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By Kathleen Nance
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Kathleen Nance
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFull moon, black ice, and New Year's Eve. Triple whammy night in the U-Mich ER.
Grace Armatrading had barely stepped out of Trauma One-another champagne-and-dancing-induced cardiac arrest successfully revived-before she was waylaid by one of the nurses.
"Dr. Armatrading, more incoming. MVA on I-94. SUV versus compact, and the SUV won."
"Doesn't it always?" Grace cracked the stiff muscles in her back, her scrubs soaked with sweat. God, she was fagged. But now, her vacation beckoned. "I'm supposed to be off duty, Radar."
The nurse-nobody bothered with her given name of Monica-grimaced. "You know our staffing tonight."
One nurse and one intern had called in sick and with the ice, one resident was still creeping her way in.
Dr. Obote, the attending in charge, joined them. "Stats?" "Four coming here. Two critical. Crush injury pinned beneath, one thrown with possible internal, two bruised and cut. All of them skunk drunk, but at least two were drunks with a seat belt on."
"Smart enough to wear a seat belt, but not smart enough for a designated driver? Where's the rationale in that?"
"Ten years in ER and he still expects rationality?" Grace teased the attending.
"Hope, not expect. Rooms?"
The soundof retching and the aroma of vomit added dissonant notes to their conversation. Grace nodded in the direction she'd just come from. "I finished in Trauma One and the OD is stable. Psych has a bed open."
"Get him out and put the low levels there."
"Trauma Two is open." Tai Nguyen, the other resident, joined them.
Ambulance sirens wailed in the background. Grace tilted her head. "Sounds like another ambulance coming down Geddes, maybe five minutes away."
"You're spooky," Nguyen complained. "No one hears that good."
She lifted one shoulder. "Want to place a wager?"
He snorted. "I've lost too many."
Still, they all knew what the too-familiar sound meant. The ambulance, coming from the wrong direction to be from the car crash, was bringing another crisis to the overwhelmed ER.
Dr. Obote ran a hand along his cropped hair. "Any word on what we're getting?"
Radar called out the triage desk report. "GSW. Female. Twenty-five. Pregnant and gut shot. Medics say it's touchy for both Mom and fetus."
"I'll take that," Nguyen said immediately.
"No," Dr. Obote countered. "Dr. Armatrading takes the GSW. Trauma One. Dr. Nguyen, take the worst of the crash into Two. Interns can stabilize the other. Give the first years the cuts and bruises."
Nguyen's lips tightened in anger. "Dr. Armatrading's shift ended five hours ago, and Dr. Pavel called that she's ten minutes out."
"I'll do it. Last case," she answered. Ten minutes and the GSW could be dead.
"Go," snapped Dr. Obote.
Grace didn't hesitate or let Nguyen's obvious annoyance stop her. Nguyen would make her pay later, but she'd weather his jabs if it meant her patients survived. Racing back to Trauma One with Radar, she issued orders. "Notify OB, and we'll need the fetal monitor."
"Got it," Radar answered, then muttered under her breath, "Thanks for covering this."
Grace only nodded. Nguyen had a year's seniority in the residency program. He should have gotten the more complicated case; his orders shouldn't have been publicly countered. All givens until two lives were at stake. Grace had no false modesty. She knew her reputation, and it was well earned with blood, sweat, and lives. Nguyen was a superb trauma doc; you didn't get to his position without excellence, and if she were in his shoes, she'd be pissed as hell.
But all ERs had unwritten rules and unspoken superstitions. In this one it followed: If anyone could save both mother and baby, Grace Armatrading could.
In Trauma One she gowned up, shoving her thick ponytail into the paper cap, replacing her booties, slipping her arms into the cuffed sleeves of the paper gown. If Nguyen, or anyone, ever found out what her edge was, though, her residency would be hell, her credibility shot. Maybe even her position lost.
Abruptly she stopped, gripping the sink as fatigue crashed onto her, and her hands suddenly shook.
Not again! Those odd, frightening incidents ...
She brushed off the thoughts, refused to dwell on aberrations. A glance at the clock confirmed the cause of her shakes. Seventeen hours of nonstop crises, already five hours into her much-needed vacation, and when had she last eaten?
Hypoglycemia and dehydration helped no one. She reached into the pocket of her scrubs for a protein bar, lowered her mask, and then chowed down the bar in two bites. At the scrub sink, she cupped her hands for a drink.
Better. Another breath drew up reserves of endurance. One mother, one baby, then she was out.
The doors flew open, and orderlies rolled in the gurney.
A chill skittered down Grace's spine, a scattershot of warning as she caught sight of the crowded, purposeful chaos of the ER. Someone was studying her like a butterfly on a pin.
The doors closed, but she couldn't shake the sensation of intense scrutiny.
"Patient's bleeding into her gut, Doc. Fetal sac's intact." The EMT's report broke through the strange sensation.
Snapping on vinyl gloves, Grace scanned the patient, assessing the damage as she listened to the report. Worry knotted in her chest. Not good, not good for either one. She pulled her stethoscope off her neck, then listened. Two heartbeats, but both were too rapid and irregular.
