“What else?” he said.
“Better send a couple of extra guys. I need them to clean a crime scene for me.” I gave him the details.
“It’s going to be very expensive. Shall I call you back with the total before you commit?”
I sighed, which caused a new round of pain to surge through my body. On the bright side, the pain seemed to be heading away from the center of my chest.
“I’ll cover the costs,” I said, “but let’s get this thing in motion.”
“You’re not going to die on me, are you?”
His question caught me by surprise. The thought of dying never crossed my mind. Through all the years of being shot at and bombed and targeted by foreign death squads, and all the years I’d been testing weapons for the Army—it suddenly dawned on me that I’d never considered the possibility of dying.
And still didn’t.
I forced a laugh. “I’m immortal, Darwin.”
He paused, processing the comment. Paused long enough for me to wonder if he might be thinking this could be the perfect time to ambush me. I’m Darwin’s top guy, I control Callie and Quinn and Lou Kelly and a half-dozen other trained killers.
On the other hand, I know a lot about the government that wouldn’t look good on 60 Minutes or Dateline.
“Anyone else know about your current situation?” Darwin said.
My best insurance against Darwin was my associates.
“Just Callie and Quinn.” Figured I might as well let him think about those two hunting him down if anything happened to me.
“Camptown?” he said. “Like the song? What state?”
“Pennsylvania,” I said. “Look it up.”
“Doo Dah!” he said.
Victor was right. It wasn’t funny.
Trinity Hospital, Newark, New Jersey.
The treatment rooms in the Heart and Vascular Unit were small, but mine had a window that overlooked the freeway. I was lying semi-reclined in a hospital bed, wearing one of those open-assed hospital gowns, watching the traffic, thinking how amazing it was that so many people had places to go. Did all these people have families and friends and jobs and people who depended on them? These thousands of people intersecting my life by passing my window at the very moment I watched them.
I focused on a single car, a cherry red Ford Mustang with a tan rag top, circa 1997. It was in my viewing range for maybe twenty seconds. I wondered if the driver was a man or woman, and if our paths had ever crossed. Maybe our paths were destined to cross in the future, and the driver of the Mustang would someday change my life. Maybe the driver has a child who will grow up to be the man or woman who eventually kills me. Or perhaps, moments from now, while attempting to exit the freeway, the driver will be sideswiped and fatally injured. Perhaps emergency rescue personnel will check his or her wallet and find a donor card, and the driver of the cherry red Mustang’s heart would be harvested just in time to save my life tonight.
There was a swooshing sound in the doorway as a young blonde with a perky smile slid the privacy curtain aside and entered the room.
“How are we doing today?” she said, in a practiced tone.
“We’re hanging in there like a hair in a biscuit,” I said.
She stopped a second, and then smiled.
“You’re funny,” she said.
She’d brought a small tray of medical items that included hypodermic needles, cotton, rubbing alcohol, and some type of rubber tubing. She placed the tray on the counter by the sink and I heard the snap of sterilized gloves being put on. Then she started swabbing the center of my forearm with alcohol.
“You’ll feel a little stick when I numb the area, and then I’ll set the IV,” she chirped.
It had been almost three hours since Camptown, and the pain in my chest had long since subsided. I considered getting out of bed and foregoing the emergency heart cath they’d been discussing, but decided I’d rather know if my ticker was going to be an issue. I couldn’t see any veins in the area the nurse had deadened, but I figured she knew what she was doing.
“Oops,” she said. “I missed. That happens sometimes.” She pressed a piece of gauze against the wound to stop the flow.
I nodded to show her I was a sympathetic guy.
“I’ll move up your arm a bit and try this nice vein just below your muscle.”
She was exceedingly young. Young enough that I felt dirty just reading her name tag, though it was nicely elevated.
I forced my eyes to stop lingering in the area of her name tag and watched her face as she stuck me to numb the vein she thought was nice looking.
Dana’s mouth twitched slightly as she gracelessly plunged the IV needle into the crook of my arm. She had a pleasant face and flawless skin, but something caused her to frown.
“Oh dear,” she said.
“This one seems to have collapsed.”
I glanced at my arm and saw that my vein had done nothing of the sort. She had in fact missed it by a full centimeter.
