Excerpt

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Amanda called to confirm meeting Bart to burn off some calories. Instead, after telling Fletcher what he knew, Bart headed over to Western—as he’d done countless times to check on a fighter.

He missed the fighters. He hated being an observer, and he wasn’t good at it. He was the best in preventing an injury and managing things ringside. His mere presence, whether silent or vocal, angered anyone less than confident. Tonight he went to prepare Dr. Norris and perhaps unburden his guilt, knowing she was being set up for something more high profile than she might be prepared for.

A few blocks from the hospital he called the ED. “Hey, Louise, how busy is it tonight?”

Louise ran the ED night shift. She was a buxom platinum blond in her early fifties, resembling early sixties in scrubs one size too small. A real looker in her day, before Gambler’s Anonymous and a few stints in AA took their toll. Now she was Vegas hard.

Nothing that rolled into the ED fazed her. Bart and she had handled many a tragedy and many frustrated family members.

“Dr. Rossi, you never visit…always playing poker. Those day shifts are killing you. Come play with the grown-ups.”

ED nights, he thought, so often they felt like being on a plane that was out of control. He loved the quiet, the limited number of personnel and the autonomy.

Bart had worked nights for his first few years following residency. Those were the times he drove out to Lake Mead to fish all morning, then headed back to the sports books to watch a couple games before it was time to return to the hospital.

“Louise, I was checking to see—”

“He’s here, Dr. Rossi. And in case you’re wondering, so is she.”

“She?”

“Norris. And, all I can say is wow. No grass growing under those feet. My hair used to be naturally red… She asked about you, and I said I bet you were on your way.”

Bart laughed. That was the mark of a truly great psychic-turned-emergency nurse. She anticipated everything, always sizing up the players before entering a game.

Sighing at his predictability, he chuckled. “Be right there.”

Louise giggled, harboring her eternal crush. “Catch you soon good-lookin’.”

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Bart walked into the waiting room and looked around. It was Monday, a busy night for the ED. He stood for a moment feeling the atmosphere creep into his bones, feeling that strange, perverse comfort of being part of this. Every time the doors opened, the clamoring dissonance from the ED leaked into the waiting room. Western had 26 emergency beds, all full. Physician assistants triaged the worried roomful. Two doctors spewed a litany of orders for the nurses while visiting with each patient. They fired five basic questions: why are you here; where does it hurt; for how long; have you had this before; and if so, when? To save even more time, a brief hands-on exam accompanied the questioning.

Saturday and Monday nights were the two busiest shifts; so much so that doctors were paid extra for coverage. On Monday nights, EDs exploded with nursing home patients and the elderly compensating for a weekend of inattention and overeating. There was always a plethora of geriatric problems. Saturday night was a day of professional drunks, partiers and druggies, as well as those in training. The job of the doc was to stabilize critical patients and move others home or into hospital beds.

The thrill of being in the midst of the ED was something Bart would never get out of his blood, the thrill of simultaneously taking care of the 60-year-old bleeding from his rectum, the 41-year-old with chest pain and the 2-year-old with a sore throat. He would typically make a decision in 30 seconds, the standard time for emergency docs in the triage system. Gunshot wounds and major traffic accidents went to a trauma center.

On fight nights, like tonight, Western maintained an open room.

Emilio Vasquez patiently sat on the bed, one eye closed from his opponent’s right hand—the other with a two-inch laceration under the brow. Close by, Olivia reviewed the ED notes.

Louise had officiously summarized protocols for her as she came on the shift. Olivia was aware she was being used by the Commission, but even so, she was pleased to be thinking about somebody other than her brother lying upstairs. When Bart arrived, she was more than happy to lay it on thick.

She was used to academia, which called for a cold demeanor in medical practice. Each patient became an interesting case for debate. Tonight, without residents, this fighter was her responsibility alone. She was surprised to find herself feeling good here, feeling like a real doctor.

“Dr. Norris?” Louise inquired as Olivia stepped over to the main desk.

“Call me Olivia, Louise.”

“No, doctor, against policy.”

“Understood,” she said feeling sheepish. “Has Mr. Vasquez had his head CT? I was going to swing by radiology.”

“The acute abdomen in Bed 3 took precedence. Vasquez will get his about 10:00 PM. According to the paramedics, he lost consciousness for 90 seconds, had no amnesia and came in with a mild headache, dizziness and nausea. A typical closed head injury.”

