The first week in May celebrates National Nurses’ Week. My neighbors kicked the week off early on Saturday afternoon with a barbecue in our local park for me and the medics that work at Text-A-Nurse. We celebrated before time so everyone could attend. We enjoyed delicious food and had fun. Local nursing students joined us wearing old-school nursing uniforms and hats. They performed a short skit dedicated to Clara Maass, a famous American nurse.
I loved their cool idea for mini-dramas featuring historical nurses. Clara Maass died as a participant in a research study to find a vaccine for yellow fever in 1901. I was delighted to see her honored, because Mobile barely survived its many yellow fever epidemics.
The skit inspired me to write a blog post about Maass for my Text-A-Nurse clients at four a.m., because Heather, my sister, called an hour ago saying she was in labor. I’d panicked while trying to find my car keys when she called back saying false alarm. Instead of disturbing Glenn Hanover again, I was indulging my secret hobby of writing about history, nurses, and health care.
My house is sanctuary quiet at this time in the morning, making it easy to write. Sheba, my cat, came into the kitchen acting confused because it was dark outside. I knew how she felt; I hadn’t been up this late since night shift in a critical care unit. Sheba dropped on my feet, her favorite spot.
Jay Jordan called, interrupting my solitude. He’s the noble contractor I met in January. “Hey, Jay. You’re up before dawn.”
“I know,” he said. “Hang on a minute, please.”
Heather and I hired Jay to restore the Carson Clinic, our parents’ medical building, back to its former glory. We knew he’d do a good job, because his father had been our parents’ original contractor. The men in our lives wanted us to demolish the building and sell the property, but we couldn’t amputate the last attachment we shared with our parents. Wait, did I hear a police radio?
“Reece, got some bad news,” Jay said. “A kid stoned out on who knows what drove his truck straight into the back corner of the clinic.”
“Is he hurt?”
“Kid’s fine, but his truck isn’t.”
“Why didn’t the police call me?” I asked.
“My business signs were up with my phone number front and center. I got the call around three a.m., but now that I’ve arrived, I think you should come.”
“He crashed into a load-bearing wall at its weakest point,” Jay said. “Damage will depend on his speed, but we won’t know until we tow the truck out. I’d hoped to handle this without disturbing you, but drugs are involved and his parents were talking lawsuit.”
“I’ll be right over.” I left Glenn a note by the coffee pot.
Traffic on Airport Boulevard was sparse, but the last red light stopped me. I looked across the deserted road and stared at the dilapidated building Heather and I owned. Weak lighting gave the structure a haunted aura. Seven months ago, a hurricane nicknamed the Fiend had destroyed the sloping roof and flooded the building, leaving the Carson Clinic derelict on prime real estate. After the storm, the empty building became a haven for the homeless, runaways, and local teen druggies.
The traffic light changed, and I pulled into the parking lot seconds before the tow truck. Jay walked over to greet me with a big grin. His mobility after a recent hip replacement was amazing. He had a long, even stride and no limp. With his chronic pain under control, Jay was a new man.
“Thanks for coming out,” I said, hugging him.
“Kid looked fine to me, but his parents freaked over the damages. By the way, Arlene sends her love.”
Jay and Arlene Conrad are getting married in June, and I’m a bridesmaid. They were two star-crossed lovers and had earned their chance at happily ever after. “I’ve been hearing cha-chinging sounds since you called,” I said. “Weren’t you taking the interior down to studs today?”
“Yeah. Still have interior cleanup though.” He turned on his hands-free headlight and spread blueprints on my car hood. He studied them and pointed to a section. “Kid slammed into a long weight-bearing wall. Not going to lie, could be a major problem for us. I’ve called my foreman in to help me decide if we need support beams before removing the truck.”
“Less cha-chinging sounds?” I asked, since the renovation budget was tight.
“Depends on our upper floor inspection. Dad didn’t work on the addition,” he said. “But the new construction looked solid. What was the space used for?”
“Other professionals joined them, like dentists and ophthalmologists. Volunteers wanted office space as well.”
Jay laughed. “Space for volunteers? Dad always said ain’t nothing free except air.”
A patrolman I recognized from a kidnapping incident at the Senior Bowl joined us. “Hey, Reece, happy Nurses’ Week. It’s good to see you’re out of the cast.”
“No limp, either.” I hugged him. He’d been working at the Senior Bowl in January when his quick intervention kept me from falling on my head as I chased a kidnapper during the second-half kickoff. He and I made the ESPN highlight video.
The policeman asked Jay, “How long before we yank the truck out?”
Jay said, “I’ll need to go upstairs before giving the go-ahead.” A red Chevrolet truck pulled in. “That’s my foreman; he’ll help me make the decision.” Jay rolled the blueprint and tucked it under his arm. He walked over to greet his employee.
