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Peter Kelsey awoke wondering. Where am I? He vaguely remembered hearing Miles instruct Armund to move him down to the lab. That was Thursday? The day he took a turn for the worse. What day is it today? As his surroundings came into focus, he saw racks of medical equipment: monitors with tiny red and green lights stacked beyond the shadows with lights that winked in the dark like miniature pairs of monsters' eyes.
Peter shifted his gaze up the granite blocks of the wall as a cricket emerged from hiding. It crept across the stones, paused and began to chirp. The sound echoed throughout the confines of the cool cellar. When Peter closed his eyes, an image of a corpse clawing at a windowpane popped into his mind.
A tangle of colored wires cascaded from the electrodes implanted in his shaved head while clear plastic tubes went to and from his body in limp coils. One siphoned off a trickle of body waste while another pumped paste like nourishment back into him.
The musty odor of the cellar was overwhelmed by the stench of sickness, which hung in the air like an infectious fog. Peter's sheets, clean only hours before, were sticky again with puss, puss that oozed from venous ulcers covering his back and legs. Doctor Koufax had tried everything in his medicinal arsenal to combat them but nothing short of a skin graft would work and that would require hospitalization. Miles had vetoed his suggestion. "Peter came here to die." He said. "Let's not forget that!"
So, Dr. Koufax had jabbed a needle the size of a four-penny nail into the left External Iliac Artery of Peter's leg because the veins in his arms had shriveled up like a dead junkie's. He connected a tube to the needle and set up a morphine pump, hoping to give Peter some control over his suffering. At first it worked, mashing the red button allowed Peter to self-administer minuscule doses of morphine but yesterday he became too weak to even press the button. To ease his agony Dr. Koufax put him on oral doses administered every four hours.
Peter's frail body needed fluids. He was rapidly slipping into an advanced state of dehydration but he was not thirsty. One by one, his organs were shutting down. As his grandfather used to say, 'death was tugging at his ear.'
Seventeen color-coded wires linked Peter's body and soul to a bundle of fiber optic cables, which snaked over to a thirty-five million dollar Cray super computer that dominated the center of the lab. A bronze toned monolith that hummed incessantly.
Last night Peter fell asleep listening to its endless drone. He dreamt he was lying on a cold concrete slab, surrounded by smiling morticians, decked out in red and white pin-striped suits: a Barbershop Quartet. But in his nightmare the men never sang, they just hummed gleefully while performing their grisly chore. When he realized the crooked stripes on their suits were streaks of his own blood, he awoke screaming.
Peter knew his time was short, the virus had relentlessly gnawed at him, reducing his body to a sallow, wheezing sack of bones that rattled when he coughed. There was no place left for him to go and no one he knew who cared. That was the reason he agreed to become Dr. Miles VanBurin's snap-link between this world and the next.
Their lives had converged one day at a Denver Free Clinic. The Clinic provided basic medical care, for destitute drug abusers, prostitutes and uninsured Aids patients.
On that stark, winter afternoon, Peter stumbled into Miles' dingy waiting room, where the reek of antiseptic fought to overpower the stench of unwashed bodies. It was a dismal place where glass eyed patients fidgeted in various stages of withdrawal and distress. That dreadful afternoon remained fresh in his mind. He remembered shivering in the doorway until someone had hissed, "Shut the fucking door man!"
When he came in. There was no place to sit but at least it was warm inside, hot in fact. The room was heated by a smelly kerosene heater enclosed in a chicken wire cage, the fumes made his cough worse, causing him to hack up bloody chunks of phlegm.
For two long hours he had leaned against that wall telling himself: I'm not like them. I don't do drugs. He tried to avoid the suspicious glares of the few who cared enough to look in his direction as a severe bout of bronchia pneumonia squeezed the life out of him. Eventually a nurse, alarmed by his persistent coughing and suspecting tuberculosis, made him don a mask and reluctantly bumped him to the top of the waiting list.
