A minor diversion down another road less traveled. A two part trail with time for tea.
[Neil Young \\ The Needle and the Damage Done]
Part I: fight or flight
He checked his rearview mirror again. Nothing. But he was sure he was being followed; he could feel it in his gut and that was all he needed to know. He made it to his house on East Summit Street and pulled into the garage, hitting the button and closing the overhead door even before he turned off his truck’s motor. He went inside and showered, then made a reservation at the Marriott in the French Quarter for tomorrow night, staying four nights, then he called Quintana on one of his burner phones.
“Too bad. So, the truck goes to New Orleans as planned?”
“Yes. I’ll put the product and other stuff you requested under the seat.”
“Bueno. The boy will be there in an hour.”
He hung up and powered-off the phone, then went to the bathroom and shaved his head and then his face, even trimming his eyebrows unrecognizably short. He grabbed his go bag and waited for the courier to show up.
Once the truck was gone and headed to New Orleans he called an über to pick him up at Barbaro’s and then strapped a huge prosthetic stage belly around his waist and slipped out the side door, putting his ragged old go bag over his shoulder and now walking with a cane, hunched over and limping like an old man. He passed a black Ford Explorer parked down the block from his house, two DEA agents looking at his house through binoculars. He limped past the Ford and made it to the pick up just in time.
The über took him to a large self storage complex just west of Lackland Air Force Base and he went to his unit and opened the door. His motorcycle, a new BMW R1250GS, was already packed and fueled, and he had fifty thousand dollars stashed inside the foam seat, and another 300,000 in Mexican pesos in the tank bag. He unhooked the battery charger and started the motor, and while the engine warmed he changed into a one piece riding suit after he discarded the fake latex belly. With that done, he locked the unit before he drove out onto Highway 90, westbound for Del Rio and the Mexican border.
The sun was still up on this hot September evening as he approached Uvalde, Texas, and he stopped at the Whataburger on the east side of town, then he topped off the bike’s fuel tank, paying cash now for everything before continuing on to Del Rio. He filled up the tank again before crossing, uneventfully, into Mexico. He found a quiet looking inn on the south side of town and put the cover over the bike before he set the alarm, and once in the little room he didn’t even bother to get out of his riding gear; he just flopped down in the bed and promptly fell into a deep sleep.
He spent three days making his way to Chihuahua, and once there he found a mechanic to change the oil and the filters, then, after another night in a sleepy little inn he turned west into the mountains, not quite sure where he was going but confident he’d know the right place when he got there.
He stumbled into the village of Batopilas on his seventh night in Mexico, and he was by then beyond exhausted. He pulled into a very upscale looking lodge and inquired about a long term stay.
“How long did you have in mind?” the proprietor asked.
“I’m a writer,” the man lied, “and I’m looking for someplace quiet to spend a few months.”
“We have two casitas for rent by the week, but soon it will be the off season and I am sure we could work something out.”
“Sounds good. Now, how about tonight?”
“Of course. I’ll just need your passport. Will you be paying cash, in dollars?”
“If you prefer, certainly.” He handed over his passport, one of two bogus passports he had with him.
“Ah, Dr. Eugene Smith, of Duluth, Minnesota?”
“Yes,” he lied.
“Are you a physician?”
“I am, yes. General surgery.”
“And you are writing about surgery?”
“No, I’m writing a novel about the Gulf War. I was in Iraq.”
“I see. Well, unlike Iraq it is quiet here, that much I can assure you.”
“Perfect. And is there a bank in town?”
“Yes. There are two, and in addition to the dining room we have here at the lodge, there are several restaurants in town. And of course breakfast is included with your room.”
“Just here in the main building. We have a computer, but it uses a dial up modem, I’m afraid. The canyon walls are too steep for satellite coverage, and out village is still too small for other services. Here are the instructions, and the computer is in that room,” the proprietor added.
“Will you need help with your luggage this evening?”
“No, I’ve got it.” He paid cash for a week’s stay then returned to the bike and carried his bags to his room, and then he showered and changed into lite summer street clothes before returning to the bike. He pulled the seat off and removed the tool kit stored inside the seat and while he checked his tire pressures he also removed his stockpiled cash and put the lead foil packets inside his tank bag before setting off down the street to find a restaurant. Every muscle in his body ached, but his ass most of all.
After dinner he fired off an email to Quintana from the restaurant’s computer, and then returned to his room to wait for the firestorm.
