FULL OF DAYS
Nights at hospice were a race without a step, save for a nurse and her sensible shoes. Here went the latest victor, Lourdes Santandrea, widow of seventy, mother of two. She had a mouth full of thrush and the trach came out with a faint sigh and leaven smell. The voice hinted in that breath, the tones of a woman who would never speak again. A bath of ice got the ring loose enough to draw, and into the bag it went, along with a crux on a chain, now keepsakes for daughter and son. Soon the morgue would show and Mrs. Santandrea would enter the next heat—one she might not mind so much.
A change of cotton blues for Mildred Dephane, RN, Palliative Care, and a turn at the desk with the medical record. The foam clogs were toed free as she typed into a field. “Dark Entries” by Bauhaus came up so she goosed the shuffle with a thumb. “Dead Souls” by Joy Division. One last skip. “Requiem” by Killing Joke. She pulled the buds. Goth rock was a favorite but not a punchline.
She heard the wheels. The gurney came into view, and the angel from the basement in his darker scrubs. A push to the doors Mildred could see at the end of the hall, and on to whatever doors she could not. So it went. Daylight hours were for admitting, hers for the ushering out. But here came that one exception, just as the auto close had put a finish on the widow. A swoop as it broke again.
Gide in paperback went down, spread on a crease, as the admit drew near. The sweet-faced Tahitian orderly was in control, and she glanced down shyly from the oddball makeup. Dress codes had give in a terminal ward, and Mildred made the most of her slack with spray-on eyeliner and red tips on an inky bob. And that atop skin like unblushed bisque. Like a doll misused by a child.
So Pua either liked her or took her for undead. Maybe a bit of both, and either way Mildred thought it was cute, the big dumb lesbian. She might have played the flirt, but the orderly was not alone. Even aside the rattle in the blanket, a sound of breath just coming into reach, Pua had two people at her flank. A cardigan with clipboard—some admin, fully interchangeable—and a dreamy black man with silver in the wings of his high-and-tight.
Zoom on the dreamy black man, Mildred thought, and did. He had a tweedy coat draped on a forearm, and there was a bead of rain on it. He had entered from the lot, away from the awning—a car of his own. That and the official look—not to mention the shewing of the way—told that the admit had come in on a bus. A transfer of some kind, even that late, and not under lights. Straight up to eight—no triage, no ICU. A panel stuttered, and a gleam led her to the final clue. One handcuff end was fastened to a bedrail, the other locked on a thin forearm.
That was something new—a prisoner.
The doctor had come out to mend the view with girth. The rose of his neck fat was pinking up. An interest—no less a surprise. He knew something.
The admin was in on the scheme and handed him a sheaf in a folder. Pua carried on, as did the patient and the plainclothes. Around a corner and to the same berth just made vacant. There was no effort to fill Mildred in, so she went to help Pua with the bed transfer. She came in as the cop undid a shackle. He stood back to make room, saw Mildred, said with a nod, “Miss.”
And so Mildred got the first full look. She had not expected a man so old, so done. There were two high-fives on the ward—both near the slap, so to speak—and they were the only patients who might compare. This waste was age, no more, if that were the word for such a feat of lasting. No hair left, and the spotted skin was laid to the bone. Lips and cheeks were in a draw, no teeth to fill out the gap. And those eyes, set deep—they blinked to the minute, a slowest froth. Awake, if not aware, behind each scratch of breath.
Transfer made, the blanket was laid on again, and there was more weight in the fabric than there was in the man. Pua walked out with a simper. Officer and cuffs were back for more. “Should I pretend you’re not here?” Mildred asked above the ratchet.
“No, I’m all here, Miss. Officer Harvey, SSU, Corrections.”
“I’m Nurse Mildred,” Mildred said. “Mildred Dephane.”
They stepped out into the hall, where their voices could rise above a mutter. “Andrew Harvey,” he said. “Call me Ange, like the rest. Though that’ll date me some.”
A nod to something past Mildred’s years, all twenty-five of them. But so be it: Ange, a hottish man in the low fifties. “I don’t know what SSU stands for.”
“Special Service Unit. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. It means—”
The clipboard was on them. “Mildred, may I borrow you for a moment?”
She came back half an hour later with rules, promptly broke. Ange was still there and would be for the term, Mildred knew now. He had put a chair by the door and himself down in it. Another officer would spell him at sunup, one no less nolo to a medical professional, at least one without a seven-year diploma and a residency.
Ange was scrying the glow of a smartphone. The overcoat had been rolled tight for the small of his back. When he stood up for her the bolster tumbled to the floor.
“I really can’t ask who he is?” Mildred said.
Phone went to pocket and he stooped for the coat, unfurled where it lay. “Who could tell you not to ask? But I can’t say—judge’s orders. It’s so the old man gets a fair shake.”
Sly. The patient had severe urticaria, which some might take for diaper rash. And there had been neglect. “It’s not like you’re a secret agent, Ange. You can tell me who you are.”
“Rude not to.”
“Why would someone who chases cons watch after a patient? Even one from the prison system? There must be six or seven different badges raring to go.”
“So you Internetted SSU on the way back. That’s really not all we do—chase cons.”
“But it does make him an offender of some kind. And since I’m a quick study, a special one. Best guess, special means violent.”
“Violent? There’s not a bite left in that head. And he can’t even throw up an arm.”
“Bad news for a cannibal, if that’s the gimmick. I don’t care who he is, Ange, or what he’s done. The whole thing is stupid. If he had just been brought in without fuss—no blindfolds, no gags, no lion tamer—nobody here would have thought twice. It’s belittling.”
“She make you sign something? That rep lady?” A form on letterhead. Healthcare had evil in the works: actuaries who drove up costs, and admins on the counter-hex with majestic overbilling. And each side kept attorneys like familiars on a chain. The firm with the hospital had put names of counsel at the top, a message in itself. “Sorry about that,” Ange said. “It’s not how I’d ever handle it. Nothing can happen here. And even if it could, I’d make sure it wouldn’t. You have my promise.”
“How gallant of you.”
“Forget it. I’m being a dick. It’s not your fault.” Mildred’s eye went to where the lapel hung open: a strut holster and a gun butt. “I could just ask him for his name. Most folks don’t forget it.”
“You could ask.”
“Is he lucid?”
“Wouldn’t know—he hasn’t had a thing to say to me. But I am a screw.” Her smile took no notice. “Of sorts. I’ll undo those cuffs whenever you need me to.”
She might have asked why anyone should bother to clap a man so weak in irons, but instead she answered for him. “Judge’s orders.”
“To the dot.”
“Palest woman I ever saw.”
First words, no louder than a kick of leaves. She had been having a look beneath the gown. His skin could bruise on a puff of breath. He had split and bled wherever he had been pulled during the transfers. The backs of his hands were like gloves ready for the trash. Everywhere else that wisp of a hide was raised up in wheals. Some sorts of urticaria could be written on. This was just a strikeout.
Normally a duty nurse on nights would let an admit sleep. But on the buzz-by Dr. Joss thought he had caught a whiff of clostridium. No black, or none that showed through. She had started at the rustle of his voice. There was no eye for her to meet—a flat potted ink.
She pitched each word. “Hello, mister!” A man so old would have a touch of deafness, if he still heard at all. “My name’s Mildred. I’m here to help make you comfortable. What’s your name?” She made sure it carried through the door.
He took his time. “Are you a ghost?”
“A friendly ghost.” She closed the gown.
“Robbert,” he said at last. And nothing else, not yet.
