Noah McKeen pulled the paramedic fly car, an abused Ford Explorer that needed an oil change and new brakes six thousand miles ago, into the parking lot of a twenty-four hour gas station. His phone rang as he stepped out and watched a car blow through a red light, hammering around a country corner with an accentuated exhaust that sounded like a vibrating metal shell. Despite the obnoxious noise, it was a gorgeous night. Crisp, fall, New England air. Revitalizing to the lungs with every breath.
“What’s up?” he asked with the phone pressed to his ear. Before Amber could answer, his pager volleyed out a series of tones and beeps.
In the brief pause before the dispatcher’s voice came across, Amber asked, “Bad timing?”
Noah waited, his hand on the still open door of the SUV as a woman, laced with static, gave Buckland Fire Department the first motor vehicle accident of the night.
“Nope. Not yet anyway,” he said and headed inside.
There was an electric chime as the door closed behind him. He surveyed three isles filled with junk food, basic household items, and the row nearest him almost completely filled with obscure, useless gadgets. Pay-as-you-go phones meant for runaways or teens with poor parents. Gift cards and charge cables whose packaging had more Chinese symbols than English letters.
The clerk—a pimpled teenager with greasy hair—glanced at Noah and, without nodding or smiling, returned his attention to whatever video he was streaming on his phone. Noah chuckled to himself. Wondered where the usual guy was—friendly enough to bullshit about politics and laugh at news headlines, yet still not on a first name basis.
“So, is Jade able to come in early?” Amber asked.
Noah pursed his lips and poured a coffee. Buckland’s fire captain signed on the air, stating that he was responding to the wreck. Noah turned his radio down and contemplated. He could lie, say he had asked her and that she had said no, or there was always the truth.
“I didn’t call her,” he said quietly.
He heard the hiss of a sharp inhale. “Noah, we have plans tomorrow. I took the day off and everything. There was no reason for you to volunteer to cover a sick call tonight.”
“Yeah, I know.” While there was remorse in his voice, he knew it wouldn’t be enough without a little added effort. “Just hold on one second.”
Noah pressed the phone to his ear with his shoulder and placed his coffee on the counter. The kid pressed pause on his video and rang the coffee up while Noah scanned the row of colorful scratch tickets, motioning for number seven.
He pointed to the kid’s screen. “Saw that episode last night. Fuckin’ hilarious.”
The cashier laughed. “Yeah, not bad so far.”
Back outside he picked up the conversation with Amber. “Sorry about that.”
He put the coffee and the lottery ticket on the hood of the SUV and fished a coin from his pocket. Through his radio came the call signs for Buckland’s fire engine and heavy rescue. “It’ll be good; I promise.”
“No, I know,” Amber said. “But it’s a four hour drive to Camden, and if you need to sleep for a bit first… It just would have been better if you could have gotten out before seven.”
A husky voice came over the radio. Buckland’s assistant chief. Worked in fire and EMS, yet still smoked a pack and a half a day. “Car 172 on scene. One vehicle over the embankment, possible entrapment.”
Noah stopped scratching his ticket. Gray flakes blew off the hood of the car. He mentally calculated his response time to Sawyer’s Ridge from where he was in Caligan. Employed as a fly-car medic, Noah technically belonged to no specific ambulance company, yet when the EMTs needed advanced life support skills, he covered ALS calls in the entire tri-town area: Caligan, Buckland, and Sara’s Point.
“Noah? Noah, are you there?”
“Yeah.” He hopped in the Explorer and pulled out of the gas station parking lot. “Sorry. I heard you.”
“Mhm. What’d I say then?”
“You said that I wouldn’t be able to drive that far unless I take a nap. So that means you’re just going to have to keep me awake.”
He made a clicking noise. An exaggerated audible wink. Amber giggled. Said his name. He could see her shaking her head on the other end of the line. Lightly kicking her foot against the floor the way she did when bashfulness crept through her and her cheeks turned red.
“What? Not like it would be the first time.”
“Excuse me, that was once and the only reason it even happened was because—”
“Because you like the thrill,” Noah laughed.
“Because it was after Craig’s party, and you got me drunk.”
“Sweetie, I had very little to do with that.”
As he turned onto the highway, his pager beeped and toned a second time. Dispatch came across, “CN Dispatch to Alpha One Medic. ALS requested on scene of Sawyer’s Ridge, vicinity of Harken’s Overlook, single vehicle rollover with entrapment.”
He had called it. Had the feeling the second Buckland’s Chief said possible entrapment. This meant the car was bashed. Spider-webbed windshield, crumpled roof. That, or it was down the embankment. Deep, deep down.
“Hey, I gotta go,” he said.
Amber had become accustomed to sudden interruptions. Regardless, there was deflation in her voice. The playfulness gone. “Be safe.”
“Of course. You should start drinking now.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
Before he could answer, Buckland’s assistant chief was back on the air. “Dispatch from Car 172.”
“Dispatch is on.”
“Requesting med flight. LZ will be the overlook. Fire police will have the road shut down.”
Amber was saying something. Possibly something flirtatious and lustful. Noah cut her off. Said a quick goodbye and threw his phone to the passenger seat while pushing the gas. The speedometer arced. The vehicle’s emergency lights reflected off mile markers and exit signs. Each blue and red flash lasting as long as a subconscious calculation.
Med Flight equaled a three-minute prep, seven-minute flight from St. Vincent’s Trauma Center in the city. A two-minute landing time meant they’d be on scene in twelve minutes. Still, four minutes away meant eight minutes on scene before the flight crew was there. A lot could happen in eight minutes.
