Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Essential Business: A Van Shaw Story


 ESSENTIAL BUSINESS


Van Shaw looked down at the streets of Seattle from thirty stories above and counted the seconds between pedestrians.  Whenever a new person appeared from around a corner or emerged from a building, he restarted the count at one.  His personal best after a full hour of watching was twenty-six.
Twenty-six ticks was a long time for any stretch of downtown blocks to be completely empty.  Even at close to midnight.  Nearly half a minute during which you could easily imagine yourself the last person on Earth.
Cabin fever.  That must be it, Shaw decided.  He had been inside for most of the past three weeks, complying with the governor's stay-at-home order during the pandemic.  On the rare instances that he'd ventured out during daylight hours, it had usually been a rapid sortie to grab bread and meat and beer—whatever cuts and brands the corner market had managed to restock overnight—before returning directly to his apartment.  He'd wipe the packages down with disinfectant and scrub the hell out of his hands, as per the guidelines on every reputable news media.  His clothes went straight into the wash, every time, including the bandanna he used as a makeshift mask.  His friend Addy Proctor had said the red kerchief made him look like an Old West pistolero.
The last time Shaw had taken an order so seriously, he'd still been in the Rangers.  Then again, he considered, those orders had also been intended to keep himself and others alive, so maybe that was the key.
Nights were better.  Shaw would take his car from the high-rise's underground garage and drive the highways, with no destination required and no chance he might meet anyone up close.
He had no fever, no cough.  Probably wasn't infected at all.  Two guys on the same volunteer crew had tested positive so far, so said the grapevine, but Shaw hadn't run into either of those men on the motel job weeks ago.  By that time they had all had been keeping the requisite six feet or more away from one another, as if someone might take a wild swing with a hatchet at any moment. 
Still, it was possible he’d caught the virus.  The crew had been moving damned fast.  The county had bought the rundown Travelodge in Renton knowing it would need a ton of work, as quickly as it could be done, to retrofit the motel's eighty units for isolation and quarantine.  All the carpet torn out and replaced with sterilizable tile.  All beds removed and the showers modified for the mobility impaired.  One of the veterans groups around Fort Lewis had heard the county's plea, desperate for anyone with construction experience.
Shaw had been roped in by a former 1st Battalion lieutenant who owned the gym Shaw worked out at.  He'd shown up for the volunteer team the very next day.  Maybe during the rush to get materials off the truck somebody had breathed in his direction, or coughed into their hand and touched the same wooden palette moments before he had, and that was all it took, didn't it?
It could be worse.  Shaw hadn't visited Addy Proctor and her foster kid Cyndra in the days immediately after the motel job.  That was good luck.  Or maybe Addy's smarts were the real blessing.  She'd put her house into quarantine well before most of the city.  At eighty years old, the crafty woman wasn't taking chances.  Cyn hadn't kicked at the sudden confinement as much as Shaw had thought she would.  The teenager lived most of her life online anyway.
So Shaw lived alone.  The bar he worked at was closed for the duration, and it wasn't like he'd been pulling a ton of hours lately anyway.  He had enough money squirreled away to hold out for a few weeks.  Maybe months, if he kept living like a monk.  
That longer timeframe looked like the most probable outcome as the number of reported cases of the virus in the state climbed steadily toward quintuple digits.  Shaw burned the days checking in with friends like Hollis Brant on the phone, or binging TV shows he'd missed during his years in the Army, or playing board games over Zoom with Cyndra and Addy.  Cyndra liked King of Tokyo, and usually won.  Addy preferred chess for the same reason.  They'd all mutually agreed that the game of Pandemic could be set aside for a while.
On the fourth night of his isolation, Shaw had climbed the stairwell to the top level and deactivated the alarm on the door to the roof.  The wide expanses of rubbery bitumen flooring between the shed-sized air conditioning units offered plenty of room for jumping rope or jogging around the perimeter.  Every night since, he'd visited the roof again, even if just for a few minutes of fresh springtime air on his face.  He reset the alarm when he left each time, in case some bored child wandering the building happened upon the same door.
The ping of an incoming video call summoned Shaw from the balcony.  He set his bottle of Deschutes on the cracked pine veneer of the only table in the apartment.  In the two months since he'd moved in, he hadn't gotten around to finding better furniture than had served for his old studio off Broadway.  Hollis had said it was like putting a half-dozen rustbucket Chevettes in a Tesla showroom. 
Shaw retrieved his laptop from the antique leather wingback chair and sat down to look.  He stared at the caller's name for another three pings before he clicked Accept.
"Luce," he said when she appeared on the screen.
"Hi, Van."
She looked good.  No makeup that he could detect, but Shaw had never thought Luce Boylan needed embellishment.
"How are you holding up?" he said it even as Luce began to speak the same words.
"That's everyone's question now, right?" she replied.  "We're— I'm all right.  Safe.  Plenty of food and supplies, and no one at work has come down with it yet, thank God."
From the corkboard covered with photos over Luce’s shoulder, Shaw could tell that she was in the bedroom of her small apartment.  Probably sitting on the bed.  He wondered briefly if it was the same queen-sized bed he'd known, and if it still squeaked, before he kicked that line of thought far away.
