/ Language: English / Genre:det_crime / Series: Dr. Gideon Box

Bad Doctor

John Locke


John Locke

Bad Doctor

I

I’m Dr. Gideon Box.

If you’re coming after me, don’t do it in a hospital.

That’s my domain.

And don’t piss me off in the real world and expect a smooth hospital stay in the future, because I have a long memory, and no one is exempt. If you’re not a patient but your loved ones are, I’ll harass them.

Before you bully me in a bar, embarrass me on a date, or refuse to replace the shitty car you sold me, think about this: you’ll never be more vulnerable in your life than when you’re spending the night in a hospital. You’re out of your element, drugged, and totally dependent on our schedules and personnel. When you’re here, you’re not family. You’re prey!

Your wife just had a procedure and needs her sleep?

Good luck with that.

I’ll swing by the nurse’s station, make a notation on her chart. Every two hours someone will be in her room, waking her up, changing her IV, moving her around. If you’re not guarding her closely I might slip in her room, flip her on her side, lift up her gown, check out her ass. Or maybe I’ll feel her up while pretending to listen to her heart with my stethoscope.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no interest in your wife’s nude body. I’d only view or touch her because I can, and because it’s another way to beat you.

You get what I’m saying?

Don’t fuck with me.

II

I didn’t kill Joe’s mom last week.

I could have killed her, but one glance at her chart told me the hospital didn’t need my help. Her catheter should have been removed a day earlier. Since it wasn’t, I figured the nurses forgot it.

I was right.

Like ventilators, catheters are breeding grounds for infection. Sixty-five thousand patients a year die from infections caused by these two pieces of equipment.

I never knew Joe’s mom, but thirty years ago Joe and I were on the sixth grade track team. A half-dozen of us were in the showers after practice the day Joe smacked my ass with a wet towel. I ignored it, but he kept smacking me. The others taunted me to do something about it. When I confronted Joe, he beat the shit out of me.

Picture me in a fetal position on the floor, clutching my stomach in agony. Now picture Joe and his friends pissing on me as a group, drenching me from head to toe.

Laughing.

Like I said, I didn’t know Joe’s mom, and didn’t kill her.

But I let her die last week from an infection I could’ve prevented.

III

I’m not an angel of mercy. I don’t kill random patients.

I’ve got a list.

If you’re on my list, it means you’ve done something I refuse to forgive. It’s probably something minor to you, something you forgot long ago. But like the Stones said in the second best song they ever recorded, time is on my side.

Like everyone else in the world, you and your loved ones will eventually get sick or have an accident. And when you do, you better not come to my hospital, because I can kill you, maim you, infect you, humiliate you, frighten you, aggravate you, and generally fuck up your life in a thousand different ways.

Want an example?

I bet you didn’t know that every year three hundred hospital patients burst into flames during routine operations.

Three hundred!

You think all those are accidents?

Thirty-six items in a standard operating room can explode under the right conditions. What I’m saying, I can turn your chest into a fireball using nothing more than an alcohol swab and a hot cautery device.

So don’t piss me off.

And tread lightly, because I’m tightly wound. Every day it takes less and less to piss me off.

IV

I’m the last guy you want to meet in the hospital-and not because I’m a vindictive son of a bitch.

I am a vindictive son of a bitch, but the reason you don’t want to meet me is I’m your child’s last hope for survival. When they wheel your kid into my operating room, it means his problems are so severe no one else can perform the surgery.

That’s because I’m the most technically gifted congenital/cardiothoracic surgeon in the world.

That’s right, in the world.

Think I’m bragging?

I’m not.

I take no pleasure in being the world’s greatest surgeon.

Someone in the world makes the best flapjacks. Someone else is the best seamstress. And someone owns the world’s biggest ranch, truck, or penis.

I’d rather be any of them.

Especially the guy with the biggest penis.

But it’s my job to be the best surgeon.

My skill is my curse, and forces me to work in hell, under excruciating pressure. I say that and you think, yeah, there probably is a lot of stress in what I do, operating on infants and children.

No.

You think you know, but you don’t.

You have no idea.

Want a glimpse into my world? That’s me in the operating room, standing in the corner, crying silently so the others won’t know. They think I’m psyching myself up for the six-hour procedure I’m about to perform.

See that tiny blue object on the table, surrounded by two highly-skilled nurses, a pediatric anesthesiologist, and assisting surgeon?

My patient, Lainey Sue Calfee.

Five pounds, less than a month old, structurally abnormal heart. It would take five minutes to tell you what’s wrong with her, but she’ll be dead by then. And anyway, those are only the problems I know about. You can bet I’ll find more bad news when I open her chest in a few minutes.

I always do.

What you need to know about Lainey is she’s not going to make it.

It’s okay, I already told her parents.

V

That’s me an hour ago, approaching the conference room to meet Lainey’s parents, Jordan and Will Calfee.

Of Calfee Coffee.

As I enter, Jordan and Will are on the sofa, grim-faced, holding hands. Nurse Sally’s in the straight-back chair, giving me the evil eye. Security Joe’s standing at the doorway.

As always, I nod at Security Joe and say, “Are you feeling okay? Because you don’t look so good.”

As always, he ignores me.

Jordan and Will jump to their feet, searching my eyes.

If my eyes could talk, they’d say I’m dying inside, thinking how the Calfee’s lives will change forever when I kill their kid on my operating table.

Nurse Sally hates me. She’s black, two hundred fifty pounds, her age a complete mystery. Could be forty, could be sixty. She’s a wonderful, caring person, my polar opposite. She visits the parents before they meet me, warns them about my notoriously foul bedside manner, and attempts to calm them down after I leave.

Security Joe is early-forties, former Marine, big, tough, freaky quiet. The kind of guy you’d expect to see guarding the president.

Joe’s chief of security, here to guard me from possible assault. He blends into the background, always ready to step between me and an angry parent. While Joe couldn’t care less if I offend the parents, Sally constantly wants to slap me up the side of my head for doing so.

I’d love to have Nurse Sally’s attitude, and probably would, if I had her job.

Or any other job.

I’m not asking for sympathy, but imagine if your job required you to do something that made you physically and mentally sick every time you did it. I know you can’t relate, and there are no good examples, but you know that chalky stuff you have to drink the day before getting a colonoscopy? It tastes like hell and makes you shit for twelve hours straight?

Let’s say your job was to drink that chalk every day of your life.

You’d like to quit, but you’re the only one in the world who can do it, and every day you don’t drink the chalk, a child you’ve met will die.

That’s a lot of pressure.

After a few years, it gets to your head.

Makes you do crazy things in order to cope.

So that’s what I do, perform one or two of these horrific, impossible operations, then go bat shit crazy and run out into the world and do stupid, dangerous things, like breaking into people’s houses when they’re on vacation, and assuming their lives.

VI

The Calfees are a young, pretty couple, with tons of money. This situation with Lainey Sue is probably the first bad thing that’s ever happened to them that couldn’t be solved with cash and a phone call.

After failing to find reassurance in my eyes, Jordan falls into her husband’s arms and sobs.

I’d love to give this couple hope, but like I said, I don’t get the easy cases. When I get the call it means a child’s condition has passed critical. It means hope has left the building.

Like most dads before him, Will says, “We want Lainey Sue to have the finest treatment available. Spare no expense. Money’s no object.”

This probably impresses Jordan, but in my experience it’s complete and utter bullshit.

After the fact, he’ll complain about the bill, the access, the forms, rules and regulations, the nurses in the recovery unit, and everything else that inconveniences him in the slightest. He’ll threaten to sue me and the hospital over our fees.

After all, I killed his kid. Why should he pay me two hundred grand?

Or I saved his kid, which means I did my job, like the world’s greatest plumber does his job unclogging the family toilet.

So sure, the hospital and I deserve something, but two hundred grand?

How can we possibly charge two hundred grand for a days’ work?

In most cases it’s not even their money at stake, it’s an insurance issue. But he’ll threaten to sue over the deductible, or the overage, or the out-of-pocket, or the increased future premium assessment.

Before the operation we’re all supposed to hold hands and be friends. Afterward, he won’t give a rat’s ass about me, or what I had to go through to save his child.

And neither will Jordan.

I don’t say any of this to the Calfees, which proves I’m getting better at these parent conferences despite the stack of complaints in my personnel file.

“Everyone says you’re the best,” Jordan says. “I know it’s bad, but you’ll save Lainey, right? You will, won’t you?”

When they beg, it’s like I’m drinking the chalk. I’ll need a toilet soon.

Jordan pulls away from her husband and gets right up in my face. Could there be any emotion on earth more raw and heartbreaking than a mother’s love for her dying child? Jordan’s red eyes and wet cheeks are love’s battlefield. When she speaks, her hot, sweet breath fans my lips and fills my nostrils.

“Please, Dr. Box.”

Despite the dire situation, despite Jordan’s considerable beauty, wealth, and status, I see exactly what she wants me to see.

She’s a good person.

By extension, her husband and daughter are good, worthy people.

Of course, I already know this.

She grips my wrist. “I need to know there’s hope.”

I glance at Nurse Sally’s baleful look before responding. She’s Mike Tyson in a dress, only angrier.

Sally’s told me time and again the moms need something to cling to. Something to get them through the multi-hour ordeal that lies ahead. But I won’t give any parent false hope. Sally knows this, but the look in her face says she’s ready to leap across the room and royally fuck…me…up.

I ignore Sally’s look as I always do, and tell Jordan what I tell all the moms.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Calfee. There’s no hope. You need to spend the next few hours adjusting to life without Lainey Sue.”

Jordan backs away slowly, drops to the couch, stunned.

Nurse Sally shouts, “ Oh no, you didn’t! ” And comes out of her chair like a rocket. She launches a meaty fist toward my throat. Joe steps between us, catches the blow on his forearm, and ushers me from the room.

VII

I don’t hear what happens next, but the routine’s always the same. The dads get angry. The moms cry. They demand to speak to the hospital administrator, Bruce Luce. They want a replacement surgeon, refusing to trust their child’s operation to one who’s already given up.

Bruce is on standby when I meet the parents, so he shows up quickly, finds Nurse Sally hugging Jordan to her ample bosom, Security Joe staring straight ahead with dead eyes while Will curses and threatens to physically assault me.

Bruce says, “We warned you in advance Dr. Box has a terrible bedside manner. He’s a genius, not a communicator. But remember, he’s never lost a patient at this hospital, or any other.”

“Never?” they say.

“Around here he’s called ‘The Miracle,’ and for good reason. Thirty-two hopeless cases. No fatalities.”

“I don’t like him!” Jordan says.

“I don’t either,” Bruce says. “In fact, I hate his guts. But he’ll find a way to save Lainey.”

“How could he stand there and say there’s no hope?” Will asks.

“It takes the pressure off him to be perfect.”

Nurse Sally pipes in, “The truth is Doc Box ain’t fit to be in the company of man nor beast. The good Lord pulled every ounce of useful goodness outta that man at birth, and stuck a lump of coal where his heart should be.”

“But?” Jordan says.

“But he’s the one you want in that room with Lainey, because he never gives up. He’ll fight the devil to save your child. And he will save her. But after he does, leave him be. Don’t go looking for him. Don’t try to thank him.”

“Why?”

“This ain’t a celebratin’ sort of man. You’ve seen him at his best, not his worst. Trust me, you’ll do well to leave him to his lonely miserableness.”

Jordan and Will grudgingly sign off on the surgical procedure, and for the next six to eight hours, I reside in hell.

Of course, Lainey Sue died.

VIII

Lainey Sue died several times on my table, but with her walnut-sized heart in my skilled hands, she came back to life again and again. You’d think this kid was Joan of Arc, the way she fought so valiantly! I got into it like I always do, hurling blood-curdling insults at my colleagues, my hospital, Lainey Sue, her innards, her parents, and even Calfee Coffee, which I actually like.

By the time it was over the nurses were sobbing with joy, and I’d gone through my entire repertoire of oaths and cuss words at least six times, having used them in every possible combination.

My hands were cramped beyond use, my nerves frayed, and the tendons in my back and neck were twisted and gnarled like Gordian Knots from the mental and physical exhaustion that comes from total concentration while standing in a precise position for hours at a time. Like always, the pain in my head felt life-threatening.

On the table, Lainey Sue was resting quietly, pink and fit.

Nurse Janet gushed, “What an amazing little girl! She absolutely refused to die!”

To me she said, “I’m filing a grievance against you for sexual harassment and verbal abuse.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “You’ve worked with me before. You know how I am.”

“Never again. I’m done.”

“We just saved a life here. Do you really care about a few cuss words?”

“You’re getting worse.”

“How?”

“You’re a complete psychopath. You called me the C-word. You barked like a dog.”

“Which C-word?”

“All of them. You called me things that didn’t even make sense.”

“I was in a zone!”

Nurse Margaret said, “She’s right. I’ve never heard such vile language. You should be ashamed of yourself!”

She shook her head. “And the things you said to that poor child? And the names you called her?”

She crossed herself.

Then said, “You cursed like a drunken sailor, speaking in tongues.”

IX

Hours later, despite the warnings, Jordan Calfee tracked me down in my office, threw her arms around me and said, “Omigod, you saved my daughter’s life!”

Jordan had looked beautiful that morning. But now, standing in my office, she was positively radiant.

“Dr. Box! Gideon! You’ve given us a beautiful, healthy baby to raise!”

“Who let you in to see me?”

“Your secretary.”

“Lola? Seriously?”

“Your fee, whatever it is, isn’t enough. How can I possibly repay you?”

She seemed sincere.

I said, “Would you consider a blow job?”

Jordan paused a moment, as if her ears momentarily betrayed her. Then she slapped my face full-force, stormed out of my office, and reported me to Administrator Luce. She followed that up with a written statement to the hospital’s board of directors, effectively earning me a four-day suspension and six months’ probation.

We all would have preferred a harsher ruling, but there were two patients in the cue who would die if I’m not on duty when they’re strong enough for surgery. One is Lilly Devereaux, whose parents, Austin and Dublin, offered to donate a wing to the hospital if I save their child’s life.

Since Lilly’s surgery will likely take place in five to seven days, the board voted to suspend me for four days, which would give them time to bribe our existing nurses to work with me, or hire new ones away from our competitors.

Secretary Lola said, “Now you’ll have time to see Shelby Lynn.”

“Who?”

She handed me a letter and said, “It’s from the stack of fan mail I placed on your credenza last month.”

“I’ve got fan mail?”

“You do.”

I look at the letter. “You’ve read this?”

“I read them all. It’d do you good to read them, too.”

“Why’s that?”

“You’re loved by many.”

“Right.”

Lola shrugged, left the room. I sat down, read the letter, then went home and booked the next flight to Cincinnati.

1

Cincinnati, Ohio.

Thursday, 9:15 p.m.

Firefly Lounge.

“ Dude!” Willow says, approaching. “Where’ve you been all my life?”

She stops two feet away, wearing a smile and very little else.

“Glenlivit 21, thirty bucks a shot, right?”

I glance at the dark amber liquid in my glass, then back at her.

She says, “We don’t serve many of those. By the way, I’m Willow.”

“Chris,” I say. “Chris Fowler.”

She laughs. “We don’t use last names in here, Chris.”

I nod.

“You’re in the chair,” she says. “Will I do?”

“Sure.”

Of course she’ll do. Willow’s by far the class of the place. The problem is she knows it.

She flashes me the smile that earns more in tips than hookers get for a toss. It’s a spectacular smile, well worth the fortune her parents must’ve spent on braces a few years back.

I wonder how proud they’d be to see Willow giving lap dances.

She hikes a leg over mine, taking care not to injure me with her five-inch stiletto. Her panties, blood-spatter red to match the shoes, hug her crotch so tightly they could pass for spray-on. Her cropped tee is bright white.

She’s on my lap now, facing me, our eyes two feet apart. Mine black, hers, goldenrod.

I sip my drink. “Want one?”

“What, a Scotch?”

She laughs. “I wouldn’t know it from lighter fluid.”

I place the drink on the table beside us.

Willow says, “You want me facing, or turned away?”

“Facing. I like your smile.”

“Then we’re good.”

She closes her eyes half-mast, pouts her lips, shows me her sultry look.

“You ready?” she purrs.

“What, no music?”

“DJ’s cuing it. I could’ve waited another thirty seconds, but you’re too cute. One of the other girls might’ve stolen you.”

Right, stolen me.

Because I’m so cute.

To keep the conversation going I ask, “What do you drink?”

“Vodka cranberry.”

“Can I buy you one of those?”

“Not here. You know, it’s-”

“Against the rules?”

She laughs. “Against the law, actually.”

“Why’s that?”

“I’m underage. For liquor, anyway.”

“Seriously?”

“I know,” she says. “Weird, right?”

The music starts. Willow arches her back, lifts her chin, lowers it, raises it again, licks her lips seductively, then removes her top.

“Show time,” she says.

She puts her hands high over her head and gives her tits a shake. Then leans into me, brushes her nipples across my lips and says, “You like that, sugar?”

“I do. Thanks.”

She gives me an odd look and does that boobs-across-my-lips thing again, expecting me to kiss them, but I don’t.

I picture her ten minutes from now, telling her friend, Cameron about it. She’ll say, “See the older guy in the corner? Black jeans, t-shirt? I was grinding him just now, really working it. I rubbed my tits in his face and asked if he liked it, and guess what he said?”

Cameron will shrug.

“He said, ‘Thanks.’”

They’ll laugh, probably snort a line.

Cameron will ask how much I tipped.

“Two hundred.”

“No shit?” Cameron will say.

Next time they come out, I’ll completely ignore Willow and signal Cameron to come over. They’ll exchange a glance, but really, what can Willow do? She can’t claim I’m her customer if I ask for someone else.

It’s just that no one, especially Willow, expects me to ditch her for Cameron.

If Willow’s a solid eight, Cameron’s a barely-five. But she’ll do her best, and hope to earn a Franklin, or at least a Jackson. I’ll compliment the hell out of her, act like I’m really into it, then I’ll pretend to have an accident. They love it when that happens. Builds their confidence, makes them feel sexier than the others.

I’ll tip Cameron four hundred for a twenty dollar lap dance.

All part of the plan.

Cameron will tell Willow I came in my pants and gave her four hundred bucks.

Willow won’t understand. She’ll flirt, try to get my attention. But I’ll ignore her, break her confidence.

Women want what they can’t have. Even dancers like Willow, who think they’re hot shit.

The music ends, and I hand Willow the two hundred.

She smiles and says, “Thanks, Jimmy.”

“Chris,” I say.

Willow smiles and tosses her head the way pretty women do when they know you want them. She walks away, confident my eyes are on her ass.

Thanks Jimmy, she’d said, all matter-of-fact.

Like it’s every day she gets two hundred bucks for a lap dance.

In her mind she’s got me right where she wants me.

I can’t wait to see her face when she hears about Cameron’s tip.

2

“Oh my God, you were incredible!” Willow gushes, three hours later. “Best sex I ever had!”

I’m lying.

I mean, yeah, we had sex, and I did my part, but Willow was barely involved.

She’s lying on the bed, on her side, her back toward me. When she’s sure I’m done, she moves forward till I slide out of her. She sits up, wipes herself with the bed sheet, and turns to watch me remove the condom and set it on the nightstand.

She regards it with disgust. Then gives me the same look.

Makes sense.

She’s eighteen, I’m forty-two. It is disgusting.

From her perspective.

I prop a pillow beneath my neck and settle in to relax, but catch her looking away, and take the opportunity to suddenly lift my head and kiss her boob.

She recoils when she realizes my lips touched her skin. Now she’s glaring at me to show how she feels about the unwelcome assault.

I lean back onto the pillow and stare at her in the lamplight. This is where I’d tell her she’s beautiful, if I thought she gave a shit what I thought.

She is beautiful, though.

“Mind if I light one?” she says.

“I’d rather you didn’t.”

Willow frowns. She’s not happy, but she’ll get over it. She’s two grand richer than she was ten minutes ago.

“Is this what you do?” she says.

“What?”

“Go from club to club, trolling for sex?”

“I would if I could. But my wife rarely leaves town.”

“She’s not coming home tonight, is she?”

“No. She won’t be home till noon tomorrow.”

“You don’t act like a first-timer,” she says.

“I’ve been to clubs before, but never asked anyone to follow me home.”

“I’m honored,” she says, sounding anything but.

Willow’s making small talk, waiting it out. She’s been paid a huge sum for ten minutes of talk, five minutes of sex. She figures I expect an hour for my cash, and she’ll mentally calculate it before attempting her escape.

“You got a boyfriend?” I ask.

“Yes.”

She’s telling the truth. She and Bobby Mitchell live together in an apartment on Dillingham. She doesn’t know I know this. Mitchell is a local tough guy. Hangs out at Shady’s Bar amp; Grill, a block from their apartment.

“You love him?” I ask.

She frowns. “Can we talk about something else?”

She regrets fucking me. Wishes she could just leave and put this behind her. But two grand’s a lot of money for her to ditch me less than twenty minutes into the date. And even though she hated every minute of the sex, it’s crossing her mind this could be an easy way to make some serious coin whenever my wife’s out of town.

“I’ve never done this before,” she says.

“I believe you.”

I do believe her. Willow doesn’t fuck well enough to be a hooker. As a lap dancer she earns enough to put gas in her car, food and drugs on the table, keep Bobby happily unemployed, the bills paid, and the landlord at bay.

Which puts her head and shoulders above the women I’ve dated.

She may be a lap dancer, but she ’ s classy. She only wound up in bed with me because I manipulated her. I kept flashing money and pressing her buttons and managed to turn the entire evening into a competition between her and Cameron, one that Willow’s ego refused to let her lose.

“I shouldn’t have done this,” she says, gathering her clothes.

“You needed the cash.”

She steps into her panties, pulls on her jeans, dons her sweatshirt.

“Bad decision,” she says.

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” I say. “It was only a few minutes out of your life.”

“I could get fired,” she says, trying to make me feel guilty. Like she’s the first lap dancer who ever fucked a client.

She’s dressed now, sitting on the bed, staring into space.

I know what she’s doing, reliving the events of the evening, trying to figure out how it got to this point.

She turns to look me in the eyes. It’s starting to hit her, the way I played her tonight.

“Nice job,” she says. “Asshole.”

“You’re taking this awfully hard,” I say.

“I feel like a fool.”

“Willow. You’re adorable. Sweet. Beautiful.”

She says nothing.

I add, “This has been an honor for me.”

“I hate myself,” she says. “I want to vomit.”

I sit up and say, “This is too much. I was hoping for an encore, but it’s clear you’ve had a change of heart. How about you and Cameron switch places?”

Cameron jumps up from the over-stuffed chair where I’d paid her five hundred to sit and wait.

Willow says, “Are you serious? You want to fuck my friend?”

“I do.”

“Then fuck you both! I’m leaving!”

To Cameron I say, “If you can talk your friend into waiting another fifteen minutes, I’ll give you three thousand dollars. I would’ve given Willow the extra money, but she’s had second thoughts.”

“ Fuck you!” Willow shouts. She grabs her purse, starts stomping off.

“Willow?” Cameron says, her voice pleading.

Willow stops, sighs, and turns around.

“What?”

“Please?” Cameron says.

Three grand’s enough to change Cameron’s life. For a woman with her looks, it’s three months of lap dances. Willow knows this, and they’re friends. But for Willow, it’s just one more humiliation. Her cheeks are in flames. She’s angry as hell. Had no idea I was good for another three grand tonight, and realizes she just pouted it away.

When Willow speaks, it’s to me. “You expect me to sit here and watch you fuck my friend? For more money than you paid me?”

“You don’t have to watch,” I say. “But you have to stay in the room.”

Her withering look incorporates the full monty of teenage attitude. “You don’t trust me?”

“It’s not personal. I don’t know you well enough yet.”

“You just fucked me!” she says.

“Yes. But we agreed you only did it for the money. I’m not calling you a thief, but wouldn’t you agree more women would steal a man’s money than fuck him for cash?”

Willow’s look says I’m a cockroach to her. She’s furious. So pissed, her body’s shaking.

Realizing how close her friend is to leaving, Cameron’s in full panic mode. She crosses the floor and whispers in Willow’s ear.

I know what she’s doing, offering to split the money. Fifteen hundred for not having sex is a pretty good deal. Willow agrees, and reluctantly crosses the floor to the comfy chair. She curls up in it and flips me the finger, then leans her head on one of the massive arms and closes her eyes.

Cameron waits for all this to transpire, then turns toward me and approaches the bed. When she’s three feet away she plants her feet and starts swaying slowly, from side to side, shows me a goofy grin, and starts to strip.

They all do that.

I don’t care how old they are, first time a woman strips in front of you, she’ll get a goofy grin on her face and sway her hips like she’s moving to music.

Usually the routine works for me, but Cameron’s all arms and legs, tall, and skinny as hell. Except for her hair, she could be Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl. And though it’s an odd comment to make about a lap dancer, movement doesn’t become her.

So I focus on her hair.

Thick, shoulder-length, brown, with auburn highlights.

Cameron takes her sweet time letting me see what’s under her clothes. That’s fine, I need time to reload. When she’s naked she motions me to lie on my back. When I do, she climbs on the bed, straddles me, and works me inside her. My first thrust forces a sound from her throat that’s meant to be sexy, but puts me in mind of a cow caught up in a breached birth.

Willow laughs in the background, despite her anger.

I bite my lip to keep from sharing the laugh.

Cameron’s short on experience, and her porn star imitation grates on me like Porky Pig reciting Shakespeare. But for no other reason than to piss Willow off further, I pretend I love it. I moan and groan, and thrash about under Cameron and carry on like she’s the lay of my life. Of course, this encourages Cameron, who, bless her heart, starts getting into it. She makes a sudden awkward move and we disengage. Undaunted, she pretends she meant for that to happen, and throws herself on her back, spreads her legs wide and yells, “ Do me, Chris! Do me!”

I scramble to my knees and notice her legs are so long they actually span the king-size bed! I focus on the triangle in the middle, and try to climb aboard, but she bucks her hips repeatedly. After thirty seconds of this bullshit, I press my hand against her lower abdomen and pin her to the bed long enough to get inside her. This time she emits a high-pitched wail and starts chuffing while flailing her long, skinny arms and legs in all directions.

