I haven’t been spending nearly enough time on this blog for a while now, so I’m going to try something new: three posts each week, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Monday’s posts will be a mixed bag: upcoming promotional sales, excerpts of works in progress, writing/publishing anecdotes, whatever inspires me. Wednesdays will be all about recommendations–authors and books I love, favorite movies, etc. And Fridays will focus on excerpts of my already-published works. Today’s excerpt is from my novel Final Hours, originally published in 2009 and reissued by Creativia last year. Final Hours is the story of a man who’s made too many mistakes in his life, realizing too late what really matters….
ROME, 15 YEARS EARLIER
I will never forget that day. Everything changed for me in an instant. I changed. Irrevocably.
It was late morning. I’d had a room service breakfast in my suite, as I normally did when traveling on business. My business there concluded, I phoned Liz to let her know I would be flying home that day. The boys got on the phone to update me on their activities while I was away. The three of us laughed together and I told them I would see them soon. Soon thereafter, I went to the parking garage to get my car. To this day, I don’t know why I did that. Normally, I would have had a bellman take my luggage to the lobby and the valet would bring the car around for me. I liked being served. I liked having subordinates cater to me. I’d worked hard for my present station in life, and I always enjoyed the benefits of that station.
Back then, I was a man who left nothing to chance. Every minute of every day was planned ahead. I even chose the clothes I would wear the next day before retiring for the night. That wasn’t a difficult decision, now that I think about it. I had twenty tailored suits, black, gray or blue, never any other color; fifty shirts, always white; silk ties, solids or stripes; and fifteen pairs of black shoes, custom made, all identical. That was my uniform, and I never varied from it. I never varied from my routines…until that day.
If I had believed in fate back then, I’d think it had guided me, that I was in that garage to meet Kate. If I could have done it all again, knowing what would happen, I would have still gone into the underground parking garage.
I remember walking toward the car when the ground started to vibrate beneath my feet. At first, it didn’t register. I didn’t even suspect an earthquake–until the building started to shudder violently. I tried to run, but didn’t make it to the exit. I vaguely remember falling.
Then everything went dark….
“Can anybody hear me?” I shouted.
I was lying on the garage floor, surrounded by rubble. There was only concrete, twisted metal…and darkness. I couldn’t move my right leg. There was something on top of it. A chunk of the ceiling, I think. The air was thick with dust. It was difficult to breathe.
I choked as I tried to call out again. “Can anybody hear me?”
“Hold on.” A female voice, muffled. “I’m here, I’m trying to get to you.”
I could hear scraping sounds. She was moving debris to get through. “Are you hurt?” she called out.
“I think my leg is broken.”
“No chance of that,” I assured her.
I’m not sure how long it took her to move the chunks of concrete enough to climb through, but my first glimpse of her was in the weak illumination of her flashlight. She was dirty and disheveled, a young woman wearing jeans and a T-shirt–and a very large backpack.
“Are you one of the rescuers?” I asked.
She gave a little laugh. “I wish.” She climbed over more debris to where I lay trapped. She paused for a moment to assess my situation, then attempted to push the concrete off me.
She wasn’t strong enough. She looked around. “I’ve got to find something to use as a lever,” she said, more to herself than to me.
I tried to remember where I was before the garage collapsed, what might be close by. “I think I saw an iron rod come through the ceiling when it started to break apart,” I told her. “I thought I was about to be impaled on the damn thing.”
She nodded. “That might work.”
It took her a while to locate it, moving chunks of concrete in the darkness. When she came back, she positioned the rod, then paused. “When I move this, you have to stay still,” she instructed. “If your leg is broken, I’ll have to put a splint on it.”
“Are you a doctor?” I asked.
She laughed again. “Two strikes. Three and you’re out,” she warned. I wondered how she could be so cheerful, under the circumstances. But then, some people used humor to deal with difficult or dangerous situations.
“You can’t penalize me for being curious,” I said. “It’s not every day I’m trapped in an earthquake and rescued by a beautiful woman.”
“You think I’m beautiful?” she asked, obviously finding my comment amusing. “Should I be looking for your guide dog, too?”
“I may not be able to see you well, under the circumstances,” I offered in my own defense, “but the image of you climbing through to me was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.”
“Right.” She made a third attempt to move the concrete off my leg. This time, she succeeded. I let out a groan as it shifted. “Are you all right?” she asked.
I nodded, then realized she couldn’t see me from where she stood. “I think so,” I gasped. The pain was excruciating.
She continued to work at moving the slab aside. Then she got on her knees and checked my leg, her fingers pressing along the bone. I winced. “It’s broken, all right,” she told me. “Let me see what I can find to make a temporary splint. We don’t know how long we’re going to be down here. The flesh isn’t broken, that’s one good thing. But movement could cause blood clots. That could be fatal.”
