• David Lane Williams

Poisoned Ashes

I'm working on a significant re-write of an old novel. I can write a 350-page story, but I'm often confounded by titles. Tentatively I'm calling this one "Poisoned Ashes." Feel free to chime in if you have better ideas. Anyway, here's chapter one.

Chapter One

The weedy patch of gravel was nothing special as bar parking lots go, with a spluttering neon sign, brazen guzzling from beer mugs snuck outside, chain smoking, and a general milling about. There’d almost been a fight, but that had ended with a drunken embrace of the would-be combatants. A joint was passed, a woman puked on the side of the building, two guys consoled a broken-hearted friend.

Nothing special.

One-by-one their heads turned in the direction of a siren some blocks away because it was evident the sound was growing closer. They hid their dope under bumpers and their drinks behind tires, just in case the approaching siren came from a squad car. A man sitting in a silhouetted pickup spoke to his lap until a woman sat up smoothing her hair. Two thugs argued in frantic whispers over who would hold a battered pistol barely held together with electrical tape. A swaying drunk hurried to finish whizzing between two cars.

The lights turned out to be from an ambulance that came to a dust-shoving halt near the door, and the nightclub patrons watched two paramedics hop from the cab to go to work. Samantha Hannum hoisted a cardiac monitor from an exterior cabinet and moved toward the bar entrance. Her partner, Lucas Ortiz, twelve years younger and filled with an enthusiasm that comes at the start of careers, scooped up two kits, sprinted around the grill and beat Sam to the door. She smiled wanly, as if observing a child’s fascination with sand, and followed him into the bar.

“I want you guys to put in your report I called,” yelled a middle-aged woman just inside the front doors. This produced a frothy cough, and it was several moments before she finished her thought: “Don’t want nobody suing me over this later.”

The manager led them to the back through a smoky neon-blue lounge bedecked with large-screen monitors blaring sporting events from around the globe. Waitresses in emerald-green vests with matching bow ties over neon-pink skirts that could as easily function as bathing suits shucked and dived through throngs of wing-eating, beer-quaffing men cheering this dunk or that sack. Billiard players tracked the medics, their cue sticks swaying slowly like tails of giant cats.

Finally they escaped the cacophony into a poorly lit dressing room that smelled of ashtrays and potpourri. There, slumped in a metal folding chair was another waitress, her uniform vest unbuttoned to the navel and one high heel missing in action. She was unconscious, and a string of mucous ran from her nose down to her left breast, glazing a purple tattoo in the shape of a broken heart.

The two medics went to work, Lucas setting up the EKG and a blood test for insulin shock, Sam performing a quick physical exam. "What's her name, ma'am?" asked Lucas."Velvet—work name, I think—don't know her real one." "How long has she been like this?" Sam asked. "Please don't light that.” The manager jerked a cigarette away from her mouth and clicked her nails like crab claws at Sam’s stare. "I don't know, maybe half an hour. Kept thinking she'd wake up." "Does she have any medical problems?" "Pills and booze. When you gonna get her outta here?"

Sam placed an oxygen mask on the girl's face as Lucas inserted an IV into her left forearm. Velvet didn’t flinch when Lucas stuck her with the needle. Within two minutes the medics finished their testing and determined her blood sugar, heart rhythm, blood pressure, and oxygen tissue saturation were all within normal limits.

"What do you think?" asked Sam. "Well, I guess based on the history that she's been taking pills and drinking a lot we can assume she may have overdosed on narcotics."

"Okay, so what are you gonna do about it?"

"Give her Naloxone?" Lucas asked like a pupil who was only “pretty sure” his answer was correct.

"Yeah, let's antidote her for narcotics, see if we get a response."

Lucas was clearly elated. For one thing, he had gotten his IV on the first try this time. For the past week Sam had finished every attempt Lucas started, which was not only painful to the patients, but also embarrassing to the rookie. But now he had even made a reasonably good preliminary assessment, and he had come up with a treatment plan his instructor agreed with.

Lucas managed to draw five milliliters of the Naloxone into a syringe despite his trembling hands. While his partner and the surly manager looked on, he carefully wiped one of the rubber IV ports with an alcohol swab and guided the needle into the tubing.

"Now remember," Sam warned, "you've gotta give this stuff slowly."

But the rookie's brain was racing. Lucas shoved the syringe plunger causing the Naloxone to gush into Velvet’s bloodstream and slam into her brain.

"I told you to give it slowly!" admonished Sam. “I, I'm sorry. I didn't think..." "Dammit, guy, put your head on. She's gonna wake up too fast."

As if on cue, Velvet opened her eyes and looked about the room. She was quiet for a few seconds, and then she tore at the oxygen mask as if it had been placed there to suffocate her.

"Now, Velvet, I need you to keep that on,” said Lucas in sweet, frantic tones. It'll make you feel better.”

"Just take it off," snarled Sam. "She's not gonna keep it on anyway."

Velvet clawed at Lucas with a scream and lunged from the rickety chair. Before anyone could react she grabbed a longneck beer bottle and smashed it on a nearby changing bench. Warm beer drizzled the air as Velvet brandished her weapon commando style. "Get the hell away from me! Get away!"

The two medics slowly advanced. Velvet turned the jagged glass on her own wrist. "I'll cut myself! I swear! I will," screamed the frightened woman. Rivulets of blood dripped from the IV site as the dangling bag yanked on her vein.

“Get her the hell out of here!" the manager screamed.

“I’ll get it from her,” Lucas announced, and he crouched to pounce.

Sam raised an eyebrow at him. “Just stand right there. Don’t get anything from anybody until I tell you to.” And then she turned to Velvet, snaring the girl's blurry gaze in her fixed stare. "Velvet," said Sam in a voice both calm and commanding, "Velvet, I want you to concentrate on what I have to say to you."

"I'll cut myself," Velvet said again, though this time with less verve.

"Velvet, can you help me? My shoes are untied." Velvet dropped her gaze to her own feet and then tried to focus on Sam's boots. “Velvet, I’m sorry, but I just don’t know how many toes you have for your age. Can you help me?”

Again, Velvet looked down at her feet, then at Sam’s. Several times her gaze went back and forth, and soon she forgot completely about the broken bottle, long enough for Sam to gently reach forward and lift it from the waitresses trembling fingers. The fight seemed to be all used up in Velvet, and she settled down into a sleepy calm as they covered her with a tablecloth and carried her back out through the bar to the ambulance.

Lucas cradled her under the arms and spoke to her in soothing tones. Sam led their way, holding her below the knees, shoving a shoulder through the crowd, yelling, "Excuse me," above the din all the way.

“Don’t be sending me no bill for this,” yelled the manager at their backs.

"It's okay, Velvet," cooed Lucas. "We're gonna take care of you. Everything's gonna be okay." Velvet looked up into Lucas’ eyes, her eyebrows tense and low as she concentrated on his words. He smiled down at her, pleased he had finally made some meaningful contact.

And then she vomited on him.