Authors: Earl Emerson
Table of Contents
The good die first . . .
Life, in my estimation, is a biological misadventure that we terminate on the shoulders of six strange men whose only objective is to make a hole in one with you.
1. JUNE—NEAR THE END
I’m a mad dog. Utterly mad.
If you knew my circumstances, you’d trust me when I tell you I’m as crazy as they come. And growing madder by the minute.
Nobody out there in the dark doubts me. I can see a few of the uniforms in the shadows, fingers tightening on their triggers, scopes zeroed in on my heart. I can hear the whispering. Most can barely wait to begin pumping rounds into the night. Into me. Any excuse. Any little twitch on my part will provoke a bloodbath.
You think I’m kidding?
Consider this. . . .
I’m standing on the roof of a police cruiser screaming at twenty police officers to keep their distance. My mouth looks like the bloody maw of hell. Several of my teeth have been loosened and quite a few others are missing entirely. I have a cell phone in one hand, a pistol in the other. The cell phone is pressed to my left ear. The gun to my right ear. During most of the last twenty minutes I’ve been threatening to put a bullet through my brain. If that’s not enough, I’m naked as a jaybird.
I’m crazy as a shithouse rat and they know it. Destined for a jail cell, a straitjacket, or, more likely, to end up dancing the funky chicken in a fusillade of bullets.
Don’t waste your time feeling sorry for me. You’re headed there, too. That’s what I’ve learned in the last week. Maybe not the nuthouse or a fusillade of bullets, but you’re headed for the dirt. Same as me. Same as every last one of us. Eventually everybody lands in the dirt.
I don’t care anymore.
You can’t fake my kind of insanity. They know I mean business. They know I’m a mad dog.
That’s the whole point.
All I have to do is make a move and they’ll kill me. Don’t think I’m not tempted.
Suppose I move.
And they’d keep on shooting.
Maybe I should do it and end all this. In seven days I’ve turned into a lunatic, my life expectancy dropping from years to hours to minutes.
Running into Holly Riggs was the end for a bunch of us.
2. FEBRUARY—THE BEGINNING; OR,
A YOUNG GREEN-EYED WOMAN IN TIGHT JEANS
SCREAMS SHRILLY AT RELIGIOUS CHICKENS
The first time I saw Holly Riggs, she was standing in the left lane of Interstate 90 up to her knees in Bibles. Three hundred Bibles. Eight hundred chickens. It was ten o’clock at night, and already a good many of the birds had absconded for parts unknown, others sauntering away more slowly than any animal with a brain would. Some of the chickens were frozen to the roadway like art projects in a school for the mentally challenged.
As more emergency vehicles arrived, dozens of birds scampered off into the snow. Up the hill, teenage boys on their way home from night skiing got out of their cars and chased fryers, a shabby sport at best, for the birds were easily overtaken, even more easily bagged, and the boys had no use for their prey once captured.
Holly Riggs. Anyone who’d come over Snoqualmie Pass in an eighteen-wheeler in the middle of February on the iciest roads the state had experienced in almost a decade—you had to give her points for spunk.
For a week the Pacific Northwest had been dancing with a freeze-thaw cycle. The iced-over road surface on I-90 was polished and melted each day by the sun and by cars with chains and studded tires. When night fell and the roadway refroze, it became so slippery, a person could barely stand on it. Washington State wasn’t like Minnesota or North Dakota, where the roads were frozen all winter and the state knew how to deal with them; our region’s fleet of DOT sanding trucks had been swamped from the onset.
It was a few minutes after ten when my pager went off, when Mrs. Neumann stagger-stepped through the frozen field between our houses like a stork wrapped in an afghan. She would look after my girls while I responded to the accident, was still knocking the snow out of the treads in her galoshes when I pulled out of the drive.
The accident happened on the last downslope from the pass, prior to North Bend, just before the Truck Town exit, where a huge field lay between the eastbound and westbound lanes of I-90. It was in this field that several of the smaller vehicles and one of the big trucks had come to rest.
Parking on the eastbound shoulder, I followed two sets of footprints across the crusted snow. I knew this meant I was only the third fire department employee on the scene.
I could see Chief Newcastle up on the roadway speaking into his portable radio, Jackie Feldbaum beside him. We were all EMTs—emergency medical technicians.
Even though North Bend was growing like a tumor on a nuclear facilities inspector, it was still a small town, and cleaning up road accidents was just one of the taxes shouldered by any small-town fire department situated next to a major highway.
I-90 was unidirectional, so the impact speeds weren’t as high as they might have been, the injuries not as severe. Including the two big trucks that started it, fourteen vehicles were involved. A heap of work for a mostly volunteer department, but Chief Newcastle ran the operation like the seasoned veteran he was.
