BY: AR NEAL
Nancy Abigail Labado—known as Abbie to her parents—is a widowed African-American, Center City, Philadelphia club owner who is targeted by a mysterious person in a hooded sweatshirt. After her coffee was drugged and the mural on her building defaced, by someone who obviously knows about her past, she receives a message that implicates her best friend, David, in the murder of her abusive ex-husband. While trying to rekindle a relationship with David, whom she has not seen in years and still loves deeply, Nancy must come to terms with whatever the truth turns out to be.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Knowing Abbie by AR Neal, Nancy Abigail Labado, who is known as Abbie to her parents, collapses on the street one morning. She is discovered on the sidewalk by an old flame David Burketsky, also known as Damon the Artist, who gets her to the hospital. The two went to school together but haven’t seen each other in years. Unaware that their reunion was part of a sinister plot by someone who knows too much about them, the two rekindle their friendship and romance, but someone is plotting against them, aware that David has a dark secret he is afraid to reveal—one that could destroy his relationship with Nancy forever.
With superb character development combined with an intriguing mystery and a touch of romance, this is a moving and suspenseful story that mystery fans will love.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Knowing Abbie by AR Neal is the story of two people with a shared past, both haunted by dark secrets. When artist David Burketsky finds his childhood sweetheart whom he hasn’t seen for thirty years passed out on the sidewalk, he becomes one of the suspects in her “accident.” But David claims he is innocent, and Nancy is delighted to be reunited with him. She knows he wouldn’t hurt her, and she hires him to do a mural on the wall of her building. But the mural is defaced with graffiti claiming that David is a murderer. Nancy doesn’t want to believe it, but what if it’s true? The police are still suspicious of him and warn Nancy away. But is David really the villain, or is it someone else who knows too much about David and Nancy’s pasts?
With an intriguing mystery, enchanting characters, and a number of unexpected plot twists, Knowing Abbie is a poignant and captivating tale that will leave you hungry for more.
Tuesday, May 6:
As he removed the sweaty kufiyah from his head, the man smiled in the shadows and watched Dave Burketsky. Every Tuesday it’s the same routine, he thought. He turned to make sure the woman, whom he had subdued just prior to Dave’s arrival on Broad Street, was still unconscious and that Dave’s encounter with her was inevitable as he walked toward Cuthbert Street.
I should open an art store, Dave thought. He squinted as he looked south along Broad Street. Nah, if I do that, I’d have to be around customers, employees, nosy folks with questions. Too many peop–
He tripped over a foot. “Hey!”
He looked down and sighed. His usual response was to help the man or woman up, pop them into the diner for a cup of strong coffee, and get them back to wherever they were staying. Some of the people he met on the street had become his friends, and he made sure they had a place to crash. If he couldn’t put them up, he had connections at the Mission.
The woman at his feet groaned. “Miss,” he said as he gently touched her shoulder. “Are you okay?” He leaned around to see her face and gasped.
The man in the shadows nodded. That’s right. Call Nine-One-One. Get help for her. He rolled the hooded sweatshirt as tightly as he could, wrapped it around his waist beneath his T-shirt, turned, and casually walked toward Arch Street as sirens began to wail in the distance.
“Mr…um…” Detective Sullivan consulted the documents on her desk. She looked up and cleared her throat. “What should I call you? The officer on scene indicated your name as ‘Damon, the artist.’ Is that your legal name?”
Dave shook his head. “No, but that’s how I’m known around the city. My real name is David Burketsky. Do you need to see my ID?”
“That would be helpful.”
Dave unzipped his jacket. “My wallet’s in the inside pocket,” he stated, reaching inside. He pulled out a well-worn billfold, flipped it open to the license window, and placed it on the desk.
“Thank you,” the detective said as she adjusted her reading glasses, leaned over his license, and began copying the information onto a form, “Mr. Burketsky. I’ll update my file with your given name. Anyway, tell me what happened, starting with why you were walking by the Masonic Temple so early.”
Dave watched her write. “I had a meeting at the McDonald’s–Broad and Arch. Tuesdays are pretty quiet, and the traffic is slow that early in the morning. People like it when I schedule there because they can grab coffee or something to eat before going to work. I finished up and was on my way to the Terminal by way of Cuthbert. A friend of mine who’s just getting back on his feet asked me to meet him there around five-thirty. He had some produce that he was setting up for the Fair Food Farmstand. They don’t open until eight, but vendors get there early for the best stalls.”
