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By Mark de Castrique Poisoned Pen Press
Copyright © 2008 Mark de Castrique
All right reserved.
Chapter One I felt a hand on my shoulder, shaking me awake.
"Now you can pass as a local. They've all got one leg shorter than the other. Comes from being raised on the side of a mountain." The woman sitting beside my hospital bed laughed at her own joke and then offered me a paper bag.
"Who the hell are you?" I pushed the control to incline the bed to where I could see her eye to eye. I didn't need someone waking me up and rubbing my nose in my predicament.
She tossed the bag onto my chest. "Tikima Robertson. Marine Corps-retired. Never got over it so now I come to the V.A. hospital to harass the leathernecks who feel sorry for themselves." She gave a salute. The dark metal hook at the end of her forearm brushed her arched eyebrow. "What I figure is if the Marines had had a few more good women, we'd have been out of Iraq three years ago."
"Then let me be the first to encourage you to re-up." I glanced down at the bag and saw a hardback copy of Elmore Leonard's Up in Honey's Room. I'm a Leonard Fan and the gift cooled my anger a few degrees.
"I would have reenlisted, but when I type I tear up the computer keyboard." She waved the prosthetic hook in front of me. "So the Corps didn't want me back in public disinformation."
I snapped off the sheet and uncovered my maimed left leg.
She looked where the stumpended just below the knee. "Not so bad. But you can't use one of these back scratchers. You'll snag the carpet every time you walk."
I smiled. "You're full of black humor, aren't you?"
"That's what a black woman's for. Keep a black man from taking himself too seriously, even if he's white like you, Chief Warrant Officer Sam Blackman."
I raised my hands in mock surrender. "I give up. What do you want?"
"Give up? Well, if I didn't already know it, you just proved you're Army. And a glorified MP, not even a real soldier."
My temper flared. I lifted the book and shoved it toward her. "No thanks. I don't want your gift or your insults. And we all turned into MPs over there. One god-damned police force trying to separate people who only hate us a little more than they hate each other."
Tikima flinched and looked away. I held the book over the edge of the bed, waiting for her to take it.
She sighed and turned to me. "Sorry. That was uncalled for. Sometimes I try too hard to make a connection." She stood. "But keep the book. Ain't Mr. Leonard's fault I got no tact."
Her apology sounded straight from the heart.
"Wait a minute. You're not getting off so easy." I nodded to the chair. "No woman walks out on Sam Blackman."
She hesitated a moment and then the twinkle returned to her eyes. "Is that an order?"
"Yes, from a glorified MP. Do I have to handcuff you?"
"It helps to have hands." She scooted the chair nearer and sat.
I gave her a closer look. Tikima had dark smooth skin and a shapely figure that her khaki pants suit couldn't hide. She wore her curly black hair cropped close to her head. Her ringless left hand rested in her lap as a cradle for the hook. I have difficulty estimating a woman's age, but I guessed she was in her mid-thirties, a couple of years older than me.
She cleared her throat as if to start our conversation anew. "So, have you found a guy in here with only a left foot so you can go in on shoes together?"
"No. But I left a request back in Amputee Alley at Walter Reed to be on the lookout for a prospect."
"Came through there myself three years ago. They tried to give me one of those new fake arms they claim looks real. Black plastic supposed to match my skin. My skin's no more black than yours is white. I looked like I'd stolen the arm off Darth Vader. I said forget this, give me something that works."
Tikima lifted her arm. The hook was actually a curved vise with one side longer than the other. "I shrug my shoulder and the clamp closes." The tips met with an audible click. "Now I mail Amputee Alley all my right-handed gloves."
I decided we'd best get the war stories out of the way. If Tikima Robertson had been sent by some army shrink to have me open up, then we could check that off the to-do list. "How'd you lose the hand?"
"In Iraq? I thought Marine women were kept out of combat."
"Oh, did I miss the memo about where the frontline was?" She shook her head. "We were supposed to be in a secure area. I was riding with an AP reporter and we had the honor of driving by as one of the first car bombs detonated. The reporter was lucky. Only lost his laptop. You'd think he'd taken a round to the chest. I had to pull him screaming out of the vehicle." She looked at my leg. "Roadside bomb?"
"No. Rocket grenade at a checkpoint. Concussion knocked me out. Sunni insurgents in stolen Iraqi uniforms. Two of my buddies were killed."
Tikima nodded. She didn't ask any questions about how I was coping with the loss of my comrades or how I felt about becoming the proverbial one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. I thought maybe she wasn't on shrink patrol after all.
"You know how I got here?" I asked.
"No. The only information the staff shared was that you're from Winston-Salem, your enlistment is up, and you're scheduled for release from rehab in a few weeks."
"I'm here because I talked to The Washington Post about the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed. And then I testified from a wheelchair on Capitol Hill."
She scowled. "I'm surprised you're not in Guam."
