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The Fire of Ill Friends

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He'd been deemed one of those dubious bad guys – a vicious criminal with no relevant past and undeserving of even basic human rights. He was an animal, and that was that.

Men fell like dominoes at his arrest. They wanted to charge him as fast as humanly possible, but he had no identity nor a clear motive for his brutal retaliation against the Baltimore police department. To me, determining who he was and from where he’d fallen was far more important than quickly booking him over a B&E and his subsequent violent takedown.

To his captors, he was just a homeless man found in an abandoned building downtown. He was probably ill and possibly injured, but that was inconsequential. What he needed was a psychological assessment, counseling, and a hot meal, but instead got the long arm of the law, and he wasn’t going down without a fight. When boxed in and desperate, who among us could blame him?

The ungodly amount of blood was part of the issue. That and, of course, his violent aggression directed at our boys in blue. They had wanted him to pay for his trivial misdemeanor and apparently bit off more than they could chew. There’s nothing more alarming than battling a blood-covered heathen, especially one that appears to be feral. Since we live in a world of extremes, to the police, he was either severely injured or had butchered and cannibalized someone. They chose to assume the worst.

After he was placed in custody, you would think the police would’ve confirmed an injury or not. Why had he not been examined by a doctor after he collapsed? The answer was simple: no one would go near him. No one was willing to risk their life for a man who clearly didn’t want to be helped. He was brutal. He was terrifying, even lifeless at the bottom of a staircase. He was inhuman to his apparent rescuers, which is quite ironic.

But how threatening was he, really?

“You tell us,” they say, but what they mean is, “You tell us what we want to hear, and we’ll let you go home and feed your dogs.”

It’s cool for September in Quantico, Virgina. I’m hungry and exhausted and almost to my car after my Wednesday class, when my boss grabs me. The FBI has never held its educators’ comfort or personal lives in high esteem. My time is their time, and we both know it.

My boss wants facts or extrapolated theories in the next twenty-four hours, so in true FBI fashion, he throws me in a black sedan and offers me a bottle of water, my makeshift dinner for the day.

I’ve never claimed to be a miracle worker or at all important to humanity. If anything, I’m as sick in the head as the violent wanderer we’re driving across the state to meet; I merely have better PR ... sometimes. But what I can do, is draw overarching conclusions about how to find and ensnare unidentified suspects. I create theories based on gut feelings. It may sound wildly inappropriate to base an arrest on a gut feeling, but the evidence is always there. I just interpret it with a bit more panache.

Oftentimes the call comes in the night. “Meet me there in three hours,” he’ll tell me. So in three hours, I’m there, bleary-eyed and at the disposal of my FBI boss. I scrutinize the bloody mess he presents to me and poof, there it is – a three dimensional model of the scene rebuilt layer by layer in my mind, waiting to be explored and exploited. A cage then erupts from the ground and I’m trapped – now a villain, a creature, a misunderstood monster – creeping in windows, ducking down hallways, or racing past trees, my cloven feet thudding against the cold, wet earth. In my fabricated tableaus, I bloody my hands or violate bodies, pulling triggers and slicing flesh in the same vein as the fiend being sought by the police. In an aching, empty heartbeat, I become the thing of nightmares.

When the vile deed is done, and I am back in what appears to be reality, I can look down at a breathless victim, sprawled out and carved up, and see, not the doings of the monster, but the path that led him astray. If you follow that path back in time, you will find our future butcher, often cowering alone in the unrelenting darkness. If you can find what made the beast, you will find the beast itself.

But in the end, I’m at the mercy of my own imagination. I can only draw conclusions from the bank of my own knowledge, but at least I’ve seen much in my thirty-five years alive. I’ve watched fathers drink themselves to death. I’ve watched families crumble and fade. I’ve chased rapists across countries and murderers through time. I’ve been deceived, eviscerated, and damaged beyond repair. These experiences have strengthened my unique set of skills, driving me further into the night to find the men I hunt.

But one cannot cross that malevolent veil and not bring back a souvenir. And so, after I creep and tumble into the minds of the outcasts of society, I wake up a little bit darker – my mind a little less stable – each time I wander away. They call my unique ability a superpower, but that is an unfortunate and highly inappropriate misnomer.