"Same here.  Except for the work part."  Shaw told her about the motel job.  "So all of us on the LT's group text are just waiting, hoping nobody else wakes up with a temperature of a hundred and four."
"Addy's okay?"
"Yeah.  Tougher than ever."
"Great,” said Luce.  “And Hollis?" 
"Sailing offshore most of the time, like he's on vacation."
"Good."
Shaw waited.  Stalling like this wasn't Luce's way.
"I want to ask a favor," she said.
He nodded.
"It's about Carter," she said.
And there it was.  Carter was Luce's new husband.  The guy she'd been with before Van, and after.
"He's working at Harborview.  Part of the team they brought in to deal with the surge," Luce said.
Shaw recalled that Carter was an EMT and in medical school.  Maybe doing his internship by now.  A baptism of fire. 
"How bad off are they?" he said.
"You should see the place.  They've got tents outside to triage anyone with symptoms.  With the ICU beds full up they’re using any space that can be safely cordoned off from exposure.  The doctors and nurses have outfits like hazmat suits with piped-in air, so awkward it takes two people to put them on."
Luce paused for a breath.  Even with the limited resolution of her laptop camera, Shaw could see the fine lines of long-held strain around her oceanic eyes.
"Carter's in the middle of it?" he asked.
"Like a bullseye.  At least that's what it feels like to me.  He was already training for respiratory care when all this started, so they've got him shadowing specialists in the COVID-19 unit now."
"What's the favor?"
"You don't have to do it.  There probably isn’t anything you can do."
"Luce."
"Yes.  Okay."  She tucked a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear.  "The hospital was going to receive two high-pressure ventilators from a clinic near Spokane today, along with protective equipment.  Masks and gloves, mostly.  You know about the shortage of ventilators?"
Shaw nodded.  Everybody had become familiar with the worldwide scarcity of machines to keep critical care patients breathing in the worst cases.  The next-to-worst cases, he corrected himself.  The worst cases were already past help.
"Then you know how much those machines mean right now, I guess.  How much good they could do."  Luce rubbed her brow, as if to wipe the worry from it.  "The truck was hijacked outside of Ellensburg.  Its driver had pulled off the freeway to get coffee at a drive-thru.  When he stopped at a light, two cars boxed him in and men with guns forced him out of the truck.  Left him standing there and drove the truck away."
"Uh huh."
"You say that like you already saw the story on the news."
"No.  But I figured it had to be something like that."
"Or else I wouldn't be calling you.  Of course.  I'm just— it's been a hard time."
Luce was underselling it, Shaw thought.  Married only a couple of months, and suddenly her new husband is working the plague ward and only coming home on those rare hours they could spare him.  All while she never dared to see anyone else in person, because how could Luce take the chance that neither of them had caught the virus yet, with Carter on the front lines?
She closed her eyes.  "I keep thinking if Harborview had those ventilators, that might tip the balance somehow.  The hospital isn't turning people away, but they already have to make hard decisions about who's on the machines and who isn't.  Most critical patients need assisted breathing for something like two or three weeks, Carter told me.  Three whole weeks where that machine can't help anyone else.  And if they had more protective stuff, then he might not have to keep wearing the same mask—"
"It's all right," Shaw said, and then amended his statement.  "It will be."
"I wouldn't have called if I knew what else to do.  Sorry.  That sounded like talking to you was the last thing I'd ever want, and that's not true.” She swept her hair back from her forehead.  “You know it isn't."
But Shaw and Luce had agreed to be apart.  All the way apart, because that was easier than trying to toe some line that seemed to be made of quicksilver.  Social distancing, before that was a thing. 
"What do the cops say?" he asked.
"From what Carter can glean through his friends in administration, the sheriff in Kittitas County will be investigating, but nobody's holding out much hope.  For one thing, the jurisdiction is complicated by the ventilators being in transit across the state.  And every police department has their hands full with the lockdown and all that comes with it.  The county cops can't spare much manpower."
"Is the driver from Spokane?"
"No, Seattle.  He was on a round trip to pick up the ventilators and return."
A full day, driving across the wide part of the state and back.  At least he’d had the advantage of sparse traffic on the freeways.
"The first person the cops will look at is the driver," Shaw said, half to himself.  "He knew the route and the cargo.  And he'd have had plenty of lead time with the long drive, if he and some friends got ideas.  That's assuming there was any hijacking at all.  Maybe he stashed the ventilators before he left Spokane and lost the truck somewhere in Ellensburg before calling 911."
But Luce shook her head.  "I know him.  Aurelio.  He's an ER nurse at Harborview, and he was using his off-duty day to make the run to Spokane so they'd get the masks and other things as soon as possible."
"Not exactly a low-life."
"There's no way I can picture Aurelio stealing.  He's devastated.  And it's not like the trip was a secret.  Everyone in the ICU knew the ventilators and masks were on their way, just like I'm sure the Spokane people knew too."
"Get Aurelio to call me.  Tell him—just tell him I'm a volunteer.  That's accurate enough."
"Thank you.  Really.  I don't actually expect this to lead anywhere, but..." Luce shrugged.
"It's something we can do," Shaw finished the thought, "when we're out of other options."
"Yes.  Exactly."


