Bryant’s heart pounded as he sat across from the surgeon in the small consult room. The room was so tiny, their knees practically touched as they faced each other in the plastic chairs. Next to them was an end table with a large box of Kleenex tissues.
The surgeon seemed more nervous than Bryant. He rubbed his hands together and swiveled his head back and forth as if searching for something on the carpeted floor between them.
“It’s okay,” Bryant said. “You can tell me.”
The surgeon was older, maybe mid-fifties, but he acted like a first-year resident. He glanced up at the narrow window on the door and Bryant followed his gaze. Two or three of the nurses and doctors from the Trauma Room were lingering outside. They scattered like roaches once Bryant took notice.
“What’s going on, Doctor?” Bryant asked.
The surgeon winced like he was about to remove a large splinter from a child.
“Is she your daughter?” the surgeon said, finally making eye contact.
“No,” Bryant said. “She’s a patient of mine. Her family was killed in a plane accident. She has no one.” Bryant took a breath. “She’s gone?”
The surgeon’s eyes shifted, first to the empty window, then the floor. “No, she’s alive.”
The way his words came out, it made Bryant feel more concerned than if she was declared dead.
“What seems to be the problem?” Bryant said. “I’m a medical doctor. You can tell me.”
The surgeon spotted the rosary beads in Bryant’s hand and said, “Are you a very religious person?”
Bryant looked at the beads. “I used to be.”
The surgeon nodded as if this was a fascinating concept.
“I cut her open,” the surgeon said quickly, as if to get rid of the words. “I had to, she was bleeding out.”
“Of course, you had no choice. I rode with her in the ambulance.”
“Yes, well, then you must have suspected that the bullet went through her heart.”
Bryant bit his lower lip. “Yes, that’s what I thought from the location of the wound.”
“And you’d be correct. The bullet went clear through her right ventricle and out her back.”
A kill shot, thought Bryant. Not survivable. Yet.
“So when I saw the wound, she still had vitals. It seemed improbable, but I decided to close the bullet hole in her heart. It was worth a try.”
“I mean I didn’t think about the odds of her still having vitals fifteen minutes after a bullet had ruptured a hole in her heart.”
“I’m with you,” Bryant said, growing leery of the conversation.
“So when I asked for a suture, the scrub tech handed it to me, and I was about to make the first pass when the heart tissue began to . . . um . . .”
“Doctor?” Bryant said. “What happened in there?”
There were faces at the window again, only they didn’t move this time when Bryant made eye contact.
“The tissues began to close,” the surgeon finally said, looking straight at Bryant now as if he might be an accomplice. “The wound began healing itself.”
Bryant’s mouth went dry. “What?”
“I can’t explain it any better than that,” the surgeon said. “There is no rational explanation for what happened in there. The laws of biology were broken in that Trauma Room today and I’m not going to begin to understand.”
The surgeon leaned back in his chair and rubbed a hand over his face. He let out a big sigh. “I’m not going to bring this up,” the surgeon said. “I mean to anyone.”
Bryant’s head swam with thoughts of the plane accident. How Margo was found without a scratch. How the FBI was following her.
“I suggest you do the same,” the surgeon said.
The rosary beads fell from Bryant’s hand. The surgeon bent over to pick them up. He looked at the glossy beads as they dangled from his thumb and index finger. “I need to get me some of these.”
He handed them to Bryant.
“Do you have any questions?” the surgeon asked.
“Do you have any answers?”
The surgeon stood up and held out his hand. Bryant shook it.
“She’s in recovery,” the surgeon said as he opened the door to leave. “You can probably see her in an hour or so.”
The door shut.
* * *
Detective Meltzer sat at a wooden table in the interview room and sipped his third cup of coffee. The large man who shot Margo Sutter sat on the floor in the corner of the room, his knees curled up, his eyes still wild with terror.
Meltzer looked down at the empty yellow legal pad in front of him and wrote, “John Ames, rescue worker, Anchorage, Alaska.”
So far the man hadn’t been responsive to anything he’d asked and Meltzer kept rolling his eyes at the two-way mirror, knowing the DA was watching and looking for a quick confession so he could go home and spend the rest of the weekend with his family.
“Mr. Ames,” Meltzer tried again. “Isn’t there something you’d like to say about this morning’s shooting?”
When the rescue worker violently shook his head, Meltzer wished he had Bryant there to help. What would he do, Meltzer thought? Bryant would try to develop a trust with the guy.
Ames rubbed his hands along his pants legs as if wiping off some imaginary disease.
“Mr. Ames,” Meltzer said. “Were you there when Margo Sutter’s plane crashed?”
Ames scrunched up his already wrinkled face. The beard and sunspots blended together to form a written history of working outdoors. “Are you a psychologist?”Ames asked.
“No, I’m a detective.”
Ames blew out a long whistle. “Boy, I must look really messed up, huh?”
“I’ve seen worse,” Meltzer said, happy to spark the flames of conversation. “Have you been a rescue worker for long?”
“Twenty-two years,” Ames said, looking away.
Meltzer knew the rescue worker had seen something up on the mountain when Margo’s plane crashed. He’d read the reports from the crash scene and knew John Ames was one of the most decorated rescue workers in the state . . . until the accident. That’s when they labeled him mentally unstable. There was nothing specific in the report, just cryptic notes about hallucinations, about how Ames was working in high altitude for too long without oxygen. Apparently some forms of altitude disease are irreversible.
