The call came in at eleven in the morning on a Thursday.
Nothing bad happens at that time of day, and Thursday is just another day of the week. That's what I thought, so I didn't worry and let it ring through to voicemail. I had pages and pages of journal articles to read for my class at two in the afternoon and couldn't afford to waste any time. Our professor expected us to be familiar enough with the material so we could discuss, answer questions and ask them. Not just any questions. Smart questions. I had to be in the top five percent of the class to keep my ranking, and so I tucked my cell into my book bag and turned the page in the article.
So far so good for another three minutes of reading the dense material, but then my cell rang once more, the shrill ring irritating me, making it hard to concentrate on the text in front of me. It rang five times and then went to voice mail once more, so I sighed and turned another page. Less than a minute later, it rang again and I knew I couldn't ignore the call any longer.
I took the cell out of my bag and checked the caller I.D.
Massachusetts General ICU.
Adrenaline jolted through me. My mother and stepfather were out of town on one of those river cruises up the Danube, so it wasn't them.
It could only be Graham.
Graham must have been in an accident.
I answered the phone, my heart thumping in my chest.
Sounds of people talking, monitors beeping. That wasn't good. Finally, someone came on the line.
"Sorry," a female voice said. "I didn’t think you were going to answer. Is this Celia Franklin?"
"Yes, this is her."
"Your brother Graham is in ICU here at Mass General. You should come down as soon as possible."
I gasped, covering my mouth. “What happened? Is he going to be okay?"
"He received a brain injury during a fight and is being kept sedated for now so you should come down as soon as you can."
"Is he going to die?"
"He's currently in serious condition, and he's very sick, but no. He should recover barring any unseen complications."
I closed my eyes and exhaled, relieved that he wasn't dead or dying. "I'll be right there."
I ended the call and tried to calm myself but my hands were shaking.
My older brother by five years, Graham was my financial manager and my slave driver, watching over me to make sure I didn’t stray too far from the straight and narrow. He'd taken over that role from Spencer, my bastard of a stepfather, when I'd left home at nineteen to escape the household from hell. Luckily, I had an inheritance from my father and used the interest to fund the dorm I lived in. A tuition scholarship covered the rest.
I texted my best friend, Amy.
CELIA: I need you to take me to Mass General. Graham's been in a fight and he's unconscious. They want me to come right down. I'm freaking out right now. Where are you?
There was no answer and I wondered if she was in class. I checked her schedule, which I kept on my laptop, which showed that she was in between classes so I knew she'd answer as soon as she could.
I frantically ran around my dorm room, pulling on a sweater over top of my yoga pants and bra. Finally, my cell dinged, indicating an incoming text.
AMY: OMG I'm so sorry I didn't check my cell. I'll be right there!
I responded immediately, relieved I wouldn’t have to take a taxi.
CELIA: Thank you. I don't know what I'd do without you.
AMY: Hold on. I'm on my way right now. Be there in five.
I went to the small bathroom and brushed my teeth, washed my face, and then gathered up my hair into a topknot. When I glanced in the mirror, I saw a face white as a ghost, and haggard from staying up late too many nights to get on top of my classes. I needed sleep but it appeared that I wouldn’t be getting any for a while.
I pulled my laptop into my book bag, grabbed a couple of articles I'd need to read for classes tomorrow, and stood at my window to wait for Amy.
Then, I realized I'd have to miss my contracts class, so I texted my Prof.
CELIA: Sorry, but I have to miss class today. My brother is in ICU at Mass General.
I didn’t expect a response, so I went down the stairs to the front of Kirkland House and stood on the sidewalk, my nerves all jangling. When would Amy be here?
Most importantly – what the hell happened to Graham?
He didn't get into fights. He was an investment advisor in a startup he and his friend Mark formed a couple of years earlier.
He managed an investment fund. Stocks. Bonds. Securities.
