About the Author
Sharon St. George's writing credits include three plays, several years writing advertising copy, a book on NASA's space food project, and feature stories too numerous to count. She holds dual degrees in English and Theatre Arts, and occasionally acts in, or directs, one of her local community theater productions. Sharon is a member of Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America, and she serves as program director for Writers Forum, a nonprofit organization for writers in northern California. For more information, go to sharonstgeorge.com.
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I wasn't surprised when rodeo cowboy Cody O'Brien vanished from Timbergate Medical Center the night before his testicle surgery, but I was surprised to hear of his death. I had known the O'Brien family since childhood, and though we'd lost touch over the years, I still felt sad for their loss.
Cleo Cominoli called me the morning after O'Brien's getaway to tell me he had been found unconscious ten miles north of town in a horse trailer parked along I-5. TMC's Life Support Unit had rushed him to the hospital, but his severe head wound proved fatal. He died in the emergency room. The incident was immediately assumed to be an accident, since horse-related injuries are common in our part of the state. Rural northern California has always been famous for its rodeos and horse shows.
"Meet me for lunch." Cleo said. "We need to talk."
I first met Cleo when I was hired as Health Sciences Librarian at Timbergate Medical Center. Cleo's position as Director of Medical Affairs gave her access to all the confidential information disclosed behind closed doors when medical staff committees dealt with patient care mistakes. She knew more about the doctors on the TMC medical staff than anyone, though some of that information trickled down to me.
In addition to managing the library, I was responsible for the medical staff's Continuing Medical Education requirements. Since Cleo's work dovetailed with mine, we'd become friends and confidants. Both our jobs required professional discretion, so we shared our information only with each other.
I assumed Cleo wanted to talk about the unfortunate runaway cowboy, and I was surprised she was free for lunch. She facilitated at least fifteen medical staff committee meetings every month. The doctors were always pressed for time and hungry, so their meetings were usually scheduled over breakfast or lunch.
"In your office?" I asked.
"No. Margie's Bean Pot. Noon."
Lunch at Margie's meant a conversation that we couldn't talk about at work. The little restaurant was across the street from the hospital, so it picked up a lot of business from TMC.
At noon I walked over to Margie's, enjoying the first hint of a cool mid-October breeze. Cleo had not arrived, so I helped myself from the self-serve bar, dipping out a bowl of Hawaiian Baked Beans. Fragrant aromas filled the cozy diner, and saliva pooled under my tongue. Owner Margie Sacchi believes beans are the key to longevity and claims she can serve a different bean special every day for an entire year.
"Hi, China," Margie hailed me with her usual greeting.
My name isn't China, it's Aimee Machado. I always explain that it's pronounced Ma-SHAW-doe to avoid the inevitable confusion with The Mikado. Margie calls me China because I'm half Chinese and she thinks that's cool. To hear her tell it, Asian women have it made. Beauty, brains, and exotic looks. When I remind her I'm also half Portuguese, she says that's even better and hums a few bars of "The Girl from Ipanema," a number she plays with vigor on her accordion.
There was no use in trying to explain that although the Brazilians speak Portuguese, my father's grandparents came from the Azores Islands, a Portuguese archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
I chose a small table against the back wall under a large framed photo of a younger Margie and handsome, white-maned Dick Contino shaking the bellows together fifteen years earlier at the Cotati California Accordion Festival. Mellow and romantic accordion music from the Parisian bistros of the twenties flowed through ceiling speakers, providing Margie's diners with Continental atmosphere.
Cleo, the happy Italian workaholic, admitted to forty, but her stunning body and winning way with men made her age irrelevant. Cleo had never married, but she'd been engaged often. Sig Modaresi, the latest in a long line of fiancÃ(c)s, was a wealthy dentist and loopy for Cleo. Their engagement had lasted five years, but smart money said he'd never get her to the altar. The medical staff jokesters had already saddled the poor guy with a nickname, and I had to admit it presented Cleo with a dilemma. If she did marry Sig, she'd have to retire or be known ever after as Mrs. Sigmoidoscopy, which is a diagnostic method of examining the colon.
I watched Cleo dip soup from the self-serve bar and scan the room for hospital employees who might overhear us. Finally she slid into the chair opposite me.
"Looks good." I nodded at the steaming bowl she placed on the table. "What is it?"
"The special. Meatball soup with kidney beans."
"Okay, enough small talk. What's up?"
"This is strictly off the record," she said. I'd never seen her so tense. Her shoulders were hunched up nearly to her ears.
"Of course. So tell me."
"It's big. At least I think so."
"What is it?"
"Sig's prostate is big?"
"No. Well, yes, but that's not the problem. I mean, it's a problem, but not the problem."
Cleo sucked in a deep breath and blew it out on her soup. "He's scheduled for prostate surgery."
"Oh, no. Not with — "
"Yes. Dr. Poole."
"How did that happen?"
"He didn't ask me. His family doctor referred him to Poole, so it was a done deal when Sig finally told me."
"Does Poole know Sig's your fiancé?"
