The neurosurgeon hated preparing for conversations with the families of his patients. He wanted to tell them that it was all up to their loved one. He’d learned, during twenty-six years and hundreds of brain surgeries, that the only real indicator of the degree of recovery was how much grit and determination the patient had.
He’d also learned early in those years that usually what he needed to say was far from what the family wanted to hear. Today, he had his state-of-the-brain speech prepared for family and friends of the police lieutenant who’d been shot in the head at the ballpark. He suspected some would be visiting during his rounds. He was in the middle of delivering that speech to the man’s wife, the only visitor in the room.
“Because of what I’ve just explained, I think that there might be some slight improvement in your husband’s condition.
Kate Mulligan’s face brightened, and then faded as the doctor added, “I’m not implying that he’s going to begin talking or that he will wake up anytime soon, but there have been signs of a lessening of the depth of the coma.”
“I know that’s not much.” The tired, disheveled woman sighed, then perked up a bit and added, “But some improvement is better than no improvement and a lot better than worse. I’ve got something now besides hope. God has given me a sign.”
I hope you’re right. “I’ve got more rounds to make,” the surgeon said as he looked as his watch. “The nurses have been instructed to allow you to be with your husband as much as you like. I am continuing the restriction of no more than two visitors in his room at one time, though.”
Kate gave the mechanical nod she’d perfected while listening to doctor speak.
“I’m also asking you to not wear yourself so thin that you end up as a patient here,” the doctor concluded. He’d seen far too many wives, husbands, and children end up as psychiatric patients by the end of their loved one’s treatment.
Kate nodded again.
The doctor shook his head. I gave it my best shot.
Mamba and the doctor exchanged nods as the doctor passed him outside the door to Mulligan’s room. The PI arrived during the conversation between Kate and the surgeon. He’d waited outside until they were finished and wasn’t sure what to do now that they were done. In direct contrast to his feeling of needing to help Flatly, he had a feeling of helplessness when he visited his friend and former partner.
“Make her rest,” the doctor said. He’d stopped after he’d acknowledged Mamba. “I’ve seen too many loved ones sink so deep into despair that they never get out. Or, if they do make it out, they’re a changed person.”
“I’ll try. I’ve been in her shoes.” He straightened his shoulders and looked through the wall of glass to where Kate was standing, staring down at her husband.
Something made her turn in his direction. He noticed the look of optimism in the eyes of his friend’s wife. He didn’t have to wait to find out why. Kate motioned for him to come in, but then she hurried out the door to meet him.
“Oh, Phil, Mike seems to be getting a little better!”
“I’m so glad to hear that,” Mamba said with measured enthusiasm. He needed more information before in order to get as excited as she was. He wasn’t about to let her know of his doubts about Mike getting better.
He hugged the woman with his good arm.
“Do you want to come in to see him with me?”
“Is that allowed?”
“The doctor said I could go in as often as I wanted. I can take one person with me, too.”
He offered her his right arm. She pushed open the door.
* * *
Mulligan was awake again. He could hear the same noises in his right ear. His left side still seemed to be in some kind of acoustical void. He tried to imagine what kind of place he would be in that would fit the sensations he was experiencing.
Pictures flashed into his memory. For some reason, though, he was unable to think of the names of any of those places. It frustrated him enough that he was considering sitting up to get someone’s attention regardless of the pain. I . . . want . . . um, answer!
Then he heard voices. Yes, it was two voices. As before, visual images flashed before him. He could see the owners of the voices. I . . . see . . . no . . . I . . . know . . . man . . . woman . . . friend! Try as he would, he could not dredge the names of the man and woman from the recesses of his brain.
“When they did the surgery, did they find a lot of irreparable damage?” The man’s voice asked.
“The doctors said that he would have to relearn how to do some things,” the woman replied. “The bullet tore away a lot of the left side of his brain.”
Mulligan’s heart went out to whomever they were discussing. That . . . man . . . was . . . hurt . . . bad. He wished the tube in his throat was gone. If the tube was gone, he could ask about the injured person. As the man began to speak again, Mike focused attention back on the conversation.
“Will he be able to walk and talk?”
“They’re not sure. It’s hard to tell what part of the brain has what specific pieces of information in it.”
“What about hearing? All I saw was blood on one side of his head at—” Mamba left his thought unfinished as he realized what he was describing. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be. They say he’s deaf in his left ear. The bullet passed through the skull and exited out the ear canal.”