He woke in the middle of the night with gut ripping cramps accompanied with a spiking fever and chills, and he knew he’d picked up a nasty GI bug. And then he realized he’d not remembered to pick up any Ciprofloxacin before he left Texas. He shrugged, knowing there wasn’t a lot he could do right now, so he concentrated on drinking bottled water between bouts on the toilet until 0600, when the front desk supposedly opened. By 0530 there was blood in his stool and he groaned: he was going to need antibiotics and this tiny little village couldn’t possibly have a doctor – or a pharmacy.
“The closest clinic is in Guachochi,” the proprietress advised, “at the Mission Hospital.” She handed over a bottle of bismuth subsalicylate with a smile, and he popped the top and took a long slug right there at the desk.
“How far is it?” the man groaned as his gut did another barrel roll.
“Are you on a motorcycle?”
He nodded. “Yup. Lucky me.”
“It will take all day, I’m afraid, but if you leave soon you will avoid the rains.”
“Yes, but there may be some snow at higher elevations.”
His eyes wide open now, he had to confront the reality that he wasn’t back in Texas anymore, and that there wasn’t a pharmacy just down the street across from a well-stocked supermarket, and that he had for all intents and purposes run from that life with the DEA and probably the FBI hot on his tail – but at least here he was a free man. “Alright,” he sighed. “Do you have a hotel safe? I want to leave a few things if you do.”
“Of course,” the woman said. “I’ll have some rehydration fluid ready for you.”
He went to his room and put his riding suit back on, then put his dollars in a small Pelican case and locked it before heading back up to the desk. The woman gave him a bottle of ORF, or oral rehydration fluid, and she gave him a couple of packets of the mix to add to bottled water as he crossed the mountains.
“I guess I’ll see you tomorrow night,” he said as he walked out to his bike. He put his helmet on and fired up the engine, then entered the clinic’s address into the GPS as he stretched – but no…he ran for the restroom off the lobby and made it just in time.
He pulled into the clinic parking lot a little before eight that evening, and he was shaking now, and he knew he was borderline hypothermic. The bike’s engine heat, and the heated grips on the handlebars, had been the only thing between him and death for the past two hours. Snow in September? In fucking Mexico? Well, mountains are mountains no matter where you find them, but having to stop every half hour to shit on the side of the road had only added insult to injury – and now he was near the end of his rope.
He just got the bike on the side-stand and made his way through blowing sleet to the clinic entrance and passed out just inside the door.
He felt the stinging pinch of the IV, heard the calm, reassuring voice of a physician giving orders to a nurse and he relaxed – until he remembered he was in Mexico and these people were speaking English! Had the DEA caught up to him?
He grimaced and opened his eyes, and he saw a youngish American girl drawing blood from a stick in his right arm and another, even younger girl looking at his EKG, then this girl turned and looked at him.
“Oh, you’re up!”
“Where am I?”
“Guachochi. At the Tarahumara Mission Hospital, and I’m Dr. McKinnon.”
“Shouldn’t you be, oh, I don’t know, in Glasgow, maybe?”
She smiled. “Med school in Mexico City, my public service commitment here,” she shrugged.
“UTMB Galveston,” he smiled.
“You’re a doc? Where at?”
“Minnesota. Taking a year off to do some riding.”
“Oh,” she said, her voice suddenly dull, flat, and comprehending. “Well, your core temp was 95.6 so I put some heat packs under your arms and I’m running Cipro wide open. You should be good to go in the morning.”
“What’s your specialty?”
“Really? I’ve got a kid with a hot belly and no cutter. Think you can do an appendix?”
“You should be hot to trot in an hour,” she said, knocking his knee with her clipboard. “And look at it this way…you do me a favor and I’ll do one for you.”
“You got a gas passer?”
“A nurse practitioner. Well, kind of.”
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, I don’t know. You’ll figure it out.”
He shook his head and looked at his watch; he’d been out for several hours – but he really was feeling a lot better. He shivered once and the nurse draped a hot blanket over him and he fell into a deep sleep…again.
The overhead lights weren’t the best but the instruments were clean and the OR was spotless, and he stood over the eight year boy and checked off his landmarks for the incision, making a few dots with a marker on the boy’s belly before he swabbed betadine over the site.
Patty McKinnon had taped hot packs to his axial pits and inside his thighs and at least he wasn’t shaking now, so when the anesthetist, a girl from San Diego named Debbie Surtees, gave him the go ahead he made his incision and dissected muscle to expose the kid’s appendix, and forty five minutes later he closed the incision and just made it back to his bed before he passed out. Again.
He woke in the middle of the night and saw two bags of antibiotics and a bag of platelets running. “What the Hell?” he wondered.
