A not so short story here, a couple hundred pages so plenty of time for ginger tea. All three parts revised since you last saw them, too. Have fun.
[The Years Roll By \\ Glass Hammer]
Part I: Copper Canyon
He checked his rearview mirror again, no longer sure what he might find back there.
Nothing? Could it be? Was this really going to work?
He saw nothing. And then he realized he felt nothing at all. The adrenaline fueled sense of exhilaration had been ebbing fast, even though he was sure he was being followed. He had to be. He could still feel that much in his gut, and that was all he needed to know. Weaving through late afternoon traffic, he made it to his house on East Summit Street and pulled into the garage, hitting the button on the sun visor and closing the overhead door even before he turned off the truck’s motor. He darted inside and showered, and after he dried off he made a reservation at the Marriott in the French Quarter for tomorrow night, staying four nights. With that last detail out of the way he called Quintana on one of his burner phones.
“I thought as much. So, the truck goes to New Orleans as planned?”
“Yes. It’s loaded now and the other stuff you requested is there under the seat.”
“When will it go active?”
“Bueno. The boy will be there in an hour.”
Quintana hung up and he powered-off the phone, then he placed it in a baggie full of isopropyl alcohol, which fried the circuits and completely erased all residual oils and fingerprints. Next he went to the bathroom and shaved his head, and then his face, even trimming his eyebrows until they were reshaped and unrecognizably short enough to confuse facial recognition software. He grabbed his ‘go bag’ and waited for the courier to show up. Tonight’s driver, really just a kid the DEA had forced to make the New Orleans run, was already late and he was getting nervous. It took all his remaining patience to not beat the kid to a pulp when he eventually showed up, but death would come soon enough.
The kid was instructed to drive straight through to New Orleans, and he’d been given a route map and money for gas before being sent on his way. Tonight’s payload was supposed to be coke and crystal meth, reportedly several hundred kilos of each, and once the truck was gone and headed to New Orleans he called an über to pick him up at Barbaro’s. He changed clothes again, taking care to strap a huge prosthetic stage belly around his waist and a sloppy wig on his head before he slipped out the rear door. He sucked in a deep breath of warm air and slipped his ragged old go bag over his shoulder and, adding just one more last minute detail, he started walking through the alley with a cane, now hunched over and limping like an old man. He passed a black Ford Explorer parked down the block from his house, and he even waved at the two DEA agents inside as he passed, noting that they were still looking at his house through binoculars and clicking away with a Nikon. He smiled as he limped past the Ford and, taking care not to break his limping stride, made it to the pick up just in time.
The über took him to a large self storage complex just west of his office at Lackland Air Force Base and he went to his unit and unlocked 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 discarded the latex belly and the wig before he changed into a one piece riding suit. With that last chore done, he locked the unit before he drove slowly out onto Highway 90, headed westbound for Del Rio, Texas and the Mexican border.
The sun was setting on another hot Texas day, and he set the cruise control on 65 and flexed the fingers on first his right hand, then the left. He took a deep breath after he checked his rear view mirrors again, and leaned back against the duffel bag he’d strapped across the rear seat, trying to relax. Something caught his eye and he looked up, saw a v-shaped formation of ducks headed south and he had to smile at that. “Great minds think alike,” he said to the roaring slipstream of air outside his helmet, but as it always did, the sudden dark memory came for him once again…
…his stepfather, always his step father. Beating his mother. Again. He’d been too little to help her, of course, but that had never stopped him from trying. He’d run and slammed into his stepfather’s legs, knocking the old drunk off balance for a moment, but that had only pissed the old fart off even more. The last time that happened his stepfather had a knife out and the bastard had gutted his mother before he turned on him, but they’d both heard sirens in the distance and the old man had trundled out to his Harley and taken off—heading for Mexico.
And now? Like his stepfather he was making a run for it…to Old Mexico.
His mother Mary didn’t survive that last beating, either. Police officers found him hiding under a bed and he’d been taken in and processed by CPS, the State of Texas’ Child Protective Services bureau, before entering the foster home system. But Eugene Diggs had been lucky. He was placed with a couple that lived at the Chase Field Naval Air Station in Beeville, Texas, a US Navy attack pilot training facility. This new ‘family’ adopted him before moving to Whidbey Island, Washington, to the naval air station located there. His new father, the only real father he’d ever have, was a flight surgeon, his new mother a school teacher, and they had doted on their new son.
He smiled when he thought of that brief period of normalcy. Of course he’d killed that, too.
Riding along while the sun slipped lower into one last lost horizon, he realized his life had become the very same perfect storm his mother had given him as his birthrite. If he represented the sum total of the discussion between nature versus nurture, genetics had carried the day where he was concerned. In the end he had been raised in a caring household by very well educated people, he had excelled in math and science but from the time he arrived in Washington until the day he left for Yale, all the way across the country in Connecticut, he had been fascinated by the fringes of his new culture. He played the guitar, and decently, too, but even in middle school he’d dabbled in hallucinogens, mainly peyote and acid, so by the time he arrived in New Haven he’d been around the block a few times.
He was a natural student, perhaps because of his new parents constant encouragement and attention, yet the fear of landing in a house with someone like his stepfather was never far from his mind. His new parent’s doting love and the lingering image of his mother’s emaciated body lying in a bloody heap on the kitchen floor would compete for Gene Harwell’s attention for the rest of his life.
His father had convinced him to let the Navy pay for his schooling, including medical school, so after graduating from the med school at Johns Hopkins he soon found his way to Afghanistan, and it was there that the whole nature versus nurture conversation took on a peculiar urgency. Afghanistan was, when he arrived, still ground zero in the global heroin supply chain, and Gene Harwell had been quietly, and almost eagerly sucked into the trade, helping pack dead bodies being returned to Dover Air Force Base full of product. He had no way of knowing that even then he was being drawn into working for the Sinaloa Cartel, but the bargain had been made a long time ago, maybe even before he’d come into the world. Fate, he had come to believe, had dealt him the cards he was destined to play.
And his work for the cartel continued when, after his return from Afghanistan, he was posted to SAUSHEC, the combined services medical training facility in San Antonio, Texas, and here his relationship with the cartel only deepened. He became an integral part of a massive operation moving cocaine and heroin all around the country, and as the cartel’s efforts generated so much cash there was always more than enough on hand to pay-off anyone’s silence, or even buy their complicity. There was even enough to siphon a little off every now and then.
He slowed down as he approached Uvalde, Texas, because deer were moving in the twilight and hitting one with a motorcycle at high speed would be the end of his line. Hungry now too, he stopped at the Whataburger on the east side of town, then he topped off the bike’s little fuel tank, paying cash now for everything before continuing on to Del Rio. He filled up the tank once again before crossing, uneventfully, into Mexico, telling the ICE agents there that he was bound for the Copper Canyon region to join a motorcycle tour along the famed highway that crossed the mountains west of Chihuahua. He found a quiet looking inn on the south side of Ciudad Acuña and put the cover over his bike before settling in for the night, and once in the little room he didn’t even bother to get out of his riding gear; he just flopped down on the bed and promptly fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
He spent three days making his way to Chihuahua, and once there he found a mechanic to change the oil and the BMW’s filters, and then, after another night in a sleepy little inn, he turned west into the mountains, not quite sure where he was going but reasonably sure he’d know the right place when he found it.
He stumbled into the village of Batopilas on his seventh night in Mexico, and felt by then beyond exhausted. He ached everywhere and for some reason his groin burned, but he put that off to all the long hours spent in the saddle. He pulled into an upscale looking lodge and inquired about a long term stay, but by then all he wanted to do was lay down…
“How long did you have in mind?” the proprietor asked.
“I’m a writer,” Harwell 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. So, how ‘bout 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.
“And you are a physician?”
“I am, yes. General surgery.”
“And you are writing about surgery?”
“No, I’m writing a novel about the Gulf War. I served 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 two nice restaurants in town. And of course breakfast is included with your room.”
“Just here in the main building, I’m afraid. We have a computer for your use, but it is a dial up modem. The canyon walls are too steep for satellite coverage, and our village is still too small for other services. Here are the instructions, and the computer is in that room,” the proprietor added, pointing to a room full of potted palms, complete with squawking parakeet.
“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 the room, then he showered and changed into 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 groin burned ever worse now, and he felt a deep muscle spasm taking root inside his left thigh as he walked around the bike.
After dinner he fired off an email to Quintana from the lodge’s computer, then returned to his room to wait for the reply.
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 leaving Texas. He shrugged, knowing there wasn’t a whole lot he could do about it right now, so he concentrated on drinking bottled water between bouts on the toilet. By 0530 there was blood in his stool and he groaned at the implications: he was going to need antibiotics and this tiny village couldn’t possibly have a doctor – or even a pharmacy.
“The closest clinic is in Guachochi,” the proprietress now working the front desk 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 of the pink sludge right there at the desk.
“How far is it?” Harwell groaned as his gut twisted into another barrel roll.
“Are you on the motorcycle?”
He nodded. “Yup. Lucky me.”
“It will take all day, I’m afraid, but if you leave soon you might avoid the rains.”
“The rains?” he moaned.
“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 in Texas anymore, and that now 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 still a free man. “Alright,” he sighed. “Do you have a hotel safe? I want to leave a few things if I may.”
“Of course,” the woman said, “and 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…it was too soon, he realized as he turned and sprinted for the restroom off the lobby. He made it just in time.
He pulled into the clinic parking lot a little before eight that evening, but 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 last 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 completely dehydrated now, he was near the end of his rope.
He had just got the bike up on the side-stand and was making his way through blowing sleet to the clinic entrance when he collapsed just outside the door.
He felt the stinging pinch of an IV, heard the calm, reassuring voices 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? Was he in a prison hospital?
He grimaced at the thought and opened his eyes, but he saw a very cute American girl drawing blood from a stick in his right arm and another, even cuter girl looking at his EKG, then this girl turned and looked at him.
“Oh, you’re awake now!”
“Where am I?” Harwell sighed, mesmerized by her red hair and green eyes.
“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, and I’m doing my public service commitment here,” she shrugged.
“UTMB Galveston,” he smiled, telling yet another little white lie.
“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 or so,” she said, knocking his knee with her clipboard. “And look at it this way…you do me a favor and maybe 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 a few hours – but he really was feeling a lot better. He shivered once and a nurse draped a hot blanket over him and he fell into a deep sleep…again. When the dreams came his stepfather was running out the back door and headed for Mexico…
The overhead lights weren’t the best but the instruments were clean and the OR was spotless, now he stood over an 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 had just made it back to his bed before he passed out. Again.
He woke early in the morning and saw two bags of antibiotics and a bag of platelets running, and he didn’t know what to make of that. “What the hell?” he wondered out loud.
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, Doctor – uh – Smith. And your right nut is as hard as a golf ball. Some of the cord, too.”
“My surgeon will be here this afternoon, and we should do an orchiectomy first thing.”
“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 knowingly.
“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. You can find better surgeons in Puerto Vallarta than you can in Dallas these days.”
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.”
“Gene. Just tell him Gene, okay? 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?”
“No. Our tech would have 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 will probably be worth looking into.”
“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…no buts, please. I guess that means Mexico City?”
“Oh, yeah, of course, but there’s a good medical school in Chihuahua and the hospital there 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 bothers me, I guess. Maybe it has for a while. 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 each 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, and I didn’t know my patients, not one. 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 for rounds. Pretty soon I realized I couldn’t even remember one patient’s name from the last couple of years.”
“Flipping burgers,” McKinnon sighed, shaking her head in disbelief. “That’s a good one. I’ll have to remember that.”
He looked out a little window and nodded. “I think I felt useless.” He looked around the room then back at her. “Maybe I’m tired of feeling 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. A fire breathing dragon called the office manager was, and the partners were pretty nasty, like out of a Dickens novel…”
“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 took a deep breath, but finally he nodded his head just a little.
“So…you think you’ll find your way back from the wilderness 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 only really listen to you when they’re face down in the mud. And who knows, if you’re lucky maybe you’ll finally listen to that little voice in the back of your head.”
His eyes blinked a few times and he nodded. “Anything else, Doc? Any more words of compassion and wisdom?”
She hooked up a syringe in his line and shot in something. “Get some sleep, okay? We’ll operate as soon as the cutter looks over the images.”
“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 stink that was not at all enjoyable…
“Well, Dr. Frankenstein, it lives,” he heard someone say as he opened 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 that 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. I think I love you.”
“No problemo, Gene. Oh, Quintana is okay with things, he says to just lay low for a while and he’ll be in touch. And Martin is bringing your stuff over tomorrow.”
“How long you going to keep me here?”
“You could go home today, but…”
“…but, right, I got no home to go to. I think 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 at her green eyes: “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, and 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 self analysis and he never really felt like he belonged there.
Probably because he didn’t like moodily introspective analyses of his situation. And maybe she knew that too, but it didn’t keep her from pushing him to look at his choices.
But he’d liked the way Batopilas felt, 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 a roaring river, or even how the tiny village was defined by narrow cobbled lanes and brightly painted stucco walls topped with sun-dried red-tile 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 and yeah, maybe write about the war and to call a place like that home. Maybe he could buy a house and open up a little clinic there, too…
Yet when he told McKinnon he was thinking of leaving she seemed to come undone.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he said. “I haven’t been here a month…”
“But I’ve had this feeling about 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 be nuts to turn us away!”
“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 away his indifference. “We haven’t been together long enough for that, Gene, not really, but the thing is – when I’m around you I’m happy. And it’s like I can’t imagine being happy ever again unless I’m around you, and I don’t know what else you call that…”
“But I’m not a teenager, Gene,” she said, though perhaps a little too defiantly – like maybe she’d had ‘daddy issues’ once upon a time and still didn’t like being told how she felt. 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, really understood, that without Quintana’s blessing he had to ‘stay put’ for the time being. And yet, by that point he’d also recognized that McKinnon and Quintana had a bond of some kind, some kind of connection he could only guess about. Like maybe she’d gotten him out of a tough spot once upon a time, and maybe he owed her. Big time. At least…that’s what it felt like. On the other hand, he’s stashed away money in banks in Mexico City, and over almost fifteen years he’d siphoned away a lot of cartel money, too. Down here he was safely out of reach from both the DEA and the FBI and he had a roof over his head. McKinnon was fun to hang with and all in all he was soon inclined to just go with the flow.
But after a couple of months he missed ‘big city’ medicine, and he couldn’t get a handle on the reasons why. His Spanish, after living in San Antonio for almost ten years, was already more than passable – but now his language skills were quickly improving because of this immersive setting – and so he was finally able to talk to his patients without the commercial restraints imposed by corporate medicine. And he liked working that way – finally. And while it was what he’d always imagined medicine could be like, or should be like, he reminded himself, conditions at the mission clinic were almost, but not quite primitive.
He liked riding around the mountains but he also recognized he was living right alongside the edges of a really hostile environment, too. At medium elevations vast fields of poppies were growing in the meadows he rode by, while 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 up here in the mountains and some were encroaching on other clan’s grows, with turf wars the first obvious result, and that made him think about the role he’d played in this ongoing 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 still 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 and related products could crush federal budget deficits. But it would severely limit the profitability of the cartels, and that was the game, the cards as they’d been dealt…
So for the time being riding around these hills was still dangerous. Kidnappings were more frequent, and some kids had been known gun down bikers just to take their motorcycles for a joyride. There were often no repercussions because the cartels owned the cops, and only reason he could ride around the area was because he was under the protection of a capo, one of the Sinaloa cartel’s commanders. He was therefore untouchable, so he rode around and kids with AK-47s waved at him as he passed – though he usually stopped and talked with them. They talked about the things they did out here, about their command structure, and he listened as they talked about their gripes – and even their hopes and dreams. Most of these kids, he soon learned, had already killed members of rival clans, and Harwell began to feel as though the whole set-up was faintly medieval.
He also found that a lots of these kids were working while they were sick as hell, so he started loading up his saddlebags with medical supplies and started taking care of the kids along his route.
People in the smaller villages along his route soon 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 he was under the protection of the cartels. So 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 brought them back to the hospital, and he fixed ‘em there. Word spread, too. Harwell was soon a popular man, and accorded saint-like status in many of these villages.
And so pretty soon he began to feel the one thing he’d been missing in his life: a sense of purpose. When he told an old woman that his mother’s name had been Mary her eyes lit up and she’d crossed herself while she fingered her rosary.
So almost out of inertia he fell in with McKinnon and soon enough weeks turned into months, and months to 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 started listening to her hopes and dreams, and her fears, too. Somewhere along the way he started caring for her, too.
He found her breast cancer and he did the procedure. He nursed her through chemo, and he held her hands as her hair fell away. He stayed by her side as she regained health, and he took her to Chihuahua for radiation. 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 some kind of 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 friends, Gene Harwell 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 the last two months.
“Hold your legs up,” the Bexar County sheriff’s deputy told Harwell, and with his legs shackled the deputy pulled him roughly from the van. Once he was out on the concrete the deputy began pushing Harwell through the sally port to the inmates entrance, but no one noticed rough treatment down here in the courthouse basement – and no one cared if anything out of place went down. They waited for an elevator with several other inmates and deputies, and when the elevator came they all rode up to the fourth floor holding block, and he was quickly locked-up in a small holding cell.
He’d had a jerk-water public defender who hadn’t objected even once to questionable evidence presented at his trial but by then Harwell knew this trial was a slam-dunk, a show trial for public consumption. The DEA had rammed the case through pre-trials and before a trial judge in record time, and from then on he knew he was being made an example of how not to fuck with the Feds, and physicians were the intended audience. The guilty verdict was a forgone conclusion, so he’d just smiled and shuffled off the stage, his performance complete. What had surprised him was Quintana, and how the cartels had simply dropped him like a hot rock. Still, he’d decided on silence as the best course, banking on the cartel having people on the inside who’d keep him relatively safe. And who knows, maybe they’d even be able to keep him alive.
Today’s appearance was for sentencing, but by this point he really didn’t give a shit. He’d gone from being a physician in a lucrative American practice to taking care of peasants in Mexico’s central highlands, and now the word was he was going to spend the rest of his life in a “SuperMax” prison outside of Canyon City, Colorado. Not exactly how he’d seen things working out once upon a time, but what hurt most of all was leaving McKinnon down there, because just before the Federales came knocking on her door she’d told him she was pregnant. He knew the stress would get to her, and he hated himself for what she’d have to go through on her own.
So now it looked like everything he could have possibly screwed up in his life he’d managed to do, because on top of everything else he’d have a kid he’d never know…so in a way he’d have a kid that would experience many of the same joys he had. Then a funny thing crossed his mind: while he was glad neither of his ‘parents’ had lived to see his fall, he’d never once imagined how his biological mother might have felt.
Why? Was she so unimportant? Had she ever loved him, or had her role been to simply set the stage for all that came next?
But yeah, his prosecutors had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that he’d moved the cartel’s product for years and years. They’d mapped out his life for all the jurors to see, from being part of an intricately planned and meticulously executed supply pipeline to helping kill DEA informants. He’d been responsible for moving Mexican meth, Afghani heroin, and Chinese fentanyl all around the country, but consider this, ladies and gentlemen of the jury: he’d made a shitload of money along the way too, and that was his game, the only one that mattered, wasn’t it? Money was only thing that mattered to Gene Harwell, MD. Helping to move product through hospitals where he worked, but he’d also done so in uniform while serving his country in Afghanistan. Not saving lives, mind you. No, this monster had not been caring for his wounded brothers, he’d taken part in a system that created nothing but suffering.
“What sort of stunted creature does this” the prosecutor asked those wide-eyed jurors. If not for a well-placed informant this monster would still be on the loose, moving heroin to school playgrounds in a neighborhood near you! But he’d been fingered! Maybe it had been a very bloody jailhouse confession, but in the end none of that mattered because here he is, ladies and gentlemen, awaiting your judgement. The Mexican ‘Federales’ and the DEA had scooped him up while he was on the run down in Mexico and now here he is, teetering on the edge of the abyss, waiting for you to pronounce his fate.
Another deputy came for him a few hours later and walked him down a marble hallway to the courtroom, and then he was pushed through heavy oak doors into the courtroom.
And there he was. His nemesis.
J. Alan Wentworth III, the federal prosecutor ramrodding his case through the system. Wentworth was short, fat, baldheaded and bespectacled – a paragon of every modern virtue imaginable. He was playing the game, alright. Throwing aces every time, and always with an extra up his sleeve. He was asking the court to consider the death penalty, or at the very least life without parole, because if they didn’t come down hard on physicians like him then law enforcement would never get a handle on the problem…
The problem with your thesis, Mr. J. Alan Wentworth III, is that law enforcement is in on the scam at every fucking level, from cops on the beat to the guards in the jails; all of them feeding at the cartel’s trough – but there was no way Harwell would be allowed to say this in open court. This simple truth was so readily apparent even a dime-bag dealer could figure it out: pay anyone enough and they’ll look the other way, and every fucking time, too…but Wentworth had a quota to meet, a conviction rate to maintain, and that more than anything else was dictating the outcome this afternoon. Harwell was just a mid-level executive in a thriving international manufacturing and distribution operation, but instead of working for one of the big pharmaceutical outfits he’d chosen to work for the cartels. Too bad anti-trust laws didn’t apply, because the irony on display in the courtroom was a little too rich.
Harwell wasn’t exactly surprised when, a half hour later and due to the aggravating circumstances of his crimes, he was sentenced to life in prison at ADMAX Florence, the notorious and justifiably dreaded super-max facility in central Colorado. When asked by the court if he had anything to say prior to final sentencing he declined to speak, and so was simply escorted from the courtroom straight to the elevator – this time by a nattily dressed US Marshall – and then out to a shiny new Ford Explorer waiting just for him.
Harwell was driven to the basement parking garage at a nearby office building and led inside a basement level office, and then right into a restroom – where the handcuffs and shackles were removed. Not at all sure what was happening now, the marshal handed Harwell a gym bag and the keys to the Ford, then the cop turned around and walked out of the restroom, and he left Harwell standing there – almost in a state of shock. Not knowing what else to do, he opened the gym bag and found an envelope, two changes of clothes and some toiletries, as well as a new pair of Adidas running shoes. He opened the envelope and found an airline ticket, cash, credit cards and a French passport.
“Quintana,” he muttered to himself with a smile, then he changed into the street clothes and dumped the orange jumpsuit in a dumpster on his way back to the Explorer. The NAV system was already programed for the airport and he put on a ball cap and sunglasses the cop had left on the driver’s seat and he drove straight to the airport. Once there he parked the car in the long term lot and went into the terminal. He checked the envelope and found a boarding pass so went right up to the TSA security checkpoint and then out to his gate, where he waited for an AeroMexico flight to Mexico City. His assigned seat, he realized, was in the business class section, and he suddenly felt as if he was inside a particularly warm and fuzzy dream.
When his flight was called he halfway expected a dozen DEA agents to come crawling out of the woodwork…but no, nothing happened, and by that point Harwell thought his life was getting positively surreal. He walked out the Jetway and boarded the 737Max and a flight attendant brought him an ice cold Bohemia and a slice of lime, and he did his best to ignore the people boarding the flight because he just knew that at any moment he was going to wake up and this was all going to turn out to be a really nasty trick of the mind.
But no, the main door was about to close – when, apparently, one more person ran into the cabin, and Harwell watched as Quintana boarded and came to the seat next to his own.
“Mind if I sit here?” the number three man in the Sinaloa Cartel asked.
“No, please,” Harwell said, then he watched as Quintana put two small carry-ons in the overhead bin.
Then Quintana sat and took the offered Bohemia from the flight attendant, and Harwell watched as the main door was pivoted into the closed and locked position, and he looked out the window as the Boeing was pushed back from the gate. When he could stand it no longer, he turned to Quintana and smiled.
“Did you have a nice visit?” he asked the capo.
“Yes. And you?”
“I’d have to say, all in all, that it was an interesting trip.”
“Perhaps someday we’ll have time to sit over dinner and talk about your experiences.”
Which meant, Harwell understood, now was not that time. He nodded and smiled and looked out the window as the Boeing turned onto the active runway and dashed into the evening sky.
He ate his dinner in silence and watched intently as the jetliner lined up to land in Mexico City, and just before Quintana left him there he advised that Harwell not forget his two bags in the overhead bin, and Harwell thanked his friend then watched him leave. He pulled the bags down and walked out the jet and through immigration and then found a small lounge to sit for a while.
Then he opened Quintana’s parting gift.
Another envelope on top…
A ticket to Paris on Air France, departing in an hour and a half. Enough cash to live comfortably for several months. Documents to provide a completely new identity along with the academic degrees and transcripts of post-grad work to back everything up. And a note that said all his savings accounts in Mexico City were still intact, and that the DEA hadn’t uncovered them.
And then there was one last note from Quintana.
‘Silentium ac fides super omnia.’
There wasn’t a whole lot else to say, was there? He’d never talked, never sought a plea bargain right up until the moment of his sentencing, and maybe that had come as a surprise to Quintana. Maybe that was why he’d risked it all to come up the States, to see this through to the end. To see what kind of man this Gene Harwell really was.
Maybe. Maybe not. Harwell would probably never know the answer to that one, would he? Because the second part of Quintana’s message was equally clear.
We own you. And now you owe us not just your life, but your freedom, too. And we can take both if we need to.
He walked over to the First Class lounge and went inside, checked-in for the flight and saw that he was indeed flying alone. Not knowing what else to do he sat and watched jets come and go until his flight was called, then he walked out and boarded the 777 and made his way up to seat 1A.
A simply gorgeous flight attendant came by and introduced herself, offered him a glass of Champagne and a warm towel for his face, then she smiled and sashayed up to the galley. After three months behind bars the sight of such a woman was enough to leave him in puddles of wilting despair. He shook his head and tried to remember he’d been married – once upon a long time ago.
He looked up and saw the main doors close a few minutes later and then he looked down at his hands. How long had it been? How many months since he’d last operated on a patient? How long since he’d given up on ever doing anything like that again?
How many months since he’d seen McKinnon?
How would she feel now? Would she still care about him?
Dare he even try to get in touch with her? Wouldn’t the DEA be monitoring her every move? Especially now that he’d managed to flee?
The jet pushed back and taxied out to the active, then it turned onto the runway and lumbered into the sky, turning to the northeast to fly up the east coast of North America on its way from the New World to the Old. He saw Washington DC down below just after his second dinner of the evening, then New York City and Boston before the long Atlantic crossing. His seat was turned into a cozy little bed and he slept the miles away, waking up in time for a little breakfast and a mid-morning arrival in Paris.
He waited until almost everyone else had deplaned before grabbing his bags and heading out the Jetway into the terminal. He made his way to immigration and as he was now a citizen of France he walked right through the ‘Nothing To Declare’ line and then out to the queue of people lining up to ride into the city.
And then he felt an arm slip into his.
“Well, hello there, stranger,” Patty McKinnon said, a coy little smile crossing her face. “Fancy running into you here.”
“Yes, small world,” he said, smiling. She leaned into him and they kissed with a ferocity that might have annoyed most of the people standing in line, but hey…this was Paris.
“How are you doing?” she asked.
“Better now. You?”
“Not bad, considering,” she said, rubbing her round tummy.
He took her hand in his and closed his eyes. Not a day had passed that he hadn’t dreamed of feeling her skin on his one more time and now here she was.
“I have an apartment for us near the medical school,” she sighed. “We start an MSF orientation in a couple of weeks, then we’re headed to Ethiopia, to a new clinic south of Gondar.”
“Did Quintana help you with this?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Gene Harwell smiled, but in a snap he suddenly understood his future as everything popped into focus. Quintana would never let him go, not completely. He’d have to work off his debt – one way or another – and in the only way he could. He’d go to Africa but as always he’d help establish new markets and new distribution networks, just as he always had. Where would it be this time? London? Berlin? Or the explosive new markets in Stockholm and Moscow? It didn’t matter now, did it? – because there wasn’t such a thing as a fresh start where the cartels were concerned. The life that had chosen him valued loyalty – and silence. Nothing more, and no less.
He helped McKinnon into the back of a little beige Mercedes taxi and then slipped in right beside her, and for a moment he considered turning and seeing if he could spot the people tailing them, but—why? In the end nothing really mattered, and anyone could see that.
Part II: The Soul of Perception
Once upon a time in a city by the sea there worked a physician. A surgical resident doing his time at a big university hospital, he at first glance seemed to genuinely care about people; he always had a caring smile on his face ready for the next patient, and he could always be counted on to lend a hand to anyone who needed help. Yet some people thought of the man, this physician, as something of a doormat, thinking that he simply couldn’t say no to people and that, as a result, everyone lined up to take advantage of his generosity. Such people no doubt called the doctor a ‘patsy’ — another word for an ‘easy mark’ — and, who knows? Perhaps such people laughed at him behind his back, from time to time, anyway — at least when they didn’t need him. Perhaps such little voices of whispered derision are little more than a sign of the times we live in, yet in a world suffocating under the weight of so many little sidelong whispers you have to step back from all the noise for a moment and ask yourself just one little question all your own. Have we forgotten that, if only occasionally, true goodness walks among us from time to time. Or is there really such a thing? Perhaps, in our haste, we have confused goodness with expedience?
