down to business

21

PARKED OUTSIDE IN THE NIGHTTIME AVENUES of the Alvarez Arts and Crafts bungalow is the detective’s SUV. Inside the vehicle the screen of Alvarez’s mounted laptop lights out of sleep and displays Doctor Gray Reagan’s now-active cell phone activity and its location at the Fort Knox Storage facility on Corby.

INSIDE THE STORAGE UNIT, Ian, Elaine and Gray wait for the call to connect.

“Hello?” says Pam’s voice through the speaker. Her tone is completely nonchalant, stoic regardless of her phone’s identification of this caller.

“It’s Elaine, Pam. I need you to meet me at the 7-Eleven on Corby. Do you know where I mean?”

“Right now?” Pam asks, as if now is a good time.

“Right now,” says Elaine. And the call disconnects.

Ian pulls a Red Bull and a bottle of chocolate milk from the grocery bag. He sticks the cath-tip syringe into the end of the NG tube, opens the Chocolate Milk and pours some into the 90cc syringe.

“He needs to eat,” he says. “I’ll clean him up and make

sure he’s awake.”

Elaine lifts the roll-up door, exits and as she brings the door back down, he stops her. “She can’t know where we are.” She continues the door’s travel to a close.

Ian fills another syringe full, this time with Red Bull, and he looks down over the mess that is Gray Reagan. In the middle of the sterile bronze area on his abdomen is the puncture wound feeding a trickle of blood. Nothing percutaneous, just a surface gash. He watches it, the blood piling up into a drop that will eventually heave over the roll of fat and slide down his side. He’s reminded of similar trickles leaving Virginia’s wound, the creamy thick formula laced with phenobarbital ooze from under the gauze dressing and the nipple, or the clearer electrolytic fluid stained by the excoriation of her stoma rubbed raw by what little play the catheter had in her side. All of the sudden Ian realized that none of this was normal.

Only the frequency of the dressing changes, the catheter replacements, and the feedings made this normal. He had even created certain hacks in caring for this wound that would never heal, like applying denture adhesive around the stoma to seal the wound and keep it from fissuring and bleeding. In the time since Virginia’s dying, all that at one time seemed perfectly normal to Ian and Linda and Virginia had now returned to execrable, lamentable, unimaginable, something no one could ever possibly consider doing to their own child. Especially one as pure, precious and defenseless as Virginia.

THE SHADOWS ARE PRETTY FRESH in the Alvarez home, light fixtures having just gone out. Serena has said nothing more to Steve after the eruption at the fountain and Steve was at least wise enough to stay quiet on the very long short drive home. She is in bed, alone, awake. He is on the couch in the living room, alone, dozing. His phone vibrates him away from that front porch of REM sleep, making a racket on the glass top of the coffee table. He silences it before the third shake and pulls a difficult-to-come-by focus on the screen. Cell Activity Alert, it announces, a response to an algorithm that pushes notifications from his laptop. The metadata surveillance on Gray’s phone triggered the alert, a moot point by now, though. It was all just as he had thought. He’s bathed in the glow of a big screen showing the top ten plays of the day on SportsCenter. He powers down the TV, extinguishes his phone and leaves the couch to wanders off into the dark house, past Mikayla’s door and into the room he shares with Serena. He strips down to his boxers and climbs into bed respecting the space between them.

THE CORBY 7-ELEVEN is one of the busiest stores in the region with the majority of its traffic drawn for beer and cigarettes. The parking lot turns most patron cars about every six minutes, a serial procession of parking and departing that condenses at 7:45a, noon, 5:00p and midnight. This very early Wednesday morning’s makeup of which is replete with an older Ford F-150, an assortment of high mileage Hyundais peppered with some vintage eighties muscle and a bombed-out Coupe de Ville. Pam’s Mercedes looks like a coiffed French poodle in the city pound, and she looks a bit less nervous than one as she waits behind the wheel. She has been waiting for this.

Elaine comes from inside the 7-Eleven and opens the driver door of the Mercedes. “I’m driving,” she says, inarguably. Pam gets out and walks to the passenger side while Elaine gets behind the wheel. She produces a red bandana that she purchased inside the convenience store. She removes its tag and hands it to Pam now seated. “Put it on.”

