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       Jacked, p.3

           Tina Reber

  Ah, so his name is Trent, my mind repeated while he glared at me.

  The forty-something cop with the goatee strolled over with my sales documents in hand. “Seems just license plate is different.”

  Officer Trent stopped burning holes through me when they compared the information against my registration card.

  “Did you put a different plate on your car?” Officer Trent asked me while scrutinizing my driver’s license.

  This night kept on getting progressively worse. “Why would I do that?”

  He frowned and then illuminated my windshield with his flashlight. “Patrick, check the VIN.”

  The officer with the goatee and dark hair called out each letter and number from the little plate mounted on the dash.

  “All right, it matches this,” Trent said, holding up my paperwork. “Mrs. Novak—” he started.

  “Miss,” I corrected.

  A wisp of a smile flashed on his face and then quickly morphed into focused intent. “Where was your car parked earlier?”

  “In the lot… The lot off of Eighteenth across from the hospital. It’s where I park every night.”

  “How long was it there?”

  I had to recalculate. “Fif… almost sixteen hours.”

  “Sixteen?” He drew in a hard breath through his nose and wrote it down. “Okay, let’s clear up the blood issue, just so I’m sure.”

  I nodded, noting he was wearing a bulletproof vest under his black coat. It was a revolting thought to imagine people shooting at him. “My, um, hospital ID…” I glanced at the long zipper of my coat, wondering how to open it while wearing handcuffs. There was no way I was going to reach it unless I used my teeth to lower the zipper. Maybe I could push it down with my chin? The steel handcuffs bit into my wrists, reminding me that I was still in big trouble.

  The tips of his black boots came into view. “Can I help you with something?”

  His gruff tone had completely changed; his words brushed me with something resembling compassion. Oh officer, you get me out of this mess and I’d be forever grateful. More of my hair came undone from my hair tie, covering my eye. Could this night suck any worse? My luck, there’s going to be a dead body in my trunk, I just know it.

  “Hey, eyes on me,” Officer Trent ordered softly. His thumb swept under my bangs, giving me an unobstructed view of his slight smile. For a moment, I thought he actually cared.

  “There are those gorgeous blue eyes,” he whispered and then froze, as if the words in his private thoughts weren’t meant to slip out from his appealing mouth.

  Regardless of his attempt to cover up his gaffe, I still heard him, astonished that he said something like that.

  Another camera operator crouched down with his rig on his shoulder near us, apparently getting another angle of my horrific experience. I tried to hide my face by tucking my chin into my jacket, but cameras surrounded me on both sides.

  “My hospital identification is inside my coat. Can you please… can you please tell them to stop filming me?”

  I saw him stiffen again, and then, as if something else were driving him, he reached out for my zipper.

  “Where? In here?”

  I nodded, wishing he’d remove the cold metal cuffs instead of undressing me. Something told me he preferred me restrained for the moment. “Officer, please,” I whispered my plea, trying to block the cameraman from getting me on film.

  “May I?” His hands hesitated near my chin.

  I acquiesced, though he didn’t ask for permission the first time he opened my coat.

  His eyes locked on mine as he painstakingly lowered the zipper, almost as if he were savoring the act while two other cops looked on.

  My laminated identification card dangled from where I had it clipped to my scrub top. I realized at that moment in my haste to go home, I’d pretty much clipped it over top of my right breast.

  “You look too young to be a doctor.” With just the faintest touch of his leather-gloved fingertip, he angled my ID, shining his flashlight once more. “How long you been over at University?”

  “Four years. Just finished my residency. So much for that. It’s all ruined now.” Thoughts of all of my sacrifices, the lack of a social life, working myself ragged while putting in sixty plus hours a week, the fact that I hadn’t been touched properly by a man in a very long time or had a meaningful relationship since, spending all of my time focusing on my goal instead—of all of that being for fucking nothing—to be wiped away by twenty minutes of false accusations and local news cameras, made me want to scream. The weight of my traumatic evening came crashing down in full force. Visions of my aunt’s mutilated corpse, my uncle’s severed arm, my family in utter distress; I couldn’t stop the tears that welled in my eyes.

