Ride or Die

John's long fingers with their blunt nails pressed against her scalp, pushing her down against the van's seat as the tumbling fog enveloped her.

Two soft explosions – tap, tap - and murmured words of love in a strange female voice gently parted the black veil for a moment.

Different hands, thick hands, pawed at her in those first moments after she drifted back into thought.

Unlatching the cuffs. Wresting her from the mangled van. Smoothing back her hair to probe a head wound.

There were soothing words and a few questions, but mostly it was the thick hands that Joss registered in the time immediately after the crash.

Soft dark surrounded her, cushiony and so comforting; she snuggled under her old down-filled quilt which had delightfully changed now from white to an embracing black. Fluffy nimbus clouds in inky tones piled at least ten feet high over her body, but the pressure was soft, warm.

And there was no pain at all.

She burrowed further under the cottony mass, though a part of her brain nagged that this was very wrong indeed.

But when the cuffs were gone and she could move an arm, she wrapped it around her chest and felt swaddled and safe inside the familiar cloud. If she could just stretch out her hand she would find John beside her now, safe too.

She didn't really want to leave the van, to leave John all alone in the cold. She wanted to bundle him under the black cloud too.

Maybe she resisted the tug of the thick calloused hands; maybe she said his name out loud once.

But she was pulled away by those urgent hands. The sandpaper voice, which she knew somehow, told her she had to move.

She had to leave John behind, shivering and exposed again.

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In the hospital, weird high-pitched voices bombarded her in a carnival of sounds.

Then she recognized Taylor's. It was a week day. Why wasn't he in school?

But when he dragged his cool tapered fingers over her cheek and asked her to open her eyes she obeyed, like he was the parent.

"Mom. Hi. Can you hear me?"

Of course she could.

She told him to go to school, but he stayed right there peering into her face, his eyes shining below his unruly hair, as if waiting for her to answer.

What was wrong with him? He should be out of the house and on his way to school by now.

"I think she's back."

Taylor was speaking again, in a voice that rumbled through her with a depth and authority she barely recognized. Other voices, males and females in bright nursery song tones, crowded out Taylor's.

The hands that took a hold of her now were strange, gentle, prodding her, adjusting the bedrail, peeling back her eyelids to flash piercing lights into her pupils, pulling her head from side to side.

These hands smelled of antiseptic, white soap, greasy lotion, and a dry rusty scent she knew was blood. Maybe her blood, maybe John's.

They sliced off her clothes with scissors that creaked.

Not in front of Taylor. No, don't.

Now the clever hands stroked her neck and pressed patterns in her back. Long fingers with blunt nails like John's roamed over her limbs, bending, pushing, waiting for her to contract in protest.

The voices kept asking her where it hurt and she kept telling them exactly where it hurt. But their eyes continued to dart the same question over and over again, even after she had answered a hundred times.

She wanted to see Taylor again. Where was he? Why didn't he stay here with her?

Where was John? Was he alone, chained in that cold room in Rikers again?

Maybe she said his name out loud once. Didn't they understand?

She needed to get back there, to finish the interrogation; just one more minute, one more exchange, surely this last question would set him free.

She was the one who should be asking the questions, not these sweet, vague voices, with their nursery rhyme accents.

xxxxxxxxx

The sunlight sliced by institutional blinds told her it was afternoon now. The pale green walls and tiles of the hospital room were bleached cauliflower white by the sunlight, but never warmed.

Was this one day or two after the crash? Could it be three?

Her head was clearer now. The filmy clouds had dissipated and memories now jostled with dreams in the vacant cavern left behind.

The wrinkles on the bed sheets clawed ridges into her back and sides; she must have been inert for a long while if each fold in the linens fired like a brand across her body.

She shook the bed rails once, testing, but they were fixed in place; to prevent her from falling or escaping, she wasn't sure which.

She lapsed easily into the hospital's rhythms, acquiescing in the hourly inspections, the cheerful Jell-O cups and the brackish broth.

The ward nurses, an entourage of Haitians and Filipinas, hovered over her with cloying devotion and sharp eyes.

She felt like a captive princess trapped in a watery green court, these ladies-in-waiting with crepe-soled shoes bustling about ostensibly to do her bidding. Her wish was their command, they simpered.

But they never gave her what she needed or acknowledged the one she truly wanted.

Visitors were infrequent, usually wearing expensive wrinkled sports jackets, court jesters festooned with stethoscopes and tiny flashlights.

