Racing the ambulance down Corona Avenue doesn’t move me. New York isn’t a warzone. I still have my DD-214 in my pocket. A keepsake. I was discharged from active duty with a pension that goes into a checking account, but it’s not enough.
‘Rookie, you can’t take a left.’
I do anyway. Pablo doesn’t object. He nods his head like he’s agreeing with something. He pops Percocet like they’re Smarties.
He doesn’t finish what he’s saying. I’m going against traffic down a one-way and the siren blaring. The ambulance hits the side mirror of a delivery truck. Pablo hangs out the passenger window and exchanges fuck yous with a line of cars that pull onto the curb to make way. Rush hour and everyone wants to be at home. I shake my head. I’m hitched to this junkie.
‘Why you want to ride a bus in this jungle?’
He accepts silence for an answer. We’re almost through Elmhurst.
‘I’m not living my life. But you did 20 years in the army and pick up as a paramedic. Hermano, you should be going places.’
I throw Pablo a look. The Puerto Rican is only thirty and is already shot. He’s out of shape with a puppy’s face and sleepy brown eyes. If he didn’t slouch he’d be six foot. If he didn’t eat fast food he’d be slim; instead he’s growing a gut. He’s glad that he has a scar on his mouth. It allows him to brag about childhood dreams of being a middleweight contender, although I doubt he boxed. He’s nine years an EMT and lives paycheck to paycheck with his mom in Ridgewood. It can’t end well.
‘Pablo, you’ve got it made. People think you’re a god.’
‘All I’m saying is that you lived a life. You chose to live. And you’re young.’
‘Give it time. You’ll get there.’
‘I drowned when I was nine and was revived by an EMT. I’ve been paying it back ever since. I wish he didn’t resuscitate me. You ever think that killing them would be better?’
Making down Baxter Avenue, I take 82nd Street towards Jackson Heights. Given the traffic, I swing onto 35th Avenue and zigzag my way to Astoria Boulevard. To avoid passing Elmhurst Care Home, I take the long way round, turning onto 23rdAvenue and from there I’m within reach of Overlook Park.
I’m in the habit of making a good impression when I arrive. A clean-shaven man in a crisp uniform with F.D.N.Y patches on your shoulder and you’re a godsend. I don’t get it. I assume that anyone dressed up is wearing a disguise.
‘Cool it. Why all the shouting?’
An old man is on the street. He mouths off as we step out of the ambulance. He points to a ground floor window of a six-story building. There was a ruckus. Screams. The sound of broken glass. Laughing. Then running.
‘Doc, what did you say this is?’
I ignore Pablo who trails behind me. Causeway Hill is one of the largest public housing projects in Queens. It caters for trash. You don’t ask questions, unless you want trouble.
The front door to the apartment block is ajar. In we go and me leading the way. Down the hall and the door to an apartment is open. I look at my hands. I’ve no gun. I look at Pablo and he doesn’t have my back. A chill runs down my spine. I’ve been here before. But no, I’m wrong. It’s the setup that’s familiar. I’m not in Fallujah or Kabul. I must remind myself where I am. I rub a hand over my eyes and believe in the cold air. Yes, I’m in America.
A blond lady is on the sofa. She’s naked. Stark naked. She’s muttering something to herself. Her face is bruised and her hair is a mess. She doesn’t respond to our questions. Pablo goes to the bedroom, gets a blanket, and places it on the sofa. She doesn’t take it. She’s not conscious of her body, too desensitized to her own beauty to cover up her injuries. She must only be twenty, all skin and bone. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say she was into self-harm. A cutter, perhaps.
Although I recognize her trauma, I don’t know how to engage her. She looks hungry but eating is far from her mind. I take a step closer and see scratches and bruising around her chest and hips. She put up a fight. There’s no point asking anything. Pablo hands me an ID card that he retrieved from a handbag. Sharon Mathers.
‘Sharon? Where does it hurt?’
She gives a polite smile as though I woke her from a daydream. It says something. Maybe before all this, she led a privileged life. I look around the room for clues. She’s out of place. It can’t be her apartment. There’s a framed picture of an old couple on the wall. Then there’s the décor, everything is old and the place not refurbished in thirty years. Either she lives with her grandparents or she was dragged here.
‘Is this your place?’
Nothing. Gloved up, I take a look around the apartment. The kitchen is clean and the garbage can is empty. But the air is stale and I open a window. There are two bedrooms, one is pristine, with the bed freshly made, but the master bedroom is tossed. The mirror on the dresser door is smashed. Broken glass is scattered on the floor and mixes with torn fabric, which, if it were stitched back together, has the makings of a red dress. Near the window I see a broken high heel; also red. I lift up the blanket and the crumpled sheets are bloodstained. Pablo whispers in the corridor.