On her way out she walked past Ange. What he was reading in landscape turned out to be The Friends of Eddie Coyle. So a header said. Pretty fine print to be snatched up past a shoulder.
“He’s Bob,” Mildred said, continuing on her way. “His name is Bob.”
Ange gave a hum but never a look. I hear, it meant.
She came back with sponges and with her colleague Sus, for the turns. “We’ll need the jewelry off,” Mildred said.
Once he had returned to his post in the hall, she and Sus undressed the patient. He said not a word, only gasping through the dabs, the wring of suds into a pan. He was as frail a thing as either woman had ever washed. Sus sang a lullaby, “A la Nanita Nana,” but not so loud that a word stood out. Her full name was Jesusa Ruiz and she had a softness for the old, the very young, and the infirm. And for nobody else. She had a radiant cross in the web of a thumb. Mildred’s other coworker on nights, Harriet—born Hank and going by Hatsy—was a much sweeter person and not half the nurse. Hatsy and Mildred did enjoy a rapport. Mildred, once, looking to a list on a tube: “Why do they call it lanolin?” Hatsy, in a snap: “‘Sheep smegma’ wouldn’t move a lot of hand cream.” Still a smile.
When Sus left the room the old man spoke.
“The first, he was a boy. Six, seven, walking alone with a rod. I took him from behind the Sunday school. Chloral from the vet. Put on a chain in an old barn. Woke him up with a cup of piss. He asked for his mother once he got a breath. I showed him what I’d use, told him what I’d do. He shouted for her like I wasn’t there. Straightened out a finger on that hand. He tried to hold a fist shut but I forced it open. Soft. The bone so small. My teeth went right through. Like a bite out of a fig.”
It went on.
“All set,” Mildred heard herself say once she had finished bandaging the hands. The sheet and blanket were up snug, the bead of his eyes elsewhere. She walked past Ange and straight into the lav across the hall, where she retched into the sink once the door swung shut. Just a strand, but the burn of it ruined her eye makeup. She took a moment to blot, black curds on hand paper, because she knew the SSU officer would be waiting just outside to get a look at all the mess.
And there he was, with a look of such bare concern that she rolled her eyes. “Shucks,” she said, taking a hankie. A pocket square, silk, monogrammed—shame to snot into something so dressy. But she did so with a meek snort and and a digging pinch. “That was a eureka moment.”
“Are you okay?”
“He was telling me about some kid.”
Ange was quiet, but the anger spoke.
“So he likes children.”
No nod, nothing proven. And this time there was shame.
“What’s the count? How many were there?”
“Miss Dephane,” through a head shake.
“Here’s an easier number. He gave me a year. Just how old is he, Ange? It’s a blank on what I have. Like the spaces for name and social. But he’s got better than a century in him, doesn’t he? How else could he have a victim in 1926?”
What showed through had changed again.
“What? You didn’t know about one so far back?”
“I’ll have to make a call,” he said.
No further episodes, not that night. Nor did the old man die in it. Mildred went home at six in the morning, N Judah and a brisk walk uphill, still raw. It surprised her. A person in her calling got tough quick. Most nurses developed a hard sort of wit they could share on break, but a joke from hospice staff, that was downright acid. It ate through bone and bureaucrat alike.
Minds near the end could fetch back some purple stuff. The likelihood of truth was what made the difference. Mildred had more than pictured that dim barn. The weathered wood, cracked with sunlight. Alfalfa strewn out. The musky undertone of stalls. Smut on the chain. A grisly taste of rust.
The sun was up when she made the door. It would not clear buildings for hours. But she knew it was there. The rays put a chime in the air, unheard but crisp. Two flights, and then an attic ladder.
Mildred had lived in the Duboce Triangle for a while, all thanks to the generosity of a high-tech gay couple who owned a Vic. She had a “garret,” as they called it, all to herself for two point five a month and some dog-sitting with Miso, their toy. Mini fridge and hotplate, with headspace down a center line and in two dormers. It worked well enough for a kook’s life, which otherwise she would have had to run through the Transbay Tube, that lone howl underwater. But two point five did leave her tight. A review was coming up, which would mean a raise. Tu Lan and Mission Chinese whenever, and maybe a wine bar, a cocktail hat, and some dank if she was good. Best not to test the harpies in admin, tight as those snatching horrors were with human resources.
She showered. She brushed. She washed down two tabs of melatonin and pulled the Birthday Party T-shirt with the six-armed skull past a stuffy head. She knotted on the blackout mask with a granny at her nape. She scooted into tired satin sheets. And found that she would not sleep.
So went the first day without it in quite a while, as sunlight thumbed the tines out past the shades. The slowing of a music that had never quit.
Three doppios of espresso con grappa lent a will to go to work. And there she promptly made friends with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Rather one of them, and not bosom. The name was Penny Amerike and the title was Special Agent. Pleasant enough but all business—middle-aged and straw-blonde without visible eyebrows, in a skirtsuit whose taut fit shored up an already rangy height.
They had gone to a conference room along with Ange and the admin marm. Acoustic panels, windowless save for slotted vents, with high-backed chairs about a refectory table made of Swedish chipboard. “Mildred, please limit your responses to what’s appropriate,” said the marm.
“Donna,” Mildred said, “try to remember you’re not a lawyer.”
A scrawl upon the clipboard pad. The smile was remedial enough—slight but meant to be read.
“I wish I could tell you more,” said Agent Amerike. “But there’s a bench order.”
“Better said a public defender,” Ange said. “The judge, she’s a giver.”
Ange’s colleague for days—a blotchy red man—had agreed to spell him while the meet was underway. Just as Mildred’s equivalent—Cissy Isidro, alternate duty nurse—had done for her.
Cissy was spooked—almost as flat in affect as the main lead for days, who would be back on shift in twelve. Mildred wondered what she knew—what had been said. Last night a rave had still been likely—fictions, nothing more. An FBI visit confirmed that it had grounds, true or not.
“I won’t ask,” Mildred said, meaning about the patient and his crimes. “But how about the law? Can I go there?” She drew no comment. The full attention of Special Agent Amerike was enough of a yes. “A boy back in 1926,” Mildred said. “Could that even be prosecuted?”
“It could,” said the agent, and Ange lent a nod. “There’s no statute on criminal homicides. Time can’t run out. No one here can be sure what good could come of this. There might not be files going back that far. Children vanish and in time so do records. Well, you get my point. If it was a countywide jurisdiction, a sheriff’s office, it’s probably impossible. All the case history in boxes that went to a furnace or a landfill most of a lifetime ago.”
Ange said, “There’d be nothing left to bury anyway. Or rebury, with a name and dates on a stone.” He shook his head, even on the look from Amerike.
“And with a show of respect,” was all the reply. And to Mildred, “Are you ready?”
With that okay the recorder was put out, centered on the table space. Nice manicure, Mildred thought, as the fed touched the button with the red dot. Hatsy had squovals, and as she typed they chirruped like an angry mantis. Even from down the hall the sound raised hackles. Just look at the bumps, Mildred thought, with a glance to her forearm.
Each word, every detail—this time from Mildred, as well as she could recall.
She noted the discomfort, Donna’s, with a mean satisfaction, even in her own cold aftermath. Mildred wondered where the lawyers were. The pacts for silence had been struck in that selfsame room.
Statement made, Mildred took a sweaty glass of water. It had been set out for her at the start and untouched until the end. The dryness on her tongue broke on the swallow. She asked, “Think he’ll keep talking?”
No one had a thing to say to that.