"'Fraid so. He told her, so of course she'll blame me if he tries to back out. Besides, none of the other urologists on the TMC staff will take him on if he does," Cleo said. "Poole's so darned intimidating, I think they're all afraid of ticking her off."
"Then what are you going to do?
"I don't know yet, but we'll have to act before Sig's surgery date."
Cleo's eyes filled. "Please, Aimee. Siggy's loud and bald and fluffy, but I love him to pieces and we have a great sex life. You've got to help me. We can't let Dr. Poole turn him into a eunuch."
"You can't be serious. I agree that Poole is aloof and intimidating, but that doesn't mean she's going around castrating men just for the fun of it."
"Doesn't it?" Cleo scooped a meatball into her spoon, stared at it, then dropped it back into the deep crimson broth in her bowl. She looked a little green.
Cleo's reaction to Sig's impending surgery seemed unwarranted, but I had learned it was wise to take her seriously.
"Okay, one step at a time," I said. "When is Sig scheduled?"
"He's being admitted on Halloween night for surgery the next morning."
"That's what ... two and a half weeks from now?"
"Have you tried to talk him out of it?"
"Yes. But Poole's got him thinking it's a matter of life and death."
"Cancer, you mean? That's the thing. Poole's not saying, but Sig's convinced he's going to die if she doesn't operate."
Cleo's reaction was so extreme there had to be something she wasn't telling me. She facilitated every one of TMC's peer review committee meetings. All of their findings and corrective actions were kept in padlocked file cabinets in her office. She also kept confidences brought to her outside committee by nurses who observed suspicious behavior both on the patient floors and in the operating room.
"You know something, don't you? Something about Poole that you're not telling me."
Cleo glanced quickly around the room. "Nothing I can confirm, but when a patient leaves the hospital against medical advice the night before his surgery, it raises an enormous red flag. There was an incident several years ago at the last hospital where I worked. One of the surgeons was performing unnecessary surgeries, and eventually the OR nurses got suspicious. Word got out to the rest of the nursing staff, and one of the floor nurses started warning the surgeon's patients away. After a third patient checked out against medical advice the night before surgery, that nurse was exposed and fired."
"What about the surgeon? What happened to him?"
"Nothing. He's still there performing surgeries on other unsuspecting patients. That's why I turned in my resignation and move here, three states away."
"Are you saying you think someone warned Cody O'Brien about Dr. Poole?"
"Why else would he bolt at the last minute?"
"Then you should tell Sig to get a second opinion, even if he has to go out of town."
"If I can convince him to do that and he does decide to back out, I'm afraid he'll end up like Cody O'Brien."
"Cody O'Brien was killed by a horse. Sig's not a cowboy, he's a dentist."
Cleo sniffed and said softly, "How do we know Cody was killed by a horse?"
"What? You're the one who told me — "
"All I heard is that he was found unconscious in the trailer with his horse. There was a contusion on his forehead consistent with a kick from a horse's hoof."
"Sounds pretty straightforward. Is the sheriff's office investigating the incident?"
"No, and that's what bothers me. They won't investigate unless the coroner's report shows something suspicious. In the meantime, I thought you and I could do some checking — on the quiet. We can't go through hospital channels."
"What kind of checking?" I said.
"Checking up on Dr. Poole. You were hired because you're a forensic librarian. Use your skills."
"Technically, I'm not a forensic librarian. I'm a health sciences librarian, and part of my job is building a forensic component for the TMC library. That doesn't make me a detective."
"But you're familiar with all kinds of forensic resources. Some of that must have rubbed off. I'll bet you know more than you realize about how to investigate a murder."
"Cleo, you can't believe Dr. Poole is going around killing patients who change their minds about surgery?"
Before Cleo could reply, Margie bustled over to our table. "Hello, ladies. Just dropping off our flyer. Friday night's entertainment is Code Blues."
She was referring to a blues combo made up of musicians affiliated with Timbergate Medical Center. Chief of Urology Tobias Fausset played lead guitar and sang; Edna Roda, chief nursing officer, played bass; Hospital Administrator Jared Quinn played drums and harmonica; and a popular floor nurse named Laurie Popejoy played piano and sang vocals. Margie sometimes joined Code Blues on her accordion.
I glanced at the flyer and noticed Laurie Popejoy's name crossed out. I asked Margie what that was about.
"Rumor has it Laurie Popejoy can't be in the combo now that she's not employed by the hospital."
That was news to me. I shot a look at Cleo.
"I was getting to that," she said.
Margie continued her update. "I was told they already have a new gal who plays, sings, does it all. They're thanking their lucky stars they found her right under their noses."
"Who is she?" Cleo said.
"Dr. Fausset told me when he called this morning." Margie frowned. "Let's see ... I think her name is Peale, or something like that."
"Poole?" I said.
"That's it. Dr. Phyllis Poole."
As soon as Margie was out of earshot, Cleo grabbed my arm. "Can you believe that? Poole in Code Blues?"
"No, but let's get back to Laurie Popejoy. What's going on with her?"
