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About the Author
National bestselling author Charles Wilson has become known for edge-of-your-seat tension and fast-paced action in his novels. His first work, Nightwatcher, a psychological thriller, was called "splendid" by John Grisham and "quite an achievement" by the Los Angeles Times. Ed Gorman, publisher of Mystery Scene magazine says, "Wilson might flat-out be the best plotter of our generation." Wilson's Direct Descendant and Extinct, novels exploring the chilling consequences of so-called scientific advances, have been optioned by Hollywood filmmakers. Other Wilson novels are Game Plan, Fertile Ground and Embryo; three suspense novels, When First We Deceive, Silent Witness and The Cassandra Prophecy; and Deep Sleep-- a psychological thriller set in a Voodoo-influenced swampy parish in South Louisiana. Charles Wilson currently lives with his wife and three children in Brandon, Mississippi, where he is at work on his next novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Charles Wilson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Charles Wilson
All rights reserved.
COASTAL REGIONAL HOSPITAL
"Help us, please."
The woman stood just inside the glass doors leading into the department. She cradled a little girl against her chest. The child's arms and legs hung limply toward the floor.
Michael Sims didn't take time to close the chart he had been writing in at the counter fronting the nurses' station. Slipping his pen inside the breast pocket of his surgical scrubs, he hurried toward the woman. Mary Liz hurried after him from inside the station. A second young nurse came across the floor from the direction of the trauma rooms. Behind the woman, the glow of the flood lamps outside the entrance illuminated her aging car. The driver's-side door stood open. Wind-driven drops of rain from the thunderstorm that had moved in from the Gulf shortly before midnight glistened like darting fireflies as they passed through the bright light.
Michael caught the little girl under her back and hips, lifting her from her mother's arms. "Are you a doctor?" she asked. He nodded as he turned toward the trauma rooms. The woman swayed. Her face was pale and it looked as if she might faint. Mary Liz caught her by the arm and shoulder.
The child's fever was spiking; she felt like an electric blanket turned on high in Michael's arms. He could feel her body jerking with her rapid, short breaths. He looked across his shoulder at the mother, who was following him across the floor, Mary Liz by her side. "I need to know how this started," he said. A nurse near one of the trauma rooms had started a stretcher toward him, but moved it back against the wall as she saw how light the child was in his arms.
"She's had a little temperature for a couple of days," her mother said behind him. "I don't know what happened."
He entered the nearest trauma room. The child's eyes, slitted and seemingly unseeing as he had carried her across the floor, began to open. She looked at him. Her long blond hair hung toward the floor. He smiled softly down at her as he laid her on the bed surrounded with emergency equipment. Mary Liz reached for the cardiac monitor leads. The nurse who had started to move the stretcher had come inside the room and now slipped a blood pressure cuff up over the child's thin arm.
"I work three to eleven," the mother said. "The baby-sitter said that Candice — that's her name ..." The woman choked back a sob and took a deep breath. "The sitter said she had trouble getting her to sleep, but that she was resting peacefully. Candice hadn't slept good last night. I slipped into bed with her, but didn't touch her."
Michael felt the pressure around his thumb. The little girl had caught it in her small hand and somehow was smiling up at him through the anguish across her face.
He smiled back down at her.
"I didn't want to disturb her," the mother said. "I ..." She started crying loudly, gasping out her words through choking sobs, shaking violently with each breath.
"Oh, God ... I rolled ... over ... touched her arm ... she was burning up. I ... I couldn't get her ... her to ... wake up."
The child's finger relaxed around his thumb. He moved a stethoscope to her chest. "Has she been coughing?"
"Anything you can remember?"
"She ..." The woman tried to stop her crying. "She said when she went to the bathroom it burned."
As he listened to the child's chest with the stethoscope, the nurse on the far side of the bed lifted Candice's legs out to the sides. In a moment she had done a quick in-and-out catheter, collecting a urine sample.
"Doctor," she said, showing him the tube. The liquid was cloudy with pus, displaying the sign of a urinary tract infection, more common in older women but capable of striking children, too, and able to race out of control much more quickly in a younger victim. Mary Liz had finished inserting an IV needle, drawn a blood sample, and connected the needle to a bag of normal saline solution hanging from a rack at the head of the bed. Candice hadn't reacted to the needle being inserted. Her eyes slowly closed now.
"Wake her up," her mother said. "Oh, God — wake her up!"
Michael felt the woman brush his side. A nurse caught the woman's shoulders and moved her back from the bed. Mary Liz placed an oxygen mask turned on high over the child's nose and mouth.
Across the department, a nurse said, "MVC arriving."
It was the motor vehicle collision patient that had been called in five minutes earlier by a paramedic in an ambulance nearing the hospital.
Michael looked across his shoulder and saw Daryl Stillman, the other young physician on duty for the night, glance inside the doorway at the little girl, then nod that he would handle the incoming emergency.
