Monday morning, Jack rode out to NGIC. He had taken a taxi there after he returned with his things, depositing uniforms and toilet kit in the locker room of the gym. He might not always need a shower each morning, but he did not plan to commute in uniform. Rolling target, he thought. Today, he showered and changed before reporting to work. The morning consisted of security briefings and the other steps of checking into a highly classified workplace. Tony joined him in the cafeteria for lunch.
“Settling in OK, Jack?”
“So far. Still haven’t met my two new bosses, but I finished with Personnel, Security and Medical.”
“You’ll like both bosses. And what you don’t know about IED’s or networks, they have probably forgotten and moved on.”
“Why do they need me?”
“Because they have other things to do, and other specialists to supervise, but they know everyone’s job.”
“My kind of leaders, I hope.”
They ate some spoonfuls of fish chowder. Then Tony looked up.
“You said you were staying with a friend here in Charlottesville.”
“That’s right. Remember Major Paisley at the clinic?”
“Omigod, the Black Amazon?”
Jack grinned and nodded.
“What’s she doing here?”
“She retired on 20. Got on her bicycle to see the country. Took a temp job in Seattle, then another one at UVA Medical Center. She’s signed on with a local GP down on Fifth Street, so she’ll be here at least until next year.”
“Wait a minute – she was in the IED incident with you.”
“In the medical Humvee behind us. If she hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t be here.”
“I remember her. Damn fine-looking woman. And fierce, too. Word was, no one touched her without permission. Major Smythe said she was the most competent person at the clinic. She could run triage better than her doctors.”
“Smythe was no slouch. Hilda says she’s the one who patched me up enough to be flown out.”
“Hilda? That’s her name?”
“I doubt she’d remember me. I never got shot before she left.”
“Don’t bet on it. She remembered you when I mentioned you were here.”
“I’d like to see her again.”
“You will. I’m sure we do more than process paperwork here, don’t we?”
They took their trays to the scullery and returned to their respective duties. Jack met with both his bosses to determine how his days would be organized. Arty Monroe ran the Ordnance Division. He was a retired Bomb Disposal Officer who had made a name for himself disarming almost every kind of Russian, Israeli and American weaponry in the inventory, in addition to the earliest IED’s. Shelby Barnhardt was an active-duty major, already selected for lieutenant colonel and expecting orders any day. She led the HUMINT (human intelligence) Division. She had spent half of her career working undercover and a good portion of that overseas. When her cover was blown by Wikileaks, she almost did not make it out of Stockholm alive. She was moved to DIA, where she reorganized the way the intelligence agencies analyze and track insurgent networks. Jack had seen photos of them both, and something seemed familiar about Barnhardt.
Jack went into the meeting knowing all this about his two bosses and feeling very out of his element. His jaw dropped when he saw Cynthia Rowling sitting at the end of the table. She was as stunning as ever, but her hair was red instead of blonde.
Her hand shot up. “Hold it right there, Jack! Don’t say that name.” She indicated the chair across from them. “Coffee?” Jack nodded. She pushed the tray with the carafe and mugs toward him. Jack moved to the table and shook hands with his other boss. Arty Monroe looked like anyone’s next door neighbour: medium height, balding white hair, waist gone thick around the middle, wearing slacks, a white dress shirt with no tie, and steel-rimmed glasses. A ready smile. He looked curiously at the two of them but mercifully kept silent. Jack was not prone to blushing, but he could feel the heat at his collar.
“I might as well go first, since the cat’s out of the bag,” she said when Jack sat down. She looked at Arty. “Jack and I were good friends in Germany, a long time ago.” She looked at Jack. “I hope you’re not disappointed.”
“Now that the shock has passed, no. To paraphrase Casablanca, we’ll always have Stuttgart.”
“I agree. And memories they will remain.” She motioned toward Arty. “Arty and I have pretty much agreed to divide your days in half, one of us in the morning, the other in the afternoon. We’ll consult with each other if a big project or overtime is needed.”
