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Dead Ringer: Chapter Two
Link to Chapter One.
As I pulled into my driveway, a silver Lexus behind me slowed, then cruised past. My street ends in a cul de sac and I know most of my neighbors’ cars. I’d never seen this one before, and that made me a little jumpy. My tendency toward paranoia had increased exponentially since I’d begun working for Mark. I looked at perfectly innocent citizens with the assumption they were up to no good in the same way, after working as a chaplain, I assumed most people were, or soon would be, gravely injured or ill.
I made a note in the pocket-sized spiral notebook I keep in the console – 2001 or 2002 Lexus, partial New York license NRG with four digits, one of them 3 or 8, watching as the driver circled the end of the cul de sac.
I peered at my side mirror as the car left, turning to get a better look, but with the sun in my eyes all I saw was a silver blur disappearing around the corner.
Out of state tags were common. Most people in Brady were from somewhere else, and lots of drivers wrongly assumed our cul de sac was a through street. It was also possible someone was just out house hunting. Still, I noted the date and time next to the other information I’d recorded.
Imagination in full runaway mode, I got out to fetch my mail, the veins in my temples whooshing, and scampered back in the car, glancing over my shoulder again before hitting the garage remote. I breathed a sigh of relief as I slid into the cool dark, the garage door closing behind me with a muffled thump. Inside, the sun glinted in the bay window along the back of the house, sending waves of heat across the kitchen floor.
My house is a story-and-a-half, with two bedrooms up and downstairs a den that doubles as an office, a living room, a small dining room, and a big kitchen that’s blessedly free of clutter. You won’t find a bear, a goose, or any other country-themed items. Stainless steel and white enamel leave me feeling less agitated.
Four photographs adorn the mantle in the den; one of my brother and me when he was eight and I was fourteen, two of my parents, and an old black and white of an aunt from my father’s side, who’d endeared herself by bringing my brother, Sean, and me wildly inappropriate souvenirs from exotic locales — dried bull penises from South America and ancient Irish fertility goddess statuettes with swollen vulvas and once, when I was seventeen, she’d tried to slip me a small square of pale green paper soaked with a hallucinogen, something she’d picked up in Marrakech, she’d said, winking, but my mother had caught her.
My mother, father, and aunt are all gone from this world, and Sean disappeared into alcohol and drugs a long time ago, leaving Brady for parts unknown. I’d sent money to shelters where he was staying, from New Jersey all the way down to Florida, but it had been nearly two years since I’d heard from him at all. The sadness and guilt never leave, but I have to be honest, there’s also relief.
I peered through French doors out onto my deck. It’s the perfect spot for sipping a lemonade on a hot afternoon and listening to the bubbling of the small man-made creek that runs behind the house. But not this afternoon.
Every other week I have ER duty. My schedule alternates between day shifts and midnight to morning. I dread the latter, since my body clock takes a couple days to reset.
After those all-nighters, I usually come home and crash, but tomorrow morning I’d be meeting Mark at Nelle’s Diner — which reminded me of the photos I was dying to see, of Paolo and his current paramour.
I sorted through my mail, tossing most of it into the recycling bin, and undressed in the laundry room. Spending most of the afternoon folded in the front seat of a car the size of a tuna can had left me limp and sweaty. White patches of brine stained my blue t-shirt, and I thought I might have to get tweezers to peel my underwear away from my rear. Now, with the air conditioner pumping, I’d taken a sudden chill. I tossed my damp clothing into the washer and made a dash to my bedroom to retrieve my fuzzy blue robe, then I put some water on to boil for a cup of tea and hit the speakerphone button, speed-dialing Great Shots.
“Hey, Frankie, are my pictures ready?”
“Jesus, ” Frankie complained. “I feel like I’m in a cave.”
“Is this better?” I asked, picking up the receiver.
“I hate that thing,” his reedy voice came back at me.
“Sorry, I forgot. I’m calling to see when I can get those pictures I dropped off earlier.”
Frankie gave a long, slow chuckle then. “Reverend Blair, I’m going to have to ask what you’ve been up to.”
“I can’t discuss my cases, Frankie. You know that.” I let my voice drop a little. “That’s why I come to you, because I know I can count on your discretion.”
“Oh man.” He snorted. “I’m sure it has nothing to do with the employee discount I give you.”
“Frankie,” I said. “I need those pictures as soon as they’re ready.”
“Well, come and get ‘em. They’re ready now.”
“Fantastic! On my way in a few.”
“We close at 5:30,” he said, his voice tight.
“I know that.”
“Don’t make me wait for you. I’ll leave this time, I mean it.”
I hung up and raced to the kitchen, turning off the stove, then tore into my bedroom. It was nearly five o’clock, but I was desperate for a shower. My skin was still clammy and my hair, normally corkscrew curly, lay in flat brown wads like dried-up cocoons.
