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June 26, 2013 / Ronald Chapman

Chapter 2 – The Sequel to A Killer’s Grace


Fortunately the cold front only deposited black ice on the roads in the lower elevations around Albuquerque. By the time they had reached La Bajada, the long, steep grade that took Interstate 25 up and away from the valley of the Rio Grande, the Jeep moved firmly atop asphalt that was already clear from snowplows as well as solar gain from the morning sun. It was a curious benefit to high elevation, even on the coldest days the sun could quickly make things quite comfortable.

News updates on the radio painted the briefest of stories. It had been a massive blast. There were a number of dead and injured. Local emergency responders were first to arrive with the Federal Bureau of Investigations dispatching field staff from their Albuquerque Office. People from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were in route. Pitcairn turned the radio off when the broadcaster announced that the Department of Homeland Security had raised the terror alert level and mobilized key personnel.

The roar of the tires on pavement masked the quiet in the Jeep until Maria Elena spoke. “That’s some serious shit.”

Though deep in thought, he nodded and glanced toward her. Returning his attention to the roadway, he noticed he had a near-death grip on the steering wheel. The tension within him always grew taut with his first steps into a setting in which violence had taken place. It was a visceral response, a kind of psychological hangover that dated all the way back to his childhood.

He noticed the light touch of Maria Elena’s hand on his forearm and remembered to breathe. Pulling his shoulders back and rolling his head, he drew in a long, measured inhalation then exhaled quickly. After several repetitions the degree of release was dramatic.

It was a technique taught to him by his trauma counselor, Kari Claussen. During the Crucifix Protests, Pitcairn had met Father Anthony de Franco the leader of The Center for Radical Spirituality, which instigated the first demonstration using the inverted crucifix. Tony had become a trusted confidante and spiritual mentor, though it remained curious that the priest was advising Pitcairn, whose beliefs waivered somewhere between atheism and agnosticism.

Tony had referred him to Claussen because he knew a great deal about her and her work. When Pitcairn had expressed some skepticism, the priest had nudged him toward her by intimating, “She knows and walks on holy ground. Now would be a good time to be open minded.”

Pitcairn smiled at the memory and recalled his response. “Tony, I can only be as open-minded as my closed mind permits.”

The priest had persisted and to good end. Kari was now a steady presence in Pitcairn’s program of recovery. Where once he had focused exclusively on alcoholism, the therapist had broadened his perspective considerably by encouraging him into a number of arenas. Trauma recovery was but one of these.

His reverie ended. Reaching over he squeezed Maria Elena’s thigh. “Thank you.”

“De nada,” she replied lightly. “Sometimes a troubled man needs a good woman to remind him who he really is.”

“And …” he cued.

She danced her hands in the air before her. “And…you are an exceptionally good man who is occasionally lost in a history that no longer applies.”

Pitcairn laughed.

“Were you in Traumaland?” she asked using their whimsical take on a theme  park populated by false realities and twisted characters.

“No, I was there for a moment but as soon as I started breathing it released and I was thinking about Tony and Kari.” He smiled wistfully. “Who could imagine that a guy like me would have a renegade priest and the good witch of the high desert for spiritual counsel?”

The question hung in the air as they heard the first of what would be many sirens, an ambulance racing in the opposite direction as it angled to exit onto St. Francis Road just south of Santa Fe. Traffic remained light given the weather, and the last radio report had indicated the interstate had been unaffected by the detonation. Regardless, at the next several exits access to local highways were barricaded by police and other emergency vehicles. They continued up the steep climb to Glorieta Pass. The blast cloud had dissipated but a faint haze of dust hung in the air and dulled the atmosphere.

“Guess we’re going to have to be creative,” he announced as he took the first exit not barred to their passage. Turning south the road quickly narrowed as it climbed a circuitous path into the mountains. At a hairpin curve a marked forest road veered to the right. Quickly shifting into four-wheel drive he steered the Jeep onto the snow-covered route.

The snow was not especially deep though it had accumulated in some shadowed recesses beneath rock and fir trees. That changed as they gained elevation and drifts began to appear. The tires crunched steadily forward. Pitcairn cranked up the heater. Minutes passed.