Doug Tanner rubbed the corner of his right eye, trying without much success to brush away the lack of sleep from his burning eyes. He looked at his watch and noted the time: 2220 hours. He’d had, by this reckoning, an hour of sleep — in the last two days — and his mouth tasted coppery, almost cruddy; he smelled like stale coffee, dry body odor and of an after shave lotion that had given up hours ago. He was hungry, yet he could hardly stomach the idea of food; even the very idea he needed food seemed vaguely off-putting. There were times he resented his own human frailty, and this was one of those moments.
The pager in his lab-coat buzzed and he picked it out of the rubbish of gum wrappers and throat lozenges that lived there; he looked at the code on the little green display and groaned.
“Shit, not again…”
Then, from a old speaker mounted in the ceiling: “Dr Tanner, Dr Tanner, stat to ER, Trauma Two. Dr Tanner stat to Trauma Two.”
“Hey, Dougie, sounds like they’re playing your song again,” a third year neurology resident sitting in the room said. “Go get ‘em, Tiger!” she snarled.
He didn’t know her name, and for some reason he didn’t care, though he smiled at her on the way out the door. Then he grumbled something nine-tenths obscene under his breath and rubbed at his eyes absent-mindedly again while he from the stumbled break room. He followed the red stripe on the floor to the ER and waded into the full-blown chaos that was Trauma Two, one of two rooms set up in the ER for emergency surgery and advanced life-support. A couple of other residents had already arrived before him and were sorting out the mess under the lights.
“Ah, Tanner! Gun shot, through and through URQ and I got tamponade. Gonna need you to get a chest-tube in, pronto!”
Doug Tanner was wide-awake now. He gloved-up, moved to a tray set-up beside the patient, the terrified black kid on the table — his wide-eyes darting everywhere, bloody froth coming from his nose and running down his neck; a nurse opened the chest tube kit while Tanner gloved-up and palpated the kid’s thorax, then Tanner made an incision between ribs on the kid’s left side and thrust the hemostat and surgical tubing into the kids chest. Frothy blood came out the end of the tubing at first, then a steady stream of deep red fluid jetted to the floor. Then an anesthesiologist was by the boy’s head and intubating the kid; a fourth year thoracic resident hovered over the boy’s sternum, her scalpel poised and waiting for the go-ahead from the ‘gas-passer’; another resident was swabbing the kid’s sweaty, mud-caked skin with saline and Betadine. It was now or never, because there just wasn’t enough time to get the kid upstairs to a fully equipped O.R.
This was Tanner’s second year as a general surgery resident, and his third six-month rotation through the ER, and he couldn’t remember ever having done anything else in his life. He could barely remember his parents anymore — they seemed like abstract constructs that had existed once upon a time in the gauzy remnants of time before the first year of med school. Girlfriends? Like…are you kidding? Who had time? There’d been a Becky so-and-so, then a waitress one night, but then there’d been Macy last summer — yet the other one night stands had come and gone so fast he couldn’t even remember what any of them looked like. Because soon enough everything had fallen into the general blur of this chosen life, and like everything else in this world people soon became one more blur inside a fast-passing landscape that never seemed to stop for a rest. Everything he had once thought important, girls, cars, maybe even getting married someday — all these things belonged to a past that was so far away it wasn’t even recognizable anymore. Everything he’d ever wanted to do had been wiped clean away, his memory replaced by an endless stream of drunk drivers, irate husbands and soaring cholesterol levels, and the broken bodies never stopped coming in through the out door. Life had turned into a carousel — wooden horses that never slowed down and that just couldn’t stop going round and round. And he was trapped here, trapped with no way off.
But everything had to stop, didn’t it? Eventually? But apparently that wasn’t true, not here, because now he was on again and going round and round and nothing mattered anymore — nothing, except what happened within the confined little spaces inside this sprawling emergency department. This place was like a beast that fed on human weakness, a Darwinian jungle where only the strongest survived, and as he sutured the chest tube into place the door flew open…
And an orderly, a young kid, rushed into the trauma room: “We need someone in Five, like right now!”
The Head Resident looked up at the orderly, then at Tanner.
“I’ve got it,” Tanner said, the room spinning round and round.
“Go!” she said, nodding as soon as they made eye contact.
“Right.” Tanner walked down the hall and ducked into Trauma 5 and shuddered to a stop: “What the fuck?!” he whispered, his eyes flaring in wide-eyed astonishment. Still, he managed a brief smile of encouragement to the patient – just because…
“He got his arm caught in this machine,” one of the paramedics started explaining. “They use it to grind hamburger and sausage at the supermarket…”
Tanner looked at the mess, then at the patient, a middle-aged man who, stunningly, appeared quite calm; he was sitting up on a fire department gurney, and his right arm — almost up to the elbow — had been pulled into this large stainless steel meat-grinder, and there was one fireman holding the grinder on it’s rolling base, mainly to keep the blades from cutting the rest of the man’s mangled arm from his body. Paramedics had applied a tourniquet at the scene and started an IV; every time they released it on the ride-in through traffic massive blood loss resumed.
Tanner walked to the man’s side, trying to smile. ‘Why isn’t this guy in shock?’ he asked himself.
“How’ya doin’, doc,” the man said. He still had his white butcher’s coat on. “Sorry about this.”
“Can you feel anything?” Tanner said, nodding while he bent over to examine the “hamburger” that had come out the spout on the far side of the machine.
“No, not really… it hurt like a son-of-a-bitch when it was happening, but not much since.”
“Nerves completely severed,” Tanner mumbled. “Nurse, get me some saline, and let’s get some serious light down here in the chute.” Someone handed him a fresh bottle of saline and he slowly poured half of the one liter bottle over the shredded pulp; Tanner pulled the overhead lamp closer and closer, looking at the mangled mess while he took mental notes. “And start some ringers,” he added, looking at the nurse by the IV tree.
“You gonna have to amputate?” the butcher asked stoically while he watched Tanner probing the pulpy mess.
But Tanner kept looking at the remnants while he poured saline over the tissue, looking for hidden structure in the muck with the metal probe in his gloved hand. Every now and then he made little clucking noises with his tongue as his head moved from side to side, but other than that he seemed completely absorbed with the problem at hand…
“Does this machine come apart? Like…maybe right about here?” Tanner asked the butcher as he pointed at the main body of the grinder.
“No, not the chute,” the butcher said. “That’s solid aluminum there, doc.”
Tanner moved, looked down into the machine’s feed chute, from the uninjured side of the man’s arm. “Tell me about those blades in there? Do they reverse?”
“No, doc. The gears just turn one way.” Tanner studied the machine for a moment, then he stood up:
“Nurse, call someone down in maintenance and have ‘em bring up a metric socket set and some vice-grips.”
“What?” the nurse said. “What did — you want…what?”
Tanner turned to the nurse. “A metric socket set and some vice grips, and maybe some WD-40.”
“You want some duct tape too? Just for good measure?” she asked sarcastically.
“Wouldn’t hurt,” Tanner added, seriously.
“What are you gonna do, doc?” the butcher asked again. “Amputate?”
Tanner looked at the man; he saw eyes full of fear beyond the crumbling bravado. “What’s your name?”
“Jake. Jake Bushman. Sorry I can’t shake hands.”
“Well Jake, I’m going to disassemble this grinder and remove whatever is keeping those gears from going into reverse. Then we’re going to turn the gears slowly, by hand — only in reverse — then we’ll pull your arm out the way it went in, trying not to mess up any more tissue than we have to. Once we get that done we’ll take you up to an operating room. We’ll try to reassemble the radius and the ulna, repair the veins, and see if we can’t save this hand.”
“You gotta shittin’ me!” one of the paramedics whispered.
Tanner looked up, scowled at the paramedic: “Nope. Piece of cake.”
“Fuck! I thought for sure I was gonna lose my arm!” Jake said.
“No guarantees, Jake. But we’re gonna give it our best shot. Okay?” He turned to a nurse, ordered some blood chemistries and a couple of surgical trays, then pulled up a stool and began looking at the machine.
When a janitor walked into the room with his toolbox he looked at the butcher and the surgeon, then at the gleaming machine and the pulpy mess of arm hanging from the spout, just before he passed out and fell to the floor like a sack of potatoes.
Tanner left the hospital a little before noon the next day; he crawled inside his ancient BMW 2002 tii and drove out of the physician’s lot and headed down to the marina, parked and walked out the interminably long pier to his boat, a pristine Crealock 40 pilothouse he kept in immaculate trim. While he walked down the pier he looked at his feet, trying to ignore the world around him. When he got near his slip he stumbled to a stop, looked at the suitcase on the deck by the cockpit, then he saw Macy sitting in the shaded cockpit and he sighed.
“Ah, the ghost of girlfriends past,” he mumbled as he took a few more steps her way. “It must be Christmas already.” Though they’d broken up last summer, a spectacularly uneventful parting of the ways, hers was one of the few faces he did remember. Fondly, as a matter of fact.
“Hey Doug,” the girl said when she saw him. She seemed upset, not at all like the Macy he remembered.
“Hey yourself.” He said as he climbed on-board; he sailed right past her and unlocked the companionway, lifted the boards and walked below. He went to the breaker panel and flipped on the air-conditioning, checked the battery monitor and flipped a switch to cycle the bilge pump, then he walked to the little fridge in the galley and pulled out a Coke. “Want something?” he called up.
“Whatever you’re having.”
That was vintage Macy, alright. Never asked for anything, never wanted anything, but she resented the hell out of you when you didn’t give her what she wanted. Pure passive-aggressive. He grabbed another Coke and walked up the steps into the cockpit.
“And to what do I owe this honor,” Tanner said as he popped the top and handed her a Coke.
“I’m pregnant,” she said directly. She was looking him in the eye, daring him to say something smart.
“Oh? Really?” he said as he met her eyes.
“Don’t worry,” she said, suddenly looking guiltily down at her hands, “you’re not the father.”
“Great, but am I missing something.” She seemed to be hovering over plains of a great despair, and he could sense that she was hiding her feelings. “I mean, like why are you here? And, why me?”
“I lost my job. I need a place to stay.”
Jake looked at her, lifted his hands and shrugged. “And…what? You suddenly remembered good ole Doug and decided to come on over, move on in?”
She smiled unevenly, laughed a little: “Yeah, something like that.” Then she looked at him again, a little more closely this time. “I didn’t know what else to do, Doug. I had to move out of my apartment last night.”
He nodded. “What about the father?” He studied her eyes and her hands as she acted and reacted to his words.
“Nada. Threw me out when I told him.”
“Sounds like a nice guy. Real father-of-the-year material.”
“You have to go back in soon?”
“Nope; got 48 off.”
“Think we could go out?”
Tanner sighed, looked at the sky then at her forehead, thought about his berth down below and how much he wanted to sleep. “Hadn’t planned on it,” he said, but what the hell. Looked like a nice breeze out there and maybe he could figure out what it was she really wanted from him.
“Please,” she said. “I used to love going out there with you…”
“Well, why don’t you put your stuff up forward, give me a hand with the lines…”
He raised sail as the boat slipped out the cut from Dinner Key, pointed toward Key Biscayne as he steered across the shallow, blue bay, with downtown Miami off their port quarter. It was cool out, in the hi-60s, a typical mid-December day, and there was almost no one out on the water mid-week so it was like they had the whole place to themselves. The boat knifed gently through the calm water, the wind little more than a breeze. Macy took the wheel and Tanner went below for more Cokes and to make chicken sandwiches. They ate in silence; Macy seemed to bask in the sun for a while, then she curled up in the cockpit and fell into a restless, twitching sleep. Every now and then she moaned; Tanner took her pulse and felt her forehead from time to time, getting more and more worried by the sheen her felt there.
So Tanner watched her while he sailed, he jibed the boat slowly and pointed the boat south, toward Homestead, then he set the auto-pilot and put his feet up for a while, regarding the girl while she slept.
A gust passed through the sails, the boat heeled a little and knifed through a sudden, big wave, water flying aft through the air, spraying the cockpit with a fine, cool mist.
“Penny for your thoughts?” he heard her ask.
“Why me?” he said again.
“Because you are who you are,” she said openly. “I know you, your smile…and I knew you’d help.”
“Why’s that? Because I’m the biggest sucker you know?”
She shook her head. “You’re not a sucker, Doug. You’re anything but.”
He looked at her, looked at her tiny belly. “How far along?”
“Macy? Have you seen an O.B.?
She sat up and laughed, then she shrugged away the question. She turned into the afternoon wind, her hair streaming past her shoulders. Classic Macy, all her evasions good natured and guilt free.
“No foolin’, Macy! You been gettin’ check-ups or not?”
She shrugged. “I can’t afford all that stuff now.”
“What…what happened? I thought you were pretty high on the seniority list.”
“Not high enough, I guess. They let about three hundred of us go.”
She’d been a flight attendant with a major carrier for years, but everything seemed to be falling apart this year; the only real growth industries in Dade County seemed to gunshot wounds and drug overdoses.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to pry; I know it’s been a bitch all over. But don’t you have Cobra, or some kind of policy?”
She nodded. “Yeah, but the premium’s are pretty steep, the co-pays worse…and there’s just not enough to go around.”
He nodded. “It’s been tough for a lot of folks.” he said. The ER was awash with these new, cruel realities — he sutured-up the grim truth of this reality day in and day out, though few could afford to even walk in the door. Until it was too late, anyway.
He looked at her for the longest time, tried to think of what to say, or even how to ask her, but then he came to a decision:
“So, right, feel free to stay aboard as long as you want. ‘Til you get your feet back under you, anyway.” He looked at her, looked at her gentle smile. Maybe that was all he wanted out of life, he told himself; to see people smile, see them get a fair shake every now and then.
“You see, I told you.”
“You’re…you know…you’re the most decent human being I know, Doug.”
He laughed, blushed, looked away. “Right, that’s me. The very soul of compassion…”
“You see the truth, that’s all. And why do you always put yourself down?”
“It’s an old habit,” he said, “I learned from my father.”
Tanner eased into the slip just as the last of the sun’s light slipped away, as the sky drifted through purples and oranges into sinking waves of cobalt that led down to the hazy purple-black of Miami’s neon skyline. But there were no stars out here, there never were, not here under layers of bright city haze. Tanner chopped the throttle, jumped onto the pier and made fast his lines, hopped back aboard with power cords and hooked them up. He squared away all the “stuff” that went along with sailing, went below and switched the ships systems back to shore power.
“Man, you got some sun today!” he said as he helped Macy below. “You’re gonna burn, there, on your shoulders.”
She reached up, felt her skin: “Youch!”
“I’ll get some aloe…” he said as he went to the fridge for the bottle he kept there. “Sit you down; let’s get some goop on that…” She sat, he rubbed. He remembered the way she felt now, while he touched her, like his skin on hers unlocked some vital store of memory. He thought of her, of the time they’d spent together, and he had to admit the memories were good — now that he’d found them again. He rubbed her shoulders, the tops of her arms, then up her neck…before he felt the downy hair there and remembered the way it used to smell when they made love.
“You’re still in love with me, aren’t you?” he heard her ask as he slipped away in blond shaded echoes of distant sun-drenched afternoons.
He heard her words, shook himself back into the present, stood and put the aloe away. “You hungry?” he asked.
“Actually, I’m not sure. I feel, maybe, well yes…”
“Me too.” He slipped into the aft cabin, grabbed his shower things and walked up to the shower building. He enjoyed this marina despite its size; once upon a time it had been a Pan Am flying boat terminal; now it was a huge marina full of live-aboards, overflowing with herds of South American pilots and families with kids and retired people off to see the world — only taking a little time out along the way to too late. He showered, walked back to the boat, saw a mother and her crying daughter waiting by the boat. And of course the little girl appeared to be hurt…
“High Amy,” he said to the freckle-faced girl as he got close enough to recognize her, “what’s wrong?”
“Oh Doug,” Amy’s mother said, “she picked up another splinter, a real biggie this time, playing a while ago.” Mary Ann, the girl’s mother, was sweet and caring and she’d taken care of him too well once or twice. The little girl looked at him stoically now and held up her foot so he’d know which one. He bent over and squinted in the darkness.
“Youch! That IS a biggie, alright.” Tanner said. “Well! Let’s see if we can’t fix you up.” He jumped below, heard Macy barfing in the forward head while he got his bag out; he walked forward and knocked on the door: “Morning sickness?”
“Oh boy oh boy am I gonna chop off the next dick I come across!” — she said before she retched again, followed by a deep moan… “I swear to God I’ll never touch another fucking penis as long as I live…”
“Uh, right…I’ll be back in a second, got a splinter to remove…”
“Right…” More retching followed. He shook his head and went to the panel, turned on the cockpit lights and went back up to the wheel.
“Is Macy back?” Mary Ann asked. The marina was like any other small town — news traveled fast along the grapevines here. Her husband was a pilot for United and he was gone all the time, so…
“Lost her job and her apartment,” he said while he opened the cockpit table and laid his tools out. “Okay Amy, let’s see that honker!” He helped get her foot on the table then he bent over and looked at it. “Well, doesn’t look as bad as I thought but it IS in there real deep. You want to be a trooper and tough it out or do you want me to use some Novocain?”
“Is that a needle thingy?” a suddenly very wide-eyed Amy mewed.
“Yep. But that’s a real big splinter, Amy. If it was in my foot I’d want the shot.”
“Okay then. But only if it’s what you’d do.” Not too long ago Mary Ann had told him her little girl had a crush on him.
He got to work, cleaned up the wound and bandaged it, gave her a tetanus shot and sent them on their way; he went below, found Macy on the v-berth up front shivering in a pool of sweat.
“You’re burning up, kiddo,” he said. He returned to the galley, got his bag and a cool washcloth and went back forward, put it on her forehead. “You hurt anywhere?”
“Here,” she said, pointing to her lower left quadrant, “and here,” now at her mid-groin.
“How bad?” he asked as he reached down and gently palpated her belly.
“Bad!” she moaned when he touched just to the left of her navel.
“Okay. If you think you can walk, I reckon we’d better get you to the ER; if not I’ll call an ambulance.”
“Why? — I mean, what’s wrong?”
“Not sure,” he lied. “Better check out a few things and make sure the baby’s okay.” But he was thought she might have an ectopic pregnancy, so right now he needed to keep her still and get her to the ER as quickly as possible. “Think you can walk?”
“I don’t think so,” she said carefully, obviously in excruciating pain. “I don’t think I can move.”
“Right.” Tanner walked back to the chart table and got his phone and dialed 911; he gave the operator directions to the boat, then went back and took her blood pressure before he wiped even more sweat from her face.
He heard the ambulance a few minutes later, went topside when he heard the paramedics getting close, then helped them load her in the ambulance, riding with her to the ER. He called a social worker while an OB did her work up; he wanted to get Macy set-up with Medicaid before her bills got out of hand. He went back to check on her but by then they’d already taken her upstairs to an OR. And then he remembered he didn’t have a ride back to the marina. He looked at his watch; it was now three in the morning and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept.
“Great!” he moaned. “Ain’t that peachy…”
“Hey, doc! How’s it going?”
Tanner turned, saw one of Miami’s finest, a good-natured cop everyone called Mannie. “Hey yourself. What are you doing down here? Krispy Kreme not open yet?”
“Ha! I don’t eat them hi-dollar donuts, Pachuco!”
“Yeah? Looks like you’re eatin’ ‘em somewhere, Mannie! Whoa, dude, you’re packing on the pounds!”
Mannie Hernandez looked down. “Yeah, I know,” he said quietly.
“You on duty?”
“Overtime. Came in with a big MVA, a DUI—homicide. Headed back to the station now.”
“Good, you can give me a lift?”
“Yeah, sure, no problem,” the cop said.
“Thanks. Now, what the fuck’s wrong?”
“Oh, man, it’s my old lady…”
They stopped off for a couple dozen donuts on the way…because Tanner had learned that trick a long time ago. If you ever needed a cop to talk, it paid to take ‘em to a good donut shop.
He spent the morning with Macy, and the other half of his day off cleaning the boat; he had finally put his feet up in the cockpit and opened up a book when an old couple walked up…
“Dr Tanner, you have a minute?”
He looked up, smiled. “Bill, right? And Lucille? What’s up?”
They nodded and smiled: “You still giving out flu shots?”
“Yeah, I think I got a couple left. Y’all didn’t get yours yet, I take it?”
“No sir, we sure didn’t, and we heard it’s going around. Do you think you could get us one?”
He put his book down and went below to the fridge, opened a fresh box of the pre-loaded syringes and had them read and sign the County’s release, then he gave them their shots, had them sign a book he kept for the County Health Department – and that was it.
“Dr Tanner, I’ve got a fresh pot of turnip greens and a pot-roast on. Would you like me to bring you a plate?”
“Is that what I smell down there’?”
Lucille smiled, blushed.
“My word but that smells fine.”
“I’ll go fetch you some…”
“No-no-no, I’ll come over if that’s alright with you two.”
The couple seemed pleased with that and scuttled down the pier to the old cabin cruiser they called home; Tanner walked along slowly in their wake.
“Y’all came down from Tennessee, on the river? How was that?” he asked when he read the hailing port on their boat’s stern.
“Yessir, we came down the Tenn-Tom Waterway,” Bill said. “Real pretty trip, too. Best thing we ever done.”
Tanner broke bread with these funny old people and he couldn’t help but think of Audrey Hepburn singing Moon River; he laughed with them as they recounted their adventures on the water, he held their hands while he listened to their heartaches, and though he talked with the old couple for hours and hours he couldn’t have been happier. When he went back to his boat he soon fell into a deep sleep and when he woke the next morning he found himself whistling Moon River as he drove his ancient Beemer into work.
He went in early, talked with Macy in her room. She was beat up both physically and emotionally, was adrift after losing the baby she’d never know. Yet Tanner thought she seemed a little too depressed, thought he’d better tell the charge nurse to add ‘depression?’ to her chart.
“You’ll be here today, maybe tomorrow,” he added before he left for the ER. “When you’re ready I’ll come and get you, take you down to the boat.”
She smiled, turned away, looked out a window to some faraway place.
And yet the look on her face almost frightened him. “I’ll come by again in a little bit. You get some rest, okay?”
She said not a word, just drifted away into the hazy confines of a life that would never be.
The paramedics said she was a hooker, that she’d overdosed on horse and sometime during their transaction she’d gotten into a fight with her ‘john’ over the quality of services she’d rendered; the guy knocked her around a little, then shot her twice — once in the arm, once just above her collar-bone — and then they really got into it. The ‘john’ was in Trauma Six, his penis hanging on by a thread; the hooker was in Trauma Three, and she was a mess. Though it was four in the morning all twelve trauma rooms were full, several with gunshot or knife wounds, people hit by drunk drivers or wives beaten by angry husbands. Mannie Hernandez stood in the corner watching Tanner work; he had, by law, to remain with an attempted homicide victim until the docs could tell if she would live or die.
The hooker was in and out of consciousness but her vitals were pretty good — so she was labeled ‘stable’; Tanner held her latest x-rays up to the light-box, looked at the bullet lodged in the woman’s neck. He wanted to pump her stomach while they waited for an O.R. to clear, watch her fluids and vitals, but he was afraid if she vomited the movement might push the bullet against her spine. He called the neurosurgeon upstairs and explained; the surgeon wanted her stomach pumped, didn’t want her vomiting with a tube down her throat on the table, so that was that.
He got the tray ready while nurses strapped her neck brace to the board, then Tanner ran surgical tubing up her nose and threaded it past her glottis and into her esophagus, then down into her stomach. He put positive pressure on the tubing and listened with a stethoscope, made sure the tube was in her belly and not her lungs. A nurse mixed activated charcoal and saline into a wet slurry and filled a huge, syringe like pump and handed it to him. He fit the first syringe to the tubing and pumped the black sludge slowly into her stomach; a nurse listened to the stuff enter the stomach and gave Tanner a thumbs up. Another nurse mixed saline and ipecac, an emetic that causes near instantaneous vomiting.
Tanner looked up, grinned at Mannie.
“Say Mannie, you wanna come over here and hold the bucket?”
“Hey, fuck you, homey. I ain’t standin’ next to no fuckin’ volcano! No way, no fuckin’ way! All them scrambled eggs and shit! Shit no, no fuckin’ way!”
“Hey, you know, just thought I’d ask…” He fit the second syringe to the tubing and pumped the ipecac in, then listened before he quickly pulled the tubing out the woman’s nose. As soon as the tube was clear a nurse held the woman’s neck while everyone else rolled the woman on her side. An orderly stood beside the table with a fifty gallon trash can ready to go, a mask over his nose.
“Oh, crap,” the orderly said seconds later, “here it comes!”
The woman’s eyes opened momentarily, just before the deluge; she managed to say “what the fuck!” before she let loose. She convulsed violently then settled down a little, then kept barfing into the can, moaning between upheavals.
“Hey, Mannie!” one of the nurses said. “How’d you know she had scrambled eggs for dinner?”
“Fuck you, man! Just fuck you!”
Everyone laughed, everyone but Tanner. He ran his fingers through the woman’s hair, leaned over and whispered something in her ear. She moaned, smiled a little before she closed her eyes. He continued rubbing her head until he was sure she was asleep again.
He got off after thirty hours on, went upstairs to Macy’s room.
“Howya’ doin’?” Tanner asked as he walked into her room. She seemed brighter today, not quite as down.
“Better, Doug. Thanks.”
“Yeah. Say, your chemistries look good; they wanna cut you loose. Feel like taking a ride?”
“Doug. I mean it. Thanks. You saved my life.”
“I was gonna go get a hotel room. I would have been alone. The nurses said I’d have bled to death.”
He looked into her eyes and nodded.
“Doug? You ever think that some things happen for a reason?”
“Maybe — I don’t know.”
“You don’t, huh? Imagine that. I thought you knew everything…”
They laughed at that, but Tanner felt a little off balance now. “So, I brought you some things. Why don’t you get dressed and I’ll come back in a few minutes…”
He drove slowly, let her get used to the sun and the air and the greenness of her own life once again. The sky was pure bluebirds, not a single cloud could be seen anywhere, and the air was cool and fresh. The world smelled of mangos and freshly mown grass, girls on roller-skates and dudes on skateboards crowded the sidewalk by the beach, Frisbees flew just above the sand and out over the silvery-blue water beyond the beach dozens of sailboats crowded the cut from the marina out to the deep water beyond the protected waters of the bay.
He watched her, thought about what she’d been through, about the hopes and dreams she might have had, about the nightmare that had come calling in their stead. He helped her from the car when they got to the marina, walked arm-in-arm with her down the pier. There were fresh flowers ‘from all of us here in the marina’ and Lucille stood by as they passed, followed them and handed Tanner a huge pot of greens and corn bread.
Macy was pale and light and he had to admit it now: he had never really stopped caring for her. He fed her and put her in his berth in the aft cabin, drew the little curtains and crawled in next to her and held her while she dreamed through the night. He held her when she cried, he held her while she slept, and he brushed the hair from her face and kissed her eyelashes as gently as a breeze. She looked at him, held him in her eyes and she smiled from time to time and that seemed enough for him.
“See,” she said, “I told you. You still love me.”
“You were right.”
It was her turn now. She held him, held on to him as tightly as she could.
Tanner went in early the next morning — it was an off day but a third year resident had called in with the flu. When the Chief was short she knew who to call. Because Tanner never said no.
Sundays were slow days. They didn’t usually get mad until evening rolled ‘round, but even so most Sundays were easy. And so it was this Sunday. Medicine was busy, lots of flu presenting, and psychiatry was roaring along, too — because this was, after all, Miami. Paramedics came by with a teenage-girl strapped down to the gurney a little after noon; she’d slit her wrists — “the way they do it on TV” she told him, and he repaired a tendon and sutured her wrists while she went on and on about how life wasn’t worth living because her boyfriend had dumped her…
“Just curious,” he asked her at one point, “but what would make life worth living?”
She mentioned something about a new cell-phone or a Mercedes like her mom’s and Tanner smiled as he looked at her, while he steri-stripped the margins of the wounds and covered them with four-by-fours. A resident from psychiatry came by, and when out of the room she asked Tanner what he thought about the girl:
“Looks like a classic cry for help,” Tanner said, “except her feet are filthy, there’s a load of dirt under her fingernails, and she’s malnourished. She acts like ‘little miss rich-kid’ but I’d lay odds she’s alone and on the street, maybe a runaway. I’d call Social Services right off the bat.” The resident nodded and made notes before she walked in to meet the girl. A little later they rolled the girl down to psychiatry; she waved at Tanner when she saw him and he smiled, waved at her while he wondered when and where The Big Mistake had caught her.