"Yeah, the administrators were all too anxious to have me disappear. Especially after I told them I wasn't interested in going through rehab to stay in an army that treats its wounded like curbside trash."
"I know," Tikima said. "I tried to get something done when I was there." She looked like she might cry at the memory.
"Well, some big asses got some big kicks. I'd hoped they'd send me to Salisbury about thirty minutes from where I grew up. The V.A. typed my name in the wrong place on the transfer form. Then Blackman got misspelled as Black Mtn and I wound up in Asheville because it's next to Black Mountain."
"Are you going back to Winston-Salem when you're released?"
"I don't know. My family's not there anymore. My parents were killed in a car wreck earlier this year and I have a brother in Birmingham who wants me to come there."
"I got the Dear John letter the second week I was in Walter Reed."
She leaned forward. "Stay here awhile. I'll help you find a place."
"And do what? Walk around the side of a mountain with the locals?"
"I'm a local. My family's been here for over a hundred years."
The door to the room opened and a nurse brought my roommate back from physical therapy. Old Mr. Carlisle was a World War Two vet in his eighties. His mind spun through the years like a revolving door and during our brief conversations he'd be storming the beach at Saipan one minute and walking with his late wife on Myrtle Beach the next.
Tikima got up and helped hold the wheelchair steady as the nurse assisted Mr. Carlisle back into bed. The nurse transferred his oxygen supply from his portable unit to the feed coming from the wall connector.
Then the nurse rolled the wheelchair to me. "Ready to work with your prosthesis?"
"What's the army giving him?" Tikima asked.
"A trans-tibial with good rotation. He can be on the golf course in a few months."
"As a caddy," I said. "My disability benefit wouldn't buy a bag of golf tees."
Tikima unsnapped her small purse and withdrew a business card. "Let's stay in touch. I might be able to find you gainful employment."
The embossed type read "Tikima Robertson-Consultant, Armitage Security Services."
"Need a night watchman?" I asked.
"I need someone with a brain. Unless you left that in Iraq along with your leg."
The nurse blushed, but Tikima's bluntness no longer bothered me.
"Then come see me." I patted the bag with the book. "And bring another Leonard. I'll be through this in two days."
Tikima laughed and turned to the nurse. "Work his ass off. Next time I'm here I want to see him tap dancing." She shrugged her shoulder and the gripping mechanism on her hook sounded like a castanet. With a flourish of clicks, she twirled out the door.
* * *
Two weeks passed and Tikima Robertson didn't return. I walked as many hours on my artificial leg as the rehab team allowed. The more adept I became the more I wanted to improve. I spent most of my days exploring the hospital halls or reading in the library where many of the donated books seemed to have been untouched. I wondered how Tikima had known I was a mystery buff and an Elmore Leonard fan in particular.
Tikima had come on a Saturday morning, and on the third Monday after her visit, the doctor in charge of my case told me I'd made all the recovery that was possible under their care. In other words, because of my hard work and commitment, I'd progressed enough that Uncle Sam would be cutting me loose at the end of the week. Adios and have a nice life.
The army had been my home since high school. My only immediate prospect was to go to Birmingham and transition for a few weeks with my older brother, his wife, and their three-month-old twin girls. The possibility of being a night watchman seemed infinitely preferable. I decided to contact Tikima, even though I'd hoped she would have made good on her promise to return. While Mr. Carlisle was in rehab, I phoned the number on Tikima's card.
A computerized voice announced Armitage Security Services and prompted me to direct-dial an extension or wait for a personnel menu. I quickly studied the card and found the three digit number under Tikima's name. "This extension is no longer in service," came the automated reply. "You are being transferred to the operator."
"I'm calling for Tikima Robertson," I told the woman who answered.
I heard only silence and thought we'd been disconnected.
"Hello? My name is Sam Blackman. Tikima told me to call."
"Hold one moment please, Mr. Blackman."
After a few minutes of classical music, a strong baritone voice came on the line. "This is Nathan Armitage. How can I help you?"
"I'm trying to reach Tikima Robertson. She gave me her card and asked me to get in touch."
"Can you tell me the nature of your request?"
Just like a security firm to make you jump through hoops. "The nature of my request is to speak with Tikima. I'm a wounded vet in the Asheville V.A. hospital and she was kind enough to visit me. The name's Sam Blackman. Do you need my social security number to do a background check?"
I heard him take a deep breath. "Mr. Blackman, I'm sorry to tell you Tikima has died. I thought maybe you were one of her clients."
My mouth turned to dry cotton. I'd only met the woman for a few minutes, but I'd replayed the scene of her dancing out of my hospital room countless times. In Iraq, you understood soldiers went on patrol and didn't come back, but in Asheville, North Carolina?
"How?" I whispered.
His voice broke. "She was murdered, Mr. Blackman."
The word murdered rang in my ear. I sat staring at the door, seeing Tikima laugh and dance through it.
