Copyright Lia Matera, 1996.
This story may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial use.
This story may not be reproduced, copied or distributed for commercial or non-commercial use.
"Dead Drunk" won the Private Eye Writers of America Shamus Award for Best Short Story of 1996. It was first published in Guilty As Charged, edited by Scott Turow (Pocket Books 1996). It was reprinted in The Year's Twenty-Five Finest Crime and Mystery Stories, edited by Joan Hess (Carroll & Graf 1997); The World's Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, edited by Ed Gorman (Forge 2000; A Century of Noir, edited by Mickey Spillane and Max Allan Collins (New American Library 2002); and The Shamus Winners, Volume II: 1996 - 2009, edited by Robert J. Randisi (Perfect Crime 2012).
My secretary Jan asked if I’d seen the newspaper: another homeless man had frozen to death. I frowned up at her from my desk. Her tone said, And you think you’ve got problems?
My secretary is a paragon. I would not have a law practice without her. I would have something resembling my apartment, which looks like a college crash pad. But I have to cut Jan a lot of slack. She’s got a big personality.
Not that she actually says anything. She doesn’t have to, any more than earthquakes bother saying “shake shake.”
“Froze?” I shoved documents around the desk, knowing she wouldn’t take the hint.
“Froze to death. This is the fourth one. They find them in the parks, frozen.”
“It has been cold,” I agreed.
“You really haven’t been reading the papers.” Her eyes went on high-beam. “They’re wet, that’s why they freeze.” She sounded mad at me. Line forms on the right, behind my creditors.
“Must be the tule fog?” I’d never been sure what tule fog was. I didn’t know if it required actual tules.
“You have been in your own little world lately. They’ve all been passed out drunk. Someone pours water on them while they lie there. It’s been so cold they end up frozen to death.”
I wondered if I could get away with, How terrible. Not that I didn’t think it was terrible. But Jan picks at what I say, looking for hidden sarcasm.
She leaned closer, as titillated as I’d ever seen her. “And here’s the kicker. They went and analyzed the water on the clothes. It’s got no chlorine in it—it’s not tap water. It’s bottled water! Perrier or Evian or something. Can you imagine? Somebody going out with expensive bottled water on purpose to pour it over passed-out homeless men.” Her long hair fell over her shoulders. With her big glasses and serious expression, she looked like the bread-baking natural foods mom that she was. “You know, it probably takes three or four bottles.”
“What a murder weapon.”
“It is murder.” She sounded defensive. “Being wet drops the body temperature so low it kills them. In this cold, within hours.”
“That’s what I said.”
“But you were… Anyway, it is murder.”
“I wonder if it has to do with the ordinance.”
Our town had passed a no-camping ordinance that was supposed to chase the homeless out. If they couldn’t sleep here, the theory went, they couldn’t live here. But the city had too many parks to enforce the ban. What were cops supposed to do? Wake up everyone they encountered? Take them to jail and give them a warmer place to sleep?
“Of course it has to do with the ordinance. This is someone’s way of saying, if you sleep here, you die here.”
“Maybe it’s a temperance thing. You know, don’t drink.”
“I know what temperance means.” Jan could be touchy. She could be a lot of things, including a fast typist willing to work cheap. “I just don’t believe the heartlessness of it, do you?”
I had to be careful; I did believe the heartlessness of it. “It’s uncondonable,” I agreed.
Still she stooped over my desk. There was something else.
“The guy last night,” Jan said, “was laid off by Hinder. Years ago, but even so.”
Hinder was the corporation Jan had been fired from before I hired her.
She straightened. “I’m going to go give money to the guys outside.”
“Who’s outside?” Not my creditors?
“You are so oblivious, Linda. Homeless people, right downstairs. Regulars.”
She was staring at me like I should know their names. I tried to look apologetic.
Ten minutes later, she buzzed me to say there was someone in the reception area. “He wants to know if you can fit him in.”
That was our code for, He looks legit. We were not in the best neighborhood. We got our share of walk-ins with generalized grievances and a desire to vent at length and for free. For them, our code was, I’ve told him you’re busy.