  He reached up, wiping one away with his thumb. “Hey. Hey. No crying,” he whispered as if he were trying to console a child.

  I turned my face away from his touch. “Thanks to you and your false arrest, my career is over. Once whatever channel broadcasts this I’ll have my medical license revoked. You might as well keep the fucking car too since I won’t be able to make the payments.” I glared at him. “Pray you never get shot, Officer, because there’s one less doctor who can save you now.”

  I heard him growl, but whatever. I was beyond caring about his opinions.

  “Ritchie,” Trent ordered, barking his words over his shoulder but never taking his dark eyes off of me. “Kill it.”

  Apparently Ritchie or whoever was filming me didn’t take direct orders. The camera’s light continued to shine right on us.

  Officer Trent stormed right up to the camera and reached out as if he were going to grab it. I could see the anger wafting off him. “Jesus Christ, Ritchie, this is done here. I said kill the fucking feed—now.” He pointed a finger at the other guy. “Scott, call your boss. Tell him this footage never sees the light of day or I will hunt him down. You got me?”

  The guy named Scott took a few steps back and I was relieved to see both camera operators shut their equipment down. Considering how intimidating Officer Trent was, I’d say it was a good call to listen.

  The entire scene was perplexing. Why the hell do the police have cameras filming them now? My mind veered to recall the first officer I’d lost to a gunshot wound. It happened during my residency. Maybe this was another safety precaution?

  Trent took his ball cap off and ran his hand over his head. His dark hair was cut short on the sides and spiky on top with that just fucked finger-combed hairstyle. I imagined he crawled out of bed every morning looking just as gorgeous.

  The hulking black officer strolled over, towering over me by at least an extra foot and a half in height, making his presence even more frightening as he eyed me one last time. “No priors. She’s clean.”

  Trent nodded. “Cap, she needs to be released. The false plate has been removed but her paperwork matches the VIN and her ID.”

  “Yeah, we’ve got nothing here,” the older man they called “Cap” agreed.

  My lungs expelled the breath they were holding. Another cop nudged me to turn around, finally giving my arms relief. I heard the metal cuffs clank together when they were off.

  “Mine,” Trent said curtly, holding out his hand for them, still glaring down at me.

  I rubbed my aching wrists, feeling a phantom twinge of the cold metal as if they were still binding me. He clipped the cuffs back to some loop on his utility belt. Screw him; I glared back.

  Damn, the whole package was sexy as hell with those full lips surrounded by a full shadow of stubble and that manly presence, but I’d had enough. As soon as they let me leave, admiring anything about Officer Trent would be done and over with.

  I noticed that the cameras never left him. They’d been pointed wherever he was, capturing him at every angle, despite what the other dozen or so officers milling about were doing. Odd.

  Officer Trent stepped in front of me again, getting even closer than before. “You see anyone around your car t
onight or notice anything out of the ordinary?”

  It was hard to think straight with the mounting stress and activity going on. “I was… I was inside the hospital all night. Wait, I did see someone… in the parking lot. I don’t know. It could have been anyone. It was too dark and he was too far away for me to get a good look at him.”

  His eyes narrowed, almost scolding me. “Were you alone?”

  I didn’t care for his assumption. “No. I wasn’t.”

  “Good. You recall if he was white? Black? Hispanic?”

  “Didn’t get that good of a look. He was definitely male.”

  He nodded. “Sounds like you probably got there right before he attempted to steal your car. Surprised he swapped the plate.” That realization seemed to confound him further. He flashed his light toward the rear of my car and then down the driver side door and up the seals around the door windows. “Not a seasoned pro, taking that much time.” He leaned past me, shining his flashlight on the dash. “This has a pushbutton start. Huh. Why the false call to dispatch?”