Can you picture this?

It’s like trying to fuck an octopus in a windstorm.

3

Willow’s fallen Asleep, so you can imagine how big her eyes get when she opens them and sees the gun in my hand.

“What the fuck?”

“Time to shower.”

She turns toward Cameron, who’s sitting on the bed, naked, crying softly.

“What happened?”

“He stole our money.”

Willow sees her open handbag on the bed. Her body tenses.

I thumb the hammer back, cocking the pistol.

“Don’t do it,” I say. “You’re the intruder here.”

I motion both women to get up and walk in front of me, into the bathroom. They do, and I turn on the shower and nod at Cameron. She gets in and stands in the center, under the running water. I tell Willow to remove her clothes, but she’s decided to take a stand.

“You’re not gonna shoot me,” she says. “Not in your own bathroom.”

I slap her face full force.

She shrieks.

I slap her again, and she puts her hand up in submission.

“Get your clothes off!” I yell.

When she’s naked, I motion her to join her friend.

If looks could kill, right?

But they can’t, so Willow steps into the shower.

It’s a glass shower with a glass door, and I’m standing three feet from them, with the door propped open behind my back. Willow tries to whisper something to Cameron and I say, “I could kill you both right now.”

They look at each other, sharing a brief moment of terror. Willow’s mouth and legs are trembling. All the defiance she had earlier has leaked out of her like drool from a dying grandparent.

And yet she’s resourceful.

“I need to pee,” she says, figuring to split them up, maybe buy some time to make a plan.

“A drain’s a drain,” I say. “Pee in the shower.”

I point to the facecloth on the shower bench. “Willow, bend over. Cameron, use the facecloth and soap her private area, hard. When you’re done, switch places.”

The women look at each other, and Willow says, “He’s going to kill us.”

Cameron says, “No. He’s just making us get rid of the evidence.”

“What evidence?” Willow says. “He used a condom.”

“Still. There could be DNA. Hair, whatever.”

“Cameron’s right,” I say. “Remove the evidence, and I’ll let you go. You ladies weren’t raped tonight, but I don’t want you claiming you were. Consider it a lesson learned.”

They soap each other down, then turn to look at me.

“Again,” I say. “Harder, deeper. Or I’ll do it myself.”

4

After the women get dressed, I give them back their handbags and say, “I won’t lecture you, but you shouldn’t smoke cigarettes.”

Willow checks her bag.

I hold up the plastic baggies that holds Willow’s cocaine and ground nutmeg. “Looking for these?”

I put them in my pocket and say, “You can’t be stupid enough to lace cocaine with nutmeg. Then again, it was in your purse.” I sigh. “Let’s go, ladies.”

I escort them to the side door and hold it open.

As they pass in front of me, I expect Willow to make a comment like, “This isn’t over,” but she doesn’t. Like Cameron, she’s silent, respectful, eager to leave the house alive.

I watch till they get in Willow’s car before closing and locking the door. Then I pause a moment, turn around, and slide slowly to the floor, grinning wider than a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Unbelievable!

I’ve done some crazy shit in my life, but this tops them all!

Did I just fuck two strippers and rob them at gunpoint?

Yes!

Will they come back and try to kill me?

I can only hope so!

Will they tell Bobby Mitchell?

Will he hunt me down and kill me?

I’ve never felt so alive! I’m practically hyperventilating from the excitement. I feel cleansed, energized. And strangely, a sense of relief, like a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have taken their money. But seeing the cocaine in Willow’s purse pissed me off, so I decided to punish them where it hurts.

In the wallet.

I cock my head.

Something’s wrong.

It dawns on me I haven’t heard Willow’s car start up.

I get to my feet and move to the kitchen window that overlooks the driveway.

5

Willow and Cameron.

“Let it go,” Cameron says.

They’re in Willow’s car, in Chris Fowler’s driveway.

“No fucking way! That bastard ripped us off! Not just the five grand, but every nickel we made at the club tonight. Not to mention the blow.”

“He’s got a gun, Willow.”

“He’s also got a wife.”

“So?”

“He’ll pay us to keep quiet if he knows we’re serious.”

Cameron bites her lip. “I don’t know. The whole thing could explode in our faces.”

Willow says, “We’ll drive away, come back first thing in the morning, follow him to work. Then we’ll march in his office and tell him to fork over ten grand.”

“Ten?”

“He stole twenty-six hundred in cash, two hundred in coke, and cheated us out of fifty-five hundred.”

“That comes to eighty-three hundred.”

“Eighty-three?”

“Uh huh.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’ve always been good at math.”

“Well, the extra’s for our time and trouble.”

She sees fear in Cameron’s face.

“What’s wrong?”

“He’s staring at us from the window.”

“So?”

“He’s holding a phone. I think he’s calling the cops.”

“ Shit!”

Willow throws the car in gear and backs out of the driveway so fast her tires squeal.

6

Bobby and Willow

“You’re late.”

“Tell me about it!” Willow says.

“No, you tell me!” Bobby says. “Where the fuck’ve you been?”

“I had to cover for China.”

“The country?”

“The dancer.”

“Which one’s that?”

“The red head.”

“With the eyeball tattoo, or the pretty one?”

“The skinny one,” Willow says, then frowns. “You think she’s pretty?”

“I’d fuck her.”

“That’s nice to hear.”

“I’m just kidding.”

“Bastard.”

“I’m kidding, Willow.”

“I’m going to bed.” She turns to leave.

“Whoa.”

She stops.

“Why didn’t you call?” He says.

“You took my cell phone. You wanted to play Angry Birds.”

“I like Angry Birds.”

“The truth is you don’t trust me to have a cell phone.”

“I trust you, I just don’t trust men.”

“Not much point in paying for a cell phone I can’t use.”

“I use it all the time.”

“Right. I’m going to bed now, okay?”

He sniffs the air. Something’s different.

“You don’t smell like strip club,” he says.

“I took a shower.”

“You what?”

“Took a shower.”

Bobby gets up from his beer chair and positions himself between her and the bedroom door. “Did I tell you never to shower there?”

“You did.”

“And why’s that?”

“Because you think the owner spies on the girls.”

“I know he does.”

“Fine. Whatever. But Marvin left after the first shift.”

“So?”

“Ten minutes to closing time, some guy vomited three feet from me, and I couldn’t get the smell out of my hair. I stood guard while Cameron showered, then she stood guard for me.”

He thinks about that, then lifts her chin up to put more light on her face.

“What happened here?”

He touches her cheek where Chris Fowler slapped her an hour ago.

“Is it still swollen?” she says.

He starts to puff up like when he’s about to punch out some poor schlub at Shady’s. “Who hit you?” he says.

“Cameron.”

“ What?”

“When the drunk puked, I jumped and turned away and Cameron smacked me by mistake.”

He frowns.

“Tell me the truth. Did someone hit you?”

“Yes.”

“Who?”

“I already told you.”

“Cameron.”

“That’s right. You’ve seen her dance. She throws her arms all over the place. I ran into one of them.”

Bobby laughs.

Willow says, “Glad you think it’s funny.”

“You hit her back?”

“Of course not.”

“Why?”

“It was an accident.”

“I’d have smacked her anyway.”

“Of course you would. Can I go to bed now?”

He stares at her cheek a while longer, then says, “How much did you make?”

“Nine-sixty.”

“No shit? That’s a world record!”

“Trust me, I earned every cent.”

He smiles a gappy, brown-toothed smile that makes her cringe.

“Nine hundred and sixty dollars?”

“That’s right.”

He rubs his fingers together. “Like they say in the movies-”

She looks at him blankly.

He rubs his fingers some more. Then says, “Show me the money.”

“I’ll have to show you tomorrow.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m getting it first thing in the morning.”

“The fuck’re you talking about?”

“They rang out the shift while I was in the shower.”

“You let them take your money?”

She sighs. “You act like it’s never happened before. I’ve got a receipt.”

Bobby puts his hand out. “Cough it up.”

Willow shows him a piece of paper that explains she earned twelve hundred ten, minus her stage fee of two-fifty, for a net of nine-sixty.

“I can’t believe you have to pay those bastards two hundred and fifty bucks to work for tips.”

“It’s been like that since I started.”

He squints. “Whose signature is that?”

“Gary’s.”

“Where’d he learn to write?”

She shrugs. “Kindergarten?”

He laughs. “What time tomorrow?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll have it long before you wake up.”

“Make sure you do.”

“Can I go to bed now?” she says.

He gives her a long, hard look, but stands aside to let her pass.

“Nice ass,” he says, as she enters the room.

7

Willow and Cameron.

Friday, 8:30 a.m.

“Maybe he’s skipping work today,” Cameron says, between yawns.

“It’s Friday. He’s going to work.”

“It’s eight-thirty, Willow.”

“So?”

“We got here at six-fifteen, right?”

Willow pauses a minute, then says, “You’re right. I’m going in.”

She climbs out of the car, crosses two well-manicured yards, walks up to Chris Fowler’s front door, and rings the doorbell.

Waits a few seconds, rings it again.

And again.

She moves to the living room window, puts her hands on either side of her face to block the glare, and peers inside.

Nothing.

She rounds the house and looks through the sliding glass door of the den.

Nothing.

She goes to the backside of the garage, peeks through the window, and sees the same burgundy Escalade she saw last night when Chris pulled up and opened the garage door. But Chris’s black Mercedes sedan is missing.

Assuming his name is Chris.

Could he have used a fake name?

Willow walks back through the front yard, opens the mailbox, and removes a thick stack of bills and magazines. She riffles through them. The bills were sent to Christopher Fowler. Most of the magazines, to Kathy Fowler.

Willow walks back to her car and tells Cameron they’ve lost Chris.

“Lost him?”

“His car’s gone.”

Cameron shakes her head. “I can’t believe we sat here all this time. It makes sense he’d go to work early if his wife’s coming home at noon.”

“Her name’s Kathy. Her car’s still in the garage.”

“What now?”

“We come back at noon and wait for them.”

“You think he’ll be with her?”

“Yup. He’ll probably pick her up at the airport. When they get home, we’ll knock on the door and have a little chat with him.”

“In front of Kathy?”

“That’ll be up to Chris.”

8

Dr. Gideon Box

Friday, 8:45 a.m.

The auditorium at Wentworth Christian Academy is as packed as you’d expect on graduation day. I slip inside and try to blend in with the dads standing against the back wall. The principal introduces the faculty, and tells a lame joke that elicits polite chuckling.

The man on my right leans into my face space, practically touching my ear with his lips.

“Proud papa?”

“Friend of the family,” I say, staring straight ahead.

“Which one?”

“Excuse me?”

“Which kid are you here to see?”

Instead of answering, I say, “Which one’s yours?”

“The tall one, second row, all the way on the left.”

“Nice looking young lady,” I say.

“We’re going to keep her,” he says, chuckling.

Before he has a chance to annoy me further, the kids sing a song. Then another. Then the principal goes to the podium and announces the name of the little girl I came to see.

Shelby Lynn Meyers.

Valedictorian.

Who ever heard of a sixth-grade class having a valedictorian?

But Shelby’s special. She strolls to the podium full of life, and delivers a three-minute speech in a crisp, clear tone. She tells the audience how lucky she is to be alive, how seven years ago she came within an inch of dying. She talks about how she woke up in the hospital after her ordeal and realized every day is a precious blessing, a gift from God.

Little Shelby and I have a connection. It’s why I’m standing here, transfixed by her presence. She’s the reason I traveled all the way from Manhattan, where I live and work.

I wanted to see her.

Had to see her.

Shelby’s the first kid I saved, and the least likely to survive.

After eight hours of what can best be described as a surgical cluster fuck the two surgeons charged with assisting me attempted to pronounce Shelby dead.

I told them to fuck themselves. One gave me a stern warning, the other left the room in a huff.

But I was on a roll.

I cursed the surgeon who left and the one who remained equally. I cursed the nurses and called them terrible names. I even cursed Shelby Lynn, the little dead kid on my table. I made fun of her blue body and rotten internal organs. Called her a freak, a monster, and every other horrific name I could think of. I cursed her parents, her friends, relatives, and ancestors.

After calling her every name in the book, I yelled, “Don’t die on me, you little muff-munching bitch. If you even try to die I’ll set your parents on fire! I’ll kill your friends! I’ll celebrate your birthday each year by bludgeoning a child to death.”

You know, stuff like that.

Before you get all bent out of shape, remember, she was only five. There’s no way she could know what bludgeoning meant.

But the medical staff thought I was suffering a meltdown. They stayed in the room to chronicle my behavior so they could report me later. That changed when I poked Shelby’s dead body and slapped the bottoms of her feet while screaming at her. At that point the room cleared, save for the gas guy and a nurse, both of whom were yelling their own threats at me.

I didn’t care. This kid was simply not going to die on my watch.

I felt it.

I knew it.

I just figured I hadn’t put together the right combination of words yet.

I was right.

Because when I yelled, “Fine! Die on me, you little shit! I’m going to throw you in the trash and feed you to my dog for supper!”-her heart started beating.

From that day to this, I cussed every nurse, anesthesiologist, surgeon, robot, and child who entered my OR. The doctors and nurses don’t care for it, but the kids seem to respond.

Eventually.

Shelby Lynn responded, and now here she is, alive, standing before me, a valedictorian. She’s winding down her speech. There’s her smile, and her final words, “Thank you!”

A split-second pause occurs.

In that quiet moment after the end of her speech, before the audience rises to give her a standing ovation, she spots me in the back of the auditorium.

We lock eyes.

In that scant second of time I see her little mouth break into a grin, and suddenly my view and hers is blocked by three hundred cheering adults.

I don’t want to take the spotlight away from Shelby, or piss off her parents, who at one time threatened to kill me. I wouldn’t have come if they invited me, but it was Shelby who wrote the letter, and that made all the difference. Seeing her letter in my hands made me realize something important.

If I had allowed the other surgeons to pronounce her dead seven years ago, the world would still be spinning, but it wouldn’t be as special. Someone less deserving would be delivering the speech today, and someone else would marry the man Shelby’s meant to marry, and no one on earth would be here to create the amazing kids Shelby would have birthed.

Shelby lived.

And someday she’ll have children of her own, and her children will have children, and…

Yes, I’m a shitty person. I break into houses and fuck lap dancers and no one likes me, and yes, I poked five-year-old Shelby’s dead body around the table and slapped her feet and threatened to kill her parents and cussed her till my voice went hoarse.

But I saved Shelby’s life, and she’s going to make the world a better place to be.

I slip out the back and rush to my car before anyone else recognizes me.

9

Shelby’s right, she is lucky to be alive. But the stress and pressure of saving her nearly did me in. I went on a drunk fest and woke up three days later in a stranger’s garage, with a cat licking blood off my forehead.

I’ve got issues.

In the early days, I only got one or two impossible cases each year, so the stress was spaced out. Now that I’m internationally known, I’ve become the St. Jude of pediatrics, the surgeon of last resort, relegated to hopeless, desperate causes.

While I sometimes go weeks without operating, every morning I wake up knowing I could face an emergency situation. You’d think every day without one would be a day of relief, but I never know if a day’s over till the next one dawns, because emergency surgery often requires me to be ready on an hours’ notice. It’s the reason they placed my OR near the maternity ward.

When I don my scrubs I walk a tightrope of perfection. The slightest twitch, the smallest bead of sweat that hits the corner of my eye…can kill a child. I’m stressed like a postal worker on steroids, with an Uzi in one hand and a pink slip in the other.

Multiplied by ten.

To cope with this debilitating pressure, I’ve become an adrenalin junkie. It’s why I do insane things, like take off from work, fly to Cincinnati and break into some guy’s house, a guy so stupid he posted his vacation itinerary on Facebook!

It used to be enough to fly to Atlantic City for a few hours and drop five thousand dollar chips on numbers seventeen and twenty on the roulette wheel every spin until I’d won or lost a quarter million dollars. Win or lose, I’d relieve enough stress to handle a few more weeks of forced perfection.

But the rush from gambling faded.

I went through a phase where I’d break into homes and pretend I’m someone else for a few days. I’d go through their belongings, their mail, try to tap into their computers, view their photos and videos.

It’s a thrill to know you’re in someone else’s house illegally.

A friend or relative might swing by unexpectedly to check on the place, a neighbor might see lights or movement…

It happened to me once. During a routine check, the neighbors found me in Mike and Chrissy’s house. I gave them a bullshit story about how Mike and Chrissy called me at the last minute and asked me to stay there till they got back on Sunday, and how Chrissy’s sister, Ethel, was married to my brother, Mark, and so forth. I invited them in for coffee, and by the time they left, we were best friends.

Of course, I hauled ass out of there before they had time to call Mike and Chrissy!

My condition’s getting worse. What’s really scary, I’m developing a death wish.

This time it wasn’t enough to break into Chris Fowler’s house and pretend I’m him. This time I found myself in a biker bar, buying premium drinks for a primitive redneck named Bobby Mitchell, who told me all about his beautiful girlfriend who gives lap dances at a strip joint downtown on Barmeade. He said his girlfriend, Willow, has only been with one man in the world, and I was looking at him. Said if Willow ever decides to stray, he’ll hunt down the bastard that did her, cut his dick off, and sew it into Willow’s mouth.

“It wouldn’t be the first time I killed a guy,” he said, winking, and I believed him.

At that moment the only important thing in my world was Willow.

I had to meet her, had to have her!

It was a case of fuck Willow or go insane.

Now that I’ve made my conquest and cheated Bobby Mitchell out of killing me for fucking his girlfriend, I’m recharged, rejuvenated, and ready to head back to Manhattan to save some more lives.

I fire up the rental car and wonder how many of the kids I save will grow up to be like Shelby, and how many will grow up to be Willows or Camerons? How many will grow up to be Bobby Mitchells, Chuckies, or Dr. Gideon Boxes, for that matter? As long as the kids I save turn out better than me, I’m earning my keep.

I fish the two thick envelopes from the side pocket of my suit jacket and look at them. Each envelope contains sixty hundreds. My plane isn’t scheduled to leave for hours, so I’ll swing by the strip club and leave these envelopes for Willow and Cameron. It should more than cover what I owe, including the blow I forgot to flush down the toilet.

The club looks twice as filthy by day, and there are two cars parked by the front door. I go inside and hear a vacuum cleaner running, but it’s so dark I can’t see who’s operating it. I stand in the doorway and wait for my eyes to adjust.

The vacuum cleaner stops.

From across the room a woman’s voice hollers, “Sir? We don’t open till four.”

“Is the manager in?” I yell.

“Hang on a sec,” she says.

By the time the manager comes out, my eyes are working again.

“What can I do for you?” he says.

“If I give you something to hold for two of your dancers, will they get it?”

He sizes me up.

“You’re the guy from last night.”

I don’t respond.

He says, “Willow and Cameron.”

I shrug.

He says, “You can’t see the girls outside the club.”

“I know. I’m leaving town and wanted to give them a gift.”

He holds his hand out. “Give it to me, I’ll see they get it.”

Something in his manner tells me the girls will never see the money, and something in his look makes me very uncomfortable. I hear the roar of a motorcycle outside, and realize I’m standing in a strip club holding two envelopes containing twelve thousand in cash, and no one on earth knows I’m here.

“That’s okay,” I say. “I’ll give it to them next time.”

“You sure about that?”

As I turn to leave, the door opens and Bobby Mitchell walks in.

Knowing it’ll take a few seconds for his eyes to adjust, I shield my face and try to work my way around him.

Maybe it’s the lifestyle, but Bobby’s eyes have no problem adjusting to the light.

“Whoa,” he says, putting an arm out to stop me. You’re the guy from last night.”

“Nice to see you again,” I say, noting my voice sounds like I’m twelve years old again, in the shower with Joe and his piss buddies.

Bobby says, “What the fuck’re you doing here?”

“You mentioned the place last night, thought I’d check it out.”

“In the middle of the morning?”

“I wanted to get the feel of the place. Maybe come back tonight.”

Bobby looks at the manager. “Does that make sense to you, Gary?”

Gary says, “He came in last night. Bought a dozen lap dances from two of the girls.”

“A dozen each?”

“All together.”

“Which two?”

My eyes search the immediate area for any type of weapon I can use against this beastly man, but nothing looks remotely possible.

“Ask him,” Gary says.

Bobby moves closer. He’s practically on top of me. There’s no way out of this.

“Which two girls?” Bobby says.

“Uh, Cameron?” I say.

“Cameron?”

“I might not have her name right.”

Bobby glances at Gary. “Was Stringbean one of them?”

He nods.

Bobby turns back to me. So you bought a dozen lap dances from Cameron and another girl?”

I nod.

He says, “Which other girl?”

10

Willow and Cameron.

Friday, 1:15 p.m.

Willow and Cameron pay no attention to the dark Lexus till it turns into Chris Fowler’s driveway.

As the garage door opens, the girls snap to attention.

“Wrong car!” Willow says.

“Are you sure he was driving a Mercedes?”

“Positive.”

“We did a couple of lines, remember.”

“True. And it was dark.” She frowns. “It was definitely a luxury sedan.”

Cameron says, “I think you’re right about the Mercedes. Could they own three cars?”

The Lexus enters the garage, and they watch the door close behind it.

“They’re pretty rich,” Willow says. “The house has to be at least seven-fifty. And they’ve got a three-car garage. It’s possible.”

“So Chris isn’t here?”

“Unless she picked him up.”

“Maybe we should just forget it,” Cameron says.

“Are you kidding me? I’m already in deep shit with Bobby. If I don’t bring home nine hundred-sixty bucks, he’ll kill me.”

Cameron shakes her head. “You’re so pretty. And smart. You shouldn’t have to put up with that shit.”

“Tell Bobby, okay?”

“He’s abusive.”

“Ya think?”

They’re quiet a moment.

Willow says, “Let’s bring this thing to a head.”

“What do you mean?”

“Follow my lead.”

They get out of the car, walk to the front door, ring the bell.

A woman opens the door and says, “May I help you?”

Willow says, “You’re Kathy? Chris Fowler’s wife?”

“Yes. How can I help you?”

“Is Chris here?”

She looks them over. “I’m sorry, who are you?”

“I’m Willow Breeland, and this is Cameron Mason.”

“And how do you know my husband?”

Willow and Cameron exchange a look, then notice the concern in Kathy’s face.

“I think you should leave,” Kathy says.

She starts to close the door, but Willow wedges her foot inside the frame, pulls Bobby’s 9 millimeter from her purse and sticks it in Kathy’s face.

Kathy says, “Oh, God!” and backs into her living room.

Willow and Cameron follow her in, and Cameron locks the door.

“Jesus, Willow!” Cameron says.

“Please,” Kathy says. “Take whatever you want.”

“You told her our names!” Cameron says.

Willow sighs. “I know. Shit!”

Kathy says, “We’ve got a safe in the bedroom closet.”

“Shut up!” Willow says. “I need to think.”

Kathy backs up to the couch and sits down. She’s shaking so hard her teeth are chattering.

Cameron says, “Show us the safe.”

They head back to the bedroom, but when they reach the hall, Willow says “Shhh!” and makes them stop.

To Kathy she whispers, “Who’s back there?”

“N-no one.”

“Then why do I hear water running?”

“I was running water for my bath. I’ve been out of town and-”

“I’ll check it out,” Cameron says. “If I scream, shoot Kathy. Then come get me.”

Willow’s eyes get big, but not as big as Kathy’s.

“Want to change your story about running water for the bath?” Cameron says.

Kathy shakes her head no.

Cameron disappears into the bedroom.

“Please,” Kathy whispers. “You’re not like her. I can feel it.”

“Please be quiet,” Willow says.

“Don’t let her kill me!” Kathy says.

“We’re not going to kill you. We just want what’s ours.”

“What does that mean?” Kathy says.

Before Willow can answer, Cameron comes back in the hallway and says, “She was telling the truth.”

“You didn’t turn off the water?” Willow says.

“We’ll turn it off in a minute. First, let’s see how much money they’ve got.”

It takes three tries, but Kathy finally gets the safe open, and Willow counts out fifteen hundred in fifties and twenties.

“That’s it?” she says.

“There are some gold coins in the back,” Kathy says. “And jewelry.”

“Too risky,” Cameron says.

Willow looks at the cash, then at Cameron. Her lip quivers, thinking about the beating she’s going to get. She’s about to cry.

“You can have my half,” Cameron says.

“No. That wouldn’t be fair.”

“You can pay me back later. There’s enough here to pay Bobby and still put five hundred into our secret fund.”

“You’re the best, Cameron.”

“You too.”

They look at Kathy.

Cameron says, “She knows our names.”

“I know. I’m sorry!”

“Please,” Kathy says. “There’s no need to hurt me. I won’t say a word.”

Willow frowns. “That is such bullshit!”

She turns to her friend. “Talk to me, Cam.”

Cameron says, “Give me the gun.”

Willow says, “You can’t just shoot her.”

“No. But I can make her walk into the bathroom.”

Kathy says, “You don’t need the gun. I’ll go in the bathroom.”

The three women enter the bathroom where two of them showered ten hours ago. Willow notices a different facecloth on the shower bench, which means Chris probably cleaned up before leaving. Cameron points at the large whirlpool tub on the far side of the room and says, “Get on your hands and knees, and lean your head over the edge of the tub.”

Kathy pauses.

“Hand me the gun, Willow,” Cameron says.

She does, then turns off the water.

“Please,” Kathy says. “I’m begging you. Don’t shoot me!”

“I’m not going to shoot you.”

“I wish I could believe you.”

“We’re going to tie your hands behind your back and you’re going to give us two full hours before calling anyone.”

“I won’t tell a soul about this. Not even Chris.”

Willow says, “It’s Chris’s fault this happened in the first place!”

Kathy’s confused, but she lowers herself to the floor and gets on her hands and knees. She positions her neck over the side of the tub and puts her hands behind her back.

“What can we tie her with?” Willow says.

“They’ve got phones in the bedroom and kitchen. Remove the phone cords while I keep an eye on Kathy,” Cameron says. “But hurry!”

“Okay.”

When Willow leaves the room, Cameron smashes the side of Kathy’s head with the gun butt.

Kathy’s arms start to jerk. She tries to raise up. Cameron puts her mouth next to Kathy’s ear and whispers, “Do you have any idea what your husband did to us? It’s payback time, bitch!”

