Chapter 1: A Panther in the Car Park, Part 1
Her eyes were the first thing Byrun noticed about the newborn daughter he was about to abandon. Two violet jewels set against pale skin, even in the dim light of the windowless room, they were transparent and round, the hue of a moonlit sky in summer. Yet he refused to meet their gaze. It would be too much of a betrayal. They were desperate to connect with the reassuring faces that would guide them through this new world, to sacrifice everything for their survival, but they weren't there. Those faces were down the hall in another room.
The baby's right hand was the second thing that caught his attention, her third and fourth fingers fused by a thin web. “Nothing to worry about," the doctor assured him. “It's a common anomaly, easily corrected with surgery." He grabbed the suitcase thick with cash. “It won't affect the deal."
He thrust an envelope into Byrun's hand and scurried off down one of the corridors. A storm of indignation gathered in his daughter's eyes as she began to wail. He flinched as the sound echoed off the steel walls of the morgue. 'There was no time for mourning. Not yet.' Deep in the bowels of the hospital, the thick walls and dimly-lit hallways offered only temporary protection. 'They had to keep moving forward with the plan. It was well past midnight, the night staff already filtering through the building. If they were caught now, he would lose everything.'
Byrun's wife, Sarah, still exhausted from the birth, sobbed quietly in her makeshift bed, her head resting against the sleek metal slab. He scanned the room again for a pillow, but it was a luxury for which the bed's previous occupants had little use. He tucked his sweater under her neck instead, then gently squeezed her hand. “It's time," he whispered.
Tears spilled from her dark eyes. He held her close, his face cradled in her chestnut hair, then gently eased her to her feet.
“We have to hurry," he said, guiding her by the elbow. “It's not safe here." She moved obediently, clutching the baby in her arms as they picked their way down the corridor. Byrun scanned the shadows for intruders while the baby howled louder. Overhead, a fluorescent bulb flickered, the gold necklace around her tiny neck glinting in the harsh light.
Sarah gasped, clutching Byrun's arm.
“What is it?" he asked. “Are you all right?"
She waved him off. “Give me a second," she said, catching her breath again. “It's passing."
“You shouldn't be walking," Byrun said. “We've got to get you to the safe house and back to bed." Still bawling, the baby's eyes were now the color of angry bruises. Byrun focused on the light coming from the waiting room at the end of the hall instead.
“I hear her crying!" a voice inside the room exclaimed as the baby erupted in renewed waves of fury. Sarah squeezed her tighter, murmuring vague assurances into her tiny ear. Byrun's heart crumbled under the weight of his wife's sorrow, the pain picking at the edges of his resolve.
He suddenly stopped, blocking his wife's way. “You wait here," he commanded. “I'll take her to them. There's no need to torture yourself this way."
Sarah squeezed her daughter harder and stepped around him, her eyes fixed with purpose. “No. I have to do it."
He followed her into the doorway where a short, round woman waited. She gasped when she saw the angry little face peering out from the blanket. The woman was older than Sarah, but her expression kind, soft wisps of hair floating around her head like a halo. Unfazed by the crying, she reached her dimpled hands out to Sarah and nodded encouragingly.
Sarah hesitated, then lowered her face to the baby's head. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, inhaling the dewy smell of newborn skin. Byrun looked away, his gaze falling to a man in a wheelchair. His expression was sympathetic, but it changed to pure joy when his focus shifted to the baby.
A small flame of relief warmed Byrun's chest, renewing his courage. 'He was doing the right thing for all of them, especially his daughter.' He watched Sarah kiss the angry lines in the baby's forehead and nuzzled her cheek. Then, in one determined move, she straightened and handed the baby over to her new mother.
A strangled sob escaped her throat. “Her name is Sophia Violet," she said. “I know I don't have any right to name her, but...“
Tears filled the other woman's eyes. “It's a lovely name," she said, tucking the baby against the folds of her ample chest. “I can never thank you enough for trusting us with her. We plan on being honest about the adoption. Is there anything you want her to know? Maybe one day you might even be in a better position to-"
“No!" Byrun cried, his voice hard. 'There was no room for compromise.' “We can't have any contact. Ever." He handed the woman the birth certificate that the doctor had given him. “We want to remain unknown. Do you understand? Tell her whatever you like, but keep us out of it."
“We'll honor your request," the man in the wheelchair finally spoke. “You have our word. But if you ever change your mind-."
Sarah turned her back on them. “Please take good care of her," she said, her voice strangled as she clutched Byrun's arm. Then, without even a backward glance, they walked away, their daughter's howls rolling after them.