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|Paula McKenzie asks herself one night what she's doing still
working in the county jail after twenty-five years on the night
shift. She could have retired a year ago to tend her garden and
travel around the country with her husband. Yet here she is giving
CPR to someone most people would say doesn't deserve the time of day,
much less a second chance at life.
During the next--and worst--three days of her life, she will question her decision to stay with ever increasing wonder as she deals with two suicides and one attempt, accusations of negligence, a Grand Jury investigation, and a new, irrationally hostile boss.
For support and assistance, she turns to her husband and their Bahá'í community. Their counsel helps her deal with all the turmoil that surrounds her, but they cannot help her on her fourth and final day.
To learn more about the author, click on his picture.
Within minutes of her arrival at work, the new swing shift nurse stabs her as she tries to prevent him from beating an inmate. He then drags her through the jail's plumbing tunnels to the top of the main ventilation shaft to escape from the demons--real and imagined--who have plagued him since he was nine years old.
Now Paula has only her skill as a nurse and the lessons taught her by the Bahá'í Faith to not only help her survive, but help her tortured captor as well.
Breathe Not the Sins of Others introduces something new to the suspense genre--faith. Its heroine is an ordinary person with no unusual skills who does the most exceptional things in the most extraordinary circumstances. She prays. And she lives by the rules, even when doing so may mean her death.
Table of Contents
2. Silvered clouds
3. The Drill Instructor
4. Dragon Hunt
5. The Dawn's Early Dark
6. Hearth and Home
7. They Always Come in Threes
9. Grand Jury
10. Gettin' Down
11. Vacation Days
12. And Do What?
16. Hide and Seek
17. Counting Down
19. Ally, Ally, Oxen Free
Huddled in a fetal ball, skin glistening with perspiration, his body convulsed, shaking him like a dog drying itself after a swim. Despite the July night's muggy oppression, gooseflesh rippled the sheen of sweat covering his body. Hot tears of shame slid down his cheeks, joining the salty flow onto the saturated sheets.
He shook again as the sound smacked him.
No matter how hard he pressed his hands over his ears, he could not shut out the sonic assault. With each note of the terrifying symphony, he quaked.
Unbidden, his tortured mind reviewed the history of the appalling sounds--so innocent played as single notes, so chilling played as chords.
On that first night, squeaks from the bed in the next room, tentative and irregular, had slid through the wall with the ease of a breeze through a screen door. A soft murmur by a deep voice, somehow soothing and menacing at the same time, had followed. A higher voice had then chirped a response and the two voices began an exchange with fear gradually replacing trust as the chirps' primary characteristic. Then the bed had given a final protest, the door had closed, and quiet footsteps had brushed down the hall to his mother's room.
Within a few weeks, the squeaks became an insistent, rhythmic tattoo. As their rhythm had increased in tempo and duration, so had the frequency of the symphony's performance. Only the sporadic absence of the player of the bass notes kept it from becoming a nightly occurrence.
During each performance, however, new notes were added. The piece never seemed to be quite finished. He remembered vividly the first little yelp, so quickly muffled. Struck only a few times and then abandoned. Its memory still sent a shaft of ice through his heart.
An overlay of soft cries replaced it. Sharp, imperative commands answered sotto voce. Within a few days, both of these elements became mere punctuations in the opening movement. As the tormenting tattoo ascended to dominate the second movement, he couldn't decide if their absence was more frightening than their presence.
Soft sobs always closed these concerts, providing a plaintive background for the boy's whispered prayer of thanks that the concert had concluded, and his unanswered supplication that it never be played again.
The entire symphony's only saving grace was its brevity. Once the opening movement had been established, the second went quickly. But not tonight. The opening had been interminable with all sorts of hesitations and exchanges between the voices, as though it was a first rehearsal by rank amateurs. Then suddenly the bass voice spoke with a force and a rage he had never heard before. For the first time the words were clearly distinguishable.
"Harlot! Once you were pure! You were innocent! Now, look at you! Look what you've done to me! You've put your filth on me!"
A sharp slap and an immediate cry of pain shot through the thin wall separating the rooms, driving directly into the boy's ears like an ice pick.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," his sister cried. "I tried to tell you. What's happening to me?"
