Crime Fiction Friday: MORE RIGHT THAN WRONG, by Tim O’Mara

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Tim O’Mara is a writer who just keeps on getting better and better, as proved by his latest Ray Donne mystery, Dead Red, which was released this week. Here he gives us a tale of payment due for past sins.

“More Right Than Wrong,” by Tim O’Mara

At first, Dr. Stuart Wiseman thought the stabbing pain in his lower back was his sciatica acting up again and he was pretty annoyed about that. He’d been taking his medications, no longer sleeping on his side, doing all the stretches. What the hell?

It took about five seconds for him to realize the stabbing pain was a stabbing pain; someone was actually sticking a knife under his sports jacket and into his back, just above the belt. His anger turned to fear as someone leaned into his ear and whispered, “If I push this and twist, I’ll be gone before you hit the sidewalk.”

He took a deep breath and, as he did so, could feel the pressure of the knife increase. He let the breath out slowly. “My wallet is in my pocket,” he said. Just below the tip of the knife.

“If I wanted your wallet, Doctor, I’d take it.” Doctor? “Do I know—?”

The knife pressed harder into his back. He cringed and looked around at his fellow pedestrians. Was nobody seeing this? Was everybody else on Fifth Avenue so oblivious that they didn’t notice the guy with the knife in his back?

“I know you,” the voice said. “Care about that right now.” A hand reached up, squeezed the doctor’s shoulder, and turned him toward the street. “See that van?”

Less than a block away, an old VW wagon with a sticker on the right side of its rear bumper was parked in front of a fire hydrant. Wiseman figured if you were brazen enough to shove a knife into someone’s back on the streets of Manhattan during lunchtime, you probably didn’t care all that much about parking violations. He nodded his head, yes. “We’re going to walk to it real slow,” the Voice said. “I’ll open up the passenger door, and you’ll get inside. You even think about yelling or running away, I go to that pay phone—” there was a pair of phone booths just after the fire hydrant “—and I call my friend who’s watching your wife.”

He tensed at the mention of his wife, and the sharp pain in his back increased.

“It’s eleven forty-five,” the Voice told him. “Your wife should be just about to the fountain by now. Walking that little rat she calls a dog. You could set your watch by her. My friend’ll be on her before you can say Jiminy Carter.” The last word was punctuated with another slight increase in pressure on the knife.

After another deep breath—this one much slower than the first—the doctor said, “I won’t yell or try to run. Just don’t hurt my wife.”

“There’s a good doctor.” The Voice turned the doctor’s shoulder back toward the sidewalk and said, “Walk.”

As he did, the knife pulled away. He was tempted to look over his shoulder at his assailant, but the warm trickle going down his lower back advised him not to chance a return of the blade. A few feet away from the van, he could read its bumper sticker. U.S. OUT OF VIETNAM, it stated in fading gold letters.

Christ, he thought, it’s time to scrape that one off.

When they reached the passenger side door, he stopped. The Voice reached around him and opened it. “Get in.”

The doctor half slid and was half pushed into the seat. The door slammed shut, and he heard it lock from the outside. Someone had recently smoked marijuana in the van. When he looked at his door, he saw the inside lock release had been broken off his door, making it virtually impossible to open from the inside.

The driver’s door opened. A man wearing a black baseball cap, a green, army fatigue jacket, camouflage pants, and sunglasses climbed in. The guy had long, dirty- blonde hair and about a week’s worth of stubble on his face and neck, which he scratched as he started the van.

“Are you sure,” the doctor said, not able to hide the desperation in his voice, “that this is not some kind of mistake?”

The driver looked at the doctor and grinned. “You,” he said, “are Dr. Stuart Wiseman. I,” he turned and touched the name on his jacket, “am Private Jones. This is not a mistake.” He shifted into Drive and pulled away from the curb. “The only mistake here is me. Seven years of mistakes.”

“I have no idea what—”

“Put your seatbelt on,” Jones interrupted. “Wouldn’t want anything to happen along the way.”

Wiseman did as he was told, then took a closer look at the driver. With the hat, glasses, and stubble, Private Jones was unrecognizable. He closed his eyes and tried to think. Jones was such a common name, maybe not even this guy’s real one. Over the past few decades, he must have known a dozen Joneses. Seven years? Seven years ago he’d been working on—

“Don’t think too hard on it,” this Jones said. “It’ll come to you soon enough.” He paused to take off his hat, scratch his head and add, “Colonel.”

