Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The seventh chapter of my new novel. Thanks for reading, and all comments are welcome. 
Wayne C. Grantham


            The first thing that entered his very fuzzy consciousness was the smell he could only describe as “clean.” The bed Mars lay in was very comfortable, making him delay opening his eyes for a few moments. When he did open his eyes, he found himself in a room bathed in a soothing light. After a few moments of self-orientation, began to focus on the place in which he found himself. It was a hospital room, different from others he’d seen. A nurse, a short, somewhat stout middle-aged woman, wearing a white dress, stood at a computer with her back to him, checking readouts on a four-foot wide computer screen. Several graphic displays were spread across the wall screen; a heart monitor was the only one he was able to recognize.
He raised his head slightly and looked himself over. His left leg, immobilized, was in a sleeve that seemed to grow out of the mattress. It was slightly elevated and felt warm to his skin. His right arm was in another, tight at the wrist and elbow and shoulder, fully immobilized, but not uncomfortable. The sleeves over his leg and arm had tubes and wires attached. He also noticed several bandages and dressings on other parts of his body. The nurse, seeing increased activity on the monitors, turned. She was a matronly, fiftyish woman of Hispanic descent.
A band inside the sleeve immobilizing his right arm, tightened. It felt like a blood pressure cuff.
            “Bueno. You are awake,” she said. “My name is Conchita. I am your physician. Please don't try to move too much. It will hurt a lot and you might reinjure yourself. You have a broken collar bone, a fractured forearm and a compound fracture in your left leg. You also have many cuts, abrasions and bruises--some of them deep. You have a partially healed bullet wound in your left forearm, which was reopened by your fall. The cuts and the bullet wound have all been cleaned and glutured, but too much movement could pull them open.”
            “Where am I, Darlin’?” Mars, a big smile on his face, voice slurring, asked.
            “You are a patient in the Lopez y O’Flynn Trauma Center in Tecate, Freestate California,” Conchita replied, a note of pride in her voice. “Doctora Conchita O’Flynn, at your service. You are under the influence of a pain killer and a sedative.”
            “Good pain killer. I don’t feel any pain....” Mars tried to sit up. “Oof! I found the pain!” He clenched his eyes and screwed his face into a grimace.
            “Lay back and relax, Mr. Marlowe,” the doctor reached over and gently pushed him back into his pillow. “The pain killer isn’t strong enough for that, and I don’t want you to re-injure yourself.”
            Conchita moved to Mars’ bedside. She held a little cup containing a couple of pills to his mouth, and another with some water.
            “What’s this for?” He asked, turning his head away from the cup.
            “To help you relax and to help you heal faster. Your earlier medications are expiring.”
            “I have damn little choice but to relax, in this rig.” He answered.
            “You will mend faster if you are not tense. You will be able to return to your normal activities sooner, senor.”
            “Then, thank you, Doctor Conchita,” Mars forced a smile, with an attempt to rise, followed by another grimace, showing his pain. He allowed her to give him the medicine, and slugged it down with a swallow of water.
“You have a visitor waiting to see you on a legal matter. I have told her that you are recovering from severe trauma, and because of your sedation, may not be at your mental best. Do you wish to delay her visit until tomorrow?”
            “A legal matter, eh?” Mars chuckled. “Perhaps I’m an illegal alien?”
            Conchita laughed. “It would not be that,” she said.
            “Sure, I feel fine, if a little happier, probably, than I should. Send her in.”
            The doctor left and returned in a couple of minutes with a fortyish woman, well dressed in what might pass as a business suit—but not in California. It looked like a blend between a business suit and a sun dress. Skirt just above the knees, it was light, both in weight and in its pale turquoise color, with a jacket over a white open-throat blouse.
“So,” she began as she entered the room and saw Mars lying in the bed, “you are the gentleman who dropped in from the sky.”
“I’m Detective Lieutenant Eric Marlowe, at your service, Ma’am. Sorry I can’t stand and shake your hand.”
“I understand, Lieutenant.” She bowed her head slightly as she introduced herself. “I am Juanita Chen, owner and chief investigator for Dos Rios Protective.”
Juanita Chen was a tallish woman, with very quick, perceptive eyes and fine Asian features. She wore her bright black hair loose, but tied away from her face.  
“Charmed, Miss Chen.”
“You might not think so shortly. You are being held to determine your responsibility for the destruction of a Cessna 180, belonging to one of my clients, and the death of the other man in your aircraft.”
            “Go easy, Senorita Chen.” The doctor cautioned. “As I said before, he is under sedation.”
            Mars tried to move; once again pain lanced across his upper chest and shoulder. He tried to smile even more broadly at the very attractive investigator, while trying to hide a shooting pain caused by his movements. “Call me Mars. Feel like going dancing soon’s I get outa here?”
            Miss Chen gave Mars a sour look. “This is a serious situation.”