Michael turned his attention back to the child. Above the bed, the cardiac monitor showed a blood pressure of eighty over forty and a heart rate of eighty beats a minute. Her respiration was displayed in rapid, roller-coaster-like up-and-down sweeps on the screen. "I want a gram of Rocephin."
Mary Liz already had the plastic bag containing the broad-spectrum antibiotic in her hand. She hung it on the rack, connecting it piggyback to the line in Candice's arm.
The flashing red lights of the ambulance coming to a rocking stop outside reflected across the department. A paramedic in a yellow rain slicker hopped out of the blocky vehicle and hurried to its rear.
Seconds later, a nurse came backing through the doors, pulling one end of a stretcher as the paramedic and an orderly pushed the other end. Michael saw that the lanky teenager lying between them had his shirt open and three small EKG electrodes resembling round Band-Aids stuck to his chest. Blood was matted on one side of his head, mixed in with his red hair and smeared across his face, but he showed movement, opening and closing his hands under the webbing securing him to the spinal board, his legs squirming in his discomfort, indicating the lack of any serious back injury. That the paramedic hadn't inserted an endotracheal tube into the youth's throat indicated the breathing passage was clear. Daryl led the stretcher into the trauma room next to the one where Michael worked.
"Is she going to be okay?" Candice's mother called from the doorway.
Michael did not answer, using the excuse of his attention being concentrated on the child. He knew she was septic. The prognosis for a child her age, the prognosis for anyone septic, wasn't favorable at best — and the bacteria had obviously been building in her bloodstream for a long time, as listless as she was acting.
But he would eventually have to turn from the room and face the mother. He had to get to the laboratory computer to see what the blood work showed — to verify what he already knew so that he would be absolutely certain. He took a quiet breath and turned away from the bed.
"I need to get the results of the lab work before I'll know anything," he said. He wanted to be able to say something comforting as she stared at him with her tears now coursing silently down her face. But he couldn't.
As he moved past her and started across the department toward the computer at the nurses' station, he slipped his gloves off. He looked at his thumb. The one the child had clasped. In the three years of his emergency medicine residency and the year he had worked at the hospital, he had seen many children in serious shape. But he had never worked over a child who had forced a smile up at him though the anguish on her face — as if she were trying to tell him she trusted what he was doing.
And yet what had there been for him to do that warranted her trust? In this so-called age of modern medicine, what was there really to do but administer the antibiotic and wait? While it would only take seconds for the Rocephin to spread through her body, it would be hours before it would begin to fight the bacteria effectively — and there was no way to know if she had that much time. It didn't seem right that there wasn't more he could do.
He wasn't burned out on medicine. He still loved what he did. But there were times when he suffered a deep-down feeling. Certainly he wasn't as enthusiastic as he had been when he was starting medical school, before he had seen so many illnesses and injuries end in tragedy for want of a better medicine, a better technique.
The computer screen lit up with the message that the child's blood work hadn't been posted yet. It would be at least a few more minutes before it was. But he knew the computer wouldn't be where he got the word. He looked toward the red telephone mounted next to a pair of black phones on the wall.
It would be the red one that would suddenly start ringing. And not with the intermittent, sharp sounds of a normal phone, but with one continuous, unstopping ring. The loud, piercing sound would continue until someone lifted the receiver. It was the emergency line from the laboratory, known in hospital jargon as the 'panic' phone. It was only used when the critical values of a patient's blood work were dangerously off-kilter. In this case, a child deeply septic with a poor prognosis.
He knew he was right in his diagnosis.
And he almost hated himself for knowing that.
Now he noticed Candice's mother staring at him, a look of fear in her widened eyes — almost as if she knew what he was thinking, and what the ring would mean.
And there was nothing he could do about it — and nothing more he could do for the child.
Nothing more anybody could do.
For the ring.
And then the longer wait.
For the outcome of a child who had trusted him in a way it was going to be impossible for him ever to forget.
A FEW MILES AWAY
Blue rotating lights from police cars and sheriff's department vehicles reflected off the front of a sprawling one-story stucco house, flashed against a white Cadillac parked in the home's driveway, and illuminated the last drops of the falling rain. Harrison County Sheriff James Everette stood underneath the roof's overhang at the front door. Tall and heavily built, with dark hair, he wore a sport coat and slacks rather than a uniform. A shorter man in a jacket with FBI printed on its back stood next to him. They faced a third man, Dr. Joseph Marzullo. As tall as the sheriff, but with a leaner build, Marzullo's thinning, light brown hair, streaked with gray, shined brightly in the flashing lights. He had been performing emergency heart surgery at Coastal Regional Hospital when he heard the news of Congressman Donnelly's suicide. Still dressed in green surgical scrubs, he had driven to the house the moment he finished the operation. "I knew Lawrence was depressed about his health," he said. "But I had no idea he had reached the point where he would ..."