“Colonel?” Wiseman said. “Did I work with you in the army?”

“With?” Jones screamed. “Did you work with me? Make a left.” He slammed his hands against the steering wheel, almost losing control of the van as he made the left turn. “I don’t think you ever worked with anybody, Colonel Doctor!” Jones got the van and himself back under control. “Yeah, we met in the army. Along the beautiful Chesapeake Bay.” He smiled. “Does that kick-start the trip down Memory Lane?”

More confused and scared than before, Wiseman looked down at his shoes. A relaxation technique he taught to clients. There was a copy of the Daily News on the floorboard. He moved his feet and saw the paper was a few days old. The Yankees, after finally making it back to the World Series after twelve years, had just gotten their asses handed to them by Cincinnati. That had seemed very important only a few days ago.

“Is my wife going to be okay?” Wiseman asked. “I mean…should we pull over so you can call your friend? Tell him I’m cooperating?”

“Cooperating,” Jones repeated and let out a snort. “I don’t have any friends, Colonel. You had a hand in that. Far as I know, your wife’s picking up that little rat’s turdballs and heading to the corner deli for a buttered bagel and coffee. She really does seem to enjoy that snack between breakfast and lunch. You should talk to her about that, Doc. Can’t be healthy.”

“So,” Wiseman said, his tone somewhere between relieved and angry, “that was all a lie?”

“Yep.” Jones let himself laugh for real this time. “Kinda sucks being on the other side of mistruths and a line of bull, don’t it?”

“Look,” Wiseman said, trying to swallow but finding his mouth dry. “My name is Stuart Wiseman and I am a doctor. I haven’t been Colonel Wiseman since the war ended. I’m a psychiatrist, for god’s sake.”

“Make a left,” Jones said and did so.

Talking to himself. A sign of schizophrenia? Wiseman looked out his window and saw another sign that disturbed him. They were headed toward the Williamsburg Bridge. Into Brooklyn.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Colonel,” Jones said. “You’re a war hero. A man whose service to his country should be celebrated, not hidden away in a file cabinet in the National Archives.”

“Now I know you’ve got it wrong…Private Jones. All I did for the army was to conduct research—”

“Yes!” Jones shouted. “Conducted research!”

Jones slowed down as they hit the traffic going over the bridge. It crossed Wiseman’s mind this might be the best time to escape, just open the door and—shit, the damned lock release had been snapped off.

“You’re the psychiatrist, Dr. Wiseman. Where did your valuable research take you? Helping returning soldiers readjust to civilian life? Maybe weeding out the young Americans who were too psychologically fragile to go off to some foreign land and shoot at anyone whose eyes didn’t look right?” He slammed the steering wheel again, this time in complete control. “Tell me, please. What exactly did you research for the United States of America?” The traffic started moving again when the van reached the bridge.

Wiseman looked down at the East River as a tugboat made its way south to New York Harbor. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” he said, his eyes still on the river.

“What is it you want me to tell you?” Jones smiled and slowly removed his sunglasses. He turned so Wiseman could get a good look at his face. When the doctor gave no sign of recognition, Jones’s eyes returned to the road and he slipped his shades back on.

“The truth would be nice,” he said. “You know, for a change? Maybe it’d be— what do you psychiatrists call it?—cathartic. That’s what my shrink would call it. Great word. Reminds me of catheter. I wonder if they come from the same root.”

They were coming off the bridge now. Instead of mixing in with most of the traffic and taking the expressway deeper into Brooklyn, Jones jumped lanes, steered the VW to the left, and made a quick U-turn toward the East River. Having lived most of his life in Manhattan, Wiseman was as lost in this borough as he would’ve been if they had driven the van straight to Wisconsin.

Jones reached out and rubbed his right hand across the dashboard lovingly.

“Beautiful machines, these Volkswagens, huh? Did you know, the guy who designed the Porsche 911—his name actually was Ferdinand Alexander Porsche—his grandfather designed the prototype for the VW beetle, the discerning Nazi’s vehicle of choice? It’s true. Hitler thought the guy was a genius.” Jones took a right. “You could say if it weren’t for Hitler, you and I would not be driving in this beautiful automotive masterpiece.” He paused. “Is that what you were hoping for, Dr. Wiseman?”

“I don’t follow you. What do you mean, what I was hoping for?”