Aurelio called ten minutes later.  The ER nurse had a resonant baritone voice that stretched into tenor as he recounted his very stressful afternoon. 
"Three dudes, or maybe four.  I don't know for sure.  I pulled off I-90 and right then a car raced past me on the ramp, driving halfway onto the shoulder and kicking up all kinds of dirt.  I figured it was some little punk gone crazy staying at home with his parents, blowing off steam.  Then he slammed on the brakes and I stopped of course and the next thing there's a gun in my face."
"What did they say?"
"Get out.  Go that way.  Don't look back.  Literally that much, eight words out of the guy pointing the gun at me.  As chill as if he was ordering lunch.  So I walked back down the ramp toward the freeway like he told me.  I thought sure he was going to shoot me any second, even after I heard them drive away.  It took a moment for me to dare turning around and going the other direction.  There was a gas station a quarter-mile up the road and somebody there called 911 for me."
"You did the right thing, staying calm."
"I don't know how calm I was.  I felt numb mostly, until I got the shakes.  Shock, you know?  Funny.  When I saw them get out of the car in front of me with masks over their faces, I didn't think anything was weird at all.  Everybody has masks on all day now, right?  We're used to it."
"Tell me what you remember about them."
"I only really saw the guy at my window.  And with the mask and sunglasses, his face was down to nothing.  White dude with brown hair.  And big, bigger than me anyway, and I'm six-two.  His hoodie was gray without any writing on it.  The sunglasses were Oakleys, not like that could be a clue.  I told all this to the cops.  You're working with them?"
"If I learn anything useful."
"About the only thing that really sticks was when the dude waved me out of the truck.  The light shone kinda sideways through his glasses and I could see through them for a second, you know how that is?"  Shaw said he did.  "Well, one of the dude's eyes looked all milky.  Like a cataract, but he wasn't an old guy so maybe not."
"But his eye was clouded?"
"I think so.  If I had to swear on a bible, I'd have to say I was only mostly sure.  Maybe it'll give the cops a way to find him.  I didn't have a chance to get the car's license number."
Shaw suspected that wouldn't have mattered.  This crew sounded like they'd had some experience pointing guns and relieving people of their possessions.  The cars were probably stolen and wiped clean, though if the gang had worn gloves it wouldn't strike anybody as strange nowadays.  Maybe the whole bunch had followed Aurelio all the way from Seattle, a small convoy, or maybe they'd had one half of the team ID the truck in Seattle and call ahead to their partners in Spokane, who'd wait for Aurelio to show at the clinic.  No need to tail him for hours when they could keep some distance and move in when they saw their chance.
And Aurelio was a dead end.  Shaw would have to try to find a lead on the other side of the supply chain.
The ER nurse's voice, deep once again, cut into his line of thought.  "What kind of assholes would do this right now?" he was saying.  "I mean Jesus, don't they give a shit at all?"
Shaw didn't have an answer for that.  Market forces, he figured.  The demand reached a certain point and whatever reservations this crew might have had about stealing from deathly ill people, if they had ever had any qualms to begin with, were overruled.  Everybody had a price.
Once he'd ended the call with Aurelio, Shaw prepared to go streetside for the first time in five days.  He put on a shirt and hiking vest as proof against the cold.  After a moment's thought he added a compact Colt in a clip-on holster as proof against other things.  He wasn't expecting trouble, but it was a time when everyone was taking extra precautions.