“Got any more good news for me?” I asked.
“If the rescue teams do eventually find us, they may not be able to bring in a gurney. You may have to be lifted upward. A splint will keep the bones stable until they can get you proper medical treatment,” she told me.
She dug around and found a smaller rod in the rubble and checked to make sure it wasn’t too long, then positioned it under my throbbing leg. She started looking around again.
“What do you need?” I asked.
“Tape, anything to secure it.” She paused, then dug into that backpack again. “Can you sit up?”
“I’ll try.” I made an effort, but couldn’t get upright on my own, so she helped me.
“We need this out of the way,” she said, tugging my coat off.
“Why?” I asked.
“I need your shirt.” She took out a large knife and bent over me. I figured she wasn’t going to kill me–she’d been trying too hard to save my life up to this point. Still, I was startled when she reached down and began cutting my shirt off.
“Really,” I said, “we just met.”
She shook her head, not amused. “I need this to tie the splint.”
“Use yours,” I suggested.
She made a face that I could discern, even in the semi-darkness. “Right. I’m not taking my shirt off,” she said. “But even if I did, you wouldn’t be able to do anything out of line.”
I managed a grin. “You might be surprised.”
Then she cut the leg of my pants off.
“If you want me, all you have to do is say so,” I told her. “No need to resort to this kinky shit.”
She ignored me, busy tying the splint to my leg. She rocked back on her heels and took a deep breath, wiping her brow with the back of her hand. “I think that’ll do for now,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said. It suddenly occurred to me that this woman didn’t know who I was or anything about me. It didn’t matter. She had come to my rescue simply because I was another human being in trouble. Not something I was accustomed to in the world I inhabited.
She was digging into that enormous backpack again. This time, she withdrew two bottles of water. She uncapped both and gave me one. I drank greedily, realizing how thirsty I was.
“Careful there,” she warned. “I’ve got six bottles. That’s three apiece. But we could be here a long time.”
“They’ll be looking for me,” I said confidently. “I own this hotel.”
She leaned back and laughed. “So you’re the cheap bastard who hired the lowest bidder to build this death trap with substandard materials.”
“When you put it that way….”
She was pragmatic about my revelation. “At least I have the good fortune to be trapped with a man everyone will be trying to find.” She raised her water bottle in a mock toast.
I raised my bottle to hers. “Here’s to the positive side of greed,” I said. “So we’re not complete strangers, I’m Jamie Randall.”
She shook my hand. “Kate McAllister,” she introduced herself.
I gestured toward the backpack. “I don’t suppose you have any food in there,” I said hopefully.
“Actually, I do. A couple of brown bag meals and some energy bars,” she said. “It could probably sustain the two of us for a couple of days, if we ration it.”
“You certainly came prepared,” I observed, grateful.
“Not for this,” she assured me with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I was headed out on a hike. I have a sleeping bag here somewhere. I was planning to spend tonight under the stars, not underground.”
“I was planning to be on a flight to New York,” I said with a sigh of resignation. “What do you do when you’re not saving lives?”
“I’m a freelance photographer,” she answered, blowing an errant strand of hair out of her face. “I was hoping to get some good nature shots, but I doubt I have any cameras left now. They were in the trunk of my rental. I saw it smashed just before I heard you calling for help.”
The only light in our concrete prison was that of her small flashlight. I tried to get a better look at her, but under the dirt and bruises, I could distinguish very little.
She rolled up my coat to serve as a pillow. I had a splitting headache and guessed I’d hit my head in the fall. She used her flashlight to check my pupils for dilation. “I’m no expert, but it looks okay,” she said, positioning the makeshift pillow behind my head. “You may have a concussion. Does that make you comfortable?”
“A little. Thanks.” I was impressed. She was certainly resourceful. “Where’d you learn these survival skills?”
“I’ve been in some difficult situations in my work,” she told me. “This is not my first earthquake.”
“It’s my first, and I hope it’s my last,” I grumbled.
I noticed the absence of a wedding ring on her finger. She wasn’t married. Men didn’t always wear a ring; women did. “I think I’m lying on a rock,” I complained, feeling a sharp stab in my back. I hoped it was a rock, anyway.
“Let me see.” She bent over to reach under me, and our bodies were pressed together for a moment. In that moment, I could see her eyes in the light. They were green, the dark green of a pine tree. Errant strands of dark auburn hair framed her face.
She pulled out a two-inch piece of concrete. “Here’s the culprit,” she said, tossing it over her shoulder.
I felt myself start to nod off. She nudged my shoulder. “Not a good idea,” she cautioned. “In case you do have a concussion, you have to stay awake.”
For how long? I wondered.