“You’re a tough one,” Dana cooed. “You didn’t even flinch.” She gave me a wink that, due to her age, seemed practically obscene. She pushed the IV needle into a third spot and missed.
“Don’t be offended,” I said. “But you’re done here.”
She looked at me to see if I was serious.
Her eyes welled up with tears and she packed up her needles and bloody gauze pads and ran from the room.
Before Dana had time to tell her tale to the other candystripers, a disheveled young man in a wrinkled lab coat came in. He appeared to be exhausted. Dana was practically a child, but this guy could have been her kid brother.
“Mr. Creed, I’m Dr. Hedgepeth.”
“Your parents know you stole that lab coat?”
He sighed. “Don’t start with me. I’m a fully-qualified, first-year resident in Internal Medicine.”
“Of course you are,” I said, thinking, I wouldn’t trust this kid to set up my Xbox.
Dr. Hedgepeth looked at my arm. “Sorry about that,” he said. “Dana’s new on the job.”
“What happened to the old nurse?”
“Mary? She was great. Best needle nurse I ever had. It broke my heart to let her go.”
I shook my head at the absurdity of his comment. This so-called doctor couldn’t possibly be in charge of hiring and firing staff . He couldn’t possibly be out of junior high school, for that matter. But I was committed to the conversation, so I forged ahead.
“If Mary was your best needle nurse, why’d you fire her?” I said.
“The patients kept complaining she was too young.”
“Of course they did.” I locked my eyes on his face. This had to be a joke. I can usually break a man’s resolve just by staring at him. This kid was about to crack. I could feel it.
“So what made you choose Dana?” I said.
“Dana’s the oldest nurse on the ward.”
“Is she,” I said, thinking, any nurse younger than Dana would have to be wearing a training bra.
“Dana will be just fine,” Dr. Hedgepeth said, “but there’s a learning curve, you see.”
I decided to move things along.
“Are you doing the heart cath or shall I look forward to meeting your grandson, the Chief of Surgery?”
“No need to be contentious,” he said.
“Contentious,” I said, wondering if that had been one of his spelling bee words.
“Performing a heart catheterization would be premature at this point,” he said. “You’re relatively young, you’re in great physical shape, your blood pressure’s excellent, your EKG is perfect, and the tests we’ve done showed none of the classic heart attack symptoms.”
“So what happens now?”
“We do a Cardiolite stress test. If that comes back normal, I’d advise you to get the hell out of here as soon as possible.”
“You can get sick faster in a hospital than almost anyplace on earth.”
I was beginning to like Dr. Hedgepeth. “So I don’t need a heart cath?”
“I don’t think so. What you probably need is a couple of hours and a bathroom.”
“Your problem could be acute heartburn, a precursor of food poisoning. Did you eat something of questionable origin recently?”
I thought about the beef burrito I’d choked down at the Horse Head Inn a few hours ago. And realized “beef ” didn’t necessarily mean cow.
“Could you have eaten something truly vile and shortly thereafter engaged in some form of physical activity?”
I thought about the Peterson sisters.
“Look,” I said. “I’ve had heartburn before. But this pain was severe, and emanated from the center of my chest.”
“Hey, we can always do the heart cath if you want. I mean, the hospital would love to pick up another thirty grand today. Ten times that, if we manage to poke a hole in your artery while performing the procedure."
I frowned. "Is that type of complication likely?"
"How to put this delicately," Dr. Hedgepeth said. "Our cath guy seems to be a cardiologist, but according to law he doesn't have to be a surgeon. He's from India and appears very bright, but he's quite young and his experience with heart caths is limited."
"You'd be his cherry."
“Uh huh. Heartburn, you say?"
"Acute heartburn, yes. That, coupled with physical stress, could certainly produce the types of symptoms you’ve experienced.”
I understood why he’d said it, but I’ve always had a cast-iron stomach. In years of testing weapons for the Army, I’ve had to swallow pills that made Horse Head burritos seem like Saltines.
“If the stress test comes back clean, what should I do?" I said.
"Go home and spend some quality time bonding with your toilet.”
“And if that doesn’t work?”
Dr. Hedgepeth hesitated. “Do you currently see a psychiatrist?”