So she added, “It’s not the gore that bothers me. More than once I’ve had my hand in a bedsore up to here”—touching the band on a watch she never wore. “I’ve pulled back a sheet on toes broken off. And one time”—to Donna—“a pleural empyema burst while I was assisting in a tube thoracostomy. I was pelted—soaked—my hair, my scrubs, my—”
“I think they have all they need,” Donna said, through the ashen drain. Mildred kept the simper down. She did have a pay hike to worry about.
“No one would remember,” Ange was saying after the rest had left. He and Mildred had gone to the break room for a quick cup, right next door. The exact same room, save for a rank of vending machines and a change of IKEA. “There’d be no one left to grieve. Seems to me, enough time goes by, it’s best to let ground lie still.” He took a sip and said the first part again.
They looked at each other. The sum of it. Neither had a thing to add.
“Things were less creepy when I worked in a funeral home,” he said at last.
“You were an undertaker?”
“It’s the Harvey family business.”
“You trying to appeal to my inner Wednesday Addams?”
“You have an inner Wednesday Addams?”
The fun was in the stress. Mildred held the smile. “I’m a full picture, Ange.” If he hadn’t known he sure did now. She hoped the eyeliner hid the wreck of going so long without sleep.
She had rounds, and they kept her from the room. One of the AIDS patients was lost in a gaze. He would pass before dawn, same as most aimed to. The stare was nothing new to a hospice nurse, and neither was the question of what it saw. Gloves went to the biohazard bin, scrubs to the laundry in the red hamper. Deborah Hankle was a new admit—terminal from something Mildred had never heard of. She leaned in to introduce herself. The gluey eyes tracked the lips. A nod at understanding, though edema had gotten the woman so puffy that she could barely shift a chin.
But in time Mildred had to force a step past Ange in his chair. There the old man lay, blinking slow, no weight of presence, nothing to say. And she noted with relief that he had shit the bed.
Code brown: that was cake. The task had a checklist, and a list kept a mind honest. She called in Hatsy as Ange undid the handcuff, hand to mouth and nose, regretting whatever round of departmental roshambo had sent him there.
Blackest stuff, as was fitting, and plenty of it. Most old-timers’ stool ran to sparse and dry, but this was a tar, and no less hot. No word from the patient as he went on a side. Nor from Hatsy, though some quip would be forthcoming in a sidebar out of earshot. Once Hatsy peeled off the filthy nitriles and ran out to fetch some powder, Mildred heard herself make the dare.
“No more stories for me? No more Timothy in the well?”
“Wipe that ass,” came the whisper.
When Ange came in the curt look told her right off that he had heard. Once the prisoner was under lock he gave a tilt of the head out toward the hall.
She headed him off. “Could we talk about it later, Ange? After?”
Not because she minded a scold in her place of work, though mind she did. No, she had to tucker herself out—that was the story. Beat the redeye as best she knew how. A folk remedy. Like grandma used to make, though that much might ruin the mood.
Only once the drinks were before them at an intimate table—a cafe steps from her door, just shy of seven a.m.—did he state the unnecessary.
“Don’t bait him.”
An unmarked Crown Victoria had got them there. No paint or stencil was needed, so loud did that make scream cop. He had parked in front of a hydrant, the only place anyone could on the Triangle that early. A Lovely Rita, fat and roundly hated, rode past on her three-wheel punt, never slowing. The fix was in.
“So you did hear that.” Espresso con grappa once again, or caffè corretto per the chalkboard.
“Why would you want to make him tell you?”
“The suspense was killing me? I don’t know, Ange.”
“Trying to help, I suppose.” He liked the sip he took and showed it with a hum. “All these law people there, waiting on a dime. First and foremost Special Agent Penny Amerike.”
No love there. Mildred gave a smirk despite the opening loft. Trying to help? “I’ll be a trooper.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong. We’re here to protect you. And that’s all I’m trying to do now. Me, my fondest wish is that he just clams up and dies. Never breathes out another word, even if it’s good morning. Mildred, you know, what you do there, on that floor, it’s …”
“I was going to say hard, but saintly, sure.”
She would never speak the truth of it—just what, so very far from any saint, had brought her to that work. Hell could pass, once she let it.
“Saintly,” she said. “Maybe a little tougher than working with the ones who already died, like in a funeral home. But that’s just because they’re so good at keeping it to themselves.”
A joke. But it wiped that bright smile clean off.
“What?” He gave nothing back, but the intuition led her. “The family business. You’re not in it.”
“I did have a reason to bug out. If reason can be the word. Maybe I should say I got a push. And maybe you don’t want to hear about it.”
“Anyone has pushes in her stories, it’s a nurse in terminal care. What could you possibly tell me that’s worse?”
“A dead body looked at me.”
That shut Mildred up. She leaned back aghast as more came.
“I was just a kid, really—not even twenty. My family had put me through the two years of coursework, and I had just begun my apprenticeship. It’s for the licensing—a requirement. The board didn’t mind that the mentor was my father and the apprenticeship in our home.
“Home—a place I knew already. The ceramic tile, sinks, tank, cart, the chains on the hoist, the stainless steel table, all of that. Home. And I’d seen the dead before. A kid gets used to things. And my father would bolt the door if it got to be too much—a body in a worse state.
“Late one night I was doing prep for him. He had gone out for a break. A smoke. He had a taste for cigars from back when preservatives were less trusty. One stink to shame the other.
“The body I was working with, it had been a young lady. A standard embalming—my father had an unorthodox way of going through it, though, English style, and I was following his steps. I’d washed her and worked the rigor out, but I hadn’t shut her eyes or mouth—set the features. That gets done with a glue and inserts, and for the arterial my father thought it helped to leave the mouth unsealed. Air pressure or some such. I was going to do the arterial first, the cavity work second, so I had a cannula and an aspirator and a trocar ready. I’m sure you know what those are in a medical context. I had to drain fluids to make room for the formaldehyde and the humectants. You open up the right carotid and jugular for the in and the out. Then if that all goes right you make a cut on the belly to get the trocar in. And the thing about this body was, well, the young lady had been pretty.
“No no, it’s not headed there. If anything I just felt protective—a regular Galahad. Also, a little embarrassed to be handling the lady fair with any sort of closeness. Creeps—now they do pop up, but they’re rare. Most of us just enjoy a show of respect. No one is garbage. That’s what we prove.
“Still, she’d been pretty, and I felt awkward. I had a cloth on her for modesty’s sake, mine I suppose. I kept glancing up to the face, the eyes. They were set staring upward. Droopy lids, glassy and cold and unevenly open. But pretty. A green. The head was on a block. Out of nerves I kept glancing to the face. And when I made the cut and got the cannula in the neck where it belonged, with a shove—before I switched on the pump—I glanced up again, and the eyes had turned to take me in.
“I froze. Not the head, just the eyes. Still claylike, lifeless, but in a perfect line of sight.” Two fingertips drew rays. “They’d slid in their sockets to meet mine.
“I know what you’re thinking. A coma, a premature declaration, all of that. But no. This body was stiff and cold and livid down the back. As dead as dead gets. And I know you’ve probably seen a postmortem spasm—that flutter. Morticians have seen it, too, and run with it. You hear tales—corpses kicking or swatting out an arm. But that’s all those are, tales. It’s a real thing, sure, but just a muscle twitch and only near the time of passing. An oddity, not a freak.
“This body … this body had been in the fridge overnight and dead for two days. The eyes didn’t track. They had just taken a glimpse and gone still again. I’d been seen while I wasn’t looking.”
“By what? By her?”
