Medicine has no cure for evil.
Ben Oris, a pragmatic med student from Philadelphia, gets cut by an old bone while touring the Paris catacombs. His companion Laurette, a public health student from Haiti, senses danger and worries an evil curse now runs through him.
Ben scoffs at the idea—he simply has a wound that won’t heal—and back home he returns to his stressful clerkship at the hospital. But when people close to him succumb to a grisly illness and a dark priest pursues him, his skepticism wavers. Could a bone from an 18th century skeleton with a frightening history really cause modern-day disease?
With the help of Laurette, he scrambles to find a cure through Vodou before more of his loved ones die. But first, he must battle the mysterious priest who’s bent on vengeance and determined to have Ben’s blood as his own.
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Philadelphia Thursday, July 9 6:15 a.m.
Growing up, Ben had only wanted to be one of two things: a carpenter or an orthopedic surgeon. Both jobs pounded and sawed hard surfaces. Both jobs mastered mechanical forces. But only orthopedics nourished his love of science.
At six fifteen in the morning, with his landlady's cat in his lap, Ben ate breakfast and reviewed an article on infective endocarditis. Toast crumbs littered its pages and coffee stained its corner. If he didn't get the disease's criteria down pat before rounds, Dr. Smith would crucify him. Then it would be a life of carpentry after all.
He stroked the tabby's fur. "What are those painful lesions on the hand and feet called?" The cat didn't answer. Neither did the kitchen's 1970s appliances or pea-green cabinets. He grabbed the article and flipped through it. "Osler's nodes, Izzy. Osler's nodes."
Izzy purred and blinked. Ben nuzzled her to his face, her whiskers tickling and smelling of tuna. "At least I'll still have you if Dr. Smith gives me the boot."
The cat jumped off his lap and slunk to the open basement door, heading back upstairs to her mistress.
Et tu, Brute? Ben thought.
He gave up on the paper and tossed the rest of the toast in the trash. His appetite wasn't the same since he'd returned from Paris. Neither was his energy level. He'd been suffering headaches too. Considering he'd started his first clinical rotation only nine days earlier, he wasn't surprised. Internal medicine was one of the toughest clerkships.
Especially when his attending blamed him for her stepson not getting into med school.
After making sure Izzy's tail was in the clear, he closed the basement door and stepped into the living room, its garish carpeting a burnt-orange shag nobody in their right mind would choose. Before he could retrieve his backpack from the tattered sofa, his phone buzzed in the pocket of his chinos. A text from Laurette: You left yet?
Soon. If don't get pre-rounds done before report Smith'll kill me, he replied.
Laurette typed back: Sounds drastic. Give her a goat.
Goats don't fix everything.
So I should not give Edith one?
Ben smiled and texted: No she'd just cook it.
Laurette was referring to Edith Sinclair, Ben's landlady of ten years, who'd only agreed to rent her brownstone's basement to him when he promised he kept to himself and didn't party. Though cordial to Laurette, the seventy-eight-year-old woman squirmed at the idea of Ben having a black girlfriend, and for that reason alone he never bothered to tell her their relationship was platonic. The same tight smile appeared whenever Ben mentioned he was raised by two dads.
But despite the fact Mrs. Sinclair and her decor were stuck in the seventies, he liked living there and was more than happy to repair her broken shutters or damaged drywall. He did his best to repair her loneliness as well, stopping by for visits whenever he could.
Lunch today? Laurette texted.
Ben's thumbs hovered over the phone. Their face-to-face interactions had been strained since they'd returned from Paris. Laurette was convinced something was wrong with him, and he didn't want to rehash it. He rotated his right palm and examined the spot where the bone had cut him. A purplish, rubbery papule the size of a baby pea had formed there.
Sure, he finally typed. Her text humor suggested she was getting back to herself, which was good because he missed her jokes. Though not his girlfriend, she was his best friend, and he remembered how quickly he'd bonded to the public health student two years his senior when they met in epidemiology class a couple years before.
A glance at the time told him he'd better hurry. He typically biked to the hospital which, traveling from Wallace Street to downtown Chestnut, took anywhere from twelve to fifteen minutes. Though driving might be quicker, there was no point in wasting money on gas or parking. On the coldest days, he took public transit.
Grabbing the stuffed backpack off the couch, he heaved the bag over his shoulder and winced when the strap scraped his hand. He looked at his palm again. Red droplets sprouted around the lesion. Though the papule had occasionally itched and tingled, up until now it hadn't rebled.
With no bandages in the medicine cabinet or elsewhere, he cursed and grabbed a wad of toilet paper to blot the area. A knock on the door interrupted him.
"Helloooooo. Are you in there?"
Ben closed his eyes. The sing-songy voice was unmistakable.
"It's Kate, sweetie. Hope I haven't missed you."
Kate Naughton. Mrs. Sinclair's twice-divorced, forty-three-going-on-seventeen-year-old daughter. What was she doing there so early? Probably just coming in from a night of drinking, her mom's place a shorter drive from whatever bar she'd holed herself up in. But what did she want with him?
He never should have slept with the woman. Either time.
For an introvert, he really needed to learn to keep his pants on.