“Really?” Pam says.

Elaine opens her door and makes quick egress of the car and walks.

“Oh, okay.” Elaine doesn’t stop. “Okay!” Pam shouts and she blindfolds herself. Elaine pivots and gets back in this familiar coupe, starts the engine, flicks it into reverse and backs out of the stall, asserting its rank among the dross of this convenient lot.

IAN POURS RED BULL into the cath-tip syringe gravity feeding Gray. It fizzes from the residual of chocolate milk left in the syringe as Ian alternates between to the two fluids, one a quick caloric and sugary pick-me-up, the other liquid caffeine that quickly metabolizes. Were one to put a curious eye up to the three-eighths peephole drilled in the door, like the man from the old ambling pickup truck, they would see two men silhouetted against a cinderblock wall, one seated facing the wall and the other standing, right arm lifted up a bit, his hand holding a large syringe that is slowly voiding through a tube. Once it has evacuated the standing man tapes the tube end back on the seated man’s face.

Ian peels back the duct tape from Gray’s mouth and leans the adirondack back onto the folding chair. He examines Gray’s face. Gray opens his mouth as if he were facilitating a dental exam, the stench from within foul enough to drive Ian back.

“Hoo-boy,” Ian says. “I wouldn’t kiss her.”

Ian resumes the exam. It has been almost three days and the swelling in the tissue under Gray’s eyes has receded. The hematomas under each have gone from deep purple to bluish green, but the big one on the bridge of his nose retains its original hue of a dull denim-blue. Ian cuts the tape that has restrained Gray’s head since he took occupancy of the unit.

Gray’s supine position in the chair and his head’s rest between the third and fourth slat of the six-slat back keep his head still. Three days’ worth of atrophy prohibit movement as well. Had Gray the energy, he would find that his neck felt as if it were paralyzed. Ian opens several alcohol swab packets, unfolds them one by one and dabs at Gay’s oily skin, cleaning under his nose and his chin particularly, and down his neck. The facial wipe-down has created an accumulation on the floor of torn packets and spent swabs, all of which Ian gathers and discards into the backpack.

Ian then takes Gray’s head in his hands much like a chiropractor and slowly swivels it left to right and back accompanied by Gray moaning in both relief and pain. He brings it back center, Gray’s crooked nose pointing up.

“Can you tilt your head back?” An optimistic question since Gray still has no ability to move his noggin. He can do nothing. Ian takes his head by the base of his neck and pulls, drawing Gray’s head back and opening his jaw like that of a CPR mannequin. Ian looks inside Gray’s mouth, being careful not to agitate the healing that has progressed since the trauma – the clots in the sockets of the missing teeth, the split palate, the crack in the maxillary bone, and the mending of the frenulum, the little told of tissue centered up above his front teeth. It must have torn on impact with Ian’s elbow. It is a good thing that the mouth is the fastest healing part of the body. Gray’s tongue remains largely unaffected.

“I have learned,” Gray says with some tone and control, “over the course of my practice that no good deed goes unpunished.” Ian has no idea how to take this and before he can ask a clarifying question, Gray goes on, “Whatever it is you’re trying to do here, you’re going to end up in prison.” Now he makes sense.

“Oh, no question, Doctor Reagan – I’m in deep. Assault, kidnapping. I have motive and opportunity. No contest.” Gray makes eye contact with Ian. “Had I anything to live for that would be enough to make me truly afraid. But I’m not. So far, this has been worth every moment.”

The satisfaction of that last sentence still lingers in the air when Ian says, “And I’m not done yet.” Gray closes his eyes against whatever not done yet might mean.

