If Gordie Fugate didn't hurry the hell up and pick out a cereal, I was going to bludgeon him with a canned ham.
I didn't mind working at Emerson's Dry Goods, but I was wrapping up a sixteen-hour shift. My back ached. My stiff green canvas apron was chafing my neck. And one of the Glisson twins had dropped a gallon jar of mayo on my big toe earlier. I hadn't been this exhausted since doing an emergency rotation during my medical residency. The only nice thing I could say about working at Emerson's was that the owner hadn't asked for photo identification when I applied, eliminating an awful lot of worry for my undocumented self. Also, I usually dealt with less blood.
Unless, of course, I did bludgeon Gordie with the ham, which would result in a serious amount of cleanup in aisle five.
I only had a few more weeks of checkout duty before I would be moving on, winding my way toward Anchorage. It was just easier that way. Now that I was living in what I called "the gray zone," I knew there was a maximum amount of time people could spend around me before they resented unanswered personal questions. Of course, I'd also learned a few other things, like how to make an emergency bra or patch a pair of shoes with duct tape. And now I was trying to learn the zen art of not bashing an indecisive cornflake lover over the head with preserved pork products.
I glanced back to Gordie, who was now considering his oatmeal options.
I swore loudly enough to attract the attention of my peroxide-blond fellow retail service engineer Belinda. Middle-aged, pear-shaped, and possessing a smoker's voice that put that Exorcist kid to shame, Belinda was the assistant manager at Emerson's, the closest thing to a retail mecca in McClusky, a tiny ditchwater town on the easternmost border of Alaska. Because I was still a probationary employee, I wasn't allowed to close up on my own. But Belinda was friendly and seemed eager to make me a "lifer" at Emerson's like herself. I suspected she wasn't allowed to retire until she found a replacement.
"I've known Gordie for almost forty years. He can make a simple decision feel like the end of Sophie's Choice," she said, putting a companionable arm around me as I slumped against my counter. It was an accomplishment that I was able to give her a little squeeze in return.
"You're thinking about throwing one of those canned hams at him, aren't you?"
I sighed. "I guess I've made that threat before, huh?"
Belinda snickered at my irritated tone. I glared at her. She assured me, "I'm laughing with you, Anna, not at you."
I offered her a weak but genuine smile. "Feels the same either way."
"Why don't you go on home, hon?" Belinda suggested. "I know you worked a double when that twit Haley called in sick. For the third time this week, I might add. I'll close up. You go get some food in you. You're looking all pale and sickly again."
I sighed again, smiling at her. When I'd first arrived at Emerson's, Belinda had taken one look at my waxy cheeks and insisted on sending me home with a "signing-bonus box" of high-calorie, high-protein foods. I was sucking down protein shakes and Velveeta for a week. Every time I put a pound on my short, thin frame, she considered it a personal victory. I didn't have the heart to tell her that my pallor wasn't from malnutrition but from stress and sleep deprivation. I gave her another squeeze. "I haven't been sleeping well, that's all. Thanks. I owe you."
"Yeah, you do," she said as I whipped my green Emerson's apron over my head and stuffed it into my bag. As I made my way to the employee locker room, I heard her yell, "Damn it, Gordie, it's just Cream of Wheat. It's not like you're pulling somebody's plug!"
Chuckling, I slipped out the back through the employee exit, waiting for the slap of frigid September air to steal my breath. I snuggled deeper into my thick winter jacket, grateful for its insulating warmth. Years before, when I'd first arrived in Alaska, I'd brought only the barest essentials. I'd spent most of my cross-state drive shivering so hard I could barely steer. Eager to help me acclimate, my new neighbors had taken great pains to help me select the most sensible jacket, the most reasonably priced all-weather boots. I missed those neighbors with a bone-deep ache that I couldn't blame on the cold. I missed the people who had become my family. I missed the valley I'd made home. The thought of trying to make a place for myself all over again tipped my exhaustion into full-on despair.
Fumbling with the keys to my powder-blue-and-rust Pinto, I heard someone say, "Just tell Jake I'll get him the money in a week."
A gruffer, calmer voice answered, "Marty, relax. Jake didn't send me. I just stopped in for a burger. I'm not here for you."
