The Field of Flowers

vert-poppy-fade-matteThis is a standalone story from a time when my influences were more in the horror genre, though you can see where things are heading –the unnamed narrator is a cop. The title’s not the most original, I suppose, but I’m not changing anything about it at this late stage. There comes a time when you have to put your early work under glass with a sign reading “Do Not Touch,” and this story is definitely in that category.

His skin was the color of eggshells.  Of paper.  He’d been exsanguinated.

_____

The call came in around 6:45 a.m.  A runner found the body.  Joggers find so many things for us in law enforcement.  Them and hikers.

The body of a young white male, the report said, seen in the blackberry bushes that overran a slope leading down to a creek.  The first patrol officer on the scene didn’t disturb anything, just took one good look and called for a detective and a crime-scene unit.  We later realized that his assiduousness nearly cost the victim his life.

When the crime-scene techs and I got there, we stared glumly at the sight below.  The body was nearly naked, the pale skin exposed to the early morning half-light that was filtering through grey cloud.  Whoever he was, his head was shaved.  I thought that might have been the work of his killer.  Maybe.  It was early for such theorizing.

None of us were eager to wade into scratchy arms of the bushes.  It wasn’t just personal comfort we were thinking of.  There might be evidence at the scene, and it would be difficult to preserve if we were trampling our way into an area so thickly foliated that use of a machete wouldn’t have been unreasonable.

Longborn, one of two crime-scene techs, broke the stalemate.  “How do you suppose the perp got the body down there in the first place?” she asked. “You see any broken branches leading up to it?”

She was right, there weren’t any.

Smith, the other tech, looked from the body up to the point directly above on the bridge.  “You think he was thrown over the side?” he asked.

“Yeah, I do,” Longborn said.

She was suggesting it wouldn’t hurt much to approach the body from the top of the slope.

“You want to go first?”  Smith said.

Longborn was already pulling heavy work gloves over her latex ones.  “Nothing else for it,” she said.  “You guys can follow in my path.”

Smith and I watched as she navigated slowly down slope, looking around before each step for something out of the ordinary, anything that might be evidence.

Something changed when she was about two feet from the body: just when she should have been most careful about evidence, Longborn crashed precipitously ahead.

“What’s she doing?” muttered Smith.

Longborn had a hand on the exposed neck, which was hidden to us, the body facedown.

“Get an ambulance!” she yelled.  “I’ve got vitals!”

Smith was already fumbling at the radio.

_______

Our victim-turned-patient had no ID, so after the ER took charge of him, I looked at missing persons reports.  One seemed promising: An 18-year-old hadn’t come back from an afternoon walk yesterday.  His sister, worried, had called us.  Andrew Orchard wasn’t in any shape to stay out all night, his sister said.  He was a leukemia patient.

_______

A tired-looking surgeon — they often looked tired, even at 9:30 a.m. — stood outside the OR and filled me in.

“There wasn’t much to do,” he said.  “Not much to fix.  Just blood loss — a hell of a lot of blood.”

“Then he’ll be okay,” I said.

The surgeon shook his head.  “It’s touch-and-go,” he said.  “We transfused a lot of blood into him, and we’re keeping him warm to combat shock.  But with blood loss comes organ damage, even brain damage, same as when you cut off blood to the brain.”  His pale blue eyes blinked, a lizard flicker.  “A lot now depends on how hard his system fights back against the shock he’s been through.”

I was confused.  “But if you replaced the blood he lost, and there’s no other injuries, what would he die of?”

“He could go into arrest,” the surgeon explained.  “Sometimes when the battle’s too pitched, that’s how the body pulls the plug.  It just stops fighting.”  Then he backpedaled.  “But he’s young and healthy.”

I thought of the missing-persons report.  “What if he were a leukemia patient?”

He focused sharply on me.  “Is he?”

“We’re not sure,” I said.  “The sisters of a missing 18-year-old cancer patient are coming down.  I’d like to take them into his room for an ID.”

“Can that wait?”

I’d never understood why doctors want to keep visitors out of the rooms of people who are dead to the world anyhow, but this gave me some bargaining room.  “Maybe,” I said.  “The truth is, I’d like to talk to you first, about what you saw.”

