A Deeper Darkness – J.T. Ellison

Eddie Donovan didn’t like crowds. Crowds were unpredictable, dangerous. Crowds held a multitude of malcontents, any one of which could be the death of him, in the most literal way. He was surrounded by people, and sweating. Despite the aviator-style Ray-Bans perched on his nose, the sun shone brightly in his eyes, making it harder to see. Even in his car he felt unsafe. Donovan, formerly Major Edward Donovan, 75th Ranger Regiment, couldn’t help himself. He scanned the pedestrians incessantly as he looked for a place to park. Susan said she’d meet him at the carousel behind the Smithsonian and they’d walk the girls over to the Tidal Basin together. He’d thought it better for her to get off at the Smithsonian Metro stop and cut through the back streets, where there would be fewer people, but she’d insisted. The day was fine, spring sun yellow and sharp, and she wanted the exercise. The girls needed it, too—the more they got during the day, the easier it was to put them down at night. He was running late. He finally found a spot on Seventh. He pulled in, dropped a handful of quarters into the meter and took off at a jog, down the Mall, away from the Capitol.

They weren’t alone in their planned endeavor. It seemed every family in the Washington metro area, plus oodles of tourists, had decided to meet on the Mall and walk down to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms. There were hundreds of jolly people milling about. Police ringed Independence Avenue, wary and watchful. Despite the beautiful day, terror threats were always paramount in law enforcement’s mind, especially when it came to large gatherings. Just plain common sense was needed. But for a former Ranger, the authorities’ lack of common sense was teeth-grindingly aggravating. As he moved swiftly through the crowds, Donovan spotted at least five points of ingress, holes in the watch. Of course, this was his world now, his job. He was a civilian in clothing only—his mandate was to protect.

Only his paychecks were printed and signed by multinational corporations instead of the U.S. government. The Gothic spires of the Smithsonian appeared to his left, and the music of the carousel floated to his ears. He spotted Susan, her blond hair up in a ponytail under a Redskins baseball cap, matching aviator Ray-Bans on her face. She looked like an incognito movie star, daintily lean and trim, and for the hundredth time he congratulated himself on landing her. She was the daughter of his former mentor, the man who’d shown him how to be a soldier. A good man now rotting under a white stone at Arlington, lost not to battle, but cancer, like too many others who’d served in Vietnam and Korea. The last thing Stewart had asked was for Donovan to take care of his little girl, a mission Donovan was only too happy to undertake. Susan spied him and a smile spread across her face.

Alina and Victoria—Ally and Vicky—were attached to either end of Susan’s arms like limpets, dragging her forward. He smiled in return and crossed the remaining few feet to them, grabbing the baby, Vicky, by the waist and swinging her up onto his shoulders. The five-year-old squealed in frightened pleasure, and Ally smiled indulgently at her little sister. In a perfect imitation of Susan, she crossed her little arms and said, “You know she just ate, right, Dad? You do that and she might throw up.” Eight, going on thirty. “I’ve been barfed on before by lesser women.” He swung Vicky around his shoulders, the helicopter, they called it, and she laughed and laughed. Her giggles were infectious, and soon the whole family chimed in. Donovan felt his heart constrict. This—making his daughters and wife laugh —this was sheer perfection.

Vicky attached herself to his back like a monkey, and they started walking west. “How are you, chickens?” he asked. “We’re fine,” Susan answered. “I got the oil changed on the way to the Metro—apparently we need new wiper blades.” “They always say that,” he muttered, and she smiled. “I know. The danger of sending a woman to do a man’s job. I told them I’d let you know and the kid looked at me like I was an idiot. Have you eaten? I packed us some sandwiches. Vicky had half of hers already, she couldn’t wait.

I thought we could stop in front of the monument and have a little picnic.” “Sounds great.” It sounded like a perfect chance for a sniper to pick them all off one by one, but he wasn’t about to share that with Susan. She was hardly delicate, his wife. After years of being the daughter of a soldier, then the wife of one, she was battle-hardened herself. But once the girls had come along he’d felt an overwhelming need to protect her, to keep her ignorant of all the dangers surrounding them. It only took a few minutes to get to the grassy knoll the monument rested upon. Donovan stared at the obelisk, shaking his head. He’d lived in the District his whole life, yet had never gone up in the monument. For a time it had been under renovation, and, of course, September 11 meant it had been closed, and the elevators didn’t run except for visiting dignitaries.

