No Bad Deed – Heather Chavez

If my kids had been with me, it wouldn’t have happened. I would have stayed in the minivan, doors locked, windows rolled up. Just like the 911 operator instructed. But my husband, Sam, had the flu. He had picked up Audrey hours before, and Leo was studying at a friend’s house, so I was alone in the van. Driving in full dark, I felt like I was alone in the world. Clouds thick with unshed rain drifted across a half-moon, drizzle seeping from them even as they threatened to split open completely. During commute, the two-lane road carried a steady stream of parents on their way to the elementary school up the road and nine-to-fivers headed to west Santa Rosa. Several hours post-commute, though, it was nearly deserted, owing equally to the time and the weather. I finally surrendered and switched on my wipers. Only a couple of miles from home, my phone buzzed in my purse. A name popped onto the minivan’s in-dash display: Sam. With the Bluetooth, it would’ve been easy enough to connect the call. Instead, I ignored it. After ending a twelve-hour shift fishing several dollars in coins out of a Labrador’s stomach, I was too exhausted for another argument.

Lately, all of our conversations seemed to start with the same four words: I love you, but . Sam gave me only three rings to answer before ending the call. In the sudden silence, my stomach grumbled. It was the third time that week I had missed dinner, and it was only Wednesday. Probably the reason Sam had called. I love you, but your patients see you more than me and our kids. That was a popular one. I popped open the energy drink that had been sitting in the cup holder for days and took a sip. I grimaced. How did Leo drink this stuff? I was pretty sure a can of cat urine would’ve tasted better.

I drained half of it anyway. Caffeine was caffeine. On the north side of the road, from among the oaks and evergreens, the old hospital slipped into view. Paulin Creek bordered the campus on the south, open space and a flood control reservoir beyond that. Vacant for years, no one had reason to stop at the hospital. Still, I thought I saw movement between the buildings. A chill pricked the back of my neck. I wrote it off as the surge of caffeine. Distracted, I almost missed the shape that streaked across the road. I jumped in my seat.

A deer? No, it ran on two legs. A person. When I reached to return the energy drink to the cup holder, my hand shook, so the can caught the lip of the console. It bounced onto the passenger seat, liquid pooling around my purse. The string of expletives I let loose would’ve gotten my teen son grounded. I pulled onto the shoulder, threw the car into park, and peeled off my cardigan to sop up the puddle. As I used a wet wipe from the glove box to blot my sticky hands, I squinted at a spot near the hospital’s entrance. I strained to see what lay at the edge of my low beams. A sliver of moon softened the night, the headlights of my minivan slicing through the branches to the trail beyond. It’s probably a jogger.

In the rain. In the dark without reflective gear. The primitive part of my brain scoffed. Raindrops pinged off my windshield. I switched on my brights and could see better now. I identified a second shape next to the first. Just off the road, they were about the size of the topper on a wedding cake. I put the van in gear and pulled off the shoulder, driving slowly, trying to understand what I was seeing. With Halloween the next night, at first I thought it might be a couple of teenagers. What better place to stage a prank than a hospital that sat abandoned on a semiwooded hillside? But as I drew close, my focus sharpened.

A man and a woman stood in the spotlight of my high beams. They were arguing. No, fighting. Sam and I argued, but this was not that. This was balled fists, shoving, rage, and because of that, the dark-haired woman in the yoga pants didn’t stand a chance. The woman curled in on herself, dropping her chin and tucking behind her crossed arms. Making herself smaller, even as the man, bald and more than a foot taller, did the opposite. I stopped the car, but left the engine running. My fingers were clumsy on the keypad as I dialed 911. The woman glanced in my direction.

But the man in the jeans and white T-shirt never turned my way. Less than twenty feet away, and he didn’t so much as twitch. “What’s your emergency?” the dispatcher asked. I startled at the voice, unable to answer. I trembled, double-checking that the doors were locked. I gave my location and then described the couple. “They’re fighting,” I said. “Is he armed?” “I don’t think so.” “What’s he doing now?” Before I could answer, the man picked up the woman and tossed her down the embankment toward the creek below. He showed no more strain than a Siamese tossing a lizard, and for a moment the woman was pinned to the sky by my headlights.