The only one she wanted to see, needed to see, didn't come.

The ointment on her right wrist and cheek stuck to the sheets and the lacerations stung every time she lifted her hand or head. The sling supporting her broken left arm chafed where it touched her neck, but she didn't complain and even the frequent changing of the bandage swathing her head couldn't evoke a groan.

She noted that each time the nurses removed the gauze from her temple, there was less blood on it, which must be a good sign, she thought.

Angelique, who smelled faintly of sweaty summer flowers, was her devoted attendant during the day shift.

She was the most muscular of the nurses, always called upon when Joss wanted someone to turn the old-fashioned crank that elevated the head of the bed.

This mundane routine - Joss leaning forward so that her bare back pricked with goose bumps, Angelique grunting over the protesting crank – became the unlikely ceremony that sealed their alliance.

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After the soggy string beans and gray meat, Angelique brought a comical dessert in the form of little fluted paper cups filled with a candy-colored assortment of pills. She drank trustingly like a child while Angelique held the plastic glass, downing the pills rapidly, letting the cool water and the narcotic oblivion push away her only question for another hour.

In her dreams, she was riding behind John on his black motorcycle, her legs and arms fastened tight around him, her hair streaming out behind her. Sometimes they were shooting along a deserted country road under an arcade of autumn foliage; sometimes they were darting through city traffic, dodging taxis and bicycles pulling rickshaws.

Her dreams would go on and on. Always she was naked, laughing, warmed by his leather jacket and black jeans. Always she would ask a question and he would turn his head, the shiny black helmet rotating smoothly on his shoulders until the visor faced her. She could see her happy eyes in the black reflection.

Her dreams would go on and on. Then, although she didn't want to, she would lift the visor, looking for an answer. But his face wasn't there; nothing was there, only a hollow maw emitting a faint swooshing sound. The wind from the helmet's dark interior tickled her eyelashes.

And then she would wake up. Longing to dream of John again.

Angelique fed her regular reports about her own body temperature, about the frigid weather outside, about the pinging radiator under the window, about the space heater behind the nurses' station in the hall, as if the most important data in her world was now measured in Fahrenheit.

She tried not to think about Rikers, about John, tried not to wonder what had happened to him. Not to wonder why Donnelly's arrest hadn't stuck. If she didn't ask those questions, the headaches receded and her eyesight remained unclouded.

Her mother called long-distance from a cruise ship plying the waters of the Panama Canal.

She assured Inez – retirement didn't erase the emergency room nurse's finely honed professional skepticism - that she was in no danger at all, recovering well from her injuries, planning to go home in a day or two.

Finally Angelique swooped to the rescue, seizing the phone to repeat the medical assessment in technical jargon, nurse to nurse, and at last her mother was satisfied.

Fusco visited once, she recognized his thick hands when he held hers briefly across the bedrail.

"We're workin' on it, Four-eyes and me. We'll find a way. Just so ya know."

He didn't elaborate further or make promises she wouldn't believe anyway. But he didn't flinch either when he looked at her face, and that made a difference.

They had just five furtive minutes under the suspicious gaze of Dominica the night nurse; Fusco confined the rest of his report to news about precinct colleagues and old cases. His off-color jokes and salty anecdotes were not what she wanted to hear; but she didn't ask any questions, so he stuck to safe topics.

Getting up to go, he pushed a card from Captain Lynch and a note from Cal Beecher under the vase of sunflowers on the bedside table.

She didn't read either message.

xxxxxxxxx

Taylor would arrive soon, she judged by the fading sunlight.

Each afternoon she tried out a few more words with him, stretching her sentences by increments, keeping him close, keeping everyone else out.

She didn't have much to say anymore and she only wanted to share it with Taylor when she did.

She couldn't talk about Rikers, about John swaying at her side in the frozen moonlight along the bridge and her doubting questions there.

About riding beside John in the van, claiming he was merely a friend rather than the heart of her heart; denying him his real identity in that Gethsemane moment when Donnelly asked her price; about the vaulting crash and the soft gunshots and that lilting feminine voice.

She couldn't talk about anything that had mattered in her life before that moment.

When Taylor arrived that afternoon, she thought he was wearing the same baggy green pull-over sweater he had worn the day before. Or maybe not. Surely those gray slacks were the ones she had seen earlier.

He tossed his overstuffed backpack perilously close to her toes, spreading out his textbooks over the thin blanket to display his homework assignments.

