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A Rhea Lynch, M.D. Novel (Book 2)
Author: Gwen Hunter
2012 Reissue Edition
5.5"x 8.5" Trade Paperback; 312pp
ISBN 978-1-62268-021-4 ebook
Also available as
Audible Audio Edition
According to my mother,
I had breeding, good genes, and the right to success. Of course, my mother
said that during one of her many drunken binges, and so it was something
I took with a grain of salt. She was a Rheaburn, of the Charleston
Rheaburns, but had married beneath herself, had a baby within five
months of the marriage, been quickly widowed, and then taken up with a
bottle of Jack Daniel's. The Rheaburns could have forgiven her the marriageafter
all, the man had the good sense to die quickly enoughbut it was
the baby and the Jack that caused her disgrace. I was that baby, and I
have been paying the cost of her rebellion ever since.
The price has been a peculiar sort of aloneness.
I tend to stand back and watch as others interact, rather than joining
in myself. I spend a lot of time evaluating and assessing people and situations,
which makes me a good diagnostician, a quick thinker, and someone who
reacts instantly in times of stress or trouble. It's a personality trait
that makes me a capable ER physician. It also makes me a bit of a cold
That last is the opinion of Miss DeeDee Stowe,
the woman who took me under her wing, taught me all I ever knew about
family and friendships, and put me through medical school. She also killed
a man and maimed three people, but insists it can't really be held against
her. She was under a bit of strain financially at the time. Miss DeeDee
is now a ward of the state, occupying a private room in our state mental
facility, the price of her fatal financial negotiations. She is a bit
of a cold fish herself, I suppose.
One good thing came of my isolated upbringing,
and that was my ability to make and keep friends. I value friendships,
and work hard to keep them fresh and strong. It was this gift for friendship,
combined with the ability to keep a clear head and diagnose obscure medical
conditions, that led me to the murderer of Leon Hawkins. . . .
Leon's death was a bad one. No easy passing in
his sleep. Not even a quick bullet to the brain. And the manner in which
he died led me to some strange and incorrect conclusions before the truth
was finally known.
His story and his death reminded me of one of
my mama's drunken aphorisms"Things aren't always as they seem."
STORMS, POKÉMON AND TORTURE
the breaker. The overhead fluorescents died, throwing the ER into blackness.
In theory, the backup generator was supposed to prevent blackouts, but
the reality was often something different. Just outside of my range of
hearing, thunder boomed, more a vibration of the foundations than a sound.
The old building groaned as wind battered the southeast side. Water poured
through lighting fixtures and into buckets procured by the roaming security
guard. The rattle of metal was soothing, like the sound of rain on a tin
roof. I paused mid-suture, waiting for the lights to be restored or for
someone to bring me a flashlight. Beneath the sterile drape, my three-year-old
patient whimpered. "Mom?" he said, his voice quivering.
"It's okay, Charlie," I said,
knowing I was soothing both mother and son. "Almost done." I
could hear his mother swallow. When the lights finally flickered back
on, I made a point of not looking at her, but kept my expression cool
and professional as I tied off the last suture and sat the toddler up.
"All done. See?" I turned his leg so Charlie could see the neat
row of stitches that replaced the gaping laceration and shooting streams
"Wow!" he said. "Look, Mama!
I got a creepy-crawly crawling up my leg!"
I grinned at him. The neat row of stitches
did look like a many-legged bug. "Not so bad, and for being a big
boy, you get five stickers." I held out my hand, fingers splayed.
"Want Pooh or Pokémon?"
"Both," he said promptly, and
then laughed through his tears. He was a cute kid, and I ran my hand across
his short, curly hair as I left the room, knowing that one or another
of the nurses on duty would see to the stickers and his mother's instructions
for wound care.
I stretched, moved into the break room and
sighed, then poured a cup of raspberry-cream-flavored coffee and picked
up my copy of the New England Journal of Medicine, opening it to
an article pertinent to gastric lavage in the gut-shot gang patientnot
that the Journal writers would ever put it so baldly. Anne and
Zack, the RNs on duty tonight, were puttering around in the drug room,
counting tablets, capsules, and vials of various drugs. I was alone with
the police scanner, listening to reports of storm-tossed mayhem, bored
enough to actually consider filing and painting my nails with the clear
polish Anne had left on the break-room table. It had been over a year
since I'd bothered, however, and there was no sense in putting my cuticles
The lights went out again. In the strange
dark, I heard someone crying, the sound muffled and choked.