As Marzullo let his words trail off, he looked at the door and shook his head. "I should have known. I was talking to him all the time. I was listening, but not hearing. I should have said something to somebody."
A sad expression across his face, he looked away from the door to his watch, and sighed. "I have surgery scheduled early, gentlemen. If that's all you need from me I guess I should try to get a couple of hours' sleep."
"Thank you for coming by, Doctor," the sheriff said. "You've been a big help."
Marzullo nodded, looked toward the door again, then turned and started toward a black BMW parked on the far side of the street fronting the property.
As he walked across the grass, a flood lamp flashed to life, bathing the house in its brilliant glow, and Everette looked at the WLOX-TV satellite truck in the street. A young cameraman focused a tripod-mounted camera lens on a tall brunette taping a story on Congressman Donnelly's suicide for the coming day's news.
"We're going to have media from all over pulling in here," Everette said in his deep voice. "Want to bet I'm going to get second-guessed on this whatever I do?"
"Call it like it is," the agent said. "He was feeling down, drinking heavily, and broke in here — between you and me I think he was probably coming back to a place where he used to find some kind of special warmth. It's A-B-C — straight down the line. Everything fits. You're going to get less speculation out of everybody if you just stamp it what it is and close the investigation — make it that cut-and-dried. That's my opinion anyway."
They both looked toward a silver Ford Expedition as it braked to a stop behind a deputy's cruiser blocking the driveway, and the Congressman's daughter, Shannon Donnelly, stepped outside the vehicle.
She hadn't wasted any time after being notified of her father's death. Her dark hair was noticeably mussed, unbrushed after she had climbed hurriedly out of bed. Her slim figure was lost in the folds of a gray sweatsuit that seemed a couple of sizes too big, and she wore a pair of tennis shoes with the untied laces flopping out to the sides as she hurried across the yard toward the house.
She began to slow as she neared the walk in front of the entrance. She raised her hand and nervously pushed her hair back from her shoulder.
"I'm sorry, Shannon," Everette said as she stopped in front of him.
"They said Daddy left a note," she said in a low voice.
Everette reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out a small plastic bag. The wrinkled piece of notepad paper could be seen through the side of the bag. Shannon stared at the blood-stained corner of the note, then at the three words:
Please forgive me
Everette lowered the bag. "Shannon, Dr. Marzullo was just by here. He was talking about Lawrence's depression. Had you noticed anything in particular over the last few days that would indicate it had grown worse?"
When Shannon didn't answer, Everette said, "I know this isn't a good time to be asking questions, but it would help me if you —"
"Daddy didn't commit suicide," she said abruptly.
The FBI agent glanced toward Everette. Everette didn't say anything.
"He wasn't depressed," Shannon said. "I mean not enough to ..." She shook her head. "He just wouldn't. I know."
When Everette still didn't say anything, she said, "Would you murder somebody, James?"
Before he could respond to the strange question, she added, "And that's just how certain I am Daddy wouldn't kill himself. Somebody made him write the note, and then they murdered him."
The FBI agent's eyes narrowed. Everette said, "Why do you think that, Shannon?"
"Because I know he wouldn't kill himself," she said. "I know," she repeated, and looked toward the front door.
As she did, it opened, and a young deputy carrying a bundle of small, plastic Ziploc bags stepped outside. When he saw her, he closed the door quickly behind him.
She turned her face back to the sheriff's. "Can I go inside?" she asked.
"I'm going to keep the house secured until I get a release from the governor and Washington."
Just his saying no was enough to make her want to cry. She knew anything anybody said would make her want to cry. It had been all she could do when she saw the flashing lights of the law enforcement vehicles around the house not to break out sobbing. But she had to go inside. She had to see for herself, see if there was anything that might give her an idea of who had killed her father. "You know I won't touch anything," she said.
"It looks pretty bad anyway, Shannon."
Though Everette's words created a vision she didn't want to see — and she knew it would be worse when she went inside — she forced herself to stay on course. "I can handle it," she said, not knowing whether she could or not.
Everette shook his head no without speaking this time.
"He was my father," she said.
When Everette still didn't say anything, she said, "There's nothing wrong with you using me to look inside. To see if I might notice something you missed — maybe something only a member of the family would notice. The news media would think you were smart if you did that — you didn't take a chance of letting something go unnoticed. And you know they're going to be talking to me."
As she paused, she made herself stare directly into his eyes. "I want to be able to tell them that I'm satisfied with the investigation you've done."
The FBI agent grinned at Everette. "Looks like you're between a rock and a hard place, James."
When Shannon glared at the man, his grin went away.
Everette was silent for a moment more, then he said in a low voice, "Okay, Shannon, let me see if the lab techs are about finished. Then I'll take you through — if you're certain you really want to see what you're going to see."
Shannon didn't say anything. She knew she had reached the point where she couldn't say much more without crying — and Everette walked toward the door.
Excerpted from Donor by Charles Wilson. Copyright © 1999 Charles Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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