A moment later, a kid—well, maybe young man, maybe even twenty-five or so—walked in. He was good-looking, well dressed but too trendy, which is why he looked so young. He had the latest hairstyle, razored in places and long in others. He had shoes that looked like inflatable pools.
He said, “I think I need a good lawyer.”
My glance strayed to my walls, where my diploma announced I’d gone to a night school. I had two years’ experience, some of it with no caseload. I resisted the urge to say, Let me refer you to one.
Instead, I asked, “What’s the nature of your problem?”
He sat on my client chair, checking it first. I guess it was clean enough.
“I think I’m going to be arrested.” He glanced at me a little sheepishly, a little boastfully. “I said something kind of stupid last night.”
If that were grounds, they’d arrest me, too.
“I was at the Club,” a fancy bar downtown. “I got a little tanked. A little loose.” He waggled his shoulders.
I waited. He sat forward. “Okay, I’ve got issues.” His face said, Who wouldn’t? “I work my butt off.”
I waited some more.
“Well, it burns me. I have to work for my money. I don’t get welfare, I don’t get free meals and free medicine and a free place to live.” He shifted on the chair. “I’m not saying kill them. But it’s unfair I have to pay for them.”
“The trolls, the bums.”
I was beginning to get it. “What did you say in the bar?”
“That I bought out Costco’s Perrier.” He flushed to the roots of his chi-chi hair. “That I wish I’d thought of using it.”
“On the four men?”
“I was high, okay?” He continued in a rush. “But then this morning, the cops come over.” Tears sprang to his eyes. “They scared my mom. She took them to see the water in the garage.”
“You really did buy a lot of Perrier?”
“Just to drink. The police said they got a tip on their hot line. Someone at the bar told them about me. That’s got to be it.”
I nodded like I knew about the hot line.
“Now”—his voice quavered—“they’ve started talking to people where I work. Watch me get fired.”
Gee, buddy, then you’ll qualify for free medical. “What would you like me to do for you, Mr....?”
“Kyle Kelly.” He didn’t stick out his hand. “Are they going to arrest me or what? I think I need a lawyer.”
My private investigator was pissed off at me. My last two clients hadn’t paid me enough to cover his fees. It was my fault. I hadn’t asked for enough in advance. Afterward, they’d stiffed me.
Now the PI was taking a hard line. He wouldn’t work on this case until he got paid for the last two.
So I made a deal. I’d get his retainer from Kelly up front. I’d pay him for the investigation, but I’d do most of it myself. For every hour I investigated and he got paid, he’d knock an hour off what I owed him. I wouldn’t want the state bar to hear about the arrangement. But the parts that were on paper would look okay.
It meant I had a lot of work to do.
I started by driving to a park where two of the dead men were found. It was a chilly afternoon with the wind whipping off the plains, blowing dead leaves over footpaths.
I wandered, looking for the spots described in police reports. The trouble was, every half-bare bush near lawn and benches looked the same. And many were decorated with detritus: paper bags, liquor bottles, discarded clothing.
As I was leaving the park, I spotted two paramedics squatting beside an addled-looking man. His clothes were stiff with dirt, his face covered in thick gray stubble. He didn’t look wet. If anything, I was shivering more than he was.
I watched the younger of the two paramedics shake his head, scowling, while the older talked at some length to the man. The man nodded, kept on nodding. The older medic showed him a piece of paper. The man nodded some more. The younger one strode to an ambulance parked on a nearby fire trail. It was red on white with “4-12” stenciled on the side.
I knew from police reports that paramedics had been called to pick up the frozen homeless men. Were they conducting an investigation of their own?
A minute later, the older medic joined his partner in the ambulance. It drove off.
The homeless man lay down, curling into a fetal position on the grass, collar turned up against the wind.
I walked up to him. “Hi,” I said. “Are you sick?”
“No!” He sat up again. “What’s every damn body want to know if I’m sick for? ‘Man down.’ So what? What’s a man got to be up about?”