My only other patient, diagnosed with lower
lobe pneumonia, had been admitted but was still waiting for a room on
the medical floor. She also had a bad case of grief. Her husband had died
in the last week, leaving her alone and mourning herself to death in that
dry-eyed form of grief where everything simply shuts down and the mourner
I had examined her, tried to get her to
talk to me, and been rebuffed. She had been willing to accept my medical
help but not my more personal concern, turning her face away when I asked
about her emotional state. But now she was crying.
The lights came back on, and I stepped into
the treatment room. The woman, Reginaher last name was gone from
my memorywas weeping, her dark-skinned face buried in the thin hospital
blanket. Putting down my coffee, I pulled up a chair and slowly sat, bending
forward so our faces were level. I wasn't much good in counseling sessions,
but I understood pain, and my patient was in agony. I held out a hand,
pulled gently at the blanket.
Regina moaned, her red-rimmed eyes focusing
on mine, her mouth opening and closing at each painful breath. With a
sudden jerk, she took my hand, her icy grip transmitting her desperate
grief. "Want to tell me about it?" I asked.
"I found him," she moaned. "I
found him hanging there."
I blinked. I hadn't understood that her
husband had committed suicide. I gripped her hand tighter, enfolding the
frigid flesh in my warmth.
"He was so heavy. I couldn't lift him
good. And he" she sucked a tear-wet breath, "dead.
He dead." Fresh sobs tore through her. After a moment she looked
up. "I got up top and my friend Louise, she went back for a knife.
We cut him down. And he fall. I still hear that sound. Him falling. Heavy,
big man, onto the rock. He hurt his head when he fall. Thump sound, like
a melon breaking. My man dead. My man dead."
There was nothing I could say. Nothing.
Regina rocked, and I held her hand. Motioning to a passing nurse, I ordered
a strong sedative, and stayed by Regina's side until it took effect. When
the woman's frail body relaxed, uncurling from the tight ball beneath
the blanket, her eyes fluttering into sleep, I slipped my hand free and
found my cold coffee. But I stayed with her until the nurses took her
to the floor.
Even at eight p.m.,
there were no more patients. No crying babies, no drunks, no mothers-to-be
with phantom pains for me to diagnose and treat. Just a freak spring storm
weather forecasters were referring to with awe. The storm had settled
in over the upper part of the state as if it intended to stay. Back in
the break room with a fresh cup of coffee, I listened to the scanner reports
of flooding in the lowlands, as creeks and ponds expanded their banks
to include neighborhoods and roadways. Mud slides threatened as hillsides
weakened by too much April rain gave way. Nature seldom listened to the
projections of engineers on hundred-year floodplains and storm runoff.
South Rocky Creek, which normally wound
its peaceful way behind the hospital property, was taking over the doctors'
parking lot, and I had been forced to park uphill from the hospital to
protect my little BMW through the night. It was a mess out there.
High winds were taking off roofs and downing
trees all over the state, shutting off electricity for tens of thousands.
Vinyl siding torn from houses was flying in the wind, shattered windows
were letting in rain by the bucket, buildings were lying flat. Bridges
were being washed out and electrical lines whipped in the wind, throwing
sparks and starting small fires which the rain quickly damped. Phones
were out throughout the piedmont region of the state.
According to the radio, Charleston, where
I was raised, was heavily damaged. DorCity, my adopted home, had also
been hit badly.
I was intimately familiar with the condition
of the town, having just made the drive from my house though DorCity to
the rural hospital. I thought my toy-size car might take up wings and
fly away a few times, but I had made it in under my estimated time. And
truth to tell, I was glad to be in the hospital instead of my old, bungalow-style
home, which might be reduced to matchsticks by morning if the hundred-year-old
oaks that surrounded it decided to give in to the wind and crash down.
Even my dogs hadn't wanted to stay home through the storm, so I had left
them with the cop across the street for the night. Mark Stafford was half-boyfriend,
half-annoyance, but he loved dogs; Belle and Yellow Pup were safe there,
with his half-dozen hunting dogs in their brick-lined shelter.
When the storm finally passed over, the
small rural ER would fill up with typical Thursday night problems, as
well as stress-induced heart attacks, babies being born too early, minor
injuries, and accident victims who couldn't wait to get out and ride around
to see the damage. The latter were fools, a danger to themselves and the
rescue personnel out doing their jobs, and I would likely tell several
so by morning. It was the perk of being a doctor. I could tell strangers
the truth and they had to take it. I sipped at the coffee, now cool enough
The ambulance service air-lock opened with
an ear-popping whoosh. Humid air and shredded leaves blew in, but no one
entered. Just the wind, too strong to hold the doors shut one moment,
then reversing directions, becoming too strong to force them open at all.