“My thought exactly… The ‘typical’ part anyway,” she sighed. Comfortable that Louise could be an ally, she added, “Why’d they consult me? Don’t these knockouts happen all the time, and they send the kids for routine scans, observation and then home?”

“Could be an overreaction after your brother’s injury. At least we had an opportunity to meet. I like to know all the new physicians on staff.”

Vasquez’s laser-white smile lit up his face when he saw Olivia. She reached for his hands, every bit as soft as a concert violinist’s. He gazed at the floor and spoke in a soft monotone, answering Olivia’s probing questions in broken English. Olivia declined a translator. She spoke her mother tongue to him, asking him about himself, liking the human contact.

Vasquez told her he was born in Valle De Bravo, a small affluent lakeside town outside Mexico City. He said that the villas—all modern—looked like they were carved into the rocks. It was a place like the Hamptons, where well-to-do Mexico City residents flocked on weekends. His uncle, four brothers and two sisters were professional fighters. They all worked in local restaurants, hoping one day to own a home there.

An invitation to fight in Vegas meant he hit the big time even though it was a club show. At home, he would now be a celebrity. He was 26, with a record of 16 wins, 10 losses and one draw. Plus his record didn’t include several undocumented Mexican bouts. No one knew how many battles he’d fought in the gym.

Olivia took the time to listen and ended up with an invitation to his next fight.

Never had a patient been so thankful for her care. Was this true of all boxers, or was Vasquez trying to get back in the ring sooner than he belonged? It wasn’t cynical of her to wonder this. It was her job. Vasquez’s wife was about to deliver their first child, and he would need money to cover her hospital bills; then he could rest. He asked several times if Olivia could clear him to return to the ring sooner. To his disappointment, she clarified that it was the NBC’s decision, not hers.

“How’s Mr. Vasquez doing?” Bart whispered, coming up behind her.

Taking in his Clooney-esque half-grin, she responded smugly. “Dr. Rossi, so you know my fighter? He’s doing very well.” She turned back to Vasquez.

“Emilio, momentito. Quero hablar con la mas importante, Doctor Rossi. Voi el conoces?” Telling the young fighter that she was going to discuss suspension rules with the doc, she moved Rossi out of earshot.

“What did Vasquez say?” Bart asked.

“He wants to fight sooner than the two month Commission suspension he was given. He mentioned something about ‘Fightfax’, Dr. Rossi. I explained—”

“Bart.”

“What?” she asked confused.

“This is where I say, ‘Call me Bart,’ and I ask, ‘May I call you Olivia?” he said, unruffled. Fightfax maintains fighters’ federal identification cards. It lists medical and disciplinary suspensions, such as when a boxer needed time off for an injury or cut. All U.S. commissions adhere to it. Ideally, it limits the boxer from sparring or scheduling another fight before he’s fully recovered. U.S. commissions are required to follow the federal suspension list and use Fightfax as their reporting system.”

She was intrigued by him. She was listening but she was also taking in his Cary Grant stature, with the right amount of age, experience and ruggedness.

“Something on your mind?”

“I’m not an idiot.”

He seldom smiled truly, the kind of smile you allow to come from deep inside. One of the few times was when he won a game at Binion’s World Series of Poker three years ago. Looking at Olivia, it was impossible not to flirt. He had to smile at her, but only just. He let her spew.

“I know everyone’s concerned with the legal ramifications of my brother’s injuries, so that’s why I’m being included in your games.”

“That’s exactly what I thought when Gabe told me. I refrain from NBC politics. I work at Western and play poker, no less, no more. On the other hand, Vasquez is grateful for your expertise.”

Bart got a text to join a game at Binion’s. Grateful for the opportunity to split, he gladly accepted.

“My only advice is stay clear of ringside,” he told Olivia. “Few have the stomach for it. You may not want to take on the pressure, and these kids take your soul. Gotta go,” he said raising his hand. Why was he giving out free advice? It was something he conscientiously avoided doing. “Thanks for coming in so late. We can always use your expertise.”

Olivia bit her lower lip in frustration and disgust. What an ass. Men manipulated everything, telling you the opposite of what they want to have you do. She wasn’t contemplating working as a ring doctor. There couldn’t be much to the job. She knew more than these bozos when someone was hurt. How could they not have a neurologist ringside? If she had been there for Curtis…

She pulled her attention back from that abyss and concentrated on completing her consult dictation.