She slams the butt of the gun against Kathy’s head again, and her body goes slack. Cameron locks her arm under Kathy’s left armpit and tries to hoist her up over the edge of the tub into the water.

But she’s too heavy.

Knowing Willow will be back any minute, Cameron gets on the floor and works her shoulders under Kathy’s legs and pushes upward. Of course this action requires Cameron’s face to be pressed into Kathy’s butt, and she thinks if Willow walks in at this precise moment she’ll wonder what the hell Cameron’s doing to the lady of the manor.

It’s not pleasant, but it’s the only way she can raise Kathy high enough to get her head under water.

It works.

Kathy’s waist is on the edge of the tub, her face in the water.

Cameron scrambles to her feet and pushes Kathy’s head in deeper and holds it there. Moments later Willow enters the room with the phone cords in her hand and screams, “Omigod! You killed her!”

“I had to!”

“No! Jesus, Cam! Let her up!”

Willow turns off the water.

Cameron says, “She tried to kill me!”

“What? How?”

“She pushed her body against me, tried to knock me down.”

“Omigod! I shouldn’t have left you here alone.”

“It’s okay. I hit her with the gun.”

Willow looks around. “There’s not much blood.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“Jesus, Cam.”

“I panicked.”

“You drowned her?”

“It started off like self-defense. But I was so scared! I just kept pushing her head down to keep her from getting to me.”

“Omigod! You poor thing!”

Willow notices Cameron is still holding Kathy’s head under water.

“Is she-”

Cameron starts crying.

Willow says, “You had to do it. If she’d gotten hold of the gun she could’ve killed you.”

“I killed someone!” Cameron says, between sobs.

“It’s my fault. You didn’t even want to be here. It’s my fault she’s dead.”

“My life’s over,” Cameron says.

“No. It’ll be all right. We’ll figure something out.”

“If they catch us, you’ll tell.”

“No.”

Willow sits on the side of the tub and says, “Let go of her, Cam.”

“I’m afraid to.”

“It’s okay. I’ll hold her under.”

“Why?”

“Because you’re my friend,” Willow says. “And we’re in this together.”

Cameron releases her grip, and Kathy’s head bobs to the surface. But her face remains submerged.

“She’s already dead,” Cameron says.

“You never know.”

“Yes you do.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Willow takes over and pushes Kathy’s face deeper into the water and holds it there for five minutes. Then both girls stand and hug each other and cry.

Cameron finally says, “You never touched the safe, right?”

“Right.”

“Or anything else?”

“Just the tub and faucet handles. And the phone cords.”

“And I touched the inside door knob and the lock.”

“There’s blood on the tub, but not the bathroom floor,” Willow says.

“Guess I got her over the tub so fast she didn’t have time to bleed on the floor.”

“That’s good.”

“ Shit!” Cameron says.

“What?”

“We showered last night, and fucked her husband on the bed. And both of us were on the chair. You think he flushed the condoms?”

They go back in the bedroom and look around.

The bed is made, the room neat, the gun back in the drawer with the remaining unwrapped condoms.

“Let’s not take any chances,” Cameron says.

“What do you mean?”

“We should strip the bed and wipe down all the surfaces, vacuum the chair and floor, and clean the shower.”

“What about the vacuum cleaner?”

“Good point. We’ll need to take it with us.”

“We’ll also need to wipe your prints off the front door.”

“And yours off the telephones and the cords. After we put them back like they were.”

“You look for the vacuum cleaner,” Willow says. “I’ll find a trash bag for the sheets, spread, and pillow cases.”

“First, flush all the toilets.”

“Why?”

“To make sure the condoms haven’t stopped them up.”

“Good idea.”

Twenty minutes later Willow exits the front door, carrying the trash bag. Cameron’s right behind her, carrying the vacuum cleaner, closing the door. Willow looks around to see if any neighbors are about, but sees no one. She walks ten feet before realizing Cameron hasn’t caught up to her. She turns to see what’s taking her friend so long to get her butt in gear and sees Cameron standing on the front porch, staring directly into the security camera.

11

“We’re screwed,” Cameron says.

Willow rushes back to Cameron’s side.

“No problem,” she says.

“No problem? Are you shitting me?”

She points to the camera.

Willow says, “We’ll go inside, find the surveillance tape, and pull it out of the machine.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“I just locked the front door.”

“We could break in the back,” Willow says. “It won’t be that hard. There’s a sliding glass door and-”

The suddenness of Willow’s pause makes Cameron turn to look at her. Willow’s staring at the camera, smiling.

“We’re screwed, and you’re standing here making a fucking movie?”

“It’s a fake camera,” Willow says.

“Are you crazy? ”

“Bobby used to sell and install security systems, remember?”

“So?”

“Half the cameras he installed were fakes.”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“Most customers were too cheap to spring for the full system. And nine out of ten burglars don’t know the difference between real and fake cameras.”

“Is that true?”

“Probably not. But it’s what Bobby told the clients.”

“So when he couldn’t sell the real thing he talked them into buying the fakes?”

“Exactly. For ten cents on the dollar.”

“And you’re certain this one’s a fake?”

“Positive. We’ve got a dozen just like them in our apartment.”

“Seriously Willow? Because if you’re wrong it’s our asses.”

“Seriously. Now let’s get out of here!”

They walk briskly to the car, climb in, and start driving to Willow’s apartment.

“What about the bedding?” Cameron says.

“We should take it to a laundromat and wash and dry it. Then take it to my place, cut everything into small pieces with scissors, and scatter the pieces in dumpsters all over town.”

“I’ve got a better idea. We’ll wash and dry it and put it in your trunk. After work, we’ll take it to my parent’s house. They’ve got a fire pit. We’ll burn it while making smores.”

“What about the vacuum cleaner?”

“Pull over, and we’ll dump out the dust. I need a sweeper anyway. I’ll take it home and wash it from top to bottom, hose and everything.”

“I like the idea of cleaning it,” Willow says. “But keeping it? What if the police show up?”

“Good point. Okay, I’ll wash it out this afternoon. You’ll pick me up and drive me to work and we’ll put the sweeper in your trunk. After work we’ll toss it in a dumpster on our way to my parents’ house.”

An hour later they fold the warm sheets, pillow cases and blanket, and place everything back in the trash bag and put it in Willow’s trunk. They ride quietly back to Cameron’s duplex.

Still in the car with the doors locked, Cameron says, “We’ll never speak of this again, no matter what. If something happens and the police put us in separate interrogation rooms, we won’t flip on each other.”

“They always lie and say the other person ratted you out.”

“But we won’t flip on each other.”

“No.”

“Swear it.”

“I swear. Now you.”

“I swear.”

They sit in the car a minute, thinking about what they’ve done.

Then Willow says, “Chris Fowler.”

“What about him?”

“He’ll know we did it.”

“He won’t have any reason to suspect us,” Cameron says.

“He will. Last night was a big deal. He’ll come home, find his wife murdered, see the safe open. He’ll wonder who would do such a thing.”

“Us?”

Willow nods.

“So?”

“He knows where we work.”

Cameron thinks a minute, then says, “He won’t want to admit what happened last night.”

“He’ll have to. He’s the prime suspect.”

“Not if he’s got a great alibi. He’s at work, right? Wherever that is, there must be a dozen people who can vouch for his whereabouts.”

“If they can establish a proper timeline.”

“They always-oh shit!” Cameron says.

“What now?”

Willow turns to her left just in time to see Bobby smash his fist against her window.

She screams.

“Get out!” He shouts. “Right now. Both of you!”

Cameron says, “Drive away, Willow.”

“I can’t.”

“You have to. He’s bombed out of his mind. Drive away and wait till he crashes. He’ll probably forget the whole thing.”

Bobby punches the window again. “Lower the fucking window!”

“No!” Willow shouts. “Not till you calm down!”

“Lower the window now!”

“Not till you calm down. You’re totally wasted. I’m getting out of here.”

She looks into the rear view mirror, reaches her hand toward the steering column to put the car in reverse, but he punches the window twice.

“Stop it!” Willow yells. “You’re going to break your hand!”

“You’re worried about his hand?” Cameron says. “ Jesus, Willow!”

“Lower the fucking window!” Bobby shouts.

“Not till you calm down!”

He pauses. “Okay. Okay, fine,” he says. “I’m calming. I’m calming.”

The girls watch Bobby relax his posture, then his facial features, until he looks like a demented choirboy.

“I liked him better the other way,” Cameron says.

“See how I live?” Willow says.

She lowers the window two inches and says, “What the fuck was that all about?”

“I need a ride.”

“How’d you get here?”

“I borrowed a guy’s car.”

“What guy?”

“I’ll tell you later.”

Willow unlocks the doors, Bobby climbs in the back, behind her.

She says, “ Why are you here?”

“I was looking for you.”

“Well, I’ve got your money.”

“You’ve been gone all day.”

“I was trying to score some blow for you.”

“Where is it?”

“I couldn’t find Chuckie. We looked everywhere.”

“Right. Just start the car and drive where I tell you.”

“Forgetting something?” Cameron says. “I live here. See you later, Willow.”

She reaches for the door handle, but Bobby grabs her by the hair.

She kicks and screams, but he works his other hand around her throat to cut off her air.

Willow shouts, “Let her go!”

With one quick motion Bobby pulls Cameron into the back seat and punches her face.

“You bastard!” Cameron gasps.

She hits him back, splits his lip.

“Bitch!” Bobby yells, and smashes her temple.

Cameron’s head bounces off the window. Her body goes slack.

Willow shouts, “What are you doing? What the fuck’s wrong with you?”

“ Wrong with me? Wrong with me? If you don’t start the car and drive where I tell you, I’ll snap her chicken neck right now.”

Willow starts the car and waits for Bobby’s directions.

“Drive to Ream’s Park,” he says.

12

Ream’s is a neighborhood park, less than a mile from Cameron’s house. Bobby tells Willow to park behind the worker’s shed, next to the black Mercedes. The one that looks exactly like Chris Fowler’s, except for the rental tags.

“Is Cameron okay?”

“Don’t worry about Stringbean,” Bobby says. “She’s coming to. And when she does you better tell her to keep her mouth shut.”

Looking at him in the mirror, this Bobby seems more reasonable than the one who tried to smash her window. But the crazed look in his eyes concerns her.

“Why’d you hit Cameron?”

“Cut the engine and hand me the keys.”

She does.

“What now?”

“We’re changing rides.”

“The Mercedes?”

“Yeah, that’s right. We’re moving up in the world, baby!”

Do they even rent Mercedes sedans? They must, she decides, since this one’s clearly a rental. But Bobby didn’t rent it. He has no credit. He said he borrowed it from a guy. If true, why would he stash it here and walk to Cameron’s house?

He wouldn’t. Unless it was stolen.

“What’s going on here, Bobby?”

“We’re about to have an adventure. Soon as Cameron’s up for it.”

It takes five minutes for Cameron to get lucid, and when she is she’s mad as a wounded wolverine. She and Bobby get into a slapping and yelling match that ends when he punches her forehead and knocks her semi-conscious.

He cocks his fist to hit her again, but Willow purposely interrupts his train of thought by asking, “Who’s car is that?”

“Huh? What?”

“Who’s Mercedes is that?”

“I told you. I borrowed it from a friend.”

“What friend?”

“Guy I met at Shady’s last night.”

“What is he, a drug dealer?”

A strange look comes over Bobby’s face, like he just remembered he’s the one supposed to be angry here. Angry and in charge.

He says, “Get your ass out of the car, Willow.” He looks at Cameron. “You too, Stringbean.”

Willow looks at Cameron. She’s trying to mouth something. Trying to get Willow to read her lips. She’s…

Gun.

She’s mouthing the word “gun.”

Willow has Bobby’s gun in her purse.

She shakes her head.

Like she’s supposed to what, pull a gun on crazy Bobby? He’ll rip it out of her hands and pistol-whip them both.

“Now!” Bobby says.

Willow opens the door, gets out, then leans back in.

“What about my car? I can’t leave it here.”

“We’ll get it later.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow. We’re having a sleepover.”

The girls share a quick look of panic.

“I’ve got some things in the trunk,” Willow says.

“What sort of things?”

“Bedding.”

“ What?”

“I’ve got some bedding in the trunk.”

“You mean like sheets and shit?”

“Yeah. And a blanket. And pillow cases.”

“So?”

“I need them.”

“What’re you, nuts?”

“I’m not leaving without them.”

“ What?”

“Or my vacuum cleaner,” Cameron says.

“Your what?”

“That’s right,” Willow says. “I’ve got bedding, Cameron has a vacuum cleaner. In the trunk. We need them.”

Bobby’s practically delirious from the speedball. He knows his brain’s all over the place. Nevertheless, he’s positive he’s not dreaming.

“We don’t have room for bedding and a vacuum cleaner. You’ll have to leave them here.”

“No!” Willow says.

“Don’t you tell me no!” Bobby yells, and launches a fist toward Willow’s face. She easily avoids it, backs out of the car and dashes around the front.

Bobby grabs his door handle intending to jump out and chase her, then realizes Willow’s rounded the car. She’s heading for the front passenger door, reaching for the handle.

She wants to open the door?

To get what, her purse?

His drug-addled brain is reacting slowly, but not so slowly he can’t figure out why she wants her purse. It’s the reason he fired up his motorcycle to go looking for her this morning after waking up and finding her gone.

After realizing his gun was missing.

Willow gets the door open just as Bobby lunges forward.

The purse is on the edge of the passenger seat, just right of the console. They grab it at the same time, but Willow’s got the angle and the leverage, and easily rips it from Bobby’s grasp. Unfortunately, the purse is open, and as she pulls it free, Bobby’s gun falls out. He grabs it and points it at Willow’s face. She backs away, slowly.

Bobby turns the gun on Cameron and says, “Say goodbye to Stringbean!”

“ Stop!” Willow yells.

“I’ll stop if you open Stringbean’s door.”

Willow could probably get away, but she can’t leave Cameron with Bobby. He’s capable of anything when on drugs. Not to mention she can’t abandon her car while the items are still in her trunk. They’re evidence of the murder.

Willow opens Cameron’s door.

“Okay, Stringbean,” Bobby says. “Get out.”

Cameron climbs out, gives Willow a look of disappointment.

Bobby follows her, but when he tries to stand his knees are so shaky he has to put his left hand on the car to steady himself. His head’s swimming, urging him to lie down, close his eyes, drift. It would be so easy to lose control of the situation.

He focuses on the women.

“Get in the Mercedes,” he says. “Both of you.”

“Not without my bedding,” Willow says.

“And my vacuum cleaner,” Cameron adds.

“ This again?” Bobby says.

“Kill us now, or give us our stuff,” Willow says in a voice so strong and steady she seems to mean it.

“You’re willing to die for a fucking vacuum cleaner?”

“And bedding. So either pull the trigger, Badass, or let me have my stuff.”

Bobby knows the drugs are working on his mind. Even so, Willow never speaks to him this way.

“Am I missing something?” he says.

“We want our stuff,” Willow says. “We’ll go with you, but we want our stuff.”

“We want our stuff,” Cameron says.

“We want our fucking stuff!” Willow shouts.

“Jesus Christ!” he shouts. “Shut the fuck up!”

“We want our stuff!” Willow shouts. “Give us our stuff!”

“You’re insane!” he yells.

It suddenly dawns on Bobby he’s standing in a park in broad daylight holding a gun on one woman, while another is shouting at him. And yet both are willing to go with him quietly if he’ll let them bring their stupid things.

“Fine,” he says. “Get your shit. Put it in the other trunk.”

To Willow he says, “While she’s doing that, get in the Mercedes. You’re driving.”

Bobby pops Willow’s trunk open, then watches Willow get in the Mercedes. When she closes the door he turns his attention to Cameron, who’s carrying the bedding toward the back of the Mercedes.

He scrunches his face in thought. Something about the back of the Mercedes.

But what?

Cameron opens the trunk and screams like she’s uncovered a dead body.

Oh yeah, Bobby remembers. That!

13

Bobby runs to the back of the car, grabs the bedding from Cameron’s arms, and throws it in the trunk. He slams it shut, then grabs the very shaken Cameron by the wrist, and throws her in the front passenger seat.

“What’s wrong?” Willow asks. But Cameron’s too shaky to respond.

Bobby points at the papers in Willow’s hand. “What’s that?”

Willow says, “The rental car agreement.”

“You opened the glove box?”

“I wanted to see whose car we’re stealing.”

“And now you know. How does that make you feel?”

“I have no opinion on it either way.”

Bobby laughs. “I guess we’ll know a helluva lot more when the party starts.”

He circles the car, gets in the back seat and says, “Okay, let’s go!”

He suddenly seems in a good mood.

Willow says, “Not without the vacuum cleaner.”

“Shut the fuck up!”

So much for his good mood.

Willow says, “I’m not leaving without Cameron’s vacuum cleaner. Period.”

He punches the back of her head with his fist and waits to hear her cry.

“Fuck you!” she yells.

“Fuck me? What the hell’s wrong with you? Drive, bitch!”

“Get the vacuum cleaner or drive yourself.”

“Drive!”

“Vacuum cleaner!”

He shakes his head. What is this bullshit? Yesterday’s world was a simpler place. He’d smack Willow around, she’d cry, they’d have sex, she’d cry some more, next morning everything’s back to normal. This whole vacuum cleaner attitude makes no sense.

He sighs.

Then again, why dwell on it? He’s got more important things to think about, like the bag full of drugs and black toad powder Chuckie sold him.

Bobby suddenly laughs and wonders why. He didn’t hear or say anything funny. He’s just sitting here, wondering about-wait, there it goes again.

Now he’s giggling like a moron.

Must be the speedball.

He’s never had enough cash to mix the gravy before, and he’s suddenly feeling giddy. Seconds ago his senses were deadened. He had to struggle to remain standing. Thought he might collapse.

Now he’s flying!

He’s hit that level where half of him wants to shut down and sleep and the other half wants to party.

Chuckie the drug dealer was right when he said, “H and blow’s a hell of a show!”

Bobby can’t wait to try the Black Toad. And what’s the only thing stopping him?

A vacuum cleaner.

He gets out of the car for what seems the millionth time and pops Willow’s trunk open again.

While he’s retrieving the vacuum cleaner, Willow notices something attached to the sun visor that has no use being in a rental car. She takes a tissue from her purse, uses it to remove the device, and places it in her purse.

Who knows what might be of value later on?

If there is a later on.

Meanwhile, Bobby throws the vacuum cleaner in the back seat, climbs in after it and says, “Before the night’s over, you’re going to tell me what’s so special about this piece of shit used sweeper.”

He presses the lock button on her key and says, “Your car’s locked, and you’ve got all your shit. Let’s roll.”

Willow looks at Cameron and says, “Are you okay?”

Cameron shakes her head no and says, “There’s a dead body in the trunk.”

Willow’s eyes grow huge.

“Start the car,” Bobby says. “ Now!”

“You killed the doctor?”

“What doctor?”

She picks up the rental agreement and reads, “Dr. Gideon Box, Royal Tower, West 64 ^th Street, New York City.”

Bobby says, “Right. Like you don’t know him.”

“What I know is you’ve apparently killed someone and stolen his car. And you’re making me drive it. And you’re leaving my car here at the murder scene.”

“He’s not dead,” Bobby says. “He’s resting.”

“Who the hell is Gideon Box?” Willow says. “And how do you know him?”

Bobby says, “Tell her, Cameron.”

Cameron says, “It’s Chris Fowler.”

“That the name he gave you, slut?” Bobby says.

“He’s dead, Willow,” Cameron says.

Bobby says, “He’s not dead, you dumb bitch. He’s unconscious.”

“I know a dead body when I see one!” Cameron snaps.

Bobby says, “Drive, Willow.”

“Where?”

“My grandma’s farm.”

“Grandma Maggie? I thought she was in assisted living.”

“She is. But the farm’s still for sale.”

Bobby laughs again for no apparent reason, then realizes the car hasn’t moved.

“Did I tell you to start the car?”

“Maybe I would if you’d-I don’t know-give me the fucking keys?”

He throws the keys onto the dashboard and says, “I’m going to beat that attitude out of you when we get to the farm.”

14

One Hour Earlier…

I’m bouncing around in the trunk of my rental car.

Bobby’s driving.

He’s shouting at me, but it’s hard to make out the words, since I think he may have burst one or both of my eardrums when he pummeled me in the parking lot a few minutes ago.

After Gary told him Willow and Cameron personally cashed out twenty-six hundred dollars and split the money last night, net of club fees.

After Gary told him I’d stopped by to leave something for Willow and Cameron.

After I handed Bobby the envelopes.

After he asked why I gave the girls twelve grand in addition to paying them for a dozen lap dances.

After I refused to answer.

After he dragged me outside the club by my hair.

I know he broke one of my cheekbones and at least a few of my ribs.

I’ve been thoroughly beaten up numerous times in my life, but not since high school, so I’m out of practice, and my point of reference is rusty. Even so, I’m positive this ass-kicking went beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. Or heard about, for that matter.

It seemed to last an hour, though I doubt it was more than a half-minute. But it’s amazing how much damage one man can do to another in the space of thirty seconds using nothing more than fists and boots.

I’m hurting from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. Every pain receptor in my body is screaming, every pore of my skin seems to be leaking blood. I’m wheezing and whimpering, and though the adrenalin kicked in quickly, it’s flushed through my system now, so everything hurts like hell.

And it’s going to hurt a lot more until I tell him what he wants to hear about me and Willow.

The first blow shattered my nose. That’s the one I remember with crystal clarity. The flash of pain was so sudden, so intense, and the sound of crushed cartilage so horrifying, so sickening, it took all the fight out of me. Any will I might have had to resist was gone the moment I heard that sound.

I might have cried.

Not the noisy sort of crying kids do when they’re hurt, but the moaning type men and women do when they’re anesthetized and you’re slicing them open or scraping tumors from their internal organs.

The blow to my nose made me gag and retch. Before I could even think about vomiting, he crashed his fist into my right cheekbone, then my left. Then he tagged me on top of the head, and then a right and left to my ears.

Every time he hit me it hurt, and every punch seemed to break something, as if I were being hit by a brick bat.

How could I possibly be standing upright?

I wasn’t.

Gary was holding me up from behind so Bobby could get better leverage into his punches.

I only know this because when Gary finally released me, I crumbled to the gravel in a heap. Then Bobby began kicking my ribs. When I covered up, he kicked whatever he could reach, which turned out to by my ass and lower back. It dawned on me if he happened to kick my backbone with the toe of his boot, I could wind up paralyzed.

So I rolled onto my back and tried to get my legs up before he could kick me in the nuts, but my legs wouldn’t respond. So there I was, knees bent, wide apart, giving him a perfect target. He had no trouble connecting, and the only reason my twig and berries remained attached to my groin is because he caught me with the top of his boot instead of the toe.

Not that it made much difference, pain-wise.

I threw up, then started choking on my vomit.

Absurdly, Bobby shouted, “You think that’s funny? Huh? You think that’s funny?”

Funny?

No.

Funny never crossed my mind.

No part of it was funny. Especially when he asked, “Did you fuck my girlfriend? (kick) Did you fuck Willow? (kick) Did you? (kick) Did you fuck my girlfriend? (kick) Huh?” (kick)

I passed out.

But only for a few seconds.

When I came to he was still screaming about what he’d do to me if he finds out I fucked Willow. I couldn’t imagine there was anything left undone to me. Then I saw the silver lining.

My body was blocking the pain!

I know the reason for this. When we experience shock or trauma, our bodies produce a natural morphine that dulls or completely eliminates pain. The more we need, the more we create.

Each time Bobby kicked me it made a hollow thunking sound, like a kid batting a large balloon around the room. But the pain was minimal.

When it got really ugly, Gary told Bobby he’d have to take it somewhere else. The assault could go on, he said, just not in his parking lot. He couldn’t afford the publicity of a customer beaten to death on the premises.

The two of them picked me up and dumped me in the trunk of my rental car. I landed in an odd configuration, my arms and legs so splayed they seemed disconnected from my torso, like a Picasso painting. Bobby pushed my marionette arms and legs around till I settled deep enough in the trunk for him to shut the lid.

15

I hear Bobby asking Gary to drive his motorcycle home. He says he’ll follow him there and drive him back to the club. Gary says he can’t because he’s got to meet someone named Marvin in a few minutes. The Mercedes trunk is well insulated, which makes it impossible to hear what they’re saying when they get more than a few feet away.

Five minutes pass and I’m still in the trunk. A car pulls up behind me. I hear a door slam shut. A man’s voice calls out. I strain to make out the words, but they’re garbled.

Now he approaches my car, saying, “We had a report of a fight that took place in this parking lot.”

“When?” Gary says.

“Ten minutes ago.”

“I think you’ve got the wrong place, officer. Or maybe it was a crank call.”

“It was an eye-witness report.”

“There was no fight here, sir. You’ve got my word on that.”

There’s a pause. Then, “What’s this?”

“What?”

“This look like blood to you? It does to me. And it’s wet. You’re Gary, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well Gary, I think it’s time you started telling me the truth. Or you can talk to us downtown. Your choice.”

There’s another short pause.

I kick the trunk, try to yell “Help!” but my voice comes out like a stage whisper.

“What’s that?”

“Sounds like crawfish,” Gary says.

“Crawfish?”

“Help! I’m in the trunk!” I yell. This time my voice works. Surely the cop can hear. “Help! Help!” I yell. I kick harder.

“Maybe you should open the trunk, Gary, show me your talking crawfish.”

“It’s not my car. I don’t have the keys.”

“Well maybe you better shit them up.”

“Is there a problem officer?” Bobby’s voice. From a distance.

“This your car?”

“Yes, sir. What about it?”

“Open the trunk.”

“No problem.”

I’m saved. Thank God!

I hear a muffled sound. Something heavy falls on the trunk. Then to the ground.

The trunk opens.

I yell, “Help! Officer?”

It’s Bobby, Gary, and some other guy.

Bobby says, “There’s no cop here, asshole. We were just fucking with you.”

The three of them laugh hysterically, and I wonder if they’re going to urinate on me, like Joe and his friends did all those years ago.

I’m more embarrassed than disappointed.

Humiliated, actually, and pissed.

