This post contains portrayals of homosexual actions and lifestyles. There may be references to, or explicit descriptions of, sex between consenting adults.
If homosexuality, sexually explicit language, or swearing offends you, or if reading material that contains these violates any law or personal or religious beliefs, you must exit now without proceeding further.
If you’re under 18 years old you may not read it either because it is against the law. I regret this because I was once a randy teenager myself and I feel somewhat two-faced in helping enforce the law. Hopefully, one day, censorship may disappear along with other vestiges of Big Brother and Mother Grundy.
The story is entirely fictional. The town of North Charlston exists, as do its mayor and chief of police, however their actions in this story and the words attributed to them by me are all figments of my imagination and should not be construed as reflecting their real thoughts or ideas. All the characters in this work are imaginary.
My thanks to Drew Hunt, Bill Marx and Tim Mead, who give of their time to edit my writing, correct my logic, and give me advice. Since, however, I do make changes after I get their suggestions, any mistakes in the tale are mine.
Shot and burned body was Philadelphia nurse.
"Hey, guys!" The voice came from behind us and, surprised, Mike and I turned around, keeping up our pace by jogging in place while the wet-suited man strode out of the waves, hoisting a yellow-and-black long-board under his right arm.
"Hi, Pat!" We chorused. "Looks like you've got nice surf out there today," Mike added.
"Yeah. The storm last night was real good to me," Pat said, bending down to undo the Velcro ankle cuff attached to his leash. "I got some sweet noseriding in this morning. Enjoying your run?" he asked, his characteristic smile breaking out across his face as he looked up at us from under his brows.
"Uh-huh," I nodded as I caught my breath. "Nice breeze to keep us cool."
"Dude, this has to be the best time of the year. Good weather and almost no-one else on the beach." He leaned forward, then, straightening up quickly, threw his head back to get the long blond tresses out of his face. Mike and I slowed our pace as Pat fell in beside us, kicking little bursts of sand up with his toes as he moved. We walked together, chatting about the weather and the sea, the beach and the storm of the previous day, while around the shallows the gulls circled looking for the delicacies the rough water had provided. Eventually Pat said, "I was going to come by your house today. Can I ask a favor, Chris?"
"Sure. What's up?"
"I need to go pick up a crashed motorcycle in Hinesville and bring it back here. Meadowcroft said I could use the store's trailer, but my VW hasn't got a hitch, so I was wondering whether you'd come with the Jeep."
"Yeah, sure. What're you gonna do with a smashed-up bike? The VW bus no longer the babe-magnet?"
He gave a brief chuckle, then his face became serious. "Naah. It belonged to a guy I worked with at the clinic, another nurse. He wiped out on his way home one night."
I grimaced "Bad scene. He get hurt?"
"Dead, dude. Broke his neck."
"Ooh. Nasty. Man, I'm sorry to hear that. A good buddy of yours?"
Pat rocked his left hand from side to side. "So-so. We were in the same class at Rochester, and after graduating we worked together for two years in San Diego. Then I came here to be closer to my parents and he worked in Oregon for a while, then Chicago and Philadelphia. He liked to see different places. He had a job lined up in Atlanta for next January and I got him a temp position at the clinic where I'm working. So, yeah, I guess we were buddies."
I nodded in understanding.
"So what are you going to do with the bike?" Mike asked.
"I don't know. Maybe try and sell it. Dex's mother doesn't want it and, as far as I can gather, no one in his family is interested in it. She lives in Oklahoma, so it's obviously not worth trucking it there, so she asked me if I'd mind selling it for her. I thought I'd see what condition it's in and put it on Craig's List or e-Bay, and send her the money."
We were coming up to the wooden walkway leading through the dunes to our house. "You want to come have some breakfast?" Mike asked. "Chris is doing scrambled egg burritos."
"Sounds great," Pat said. "OK if I bum a pair of shorts and a T-shirt? The wet-suit gets hot when it dries."
"No problemo," Mike said. "You look about my size."
"When do you want to go get the bike?" I asked. "This afternoon? Tomorrow?"
"Today's great for me if it's OK for you," he said.
"Let's do it, then"
"Thanks, dude. I owe you."
"I'll put it on your tab."
Pat looked at me out of the corners of his eyes. "Or maybe I just won't tell the folk around here what you guys were doing in the dunes just now," he stated, a wry grin spreading across his face.
"Just sitting, resting. Sort of half-way rest stop," I told him. "Sat, watched waves, caught our breath."
"Just because I'm blond doesn't mean I'm dumb. Mike's got sand all over his back and none on his shorts, and you've got a bunch stuck to your shins. In my book that says busted, dude." And he broke out laughing. "And tell me, if I'm wrong, why Mike's blushing like a tomato?"
I looked over at my partner whose cheeks were ruddy and began to laugh. For once public lewdness had been Mike's idea: it was a pleasant, early spring morning, the beach had been deserted, and the siren-song of love al fresco had proved too tempting to resist.
"You know, Chris," he said, pulling out the muscle shirt tucked into the waistband of his shorts and flicking his back with it, "you might need to add some kind of strong poison to the burrito you give Pat."
Half an hour later, with all of us rinsed off, Pat sat on a bar stool, chilled micro-brew in hand, watching as Mike chopped up cilantro while I whisked up the eggs for brunch. "So, Pat, what exactly is this clinic you're working at?" I asked.
"It's about half-way between here and Savannah. Exit 76, then take route 38 east a ways. Out in the sticks. It's called Lake Pomona Ranch. They don't want to call it a clinic, because all the rich fucks from Atlanta and Charleston come there to have their cosmetic surgery done. Face lifts, tummy tucks, gastroplasty – stomach stapling – liposuction, you name it. Not a fun place at all, but the pay is good, the hours are great, and the load isn't grueling, so on some days I can get an hour's time with the books at work."
"What are you studying for?" Mike asked as he pushed the cilantro over to me and began to slice an avocado.
"I'm going for my masters. I want to be a Psychiatric Mental-Health Nurse-Practitioner." He looked at us from the corner of his eyes. "I want to work with kids, you know, folks in their late teens and early twenties that have problems."
Mike pursed his lips and nodded. "Cool!"
"I think you'd be real good at it," I added, pouring the egg and cilantro mixture into the pan. "You've got all the medical ability, but you surf and skateboard, too: you're like half a kid yourself. I'd think young people wouldn't feel threatened by you."
Pat took a swig from his bottle and laughed. "That's what Kristi – she's my girlfriend – says, just not so diplomatically. She tells me I'm suffering from arrested development, and think I'm nineteen!"
"I thought your girlfriend's name was Olivia," I said, watching the eggs firm up.
Pat laughed. "Two girlfriends ago, dude! There was Elena in between."
"Hey, you got the avo ready yet?" I called to Mike. "Jeez, Pat, Olivia was with you at New Year's Eve: you hets are such sluts."
He raised his bottle in a mock toast. "Hey, dude, I'm not the one scaring the turtles among the dunes."
It was in this jovial mood that two hours later we pulled out from the hardware store, the trailer rattling behind us. A colleague of Pat's had joined us for the trip to assist with the loading of the bike. "It's a nickname," he had explained when he was introduced to us as Lynch. "My folks named me Merrill: it's a family name, but it sounded too stuck up for my college buds so, by name association ," he shrugged and flashed a disarming smile at us.
"Lynch is a nurse anesthetist," Pat explained as he and Lynch had clambered into the back seats leaving shotgun for Mike. "He doesn't do real work."
The target of his humor had merely grinned.
We bounced across the drawbridge, settled down at 60 in the right hand lane of I-95, then later cruised past the orchards, woodlands and open fields that bordered US-84, the distinctive aroma from each eddying through the open Jeep. As we approached Hinesville the rural landscape gave way to houses and small businesses until we were finally driving down the main street of the town.
The police station, however, proved to be a big disappointment: there was no bike parked in their storage area. Being Saturday there did not appear to be much we could do to locate it, but, after a few minutes of discussion, Mike had the idea of calling the State Police and, sure enough, the missing motorcycle was tucked away in their impound lot.
Saturday or not, at the State Police Post it was all business. The young officer at the desk took the documents presented by Pat which authorized him to act on behalf of Dex's mother, and began to gather all the stuff held as evidence after the accident. He typed the information into a computer, got Pat's signature on several long sheets, and presented us with a large cardboard box. "The motorcycle is 'round back," he said. "The sergeant will let you in. Give him this form and show him some picture id."
"I thought you were going to offer to suck his dick," Mike joked as he and I stowed the box behind the back seat of the Jeep. The subservient attitude I get when dealing with the police gives Mike a great deal of amusement, but I have learned from too many brushes with radar-toting officers that an acquiescent manner generally results in a lot less trouble than confrontation does.
"What can I say," I replied, "buff guys in shirts with razor-sharp creases turn me on."
With Mike helping to guide me, I managed to reverse the trailer up to the gate without taking out any of the patrol cars parked nearby. The CBR600 was not in as bad shape as I had been led to believe: there was some dirt and mud and light scratches on the right-hand fairing and tail-piece, and the left-hand fairing had a couple of hefty bashes which had cracked the plastic. The left hand tail-piece seemed to have been torn away from its mountings, and that didn't seem like typical accident damage – probably done while retrieving the bike, I thought. I attached the steel ramp I had brought along to the back of the trailer and, with Mike keeping it balanced and Lynch giving some added muscle, we wheeled the bike up. Mike and I began the tying-down with ratcheting straps while Pat and Lynch checked the contents of the box against the list the officer had given them. "What's there?" I asked as I secured the ramp on the trailer.
"Just about everything," Pat said. "His clothing, wallet, watch, that sort of stuff; looks like they've also given us copies of the post mortem." He closed the lid firmly. "Let's get outta here."
The exertion of loading the bike had stained our T-shirts with long trails of sweat, and almost in unison we pulled them off and tossed them in the back. Lynch clearly worked out, I noted as he and Pat climbed past me to their seats, his dogtags jingling from the ball-chain round his neck. "You in the army?" I asked as I slid the key into the ignition.
"Navy," he replied. "Pat told you I don't like to work: sailing around on a carrier is more up my alley."
"Is that where you did your nurse training?"
"Naah. I was an STG2 – a Sonar Tech – and it came to the decision point: re-enlist, or change professions. I was 22 and could afford college, plus I really wanted to do something in medicine." He tugged at the dogtags gently. "Only wear these on the weekends now – kinda counteracts the stereotypical reaction when I tell people I'm a nurse," he laughed a trifle self-consciously.
The conversation tailed off as I gingerly navigated the trailer out of the compound and through the town and, engrossed in our own thoughts, nobody spoke for the first part of the trip home. Eventually Pat asked, "So, dude, what's the low-down on the bike?"
"Doesn't look too bad," I said. "First thing, though, I've got to take it to a bike shop and get the frame checked. If it's twisted then you're probably going to have to scrap it. Did the guy have it insured?"
"His mom said he did."
"Cool. Get the policy and I'll price it out and call the adjuster."
"You're going to repair the bike?" Lynch asked with a dash of doubt in his voice.
"Yeah. It's not banged up too badly."
"Dude, you don't have to do that. We can take it to a bike shop," Pat said, leaning forward and hanging his head on his forearms between the front seats.
"Don't worry about Chris," Mike said, "He's happy when he's messing around in the garage and getting dirty. His arrested development age is about 20."
"That and I know Mike gets turned on by manly types in work jeans," I retorted, which made Pat laugh.
"You guys really need to get control of your hormones," he said.
"It's OK," Mike said, "I haven't seen a manly guy around our garage in a while."
"Oooh, cold," Lynch said.
"He knows I love him," my partner said resting his head on my shoulder.
"Hey, if he can fix the bike, I'm happy," said Pat. His voice took on a serious note. "Don't put yourself out of pocket, though, Chris."
"Naah. I've worked with adjusters before."
We fell silent again as I made the turn onto I-95. "So what's the background to the crash?" I asked once I had got up to speed. "Had the guy had the bike long?"
"Yeah. Well, I mean I think so. He never said it was new. But he knew how to ride, if that's what you're asking. He's ridden one cycle or another ever since I've known him."
"I think the problem was," Lynch interjected, "he was unfamiliar with the country road. It doesn't have a lot of traffic on it, so you can be driving along and the road's deserted, then all of a sudden there'll be a deer, or maybe two or three, suddenly bounding out in front of you. It doesn't really matter whether you're a good driver – these animals just come out of nowhere, and it's instinctive to swerve. It was only Dex's third week at the clinic, so I don't think he realized. And then he'd just handled thet chainsaw thing, too."
"Chainsaw?" I asked. "That the new instrument of choice for state-of-the-art surgeons?"
"No," Lynch laughed. "Dex wasn't using it. Someone had an accident with one and was bleeding badly and Dex helped stabilize him. Probably saved his life."
"Yeah," Pat continued, "And you know how it is: you leave work and you're adjusting from work mode to personal mode. It's a nice evening, you're thinking about what went on during the day, you've had some excitement, so your attention is maybe wandering a bit."
"What kind of work did he do at the clinic?" I asked.
"He was in the surgical wing – he looked after the patients who had had some procedure or other done. Things can be tricky with cosmetic surgery: if you don't do a dressing properly, or you remove it wrong, the patient ends up with a scar."
"He worked in the OR, too, sometimes," added Lynch. "I worked with him once. He was very cool and professional. He had a note book and each day he wrote up stuff he'd done and learned. Bright boy."
"Oh yeah," Pat said, "Dex was thorough. Even at college. If you missed a class you could get Dex's notes and it was just the same as being in the lecture. And he wasn't intimidated easily: he would call a doctor out if he thought things weren't being done right."
"How old was he?" asked Mike.
"Thirty, I think, same as me. Thereabouts."
The conversation wandered off in other directions and by 5pm we were headed over the river onto Kirkhall Island. "Who's that?" I asked pointing to the cop in the cruiser watching the cars come across the bridge.
"Kyle Petts. New guy in the police station," Pat said. "Berson's gone to someplace in the mid-west: Texas, Oklahoma, Utah, somewhere. I hear this new guy is practically straight out of policeman school he's been in the Augusta police department for a year under an experienced cop, but this is his first assignment on his own. The word at the library is he's an eager-beaver: determined to make a name for himself."
"Well as long as he leaves us alone," I commented, "he can sharpen his teeth on the rich fucks from Atlanta all summer.
Another ten minutes and we were in the driveway of our house unloading the CBR. With the straps off and up on its center-stand next to my Ninja it didn't look to be in too bad shape. No worse than some I'd seen in the pits at Road Atlanta.
"I'm sorry about your bud," I said to Pat later as he helped me unhitch the trailer outside the hardware store as Lynch backed his car out of the parking spot, and drove over to pick Pat up for the short ride to his condo.
"Yeah. I miss him. I feel kinda bad, really: I missed a call from him on the day he died. He'd phoned me, but I'd gone to the store and left my cell phone at home, so I didn't get it. I picked it up when I came home. Who knows, if I'd taken it maybe he'd have left a few seconds later, never come across the deer..." He shook his head.
"Hey, you can't go off into parallel universe stuff. There'll be a million things that could've changed the outcome," I said.
But Pat went on as though I hadn't spoken. "It was really a weird call. He said he was going to check on something because one of our patients hadn't been operated on." He looked up at me with a quick shake of his head. "Normally it wouldn't have been a big deal, but this was Chuck Gallant and..."
