I AM SAM

By Bill Blume


“You gotta wonder what she did in a past life to deserve that,” a uniform officer says as I arrive. Officer Jonville looks close to tasting his midnight dose of coffee a second time. I’m not known for my forgiving nature with rookies like Jonville who can’t stomach a homicide. He escapes unscathed by me, save for the image of this woman’s corpse that will stay lodged in his brain until retirement and beyond.

For once, I’m in little better shape. The only reason I’m not moving around the room gathering evidence or out questioning neighbors is because if I take one step from my spot on that hideous, lime green carpet, I might faint. Thank God the crime scene techs aren’t here yet, they’d probably make me move.

I don’t need a forensic to know what happened here. This woman’s husband and she were doing what happy couples do. Then in the best moment, hubby screamed as if someone had ripped the skin from his face. She didn’t know what happened, asked him what was wrong. He grabbed the first thing he could get his hands on, a cheap digital clock, and smashed her head until she looked like an elephant stepped on her. Then he wrapped his hands around her throat and strangled her, squeezing the life out of her like a bug between two fingers. I’ve seen worse, but until this night, I’ve never witnessed the murder as it happened.

“Investigator Willis,” Jonville says, drawing me from my distraction, “found her wallet on the nightstand. She lived here. Her name’s…”

“Stella.”

“Yes, sir,” he says, with the obvious question showing on his face, “Stella Washington. You know her?”

I don’t answer. Hell, I still can’t stop staring at the body on the bed. Jonville shows some brains to go with his brass badge by not asking me a second time.

Sweat’s running down my forehead, and despite a chill in my soul, I can’t stop it. My armpits have been raining waterfalls since two o’clock this morning. I woke up a half hour before my pager went off, and somehow I knew the murder in my dream would be waiting for me at 10528 Dawndeer Lane. I’ve worked in the violent crimes unit with Henrico County Police a third of my life with a “batting average” of .800. I’ve seen enough shit to give toenails split ends—severed hands, autopsies on bodies that have already seen the bad end of a meat cleaver, even watched a man committing “copicide” take 19 bullets from three police rifles and two pistols at point blank range. Stella’s face ranks low on my gore list, but as I look over at the dresser mirror, I can still see her husband looking at himself and screaming her name like a bad stage actor imitating Brando.

“I’m not her,” I whisper, remembering the last thing he kept saying before I woke up. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

“Sir?”

“Forget it, Jonville.” Damn, I need a cigarette. “Has anyone seen the husband?”

“No, sir.”

Finally confident I can walk without falling on my face, I retreat to the front yard. Blue lights on five squad cars light up the cul-de-sac like some uni-colored, outdoor disco. All three local news stations are positioning their live trucks, eager for news that hasn’t already been recycled half a dozen times over the weekend for their Monday morning newscasts. The public information officer can deal with them when she gets here. I can make out faces peeking through the curtains of their two-story residentials. The good folks in the Raintree subdivision aren’t getting much sleep this morning.

I sit in my car and surrender to the need to shake. Fifty-five words per minute and I’m resorting to hunt-and-peck to use the mobile desktop in my beige ninety-four Ford Crown Vic.

All it takes is a matter of minutes, and I know enough about Stella’s husband to write a book about him. Yes, Big Brother is watching, and I’m using his computer.

Samuel Washington, born October 18, 1979, has made it into more than one police report. I read them all. Sam’s what we call 10-96. That’s police talk for “one crazy fucker.” In the past ten years, he’s tried to kill himself at least three times. Sam’s a diagnosed schizophrenic, but until last night, he’s never tried to hurt anyone else. Guess the voices in his head just don’t like him much even if they don’t know the razor goes down the road, not across the street.

Damn son of a bitch. I want to kill him, not because of what he did to Stella. I’m pissed because I can’t get him out of my head. Every detail refuses to leave like a bad dream should. The way it felt being inside her, how easily her face bent and bled… sensations that make my skin turn the same shade as the unstained portions of the bedroom carpet.

Get out of my head!

Maybe I’m turning into the “psychic detective.” If this is the rest of my life, I might join Sam on the seventh floor of St. Mary’s Hospital. That’s assuming I don’t kill him on sight. Maybe we can get a two-for-one special on a padded room.

Two knocks on the roof of my car scare Sam out of my head for an all-too brief moment. I turn to see Sergeant Helen Caster staring at me as if I was a two-headed fish she just pulled out of the James River.

“Hey, Sal,” she says. “Is it that bad in there?”

