A helicopter crash alters a Coast Guard rescue swimmer's life forever in Cutting Edge, a suspense thriller by USA Today bestselling author Ward Larsen (available January 23, 2018).
Trey DeBolt is a young man at the crest of life. His role as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer in Alaska offers him a rewarding job and limitless adventure. Then a tragic accident alters his life: during a harrowing rescue, his helicopter goes down.
Severely injured, DeBolt awakens in a seaside cabin in Maine, thousands of miles from where the accident occurred. His lone nurse lets slip that he has been officially declared dead, lost in the crash. Back in Alaska, however, Coast Guard investigator Shannon Lund uncovers evidence that DeBolt might still be alive. Her search quickly becomes personal, but before she can intervene, chaos erupts outside a cabin in the wilds of Maine.
The nurse who has been treating DeBolt is brutally killed by military-trained assassins. DeBolt is only saved when a bizarre vision guides him to safety. Soon other images appear, impossible revelations that are unfailing in their accuracy. As he runs for his life, DeBolt discovers he has been drawn into an ultra-secret government project. The power it bestows is boundless, both a gift and a curse. Yet one thing is certain: Trey DeBolt has abilities no human has ever known.
The second time he died was more difficult than the first. More difficult because he saw it coming.
He stirred to consciousness between the two events, twin sources of light above him seeming like a pair of struggling midday suns behind thick layers of cloud. He was flat on his back, that much he knew, and beneath him were sheets that had been washed too many times and stretched tight over a thin mattress.
The voices were every bit as opaque as the light, a man and a woman, neither familiar. He could make out most of their words, a disjointed back-and-forth that seemed to arrive through a soup can.
How long had he been awake? A minute? Two? Long enough.
A shadow blocked out the suns, and again he willed his eyes to open. There was no response. All voluntary movement had ceased. Then a brush of warm breath came across his face, moist and without scent.
And somewhere, he was sure, a needle. His first hint, moments ago, had been the smell of alcohol. Not the beery scent of a pub or anything from a crystalline decanter, but the biting, antiseptic variety. His hand was pulled outward, and two fingers probed the flesh of his useless right arm in that time-honored way. Tap tap. Tap tap. Searching for a fat, well-formed vein. Then, apparently, success. A cool wet swab rubbed the flesh of his inner arm.
“What’s the point of that?” said the man.
“Oh, right,” the woman replied. “Force of habit, I guess.”
The patient was not prone to panic—no man of his background could be—yet a sense of desperation began to settle. Move an arm, a hand! A finger, for God’s sake! He tried mightily, yet every muscle in his body seemed detached, like a machine whose gears had disconnected. The pain in his head was excruciating, unyielding, as if his skull might explode. But at least it told him he was alive. What had happened?
“Want me to do it?” the man asked.
“No, I’m okay.”
“It bothered you last time.”
“I said I’m okay,” she countered tersely.
Open your eyes! Move! No response.
The jab came quick and sharp, but was over in an instant. Nothing compared to the constant throb in his head. What followed, however, was worse than anything he’d ever experienced. A terrible sensation of cold. No, not cold. Frost coursing through his veins. It crawled into his arm, toward his shoulder, numbing everything in its path. Leaving no more than twitching, frozen nerves in its wake. He battled for alertness, fought to think logically as the glacier inside him flowed toward his neck and chest. When it reached his heart, piercing like an ice pick, the first flutter of oblivion arrived.
He felt a cool circle of metal clamp to his chest. A stethoscope.
“Almost,” she said. “This one’s going fast.”
“I’ll get the bag.”
The lights above began to fade, a gathering overcast. The voices fell to no more than unintelligible mutterings. His only remaining sense was that of touch. He could still feel the sheets, the needle. The cold within.
But why can’t I move?
His ending thoughts were oddly lucid and vivid. The needle being pulled. Adhesive sensor pads getting plucked from his chest. His body was rocked from side to side as they worked cool plastic under him. A zipper closing, beginning at his toes, then a long, practiced pull up over his knees and waist. Over his chest and face.
And finally, all at once, the darkness was absolute.
* * *
The nurse watched her coworker wriggle the sealed gray bag back and forth, adjusting it to the center of the gurney.
“Why no autopsy on this one?” he asked.
“Those were the doctor’s instructions. He said he already knew what went wrong with the procedure.” The nurse clicked off the brake and began wheeling the gurney toward the door. “I can take it from here. Why don’t you get a head start on the cleanup.”