I closed my eyes, hoping to block out the shadowy forms in the far corner of the employee lot that Emerson's shared with the Wishy-Washy Laundromat and Flapjack's Saloon. I didn't want to see any of this. I didn't want the liability of witnessing some sort of criminal transaction. I just wanted to go home to my motel room and stand in the shower until I no longer felt the pain of sixteen hours and a jumbo jar of mayonnaise on my feet. I turned my back to the voices, struggling to work the sticky lock on my driver's-side door.
"Don't feed me that bullshit," the reedier, slightly whiny voice countered. "He sent you after me when I owed him ten. You don't think he's going to do it again now that I owe him seventeen?"
"I'm telling you, I'm not here for you. But if you don't put that gun away, I might change my mind."
Gun? Did he say "gun"?
Who the hell has a gunfight in the parking lot behind a Laundromat?
I focused on keeping my hands from shaking as I jiggled the key in the lock. Stupid circa-1980s tumbler technology! I gave myself another five seconds to open the door before I would just run back to the Emerson's employee entrance.
That was my plan, until the point when I heard the gunshot . . . and the screech of tires . . . and the roar of an engine coming way too close. I turned just in time to see the back end of a shiny black SUV barreling toward me and my car. I took three steps before throwing myself into the bed of a nearby pickup truck. Even before I peered over the lip of the bed, I knew the loud, tortured metallic squeal was the SUV pulverizing my Pinto.
"Seriously?" I cried, watching as my car disintegrated in front of my very eyes.
The SUV struggled to disengage its back end from the wreckage of my now-inoperable car. As the driver gunned the engine, I followed the beams of the headlights across the lot to a man curled in the fetal position on the ground.
My eyes darted back and forth between the injured man and the growling black vehicle. This was none of my business. I didn't know this guy. I didn't know what he'd done to make Mr. SUV want to run him down like a dog. And despite the fact that every instinct told me to stay put, stay down until this guy was a little man-pancake, I launched myself out of the truck bed and ran across the lot. I dashed toward the hunched form on the ground, sliding on the gravel when I bent to help him. I tamped down my instincts to keep him still while I assessed the damage, assuring myself that any wounds he had would definitely prove fatal if he was run over by a large vehicle.
"Get up!" I shouted as the SUV wrenched free of my erstwhile transportation and lurched toward us.
Mr. Pancake-to-Be struggled to his knees. I tucked my arms under his sleeves and pulled, my arms burning with the effort to lift him off the ground.
"Get your butt off the concrete, now!" I grunted, heaving him out of the path of the SUV. I felt a set of car keys dangling out of his jacket pocket. I clicked the fob button until I heard a beep and turned toward the noise.
Just as I got him on his feet, the headlights of the SUV flared. We stumbled forward, falling between his truck and Belinda's hatchback. The hatchback shuddered with a tortured metallic shriek as the SUV sideswiped it. I jerked the passenger door of the truck open, slid across the seat, and dragged him inside. When I pulled it back, my hand was red and slick with blood. He groaned as he tried to fold his long legs into the cab. I reached over him to slam the door.
"Not smart," I mumbled, slipping the key into the ignition. "Like ‘and she was never heard from again' not smart."
I watched as the SUV careened off the far corner of the lot into the grass. The ground was soupy and particularly fragrant, thanks to a septic-tank leak. The owner of Flapjack's had warned us not to park anywhere near it, or we'd end up stuck to our axles in substances best not imagined, which is what was happening to the SUV the more it spun its wheels. I glanced between my demolished car and the guy who seemed so hell-bent on killing my passenger. At this point, I didn't know which was more distressing. The SUV driver stepped out, slipping and sliding in the muck that had sucked him in to the ankles. There was a flash of metal in his hand as he strode toward the truck. A gun. He was pointing a gun at us.
Fortunately for me and my barely conscious passenger, the SUV guy wandered a little too close to my Pinto. And my rusted-out baby, being the most temperamentally explosive of all makes and models, had not taken kindly to being squished by the big, mean off-roader. My notoriously delicate gas tank was leaking fuel all over the parking lot, dangerously close to the lard bucket Flapjack's set out back to catch employees' cigarette butts. And because the saloon was staffed by likable though lazy people, there were always a few smoldering butts lying around on the gravel.
The fuel ignited, sending my car up like a badly upholstered Roman candle. Mr. SUV was thrown to the ground as a little mushroom cloud exploded over us.
