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By D.J. Donaldson
Astor + Blue EditionsCopyright © 2012 D.J. Donaldson
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Like the others, the single long-stemmed yellow rose had been waiting for her in the wicker basket under the mail drop when she'd arrived home from work. It was the third day in a row this had happened. Like the others, the rose was resting in white gift tissue in a slim white box tied with yellow ribbon. Unlike the others, the latest one had come with a note, neatly printed on a general-occasion card: "If you want to meet the one who's been sending the roses, come to Grandma O's restaurant at 1:00 P.M. tomorrow. Don't worry about a description. You'll know who I am."
There was, of course, no question she'd go. The mystery was far too tantalizing to ignore. And there was absolutely no danger involved, because the designated rendezvous was a restaurant where she ate lunch practically five days a week.
As Kit neared the restaurant, she'd just about decided this was a prank being played on her by Teddy LaBiche. How he'd managed it was a puzzle, though, because he lived 125 miles away in Bayou Coteau, where he had his alligator farm, and had been in Europe for the last three weeks, lining up buyers for his skins.
Kit paused in front of a mirrored window and dug in her purse. She applied a fresh coat of lip gloss and reset the faux tortoiseshell combs that kept her long auburn hair out of her eyes. She lingered a moment longer, appreciating how the spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose was less obvious in the cool seasons. Then it hit her. Grandma O ... That's how he could have done it, she thought, beginning to walk again.... And Bubba, her grandson. She smiled.... A conspiracy. Teddy had arranged it with Grandma O and was now back a few days early, waiting for her inside.
She detoured around a wad of gum on the sidewalk and hurried to the restaurant's front door, her heart high in her chest.
Most of the noon to 1:00 P.M. lunch crowd had already left, but there was a small queue of laggards at the register, where Grandma O was trying to get them out as quickly as possible.
The place was still about half-full, so it took Kit a moment to scan the occupied tables. Her eyes paused briefly at one in the back, where an older man dressed in jeans and a khaki-colored shirt with epaulets seemed unusually interested in her, then she moved on, still looking for Teddy.
But he wasn't there.
Her eyes went back to the man in the khaki shirt and she now saw that he was holding a long-stemmed yellow rose. Disappointed that Teddy wasn't at the bottom of this, she crossed the room. As she approached the man's table, he rose to greet her.
He spoke her name and hesitated, taking her in. He looked to be around sixty years old—disheveled white hair, heavy salt-and-pepper eyebrows shielding deep-set eyes, skin with a texture that looked as though it had seen a lot of sun and wind but that now had a pasty color. And there was a sheen of perspiration at his hairline, though the restaurant wasn't hot. Suddenly, his eyes glazed, and his mouth froze in an O.
His right hand came up and grabbed Kit's wrist as his knees buckled. He went down, yawing to the left, and hit the edge of the table, rocking it off its pedestal, pulling Kit after him.
Kit saw him slide down the tilted table in slow motion, pursued by the container of sugar and artificial sweetener and the napkin dispenser. Her own face was heading for the tabletop. A scant second before she hit it, she turned her head.
A megawatt arc light went on inside her skull. Then her mains blew.
She was out only briefly, and when her eyes opened, the world was clad in blue-and-white stripes.
She was sliding sideways.
The stripes began moving, slipping past her eyes until they abruptly changed direction, to run perpendicular to their original course.
A shirt cuff.
"Are you all right?" a voice said.
She turned onto her back and looked up into a face sporting a mustache with bread crumbs caught in it.
"I think so...."
Behind him, she caught a glimpse of Grandma O's worried face, her dark eyes glittering. Then she disappeared.
"Maybe you shouldn't get up."
"No ... I can manage."
And she wasn't just being optimistic, because, with the man's help, she was soon on her feet, her hold on consciousness unwavering.
"Doesn't look like he's doing well," the man said, looking behind her.
Grandma O rarely wore anything but black taffeta, which magnified her already-considerable bulk and made her sound as though she was passing through a field of dry weeds wherever she went. When Kit turned, she saw her draped over the fallen man like a great bat, performing CPR.
"Has anyone called nine-one-one?" Kit asked.
"On the way," Grandma O said, bending to give the man another breath.
Though the stricken man had said only one word to her, Kit felt a pang of responsibility for him, and here she was standing by, doing nothing to help.... But what was there to do? And so she did all she could, silently urging the man to breathe on his own.
The minutes inched by without any encouraging signs. Finally, in the distance, a siren, then closer ... a green-and-white ambulance outside.
A female white-shirted medic in blue pants charged through the door, her male partner close behind, pulling a stretcher loaded with equipment.
"We'll take over now," the female said, helping Grandma O to her feet. "How long's he been out?"