“I’ll speak to the tow-truck driver,” the policeman said. “He’s antsy.” His police radio broadcasted a description of a speeding car as he walked away.
Traffic noise was louder. Bursts of music, squeaky brakes, and the occasional backfire would soon be replaced by bumper-to-bumper traffic, and loud horns on Mobile’s busiest street.
Jay and his foreman put on hard hats and entered the building. Crossing my fingers, I hoped the damage was minor. I went over to check the wall now that dawn was starting to break.
The policeman said, “Reece, I need to ask you questions for my paperwork.”
After he collected the required information, I asked, “Does the kid have insurance?”
“Don’t think so.”
“Why did he drive across the property and into my building?” I asked.
“His girlfriend said they came here to get high and fool around. They’ve cut locks and such before to sneak in. This time they couldn’t get in, and they were already loaded. He wanted to fool around in the truck, and she wouldn’t. During the argument she climbed out, and he hit the gas by mistake.”
I shook my head.
He read my thoughts. “People do dumb things.”
I inspected the damage. Bricks had dropped on the truck hood and littered the ground. Most of the bricks still intact looked loose. Yeah, more costs to consider. Originally, a local architect designed the brick and stone building to have high ceilings and large windows to let in natural light. In its heyday, the clinic had been beautiful, and children never hated coming in to see the doctor. There were puzzles to solve and mazes to follow, children’s art displayed everywhere, and behind the clinic was an enclosed playground. Carson Clinic had been built to withstand storms, but standing empty had made it crumble.
After twenty minutes, Jay and his foreman returned. “Sorry, can’t take any chances,” Jay said. “I’ve called my men in early so we can brace the wall while the truck is eased out.”
I texted the news to Glenn and Robert.
The tow-truck driver left, and the police officer was relieved by another. I went over to Krispy Kreme and brought back doughnuts and coffee. Three hours later, the upper story was supported, and another tow truck had arrived.
Jay yelled to the driver, “Ease the truck out real slow.”
There was a loud crack, and a portion of the outer wall crumbled. Bricks slid off the truck’s hood and sections of the outer wall dropped to the ground. The foreman motioned for the driver to continue until the truck was clear. Jay and his foreman whispered in low voices, and I could tell something odd had been discovered.
Jay’s crew inched forward to inspect the gaping hole.
One guy with stringy, dark hair and a Popsicle stick clamped between his lips opened a ladder. He climbed steps, turned on a megawatt flashlight, and looked around the inner wall. He pulled on a loose section of insulation and screamed.
Jumping clear of the ladder, he landed on his feet and rolled. “Dead man!” He crossed himself and said in a lower voice, “In plastic.”
“Say what?” Jay yelled.
“A corpse,” the worker said, pointing with his right hand, which had a missing pinkie finger.
Jay’s foreman grabbed a flashlight from his belt and checked the damage. He tugged on the outer wall, making the cracked bricks give way, exposing the insulation and studs. “He’s right.”
In that moment a name popped into my head. Moses Gant. Shame caused my neck to break out in welts. Moses had never been anything but nice to me and my family. No, couldn’t be.
The police officer pushed forward and stood beside Jay, with his radio crackling messages. He spoke twice into his police shoulder mic and waited. “Operator, roll homicide this address. Corpse found in the wall.” He paused and then repeated the address.
How could there be a dead body in the outer brick wall? What about insulation? I took Jay’s flashlight from his hand and peered in. I studied the corpse covered in plastic. A man, I guessed, fully clothed, and in an upright position until the wall gave way. Jay leaned in with his measuring tape. The foreman did the same. They looked at each other, eyebrows raised.
“People, please step back. This is now a crime scene,” the officer said.
We backed away.
I asked Jay, “How could the body be erect?”
His foreman said, “Looks like he was wrapped in plastic and positioned between the studs and crucified with a nail gun.”
“Don’t give her nightmares,” Jay said. “Reece, he was stapled upright with the nail gun.”
Shuddering, I asked, “Wouldn’t the inner wall be uneven?”
“Looked level to us. I’d say the body took the place of insulation,” Jay said. “And with him stretched vertical…well, he didn’t take much space.”
“I don’t understand. Wouldn’t my parents or the employees smell an odor?”
“Good question,” Jay muttered.
In January, a woman’s body had been wrapped in plastic and thrown over a half-wall before being discovered. “You know what this reminds me of, Jay?”
“No,” he said. “That body was meant to be discovered; this one wasn’t.”
“How many people have you discovered dead in walls?” I asked.
Jay shook his head. “Reece, don’t take this wrong, but I’ve been doing construction for years, and so have my men. Before I met you, I hadn’t seen any dead bodies.”
The foreman nodded.
Jay clamped a hand on my shoulder. “Like it or not, you’re a body magnet.”