Then she fell, disappearing beyond the tangled brush at the trail’s edge. A sudden weight pressed against my chest. The dispatcher’s voice, so loud a moment before, grew distant, warped. My lungs seized, and my vision darkened at the corners. An urge to hide overwhelmed me. I wanted to crawl into the gathering void and disappear. It felt like a memory, though it couldn’t have been. I had no memory like this. Suddenly, I felt as vulnerable in my locked car as the woman on that trail. Was I having a stroke? Panic attack? My mouth was dry, my tongue a useless lump.

I wasn’t certain the dispatcher understood me. What the hell is happening? The man pulled something from his pocket. A cell phone? Something else? Then he was gone, maybe over the trail’s edge. Seeing him disappear was enough to snap me free of whatever had rendered me speechless. “He has something,” I said. “What’s he doing?” The dispatcher’s voice remained neutral, but I was freaking the hell out. “I don’t know. They’re not there.” “They’ve left the scene?” “No. I just can’t see them.

” My hand dropped to the door handle, though I had no intention of leaving the van. As if sensing the gesture, the dispatcher instructed, “Stay in the vehicle.” I formed a fist around the handle. Before the dispatcher could ask any additional questions, I slipped my phone in my pocket and opened the door. I’m not entirely sure why I got out of the van. It might have been because of that other girl. When I was finishing up my undergrad degree, there was this brunette in my microbiology class. I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t remember her name. I remembered his name, though—Dirk. I remembered because it was one letter away from being entirely fitting.

A certain kind of guy loved Dirk and, if I’m being honest, a certain kind of girl too. The kind who thought jealous rages and the bruises they left behind were romantic. At an off-campus party celebrating the second-place finish of some sporting team, Dirk had openly berated for over an hour the girl whose name I didn’t remember. He wasn’t her boyfriend but wanted to be, and until that night, maybe she had wanted the same thing. Then he had started grabbing her. And pushing her. When finally, he had slapped her, only one guy grabbed Dirk’s arm. But even that guy hadn’t held on to Dirk’s arm when he had followed the girl from the room. Minutes later, she went over the balcony railing. She broke an arm and a couple of ribs and would have broken her skull if not for the hedge she bounced off before hitting the concrete.

No one actually saw Dirk push her. Maybe it was that girl who made me get out of the van now, or maybe it was just that anger always made me do stupid things. My heart tumbled in my chest. About fifteen feet away, halfway between the trail’s border and the rushing water, the man stood over the woman, his hand clenched on a switchblade. A knife. He had a knife. Other than placing that 911 call, I could think of no way to be useful. It had been nearly twenty years since my last fistfight, and even back then, I hadn’t been stupid enough to take on guys twice my size. As the man’s anger unspooled, his victim chose the defense often used by prey: she went limp, still. Her nose seeped blood.

I swallowed and shouted for him to stop, even as that stupid-making anger rose in me. If the man was threatened by my sudden appearance, or even aware of it, he didn’t show it. He reached for the woman, his hands tightening on her sweatshirt. He yanked her toward him, so close her chest butted against his, the knife dangerously near her cheek. Still much closer to my van than the attacker, I risked a few steps forward. “The police are coming.” I tried for threatening, but the tremor undermined me. The man stared up at me, through me, rain tracing a slick line from scalp to stubbled chin. His muscles spasmed with rage, and there was a fuzzy disconnect in his eyes. At that moment, the man in front of me was hardly human.

He was an animal, his body tensed, his breath ragged. “You should go,” he said. “I don’t think I should,” I said, even as I flashed to thoughts of Audrey and Leo. While I didn’t move closer, I couldn’t leave her to him. My hand fell to my pants pocket and the outline my phone made there. The man returned his attention to his victim, but his voice carried to where I stood. “Who do you love?” he asked. Though he looked at the woman, the way he raised his voice made me believe the question was for me. It startled me—not just his words, incongruous in the setting, but the voice itself, which lacked any of the emotion that corrupted his face. The man dropped his victim to the ground, holding her there with one of his muddy boots.

