Steven Womack

Way Past Dead

The night the fundamentalist redneck zealots assaulted the morgue, I was hauling butt down I-65 from Louisville back to Nashville after spending three days lying in the grass videotaping a disabled, wheelchair-bound bricklayer shooting hoops on his brother-in-law’s patio.

It was my first big insurance-fraud case, and I was feeling pretty good. The object of my surveillance was a contract bricklayer who had taken my client for a bundle, claiming a hundred percent disability as a result of a fall off a scaffold. The fact that he drank a six-pack of tall boys at lunch didn’t seem to matter. I borrowed a van and a video camera from my friend Lonnie, threw some clothes and my old Nikon into a duffel bag, and followed the guy and his wife all the way to Louisville.

For three days it rained like fury. I got soaked as I plopped down in a field overlooking the house and hid underneath a stand of peach trees maybe a hundred feet from the brother-in-law’s back door. I slept in the van, lived off cold burgers and french fries slathered in congealed grease, and shivered under a poncho. On the fourth day, Saturday, the sun broke through, the temperature went up about twenty degrees, and a gorgeous spring day erupted out of nowhere. Other than the chiggers, surveillance was a delight. Even the boredom seemed tolerable on such a beautiful day.

It was too beautiful; the bricklayer couldn’t take it anymore. He drove his electric wheelchair through the open sliding-glass door onto the patio and watched his brother-in-law and a teenage boy-his nephew, I guessed- sinking baskets in the sun. He sat on the edge of the patio, whooping as he watched the two run around each other, bare-chested and sweaty, in a vicious one-on-one. I pulled the camera up and stared through the viewfinder. I was so close I had to back off the zoom.

Suddenly the boy bounced the ball a few times and tossed it toward his uncle, who caught it in the wheelchair and cradled the ball longingly in his lap.

My hand automatically hit the red button. I felt the gears inside the camera engage. There was the whirring of a motor in my ear to match the buzz of mosquitoes.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I know body language when it jumps out at me. Even from this distance, I could see the boy and his father standing in front of the wheelchair making Aw, c’mons.…

The camcorder whirred on.

The bricklayer bounced the ball a few times on the concrete patio. The snap of the basketball next to the right wheel of his chair was staccato and sharp. The guy must have been good. Back when he could walk, I mean.

Then I saw him look around nervously, palm the ball, and lay it back on his lap. He hand went to the toggle switch and he threw the wheelchair into reverse, skating smoothly off the concrete and onto the grass. He reached down in his lap, his back to me, and released the safety strap that kept his useless body from falling out of the chair. Then he shoved the ball toward the boy, put his hands on either side of the wheelchair, and leaped onto the patio.

The brother-in-law applauded and cheered. The bricklayer ran to one end of the patio, whipped around, and took two long strides just as the boy bounced the ball in front of him. He became airborne right in front of the goal, did a three-sixty in midair, then slam-dunked the ball with a rim-shaking clatter.

The camcorder whirred on.

“Praise Jesus,” I whispered. “It’s a miracle.”

So life was good and business was terrific that Saturday night on my way back to Nashville with a solid hour’s worth of sports highlights featuring the miraculously cured bricklayer. Monday morning, I’d head over to the insurance company, give them the tape and my invoice, then settle back to await that nice fat paycheck-with bonus-I needed so badly.

Down around Bowling Green, I flicked on the radio in Lonnie’s van and started searching for the Nashville radio stations. Voices from home and all that. I tuned to the AM band and searched for the all-news station, the one that plays the audio feed off Cable Headline News twenty-four hours a day. The signal was scratchy, full of static, and a bit irritating over the noise of the van. What the hell, I figured, a little aggravation might keep me pumped up for the last hour and a half down I-65 to the city. I needed something to keep me awake after the week I’d had.

“-in from Nashville,” the announcer said as I tuned the station in. I perked up, reached down, and cranked the volume even higher. “According to a police spokesman, an obscure, offshoot sect of a fundamentalist religious group has surrounded the local morgue, demanding the release of their founder’s wife’s body.”

I stifled a laugh. Then it hit me. The morgue. Marsha. Holy cow. I lost it for a second; an orange tractor- trailer barreling down on me from the passing lane barely missed turning me into road paste. The semi’s horn blared in my ear as it roared past, with me swivel-hipping all over the right lane trying to keep it between the lines.

“More from CNN’s Brian Larkin,” the radio anchor said. Then a change of voice: “Local police say this is one for the books. About five o’clock this afternoon, an unidentified man showed up at the T. E. Simpkins Forensic Science Center, which is the Nashville, Tennessee, morgue, and demanded that officials turn over to him the body of Evangeline Lee Hogg, who died under mysterious circumstances yesterday afternoon. Mrs. Hogg is the wife of Woodrow Tyberious Hogg, who has been identified as the leader and founder of an offshoot branch of the fundamentalist Assemblies of God. The group, which calls itself the Pentecostal Evangelical Enochians, claims that on Judgment Day, only those whose bodies are buried whole will be resurrected. An autopsy, cult leaders claim, will deny Mrs. Hogg resurrection.”

I didn’t know whether to giggle or scream.

The reporter droned on. “When morgue officials refused to release the body, police said, at least a dozen Winnebagos crashed through a chain-link fence onto the grounds of the morgue and surrounded the building. Electricity and telephone wires have been cut, and cult members claim to be heavily armed. Trapped inside the morgue are an unidentified group of staff members who have been cut off from all contact with the outside. Police have set up barricades outside the morgue grounds and hostage negotiators are on the scene. We’ll have more to report as the story breaks.”

I lowered the volume and tried to focus on the white lines in front of me.

“Pentecostal Evangelical Enochians?” I said out loud. “Who in hell are the Pentecostal Evangelical Enochians?”

And why are they holding my girlfriend hostage?

I always knew that sooner or later I’d discover the downside of being in love with somebody who cuts up dead bodies for a living. I’ve got to admit, though, I never expected it to be this.

As for the question why?, the radio had pretty well answered that. Dr. Marsha Helms, Assistant Medical Examiner for Metropolitan Nashville/Davidson County, was going to slice open Evangeline Lee Hogg like a field-dressed deer on its way to the check-in station.

“Yuck,” I said out loud. The thought was an unappealing one. But even more unappealing was the thought of Marsha-and all issues of possessiveness aside, I’d begun to think of her as my Marsha- being held hostage by a group of armed wackos who didn’t want anyone mucking around in Mrs. Hogg’s insides.

I laid down hard on the accelerator pedal, feeling like I’d been thrown suddenly into the middle of a 1970s Burt Reynolds movie. All I needed was a CB radio and a Red Man Chewing Tobacco cap to complete the picture. I was still wearing the same filthy jeans and work shirt I’d had on in the peach orchard, and I hadn’t shaved in four days. I’d planned to go straight to Marsha’s apartment and settle into a hot bathtub, preferably not alone.

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