I’ve had several people that are very excited about my new suspense / thriller “The Steel Van Man”. So, I thought I would post a little preview of the Foreword and the first chapter (the actual book contains 39 chapters). So, enjoy and please feel free to comment at the bottom. I appreciate your input.
UPDATED: July 11th, 2013
Parents often make up stories for their children, sometimes to entertain them, sometimes to teach them a lesson and sometimes to keep them out of trouble. This story stems from a fictional character my father created at the heart of a tale told to my brother, sister and me when we were children. It was told more or less to teach us to be cautious in encountering strangers, but it was also used to scare us into minding our parents and going to bed. I remember trying to slip out of bed one night and my father saying sternly, “You had better go back to bed or I’m going to call the Steel Van Man.” Nothing sent fear flying into my veins like the thought of Dad calling the elusive Steel Van Man.
In my creative mind’s eye, the Steel Van Man grew to be a predatory monster feeding on the innocence of children, a monster capable of snatching them from anywhere then completely eluding parents and the authorities. Though this sounds horrific, it did in fact keep me vigilantly aware of my surroundings as a child when on the playground or in the park.
I do not believe that my father ever meant for the Steel Van Man character to scare us as much as it did. Once you let a monster out, however, it’s not so easy to put him back.
In 1928, a soviet scientist by the name of Sergei Brukhonenko presented an experiment at an international scientific conference called The Third Congress of Physiologists of the USSR. He intended to prove that deceased organisms could be revived— including the brain.
Brukhonenko conducted the experiments, proving that a head could indeed be kept alive by a primitive heart/lung machine and ran extensive tests on the subject. His science, however, has often been questioned. As proof of his experiment and to show that the head wasn’t just part of the corpse, a film was recorded of Brukhonenko performing a series of tests. He shines a light in the head’s eyes, causing it to blink. Then he hits the table with a hammer, and the subject’s head reacts as well. Finally, he feeds the head a small piece of cheese, which lands on the table at the other end of the esophageal tube.
From that day forward, controversy and speculation traveled the world over. Scientists divided in two groups: those who accepted the medical possibility and those who were skeptical. The latter suggested that the film might be pure Soviet propaganda or simply medically impossible.
What is interesting, however, is that many physicians actually gave credit to Brukhonenko’s experiment in scientific journals, legitimizing the whole affair.
All Jimmy Martinez could hear as he gained consciousness was a methodical swoosh, swoosh, swoosh. He opened his eyes and saw only black. His heart began to race. I’m blind. Oh God no—I’m blind. Jimmy’s head was pounding, making it nearly impossible to think clearly. What the hell happened last night? He opened his mouth to ask if anyone were there, but words would not come. He realized suddenly that he was cold—icy cold—his legs, arms and torso freezing. His body was tingling, half asleep. Where am I—and why is it so damn cold in here?
Blinking back the darkness, Jimmy finally saw a sliver of light. The light grew brighter but was blurry, a cold white blade slowly penetrating his head. He closed his eyes again—so tired—and his head hurt so bad. He half remembered something, but his head felt heavy, thick. Anniversary. Mojitos. Too much to drink. My beautiful wife Elena…so lovely. Damn—can’t think. Only pieces and parts.
Clarity faded. Jimmy’s eyelids grew heavy and he fell back asleep.
Birds chirping. A cardinal? Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh went the sound.
Jimmy slowly, cautiously opened his eyes. Piercing light. Felt like an ice pick driven into his head. Damn.
His vision cleared a little and he could just make out a blurry form. He squinted, straining to focus. It looked like Elena sitting on a chair. “Elena?” he tried to say, but no sound. Her name came out mouthed—no words, no breath. He tried to take a deep breath but could not. He felt strange. Choked.
Jimmy stared at his wife, trying to make her out. The warm light filtered down on her beautifully and he recognized the gray dress she had been wearing the night before. Her head was cocked sweetly to the side—admiring him? She was wearing a scarf. Was it red? Tough to tell. So blurry. She is sitting so still. Is she asleep?