“By.” He shrugged. “By I don’t know. Whatever is. I’m not a churchgoing man. I don’t put names to blanks. But whatever is, it made an appearance that night, and it threw me off. Like a volt. I walked out to where my dad was burning down a Swisher and told him I had to leave. I never set foot in an embalming room again, and not in the rest of the house either once I could leave for good. The day after, I sat my father and mother down in the parlor—my brother was there, too—and told them there had been a change of plan. I couldn’t go back there—not even after my father died and my brother took over. Home one minute, a house the next. A strange house.”
“What does any of this have to do with becoming a cop?”
“Nothing,” Ange said, “and that’s the point. It turned out when I looked elsewhere that I had aptitudes. They led me where they would. As it should be. What, a single event created you?”
Mildred would say nothing on that, but she did say “Let’s fuck.”
He was a composed man, hard to fluster, but what a stare.
“Are you okay, Ange? I’m just propositioning you. You can say no. Life will go on.”
“I’m twice your age.”
“Who are you trying to talk out of it? Turn me down. It’s simple.”
“There’s a whole host of reasons—”
“‘No thank you, Mildred, for a whole host of reasons.’ What, you think bats will fly out?”
“I’m here on duty.”
She glanced to the back of a wrist—again, never worn. “No you’re not. Married?”
“Divorced. Gleefully divorced. Divorced with a hallelujah chorus.”
So it went. A few bumps of his graying head on her ceiling and then where it counted. He was not above an opener, nor the rest. No valentines or cues on the strings. Just a fiddle, so to speak—“Turkey in the Straw” and a bumpy hayride. She laughed at the thought, even as she felt him move her. And even as coming left her wrung. Not limp, but boned.
She laughed again, facedown and through the wrack of her hair, washed ashore. He laid on a kiss and she scarcely noticed the brush. The sheets were setting like a cast. She tied on the mask and let her guest rasp away in peace, in a better dark. And found again that she would not sleep.
The daylight hours rolled on at a slow crank. The rack, the tune, had grown familiar. A memory—and she had not paid any mind to it for the longest time.
At least she got a lift in a government hearse. No ruck of a commute for the walking dead, with fifty wakeful hours in a tow. Ange had asked, “You okay?” so she knew the drag showed. Same cafe, four doppios and a croque gagnet that merged with the plate. He had paid. She had let him.
And zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Felix was waiting. This was the name of the day lead, Mildred’s counterpart—Felix Roos. He was a small, dark man whose face never stirred, mouth aside, and that only in a happenstance as he spoke. The doe-eyes rarely blinked, even as he gave her the post-shift brief. She watched him in a leaden trance.
“Mrs. Loos is stable. Mr. Piedmont is having trouble with solids so we’ve switched him over to liquid supplements. Mr. Wan asked not to take visitors aside from his wife but that shouldn’t matter for the night shift. The unnamed gentleman is stable, though the attending was concerned about an odor. Mrs. Johnson coded and was called just before noon. Ms. Vandekamp is showing rubor on the left natis so the attending ordered a change in the bed posture rotation. The decubitus on the right is showing some response to the vac sponge so her primary ordered that therapy continue until the secondary pneumothorax is untreatable. Just for her comfort.”
His habit—a love for the rundown, terms and all, and none for the nurse’s cant. With Felix it was enuresis and never gold. Mildred supposed, while she had the flicker of energy, that such devotion was what the patients needed. Felix often stayed on late. Especially for those nearest the end.
But something had stuck out in the hum—more like a gap than a point of focus. “You said unnamed,” Mildred said. “The unnamed patient.”
“Unnamed gentleman. Yes.”
“You didn’t ask about that.”
“It never gave you a second thought when you saw a top sheet with no name on it.”
“No name was provided. Administration had me sign a document. You must have done the same. So there’s nothing to ask about. I don’t understand.”
True that, yet wrong. A part of her wondered what had bothered her. She herself had claimed that she did not care who the patient was. But that was a matter of fame and not of the blank laid out right before her, on the wane in a bed. She tried again. “Did you get a look at him?”
“I inspected for sign of necrosis. No debridement was necessary. The odor is worrisome.”
“Never mind a course of treatment. I meant his face. The look in his eye. What do you make of him? Of the man himself?”
Felix was silent, and Mildred knew this meant he had never glanced to the face, not once. He had no curiosity about who lived behind the eyes. Nor any question in himself.
So Mildred tried to prompt one. “None of us knows who he is, Felix. And he has a police on hand. He’s under, like, actual guard. A dying man handcuffed to a bed. None of that struck you as talk? As someone worth looking at?”
“We look at a condition. What would be the point of mentioning what we both know?”
Mildred was working out the knot when the marm came up.
“May I borrow you?”
“I’m just starting a shift, Donna. My, my colleague here was—”
“Felix can fill in for the next hour or so. There’s a deposition in the conference room.”
“I said deposition. There’s somebody brand new for you to meet.”
“Great. I’ll be a minute,” Mildred said, because she saw that Ange was coming up even as Felix broke away. He had been chatting down the hall with his own day-shift sub all the while. The looks between them had not been pleased.
Donna made no move at first, so Mildred repeated the last two words with undertones of lady-friend, I am going to kick you in the vagina until gum balls fall out.
Alone at last, though not for long. Ange led her aside. “Hey, just don’t mention anything.”
“What?” And on the lead—a silence, a meaningful stare—she added, “Oh, for Christ’s sake. I’ve never met a crybaby who could flick a bean so well.” A look of distaste made her think twice. “Sorry. I’m pretty ragged. I just need some sleep.”
“Well, mea culpa.”
She let him think so. A sheepish smile was too sweet to ruin. He was pretty—she could say that much for him.
An attorney, as guessed. But not one with a name Mildred had pledged her troth to. A lawyer—young for that ilk, soft in feature and a three-piece. And not alone. There was a videographer, who would remain nameless, like the weather; Penny Amerike, the fed; and the fed’s fed, a stout gray man with a bluish shave who went by Joe in a quick aside. Mildred stared at the card given to her. Aside a bureau wreath and shield, his title was Unit Chief. She wondered where an ancestral name took a mark above a letter cee.
Those four, Donna, and the wraithlike presence of a judge. The lawyer made this loom known almost as soon as he gave himself an identity. “Peter Coniglio,” he said. “Feel free.”
“Free to what?” Mildred asked.
“Okay. Miss Dephane, I’m here with a judicial order on behalf of my client, whom you’ve met.”
No pause. “Judge Gabriella Wong has asked for a transcript of your statement. This will go into the sealed record, pending a decision of the court to make it available for an investigation.”
“Over our objection,” Joe said. And he would add nothing more.
“Noted, Mr. Banicevac.”
Mildred would not have guessed the sound of it, said aloud. “Wait,” she said. “You just want me to repeat what I told them already? For the cam?”
“For the court. That’s our sole aim here, Miss Dephane.”
That story, alive in her own mouth once again. She felt a crawl. “Why? Their word isn’t good enough?” Mildred noted a smile from Amerike—pained.
“As sworn agents, their testimony is admissible. You needn’t concern yourself with just why.”
“Glad for an option. But I’ve already gone through this, and I’d rather not—I’d—I’d rather not.”
“Mildred, under your agreement, you’re bound to—”
“Yes yes, Donna. Shouldn’t there be another lawyer in here? One for me?”
“Why, Miss Dephane?” Coniglio asked. “Do you feel you need one?”
Mildred stared at him. He stared back. And in that space she made the leap.
“Miss Dephane, please.”
“You think I made it up,” she said.