Eighty-proof breath accosted him the moment he opened the door. He stepped back, his eyes watering. "Hey, what's up? I have to get to the hospital."
The woman teetered in, closing first the door and then the distance between them. Her honey-wheat hair was matted on one side and poufed on the other. Smeared mascara rimmed her lower lids. Cleavage ballooned from her silky blouse, and a dark stain dotted the left shoulder.
Even drunk and disheveled, she looked ... tempting.
Ben backed up, images of an inflamed Dr. Smith realigning his priorities. When he reached the wall, the glassy-eyed woman had him trapped. The scent of his sandalwood body wash mixed with her boozy fumes.
"Aren't you a doctor yet, honey? You've been at this school thing a long time."
"I'm sorry, but you can't stay."
Kate's left hand plopped onto his pec and her right onto his bicep. His backpack fell off his shoulder and thumped to the floor. She gave his bicep a squeeze. "Money for tuition isn't the only thing construction work's given you."
She winked, and her hand slid down his chest and onto his abdomen. Her fingers danced their way to his belt. Despite his resistance he felt himself getting hard. Gently but firmly he pushed her away with his uninjured hand, the right one still clutched in a fist over the wad of now-bloody toilet paper.
"Kate, I have to go."
Her grabby hands flew back to his chest, where she kneaded his muscles. "And to think you came from gay fathers. Did Mike ... er ... Mark ... er, what's the dead one's name again?"
"Max." Ben's voice tightened and his erection fizzled.
"Yeah, that's it. Did Max ever finish that gene ... geneo ... oh, shoot, what's that thing called? Your mom mentioned it to me."
"A genealogy, and no." Ben guided her away, more forcefully this time. He picked up his backpack and opened the door, pulling her into the stairwell with him. One of the most regrettable moments of his life was when Kate had befriended Harmony, his mother (though that was using the term loosely). Harmony had showed up at the worst possible time: when Kate was still in his bed. Just thinking about Harmony made his head hurt.
"Oh, don't get all mad." Kate's tone became impish. "I know what'll make you feel better. It's been too long since we've, you know." Red acrylic fingernails tapped his tie.
Seven months to be exact. Seven months since he'd vowed it would never happen again. And it wasn't her age. It wasn't even his noncommittal relationship with Melissa, his ex-girlfriend. It was Kate's batshit craziness.
"Kate." Firm now. "Let me lock the door."
But before he could pull out his apartment key, she was all over him. Hands on his chest, his shoulders, his ass. Lips and tongue on his mouth.
"No, we're done with that." He pushed her away, and to keep her from charging again, he grabbed both her hands before they made it to his chest. The bloodied tissue fell to the floor, and even in that heated moment he was surprised by how saturated it was.
Kate leaned in again, but then she too saw the blood. "Ooh, you're bleeding, baby." Swaying from inebriation, she held up her left hand, his blood leaving a moon-shaped smear on her palm.
"I'm sorry," he said, his tone softer. "Let's go up to your mom's to wash it off. I need to bike to the hospital, and I'm already late." As he turned to lock the door, Kate let out a whoop that made him jump.
"Well, that's what I came to tell you, doctor man." Her eyes seemed to float in their orbits, and she had to grab the handrail for support. "Your bike. I just crushed it with my car."
Thursday, July 9 7:20 a.m.
Ben swerved his black '96 Mustang into the entrance of the visitor's parking garage and snatched a ticket from the dispenser. According to the fee board, he'd be twenty dollars poorer by the end of the day. But it was the closest lot to the hospital, and if he didn't get his ass moving, he'd have bigger problems than parking debt. Morning report started in ten minutes. He'd either have to skip pre-rounds to attend it, or skip morning report to pre-round. Though both options would piss off Dr. Smith, being ill-prepared on his patients would be the bigger sin.
Pre-rounds it was.
After finding a tight space on the sixth level, he sprinted down the stairwell to the second level walkway connecting the visitor's lot to the main building of Montgomery Hospital. His backpack thumped against his shoulder blade, and his shirt clung to his already perspiring chest. Another scorcher of a day ahead.
The medical complex consisted of a cluster of brick buildings covering three blocks of downtown Philadelphia. Some were connected via walkways on their second floors. Others required crossing the street. Most of the specialty clinics, research facilities, and academic offices had parking areas of their own.
The main hospital with its arched entrance and expansive windows contained several floors of inpatient wards and the emergency room, or emergency department as Ben was learning to call it. To do otherwise was to annoy Dr. Smith. Though Ben spent most of his time in that building, he still attended daily after-lunch lectures in the Southeast Pennsylvania College of Medicine, easily accessed via a detour through the Talcott Center, which housed the labor and delivery unit. Ben enjoyed seeing the swollen bellies and happy faces of the women in the waiting room. It was a nice break from the pain and disease on the internal medicine ward.
But there'd be no time to cross over to the medical school to retrieve his white coat from the student lounge that day, even if it meant a pile of hurt from Dr. Smith during rounds later on. "I expect you all to look like professionals," she had said the first day of his clerkship. "Men, that includes a tie and white coat. You're aspiring doctors, not vagrants."