“Elena?” he mouthed again. His mouth felt dry, parched. Water. He needed water badly. He reached for the end table, but his arm wouldn’t move. It was numb, tingly. Jimmy strained to look down at his arm, but his head wouldn’t move either. Paralyzed? Am I paralyzed? Panic overcame him.
A knocking at the door followed immediately by the doorbell. “Elena,” he mouthed again. His vision was beginning to clear. His wife looked strange.
Elena was not wearing a scarf. The scarf was her bloody throat, slit ear to ear. Dear God, no—his beautiful wife—gone. She sat facing him, her head cocked to one side and covered in blood, staring wide-eyed in his direction. Tears filled his eyes and escaped down his cheeks. My sweet beautiful Elena. Oh no—please God, no!
Someone called out to him from far away.
“Hello? Jimmy? Jimmy—are you home?” The voice was muted, distant and disconnected. As Jimmy lay staring in horror and grief at Elena, his sobs were silent, his overwhelming grief finding no outward expression. Who would do such a thing? And why? Why Elena?
His mind jumped to their four-year-old daughter Chanel, and a bolt of fear shot through him. Chanel—our precious little Chanel. Is she alive—is she safe? The ensuing panic engulfed him.
Jimmy’s head lay on the pillow, turned sideways. He strained, but could barely make out the door. Jimmy knew the voice was that of his friend Jeff. He looked at the bottom of his visual plane toward the door frame, fearing what his friend Jeff was about to encounter as he walked into the room, but was incapable of warning him of the awaiting horror.
“Jimmy?” Jeff inquired tentatively as he stepped through the door.
Jimmy watched Jeff stop rigid in his tracks. Jeff looked over at Jimmy, then at Elena, then back to Jimmy. “Holy shit—fuck! Jimmy—Jimmy! Jesus Christ, Jimmy!”
Staring in horror at Jimmy, Jeff’s face grew even more ashen than it had reacting to Elena. Jimmy’s thoughts raced out of control. What does he see? What is it? Talk to me, Jeff—damn it—talk to me!
Jeff’s shocked expression fell quite suddenly to one of morbid grief, his hand flying to his hair and eyes flooding with tears. “Sweet Jesus,” he moaned, turning and tripping over a chair as he stumbled from the room. Jeff barely made it to the bathroom before dropping to his knees at the toilet and vomiting.
Minutes passed as Jimmy lay there, unable to move, uncertain of exactly what Jeff had seen when he looked Jimmy’s way—something that Jimmy couldn’t see—but whatever it was, it had affected him even more than the bloody sight of Jimmy’s wife Elena.
Jeff entered the room again with an air of trepidation that was palpable. “Um—Jimmy? Jimmy—can you hear me?” Jeff asked with the tender concern of a small child.
“Yes,” Jimmy mouthed.
Jeff could see Jimmy mouth “yes.”
“Holy shit, Jimmy…fuck.” Jeff’s chest was heaving up and down as he strove hard for self-control. “Stay calm, man—stay calm, Jimmy. I—I’ll call 9-1-1, Jimmy.”
Tears rolled down Jimmy’s face as he was forced to look at the horror of his mutilated dead wife locked in the blurred frame of his paralyzed view. He closed his eyes hard. Try to concentrate on the night before. Remember your beautiful Elena on your final night together.
Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh went the sound.
Minutes passed. From what seemed like far away, Jimmy heard Jeff say “…just please, you have to get someone here…please hurry…there’s not much time…”
Jimmy heard a door close. Jeff leaving? Darkness overcame him, and he passed out.
Detective Stanley Devonshire sat in the kitchen of the colonial house he and his wife Victoria had built during the early years of their marriage. Stan and his teenage son Jonah were finishing lunch on this idle Saturday when the call came in that there was a multiple homicide on Plymouth Avenue.
