Red and blue lights danced in the darkness. Bright white ones flooded the yard. Cordons of crime-scene tape surrounded the burned-out farmhouse. Everywhere there were squad cars, fire engines, and ambulances. Everywhere there were police and firefighters, many of them picking their way through the smoldering ruins.
Off to one side, beyond the reach of the lights, Paige sat on the back bumper of one of the ambulances, barely paying attention to the activity around her. She was shivering, despite the heat and the thermal blanket an EMT in the ambulance had wrapped around her. In shock, she fought back tears, angry with herself that she hadn’t suspected the house might have been booby trapped.
She was being irrational. There had been no reason for her to suspect there was an incendiary device hidden in the house. Or anything else dangerous, for that matter. Obviously, neither had the possibility occurred to Clarissa. But still, anger raged inside Paige—and guilt over having not listened to her gut and insisting they not drive out here. It turned out to be the worst kind of wild-goose chase. A near deadly one.
“McGraw,” someone said to her.
She looked up and saw Captain Bellamy standing over her.
“You okay?” he asked her.
She nodded her head slowly, but no words came out. Thrown to the ground by the second of the two blasts, she had had sense enough to roll out the flames on her shirt, and then get back to her feet and rush into the burning house to drag Clarissa out. Covered with nicks, cuts, bruises, burns, and dirt, she let her appearance speak for her—and the EMT who jumped out of the back of the ambulance from behind her.
“She has minor lacerations and first- and second-degree burns on her back and arms,” he told Bellamy. “No concussion, though. She was lucky. We’ll take her to the hospital so the doctors can give her a thorough exam. They’ll want to treat the burns and dig a few micro-shards of glass out of her back, but she should be fine otherwise.”
“And the others?” Bellamy said grimly.
The EMT shook his head.
“One deputy is doing okay. He just has a few second-degree burns and some scratches. But the other deputy, he’s in rough shape. He’s going to lose an eye, maybe both. An ambulance is taking him to the hospital in Menomonie.”
“And the detective who got pulled out? Inspector Wright?”
“She’s critical, but stable for the moment. When the propane tank blew, she got shredded. She has third-degree burns and severe lacerations. She’s lost a lot of blood. We’ve called for a medevac. She needs to get to the burn unit in St. Paul. Like now.”
As if on cue, there was the sound of a helicopter in the distance, the whir of its rotors growing louder. They all looked up. To the west, Paige could just make out a set of flashing lights in the night sky. Behind the helicopter, the horizon was black with billowing storm clouds.
She jumped up. The pain from the cuts to her back surged. She ignored it.
“I want to go with her, sir.”
Bellamy gave Paige a stern look, and then looked at the EMT.
“Is there room?” he asked.
“There should be space,” the man answered.
Captain Bellamy appeared to mull things over for a moment. Paige looked at him anxiously, hoping he would agree to let her go. The answers to any questions he had for her could wait until morning, she told herself. Forget the report I owe you. Fuck the appointment with IA. Let me go with her!
“Yeah, go ahead, McGraw. I’ll stall Internal Affairs,” he said to her, seeming to read her thoughts. “She has no family to meet her at the hospital. You’re her partner, all she’s got.”
“Come on, then,” the EMT told Paige, “we’ve got to go.” He put a hand under one of her arms to steady her. “They’re taking her by ambulance to an open stretch of road about a quarter mile from here. That’s where the med flight is landing.” The hum of rotor blades growing louder, she could tell the helicopter was beginning its approach. “If we hurry, you can join your partner in the ambulance.”
Still woozy from the blast, trying to hold the blanket on her while keeping up with the EMT, she stumbled over the rough, root-infested ground as if she were running in a dream. A bad dream. Captain Bellamy’s words echoed in her mind. You’re her partner, all she’s got.
Soon, they arrived at another ambulance on the opposite side of the farmyard. Inside, two more EMTs were huddled over someone on a stretcher—Clarissa—applying dressings.
“She’s going along to the hospital with the patient,” the EMT with Paige said to the other two. “She’s her partner.”
The EMTs nodded silently, and one of them helped Paige up. Once inside, the doors were closed, and the ambulance left.
