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She didn't have time for this.
Doctorshe adored the sound of thatVeronika Pulaski, "Nika" to her family and friends, was one of those people who'd been born making lists. Tons of lists. Different lists that were applicable to nearly every aspect of her incredibly fast-paced life. Long lists that helped keep her on track.
Nowhere, not even remotely, on today's extra long list was the entry: get stuck in the hospital elevator this morning.
Yet here she was.
And getting more frustrated by the minute.
There hadn't been anyone riding up with her when the elevator carwhich was definitely in need of renovationshad come to an abrupt, teeth-jarring halt in between floors. Consequently, there was no one to talk to, no one to help take her mind off the predicament, at least for a few minutes. There wasn't even annoyingly distracting piped-in music that her cousins had told her there once had been.
Nothing but the ticking of the clock in her head as it waved goodbye to the minutes that were tumbling away one by one. Minutes that she was supposed to be spending in the Geriatrics Unit.
This was actually supposed to be her day off. Her first day off in a little more than two incredibly busy, exhausting weeks. But she had opted to come in. No good deed went unpunished, she thought as she stood there, willing the elevator back to life. It remained frozen in place.
So much for a career in telekinesis.
The hospital's Pediatric and Geriatric Units were desperately short staffed. They were that way not because the missing staff members were sick, but because they could potentially be sick.
The problem was a new strain of flu that was currently making the rounds, a particularly resilient strain that had already taken quite a toll on the population since its appearance on the scene nearly a month ago, cutting down far more people than was usual in these cases. The vaccine that had been created to prevent it had only met with marginal success. And, as usual, the very young and the very old were particularly susceptible to the illness.
The fear was that any of the staff who hadn't contracted the flu yet might be on the verge of coming down with it, or could be, at the very least, unwitting carriers. As a result, only those staff members who had already had the fludubbed the Doomsday Flu by some supremely insensitive, brain-dead media reporter because of the number of deaths associated with it in a short period of timewere allowed to work in either Pediatrics or Geriatrics.
As luck would have it, she was one of them.
Nika had come down with a rip-roaring case of the flu before any statistics had even been available about the disease. When it had suddenly caused her knees to buckle and her head to spin, sending her falling into her bed, Nika had been miserable, but she really hadn't thought anything about it. This, to her, was all part of being a doctor who dealt with an entire range of patients every day.
As it turned out, she'd contracted it from one of the patients in the Geriatric Unit. That patient had passed away a little more than twenty-four hours after being admitted into Patience Memorial. But Nika, incredibly healthy and in better than ordinary physical condition, was back on her feet five days after she became ill and back at work in seven.
Her return had almost been hailed with rose petals scattered in her path. Doctor Jorgensen, the head of the Geriatrics Unit, was that happy and that relieved to see her.
"You have no idea how shorthanded we are," the tall, gaunt specialist told her.
Nika might not have had an inkling then, but she quickly became educated by the end of the first grueling day. The unit was extremely short staffed across the board, and that meant doctors, nurses and even orderlies were in limited supply. Those who were there were stretched almost beyond their endurance level.
Trial by fire, Nika had thought at the time. And that was fine with her. She didn't mind working hard. Practicing medicinehelping patients, especially senior patientswas what it was all about to her.
What she minded terribly was being stuck in an elevator when she had patients waiting for her. She absolutely hated wasting time and that was what she was being forced to do.
She'd reported an emergency on the dedicated line and pressed the alarm the second it became clear that the elevator wasn't experiencing a momentary hiccup or temporary glitch in its system but a paralyzing malfunction. One that, left unchecked, could go on indefinitely.
She and her mounting claustrophobia didn't have "indefinitely."
Besides, the shrilled alarm was really beginning to get on her nerves. How long could a person go on listening to that kind of loud noise and not go deafor slightly crazy? She had no desire to be a test case.
Nika gave it all of almost five minutes and then, with a frustrated, edgy sigh, she picked up the dedicated line and waited for someone to come on the other end of the phone again.
When she heard the line being picked up, she didn't even wait for them to say anything. Instead, she jumped right in.
"Hello, this is Dr. Veronika Pulaski again. How much longer is it going to be before someone fixes the elevator?" she asked.
"Three minutes less than when you asked the last time," the weary voice on the other end of the call told her. A little more sympathy was evident as the man went on. "Look, I understand your frustration, but the maintenance guy's out sick with the flu"
Nika rolled her eyes. Someone else down with the flu. She was really beginning to hate that word. "And there's no one else around to fix this? The hospital's got eight elevatorsyou can't tell me that there's only one maintenance guy."
She heard another huge sigh. "Yes, I can, Doctor. Cutbacks," the man explained before she could challenge him on the information. "We're trying to get someone from the elevator company to come out but it might be a while."
Terrific. "Define 'a while,'" Nika requested through clenched teeth.
"Not quick," was all the weary voice on the other end of the line said.
Superterrific. "Could you at least shut down the alarm?" Nika asked. "I'm going deaf down here."
"That," the man told her, brightening a little, "I can do." Even as he said it, the alarm suddenly stopped blaring. The sound, though, continued to echo in Nika's head like a phantom bell ringer who had come to life and now refused to die.
"Thank you!" Realizing that she was still shouting to be heard over an alarm that was no longer actually sounding, Nika lowered her voice and repeated, "Thank you.
"Yeah, don't mention it. I'll ring you when the guy gets here," the man promised.
"Please," Nika underscored.
But she was talking to a dead line. Annoyed, frustrated, she replaced the receiver in the small, silver space where it ordinarily resided. She left the little cubbyhole door open.