  I followed the path of the flashlight as he scanned the inside of my car again, trying not to allow my imagination to roam too far from his extreme closeness or his alluring scent. “What do you mean?”

  “You have a theft tracking system in this car?”

  I wished I knew what that meant exactly. Did I? I recalled hearing words like “anti-theft” during the sales pitch I got from Dan at my dad’s dealership, but did it have a tracking system? I had no idea. Having a decent paying job meant that I could finally afford a new car lease and not drive around in the trade-in clunkers my dad affectionately referred to as “life lessons.” Being stumped by the dash clock was as far as I’d gotten.

  Car headlights swept around the end of the street, flashing a bright beam of light across Officer Trent’s back.

  The SUV locked its brakes, screeched to a halt, and then gunned it in reverse. The explosion happened an instant after that. I ducked down and cringed from the earsplitting noise, catching only the blur of a large delivery truck before it plowed into another car, and then another.

  “What the fuck?” one of the cops shouted.

  Oh God!

  Metal flew through the air and littered the intersection, creating more sounds I’d never want to hear again, followed by the constant blare of one of the vehicle’s horns.

  I DIDN’T REALIZE what she was doing at first when she took off running down the street without me. I ran after her, my legs pumping on pure instinct and unfettered adrenaline.

  I needed to stop her before she got too close to any of the vehicles, shield her from impending danger and what was surely going to be an unsightly scene with fatalities. She didn’t need to see that level of brutality trapped within the confines of crushed metal. No one did.

  She pulled out of my grip when I caught up to her.

  “Let go,” she shouted at me, no longer a shackled, trembling mess. No, now she was all business, demanding that I follow her through the mangled debris and broken glass scattered all over the road.

  The pungent scents of battery acid and radiator fluid wafted through the air, assaulting my nose, as we wove through the wreckage. The familiar smells of spilled gasoline and diesel fuel twisted my gut into a sickening knot.

  I pushed through it, making a conscious effort not to let it drag me down. I already had too many years of horrendous memories plaguing my mind, and now this? More unnecessary death wrapped up in crushed metal to add to the pile, creating an endless loop of fucked-up shit rattling around in my already fucked-up skull.

  I’d been down this dead-end road before. It was why I jumped at the chance to join the ATTF when it came up, to get off regular patrol and being first on the scene.

  Most people didn’t understand this special hell. They had no clue what emergency responders went through on a daily basis, seeing the unthinkable ways people were injured or the gruesome ways people died.

  No, most people went to work every day in their happy, oblivious little bubbles, never knowing what horrors transpire thousands of times a day, how unavoidable and merciless death can be, or the crushing stress placed on those whose job it is to clean up the mess.

  The pressure started to build in my chest. I swore I could still smell the burning flesh of that seventeen-year-old girl we’d lost four years ago.

  I used to be invincible.

  Not anymore.

  I’d already seen my fair share of death for one lifetime.

  I needed Erin to stop before it was too late.

  My throat felt tight again and damn near choked me seeing her long blonde hair floating in her wake.

  She didn’t need to see this.

  No, this was my cross to bear, not hers. I may never get free of the nightmares but I didn’t want her memories to become as tainted and bloody as mine were.

  Anything she would see now crushed in the mangled wreckage could never be unseen. Even the smell from pumping her own gas might trigger the shakes.

  I shouted her name but she ignored me. The anger that manifested from her blatant disregard came on like a tidal wave of heat through my veins.

  I grabbed her arm and yanked. “Stop! I need to get you out of here before you get hurt.”

  Her eyes narrowed on my hand then flashed back to stare me down. “I’m a trauma doctor. I can help. We need to help them.”

  Somewhere in the carnage, a man’s anguished wails and moans cut through the air, pulling her farther away from me, further out of my control. “This is not your turf. You follow my lead out here.”

  She nodded and grabbed my arm as we rounded the first car.

