holy shit

PART THREE

22

SLEEPING IN A PEDIATRIC INTENSIVE CARE UNIT is achieved only by the unfortunate veterans of it, most of them mothers. There is a constant white noise of HVAC air pressure with an overtone of oxygen delivered by cannula with a pitch that varies depending on the liter flow and the little nose to which the flow is intended. And then there is the background of the occasional hallway traffic, the electric motor-assisted portable x-ray machine, the soft thud of a phlebotomist’s tote, the quiet clop-clop of nurses’ Crocs. This feels arranged to a rhythm dictated by the asynchronous metronomic beats of pulse oximeters that are calibrated to sound an alarm any time a number falls out of default parameters. These are the electronic nannies that monitor heart beats, respiration rates and oxygen saturation of the little bodies to which they are connected. All the wires and connection points make the word telemetry seem hyperbolic since it is often confused with the perpetuated myth of transmitting thoughts. That would be telepathy, a channel used by many an insomniac mother to send signals to housekeeping and PICU nurses in the hall to shut the hell up. Somehow their babies sleep through it all.

For the new parent unaccustomed to oximeter alarms, any attempted REM sleep collides with a 75 decibel alarm programmed to alert attending nurses of a drop in oxygen saturation, a change in heart or respiratory rates, or to the machine’s eminent shutting down due to its batteries running out because someone forgot to plug the device into house current. While just about anybody would want to know if a child is having trouble breathing, it would seem that similar attention would be paid to keeping the oximeter from unduly panicking a parent or volunteer caretaker, amplified only by that elusive sweet spot of slumber reached just as the batteries fade.

Such is the plight of Mark Jacobsen. Despite the recent weeks of providing Laura some nocturnal respite from the PICU, he has yet to calmly wake up to an oximeter alarm, an event that happens roughly every twenty minutes. This was how he slept last night even though he was at home in his own bed. He stills hears the beeping, the alarms, the desk phone, the insertion of cassettes into IV machines and the accompanying beep for every button pushed to program the flow. Add to this Laura’s narrative from yesterday afternoon, and the combined noises make for a long night. Mark hasn’t slept for weeks, the deprivation spiking adrenaline rushes of thoughts like getting the mortgage paid, the slipping clutch in their only car, and Laura’s visit to Doctor Reagan.

In a storage unit.

Doctor Reagan is in a position where he’ll listen to you. That’s what that guy at the hospital said. And I said I’d kill him where he sits.

This morning is still early enough where he has a few hours before his shift on the forklift at the distribution center. He showers, dresses and drives to Highland Memorial. He picks up coffee in the cafeteria and makes his way to the PICU. Laura is awake, changing a diaper through the access holes of the isolette.

“Good morning.” He sets her coffee down. “How was your night?” They speak in the hush of the aural context of this sanctuary.

“The same,” she says. “He desaturated a couple of times, but we got him back in the nineties.”

“Do you want to go down and get some breakfast while I’m here? I have an hour or so.”

“They’re bringing a tray up for me,” she says. This seems all too too routine for them now, habits they would all rather resist than succumb to. The first light of dawn backlighting the high fog seen from the window, the white noise of the HVAC system changing pressure and temperature anticipating the thermal shift of daytime, and the smell of coffee punching through latent odors of Iodoform, soiled tiny diapers and soured remains of reflux signal that cusp of another successful rotation of the planet and a night passed in a PICU. Laura and Mark sip their coffee, Mark having prepared hers they way she wants it. He breathes in the aroma from the styrofoam cup and on that breath he says, “What are we doing here?”

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“What are we doing here? For Adam?”

Laura is puzzled at the question. It’s pretty obvious what they are doing in a PICU and so is her answer. “Keeping Adam alive.” Mark agrees in nodding, and fights back the swell of sadness and anger that are bi-products of their herculean efforts.

“Okay. So, what’s Doctor Reagan doing in a storage unit?”