How the woman had managed to mangle his bike when he'd chained it to a tree near the berm was a mystery. She'd dragged him outside to look at it, the Philadelphia street springing to life with people exiting their red-bricked row houses on their way to work or out walking their dogs. Given that his landlady frowned upon having a bike in the house, he always left it out on the berm. The thing was a piece of junk, so he'd never had trouble with anyone stealing it. Still, seeing its squashed front tire and twisted handlebars beneath Kate's Taurus had disheartened him. Piece of junk or not, it was his primary means of transportation.
Putting the morning's rough start behind him, he skidded into the main hospital complex, a large, open design with an atrium that reached nine stories above to a glass ceiling. Skipping the crowded foyer at the west bank of elevators, he darted toward the stairwell and galloped three steps at a time to the sixth floor. As soon as he got there, his cell phone buzzed in his front pocket.
Though Ben managed many things well, getting off schedule wasn't one of them. Pressure squeezed his chest, and acid reflux (a recent development, compliments of Dr. Smith's clerkship) burned his throat. He could hear his father's voice in his head: "Can't be so rigid in life, son. Things don't always go as planned."
Ignoring his phone, he hurried on. The closer he got to 6 West, the greater the antiseptic smell and the more crowded the hallway. A trio of surgical residents brushed past him, their white coats swishing against their scrubs. They barely acknowledged his lowly med-student presence, even though he'd seen a couple of them on the ward for consults. He was probably older than all of them too.
Just as he was about to enter the unit, his phone vibrated again. With a grumble he checked it. A voice message from his dad. He wished Willy would text instead of call, but the day Willy sent a text message would be the day something was wrong.
Slipping into a small waiting room just off 6 West, Ben listened to the message, his gaze focused on a pile of tabloid magazines littering a central table. "Hey, Benny. The store had a little break-in. Nothing to worry about, I'm fine, but I could use your skills fixin' the window. I know you're busy. Hate to trouble you."
Sweat dripped between Ben's shoulder blades as he sank onto a maroon chair. Someone broke into Willy's Chocolate Chalet? Located on South Street, the store had never had any trouble in the past.
He closed his eyes. His body temperature rose even more. First the bike, now the shop window. When would he find time to repair them? He had five patients, two sets of rounds, a couple lectures, and a whole lot of studying ahead.
An elderly man with a cane and movements suggestive of Parkinson's disease shuffled into the waiting room. He gripped the armrest of a chair opposite Ben and struggled to sit. Ben jumped up. "Here, let me help you." He grabbed the man's arm to steady him.
Once comfortably positioned, the man said, "Thank you. Very kind of you."
Ben nodded and asked if he needed anything else. When the man assured him he didn't, Ben headed to the ward, whipping off a quick text to his father to let him know he'd stop by after work and seal the window until they could get new glass. Willy might not send texts, but at least he read them.
As for the bike, it would have to wait until the weekend. He'd pick up new parts and do the repairs himself.
In between his mountain of studies.
Ignoring the growing ache in his temples and the squeeze in his chest, Ben spent the next forty minutes checking in on his patients while the rest of the team was at morning report. The work distracted him, and he started to relax.
Maybe Hard-Ass Smith wouldn't even notice his absence.
Having finished informal team rounds with the senior resident two hours later, Ben waited near the central work station for his attending's arrival, his throat dry and his fingers fidgeting with the bandage he'd found in a supply cart and stuck on his injured palm. The staff area, a large square made up of three adjoining counters and a back wall fronting a supply closet and break room, had long since come alive with hospital personnel. Across from the work station, patient rooms lined the periphery, their numbers spanning from W664 to W684.
At nine thirty sharp, Dr. Taka Smith burst through the automatic doors and marched down the stark hallway, its monotony broken by oak wall guards, a red emergency phone, and an automated external defibrillator. A group of nursing students parted like the Red Sea for Moses when the diminutive attending barreled past them, her lab coat flapping around her tailored suit and her pumps clicking on the tile. Glossy, bobbed hair framed her delicate face.
To an outsider she might appear sweet — even docile — but Ben knew the Japanese-American was more samurai than geisha. One of the few people he'd seen her cater to was her stepson, Joel, and in her mind, if it weren't for Ben's deferment year to earn money for med school, Joel would have gotten the last spot in the class. Then he would be the one rounding on patients instead of toiling in the biochemistry lab a block away, working on his master's degree. It didn't seem to occur to them that maybe Ben was the better student, and maybe the admissions committee figured he was a good enough candidate to let him defer a year.
The un-Japanese name of Smith came from her neurosurgeon husband whom she married eighteen years before. Ben knew the details because the accomplished husband-and-wife-physician duo was the subject of the hospital's most recent quarterly newsletter.
Waiting with the gathering team members, he watched Dr. Smith stride toward them, her lined eyebrows raised and her lips a tight line. "How nice of you to join us, Benjamin. Hope you enjoyed your sleep-in while the rest of us were at morning report."
Excerpted from "The Bone Curse"
Copyright © 2018 Carrie Rubin.
Excerpted by permission of Science Thrillers Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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