Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Proposal (con't)

Chapter Eleven

Dr. Ken Holman looked at his nurse and gently shook his head as he closed the door of the examining room behind him. Inside, a frightened fifteen-year-old girl lay in tears on the table. She had begun to cry softly when he told her that her venereal warts were caused by the HPV virus to which she had been exposed through sexual activity.

“Is that like VD?” she asked. “What’s my mother going to say? Everyone will think I’m a slut.”

“Any sexually active young person risks encountering HPV, herpes, Chlamydia, and AIDS,” he told her. “Anyone.”

“Why didn’t anyone ever tell me about this?” the girl whispered. Tears rolled from her eyes and dampened the tissue paper on the examining table. “They talk about pregnancy, even AIDS, but no one ever talks about this.”

“There are lots of things no one ever talks about,” he answered. “And you and I are going to have a long talk later. But now you can step behind the screen and get dressed. My nurse will ask a few questions, and we’ll arrange to have those growths removed.”

The nurse turned to her patient, and her compassionate “There now, you’ll be all right” brought fresh sobs from the frightened girl. Ken pressed his lips together and tried to subdue the anger that threatened to wash over him. Another child’s innocence had disappeared, but this girl was lucky. Yesterday, just after his interview with the writer, he had met a sixteen-year-old with a roaring gonorrheal infection. He’d had to tell her that the infection had probably left her sterile.

He pulled his microcassette recorder from his pocket and dictated notes to be transcribed later and put on the fifteen-year-old’s chart. When he had finished, he placed her chart and the tape on his nurse’s desk and paused for a moment in the quiet of his office.

The faded photograph of his wife smiled at him from across the desk. Linda would have handled the fifteen-year-old better than he did. She had been fiercely compassionate in her practice, bearing each patient’s burdens as her own during the day and shedding them, albeit regretfully, during the short hours she shared with her husband at home. Even through the five years she battled breast cancer, she had kept up an unusually heavy workload, finally surrendering it only because the cancer had spread to her bones. Walking, even standing, became unbearable.

Still, though bedridden, Linda had perused the charts of Ken’s patients, never failing to offer her insights. In 1989, two weeks before she lapsed into the coma from which she would not awaken, she gave him a folder containing copies of studies linking breast cancer and abortion. Clipped together in the file were copies of substantiating reports she’d gathered from her own patients.

With great difficulty, she told him she had undergone an abortion fifteen years earlier. “I was young, foolish, and proud of my independence,” she said, her voice quavering in her weakness. “I never told you because it was so far in the past I didn’t think it mattered. But what we do as kids can haunt us forever. Ken, you’ve got to tell them.”

For nearly six years he had continued Linda’s study and searched for an abortion-breast cancer link among his own patients. In time he found it, but kept silent because he feared being dismissed by his colleagues and described by his rivals as a mouthpiece for the right wing. And yet there was another, deeper reason for his silence—speaking about breast cancer brought back painful memories of Linda’s mastectomy, radiation treatments, and chemotherapy. The lovely woman he had fallen in love with had grown dearer to him with every passing day, and after her death, nothing seemed to empty the secret pool of sorrow within him.

Then, ten months ago, the biopsy of a lump and lymph nodes taken from one of his patients—a thirty-five-year-old mother of four—revealed an invasive malignant cancer. Elisa Jones, a vibrant redhead with a particular zest for living, ate a healthy low-fat diet, avoided caffeine, had no family history of cancer, no exposure to radiation, no history of miscarriage, and would have eaten raw grass before using an artificial sweetener in her tea. The only risk factor he found was a small notation the nurse had made in her chart: an elective abortion at age fifteen. Ken had wanted to tell Elisa that her cancer was probably related to the abortion, but what good would it do? So he hadn’t told Elisa about his suspicions but decided to speak out for the sake of other women.

And so six months ago he had given a stack of updated information to Theo Russell, the skeletal man who’d come out of nowhere at the national convention and quietly asked what was new on the medical horizon. Like a recurring nightmare, the same name had appeared on his schedule yesterday, but a different Theo Russell had appeared to ask the same questions.

For better or worse, he was playing his hand with whomever would join the game. And though Holman knew the odds favored the famous novelist, some deep instinct told him to bet on Theodora Russell.

A few miles away from Ken Holman’s medical offices, in the Fairmount Heights section of the District, pedestrians walked the sidewalks, clutching their coats with cold-numbed hands and leaning forward against the wind. Cars maneuvered tortuously through the ever-present Washington construction. The houses and sidewalks wore the gray look of a dying autumn afternoon.