“Nah, probably just your usual domestic bullshit, the last one for this couple.” I’m not sure what else to say. I’m not known for keeping my thoughts to myself. Hell, this morning, I’ve got thoughts to spare that aren’t even mine.

“You must be going soft then, Sal. You look awful.”

“Just ate some bad fish,” I say.

Helen’s the one who gets to talk to the reporters. She’s one of the better public information officers we’ve had. Knows what to say to the vultures, but knows even better what not to say. I’d kill for her gift at the moment. That nightmare, Sam’s nightmare, keeps playing like a DVD player set on repeat. I’m not sure what I can tell her that’s based on facts and not the movie rental in my mind.

“Any suspects?” she asks.

I look straight at her, scared to even open my mouth. Helen’s staring at me, and I can tell her concern about me is changing from good humor to true worry.

“Sorry, hurting for sleep,” I say, forcing my best smile. “My guess would be the husband, but nothing solid on that. We’ll have a better idea once forensics gets in there and does their magic. Lady got clobbered by a clock. Probably will get a decent print off of that. No one knows where the husband is. Last thing anyone saw or heard of him was the guy running out of the house in nothing but his boxers screaming like an opera singer stepping on nails. Man’s a freaking loon.”

“You on dayshift today?”

“Yeah, gonna be a 24 ounce cup of coffee day.”

My usual jokes relax her concerns. She’s already smiling again, a nice smile, too. I’m even responding in kind, but as soon as she heads over to the house to get her own take, I’m nursing my aching head with my hand.

My day’s just starting, and come eight o’clock, I’m going where all the crazy people go.

***


If you're nuts and you live in Henrico County, Virginia, then at one point in your life you'll find yourself taking a car ride to Woodman Road. A few blocks down from I-295, planted amid lots of evergreens, a two-story building with tall windows and a brownish-orange brick exterior that smacks of "government building" practices the ultimate in discrimination. If you aren't crazy, then Henrico Mental Health doesn't want a damn thing to do with you.

After twenty years with the county, you can bet I've found myself in here more than I would like. Wish I could say it was only to drop off the crazy people, and I suppose that's true. Unfortunately, I've dropped off myself a few times, too. After ten years of getting into killers' heads, it's hard not to lose it. Part of me wonders if I finally have gotten lost where the buses don't run, and there ain't no coming back.

First time I came to bare my soul, they sat me down with a man. I got up and left with just a "goodbye." Yeah, it's sexist, but somehow I don't mind a woman thinking I'm crazy. I figure most women think I'm a mess anyway, so it's not as humiliating.

I've known Elena Carter for five years. She's been with Mental Health about as long as I've been investigating murders. They cram her and three other psychiatrists into one room and make them share that space while they supposedly never discuss their cases with each other—right. She's the only one in the office as I walk in there. Guess the rest of the mind readers aren't in yet.

“Morning, Sal," she says. Then she gets a look at me. "Bad dreams again?"

I don’t know how to answer her. Second time in the same damn day, I’m at a loss for words. Elena’s convinced that I secretly want to kill myself. She won’t say it, but some things you can just tell from what a woman doesn’t say.

For a good year, I kept dreaming that someone was chasing me through the county depot just down the road from here, and I couldn’t find my gun. The guy cornered me in one of those big huts where they keep sand for icy roads. I’m flailing in a huge pile of sand, and I can’t seem to get free. I charge him, we struggle for the gun and, suddenly, I see the other man’s face.

I’m looking at myself. The guy with the gun is me.

Then the gun fires straight up into my head, and I wake up thinking it’s time to find a new job.

That was five years ago, the thing that finally forced me to sit down and be the 10-96 in this place. Like going to a one-man AA meeting. Hi, I’m Sal, and I secretly want to kill myself.

"I just need to pick your brain for a moment," I tell her. She knows what I'm asking. The way her plump face screws up, I can tell she's not happy about it either. I’ve done my homework, and one of the reports on Sammy mentioned he and I have something else in common—the same shrink.

"Let's go across the hall," she tells me.

She doesn't say a thing to me until we're in "the Room" with the door closed. Very little seems odd about the Room at first. The sea foam green walls create a soothing mood with comfortable chairs and a coffee table, but no couch. The room is a nice place to hang out once you get past the video camera hanging from the ceiling in one of the corners, the lack of any decorative objects that might serve as blunt objects and the fact everything is nailed to the floor.

Elena blends in perfectly with the room in her gray pantsuit. Come to think of it, she never wears anything that clashes with this room. Can’t help but wonder if that’s on purpose or one of those “subconscious” things Elena and her pals love to talk about.

