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Authors: Vivian Vande Velde

23 Minutes (15 page)

BOOK: 23 Minutes
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Daniel still alive changes everything. Zoe dashes out from the cover of the car and across the street, where she takes hold of Daniel by the shoulders and gets him to sit back down—he's resisting but unable to fend her off, which is not a good sign.

“You're supposed to be
inside
the card shop,” he reprimands her from between teeth clenched in pain.

“I don't listen well,” Zoe admits. That's something else housemothers have included in their reports.

Daniel grunts, either at what she's just said or because of the pain, but in any case he says, “Help me up.”

“Just keep your head down,” Zoe tells him. “Someone from the bank or the store must have alerted the police by now and they should be here any minute. And an ambulance.”

Zoe is most fervently hoping for an ambulance. She is trying not to see the blood, and especially the wound from which it's coming, so she's concentrating on his face, which has gone very white. Somehow, that makes his eyes look bigger and bluer, almost like an anime character.

“Do you think,” Daniel demands, “that when Wallace comes out of the bank and sees you here and me still alive, he won't shoot again?”

This seems a perfect reason for them to get out of there
straightaway, but Zoe can see Daniel isn't going to be able to move to cover anytime soon.

“Help me up,” Daniel repeats, and this time Zoe does, letting him lean heavily on her, letting him bleed on her.

Inside the bank, Wallace has gotten hold of the bag of money he's made the tellers pass. The guard is lying on the marble floor, writhing in pain, and one of the bank managers is kneeling beside him in a position that partially blocks their line of sight to Wallace until Zoe helps Daniel to a higher vantage by standing.

She prays Daniel is a good shot. If he misses, or even if he hits but only wounds, she and Daniel will be clear targets for Wallace.

Still, what kind of person prays for someone's success in killing someone else?

Daniel takes a steadying breath, and fires.

And Zoe's prayer is answered: Wallace drops to the ground, as patently dead as Hair Roller Woman.

Wallace was a human being, and Zoe tries not to think,
Good riddance.

Mostly, she's not very successful at this.

Daniel slips from Zoe's grasp until he is once more sitting, his back against the support of the bricks between the door and the window. He's shaking, which makes her fear he's going into shock. And he is—but apparently not the kind of shock she's worried about.

“I've never shot anyone before,” he says, as though he owes her an explanation, as though that's the important thing. “Damn. Damn, damn, damn.”

That he could be distraught about killing the man who was
trying to kill him … who may well … Zoe forces herself away from that train of thought. Daniel is
not
going to die. She is shaking, too.

Zoe takes account of the damage: Daniel is wounded, badly, but she fervently hopes not so badly as it appears. Not that she's an expert. But Dad survived—though there wasn't nearly this much blood when he was shot. Still … She tries to squelch the negative thoughts. Still, Daniel
has
to be OK. The bank guard is wounded, though conscious and quite vocal, which might indicate he is not as seriously injured as he thinks. Wallace is dead—and Zoe can't help but think,
No loss there.
Hair Roller Woman is dead, which she never was in any other version of this twenty-three minutes.

Zoe asks herself: Is this as good as she's going to be able to get it?

“Take the gun,” Daniel tells her. His voice has become a reedy whisper. She can only hear him clearly because the rain has finally slowed to a drizzle.

“Why?” she asks, thinking she'd never be able to fire it. And that, in any case, the need for firing it has passed.

“Take the gun,” he repeats, so softly she isn't even sure she really hears the words or if she's just guessing by the movement of his lips.

She puts her hand out and the gun falls into her grasp, and she realizes he didn't have the strength to set it down. And he didn't want it dropping to the sidewalk, potentially discharging.

Carefully she lays the gun down on the sidewalk next to her, hating the feel of the weapon, not even taking into account that it's sticky with Daniel's blood.

Sirens are wailing in the distance.

“You're going to be all right,” Zoe assures Daniel, pulling him so
that he is leaning against her rather than the wall for support.

And, for a moment or two, she even believes he might be.

There's no telling what he believes.