Sullivan looked over her glasses and handed the wallet back to Dave. “Thank you for that.” She nodded toward the wallet. “So you left the Mickey D’s, crossed Broad at Arch, and walked down Broad to Cuthbert. When did you encounter the victim?”
“I was thinking about opening an art store, y’know, daydreaming. I tripped over her foot. I thought she might have been one of the regulars–”
“Regulars?” Sullivan interrupted.
Dave nodded. “Yeah. As I’m sure you know, there are a lot of street folks in the area. Many of them are artists, performers, people just trying to make it from day to day. I know quite a few of them and try to look out for them. I reached down to help her and when I saw her face…” Dave seemed suddenly lost in thought. His eyes glazed as he remembered moving her hair. “Nance…” he said quietly.
“You knew the victim? From where?”
Dave refocused his attention at the sound of the detective’s voice. “I actually did, and not from the streets. Nance, ah, Nancy Labaro, and I went to high school together, but we go back farther than that even.”
Detective Sullivan finished writing. “…high school. Based on the birthday on your license, you would have graduated a little over thirty years ago. Have you had contact with Ms. Labaro since then?”
“Not until today.”
“Can you think of anyone who would want to harm Ms. Labaro?”
Dave shook his head. “Like I said, I haven’t seen her in years. Even back then, she lived a pretty quiet life. That’s something we had in common.”
“Do you remember seeing anyone in the area? Maybe someone running across the street or near the Temple or generally moving away from where you found her. You mentioned you know the regulars, the homeless folk, around there–anyone out of the ordinary besides Ms. Labaro?”
Dave shook his head again. “No, the street was empty except for a few passing cars…” His eyes glazed over again with memories.
Sullivan finished her notes and took off her reading glasses. She could see he cared about the victim. “I know this is hard for you, Mr. Burketsky. Thank you for giving me your statement.” She slid the form over for him to read. “Can you take a look at this to make sure I got it all down, and to confirm your contact information?”
Dave picked up the paper, read through it, and handed it back. “Yes, that about covers it.”
“Thank you again. Please stay in town while we investigate.” Sullivan noticed the worried expression on his face. “Don’t be alarmed, Mr. Burketsky. You are not a suspect here. I’d just like to be able to call you in to answer more questions if we have them or to maybe look at some images. We will be checking camera footage in the area, and maybe you’ll see something or someone familiar.” She stood, motioned toward the door, and lowered her voice. “I didn’t realize who you were until I saw your real name. I remember you now. The Germantown station incident.”
Dave lowered his eyes.
“Don’t worry, Mr. Burketsky. We won’t make a big deal about this. You know how it is around here–anything happens in Center City, it makes the news. A woman found on the street? It’ll probably catch the midday report, but there is so much going on all over that it probably won’t show up in the later editions or get more than a passing mention. And no one in this office will be discussing it. You did a good thing. And what’s more, you’ve found your friend.” She smiled and opened the door.
Dave smiled back. “That’s true. I hope she’ll be okay.”
“I’m sure she’ll be fine, Mr. Burketsky,” Sullivan replied.
He looked at her with concern. “Do you think they’ll let me in to see her?”
“I don’t see any reason they wouldn’t.” After looking at the clock, she added, “It’s just gone seven. If you hurry, you can catch your friend at the market. Maybe he still needs help setting up.”
Monday, May 12:
The pain in her leg was excruciating, and Nancy woke up. “Miss Labaro! Miss Labaro, please stop struggling!” An aide held her shoulders while the nurse gave the injection.
The pain slowly receded to a dull ache. Whatever they gave me must be really strong, Nancy thought. She heard voices from a distance and struggled to open her eyes. They felt weighted. She got the left one open, but the right one refused to budge.
“I’m so sorry about that bright light, but I need to check this left pupil,” the nurse said softly. “Your right eye is still swollen so we’ll wait to check that one.” Nancy gagged and tried to turn her head. The smell of Italian hoagie puffed into her nostrils with each of the nurse’s words. “Oopsie! Here, let’s get this under you, just in case.”
Nancy dry heaved over the pink bean-shaped plastic dish. She tried to sit up, but nothing happened. What’s going on? Look, I need to sit up. Where am I? What happened to me? All that came out was “What?” followed by air and squeaking noises
The nurse gently took Nancy’s hand. “It’s good to talk with you finally. Now, can you tell me your name?”