One house, a dilapidated brownstone, seemed to squint into the street traffic. Inside, while dried-up wallpaper curled itself from the yellowed plaster, Brennan Connor eased his lean frame into a folding beach chair, and Antonio Verde snorted humorlessly at a sitcom on the portable black-and-white television set. Across the room, Theo M. Russell lay on a bare bed in a dark corner of what had once been a living room. His hands were tied to narrow wooden posts of the bed frame, his legs drawn up to his chest, his head turned to the side, his eyes closed. Both of the novelist’s forearms were scarred and bruised under his wrinkled shirtsleeves.

“Sure, and didn’t I tell you our guest would be waking up,” Brennan said, squinting down at the writer as he chomped his cigar. “Do you suppose he’s hungry?”

“Nah. Fed ‘im yesterday,” Antonio grunted, not taking his eyes from the television. “Threw it up. Snacks and smack don’t mix.”

“Well, watch him. We don’t want him coming around enough to start yelling,” Brennan said, standing from his chair. He walked over to the bed and hovered over the thin man on the sweat-stained mattress. As if by command, the pale prisoner’s eyelids fluttered and opened.

“Hello, laddie.” Brennan grinned down at the man. “Hungry, are you?”

The man groaned and closed his eyes. With an effort, he licked his cracked lips. “Water.”

“Tony, bring our friend here that bottle.”

Antonio grunted and tossed Brennan a squeeze bottle. Brennan nodded in appreciation and put the bottle to his captive’s lips, squeezing the bottle until a stream of water jetted forth and dribbled down the novelist’s chin.

The weak man ran his swollen tongue over his lips and closed his eyes. He seemed to rest a moment, then lifted his eyelids again and strained gently at the rags holding his wrists. “Could you,” he muttered as his body began to tremble, “could you release my hands? I can’t go anywhere; I haven’t the strength.”

“Ah, no, I couldn’t be doing that,” Brennan said, shaking his head. “You’d be surprised what strength a man has when he needs a fix. But I’ve got something else for you. Just what the good doctor ordered.”

The man on the bed did not protest but closed his eyes in resignation as Brennan moved to the filthy counter where a candle burned and a syringe waited.

Dr. Griffith Dunlap defiantly pushed the official envelope to the far corner of his desk. Lawsuits were nothing but time-stealing nuisances, like colds, allergies, and ingrown toenails. Though the suit couldn’t hurt Dunlap, it would have to be dealt with quietly, decisively, and legally. They would bury this annoyance once and for all so no similar suits would rise in the future.

Dunlap rolled his chair away from his desk. That’s why we hired that gold-plated team of know-it-all lawyers. Every doctor is nothing but a bundle of malpractice bait, no matter what his specialty.

Standing, he removed his lab coat and tossed it over the back of his chair. In quick, practiced movements, he removed his tie, shirt, and pants, then slipped into the clean surgical scrubs neatly stacked inside a cabinet in his office. He had already finished his morning hospital rounds, and the real work of his Family Services Clinic was about to begin.

He left his office and went to the prep room. After he scrubbed, a surgical nurse snapped latex gloves on his hands and tied his mask about his head. His head nurse read from his first patient’s chart. “Tiffany Smith,” she said. “Sixteen years old, second pregnancy, negative for AIDS, otherwise healthy. Vitals strong.”

“How many weeks?”


Moving quickly into the small room where he did most of his work, Dunlap glanced at the drowsy eyes of the young girl on the table. He winked at her, knowing she couldn’t see his smile behind his mask.

“Hello, Tiffany,” he said, turning his attention to the surgical instruments on the tray to his left. “Not a thing to worry about, sweetheart. We’ll have you out of here in five minutes.”

He perched on the stool at the end of the table and motioned for his nurse to adjust the light. “You’re going to feel a pinch and a cramp,” he told the girl. “The pinch is the anesthesia.”

There was no sound but the tinkle of stainless steel instruments, but the girl’s legs trembled slightly in the stirrups beside him. He stood and looked past the drape that blocked her view of him. Her eyes were closed; her face emptied of expression and locked. A tear rolled from the corner of her eye and into the mass of golden hair that spilled over the table like a halo.

“Are you in pain?”

“No,” she whispered, shaking her head slightly.

“Good. Now you’re going to hear the machine.”

A low rumble filled the room as the suction machine came on, then it gurgled as the products of conception were vacuumed from the uterus and whisked down a tube that snaked through a hole in the wall. The machine rumbled for less than a minute, then was switched off.

“All done.” Dr. Griffith Dunlap nodded to his nurse, who turned off the bright light. He smiled at the young girl. “Nothing to it, was there?”

Janet Fischer sank into her office chair, consulted her watch, then tapped Madison Whitlow’s number into the phone for the tenth time that morning. When the agent’s boyish voice came on the line, Janet allowed herself the luxury of fully venting her pent-up anger and indignation.

“Janet Fischer here, Madison. If this is some sort of publicity gimmick, I’ll never negotiate with you again.”

“What are you talking about, Janet?” The agent seemed genuinely surprised. “Is there some problem?”