He didn't fight…
Not even with Spencer, our bastard of a stepfather, who beat the crap out of both of us when we were kids.
Graham took it in silence, unlike me. I always rebelled. It cost me many a slapped face, but I could not accept his authority.
After my father died in the car crash that disabled my mother, Spencer tried to become our replacement father, but neither Graham nor I accepted him in that role.
I hated him. When I was nineteen, I decided that the last time he'd hit me was the last time I'd take any more shit from him. That was it. I never went home again, and I never had to take anything from him again.
I aimed to keep it that way.
Amy finally drove up in front of the building in her old jalopy of a car – an eighties Austin Marina, dark green, dented and held together by duct tape and wire. I hopped into the passenger side, my book bag in hand.
"Oh my God, Celia," she said, her eyes wide as we drove off. "What the hell happened? It's not like Graham to get into a fight."
I fastened my safety belt and leaned back, my eyes closed. "I have no freaking idea. Maybe he was mugged?"
She shrugged and made a face. "Possible. But his office is in the swanky part of the city."
I shrugged, at a loss about how Graham could have gotten into a fight. "All I know is that the ICU nurse called and said he'd been in an 'altercation' and was being kept sedated. He must have a concussion."
"I can't believe it. What do you suppose happened? I didn't think investment bankers got into fist fights."
"Me neither," I said and watched the streets pass by. The world seemed so normal, with people walking down the sidewalks, going about their business. My brother was in ICU and the hospital called and said I should get down right away.
That wasn't good.
"Do your parents know?" she asked as we waited at a stoplight.
I shook my head. "Honestly, I won't call them until I know what's happening. They're in Germany right now and so it's late at night for them. The last thing I want is to scare my mother. She wouldn't be able to sleep if she thought Graham was dying or something."
"Do you think he's dying?"
"No, no," I said quickly, "but if my mom got a call late at night, she might freak out. You know what she's like."
Amy rolled her eyes. "I know," she said. "She can't handle any stress. It's probably best you wait and see how Graham is. But you should call her if things are bad."
She reached out and took my hand in hers, squeezing. "I'm so sorry. You must be freaking out."
"I am." I forced a smile and nodded. "Thanks for being here." I stared at her while we drove down the street. "Your hair is pink and blue," I said with a smile.
"Do you like it?" she asked, running her hand over her pigtails, which bounced perkily when the car drove over bumps in the road.
"You look like Harley Quinn."
She laughed. "That's the effect I was going for."
We drove on, and my smile faded when my thoughts turned from Amy's love of Joker's main squeeze to my brother Graham. There was nothing left to do but wait until we got there to find out what the hell happened.
Finally, after what felt like ages, we stopped in front of the Mass General entrance and I got out of the car, slinging my book bag over my shoulder. I leaned in to the open window and caught her eye.
"Thanks for this."
She nodded. "Do you want me to park and come in?"
I glanced around at the busy parking lot. "No, that's okay. I know you have classes this afternoon."
"I can cancel if you want. I can stay with you."
I shook my head. "I'll call you if I need you. Go on. One of us should attend class."
"Okay," she said doubtfully. "You text me and keep my up to date with what happened and how Graham's doing. You know I always had a crush on him."
"Eww," I said and made a face of mock disgust. "I know you had a crush on my brother. You still do."
"I do," she said with a sigh. "Tell him I hope he gets better soon."
She blew me a kiss and drove off so I went into the hospital and worked my way through the maze of hallways and elevators until I found the ICU. I went through a set of double doors and down a busy hall with a row of individual rooms with big glass windows so the nurses could watch the entire ward.
People lay on beds, the heads raised, and some were intubated, tubes either in their mouths or through tracheotomies. Wires and tubes ran from their bodies to machines, and telemetry recorded their heart rates and respirations. The beep-beep-beep of the ECGs was like a cacophony and it set my nerves off. My hands actually shook.
