Rand Carter was a stranger to violence. Although he acted as a gateway into the armed forces for hundreds of military recruits, none of them ever called him from the wars. Over the eight years of his job, he waited for an email or a letter. He wanted something from one of the young, nervous people he had vetted into service. A note about how killing a stranger can unsettle you or how narrowly avoiding death can make the air taste sweeter. No one shared their experiences, he remained ignorant.
On a dry, hot day in the summer of 2013; Carter played the same mental game he always did when getting dressed. He pretended each layer was a form of armor and that he was getting geared up to participate in an epic battle. His white undershirt was chainmail, his button-down blue long-sleeve was Kevlar and his suit jacket was sturdy body armor. It was a silly distraction he had entertained in his mind ever since he was little. A fantasy meant to make the application of clothes a little more fun, a little less adult.
The sun caught his wedding ring at just the proper angle to dazzle him as he pulled out of his garage and the rest of the drive was spent remembering a sunlit day at Innsmouth Park, years ago. Entering the Naval base, the radio played in his car. He wasn’t listening. He was eating warm macaroni and cheese from a cheap plastic spoon while laughing about a story Elizabeth was telling.
As Rand pulled into a visitor’s space, several of the employees waved and smiled at him. He had been conducting background investigations for the government for the past seven years, but he never bothered to learn people’s names because there would always be new ones. Rand waved back and tried to smile in return.
Ushered past the polite but stern base security, Rand was shown to his usual interview room in the usual nondescript hallway lined with open doors. He noticed a half-eaten birthday cake sitting in a break room and secretly hoped he would be offered some before he left.
His interview room had been someone’s office, he supposed. Little rings where hot mugs had rested stained the desk top. Patches of wall were darker in places that once housed pictures (family photos?) and had therefore been protected from the bleaching efforts of the sun. The little swivel chair groaned under his weight and he opened his briefcase to begin sorting the papers.
Another mental game to make his job less tedious: he imagined he was interrogating an enemy agent. Looking for lies, trying to catch someone in a contradiction, all of these were essential to a winning condition. To make an interviewee cry was a pyrrhic victory. In reality, Carter felt guilty after causing someone to dredge up painful experiences. While his job was to search out exploitable weaknesses, he never fully relaxed into that role.
His interview that day was with Gus Johanson. Johanson was applying for a top secret clearance to move into a better job and to earn more money in the Navy. Looking through the paperwork, Carter knew the interview would be easy. No criminal record, no mental illness, no dark secrets. Just a Polish grandmother that technically gave him ties to a foreign country. By this time in his career, Carter was rarely surprised.
When Johanson appeared in the room, he was affable and polite. He made apologies for being late as he had inadvertently brought his sidearm on base and had to have it placed in a secure locker. That level of honesty immediately placed Carter at ease. The interview moved along smoothly, as Carter knew it would. Johanson admitted to a speeding ticket he had omitted from his paperwork but, otherwise, he was clean. Stiff conversation changed slowly into jokes and familiarity.
As Carter was going into his final questions (what he mentally called “The Lightning Round”), the first gunshots reached their ears.
Carter stopped reading and held up his hand to silence Johanson. Neither of the men had ever been in a war but Johanson recognized the noise immediately. Carter heard the screaming next, the two shared a look of utter fear.
“What do we…” Carter said.
Johanson was already standing, his hand unconsciously reaching for a sidearm that wasn’t there. “Just stay in here, sir,” he said to Carter.
As Johanson cracked the door to the interview room open, the sound of chaos came pouring into the space, fire alarms and panicked calls. The bright, antiseptic lights of the corridor were diffused through smoke. Acting on some instinct he was likely not aware of, Johanson turned the lights off in the interview room.
Carter could only think to stack the papers he was using into a folder and replace them into his briefcase. Two shots rang out and something thudded, then skittered, onto the hallway floor. Johanson eyed the lockers across from the interview room where his own gun had been placed. He said a barely audible prayer and crouched into the hall, pulling the door shut behind him.
Carter willed himself to move, approaching the door to look for a locking mechanism. There was not one. There was a small window in the heavy metal door, crisscrossed with wire mesh to reinforce it. Carter looked out and saw that Johanson had made it to the lockers. Another shot rang out, this time followed by a pained groan somewhere closer (Carter guessed it was coming from the break room with the ruined cake).
Johanson had his gun. He looked towards Carter’s face in the window, motioning for him to stay there. Johanson moved in the direction of the groan and the previous shots. With a louder bang, the groaning stopped. Carter could make out a voice yelling something (was it Johanson?). The only response to the yell was another gunshot, the action just out of view. Craning his head to the furthest angle the window would allow, Carter saw the white flooring was flecked with darkening red splashes.
Carter quickly moved back into the darkness of the room. He pressed himself against the wall furthest from the door. He became aware of his heart hammering, his dry throat. He thought of prayer and dismissed it as quickly. Instead, he touched his wedding band. A relief flooded over him. He understood he had been on borrowed time for months now. Outside the window, a cloud was making a lazy stroll across the blue Virginia sky.
Silence dominated the moment. No screams, no yelling and no gunshots. Even the blaring fire alarms faded. No shadows passed in front of the door. Carter thought of his cell phone and realized it would be in the same lockers in which Johanson had left his gun. Surely, they would announce things were all clear? He wondered if Johanson was hurt, lying in the hall, bleeding out.