With concentration, she answered, “Nancy.”
“That’s great, Nancy. I have some paperwork that has Abigail as a name for you, too. Do you go by Abigail?”
Nancy rolled her one good eye. “My parents call me Abbie, but nobody calls me Abigail.” The only audible part of her statement was the names.
Hoagie Breath released her hand and smiled. “It’s okay, Nancy. In case you don’t remember, my name is Judy. I’m your nurse until seven a.m., and it’s Monday, the twelfth. Do you know where you are?”
Nancy looked around. “ICU.”
Judy nodded. “That’s right. You are in the intensive care area at Hahnemann Hospital, where you have been since last Tuesday, the sixth. You were unconscious for a few days, and you’re a bit hoarse, most likely from the Diprivan we had you on. I don’t want you to strain what little voice you have, and you’re probably getting sleepy from the injection, so I will keep my questions brief for now. Do you remember anything about what you were doing before now?”
Nancy took a deep breath. The last thing she remembered was taking a walk and the sensation of falling. I was, I think, going somewhere. She nodded.
“Good. Try and hold on to what you remember because you’ll need to talk about it when you’re able. For now, we’ll do a few more ‘yes’ and ‘no’ questions, okay?”
Nancy nodded again.
“Very good, Nancy. You’re doing well.” The nurse consulted her clipboard and got down to business. “Do you know Damon, the artist?”
Nancy blinked. Everyone in Center City knew Damon’s art. His work populated Artist’s Row, the terminal, and the sides of buildings up and down Broad Street, but she did not know him personally. She tilted her head, and the expression on her face was somewhere between “yes” and “no.”
“Damon brought you to our ER. He’s been back a few times to check on you, but we haven’t given him any information. He’s not related to you, is he?”
Nancy shook her head.
Judy made a note and continued. “Your mother was notified and came the day after you were admitted. There was also a Brandon Brumfeld on some older hospital records.” The nurse’s eyes moved back and forth as she read the file. She breathed in sharply through her nose and let it out. “It says here that Mr. Brumfeld was a secondary next of kin, but he died ten years ago.” She glanced at Nancy. “You’ll want to update your records.” She made a note on the clipboard. “Anyway, no one other than your mother is going to be allowed to come see you until the doctor says, and I’m going to suggest we wait until you are able to speak a bit better. Is that okay with you?”
Nancy was grateful and nodded. She hoped the nurse was almost done because the pain medicine was making her drowsy.
Judy must have gotten the hint. She touched Nancy’s hand. “You get some rest, and I’ll check on you in about an hour.” Nancy nodded again, closed her good eye, and went to sleep.
Wednesday, May 21:
Nancy stretched and wrinkled her nose at the breakfast tray. She was still on a mechanical soft diet. Everything tasted the same but looked like Technicolor pudding. Michelle, her morning nurse on the step-down floor, finished taking her vitals. “You are doing so well, Nancy. I hear from the night crew that you have been working your crutches?”
“I like to walk, and after three weeks in this place, I’m stir crazy. The doc said I could as long as I was careful.” Nancy had begged the doctor to let her use the crutches outside of therapy, and it had worked.
Michelle smiled. “At this rate, we might be able to get you out of that leg cast sooner than expected.” She made a few notes and winked. “And I saw that face. When the doctor sees these vitals, he might let you have some meals with more substance, too.”
“That would be good,” Nancy said.
Michelle put the clipboard back in its place by the door. “Nancy, the hospital social worker is here to meet with you. Do you feel up to it?” Nancy nodded, and Michelle opened the door. “Come in, Sharon. Nancy, you have a great day, and I’ll check on you later.”
“Thank you, Michelle,” Nancy replied as the social worker entered and she realized that she knew the diminutive woman.
“Hello, Ms. Labaro, I’m Sharon Lewis-Green, one of Hahnemann’s social workers. I wanted to take a bit of time to talk with you about what brought you here.”
“I know you,” Nancy said. “Mazda Miata, hard apple on tap. Pull up a chair.” Nancy owned 1300, a supper club in Center City with an ever-increasing clientele. Sharon was a regular on Friday nights.
Sharon blushed. “Yes, you have a good memory.” She smiled as she sat, and became business-like as she consulted a stack of notes. “So, you were in ICU from the sixth through the fourteenth and have been on the step-down from the fourteenth until now. Do you know what happened to bring you here?”