After a while–it seemed like a few hours, but I’m not sure exactly how long it was–we struck up a conversation in earnest.
“Kate,” I said, starting with her name. “Is that short for Katherine or Kathleen?”
“It’s Kathleen, but nobody’s called me Kathleen in years.” She passed me a water bottle and watched me as I sipped. Then she took it back, recapped it, and set it aside. “What about you? You’re what–thirty-five?”
“And you still go by Jamie?”
“What’s wrong with that?” I wanted to know.
“It makes you sound like a kid,” she said. “That would be fine if you were an actor or a rock star or something like that, but you’re Mr. Big Shot Tycoon. Shouldn’t you be James?”
“I should be whatever I want to be, Kitty.”
She laughed aloud. “Kitty?”
“From now on, I’m going to call you Kitty,” I decided.
“From now on–meaning until we’re rescued and go or separate ways, or until they finally find our remains?” she asked. rubbing her arms vigorously. “Is it just me, or is it getting cold in here?”
“It’s getting cold, all right,” I told her. “Take my jacket.”
“No. Keep that under your head,” she said. She went to the backpack again, searching for the aforementioned sleeping bag.
“What don’t you have in that backpack?” I asked, amused.
“A way out of here,” she said, finally producing the sleeping bag. She went to my feet and worked the bag over my legs slowly, trying not to move my broken leg more than was necessary. “Raise up if you can.”
I managed to lift my body enough for her to draw the bag all the way up.
“Can’t have you going into shock, lying there shirtless in this cold.”
“Take my coat,” I told her again.
She shook her head. “I’m all right. My injuries are minor. You’re the one at risk.”
I reconsidered. “We can keep each other warm. Get in here with me,” I told her.
She gave me a suspicious look. “Can I trust you to behave yourself?”
“No.” I grinned. Then: “I’m joking. I’m a married man.”
“That doesn’t always mean anything.”
“I have never cheated on my wife,” I assured her. “Ever.”
“But then, she’s not here to verify that.”
It didn’t take her long to change her mind. She was so cold, she reluctantly surrendered and crawled into the sleeping bag with me. She was tense at first, but finally relaxed, resting her head against my bare chest. I wrapped my arms around her. “Better?” I asked.
“Much,” she admitted. “Definitely warmer.”
“If we make it out of here, I’ll replace your cameras,” I promised.
“You bet your ass you will.” Her tone was serious, but with her face pressed against me like that, I could feel the gentle vibration that told me she was giggling.
“Just in case you’re wondering, that’s not a rock,” I told her. “I am happy to see you.”
“Shut up, Randall, and get your hand off my butt.”
“That’s not your butt. Is it?”
“It is, and you’re getting a little too familiar with it.”
I smiled and reluctantly moved my hand up to the small of her back. Under normal circumstances, I would never have done such a thing. But there was nothing normal about our situation. There we were, trapped, not knowing if we’d get out of there alive or not, and for a moment, having that young woman lying there with me made me forget the danger we were facing.
It made me forget a lot of things.
It seemed to me we’d been trapped there for an eternity. I’m not sure which was more painful–my broken leg or my head. Kate had two sandwiches in each brown bag. She cut them into small portions and gave me a piece, as well as a slice of apple. I can’t remember when a plain tuna sandwich and an apple tasted so good.
We couldn’t distinguish day from night down there. My watch would have told us the date, had it not been broken in the collapse. To kill time, we talked about anything and everything. She told me she lived on Cape Cod. She had the ocean at her back door. I told her about my sons and managed to get my wallet from my pocket to show her a photograph.
“They look like you,” she observed, training the flashlight on the photo. “Do you also have a photo of your wife?”
I didn’t. I carried a dozen credit cards, my New York driver’s license and my international driver’s license, but only one photograph: my boys. “You’re not married?” I asked casually, wondering if, in the absence of a husband, she might have at least had a significant other. For some strange reason, I was hoping the answer would be no.
“No husband, no boyfriend, not even a dog,” she answered. “I’d really like to have the dog, but I travel too much. The poor thing would starve in my absence.”
“So let me get this straight. You’d like to have a dog, but not a husband?” I asked, amused.
She snorted. “Men are nothing but trouble,” she said, capping her water bottle.
I was pretty sure I was included in that statement.
She put her hand on my forehead. “No fever. That’s good.”
“Why would I have a fever?” I asked.
“You’ve got some nasty cuts there. They could become infected. You could also have internal injuries,” she said. She took a small packet from her pocket and tore it open. “It’s just a wet wipe,” she said as she started wiping my face. “You’re really dirty.”
“So much for making a good first impression,” I groaned. I found myself wanting to impress her.
“Yeah, you can give up trying to play Studly Do-Right,” she joked.