Twenty-seven minutes later I was clean but running late, banging on my steering wheel in frustration as I careened through traffic. I pulled up in front of Great Shots and jumped out and raced to peer through the darkened window.
“They’re closed,” a short man with brown hair told me as he walked by.
“Thank you.” I smiled sweetly. “I’ll just knock.”
“Suit yourself.” He shrugged. “I work right next door so I know their hours pretty well.”
I turned away and rapped my knuckles lightly against the glass door as he walked by, muttering under his breath, “Something, something, women.” I bit back the expletive that wanted out real bad, instead giving the man my special twinkle finger wave and a too-loud, “Thank you, you’ve been such a great help!”
While I waited, I pressed my face against the cool glass. In my haste, I’d worked up another good sweat, and as I leaned there I started to lose hope. Maybe Frankie really had left.
Then a light appeared as the door in the rear of the store opened, and his gangly frame moved toward me.
Frankie is the skinniest man I know. His shoulder blades protrude through his shirts, his elbows and knees look like they’ve been filed to four matching points, and his lanky legs intersect with long floppy feet.
His older sister Delma is as round as he is pointy. Tall, big-boned, deep-bosomed with undulating hips and a good-sized butt, you could tell in her day she was a real stunner. Even though she’s pushing sixty, there is still a sensual quality in the ease of her movements. Her hair is a wild and wavy froth of white and gray and blonde, and her green eyes hold a watchful light. Her face is lined and tired, though, and proves her years and then some.
She was just ten years old when her father skipped out. Later that year a guy named Joe moved in with her mom. Joe was a car salesman, a tender man who read poetry to them – e. e. cummings and Whitman and T. S. Eliot – and treated Delma as if she were his very own sweet girl.
Frankie was born the same week Delma turned sixteen. Frankie was still a kid when Joe keeled over in the showroom one morning and died of a heart attack. Delma was the one who held the family together in the following years, turning down two proposals of marriage to take care of Frankie and their mother, who’d developed Alzheimer’s.
When their mother died, Delma’s biological father had to be notified, since legally they were still married. When she tracked down the son of a bitch, she discovered he’d been living thirty miles away, about two towns over.
The day of the reading of the will, he strolled into the lawyer’s office, sidling right past Delma and plopping down in a leather chair in the corner of the room, where he perched looking from person to person with a sideways grin.
“Mornin’, everybody,” he said. “I’m the husband.”
As Frankie told it, Delma had sat quietly for a long minute, kneading her fingers and humming to herself. Then she stood up and walked over, pulled him to his feet by his necktie and introduced herself as the daughter by bloodying his nose, using her knuckles to give him a couple of nice pops, after which she dragged him to the door and tossed him out the office door.
He stumbled and fell, then rolled over to sit and look up at her. “You’ll be hearing from me,” he growled, spitting blood into the grass.
“I doubt that,” Delma said, towering over him. “Unless you’re here to help with the medical bills.”
He spat again.
“There’s no money, asshole,” she told him and shut the door, returning to her seat. No one said a word, Frankie recalled, his eyes misty with pride, and the reading had gone on as if someone had just gotten up to swat at a fly and dispose of the pesky thing with a tissue.
“God, I love that woman,” Frankie had said of his half-sister. “When I grow up I want to be just like her.”
But he never did — grow up, that is — and he is nothing like her. Still, together they have made a nice kind of life, happy with their little house, Delma’s income from managing accounts at the gas company, Frankie’s work at the photo shop, and their mooshball of a marmalade cat, Martin. They’d become dear to me in ways that almost felt like family, Delma the big sister I never had and Frankie a sort of second-chance brother.
My second-chance brother glared at me through the plate glass door before unlocking it and grabbing my arm to yank me inside. “Damn it, Blainey.”
“You’re angry,” I said.
“I was going to leave this time. I really was.” His face was working in all different directions.
“I’ll buy the next two rounds. I swear.”
He lobbed the packet of photographs at me, and I lunged to catch them.
“Thank you, Frankie, really. And I’m sorry I made you wait.”
He shrugged, still miffed. “What’s with the short guy and the blonde?”
I put my finger to my lips and shook my head.
“Delma thinks you’ve gone off the deep end,” he said with a satisfied smile.
“Does she, now?” I kept my tone even. “Well, she may be right.” I gave him a one-armed hug around his neck and opened the front door. “Thanks again.”
“Next time you’re late, I’ll leave,” he called out to me as I trotted toward my car.
“I know,” I hollered over my shoulder. Once in the car, I turned my full attention to the packet of photos.
Every one of them was perfect. “God, forgive me, but I’m enjoying this,” I said aloud as I threaded my way back across town. I’m pretty sure that didn’t count as a prayer.