Nancy frowned and crossed her arms tightly. “I remember a feeling of falling, but I have no idea how I ended up on that side of City Hall. I live in Rittenhouse Plaza and decided to take a walk to Dunkin Donuts.”
“The one near Temple’s Center City campus?”
Nancy shook her head. “No. That one opens at seven. I was out early, and the one on the east side of City Hall is open twenty-four hours. It was such a beautiful morning. Anyway, I changed my mind and went to the Fifteenth Street Station instead. There’s a guy there who sells bean pies to the early crowd, and I had a taste for one.”
Sharon smiled. “Ahmed. I know him. Go on.”
“That’s him. But he wasn’t there that day. The kid who served me said he was one of the brothers and since Mr. Ahmed had other business, he was filling in. Anyway, I took Walnut to Fifteenth and instead of cutting around City Hall, I kept walking toward the station. The next thing I know, I’m waking up in ICU, and a nurse is telling me I was brought here by a famous artist.”
Sharon raised an eyebrow. “Yes, Damon, the artist. He is quite a mystery. Do you know him?”
Nancy shook her head. “I know some of his work, like everybody else. Other than that, I just know what I read. They say he’s something of a recluse.”
Sharon shrugged. “The ER duty nurse thought he was a homeless guy.”
Nancy asked, “Why would the nurse think he was homeless?”
Sharon shrugged again. “Well, he is one of the most sought-after artists in Center City. He designed and painted the big mural over at Reading Terminal. However, he lives very plain. The papers say he dresses in old clothes because he doesn’t want to get recognized. Something about some bad press ten years ago.” She made a quick note and changed the subject. “I need to ask you something else. I understand that the doctor is ready to allow more visitors, but based on your injuries, we need to make sure you are safe.”
“Safe? From what?”
“Ms. Labaro, you sustained some serious injuries. You don’t remember what happened, and the police are reviewing surveillance tapes from many of the businesses between your home and where you were found, in addition to talking with Damon, the artist. I need to ascertain if any of your potential visitors might want to do you harm. Your mother is already on the list. Protocol required that the police call next of kin so they called her. Our records had a Mr. Brandon Brumfeld listed. He is your ex-husband, correct?”
“He was my ex-husband. He died a while back.”
“I’m sorry,” Sharon answered. She seemed flustered as she consulted her notes again. “We didn’t know, and the officers tried to contact him, um–”
“It’s okay,” Nancy interrupted. “I should have updated my records.”
Sharon moved her pen down the page. “A Ms. Carla Emerson is also on the request list.”
Nancy smiled. “You know her. She’s the concierge director at Thirteen Hundred and is usually the one who books your reservations. Of course, I want her on the list.”
Sharon nodded. “Sure. Oh, and what about Damon, the artist? Do you want him added to your list?”
Nancy was curious about this Damon. “Yeah, why not?”
Two Years Earlier:
“I’m fine, Mother.” Nancy tried to keep her voice even as she watched the storm clouds roll in.
Her father came on the line. “We appreciate you staying at the house, but the news reports here are saying this Sandy is bad.”
Nancy smiled. Townsend Labaro’s concern was more for the estate he had built than for his only girl. He had rarely spoken to her since, instead of going to medical school, she had opted for an entrepreneur’s life. When he and her mother scheduled their European trip, he called Nancy to ask her if she would watch the house. They were not a close family, but Townsend would trust her over any stranger or housekeeper. She agreed to travel back and forth to work while they were gone, but when the news started warning about Sandy, she stayed on in Brigantine and put Carla in charge at 1300 with instructions to close if things got bad. Nancy knew the property well. She had grown up there and was not worried about riding out the storm, since every building on the estate exceeded all safety specifications.
She looked up and down the coast from the third floor of the main house as waves rippled across the ocean, over the berms, and into the streets. “It’s fine, Dad. You keep enough supplies for an army here. I don’t have to go out. The staff buttoned up everything except the main house, and the only ones here are three security personnel, Suzanna and her family out in the casita, and me. We aren’t going anywhere.”
“What about your business? You aren’t going to the city?” Townsend’s concern was forced. He would never part his lips to call 1300 what it was: a club.
Nancy shuddered as a particularly large wave crashed nearby. “No, I’m not going anywhere, I said. Carla’s got things in hand at the club.” She emphasized the last two words for his benefit and smiled as he let out a sigh.
“Okay. Call us if you need anything. We can get in touch with some of our colleagues at the course.” Townsend was proud of his memberships, particularly at the exclusive island golf course, and liked to throw names around.