"Maybe ten minutes," Grandma O said.
"He eaten anything?"
Learning that he hadn't, the medic grabbed a shoulder bag from the stretcher and dropped to her knees beside the victim's head. In seconds, she had a mask strapped to his face. While she gave him air by squeezing a blue bag attached to the mask, her partner grabbed a shoulder bag and a cardiac monitor from the stretcher and hurried to the victim's other side. He pushed the fallen table away with his foot, knelt, and ripped the victim's shirt open. He turned on the monitor and clapped two paddles to the exposed skin.
The monitor showed only a flat line, a permanent copy of the bad news issuing from the monitor on a paper tongue.
The medic gave it a name. "He's in fine v. fib."
He removed the paddles from the victim's chest, rubbed a jelly onto their contact surface, and slapped them back against the victim's skin. He nudged a dial on one of the paddles and pushed a button. The paddles gave off a barely audible buzz that gradually grew louder. A tiny red light on each paddle flicked on.
The victim bucked under the jolt of current and the air was filled with the smell of burning hair. Seeing the same flat line on the screen, the medic nudged the dial on his paddle. The buzz returned, escalated, and the red lights winked on.
The victim bucked again, more violently, but the heart refused to kick in.
Another nudge of the dial.
A third, even more powerful shock, lifted the victim off the floor, but still the heart resisted. By now, the smell of singed hair was so sickening, most of the bystanders had moved back. Having smelled far worse odors at crime scenes she'd attended with her boss, and feeling linked to the victim, Kit held her ground. The medic looked up at her, holding out an IV bag. "Take this and stand right here."
Happy to be helping, Kit moved closer and took the bag from him.
"I need somebody to do chest compression," the female medic announced, her voice filled with urgency.
Grandma O and a man who wouldn't take up nearly as much space at the victim's side as she would stepped forward simultaneously. The medic chose the man, her decision generating a hard look from Grandma O.
The medic working the monitor slipped a needle into a vein in the front of the victim's elbow. He attached the IV tube and taped it in place. He then discharged the contents of a preloaded syringe into a port on the downstream side of the bag. The heart shock paddles had also been serving as temporary leads conveying the victim's heart rhythms to the monitor. The medic now switched to the regular leads, sticking them to the victim's chest.
The monitor showed only the same flat line as before. Continuing to stare at the pattern that wasn't changing, the male medic said, "Anyone know this man?"
No one spoke up, so Kit said, "We were talking, but I didn't really know him."
"When I approached the table, he stood up, said my name ... then dropped."
"You wouldn't know, then, if he's had heart trouble or what kind of medication he might be taking?"
"No, I wouldn't."
Precious seconds passed, their flight marked by the rubbery squish of the ventilator bag and the volunteer counting off each chest compression. Yet the medic just stared at the monitor. Mesmerized by the struggle playing out before them, no one in the crowd moved. Finally, when Kit was about to suggest he do something, the medic shocked the heart again, still without success.
On the opposite side, the female medic removed the victim's face mask and passed a long plastic tube into his mouth. She attached the blue bag to that and ventilated him twice while listening to his chest. Apparently satisfied that the tube was properly placed, she taped the tube to the victim's face and signaled for her volunteer to resume chest compression.
The medic at the monitor emptied another syringe into the IV port. He waited a short time, then shocked the heart again. Despite Kit's wishes, the line on the monitor remained infuriatingly flat. The medic produced a radio.
"Charity Med Control. This is Unit Six-two-oh-one, on the scene. Patient is a white male, approximately sixty years of age, found in full arrest. ACLS protocols implemented and IV going. Patient remains in fine v. fib. Any further orders?"
"Load and go."
"En route. ETA three to five minutes."
The medics strapped their patient to a stiff slab of yellow plastic and loaded him onto the stretcher. They put the IV bag Kit had been holding under his head, thanked everybody for their help, and whisked him away.
Kit was ashamed of the relief she felt at his departure.
The knot of people who'd been watching broke up and went back to their tables, buzzing about what they'd seen—all of them except for a woman in a green cotton jogging outfit that, given her age and shape, likely hadn't been doing much jogging. She came over and shook her finger at Grandma O.
"That was very foolish of you ... giving that man CPR with your mouth on his. You don't know what he's been doing with that mouth or what bugs he might have."
"Well, it's like dis," Grandma O said. "Ah lef' mah face mask an' ventilator bag in mah other purse an' Ah jus' los' mah head. Besides, ain't no bug got the nerve to try anything on me."
From the look on the woman's face, she didn't know what to make of Grandma O. But then, few people did. As the woman moved off, Grandma O turned to Kit.
"When he came in, he said he was waitin' for somebody, but Ah didn't know it was you."
