It was nearly midnight by the time Jordan Michaels found the hospital at the end of a dead-end street.
Easing the gold Lexus in against the curb, she cut the engine and pulled the totebag into her lap. She sat for a moment thumbing the crumpled leather; she was Linus and the bag was her blanket—security with a shoulder-strap umbilical cord. Through the years it had been a handy transporter of whatever needed transporting at the time: a fresh blouse or sweater for when she rushed from one business meeting to another, lunches of celery sticks and carrot curls that she took in the park. Park was an upscale word for what was actually a patch of sun-burnt grass, a few pitiful trees, some crumbling benches, and a drinking fountain that trickled lukewarm water. But it was close to her office and she had grown accustomed.
Jordan opened the car door, stepped out and turned her collar against the late October chill. Even the amber glow of streetlights did little to cleanse the area. Graffiti--like wasted blood--splattered the walls of buildings and trash dumpsters and the rusted bones of old cars.
Halfway up the sidewalk she glanced at the imposing structure towering over her. Originally it had been a three-storied mansion, home to grand and probably terribly clever people. Maybe too much was expected of such opulence and, like a daughter who failed to marry well, had lost its promise and was finally deserted all together. It was now a charity ward and, like an aging spinster afflicted with the scourge of bitterness, it stared out upon the street through empty eyes rimmed with blue-veined marble.
The front entrance was dark. Jordan turned left to the lighted end of the building. From somewhere a magic eye blinked, the emergency-room doors separated and she stepped inside. In the distance she could hear a strangled fit of coughing followed by a raspy request for a drink of water. Closer by, an angry yell was punctuated with the standard vulgarity of the day. But Jordan saw not a soul. A broken security camera tucked up into one of the corners of the hallway dangled its insides like some mortally wounded space alien and a red light strobed out a feeble help me-help me. The hospital directory listed ‘M t rn ty’ on the third floor. She followed the signs around a corner to the elevator and hit the button marked UP. The doors whooshed open. Prompt service, she thought; way too quiet for a Friday night in this neighborhood.
The elevator rumbled upward. Number Three flickered on the floor-marker and the doors stuttered open. Arrows painted on the wall directed north and south. The north corridor was longer and pointed toward the nurse’s station. South was the nursery.
Jordan glanced north, toward the sounds of muffled chatter and a three-sided glass cubicle at the end of the hallway. A nurse sat with her back to the glass; stiff white points spouted from her head like little horns. A broad-shouldered orderly slouched nearby. Jordan watched as he leaned in against the nurse’s chair, and the nurse twittered and made a feeble attempt to push him away.
Leaving them to their fun, Jordan turned south toward the nursery. She wanted only to get a glimpse of the baby, make sure he was okay. It would take no more than a few seconds really—slip in, and out again. The curtains were drawn against the hallway. Jordan stepped around the corner and through the nursery door.
Nearly all the dozen or so bassinets contained little pink or blue bundles. The room was unusually calm for so many babies. Suddenly her pager sent out a slight buzz from the depths of her totebag. She reached in and fumbled for the off switch. Tiptoeing between the rows, she scanned each identification sticker, then found him, awake but lying quietly: Baby Taylor the sticker read.
In the dim light, his eyes were smoky, his skin a wisp of tea-stained silk. A faded blue knit cap made him look like a tiny skier. Wee sucking sounds escaped from his puckered little mouth. Jordan leaned over and trailed the back of her fingers on his cheek. His skin was soft, just-born skin, barely there. He turned toward her touch.
“Hello Baby Taylor,” she whispered. “Welcome to the world.”
In spite of all she’d heard about newborns, Jordan knew he responded to the sound of her voice.
She stood there watching him--watching and expecting a guardian angel in starched cotton and righteous indignation to swoop in and order her from the building. But no one came. She tiptoed back to the corner of the nursery and peeked around. The two attendants were still there, in the glass case. Jordan watched the man grope the front of the nurse’s uniform. She squirmed and slapped at his hand. A silly giggle floated up the corridor.
Jordan turned again to the nursery. Just a moment more, she reasoned. Maybe hold him a second.
“Are you going to stay awake all night, Baby Taylor?” she asked. He stirred and whimpered. Slowly, she bent over the bassinet and picked him up. “Five pounds and two ounces,” she crooned. “Such an armful.” She snuggled him against her breast and tucked his head beneath her chin.
She stepped back to the vantage point in the hallway. The cubicle was now empty. No doubt the two were off for more interesting activities. Hey, you idiots, Jordan wanted to shout. What about the babies?
Turning slowly, she carried the tiny bundle back to replace him in his bassinet. She leaned over to turn him loose, but her hands wouldn’t let go. Her arms refused to unlock. Vague thoughts of his mama flitted across the back of her mind and faded like a dark whisper.
Resentment thundered across Jordan’s brain and drummed in her ears, blocking any attempt to reason. Nerve endings thrummed along the length of her arms and jumped between the tips of her fingers like little arcs of electricity. She felt unstable and somewhat bemused. Unzipping the totebag, she eased the baby down on top of a gray cashmere sweater and zipped the bag closed again.
At the end of the hallway an arrow pointed to a stairway exit. Glancing neither north nor south, Jordan crossed to the door and disappeared into the darkness of the well. Down, down, she descended, her hand cupped beneath the totebag. There seemed no difference in the weight it carried now than when she first entered the building.
She made the few steps to her car, thankful that it was still in one piece. Gently she laid the bag on the seat then flipped the automatic door locks. Somewhere in the distance a car backfired. Or, Jordan thought, more likely a gunshot. She started the engine, made a U-turn and drove away.