But it was back open now, more than a symbol of the geographical heart of Washington, D.C. It was a symbol of power. Phallic. Soaring. White marbled. Like a flawless compass pointing north, not to the magnetic pole, but to the heavens. To the only real masters of the brethren beneath. He really needed to schedule a time and take the girls. He’d heard the view was amazing.

They found a spot on the hill and settled in, the buffalo-checked stadium blanket warm underneath them, both girls serious about eating their sandwiches but shivering in excitement, like racehorses in the gates. Donovan understood their anticipation, but for different reasons. He wanted to get down to the cherry blossoms and take their stroll, watch the festivities and go home. Get them out of harm’s way. Home was the only place he could truly relax. These milling masses of people were too much for him. He chided himself—marking time was one of his worst faults—but blamed it on the crowds. And the feeling that something was wrong. He’d learned the hard way never to ignore his gut. Ally was staring at him, and almost as if she could read his thoughts, set her half-eaten sandwich on the plastic bag and said, “Can we go, Mommy?” “Finish your sandwich, baby.

” “I’m done. Look, Daddy’s done, too.” “Eddie,” Susan scolded. “Eat.” He glanced at her, then to Ally. With a sly grin, he shoved the rest of the sandwich into his mouth. Ally responded with giggles and tried to do the same, wedging the Wonder bread sideways, smearing peanut butter on her cheeks. Vicky, now eating Cheerios from a sandwich bag, proceeded to upend the plastic into her mouth, spilling little Os down her shirt. She looked festooned for a party, and Donovan laughed out loud. “Finished,” they cried together, and Susan shook her head at them.

“I didn’t think I’d ever raise such savages. Fine. Fine. We can go.” They stood, wiped the girls down, tidied their things. Susan folded the blanket and tucked it into her backpack. “Carry Vicky,” Donovan said, lifting Ally into his arms. There was no way he was going to chance losing one of them in this crowd. They strolled to the Tidal Basin, where the cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Some had already begun to fall, slowly dying on the ground, creating a blanket of pink-and-white fairy-tale snow.

The girls oohed and aahed, wriggling like puppies in their parents’ arms. Donovan and Susan set them down and they immediately rained themselves in the crushed petals. Susan snapped photos, immortalizing their antics. They were down by the paddleboats when Donovan’s cell phone rang. There was only one reason for Donovan’s phone to ring today, of all days, the day he’d arranged to take off in order to spend time with his family, as if they were regular people, in a regular world. “Shit,” he said. “Daddy, you owe a quarter!” Ally said. Fumbling in his pocket, he pulled out a quarter and handed it to her, then, ignoring Susan’s basilisk glare, answered the phone. He recognized the voice immediately. “We need to talk.

” “Now?” “Yes.” He clicked the off button on the cell and glanced at Susan. He resisted the urge to close his eyes to avoid forever being turned to stone, instead bent close, as if talking tenderly might help. “Honey, I’m sorry. I have to go. You and the girls have fun, and I’ll see you at home tonight.” “Eddie, you promised them.” She flung her hand to the right, where Ally was studiously avoiding his gaze, showing her sister the intricate bark of a weeping cherry tree. “Don’t do that, Susan. Please.

” “You promised me,” she said, softer this time. He heaved a breath in, his mind already five miles away. He didn’t do guilt. Guilt was for the weak. Susan rarely pulled it on him, either. He couldn’t help himself; his tone changed. He straightened up, the calm, cool demeanor back in place. “I said I was sorry. I’ll be home as soon as I can.” He leaned in and bussed her mouth briefly, then went to the girls.

“Daddy has to run an errand, chickens. But I’ll see you at home tonight. Why don’t we have … pizza!” They danced in little circles, all disappointment forgotten. “Pizza, pizza, pizza!” If only everyone were so easily swayed. He gave them each a quick kiss, touched Susan on the cheek in apology and started off at a quick jog down Wallenberg toward Maryland, looking for a cab. His car was parked all the way back by the Air and Space Museum, on the meters at the top of the mall. It would be quicker to get a ride. He was in luck. Within moments he caught the eye of a turbaned man who swerved to the curb to pick him up. The cab smelled of evergreen and cumin, and something else, that indefinable scent that all D.