“I want you to try moving your head from side to side, just a little at a time.” Gray can finally comply, making slow arcs with his broken nose. While Gray is engaged with this physical therapy of his neck, Ian carefully brings the adirondack upright to its front feet, setting down without a bump, while the shift in gravity makes Gray’s head movement a bit less stable. Ian reaches for and opens a bottle of water and puts it to Gray’s lips. He pours just a little in trying to avoid aspiration and yet give Gray something to work with. He then places the bottle back on the floor behind the chair. “Swish that around and spit it out.” The good patient does. Ian sees that he’s capable of taking liquid by mouth and bends down to reach for another Red Bull, inadvertently knocking the water bottle over and it rolls away toward the door, water draining out the mouth and quickly flowing across the cement floor of the storage unit to the edge of the pad where it meets the rolling door. Ian watches the flow. The grade of the floor rushes the fluid to the door and underneath it. He brings the bottle upright and opens the can in his hand.

Elaine and the blindfolded Pamela ascend the alley just outside. She stops Pamela at a door, produces a key and unlocks it, opening it to dark columns of file boxes. She grabs a flashlight from a charging station on an interior wall and turns it on. “Pam, you can take off your blindfold.”

Pam slips it down over her nose and watches the beam of the flashlight lead down the little chasm. The two walk behind it as it finds the boxes with red and yellow dots.

“Try to drink this,” Ian says. The Red Bull foams as it floods Gray’s mouth and works loose what’s left from the water rinse, dried mucous and blood that has formed in the crevasses and recesses of Gray’s cheeks and under his tongue. Ian puts his hand over Gray’s mouth. “Swallow it.” Gray swallows hard. A pink foam evacuates from his nose and he aspirates yet again, drawing a mist off that foam into is upper airway. His head flops forward in a weak attempt to cough and as his chin reaches his chest he occludes his airway even more, inhaling against both the narrowed trachea and the cough reflex spurred by the aerosol of carbonation going down it.

It’s now routine – turn on suction, pass catheter, gag reflex, expectorate, suction, clear. Ian stops the machine and listens. Gray breathes easier now. Ian presses his ear against Gray’s bare chest high on the side of his sternum. He lifts and moves to the other side and listens through another respiration cycle.

A quiet knock barely rattles the metal door.

Ian lifts up from Gray’s damp chest, grasps the adirondack by a back slat with one hand and the opposite arm rest with the other and rotates the chair one hundred eighty degrees facing the door, and then back a bit centering it under the suspended bulb. He regards the prisoner. Doctor Gray Reagan sits, restrained and naked save for his diaper, bathed in a tungsten glow, his head free resting on the back slats, a feeding tube taped to his face of many colors paling the rest of his skin from his middle-aged rounded shoulders, the slight sag of his breasts, and the protrusion of his abdomen rolling over the waistband of his Depends to his thick, flat thighs with area where hair no longer grows from the constant rub of surgical scrubs. His knees eclipse any further light that might fall beyond them. It is the best he has looked since Sunday.

Outside the unit Elaine and Pam stand, waiting, listening, Pam especially given her temporarily blinded state. The door finally lifts and Elaine escorts Pam across its threshold and Ian rolls the door closed.

“Where am I?” Pam asks, her patience at an end. Elaine removes her blindfold and Pam gets her bearing, her pupils pulling exposure, her nose drawing in the odor while she reaches clarity, making out the man in the chair before her. She resists her intuitive response, much like Elaine’s, and remains quiet, looking at a man duct-taped to a turquoise deck chair. Stripped of his scrubs, of the fondant of his practice, of the goodwill that once motivated him, he sits naked before his wife who finds her composure.

“Who’s your decorator, Gray?” She leaves him at the chair and turns to examine the tapestry of evidence adhered to the cinderblock. She reads Linda Jacobsen’s intake form, a document she formatted herself. She looks at the Jacobsen family photos of a big sister and her daddy, of an infant in an isolette. More to the middle of the wall is an array of MRI images, photographic dissections of a little brain in a progressive matrix, a photo of Virginia smiling, her belly exposed while she’s fed through a G-tube, and a finger-painted artwork. Pamela’s eyes come to rest on an image of the ten year-old Ginny in her casket.

“Is this your handiwork, Doctor Reagan?” Pam lingers here, memorizing the picture, studying the features of a beautiful lifeless face with unnaturally closed eyes and blonde curls, her arms at what used to be impossible right angles folded across her little abdomen. The reverence she feels softens her tone. “And is this your little girl, um-”

“Ian. Ian McDaniel. Yes. That’s Ginny.”

