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The girl came out of nowhere.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. She came from around the corner. The bend in the road that maybe Beck had taken a bit too sharply, but came out of nowhere would be the tone he’d be going for when he wrote his report.
“Jesus f***,” Raines said. It was lucky that the old man’s yelp caused Beck to apply the brakes before he’d even spotted the girl.
It was hard to tell what color her hair was since it was so matted with dirt and blood. She placed two hands on the front of the squad car as he rolled to a stop in front of her, gravel pelting her shins. Although he could not see it, he would bet that she’d left dirty handprints on the hood.
Jim Beck would be the one hosing down the car later, not his partner, the esteemed Lieutenant George Raines.
“Two and a half months, I got two and a half months left wiping over your f***ing diaper rash,” George said, then groaned as he opened the passenger’s-side door. “Don’t make me do more paperwork than I have to before then.” The addendum was delivered in a hushed tone, with a raising of the eyebrows, the Mr. Mayor affectation that had made Lt. Raines well liked, great at bars, but was just that: an affectation.
Raines wasn’t the only one counting the days until his retirement, an event that he’d fought to stave off for as long as possible. Beck was looking forward to a partner who contributed more than sass to the job, one who maybe didn’t bathe the hair behind his ears in aftershave.
Beck hit the flashers, unbuckled himself, and stepped out of the vehicle.
The girl was a mess. All up in their faces but not saying anything that made much sense besides that she’d been attacked and that there had been a fire. Even though she seemed crazy, a lunatic covered in what looked like blood and roaming the middle of the road by herself: She did smell like smoke, among other things.
“You were attacked or there’s a fire? Which one is it, ma’am?” asked Raines. Always the soft touch.
The girl’s eyes flared and, the way she looked at the old man, part rage and part fear, Beck considered taking a step back and letting her tear Raines’s eyes out. But Beck was too good a cop for that and felt like demonstrating it.
“We’re going to get you safe, but we need to know where this happened and who did it.” Beck spoke softly, then put a hand on her shoulder, moving slowly. She flinched at his touch, but he kept it there, the blood sticky beneath his fingers. He could hear Raines’s internal monologue in his own head, joking with him about being careful who he touches, going to catch the AIDS.
Between her heavy breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth, her lungs sounding raspy, she looked at him and mumbled.
Beck caught the word mercy.
“Mercy House is on fire?” Raines asked, sounding incredulous. He looked down the road behind them, then in front, before making eyes at Beck. The old man had a point. Beck didn’t hear the sound of fire engines, either.
“Let’s get you in the back. You need a hospital,” Beck said, moving her with the tips of his fingers, her legs responding. He put his palm over the top of her head, out of force of habit, guiding her down like she was a perp, and tucked her into the backseat.
Beck closed the door and looked over the flashing lights at Raines, hoping that the man would choose today to impart some sage wisdom instead of the normal derogatory sarcasm.
The old man shrugged. “It’s your collar, Tex, you’re the one that almost hit her. I’m just along for the ride.”
Great. Like the grandfather he’d always wanted.
They drove in silence, the only sounds the engine and the girl’s breathing. Beck glanced in the mirror to watch her through the glass and thick mesh; her eyes were half closed and she looked ready to fall asleep.
Raines grabbed the radio. “Dispatch, this is five-four, we’re up near Southern Peak and just caught a possible assault vic. She claims that she was attacked and that Mercy House is on fire, do we have any reports like that?”
Beck kept driving, paying extra close attention to the curves now, the trees around the car thick enough to form a maze up here in the mountains and completely block out another car’s headlights.
After a moment the response came. “Negative, no calls.”
“Thanks, just letting you know, case you wanted to send a truck anyway,” Raines said, returning the handset and fiddling with his belt, trying to hike up his pants but getting no traction. Beck looked at Raines’s gut and wondered if the belt was going to hold out for two and a half months, or if the lieutenant was going to get fat enough to need a new one.
“You should turn around, there’s not going to be anything to see; whoever did this to her is probably long gone. Into the wilderness. Let’s get her a doctor and a cup of coffee and it can be someone else’s problem.”
Her injuries were not life-threatening, minor scratches and cuts. It didn’t seem to Beck that most of the blood was hers. They were going to check on the building just to be safe, in case their assistance was needed. Beck drove on, the incline under them getting more substantial, pulling on the car. It was a good thing this wasn’t winter, they’d need chains on the tires.
They crested the hill and sure enough, there was smoke rising in the distance. It was not the kind of giant black cloud that denoted a strip mall inferno, but there was enough of it to indicate something was amiss. Mercy House was the only building around for a couple of miles, and with all the money people tossed at it to take care of their problems, it should have had top-of-the-line fire detection, a hardwired line straight to the fire department the minute someone burned their toast.
“Dispatch, this is five-four again, there is a fire at Mercy House. I repeat, send fire and rescue to Mercy House immediately,” Beck said, accelerating as he spoke, all business but still with a modicum of pride that he hadn’t listened to his partner and turned around.
“I’ll be damned,” Raines said, beginning to say something else but interrupted by the girl.
“Why are we going toward it?” she screamed, back awake now and fully audible, even behind the glass.
“People will need help, we’ll do what we can until backup relieves us, then we’ll get you a doctor,” Beck said.
This was not the answer the girl wanted to hear. She began banging on the partition, rattling the mesh in its frame. Beck had seen drunks in combat boots kicking against it and doing less damage, his headrest was knocking against the mesh, rattling his brain as he turned his head to her.
“Ma’am, please,” he said, watching the dark brown splotches she was leaving with her fists turn bright red as she beat her knuckles bloody on the divider.