Meltzer got up and approached the rescue worker. He leaned against the wall and slid down next to him. He folded his hands around his knees and looked lowered his head.
“You ever hear about those crop circles? You know how a cornfield is carved up into geometric patterns overnight?” Meltzer asked.
“Yeah,” Ames said. “The ones they say aliens made?”
“That’s them,” Meltzer said. “There was a lot of speculation that college kids did it as a prank.”
Meltzer kept his gaze on the floor. “Well, I always thought so, but a few years back a group of scientists attempted to carve up a similar cornfield. They spent a week with sophisticated tools trying to mimic the exact pattern left by an overnight visitor. You know what they found?”
Ames was mesmerized. “What?”
“They couldn’t do it.” Meltzer looked up at the man. “No matter how hard they tried they couldn’t match the precision of the patterns done overnight.”
Ames wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “What’s that mean?”
“It means there isn’t always an answer for everything,” Meltzer said, looking the man in the eyes. “Some things defy explanation. And we need to accept them, no matter the improbability.”
The silence hung between them while Meltzer kept watch. The rescue worker
seemed to be coming to terms with what he’d witnessed.
Finally, Meltzer cocked his head. “Did you see something up on that mountain
that defied explanation, Mr. Ames?”
Ames rubbed a rough hand over his face. “I saw the explosion from five miles away. It lit up the afternoon sky, which was dark to begin with. I knew no one could survive that kind of crash, but I packed up my snowmobile and got up there within a couple of hours. That was the only way up and I was the closest. I had to hike the final couple of miles in some difficult terrain.”
Ames looked over at Meltzer and continued. “She was lying in the snow next to the burned-out fuselage with her . . .” he stopped to chew on a loose cuticle and spit it out. “She was cut bad. Her face looked like a bowl of chili. Then as I’m getting closer I notice her arm was twisted behind her. It looked completely broken.”
Meltzer’s stomach tightened, but he kept still.
The rescue worker licked a pair of dry lips. “She wasn’t bleeding though. I should have picked up on that. At first I thought it was the cold temperatures, but then I’m . . . I’m watching her maneuver her arm into place. One minute it looked broken, the next it seemed fine.”
Ames was trembling. Bubbles of sweat dotted his forehead. “Then she began speaking some language I’ve never heard before. I thought maybe she was a foreigner, but the language was so odd.”
Ames stared out into the open space in front of him, his eyes were thousands of miles away. “Then I realize her face was beginning to heal. By the time we finally got her to the hospital, they couldn’t find one broken bone. Not one tiny scrape. Her face was immaculate.”
Meltzer sat still and let the fertile juices flow out of the rescue worker’s taxed mind.
“Of course I put it all in a report, and you know what they did?”
Meltzer shook his head.
“They gave me a leave of absence. Told me I’ve been out in the conditions for too long and suffered from hypothermia. They said my judgment was impaired.”
“Maybe it was?” Meltzer said, then instantly regretted it.
“I saw what I saw!” Ames shouted, shifting his position as if he were ready to come after Meltzer.
The detective held up his hands in retreat.
Ames took a breath and settled back against the wall. “Even before the reinforcements came, she was up and walking around. She was in shock. Kept asking me where he was.”
“Where who was?”
“Beats me,” Ames said. “I guess I was in shock myself. Seeing that plane and the carnage. All those poor people. Charred. Pieces of debris everywhere. And this girl.”
Ames shrugged. Resignation beginning to settle in. Meltzer could see the man was clearly lucid and aware of his actions now.
Ames looked directly into Meltzer’s eyes. “Then I see the stories on CNN about this girl in Arizona who claims aliens are here to destroy the planet and I see her face. It’s her. Walking and talking like she was never even on that plane. And I know—she can’t be human. A human couldn’t survive what she survived. That’s when I decided to come down here and . . .”
Ames looked around the room.
“And what?” Meltzer asked. “What did you come here to do?”
“I came here to prove she’s not who she says she is. I don’t know what she is, but she’s not human. That’s all I know. That’s why she didn’t die from my gunshot wound.”
“So you admit shooting Margo Sutter this morning?”
Ames shook his head. “No. I admit to shooting an alien this morning.”
Meltzer frowned. “Did this alien happen to look exactly like Margo Sutter?”
“And you think her surviving a gunshot wound would vindicate your report?” Meltzer asked.
“Yes,” Ames said boldly. “Yes, I do. I think you’ll discover the same thing once you see what condition she’s in.”
“Well, I know exactly what condition she’s in,” Meltzer said. “And it’s not promising.”
Ames met Meltzer’s gaze. “You think she’s in serious condition in the hospital, don’t you?”
“I know she is.”
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” Ames looked around the empty room conspiratorially, “I’ll make you a deal. If she isn’t completely healed by this afternoon . . . I’ll sign a confession and admit to everything.”
Okay, Meltzer thought, now we’re getting somewhere. He glanced at the two-way mirror and could almost see the DA smiling on the other side.
“But,” Ames said, getting closer to Meltzer, pointing a finger at him, “if she’s completely healthy, no bullet wound . . . you have to admit to the press there are aliens here on the planet.”
Meltzer considered the ludicrous agreement and wondered if some attorney would later use this moment to prove an insanity plea for his client. Ames sat there anxious, waiting for this ridiculous pact to be ratified.
Meltzer held out a hand. “Deal.”