“You’re pretty grimy yourself,” I told her. Her T-shirt was torn in a way that gave me a glimpse of her cleavage. It was a very nice view, indeed. I found myself wondering what it would be like to–I had to stop myself from having such thoughts. You’re a married man, I mentally reprimanded myself. You can’t have her.
What if we didn’t make it out alive? Would it matter of I’d been unfaithful just once? I told myself I would hate to leave this world having missed out on anything. I looked at Kate and tried to remember how long it had been since I’d been with a woman who made me feel the way she was making me feel right now….
“I’m used to it,” she said. “I get dirty all the time. This is probably a first for you.”
“You make me sound like a real wuss.” So much for a macho image.
“Not a wuss, just not used to getting dirty,” she said. “That shirt I cut to ribbons probably cost you a few hundred dollars. Tailored, I’ll bet.”
“A few thousand for the suit?”
“And your car, wherever it is now, is probably a Mercedes or a BMW.”
“Ferrari,” I said, suddenly ashamed of the vehicle in which I’d taken such pride only a day before..
She shrugged. “I was close.” She looked upward. “I wonder how long it’s going to take them to find us?”
“I was on the ground level in the garage when it happened,” I recalled. “This is a ten-story hotel with three levels of parking.”
“It’s going to be a long wait,” she concluded.
Having Kate there with me was the only thing that kept me going while we waited to be rescued. When we got cold, she’d get into the sleeping bag with me, pressing our bodies together for warmth. When she was awake, we talked. When she was asleep, I fantasized about her.
I’d never done that sort of thing before. I hadn’t married Liz for love, but I’d respected her enough to not seek my satisfaction elsewhere. Now, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about having sex with this young woman. Maybe it was the dangerous circumstances under which we met, in the beginning, anyway, but I would look at her, sleeping in my arms, and feel her soft, warm body against mine, and I would be overwhelmed by my body’s craving for her.
If only my leg weren’t broken….
From time to time, she would stick the flashlight in my face, checking my pupils. “How’s that headache?” she asked.
“Not so bad anymore.”
She stifled a yawn.
“You should get some sleep,” I urged her. “I’ll be all right.”
She nodded. “Maybe an hour or so.”
“I’ll be all right,” I repeated for emphasis.
“Promise me you won’t die and leave me alone down here,” she said. It was the first time she’d shown any sign of fear.
“I’ll do my best,” I promised.
She wriggled her way into the sleeping bag and went to sleep almost immediately, her head resting on my chest. I watched her sleep. She intrigued me, and not just sexually. I was accustomed to people who wanted something from me. She wanted nothing except to keep me alive.
I liked holding her like that. She was so soft and warm, and I was cold. I’d been cold for a long time, now that I thought about it. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d held a woman that way. Liz and I had never been an overly affectionate couple. I suppose it had much to do with our situation, but I felt a sudden, overwhelming need for affection, anywhere I could get it.
I wanted to know this woman in every way. I wanted to know everything about her. She was my lifeline, and for now, I was totally dependent upon her. Who was she in the real world? Where did she come from? What kind of life did she have outside this prison of ours?
I suspected she would, in the best of circumstances, be unimpressed by wealth, success or social position. In fact, in that real world she probably had nothing but disdain for my kind.
My kind. I was a poor kid from Boston who would have ended up a mechanic like my dad, had pure hatred not fueled my ambition. The expensive clothes, cars, homes…it was all a façade. Facing death had made me see with startling clarity what a phony I had become.
My thoughts were interrupted by the unmistakable sound of a jackhammer. The rescue crews were close. Very close. I shook her gently. “Kitty,” I said in a low, hoarse voice. “Kitty, wake up. I think our secret’s out. They’re coming!”
She opened her eyes, groggy. “What?”
“Listen. Jackhammers,” I told her. “They’re coming for us.”
She pulled herself upright. “Thank God.”
Kate insisted the emergency techs take me out first. They lowered a stretcher into the opening they’d made, and she helped me onto it, making sure I was secure. I looked back at her as I was lifted upward, and saw her give me the thumbs-up sign.
When I emerged into the daylight, I had to close my eyes tightly at first. I’d been in darkness for so long, the brilliant midday was hard to take. Liz was there, waiting. She’d flown to Rome immediately when she heard about the quake. She ran alongside the stretcher now as they took me to a waiting ambulance. “I was so afraid,” she told me, clutching my hand. “If anything had happened to you–”
I wasn’t listening. I craned my neck, looking back, trying to make sure Kate had gotten out safely. I got a glimpse of her emerging from the hole and breathed a sigh of relief. I would not have survived down there without her.
She was my lifeline, and I didn’t want to let her go, even now that we’d been rescued.