The drive from Manzanita to LAX took longer than Rick Elkhart anticipated, a lot longer. A semi hauling two trailers of gravel had jack-knifed while trying to avoid a minivan that swerved to miss a mattress that had flown out of the bed of a pickup truck being used to move a college junior from Bakersfield back to Cal State Long Beach. All four lanes of the I-405 were funneled into the far left lane. He was almost an hour behind his schedule.
He was tired, hungry, very thirsty, and he needed to use the bathroom. But, instead of meeting any of those needs, he squinted into the sun as his car prowled along the passenger pick-up curb. After two trips around the loop, he flipped down the car’s sun visor to afford his eyes some relief. After all I’ve been through to get where I am in Garmel’s organization, I hope I haven’t missed seeing the boss and his companion because I forgot my sunglasses.
He had written down an evening arrival time for Garmel’s flight on his calendar. The phone call directing him to be at the airport five hours earlier than he’d planned stunned him. He’d rushed out of his place without his sunglasses and his wallet.
Without the sunglasses, he was forced to squint. Without the wallet, he had no money to pay for parking. I know how quick they are to tow your car if you leave it. I can’t add that added to what’s already a bad situation. So, he had to drive to the curb and pick up his passengers instead of meeting them inside the terminal.
“Watch where you’re going, buddy!” The angry voice of a cab driver snapped his attention back to the road. He managed to avoid clipping the bumper of the cab and returned his gaze back to the sidewalk. Seconds later, he spotted his passengers. He cut off a station wagon in his rush to the curb.
“Right here, Mr. Garmel,” Elkhart shouted as scrambled out of the car after screeching to a halt. “I’m sorry I’m late.”
“Although we’ve been at the airport over two hours, we’ve not been on the curb long,” the man in the stylish clothes replied with a hint of annoyance. A female clad in equal style stood beside him, unconcerned with such details.
“This is Jana. She’s my traveling secretary,” Garmel said as an introduction to his companion.
“Let me get the door, Jana,” Elkhart offered. He held the door. The woman entered. Garmel reached past him and closed the door, leaving Elkhart wondering if he’d used the wrong protocol for assisting his passengers.
Garmel started around behind the car to get to the other side. He grabbed Elkhart’s arm and escorted him as he walked.
“I appreciate your help with both the information you provided and this taxi service. For now, I’ll assume your lack of punctuality is an uncommon occurrence. I’ll be keeping a close eye on you while I’m here. If all goes well, there might be a place for you at a higher level in my organization. But, I have to be honest with you. You haven’t gotten off to a good start.”
“Thank you. I know,” Elkhart replied. Oh, that was smooth! He opened the rear door on the driver’s side. Anthony Garmel climbed in. He put his passengers’ baggage into the trunk and drove out of the massive LAX complex.
“If it’s not too much trouble, Rick, we’d like to stop soon, and at a nice place, of course. We haven’t eaten any real food since early this morning.”
“Yes, sir!’ Oh, thank you, God. Food. And a restroom!
* * *
Elkhart sat in the room he’d reserved. The meeting scheduled to begin fifteen minutes earlier hadn’t begun. The plan was to bring together Garmel and the members of the local organization who were not playing well with one another, or with Garmel. He looked at his watch for the seventh time in six minutes.
Anthony Garmel waited in the chair beside his associate. The cigar clamped in his teeth evidenced that he was waiting impatiently. The end of the illegal Cuban panatella looked like it had been pulled through a garden shredder. He was also performing a drum solo on the table with his fingers. Fifteen minutes late. They’re all fifteen minutes late!
“Mr. Elkhart, are you certain that the time of this meeting was accurately communicated?” The measured inflection was a sign that Garmel was losing control of his anger. Even though Elkart was unfamiliar with Garmel’s idiosyncrasies, the vocal inflection made that very clear.
“Yes, sir. As soon as you gave me your itinerary, couriers delivered personal invitations to each of the men you requested to be here.”
“Then it appears to me that we are being snubbed deliberately.”
“Mr. Garmel?” a voice asked from the door of the room.
Garmel lifted his head. He did not have to turn in either direction to see who was at the door. He always positioned himself with a direct line of sight of the entrance to every room he was in, or he did not remain in that room. He’d had all other doors to the room blocked to ensure that was the case for this meeting.
He implemented the strategy so he would not repeat Wild Bill Hickok’s one slip of a similar rule he lived by. During the poker game where the dead man’s hand earned its name, Hickok had his back to the door. He died for that single lapse. Garmel would not die with his back, or even the side of his head, to the entrance.
Four men entered.
“You’re late,” Garmel growled. “Sit down!”