‘Doc, you think she’ll say something?’
A pretty girl gets this. It’s best that her mom never sees her alive. It gets me wondering. I wonder if someone might survive her, if she’ll ever allow sex to be about something more than pleasure. No. From her, there’ll be no rebirth, no urge to spawn and multiply, no infinite generations. She’ll never even finger herself again.
‘How many were there?’
She adjusts her head, acts dumbfounded. Confused.
‘They beat me.’
She says something about it but Pablo and I lose courage and look away. A wave of jealousy washes over me. How easily they got away with it. She’ll forever be wary of being followed, carrying a wounded twitch, that of a startled rabbit, and not trusting anyone. Being gang-raped would do that to you, evermore fearing a re-enactment.
Pablo motions for me to follow him to the kitchen.
‘I can’t handle rape calls.’
‘It wasn’t a rape call. A kid dialed it in.’
‘You mean, the old man?’
‘Dispatch said it was hysteria… or something.’
‘I’m calling the cops.’
My hand is on Pablo’s forearm.
‘The situation is stable.’
‘Stable? Protocol says…’
‘Fuck protocol. I just want to see.’
‘See what? This is bullshit.’
The thing is that the girl reminds me of the one that got away.
About my distractions, it’s innocent stuff, but it stayed with me. I was always given to hunting a younger sort, the type flushed with the diamond of youth and unaware of her cut, her carat’s worth. But I’m touching forty and my girth is growing. I’ve become less attractive and can’t take it.
My wife, Gloria.
Her parents come from a small town in Upstate New York. Every summer we spend a fortnight there with the kids. One evening, we’re invited to a posh BBQ, meaning that I’m kidnapped by a bunch of people wanting to be heard. Opinions, opinions, where will it get them? Nowhere. Yet, their voices fill the air, everyone either married to their job or to colleagues at work. They’re all property precious, their possessions expressing who they are. They talk freely but aren’t. They swallow accepted morals and refuse to see emptiness at their door. I have to get drunk fast.
In the space of a few minutes, the lady of the house says the phrase ‘in my experience’ four times. Fiftyish and without wedding ring, it’s obvious that Mary Horrall is the headmistress of a private school. She gives warning when she might say something of note, prefacing her wisdom by announcing: ‘don’t quote me on this’. And do you know what she’s likely to say?
‘I find that planting tulips after a hard frost is a great bet.’
Gardening is all the rave. I neck a bottle of champagne and feel like roaring at the bitch to get over herself, to go fuck her tulips, but she’d see it as a challenge. Anyway, I’m sworn off argument. Apart from with my wife, I haven’t been in one for ages. Why? Because I don’t care enough about people. I may be a care worker but that was a coincidence not a choice. The truth is that people are a nuisance. The irony is they think I’m going to save them.
I tell Gloria that I’ve a headache and take a peek around the house. It’s old world. Wooden rafters. Antique furniture. The manicured lawn has sculpted shrubs. Steps lead through a tiered garden down to a lake. At a boathouse, youngsters are having their own party. The age range is early-twenties, all fresh-faced and sun-kissed from summer. I help myself to a beer and receive a cursory glance before backs are turned on me.
Where are you?
It’s a text message from my wife.
I’m walking home. I’ve a killer headache. I didn’t want to ruin your night.
I’ll leave in an hour and we’ll arrive home at the same time.
I don’t know why she thinks it matters. I was eager to be somewhere with life and noise and now I have hope. A few guys play soft rock, boys with long hair and no faces. It’s an improvised set, the musicians loosely gathered around a guitarist who sits on a bench and croons. Although I’m written off as being the sleazy old guy, I’m not bullied into leaving and pretend to enjoy the music. The chat I overhear is refreshing, less property precious and more immediate: music, Hawaii, skiing in Colorado, university, and relationships.
Nadine has piercing blue eyes and blond hair. I can’t picture who her parents might be from the barbecue. She’s built sturdily, wide-hipped and with a low center of gravity. I know this as I bump into her, tipping her glass of wine on her halter neck. Although blocky, she doesn’t fall. She laughs when I offer to buy her a replacement.
‘Everything here is free.’
Nadine returns with a Budweiser for me. At university, she’s conflicted in her course of study (pharmacy, but thinks she should be doing physiotherapy) and trails off, once it dawns on her that she’s yapping to a stranger. I lend her confidence, assuring her that I’m listening.
‘Nadine, trust me, I know about the care industry and physiotherapy is a dog’s job. But drugs are great. Save yourself from hand and back injuries.’