I frowned. “You think I’m imagining this pain?”
“I believe the pain is very real. But you appear to be the sort of man who can handle a great deal of pain.”
If you only knew, I thought, wondering if I should tell Hedgepeth that I’d been testing torture weapons for the Army for years. In the end I decided to just say, “I’ve certainly never had a problem handling heartburn in the past.”
“Well, the pain’s coming from someplace,” he said, “and I’m almost certain it’s not the heart. But the heart is what I do, so we’ll test that first. Then the toilet, then the brain.”
“Okay, I’m sold,” I said. “What’s the first step to this Cardiolite thing?”
Dr. Hedgepeth, without the slightest trace of a smirk, said: “We need to get an IV started.”
Then he walked to the doorway and yelled for Dana.
I was still in the hospital, back in my street clothes, awaiting the results of the stress test. With time on my hands, I decided to break hospital rules and make a call on my cell phone. Kimberly answered on the first ring.
“Daddy!” she squealed.
“You sound almost too happy,” I said.
“Does it show?”
Oh oh, I thought. She’s in love. “Does what show?”
“I’m in love!”
“You’re too young,” I said, instinctively.
“Oh, Father,” she said. “I’m a junior in High School.”
“That’s young. Anyway, you’re not a junior until next semester.”
“A technicality,” she said, “seeing as how school starts in ten days.”
“His name’s Charlie,” she said.
“Please tell me it’s not Charlie Manson.”
On the other end of the phone, in Darnell, West Virginia, my daughter giggled.
We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about books we’d read, music we liked, and summer vacations we hoped to take someday. I asked her how serious her relationship with Charlie was, and she changed the subject.
“Has Mom called you?” she said.
I groaned. “What now?”
“She found out about Kathleen. Her friend, Amy, told her.”
I knew it had to happen. Several months ago, my ex-wife, Janet, had been engaged to the former wife beater, Ken Chapman. In the course of discouraging Janet from marrying the jerk, I met and fell in love with Ken’s former wife, Kathleen.
“Still here, kitten.”
I wondered how much Janet knew about Kathleen. Did she know only that I was dating the ex-wife of her former fiancé? Or had she somehow learned that the woman who came to Janet’s home and identified herself as Ken’s ex was actually a hooker I’d hired to pose as Kathleen; a hooker who lied about being beaten up by Ken Chapman.
Whatever Janet knew, however angry she might be, it had been worth it. I’d prevented the marriage. I knew first-hand about Janet’s ability to push a man’s buttons. With his history of violence, Ken Chapman probably would have killed her.
Kimberly sensed I was distracted. “Did you hear what I said?”
“You said Mom knows about Kathleen and she’s going to call me.”
“That was earlier. Just now I asked if you and Kathleen were living together.”
“Dad, why is it that when you talk about Charlie it’s all cut and dried, but when I talk about Kathleen it’s ‘complicated?’”
I paused a moment before saying, “I wish I had a better answer, but the truth is, that’s a good point.”
“Damn right, it is! I’m your kid after all.”
“You are that,” I said. “Okay, here’s the scoop.”
Over the next few minutes I told her about my feelings for Kathleen, and how I stay with her whenever I’m in New York. I told her about Addie Dawes, and about Kathleen’s adoption efforts. When I finished there was a brief silence on the line.
“You okay?” I said.
“Are you aware this is the first time in my life you’ve treated me like a grownup?”
“How could I not? You’re a junior in high school.”
“Try to remember that, next time you start worrying about me and Charlie.”
“Ugh,” I said. “Speaking of Charlie, how much do you know about this kid?”
Kimberly said something about him being twenty-one, but I was distracted by the curtain being pulled aside as Dr. Hedgepeth entered my cubicle. I motioned for him to give me a second. He frowned at my use of a cell phone in the emergency room, but waited respectfully.
“I’m sorry, Kitten. What did you just say?”
“I said, ‘Don’t even go there, Dad.’ Don’t go all crazy and run a credit check or background report on Charlie. He’s a good kid. His father’s a big-time attorney.”
“Attorney? I’d rather have you date Charlie Manson than an attorney.”
She sighed. “He’s not an attorney, his father is. Look, just promise you won’t run his records.”