C. cabs seemed to have. Maybe it was fear. Or power. Or greed. Or envy. Regardless, it insinuated itself into the very fabric of the city. He slid in the back. “Corner of Seventh and Independence, please.” The cab darted from the curb, and deposited Donovan at his car five minutes later, having only been stymied by a single motorcade.

Eddie jumped in the Audi and took off toward Constitution, then swung back around and headed down toward the Navy Yard. The radio was tuned to 101.1, a song by one of his favorites, Nine Inch Nails, playing. He turned it up and tapped his fingers in time on the steering wheel. The sun shone in the corridor today. Streams of people walked down to the Nationals stadium for the season opener. Baseball and apple pie coupled with naval history and pastel row houses. Happy. Safe. But there was something Donovan had learned from hard experience.

Appearances could be deceiving. CHAPTER TWO McLean, Virginia Susan Donovan When the doorbell rang, Susan wasn’t surprised. She knew something was wrong. Something had been wrong all afternoon. It began the second the phone rang in Eddie’s pocket, and had chased her the rest of the day—onto the subway, to the car, to their local Jerry’s for the promised pizza, to the driveway, which stood empty, devoid of Eddie’s Audi, to the empty answering machine, dinner, the girls’ baths, story and bed. Chased her like a snapping dog down the stairs, to the kitchen for a glass of wine, and, with that innate sixth sense, to the powder room medicine cabinet for a prophylactic Ativan before following her, snarling, to the couch, where they both waited in the dark. She paused for a moment, hoping it was a mistake, that a neighborhood kid had run by the house and rang the bell as a prank, but no, there it was again, low and insistent, and the beast that waited with her screamed in silent agony. The wife of a soldier knows to respect those feelings of dread. She becomes so attuned to the nuance of the night air that she can smell her man’s sweat, even when he’s six thousand miles away, humping it through an explosive-laden desert. A missed email or phone call signals the worst, and silence predominates until the news is spread.

A doorbell. So innocuous. For regular people, the signal of good things, happy things. Packages from the postman and Girl Scouts selling cookies, friends of daughters coming for playdates. But for a soldier’s wife, the doorbell is the harbinger of death. A one-way path to sheer, aching numbness. Stop all the clocks, cut of the telephone. Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone. She took a last sip of the wine and went to the door. Glanced out the glass.

Recognized the black uniform of a Metro D.C. beat cop and the rumpled brown suit of a plainclothes detective. A third man joined them, some sort of preacher. He wouldn’t be needed. Susan didn’t believe in the same God she used to. Not after the things Donovan had told her about what men did to one another in the name of freedom, the whispered confidences late in the night, when sweat still glistened on their bodies and tears coursed down his face. Her hand was on the knob. She realized she had a cut, the thin flesh on the dorsal joint opened just below her ring finger. Blood was seeping from the wound.

When had that happened? She turned the doorknob without taking a breath, knowing it was useless. He was gone. She’d never breath properly again. “Mrs. Donovan?” The plainclothes detective held up his shield. Gold. A man of rank. She didn’t speak, merely nodded. God, she was tired. So tired.

She only caught bits and pieces of the conversation. She was floating, on her first date with Donovan, him all flashy in his dress uniform, the usher at a friend’s wedding. It was always such a joke to them both that they’d met at a wedding, for Christ’s sake. “Ma’am, can we come in …” “I’m sorry to have to tell you …” “Shot … carjacking. “Notification …” “Identification …” Amazing how many “-tions” there were in death. Deletion. Cancellation. Subtraction. Consolation. Elaboration.

Coordination. Motion. Action. Caution. Cooperation. Reaction. Resignation. Sensation. “Mrs. Donovan, can we call someone for you?” She came back then, looked into the earnest, sad eyes of the detective, who said his name was Fletcher.

Susan shook her head, and the blackness consumed her. CHAPTER THREE Nashville, Tennessee Dr. Samantha Owens Dr. Samantha Owens, head medical examiner for the state of Tennessee, checked her watch, then hurried down the forty-foot brown-carpeted hallway to the prep area for the autopsy suite. As head of Forensic Medical, the suite was her home. A place she knew as intimately as her own body. She had four medical examiners, eight death investigators and six techs on her staff, all hand-picked, all excellent. And since her conference call had gone long, she was keeping them waiting. Sam spent a minimum of four hours a day in the suite, overseeing autopsies, for the most part, though she liked to put herself in the rotation at least once a week to keep her skills sharp. The exceptions were unique or difficult cases, or especially high-profile homicides.