“With your research. Were you hoping to go down in history as the Porsche of psychiatry? The man whose work lasted well after the war and who developed the Volkswagen of pharmaceuticals?”

“Now I really don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Stop! Brake!” Jones slammed on the brakes. Wiseman braced himself for an impact, either from behind or from the driver. When none came, Jones turned to him. “I was there, Doctor. I didn’t hear it through the army grapevine or read it in Stars and Stripes. I was there. With you. In Maryland. So, please, stop playing stupid. We both know you’re anything but.” Jones scratched at his beard. “Hell, I’m living proof of that, right?” He laughed, and stepped on the gas. “If ya can call this living.”

Wiseman looked around. If not for the skyline across the river, he’d have no idea where they were. There were a bunch of factories and warehouses and very little traffic this time of day, except for the occasional truck. Lunchtime, he remembered. All he wanted half an hour ago was a turkey sandwich and a root beer. He closed his eyes, trying to will himself back to the recent past, forty-five minutes ago, finishing up with his eleven o’clock, deciding if he’d take his own doctor’s advice and switch from mayo to mustard.

“Take it easy there, Doc,” Jones said. “Don’t be going all mental on me now.”

Wiseman surprised himself by smiling at the private’s joke. Private joke, he thought and smiled some more. Maybe he would get out of this okay.

“All right,” Wiseman said. “So we know each other from Maryland. I was there for many years and met hundreds of soldiers. Were you one of my patients?”

“Brake.” Jones braked at the stop sign and let the van idle for a few seconds. “‘Patients?’” he repeated. “Is that what you called us? I guess that sounds better than ‘lab rats,’ doesn’t it? Or ‘guinea pigs.’ Take a left here.”

Jones made the left turn, and Wiseman realized they were heading toward the East River. Why the hell were they going that way? Take away the abandoned factories and warehouses, and they might as well have been driving through a ghost town. He looked to his right and watched as a few pieces of paper and other loose garbage got caught up in what his wife would call a “trash tornado.” He smiled at the thought and wondered if there was a chance he would share it with her later over their usual pre-dinner cocktails. Or ever.

“Take this right,” Jones said and did. About five seconds later, they stopped in front of a fence—no, a gate—that seemed to lead to a dirt road behind one of the buildings. Jones took his sunglasses off, reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pair of surgical gloves. He slipped them on. “Do me a favor and open the glove compartment, will ya, Doc?”

Wiseman slowly undid the clasp that kept the glove compartment closed, careful not to let it drop. He knew from experience that loud noises could set these guys off, and this guy was already halfway there. He guided the drawer down gently.

Jones leaned over, reached inside with his gloved right hand, and pulled out a gun. He sat back up and rubbed the weapon against his thigh.

“Ah, geez. You weren’t expecting actual gloves, were ya? If you’da known the gun was in there the whole time, you’da had me. Especially after I told you your wife was safe.” He scratched his temple with thepistol. “Betcha wish I had told ya, huh? It’s nice to have all the information when you get into one of these situations. Oh, well. Can’t have everything.”

Wiseman felt like screaming, but, looking at the gun, he quickly squashed the urge. He placed his hands on his knees and chose his next words with great care.

“What is it,” he began, “that you want from me?”

Jones smiled. “Oh, you’re doing just fine, Doc. One thing I want from you is fear and, geez, you’re right on track with that.” He pointed the gun at Wiseman. “Next thing I need is for you to stay put while I open the gate. I see one body part of yours outside the van, thi trip—your trip—is over.” Jones seemed to find that funny, and then the grin disappeared and his voice got serious again. “Roger that?”

Wiseman nodded, then slowly leaned back and tried to get his heart rate under control. He closed his eyes. A few seconds later, he heard the driver’s door open and Jones’s footsteps on the gravel outside. When he opened his eyes again, Jones had opened the gate and was quick-stepping his way back to the van. He got in, shut the door, and shifted into Drive. When they got past the gate, Jones stopped the van and looked over at Wiseman. “Same procedure as before, Doc.” Jones slid out of the van once more and Wiseman heard the sound of the gate closing.

“Not so bad, right?” Jones asked after getting back in. “You’re doing fine, sir. I remember you always being calm under pressure.” He drove off behind the large building. “Of course, you weren’t the one under the real pressure, though. Right? I mean, you knew exactly what you were doing. It was we guinea pigs—sorry, patients—who had the real thrilling time. You know, the Vietnamese have a curse: May you live in interesting times.”

