Authors: Leonard Goldberg
Tags: #Medical, #General, #Blalock; Joanna (Fictitious character), #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction
He stepped outside into the bright sunlight and handed his parking ticket to the attendant, who said, “Just a moment, Mr. Attorney General.”
A well-dressed man standing nearby waved. “Hello, Mr. Attorney General.”
“Hello to you,” Oliver said, nodding to the man, a lawyer he’d met once at a fund-raiser. He couldn’t remember the name.
“Word has it that you’re going to be running for governor.”
“That word hasn’t reached me yet.”
The lawyer smiled. “A lot of people would vote for you. And I mean a lot.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
A Mercedes sedan pulled up to the curb outside the pricey restaurant, frequented by the rich and powerful of Los Angeles. The attendant hopped out and handed the keys to the lawyer.
As he tipped the attendant, the lawyer turned once more to Oliver Rhodes. “Mr. Attorney General, California always does better when there is a Rhodes running things.”
Oliver Rhodes nodded, basking in the public eye he loved so much. He had been away from it for too long. Two years back, he’d been riding a wave of popularity, already asked to run for lieutenant governor, almost certain to win. Then the chest pains started and the big heart attack occurred. He hadn’t really recovered. He was always weak and tired, waiting like a condemned man for the final attack that would end his life. Bypass surgery had been considered, but it was too risky. There were too many blockages. In all likelihood he would never have gotten off the operating table. He managed to serve out the last few months of his term in office, leaving all the work to others. His political career was over.
Then the miracle came. A new technique developed at Memorial Hospital was said to almost magically clear out coronary arteries. They used a laser device to break up the obstructing clots and plaques, then added a detergent-like enzyme to remove any remaining fatty deposits. Yet it was experimental and risky, and no one knew what the long-term outcome would be. Oliver Rhodes had the procedure done one year ago. The results were unbelievable. He was now jogging two miles a day and playing tennis three times a week. And it would soon be announced that he would be running for governor of California.
Rhodes looked up at the crystal-clear blue sky. It had rained heavily in Los Angeles during the early morning hours, clearing the air and removing any trace of smog. The air even smelled good. He inhaled deeply, feeling wonderful. Life did not get any better than this, Oliver Rhodes thought contentedly.
His six-year-old Jaguar pulled up in front of the restaurant. Climbing into his car, Rhodes gave a generous tip to the attendant, who thanked him and again addressed him as Mr. Attorney General.
“Oh, by the way,” the attendant said, holding up an opened pack of Marlboro cigarettes, “I found these under the front seat.”
Rhodes was about to say they weren’t his because he hadn’t smoked since his heart attack two years ago. But then he remembered that his secretary had taken the car earlier to have a slow leak fixed in one of the tires. The cigarettes were hers. “Thanks,” Rhodes said, and placed the cigarettes on the passenger seat beside him.
He drove away, keeping the window down and letting the fresh air blow across his face. Too bad it didn’t rain in Los Angeles every day, Rhodes thought. Then the air would be clear and respiratory illnesses drastically reduced. But the rains would also bring mud slides and washed-out roads and backed-up sewer lines. Rhodes smiled to himself. Now he was thinking like a politician. Always respond to problems with at least two answers to make sure you’ve covered all the bases.
He came to a stoplight and waited. To his right was a convertible with a young couple smoking cigarettes. They were talking and laughing and enjoying themselves. Rhodes’s gaze went to the opened pack of Marlboros on the seat next to him. He wondered how a cigarette would taste after a two-year abstinence.
The light changed and Rhodes drove on, but he kept glancing at the cigarettes. Just one, he thought. How much damage could one cigarette do?
Rhodes reached for a Marlboro and lit it with the dashboard lighter. It tasted awful and great at the same time. The smoke burned his throat and bronchial tubes, but the nicotine in his blood quickly reached his brain receptors. Suddenly he felt a high, his senses becoming sharper and more focused. He took another drag and inhaled deeply. His high heightened, his pulse racing but still nice and even. Of course, he reminded himself, your coronary arteries are as clean as a baby’s bottom. One more drag and then—
Abruptly his heart skipped a beat, then another. And with the skipped beats came a burning pain high up in his chest. Rhodes hurriedly flipped the cigarette out the window and held on to the steering wheel tightly, praying the pain wasn’t what he thought it was. The pain grew less intense, but it still frightened him. He brought his hand up to his carotid artery and felt for a pulse. It seemed even and regular. But why didn’t the burning pain go away?