            “Perhaps this should wait....,” the doctor began.
            “Where’s Horiuchi?” Mars looked around the room.
            “Horiuchi?” Chen asked.
            “The copilot.”
            “There were only two of you in the wreckage. Well, you’d been thrown free of the helicopter.” Chen replied. “A search party scoured the area and found no one else, though they did find tracks leading away to the west. One of my men followed the tracks until they disappeared in a rocky area. We had no reason to believe these tracks were relevant.
“We have your sidearm,” she continued, “and the pilot's. We'll soon know if you shot him”
            “Do you have the weapon belonging to the pilot of the Cessna? He’s the one who killed our pilot,” Mars said.
            “If that's true,” Juanita replied, “it'd be a case of self defense. We'll soon know.”
“Not in California, it isn't,” was Mars’ retort. “Eddie Yarborough was an officer in the California Border Patrol.”
            “You're not in California now.” She said California as if it left a bad taste in her mouth. “Our legal system makes sense. No one has any rights not shared by all. Not you, not me, not even the governor. Being an ‘officer’ means nothing here, unless in the militia, and on duty. No one may initiate the use of force against another.”
            “Just a....” Mars started as he attempted again to sit up again. He fell back in pain.
            “Lie still!” commanded the doctor, gently pressing his chest down on the bed. “Do you want to be here all week?”
            “How long will I be here?” he asked.
            “You could leave in a couple of days, with portable meds and instructions on their use, except that you're being held by Senorita Chen.”
            Mars looked at the younger woman. “Your holding me here is an initiation of force,” Mars pointed out.
            “Very good, Gringo! You learn fast! Don’t worry, if you are found innocent, you will be reimbursed for your loss. Having observed the heart monitor as you speak,” Chen broke in, “I’m inclined to believe you are telling the truth as you understand it.”
            “You're involved,” she continued, “in the destruction of an aircraft insured by Dos Rios Protective. You also owe this establishment for its services. If the scenario you describe proves to be true by means of the physical evidence, this is what we have: Your pilot initiated an attack against the Cessna, destroying it.
“The Cessna's pilot returned fire from his parachute, killing his attacker. You crashed in Freestate California. The dead pilot is responsible for the destroyed Cessna, therefore the wreckage of the helicopter will go to Senor Alvarez, for whatever it's worth. He’ll be happy to learn that it didn’t burn. Dos Rios will cover the difference. It looks like you'll only be responsible for your debt to this medical facility.”
“Well,” Mars smiled. “I’m sure I can handle that! Let me call my bank.”
Both women laughed.
            “California money?” Juanita snorted.
            “This hospital does not accept or even recognize California currency as a value.” Conchita said. “I don't know anyone who does. If you have any California silver or gold, we can deal.”
            “What's wrong with California money?”
            Juanita stood and slapped the back of her one hand into the palm of the other, in the pose of a lecturer. “If they didn't get ink all over it, one could write a grocery list on it.”
            “I have some US minted gold and silver coins up in San Diego.” Mars said.
            “That would work. You might even be able to get a premium for them, for their numismatic value, but.....they are not here.” Juanita Chen replied.
            “Then, how can I pay?”
            “You get a job” Juanita said. “What can you do?”
            “I'm a homicide detective. I'm working on a murder in San Diego. My partner was killed. I need to get back there and finish the investigation.”
            The next morning found Mars reading a bedside monitor, finishing his breakfast with some difficulty, holding his fork with his left hand, which had become somewhat usable, for all the fact that he was right-handed. His muscles were very stiff and sore, he guessed that he was now off the painkillers.
He was wondering when he’d be able to get out of bed, if for no other reason than to use a real toilet in privacy, when Conchita came in and began looking over his readouts.
Moments later, Juanita entered.
            “Good morning, Marlowe,” she said, pulling a chair toward the hospital bed and seating herself. “Good news. You're cleared of the murder of the helicopter pilot. It turns out that he wasn’t actually shot at all. Apparently Senor Alvarez’ bullets merely smashed the helicopter’s wind screen and the flying shards cut him up badly. He was killed in the crash, of a broken neck.
”I can release you from custody, but you can't leave the country for a time. I'll want you to tell me what you know about this Horiuchi fellow.”
            “....Which leaves your responsibility to this hospital,” Conchita interrupted. “I'll get you a detailed tally when you’re ready to leave tomorrow, but it'll be between a half and one rand.”
            “How much in dollars?” Mars said while trying to load some beans on a tortilla.
            “A rand is a troy ounce of pure gold,” Juanita said. “I suppose that’s about ten thousand of your dollars....this week.”
            He held the clumsily-filled tortilla up, about to take a bite. “But you treated me, even though I have no money....that’s any good here.”
            “Of course,” Conchita laughed lightly. “We treat stray dogs too, Mr. Marlowe. I'll get you into a set of portable electrosplints in the morning, and you'll be free to go.”