"The film star?"
"Uh-huh. He had some liposuction. You know, a guy like that – with his sexy-man roles – can't have a big gut, so Dr. Hespin had done his magic."
"OK. So what did that have to do with this buddy of yours?"
"Dude, I have no fucking idea. He just left this message on my voicemail saying Chuck hadn't been operated on and he was going to look into it. The doctors schedule the surgery: nothing to do with the nurses. But that's all he said on his message. Then he had the accident."
"Did you check when you went back to work?"
"Yeah, but everything seemed copacetic. Gallant needed a second op because it looked as though there was some necrotic tissue, next day it seemed to be going away so the op had been put on hold. But it had been noted on all his charts, so why did Dex get worried about it?" He shrugged and looked at me.
"Could just be a coincidence," I suggested.
"Yeah." He looked at the sky for a second or two. "Yeah, I really don't think it had anything to do with his accident. It's just I don't know why he phoned me, and now I can't ask him about it." He looked at me and pulled a face, dismissing the thought. "Hey, thanks a bunch for getting the bike for me this afternoon. Let me give you some cash for the gas." He put his hand into the back pocket of his jeans, but I waved him away.
"Don't sweat it. I'll try to get it out of the insurance company."
"You sure, dude?"
"Yeah. I'm cool."
"'K. Well thanks a bunch. I'll be in touch."
"See you," Mike said to Pat as I climbed in behind the wheel.
"Bye, guys," he said heading towards Lynch's Camaro. A big grin spread across his face. "And stay outta the dunes!"
I shook my head and put the Jeep in gear. "Late!"
Kyle Petts caught up with me on Monday at lunch time, but only because I let him. As soon as I saw the blue lights in my rear view mirror I slowed, downshifting several times as I ran against compression, only touching the brake as I brought the Ninja to a stop on the shoulder. He was out of the cruiser as soon as it crunched to a halt about six feet behind my rear tire.
"Turn off the engine and step away from the motorcycle," he commanded. I cut the ignition, kicked the sidestand down and swung my right leg over the rear seat. Officer Petts, right hand still on the butt of his gun, kept his mirrored sunglasses trained on me as I walked a few paces away from the bike, unclipping my chin strap and tugging my helmet off as I did so. "OK. Stop there. License and proof of insurance." I pulled my wallet out of my back pocket, extracted the plastic card with two fingers, and handed it to him.
"The insurance card is under the seat, officer," I said.
"Go get it then."
When I returned with the card he looked at it briefly then back at me. "Stand in front of the cruiser and don't move." I walked over to the front of the black and white vehicle and watched him slide into the driver's seat and, after propping my documents on the shelf next to his PC, begin to run my license through the State's computers. I unzipped my jacket, feeling the cool breeze on my T-shirt.
In the shallows among the ripples a crane was wading on its long legs as it searched for food amongst the base of the reeds while Petts looked at his computer and began writing the ticket. Eventually he got out, clip board in hand, and walked over to me. "Do you know what speed you were riding at?"
I knew the answer to this one, but was not going to let on. "No, sir."
"Eighty. Do you know what the speed limit is here?"
The mirrored glasses tried hard to determine whether I was making fun of their owner, but I kept my face serious and respectful. "It's thirty five."
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. "Wow. Didn't know that."
"Well that little joy ride is going to cost you a grand and a third." He pushed the clipboard toward me. "Please sign at the bottom there, sir."
I looked at the amount. $1,355. I could get a really good Intel CPU for that. Could probably do a lot of the repairs to Dex's bike for those bucks, too. I signed the ticket and gave the clipboard back. Petts carefully tore my copy off and handed it to me. "I bet that'll put a stop to your speeding for a while."
"Yeah. Guess so." I looked at him. About 28 or 29, hair cropped short, lightly tanned skin tight across high cheekbones, the uniform pants hugging firm glutes. I couldn't see the eyes because of the sunglasses, but his face was a bare three feet from mine. I wondered if he could hear the loud pinging alert my gaydar had started to emit, and I made a mental note to ask Mike if it is against some archaic Georgia law to make a move on an officer while he's on duty.
We stood there for maybe five seconds then Petts took a quick step back and cleared his throat. "The court date is on the ticket. Pay your fine at least two weeks before then if you don't want to appear."
"Sure. Thanks, officer." Again the glasses tried to ascertain if there was a hint of mockery on my face, but there was none. He handed my license and insurance card back. "You're new here?" I asked.
He was taken aback a little. "Er...yeah. Been here two weeks."
"Cool. Well welcome to Kirkhall." I replaced the insurance card and closed my seat.
"Thank you, sir." Cute: he had the shades of a blush on his cheeks.
"I've been watching the crane over there." I pointed to the bird. "Tide's out. When it's in there's all water here."
"Uh...oh...yes." He still did not understand.
"Can I go then?" I fastened the chin strap of my helmet.
"Yes sir, but stay within the limit this time."
"Always do on Kirkhall," I replied, and, making sure I checked my mirror and put my turn-signal on, I set off home to do some coding.
Around 6:30 I left my computers and went downstairs, mixed up the marinade for some lamb Mike had bought, and wandered down to the garage to start looking at the Honda. I was removing the fairing so I could get a better look at the frame when a red Mustang pulled up into the driveway and Officer Petts stepped out. Even after a hard day of rounding up speeding motorcyclists and other dangerous criminals his shirt still looked crisp. "Hi," I said, not getting up.
"Good evening, Mr. Lawrence," he said with a slight hesitation.
I put the screwdriver down and got to my feet, wiping my hands on a shop rag. "Mr. Lawrence, huh? Sounds like this is official business. On the other hand you drive up in a 'Stang with no antenna farm, which makes it seem like a social one."
He gave an awkward smile. "You could have told me straight up I couldn't stop you there," he said, "instead of giving me all the chat about birds and water."
"Well, you seemed to be having such a good time running my personal shit through your computer and writing out the ticket, it seemed a shame to let it all go to waste." I paused. "So when did you figure out you had clocked me in McIntosh County rather than on Kirkhall?"
He didn't smile. "When you mentioned you never speed on Kirkhall. I got to wondering, so when I got back to the station I looked at the map. How is one to know the Kirkhall boundary is only on the big island shore and all the small islands are in the county?"
"There used to be a sign, but the wind blows it down. The ground is too sandy there. The boundary was supposed to be in the middle of the channel, but some fool wrote it down wrong about a century ago and it became law. But then it's not all bad news: the county gets to pay for the repairs for that long causeway and we don't." He nodded. "So I can just tear up the ticket?" I asked.
"Yeah. I'm not going to make a fool of myself in court."
"So, since you're off duty, can I get you a beer? Just to show no hard feelings."
I sensed the eyes behind the dark glasses look at me trying to detect any hidden meaning, and again the gaydar started to send out its alarms. Then he smiled, "Yeah. You owe me that. But you're lucky: If the troopers had caught you your ass would be in jail."
And so, when Mike's Audi swung into the driveway, Kyle was sitting in the old office chair I keep in the garage chatting to me about bikes while I stripped the Honda down.
"Hey, Chris," my partner said as he got out, took his jacket off the hanger in the back, and pulled out his briefcase.
"Hey, Babe. How was your day?"
"Not too bad," he said as he gave me a kiss. He turned to Kyle, eyebrows raised. "This boy in trouble again?" he asked.
"Mike, this is Kyle Petts. Kyle, Mike Jorgensen, my partner." To my surprise, the blush had returned to the officer's face.
"No, Chris managed to wiggle out of trouble today," Kyle answered, once he and Mike had exchanged pleasantries. He dropped the bottle into the recycling bin. "Well, I'd better be going. Thanks for the beer. Nice to meet you, Mike."
"You are a slut," Mike said to me as the 'Stang peeled off up the road.
"Me? Naah. Just welcoming a newcomer to the island – and trying to keep on the right side of the law."
"Uh-huh. How many times did you have Berson over to have a beer?" He put his index finger to the side of his mouth, "Let me think? Oh, wait: he was straight so he didn't get the invitation."
I grinned at him as I replaced a couple of wrenches on the board. "Something like that. So you think he's a 'mo, too, huh?"
"Well, duh!" He pointed at the bike. "What's the verdict?"
"I'll need to check the frame alignment, but so far it looks to be mainly cosmetic damage. Shouldn't be too bad to fix.
"Feel like some dinner?" I asked rubbing the GOJO onto my hands to scour the grease off.
"Yeah. I'm starved. Is that curry I smell?"
"Kinda sorta. Let me go get showered and we can nosh."
Often the course of events starts with something commonplace.
Tuesday, a week after my beer with Officer Petts, the chair in my garage was occupied by the adjuster from Progressive as he copied all the figures from my sheets of paper into his laptop. "You don't mind if I take these photos with me, do you?" he asked, holding my prints of the bike in various stages of disassembly to show the damage.
"Not at all. I burned them to a CD, too, so you can upload them without scanning if you like."
"Thank you! It'll be a help. Oh, shit!" he exclaimed as the sheets slid off his lap onto the floor. "Sorry," he said as I picked them up and shuffled them together into a neat pile.
But as I was sorting them, something caught my eye. It was the first photo I had taken, one of the left side of the bike, and the gear shift was still caked with mud. Casting my mind back I remembered the clay breaking away fairly easily under my fingers when I checked to see if the pedal was bent. It had not been, and I had forgotten all about it. Now the significance of the mud began to gnaw at my mind, but, since there was no quick rationalization, I pushed it onto a back burner and went on talking to the insurance guy about when I could expect a check.
On the following Saturday, Mike was out in the garden planting some daylilies and echinacea which Gladys from the firm's Savannah office had given him, and I was in the garage working on the Honda, when the crunch of tires on the pebbly berm outside caused me to look out to see the red Mustang of Kyle Petts pull up. "Hi, Mike. Hi, Chris. Just thought I'd drop by and see how the crashed bike was coming along." Gone was the crisp uniform, replaced now by a black muscle shirt and khaki cargo shorts.
I chatted with him for a while showing him what I had planned. He seemed to have a bent for mechanical work and was soon wielding wrenches alongside me.
"You ridden much?" I asked as I disconnected a radiator hose.
"When I was in college. Had a Radian for a year, then a Katana." He gave a sideways glance at me and added, "The Zuk was more of a chick magnet than the Radian."
"So, has the snazzy 'Stang netted you a nice Kirkhall girl?" I asked innocently.
He gave a shake of the head and stared at the floor. "Not yet. Kinda difficult with shift work. And the prettier girls all seem to have boyfriends or be married."
"Next time Pat Simmonds has a party I'll make sure he invites you: there are always single nurses hanging around there."
"Yeah? I hear he's quite the Lothario."
I laughed, but was more interested in my previous track. "So, you rode bikes? Let's say you were out riding and got into a lot of trouble and you realized the bike was going to drop. What would you do?"
He sat back on his haunches letting the wrench hang from his fingers as he pondered. "Get off. Fast. If I was really thinking I'd try to swing to the high side, but on the couple of times I dropped my bike I just let go the grips and jumped off. Always scared the bike would end up on top of me. Why?"
I told him about the gear shift being covered in mud. "See," I explained, "the wrecker crew must have wheeled the bike onto their truck. Must have wheeled it off. Would have been too complicated to hold the clutch lever through all that, so, from the time they got to the crash site the bike must have been in neutral. Otherwise, when they kicked the shift, the mud would have dropped off.
"So why," I continued when I'd given him a second to digest the picture, "does this guy, in milliseconds before he wipes out, shift to neutral?"
Kyle pursed his lips as he considered. "Good question. The shift is ratcheted, so he would have had to have been in second for the skid to have pulled it down. That'd be unlikely in a crash at speed: say he was in fifth, the most he'd get it down to would be third, but I doubt it. More likely fourth, but I reckon it'd stay in fifth."
"That's what's puzzling me. Doesn't make sense." I wrestled with a machine screw that was corroded in place. "How difficult is it to get a police crash report? You know, with all the photographs and description?"
"You'd have to go up there," Kyle said, pulling off the cracked tail fairing. "Cost you a few bucks. You want me to get it for you? Since I'm a cop, they'll probably waive the fee."
"Hey, that'd be cool. You wouldn't have to go up there though? I don't want to put you to any trouble."
"Naah. They'll mail it."
"So what brings a dedicated young policeman to this halcyon spot?" Mike asked. It was three hours later, and in the interim we had plunged into the breakers together; drip-dried, beers in hand, on the deck; rummaged around the kitchen until we had collected enough ingredients to get fillets of mahi-mahi onto the grill; and slid the result onto plates, surrounded by basmati rice and covered with a coconut-ginger-cilantro sauce.
Kyle dabbed his mouth with a napkin "It's small. I get to do pretty much every job there is in a precinct. Lots of experience, low stress. It would take me five years or more to get to try all those in a city station: here I get it in a year or so. I have time to study, and a pretty neat place to live where I can see the ocean."
"And once you've studied and got the experience?" Mike asked.
"FBI, buddy. The Bureau's where things happen."
"Cool," I commented. "I can tell everyone I know a real-life G-man."
Three days later a manila envelope was in my mail box, the lack of stamp and the single word "Chris" on the front indicating it had been hand delivered. Inside were photocopies of five documents carryig the write-up and diagrams of the scene as well as some photographs of the crashed Honda lying between slender tree trunks. I studied the bike. It lay on its left side, the gear shift apparently firmly in the dirt.
An approaching deadline kept me at my computer for the next few days and I didn't get to touch the wreck in that time, but the discrepancy of the gear shift simmered in the back of my mind. Thursday, Mike had a teleconference with the West Coast that would keep him at the office late, so I rode over to Pat's place to discuss things with him. He and Kristi were sitting on their deck, their dinner finished. "Hey, Chris! Want some Chinese?" Pat offered.
"No, I'm cool thanks. I've got dinner keeping warm for when Mike gets home."
"So how 'bout a beer?"
"Sure. That'd go down well."
"It's hard to say," Kristi said when, having wet my throat, I asked if there had been anything out of the ordinary with Dex on the day of the accident. "He'd only been at the clinic a few weeks so we hadn't had much of a chance to get a good feel of what he was like. Pat probably knew him best." She rubbed his thigh as she said it.
"Yeah, he was more-or-less how I remember him. If anything more self assured – not that he was ever shy – but he seemed to be fitting in just fine. Talked quite openly with the surgical staff, you know: the doctors and the therapists, and all the nursing staff liked him and felt he was pulling his weight." He stopped talking and appeared to be selecting his words. "Ummm...maybe, nothing really overt, but once or twice I sensed some of the older nurses thought he was a bit arrogant."
"Who thought that?" Kristi asked.
"I dunno. It was just a feeling I had. But when he went to Hespin about the necrotic tissue, I heard Maureen remark about nurses thinking they know more than doctors."
"Oh that's just Maureen. She's a whiner. For heaven's sake, the day after Dex had died she was bellyaching he'd taken the Newsweek from the common room."
"What was the chainsaw accident?" I asked, changing tack. "Lynch seemed to think it may have affected him."