Good. Explosions drew a lot of attention. People would come running out to see what had happened, and Mr. SUV couldn't afford that many witnesses. This guy would get the (fully equipped) medical attention he needed . . . and I would end up answering questions for a lot of cops.
I hadn't even realized I'd punched the gas before I felt the gravel give way under the tires and the truck lurch toward the open road.
He slumped against the window as I careened out of the parking lot and onto the highway. The closest medical facility was in Bernard, about seventy miles up the road. As we neared the town limits, I passed the Lucky Traveler Motel, wishing we had time to stop and pick up my clothes and medical bag. But nearly everyone in the bar knew where I lived. The SUV driver would only have to ask a few people in the crowd that gathered to roast marshmallows around my immolated car and he'd find me in about ten minutes. For that matter, he could have been following us at that moment. Somehow, that made my spare contact-lens case and stethoscope seem less significant.
"Mister?" I said, shaking his shoulder, wincing as I noticed the blood seeping through his shirt. Gunshot wounds to the abdomen usually meant perforated major organs and damaged blood vessels, but his blood loss was minimal. I held out hope, though I knew that wasn't necessarily a good sign. There could be some complication or an exit wound I wasn't aware of. I pulled my apron out of my bag and pressed the green canvas against his belly. He groaned, opening his burnt-chocolate eyes and blinking at me, as if he was trying to focus on my face but couldn't quite manage it.
"You," he said, squinting at me. "I know you."
I swallowed, focusing on the situation at hand instead of the instinctual panic those words sent skittering up my spine. "No, I'd remember you, I'm sure. Just hold on, OK? I'm going to get you to the clinic in Bernard. Do you think you could stay awake for me?"
He shook his head. "No doctors."
I supposed this would be a bad time to tell him I was a doctor.
"Not that bad. No doctors," he ground out, glaring at me. I scowled right back. His face split into a loopy smirk. "Pretty."
His head thunked back against the seat rest, which I supposed signaled the end of our facial-expression standoff.
And now that I had time to study said face, I could appreciate the shaggy black hair, eyes so intensely brown they were almost black, and cheekbones carved from granite. His lips were wide and generous and probably pretty tempting when they weren't curled back over his teeth in pain like that.
"Please," he moaned, batting his hand against my shoulder, weakly flexing his fingers around it.
Well, damn, I'd always been a sucker for a man who kept pretty manners intact while bleeding. "Fine," I shot back. "Where do you want to go?"
But he'd already passed out.
"And she was never heard from again," I muttered.
A few miles later, my passenger stopped bleeding, which could mean that he'd started to clot . . . or that he'd gone into shock and died. My optimism had reached its limit for the evening.
Keeping an eye on the road, I pressed my fingers over his carotid and detected a slow but steady pulse. I took a deep breath and tried to focus. I'd been through so much worse. It didn't make sense to panic now. How had I gotten myself into this? I'd worked so hard to avoid this kind of trouble. I'd kept my head down, stayed low profile. And here I was, driving around in a possibly stolen truck with a possibly dead body slumped over in the passenger seat. If I'd had one operating brain cell in my head, I would have run screaming into the bar the minute I heard the men arguing in the parking lot. But no, I had to help the injured stray, because living with the less-than-civic-minded side of humanity over the last few years had apparently taught me nothing.
I saw a sign ahead for Sharpton. Since he didn't want to go to the clinic, I'd turned off the main highway and stuck to the older, less-traveled state routes. I tapped the brakes, afraid I would miss some vital piece of information hidden between the words "Sharpton" and "20 miles." As the truck slowed, the big guy slumped forward and snorted as his head smacked against the dashboard.
Good. Dead people do not snort. That was my qualified medical opinion.
"Hey, big guy?" I said loudly, shaking his shoulder. "Mister?"
He snorted again but did not wake up. I laughed, practically crying with relief. I gently shook my . . . passenger? Patient? Hostage? What was I going to do with him? He didn't want a doctor, he said. But as much as I needed a vehicle, I didn't have it in me to just leave him on the side of the road somewhere and drive off.
Just over the next rise in the road, I saw a sign for the Last Chance Motel, which seemed both ominous and appropriate. I took a deep breath through my nose and let it slowly expand my lungs. By the time I exhaled, I'd already formed my plan. At the faded pink motel sign, I turned into the lot and parked in front of the squat, dilapidated building. There were two cars in the lot, including the one in front of the office, which seemed to double as the manager's quarters.