Noah slowed the SUV as he took the off-ramp. He followed the curve and hit the gas as the road straightened, catching a quick glance in the side mirror as he blew past a yield sign. Buckland’s heavy rescue radioed dispatch to inform them and any other units that they were on scene. Noah reached the top of Sawyer’s Ridge and let off the gas as he followed the winding drive. All he needed was a deer to jump out or to come around a corner meeting someone head on, walking his or her dog. A swerve. A skid. An overcorrection and a crash into the river with blood on his hood.
His stomach tingled. A decade as a paramedic and certain calls were met with jaded eye rolls, but ones like this, serious wrecks and heart attacks, abdominal aortic aneurysms and active strokes, legitimate medicine still made his veins pulse. Like Christmas morning when you know what you’re getting, and you can’t wait to tear it open.
Then you should go to medical school. Amber’s words were in his head. I make enough as a nurse to get us through until you graduate, and you love it enough to stay with it. You have the pre-reqs done; take the MCATs while your sciences still count and go to medical school.
The conversation would have continued . . . had he not hugged her and bit her shoulder. Her hands instantly up the back of his shirt, and his down the back of her pants.
He stowed thoughts of sex and school and career growth as he wound down the serpentine road, his windshield illuminating with an array of flashing lights. Cops and cones with silver reflective bands across the bottom. Firefighters rushed to different compartments, pulling tools and rope from the rig.
Noah threw the SUV in park, shouldered his med bag, and headed for Buckland’s assistant chief, a meaty man standing with his heavy bunker jacket open and one foot on a rock where a guardrail should have been.
“Anderson,” the chief bellowed. “Tie the fucking trunk off. Use a damn wedge, would you?”
Noah stopped at his side, leaning over to look down the embankment as two light poles flicked like bright artificial suns. He felt the chief’s hand hit him in the chest. “Some broad drove by, saw the headlights and called it in. Unresponsive. Don’t know how long.”
Noah was over the edge and sliding before the chief could add anything else. A sedan. Tire marks were carved into the ground. The car was wedged between a tree and a large rock. This far from the road meant whoever was in the driver’s seat had been hauling.
His boot slid on dry leaves and loose dirt. He tried to shift his weight, but he had too much momentum. Rotating at the last second allowed him to throw his shoulder against a tree to stop from tumbling the rest of the way. He hurried to the back of the car while motioning for a firefighter to move out of the way. Noah wedged his bag through a shattered rear window and climbed through after it.
A volunteer first responder was in the back seat holding the driver—a young woman—by the head and neck to prevent further injury. He sucked himself into the seat as Noah crawled like a spider over a carcass to get across him and into the front seat. He was talking. Noah caught the words breathing, pulse; enough to know the woman was alive. But he knew that without the first responder stating it. His eyes had already traveled down the woman’s torso, saw the faint rise and fall in her chest.
“You get vitals?” Noah asked.
“Nothing.” The first responder wiped his cheek against his shoulder. “They’re grabbing a back board.”
“Well, let’s keep her alive first.” He slid a sensor on the woman’s limp finger to measure her heart rate and oxygen saturation. Both low. He put his hands on her collar bone just below the other man’s grip, wrapped his fingers around and felt his way down each arm, her torso, and onto her legs. No broken bones . . . that he could feel.
He pulled a penlight from his pocket and checked each eye. Pupils were reactive. The first responder shifted, his hands slipping. The woman’s face slumped forward, and Noah dropped his penlight and scrambled to keep her head straight while the man in back repositioned his hold on her neck.
“Keep your hands steady,” Noah said.
He unzipped his bag and pulled out a cervical collar. Blue plastic and thin padding. Noah ripped the cellophane off and slid it around her neck, adjusting the Velcro and repositioning the MRT’s hands over it as a reassurance.
The first responder nodded.
Noah fished through for an IV kit. Just as his hands hit the plastic, the car rocked. Metal screeched as it dragged across what he could only assume was the large rock holding them in place. His eyes locked with the first responder in the back seat. The world outside the car went still. Every firefighter and technician stood frozen as the scraping metal sound faded to nothing. The car moved slightly. A sway, like the Titanic beginning to lift from the water. Noah’s stomach lurched, and though it was a ridiculous idea, he thought the mere motion of his insides moving could potentially send the car toppling down the rest of the way.
He heard the crunch of leaves, the snaps of branches, as the crew outside the car slowly began to move again. The assistant chief’s voice echoed from the top of the embankment. Zeus with red and blue lightning. But any discernable words were lost amongst tree trunks and the bustle outside the car.
“No coins on the eyes tonight,” Noah whispered. The first responder looked at him confused. “Never mind.”
The voices outside the car grew louder as the half-a-dozen firefighters and EMTs worked to stabilize the vehicle and give Noah any supplies he didn’t have in his own bag. Truth be told, the EMTs were of little help at that moment. The car jerked to the side. Noah quickly glanced out the window as two firefighters jammed wedges between the car and the tree it rubbed against. There was a snap against the hood of the car. He turned to see hydraulic lines trailing across the front end of the sedan.
With the backseat responder occupied holding c-spine, preventing potential fractures and paralysis, what Noah really needed was a second set of hands; those outside the car did him no good. But he had to make due. The woman groaned. He rolled her sleeve the rest of the way, tied a tourniquet, and drove the IV into her arm, taping the small tubing to the inside crook of her elbow.