McKinnon came in an hour later and when she saw he was awake she pulled up a chair. “Your white count is in the basement, Dr. – uh – Smith. And your right nut is as hard as a golf ball. Some of the cord, too.”
“My surgeon will be here tomorrow, and we should do an orchiectomy first thing in the morning.”
“All my stuff is over in Batopilas…”
“At the Lodge?”
“I know Martin. I’ll have ‘em put your stuff in storage ‘til we can run over and pick it up.”
“You won’t be riding that bike for a while, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah. We’ll treat you here, and you can work off your bill with the rest of the indentured servants working here.”
“I’ve got to be in Creel tomorrow morning.”
“That isn’t going to happen.”
“You have internet here?”
“If you don’t mind me asking, which cartel got to you? Sinaloa?”
“Quintana?” she sighed.
“That’s right. How’d you know?”
She chuckled. “Half the docs working in Mexico these days got sucked into their fentanyl operations. There used to be a shortage of doctors down here. No more.”
He nodded, if only because he’d already figured as much.
“I can get in touch with him if you like, but I’ll need to know your name, I think.”
“Trinity. Just tell him Trinity. He’ll know who you’re talking about.”
She looked away and shook her head. “Sooner or later you’re gonna have to trust someone.”
“I’m not there yet.”
“How long you been on the run?”
“Shit. No wonder…”
“Did you run an AFP?”
“Not yet. Our tech has to get supplies from Creel to run that one.”
“Sorry…it’s just a lot to wrap my head around.” He took a deep breath and shook his head. “I thought I felt something down there, like a burn, a pulled muscle kind of thing.”
“Probably the cord. We can decide on chemo after we look at the histology, but retroperitoneal radiation is probably warranted.”
“Uh-huh. Where? Not here, I assume?”
“No, not here. We do limited chemo, but I do mean limited.”
“I assume going home is out of the question?”
“You could go to Creel, but…”
“Yeah…but no buts, please. Say no more. What about Mexico City?”
“Oh, yeah, of course, but there’s a good medical school in Chihuahua and the hospital has a decent radiology department.”
“What would you do, Patty?”
“I’d wait until I had the pathology report, ‘Gene.’”
He grinned. “You know, I was thinking when this blows over about heading over to someplace like Sudan or Ethiopia, joining MSF and maybe working over there.”
“Something about practicing medicine in the states, I guess. When I joined the group I was working with I was told we were a volume business, that the aim was to spend just enough time with patient to get a handle on the exact medical problem, then get ‘em in and out of surgery as fast as possible. I guess within a year I felt like I was flipping burgers at MickeyDs. I didn’t know my patients, not at all. It was like go into the OR and see a patch of skin already draped, get in and get out and go to the next OR for the next case, then off to the office for exams before heading back to the hospital to finish my paperwork. Pretty soon I realized I couldn’t even remember one patient’s name from the last couple of years.”
“Flipping burgers,” McKinnon sighed, shaky her head in disbelief. “That’s good. I’ll have to remember that one.”
He looked out a little window and nodded. “I think I felt useless.”
“Do you have any idea how many times you say ‘I’ when you’re talking?”
He turned and looked at her. “What…a little too much narcissism for your taste?”
“Just curious,” she shrugged, “but was someone holding a gun to your head when you decided not to get to know your patients?”
“Yeah. The office manager was, and the partners sure were…”
“Really. My-my. So, it’s off to Africa you go where, guess what, you won’t speak the language so there’ll be no way in hell you’ll ever get to know anyone…”
“And I sure won’t be part of another volume enterprise, will I?”
“What’s that got to do with medicine? You were treating sick people, right? I mean, isn’t that the point?”
“I don’t know that there is a point anymore.”
“Ah. The heart of the matter. You’ve lost your way.”
He looked away again and sucked in a deep breath, but finally he nodded his head just a little.
“So…you think you’ll find your way back by going to deepest, darkest Africa? Sound about right?”
“I don’t know what I’ll find…”
“Yeah? But isn’t that the point?”
“The point, Gene? To find yourself?”
“You make it sound so…trite…?”
“Hey, if the shoe fits…”
“You like kicking people when they’re down, don’t you?”
“Like it? No, not really, but sometimes people listen when they’re face down in the mud. And who knows, if they’re lucky maybe they’ll even listen to themselves.”
His eyes blinked a few times and he nodded. “Anything else, Doc? Any more words of wisdom?”
She hooked up a syringe in his line and shot in something. “Get some sleep, okay? We’ll operate first thing in the morning.”
“What about my things?”
“I’ll take care of it.”
