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       Jacked, p.2

           Tina Reber

  My father shook his head. “No, no, I’ll be all right, sweetheart.”

  I glanced over at my mother. She was holding Chris, consoling him. They both still had hope Uncle Cal would pull through, sharing their thoughts of his rehabilitation already. I, however, knew better. Part of me felt obligated to stay at work so a family member would be present when the Chaplain administered last rites. I’d seen too many traumas to know the difference, and my uncle was dangling on a very fine precipice.

  Nate started crying again, breaking my thoughts. I could tell he was trying to hold it in, but it was too much. Seeing such a formidable young man brought down to his knees was unbearable to watch.

  Tears of my own were stinging my eyes again. I wiped my cheeks. “Okay, then I’m going to go home. I’ve been here for almost fifteen hours now, Dad. I need to get some sleep.”

  My mother sobbed again, tearing another hole into my heart.

  My father frowned at first and then shook off a bit of his stupor, gently rubbing my upper arm. “Okay, sweetheart. Let me gather your mother.”

  We walked outside to the open parking lot. Dad brushed his hand over my back. “Erin, are you going to be all right to drive?”

  I pulled my purse up onto my shoulder; the frigid February winter wind sent an icy chill though my body. “Yeah, Dad. I’m okay.” I hit the button on the key fob. My car lights flashed, illuminating the darkness as my doors unlocked.

  I’d never been one to believe in ghosts but the tall, dark figure that seemed to pop out of shadows from nowhere, slinking and ducking in between the cars in the lot, spooked me a little. I squinted, trying to make out some discernible features on the darting figure, noting it was definitely the shape of a man. After a few steps, the stranger stopped walking. All I could see was his darkened silhouette. Shortly thereafter, he became dimly lit by the glow of a cell phone. I hated that uneasy feeling that swept over me, making me question my safety in the city.

  Dad pulled my coat hood up as if I were still a child, tucking my long hair in away from my face. “Okay. Call us if you need anything. Please be careful going home.”

  I wrapped my arms around his waist and hugged him tightly, realizing how often I take his constant presence and affection for granted. My cousins had their entire world destroyed tonight. Had fate tipped her hand my way, this tragedy could have very well been mine to bear.

  My dad kissed my forehead softly, making me hug him even harder. He’d been kissing me and my sister, Kate, that way ever since I could remember and it was just what I needed right now.

  Dad released me and I hugged and kissed my mom, wishing with every fiber of my soul that I could have given her different news. There were no tears, no prayers, no medical skills that could bring Aunt Karen back. I wiped another tear from her soft cheek, willing her with the little bit of strength I had left. “Have faith, Mom. He’s in good hands.”

  She nodded. “I know, sweetheart. Call us when you get home so I know you’re okay.”

  I fought the desire to roll my eyes. Any other time I would have internally balked at the idea of calling them to “check in” but now was not the time to be indifferent or discourteous.

  I climbed into my frigid car and started it, selecting the button for the seat warmer. I needed a hot shower, a warm bed, and some much needed sleep.

  Well, that was my plan. After a twelve-hour shift, three additional hours looking over Uncle Cal’s X-Rays and CT scans, consulting with his surgical team, and staving off the crushing feelings of utter devastation, I wished for nothing more than to pass out from exhaustion.

  I pulled the strings on my coat hood and cranked the heat up. My dashboard showed it was a brisk twenty-eight degrees outside.

  The clock on the square navigation panel indicated it was now 5:12 a.m., but I knew it was an hour fast. At least the traffic in the city at this time was light; I’d be home before the Philly commuter traffic started. Maybe I’d distract my fraught mind with learning how to program the onboard system. Eight years of college, a year of internship rotations, three years of residency in the ER, and I still for the life of me couldn’t figure out how to change the clock display. Feeling inept in my brand new shiny car was unnerving.

  The bright lights blinding me in my rearview mirror were also quite unnerving. The large black SUV behind me with the foreboding steel plate attached to the front of it had been on my tail for the last six blocks and two turns.