He rests his head on her shoulder and closes his eyes.

She could play back now, but she remembers the previous twenty-three minutes, when he comforted her when she couldn't stop crying, after she realized she'd almost given up on trying to save him because she hadn't trusted him, believing he himself was a bank robber. So she puts her arms around him and whispers, “Don't be afraid,” and holds him close. And holds him close. And holds him close. Until long after she knows he's died.

But before 1:39.

She stands up. She stands clear of him. She puts her Daniel-bloody arms around herself, and she whispers, “Playback.”

CHAPTER 12

T
IME
RESETS
TO
1:16.

Zoe tightens her hold on her folder, pure muscle reflex at this point, and starts running toward Independence Street when all she wants to do is curl into a ball and cry—even though she thinks of herself as not the crying type. Despite all the crying she did two playbacks past.

Meanwhile, her mind is churning on its own.
I hate this. Hate this. Hate this
, she is thinking.
How many times do I have to go through this same stupid damn thing?

But she knows the answer. This time, and maybe once more. Then this twenty-three-minute interval will be closed forever. And she isn't making good progress as far as damage control. Each time she's relived it, she's learned things—but then everything else shifts and leaves her unable to use what she's learned, leaves her stumbling and falling. And taking Daniel with her.

She thinks again: These twenty-three minutes will be gone. Except for memories.

Always memories.

And regrets.

She arrives at the Victorian house. Not by any conscious effort, but because she's begun weaving with mental and emotional exhaustion, her shutting of the front door behind her is somewhat feeble. The door does not slam. M. Van Der Meer, Designer, has not
been alerted that there is something snoop-worthy going on in his building's lobby.

Despite her distress, Zoe has made good time. No sign yet of Daniel. Too drained to go to the second floor to intercept him the moment he steps out of his attorney's office, or even to make it halfway up to the landing, Zoe sits on the bottom step to wait.

Somehow this position reminds her body, as opposed to simply her mind, of sitting on the sidewalk holding Daniel while he bled out.

Not now
, she tells her body. There's no time for this.

Her body has ideas of its own.

There's a rapidly expanding balloon in her chest that's squeezing her heart, cutting off her breathing. Her hands, clasped together on her lap, are trembling. In an attempt to hold them steady, she wraps her arms around her knees. But now the palsy has spread to her arms. And her shoulders. And pretty much all of her. She lowers her head to her knees.

Don't cry
, she commands herself.

She's never been good at taking direction. Even from herself, apparently. She releases her hold on her knees and puts her arms around her head to block out the world.

Between the balloon in her chest and her sobbing, Zoe is unable to catch her breath. She thinks of Rasheena, who has asthma and sometimes has to use an inhaler, and for the first time understands how this feels.

A gentle hand touches her shoulder.

Somehow she missed him coming down the stairs. Daniel is once more sitting next to her. “Are you hurt?” he asks. “Did you fall?”

Zoe shakes her head in her arm-pillow on her knees.

“Has something bad happened?”

Zoe is torn between thinking,
Oh boy, has it ever
, and wanting to point out to him that, as young as he might think she looks, he does
not
need to talk to her as though she's nine years old.

Instead of saying either of those things, she once more shakes her head.

She hasn't raised her face, so it takes him saying, “Here …” before she looks up and notices he is once again offering her the linen hankie, which is—once again—impeccably clean and ironed.

This is never going to work if she keeps wasting precious time. She takes the hankie and blows her nose.

He says, “I know you don't know me, but is there anything I can do to help?”

Yet again, she shakes her head. But this time she says, “I
do
know you. You're Daniel Lentini. And you're a private investigator. I came here to see you.”

“Here?” he repeats.

“It's very complicated,” she tells him.

“I can see that,” he answers.

Won't he
stop
treating her like a child? Because it's easier to be annoyed at him than to face his death, she snaps, “Don't be condescending.”

“I didn't mean to be.” He waits a moment to see if she'll fill in any details. When she doesn't, he explains, calm and quiet: “I only meant, you said I couldn't help, but you also said you came to see me. And, then again, you came to see me someplace where I just happen to be visiting, not where I live or work. That sounds complicated to me.”