“Is this about the murder this morning?” she asks.

“Well, at least I know you have something worth sharing,” I say. She’s not the only one quick at reading thoughts.

“You know I won’t discuss anything about my clients,” she says, but I can tell she’s hurting to talk.

“Tell you what,” I say. “Why don’t we just sit down and discuss the finer points of schizophrenia? You can offer me a lot of examples. You know how slow we police boys can be.”

I’m still getting a dirty look, but there’s also that hint of thanks for offering her the way out she needs. We take our seats. Me, I get the purple chair.

“Let’s keep this simple,” she says. “Schizophrenics hear things—voices, typically. The voices can say anything and everything. I once had a man in here who eventually killed himself, because he kept hearing what he called demons telling him to hurt others. Sometimes, the voices aren’t remotely consistent.” Her tone changes on that latter point. I get the message. We’re talking about Sammy.

“One day it’s a little girl crying because her mommy is dead. The next, some man named Ted is espousing the proper technique for chopping up human remains to conceal a murder. Even more frightening, the voice sometimes turns out to be a neighbor or a close relative.”

“Why would that be frightening? I hear my mom nagging me all the time,” I say.

Elena isn’t laughing.

“Imagine you hear them saying personal things, things no one else could possibly know, and it turns out what you’re hearing is true. Imagine you have a dream about your neighbor breaking his arm, and then wake up to him knocking on your door because he needs you to drive him to the hospital.”

She has my attention now, and I’m reminded of waking up a half hour before my pager started tap dancing across my nightstand.

“What are you saying? Sam Washington is some kind of clairvoyant?” I’ve completely forgotten I’m supposed to be pretending we aren’t talking about him. Elena looks ready to pop my hand like some nun with a ruler.

“What I’m saying,” she says through grit teeth, “is that schizophrenia isn’t a single illness. It’s a broad term for several similar yet different problems.”

“And what do you do to help a person like that?” I ask, and I’m not sure if I’m asking for Sammy or myself. Elena lets the question hang out there, and I can tell those eyes, the same brown as the wooden chair she’s using, aren’t missing that something else is behind that question.

“I can counsel someone, even prescribe medication when needed. Unfortunately, some people can’t be treated.”

“Why not?” Sure as hell don’t like that last prospect.

“Sometimes, they aren’t imagining things,” she replies as if that shouldn’t be all that shocking a thought.

I’m trying not to laugh. She’s not being funny; I’m just nervous as hell.

“Sal, there are a lot of theories about schizophrenia, and they aren’t all the kinds of things any self-respecting psychiatrist places in research papers.”

She doesn’t intend to say more, and after this morning, I need her to. God help me. My chest is fluttering like a hummingbird, and my legs don’t feel like they could support my shadow if I stood.

“Tell me more,” I say, “please.”

“Sal, are you all right?” She’s been in my head too many times not to know I’m not doing well.

“I just need to know more.”

Elena knows I’m lying. She’s got her head tilted to her right in this “don’t bull shit me” look. Bless her heart; she lets it go. “Some people like to call it telepathy, necromancy or psychic powers. Probably the more accepted of the ‘exotic’ theories is memories.”

“Excuse me?”

“Memories from past lives,” she says. “We’re talking about reincarnation.”

I feel like someone just hit the “ctrl-alt-delete” in my brain. “You’re kidding, right?”

She’s still not laughing, and I can tell she’s searching hard for how to say what she’s got brewing in that head of hers. I live for baseball, but a game seven in the world series with the Yankees down by one in the bottom of the ninth doesn’t make me this anxious. I’m starting to sweat again, and that’s not good in this small room since my deodorant stopped working before I even got to the crime scene.

“If reincarnation is real, why do you think it must be a linear thing?” she says. “What law of nature dictates that you die on August tenth and start the next life August eleventh? It might well be more like die in 2004, be born again in 1607.

“Sal, all I know is that I don’t have a better explanation at this point. Our goal is to save everyone, but we never make it an expectation. We’re just like you. We need explanations for why bad things happen to good people.” She pauses there as if struggling to say something important, but what she finally offers me won’t help me find Sammy. “One thing I will tell you about Samuel Washington is that he is a good man, and if he’s actually done what you think he’s done, then as bad as what happened to his wife is, I’ll wager what he’s seen or heard is even worse.”

I’m not her.

The bottom drops out of my stomach like a trap door as I remember Sammy’s scream, and his words are taking on a new meaning. The one thing that still doesn’t make any sense to me is why Sammy is in my head.