“Yeah … I guess you’re right. We won’t be using this room again for at least a few months. Can you believe they’re going to pay us to just sit at home until the next phase?”
Neither commented on that thought, which only added to the nurse’s discomfort.
“Wait!” he said. “I don’t see the last syringe we used. We have to account for that.”
“Crap!” she muttered. “I must have dropped it into the sharps container.”
He frowned at her. “Force of habit again?”
She said nothing, but paused at the door, watched him peer into a red plastic box full of spent needles.
“Okay,” he said. “I think maybe I see it. I’ll just get rid of the whole box.”
“Good,” she said. “And do me a favor, don’t tell the doctor about that—you know how he can be.”
“No problem,” he said. Then as an apparent afterthought, “Maybe we could get together for dinner tonight.”
Having worked with the man for six months, she was accustomed to his clumsy come-ons. Even so, being delivered from behind a surgical mask, by a man wearing a gown and fabric booties—the proposition seemed inane by even his standards. He was nearly sixty, with a big belly and a bad comb-over, and as far as she knew had never been married. She was matronly, on the high side of forty, and over the whole damned dating thing. If that wasn’t enough, his timing couldn’t have been worse. She said without flinching, “I have plans.”
Before he could respond, she pushed through the swinging doors and turned left down the hall. She wondered how the man had ended up here. Aside from the doctor, there were only four of them—carefully selected to be sure, and competent, but each with some strike that had left them outcasts in their professions. Men and women who were happy to have a job at the price of discretion. At the elevator she hit the call button and set the brake on the gurney. The incinerator in the basement was already fired up.
The cab arrived, and she pushed the gurney inside and took a last look down the hall. When the doors sucked closed, she ignored the button labeled B and instead pushed 1.
One week later
It is a shoreline that begs for words like “desolate” and “austere.” On a map it forms a ragged line between Maine and the North Atlantic, a whipsaw collection of coves and promontories that defy any compass, and whose nameless breaks and repetitive tree lines seem designed by God himself to confuse mariners. The ribbon of shore muddles its way north out of the affluent landings of Cape Elizabeth and Kennebunk, only to be swallowed hundreds of miles later by the indifferent wilds of Canada. Standing helpless in the middle is the place called Cape Split, a waypoint to nothingness more ignored than forgotten.
If there is a beach it is in name only, a place where rock coexists with sand, and where great tidal shelves lounge belligerently on the threshold of a cold and tireless sea. Stout stands of pine and spruce shoulder straight to the shore, towering over the shattered skeletons of ancestors washed up at their feet, and leaning ever so slightly seaward as if anticipating the next big blow. Just offshore, islands of submerged rocks rise and fall with the tide, and deep in the valleys between them rest the remains of innumerable boats whose hardy survivors find their names echoed generations later in the nearby villages.
Shorebirds by the thousands build nests in the low cliffs, and thick-pelted animals teem through the forest. Indeed, if there is an underrepresented species on Cape Split it is the humans, well outnumbered in summer by moose, and on the leading edge of winter, after the annual outward migration, a population that cannot even keep numbers with the resident black bears. Those unreliable souls who depart Cape Split after the fair and brief summer for the most part leave behind sprawling seaside mansions, whereas the year-round residents, a more hearty and practical bunch, tend toward cottages, these also by the sea, but far enough back in the pines to cut the lashings from the inevitable nor’easters. It was in one of these small lodgings, coyly south-facing and near the Eastern Pitch, that the nurse had taken up residence.
* * *
She had come to the coast nine years ago—nine years exactly, because people here tracked such things as a matter of pride. She was not a local, but to her credit not from the city, and she kept to herself a bit more than she should have. There were rumors of a bad divorce, others of an inheritance pirated by siblings. It was all quite dramatic, and likely no more than gossip. But she was a nurse. There had been no mistaking the proper bandage she’d put on the young boy who cut himself on the rocks two summers ago, nor the dutiful CPR she’d performed, to no avail, on old man Ferguson the winter before. At least one year-round resident had seen her car parked behind an urgent care clinic in Bangor, although he couldn’t say whether she’d been there as a patient or an employee. She was polite to the clerk at the grocery in Columbia, and equally so when gassing her old Honda every Sunday at the Circle K on Route 1. Her only defined shortfall, if it could be characterized as such, was laid bare by the garbageman, who swore by all that was distilled that the nurse’s recycle bucket was invariably filled with enough wine bottles to maintain three thirsty men. Still, as with her social reticence, that was her business. There were two types of year-rounders in Cape Split—those whose ancestors swam onto its rocks, and the rest who came to escape the dispensed ills of life.