“You haven’t had a chance to get to know the work yet, Jack,” said Arty, “so we won’t try to set this in concrete. Based on what you know already, do you see a preference for mornings or afternoons in a particular division?”
“Will I physically be working in two different spaces?”
“Unfortunately, yes. You’ll be one of only a half-dozen people here with the compartmentalized clearances to work in both divisions, but we can’t have your work sitting outside our spaces.”
Jack thought for a moment.
“Let me ask a personal question, Arty. Are you a morning person or a night person?”
Arty looked surprised. “Morning, I guess. Early to bed, early to rise and all that.”
“Perfect.” Jack winked at Shelby, who smiled in spite of herself. “Let’s start with mornings in Ordnance and afternoons in HUMINT.”
“What about TDY?” asked Shelby. Temporary Duty travel.
“Do I have that already?” asked Jack, surprised.
“Not right away, I hope,” said Arty, “but everyone here expects to have to fly to the scene to analyze details on-site, especially when we come across new ordnance.”
“Or we need to interview new players in-country,” added Shelby.
“I guess we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Jack.
“Good. That’s a start. Let’s do HUMINT the rest of today, so that you can get oriented in Ordnance first thing tomorrow.”
They rose, shook hands and walked out. Shelby and Jack went upstairs to the HUMINT Division. It looked like an office anywhere. Just desks and monitors, with shelves of books and file cabinets. Shelby introduced him to the other half-dozen people who worked there. Each seemed to specialize in a cultural area, so it looked like a mini-United Nations.
“You and I are the only ones who see the networks and how the HUMINT coming in connects. Your skill at noticing patterns is what we need here.”
“My skills can’t match yours.”
“I know that. That’s why I’m the boss, but you should know that I recommended grabbing you to Colonel Richardson when your name came up at the staff meeting in June.”
“That long ago?”
“Yes. You were still making your way up the Eastern Shore.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“It didn’t hurt that Arty knew about your intel on IED’s from Baghdad, either.”
“I smelled a set up when I first came here, but I didn’t know it ran so deep.”
Shelby laughed. “To her credit, the CO did devote the whole summer to trying to find someone matching the job description.” She showed him his desk, then arranged for each of the others to brief him on what they did. She told him to stop at 15:00 and spend the rest of the afternoon with the briefing books she had placed on his desk. She gave him the combination to his safe and disappeared into her office behind his desk.
That morning, Hilda rode out West Main and Ridge Street to Dr. Osborne’s office. What looked like a two-story house from the street had ample parking and storage on a floor below the main level. She wheeled her bicycle into the garage and climbed the stairs to the main floor. The door let into the reception area. Dr. Osborne was sitting at the receptionist’s station, in his white coat and bow tie. He stood when he saw her come in. He came around and shook hands.
“Hilda! I’m so glad you’re here.” He noticed her looking at the desk. “I came in early to check the schedule. Doris gets in at 8:30, and the first appointment isn’t until 10. I can give you a tour and help you get settled.”
“I heard you were short-handed, but I’ve never seen a doctor at the receptionist’s station.”
“We have been doing so much so fast with so little for so long –”
“That we can do everything with nothing immediately.”
“That’s about it. Coffee?”
Reginald Osborne led her down the hall to the kitchen, which now served as the break room. He stood six inches shorter than Hilda, but he walked with poise. His close-cropped hair was turning mostly grey, but his face was clear of lines, except for a few laugh lines by his eyes. Hilda liked his eyes. They twinkled the way she imagined eyes should twinkle in the stories she loved as a child, and he had the most expressive face she had ever seen. He poured two mugs of coffee from the coffeemaker and handed her one.
Hilda sniffed hers. “French Roast from Starbucks?” He nodded and smiled. “I like this place already.”
“I ask a lot of the staff, so I try to make the place liveable in any little way I can.”