"A few of us were out on the porch taking a break," Pat said. "Dex and Lynch were over at one side having some or other discussion about some article in a magazine. The rest of us just sitting around drinking coffee and either talking or reading. Then Royce, who is the owner's brother and messes around in the garden as a hobby, cut his leg real bad with a chainsaw. It was a real deep wound. Lots of blood, but I reckon Dex had seen that more than several times in the operating room. He was on his own, more-or-less, that day – I mean there was no doctor overseeing him – but it was well within his expertise level. He'd have been amped immediately afterwards, but fifteen minutes later he'd have been back to normal."
"I think it affected Lynch more than Dex," added Kristi. "He was really down and took off soon after. Some of us," she nudged Pat on the shoulder, "don't have to work for a living."
I had heard rumors about Pat's family being well off, but other than his condo, which was pretty nice, he lived a fairly simple life. "So Lynch has another source of income?" I asked, to steer the conversation away from Pat.
"Yeah!" Kristi said as though it was obvious, but when the blank look stayed on my face she continued, "Carroll? Ring any bells?" I shook my head. "Senator Ira Merrill Carroll?"
"The lunatic senator from Ohio? That's Lynch's father?" She nodded, amused. "But he's a real nutcase. Wants everyone to grow chickens in their back yard or something." I said.
"Iowa, not Ohio," Pat corrected me. "Yeah, there's old money there. Goes way back to the 1800s I think. And now he owns a string of high-end car dealerships across the North and Midwest."
"Oh yeah, I kinda remember there being some family feud about some inheritance in the courts a year or two back," I said.
"So we shattering your image of the hot, buff boy?" Pat asked with a grin. "I saw your eyes stop blinking when he took his shirt off."
"Pat!" Kristi smacked his arm.
Pat laughed. "No Lynch isn't a bad guy. Just lucky."
We chatted for another fifteen minutes or so while I finished my beer. "Oh well," I said as I picked up my helmet, "it was worth a shot." I laughed. "It's probably all in my imagination, and it'll all turn out to be a normal accident."
On Friday afternoon I was sitting at my desk with my earphones clamped on my head listening to some accountant from NASA drone on about the importance of cutting costs. Boredom as much as the Devil finds work for idle hands, and I began wandering around the web. Eventually I Googled the good senator from Iowa and began reading. The dynasty went back three generations when Merrill Carroll had come to the United States from Tullamore in Ireland at the age of ten. Four years later, after sickness had taken both his parents, Merrill was working in the iron industry. He survived World War I and by the time his first son, Alexander Merrill, was born in 1919, Merrill was investing heavily in steel and had partnered in the startup of a steel mill in Iowa. Ira Merrill came into the world as Alexander's second son in 1956. In that year the press listed the Carroll family amongst the hundred wealthiest families in the country.
Lynch, formally named Merrill Alexander after his grand- and great-grandfathers, had a cousin, Carver, the son of Ira's older brother. A few years back the cousin had sued for the allowance which the family trust paid out in five annual installments to each of the descendants between the ages of thirty and thirty-four. Unfortunately for him, since he was adopted and thus not a "natural born descendant of Merrill Francis", the courts determined he was not eligible. I wondered if Lynch saw much of his cousin and, if so, whether these family gatherings were tinged with a little, let's say, tension?
The financial wizard from NASA was showing no sign of running out of breath, and I spelunked deeper and deeper into the caverns of Google. The honorable senator from Iowa, possibly because he had to rely less on fund raising, definitely hoed his row in his own unique way. He had eschewed either political party and ran as an independent, but nonetheless his constituents loved him and his name appeared in the press for more unusual actions than those of other politicians. He advocated that everyone who owned land should grow vegetables or crops instead of flowers, and own chickens in order to become more self-sufficient. He believed every person should spend a hundred hours a year working in their community, whether it was painting the town hall, helping to repair streets and sidewalks, or cleaning up trash on the interstates and county roads. When a tornado ripped through a remote park killing some of the boy scouts there and injuring others, Senator Carroll had been caught trying to sneak into the Red Cross to donate a second pint of his blood on the same day. The Democrats played this as a sign he was not in touch with reality, while the Republican Whip in the Senate dubbed his action as `publicity gathering'. Senator Ira was unapologetic. "My daddy was caught in the tornado in Charles City back in the 60s. He had his arm busted by a falling sign, yet he gave blood that evening and again the next morning and was none the worse for it, and I am every bit as much of a man as daddy was. The Good Lord made him and me both universal blood donors so we have a unique position to help in times of disaster." he said. "Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."
`Not going to be much help if the medics have to treat you for fainting,' I thought to myself. `And I'm not going to be much help if you won't pay for an airplane to test my code,' I spoke into my muted mic as the NASA guy finished his pitch. With a sigh I clicked out of Google and went back to work.
"So your latest wet dream is not only ripped but well-off financially, too?" Mike said as we got ready for bed and I gave him a synopsis of my Google searches of the afternoon.
"Yeah. Totally perfect. I mean if you discount the fact he's straight and I've already got a partner."
"What? A cool guy like you who knows all the right moves? With your talents in the bed I doubt his allegiance to heterosexuality couldn't be overcome. And, to your second point, I'm willing to share you if my cut of the money is up to my current standard of living."
"You're a mercenary sack of shit, you know that?"
Ummm...maybe. Come here and show me what I'll be missing, and I may reconsider my offer."
Folk have often considered it an amazing coincidence that, once you hear an uncommon word or phrase, within a short period you will hear it mentioned again. But this is because they do not know the difference between a shuffle and true randomness: In the former each item appears only once in random order; in the latter, when it comes to choosing an item, it is chosen at random from the entire population and the probability of the same item in close proximity to its previous selection is relatively high. And thus, on Sunday just a few days later, the subject of universal donors came up again. For the first Sunday after Trinity, Father Drummond had chosen the Gospel of the day – the one about Lazarus and the rich man – as his reference and was exhorting us to help the very poor. "Just as in blood transfusions there are universal donors who can donate to any other person and there are universal recipients who can receive blood from any person," he said, "so is it with help. We here on Kirkhall are the universal donors: when, somewhere, a person is in need of help, somewhere on Kirkhall someone will have the ability to give the needed aid. And likewise, for whatever aid each of us can give, someone who is scratching out an existence in some developing country can use it. These countries are the universal recipients of the world and any help, of whatever type it is, can be used."
"Of course," said Rolf, the bookstore owner, as he and his partner, Glen, walked away from the church with me after the service, "his analogy was not completely apropos."
I raised my eyebrows in question. "Well when it comes to help, in real life one can be both a universal donor and at the same time a universal recipient. For example, a guy might be in desperate need of a warm coat and at the same time be able to repair someone else's car, but when it comes to matters sanguine a universal donor can't be a universal recipient."
"Oh?" I asked. "Didn't know that."
"Oh c'mon Chris," Glen said. "I thought you knew all things scientific."
"Never took biology at school. Physics and engineering were my playground. Digging around inside the body seemed pretty gross to me."
"If you say so, Mr. Topman," Glen said sotto voce, which sent Rolf into giggles and steered the conversation away from any serious vein.
"Did you know universal blood donors and universal blood recipients are different blood groups?" I asked Mike later as we sat, enjoying the brunch he had made while I was at church."
"I guess," he said. "I s'pose I just assumed it because otherwise they would have called them universal transfusers or something instead of having two distinct terms."
Later that night we took a couple of glasses and a bottle of Shiraz and headed down to the water's edge. "You OK?" Mike asked. "You've hardly said anything all evening."
I kicked some seaweed away and sat down on the sand. "I think I know why Dex was killed and by whom."
"Oh-oh. What have you dug up now?"
"It's Lynch." Mike looked at me, lips pursed and eyebrows raised, but said nothing. He filled my glass and I went on. "He comes from this super-rich family. Each descendent gets a pretty hefty payout in the form of a trust when they're thirty. But they've got to be descendents of the grandfather to qualify. His cousin got stiffed because he was adopted. Adopted as a baby, but it made no difference."
"Lynch is adopted?"
"Dunno. If so I don't think he knows. Naah, I don't think he is, because the family would know and they don't seem to have put a spoke in the wheel for him to get his share of the trust."
"Doesn't seem to leave much of an alternative," Mike observed sipping the wine.
"His father is, according to his own words, a universal blood donor. This afternoon I Googled all that blood group shit Rolf was talking about. Universal donors are group O. Lynch's dogtags stated he was group AB. He's a universal recipient." I took a mouthful of Shiraz. "Guess what the only blood group you can't be if either one of your parents is Group O."
We sat and watched the waves roll toward us, breaking, running up the beach, then running back leaving a strip of foam that sank from sight into the sand.
"So, just because Lynch has a weird blood group, why did Dex become the unlucky one to get struck down?"
"That week, the issue of Newsweek had an article about his father, Senator Carroll from Iowa, and it mentioned something about him being a universal blood donor. Group O. On the day he was killed, Pat or Kristi saw Dex and Lynch having a discussion about a magazine. They didn't hear what was said, but I would say it's a fair bet it was about Lynch's father. Dex could well have seen Lynch's dogtags at some time around the clinic. And Lynch was all out of sorts after that and took off early. He could have lain in wait for Dex."
Mike weighed this statement as he viewed the reflection of the Evening Star on the side of the glass in his hand. "Pretty circumstantial," he said at last. "Wouldn't stand up in court if that's all you've got."
"But it gives a motive," I insisted. "His cousin never got his share of the family trust because he was adopted: Lynch is used to having money and it might well have gone away if the senator was shown not to be his father.
"Means, motive and opportunity," I added.
"You need more for a motive. Everybody who knows Lynch could have read the article but, as far as we know, none of them has shuffled off this mortal coil. That's what I'd tell a jury if I were defending Lynch."
"Yeah, but how many knew what blood group Lynch was? Do you know what blood group Matt is? Sure as shit I couldn't tell you what Rob's blood group is.
"And, even if they did know," I pressed on, "would they have realized it meant Lynch couldn't be his father's son?
"And guess what," I continued when Mike remained silent. "The day after Dex died, the Newsweek wasn't in the clinic's lounge."
But even this evidence did not move Mike's position.
My work schedule helped to take my mind off the issues of blood groups and lineage, but it also precluded garage work and it took another two weeks to get the Honda in running condition. Kyle had been coming over to help whenever he was off duty and, when I broached the subject of Lynch's possible motive and involvement, he gave my idea more consideration than my partner had done.
"Maybe the local guys should pay him a visit and see what he says he was doing that night," he said. "Ask him about an alibi."
We discussed the pros and cons for a while and then, after we had wrung that dry and I was cleaning up the CBR's refurbished paint job, he asked if he could take it for a ride. I assented readily, glad to get another opinion of the rebuilt bike's handling. "What do you reckon you'll get for it?" he asked as he took my helmet off his head fifteen minutes later.
"I dunno. I was going to suggest that Pat ask for five, and accept four-four. If we don't get it I'll take it up to Atlanta and put it on consignment. We should get over $4K for it."
There was, it transpired, a reason for the query.
"Hey, Chris." Pat's voice came from my iPhone the following evening. "That new cop in town wants to know if I'll take $4,500 for the Honda. Is that a reasonable offer?"
"Probably. You may get higher if you hang out for a bit, but then you're going to have the hassle of storing it and showing it. At least Kyle is going to be around for a while. And he's helped me work on the bike, so he knows what he's getting, and won't come back whining about something or other not being right."
"OK. Makes sense. I think I'll let him have it if you say the price is fair.
"So are you and the mighty Mike doing anything this weekend?" he asked, and when I replied in the negative he went on, "Kristi and I are having a party and we wondered if y'all'd like to come. A paltry bit of a thank you for helping us with Dex's bike."
"OK, thanks. We'd like that. Ummm...how'd you feel about extending the invitation to Kyle? He's trying to meet new people down here."
And so, four days later Kyle, Mike and I arrived at the condos where Pat lived. The front door was open and we edged our way through to the kitchen where Kristi and a couple of other folk were setting out food. "Hi, Mike. Hi, Chris," she said. "Wow, you guys are really good guests!" I passed over a tray of mussels and a salad while Mike set down a cooler.
"There's beer, some wine, and some kebabs," he told her. "The little Tupper jug has some vinaigrette for the salad."
"Guys, guys! You didn't have to do all this!" Pat said coming into the kitchen.
"Hey, no sweat. Appreciate the invitation." I assured him. "D'you know Kyle? Kyle, Pat: Pat, Kyle," I completed the introduction as Kyle handed over a large tray of warm Thai chicken wings.
With beers in hand we followed our host out to the back deck which led to a small yard that abutted the narrow beach where two grills were set up and a small bonfire served as the focal point for small groups of people. Pat whisked through the names, none of which stuck in my memory, and left us to mingle. Food and alcohol, however, are good ice-breakers and it was a jolly group who an hour or more later wended its way with laden plates to the chairs and beach-blankets on the shore.
With thirst and hunger sated, we sat watching the sparks from the burning logs spiral upwards to the thin crescent of a very new moon. As in all such gatherings, the conversation gravitated toward the talk of work and, on hearing I had worked on Dex's Honda, there was a period of more somber talk about his time at the clinic.
"All's I know," a guy name Dominic commented, "was he probably saved Royce's leg with his lightning-quick response to that chainsaw accident."
"Leg? Life's more like it. Royce was hemorrhaging a fountain," a girl whom I remembered as Ginger, because of her red hair, responded.
"Were you there?" Another girl asked. "I was on vacation, and when I came back Dex had died and no-one really wanted to talk about anything."
"Oh yes," Ginger said. "I was there. Too much there: I could hardly sleep for a week. Kept on dreaming of Dex with his whole arm and chest covered in Royce's blood."
"What happened? Someone said Royce dropped the chainsaw on himself or something?"
"No. He was cutting off a branch from one of those oaks. Didn't seem to be a big deal, but when he cut through it got caught in some Spanish Moss so, instead of dropping, it swung. Away from Royce initially, but then some of the moss gave way and it came swinging back and turning. Royce tried to move out the way but he tripped and fell backwards. The chainsaw hit his leg while it was still running.
"He didn't scream or anything. Just lay there.
"Dex and I and some of the other nurses were out on the porch having a Coke. Dex just took off, jumped right down the stairs and was running to Royce. Someone shouted to tell a doctor and a few of us started to run to help. His pants were all red and Dex was trying to apply pressure on the groin to stop the blood. As I got there he yelled at me to get him the knife hanging in a leather pouch thingy on Royce's belt. It was one of those knives with a broad curved blade, you know?"
"Pruning knife," someone interjected.
"Yeah," Ginger said. "Pruning knife. Dex took it and, like with one or two slices, cut right through the overalls and shorts so he could see the leg. Geez, it was a huge wound and the blood was pumping out. It wasn't stopping even when Dex put pressure above it in the groin, so he reached into the gash with his fingers and pressed right on the femoral. That's what stopped the surges." She took a large sip of her drink.
"Pretty sharp thinking," Dominic said.
Ginger looked at him. "Dex was so in control. Dex was always in control. No panic. He just turned his head to Audrey and said `We need air evac. Get it now.' Then he told Vickie to get Royce's records and get the blood data and allergies so we could pass it on to the paramedics. We couldn't have had a better guy there: icy cool, dead steady nerves. When Dr. Baisden came up, Dex gave him the whole run-down of Royce's condition and what he'd done, but he never took his hand out of the gash until the paramedics were there and had Royce all hooked up to fluids."
"And then Dex himself was dead a couple of hours later," someone mused.
