Authors: Barbara Nickless
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Police Procedurals, #Women Sleuths
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2016 by Barbara Nickless
All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by Thomas & Mercer, Seattle
Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Thomas & Mercer are trademarks of
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Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen Design
For Steve, Kyle, and Amanda.
And for Cathy, who was there the longest.
His life wasn’t worth spit in a hard rain.
For two weeks he’d been camping under the 7th Street Bridge, smoking and dozing next to the slow roll of the Los Angeles River. Through the misery of dry-heat days and blue-neon nights, he listened to the roar of traffic overhead and wondered how a man could shed the perilous weight of memory.
Time and again, he imagined climbing the crumbling pylons of the bridge, folding his uniform neatly over the rail, and stepping naked onto the highway to let that roar take him down.
After fifteen days, and with his mind made up, he was standing on the bridge when his phone rang. His woman, calling from Denver.
“I miss you, Tucker. Please come home.”
“I can’t,” he said. “Bad has filled every part of me. There ain’t room for nothing else.”
“Please, Tucker. I love you. I’ve thought about what you said. I’ve thought about nothing else.” A pause, while the sound of her breath filled his ear. “I will marry you.”
Her words fell on him like rain, coming down sweet and clean, washing away the dust devils of Iraq. He ran his hands over the remains of his face and felt the memory of her fingers there from when she’d last touched him. He realized, to his surprise, that even constant pain left room for love.
“I’m coming,” he told her. “A week, I’ll be there.”
“A week,” she said, “I’ll be done with everything else.”
He backed away from the road, packed all he owned into his ruck, and thumbed his way to the rail yard.
Hopping trains was brutal. A split second of distraction or carelessness or just pure bad luck could cost you your fingers or hands, a leg or your life. You could be arrested, jailed, beaten, robbed. Murdered as you slept, your body tossed into a ravine somewhere between nowhere and nohow.
Worse for the Burned Man: everywhere he went he took his face, a haunted-house mask that never came off no matter how many surgeries they gave him in the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical. A face not even a mother could love, as his mother had proved when she’d up and left, the door of the ICU slamming closed behind her, somewhere between his sixth surgery and the tenth.
But his woman loved him.
Loved him even with this face. Loved him even when he called her dumb and crazy and all the other shit he’d thrown at her when she said she loved him still, loved him before the war and loved him after, even with all that the war had done to him. He told her it was pity, not love, and you damn sure couldn’t make a life out of pity. She’d pushed right back, telling him now he was being the stupid one, tossing away love like they sang about on the radio.
“Look at me,” he’d yelled, shoving his face into hers. “Look at what I am!”
But she’d only raised her fingers to the ruins of him, pressed her palms against the ravines and overhangs and gullies that mapped out his face and said she cherished his new geography. That was the word she’d used—
. The hills and furrows of his body were as close to traveling as she was likely to get, she said, and as far as she had a care to go.
“Come home soon,” she’d said the last time he’d run off.
The Burned Man had never been one for staying put. Even before the war he’d been riding trains, putting out his thumb on highways, working whatever crew would take him this way and that. After the war it got worse—the ghosts more shrill, the demons unrelenting.
But maybe it was finally time to float down and let the world reclaim him. If he didn’t grab hold of this woman, he would drift away in a delirium of grief and rage until he ended up back under the 7th Street Bridge.
Then standing on top of it, waiting for that roar to take him down.
So the morning after she called, in a predawn blue flecked with stars, he caught out. He went north in a boxcar to the cold fog of Olympia and the long rolling call of the ocean, took a gondola carrying steel pipe across the pine-choked wilds of Montana, and finally into Wyoming, where he jumped aboard a coal train clattering south toward Denver and the warmth of his woman.
He spent the Wyoming days crouched between the hoppers so that the wind was in his teeth and his eyes burned with cinders, then roughshodding over miles of ballast looking for unwatched locomotives in which to pass the nights. The wide land brought him some peace, hinted that maybe God was around after all, buried deep in the details and ready to let him be. Maybe God no longer kept a ledger against him of dead friends and dead Iraqis, no longer wanted to punish him with a face that opened a door to the dead every time he looked in the mirror.
Smack between Shawnee Junction and Wolf, sitting solo in a snowy hobo camp, he ran into some trouble. He usually did—some skinhead tramp taking exception to his face. But he managed okay; a few bruises, one long scrape. Pain, as his sergeant had said, was weakness leaving the body. He’d given the other guy a fair dose of it.
In Cheyenne he got a tattoo on his upper arm, on a piece of flesh as smooth as a baby’s skin. He’d been drinking with a repair crew on the north line, and when he talked about his face and the constant hassle, an old German told him if he had a tattoo of a double lightning bolt no one would mess with him.
“Face like that, you don’t need to do a damn thing,” the German said as they sat on a dead tree trunk pulled up next to the campfire. “They give you any grief, you let ’em see the tat. It’ll send ’em off, tail tucked.”
“Don’t this mean I killed someone?”
“You did, right? In the war?”
The Burned Man looked away, out into a darkness shot through with trailing embers. “Yeah.”
“So there you be.”
“What if I run into a real banger?”
The German spit a long stream of tobacco into the fire. “You’re white. You’re a vet. You look like the devil threw you onto his personal bonfire. You’ll be good.”