“I don’t know what you’re expecting from me,” I say from the front seat of the sedan currently racing down the highway. His information is brief and tip-toes around my area of expertise since I help catch the bad guys, I don’t grill them after their arrest. I’m a teacher, not a cop, and certainly not a special agent anymore. This is a detail the director of the Behavioral Science Unit frequently overlooks.

“Thirty minutes, Will. That’s all I’m asking for. Study him and see if you can get a name, or maybe where the hell he came from.”

“You don’t have his name,” I say. It’s not a question. The fighter won’t speak to anyone, he tells me. “And the man’s injured?”

His face is emotionless, and he stares out the windshield. “Partially blind, too,” he says.

I have to scoff at his somber reply. How did a partially blind and injured, unarmed man incapacitate six police officers and federal agents?

My boss understands me more than I’m often comfortable with, so he answers my internal dispute, “He fights about as dirty as he looks.”

Of course he does. “Don’t they all?”

“This one’s brutal, Will. He was taken down with one shot, but it barely grazed his shoulder. Lucky for us, he backed up and fell down a flight of stairs. The concrete knocked him out cold. Looked like he broke his neck, but he’s alive.”

“Where is he now?”

“Hopefully still cuffed to a bed at Mercy Medical.”

My head shakes without any prompting from my brain. We’re driving to Baltimore, away from my home in Wolf Trap, and it’s already seven thirty. “You know I have classes tomorrow.”

“Not anymore.”

He’s so smug, but I lost my ability to say no to him the day he ripped me from the relative comfort of my lecture hall and made me a special agent the first time. I sold my soul for the opportunity to become those that lurk in the darkest corners of society. But I have stopped bad men, and I have saved some victims. I’m obligated now, and my hands are both tied and blood-stained because of it.

It’s almost nine when we get to Mercy. I’m far too familiar with this particular hospital and as soon as the doors rush open, the stench of latex and bleach makes me gag. As we stand at the check-in, my boss confirming our arrival, I’m struck by a memory – not one from the near past but the far.

Baton Rouge Medical, that’s what this place reminds me of. My neighbor died in Baton Rouge. She was like a mother to me, the wife of a war criminal, and an accomplished seamstress. She was the only person to ever remember my birthday. I thought of myself as her third son, since her other two boys had grown and left years before. I came to her house more than her husband would have liked, but I was a latchkey kid and had nowhere else to go.

The birthday celebrations stopped when I was fourteen. I went to visit her at Baton Rouge Med after school one day, and she was gone – no explanation, no goodbye – just gone. Death is like that, though. In an instant, we plunge into darkness and never wake up. We simply vanish from this world without a goodbye, a reason, or sometimes even a trace.

Up several flights of winding stairs and past no fewer than nine very pissed-off cops, we arrive. My boss is right about the dirt; the man is covered in red dust. A sedative is keeping him calm. Though weak, his fists randomly burst to life, violently cracking the cuffs against the gurney rails. He loses his strength quickly though, and retreats back onto the bed, his wrists now raw and tinged with fresh blood.

“I’m still unclear as to what you want me to do,” I say to my boss. Interrogation is not my forte and the perpetrator has already been caught. My time would be far better spent grading papers.

“Work your magic.” He winks and steps out of the room, leaving nothing between me and this potentially deranged psychopath but an inch of steel chain.

Again, I’m left reeling over the blatant disregard for what it is that I do. There is nothing supernatural about me. I’m empathic, not telepathic. It doesn’t take a genius to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. It just takes practice and a little altruism … though that is the hardest part to grasp. But regardless, it’s a skill, not magic.

I’m still safely at the foot of the bed when I begin, “My name is Will Graham. I’m a Special Agent with the FBI.” Nothing about him hints that he understands my words or my attempt at a non-hostile introduction. “Do you know where you are?”

His uninjured, inky-black eye stares back at me, not pleading or threatening, just assessing my puzzled gaze.

“You’re at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland,” I continue. “You hit your head and you killed three people. You severely injured three others. Can you tell me your name?”

No.

His face is chiseled with lofty cheekbones, a thick brow ridge, and wide forehead. He looks Baltic or Scandinavian, tall and imposing with an elongated Nordic skull and a pronounced jaw. His unkempt, dark hair is twisted and knotted down the back of his head. It’s strange; he looks like a warrior from an Arthurian legend.

“Do you speak English?” I wonder. “Español?” It’s a shot in the dark. “Italiano? No? Parlez-vous Français? Um, wait, Deutsch?”

