Falling like a rag doll
Danni found a vast field of unbroken powder snow irresistible.
She flew down it weaving sinuous patterns in the dazzling sunshine. She came to a stop in a white cloud, the air around
her full of glittering ice dust. She turned to watch her companion trailing fifty meters behind.
have to get better than that, or you’ll never keep up with me.’
‘I’m not racing’ said Val.
She glanced across at Danni’s face, almost invisible behind goggles and a thick coat of sun block. ‘Can
you actually feel the sun behind all that stuff on your face? This is supposed to be a pleasure trip not a ski race.’
For a split second, Danni’s shoulders dropped and Val realized she said the wrong thing. It’s two years
since she had that melanoma removed from her thigh and she’s still haunted by it, she thought.
It passed, and
Danni laughed. ‘Can’t be too careful, Mr. Sun doesn’t like me.’
The huge mountain dwarfed
the two women, flashes of yellow and red in the bright sun. Val looked around shading her eyes.
seen how steep this is?’ She turned back towards Danni. ‘Do I look scared? Can you see my legs
shaking? It’s really steep.’
‘When I look down there all I can see is lunch’ said Danni.
‘Look you can see the village; we’ll be down in no time.’
‘Oh sure you will be... but I’m
not the one who’s done promotions for ski clothes and bagged free lessons. I’m the terrified one that makes
you look good.’
The slope fell away in front of them; big heaps of snow thrown up into giant moguls. A novice
would have been petrified. Meribel nestled in the valley far below. Ice crystals hung glittering in the air; a
scene straight off a postcard. Val swung her backpack around and reached in to pull out a bottle of juice, drinking
slowly as she scanned the hills.
‘It is so stunning; you can see for miles.’ She almost had her breath
back. ‘You know the last time I came up here I couldn’t see for snow, a complete blizzard, it didn’t
seem so steep then. It made it so much easier, if you can’t see, you don’t know it’s steep.’
She laughed, ‘that sounds silly, but it made everything soft. It’s not so bad like that. Looking at
it now, it’s so clear it takes my breath away, but it looks twice as steep.’ She passed the bottle to Danni.
‘Do you want to finish this? I know you think lunch is two minutes down there, but it’s going to take me
a bit longer.’
Danni threw her head back and drank as though she was pouring sunshine down her throat; she turned
to toss the bottle back to Val.
Adjusting her goggles, she turned back to Val.
Jim was mad not to come. What work could have been so important to miss this.’
‘You can talk, you wouldn’t
be here if he was.’
‘I know. I’m dead grateful really. You take your time’ she said.
‘I’m going to zap down this. I don’t think my legs are working properly yet; I need to push myself.
I’ll wait for you down there somewhere. It’s only steep for a bit, you’ll see.’
gracefully forwards, searching the terrain ahead for the best route down. Val stood watching, lost in her thoughts.
Last night she’d slept in Lyon after dinner with the Mary, her teenage daughter and the French family she was staying
with, assuring them of the welcome their daughter would get in England. This morning she’d collected Danni from
Chambery airport and here they were three hours later on top of the world.
‘Watch me.’ Danni’s
words hung in the breeze behind her as she threw herself down the mountain. She skated to pick up speed like a downhill
racer, and flew over the first mogul, spraying loose power into the air behind her. Val stuffed the bottle in her pack
and slid forward tentatively, watching Danni flashing down the slope ahead of her; a slim figure moving along with the liquid
grace that came from years of practice, carving tracks between the mounds of snow
Val watched in awe, although it had
been a few years since she’d seen Danni ski, she knew about the promotions she’d run and the endless hours of
practice. Now she looked like a competition skier, with a touch of ballet dancer thrown in.
‘Just as well
she won’t be watching me’ muttered Val to herself as she set off, sliding forwards, sizing up the slope and keeping
one eye on the figure halfway down the mountain, shrinking rapidly into the distance as she watched.
And then the
picture shattered. Val caught her breath as Danni pitched forwards as her legs folded under her. It didn’t
make sense. Experienced skiers may fall, but they know what’s happening and their recovery starts before they
hit the ground. This looked terribly wrong; she fell like a rag doll, tumbling down the front of a steep bump hitting
the next one with her shoulder, snow flying up as her head caught the deeper powder in the valley. Val winced as Danni
rolled, skis arching through the air over her head as she disappeared over the top of the next bump, picking up speed before
crashing into the side of the next mogul. Bouncing and twisting violently, her body hurtled over another mound of snow,
one ski ripping off and flying through the air as she fell.