He looked bleary-eyed. He reeked of alcohol and urine and musk. He was so potent, I almost lost my breakfast.
“I saw medics here talking to you. I thought you might be sick.”
“Hassle, hassle.” He waved me away. When I didn’t leave, he rose. “Wake us up, make us sign papers.”
“What kind of papers?”
“Don’t want to go to the hospital.” His teeth were in terrible condition. I tried not to smell his breath. “Like I want yelling from the nurses, too.”
“What do they yell at you about?”
“Cost them money, I’m costing everybody money. Yeah, well, maybe they should have thought of that before they put my-Johnny-self in the helicopter. Maybe they should have left me with the rest of the platoon.”
He lurched away from me. I could see that one leg was shorter than the other.
I went back to my car. I was driving past a nearby sandwich shop when I saw ambulance 4-12 parked there. I pulled into the space next to it.
I went into the shop. The medics were sitting at a small table, looking bored. They were hard to miss in their cop-blue uniforms and utility belts hung with flashlights, scissors, tape, stethoscopes.
“Hi,” I said to them. “Do you mind if I talk to you for a minute?”
The younger one looked through me. No one’s ever accused me of being pretty.
The older one said, “What about?”
“I’m representing a suspect in the…” I hated to repeat what the papers were now calling it, but it was good shorthand. “The Perrier murders. Of homeless men.”
That got the younger man’s attention. “We knew those guys,” he said.
“My client didn’t do it. But he could get arrested. Do you mind helping me out? Telling me a little about them?”
They glanced at each other. The younger man shrugged. “We saw them all the time. Every time someone spotted them passed out and phoned in a ‘man down’ call, we’d code-three it out to the park or the tracks or wherever.”
The older paramedic gestured for me to sit. “Hard times out there. We’ve got a lot more regulars than we used to.”
I sat down. The men, I noticed, were lingering over coffee. “I just saw you in the park.”
“Lucky for everybody, my-Johnny-self was sober enough to AMA.” The younger man looked irritated. “‘Against medical advice.’ We get these calls all the time. Here we are a city’s got gang wars going on, knifings, drive-bys, especially late at night. And we’re diddling around with passed-out drunks who want to be left alone anyway.”
The older man observed, “Ben’s new, still a hot dog, wants every call to be the real deal.”
“Yeah, well, what a waste of effort, Dirk,” the younger man, Ben, shot back. “We get what? Two, three, four man-down calls a day? We have to respond to every one. It could be some poor diabetic, right, or a guy’s had a heart attack. But you get out there, and it’s another alcoholic. If he’s too out of it to tell us he’s just drunk, we have to transport and work him up. Which he doesn’t want—he wakes up pissed off at having to hoof it back to the park. Or worse, with the new ordinance, he gets arrested.”
“Ridiculous ordinance,” the older medic interjected.
“And it’s what, maybe six or seven hundred dollars the company’s out of pocket?” his partner continued. “Not to mention that everybody’s time gets totally wasted, and maybe somebody with a real emergency’s out there waiting for us. Your grandmother could be dying of a heart attack while we play taxi. It’s bullshit.”
“All in a night’s work, Bennie.” Dirk looked at me. “You start this job, you want every call to be for reals. But you do it a few years, you get to know your regulars. Clusters of them near the liquor stores—you could draw concentric circles around each store and chart the man-down calls. But what are you going to do? Somebody sees a man lying in the street or in the park, they’ve got to phone nine-one-one, right? And if the poor bastard’s too drunk to tell us he’s fine, we can’t just leave him. It’s our license if we’re wrong.”
“They should change the protocols,” Ben insisted. “If we know who they are, if we’ve run them in three, four, even ten times, we should be able to leave them to sleep it off.”
Dirk said, “You’d get lawsuits.”
“So these guys either stiff the company or welfare picks up the tab, meaning you and me pay the six hundred bucks. It offends logic.”
“So you knew the men who froze?” I tried to get back on track. “Did you pick them up when they died?”
“I went on one of the calls,” Ben said defensively. “Worked him up.”