  Being followed was making me nervous and edgy.

  Just to test the theory and for some peace of mind, I turned one block sooner, knowing that any of the next few lefts would get me home.

  As soon as I turned the wheel, my heart rate spiked and extreme fright pricked my nerves. The SUV continued to follow me. This was not the best part of Philadelphia to be driving around in, especially in the wee hours of the morning. All sorts of worst-case scenarios rushed through my mind.

  Well, not tonight. I’d already endured enough; I was not going to become a victim on top of it.

  I stepped on the gas pedal, trying to make it through the next traffic light before it turned, dangerously catching the tail end of the yellow light as it changed to red above me.

  I checked my mirrors; the SUV paused at the intersection then accelerated and ran the red light. Before I could form a rational thought to explain it, red and blue lights flashed behind me.

  Oh shit. Shit, shit, shit. Not now.

  That pressure you feel when you’ve done something wrong and been caught hit my chest, shocked my nerves, and surged up into my throat. I let off the gas and looked for somewhere to pull over; after all I should have known better than to run a red light in the city. My attention veered from the demanding flashing lights; there were no open spaces to pull over to the curb.

  I gasped as another truck and then another very large SUV with red and blue lights blazing headed straight toward me.

  I slammed on the brakes, fully bracing for an impact that fortunately didn’t happen. Two more trucks came to a screeching halt along side of me.

  What the…?

  Holy shit. I was completely boxed in.

  “Oh my God. Oh my God,” I started to babble as visions of being kidnapped came to mind.

  My normally cool under pressure heart was working at a frantic pace, overwhelming me with the urge to run.

  Bright strobe lights surrounded me, flashing violently and blinding me from all angles. I felt the need to shield my eyes as red and blue police lights bounced off the reflective, wet streets.

  No, this isn’t happening. This isn’t happening.

  I froze when I saw guns pointed at me from numerous open truck windows.

  “Let me see your hands! Hands! Keep them up!” a man yelled.

  My body jerked with fright, overriding my brain’s order to do as it was told.

  “Hands up on the roof! On the roof! Do it! Do it now!”

  A gun was pointed right at my head on the other side of my driver’s window. “Get out of the car, nice and slow,” a deep voice ordered. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”

  I was shaking so hard I could barely move let alone follow orders. Bright lights blinded me at every angle. Men were shouting all around me. Several pistols were aimed at me when my car door opened.

  A very strong hand grabbed my wrist and hauled me out of my seat. He twisted it behind my back, instantly immobilizing my arm, and pressed me face first into the trunk of my brand new car.

  Vivid canary yellow lettering, announcing POLICE and AUTO THEFT TASK FORCE, stood stark against the all-black outfits that surrounded me.

  “Ow,” I cried out, feeling my tired muscles strain as both of my arms were pulled behind my back. Cold metal handcuffs cinched around my wrists. Oh God! Not again! “Stop! Wait! I didn’t do anything! Why are you doing this?”

  Someone very strong leaned into me; his thigh kept my leg pinned, although I could tell that whoever was cuffing me was reserving his strength.

  As if I could eve
r be a threat to any of them. If I weren’t on the verge of tears and a full-blown panic attack, I would have laughed.

  “Calm down, miss,” an enormously large, dark figure standing to my left said, trying to cajole me. I looked over and then way up into the face of one massive and very intimidating black police officer. “Romeo Seven to control,” he said into his radio. “We’re ten-fifteen. One in custody.”

  Custody? What the hell?

  Absolute terror clenched my chest, causing me to hyperventilate. My heart was pounding erratically. Everything around me was hazy, blurry, as if I was adrift in some nightmare and unable to wake.

  “It was… yel… yellow,” I sputtered, my cheek stinging from making contact with the frosted metal. I didn’t realize that running a red light was such an offense, nor was it cause for so many cops to converge. Whatever this was, it was far from a typical traffic stop. I was in deep shit.

  Cops were shining flashlights into my car, opening doors, inspecting everything. Once I was cuffed, the officer pinning me stood me up, turned me, and tugged my hood off my head.

