In the movies, a chance gunshot makes for a certain kill. You’re familiar with the scene: two men in trench coats grapple for control of the pistol, it goes off, and their faces freeze in shock. For a moment, it’s unclear who bought the bullet. Then the B-list actor crumples to the floor. The star of the show, the intrepid private eye, kneels to receive a dying confession or a vital clue.
Truth is, you can drill many a random hole through the human body and the victim will pull through, or, leastways, linger a few hours before dying. To guarantee death requires several bullets—or a twitch-ending shot to the heart or head. During my years as a paramedic, I had witnessed plenty enough gunshot wounds, fatal and non-fatal. Most of the victims were strangers. Several were friends. But back then I dwelled on the sunny side of California and I had severed myself from that life.
Now I was living on the northern end of the state, Shasta and all that, holed up in the cabin of my PI friend, Russell Key, house-sitting while he vacationed in Cancun.
I came across a man bleeding on my friend’s living room carpet: Sierra Sanitation Services. That’s what it said on a patch stitched to the breast pocket of his blue jumpsuit, and he wasn’t offering up his name.
It was three a.m. The fire spluttered with its final bits of crackle. Mountain-cold air gushed in through the window the intruder had broken. I tugged the chain on the overhead lamp to provide illumination while I examined his injuries.
The waist of his jumpsuit sported a pair of burn holes: bullet in/bullet out, a glancing angle tunneling through a couple of inches of soft flesh. Not so deep as to be fatal and yet it did nick some vital plumbing; he had spilt enough blood to fill a jumbo jar of Ragu. His buggy eyes darted. His chest shook as he wheezed. His breath said agony but something short of a death rattle.
I punched 911 on my cellular.
“Emergency services,” the operator answered.
“Don’t,” Sierra said.
His eyes locked on mine. They appeared desperate but not crazy, so I obliged him and hung up. “They’ll ring back,” I told him. “That’s what they do when they’re cut off.”
“Let me explain.”
“If I don’t put some pressure on that wound, you won’t have the breath for explaining.”
I scavenged Russell’s bathroom for emergency supplies, coming up with no more than disinfectants: iodine and isopropyl alcohol. I dowsed a wash rag and pressed it against Sierra’s belly.
The cell phone buzzed. 9-1-1. I answered just long enough to hang up.
“Gunshot wounds have to be reported to the police,” Sierra said. A monster-sized grimace swallowed his face. “You’ve got to cover for me.”
“Why is that?” So far, he’d busted my friend’s window and blotted his carpet. Not exactly chalking up favors.
“I’m here to hire you.”
He mistook me for Russell. My pocket phone sounded. This time I let it go on ringing as I stoked a poker in the fireplace.
“I’ve got a wad of dough,” he continued. “A bunch more if you do the job right.”
The ringing discontinued for a moment, then began again.
I answered. “Hello, I’m sorry we were cut off. My friend took a fall.” A bullet wound has to be reported to the police—but not a clumsy slip with a fireplace poker. Besides, the heat would cauterize the bleeding.
When I finished the call, he asked, “You’re planning to plug me with that rod?”
He gave a broad up-and-down with his head.
His belly was still moist with the disinfectant. I worried that with a touch of the fire-hot metal, the alcohol might catch on fire. My med tech training had gotten in my way. I didn’t need to sterilize the area. No germs could survive the heat I was about to apply.
As I approached with the white-hot poker, his eyes narrowed, his teeth gritted. He shot me a look that I interpreted as sworn vengeance. To eliminate any doubts in the medics’ minds as to what happened, I left the bar jutting through his side.
His eyelids began fluttering. He was skidding down a loose gravel slope into unconsciousness.
“Stay with me,” I said. “And start spelling out what brings you here.”