Then he twisted his head to stare up at me. “Your life is already fucked up. You just don’t know it yet.” He punctuated the commentary with a kick to the woman’s torso. Then he dropped into a squat and repositioned his blade so it faced downward, toward his prone victim. I tried to remember what I knew about how to handle aggressive animals. If nothing else worked, if a dog attacked, you were supposed to hit and kick it in the throat, nose, or back of the head. Look for a weapon. Break bones. I knew if it came to that, I would be the one broken and likely stabbed.

I picked up a rock, felt its weight. I threw it, but in my effort to spare the woman further injury, the stone landed several feet from my target, swallowed by a flurry of soggy leaves. I slid a few feet farther down the trail—still at a safe distance—and picked up another rock. “Don’t do it,” I said. He laughed at this, his full attention on the woman. I threw the second rock, and it caught him on the cheek. With the back of his hand, he rubbed his skin there, once, but remained focused on his prey. His shoulder cocked. The woman struggled with renewed fervor, apparently recognizing, belatedly, that whatever emotional connection had once existed between them wouldn’t save her. His anger wasn’t going to blow over.

He planned to use that knife. Until that moment, each of my actions had been chosen: I had decided to pull over, to call 911, to get out of the van. To throw the rocks. But when the man raised the knife, the inexplicable terror that had seized me in the van returned, my lungs expanding in hot, rapid bursts. At the cusp of the darkness, I saw something that wasn’t there—another woman, another time, imaginary but as real as the rain and the mud and the blood rushing in my ears. I didn’t intend to interfere more directly—not with the faces of my children so rooted in my thoughts—but I stumbled and found myself sliding down the embankment before my conscious mind recognized the immediacy of the threat. I was as surprised as the man when I stumbled into him, my trajectory a combination of clumsiness and luck, the blade intended for the brunette’s torso instead grazing my arm. Barely a scratch, but I yelped, a sound I had heard many times from animals but that was unfamiliar in my own throat. He lost hold of the knife, and it tumbled into the water. I fell backward onto the marshy creek bed.

Perception became as slippery as the rain upon the rocks, my heart a thunderclap in my chest, the woman beside me still, the man’s face warped with sick purpose. Then, suddenly, he stopped. He dropped to a crouch beside me, grabbed my face between his hands. His eyebrows knotted together as he studied me. I had no doubt he could snap my neck with a single twitch. “Why the hell are you doing this?” he demanded. “Who are you?” He was so close, his voice so thunderous, that my ears vibrated. It was then that I noticed a stain on his T-shirt that might have been blood. I meant to tell him that I hadn’t intended to interfere, that it was all a stupid accident, but the words wouldn’t come. He reached out and grabbed a large handful of my hair, red and long and easily twisted around his fingers.

He yanked it, pulling my face even closer. Then—finally, thankfully—I heard sirens. For only a second longer, he studied my face, and I his. Broad nose, a bump along its bridge. Left ear shriveled and folded in on itself. A white worm of scar tissue that prevented stubble from growing along one patch of jaw. A man who liked to fight, and not just with women half his size. He seemed unconcerned that I would be able to identify him. Testify against him. “Let her die, and I’ll let you live,” he said.

He nudged the woman with his toe. “Probably not much of a choice anyway. She’s close enough to dead.” Then almost before I understood him, he loped away, up the hill and toward the road where I had so helpfully left my minivan and its key. He would get to my car first. My registration. My purse. In moments, he would know my name, my address. And the names of my husband and children. 2 My trailside examination of the victim was brief, the moon providing the slightest of light.

I had to get close to detect her breathing, barely a whisper on my cheek, and her pulse was weak. No moaning. No complaints of pain. Even when the paramedics moved her, she remained silent. Half an hour after the ambulance took her away, I still waited for the police to release me. The rain had lightened to a mist that nevertheless glued my hair to my face and left my T-shirt sodden. I probably shouldn’t have used my cardigan as a towel. “You sure you don’t want a jacket?” the officer asked again. I had to check his name tag to remember his name: Willis. That drew my attention to the body camera that had been recording for the past thirty minutes.