"Yeah. I think now we perhaps shouldn't have let him go out. I would have said something if I had known about the fight he had with Hespin. But Dex seemed OK. Maybe a little quieter, but then we were all a bit stunned so that didn't seem too unusual. I think the two things together were just too much."
"Who is Royce?" I asked when the talk stopped.
"Royce? Dr. Kimberlin's brother. He lived at the clinic but he isn't a doctor. He used to work in the garden a lot: sort of a hobby for him."
"Kimberlin?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah. Sorry. Dr. Kimberlin owns the clinic. His father had it before he died. Dr. Kimberlin and his brother inherited it."
"You know, I never understood Royce," said Dominic. "I mean the guy isn't stupid, but what does he do? Nothing really. Messes about in the garden; reads a lot; hardly ever goes out other than to walk his dog every evening. Kimberlin doesn't seem to discuss the hospital with him. Doesn't seem to talk to him much at all. Royce makes a token appearance at the board meetings, and that's it."
"But, you know, for all their attitude, Dr. Kimberlin was genuinely worried about Royce after he'd been taken by the paramedics in the chopper. He tore out of the place like a mad man to get to him," someone remarked.
"And what's with the tattoo that Royce has on his stomach?" Ginger chimed in. "It's weird!" She looked at me, and added, "Underneath his belly button, just above his belt-line. A whole lot of Asian characters."
"You're not going to believe it," another of the group said. "I asked Quang about the signs and he said they say something like `my lover'."
"Oh, why do some guys think they're God's gift to women? Told you he's weird."
"No, seriously," Kristi said pulling her iPhone from the pocket of her jeans. "This was at the Memorial Day party in May." She passed the phone to me with a picture on the screen. "Royce in his Speedo – he's not even got a good bod – displaying his tattoo and making as though every girl there should be impressed."
"I think Royce's got some mental issue," one of the guys said as I handed the phone back. "I think Kimberlin's got him on heavy meds. When he first came to the clinic you could call him and he wouldn't even hear you. Like his mind was a thousand miles away. That's gotten better, though, so I think meds."
"Perhaps," Dominic assented, "Because he's got his wits about him when you speak to him now. He reads the New York Times and the Savannah and Charlotte papers. He knows current affairs and what's going on. Doesn't have the symptoms of a whacko."
"Hey, people: this is a party. No more talking shop." Pat came up to us, glass in one hand, bottle in the other. And so the conversation moved on to other topics. The weather held out for us, pleasant enough to sit around the fire on the beach with a sweatshirt on. Beer and wine flowed as did the discourse. As the collection of empty bottles grew in the recycling bin, the intellectuality of conversation descended until, after an hour or so, the topic was baseball and my body decided I needed to stretch. I refilled my glass with Argentinian Malbec and headed down to the water's edge. I had noticed Lynch, who had seemed to be having a good time earlier, had fallen quiet during the talk about Dex, and I was pondering that as I walked toward the gentle tumbling sound of the waves.
"Hey, Chris?" The voice startled me and I turned, recognizing more by his voice than what I could see, the subject of my thoughts standing next to me.
"Hey," I said.
"I think you and I need to have a little talk. Maybe clear a few things up a bit."
"Sure. What's going on?" I asked, walking slowly toward the firmer sand.
I had not actually been avoiding Lynch during the evening, in fact a couple of times I had joined clusters of people where he had been chatting, but there had not been any opportunity for one-on-one talk. Now, with red wine influencing my brain, I stepped further away from the party and lights to walk towards the water marked only by the reflection of starlight on the foam.
"So," Lynch asked when we reached the waterline, "what do you want to know?"
"About what?" I said, not quite sure what he was after.
"One of the local cops came around a couple of days back and mentioned there were some people talking about the day Dex died and hinting that he and I had had some issue about an article in a magazine."
It now began to occur to me that I was alone on a dark beach with a guy whom I believed had already engineered one death and I began to consider seriously that, very possibly, I could become the second. I tensed my legs and half turned, poised to run, but realized Lynch was probably fitter, and definitely stronger, than I, and could very probably outpace me. I tried to stay composed, replying as evenly as my tensed vocal chords would allow, "And did you?"
There was a significant pause, and then he said, "More or less."
"More `more' or more `less'?"
He didn't reply for several seconds. "More `more'." He turned toward me, but I could make out only the general shapes of his face. "Chris, it was a big shock to me. I had found out only when I joined the Navy and they typed my blood. The medic told me I was a universal recipient. Didn't think too much about it. On one of my shore leaves my parents were looking at my dog tags and dad brought his old tags out. I had done a bit of reading on the Internet about blood types when I found out about mine and I remembered an O-group parent couldn't have an AB kid.
"Know what my first thought was?" he asked rhetorically and continued without waiting for a reply, "My first conclusion was my mom had had an affair. Let me tell you that really trashed my leave. I tried to act normal but I guess it must have showed: on my last morning, while I was packing, my mom came into my room and asked me what was troubling me. I broke down and told her what I knew. She burst out laughing, which was not at all the reaction I had been anticipating. She called my dad and we had this big family talk. My dad had a low semen count – it was nigh on impossible for him to father a child – but they wanted a kid real bad, so they discretely advertised for a sperm donor.
"They never told the family. Never in all the years gave a hint to me. No-one knew. I mean who the fuck asks people about their blood group?
"But then the board of trustees determined my cousin couldn't get his share of the inheritance because he was adopted, and I got worried. Yeah, I know. You can say I'm shallow and think only about money. Possibly. Yeah, maybe in that way I am. But it's hard when you've been brought up hearing about this golden key to your freedom and, when eventually it's at the very tips of your fingers, you see it being taken away. I spoke to my dad about it, though, and he said I shouldn't say anything to anyone. Unlike my uncle who had adopted a baby from a totally different couple, my dad said he had done everything a normal father would have done. He had been with my mother when the donated semen had been implanted, he had taken care of her through the pregnancy, he had been with her at my birth and had been the first non-medical person to hold me.
"And then, here I am, and out of the blue Dex went and joined the dots." He bent down, picked up a stone or a shell and hurled it out toward the trawler lights that seemed to hang in the dark sky.
"And you thought he might spill the beans – or maybe blackmail you?" I asked
There was a long pause. Lynch hurled another shell seaward. "I guess that's what you would think," he said. "No, I never thought Dex would blackmail me: he seemed too much of a straight-shooter for that. No, it wasn't blackmail, it was that I just saw the whole ball of twine unraveling. The whole family fighting again; both political parties slinging mud; the endless harassment by press reporters digging through every penny I spent." He turned and put both hands on my shoulders. "Fuck, Chris you have no idea what it's like to be a Senator's ki... "
From the dunes behind us came a cry, "Chris!" which was cut off by a yell. Another shout and two voices confused together.
"What the fuck?" Lynch said letting go of me and spinning around.
"There's somebody in the dunes," I said, in my mental disorientation ridiculously stating the obvious. I began to walk toward the muffled talk. "Who's there?"
"Don't worry," came Mike's voice. "It's Kyle and me."
"What the fuck is going on?" Lynch said. A tone of anger came into his voice. "Are you guys spying on me or something?"
"No," said Kyle. "I'm not spying on anyone. I saw you leave the party with Chris. I didn't know what was going on or where you were going. I ran down the road and was walking back up behind the dunes looking for you. I couldn't see you at all and then all of a sudden I hear this shout right near me and Mike leaps on top of me."
"What were you doing in the dunes?" I asked Mike.
"I suddenly missed you at the party. I had just come back from the head so I knew you weren't there, then someone said they thought you had walked down the beach so I came after you. Just when I saw you down at the waves, I saw Kyle put his hands onto you. I could barely see you – just a silhouette against the foam – but I thought his hands were around your neck. I called and started to run, but Kyle stood up right in front of me and I ran into him."
"You thought I was..." Lynch blurted out. "Guys, are you all fucking stoned or something? I don't do that kind of shit. I didn't kill Dex, and I never even thought of hurting Chris. I just wanted him to know what happened and to stop him prying into what I had been doing.
"That's it. I'm outta here," he said, turning back to the distant lights. "You guys are way too weird."
"No, c'mon, Lynch," I said, grabbing his sweatshirt. "We'll all go back together. But I need to know something: how did things end with you and Dex? Was there any reason for him to be upset or preoccupied by what you had discussed?"
"Chris, it was nothing," Lynch stopped in his tracks and turned to me. "At first he had thought my father was lying about being a universal donor. He thought it was just politician talk. But when I told him where I stood, he backed down and said he wouldn't say anything about it to anyone else. He was cool about it. Honest."
"And you were cool about it, too?"
"Yes I was. At least as far as Dex was concerned. I was worried someone else, particularly someone in the press, might make the connection."
"But you still wore your dogtags when you came to help with the bike," Mike said.
"Yeah. It's kind of a habit. But I never thought I was going to have to take my shirt off, and when I did I forgot the tags."
"Is there any way you could show you weren't in the vicinity at the time Dex crashed?" asked Kyle, ever the eager new cop.
"Oh fuck! See: this is what I meant about being hassled. Geez, Kyle, I don't know. Nothing stands out: it was a long time ago. If push comes to shove maybe I could see if I made any cell phone calls either on my way home or right when I got home. I think I read the cell phone companies can tell which towers picked up the call."
"Let's get back to the party," I said. "If you didn't do it, who else had any motive?" I asked almost rhetorically after a while.
"Chris, I swear, when I left the clinic Dex was still there. I never saw him again, or his bike, until I picked it up with you."
We walked together in silence. As we came up to the group by the condo Pat was standing at the table getting some dessert. Looking up and seeing the four of us walking up, he did a double take and then, as a broad grin spread across his face he wagged his finger at us. "Lynch, is there something you want to tell me?"
Lynch did not catch the meaning and gave him a blank look. "No," I said emphatically. "It's nothing. We just had some stuff to talk about."
The penny dropped and Lynch gave him a hard look. "You are dead meat, buddy."
It was after midnight when the first guest got up to leave. "I'd better be going," she said. "They've got Sue Hobbs scheduled to be cut tomorrow at 9, so I'd better get some shut-eye. I hate these Sunday things: they wreck the whole day, but it fits her schedule and it's overtime for me."
After most of the guests had left, a few of us stayed on to help clean up, and it was two o'clock when we got up from an absolutely-bloody-final drink to head home. "Good thing it's Sunday tomorrow," I said as I put my wine glass on the counter.
"Too true," agreed Lynch, draining the last cognac from a snifter and setting it next to my glass.
"Good party, Pat" Kyle said as he slid into the Mustang. "I had a good time. Thanks for the invitation."
"Sure. Nice meeting you. Glad you could come. Drive safely." He turned to Lynch who was loading a large cooler into the rear seat of the Camaro. "Need some help there, buddy?"
"Naah. I'll be fine."
"Nice car," commented Mike walking up to it and peering in. "I think Chevy did a good job of keeping a link to the old Camaro style without being really retro. What's the transmission?"
"Six speed," said Lynch as he secured the cooler with the seatbelt. "Real smooth shift." He pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his head as he moved behind the wheel of the convertible.
"Sorry about the beach thing," said Mike leaning on the sill.
"Don't sweat it. Everyone does dumb shit sometimes." As Mike moved away I wondered what the dumb shit was that Lynch referred to: Mike and Kyle running across the beach or Lynch putting his hands on me on a dark beach. I watched Lynch do a quick K-turn as Kyle's Mustang reached the intersection and turned. He pulled off sharply, the tires screeching, but then the brake lights came on and he slowed down. `Yeah, Cop!" I thought, "It was a good party, but don't be setting a bad example to the rest of us."
With the Honda gone from my garage to live with Kyle, I began clearing up all the cardboard packaging and collecting the sales slips from the various parts to account for my expenses. In this rummaging around I came across the box of Dex's effects which we had brought back from the State Police and which I had forgotten to carry over to Pat's. On a whim I opened it and pulled out the police inventory of its contents. What I was looking for was not there. I tipped the box's contents onto a clean area of the floor and pawed through them. There was no cell phone. I lifted the muddied jeans and patted down each pocket but they contained nothing. The pockets of the blue and white leather jacket were likewise empty.
No cell phone: curiouser and curiouser.
Everything else seemed to be present: Dex's wallet appeared intact with his cards and about twenty bucks, and his watch was still telling the correct time. A manila folder held the medical report of the cause of death. It was brief. Some of the terms I could not understand but I got the gist. Dex's neck had been broken. No other injuries had been observed. No traces of alcohol or narcotics had been found. On the folder a Post-It note with a woman's name and an address in Oklahoma had been stuck and I guessed it was Dex's mother. I placed the leather gloves on top of the report in the box, folded the jeans and jacket and returned them.
I was puzzled. Why had the bike been in neutral? And why had the cellphone disappeared?
I discussed this with Mike over dinner, but his comments did not get me any further forward. "There simply isn't enough real evidence," he said. "You admit it is a possibility, however remote, the guy put his bike in neutral or, a more likely theory, that it happened with the bike tumbling during the crash. And the cell phone could have been left at the scene of the accident and taken by a passerby; it could have fallen out of his pocket on the ride before the accident. Look, even Pat isn't curious about the phone call: he's got a good reason for the patient not being operated on. Anyway, the patient is alive and quite capable of telling the whole world if he had a problem, so killing the messenger wouldn't really help the clinic: they would have had to kill the patient, too."
From a legal point of view I had to concede what Mike said made sense. But still I was uneasy.
The next day after work I called Pat. "Who is the executor of Dex's estate?" I asked.
"His Mom. Why?"
Ignoring the question I continued, "What is happening to his mail, do you know?"
"I think it's being redirected by the post office. I went round to his place the other day and collected what had already been delivered, and I've got a few things that came to the clinic. I'm going to put them all in a big envelope and send them on to her this weekend."
"Is there a phone bill?" I asked.
"Er, maybe. Yeah. Yeah, I think there is. Why?"
"I want to have a look at it."
"Dude, no way! You can't do that – it's like tampering with the mail."
"Yeah, I know. But it may be important." I went on to tell him my suspicions.
"Look, someone took his cell phone. That means the phone probably had some relevance to Dex dying. Pat, Dex's phone records are of no personal advantage to me: it's only in respect to who he spoke to on that last day."
Reluctantly Pat eventually gave in, and I rode over to get the bill. "You know," he said when I got there, "there was something that may have been strange. When I went around to his apartment to get the mail I had to call in at the building-manager's office to get the mailbox key. The woman there told me someone from the clinic had come round a few days earlier to collect Dex's mail. I didn't think too much of it: the clinic might have thought they were helping. But when I got the box open it was stuffed full with mail. Letters from at least a week before were still there. So if someone had come just a few days before, why hadn't they taken it? I didn't cotton on at the time: I just thought they'd taken the important mail and left the junk stuff. But when I went to get the phone bill I saw there was a letter from the IRS there, too. That'd be important, don't ya think? So, who knows? Maybe someone else was looking for the phone bill, too, but it hadn't arrived when they were there."
He handed me the bill in its AT&T envelope. I slid my finger under the fold and tore it open. "Holy shit, dude," Pat cried in alarm, grabbing my wrist, "I thought you would steam it open or something. Now she'll know we opened it."