            “And the bill?”
            “You will pay us when you can.”
            The next afternoon, after Mars had his new portable splints installed, Juanita Chen showed up. After she spoke for a few minutes with the hospital administrator, she met Mars in the lobby.
            “I’ve paid your hospital bill. I’d rather have you owe me than owe the hospital. What Dos Rios will owe you in reparations will lower your debt to us.  I have a proposal to offer you,” she said. “First, we have to get you some clothing that’s in better repair, as well as more fashionable.”
They walked to a nearby men's clothing store. Inside, the clothing was colorful, with Spanish, Mexican and Indian styles. Mars was wearing what was left of his business suit, damaged by his fall from the helicopter, and torn open at the leg and shoulder areas to accommodate his splints. An apparatus applied his weight above his knee on his broken leg. He stood in front of a triple mirror and was being measured up by a clothing salesman.
“Don’t you have any American clothes?” Mars asked, looking at the racks dubiously.
            Juanita laughed.
      The salesman dropped his eyes to Mars’ groin. “Aren’t you getting tired of sweaty balls all day, and that...that belly cinch of yours?”
            “Point taken,” Mars chuckled. “But it’ll take a while before I’ll get used to looking like a peacock.”
            “Peacocks look that way to attract pea hens, Mr. Marlowe,” she reminded him with a coy smile.
            It was while Mars was changing from his tattered suit into his new clothing that he found the envelope into which he’d placed Miss MacDougal’s Freestate money he’s found at the crime scene and at her San Diego loft. He showed them to Juanita.
            “Hold on to them,” she said as she counted up the amount. “We need to talk at my office.”
            Juanita walked along a sidewalk with Mars limping alongside. Mars was wearing a dark green kilt that fit over and partly concealed his leg apparatus and an Irish tartan poncho that covered a t-shirt and his handgun. It was all topped off with a fedora with a bald eagle’s flight feather tucked into the band.
            They entered a building and crossed a large lobby, filled with coin-operated video gaming stations and with a knick-knack stand on one side. They walked to an elevator.
The Dos Rios offices were on the tenth floor. They stepped out of the elevator and into the foyer of Dos Rios, they entered the office which had Juanita Chen’s name on the door. Juanita sat at her desk and offered Mars a chair.
            “I’m prepared to make you an offer, Mr. Marlowe”
            “Forget the offer, Miss Chen. I want to get back to San Diego. I’ll find a way to pay my damned hospital bill.”
            “It's your Wall.”
“But you can get through it.”
            Juanita tapped away on her desk surface while they talked. Mars couldn’t see the computer screen which has risen from the desk surface when she started it. He briefly wondered what she was doing.
            “Off the record, of course we can.” Juanita looked up from the monitor. “The Kennedy Border Wall was as foolish a plan as any hatched by the Gringos in this century, but you won't learn any secrets until you've become committed to Freestate.”
            “I'm a prisoner?”
            “You’re not a prisoner. Well, you are, in a way.” She eyed him through a businesswoman’s eyes. “I believe you are an honest and intelligent man. I have a couple of reasons to want you to stay--at least for a while. Hear me out, and if you reject my requests, and find another way to pay your bills, then you’ll be able to leave.”
            “Reasons? What are your reasons?”
            Juanita  continued talking while working at the computer. She pauses for a moment to read the screen.
            “Says here you're well thought of by your peers in San Diego PD, but you're regarded as a kind of a renegade by your superiors....”
            Mars shifted forward in his chair. “You can get my service records?’
            “....You'll need employment. You can learn to investigate claims.”
            “Me? An insurance dick? No....Where's the police department. I'll apply....”
            “Other than local security patrols and our competitors, we are the police. We don't have jack-booted civil servants sucking money out of people's pockets. We don't go harassing joy girls like you....”
            Mars stood. “....I don't roust hookers. That's vice....”
            “Of course you don’t,” Juanita commented sarcastically, with mock patience. “At Dos Rios, we protect our clients' persons and property. We recover losses caused by criminals, accidents or natural occurrences. Any claims we can't recover, we pay off. We try very hard not to have to pay off, and that brings us to the reason I brought you to my office.”
            “I'm investigating two murders--my partner and I were working on the murder of one Valerie MacDougal, a Free Stater who worked in California.” Mars sat down, splaying his hands over his knees. “My partner was killed, I think as a result of this investigation.”
            “Come to work for Dos Rios,” she continued, “and your first assignment will be the MacDougal murder. She was a client, and we don't like our clients murdered. As a bonus, you might find the solution of this case may contain clues to help you solve your partner’s murder. Does this interest you?”
            Mars only paused for a few seconds. “You have a deal.”
            Juanita extended her hand, which Mars shook with his left hand. “Then the money in your pocket will be your first two months’ pay.”

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