"It's God's punishment on you, Melissa. His curse on all women, making them unclean. Making them unworthy of righteous men."
"Am I going to die?"
"It would be better for you if you did, now that you're cursed. Soon you'll be forcing men to think unclean thoughts like your mother does. You're already starting to show the signs. Soon they'll be so obvious they'll be overpowering, tempting every man who looks on you to fall into sin. I prayed that you would be spared, but God did not see fit to answer."
"What can I do?"
"Pray. Pray to God to spare you from this degradation. Pray for him to take you now before you defile another man."
"Yes. Take you into His arms. Take you to heaven. It's still not too late, if you go quickly."
"But I don't want to die."
"You want to be temptress like your mother?"
"Mother's not a temptress."
"She's the same as all women. Cursed!" He spat the last word as though ridding his mouth of a vile taste.
"But she's not evil."
"You're becoming just like her. Soon you'll be taking on the same sluttish ways as your mother. You'll be a temptress. A whore! Just like all women! I thought God had given me the power to resist her wayward advances when He gave you to me. But now you've defiled me, brought me down into unrighteousness. You don't deserve to live anymore than she does."
Two loud smacks drove through the wall followed by the sound a sack of potatoes makes when it falls off a truck. A hush descended the way an audience holds its breath at the end of a brilliant performance before bursting into applause.
The boy eased his cramped limbs, waiting for the footsteps in the hall. They didn't fall.
"Please dear God, let it be over," he prayed in silence. "If You truly care, let it be over. I can't protect her from him. Only You can."
A scream that could only come from the depths of a tortured soul shattered his Amen. Lingering like smoke, it trailed into nothingness and died.
He jumped from his bed. He had to go to her. He had to comfort her. The deep voice, softened as though in prayer, froze him in his tracks, reestablishing the fear he had momentarily overcome. That soft voice always accompanied a tour through a hell in which he found himself flying across a room, or screaming in agony as somewhere in his thin body a bone snapped.
"You've made your sacrifice to God, my darling," the voice intoned. "I pray He takes you to His bosom"
His sister's door opened and slammed shut with enough violence to shake the wall against which the boy huddled. Rapid footsteps rolled down the hall to his mother's room where the door opened and closed no less gently.
Before his sister's door had closed, the boy had retreated to his fetal ball and pulled the covers over his head. While silence radiated from his sister's room like cold from an open freezer, he cursed God for His failure to intervene. Even more, he cursed his cowardice. Though most would say it was well-founded and, therefore, not cowardice at all, but prudence, the boy only saw himself as a craven, sniveling coward.
Two days after he had come to live with them last year, the boy's step-father, Duane, had called him into the kitchen for a man-to-man talk.
"Tommy, you're going to have to be the man of the house when I'm on the road. It'll be up to you to take care of your sister and your mother. They're only women and God made man to take care of them. So, even though they're both older than you, you've got to be that man."
His mother had stood mutely beside Tommy, a fresh bruise on the arm she wrapped around his shoulders. She smiled nervously as she nodded encouragement.
Tommy's elation at receiving this charge of trust had lasted a week. He had done a good job. His mother had said so repeatedly, both to Tommy when he had taken care of some task, and to his step-father when he had returned.
That day, however, Tommy began the slide that would culminate in tonight's abject failure. Nothing he did ever merited praise because nothing he did was ever good enough. He might get some part right once in a while, but there was always something wrong which negated what had been correct.
From the other end of the hall, a hideous, hurried reprise of the symphony's final movement interrupted his self-castigation, battered anew his exhausted mind, and decisively established his guilt. It, too, closed with a scream, deeper in tone, but no less shattering than the original.
The door to his mother's room opened. Scarcely breathing, he listened to booted footsteps pound down the hall to his door. He knew he was about to collect the wages of his sins just as certainly as he knew his executioner believed those sins were undeserving of pardon or mercy. Huddled in his fetal ball, he shook hard enough to rattle the bed against the wall. The door opened slowly.
"Come here, boy," the deep voice commanded.