He led her on a tour. The house had several exam rooms, a modest x-ray room with a digital x-ray machine. The exam room nearest the front entrance had most of an ER suite installed. Hilda admired the setup.
“You have a small hospital in here.”
“We need one. Many of our patients won’t go to the regular ER, but their families bring them here.” There were monitors and keyboards in every room and office, and the place was wired centrally. “Automatic backups every fifteen minutes.” A locked door secured the hall closet, where the controlled drugs were kept. “Only you and I will ever have the keys to this place. My office is there, and your place is there.” He pointed to the two rooms across from the locked door. “In addition to the closed-circuit TV in the hall, we can each verify that the other is going into the room.”
Hilda looked at the cameras in the hall. “You have better security than most Army hospitals.”
“I wish I could say it’s overkill, because we have mostly free samples from the drug reps. But we’ve had several attempted break-ins, so the systems do their job.”
“Don’t you have another nurse, a Mrs. Shifflett?”
“She took ill this month. We were getting along with Mary Lou, advertising for someone to replace her, until Mary Lou’s accident.”
“I’m sorry. I had no idea. I could have come in two weeks ago.”
He shrugged. “It’s OK. We got by, and now you’re here. And we should have two of you again soon.”
He spent the next hour showing her the medical records and briefing her on the status of his current patients. While they were talking, Doris Abernathy came in and took over the receptionist’s desk. A sturdy woman in her fifties, she looked like the kind of person who could keep an entire classroom of randy teenagers under control, which she had done for many years.
“Lordy, me, it’s the famous Hilda Paisley in person,” she said as she shook Hilda’s hand. “I was telling Dr. Osborne here, I didn’t think you’d really show up, being so famous and all.”
Hilda looked at Dr. Osborne with a question mark on her face. He smiled. “You’ve been famous ever since Chicago. Every sister in the health care system in Charlottesville knows who you are, Hilda.”
“They never let on at UVA last year.” Hilda’s surprise was obvious.
“My dear,” said Doris, waving at her, “it’s one of the things we like about you. You’re so modest.” Doris put her purse in her desk drawer and offered to get more coffee. As she went down the hall, Hilda was still shaking her head.
By the time the first patients showed up for their appointments, Hilda had a good feel for which rooms were used for what, and where the emergency supplies and equipment were. She figured that she could ask about anything less urgent.
Dr. Osborne came into the room where she was finishing up working on a boy’s cut arm. “Don’t forget to take your lunch break.” She looked at the clock, stunned that so much time had flown by.
They had three more patients in the afternoon. About 4 pm, a car came to a screeching halt outside. Doris called down the hall. “It’s the Michaels boys again!”
Dr. Osborne came out of his room, walking quickly down the hall.
“Clean up in the ER and be ready,” he said as he passed Hilda’s room. She immediately excused herself and went to the ER. Doris stuck her head in.
“You finished with Mrs. Edwards?”
“Basically. I was just putting an ace bandage on her knee.”
“I can do that. I’ll check her out.”
Dr. Osborne came in, followed by two young men holding a teenage boy between them. Hilda took the injured boy’s legs and helped them swing him onto the table. He was bleeding from a gunshot wound in his thigh. Hilda quickly ascertained from the blood flow that no arteries or veins had ruptured. No exit wound, so this would be a bullet extraction. She started an IV, while Dr. Osborne waved the two men out of the room and began cutting the pant leg away.
“Standard saline. It looks pretty clean.”
“Hold the antibiotic, then?”
“Yes, we’ll start it if we need it.”
Hilda assembled the tray of instruments and brought them over. Dr. Osborne preferred to get his own from the tray, rather than call for them, so Hilda had time to admire his skill. He had the bullet out in less than two minutes and nodded to Hilda to clean and close the wound.
Without a word, Hilda finished the job.
“What do you think, nurse? Clean or dirty?”
