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William Heffernan brings a big-city newsroom to life in all its eccentric, sometimes raunchy energy, against the backdrop of mid-'70s New York -- the post-Watergate era when attack journalism, as we see it today, was born. His novel tackles many issues that still affect our lives today: the invasion of privacy and shameless tabloid exposure that can wreck a life with a single headline; the bottom-line mentality that makes a mockery of medicine; and the daily struggle of people to make sense of the world around them -- and make something honest and worthwhile of themselves.
Her eyes again went to the clock on the wall, and she sighed. There were five other people in the waiting room, and she wondered what illnesses had brought them here. They were all reading magazines and seemed content to wait. Perhaps they didn't want to know, she thought. She understood that. Understood it too well.
She had left her Brooklyn apartment at five-thirty so she could have some time with Roberto at the hospital. She had been forced to leave him sooner than she wanted, just to be on time for this appointment. Then she had sat here, waiting for forty-five minutes now, realizing after the first half hour that she would also be late for work. She told herself that her boss would yell. He always yelled. But he wouldn't fire her. Not this time. He would dock her pay instead. Just as he always did. He looked for chances to do that. She began to calculate what it would mean to her already stretched budget. But it wasn't important. She would find a way to stretch it again, just as she always did. Only her son mattered. Now only her little Roberto was important.
Jennifer Wells knocked lightly, then opened the door and stepped into a well-appointed office in the faculty-practice section of the hospital. There was a smile on her young, pretty face, fixed there as it always seemed to be whenever she came near her employer.
Dr. James Bradford wasseated behind his desk perusing a real-estateprospectus for a Florida shopping mall. He pulled his eyes away from the figures and peered over the half-glasses perched on the end of his nose. The corners of his mouth turned up slightly at the sight of the young nurse. Jennifer had worked for him nearly six months now, but unlike most of her predecessors, she had failed to become part of the wallpaper. He understood why, as he studied her perfectly fitted uniform. Today she was wearing her one-piece whites. He felt mildly disappointed. Although he appreciated the perfect shape of her legs, he much preferred the uniform slacks ensemble. The woman had one of the most magnificent asses he had ever seen.
Bradford raised his eyes to her face. Pretty and pert, he thought, with bright blue eyes that seemed to jump out from beneath tousled blond hair that, in his imagination, always made her look as though she had just climbed out of bed. He chided himself for the thought. As the hospital's chief of service for cardiac surgery, and the top-ranking member of its university-affiliated faculty, he was expected to be beyond such libidinous predilections. But this woman, he told himself, made all such restraint impossible.
Bradford allowed a small smile to form. "Yes, Jennifer."
Jennifer's own smile widened. "Mrs. Avalon's still waiting," she said. "You had her scheduled for eight."
Bradford glanced at his watch. Eight forty-five. "Give me ten minutes, then show her in." He looked at the corner of his desk. "And bring me a fresh box of tissues," he added.
He saw Jennifer's smile vanish. She's seen the boy's file, he thought. And she's acknowledging your compassion.
"Oh, I almost forgot," she said. "Maggie asked me to tell you Dr. Gruenwalt called to confirm your golf date on Wednesday."
Bradford snorted. "Yeah, I guess I'll have to let him win. He's referred five cases this month."
Jennifer let out a small, happy laugh. "Oh, and Maggie said your wife called. She wants you to get tickets to that new Broadway show, The Wiz. She said you should call her back right away."
"Then you better give me fifteen minutes," Bradford said, the irritation in his voice palpable.
Jennifer smiled again. In complicity? he wondered-a signal that sheunderstood his dissatisfaction? She was twenty-five, twenty years his junior. Not much at all-perfect really, he told himself. His wife intruded on the notion. She, too, had once filled his mind with similar thoughts. Now she simply drained his bank account to overfill her very expensive clothing.
Jennifer spun around and started out the door, and Bradford again wished she had worn her slacks. He wondered if he should say something. Perhaps he should. They had known each other for six months now, and it would be interesting to see what her response would be.
Maria Avalon sat in the visitor's chair, staring anxiously at the doctor, waiting for him to raise his eyes from the chart on his desk. He seemed so self-assured, so successful, so different from the doctor at the clinic who had referred her here. This man wasn't as pleasant, she decided- he was much more distant-but he looked more like a doctor. His hair was gray at the temples, and he wore those half-glasses, just like the doctors she had seen on television. He even dressed like those doctors. His blue shirt was starched and crisp and clean, and she could tell the striped silk necktie he wore was expensive. Even his long white hospital coat was starched and had his name embroidered on the breast pocket. Maria only wished he would look up and speak to her, but she was too frightened to say anything.
Bradford let out a weary sigh, then closed the chart he had been reading. He glanced up and was genuinely surprised by the beauty of the woman seated across from him. He had been concentrating on the medical file when she had entered his office, and he hadn't really looked at her. Now he took in her very-light-coffee complexion, the large almond-shaped brown eyes and full lips, which together made her seem both alluring and vulnerable. He removed his glasses and smiled. Her dark brown, nearly black hair, hung to just above her shoulders, and it gave off hints of red in the harsh fluorescent light. She was quite appealing, he thought, as he discreetly took in her demurely crossed legs. A bit older than his nurse, Jennifer. Late twenties, he guessed. But every bit as lovely.
Then he changed his mind. No, not that lovely. Not on second glance. It was the woman's hands that had forced him to reappraise-rough and work-worn and bearing the marks of small, partially healed cuts. And then there was her clothing-a simple flower-patterned dress that was really quite cheap, probably homemade, and her plain, plucked-from-a-bin tennis shoes. Definitely discount-store variety.
"I'm afraid the news isn't very good," he began. He watched her hands close into fists, the knuckles turn white. There was a tightening at the corners of her mouth, and he suddenly feared she would begin to cry. "Let me try to make this as simple to understand as possible." And as quick, he added to himself. "At your physician's request, I examined your son and confirmed the initial diagnosis. What. . ." Bradford hesitated and glanced at the chart again to check the name. "What Roberto has is a congenital defect of the heart. Basically, he was born with a small hole—only a pinprick, probably—in the chamber of the heart that pumps blood back into the body. It's grown over time, which is why he's shown a gradually increasing weakness and loss of energy." He drew a deep breath, preparing the worst news. "The child is dying, Mrs. Avalon. It's only a question of time. And surgery is the only way to reverse that process."
He watched the woman's lips begin to tremble and glanced at the corner of his desk to make sure the fresh box of tissues was in place. He hated crying in his office. It was disruptive, and he was never certain how to deal with it. He struggled to look as reassuring as possible, then hurried on. "Now, this is far from hopeless. It's 1975, and open-heart surgery is quite advanced and quite effective. The heart is no longer the mystery it once was. We've even been doing transplant surgery for the past eight years, and that's far more complicated than the procedure your son would need."
"But he's only five," Maria whispered. Her jaw trembled, and her eyes were suddenly awash with tears. She seemed to struggle with it, then fight back the emotion.
Bradford twisted in his chair, discomfited by the threat of further tears. "Children handle this surgery far better than older patients. I've performed dozens of these procedures, some on patients even younger than your son. They all survived, and every one is doing quite well." He paused as if weighing his next words. "But it is important not to wait any longer than necessary. Your son's condition is deteriorating, so it would be best to move ahead quickly."