Miles VanBurin was the volunteer physician on duty that day, after testing Peter for TB and discovering he did not have it, Miles prescribed a codeine based cough suppressant and gave Peter a shot of amantadine.
A brief examination confirmed Miles' assumption: Peter was in the final stages of a rare strain of Aids, a strain currently reeking havoc in China, Vietnam and Thailand.
When Miles found out that Peter had been homeless for weeks, he smiled and told him he might have a proposition for him, one that would solve his problems. Miles asked Peter to meet him later that day.
Hungry and desperate he agreed to meet Miles at Fat Sally's Diner at six.
Peter had left the clinic buoyed by hope. An icy wind was howling out of the northwest that day, sweeping granulated snow from deserted streets and whisking it like ground glass against the exposed skin of his face and hands. Week old gray snow piled up against abandoned cars, they looked like dead whales. Peering through bloodshot eyes and blinking back tears, Peter squinted and tried to see where he was going. He sneezed; the snot froze to the stubble on his sunken face before he could wipe it away. Tucking his head down into the collar of his threadbare coat, Peter leaned into the wind and plodded across town in absolute misery. His worn out sneakers kept filling with snow, hobbling him but he pressed on, driven by dreams of a hot meal.
He arrived at Fat Sally's a few minutes before six. Then he'd stood outside waiting, shifting from frozen foot, to frozen foot, patting his bare hands against his chest, trying to generate enough heat to keep from freezing. He had not eaten a hot meal in days. The cold was sapping what little strength he had left. Every time the red and white door to Fat Sally's swung open the aroma of greasy burgers sizzling inside caused his stomach to rumble.
Miles arrived at five-past seven in a black Range Rover. He parked in a loading zone and breezed across the street grinning, dressed in a tailored wool suit and snappy silk tie, toast warm in his camel overcoat, cashmere scarf flapping in the wind. Miles spotted Peter huddled against the side of the building trying to shelter himself from the relentless gusts of wind. Miles waved, smiled and mimed a shiver.
Silently Peter followed him inside, rubbing clumps of frozen mucus from his upper lip with the back of his hand.
Offering no explanation for being late, Miles selected a booth in the back of the diner and slid in. Peter collapsed across from him shivering.
A dumpy, waitress walked over with two grimy menus tucked under her flabby arm. She gave the oddly matched pair a quizzical look, then poured each a glass of ice water from a yellow plastic pitcher and left.
Peter's mouth was caulk dry, he guzzled the water as if he'd just staggered in from the scorching sands of the Mojave. But the water made him start to cough. He struggled with the childproof cap of his medicine bottle.
Miles watched, his face a blank slate as Peter managed the cap and took two swigs, savoring the tart, cherry flavor of the syrup and the near instant relief it brought to his cough.
The waitress was back, her nametag declared her to be Marge. She pulled an order pad out from her pink stitched pocket and plucked a Bic pen from behind her ear. "You boys ready to order?"
Miles found the diner and Peter's appearance unappetizing so he took the liberty of ordering for them both. "Yes, I'll just have a cup of tea, Earl Grey. Would you like one Peter? My treat, might do that cough some good."
Obvious disappointment washed over Peter's face. "Yes, thank you," he whispered. He had expected a meal. Didn't Dr. VanBurin invite him here for dinner?
Marge drummed her pen against the pad. "You don't want nothing else?" Her red lips melted into a concerned frown. She pointed her pen at Peter, "You look starved."
Curtly, Miles replied for him, "No, just two teas Miss, Earl Grey. That's all." He dismissed her with a flick of his wrist.
Peter glanced up at Marge and shrugged; he looked about to cry. She snatched up their menus and left without further comment.
Growing impatient, Miles decided to skip the small talk. "Look Mr. Kelsey . . . Peter I've been working on an unbelievable project involving research that could change your future." Leaning as close as he dared, Miles whispered his eyes filled with glee, "Research that will stun the scientific community maybe even topple theological institutions world wide!"
Confused, Peter wondered, is Dr. VanBurin working on a new treatment for Aids? Or was it something else? Something bigger? "Have you found a cure?"