The yellow figure in the cloud of white powder bounced and
flew, airborne one second and hidden the next. She lost the other ski slid, tumbling down; crashing over bump after
bump after bump; lost in a flurry of snow that sprayed all around until she disappeared in a white plume.
paralyzed for a moment until adrenaline and panic kicked in. All thought of steepness went out of her head. She
forgot every technique she had ever learnt for skiing in control and went straight down, ignoring the bumps, ignoring the
hill, ignoring the sharp icy powder flying across her face. Her body stretching down into the troughs, bending and flexing
like rubber, as the hill got steeper and rougher. In the back of her mind a little voice said, ‘Take care, you’re
more use if you get there alive’ but the little voice trailed yards behind. Val let everything go, she’d
never skied like this before, and for sure she never would again, but she just had to get to Danni, who had still not moved.
Stopping might have been a problem if Val had thought about it. Flying down a really steep slope, she slammed around
at right angles to the hill and dug the skis in hard, sending powder and ice flying everywhere. Her legs soaked up the
terrain like pistons as her body angled almost flat to the snow to stop herself pitching down the slope. As she came
to rest, she kicked off her skis and knelt down alongside Danni.
She yelled at Danni but got no response. She reached
around the side of her neck feeling for a pulse. Did she dare move her? Had she broken her neck? How do
you tell? She couldn’t feel a pulse, and she could see no sign of movement. Gently prizing the goggles off
her face, she lifted an eyelid. She watched carefully in the bright light and just detected movement, the wide black
pupil contracting slowly. There was still hope. Val pulled open Danni’s jacket, put an ear against her chest,
and thought she could hear a faint beat? She tipped her head back, took a deep breath and blew into Danni’s mouth,
watching as her chest rose. She stopped and heard the breath come back out again. She did five more breaths and
then stood up to look around. Nothing but snow, not a sign of a soul.
loud as she could.
‘Au Secours,’ she yelled, remembering, she was in France. Back on her knees, she
breathed into Danni again. Should she pump her chest? Did heart massage do damage if the heart hadn’t stopped?
She tried to remember which mattered most, the breathing or the heart. Why hadn’t she gone to first aid classes?
She put her ear to Danni’s chest again, trying hard to listen. She could hear something, but her own heart thumped
so loudly that she could hardly hear anything else. Pulling Danni’s jacket open Val stared at her neck.
It always looked so simple in the movies when they took the pulse. Where do you put your fingers? A sigh came
from Danni’s lips as air escaped. Some air must have gone in.
Val’s freezing fingers could feel
nothing, and snow covered everything she touched. She blew more air into Danni’s mouth and tried to pull off a
glove at the same time. Somewhere there must be a pulse. She blew in another lungful of air and then stopped to
feel carefully for a pulse in her wrist. She could feel a weak beat. Val blew again and then counted the beats,
about twenty in fifteen seconds. She blew again and then counted her own pulse — more like thirty.
Why didn’t Danni breathe?
Should she try to phone? Who could she phone? Remember it’s 911 in
France. She had to keep Danni breathing, what ever she did, without that she’d be dead anyway. She breathed
for Danni again. How many breaths each minute were you supposed to do? She did three more while she tried to remember
which pocket she’d put her phone in. Danni still looked pink, her lips weren’t going blue and that thin
pulse kept going. After the third time she took it, Val knew she could tell her own heartbeat from Danni’s.
She dragged her phone out of her jacket and then heard a voice. She turned to look up the slope and saw a man coming
down. A ski patrol! She might be tired, but the man coming down the slope gave her some energy to keep going.
Three more breaths and she saw his skis stop beside her. Still gasping for breath herself, she tried to explain what
He dragged a radio out of his jacket while she kept blowing. The relief at the patrolman’s
arrival began to disappear. What good could he do? Even if they were keeping Danni alive, how could they get down
Still on her knees trying to blow breath into Danni, she heard him say something. She looked up quickly
as he touched her shoulder.
‘I have to keep going’ she said. How should she say that in French?
‘I do now.’ He said, ‘you rest. More come.’
What did he mean, more come?
She staggered out of the way, as he knelt beside Danni and did what she’d been doing. Thank God for that, she
must have been doing it right. Her chest heaved in the thin air as she stood up and looked around. Two more men
were coming down the snow with a stretcher sled.