The image of a beaten, but not defeated Daffy Duck floats through my mind, saying, “Of courth you know, thith means war!”

“You’re on my list!” I yell.

“Goodnight,” he says, then punches the side of my head.

Everything goes black.

16

When I regain consciousness I hear Bobby talking to a guy named Chuckie, who’s clearly a drug dealer.

That’s what I need, Bobby Mitchell on drugs.

We’re parked somewhere, all three of us in the car, except they’re in the front seat and I’m in the trunk. Their voices are reasonably clear, which gives me reassurance my ear drums may not be damaged after all. Unfortunately, my pain receptors are in great shape, which means I’m hurting.

Good thing I’m a doctor who knows better than to leave his medical bag out in the open on the car seat, where some hoodlum could get it.

The Mercedes I’m trapped in has a compartment you can lift up to access the spare tire. It’s a square compartment enclosing a round tire, which means each of the corners have spaces large enough to store my medical bag. All I have to do is lift myself high enough to get my arm in the compartment beneath me and pull the bag out. It won’t be easy because I need to work quietly, and any movement could make me gasp or cry out in pain.

I take a few deep breaths, then lift myself up while hearing Chuckie explain the incredible rush Bobby will get after injecting a mixture of cocaine and heroin into his blood stream.

A speedball.

Bobby says he doesn’t trust needles in his vein.

Chuckie says, “What’re you, a skin-popper?”

Skin-popping’s a method addicts use to inject heroin into their fatty tissue after they’ve given up trying to find usable veins. Most inject themselves directly through their clothing.

“Will it still work if I don’t mainline?” Bobby says.

“Oh, hell yeah! And it’s safer. Trust me, you’re gonna love this shit!”

I doubt Bobby will love it for long.

Speedballing is the deadliest route to a high. It combines two highly addictive drugs that potentiate each other, meaning they’re stronger together than on their own. But they have opposite effects. Cocaine raises the heart rate, heroin slows it down. It’s the lethal mix that killed John Belushi and River Phoenix, among others.

And worse, who knows what sort of crap Chuckie’s cocaine providers used to cut the drug? I mean, I’ve still got Willow’s cocaine and nutmeg in my pocket, but even if I didn’t have morphine in my medical bag I wouldn’t snort the coke. Not that I could do so with a broken nose in the first place. My point, our lab guys have isolated insecticides, anti-itch powder, and even pet tranquilizers in street cocaine samples that were sold as “100 % pure.”

When Bobby and Chuckie become engrossed in a discussion about Black Toad Powder, I work my bag out of the compartment, retrieve my penlight, and load a syringe with a dose of morphine. I take another deep breath and let it out slowly before injecting the drug. Afterward, I raise my body and ease the bag back in the compartment and wait for the drug to take effect.

Chuckie’s still trying to sell Bobby what he calls Black Toad, which I know to be Black Stone powder, a substance made from toad poison.

He says, “When you rub this shit on your dick you’ll get a raging hard-on! You’ll be able to knock a grown man to the ground with your pecker!”

“No shit?”

“I swear!”

Chuckie’s full of shit. Black Stone powder may or may not make Bobby’s dick hard, depending on what else is mixed in it. But Black Stone is made from toad venom or secretions, both of which contain cardioactive steroids. The main ingredient is bufotenin, a psychedelic that can cause reactions from severe diarrhea to death, if ingested. If applied to Bobby’s skin, it could cause serious penis pain, possible chest pain, and anaphylactic shock, if he happens to be allergic to the ingredients.

Suddenly the trunk opens.

I’m blinded, so I can’t see the woman who just let out a blood-curdling scream, but I think it was Cameron. Then she or someone else tosses bedding and pillows on top of me before slamming the trunk shut again.

I’m groggy, but lucid enough to hear Willow and Bobby’s voices. Then Cameron’s.

Obviously some time has passed since Chuckie and Bobby were talking about Black Stone powder.

Willow and Cameron have discovered my name from the rental agreement, and think I’m dead. Bobby knows better. His slurred speech and maniacal laughter tells me he’s flying high. No telling what might happen when he crashes.

My guess? He’ll shoot another speedball.

There’s some sort of fight taking place regarding a vacuum cleaner. Or maybe the morphine has got me confused. A lot of yelling and door slamming, and finally the car begins moving, presumably heading to a party at Bobby’s grandmother’s farm.

Or maybe not.

I could be hallucinating.

It’s cramped in here, and I don’t want my legs to form blood clots, so I reposition myself before closing my eyes. I don’t know if I’m sleeping or dreaming, but I think I hear my cell phone ringing. If I remember correctly, it’s in my luggage in the back seat.

It’s not a dream.

Bobby shouts, “Don’t answer it! Throw it out the window!”

There goes my chance to call Security Joe to come save me. But right now I’m so damn comfortable I couldn’t care less. I’ll get some rest and see what happens when we get to Maggie’s Farm.

17

Carlos and Charlie.

Present Time.

Carlos and Charlie are confused.

They parked their white panel van a block away and cut through the tree line to the back of Chris Fowler’s house just as they’d been told. They looked through the back window of the garage and saw Kathy Fowler’s Lexus, which meant she was home. The spare key was where it was supposed to be, under the flower pot on the deck behind the den. Carlos and Charlie had come at the precise time they were told, during the half hour window when both neighboring moms would be fetching their kids from separate schools.

But when they opened the back door and crept quietly through the den, Charlie tripped on Carlos’s foot, knocking a lamp to the floor, and Kathy didn’t shout. If you were alone in your home and something crashed loudly in the den, wouldn’t you shout something like, “Hello? Is anyone there?” Or yell, “Go away! I’ve got a gun!”

Wouldn’t you?

Kathy Fowler did none of these things, so Carlos and Charlie are confused.

“Clumsy oaf!” Carlos whispers. “Get your gun out. Pray she doesn’t shoot us first.”

“Your fault,” Charlie whispers back. “You stopped short.”

“You’ve always been clumsy.”

“I’m light on my feet,” Charlie says. “Everyone says so.”

“What they say is you’re light in the loafers.”

“Same thing.”

“No, it’s not.”

“Give it a rest, okay? Now turn so I can cover the bedroom door.”

Carlos whispers, “What if she comes from the kitchen?”

“Then she’ll have a knife, not a gun. If you see her, give a shout, and we’ll turn that way. I’ll have time to shoot her.”

“If she comes from the kitchen, just pass me the gun, dick breath.”

“ You? Are you kidding me? You’re the worst shooter on earth! You couldn’t hit her if her tit was stuck in your gun barrel!”

“Fine. If she comes from the kitchen, we’ll spin clockwise.”

“I’m faster counter-clockwise.”

“You’re also clumsier. Note the lamp on the floor.”

See? This is the problem with being Siamese twin killers for hire. Carlos and Charlie are conjoined at the hip, shoulder, and neck, possessing two heads, two arms, and four legs between them.

“Where’s Kathy?” Charlie says. “She must’ve heard the noise.”

“Maybe she’s in the shower.”

“Maybe she called 911.”

“Shit!” Carlos says. “You’re right. She’s probably hiding somewhere, while remaining on the line.”

“Remaining?”

“That’s what the 911 operators tell you to do. ‘Remain on the line.’”

“You didn’t cut the phone line?”

Due to the way their heads are positioned, Carlos’s neck lacks the range of motion needed to see his brother’s face. But if he could see Charlie’s face right now, he’d give him a withering look.

“Yeah,” Carlos says. “I cut the phone cord while you were knocking over the lamp. Then I humped Kathy in the bedroom while you played show tunes on the piano.”

“You don’t have to be a smart ass.”

“I started life as a dumb ass but people kept calling me Charlie.”

“Hilarious. Is there a phone on your side?”

Carlos looks around. “Yeah. End table, by the sofa.”

“Lead the way, please.”

They shuffle to the phone. Carlos picks it up, listens.

“Well?” Charlie says.

“Dial tone.”

“Good. Let’s check the shower.”

“I want first look,” Carlos says.

“What if she’s hiding in there with Chris’s gun?”

“Good point. You lead. But if she’s in the shower, I want to see.”

“Pervert!”

“At least I’m straight!”

“At least I’m not!”

They shuffle quietly to the hallway, work their way to the master bath. Charlie sees Kathy on her knees with her rear end facing him, her torso leaning over the edge of the tub.

Charlie cocks his gun, says, “Kathy? Sweetie? Don’t move a muscle, okay?”

She doesn’t. Not a muscle.

“What’s happening?” Carlos says.

“She’s either deaf or dead.”

“She’s not deaf.”

“How do you know?”

“Chris would’ve told us. Move up so I can see.”

“Look in the mirror.”

Carlos does. Then says, “What the hell are you wearing?”

Charlie’s hand instinctively moves to his neck. “Nothing.”

“Are those mom’s necklaces?”

“I brought them for good luck.”

“How many are you wearing?”

“Three.”

“What if we’d gotten in a scuffle and one of them broke?”

“I suppose we’d have to gather up the little pearls.”

“What if we had to make a run for it?”

“Run?” Charlie says. “Are you kidding me? It took us a full minute to get from the den to the bathroom!”

“Figure of speech.”

“We couldn’t outrun a sloth on propofol!”

“You made your point, Charlie. Mine is this: hit men don’t wear pearls.”

“We could start a new trend.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Why not?”

“Look, it’s bad enough you wear a Velcro bra and panties to bed every night.”

“So?”

“Let’s focus. I see blood in the water.”

“Blood?”

“In the tub. And Kathy’s head’s under water. She’s dead.”

He starts moving toward her. Charlie’s forced to follow.

Charlie says, “Slow down. It might be a trap.”

“A trap?”

“She could be playing possum.”

“I have no idea what that means, but there’s blood, Charlie. And did you hear me say her head’s under the water?”

“Maybe she’s holding her breath.”

“Trust me, she’s dead.”

Carlos and Charlie have lived like this since birth. Now that Kathy’s a non-issue, they ease into the natural muscular cooperation that got them through twenty-eight years of life, one hour at a time. Carlos’s legs are better suited to walking, Charlie’s arm and hand is more functional. Carlos instinctively knows how to angle, dip, and turn, so Charlie can see.

“I’ll take her pulse,” Charlie says.

“Good idea. Wonder what we’ll learn,” Carlos says, sarcastically.

The boys lower their bodies until they’re on their knees. Charlie places his hand on Kathy’s neck.

“She’s dead,” he says.

“There’s a shock.”

Charlie looks at Kathy, shakes his head and sighs. “If my time comes, make sure I’m not wearing sweatpants, okay?”

“Yeah, whatever,” Carlos says, “Help me turn.”

“Which way?”

“To the right, so I can reach her.”

“Why?”

“Just do it.”

Still on their knees they make a quarter-turn to the right. When Charlie hears Carlos breathing heavily he says, “What the fudge are you doing?”

“What’s it look like?”

“Hilarious. You know I can’t see what you’re doing.”

“Good. So you can’t tell mom.”

Charlie doesn’t possess the leg strength Carlos does, but when he makes sudden moves, he can temporarily force the action.

He suddenly stands up, loses his balance, and both twins topple to the floor.

“What the hell?” Carlos says.

Charlie lands at an angle that offers him a view of the body. Kathy’s sweat pants and panties have been pulled down to her knees.

“What’s the matter with you?” he shouts.

“I wasn’t going to do her or anything,” Carlos says. “I just wanted to look.”

“That’s disgusting. She’s dead.”

“It’s not like I get lots of opportunities.”

“This is just wrong,” Charlie says.

“I’m not doing anything. Just looking.”

Charlie sighs. “We’ll get you a hooker tonight.”

“Really?”

“I suppose we’d better, if our choices are prostitution or necrophilia.”

“What about you?”

“You don’t care about my needs.”

“Of course I do!”

“I’m content to suffer in silence,” Charlie says, in his martyr’s voice. “As always.”

“We could see if the escort agency has a guy for you.”

“We’ve been through this a hundred times. I’m not like you. I can’t just do it. Especially with you lying next to us, laughing.”

“I wouldn’t laugh.”

“You would, and you have. And we got beat up and robbed, if memory serves.”

“He got in a lucky punch,” Carlos says.

“Lots of them, as I recall. But paying men for sex is not my dream scenario, okay?”

“Tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“Your dream scenario.”

“Really?”

“Why not?”

“You’ll laugh.”

“No I won’t.”

“Well, I suppose I wouldn’t mind a nice, quiet evening with a decent guy.”

“What does that mean, exactly?”

“You know, a nice dinner in an elegant restaurant with linen tablecloths and napkins, and candles gracing the table. A handsome, attentive waiter with impeccable taste and washboard abs would personally select our lobsters and prepare them tableside, with brown butter, shallots, pine nuts, and tagliatelle.”

“Tagli-what?”

“It’s a pasta. While waiting, we’d sip a pretentious domestic wine and listen to soft, romantic music. Afterward, if my date is half the man I hope he is, he’d insist I try a flaming dessert, like bananas Foster, or cherries jubilee.”

Charlie’s words hang in the air like a heart-shaped balloon until Carlos says, “Are you shitting me?”

“What do you think, pervert? Now turn us to the left so I can restore Kathy’s wardrobe.”

“And then?”

“Then we need to find her cell phone and call Chris.”

“When we call, I do the talking,” Carlos says.

“Why can’t I ever be Jimmy?”

“Because you don’t sound like a Jimmy. You sound like a friggin’-”

“ Don’t say it! Don’t you dare say that word!” Charlie shouts.

“What I mean is your voice is higher-pitched. I sound more like a hit man.”

“A hit man who can’t shoot.”

“That’s a low blow.”

Charlie frowns. “Yes it was. I’m sorry. I was just pointing out that even though you’re Jimmy the hit man to Chris and the rest of the world, we’re a team.”

“Fine.”

“You need me, I need you.”

“Right. Got it.”

“I have an idea!” Charlie says.

“Great. Yay. Can’t wait to hear it.”

“How about in private, we just say we’re hit twins.”

“Yeah, fine. Whatever.”

“Yeah, fine. Whatever.”

18

Chris Fowler.

Cayman Islands.

Chris jumps when his cell phone rings, then checks the screen.

Kathy.

He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath.

“Hello?”

“It’s me,” Carlos says, “Jimmy.”

“Is she-”

“Yeah. She’s dead.”

“How?”

“It’s better you don’t know.”

“Did she suffer?”

“Not that I could tell.”

They go silent a moment. Chris says, “You won’t tell me how you killed her?”

“When the police question you, the less you know, the better you’ll come across.”

“Okay.”

Carlos says, “Where’s the balance?”

“The-what?”

“The rest of the money. The other ten grand?”

Chris pauses to think. He paid Jimmy ten already. What if he pays the balance and finds out Kathy’s still alive? On the other hand, not paying Jimmy the rest of the money would be stupid. He’s in Chris’s house, for God’s sake! And paying him later would require another phone call. Right now, they’re good. The call from Kathy’s cell phone gives the appearance she’s alive. When Chris calls her back in a half hour, she won’t answer. He’ll space a few calls over the rest of the day, then call one of the neighbors to check on her. They’ll find the body and call the cops. Then the cops will call him.

In the Caymans.

He’s home free, since all calls between he and Jimmy were made with disposable cell phones.

“Hello?” Carlos says.

“Huh?”

“We’re on a time limit here, Chris. Where’s the rest of the money?”

“Oh. Sorry. In the garage, under the gas can. Behind the ladder.”

Carlos clicks the phone off, hands it to Charlie, who says, “He still thinks you’re Jimmy?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you tell him about me?”

“We were on speaker.”

“So?”

“Did you hear me tell him about you?” Carlos says.

“No, but I never know what you’re up to. You’re always scheming behind my back.”

“So you say. Endlessly.”

“Oh, really?” Charlie says. “Well, for your information, this killer-for-hire business was your idea, Mr. Big Shot Mafia man!”

“Your point?”

“If we get caught, I’m turning state’s evidence.”

“You don’t even know what that means.”

“Maybe not. But that won’t stop me from cutting a deal with the feds.”

“The feds, huh?”

“That’s right. And I’ll sing like a canary! Don’t think I won’t! And then you’ll be sorry.”

Sing like a canary?

Carlos rolls his eyes.

When Charlie gets worked up like this the best thing to do is humor him. Carlos softens his tone and says, “You’ve always had a gift for song.”

“You think?”

“Absolutely.”

Charlie smiles wistfully. “In a perfect world, I could have been the next Nathan Lane.”

“Wouldn’t that be something?” Carlos says.

“I’ve been cheated out of my birthright.”

“So true. Can we get our money now?”

“After we put Kathy’s phone back.”

This is only their second job, but the twins are already operating at a high level. Carlos handled Kathy’s cell phone with a handkerchief and used her right index finger to make the call to Chris. Then touched her finger to the speaker button, and held her fingers around the phone while he spoke. Then Kathy’s finger pressed the “end call” button.

So they’ve got a nice, clean fingerprint of Kathy calling her husband, establishing the last time she was alive. The police might be suspicious, but there’ll be no phone records on Chris’s phone, no way to prove he hired someone to kill his wife. Since Chris is in the Cayman Islands, the cops can’t link him to the murder directly. They’ll huff and puff, but in the end, they’ll have to rule it a random homicide, for lack of evidence.

The twins leave Kathy’s body the way they found it, place Kathy’s phone on the kitchen counter, and head to the garage to get their money. In ninety minutes they’ll be back in their trailer, on their mom’s tiny farm outside Dayton.

“We didn’t even have to kill her!” Charlie says.

“Let’s not tell Chris.”

“Or mom!” Charlie says.

They laugh.

Charlie says, “The fingerprint on the phone was a stroke of genius.”

“I agree,” Carlos says. “Thanks for saying so.”

“Good work should always be complimented. That’s what mom says.”

They shuffle out the door, lock it, and return the key to its hiding place.

Carlos smiles. The fingerprint on the phone was a nice touch.

How could he possibly know Kathy was left-handed?

19

Maggie’s Farm.

Dr. Gideon Box.

Short term effects of heroin include intense euphoria, alternately alert and drowsy, slowed breathing, muscular weakness, depression, sedation.

Short term effects of cocaine include euphoria, arousal, increased energy, constricted blood vessels, increased heart rate. Larger doses cause tremors, vertigo, irritability, paranoia, erratic behavior, violence.

By combining the drugs, users hope to get an intense, euphoric rush while avoiding the negative effects. But mixing the depressant heroin, with the stimulant cocaine, causes confusion, stupor, diminished coordination, excessive arousal, hallucinations, intense depression, and death.

When Willow parks the car at Maggie’s farm, Bobby lets out a whoop, jumps out, and hits the ground running. My morphine’s wearing off, but I don’t dare take another dose. I’ll need my wits to survive whatever he’s got planned.

“Get out, bitches!” he yells. “I’m eating Black Toad Powder! You know what that means? It’s party time!”

I hear the unmistakable sound of a gun being fired.

“Jesus, Bobby!” Willow yells. “Be careful with that thing!”

“Get out, or the next one goes through the windshield.”

I hear the doors open, then hear them shut.

Willow says, “What are you doing?”

“Getting naked, of course!”

“Why?”

“I’m gonna show you something. Stand together with your backs against the car. No, Stringbean, facing me. Yeah, that’s right. Now check this out.”

“I’m sorry, Cam,” Willow says.

Maybe they’ll forget about me. I’m fine with that, though I need to piss.

“What about Doctor Box?” Willow says.

“Who?”

“The dead guy in the trunk.”

“Oh yeah! The guy you fucked last night. Thanks for reminding me!”

“We didn’t fuck anyone last night,” Willow says.

“Well, like I told the doc last night, after you confess, I’m gonna cut his dick off and sew it in your mouth.”

“What are you doing?” Willow says.

“This here’s called Black Toad. I’m rubbing it on my dick. You girls are gonna love this! It’s… holy shit!”

He yelps.

“What’s wrong?” Willow says.

“ Burns! It burns like fire! My dick’s on fire! Jesus, my dick’s on fire! I’m in flames! Oh, the humanity!”

“Why would you do that? What’s the matter with you?” Willow shouts.

“Shut up! Take your clothes off, both of you.”

“No way!”

“Are you kidding me? Look at the size of this cock! I’m gonna get my money’s worth out of you and Stringbean.”

He suddenly screams like he’s in excruciating pain. It makes sense the pain would come and go as the bufotenin gets absorbed deeper into his penis.

“Get naked, whores!” he yells.

“ No!” Willow says.

“I’m dead serious, bitch. Right now.”

“Fuck you!” Cameron shouts.

I hear a gunshot.

Cameron screams like she’s in pain.

Willow screams like she’s freaking out.

Bobby screams like his dick’s on fire.

The rest is hard to make out.

But when Willow screams, “She’s dying! Get the doctor out of the trunk!” it’s pretty clear Cameron’s been shot.

20

“Stay where you are!” Bobby shouts.

“Shut up, Bobby! She’s dying! Open the trunk.”

I hear him scream, “Oh, God!” then he falls to the ground and vomits violently.

Seconds later the trunk opens. It’s nearing dusk, so my eyes have no problem adjusting to the light.

“Get out!” Willow shouts. “Cameron’s been shot!”

She tries to help me, but Bobby staggers up behind her and grabs her by the hair. He pulls her backward and throws her to the ground. Tries to kick her but misses and nearly falls down. His chin and chest is covered in vomit.

There’s no avoiding his penis.

It’s black from powder and purple from pressure. It’s not only erect, but enormous, and maintaining an eighty-degree angle, which is to say, practically vertical. It’s also pulsing and throbbing, as if ready to explode.

Bobby sees me looking at him and shouts, “You bastard!”

He staggers toward me, but is forced to squat and shit a thick, wet stream that splats on the dirt beneath him, creating a little puff of steam.

“You think that’s funny?” he says.

“I think it’s hilarious! Do it again!”

As if on cue, he groans and shits a quart of black water in the noisiest manner possible.

“How’s that Black Toad working for you, fuckhead?” I say.

“I’m gonna kill you!” he shouts, seething with fury.

“Before you do, shit again, like the baboon you are.”

Still squatting, Bobby aims his gun at me and says, “You’re a dead man!”

“Maybe so, but at least my corpse will have balls.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

I point at his crotch. “Your nuts disappeared.”

He looks down and frowns.

“You’re a dead man!” he shouts.

“You said that already.”

He sneezes, and a pint of black water spews and sprays from his ass.

He stands upright and stumbles toward me. He’s furious, in agony, but he’s not going to shoot me. Not before finding out if I slept with Willow.

Turns out I’m wrong about that.

We’re twelve feet apart when he pulls the trigger.

I have to look down to be sure he actually missed me from that distance.

He did.

Willow comes up behind him and kicks the back of his knees as he’s firing the second shot. Bobby hits the ground, writhing and blubbering, and I realize he’s shot himself in the upper thigh. He waves his gun around in the air, firing indiscriminately. A hundred yards away, on the main road, I hear something that sounds like a car crash. I look up instinctively, but Maggie’s house is blocking my view.

When Bobby’s gun is empty, I work my way out of the trunk and try to stand, but my legs are asleep. I fall back onto the edge of the trunk and sit there, rubbing my legs to get the blood flowing.

Willow yells at me to do something about Cameron.

“What about my leg?” Bobby whimpers.

“Throw the gun toward the house and I’ll see what I can do about your leg,” I say.

“You’ll kill me.”

“He won’t kill you,” Willow says. “He’s a doctor. He took an oath. He has to help you. It’s the law.”

She runs to Cameron’s side.

“That true?” Bobby says. “About the oath”

I sigh. “I’m afraid so.”

“Hurry, Dr. Box!” Willow shouts. “Cameron needs you!”

From somewhere behind me, Cameron hears her name and starts moaning.

To Bobby I say, “Throw the gun away and I’ll help you.”

“You swear?”

“Often.”

He throws the gun twenty feet away and moves his hand so I can see the wound.

As I approach he says, “Oh, my God!”

“It hurts, huh?”

“Yeah, sure, but what the hell is that stink?”

“I think you know.”

“ I did that?”

“You did.”

I’m moving slowly, as if crossing a minefield. Stepping carefully, doing my best to avoid the pools of excrement he’s left in the dirt. But there’s no avoiding the smell. It’s drifting with me, toward Bobby.

“Oh, man!” he says. “That ain’t right.” He shakes his head and repeats, “That ain’t right.”

“No it ain’t.”

“You’ve got no medicine,” he says.

Now that I’m beside him, I take a knee, which causes me to gasp in pain as my ribs shift.

“Smells terrible, don’t it?” he says.

Bobby’s given himself a nine-inch flesh wound. Bullet went in shallow, cut a gully a quarter inch deep, exited cleanly, without hitting the knee.

“You’re in luck,” I say, removing the plastic baggie from my pocket.

“What’s that, Willow’s nutmeg?”

“Yes.”

“What’s it for?”

“It’s a coagulant. It’ll stop the bleeding.”

“Will it hurt?”

“Not much.”

A look of sadness crosses his face as he looks at the nutmeg.

“You fucked my girlfriend, didn’t you?”

I pause. Then say, “Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Why would you do that?”

I sigh. “Because I’m an asshole.”

He nods.

I say, “If it makes you feel any better, she hated every minute of it, and only did it for the money.”

“I believe that,” he says. “She’s a good girl. I love her.”

Feeling charitable, I say, “She was probably going to use the money to buy you something special.”

“I wish. Truth is she’s been trying to sneak money into another account for the past two months, to pay for the cancer treatments.”

“Cancer treatments?”

He chuckles despite the pain. “But I put a stop to that shit,” he says. “Or so I thought.”

I pour the entire packet of nutmeg into the palm of my hand and work it deep into Bobby’s cut, packing it.

“Damn!” he shouts. “That hurts like hell!”

“All done,” I say. “Now press both hands tightly against the wound to keep it from bleeding. You okay?”

He nods.

“I’ll be back as soon as I check on Cameron.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

“Don’t mention it.”

The one thing you want to know about nutmeg is you never apply it to an open wound. I don’t care who you are, the smallest amount of nutmeg in your bloodstream will kill you quickly.

How quickly?

Cameron and Willow are only twenty yards away.

Bobby will be dead before I reach them.

21

Cameron’s been shot in the back. She’s out cold, lying on her side, her head in Willow’s lap.