“Saw? Where?”

“On his body,” I said.  “Doc, what the hell happened to that kid?”

_______

We went to a break room for the medical staff, where at a cheap, chipped table, the doctor told me what he knew.

“Someone worked on him with a blade.  Arms, chest, throat, hands and feet. He lost most of the blood from the throat wound.”  Then he had a question for me. “I also saw abrasions on the wrists and above the ankles.  Were those …”

“Ligature marks,” I said.  At his blank look I clarified, “The result of binding.”

The doctor’s mouth turned down.  “Do you think he was conscious during the whole thing?”

“I have no way of knowing,” I said.  “Listen, doctor, there’s something else I need to know.  What do these cuts suggest to you?”

I figured he wouldn’t like the question, and he didn’t.  “You mean, a motive?  I’m not a psychologist.”

“Just your observations,” I said.

“Professionally?” He took a deep breath.  “These cuts, they weren’t the most efficient way to exsanguinate someone, even considering the throat wound. If you really wanted someone dead of blood loss, you’d cut the throat deeper than that, and ear-to-ear.  If somebody had wanted that kid dead, he would be.”  He drank a little coffee.  “It doesn’t seem like these cuts were made to inflict maximum pain, either.  If you wanted —“

Suddenly he seemed to realize how far he’d drifted from his field of expertise.  “I sound like I watch those ‘profiler’ shows,” he said.

“No, not at all,” I reassured him. “Go on.”

“Well, speaking from a physician’s knowledge of pain, I don’t think of cutting as an intuitive form of torture.  Most people, to inflict pain, would burn someone.  With cigarettes, maybe.  Or, if you were a more straightforward person, you’d beat them.”  He paused.  “But a knife inspires fear.  It’s something you’d use back up a threat: ‘I’ll disfigure you’ or ‘I’ll cut it off.’ But this young man wasn’t disfigured.  Or missing anything.“

We were back in would-be profiler territory, but I said nothing, because everything this man was saying struck me as profoundly true.

“These wounds are — they’re almost like art.  A pattern.  The one on the hands and feet match up, left to left and right to right.”

Now I really wanted to see them.

“All I’m saying is,” the surgeon concluded, “these cuts don’t seem to mean anything except to the person who made them.”

I stood up.  “It’s time for his family to make that ID.”

“I thought you said that could wait,” he protested.

“It has waited,” I sad.  “Now I want to know.”

_______

Andrew Orchard’s three sisters hadn’t waited for confirmation.  They seemed to believe the worst, refusing to leave the waiting room, holding hands and crying.

The head nurse preceded Andrew’s oldest sister, Ellen, and I into the room.  The young victim looked better than he had in the ambulance, but so gaunt, so goddamned pale.  Ellen Orchard looked at his sleeping, thorn-scratched face and broke out weeping again, immediately putting her head and arms on his barely rising and falling chest.

“Please, miss,” said the nurse.  “You can hold his hand if you like.”

The second-oldest sister was an inch taller and a good deal tougher.  “Nobody has told us a goddamn thing about what happened to him,” she said, dry-eyed, when I emerged into the hall.  “It wasn’t an accident, was it?”

I didn’t look away from her angry eyes.  “We’re looking at it as attempted murder.”

“Murder? Oh, God,” she said.

“I need to know all about him.  Now.”

_______

Andrew Orchard had graduated high school two months earlier and had been working landscaping jobs around town. Then he’d started feeling fatigued all the time, even mornings.  High-dose chemotherapy had followed the diagnosis; he’d lost the last of his nearly-black hair a week ago.  He had no enemies that his sisters knew of and was rarely out of the sight of his family.

He’d starting walking to keep up his spirits when running, a former passion, had become impossible.  When he’d failed to come back from the walk yesterday, his sisters had taken to the roads, fearing a collapse from exhaustion.  Failing to find him, the girls had called the police.

For me, that narrowed things down some.  Someone had seen Andrew Orchard walking and realized he was weak, unable to fight.  He wouldn’t have required extensive stalking.  He’d been a victim of opportunity.

I didn’t think Andrew had known his attacker at all.

_______

“He wants to talk,” the surgeon told me.  “He mentioned it nearly as soon as he was conscious.”