That night the Burned Man dreamed that roots grew from his feet, going deep into the earth, and his hands reached toward the sky like saplings. It was him, growing up and growing old alongside his woman.
By the time he got to Denver, his heart was swept clean. He washed up and changed into his uniform in a gas station bathroom, walked to 38th Avenue, then stuck out his thumb and caught a ride north on Pecos with a guy on a milk run. In exchange for the lift, the Burned Man helped deliver the bottles, leaving the milk on narrow stoops while on the other side of walls, radios clicked on with morning shows and dogs scratched at doors. In the driveways, SUVs and minivans lumbered out of the dark, perspiring frost. A man drove a rumbling pickup down the street, a boy tossing newspapers from the bed.
The Burned Man looked at all this and thought maybe he could have it, too.
The milkman dropped him off at 47th. Here the city smelled of old things, like nature gone quiet. Wet earth and decaying leaves and the thin, waiting scent of dormant trees.
He walked three blocks past Victorian-style homes a hundred years past their youth, then turned north and at long last stood on the wide, root-cracked sidewalk in front of her rooming house, his eyes red with road dust, his ruck stiff with diesel oil, his boots worn from a thousand miles of desert sand and railroad rock and plain hard times. A glow of gold showed through the blinds in her second-floor apartment. Next to her window was the stick figure of a cat.
“Elise,” he said, releasing her name from the tight place he’d held it.
The main door squeaked as he opened it. The hall was lit by a single bulb from an overhead light. Hot, dry air from the radiator filled the quiet space. A rug of faded roses lay damp and wrinkled on the floor, a single muddy boot print on the edge. The Burned Man stared at that print, and the heat of the desert curled in his bowels like a snake nesting.
I am home
, he reminded himself.
I am safe
The stairs creaked as he walked up, wood so old it sank in the middle, white-painted rails touched for over a hundred years by people coming in from the road.
On the landing outside her door, a night-light burned below the table where Elise kept a vase of fresh flowers. The petals had dropped, the water low in the glass and smelling of mold. The Burned Man went still, tight with the same unease he used to get approaching a neighborhood in Fallujah when nothing was out of place, not a single damned thing, but everything was
After a moment, he shook himself, set his ruck on the scuffed wooden floor, and knocked.
Silence. On the window to his right, looking out over the brown front lawn, ice that had glazed the glass overnight thinned under the warmth of the rising sun. Pale light crept into the hallway.
He tried the door. The glass knob turned readily under his hand. He picked up his ruck and walked in, his boots soundless on the tan carpet. A waft of chill air greeted him.
“Elise?” he called.
The front room was neat and tidy, dominated by the scarred oak table where tramps often sat to eat and talk. Two glasses of milk—one half drunk, the other untouched—sat on the table.
She’s been busy, he thought. Too busy to clean.
she’d told him,
I’ll be done with everything else.
In the kitchen, morning light splayed across the linoleum. A third glass was overturned on the counter, a dribble of milk splotched down the side of the sink. Seeing that glass, the Burned Man tried to close his hands around the stock of a rifle he no longer carried, his sense of wrong growing until it lifted the hairs on the nape of his neck. He grabbed a knife from the drawer near the stove and walked down the hallway beyond, telling himself maybe she wasn’t here. Maybe she had changed her mind about him and fled before he arrived.
The air grew colder. In Elise’s small guestroom, the bed was made, a stuffed Tweety Bird staring blankly from a mound of gingham pillows. From the nightstand he picked up a picture of himself and Elise taken before his deployment, her smile sweet, his expression cocky—unlined, unmarred, unscarred.
Back then he’d believed nothing could touch him.
Some instinct made him slide the photo, frame and all, into his ruck. As if already she was slipping away from him, and he had to grab this one thing. He went back into the hallway. Wind rattled the closed door of Elise’s bedroom, and a draft came through, making his heart race. He closed his eyes before he opened the door.
He walked in.
“You did this!” the man shouted through the Iraqi interpreter. He pointed at the dead woman lying in the street. Her body was stiff and fly-ridden, like she’d been there for a day or two.
“You killed her! I saw you!”
“Wasn’t me, man.” Tucker looked at the ’terp. “Tell him. We wasn’t anywhere near here.”
But part of him wasn’t sure. They’d driven a patrol down this same street yesterday, and he’d opened fire from the turret of the Humvee when he heard a sharp click and thought maybe someone was triggering a bomb. Everyone was so damned afraid of the IEDs, those fucking human incinerators that ripped a man to hell and left him there.
So Tucker had reacted to that loud, metallic click. Or not so much Tucker, but his trigger finger, which didn’t need Tucker to give it instructions. It knew how to survive.
“It wasn’t me!” he shouted. “Wasn’t me!”
“Wasn’t me,” he sobbed.
He looked down. In his hand was a knife, bloodied. Nearby, a filthy urinal and a dripping sink and a sign by the door telling employees to wash their hands.
he? And where was Elise? What—?
What had he
The old, familiar shakes came on until his teeth rattled in his head and his vision danced, and he let out an animal cry. There was blood on his clothes and on his boots, and a buzzing noise as a fluorescent light flared on and off, on and off, and there was blood, no-blood, blood, no-blood as his back hit the wall and he slid down the tiles, plunging into an abyss of sand and shit and sweat and noise, and finally into a darkness that closed up after him and swallowed him whole.