“I’m good.” Nancy was ready to hang up. “Go and enjoy your vacation. I’m sure Mother is waiting for you.”
She heard the mock exasperation in his voice. “Yes, she’s taking me on a tour of Rome today. I’ll have her call you when we’re settled back in, you know, to check on things.” He added hastily, “And you.”
Right. “Sure thing. ‘Bye.”
Nancy took full liberty during her time back in Brigantine. She ate Suzanna’s rich cooking, stretched out on the expensive furniture, and watched television–after the cable came back on as the storm dissipated–in her father’s leather-appointed lounge. Despite the opulence of her parent’s home, she wanted to get back to her Center City space and left as soon as the weather broke, which was conveniently the day before her parents’ return.
When she read the paper a week or so later, there was a story about a two-day suspension of the Norristown High Speed Line during the storm. The article stated that those two days were only the second occurrence of a service break in recent years. The other had been in 2004, the day they stopped the trains to remove the remains of someone who had fallen on the tracks. The article stated that the victim had been a known junkie and petty criminal named Brandon Brumfeld.
Thursday, May 22:
Nancy had been excited. Michelle, the day-shift nurse, told her Damon, the artist, was coming. Her excitement was short-lived as her mom stepped through the door.
“Expecting someone else?” Her mother watched the smile disappear from Nancy’s lips as she sat in the chair at the foot of the bed. “I don’t know how many times I’ve said it,” Beatrix complained. “No matter how long you live in the city, you can’t think you won’t run into trouble.” She puckered her lips tightly. “And you, out walking without a cell phone or anything. Oh, Abbie, look at you!” She motioned toward the full cast on Nancy’s right leg. “And your eye looks terrible. What happened? Were you beaten, raped?”
Nancy thought she could have used at least one more day before dealing with Mrs. Beatrix Labaro. She loved her mother, but not the noise that usually accompanied her. She answered, “No, Mother. I wasn’t raped. And my guess is I wasn’t beaten since all I got was a black eye and a busted leg. Plus I made it here with my keys and wallet.”
Nancy tuned out her mother’s voice to think about the conversation with the doctor. The rape kit had shown no evidence of a violation, but she had suffered a bruised eye socket, a broken tibia, and a concussion, which was most likely the cause of her semi-conscious state. You’re a lucky lady, Ms. Labaro. Who knows what could have happened if that bum hadn’t found you, the doctor had said and smiled as if he had offered her something wonderful.
Nancy had not returned his joy. The man who found me is a well-known artist, Doctor. And even if he wasn’t, he deserves more than off-handed name-calling. She chided herself for being so protective of a man she did not know. She tuned back in since her mother was still talking.
“…and what’s this I hear about some smelly old homeless man that found you?”
She got angry. “Mom, nobody said anything about any homeless or smelly man. I’ll have you know I was rescued by a well-known person. Just because he wasn’t wearing an Armani suit doesn’t mean he was homeless!”
She felt the anger rising again as it had during her conversation with the doctor. “Look, I’m tired. Why don’t you come back in a day or two? I’m still recovering you know. Fragile condition.”
Beatrix pursed her lips with more force. “Nancy Abigail Brum–ah, I mean Labaro–you haven’t been fragile a day in your life. But I get the message. I’ll go.”
It had been fifteen years since Nancy had gotten away from Brandon and changed her name back to Labaro. She struggled to comprehend why her mother continued to have a hard time with her divorce even though so much time had passed.
“Anyway,” Beatrix paused to pick up her purse. “Your father will wonder where I am. It’s almost dinner time.”
“Still not cooking for himself, eh?” Nancy loved ribbing her mother about her father’s lack of domestic skills. Townsend Labaro was a businessperson and as such brought in the bacon. He expected Beatrix or Suzanna to cook it.
Her mother pulled on a pair of driving gloves, adjusted her hat and coat, and prepared to leave. “I don’t allow Daddy in the kitchen anymore. You might not believe it, but he tried his hand at breakfast a few times.”
“And how long ago was that?”
“Oh, the last time was a year or two ago–”
Nancy put up a finger in triumph. “Aha! I knew it wasn’t anything I should get excited about!”
Beatrix continued as if she had not been interrupted. “–but he burnt the eggs and toast to a crisp. Took Suzanna and me a week to air out the kitchen.” She had looked her daughter up and down again and let out a breath. “Oh, Abbie. I wish you would move out of the city. It’s not seemly for a woman alone.”