As though a light turned on in Mike’s head, it dawned on him that being deaf would account for the lack of sounds on his left side. He struggled against his tubes and blanket. He had to tell the man and woman about his insight.
“Phil!” the woman shouted. “Mike’s moving!”
“Doctor!” Mamba shouted at the top of his voice as he ran to the door.
Mulligan wondered why it was so surprising that Mike was moving. And why would a doctor care?
He had no time to consider reasons for the odd reaction by the man and woman. As he moved the pain engulfed him. Mercifully, his consciousness departed as the pain arrived.
* * *
It was the end of a long day. Mamba tried to reconstruct what had filled the time so completely but came up with only routine events besides his visit to Mulligan. I must be getting old. Don’t old people think time drags? No. Old people must think time’s moving too fast. Maybe I’m just plain tired. He climbed onto his side of the bed.
He turned toward his wife who was reading a romance novel on her side of the bed. Phil watched her for a few minutes, until she tired of his stare and turned her head in his direction. He patted the mattress next to him in an attempt to coax her closer to his side.
“I want to bounce a few ideas off your pretty brain.”
Hope reached over her head and placed the book onto a shelf in the headboard. That task completed, she shifted her position slightly in his direction, rolled onto her back, and cupped both hands behind her head. When she was sufficiently arranged, she said, “I’m ready. Go ahead.”
“And I thought dogs turning around before they lie down was odd behavior,” he said.
She shot her right fist into his left arm, having taken offense at his comparison. She hadn’t even looked at him and still landed the punch. How dumb! That’s his bad arm. She gasped at the realization.
Impressive! Phil thought but pretended to ignore her attempt to dissuade him. “I’m glad it’s been two weeks since they pulled the bullet out of that arm and stitched me up.”
She relaxed. Her jab hadn’t done damage after all.
“The ideas bouncing around make up a list of things that bother me,” he said.
“Can I change my mind? I’d like to get to sleep before breakfast.”
“Let me make something clear. You just hit me—in my injured arm. I figure you owe me time for that. After all, if Jimmy hit someone, he’d get a timeout.”
No damage from the punch, just the start of a guilt trip.
“I hate logic,” she grumbled.
“One of my finest allies. So, here we go. At first I thought that Stallings was the information leak. No, I was sure of it. Then, when other people started to accuse him, I tried to exonerate him. From an objective viewpoint, the evidence against him was too sketchy. It looked like a setup.”
“I see,” Hope dutifully murmured.
“Then, and I really didn’t want to believe this, but Mike Mulligan looked like the leak. His military personnel file has been altered. I have no idea why that was done.”
He paused. A vision of a gauzed-covered head jumped into focus in his mind. I’m sorry I didn’t check my messages sooner, Mike. If only there was a way to do that from my car.
“I’m glad he’s getting better,” Hope filled the silence.
“Huh? Who’re you talking about?”
“What about him?”
“I said I was glad he was getting better.”
“He is! Did I tell you about today?”
“Twice already.” She smiled at his animation.
“Anyway,” he relaxed again and picked up his narration where he’d left off. “Since Mike was supposed to be killed by a hitman, I can’t accept that he was the leak. Of course, the altered military files are still there.” He paused. “No, I just don’t think it was him.”
“For the briefest instant, Martinez topped my suspect list. I mean he has had access to all the information.”
“But,” she interjected for him.
“I don’t know, Hope. He’s done so much to try and find the leak, and he and Nurse Reilly have taken Flatly under their wings. Maybe I just don’t want it to be him.”
“I’m with you.”
“Thanks. That brings us to whatever Martinez is checking out in the lab. He’s got some theory that has to do with the copy machine. I wish he hadn’t been so tight-lipped about it. In fact, I blame him for my babbling away at you tonight.” That’s a fabrication. Stallings and I pretty much shut him off.
He stopped. Turning his head in Hope’s direction, he was about to continue his rambling tome when a contented sigh escaped her lips.
Dogs do that sighing thing, too, he thought. I’m not about to say that out loud. He pushed himself up on one arm and looked down on her peaceful face. It was clear she wasn’t drifting off to sleep. She had already docked in dreamland.
“Thanks for listening, Princess.” he whispered and pulled the blanket up to her chin.