His eyes suddenly felt full and very heavy, and later, sometime in the dark he felt gloved hands running a catheter. More strange voices came and went and at one point someone drew blood, then he was aware of being lifted onto an operating table and then the strangest thing of all; he seemed to be aware of a mask sliding down over his mouth and nose – followed by an all consuming darkness that was not at all enjoyable…
“Well, Dr. Frankenstein, it lives,” he heard someone say and he managed to open his eyes.
“McKinnon? That you?”
“Yes, it is, Dr. Harwell. Can you rate your pain for me?”
‘She knows my name,’ the scared little voice inside Gene Harwell’s head screamed. ‘What else does she know?’ He strolled along her razor’s edge, with ambivalence on one side of the blade and utter fear on the other, all while trying to think of how to reply to this simplest question.
“Let’s just say I’m still deep in the land of I don’t give a flying fuck, and let’s leave it at that.”
“Okay, we’ll call it a nice, fat zero. Know where you are, by any chance?”
“In the wonderful land of Oz, and I’m about to pull back the curtain.”
“Memory intact. Sense of humor sucks,” she wrote out loud on her chart. “Know who the president is?”
“Snidely Whiplash, esquire.”
“Good one. I’d never have thought of that. Think you could handle some water?”
“If it comes out of a bottle, maybe.”
“Good situational awareness, too. Okay, five by five, Harwell.”
“You got a path report yet, smart ass?”
“Diffuse seminoma and teratoma in the left testes, no cells in the cord so no radiation needed.”
He felt a roaring surge of relief and then a few tears running down his face, so he cleared his throat before he spoke. “Thanks, McKinnon.”
“No problemo, Gene. Oh, Quintana is okay with things, he says to just lay low here for a while and he’ll be in touch. Martin is bringing your stuff over tomorrow.”
“How long you going to keep me here?”
“You could go home today, but…”
“…but no home to go to. I got that.”
“I’ve got a spare room at my place if you want to bunk out there for a while. There are plenty of places to rent around here, too. Like three, maybe four.”
“Ah. So, any port in a storm, huh?”
“How’s the pain now?”
“I’m feeling it now. Versed is wearing off.”
She picked up a syringe from a bedside tray and hooked it up to his IV and sent a little morphine down his line. “That’ll take the edge off for a while. You have any trouble taking Oxy?”
“Yeah. I don’t take it, period. You got naproxen?”
“You want me to get my spare bedroom cleaned up?”
He nodded her way, then grinned: “Yeah. That’ll do.”
He started easy, riding a few miles around local roads, then a few mining trails, but his groin still hurt when he pushed too hard. He worked three weekends at the hospital before he decided he’d had enough domesticity in his life. It wasn’t that McKinnon was hard to take, either; in fact, the opposite was true. She was bright as hell but should have gone into psychiatry, not general medicine, but her constant psychoanalyzing had grown stuffy and was often downright obtuse. Even after a couple of weeks with her she seemed to alternate between voracious horniness and bouts of moodily introspective analysis and he never felt like he belonged.
Probably because he didn’t. And maybe they both knew it.
But he’d liked Batopilas, and something about the place still seemed to pull at him. Maybe it was the steep-walled, tree-lined valley, or how the town was clinging precariously to a ledge just above the edge of the river, or even how the tiny village was defined by narrow cobbled lanes and red-tiled roofs, everything surrounded by overhanging trees and the roar of the rushing water just below. He wondered what it would feel like to stay in a village like that one and write and to call a place like that home. Maybe he could open up a little clinic there, too…
Yet when he told McKinnon he was leaving she seemed to come undone.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he told her. “I haven’t been here a month…”
“But I’ve had this feeling for you since the moment I saw you,” she said, coming on hard. “Look, I don’t want you to go.”
He shook his head. “Yeah, I get that and yeah, I like you too. I’ve enjoyed spending time with you…”
“And what happens when I decide to head to Africa? What then?”
“We both go.”
“Simple as that, huh? You just pack up and head out?”
“Yeah. Simple as that. I’ve looked into it, I know what we’d have to do and we’d be a perfect team. Medicine and surgery…I mean, they’d love to have us!”
“Patty, doesn’t it bother you that I don’t love you?”
“No, not really. You’re a guy and guys are like that. I do know that we fit together, that we’d be a good team…”
“And what about you? What about love?” he asked.
And she shrugged. “We haven’t been together long enough for that, Gene, not really, but yeah, when I’m around you I’m happy. And it’s like I can’t imagine being happy unless I’m around you, and I don’t know what you call that…”
“But I’m not a teenager, Gene,” she said, and perhaps a little too defiantly – like maybe she had ‘daddy issues.’ Still, he had Quintana to worry about, because if he bolted on the cartel now he might as well hang it up. He knew too much and they’d never let him go without an understanding of some kind.
