Of all the questions Jared didn’t want to answer, this one ranked as number one. He glanced at the clock on the wall. Three-thirty-five. He rubbed his eyes, his entire body ached but his mind raced with what Mary had told him. Her limited interaction with men explained so much about how David had managed to make her fall in love with him so easily. At first, Jared had trouble believing Mary could be so naïve as to become engaged to someone she hadn’t met in person. Her story of the aborted attack and her aunt’s overreaction and isolating lifestyle helped to make sense of Mary’s decision. In his practice, he often encountered many people whose past had clouded their judgment when it came to relationships. Unfortunately, Mary was one of them.
“If you’re too tired, I understand.” Mary sat hunched over, the pillow firmly grasped in her arms, a picture of rejection and hurt.
In a flash, Jared realized she thought his not wanting to share was because of her story. He couldn’t let her believe that, so share he must. Although his story had more gory details.
“No, I’m not too tired. It’s just that I’m so focused on getting my leg physically better, that I don’t like to talk about how it got this way.” He gave a short bark of laughter that held little mirth. “I mean, who does the doctor go to heal himself? To his colleagues? It’s hard to find someone you can trust.” Certainly it wasn’t the shrink the FBI assigned to him because the shooting had been related to a bureau case. That man couldn’t even administer a proper Rorschach inkblot, much less actually help a real hurting human being. But Jared had managed to satisfy the requirements without actually revealing his true feelings on the matter.
“You can trust me.” Mary parroted his words from earlier, a twinkle in her eye suggesting she realized what she had done.
Jared nodded. “Of course I can. You kept all my secrets as a nine-year-old. I don’t think you’ve changed all that much since then. I mean, one’s character doesn’t change much from childhood, I’ve always thought.”
She blushed, a faint red smudging across her cheeks. Boy, he was beginning to really love her blushes. He reigned in that particular line of thought and stood, wobbling a little as his weight rested on his left leg. He bit back a grimace to cover the twinge as the muscles realigned themselves to support him. Just when he started to forget about his injury, his leg would remind him somehow of his frailty. “If I’m going to tell my story, I need more coffee. Do you want some tea?”
“I’d love some.” She started to rise, but Jared waved her back to her seat.
“I’ve got this. Would Earl Grey be okay? I think that’s all I have.”
She nodded and settled back on the couch.
“Be back in a minute.” He tried not to limp as he walked to the kitchen and put on water for tea and coffee for his French press. Measuring the grounds into the press and placing a tea bag in a mug occupied his hands, leaving his mind free to consider how much to tell Mary. He didn’t want to jeopardize the current case by revealing too much of his involvement with the FBI. He needed to skirt the truth just enough and focus on the clinic angle to make his involvement seem realistic without compromising his ongoing role with the agency.
“Cream, with a dash of sugar.”
Mary smiled at him as he handed her the mug. “You remembered how I like my tea.”
Jared grinned back. “Of course, what are friends for?”
Jared scrounged around for coasters to set the mugs down on the coffee table. With nothing left to do but start talking, he took a deep breath. “As with many stories, this one involves a beautiful woman and a foolish man.”
# # #
Mary hugged the pillow to her chest as Jared began his narrative. Why the mention of a beautiful woman should make her heart ache, she wasn’t sure. Must be the late hour and all the sharing she had done. She loved David, was going to spend her life with him on the mission field in Peru. Jared was just a dear, old friend.
“I think I mentioned working in a clinic in downtown Washington, D.C., Southeast D.C. to be exact. Not exactly the best area of the city, it boasts a higher crime rate, more drug dealers, and run-down housing than most parts, although it’s being slowly gentrified.” He paused to stare down at his hands. “I worked there Thursdays pro bono, as part of a charity component of my practice. We, the partners, that is, all did a day’s pro bono work per month with the poor or indigent at nonprofit clinics as a way to give back to the community. I met Sasha there two years ago. She had been abused by her then-boyfriend and was being counseled by one of the regular clinic staffers.”
Mary listened as Jared detailed his first encounters with Sasha and his growing realization that drugs were disappearing from the clinic or being over-prescribed by clinic personnel. The tea and the intriguing mystery Jared laid out kept her wide awake.