He drove south, a winding course through the empty streets.  Three miles on he passed CenturyLink Field.  A line of refrigerated trucks stood in close formation just outside the north entrance, on the paved plaza normally reserved for fans walking from the nearest parking lot.  The trucks' gleaming paint jobs glowed pale in the night.
No prizes for guessing why the cold storage trucks were there, Shaw thought.  The Army was converting CenturyLink into a field hospital, to handle overflow when and if—looking more like when and less like if every day—medical centers like Harborview became overwhelmed.  The trucks could be the final stop for many.  Potentially a long stop, too, until funeral homes found a way to manage the crisis.
There had been no trucks for extended storage in Afghanistan.  Body bags came in by air or road and the soldier in question would be swiftly prepared for transport.  Any personal effects removed and bagged.  The remains placed into an ice-packed aluminum case already draped with the flag, to be sent off with a ramp ceremony—seeing the body onto the aircraft home—as soon as schedules allowed.  Shaw had stood in a few of those ceremonies, saluting as a brass quintet played and a short parade of Humvees drove slowly across the hot tarmac toward the ramp of a giant C-17, each vehicle carrying one transfer case, one soldier going home.
Dignified.  Efficient.  But the Army had the benefit of years of practice.  Shaw prayed his hometown wouldn't have to learn the same lessons.