“Is Bobby okay?” Willow asks.

“He’s resting quietly.”

I take a knee and wince for the second time in two minutes, wedge my fingers in the hole in her blouse the bullet created, and tear it open enough to check the wound in her shoulder.

“How bad’s your cancer?”

She frowns. “Who told you about that, Bobby?”

“I’m a doctor. I’m trained to notice the slightest symptoms.”

“Really? Then what type of cancer do I have?”

“Breast.”

“Guess again.”

I prod the area around the entrance wound. “Leukemia.”

“You really suck at this. Are you even a doctor?”

“I’m a world-renowned surgeon.”

“I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” she says.

“Do you have a cell phone?” I ask.

“Why? You need to call a real surgeon?”

I smile. “I like you.”

“Bobby’s got my cell phone,” she says. “But it doesn’t work out here.”

“How’d Cameron get this far from the car?”

“She made a run for it. That’s why he shot her.”

“Nice guy you hooked up with.”

“Spare me the lecture, Dr. Asshole.”

“Okay.”

“Dr. Breaking and Entering.”

“Thank you.”

“Doctor Identity Theft. Doctor Crook.”

“Got it. So who taught Bobby how to shoot?”

“What do you mean?”

“He hit Cameron in the shoulder, and missed me from twelve feet away.”

Willow glances at my face. “Who taught you how to fight?”

“I did all right.”

“You think?”

“If you look closely, you’ll see a bruise and a cut on Bobby’s mouth.”

“Cameron did that.”

“She did?”

“You look like Bobby’s punching bag. Why’s there so much blood?”

“On my face?”

“On Cameron’s back, dumb ass.”

“Well, she’s been shot, for one thing.”

“That’s your professional opinion?”

“I really do like you,” I say. “Maybe I can help with your cancer.”

“Just fix my friend, okay?”

“Okay.”

I rip Cameron’s blouse enough to check her chest for an exit wound. There isn’t one, but there is a little ridge protruding slightly from her skin that tells me the bullet came within a hair of getting out on its own. I touch it with my finger, and Cameron gasps.

“Bobby’s gun’s a piece of shit,” I say.

“How bad is she?” Willow asks.

“It looks worse than it is.”

“Will she live?”

“Yes.”

“Will she be able to dance?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“Seriously?”

“I mean, she couldn’t dance before,” I say. “This won’t change things.”

“I heard that,” Cameron says, through gritted teeth.

“She’s in a lot of pain,” Willow says.

“She should be. A molten bullet ripped through the meat of her shoulder at approximately 385 miles per second, leaving a channel of boiling, bloody tissue in its wake. Her body’s trying to bring the temperature of that bullet down to 98.6 degrees. As it transfers heat to the surrounding blood and tissue, the result is exactly what you’d expect.”

“What’s that?”

“Pain.”

“What can we do?”

“There’s a small leather handle on the floor of the trunk that accesses the spare tire compartment. My medical bag’s in there. If you bring it to me, I can fix her up. There’s some bedding in there, too. Are the sheets clean?”

“Yes. And the pillow cases and bedspread.”

“Bring the bedspread.”

“Okay.”

Willow gets up and sprints to the car.

Then screams bloody murder.

For a moment I figure she’s found Bobby’s dead body.

Then I realize she’s screaming for a completely different reason.

22

I get to my feet and turn to find two men holding a gun on Willow. When she stops screaming, they start.

“What the fuck’s going on here?” one of them shouts.

They see her look at me and the other guy yells, “Sir? Stay right where you are, and don’t move a muscle. I may not look like it, but I know how to use this gun.”

He’s right. He doesn’t look like a killer. He looks like a conjoined twin.

“You,” the first twin says to Willow. “Put that shit back in the trunk and go stand beside the battered husband.”

“My friend’s been shot,” she says. “That’s Dr. Box. This is his medical bag. He needs it to help my friend.”

“Fuck your friend!” the first one says.

“Oh, stop being such a Clint Eastwood,” the second twin says. “What’s your name, honey?”

“Willow.”

“Your full name, dear.”

“Willow Breeland.”

“Nice to meet you, Willow. I’m Charlie, and this is-”

“Don’t tell him our names, you moron!” the first twin says.

“Oh, like she needs our names to identify us?” Charlie says. “She can’t just say, ‘the Siamese twins held a gun on me?’ Because there are too many of us shuffling around the greater Dayton area?”

Willow suddenly notices Bobby, lying dead in the dirt, ten feet behind the twins.

And shrieks.

The twins angle their bodies to see what she’s looking at, and Charlie says, “Omigod! Look at that penis! It looks like the space shuttle!”

“He’s dead,” the first twin says.

“If he is, he’s got petrified wood for a penis. Omigod, I made a joke! He’s got a petrified woodie!”

They shuffle to Bobby’s body for a closer look while keeping an eye on me and the gun on Willow.

“Well pardon me!” Charlie says to me. “What are you doing?”

“Pissing,” I say. “What’s it look like?”

“It looks like you’re pissing,” he agrees.

“Who’s this?” the first twin asks Willow.

“My boyfriend, Bobby.”

“I’m sorry for your loss,” Charlie says.

“He was a piece of shit. I hated him,” she says.

“Men!” Charlie says. “Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”

“I can live without him.”

“You go, girl!”

“Who shot him?” the first twin says.

“He shot himself.”

“Then where’s the gun?”

She points toward the house. “He threw it over there after running out of bullets.”

“One of those bullets hit the window of our van,” he says. “It caused me to run off the road. We blew a tire and hit a tree.”

“I’m sorry,” Willow says.

“Why’s he naked?”

“It’s a long story.”

“It’s a long dick is what it is,” Charlie says, giggling. “By the way, this is my brother, Carlos.”

“I can’t believe you told her my name!” Carlos says.

They shuffle ten feet closer to me and notice Cameron on the ground.

“He shot her, too?” Carlos asks.

“He did,” I say. “And I need to get the bullet out of her shoulder before it does further damage.”

Charlie angles his head toward Willow and says, “You can take the bag to the doctor, honey.”

Willow rushes to my side and hands me the medical bag. She looks at my eyes and says, “Can you even see?”

“I could perform this surgery with my eyes closed.”

It’s a true statement, and a good thing, since my eyes are so swollen, I’m looking through slits the width of spaghetti noodles.

I give Cameron a shot of morphine and use my scissors to remove half her blouse. It takes less than five minutes to cut out the bullet, clean the wound, and stitch her up. When I’m finished, Willow wraps the blanket around her.

Behind us, the twins are laughing.

“For the love of God,” Willow says.

“What now?”

“They’re playing ring toss.”

I turn around to see them standing a short distance from Bobby, trying to toss necklaces onto his enormously erect penis.

“Two to nothing!” Charlie squeals. “I’m winning!”

23

Willow hovers over Cameron while I walk over to the twins.

“Are you done already?” Charlie says.

“I’ve done what I can, but we need to get Cameron to a hospital. Unless you plan to shoot us.”

“We need a ride home,” Charlie says. “Right, Carlos?”

“Are you serious?” Carlos says. “You plan to show him where we live?”

“Try to remember. We’re Siamese twins. If Dr. Box wants to know where we live he could simply ask around. How many conjoined twins live in the area, do you think?”

Carlos says, “We held a gun on him!”

“So?”

“We played ring toss with a dead guy’s dick.”

“Well, who wouldn’t?” Charlie says.

Me, for one.

Charlie says, “Dr. Box, when you report these events to the police, are you going to mention us?”

“Not if you let us go. Assuming you can get your car off the property before the police show up.”

“Mom can change the tire. But our cell phone doesn’t work out here. We’ll need a ride home.”

“How far is that?”

“Less than eight miles. It’s not out of the way if you’re heading to Dayton.”

“Why would I go to Dayton?”

“That’s where the closest hospital is. You did say you were taking Cameron to the hospital, right?”

“I did.” I look at the car. “Can you guys fit in the back seat?”

Charlie says, “I don’t think there’s enough room for everyone. How about if I go with you and Carlos stays here?”

Carlos says, “You’re not funny, you know.”

The twins spend five minutes trying to climb in the back seat of the Mercedes, but it’s not working.

“Wait a minute,” Charlie says.

The brothers move out of our hearing and talk to each other a minute, then shuffle back.

“We’ve chosen to trust you,” Charlie says.

“How so?”

“You can take Cameron to the hospital. On the way, when you get a signal, call the phone number I’m going to give you. That’s our mom. Tell her where we are. She’ll come here, change our tire, and get our van started.”

“Your mom can do all that?”

“All that and more!” Charlie says.

“Sorry guys, but I can’t see well enough to drive.”

“Good point,” Charlie says.

Willow walks up and stands beside me.

“We need to get going,” she says.

Carlos says, “the Doc stays with us.”

“I can live with that,” Willow says, with far more enthusiasm than necessary.

“No,” I say. “I can’t trust Willow to go to the hospital or talk to the police, for reasons that would take too long to explain. Plus, I’m a doctor. It’s safer for Cameron if I’m with her, in case she goes into shock or starts convulsing.”

“He can’t drive, and I’m not staying here with you guys,” Willow says.

“Then I’m afraid we’re at an impasse,” Charlie says, pointing the gun at me.

“Just a minute,” I say.

I motion for Willow to follow me a short distance. Then say, “I don’t suppose there’s a working phone in Maggie’s house.”

“I’m sure she canceled the phone service before moving out.”

“Can you get inside?”

“If the key’s where used to be.” She looks at Maggie’s house, then back at me. “Why?”

“If I slice the tissue beneath my eyes I’ll be able to see well enough to make it to the nearest hospital. These guys seem relatively harmless. I think I can talk them into letting you stay in the house with the door locked until their mom shows up.”

“How do you expect me to get home?”

“I’ll come back to get you.”

“I don’t think so.”

“I swear I will.”

“I can’t even trust you to take Cameron to the hospital,” she says.

“Why not?”

“She’s a gunshot victim. As soon as she’s admitted, the police will start asking questions. They’ll want to investigate the crime scene. Bobby’s here, I’m here-you’ll be in the hospital getting patched up, or in the interrogation room at the police station.”

“So?”

“I don’t like it.”

We look at each other a minute. Finally I say, “How did you and Cameron wind up with Chris Fowler’s bedspread?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Breaking and entering’s a felony.”

“As you should know.”

“True. But when you add theft?”

“Yeah?”

“All I’m saying, you might need to come up with a good explanation.”

“If I do, it’ll be better than your explanation of how Bobby died from a flesh wound.”

“Are you serious? The guy was on heroin, coke, and Black Stone powder. He beat me up, shot Cameron, and shot himself in the leg. That’s a lot of trauma to the system.”

“The coroner might wonder about the nutmeg.”

“Bobby must’ve done that on his own, to stop the bleeding.”

“That’s your story?”

“It is.”

“Then you’ve got problems,” Willow says.

“Why?”

“That theory won’t match my testimony. Or Cameron’s.”

“What are you, a lawyer?”

“No, but my father is.”

“What you’re saying, we’re at an impasse.”

“Looks like it,” Willow says.

“In that case I’ve got another idea,” I say.

“Tell me after I pee!”

With that, she walks to the porch of Maggie’s house, reaches behind one of the steps for the key, and uses it to gain entry. Moments later, she comes out, locks the door, replaces the key, and I tell her my plan for getting us all where we need to go at the same time.

“I like it,” she says.

24

Willow’s got the flashers on as she drives the back roads to Dayton at five miles an hour. The twins are sitting on the hood of the Mercedes. Charlie’s gun is pointed at Willow. If she tries any “funny stuff” he’ll put six bullets through the windshield.

Every few minutes, a car passes. One guy slows to match our speed and says, “Nice hood ornament!” But takes off when Charlie turns the gun on him.

Twenty minutes later Charlie motions Willow to stop.

“What now?” she says.

“We’ve got phone service,” he says. “Turn into the next driveway and drop us off. We can call mom from here.”

“You’re sure?”

“Cameron needs to get to the hospital, and we’ve detained you long enough.”

“Thank you Charles,” Willow says.

We drop them off, say our goodbyes.

Willow looks at me and says, “Does she really need to go to the hospital?”

“No. Cameron needs medical care, but she’s eminently safer with me.”

“How’s that possible?”

“Don’t get me started.”

“Were you ever planning to take her?”

“Yeah, but I worry about leaving her in the hospital. And you’re right. The police will want the details.”

“Any chance we could take Cameron somewhere and you could care for her till she heals?”

I think about that. We could drive to New York and I could keep a swollen eye on her when I’m not working. But if she wound up dying I’d have a problem with the authorities. Not to mention her parents.

“No,” I say. “Too many people are involved.”

“If you mean the twins, I expect they’ll keep quiet.”

“What about Gary, from the Firefly?”

“What about him?”

“He pinned my arms while Bobby beat me up.”

“That brings up a good point. Why did Bobby beat you up?”

“He caught me at the club, trying to leave money for you and Cameron.”

“Money?”

I nod. “In envelopes.”

“How much?”

“Six thousand each.”

“No shit?”

“No shit.”

She says, “Bobby didn’t spend twelve thousand on drugs.”

“I don’t know how much he spent. But he and Chuckie were in my car. And some other guy drove Bobby’s motorcycle back to your place.”

“Mark Boner,” she says. “Boner the Stoner. You’re right. Too many people.”

“Exactly.”

“Okay, then,” Willow says. “We need to do three things. Third, get our story straight.”

“What’s first and second?”

“First, we drive back to the farm and fish through Bobby’s clothes for the rest of the money.”

“That’s first?”

“Cameron and I earned that money in the most disgusting way imaginable,” she says. Then adds, “No offense.”

“You can’t mean having sex with me was worse than living with Bobby and getting the shit beat out of you all the time.”

Willow says nothing.

“Be honest,” I say. “It can’t have been that bad, could it?”

“You really want me to answer that?”

I sigh. “I guess not. What’s the second thing we need to do?”

“Dump the bedding and vacuum cleaner in dumpsters in Dayton.”

“Okay. And then we take Cameron to the hospital?”

“Yup.”

25

The biggest surprise is the Dayton cops buy our story, even the bogus part, with few questions asked.

A quick call to the Cincinnati police tells them what kind of person Bobby was.

They totally believe I tried to leave two thousand dollars at the Firefly Lounge for the girls in hopes of getting in their pants tonight, after getting lap dances last night, and totally believe Bobby caught me there, beat me up, tossed me in the trunk, and stole my car.

They believe Bobby’s friend, Mark Boner, met him at the club and drove his motorcycle home. Mark confirmed it, though he denied knowledge of my being in the trunk.

They believe Bobby bought heroin, cocaine, and Black Stone powder from Chuckie the dealer, who’s well-known to both police departments.

They believe Bobby drove to Cameron’s house and forced his way into Willow’s car, and expect that to be corroborated by neighborhood witnesses.

They believe Bobby forced Willow and Cameron to go to Maggie’s Farm with him, and have no problem with our story of how he shot Cameron when she tried to get away to avoid being raped.

They believe Bobby accidentally shot himself and tried to stop the bleeding by pressing nutmeg into his wounds.

And they believe after Bobby died, Willow opened the trunk of the Mercedes and let me out so I could save Cameron’s life. Side note: hospital surgery personnel tell police they’ve never seen such a remarkable surgery performed under field conditions at dusk, not even counting the fact my eyes were so swollen I could barely see.

After getting my broken nose set and bandaged and my cuts cleaned and stitched, I camp out in Cameron’s hospital room to ensure her safety. She’s groggy, mumbling incoherently. Thinks she’s going to die.

“You’ll be fine,” I say.

“Need to…change my life around,” she says.

“That’s probably true.”

“God’s punishing me…for what I did. Need to…confess…before I die.”

“You haven’t done anything wrong, Cameron. And you’re not going to die as long as you don’t eat anything here, and make sure everyone washes their hands before touching you.”

Dayton police take a quick trip with Willow to Maggie’s farm, recover Bobby’s gun, ask a few more questions, and shoot some photos, including two of the gun in the grass, two of Bobby’s face, four of his leg wound, and a hundred forty-seven photos of his penis. Then they bring Willow back to the hospital, where she spends the night with Cameron and me.

Cameron’s pissed because I won’t allow her to eat anything. She’s lucid enough to ask me to step out of the room so she and Willow can talk in private. I oblige them, but when I return I ask, “Did you eat anything?”

“You’re so paranoid!” Willow says.

“I work in a hospital, remember?”

“You’re a nut!” Cameron says.

“Just don’t eat anything.”

“Do I look like I eat much?”

No, she doesn’t.

By noon the next day the cops say we’re free from suspicion. The swelling around my eyes has reduced enough to permit limited vision, so I take the opportunity to drive Willow back to Ream’s Park in Cincinnati to get her car. When I try to hug her goodbye she slaps my face.

I don’t blame her. If I hadn’t come into her life Thursday night none of this would have happened.

I drive to the nearest phone store, buy a new cell phone, drop my rental car off at the airport, and fly back to New York City.

The next morning our hospital administrator, Bruce Luce, tells me what a joy it was to hear from the Dayton police that I paid for lap dances at a night club and attempted to solicit two strippers for prostitution.

“Are we still on for tomorrow?” I ask

“Can you even operate with those eyes?” he says.

“It doesn’t matter. The kid’s a goner either way.”

“Have I told you lately how uplifting it is to talk to you?”

“Many times. Are we on for tomorrow?”

“Eight a.m., subject to Lilly being cleared for surgery.”

“What you mean is, subject to our doctors giving up all hope by midnight.”

“You’re an arrogant prick,” Bruce says. “And you want to know something? You’re not half as good as you think you are.”

“If that’s true, Mr. and Mrs. Devereaux can save a ton of money.”

“Why’s that?”

“Caskets are cheaper than hospital wings.”

“You’re a disgrace to your profession,” he says.

“Except when I’m saving the kids you gave up on.”

“Even then.”

“Thank you. May I go now?”

“After you meet the nurses who’ll assist you.”

“My regulars refused?”

“They not only refused, we had to pay them a settlement to keep them from suing you in open court.”

“They were bluffing.”

“Listen up, doctor. I wouldn’t say this to anyone else on earth, but one of the new nurses is a rare beauty.”

“Am I supposed to thank you?”

“You’re supposed to behave. We can’t afford a sexual harassment lawsuit.”

“Whatever you think of me, I’ve never touched a nurse in this hospital, and never will.”

“You can no longer speak to them the way you have in the past.”

“I’m trying to save lives here, not spare feelings.”

“You’re on the verge of losing your career.”

“Not if I keep winning.”

“Winning?” he says.

He gives me a long look. “You’re one dead patient away from losing your job.”

“What if it’s the nurses’ fault? I’ve never worked with them before. What if they suck?”

“That’s pretty much on you, isn’t it?”

“I’m telling you right now, I don’t trust a pretty nurse.”

“This nurse isn’t pretty, she’s drop-dead gorgeous, and has stronger credentials than anyone we’ve ever employed. You will not insult her.”

26

Older people know exactly where they were and what they were doing the moment they heard President Kennedy was shot. Younger ones remember the terrorist attacks of 9/11. And everyone remembers their first love.

I’m in the cafeteria, eating a cup of vanilla pudding, when the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen walks over to my table, sits down, and extends her hand.

“Hello, Dr. Box,” she says in a voice I’m certain will haunt me the rest of my life.

I take her hand, and a current of energy flows through my body.

“You’re my new assistant?” I ask.

“One of them,” she says.

“Your name?”

“Rose.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Rose.”

“Thank you, Dr. Box.”

“Have the gods seen fit to give you a last name?”

“Stout.”

“Rose Stout?”

She nods.

“A misnomer if ever I heard one,” I say. “What’s that you’re holding?”

“Birch bark tea,” she says.

“Is it good?”

“It’s ghastly.”

I laugh. “Then why drink it?”

“It’s not for me, it’s for you.”

“Thanks,” I say, “but I’m not a tea drinker.”

She places the cup on the table in front of me. “Drink this now, while I watch. I’ll brew you some more every four hours. By morning you’ll feel like a new man.”

“Are you serious?” I say.

“Quite.”

“Three things,” I say. “First, I don’t believe in homeopathic remedies. Second, it concerns me greatly that a nurse I’m relying on does believe in something the entire scientific community has disproved time and again. And third, you won’t be brewing tea for me every four hours because I’m heading home soon and you have no idea where I live.”

She pats my hand, stands, and takes the empty cup away.

“See you soon, Dr. Box,” she says.

Empty cup?

27

Rose and Melba are CVOR registered nurses, trained to assist surgeons, perfusionists, and anesthesiologists in a cardiovascular operating room.

“Rose,” I say.

“Yes sir?”

“Let’s hear your background.”

“Two years CVOR, first assist, two years CVICU.”

“Where?”

“Cleveland Clinic.”

“Seriously?”

“It’s on my resume.”

“Why would you switch from intensive care to operating room?”

“Better pay, better hours.”

“How’s that possible?”

“Apparently they’re having problems finding CVOR nurses to work with you.”

“You’re first assist?”

“I am.”

“You can’t possibly be more than thirty.”

“I can be as old as I like.”

That strikes me as an odd thing to say.

“Tell me more about your training.”

“I’m a three-category APRN with four years CNOR and CVOR experience.”

“Which three categories?”

“CNM, NP and CNS. As a nurse leader.”

“And you received your MSN from?”

“Johns Hopkins.”

What she’s saying, she’s an advanced practice registered nurse certified to assist in cardio-vascular operating rooms and intensive care units. She’s also a certified nurse midwife, a nurse practitioner, and a clinical nurse specialist, who happened to receive her master of science in nursing from Johns Hopkins, one of the most prestigious universities in the country. Oh, and she did four years at the Cleveland Clinic, arguably the finest heart care facility on the planet earth. If her credentials are to be believed, she is, quite possibly, the most highly-trained nurse in the world.

Did I mention she’s breathtakingly beautiful?

I absorb all this without so much as raising an eyebrow, as if all my nurses share her credentials. Then say, “Do you happen to have any experience with children?”

“If it makes a difference, I’m also a PPCNP.”

“What’s that?”

“A pediatric primary care nurse practitioner.”

“Do tell.”

Melba says, “Did you have any questions for me, Dr. Box?”

“Yes, and please be candid.”

“I’m always candid, Dr. Box.”

“That’s refreshing to hear.”

“Your question, doctor?”

“Have you been warned about me?”

“In what way?”

“In any way.”

“I’ve been told you’re a genius, and that your manner is sometimes unorthodox.”

“Did they mention I’m likely to call you names and curse my patients?”

“The topic was broached.”

“Were you paid not to report any verbal abuse?”

She looks at Rose.

Rose says, “Melba and I signed statements saying we understand we’ll be subjected to intense verbal abuse in the OR including but not limited to coarse, vulgar language and verbal sexual harassment.”

“I’m not supposed to know that, am I?”

“No you’re not. But you asked. And we’re working with you, not Mr. Luce.”

“Meaning?”

“I don’t believe in having secrets in the OR.”

“Melba?”

“Sir?”

“I assume you’ve been generously compensated?”

“I have no complaints.”

Rose says, “Melba and I are receiving top pay times two based on our qualifications. We work no holidays and no more than four 12-hour shifts per week. We’re not exclusive to you, but your surgeries trump all others. Unless we’re assisting you, our shifts are daytime only, and we receive three day weekends.”

After picking my jaw up from the floor, I ask, “Who the hell negotiated your contracts? Lucifer?”

“Me,” Rose says.

“And you’ve worked together before?”

“No. But Melba’s top notch.”

“How do you know that?”

“I personally recruited her.”

“What if one of you gets sick?”

“Do you get sick?” Rose says.

“No.”

“Neither do we.”

“Is it just the two of you?”

“You won’t need any additional nurses.”

“With all due respect, you’ve never assisted these types of patients.”

“With all due respect, you’ve never worked with us.”

“There’s no room for error.”

“We’ll hold you to the same standard,” she says, coolly.

God, she’s pretty!

28

I’m home by two, and for some reason I’m incredibly drowsy. I’d take a nap, but don’t want to be up all night. Nevertheless, within fifteen minutes I find myself unable to fight it any longer. I set my clock for four p.m., and lie down.

When the alarm goes off, it’s five-fifteen a.m.

I’m positive I set it for four in the afternoon. But if my alarm clock is to be trusted, I’ve slept fifteen hours straight! I check my computer for the day and date.

I slept fifteen hours.

But there’s more. When I went to bed my eyes were swollen half shut. Now I can see clearly. And my ribs, while sore, feel ten times better than they did yesterday.

I check myself in the mirror and can’t believe the face staring back at me. Other than some slight bruising, I look perfectly normal.

My first thought is Rose’s birch bark tea. Could it have possibly worked?

No. I only drank one cup.

If I drank any at all.

Rose claimed I needed a cup every four hours, and clearly that didn’t happen.

A quick breakfast, shave, shower, and then I’m at the hospital telling Bruce Luce I refuse to meet Dublin and Austin Devereaux before or after the surgery.

“What sort of name is Dublin, anyway?” I say.

“God, I hate dealing with you,” Bruce says. “Why must we go through this every time? Their child’s life is in your hands. They need reassurance. They want to believe in the surgeon performing the operation. If you had a child you’d understand. Believe me, I wish they didn’t have to meet you. I’d love to help the hospital get an advanced radiation oncology wing.”

“You would?”

“Does it surprise you to hear some of us want this hospital to flourish?”

I stroll into the conference room with Security Joe, nod at Nurse Sally, and introduce myself to Austin and Dublin Devereaux.

Austin gets right to the point. “Dr. Box, I want you to know we treasure our daughter’s life more than anything in the world. I want her to have the best. Whatever she needs, okay?”

“Money’s no object, right?” I say, taking note of Nurse Sally’s clenched fists.

“That’s correct, doctor.”

Dublin Devereaux is different. Her attitude takes me by surprise.

“How long will this take?” she asks.

“Excuse me?”

“Mr. Luce said it could take six to eight hours. I’d like to be here when she comes out of surgery.”

“You’re going somewhere?”

She looks at her husband.

“Well, there’s not much we can do here, is there?”

“There’s not much I can do here either. Where are you going? Bridge club? Lawn party? Wine tasting? Maybe I’ll come with you.”

“ Excuse me?” Austin says.