"Someone sent me a yellow rose on Monday with no note attached. The same thing happened Tuesday. Yesterday, one came with a message that the sender would be here today if I wanted to meet him."
"He looked too old for you. Now, if he'd sent me dose roses ..."
"But like I told the medic, I've never even seen the man before."
"Child, dis can't be da first time a man you'd never noticed tried to get your attention."
"No ... but this one seemed different."
"'Cause of his age?"
"More than that."
"Ah don' guess anybody ever died on you like dat before."
"You ... don't think he'll make it?"
Grandma O walked over and picked up the yellow rose Kit's mysterious admirer had dropped. She came back and handed it to her. "Ah hope Ah'm wrong, but Ah think dis is da las' rose he'll ever buy."CHAPTER 2
Having no appetite for lunch, yet too keyed up to go back to her office in Charity Hospital, Kit lingered at the restaurant, wanting to talk more with Grandma O about what had happened. But Grandma O had customers to deal with. So instead, Kit carried the yellow rose down to the river and watched the ship and barge traffic for a while from a bench in front of the aquarium, spending most of that time reliving those awful moments at the restaurant and wondering what it all meant.
Finally, deciding that enough time had passed for the mystery man to get to the hospital and be checked in, she headed back to her office to see what she could find out about his condition.
Twenty minutes later, as she got off the elevator on her floor, she ran into her boss, Andy Broussard, chief medical examiner of Orleans Parish, waiting to get on.
Because he was so overweight, if you saw him coming down the street and didn't know him, you'd probably think he wasn't very healthy. But when he got close and you could see that above his gray beard, his skin had a robust glow, you might reconsider. And if you'd ever seen him climb a ladder to rescue the odd cat that had become stuck in a tree in his yard or to put a baby bird back in its nest, you'd know you were wrong. Kit hadn't actually seen one of those ladder rescues firsthand, but Charlie Franks, the deputy ME, had slides of him doing it, so Kit didn't believe Broussard's denials that he ever did such things. Aside from his surprising agility, the most remarkable thing about him was his mind, which was so sharp, Kit was still intimidated by him, though she'd played a major role in solving more than one case since she'd arrived.
"Heard you had some excitement," he said.
"Who told you that?"
Ignoring what he'd probably been told, Kit poured out her own version of the story, finishing by saying, "... and when they took him away, it didn't look like he was going to make it."
Broussard tilted his chin and examined her through the tops of his glasses. "He didn't."
"How do you know?"
"He's downstairs, in the morgue."
"Who is he?"
Broussard shrugged. "Beats me. I haven't actually seen him yet, but Guy said he had no ID on him. I told Phillip about the situation...."
Kit briefly wondered which Phillip he meant, then realized it had to be Phil Gatlin, Broussard's longtime friend in Homicide.
"He went over to the restaurant to see if the victim had come by car, thinkin' he might get a line on his identity that way, but he just called sayin' every car in the lot was accounted for."
"Jesus, you two work fast."
"We're old, but we're good. I'm on my way downstairs now to see what killed this fellow."
"I'd like to know that myself," Kit said. "Will you let me know when you find out?"
He nodded and slipped a lemon ball into his mouth from the linty cache in the pocket of his lab coat. He offered her a wrapped one from the other pocket, a ritual that had become so commonplace, the transfer was made without comment. "Should take about an hour and a half."
Kit went to her office and put the yellow rose in a badly chipped bud vase she'd been meaning to replace for months. She then tried to pick up the project she'd been working on that morning, construction of a psychological autopsy on a nineteen-year-old male who'd shot himself in the head in front of his buddy. They'd bought the gun, a .38 Smith & Wesson, at a pawnshop because his buddy'd had his car hijacked at gunpoint and felt he needed protection to keep it from happening again. The victim had loaded the gun, pointed it at his head, said, "Life sucks," and pulled the trigger.
But nothing else about the guy sounded like a potential suicide. He had plans for the future and hadn't been depressed. Something wasn't right.
She looked at the police report in front of her. Except for an empty chamber at the nine o'clock position, the gun had been fully loaded. Why the empty chamber when there were extra rounds still in the box?
Her concentration wavered as she saw again the pallid complexion of the man stricken at Grandma O's—his surprised expression before he went down, the flat line on the cardiac monitor.
As Broussard left the elevator, he felt a twinge around the knife scar on his side. It'd been a little over a year since that dreadful affair, and except for an occasional sad thought about the cause of it all and an ache in the scar just before a rain, he'd fully recovered.
Excerpted from LOUISIANA FEVER by D.J. Donaldson. Copyright © 2012 D.J. Donaldson. Excerpted by permission of Astor + Blue Editions.
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