Those were always slated for her scalpel. Though she’d never talk about it, Sam was one of the finest forensic pathologists in the country. She was already dressed in scrubs but stopped before the doors and geared up the rest of the way. Booties, cap, an extra mouth shield. Gloves. The heavy-duty Marigolds that could take a slip of a knife and not get cut, followed by two pairs of regular electric-blue nitrile. She used her shoulder to push open the door. The stainless-steel cart that housed her knives waited for her. Sun streamed through the skylights, cheering the place up a bit. The job was hard on everyone.

Death was the most natural part of life, but it took a special kind of person to live with it day in and day out. Autopsy was brutal, but necessary. There were good days and there were bad. Then there were the excruciating ones; those that saw children were always the worst. But any unfortunate death could cause tightening around the mouths and eyes, quiet glances, extra gentleness. So anything she could do to keep her teams happy, she did. But today wasn’t going to be one of those days. She could tell. When she entered the room, there were genuine smiles. The radio blared Van Halen.

I’m hot for teacher. “Okay, team, what have we before us today?” Stuart Charisse, her favorite tech, came forward with charts. “Four guests, Dr. Owens. Two unattended deaths, a probable coronary and a possible suicide by overdose.” Sam went to the computer on the far side of the room and looked over the information on the guests, then nodded to her team, a signal for them to get started. The ballet began, Y-incisions done on all four bodies almost in unison, with Sam tapping a pen against her leg like a conductor. They worked quickly, efficiently, and when the first tech yelled, “Chest’s ready,” she started her own dance. She was just beginning the dissection of an aortic rupture on their cardiac guest when the suite phone rang. Stuart turned down the radio and answered it, mumbled a few things she couldn’t make out, hung up and came to Sam and stood quietly.

“What’s up?” she asked, not taking her eyes off the board. “Um, that was Ann.” Ann was one of Sam’s top death investigators. “And …?” “She’s bringing in a … a drowning.” At the word, the room went silent. Sam froze. There was a pause of at least four heartbeats before Stuart lightly touched her shoulder. “Dr. Fox is already here. He’s handling the remains they found yesterday, from the dig in the lot off Demonbruen.

That skeleton. He can finish up. I’ll just go get him.” Sam bit her lip and swallowed down the nausea. Breathe, Sam. Breathe. “Hold on. Let me just finish here,” she managed. She made her final cut a little more forcefully than necessary, read off her findings to Stuart, then went to the sink, washed her knives and left the suite. Behind her, the din resumed.

She hoped they weren’t talking about her but assumed that was wishful thinking. Out of sight from her team, the rabbit hole opened and dragged her into the abyss. She hated how her world could turn on a dime. Still. Would it ever end? She stripped off her gloves and washed her hands methodically at the sink outside the autopsy suite, one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four. The washing had become a shrivening of sorts, a way to find forgiveness for the act of mutilation that was a postmortem. She didn’t know when she’d started thinking of it that way. She’d been a forensic pathologist for fifteen years, starting in the morgue straight out of her residency. It was safe, and comfortable, and she was damn good at her job. She made a difference.

She answered the unanswerable, for both loved ones and the police. That should be enough. But lately she’d been drawing back. Not looking forward to coming to work. Cringing as she dissected the organs. Not wanting to identify stomach contents. It wasn’t like she’d ever been breathless in anticipation to start the day—it was a job, after all, and a difficult one—but she’d begun dreading waking in the morning: the alarm blaring in her ear, the five-minute shower to wake up, the cup of coffee from the brown mug, the organic cornflakes from Trader Joe’s, the obligatory makeup and hairdryer, slipping into her trousers and tank, a cardigan and pearls, soft loafers on her feet, a dab of perfume, then the twenty-minute drive from the dark house across town to Forensic Medical. The bodies, one after another, stacking up like cordwood in the cooler, waiting for her to ferry them across the river Styx with a slash of scalpel and a signature on a page. She’d actually seen a body with a coin in its mouth once, payment for Charon, and forevermore felt herself allied with the age-old euphemism: Death comes for us all. It just comes for some sooner than it should.