“I started looking into the clinic’s books whenever I could do so undetected and found multiple instances of prescriptions being written for patients that I had seen but hadn’t prescribed any medications. It became apparent after a few months that someone was selling the prescriptions or the drugs on the street. The medications were attributed to several patients, including Sasha, in larger quantities than were safe. Sasha went to a couple of different doctors, and I thought befriending her might help me figure out which doctor was the culprit.”
“So you were working undercover?”
“You could say that.”
Jared reached down for his mug. She watched him as he sipped coffee. His story was painting a picture of a much different Jared than the yard man who fumbled around with the weed whacker. “You wanted to save her, didn’t you?”
Jared replaced his mug on the coaster and gave her a wry smile. “Yes, but this wasn’t as easy as rescuing your Barbie princess from the top of old Mr. Hanson’s roof.”
She smiled in return, remembering Jared’s daring climb up the maple tree in the Hanson back yard, with its large branches dangling over the roof. She had stayed out of sight in her yard and watched as Jared had negotiated the limb toward the roofline. Once over the roof, he reached down as he hung on with one hand and snagged her Barbie, which had landed on the roof after being catapulted from Jared’s GI Joe army helicopter. “You always wanted to be a hero.”
Jared’s smile faded. “Yeah, and look where that got me.” His hand rubbed his left leg. “Sasha was a really nice woman, who had made a lot of really bad choices. At least that was what I told myself. She was also very beautiful and her attention to me was, well, flattering.”
A spark of jealousy rammed through Mary, startling her. That was certainly weird to feel that way about a friend, but having little experience with male friendships, she ignored it. “What happened?”
“It appeared that Sasha was the middleman. She took the prescriptions and filled them at various pharmacies around the city and then gave the bottles to her contact, some drug dealer.”
Mary put her hand over her mouth. This was much more dangerous than rescuing a Barbie. “What did you do?”
Jared sighed. “I informed law enforcement about the illegal prescription writing and tried to persuade Sasha to give up her life of crime and come away with me. I should have known better than to fall in love with her. Every textbook in grad school warned about the dangers of a doctor falling for his patient. But I had had little experience with love or dating. School and then work kept me way too busy for that.
“In my zeal to save Sasha, I missed all sorts of clues along the way. She said she was in love with me, and would extricate herself from the drug dealing. Turned out that Sasha had lied to me about wanting out and a whole lot of other things.”
He sipped his coffee again and Mary held her tea mug in her hand, slowly drinking the brew as she watched him struggle with inner demons of which she could only guess. When the silence stretched between them, she gently prompted, “Did your getting shot have something to do with Sasha?”
He kept his gaze on his mug as he nodded his head. “She had to meet her contact somewhere downtown, by the Annacosta River, in some warehouse, to finish things, in her words. But she wouldn’t tell me where or when. I thought she would get sucked back in if she went alone, so I followed her. And found that she had been lying to me, that she hadn’t wanted to leave. But she also was involved with more than drug dealing. She was supposed to bring some package to the ring leader, but she didn’t. I stumbled upon the two of them arguing.”
“This is the hard part.” He drew in a breath and blew it out slowly.
Mary tensed, wanting to reassure him that it was over, that he had survived, but knowing he had to finish this tale on his own.
“The other man thought I knew something. He threatened to shoot me if I didn’t tell him where the package was. But I didn’t know anything about the package, so he shot me in the leg.” His eyes, full of anguish and remembered pain, gazed full into hers. “Then he grabbed Sasha by the hair and said he would kill her on the count of ten if I didn’t tell him who had the package. I swore to him that I had no idea what he was talking about.”
“Oh, Jared.” Mary put down her mug. She had an awful feeling in the pit of her stomach how this story would end. No wonder his eyes looked haunted sometimes.
“He said he believed me. But then he said he always kept his word.” His voice shook and he wiped a tear from his eye. “He shot her anyway.”
The pain in those words seared her soul. Mary’s hand went to her mouth to stifle a sob. “I’m so sorry.”
He shook his head as if to ward off her sympathy. “It was all my fault she’s dead. If I hadn’t been so arrogant and so sure I knew what was best for her, she would still be alive.”
She reached over and took his hand in hers, holding it with both of hers. Somehow, she knew there were no words she could say that Jared hadn’t already told himself. So she sat there, as the vestiges of his story hung in the air around them, and held his hand.
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction. Phantom Love is copyrighted and cannot be used in any form without permission from Sarah Hamaker.