A knock on the passenger window caused Noah to look up. A woman firefighter with a window punch in her hand. They were prepping to get the Jaws of Life in place. Sever the posts and cut the roof from the sedan.
“Passenger window going!” the woman shouted.
Med Flight thwup-thwup-thwupped as it approached. Behind him came a jarring metal bang as a firefighter jammed the Jaws of Life, a massive pair of hydraulic cutters, against the post separating the windshield and the now shattered passenger window. They had to get her out of the car. Out and stabilized and intubated. Her oxygen level was dropping and there was no safe way for them to wedge a backboard into the car. They could pop open the driver’s side door, but with the angle of the car, they would be pulling her weight up onto a backboard and run the extreme risk of losing balance and dumping her. With the posts severed and the roof rolled back, they would be able to recline the driver’s seat, slide a board behind her, pull her up and strap her in.
Hands were slapping his wrists. The woman shoved him, pushing at his arms to get him away. He attempted to hold her wrists together against her stomach as he connected a bag of saline fluid to the IV line. Next would be a nasal airway and high-flow oxygen.
Noah repositioned himself. Caught sight of the flight crew running over the embankment. Medical special ops. The woman slapped at him again. She needed to stop jerking and lay still, or there wouldn’t be a chance to do anything else before the flight crew was at the car.
“They’re going to cut,” the guy in the back seat said. His eyes were wide. Was this his first accident? Noah tried to place him but drew a blank.
“Okay,” he said.
He stuck his foot in the corner where the passenger door and the dashboard met. There came the whine of the hydraulic tool. A lobster claw the size of a grown man’s chest. The metal in the post resisted, crumpled, and—
A deafening bang exploded in his ears. A soldier’s flash grenade if he were in combat. Pressure and pain slammed into his right knee, driving it backward, bending, bending, until it snapped.
Noah woke groggy. There was a haze over his eyesight; everything looked blurred. Each part of his body slowly came to life, tingling at first, but as he flexed his fingers, patted the . . . bed? He tried to look to his side. A bed rail obscured his view. There was an end table with a phone and what looked like a list of numbers.
He was in a hospital. A lump formed in his throat as everything came at him: the television hanging above his bed, the gold cross next to the dry erase board that said who his doctor and nurse were. Gold cross. He was in St. Vincent’s Trauma Center.
Before he could open his mouth to ask a question, a blur from the corner of his vision rushed toward him. Slim in a sweatshirt and jeans. Her smell hit his nose, and he recognized the perfume he had bought her last year. Amber’s face came into focus. Tired eyes, half-hidden under auburn side-swept bangs. She pushed her face into his shoulder and sobbed. A dull pain pulsed in his right knee, and as he tried to move there was resistance. His knee wouldn’t bend. What the? There it was, a cast from his thigh to his shin.
“What—” He tried to speak, but her lips were on his. Pressed there with her palms on the sides of his face. When she broke away, he stared at her, shocked. “Amber? What happened?”
She told him between halting sobs. “The doctor said you suffered blunt trauma to your leg. Your knee, femur, and the—”
“Tibia.” He said, his voice flat.
“Yeah, that one. You broke all of them, but your knee got it worst of all. Whatever happened had pushed it backward until it just—” her voice trailed off.
Everything flashed through his mind; he replayed everything he could remember about the call until it finally dawned on him.
“The guy cut through the airbag,” Noah said softly. “And no one disconnected the battery.”
Had the person been a probie? New to the department? New to the fire service in general? Had it been the same one who broke the passenger window? Not like any of it mattered. Whoever had handled the tools, didn’t cut low enough on the post, causing the cutter to slice through a pressurized cylinder filled with inert gas. With the battery still connected, the system had been ready, and when the cylinder was cut, it must have blown the tool outward and into his knee. The person who had been holding the tool—it must have pulled their damn arms out of their sockets.
Amber blew her nose. Cleared her throat before she started talking again. “Doctor said it’s going to take a year of physical therapy, maybe more. Said you’re lucky. He thinks that you’ll walk fine if you work toward it. I laughed and told him you’d be running in six months. Okay so I didn’t really laugh.”
Noah dropped his hand against the rail of the bed. Okay, one year.
The sound of Noah’s pager pierced the pre-dawn morning. He dumped out his glass of water, ice clacking in the break-room sink, and turned the dial. Static gave way to a female voice. “CN dispatch to Sara’s Point. Respond with Alpha-One Medic: 137 Oak Street, 43-year old female, abdominal pain, shortness of breath.”
It was three-thirty in the morning. A 43-year-old female should have been asleep. Everyone should have been asleep, just like the firefighters in their bunks one room over. The station was so quiet at night. Almost creepy, with the only sounds being the occasional call sign on the radio and the humming vibration of the bay vents above the rigs.
He slapped at his radio. “Alpha-One responding.”
Dispatch repeated, “Alpha-One responding. Zero-Three-Twenty-Four.”
Stepping on his right foot caused him to limp; the exertion forced the muscles around his knee to contract in a tight, merciless band. He was living with it: a constant, dull ache that amplified when he became active. A year of physical therapy had been the supposed cure. What a fucking joke that had been. And the six months after he walked out of his last appointment had been spent in dull, aching misery. He clicked the Explorer’s seat belt, the lap strap feeling a little snugger with each passing day. Two switches on the center console gave him lights and sirens.
Noah pulled out of Caligan Fire Department’s main station, leaving the crews asleep in their bunkroom. Bunker boys and girls need not apply.