That camera made me second-guess my answers and wonder if the pitch of my voice or slope of my shoulders might later be interpreted as guilt. “I’m not cold,” I said. And I wasn’t. Soaked, sure, but not cold. My nerves numbed, my damp clothes felt as warm as bathwater. That probably wasn’t normal. A man approached from the street, stopping to talk to the female officer who’d interviewed me first. The new arrival wore gray dress pants that still held a crease despite the hour, a button-up shirt so white it reflected moonlight, and a tie with stripes of deep pink. I turned my attention back to Officer Willis, clasping my hands to stop them from shaking. “How’s my family?” I ran through all the personal items stashed in my van and in my purse.

Leo’s football photos. A note from Audrey’s first-grade teacher. Audrey’s medication. And, again, the registration that bore my name and our address. That man now had all of those things. “Have you spoken with my husband?” Officer Willis nodded, then gestured to my arm. “We should get you looked at.” My hand flew to the scratch from the man’s knife. “I’m fine,” I insisted. “What did you tell Sam?” “We told him your van was stolen, but that you’re okay.

” “And they’re fine? Sam? The kids? You still have a car there?” “We still have a car there, and your family’s okay.” I pushed. “You’ve checked recently?” Our home was a mile away. Less than two minutes at the posted speed limit. “He’s not going anywhere near your house.” I turned to the man who had spoken: the detective with the carefully pressed pants and bleached shirt. Now that he was closer, I saw that what I’d taken for stripes on his tie were actually strips of bacon. “Cassie Larkin? Detective Ray Rico.” He stood only an inch taller than me, his brown face broad, his smile wide. His black hair was cut short, his dark eyes sharp above thick creases.

I expected him to extend his hand with the greeting, but he didn’t. “These questions must seem repetitive,” he said. Not quite an apology, but close. “I’m sure you’re eager to get home. Willis, please bring Dr. Larkin a jacket.” There was no choice in it for either of us, so when the officer returned with a sweatshirt, I accepted it. “At least the rain’s let up, right?” Detective Rico said. My jeans were soaked through, and I could feel my feet pruning in my sneakers. “Good thing.

” He turned on a recorder and flipped open his notepad. He held a sheet of paper, too, though I couldn’t see what was on it. “Walk me through what happened.” When I finished my story, Rico acknowledged its end with a curt nod. “That was really—brave of you, to get out of your car.” I thought he may have been about to say stupid. I wouldn’t have disagreed. “Anyone would’ve done the same.” “I don’t know about that.” Rico consulted his notebook.

“You didn’t know him, though, right?” “No.” “Not a patient, or the parent of one of your kids’ friends?” When I shook my head, he asked, “You’re sure?” I remembered the man’s face, twisted in anger, the casual way he had tossed the woman down the hill. “I’ve never seen him before.” “Would you be able to identify him?” When I nodded, Rico held out the paper he was holding, facedown at first. “I’m going to show you some photographs.” He flipped the sheet over. On it were the photos of six men, all white, all bald or balding, all in their late forties to late fifties. “The suspect might not be in this group,” Rico said, his tone neutral. “So you’re under no obligation to identify anyone.” I brushed a damp lock of hair away from my eyes, and my heart seized.

It couldn’t have been clearer if the photo had been ringed with fire. There, in the middle row, was the man with the ropy scar along his jaw and the once-broken nose. “That’s him.” The finger I pointed shook nearly as much as my voice. “You sure?” “Completely.” Rico held out a pen and asked me to sign the photo I had identified. He left for a moment, and when he returned, he asked: “Recognize the name Natalie Robinson?” I shook my head. “Is that the victim’s name?” The detective’s eyes were twin chips of granite. “How about Anne Jackson?” “No. Who’s Anne Jackson?” Rico didn’t answer.