“I’m talking about Theo Russell. You’ll never know how humiliated I was this weekend. After talking to that impostor, offering a contract, and swallowing outrageous lies, I discovered that your mysterious Theo Russell is a man. Are you two trying to make fools out of the entire publishing industry, or do you have something personal against me?”

“Janet,” he soothed, crooning her name like a song. “Whoa! Back up. Of course Theo Russell’s a man. Who said he wasn’t?”

“The impostor,” she said, biting back an oath. “Don’t tell me you don’t know about it. At the NAL convention I made an appointment with your author. A woman showed up. She said she was Theo Russell and gave me some line about being named after an uncle.”

The agent chuckled. “This is great. Hey, I didn’t even know Theo was going to the NAL convention. What happened next?”

Janet gritted her teeth. “I told her I wanted to buy The Savage Breast. She kept giving me a run-around, she didn’t even want to talk about the money—”

“Hold on a minute,” Madison interrupted, his voice filled with laughter. “That’s no client of mine. We always want money.”

“It’s not funny, Madison.”

“Sorry.” He paused a moment, and when he spoke again, his voice was properly serious. “I’m sorry someone embarrassed you, Janet, but truthfully, I haven’t heard from Russ in a week. I don’t even think he was at the NAL convention.”

“He was there. He was supposed to speak Friday night but backed out at the last minute. He called Anna Burkett and told her he was ill.”

“Well, you know how temperamental authors can be. Believe me, Russ is the most temperamental and unpredictable author alive.”

“Who was the woman?”

“I have no idea. Unless—was she pretty?”

Janet sniffed. “I suppose so.”

Madison laughed. “Must have been one of Russ’s women. He sent her to do his dirty work as a terrific joke on you.”

“It wasn’t funny. Very unprofessional, if you ask me.”

“Russell isn’t the typical professional. He’s still new to the business; he still does his own thing his own way. But what a talent. I hope you’re still interested in the book.”

“I don’t know, Madison. If this is his idea of a joke—why, I was at the police station for three hours yesterday with a sketch artist and a cop from D.C. The police think that woman might have something to do with Russell’s disappearance.”

“She probably does. He probably met her at the convention and hasn’t come up for air.”

Janet drummed her nails across her desk. She hated looking foolish, but if Madison was right, she’d been had. And as much as she might like to do so, she couldn’t just write Russell off. His proposal was a good one, probably worth twice what she had offered.

“Janet? Are you still there? I hope this hasn’t caused a permanent rift between us. Howarth House could do great things with a Theo Russell title.”

She injected just the right amount of disdain in her voice. “I felt used, Madison. I even told George Keeton that Theo Russell was really a woman. And when your author turned up missing, the police came to me, and I spent ten minutes trying to convince them your client was a woman.” She felt her temper rise again. “I don’t enjoy being made to look foolish.”

“You want me to talk to Russ about this? I’ll read him the riot act if it will make you feel better.”

“We’re not kids, Madison. You’ve got to get this guy to grow up. His little games aren’t funny. Anna Burkett called the police when she checked his room and found that he hadn’t slept in his bed on Saturday night.”

“The hotel gave her his room number?”

“She said she’d booked the room for him. She left him alone on Saturday, thinking he was sick, but on Saturday night she checked on him. When he didn’t answer her knock, she demanded that a maid open the door. When she realized he hadn’t slept in the room, she called the police.”

“Ooh, bad move. Bad publicity. Why’d she do that?”

“She was frantic. Apparently he’d sounded pretty bad when he called her on Friday night to cancel his speech, and she thought it was serious. The police didn’t do anything but look around. The hotel manager wanted to box up all of Russell’s things and clear the room out, but Anna stormed around and convinced the police to seal the room off until somebody hears from Russell.”

“And I’m sure we’ll hear from him soon. He likes his privacy, and the convention probably made him feel a little claustrophobic. I’m sure he just took off to find some space.”

“Well, now I really feel like an idiot. I’ve wasted three days in Washington, spent half a day in the police station, and made a fool out of myself in front of the literary world and one of Russell’s bimbos. Thank him for me when you talk to him, OK, Madison?”

Madison laughed. “I will and I’ll give him a good scolding. You’re a tough negotiator, Janet, and Russ probably didn’t want to tangle with you. So let me do the talking from now on, OK?”

“I still want the book.” She felt better after admitting it. “He may be a total jerk, but his writing is brilliant. We’re prepared to make a serious offer if you’re prepared to receive it.”

There was silence on the line for a moment. “Uh, that’s great, Janet, but Russ tells me he’s working on something better. Something even more stellar, something guaranteed to pull the regulars off the best-seller lists.”

“What about The Savage Breast?”

“He’s changed his mind.”

“Changed his mind?” Disappointment and frustration brought a hard frown to her face.

