I was born in the middle of a desert, at a gas station on the side of the road. At least that’s what they told me when I was young, and still stupid enough to ask. Born abandoned, to a poor country girl who couldn’t make it to help in time. Born with no father, no name and no future. Born with no hope, so I should be grateful for what I was given, damn it, and stop asking questions. I suffered through my youth in the desert, I joined the army and was sent to the desert, and a hell of a lot of my freelance work took place there too. For some reason it’s a lot harder to get a job to kill someone on a tropical island than it is in the middle of a god-forsaken wasteland with nothing but sand, rocks and sun to recommend it. Oh yeah, and oil. That was usually the deciding factor.
I was sick to death of deserts, literally. They were just killing fields as far as I was concerned, and so when I retired—by which I mean ran as hard as I could, covered my tracks and didn’t look back—I chose the Pacific Northwest as my new home. Nothing but rain and trees and mountains. It had cloudy skies, cool temperatures, and plenty of isolation if I wanted it, which I did. I found a fixer-upper on the east edge of Renton, Washington, under the shadow of Mount Rainier. I modified it to my specifications, moved in everything I owned (a U-Haul trailer carrying more weapons than clothes, and no furniture) and accidentally ended up with a dog, too. The dog wasn’t my idea, I had never had a pet before and had no intention of starting, but the lure of company won out over the inconvenience in the end. That was how I ended up tramping along the trail behind my house late at night about a year after I got there, walking my damn dog in the drizzling rain.
Della was a good girl, don’t get me wrong, but she was young and training was going a little slowly. I still didn’t trust her not to get distracted and run off if I let her out at night on her own, so I went with her. It was Della who found the body, suddenly straining against her leash in a way I’d almost broken her of, whining and eager. Her gangly paws dug into the leafy trail as she pulled against my grip.
“Heel,” I told her, forcing her down by my side. She subsided, but was still quivering. “What’s your problem?” I muttered, looking forward into the misty gloom. It was late spring, still cold by my thin-blooded standards, and the only light around came from my flashlight. “What?” She whined again, made an abortive little twitch like she wanted to spring forward and I let her this time. She pulled me the next twenty-five feet at a brisk pace before stopping abruptly at the base of a thick tree. Something was propped up against it.
Not something. Someone.
Now that I was closer I could smell the blood in the air, that tell-tale tang that you never can forget. There had to be a lot of it, for me to smell it over the rain. I told Della to sit a few feet away, so she wouldn’t get any ideas about whether this was a good time to try licking the body, and shined my flashlight down at the corpse’s face.
His skin was so pale it was blue, his lips gone purple. A dark, sticky river of red trailed from somewhere in his thick, dark hair down the side of his face, darkening his neck and the collar of his uniform…oh, fuck me. His police uniform. This was a cop. I had a dead cop less than five hundred feet from my house, from my safety net. How the fuck had he gotten out here? Who would go to that kind of trouble? More to the point, did it have anything to do with me? There were plenty of people I preferred to remain anonymous to in my new, civilian incarnation. If one of them had found me, and he was some kind of warning—
Then I saw the word scrawled on his chest in smeared yellow spray paint, and my paranoia flipped over into anger. FAG. All caps, wide and aggressive. There was more blood beneath that—Christ, how much had this poor guy bled before he died? The redness was almost black in the harsh glare of my LED flashlight. I sighed and moved the light back up to his face, and froze. His eyes were open. They had been closed before.
He was still alive.
His eyes stayed open and focused on me. There was no expression in his face and he didn’t make a sound, not even a whisper of the pain I knew he had to be in, but he was looking at me. Now that I was looking for it I saw the infinitesimal rise and fall of his chest, his barely-there breathing. This boy should have been dead, but he wasn’t. Well. That took away some of my options. Unless I wanted to end this here and now, which…well, it wouldn’t be the first time I had helped someone along who was just too far gone to make it back. A fast death could be the greatest mercy in the world, sometimes.
Della whimpered and scratched the ground near the body, looking up at me with dark, shining eyes.
“Yeah, I know,” I told her sourly. If I couldn’t leave a dog to die on my property, there was no way in hell I could leave a person, even if that person was a cop. The last thing I needed were the police looking into me, but maybe…maybe they wouldn’t have to know.
I unhooked the leash from Della’s collar, then slid my arms beneath the young cop’s torso and thighs and lifted him up. His head lolled back, and he did make a noise this time, a hoarse, punched-out groan in the back of his throat, probably not consciously. I swore and tilted him more against my body, for better support, then walked as fast as I could in the dark back to my house. I had to punch in the code to unlock the door with my pinkie—the kid was heavier than he looked—and opened it with some difficulty, but eventually we got inside. I lay the cop down, as gently as I could, on my leather couch. Della stayed close to me, my own tension affecting her, and we both looked at him.
He was seeping blood all over my couch. “God damn it.” I ran to my bathroom and pulled down my first aid kit, yanking out the gauze bandaging and tape. I came back, took a closer look at his head wound and grimaced. That was skull I was seeing in one place. This kid needed way more help than I could give him, my significant experience with field medicine notwithstanding. I put the gauze over the wound and taped it down, heedless of his hair, just knowing that the bleeding needed to stop. His eyes had thinned to thin slits, the irises barely visible, but I could feel their focus on me. “I’ll get you to help,” I promised him, not caring if he could hear me. I needed to reaffirm it for myself. No ambulance, but I still had temporary plates on the Explorer in my garage. I could rip those off and drive him to the nearest ER, drop him off and no one would be the wiser. Sounded good.
The first part was easy enough. I prepped my car, carried the kid out and laid him down in the back seat, started up the engine and headed toward town. The closest hospital was nine miles away. If I drove fast I could be there in eight minutes on these roads.
There was no wallet or badge on the kid, but he was wearing a name tag that had been obscured by the paint. I’d had the time to make it out as I was settling him into the backseat of my car. Officer S. Bennett. I wondered what the S stood for. “Sam,” I tried out, keeping my eye on the back seat. He was perfectly still now, and I couldn’t see his face. I wondered if he was still breathing. “Steve. Nah, you don’t look like a Steve. Scott. Simon.” I ran through every S name I could think of, filling the emptiness of the air with words as I took corners at insane speeds and gunned it even more on the flats.
By the time we got to the hospital I’d been silent for two minutes, stuck at Sakima. I pulled into the ER lane, pulled the hood up on my bulky, oversized jacket and ran inside. “I need help out here!” People stared at me. I swung my bloody fingers at the nearest wall, leaving a watery red spray across a banal painting of a pine tree. “Now!”
In moments the car was swarmed with people, medical staff climbing into the back and transferring S. Bennet to a waiting gurney. One of them kept firing questions at me: “Where did you find him? When was he injured? What’s your name? Sir…sir, I need your name. Sir!”
“I’ll be right back, I’m coming back,” I told her hastily, doing my best to act rattled. “I just have to park the car.”
“Sir, you need to wait—” She was tenacious, this nurse. Luckily an ambulance pulled in then, sirens blaring, and she suddenly had more important things to worry about than me. I got into the Explorer, slammed my door shut and pulled out into the night. There. Duty done. I could go home now.
I convinced myself of that for all of about thirty seconds before groaning and pulling a U-turn at the next stop sign.