“Devonshire,” he answered.
Jonah watched as his father responded rather matter-of-factly with “uh huh” several times. Then suddenly his father’s eyes went wide. Whatever the news was, it must be bad.
So often Jonah had wished that his father could be like other dads—go to the office, ride the train home, eat dinner and toss around the ball—those little things all the other fathers and sons did. But ever since Jonah’s mother had died, he’d found it more difficult to see his father go on fighting crime. Their small town was far from the crime capital of the world, but there were still times Jonah really worried about his father’s safety. He remembered his mother’s last words as she lay in the hospital after being hit by the car. Jonah had promised her that he would look after his father, something that the then ten-year-old boy had found more difficult than he’d imagined. Even now, ten years after his mother’s death, Jonah still had difficulty watching his father walk out the door every day. Each time, he couldn’t help but wonder if it might be the last time he would see his father.
Stan hung up and stared at his son. “It’s a murder. I have to go. Keen and Roberts are already over there.”
“Okay,” Jonah said maintaining his reserve. “But Dad?”
“Yeah?” Stan answered, snatching his mobile off the table and preparing to leave.
Stan lowered his chin and shot a glance at his son as if to say “yeah right.”
“I’m serious, Dad.”
“The vic is already dead—what could possibly happen to me?”
“Okay, okay. I will.” Jonah stared back at his father with his mother’s deep gray eyes—eyes so much like his mother’s that Stan could almost feel Victoria looking at him. “I promise, son—I’ll be careful.”
Stan reached over and smiling affectionately, tossed his son’s brown hair. Then he walked out the door.
Officer Keen intercepted Detective Devonshire the second he stepped up out of his car. “What’cha got?” Stan asked Keen, walking quickly alongside him toward the house.
“Dead woman. Thirty-three years old. Throat slit.”
“Yeah? Who found her?”
“Friend of the husband. Jeff Auberdine.”
“How bad is it?”
“Bad,” Keen said, “real bad.”
Stan nodded, still not comprehending the gravity of the situation. “Throat slit. Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty bad.”
“Oh—much worse than that,” Keen said, locking eyes with him.
Stan stopped in his tracks halfway up the drive and looked at Keen. “Worse than a woman’s throat being cut?”
“Much worse,” Keen replied. He now had Stan’s full attention.
Stan looked around at the dreary day as a light drizzle fell and cold air chilled the neighborhood. An ambulance sat parked in the drive, radios squawking. A paramedic walked out of the house to grab a bag.
“Hey,” Stan called out. “What’s the situation—why are you guys here? I thought it was a dead woman.” The paramedic shot some kind of knowing look at him, sighed and shook his head. He grabbed the bag and headed back inside with Stan in tow.
The floor had a piece of plastic laid down between the foyer and the bedroom that CIU had put in place to preserve evidence. Stan’s feet made a crinkling sound as he walked atop the plastic sheeting following the EMT.
As he approached the bedroom, Stan noticed the paramedic he’d seen earlier and one other EMT standing in the room. At first glance, he saw the woman, sheet draped over her on the chair. There was something on the bed, but with the two paramedics partially blocking his view, he couldn’t make out what it was.
Glancing over at the wall, Stan saw a photograph of Jimmy Martinez, his wife Elena and their little girl—all smiles—looking back at him. This is Jimmy’s house, he thought, dismayed. Although he didn’t know Jimmy Martinez well, he and Jonah frequented the couple’s diner on Paradise Road.
Stan stepped around the two EMTs to discover something he could never have imagined—a head, sitting on the pillow of the bed, tubes coming out of what was left of a neck attached to some machine on the other side of the bed. It was Jimmy all right…what was left of him anyway. “What in bloody hell?” he half whispered in shock.
Keen shot him a look. “He’s still alive,” Keen said softly in Stan’s ear.