Mildred watched the young attorney’s eye. And she saw that he did not believe it himself. He had a public face—one that vested a thought and perhaps even his truth—but that much was plain. It didn’t matter, not for a defense. A story would beat a story—that was the plan of attack.
She went on anyway. “You think that I heard what he was—the name, the crimes—in spite of precautions the hospital took, and the court. And that once I had that much traction, I dug in and built on. Either because I’m a liar or because I’m an idiot—a idiot who can’t tell waking life from nightmares. And all because my waking life, the work I do here, is ugly.”
Even Donna would not touch that anger. The attorney began to raise a hand.
“No, no, Peter Rabbit, you just roll that thing. How’s my hair?”
Half an hour as she told it again. Half an hour, down to least and worst—led and cued and corrected all through, to make as whole a picture as mere word allowed. By the end she was sobbing. Relived, and slavishly felt—this miserable end all she knew of a long-dead boy who had gone out and never come home to a mother.
And there were follow-up questions, of course. About what she had known, what she did not, and who had told her or had not. Worse, whether anyone else had been in the room when what Mildred alleged had been said had been said. To corroborate, as Coniglio put it.
Just as sussed out. She considered adding that she had fucked the turnkey. Corrupted a sworn officer on duty. She might as well have been cast as a jezebel while she was at it.
Only after—once the videographer was packing up and the attorney made patent heels down the hall—did Special Agent Penny Amerike step up and give a hug, short and unprofessional. Mildred’s fists stayed on the tabletop. The smell of glue in that chipboard would never fade.
“I’m sorry,” the agent said, straightening back up. “I’m so sorry.”
They would not meet again. The wrongful death to come would go to another agent, thanks perhaps to that show of regret, as the Unit Chief had looked on through the pepper of his beard.
The air felt brittle as Mildred waded back to the desk. The fluorescent lights cycled overhead, a comb of bees in her hair. A swat. She checked the move and looked about her. None had seen.
Sounds had grown close in that sleeplessness. The working idle of her brain had begun a shift, she knew. Grim experience, forgot for years, told her that in a day or two she would begin to see things. At present they only showed in the corners—darks that scatted whenever she turned to look.
Ange was sitting by the door, and Felix was coming back through with a speed, eyes to Mildred. Some sort of news. She had never seen him so alert, so involved.
“Gas gangrene,” he announced. “Jesusa is in there. Dr. Joss is on the way.”
Mildred was trotting for her locker and a change, but Felix said, “Wait,” and caught up. She did. He stepped up too close again, this time with a confidence.
“You were right. I hadn’t looked him in the face. That’s Robbert Frisk.”
She might have asked just who Robbert Frisk was, if she cared, but Felix had already turned to leave. The end of his shift was long past.
Like many nurses on nights, Mildred had a popper stash. There was a stockpile of dex in the locker, too, but that fatter bootstrap would have to wait. She made it to the room in two minutes’ time, wiping at a nostril. By then Sus was sponging down the chest with antiseptic. There at last an evil had shown, and fast, come up through the ribcage like a pouched smoke.
“Poor demonio,” Sus was saying. “Poor old monster.”
Now it mattered. Robbert Anselm Frisk was born on December 17, 1908, in a worker’s camp outside Sebastopol, California. His mother died of puerperal fever not long after. His father, native to Sweden, had become a beekeeper, and this career kept the survivors on a move. They found a beat among the vineyards and orchards of Sonoma, Solano, and Napa, always dusty, never at home.
As she read on—a wiki article on the staff desktop computer—Mildred expected bee themes to the crimes. Flip, but also what middlebrow stuff had told her about procedure, from wrongful death to hunt. Any fact she met would have to figure in a truth—a strand linking man to crime. But there was no sense to any of what she read, no underlying shape. Frisk’s only motive was the need itself, and the need had come from nowhere. Pat and so much worse for it—something visited on a man by chance. A moth lit to a sleeve, drawn in from empty night.
Frisk had moved to San Francisco after clerk service in the Pacific theater. Police later tied him to three disappearances there, all of them young children, the first in 1947. He went to Los Angeles in late 1955; that turn saw another three vanish. A relocation to San Jose, 1961, where two more children had lived too near. He was caught with that last of these in 1967—a bundle in his arms, and a walk into the redwoods off Route 17, well past dark. It so happened that a sheriff’s car had been parked in a thicket with its beams off. Lit on once again. What she read gave her no detail but she pictured the scene. A flurry of wings in a round of headlights and flashers, cast off by a sky gone blue.
By trial Frisk had reached late middle age—a lifetime, all but, that had shortened eight. The true count was higher, all agreed—it had to be. Inquiries opened in Manila, where the Army had stationed him in 1944 to oversee a warehouse, and in Anchorage, on map work for minesweeper ops in the Aleutians, 1943. Anywhere Frisk had lived, folders were unstrung, foxed pages laid out.
But nothing more was proved, and in any case the man had been found guilty. The sentence was tempered by a diminished capacity, which spared the neck. Life without parole, to be served in a psychiatric lockdown on the other side of the Contra Costa Hills. There he had lived under watch, but not with much pity, for almost half a century. And so he spited the bars by refusing to die.
Until now. Gas gangrene was hard to treat even for the strongest of patients. And this was in the trunk, not on a limb. Septic shock was sure. Frisk showed no sign of delirium—and no pain.
“Good” was what Ange said once he got the chance.
Painlessness was not what he meant. If Sus had caught the remark, she might have thrown for the face. Mildred knew then and there what she had suspected already—that they would never hook up again.
She had been walking up on the door with a fresh gown. Dr. Joss had ordered HBOT therapy, fragile state or not. At worst, rich air would just kill Frisk faster. There were hyperbaric chambers on six, and Frisk would spend the night in one, under glass, and the day after.
And Ange said it again on her lengthy stare. “Good.”
“Why?” she said. The whisper had a slice. “Have you seen it? Do you know what myonecrosis is? There are blisters on him—black blisters. There’s nowhere to amputate. Nothing we can cut without killing him. Part of his body is already dead and it’s going to take the rest with it.”
“This is a hospice floor, isn’t it? Isn’t dying the point?”
“Dying better is the goddam point. Dying without a screaming agony.”
“I know you know,” he said. “I read it in your eyes. And now that you know, you know why. He came here because they took him for on the outs. Now he actually is. And not for any better. Good.”
And she not even on a slab to throw him a volt. She stared. Ange shrank.
“Keep it to yourself, Officer Harvey,” she said at last. And nothing more.
While she was alone with the patient to change the soiled johnny gown—mouth set hard, muttering through a list of names she wished she’d called him—Frisk spoke.
“What was that?”
“Same barn for the second. Same length of chain. This time a girl, nine. She went out to the pail closet in the dark, a summer night. I was waiting in it. She knew me from the school. I took her by the hand. We were leaving Pew Creek Valley just the next day. Her nightgown was from that wish book—white cotton that smelled like laundry soap. And then it didn’t, and it wasn’t.”
It went on.
“I put her in an oak. Up there a quarter mile deep in the draw. The nightgown never caught an eye. Not enough brightness left in it. Never did find that one. Not a word in the papers except about the loss. She must still be there. Fallen from the branch, leafed over. Spread out on the floor.”
Like the change of hospital gown. The vinyl had a dull shine, mopped not an hour past with antiseptic, and was cold underfoot even through the clogs. Mildred had never said a word or moved away. She had only willed herself not to heed a thing and had leaned in on every word.
At last she turned about and made past Ange without a glance. His huff let her know a message was received. But her thought was no longer on him, not at all, and she never heard the sigh.