Tommy squeezed his legs more tightly together and wrapped his arms around them in an effort to make himself smaller. Huddled in the shadow cast by the door, he tried to disappear, his terror reaching its nadir.
"I said to come here. You know better than to disobey me."
The menace in Duane's voice sparked Tommy's return from the dread that had characterized his relationship with his step-father for so many months. He realized he had gone as far as he could down that path. He could see that it literally led nowhere. He faced a wall that was insurmountable, impregnable, inviolable and he realized he had but two choices: He could huddle like a sniveling coward and accept this man's unjust punishment, or he could turn and face him.
He had had enough of huddling. All it had ever gotten him was another beating and now, probably, a dead sister and mother. He would probably join them, but at least he would do it like a man.
Carefully, Tommy unfurled himself and started to rise to face the man who had destroyed his life. As he turned towards Duane, he realized that he might be able to go around the insurmountable wall he faced. The window was open and only two steps away. He could dive through it and be in the woods before Duane could make it out of the house. Once there, he knew where to hide. It had worked before, it would work again, especially in the dark. He might be huddling, but only until he could go to the cops. They couldn't all be like Duane. One of them would believe him. They would have to.
Tommy took one more step in his turn to put off the monster he faced and then twisted away from its outstretched hand. With two bounding steps, he dove through the torn screen and landed on the grass. He rolled to his feet and sprinted for the safety of the forest that surrounded the house.
Knowing exactly where he was going, he cut sharply to the right a hundred feet in, ran twenty more, and skidded to a halt above the river a dozen feet below. He slid down the embankment and plunged into the cold water. Feeling his way to the root that formed a handle against the bank, he dove under the water and pulled himself into a small cavern. He put his feet down and stood up. His head broke the surface and grazed the dirt roof. Even in the driest part of the summer, the river's level had not revealed this hideaway. It had saved him several beatings. Now, it would save his life.
"Give it up, Paula. He's toast."
"Count. Don't talk."
"Five." Mace paused for her to blow another breath through the mask and resumed the cadence. "One and two and three and four and five."
What am I doing here, Paula, asked herself. Lack of oxygen was causing her vision to gray out and her attention to wander. I turn fifty-six in two months and here I am on a jail cell floor at a quarter past midnight trying to breathe for two while a deputy uses trite, cop-movie dialogue with utter sincerity because, to him, it's the way real cops talk. Another breath already?
She blew through the mask's one-way valve.
Was the lightheadedness getting worse, she asked herself, or were Mace's compressions speeding up?
I can't even straighten up to get a breath. Definitely too fast.
"Slow down, Mace. One per second."
He nodded. "... and five."
"Count one thousand one," she gasped.
Another nod. "...and three and one thousand four and one thousand five."
Better, she thought. Not perfect but at least the heart's got enough time to fill between compressions.
She sat up and took a deep breath. Her head cleared a little. Unhurried, hard-soled feet sounded in the hall outside the cell.
Paramedics? she asked herself. They're sure taking their time.
Impeccably shined, black Corfam shoes stopped at the door. Paula looked up through the bars that formed the security barrier of this Disciplinary Isolation cell to confirm who filled the shoes, though there was little doubt. Sgt. Benjamin Harris was the only one in the jail who wore them. Every deputy with more than a week's experience on the job reserved his Corfams for dress occasions because they just weren't practical for regular work. Scuffs could not be buffed out. Worse, they didn't breathe like real leather, so the deputy's feet lived in a sauna. The one and only advantage these completely man-made shoes had was that they could be polished to a mirror shine unattainable with a leather shoe. This made them perfect at the academy where, for some inexplicable reason, the quality of one's shoe shine dictated in large measure one's level of success there.
Sgt. Harris, however felt that it was his duty to personally uphold the highest, brightest, and shiniest image of the department under all circumstances. In his pursuit of that goal he always managed to avoid having to do anything that might scuff, wrinkle, or ruffle the perfection of his uniform.
"Paramedics?" Paula gasped.
"Just coming through Reception. What's your situation, Mrs. McKenzie?"
Paula ignored his question and huffed another breath through the mask. Mace started to answer, forgetting to restart his compressions.
