The Last Surgeon

Michael Palmer

St. Martin's Paperbacks

THE LAST SURGEON (Chapter One)

"Nick, Nick, throw it here! Come on, let it go!"

Nick Garrity cocked his right arm and lofted a perfect spiral to the gangly youth waiting across the yard. The boy, who would have been happy to keep playing until midnight, gathered in the pass effortlessly and immediately threw it back.

"Okay, that's it, Reggie. I gotta take Chance for a run and then get ready for work."

"One more pass. Just one more. After dinner I'll go over to your place and take Chance out. Promise."

Through the gloom of what was going to be a stormy evening, Nick could feel the boy's energy and see his enthusiasm. A drug-addicted mother, a long-gone father, time in juvenile detention for a crime no one seemed willing to talk about, seven years in a sequence of foster homes, and the kid was still upbeat and great to be around.

How in the hell do you do it? Nick wondered.

For most of the week, Nick's mood had been as somber as the prestorm sky. And as usual, there was no reason--at least not on the surface--to explain it. A night in the Helping Hands RV would improve his flagging morale. It usually did.

He made a final throw, handled as easily as most of the others, and then motioned for Reggie to come in.

"Come on, big guy. I've got to leave soon."

"So, where're you goin' tonight, Nick? D.C.?"

"I think so. Junie keeps track of that."

"Can I come?"

"It's a school night, and you promised to deal with Second Chance. Remember, don't let him off the leash or he'll see a squirrel and chase it to the moon. Greyhounds are bred to chase little furry animals. Use the long leash if you're going to throw him his Frisbee."

"How about I go with you tomorrow?"

"We'll see."

"I never get to do anything exciting."

"Yes, you do. Staying out of trouble is exciting."

Reggie punched Nick playfully in the side.

Nick put his arm around the youth's shoulders and walked with him to the back door. The modest one-family, with three bedrooms and a finished basement, was located in the Carroll Park section of Baltimore. Nick had lived there with June Wright and her husband, Sam, for a few months before renting the first floor of a refurbished two-family down the street, close to the park. Not long after the move, Reggie Smith, now fourteen, had taken over the basement bedroom.

A sequence of kids were constantly coming and going through the Wright household, including the six-year-old Levishefsky twins, Celeste and Bethany, who had been there for almost a year now. If one looked up "saint" in any encyclopedia, pictures of Junie, a sixty-year-old nurse, and Sam, a DPW worker, might well be there.

Since Junie would be working the RV tonight with Nick, her husband would be doing the cooking. The couple had children of their own, and grandchildren as well, but at every stage of their lives together, they had added foster children to the mix.

The Helping Hands RV was parked on the street by the Wrights' house. It was an aging thirty-four-foot mobile home converted into a general medical clinic. Nick loped past it on the way to his apartment. At six-foot-one, with broad shoulders and a solid chest, he still moved like the running back he had been in college before an illegal block had taken out most of his anterior cruciate ligament. Now the repaired knee was serviceable, but hardly ready to absorb a major hit.

Nick's father, once a football player himself, was a retired GP. The option of moving to the family home in Oregon was always available to Nick, but had never been one he had considered seriously. In general, his parents were decent, understanding people, though not about their only son. There was no reason to expect they would be. In that same encyclopedia, at least in their library, his picture might have been inserted next to the word "disappointment."

"This is our son, trauma surgeon Dr. Nick Garrity," they had introduced him on more than one occasion during the years when he was their golden child, "and this is his sister."

Nearing his apartment, Nick heard the low rumble of thunder in the distance, sounding like a truck engine slowly coming to life.

He tensed at the sound.

He always would.

Nick's duplex would never be featured in Architectural Digest, but that was fine by him. Oak floors, a variety of posters from the local art store, plus curtains and a few plants gave the place an airy, comfortable feel. He was bent over beside the mail slot, scooping up circulars and bills from the floor, when he was hit from behind hard enough to drive his forehead into the door. He turned, knowing what to expect. Second Chance sat, head cocked, panting around the red Frisbee in his mouth.

"I'm running behind," Nick said, rubbing at his forehead, half expecting blood. "Reggie's going to take you out."

The dog pointed his snout toward the door and shifted his behind.

"No go, pal. Gotta shower."

They had been a team for almost two years, dating back to the first and only time Nick had ever been to a dog track. Lost in thoughts about Sarah, he had been on an aimless drive that ended at a casino in West Virginia. After an hour losing at the slots, he wandered over to the adjacent Tri-State track. He was in the midst of a particularly difficult time, when self-destructive thoughts had once again been seeping into his mind.

Damn PTSD.

Second Chance, a long shot in the fifth race and a natural bet for Nick, had been well in the lead when he suddenly slowed dramatically. Twenty yards from the finish, he was trampled by seven dogs as they passed over and around him, and was left nearly motionless in the dust.

An hour later, Nick and the greyhound had claimed one another at the adoption tent, where the dog's sleazy trainer tried to convince the Army trauma surgeon that Chance's uneven, lurching gait was due to nothing more than a minor concussion. Back home, the "concussion" responded dramatically when Nick, assisted by Reggie, Sam, and two Army buddies, cleaned densely packed dirt from each of the greyhound's ear canals.

Of all the therapies Nick had tried in his battle against post-traumatic stress disorder, Second Chance's presence in his life was the most consistently effective.

There were days when Nick was able to fit in some calisthenics and weights before going out on the road, but tonight, after playing catch with Reggie, there was just no time. He showered and was dressing in his usual work uniform, jeans and a faded work shirt, when he glanced over at a printout he had taped to the wall beside his bed listing the ten levels of SUDS--the Subjective Units of Disturbance Scale he used to estimate his mood at any given time. This evening seemed like a five: Moderately upset, uncomfortable. Unpleasant feelings are still manageable with some effort.

Progress, that's all he and Dr. Deems had decreed he should shoot for--just a little progress each day. Days like today, even after all these years, it was difficult to tell whether or not he was succeeding. He spent a minute patting and scratching Chance, and then pulled on a Windbreaker and headed out the door.

The thunder was louder now.

THE LAST SURGEON. Copyright 2010 by Michael Palmer.