His eyes traveled to the glove box of the SUV. Inside was a white envelope that held his letter of resignation. The date at the top had been whited-out three times. Handing it to his supervisor would kill a part of him. But, now at thirty-one, when he could barely walk at the end of a twelve hour shift, it may very well be a part of him that needed to die.
He pulled an orange pill bottle from the center console. It rattled like a baby’s toy. That was bad. The more it rattled, the less it held. With a swig of coffee he swallowed one down, knowing the ache in his knee would dissolve in less than half an hour.
Noah cut the wheel and pulled onto the highway. An exit hop from densely populated Caligan, Sara’s Point was a small town whose acres covered more water than actual soil. It had been named after the wife of a wealthy man who’d built his house on the sole peninsula jutting into Aurora Lake. Romantic. Pathetic. Two sides of the same coin. Local schools used the mansion and its spring tours as field trips for American history classes. Several years ago, three sophomores had gotten arrested when they attempted to break in and spend the night. Now it was rumored to be haunted. The very idea of such a thing absurd.
Voices over the radio pulled him from his thoughts. He picked up the receiver, half of the conversation missed, and added, “Alpha-Medic on scene.”
137 was a cape on the right side of the road. Two cars were parked half on its lawn, both with flashing blue lights in their rear windows. Small town volleys. Sara’s Point Ambulance had been backed into the short, slightly inclined driveway. All the windows on the first floor of the house were dark, however the top corner window glowed yellow. Noah gulped down a mouthful of coffee. Lowering his gas station cup, he caught sight of himself in the rearview. His hair had gotten long and his face was covered in stubble—direct violation of corporate policy. When was the last time he had shaved? He squeezed his cheeks. Even they had begun to look fat. With a groan he dropped the grip on his jaw and grabbed his med bag and a portable heart monitor.
He passed a male volunteer leaning against the trunk of a sedan, steadying himself as he took off his EMS jumpsuit. Slim face. Narrow jaw. Noah returned the man’s nod and kept walking. That feeling of recognition without actually remembering. Two years ago he knew every name of almost every volunteer in the area, but that was two years ago. And two years can be a lifetime.
A blonde woman—Miranda—shut the back door of the ambulance. She taught rock-climbing during the day and owned her own gym closer to the city. To call her arms defined was an understatement.
“Already loaded?” Noah asked, a little surprised.
It would have made for a quick response from a paid town, let alone a volunteer department whose members were at home sleeping when the three-thirty calls came out. Miranda shook her head, palms up, and walked to the other side of the ambulance.
Odd. Overtired or pissed at something? He scoffed. Either way he didn’t need the attitude.
Footsteps thudded above him. Boards creaking under weight. A quick pause let him look around both sides of the stairs: living room, kitchen, no signs of anything odd. The kitchen table had a margarita glass on it, but nothing seemed out of place. There was no smell of cigarettes or marijuana. No animal toys.
A right turn at the top of the stairs led him into a bedroom where the 43-year old female with abdominal pain and shortness of breath lay on the floor, unmoving, her stomach cut open and her throat slit. The skin of her abdomen had been pulled back like someone had intended to remove the things inside. Noah lowered his bag to the floor and leaned against the doorframe, his usual quick-thinking mind a sudden black slate.
Rogers, a middle-aged, balding EMT crouched in the corner of the room, taking pictures on his phone.
“You found her like this?” Noah asked.
He tried to analyze. To take in every inch of the scene. A bed pushed against the far wall. A window on either side of the room. No weapons. No hiding places, except for the closed closet. Over his shoulder he could see down the hall, but in the darkness, that was as far as his eyes would allow.
He clenched and unclenched his fists. If she was dead, then who called 9-1-1? Shifting on his feet, he looked down the stairwell, barely able to see into the living room. Had he missed something?
“Rogers,” Noah snapped. “Want to tell me what happened? Did you find her like this? Was the front door open?”
“Right,” he stowed his phone. Rubbed his hand over a fully-formed beer gut. “Yeah, she was like this when we got here. I wasn’t first on scene, so I don’t know about the door, but soon as we got up here—pfft—called med control for DOA and asked for the cops. You didn’t hear that?”
“No,” Noah said. His cheeks burned. He should have been listening. Should have been paying attention to what he was walking into. “Couple other calls going on, was listening to them, too.”
He knelt by the body. Shards of glass surrounded her pale, upturned palm. A pocket mirror, or what remained of a pocket mirror, lay a few inches away. Near her head was a plastic comb and a white handkerchief smeared with red lipstick. A bruise had formed on her jaw. A wound like spoiled fruit. Only beneath her skin there was bone, and Noah bet that was broken. Shattered like the little mirror.
The slice across her neck was almost knuckle-deep. Noah stood, his knee popping. He forced an exaggerated grimace just in case Rogers was watching him. The meds had started taking effect, pushing the pain in his knee away, but no one else knew that.
His head spun as he tried to figure out what he had missed walking in. There was nothing down the hall. Nothing near the bed. Nothing obviously wrong, but the air in the room made his skin crawl. What was it? What was he overlooking?
DOA calls were DOA calls. Heart attacks who had no family and whose neighbors had gotten nervous. Overdoses because one more bag of heroin would just hit that sweet spot. His hands had treated people who had been shot or stabbed and eventually dubbed ‘murder victims’ but never someone who had been so skewered. Noah shuddered.
Rogers cleared his throat. “She must have been dead a while, which makes me wonder who found her? And who called us, you know?”
While it was a fair assumption based on the state of the woman’s body. Blood no longer running on the floorboards, no one present in the house. But it was wrong none-the-less. Noah forgave the mistake. Rogers hadn’t been on many DOA calls as a volunteer.