Stan’s hand flew to his face, his fingers spread out and clamping his mouth in disbelief. “What? No way. Not possible.”
One of the EMTs chimed in, sounding as if he didn’t believe his own words. “He’s being kept alive by this heart bypass machine with an oxygen infuser. Never seen anything like this in my life. Never even…imagined it.” The EMT paused, shaking his head side to side, still in shock himself. “We need to get him to Salem Hospital. We’re heading over there in a moment. We just have to secure the machine for transport and make sure that what’s left of this guy is stable enough for transport.”
In all his years as a cop, all the training that he had completed, the films he’d seen and the classes taken on trauma, nothing could have prepared Stan for what he was looking at now. He stepped quietly forward, leaning and looking closer, studying the head. Currently unconscious, Jimmy’s head faced the woman who was draped in the white sheet. Stan turned and walked over to the woman, carefully lifting the sheet and shaking his head sadly.
“What?” asked Keen.
“I know her. It’s his wife Elena.”
“Sarah and I are regulars at Jimmy’s place on Paradise, too,” Keen replied.
“You, me and half the fisherman in Manatahqua Point,” Stan uttered in a hushed tone.
Keen left the room. “Oh, man…Jimmy.” Stan wasn’t sure what the primary emotion was in that moment—abject horror or compassion. He simply stood staring at Jimmy’s severed head, unconscious on the pillow and being pumped with life-giving fresh blood that worked its way through the machine. “Dear God, Jimmy, what in holy hell did this guy do to you?” he wondered aloud in a horrified whisper.
Stan looked over at the EMTs. “You—what’s your name?” he asked the portly forty-year-old with dark hair. The man turned his head to the side, looking over at him.
“Is he…is there any chance at all he’s going to live?”
Paul shook his head. “Doubt it—but I really don’t know for sure. I don’t see how, but then I’ve never seen anything remotely like this before. Whoever set this up, knew exactly what he was doing. He basically set up a heart bypass machine here and it’s connected to an ECMO.”
“English, man—speak English,” Stan said, frustrated.
“Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation machine. I’ve only seen this type of unit twice before. It’s used on intensive-care patients—serves as their lungs and heart in extreme cases.” He looked at Jimmy’s severed head and cocked an eyebrow. “Doesn’t get any more extreme than losing your body, does it?” The man mumbled, his words indicative of continued disbelief.
“Where is the rest of the body?” Devonshire asked.
Paul shrugged. “You are looking at exactly what we saw when we got here. No clue.”
Stan looked around the room from where he stood trying to get a grasp on the scene. “Can you transport him—what’s left of him—safely?”
“I think so. The machine has its own built-in battery unit that will keep it going for at least forty-five minutes. We should be able to unplug it and transport what’s left of him with it. We’re just waiting for MedFlight to get here. They’ll land in the courtyard outside and we’ll fly him over to Salem. It’ll be the safest way to do it.”
Stan nodded and left the room. Time to survey the rest of the house. He found Keen and Officer Roberts sitting at the table in the kitchen talking with Jeff and taking his statement. Jeff supported his head with both hands, clearly in shock.
Officer Keen informed Stan that this was Jeff Auberdine who had been here when they arrived. Stan sat down and flashed his shield. “I’m Detective Devonshire—sorry, I know this is rough. To the best of your knowledge, has anyone disturbed the scene or is everything exactly as you saw it when you arrived here?”
“I didn’t touch anything, although a lot of cops have been going in and out,” Jeff replied numbly. Jeff dropped his hands from around his face and looked Stan straight in the eyes. “Why would someone do something like this—why? And where is Chanel?” he added.
Stan looked over at Keen and asked, “Jimmy and Elena have a four-year-old girl. She wasn’t here when you arrived?”
Keen shook his head. “I have Roberts and Palmer canvassing the neighborhood trying to find her.”
Stan’s face paled. Mother’s throat slit. Father decapitated. And where is the little girl? Dear God—where is that little girl?