I went to the nursing station and stood at the counter, waiting for someone to notice me. The nurses were busy consulting a chart or on the phone. Finally, a man in scrubs with a stethoscope around his neck turned to me.
"Can I help you?" he asked. An older man in his fifties with thinning grey hair, he had a kind face and warm brown eyes.
"Yes, I'm here to see Graham Parker. I'm his sister, Celia. Someone called me and said I should come right down."
He nodded. "Yes," he said and pulled up a screen on his monitor. "I'm Doctor Malone. Your brother is in Room 12. Just down the hall."
"How is he?"
He stood and came over to where I was at the counter. "He's been beaten pretty badly and was unconscious when the EMTs brought him in. He has a concussion, some cuts and bruises and internal injuries. We had to wire his jaw shut because it was broken. I'll take you to see him."
I followed him down the hall. While we walked, he recounted what happened.
"According to your brother's friend, Graham left with three men in a van he met outside his office. They must have beaten him up and then dumped him in the back alley behind his building. Your brother's friend called the ambulance and they brought him here."
We went into a tiny room and it was hard for me to believe it was Graham for his face was beaten so badly that he was almost unrecognizable, his eyes swollen shut and already turning blue-purple. His head was wrapped with white bandage.
"Oh, my God," I cried and covered my mouth. "What did they do to him?"
"He's lost a few teeth. And they did this," the doctor said and lifted up Graham's gown to reveal a large bandage. He peeled back one edge and lifted the bandage up. Underneath were several letters carved into his abdomen, the edges bloody and held together with butterfly sutures where there weren't stitches.
The letters read '7 DAYS'.
"Seven days?" I stepped closer. "What does that mean?"
The doctor reapplied the bandage to cover the wound. "I have no idea. Is it a deadline for something? Did he owe any money to someone?"
"He's an investment banker. He doesn't get into fights."
Tears sprung to my eyes as I examined Graham. What on Earth happened to him? Who would do this to him?
"Someone sent him a message," Doctor Malone said. "He's out of immediate danger. Now, we'll watch to see if he regains consciousness. We're going to take him for another CT later to make sure he's okay."
I thanked him and stood at Graham's side for a while, watching him breathe.
After about ten minutes, Graham's friend and business partner Mark showed up with a cup of coffee in his hand.
"Celia," he said and glanced at Graham. "Thank God you're here."
"You have to tell me what happened," I said and grabbed his arm. I didn't want Mark to tell me in front of Graham so I pulled him down the hallway to the small alcove with chairs and a kitchen for family. We sat on the chairs beside each other.
"Tell me," I said, my throat choking from emotion. "What the hell happened to Graham?"
Mark leaned back and took a sip of his coffee. "Honest to God, I thought they killed him."
"Who are they? Why would anyone what to kill him?"
Mark made a face of discomfort, like he didn't want to have to tell me.
He sighed. "Some thugs who looked like they came out of Eastern Promises showed up at the office. A guy named Stepan went into his office and I heard some shouting. Graham went outside with him and got into a van on the street. The van drove away and I thought nothing of it, because Graham seemed so calm. I guess they beat the shit out of him and dumped him behind the building in the back alley. I went out back for a smoke and when I found him, I called 9-1-1 right away. They were there in three minutes but who knows how long he was lying there in the back alley? He was gone for half an hour at least."
"And the thugs?"
He shook his head. "I talked to the cops and gave them a description of the men and the van. The detective said it sounded like the Russian mob."
"The Russian mob? What the hell…"
We sat in silence for a moment while I tried to figure it out. I had this sense he knew more than he was telling me.
I turned to him. "What was Graham doing talking to the Russian mob? You guys weren't laundering money for them or anything, were you?"
Mark shrugged, but didn't meet my eyes. "He lost your money."
I frowned, adrenaline flowing through me. "He what?"
Finally, Mark turned to me, his face red. "He invested your money and lost it all. He was swindled, Celia. He was so upset, because he knew you relied on that money for school."