“I want to talk to him too,” I said.

“Right, but he’s not very strong.  But if I say the questioning needs to stop, it stops.”

In Room 320, someone had given Andrew Orchard one of those brightly-colored do-rags that surgeons sometimes wear. His eyes were very clear; he watched me intently as I came in and introduced myself.

This is the story he told.

_______

Andrew used to like the old graveyard, to walk among its headstones and great mausoleums.  Since the diagnosis, he still went by it, because to re-route would be to make an admission he didn’t want to make.  But he didn’t go inside anymore, just past.

That was where he saw the van, a dirty-red, late 70s model, with its rolling side door open and a small man inside on his hands and knees.  Andrew came closer, to make sure the man wasn’t having a heart attack or something.

Excuse me, the man said.  Can you help me? I’ve lost a contact lens, and I can’t see well enough with one eye to find it.  I can’t drive on until I do.

Inside the van, Andrew could see some trunks and old-fashioned valises, like the guy was living out of his van.  He wore a brown sweatshirt with the hood up, which made him look like a monk, and the eyes that looked out from the hood were pale green ringed with a dark blue.  The eyes were a little spooky, but otherwise he seemed like a sad case, some guy with bad eyesight living out of his van.

Where’d you lose the lens? Andrew asked, climbing in.  The man pointed to a section of carpet.  When Andrew was in and down on hands and knees, he heard a sound like an earthquake rumbling, until he realized it was the door rolling shut with a powerful slam.

The monk‘s size was misleading.  He was strong, so very strong, and Andrew had been caught by surprise.  His vision blurred when the man’s arm pressed against his windpipe like an iron rod.

He couldn’t even estimate, looking back, how long the journey took.  Fear has a distorting effect on time, particularly when you’re robbed of sensory input.  He was blindfolded for the entire trip, hands and feet tied.

It all seemed impossible.  It was women and children who disappeared from jogging trails and shopping malls, not guys like him.  Andrew had scarcely had time to reconcile himself to his coming death from cancer, and now, not satisfied to wait, death had attacked from nowhere.

When he was carried from the van, Andrew caught a glimpse of daylight under the edge of the blindfold, and then something else: A soldier standing in a field of pink and yellow flowers.

Then he was indoors, someplace empty enough for noises to echo.  Someplace that smelled earthy and workmanlike, not like a house but like a garage, a shop, a storage area.  He was tied supine to something that felt like frame of an outdoor lounge chair with its cushions removed.  Palms up, soles of the feet exposed, he was awake and lucid while the cutting went on, and only when he’d scraped the blindfold aside enough to make eye contact did the madman address him.  I will show no mercy to evil, he’d said, but destroy it wherever I find it, the same as I would strike down a wild animal ready to kill.

At the end, Andrew had been rolled over and tied facedown.  He could clearly see the dirty concrete floor beneath him, about a foot below.  The stranger pushed a circular anodized-metal tub under the frame.  It was nearly three feet around and a foot deep, and Andrew saw that it was centered directly under his throat, as if to bleed out a slaughter bull.

That was when he’d lost all hope of surviving.

_______

He seemed calm enough as he told the story, sucking ice chips and speaking slowly, in a voice slightly raspy with fatigue.  His doctor had not seen fit to interrupt.

Afterward, apologetically, I told him I needed to see his wounds.  Andrew lay pale and stoic while I photographed him like a human crime scene, and as I did, I understood the surgeon’s words: these cuts don’t seem to mean anything except to the person who made them.  They were precise and symmetrical but foreign, like letters from an alien alphabet.  Years later, I would find my photographs reprinted in a text on investigations.

_______

“How could anybody believe Andrew was evil?” his sister said to me, before I left the hospital for the night.  “I don’t understand that.  I don’t understand that. I just don’t understand.”

_______

The following day, I made some phone calls, trying to find out if there was anywhere in the area that flowers were grown, either for florists or for seed.  There weren’t.  Then I called around to find out if there were any military bases in the area where a field of pink and yellow flowers might exist.  Again, no luck.