It was like a law of physics with kids like her. The Big Mistake came for them out of the blue, caught them unawares and left them compromised for life, alone now to struggle with the consequences. Loneliness hit the force multiplier of guilt and then the long slide down into the shadows began, and once you landed in the darkness you finally realized just how much trouble you were really in, and how impossibly alone The Big Mistake had left you. Slit wrists and fentanyl overdoses hit these kids hard.
“Gunshot wound inbound,” came the crackling voice from the overhead speaker. “Paramedics advise five minutes out.”
Tanner was the senior resident on the floor. Two first-years surgical residents and a gaggle of interns hovered expectantly, watching and waiting for him to say something. An emergency medicine doc was hustling down from the cafeteria. The oldest resident, Doris Tayloe, a woman who’d graduated from med school on her 48th birthday, looked ready to go:
“Right. Doris, go get the trays set up and ready to go, would you? Take a couple of interns with you, and tell ‘em to tuck in their goddamn scrubs this time! And trust your nurses!” He was tired of finding loose hairs on his sterile field; heads would roll soon if he saw another sloppy intern walking around with their scrubs not tucked-in!
He got on the phone, called the doctor advising the paramedics in the field: “What do they have?” he wanted to know.
“Six year old African-American male, at least two gunshot wounds, one in the gut, one looks like it got the femoral artery. They’ve got trousers on the kid.”
“Right, have you notified vascular?”
“Yeah. Collins is finishing up a chest, he’ll be down as soon as he can. I called your chief, too. She’s on the way.”
“Okay, they’re turning in now. Seeya…”
Tanner hung up the phone, walked down to Trauma One and filled in the team. Everything looked ready.
He saw the ambulance screech to a stop and back in to the loading bay, two patrol cars roared in and pulled raggedly into spaces marked Police Only. Mannie Hernandez jumped out of one, another officer he didn’t recognize followed.
Orderlies got the ambulance doors and firemen helped pull the gurney out; one of the paramedics was bagging the kid, another held IVs overhead as they rolled the kid into the ER:
“Go to One!” Tanner called out; he saw the emergency medicine doc running down the corridor. “Thank goodness for small favors,” he said as he followed the gurney into the room.
Orderlies and nurses began cutting away the kid’s clothes; Tanner saw the boy’s eyes roll back in his head and moved to the kid’s gut. “It’s a fucking mess in there,” he heard one of the paramedics say. “Must have been a .357 or something, maybe a 41 mag; there’s a big fucking exit wound where his right kidney used to be…”
Tanner started calling orders, supervising the residents and nurses, letting them do their jobs while he did his. “Okay, I can palpate the aorta; it feels intact — good pressure — the renal might be okay too but I kinda doubt it — Doris, let’s roll him… I wanna have a look at that exit wound before we take the cuffs off his legs — sheez, what a mess! — Somebody call for a gas-passer — the renal is intact but I can feel bullet fragments all around his kidney — goddamn hollow-points! Has anyone called Urology…?”
He heard, in the periphery of his mind, Mannie out in the hall, and then an hysterical woman screaming, probably the kid’s mother, probably taking all Mannie’s strength to keep her out of here, then — “get a cut-down and lets get those cuffs off, I’m gonna go in and clamp off the femoral…”
“But it’ll retract…” one of the interns commented.
“No shit, Sherlock!” the emergency medicine doc said angrily. “Now get the fuck out of here and go read a comic book!”
Tanner palpated the inner thigh, thought he felt pressure and made an incision from the scrotum down his thigh about eight inches. There wasn’t much fat, not much muscle, either; he stuck his finger into the shattered tissue, felt the artery, felt it pulsing lightly. “It’s just… still mostly intact… oh, no! Clamp!” he shouted. He felt the clamp slap in his left hand and guided it down to the deteriorating artery; he got it on the first try. “Got it! Shit, there’re bone frags everywhere — better call ortho, somebody!”
Tanner stood, looked at the monitors: the kid was holding his own but the screaming in the corridor was getting out of control.
“Mannie! Bring her in here, now!”
“You sure, man!”
“Bring her in!”
A black woman, maybe twenty-five, maybe thirty, thundered into the room; she shuddered to a stop when she saw her baby boy. She started wailing big time when his reality slapped her in the face.
“Ma’am,” Tanner said gently, “I need you to be quiet, and I want you to listen to me, alright?!”
The woman struggled to control herself.
“Ma’am, I need you to listen to me…okay?”
She calmed noticeably when she looked at Tanner, as if she took comfort from the strength behind his voice.
“Awright, doctor, I’m listenin’.”
“We’ve got a lot of the bleeding under control. Your boy’s stable right now. Now, do you believe in God?”
“Yessir, doctor, I sure do.”
“Alright. I want you to go to the chapel with Officer Hernandez and get down on your knees and start prayin’! You here me? You stop prayin’ when I come and tell you too. You hear me! Your boy needs you to do that, okay?”
“Yessir,” she said. “Thank you, doctor.” She had somewhere to focus her strength now, and backed quietly from the room.
In the sudden quiet, Tanner hoped, things would go smoothly, then maybe things would start looking good…and prayer sure wasn’t going to hurt anything right about now.
The man was huge. His bald head just barely cleared the automatic sliding doors when they slid opened for him, and he must have weighed three hundred and fifty pounds. His black skin glistened with sweat; he was wearing ragged denim overalls and old work-boots caked with dried mud, and nothing else: his bare chest appeared to be solid muscle, his arms too. He was looking for his step-son; the kid had taken twenty dollars from his wallet and that had, apparently, been the last straw…because he’d felt something inside snap and give way after that…
He saw his wife standing outside a little chapel, a cop between him and her. He took out the pistol in his overalls and aimed, shot once at the cop. The noise was overwhelming in the closed corridor; people started screaming and running for cover, interns ducked behind counters while the cop fell over, slid down to the floor, blood coming from his mouth and nose.
The woman turned, saw her husband and ran into the trauma room, tried to hide from him there.
The man followed her, walked into the trauma room, saw his wife hiding behind a doctor…or was the doctor trying to shield her, protect her…he couldn’t tell…but really, it didn’t matter now…
He fired once, then again and again, his eyes burning pyres of blind fury.
Nurses and doctors flattened against the wall, tried to get out of the line of fire, then they heard another gunshot, this time from behind the man, then another and another. Brain was exposed on the left side of the big man’s head as he stared into the darkness, his eyes lifeless now, the fires all burnt out of them as he fell away.
Doug Tanner lay on the floor, bleeding; he saw Mannie across the room on the floor, blood pooling under his head; he tried to move, to help him — but he couldn’t. The world grew light and distant, and as he felt himself falling into cold light he wondered what came next.
He woke up, recognized an ICU nurse and wanted to ask her what she was doing in the ER. He tried to talk but couldn’t, tried to swallow but again he simply could not. He felt a wave of panic, knew he was the patient but had no idea how he’d gotten here. Then a nurse was overhead, looking down at him…
“Doug? Doug, you were shot, down in the ER. Neck wound. There’s a drain in now; that’s why you can’t talk…”
He heard her talking, heard her say something about his mouth and tape and everything was going to be fine… and then he felt himself drifting off again…
He felt his head lifting, heard a motor whirring away under the bed; he opened his eyes, saw doctors looking at his neck and talking. The room was dark, but he could tell the curtains were drawn and only faint sunlight was seeping through. Wind and rain were pelting the glass, and for some reason that just didn’t make any sense at all.
“Oh, hey Doug. You awake enough to talk?” one of the doctors said.
“Yeah,” he croaked. His throat hurt like hell.
“Good! The vocal cords are fine! I think we can take out the drain, Bill.” Tanner ignored them…
…because he saw Macy behind them; she looked anxious and moved close when the doctors left a moment later. He watched as she started crying, as she began shaking uncontrollably. He reached out and took her hand. “How are you doing,” he asked her.
“How am I doing? Me? Oh God, Doug!” He felt her head on his chest, smelled her hair, felt her body shake as tears convulsed…
He felt Macy stand, saw her turn and look at the cop as he wheeled in.
“Hey, amigo, brought you some donuts…”
“Right!” He looked at Mannie, then at Macy: “Try and save me at least one, will you Macy. That man is a donut fiend. He’ll snatch ‘em right off your plate…right out of your mouth, even…”
Everyone laughed at that, even if the truth did hurt a little.
“What about the kid, Mannie? Did he make it?”
“Yeah, sure did, his mom too.”
Doug Tanner smiled when he heard that, but Mannie decided against telling him about the two nurses who hadn’t made it. He’d hear about it all that soon enough.
A year later the economy was rebounding and Macy was flying again. She wanted to try the whole baby thing again too, only this time with Tanner, and despite all the very real risks she’d face he’d agreed. Maybe because he understood her better now, her strengths and hopes and dreams, and beyond the love he felt for her there was a fair measure of respect. Motherhood was a force of nature, after all, yet he also had grown very protective of her, though for a while he assumed that went along with the whole fatherhood thing…
“You know,” he told her one evening, “all those pressurization cycles can’t be good for you.”
“Is there anything about it in your textbooks?”
“Rudimentary stuff, kiddo, like limit flying after six months. I can’t find squat about ectopic risks, but it just feels wrong to me.”
“Wrong? Like how?”
“Like it scares me.”
“Scares you? Now that I did not expect.”
“Macy, there’s no certainty here…I mean the odds are you’ll have a normal pregnancy, but…”
“Doug, show me anything concerning pregnancy and childbirth that’s risk free…!”
“Okay, point taken, but…”
“There are no buts, Doug. Either I carry to term…”
“Or you don’t.”
She saw the look in his eyes, knew what he felt. He was scared of losing her for good this time, that she’d bleed out and there’d be nothing he could do to save her. Everything had happened so fast, and once the bleed had begun in earnest she’d literally almost run out the clock. It had been that close, but he’d always kept that part of the story from her and she had begun to wonder why.
“I wonder if it means something, ya know?” she said as she looked at him.
“Like…maybe I’m not supposed to have children.”
This was terra incognita for her, and the sudden change he saw was startling. “What makes you say that, Mace?”
“Just a feeling, I guess. Lurking around somewhere. Like in the shadows, maybe.”
“We could adopt, ya know?”
She looked away, wiped a tear as sudden implications washed over her doubt. “Or I could just keep flying, Doug. Stay on the pill and just work away the years.”
He shook his head. “That’s not a real option, Macy. Not if being a mom means that much to you.”
“What about you, Doug? What does it mean to you?”
“I just don’t want anything to happen to you, Mace. I guess I have a hard time seeing past that.”
She shook her head. “That’s not good enough, Doug. If you don’t want this at least as much as I do, I can’t see this ending well.”
She seemed distant after that conversation, and one evening about a week later—when he returned to the boat after work—he found she’d taken all her belongings and had simply gone. She left behind not one thing, not even a note of explanation. He learned some time later that she’d moved to Chicago and was flying out of O’Hare and as unpredictable as her actions might have seemed at the time, for some reason a part of him understood. She’d decided he probably wasn’t good father material because he’d always been too wrapped up in work, and he thought that maybe it really was like his own father had told him once upon a time: he was too focused on dealing with other people’s problems to ever take care of his own.
So, maybe his old man had been right all along; maybe he’d always been that way? Who knows…maybe he’d always be too self-absorbed, but what if this was the price he’d have to pay to see into other people so clearly…?
He began to see patterns in the chaos. Simple things, like violent crime increased when times were tough. That Thursday nights were the worst because that was the day before payday and family arguments almost always revolved around money. He talked to Mannie about these things, too. Like…did violent crime increase around the time of the full moon? Turns out it did, yet that was almost counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t crime go up when the moon was dark?
Tanner began compiling statistics after that. His curiosity engaged now, he’d wrap up each shift by going over the socio-economic backgrounds of his patients, and he soon began to see into these events with new insight. The poorer you were the more likely you were to be shot or stabbed. Same if you were African American, except you were much more likely to die in the ER if you were black. Affluent white girls were most often seen in the ER for drug overdoses and attempted suicide. Most white people, generally speaking, ended up in the ER after being in an automobile accident or having a heart attack, while most blacks involved in auto accidents were pedestrians run down at night. At first he looked at some of these conclusions suspiciously, like there were racist undertones in these findings—but then he had to shake that off because raw numbers tell a truth all their own.
But one of these sets of numbers got to him. That blacks died violently, and their rates of survival just didn’t compare to the rates of other groups. So he began to focus his attention there, among the survival rates of ER patients by race. And within weeks new patterns emerged.
If you were white, you were ten times more likely to make it out of the ER than if you were black—and that held true even after accounting for the severity of the initial injury. ‘But I’m not a racist!’ Tanner told himself after going over his latest round of statistics. ‘But what if I start keeping track of deaths per physician? What will that tell me?’
And the result was so obvious his stomach turned. The rate was the same for every doc on the floor.
‘No more,’ he told himself. ‘No good can come from this.’
Instead he resolved to watch his residents more closely, and what he found then was almost equally upsetting. White kids with bad lacerations received careful suturing, while the work done on black kids was barely adequate, so he made an attempt to get to know the residents better, see if he could better understand why this was happening.
Yet he couldn’t detect any overt racism after he talked with the physicians he worked with. So was this, he wondered, an unconscious process? And if that was the case wasn’t he looking at something systemic, something beyond easy homespun remedies. And now thoroughly unsettled after trying to deal with these revelations he found himself consciously drawn to caring for the poorest of the poor, to the completely marginalized and the destitute. And, by and large, these were almost always black people—and that realization sickened him. Could it be that, fifteen years into the twenty-first century, we were still dealing with the aftereffects of slavery and the institutionalized racism of the Old South?
He remembered his father talking about his experiences of the summer of ‘67, when America’s post Civil War legacy of institutionalized unemployment, abusive policing, and poor housing all came to a head. Race riots broke out all over the country starting in May, with huge, pitched battles taking place in Newark and Detroit by July. Things seemed to settle down after those convulsions, at least until Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were gunned down. But then Richard Nixon won the election in ‘68 and everything started to go downhill after that. Fast, too.
His father had just finished the second year of his general surgical residency in May ‘67 when he received notice of his eligibility to be drafted, so after a brief discussion with members of his local draft board he’d opted to go into the Navy. As a surgeon, he reasoned, he’d sit out his “enlistment” in Hawaii or more likely San Diego, and after a few years working on his suntan he’d muster out and resume his post-doctoral education. Probably in LA, or maybe even Hawaii. It would be…fun.
Except things hadn’t worked out that way.
After a quick detour through an abbreviated officer’s training program his father landed in Hue City about two months before the Tet offensive kicked the war in Vietnam into overdrive, and he spent the first year of his war at a battalion aid station just north of Hue City; the second he spent on aircraft carriers working off the South Vietnamese coast, at Dixie Station. And at one point Doug Tanner learned there was no amount of liquor he could get into his old man that would loosen him up enough to talk about what he’d experienced over there. After just one attempt his mother warned him off.
But his mother was gone now, though his father was still alive. He’d been living, alone, in the same house in Rockport he’d purchased when he came back from Vietnam. And even that was odd, too, because his father never left the Navy; he did his twenty then managed to keep practicing until failing eyesight finally turned the clock past midnight. Now the old house stood like a monument to the war between a father and his son, a never-ending series of skirmishes and retreats that signified nothing much beyond stubbornness and injured pride.
So, the one constant between Doug and his father was a distance that could never be bridged, and that constant still held true. They didn’t call one another, neither did they write. The last time Doug had seen his father was at his mother’s funeral, and they said not a word to each other; Doug assumed that was the way things would end between them.
And then his sister Meghan called one evening, about a year after Macy left.
“I’ve moved in with Dad,” she told Tanner. “He can’t see much now and the neighbors have had to call the police a couple of times.”
“Because he can’t see?”
“No, Doofus. He walks out into the middle of the street. Marjorie says it’s like he wants to get run over.”
“Are you ever going to stop calling me Doofus?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because I’m your big brother and I can still outrun you.”
“In your dreams, Doofus.”
“So, you moved back into your old bedroom?”
“What’s that like?”
“Weird. No dust, anywhere. Clean sheets and towels.”
“Pure Navy,” Doug sighed. “Some things’ll never change.”
“He’s changing, Doug, and fast.”
“Oh? What’s up?”
“He’s not, for one thing. I never saw him playing the depressed old man, but he’s working the role for all it’s worth right now.”
“Doug, I know you two never saw eye to eye, but I think it’s time you came home and broke bread. I think you’re running out of time, if you know what I mean.”
“Can you pick me up at Portland?”
Sure she could. Which was why Tanner happened to be on a flight from Miami to Maine two days later. Which was when he bumped into Macy Beresford.
Isn’t life strange? The way the unexpected slips up from behind and taps you on the shoulder?
Meghan watched her brother as he stepped out of the terminal and into the driving snow, still dressed like he was headed out to dinner in Miami Beach. Then she saw he had brought one small duffel and knew he wasn’t planning on staying long, so she felt let down. Again. Which was nothing new between them. She tooted the horn and he looked through the ripping snow until he saw her, then he bent into the gale and made for her ancient Honda, wondering for the millionth time why on earth anyone would voluntarily choose to live in Maine.
She reached over and unlocked the door just as he reached for the handle, and he crawled inside after he tossed his bag into the back seat. She watched as he buckled in then slipped into the light stream of traffic, heading back to the interstate. “Bring anything warm?” she asked.
“As long as no one threw out my old stuff I should have a coat or two.”
“What? You haven’t gained any weight since high school?” she asked.
And he shook his head. “Doubtful. Might have lost a few, but I don’t really spend a lot of time on the scales.”
‘Ah’, she thought, ‘the first subtle dig of the spur.’ Meghan had struggled with weight all her life and now probably weighed fifty pounds more than she had as a senior in high school. “How long can you stay?”
“Until I get a handle on things.”
‘The second attack, and so fast! Big brother rides in to save the day. Again — because I’m so incompetent!’ She shook her head. “You wanna stop off at Bean’s for some gloves?”
But he just shook his head. “Who is he seeing locally?” he asked.
“Peterson. You remember him?”
“Yup. You’ve talked to him, I assume?”
“No, I haven’t, Doug. Dad told everyone at the clinic not to talk to us.”
“Isn’t that special,” Tanner sighed. “Any idea why?”
“Other than hating me and not trusting you? No, nothing else comes to mind.”
“Okay. So, tell me about you. What’s going on?”
“Still teaching in Camden. No change.”
“New partner, anything like that going on?”
“No,” she snarled. “What about you?”
He leaned back for a minute then exhaled. “Had a close call a couple of years ago, lasted a year. I hadn’t seen her in ages but she turned up on my flight.”
“No shit? What was that like?”
“She was one of the flight attendants. She’s married now, sounded happy. It was good to touch bases.”
“Yeah. Call it closure. Watch it…that’s black ice up there…”
“You wanna drive, smart-ass?”
“Nope. Take my word for it, I haven’t driven on snow in ten years.”
“So, you think dementia’s set in, something like that’s going on with him?”
“Not my area of expertise, Doug.”
“Okay, so…what if it is? You thought much about that?”
“Doug, whatever you might remember about him, well, he’s gotten really mean.”
“Meaner than he was?”
“And you moved in with him?”
“He’s my father, Doug. Yours too, I seem to recall.”
He turned and looked out the window, lost in thought. How many times had he taken this same route, from Rockport to Portland. A thousand times if it was one, and even the trees looked unchanged. He looked out in the general direction of the sea as they crossed the bridge in Bath, then she pulled into the big Irving station outside of Damariscotta and he filled up her tank.
She thanked him but she finished the drive in an old, familiar silence, a silence that seemed have found them all too easily. Maybe like fighters who had retired to their respective corners to plaster an old wound or two, wounds that had suddenly come undone. Not exactly unexpected but certainly not welcome.
After winding their way through Rockport, Meghan turned on Winter Street and then into the driveway to her father’s house. To the house she could never bring herself to call home. Her brother watched her for a moment — in that way physicians’ often do. Visually taking a measure of a patient’s response to subtle questioning on the way to a working diagnosis…taking a measure of the moment. He saw the pounding vein in her right temporal region, took note of the twitch under her eye and the sudden shaking hands.
“You okay, kiddo?” he asked.
And she shook her head. “No, not in the least. I’m afraid what you two are going to do to each other.”
He nodded, but all the same he reached over and took her hand in his. “If it gets too bad, just tell me to back off, okay?”
She kept nodding, then she started slowly shaking her head. “I don’t feel right, Doug. Something’s not right.”
He came around and opened her door, noted there was already about six inches of snow on the ground and that it was coming down hard now. He helped Meghan stand and just held onto her for a while, and she melted into him more than he’d imagined she might. When she was ready they turned to face the music and began walking up the old brick walk to the front porch. And when he saw the front door was open about an inch, he too began to feel something was off.
“Stay here,” he said to his sister, then he stepped into the entry.
His father was sitting in his favorite chair by the fireplace, and the fire was still burning nicely, casting shadows enough to just make out the devastating self-inflicted gunshot wound in the flickering light. His father’s old Commander Model 1911 Colt had fallen to his lap, and Doug walked over to him and out of stony habit he felt for a pulse. The top half of his father’s face was gone now, but that oh-so-familiar skin of his was still warm. Probably the fireplace, he thought as he walked over to the phone and dialed 911.
“Can I come in now,” Meghan called out.
“No, not just yet,” Doug Tanner said carefully. “Give me a minute.”
Realtors were already circling the house like sharks, leaving business cards with their practiced notes of condolence. His father’s affairs were in perfect order, naturally, and he’d left everything to his two children—again, naturally. And he’d passed a wealthy man, leaving his kids an estate worth something on the north side of five million dollars, give or take market valuations. Tanner read through his father’s chart at the clinic, saw the inoperable glioblastoma diagnosis entered after an MRI completed a week before his death, and it all fell into place right then and there. His father knew the score and he’d decided that was one road he didn’t want to take. Only now…there were so many things he wanted to talk to his dad about, and that lack of closure hurt. That, and his old man hadn’t even wanted to say goodbye, to either of them. ‘How true to form,’ he sighed.
Meghan wanted nothing to do with the house, nothing to do with her father’s money, so Tanner did what he thought best. He transferred everything to a trust, because one day his sister would come back to life and he wanted things to be ready for her. He called a friend from high school, a contractor now who had a decent reputation, to go over the house with a practiced eye, so Tanner could keep everything in good repair. And once all the paperwork was out of the way he took his sister with him back to Florida, away from all the cold and death and the never-ending babble about taxes and what to do next.
She stopped eating for a while, but then he took her sailing—over to the Bahamas—for two weeks. She swam and ate conch fritters and he fixed her strong drinks full of potent rum and she finally started to come back to him, to life. She’d let herself go long before, of course, and the road back wouldn’t be easy, but it was his place to do these things now. Because it was a road he’d have to take with her to see it done right.
But of course he went back to work and work pulled him in deeper and deeper with each passing shift and soon enough he saw Meghan falling into the same kind of despair she always had. Their father had abandoned them to work, left their mother to assume all the duties of parenthood, and that was a role so unfamiliar to her that she had been doomed to fail from the beginning. Good teachers and a caring neighborhood had helped carry the load for a while, but in the end their mother ate her way out of her misery until an early heart attack took her away, but the damage had by then been well and truly done. Yet Doug escaped this benign neglect, while Meghan had been buried under the weight of their helpless mother’s simmering frustrations. Even so, Doug had long ago concluded that his father was the real villain of their story.
Another year down.
Meghan in graduate school, back in Maine and living in the Old Man’s house.
Tanner still alone. Still working ‘eight days a week.’ SSDD, as in Same Shit Different Day. His last year of residency, when big choices loomed, the year major change became unavoidable. Questions like where to start a practice, but little ones trailed along, too, like ‘do I fix the transmission again or break down and finally buy a new car?’ Or: he almost liked Miami Beach but in the end he really disliked Florida, especially the endlessly oppressive humidity. He liked living on the boat but he was waging a constant battle against mold and mildew. He wanted a dog and a yard and yeah, he wanted a wife and kids—yet the boat might not be the best way to go about doing that, ya know?
And when those thoughts came on hard and fast it always seemed like a fresh parade of broken dreams would come in through the ERs doors to remind him of all the hazards ahead. Another mangled marriage, more blood on the gurney, another gunshot wounds to the groin only one way furious resolutions were arrived at. Another overdose, or do we call it what it really is? Suicide, without the courage to face the pain? Or was that one a cry for help? Or, God forbid, a real accident? How many good people chased the dream only to find that it wasn’t in the cards. Not for them, anyway. Bad choices seemed to develop a momentum all their own, and the courts and the prisons were ready and willing to change that course for you, once you were discharged from the hospital, that is. Then all your bad choices turned into a cyclone of penal servitude and mounting court imposed debt. And don’t forget you still owe the hospital about a hundred grand for pumping your stomach.
And then it hit him one day. Was that what the realization his Old Man had run into, once upon a time all his own? Was that why so many of his colleagues in ‘Nam ended up in dermatology or cosmetic surgery after the war spit them out? Burned out before they could even finish their training? He’d seen as much already, of course. As in peers switching from general surgery to something a little less…stressful? Like after a really bad experience, some even going back to med school…only now to teach?
And he was in his thirties now. Highly trained, certainly, but adrift. The hospital might offer him a position on staff, but then what? Just slip into the grind and watch the years drift by until things went from “maybe tomorrow” to half-past too late? He could, theoretically, even join the Navy—but every time he thought of that he saw his father in his chair with the top of his head blown away—because, in the end, would the outcome really be so different? He was his father’s son after all…
But ‘like particles’ tend to repel unless acted upon by external forces, right? Just as ‘opposites’ attract? So, had Macy been his opposite, or more similar that that? He’d seen her as an opposite, so what had torn them apart? He’d been more than willing to commit to her, but less so when it came to risking her life to try for a baby again? Had that been the difference? And if so, could such a union ever endure?
And every time he asked that question he saw his mother’s broken body laying on a cold slab at the funeral home.
His father’s son, indeed.
Tanner chose the easy way out. He accepted a position on staff. He had the boat hauled and slapped a new coat of bottom paint on her hull. He sold the old Beemer and remembered his father’s admonishment that physicians should drive Buicks, not fancy German sports cars. And maybe that was why he picked up a new 911, because he could now so why not?
The hospital parked him in a surgical practice with a dozen other cutters; no more ‘eight days a week’ but regular office hours. On-call duty one night every two weeks and one weekend every two months. Nights free unless something really off-the-charts happened, like a major pile-up on the freeway. He started going out with old friends, and he made new friends too, and it didn’t take long for the inevitable. He was like red meat now, after all.
Her name was Sandy. Sandra McClellan.
She had long red hair and deep green eyes, and she knew exactly what she was looking for in a man. When she met Tanner she latched onto him before he knew what had hit him. She took him to meet her family at one of the local country clubs and “See, you fit right in, don’t you?” was the first thing she said. And in a way he began to see through her in that moment, but attraction and love are not at all the same thing. And twelve years of self imposed academic exile had made a blind man of Douglas Tanner, MD.
“Do you always smile like that?” her father Rupert McClellan asked the first time they met.
“I don’t know, but I’ve been watching and you always seem to be grinning like a fool. I don’t know what to make of that, do you?”
And because it wasn’t, really, the first time someone had mentioned his smile he tried to brush aside the comment. Besides, his smile really wasn’t exactly a conscious thing, it was just that it tended to put patients at-ease and so it had, in a way, become one of the tools of his trade. “Maybe I started smiling more when I began to deal with patients.”
“You mean you started smiling like that when you went into residency?”
And he had to stop and think about it, because that wasn’t exactly the truth, was it? No, he’d been smiling all his life, so much so that even his father dropped a few snide comments along the way.
“Well, I guess maybe I’ve been smiling since I was in grade school. I’m sorry, I didn’t ever think it was that big a deal, certainly not enough to bug someone.”
“I don’t trust people who smile all the time,” the 300 pound politically connected stock broker said just before he downed another scotch and water.
Tanner smiled. “Gee, I never thought of it that way,” he said to the hulk as he turned and walked away.
And looking back a few years later, that moment summed up his 8 month marriage to Sandra McClellan. He’d begun to really see through her a few months too late, and Tanner began to think of her father’s bullshit as just a dodge for his own endless scams. Keep people off guard, never let them see the big picture – never let ‘em see you coming. And who knows, maybe it worked. It didn’t take too long to see that her plan all along had been to file for a quickie divorce and fleece him for all he was worth. She was her father’s daughter, after all…
Too bad he’d put most of his income in a trust, and so well beyond her grasp. Still, he’d bought her a house and sold the boat by then, so she got that much from him.
And yet it was about then that a couple of cutters in his group asked him about doing a volunteer stint with MSF in Ethiopia or Sudan later that year…
“Isn’t that the French group?” he replied. “Doctors Without Borders?”
“Yup. Three or four of us go over every winter; we typically spend about a month there.”
“What’s it like?” Tanner asked. “Primitive, I’d guess?”
“You have the basics,” Beth Gruber said, her matter-of-fact expression open and honest, “but if you get sent away from the main hospitals, living conditions can get pretty basic.”