“I don’t think so.” A gun flashed from beneath a suit jacket. Three other guns appeared in quick succession. “We’re giving the orders now.”
Garmel dropped to the floor. The silence of the room was shattered by the percussive sounds of automatic weapon fire. The drug kingpin’s cat-like glances recorded all that transpired from his position behind the table. He nodded as he noted a fusillade of automatic weapon fire flying toward the traitors.
Oh, my God! I’ve been shot! Elkhart threw himself down in panic simultaneously with that realization. Wood from the table splintered into tiny fragments. Tufts of stuffing from the padded chairs floated through the air as though searching for a safe landing space. Bullet holes pocked the white walls above the paneling.
After the exchange of gunfire, which had lasted less than twenty seconds, silence regained control of the room. The four late arrivals lay dead on the floor.
Garmel’s face wore a satisfied smile. Once again, it paid off to expect a problem instead of reacting to it. Elkhart was shaking and holding his arm where a bloodstain widened around the hole in his sports jacket.
“Come on out, boys,” Garmel called. Five men carrying machine pistols emerged from their hiding places behind the decorative cloth wall hangings that had been installed in the room at Garmel’s insistence.
The look of astonishment on Elkhart’s face was the only testimony required to confirm the fact that he had no foreknowledge of the presence of the armed men. Or that those men, or any other men, would be required to protect him and his boss from the four tardy associates.
“Always have an ace in the hole.” Garmel brushed the dust from his clothing while he offered advice to Elkhart. “To use an inappropriate analogy, it looks to me like you’re the last man standing.” If you’re as shaken by our experience as you look, you won’t be standing much longer.
Elkhart’s face was ashen. He trembled like someone standing outside in a freezing rain. Garmel recognized the symptoms of shock and made subtle gesture that went unnoticed by the injured man. One of the protectors nodded and immediately left the room. A second protector helped Elkhart to a seat.
“The moments just experienced will be forgotten in time,” Garmel continued. “For now, let’s concentrate on finding suitable attention for your arm. After your treatment, we’ll discuss our business arrangement. By the way, do you know the name of the police informer that wishes to renegotiate his contract?”
“I think his name is—” Elkhart passed out and slumped forward in his chair. The shock of being in the middle of a live firefight, the blood lost from his wound, and what sounded like a promotion had taken their toll.
* * *
Although there were bad days in Mike Mulligan’s rehab, there were good days, more accurately better than bad days, as well. This day found Mulligan, now in a room a full step down from the ICU, in the midst of a session with his surgeon, another doctor, and his nurse.
Things were progressing, if you looked at progress from the perspective of the rate of glacial movement.
“Mr. Mulligan,” Dr. David Liebowitz said to his patient. “I want you to try to raise your left hand.”
Mulligan complied. You need take out what in my throat. I have . . . um . . . ask you and you tell me.
“Now, raise your right hand.”
Mulligan’s arm didn’t move. He heard the instruction. Either he could not remember how to do what he’d been asked, or he wasn’t able to get his body to cooperate. He couldn’t tell which was the reason for his failure to comply.
“Just as in the other trials,” Dr. Liebowitz frowned. “This confirms significant damage to the motor areas of the left cortex or the processing areas in that hemisphere.”
“I agree.” His associate slapped an x-ray up on the viewer in the room. “The damage must extend down to here,” he said as his finger traced a large area over the picture.
“Yes, and that means extensive rehabilitation.”
“I would think that getting Mr. Mulligan to the place where rehabilitation is a possibility is a coup in itself,” the nurse muttered sotto voce. The patient moved his left hand. “And, I think Mr. Mulligan wants something, Doctor.”
“Do you want something?” Dr. Liebowitz turned away from the x-ray viewer and asked. “Squeeze once for yes and twice for no.” He grasped Mulligan’s hand.
One firm squeeze greeted the doctor’s grasp. Mulligan released his grip and curled his fingers as though grasping a pencil. He made what he hoped were writing-like motions.
The nurse hurried out to get a pen and some paper. Placing the pen in Mulligan’s left hand she slid the paper beneath the tip of the writing instrument.
“Go ahead, Mr. Mulligan,” Dr. Liebowitz encouraged.
With an effort so great that Mulligan and both doctors were soon sweating while the nurse bit the back of her lower lip, Mike scribed letters onto the paper. Being a natural right-hander put him at a distinct disadvantage, but he continued his task with grim determination. It took three pieces of paper to hold his scrawled message. The pen slid from his grasp as he finished.
Dr. Liebowitz took the three pages from the nurse who’d collected them as Mulligan filled them with the large letters. He spread them out in order on top of the oscilloscope that monitored Mulligan’s heart rate.