“Sometimes with hypothermia,” Dirk added, “body functions slow down so you can’t really tell if they’re dead till they warm up. So we’ll spend, oh God, an hour or more doing CPR. Till they’re warm and dead.”
“While people wait for an ambulance somewhere else,” Ben repeated.
“You’ll mellow out,” Dirk promised. “For one thing, you see them year in, year out, you stop being such a hard-ass. Another thing, you get older, you feel more sympathy for how hard the street's got to be on the poor bones.”
Ben’s beeper went off. He immediately lifted it out of his utility belt, pressing a button and filling the air with static. A voice cut through: “Unit four-twelve, we have a possible shooting at Kins and Booten streets.”
The paramedics jumped up, saying “Bye” and “Gotta go” as they strode past me and out the door. Ben, I noticed, was smiling.
My next stop was just a few blocks away. It was a rundown stucco building that had recently been a garage, a factory, a cult church, a rehab center, a magic shop. Now it was one of the few homeless shelters in town. I thought the workers there might have known some of the dead men.
I was ushered in to see the director, a big woman with a bad complexion. When I handed her my card and told her my business, she looked annoyed.
“Pardon me, but your client sounds like a real shit.”
“I don’t know him well enough to judge,” I said. “But he denies doing it, and I believe him. And if he didn’t do it, he shouldn’t get blamed. You’d agree with that?”
“Some days,” she conceded. She motioned me to sit in a scarred chair opposite a folding-table desk. “Other days, tell the truth, I’d round up all the holier-than-thou jerks bitching about the cost of a place like this, and I'd shoot ’em. Christ, they act like we’re running a luxury hotel here. Did you get a look around?”
I’d seen women and children and a few old men on folding chairs or duck-cloth cots. I hadn’t seen any food.
“It’s enough to get your goat,” the director continued. “The smugness, the condemnation. And ironically, how many paychecks away from the street do you think most people are? One? Two?”
“Is that mostly who you see here? People who got laid off?”
She shrugged. “Maybe half. We get a lot of people who are frankly just too tweaked-out to work. What can you do? You can’t take a screwdriver and fix them. No use blaming them for it.”
“Did you know any of the men who got killed?”
She shook her head. “No, no. We don’t take drinkers, we don’t take anybody under the influence. We can’t. Nobody would get any sleep, nobody would feel safe. Alcohol’s a nasty drug, lowers inhibitions—you get too much attitude, too much noise. We can’t deal with it here. We don’t let in anybody we think’s had a drink, and if we find alcohol, we kick the person out. It’s that simple.”
“What recourse do they have? Drinkers, I mean.”
“Sleep outside. They want to sleep inside, they have to stay sober; no ifs, ands or buts.”
“The camping ban makes that illegal.”
“Well,” she said, “it’s not illegal to stay sober.”
“You don’t view it as an addiction?”
“There’s AA meetings five times a night at three locations.” She ran a hand through her already-disheveled hair. “I’m sorry, but it’s a struggle scraping together money to take care of displaced families in this town. Then you’ve got to contend with people thinking you’re running some kind of flophouse for drunks. Nobody’s going to donate money for that.”
I felt a twinge of pity. No room at the inn for alcoholics and not much sympathy from paramedics. Now, someone—please God, not my client—was dousing them so they’d freeze to death.
With the director’s permission. I wandered through the shelter. A young woman lay on a cot with a blanket over her legs. She was reading a paperback.
“Hi,” I said. “I’m a lawyer. I’m working on the case of the homeless men who died in the parks recently. Do you know about it?”
She sat up. She could use a shower and a makeover, but she looked more together than most of the folks in here. She wasn’t mumbling to herself, and she didn’t look upset or afraid.
“Yup—big news here. And major topic on the street.”
“Did you know any of the men?”
“I’ll tell you what I’ve heard.” She leaned forward. “It’s a turf war.”
“A turf war?”
“Who gets to sleep where, that kind of thing. A lot of crazies on the street, they get paranoid. They gang up on each other. Alumni from the closed-down mental hospitals. You’d be surprised.” She pushed up her sleeve and showed me a scar. “One of them cut me.”