“What kinds of cases to you see?”
“‘Bout the same as here. Hot bellies and lots of gunshot wounds.”
“You mean…like street gangs?”
“Warlords and the usual cartels. Everything from drugs to spices.”
“So…you mean like open warfare, right?”
“Not in the modern sense. No airstrikes, no napalm, none of that stuff. Small arms fire and land mines are the usual modes. Lot of kids caught in the crossfire, too, and lots of amputations from landmines.”
“Sweet Jesus,” Tanner muttered under his breath. “Sounds like a lot of broken hearts, if you ask me.”
“It’s worse when there’s no one around to help,” Gruber added, looking him over. “So, you tell me. What’s worse, broken hearts—or the total despair of no medical care?”
“Is that why you do it?” he asked Gruber.
“Why I do it isn’t really the question, Doug. You’re pretty good at this stuff and your time would be appreciated, and that’s really about all there is to it. The question is, to put it bluntly, are you in or not?”
He’d looked away then, but after a moment he nodded: “Let me look into it and I’ll let you know.”
“Why don’t you join us for dinner? The four of us going this year are meeting up this Saturday at my place. Bring your questions and we’ll hash ‘em out, okay?”
Which was how Doug Tanner found himself at Washington Dulles International Airport two months later, in August, boarding an Ethiopian Airlines 787 Dreamliner bound for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Beth Gruber and Jenny Peterson, two surgeons from his practice, were flying over with him, but only Peterson was going with him all the way to the teaching hospital in Gondar, located in southwest Ethiopia. Gruber was headed to a refugee camp near the border between Eritrea and the Tigray region of northwest Ethiopia, and as this was an area of incipient guerrilla activity and ongoing political instability, only more experienced physicians were allowed in that region.
When their flight was called he walked down the Jetway behind Gruber and Peterson, queuing up just outside the forward door, and then he caught a glimpse of the the flight attendants. All black women. And as he’d never seen anything like that before it caught him off guard. And then, once he entered the cabin he looked into the cockpit—and saw two black men, and once again he felt a little flutter of disorientation…as in…‘what the fuck am I doing here?’
He’d booked a ticket in business class, much to the disappointment of his traveling companions, and when his flight attendant brought him French Champagne he felt a little stir of resentment, like what the Hell is this African woman doing serving me—ME!—Champagne?
And then he thought of all the disparities he’d seen in the ER, the second rate care, the veiled racial disparities, and he held up that glass of Champagne and looked at it for the longest time before he finally broke down and took a sip. He turned to the window as the Boeing was pushed back from the gate and he saw his reflection in the plastic there so he studied the features in his mind’s eye and compared them to what he really saw there.
‘I’m just another racist,’ he sighed inwardly, ‘despite all my pretensions to the contrary.’ He looked into his eyes, not at all liking what he saw but trying his hardest to accept this simple truth.
‘Okay, so what do I do about it?’ he asked himself as the Boeing turned onto the runway and began its sprint into the evening sky. And then he held his hands up and stared at his fingers for the longest time, knowing that whatever good might come from him would be delivered by these hands.
“Are you alright, sir?”
He turned and looked at his flight attendant and he nodded, then he smiled at the woman. “Yes, I think so. I was just lost in thought…”
“You look troubled,” the woman added.
He sighed while he nodded once again. “I’m off to Gondar to work in the hospital there. It’s my first time.”
“Médecins Sans Frontières?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s right.”
“My brother is in medical school, in Paris,” she said, smiling politely.
“Small world,” Tanner sighed with a shrug.
She weighed his words against the measure of her own experience, though she smiled once again. “Let me know if I may bring you something?” she added as she turned and walked forward to the galley.
Flying from the sun now, darkness enveloped the Boeing as it streaked through the remains of the day, and all the while Doug Tanner wondered what revelations the next day would bring.
The jet touched down lightly and slowed in time to make the first turn out, and he was surprised once again by the terminal he saw as the jet taxied to the gate. Maybe he’d been expecting thatched roofs and dusty old Land Rovers waiting under shade trees in a sandy parking lot, but what he saw now was a modern airport that might have looked right at home in any large US city. Black glass and polished aluminum and a few dozen jumbo jets greeted him and yet one more time he was left to confront the reality of his skewed perceptions.
When he walked off the Boeing he smiled at his flight attendant yet was a little surprised at her reaction. She seemed almost annoyed, and he wondered if his doubts were really so readily apparent? Some people wore their racism on their sleeve, like right out there in the open, while others were more practiced at concealing such feelings of hate. Which one was he, he wondered?
He waited for Beth and Jenny outside the Jetway, then they walked down to customs together, and after they cleared, they collected their luggage before heading on to their connecting flights. It was only a 250 mile flight on to Gondar, while Beth had a 350 mile flight up to Aksum, near the border with Eritrea, but he was surprised when they learned they were all on the same outbound flight. He and Jenny would deplane in Gondar, while Beth would remain onboard for the last leg of the flight.
They boarded a new Dash-8 Q400 this time, and now he hardly gave the matter of who was flying a second thought. Once they were in the air he wondered if it was only a matter of being in a new environment. Had that made him question his values and assumptions? He sat just ahead of the massive engine with its huge scythe-like propellor, looking at the semi-arid landscape below, and Jenny pointed out a few sights along the way…
“How many times have you been over here?” he asked.
“Oh, I come to Gondar a couple of times a year, but I prefer Aksum, really. Aksum is, I think you could say, more like being on the front lines of the war zone while Gondar is safe and secure.”
“What do you mean, like a war zone? Is it really that bad up there?”
“Oh, sure, it can be, but what’s most difficult to wrap your head around is that many of these regions were occupied by the Italians in the 20s and 30s, and that set in motion all kinds of animosities. Not to mention you can get a really good lasagna out in the middle of nowheresville. It takes a while to get used to all the changes, I guess.”
“Will Beth be safe up there?”
“Beth? Oh, no worries there; she was born for this stuff. Everyone knows who she is, and I guess everyone loves her. She doesn’t pick sides, doesn’t judge people. She just fixes ‘em up, no questions asked.”
“What do you do here?”
“In Gondar? I usually spend mornings in the OR, afternoons at the medical school.”
“So, you teach? What about the language barrier?”
“It’s not that big a deal, and I help students in their clinical rotations. Kind of a general introduction to surgery. I doubt you’ll have time for much of that this trip. They’ll be looking you over pretty good, by the way. If they like you, you’ll be invited back, then you’ll ease into teaching.”
“I didn’t really come to teach, I guess.”
“Oh, don’t worry. You’ll be busy either way, and as long as you’re cool the residents and surgeons will work with you.”
“You seem pretty uptight so far, Doug. You’ve got to keep in mind this isn’t America. You’re the visitor, the outsider here. And you’re never really going to ‘fit in’ over here, so try to think of yourself more like not trying to stand out so much. Do your job and you won’t have to try to make friends. Friendship will come naturally unless you push these people away. And, oh, you can’t pretend here so just let go of all your preconceptions…”
“Let go? How do you do that?”
“Don’t think things through so much, and maybe just kind of follow your heart. We’ll be at the MSF compound and most of your time there you’ll either be asleep — or trying to get some sleep. The rest of the time you’ll be in the OR, so just go with the flow.”
“Funny, I was expecting…”
“Oh, don’t worry. Shit comes up all the time. One day you be in a helicopter going out into the bush and the next you may be in the OR all day. You just never can tell, but you’ll never get into a rut while you’re here. Oh, and tomorrow is just a jet lag recovery day, so I’ll show you around town.”
He didn’t know what to say so he just nodded and looked away; a few minutes later the wallowing turboprop was fighting a stiff crosswind to line-up and land in Gondar—and the enormity of what he’d signed up for began to fill him with dread. There’d be no Mannie from the police department looking out for him here, and there’d be no cocoon-like boat to run home to after a tough day. No…everything was going to be new — and relentlessly unfamiliar, so there’d be no comfort zone to fall back on, no safe haven, only a compound where he might find some cheap sleep and maybe something to eat.
So why had he come here? Why had he signed up for this? To confront some unknown inner demons, or simply to run away from Sandy Collins and all her broken dreams? Or maybe he’d wanted to impress the other surgeons in his group – by showing his willingness to play their game on his terms? Maybe all of the above? Or…was it none? Like…was he still running from his father?
The airplane suddenly dipped and wallowed and dropped so hard and fast that his seat belt dug into his thighs so hard he cried out, then the power came on and the Q400 was climbing again, back up into the clouds, and for a moment all his petty otherworldly concerns seemed to wilt away. Suddenly it felt like a more immediate death had come out of nowhere and now seemed to be calling his name. The cabin grew dark as it entered the clouds, and cold air sprayed little droplets of water out the overhead vents. Lightning arced seemingly just outside his window and when the aircraft lurched and dropped again Jenny instinctively grabbed his hand, and suddenly human skin on his own felt good. More than good, really. It was galvanic and comforting…
Three more steep, banking turns and then Tanner saw runway lights in the distance, the Q400 was still yawing wildly as the pilots battled the stormy air, then everything disappeared in blinding rain and impossible darkness. Jenny’s grasp was now so fiercely tight his own fingers felt like they were bending under the pressure and he turned to her and smiled when her eyes met his.
“Aren’t you scared?” she cried out over the frantically revving turboprops.
“Nah, just another day at the office,” he sighed, holding her in his eyes with his smile.
And that did it. She relaxed as she basked in the warmth of his smile and he felt her hands ease a bit, and maybe even the storm felt his warmth and decided to let up for a while—because just then the Q400 popped out into bright sunlight and the ferocious turbulence eased. The pilots coaxed their beast down to the earth again and everyone in the cabin burst out in cheers and wild applause. But Jenny’s eyes never left his.
“Is the weather around here always so sedate?” he asked Jenny, and she started laughing so hard that Beth, just across the aisle from them, looked at her like she was a nut case. Then she saw Jenny’s hand still clutching Tanner’s, so she looked away to hide her smile. Like any surgeon, Beth Gruber liked clarity, and something new had been born in the sky that afternoon.
Tanner had gone to medical school in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins, and while the area surrounding the campus wasn’t considered a ghetto, there were areas not so far away that easily qualified as such. And they were, by and large, areas consigned to the poorest of the poor, in other words, consigned to members of the African-American community. Boarded-up windows spray-painted with gang related graffiti could be seen almost everywhere you looked, and as none of the homes were air conditioned heat related illness was a standard fixture of life there. Many homes were burnt-out shells, and destitute people wandered the streets at all hours of the day or night, while drug dealers owned the streets after the sun went down.
So he’d almost expected Gondar to look like the Baltimore of his memories. But now, driving into town, he no longer knew what to expect. They passed through distinct neighborhoods, each imbued with distinctive characteristics and he mentioned this to Jenny as they approached the medical school.
“Don’t think of Ethiopia as a homogeneous state,” she said. “Neighborhoods tend to reflect well defined divisions within the country, and these, in general, reflect very old tribal divisions. Other divisions tend to be ethnic or religious.”
“What about crime? Like street crime?”
“It’s probably safer than you think, but don’t be naïve.”
She sighed. “Did you notice how lax security was when we arrived?”
“Well, Ethiopian Airlines has one of the largest route networks in the world, and many of their routes flow through areas with rather intense narcotics production. The word is that customs is so lax because literally tons of drugs flow through Addis Ababa, though some of that traffic arrives in-country by overland routes…”
“So you’re saying that drugs are an issue, right?”
“Yes and no. Most people here are socially addicted to khat leaves, and…”
“Khat? What’s that?”
“Almost like coca leaves. It’s a mild stimulant that produces a euphoric buzz if taken in large enough amounts. It’s also legal here, and it is throughout the region, so don’t look down on people who use it—you won’t win over people if you do. And its use goes back literally thousands of years, so consequently what you might call drug use is pretty much limited to that stuff. As to the hard stuff? Well, it’s more like Ethiopia is a major trans-shipment point, and most of the locals aren’t involved.”
“So no gangs…stuff like that?”
“Not much that I’m aware of, at least not as far as drugs are concerned. What you might think of as gangs around here revolves around political and military power structures…”
“You mean, like warlords and such?”
“And these distinct neighborhoods are…”
“You got it. Each neighborhood is vying for political dominance, because that’s where the money is. Political patronage is power, and power is money. Just like it is at home, only more so here. And right now the Chinese have all the money, so they have all the power.”
“The Chinese? What are they doing here?”
“Building railroads right now; I think the biggest project is a line to the coast in Djibouti, ostensibly to help industrialize the region. The main thing is if you run into them, be real nice ‘cause they can cause problems. Got it?”
“We’ll be briefed on local conditions tonight, but just remember your training, and for God’s sake – don’t accept rides from people you don’t know…”
He’d been through the two mandatory orientation sessions—the main topics covered included how to avoid kidnapping situations and what to do if taken hostage, but also helicopter and aircraft procedures. Those sessions had been a real eye-opener, but then he’d gone over the list of vaccines he’d need at least a month before departure and he’d almost changed his mind about the whole thing. As hypocritical as it was, he’d hated shots all his life and if anything he hated them now more than ever…and of course his shoulders had ached for days.
Their ride dropped them at the MSF compound and he carried their bags to their rooms—and that was about the last thing he remembered. A mass casualty event had just occurred and they both ended up pulling thirty hour stints in the overwhelmed and understaffed local ER.
A week later he was sleep-walking from the hospital to the compound, and still wearing scrubs, when a car pulled up alongside; two armed men politely pushed him inside an ancient Fiat 124 and slipped a black nylon hood over his head. No words were spoken, and with nothing else to do Tanner leaned back and took the opportunity to catch up on some sleep. At least he tried to.
The old Fiat bounced and rattled along a deeply rutted muddy track off into the bush, stopping twice to pass impromptu checkpoints along the way, then, after about an hour of this the car stopped in the middle of nowhere and he was helped out. The sun was setting and swarms of mosquitoes were out in force as he was escorted into a very large olive drab colored canvas tent, and he found he was now inside a fairly complete military field hospital, complete with injured soldiers and for all intents and purposes without a doctor. A handful of propane lanterns was lighting the interior and still without any words exchanged he walked over to the most seriously wounded man, an older fellow who appeared to be a rather high ranking member of this cadre, and he looked over two gunshot wounds in his thigh and groin. Another soldier, this one no older than twelve or so, was holding his belly and Tanner soon understood that the kid was keeping his intestines from falling out onto the floor. Both had been sedated with multiple ampules of morphine, which would normally only complicated matters. Yet, with no anesthesiologist on board, morphine would have to do.
He pointed at the surgical lights overhead and shrugged, so someone went outside and started a gas generator; soon he had lights, suction, and a respirator that appeared to be a fairly recent Chinese knock-off of a Byrd Mk IV. He found bottles of saline and iodine prep – all with labels in both Mandarin Chinese and English – as well as sterile IV kits and cut-down sets, so he set about stabilizing the boy before he cleaned up the old man’s gunshot wounds.
He turned to one of the men who appeared to be in charge and asked him about moving the boy to the hospital in Gondar.
“Absolutely no!” the man shouted in halting English.
“I can’t save the boy without the equipment there.”
“Why this so?”
“You understand x-ray? Need x-ray to find things inside, need help to find all the holes in his gut, need to put boy asleep to operate, boy need hospital for maybe month after.”
“Then boy die.”
Guns were produced, Tanner was threatened, but he held his ground.
“Who is the boy’s father?” he asked the man.
“Let’s get him in the car now,” Tanner said, smiling gently. “We are running out of time.”
The father looked at his son then at Tanner, then he fell into the embrace of this stranger’s oddly reassuring smile; his resolve vanished and he called men to help load the boy into the back of a small pickup truck, then they set out through the night.
A week later the local MSF coordinator called him to her office.
“Your ambassador in Addis Ababa apparently has a hot belly and a positive Murphy, and as it seems you’re the best cutter in-country right now to handle a hot gall bladder your embassy has asked that you fly over on the afternoon shuttle to handle the situation.”
“The embassy doc can’t…?”
She shook her head. “You’d better pack a bag for three days.”
“And you’ve got an hour and a half to get to the airport.”
So a driver picked him up and ran him to the compound; he tossed a few things in a duffel before the truck ride out to the airport. It looked like the very same Q400 waiting for him out there on the tarmac, and he smiled just for good measure as the sky was full of towering cumulonimbus clouds. He made it on board a few minutes before the door closed and he buckled in for the ride, looking forward to—hopefully—a good half hour of sleep en route.
The embassy’s chargé met him at the gate and drove him directly to the hospital, explaining the situation as best he could. The local doc wanted to do the case but the ambassador was a full-blown southern racist and he was refusing to let a ‘goddamn African’ physician anywhere near his belly, so nerves at the hospital were already way beyond frayed…
“So, what you’re saying is I shouldn’t step on any toes?”
“That’s about the size of it, yeah.”
“Why the hell is a racist our ambassador over here?”
“No opening in the Ireland, I reckon. These postings are usually nothing more or less than political indulgences.”
“Ain’t that ducky,” Tanner sighed.
The chargé walked him into St. Paulos hospital and took him straight to the ambassador’s room, and as he walked up to the bed a sudden wave of rage descended on Doug Tanner. Because it turned out the new ambassador was none other than his ex-father in law, the oppressively obtuse Rupert McClellan.
So Tanner did his level best not to smile. “Hello, Rupert,” he said as he walked up to the bed. “I hear you’ve managed to insult everyone here. Good for you. Now, is there something I can do for you? Like slit your throat, maybe?”
“Balls! Don’t tell me the grinning fool carries a grudge? Shit, boy, I thought you were made of sterner stuff…”
“How nice it must be to live in a bubble like that.”
“Okay, Doug, enough with the adolescent bullshit. Look, once I heard you were here, well, no one else would do.”
“Have you considered the ethical situation? I mean, other than us hating each other you were my father in law…?”
“Sure I have, but you’re the best man for the job and you’re in-country. And besides, even if I was back in Miami I’d have beat feet straight to your door.”
“For gall stones?”
McClellan sighed before he turned and looked away. “I got a feeling, Doug. Like something real bad is going on down there. That’s why I insisted you come.”
“Okay, Rupert,” Tanner said gently. “I understand.”
“Would you call Sandy when I come out of surgery?”
“Yes, of course. Does the chargé have the number?”
“Yeah. He’ll hook you up.”
Tanner went over the latest chemistries and imaging, and while the CT wasn’t the best he’d ever seen there were a couple of areas that raised alarm bells. Laparoscopy wasn’t an option here which meant a full exploratory procedure was scheduled for later that afternoon, and as soon as he was inside the full scope of Rupert’s premonition became clear. Cancer, in the liver and the bile ducts. Spread to the abdominal nodes noted, then more around the pancreas.
St Paulos was a teaching hospital and the medical school’s head of surgery was nominally in charge of the OR and he concurred with Tanner. There was no need for resection, no need for chemo or radiation. McClellan might live six months, but even that was an optimistic assessment.
Tanner looked at the man under veiled layers of surgical drapes, at the open belly under his hands, and for the first time in his career he felt like crying. There was quite literally nothing he could do to help save this man, but then again Rupert wasn’t just someone off the street. He saw flashes of a wedding and a reception as he stared at the open belly, and he felt once again the anger of his sudden divorce, and standing there in the looming shadow of death he came to terms with the reality that this was no stranger he was talking about, and that yes, he was ethically compromised.
“Do you concur?” he asked the medical school’s head of surgery.
“There is nothing we can do. I would close now.”
“Would you do that for me, please?”
“You know this man, don’t you?”
Tanner nodded. “Not very well, but I thought I knew his daughter — once upon a time.”
“You do not look well.”
“I don’t feel so hot right now,” he sighed, “and I’ve got to call his daughter.”
“Does he have a wife at the embassy?”
“No. Not for a while.”
“Go then, make your calls, and please, come by my office when you have finished. I would like to talk over tea, if you have the time.”
The chargé had Sandy’s new number in Boca Raton and he asked for help placing the call.
“Doug?” she asked when she picked up the phone. “Is that you?”
“Yup. It’s me, the man you loved to hate, once upon a time.”
“How is he?” she asked, ignoring his sarcasm. Again.
“Not good, Sandy.” He explained the procedure and his observations, then he passed along his prognosis and when he heard her tears for some reason he wanted to be with her again, if only to hold her one more time.
“What now?” she asked. “I mean, what’s the next step?”
“He comes home, I assume. He’ll probably want to see an oncologist but at the very least he’ll need home care, then palliative care. It might be prudent to look into hospice options too, I suppose.”
“Oh, Doug, I didn’t imagine anything at all like this.”
“I know, I know,” he sighed. “Look, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks and if there’s anything I can do just let me know.”
She broke down then, told him she’d never wanted a divorce, that she’d filed just to get him to pay more attention to her, that she couldn’t stand his being at work all the time, and he found he almost believed her, but not quite. And it was funny, he thought as he stood there in an Ethiopian hospital, because the more she spoke the more he realized how little he’d ever really known her. And the more he listened the more he regretted not taking the time to get to know her better.
He talked to the chargé as he walked to the ICU after the call to Sandy, and he filled him in on the results, and their implications. Oncology wasn’t an option, he said. Cancerous tissue was everywhere, even in the lymph nodes and pancreas. If it had been limited to the liver and possibly even the bile ducts, a transplant might have been a possible way out, but with spread noted in the pancreas no transplant registry would take him. Chemo was a long shot at best, though it might buy him a few months, and that was all the diplomat needed to know. He’d call Washington with the news and he thanked Tanner before he left.
He made his way to the chief surgeon’s office and straight away the man offered him a job. “Even if you can teach just a month over your summer break it would make a vast difference,” the man pleaded.
He left the offer hanging in the air with an “I’ll think about it,” then he realized it was now quite late and he had nowhere to bunk out.
“You must stay with me and my family tonight,” the old surgeon said, “and I will see you to the airport after you speak with the ambassador in the morning.”
He found he most enjoyed clinic days in Gondar, when he could tend to minor injuries and interact with his patients. He enjoyed listening to stories about their lives, and he smiled when he realized that there really weren’t so many differences between their hopes and his dreams. Because their schedules were similar, Jenny Peterson spent almost all her free time with him, and it wasn’t long before he developed feelings for her, but he felt more like she was a little sister than someone he’d pursue. They took their meals together, they walked among all the medieval castles scattered around town and he watched, bemused, as she photographed quite literally everything from every possible angle. She used a boxy old Hasselblad camera and spent minutes composing each shot, and he wondered why anyone would spend so much time and money on something so trivial. He watched her staring down into the boxy viewfinder and found her vaguely pretentious and ultimately more than a little annoying.
One morning two new docs appeared, both Americans. Patty McKinnon was an internist and Gene Harwell was, like Tanner, a general surgeon. They’d been working in Mexico and had recently completed their MSF training in France; they were slated to work in a new clinic south of Lake Tana. Yet as he watched them he felt there was something troubling about Harwell, something he couldn’t quite put a finger on, but when he mentioned it to Jenny she agreed. “There’s something in his eyes,” she sighed. “Something desperate, almost haunted.”
“See if you can take a picture of him, will you?” He didn’t know why he asked her to do that because Jenny Peterson wasn’t a spy, she wasn’t trained in surreptitious surveillance methods, and even though she asked to take their picture Harwell watched her fiddling with her camera before she fired off a couple of shots of him. Harwell left and made a call after that, just before they departed for their new posting in Zege, on the southern shore of the lake.
Then one morning Beth Gruber appeared, and her arrival marked the end of Tanner’s deployment in Ethiopia, and he had a hard time sifting through the cascade of emotions that washed over him as he made his way to the compound one last time. With their bags packed and teary-eyed promises to return out of the way, he went to the airport with Beth, leaving Jenny there for the time being, as she had two more weeks on her current deployment. He looked around the crenelated stone airport while he waited for his flight to be called, and an hour later he boarded the Q400 for the bumpy flight to Addis Ababa, sitting next to Beth this time. They talked about her experiences near the war zone, and he told her about his kidnapping.
“What happened to the boy?” she asked.
“He’s doing okay, but his gut was a mess. Peritonitis had set in and it took a while to get that under control.”
“You were lucky, Doug. Some docs aren’t released for months, sometimes years.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard, but I reached an understanding with the kid’s father.”
“We had a stare-down. I won.”
She shook her head. “Like I said, you were lucky.”
“No way. It’s all in the smile, Gruber. It’s gotta come from the heart, ya know? Doesn’t matter where you are, either. It’s like a universal language; people can smell insincerity from a mile away, and fear is a weakness to be exploited.”
And when she looked at him he was smiling at her and her heart melted. “Goddam, you sure are cute, ya know? Like a little boy kind of cute, if you know what I mean?”
His smile deepened and he put his hand on hers. “I do, as a matter of fact,” he said, still smiling. “That’s exactly what my mom used to tell me…”
After changing planes in Addis Ababa he found his seat on the Dreamliner for the flight back to Washington-Dulles, and he looked out the window with Gruber by his side this time. She’d upgraded – because she wanted to bask in the warmth of Tanner’s smile for a few more hours. They talked about Jenny and his job offer in Addis Ababa and then about his marriage to Sandy McClellan and her father’s surgery. And so the time passed, but Tanner felt like the time up in the air marked an ending.
A week after their return Tanner and Gruber learned that an attempt had been made on Jenny Peterson’s life while she’d been walking from the compound to the clinic. The attempt appeared ‘targeted’ as opposed to random— or so the embassy said, and that was something that rarely happened to MSF physicians — in Ethiopia or anywhere else in Africa, for that matter.
When he listened to the FBI agent delivering the news the first thing that entered his mind was Gene Harwell, but he decided not to speak up just yet.
Instead, he went to talk with the former ambassador to Ethiopia, who was still recovering from his surgery though now in Miami Beach. Tanner voiced his suspicions about Harwell and Rupert called his former chargé at the embassy; agents were dispatched to Zege, more photographs would be taken and a surveillance operation set up.
A few weeks passed and he’d yet to hear from McClellan, then one evening agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency approached him while he and Gruber were walking to their cars after finishing up for the day.
“You’ll need to come with us,” one of the agents said, pointing to a black Suburban waiting in the parking garage.
“What? Why? What’s going on?” Tanner asked, his voice incredulous and anger welling up inside.
“We’re taking you into protective custody. There are at least to men closing in on you right now, and we need to get you out of here.”
“Closing in?” he asked. “What the devil does that mean?”
“Assassins, Dr. Tanner. As in, two people who’ve been paid a lot of money to kill you.”
Tanner stopped in his tracks. “Does this have something to do with Gene Harwell?” he asked — and when the agent nodded Tanner seemed to accept his fate.
“Doug,” a very confused Beth Gruber asked, “what’s going on? What’s this all about?”
“I’m not sure,” he said, “but we’d better go with them.” He turned to the agent then, suddenly concerned for his sister in Rockport. “I have a sister up in Maine. Will she be safe up there?”
“We have agents on the way, Dr. Tanner.”
Tanner nodded, then he looked at Gruber and sighed before he turned to the black SUV. When he opened the door he found a very frightened Jenny Peterson already in the back seat, and without saying a word she flew into his very surprised arms. Heavily armed agents surrounded the Chevrolet as they were ushered inside, and even though the air conditioner was running full-blast it didn’t take long for the interior to grow thick and stale. Winding through heavy evening traffic, it took a half hour for the little caravan to reach the airport in Opa-locka, and once there the Suburban drove out onto the ramp and right up to a waiting Gulfstream business jet. More armed men formed a cordon and Tanner led Jenny and Beth to the airstairs; they agents boarded quickly and took their seats as the jet’s engines started. Within a minute they taxied to the active runway and took-off.
Once in the air the jet turned almost due north as it climbed out over the Atlantic, and the agent in charge came and sat across from Tanner.
“Harwell is in deep with the cartels,” the agent began, almost out of the blue. “Seems he was helping to distribute product near the end of his time in Texas, but he helped set up a bunch of our agents when his cover was blown. We ended up losing a half dozen undercover operatives because of him, but I’ll say one thing about the cartels. They protect the people who are loyal to them, and they got Harwell to Mexico and then on to France. We’d have lost him for good if you hadn’t…”
“So it was just chance that I thought he looked suspicious?” Tanner growled.
The agent nodded. “These are bad actors, Doc. And like an octopus, they have tentacles everywhere, and I mean everywhere. We moved in on him three days ago and our team was met by a large force, and that only means one thing.”
“They knew you were coming, so they’d already penetrated your operation.”
“That’s our best guess, yeah, but at that point we’d already decided to get Miss Peterson and you two out of harm’s way. We picked up signs that a hit team was setting up on you, and that was that. Washington okayed moving you into Witness Protection.”
“Where are we headed?”
“Upstate New York.”
Wide-eyed now and with events sinking in, Tanner turned and looked out the little jet’s big oval window; they were climbing past the Kennedy Space Center, and a gnawing emptiness began tearing at his gut. Everything he’d every wanted was disappearing behind this jet right now—because of a bunch of fucking druggies, no less—and he felt shattered. Beth was sitting next to Jenny and she turned to the agent: “You said there was a fight?” she asked. “What happened?”