At the station, front and center. A colleague—the alternate duty nurse for nights. “Can you cover?” she said. “I don’t feel so good.”
“You do look a fright,” big Hatsy said, camp but kind.
And found for the third time, worst and last, that she would not sleep.
The dainty figure played in her mind once again—a music box left unclosed. Someone must have shut it after, but by then Mildred—exhausted, sixteen, and set to zero—had gone from her mother’s room, and then her mother’s house, to let it wind down unheard. Nine years, and the trundle was still going, the teeth plucking at the comb.
The mask came off—a yank, a stare into the seams of the roof. Eyes sore and dry, not just on a blink but in their very gel. The scrape of light was worst at the shades, and she met the nearest glare with her own. A warm fabric with crisp shapes showing through—every husk of a fly, every fiber in the weave. Like an amber catch, sunny but timeless, looking out on a reel of days and stars.
Mildred rose. She pulled the tee clear. A shower and ten drops of Visine let eyes roll without grit, but she skipped the makeup and the double shots. Go-pills were what she had in mind, and not an hour later she found them raring in the locker back at work.
She had come in a sunhat, sunglasses, and a rental car, her very first. But before she took the wad of keys and contract terms back to it—and the aspirin bottle full of dex—she paid a visit to six. Ange’s colleague on days, reposted there, gave her a nod from his chair in the hall. He went back to an issue of Fly Tyer with a bead-head nymph on the front, as he could have told her.
A nod, but not of recognition, and a look askance at the doorway. On a stray breath Mildred caught the whiff—something cheap from a flask. That post was a penalty, it seemed. And Ange’s assignment on graveyard was the worse—not just rock met up with paper. Now she wondered what Andrew Harvey had done, righteous or not, to have met her at all.
Felix came out as she tried to enter. She heard her name but paid him no mind. He was off the ward where he worked, but Felix often did make special rounds for patients near the end. He stared after her as she went in, and the duty cop never looked up from nymph and hook.
The treatment was a vitrine with a bed in it, airtight, the whole rounded like a drum. There Frisk lay. No need for handcuffs, not in those thick glass confines. His hands lay crossed at his belly. Bandages gone, she could see into them—a violet in the rays of bones. The bruise of life. Some of the color showed in all the dressing on his chest, where debridement had gone as deep as it could. But more the seep was a hopeless gray, and watery.
Mildred set her hand near his face. She waited as a haze formed around it on the glass.
And for the first time, with trouble, that head turned to meet her eyes. His own had no depth. Like a daub from a thumb even as they searched, and even as she asked, and even as the answers came.
So much sun, so awake—a gnash under a smirk as she sped up the highway, so to speak. Pills were the least of it. The daylight was hammer and scald, both at once. When she raised the sunglasses the scene would bleach out. She drove under the limit, even in the pebbly wakes of trailers, eyes forward. She had a license but not the use—she had not driven for years. But it all turned out to be so close, not even two hours behind the wheel—a rural country shot with roads that made do without names. Those with numbers closed the distance—101, 116, 12 East, 12 North, through yellow hills and marsh flats and on to wooded ridges and the staked glens that lay between them. Pew Creek Valley was one such, a peg to drop above old Sonoma and Boyes Hot Springs. It was on the geothermal chain that ran to Calistoga, so Mildred was half sure the Pew name would turn out to have come from a famous stink.
Nearer, the lead became hard to follow. But the whisper from the jar had got her far enough. Once someone from local times might know a name, she asked where the old Skene Orchards had been—a gas station clerk and a vendor at a stand. The latter had more, and plenty, as deep as the lettuce bins. Mildred took the advice and even a hand-sketched chart. Neither man paid her sickly whiteness any bother, nor her blindwoman’s shades and the squint behind them. And neither told her not to go, nor why she should not. City hair and all, they took her for a student. Those were like to show out there at the old Skene Orchards, though none had ever sought it by that name.
At last her rental was raising dirt through a scrub and the trip began to feel done. Here was a backcountry, a lapsed place. Woodland had crept into the unturned fields, and the tillage never showed. But the first tractors had beat ruts as hard as grout, even where furrow and ditch had vanished, and her tires skipped among them—throughways that would never close.
Shortly before Frisk’s time, Virgil Skene and kin had called it quits. There had been a beetle in the rows and a strange dying—a chicken coop smothered all at once, and nothing but the empty sky to blame. Skene’s horse barn had stood near Farrow Ridge, named so because the spurs looked like piglets at a sow. Also, Pew was Welsh, the name of a homesteader who predated the Skenes by half again. These were not Mildred’s facts but part of the map given out free of charge. She hoped the ten-dollar sack of apples, nestled in the trunk and headed nowhere near her mouth, was gratitude enough. That and two bunches, an impulse buy—flowers to put on unmarked ground.
Trees had reclaimed it all to a glut, live oak and bay laurel that smelled like garnish. The understory scraped at her doors, invasive broom that was all but forest itself.
In short time she came upon a chain-link fence. The signs put up by the county were rusted out to a mellow brown. The barricade ran across the lane she had followed, and weeds had set up in the wire hems as best they could. But they could not break the pan, and the track was whole. It vanished up ahead, down a slope—the end so very close, just visible through a mesh. To either side, where shade had let it grow unruly, poison oak boiled on the wire. Bugs were creaking in the shrubs like mainsprings that never wound down. In chorus the sound of them was otherworldly, the heat itself.
She considered the fence, nine feet high and capped with bobwire. No use. The door swung wide. Here the leaves and branches were thick enough to lay a mottle, half dark, so she raised the frames. Rays struck like matches. With a cuss she rubbed out the pain and the afterimage. Back the sunglasses went. She chased two pills with the last of an orange soda and knew from a remove how done she was. The rasp in her breath told her as much, under the dreamy whine of insects.
No water bottle, no long pants, and a pair of eight-eye Docs meant for a dance floor. Nevertheless off she went, straight through a bale of red and oily leaves that had slumped off the fence. The bouquets stayed behind with the fruit, in the brace of the trunk, and it was no longer cool enough to keep off the wilt.
The county had let a university install a gate, well chained, for study of the Farrow Ridge Mazuku. But Mildred had driven in the wrong way and gone in the wrong direction to stumble on that entrance or its grave warnings. Most of an hour and a half mile, the progress slow, and yet she could not turn back. The fence had long since veered toward the ridge, and sweat hung unfelt in her dark clothes. A modest summer—low eighties, no more—but to her a disembodied singe.
At last she found a weak spot. In wetter months a runnel had cut space under the mesh. On a nervous gulp her throat was no less dusty. Mildred had a dread of ticks, but more she wanted shut of it all, whatever had urged her on. She shimmied under boots first, the first stipples of a rash on her bare calves. The ends of the wires added their own scratches, and one drew blood.
Water for ticks, she thought, chin in a crane.
Through—she was somewhere in the memory. The country looked no different. She rose to her feet and shook twigs and bits of plant matter from her hair. But she noted that the song fell behind. No bugs, only a silence and the scrape of feet as she drove herself along. Back the hat went.
A strong breeze came in on a glide, channeled by the ridge, and this alone saved her life. She had found a much older fence, this one split-railed and low. In places it was dry-rotted to a crumbling dice. Where rails stood whole, the wood was crusted with lichen so thick it made a nap.
The spans and posts led her over a short rise. Once she crossed a verge of stunted trees and thinning shrubs, just at the drop, she found the world changed.
The spurs of the ridge looked as they had—on her right and closer than ever, not a half mile. There were thickets up in the draws. But the land the fence split was the surface of a moon.