"Relax, Pat. Nobody pays any attention to the envelope. At most they look at the return address or the logo. It's a standard window envelope: I can print one up on my PC with the AT&T meat-ball thingy on the front." I pulled the bill, return envelope and advertising sheets out. Spreading the statement out on his table I ran down the columns until I came to the bottom. The last call he had made had, indeed, been to Pat – I recognized the number – but before then he had made only one call on that day. "Know whose number this is?" I asked Pat pointing to it.
He looked at the sheet in my hand. "Nope. But see, he called it the evening before, too," he slid his finger up the list, then picked up the other sheets. "Never called it before in this month, though."
"OK," I said and, carefully folding the bill along its original creases I pushed it back into the envelope and into my pocket. I had intended doing a reverse lookup from my iPhone, but with the knowledge I might not get all the results I needed, I pulled into the lot of the 7-11 and bought a prepaid disposable phone. Once at home I unpacked it and, after giving it a few hours of charge, I turned to the bill again, took a deep breath and dialed the number.
It rang twice before an automated voice replied: "You have reached the call-answering service for Dr. Howard Hespin. If this is a life threatening emergency..." I clicked the off button and called Pat back.
"Hey, Pat, isn't Dr. Howard Hespin the guy Dex had words with at the clinic."
"Oh, shit!" he said. "I kinda had my suspicions Hespin might be who Dex had called."
"Man, I need to tell you some behind-closed-door shit. There's something you need to know, but I don't want it all over the island. Can I come round?"
Fifteen minutes later I heard the distinctive sound of the VW engine outside and I went to the door to let Pat in.
"Look," he said as he, Mike and I sat around the table, "you cannot repeat this – to anyone, ever. We have strict gag orders in place and if you say anything they'll know it was me who told you.
"Hespin messed up Chuck Gallant's operation. They were doing some liposuction and they cut too many blood vessels, so some of the tissue wasn't getting enough blood and it died. It's called necrotic tissue. When that happens it's important they go in again and cut it away, otherwise you can have a really bad infection. Dex had seen it before, and when he thought he saw this happening to Gallant he spoke to Hespin. Hespin had initially agreed with him and scheduled the operation, but then the incision started to drain this kinda dark yellow fluid and Hespin assumed only the fat was necrotic and another op wouldn't be necessary: the fat would drain out. But when Dex came in and found out no op was scheduled he got all bent out of shape. And it seems like he was right: eventually the necrotic tissue began to appear around the incision and now there's a big scar. The shit is really hitting the fan.
"There was a group of guys in dark suits at the clinic today talking with Kimberlin. I think Hespin and the clinic are in for a big lawsuit."
"Was Dex a threat to this Hespin guy in any way?"
"Some people could see it that way. Dex had seen the symptoms, drawn Hespin's attention to them, and suggested a course of action. In hindsight, Dex was proved right."
"But at the time he may not have been?" I asked.
Pat shrugged. "I reckon most doctors would have operated then and there. But then most doctors aren't dealing with film stars who run around the screen half naked and don't want any scar that shows. A second op would definitely have left a scar – although nowhere as bad as what he's got now."
He turned to me, leaning his elbow on the table. "You see, that's what I don't think Dex really grasped. Dex was one hundred percent a nurse: the patient's well-being was paramount. He may not have realized, he may not have thought about the doctor having a different view of things. Hespin had consulted with Gallant, he knew what Gallant's priorities were, and he – I mean Hespin – might have considered that Gallant would prefer to take the risk, especially when it seemed only the fat was dead."
"And Dex was angry when he found out Hespin hadn't operated?"
"Uh-huh," Pat nodded. "They had a bit of a set-to that afternoon, I heard."
"Do you think Dex was going to take things further?"
Pat looked down at the table top. "Yeah, I think he was going to," he said eventually. "I think that was what he wanted to tell me."
"You think that was what he was calling you about?"
"I'm pretty sure. What else? I mean with what he said about him not being operated on and all. I reckon he wanted to talk about going to Kimberlin."
"Why didn't he go straight to Kimberlin then? Surely time was of the essence?" I asked.
"Kimberlin had run off to the hospital where his brother had gone because of the leg gash."
"So... Hespin would have had just that one night to stop Dex from talking?"
Pat nodded slowly without saying anything.
"So what do you think?" I asked Mike an hour later, after Pat had left.
"I think you're coming down to our office, and I'm going to get Don or maybe Hugh Pease to come in and then you and they are going to tell the police what your suspicions are."
"Why don't you come with me?"
"This is more than a speeding ticket. You need a disinterested mind handling your interests."
The clock on the old Glynn County courthouse showed ten minutes to ten as I rode past and pulled up outside the offices of Assmussen and Watkins. A tad early for my ten o'clock meeting, I sat astride my bike outside checking my iPhone before setting it to silent mode and going in to talk with Don. There was one missed call – from Pat. "Hey, Chris," as I clicked the voicemail icon his voice came over my voicemail very quiet and subdued. "Seems like once again you were right. Hespin OD'd in his office last night. Left a note. It's all out. Call me."
I felt dejected as the secretary ushered me into Don's office.
"Hey, Chris!" Don said, "What's going on, man? You look down."
I pulled out a chair, sat down, and told him about Pat's call. We ran through what the import of this information was and then I called Pat back and, setting the phone on the desk between Don and me, set it to speaker mode. Pat was uncharacteristically subdued. Apparently a nurse preparing for the day's routine had discovered Dr. Hespin slumped over his desk. She had sounded the alarm but he was very clearly beyond revival. His case notes were up to date and neatly arranged next to him. On top a letter addressed to Dr. Conrad Kimberlin lay, typewritten but with signature and date in fountain pen ink. Pat's voice came out of the iPhone in almost a monotone. "Seems like Hespin's been hitting the bottle lately. He messed up the operation and says the booze affected his judgment. Apparently Dex suspected something and said he was going to report him. Seems like Hespin went after Dex in his car to try to talk him out of saying anything. His note says when Dex saw him he speeded up and lost control, drove into the wooded part next to the road, his head hit a branch and crashed. By the time Hespin got to him he was already dead. According to his note he turned the motorcycle off, but then thought things were going to look real bad for him if it came out he had been chasing Dex, so he panicked and drove off back to the clinic without calling the police."
I felt numb. How sure had Hespin been Dex was dead? Had he left a living person alone to die of untreated injuries? Or had he silenced Dex as he lay there?
Don asked Pat a few questions of clarification and, after the call was over, he and I discussed what I knew and eventually came to the conclusion we should just sit tight for the present and see what transpired.
I did not feel elated by having my theories confirmed. It explained why Dex had called Pat. Probably, as Pat had surmised, to ask him who to tell or even if he should tell. But Hespin's death wasn't going to bring Dex back. All we had now was one more person dead – and unable to answer questions.
The following day I awoke dispirited. I tried to immerse myself in my coding and testing, but my mind kept on drifting inexorably back to Dex. I had never met him, only knew his visage through photographs, yet when I had had his Honda in the garage I had begun to feel some ethereal link building between me and its rider. The way a guy maintains his bike gives hints to his character: in Dex's case the careful filling and painting of some previous road rash, the safety wires with their even twists securing the brake components, the tires with good tread, all intimated a person of meticulous habits, a guy who might push the envelope but would try to stack the deck in his favor. His handling of the chainsaw wound related by his colleagues seemed to jibe with this picture, too. In my mind I tried to visualize him leaping down the stairs, summing up the damage the saw had inflicted, cutting the guy's clothes off with a knife – lucky he hadn't castrated him I thought wryly. And then something clicked in my mind. I stopped for a full minute to think more clearly and then grabbed my phone.
"Pat," I asked when I heard his voice, "I want you to think real, real clearly. Can you remember word-for-word what Dex said on the call you missed?"
"Jeez, I dunno. Why?"
"Something someone said at your party the other night made me think maybe we got the whole story wrong."
"I just don't know. About the story being wrong, I mean. Everything you had told me pretty much fitted into everything we know has happened. Dex cornered Hespin and Hespin snapped."
"Maybe, maybe not. I really don't know either. But can you remember the call?"
"Well, I dunno what Dex said exactly. It was about Chuck Gallant not having been operated on. Seems in retrospect he was right, although, at the time, Hespin thought it was overreaction. Dex was a purist: there was only one way of doing anything. I think it was only natural that, after handling the chainsaw accident, Dex was full of adrenaline."
"Did he mention Chuck Gallant by name?"
"Shit, I don't know. Maybe. No. I dunno. Maybe he said his patient. But Chuck was his only patient that day, so it makes no difference."
"But he had just finished with that other guy's leg wound. Royce or something. Maybe that is who he was talking about."
"But he wouldn't have known whether Royce had been operated on or not. Or even if he needed surgery. Look, Chris, I know you saved my ass when I was in jail and I appreciate it more than you'll ever know. But I really can't talk to you about the clinic and the patients. We've all just had a big lecture on the non-disclosure clause in our contracts. I think there's a law-suit going on. Dex shouldn't have phoned me: he wasn't supposed to have his cell-phone on him in the clinic: it should have been in his locker. Kimberlin saw him. If he hadn't just done Superman stuff with Royce he'd have been in shit street."
And so I backed off, but I thought about what Pat had told me as I settled back to my airplane programs, and that night, sitting out on the deck with a glass of Chianti, I discussed it with Mike.
"You know your brain isn't wired right, don't you?" he said calmly. "Nobody else could make this picture up from what you see – or hear."
"But you agree it's a workable theory, right?"
He scrunched up his nose. "Umm... A bit tenuous. Too many ifs: if he said this, if it had meant that, if he had seen this. A jury wouldn't buy it."
"OK. Maybe I need some backup evidence. But if I get it... ?"
"If you get more facts, and if you don't have to force them to fit, then you may have something, but I can't really see why people would do whatever you think they're doing."
"I don't really know what they're doing either, but OK. I'll see what I can do about facts."
My work kept me busy the following day and, although I was intrigued by the Dex problem, it was late at night after Mike had gone to bed before I had time to Google the clinic and the brothers Kimberlin. Or rather one brother. Dr. Conrad Kimberlin featured prominently along with the clinic which sated the thirst of the rich and famous for everlasting glamour. What caught my eye, however, was, although his qualifications stated he had been in practice for 29 years, the high profile cases and the clinic were all from the last two. Of Royce Kimberlin there were only sparse hits and those related almost exclusively to his service in Vietnam.
But when I dropped the words `Lake Pomona Ranch' from the Google search, a few entries I had not seen before began to spring onto the screen. Originally the name had been The Savannah Reconstruction Clinic and generic plastic surgery was performed there. Not much was said about the facility, most entries were about the surgeon, Rupert Kimberlin, who worked there and referred to papers he had presented in the US and Europe on reconstruction of the face, arms and hands.
I dug deeper, and from multiple Google hits I built up a collage which started to metamorphose into a pointillistic picture in my head. In 1945 Rupert Kimberlin had returned from the war in the Pacific with vivid memories of the horrors he had seen as a Marine medic. The GI Bill paved his way through medical school and in 1956 he had begun specializing in plastic surgery and he worked a lot with disfigured servicemen. In 1965 he said good bye to his oldest son, Royce, who, following in his father's footsteps, had volunteered as a medical corpsman and headed off to Vietnam. His heart was as heavy three years later, but for a different reason, when his youngest son, Conrad, wrote to him from Canada saying he would not obey his draft orders.
Branching out into the family I delved further. Royce grew up fast in the Marines. In the alma mater section of the high school paper a friend of Royce's had quoted a letter he had received from him. "We go everywhere the platoon or group goes. We're out there in the bush or the trees or the swamps with a pack that weighs 70lbs, filled with battle-dressings and gauze, morphine and syringes. I carry a 9mm, just in case... There was this guy Kenny: he and I had become good buddies. This one night we were out on patrol. Kenny was to my right and a little behind me. It was very quiet. We'd move forward a bit, then stop and listen. Just before we were to turn back, there was a burst of gunfire and we hit the ground, trying to force ourselves into it. I heard Kenny kind of making a low whimpering noise. I called out softly to him but he didn't answer. There hadn't been any gunfire since the first shots, so I leopard-crawled toward him. He had taken the shot in the chest and was bleeding badly – both from the wound and from his mouth. I got a syrette into his arm, dumped morphine into him and got a battle dressing onto his wound, but the blood still flowed from his mouth. It took a long time – I mean maybe ten minutes, but that's a long time when you're out in the dark on patrol – for him to die. I held him the whole time. If you want to know, I didn't feel anything when he died. Next day it hit me hard, though: I was going to pieces. Sergeant Jordan asked me what was wrong and I told him it was about Kenny. He hauled me aside and held me against the wall of a hut with one hand on my chest. `You'd better get this into your thick skull,' he said, `or you're not going to survive out here. Better him than you.' I understand that now. I believe it. And I'm scared-as-hell when I come back from the war I am going to be a very different guy from who I was when I left."
From hits on varied web sites here and there and from tit-bits in small-town newspapers I was able to come up with a crude timeline. When his first thirteen-month tour came to an end Royce was based at Camp Lejeune, not too far from his home. Six months later, towards the end of July 1967, he was transferred to Vietnam for his second tour. He came out as an E-5, with a Bronze Star from Dak To and a Purple Heart. Other than a wound from a bullet that passed through his upper arm, the war had left him physically unscathed, but perhaps not mentally. There were few references to him in the public domain. Of those that did exist, almost all involved letters to editors on behalf of the treatment of veterans injured in the Vietnam conflict. The last entry was a brief reference to him having been taken to a hospital from being injured by police in Portland, Oregon, at an anti-Iraq-War protest in March 2003.
That was about it for Royce.
His father, Rupert, had died in 2007. In the two years after his death the clinic, under Conrad's guidance, had converted to one of the physician-owned hospitals and had seen its prominence and profits increase as more and more wealthy people had chosen it for their cosmetic treatments.
The picture wouldn't come into focus – my subconscious was ill at ease but I could not say why. I felt, somehow, the key to the puzzle lay with Royce.
I changed tack, working back from him to his army service and platoon until, on one of the Veterans' sites, I found a link to a man who lived just south of Jacksonville Florida, a couple of hours ride from Kirkhall.
Bill Harrell was not a great talker on the phone, especially at nine in the morning, and I got little more than he had been in Vietnam with Royce Kimberlin and had not seen much of him in the past ten years. Harrell now lived on a small plot of land, making a living selling bait and fishing tackle to tourists. Eventually, after trying every tactic I knew, I asked, "Mr. Harrell, could I come down and talk to you next weekend?"
"I'll be in the shop. Man's gotta work. But you can come and talk. That's the great thing about the United States, you can talk to anyone you want to. It's a free country thanks to the boys who put on a uniform."
"What's the address of your shop, sir?"
Came Saturday and, with PC in my backpack and the tank bag holding my rain gear, I pointed the front wheel of my Ninja toward Florida. I was in Jacksonville by 1:30 and killed time eating a sub at a fast-food joint. At 2:55 I parked in front of the bait shop off Florida Rt A1A.