Hilda paused. No doctor had ever asked her opinion on something like that before. “Clean, sir.”
“I agree. Let’s skip the antibiotic unless he develops an infection. And thanks: I never expected to find everything I needed on the tray.”
“Not my first bullet wound, doctor.”
“Of course. Let’s brief him and get him out of here. By now the police should be waiting.”
“I don’t want no cops,” shouted the boy, grabbing the doctor’s arm.
“Hush, Tyrone. They have to take a statement and check the gun that shot you. Let me guess: Bernie’s?”
Tyrone looked terrified but nodded.
“OK. Tell them you were kidding around, and it accidentally went off. But you have to tell them whose gun it is, so they can match that bullet.” He pointed to the tray. “If they don’t, they have to keep an open case and arrest someone. Your mom and Mrs. Smith can straighten it out between them. Now stay off that leg for at least five days. Miz Abernathy out front will lend you a wheel chair. You can bring it back next week when we check your wound. OK?” Tyrone nodded sadly, then looked at the two officers waiting outside the door. Hilda recognized Walter Johnson, who winked at her over Tyrone’s head. Soon the victim, his older brothers and the police were gone, toting the bullet in an evidence bag.
Hilda finished cleaning up the ER and her hands, then joined Dr. Osborne in the kitchen/break room. She felt the let-down as she eased into a chair. He shoved a mug of coffee at her.
“Is that a typical day around here?” she asked as she blew on her coffee.
“Not really, but it’s never dull.”
“You know all patients this well?”
“No, but the Michaels are regulars. Not a one of them gets through adolescence without scars.”
“Were they really kidding around?”
“Probably less friendly than that. Bernie Smith has it in for Tyrone for a half-dozen reasons and may have been partaking of judgement-reducing substances this afternoon.” Hilda nodded. “I will be so glad when they start school next week. It corrals their hormones for most of the day.”
Hilda laughed at that. “Does anyone have a problem with your practice? I’m thinking we have two full-sized hospitals in this town.”
“They’re happy to have me here. They hate seeing my patients in their ER’s. Half of them are uninsured and the rest are non-compliant, repeat business.”
“How do you run a practice under those conditions?”
“Mostly they respect me. I delivered many of them. I made house calls until I bought this place, and I still call on the shut-ins. I forgot to mention that. We’re closed Wednesday afternoons for so I can make those rounds.
“Medicare and Medicaid pay for most of them, at least to some extent. That’s why Doris is so important to me. She taught math in public schools, so she’s a whiz with numbers and red tape. The government short-changes us on every bill, but I keep my costs down.”
“All this state-of-the-art equipment?”
“Much of it is second-hand, and I don’t have much staff – as you noticed this morning.”
“This is my first private practice, Dr. Osborne, but I’ve never heard of a doctor getting by on so little.”
“I don’t need much. I live alone, in the house that my great grandfather built. We never had much, but our parents made sure that we got good educations. No mortgage, no car payments, no school loans, no credit card debt – I’d rather put the money back into the practice.”
Hilda rode home that evening with a different perspective on her new employer. She had found her first hero outside the Army.
Back in the flat, Hilda and Jack exchanged impressions of their first day at work.
“So, Osborne was really looking for combat triage experience,” said Jack.
“I guess so, and I can’t believe that the whole community has been watching me since I arrived. It turns out that Suzie Bennett is his niece!”
“I feel kind of spied upon, too. Shelby Barnhardt said that my name came up at a staff meeting back in June, and she was the one who put Kathleen Richardson on my tail.”
“You knew this Shelby Barnhardt?”
“Well, that wasn’t the name she was using when I knew her. She was undercover in Germany, a long time ago.”
“Were you close?” Jack nodded. “That must have been a shock.” She grinned at him. “Well, if you survive being my lover, at least you’ll always get my name right.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek. “Let’s fix something for dinner. I’m famished.”
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,