He nodded and jotted something in his notebook, then gestured toward my arm. “Tell me again how you got cut.” At the mention of the wound, I became aware of its throbbing. “He tried to stab her, but he got me instead. It’s just a scratch.” “Carver Sweet’s a big guy.” My heart pummeled my ribs. “You know who he is?” “Now that you’ve identified him, we do.” His expression remained stony. “So, Carver’s a big guy, and he had a knife.

You have kids, and you’d already called 911. Why risk a confrontation?” I remembered how my sneakers lost purchase on the hillside, the brush grabbing at my knees, rocks and sticks threatening to twist my ankles. How breakable I had felt when I had slammed against him. “I slipped.” “You slipped?” “I’m clumsy, and the ground was wet.” Rico stared at me, letting the pause stretch. It reminded me of the times I had talked to clients who brought animals in with unexplained injuries or signs of malnourishment. It was the way you talked to someone you thought might be lying. Rico consulted his notebook again, the creases under his eyes deepening. “You said Carver Sweet may have had blood on his shirt.

At what point did you notice that?” “Near the end.” “So when did you notice the victim was bleeding?” The detective’s question made me second-guess all I had done to save the woman. Had I waited thirty seconds too long to call 911? After her attacker fled, had I stanched her bleeding quickly enough? With the police, had I forgotten a detail that would lead to Carver Sweet’s arrest? I forced these concerns aside, but when I saw Rico’s face, a new one dawned: Would my delay in answering be misconstrued as calculation? “I noticed her bleeding after he threw her down the slope. Her nose.” Had there been other injuries? I strained to remember. “So when you first pulled over, she wasn’t bleeding?” “I don’t think she was.” “You don’t think she was?” “She wasn’t.” Was she? My certainty ebbed the longer the questioning continued, and I wondered if Rico intended to throw me off balance. “He hadn’t taken out the knife yet? When they were standing on the trail?” “No.” But even as I answered, I was suddenly sure there was an injury I had missed, something that might cast doubt on the rest of my story.

Rico’s scribbling took several seconds, the scratch of pen on paper unnerving me. “Will she be all right?” I asked. The detective looked up, his brow wrinkled and eyes hooded. “The woman he attacked?” “Of course.” Who else would I be asking about? “I don’t know.” He flipped to a new page in his notebook. “Did you notice any vehicles alongside the road?” When I shook my head, he explained, “We found two vehicles just off the road half a mile up. Crashed. If you’d driven a little farther, you would’ve seen them.” “If he forced her off the road, it wasn’t random.

” “What makes you say that?” The attacker’s question was fresh in my mind: Who do you love? And then, among his last words: Let her die, and I’ll let you live. “It seemed personal.” Rico considered this. “I arrested a guy for beating another motorist with a bat,” he said. “Then he started in on the man’s kid. All over a fender bender with less than a thousand dollars in damages. See, the guy with the bat lost his job the day before, and then some Lexus cuts him off at a stoplight. The boss who fired him had a Lexus.” “What are you saying?” “Every crime is personal, even the random ones.” Rico’s mouth settled into a grim line.

“You say you didn’t know the man, but did you know his victim?” “I’ve never seen either of them before.” It was only after I answered that the first two words registered: You say. As if he doubted what I said was true. “So you say you were coming from work?” There it was again. “Yes.” “And you left at what time?” “Just after ten.” “Anyone able to verify that?” “I was alone for the last hour, but before that, certainly.” “Any surveillance cameras at your clinic?” “No.” The rain that had soaked my clothes had wicked into the borrowed sweatshirt, the chill finally seeping into my skin. I shivered.

“The number three mean anything to you?” he asked. I studied his face, but he hid his thoughts well. “No. Why?” “Just something one of the officers found. Probably nothing.” Rico jotted something in his notebook, and he attempted a smile. “Looks like someone may have spotted your vehicle in a grocery store parking lot, so we’ll know more soon,” he said. Then the smile disappeared and his eyes grew heavy. “Earlier, I said that Carver Sweet’s not getting anywhere near your house, and I meant that. But you need to be careful.

You’re a threat to him.” The detective handed me his card, then called Officer Willis over to drive me home. When Rico walked away, he wiped his palms on his slacks, as if trying to rid them of something unpleasant.


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