“Do you know who’s fighting who?”
“Yes.” Her eyes glittered. “Us women are killing off the men. They say we’re out on the street for their pleasure, and we say, death to you, bozo.”
I took a backward step, alarmed by the look on her face.
She showed me her scar again. “I carve a line for every one I kill.” She pulled a tin St. Christopher medal out from under her shirt. “I used to be a Catholic. But Dirty Harry is my god now.”
I pulled into a parking lot with four ambulances parked in a row. A sign on a two-story brick building read “Central Response.” I hoped they’d give me their records for the four dead men.
I smiled at the front-office secretary. When I explained what I wanted, she handed me a records-request form. “We’ll contact you within five business days on the status of your request.”
If my client got booked, I could subpoena the records. So I might, unfortunately, have them before anyone even read this form.
As I sat there filling it out, a thin boy in a paramedic uniform strolled in. He wore his medic’s bill cap backward. His utility belt was hung with twice the gadgets of the two men I’d talked to earlier. Something resembling a big rubber band dangled from his back pocket. I supposed it was a tourniquet, but on him it gave the impression of a slingshot.
He glanced at me curiously. He said, “Howdy, Mary,” to the secretary.
She didn’t look glad to see him. “What now?”
“Is Karl in?”
“No. What’s so important?”
“I was thinking instead of just using the HEPA filters, if we—”
“Save it. I’m busy.”
I shot him a sympathetic look. I knew how it felt to be bullied by a secretary.
I handed her my request and walked out behind the spurned paramedic.
I was surprised to see him climb into a cheap Geo car. He was in uniform. I’d assumed he was working.
All four men had been discovered in the morning. It had probably taken them most of the night to freeze to death; they’d been picked up by ambulance in the wee hours. Maybe this kid could tell me who’d worked those shifts.
I tapped at his passenger window. He didn’t hesitate to lean across and open the door. He looked alert and happy, like a curious puppy.
“Hi,” I said, “I was wondering if you could tell me about your shifts? I was going to ask the secretary, but she’s not very… friendly.”
He nodded as if her unfriendliness were a fact of life, nothing to take personally. “Come on in. What do you want to know?” Then, more suspiciously, “You’re not a lawyer?”
I climbed in quickly. “Well, yes, but—”
“Oh, man. You know, we do the very best we can.” He whipped off his cap, rubbing his buzz cut in apparent annoyance. “We give a hundred and ten percent.”
I suddenly placed his concern. “No no, it’s not about medical malpractice, I swear.” He continued scowling at me. “I represent a young man who’s been falsely accused of—”
“You’re not here about malpractice?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Because that’s such a crock.” He flushed. “We work our butts off. Twelve hour shifts, noon to midnight, and a lot of times we get force-manned onto a second shift. If someone calls in sick or has to go out of service because they got bled all over or punched out, someone’s got to hold over. When hell’s popping with the gangs, we’ve got guys working forty-eights or even seventy-twos.” He shook his head. “It’s just plain unfair to blame us for everything that goes wrong. Field medicine’s like combat conditions. We don’t have everything all clean and handy like they do at the hospital.”
“I can imagine. So you work—”
“And it’s not like we’re doing it for the money. Starting pay’s nine-fifty an hour; it takes years to work up to fourteen. Your garbage collector earns more than we do.”
I was a little off balance. “Your shifts—”
“Because half our calls, nobody pays the bill. Central Response is probably the biggest pro bono business in town. So we get stuck at nine-fifty an hour. For risking AIDS, hepatitis, TB.”
I didn’t want to get pulled into his grievances. “You work twelve-hour shifts? Set shifts?”
“Rotating. Sometimes you work the day half, sometimes the night half.”
Rotating—I’d need schedules and rosters. “The guys who work midnight to noon, do they get most of the drunks?”
He shrugged. “Not necessarily. We’ve got ’em passing out all day long. It’s never too early for an alcoholic to drink.” He looked bitter. “I had one in the family. I should know.”