The Dugout tavern was closed, of course.  Which was not the same as saying it was unoccupied.  When the city was told to stay at home, Shaw figured certain people would consider the Dugout their home far more than whatever house or apartment happened to contain their possessions. 
The tavern wasn't near a ballpark, either, though someone had once told him that the Seattle Pilots had played at a nearby stadium, both team and venue vanishing long before Shaw was born.  A Lowe's hardware store occupied the site now.  The plywood sheet with painted letters pronouncing the Dugout CLOSED FOR THE DURATION had probably been purchased there.
Gold dots spelled out the tavern's name on the face of the building, like the bulbs in an old-time light-up scoreboard.  The doors carried the letters G and O.  He adjusted the red bandanna over his face and knocked hard in the center of the G.  Half a minute later a male voice called from within.
"Who is it?" 
"Van Shaw.  Looking for Milford."
"Ain't here." The answer coming so fast it might have been reflex.  Ask the voice if he was awake, he'd deny it instantly.
"His car's at the curb," Shaw said.  "I'll wait."
Another minute passed while a debate presumably raged inside.  The Dugout's door cracked open and a rotund man with a blue paisley scarf concealing his nose and the top half of a bushy beard looked out.  "You can't come in."
"Don't need to." 
Shaw waited.  The man glared over the top of his scarf before retreating to shout into the depths of the tavern.  "Mill."
The three-inch opening stayed black for a moment.  Then Milford Kettering appeared.  He was less round than the doorman, but only in the way an egg is less round than a cantaloupe.  The old fence wore no mask, but Shaw imagined Kettering pulling up the fold of his yellow turtleneck if he felt the need, like a turtle retreating into its shell. 
"Van," Milford said, sounding as surprised as if he hadn't been told Shaw was at the door.  "How wonderful. Are you here to check on my welfare?"
"Business."
"Even better, even better.  I didn't realize you were back in the game, though certainly when I heard you'd returned to Seattle after so long away..." Kettering fluttered his fingers.  "One hopes.  You and your grandfather were always a welcome sight, and profitable.  What have you brought me?"
"I want information."
Kettering's face, pitted with scars from acne that had vanished fifty years before, looked crestfallen. "Van.  Surely."
"Call it a public service.  Medical equipment was stolen.  Two COVID-suitable ventilators, and personal safety gear."
"And you're looking to... re-acquire these?"
"I am.”
Something in Shaw's tone made the purveyor of illegal goods blanch a little. 
"Quite like your grandfather, now that you're full-grown, I see," Kettering mumbled.  He cleared his throat.  "What can you tell me about the theft?"
Shaw described every detail Aurelio the nurse had told him, right down to the cloudy-eyed leader's plain grey sweatshirt.  Kettering listened intently, his fingers playing idly with the buttons on his corduroy sport coat. 
"I'd owe you a favor, if it works out," Shaw finished.
"Certainly, certainly," Kettering said, still half in thought.  "Do you mind occupying yourself while I make some calls?  I believe the people I'm trying to reach may still be up at this hour."
"And home."
"Yes.  That's almost guaranteed, isn't it?"
Kettering vanished into the interior.  Shaw spent twenty minutes waiting, during which only half a dozen cars drove past.  One was a police SUV.  The cop in the shotgun seat turned to give him a once-over.  Shaw tensed reflexively, expecting the Interceptor to stop, but it cruised northward without pause.
On another night they'd have braced him, a lone man standing outside a closed business in a low-traffic area.  Priorities. 
It was good being out, Shaw mused, before clarifying the thought.  It was good to be on the hunt.
Milford Kettering reappeared, bold enough now to step out onto the sidewalk.
"I may have something," he said.  "A favor, you said?"
"Of comparable size.  I won't knock over a jewelry exchange for you."
"I suppose you're a fellow of your word, though what could I do if you weren't?  Regardless, your mention of the gentleman with the eye problem sparked a memory. McReynolds was his name.  I bought a shipment of DVD players from him, back when people still wanted such things.  McReynolds was a strong-arm thief, and perhaps worse, at least until recently."
"What changed?"
"The eye changed, certainly.  Some disease of the optic nerve.  I don't know if he's the same man who robbed your poor nurse, but I do know who he works for now.  Harold Vulpe."
Shaw stared at Kettering.  "You say that like I should know the name."
"Perhaps not.  Though if you and your grandfather were still working together, the name might be as familiar as mine.  Mr. Vulpe works a similar line as me, only he deals primarily in technology.  Counterfeit software licenses or illegal duplications of intellectual properties.  It's very lucrative.  Were I young again and knowledgeable about such things I might be tempted.  As it is," Kettering glanced at the Dugout's unimpressive exterior, "I'm content to ease into retirement."
"Medical supplies are a weird jump from bootleg movies," Shaw said.  "Maybe McReynolds is in business for himself."
"If you're intending to confront either of them, I would advise extreme caution.  Harold wouldn't employ a man like McReynolds if he were given to reasonable discourse."
"And if I felt reckless?"
Kettering smiled.  "I took the liberty of acquiring his address.  Harold Vulpe lives in Dash Point, near Tacoma.  You know where that is?" 
Shaw did.  He checked his watch.  Sunrise was three hours off yet.
Time enough. 