So he stayed. He understood that, really, without Quintana’s blessing he had to stay put for the time being. And by that point he’d also recognized that McKinnon and Quintana had a bond of some kind. Like maybe she’d gotten him out of a tough spot before, and he owed her. Big time. At least…that’s what it felt like. On the other hand, he had money in banks down here, and a lot of it. He was safely out of reach from both the DEA and the FBI. He had a roof over his head and McKinnon was fun to hang around with.
And he was finding that even after a couple of weeks he missed medicine. His Spanish, after living in San Antonio for almost ten years, was already more than passable – but now he was quickly improving in this immersive setting – and so he was able to talk to his patients – without the commercial restraints imposed by corporate medicine. And he liked working that way – finally. It was what he’d always imagined medicine would be like. Or…should be like, he reminded himself.
He liked riding around the mountains but he also recognized he was living in a really hostile environment, too. At medium elevations vast fields of poppies were growing every he went, and at lower elevations marijuana cultivation was in full swing. And – everywhere he went he ran into armed guards, in many cases just kids with AK-47s and itchy trigger fingers. Rival clans were staking claims and some were encroaching on other clan’s grows, with turf wars the obvious result, and that made him think about his role in this house of cards.
There wouldn’t be cartels without users and all this semi-clandestine production was aimed at supplying the North American market. With almost two thirds of the people in the United States and Canada now being regular users of marijuana, and with domestic cultivation for all intents and purposes illegal, the cartels had been handed a market so insatiably vast it was almost beyond comprehension. It was no wonder the cartels were paying lobbyists in the U.S. to keep these products illegal, yet the handwriting was on the wall. U.S. tobacco companies had been buying up land in Northern California for decades, and why? Because it was prime land for marijuana cultivation. Not to mention federal taxes on marijuana related products could crush federal budget deficits. But it would severely limit the profitability of the cartels, so…
But riding these hills was dangerous now. Kidnappings were more frequent, and some kids had been known gun down bikers just to take their motorcycles for a joyride. And there were often no repercussions because the cartels owned cops. The only reason he could ride around the area was simple enough to understand: he was under the protection of a capo, one of the Sinaloa cartel’s commanders. He was therefore quite untouchable, so he rode around and kids with Ak-47s waved at him as he passed – though he usually stopped and talked with them, too. He learned about what they did, about their command structure, and he listened as they talked about their gripes – and their hopes and dreams. He found that a bunch of these kids were working while they were sick as hell, so he started loading up his saddlebags with medical supplies and he started taking care of the kids out there.
People in the smaller villages along his route heard about that, too.
So when he rode through these hamlets people waved him down. He learned that most of these people didn’t trust doctors, or hospitals, but for some reason they trusted him, and probably because he’d treated their kids. And pretty soon he was treating people along a vast network of tiny villages along dirt roads in the boondocks, and the administrators at the Mission Hospital grew quite interested in his successes. When he ran across a case he couldn’t fix out on the road he put the patient on the back of his bike and took them to the hospital, and he fixed ‘em there.
And pretty soon he began to feel the one thing he’d been missing in his life: purpose.
So he lived with McKinnon and soon enough weeks turned into months, and months into a year, and still, at least three days a week he hopped on his bike and rode off into the boonies. He worked weekends in the OR, usually three to four surgeries a day, some days more, rarely less. He stopped caring about McKinnon’s perceived flaws and he started listening to her hopes and dreams, and her fears. He started caring for her, too.
He found her ovarian cancer and he did the procedure. He nursed her through chemo, and he held her hand as she regained her health. They took walks together, short walks in the beginning but longer ones as she got stronger, and her hopes and dreams turned into quiet talks about a future together, just the two of them. Maybe here in Mexico or maybe somewhere in Africa…it didn’t matter to her as long as they were together.
So on a Friday night in April one of the Jesuits at the mission said the words people say when they promise to stay together until death do they part, and standing there in the candlelight surrounded by his new life, Gene Harwood felt something he’d never really expected to feel after he left his home, and his country. He felt happy, and that even came as a surprise to the DEA agents who’d had him under surveillance for two months.
Here ends Part I. This work © 2017-2022 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkühnwrites.com and all rights reserved, and as usual this was a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s (rather twisted) imagination or coincidentally referenced entities are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. In other words, this is just a little bit of fiction, pure and simple.
(hendrix\\wind cries mary)