I pulled my helmet off and ruffled my hair into a casual mess as I mounted the steps to the porch whose sun- and salt-bleached planks creaked under my boots. A little bell tinkled as I pushed the green, wooden door open and stepped inside, past the sign reminding customers to order fresh bait the day before their fishing trip. The first thing that struck me was the burst of color: everything someone headed out onto the water needed, it seemed, came either in bright pigments or was displayed in packaging of garish hues. Even the blades on the kayak paddles were formed from neon-orange plastic. I drew a large breath of the air, heavy with the odors of fish, into my lungs, then walked past the rack of Kunnan rods, past the fridge, adorned with the incongruous juxtaposition of a Budweiser advertisement and a large sign which advised me to 'Boat safe. Boat sober', toward the back of the store. Behind a wooden counter a man whose white hair topped a face that appeared to be covered with football leather, paused from packing merchandise on a shelf to look at me.
"Mr. Harrell? I'm Chris Lawrence. We spoke the other day on the phone."
"Yes I remember. About Royce Kimberlin. Told you, I haven't seen him in more'n ten years." He resumed the pushing of boxes onto the shelf without looking at me.
"I'm kinda more interested in his days in Vietnam."
"You're forty years too late," he said without turning around. "Nobody wanted to talk to us when we came home then. That's when we needed to talk. That's when it might have helped us. Now you think you can make money writing stories for magazines so guys who never put on a uniform can think they know what it was like. Well we don't need them and we don't need you."
"I'm not writing for a magazine," I said. "I'm trying to figure out why a guy died a few months back."
"Royce?" He swiveled around to look at me.
"No. A guy who worked for him."
"What's Royce doing these days?"
"He and his brother run a clinic. The clinic was their father's – it stays in the family. Royce doesn't seem to do too much of anything, just lives there and sits on the board because he's family."
"I can't see Royce not helping in a hospital." He went back to arranging boxes on the shelf.
"It's not a hospital. It's a clinic. Where rich folk go get to be made better looking."
"Poor bastard. No wonder he does nothing. A fucking waste." I wasn't sure what was a waste but didn't ask: better to stay silent, as they say, and let people think you a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Nothing was said for about a minute. It was getting warm in the shop and I set my PC bag down and took off my jacket.
"One of the nurses. A friend of a friend. He crashed his motorcycle after leaving work."
"Guys ride too fast. Get those Jap sissy bikes and tear around the streets. What's that got to do with Royce?"
"Before the motorcyclist died, maybe two hours or so before he died, Royce had an accident with a chain saw. That nurse probably saved his life: Royce was bleeding badly."
"So how could Royce have killed him?"
"I didn't say Royce killed him. Sometime between Royce's accident and the guy dying, that nurse found out something he shouldn't have. I don't know what it was. The nurse tried to call my friend, but he didn't pick up. By the time the nurse died my friend had deleted the message, and I've only got what he thought he heard."
"Did you know the guy who died?"
"No. I didn't"
"So what business is it of yours, Christopher? What do you want meddling with Royce?"
I was getting the feeling I was being mind-fucked and I began to take a dislike to Harrell. "Because he was a motorcyclist, like I am. I don't think he was in an accident: he was too good a rider, from what I hear. I don't want to see the life of a guy like that discarded just because, in your opinion, he rides a sissy Jap bike.
"And by the way, the name's Christian not Christopher."
Harrell looked at me his hands opening slowly and I thought I might be in for a beating. "Let's go through to the back," he said at last. "I doubt anyone else'll be coming to buy today."
The back of his shop led, via a short wooden walkway, to his house, a small bungalow that looked over Lake Ponte Vedra. "Beer or iced tea, Christian?" I needed the beer, I hate iced tea, but if I were going to ride home later I needed to be sober so I accepted the latter.
"What was Royce like?" I asked once the drinks were poured and Harrell had sat down opposite me. "Maybe it's hard to say after ten years, but d'you reckon he would get into anything shady?"
"I don't know." He took a swig of the beer and swilled it slowly from cheek to cheek before swallowing. "In 'Nam you never saw anyone in...in...in a pose. You saw them as they were: the war brought a man's character to the surface. They were at their best, or they were at their worst. The place was too much of a hell-hole for anyone to waste time trying to pretend. Not in the front-lines where we were, anyway. Back at headquarters things were different. Guys who sat behind desks and bathed every day and wore clean uniforms, they pranced around. That didn't last ten minutes at the front. Royce was at his best. Royce gave everything he had. Royce would never have been into anything, as you put it, shady.
"But when we came home and the people here spit on us, that was hard to take. We had seen stuff nobody should see. We'd seen terrified boys go into battle and get blown up or, worse, horribly, horribly wounded. We'd held grown men in our arms who were crying, begging us to shoot them because they hurt so bad. Then we come back Stateside and we can't talk about it to anyone. We couldn't even walk down the street without getting insults yelled at us.
"Some guys took it hard. It made re-finding your moral compass hard. Some guys made decisions other folk didn't necessarily understand. Some turned to booze, some got into the drug scene. They were the lucky ones, other guys just lost their minds."
"Royce was a Corpsman. Even after he left the service he wasn't going to let his buddies down. If the folks that had stayed back home didn't want to help the vets, he would, and he had a screw-you attitude to anyone who stood in his way. He started working to help other Marines who had been hurt and couldn't work. He would do odd jobs to get money, he'd drive around in an old Jeep and take food to them or bring them to a hospital. He'd find places for them to live."
"I'd read on the Internet he'd got beaten by a cop at an anti-war protest in 2003."
"He hated war. He'd seen what it did to the best of people. He saw the worst kind of people profit from it."
"Like his brother?"
"You said it, I didn't." He took a swig of beer. "Yeah. Just like that rat."
We sat in silence for a minute or two.
"You wouldn't happen to have a photograph of Royce would you?" I asked.
"Might have. Got so many." He got up and moved over to a chest of drawers. He tugged at the bottom one and I saw it was chock full of envelopes and photographs and negatives. He pulled the drawer all the way out and, lifting it in his thick arms, carried it to a table. I got up and walked over.
Harrell began riffling through the envelopes, looking at the writing on them, sometimes opening one and checking a photograph. "Naah. That was Dong Ha. Royce wasn't with us then." Finally he picked up an envelope, looked at the title on the front and grunted. "Let's see here." He tipped the prints out onto the bare wood.
There were pictures of grasslands, pictures of villages of shacks, pictures of scared or sullen Vietnamese. There were pictures of tanks, of trucks and of Jeeps. Pictures of helicopters and jets. Pictures of explosions and smoke and craters.
And there were pictures of soldiers. Soldiers fully clothed, wearing helmets and carrying enormous backpacks. Soldiers, dirty and in torn shirts, working on rifles or equipment. Soldiers, their bare chests covered by stained flak jackets. Solitary soldiers looking at pages of letters, soldiers lying, eyes closed, with a cigarette in their mouths, soldiers eating. Soldiers who would never smoke or eat again, lying in rows waiting to be taken away for burial.
"That's Royce," Harrell said sliding a photograph in front of me. "Khe Sanh area. December." He stared at the print then added, "Merry Christmas." The ground was bleak, like a cornfield weeks after harvest. A soldier, eyes closed, hands across his chest lay in the foreground. Whether he was dead or not I could not see. Behind him a Marine Corpsman cradled the head of a soldier with one arm as he applied a battle dressing to the side of his face. The medic looked young – at least what I could see under the helmet pushed back on his head, the strap hanging above his Adam's apple. His sleeves were rolled up, and dark splotches covered the bare forearms. Mud? Perhaps. Blood? More likely – it was hard to tell from the black and white prints.
He shuffled through more photographs. "I need to scan some of these and get them on the website. God, how young we were." He returned the photographs to their envelope and selected another one. "January 68. Royce was there." He looked at each picture carefully. "Here we are. Shower time!"
The picture he passed me showed a group of three men, water-streaked and naked save for their dog-chains, under what looked like an old fuel tank hanging from a rickety bamboo structure.
"Royce is the guy on the right. I can't remember where this was, 'cause we'd never have been so unprotected up at the perimeter."
The soldier he pointed to looked much like any other 19- or 20-year old, thin and lithe. He appeared to be happy and carefree and I thought it remarkable that being a few miles back from the battle could make one so. I peered at the picture. Royce was remarkably well endowed, and above his manhood was a tattoo of oriental-looking characters.
"Interesting tat," I remarked.
"Yup." Was the laconic reply which I interpreted as a reproach for gazing at the man's genitals.
"The folk from the clinic mentioned them," I explained.
"Bet they don't know the story behind them," Harrell said as he placed the photographs in order and returned them to their envelope.
"I don't think so," I answered and, when he remained silent, asked, "Is it a good story?"
"Look, Christian, why don't you have a beer? It's pretty obvious you're not enjoying the iced tea."
"Sorry," I said. "Iced tea is something I've never actually learned to enjoy. I know it's the `Southern Thang', but I can't get my taste buds to like it. But don't worry about the beer, though: I don't drink when I ride."
"Well, kid, you're not going to get the story without a beer in your hands."
I mulled this over then gave him half a smile. "OK. Fair trade. I'll take a beer."
"Thought you might."
The story, with a lot of explanation and further searches through his drawer of photographs, took two hours to tell. When he finished I thought about everything he had told me and I started to laugh.
"What's so funny?"
"It's an old joke. A really old joke," I said. My retelling of it and the explanation of what it all meant to Royce took another hour and I finished it off sitting on his deck with a second beer while he grilled up a bluefish. One thing led to another and I ended up spending the night on Harrell's couch and leaving for home after a breakfast of pancakes and three cups of strong coffee to blow away the cobwebs of late night and lots of beer.
On Monday I was up long before Mike, trying to get my most urgent work out of the way. By lunch time my schedule was clear and at 12:30 I was racing up I-95 on the Ninja then, at a more leisurely pace, out East into Liberty County. I had ridden past the entrance to Lake Pomona Ranch twice without spotting anyone, but on the third pass I noticed a man working in a flower bed alongside the driveway. Stopping my bike at the entrance, I took the laminated map from its case on my tank bag and walked up to him.
"Excuse me, sir," I called and he turned around.
"Man, I am so lost." I pushed my map toward him. "I'm trying to find Guale Road, but I keep on riding around in a circle." I tacked on the last part just in case anyone had seen me riding by before.
"Never heard of it," he said.
"Yeah, it's right up here," I said pointing with my gloved hand at the map.
"Let me see." He pulled off his gardening gloves and took the map. "Nope," he said after looking at it. "Your map's wrong. No road up there at all." He handed the plastic-covered chart back to me. "What're you looking for up there anyways?"
"A place to camp. A group of us from Tech are coming down next weekend. Looking for signs of Blackbeard."
"Uh-huh. You know: the pirate. He was all around these waterways."
He sniggered. "Well good luck then. Hope your maps are better than this one." He began pulling on his gloves as I thanked him and returned to the Ninja where I carefully slid the map, a Google-Map screenshot which I had carefully altered on my PC in the morning, back into the sleeve on my tank bag. With a wave to the gardener I started the engine and rode off toward home. Before hitting the slab I pulled into the BP station and called Pat's number. It went straight to his voicemail so I guessed he was still at work. I asked him to call me as soon as he had left the clinic, pulled my helmet on, and began the southward trek among the Florida-bound trucks. Just outside Darien, before crossing the causeway to Kirkhall, I felt my phone vibrating in my shirt pocket. Pulling over I called back and, sure enough it was Pat.
"You by yourself?" I asked.
"N-o-o," he answered with query clear in his voice. "Kristi's with me."
"No one else?"
"What's going on? No. We're in my VW heading back to Kirkhall."
"OK. At the clinic there's a guy about 5 foot 10, weighs about 170 or 180, black hair but thin on top, receding quite a bit, with a lock in front that hangs over his forehead. Face is a bit weathered, eyes have quite pronounced squint lines. Who is that?"
"Royce Kimberlin. Where did you see him?"
"Working in the flower bed by the driveway."
"You were up at the clinic? Dude, what the fuck is going on?"
"Pat, I really don't know. But I am going to find out. I'll let you know when I do, till then, though, don't say anything about this at the clinic."
"Sure. But you are weird, you know that?"
"So I've been told," I said with a sigh. "Thanks, Pat."
I called 4-1-1, got the number of the Kirkhall police station and called Kyle.
"I need a favor," I told him after the small talk was over.
"O-K," he stretched the words out.
"Want me to come to the station or do you want to collect it from our place later?"
"Is it going to involve me skating on thin ice?"
"Naah," I contrived. "Not for an ambitious young cop with his eyes on The Bureau."
"Oh, shit. I think I'll come by to see what you want."
"Sure. Burgers on the grill tonight if you're hungry."
It was close to six when the Mustang pulled into the driveway. "Thought I'd see you on the Honda," I said as he came inside.
"I'm still getting the insurance."
"That's cool. Anyway, I need a policeman to help me."
Kyle looked at me from the corner of his eyes. "What for?"
"Come here." I showed him my tank bag sitting on a side table by the door and told him what I needed.
"Reckon you can do that for me?"
He nodded. "I think I can swing that."
It took Kyle ten days to get the results back and the gossamer theory in my mind started to gel and I knew I was on the right track, yet I still needed one more piece of information to close the loop. When I called him again, Pat confirmed what I feared: Dex's things from his condo had all been shipped back to his mother.
I opened up the box of Dex's effects that still stood unreturned in the corner of the garage and got the name and address from the Post-It note. As I had suspected, the woman who answered the phone once directory-assistance had given me the number, was Dex's mother and, telling her I was helping Pat contact some of Dex's friends, I voiced my request. Her response was an instant invitation to come visit.
The great thing about rural airports is one does not have to walk for miles from aircraft to the curb, and fifteen minutes after the ATR-72's touch-down at Lawton I was pulling out of the Hertz lot in a little red Chevy. Oklahoma is a map-maker's dream: the roads run in neat north-south east-west grids, and making a left off 277 onto OK5 pointed me in the direction of Comanche. Sarah Normand lived on the other side of the town and, following the directions she had given me over the phone, I left the asphalt of route 53 onto a gravel road that ran between the green-brown fields of grass to a single-story, cedar-sided house. With no person in sight I thought it safe to leave the car windows down as I slung my PC bag over one shoulder and headed past the hackberry tree to climb the four stairs to the small front porch. I had not known what to expect: perhaps a plumpish, farmer-wife type with grey hair and an apron. Sarah was none of these. Tall and trim, with auburn hair setting off the brown eyes set wide above a longish nose, she held the door open to welcome me in. We exchanged the expected formalities.
"I have some lunch prepared, if you would like. I know they don't serve food on those small airplanes."
"Thank you, ma'am," I replied. "It's been a long day so far. Some lunch would be welcome."
"Well set your bag down then and come through. And none of the "ma'am": call me Sarah."
"Thank you, m... er, Sarah."
We ate salad in the small dining room adjacent to the open-plan kitchen. The conversation tapered rapidly from the weather and my flight, to where I lived and how I knew Dex. We spoke about Pat whom she had known from way back when he and her son had studied together. I spun the tale of helping him find Dex's friends to pass on the sad news.
Sarah set down her fork and placed her elbows on the table with her hands tented above the plate. "Chris, you're only here for one day. If you are going to find what you want, you and I had best be honest with each other. I don't buy for one minute you want names of Dexter's friends. For one, there are many better and easier ways of doing that and, secondly, you know very well that mothers are not privy to every bit of personal information about their sons' friends."
I felt the blood going to my cheeks. "OK, Sarah. I'm sorry. Look, I'll try to level with you. But I don't know much and any theories I have may be way off the mark, so I don't want you to be hurt and I don't want you to blame me because of my lack of knowledge if anything backfires."