The lights flickered again, blackness and
light like a strobe above me. The elevator was out, and the high winds
had closed the second floor, where pediatrics and obstetrics were located.
The patients had all been moved to the medical wing. Three pediatric patients
and one jaundiced baby. No OB patients. Those would have to go to Ford
County tonight and all weekend, as the OB/GYN was out of town. Dawkins
boasted exactly one doctor who delivered babies, and Michelle Geiger was
in New York at a conference.
The hospital was not a modern monstrosity,
a solid rectangular block of stacked hallways and units, but a haphazard
U-shaped construction put together over the years on cheap county land.
Units went every which way, with ICU heading south, the medical floor
facing east, and the nursing center situated down a long connecting hallway
back around to the south. Surgery was a new section to the north. All
parts of the building, both old and new, were being battered as the wind
Behind me, the EMS scanner crackled to life.
"Dawkins County Hospital, this is Unit 52. Come in." It was
an EMS unit, out in this storm. I wandered closer to hear what patient
would be brought in.
Anne picked up the mike and depressed the
button on the side. "Unit 52, go ahead."
"Dawkins, we have two patients. First
is a white male, age twenty-four, with multiple contusions, abrasions,
bruising over large portions of torso, abdomen and groin area. Bruising
on both wrists, possible broken fingers on both hands. Patient is a victim
of assault." Anne sighed as she took notes. "BP is 125 over
85, pulse is 105 and tachy. Temp is 96.5, say again, 96.5.
"Patient two is Asian female, age twenty-two,
also victim of assault, para 1, gravida 2, six months gestation."
I moved closer, not sure I had heard correctly. A pregnant patient who
had been beaten? I hoped the assailant wasn't the man with her in the
ambulance. That was never a good situation. "This patient also has
abrasions and shallow lacerations to limbs, chest and abdomen. BP 145
over 95, pulse 125, with very tachy episodes up to 175. Temp is 94.2.
Repeat 94.2. Patient appears to be in early labor. Copy that, Dawkins?"
"We copy," Anne said. She was
writing furiously, but paused to glance over her shoulder at me and shake
her head. I had heard the emergency medical technician correctly. She
was pregnant and had been assaulted. Her body temperature was low and
her heart rate was high"tachy" was medic speak for tachycardia.
"Patients were immersed in Prosperity
Creek for a number of hours and have swallowed a large amount of creek
water. Possible aspiration of same. Copy all that, Dawkins?"
"We copy," Anne said, shaking
her head again.
"Dawkins, you might like to have sheriff's
department on hand at hospital. They have not been notified. Unit 52 out."
"We'll call them in," Anne said.
"Dawkins 414, all clear." She replaced the microphone and stood,
grimacing at me. Neither one of us liked this. We had an assaulted female
in labor with a six month fetus and no OB/GYN on hand. We were supposed
to ship all pregnant patients out.
Anne was a medium woman: medium brown hair,
brown eyes, medium build, middle age, medium height. But in an emergency,
she was great. Already she had moved into the treatment room with the
OB table-bed to pull out supplies I might need.
"Anne?" I called. When she stopped
and looked back over her shoulder I said, "Call them back. Ask them
if the road to Ford County is open. See if they can take both patients
I looked up at the dry tone and surveyed
the cop standing there in a rain slicker and black combat boots. I hadn't
heard Mark come in. "72 is closed, two bridges out. I-77 is down
for the next six hours at least, with accidents." Anne snorted and
went on into the treatment room where I could hear the crackle of plastic
"We have three separate situations
with tractor trailers flipped over," Mark continued. "Two on
77, one on Highway 9 just outside of town. HazMat has been called in for
the Highway 9 accident, by the way. Guy was trying to head north through
this wind carrying a load of sulfuric acid. Thought he'd drive around
the mess on 77 and hit the interstate again up in Ford County. Bad decision."
"Lovely," I said. I hadn't delivered
a baby since med school. I wasn't the maternal type. And if there were
any burn victims from the acid spill, I would get them. With this wind,
there was no way to fly anyone out to burn or trauma centers.
"Ain't it?" Mark said. "Now
it's covering the road, running out of the ditch banks, and flowing toward
the creeks. Fun time in the old town tonight."
