Vince Walker performed the same routine nearly every night: wandering in the dark across the deserted San Diego University campus, doing “lock-up” on his designated portion of buildings situated on the property. The four-nights-a-week duty required for his part-time job as a C.S.O. didn’t require turning a key, or punching a code on a pad, as the name inferred. That was the responsibility of a particular building’s personnel. Rather, he merely checked that each door had been secured after-hours, a monotonous yet vitally important task, as SDU was one of the top research facilities in the country, and much of the scientific work being conducted on the premises was meant to be kept top secret.
On the final leg of his rounds, in the northernmost section of the campus, Vince rattled the front doors of the Engineering building. He found them predictably locked, although room light spilled from at least a dozen windows in the three-story cement structure, indicating hard-working scientists were burning the midnight oil in their quests for discovery. He smiled to himself. That would be him one day, if he worked hard. Not if he were lucky. Vince didn’t believe in luck.
His parents were responsible for shaping that opinion. As far back as Vince could remember, his father, three-quarters Chemehuevi Indian, had prefaced every spoken wish or desire with the phrase, “When I win the lottery …” We’ll get a new car. You won’t have to sleep in the living room. Your mother can stop working. Promise after promise made to a young boy that never bore fruit. Leon Walker had spoken these words with complete sincerity, never in jest. The man had genuinely believed, every day, his numbers would pop out of the machine, and he’d come home a winner. Which became his excuse for not striving for or accomplishing much else in his life besides downing a six-pack each day before two o’clock, sleeping the buzz off on the couch the remainder of the afternoon, and then waking in time to wash dinner down with more beer. Or something harder.
Vince’s mother, Carmen, had been the breadwinner in the family growing up. A second-generation Mexican American, she had supported Vince, his two younger brothers, and his father, teaching school by day and waiting tables at night on the reservation where they lived, twenty-miles from the Arizona border, in the eastern portion of the Mojave Desert at the tip of California. To Vince’s knowledge, she’d never missed a day of work, even when her husband wrapped his pick-up truck around an electric pole while under-the-influence and died, three days before Vince’s eleventh birthday. “Hard work, mi carido,” she had murmured shortly thereafter, holding him in her arms and stroking his coarse black hair consolingly, “that’s how to get what you want out of life.” Vince followed her advice from that day forward. It was through hard work that he had graduated at the top of his class, scored high on his SATs, found grants and scholarships to underwrite a college education, and wound up as a mechanical engineering major at San Diego University.
Freezing his cajones off. Vince pulled the collar of his department-issued, canary yellow windbreaker around his neck to protect against the chilly night air. Even after almost two months, his body still hadn’t adjusted to living by the ocean. SDU’s western border was a three-mile stretch of beach. During the day, the temperature soared into the seventies, but dropped down to fifty at night, as the fog rolled in off the Pacific. Despite the cover of a thick cotton sweatshirt, jeans, gym socks and Converse sneakers, the dampness of the marine layer passed straight through to his bones, and he shivered as goose bumps riddled his flesh. An involuntary, bodily reaction that could be attributed to the cool air, or the fact that he was about to enter the area he dreaded most on the University Police beat – the woods.
When the trustees broke ground to create San Diego University in the early 1960s, careful attention was paid to preserve the forest of eucalyptus trees occupying the land site twenty miles north of downtown. Close to 200,000 had survived forty years of expansion and development. The tall, pungent, verdant columns were part of the University’s character and history, and remained something to behold. For some.
Vince preferred wide-open, barren spaces. Where he came from, it was so hot, one was hard pressed to find even a blade of grass. Although Vince never admitted as much to anyone, the trees just plain creeped him out. For one, their scent was overpowering and triggered an instant ill sensation since the smell bore a distinct resemblance to those nasty-tasting cough drops one pops to clear congestion during a cold or flu. Second, they concealed possible predators, man or animal (once he’d been swooped by an owl), and the limbs cast shadows that played tricks on the imagination, overactive in solitude.
Vince consulted his watch: eleven o’clock. Right on schedule. After one month on the job, he had the route down pat. Ten minutes more, due south, and he’d be back at his dormitory in a nice, warm bed. The tops of the trees swayed in the wind as he stole quietly with his usual trepidation down the deserted, dark, narrow blacktop path leading into the ten-acre patch of woods. Entering the grove, the natural ceiling cut off the light of the nearly full October moon, as well as any ambient sounds – car motors on the nearby roadway, music from the distant dormitories and the whir of generators at the central power plant. All was still, save the trees. Vince didn’t necessarily prescribe to his ancestors’ Native American mumbo-jumbo, but he swore, at times, the trees spoke to him. They whistled for his attention, crackled with quiet chatter and moaned their minor grievances. That night, despite his apprehension, Vince paused in the middle of the forest to listen.
SNAP. A twig cracked, and Vince froze. He fixated on the wall of darkness ahead, waiting with tingling anticipation for somebody to emerge. Was anybody there? He was tempted to call out, but common sense told him he was being ridiculous. He hadn’t encountered a living soul in the last hour. This stark contrast in campus activity continued to amaze him. By day, tens of thousands of people clogged the campus walkways and thoroughfares leading to and from the classrooms. Late at night, he’d be surprised if he saw more than two-dozen people. In moments like these, he felt like the star of one of those apocalyptic horror movies, where the main character awoke from some near-fatal accident to find he was the last man left alive. Except for some bloodthirsty zombies who only came out at night to feed on the flesh of the living.
Continuing on his way, he spotted what appeared to be a large stick, or branch, lying perpendicular across the path. As he drew closer, he realized, by the pale color and smooth surface, the object hadn’t come from a tree. It was a human arm.
Vince’s stomach fell against his intestines, producing instant nausea. He worked his tongue and throat to force down the flood of saliva in his mouth before he could speak. “Hey! Are you all right?” he called out coarsely.
No answer. No movement.
Vince’s senses went on alert for signs of danger. Searching the proximity, he didn’t see or hear anyone else, nor did he smell anything suspicious. Tiptoeing, he stole closer to the inanimate limb, studying the hand, waiting for one of the curled fingers to twitch. Then he saw all of her. She lay on her side, off the trail amidst the dried leaves and dirt, one arm stretched out over her head, the other bent, cradling her abdomen. She was slack and peaceful, as though she’d fallen asleep in the middle of the quiet forest.
Vince jumped, frightened senseless by the noise: a loud, hollow explosion. He ducked reflexively and shuddered. They weren’t alone. Staying low, he scrambled over to take her pulse. He drew his hand away and looked down in horror at the two fingers that had touched her neck. They were coated with blood.