So I’d done a very bad thing.
Horror writers get away with murder in the pursuit of realism, and over the years, I’d befriended attorneys, detectives, and professionals in various fields, all of whom had graciously consulted with me on the accuracy of my novels. The investigative and courtroom procedures in my stories are religiously unerring. I always get the gun right. A coroner friend of mine even let me sit in on an autopsy, just so I could nail the olfactory experience in the opening chapter of my latest book.
There’s a vignette in Blue Murder where the protagonist steals drugs from a hospital. So in the course of my research for the book, I’d asked my doctor, “If you wanted to steal narcotics from a hospital, how would you do it?” Writers can ask these questions, and no one suspects their motives because “it’s for the book,” and they show up in the acknowledgments.
He told me exactly what to do, and goddamn if he wasn’t right. His advice: “Raid the recovery room. It doesn’t matter if the narcotics are locked up, as long as the keys are left in drawers that aren’t. Pray for incompetent nurses. Know where the cameras are. Acquire a janitor’s uniform, and stay busy long enough to see where the keys to the narcotics cabinet are kept.”
Thanks to careless, unobservant nurses in the recovery room, two days before we left for Woodside, I walked out of Mercy Hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, with five 1-mL vials of the short-acting benzodiazepine, Versed. Used for sedation in surgical procedures, when administered intravenously, it can render someone unconscious inside of ninety seconds. Unfortunately, it also has the potential to induce respiratory depression, so I’d stolen a vial of its antidote, flumazenil, as well.
In addition to my larceny, I’d extensively researched intravenous and intramuscular injection. I knew the dosages and monographs for Ativan and Versed. I’d done my homework, had reliable firearms, and a well-devised plan. As Walter and I sat on opposite love seats, pushing the brass-shelled hollow-points into the magazines, a calmness settled upon me. We’re actually doing it, I thought. Who does this kind of thing? Pretty f**king gutsy. It’d make one hell of a book.
While Walter took a catnap, I went downstairs. Dirty dishes and empty wine bottles cluttered the dining room table—casualties of lunch. I walked back into the kitchen and asked the chef if he would make me a turkey sandwich. He didn’t want to. Lunch had already been served. But reluctantly, he agreed and said I could wait by the fire.
I sat down in a rocking chair. In the brick hearth, a fire was in the process of burning out. I imagined it had been blazing in the early-morning hours, before the dusting of snow had melted, as other guests planned their day. It still warmed the snug sitting area, though now halfheartedly. As I waited, I stared at the only remaining log. It glowed underneath, the embers slowly eating it away, turning the wood to ash and smoke.
In the nearby lounge, a TV blared. I heard the voice of Agent Trent, discussing recent developments in the search for the Heart Surgeon.
A couple walking by on their way to the front door glanced curiously at my outfit. A gray one-piece mechanic’s suit was anomalous attire for this upscale inn.
Jennings Road branched left off of Main Street, a mile beyond the college. Leafless sugar maples and birches shielded the road from the sky as it climbed a hillside. There were mounds of leaves along the sides of the road. I pictured them in full, fiery color, littered across the street and through the lawns, turning this small New England neighborhood into a mystical universe all its own.
Near the top of the hill, on a black mailbox in slanted white numbers, I saw 617. Walter slowed the car, but I told him to drive casually by and park a ways up the street. As we continued on, I gazed at Orson’s home, disbelieving I’d actually found it. From the outside, it was modestly elegant. A white two-story house, with dormer windows protruding from the second floor, larger bay windows from the first. A split-rail fence enclosed the front lawn, and flowers grew along a brick walkway that curved from the driveway to the front porch. There was no garage, and there were presently no cars in the driveway.
We crested the hill and Walter parked near the curb, scattering a pile of leaves. He turned off the engine and looked warily at me as I reached under my seat and grabbed the walkie-talkies.
“Channel eight, subchannel seventeen,” I said, handing one to Walter. We adjusted our frequencies accordingly. “We passed a diner before we turned onto Jennings. Wait there. This car looks conspicuous sitting up here, especially with an out-of-state tag. You’ll get the first communication at the diner. I’ll say, ‘Go, Papa.’ That’ll mean he’s home, so get your ass up here and start circling the neighborhood. The second communication will be ‘Bring it home,’ and that means come to six seventeen and back into the driveway. I’ll want you to open the trunk for me and get back in the car. When you’re inside and the trunk’s open, I’ll bring him out. He’ll be unconscious. I’ll put him in the trunk, and you’ll drive us to his hole on One sixteen. Any questions?”
“Don’t break radio silence unless it’s an emergency. If you have to, call me Wilma. I’ll call you Fred. You never know who might be listening. Also, don’t forget the channels. Eight and seventeen. Write it on your hand.” I clipped on my walkie-talkie and lifted the cumbersome fanny pack from the floorboard. Then I strapped it around my waist, opened the door, and stepped out into the cool afternoon.
“It’s only four-thirty,” I said, “so it may be several hours before you hear from me.” I shut the door, and he drove on down the mountain, disappearing around a bend in the road.
I walked back up the hill, and as I passed over the crest, the town of Woodside appeared before me. I wondered if in spring or summer, when leaves fattened the trees, it would be difficult to see the town, hundreds of feet below. But the naked trees revealed the foothill community—Main Street, the college, even glimpses of the downtown a mile and a half north. A lovely neighborhood. There might be hundreds like it in the New England countryside, thousands across the country itself. Who’d ever suspect the Heart Surgeon lived here, among these pastoral dwellings in Woodside suburbia?
I walked up Orson’s driveway to a chest-high white fence that picketed the backyard. As I scaled and then straddled it, I wondered if he owned a dog. When my feet hit the grass on the other side, I stayed on all fours, scanning the lawn for a doghouse, listening for the jingle of a chain. Nothing moved in the beautiful grass. A northern white cedar overshadowed the backyard, but there was no dog.