I wasn't sure if he was kidding or not;
cops think the strangest things are fun. To Anne, I said, "Get me
a mag sulfate drip. If we need to slow down contractions I want it ready."
To Mark I said, "You're dripping all over the floor."
He grinned, a drip of water sliding down
his forehead, getting caught in his thick brows. "You gonna mop up
"Not in this lifetime."
He laughed, leaned forward and stroked my
head, his hand damp against my short, black hair. Mark didn't believe
in public displays of affection. Neither did I. "Have to hit Highway
9 and see can I help out." He smiled broadly, as if he thought that
standing around in a violent storm, surrounded by flowing sulfuric acid,
would be a fine thing. "Be sure to call the deputies on your assault.
But if you need me, call the dispatcher. I'll come back."
I was touched, but wasn't about to show
it. Our relationship hadn't made it to the point of sharing many vulnerabilities
yet. Probably never would. "Yeah. Thanks. And by the way, you were
right. I do need a truck to handle this kind of weather. It's real nasty.
Be careful out there."
"I know of a truck for sale. We'll
Mark laughed at my lack of enthusiasm.
Resigned, I followed him into the air lock,
a big, burly, out-of-uniform-cop with a gun on his hip, a second one on
his ankle beneath his jeans, and an ugly orange slicker still dripping
with water, the word POLICE in huge capital letters on front and
Mark pushed against the outer doors and
air sucked through, swirling leaves inside. Under the ramp, a branch swept
past and the outer doors shook with wind and pressure changes. Without
a word, Mark thrust the outer door open and shoved his body into the tumult.
He was still grinning, green eyes gleaming, as he drove away in his dark
green Jeep, and I knew he was having the time of his life. He un-bent
enough to toss me a wave.
The sky was dark, ripped with purple clouds,
lit with flares of lightning. Debris, tossed like failing kites, whirled
along the ground, only half visible in the dying light. Rain slashed like
warm butter knives, beating at the hospital's brown stucco sides. A cat,
drenched and miserable, ran into the covered breeze-way and shook herself.
She crouched at the sight of me, wary, cautious. When I didn't move, she
relaxed and lifted a paw to lick away the rain. Her affected air of unconcern
only partially hid the hyper-alertness caused by the storm.
From the road in front of the hospital,
a pair of headlights turned into the lane, red lights flashing above.
Wind rocked the ambulance from side to side. Even the heavy conveyance
was too small to fight the storm. Engine roaring, it pulled up the ramp
and stopped beneath the covered ambulance bay. The cat scuttled back into
the storm, tail down.
The driver door opened and Mick Ethridge
hopped out, his wet hair slicked to his skull. He was just a kid, still
too young to drink legally, but old enough to take the paramedic exam.
Last I heard, he was still waiting for the test results.
"Hey Doc! We gonna need a wheelchair,"
he shouted, over both engine and storm.
I stepped through the inner doors and shouted
back down the hallway, "Anne, Zack, get a wheelchair!" Not waiting
to see if they heard, I went to the back doors of the ambulance. Wild
wind grabbed my lab coat and tried to pull it from me. Horizontal rain
wet my scrub suit and soaked through to my legs. An overweight EMT jumped
down, wedging the doors open. I peered past him inside.
There was blood in the back of the unit.
A lot of it, pooled in the smooth floorboard. A man, his long, soaked
hair draggling forward over his face, sat hunched in the corner seat,
almost invisible in the poor light. Lying limp on the stretcher was a
young woman, a waiflike thing looking little more than a child, her small
belly pushing against her wet dress. Fresh blood ran in bright rivulets
down between her legs.
"When did this start?" I couldn't
tell if Mick heard me or not, my breath whipped by the wind.
Zack came through the air-lock doors, a
wheelchair before him. He stopped, his face lit by flickering florescent
lights and shadow. Black skin grayed by lightning. Huge eyes. "What
a storm!" he shouted happily.
Mick nodded back, jumping into the unit
and assisting the paramedic inside. "Started
not more than two minutes ago, Doc. Pressure's dropping."
The EMS crew transferred the woman first.
She was covered in mud, wet to the bone, and was in heavy labor, bleeding
profusely. "Vitals," I shouted as we moved to the air-lock doors.
"BP dropping. Last time I took it,
it was 90 over 45. Pulse 90. Pupils equal and reactive. They were in the
water all day, Doc. Through the entire storm." The air-lock doors
gave, Anne holding the inner doors open for the stretcher.
"Why?" I shouted.
"They been kidnapped, Doc. Tortured.
For four days."
©2012 Gwen Hunter