"Five more and do a pulse check," Paula said.
Mace grudgingly pumped five quick, mostly worthless compressions, and sat back on his heels to catch his breath and wipe his streaming brow. Paula forced another breath in and checked the man's carotid pulse. Was there something there? She pressed a little deeper. Nope. Just hope. No pulse.
"One thousand one and one thousand two and..."
Harris nodded and stepped back into the hall. While he could be quite dense at times, the situation here was obvious enough even for him to grasp. He decided that waiting at the elevator to escort the paramedics would be the most helpful thing he could do at the moment, even though they already had an escort. It didn't occur to him that either of the rescuers might need relief, or that he should send another deputy or two to the scene to assist. Two people were all that were required to give CPR. And since one of them was a nurse, no one else was needed. Well, other than paramedics to transport the inmate to the hospital. It also never occurred to him that he should offer any assistance himself. He was the sergeant, second in command of the jail on this shift. The sergeant's job was to guide and direct the efforts of his deputies, which he couldn't do huddled over a dead inmate, soiling his uniform while giving CPR.
The pulse check had given Paula and Mace both a ten second break, but that was not enough to make much of a difference after a couple more series of compressions. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation is hard work. When it has to be continued for more than a few minutes, it is exhausting. Doing it in this small, overheated, airless, stench-filled, dingy space made it debilitating.
Mace's compressions flagged, losing their depth and force despite his excellent physical conditioning. Paula was having trouble keeping track of Mace's count. Each breath forced through the one way valve in the safety mask increased the floating feeling in her head and darkened her vision. She had passed the point where an extra breath for herself once or twice a minute was doing any good.
The rattle of the elevator's door, echoing down the concrete hall signaled relief, she hoped, not another looky-loo. The first person through the door was a redheaded woman in a paramedic's dark blue jumpsuit, carrying an Ambu-Bag. She dropped beside Paula and smoothly took over respirations. Squeezing the soft, blue football-like rubber bladder with its plastic mask on one end, she forced the next breath into the man immediately after Mace's five count. A male paramedic knelt across from Mace and called for a pulse check after the current set of compressions. Mace rocked forward one last time, sat back on his heels, and tried to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. The redhead pumped two breaths in, checked the pulse, shook her head at the firefighter, and the two of them began the next series of compressions and breaths. Both silently noted the inmate's pallor and the hint of cyanosis in his cheeks. His pupils, which the second paramedic had checked during the pulse check, still reacted to light, though sluggishly, indicating there was still some brain activity.
Paula scooted out of the way and stood up unsteadily. A paramedic bringing in the heart monitor/defibrillator grabbed her arm and helped her through the barred gate. She slid down the wall next to the door, feet splayed in front of her like a carelessly discarded doll. She nodded vaguely to his, "You okay?" He left her to set up the monitor.
Mace stood up and walked into the hall where he leaned his buffed body against the wall. Harris came over to him and asked for a report. Wiping his streaming face again, Mace said, "Still dead."
The Watch Commander, Lt. Robert Davies, who had brought the medics through the series of double gates and up the elevator, walked up behind Harris and asked, "You found him?"
"What'd he use to hang himself?"
"Towel. Torn in strips."
"Tied to the bars?" Harris asked.
Mace shook his head. "Looped it over the top cross bar." He paused, waving his hand in a give-me-a-minute gesture, and leaned over with his hands on his knees. After half a dozen deep breaths, he resumed. "He pulled on it just as I was looking in the window. It was like he was waiting for me. He looked right at me when he did it."
"So how come he's dead?" Harris asked, "You should have been able to get it off of him in a couple of seconds."
"That's what I thought, too. I opened the door and the gate and was in there in no more than five, ten seconds. But I couldn't get the knot loose. He yanked it so hard that the towel cinched down real tight. Couldn't get it loose at all. That towel stuff just binds up and won't come loose. I called for Paula on the phone, then went back to untie the knot. No go. Just couldn't get it. When she got here he was blue as my old Chevy and we had the worst time hacking through that stuff. All she had were these old, dull scissors. Next to worthless. Musta taken us three, four minutes to cut him free. 'Course by then he's toast, but we gotta start doing CPR anyway, right? That's when I called it in."