Harold Vulpe's house was simple enough to find and proved even easier to approach.  Trees bordered the grounds and a broad swath of lawn, allowing the occupants privacy from the neighbors but also giving Shaw an unobstructed view of the rear of the home from fifty yards away without fear of being spotted.
The home consisted of three separate structures connected by enclosed hallways of glass windows atop short stone walls.  Those modernist halls didn't quite match the Tudor style of the grand house in the center, and Shaw supposed they'd been added years later when the outer buildings were constructed.  The farthest building from him was a four-car garage.  The closest, even larger than the garage, might be guest quarters or perhaps an oversized home office.  Lights shone from the main house.  The guest quarters were dark.
It was a long shot that the ventilators would be in Vulpe's house, Shaw knew.  But better odds than it might have been weeks ago.  Everyone was sticking close to home lately.  Even if the stolen machines were elsewhere, and even if Vulpe had nothing to do with their theft, he might be able to steal a cell phone or laptop and get a lead on McReynolds. 
Motion detectors had been planted every few yards around the perimeter of the lawn, like white toadstools.  Set to trigger exterior lights, or maybe more.  He took a wrench from a pocket kit he’d retrieved from a hidden compartment in his car, and disabled two of the detectors before beating a path across the grass to the rear of the guest house. 
Looking through the window into the dark interior, Shaw could make out the shape of a simple contact pad alarm on the top edge of the door.  He used a snap gun to unlock the deadbolt within seconds, and a magnet to disable the alarm sensor.  A job he could have handled when he was twelve years old and just starting out.  If the rest of the house was this soft, he estimated he’d be back on the road within half an hour.
The space inside was a laundry room, and beyond it an entertainment area, complete with pool table and a ceiling-mounted projector aimed at a movie screen.  Billiard balls and cue sticks remained on the green felt as if a game had been interrupted.  Shaw moved through the room to the opposite entryway, which led him to the guest house's foyer.  Coats hung from pegs just inside the front door.  Shoes and boots formed a neat line underneath.  And standing like an attentive butler beside the bannister of the stairs leading to the second floor, the tall rolling cart of a ventilator. 
Son of a bitch, Shaw thought.  There it was.
In the reflection off the machine's display screen, he caught a shadowy image of his own startled expression.  Along with something else behind him.
Shaw ducked right, just as the swinging pool cue whipped past where his head had been.  He went for the Colt on his hip, but his attacker's backswing came too fast, hitting Shaw’s elbow.  His gun clattered to the tile floor.  Shaw flung himself at his attacker, more out of desperation than coordination.  Their bodies thudded together, stumbled.  The two men fell back into the darkened game room, Shaw half on top.  He punched with both hands, hitting the man in the chest and arms.  The slim end of the cue stick smacked him hard across the temple. 
Thrashing, the attacker tumbled free.  Shaw lost him in his daze and the dim.  He scrambled madly, expecting another swing to fracture his skull at any second.  A vicious kick caught his left shoulder instead, numbing Shaw down to the fingertips.  But the force of the blow got him rolling the right direction, under the shelter of the pool table.  The descending cue cracked against the table's stout leg. 
The man rushed away, rounding the broad table, eager to end the fight.  Shaw got to his feet on the other side.  He grabbed the 9-ball from the felt surface and threw it with all his strength, a frantic heater that struck the attacker's forehead with a note two octaves lower than the wooden cue had made hitting the table leg.  The man’s head snapped back and he fell, bouncing off the lip of the table and down to the floor.  The cue stick rolled from his grip.
Shaw, gasping for breath, replaced his skewed bandanna and knelt to check if his enemy was still alive.  Blood had already begun to trickle from the purpling spot where the ball had caromed off the attacker’s skull.  The trickle changed direction as Shaw turned the man's head to check his pupils.  He lifted the eyelid and saw a cloudy gray-white orb.
McReynolds.  He must have seen Shaw coming across the lawn towards the guest quarters and circled around to sneak in through the same door.  Lucky that the thug hadn't brought a gun.  But maybe his boss Harold Vulpe or another person in the main house was calling for backup right now.  Best to grab the ventilator—both if he could find the second machine—and get the hell out.
He returned to the foyer.  The Colt had tumbled under the caster wheels of the ventilator cart.  As Shaw holstered the pistol, he looked out the windows at the Tudor house.  No sign of movement, nobody staring back at him from the well-lit first story.  McReynolds might have been alone.  Or the only one awake in the wee hours.
Where was the second ventilator?  Vulpe may have already passed it off to a buyer.  The first machine had been set by the stairs.  It would only take seconds to check the upper floor.  Shaw took the stairs two at a time, only to halt abruptly at the reedy sound of a man's voice calling from the rooms ahead.
"Harold?" the voice said.  "I heard a noise."