The question makes her sick to her stomach. In the rush of yesterday’s retribution, her confrontation with Doctor Reagan and confirmation of his sociopathic avarice she had not once thought about the consequences of his situation. Her visit had served a more paramount purpose to her, something upon which she has since been able to turn a corner and not look back. Mark’s question forces her redress almost against her will.

The contradiction of her husband’s question is intensified by the isolette, the suction catheter, the feeding tube, the tape on baby Adam’s hands, holding his tiny fingers to his palm to prevent him pulling off his cannula or pulling out his NG tube or pulling loose any one of a half-dozen leads of telemetry. She considers these parallels to the man in the storage unit before she responds, and then with vitriol similar to her husband’s from the day before she answers. “He’s paying for this.” 

And the noise from the room’s sustaining efforts for little Adam – the beep of his heart rate monitor, the rotation of the infusion pump, the low hissing of two liters of oxygen through a tiny nasal cannula – increases even more the contradiction of Mark’s point.

“That’s not right, Laura.” This is obvious, too. She knows it. She might even be bothered by the morality of it were she not still basking in the satisfaction of having seen Doctor Reagan in his current state. Laura also knows that Mark has already thought this through. “What are you going to do?”

“I’ll take care of it.” He says and she believes from this point on she won’t have to worry about it.

The little planet that is Highland Memorial is in full rotation as Mark heads out to his second job, a discharged patient or two going out, a delivery of flowers going in, housekeeping busy in erasing the night’s patina on all surfaces. He steps through the giant rotating glass doors into the fog-cooled morning and stops at a bank of pay phones near the curb. He deposits a couple of coins and dials and waits. “I need to speak with someone about Gray Reagan’s kidnapping.”

Finally, someone has said it. Kidnapping. Just the fact that this word is now synthesized through the signal of a phone call validates it and puts into motion a chain of events that will accelerate the pace of this Thursday.

Tall Pike Place in hand, Detective Alvarez lights in his usual spot at the coffee shop while his devices automatically connect to its wi-fi. Two Splendas, a quick stir, full bars and 3G. He opens his laptop and his phone vibrates.

“Alvarez,” he answers. He listens. “Put him through.”

A click, and then a voice. “Doctor Reagan is in a storage unit,” it says.

“And who is this speaking, please?” says the detective.

“You probably ought to find him before the bastard dies.”

And click, the call disconnects. Alvarez presses two buttons on his phone and it connects anew.

“Trace that call and send me the origin.” He then sees the cell activity alert from the night before on the screen of his laptop, Gray Reagan’s cell number originating a call from a tower in the vicinity of the storage facility. “And I need back-up and EMT at Fort Knox Storage, Corby and Riverside.”

He gathers his devices and coffee and he’s out the door and in a moment, lights and sirens as his SUV speeds away.

IAN GRABS HIS KEYS and heads out the door. His task from the evening before, the bathtub, is finished and is now loaded into the back of his Ranger, brighter than the day it was installed in the hall bath. It sits cockeyed due to its one decorative side that is just a bit taller than the tub is deep. The other three sides are vacant where the tub once rested within its ledger nailed to the studs of the hall bathroom wall.

Ian pauses at the back of the truck bed and lifts the tailgate to its closed position. He tries to rock the tub but it is pretty secure due to its own weight. It’s not going anywhere.

“Is that coming or going?” It’s Bill walking his dog, a hybrid of a labrador and a poodle, and he is on the other side of the street following his nose back into Ian’s business. Bill should know better by now, but his failure to make any connections empathic to one who lost his wife to a bleed-out suicide is tantamount only to his inability to check his words before they leave his mouth. He walks across Glacier Drive and lights on the sidewalk dip that leads into the McDaniel driveway. “That a new tub?” he says.

Ian turns and looks at Bill, reminding himself of what life Bill comes from. The neighbor, the racquetball guy, the chicken-shit hypocrite who offers a hand and then is too freaked out to follow through. That was a lifetime ago. Dots connected, Ian says nothing in response.

