[Chapter 1] . . . [Chapter 2] . . . [Chapter 3] . . . [Chapter 4] . . . [Chapter 5] . . . [Chapter 6] . . . [Chapter 7] . . . [Chapter 8] . . . [Chapter 9]
The third floor of Veteran's Administration Hospital was quiet. It was after ten, but a man of the cloth usually went unchallenged if he stayed out of the way. In fact, the nurse at the central table had been quite helpful when Jerome asked for Mark Carr's room. Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time for Mark so it was no surprise that a member of the clergy would show up to comfort the family and say final prayers for the dying.
Yet, that was not Jerome's purpose in being here. In fact, even Jerome did not know exactly why he was here. He had spent his entire Friday running down the victims of the ambush. His first visits were with the two lawyers, both of whom were patients at the Beauregard Medical Center. Grant Lasley had been sitting up in his bed and using his cell phone to talk to clients and his secretary. The man acted as though getting ambushed and shot was an inconvenience designed to keep him from representing his clients. While Jerome was there a young nurse arrived with about six different pills for Lasley to take and he almost ripped her head off when he realized one of them was a lortab. The nurse kept trying to explain that pain management was necessary and he kept talking over her. Finally, Jerome intervened.
"Mister Lasley, all she's doing is following the doctor's instructions and trying to give you something for your pain."
Lasley paused and made an obvious effort to get himself under control. "Respectfully, Father, that is not what is happening here. The opioids are extremely addictive and both she and her doctor know it. They are trying to turn me into another one of the pill zombies like they have half the people out here. It starts with a few tabs, then oxys, then fentanyl or oxymorphone. They can justify every step of the way as they increase the depth of your addiction and guarantee that doctors, pharmacies, and pill companies keep making money off you."
Jerome tried to speak in a soothing tone. This man was obviously being more than a little paranoid. "I'm sure the doctor is just trying to do his job. He's not trying to turn you into an addict."
The lawyer almost sneered at him. "It's so obvious you're not from here, Padre. The doctors, all just trying to do their jobs, have flooded us with these damned pills and addicted a huge number of people. If you don't believe me, start counting pharmacies. You think Mount View needs seven pharmacies for thirty-five hundred people or that Yared needs four in a town of about one thousand? The medical-pill industry is booming Father. And, if you need further proof of bad intent, note the fact that this nurse, her doctor, and this hospital are trying to give me an addictive medicine like lortab when they could just as easily give me a non-addictive pain pill like torodal."
Then came a fifteen minute lecture on how "big pharma" was neglecting the development of non-opioid, non-addictive pain suppressors because they did not lead to addiction like the narcotics and therefore fewer pills were sold and less profits made. Jerome eventually gave up trying to talk sense to the man and starting asking him about the ambush.
Lasley waved his remaining hand dismissively. "Not much I can tell you there. I assume you're here investigating the death of Father Pahl?" After Jerome nodded he continued. "Well, we were all standing in the alley. The deputies were letting the Pahl brothers smoke. We were all chatting about something inane because we couldn't talk about the case in front of the deputies. I heard the shots and saw the Pahl brothers get hit. I turned and dove behind the nearest cover. I'd like to say I was noble and pulled Father Pahl down with me, but the truth is that he got in my way and I shoved him down so that I could get down. I don't remember getting hit myself and I don't remember the explosion. There's a huge blank spot in my memory between hitting the gravel behind the deputies and waking up here with my arm sawed off."
After a few more questions which yielded no useful information and a couple very impatient looks from the Lasley, Jerome left and went a couple floors up to speak to the other lawyer. Keith Tolliver was in far worse shape than Lasley. He was only semi-lucid and after about ten minutes of mumbled and unfocused conversation prompted by Tolliver's wife Tara, the attorney lapsed into unconsciousness. Tara kept apologizing to Jerome because her husband could not help him and explaining that he had been much clearer before he had surgery two days ago. She was obviously worried and Jerome spent well over an hour comforting her and assuring her that he was not upset because her husband was not in any condition to talk with him.
After a break for supper in the hospital cafeteria, Jerome had tried to visit the Pahl brothers at the same hospital, but they had a police officer stationed outside their door and standing orders from their father that no visitors could see them. Neither of them were conscious anyway, but he felt obligated to visit all the victims and the Pahls were Catholics. He might not be able to talk to them, but at the very least he could perform an anointing. After about forty five minutes of reasoning and outright wheedling someone finally called the men's father. That proved fruitless when the elder Pahl both refused to speak to Jerome and refused to allow him to visit the brothers. Apparently, the man had several experts flying in to see if they could do anything to help his sons and he viewed allowing an anointing as giving up. The poor nurse who made the call out of kindness got yelled at loud enough that Jerome could could hear it himself and after she hung up she told him that the man said he "would not allow a priest to bless his children to death." She looked confused so he explained the anointing to her, after which she just looked dubious.
The next visit had been simple in comparison. Deputy Ed Boyd was in a room by himself, covered in bandages and hooked to machines which were performing his bodily functions. There was no one with him. The nurse told Jerome that deputies would come by and visit every day, but no family. It turned out he had no close relatives at all and a board of doctors had decided that they would wait until Monday and if there was no improvement they would detach him from the machines preserving his life. Judging from the way the deputy looked and the nurse's resigned attitude, Jerome understood that this basically meant the deputy would die on Monday. He did not know the man's faith but sat praying for him for some few minutes before he stood and approached the bed. He made the sign of the cross, dabbed his finger in his bottle of oil, and lightly made the sign of the cross on the sheet over the man's heart as he recited the blessing. "Through this holy anointing may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up." That done, he prayed a little longer for the man and then left for his final visit.