Noah shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m trying to figure that out. But you’re wrong; she’s been dead fifteen minutes tops.”
A new set of flashing lights shone through the bedroom window. In the glow, he noticed several drops of blood dotting the floorboards, nearly hidden against the hardwood. He followed the trail above her shoulder and past her head.
“How do you figure?” Rogers asked.
“Because.” Noah’s voice was low. He remained focused on the trail of blood that stopped just shy of the closet door. “Her lips still have color. If she’d been dead a while, they wouldn’t.”
With his hand on the closet doorknob, Noah looked back and was met with a puzzled look on the EMT’s face. A quick flick of his wrist and Noah yanked open the closet door, bracing himself for someone to lunge.
No one did.
Rogers gawked, staring along with Noah at the inside of the closet door. At the dark-red drawing of three deer, large antlers protruding from their heads. The crude image drawn in blood, smeared against the wood by someone’s finger.
“That.” Noah lifted his chin. “You might want to get a picture of.”
Noah sat in a small room at a metal table that was cool against his forearms. The walls were the same interior-cinderblock walls in gym locker rooms and morgues, coated with puke-beige colored paint. Detective Alyssa Madsen sat across from him. Her brunette hair fell just above her shoulders, brushing the collar of her navy button-up blouse and black blazer as she stared at her laptop’s screen. She didn’t look up as she drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Noah took a sip from his own—one offered by the officer that had lead him to the room—and fought the urge to spit the bitter sludge on the table.
When Detective Madsen finally looked up from her computer, she skipped the small talk and reached over to place a tape recorder on the center of the table. “This is Detective Alyssa Madsen with Sara’s Point Police Department. The time is zero-six-forty-five, and I am here with Noah McKeen, a paramedic employed by New England Medical Response to work overnights in Caligan, Connecticut. For the record, please state your name.”
Noah leaned forward and spoke. “Noah McKeen.”
Detective Madsen nodded. “And please state that you understand that you are not under arrest, that you are here willingly to provide a statement of what you observed this morning.”
“I understand.” The detective nodded, waving her hand in an effort to usher Noah. “That I am not under arrest and am here willingly.”
And while it was true—technically—Noah could argue that he’d wanted to give a statement on scene. However, since he’d felt compelled to open the closet door, and thus located a macabre shrine of some sort, the beat officers felt it best if he met with the detective who would be handling the case. He offered an insincere smile and leaned back in his chair.
Detective Madsen typed something, giving Noah the chance to really take her in. He couldn’t argue the fact that she was attractive. Thin lips, narrow face, and hazel eyes. There was a hardness to her, as would be expected for a detective, but at the same time something about her features ate at him. Was it her eyes? The way she kept them narrow despite their apparent beauty in color? Eyes were supposedly windows to the soul; if she constantly squinted hers, it gave people less of a chance to see inside. Or was it the way she tapped her finger? It wasn’t in an impatient way, more of a trying to keep her mind from something way.
“So, Mr. McKeen, please walk me through, in your own words, what happened this morning.”
He cleared his throat, sipped the disgusting coffee in front of him, and reiterated the basic details. “I was dispatched to a 43-year old female with abdominal pain and shortness of breath.”
“Do you know what time the call went out?”
The time should be on your report was his first thought, but it wasn’t what came out of his mouth. Try as he might though, Noah couldn’t come up with a precise recollection of what dispatch had actually called. “Um, I know it was about three. Maybe a little after.”
The detective typed something into her computer and waved him to continue.
“Right. When I arrived on scene, I went inside to find a volunteer from Sara’s Point Ambulance in the upstairs bedroom. On the floor of the bedroom was a woman, presumably the woman the call was regarding, and she was dead.”
Madsen folded her hands on top of one another. “Did you feel for a pulse? Or evaluate in any way?”
Had he? For a split second he couldn’t remember. Had he touched the woman’s body at all?
He pursed his lips. Spoke slowly and nodded slightly with each word. “It was fairly evident that she was dead.”
She spun her laptop and on the screen was a photograph of the body. “Showing Mr. McKeen photograph 36. Is this the woman you saw?”
Noah nodded and swallowed. Madsen urged him to state out loud if it was the victim. When he said yes, she thanked him.
“Can you describe her state when you arrived?”
Noah looked at her with his head slightly tilted. Was she serious? Of course he could describe the woman. But was it really necessary? Madsen had his run form. Obviously plenty of pictures. He stared at the table, fighting not to look the detective in the face.
“She was lying on her back, her legs open. Her throat was cut, I never got close enough to really see but it looked pretty deep. There was a bruise on her—actually a few bruises I think—on her face, near her jaw.” He circled his own jaw with his finger and paused before continuing. Took another breath. “Her abdomen had been cut open—crudely. It looked like whoever did it had wanted to pull the skin back for some reason.”
“Anything else?” she asked.
“Not really sure what else you want.”
The detective straightened in her chair. “What else did you find in the room?”
At first the question puzzled him, but then Noah saw it in his head. Hidden between weaves of exhaustion and chemical compounds that had attached themselves to the receptors in his brain. The fog.
“There was a drawing—at least I guess you would call it a drawing—on the inside of the closet door.”
The detective nodded. She leaned forward. “What was the drawing of, Mr. McKeen? What was it drawn with?”
Noah looked at the clock on the wall: seven on point. That anxious feeling began creeping up. The same one that hit him when he was stuck on a last minute call. It was seven. This part of his day was done, and he should be onto the next. Though recently his days were comprised of nothing more than sloth, not the worst sin but one of the seven nonetheless.