Back home, I nibbled on some cheese and crackers and grapes, paid a few bills, then crawled into bed to enjoy a couple hours of sleep. At 10:30 the alarm jangled me awake and I arose, cranky and whining. I went into the bathroom and splashed cold water all over my face, arms, and shoulders, the only technique I’ve found that prevents me from leaping back into the delicious softness of my bed.
I dried off and pulled on beige chinos and a gray cotton sweater. Even though I don’t run, I’d splurged on some really good running shoes because of their incredible arch support, an investment for which I knew I’d be deeply grateful at around three in the morning.
I foraged in the kitchen for something with enough protein to fuel the long night ahead of me. On the way out the door, I grabbed the photos for my meeting with Mark, and by 11:40 I was backing my car out into the yawning darkness of deep night. It was four minutes before midnight when I pulled into one of the three parking spots reserved for the pastoral staff.
The glittering white walls of St. Regis rise up out of the pines and assorted hardwoods that dot the twenty-two-acre campus. Founded three decades ago as an independently-owned faith-based nonprofit institution, it was eventually bought by one of North Carolina’s powerhouse universities, and they and a couple of wealthy patrons had sunk enough money in it to fund a small country. Through strategic design and visionary development, St. Regis had become one of the area’s most highly respected locations for heart surgeries, although one would receive excellent care for any number of other medical situations.
I was struck by how quiet it was as I walked the short distance to the ER entrance. The air was sweet with the scent of pine, and dampness from falling dew hung in the air like drops of fragrant velvet. I paused for a moment, taking a couple of deep breaths, noting the red-orange embers glowing in the dark like small eyes keeping watch.
Smoking is prohibited within a hundred feet of hospital entrances, and desperate nicotine fiends skulked about in the dark, sucking enough stimulant into their lungs to last them another couple hours. At the other end of those embers in the anonymous dark were a significant number of nurses and a few physicians hiding their guilt.
As the doors slid wide, a wall of familiar sound met me — beeping machines, ringing phones, the quiet hum of emergency department customers complaining about the long delays, and the sharp calls of the nurses as they communicated with one another. Combined with the bright lights, any remaining tendencies towards drowsiness vanished.
“Well, well. Looks like it’s my lucky night.”
Seated behind the front counter was Guy Trubiano straddling a chair, the toes of his Nikes en pointe on the shiny linoleum floor. Underneath his light blue scrubs were tree-trunk thighs and what I suspected was a ripped upper body. Exotic tattoos danced across his arms, and his coppery hair was cropped short, his cheeks a ruddy tone. In his right ear was one small silver ring.
“Good evening, Pastor. Very nice to have you with us.” He’d shifted his tone ever so slightly, but I felt his dark eyes sweeping over me. I blushed hot, a frustrating betrayal of emotions I’d prefer Guy wasn’t privy to.
Guy was one of our best-known paramedics; actually he was the main person I’d want to come and scrape me off the pavement, should that necessity ever arise. He’d grown up in New Jersey, and moved here to work construction during the building boom. On a spring afternoon his foreman, who was also his best friend, had a massive coronary, collapsed, and died.
Devastated, angry, and guilt-ridden, he took a CPR class at the YMCA, after which he was hooked on all things medical. From there, he went on to do his EMT-P training — Emergency Medical Technician and Paramedic — and following that went for several additional certifications. He’d just finished one within the last six months, this time in suturing and plastic surgery. Guy possessed an amazing eye and a steady hand, and it wasn’t unusual for a small crowd of admiring peers to gather around and watch as he turned a gaping facial wound into a neatly stitched line that would be virtually invisible when healed.
I headed toward the break room to stow my stuff and grab the navy blue cotton jacket chaplains wore when on duty. “See you later!” Guy called after me, and I gave a backward wave. I was pretty sure I heard one of the nurses give him a smack.
I didn’t hate Guy’s flirting. He was a powerful physical presence, and I was not unaffected by the masculine scent he emitted or the tanned crinkles around his eyes. It had been a long time since…well, since much of anything.
For months after Nate and I split up any idea of a romantic relationship had made my innards shrivel. But lately I’d been waking from hot sex dreams with the frequent sensation of Guy Trubiano having made an impressive appearance.
I took a moment to gather myself, then grabbed my jacket, clipped my ID badge on the breast pocket, and breezed out past the nurses’ station as if he wasn’t there.
For the first part of my shift, I made rounds through the waiting area and examination rooms, stopping to talk, hold a hand, help soothe a restless child. People were stressed and tired. Often they sat alone, paralyzed by an assortment of fears they dared not name. Some asked me to pray, shutting their eyes as I gave voice to their pleading.
About 3:30 in the morning a gunshot wound came in, an eighteen-year-old kid, who’d been hit in the thigh. It was a clean shot, small caliber, leaving a little hole in his leg just above the inside of his left knee. I stood by the gurney and held his trembling hand while a police officer interrogated him.