Miles chuckled. "A cure? Sorry my friend, no cure." Then Miles had launched into a glossy description of his research, skipping the grislier details.
Marge brought their tea without comment, a few minutes later she reappeared with a Fat Sally's platter. She plopped it and a large Coke down in front of Peter. "Some guy ordered this . . . changed his mind. You want it? It's on the house." She smiled. "Free."
Peter grinned, his eyes brimming with tears. "Yes, thank you very much. This is so kind of you."
"Well, you're welcome honey." She shot Miles an indignant glare, huffed and strutted away like a ruffled hen.
Peter began wolfing down the food, more interested in it, than Miles or his silly project.
Perturbed by the sudden change of focus, Miles grabbed Peter's wrist. Peter stiffened like a ravenous dog. Miles drew back his hand counting fingers. "Look Peter, if you agree to be the Test Subject for my project, you can spend the rest of your life in comfort, living rent free, safe and warm inside my magnificent mountain home. And I'll feed you anything you want."
Peter looked up unconvinced and went back to his burger.
Miles continued, "I'll take care of all your medical needs too. Free."
Peter looked up.
Sensing the reluctance of his prospect beginning to thaw, Miles eased off. "Of course, nothing can or will be done to prolong your life. After all I'm only a Doctor, not a God." He chuckled. "I'll just try and make your last few wee. . . .months, as pleasant as possible." Miles leaned back against the red vinyl of the booth grinning like a used car salesman who knew he had hooked a guy with solid credit on an overpriced lemon. "So, what do you say? I need a decision today. I have two other patients interested. I can only accept one."
Peter looked up at Miles, swallowed the last bite of his burger and rubbed his mouth with a wadded paper napkin. Is this guy for real? He was out of options. At the moment he was camping in a refrigerator box behind a burned out building, blocks from the nearest public bathroom and miles from the nearest soup kitchen: his only current source for food. Staring blankly at his empty plate, Peter wondered if the snip of parsley was edible. He looked up at Miles and for a second saw his own reflection drowning in the black pools of Miles' pupils. "How about pain, can you control my pain?"
Miles sipped his tea. "That should be no problem."
And so Peter had agreed. Now here he was, waiting to die, his skull studded with electrodes, his hair gone, replaced by a sparse tangle of colored wires. Although he had never said anything, Peter knew what Miles thought: he wished he would just give up. Let go, for Christ's sake, you're holding up the project. What are you clinging to life for?
Who knows, maybe it was better on the other side. At this point even oblivion would be a welcome improvement.
Peter soon discovered that Miles was a brilliant but egotistical physician who cared more about his research, then his patients. He had an enormous family fortune at his disposal and he used it to indulge his every whim, both scientific and sexual.
It was rumored that Miles would sit for hours, waiting for patients to die. Once he was banished from Denver General Hospital for screaming at a room full of grieving relatives. He had demanded that they leave the room of their dead relative. Miles needed to take his readings before the body grew cold. It had taken a large donation from his trust fund to get him back on staff.
Miles was convinced his latest computer program would prove successful. He had hired a new Associate to help: Kim Harper, a Professor of Behavioral Science from the University of Colorado and a renowned expert on near-death experiences.
Later Miles drafted the services of a reluctant neurologist, Dr. Abraham Koufax. He had to snare Koufax by luring him into a bogus investment with Brecktal Laboratories. Brecktal was later caught concocting, then selling biological evidence used to shore up shaky court cases.
Miles' trap was sprung with a phone call. The lab was busted. Abe Koufax not only lost his borrowed investment but he was held liable for a portion of the lab's fines and legal fees. Pretending to sympathize with his dilemma, Miles volunteered to bail Abe out, paying close to a quarter of a million dollars to salvage his medical career.
Miles' offer was well timed. Abe was out of work and strapped for cash when Miles made his pitch but he had to promise to keep Abe's participation confidential. So Abe, like Peter had made a grave decision: he agreed to lend his expertise to Miles VanBurin's Death Connection Project.