The nurse realized she tasted blood. She ran her tongue over the back of her lower lip. I bit a hole! She hurried to the bathroom to rinse her mouth.
The doctors were verbally fencing over the content of Mulligan’s message when the nurse returned from rinsing her mouth. Together, the three medical professionals determined the message to read, “W-A-N-T-T-O-T-A-L-K.”
“Are you asking if you can talk?” Liebowitz asked.
Mulligan nodded his head. The pain ebbed and flowed as his head moved, but he had to be certain that they understood his request. He fought to avoid blacking out—and won.
“You have a feeding tube in your throat which I will have removed,” Dr. Liebowitz told him. “While the nurse gets some equipment ready, I’ll need to explain some things to you.” He provided a brief overview of Mulligan’s injury, the extent of the damage, and the implications of removing the feeding tube.
Mike was appalled at what he heard. According to this man, part of his brain was missing. He would have to learn how to use his right side again. He would be both partially blind and deaf. He would never be able to recall certain things. All memory stored in the destroyed tissue was lost forever.
That’s what the doctor said. How much Mulligan understood was another thing altogether. The left side of the human brain is the storage receptacle for most specific terms. Dr. Liebowitz would not know how much his patient remembered or comprehended until his therapy was much further along.
The Lieutenant gagged as they removed the tube. Pain again swept through his mind. He fought it off. I talk. I talk. Now!
The nurse put a straw between his lips. He sucked a mouthful of cold water. Swallowing was another painful experience, but his throat felt better after the drink. He opened his mouth.
“How is wo-man?” No! “How is wiii-fff?” were the first words he rasped out.
Kate Mulligan was standing by his bedside, just out of his line of sight. She’d been standing there throughout the ordeal. When she heard Mike’s first words, she burst into tears.
He’s asking about me! She almost strangled the injured man with her joyous embrace.
This time, the pain attacked Mike’s brain. But, this time, for the first time since he’d been shot, when the pain overwhelmed his counterattack he lost consciousness with a lopsided smile on his face.
* * *
The first thing Elkhart remembered when he awoke to find an unfamiliar female face looking down at him was how loud the gunshots were. He remembered the terrifying variety of sounds during the gunfight. He remembered the pain in his arm. He remembered nothing else.
He pulled his eyes away from the female’s cobalt-colored eyes and looked down at his painful appendage. Someone had bandaged it.
“Anthony,” the woman called over her shoulder. “He’s waking up.”
“Good. Good.” The sound of the voice of Anthony Garmel was followed by the slowly focusing image of the man’s face and body as he moved toward Elkhart’s bed. “How do you feel?”
“A little weak.” Elkhart paused and croaked out a correction, “That’s not true, I feel a lot weak. Where am I?”
“At your place,” Garmel told him. “I took the liberty of taking you home after our escapade. My doctor says you’ll be fine. He used more stitches than I thought you’d need, but that’s why he’s a doctor. I flew him in from Chicago on a later flight. You can’t be too well prepared for events such as that unfortunate gunfight yesterday. He gave you blood. You lost quite a lot.”
“Drink a little of this,” the female instructed as she held a glass to his lips.
He drank thirstily of the proffered ice water.
“Do you remember Jana, my traveling secretary?” Garmel asked.
Elkhart gave a single nod.
“Good. I’ve instructed her to take special care of my newest regional manager.” He winked at Elkhart and left the room.
The term regional manager triggered a spasm in his arm, and icy water sloshed out of the drinking glass. Elkhart handed the glass back to Jana and used the bed sheet to dab water from his pajamas.
“Anything you want?” Jana asked. She flashed a smile and added, “A towel, maybe?”
“Just sleep. And the sheet’s fine for right now.” I’ve got to ask. “Is he serious?”
“Being regional manager. About my taking over for Mr. Brewster.”
“I would think so. He’s not one to make jokes about business.”
The conversation ended as Rick’s painkillers pulled him back into sleep.
* * *
The next morning, the brilliant Manzanita sun shone through Rick Elkhart’s bedroom window. He was sitting up in his bed running potential scenarios as a regional manager through his mind.
Jana entered the bedroom with a breakfast tray. She placed it on the bed over his legs.
“I hope you like eggs. I couldn’t find any breakfast meat, so I made toast and a cheese omelet.”
“Eggs are just fine. Thanks. I don’t keep a lot of meat in the fridge. I buy fresh when I want it.”
He ate with relish. Healing and the special care he was receiving from of the voluptuous Jana stimulated his appetite. As he finished the last of his toast, Garmel entered.
“I’ll be leaving now. As regional manager, you have the authority to choose your own staff,” Garmel told him. “But, remember, Rick Elkhart is now responsible for all activity in this region, so choose your staff wisely.”
