This posting features Chapter 38 of my ongoing action novel, The Day of the Gun.
“Mr. Harris? Mr. Harris? Sir? Can you hear me?”
He awoke to find a burly U.S. Marshal leaning over his bed. Still groggy from sleep and an abundance of medication, Steve Harris reached for a cup of water on the nightstand. Leaning against the bed railings, he brought the cup to his lips and swallowed hard.
“Mr. Harris, you need to come with us.” The voice was high pitched and urgent; the speaker was extremely nervous.
Steve held up his index finger in a gesture that said, wait just a minute. The movement caused a sharp pain to shoot through his shoulder, and he winced. After gulping the water, he wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his hospital gown.
“Please, sir, we need to move. Now.”
Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he blinked. The room was an unfamiliar mix of cheap furniture and medical equipment visible beneath the harsh fluorescent glare of the overhead lights. Wires and tubes of all shapes and sizes surrounded him, each extending to some part of his weary, battered body.
His grogginess was surprising. Throughout his strange, meandering life, Steve always had been a light sleeper. It helped to ensure longevity in a world of vengeful Mafioso killers. The doctors must have pumped gallons of meds into his arm to keep him under so completely.
“Sir, we need to move.” The voice was equal parts insistent and panicked.
Steve did not recognize the gentleman at first. The Marshals worked in shifts, and this fellow was new. Judging by his beefy arms, thick, muscular neck and regulation armed services crew-cut, he probably was an ex-Marine making a seamless transition into the Marshal’s Service. He was trying to, anyway. The man looked to be 40 years old or so, an ex-athlete facing the dim reality of a long, slow, inevitable decline from the height of his powers. Still, for one heart-stopping moment, Steve entertained the possibility that the man was an impostor trying to lure him to his doom.
“Who are you?” The words stuck in his throat. “I sense you’re an ex-Marine.”
“Semper Fi. I’m in the club, too.”
“That’s good to hear, sir. Then you know I can’t leave you behind. With all due respect, we must leave now.”
“I apologize. I must be loopy from the meds,” he muttered’ almost inaudibly, under his breath. He thought of a saying his father had repeated a thousand years before. Time’s a-wastin’ and daylight’s a-burnin.’ He would have shared it with his new-found buddy, the fellow ex-Marine, but he could not find the words.
“Let’s get you into a wheelchair, sir.”
“Are we ready?” a second Marshal asked. He, too, sounded on the edge of panic. Judging by his voice, he was younger and even more nervous than his colleague.
Still squinting under the glare of the fluorescent lights, Steve tried to speak again. He managed only a small squeak as dozens of questions flooded through his mind. Why the hurry?
Behind the first man, the younger Marshal moved at a brisk pace. Both men looked worried, their hands poised on the butt of their sidearms. The men stood on each side of his bed and lowered the arm railings.
“What’s up?” His throat hurt and he found it difficult to speak through a fog of painkillers, but he needed to know what was happening. Deep in the back of his mind, alarm bells were ringing. Their shrill warning told him something was not right. “What’s going on?”
“Let’s go, sir,” the Marshal said as he and the other fellow roughly hoisted Steve from the bed.
“Do I know you?” he croaked. The man did not answer.
Steve’s legs were wobbly and he could hardly stand, but the men evidently had anticipated the problem. They deftly carried him across the room and dropped him into a wheelchair. The first Marshal, Steve’s fellow former Marine, rolled a metal pole with his IV bag attached around the side of the bed.
“’D. Williams,’” Steve said, squinting to look at the Marshal’s name badge. “What’s the ‘D’ stand for?”
“David,” the burly man said.
“And your partner?” He jerked his head toward the twenty-something, pink-faced kid sporting the same regulation crew-cut as his colleague.
The big man sighed. “Aaron McEnroe. Now, let’s go.”
“How do I know Tony the Knife didn’t send you?”
David Williams smiled. “You’ll just have to trust us on this one.”
"Hmm. I don't do 'trust' very well."
The Marshal shrugged.
“What about my bathrobe and slippers?” Steve asked as he cleared his throat.
The officers momentarily looked disgusted.
“Hey, my ass hangs out the back of this gown,” he explained. “C’mon, guys, let me have my dignity. It’s on the hook behind the door.” He pointed. “My shoes are right there.”
Shaking his head, Williams bounded across the room and retrieved the robe. With his foot, he pushed the shoes over to the edge of the bed. He returned to the wheelchair and both officers helped Steve wriggle into the oversized terrycloth garment.
“Thanks, fellas,” he said as he slipped his feet into the soft brown slippers. “Much obliged. Now I can preserve what little dignity I still have. It ain’t much, but it’s all I have.”
McEnroe kneeled and attached the leg rests on the wheelchair.