She looked at the sled. How could they get Danni on that and still
keep her breathing? The man on the ground signed to her to take over again so she got back on her knees and went at
it. Her wrists ached, her back hurt, but what else could she do? At the side of her vision, she could see the
stretcher being opened up. Then she heard the noise right above them. A chopper! Oh what a sound!
She blew a deep breath into Danni and said out loud.
‘Hang on Danni, hang on.’
It landed on
a flat patch of snow a little below them and off to the left. Looking up as she did yet another breath, she saw the
side open and two men get out. The patrolmen were obviously talking to the aircrew on the radio. One of them turned
to her. He spoke slowly, in broken English, checking that she understood. They were planning to put Danni on the
stretcher and dash for the chopper. They would have to stop the breathing for a minute, but they’d start again
as soon as they got to the chopper. Val opened Danni’s eye again and still the pupil moved. They had to
go for it.
One desperate heave got Danni onto the stretcher sled and then they were off. She stood amazed as they
headed straight for the chopper, counting seconds in her mind as they shot down the slope, swinging around in a cloud of spray
to stop right by the machine. They couldn’t have been more than forty-five seconds. She watched as they
put an oxygen mask on Danni’s face, then they heaved her into the chopper, one of the patrolmen leaped in with the crew.
In seconds the rotor whirled and the machine lifted off into the clear mountain air. Val looked around and saw Danni’s
skis back up the slope, a hat, and a glove lying forlorn on the snow.
She stood there a little longer, watching, praying
quietly as the chopper disappeared into the distance. Val checked herself; all the work in the thin mountain air had
left her still breathing hard, and her arms shook from all the effort. Should she leave the skis? Somehow, it
didn’t seem right; Danni might want them, and she couldn't just abandon them. She struggled back up, digging
her boots into the packed snow to climb the steep bumps and retrieve the skis. She picked up the hat and glove, stuffed
them in her jacket and turned back down the slope. The chopper had disappeared from view. It all seemed unreal.
The silence of the mountains filled the space where the sound of the helicopter had been. The sunlight made rainbows
in the ice crystals still floating in the air, the only signs of the desperate speed of her descent just minutes ago.
She clambered over the bumps, sliding down the biggest one on her behind, and sat in the snow next to her skis. Her
arms ached now. She could feel herself trembling all over. The stretcher men stood quietly waiting. Could
she get down to them?
‘Deep breath’ she told herself, ‘get your skis on, take it steady.’
Putting skis on halfway down a steep slope is never easy. She stood up, and carefully placed the skis across the snow.
She tried to stand on one leg to hit the loose snow off her boot with her pole, and almost fell over. She’d done
this a hundred times in the past, though not with a racing pulse and shaking muscles. She could feel the men watching,
feel her heart thumping, and couldn’t help thinking about Danni. Bottom leg first, toe into the binding and stamp
down. She felt the reassuring clunk as the rear binding locked; the second one had to be easier. The simple act
of concentration began to calm her nerves; the stretcher patrol waited. Holding Danni’s skis and poles over her
shoulder she slid down to them. No flashy stuff now. Weaving through the bumps, careful not to fall or drop the
skis until she came to rest alongside them. One of them spoke to her in English.
‘Are you OK?’
Somehow, there’s a social pressure to say yes, but she had to work hard to avoid bursting into tears.
will they take her?’
‘To the hospital down in the valley.’ He gave Val a card. ‘They
get there in a few minutes.’ The unspoken hope hung in mid air. ‘Are you her friend?’
She tried to look at the card but it made no sense. She stuffed it into her pocket and turned back to the patrolman.
‘Yes, we came here together.’
‘What will you do?’
‘Drive down to the hospital.’
Val shrugged, what did they expect her to say? ‘Are you going down now?’ The patrolmen nodded.
I put these skis on the sled, I feel a bit shaky.’
‘You can ride if you wish.’
It crossed Val’s
mind, but just the exchange of words had done something; it dragged a weak smile out of her,
‘I’m not that
shaky,’ she said, ‘just not used to carrying skis.’
They made their way down the hill in silence.
In the village, Val took the skis off the sled and the men wrapped up the stretcher and set off to make some sort of report.
She tried to put both sets of skis over her shoulder, but couldn’t, her arms were just too weary so she resorted to
clutching everything together in an ungainly bundle. Danni would hate it; Danni was always so cool. Around her
people bustled by, lost in their own conversations. If she could hold back the tears a little bit longer, she could
make it to the apartment. Thank Danni for that, she’d picked an apartment that let you straight onto the snow.
‘We’re going skiing, not walking, love.’ Danni had said. ‘We don’t want to
be spending the holiday walking.’