“That’s great. Pretty cathartic for you to get a new one in there,” says Bill.

“This is the old one, Bill.”

That alone would shiver Bill’s backbone, but Ian’s tone in the disclosure is both unrecognizable and disconcerting enough to him and his dog to make the Labradoodle growl and then bark back at Ian, duly taking Bill aback. The last Bill saw this tub it still contained the remnants of Linda’s attempted recovery just below the nasty coagulated ring. Now it glistened. Pure. Redeemed. Regardless, Ian notes Bill’s nonverbals, his is face the same as when he saw the tub in the house, his posture is, again, in simultaneous retreat while squelching a dry heave, and his feet are finding the exit. “Hush it!” Bill barks at the dog and pulls its leash in greater restraint from Ian.

“That’s the tub? What are you going to do with it?” Bill says, his face is a shade greener.

“It’s going into storage for now,” Ian says with more purpose than his dismissive answer has. Bill is thinking a bit more than usual, suppressing an offer to help this time in recall of the regret he had in his previous offer in the house.

A Highland City meter-reader breaks through the conversation making her way to the house’s water meter with the Labradoodle pulling close behind lifting Bill away from the exchange.

“Bye, Bill.”

Ian continues around the truck to the driver’s door, gets in, starts it and backs out of his driveway onto Glacier Drive and pulls away. Bill pulls on the leash and his friendly dog relinquishes his new-found temporary interest in public servants and the two step off the unkempt lawn of the McDaniel yard while the meter-reader notes the numbers of consumption of water at this address.

ELAINE IS AT THE CENTER earlier than usual seated at her desk, more of a built-in nook away from the reception window of the office but still within the flow of the practice’s work area. She stamps a document with her notary seal and signs her name. The receptionist and the insurance coordinator walk in and raise a level of morning banter, and then the physician’s assistant and two medical assistants. Coffee starts to brew and routines commence in opening the South Highland Women’s Center only to be interrupted by Elaine as she calls everyone to the reception area.

“Good morning,” she says and they respond in kind. It is a matured respect that they have for her, a professional revere with little sentiment vested. She has made it a habit to work closely with them while revealing very little herself personally.

“No more appointments for Doctor Reagan. Please make sure all existing appointments and patients are re-assigned to Doctor Akhim. Highland OB has agreed to take overload at this time.”

She pauses and searches her mind assessing whether that was adequate. She then searches the faces before her for any reflection of the gravity of what she has just previewed to the staff. Doctor Reagan’s PA registers something as he thinks Elaine’s pronouncement through. His face changes from neutral to concern. The biller and receptionist are more concerned with this situation’s new logistics, and the medical assistants exchange glances. No one asks anything in the quiet, and then the phone begins its day’s signaling of all needs obstetric. Elaine leaves the office with her documents, and the whispering starts.

THIS MORNING WILL NOT BE SO QUIET for the office help at Fort Knox Storage. The lock-checking man is throwing the bolt on the office’s glass door when he is confronted by a badge-wielding Detective Alvarez, behind whom in the parking lot is a growing complement of uniformed officers in two police cruisers, then punctuated by a black armored personnel carrier filled with six members of Highland’s SWAT team. The lock-checking man is awed by the spectacle and almost doesn’t understand the detective’s edict.

“Show me a current list of your renters,” says Alvarez.

Alvarez enters the office and now it is the lock-checking man barking the orders to one of two young women, the accounts-receivable manager who just happens to have the short stack of wide green-bar on her desk. She lifts the stack up and into Alvarez’s direction in complete contempt for her co-worker who has no place in barking orders to anyone. The detective flops the stack on the reception counter and quickly thumbs through the connected pages to the M’s, at the top of which is the name McDaniel. His finger traces right to the unit column and finds a number, 448.

“Get the gate open,” the detective says to the lock-checking man who quickly exits the rear of the office into the maze of storage units, the shortest route to the gate by the car wash on Corby.

“Unit four – four – eight,” he speaks into a handheld radio and then vacates the office.