Mildred could see the edges, concave and neatly circular. No weeds, no dirt underfoot, a rootless soil washed down to a rubble of stone. Trees lay near where they had stood, or what remained, wry and smooth and whitened like a coral growth. A bowl of nine acres, and in it nothing known.
Save a roof, a ruin—those were human traces. A pond, broad and scummed, was at the low center, and at the heart of the pond were the slumping pitches. A drowned barn. Mildred’s eye went to it and held. The fence ran to the pond itself and led her up. At the waterline it shed the rails. Three uprights showed in the catchment, out of true and ducking underwater at a steady rake.
A sinkhole, Mildred guessed. The Skene barn and the land around it had settled three fathoms into the earth, at deepest, and the water lent two more. On the far side lay the heaping timbers of an old house, spread like a hand for a trick. The earth had been pulled out from under it. One old window casement had survived—panes of glass, sashes, and all, latched shut and at rest on a side. Nothing grew on the wreck. But it was unblackened—nothing like that barn roof. She stared.
There was a bleachy stink to that whole stadium of rubble. Mildred did not know but this was tell of a smother clear down to germ cells. On windless mornings when the cold was still in the rock, a veil showed, sparse and clinging flat at the drop. The same line where the land itself had once stood. Nothing would stir in that ghostly pool. But on a summer afternoon—no cloud above, and air on the move—there was no flaunting the threat save by what it had killed.
And it had killed without limit. Some prey was more obvious than a nose, but Mildred had blinkers on hers, those thick sunglasses. Here and there were duster heads where birds had made an unlucky choice of roost. Clutches of feathers, yellowed and shivering until the wind sowed them.
No eye for those trophies. Mildred looked down from the roof to the face of the pond. No play, no ripple. The breeze shied off it and came to her, and the scent was different: a ferment, like an open gut. The film had every shade in it but green—a twist of blues, oranges, ruddy browns. And in the few places where the crust fell through, the water that showed was a depthless black. But thin streams of bubbles were coursing up without stop.
The waterline on the ridge side, past the fence, got closest to the barn. Mildred squinted through the tint as she approached. No detail came but the hips of the roof. The wreck was as unreflective as the water it sat in. No texture, no seam. It might have been cut from rock and polished. She coughed. Near the edge there was a coolness at her knees, a discrete surface, like wading. She swung a boot over the unhitched rails, then the next. No lichen there: only the selfsame damp char and a white ring of salts. The wood had no brown rot either. Nothing ate at that depth, whatever the size. And nothing aged but slowly, under weather.
A mound stuck out into the pond. This jut was a shallow mix of lag gravel and skulls—of frogs and lizards and field mice, long built up. Not even as hearty a snap as an eggshell underfoot. A mortar of insect parts, an armor dropped, was packed deep into the stones.
No glance down. She made out the give of bones no better than she had those blanks on the fence. All her thought was on the top of the barn, like a raft just cast off. Bygone time, past reach but in sight. She coughed again, at what she thought was the bony tickle of the place.
Under there, she thought, looking at the rooftop. That was where. Empty and remote, even before it had come to look as it did now. The near ruin and its single pristine window. Even while it had all stood—Frisk near, and those he had carried—no one would have seen them come.
More—if she could get no closer she needed to see more. She hunkered down to squint at the blackened joins, the boards and the shingles, if she could make them out, and the ghost was at her chest, just under the thrust of the wind. The sunglasses were too dark for a scruple.
The sun had ducked into the farther ridge. No beam right on her—nothing to hurt an eye.
Impatience, anger—Mildred reached up to whisk off the frames. And all the clear light of day came pealing in at once. She cried out. She set a hand into the scrap and forced her eyes wide.
Shapes were returning through the dazzle and the stream of tears. Aside the frames where she had dropped them and between her outspread fingers she began to see the hollow orbits, the skulls, the teeth. But the afternoon wind fell off, and in the lull the chokedamp sat and rose.
Mildred’s face went cyan. She was unaware of strangling until she heard her own breath, a hard pull into her chest like an inward shout. Strangling, strangling—too fast she stood. No balance, no legs. She reeled back. A hollow log caught her up. She clapped her hands to the wood. With a muted crack it gave beneath her weight. She heard only the hauls of her breath, breaking like a voice.
A gust. The living air came back. Blue flushed red and strands dangled from her gasping mouth. The nap felt unlike bark or wood, even at the splinter. She looked down through the beat of her pulse and saw that the log was the carcass of a mountain lion, stretched out on a side. One stray hand was in the teeth, the other on the pelt.
She saw, she knew. A run for higher ground, half blind. Sunglasses and hat stayed behind, lost for good or until a student in an oxygen mask and hazmat whites bent down, picked them up, and wondered.
Near trees, Mildred thought without the words—green plants. Up into the draw she went.
Shade, a puke, a cry. Only then did Mildred realize just how close she had come. The sour smell was gone, and the carpet of little bones save in her mind. She never looked back, only ahead, as her eyesight and her mind tuned to clear day for the first time in years. It amazed her, how far she could see, and how small—every stalk, every leaf.
But there was room for marvel. In the trees she came upon a lone black oak. Slopes rose to either side, full of bay, and the ground lay bare from runoff. Acorns were cached at the foot—piled deep, one with the soil—and the boughs were laden with mistletoe.
Not so thick that the hank of a rope was lost. A tarred hemp rope, in a fray. Her eye had gone right to it. The other end had merged into the platy wood itself. The throttle showed in a line.
Regrets said, the dig began—bare hands in nuts and cupules and a thready black dirt—though Mildred had never heard herself speak a word. At last her fingers combed through a braid of rope, undone like a lock of human hair. And in it a hook, rusted to a flake that turned the soil red.
The sight of Ange was no surprise. His voice had led her while she followed the chain-link fence—her own name, and loud. Her breath had been too short to throw a yell. But once she had got past the foot of the last spur—all downhill—she called back to him, one hand in a hard fist.
The tale showed in his eyes from behind the links. His fingers came through the wires and she laced them with her own, the hand she could spare, dirty raw nails and all.
“Are you out of your mind?” he asked. “Do you know what this place is?”
But she was sagging down to the bottom of the links. Someone else was rushing up on the far side—a uniform, a deputy sheriff. Before he ran off again, Ange said more to him than what Mildred caught, which was cutters. He kept a hand to her shoulder through the fencing at her back. No one could enjoy a sit better than she did then. Her arms hung dead.
“You’ll want to get a bus,” she said at last.
“An ambulance. That’s what those of us in healthcare call it.”
The grip tightened. “You’re hurt?”
She opened the fist to a milk tooth—hardly more than a shuck in that clot of black dirt. “A bus and, I don’t know, a coroner?” Too recent for historians, too ordinary for a dig.
He had tailed, he explained in the back of the ambulance, the one sent just for her. His partner on days had listened in at the door, apparently less of an avid fly-tier than he had let on. Police work had not stopped, even while they babysat a fiend.
“We’re not stupid,” was how Ange put it, as she lay strapped in a gurney. “Though I did lose you in the open. I had to hang back in the woods and I missed your turn. I went to that fruit stand you stopped at and et cetera.” The daylight was fading from the windows of the rear door, even as the siren wailed through the rooftop and the lights made a clap. Several miles back, other lights had made a flashing circle, and moths would gather in the beams.
“I never saw you,” she said through the mask, clouded with her breath. The twinkle he held back touched on more than she knew. “What about my rental car?”
“You’re going to worry about that? You almost died back there.”
“I’m alive and I’m flat broke.”