A large amount of cash had been found in his jacket pockets, his explanation being he ‘didn’t trust banks.’ When asked who shot him, he shut his blue eyes and claimed he didn’t know. When questioned about the money, he clammed up.
Through it all, he grasped my hand as if I were a lifeline. When I asked him about family, he told me there was just his grandmother.
“She’s on her way now,” one of the officers said from across the room, and what little remaining color was left in the boy’s freckled face drained away.
When her voice came from the hallway, he squeezed his eyes and let out a whimper, and I was pretty sure he was calculating the odds of evaporating into thin air within the next thirty seconds. A deputy not that much older than the boy escorted the grandmother into the room. She was tall with wide shoulders, a flowered scarf around her neck, and what I suspected was a short fuse for bullshit. She nodded at me, and I patted the boy’s arm and moved aside. In a low voice that made my own legs tremble she alternated between praying over him and railing at him until he told her what happened.
He hadn’t wanted to go with those other boys, he said through little-kid sobs, and his grandmother held and rocked him, stroking his straw-colored hair, saying, “Shh, shh… it’s gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay. I got you, baby.”
As I tiptoed out of the room, I caught the young deputy wiping his eyes and fished in my jacket pocket for clean tissue. “Yup,” I said, handing it to him.
Right around 4:00 there was a screaming toddler with a raging ear infection, at 4:30 a spectacular gushing nosebleed, and then just as the sky was beginning to lighten, a domestic abuse case.
I’d seen the woman twice before, once with a fractured wrist and again with a sprained ankle, both times claiming she’d sustained the injuries from falls. This time she came in with a cut on her brow that needed stitches. Her stupid lug of a husband always brought her, expecting the medical staff to patch her up and send her back home with him so she could “git dinner and take care of the kids.”
I found the happy couple in an examination room and asked him to step outside with me a moment. “C’mon, Bob, let’s take a walk.”
He followed me down a side hall, his hands thrust deep in worn jeans pockets, a Confederate flag do-rag on his head. I stopped and turned to him.
“Three strikes, you’re out, pal,” I said.
“I’m one of St. Regis’ chaplains,” I said. “I’m on duty tonight. Bob, there have been two others times your wife has had to come in while I’ve been here. This is number three, and that’s no good.”
“Are you the social worker?” he asked, confused.
“I’m a chaplain, Bob,” I repeated patiently. “That means I’m a minister. And I’m here because God wants me to give you a message.” I used my pointer finger to dramatically demonstrate the God, me, and you parts.
“He does?” Bob’s jaw hung a little slack.
“Yes.” I paused and let my words infiltrate the little sentries his brain had set up to keep out new and challenging material.
“Okay,” he finally said very slowly, looking around. “What?”
“Here’s the message: You gotta stop hurting your wife.”
With that he gave me a satisfied look and said, “You can’t do nothing if she don’t press charges.”
“No, Bob, of course I can’t. Law enforcement can’t. The state can’t. But God can.”
“What?” The jaw again.
“I’m telling you this for your own good, Bob. God wants you to stop hurting your wife and He wants you to stop hurting her now. Otherwise, I’m afraid…well, you know. It could just fall right off.”
“Hey, man, I’m just trying to look out for you.” I took a step toward him and lowered my voice. “I’ve seen it happen. Awful. This one guy, Chet, I think, was his name. Anyway, he wouldn’t listen. Kept showing up here with his wife, a very sweet woman, and pretty soon these sores started popping up all over his manhood.”
Bob recoiled, taking a step back.
“Yeah.” I nodded for emphasis. “Big blisters, and then they opened and those things were painful. And they ran and oozed, and then all of a sudden it started turning purple and then green and then black, then it shriveled up like a dried pickle and finally one day,” I snapped my fingers for dramatic effect, “it just fell right off."
I thought he might faint so I took his arm.
“So I’m only going to tell you this once, Bob, because those are the instructions God gave me. You have to stop hurting Cheryl.”
By this time, we’d worked our way back around to the examination rooms, where he drifted unsteadily back to his wife’s side with a dazed look. The doctor gave a puzzled glance as I stood at the door, giving Bob a wink and a thumb’s up as if we shared an important secret.
I knew that while we were gone the doctor had probably been talking to Cheryl about pressing charges. I also knew there was a strong chance she wouldn’t.
If I could make sure that every time Bob considered raising a hand or even his voice to her, he’d look over his shoulder and maybe even check for red bumps when he was in the bathroom, then I’d done all I could.
After that, things quieted down and I busied myself by fussing around in the break room and checking my office voice mail.
By ten after eight I was walking out into the bright morning to my car, salivating at the prospect of a hot stack of Nelle’s Belgian waffles and a steaming mug of black coffee. I patted the packet on the passenger seat, those incriminating pictures of Paolo and the blonde and headed over to meet Mark.