F is for Fugitive Page 38

"If it was a trucker, why conceal his identity? It almost has to be somebody in the community, and probably somebody respectable."

"Hogwash. Nobody respectable would be caught dead with that whore…"

"Somebody who didn't want it known, then," I said.

"Bullshit! I don't believe a word of it-"

I cut him off in a flash. "Royce, I know what I'm doing. Would you just back off and let me get on with it?"

He stared at me dangerously, his face growing dark. "What?"

"You hired me to do a job and I'm doing it. I don't want to have to justify and defend every move."

Royce's temper flared like lighter fluid squirted on a fire. His hand shot out and he pointed a shaking finger in my face. "I'm not taking any sass from you, sis!"

"Great. And I won't take any sass from you. Either I do this my way or you can find somebody else."

Royce came halfway out of his chair, leaning on the table. "How dare you talk to me that way!" His face was flaming and his arms trembled where they bore his weight.

I sat where I was, watching him remotely through a haze of anger. I was on the verge of a comment so rude that I hesitated to voice it, when Royce started to cough. There was a pause while he tried to suppress it. He sucked in a breath. The coughing doubled. He pulled out a handkerchief and clamped it across his mouth. Ann and I both gave him our undivided attention, alerted by the fact that he couldn't seem to get his breath. His chest heaved in a wrenching spasm that gathered momentum, flinging him about.

"Pop, are you all right?"

He shook his head, unable to speak, his tongue protruding as the coughing shook him from head to toe. He wheezed, clutching at his shirt front as if for support. Instinctively, I reached for him as he staggered backward into his chair, struggling for air. It was suffocating to watch. The coughing tore at him, bringing up blood and phlegm. Sweat broke out on his face.

Ann said, "My God." She rose to her feet, hands cupped across her mouth. Ori was transfixed in the doorway, horrified by what was happening. Royce's whole body was wracked. I banged on his back, grabbing one arm, which I held aloft to give his lungs room to inflate.

"Get an ambulance!" I yelled.

Ann turned a blank look on me and then mobilized herself sufficiently to reach for the phone, punching 911. She kept her eyes pinned on her father's face while I loosened his collar and fumbled with his belt. Through a rush of adrenaline, I heard her describe the situation to the dispatcher on the other end, reciting the address and directions.

By the time she put the phone down, Royce was gaining control, but he was soaked in perspiration, his breathing labored. Finally the coughing subsided altogether, leaving him pale and clammy-looking, his eyes sunken with exhaustion, hair plastered to his scalp. I wrung a towel out in cold water and wiped his face. He started to tremble. I murmured nonsense syllables, patting at his hands. There was no way Ann and I could lift him, but we managed to lower him to the floor, thinking somehow to make him more comfortable. Ann covered him with a blanket and tucked a pillow under his head. Ori stood there in tears, mewing helplessly. She seemed to grasp the severity of his illness for the first time and she cried like a three-year-old, giving herself up to grief. He would go first. She seemed to understand that now.

In the distance we heard the sirens from the emergency vehicle. The paramedics arrived, taking in the situation with a practiced eye, their demeanor so studiously neutral that the crisis was reduced to a series of minor problems to be solved. Vital signs. Oxygen administered and an IV started. Royce was hefted with effort onto a portable gur-ney, which was angled out of the room to the vehicle at the curb. Ann went with him in the ambulance. The next thing I knew, I was alone with Ori. I sat down abruptly. The room looked as if it had been ransacked.

I heard a tentative voice from the office. "Hello? Ori?"

"That's Bert," Ori murmured. "He's the night manager."

Bert peered into the living room. He was maybe sixty-five, slight, no more than five feet tall, dressed in a suit he must have bought in the boys' wear department. "I saw the ambulance pull away. Is everything all right?"

Ori told him what had happened, the narrative apparently restoring some of the balance in her universe. Bert was properly sympathetic, and the two swapped a few long-winded tales about similar emergencies. The phone started to ring and he was forced to return to the front desk.

I got Ori into bed. I was worried about her insulin, but she wouldn't discuss it so I had to drop the subject. The episode with Royce had thrown her into a state of clinging dependency. She wanted physical contact, incessant reassurances. I made her some herb tea. I dimmed the lights. I stood by the bed while she clutched my hand. She talked on about Royce and the children at length while I supplied questions to keep the conversation afloat. Anything to get her mind off Royce's collapse.

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