I was ready to dismiss Andrew Orchard’s vision of a soldier standing in a field of flowers as some kind of hallucination.  It had an iconic quality, like those of near-death experiences.  In Flanders Field the poppies grow.  I tried to ignore the fact that Andrew had only been frightened, but not yet injured, when he’d believed he’d seen the soldier and the field.

Instead I put out the word about the short man and his red, late-70s van.  I didn’t put a lot of emphasis on the color of his eyes, the striking blue-green Andrew had described.  Those might be colored contacts, used to throw pursuers off track, to get everyone looking away from the man with plain brown eyes.  I thought it might not be a coincidence that he’d lied to Andrew about losing a contact.  If he wore them, it would be an easy excuse to think up.

_______

The next day, I saw a story in a several-days-old newspaper, an account of a drug bust in a neighboring county.  Since narcotics guys often go undercover, they’re never photographed directly.  The paper ran instead a typical drug-bust shot, in full color, of the heavy, military-style boots of one of the narcos, with the spoils of his victory laid at his feet: a pile of pink and yellow opium poppies at his feet.

It took several days of grab-assing before I could go in the farm outbuilding across the highway from the field of poppies.  One to get denied a warrant on lack of probable cause, and two to track down the absentee owner and get her permission to search.

Inside, the floor was concrete, as Andrew had said.  The frame of an outdoor chaise lounge was left behind, and underneath it were dried streaks and splashes of blood, but not nearly the amount that Andrew Orchard had shed there.  I searched, but the tub was nowhere to be found.

_______

I interviewed the narcos.  They hadn’t seen anything.  I called the owner of the adjoining farm.  She had no idea who might have been trespassing on her property.  Nowhere was the red van seen, nor its owner.  My phone was silent.  The investigation stalled.

It was as if the whole thing had never happened, which meant that somewhere, in another town, the whole thing was going to happen again.

_______

About three weeks after Andrew Orchard’s discharge from the hospital, and a week from the last time I’d spoken to him, his sister Ellen called me.

“Andrew’s better,” she said.

“Well, I’d heard he was recovering,” I said.

“No, he’s better,” she said.  “His oncologist says there’s no sign of the cancer.  It’s gone.”  She started to cry.  “We just heard an hour ago, and for some reason, I thought I should call you.”

_______

Of course a blood cancer cannot be cured by draining and replacing the blood.  Even so: Andrew was healed.  A second set of tests validated the first.   The oncologist called it spontaneous remission and said it happens every once in rare, rare while.

Andrew got a job as a groundskeeper in the graveyard he’d always liked, a job that took him, at the western edge of the cemetery, within 25 feet of the spot he’d been abducted from.  It didn’t bother him, he maintained.  Very little did, these days.

I know this because I went there to visit him one August day.  He was still slender, but gaining muscle.  The healthy smell of chlorophyll from freshly clipped grass clung to him, over the pleasant salt tang of sweat.  His throat wound had faded to the palest pink of scars.  You wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it.

I commented on his hair, which had grown back a lighter, reddish brown.  He explained that it happens sometimes after chemotherapy.

Later that night, I couldn’t help but wonder if he’d been permanently marked by a different encounter.

With his gaunt frame and blue bandanna headwrap, Andrew Orchard would easily have been identified as a cancer patient.  Even to the eyes of a stranger.  Could Andrew, and later his sister, have misconstrued the remark the monk-cowled man had made as worked with his knife?  The man had never directly called Andrew evil; he had said that evil needed to be destroyed, then drained away Andrew’s leukemic blood.

But then I remembered the sight of Andrew lying in the blackberry bushes, dumped like waste, not even afforded the dignity of clothing, looking so like a corpse that he’d initially been taken for one.

I became a cop so I wouldn’t have to think about the little bits of trivia that you pick up even without higher education.  Like the fact that our word demon comes from the Greek word daimon, meaning divinity.  Like the idea that demons and angels are two varieties of the same creature.  Like the theological motif found in several faiths, that says that sanctity can be reached through a descent into wickedness, suggesting that the universe is a whole, and that evil serves its overall purpose as much as good.

Was the monk-like man evil?  Is cancer evil, or is it just biology?

Mostly, though, I wonder where the cowled man is now, and what purpose he found for Andrew Orchard’s blood, the blood he carried away with him, the blood he’d said had a wild animal in it.

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