“Okay, okay.” Beatrix gently patted her daughter’s hand. “I know you love your place and your independence. I’ll leave it alone for now, but I want you to at least think about it.” She smoothed her skirt. “I’ll tell Daddy you’re doing okay.”
Nancy asked but knew the answer. “He’s not planning on coming by?”
Beatrix’s expression became stonily uncomfortable. “You know it’s hard for him to get off the island unless he’s up the Pike at the track.” Townsend was heavily invested in the Atlantic City Race Track. He was also a major political player in the community. “He wanted to come, but there’s a Council meeting tonight,” Beatrix added with a smile.
“Yeah.” Nancy had spent much of her childhood in the back of Council chambers or watching her dad leave for meetings. The wheeling and dealing was unlikely to be put on pause because of her.
Beatrix took a deep breath in through her nose before replying. “Now, Abbie, don’t be like that. I’m sure Daddy will look forward to seeing you. Why don’t you plan to come out to the house once they let you out of here? Suzanna and I will take care of you.”
Nancy pasted on a smile to avoid a fight. “I’ll think about it. Now you better get going.” She checked the clock above the sink. “School is letting out so the outbound traffic will be heavy by now I’m sure.”
Beatrix leaned over and kissed her gently on the forehead. “Okay, Abbie. You get some rest.” A disheveled man stepped aside as Beatrix turned to leave the room. “Can I help you?”
The man shook his head. “Um, I’m here to visit Nancy.”
“C’mon in,” Nancy called before her mother could stop the visitor.
“Are you all right, Abbie? Should I call the nurse? You did say you were recovering.” Beatrix gave her a cool look, which Nancy promptly ignored.
Nancy motioned toward the chair her mother had vacated. “Nope. We’ll just visit for a minute, Mother. I’ll call you when they say I’m cleared to go home. You drive safe, now.”
Beatrix squinted at the man, turned on a heel, and left.
“So, I take it you’re Damon, the artist.” Nancy tried not to stare. Under all that hair, he looked familiar. He tossed his head just so, and she gasped. It can’t be!
“Well, aren’t we formal, Abbie.” He snickered. “Where’d that nickname come from?”
She blinked fast and crossed her arms. “My middle name is Abigail, after my dad’s mom. My parents have called me ‘Abbie’ since I was a kid.” She lowered her eyes. “I guess you don’t remember that’s what my dad called me when you showed up at the house unannounced once.”
His eyes widened. “You know who I am?”
“Dave Burketsky, my best friend and partner in crime. How could I not know you?” Nancy held her arms open.
Dave shrank back. “I’m not exactly freshened up for hugs.”
“Now who’s being formal? If you don’t get over here right now, I’m gonna ring the Nurse Ratched buzzer.” Dave smiled, and as his eyes crinkled, she saw the face she remembered. He came to the bed and hugged her gently. As his hair fell across her face, she closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Beneath the scents of acrylic paint, she smelled the smell of the man who had held her in his arms years ago before life had become more difficult than either of them could have imagined. They held each other for a moment longer and reluctantly let go at the same time. “Was that so terrible?”
He frowned. “Oh, yeah. You smell like medicine.”
They laughed together until Nancy’s sides hurt. “Ouch–I cry, uncle! I can’t laugh like that yet.” She composed herself and patted the bed. “Sit here. I want to look at you.” He complied, and she took his hand in hers. “Thank you.”
“For getting me here before I ended up in worse shape than I was.” Nancy shivered as she thought about how fortunate she was to have been found by a friend.
“I had just finished up a client meeting at the Arch and Broad McDonald’s and had crossed to take a shortcut up Cuthbert. Anyway, I didn’t see you at first because I was thinking about some business ideas. I tripped over your foot, and when I looked down, I recognized you. I realized you were in pretty bad shape.”
“The last thing I remember was going to get a bean pie at–”
“The Fifteenth street station,” David finished. “Mr. Ahmed, right? He always gets that early morning crowd and has the freshest stuff.”
“Did you get one?”
“Yeah. It was so good. I finished it and a cup of coffee before I got out of the station. But I don’t know how I got across the City Hall square and all the way to the Masonic Temple. How did we end up here?”