“The Chinese,” Wiseman heard himself saying. “I think.”

“Ah, what the heck do I know? After all those months in Maryland, I couldn’t tell a Chinese from a Vietnamese from my own kidneys, y’know?” He shook his head. “Yeah, it’s the Chinese. You’re right. You’re the professional.”

Jones drove along the dirt road for about a minute before Wiseman noticed a green tent set up about twenty feet from the water, behind a pile of wood, twisted metal, and other scrap materials at least ten feet high that looked as if it had been there for god knew how many years. Jones pulled up alongside the trash heap, put the van in Park, and shut off the engine.

“Home, sweet home,” he announced. He opened his door, got out, and then motioned with the pistol for Wiseman to do the same. When Wiseman stepped onto the dirt, Jones slapped him on the back. “Coffee?”

“No,” Wiseman said, surprised by the offer. “Thank you.”

“Can of beans? Day-old bread? C’mon, Doc. I know you’re hungry. I mean you were heading off to lunch when we hooked up, right?”

Wiseman nodded and then looked around the makeshift campground. “This is where you live?” he asked. Jones shook his head proudly. “Yep. Who’da thunk it, huh? Private William Francis Jones, U.S. Army, living on waterfront property in New York City. Got the best damned view of the bridge, too.” He pointed up at the Williamsburg Bridge. “There’s just  no better feeling than watching your dreams come true.” He put his hand on Wiseman’s shoulder and squeezed. Hard. Wiseman flinched as Jones added, “Except those bad dreams, y’know?” Jones gave an exaggerated shiver. “Don’t ever wanna see those dreams come true, know what I mean?”

“You’re hurting me,” Wiseman whispered. “Please.”

“Oh, sorry about that. Get carried away sometimes. It’s not often I get to show off to important guests.” He removed his hand. “Sorry.”

Wiseman reached up and rubbed his shoulder. He knew he’d be feeling that for a few days and remembered he had plans for tennis the next day. Whatever happened here, he figured, that was one tennis date he was not going to make.

“Listen,” he said to Jones. “You…obviously believe I’ve done you harm.” “Obviously,” Jones said. “Maybe I can make it up to you, William. I am a psychiatrist. I’m in a position where I can really help you.” “Similar to the position you were in seven years ago down in Maryland?” “You keep bringing that up,” Wiseman said, and then realized he was getting angry and Jones still had the gun. “If I’ve done you harm, I apologize.” He paused to take a breath. “I’d like to help you now.”

Jones laughed. “Boy, next time someone tells me they’re getting the runaround from their doctor’s office?” He raised the gun. “I’m gonna tell ’em to bring one of these to their next appointment.” He pointed the gun at Wiseman’s forehead. “People listen to you when you got yourself one of these. The heck with Mutual of Omaha. I got Smith and Wesson!”

Wiseman shut his eyes again, waiting for the explosion. All he got was a click. This was followed by another click and he opened his eyes.

“Damn it,” Jones said, giving himself a playful slap to the forehead. “Forgot to load it again.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of bullets. “What do you think, Doc? Is that one of them intentional mistakes people make because they don’t really want to succeed?”

Wiseman felt a rage forming in the pit of his stomach. Then came the desire to just jump on Jones and have it out here and now. His shoulder started to throb and he remembered the knife in Jones’s pocket. He let the urge subside and watched as Jones made a big deal out of loading the bullets into the gun. His heart was beating so hard and fast, he was sure Jones must have heard it. He remembered he’d never read that Poe story. He’d bluffed and cheated his way through the test back in high school.

This is my life flashing before my eyes.

“Okay,” Jones said, closing up the gun. “Got that taken care of. Sure you don’t want anything, Doc? It’s no trouble. Got a Coleman cooker, a can opener and…” He thought about it. “…Two and a half gallons of water.”

Wiseman looked around again. “How do you live here?” Jones rubbed his temple with the gun and gave an embarrassed shrug. “I lied a bit before,” he said. “About having no friends. I got one. Kinda. He’s the security guard for this place.” He waved the gun around to show what he meant. “Guy’s a Vietnam vet, just like me. Well, not exactly like me. He was actually in Vietnam. You know, where all the fighting was?”

Wiseman nodded. “And you were with me down in Maryland?”

Jones leaned into the doctor’s face and said, “You remembering now?”