The agent looked away, plainly thinking about what he could and could not tell her, then he shrugged. “Harwell got away. The girl he’d been with for a couple of years, this Doctor McKinnon, was wounded and taken into custody, along with her baby. She was treated in Addis Ababa and arrived at a high security facility in Virginia last night. We really don’t know what to do with her, either, as we’re not sure she’s broken any laws, either here or in Mexico, and besides, she’s not really cooperative right now.”
“So, protective custody…like us?” Gruber asked, then adding: “Do you have any idea where this Harwell is?”
“They fled west, into Sudan. There are active cannabis farms in the region so we assume the cartels may have an ongoing interest…”
“Fucking drugs,” Tanner snarled. “Why does it feel like half the world’s problems boil down to these fucking things…?”
The agent shrugged. “Maybe because that’s about the size of it. The appetite for these products is enormous and the profit margins make it impossible for farmers to justify cultivating typical cash crops. It’s a vicious cycle.”
“Upstate New York?” Beth asked the agent.
“Well, your cover is simple. You three are used to working as a team so we’ve found a town that could use a surgical practice.”
Beth looked at the agent, then quickly at Tanner before she shrugged and looked away. She was still too upset about all this to process the information, and after a full day in the OR she was already too tired to think straight. Now the idea that Mexican goons were after them was almost comical, almost as funny as her living in New York. She was from Ithaca, after all.
The lights dimmed and soon everyone was napping. Everyone but Tanner, anyway. He couldn’t sleep, and he was so upset he could hardly think straight.
The jet made a series of hard turns before it settled on a quiet runway, but as they taxied to the ramp he noted there were no aircraft anywhere in view – just empty ramps and a few deserted buildings. Yet another black Suburban met them at the airstairs and they drove off into the night.
“We’re headed over to Lake Placid,” the lead agent said, smiling.
And when Gruber looked at Tanner she thought he might just spontaneously combust.
The agents took them to what looked like a farm, but the place was actually a compound of sorts, with three houses and several outbuildings, including two barns, one set-up for a small dairy operation and another for horses. “You three will be in the main house over there,” the agent in charge said, and there’ll be at least two agents in the house at all times, at least until we get a handle on the opposition. There are a couple of horses in the barn if anyone wants to go for a ride.”
No one said a word. Beth wanted to mention that they had no clothes with them, and no toiletries, for that matter, but she just shook her head and trudged off to the big house, grumbling as she walked along the lighted bricked walkway.
Tanner turned to the lead agent. “You can’t be serious,” he sighed. “We may work together, but we’re not exactly roommate material, if you know what I mean.”
“Sorry. It’s all we could come up with in the time we had.”
“Do we have new identities, stuff like that…?”
“Yup, and we’ll go over all that in the morning.”
There was a husband and wife team already set up and working in the main house, and they’d furnished the bathrooms with all kinds of stuff. To Tanner’s delight, Mrs. Team Member had baked oatmeal raison cookies and had fresh, ice cold milk ready to go, and that was all he needed for a solid night’s rest.
Beth, on the other hand, loved to cook, and within a week Tanner had decided she was going to make someone a spectacular wife. She cleaned incessantly, cooked up a storm, and did everything around the house but yard-work and laundry. Agents took care of the yard and their laundry, which left Tanner with very little to do around the house. At least two agents went everywhere Tanner, Peterson, and Gruber did, from the clinic to the movie theater. And predictably, within a month Tanner was chafing at the bit, restless, irritable and grumpy. They were slowly setting up their own clinic while the agents went about securing bogus privileges at the two area hospitals, and until that work was complete the physicians had very little to do.
The lead agent, usually in Washington, dropped by the farm a month later and let them know that Harwell had simply disappeared, but then again so had the hit team sent to take them out. “If we don’t locate them soon we may have to move again…”
“What?” Tanner cried.
“Are you hard of hearing or something?”
“Did you say something about moving? Again?”
“Ah. You did hear me.”
“And you are out of your mind. We can’t just bounce around forever.”
“Well, we could let you sit here and wait for them to find you. How does that sound?”
“Are those the only options?”
“Unless you have another idea.”
“Let’s just stay here,” Beth said. “Let them come to us. You guys take them out and we can get back to our lives.”
“I’m not sure that’s the way this works, Doctor Gruber. If they don’t succeed they’ll come at you next time with a larger force.”
“You talk about these guys like they’re in some kind of army,” Tanner sighed.
“Well, in a way they are.”
“So? Why don’t you locate their headquarters and take ‘em out? You know, like in Iraq?”
“Mexico isn’t Iraq, and anyway, I’m not sure we want to invade Mexico, if you catch my drift…?”
Tanner shut up and went back working on the clinic’s computer system. When he returned to the farm that evening they told Jenny about the possibility of moving and she grew quiet, and then she seemed to grow depressed right before his eyes; Tanner shut up after that and was unusually quiet for the next few days.
“What do you miss most?” Beth asked him a couple of nights later, while Jenny was burning their dinner.
And he thought about that for a moment. “I think Gondar, actually. I miss the people there, taking long walks after dinner, the ruins…”
“…and getting kidnapped?”
“I wasn’t in any danger, Beth. Never. Not for a second. I did manage to built a little trust with those people, and that wasn’t such a bad thing.”
“So you’d go back?” Jenny asked as she joined them at the table.
“Tomorrow. Yeah. No doubt in my mind.”
“You mentioned something about a teaching gig in Addis Ababa?” Jenny added.
“Are you thinking of doing it?” she wondered aloud, her eyes growing kind of dreamy.
“I’ve been thinking about it. A lot, really. I guess what it comes down to is I felt like I was finally making a difference over there. Here…it’s always the same old crap, dealing with insurance companies and setting up shell corporations to shield assets from lawyers. Ya know, I went out to dinner with the managing partners not long after they hired me and they took me…”
“Let me guess…to Joe’s Crab Shack,” Beth chimed in, grinning. “Yeah, they take all the new guys there.”
Tanner nodded. “Yeah, but you know the thing that got me was after dinner they all pulled out these massive cigars and lit up, and the whole thing was so fucking pretentious it made me sick. They were all talking shit about women and menopause and…”
“Oh yeah? Like what did they say?”
“Oh, shit like women in menopause are beyond crazy, that they ought to be put out of their misery, how they’re no good for anything, least of all fucking. But there they were, sucking on those damn cigars and I wanted to laugh because it looked like they were sitting around sucking dicks and the whole menopause diatribe was just so fucking out of place, yet they were laughing their asses off the whole time.”
Beth shook her head – but she grinned, too. “I take it you don’t smoke?”
“No, never have.”
“Not even pot?”
“Not even pot. The whole idea of fucking up my lungs really bothers me, always has.”
“Ever do coke or ‘shrooms?”
“Nope. I guess, when you get right down to it, I really don’t want to fuck up my head, either. That, and I’ve always been a wuss about breaking the law…”
“Yeah, I notice you always drive the speed limit. Pretty uptight about it, too.”
“Yup. Always have been.”
“Maybe you ought to let your hair down once in a while, take a walk on the wild side and see if you like it.”
He shook his head. “Liking it isn’t the point. Liking it and being able to pull back…now that’s the place where I might have trouble. But what’s the point, Beth? Get fucked up, but maybe fucking up your life along the way, and for what? A few minutes of being high? Why not just go to Disneyland and ride a roller coaster?”
“Have you done much of that stuff?” he asked.
“Oh yeah, between the shit I did in high school and then in college I did just about everything, everything but acid, anyway. Always wanted to to try that, too, but never ran into anyone…”
“Jesus, really? You don’t strike me as the type.”
“Oh, I had a couple of rough experiences but managed to pull myself out of the spiral, but in a way I kinda envy you, Doug. Sometimes I wish I hadn’t gone down that road.”
“Shit, you mean you tried heroin?”
She nodded. “Yeah, and it’s as powerful as you’ve heard.”
“Did you ever get busted?”
“Yeah, once, down in Cancun on Spring break. My dad had to come down and get a lawyer, but in the end he paid some big bucks to buy my way out before my case went to trial. That was it for me, the bottom of the barrel and the end of the line; I stopped cold turkey and never went back. When I did my rotations I thought a lot about going into psychiatry, but in the end I wasn’t sure I was strong enough for all that. It took me a while…”
“Holy shit, Beth…” Tanner muttered.
“You know…I haven’t ever told anyone any of this stuff. Not even my mom knows what happened down in Mexico. Now you and Jenny know.”
“Oh? Why us?” he asked, not sure how to take the look in her eyes.
“Oh, you know, I think I’ve had a little crush on you from the first time I laid eyes on you, Tanner. That innocent little boy wonder thing you got going is like cat-nip to me, I guess, but you had me with that smile. I felt my legs melting, Doug. Still do sometimes, as a matter of fact.”
Tanner blushed. So did Jenny.
“Tell me about your marriage,” Beth asked, quickly changing the subject and trying to knock him off balance.
But he wasn’t going to play her game. “A crush, huh? I never picked up on that.”
“Oh, I didn’t…well…Jenny? I thought you had it real bad, so I kind of backed off a little when you two went to Gondar. You two got close there, didn’t you?”
“Well,” Jenny said, looking away, “maybe just a little…”
“See, I thought so,” Beth said, smiling. “Doug, why go back?”
“To Ethiopia?” he replied, and when she nodded he continued: “I guess maybe it’s the old cliché. I felt needed. That I had something unique to contribute, and maybe I feel a little like a cog in a wheel over here. If I break there’re a dozen more just like me waiting to take my place.”
“So, you want to go to the national med school, help train residents?”
And just then the senior agent from D.C. entered the farm house and he appeared agitated. “Sorry to bust in like this, but we have a problem.”
“Oh?” Tanner sighed, looking down and shaking his head.
“We moved Harwell’s girlfriend to a minimum security facility earlier today, and the cartel’s team hit the caravan. The have her now and as far as we can tell they’ve made it out of the country…”
“You can’t be serious,” Beth Gruber managed to say.
But Doug looked up, then he looked at Beth before he turned to the agent. “So, you guys are definitely compromised, right?”
And the agent nodded.
“So…you can’t really guarantee our safety, can you?”
Beth and Jenny turned to face the agent, but the expressions on their faces had turned from bemused annoyance to concern…concern tinged with a little fear…yet for some reason Tanner had half-way been expecting something like this to happen. “What else do you know?” Tanner asked.
“Well, like I said, we’re pretty sure they’re out of the country, and we have two credible reports they might be headed to Chile or Argentina.”
“What does ‘credible report’ mean?”
“Air traffic control monitored a private jet originally headed from Monterrey, Mexico to Paris, and it made a scheduled stop to refuel outside of D.C. After it departed the pilot changed the flight plan for a direct return to Monterrey, but once they were out over the Gulf they changed their flight plan again, this time with Quito as an intermediate destination, and Santiago as their final. The jet is about an hour out of Quito right now, and we’re getting eyes on it as we speak.”
“You think you have a data breech or someone working for them on the inside?” Tanner added.
“I hope it’s a data breech. If we’ve been penetrated then the agency is fucked.”
Tanner chuckled at that. “And so are we.”
“So, what’s our play?” Beth asked.
“We stay here. We reinforce. Or…” the agent began, but he stopped speaking now, not sure how to proceed.
“Or…what?” Beth asked.
“Or,” the agent continued, “we cut you loose.”
“And how would you do that?” Doug asked.
The agent produced three large envelops and he held them up. “There are new identities in these, for each of you. Passports, birth certificates, driver’s licenses and everything you’d need to relocate, right down to medical school transcripts and licenses. And money. We couldn’t know where you’re headed, for obvious reasons.”
“That sounds dangerous,” Jenny sighed, looking away.
“There is, of course, another option,” Doug said reluctantly, indeed, almost quietly.
“And that is?” the agent sighed.
“Move us to a high security military facility, maybe a nuclear submarine base. There’s one in Georgia, isn’t there?”
The agent nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah. Kings Bay, just north of Jacksonville. And there’s one in Maine, too, as well as Puget Sound.”
“So? Send us to one, or split us up and send us to …”
The agent shook his head. “You’d have to be commissioned officers, and you’d have to pass a thorough background check to be assigned to one of those facilities. I’m not sure we have time for that right now.”
Tanner looked at the envelopes in the agent’s hand. “So, if I’m reading you correctly you want us to take the envelopes and make a run for it. Is that about right?”
The agent crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “Simply put, the easiest thing to do is hole up here, bring in reinforcements and wait for them, but there’s a big down side to that. Collateral damage could be high, and by that I mean not just agents getting shot up but possibly a large number of civilians, depending on where the attack was staged.”
“Geez,” Beth sighed, “when you put it that way we really ought to take the envelopes and try to disappear.”
“But if we’re on our own,” Tanner grumbled, “that also means no back up, and if we do get taken out no one will know a thing about it.”
“I want to stay here,” Jenny said, suddenly feeling very vulnerable and alone.
“Me too,” Beth said, her eyes steely hard. “Just, like, give me a fuckin’ gun, ya know?”
The agent looked at Tanner, who simply shrugged. “If they’re staying, I guess I am too.”
The agent nodded. “Well, they got the McKinnon girl and her baby so maybe they’ll just disappear. Maybe the whole thing will just blow over.”
“But you don’t think that’s the case, do you?”
“No, as a matter of fact I don’t, and because we’re compromised I also take it to mean that they’re serious about getting to you. My guess is they think you were undercover operatives tracking Harwell all along, and if that is in fact the case I doubt they’ll let this go without exacting a price.”
Tanner nodded. “So…why not make it easy for them. Get the word out we’re in hiding up here but then quietly bring in a shitload of backup. Make the price too high in lives lost, then maybe they’ll back off.”
The agent nodded. “That’s Plan A, in a nutshell. If the three of you are sure this is what you want then I’ll put the plan in motion.”
They did, and it was.
And so a month passed, then another and another. The seasons changed, snow began to fall. Skiers came, knees were broken. When outside situations warranted, one of the three surgeons was called in to the clinic but a peculiar lassitude fell over the three surgeons. Tanner hadn’t skied in years but Beth and Jenny wanted to learn so he took them to the old Olympic venue at Whiteface and taught them, but as they rarely worked now Tanner felt useless, and he hated the relative inactivity. He knew that, as with everything else where an intense, highly specialized skillset is employed day after day, inactivity leads to a breakdown of those skills, and for a surgeon that could be dangerous in the extreme. As winter’s boredom deepened, Tanner’s gloom only increased.
And then early one spring day the agent from D.C. appeared and told them all that he could no longer see the need to keep three surgeons cooped up, and that the government had decided to cut them loose. And as long as they remained in the U.S., he said, they’d be able to request protection at a moments notice.
“What about the envelopes with the new identities?” Tanner asked. “Are those still available to us?”
The agent shrugged. “Not sure why you’d need them, unless of course you plan on leaving the country,” he said with a sly grin, pulling the envelopes out of a briefcase.
Jenny Peterson took her envelope, too, and she and Tanner hopped on Amtrak’s northbound Adirondack in Plattsburgh, and the two of them traveled all the way to Montreal without saying so much as a word to one another. Something unspoken had developed between them, something like an unresolved need to finish what they’d started in Ethiopia, only now this thing had turned into something rather like an obsession.
To Jenny, this obsession came by way of an unexpected lust for Doug Tanner. For Tanner, his took the form of a wholly predictable desire to make a difference, and for months he’d spoken of little else. About how in Miami Beach there were literally dozens of surgeons doing exactly what he had been doing, while in the entire country of Ethiopia there wasn’t a single surgeon trained in arthroscopic abdominal surgery. He was needed in Addis Ababa, and he’d made the case that he was desperately needed—at least he had to himself—and he had agonized for months about being just another cog in the machinery of modern American medicine. He would go to the medical school and teach. He’d do his time in the OR. He’d continue to work with MSF. He’d make a difference.
So when Jenny Peterson opted to follow him he’d been a little surprised. Yet Beth Gruber wasn’t, not in the least as it turned out. She’d decided to play the long game and see what developed between Tanner and Jenny, because she suspected Jenny would soon return to Miami with her tail between her legs, thoroughly chastened and utterly defeated. Beth had seen Tanner’s obsession take root and knew what came next, while poor Jenny couldn’t see beyond a sudden need to make babies. Beth sighed when she’d first recognized the symptoms of Jenny’s lust; it wasn’t Tanner the poor girl was after as much as it was a genetic time bomb ticking away inside her womb, and now she wanted a strong husband to take care of her new family.
So Jenny followed Tanner onto an Austrian Airlines 767 bound for Vienna, and she sat with him on the Ethiopian Dreamliner that carried them on to Addis Ababa, and still they hardly spoke to one another. In a way he seemed solicitous, even deferential towards her, yet at the same time he remained conscientiously distant. He spoke decent German and helped her decipher the menu on their way to Vienna, yet when she asked when he’d learned German he’d simply shrugged. It was as if he’d sensed Jenny’s oblique motivations and had already begun to distance himself from another impossible entanglement. In his almost paranoid worldview, men experienced lust and a momentary lapse of reason, while women seemed to grow attached to men as means to an end, so the word love meant two entirely different things. With no common ground to stand on, relationships were doomed to fail.
Yet sitting there beside him over the Atlantic she sensed his retreat. And she almost instantly began to talk about ongoing problems at the MSF facility in Gondar, and how she’d miss him after spending so much time together. Perhaps she’d hoped to throw him off balance, but she’d seen the unsettled look on his face when he helped her onto the afternoon shuttle to Gondar later the next day, and she’d smiled when he’d hugged her and said he’d see her soon.
As he’d been in touch with people at the university for more than a month, he found on his arrival that they’d set aside accommodations for him on campus and expedited his work visa, so he got right to work. He always had at least two early morning cases in the OR, and this was followed by one class with second year medical students and another with post-graduate physicians, and he was soon so busy that he forgot all about Jenny Peterson and Beth Gruber and his lost year spent in upstate New York.
So he was free now, free to make plans for his future. To return to Miami as required to maintain citizenship. To attend continuing education programs on the latest techniques, this year in Bali, next year in Las Vegas. He looked at purchasing a house in Addis Ababa, or maybe something in Tuscany—because Italy had always appealed to him. Be bought a Land Rover, a Defender, because…why not?
One Sunday Sandy McClellan called him – “Just to say hi!” – and they had talked about her father and his passing and he’d thanked her for all she’d done to help him during that trying year in hiding. She’d asked when he was ‘coming home’ and if he’d call her when he knew so she could set aside time for him – and the alarm bells started ringing in Tanner’s mind once again.
His sister called. She wanted to sell the old place “because property values are skyrocketing and we could make a killing” and he found he really didn’t care about all that stuff anymore. He told her to send the necessary papers by FedEx and that was that—and even his father’s ghost didn’t know what to say about this sudden parting of the ways. Neither, for that matter, did his sister.
Jenny flew into Addis Ababa on her way back to the States but he was tied up in surgery and didn’t get a chance to visit with her, and she cried all the way back to Dulles. Beth Gruber met her when she arrived in Miami, and while Beth had the good sense not to mention Tanner’s name, inside she was all smiles.
And so for Doug Tanner life slipped into a new and totally unexpected routine. He began to look forward to Bali and going to a quick medical instruments presentation in Munich. He began to think about setting down roots, if not here then perhaps in Italy, or even Austria. He thought about his old life on the boat and there were times he missed that vagabond’s existence, too. He could buy another boat and maybe keep it in Turkey, or perhaps Greece.
There were so many options now. Now that he was free of his past. Now that he had cheated death.
Yet there was one thing that Doug Tanner was not free of, and that one thing was Gene Harwell. He was reminded of this simple fact one evening when Beth Gruber called and told him that Jenny Peterson had been killed by a car-bomb that had detonated outside her condo in South Beach. She was now, Beth told him, on her way to the airport, and could he pick her up tomorrow afternoon?
“Why are you coming here?” he asked.
“There’s trouble brewing there, Doug, in case you haven’t heard.”
“You mean all that stuff up in Tigray?”
“Yeah…that stuff. Things are heating up, and MSF just put out an urgent call for physicians and nurses. Jenny and I were both getting ready to come, by the way.”
“Man, you are one clueless son of a bitch, Tanner.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Really? You know, like Jenny followed you over there and you just ditched her, ya know? Broke her damn heart, and you’re really going to sit there and play like you had no fucking clue why? What the fucking hell is the matter with you, Doug?”
“I’m really not following you, Beth.”
“Yeah? Well, don’t bother picking me up. I’ll figure something else out, and I sure don’t want to bother you any more than I already have.”
Tanner listened after Beth hung up the phone on him, only now he waited for the secondary click that meant his phone was being tapped. When he heard the distinctive metallic sound he hung up and went to his bedroom to pack a suitcase, grateful that the witness protection agents had taught him that useful little trick.
It was time to run, and run fast – but where? If Harwell, or his cartel backers, was behind Jenny’s death where could he run? Where would he ever be safe? If all he was doing was buying time, where could he find the most time?
And an even simpler question roamed in the back of his mind: Even if he tried to run…could he run fast enough? How would he know who was on his tail, let alone how close they were to getting him?
There was really only one viable option, at least as far as he could tell right now. He needed to somehow turn the tables, change the paradigm, and that meant he’d need to hunt Harwell and take him out. As he wasn’t trained to do that kind of work he’d have to find someone trained to undertake such a mission. And that meant finding a secure channel of communication and contacting the witness protection agent in D.C.
When he finally got through, Tanner explained the problem and outlined his proposed solution, and he was surprised how quickly the agent agreed with him. “Go home as usual tomorrow night, and wait for contact,” the agent said somewhat obliquely.
And so the next afternoon he went to the airport and met Beth. She had cooled down a little and wasn’t overtly hostile to him, and as her flight to Mekelle had been delayed – due to insurgent activity near the airport – he took her to dinner before taking her back to the airport. And an hour after he returned to his house he heard a gentle knock on his door.
But he didn’t know what to do. Was he trapped, or was this the contact he’d been told to expect?
So he held his breath and opened the door. Two men stood there, pistols out and both staring at him. Before he could say a thing, the older of the two and the man who seemed to be in charge, held a finger to his lips as he slipped quietly inside Tanner’s house.
And once both were inside the younger of the two went to a potted plant and removed a hidden camera. He slipped the SD card out of the device and placed it into a viewer and the three of them stood silently and watched a time compressed view of the entire day; playback at normal speed began when the image showed a single figure entering the house and placing a bomb under Tanner’s bed, and before he left the assassin placed an audio recording device in an air conditioning duct in the kitchen.
The older agent wordlessly indicated that Tanner should stand by the front door while the two agents went to work, and ten minutes later they led him to a windowless black Mercedes Sprinter and helped him into the back. They drove a few blocks away and the younger man hit a switch, detonating the bomb under Tanner’s bed, then the older agent drove out to the airport.
The van pulled up to the open airstairs of a US registered Gulfstream G-600 and the older agent led Tanner up the stairs and into the darkened interior of the business jet. The pilots started the engines and immediately taxied to the runway and departed, turning to the northwest.
And while all this was happening the jet’s interior remained completely dark, but once airborne dim red lights came on – and suddenly he saw Jenny Peterson sitting across the aisle from him, smiling like it was Christmas morning and all her dreams had just come true.
Part III: Trinity
The woman sat on a camp stool just inside a large canvas tent, her face lined and shoulders drooped – as if she was used to carrying an oppressively heavy burden. The expression on her face was fragile, almost cold, and bitterly so. She seemed preoccupied, and to passersby they might have thought she was lost in a daydream, yet she was nervously chewing on the blue cap-end of a worn out ballpoint pen. Camouflaged UN Peacekeepers in dry, dusty uniforms drifted around her like old smoke, as oblivious to her as she was to the quiet, withdrawn sunrise that promised yet another day of relentless, oppressive heat. The troops, a mix of Pakistani and Kenyan men, were loading boxes of medical supplies and furled tents into white trucks caked in old red mud; in the stillness feverishly shocked refugees looked on from a line of cots beyond the woman. They seemed resigned to an unseen fate, like they knew death was coming and there was nothing to do now but wait for the inevitable.
The woman, middle-aged and somewhat tough looking, had a large portable telephone in her hand, a newish Inmarsat iSatPhone2 satellite telephone, and she looked at the thing with sure dread in her mind’s eye, the way one might hold a dead snake—one that was still squirming just a bit. She had been waiting for the call, yet even as she waited she knew the answers to her questions. They were stupid questions, she muttered to herself once again, and tiresome, too – yet only because of their stultifying futility. But, like the shattered children around her in this tent, she had run out of options – and now everyone knew the outcome, all her secrets were out in the media now. Aid agencies were being expelled from Tigray – because local leadership had been charged with War Crimes by the World Court. She’d tried to convince the court not to take this course, but by now she understood all too well that futility was just the institutionalized fear of inertia. The fear of taking responsibility for their failures, in this case.
Yet there were other trends that, like unexpected tidal flows, had changed this time around. The world had run out of options for these people – and because the vox populi, or in this case the so-called free press, had lost interest in Africa, and Africans – the shadows were once again growing longer. Everyone, or so it seemed, and almost everywhere you could find such trumpeting courts of public opinion, had constructed complex, interlocking walls of legal terminology to cushion the blow of all the hideous images coming from Tigray and northwest Ethiopia, and vacuous infotainment had once again taken center stage. Incessant blather about silicon boobs or Nascar races had replaced intelligent discourse about dying children and the never-ending problems of the displaced, so starving Africans simply would now vanish inside another night…the way homeless people hiding in plain sight often do. Yet, like the homeless, the kids in these tents had nowhere else to hide, for there are no walls to keep away the peculiar brand of darkness that stalks the refugee. Jackals circle beyond the shabby walls of their tents, stalking them in the shadowlands just beyond the crackling veneer of civilization’s embers, predators waiting to move in the next time yet another American Idol checks into rehab or drunkenly crashes into another house.
But if you had been in this particular tent you would have seen something odd on the woman’s face: taking care of these children had been her life, her calling, and she could not see beyond the Will to protect the innocent. Too much death had consumed her light, you might say. If you were patient enough, if you looked through her eyes at the world long enough, you might have watched the crushing bite to the jugular that comes stalking in the night for these children – but because she had lived this life for so long she had seen that death before – and you could feel the pain in her eyes as a measure of the Apathy that stalked these children. Yet now she methodically poked away at the sandy topsoil on top of her boots with the phone’s antenna, looking at the reddened dryness that had settled on her shoelaces, then she reached down to the ground and picked up some of the scorched red earth and sifted it through her slender fingers. “Sand in an hourglass,” she said quietly. If you were there beside her perhaps you would note she was speaking English almost out of habit, yet she is from France.
The phone chirped as the last of the reddened earth ran through her fingers, and she brushed her hands on her thighs and powered up the phone: “Yes? Paul? Yes, it is a bad connection, I’m afraid!” she said too loudly. All the children stared uneasily at her, then at one another. They have seen her face and they know the tide is changing.
She listens, too tired to interrupt, too tired even to plead her case – one more time.
“The UN backed us, didn’t they? And still the government won’t back down?”
She listened, covered her free ear, yet for some reason it looked as if she was warding off blows from an unseen enemy.
“Will we at least have an escort?”
She listened again, shook her head as if she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.
“Paul, you can’t be serious! That’s absurd! You simply cannot believe that…they’ll never give us safe passage! Not after this!”
Her head was in her free hand now, and she was almost in tears. She wanted to ignore the voice on the other end of the line but she couldn’t. She was as trapped as any of the other little patients in this war-torn clinic, and she could feel the spreading dread in the anxious faces looking her way. If you were, by chance, looking at this woman and at these children you might notice that the expressions on their little faces was simply a mirror of the expression on her’s.
“Paul! Please! Do you know how many new cases we have here now? More than five last night! Two more this morning. What? Yes, yes, confirmed meningitis. Multi-resistant TB is presenting now as well in some of the older men, in numbers I’ve never seen before. Have you been able to get…”
She paused, listened, then stabbed violently at the air with an outstretched finger. “Paul, no! That will not be enough and you know it.” Another pause; her hands shaking now. “I think a few will stay, regardless, but not enough. Yes, a few of the nurses, the local ones, perhaps. And a few of the nuns that arrived last week have said they will stay. But that’s fewer than ten, Paul, for more than ten thousand. And don’t forget that’s with a strong vector within the children. Okay, I know you understand! There are twenty five hundred kids here, and I mean under age ten, in this camp alone! And a fifty percent mortality rate! Do you understand?”
A young surgeon walked into the tent, stopped dead in his tracks when he heard the woman talking about these absurdly high mortality rates. He pretended he wasn’t listening to the woman while he checked his iPhone for messages.
“Goddamn it, Paul. You’re asking me to commit murder!” She listened again, but now her face was contorted and red with rage: “Gondar! You can’t be serious! Those camps are already overcrowded! What about something closer? Why can’t we…what? You can’t be serious! Paul! No!”
