I didn’t know I was minutes from death as I followed my associate Sam out the door, down the stairs, and into the alley. The sudden light was momentarily disorienting, but I was glad to be out of the building, even if it meant walking through sweltering heat to find the car. I’d been lost in my thoughts and hadn’t noticed when Sam made a wrong turn. We had just exited the building rather than backtrack.
The deposition had been stressful—far more than I anticipated—and I needed to get back to the office to rethink our strategy. I was impatient to get on with things, something that must have been obvious to Sam when he’d muttered an apology.
The ground shook and I almost lost my footing.
I grabbed the edge of a garbage dumpster to keep from toppling over, my hand pushing past grime and rotting muck before grasping metal. I ignored my disgust as I maintained my balance as the asphalt moved.
Sam wasn’t so lucky and fell, dropping the files he’d been carrying.
“You okay?” I asked as the muscles in my chest clenched, a stab of pain filling me with dread. I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself.
I’d been too focused on the deposition.
I hope the engineers knew what they were doing, I thought as I looked at the high-rise buildings swaying as if they were trees in a breeze. There are too many lawsuits about construction defects.
It was one thing to know skyscrapers were designed to shift in this exact way, but quite another to experience it firsthand. It was disorientating, especially from underneath.
Another stab ran through my chest as my heart seemed to threaten my life. I closed my eyes to keep a wave of nausea from overwhelming me. It had been a long time since the last earthquake.
We were overdue. It was nothing to stress about.
When I opened my eyes I stared at my feet while strengthening my grip and quietly inhaling. It felt like somebody was inside my chest with a jackhammer digging their way out.
I refuse to have another heart attack. Everything is fine.
I was glad Ava wasn’t nearby because she got a peculiar look on her face when my heart acted up. She seemed to have a sixth sense about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if she knew when I got home.
My chest constricted as another stab tore through. It was difficult to breathe. I made a fist when my late-night trip to the hospital came back so vividly it was difficult to tell which was real and what was the memory.
Ava had run beside me on the gurney, clenching our screaming son.
“It’s okay, little Ricky,” I said, my voice far away to my own ears, “everything will be fine.” The doors swung shut and my family was gone, my heart feeling as though it were about to rip through my chest.
I forced myself back to the present and exhaled with a small explosion, my lungs absorbing air like bone dry sponges in water. Another deep breath helped back me away from what had appeared to be another heart attack.
This is a panic attack, nothing more.
After another breath the fear subsided. Several breaths later and I was able to restore my composure.
I was afraid Sam might have noticed, but he was too busy picking himself up off the ground. I relaxed even more. He wouldn’t have hesitated to tell Ava. He sometimes seemed to get perverse pleasure hanging me out to dry in front of my wife.
It had not been easy returning to work and I’d only been able to overcome her reluctance by starting at half-days. If she found out about this incident I’d be back on bed rest for another month.
If Sam had not been by my side for the better part of a half a decade I might have got a new associate who didn’t pass information on to my wife, but it would be a pain to replace him. Hiring a new employee was a problem I didn’t need right now.
I chided myself for thinking of such a thing when the guy could use my help.
My back spasmed with pain as I straightened after picking up a few folders. I had skipped my morning stretches and was paying for it after all the excitement.
“How long has it been since the last one?” Sam asked as he picked up the final file.
I froze, thinking he was referring to my chest pain, but he hadn’t looked up.
He was asking about the earthquake.
After I handed him the files he retrieved my deposition notes from a puddle.
I don’t remember it raining, I thought, trying to not be annoyed with Sam for dropping my notes as well. He had been on edge all morning. I had expected him to be better after the deposition, but he’d lost his way and brought us out here.
There were no sprinklers in the alley. It wasn’t raining.
Where did the puddle come from?
I tried to dismiss the question. Small discrepancies bothered me. Water in the middle of a building bound alley didn’t make sense with all the heat. It was recent. Perhaps somebody had spilled it. My attention to detail was part of why I was an successful litigator.
“Five years, maybe,” I said.
I shrugged, waiting for another tremor to pass that was smaller than the first. Even though I wasn’t at risk of falling I took hold of the dumpster again with my slime covered hand figuring it couldn’t get any worse. Sam almost dropped the files again but was able to maintain his grip, just barely keeping my notes from falling back into the puddle.
I looked at my pants, realized my expensive suit would bring a costly bill and wiped my hand off as best I could on the cement wall of the building.
It was like rubbing it on coarse sandpaper and probably about as useful.
When I pulled it away most the muck was still there, so I tried again while keeping my ears open, listening for signs of how bad the quake had been. The buildings and alley appeared fine, but there would be damage, there always was.
It was unusually quiet.
I was opening my mouth to suggest Sam pull out his phone to check the news when a siren broke the silence. It was followed by several more. The little oddity had just been a passing fancy.