“Not exactly,” Wiseman said. “Not you. The work. Of course I remember the work. What we were doing down there was important, vital to the war effort.”

Jones made a circle in the air with the gun. “Go on.”

Wiseman swallowed what little moisture he had in his mouth. “We were researching the use of possible new weapons that the enemy had developed years before us. Weapons that they were ready to use at any moment.”

“And the army couldn’t stand that, could they? I mean the United States Army comes in second to nobody. We’re Number One!”

“That’s not what we were thinking,” Wiseman said. “We had a duty—a moral responsibility—to match the enemy’s capabilities. To fight fire with fire.”

“You mean fight fire with drugs, don’t you? The enemy never did use their pharmaceutical weapons on us, did they?”

“We didn’t know whether they would or not, Private.” Wiseman realized that was the first real anger he’d let Jones see. He decided to take it down a click. “We needed the research. To know how these drugs worked. We needed—”

“Lab rats!” Jones screamed as he leaned into the doctor’s face. “You needed lab rats, Colonel.” He looked up at the clear, blue sky. “And thank the Lord you had a whole boatload of them all wearing clothes bought by their Uncle Sam.”

Okay, Wiseman thought, if this was going to be the last argument of his life, let’s make it a good one.

“I worked with volunteers, Jones. Every single…patient I worked with was a volunteer. They were there because they wanted to be there.”

“Not all of us,” Jones said. “Some of us were told to volunteer.” “You could have said no.” Jones raised the gun again and stuck it between Wiseman’s eyes. “Only an officer could say that without a smile.” He twisted the gun ninety degrees. “Privates don’t say no to their commanding officers, Colonel. You’d know that if you didn’t start your Army career off with wings on your uniform.”

Wiseman closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He could actually envision the bullet entering the pre-frontal cortex, traveling through the deep limbic system into the basal ganglia, and finally exiting through the occipital lobe. It looked as if his final argument was not going to be a fair fight. The guy with the gun usually wins.

“We—I—was told,” he said just above a whisper, “that you all volunteered. You chose to be a part of the research instead of getting sent over to Nam. Into combat.”

“So you were lied to, too. Sucks, don’t it?”

The doctor opened his eyes and said, “Wasn’t it better than getting shot at? Wading through rice paddies? Going days without any food or fresh water?”

Jones shook his head and dragged the gun down over Wiseman’s nose and lips. When he got to the chin, he stopped.

“Y’know something, Doc? I’da rather been shot at. Hell, if I’da been shot, they’d have pinned a medal on my chest and sent me home. Probably been given some sort of…compensation for injuries suffered, right?” He took the gun and placed it under his own chin. “But me? The injuries I suffered? They don’t show up on x-rays or MRIs. They rear their ugly little heads in the middle of the night, when you’re screaming your head off because the tiny men won’t stop playing baseball on your chest.” He closed his eyes and lowered the gun to his side. “Or when your last three girlfriends break up with you because you can’t get an erection without taking your rifle to bed, or have problems telling the difference between a fork and a ballpoint pen. Last time I checked, the Army don’t give out benefits for my kind of injuries. You get your discharge papers, a good- luck handshake, and don’t let the door hitcha on the way out.”

“We were trying to develop a—” “What?” Jones opened his eyes. “You were trying to develop what, exactly?” “A more humane way of—” “Killing?” “Temporarily incapacitating the enemy,” Wiseman said, his supervisor’s voice coming out from the past. “We wanted to cause a selective malfunctioning of the enemy’s ability to think coherently.”

“With LSD and PCP and whatever the hell else you came up with?” “Yes.” “Then what, Doc? Lure the enemy into your prison camps with Grateful Dead tunes, hippie chicks, and pizza?” The doctor’s face betrayed more than a touch of embarrassment. “We hadn’t gotten as far as that when our research was terminated.” “No,” Jones said. “You hadn’t.” Wiseman watched as Jones closed his eyes again and his face contorted, forehead wrinkled. The private slowly turned the gun on himself again, pressing it deep into the flesh below his jawline.

Do it, Wiseman willed. The hell with that ‘First do no harm’ crap. Just blow your brains out, and I can get the hell out of here.

For a moment, the doctor thought that’s exactly what was going to happen. Then, the wrinkles on Jones’s forehead disappeared as he took the gun away from his chin. He opened his eyes and laughed.

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he said, wiggling his eyebrows. “I do myself, you hop the fence, hitch a ride back into the city, and you’re home for pot roast with the wife and her little rat.”