Rhodes came to another red light and stopped. He took deep, slow breaths and tried to calm himself. The pain had subsided almost totally. Rhodes breathed a sigh of relief. Probably a false alarm caused by the damn cigarette. But better have it checked out, anyhow. Memorial Hospital was only six blocks away.
As the light turned green, the chest pain returned. But this time it was a crushing pain in the middle of his sternum, radiating into his left shoulder and arm. He sensed his heart flip-flopping and beating erratically.
! he screamed to himself, feeling the terror of impending death.
Rhodes sped down Wilshire Boulevard, blowing his horn loudly and continuously. He was having trouble breathing, and the cars and people he was passing seemed out of focus. He came to another red light and ignored it.
Rhodes made a sudden left turn into oncoming traffic. Drivers slammed on their brakes, trying to avoid a collision. Tires screeched and cars spun out of control, but Rhodes got through unscathed. His weakness had become so overwhelming that it took all of his effort just to steer the car. And the pain seemed even worse as it spread to his entire chest. Rhodes heard himself gasping for air.
Up ahead he saw the imposing buildings of the Memorial Medical Center.
Just two more blocks
He sideswiped a parked car and swerved to the middle of the street, narrowly missing an oncoming truck. Horns were blaring at him, but they sounded like he was in an echo chamber. The pain seemed to lessen for a moment; then it came back with a vengeance. His vision blurred more and he could barely make out the large sign that read EMERGENCY ROOM with a large red arrow pointing to the left.
He turned left, straining to follow the signs. The road curved and curved again. Rhodes’s right hand went numb, and he had to steer the car with one hand. Just ahead he saw the ramp leading up to the ER.
He tried to drive up the ramp, but all the strength had left his body, and his hand slipped off the steering wheel. The car careened off a cement pillar and crashed into the wall of the hospital.
By the time the medical personnel reached Oliver Rhodes, his lifeless eyes were staring up at the clear blue California sky.
A photograph of Oliver Rhodes made the front page of the
Los Angeles Times
Simon Murdock, the dean at the Memorial Medical Center, stared down at the newspaper on his desk and wondered how many more nightmares would befall the Rhodes family. They were like the Kennedys. Both families were wealthy and powerful and cursed by one tragedy after another. And theirs was the worst of all tragedies. The children were dying before the parents.
Murdock’s mind drifted back twenty years to the death of his only son from a drug overdose. He still felt the pain and emptiness that didn’t seem to abate with time. He could only imagine the heartache that Mortimer Rhodes was experiencing. Mortimer Rhodes, the patriarch of the family, had now lost all three sons. The eldest, Alexander, had been governor of California before being elected to the United States Senate. He died in a plane crash at age fifty-two. Jonathan, the middle son, had the business mind and controlled the family’s oil and real estate fortune. He, too, had died in his fifties in a motorcycle accident outside Munich. And now the last of the sons, Oliver, was dead.
The intercom on Murdock’s desk buzzed loudly. “Dr. Murdock, you have a call from a Mr. Lawrence Hockstader on your private line. He’s Mortimer Rhodes’s attorney.”
Murdock picked up the phone and pressed a lighted button. “Simon Murdock here.”
“Dr. Murdock, I hope I’m not calling at an inconvenient time,” Hockstader said.
“Not at all.”
“Good,” Hockstader said, his voice all business. “I represent Mortimer Rhodes, and I’m calling on his behalf. If you wish to verify this, you can—”
“That won’t be necessary,” Murdock interrupted. “I know who you are.”
“Good,” Hockstader said again. “Let me begin by telling you how much Mr. Rhodes appreciates the flowers and card you sent.”
“We were all saddened by Oliver’s death,” Murdock said, wondering what the lawyer really wanted. One didn’t have a four-hundred-dollar-an-hour attorney just to say thank you. “If there is anything we can do for the family, please let me know.”
“There are several things Mortimer would like done as soon as possible.”
Murdock quickly reached for a pen and legal pad.
