That beeping...that deplorable beeping...I will smash whatever is making that noise with my bare fists and throw it into the bear grotto at Brookfield Zoo....
A sweet voice calms me. Perhaps the beeping object must be fixed, not smashed. "Is that a smoke detector?" I ask. My voice is abnormally soft, and a pain erupts in my chest. I try to rub it away, but a hand grabs mine.
"Don't move. You'll pull your IV line again. You're in the hospital, Max. You got shot when you were trying to protect me."
I open my eyes to see Valencia. She sits on the edge of my bed, smiling softly. "You're going to be okay," she promises.
I look around the hospital. Everything is a sanitized white or a bland toupe, except for the picture of a forest on the wall below the television. Valencia has been watching puppies play on Animal Planet.
"You like dogs?" I ask.
"Only the little fluffy ones."
"My grandmother had a Shih Tzu once...." Another pain stabs my chest. "It was a psychopath."
"My neighbor growing up had a psycho dog. Ronny the black lab." She smiles, and I smile back.
"You look lovely today." I want to go back to sleep, but I don't want to leave Valencia either. Especially with the shirt she's wearing--a lovely red shirt that flatters her figure and comes just low enough at the neckline to excite my imagination. The morphine does nothing to benefit my self-control.
Valencia blushes. "Thank you."
"I'd get you some flowers, if I could...red roses, to match your lovely shirt...." The pain strikes my chest again, and I must wince, because Valencia hits a button on my bed.
"Do you want some more pain meds?" she asks.
"I'm already high. Don't bother. How long was I out?"
Valencia smiles. "Nineteen hours. They had to give you anesthesia so they could get the bullet out of your chest. The first time you woke up, you tried pulling out your IV lines, so they sedated you again. And that was about three hours ago."
I realize that Valencia's dark hair is frizzy on top, and that her beautiful shirt is rumpled. It must be the middle of the night. When a knock sounds at the door, I am surprised, and Valencia calls for whoever stands behind it to enter. I'm not surprised to see a man in a suit with a badge. I resigned myself long ago to the fact that I would be put in a federal prison, most likely on death row, but I have a strange hope that my fate will be different.
"You're Massimiliano de Angelis?" the suited man asks.
"You're the Navy SEAL turned assassin who killed eighty-four people?"
Valencia pales, but I shake my head. "I killed twenty-seven people. I will give you their names. But the remaining fifty-seven were relocated to different countries--" I pause to take a breath as the pain in my chest grows unbearable again--"I will give you their names, aliases, and last known addresses."
"No need. We already know." The man flashes his badge. "Timothy Close, FBI."
I hold out my hands to be cuffed, but I quickly fall back with a grimace. "Why does it feel like there's an ice pick stuck in my arm?"
"There was a shard of glass stuck in it after the sniper shot my kitchen window," Valencia says. "You're ex-Navy? Also, are you sure you don't want more morphine?"
"Pain is weakness leaving the body," I say. "I was in the Navy. How else could I have learned my ways of getting rid of people?"
"And the government wants you back," Agent Close says. "We have enemies, too--terrorists, mainly--and we need someone to help keep the world safe. Technically, you'll be on work release from Marion Penitentiary. Don't think you're getting out of this without consequences."
I smile. "I never thought otherwise."
"So you'll take the job?"
I look at Valencia, and she takes my hand with a soft smile. "I think he should wait until all the morphine's out of his system before he makes that decision."
"But if I say yes?" I ask.
Valencia's eyes sparkle. "Then I'll tell you to be careful."
"Think carefully about your decision," Agent Close says. "We'll be contacting you within the next few days. Get well soon, Max." He nods and leaves, and I am grateful.
I turn again to Valencia, and to the book she left on the chair beside her. I can barely make out the title: A Rare Benedictine.
"You read the Cadfael Chronicles?" I ask.
"Gosh, yes. I love them."
"Could you read out loud to me?"
Valencia smiles and opens the book, and I lie awake listening to her soft angel's voice. Not even a murder mystery is frightening when she reads it.
M. J. Piazza is a Jesus-loving, dog-walking country girl who just so happens to write books.