I reached toward the passenger seat and gently shook the big guy's shoulder. His breathing was deep and even. As carefully as I could, I raised the hem of his bloodied shirt and gasped. The bullet wound, just under his ribs on his left side, seemed too small for such a recent injury. The edges of the wound were a healthy pink. And the bullet seemed to be lodged there in his skin.
I pulled away, scooting across the bench seat. That . . . wasn't normal.
Calm down, I ordered myself. There's no reason to panic. This is good news.
Maybe some weird act of physics had kept the bullet from penetrating deeply in the first place, I reasoned. I hadn't gotten a good look at the wound while I was playing action hero in the dark parking lot. In my panic, it must have looked much worse than it was. Either way, the wound looked almost manageable now.
"Just hold on tight," I told him, placing my hand on his shoulder again. He leaned into my touch, trying to nuzzle his cheek against my fingers. "Uh, I'll be right back."
It would appear that I was footing the bill for this little slice of heaven. I couldn't reach his wallet, as it was in his pocket, firmly situated under his butt. I had just enough cash in my purse (a twenty and a few lonely singles) to cover one night. After that, I was dead in the water. The rest of my cash had been stashed behind a dresser in my motel room near Emerson's.
I jumped out of the truck and tried to look calm and normal as I walked into the motel's dingy little office and saw its creepy-as-hell occupant. The hotel seemed to have run a bizarrely specific Internet ad that read, "Wanted: semiskilled applicant with off-putting sex-predator vibe and lax standards in personal hygiene."
And this guy was no exception. It took no less than three refusals of a "room tour" from the night manager before I was permitted to trade a portion of my precious cash supply for a little plastic tag attached to the oldest freaking room key I had ever seen.
"Two beds, right?" I asked, taking the key.
He shook his head, leering at me. "Single rooms only. We like to stay cozy here."
"Is there a pharmacy anywhere around here?" I asked.
"In town, about four miles down the road. Opens in the morning, around eight," he said. "But if you're feeling poorly, I have something in my room that might perk you up."
I turned on my heel and made a mental note to prop a chair against the outside door once I got to the room.
I opened up the passenger-side door and saw that the big guy had managed to sit up and had his head resting on the seat back. He was snoring steadily. I spotted a bulky duffel bag in the backseat of the cab and threw it over my shoulder. I unlocked the room door, tossed the bag inside, and steeled myself for the task of hauling his unconscious ass into the room. Careful to keep his bloodied side away from the manager's window, I hoisted his arm over my shoulder in a sort of ill-advised fireman's carry and took slow, deliberate steps toward the open door. The movement seemed to reopen the wound, and I could feel blood seeping through my shirt. We made it through the door.
I heard a distinct metallic plink. I looked down and saw that the bullet had rolled across the filthy carpet and hit the wall.
I meant to set him gently on the bed but ended up flopping him across the bedspread. The rickety bed squealed in protest as he bounced, but he didn't bat an eyelash. I huffed, leaning against the yellowed floral wallpaper to catch my breath. "Sorry. You're heavier than you look."
I locked the door and wedged the desk chair against the knob. The room was so outdated it was almost in style again but the dirt and neglect screamed "dingy," not "kitschy." The carpet was a dank greenish-brown color that could only be described as phlegm. The bedspread, threadbare and nearly transparent in places, matched the shade.
I shook off the Norman Bates flashbacks and told myself it was just like any of the other crappy indigent motels I'd stayed at in any number of cities, and I hadn't been stabbed in the shower yet.
I turned back to the sleeping giant on the bed. The flannel shirt made an unpleasant ripping noise as I peeled it away, the dried blood causing the stiff material to adhere to his skin. The wound seemed even smaller now, the area around it a perfectly normal, healthy color. I pushed back from him, away from the bed, staring at the minuscule hole in his flesh.
This couldn't be right.
Taking a step back, I knocked over his duffel and saw a bottle of Bactine spray sticking out of the partially opened zipper. I arched an eyebrow and pulled the bag open. "What the--?"
Never mind having to run to a pharmacy. The bag was filled to the brim with well-used first-aid supplies--mostly peroxide and heavy-duty tweezers. And several different types of exotic jerky. But not much in the way of clothes.
I glanced from the shrinking bullet hole to the enormous bag of meat treats with its distinct lack of clothes . . . and back to the bullet hole.