Val wrestled the skis into the locker along with her own and took the lift up
to the flat. She dragged off her jacket, gasping as Danni’s hat and glove fell out and almost lost it right then.
For two minutes, she lost herself in the struggle to get rid of ski clothes and dress more normally. Transferring her
purse and phone, she thought of phoning Jim but got no answer. Get to the hospital. Get to Danni, don’t
think, don’t imagine, don’t cry, just get there. Everything else can wait.
Professor Brogan finds a mystery
Jim Brogan walked slowly, concentrating. Nothing distinguished the
room, bland walls, a projector mounted in the ceiling and small linked tables arranged down the centre of the room.
Papers covered every surface.
‘These are all death certificates?’
‘Copies, yes, with post mortem
reports, and anything else we have, stapled on the back.’
Jim examined each paper in turn, jotting notes on a pad
as he moved along.
‘It’ll take me a few minutes to skim through this lot, get some tea if you want
The young man hovering in the background glanced at the girl.
‘Your usual Alice? Do you want
Alice nodded and Brogan shook his head, barely hearing the door bang as he turned over papers in
front of him.
Ten minutes later Brogan glanced at Alice
‘These are all the deaths in the first two hundred
Alice nodded. ‘The treatment groups are flagged at the top.’
a few more papers, a slow grin forming. ‘OK’ he said. ‘I’ve seen enough, what did you
want to tell me? Do you want to wait till Nat gets back with the tea?’
Watching Alice, Jim could see how
excited she was, or is she just nervous? Whatever he did, Jim knew that some people were intimidated by his reputation, but
Alice should be over that by now, so it ought not to be nerves. The door swung open as Nat pushed it with his foot and
backed into the room holding two mugs.
‘Did I miss anything?’
‘No. Are you planning to present
‘No Prof, it’s Alice’s work; I’m just here to learn. Oh, and Jean said
your mobile was ringing but she didn’t get to it in time.’
‘Did she say who it was?’
Do you want me to go and get it?’
‘No, she’s probably just ringing to say they’ve got there OK.
I’ll call her later. So, Alice, what do you make of it?’
Jim turned to look at Alice, peering over
his half round glasses, avoiding the confrontation of direct eye contact, glancing down at her hands, watching the fine tremor
in her fingers as she turned over the pages.
‘Prof, um, what I’m trying to say I think it’s really
exciting. Look at what they died of. In group A, all the deaths are cancer apart from two. Right?
But in group B, only six are cancer so if you run the numbers on just the cancer deaths, the difference is very significant.
It works. It works big time.’
A wry smile stayed on Brogan’s lips. ‘I thought that’s
what you might say. Something is going on for sure. It could be great, apart from a couple of things. The trial
protocol said we were going to run it for two years not six months. Stopping early would make anyone suspicious.
We’ve been through all that. You know darn well the literature shows that trials that stop early often turn out
to be less reliable in the long run.’ He paused for a moment, the fingers of his left hand beating a silent tattoo
on the table in front of him.
‘And what Prof?’
‘Why don’t you call
me Jim? You’ve been here almost a year now Alice, you’re part of the team.’ Jim smiled.
‘You’ve done a great job and you’ve got Nat here eating out of your hand.’
Nat laughed but the
slim figure in front of Jim clutched the sides of her head with both hands, her fingers disappearing into her short blond
‘But I’m missing something obvious aren’t I. Have I got to guess? It looks so exciting;
I know I’m getting carried away. I had to tell you. What is it? What am I missing?
did you show me?’
‘Most of the deaths in the test group weren’t cancer, so they don’t count do
Jim shook his head slowly. ‘You did the right thing, I needed to know, but what you’ve
shown me two things. Sure there are less cancer deaths but there is a significant excess of deaths from other causes
in the test group. Why the hell is that?’
The hand crept down her face, palms framing her cheeks for a moment.
Jim watched the tips of her fingers go white as they pressed into her temples.
‘You mean it might be causing that?
I thought it was only the cancer deaths that mattered. God, could it? How could it?’
‘I don’t know. You don’t know; but if you want me to rush out and tell the world that Immunon is a
blockbuster we’d better find out. I don’t know if you’ve ever done a big press conference, you know
ten TV cameras and a bunch of people waving microphones in front of them. How would you fancy telling that sort of audience
that we’ve got a new drug that boosts your immune system and doubles your chance of beating cancer – only one
snag – you’re four times as likely to die of something else.’ Jim leaned back in his seat. ‘That
sound like fun?’