“What Dr. Box means,” a voice behind me says, “your presence here isn’t necessary.”

I turn to see Rose Stout standing behind me. She looks radiant, full of life, and just as beautiful in scrubs as she was in street clothes yesterday.

Rose says, “It doesn’t matter where you folks are. What’s important is what’s happening in the OR. Dublin, you’re a new mother. You should take this opportunity to get some rest. Take your mind off the surgery. Leave the worrying to us. In four hours your baby will be the picture of health.”

“Glory hallelujah!” Nurse Sally says.

I look at Rose in disbelief. Did she just promise we’d save their child?

“You’re that certain she’ll pull through?” Austin says.

“You have my word,” Rose says. “Take it to the bank.”

Sally waves her hand above her like a celestial benchpress.

“Lord Jesus, come take me now!” she wails.

“Am I missing something?” Austin says. “We’ve been told Lilly’s chances of surviving the operation were less than five percent.”

“Try zero,” I say.

“Oh, pooh!” Rose says.

“Pooh?”

“Dr. Box is the finest surgeon on earth. He’ll save your daughter, and when he does, you’ll donate funding for the new oncology wing, correct?”

“Well…”

Rose puts her hand on his wrist and says, “You’ll donate twenty million dollars to the hospital today.”

“Yes,” he says.

“Austin?” Dublin says.

“I need to call Ben Cooper,” Austin says.

“Who’s that?”

“Our banker, hon.”

29

That’s my patient, Lilly Collier Devereaux, all four pounds of her. Named after two industry giants whose children, Dublin and Austin, merged their food and wine inheritances through marriage fifteen months ago. You read about it last June, right? Hampton’s wedding of the year? Lilly isn’t going to make it, anyone can see that. And yet my hospital wants a new oncology wing, so instead of being honest with these young parents, they played their trump card.

Me.

“If there’s one surgeon in the world who can save little Lilly, it’s Gideon Box,” they told Dublin and Austin.

Well, I’m fifteen minutes into the operation, and what I’ve found isn’t pretty. But before I have a chance to start my rant, Rose says, “This is one fucked up little bitch!”

30

What can I tell you?

Not only did Lilly Devereaux pull through, the entire operation only took three hours.

Three hours? How the hell did that happen?

It’s as if the clock slowed down.

After the others leave, it’s just me and Rose in the OR.

“I’ve never had such an easy surgery!” I say. “We need to celebrate.”

“You and I?”

“It seems fitting.”

“There were six of us in the OR,” she says.

“But you’re the one that cussed the kid.”

“Well…”

“That’s never happened before! You shocked me, Rose. I never thought I’d say this, but I actually enjoyed myself.”

“You’re an odd duck,” she says. “but I’m glad you had a good time.”

“I can’t explain the feeling I had with you in the room. You had a calming effect on me, but it was more than that. I felt confident. Capable! I was practically euphoric. Hiring you is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me! You’re smart, capable, and-”

“What about Melba?”

“Melba was a terrific hire! We all make a great team!”

“It’s temporary.”

“What?”

“I’m only doing this for nine months. Then I’m done.”

I look her over. “You’re pregnant?”

“No.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I realize that.”

She sighs. “Look. This isn’t the time or place. You go out and celebrate. Maybe we can meet tomorrow and talk about it.”

“You can’t leave!” I say. “We’re going to do great things together.”

“You’ve got a huge crush on me.”

I feel my face turning red.

“Don’t be embarrassed,” she says. “I’m flattered. I’m just not the one for you.”

“Which one is that?”

“The one you were meant to be with.”

“How do you know?”

She laughs. “It’s what I do.”

“I’m serious, Rose. Think of all the great things we can accomplish.”

“You don’t need me in your life to do great things. On the other hand, I could probably keep you from doing bad things.”

“What do you mean?”

“Let’s not open that door, doctor.”

She starts to leave.

“Rose!”

She turns to face me.

I say, “Where am I going to find the right one?”

“Where you least expect to.”

“Well, if the right one’s anything like you, I wish you’d send her my way!”

Rose smiles. “There’s no one like me, Dr. Box.”

No shit.

She says, “Can we meet in your office tomorrow morning at ten?”

“Absolutely! Why?”

“I want you to meet someone. It’ll help you understand my situation.”

“It’s a date,” I say.

“It’s an appointment,” she clarifies.

Two hours later I exit the cab in front of my building and notice a pretty young lady standing near the entrance with a large, red suitcase by her side.

She doesn’t hail my cab.

Is she waiting for a limo?

I don’t think so. The quality of her wardrobe and suitcase suggest she isn’t accustomed to riding in limos. Not that it matters in the least, since I know this woman.

I approach her tentatively.

“You’re a long way from home,” I say.

“You said you might be able to help me.”

“Yes.”

She looks sad. Vulnerable.

“You said you might be able to help me,” Willow repeats.

“Yes.”

“What did you mean by that?”

31

“I’ve heard of guys having foot fetishes,” Willow says. “But you get off on old, rotten shoes?”

We’re in my penthouse on West 64 ^th. She’s viewing the photographs that line the wall of my living room.

“Not at all.”

“Then why do you have like, twenty framed pictures of old, beat up shoes?”

“There’s only a dozen. One shoe per photograph.”

“Oh,” Willow says. “That explains everything.”

She looks at me.

I sigh.

She says, “You don’t want to tell me.”

“I’m afraid you’ll think I’m creepy.”

“I already think you’re creepy. But I’m still here.”

“Why is that, by the way?”

She points to the photos and says, “You first.”

I say, “If you look closely, you might be able to see feet in some of those shoes.”

“Eew. Seriously?”

“Give it a try.”

She studies the first three carefully and says “This one?”

I nod.

Seeming pleased with herself, she studies the others. When she’s finished she points out two more.

“That’s correct,” I say.

“Do I win some sort of prize?”

“No.”

“Story of my life,” she says.

“Actually, all twelve shoes have human feet in them,” I say. “It’s just that you can’t see them from the angle.”

“Your worst fears have come true,” Willow says.

“What do you mean?”

“You turned out to be creepier than I thought.”

“These shoes washed up on the beaches of Washington state and British Columbia over the past five years. It’s a mystery that’s baffled police, scientists, oceanographers, and government officials for years.”

“Sounds like a serial killer who cuts his victim’s feet off and tosses them off a bridge.”

Something in my look makes her say, “Is that it? Did I get it?”

When I don’t answer immediately she says, “If I guessed right you absolutely must give me a prize!”

“You’re close,” I say. “But not close enough.”

She frowns. “Then tell me.”

“Fourteen feet have been found, representing twelve victims.”

“So two of the people had both feet show up on beaches?”

“That’s right. And several have been identified as possible suicides. At least one, and possibly all of them, jumped off the Pattullo Bridge that spans the Fraser River in Vancouver. The feet were protected by the shoes, and became disarticulated through submerged decay.”

“Disarticulated?”

“Just means the feet broke away from the body.”

“Why just the feet? Why not the heads or hands?”

There’s something charming about the way Willow’s getting into this.

I say, “Compared to most joints in the body, the ankle is relatively weak. Currents in that area are strong, and rubber-soled shoes are buoyant. When the feet broke away, the shoes rose to the surface, and the tides washed them onto beaches.”

“Heads and hands aren’t buoyant?”

“No.”

Willow thinks about it and says, “How long has that bridge been there?”

“I don’t know. Seventy, maybe eighty years. Why?”

I see tears on her cheeks.

The photographs moved her.

“It’s just so sad,” she says.

“Tell me what you’re thinking.”

Willow pauses a moment, then says. “If twelve jumped off in five years wearing rubber-soled shoes, there were probably lots of others who weren’t wearing them.”

“Probably.”

“And if the bridge has been there all those years, there could be hundreds who committed suicide since it was built.”

“It’s possible.”

She wipes her eyes with the back of her wrist.

“Are you okay?”

She shakes her head. “I feel awful.”

I shrug. “You shouldn’t. People commit suicide all the time. It’s the eleventh leading cause of death. Nothing’s going to change that.”

“You don’t understand,” she says. “I feel awful for you.”

“For me? Why on earth?”

“You purposely hung these sad photos in your living room.”

“Well yes, but-”

“This is supposed to be your happy place.”

Definitely not the reaction I was hoping to elicit from Willow.

“These photographs aren’t just art,” I say. “They’re human art.”

“So?”

“It’s an example of how simple, everyday items we all take for granted, like shoes, represent something far more important.”

“So?”

“Art is supposed to move you. And you were moved. Does that make sense?”

She shrugs. “I guess.”

I almost leave it at that, but decide to ask, “Why did the photos make you feel worse for me than the victims?”

“You chose to display pictures of dead people’s feet on your wall. You knew people would ask about them.”

“I don’t get your point.”

“Why would you want your guests to feel sad?”

I start to say something, but stop myself.

I look at the photos.

She’s right.

I’m a sad man, living a sad life. The few guests I’ve had thought my shoe photos were creepy, weird, or, as Willow says, sad.

But only Willow felt badly for me.

“What sorts of pictures do you have in your apartment?” I say, defensively.

She shows the faintest glimmer of a smile. When she speaks, it’s almost reverential.

“A velvet Elvis,” she says.

“A velvet Elvis,” I repeat. “A suicide victim. Interesting.”

“Elvis died of a heart attack, not suicide,” she says. “He accidentally overdosed on prescription drugs.”

“I won’t dispute that. But I fail to see a big difference. Elvis overindulged himself to death, these people jumped. You’re displaying a dead person’s face, I’m displaying their feet.”

“How many of those shoe people were the king of rock n’ roll?”

Game.

“The velvet Elvis on my wall doesn’t show his face after he died.”

Set.

“No one looks at my velvet Elvis and thinks about his death. They think about the joy he brought them or their parents or grandparents.”

Match!

Game, set, and match, Willow Breeland.

“You must be a great doctor,” she says.

Willow has a remarkable facility for changing subjects without notice. I wonder if this is who she is or if it’s the product of cocaine use.

I respond, “Are you being facetious?”

“Not at all.”

“You mean because of what I did for Cameron?”

She points to my face. “A couple of days ago your face looked like Dawn of the Dead. This type of healing is on a whole different level.”

She’s got a point.

“How did you manage that?” She says.

“What made you decide to come to Manhattan?” I say, proving I can change subjects just as quickly.

“You mean what made me show up on your doorstep?”

“Yes. As I recall, when I made the original offer, you slapped my face.”

“I slapped you because you tried to kiss me.”

“I tried to hug you.”

She shrugs. “Either one would earn you a slap.”

I remember how she recoiled when I snuck a kiss to her breast that first night.

“You brought a suitcase,” I say.

“I had the cab bring me here from the airport. I thought you might recommend a hotel.”

“ Me?”

“I’ve never been to New York, and you’re the only one I know who lives here.”

“You have enough cash?”

“For a room? Yes. For cancer treatment?” She shakes her head.

“What type of cancer do you have?”

“Offer me something.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’m a guest in your home. You should offer me something. Water, tea, coffee?”

“Oh. Sorry. Can I get you something? Some water, tea, or coffee?”

“No thanks, I’m fine.”

I give her a look.

She smiles.

“You’re funny,” I say.

She shrugs. Then says, “Hodgkin’s.”

32

“Hodgkin’s Lymphoma?” I say.

She nods.

“That’s terrible. But on the bright side, the cure rate for Hodgkin’s is extremely high.”

“If it hasn’t recurred.”

“Has it?”

She nods.

“Shit.”

“Exactly.”

“Still, there are plenty of treatment options,” I say.

“For those with money or insurance.”

“Yes.”

“Ask me if I’d care to sit,” she says.

“Would you?”

“Yes, thank you.”

She walks across the room, passing two chairs and a couch, and sits on a small stool beside the fireplace.

“The sofa and chairs would be far more comfortable,” I say.

“Those aren’t you.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your decorator picked those.”

“So?”

“This stool was yours long before you bought this fancy penthouse.”

I glance around the room a moment, then cross the floor until we’re about six feet apart.

“How did you know?” I say.

“About the stool?”

I nod.

“Men are control freaks,” she says.

“Go on.”

“When a woman decorates a room, the man insists on keeping something from his past.”

“And you guessed the stool?”

“It was easy enough.”

“Tell me.”

“It’s always the thing that looks completely out of place, because straight men can’t decorate for shit. But it’s not about the stool, Dr. Box.”

“No?”

“It’s about your identity.”

Her eyes scan the living room a moment. Then, with great confidence, she looks me in the eyes and says, “This stool is the only piece you contributed toward decorating the room.”

“You think?”

“I know!”

“What about the photographs?”

“They don’t count.”

“Why not?”

“You don’t like them.”

“Oh really? I don’t like them? Then why are they on my wall?”

“You put them there hoping to impress people.”

“ What?”

“But they don’t impress people.”

“No?”

“You know this already. You hesitated to tell me about them. You said I might think you were creepy.”

“I only said that because-”

I decide not to complete the sentence. For the second time in five minutes I’ve caught myself starting to defend a group of photos I can’t stand. This eighteen-year-old has me pegged. No psychologist in Manhattan could have done a better job of analyzing me.

“Do you think I have issues?” I ask.

“You’ve got more issues than Kleenex has tissues.”

“That’s an old joke.”

“You’re an old man.”

“Old- er. Old-er. Not old.”

She shrugs. “I like the stool, Dr. Box.”

“You do?”

“Ask me to call you Gideon.”

“Please,” I say. “Call me Gideon.”

“Thank you, Gideon,” she says, warmly.

I know where this is leading. She hopes by being nice to me I’ll pay for her cancer treatment. Or maybe get her into a clinical study. The suitcase still concerns me. She couldn’t possibly expect me to let her stay here, could she? And how could I trust her? She and Cameron obviously broke into Chris Fowlers’ house after I left. What sort of people would do that?

People like me. I broke into his home first.

But why would Willow and Cameron steal from the Fowlers?

Because they thought they were stealing from me. Because…

I take a deep breath.

“Willow, I’m sorry for the way I treated you and Cameron last Thursday.”

“At the Firefly?”

“And after.”

Willow studies my face a moment, then says, “I understand you wanted some pussy. That makes sense. You also seemed to get off on humiliating me and trying to provoke me, which probably has something to do with your childhood. What I don’t understand is why, after fucking us, you robbed us at gunpoint.”

I say nothing.

“You hit me!” she says. “You threatened and terrified us.”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Is this just you, needing to prove how powerful you are? Bullying a couple of teenage girls?”

“I think it’s more complicated than that.”

She nods slowly, then says, “Breaking into Chris Fowler’s house and stealing his identity is even more complicated, isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Did you know his wife was murdered?”

“ Excuse me?”

“Chris Fowler’s wife, Kathy.”

“She’s been murdered?”

“Shortly after three p.m. last Friday.”

I do the math in my head.

“Don’t worry, you’re safe,” Willow says. “As I recall you were in the trunk of a Mercedes at the time.”

I recall it too, and it’s terribly embarrassing. There I was, Dr. Gideon Box, world renowned surgeon, curled up in the trunk of my rental car, nursing wounds I received from a brawl in a strip club parking lot. Apart from my embarrassment, I wonder how much DNA evidence I might have left at the scene. I tidied up before leaving Chris’s house, of course, but not the way I’d clean a crime scene.

“Do they know who killed her?”

“Getting nervous?”

“A little. Aren’t you?”

“Why would I be nervous?”

“The bedding, vacuum cleaner, and whatever else you took.”

“They’re saying the husband did it.”

“Chris? Wasn’t he in the Caymans?”

“They think he hired a contract killer.”

“Did someone confess?”

“I don’t know. This is just what people are saying.”

I pause.

“You said your father’s a lawyer?”

Willow cocks her head and gives me a strange look.

“I’m not asking you to pay for my cancer treatment,” she says.

“You’re not?”

She shakes her head.

“Then-”

“What am I doing here?”

“Yes.”

“You said you might be able to help me. I was wondering what you had in mind.”

“Is your father in a position to pay for treatment?”

“My father died in prison.”

“ Prison? But you said-”

“I know what I said.”

She sighs. “My father really was a lawyer. But he was also a wife-beater. One day he went too far.”

“He killed your mother?”

“Yup.”

“Jesus.”

“Exactly.”

“How old were you?”

“Almost fifteen.”

“Was this in Cincinnati?”

“Nashville.”

“Did they put you in foster care?”

“Those who were willing to take me didn’t have space yet, so I was placed on a waiting list. But I didn’t wind up in an orphanage, or children’s home, or whatever they’re called.”

“What happened?”

“At the last minute my aunt and uncle stepped up to the plate and took me in, which I thought was pretty nice of them, considering there was no inheritance or insurance.”

“Were they good people?”

“Were they good people?” she repeats. She thinks about it a moment.

“You know, they went to church sometimes, and they both had jobs. They bought me clothes, drove me to school each day, took me to the doctor. But things didn’t work out. I stayed with them a couple of months, then ran away.”

“Why?”

“My uncle tried to grope me whenever his wife wasn’t around. I could deal with that. But when he raped me, I felt he crossed a line.”

So Bobby was wrong. He wasn’t her first sexual partner.

“Why didn’t you tell your aunt?”

“He’s my father’s brother.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Let’s just say Aunt May didn’t get all those black eyes by running into doors.”

I ease myself to the floor and sit with my legs crossed, facing her.

The last time I sat on a floor was in Chris Fowler’s kitchen, while gloating about fucking and robbing this same young lady, and her best friend.

I look up into her eyes.

“How’d you get away from your uncle? Where did you go?”

“After my uncle fell asleep that night I stole all the cash from his wallet and ran to the bus stop, hoping to get out of town before he discovered I was missing. But when I got there I read the schedule and learned the last bus had already come and gone an hour earlier.”

“What did you do?”

“Put my head in my hands and cried like a baby. I kept crying off and on until a guy showed up on a motorcycle and asked if I needed a ride.”

“Bobby?”

She nods.

“And you’ve been with him ever since?”

“Until just recently,” she says.

Right. Until just recently.

Because just recently I killed him.

I work it around in my head to make sure I understand the full impact of my actions.

Last Thursday evening, to blow off steam, I made it my life’s mission to seduce eighteen-year-old Willow Breeland, an orphaned cancer patient who’s suffered physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of her uncle and boyfriend. I manipulated Willow, humiliated her, and provoked her for no other reason than to get in her pants.

But that wasn’t enough.

I also felt the need to fuck her best friend, Cameron Mason.

Then I pulled a gun on both women, slapped Willow twice, threatened them, frightened them, and stole their money, including the cash Willow was hoping to use for her cancer treatments. In the process, I upset her boyfriend, Bobby, who basically saved her life three years earlier. Then, when he was wounded, unarmed, and helpless, I killed him, even though I could have easily saved his life.

And now I’m sitting here on the floor of my five million dollar penthouse, in perfect health, worried she wants something from me, like a place to stay for the night, and perhaps some sort of guidance regarding her terminal illness.

If that’s not enough, while all these thoughts are going through my head, I can’t help but think how incredible it would be to get into her sweet pants again.

I’m a bad doctor.

She says, “I brought you something.”

“You mean like a gift?”

“More like a get-out-of-jail card.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sit tight. I’ll bring it to you.”

“You’re not going to pull a gun on me, are you?”

She stands, walks across the room, and gets her suitcase. She extends the handle and rolls it across the floor behind her.

Now she’s standing over me, four feet away.

“Close your eyes,” she says.

“I’d rather not.”

She laughs. “It’s not a gun, Gideon.”

“Still.”

She rolls her eyes. “Whatever.”

She turns away from me and unzips the main compartment and removes something. When she turns back to face me I realize she is, in fact, holding a gun. My first reaction is to jump to my feet, but she cocks the hammer and snarls, “Don’t even think about it, Gideon. I’m dying, I’m angry, and have nothing to lose.”

In the last few minutes Willow has put me through a lot of emotions. I’ve felt superior to her, inferior to her, sorry for her, curious about her, and even horny for her.

Now all I want to know is one thing. And hope I can ask it without allowing my voice to crack.

“What is it you want, Willow?”

33

“Lie down on your back,” she says.

“Why?”

“Just do it, Gideon. I’ve come a long way to be here.”

“If you’re looking for money-”

“Don’t insult me. I’m here because I have nowhere else to turn. Yeah, I was dying of cancer before you ever blew into town. But thanks to you, I’ve lost my boyfriend, my job, my best friend, and my apartment. Now lie down!”

I lie on my back and say, “Think this over before you do something stupid. I’m in a position to help you get the finest treatment available.”

“Take off your clothes,” she says.

“ What?”

“You heard me. Strip. Now!”

“No.”

She leans over and slaps my face, hard. Then slaps it again, paying me back for slapping her at Chris Fowler’s house.

“I’m dead serious, Gideon.”

I remove my clothes but place them on my crotch.

“Toss them toward the couch,” she says.

I toss them.

She sits on the stool and points the gun at my crotch and says, Spread your legs wide apart.

I do.

“It’s humiliating, isn’t it,” she says. A statement, not a question.

I say, “Yes. It’s humiliating. You’ve made your point. But you’re a stripper. Making you strip isn’t far from what you do for a living.”

“Oh, really? Well, you’re a surgeon, right? Maybe I should force you to perform surgery on yourself at gunpoint.”

“What do you want from me?”

She sighs. “I bet when you walk in the hospital you have total power. The nurses probably pee their pants worrying what you might do, or say, and your bosses have to bend over backwards to make sure you’re happy.”

“If you’re planning to shoot me, can we skip the lecture?”

“Know what, Gideon?”

“What?”

“You don’t look so powerful right now. You know how you look?”

“Like a naked guy?”

“Like a very average middle-aged man with a very flaccid penis.”

She leans over me and flicks my dick.

“Ow!”

“I bet if a total stranger saw you like this, she wouldn’t be able to tell you’re a world-class surgeon. She’d probably guess you’re a janitor, a pest control guy, or a TV repairman.”

I’m lying on the floor on my back naked, my legs spread wide apart while an eighteen-year-old woman talks trash and stares at my genitals. The one thing that makes it almost bearable, we both know she has every right to do it. I close my eyes in deep humiliation and shame, and neither of us speaks for a full minute until I say, “How long do you expect me to lie here like this?”

“We’re almost done.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I haven’t robbed you yet.”

34

“You’re planning to rob me?” I say.

“No. I was just messing with you.”

Willow walks over to the couch, picks up my clothes, and tosses them back to me.

“You can get dressed now,” she says. “But don’t stand up till I say you can.”

“Okay. Thank you.”

While I put my clothes on, she says, “I actually did bring you something.”

“What, nunchucks? A bazooka?”

“A peace offering.”

She pulls a zip-lock plastic bag from her suitcase.

“Recognize this?” she says, holding it up.

“Looks like a garage door opener.”

She tosses it to me and says, “Think about it, Gideon.”

I do. It’s Chris Fowler’s garage door opener. The one I removed from the burgundy Escalade in his garage after breaking into his home. I must have left it in the rental car.

Perhaps I’m not suited to a life of crime.

“How’s this a peace offering?” I say.

“The police are seeking the hit man who killed Kathy Fowler. Your fingerprints are all over her garage door opener.”

It hits me like a ton of bricks.

“You could have framed me for murder,” I say.

“Yes.”

“But you didn’t.”

I think about it some more. “A few minutes ago you said you were dying, angry, and had nothing to lose. But you weren’t angry. If you were angry, there are a thousand ways you could have gotten this into the hands of the police.”

“Yes.”

“You don’t want me to go to jail.”

“No.”

“Because you want me to help you.”

“It would be nice if you helped me. But I would’ve given this to you either way.”

“Because you know I didn’t kill Kathy.”

“And because I’m not a vindictive person.”

“Except you humiliated me just now.”

“Except for that. And that was for your benefit, not mine.”

“ My benefit?”

“You didn’t just humiliate me and Cameron that night, you scared the shit out of us. And I could tell it gave you a rush.”

“You and Cameron snort cocaine for a rush.”

“Yeah, but we never broke into anyone’s house or stole things.”

She catches my look and adds, “Until we met you, anyway.”

She sighs. “Look, I’m sure you do good things at the hospital. But you do some really shitty things in the real world.”

“You wanted me to see what it feels like to be on the receiving end.”

She nods.

“It worked. I felt humiliated and shamed.”

“Good.”

“But if I’m being completely honest, what you did to me won’t change my behavior. If you had done this a few weeks from now, I would’ve felt exhilarated instead of shamed. Assuming I thought you might kill me.”

“Why?”

“Like we said, I have issues. These kids I work on? They’re rag dolls that have to be brought back to life. I…have to bring them back to life. And if I manage to do it, the orderlies quickly wheel in another one. After a few months of that, a bomb goes off inside me. I have to find new ways to keep myself from going insane.”

“I think you’re overlooking the real problem here, Gideon.”

“What’s that?”

“You’re already insane.”

“I know. But I’m still saving lives.”

“Are you, Gideon? Because on my scorecard, you’re oh and two.”

I shake my head. “That’s not fair. I’ll take full responsibility for Bobby’s death. But I’ve never even met Kathy Fowler.”

“I’m not talking about Kathy.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Cameron died.”

35

Willow pauses, then hands me her gun, then starts to cry.

“Cameron’s dead?” I say. “ Shit! What happened?”

Willow’s crying escalates. She tries to speak, but can’t. I use the time to remove the bullets from her gun and drop them in my pocket. She falls to the couch and buries her face in one of my designer pillows. I feel terrible for Cameron but I’m also wondering if Willow’s getting tears and snot all over my pillow.

I might be crazy, but I trust Willow. She could have killed me just now, or had Bobby kill me at the park, or when we arrived at Maggie’s farm. She probably saved my life when Bobby tried to shoot me the second time, by taking his knees out from under him.

Willow had plenty of reasons to kill me, and plenty of opportunities, and chose not to.

When she finishes crying herself out she says, “You should’ve stayed at the hospital. You would’ve protected her.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Her eyes are closed and she’s swaying slightly from side to side, but not at all similar to the way she’d strip for a man. As she grieves quietly in my living room, it all comes down to this in my mind: her best friend is dead because of me.

I choose this moment to offer her my guest room for the night and she accepts. Perhaps she’ll kill me in my sleep. Do I care?

Not really.

Am I afraid she’ll rob me?