And found out that the last hospitalized victim was not at Beauregard Medical. When Deputy Carr's family decided to remove him from life support everyone expected him pass quickly; his father even signed a no resuscitation order. However, the deputy hung on and it looked like there was a chance he would transit into a persistent vegetative state. As soon as the family was told this they insisted on moving him to the V.A. hospital. The doctors recommended against it, but the family was adamant. He had been moved earlier that day. The nice, young doctor whom the nurse summoned to explain this also launched unbidden into an explanation of Deputy Carr's condition. Jerome listened politely, but he was fairly certain the majority of the explanation would have taken a couple years of medical training to understand. The gist of it seemed to be that the deputy's internal wounds were severe, but stabilized. Even so, the doctors were surprised he was still alive. There was a high probability that Mark Carr would be dead within a week. After thanking the doctor and assuring him that he understood and would not inappropriately raise the hopes of the deputy's family, Jerome took his leave and drove to the V.A. hospital.
A little over an hour later he was standing in the hallway of the George Jordan V.A. Medical Center outside Deputy Carr's room. Walking into the room he found Mark Carr laying in the bed. This deputy had less equipment hooked up to him than his fellow had in the other hospital and Jerome could hear his shallow, somewhat erratic breathing. It took him a couple seconds to realize that there was another man in a chair in the corner of the room.
The man had obviously been dozing. He started awake and shambled to his feet. "Can I help you Preacher?"
Jerome caught himself before the automatic correction which sprang to his tongue could come out. This was not the time to squabble over religious trivialities. "I'm trying to visit all the people who were hurt in the explosion. I went round to Beauregard earlier today and visited everyone I could, but Deputy Carr was moved here before I could see him."
"Well, there ain't much to see." The man looked at Jerome more closely. "You're one of those Roman priests, right? A Vicar? And a n . . . a black boy at that. You must be having all sorts of fun in these mountains."
For a second, Jerome stood stunned. Then he felt the wave of anger building and bowed his head to pray a quick Hail Mary and calm himself. The man seemed to take that as a signal to go on. "What can I do for you Vicar? We surely ain't part of your flock. I don't go nowhere and I'm pretty sure that Mark and Dad still go to listen to Brother Charles at Yared Mountain Christian on Sundays."
Shaking off the what had almost been said - and what had - Jerome fastened on the question. "I was sent to look into the death of Father Pahl and I felt I ought to visit as many of the victims as I could. I got here late because Deputy Carr was transferred here."
"Yeah, you said that. Just like Mark here to inconvenience somebody else right up to even the way he dies. You ain't the only one. I'm here 'cuz Dad wouldn't leave unless someone was here to watch his favorite son and a couple of his deputy buddies showed up at my trailer and told me they were taking our Dad home at eight and I better be here to take his place or be able to explain why I wasn't. Give an asshole a badge and a gun and he thinks he rules the world. Anyway, I got to be here too, but it wasn't God who sent me."
The conversation stumbled on for another ten minutes. Jerome found out this man was the deputy's younger half brother Andy and that Brother Charles was coming by tomorrow to try a laying on of hands so no praying by a Roman priest was needed. Certain that he was not wanted here, Jerome started to leave when Andy stepped between him and the door.
"I need to hit the john and go take a smoke, can you watch him for a while?" Before Jerome could say anything, Andy started for the door, only to stop again when a gasping noise came from the direction of the bed. Both men looked back and saw Mark Carr moving his right arm as his eyes fluttered open. The brother practically knocked Jerome over as he shoved him aside to get to the bed. "I'm here, Mark. It's me, Andy."
However, the deputy looked right past his brother at Jerome and started mumbling something. Jerome walked up to the bed and the voice was barely audible. " . . . brownie . . . brownie . . . why . . . we did it . . . why . . . why?" The voice slid into an unintelligible mumble as the man's eyes lost focus. Then the eyes caught on his brother and strength came back. " . . . get Dad out . . . he'll kill him . . . did what told us . . . killed Ross . . . brownie . . . flare . . . Dad out . . ." With that, the man in the bed took a couple deeper breathes and his eyes blinked twice before remaining closed. Once again the only noise in the room was the breathing of the three men.
Jerome started to turn toward the door when the younger Carr's hand grabbed his arm. "Nothing happened here, Vicar."
Jerome tried to yank his arm free, but the man had a firm grip. "What do you mean, 'nothing happened?' We both heard him. We need to get a doctor in here to look at him and tell the police. And warn your father."
"Out here people take care of their own Don't you worry about our dad. Worry about yourself. You ain't the only brownie around here. He's talking about the Sheriff's pet melungeun. You tell the law and we're all dead."
The man loosened his grip on Jerome's arm. "You tell whatever story you want. I didn't see a thing. Ain't getting killed 'cuz Mark did something stupid."
Jerome left without saying a word, only stopping long enough to tell the nurse on duty that he saw Deputy Carr wake for a few seconds and say something to his brother. The nurse did not seem to care too much, but wrote something on a notepad and promised she would tell the doctor when he came back around.
With that, Jerome left the hospital behind. It was after midnight as he started to drive back to Bartlette, wondering whom he could speak to about this - wondering whom he could speak to safely about this.