But apparently, the young surgeon thought, Paul was serious. He looked up from his phone, looked at the woman and not knowing what else to do he took her picture. She ignored the surgeon as one might a noisome fly; he took another picture of her then moved slowly to take pictures of the children, children in shadows bathed in fevered sweat. He watched the woman as she turned away from him, listened as she lowered her voice a little. He could feel the familiarity in her voice now, like maybe once upon a time she and Paul had been more than friends.
He turned and looked at her again. She was one of the French docs, some kind of infectious disease specialist from Paris or Lyon. She looked like she was forty or so years old, maybe a little older, but she was a willowy creature, wispy in a soft-faced kind of way, and he thought she was rather beautiful – even with dark circles under her eyes. He looked on while she told Paul she would check-in once the convoy was on the move, then she broke the connection and put the phone in a small canvas case by her side.
“I’m supposed to ride with you,” Doug Tanner said to the woman as he walked up to her.
The woman turned and looked at this new annoyance: “Excuse me?”
He found her accent thick but her English precise. “Most of the convoy has already left. Someone told me I’m riding with Hasan. And with you, I guess.”
“What was that all about?”
“MSF in Addis. The UN has ruled and that is that; we are to leave, and now. We have safe passage out of Tigray, but only for the rest of the day.”
“Peachy.” Tanner said as he looked around the tent. “You going to stay? Tough-it-out here with the nuns?”
The woman seemed to hesitate, then she looked at the young man: “Excuse me, but who are you? I’ve seen you around, but we’ve never been…”
“Doug. Doug—Smith.” He said quickly – as he held out his hand. “General surgery, but you probably haven’t seen me as I’ve been doing bellies over in the OR since I arrived.”
“Ah. I am Catherine DeSaunier,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “I am with the pediatric clinic here.” She looked him over, studied his hands for a moment, then his eyes. “You’re not with MSF, are you?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact I am, but I’ve been teaching in Addis for a few months. I’ve been here about a week, flew in last Wednesday,” he added.
“Teaching? At the medical school?”
“Yes Ma’am, that’s right, but I guess someone thought I needed a change of scenery,” Doug Tanner said, his warmest smile now front and center.
The woman tried to smile at the young surgeon’s off-putting humor, yet as she looked at him she found his smile convivially warm – while also feeling oddly contrived. “Well, perhaps we simply follow where our dreams take us? One way or another?”
“I reckon that’s true, Ma’am. Can I help you with anything?”
She looked at the case by her feet and sighed, then bent over to pick it up. “No, and please, call me Catherine. And we should go now, I think?”
Yet before she moved to the small remaining caravan of cars and trucks waiting in the meager shade, DeSaunier walked over to an old nurse; they spoke for a moment, exchanged knowing looks and a brief hug, then DeSaunier walked with this surgeon, this Doug “Smith”, away from the fevered brows of dying children waiting for the jackals in their softly gathering shadows.
The air conditioning in the Toyota SUV belched foggy blasts of drenching mist from time to time, and Catherine wiped droplets from her arms after the latest dousing. Hasan, one of the drivers usually assigned to her, rattled on and on about Chinese technocrats and how it was they, not the rebels, who are the real threat in Tigray. Catherine detested the rat-faced man and his endless conspiracy theories; he’d come from Yemen with his parents ages ago and seemed to think he was somehow superior to the locals. His rodent-like eyes and twitching nose, she told herself again, did little to hide his true nature; he was rumored to be a plant, a spy, and it was assumed his real job was to report on the various non-governmental aid agencies present at the camp. He always wore new Adidas running shoes and was doused in a truly vile smelling cologne; with the windows up his extreme body odor and cheap cologne were beyond nauseating.
Doug sat behind DeSaunier in the back of the Land Cruiser, entombed within a huge pile of shifting cardboard boxes. She heard him growl when the Toyota hit a deep rut, but he had otherwise been quiet.
“Say, Bwana Doug, you ain’t CIA, is you?” Hasan asked, and DeSaunier couldn’t help rolling her eyes.
“What?” she heard Smith say.
“CIA? You CIA, is you now?”
“How’d you know?”
“What you mean, Bwana Doug.”
“If I was CIA, Hasan, I wouldn’t be riding in the back of this truck…”
“Oh yes, I see. Hah-hah. Yes, I see.” Even Hasan’s laughter was rodent-like, but she could tell he remained unconvinced.
Catherine, however, hadn’t considered the possibility, if only because the young surgeon appeared too inept to be CIA. She shook her head, looked out the window at the scorched landscape on the other side of the thin glass, suddenly realizing she needed to pee. “Hasan, how far to the checkpoint?” Though only 40 miles west of the camp, they had been on the road for two hours and her bladder was already aching from the rocky undulations embedded within the drift-strewn road.
“Oh, Doctor-missy, maybe five more miles. Thirty minutes, no more. Many land mines…so need go slow.”
“Hasan,” Doug said, “there aren’t any mines on this road and you know it!”
“Oh no, Bwana…many mines here.”
“It does not matter,” Catherine interrupted. “Stop here; I need some privacy.”
“Yes, Missy,” Hasan leered. She grimaced, heard Doug groan under his breath as he crawled out from under his pile of boxes. The Toyota had stopped on the drifting sand and she stepped out, walked unsteadily to the rear of the Land Cruiser and squatted in the shadows. She finished while Doug and Hasan walked forward to hose down their parcel of sand.
“Goddamn, if it isn’t as hot as a pistol out here,” Doug said in his feigned southern accent. He watched a marled, dog-like creature trot along a ridge off to the south not fifty meters away, and they never took their eyes off one another. Tanner felt a shiver pass down his spine as the jackal strutted off into the bush.
“You feel alright?” Catherine asked as she prepared to step back into the truck.
“Yeah, look at that jackal. Bigger than I thought they’d be.”
“Meaner, too,” she said as she reached for the hand-grip inside the doorway. “Here,” she said distractedly, “you want to sit up here for a while?”.
“No, that’s alright.” He took a couple of pictures of the jackal with his phone as it disappeared among the bushes, but he wondered if it might be part of a larger pack.
“Bwana Doug, we go now. Got to hurry, catch up to others at da checkpoint.”
“Right.” Doug hopped up into the rear and settled in among the tumbling boxes, and the Land Cruiser squirmed down the sand-covered highway once again. He felt the sand give way to pavement after a few miles, but the rising thermals and whirling dust-devils that roamed the morning desert remained. Within a few minutes the checkpoint became visible, hovering within the shimmering black asphalt ahead.
Troops stood between the road and a little concrete compound off the right side of the road; a village of low mud huts sat baking in the sand far off to the left, but no one was out in this heat. Dust from the main part of the recently departed convoy was still visible up ahead, suspended in the thermals over the road, so maybe they could make better time and catch up.
Hasan pulled up to the checkpoint and spoke with one of the soldiers; anger boiled in the steaming air, hostility seethed in the soldier’s penetrating eyes. Words, hostile, hate-filled words, passed like bullets between the two, but then the soldier waved them through – yet one of the soldiers glared at Tanner as they passed his position; other soldiers filled in behind the Toyota as it drove away and watched Doug through the back glass. One of the soldiers turned to speak into a radio. Tanner thought about taking a photograph of him but changed his mind when he saw the AK-47s the others held at their sides.
“Very angry,” Hasan said. “Army very mad now.”
“Why is that, Hasan?” Catherine asked.
“They say all you doctors are spies. All of you. You work for this Gebremichael now, so Ahmed want you gone.”
She nodded, yet couldn’t think of a thing to say. After working in Ethiopia and Sudan off and on for almost ten years, she was used to dealing with the closed, often paranoid minds of officialdom, but in Tigray institutionalized paranoia had reached new extremes over the last year. And now that oil had been discovered in the region by both Chinese and American geologists, any excuse to rid the government of meddlesome western do-gooders would come only as a welcome relief. That several hundred thousand ethnic Africans already in refugee camps would have to die to sate the world’s appetite for oil was a consequence of merest inconvenience to the authorities in Eritrea, Ethiopia and within Ethiopia’s Tigray region. Yet she knew that the West, too, had more than its fair share of blood on its hands, enough to last a thousand years, anyway. Words kept running through her mind: ‘For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap,’ or words to that effect. She smiled at the thought, smiled at the grim worthlessness of such words in places like this.
China had simply moved to fill the void left after the collapse of European colonialism and African incompetence; they were simply the newest jackals circling in the dark. Catherine was sure they’d be just as effective stripping flesh from bone as the Americans had been, and the British before them, and the Portuguese and the Italians. Things don’t simply fall apart, she thought, her mind once again roaming to Yeats’ Second Coming. As grimly prescient as those words were, now it was Darwin’s turn to speak: the strong were simply picking apart the weak and eating them one by one — the way the strong always have. Soon these African’s would have a new set of masters, and the weak would once again be pushed along same path their fathers had taken.
The highway ahead grew smoother and soon they were southbound on well-finished asphalt. Catherine saw they were making good time now and found she was sleepy, so she closed her eyes. And soon enough she saw the cold black eyes of jackals on the prowl — and she turned away from them as nightfall came, seeking release.
She felt her head lurch, glimpsed sleep-born images of burning fevers and smoldering villages darting across her mind’s eye as she jerked awake, and she forced her eyes to focus on the harsh nightscape beyond the dust-caked windshield. Hasan was chewing some sort of twig; predictably it smelled awful – like cloves that had morphed into something almost like ammonia – and now he was listening to pulsating disco music. But she saw the main convoy ahead, now no more than a kilometer or so ahead, so she sat up and rubbed her eyes, then fought to suppress the overwhelming sense of relief that comes from a belief in strength in numbers. She heard Doug in the back and wondered if he’d slept…
…and that was when the windshield exploded…
…and she screamed reflexively as she covered her eyes. Shattered glass bounced off her arms, and she tensed when she saw the Toyota veering off the road towards a shallow drainage ditch…
…then she heard gunfire, very close and apparently very accurate – because more shattered glass rained down on her head and arms…
…just as the Toyota lurched and fell violently into the rock-strewn ditch…
…the airbags deployed, the cabin filled with dust and more dancing fragments of shattered glass…
…and she heard Hasan gurgling as he tried to speak so she looked over, saw him clutching at a gaping hole on the side of his neck…
“Jesus H Fucking Christ!” she heard Doug growl from somewhere in back amongst the boxes. “What the fuck’s happening?”
…and just as the Land Cruiser slammed to a stop, nose down in the ditch, Hasan’s foot still pressing the accelerator pedal all the way down. The truck was jammed into a small depression, pinned in place by the ancient remnants of earlier floods, and while the engine roared with furious impotence the tires continued to spin wildly, throwing up huge clouds of sand, dust, and flying rocks…
…but more bullets slammed into the left side of the truck, and Hasan’s body jumped under the impact. Blood boiled out his nose, then frothily out his mouth and neck as he fought to breathe.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Doug cried, and though she heard his door opening she felt locked in place, terrified as the shadows closed in on her. Then her door flew open, she felt the night clawing past conscious thought and then felt the surgeon pushing frantically on her seat-belt release, then his hands on her arms, pulling her from the Toyota just as another volley of machine gun fire slammed into the front of the SUV.
Apparently, he thought, they were not yet visible in all the stirred-up dust…
The back wheels were now off the ground completely, the front of the truck pinned in debris, but now there was a large space under the truck and Doug grabbed the woman and shoved her into the shadows, then he ran around and pulled Hasan’s body free and pulled him into the makeshift shelter. Doug gasped for breath, Catherine rubbed sand from her eyes while Hasan bled to death between them.
“Can you get my bag?” she whispered through the sound of close small arms fire.
“My bag, on the floor by my feet…”
Doug scrambled over to her side of the truck and looked around, stuck his head then his body into the open air before darting up between the open passenger doors. He grabbed her canvas bag and disappeared back into the safety of their little redoubt.
The physician pulled out a penlight and shone it on Hasan’s neck; there were two massive wounds visible, one rimmed with frothy blood pulsing from his wrecked carotid artery. She turned the light off and held his hand, wiped his forehead while he stared up at her, blinking occasionally as death came for him. Soon he lay very still.
Then another huge explosion, most likely a mortar round, shook the ground.
“We’ve got to get out of…” Doug began saying, but bullets slammed into the truck overhead, then he heard men running down the road and in the the ditch, coming for them.
“Play dead!” he whispered coarsely as he fell to the ground. He looked on, aghast, as Catherine took some of Hasan’s blood and smeared it on their faces, then she melted into the ground and they both held their breath as men walked up to the battered Toyota.
He felt a gun-barrel roughly prod the side of his head and he let his head flop easily away, then someone climbed up into the truck and turned off the engine. The air filled with the sound the hissing and pooping as the engine began cooling, and now Tanner could smell antifreeze and gasoline. He chanced a glance at Catherine and saw she was curled up in a fetal ball, deep in shadow: perhaps they hadn’t seen her and that explained why she wasn’t being raped. One of the men was speaking Spanish, and Tanner knew then that the cartel hadn’t fallen for the ruse. Gene Harwell had come for him, at long last.
He heard renewed shouting, more gunfire, listened as one of the men screamed into a radio, and then this group took off down the ditch towards even more gunfire.
“We’ve got to get away from here, and I mean now!” he whispered; he saw Catherine nod and she reached for her bag, scrambled across the rocky scree to his side.
“Away from here, and fast.” He thought for a moment, trying to process everything that had just happened and coming up short. “We passed a ridge a while ago. and I thought I saw some caves there. Do you have that phone?”
“Alright, bring it, and let’s go…” Tanner said as he pulled himself free of the Toyota, then he reached back to help her before he peeked over the shattered front end of the Toyota. When she was standing beside him he pointed down to a riverbed and pointed at some rocks a few hundred yards away. “Stay low, and let’s head for those rocks.”
She ran but not very fast; he stood, took some bottled water from the truck and crammed them into his little duffel bag, then he grabbed a piece of brush and ran along behind her, trying to wipe away their footprints in the sand. She was breathing heavily when he reached her; he threw the brush away and took her by the hand, pulled her along the riverbed until they were completely out of sight.
Still she breathed heavily, alarmingly so. He motioned for her to rest a moment, then climbed up the rocky embankment until he could get his bearings. He looked back toward the north, saw the outlines of the little escarpment he had seen earlier, and he reckoned it was about a half kilometer back and not too far from the road. The riverbed, he saw, would shield them from view at least some of the way. He slid back down the bank and looked at her. She was crying, breathing hard, and now apparently very frightened.
“We’re going to be alright,” he told her. “We’ve just got to keep our heads down and put some distance between us and whoever the hell that was.”
She nodded, fought to understand why this was happening, then she felt his hand take hers once again and she welcomed the feel of his strength as much as she despised herself for needing it. He pulled her along and they trotted along in the soft remnants of twilight until they came to a stunted tree. He made for the tree to rest but suddenly stopped short…
…when he saw an old man, an African as black as coal, who was sleeping there.
…but he was not a soldier for the old man was barefoot, wearing old khaki shorts and a tattered brown t-shirt. He appeared worn out, almost emaciated, and his brow glistened with sweat…
…so the old man did not appear to be a threat…
Tanner crouched beside the old man’s tree, yet their arrival startled the old man and he pulled inward, and he looked alarmed when he first saw them. But soon enough he relaxed, because the old man understood. He could see the fear in the newcomers’ eyes.
The old man said something and Tanner recognized the patois of disjointed French spoken by many in the region; he cursed himself for studying German in high school while he listened, trying to make out the flow of the conversation. Catherine, still breathing heavily, nodded understanding while she fought to get down as much air as possible; even so she managed to eek out a few words.
The old man laughed. Tanner heard the word Oromo more than once and understood he’d just become a part of Tigray’s civil war in a very up close and personal way.
“What did he say?” Tanner said as Catherine paused to take a breath.
“He saw our convoy drive by, saw the guerrillas setting up their ambush, but there was nothing he could do.”
“Is he sick?”
“What do you mean?” she said indignantly. “What would you have done?”
“No, no. Not that. I mean, is he ill? He looks sick.”
She turned and looked at the old man, asked him a couple of questions.
The old man lifted his arms, raised his t-shirt and uncovered his abdomen. There was a grapefruit sized mass protruding from under his rib-cage.
Catherine asked him another question and she nodded at his reply, then turned to Tanner. “He says it’s a tumor. I think he may be very ill.”
“No sarcasm, please.”
“Ask him about those caves. Does he think we can get to them without being seen?”
She turned to the old man and began to speak.
“Not very safe place,” the old man interrupted in halting English. “Many animals, same idea.”
“Fuck,” Doug sighed.
“Indeed yes,” the old man said. “Fuck.”
The three of them laughed, but then the old man winced in pain.
“Oromo come soon here,” the old man said as his pain subsided.
“Well, I’m open to any and all suggestions,” Tanner said.
“Hope you choose empty cave,” the old man grimaced as he laughed.
“Me too.” Tanner said – while Catherine wiped dirt from her face. “What’s your name?” he added.
“Nimiri. You name?”
“Ah. ‘And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’”
“Doug. To make ready the people. This your cause. Why you here.”
“What are you talking about?”
The old man seemed confused. “The word of God. You understand?”
“Oh. You mean the Bible?”
“You will choose good cave. I think so now, yes.”
They turned as one to the sound of another explosion, saw more flames and smoke rising from the convoy in the distance, then more gunfire erupted.
“We’d better get going,” Doug said. He turned to Catherine. “We made about half a kilometer with that last sprint… think you can make another?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know…maybe…maybe not.”
Tanner stood, Nimiri too; they helped Catherine up and Tanner took her hand. He crouched a little then started down the riverbed once again – the physician in tow and the old man a few paces behind. Tanner ran a few hundred yards then pulled up next to another tree, waited for Nimiri to catch up. The old man wasn’t breathing hard but was obviously in a good deal of pain. Catherine was gasping for breath and now sweating profusely.
He waited for her to regain herself, then pulled her out into the riverbed again. He ran a few steps then stumbled to a halt. A long snake, probably a cobra, undulated across the sand in the moonlight, and it was perhaps twenty meters ahead before it disappeared into the brush.
“Fuck!” Tanner said under his breath.
“What?” the physician said. “Did you see someone?”
He turned and looked at her, saw she was bent over, looking at the ground. Nimiri, however, had seen the snake. He pointed to the opposite side of the riverbed, then said: “Follow me…”
Tanner fell in behind the old man. They moved more slowly now, smoothly down the riverbed until the escarpment was only a few hundred meters away — but now they were moving across open ground. Nimiri let up his relentless pace, waited for Catherine to catch her breath, then looked at Tanner. “Bigger cave, bigger animal may call home. Choose carefully. When you have, I will bring your woman.”
“My what? Oh, right.” Tanner shrugged, took off in a low run; he moved steadily between clumps of scrub-brush toward the cliff. In many places the wall appeared to be twenty, perhaps even thirty meters tall, but most of the broken ridge was much less than that. Hundreds of caves of all size dotted the cliff, some screamed mortal peril while others looked merely dangerous; it was like some long dormant part of his brain was hard at work interpreting signs he was completely unconscious of…
One cave, however, seemed a good bet. He couldn’t say why but he trusted this impulse and made his way through the jumbled rock at the base of the cliff then scrambled upwards until he gained the entrance. It appeared to be about a meter and a half high near the entrance and disappeared into complete darkness beyond a tight turn several meters in. He picked up a rock and tossed it in, listened as it bounced off the walls.
Nothing. No movement at all.
He tossed another rock and waited.
Nothing. Only stillness within the shadows.
He walked inside the rocky opening, saw people had once made a campfire inside but whether that had been five days ago – or five years – he couldn’t tell. He sat deep inside the shadow and listened; when he was sure the cave was unoccupied he made his way back to the entrance and looked across the brush toward Nimiri and Catherine. He could just see them and he waved until he saw Nimiri return the gesture, then he slipped back into shadow and watched their progress through the moonlit brush.
He heard an occasional gunshot now, but not many and they sounded quite far away. It was as if the ambushers were mopping up the scene, dispatching the wounded and collecting all the loot, or perhaps the incriminating evidence. He thought he could see black smoke rising from behind a low hillock and he guessed the lingering flames were about three kilometers away — just less than two miles. Would that be enough?
Soon Nimiri and Catherine were at the base of the wall; Doug clambered down and helped her up and over the rocks and within minutes they were settled within their little sanctuary. She leaned back, wiped grimy sweat from her face, watched Doug open his bag and pull out a couple bottles of water and some candy bars, as well as a little yellow GPS unit. She thought of her own bag and reached for it, opened it up and dug around for the Sat-phone, then felt around for the little vacuum-bagged packages of smoked salmon she had stashed in the bottom. She left the food there, buried under a small pile of medical supplies, but she pulled out the phone and turned it on.
“Does your GPS work?” she asked. Doug set about giving the antenna a clear shot at the southern sky, then he pushed the power button, placed the unit on a rock near the entrance so it could pick-up valid signals. “Looks like it,” he said as he read out the coordinates on the display. She scribbled the coordinates down on a notepad and dialed the phone.
“Paul, listen to me. The convoy has been…yes, ambushed…Paul…please, be quiet and listen, write this down…”
Doug looked at the GPS; the batteries were fully charged, would last another 48 hours if left on continuously, but he doubted they’d move again anytime soon so he powered the unit off and listened as Catherine read off their position, then repeated the numbers for good measure. She listened for a good minute then cut the connection.
“Well?” Tanner said.
“He’ll call the UN, maybe the the prime minister’s office or the AU…”
“Ah, crap, not those idiots! They probably put on this little shindig!”
Nimiri frowned, spoke harshly. “Not AU. Good people in AU. Oromo did this. Not AU.”
“Okay, okay. Doc, you have any food in there?”
She shook her head. “Can you see anything from there?”
“Just some smoke. Fuck, did they pick a good location to hit us, or what! Between two fucking bridges! No retreat and no fucking place to run. And did you notice all the fucking black grass?”
“Yeah? What of it?”
“Fuck, man, they’ve been burning the locals right back into that town…”
“Fuck, man, you sure zonked-out back there. Big village, maybe five, ten clicks back. Lots of orchards and shit, too, then bingo — less than a mile and it’s like we’re on the dark side of the moon! Black fields, burned-out huts, a couple of bodies in the ditch off the side of the road. Fucking medieval shit, Doc.”
But the physician had had enough: “Mister Tanner, this is not a medieval country! It is Africa. Now. Today.” She was visibly fuming, clearly perturbed. “We are so sorry that offends your prim American worldview! But that is why we’re here. Why we came. To help. Not to pad our resume!”
Tanner stared at her, wondered where this anger was coming from. Nimiri looked at him and shrugged.
“Just because they didn’t show you cartoons of this ‘fucking shit’ at the country club doesn’t mean it hasn’t been going on right under your snotty little nose for the past thirty years! Understand?”
He looked at the woman again, then at Nimiri. He shook his head then took a sip of lukewarm water: “You say so.”
“You’re goddamn right I say so. I’ve been here in this medieval shithole for fifteen years, back when your mother was driving you around in her Cadillac to buy you hundred dollar video games! So just sit back and watch like a good American, and try to enjoy the show!”
“Look, I think you’re being…”
“And try not to think, either, Dr. Smith, or whatever your name is. I wouldn’t want you to hurt your ass!”
“You’re welcome,” Tanner said sarcastically.
“What?” Catherine answered as crossly.
“I said, you’re welcome. You know, for pulling your fat ass out of the truck, saving your life, that kind of shit. Hey, next time…”
“There won’t be a next time, Mister Smith. Count on that, would you? We’ll be lucky to get out of this medieval shithole alive. Do you understand what that means? You’re finally going to make it onto CNN!”
“Right. I think I have a pretty clear picture now. Thanks.”
“Do you. Really?”
She looked at him, at the stuff around him: “Is that all the water you have? What, three liters?”
“Yep. Sorry, I couldn’t reach more, what with the machine gun fire and all. Why don’t you go back and get some more? I’ll watch.”
She snorted, leaned back against the smooth rock wall, then began to cry. Tanner looked at Nimiri. The old man was looking him directly in the eye, then he too turned and looked away. Tanner opened one of the candy bars and ate it defiantly.
Old Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopters make a distinctive wump-wump-wump as they draw near. Their inefficient airfoils don’t slip easily through the air, they beat it up, and there is no mistaking when they’re nearby because the earth rumbles for miles around. On this day, a single white UN Mi-8 helicopter approached from the southeast, flying low over the scorched earth, still well to the east of three people huddled in a shallow cave. The helicopter flew as fast as it could, purposefully just north of the smoldering ambush site; the pilot ignored the burning carnage between the bridges and he made a beeline for a low escarpment to the west.
The Oromo leader on scene had hidden his force hours ago, long before, in fact, he’d first heard the helicopter. Government air traffic controllers had been notified of the UN rescue flight and had dutifully passed this information on to the military. Because endemic corruption is what it is, someone in the military immediately notified the Oromo commander on the ground and he prepared his force by spreading them east and west of the ambush site.
The commander watched the helicopter, wondered why it was flying past the burning convoy towards a line of low cliffs a few miles away, then the helicopter banked to the south and began to fly toward his position.
“Take it out!” he shouted to his men hidden in the brush all along the river bed.
Two shoulder mounted surface-to-air missiles roared into the sky: the first missed completely; the second slammed into the underside of the main body of the aircraft. Flames and black smoke boiled from the cabin and the commander watched as the struggling pilot auto-rotated and flared too soon. The aircraft hit hard, bounced once and came down again. Before anyone inside could move the aircraft was slammed by heavy machine gun fire.
“Jesus Fucking Christ!” Tanner shouted as the flaming helicopter slammed into the riverbed. He watched as three people tried to get out of the wreckage, only to get cut down by machine gun fire.
As per protocol, Catherine picked up her phone again and called MSF Headquarters in Lyon, France. She explained the situation to the duty officer and waited for instructions. She gave their location again and repeated it, was told to limit use of the phone in case someone was trying to home in on them, and given a contact schedule. She broke contact and put the phone away.
Tanner felt the change that had come over the physician: “Was your friend on-board?”
“What?” she said, her voice lifeless, almost flat.
“Your friend, Paul? Was he… in there?” Doug pointed toward the burning wreckage.
She shrugged, her face a blank mask: “I don’t know,” she said softly.
Nimiri made his way to the entrance, carefully watched as the Oromo surrounded the downed helicopter and extracted two people from inside.
“Two yet live,” he said, and Catherine darted to the entrance, pulled out a pair of binoculars from her case and looked at the scene below.
She watched, unaware that Tanner too was now by her side, as Paul was led away from the wreckage.
“What are they doing?”
“I don’t… oh my God no!” She stood, started to run from the cave but Tanner grabbed her by the waist and pulled her back down just as the sound of rifle fire reached the cave. He took the binoculars from her as she crumpled to the ground, settled on the rock and watched as the Oromo fired again into the bodies on the ground before them. He turned, dropped the binoculars to the rocky floor, slid back into the cave, his eyes blinking rapidly as he tried to make sense of the darkness that lay ahead.
“Fuck…this can’t be happening…” he whispered as the scene registered again in his mind.
Nimiri, clutching Catherine by his side, guided her back into the darkness. “Do you know, Doug, for an educated man, you say very little.”
Nimiri could see the young man had suddenly come almost completely unhinged by what he’d just seen; the young man had drawn his knees up to his chin and now he was staring wide-eyed off into space. And yet Catherine too understood what he had seen; despite the pain she felt some deeper maternal instinct kick in: she went to the young man’s side and knelt before him.
He said nothing. No response at all.
“Doug? Tell me, what did you see?”
Doug’s eyes welled up, he gasped for breath: “They’re going to kill us…all of us…”
“Doug! Tell me what you saw?”
“I don’t want to die like that…”
“How, Doug? Like how? What did you see?”
‘With a black sack over my head, a gun pressed-up against the back of my head,’ he wanted to say — but the words just wouldn’t come. To utter those words was to acknowledge their truth, the cold reality behind them, and he chose to turn away and run to the comfort of other, more familiar delusions.
“I didn’t see much,” he said at last. “They’re gone. I hope your friend wasn’t out there.”
“Paul? He was, Doug. He was the man in the red shirt.”
“What did they say on the phone?”
“They will do what they can. They know where we are.”
“What they can?” Doug said shrilly. “What the fuck does that mean?!”
“Doug, drink some water,” Nimiri said. “You must think with clearness now.”
“Clearness,” Tanner said, his voice a faint whisper. “When I was a kid, my dad used to tell me that. Clarity is the word. He was a doc too, in the Navy. He went Vietnam, and he even went to Iraq.”
“Doug?” Catherine whispered. “Violent death never makes sense. It is a shock to the system, it offends our sense of the sacredness of life, and yet to be reminded so powerfully how fragile life is. And how susceptible we are to such senselessness.”
Doug still looked unfocused, unbalanced.
“What did your father see in Vietnam?”
“I don’t know, really. He never talked about it. I mean, he wouldn’t…”
“Do you think he believed in what he was doing?”
