Book excerpt

Out Cold

A Brady Coyne Novel

Brady Coyne Novels

William G. Tapply

St. Martin's Press

OUT COLD (Chapter One)

The alarm jangling beside my ear failed to rouse Henry, my Brittany spaniel. He remained curled up on the bed beside me, where Evie usually slept. He was a warm body, but otherwise a poor substitute.

Evie had been gone for two days. It seemed like months already. She left on Sunday afternoon for a week-long gathering of hospital administrators at some conference center in Scottsdale, Arizona, with the word "Rancho" in its name. She wouldn't be back until next Sunday night.

She'd been promoted back in the summer. New title, big raise. Her new responsibilities included attending conferences and drinking margaritas with her counterparts from other hospitals. She called it "networking" and claimed it was a key element in her job description.

As near as I could tell, hospital administrators were obsessed with finding ways to save money. Evie had a word for that, too. "Streamlining," she called it.

I told her it looked to me like they were mainly interested in finding ways to justify cutting staff and reducing services to patients.

She said that was unfair. Efficiency, she said. That's what streamlining meant. Finding ways to deliver the same services at lower cost. In fact, she said, the way she saw her job, it was all about finding ways to avoid cutting services in times of skyrocketing medical costs.

I could have gone to Arizona with her. She claimed she wanted me to. Some of her fellow hospital administrators were bringing their spouses, and so what if, technically, I was not Evie's spouse.

"Virtual spouse," we called each other. Close enough.

I told her I didn't like it out there. There was no water in Scottsdale, Arizona. A place without water has no fish, and a place with no fish is not my kind of place.

"You could get away from this horrible winter," she said, and when she put it that way, the idea was tempting. The sun hadn't shone on Boston since the arrival of the new year two weeks earlier, just day after depressing dark day of cold gray grunge, with frequent doses of rain, or sleet, or snow, or some miserable combination of all three.

"What would I do while you're busy conferring?" I said.

"Sit by the pool, drink mai tais, ogle the girls in bikinis," she said. "Play golf."

"I gave up golf and ogling many years ago," I said. "Too stressful."

"You used to ogle me."

"Still do," I said. "That's different."

"Well," she said, "you could just relax and get away from the office for a few days and be with me. We never go anywhere anymore."

I arched my eyebrows. "A conference for hospital administrators? In the middle of the desert?"

She smiled. "Point taken. Maybe this summer we can go somewhere, though, huh?"

I agreed to that and began thinking about Montana and British Columbia and Alaska and other watery, trout-filled destinations that Evie might like.

Meanwhile, though, she was out there in sunny Arizona, and I was here in wintry Boston.

I shut off the alarm, yawned, and stretched. Henry yawned and stretched, too. Then he slithered off the bed and trotted into the hallway. I considered rolling over and going back to sleep. Except I had a job, a Tuesday full of obligations, and a secretary who'd make my life miserable if I was late to the office. So I slid out of bed, pulled on a T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, and staggered into the bathroom, where I peed and splashed water on my face.

When I came out, Henry was sitting at the top of the stairs with his ears cocked and that particular expectant look on his face that meant he needed to go outside.

So he and I padded downstairs. I opened the back door, and Henry waded out into the three or four inches of last night's new white snow that had fallen on top of the two feet of old grimy snow in our walled-in backyard garden on Beacon Hill.

While Henry did his business and played in the snow out back, I switched on the electric coffeepot in the kitchen and went back upstairs. I showered, shaved, selected the day's office pinstripe, and got dressed except for the necktie and jacket.

Back downstairs, I poured a mug of coffee, made Henry's breakfast, then opened the back door to let him in. In all seasons except winter, Evie and I joined Henry in the garden with our morning coffee. We sat at the picnic table, watched the birds flock at the feeders, and sipped our coffee. We didn't say much. Neither of us was a morning person.

Henry was definitely a morning dog, however, and he liked hanging out in the garden twelve months a year, even in the dark depressing doldrums of midwinter. Usually when I opened the door he'd be standing there on the stoop with his stubby tail all awag in anticipation of breakfast.

On this Tuesday morning in January, though, he wasn't on the stoop. Henry was orange and white, mostly white, and it took me a minute to spot him in the shadows against the snow. He was near the high brick wall that separated our garden from the back alley. He had his butt up in the air, and he was growling and whining and poking at a mound of snow with his nose.

"Hey," I said. "Your food's ready. Come and get it."