“No,” Wiseman lied. “I want us both to walk out of here and go home.” “This is my home, Doctor. It may not be much, but…” “So how does this end, Private?” Wiseman surprised himself with his sudden

directness. Force of habit coming from all those years working with people in various mental states. “Have you thought this out to the end?”

Jones pursed his lips and said, “Sort of. Yeah.”

“There’s no ‘sort of,’ Jones.” The military voice coming naturally now. “You either have or you haven’t.”

“Well, you ain’t going home, I know that much. Not until you finish the job you started all those years ago. You know, for the good of our country.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“That’s the beauty of your part, Doctor.” Jones reached into his pockets and pulled out a pill jar. He shook it and smiled at the rattle it made. “You don’t have to follow me. You just have to do what you’re told.” He shrugged. “Worked for me.”

“What are those?” Wiseman asked, looking at the pill jar.

“Research materials.” Jones grinned as he opened the jar and shook out some blue and white pills. He stage whispered, “Highly classified. Hush-hush and all that.” Wiseman took a step back. “You don’t expect me to take those, do you?”

“That’s exactly what I expect you to do, Colonel. After all, you volunteered to help with my program, right? You got into my van. You coulda said no.”

“You had a knife in my back and threatened my wife.”

Jones pumped his fist. “Now you understand how I felt! Thank you. You’re good at this, Doc.”

Wiseman looked at the pills in Jones’s hand, then into his eyes. He’d seen that look before on some of his patients. Other veterans who had returned from Nam over the past few years. Fear, anger. Went straight down into what some people he knew would call the soul.

“What if I refuse?” he asked.

“That’s what the gun’s for, Doc. I mean, duh. But I don’t think it’ll come to that, do you? I mean, this is research. Be a good soldier, and do what you’re told.”

“I don’t know what’s in those pills, Private.”

“C’mon, Doc. You know the drill: What’s more important? A safe country or a safe soldier?”

Wiseman had used that exact same argument years ago when faced with a colleague claiming to have “moral issues” with his research. Jones was a good listener.

“Okay,” Wiseman said. “Suppose I take the drugs. What happens after that?”

“Don’t know,” Jones said. “Haven’t thought that far through. Guess we’ll just have to find out.”

Jones offered the pills to Wiseman. When the doctor hesitated, Jones raised the gun and aimed it at his face. Wiseman took the pills from Jones’s gloved hand. There were four of them.

“Do I take all four?” Wiseman said, talking mostly to the gun at this point. “Yeah,” Jones said. “I got more if we need ’em.” Wiseman looked at the pills as if choosing which ones to put in his mouth first.

As if it made a difference. He must have taken too long, because Jones said, “Just do it, Doc. You know the gun is loaded, and I know where you and your wife live.”

“How do I know she’ll be all right?”

Jones shrugged. “Guess you’ll just hafta take my word for it.” Jones gestured with the pistol. “Go on, Doc.”

“You want me to dry swallow—”

“Just take the damned pills!” Jones stepped close enough to the doctor to place the gun against his head again. “Now.”

Wiseman closed his eyes, opened his mouth, and put the pills on his tongue. He’d forgotten how dry his mouth was. A completely natural reaction to fear and anger. He waited as a small amount of moisture formed on his tongue. He then threw his head back and swallowed. He almost gagged, but the pills stubbornly made their way down his throat. He looked at Jones as if to say, “Happy now?”

Judging by the grin on the private’s face, he was. He dropped the gun to his side and said, “That wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

“Screw you,” Wiseman said. “Whatever.” He pointed to the ground with the gun. “Sit,” he said.

“Why?” “Because I’m tired, so I’m gonna sit, and I don’t want you standing over me. Sit.”

Wiseman eased himself to the ground—the sciatica reminding him it was still there—and sat what his kids used to call “Indian style.” Private Jones did the same. “And now we wait,” Jones said. “You’re not worried about someone coming by?” “Nobody ever comes by here, Doc. Except for the security guard,and I already told ya, he’s a fellow vet and a friend.” He thought about it. “A brother, really.” “Right.”

After about ten minutes of silence, Jones said, “Anything yet?”

Wiseman thought about it. “I feel a bit dizzy,” he said. Or tried to. He realized it sounded more like “dishy,” and that made him smile. He looked over at the river and watched another tugboat heading north. The tug was a color he couldn’t recall having seen before: somewhere between yellow and red but not quite orange. “Beautiful,” he said, as the tug’s color changed to purple. “That’s really beautiful.”