She kept at it until she punched herself to exhaustion, slumping against the backseat with her eyes closed, but her breathing still heavy as if to let them know she wasn’t dead, only entering a different phase of shock.
“You still sure about this, command?” Raines said, giving Beck that terrible I’ve got a secret half-smile he used when hitting on younger women.
“This is protocol and the right thing to do, so yes.”
That was enough to shut Raines down, and they drove without speaking until they reached the cobblestone loop in front of Mercy House.
Something was wrong: There were no crowds huddled on the grounds out front, trying to distance themselves from blown-out windows. There were no nurses carrying out patients, the front doors weren’t even open. And yet.
“How do we work this?” Raines asked.
“Get those doors open, how else?” Beck said, opening his door, no patience for the old man.
“How do we work this?” Raines asked again, no special emphasis this time, not different from the first time he’d posed the question. It would have been amusing, or troubling, if Beck weren’t in such a hurry.
Beck jumped out of the car without answering a second time and looked up, a column of smoke filling the sky above the old three-story building. Smoke billowed from the barred windows, not because they were cracked open but because they were shattered, some spider-webbed half-panes of glass visible from the ground.
“Get up, I need you.” Beck poked his head back down below the car roof and said to Raines, slamming the driver’s side door shut and breaking into a sprint.
Beck rounded the front of the squad car. He had almost crossed the ten yards to the steps of the building by the time Raines was able to heft himself from the passenger’s seat. Beck turned to look back at the squad car.
Raines was coming, with as much hustle as he could muster but still looking off, and the girl was awake and lucid again, banging on the window and screaming her guts out.
She was trying to tell him something and he could read the words don’t and no on her lips and even had time to think that maybe she was right, maybe there was something wrong here. He thought all that before turning back and bounding up the stairs, two at a time, to the door.
Beck had decided to do something and he was going to do it. Not only that, but he’d received push-back from Raines, which only served to reinforce his righteousness.
Juiced up on adrenaline, Beck didn’t think twice about grabbing one of the two large antique doorknobs attached to the oversize double doors. He pulled away but not quickly enough—the skin of his palm was already white-orange with the burn; the flames on the other side of the door had heated the metal.
“Shit,” Beck said to himself, pulling his shirt untucked. He bunched up the excess fabric and used it to try the knob again with his good hand. It wouldn’t budge, was locked from the inside.
He looked back at Raines, the old man only just beginning to mount the steps and already looking pale with exertion. Under normal circumstances Beck would exalt in Raines’s physical difficulties, then immediately chastise himself for thinking badly about his partner, but right now he just wanted someone who could do the job that was called for.
Beck started to give the old man an order but was cut off.
“Do you smell that?” Raines asked, looking down at his feet, his face red and sweat beginning to dribble down his temples, droplets splashing from his ears onto his neck, washing away his aftershave.
Beck had never seen someone have a stroke, but he’d heard about what they were like, seen them on TV. They started with strange neurologic symptoms, detecting smells that weren’t there, mixing up words, then ended in convulsions, a hundred times scarier than any seizure or heart attack because you could survive those things relatively unscathed. At least on TV.
“It’s locked; grab the shotgun and we’ll blow it open!” Beck yelled, not buying that there was something seriously wrong with his partner. Raines would outlive them all, he was fond of saying.
Raines nodded, then clumsily about-faced on the stairs and ran back to the car.
Beck turned and stood facing the door, one ear cocked to the side, trying to hear movement inside and unsure if the roar was from the flames or if it was the residents of Mercy House crying out as they were cooked alive. Then he thought about how safe it would be, blasting open the door if there were people on the other side, possibly pressed against the door. But there was no choice.
With the car door open behind him, the girl’s screams were no longer muted. She mellowed and he could hear Raines swearing as he struggled to get the lock off the shotgun. The weapon pointed to the ceiling of the cruiser, a bar of metal bolted in place over the trigger and stock to prevent any wise guys from trying to grab ahold of it, if they managed to get the door open.
Then Beck heard something else. There was movement to one side, somewhere out of his range of vision, behind the hedges that flanked the deck, and then the strangest sound he’d heard this entire surreal afternoon: laughter.
“Who’s there? Please get clear of the building. It’s not safe.”
The only response was the laughter cutting short, Beck pictured a child, doing badly at a game of hide-and-seek, trying to stifle her laughter with a hand and failing.
“I got it!” Raines yelled, wheezing from exertion, carrying the shotgun all wrong, up and close, his finger too near the trigger.
Beck took his attention away from the hedges and began to shout for his partner to slow down when Raines fell. It was a real-life outtake of an episode of America’s Funniest Home Videos, less funny when you knew how badly it could all end, that the gun could still go off, the old fool blasting himself in half for a studio audience.
“F***ing thing,” Raines said, looking surprised to find himself sprawled, digging the barrel of the gun into the grass for support, a dirt clod lodging in the end. What the hell is going on? Beck thought, then hurried down the steps. He needed to help or disarm his partner, preferably both, all the while acutely aware that he still needed to get the doors to Mercy House open.
“Are you okay?” Beck asked, a few feet from where Raines was dusting himself off, his body wavering, looking ready to hit the ground again.
Then there was the sound of laughter again, closer now, no longer hidden among the hedges.
“Sir, I said clear the a—”
Jim Beck didn’t get the words out as he turned, was barely able to register the enormous laughing shadow before he was blindsided by what felt like a metal baseball bat, his vision flashing, his head snapping back and giving him a quick glimpse of the smoky sky before his world was plunged into a confused darkness.