Rote. Her life was only safe when it was a metronome. Five Mississippi, six Mississippi, seven Mississippi, eight. She turned the water a little warmer and rinsed, taking care to remove all of the residue, because she’d developed an allergy to the industrial hand soap the state provided, and when it was left on her skin her hands turned red and flaked. At least, that’s what she told herself. She turned the sink off with her elbow and used the harsh brown paper towels to dry off. A flash of light from the suite indicated the morgue garage doors were opening. She did not look. It was understood among the staff. Sam didn’t post drownings.

Not anymore. Into her office for a moment, to gather her purse and keys. She needed to go home. Numb. It was better that way. She didn’t go straight home. She drove for hours, aimlessly, around Nashville, seeing but not seeing. The Batman Building looming high over the city, the focal point for miles around. The Capitol, stately on its hill, flags flapping in the breeze. The persistent bottleneck where the three highways kissed.

The leafy greenness that turned to woods and farms five miles from downtown. A storm was brewing, rain billowing in from the west. Sam shivered. Rain meant something else to her now. She avoided those areas that had been ravaged during the flood. Her town. She’d grown up here, lived and loved here. Lost everything here. She loved it still, but the emptiness was all-consuming. The house was quiet when she finally arrived, dark.

She’d forgotten to turn on the front lights again. Her answering machine had a blinking light. She set the mail on the counter, poured two fingers of Laphroaig and hit Play. The voice that spilled forth was unusually subdued. “Sam, dear, it’s Eleanor. When you have a moment, would you please call me? On my cell phone.” Click. The empty hiss of dead air filled her kitchen. Eleanor. Sam rubbed her forehead with her free hand, then took a sip of scotch.

Her pulse picked up. She had a terrible feeling, one all too familiar. Eleanor Donovan was a friend from D.C., the mother of one of Sam’s few boyfriends, the boy she’d dated during medical school at Georgetown. Twenty, fifteen, even ten years ago, a message from Eleanor would have filled her with alarm. Concern that she’d always stowed away, hidden from everyone around her. But now, no. Donovan was out of the military. There was no reason to worry about him anymore.

Admitting she was worried about Donovan was paramount to admitting she’d loved him, once—something she wasn’t ever willing to do. Her feelings for Donovan were private. Something just for her. And, of course, for Eleanor, Donovan’s too-perceptive mother, who’d seen the emotions coiled in Sam’s gut as if they were naked on her face. If Sam was being honest with herself, her ties to Nashville were the death knell for her relationship with Donovan. She had another waiting at home, a man she’d been with for years, a man she was taking a break from while she attended medical school because it would be “healthy.” She wasn’t supposed to fall in love with someone else. That wasn’t a part of the deal. Dating, dinners, maybe even a little sex, all sanctioned. Love,no.

Hearts are traitorous things—fickle, capricious and certainly not under the thumb of the rational mind. Sam was astonished to find she had no control over hers. Eleanor had known all along. She’d been kind enough never to speak of it, but calmly, generously, kept Sam in Donovan’s sphere with monthly phone calls, little updates disguised as “keeping in touch.” Sam knew he’d finished his third tour as an infantry officer in the Middle East, Afghanistan this time, was married with two girls and had finally left the service and taken a job as a security consultant in D.C. She picked up the phone and dialed Eleanor’s cell, that voice in the back of her mind, her sixth sense, roaring in her ears: something is wrong. Just like two years ago. One ring, two, three, then Eleanor finally answered. “Thank goodness it’s you, Sam.

I have some bad news.” “What’s happened, Eleanor?” Sam heard the tremble in her own voice echoed across the line, the older woman’s wavering slightly more. She already knew what the next statement would be. “Sweetheart, Eddie’s been killed.” The words floated into the air in the dark house, shimmering in the gloom, and Sam realized she’d neglected to turn on the inside lights, too. Rote. Eddie was dead. Now they were all dead. She managed to draw a breath. You are normal.

Nominal. Capable. She resisted the urge to go to the sink and wash. “Oh, God, Eleanor. How?” “He was murdered, Sam. A carjacking, at the Navy Yard.” “But he was always so careful ….” The Donovan she knew was careful. Perhaps the latter Donovan wasn’t. Maybe he was careless, and took chances he shouldn’t have.

“He was careful. Susan, his wife, said he’d gotten called to work. But it was a safe area. Hasn’t had a shooting in years. He was shot in the head.” Eleanor broke off with a sob. “Eleanor …”

.

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