Paige took a seat on a bench toward the back and put on a spare shirt offered to her. She looked at the person on the stretcher. It was Clarissa, alright, although she was barely recognizable. Stripped down to her underwear, her bloody and burned clothes lay on the floor around her. Half her body looked charred. She also had deep cuts on her, caused by flying debris, Paige supposed, revealing bloody layers of raw tissue just beneath the surface of her skin. The two EMTs were working diligently to wrap these in bandages.
Paige bent over and placed her head in her hands, struggling to stifle an impulse to vomit. Gaining control of herself, she picked up her head and stared at the ambulance wall, not daring to look Clarissa’s way again. She felt a bump as the ambulance left the dirt track to the farmhouse and turned onto the gravel road.
Agitated, Paige leaned her head back, and let out an expletive.
“Fuck!” she screamed, all the anger and guilt and frustration inside of her finally coming to the surface.
Instinctively, the two EMTs looked up at her, and then quickly returned to helping Clarissa.
“Did that feel good, ma’am?” one of them asked her while applying another bandage to her partner.
Paige nodded. The sudden release of pent-up emotions did make her feel a little better.
From outside the ambulance, the sound of rotors grew loud again. The other EMT bent forward and looked through the windshield.
“We’re here,” she announced as the ambulance came to a halt.
Quickly, the back doors flew open. Outside, two Wisconsin state troopers stood ready to help transport Clarissa to the waiting helicopter. Paige hopped out first and stepped to one side, leaving room for them to lift Clarissa out. As she came out, carried by the EMTs and troopers, she opened her eyes and saw Paige.
“Don’t leave me,” she begged Paige in a hoarse voice, her scorched face contorted with fear. She reached a hand toward her. “Please, don’t leave me.”
“I won’t,” Paige promised her as she went by.
Aloft, flying west through the ink-black sky, Paige sat next to Clarissa, a hand placed on her one unburned hand. Like the way Clarissa had held hers back at the MEs. It just seemed the right thing, as much for her as for her partner. She needed her to live.
Clarissa still had her eyes open, but they were fixed on the ceiling of the helicopter. To Paige, they looked vacant, devoid of any awareness of her surroundings. She hoped they weren’t losing her.
There was a sudden jolt and the helicopter quivered, causing Clarissa to let out a low moan. Paige grabbed Clarissa’s hand with both hers now and tried to reassure her.
“Just a little turbulence,” she told her. “You’ll be okay. It’s not much longer to the hospital.” She had no idea whether any of what she said was true. She hoped it was.
From the cockpit, the co-pilot looked back and informed everyone, “Hang on, we’ll have to fly through the storm. It’s too big to go around.”
Quickly, the flight nurse began to tighten straps, first on Clarissa, then on Paige, and, last, on all the equipment and gear surrounding them.
“Don’t worry,” he told them. “We do this all the time. You’re in good hands.”
It didn’t feel that way. Soon, the helicopter began to shudder and bounce. Violently. With each unexpected drop and twist, Clarissa moaned quietly. Then, suddenly she stopped and turned her head toward Paige and looked at her.
Is this it? Paige thought, afraid.
“I want to tell you,” Clarissa spoke hoarsely to her, clearly in pain.
“Tell me what?” Paige said, still fearful.
“Before I die…” she began.
“No, you’re not going to die,” Paige interrupted. “I don’t want to hear that talk.” Her eyes welled up.
“No,” Clarissa objected in a quiet voice, “listen to me.” She swallowed, and then continued. “Before I die, I want to tell you that I think one day you’ll make a great detective. Better than me. Maybe even better than your dad.” She swallowed again, fighting the pain. “You have great instincts, Paige. I should have listened to you.”
With those words from her partner, Paige could no longer hold back her tears. As she bent over Clarissa, they trickled down her face. With a quiet laugh, she whispered in Clarissa’s ear.
“Yeah, partner, you should have.”
Clarissa laughed a little too, although it was obvious it caused her more pain.
“You’re in charge now, Paige,” she told her. “Get yourself fixed up, and then find the son of a bitch who did this.”
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish