an IV needle. Recalling the twelve stitches on his forehead, he realized that someone must have saved his life by taking him to the ER. In that case, why wasn't he still at the hospital? It didn't make any sense.
He remembered that he had been talking to Don on the phone as he walked through the hospital. Had Don somehow overheard what had happened? And where was that phone now? He quickly slipped his hand into the pockets of his sweatpants, but they were empty. He looked up again, recalling that there had been a slight bulge behind the curtain above him. Was it just going to be that easy? Expecting to find a wall-mounted kitchen phone, he reached up and flicked the curtain out from the wall with his fingertips. But it was just an old-fashioned, round electricity meter. Damn! Disappointed, he cursed himself for getting his hopes up in vain.
Taking another look at the empty kitchen, he suddenly had the depressing sensation that he was lying in one of the countless sordid crime scenes that he himself had investigated over the years. These are a bad omen, he thought, glancing at the handcuffs on his wrist again. Someone really doesn't want me to get out of here alive. He could almost see his team kneel down beside his own lifeless body, grimly opening their crime scene kits to process the kitchen and determine the cause of death.
He tried to shake off the gloomy feeling that had crept up on him. What on earth was happening? He had looked danger in the eye often enough, but couldn't recall being afraid for his life like this. There had to be some kind of rational explanation for this. Was it something his attacker had said to him? He forced himself to think even further back, and suddenly the memory of Stella swept back into his consciousness. Remembering the warm glow of their kisses, he realized how much more he stood to lose now, apart from his own life. Only minutes after promising Stella he'd be more careful, he had let her down by blundering straight into some kind of set-up. If she had been upset about what had happened at the bodega, he could only imagine how furious she had to be at him right now. Did I really tell her to stop worrying? He put his hand over his eyes. How could he have been so reckless? This is what you get for letting your guard down, Mac, he sighed. Who would have thought his Taylor luck would run out so soon?
Mac felt the room start to spin again, and a wave of nausea threatened to overwhelm him. He didn't want to risk passing out while lying on his back, so he settled uncomfortably on his right side. It was awkward to have his handcuffed left wrist pulled back behind him, but at least this way he was facing into the empty kitchen. Whoever had brought him here from the hospital - and handcuffed him to the radiator - would be coming back through the dark doorway opposite, and Mac hoped to be ready for him. Closing his eyes, he allowed the oncoming darkness to settle over him again like a starless night sky.
Next up: Chapter 4 "There are no problems with our investigation"
Late Tuesday afternoon: Don Flack's point of view
Stella and Don continue to disagree, thereby getting their investigation into more trouble than they realize at first.