She looked at me steadily. "You don't think Dexter died in an accident." It wasn't a question.
"Honestly, I don't know. I had his bike for a while. I fixed it up so it could be sold, but from what I saw I really don't think the crash happened the way the report said it did. Also, from what I hear, Dex was pretty meticulous, yet he broke a basic rule at the clinic in order to tell Pat something. It must have been something really important, but Pat wasn't there and Dex left a message. The message was short and hurried, perhaps because he saw the head doctor coming. Pat didn't get the import of the message and deleted it, and his reporting of it to me made only a little sense. Later on, talking to some of his colleagues, I got the germ of an idea. But I can't confirm that theory without some more information and I am hoping I can get it from Dex's notebooks."
Her eyes scanned my face without betraying what she was thinking. After a full minute, she picked up her plate, "Well then, time's a-wasting. Let's go and look at those books."
It did not take long to find the notebook I wanted to search, the one covering March of 2003, but, once opened, I realized it was not going to be an easy task. The names of patients were not recorded. Some were not tagged at all, others, where entries ranged over several days, were shortened to something such as `patnt A'. In addition Dex's notes often consisted of abbreviations and medical terms.
"Without any names I don't know what to look for," Sarah stated.
"Yeah," I agreed. I thought about it for a minute. "OK, apparently the article quoted said he had been taken in after some altercation with the cops. So that means anything like pneumonia or leukemia are probably unlikely. Maybe broken arm."
"Maybe he was trodden on by a horse," Sarah said with a brief chuckle.
"Uh-huh. How about blow to the head? Is there anything about a head wound?" We scanned down the pages, our faces inches apart.
"Here," Sarah said stabbing the page with her finger. `Conc'. Maybe that's concussion."
"Yes! What's it say?" I looked at the line. `ptnt K. 56. Persvrtg. Blrd visn. Hmtma rt temp. Diag conc. Trmt: admit. Drknd rm. Ibuprof. Ice on haem.'
"What's that pers word?" asked Sarah.
"Dunno." I pulled up dic.com and typed the letters in as they stood. "Probably perseverating," I said following one of the web site's suggestions. "Repeating the same thing over and over. Could be Royce. Dex writes `ptnt K': Royce's last name was Kimberlin."
"Would he have been 56 in 2003?"
"Who knows? I guess. Let's see," I pulled out the pad where I jotted down notes. "According to what I could glean off the Net he enlisted in 1965. So, say he was 18 in 65, then in 2003 he would have been...56. Bit more strength to the evidence, huh?"
It seemed as though Dex worked with `ptnt K' for three days. The second day had an entry "No recoll." This was followed by a little drawing of a tree, a cross and a ladder. "Look at this," I muttered.
"Looks like a sign of the zodiac," Sarah said, after a pause she added, "maybe it's something they test eyesight with, you know, see if they can focus."
"I don't think so," I said, and went on to explain what the signs meant.
On the third day, `ptnt K' was recovg. Hdch. "He was recovering but had a headache?" I hazarded. After that there were no more entries for him – or her.
"So where do you go from here?"
We spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the implications of what I had found. After dinner I set off back to Lawton and my Hampton Inns room from where I called Mike to bring him up to date.
"So what's your next step?" he asked after I had told him everything I had uncovered during my visit.
"I dunno. Maybe we tell Kyle everything and let him get it up the chain. What d'you think?"
"Let Kyle have it if he thinks he can move it fast. It's harder for folk to mess with the police than a civil matter. But if he can't get anything within a week, we'll move: I think those guys at the clinic are spooked."
I was impatient to get things moving and had planned to call in at Kyle's apartment on my drive home from Savannah airport but, within a minute of pulling in at the gates of his condo, I had second thoughts, deciding it was Sunday after all and I could probably do the whole thing first thing on Monday without jeopardizing anything too badly.
With all my information given to our resident cop, I had no choice but to sit tight for the next few days and wait. Each day dragged by, although Kyle patiently and repeatedly assured me things were moving. Things finally broke on Thursday afternoon.
"Chris, what the fuck is going on?" Pat's hurried words came over the phone. "The cops are here, the FBI is here, Dr. Kimberlin and his brother were taken off in handcuffs. Rumor has it the directors have been summoned. Has this got anything to do with Dex?"
"Yeah. I think so."
"And? You going to tell me what it is?"
"Well, yeah, but I only know some of it, and I haven't got any corroboration – although your news makes me think I was on the right track. Let me check with Mike and Kyle and see if they know any more."
"OK. But let me know as soon as you find anything definite. None of us know if we have jobs or not."
Yet Mike, when he put out some feelers to guys he knew in the District Attorney's office in Savannah, had only minor success. "Apparently the Feds are in on this," he told me, "but hang tight, there's going to be a press conference tomorrow afternoon."
"Petts," came the voice when I called the station on Friday.
"Hey, Kyle, it's Chris."
"Yes, Mr. Lawrence? What can we do to help?" Oh, shit, he wasn't alone and I was unlikely to get anything of substance out of him if other people were around.
"I hear there's going to be a press conference in Savannah this afternoon about what's been going on at the clinic."
"I believe that's correct, sir."
"And I'm not going to get anything from you before that?" I asked when he added nothing to his brief reply.
"That would be correct, sir."
"Well Pat and Kristi are coming around for nosh tonight to tell us what happened at the clinic. You coming to join us and give your guys' side?"
"Can't make tonight, sir. Got other plans."
I couldn't hold back any more. "I was planning on inviting Senator Carroll's son over, too. Maybe you should join us: you never know when having a senator's son as just an ...er... acquaintance could be an ace in the pocket of an ambitious young cop. You sure you can't make dinner tonight? It's salmon on the grill."
Officer Petts seemed to choke momentarily, then recovered. "Weather's good for outdoor eating, sir. That would be fine. Thank you, sir." The `thank you' and the pause before the `sir' had just enough intonation that someone really listening for it could translate: `You are so dead, buddy'. I grinned as I put my phone down.
I was almost done with dinner preparation when the doorbell rang and Kyle Petts stood outside, the cop-issue Aviator mirror-glasses hanging from one hand, a six pack of Dos Equis from the other. In his shadow, almost pressed against him as though for protection, was Lynch, his grey long-sleeved T-shirt covered by a white one, obviously borrowed from Kyle, that was adorned with the words 'Federal Law Enforcement Training Center' under the crest of the Department of Homeland Security. He was holding onto a bottle of wine with both hands as though it were a life-preserver.
"Hi, guys. Come in."
Without moving his legs Kyle inclined his head, moving his eyes from center to side and back again as though contemplating exactly the correct words to utter. "Here's the problem I have," he said. "Do I shoot you and claim self-defense or poison you and disclaim all knowledge of the crime?"
"Come inside, Kyle," I laughed. "You know, I had you pegged as a fag from that first day with the speeding ticket."
"Chris!" he protested with genuine anxiety as the two walked through the door. "I'm not out." He turned and looked at me earnestly. "Please don't out me," he asked, hanging the Aviators from the front pocket of his jeans, and I was surprised that there was enough slack in the denim to allow the arm to slide in.
"Kyle, I'm not going to out anyone, least of all you."
"How did you know? About Kyle and me I mean?" Lynch asked.
"That night at Pat's party. When Kyle pulled off he floored the gas. See, when I'm real happy and I get on my bike I'll pull a wheelie or peel out of a parking lot just out of sheer joie de vivre. So I kinda wondered what could have made Kyle so happy. I mean I hadn't seen him hanging out with anyone in particular at the party. But then I remembered you and he had taken a long time bringing the stuff up from the beach together and afterwards you, who had been watching your liquor intake all evening, had a change of heart and downed two cognacs just before leaving. So I thought maybe plans had changed and instead of driving up I-95, perhaps you weren't going to be driving more than a couple of blocks and could risk it. Or maybe you had made a big decision and wanted to steady your nerves."
"Wow!" laughed Lynch uncertainly, "That is one huge leap of faith on real flimsy evidence."
"Well of course it was just an idea, but then, last Sunday, I thought I'd swing past Kyle's place on the way back from the airport to talk about what I'd found out from Dex's mom, but what do I see outside his condo? No Mustang in the lot, and a Camaro with Liberty County tags parked nearby."
I grinned at their discomfort. "Hey, guys, welcome to the club. Help yourself to a drink."
A half hour later Mike and I had taught our guests how to make spring rolls and we were opening the second round of beers when the sewing-machine sound of the VW engine heralded Pat and Kristi's arrival. "Hey, guys!" Pat called as he and Kristi came through. "Hi, Lynch: didn't know you were going to be here. Where's the Camaro?" he asked as he pushed a couple of wine bottles into the tub of ice. "Only saw Kyle's 'Stang outside."
Nobody said anything. Kyle was intent on studying the label on his bottle, Lynch was trying to pull the stretched hems on the sleeves of his T-shirt over the palms of his hands. Pat stood up, a bottle of beer in his hand. As he twisted the cap off the bottle he looked over at Lynch. "I like the shirt." As the bottle touched his lips, his arm froze and his jaw dropped. "You two! You guys...you guys are an item, aren't you?
"Jez-us! Is there something in the water here? Kirkhall's going to turn into the Provincetown of the South. First it's Rolf, then Chris, Chris brings Mike, Rolf drags Glen in. Now we get our very own cop who apparently bats for the other team!" He walked over, pulled Lynch to his feet and put his arms around him beating him gently on the back with his right fist. "Hey, it's cool. We're still buds, right?"
"Shit," Pat said as he handed Kristi a glass of wine and pulled out a chair for himself, "things have to stop changing." He looked around at us. "I think I've been transported to another planet. One day I have a steady job, now who knows? Then my best bud turns out to be in love with a guy. I'm going to just drop out and surf."
"Oh, c'mon, Pat," said Kristi with a wave of her hand, "stop being so melodramatic. Some guys know what they want out of life, OK? Live with it.
"Now I want to know what Chris found out that has turned everything upside down at the clinic."
"OK. Let's get some food out here and we'll get going."
Once the starters were on the table, I went inside, and came out with the two photographs which I placed face down on the table. "OK, people. Let's start right from the beginning. On the first day, the one where we went to get Dex's bike, Pat tells me of a phone call he had from Dex shortly before his death. It appears Dex is annoyed or worried by the fact his patient hasn't been operated on. That's point one. Point two is it appears Dex's bike was in neutral when it tipped over into the mud. This really puzzled me most of all. I have dropped enough bikes in my time, shit I've worked in the pits at Road Atlanta, to know a crashed bike is never in neutral. So why was Dex's bike in neutral when he wiped out?
"That worried me no end. Also, if the bike had slid enough to force the change I would have expected to see more road-rash on the fairings. There was hardly any.
"Nobody who knows bikes can give me an acceptable scenario for a crash bike getting into neutral. I ask Kyle, he can't think of one. I ask Steve, my ex who used to race bikes, he can't think of a way it could happen.
"Point three is I suddenly realize no-one apparently has Dex's cell phone. Now why would that be missing? We had everything else of Dex's. If it had come out of a pocket during the crash it would have been found. Dex's crash was very compact: he hit a tree and was dropped. So why no cell phone? Could it be because no-one wants anyone to know who Dex had called before he died?
"But then, when I start really raking through the coals, almost by magic the answers appear to all my questions when Dr. Hespin very kindly fesses up in a suicide note. He admits he had screwed up an operation and implies Dex was upset. And this gives us a credible reason for Dex to have called Pat: he tells Pat the guy had not been operated on. Hespin also mentions, in his words, he `turned the bike off'. So, see, everything that troubles Chris has been given a plausible reason."
The other four were looking at me. "Yeah," said Pat. "Remember, that's what I said to you."
"And you weren't satisfied?" Kyle asked.
"Uneasy at first. Just uneasy. If Hespin was doing all this show-and-tell stuff in a note, why does he not say it was he who took Dex's phone? Because I know Dex had called him.
"One day I was sitting thinking about Dex and I recalled Pat and Kristi's beach party with their colleagues. I had fun that night: it was very interesting to see the close-knit camaraderie, about their attitude to the work. I mean, pretty much all I know about hospitals is what I see on TV. On the tube, hospital staff are always racing, doing things fast, high adrenaline. About as organized as a ruck in rugby. But listening to Pat's colleagues talking about their day-to-day job it seems much like any other job: set ways of doing things, set routines, no fire drills. And I get a glimpse of some of their inside jargon.
"I hear how Dex runs to an injured guy, and quickly and in a controlled manner ascertains what needs to be done to stop his bleeding and what tool – in this case a pruning knife – he can use to do it. He cuts off the man's overalls so he can get to the artery in the upper thigh more easily.
"He appears relatively calm, all things considered. He tells somebody to get the Life-Line chopper in, he explains to a doctor what is going on, he gets things prepared for the paramedics. See? He's noticing things.
"And then, when it was all over, he goes and cleans up and what does he do?"
"Didn't he fight with Hespin?" asked Kristi.
"Yeah. And?" I held out my hands. "What else?"
"He tried to call me," said Pat.
"Yeah. He called Pat. Something he really wasn't supposed to do. What was so worrying to him that he breaks the rules? I really don't believe it was Hespin's foul up: I think that mistake, although mightily unpleasant, was probably something Dex saw as being well within his professional scope. From everything I hear about him he would have been confident enough to blow the whistle on that without feeling he needed Pat's input.
"So I figure out the key to the call had to be the only other wrinkle in his day: the injured guy – Royce.
"And the key came from Pat and Kristi's party: I heard the nurses refer to operating as `cutting'. So when Pat reports Dex's call to me he automatically does some translation for my benefit of what he views as nurse slang. But what if it wasn't slang? What if, when Dex said someone hadn't been cut, he meant just that? What if he meant Royce wasn't circumcised?"
There was a moment of silence, then Pat said, "So? He wasn't Jewish." And there was a brief chuckle.
"Yeah. That's true. Generally no significance. But who overheard that call and then what happened to Dex?"
"Conrad Kimberlin!" Kristi said. "But why?"
"Because it proved Royce Kimberlin was not Royce Kimberlin."
There was a silence as they digested this. "But surely Conrad would have recognized Royce as not being his brother?" Lynch said.
"Oh, I think he knew that the guy wasn't his brother. I think Conrad engineered the whole thing from the get-go."
"Why would he do that?" Pat asked.
"It's a long story. Take some more wine and help yourselves to some more food and I'll tell you.
"In 1965, Royce Kimberlin volunteered – volunteered, wasn't drafted – to go to Vietnam as a Marine Corpsman: a field medic. His brother, Conrad, on the other hand ran to Canada later when his draft came in the mail. According to a close friend of Royce's whom I met a few weeks ago, that really riled Royce. This guy, Harrell, gradually lost touch with Royce after they came home from 'Nam, but he was pretty sure the two brothers were not going to ever be getting along. Royce had seen a lot of kids scared out of their minds go into battle, and meanwhile his brother was feathering his nest in Canada.
"I doubt Royce had much time for Conrad once he came back from 'Nam, but nonetheless they must have had some meetings, maybe at family gatherings, Thanksgiving, Christmas, whatever, because it would seem somehow Conrad knew about Royce's tattoo."
"Ugh!" Kristi shuddered.