I tell her that I’ve been to war. Curiously, for a young person, she has a sense of history. Why does America impose its ways on foreign lands? It’s standard fare and, if only to study her reaction, I delve into memories. Mosul, Kabul, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Baghdad. And so on it goes. We even discuss concentration camps and the bombing of Dresden. Vonnegut is overrated. Yada yada. Then we dance. Although she’s half my age, we dance in step. She makes me feel comfortable in my skin, fashionable, almost. My confidence grows. My erection rubs against her jeans. Have I the steel, the metal to win her?
I’m about to suggest something when Nadine’s boyfriend puts down his guitar and joins us. It catches me off guard. I thought Nadine was alone. Stupid, stupid me. She introduces him as Van Meer, to which Van Meer curtly nods. First name, surname, or nickname? Who cares? Van Meer is only a boy, perhaps a year younger than twenty-year old Nadine. He’s tall and skinny with a long face, long hair, and a beard covering his cheeks. He’s laid back, his louche demeanor giving him an unwarranted authority. Barely entertaining our conversation, he looks around, happy to hear compliments about his singing voice and for people to fan his ego. He grabs Nadine around the waist and blows into her neck like she’s a trumpet, as I stand beside him like an old man and he paying me no heed. She looks up at her savior with a glowing smile.
I was only ever a conversation piece, never a viable object of desire. Nadine is out of my league. It’s the next generation’s turn to be desired. I never considered her reputation, what her peers would say if she fucked me. I’m not the possessive sort. I don’t need to be the only one, but all the same I thought that she might allow me to gun her. Imagine it, me, exhausted after two minutes, dozing off to sleep with the smile of a cat that got the cream. Alas, no. My age makes me invisible. Nearing the big Four-O infuriates me. It’s a ridiculous age: you’re still horny but don’t realize that you’re wasting away.
It gets worse.
Mary Horrall appears at my side.
‘You found the lake house. And you met my daughter. They tell me that you’re in the army.’
‘Incorrect. I cashed in.’
‘It explains why there’s a whiff of death off you.’
How did she give birth to Nadine? Her mom ropes an arm into mine as though we’re friends. My face reddens. I’m more appealing to the mom than the daughter. Time made its inroads. I’m Mary Horrall’s mirror image, both of us worn looking. I feel sick.
‘Is you nickname “Doc”? Or are you a qualified doctor?’
‘I was a military medic. 68 Whiskey. I’m a civvie now.’
‘So, you’re actually Mister “Doc” Tony Cage.’
Her vagina is a desert but my dick will always have a home. My strategy can change. Maybe I’ll box clever and be the funny guy and somewhere along the way nubile girls like Nadine will tire of the theatrics and lack of respect from Van Meer and his kind.
I’m a nervous wreck when I reach home. I’m unfit for human consumption and no longer a threat to women. I poke my head in the kids’ door and am consoled on hearing their short snorts. In the kitchen I put on coffee. Although far away, I can hear Gloria snoring. It grates. She chokes a little and then wakes up for a moment. She makes me think of war. A knife stares at me. I try to ignore it but am holding it in my hand. Accept growing old, or commit suicide? What’s it to be? The knife sparkles. A thought occurs. Without attraction between the sexes, life loses relevance. I knock over the mocha pot. The knife follows to the ground. Crash. Gloria mumbles something. I shout.
‘Shut up. Just fucking shut up.’
Silence. She’s either wide-awake or falls back to sleep. I slam back a few neat ones and pick up the knife. My wife has grown fat and ugly. I’m stabbing the knife into the cheese board. My wife is killing me. I cork the bottle of JB and go to bed, gripping the knife in my hand.
Ever since that night a few weeks ago, I knew that I was searching.
Back to now. I found her. I’ll tell you what I did so that you’ll have a sense of this unwholesomeness early on.
I leave the kitchen and return with the medical bag. I remove a vial of Ketamine. Pablo looks at me sideways when I grin like I’ve a great idea.
‘She doesn’t need it.’
‘It’s not for her.’
‘How does that work?’
‘We’re partners, right? Take a hit.’
‘Doc, you’re wild. Why did you become an EMT?’
‘The great question.’
‘You offering me Ketamine?’
‘It’s new for you guys but in the military we use it all the time. It’s risk free and fun.’
‘And the medical director?’
‘It’s on my head. I’ll report it stolen.’
I’m filling the syringe but he’s still undecided. I flick the hypodermic needle.
‘A free shot. I got it covered. It’s either you or me.’
Pablo rolls up a sleeve.
‘What’ll you do?’
‘Run her down to Jamaica.’
‘Hermano, you’re steering patients. How much you getting?’