“First,” Hockstader went on, “Mr. Rhodes wants to know the cause of Oliver’s sudden death. He would like an autopsy done today, and he wants it to be performed by Dr. Joanna Blalock.”
“Blalock,” Murdock mumbled as he wrote.
“Is there a problem with that?” Hockstader asked.
“The autopsy is to be done in a private setting, and the results are to be kept strictly confidential. No one—I repeat, no one—is to know the results until Mortimer Rhodes is informed. At that time he will give you further instructions.”
“Mortimer can rest assured that—”
“And if by chance there is any evidence of foul play,” Hockstader continued, “Mortimer Rhodes is still to be the first person to be informed.”
“Oh, I don’t think we need to be concerned about that.”
“One never knows,” Hockstader said darkly. “Powerful people with political ambitions always seem to have enemies, don’t they?”
Murdock hadn’t thought of that. Like most people, he believed Oliver Rhodes had died of a myocardial infarction, given the man’s past medical history. “He will be carefully examined for that possibility.”
“Finally,” Hockstader concluded, “if it is determined that Oliver died from heart problems, Mr. Rhodes is prepared to donate ten million dollars to establish a cardiac institute at Memorial in his son’s memory.”
The sum took Murdock’s breath away. Ten million dollars on a silver platter. Unbelievable! Murdock quickly gathered himself. “Please thank Mortimer for all of us at Memorial.”
“Mr. Rhodes will expect to hear from you later today.”
Murdock put the phone down and hurriedly reached for the button on the intercom. “Find out where Dr. Blalock is.”
Murdock moved away from his desk and paced the floor, rubbing his hands together. A new cardiac institute was exactly what Memorial needed. It would be a perfect fit, the crowning achievement of Murdock’s tenure as dean at the medical center.
Ten million dollars
, Murdock thought again. Astounding! And with that ten million in hand, he could go to his friends in Washington and obtain another ten million in matching funds. Twenty million would construct an incredible institute.
Murdock went over to the window overlooking the huge medical complex. Before him he could see the high-rise redbrick institutes that had been built during his twenty-year stay at Memorial. There was the Cancer Institute and the Neuromuscular Institute and the Biogenetics Institute, all lined up with their windows sparkling in the morning sun. It had been Murdock’s vision to build new, impressive institutes that he was certain would attract America’s best and brightest physicians and researchers. With the exception of Mortimer Rhodes, the board of trustees did not agree and were firmly against the large expenditures. But Murdock prevailed—with Mortimer Rhodes’s assistance—and time had proved him to be right. Memorial was now considered to be the finest medical center west of the Mississippi and was consistently ranked among the top five hospitals in America.
The intercom on his desk buzzed. “Dr. Blalock is in the autopsy room. She’s about to start a case.”
Murdock grabbed the legal pad off his desk and hurried out of his office. Passing his secretary, he said, “Tell Dr. Blalock not to start the case. I’m on my way down.”
Murdock took the elevator to the B level and walked quickly down a wide corridor, thinking about the instructions he’d received from Mortimer Rhodes’s lawyer. The family wanted privacy and confidentiality, the two most difficult things to deliver in any hospital, even when a patient was dead and in an autopsy room. Doctors and residents and medical students were always roaming around in the pathology department, as well as technicians and assistants and orderlies. And when the patient was famous, everybody wanted a look at the patient or his chart. Plus, the autopsy report would have to be dictated and then typed by a secretary who would read it and talk about it with her friends over lunch. Then there was the press, which would do anything to get a picture or a story. The body of Oliver Rhodes would have to be isolated, Murdock decided, maybe even guarded.
Murdock went through a set of double doors with a sign that read POSITIVELY NO ADMITTANCE EXCEPT FOR AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL. Then he pushed through another set of swinging doors and entered the autopsy room. He scanned the area with its eight stainless steel tables lined up in rows of two. There were bodies on all the tables with doctors hunched over them. Standing on his tiptoes, he saw Joanna Blalock at the rear of the room.
Murdock walked around the periphery, passing corpses in various stages of dissection. As usual, they seemed so unreal to Murdock. They looked more like plastic models than dead humans. He wondered for the hundredth time what it was that attracted doctors to become pathologists and be constantly surrounded by death.