  His strong jaw, shaded by a low growth of stubble, was clenched, and dark eyes were glaring with angered intensity. Short, blunt-cut brown hair rimmed the edge of his black ball cap, turned backwards on his head to show the word “POLICE” in small yellow letters.

  Another bright light was shone right on me. I squinted and winced, noting the source of the blinding light was connected to a camera hefted on top of someone’s shoulder. Another guy, a few inches shorter, was standing next to the cameraman. He was wearing headphones and a ball cap with the word Pantera written on it, staring at some sort of hand-held monitor that reflected colored images back onto his glasses.

  Oh please, God, NO! Philly news was here to record the demise of my career.

  Just as I was about to question why one, two, three separate cameras were filming me, the officer addressed me again.

  “Eyes on me, Miss,” he growled.

  My head snapped up at his direct order.

  “What’s your name?” he asked with that foreboding cop authority.

  “Erin. Erin Novak,” I breathed, fighting the urge to pass out.

  “All right, Erin Novak, you want to tell me why you ran that red light back there and why I was doing almost sixty to keep up with you?”

  I glanced down the street at the red light in question, my mind drawing a complete blank. “I thought… it was mostly yellow. I don’t know. Every time I turned, you turned. I was… I was scared being followed like that. It’s late and I just…” I took a deep breath, trying to calm myself. “I just wanted to get home without getting kidnapped or killed.”

  His eyebrows rose, causing me to focus in on his alluring brown eyes. “You knew we were following you?”

  Why the humor in his tone? “Yes. Well, no. I suspected.”

  The large black officer snickered. “So much for undetected.”

  Apparently I was missing some part of the joke.

  “We tagged you right after you peeled onto Broad Street,” my incarcerator said somewhat proudly.

  Well, good for you. Tagged me for what, I had no idea.

  He looked at my silver car. “Ford Taurus SHO. Nice choice. Expensive ride.”

  I may have a mound of med school debt, but expensive cars were reasonably priced when your father owned two Ford dealerships.

  His eyes rolled up and down my body, from my puffy ski jacket down to my sneakers and back again. Oh God. That’s when I realized I was still wearing my scrub pants. His flashlight stayed lit on my pants leg and then illuminated a spot on the top of my sneaker.

  “You want to explain to me why you’ve got blood on your pants?”

  I looked down to see what he was referring to, already chastising myself for not changing before I fled the hospital. Damn it, I didn’t know it was my uncle until we started working on him. There was a lot of blood.

  “I’m a doctor. I, ah, I work in the trauma unit at University Hospital. I swear. I just left work.” I didn’t know why I was pleading with him but I was freezing and my knees felt like they were going to give out. “My ID—”

  “Wait, you’re a doctor?” he asked.

  Flashes, like torn pictures from a nightmare, barraged my every thought. Accusations and handcuffs, a hand pushing down on my head, a steal cage separating the front seat from the back.

  “I’m… a doctor.” My vision fragmented, as though everything was reflected on broken shards of glass. So bright.

  “Whoa, easy,” he said, gripping my waist and arm.

  I fell into his chest, feeling strength I knew I didn’t have on my own at the moment. He moved me closer to the front fender. “Here, lean back. Easy. That’s it.”

  The world started to spin in new directions as the paranoia rolled throughout my body. I knew I was in deep trouble all over again. “Please,” I whispered out, fighting the lightheadedness muddling my thoughts. I wished this nightmare could all just be over.

  Part of me started to wonder if someone at the hospital, namely my ex’s new bitchy girlfriend, Mandy Haston, framed me by putting a dead body in the trunk of my car. It would be difficult, but not impossible.

  Black combat boots and very long, muscular thighs clad in black cargo pants broke my view. A black leather-gloved hand brushed under my chin as he tipped my face up.

  “Look at me,” he ordered, softening his touch.

  It was difficult to do as he instructed being in this state of extreme mortification. I wanted to focus on the police badge hanging from around his neck instead of making eye contact with a handsome face and gorgeous brown eyes that were assessing me as if I were a common criminal. And was that a tiny microphone attached to his coat?