After a few stops where possible vantage points proved to be non-existent, they crept through a narrow rock passage after which the track turned in a broad curve. The trees fell away as they neared an overlook. He stopped in the middle of the track and turned off the ignition. Reaching into the back seat he pulled out his winter driving duffle and extracted a wool scarf for Maria Elena and leather gloves for both of them.

The doors whined as they opened in the cold then slammed crisply. Twenty paces up a slight slope and they were able to see far to the west. It’s said that on a clear day in New Mexico it is possible to see up to three hundred miles. While on any other day they both might have been delighted with the vista, on this day they were hushed by the signs of the explosion.

In a large flat space in the southern lee of a mountain the debris field radiated outward. Trees were flattened for several hundred yards. Parts of the compound’s buildings and walls remained, but from this distance they appeared just like the ruins of the Anasazi found in many canyons across the Southwest. Crumpled vehicles still smoked and Pitcairn could almost smell the carnage. Tiny black figures crawled the area as a lifeline helicopter rose into air tinged by smoke and dust.

Maria Elena pressed her head into his chest and began to weep. He wrapped her in his arms and held her. Continuing to scan the scene Pitcairn felt the sorrow rise in him, a sweet ache just above his heart. He began the slow, rhythmic breathwork Kari had taught him as a way to blunt the effects of retraumatization. She would add that the breath would also center him and allow him to stay present. Regardless, it brought comfort as they stood quietly.

A short time later Maria Elena pulled away to rub her eyes and blow her nose. He turned to watch her.

She licked her lips and shook her head. “I don’t know how you can be with this as often as you are.

He reached out to brush her cheek. “Tony says I have a very high threshold for discomfort. Kari tells me that it’s the basis for a high degree of empathy that is growing in me.” He shrugged. “All I know is to stand in the presence of it and breath. To bear witness …”

Pitcairn stopped and again surveyed the scene. “Emmy, this is what I seem to have been called to do. And somehow I can simultaneously see a great beauty amid the ugly.” He smiled at her tenderly.

“You know, I always thought it was the violence that lurked in you that was so alluring. But right at this moment I realize it is the compassion that I love so much.”

He quickly raised his hands as if to divert her recognition. “I still cannot see what you and others see in me.” He chuckled. “Most people can’t see their own inner darkness. Me…I can’t fathom anything other than that.”

Maria Elena nodded. “Me. I cry. Then I start trying to figure out how to catch the bastards and make them pay.” A wry smile crept to her face. “That must be La Diabla.”

He turned to look once more at the site of the blast, then grabbed her by the hand to lead her back to the Jeep. The ride back to Santa Fe was very quiet.

Once in town they drove to the Tea House on Canyon Road, a funky, new-age-meets-Tibet place they both loved. After securing a very strong latte for himself and a large hot chocolate for Maria Elena, he pulled out his notepad and wrote for a time. Part of it was the ongoing written inventory he kept as part of his recovery, a place to process and reflect. The balance was notation for reporting. Then he took a break to call his editor.

“Sean, it’s really bad. I can’t imagine how big the bomb must have been. And there must be a whole lot of dead.” He proceeded to describe what they had seen.

Mortensen planned to pass the details along to his reporting team. He also asked Pitcairn to write a reflective piece for the upcoming Friday. Since the national exposure that had come with the Crucifix Protest, the editor knew the violence beat was Pitcairn’s first, best material.

After writing a few thoughts for the column, he closed his notepad, leaned back and clasped his hands behind his head, and nodded to Maria Elena. “What’s up?”

She smiled while looking up from newspapers borrowed from a nearby rack. “After the compound I’m just happy to be sitting here reading in quiet comfort.”

“What time are we due at Ten Thousand Waves?”

“The only time they had is 5:00. Guess I’m not the only one who wants to sit in hot water with my honey underneath the stars.”

Pitcairn chortled. “I like the light at sunset better anyway. Come on, let’s go gallery hopping and see if the beauty can dispel the ugly we’ve been in.”




Leave a Comment
  1. Irene Fuson / Jun 26 2013 7:35 pm

    I am sitting in the back seat…… your writing is that good.

    • Ron Chapman / Jun 26 2013 9:18 pm

      Hey Irene … so pleased it is on “tone” … 😎

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