Steve watched him with interest. “Lift up and then push down,” he advised.
“I got it,” the young Marshal muttered as he struggled to affix the attachments. He eventually mastered the contraptions and resumed his vigilant stance.
“Are you related to the former tennis star?” Steve asked.
“No,” McEnroe said in a dismissive tone voice.
“I bet you get asked that question a lot.” He paused. “Look. Are you guys gonna tell me what’s happening or not?”
Apparently, the answer was: or not.
The larger man stood behind the wheelchair. “Are we ready?”
“Not ‘til I know what’s happening.” Steve’s voice was barely above a whisper and he was in no position to negotiate, but he wanted answers. He needed them.
Williams paused, as though considering the request. Finally, he spoke. “We have orders to move you to another room,” he said as though it were an explanation. “Can you release your brake?”
Steve looked down at the chair, saw that a lever was blocking the movement of the wheel, and reached to pull the switch. McEnroe beat him to it. Wordlessly, the men exchanged glances, and Steve saw that the young guy was scared.
“On whose orders?”
Impatiently: “The U.S. Attorney. Okay?”
“Why are you moving me instead of the nurses doing it? And why all the fuss? What’s the hurry in the middle of the night? Why does the U.S. Attorney care?”
“Mr. Harris, we don’t have time for all these questions.”
Steve frowned. Something definitely was wrong here. These guys were not telling him something. They may have told him the truth and nothing but; still, it wasn’t the whole truth.
“You’re keeping something from me,” he said.
“We can discuss it on the way,” Williams offered by way of compromise.
“Wait. Before we leave: Can I have the trashcan?”
The younger Marshal, McEnroe, leaned forward and slid the metal container toward his ward. Steve cleared his throat again in a dramatic gesture and spat into the bag liner.
“Sorry. I know it’s gross.” He wiped his mouth on his pajama sleeve.
McEnroe nodded, his face stoic for once. “No problem.”
“One other thing, agent Williams. You can answer at least one quick question, can’t you? Why are you moving me now, at this moment?”
“It’s just routine,” Williams said as he pushed the chair into the hall. Both Marshals glanced furtively down the hallway.
Steve caught sight of a wall clock. It read: 4:22.
“Is that clock right? It’s 4:22 a.m.?”
“That’s right,” Williams confirmed.
“It seems awfully early in the morning to be routinely moving to another room.”
McEnroe trotted ahead and pushed the button for the elevator.
“What’s going on? Seriously, tell me. Is Tony the Knife after me again?”
The Marshals ignored his inquiries, but they exchanged glances. He knew he was right.
“You need to get me to another room in case they send someone for me — or more than one someones.” Steve looked down at the floor. “That’s some audacity. But, then again, Tony the Knife is known for his audacity. It’s his trademark, you know.”
The Marshals stood quietly waiting for the elevator while Steve mused aloud.
“He must have someone planted on the outside leading the operation. Whoever it is has contacts inside DOJ — deep inside. It may be McLean and it may be someone else.” He looked at the Marshals. “Is this ringing any bells, fellas?”
“We’re just keeping an eye on you,” Williams said as he watched the elevator lights and charted the progress of the next car.
“That’s why you’re practically unholstering your Glocks.”
The Marshals looked at each other quickly, but in a glance that was pregnant with meaning. Damn, this guy sees everything.
“That reporter’s prob’ly got more info than anyone in law enforcement,” Steve said with a shrug. “She’s the one to ask for the whole story.”
Gazing down the hall in both directions, the Marshals were pleased to see only a lone figure at the nurse’s station. A fifty-something woman, plump and non-threatening in her clean, starched-white uniform, was hunched over a clipboard, furiously scribbling something as if her life depended on it. She appeared to be oblivious to their movements.
Steve noticed their glances. “Maybe we’re not even staying at this hospital. You’re moving me somewhere else, aren’t you? It’ll be someplace where you can keep me in tighter protective custody. And we’re going in the middle of the night to minimize the likelihood that CNN and the rest of that crew finds out about it.”
“You’d make a great detective, Mr. Harris. You’ve got a nose for it.”
“I’ve had to adapt, shall we say.” He shook his head, which drooped onto his chest. “I wish I could stay awake. I’m so groggy it’s hard to concentrate. They pumped me full of drugs.”
“Not to worry. We’ll have you out of here soon.”
“Do you really think I’m in that much danger?” He shook his head. “Sorry. Silly question. I, of all people, should know how tenacious Tony the Knife can be — even from prison. Especially from prison.”
The door made a ringing noise, indicating that the elevator car had arrived. The Marshals fell silent. All seemed to be well until the doors slid open and McEnroe’s eyes went wide.
“Oh, shit,” he said as he reached for his revolver.