“What?” Doug said haltingly. “Yes, of course.”
“Do you think he might have seen purpose working over there?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Nimiri spoke now: “Doug, do you see purpose in your life?”
The young man’s face lurched, his eyes flinched: “I don’t know,” he whispered after some time.
The old man nodded, sat down on his haunches; Catherine eased down beside Doug and laid his head on her shoulder, ran her fingers through his hair. They sat quietly for a long while, until a brief outburst of gunfire startled them back into the present.
Catherine pushed herself up, went back to the entrance, stopped to pick up the binoculars as she crawled along the rocks. She peered over the edge, brought the glasses to her eyes and swept the landscape. She saw men running down a shallow slope towards the burning convoy, the guerrillas firing at the trucks. She focused her attention on one truck: there were people in the back, armed people! As the Oromo closed the relief workers in the truck opened up, shot several of the guerillas.
“What!” she cried out. “Why are they armed? That is against the rules!” This was, Catherine thought furiously, a breach of the most basic protocol: MSF workers, indeed no relief workers anywhere, went into a conflict zone as an armed force. The UN or some other military force always carried out protective functions. But now someone had violated that most basic rule and the likely outcome was too grim to think about.
“You’ve got to be kidding me?” Doug said. “Someone actually broke a rule?”
“Yes! If people break the rules only more violence will follow!”
“Lady, have you ever considered that there are some people who never follow the rules?”
“Of course! Don’t be naïve!”
“Moi? Naïve? Surely you jest.”
She turned to face down Doug but saw him stand up, only now with a rock in his right hand, winding up for a throw. Before she knew it the rock left his hand and whizzed past her head – she heard the air ripping as it soared by – then Nimiri reached for her and pulled her forcibly back into the darkness.
“Why did you do that?” she cried.
But Doug was readying another rock; when the second was arcing past her face she turned, saw a long reddish colored cobra coiled up not a meter from where she had been just seconds before. Doug’s second pitch was perfect; the snake boiled and hissed and disappeared down into the scree below.
“Oh my God, oh my God,” she said as she fell into the safety of the old man’s arms.
“Shit! Fuck-a-duck!” Doug screamed. “Holy fucking crap! Did you see the size of that fucking thing!”
Nimiri nodded, smiled. “You throw well.”
Doug tried to stand upright but his head hit the low ceiling; still, he seemed giddy, lost somewhere between shock and pride. “Third base, man! Fucking high school!” he shouted as yet more adrenaline washed through his system. “Fuck! That fucker was huge!”
Catherine saw the snake in her mind’s eye and recoiled inward, unaware now that she was shaking.
“It okay now,” Nimiri whispered in her ear. “I think snake gone.”
She relaxed, groped her way to the rocky floor and sat; the old man crouched nearby, watched her for a while, even as he watched Doug bounce off the walls as he came down from the adrenaline rush.
“What time is it?” she asked then.
Nimiri shrugged; Doug looked at his watch: “Almost five.”
“I have to call in now. Is it gone?”
“You want me to stick my head up and look?” Tanner said.
She nodded. “Please.”
“Fuck.” Tanner went near the entrance and looked around, then tossed a few rocks out the opening and listened.
He slowly closed the distance, rose over the rock where the snake had been — and half expected to be hit in the face — but he saw nothing. Rocks, red dirt, some greenish-gray grass — but no snake.
“Clear,” he said. He heard Catherine and Nimiri walk up, felt her placing the antenna on a rock clear of the entrance, then dialing the phone.
“Hello,” she said to a faraway voice, someone sitting behind a desk in an air-conditioned office a billion miles away. “Desaunier here.” She listened to the voice on the other end for quite a while, then hung up and shut the unit down.
“Excuse me, but you sure didn’t say much…”
“I am told they can home in on these transmissions. Anyway, protests are being made in both the Security Council and the General Assembly, but there have been denials from all involved here.”
“Interesting,” Tanner said, because he was thinking of Gene Harwell and the cartel.
“Exactly.” She sighed as she looked at the young man: “An AU force will come later this morning. A French force is coming as we speak, and something about your Navy was mentioned. They will attempt to reach us this morning. I am to call in every two hours and they ask that we monitor the Oromo’s location.”
“Okay, that sounds fucking doable to me,” Tanner said nervously.
“Doug?” Nimiri interrupted.
“You must find other word. I tire of this one word you use. This ‘fuck’.”
Catherine laughed as she put away her phone. “Nimiri, it is an Americanism. It means nothing.”
“I know America. This is not America. The word he uses means nothing. Less than nothing. It is a word that tells the world ‘here is a man with no self-respect’. Is that America?”
Doug looked at Nimiri: “You’ve been to America?”
“No, but I remember an American. A man called Kennedy. I remember him talking about standing up to oppression. People all over Africa remember this man, they still remember his words.”
Tanner nodded. “I’m not sure anyone lives up to that standard anymore, Nimiri.”
“Perhaps not,” Nimiri continued. “But that is a choice, is it not? But tell me, where else but America could these words have come? But do not tell me this ‘fuck’ word represents who you are, or what you have become?”
“I’m pretty sure it has, Nimiri,” Doug sighed.
“I remember Kennedy,” Catherine said. “Ich bein ein Berliner! I remember hearing those words when I was in school. He wanted to tear down walls and take us to the stars. My God, how spectacularly we have failed that vision…”
“Hey,” Tanner smiled, “the opera ain’t over ‘til the Fat Lady sings.”
Nimiri frowned and Catherine explained as the old man looked at Doug: “I think you is fuckin’ right. There is always tomorrow. Fuck ‘em ‘til fat lady sing.”
The three of them laughed, they laughed for quite some time, but soon the sun slipped over the horizon and daylight came for them as they sheltered from the coming storm.
The Oromo commander and the American physician looked at the bullet riddled Toyota, at the one dead, ant-covered man laid out underneath, then Gene Harwell remembered that the helicopter had flown toward an escarpment just west of the road and he wondered if survivors might not have escaped from this particular truck? The commander looked with grizzled eyes at the ground under the truck and ran his hand over impressions in the sand. More than one person had been under here; he could feel their presence even now. He walked around the truck, looked at the ground with his flashlight, saw footprints – even though it appeared someone had tried to conceal them, and he smiled. There could be no witnesses and no evidence, he told himself once again. Because the Americans will come here.
He barked orders at one of his lieutenants and tension rippled through the sunrise like leaves blowing across still water.
Deep shadows cast a black veil over the escarpment, while slivers of bright yellow light hit stray gray rocks; three humans sat near the entrance to the cave and looked out over the valley below. The young man passed another candy bar to his companions, and he opened a fresh bottle of water and took a swig before passing it to the woman.
“It’s so quiet,” she said as she sifted through her bag. “Where are the sounds of animals? I can’t even hear the breeze.”
The old man lifted his head into the light, cocked his head as he listened: “You are correct, Lady. Too quiet. A great beast hunts in the shadows. The small hide now.”
“That about sums things up, Nimiri,” Doug said, “for us too, don’t you think?”
“Oh yes.” As they resumed their patient watch she pulled two bags of salmon from her bag and began opening them up.
“I thought you said…”
“There is too much salt in this fish, and we have not enough water. But perhaps the protein will help… ”
“Yes,” Nimiri said as he took a piece of the pink flesh. “Perhaps this is our last supper.” He held the fish to his nose then shook his head: “What is this fish? He stinks mightily!”
“This fish,” Catherine said, “is from an ocean far away, where the water is clear and cold. It has been smoked.”
The old man turned away, pinched his nose: “You eat this fish?”
“Oh yes. It’s very good.”
“You say so. Not me.” She passed around the fish and Doug took a bite and sighed.
“Oh man, that’s good.”
Nimiri looked unconvinced but took a piece and sniffed it tentatively: “It smell like goat shit.”
“Go ahead, Nimiri, try it!” Doug said, so the old man took the piece and chewed it rapidly.
Then he smiled: “It is not bad, for goat shit.”
Doug pulled out his last two granola bars and the old man’s eyes lit up: “I guess you like chocolate, huh?”
“Oh yes. Chocolate very good.”
Doug broke the two bars into six pieces and passed them around, then they sat back and listened to the wind. Shadows moved with the arcing sun, grass rustled in the light breeze as the daily rituals of hunger and survival got underway on the savannah below.
“I wonder if they’ll get to us in time?” Catherine said after some time had passed.
“The way things have been going?” Doug commented, “I doubt it.”
“Have you always been so…optimistic?” she replied.
“He carries a great burden,” Nimiri said. “He grows tired.”
“That’s me. The Burdened White Man.”
“The what?” Catherine asked.
“I was thinking of Kipling. The White Man’s Burden. And what you said, that ‘you reap what you sow’.
“Ah, ‘Doug 12:24’.”
“‘Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap; which neither have storehouse nor barn; and God feedeth them: how much more are ye better than the fowls?’”
“Not exactly what I had in mind,” the young man replied.
“Perhaps,” the old man sighed, “you do not yet think clearly.”
“I know what you mean, Doug.”
The young man pointed to the sky: “Kipling wrote: ‘Take up the White Man’s burden, And reap his old reward: The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard…’”
The old man opened both his hands to the heavens: “I think you should put your trust in God, not this Kipling,” before he brought his fingers together, now as if in prayer.
“God always makes things so much simpler, doesn’t he?” Doug said – but he spoke a little too sarcastically.
“That is true,” Nimiri said, “because this life is simple.”
“Everything always has to have as purpose, right?” Tanner sighed.
“So some say.”
“And I suppose ravens never starve to death?”
Nimiri smiled: “Death comes to all things.”
“And always the ready come-back! Amazing!”
“Perhaps because God has thought of everything.”
Catherine watched, listening to their exchange and growing more agitated: “Some say that religion is the cause of all human suffering, little more than an opiate to the masses!”
“Perhaps so,” the old man said. “But did God do that?”
“But everything has to have a purpose, Nimiri!” Doug interjected. “You said so yourself!”
“If religion causes suffering, then…”
“What has religion got to do with God?” Nimiri said, and the other two stopped and looked at one another.
“What?” Catherine said, perplexed.
“What has religion got to do with God?” Nimiri replied.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“Did God make religion, or did man?”
“Man,” Doug said.
“Ah. But man flawed. From beginning. Everything man creates flawed one way or other. Even religion. Man overcome religion, only way to God.”
“Now there’s an interesting point of view,” Tanner said.
“Nimiri?” Catherine said. “Did you ever hear of a man named Yeats?”
“Yeats. I not know name.”
“Another poet, an Irishman. He wrote: ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.’ About a time when goodness retreats and mediocrity assumes the lead. He called his poem The Second Coming.”
Nimiri’s eyes shone in the darkness. “Indeed. And you think such a time has come?”
“Sometimes, yes, it feels that way.”
“I suspect,” the old man said, “it always feel this way. Each face time of darkness.”
“And become the raven.”
“The what? But…why?” She looked at the old man, but he had turned away and was looking at the sky.
“Look!” the old man said as he pointed skyward. A jetliner was headed north towards Europe and it was leaving a long contrail across the morning sky.
Catherine turned, looked at the sky and wondered what had captured the old man’s attention.
“That’s an airliner,” Tanner said. “Probably on its way to Europe.”
“A what?” Nimiri said as he watched the contrails fade away to blue sky.
“An airliner, carrying hundreds of people to Europe.”
“Hundreds?” Nimiri said wonderingly. “You mean there are hundreds of people in the sky?”
“Two hundred or so, yeah.” The last of the moon was still visible low in the western sky and Tanner pointed to it now: “You know people have walked on the moon?”
“You are being serious?”
“Oh, yeah, Apollo. Five times, and ten men walked up there.”
“Yeah. You don’t remember that?”
“What? Men go there?”
“You heard about that, didn’t you?”
“I remember the Kennedy-man spoke of this. You mean, people have go there? To moon?”
The young man looked at the woman, then at the old man: “Yes. Almost fifty years ago.”
“Ah,” Nimiri said. “I in prison those days.” When no one spoke he continued. “You see, I killed a man.”
“Really?” Catherine said uneasily.
“Yes. I was young. I home one day, find soldier top of my mother and I kills him. I taken away, taken place where told I am wrong.”
“Ah,” Doug said, “lawyers. You gotta love ‘em.”
“Lucky you weren’t killed right then and there!” Catherine said.
“But a kid protecting his mother?” Doug sighed, shaking his head.
“Yes,” Nimiri said. “Interesting tyrant in law.”
“Amen,” Doug said.
“How old were you, Nimiri, when this happened?” Catherine asked.
“Oh, Lady, am not sure. Perhaps ten years. I remember teacher told about Kennedy-man, and what he say about moon. I never believe such thing happen.”
“Well, it did,” Catherine said.
“How long ago?” Nimiri asked.
“Fifty years. This summer,” Tanner added.
The old man turned and looked at the fading moon again.
“So. Your people walk there. How you look that and not have pride in people? Your people?”
“We were capable of so much more,” Catherine said, “but somehow we have turned against our own ideas.”
“Really?” Doug said. “Why do you say that?”
“I don’t know. Look around and you see fascists taking power everywhere, even in your country.”
“And what about France? The same thing isn’t happening there?”
“Of course it is. It is the same everywhere. Immigration. It is always about immigration. A fear of others unlike ourselves.”
“But you’re not afraid, right?” Tanner said.
“Of course I am afraid, but not for the reason you imply. I am afraid we have failed to learn from our mistakes, that we will once again fall into the abyss of authoritarianism…”
“And why do you think that is?” Tanner quipped.
“I wish I knew. Some say it is a failure of our schools while others imply it is only natural for the different races to oppose one another, to regard The Other with a great suspicion.”
“And what about you? What do you think it is?”
“I can’t understand it. I can transfuse blood from a white man into an African woman with no obvious ill effect. We can transplant organs from one to the other, and we can do so because we are biologically the same, aside from the amount of melanin in our skin cells, yet this one little difference accounts for so much of the hatred we experience…”
“When I was in my residency,” Tanner said, “I noticed all kinds of differences in the way we treat white patients versus blacks. Nice neat sutures for white patients and quick and dirty for blacks. I began to see all kinds of other signs, too…”
“And what did you conclude?”
“That people who’d never consider themselves racist just might be the most racist of all. We’ve just buried all our various hatreds under layers of rationalizations and intellectual dishonesty.”
“But not you, I take it?” Catherine said.
“I wish that was so,” Tanner sighed. “And you were correct, my name isn’t Smith. It’s Doug Tanner.”
“So? What are you running from? Bankers or taxes?”
“As far as I know, a Mexican drug cartel.”
Catherine’s eyes widened. “What have you done?”
“I accidentally identified someone under the protection of a cartel to federal agents, and it appears the cartel has been after me ever since.”
“This ambush? Do you think it’s possible that these men are after you?”
Tanner nodded. “I heard someone speaking Spanish down there.”
“Is the rest of your tale a lie, as well?”
“No,” Tanner said. “I’ve been working in Addis Ababa for a few months. I was in a witness protection program before that, and with MSF before that.”
“And it was an accident, you say? This identification?”
“And they have been following you for how long?” she asked.
“Over a year, I think. They’re very persistent.”
“So it would seem. It must be very confusing, but did you not consider this might happen?”
“I didn’t come up with this arrangement,” Tanner barked, suddenly angry at her insinuation.
“But how many people down there have died, and perhaps because of you?”
Soon they were arguing and Nimiri sat back, watched for a moment, then he cleared his throat: “You must consider where you are, please,” he said, “and that we need be quiet.”
Doug and Catherine separated then, and each moved into separate parts of the cave.
“You act like people you say you Hate,” Nimiri said into the darkness. “Yet you are lucky be alive, and still you fight. All you do is fight! You come here to take care of us and you fight. Have you ever considered that we might be better off without you?”
Nimiri watched shadows on the wall, wondered why two such intelligent people would act so contrary to their nature, yet as he listened neither said a word to the other. They had wounded each other and that was all they could do. Nimiri shook his head and in time he heard the woman breathing heavily, the young man snoring, and he turned and watched the sun as it arced across the sky. Soon he felt his own eyes growing heavy as the sun raced across the sky…
…but then he saw something out of the corner of his eye…
…something low, reddish-gray, and moving quietly among the rocks…
…he moved his hand slowly, found a rock, and began to lift it…
…just as the cobra rose from the rocks and began his attack…
The last of the sun slanted into the cave, hit Tanner on the face. He stirred as he swatted a fly and opened his eyes. He saw Catherine curled up on a smooth sandy spot a few meters away and, while he sat up, he rubbed away the sandy grit that had formed in the sweat by his eyes while he slept. He yawned, stretched and had begun to stand when he saw Nimiri sprawled out unnaturally near the cave’s entrance. Something didn’t feel right and he crouched down protectively, eased over to where the woman slept. He paused when he reached her, shook her gently, kept his hand lightly over her mouth to keep her from speaking.
She woke with a start, tried to rise but he held her down and she looked up at him with wide-eyed fright in her eyes – until she saw him motion her to silence with a single pointed finger over his lips. She nodded and he released her, she tried to sit and felt his hands helping her up, then she saw him pointing at the old man by the entrance to the cave.
Nimiri lay perfectly still and at once she knew.
She could see his chest: no movement. None at all. And no respiration. She could, even from where she crouched, see his neck and the stillness within: still no movement, so no carotid pulse.
Her first impulse was to run to the old man’s side, but some force gripped her, some deeper instinct held her back – and she felt the same response from Doug. He was on-guard, something menacing lurked in the shadows and he felt it too.
He pushed her back into the shadows but even so he remained protectively in front of her.
They heard footsteps now; sliding, grinding footsteps coming up the rocks outside the cave. Coming up, she had no doubt, for Doug Tanner.
Gene Harwell and his men paused ten meters behind their lead tracker.
The tracker had, he saw in the low slanting sunlight, held up his fist; the man had found something of importance – perhaps even dangerous. Harwell’s men stopped as one on the signal, they collectively held their breath as the tracker eased forward slowly, silently, on hands and knees.
A moment later the tracker motioned for the column to move forward – slowly.
One man stepped too far and slid noisily on the scree and the mercenary group’s leader cursed under his breath, looked at the offending man and made a cutting motion over his neck. The man nodded and Harwell watched the mercenaries behind him take-up positions on either side of the entrance to a deep cave. The group’s leader climbed as noiselessly as a cat until he too was beside the entrance; once there he watched the tracker, listened to the silence for any telltale sign of activity inside the cave, then he looked down.
An old man lay on his side, a three meter long cobra by his side. Both were dead.
The man had several puncture wounds on his hands, face and neck.
The snake’s head had been bashed-in by the rock in the man’s hand.
“That guy had balls,” Harwell said quietly, and the man next to him shuddered and nodded. The tracker stood, picked up a stone and threw it forcefully into the darkness…
“Nothing!” he said loudly in French a moment later. “Move on!”
But Harwell remained by the entrance, motioned to the mercenary by his side. “Sit here quietly, wait and watch,” he whispered to the man. When Harwell was sure the man understood, he too moved away quietly.
Doug looked down at his watch again. It had been at least a half hour since he’d heard Harwell and his men move back down the slope – but still his instinct told him not to move – or even try to leave the cover of these deep shadows.
“I really have to pee,” Catherine whispered, and he could tell she was still nearby. “I think I might wet my pants if I don’t.”
Doug listened, cocked his head to one side when he thought he heard some movement, then he edged forward, still in shadow, and pointed at the ground, motioned Catherine to go where she stood. He heard her undoing her trousers, then her water bouncing off the stone floor and running down rocks into the sand…
…then she slipped and fell backwards, cried out when her tailbone hit a sharp rock…
…and he listened as she regrouped, got herself together; but yes, now he heard more footsteps approaching again and he flattened himself against the side of the cave and waited.
Harwell and his men weren’t trying to conceal their approach this time. Dozens of guerrillas were sliding noisily up the scree, taking up positions on either side of the entrance. Doug felt his pulse hammering inside his skull, found himself wondering what it would feel like to die, when he heard their first demands…
“Venez des maintenant!”
“What did he say?” Doug whispered to Catherine.
“Come out,” she whispered back.
“Venez nous ou lancer des grenades!”
“We must come out now,” she said, “or they throw grenades in here.”
“Okay,” Doug said. “Game over.” He could barely see her in the darkness, but an odd feeling came over him as he stood there in the dark. “Ya know, I think I would have liked getting to know you.”
“Indeed. You ready?”
She felt her hand take his and he started forward.
“Mettez vos mains en l’air!”
“Put your hands up,” she translated while she complied.
“What did you say!” Doug shouted as he inched towards the opening.
“Ah, there he is,” Harwell said, his smile a broken, mean line creasing his face.
Doug could now see his wiry nemesis, a tall, skinny man standing just outside the entrance with an AK-47 in his hands, but then he saw Nimiri and the dead cobra. “Yeah, I’m with the New York Times. A reporter.”
“Really? How nice for you, Doctor Tanner. Get your hands where I can see them or I will remove the woman’s head slowly while you watch.”
Doug got his hands up as he bent over to come out the entrance, but his second impression of Harwell was that he was astonishingly frightening looking, especially for a physician. He was tall and rail thin, and his face appeared quite old, as if his skin had been stretched tightly over a misshaped skull, so tight that it revealed every detail of the bone underneath.
“So. You’re death, huh?” Doug said. “You look the part.”
Harwell laughed. “I’ve play the part all too well, I’m afraid. And perhaps too many times.”
“I’m curious…what happened to you?”
“I guess it’s just the way I was put together,” Harwell said lightly, as if that alone explained everything that had gone wrong with his life.
“Put together?” Doug replied, amused now. “Abused as a child, no doubt?”
Then time itself seemed to bend and hover for a moment, before the world outside the cave roared and filled with bright light; the first concussive blast knocked Doug backwards into Catherine and they both fell back against the cave’s uneven floor. Catherine felt a sharp pain in her lower back as she realized bombs were falling on the riverbed beneath the caves, and she saw Tanner was trying to shield her from the worst of the blasts’ effects. Minutes passed and then a deathly still fell over the area, only to be subsumed by the thrashing blades of several helicopters landing on the road on the far side of the riverbed.
Tanner got up and tried to wipe all the gritty sand from his face, but Catherine could see he was unsteady on his feet. He put his hand out to steady himself, then they both heard cries and whispers coming from just outside the cave, and a new surge of adrenaline seemed to push Tanner towards the cave’s entrance.
He found Gene Harwell lying there, his right leg a pulpy mess and blood trickling out his ears, so Tanner rushed to his side. He started assessing the physician’s injuries, first checking the sundered leg for compromised blood vessels before moving to Harwell’s head. Harwell didn’t respond to his voice and Tanner soon discovered the man’s right eye had a penetrating foreign body protruding, and a trickle of vitreous humor running down his cheek.
Tanner looked up, saw US Marines running his way from a half dozen helicopters and he shouted “Medic!” as loudly as he could, hoping to draw their attention. Moments later the marines were climbing up the rocky scree to his position and two came and knelt beside him, quickly getting to work. A stretcher was summoned, and moments later Catherine came crawling out of the cave. She had difficulty standing on her own and Tanner went to help her.
“Who is that?” she asked, pointing at Harwell and the marines.
“He’s the guy that’s been after us.”
“So all this happened because of him?”
Tanner nodded. “Because of me, really. I was the one that put the ball in motion.”
She looked at the smoldering caravan off in the distance and wondered how many people had died during the fight, then she looked up at Doug Tanner. “This wasn’t your fault,” she whispered, taking his hand.
“I think I feel worse about Nimiri,” Tanner sighed. “He sacrificed everything fur us, and what did he get in return…?”
She nodded. “Kipling again. What did you say, take up the White Man’s Burden?”
“Maybe we really don’t belong here, you know? Maybe it’s simple paternalism.”
“It’s a noble thing you’re doing, this teaching at the university. I hope you don’t stop because of everything that happened here.”
Doug turned to the sound of his voice and saw Gene Harwell motioning for him, so he walked over the stretcher and stood beside him. “Can you hear me?” Doug asked.
“A little, kinda faraway. Listen up, okay? My wife is down at Lake Tana, at the clinic there. Goes by the name of Patty McCluskey now. If I don’t make it, would you see to her, please? Make sure she gets home, maybe?”
Tanner nodded. “Yeah, sure. Anything else?”
“I have money at the Citibank in Mexico City. A lot of it. Code number is my old social security number—reversed, access code is Trinity. Would you see that she gets it?”
Tanner nodded. “Of course.”
Harwell held out his right hand and Tanner took it, just before the medics started down the hill with the stretcher towards the waiting helicopters. Doug turned and held out his hand; Catherine looked at him and smiled, then she took his hand – yet they stood there for a moment, looking at Nimiri and the red cobra.
“He seemed to think there was something important you need to do before you leave this place, Douglas.”
He didn’t know what else to say, so he went over and lifted Nimiri’s frail body and slung him over his shoulder, then started down the steep slope. There was nothing left to be done now but to give their friend a decent burial.
He stood in the bedroom of his house in Addis Ababa, looking at his shattered bedroom and the ruptured exterior wall and he was quite amazed that fire hadn’t broken out and burned down the entire structure. The university had hired a contractor to rebuild the shattered exterior wall and refinish the interior, and the work would be complete in a few weeks, but until then he was, in a word, homeless. He showed Catherine around the rest of the house and then they drove out to the airport together. She was headed home, to a small town outside of Paris, to rest and regroup. Or so she said.
Beth Gruber and Jenny Peterson were already at the airport when Doug and Catherine arrived, and MSF personnel joined them at the gate — with Patty McKinnon, Gene Harwell’s widow, in their custody. She was holding a little girl, a toddler, close to her face, and when Tanner looked at her she shot him a gaze full of seething hate. He watched her little entourage warily after that, even as their flight was called and boarding began. Tanner, as was his custom, had upgraded to business class and so was sitting with Catherine up front, while Beth and Jenny boarded and went to the rear of the jetliner.
As did McKinnon, along with her dour-faced minders from Doctors Without Borders.
A final few passengers boarded just before the main door closed and Tanner watched as the Jetway retracted, then the terminal as it fell away in the fading light of day. A few minutes later the Air France A330 was airborne and headed for Paris Charles de Gaulle – and another lovely flight attendant brought warm towels and chilled Champagne to Tanner and Catherine. Dinner was served and the lights dimmed…
…and a stranger approached. Tanner looked up at the man and in an instant knew he was trouble.
“Excuse me,” the stranger said to Catherine, “but Doctor Tanner is an old friend. Would you mind if I sat and spoke with him for a few minutes?” The man’s English was flawless, even if he spoke with a faint accent, but Tanner had already deduced the stranger was nothing more or less than a message from the cartel.
“Of course,” Catherine said, excusing herself and walking forward to the restroom just aft of the cockpit.
The stranger sat beside Tanner with an oddly exasperated sigh, then he turned to the younger man and smiled. “You have been quite a nuisance, Doctor, but I suppose you know that.”
Tanner shrugged. “I’m not sure why all this happened.”
“You were working for the DEA, were you not, when you identified Eugene?”
Tanner smiled. “Actually no, I wasn’t. Neither was Jenny Peterson. We both thought he looked like someone who was running from the law, so I asked her to take a photograph of him so we could pass it along…”
“To whom would you have passed it along to, Doctor Tanner?”
“Frankly, we had no idea.”
The man shrugged and smiled. “I’ve always disliked the idea of killing physicians,” the stranger said. “It seems a pointless waste. Yet Gene was my friend and there is a price that must be paid for his death.”
“I see. And what might that be?”
“We will need to replace him. I was thinking that you might be able to do that for me.”
“Go to hell.”
The stranger smiled, though he stiffened a bit — the kind of reaction Tanner expected of a man not used to being spoken to in this way. “I would advise you to consider the matter carefully, Douglas.”
“Excuse me, but would you mind telling me your name?”
“Oh, I am so sorry. My name is Luis, Luis Quintana,” the man said, holding out his right hand.
Tanner looked at the stranger’s hand for a moment, then he took it. “Before Harwell died he told me where his funds are located, and he gave me the access codes. I would imagine his widow would be interested in gaining access to these funds, don’t you?”
“What makes you think I don’t already have these funds in hand?”
“If you did we wouldn’t be having this conversation, would we?”
Quintana smiled, his grip on Tanner’s hand increasing fractionally. “Had you planned on keeping these for yourself?”
Quintana studied Tanner’s face as he spoke, then he released his grip and leaned back, sighing – just as Catherine returned from the restroom – so he stood and gave way to her. “Perhaps we could speak once again? After we arrive in Paris?” Quintana said pleasantly enough. “I’d love to conclude our arrangements before I catch my connecting flight.”
Tanner nodded noncommittally and he watched Quintana walk to the far side of the cabin and take a seat, then he felt Catherine’s eyes boring into his.
“What was that about?” she asked.
“I think that gentleman is the head of the cartel Harwell worked for, and he says Harwell was his friend.”
“Oh, dear God, no…”
“What does he want?”