“Jana will stay the week to see that you mend properly. My private number is now included in your personal telephone book. You will find it under Importers of America.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll do my best,” Elkhart promised.
“You’d better.” Garmel gave Jana a knowing look. He turned and muttered, “Or I’ll find someone who will,” as he walked away.
* * *
“Please hurry, Phil. Please!”
Mamba finished listening to Kate Mulligan’s message on his office machine. She sounded distressed, or maybe it was distraught, he often confused those two emotional states. He played the message again. It didn’t help clarify Kate’s condition. He left right after the second playback.
Fifteen minutes later, he was riding the elevator to the ICU. He’d barely reached the nurses’ station when he heard a voice call his name.
“Phil, he can talk,” Kate’s voice was ecstatic as she greeted him from down the hallway. “It’s the miracle they said would have to happen!”
“It surely is,” he called back to her. Thank you, God!
“Come in and talk with him. Please!” Kate held open the door to her husband’s room.
“Lead the way,” said as he reached over her head and placed his hand on the door. Kate smiled up at him and headed in.
“Mike,” she called as they neared the bed. “There’s someone here to talk to you.”
The PI stepped around Kate and stopped short. Most of the bandages were off his friend’s face and head. He looks like a cadaver! He leaned over Mike’s bed.
“Hey, partner, it’s Phil. Phil Mamba.”
“I know you,” Mulligan said. “We can talk by, um, self. Please send wo-man, no, wife gone.”
I can barely understand him. How am I going to carry on a conversation?
“I’ll leave you two alone,” Kate told Phil. “Come and get me when you’re finished.”
“How are you doing, Mike?” Mamba felt like a fool as soon as he’d asked the question.
“I not know.” Mike’s annoyance was building by the hour. He could remember many things. But some things that he knew he should know eluded his recollection. Frustration was his most common emotion.
He knew the man that was talking to him. But he could not think of what to call him. The concept “name” was incompletely formed in his now incomplete mind.
“I know you,” he repeated. “But all I tell you is I know you. I don’t know what, uh, call you.”
“I’m Phil Mamba.” He sensed the rising frustration of his friend. He repeated his name a third time, “Phil Mamba.”
“Mam-ba,” Mulligan labored to reproduce the sound of the name. “I . . . you . . . do working, uh, each other.”
“That’s right. We were working together when you got hurt.”
“No. I . . . know. Person hit me. Then I got—” He stopped. The word he wanted was nowhere to be found. “I sorry. Don’t have word. When I got, uh . . . noise. No, hurt. No—”
“Shot,” Mamba offered. “The man who kidnapped you shot you.”
Shot. Shot. I must, um . . . remember shot!
“When shot happened, I lost piece of b… uh, top part.” He pointed to his head with his left hand. “Don’t have many words now.”
“I understand.” This must be killing him. He was a stickler for using the proper word at the proper time.
“Can you tell wo-man. She think don’t I know wo-man. Tell wo-man . . . No!” It was the most emphatic sound Mike had made since Phil entered the room. “Tell wife I—” He stopped speaking again. Tears of frustration trickled down his shrunken cheeks.
“I’ll tell her that you love her, Mike,” Phil choked out the words for the man in the hospital bed. Then the emotions churning in his chest got the upper hand. He began to sob.
Sobbing escalated to crying as he realized how much Mulligan had overcome. After several moments spent composing himself, he managed to add, “I’m sure Kate already knows that, but I’ll go and tell her for you.”
“Why you talk Kate?”
“Kate is the woman—your wife. Kate is her name.”
“Kate is wo— wife.”
“What I do, um, see to you?”
“I don’t— Wait! I’ve got it. I know what you want! You used to look like a mummy. But, now there are fewer bandages, but still lots of tubes running in and out of various places. Maybe it’s more like an android in a bad sci-fi movie.”
“That, um . . . fun talk. Okay?” Mulligan asked.
“Yeah, Mike, that was supposed to be funny.”
“I, um,” he made a low laugh-like sound. “Would fun talk.” Mulligan’s lips flickered in the hint of a smile. “But hurt . . . pain lot when my, uh, top part,” he pointed to his head again. “Hurt when top part . . . move fast.”
“Let’s be serious then. I’ve been praying for you.”
“Wo-man, wife, Kate tell pray by people. Thank all pray.” Mulligan’s already pallid complexion looked drained of what life it held.
You must be exhausted. I need to leave.
“I’ll tell them for you,” Mamba promised. “You get your rest now.” He patted his friend’s arm and left.
He tried to wipe the tears from his eyes—and failed. Kate’ll be crying and won’t notice he decided as he continued on to tell her of the love that his friend felt that he hadn’t been able to communicate.