When I didn't respond, Armitage continued, "She'd been missing since June 2nd, that was a Saturday."
"The day she came to see me."
"What time?" Armitage asked.
"Around ten that morning."
"The police may want to speak to you. Can I give them your name?"
"Yes." I wound the phone cord into a ball with my free hand. "What happened?"
"We're not sure. Believe me, Mr. Blackman, we're pressing the police for action. Our company provides only protective security services for clients, we don't do investigative work. But Tikima was a friend and colleague to all of us. I've authorized a twenty-five thousand dollar reward for anyone providing information that can uncover her murderer."
I'd worked enough cases with the military's Criminal Investigation Detachment to know the best leads come fast. If the police weren't even sure what happened, then the trail must be ice cold.
"You have to know something," I said.
"Only that Tikima's sister spoke with her that Saturday afternoon. Tikima planned to pick her up for church the next day. She never showed up."
"What'd she do Saturday night?"
"Her sister said Tikima told her she was meeting somebody about work."
"None we know of."
"Where was her body found?"
Armitage hesitated. "Look, I don't know you, Mr. Blackman. You could be who you say you are or you could be involved somehow."
"Then just tell me what was in the paper. I'm clueless. I'm in a hospital bed and I can't stomach reading the god-damned news."
"Some fishermen on the French Broad River found her body last Wednesday. She'd been weighed down with stones, but the current and the-" Armitage's voice wavered, "and the gases from the decomposition of her body brought her to the surface."
"Do they have a cause of death?"
"Hasn't been officially released but I've learned from the funeral home she died from a gunshot to the head."
What a cruel twist. Have your hand blown off in Iraq and then come home to be murdered. Tikima Robertson was someone who deserved better from life. "Have they held the memorial service?"
"Tomorrow morning at eleven."
"Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church."
"I want the address."
"Mr. Blackman, you said you're in the hospital."
"I am. But somehow I'll get to the funeral tomorrow."
Armitage was quiet for a moment, and then said, "Can you be out front at ten-fifteen? I'll pick you up in a black Lexus."
"All right. And I'll be the one tap dancing on my new leg." I hung up and looked at the empty doorway. "Like I said, Tikima, no woman walks out on Sam Blackman."
Chapter Two At eight the next morning, I looked over at Mr. Carlisle. He slept with a clear plastic oxygen tube dangling half out of his nostrils. Mr. Carlisle suffered from chronic respiratory problems-a condition created when a Japanese fuel tank exploded on Saipan and smothered him in black diesel smoke. He'd also spent a lifetime with cigarettes which, despite the tobacco lobby's claims to the contrary, continued the destruction of his lungs. He'd checked into the hospital a week after I arrived. Odds were he wouldn't be checking out.
During the six weeks of physical therapy since my transfer from Walter Reed, I'd seen Mr. Carlisle's daughter take him out every Sunday for dinner. She made sure he had something suitable to wear. The wardrobe that had come with me from Walter Reed consisted of military fatigues and a red Hawaiian shirt. Not the most appropriate way to show respect for the dead. My brother had moved my things out of our parents' home when the house had gone on the market, and he kept the few non-army clothes I owned waiting for me in Birmingham.
I slipped out of bed and grabbed the crutches leaning against the wall. With the stealth of a commando, I checked Mr. Carlisle's drawer for anything that might carry a decorum of dignity. He had several pairs of boxer shorts, black socks with elastic so frayed they fell down around his ankles, two pairs of navy blue slacks rolled up like miniature sleeping bags, and a folded white shirt. I shook the shirt and the wrinkles disappeared. The fabric contained so much polyester it would melt under a hot lamp.
Mr. Carlisle stood a good six inches shorter than me but he had at least an extra six inches around the waist. I tossed my hospital gown back on the bed and tried on his shirt. The length provided enough tail to tuck in, but the sleeves stopped halfway down my forearm. I turned back the cuffs. Casual but neat. I'd have to go with my military pants. Thank God they weren't camo. At least I wouldn't appear to have stopped at the church on the way to a luau.
I sat on the edge of the bed and fit my artificial limb into position. Such an odd feeling to look down and see this impostor replacing part of my body. I knew some men at Walter Reed who'd given their prosthesis a name. I don't think this cold device and I could ever be so intimate.
Mr. Carlisle coughed and shifted in bed. I kept my back to him.
"Where you going, Sam?" he asked in a raspy voice.
"Thought I'd practice walking outside before it gets too hot."
"Don't spill anything on my shirt." He rolled back over.
I stopped at the nurses' station and said I was going to the library. I carried the book Tikima had given me. I asked the duty nurse to cancel my morning physical therapy because I had a guest coming to talk about a job possibility. All the nurses knew I'd been cleared for release on Friday and they'd started cutting me slack, like I was getting a few days of vacation before being dumped on the world.
Excerpted from Blackman's Coffin by Mark de Castrique
Copyright © 2008 by Mark de Castrique. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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