“Mr. McKeen? Am I keeping you?”
He shook his head. “No, I’m sorry. What was the question?”
“The closet, Mr. McKeen, how did you know to look inside of it?”
“I saw drops of blood on the floor. Didn’t really think anything of it, except they were in kind of a line.” But had they been? Or had they been just a spray from the slice in the woman’s throat? Why was it so hard to remember? Actually, Noah knew why, but it beat having pain in his knee. “When I followed them, they led to the closet. I thought maybe the guy who did it was hiding in the there. I didn’t think I would find . . . that.”
Detective Madsen shifted in her seat. She rubbed her thumb and index finger together. A look of mental calculation on her face. “You saw drops of blood on the floor?”
She typed something on her keyboard, turning the laptop back toward him; the screen displayed a picture of the floor and the dots of blood. The woman’s neck and head were just visible in the corner of the photograph.
“You saw these drops of blood but were never close enough to see how deep the wound in her throat was?”
A sudden tightness in his throat paused his breathing. Surprise more than anything. “I—um?”
She spun the computer back to her side of the table. “I’m just wondering, Mr. McKeen. That’s all.”
Noah gripped his coffee, never lifting it from the table. He squeezed, careful not to crush the flimsy cup. He saw her look at his hand, and he quickly let the beverage go. She smiled.
“What was the mural of?” she asked.
“Deer,” he said quickly.
Noah felt her eyes on him, studying his reactions, his words, searching for ticks and lies. He wanted out. This was voluntary, and he was being pressured by a hundred-and-forty pound woman in a blazer.
“What was the mural drawn with?”
“Blood.” He exhaled. “It looked like it was drawn in blood.”
She nodded. “Thank you, Mr. McKeen.”
The second he sat in his Tacoma, Noah flipped open the center console and threw back a pill. He bent forward, head against the steering wheel, then started rubbing his knee, breathing heavily.
What the hell had he just sat through? They didn’t label it an interrogation, but they sure as shit may as well have. Regardless, it was now past seven, which marked another day that he had missed his supervisor. Noah reached for his letter of resignation on the passenger seat, only to have his fingers touch nothing but cloth.
The seat was empty.
A wrench twisted his stomach. It was still sitting in the glove box of the SUV. He had left it there like a fucking idiot. His nerves were suddenly on edge at the thought of Jade—the paramedic who had met him at company headquarters two hours before her shift started—jumping in to cover him and pulling away with the letter still tucked neatly between the vehicle manual and a hazmat guide.
Noah threw his truck in drive and pulled out of the police station while twisting open the pill bottle and dry swallowing a second dose.
It slid down slowly, pushing against the sides of his esophagus. A quick cough and the feeling dissipated. There. That would do it. As he pulled into the parking lot of Mary’s Cathedral—sparsely populated, as expected—he recognized Father Michaels’ Honda in the far parking spot.
At such an early hour, the cathedral would be next to silent. In its silence, there would be beauty. Molecules of quiet air would move down the aisle, circulating in candle flames that dotted the altar, watched over by the statue of the Virgin Mother to the left, before rising to the feet and body of Jesus Christ.
If he went in, Noah would gaze at the Son of God, a man suspended in agony, feet and hands punctured with a broken crown digging into his scalp. He would stare and feel questions burning inside. Stirring in contempt and frustration.
But Noah didn’t go inside. Instead, he sat in his truck and thought of the woman’s body on the floor of her bedroom. Sliced open like a cadaver.
A car pulled into the handicapped spot just in front of the cathedral. Out of the driver’s side came an elderly woman. She walked around to help her husband from the passenger side. His head trembled as he walked from the car to the ornate wood doors.
In his head, Noah played out the scene inside. Father Michaels sitting with the old man in a pew, offering comfort before walking to the back and finding Noah in the last pew, leaning forward with prayer pressed hands.
“You mustn’t be discouraged at the trials of others, Noah.”
An easy thing for the Father to say. But a domestic abuse. A fall down a flight of stairs resulting in a broken shin. A kid on his mom’s hip who knocked a boiling pot of water off the stove and onto himself. The look in the flight nurse’s eyes when she took the child from him and headed back to the helicopter. It was all engrained in there. Carved with a knife.
In a flat tone, Noah would ask, “At what point are they no longer trials and just misfortune? Needless suffering?”
“That point, my son, does not exist. Remember: Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.”
Noah would nod. Mumble Proverbs, even though he didn’t have to prove a damn thing to the Father, let alone that he knew the book backward and forward.
“That is right.” Father Michaels would put a gentle hand on Noah’s shoulder. “The road is long, Noah. Without His guidance, our burdens will overbear us. Misguide us. We mustn’t let that happen, for if we do, then our way on this path is as good as lost.”
He would get up and leave. Heed the Father’s words and drive home, probably passing Amber on her way to work. He’d get up and go through it all again, only to have Father Michaels utter the same words the next time. Maybe that was why Noah had stopped going: the lessons were always the same.
His phone vibrated in the center console, the sudden plastic rattling startling him back to the present. He picked it up to find his brother’s name on the display.
“Hey, Robert,” Noah said.
“You still going to make it?”
“Make—shit—I’m sorry. I completely forgot. I had a late call and well, actually, you wouldn’t believe the morning I’ve had.”
“Try me,” Robert said. “Please. I could use a good story to shake up the day.”
“It’s only eight.”