“The sheriff will get a wrecker on it. Tow truck—calm down. I’m guessing that you won’t have to pay the impound. You did aid in a criminal investigation. That’s how I’ll put it, anyway.”
“The car is going back,” she said. “They have my credit card.”
“Mildred, the ambulance ride alone will bankrupt you.” He was joking, not without truth, but she made no fusses for him. In truth she was already near to sleep, but not before she got out the whole point in a last mutter.
“No one is garbage, Ange.”
Asleep, and she stayed that way through the night and well into the morning. Even in a ward in Santa Rosa, under observation by a team of nurses. Ange had left. But not before his cash put her rental car in the hospital lot, waiting for her, without a further liability on the drab tourist finish.
She woke in a strange room, and it was a wonder. Not for the strangeness, same as any dowdy hospital space, but for the waking, and for when. A stride had been broken—a night watch that had gone on for nine years. She saw that she had not truly been awake in all that time. That she had forgot what waking meant.
Bandaged and salved and dreading a bill, Mildred stepped through sliders and into morning sun without so much as a squint. Ange had left a note—short—and this led her to the car. She was rid of that yoke before noon, formerly midnight. The attendant at the rental car depot found the apple sack and the fallen petals, and one or the other got eaten. Mildred had cha gio with sweet iced coffee.
Good lunch, but Mildred knew what she would eat with the admins and human resources for missing a shift. She doubted the ax. In truth she had a mind to do some swinging of her own. A penance was done—there was no remedy in the sick and dying, not any more.
So she went to work off shift. And there took the news.
The angel let her in, in his darker scrubs. Mildred had never set foot down in the basement before, but she and the morgue attendant had met so often that they spoke as friends.
“Hey, Milly. You okay? Dang—that poison oak?”
“I’m fine, Vico. Though my legs are tapioca. I’m looking for Robbert Frisk.”
She remembered the ruse. “He wouldn’t have had a name on the form. He was a hundred and six, so that’ll help. You would have brought him down about three hours ago.”
“Got me at no name. Some admin was just down here with a page for me to put an ex on. There’s gonna be a transfer to the popo. I’m not supposed to let anyone near.”
“Oh yeah. Fuck those guys. This way. He was a favorite? Saying some farewells?”
Drawer pulled, Mildred found herself alone as Vico returned to his desk. She looked down at a figment—something that could never be taken for a man. And she watched that stillness for a long time before she heard herself speak. She might have pocketed the tooth—brought it there for a show. But there was nothing to defeat and even a scrap of a nameless girl deserved better.
Instead, Mildred felt the tears, hot but weightless.
“I wish I had killed her,” she said easily. “I had them draw the tube. She had suffered enough—the disease took her apart for years. Her lungs were whited out on the X-ray. She got the infection when they were treating a bedsore. She was scared and confused when she was there at all. She asked for my help. That’s the last word I heard her say—help. And I held her hand and lied to her. I watched her gasp. It went on. Most of a week—no water but a drip, no food, white inside her mouth. It went on. Gasping, gasping for breath in that wet rattle, and I told her it would be okay. It went on. Fighting for a breath day and night. I spoke to her about about meeting again somehow, but not so loud to open her eyes. I didn’t want her to be awake for it. I wanted her to die without knowing—without being scared. But it went on. And on. And on. I wish I had what you had in me.”
She had been looking at the chest where Vico had drawn back the sheet, to that soiled tape and gauze. But now she looked to the face, those shallows. And only then did she realize how dearly she wished an eye had turned—how she had counted on a glimpse.
A near whisper, gentle, but she leapt. The angel in the basement never called her that. Still, she was surprised to see Ange once more. He held out a handkerchief like the first. Perhaps it was the same, back from the cleaners for another round of mop work.
“Get away from there,” he said, no less mild.
The silk smeared at her face. No makeup to leave a mess this time. “He can’t hurt me.” The holes were trained into the panel lights. Cold, unseeing—those remnants could not rightly be called eyes.
“You’re tampering with evidence,” Ange said. “The room upstairs, it’s a crime scene. A unit is on the way. Detectives, forensics, and one peeyoed public defender.”
Now it mattered. Felix Christian Roos was born August 10, 1980, in a back-to-earth commune outside Big Sur, California. His father died of a heroin overdose not long after. His mother, a zipper bag heiress, child model, and drifter with schizophrenia, led her son from one compound to another along that coast, and later in backwoods Oregon—always rainy, never at home.
As her health grew worse, she subjected him to abuse, some of it sexual, some emotional, and most with doses of LSD. He was taken from her custody at the age of nine and placed in foster care, where his treatment got better but his stare did not. His mother’s family tracked him down by 1991—difficult, since she had long used an assumed name, and they knew nothing of the father.
Roos found himself the ward of a great uncle, living all but alone in a split-terraced home on a fragile slope in Malibu. There he found out his mother had died not long after his removal. A suicide by gunshot. He kept a diary even that early, and it revealed the beginning of his fixations. How he might have helped her, for one, and homicide. Not least of that, killers and their fame.
The count of victims was undetermined and could never fully be known. But authorities knew it was high, possibly over a hundred. His sole choice of target was any patient suffering on the verge of death. Whether that was out of mercy, or for expedience, was a matter of question.
In truth when Mildred read up on her former colleague, many weeks later, she saw that he had only been charged in one case: that of an anonymous patient brought in under court order after years of neglect. Only lately had the news revealed, with much hype, that this was Robbert Anselm Frisk, murderer of children, somehow yet alive half a century after those other gruesome facts. He had outlived the infamy, at first.
But this was months ahead. And Mildred would never care about any of that, least her own brushes. Instead she would look for the signs—any tell of what she had missed, and how she might not miss it again. More than once she had met flat eyes and wondered who could live in them.
What she did know that night was how Felix Roos had been caught. It was Ange’s partner on days who had noticed the tampering with the oxygen supply, and still she forgot the name. Her mind was elsewhere. The doubt grew, and then the surety, and then it was anger.
The police interviews were done, and she only knew she had new amends to make. In time life might lead past a sickbed, but not yet. Not while she had let harm roam free after looking it in the eye.
In the hall she walked past Ange, who was taking an earful from Coniglio, without so much as a smirk. She admired that in her new friend—that restraint—but not much else. Even as he shot her a wink, and even as that wink raised the volume behind her. For once she felt a sympathy for Peter Rabbit. So much so that even in her remorse and her purpose—an errand downstairs—she waited just down the corridor, leaning on a wall, staring into a panel light. She remembered the flicker, how it had played on that handcuff.
At last Ange was with her. The attorney had made a last round of threats—much ado about Judge Gabriella Wong—and had turned around to find another way to vent.
“Don’t call me, Ange.”
She read the hurt, but no surprise. He said nothing.
“You and your partner figured it out before anyone else. You watched the rounds and got a feeling. You knew about Felix.”
Narrow eyes, a quick glance around, to see who had heard. Mildred had not lowered her voice.
“Before he was even in that hyperbaric chamber. Stuck into a bottle, and dying, and helpless. You both knew, and you both let it happen.”
Ange smirked, looked to his feet. Wounded pride, nothing more. “Well, now, Nurse Dephane,” he said at last, “do I have to make another phone call? My union rep? Pull a rabbit of my own?”
“No one is garbage,” she said, and no more. A turn, and one more fix.
Down to three she went, in search of human resources for an unscheduled meet. It was not Donna whom she found but some other Donna in that hive of busywork, clear down to the fat sweater buttons, the printout stacks, the untouchable air.
“Yes, Ms. Dephane, how can we help you?”
“I understand there’s an opening on days.”