The woman's face was twisted with pain in the agonizing aftermath of a bullet tearing flesh. Endorphin kick was gone, and now that shock was setting in, the patient was losing the survival battle. Grace laid her hands on the woman's belly, establishing two points of contact, and as she felt the stirring of power in her fingers, the patient grabbed her arm in silent supplication, unable to speak for the tubes. Save my baby, pleaded the gesture.
"We'll do everything we can." Grace made the only promise she could, as she eased the pain and sent the patient into oblivion. Her fingers burned with her power, the edge that might mean the difference between life and death.
Grace gave another brief glance at the wall clock-another year of stress and insomnia bit the bucket. "Three, two, one. Happy New Year. Cheers all." The team exchanged a chorus of Happy New Year while they attended to the unconscious patient on the table. The pharmacist, exchanging a limp, empty IV Lactated Ringers bag for a fresh liter, hummed "Auld Lang Syne."
"Let's make sure these two live to see the New Year." Grace clamped the first vessel. Suddenly, a sharp pain lanced behind the bridge of her nose, distorting her vision until the room looked like an Edvard Munch painting.
Sight vanished beneath spasms exploding down every nerve and muscle from her head to her toes. The sensation halted in a moment of exquisite pain, then receded in a rush.
Grace blinked and found herself staring down at her gloved hands. Blood was everywhere-her gloves, her gown, a fleck on the protective goggles. Scarlet smears of accusation. Her hands were empty of everything except vinyl and blood. No clamp, no sutures.
Where was the patient? The baby?
Clenching and unclenching her cramped fists, she raised her head, her neck painfully stiff, and caught a glance at the wall clock. Oh blessed Virgin, thirty minutes gone in the space of a blink.
While she'd worked on two patients.
Nausea soured her throat. Damn her arrogance. She should have gotten help. But she'd rationalized that the previous blackouts were isolated, unlucky alignments of fatigue and overwork. They'd lasted mere seconds, and the patients had made remarkable recoveries.
A telltale squeak, the sudden buzz of voices, oriented her-the gurney was exiting. As it vanished, she couldn't see if the sheet was pulled up. She glanced around the room, at the ordinary tasks of cleaning up. Nobody met her eyes.
How did you ask? Did I just kill my patients?
Radar pulled off her protective gear. "Are you okay, Dr. Armatrading?"
No. "Just stiff."
"Ready for your vacation?"
"Definitely." Slowly, feeling more ancient than her thirty-one years, she started to peel off her telltale gloves.
Radar nodded to the door. "After that, you'd better get out while the getting's good."
"Bringing those patients back."
"Back?" She sounded like a parrot.
"To the living. When the baby flatlined, I thought we'd lost both fetus and Mom. But, you ..." Radar bit her lip. "You just kept muttering, 'There's no pain; you won't die.' Your hands moved at a blur, and you were uncanny about predicting the next bleeder, what needed to be fixed. How do you do that?"
"Good reflexes. Instinct."
Radar shook her head, as though not accepting the brief answer, but she said only, "Well, whatever you do, keep on. Those two didn't have a prayer when they were wheeled in here. They're still critical, but at least you gave them a prayer of hope."
No, she couldn't keep doing what she was doing. She stared through the closing doors at the turmoil beyond, her shoulder blades loosening.
Once was a freak occurrence. Twice was coincidence. Three? Her fugue state was a threat to herself and her patients.
The woman, some said, had escaped the first witch trials. Others claimed the ancient one had consorted with the sorcerers of Alexander, Darius, and Ptolemy. This small town, however, perched on the shores of Lake Superior, was bedrock practical and most of the townspeople dismissed the notions with a skeptical snort and muttered: Doddering hermit.
Adam Zolton favored none of the theories. One learned more with an open mind. Any tale was suspect until verified, and locating the gold nugget of fact took digging through a bushel of muck. Tonight, likely, he'd end up with only grimy shoes.
But he'd had to come-the irresistible habit of his private insanity. The e-mail had mentioned mages.
Most of his fool's errands weren't so miserable, though. Hunching his shoulders against the skin-biting cold, he reluctantly pulled one bare hand from his jacket pocket to knock at the log cabin door. From his research, he knew the wood was painted blue, but who could bloody tell in this dark?
Wind kidnapped the sound of his knock and flung it to the featureless sky. Adam rapped again, frowning at the dark cabin. He was expected; Madame Grimaldi had set the time. He'd given up his New Year's Eve; she'd bloody well better answer.
Maybe someone else had gotten here first?
Or maybe he was manufacturing lunatic conspiracies. Maybe it was time to say enough. Time to stop chasing a nightmare.
A gust found a path through the boles of the pines and swirled around him like a dervish on speed, sucking out heat and moisture. Shivers ran through Adam's bones, as he knocked a third time. Christ, but he hated the cold. His blood had thinned from the years in New Orleans.
The wind attacked again, penetrating his coat, accompanied by an unnatural howl as piercing as a dragon's call. Adam spun toward the woods, but saw nothing within the black trees. He stilled, listening to the creak of wood. The noise had vanished. Still, he pulled a small digital camera from his inside pocket and recorded the scene. The sudden drops of sweat froze to his forehead as the wretched cold reclaimed him.