"No, it's actually quite funny. Do you know the old joke about the guy who is trying to impress a girl? He wants to be alone with her out on his sailboat, and to clinch it he says `...and I named the boat after you.' Well, with his commitment to her being that clear, she agrees to go out on the water alone with him, but, when they get to the dock and she sees the boat, the name painted on the transom is `After You'."
"That is pathetic," Pat said.
"And old," Kyle added.
"No, you don't understand," I said. "I think Conrad wanted someone to impersonate his brother, but his brother had a tattoo. Now Conrad must have seen the tat at some time, but couldn't read the Oriental characters. He probably asked Royce about what they meant and Royce replied `My Lover'. Well, if you look at this photo," I turned the first print over, "which is a copy of one Harrell had, you can see Royce was rather well endowed, so in the mind of Conrad, that explanation made sense.
I turned over the second print. "However, here is Kristi's picture of Royce's tattoo. Notice anything?"
"They're totally different," said Lynch. He studied the first photo for a long time until he noticed Mike and me watching him and quickly dropped it back to the table. "Totally different design," he added quickly.
"What is that other tattoo?" asked Kristi.
"It's complex. Some of what I say is conjecture, some of it was known by only a very few of Royce's war time comrades.
"Back in the mid 60s, being gay was an enormous stigma. Being gay was so bad that even though it meant you wouldn't go to Vietnam, few people admitted it. Harrell tells me there were quite a few guys who were gay, but at the front no-one cared. I mean, they weren't flaunting it, no hugging, kissing etc, but guys knew. It really was low on the list of things to worry about when you were getting shot at. Royce was gay. My conjecture is his gayness was behind his volunteering: to prove to himself as much as anyone else he was no coward. In 'Nam he met up with a guy named Dylan. He and Dylan, who was another Corpsman, became close. Very close. But Dylan never made it: he was actually killed when a Marine jet accidentally dropped a bomb on their own compound. Royce was devastated, but there was not much he could do. Soldiers one had been with for months were being killed daily. So Royce went on doing what he had to do. But on one of his rest periods away from the battle he got that tattoo. It's the old Vietnamese writing and it means `tide'.
"Tide?" asked Kyle incredulously. "Why tide?"
"Well, he couldn't very well have his lover's name tattooed on his skin, so he encoded it. Dylan, in the old times, was a Welsh god and was associated with the sea. In Welsh, dy and llanw means `great tide'.
"But that stupid Conrad thought he literally meant `my lover'," Kristi half laughed, but wiped a tear from her eye.
"Yeah," I sighed, "He thought Royce was bragging. But now, when he wanted to plant a fake brother, he used those words as the tattoo.
"But all that was incidental, the important thing was seeing a drawing of the original tattoo in Dex's notebook. That provided me with the proof I needed that Dex had indeed seen the real Royce before. In March 2003 he was in Oregon when a guy was brought in after an altercation with the cops at an anti-war demonstration. I know from my Internet searches Royce was injured in one of the protests in Portland. It would seem as though Dex attended this guy who had concussion. His notes were very brief, but he observed the patient had a problem recollecting. Next to that note was a diagram of Royce's "Tide" tat. I guess, in trying to test his patient's powers of recollection, Dex asked him about the tattoo. He copied the design down in his book to ask someone who knew the writing what they meant so that he could check on the accuracy of the patient's recollection."
"I think the ...er... attributes of the real Royce's manhood kept his name in Dex's memory." I looked over at Pat. "It's a gay thing. Wouldn't happen in straightsville."
Pat merely smiled. "I'm gonna let that one slide before I dig myself a grave.
"So who do you think killed Dex?" he asked, as the laughter died down.
"Dr. Conrad has my vote. He wanted to have the clinic become this celebrity-oriented place so that he could haul in the bucks. Before he came along, the clinic was much more egalitarian. He needs another member on the board to swing things his way and, as a brother, Royce had a guaranteed seat. On the other hand, if Royce did get onto the board it is a fair bet the facilities of the clinic would have been directed more to mending the disfigurement of vets. A great work, but unlikely to be a huge source of revenue. So I think the Royce we all know was a substitute – someone whom Conrad had a hold over. I finagled a set of this guy's fingerprints on a laminated map and Kyle ran them through the databases the cops use – including the military's. There was no match, but, sure-as-shit, they didn't belong to the real Royce Kimberlin."
"But that means...," Pat hesitated.
"Yup. For that substitution to take place, the real Royce could not be around. The only thing that makes sense is that he was `disposed of' in some way. And that means Conrad had to be complicit in the deed, if not the perpetrator."
"I believe Conrad overheard Dex's call to Pat and understood the implications of Dex's observation. Everyone says Dr. Conrad tore out of the clinic to be at his brother's bedside. But that wasn't quite true, because Pat said other folk mentioned Dr. Conrad remonstrating with Dex about using his cell phone at the clinic. In light of his brother's injury, if he was tearing out to be with him, would he have paused over an administrative issue? I suspect he tore out of the clinic because he saw Dex was about to leave and Conrad couldn't afford to let him speak to anyone else. So he got ahead of him and lay in wait. I don't know what happened, but Dex had stopped his bike, that's why it was in neutral. Maybe Dr. Conrad was in hiding, maybe Dex was distracted, but I think Dr. Conrad took a swing at Dex's throat with a stout branch breaking his neck and leaving those tell-tale marks."
"Holy shit," Pat said in almost a whisper. "So what about Hespin?"
"Conrad once again. I think Hespin had decided, or had been asked, to resign over the Gallant operation error. That's why all his notes were up to date, not as preparation for suicide, but so other doctors could take over. He probably told Conrad he would resign. I'm really guessing here, but Conrad was probably angry about the implication of the messing up of Gallant's – who was a high-visibility client – operation. Now, in one event, he is handed a chance to get back at Hespin and also pin Dex's death on something concrete and on someone who can say nothing different. At some point, I reckon, Dr. Conrad gave Hespin something that sedated him, or tranquilized him, or something. In that state Dr. Conrad got him to sign the suicide note. Maybe he told him it was his letter of resignation and Hespin was too high to comprehend what he was putting his name to. I don't know. But it's one thing to sign a suicide note, but date it as well? C'mon. Everyone will know the day when he topped himself. Dating the suicide note sounded out of keeping to me.
"Hespin's suicide was all camouflage. The real reason was to get a note out that tied up the loose ends people were asking about: why Dex called Pat and why the bike was in neutral."
"Oh, fuck!" said Pat. "I think it was me who blew that. I was in line at lunch and I was telling the guy in front of me – he rides motorcycles – you had some doubts about the state of the bike when it was found. I seem to think Dr. Kimberlin was behind me. He could have overheard.
"So I got Hespin killed." He added, and as the anguish flashed across his face Kristi reached out and squeezed his hand in mute support.
"No. Not at all," I reassured him. "No! The bike stuff in the letter was an afterthought – the cherry on top for Conrad. What he really needed was to stop anyone from thinking too much about why Dex had called you. Hespin had to leave a note saying why Dex had wanted to talk to you. The stuff about Hespin messing with the bike in his note may or may not have been added because of what you said, but it wasn't the reason for the fake-suicide. And, ironically, it was the bike stuff that was a dead giveaway to me: if Hespin had done something like shift the gears, he would have remembered it and said so. Clearly Conrad had not much of an idea of what my concern really was, so the note reads that Hespin turned the bike off.
"No, Pat, with or without you, Hespin was doomed. Conrad needed the suicide note to keep everyone from looking at Royce.
"I rode up to the clinic and managed to trick the so-called Royce into putting his fingerprints on a map I had, then Kyle helped out by getting them compared to Royce's prints from the military, No match at all. That's when I finally knew we had him."
"And that, people, is all I know.
"Let's get those planks smoking and get the salmon cooked. I'm hungry."
The air drifting in from above the Gulf Stream provided a temperate ambiance, and with the good food and beverages sustaining us, our dinner went on for over two hours while we rehashed every aspect of the events.
"So what do you think is going to happen now?" Kristi asked as Mike opened another bottle of red wine.
"I suspect they'll buy time by charging Conrad and that fake Royce with some breach of fiduciary duties crime. They can hold them on that, get warrants to unravel the whole ball of twine, and once they've got all their ducks in a row, zap them with the murder charges."
"What if they caused no loss to the clinic?" Lynch asked. "We've been doing pretty well this last two quarters. If there were no ill effects to the business can he be punished?"
"Oh yeah," Mike said. "There don't have to be actual damages for a breach of fiduciary duty to be claimed. And, I think there don't have to be real damages for punitive damages to be awarded. Especially if the plaintiffs gained some benefit from their position. This kinda stuff is more Don's line, but I'm pretty sure that's how it works.
"What's the feeling at the clinic?" he asked, sitting down.
"All out PR assault for damage control," Lynch said. "There was a staff meeting this morning and – this is just amongst us, right? – we're being told our jobs are probably safe, but maybe that's just to keep the tribespeople calm. I think they're going to try and isolate the clinic from those two Kimberlin guys. There have been contracts out for an additional wing and, reading between the lines, I think we'll see more injured military guys coming in so they can play the patriotic tune."
We sat and talked over the case for a long time. At about 1:30 in the morning we retreated to the kitchen, heated up some of the leftovers and went back to the deck, still busy in the dissection of all we knew.
"Hey, G-man, you've been rather quiet for somebody who's in the thick of things," Mike said, adding some more Merlot to Kyle's glass. "Or have they made you swear on the nightshirt of J. Edgar Hoover not to tell us anything?"
Kyle dug his hands into the pocket of his sweatshirt and pushed it down to the top of his thighs. With a grimace he said, "Well, not quite that dramatic and, to tell the truth, I don't think the local guys think too much of the FBI so I haven't broadcast my ambitions, but the only reason I know what little I do know is because I was on a conference call this afternoon since I had pushed all Chris's stuff up. Shit, this really cannot go beyond this deck, folks, or my ass will be in a sling, but they do know who the fake Royce is: seems like he's some minor drug dealer from up Pennsylvania ways who got in way over his head.
"He was stealing drugs from some hospital where he worked. Started off small but he muscled in on some gang turf. Pissed them off so they gave him a choice: work for them or disappear in the dark waters of the Delaware River.
Kyle took a gulp of the wine while the rest of us sat riveted. "That was stupid, but what was really dumb was he started to skim off the top – don't know the details, but things like taking a little out of each capsule, or putting a few placebos in. One day his little plan got discovered." Kyle shrugged and pulled a sardonic expression. "He was screwed.
"Kline that's Royce's real name fled down south and somehow he and Conrad Kimberlin met up. Kline wanted Kimberlin to change his appearance for him, but Kimberlin came up with a different idea. He explained to Kline that as long as Kline was alive the gang would be after him, but if Kline were to appear to be dead, the hunt would be over for good. See, Conrad needed his brother out of the way real bad and Kline's...er...predicament made him easy to manipulate. Long story short, he agreed to dispose of Royce Kimberlin.
"After their dad's funeral Kimberlin drugged Royce. The plan had been for Conrad to take his X-rays and substitute them for Kline's in a fake medical record and then, at some later date make it appear that Kline, in fact the real Royce, was the victim of a hit and run. But, with his dad dead and all, Conrad had to come down to the clinic and see to some business or legal shit, and he left Kline to watch Royce. With Kline being such a dipstick, something was bound to go wrong, and it did. Royce came out of his drugged state and made a run for it. Kline tried to stop him but Royce was much stronger and in the fighting Kline shot him in the face.
"Kline thought the neighbors must have heard the shot – I mean, you know, guys, a shot in a closed room sounds like a friggin' huge explosion – and called the cops, so he pulled his car into Conrad's garage, dragged Royce's body into the trunk and drove up to North Charleston. He had, I guess, a few hours before it was dark and he came up with some sort of a plan. So, as soon as it's dark he pulled into one of those derelict lots around the dry dock area, put the body in the driver's seat, put his own silver ID bracelet on Royce's wrist and his ring on Royce's finger, then poured gasoline over the body and the car and set fire to it.
"Kline thought he'd helped a whole lot, but Conrad was really mad when he got home the following day and found out what had gone on. With the body burned there would be no chance of X-rays. He would have abandoned the whole plan, but there was to be a board meeting just over a week later and he needed Royce's vote so he moved Kline down to the clinic, where none of the Charleston people who might recognize that he wasn't the real Royce would see him."
"But, I mean, c'mon," Lynch protested, "didn't the Charleston cops check the body to see if it was really Kline?"
"That's how it always happens on CSI," Kyle sighed, "but in real life it doesn't always follow like a script. They found out the car was Kline's, the jewelry on the corpse was Kline's, the police in Philadelphia or wherever said he'd been involved with trafficking with gangs, the killing looked like it was gang related, nobody was reporting anyone missing. Sure, when I say it all now it looks too good to be true, but back in North Charleston the police are overworked, Joe Taxpayer doesn't want to pay for overtime, they close the case.
"Folks, sometimes that's the way it happens. Real life in the police force just isn't glamorous like it appears on TV." Again he shrugged.
Mike leaned over and put an arm around Kyle's shoulders. "Oh, Kyle! Kyle! So young and already so disillusioned with life. Poor Lynch: he's sitting here, enraptured by your constabulary courage, deeply in love, and there you are, turned cynical by bureaucracy. `Though one were fair as roses, His beauty clouds and closes.'"
Kyle pushed Mike's arm away as the blood rushed to his cheeks. Pat, Kristi and I burst out laughing as Lynch shook his head with an embarrassed smile.
Thus the tenor of the conversation shifted to the lighter and more general and the wine continued to flow steadily. When 3am was a bare five minutes away, Pat and Kristi got up to make their way back up the beach to Pat's condo while Kyle, admitting that neither he nor Lynch should even be in possession of car keys due to the alcohol in their veins, accepted our offer of the spare bedroom.
As I started the dishwasher I turned to Kyle. "You might need to brush up on your undercover skills a tad before you send in that application to the Bureau." He looked at me, puzzled. "That night on the beach at Pat's party: You weren't looking out for me. You said at the time that you'd seen Lynch and me walk down to the beach, but in fact I'd gone down alone a good minute or two before Lynch. You, buddy boy, only saw Lynch leave and you thought you had the perfect opportunity to make your move on him."
Once more Kyle's cheeks turned red as he pulled his face into a sheepish grin.
"See!" I said. "Our valiant policeman is a romantic at heart!"
"I thought you told us that you never hassled cops, Chris," Lynch said, moving behind Kyle and holding him in an embrace.
"Mike's always pointing out that I have separate sets of rules for straight guys and gay guys," I said as I flipped the light switch off and we all headed upstairs.
"Do I need to lock the door to stop you prowling?" Mike asked later as I slid into bed next to him.
"Naah," I laughed. "I'm way too tired tonight," and I snuggled into him absorbing the warmth from his skin. A minute passed and then I whispered into his ear, "How `bout a foursome in the morning, though?" which earned me a hard slap to the butt.
Comments and fair criticism can be emailed to Horatio Nimier Horatio_Nimier@Hotmail.com
Flames and stupid or vapid emails get deleted.
The lines of a poem that Mike quotes come fromThe Garden of Proserpine by Algernon Charles Swinburne. Copyright held by the Poetry Foundation www.poetryfoundation.org
© Copyright 2011 Horatio Nimier