“That remains to be determined.”
She buried her face in her hands and he could feel her trembling, so he put his coat over her shoulders and held her close. “What can you do?” she muttered through her fingers. “What else does he want from you?”
“Servitude, I think,” Tanner said.
She looked up, aghast. “You can’t be serious? What did you tell him?”
“That I’m not interested in that life.”
“Again, that remains to be decided. In his mind there is a price to be paid, so…”
“How many people must die on account of this bastard Harwell?” she cried. “How much blood must be spilled?”
“Well, as they say…it’s an insatiable market, so as long as people buy this crap the blood will flow.”
She shook her head again. “Then it never ends.”
Tanner nodded. “No, it never ends.” He sat back in his seat and looked out the window, not knowing what to expect next. He closed his eyes and against all odds he fell into a fevered sleep. Dreams came on hard and fast, dreams of an endless cave. A cave full of red snakes writhing on a smooth stone floor. In the distance an opening, but hundreds of cobras remained between him and the opening, so he was trapped. The only way out was to confront certain death…
When he woke the sky was a pale gray and the checkered green landscape was coming up to greet the airliner. The flight attendant was walking through the cabin, checking on seat backs and tray tables and smiling with her warm towels and cheerful “good mornings.” Tanner sat up and rubbed latent dreams from his gritty eyes, then he looked at Catherine and smiled at her brave face.
“Did you manage to sleep?” he asked.
“No, not at all. That was not the case with you, however. You snore loudly, by the way?”
“I do not.”
“Oh, really? And I suppose you don’t pass gas, either?”
She smiled. “You were restless at one point.”
“I was in the cave. With a bunch of snakes.”
She nodded understanding. “Perhaps that is why I chose not to sleep.”
“You are very wise.”
She took his hand, looked in his eyes. “What is to become of us, Douglas?”
“Oh, I predict a long life together, making you breakfast on Sunday mornings. I see a sunny patio and roses everywhere, and a little dog.”
She closed her eyes and smiled, and he leaned over and kissed her once, gently, on the lips. “What else do you see?” she said.
‘A cave full of cobras,’ he felt he needed to say. but instead he squeezed her hand, then he kissed her again. “I think soon you and I must make a few decisions, about the future,” he sighed.
“I think so too,” she replied.
He turned and saw hedgerows and little roadways give way to hotels and warehouses and massive highways and then the Airbus settled on the runway and he wondered where the day would take him next.
There was a kind of unspoken acknowledgement when Tanner and Catherine met Beth and Jenny at the end of the Jetway, and regardless of intent Jenny could see it in the way Doug and Catherine stood together. They smiled congenially then started for customs, though Tanner studiously ignored Quintana all the while. Catherine walked through the EU portal and waited for them, and when they separated Tanner told Beth and Jenny that he wasn’t sure what his immediate travel plans were but that they might be fluid…
“Fluid?” Beth asked.
Tanner nodded. “Yes. Someone from the cartel contacted me on the plane. They aren’t through with me just yet.”
“Jesus, Doug!” Jenny cried. “What are you going to do?”
“Play it cool, for one thing,” he admonished. “No scenes, okay?”
“Right,” Jenny said, trying to collect her thoughts.
“What are you going to do, Doug?” Beth asked. “Call our contact in DC?”
“They’re watching me,” he replied. “Probably all of us, so no, stay away from your phones for now, at least until you’re sure no one is watching.”
But it was at this point that Luis Quintana walked right up to them. “There’s no need for such secrecy among friends,” he said, smiling brightly at Jenny Peterson. “You will all be coming with us, to Mexico, for a brief holiday. We’ll be leaving as soon as you collect your luggage, and we have a schedule to keep.” Two rather beefy mercenary types then appeared beside Quintana – as if to underscore the nature of their predicament.
So Catherine DeSaunier waited and waited for Doug Tanner and the others to come out of customs, but after an hour she grew worried, and another hour passed before she called MSF to ask what she should do. By the time the authorities were alerted a Dassault Falcon 8x, ICAO registration T7-666, was well over the Bay of Biscay on a flight plan filed for Sao Paulo, Brazil. It was listed, illegally, as a ferry flight with no passengers onboard.
As the aircraft approached the Leeward Islands the pilots filed an amended flight plan and diverted to Mexico City. Interpol was, at that time, alerted and agents from the DEA and the FBI converged on the airport, only to learn that, at the last minute, the Falcon had filed another amended flight plan listing Puerto Vallarta as the aircraft’s final destination. It was by then, of course, too late to carry out any kind of interdiction.
Tanner woke up and looked around the massive bedroom, hardly believing the lavishness of Quintana’s residence, or the splendor of the view beyond his bedroom. There were, quite literally, no windows here, just a wide open expanse of patios and pools and then rocks and breaking waves, all with nothing between his bedroom and the sounds of the sea. He stood and stretched and went to the head to brush his teeth and dress for the day, then he walked out onto his patio and continued on to the rocks, and there he stood, staring out at the breakers about twenty feet below. Sea lions were basking on the rocks and there was nothing at all to keep them from coming up and going for a swim in one of the pools, and he found the realization as baffling as it was ludicrous.
“Ah, good, you are an early riser!”
Tanner turned to the voice and saw Luis sitting beside one of the smaller swimming pools. “Good morning,” he said, stifling a yawn.
“Come, please join me. I am having a simple breakfast today, but there is plenty to share.”
Tanner walked over and saw platter upon platter of fresh fruit and bolillos, an untouched French press full of coffee, as well as a bowl full of what appeared to be yogurt.
“Please, Douglas, sit and join me.”
Tanner sat. “You’ll pardon my saying so, but this is rather awkward. I mean, we are your prisoners…”
Quintana seemed hurt on hearing that. “Prisoners? No, not at all. You are my guests, and after your ordeal in the desert I assumed you needed time to recuperate. And truly, I can’t imagine a better place than here. You must admit that the view is splendid, after all…”
“It is that,” Tanner sighed, looking at the many swimming pools arrayed around the back of the sprawling residence, but just then a coconut fell from one of the nearby trees and splashed-down in the pool just behind him.
“The fruits of my labors, Douglas. Perhaps it would surprise you to learn that I built this house for my friend Gene, and just a few years ago. Yet he insisted on going to Africa and I’m afraid I will never understand that.”
“What I find most strange is how much alike you and Gene are. Or rather, were. And excuse the observation, but by that I mean the impulses that guide and inform your decisions seem very similar. Like two sides of the same coin, perhaps.”
“I’m afraid I never knew him.”
“A pity. I think you would have enjoyed his friendship.”
“So, what would you like to do today?”
“Go to Paris, I think.”
Quintana smiled. “Perhaps…when you are more rested, but we can talk about that in a few days.”
“Well then, what would you recommend we do?”
“Ah, well. Do you go diving? There are many interesting sights in the area. A few sharks, as well, but they are rarely troublesome.”
“No, sorry. I never took that up.”
“Well then, perhaps this would be an opportune time to learn. I’ll have an instructor join us.”
“I see. Are we all going for a swim today?”
“Yes, yes, the water is delightful this time of year. Ah, here comes Miss Gruber! Excellent!”
He turned and looked at Beth, and her hair looked like a bird had nested there overnight and she was wearing a t-shirt that hung down to her knees – that said Puerto Vallarta Yacht Club on the front – so now at least Tanner had some idea where they were. She rubbed her eyes as she walked up, and she plopped down in the chair next to Tanners and tried to stifle a yawn.
“God damn but it’s fucking gorgeous here,” she said between yawns. “Is this breakfast?” she said, smiling at the fruit and breads on the table.
“If you like, yes,” Quintana said. “Or I can have the kitchen prepare something hot for you.”
“No, no, this looks great,” she said, spooning slices of mango and papaya onto a plate, then pouring a cup of coffee. “Did I hear someone say something about going diving today?”
“Yes,” Quintana said, brightening a little. “Are you a diver?”
“You can’t live in Miami and not be,” she said a little too cheerfully, pausing to attack a slice of papaya. “Is there good diving around here?” she added.
“I thought that perhaps we would go over to Islas Marietas. It is a remarkable place, and the dive there is more than interesting.”
“How’s the water temperature?” she asked. “Pretty cool?”
“No, no, it is not so bad as that. A lycra skin will suffice, but more for your protection.”
Patty McKinnon came out with her little girl next, and though she still appeared roundly depressed, Tanner could understand that. She’d just lost her husband, and here she was, being forced to relive that loss – just by his presence on the plane and here, at this table. So he stood and pulled a chair out for her, and then he helped her get settled at the table. “May I fix a plate for you?” he asked solicitously.
“No thanks. I can get it.”
Still, Tanner studied McKinnon; first her mannerisms and her behavior towards Quintana, and then the way she responded to Beth – and then Jenny, after she finally emerged from her silk cocoon. He saw her furtive, sidelong glances, almost as if she felt insecure around Jenny and Beth, but then he considered that she probably just felt out of place, like he did. But hadn’t she gone to medical school down here? Is that how she ran into Luis Quintana? What was the link? Or worse still, what did he have on her?
But there was more going on here than first met the eye: McKinnon was jittery and it seemed as if she was on the brink, like maybe having a full blown nervous breakdown wasn’t out of the question, but then Luis would say something and she would rally for a moment and pull herself back from the edge. ‘Is it for the sake of the little girl?’ he wondered. ‘Or for Luis?’ He watched her for a while, then he watched Luis – and yes, there was something going on there…
Because it was obvious that Quintana cared for Patty, yet not in the way a lover might. More like a father, or even the way a friend would take care of a departed friend’s wife. But…was it really possible Quintana did not have access to Harwell’s bank accounts? Was he, Tanner, indeed the last link to ready access to those funds? And if so, was that money the key to their getting out of this trap?
Beth and Jenny were now talking about Scuba diving in the keys, about some sore of statue of Jesus they’d visited that was about thirty feet down on a flat sandy bottom, and about how they’d run into a Hammerhead shark on the last dive they made there…
“It’s their backyard,” Tanner said, rejoining the conversation. “I hope you weren’t too surprised.”
“No, not at all,” Beth said. “Yet it almost looked like something primeval. Quite fascinating, really.”
“But it was big as shit!” Jenny added, shivering as she relived the moment.
“And that, Luis,” Tanner said, smiling at Quintana, “is why I never took up Scuba diving.”
“Really? I have been diving here many times and never have I seen a shark. I understand Hammerheads pass by here in large groups, sometimes as many as one hundred or more at a time, but I have not seen this. I think it would be most magical to see.”
“I’d shit myself,” Jenny sighed, and Tanner watched Quintana’s growing disapproval of Jenny’s choice of words. He was scowling now, and even Patty noticed, which was, perhaps, why she spoke up just then.
“Where are you going today, Luis?” McKinnon asked.
“I was thinking of Islas Marietas, and of taking our guests to the hidden beach.”
“I’ve always wanted to see that,” Patty sighed. “I hear it’s spectacular. Will you take your boat?”
“Sadly, no. She’s down for engine maintenance, but I have a friend who runs a nearby diving school. Perhaps we can get him to take us, as he has a compressor.”
“Count me out,” Tanner said. “I’ll be more than happy to sit here by the pool.”
Luis looked at him for the longest time, then he looked at Patty. “Would you like to join us? Perhaps Dr. Tanner can look after the baby while we are away?”
Patty looked at Tanner then turned back to Luis. “No, I think we should all go.”
And that seemed to settle the matter, at least as far as Quintana was concerned. “Good. I will make the arrangements.”
Before Jenny left for her room Tanner pulled her aside and advised her to cut out the four-letter words, telling her that Quintana seemed offended by her use of vulgar language.
“Fuck you, Tanner,” she hissed as she turned and walked off. “I don’t care what you think!”
Tanner nodded and went to his room. There were things laid out on his bed, which had of course already been made. A swim suit, t-shirt, and running shoes had been neatly arranged there, and a one-piece lycra bodysuit was there, too, still in its factory packaging. He looked over the items and smiled – if only because everything was the correct size. So, their things had been gone through somewhere along the way, probably while they slept, and why was that not surprising?
Two Suburbans carried the group down to a large marina near the center of a large city, and the mystery was soon put to rest when he saw signs indicating they were indeed in Puerto Vallarta. Luis led them out a long pier to a very large motor yacht, and this vessel had an extremely large aft swim platform, complete with an assortment of diving gear on the aft deck, and as soon as they boarded the lines were cast off. And then a blond haired girl, a vintage southern California type, walked up to Tanner as the yacht motored slowly through the marina.
“So,” she said, “you don’t have a C-card?”
“What’s that?” Tanner replied.
“A certification card, for Scuba diving?”
“Never been, and I’m pretty sure I don’t want to learn how today.”
She smiled. “My name’s Carol, and Luis told me I’m supposed to teach you what you need to know.”
“I see. I have an idea. Let’s say we did and then hang out at the bar. Sound like a plan?”
Carol grinned. “Not if you know Luis. He wants you to see this, and believe me, I know you’ll enjoy the experience.”
“So, you haven’t spent much time around the ocean?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Does living on a sailboat count?”
“No kidding? Where was that?”
“Miami, for the most part.”
“And you don’t dive?”
“I don’t like the idea of swimming with sharks.”
“Ah. Well, there aren’t that many around here.”
“All it takes is one, I reckon.”
The boat cleared the marina and accelerated until it was up on a plane – and Tanner blanched at the thought of how much diesel fuel was being used. “Mind if I go up to the bridge?” he asked.
“No, come on. I’ll take you up.”
The skipper was American, and Tanner was beginning to see a trend. Luis Quintana had surrounded himself with Americans, but – why? ‘Are we less dangerous for him?’ Tanner wondered. ‘Was that how Harwell got mixed up in all this?’ He looked at the latest all-in-one NAV displays and found the fuel flow meters and tried not to scowl as he did the math in his head, but this little forty-mile round-trip jaunt would end up costing someone around two grand at this rate of consumption, then he looked at the radar overlay and counted all the other ships already out on the water.
“Lot of traffic out already,” Tanner said to the skipper.
“Yup, lots of fishermen head out around midnight. They’re heading in now, get their catch to market by nine or so. Cruise ships will come in around noon and their buyers scoop up all the good stuff that’s left, so you gotta shop early around here.”
“Cruise ships? Really? Where from?”
“Oh yeah, lots of ‘em come down from LA and San Diego. Some head on down to the canal, some go back north to LA. Usually a couple a day in here, too.”
“This seems pretty fancy for a dive boat,” Tanner said.
“Oh, it is, but this is more a party boat that caters to a clientele that happens to have a lot of divers.”
Carol tugged at his sleeve then. “Come with me, Doug,” she said, and even that was funny – because he’d never mentioned his name to her.
“Okay. Do I get the nickel tour now?”
“No, it’s time to get your gear sorted out, and we’ll start with your dive computer…”
Then she just smiled before she turned to lead him aft, but before he left the bridge he looked at a return on the radar – and observed a large signal with no AIS identifier showing on the screen. As he walked aft he looked in the general direction of the return and spotted what looked like a navy ship of some kind knifing through the water, and he wondered, well, no, perhaps he hoped the DEA or the FBI had caught up to them.
Carol showed him the basics of putting on all the complicated looking gear, but after the yacht arrived at the larger of the two islets Beth and Jenny came aft and slipped into their stuff with practiced ease. Then Luis came aft and Tanner saw he was still fully dressed – but two of his thugs were now with him and they appeared ready to get in the water.
“So,” Tanner said to Quintana, “I take it you’re not coming with us?”
“No, I’m afraid something has come up that I must attend to. My associates will take you over.”
Tanner saw McKinnon and her daughter inside the main saloon, but now she was avoiding eye contact with them. And this exchange had apparently gotten Beth’s attention, too, for she was now studying Quintana’s face and was beginning to understand the situation. Only Jenny remained completely oblivious to their peril, but then again that was just Jenny being Jenny.
Tanner turned to Carol, but she just shrugged and stepped away, effectively telling him he was now on his own, so he looked at Quintana again and noted the odd smile on his face – and the remorseless calm behind his eyes.
“So, this is it, huh?” Tanner sighed.
Quintana shrugged. “The ship you have been watching,” he said, “belongs to our navy. They will be making sure that your swim is undisturbed. Now, would you care to tell me anything before you leave us?”
Tanner looked at the man and his thugs and he shrugged. “No, not really. At least not without assurances that the money will go to McKinnon, and to her alone.”
He watched the expression on Quintana’s face harden, and that was all Tanner needed to know. Money was money, after all, and Quintana wanted what he considered his, and his alone. He might keep McKinnon around and take care of her – or he might not – and in that case she’d be alone and quite probably broke. And if she was broke there was no telling what Quintana might force her to do.
“Enjoy your swim,” Quintana said, walking back into the yacht’s interior.
Now Jenny looked at the two thugs, both heavyset and menacing, and she suddenly seemed to get it. “Uh, guys, what’s going on?” she whimpered…
…and Tanner sighed. “In case you haven’t figured it out yet, we were kidnapped yesterday by the same cartel that’s been after us for months, and it’s my guess these two gentlemen are going to take us ashore and then kill us. Is that clear enough for you? Any questions?”
“You don’t have to be so sarcastic, Doug.”
Tanner looked at her and just shook his head. She was more dense than uranium and he just couldn’t stand the sight of her just then.
But Carol helped Tanner into his buoyancy control vest and then helped him down to the swim platform, then she carefully retreated, now avoiding all eye contact. He sat on the edge of the platform and slipped on his fins and then put the mask she’d given him on, placing the snorkel in his mouth before he pushed off and entered the water. One of the thugs jumped in and swan close to Tanner, treading water while he waited for the girls – and his associate – to jump in.
The water was more green than blue, and Tanner put his face down into the water and looked around. There was a rocky bottom below and not as many fish as he expected, and most everything he saw swimming around down there was less than a foot long…in other words completely uninteresting. He heard a splashing sound and saw that Jenny and Beth were in the water, then the remaining thug jumped in and the two of them corralled Tanner and the two girls and indicated the direction they would be going by pointing at what appeared to be a low cliff.
The girls were wearing full Scuba gear, while Tanner was using a simple mask and snorkel rig, and everyone took off towards the cliff – with one of the thugs in the lead and the other bringing up the rear. An airliner took off from the airport in town and Tanner looked up at the jet as it turned to the north, probably headed to LA or Dallas, and he wished he was up there going wherever all those people were going.
‘All of this has happened because of one goddamned photograph,’ he sighed, shaking his head at the thought. ‘And I don’t deserve this. None of us does!’ He turned and looked at the thug bringing up the rear and thought about trying to overpower the man, but the thug seemed to be reading his mind and simply shook his head.
As they approached the cliff an opening appeared and, waiting for a wave to subside the lead thug swam into the opening and powered through the rocky opening, then the remaining thug pushed Tanner towards the opening, in effect telling him to watch the waves and time his attempt so that he could ride a wave through the opening.
Tanner watched a wave and caught it, diving a little to clear the rocks just overhead, and when he surfaced he looked around in wonder. They were in what felt like a pool of clear blue water and smooth cliffs completely surrounded the pool, the walls of the cliff curving up to form an almost perfectly circular opening. They swam across the pool and the lead thug disappeared into another opening, then Beth and Jenny followed him – leaving Tanner and the other thug to bring up the rear.
This next passage was different. The water was quite calm and this passage was more like a long cave, though it was much longer than the first, and the only light inside the cave came from indirect sunlight hitting the sandy bottom perhaps twenty feet beneath the surface, so the rocks were bathed in a shimmering silvery blue halo that was most pleasant to watch. And while Tanner wanted to linger the thug coming up from behind was there to remind him that this was not a sightseeing trip.
A few minutes later Tanner emerged into another circular pool surrounded by yet another circular cliff topped by another circular opening, yet on one side of this pool the sandy bottom sloped up, forming a decent sized beach that was bathed in pure radiant sunlight, and Tanner thought it was the damndest sight he’d ever seen in his life. He swam over to the beach and took off his fins then walked up onto the sand. He helped the girls out of their gear and led them up onto the sand…
…and then he noticed that the two thugs were standing in waist deep water, and now silenced pistols were in their hands…
…Jenny started crying then, and Beth moved over to comfort her…
…while Tanner turned and stared at the men, and all he could think to say was “Fuck you.”
One of the men raised his pistol and then an impossibly loud shot rang out; this thug’s head disappeared inside a concussive spray of brain and blood…
…and before the other thug could react another shot rang out, and his face disappeared before his body crumpled and fell into the water.
Two men in black fatigues stepped out of the rocks, each carrying large rifles, and then the shorter of the two pulled out a radio and spoke into it: “Archer Base, Red 1, secure,” was all he said.
Then another voice could be heard on the radio: “Archer base, Blue 2, secure here.”
And a minute passed before a Blackhawk helicopter appeared overhead; several minutes later everyone had been hoisted aboard and the helicopter turned to fly west, out into the Sea of Cortez. Fifteen minutes passed before a chunky aircraft carrier appeared, it’s deck packed with nothing but more helicopters, and Tanner recognized it as a US Marine Corp carrier assault ship, and the men who had rescued them were a Navy Seal Team. Another Blackhawk landed after there’s, and Tanner watched as Quintana was led, in handcuffs and ankle-shackles, belowdecks, while Patty McKinnon and her baby girl were escorted by a DEA agent to the helicopter carrying Tanner, Jenny and Beth. Once she was aboard, their Blackhawk took off – and it turned towards the airport in Puerto Vallarta.
A small private jet was waiting to take Jenny and Beth back to Florida, while a jet from the embassy was waiting to take Tanner and McKinnon directly to Mexico City, and once they were on board one of the diplomatic consuls brought them up to speed after the jet was in the air.
“We’ll get to the city in time to get you to the Citibank Private Banking facility downtown, and Gene Harwell’s assets can be turned over to Dr. McKinnon at that point, assuming you still have the codes, Dr. Tanner.”
Tanner pointed at his head. “Still right up here,” he sighed, “where I left them.”
“Once that’s out of the way we’d recommend you both get out of the country, and as fast as humanly possible. We will not be able to protect you once you leave our custody. Is that clear?”
“I’m surprised the government is allowing her to keep any of these funds,” Tanner said.
“Oh, Harwell left a bunch of money in banks around San Antonio. The DEA seized all that months ago, but as long as Dr. McKinnon doesn’t enter the US with that money she’ll be okay.”
“Just what am I supposed to do now?” Patty said. “I mean, I can’t go back to the mission clinic, I can’t go home, and I…”
“You could go to Europe,” Tanner said. “From there you could park the funds before coming back to the States or going, well, just about anywhere.”
“Could you help me?” she pleaded.
“Me?” Tanner said. “Look, I thought you hated me.”
“I don’t even know you. How could I possibly hate you.”
Tanner shrugged. “Well, of course I’ll help you.”
The consul cough politely at that point. “Look, I’m not sure either of you understand what’s going on here. Your husband,” he said, looking at Patty, “had been siphoning money from the cartel, and for quite some time. We understand the figure is rather significant.”
Tanner looked at the consul. “You mean…”
“Yes, they’re going to want it back. So far they don’t know what’s happened to Quintana and they probably won’t for a few more hours, so we’ve got to get you in and out of Mexico City as quickly as possible. What you do from there is up to you. In fact, we’d rather not know what you do, if you know what I mean.”
“Do you have any idea how much is involved?”
“A lot,” the diplomat said. “I mean a whole lot.”
“So the cartel will want it a lot? Is that what you’re saying?”
“A whole lot. Yeah.”
“Can you set up a charter to Geneva? For tonight?” Tanner sighed.
The consul nodded. “Yup. I can do that, but I’d recommend Bern. Smaller airport, better access to the city, and our embassy is there. Oh, and I know people that can help get the ball rolling, if that’s an issue.”
“Do it,” Tanner said, then he turned to McKinnon. “What about you? Any plans?”
Patty held onto her little daughter as she slept on her mother’s shoulder, and Tanner could see she looked absolutely shellshocked. Not a week had passed since her husband had been killed and her daughter had no idea what had happened to him; now they’d both jetted halfway around the world only to get swept up in a failed assassination and a successful DEA arrest of her dead husband’s protector and business partner. She felt like a pawn being moved around the board yet the only thing she felt now was utter exhaustion. She shrugged at Tanner’s question, but her eyes remained fixed on his. “I feel like I’m out of my depth right now,” she said, her voice now husky, almost raspy. “If you have any ideas maybe you should just go with it.”
Both Tanner and the consul thought that odd. Tanner sighed and leaned closer to her, saw the woman was walking on the ragged edge and he reached out and cupped her face in his hand for a moment. “God, what you’ve been through…” he said, and then he smiled that smile of his and her eyes seemed to radiate the sudden warmth she felt inside. But his smile also seemed to bust the dam that had been holding her together; he saw her swallowing hard as her eyes filled with tears, and he unbuckled his seatbelt and went to her, held her while she fell into her first real release since her husband’s death. He managed to get an arm around her and with his other he cradled the little girl, holding them both now. “It’s okay,” he whispered in her ear. “I’m here. You can lean on me.”
And so she held on to him for the longest time.
He usually looked back on that moment over the coming years with something like a sense of wonder in his heart. Life had always been somewhat predictable, Tanner told himself, until that evening flying to Switzerland. Patty had fallen asleep and he’d held the little toddler for a few hours, and after a bottle she too had fallen asleep – only she had done so on Tanner’s chest, her tiny hands clutching his shirt collar. He’d wrapped a little blanket around her and had tried to imagine what Gene Harwell had felt, yet his mind always raced in endless circles as he tried to understand what Patty had been feeling and, by extension, what she’d guessed might be in store for her little girl.
Retribution? That had always been first in mind. It might have taken years for the cartel to forget about McKinnon, and probably himself as well, but time was on the cartel’s side. Tanner had decided they’d have to keep a very low profile – and for years – in order to survive, yet Beth and Jenny would need to as well, and quite possibly Catherine, too. So Douglas Tanner had realized that he had five other people to protect – one way or another.
Sitting in that jet that night, flying through the night alone in oceanic darkness, he had felt the little girl’s heart beating against the rhythm of his own, and impulsively he had run his fingers through her fine hair and held her closer still – and the wave that broke over him was the closest Tanner had ever come to feeling something like a parental impulse. The need to nurture, to protect, was all very human and yet here he was, approaching thirty five years of life and he’d never once felt anything like it. These new, inrushing feelings were overwhelming, literally, so much so that he was convinced he felt love for this little girl. And, by extension, mustn’t he have felt something like love for Patty McKinnon?
So it was all very confusing, the things he’d felt that night.
Harwell had indeed siphoned off money from the cartel. Over the years almost twenty million dollars of pure weapons-grade siphoning, and all of it earning interest in US Dollar accounts at the branch of an American back located in Mexico City. A few days after their arrival in Switzerland the money landed in a numbered account at Credit Suisse in Bern, and lawyers were secured to handle purchasing property. He used intermediaries to contact Catherine and then Beth and Jenny and he told them what he had in mind. All his thoughts were coalescing around the little girl he had held in his arms and one by one the others got on board and flew to Geneva.
Tanner purchased a modest chateau on the waterfront in Vevey and when, in the end, his story had come full circle he came to understand that he and Gene Harwell had indeed been two sides of one coin. Every step Harwell made had carried him deeper and deeper into the underworld – and Morpheus had finally come to collect his debt, while the dreams that remained were for Tanner. He gave McKinnon another daughter along the way to figuring out the whole love thing, and over the years the other three girls in Tanner’s life found themselves with child – but in the end no one talked about who the father might be. They were a family, as unconventional as that sounded.
In a house packed to the rafters with physicians all Tanner’s many children had little chance. Each walked the course that had been set for them, and in time each found their way to medical schools in Switzerland, France, and the United States. Beth and Catherine spend months at a time in Ethiopia and Sudan, while Patty and Jenny rarely left Tanner’s side. In this barely understandable way, life passed gently for the people at the chateau.
He wondered from time to time what had happened to Luis Quintana. He heard the old man had found suitable lodging at a SuperMax prison in Colorado, but that was about all he ever heard concerning Quintana or the cartels. Then again, he knew that one day they would come for him. It was inevitable, like living large on borrowed time, yet Tanner was determined to make the most of the time he had stolen from them.
Some nights, especially in summer when the light stayed late, he’d sit on the patio overlooking the lake and watch the moon rise over the Alps – and he thought of another night long ago. He thought of Nimiri and the red cobra and the first words the old man had spoken to him: ‘And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Then he would see a coin rolling through his mind’s eye and he wondered from time to time which side would show when it stopped and fell to earth.
Maybe the old man had, in his end, known what he was talking about. When Douglas Tanner heard his children running among the trees and the clouds he thought he knew that at least this much was true.
© 2009-2022 adrian leverkühn | abw | and as always, thanks for stopping by for a look around the memory warehouse. This was a work of fiction, and note parts of this story were first posted 5.May.2009. © renewed 2022, AL|abw. Thanks for reading along, and see you next time.
[At The End of the Day \\ Spock’s Beard]