Her weathered cottage—because no place with such a view could be called a shack—was little more than four walls of shaker siding, once a happy blue, and a roof that didn’t leak. One path led to the road, another to the sea. The nearest neighbor was half a mile in either direction. It was a small place, and private, which here was saying something. And by one reliable account, for the last three weeks the recycle bucket had been empty.
* * *
Joan Chandler rose early that morning, not much after the sun, and stepped onto the small porch that overlooked the sea. She stretched gingerly, thinking the light seemed unusually intense. Her heart was racing even before her morning coffee, and she steadied one trembling hand on the rail. The trees were silent in a slack wind, the sea serene. Other than a few gulls wheeling in the distance, the world outside was uncommonly still. How fitting, she thought.
Her patient hadn’t stirred in the week since she’d brought him here. Or for that matter, in the week before, not that anyone was counting. He had stabilized, as far as she could tell, although her equipment was laughably rudimentary. The portable heart monitor she had stolen from work—it would never be missed because it had been closeted for dodgy leads. There were scads of redundant equipment in the small place where she worked—lab, clinic, she’d never known what to call it—and she’d reasoned that one fault-prone monitor wouldn’t be missed. God, what a budget they had. Everything was new, full digital suites suitable for surgery fitted into each of the four rooms. Most outlandish of all were the imaging machines: functional magnetic resonance imaging, gamma knife, helical X-ray CT, all brand-new and perfectly calibrated.
Chandler knew little about any of that—she’d been recruited for the operating room. Her baseline clinical experience had been years ago, right after nursing school, and like so many in her profession she had gravitated to a more lucrative specialty: perioperative nursing. She’d made a good living before her troubles—an abusive husband, two miscarriages, and a financially ruinous divorce. Her drinking had gotten the better of her, costing her a good job—a career, in truth, or so she’d thought. Then she’d been granted one last chance, the most peculiar of job offers.
She pulled open the weather door, which creaked heavily, and stepped back inside to check on her patient. There was no chart at the foot of his bed. For that matter, there wasn’t really a bed, her little used trundle substituting for a proper high-low setup. Aside from the heart monitor, there was little else. An IV pole, now empty, and a few supplies on a shelf: bandages mostly, and an assortment of medications to ward off infection and manage pain. Like the rest, all pilfered from the clinic since the patient had arrived. Since she’d made her decision.
She took a pulse and a blood pressure reading. Much better than last week. His color was improving, and respiration seemed normal, not the shallow rasps of the day when she’d wheeled him up the porch in the collapsible wheelchair that had barely fit into the trunk of her Honda.
He was a good-looking young man. Short brown hair with streaks of blond from the distant summer, regular features, and a swimmer’s build. She checked his eyes now and again for pupil dilation, and found them vacant and clear, and, she couldn’t deny, a storybook blue. Chandler wondered how different they would look with life behind them. Aside from the legend behind his injuries, which might or might not be true, she had little background information on patient B—that was how he was referred to at the clinic, and of course she knew why. But she had learned his name. Against regulations, she’d rifled through the doctor’s files and found it. She had wanted that much. If there was a date of birth in the record she hadn’t been able to find it, but she guessed him to be thirty, maybe a bit younger. Fifteen years her junior, more or less. Almost young enough to be the son she’d never had.
Chandler sighed. She went to the kitchen and put the coffeepot on the stove.
* * *
He woke just before noon, while she was changing the bandage on his head. His eyes cracked open, only slightly at first, then suddenly came wide. Even in that startled state, vacant and imprecise, the eyes were as blue as any she’d seen.
“Well, hello,” she said in her best nurse’s singsong.
He responded by blinking once.
“Take it easy. You’ve had an accident.”
He looked around the place, trying to get his bearings. His lips began to quiver as he tried to build a word.
“Go slow, it’s all right. You’ll have all the time you need to recover.”
“Wa … water,” he rasped.
For the first time in two months, the nurse smiled.
Copyright © 2018 Ward Larsen.
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Ward Larsen is a USA Today bestselling author and three-time winner of the Florida Book Award. His work has been nominated for both the Edgar and Macavity Awards. A former US Air Force fighter pilot, Larsen flew more than twenty missions in Operation Desert Storm. He also served as a federal law enforcement officer and is a trained aircraft accident investigator. His first thriller, The Perfect Assassin, is being adapted into a major motion picture by Amber Entertainment.