Having retired as a captain after thirty years of working for Portland Fire, Newcastle’s trademark at emergencies was remaining so cool and unencumbered you would think he was about to take a nap. Jackie, one of our volunteers, was already beginning to triage patients. A ten-year volunteer, she was one of those people who needed both hands while watching brain surgery on the cable medical channel, one for draining Budweiser after Budweiser and the other for taking notes just in case she might have to reenact the procedure in the field someday. We called her the Fire Plug behind her back, which wasn’t a reference to her firefighting history so much as a testament to her figure.
Marching across the slippery road surface in her sure-grip Klondike boots, Jackie yelled like a crazed football mom. Before the night was over, she would videotape the wrecked vehicles for her home library. Her job tonight was to count up the casualties and begin assigning the injured to incoming personnel in order of priority. It was called triage, from the French word
, to sort. Jackie might have been better at it if she hadn’t been in the tavern when her pager fired, though we didn’t find out she was half-crocked until later.
I guess I should have been suspicious when Newcastle asked me to check out the two big rigs and their drivers. That’s when Jackie Feldbaum winked at me and said, “You might want to get the phone number of that second driver. She’s just your type.”
“What’s my type?” I asked without stopping.
“Still breathing.” Jackie’s cigarette voice erupted into a guttural laugh like a dog coughing up a fish bone. Everybody in the department, volunteers and paid both, had their fun kidding me about women. I didn’t mind.
The guy from the chicken truck was chasing chickens up and down the highway; he told me he didn’t need medical attention. His truck was facing backward on the freeway, the trailer on its flank, he had blood running down his face, but he said he didn’t need medical attention. Fine. I left him alone.
Somewhere on the long curve down the last of the foothills into North Bend, just after the point where the State Patrol liked to sit with their radar guns, the chicken truck had jackknifed into the middle lane, sideswiping the second truck and sweeping it down the icy highway like a push broom sweeping chestnuts. The driver of the chicken truck later said he thought everything was okay until he glanced out his window and noticed his own trailer passing him on the left. After that, all he remembered was screeching metal, squawking chickens, and feathers in his teeth.
Just to make the whole scene even more demented, some radical vegan activist appeared out of the line of idling cars and used a screwdriver to pry open a bunch of chicken cages. She released at least eighty birds to join those with their feet already frozen to the roadway before she was stopped by Jackie Feldbaum, who called her a chicken fucker. The Fire Plug had a mouth on her.
The second truck had skidded on the ice for several hundred yards, then, after spewing part of its load into the snow, came to rest on the edge of the field, the tractor upright, the trailer on its side, rear doors burst open.
Inside the cockeyed trailer, I found a young woman shouting at a trio of escaped chickens. There were the Bibles, several bales of comic books, some jeans that had spilled out of their boxes, and a tacky substance we later identified as Coca-Cola syrup. Most of the truck drivers we saw coming through North Bend could spit out the window and clear two lanes of traffic; Holly was different.
“You need help?” I asked, realizing that I’d gone from a scene of public cacophony to one of utmost intimacy, just the two of us in this echoing cubicle. My God, she had beautiful eyes.
“Yes, I need help.”
“That blood on your knees?”
She looked down at her jeans and said, “I’m okay. There must be people who’re really hurt. Anybody killed?”
“Thank God for that.”
“You driving this rig?”
“You got an MSDS?”
She handed me the Material Safety Data Sheet. There was nothing dangerous on board.
When I got closer, she stuck out her hand and said, “Holly Riggs.”
“Jim Swope.” As we shook hands, our eyes met in the quivering light from our respective flashlights. I was wearing heavy firefighting gloves; hers were made of goatskin. Still, there was something provocative, almost sensual, about the handshake.
Holly Riggs had short strawberry-blond hair, an upturned nose with a wash of freckles across it, sparkly eyes she enhanced with green contacts, and a tiny waist that accentuated what Chief Newcastle later called her childbearing hips. At five-two, she was more than a foot shorter than me.
“I suppose you’re going to take her out and ruin her life,” Newcastle joked that night at the accident site, when he found out I’d gotten her phone number.
“I’ve never ruined anyone’s life,” I said. “Besides, I’m not even sure I’ll call. It just happened after we started talking that we have a lot in common.”
“I just bet you do,” Newcastle joked. “Have a lot in common. You have a lot in common with every good-looking woman you’ve ever met.” Newcastle laughed until he was sick with it. Sometimes I thought he was going to have a heart attack laughing at me. Nobody liked a joke more than Harry Newcastle. I didn’t mind the ribbing. I really didn’t.
He was wrong about me, though. To tell you the truth, I had the worst luck when it came to women. Think about this—three years ago my wife cleaned out our bank account and ran away with the mayor. To make it worse, everybody in town knew about it before I did.