“Do you know who picked up the four men who froze to death?”
His eyes grew steely. “I’m not going to talk about the other guys. You’ll have to ask the company.” He started the car.
I thought about trying another question, but he was already shifting into gear. I thanked him and got out. As I closed the door, I noticed a bag in back with a Garry’s Liquors logo. Maybe the medic had something in common with the four dead men.
But it wasn’t just drinking that got those men into trouble. It was not having a home to pass out in.
I stood at the spot where police had found the fourth body. It was a small neighborhood park.
Just after sunrise, an early jogger had called 911 from his cell phone. A man had been lying under a hedge. He’d looked dead. He’d looked wet.
The police had arrived first, then firemen, who’d taken a stab at resuscitating him. Then paramedics came to work him up and transport him to the hospital, where he was officially pronounced dead. I knew that much from today’s newspaper.
I found a squashed area of grass where I supposed the man had lain yesterday. I could see pocks and scuffs where work boots had tramped. I snooped around. Hanging from a bush was a rubber tourniquet. A paramedic must have squatted with his back against the shrubbery.
Flung deeper into the brush was a bottle of whiskey. Had the police missed it? Not considered it evidence? Or had it been discarded since?
I stared at it, wondering. If victim number four hadn’t already been pass-out drunk, maybe someone helped him along.
I stopped by Parsifal MiniMart, the liquor store nearest the park. If anyone knew the dead man, it would be the proprietor.
He nodded. “Yup. I knew every one of those four. What kills me is the papers act like they were nobodies, like that’s what ‘alcoholic’ means.” He was a tall, red-faced man, given to karate-chop gestures. “Well, they were pretty good guys. Not mean, not full of shit, just regular guys. Buddy was a little”—he wiggled his hand—“not right in the head, heard voices and all that, but not violent that I ever saw. Mitch was a good guy. One of those jocks who’s a hero as a kid but then gets hooked on the booze. I’ll tell ya, I wish I could have made every kid comes in here for beer spend the day with Mitch. Donnie and Bill were… How can I put this without sounding like a racist? You know, a lot of older black guys are hooked on something. Check out the neighborhood. You’ll see groups of them BSing and keeping the curbs warm. Passing around a bottle in a bag. Or worse.”
Something had been troubling me. Perhaps this was the person to ask. “Why didn’t they wake up when the cold water hit them?”
The proprietor laughed. “Those guys? If I had to guess, I’d say their blood alcohol was one-point-oh even when they weren’t drinking, just naturally from living the life. Get enough Thunderbird in them, and you’re talking practically a coma.” He shook his head. “They were just drunks, I know we’re not talking about killing Mozart here. But the attitude behind what happened—man, it’s cold. Perrier, too. That really tells you something.”
“I heard there was no chlorine in the water. I don’t think they’ve confirmed a particular brand of water.”
“I just saw on the news they arrested some kid looks all poofy, one of those hairstyles.” The proprietor shrugged. “He had a bunch of Perrier. Cases of it from a discount place—I guess he didn’t want to pay full price. Guess it wasn’t even worth a buck a bottle to him to freeze a drunk.”
Damn, they’d arrested Kyle Kelly. Already.
“You don’t know anything about a turf war, do you?” It was worth a shot. “Among the homeless?”
“Sure.” He grinned. “The drunk sharks and the rummy jets.” He whistled the opening notes of West Side Story.
I got tied up in traffic. It was an hour later by the time I walked into the police station. My client was in an interrogation room by himself. When I walked in, he was crying.
“I told them I didn’t do it.” He wiped tears as if they were an embarrassing surprise. “But I was getting so tongue-tied. I told them I wanted to wait for you.”
“I didn’t think they’d arrest you, especially not so fast,” I said. “You did exactly right, asking for me. I just wish I’d gotten here sooner. I wish I’d been in my office when you called.”
He looked like he wished I had, too.
“All this over a bunch of bums,” he marveled. “All the crime in this town, and they get hard-ons over winos?”