I chuckled, earning a strange look from Sam. The last four months had been stressful. Everybody told me to relax, urging me to lay in bed and rest. That had been the most challenging thing I’d ever done.
How could I relax in bed? All I had to think about was my near brush with death. Give me a stack of files?
That would be relaxing.
I scraped my hand on the brick one more time and gave up, wiping it on my pants without looking at the smear it left. I could afford to get them cleaned. When I looked at Sam, he had his hands in the air.
I thought it was a joke until I saw a masked man with a pistol. He stood underneath a security camera, facing away as if he knew it was there. “Freeze!” the man pointed his gun at me. His eyes were red, making me think of an alcoholic. Or a drug addict. I put my own hands in the air.
“Give me your wallet!” he said.
“Sure thing,” I said without moving. “You want me to reach into my pocket?”
The man screamed, shouted an obscenity, and alternated between pointing the gun at Sam and me. “Wallets! Cellphones too.” The cartoonish mask covered most his face, including his mouth.
I still didn’t move.
He was agitated and probably strung out on something, seeing as how he hadn’t answered my question. I wasn’t going to reach into my pocket only to get shot because he thought I was going for a weapon. I would do nothing until he gave me more specific instructions.
“You can have my wallet—buy all you want on my cards while you can—but there can’t be any surprises. I’ll do exactly what you say once you tell me how to do it.”
From my peripheral vision I noticed Sam still had his hands in the air. The mugger needed to specify exactly what he wanted us to do or otherwise allay my concerns that he wasn’t high as a kite.
I’d been mugged twice before. The second time hadn’t even been a bother because I knew the drill. I knew what he was going to do. I knew what I was going to do. We’d played our parts and moved on.
As I stared into the man’s eyes I realized that wasn’t likely to be the case today. Things would get messy quick if we weren’t careful.
I wasn’t worried about what I’d lose by giving him almost everything I had.
When I went into the city I only carried credit cards and had a backup cellphone hidden in a less conspicuous place on my person. A partner at our firm had recommended this after my first mugging.
The man shook, his hand vibrating so much that if he did pull the trigger, odds were good he’d miss. He looked at me as if just realizing what he was doing, like he was coming out of a drug induced haze.
“Everything’s going to be okay,” I said in as soothing of a voice as I could manage. “You’re going to get everything you want. Please just tell us what to do.”
Right after the second mugging I had called Sandy—my secretary—and by the time I’d returned to my office all my cards had been canceled and new ones were on the way. I hadn’t missed a beat. I had even billed a full ten hours that day.
I had not been able to do that after the first.
If Sam had taken my advice, he would be similarly prepared and we could deal with this in short order. The crook could have our phones and wallets. It wouldn’t even be a problem. Sandy might even have a new smartphone for me by the time I returned to the office.
“Wallets!” The mugger screamed. “Now!”
Neither Sam nor I moved, something was off about his voice.
“Look, friend,” I said, trying to think of a way to make this easier. “Do I have permission to reach into my pocket and pull them out?”
“Give me your wallets, now!”
I shook my head and wondered what to do next. My last mugger had been calm and professional. This experience made me think of that fondly.
The mugger was taking too long. He was agitated.
The last thing I would do was reach into my pocket, he’d shoot me for sure.
Things are likely to go wrong either way.
Sam still said nothing. I couldn’t get a read on where he was because he was a few feet ahead.
I took another stab. “Friend. My wallet is in my right suit coat pocket, my smartphone is in the left. You are welcome to them.” I nodded at Sam. “I’m sure he’ll happily give you his. You are going to walk away with everything you want. If you will calm down—”
“Give me your wallets, now!” he screamed.
Before I’d spoken he’d still been turning the pistol between Sam and me but now it was just on me.
The strange mask had slipped, giving me a better look at his eyes. What I’d taken for bloodshot eyes before appeared to be a reflection of his mask. I’d expected to see wide unfocused eyes, but what I saw was more concerning.
His eyes were calm.
It was all an act.
A sick feeling formed in my chest, a stab of panic rising in the back of my mind.
Something was very wrong.
“Give me your wallet now!”
I finally realized what sounded wrong with the man’s voice. It wasn’t his voice at all.
It was a recording.
Why the act? Why the recording? I looked at the wet spot on the ground. Why the puddle in the alley on a hot day?
“What are you doing?” I asked the man, taking a calculated risk. “Why won’t you give me instructions?” I wasn’t ready to call him on the recording just yet.
I wanted to make him use his voice if I could.
He stepped back and pointed the weapon at me with both hands. I expected him to make another request, but he pulled the trigger.
Warmth blossomed on my chest.
I looked down and saw red covering my pinstripe shirt. In a distant part of my mind that was fast losing its ability to focus I realized the scarlet liquid came from me.
As my knees buckled, I made an involuntary gasp. My legs crumpled. My head hit the asphalt with a crunch, but the pain was detached from me.
The last thing I remembered was Sam turning as a plane flew overhead.