“Yeah. He doesn’t want to write the book. Some other idea has come along—”

“It must be a good one,” Janet said, tapping the eraser end of her pencil on her desk. She paused a moment, thinking. “OK, maybe that’s why your demented genius sent the woman to meet me. I did think it strange that the woman didn’t want money or mention a contract. I thought you wanted to involve me in a bidding war.”

“Nothing of the sort, Janet. If you don’t get The Savage Breast, nobody gets it.”

“Well, Madison, I’m not all that impressed by your client or his games.”

“But you are partial to success, and that’s one thing Theo Marshall will give you,” Madison answered. “I promise, Janet. Whenever our missing author shows up here with his next manuscript, you get first peek. That’s an ironclad guarantee from me.”

Slightly mollified, Janet smiled and said good-bye.

Not willing to give last rites to a story until it had been dead for three days, Pamela Lansky played one of her famous hunches and drove to the Hilton Tower to check out the last known whereabouts of the reclusive novelist. After nosing around for an hour with no luck, she spied detective Howard Datsko in the lobby of the hotel. Wearing a ten-year-old suit and his signature pout, Datsko was sitting on a couch, scrawling something in his pocketsize notepad. “Hey, Datsko,” she yelled, ignoring the startled looks from well-heeled guests lounging in the hotel lobby. “What’s the latest on the missing author?”

She could almost hear him groan when his eyes met hers. Instinctively on guard, like a pit bull in the ring, Datsko flipped the cover of his notepad closed, an action Pamela found rich with meaning. He didn’t intend to share his information with her unless she worked for it. She met his stubborn gaze with her own. She hadn’t earned a top spot at the Post on free handouts from the police department.

The detective grinned at her from behind his glasses. “Lansky, you’re a little late on this one, aren’t you?” he quipped, slipping the notebook into the pocket of his overcoat. “I thought the Post had finished with this story.”

“As long as you’re here, I’m here,” Pamela returned, lifting her chin. “We know the author’s missing, and we’ve printed that sketch the New York editor gave your man. Anyone in the hotel recognize the woman?”

Datsko shook his head. “The hotel was full of literary types and apparently they all look alike. Last week this place was a sea of black turtlenecks and tweed sport coats.”

“What about the novelist’s room?”

“Nothing’s been touched, and the hotel manager’s mad as a beaver with a toothache about that. It’s a suite, and they’re losing big bucks while it sits empty. But it looks like the missing person walked out of it and fully intended to come back. Sport coat on the bed, melted ice in the ice bucket. The notes for a speech he was to make were out on the table.”

Pamela frowned. This was coming too easily. What was he hiding?

“Can I see the room?”

Datsko’s faded blue eyes narrowed to slits. “Not unless you’ve joined the police force lately. The room is off limits for at least a week.”

“Why’d it take the hotel so long to call the police?”

Datsko shrugged his hefty shoulders. “They didn’t call, some lady named Anna Burkett did.”

“The president of the National Authors League?”

“Yeah. She freaked out when she couldn’t find the guy in his room, and she called in a missing persons report. We waited twenty-four hours, then came down to check things out.”

“Why’d you wait?”

“Required to. The guy’s an adult, and I’m still not convinced he’s not holed in a hotel room with some woman.”

Pamela looked around the wide lobby. “The guy was famous, Datsko. Any idea who’d want to kidnap him?”

“Kidnap a novelist? Some crazed fan, maybe? This ain’t exactly the setting for Misery. Besides, we’ve found no ransom note, gotten no phone calls.”

Pamela bit her lip. “Any John Does turn up in the Potomac?”

“Not this weekend.” Datsko’s voice was dry. “It’s been a slow season for jumpers down on the waterfront.”

She ignored his black humor. “Anything else you can tell me?”

“I shouldn’t have told you this much,” Datsko growled, but his eyes were bright behind his glasses. “But what can I say? I’m a pushover for blondes. So I’ll tell you this: We knew the guy was Theo Russell because his name’s all over his luggage and among his personal effects. But the room was registered to Russ Burkett. We thought for a moment that he and this Anna Burkett woman had something going on, but it turns out that she’s never actually seen the man in the flesh. They talked on the phone a few times, that’s all.”

Pamela looked the detective straight in the eye. “It’s not unusual for famous people to check in under fake names, is it? He wanted to avoid the autograph hounds.”

“Did he?” Datsko asked. He lowered his voice. “Then why was another room registered to Theo Russell and also vacated on Friday night?”

“What?” Pamela stepped closer, certain she had misunderstood.

“You heard me,” Datsko said, grinning at her, and Pamela knew why he’d been so free with his information. Datsko the great detective had run into a puzzle—and he was hoping she could solve it. Apparently there was still a lot of life in the Theo Russell story. “Another room, you say?” she asked, looking toward the registration desk. “Which one?”

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