I didn’t remind him that his own drunken bragging had landed him here. But I hope it occurred to him later.
I was surrounded by reporters when I left the police station. They looked at me like my client had taken bites out of their children.
“Mr. Kelly is a very young person who regrets what alcohol made him say one evening. He bears no one any ill will, least of all the dead men, whom he never even met.” I repeated some variation of this over and over as I battled my way to my car.
Meanwhile, their questions shed harsh light on my client’s bragfest at the Club.
“Is it true he boasted about kicking homeless men and women?” “Is it true he said if homeless women didn’t smell so bad, at least they’d be usable?” “Did he say three bottles of Perrier is enough, but four’s more certain?” “Does he admit saying he was going to keep doing it till he ran out of Perrier?” “Is it true he once set a homeless man on fire?”
Some of the questions were just questions: “Why Perrier?” “Why did he buy it in bulk?” “Is this his first arrest?” “Does he have a sealed juvenile record?”
I could understand why police had jumped at the chance to make an arrest. Reporters must have been driving them crazy.
After flustering me and making me feel like a laryngitic parrot, they finally let me through. I locked myself into my car and drove gratefully away. Traffic was good. It only took me half an hour to get back to the office.
I found the paramedic with the Geo parked in front. He jumped out of his car. “I just saw you on TV.”
“What brings you here?”
“Well, I semi-volunteered, for the company newsletter. I mean, we picked up those guys a few times. It’d be good to put something into an article.” He looked like one of those black-and-white sitcom kids. Opie or Timmy or someone. “I didn’t quite believe you, before, about the malpractice. I’m sorry I was rude.”
“You weren’t rude.”
“I just wasn’t sure you weren’t after us. Everybody’s always checking up on everything we do. The nurses, the docs, our supervisors, other medics. Every patient care report gets looked at by four people. Our radio calls get monitored. Everybody jumps in our shit for every little thing.”
I didn’t have time to be Studs Terkel. “I’m sorry, I can’t discuss my case with you.”
“But I heard you say on TV your guy’s innocent. You’re going to get him off, right?” He looked at me with a confidence I couldn’t understand.
“Is that what you came here to ask?”
“It’s just we knew those guys. I thought for the newsletter, if I wrote something...” He flushed. “Do you need information? You know, general stuff from a medical point of view?”
I couldn’t figure him out. Why this need to keep talking to me about it? It was his day off; didn’t he have a life?
But I had been wondering: “Do you always carry tourniquets? Even if you know a person's not bleeding?”
“That's not the main use. We tie them around the arm to make a vein pop up. So we can start an intravenous line.”
I glanced up at my office window, checking whether Jan had left. It was late, there were no more workers spilling out of buildings. A few derelicts lounged in doorways. I wondered if they felt safer tonight because someone had been arrested. With so many dangers on the street, I doubted it.
“Why would a tourniquet be in the bushes where the last man was picked up?” I hugged my briefcase. “I assumed a medic dropped it, but you wouldn’t start an intravenous line on a dead person, would you?”
“We don’t do field pronouncements—pronounce them dead, I mean—in hypothermia cases. We leave that to the doc.” He looked proud of himself, like he’d passed the pop quiz. “They’re not dead till they’re warm and dead.”
“But why start an IV in that situation?”
“Get meds into them. If the protocols say to, we’ll run a line even if we think they’re deader than Elvis.” He shrugged. “They warm up faster, too.”
“What warms them up? What do you drip into them?”
“Epinephrine, atropine, normal saline. We put the saline bag on the dash to heat it as we drive. If we know we have a hypothermic patient.”
“You have water in the units?”
“Saline and distilled.”
“Do you know a medic named Ben?”
He hesitated before nodding.
“Do you think he has a bad attitude about the homeless?”
“No more than you would,” he said. “We’re the ones who have to smell them, have to handle them when they’ve been marinating in feces and urine and vomit. They get combative at a certain stage. You do this disgusting waltz with them where they’re trying to beat on you. And the smell is like, whoa. Plus if they scratch you, you can’t help feeling paranoid what they could infect you with.”
