No matter where she pressed her face against the floor-to-ceiling window, Paderau Argall could still see the corpse reflected from the carpet behind her. Beyond the window, downtown lay in ruins. Occasionally a building shivered with aftershock, but the worst of the quake was done. Paderau saw people wandering in a daze on the cracked and buckled streets, thirty-five floors below.
“Ever wonder why they call it jaywalking?” she said, her thick Welsh accent slurred with her lips pressed against the window. Her fellow paramedic, an American named Andrew, stood against the far wall. His lower lip had swollen noticeably, and a bruise already colored his jaw.
“Can’t say I have,” he said.
“I bet it’s named after the first person who did it.”
“Like a disease?”
“Yeah. Jay Smith, busted for jaywalking.”
Andrew rocked on his heels, gaze twitching between the body at the center of the room and Paderau. “So who committed the first homicide?”
Paderau slid to the floor. Her neck hurt. “Mr. Murder. Mr. Bob Murder.”
Nearby, a girl named Ann, age thirteen, huddled over her unconscious mother. She wiped ineffectually at a thick smear of blood across the woman’s forehead with a ragged strip of gauze.
The corpse was Dr. David Truls, a private practice pediatrician who had joined the medics as they scrambled through the city in the midst of the earthquake. Truls lay on his belly, his white button-down shirt soaked crimson. A hefty letter opener jutted from his back, a few inches from his spine. Paderau’s training informed her exactly what had happened as the blunt blade punched through his left lung, but she shut it out.
Two business executives, the only other survivors on this floor, staggered into the office’s open doorway. One leaned heavily on the other. “What the hell?” rasped the tall, portly executive named Rich Hamon. “What the hell? It’s been five minutes! That… my friend almost killed himself on the stairs out there! He needs a doctor!”
Andrew stared into Paderau’s eyes. The injured executive, Ken Sloan, a short man in an ill-fitting suit, thrust one finger at the female medic.
“Did she do this? She’s covered in blood!” he cried.
“We’re both covered in blood,” Andrew said. He sounded tired. He was right, though; their uniforms were smeared with the blood of all the people they had failed to save all day long. Paderau felt tears on her face and shirt, but wasn’t sure if they were hers.
The businessmen limped across the room, and Sloan sat heavily on the huge desk, gripping his chest. He coughed, blood spotting his lips. Paderau suspected massive internal bleeding. Her legs ignored half-hearted orders to stand.
“That’s my letter opener,” Sloan wheezed. He stared at a bloody handprint on his expensive desk.
Hamon crossed the room, stepping around the dead doctor to kneel beside Ann. He kept the two medics in view.
“Hey,” Hamon said. He grasped the girl’s shoulder. Ann flinched, throwing her arms across her mother. “Hey, look, sorry, but you have to tell us what happened.”
“Let her be,” Andrew said. “She’s just a kid.”
“Then you better start explaining,” Hamon said. “How did our only real doctor end up dead? We go to check on the stairwell, and we come back to find this shit?” His voice quivered. “This is some shit. Where’d you get that bruise? Looks like someone tried to take your head off!”
“Settle down,” Andrew said. “The more you move, the worse your injuries will–”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Sloan demanded. “Look, this, this handprint here, it’s right where I kept my letter opener. It’s too small. It’s too small to be you!” He pointed at Paderau. “It’s got to be her!”
“What are you, Columbo?” Andrew glared. He stepped over to the desk. “Let me take a look at you.” Sloan swatted him away, nearly keeling over with the effort.
Paderau pulled herself to her feet, a severely lightened first aid kit tucked under her arm. “Sir, you might have some serious internal–”
“You’re crazy!” Sloan shouted.
“Sir, you need to calm down!” Andrew said loudly. Paderau saw the medic’s pale skin, the sweat, the slight shake in his outstretched arm.
“Calm?” Hamon yelled. “The stairs are gone! The stairs are gone and we’re stuck in here with a goddamn killer!”
Paderau heard sirens, faint and distant. It would be hours, at best, before rescuers would struggle through the chaos in the streets and make their way up to the top of this skyscraper. Ann gently shook her unresponsive mother.
“He… Doctor Truls…” Paderau heard herself saying, “got a phone call. His cell phone. His wife. He was so happy. He put her on speakerphone. She was alive. In all the shit going on out there, she was alive. Their baby was okay. The house was okay. Everything was going to be okay.”
Paderau swallowed hard. She knew now whose tears soaked her sleeves. “And then, then we, we heard something crack, and a big crash and, and a scream.”
“My God,” Hamon whispered.
“We listened as the doctor’s house collapsed,” Paderau continued, “and crushed his wife and two-year-old son.”
Sloan toppled over, gasping. Andrew leapt to his side. Hamon and Paderau stared at each other.
“He went mad, absolutely berserk,” Paderau continued. “Throwing things. Hitting us, hitting everything…” She tilted her chin so that Hamon could see the purple welts blooming along her throat. “He was going to kill us.”
Hamon’s shoulders sagged. “I’m… I’m sorry…”
“If you’ll excuse me, sir, we need to tend to your friend.” Paderau urged her feet to take her to the desk. She paused to consider the bloody handprint, too small to be either hers or Andrew’s, then dropped her first aid kit over the print and went to work.
Alexander Burns is hoping someone from the UK will tell him how to pronounce Paderau, because he’s totally fallen in love with the name but is afraid he’s saying it wrong. This is his second story at Every Day Fiction.
Tags: Alexander Burns, earthquake, natural disasters