A cough followed.  A dry rasp and the wheeze of labored inhalation.
"Harold?"
Shaw knew he should retreat, take the single ventilator and count himself lucky.  But the unseen man's cough had nudged his curiosity.
He padded silently down the carpeted hallway to look through the first open doorway.  A bedroom, antique in decor, with oaken wainscoting and floral wallpaper.  But instead of a four-poster, he saw a modern hospital bed, set so that its occupant sat up at an angle.  Oxygen tanks had been fixed to the safety railing of the bed, and trays holding prescriptions and other care rested on a vintage dresser.  Against the far wall, the second stolen ventilator, ready like its brother on a rolling cart. 
A small lamp on the elevated bedside table cast the only light in the room.  The man on the bed peered at Shaw.  He was tall and as thin as a heron, and even in the low illumination Shaw could tell that his color was bad.  A pallor washed out even the liver spots on his neck and scalp while his cheeks remained flush with fever.  If the patient seemed frightened by the sudden appearance of a large masked stranger in his doorway, he didn’t show it.
"Who are you?" the man said.  "One of Harold's men?"
His spindly fingers pressed a button on a cord.  Calling for help, and stalling until it arrives, Shaw reasoned.
"I'm here for this, not you," Shaw said, crossing the room to the ventilator on its cart.  The screen folded down flat for easy transport.  
"My eyes are for crap.  What is it?"
"A ventilator.  Helps people breathe."
"I know that.  What’s the damn thing doing here?”
Shaw loosened the straps holding the ventilator to the cart and hefted it.  Twenty pounds, at most.  He could carry both machines in one trip, one under each arm.  If he didn't have to worry about interference.
A door opened downstairs.  The old man heard it too.
Shaw set the ventilator back on the cart.  "You're Harold Vulpe's father?  Uncle?"
"He's my boy."
"Your boy stole two of these from an ICU.  From people who need them to survive."
The old man grunted and glanced at the oxygen tanks at the side of the bed.
"I'm taking them back," Shaw said.  "Sorry."
"Screw your sorry," the man said, then called out again with surprising volume.  "Harold?"
Shaw drew the Colt.
"Dad?" Vulpe shouted from the stairs.  "You okay?"
"I'm peachy.  This bandit here has a gun, so maybe you don't come charging in like a fool, hah?"
"Cops are already here and I've got a gun too," Vulpe shouted to Shaw.  "There's nowhere for you to go, asshole."
"Hell," the old man said.  "Harold, put that thing away and get your ass up here."  He coughed again and managed another curse between breaths.
A pause followed.  Shaw moved to a more defensible position behind the wall of the attached bathroom.  The old man watched him but said nothing.
Vulpe appeared at the doorway.  He'd obeyed half of his father's instructions; he still clutched a nickel plated 9-millimeter automatic with pearl grips.  Shaw thought the gun looked oddly formal for a man wearing sweatpants and a V-neck sweater, the uniform of the quarantined. 
"You two idiots can shoot each other," the old man said, wheezing a little, "but first I wanna know where that came from."  He waved a finger at the ventilator on its cart.
"You need it," Vulpe said.  "You're getting worse."
"That's not what I asked.  I know I'm getting worse, I'm the one who's in this damn body.  And I know I've got the sick, too.  Probably caught it from that attendant you hired who keeps taking my food away before I'm done.  You take that gadget from a hospital?"
Vulpe looked stricken.  "I had to. They’ll turn us away if you go.  Let somebody younger take your place.  You know they will."
"I don't know that and neither do you.  And it’s beside the damn point," the old man said.  "You wouldn't remember this, Harold, but when I was a kid, your grandmother went to work at the shipyards building destroyers for the Navy.  Not for money.  Because she thought it was her duty.  Then when I was about your age and Boeing nearly went bust, I was on the committee that put bonds together to hire some of those laid-off workers to build parks."  The old man coughed again, nearly doubling over.
"Dad," Vulpe said.  His father waved a palm impatiently and Vulpe and Shaw both waited, guns drawn but at their sides, until he recovered.
"Shut up a minute, Harold.  I know you're into some criminal garbage, now that I live here and I’ve seen the kind of people you’ve got coming around at all hours.  It's stupid but I let it go 'cause it's your life.  But this is my life.  My integrity.  You can't take from people in need to benefit me.  I won't have it.  This guy," the man gestured toward Van, "is going to take those machines back."
"And the masks," Van said.
"And the masks or whatever," The old man agreed.  "And if I die like I figure I will, so what?  At least I won't be dragging any souls along behind me.  That's one last thing I can do for this town.  You follow, son?"
Vulpe stood stock still for a long moment.  Then he set the automatic on the dresser beside the cornucopia of prescription bottles.
“Go on,” Vulpe said to Shaw.  “Take the shit and get the hell out before I change my mind.”
His father nodded.  "Come sit by me, kid," he said to Vulpe.  His final reserves of energy spent, he sank as far into the pillow as his emaciated frame allowed.  "Keep me company a while."
"What's your name?" Shaw asked.
"Francis," the old man said.  "I'd ask yours, but maybe it's better you stay anonymous, hah?"
Shaw agreed.  "Thanks, Francis."
"Nothing to it," said Francis Vulpe and took his son's hand.


