K is for Killer Page 28


The glass doors slid open as I approached. I passed the hospital cafe to the left of the lobby, with its couches arranged in numerous conversational groupings. Several ambulatory patients, wearing robes and slippers, had elected to come down and sit with family members and friends. The area was rather like a large, comfortably furnished living room, complete with piped-in music and paintings by local artists. The scent in the lobby was not at all unpleasant but nonetheless reminded me of hard times. My aunt Gin had died here on a February night over ten years ago. I shut the door on the thought and all the memories that came with it.

The gift shop was open, and I did a quick detour. I wanted to buy something for Lieutenant Dolan, though I couldn't think quite what. Neither the teddy bears nor the peignoirs seemed appropriate. Finally I picked up an oversize candy bar and the latest issue of People. Entering a hospital room is always easier with an item in hand-anything to smooth your intrusion on the intimacies of illness. Ordinarily I wouldn't dream of conducting business with a man in his pajamas.

I paused at the information desk long enough to get his room number and directions to CCU, then hiked down countless corridors toward the bank of elevators in the west wing. I punched the button for three and emerged into a light, airy foyer with a glossy, snow-white floor. I turned left into a short hallway. The CCU waiting room was just to the right. I peered through the glass window set into the door. The room was empty and spare: a round table, three chairs, two love seats, a television set, pay phone, and several magazines. I moved over to the door leading into CCU. There was a phone on the wall and beside it a sign advising me to call in for permission to enter. A nurse or a ward clerk picked up the call, and I told her I wanted to see Lieutenant Dolan.

"Wait a minute and I'll check."

There was a pause, and then she told me to come on in. The curious thing about illness is that a lot of it looks just like you'd expect. We've seen it all on television: the activity at the nurses' station, the charts and the machinery designed to monitor the ailing. On the cardiac care unit, the floor nurses wore ordinary street clothes, which made the atmosphere seem more relaxed and less clinical. There were five or six of them, all young and quite friendly. Medical personnel could oversee vital signs from a central vantage point. I stood at the counter and watched eight different hearts beat, a row of green spiky hiccups on screens lined up on the desk.

The ward itself was done in southwestern colors: dusty pinks, mild sky blues, cool pale greens. The doors to each room were made of sliding glass, easily visible from the nurses' station, with draw drapes that could be pulled shut if privacy was required. The feel of the unit was as clean and quiet as a desert: no flowers, no artificial plants, all the laminate surfaces plain and spare. The paintings on the walls were of desert vistas, mountains rising in the distance.

I asked for Lieutenant Dolan, and the nurse directed me down the corridor. "Second door on the left," he said.


I paused in the doorway of Lieutenant Dolan's room, which was sleek and contemporary. The bed he rested on was as narrow as a monk's. I was used to seeing him on the job, in a rumpled gray suit, grumpy, harassed, completely businesslike. Here he seemed smaller. He was wearing an unstructured, pastel cotton gown with short sleeves and a tie back. He sported a day's growth of beard, which showed prickly gray across his cheeks. I could see the tired, ropy flesh of his neck, and his once muscular arms were looking stringy and thin. A floor-to-ceiling column near the head of his bed housed the paraphernalia necessary to monitor his status. Cables pasted to his chest looped up to a plug in the column, where a screen played out his vital signs like a ticker tape. He was reading the paper, half-glasses low on his nose. He was attached to an IV. When he caught sight of me, he set the paper aside and took his glasses off. He gave the edge of the sheet a tug, pulling it across his bare feet.

He motioned me in. "Well, look who it is. What brings you down here?" He ran a hand through his hair, which was sparse at best and now looked as if it had been slicked back with sweat. He pushed himself up against the angled bed. His plastic hospital bracelet made his wrist seem vulnerable, but he didn't seem ill. It was as if I'd caught him on a Sunday morning, lounging around in his pajamas before church.

"Cheney told me you were laid up, so I thought I'd pop by. I hope I didn't interrupt your paper."

"I've read it three times. I'm so desperate I'm down to the personals. Somebody named Erroll wants Louise to call him, in case you know either one."

I smiled, wishing he looked stronger, knowing I'd look even worse if I were in his place. I held out the magazine. "For you," I said. "I figure nothing in your condition precludes an overdose of gossip. If you're really bored, you can always do the crossword puzzle in the back. How're you feeling? You look good."

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