I noticed that the gate--the door in the wall that opened out onto the back alley--was half open. The lock was broken, and it must have come unlatched. Last night's wind had blown it open, and the snow had come swirling in and drifted around it.

Henry was ignoring me.

"Henry," I yelled, "for crissake get in the house. Let's go. It's too cold to stand here yelling at you."

He kept whining and growling and poking his nose into the snow. This was odd. Henry was usually pretty obedient.

"If I have to put on my boots and slog out there in the snow and drag you inside," I said, "you can forget about breakfast."

The word "breakfast" got his attention. He lifted his head, turned, and looked at me.

"Come on." I clapped my hands. "Right now, dammit. I'm serious."

Henry pondered his options, then resumed growling and poking around in the snow.

And just about then the snow-covered mound in the shadow of the back wall of my garden began to assume a recognizable shape.

I muttered, "Oh, shit," pulled on my Bean boots, and plowed through the snow to where Henry was nosing around. I grabbed his collar and hauled him away. Then I pressed my nose close to his, stared him in the eyes, and said, "Get in the house. Now. I mean it."

He took a look at me and saw that I did, in fact, mean it. So he shrugged and headed for the back door.

I knelt down and brushed the snow off the mound beside the garden wall. It was, as I'd feared and suspected, a body. A human body.

I couldn't tell if he was old or young, black or white, rich or poor. I couldn't tell whether he was alive or dead. He was curled fetally on his side facing the wall with his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms hugging himself and his hands jammed into his armpits. He wore a black knit hat pulled tight over his head, a dark blue wool topcoat, sneakers, jeans.

I got one arm under his knees the other under his shoulders, hugged him against my chest, and lifted him. He was small and not very heavy. He hung limp in my arms.

When his head lolled back, I saw his face. It was a young face with smooth, unwrinkled skin. Not a man. A young woman. A teenager, I guessed. Just a kid.

Her skin was gray. Her lips were blue. Her eyes were half-lidded, and her mouth was open. I could detect no movement whatsoever in her body or around her mouth and nose that would suggest she was breathing.

I hugged her tight, stood up, and plowed back through the snow to the house. I pushed the back door open with my hip, squeezed in sideways through the doorway, and lugged the girl into the living room. I laid her on the sofa, opened up the crocheted afghan that Evie kept folded over the back, and spread it over her.

Henry was right on my heels. He sat down on the floor next to the sofa, looking at the girl.

I touched her face. It felt cold and clammy, like the skin of a freshly caught trout.

The bottom halves of her eyes under her half-closed lids looked dull.

I pressed my finger under her jawbone. I could find no pulse. No sign of life. No movement. Nothing.

I went to the kitchen for the cordless phone.

I hit 911 on my way back to the living room. When the dispatcher answered, I told her my name and where I lived and said I'd found a young woman in my backyard. I explained that when I found her, she was covered with last night's snow. She had to have been out there for several hours to get covered with snow. I couldn't find a pulse, she didn't seem to be breathing, and her skin was cold and clammy and kind of grayish, and--

"Take it easy," the dispatcher said. "Somebody will be right there."

I said I was afraid the girl was dead, but I wasn't sure.

"Cover her with a blanket."

"I did that already. Is there anything else I can do?"

"No. Just keep her warm. What's the victim's name?"

"I don't know. I never saw her before. She must've come into my backyard in the nighttime, looking for a place to curl up, get out of the cold, and--"

"Right," she said. "You sit tight, Mr. Coyne. Don't do anything. The EMTs will be right along."

Then she disconnected.

I put the phone on the coffee table and stood there, looking down at the girl. She was small, barely over five feet tall. Blond curls stuck out under the edges of her knit cap. She had a little rosebud mouth and a slightly upturned nose. I noticed that she wore a stud with a tiny green stone in the crease alongside her nose. It looked like jade.

I figured she was a runaway. Who besides a runaway would slip into somebody's backyard looking for a place to get out of the weather on a winter night?

Her arm was hanging off the sofa. I picked it up and folded it over her chest. I laid my hand on top of hers. It felt cold and still and lifeless.

I studied her motionless face. She was terribly young. Fifteen or sixteen, I guessed. Just a kid.

I wondered if she'd called for help, knocked at my door in the nighttime wanting to be let in out of the cold.

I would have heard her, wouldn't I? Surely Henry would have gone racing downstairs, barking. Wouldn't he?

Could I have saved this girl's life?

"Who are you?" I said. "What happened to you? Why aren't you home with Mommy and Daddy? Why did you come crawling into my garden?"

And then I said, "Please don't be dead."