“I’m so sorry, Ian.” She says even quieter. She continues her sweep across the wall, stopping to examine each artifact, the Chamberlain delivery, the Esposito stillbirth, the Barrett emergency c-section. She takes her time, enough for Elaine to find a seat on the folding chair and for Ian to lean against a wall, arms folded, head bowed as everything becomes clearer. Pam’s gaze eventually and deliberately leaves the documents and pans to the right corner of the unit to find the area rug she and Gray bought the Sunday before, leaning into the cinder-block corner, still wrapped in its shipping visqueen.

“Is this my area rug?” she asks.

Pam feigns more relief about finding the rug than the husband. “I’m glad to see that again.” She comes back around to find her audience of three. She points to Elaine’s chair and asks, “May I?” and Elaine rises and hands Pamela the chair, who sets it down squarely in front of Gray and lights upon it, knees together, a manilla envelope placed in her lap, her fingers interlaced, rest upon it.

“Down to business,” she sighs, a breath, an exasperation fermented for years within her core, finally released into the inescapable space that exists between her and Gray. He has no choice but to breathe it in.

“These papers are two years-old, Gray. I thought I had reached my limit then, but like you’ve done throughout our marriage you managed to convince me that you were a good man and that I must be the bad one to have ever suspected you.” Her hands separate and move to the edges of the envelope, the right one forces its brass brad open. Her fingers slide inside and grasp the thick stack of documents. Ian and Elaine watch from outside the illumination of the suspended lamp.

“I’m not the bad one. I know that now. I’ve known about Elaine for a long, long time. I took careful steps to make sure I would come out of this marriage in a good way. Now I’m glad I waited.”

Out come the papers. They are indexed with clear strips that have color-coded tabs, indicators of where to sign.

“There’s a lot in here so let me summarize. I get it all. Twelve million. The practice. The house. The condo. The sailboat. You are going to give it to me in lieu of alimony and I am going to liquidate and use that cash for something atoning.”

Gray listens. She has his attention.

“On the way over here tonight, Elaine showed me the boxes and explained the dots to me.” She stops. The picture in her mind of the red and yellow dots, the rows of file boxes makes her shudder. “My God, Gray. All those mothers. All those babies.” She stops again, shifting into another vein. “All these years, Gray, I wondered why you married a barren woman. You’d think a man who brought lives into this world would want lives of his own.” She collects herself again and goes to a green transparent tab in the paperwork and separates the stack. She draws three pages from within and holds them up for Gray to clearly see. “You wanted this instead.” One by one she displays each page before him, taking a few moments with each as if giving Gray enough time to read through each asset’s description, single-spaced, anchored within the spreadsheet by a dollar value. Portfolios, bonds, investments, collections, gold, a sailboat. The pages come back down, returning to their place in the stack, Gray’s stare uninterrupted by them and their display. He remains locked on to Pamela while she finds the first of all the signature pages.

“Ian, would you be so kind as to free his right hand so he can make his signatures?” Ian obliges, cutting the tape on Gray’s right wrist with a blade from his Leatherman. Pam upends the manilla envelope and a pen rolls out of it into her hand. She clicks it ready and hands it to Gray. His fingers are barely able to grasp it. Pam places the envelope on Gray’s sweaty lap and then puts the stack of papers on it. “Sign here.” Gray scribbles something legibly close to his signature. “And here. And here. And here.” With the last, Pam lifts the stack from atop the now saturated manilla envelope, taps them on her own lap making order out of their askewed state and hands them to Elaine. “You will notarize these?”

“Of course,” Elaine says.

Pamela stands. “That’s it. Take me back to my car, please.” She replaces the blindfold over her own eyes and Elaine takes her by her elbow as Ian lifts the door. As they make careful egress of the chamber, Pamela stops and turns back to the direction of the unit’s interior.

“And Ian, would you be kind enough to drop that area rug by the house? Elaine can show you where I live,” she says. Ian rotates Doctor Reagan back around to face the rear wall, and then commences to tape the doctor back up.

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