“I'm sorry,” she says, meaning for snarking at him. But once
she's started, she can't stop. “I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry …” She means for his dying. The first time. And the last time. And all the times in between. And she means for wasting valuable minutes on self-pity. But mostly she means for being the girl Mom thinks she is, for not being smarter, faster, braver, or whatever it is the situation requires from her that she just doesn't have. She's started sobbing once more, rocking like the autistic kids who sometimes pass through the home, and Daniel puts his arm around her. This time he asks, “
How
can I help?”

Can't he just stop being so damn nice?

“I saw you die,” she tells him.

His eyebrows go up.

She changes that to, “I've seen you die. Repeatedly.”

He's trying to work this out. “You mean … as in a dream? A vision?”

“As in time travel,” she says. “Which I know sounds crazy.”

He has the grace not to try to pretend otherwise.

She tells him, “There's a man you know, Ricky Wallace, who's about to walk into Spencerport Savings and Loan with a gun.”

Daniel starts, “I was—”

And Zoe finishes, “—just on your way there. Yes, I know. With some trust fund stuff you picked up from Nick Wyand, who mentioned your mother right before you left, which put your teeth on edge. Every time you make it into the bank, Ricky Wallace shoots you. If you're not there, he shoots a bunch of other people. If you try to stop him on the street before he goes in, he shoots you. No matter how I play it back, it just stays bad. If I call the police, if I try to warn the bank guard. No matter what the hell I do, people die.”
She wants to be shouting, yet she's sounding just like Rasheena again, wheezing and breathless, and she has to stop talking.

Daniel is looking a bit dazed at this onslaught of information.

Once she can speak again, Zoe continues, “Really, this is true. I've learned things about you as we've lived through these same twenty-three minutes over and over. You told me about how you and your parents had the code word
armadillo
in case they ever had to send a stranger to pick you up.” She gives a bitter laugh. “I bet none of you anticipated anybody as strange as me.”


Are
you a stranger who's trying to pick me up?” Daniel asks.

“No!” she protests. “No. That's not …” But then she sees his sweet, sad smile, and she thinks that, paradoxically, his joking might well mean he's taking her seriously. Or maybe it just means he's taking her as seriously demented.

Speaking of which … she holds the folder out to him. “These are my mental health records,” she says. “The doctors thought I might be schizophrenic, or at least delusional, when I told the truth about my ability to play back time.”

His eyes do go a bit wide at that reference to schizophrenia, but he doesn't reach for the folder.

She finishes, “But then when I lied and said I was making it up, they thought
that
made more sense, was more normal.”

Daniel says, “You mentioned twenty-three minutes.”

“That's as far back as I can go,” Zoe says. “And only up to ten times. This is time number nine.”

“That doesn't leave a lot of room for error,” Daniel points out.

“It does not,” Zoe agrees. He's accepting her story, and she can no longer say whether this is even what she wants anymore. She is
beginning to consider a new plan: If they should fail again on this ninth playback—and she has no reason to believe they won't—then for the final trip through this twenty-three minutes, she will keep him out of the bank. She cannot risk a tenth failure in which he'll die. She'll find a way to engage him in conversation long enough to keep him out of Ricky Wallace's sights
without
telling anything about what she knows. Maybe she can sidetrack Daniel with some story—perhaps she can say she wants to hire him to find her father. Even though, in truth, she knows how to reach Dad as surely as Dad knows how to reach her. It's just that neither of them has bothered to. Not since Mom took that one shot at him. Zoe has suddenly become an expert in shots fired, and has no sympathy for someone who deserts his family after only one—even if you throw in that his daughter has been officially certified as wacko. But she can use looking for her father as an excuse for approaching Daniel. Then, when the shooting starts in the bank, Daniel will consider it coincidence rather than design that kept him out of there. This way he won't feel guilty about the others dying so he could live, which she knows would weigh on his soul.

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