“I called Nine-One-One, and the ambulance brought you here,” Dave said. “I wanted to come along but had to go to the sheriff’s–you know, the Justice Center right behind the Temple?–to answer questions. I was pretty freaked out. I mean, I find a woman I think is a passed out homeless person on the sidewalk and it turns out to be Nance Labaro! And you’re hurt, and I have to answer questions about you. It wasn’t ideal by far, but what are the chances that we would run into each other after all these years? What happened? To us, I mean?”
Nancy’s heart quickened. “That’s probably a long story.”
Before she could continue, a nurse appeared. “Excuse me, Ms. Labaro. The doctor ordered you down to X-ray. He wants to check the progress on that leg. It’s been about three weeks, and you might be able to get out of that full cast soon.” She paused to look at David. “Well, I’m off to get a wheelchair, and I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
Dave rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb, just like he used to when they sat whispering together at the public library after school. “Can you come back tomorrow?” she asked.
“Sure, my schedule’s pretty open.” He smiled again. “I want to hear that long story, too.” The nurse was back at the door with the chair, and he reluctantly let go. “Get some rest, okay?”
Nancy smiled back. “It’s good to see you, Damon.”
“See you tomorrow, Nance.” There it was: the nickname Dave had given her. How she had missed it.
“Be there or be square, Burko.”
“You know you’re the only one I let call me that.” He gave her a thumbs-up and vanished.
Nancy took a deep breath and scooted to the edge of the bed while the nurse maneuvered the wheelchair into position.
“Here, let me help you,” the nurse said. “Was that Damon, the artist?”
Nancy smiled and wondered about that moniker. No one called him Damon. It was always Damon, the artist. “Yes,” she answered.
“Why did you call him ‘Burko’? You guys friends?” The nurse asked as she grabbed Nancy under her arms and helped her swivel into the seat.
“I guess you could say that,” Nancy replied.
With a shrug, the nurse turned her toward the door. “Cool! Are we ready to go?”
Hope that’s the end of the questions, Nancy thought as she arranged her gown. “Let’s do it.”
Friday, May 23, Morning:
Carla chewed her gum so hard that it crackled like lightning. “So what’s this I hear about you and some strange street guy?”
“Arg! What is it with all the negative comments?” Nancy was annoyed. “Why can’t anybody ask something like, ‘Hey Nancy, how are you feeling?’ After all, the issue here is that I’m in the hospital.”
Carla popped her gum again. “You became yesterday’s news about two days after you were put in ICU. And now that you’re in a regular room, you won’t even make the evening edition.”
“Carla Jean Emerson, I hate you. What are you doing here so early anyway? It’s barely seven and visiting hours don’t start until eleven.”
“I can’t share that. It’s need-to-know only. If I told you how I got in, I’d have to bop you on the head. And it’s already been done, evidently,” Carla said with a laugh.
Nancy sucked her teeth. “Tsk. Whatever.” Her smile turned into a wide-eyed expression of panic. “Wait! If I’m old news, that means you don’t know my secret.”
Carla stopped chewing long enough to sigh. “You don’t have any secrets.”
Nancy smiled. “My rescuer was David Burketsky.”
Carla’s eyes widened. “From the neighborhood? I thought Damon, the artist, rescued you.”
“Yeah, well, obviously Dave’s got a secret.” Carla opened her mouth, and Nancy cut her off. “Don’t start, Carla Jean. And before you get off on your conspiracy-theory-how-do-you-know-it’s-Dave jazz, I saw him yesterday. It’s him.”
“I know you saw somebody yesterday. One of my friends who works here told me some dirty guy showed up, asking for directions to your room,” Carla said.
Nancy rolled her eyes. “You and your connections. Anyway, he’s supposed to come back today.”
“If it is Dave and he’s got secrets, he probably uses alternative methods to gain entry like I did.” Carla wiggled her eyebrows and Nancy swatted at her. “I went by your place like you asked and picked up your cell phone and charger. You didn’t have any messages on the house phone.” Nancy grabbed the mobile phone, keyed in her lock code, and saw the blinking indicator: she had nine messages. “I also stopped by the shop a couple times. I haven’t really told everybody what’s going on. I just confirm what’s right and correct the rumors.”
Nancy sighed. “You could have told the team. It’s okay and I’d rather them know now than question me later.”
Carla shrugged and changed the subject. “What’s Beatrix talking about? Is she coming back to see you soon?”
“Probably,” Nancy answered. “I didn’t tell her much. She didn’t even ask about what was going on at work.”