“Here,” Jones said, handing the doctor the gun. “Take it.”

Weisman looked at the gun. “You sure you want to do that, Private?” Like Jones was his student. “I might shoot you.”

Jones grinned, but the doctor didn’t notice. “That’s exactly what I want you to do, Doc. Take it.”

Wiseman took the gun and balanced it in his hand. He pointed it up at the sky, closed one eye, and began tracking a blue seagull. He pretended to pull the trigger and made a “pew” sound.

“Why would I want to shoot you, Private Jones?”

“Because,” Jones said, “I’m an incurable monster.” He leaned forward, his face two feet away from the doctor’s. “I’m a one-eyed, one-eared, giant, purple people-eater, and I just threatened your wife.”

“Did you say my life or my wife?” Weisman mumbled.

“Pick one. It really doesn’t matter.” He got his face a little closer and screamed, “Just freaking pick one and shoot me!”

“I don’t think I want—” “Shoot me!”

“Sir!” Someone nearby was shouting. “I need you to drop the weapon and step away from the body!”

Weapon? Body?

Dr. Wiseman looked at his hand and realized he was holding a gun. He tried to relax his fingers and let the weapon slip out, but his fingers wouldn’t listen.

“I need you to do that now, sir!”

Wiseman turned his eyes and saw a golden glow. It was almost in the shape of a man—weird color for a man—and it was holding something out in front of itself. Oh. Looked like the Glow had a gun, too.

What was that about a body? The Glow had said something… The doctor looked down again and saw a green blob lying on the ground. It, too, was basically the shape of a man, only this one looked like he had plants growing out of his lower half.

“I’m not going to ask you again, sir. I need you to drop your weapon and step away from the body!”

Wiseman shook his head, trying to clear it. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Is he dead?” Wiseman turned his eyes back to the plant man. “He looks dead.”

“I have not made that determination yet, sir,” the Glow said. “I can’t determine anything until you drop the gun and move aside. I’ve radioed for an ambulance and the police. They’re on their way.”

“Good,” Dr. Wiseman said. “I’ll need to talk to them.” He waved the gun around the air in front of him. “I need to explain—”

A loud sound exploded in front of him, and he felt a punch of extreme heat smash him in the upper chest. It was followed by wetness and he swore he smelled something burning. He fell to his knees and the gun finally slipped from his hand.

“You don’t understand,” he said, watching as the Glow approached him—it was a man, he saw now, in what he guessed was a security guard’s uniform—and picked the weapon off the ground. “You don’t—”

The guard looked down at Wiseman and said, “I understand just fine, Dr. Wiseman. Sir.”

Wiseman shook his head, trying to clear it. “Do I know you?”

“I doubt it,” the guard said and stepped over to the body on the ground. Did you call it a body if the guy wasn’t dead? The guard reached under the guy’s collar and touched his neck. A few seconds later, he made a quick sign of the cross, removed the latex gloves from the guy’s hands, shoved them into a pocket, and turned to face the doctor.

“Is he dead?” Wiseman asked, thinking the same question would be asked about him pretty soon if the warm wetness didn’t stop flowing.

“Yeah,” the guard said, crab-walking over to Wiseman. “Looks like your research is completed, Colonel. Sure can’t do anymore for Billy.”

The guard was almost close enough now for Wiseman to read his nametag. The pain in his chest was making everything blurry. He squinted hard and tried to focus. It took all he could muster—funny, another military word—to make out the five letters.

Jones, it read. He must have known a dozen guys named Jones over the years. But why did it seem so familiar right now?

He closed his eyes. Jones, he whispered, and then whispered it again. And just as it came to him, just as he realized the importance of that name, he was pulled from the ground and was face-to-face with this Jones. This Jones with the exact same eyes as the guy who’d taken him in the van—the Jones who lay dead less than three feet away from him. The Jones who said the security guard was more than a friend, he remembered now. A brother.

“Oh, Lord,” he said, once more looking down at the dead Jones. “What have I done?”

This Jones—the security guard Jones—turned Wiseman’s face around and looked him in the eyes as the doctor’s own struggled to stay open.

“I think that’s gonna stay classified,” he said. “Sir.” Then Jones let the good doctor slip through his hands and collapse to the ground.

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