One more attempt, then he was through. After stowing the camera, he lifted his hand for another knock, more forceful this time, when a voice from inside interrupted him.
"Who are you?"
"Adam Zolton from New Orleans New Eyes." He buried his fist in a pocket. So, St. Jude, patron saint of impossible causes, teased him on.
The door screeched open. Faith Grimaldi stood in the entrance, barefoot and wearing a shapeless red caftan. Silk, he noted absently; the mage enjoyed her comforts. Her pewter-shaded hair was a trimmed cloud, and her face more wrinkled than the last known photo of her, taken twenty years ago. Then, she'd already looked like a pug, and time had not been kind.
"You're supposed to be a woman." Her strong voice revealed nothing of age, only a hint of accent and accusation.
"Natalie's on another assignment, and you said the matter was urgent. We left messages on your voice and e-mail." He lifted his brows, adding challenge to his smile and shifting the subject away from why he'd taken Natalie's place in this forsaken icebox. "Are you prejudiced against a man simply because of the appendages?"
He took a chance, quoting back her own words with the substitution of man for woman. Despite the precious little he knew about her, one common theme hinted at her disdain for stereotypes.
Faith's eyes narrowed. "You're a cheeky one."
"So I've been told."
"And worse, I reckon. Does your heart match your angel face? Or the blackness of your hair and eyes?"
"Does it matter, so long as NONE covers your story?"
"More than you know." Her gaze fixed on him, and Adam felt a prick of pain in his chest, as though he'd been touched by a surgical laser. Bugger it, she actually had some power! Unlike most of his leads, this might not be a fizzle.
As long as she talked, and she wouldn't talk if she didn't trust him.
Let her search. Keeping his gaze latched to hers, he concentrated on who he was today: a curious chronicler of the bizarre, editor and owner of NONE, the alternative paper some called tabloid and others called bible.
With luck, that was all Faith would uncover.
A gust of cold wind swirled around them, carrying flakes of snow. Adam hunched deeper into his coat. Faith didn't seem to notice. Even her bare feet and coral-painted toes stayed pink.
The probe in his chest stabbed deep and unexpected. He pressed back a gasp of pain. "Trying to do me in, love?" he murmured.
"You're confusing," she admitted with a frown. "Murky. No, not murky, the parts I see are clear. It's the parts I can't see that worry me."
"No one should be laid bare to a stranger."
"Says the newsman?"
He laughed, genuinely amused. "Except my targets, of course. Am I to be allowed in? It's beastly cold out here."
He couldn't tell what her answer was going to be, a fact that disturbed him for its rarity, when suddenly the strange howl recurred. Fear spasmed the wrinkles in Faith's face, and he spun toward an unseen threat. A finger of red-Fire? Plasma? Aliens?-flared out, then vanished. He'd taken one stride forward, when Faith grabbed his wrist. With unexpected strength, she yanked him backward. "Get in!"
Adam took the invitation. He crossed the threshold, noting the tingle of some unseen barrier. Faith, apparently, had more protection than he'd realized. Curiosity, and, hell, admit it, hope, rose another notch.
As soon as his arse was inside, she slammed shut the door and threw an old-fashioned lock and a shiny new deadbolt. She then chanted under her breath, as her hand pressed against a carving of a rampant lion. When she spun to face him, her face contorted with fear. "Were you followed here?"
"I left the motel without being seen."
"But on the route here? Did you take precautions?"
"Your instructions made no warning, and your address is on the Internet-"
"My address, not my location, you fool. Do you think I'd make it so easy to be found? Were you followed?"
"I didn't see any lights after I left the highway." He thought back. "No, I wasn't followed."
"Perhaps we have time, then." She gave a small sigh, revealing the vulnerability of age.
"What's going on, ma'am?"
"Call me Faith."
"Follow me, Adam." She led the way deeper into her cabin.
Adam studied his surroundings. The décor intrigued him. He'd anticipated backwoods cabin-hewn wood and handmade quilts-or mystical new age, but there was nary a patchwork, crystal, copper pot, or vial of fragrant oil. Instead, the room evoked the tropics, with soft fabrics patterned in bright colors and a profusion of plants.
It was also beastly hot and humid. Adam flicked away a bead of sweat, and then stiffened as a flash of black caught the corner of his eye. Involuntarily, his hand shifted to his waist, where a weapon was normally sheathed. Bother, he'd left both gun and knife in the car. He hadn't expected any trouble from a woman who'd asked for a visit, and he'd thought the weapons might disturb her.
Faith gave a high-pitched chuckle. "That's not the danger, at least not to me. My pet smells you. Galanthis, meet our guest." When the animal, whatever it was, refused to show, she shrugged. "She picks her times. Can't cage her, though. Leave her free, and she will always come back. Come, I'll show you why I asked you here."
Excerpted from Dragon Unmasked by Kathleen Nance Copyright © 2010 by Kathleen Nance. Excerpted by permission.
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