“Right, and it’s already boring as all hell. I have a class at ten. Can you make it to Crossing’s by then? I’ll wait to order.”
Noah looked at the clock on his dashboard. The medication had begun to make his movements feel amplified. His eyelids fluttered. With a hand on the wheel he steadied himself. “Yeah. Yeah, I can be up there soon. Sorry again, just out of it.”
“Yeah,” Robert said. “Well third shift does that to you. I’ll order you a coffee.”
Noah pulled open the door to Crossing’s Diner, causing bells to clang against the metal frame. It was a small place on the edge of Northern University’s campus that smelled of eggs, bacon, and syrup. He caught sight of Robert in the farthest booth and walked down to slide in across the table.
At five-eight, Noah was a few inches shorter than his older brother, who was just shy of six feet. His hair was still solely brown, but his short beard was beginning to gray. He grunted as Noah sat down. Rather than look up, he used the back end of a red pen to push his glasses up the bridge of his nose, before leaving bloody slashes across a term paper.
“Jesus, Rob,” Noah said. “Go a little easy on them.”
He pointed the pen at Noah’s chest, finally meeting his eyes. “Read enough of these bloody things, and you’ll realize the scope of their idiocy.”
“You’re the one who keeps doing it. Isn’t the definition of insanity repeating the same thing over and over, expecting different results?”
“So you can remember Einstein’s most overused quote.” He capped the pen and grumbled. “While that doesn’t make you a scholar, I suppose you’re right. If there was something else I could settle on, believe me, I would. Unfortunately, the humanities don’t offer the broadest scope of job security. Something I should have realized when I went into this.”
“You’re doing what you like. Or at least what you used to like.”
“Yes, well, the upper-class is not as awful as the freshmen. That lot is terribly misinformed about everything. I’ve given up trying to hold their attention. If they’d rather tweet their education away, then so be it. Perhaps they can get fifteen dollars an hour at McDonald’s.”
Noah shook his head. “Is McDonald’s really paying fifteen dollars an hour?”
A young waitress appeared. College student that greeted mornings without a hangover. “Coffee?”
“Yes,” Noah said. “Thanks.”
She turned to Robert. “Refill? Would either of you like a menu?”
This time it was Robert who spoke first. “Yes, both of us, please.”
She slid a pair of single-page menus onto the table and told them she would be back in a few minutes.
“So,” Robert said. “Was it at least a good call that held you or another routine round of bullshit?”
And from there, Noah’s mind was led down mental tributaries until it came to memories of the morning’s mutilation. How many years had it been since there was a homicide in the small lake town? Had there ever been one at all? Things like that were normally reserved for the city. He stirred his already blended coffee and put the mug to his mouth.
“Yeah—sorry. Rough morning.”
Robert lifted his head from the menu. “So you’ve said.”
The waitress re-appeared as if she could smell the tension and came to quell it with the promise of food in exchange for good behavior.
“Alright,” she said. “What can I get you guys?”
Two omelets, two orange juices, and two sides of hash.
“Such individualism,” Robert said as they finished ordering. He slid his ungraded papers into his briefcase and stirred a packet of sugar into his coffee. “Well, what was it?”
Noah looked at him, confused. His body tingled in that odd state where exhaustion felt like intoxication. He yawned, and as he stretched, he felt another familiar feeling: the fuzziness brought on by opioids. His knee no longer ached. His skin, his muscles, everything existed in a comfortably numb state of subtle pleasure.
“Hmm? What was what?”
He snapped to, refocused on his brother and the conversation. All the while, the pleasantness inside his body rose from his feet to his knees, from his waist to his chest, and through his neck like a volcano of peace. The euphoria wrapped itself around his brain, where the medication masked away any and all pain.
“The call. Jesus, Noah, are you alright?”
Noah pulled his phone out and slid through several messages until he found the pictures Rogers had sent him, then passed the phone to Rob. “Like I said, it was a long morning.”
His brother flicked through the photos. Noah slumped back in the booth and fought to keep his eyes open. He let his gaze bounce from head to head around the diner, trying to focus on anything to keep them from closing. A young man was standing next to the counter. Their eyes met and something felt off. It could have been the gauges in the guy’s ears or the tattoo crawling up the side of his thin neck, but normally those things didn’t take a second of Noah’s attention.
“Where was this?” Robert asked.
“Hmm?” The phone. Focus. “Sara’s Point. Near the lake.”
“Were you the first one there?”
Noah shook his head, looked back up and once again saw the kid looking at him. “Couple volunteers.”
“Who called 9-1-1?”
Robert’s rapid-fire questions along with the sudden overwhelming feeling of being watched caused Noah to shift in the booth. “I have no idea. The detective that questioned me never said. She was too busy leaning toward, you know, me.” He forced a laugh. “But it must have been her—the dead woman.”
An arm brushed against his. He looked up to see the kid from the counter now standing next to him. Noah immediately slid farther into the booth. Not in a polite, here, let me give you some room, way either. Robert shot Noah a look before turning his attention to the young man.
“Case, what can I do for you?”
Noah noticed flakes of dandruff on the shoulders of the kid’s black hoody and felt his lip instinctively curl upward. Matted hair, clinging together with the shine of grease. Had he never heard of a shower? Shampoo wasn’t that expensive.
Robert’s palm hit the table, and Noah jerked backward, his reactions delayed by the medication. The kid had been talking. What had he said? What had Noah missed this time?
“I’m sorry, Case. No extra credit. If you do well on the exam and turn your final paper in on time, I am absolutely certain you will do fine.”