Sophie called.

“Liv, something’s wrong with your brother,” Sophie shrieked. Olivia held the phone away from her ear. She heard her mother’s voice, tiny but still clear. “I just woke up with a start—I heard him trying to cry out. I called and they said he’s fine, nothing has changed. There’s something they’re not telling me. Check on your brother, now.”

“The nurse would have called,” she said calmly, reacting to a lifetime of hysteria from her mother.

“Someone could be dead on the night shift,” Sophie shouted, “and the nurses still record the vitals.”

“Mom, you’ve been watching too much House. I’m at the hospital seeing a patient. I’ll go upstairs in a minute.” She really could use a drink, she thought, recalling an unopened bottle of Patrón in Curtis’s bar.

“Call me as soon as you see him,” Sophie demanded. “If I don’t hear from you I’m coming over there.”

Olivia walked up the two flights to Curtis’s floor. The night nurses were sitting at their work station munching on Capriotti sandwiches—brought in, they told her, by a patient’s family.

The pervasive smell of merthiolate greeted her at the entrance to Curtis’s room. The sterile ambiance was amplified in contrast to overflowing aging baskets of gladiolas, roses and tulips. He was sitting up with his eyes wide open, as if he were awaiting her arrival, and immediately tried to speak.

She hurried in and took hold of his hand. The monitor registered a stronger, more regular pulse than she had seen up to now. The BP cuff inflated as he tried to speak.

Stroking his forearm, she whispered, “You’re off all sedatives. If you’re in pain…” She had to stop herself from choking on tears as her throat closed up with emotion. Curtis had come back, and maybe she had a second chance.

She began to examine him. His pupils reacted normally to the penlight, and he followed commands such as smile and stick out your tongue. Suspecting his left side was paralyzed, she didn’t ask him to move his extremities. There would be time for him to face that.

She leaned close to him and forced herself to speak softly. “Valiente, I’ve missed you and missed you, little brother. I hope you can forgive me, please forgive me.” She stopped, unable speak for a moment. Finally she continued. “The past doesn’t matter, as long as you can forgive me. I’ll make it up to you, I promise.”

He lay looking at her with his sweet eyes.

“I’ve been living in your wonderful house,” she continued. “Curt, it’s so real, and the brothers and Luisa are the best. You made a world for yourself.” She felt her speech bubbling out of her as she went on, telling him that she had moved from Chicago, that she was working at Western now.

Curtis looked on intently, seeming to understand. As Olivia went to telephone Sophie, he lifted his right arm and motioned no.

“I have to call her, or she’ll be here in her nightgown,” Olivia laughed. “She already threatened me.” She speed-dialed her mother, told her she was sitting beside Curtis’s bed and that everything was fine.

“So go back to sleep, Mom. You’ll see him in the morning.”

As she put the phone back in her pocket she felt Curtis’s touch on her hair. She looked up, startled.

He mouthed, “Livy.”

She gestured for him to wait a minute and hurried out to the nurses’ station to borrow a pad and pencil.

As she held the pad, he legibly scribbled the words “love” and “sad.”

He pushed himself into a more upright position with the strength of one arm.

“Lie back,” she said softly. “When you move like that it shoots up your blood pressure. Do you want some ice chips to suck on?”

He mouthed words she couldn’t make out. His BP, now 200/110, triggered the alarm. She held the pad for him again and he scribbled “no.”

“What do you mean?”

Curtis wrote, “u need no.”

“I don’t understand? I need to know something?”

She covered his trach site so he could speak.

“Sorry… Mom… not me.” He blinked and motioned for water. His elevated pressure persisted.

Olivia rose to yell for the charge nurse, but Curtis forcefully motioned for her to remain.

“Livy… hurt.”

“I don’t understand? You’re in pain now?”

“Hurt arm.”

His systolic pressure jumped to 240.

Sophie’s cell went to voicemail; Lucy’s did the same. She left messages to come now.

Running to the front desk, she caught Curtis’s nurse flirting with a man in a dark, blue suit—someone who shouldn’t even have been on the ward. She ordered the nurse to administer sedation, then turned to address the man, who looked vaguely familiar. It was too late. He was out the door, getting into the elevator with another man similarly attired.

“Code 99” blared overhead. Olivia ran to Curtis’s bedside while respiratory therapy checked for a mucous plug in his trach. Olivia knew better.

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