He talked through the geometry problems out loud, reciting the formulas, holding up his drawings and calculations for her approval. Since he was doing much better in geometry than he had with algebra last year, there was no need for her to offer advice, to say anything really.

Her shift ending, Angelique leaned in at the door to greet Taylor. From the depths of her cherry red puffer coat, she got him to laugh when she teased him about needing a haircut.

"Just because your mama isn't speaking so much yet, don't mean she don't have eyes, cheri. She see you need a trim just like I do. So for both our sakes, go get yourself to a barber shop before you come back here tomorrow, d'accord?"

"When can she come home, Angelique?" Taylor's voice had lowered by several notes in the past months.

He sounded so much like a man, not a boy anymore.

"I don't know, cheri. You know Doctor Yanni, who runs all the neurological tests? He's the one you should ask. He'll let you know, for sure."

Angelique vanished in a rustle of synthetic fabric and fake leather.

Then Taylor hoisted his three-inch thick chemistry textbook and read a chapter out loud to her. He said the recital helped the concepts stick in his mind, but she thought he did it to fill the silence.

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The drone of Taylor's voice smoothed her way to sleep.

The sunlight was warm against her naked shoulders and she squeezed her bare thighs around John's waist as he revved the motorcycle under them. Looking down she could see the asphalt slipping like a molten river beneath the tires as they sped along. Taxis and rickshaws jumped around them and she was laughing, pressing her face into the black leather stretched across his back.

Before she could ask her question again, before that gaping helmet rotated again, she was jerked awake by a clamor outside her room, its high pitched squeals muffled as if under a pillow.

One of the night nurses, a new one she didn't recognize, was arguing with a visitor.

As the nurse's voice rose higher and higher, the visitor's tones grew softer and more insistent. The argument waxed and waned for several minutes, each side contending without a decisive victory.

She sank down flat on the bed and turned her face toward the window, now blank with the deep winter darkness.

She was ready to end this day.

Taylor went out to investigate the ruckus and she heard his resonant baritone prevail over the arguing combatants.

"Mom, look who's here to see you."

She turned her head toward the door. Harold Finch was perched on the threshold with his hands clasped heart-high.

"Mom, he wants to talk with you. See how you're doing."

She could feel the headache clamping down again.

The motorcycle's beckoning reverberations were buzzing in her ear, louder and more inviting with every revolution. She could feel the sun warming her shoulders and laughter bubbled in her throat. The smoky smell of black leather stroked her nostrils.

She wanted to go back to sleep.

But she smiled at Finch and he took that as encouragement to come closer.

Taylor pulled a chair near the head of the bed and lowered the railing so they could see eye to eye without obstruction. He set a thick brown briefcase beside Finch on the linoleum floor.

"Detective, I hope you don't mind this intrusion."

He peered at her, blinking rapidly, which she took as a reaction to the damage stamped on her face.

She hadn't glanced in the mirror these past few days, but now Finch's fleeting response foretold what she would see when she did dare to look again.

"It's good to see you, Harold."

Even if it wasn't, that was the proper thing to say. She felt hot tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.

"If this isn't a good time, I can return another day." He sighed and then chuckled slightly.

"Although I'm afraid that Nurse Immaculata might not believe me if I said I needed to come back again to get you to sign more tax documents."

"What do you mean by that?" Taylor was her voice now.

Finch smiled thinly and pulled back the drapes from his cover story, his voice lowered to a conspiratorial rumble as he leaned forward.

"I told your attentive nurse – Praetorian Guards would be more amenable - that I was Harold Rook, deputy director of the New York regional office of the Internal Revenue Service. I had recently completed an audit of the last three years of your income tax returns and needed your signature to complete the review. I apologized for disturbing you on your sick bed, but I assured her that the need was urgent.

"However I don't know if she would have given in without the timely arrival of Taylor, who played his part admirably."

He leaned back against the metal chair, never taking his mild eyes from her face.

"Harold, I am glad to see you." Her repetition of the rote greeting was mechanical. She didn't want to look at him, but something compelled her to do so.

Finch was dressed impeccably as always: chalk stripes modestly etching the dove gray wool seemed appropriate for a bureaucratic drone just elevated to managerial rank. She thought the maroon checked tie and magenta handkerchief were extravagant, but maybe Mr. Rook had received a year-end bonus and decided to splurge on improving his wardrobe.

When she said nothing further, he turned in a sudden movement to her son.