Still no reaction, not even a flinch. In fact, his eyes have gotten darker, possibly with rage. I’ve been around violent criminals before, but this one is oddly arresting, and I can’t stop studying him.

In addition to the cuts and scratches across his face, a thin scar snakes around his right eye like a shepherd’s crook. His left, however, is marred or possibly gone, as though the lid had been turned to soft, fleshy putty, worked and then adhered in a mass over his eye, effectively sealing the socket. A shaggy, short, graying beard frames his pallid lips which remain silent despite the tempest that periodically rages through his stiff upper body. He makes no noise at all – no grunt when he arches his back; no cries of pain when he fights his restraints; no questions or responses until. “Norsk?” I suddenly wonder aloud.

I don’t know why I said it, but his head cocks back and he looks down his broken nose at me, still unblinking.

“N-Norsk?” I repeat, stumbling over this simple word.

His reaction is unaltered, so I step closer to better view his dirt-streaked face. Was it even a reaction or did I imagine it?

“Are you Norwegian?” As though asking this question in English is useful. “Uh, takk skal … do ha?” I grimace and shake my head. Why am I thanking him? I don’t speak Norwegian. I only know three phrases, and I’m not about to ask him where the bathroom is.

His single, glaring eye stares back at me, unamused or possibly disgusted. Now we’re both troubled by my mispronounced and inappropriate declaration of gratitude – that is, if he understood me at all.

His hands suddenly jerk, cracking the metal cuffs against the gurney rails again, and I falter back. I’m invading his space and he let me know it – budding communication; this is good, though startling.

He shakes his right hand, listening to the metal ring drag against the plastic bed frame. He’s moving carefully with a focused diligence, scratching the cuff on the rail as he tests his range of movement. Watching his eye widen in satisfaction has me instinctively pawing my right hip – I’m unarmed. I came straight from my classroom at the academy, not my home.

His right hand stops and he stares at my face, his single eye trailing between my two. He twists his left hand and we both listen to the scraping of that cuff against plastic and metal. My eyes dart to his other hand and I know he’s watching my attention be diverted to his restraints.

Are they loose? Has he picked them? Is he strong enough to crack the bed rails? Adrenaline pumps down my spine and the hair on my neck stands. The room is basically empty. Unused IV tubes have been discarded on the bloody floor. Small vials of sedatives are abandoned on the counter. There’s nothing useful in here. I’m weaponless.

He remains focused on me as he slowly scrapes his fingernails over the rails – left hand, right, left …  My heart quickens and my eyes flick between his hands as I follow the scratching.

Right.

Left.

Right.

From above, an icy blast of cold recirculated air whirs from a vent, and I shudder, breaking my hypnotized gaze. I know what he’s doing. It’s subtle and conniving – it’s ominous. He’s showing me how astute he really is.

This is not the crazed heroin addict everyone keeps assuming. This isn’t a violent drunk. This man is cunning. My eyes return to his, and I catch the beginnings of a smirk that immediately falls from his face. He’s happily watching me prickle with apprehension. He’s controlling the movement of my eyes.

I break the haunting silence of the room. “Not a talker.”

His hands fall back to the bed.

“Can I get you anything?” An empty offer, though if he decided to speak right then, I’d be more than obliged. “I’d offer you a drink, but honestly, I’m afraid you’ll bite me.”

He’s contented now and ignoring me as he settles back onto the gurney. He closes his eye, finished with me, and I can’t say I blame him. I prattled on, thanked him in Norwegian, and then played his little puppeteering game. His lucidity spurs on my desire to piece together his story. Nothing about his behavior fits a profile. He’s not unpredictably violent like I was told. He’s not mentally handicapped. He’s an intelligent, bloodied man intentionally bound to a medical gurney. But by whose intention? I could make a fair guess.

I can’t help but stare even though he now lies motionless. It feels as invasive as watching someone sleep, though I know he’s expecting me to watch him. He’s not yet wearing hospital robes and his injuries are still uncovered – some still seeping onto the crisp sheets now stained red and sandy. He’s not clothed in the hodgepodge remnants of a church’s cardboard box charity, but a patched and coarse wool shirt and a roughly hewn leather vest that covers him from shoulder to mid-thigh. His muddy pants are cut and whip stitched in the same vein. This is the attire of a man who disappeared from modern society. This is a man who was lost and unfortunately found.