I’m not him.

***


My next stop needs to be PSB, our little abbreviation for the Public Safety Building, what most would call the police department. Unfortunately, a shower and a change of clothes takes priority. That and I’m not really ready to see any of my co-workers just yet. So I take a right out of the parking lot to Mental Health. I live in the East End, so it’s back to I-295 I go.

“617 to radio,” I call into the communications center.

“Unit 617, go ahead,” a radio dispatcher with a squeaky voice replies.

“Show me clear from Mental Health.”

“Eight-forty-two hours.”

Good God, not even nine o’clock. I’m gonna need more coffee.

My Crown Vic coughs as I pull out onto Woodman Road and head north past the county depot. I keep asking myself where I would go if I was Sammy. I gotta end this investigation before I really do lose my mind. Last time I felt this bad was after a bad batch of sangria at a Christmas party two years back. That I’m sober this time around isn’t encouraging.

The traffic light at Woodman and Mountain catches me as the dispatcher assigns a unit to a call about a guy on a bike riding down 295 near Woodman. Thank God I’m not a road unit anymore, dealing with that kind of bogus call. Of course, I might not have killers in my head either if I was still dealing with crap like that.

Looks like the biker decided to ditch the interstate. I see this navy blue three-speed pulling off the exit ramp from 295 South. What a freak. The guy on the bike is wearing this long-sleeved white button-downed shirt with the sleeves rolled up. And the shorts on this guy are these ugly red and white polka dots. The closer he gets, the stranger he is. He’s on a woman’s bike, with the middle bar sloped downward, which I’ve never understood. Seems like that design makes more sense for a guy considering we’re a lot more sensitive between the legs. The guy’s hair is a mess, like he doesn’t own a hairbrush or something.

Might as well spare the road unit coming to find this guy. Besides, I could use the distraction. “617 to radio.”

“Unit 617, go ahead.”

“Radio, let the unit responding to the biker on 295 know he’s gotten off the Interstate at Woodman. He can cancel from—“

The bike rolls past me, and I see this panicked look on the guy’s face, like he’s seen the ass-end of hell. Those aren’t shorts. Those are boxers, Sammy’s boxers.

“Radio, keep the other unit coming!” I yell into my radio like some rookie getting ready to enter his first pursuit. “Subject is southbound on Woodman approaching the depot!”

There’s this hellacious pause while my excitement probably gives the radio dispatcher a heart attack.

“Radio is 10-7!” the dispatcher answers. That basically tells everyone on the radio to keep his trap shut unless he’s coming to help. Not that everyone and his brother doesn’t step all over each other trying to respond. The radio sounds like a digital accordion with all those guys transmitting at once. I’m just trying to get my car’s blue light flashing and u-turn at the same time without getting into a wreck.

The radio finally clears up as Sammy’s feet start moving faster than a man stomping grapes. “Radio, subject is wanted reference incident on Dawndeer Lane. He’s wearing a long-sleeved white shirt with red and white shorts. All units responding, use caution! Subject is 10-96.”

He’s got about as much chance of outrunning me on that bike as I do of losing the spare tire around my waist. That doesn’t stop him from trying. The idiot veers left off of Woodman.

“Subject just turned into the south entrance to the depot!” I radio all the guys coming.

In my head, I’m already filling in the blanks. Sammy’s been a busy boy. Stole a woman’s bike, some clothes, so why the hell come here?

I’m turning into the depot in time to see him go into a parking lot to the right, just behind a long, dirty white garage capable of housing up to twenty cars. Two long rows of white police cars, yellow ambulances and fire trucks split the lot in half. Gravel and bits of glass grind beneath the wheels of my car as I jam the accelerator to the floor. Got to get ahead of him!

He looks over his shoulder. I’m about to overtake him.

The son-of-a-bitch slips between two fire engines halfway down the row of cars.

“Dammit!” I’ve got to go around the entire row of cars. No way to know which way he’s going until I get to the end of the row.

Need to update my help that’s on the way. “Units coming to the depot, he’s ducked between some of the fire engines. I need the first two units on scene to block the north and south exits. Don’t let anyone out!”

That won’t stop him from jumping a fence, but he’ll lose the bike if he does that. Make a run for it, Sammy. Try it on foot. We’ve got tracking dogs. Again, I can’t help but ask myself, what the hell is he doing here? Why would he steal a bike to just to ride all the way out to Woodman Road?

I finally round the end of the line of parked vehicles. My car clears the last one, a huge fire truck, and I don’t see him. “No!” How could he disappear like that?