"Taylor, after all that deception, I find I am parched. Could you go down to the cafeteria and purchase a cup of tea for me. I shudder to remember what hospital tea can be like, so I leave it to your discretion which flavor to choose. I am sure any kind will be perfectly wretched."

Finch pulled out his wallet and unfolded a twenty dollar bill.

"And be sure to treat yourself to a snack or even a meal while you're there." He stared at the boy, who took the bill with a quick nod.

"I'm in no hurry, Taylor, so take as long as you like."

Finch watched Taylor's retreat from the room, his entire torso twisted in the effort.

Swiftly turning back to face her, he reached under the chair to pull it closer to the bed. The scraping sound was jarring and she looked to the door fearing the nurse would investigate the disruption.

"Detective, we need you back." Urgency laced his voice and made her heart race.

"We need your help and we need it now."

Finch's voice rose as his words pommelled her, demanding her attention and acquiescence.

"Detective Fusco is doing what he can, which is considerable. But your expertise and inventiveness is required now."

She reached for a pillow to prop her shoulders slightly above the level plane of the mattress, but shook her head as she fussed with the arrangements.

"Harold, I can't."

Her voice sounded faint, remote. Perhaps the meekness of her objection spurred him on.

"I have a good idea where our mutual friend is being held. According to my sources, the elements that have captured him are plotting to destroy a major infrastructure installation within a matter of days."

He clenched both hands over the rail's top rung, gripping it until it rattled.

"These people are ruthless, Detective. They are malevolent and undeterred by standard strategies of negotiation and persuasion."

By way of answer, she held up her arm in its white sling and touched the other hand to her forehead.

"I'm just not ready, Harold. You must see that."

"No, I don't see that. I don't accept that. At all."

She marveled at the way his pursed mouth barely moved although the words burst out more forcefully with each exhalation.

"Jocelyn, if we can put our minds and our wills together again, the way we did at Rikers, we can succeed. We can stop this attack. And we can get John back."

She sighed and turned her face toward the window once more.

"Your work in that interrogation room was exemplary. But it's not over. No matter what you're feeling right now. It's not over."

She dragged her gaze back to Harold's face at last, realizing that there was no use in begging for reprieve.

"Do you dream of him, Jocelyn?" He plucked his glasses from his nose and wiped the lenses once against his jacket sleeve. "Because, I do."

When the glasses were back in place he concluded his plea.

"It's not over as long as you and I are alive, Joss."

She shivered at the collision of emotions, powerful and grave, rolling through them.

After several moments of silence, he pulled out a sheaf of papers from the briefcase on the floor at his side. The sheets were clamped to a wooden clipboard.

Harold's voice melted into an insinuating, teasing tone and his eyebrows danced above the rims of his glasses.

"To make this cover story work for your watch dog nurse out there, will you please sign these documents?"

He pulled a fat black fountain pen from his breast pocket and held it out to her. She raised her hand but didn't unfurl the tight fist she presented. She focused on the abrasions across her knuckles, the brittle crust of blood cracked and dried now.

Harold gently cradled her hand in both of his, the palms above and below her fist. Slowly he uncurled each finger and positioned the pen in her grip. He placed the clipboard on her stomach, steering her hand toward it.

Stroking over her scabbed knuckles and tracing the faint green veins on the back of her hand from the nail beds to the wrist he encouraged her to move with his direction.

The document was an ornately designed sham, she could see now, filled with jumbled numbers, nonsensical equations, and fake Latin phrases.

As she angled the fountain pen over the blank line reserved for her name she let Harold's soft hand guide hers, now pushing, now pulling until her signature was accomplished.

"There, that wasn't too painful was it? You should know that you have now signed over half your property to the government of the Republic of Freedonia. Rufus T. Firefly tells me they need the revenue."

His eyes glittered with mirth, but when he removed his glasses to polish them again, she thought she could detect moisture of a more somber sort as well.

"Joss, I don't know how this will all turn out. Success is never guaranteed in our work, as you know. But I do feel more confident, now that you're with us again."

"Yes, Harold. Me too."

Resolution signed and sealed, she didn't have more to say; she just tilted her head toward the old-fashioned crank that controlled the angle of the bed.

When Taylor returned a few minutes later carrying a Styrofoam cup of tea and a foil covered plate, he saw Finch bent over his mother's bed, vigorously rotating the handle, raising her battered body to an upright position, ready for action.