  “Please,” I said again, remembering what I was asking for. Thoughts of the hospital administration having a valid excuse to squash my employment, and therefore killing my fellowship, made me shake. “Make them turn the cameras off. I can’t… My career… I’ve worked so hard. Please. Please. I’m begging you. Don’t destroy it.”

  “Easy, all right? Don’t worry about them. You have any drugs or weapons on you?”

  “What?” I was stressed and confused, still his question was insulting.

  I felt his hands slide over my hips, my thighs, down to my ankles, even at the back of my pants and over my ass. What could have been sensual felt like a huge violation.

  “No,” I said as his hands sought confirmation. “I’m not some lowlife criminal.”

  He quickly patted the sides of my coat, unzipping it far enough to peek inside with his flashlight. I was grateful that he zipped me back up. My teeth were chattering.

  “How about in the car?”

  I shook my head. “No.”

  “Tell me how you got blood on ya,” he asked again, kinder this time. I wanted to scream at him that it was my Uncle’s, but what good would that do?

  “I, um… I had seven trauma patients tonight. Last one was from a three-car accident on the Schuylkill.”

  He instantly scowled at me as his grip on my coat tightened. “The rollover?”

  I nodded, trying like hell not to cry or throw up from the stress. “We received the Life Flight.”

  That seemed to agitate him further. He cursed under his breath a few times, eying the ginormous black officer at his side with some unspoken message, rocking me on my unstable feet in the process.

  “Jesus Christ,” the huge black officer growled low, doing his own bristle of disbelief.

  I turned my attention to the red splotches of dried blood on my sneaker, willing them to disappear. Along with running a red light and being handcuffed, I walked out of work with blood traces on me. “I didn’t see… I had booties on. I—I didn’t change my scrubs before I left.”

  Another police officer—this one older, very tall and solid with a slightly grayed moustache—stepped next to me. “Miss, try to calm down. We’re going to tell you what’s going on. We received a nine-one-one call that this car
was stolen at gunpoint and you have a fictitious plate on the back.”

  The severe dizziness worsened by me shaking my head so adamantly. Vertigo was full-on.

  “Fic? What? No. Can’t be. I bought it last month on my birthday. January seventh. It’s mine.”

  Those dark eyes squinted at me. “Then explain why your plate is coming back as a stolen Toyota Corolla.”

  Damn, you’re arrogant. “I have no idea. But that’s my car,” I bit out, incensed by his contradiction.

  “Got any proof of that?”

  I motioned with my chin. “The paperwork is all in the glove compartment. I never moved it. If you let me go I can show you.”

  He put his hand on my shoulder. “Hang tight. You have any identification?”

  “My license is in my purse.”

  “Then you give us permission to search your vehicle?”

  I was handcuffed and he was intimidating; my options were limited. I gave him a quick nod.

  I watched another cop retrieve my purse and place it on the front hood right next to me while two others searched through my car. Officer Hottie’s eyes narrowed as he opened the zipper and held a flashlight to it. “It in here?”

  I wanted him to get out of my purse before he found my tampon stash and those feminine wipe sample things I’d gotten in the mail. “Yes. It’s in the black leather wallet.”

  He searched the entire contents while some emotion I read as disappointment flashed over his face. “Why is someone like you tangled up in this?” he muttered to himself, fumbling to open my wallet. His eyes narrowed on my license.

  I felt as though my world was collapsing. Regardless of my innocence, I was definitely going to prison tonight, just like last time. Guilty before being proven innocent. The images that erupted from that horrid moment fourteen years ago made me tremble all over again as new fear and utter desperation clutched at my chest. “I’m not. Please. Please, believe me, sir. Please, sir.”

  His gaze whipped back to mine, as if I’d just insulted him. His body stiffened and his jaw clenched and flexed, though his dark eyes and heated stare said something altogether different.

  “Trent, we found a Bill of Sale in the glove box,” another officer announced, waving the papers in his hand.

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