Time for another update. I grab my radio again. “I’ve lost him. He might have double-backed for the south exit! Anyone on it?”

“Unit 243,” one of the uniforms says. “Sal, I’ve got it covered. I haven’t seen him come this way.”

“Unit 271. I’ve got the North entrance. All clear.”

I hit the brakes and get out of the car. Where is he? Then I spot the bike on the pavement, behind a chain link fence over near one of the sand huts. Damn things look like big brown coconut shells with tall, open doors.

“617 to units responding to the depot,” I say. “I think he’s ducked inside one of the sand huts.”

I turn off my car and slip the keys into my front pants pocket. You’d be amazed how many rookies abandon their car with the keys in it for a perp to run back and take it. I pull out my forty-five caliber Glock from the holster on my right hip and get out of the car. The sunlight reflects off my gun’s silver finish, and the black grip already feels slick in the morning heat of August. My mobile radio goes on my left hip. There’s this orange button on it for an officer to hit if he gets in trouble. I’m hoping I won’t need it.

I approach the sand hut with my gun held ready and can’t stop myself from asking the question once more. What are you doing here, Sammy? This time, I figure it out. He’s trying to go where all the crazy people go: Mental Health, the one place he knows he can get help. This is the first time since the job jaded me that my heart goes out to a killer. I’ve spent less than twenty-four hours dealing with something he’s probably wrestled with all his life, and that he’s held it together this long is something I’ll probably never understand. I no longer want to see him die for invading my mind. I want to help him, if I can.

“Sam!” I call out. “I know where you’re trying to go. Let me take you there.” I step in front of the entrance to the sand hut, and I see him scrambling in vain to reach the far side of that pile of dirt. He stops, going perfectly still like a possum in the trash when you turn on your porch light.

“I’m Investigator Willis with Henrico Police,” I say. “Sam, I know what happened with Stella. I know why you’re scared. You can trust me.”

Sammy walks down the sand, slipping in it. He’s gotten so far up that pile that getting down keeps getting him stuck, and déjà vu hits me so damn hard that I’m not ready when he charges me. My arms must be twice as thick with muscle as his, but he’s desperate. He’s going for my gun. “Sam! Let go!” I stare down the barrel of my own gun, and the nightmare of five years past comes back to me. I was here. I am here! I don’t want to die, dammit!

“No!” The metal digs hard into my skin as I struggle not to let go. I can’t let him take the gun, but his hysteria is beating my strength.

Sammy’s finger grabs the trigger. The gun jerks loose in my grip, and an explosion hammers my ears and sends an ache shaking straight down into my arms. Everything goes quiet, like a mute button flipped on inside my head.

***


Later that day, I’m still on Woodman Road and back in that damned sea foam green room with Elena. Somewhere else, some coroner’s cutting open Sammy to make sure I’m not lying about how he died even as I’m spilling my guts here.

“It was the dream,” I tell Elena. “Only this time, I saw it through my eyes instead of Sammy’s. I was dreaming about him dying all that time, not me.”

My ears still hurt from the echo of my gun. I can only make out half the questions Elena’s asking me, but I don’t miss this one.

“You said you know why Sam killed his wife. Why?”

I thought him being dead would take away the memory of it, but Elena’s question makes me relive the murder again. “He just wanted to get her out of his head. They climaxed at the same time, and he remembered how she felt, saw it through her eyes. He was Stella before he was Sam, and when he realized it, he couldn’t take it.”

“Killing Stella didn’t take away her memories, though,” Elena says, “did they?” She’s blending into the room again, and that’s fine by me. I don’t want to see how she’s looking at me.

“Not for him, and not for me.” Sammy’s memories are still alive in me. How many more times will I remember how he killed Stella, and the look on my own face as I watched him die. “It’s funny, really.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sammy was desperate to get here.”

“I wish,” Elena says, then stops short. I finally force myself to look her in the eyes, and there’s no judgment for me there. She’s too busy crying for Sammy. “I wish he could have made it, that we could have helped him.”

I start laughing, and she must think I’m the most heartless bastard with a badge.

“You still don’t get it, do you?” I say. “Sammy did make it here. I am—I was Sam.”


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bill Blume lives in Richmond, Virginia, where he works as a communications officer for Henrico County Police. He’s currently writing two fantasy novels, including one he’s co-writing with his wife Sheri. He’s also helping organize the 2006 James River Writers Conference. In his “past lives,” he’s worked as a television news producer and bookseller.


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Baby Love
If It Bleeds
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