Wild Pony Publishing

Chapter One


     Three men walked down the brightly lit hallway. The Zavala County Sheriff walked on the far side and in lock-step with the grief stricken man to his right. Keeping pace on the near side was the man’s uncle, Clarence Leroy. Most folks called the second man CL and knew the man between he and the lawman was his nephew, Harlan McFadden.

     The Sheriff and CL were painfully aware of the horror the man had faced three days before and were watching for tell­tale signs of the likelihood of him collapsing. They knew he might not have the strength to do the herculean task required of him, but if he stumbled they would do their best to catch him and ease his fall.

     Fragile, pale, spent but determined, Harlan continued his solitary walk as the walls, ceiling and floor began to close in upon him.

     An arm’s length in front of the threesome, dressed in hospital-white, the Medical-slash-Examiner-slash-Coroner, or whatever title folks bestowed upon him, led the way down a brightly lit hall deep in the bowels of Del Rio’s single hospital and toward a pair of doors at the far end.

     Harlan had never imagined—not in a million years—he would ever be one of those parents in those weekly TV hospital dramas who were asked by a stranger dressed in white to con­firm if the body lying atop a stainless steel table had once be­longed to a loved one of theirs. But, here he was—he had to do it—no one else was available. Nor would he have ever asked such a thing of anyone else. No. Not in a million years. Being her father required only he could be the one.

     The shining, stainless-steel doors, each equipped with a foot square pane of opaque glass, suggested the room inside was well lit, ready for the grisly task yet to be performed.

     The Coroner, stepping aside, extended a latex gloved hand indicating the four of them were to enter the room beyond. And in this room death reigned supreme.

     Harlan placed his palm against one of the cold steel doors, and his hand began to tremble. Still, he was determined to do the thing required of him, but a dread of entering the room locked his legs in place. Death awaited him and he understood what he saw would be the end of life as he knew it. The ex-lawman, ex-husband, and now, ex-father felt his knees buckle. A cold hand pushing through his rib cage squeezed his heart with a pressure unlike anything he’d ever felt in his life. He struggled to catch his breath. He struggled to remain erect.

     Exhaustedhe paused—inhaled deeply and pushed the doors inward. As he did, he heard his mind tear, and felt the whispery grind of his heart breaking. His eyes—void of life, dulled with confusion—ached from the blinding glare of the fluorescent lighting strategically placed about the room. He held a palm across his forehead, allowing them time to adjust to the overpowering brightness. And slowly, they focused. Before him was a scene he’d seen hundreds of times on TV.

     The room was austere, bare, except for the most basic of essentials. But the things he saw spoke of the work required of those who performed grisly tasks in it daily. The gleaming stain­less steel prepping table, its edges rolled into drain-channels on both sides, hardly needed an explanation. Nor did the funnels built into each end of the table. The oversized storage tanks be­low the table did not need to tell what they held hidden within.

     The rack secured to the side of the table, with its clear plastic hoses attached to hand-held tools—saws, scissors, nozzle-tipped suction guns, pliers and an assortment of pencil thin probes— told a grim story of what was expected of them. An aged and tightly coiled garden hose, the tag still attached as proof of its long ago purchase from the long dead Western Auto store north of the hospital, dripped water meant to flood the ceramic-tiled floor once all of their grisly work was finished, and begged to be replaced.

     At the center of it all, atop the spotless table, lay a child-sized form beneath a white sheet. In vain, Harlan prayed the small rise of the white sheet covering her nose would flutter, even if only a tiny flutter, but it refused. A child’s hand, palm slightly cupped, fingers curling upward, extended from under the sheet. A lock of blond hair entwined in it, snaked from under the round of a child-size head. He reached for the curl of hair he had brushed each and every morning before he sent her off to school—a keep-sake—but it still retained the tendency to curl and slowly disappeared under the white sheet.

     That springing of hair was the last thing the father ever saw which resembled life in his daughter. The Sheriff and the Uncle were unnerved by the curl as it shrank into a tight coil.

     A tear dripped from the tip of the father’s nose. All was lost and now he knew it.

     The Coroner stood on the far side of the table. Damn. I hate this job. Always handing out bad news, never the good! his eyes said. Lately, he’d taken to scolding himself for not accept­ing the position of Vice-President his father had offered him in the family banking business. Or, that he could have been a min­ister—that was what his mother wanted him to be. At least men of God could speak of life and deathit was what was expected of them, he thought, but that ‘calling’ was not in the deck of cards God had dealt to him, either.

     State law required the presence of the proper person—a mother or a father—or someone who could give a nod to the dreaded question yet to be asked. If need be, it could be a close relative, maybe a member of his former church, the Holy Cross and Communion Church of Jasper Corners—or maybe someone like Brother Lyle, the former pastor of the church which Harlan and his now dissolved family once attended. And the same law required a person of responsibility within the hospital be present to hear the words they dreaded themselves. And it had been the Coroner’s duty far too many times.

     He saw an uncanny resemblance of the father and the child on the table. His hand trembled as he reached for the cor­ner of the sheet near the body’s head and readied himself to ask the hard question.

     In the horror of the Coroner’s work shop, Harlan’s moods were beginning to swing to extremesfrom an unbeara­ble sense of loss to anger the likes of which he’d never known. Where is the humanity in this room? Why not a vase of flowers? What could possibly be the harm in flowers, he wondered. Why not play soft sweet music, maybe a song or two she loved so much instead of that damn crying in their beer crap? I would have told them which ones she loved. And why not let her wear her favorite dress beneath the sheet? He’d sent one along for that purpose. Where the hell is it?

     As quickly as he raged over such issues, he let go of them. What’s done is done. Maybe those soap operas got it right after all. There is no humanity in mankind anymore.

     Although it tortured him to be the one to view her, even before the sheet was lifted from her face, he knew it was his sweet Sue Ellen. Even so, he would do his job and burden no one with his responsibility. No one should ever be asked to view the mortal remains of a loved one unless a parent was not avail­able. But even then, it should not be pushed upon anyone. There are people who could not do such a job. And others who could.

     The Coroner pulled back the sheet exposing the face be­neath it. The singular beauty—the perfection—the chalky pale­ness of it, locked the man’s throat. Protocol required he asked the question, but he was unable to do so. All he could do was wait for a yes or no from Harlan.

     Harlan felt faint and fell to the side. And as he did, Sher­iff Moody and CL caught him. Regaining his composure, the fa­ther looked at his daughter—her eyes closed—his wet with tears. He wiped at his nose with a handkerchief offered by CL. Zavala County’s Medical Coroner waited, pen in hand, for the answer he had to have.

     Finally, Harlan nodded his head and whispered, “She’s my baby girl.”