Alvarez’s SUV leads the two cruisers and the SWAT vehicle through the gate and queue up behind the lock-checking man who has met them there. “Show me,” says the detective as he gets out of the SUV. He follows the walk-running man to the first alley where the two stop and the lock-checking man points. The detective signals the SWAT vehicle to move forward while one of the cruisers quickly advances past the two to the other end of the drive to secure it. A uniformed officer steps out of the remaining cruiser and secures the entrance to Fort Knox where an ambulance has now appeared. Detective Alvarez steps onto the small platform on the side of the personnel carrier and tells its driver to pull up an adjacent alley. They drive past the first, turn right, right again and again, and then slowly descend the alley of the 400s and roll to a position just outside the unit that holds Doctor Reagan.

From inside the unit, the light bouncing off all that is outside is coming through the hole in the rolling door and projects the scene. Gray watches the upside down image as the SWAT truck rolls to a stop, his eyes riveted on the optical trick of the camera obscura. The contrast of the white letters on the black truck make it easy to identify, even inverted.

This is it. It’s over.

Gray begins to cry and strains to see through what few thick tears his dehydrated eyes can produce. He sees the image of a man riding on the outside of the truck dismount, and doors open front and rear with black uniformed men gathering around the first man. He points, he is handed something – the image isn’t clear enough to tell – and then Gray watches the group move out of the field of view. Gray waits and listens. All he hears is the ramping whine of the dryers at the car wash.

Detective Alvarez has been handed bolt-cutters and is leading his band of rescuers down the alley.

All Gray sees now is the SWAT vehicle. He calls out the best he can with his mouth taped and waits. He calls again, louder. Again, louder. He is screaming now.

The little troop stops short of the second unit from the end as Alvarez advances to the door, places the jaws of the bolt cutter on the padlock and cuts it. A SWAT member clears the slide of the lock and throws the bolt open, rolls out of the way while a second moves into position to lift the door. The remaining team readies their weapons and the door is violently thrown up, quickly flooding the storage unit with the light of day.

The cacophony ceases, both inside their heads and outside with them in the alley, except for the blasting drying fans. Assault weapons lower automatically as their shooters’ eyes draw away from sites and into the contents of the storage unit. The one who threw the bolt has his back against the buff brick wall doing the double-peek move around the corner into the unit, stopping on his second pass. Alvarez is both incredulous and puzzled. Seconds crawl by as the scene sinks in and the lock-checking man who has now made his way up behind the offensive line looks over their shoulders and says, “What was it that you were looking for?” The fans wind down making it possible to hear the next washing cycle commence on another car.

Alvarez scans the contents of the storage unit. There are rows of boxes neatly stacked five high, each marked in black letters that spell Virginia along the back wall. There is a head and a footboard for a twin bed stacked between the boxes and a twin mattress and bed rails bolstered by a dresser, then two night stands stacked, another column of boxes and a liquid oxygen vessel. Along the left side is a stack of apple boxes hastily marked Linda in black letters, each one less legible than the one below.

Next to them with its back against the stack of apple boxes is a sea-foam green adirondack chair with two boxes stacked upon its seat, both skiwampus with the reclined angle of the perch. Next to the chair is the red stroller, collapsed and upright. On the right wall are a pair of bicycles and a bike trailer for kids that is collapsed, its wheels removed, precariously stacked on top of the bikes. Holding these in place are more boxes marked kitchen, china, books and a few boxes without any markings at all, all of which are the indispensable detritus of dead people.

This is nothing like Detective Alvarez thought he’d find inside. He keys his radio. “Alvarez. Ten-22 ambulance and units at Fort Knox.” A blip, a quick buzz then silence. “Copy,” chirps back on the small radio speaker.

THE AVENUES MAKE UP Highland’s gentrified grid system of twelve square blocks with numeric avenues running west/east and alphabetic avenues going north/south. Neighborhood home values are on the rise with each restored turn-of-the-century structure occupied by young two-income families migrating from the more densely populated urban streets of the Bay Area. This grid lays on the leeward slope of north Highland with home values increasing with each numbered street, prices paid for the view. Steve and Serena settled somewhere in between in a southern exposed three-bedroom, two-bath bungalow set in the middle of the block, outside of which is now parked on 4th Avenue a white Ford Ranger with a bathtub in its bed.

Ian is at the home’s mahogany double-paneled front door glazed with leaded glass cut and set Frank Lloyd Wright style just above a dentil shelf with four evenly spaced corbels, having knocked and waiting. The glass is backlit which fades with the approach of the person who is about to open it. A bolt turns, and then its steel latch pressed to draw the latch bolt from the strike freeing the door to swing open and reveal Serena Alvarez.

“Serena Esposito?” says he.

“Serena Alvarez,” says she with a hint of a roll on the R in each name.

“Ian McDaniel,” he says, but his introduction is interrupted when Serena’s daughter peeks around the door between its heavy frame and her mother’s legs.

“Who are you?” the precocious little girl asks.

“Well, that’s a good question, isn’t it,” he answers back with a smile, the first he has had in months. Serena senses this as a bit creepy and starts to push the door closed.

“Move back, Honey, so I can shut the door.”

“Mrs. Alvarez, please. I’m here to speak with you about Doctor Reagan. Gray Reagan.”

Serena’s suspicion of who the man at her door may be is both abrupt and tantalizing. The hesitation in her reply is filled with the critical process of weighing all the possible consequences of what she might do or say next.

Ian’s patience has been practiced throughout his adult life for this moment. He suspects he saw a micro-expression of surprise on her face when he mentioned Reagan, to be followed more by her expression of contempt when she makes the decision to ask him, “And what about Doctor Reagan?”

“You and I have something in common,” he asserts and this is too much for Serena to resist. She calculates again, bringing him inside, hearing him out to confirm suspicions.

Serena takes Mikayla by her hand and gently pulls her out of the way of the door opening it to allow Ian entrance to her home. He clears the door and she closes it.

“Wait here,” she says as she takes Mikayla into the kitchen and finds something to keep her busy. Ian stands in his position and surveys the cozy front room, nicely appointed, modest, with family photographs set along a small shelf that caps the wainscoted walls, one of which is of Detective Alvarez, matted and framed in rosewood, graduating from the Police Academy.

Holy shit.

As this dawns on Ian – exactly just what he has stepped into – Serena returns from the kitchen discerning exactly what it may be that the two them have in common.

“So,” she says, “what happened to your kid?”

He can’t let her know that he knows, he can’t break the nice-guy, Robinhood-esque persona he held at the door when it opened a moment ago, but he can’t perpetuate the direction Serena is going with this conversation. Patience gone, he cuts to the chase.

“If you had the chance to speak with Doctor Reagan, would you?”

And this confirms Serena’s initial assessment of the man at her door. It is him. What he is saying, though, overrides her civic duty, the wife of a cop.

“Is this something you can arrange for me?”

“Right now.” Though he hadn’t counted on a kid being there.

“See Reagan right now?” she clarifies, her vitriol throttling in, the same rage he saw with Laura. Ian banked on this.

Serena pauses again weighing it all out. She would be an accessory if this is indeed some kind of abduction. In her hand at her side is her cell phone and now having made up her mind she brings it forward in plain view and hits a speed dial numeral. She’s giving Ian nothing at this point, stoic. Ian hides his panic in the breath he is holding. Serena has the phone to her ear and waits for the call to connect.

“Mom, I have to run somewhere, Can you come over and stay with Mikayla? Just a little while.” She listens. Ian shudders and exhales through his nose. “Okay,” she says and ends the call.

“She’s just a block away. Leave now and pick me up at the corner, D Avenue.”

DETECTIVE ALVAREZ IS AT Highland Memorial. He’s talking to Laura Jacobsen out in the mezzanine by the elevators and the entrance to the PICU. They face each other. Laura stands with her arms folded, head up.

“That was your husband who called me this morning from the pay phones here at the hospital?” says Alvarez in his escalated timbre, dropping the interrogative tone, though, at the end of each question making them sound declarative.

“Yes, it was,” says Laura.

“And is your husband involved in the disappearance of Doctor Reagan?”

“No, God no.”

“Do you know where Doctor Gray Reagan is, Mrs. Jacobsen?”

“He’s in a storage-”

“And how do you know Doctor Gray Reagan is in a storage unit, Mrs. Jacobsen?” 

“Because I saw him there.”

That is the response his line of questioning was after. Now a new line is in order.

“You have a child here in this hospital, is that right?”

“My son is here.”

“Since the day he was born, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Delivered by Doctor Gray Reagan, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Gives you motive, Mrs. Jacobsen. Do you know what motive is?”

“It’s-”

“It’s the reason why people do crazy things, like kidnap a doctor because he happened to mess up your kid.”

“I didn’t-”

“That’s vigilantism – people taking the law into their own hands.”

“I only saw him-”

“In the storage unit. I was there this morning after I got the call from your husband.”

“A man came here-”

“Ian McDaniel. Thanks to Doctor Reagan his kid’s dead. I’m watching him, too. It was his storage unit I busted open this morning. You know what I found?”

“Oh, my God, Doctor Reagan?”

“A bunch of boxes, bikes and a beach chair.”

Alvarez’s volume is now turning heads in the hallway. He stops to collect himself while Laura deals with the nonsense of what the detective found this morning. Her head is bowed, arms still folded, Alvarez looking now at the top of her slowly shaking head. The pause goes long as Laura’s very tired mind pulls together a link in what Detective Alvarez just spat at her.

“What kind of beach chair?” she says.

Alvarez immediately knows the intent of this question.

“A big wood one.”

“Bluish-green?”

“You’ve seen it, too?” Alvarez asks, much less patient than he was a moment ago.

Laura hesitates to answer. The detective already laid it out for her – motive – and now she’s admitting to opportunity, or she already has.

“Yes, Doctor Reagan was sitting in it.”

Detective Alvarez shakes his head in disbelief, more puzzled.

“Well, he’s not anymore. He’s not missing anymore. Mrs. Reagan called me after our little raid on Mr. McDaniel’s storage unit, saying she got ahold of Doctor Reagan this morning and he’s not missing anymore. Do you see why I am confused, Mrs. Jacobsen?”

Now it is Laura who is incredulous.

“Because according to your husband,” he continues, “I needed to find Doctor Reagan before the bastard dies.”

“He’s just very angry-”

“Let me say something to you, Laura. You, your husband, Ian McDaniel – you’re not alone. Doctor Gray Reagan is a son-of-a-bitch, he’s hurt a lot of people. But outside the law – outside of me – there is nothing you can do about that.”

Yes, there is. Laura has done it.

“I can’t put enough together in all this to come up with a crime,” the detective continues, “not until your husband called me. You have him stand down, you understand what I’m saying?”

There it is, that moment at which most people experience a different sort of mitigation – a conclusion that could have lead to ends more dire or panicked, did not – and not by her intervention, but by the happy accident of timing, not by any regrettable deed or testimony, but by the cosmic coincidence of the wrong place at the right time. Laura nods her head at the detective’s ultimatum. She will have him stand down. Done. They both will since they will never see Doctor Reagan again.

“You take care of that precious baby of yours,” he says as he turns toward the bank of elevators and walks to them knowing whatever attempt he made to put the fear of the law in this woman was in vain. She had a far more important purpose to her days and weeks. Laura stays where she stood with the detective, arms still folded across her abdomen, her head turned now to the view outside of Highland Memorial, waiting for the elevator’s signal of arrival, its doors to open, for the detective to enter, press a button, for the doors to close, before she turns to the entrance of the PICU, back to that unconditional context that floats above all else, with a Mona-Lisa smile on her lips.

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