The younger Vulpe pointed Shaw to a cardboard box in the bedroom closet.  Inside were individual boxes of wrapped sterile masks, fifty per box.  Shaw wrapped each ventilator in a towel and placed them on a blanket, which he bundled up to make a crude sack.  With the cardboard box under one arm and the ventilators slung over his back like Santa Claus, he stepped over the snoring bulk of McReynolds and out the back door. 
Driving to Harborview, Shaw thought about what he’d said to Luce hours before.  About how tracking down the stolen ventilators was something for him to do when there were no other options left.  But that hadn’t quite been true.  He’d made a choice.  An easy choice, true, between doing something that might save lives and sitting on his ass.  But still a decision.    
Francis Vulpe had made a choice as well.  Maybe his final one.  And maybe he’d turned over the goods just to keep his crooked son Harold from getting shot, though Shaw doubted that.   The old man had seemed resolute, even when the life in question was his own.  
Enough, Shaw thought.  You chose a path, and you walked it.  Right now, his path led to a fast and very discreet stop at the hospital and then home for sleep and more sleep.  No need to call Luce.  She would find out about the mysterious reappearance of the stolen gear soon enough through her husband, and she would understand why Shaw hadn’t told her himself. 
And tomorrow, he would spend another day inside.  And the day after, and the day after, until this thing was dead and gone and the world started spinning again.
Shaw didn’t mind.  It was what he could do. 



*********

Afterword

I miss my hometown.  I'm also tremendously heartened and proud of how the city has faced up to a challenge that makes the fire of 1889, a blaze that gutted the town's entire center, look like a minor inconvenience.  People are staying home, and when they can't, it's most often to do the critical work keeping the rest of the community healthy and secure and fed.  

While following the local news in the Seattle Times and other sources, I got to wondering what another hometown boy might be doing during his own quarantine.  Van Shaw might be a little more aggressive in his actions, but he cares just as much.   He’d want to do something.  I wanted to do something.  So I wrote this story.

And if this story is anything, it's a love letter.

In the days following that 1889 conflagration, Seattle rebuilt.  Bricks and stone instead of wood.  An improved water supply.  The city's first professional fire department.  Stronger and more importantly safer than ever.  

We, too, will rebuild.  With improved crisis management protocols, more stockpiles and supply chains, expanded medical services and increased personnel, and economic guardrails.  Our children will know how to handle a crisis from our examples and also our mistakes.  If you’d like to help right away, here’s a terrific guide from the Times to let you choose exactly where and how: Seattle and Puget Sound Coronavirus Relief Efforts

Stronger and safer.  I love you all.


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