- 1 -
Parnell awoke with a start. A hulking, disheveled man stood over him, knife in hand, weaving, either from the lurching of the train or too much moonshine.
“I told you to clear out, mu’fucker!” the man screamed, slashing the knife through the dank, fetid air. “This is my boxcar! How many times I gotta tell ya?”
Parnell gathered his wits, sized up the guy. Another delusional blanket stiff riding the rails. Too many of them around these days.
“Show me your deed, then,” he said calmly.
“Huh?” A confused look crossed the giant’s oafish face.
“You say this is your railcar . . .” Parnell said, carefully reaching behind him, to his waistband, feeling the slick cool steel of his gun. “I want proof of ownership.”
The train thundered over the tracks below, wheels slamming the rails with a rhythmic clackety-clackety-clack.
The giant paused to consider this request, then blurted, “You some kinda wiseass or somethin’?”
“I just have this thing about legalities.” Behind his back, Parnell looped his finger around the trigger. “I’m not giving up my space to some asshole who doesn’t have proof of ownership.”
“Man, you one crazy dude,” the giant said, before springing forward and slashing downward with the knife.
Quick as a cat, Parnell rolled left, leaped to his feet, wheeled the gun around. Knife met gun with a metallic clank. Both weapons skittered across the floor.
Parnell felt a stinging pain in his right hand where the knife cut him, saw blood oozing from the slash. The bleeding wound enraged him. He went after the giant, threw a shoulder into him, the action like tackling an industrial size bag of cement. They stumbled across the boxcar, entangled, doing a herky-jerky tango, slamming into the far wall. The giant’s head cracked against the steel wall. Parnell felt the guy’s lungs deplete. The giant’s massive arms dropped to his sides, defenseless.
Parnell had stunned him. Time to put him down for good.
He tried the Adam’s apple crush chop, but the giant seemed to regain his composure, dodging Parnell’s punch with surprising agility. Parnell’s bleeding right hand hit the wall with a metallic thud. He cried out in pain, a couple of fingers surely broken.
The giant jumped on him. They went down on the floor in a heap, rolling, body over body, sliding from one side of the car to the other. Parnell had the giant in a bear hug, flames of pain shooting up his arms as he held on. The son of a bitch was strong as an elephant. The giant got his arms free, began taking punches at Parnell’s kidneys as they rolled across the floor. They crashed into the wall, a ball of human flesh and blood, the impact separating them with a chorus of grunts and groans. The giant got to his knees and reached to retrieve his knife. Parnell took advantage, kicking out and connecting solidly with the big man’s chin. The giant went sprawling, arms flailing, backpedaling toward the open side door . . . backward, backward, backward . . .
The giant screamed as he tumbled out the train car, arms windmilling frantically.
Parnell rushed to the opening. Wind whipped at his face as he looked down the line of trailing cars, saw his attacker flopping and bouncing like a rag doll alongside the tracks. He watched with a fascinated revulsion as the man got sucked under the train. A spray of blood stained the tracks. A severed leg shot down the hillside as though launched from a cannon.
And then, from a dark corner of the train car, Parnell heard the owl.
Hoot . . . Hoot . . . Hoot . . .
He turned and walked toward the sound. Looked up and saw the glowing amber eyes staring at him with an intensity that unsettled him. Huge shimmering orbs, like twin moons on an early summer night.
Derek Parnell knew it was an omen.
The winged harbinger of death had spoken.
- 2 -
“Insurance?” the bored receptionist asked him.
“I’m paying in cash,” Parnell grimaced through the pain as he pawed through his backpack with his left hand.
The receptionist looked at him dubiously, taking in his ragged, unkempt appearance, his grotesquely swollen right hand, the blood trickling down his wrist. “This could be quite expensive,” she said.
Parnell stared at the crone. Bluish-gray hair, hands liver-spotted and gnarled. Her nametag announced her as Hilda Mortensen, Office Manager. “Don’t worry about it, Hilda,” he said. “I’ve got it covered, however much it comes to.”
She stared at him through her half-glasses, then pushed a clipboard to him, said, “You’ll have to fill out these forms.”
“Uh, no can do. Even if I could hold the pen, I doubt my penmanship would be legible.”
“Very well,” Hilda Mortensen said, staring at Parnell’s ruined hand, the blood dripping all over the lobby carpeting. “I’ll get one of our nurses to help you.”
Soon, a young nurse dressed in a crisp white uniform entered the lobby. Her stockings swished as she approached him.
“Annie, please get Mister . . .” she glanced at the computer monitor, “. . . Parnell back in one of the exam rooms.”
Nurse Annie ushered Parnell into an empty room, handed him a towel and an ice pack. “Keep this on the wound. It’ll help until we can get you stitched up.”