Two EMTs came banging on my front door six or eight minutes after I called. One of them had sandy hair. The other was older, Hispanic, with a thin black mustache. They were grumbling about the ice and snow. Mt. Vernon Street hadn't been plowed yet this morning. They said they almost didn't make it up the hill. They seemed to be implying that it was my fault.

I showed them where the girl was lying on my sofa. They bent over her. The Hispanic guy took her pulse and peeled back the afghan and listened to her chest with a stethoscope. The other EMT strapped an oxygen mask over her mouth and nose.

"Oxygen," I said. "She's alive?"

The Hispanic looked up at me. "You didn't tell the dispatcher she was bleeding."

"Bleeding? I didn't know..."

"It's dried on her pants," he said. "Coagulated. The cold does that. There was a lot of bleeding."

"Was," I said.

"It's mostly stopped."

"So is she--"

But he'd returned his attention to the girl. They were ignoring me, doing their job.

The Hispanic guy said something, and the blond EMT nodded, straightened up, and went outside. He came hustling back a minute later pushing a collapsible gurney. The two of them slid a board under the girl, strapped her on, stabilized her head, and lifted her onto the gurney. Their movements were efficient and coordinated. They made a good team. They'd done this before. They knew what they were doing. It was comforting.

They wheeled her out the front door, down the steps, and lifted her into the emergency wagon. They moved fast and efficiently, and that gave me hope. I figured, if the girl was dead, the EMTs would have no reason to hurry.

She was still wrapped in Evie's crocheted afghan. I followed behind them and watched from my front steps.

The blond EMT climbed in back with the girl. The Hispanic guy slammed the door shut and sprinted around to the driver's side. The wagon's motor had been left running. He turned on the siren, and a minute later they went skidding and slewing up unplowed Mt. Vernon Street.

I stood there on my front steps until the wagon disappeared over the crest of the hill and the siren faded in the distance. Henry had wandered out, and he sat on the steps beside me.

I kept thinking: She'd been bleeding, and I hadn't noticed. The EMT said it had "mostly" stopped. Meaning not entirely. Meaning, maybe, if I'd noticed she was bleeding when I first found her and had told the 911 dispatcher, there might have been something I could have done.

Instead, I'd assumed she was dead. She seemed lifeless. No pulse that I could detect. No movement. She'd spent a cold January night curled up in the snow in my backyard. How could she not be dead?

I hadn't thought to ask them where they were taking her. I clung to the desperate, probably irrational hope that she'd survive in spite of the fact that I'd screwed up.

I poured myself some coffee and sat at the kitchen table, warming my hands on the mug. It had all happened so fast, and it was so unexpected and shocking, that it didn't quite seem real.

What had made her bleed? Where was the blood coming from? Had she been stabbed? Or shot?

And why was she in the alley out back in the first place? What brought her into my yard? Was my garden door the only one that had blown open? Did she wander into my backyard to find shelter? Was it as simple and random as that?

Maybe somebody dumped her there.

I didn't think I'd ever forget her face. It was a sweet, young, innocent face, the face of a girl, not quite yet a woman, with her whole life still to be lived.

I wondered who she was--whose daughter and granddaughter, whose sister and niece and cousin and best friend and team-mate and girlfriend. A runaway, I assumed. There were a lot of runaway teenagers in Boston. But they all had run away from somewhere.

And I couldn't stop wondering...if I had found her sooner, if I had noticed that she was bleeding?...

I pulled on my boots, went out into my yard, and went over to the place by the back wall where I'd found her. I could see the faint dimples of her footprints in the snow where she'd come in. A couple inches of snow had fallen on them. They were close together, as if she'd been walking slowly and with some difficulty.

In the hollowed-out compressed place where she'd lain, I saw the stain of old blood. There wasn't much of it, just a patch a little smaller than a tea saucer, but it was unmistakable. It was dark brown, almost black where it had seeped into the snow.

If I'd noticed this stain when I'd picked her up, and if I'd recognized it for what I was, I might have been able to save her life.

I tried to tell myself I'd done my best, but I wasn't convinced.

I took another look around the yard, but I noticed nothing that would tell me anything else about the girl. Just those faint snow-covered footprints coming in through the gate and the bloodstained place where she'd huddled for the night, dying in my backyard while I slept.

OUT COLD Copyright 2006 by William G. Tapply.

William G. Tapply was a contributing editor to Field & Stream and the author of numerous books on fishing and wildlife, as well as more than twenty books of crime fiction, including Nervous Water. He lived in Hancock, New Hampshire.