"But you didn't identify the emergency." Harris said. "Central had no idea it was a Code Delta situation. He notified me there was some kind of problem in D.I. that required the medic and that was all."
"Sorry. I was just too busy trying to get that noose off. I kept thinkin' if I can get it off, he'll be okay. But it just wouldn't come loose and Paula wasn't gettin' anywhere cuttin' through it. That's when I came back out here and called in the Delta."
"Sorry isn't good enough, Mr. Mason," Harris said. "That man is dead because--"
"--No, he's not."
All three men turned to look at Paula who stood in the doorway, drenched in sweat, one hand against the frame for support. She hoped her bra wasn't showing through her soaked clothing, not that her eighty-seven pound frame had all that much to show, but she didn't need any leering looks right now. That was the trouble with having to buy your shirts in the same department where ten year old boys got theirs. Besides being white, which accentuated her deeply tanned skin, the shirt material was considerably lighter than the men's khaki shirts. When wet, it became gauzily transparent. She just hoped the thin, white t-shirts she got in the same department made as good a camisole when wet as they did when dry.
"They got a rhythm and he's breathing," she said. Her short, salt and pepper hair dripped sweat into her dark brown eyes. She swiped at her face with her free hand. It just created a clean path for the next wave to roll over her forehead and into her eyes. "Took four hits with the defibrillator and a bucket of epinephrine, but they got him back."
"That's great," Mace said.
"I'm not so sure it is," she said, walking over to Davies. "He was anoxic for a long time. Long enough for some brain damage. How bad I can't say for sure, but he's not responsive. Far as I can tell, he's in a deep coma. We'll have to wait for a complete neuro eval, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's permanent."
"But he's alive, right? So that's good for us." Harris said.
"I think it's a little early to be passing out cigars," Davies said, shifting the ever present one in his mouth from left to right. "He still managed to do a really good job of trying to kill himself, and we managed to do a fairly poor job of responding to it." He looked at Mace. "Understandable under the circumstances for most people, but we aren't allowed the luxury of being most people. I don't know that it would have made much difference, but Sgt. Harris is right, you should have called in a Code Delta when you first saw him pull the cord. Then you'd have had more help and the paramedics might have made it here sooner."
"But the damage was already done, Bob," Paula said. "That towel was so tight, and it took so long for us to cut through it, that by the time we were able to start CPR, he was quite likely brain damaged from anoxia. All we did was keep him perfused long enough for the paramedics to revive his heart function. I can't see that Mace's delay made any real difference in the outcome."
"Excuse us, we're ready to transport," the redhead said. "You have our escort ready?"
"They're downstairs waiting beside your unit, ready to roll," Davies said.
Paula followed the paramedics down to the loading dock and watched them place the man in the ambulance. His neck still bore the dark red bruise of his noose. His respirations were still shallow and one of the paramedics hovered with the Ambu-Bag should they fail again. She had no doubt he would be placed on a ventilator within minutes of reaching the emergency room.
Chilled by the cold night air congealing the sweat on her skin, she turned around and hurried back into the building. Lt. Davies followed her inside.
"Good job, Paula."
She turned around, looked up his six-foot-three frame from her four-foot-nine height, and rubbed her arms. "I don't know about that, Bob. I'm not sure I did him any favors."
He nodded his understanding. He wouldn't want to live like that. And waking up might even be worse.
"Don't bother pulling your own incident number. Use Mace's, and start from when you were first notified. Write it as a supplemental to his report. No need to rush it. Get some dry clothes and do your rounds. We can go over it at breakfast. By the way, his name was Avery. Ring any bells?"
"No. And he isn't a was. He's still alive and, God willing, my prognosis is way too pessimistic."
"Point taken. Doesn't ring any bells with me either, but I thought you might know him. Help to explain why he did it."
"Sorry. Can't help you there. See you at breakfast." She checked her watch. It was one o'clock which meant she had three hours to change, catch up on everything she would have routinely had done by now, and write the report. No problem. As long as nothing else happened.