“Ben said they cost your company money.”
“They cost you and me money.”
The look on his face scared me. Money’s a big deal when you don’t make enough of it.
I started past him.
He grabbed my arm. “Everything’s breaking down.” His tone was plaintive. “You realize that? Our whole society’s breaking down. Everybody sees it—the homeless, the gangs, the diseases—but they don’t have to deal with the physical part. They don’t have to put their hands right on it, get all bloody and dirty with it, get infected by it.”
“Let go.” I imagined being helpless and disoriented, a drunk at the mercy of a fed-up medic.
“And we don’t get any credit”—he sounded angry now— “we just get checked up on.” He gripped my arm tighter.
Again I searched my office window, hoping Jan was still working, that I wasn’t alone. But the office was dark.
A voice behind me said. “What you doin’ to the lady?”
I turned to see a stubble-chinned African-American man. He’d stepped out of a recessed doorway. Even from here, I could see his clothes were stiff with filth. I could smell alcohol and urine.
“You let that lady go. You hear me?” He moved closer.
The medic’s grip loosened.
The man might be drunk, but he was big. And he didn’t look like he was kidding.
I jerked my arm free, backing toward him.
He said. “You’re Jan’s boss, aren’t ya?”
“Yes.” For the thousandth time, I thanked God for Jan. This must be one of the men she’d mother-henned this morning. “Thank you.”
To the medic, I said. “The police won’t be able to hold my client long. They’ve got to show motive and opportunity and no alibi on four different nights. I don’t think they’ll be able to do it. They were just feeling pressured to arrest someone. Just placating the media.”
The paramedic stared behind me. I could smell the other man's breath. I never thought I’d find the reek of liquor reassuring.
“Isn’t that what your buddies sent you to find out? Whether they could rest easy, or if they’d screwed over an innocent person?”
The medic pulled his bill cap off, buffing his head with his wrist.
“Or maybe you decided on your own to come here. Your coworkers probably have sense enough to keep quiet and keep out of it. But you don’t.” He was young and enthusiastic, too much so, perhaps. “Well, you can tell Ben and the others not to worry about Kyle Kelly. His reputation’s ruined for as long as people remember the name—which probably isn’t long enough to teach him a lesson. But there’s not enough evidence against him. He won’t end up in jail because of you.”
“Are you accusing us of…?” He looked more thrilled than shocked.
“Of dousing the men so you didn’t have to keep picking them up? So you could respond to more important calls? Yes, I am.”
“But who are you going to—? What are you going to do?”
“I don’t have a shred of proof to offer the police,” I said. “And I’m sure you guys will close ranks, won’t give each other away. I’m sure the others will make you stop ‘helping,’ make you keep your mouth shut.”
I thought about the dead men—“pretty good guys,” according to the MiniMart proprietor. I thought about my-Johnny-self, the war veteran I'd spoken to this morning.
I wanted to slap this kid. Just to do something. “You know what? You need to be confronted with your arrogance, just like Kyle Kelly was. You need to see what other people think of you. You need to see some of your older, wiser coworkers look at you with disgust on their faces. You need your boss to rake you over the coals. You need to read what the papers have to say about you.”
I could imagine headlines that sounded like movie billboards: Murder Medics. Central Hearse.
He winced. He’d done the profession no favor.
“So you can bet I’ll tell the police what I think,” I promised. “You can bet I’ll try to get you fired, you and Ben and whoever else was involved. Even if there isn’t enough evidence to arrest you.”
He took a cautious step toward his car. “I didn’t admit anything.” He pointed to the other man. “Did you hear me admit anything?”
“And I’m sure your lawyer will tell you not to.” If he could find a halfway decent one on his salary. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do.”
I turned to the man behind me. “Would you mind walking me in to my office?” I had some cash inside. He needed it more than I did.
“Lead the way, little lady.” His eyes were jaundiced yellow, but they were bright. I was glad he didn’t look sick.
I prayed he wouldn’t need an ambulance anytime soon.