"What did he do?"
"He went to a loan shark to get it back because he knows you need the money for your dorm. He couldn't afford to pay the interest. To put them off, he gave them the money back, and was supposed to pay the interest back this week. He didn't have it."
I covered my eyes and took in a ragged breath. Graham…
"Why didn’t he tell me?" I asked, my eyes filling with tears.
"Why do you think?" Mark said, turning to me. "You trusted him to manage your inheritance. He lost his money and yours in this pharmaceutical startup that was supposed to give a big return due to some great new genetic tech advance, but the company went bankrupt and he lost both your funds."
"Oh, God, why did he do that? My trust fund was supposed to be put in a safe investment."
He raised his hands. "He thought he had this sure thing and wanted to double your money so you could start your own firm when you graduated if you wanted. He borrowed and was going to use it to leverage some extra money, but he failed. His investments lost money. All he could do was pay back the loan shark the principal. No interest. The beating was to make sure he remembered to pay the interest."
My jaw fell open. "Thirty percent interest?"
Mark lifted a shoulder. "That's actually a good rate. The problem is that if you don't pay on time, they break an arm or leg to give you an incentive."
"What's he going to do? Can he afford to pay thirty percent? That's…" I sat and calculated the interest. My inheritance gave me a nice stipend of two grand a month before taxes. That paid my room and board and a little left over for spending. If he lost my entire inheritance…
"That's one hundred and fifty grand for your fund alone, not to mention some that he invested from his own money," Mark said quietly.
I sat in stunned silence, unable to grasp what he told me.
"I guess I better get a job." I shook my head and felt tears threaten but I couldn't feel bad for myself when Graham was so badly hurt.
"Graham's so sorry about losing your money," Mark said, turning to me. "He was sick about it. He was going to cash in some of his investments to pay the interest but he can't cover all one hundred and fifty grand. He could only come up with ten grand in cash. He gave that to Stepan but it wasn't enough to stop the beating."
"Why did he go to a loan shark? My God, Mark, even I know you never get mixed up with them."
"He freaked. You were starting law school and he has big debts. He thought he was investing your money in this sure thing…" He sighed and finished his coffee.
A nurse came down the hallway to where we sat. "Celia?" she said, peering around the corner. "Your brother's waking up."
I jumped up and went to his room, where a nurse tended to him, offering him some water from a glass with a straw.
I went to the other side of the bed and took his hand in mine.
"Hey," I said, my eyes brimming. "You're waking up."
He nodded almost imperceptibly. He tried to say something, but he had his jaw wired and I could barely make out what he said.
I leaned down and put my ear to his lips. "What did you say?"
"I lost it all," he whispered. "I'm so sorry."
I glanced at him and saw tears slipping down his cheeks.
"Shh," I replied and stroked his cheek. "I know. Mark told me. Don't worry about that. You've got to get better. That's all that matters."
He shook his head slowly. "Go to Hunter."
Hunter. There could be only one Hunter.
"I can't," I said and shook my head. "You know better than that."
"Go," he said through gritted teeth. "Go to him."
"No, Graham, he hates us. He hates me."
Graham shook his head slowly. "No," he said. "Go to him."
"That's like going from the frying pan into the fire." I wiped tears off my cheeks. "He's as bad as this Stepan goon who beat you up."
"No," Graham said. "He's not."
My brother's former oldest and best friend, Hunter was now an enemy, thanks to Spencer, and there was no way Hunter would help.
"I'm so sorry," Graham said again, tears overflowing from beneath his swollen eyelids.
"Shh." I squeezed his hand again. "You go to sleep. I'll figure something out."
"Go to Hunter," Graham whispered again. "Don't call Spencer. Don't."
"But I have to tell Mom you're in the hospital..."
"No," he said and squeezed my hand hard. "Don't tell Spencer. Go to Hunter."
I didn't reply. Hunter was the last person I wanted to go to but did I have any other choice?