At that moment, the door was kicked so hard it bounced off the adjacent wall, shattering the glass that Carter had pressed his face against just moments before. Carter’s eyes had already adjusted to the natural daylight, even the lights dimmed by smoke seemed blinding with their sudden intrusion. A hulking form filled the doorway.
A man in fatigues switched the lights on, further hurting Carter’s eyes. Carter lifted his hands in the universal sign for “I give up.” He blinked as his vision cleared, seeing the man before him clearly at last. It was Chief Petty Officer Hank Wilcox.
Months earlier, in that very room, Carter had faced Wilcox across the same table and interviewed him. Wilcox had applied for a top secret clearance but there had been some issues with domestic violence that needed to be discussed. Wilcox had seemed cagey and raw for the entire interview. Carter hadn’t liked him but couldn’t find a shred of proof that Wilcox was unfit to hold his clearance. Carter did not consider that interview a “win.”
Wilcox, covered in the gore of his former co-workers, lifted his gun towards Carter. As Wilcox took careful aim, a flash of recognition crossed his face.
“Hey, it’s you…Carver.”
Wilcox said, “Carter, right, sorry. I hate to do this. You were very nice to me, helped me a lot.”
Carter realized he was clutching his briefcase. He saw the gun return to a position level with his head and acted without thinking. Slinging the briefcase with all his might, he caused Wilcox to move to the side. The gun went off and a burning shaft of pain passed through Carter’s right thigh.
Looking down at the wound, Carter saw his own blood cascading from the ragged hole in his suit pants. He slowly slid down the wall, gravity winning at last. He looked up again to see the barrel of Wilcox’s gun aimed squarely at his face, not inches away.
“If they don’t hurry up, we’re going to have to find someone else,” Wilcox whispered.
“What?” asked Carter.
Carter was barely aware of the figure entering the room behind Wilcox. A thunderous noise caused Carter to squeeze his eyes shut. Carter felt a weight on him, and a warm liquid pouring over his shoulder.
“Sir, are you alright?”
Carter opened his eyes to find himself in darkness again. The corpse of Chief Petty Officer Wilcox was resting partially on him, and against the corner where he had fallen. The top of his head was missing and the blood continued to trickle over Carter from above.
“Yes, I think, yes…” said Carter from underneath the dead man. “Johanson, where is he? Is he safe?”
Footsteps and then the burden of Wilcox was removed from Carter. Someone said, “We need a medic!” Carter didn’t know the man who was yelling. As his eyes closed, he saw that his paperwork was scattered all over the room.
In a hospital room, the next day, Carter read about the massacre in a national newspaper. Wilcox had murdered four of his co-workers and two civilians, injured fourteen others and caused untold damage to the actual base before he was put down. A search of his home off-base revealed his wife and four-year old son murdered. Carter placed the paper down and saw an ad for fabric softener, a small article about cooking with fish oil, a picture of someone in Hollywood smiling. He began to cry, deep sobs that shook him.
Reaching up to his eyes, he noticed his wedding ring was gone. He never asked where it went.
The next few days would consist of interviews with federal and local law enforcement as well as Naval investigators; a parade of men with frowns and leading questions. Carter would discover that Johanson was found dead just outside the interview room. Also, Wilcox had been shot several times by one of his victims before finding Carter. His reactions would have been slowed by the injuries. Otherwise, Carter could have never caught him off guard. Carter could only remember Wilcox’s gun.
Upon Carter’s release from the hospital (no major arteries hit, but his femur was broken and surgeries were required), he was called into the district office by his manager. Still on pain killers and barely paying attention, Carter was informed that his investigation into Hank Wilcox was deemed negligent. A local psychiatrist would have readily admitted to Wilcox’s mental instability if she had only been asked (of course, she only stated this after the fact). If Wilcox hadn’t been given a clearance, he would not have had such access to the base on the day of the massacre. Carter was told he was indirectly responsible for all the “unpleasantness.”
“You know you haven’t been as thorough since the accident,” his manager said. Carter couldn’t remember his manager’s name. This blank face in a suit had bought him lunch, given him performance reviews and sent him generic “holiday greeting” cards every December. Carter just nodded and stared at the small speck of dried mustard on his manager’s tie.
“I just need some time…” Carter began.
The manager stood up and walked around the desk, placing a hand on Carter’s shoulder. A heavy ring adorned the manager’s well-manicured fingers. “You’re from South Carolina, right?”
Carter nodded. The manager said, “I have some connections with a hospital down there, they are always looking for someone.”
Carter snapped out of his lull for a moment. “What do you mean? I’m not qualified for anything…medical.”
The manager sighed. He said, “You aren’t qualified for this job anymore either, I’m afraid.”
Carter couldn’t argue. He turned in his badge, his laptop and the keys to his company car. A co-worker he had never met drove him home without conversation.
Carter stood in front of his empty house, looking at the flower bed Elizabeth had tended when she was alive. As a summer storm swept in, Carter’s thoughts turned dark. He stood still in the rain and thought about how empty the house already was. He assumed it would be emptier with him inside it. Finally stepping in to pack a suitcase, he walked past a room filled with her things that he kept locked on purpose.
Within a week, Rand Carter found himself in a rental car that smelled of ancient cigarettes. He drove the back roads and lonesome highways to the town of Still Creek, South Carolina.