“Well I know what’s going on and you sort of know what’s going on, but your mom doesn’t have a clue. Even though you’ve told her at least a million times that Thirteen Hundred is a supper club. I bet that she thinks it’s a brothel or something. She’s never visited, has she?”
“Nope. And that’s fine. The idea of a supper club that holds an open mic night, film and art showings, and private parties is beyond her and my dad.” Nancy had stopped trying to justify her choices long ago. She had been financially free of her parents by the time she graduated college and did what she wanted, regardless of their opinion. “Did you say anything to George while you were there?”
Carla nodded. “Yeah. A few of those calls are probably from him.” Nancy looked concerned. “Hey, it’s all good. I went in at different times, and he had the kitchen in order during every shift. Everybody was carrying on like they were supposed to. More than a few customers stopped me to ask for you, since I’m your bodyguard and all.” Carla smiled. Carla had been downsized from her job at the downtown Marriott, and Nancy had asked her to be her co-owner and head of concierge. “I told them that you were dealing with a few personal matters but would be back soon. Fortunately, you’re a bit obsessive-compulsive and had the schedule full for six months–”
“There are actually bookings out for nine months, but who’s counting?” Nancy interrupted.
“Whatever!” Carla stuck her tongue out. “The people who were asking were satisfied with my answer. Have the doctors said anything about a possible release date yet?”
Nancy sighed. “Nah, not yet. They need to send me to an ophthalmologist to make sure I don’t have any damage to my eye beyond the bruised socket. I’ll have to keep the full cast on for another week before the next X-ray. If it’s healing well, I might get a soft cast. I will still have to use the crutches for a while.”
“You’ll probably have that shiner for a while, too.” Carla pointed. “You could tell the folks at Thirteen Hundred that we got into a fight, and I won.”
Their laughter was interrupted by a knock on the door. “Come in,” Nancy answered.
Dave stuck his head around the corner. “Sorry to interrupt.”
“David, good to see you!” Carla jumped up. “Or do you prefer Damon, the artist, in public? Not sure if you remember me from school. I’m Carla, Nancy’s best friend.”
Dave squinted at her and ignored the name question. “Oh, yeah. You look different though. You had short hair back then, right?”
Carla put her hand on her hip. “You did, too.” She turned to Nancy. “I’m out. Call me if you need me. Oh,” she turned to the clock, “looks like somebody else has secret ways of gaining entry. Good to see you, Dave. Or Damon. Or whatever.”
The women waved at each other and Carla was gone. Nancy looked at the clock and held out her hands to Dave. “Hmmm, seven-fifty-six a.m. How did you get up here before visiting hours?”
He took her hands in his and answered, “I guess I used the same way as Carla.”
Nancy raised an eyebrow. “Carla probably smiled pretty and bought some poor overnight front desk guy a latte. Don’t tell me you used your feminine wiles too?”
Dave laughed and put his hand on his hip in a perfect imitation of Carla. “Would you fall for it?”
“In a heartbeat!” Nancy smiled and looked away in hopes he had not heard the depth of sincerity in her response. She assumed he had not since he took her hand and kept talking.
“I don’t know who was on the desk when Carla got here, but Tucker is working now. He works here part-time and does art full-time. That’s how I know him. I’ve been working with him for a while, showing him the ropes and all. He’s gotten a few jobs on his own and is branching out now, which is cool. I think he’d like to quit working here, but for now, it keeps him fed more than the art does.”
Nancy sat up a bit straighter but did not let go of Dave’s hand. She could not believe how happy she was to see him and was afraid it might all be a dream, that he might disappear if she let him go. “So tell me what you’ve been up to.”
“Not fair! You were supposed to tell me first!”
“Okay, you’re right. Do you want the short, medium, or long version?”
Dave put a finger to his chin and pretended to be in deep thought. “Can I choose more than one option?”
She gave him a quizzical look.
“What I mean is, if I ask for the short version first, can I switch and ask for the long version later?”
“Only if I can do the same when you tell your story.”
Before she could begin, a Food and Nutrition representative came in with the breakfast tray. She placed the meal on the patient table. “Excuse me, Miss. Breakfast time. Would you like me to leave it covered or do you want it now?”
“I’ll take it now, thank you,” Nancy answered. The representative removed the plate covers, wheeled the patient table closer to Nancy, and left the room. Nancy reluctantly released Dave’s hand and gestured toward the food. “This is going to take a while. Let’s share breakfast.”
© 2018 by AR Neal