No.

Like Willow said, everything in my penthouse, other than the wooden stool, was put here by decorators. People who don’t know me, who expected me to accept their vision of what belongs here, instead of mine. If she somehow manages to steal my stuff I’ll simply replace it with something I like. It might not be proper, or elegant, but it’ll reflect who I am.

Of course, it would help if I knew who I am.

Willow explains what motivated her to come to New York City.

After I dropped her off at the park, after I tried to hug her and she slapped me, she drove to her place to pick up some of her things. The police were there, searching the place, treating it like a crime scene. They wouldn’t allow her to touch or remove anything. The landlord was there as well, madder than a hornet. They got into a shouting match, and he evicted her. She drove back to Dayton, entered Cameron’s hospital room, and found an empty bed, freshly made. At first she thought they’d taken her friend somewhere to run tests, so she sat in the big chair in Cameron’s room. After an hour, she went to the nurse’s station and learned Cameron had been moved to intensive care. They said she caught a serious infection. Hours later, to Willow’s horror, Cameron was dead.

Two hours pass and we’re still talking about Cameron.

We order Chinese and eat it.

She says, “Is that possible? Can someone go into the hospital for one thing and die from something else within hours?”

“Hospitals are the eighth leading cause of death.”

“Hospitals? How?”

“They’re a breeding ground for bacteria-resistant germs and viruses we call superbugs. It’s a catch-22.”

“What’s that mean?”

“You’re so smart I sometimes forget how young you are. Catch-22 is an old expression that means you’re screwed either way. Hospitals are one of the most sterile places on earth. Housekeepers constantly clean and scrub and wipe down surfaces with chemicals and cleaning agents. But the strongest, most-deadly viruses develop a resistance to the chemicals. They become invincible.”

“The super bugs?”

I nod.

“They told Cameron she was healthy enough to leave the next day. How could she die a few hours later?”

“Lots of ways.”

“Name one.”

“Maybe there’s a colony of super bugs on the door knob of the bathroom across the hall from Cameron’s room, and a colony of different super bugs on her bedrail. If a lazy housekeeper wipes the restroom doorknob with an antibacterial wipe and fails to throw the towel away, then uses the same towel to wipe down Cameron’s bedrails, he’s combined the two. Within minutes they mutate into something so deadly, when Cameron touches the bedrail, then her nose or eyes, the bug gets into her bloodstream.”

“What are the chances of that?”

“Higher than you might think. Or maybe a nurse or orderly forgot to wash their hands as they went from one room to the next, and transferred MRSA to Cameron through direct contact.”

“What’s MRSA?”

“Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.”

She frowns. “That sounds like something you just made up.”

“That’s why we use initials.”

“Is it common?”

“It’s in the noses or on the skin of one percent of all Americans.”

“Are you saying one percent of all people can kill the rest of us?”

“No. MRSA isn’t deadly unless you’re very young, old, ill, or in a hospital, recovering from a surgery. In that case, anything you touch-a toilet seat, a door handle, a tray-can kill you.”

“You think that’s what killed Cameron?”

“It’s one possibility. VRE’s another.”

“What’s that?” she asks, eyeing me carefully to see if I might make up another series of incomprehensible words.

“Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococcus.”

She frowns.

“Vancomycin is our antibiotic of last resort. It’s used to fight bacteria that are already resistant to penicillin and other antibiotics. VRE is a mutant strain, one that can transmit the resistance genes to other, more dangerous bacteria, like staph and strep. It’s been found on hospital equipment, doorknobs, bedrails, and even on the hands of hospital personnel who wash their hands for less than five full seconds.”

“That’s why you told Cameron not to eat anything at the hospital.”

“That’s right. Did she?”

“The nurse said if she didn’t eat they wouldn’t release her.”

“Typical!” I say, trying to control my anger. “Did you happen to get this nurse’s name?”

“No.”

“Pity.”

“But I’d recognize her if I saw her again.”

“Good.”

“Why’s that good?”

“Maybe someday we’ll see her again.”

“I doubt that. She’s in Dayton.”

“You never know,” I say.

36

“You trust me to be alone in your house?” Willow asks, incredulously.

Reacting to my comment about having to attend a meeting this morning.

“Yes. I trust you.”

“I pulled a gun on you yesterday,” she says.

I shrug. “You didn’t shoot me in my sleep.”

“I couldn’t. You took my bullets.”

“You probably have extras in your bag.”

“I did happen to notice you left the gun on the coffee table.”

“Speaking of guns,” I say, “where did you get one so quickly?”

“I’m from the south.”

“So?”

“Everyone’s got a gun for sale.”

“Seriously?”

She nods.

“Does it work?” I say.

“How should I know? I’ve never shot a gun in my life.”

“I’m surprised you got that thing through the airport.”

“They don’t always x-ray the bags you check.”

“They do here,” I say.

“Lots of things are different here,” she says. “Like your car.”

“I don’t own a car.”

“That’s what I mean. You’ve got all this money, a multi-million dollar house, and your hospital’s a long drive, right?”

“So?”

“You don’t have a car. In Cincy, everyone has a car. Even I have one!”

“I don’t need a car. And parking’s a bitch in the city.”

“Anyway, it’s nice of you to trust me to stay here by myself. Who are you meeting?”

“One of my nurses.”

“For a little…” she smiles.

“I wish.”

“What is she, married?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Want some advice?”

“Seriously?”

She nods.

“Okay,” I say. “Let’s hear it.”

“Be persistent.”

“Persistent? That’s it?”

“Relentless,” she says. “Maybe you’ll wear her down.”

I frown. “Wear her down? Can you wear someone down into loving you?”

She shows me a half smile and shakes her head.

“What?” I say.

“How old are you?”

“Forty-two. Why?”

“And you still believe in love?”

37

In the cab on the way to the hospital, I call my secretary, Lola.

“I’ve got a meeting with one of my new nurses at ten,” I say.

“Mr. Luce would like to visit with you at nine-thirty.”

“Great. Anything else?”

“Mr. and Mrs. Devereaux would like you to stop by the ICU and check on Lilly.”

“That’s a no. Anything else?”

“The rest can wait till later.”

“Good. I need you to do something for me.”

“Is it legal?”

“Funny. I need you to find a private investigator in Nashville, Tennessee.”

“No problem. What’s his name?”

“I don’t have one yet. I need you to call around. Get me someone really good.”

“Are you delusional?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m a medical secretary. What do I know about finding a private detective?”

“Lola?”

“What?”

“Don’t start with me.”

I hang up. Ten minutes later she calls back.

“I’ve got a name,” she says, “but it’s a woman. Is that okay?”

“Is she any good?”

“How would I know?”

“Who recommended her?”

“The Nashville police department.”

“I thought the police hated private eyes.”

“I thought so too, but Detective Polomo said I’ve been watching too much TV. Then he asked me out on a date.”

“And did you happen to mention you’re married?”

“Not exactly.”

“What did you say, exactly?”

“I asked him to send me a photo.”

My secretary’s a bimbo.

“Who’s the detective?”

“You’re not going to believe this, but…are you sitting down? Dani Ripper!”

“You say that like I’m supposed to know who that is.”

“Dani Ripper? The little girl who got away?”

“Sorry.”

“You’re one of a kind, Gideon.”

“Thanks. You got a phone number for me?”

“You’re planning to call her from your cab?”

“Might as well, I’m stuck in traffic.”

38

Ms. Ripper takes down my name, phone numbers, home and work addresses. She gets my address and three phone numbers. When that’s done she says, “Please. Call me Dani. How can I help you, Dr. Box?”

“I need a quick background check.”

“How quick?”

“Immediately.”

“You’re in luck.”

“Why’s that?”

“All my associates are swamped with cases. But miraculously, I myself happen to be available, having just wrapped up a major case last night. What’s her name?

“Excuse me?

“The woman I’m doing the background check on,” Dani says.

“How do you know it’s a woman?” I say.

“A New York City doctor wants a background check in Nashville, Tennessee? You’ve either slept with one of our local women or you’re thinking about it, and want to know how many miles she’s got under the hood, Am I right?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about, but as it happens, it’s a woman.”

“Name?”

“Willow Breeland.”

“Age?”

“Eighteen.”

Dani sighs. “Of course she is.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Do you happen to know her date of birth?”

“April sixteenth, eighteen years ago.”

“You can’t do the math?”

“What?”

“Never mind. Does Willow have a middle name?”

“Not that I know of.”

“You’re certain about the date of birth?”

“Yes.”

I am certain. Not only did I read it on her driver’s license last Thursday, she also happens to have the same birthday as my mother.

“Has she broken any laws?”

“Almost certainly.”

“If this is a criminal investigation I need to coordinate with law enforcement.”

“It’s not that.”

“Normally I only accept cases from people I’ve met face to face. Since you want this rushed, you need to tell me why you’re interested in this young lady.”

“She’s my house guest.”

“Your house guest,” she repeats.

“That’s right.”

“Why don’t you just ask about her past?”

“It’s a long story.”

“Feel free. I’m just sitting here, drinking coffee, surfing the internet.”

“I get that. But I’d rather you were making some calls, getting me some answers.”

She doesn’t respond, so I say, “I met her in Nashville last week. I told her I might be able to help her get cancer treatment. She said no, then showed up on my doorstep yesterday.”

“In New York City?”

“Yes. And since she’s in my home as we speak, and I’m riding to work in a cab, I’d like to make sure there are no outstanding warrants on her, or anything like that.”

“You’re sure she’s eighteen?”

“Yes. Why do you ask?”

“You slept with her.”

“ What?”

“What if she’s underage?”

“What if she is?”

“You’re forty-two.”

“I never told you that.”

“You didn’t have to. I’ve been reading about you since the moment you told me your name.”

“What difference does it make how old I am?”

“I don’t approve of forty-two year old men sleeping with eighteen-year-old strippers.”

“That’s not your concern. Wait. How did you know she’s a stripper?”

“She’s in an ad on a website for the Firefly Lounge, Cincinnati, Ohio. As in, “Meet the Firefly Girls!”

“That’s her,” I say.

“She’s cute.”

“You think?”

“Sure. Put her in pigtails she could be selling Girl Scout cookies.”

I decide not to respond.

She says, “Does it bother you the ad says girls instead of ladies?”

“No. Why should I care what it says?”

“Seriously, Dr. Box?”

“I don’t see what difference it makes if I slept with an eighteen-year-old stripper,” I say, noticing the cab driver staring at me in the mirror.

Dani says, “I don’t think I like you very much, Dr. Box.”

“If you want to join that parade you’ll have to take a number.”

“That I believe,” she says. “So what am I looking for, specifically?”

“Her birth certificate, parents’ death certificates, proof her father served time in prison, and any information you have on her uncle, her father’s brother.”

“You have his name? Or the parents?”

“Just their last name. Breeland. And the uncle’s wife is May.”

“Also from Nashville?”

“Yes.”

“Anything else?”

“She moved to Cincinnati three years ago. Lived with a lowlife named Bobby Mitchell, recently deceased.”

“Lowlife? Recently deceased? Be yourself, Doc. No need to talk like a TV cop.”

“Willow’s been diagnosed with recurring Hodgkin’s lymphoma. There should be hospital records.”

“I won’t be able to get those for you.”

“I don’t need the actual records. Just names of doctors who might have consulted with or treated her. Also, her best friend died from complications of a gunshot wound. She was a recent patient of Saint Stephen’s hospital in Dayton.”

“Friend’s name?”

“Cameron Mason.”

I notice Dani’s gone quiet.

“Hello? Are you there?”

She says, “Stop me if I get any part of this wrong. You breeze into Nashville, visit a club, meet an eighteen-year-old stripper who happens to be a cancer patient, and pay her for sex. What was she doing, trying to earn money for cancer treatment?”

I sigh. “Maybe you’re not the right person for the job.”

“Maybe not, but I’ve already uncovered information that’ll knock your socks off.”

“What, already? How’s that possible?”

“I’m very good at what I do.”

I grab my notebook and pen from my jacket pocket and prepare to write. “Okay,” I say.

“Okay what?”

“I’m ready. What have you got?”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“Don’t tell me you expect me to apologize for sleeping with her.”

“That apology belongs to Willow, not me.”

“Then I don’t understand. You’ve uncovered some information. I’ve got my pen and notebook ready. What’s the holdup?”

“Five thousand dollars.”

“ What?”

“You want me to take the case, you have to pay.”

“Five thousand dollars? For five minutes work?”

“How much do you get for five minutes of work, Dr. Box?”

“Four thousand, max. And you can’t tell me you get this much from other clients. You pulled that number out of your ass, because you think I’m wealthy, and you don’t approve of my lifestyle.”

“The five thousand isn’t for the bombshell. It’s for the work you’re going to want after I tell you what I’ve learned. And that could take days to uncover.”

“How much for just the bombshell?”

“Well, if we’re going ala carte, let’s say five hundred.”

“That’s more like it. You want my billing address?”

“Your credit card will suffice.”

“I’m in a cab.”

“You don’t want the cab driver to hear. Makes sense. Have him pull over, then climb out and give it to me.”

“I’m in Manhattan, Dani.”

“So?”

“You can’t just pull over in Manhattan. It’ll take forever to get back in traffic.”

“Why do you want to live like that?”

“Again, why do you care how I want to live?”

“We have some wonderful hospitals here in Nashville that could use a skilled surgeon, Dr. Box. Provided you can keep your hands off the candy stripers.”

“They’re called volunteers these days.”

“Whatever. Give me your billing address. But don’t even think about stiffing me.”

I give her my billing address and assure her I won’t stiff her.

“What’s the bombshell?” I say.

“I’ll tell you in an hour.”

“Why not now?”

“I need to be certain. You’re paying me to be accurate.”

“Give me the short version.”

“I want to check her hospital records first.”

“I thought you said you couldn’t access her medical records.”

“I said I wouldn’t get them for you.”

39

Bruce Luce is all smiles when I walk in his office.

“What?” I say.

“You received rave reviews from the new nurses.”

“I did?”

“No one was more surprised to hear it than me.”

“I think Rose has a calming effect on me,” I say.

“She’d have just the opposite effect on me,” he says.

“Can I keep her?”

“Under lock and key if necessary.”

“Why so enthusiastic?”

“She strong-armed Mr. Devereaux to write a check for twenty million, even though Lilly’s still in a coma.”

“Medically induced,” I say.

“Right.”

“Were you aware Rose plans to leave in nine months?”

Bruce frowns. “No way!”

“She told me her stay here is temporary.”

“She can’t leave,” he says. “If I have to, I’ll offer more money.”

“Excellent.”

“Speaking of money,” Bruce says, “I agreed to make changes to accommodate the hiring of Rose and Melba, and help soften the sting from the sweetheart schedule they negotiated.”

“How does that affect me?”

“We’re expanding your role.”

“In what way?”

He picks up a manila folder on his desk and hands it to me. As I open it he says, “You’re going to add one serious case a month, in addition to the more difficult ones you’ve received in the past.”

“You think?”

“If you intend for the board to continue paying Rose and Melba.”

I glance at the patient file.

“Who’s this?”

“The first of your cases.”

“Why this one?”

“I’m told it’s difficult enough to warrant your attention, though it should be a snap for someone with your skills.”

“Nothing’s a snap when it comes to children.”

“Don’t start with me,” he says. “I’ve been told four members of our staff have the expertise to perform this brain stem thing.”

“ Brain stem thing?”

“This is a surgical resection of a brain stem cavernoma.”

He waves his hand. “Whatever it is, I’m told you can handle it.”

“Not that you’d know the difference,” I say, “But the brain is located above the neck.”

“What’s your point?”

“I’ve worked heart, lungs, and internal organs for seven years.”

“You did these brain resections for three years before switching to heart.”

“It’s not like riding a bicycle, Bruce.”

“Well, you’ll have a few days to bone up on the procedure.”

“Will Rose and Melba work these cases with me?”

“They’ve been assigned to you. Doesn’t matter what the case is.”

“Can Rose help me deal with the parents?”

“This is a single mom. And anyway, I’m told you did a fine job with Austin and Dublin.”

“Who?”

“Lilly’s parents. Mr. and Mrs. Devereaux.”

“Rose won them over, not me.”

“You’re sure about that? Because she gave you all the credit.”

I laugh. “Does that sound right to you?”

He frowns. “No.”

“Ask Nurse Sally who deserves the credit.”

“No need,” he says. “I believe you.”

I point to the file in my lap. “This one, Addie Gray.”

“What about her?”

“Former burn patient, years of reconstructive facial surgery. She’s spent most of her life in hospitals.”

“So?”

“Her mother’s done the rounds. She’ll expect detailed consultations.”

“We’ve been doing this for your patients for years. But we’re done covering for you. From now on you’re going to consult, review, recommend, explain, and be actively involved with the parents both pre- and post-op.”

“For these types of patients,” I say.

“For all types. Get used to it.”

“I only did well with Lilly’s parents because of Rose.”

“You’ve got it bad for her,” he says.

“Doesn’t matter. She’s not interested in a relationship.”

“You’ve already learned that?” He pauses. “I’m thinking it’s a bad idea. I’ll get Melba to hold your hand when meeting the parents.”

“That’s fine,” I say. “Except that…”

“Except what?”

“I’m already starting to forget how to perform those brain stem things you were talking about. It would be a shame if I lost my first patient because I was afraid of upsetting Addie’s mom.”

He frowns. “I’ll assign Rose this time and we’ll take it case by case after that.”

“Thanks Bruce. You won’t be sorry.”

“I better not be.”

40

Five minutes later I’m standing in my office, looking out the floor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view few would pay to see, unless they enjoy hospital rooftops and parking garages. Everything is as gray and dingy as my life.

Rose enters the room with a shapely young woman of twenty, who’s wearing an ink-colored dress and matching jacket. She’s that beautiful shade of half-Latin, half-Anglo, with long brown hair and perfectly-manicured fingernails. She has the look of a college graduate, dressed up for a job interview, and seems familiar, like a young Jennifer Lopez, without the big caboose. Though not quite in Rose’s league, this is a gorgeous woman. If Rose were seeking a girlfriend to counterpoint her creamy white skin and raven black hair, this young lady would fill the bill.

“Dr. Gideon Box, this is Miranda Rodriguez.”

“This is awkward,” Miranda says.

“Why?”

“You don’t recognize me.”

I stare at her. I don’t come into contact with that many beautiful women, and when I do, I see them at their stylistic worst, for good reason. Their children are near death. Their features wracked by loss of sleep, worry, and fear. Understandably, hair and makeup is the last thing on their minds. Rose has the most appealing face and body I’ve ever seen. But Miranda is definitely top five.

“I’d remember you,” I say.

“Perhaps I’m mistaken,” Miranda says.

And there it was.

She looks differently now, but her voice and manner of speaking is the same.

I not only know this young lady, I fucked her two years ago.

“Please, sit down,” I say, studying her body, trying to remember what she looked like naked.

Miranda closes her eyes tightly, as if by not seeing me, I won’t see her.

Rose’s jade-green eyes are dancing. She seems amused.

I try to remember that night, two years ago. I’d been stood up by my date, and was so upset I opened a bottle of scotch and called an escort service. I said, “Charge whatever you must, but send the most beautiful woman you’ve got.” An hour later, Miranda showed up at my place.

Only she was going by the name Bailey at the time.

I’d been drinking, so the details were fuzzy the next morning, but I recalled her being wonderful in the sack and was convinced she’d be delighted to see me again. I wanted to enjoy the experience completely sober the next night, but when I called the agency they said Bailey had gone independent. I asked for her contact information, but was told, “We don’t do referrals. It’s a sure way to put ourselves out of business.”

I tried a couple of their other girls, but Bailey-Miranda-ruined me.

“Is this a bad time?” Rose says. “Because you seem distracted.”

“Not at all,” I say, unable to pull my eyes away from Miranda.

Rose says, “You can’t tell by looking at her, but Miranda’s pregnant.”

I frown. “Oh.”

“Something wrong?”

“No, of course not. It’s just-”

“Yes?” Miranda says.

“Should I congratulate you, or-”

“You can congratulate me,” Rose says.

Noting my puzzled look, she adds, “Miranda will be the birth mother of my child. As such, she’s staying with me and will continue to do so until after the child is born and becomes healthy.”

“And you’re telling me this because?”

“Miranda’s baby will be born with serious congenital heart defects.”

“That’s ridiculous. There’s no way to know that at this stage.”

“Nevertheless, it’s why I agreed to work with you. You’re going to help me save my child’s life.”

“You mean Miranda’s child.”

I look at Miranda. “You sold your baby?”

She lowers her eyes.

Rose says, “Don’t go down that road, Gideon.”

Suddenly I’ve become Gideon. But not in a good way.

“There’s no reason to believe Miranda’s baby will have heart issues,” I say.

“Did you hear me? I’ve known this half my life. It’s why I studied all these years.”

“That’s crazy. You can’t predict an unborn child’s medical condition years before it’s born. How would you even know who the father might be?”

“I knew who the father needed to be,” Rose says. “But don’t try to understand. It’s completely beyond your capacity. And anyway, you won’t remember this visit any more than you remembered me serving you birch bark tea all night in your home.”

“What? You don’t even know where I live!”

She shakes her head. “What’s important is the seed has been planted. You will accept Miranda’s surgery, and it will be the most important surgery ever performed.”

“That’s particularly dramatic,” I say.

“Just remember Miranda Rodriguez,” she says. “Miranda Rodriguez. And Dr. Box?”

“Yeah?”

“When you operate on my child, there will be no cursing.”

“Because?”

“You don’t want to piss off this baby.”

“What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

“We have to go now,” Rose says.

“Wait. Miranda?”

She looks up.

“Is there any way you’d consider seeing me again?”

“No. I’m sorry.”

“Was I really that awful?”

She looks at Rose, then back at me and says, “You’re not a happy person.”

“Are you serious?”

She says nothing. Both women turn to leave.

As they walk out the door I say, “What’s so important about being happy?”

41

I press the intercom button. When Lola answers I ask, “Who’s our best oncologist?”

“Probably Dr. Suni or Dr. Mamba.”

“Find out which one knows more about Hodgkin’s lymphoma.”

She hesitates, then says, “Is everything okay?”

“Yes, of course. Just let me know, okay?”

“Will do.”

Thirty seconds later Lola comes back on the intercom.

“Line one,” she says.

“Who is it?”

“Dani Ripper.”

I pick up and Dani says, “Are you ready for your bombshell?”

“Yes.”

“Willow Breeland,” she says.

“What about her?”

“She died five years ago.”

“ What?”

“Willow Breeland-the real Willow Breeland-died five years ago. In a car crash.

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s simple, Dr. Box. Your house guest is an identity thief.”

42

“The young lady slept with has been posing as Willow for at least three years,” Dani says.

“What’s her real name?”

“I’m not sure. But I’ve narrowed it down to four teenagers who were reported missing three years ago. Wait!”

“Huh?”

“Hang on a second.”

Dani puts me on hold for about a minute.

“Sorry about that,” she says. “I sent her strip club photo to a friend in the police department. By matching it to photos of the missing girls, we’re down to two. If you send me a better picture I can get you an answer within minutes.”

“I’ll take a picture of her on my cell phone when I get home.”

“If she’s still there,” Dani says.

“How much of her story’s true?” I say.

“She’s definitely dying of cancer. And her friend Cameron died in the hospital, though they haven’t determined cause of death yet.”

“That’s more a function of damage control. They’re trying to decide what story will cost them the least in a possible lawsuit.”

“You’d know better than me,” Dani says. “Still, I’m waiting to hear back from one of Cameron’s nurses.”

“Why would she speak out?”

“You know that five grand you’re paying me?”

“I know you’re asking for five.”

“Well, I have to purchase some of my information.”

“What could the nurse possibly tell you that would make a difference in Willow’s background check?”

“Think of it as a giant puzzle, where Cameron is not just a piece, but an entire section.”

“Cameron? Please! At most, she’s a puzzle piece. And a small one at that.”

“Being a guy, you’ll just have to trust my intuition.”

“You can’t explain it rationally?”

“I can. But you won’t understand.”

“Try me.”

“A woman’s best friend is as big a part of her life as her husband. Even bigger, if she’s single. And remember, both these girls were single.”

“Fine. Whatever. Pursue the nurse. But I guarantee you’re wasting your time.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

“You said you’ve narrowed her name to two missing kids. What are their names?”

“Amy Huddleston and Andrea Foster. And my money’s on Amy.”

“Should I come right out and ask her about it?”

“I would. She might have a legitimate reason for using a fake name.”

“You think?”

“It’s possible. But if you’re only asking one thing?”

“Yeah?”

“Get her date of birth.”

“Is that the easiest thing to trace?”

“No, but it’ll tell you if she’s eighteen. Because if she’s underage, it could come back to bite you in a major way.

“Great.”

43

I dial my home number, wondering if Willow’s still there. If she is, I wonder if she’ll answer.

“Dr. Box’s residence,” she says.

“You’re still there!” I say, then realize I don’t have anything else planned to say.

“Hi Gideon! Yes, I’m here. Um…is that okay?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Did you have a chance to talk to a doctor yet?”

“Not yet, but I’ve narrowed our choices to two.”

“Do you think either will take my case?”

“I’m working on it.”

Willow/Amy/Andrea must have picked up something in my voice because she says, “Is everything all right?”

“You tell me.”

“I have a plan,” she says.

“A plan?”

“If you’re available, I’d like to take you to dinner tonight. My treat. Someplace fun. Dinner, then maybe a club.”

“A club?”

“Not a strip club,” she says.

“Right.”

“So what do you think? Can we go out?”

It would be nice to get her out of her house, away from her gun when I accuse her of being an identity thief.

“Let’s do it!” I say.

My phone buzzes. I put Willow on hold.

“Kathleen Gray’s on line two,” Lola says.

“Who’s that?”

“Addie’s mother.”

“Who’s Addie?”

“The child you’re going to operate on. The brain stem cavernoma?”

“I click back to Willow. I’ve got another call I need to take.”

“Okay, see you soon.”

I spend the next fifteen minutes walking Kathleen Gray through the process. What’s going on in Addie’s head, why we made the decision to operate, what to expect.

I’m on my best behavior.