The kid nodded. Dejected like a miscreant on Christmas. He walked back to the counter, shoulders slumped, and picked up a bagged container of take-away.
“Noah,” Robert hissed.
“Who was that?”
“Huh? What are you—?”
“The kid. Who was he?”
“He’s from my medieval history class. Why?”
Noah dragged a hand through his hair, heard the bells near the door rattle. “Because he was fucking staring at me.”
Robert’s face contorted. “What? Case? He’s harmless. Jesus. A little weird, but trust me, he’s normal compared to some of these kids. Now, anyway, back to this. You think the woman in these pictures was the one who called the police?”
Noah shook away the thoughts of being stalked. Being watched by some punk shit who probably had both nipples pierced with a fucking chain holding them together.
“Yeah—I don’t know. I mean, it had to have been. There was no one in the house, and it makes no sense that the guy who did it would have called it in. But, at the same time, how could she have called? There was no way someone left her like that and she was alive long enough to call 9-1-1. Plus, there was no phone anywhere in the room.”
Robert pinched the screen and zoomed in on one of the pictures.
“Alright.” The waitress was back and holding two steaming plates. The smell hit Noah like a fist. Robert quickly pressed the sleep button on the side of Noah’s phone. “Let me know if you boys need anything else, okay?”
As she turned, her fingertips grazed Noah’s arm. The drugs amplified the feeling of her touch. Each millimeter of soft contact like orgasms on his skin. Robert sat poised, ready to eat, utensils over his plate.
“So you saw a murder and were questioned by a detective? Interrogated, actually?”
Noah shook his head. “I didn’t see a thing. I found the body. Well, the ambulance crew found the body a few minutes before I got there.”
Robert raised his eyebrows, a sly smile on his face. “So you were meant to find her. You or one of the ambulance crew.”
“Huh?” Noah stuffed a forkful of omelet into his mouth. Chopped peppers and warm, melted cheese inside of fluffy eggs. He barely needed to chew.
“Someone called 9-1-1 to get you there, and when you got there, she was dead.”
Noah paused before taking another bite. Opened his mouth to say something but stopped.
“What?” Robert pressed.
“What if the call was a call for help? Like she was being beaten or something but couldn’t say help I’m being beaten, and we didn’t get there in time.”
His older brother shook his head. “Don’t do that. Your response time would have been the same, regardless of the complaint. Besides, the guy beating her would have known she had called 9-1-1.”
“True, but if it’s a medical complaint, an ambulance is dispatched, whereas a domestic automatically triggers a cop. May have given her a chance at least.”
“Really,” Robert said and took a bite of his omelet. “Don’t do that to yourself.”
Noah stretched. Felt the euphoria in his muscles. A billion tiny hands massaging his entire body. It was unlike marijuana, and it was nothing like alcohol. He felt complete control over his body and the words that left it. It was just . . . a calm. He was effectively numb. Complacent and happy. Just like the song. He queued Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb in his head. Made a mental note to put it on during the drive home.
“What’d the detective say?” Robert asked.
Noah squinted and rubbed his eyes. “Nothing really. She just had me describe what I found. She seemed surprised I found the closet.”
Robert put his fork down. “You found the closet?”
“Yeah? There were drops of blood leading to it. I thought maybe whoever did it was still there, and I wanted the upper hand. Why is that surprising? You may be a genius in history and literature or whatever, but I can read a scene better than anyone.”
Robert said, “And yet you opened the closet door rather than wait for the police?”
Noah sat back and folded his arms across his chest. “Why is it a big deal? At least I found it. Everyone else overlooked it. And what if she’d had a kid hiding in there or something?”
Rob held his hands up. “Point. I’m sorry. It’s not that you did anything wrong; I’m just jealous, if we’re being honest. You get to run around and have all this fun while I’m stuck lecturing to a hall full of zombies. It’s bloody boring.”
“Again,” Noah said. “You are the one who continues to do it. Besides, you have a wife, two kids, and you teach dark history.”
His older brother held up a sole finger. “I teach a dark history class. Only one a semester. It’s all that bastard Melvin would allow. Despite the fact, mind you, that it is the most popular history class at the university. Haven’t had less than a full roster in three semesters. Wave killers and tragedies in peoples’ faces, and they are instantly addicted. Talk about the dawn of civilization or the feats of the Mesopotamian Empire and well…” His voice trailed off, and he shoved a forkful of eggs into his mouth.
“Sorry,” Noah said.
Robert waved the apology away. “I have a great job. I shouldn’t complain.”
They ate the rest of their respective breakfasts in silence. As the moments ticked by, so did the numbness humming underneath Noah’s skin. He finished the last of his meal as a dull ache returned to his knee. He stretched under the table, but the muscles refused to loosen.
“Leg still bothering you?” Robert asked as he slid his credit card inside the black bill holder.
“Sore. Just bothers me after back-to-back runs.”
“Eh. Sore beats painful enough to take meds or need physical therapy anymore. Little progress is still progress.”
“Yeah,” Noah averted his eyes. “Thanks for breakfast, by the way.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Outside in the cool morning air Robert added, “You should send me those pictures. Maybe I can figure out what the deer mean.”
Noah looked at him, puzzled.
“Whoever left it, left it for a reason. You don’t just use someone’s blood to paint forest animals on a closet door without a reason behind it.”
“I think we should leave that to the police.”
“Says the one who opened the door in the first place. Come on, throw me a bone and kill my boredom. I mean, I did just buy you breakfast.”
Noah rolled his eyes as he sent the photos.
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