  “My name is Doctor Erin Novak,” she said to the man behind the wheel of the small four-door sedan. It used to be a green Mazda.

  I yanked on the dented passenger door repeatedly until I finally pried it open and climbed onto the empty passenger seat. A leather briefcase was smashed apart on the floor. Back seat was empty. The interior smelled like fresh coffee and the coppery stench of blood.

  “I need you to stay calm, all right?” she said. “What’s your name?”

  I looked around, trying to find some shred of fabric to use as a temporary bandage for the gash on his forehead.

  “Officer, you have latex gloves?” she asked, in between getting the victim’s current condition and trying to keep him from struggling and fighting her.

  “Easy, buddy,” I said to him, trying to keep him from attempting to get out of the car. He was not being cooperative and listening to her instructions. I pulled the only pair of gloves I had on me out of the large pocket on my cargos and handed them to her, keeping him steady with my free hand.

  The fact she was an ER doctor wasn’t lost on me watching her stay calm and collected while she worked. After doing a quick assessment and instructing several of my team how to attend to this one, she ordered me to follow her, snagging the sleeve of my coat and dragging me along with her like a damned puppy.

  We hurried over to what was left of the maroon SUV, finding a young male lying in the road near the opened driver-side door. He was pretty torn up and his foot was pointing in the wrong direction.

  Instead of freaking out, she was like a fucking machine, dropping down onto her knees on the icy wet street, ignoring the cameras that followed us.

  Fellow ATTF Officer Glenn Martucci trotted up behind us, pushed Ritchie and his camera out of the way, and froze. He pulled an extra pair of latex gloves from his pants pocket, handed them to her, mumbled something about God and vomit, and then quickly backed away. I heard the distinct sound of Ritchie gagging, too. It didn’t take long for us to lose the light of his camera.

  I watched her tear off her soiled gloves and pull the new ones on over her delicate hands, trussing back up as if she were in the O.R. Somewhere along the way her white ski jacket had gotten big red smears of blood all over it and now part of me was wondering if she was hurt, too. That dry burn started again in my throat, aching for oblivion.

sp; “Officer Trent,” she called out again, pulling my attention back to her determined face.

  Man, she was pretty: creamy flawless skin with the pink blush of a natural beauty. An angel sent to heal my broken soul.

  Heal all of us.

  Her cheeks… God, I just wanted to touch them, see if they felt as soft as they looked.

  How does she do it?

  How does she stay so beautiful amidst this ugliness?

  I wanted to know her secrets, soak in her magic.

  Surely she had some mystical armor keeping her insulated from the fucked-up carnage.

  Everything seemed to blur until I refocused on the vic laying in the street. Young guy, white, late teens or early twenties at most, was in bad, bad shape. I had to pull my shit together.

  Adrenaline surged, forcing my years of training to the surface. Still, I was so damn glad she was here. First aid… hell. He was so cut up and gasping; I wouldn’t even know where to start with this one. “Tell me what you need me to do.”

  “You,” she yelled up at Ritchie, “shine that light here. Quit shaking.” After a quick assessment and telling the patient who she was and that we were here to help, she moved my hands for me, placing them on the guy’s thigh. She told me where to apply pressure and why, but this whole scene made me numb. Blood was just everywhere, spilling out of this poor SOB like a punctured waterbed, scorching my mind with more heinous visions that I’d never be able to forget.

  “Officer,” she said, leveling her eyes on mine. “It’s just you and me. I need you to stay calm and listen, and trust me.”

  I liked her much better when she was wearing my handcuffs, helplessly glancing up at me with those sexy blue eyes. If she only had a clue as to the other shit that she stirred in me when I had her restrained, she’d probably snag my Glock and put a bullet in me right here, right now.

  Those blue eyes flashed to me again as she was feeling for the kid’s pulse, dragging me back to the unsightly trauma. “No, no, no, shit. He’s stopped breathing. You have a bag mask on you?”

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