I agree Addie has had terrible luck in her short life, and explain there’s no particular event that caused her to develop this condition. I want to tell Kathleen that shit happens, but I refrain. I explain what supratentorial and infratentorial cavernous malformations are, and discuss how we’ll monitor median nerve somatosensory and brain stem audio evoked potentials.

But you know what?

She barely follows the conversation. Spends the whole time crying and asking two questions over and over.

First, “How serious is it?”

It’s damn serious. But I’m learning they don’t want to hear that, so I say, “I promise you, this operation will be performed under standard microsurgical conditions.”

I emphasize the word “standard” and she takes it to mean routine.

The second question she asks repeatedly is, “Will Addie be okay?”

“Of course,” I say.

“Thank you, doctor,” she says.

“You’re quite welcome.”

I make a mental note not to ask for a blow job later on.

See? I’m learning how the game is played.

44

By splitting the difference between me being too tired to go clubbing and Willow being too bored to stay home, we wind up in a gastro pub that features live entertainment. I take a photo of her in front of the place and send it to Dani Ripper, so she can forward it to her contact at the police station.

We’re sitting at our table, she’s reading the menu.

“You remind me of that cell phone commercial,” she says.

“Huh?”

“A guy and his date are in a restaurant and he’s holding his cell phone under the table, checking the game on it. He pretends not to, but she keeps catching him.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“That’s okay. I know you’re distracted. What I asked was do you think I’ll need chemotherapy or radiation treatment?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Will I need an operation?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Does chemo hurt?”

I feel my cell phone vibrate under the table. I glance at Dani’s text message:

WILLOW’S REAL NAME IS AMY HUDDLESTON… STAND BY…MUCH MORE TO COME!

Willow laughs. “Who’s winning?”

“There’s no game. I’m monitoring a patient, a little girl, who’s coming out of a medically induced coma.”

“Oh my God! Is she okay? I mean, do you need to be there?”

“No.”

I like the fact Willow’s concerned. She’s got a good heart.

“The little girl’s doing fine,” I say.

Willow smiles broadly. It’s still a killer smile.

“Thank goodness!” she says. “That’s great news!”

I turn off my phone, place it on the table and say, “I want to concentrate on you now. To answer your question, the actual chemo doesn’t hurt. But the after effects are a bitch.”

She bites her lip and says, “I’m afraid of the treatment.”

I look at her. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear she was the picture of health. That’s changing inside her hour by hour, I suppose, and if she’s as far along as I suspect, she may not have much time to live. For hours I’ve been furious at her for lying to me about who she is, but now that she’s sitting across from me, frightened about the short time she has left and the treatment she might have to deal with, my anger shifts to the shit hand she’s been dealt in life. This is a kid who lost both parents, her boyfriend, her best friend, and is dying of cancer.

It’s not fair. That’s the bottom line.

But I still need to find out who she is and why she lied.

“Willow, we need to talk.”

She grins and says, “What’s up, Doc?”

I smile. “How long have you been waiting to say that?”

“Two days.”

She frowns. “You’re not going to help me, are you?”

“Let me get this out, okay?”

“Okay.”

I take a deep breath and say, “You’re not Willow Breeland.”

She waits for me to say something else. When I don’t, she says, “How did you find out?”

“I hired a private investigator.”

“You did? Why?”

“ Why? You showed up out of the blue and pulled a gun on me!”

“You showed up out of the blue and pulled a gun on me first! But I didn’t hire a private investigator to check you out.”

“You didn’t have to. You knew how to find me.”

“Did your PI tell you my real name?”

“I was hoping you would do that.”

“What difference does it make?”

“I have a right to know.”

“You do? Why?”

“Because you’re going to stay with me.”

“I am?”

“Yes. And you’re going to get the finest medical treatment in the world.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes. And I’ll take care of you until you recover.”

“I’ll probably die.”

“If you do, I get to keep your panties.”

“I see,” she says. “You expect me to put out for you.”

“Only until you get really sick.”

“You’re joking right?”

“Yes. Mostly.”

“Why would you do this for me?”

“I owe you. Bobby and Cameron are dead because of me. Plus, it’s sort of fun to have someone to come home to.”

“Are you going soft on me, Doc?”

“What’s your real name?”

“Amy Huddleston.”

“Why did you steal a dead girl’s identity?”

“To keep my uncle from finding me.”

I nod slowly, thinking about it. That makes sense. Don’t know why I didn’t think of it earlier.

“How old are you?”

“Honestly?”

“Yes.”

“Do I have to answer?”

“Yes.”

45

“I’m seventeen,” Willow says.

“ Shit!”

“Wait.” She puts her hand on mine. “Before you get angry, can I say three things?”

I sigh. “Go ahead.”

“First, I’m nearly eighteen.”

“How nearly?”

She looks up and to the right, like she’s counting. Then says, “Eleven days.”

“We’ll have to celebrate. What’s the second thing?”

“The sex wasn’t that bad.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. I think it was mostly the circumstances.”

“I get that.”

She looks at my expression and laughs.

“What?”

“You’re suddenly happy, aren’t you!” She shakes her head. “Men. Jesus!”

“What’s the third thing?”

“The third thing is even though you’re angry about shagging a minor, can we have a nice, quiet dinner, and pretend we’re an ordinary couple? Just once?”

“A couple? Us?”

She laughs again. “Don’t get any ideas. I just want to pretend I’m on a real date with a nice guy.”

It suddenly dawns on me that Willow-Amy-has never been on a real date before.

“You don’t think the people around us will notice our age difference?” I say.

“Not if we don’t bring attention to ourselves. Can we do that? Just this once?”

I nod.

“I need to use the restroom a minute,” she says. “Will you excuse me?”

I stand when she does and she says, “That was nice of you. Thank you. And thanks for holding the door for me earlier.”

“Just because I’m a jerk doesn’t mean I don’t have good manners.”

She cocks her head.

“I think it sort of does mean that,” she says. “But thanks for doing it, anyway.”

While she’s gone I fight the urge to check my phone. Dani said there’d be much more information coming. But things are going really well with Willow-Amy-right now, and if she catches me checking my phone again it might hurt her feelings. Whatever it is can wait till after dinner.

When she returns, I stand and hold her chair for her. As she sits I say, “Should I call you Amy?”

“No.”

“In eleven days you’ll be legal. It won’t matter if your uncle finds you.”

“True. But I’ve had better luck being Willow.”

“ That’s hard to believe.”

She smiles. “I met you, didn’t I?”

I remember what Rose said about how I’d find the right woman where I least expect to. Could she possibly have meant Willow?

No.

Yes!

I mean, here’s the thing. I’m not kidding myself. I know in the real world Willow would never have the slightest interest in me. But we’re in her world, and it’s a private hell. She has no family, no money, no best friend or boyfriend, and she’s dying.

She needs me.

Am I afraid she might be using me?

No. It’s obvious she’s using me. And I’m okay with that.

I like her. I genuinely do. She’s got a hell of an attitude, and…

And she makes me happy.

What doesn’t make me happy is how the lights have suddenly gone dim. A broken-down warhorse with Tammy Faye Bakker makeup struts onto the stage and asks the crowd if we’re having fun.

Well, I was, till this happened.

The lady on stage tells the crowd she hopes we love Karen Carpenter half as much as she does, because she’s going to open her set with a tribute to her. Some audience members appear less annoyed at the intrusion than I am, and applaud politely. She asks someone named Claude to cue her music. He does, and she starts singing. I bet the audience wishes they could get a refund on their previous applause. While Karen Carpenter’s velvety voice speaks to my heart, this bleached bimbo’s over-the-top karaoke impersonation makes my teeth itch.

Willow notices the look on my face.

“Which do you hate, the song or the singer?”

I point at the stage slut, who notices me and reacts as if I just volunteered to be her shill.

She tells Claude to stop the music and says, “Well, hello, handsome!”

I look around to see if she might be speaking to someone behind me.

She’s not.

She walks over to Willow and says, “Please dear, introduce me to your father.”

The crowd cracks up.

“He’s not my father,” Willow says, “He’s my boyfriend.”

“ Really? What a shock!” the lady says, and the audience laughs again.

She sticks the mike in my face and says, “Aren’t you afraid she’ll give you a heart attack?”

“Fuck off,” I say, before realizing everyone in the place can hear me.

She says, “Ooh, I love it when cute guys talk dirty to me! How about a kiss, doll?”

“How about I rip your lips off?”

“OOH!” she says. “Daddy likes it rough, does he?”

Willow gives me an urgent look and whispers, “Please. Play nice!”

To the audience, the singer says, “Hey everyone, did you hear? Daddy likes rough sex!” They reward her with a smattering of nervous laughter.

“Do you like Karen, sweetie?” she says.

I look at Willow, who’s trying not to look embarrassed. I nod. I’ll play nice.

“Karen Carpenter?” I say. “Absolutely.”

“Quick,” she says. “Favorite Carpenter song!”

“Rainy Days and Mondays.”

She sings, “Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down.” Then says, “You like that, sugar?”

“Not anymore.”

This time the audience laughs for me.

“You know what I like?” she says.

“Apart from annoying me?”

More laughter

She laughs. “Funny and cute! Girls, hands off this one. He’s mine!” She looks at Willow and says, “After you max out his credit cards, of course.”

The crowd murmurs their disapproval of her picking on Willow.

Undaunted, she says, “My favorite is Close to You. Am I right everyone? Who doesn’t like Close to You?”

“Me,” I say.

“What? Daddy doesn’t like Close to You?”

“That’s right.”

She shows me her shocked expression and I suddenly realize this isn’t just a Karen Carpenter impersonator, she’s a female impersonator! She says, “ Close to You? Are you kidding me? Burt Bacharach? Hal David? Be careful, doll, those are local boys.”

“The song makes no sense,” I say.

“What do you mean?”

“Birds suddenly appear every time you are near.”

“It’s romantic,” she says.

“It’s insane. Would you want to date someone who, every time he approaches, is surrounded by a flock of birds?”

Audience laughter.

“Just like me,” she sings, “they long to be…close to you!”

The audience laughs louder. A number of diners clap their hands, enjoying the show, convinced I’ve been planted to enhance the show.

“See? It’s romantic,” she says.

She puts the mike in my face and I say, “What about the stars falling from the sky every time you walk by? That’d be pretty damn dangerous, don’t you think?”

The audience laughs.

She frowns, thinking about it, then looks at Willow and says, “You can keep him, sweetie, he’s a jerk!”

She abruptly turns and walks back to the stage to continue her set.

I lean over to Willow and say, “That’s a man!”

“Ya think?” she says, sarcastically. “What tipped you off? His Adam’s apple, his voice, or his hard-on?”

“He had a hard-on?”

She sighs. “So much for not calling attention to us.”

“Sorry.”

46

The singer finishes her set, the lights come back on, we order soft drinks and drink them, then order our dinners and eat them.

“Can I ask you a question?” Willow says.

“Please do.”

“What did you do with the garage door opener?”

“Cleaned it, stepped on it, threw it in the trash. Why?”

“If I had blackmailed you, how much would you have paid?”

“Seriously?”

“Uh huh.”

“A quarter million.”

“You answered quickly.”

“That’s my number.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I used to gamble to relieve stress I’d play till I won or lost two-fifty. That’s my threshold. If you had blackmailed me and asked for anything above that, I’d take my chances with the police.”

“That’s very interesting.”

“I’ll probably spend that much on your cancer treatment anyway,” I say.

She laughs. “You’re a good sport, Gideon.”

“You too,” I say, and mean it.

Willow says, “You keep looking at your phone.”

“I’m sorry. That’s rude.”

“You should check your messages. I know you’re worried about the little girl.”

“Are you sure?”

She nods.

“Thanks.”

I power up my phone and check for new text messages.

And see this:

REMEMBER WHAT I SAID ABOUT BEST FRIENDS? THE NURSE CAME THROUGH! MEDICAL RECORDS SHOW CAMERON WAS DYING OF HODGKIN’S DISEASE, NOT WILLOW!

“Is something wrong?” Willow says.

I check the next text and see this:

AMY STOLE WILLOW’S IDENTITY AND PRETENDED TO HAVE CAMERON’S DISEASE!

47

The look on my face tells Willow my mood has turned sour.

“What’s wrong?”

I hand her my phone so she can read the last two text messages. After she does, she takes a deep breath and says, “Okay. Plan B.”

48

I’m furious. I want to kick and scream and break into someone’s house and rob them at gunpoint. I could probably even strangle Willow with my bare hands.

But I need to know what she’s talking about.

Through clenched teeth I ask, “What’s Plan B?”

“You’re angry,” she says, cool as a cucumber.

“Of course it was Cameron,” I say. “She was practically a scarecrow.”

“It’s not that big a deal. Cameron was sick, but had no credit. As Willow, I had built an excellent credit rating. I let her use Willow’s name and social security number for the credit check. Once it was on the medical records, it stayed there.”

I clench my fists.

“What’s Plan B?”

“I should probably start by explaining Plan A,” she says.

“Please do.”

“Okay, so here’s the thing. Plan A was to come here, make you feel sorry for me, and talk you into giving me a hundred thousand dollars.”

“For cancer treatment.”

“No. I was planning to work on you, get you to take me on a nice vacation. My last one, while I could still enjoy it, you know? Pity for you we didn’t, since I was going to let you seduce me. Plan A called for me falling in love with you. Then I’d refuse the treatment, and…oh well, it doesn’t matter. You had to spoil it all by hiring a private investigator.”

Something crosses my mind. I don’t believe it, but I toss it out anyway.

“You killed Cameron.”

Willow frowns. “What can I tell you, Gideon? Cameron was dying, and wanted to come clean about something we’d done. I couldn’t let her do that.”

“When we were at the hospital she kept mumbling something about needing to confess.”

“She said it after she got shot, too. Before you stitched her up.”

“What did you and Cameron do?”

“None of your business.”

“How’d you kill her?”

“I’m not admitting I did.”

“Her cause of death is being investigated.”

“They won’t look too deeply. She had Hodgkin’s. She’d been gunshot!”

I nod my head. “Bingo!”

“Bingo?”

“Before we took the twins home you went in Maggie’s house to pee.”

“So?”

“I’ve never met a grandmother yet who didn’t have a spice rack with nutmeg in it.”

She smiles. “So?”

“You saw what the nutmeg did when it hit Bobby’s bloodstream. What did you do, inject it in Cameron’s IV somehow?”

“Where on earth would I get a syringe.”

I think about it.

“You stole one from my medical bag when you got it out of the trunk.”

Willow smiles and says, “Let’s don’t dwell on Cameron right now.”

“Okay. What’s Plan B?”

Willow reaches into her handbag and pulls out two zip lock plastic bags and places them on the table in front of me.

What’s inside them is the last thing I would have expected.

Just as she planned.

49

The plastic bags are identical, as are the contents.

“Two more garage door openers?” I say.

“You can have them,” Willow says, smiling.

“You’ve given me three so far. And none are Kathy’s, right?”

“That’s right.”

“You’ve been playing with me.”

She shrugs.

“You gave me the first one to win my trust.”

“I thought it appropriate.”

“Where’s Kathy’s garage door opener?”

“In a safe place.”

“How can I get it?”

“By paying me a quarter million dollars. Your number, not mine.”

I nod. My fists are no longer clenched. I’m too impressed to be angry.

“It’s nothing to you,” she says. “One operation, right?”

She’s right. A quarter million is nothing to me. The money I make means nothing to me. I’m all alone. No friends, no love. By hiring Dani Ripper I missed out on a fun vacation and lots of sex.

“You’re good,” I say.

“Thanks.”

“How do I know you’ll release the evidence after I pay you?”

“You’ll have my word on it.”

I cough out a derisive laugh. “That’s it?”

“When you give me the cash, I’ll go someplace safe. When I get there, I’ll call and tell you where to pick up the garage door opener.”

“What’s stopping you from never making the call?”

“My promise.”

I shake my head.

She says, “Look, Gideon. I’m not going to soak you. I’ve got nothing left but my future. I would have settled for a hundred grand, but since you were willing to pay more than twice that, I’ll never have to worry about how much more I could have gotten.”

“I wish I had more confidence in your promise.”

“You really have no choice.”

I sigh. “You were willing to go on a trip with me and have sex?”

“I was.”

“Would you still?”

She laughs. “What do you think?”

“I think Plan B sucks. We could’ve had a great trip, you would’ve been happy with a hundred grand, and I would have gotten laid.”

“Such is life.”

“Please?” I say. “It would make me feel a helluva lot better about this.”

“Don’t beg, Gideon.”

“I’m not begging. Remember the advice you gave me? I’m being persistent. If necessary, I’ll be relentless!”

She thinks a minute. Then smiles and says, “I’ll make you a deal.”

50

“Tell me,” I say.

“I like the idea of this being a civil transaction,” she says.

“Me too.”

“You’ve got a safe in your bedroom closet.”

“No I don’t.”

“It’s built into the floor, under the carpet.”

“I’ll say it again. Damn, you’re good.”

“How much cash is in it?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Rough estimate.”

“Thirty-five.”

“Thousand?”

I nod.

“Wow,” she says. “Okay, so the number’s still two-fifty, but it’ll take time to gather that much cash without raising suspicion.”

“I agree.”

“I’m told the bank won’t report checks you cash for transactions under ten grand.”

“I think that’s right.”

“I’ll take the thirty-five up front and put it in a safe deposit box. You’ll open new accounts at five different banks and write three checks a week for nine thousand each, spread among the different banks. That’s twenty-seven grand. Once a week we’ll go to the track and you’ll piss away up to five thousand dollars. The balance of the money will go in my safe deposit box. When that amount hits a hundred grand, I’ll have sex with you once a week until we hit two-fifty.”

“Really?”

“I think it’s fair.”

“Why do we have to go to the track?”

“The banks will wonder what you’re doing with all that cash. People will see us at the track, you’ll tell them your new girlfriend loves the ponies, and the word will spread.”

“I’d rather go to Atlantic City and shoot craps.”

“Bad plan.”

“Why?”

“Casinos keep detailed records.”

“I’ll say it a third time.”

“I’m good?”

I nod.

She looks at me with interest.

“You’re taking this awfully well,” she says.

I shrug my shoulders. “What can I say? I’m lonely.”

She nods. “Lonely’s tough.”

“Would you consider living with me while I’m raising the money?”

“I’d be honored.”

“That’s pretty civil of you.”

“I’m not an unreasonable person,” she says.

“Can I have anal?”

“Did you seriously just ask me that?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

Epilogue

I

It should have taken ten weeks to siphon a quarter million into Willow’s safe deposit box, but I managed to stretch it to fourteen by pretending the banks were asking too many questions.

Willow remained true to her word.

She lived with me and gave me sex once a week after receiving the first hundred grand. When she left, she hugged me and said she’d be in touch about the garage door opener. I figured to spend a very nervous couple of weeks waiting, but she surprised me by calling a few hours later.

“You’re already safe?” I said.

“I’m in the air, flying somewhere far away,” she said. “So yes, I feel safe.”

“Maybe when you get settled I could come visit you.”

She laughs. “I don’t miss you that much.”

“Where’s Kathy’s garage door opener?”

She waited for me to get a pen and paper, then gave me a phone number.

“Who am I calling?”

“I want it to be a surprise.”

“Okay.”

“Gideon?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

I pause.

“Take care, Willow.”

“You too, Gideon.”

A quiet moment passes.

Willow says, “You didn’t hang up.”

“Neither did you.”

“Why is that, do you suppose?”

“We’re wondering if we’ll ever talk to each other again.”

“Yes.”

“You think we will?” I say.

“No.”

II

The phone number belonged to a lady who had twin boys. She put them on the line.

“Hi Dr. Box!” Carlos said.

“Hi handsome!” Charlie said.

“Hi guys. You’ve got something for me? A garage door opener?”

They did.

Turns out Willow swung by their place after killing Cameron. The twins don’t know that, but I do. She gave them five grand for their gun and their promise to keep the garage door opener safe until she called to tell them what to do with it.

So I took a quick trip to Dayton, intending to get the evidence and catch the next plane back to NYC. But the return trip was delayed when the twins made me take them out to dinner at a fancy restaurant with white linen tablecloths and candles.

I didn’t mind. After all, how often do I get to go out with friends?

Our dinners were prepared tableside, and Charlie fairly swooned watching the waiter fuss over us. The wine flowed freely, and when I ordered the boys a flaming desert, Charlie cried.

They gave me the door opener and never asked the first question about it.

I liked that about them.

III

Rose and Melba assisted me on the Addie Gray surgery, which went perfectly. Afterward, Kathleen found me in my office and asked if there was anything she could possibly do to repay me. I asked for a blow job and she obliged, right on the spot.

I’m kidding.

Kathleen did ask what she could do, and I said nothing, it was all part of the job. But she insisted on taking me to lunch, so I let her, thinking this could lead to something.

“How is it a beautiful, young woman like you is still single?” I asked.

And wished I hadn’t.

She droned on and on about some CIA guy she loved.

“Donovan Creed,” she said, wistfully.

They were planning to get married and raise the little girl she adopted, the one who was burned so badly in a house fire years ago.

Addie.

“What happened with you and this Creed character?”

“The agency claimed he was killed.”

“You sound like you don’t believe them.”

“I don’t.”

“Maybe you’re in denial.”

“He’s living in Las Vegas,” she says.

“You’re sure?”

“I Googled him. He recently purchased property there.”

“Have you called him?”

“Of course not!”

“Why?”

“He abandoned us.”

“He’s an asshole,” I said.

She smiled. “You’re right. He’s a complete and utter asshole.”

“But you love him?”

“Hopelessly,” she said. “And I always will.”

“You never dated again? Never fell in love?”

“I actually married a guy. But it didn’t work out.”

“Why not?”

“My heart wasn’t in it.”

“Before or after you Googled Creed?”

“After.”

When the waiter brought the check Kathleen leaned over to reach for it and I caught a down-blouse. The view was nice enough to give me the confidence to see if I could exploit a possible opening.

“Here’s a coincidence,” I said. “Every woman I’ve ever dated told me I was the world’s biggest asshole.”

She shook her head and said, “Nice try.”

IV

My time with Rose is winding down. She’s determined to leave, and no amount of money will convince her to stay. I have no idea what she plans to do in five months and hope whatever it is, she’ll tell me, because maybe I’ll be able to do it, too. With her capable help I’ve saved seven boys and four girls the other doctors gave up on, and I’ve been forced against my will to grace several magazine covers. Money’s flowing into the hospital, and I’m back to working only the hopeless cases, which of course, makes me crazy. I take some comfort from the giant velvet Elvis painting that hangs on the wall of my living room where my shoe photos used to be, but there’s only so much art can do to calm me down, you know?

I keep asking Security Joe how he’s feeling, and tell him he doesn’t look so good. He thinks I’m busting his balls, so he ignores me, which is his way of busting mine. He thinks we’re friends because I got him this job as head of hospital security. I doubt he remembers beating me up and pissing on me all those years ago. I continue to bide my time, waiting for him to get ill so he can take advantage of his free hospital health care.

The pressure’s building up inside me like a volcano.

I’m going to do something bad soon.

Something really risky, to get my head straight.

I’m going to Dublin Devereaux’s house party in a few weeks. Only I’m not going to leave. I’m going to sneak into their basement and camp out a few days if I can, and spy on them, eat their food, drink their liquor, and maybe try to steal something of value. It’ll be tricky because they have all sorts of security and alarms and such. So I’m studying up on home security systems. I called five companies before finding the one who installed their system. Told them I wanted a system identical to the Devereaux’s. Asked them what a burglar could possibly do to defeat it. Got all sorts of information.

But it’s still exceedingly dangerous.

Just the way I like it.

But like I said, that’s weeks from now, and I need a quick fix. I was about to do something really stupid this morning, but when I checked the new patient list I hit the jackpot.

The president of Deer Springs Country Club checked into the hospital last night.

Grady Sanders.

V

Most doctors play golf.

I don’t.

Nor am I a member of a country club.

But I used to be.

Ten years ago I paid twenty-five thousand dollars to join Deer Springs Country Club in Woodhaven. Though I never played, I faithfully paid my dues for three years. Then one day I decided to cancel.

I’d been told I could sell my membership back to the club at any time for eighty percent of what I paid. In other words, they owed me twenty grand.

Imagine my surprise when club treasurer, Penny Caulfield, informed me I’d been misled by their overzealous sales team three years ago.

“You’re joking,” I said.

“Don’t give up,” Penny said. “This isn’t the first time we’ve heard this.”

“What should I do?”

“Call Grady Sanders and tell him what happened. I’m sure he’ll refund your membership fee.”

“You can’t refund it?”

“No. The board agreed only the president can make the decision to refund on a case-by-case basis. I can’t guarantee he’ll say yes, he’s said yes to everyone else.”

“That sounds promising,” I said.

Imagine my surprise when Grady Sanders refused my request.

“What’s twenty grand to you?” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“You know what’s funny Dr. Box?”

“Please enlighten me.”

“It’s always the wealthiest members who look for loopholes.”

“You’re refusing to refund my money because I’m wealthy?”

“I’ve got a club to run, Doc. Twenty grand is gnat shit to you. To us, it’s crucial.”

“That’s it?” I said.

“That’s it.”

“Have a nice day,” I said.

And he did.

Grady Sanders had lots of nice days over the past ten years.

But a few days ago he began experiencing chest pain. And last night he was admitted to our heart center for tests.

Today he’s scheduled for a heart catheterization, which means he’ll be sleeping soundly tonight. His wife, Becca, will probably be in his room. No problem, I can work around her. It’ll be dark, and she’ll be in the recliner, trying to sleep.

Night time is the right time.

Like all hospital patients, Grady will be hooked up to a series of tubes. Hospitals use millions of tubes every year. To save money, all are the same shape and color, and none are labeled.

You might be surprised to know sixteen percent of all hospital patients experience tube mix-ups, resulting in hundreds of deaths each year. We could avoid these senseless deaths by color-coding or labeling them, but that would add a few bucks per patient to our expenses.

A simple tube switch would kill Grady, as would a well-placed injection into his drip, what I like to refer to as Willow’s Way.

So these are good possibilities.

Unless I want him to really suffer.

I’ve got hours to think about it.

Grady Sanders became a dead man the moment he checked into the hospital.

Because even after all these years, he’s on my list.