Parnell wrapped the ice pack to his hand with the towel. The stinging burn turned to a soothing cool numbness.
“So how’d this happen?” she asked, gently examining the broken fingers on his bruised, pulpy hand.
“I, uh . . . I fell down.”
“Yeah, sure,” she said, looking up at him, green eyes glittering with mischief. “And I’m Joan of Arc.”
“Okay then. I was in a fight.”
“That’s better.” She went back to examining his damaged hand. “Aren’t you a little old to be getting in a scrap?”
“Not when someone is threatening to kill me,” he said, grimacing as she moved his fingers.
“What were you fighting about? A woman? Money?”
“You ask a lot of questions.”
“I’m a very curious girl,” she said. “It was a woman, I’ll bet.”
Parnell thought about the guy on the train, the giant with the homicidal stare. “No, nothing quite that pedestrian.”
“Well, whatever it was, looks like you got the worst of it.”
Parnell envisioned the giant flying off the train and bouncing along the tracks, getting crushed under the huge steel wheels. He wanted to say, You should see the other guy, but decided it best to keep his mouth shut.
“Okay,” she said, grabbing a clipboard and tapping it with her pen. “Can’t get you fixed up until we have all of your personal data.”
She walked him through the usual litany of questions. Parnell answered honestly. He had nothing to hide. However, as usual, his legal address was a showstopper.
“I need a street address,” Annie said. “A post office box in Millford, Pennsylvania doesn’t cut it.”
“What the hell does it matter? I’m paying in cash.”
“We have to have a complete data sheet before we can tend to a patient. It’s the law.”
“Personally, I think you’re making that up, Annie. I think you’re bullshitting me.”
“It’s not BS. We have to have a legal address on file in case a patient brings a malpractice lawsuit against us.”
Parnell chuckled. “Is malpractice a common occurrence around here?”
“There’s no way I’m going to sue you, Annie. Too much paperwork and hassle, and I’m not a big fan of lawyers.” Parnell peeled back the cold compress on his hand, saw the wound was still oozing. “However, I might have to reconsider if I bleed out here in this exam room. Wrongful death and negligence. I know a nice girl like you wouldn’t want that on her conscience.”
Nurse Annie studied him for several long moments, then said, “I’m really not all that nice. In fact, I can be downright naughty. Especially with mysterious men like you.”
Parnell smiled. Another small-town girl, bored with her mundane existence, looking for a little excitement in her life. This Annie was bolder and more direct than most.
“Sorry, darlin’,” he said, “You’ll have to get naughty with somebody else. I’m already spoken for.”
She turned defensive. “You think I—?”
“Could we get this hand stitched up? We wait much longer and the morgue will be my permanent address!”
Annie huffed out of the exam room, then returned with a stainless steel tray containing hypodermic needles and stitching implements.
“Okay,” she said, removing the towel and ice pack from his hand, “I’m going to numb you up and then inject something that will reduce the swelling. Then I’ll sew you back together.”
“Wait a minute,” Parnell said, pulling his hand back. “I thought a doctor would do this.”
“Give me your hand, you big baby! I’m a registered nurse. First year Med students can do this in their sleep.”
He felt the sting of the needle just above his wrist.
Annie had his right hand stitched up and the broken fingers splinted within five minutes. She definitely knew what she was doing.
“Do you need a prescription for pain meds?” she asked.
“Absolutely,” he said, standing.
“Wait here. I’ll get Dr. Jernigan to write you one for Percocet.”
Five minutes later, Annie was back, signed prescription in hand. As she gave it to him, she said, “I never did ask what you are doing in New Mexico. Vacationing?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“I have a couple of weeks saved up. Want some company?”
“No. I travel alone. Besides, I’m old enough to be your father.”
Her green eyes taunted him. “What’s the matter with you? I thought all older men fantasized about having an affair with an exciting young Lolita.”
Parnell sidestepped her as he moved out into the hallway. “You’re just a kid, Annie. Young enough to be my daughter.”
She turned huffy. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Everything. If I wanted to travel with somebody, it wouldn’t be with a child.”
“Child? That’s how you see me?”
He turned on her. “Look. I don’t see you, okay? I don’t know you.”
Her tone softened. “Sorry, Mr. Parnell. What I really had in mind was me being your chauffeur. It’ll be a little difficult to drive with your injuries.”
“I don’t have a car.”
“So how do you get around?”
“Well the buses only go so far. And taxis are a ripoff. Why don’t you let me drive you?”
“I said no!” Parnell barked, losing his patience. Now I appreciate the fine job you did of sewing me up, but I’m going to be on my way. Alone!”