‘It’s the nearest hospital.’
‘Nope. Elmhurst is.’
‘Okay, I’ll bring her there.’
‘And nobody is any wiser?’
‘We’re partners. I’ll come back for you in an hour.’
I give him enough horse tranquilizer to sedate a stud. Then I pop a Viagra. I rehearse what I’m going to say as I return to the living room. In the end, it doesn’t matter how it pops out. She’ll do as I say. But I can’t fix my eyes on her as I tell her what we’re going to do. I drape the blanket over her shoulders.
As I lead her to the ambulance I wonder when she last washed. I’d like to ask but don’t. I lie her down on the gurney and notice that her legs are bruised, the colors ranging from pink to bluish brown. I catch her eye but both of us lose courage and look away.
‘This is to secure you as I drive. So you won’t fall.’
I fasten the restraints, pretending to be a caring human. She becomes aware of my prying eyes and turns her head away. It’s true that I’m feeling hungry. Lambs in spring and thin girls make me ravenous.
Everything is set in motion and nothing seems inappropriate. I’m calm. I drive slowly. I’m humming a tune, singing along to Michael McDonald’s “Sweet Freedom”. I feel alive and breathe through my nose. It’s dark and the traffic has cleared. Ever since 9/11, I thought about jumping ship and leaving the army. Stay at home. Get a job. Be a regular Joe. Drive the kids to school. Go to a ball game. Life in Queens. I did it. Here I am.
It’s a derelict area I bring her to. Practically a dump. The lack of streetlights leaves us cloaked in a silvery darkness under a half moon. I secure the block, looking for signs of life as I cruise around. Military scouting protocol. There’s nothing doing. We’re all alone. The hairs on my neck tingle. I park at the back of an abandoned building and flex my sphincter muscles to see if the Viagra has kicked in.
I step outside and there’s an eerie silence. The street lies empty. The place is due a makeover and will be transformed into posh condos in the coming years. I look to the sky for a breather. It’s nighttime but I can make out a cumulonimbus cloud passing overhead. I’m not in a desert. A wind stirs; the symptoms of a downpour are there. New York life.
I fear that she might be on alert, so stealth and surprise are vital. I yank open the ambulance door and see horror in Sharon’s face. But then she smirks. How could she know? Hatred brews. I’ll have the last laugh. Pee trickles down her leg. Her fear is well-founded. She tries to jackknife her body into a defensive position but the straps on the gurney won’t let her escape.
‘Let me help you.’
I bend over the trolley and do the needful but she gets the steel on me and pushes me over. I’m back up and on her in a flash. She doesn’t get out of the ambulance. Grabbing her by the throat, I fix her a look, releasing a tight smile. You think you know my type. I punch her in the face. That’s how it’s done. Her face explodes in blood. I give her one in the stomach. She falls back onto the gurney, winded. Her rasping is startling. She’s fighting for air, fighting for life. My heart thumps. My penis is erect in my pants but I can’t get it out until I’ve neutralized her. She kicks her legs, flailing wildly. She knows what must happen but resists. Her instinct for survival hasn’t dimmed. I wonder if I have the strength to overpower her. I get around the gurney and give her a few in the face. With all fight lost, she gives me a dreamy look. A bloody smile. Maybe she’s concussed. I work myself up to the task, stroking my cock, in-between slapping her face to ensure that she’s awake. A hint of resistance returns. No. Please. Don’t. I move like lightening to execute my plan, tying her wrists to either side of the gurney to make her seem more open to me.
I put on a rubber so it’s only the other guys semen left inside her. Having made it difficult for herself before, she takes a breath, and then her gut tightens, an inward knot. She’s remarkably tight, despite that her pussy is overstretched. She’s at peace or else falls in and out of consciousness as I pummel her. With all resistance gone, I catch sight of my dick in the reflection of the ambulance window. Love is art. We’re an elegant indecency. I’m banging her and wanting objection but instead get harmony. We’re riding the same wave, in and out, the unity of penis and vagina, as I pluck at her soul, in to the root, up to the hilt. All the while, Sharon stares at me. Afterwards, she doesn’t put up a fight as I strangle her to death.
On the drive back to collect Pablo, I call it in. Sharon Mathers, DOA. I don’t feel bad. She doesn’t matter. I was only a vulture, feeding on leftovers. Pablo is paralyzed in the bed where Sharon was gang raped. I’m not worried that I cause a racket as I steer the second gurney into the building. He’s so K-holed that he won’t be sober for days. He’ll lose his job. I’m sweating. I nearly drop him on Sharon’s corpse as I get him into the ambulance. He notices someone on the other stretcher.
‘Just another dead body.’