Because there was nothing else she could do, Nika leaned against the elevator wall and slid down onto the floor, resigned to wait for the appearance of the elusive elevator repair man.
Or Armageddon, whichever came first.
"You're going to be okay, G," Detective Cole Baker told the woman who was sitting up in the hospital bed, her small hand holding on to his.
Or maybe he was holding on to hers. At this point, he really couldn't have said with any certainty just who was reassuring whom. What he did know was that being here, in the hospital, with his eighty-four-year-old grandmother made him incredibly and uncomfortably restless.
Cole was accustomed to being around the woman in a completely different setting. One that was filled with energy and action. He was used to seeing his almost athletically trim grandmother bustling about her two-story home, the home she'd taken him into when one tragedy after another had left him homeless, wounded and orphaned.
Ericka Baker had been sixty-seven at the time, a feisty, vital widow preparing to move into a condo with her then-boyfriend, Howie. After a lifetime of hard work, she'd been planning on enjoying herself for a change.
However, the second she'd heard what had happened to him, his grandmother terminated the sale of her house and opened her home and her arms to Cole. Never once in all the seventeen years that followed had she made him feel that he was the reason her boyfriend had left, or that he was a burden.
She'd made him feel, instead, like a prize she'd been awarded in the second half of her life. The second half of her life because Ericka Baker fully expected to live way past a hundred. She'd told him that more than once.
To that end, his grandmother religiously went to yoga classes and watched everything that went into her mouth, referring to it as "fuel" rather than "food."
Despite her own eating habits, she'd periodically made him cookies. Other times she had the occasional pizza delivered for his enjoyment. She'd encouraged him to be his own person, find his own path.
Throughout what was left of his childhood and then adolescence, Ericka Baker had been an outstanding, dynamic creaturethe one constant in his life. The one person he knew he could always come to with anything if he needed to.
She'd wanted him to become a lawyer, like his grandfather had been. But when he joined the police force, there'd been no one prouder or more supportive than his grandmother. He had the feeling, deep down, that his grandmother would have been just as supportive of him if he'd decided to be a beekeeper or a musician. She was supportive of him, the person, not some ongoing plan. For that very reason, he'd allowed himself to love her even while he successfully shut out the rest of the world.
Oh, he functioned and interacted and was the best possible policeman and then police detective that he could be. But he let no one into his inner sanctum. No one had access past the barriers he'd erected long ago. He didn't want to care about anyone, except for his grandmother.
Cole had lost his father to a roadside bomb in a foreign country, his only brother to a car-versus-bicycle hit-and-run accident, and his mother to a bullet she'd put in her own headafter shooting one at him. Her attempt at a murder/suicide had just missed its mark, but not the lesson that came with it.
All that, especially the last, had forever changed him.
When Cole grew older, he began to understand that his mother's grief was just too great for her to handle and that she'd shot at him because she hadn't wanted him to be left behind to face the world on his own.
But the bullet she'd fired at him had bypassed all his vital organs and he had lived, even as she had died. Lived, once he had come out of his coma, with an incredible emptiness and a lack of desire to continue living in this cruel existence that had deprived him of everyone he loved.
That was when he discovered that his grandmotherhis father's motherhad entered his life. She'd flown in from New York to be by his bedside, which was where she'd remained, keeping vigil, until he came out of his coma, both the literal one and then the self-imposed, emotional one that followed.
She'd embraced him, wept over him and then informed him that they would both move on. She made sure that he knew that there was no other option left to him.
In a strange sort of way, his grandmother gave him life. Again. And while he kept the rest of the world at arm's length, he would have literally given up that life that she'd restored for him years ago in an instant for her without being asked.
It pained Cole to see his grandmother like this. To see her looking so fragile, so pale and all but fading against the white sheets. Lying there, Ericka Baker seemed somehow smaller, even though she wasn't exactly a large woman by any standard of measurement other than an emotional one.
But G, as she'd instructed him to call hershe hated being referred to as Grandmother, saying it made her feel oldhad, in the last few years, developed a heart condition: atrial fibrillation. He'd found out about it quite by accident. In the neighborhood, he'd stopped by for a surprise visit and found her medication on the kitchen counter. She'd forgotten to put it away. Added to that, there were times when she just seemed to drift away, sometimes even right in the middle of a conversation with him.
It wasn't because she was preoccupied, the way he'd first hoped. She just seemed to be mentally "away." After conferring with her primary care physician he finally had to admit to himself she was developing Alzheimer's. Alzheimer's, that dreaded disease that ultimately robbed a person of their identity, while the family lost a loved one years before death put in the ultimate claim for them.
But this morning, thank God, the woman's blue eyes weren't vacant, they were vividly alive, taking in everything. His grandmother was here, with him, and not overly happy about the location she found herself in. Hospitals, she'd always maintained, were for sick people and she never thought of herself as falling into that category.
"Of course I'm going to be all right, Coleman," she declared firmly. She knew she had no choiceshe needed to have this procedure done to finally put an end to those heart palpitations that she'd been putting up with, the ones that had become all but disabling. "We just need to get this damn thing over with," she added. "Where's that doctor they said was coming? The one they promised was going to be here" she paused to look at the clock on the wall, its numbers purposely oversized to accommodate the patients on this part of the floor "ten minutes ago?"
It was getting late and he needed to get going. But not before he had a few words with the doctor who, for the most part, would be taking care of his grandmother. G was far too precious a human being for him to leave her welfare in the hands of an unknown stranger.