by Joseph T. McFadden
While driving home through the dusk of a warm, rainy April day, Eric Stuart spotted a young woman running down the sidewalk ahead as though trying desperately to escape something about to overtake her. On impulse he swerved out of traffic, slowing along the curb behind her racing feet as she lowered her head and dashed forward once again, turning in stride to glance back through vernal greens and pale yellows of wet foliage along the street, panic on her delicate and lovely face. Alarmed blue eyes met his gaze as he reached back to swing the rear door open-a silent offering-and without missing stride she leapt across the grass divide and plunged into the back seat.
"Get out of here fast ... they almost had me this time . they will get you, too."
Tires screeched, boiling blue smoke as he dived back into traffic.
"Where to? Where do you live?"
"Oh, no! Not there ... hide me somewhere," she gasped, the bellows sound of rapid breathing rising from the floor where she lay.
Driving on, he waited, the panting beginning to slow, catching her breath, his attention on the busy street. A gust of misty wind swirled the water-laden Sycamore limbs arboring Olney Road in the gathering dusk, and showers peppered his windshield with raindrops and springtime buds. A flurry of seagulls rose on wing from the inlet, screaming in erratic upward flight. He veered down a side street and turned back into Stockley Gardens Boulevard, slowing to a dignified speed, and cruised the streets to his own garage, his window shut now against the salty smell of the tide and warm dampness of coastal lowlands in the city of Norfolk, Virginia.
After the garage door closed he helped her out of the car. She stood, breathing calmly, poised and regal, tall and leggy in tapered slacks, looking up to meet his gaze. Her hands trembled and she appeared weakened and vulnerable, perfume wafting clean and delicate, her eyes upon his face with quiet regard, the pupils big, the blueness intense.
"You are safe now."
"Thank you. Where are we?"
"In my house."
"Thanks for the hospitality."
"No problem, but we have to decide what to do with you, and perhaps me if they saw us together."
"I don't think they did," she said. "I escaped by jumping two brick walls and taking another street."
"Are they driving or on foot?"
"Driving . a new black BMW M5."
The silken swish of a speeding automobile on wet pavement approached in the street. He went to the door and looked through the view glass as the sound peaked and diminished in passing. "They just went by at breakneck speed. I counted three, all wearing hats." As he spoke, tires squealed on a curve at the intersection down the street. She closed her eyes and cringed.
"Hoods. God! They are too close."
"Who are they?"
"Nor why they are chasing you?"
She shook her head. "Not really, and I'm afraid to guess."
He turned from the door and crossed the garage. She looked up, watching his face, looking into his black eyes. She had seen this man before, many times, but never up close. Now she stood within touching distance of the red curly hair, his lanky and muscular leanness, his angular masculinity and legendary appeal.
"I'm Eric Stuart."
"I'm Joan Pully, and I know who you are, a fellow in heart surgery at Sentara's new heart hospital, Sentara General. You have been pointed out to me in the hospital where I go often, working for LifeChain."
"And you are thirty or thereabouts, and single, and-"
"How do you know?"
"All the girls talk about you."
"Nurses, laboratory technicians, hospital secretaries, single women, married women, volunteers . the pink ladies . all dreaming."
"I can't imagine why."
"You want to hear? It goes like this . heart surgeon bar none, card expert, magician better than amateur, sleight of hand master who did his first triple bypass when he was still an intern and did it faster and better than seasoned guys training him. Six foot three, handsome and desirable and gives no one a tumble, completely trusted by every woman who knows him, could have anybody he wanted, the talk of the town, the most desirable, the most eligible bachelor, dreamboat." She looked at him steadily, an eyebrow raised, a bemused smile, teasing.
"Hold it, hold it, hold it."
She laughed, "There's more."
"It can't all be good."
"Maybe, but no one has been given a chance to see the other side, if there is one. What are you, a street angel and house devil?"
"Frankenstein, maybe, or Dr. Jekyll." His face flushed and he changed the subject. "What do you do for LifeChain?"
"Mostly carry live organs from one city to another."
"A commendable operation, and nice to meet you."
"Meeting this way is a Godsend. Thanks for the rescue."
"How do you know who to trust?"
"Oh, I have no doubts about you. And how did you know to stop?"
"A tingling premonition, I suppose, something like the way animals know violent weather beyond a cloudless sky."
"Not just a hunch?"
"A silent message in the winds of unspoken warnings-and you were beginning to wobble."
"Well, if you're psychic, thank God for it."
"Anyway, so here we are. I was planning to cook for myself tonight. The kitchen is right above," he said, turning toward the stairs.
She followed. As they passed behind his car, she said, "A new Mercedes 400. Not bad for a fellow in training."
"It didn't come from medicine, and before you guess wrong, nor family money, either."
"Did it yourself?"
"Yes. I'm lucky at an interesting sideline."
"When do you complete your fellowship?"
"Little more than a month. June of this year."
"Several offers, but no decisions. I want to go where I'm needed, and where politics, complacency, and commercialism don't impede progress."
"You think you will find such a place in this country at the beginning of the twenty-first century?"
"It's worth a try."
"Yes, but now tell me this ... why did you pick Norfolk to be trained in the most gratifying of all surgery? You could have gone to more renowned and tonier places with your obvious talents."
"Thank you. To tell you the truth, after five years of general surgery at Hopkins, I came to look just on a fluke. I had heard about it and was amazed. Every heart surgeon here came from high academia and surgical schools famous for their refined skills, and each of them is dedicated to the highest quality. They, one and all, are here to escape the tyranny of those places, and I could not have fallen into better hands."
"Well, they certainly have my admiration, too."