"I was about to tell you that Laurie was Cody O'Brien's floor nurse last night. He checked himself out against medical advice at the end of her shift. She called in her resignation first thing this morning."
"And Code Blues has already replaced her? That was fast."
"No kidding. Tobias Fausset must have fast-tracked that since they have the gig here on Friday. Poole is Fausset's associate, but who knew she was a musician?"
"I wouldn't have guessed it." I frowned. "What does all of this have to do with Cody O'Brien's death? Are you thinking Laurie Popejoy said something that made O'Brien skip out on his surgery?"
"He skipped out and ended up dead. Laurie resigned immediately. The timing is too suspicious to dismiss as coincidence. I don't like it one bit, and I won't rest until I know whether Phyllis Poole's involved."
"Come on, Cleo, don't you think you're overreacting because of what happened at that other hospital?"
"Maybe, but we don't know what lengths Poole's capable of going to when it comes to protecting her reputation and keeping her medical license. Meanwhile, she's not getting her hands on Siggy, whether you help me or not."CHAPTER 2
Back in the library, I pondered Cleo's far-fetched theory. She seemed convinced Sig would end up neutered if he went under Dr. Poole's knife. If he backed out of the surgery, she feared he'd end up dead — like Cody O'Brien. Granted, Dr. Phyllis Poole was an ice maiden obsessed with making her mark as a surgeon, but I thought it was more likely Cleo was overreacting where her darling Sig was concerned.
What troubled me most was Laurie Popejoy's abrupt departure from TMC. I had to admit the timing was peculiar. Laurie's reputation as a nurse was impeccable, and her ebony beauty and sultry vocals had made her the star of the Code Blues combo. The chemistry between Laurie and Tobias Fausset when they performed duets was palpable.
Dr. Poole's success in wheedling her way into Code Blues wasn't a big mystery. She was an associate in Dr. Fausset's urology practice. If she really was a gifted musician, she was an obvious choice to replace Laurie. But no matter how talented Dr. Poole was, Code Blues would not be the same.
A call from TMC administrator Jared Quinn interrupted my musings. He said he was on his way to the library. He didn't say why.
Quinn and I had been thrown together under unusual circumstances a couple of months earlier when the wife of the library's medical director disappeared and turned up dead. He and I had shared some personal details about our pasts during that challenging time, but now we'd retreated into a more professional camaraderie.
That was good, since my romantic relationship with Nick Alexander had gone into a tailspin a few months earlier when Nick's boss, a wealthy philanthropist named Buck Sawyer, asked him to recruit a second pilot, the best he could find. The pilot Nick recommended was not only an ex-fighter pilot, she was Nick's ex-girlfriend, Rella Olstad. The Nordic beauty was blond like Nick, and nearly as tall as his six feet. They must have been a stunning couple when they were dating. I tried not to think about that, but it wasn't easy.
Nick and I were still dealing with a misunderstanding over his current relationship with Rella. We had been limping along for more than a month, both of us aware that we were not back together but we were not really apart. We were in limbo.
Nick faded from my thoughts as Jared Quinn advanced toward my desk. My tiny octogenarian volunteer, Lola Rampley, called him Rhett Butler behind his back. I'd read the book and seen the movie. Clark Gable without the moustache? Close. Quinn had a wicked smile, the kind women pay money to see, but he was still off limits. I had sworn to never, ever, date at work. Especially not the boss.
"Hello, Aimee. How are the llamas?"
Quinn thought my living in a studio apartment above my grandparents' llama barn was quirky and exotic, but I looked upon it as a financial necessity. It was rent free, and I was still strapped with school loans and credit card debt.
"They're fine, thanks. What brings you to the library?"
"I'm here about the surgery department's next CME program." He took a wrapped peppermint from the candy dish on my desk. "Do you know if Vane's picked a topic?"
Dr. Vane Beardsley was medical director of the library and chairman of the hospital's Continuing Medical Education Committee. Quinn signed my paycheck, but Beardsley was my supervisor and liaison to the medical staff. In addition to managing the hospital's library and developing the forensic collection, Dr. Beardsley and I were responsible for keeping the medical staff in compliance with CME requirements. If our doctors didn't address their problem areas by attending mandatory CME programs, the hospital's accreditation could be jeopardized.
"There is one possibility," I said. "The Quality Assurance Committee submitted a request for a special urologic surgery case review. When it's finished, they want all the urologists on staff to appear together as a panel in a CME program. Indications for surgery, expected outcomes, complications, that sort of thing."
"I haven't heard about that. Was it discussed at the last CME Committee meeting?
"No, the written request came in this afternoon's mail." I pulled the letter from my inbox. It had been dictated by Dr. Ruben Frye, chair of QA Committee, and signed Cleo Cominoli for Dr. Frye. Cleo often signed letters for busy committee chairs, but coming on the heels of my lunch conversation with her, this one raised a red flag. Surely she wouldn't have faked this letter.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Checked Out"
Copyright © 2015 Sharon St. George.
Excerpted by permission of Coffeetown Enterprises, Inc.
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