‘I’m sorry Prof.’ Alice slumped in the seat looking defeated.
be. Don’t be. You did really well. You spotted something unusual, that’s what counts.
All we have to do now is figure out what the hell is really happening.’
Jim watched Alice recover and start to
smile at him.
‘You like that don’t you.’ She laughed. ‘You’re not going to
do like Sherlock Holmes and say “The game’s afoot.” or some such are you?’
Jim sat down, leaning
back in the chair, a broad grin creeping over his face, the grey-blue eyes twinkling for a moment.
epidemiologist not a detective.’
‘Find one body – get a detective. Find ten – get an epidemiologist.’
Said Alice and Nat in unison.
‘OK, so you’ve heard that one before.’ The smile disappeared.
‘Seriously now, lets do what we’re paid to do. I’ve given you a clue, what else do you see?
Both of you, what do you see?’
Alice and Nat starred at the papers for a full three minutes, not daring to look
at Jim, until Alice almost jumped up.
‘Oh it’s just so obvious.’
Jim glanced at Nat, who shook
his head. ‘OK Alice tell us.’
‘All those cases that didn’t die of cancer, well all but
one of them, we hardly know anything about them. The death certificates have just a cause of death and nothing else.
No stables, nothing on the back, no path reports, nothing about how they died.’
‘And why’s that?’
‘’A lot of them seem to have died abroad, or we’re still waiting for a coroner’s inquest.’
‘So we really do have some work to do. Someone must know something. We just have to find them.’
‘Do you suppose the company knows anything?’ This was Nat speaking. ‘I mean sometimes they
get notified if they have a surveillance system in place.’
‘Good thought Nat. They’ve gone a
bit quiet since they signed our contract. There’s some tricky politics going on over there.’
what Prof? That money pays my salary doesn’t it?’
‘I think the money’s safe enough Alice,
don’t worry about that. There’s some American outfit they’re talking to. I can’t find
out much. Some big shot is over this week I think.’
‘Oh come on Prof. You mean they’re being
Jim shrugged. ‘I don’t know, it seems more like being bought into. They’ve
always been a bit of an odd bunch, well the senior management anyway. Five or six years ago, I went down to their labs,
when they were still doing some of the animal work. I was treated like a VIP. The research man, Gerry Mathews
is OK – bit of a chemistry nerd, but very bright. The rest of them I didn’t know what to make of, they played
everything very close to their chests. Then as I was leaving I found some girl in the car park in floods of tears because
she’d just been fired. It was all a bit surreal – made me wonder what they were really like.’
you buy her lunch and give her a job?’
‘I have a reputation as a big softie do I?’ Jim laughed.
‘No I didn’t, she seemed to get over it pretty fast, but it sticks in your mind. It’s like inspecting
a posh restaurant and then finding a pile of dead rats outside the back door. Actually it was something to do with dead
rats. I forget the details. I’m rambling. Anyway, it’s worth a shot Nat. You probably
won’t get much out of them until this new money is sorted. Get onto Gerry in a couple of weeks, but before that
the two of you see what you can find out yourselves.’
Breathing in and out
mountain road is the same, horrible bends and a scattering of rocks and icy patches. Val ignored the idiot drivers trying
to overtake or blasting their horns. She slowed down and let them pass; not even having the energy to curse or get annoyed.
All her effort went into staying on the road, as one hairpin led to another, winding around the sides of the hills.
God for power steering’ she said to herself, her shoulders and wrists feeling every turn. Danni must be in safe
hands by now. She forced herself to take care. One random ice patch and she could be off the road. Just
be glad it’s not dark she thought.
In fifteen more kilometers she made it to the floor of the valley and began
to push along much faster; eating up the miles to the town. She couldn’t see signs to the hospital, somehow every
country positions its signs differently, and she didn’t have time to get used to it. Two stops to ask directions
got her to the hospital. She parked and ran to the entrance.
She asked at reception for Danni by name and drew
a blank. Had she got the right hospital? Surely, a town this size would only have one? Had the chopper gone
on to somewhere else? She slowed down; did Danni have an ID with her? She started again, asking whether a woman
had come by helicopter and that did the trick. Suddenly, they were all ears and a young woman appeared to lead her off
into the building. The receptionist found her a seat and disappeared into another room. It looked like every hospital
waiting area, uncomfortable seats and those double doors with round frosted windows. She waited, shuffling through the
small pile of ancient magazines. She found it impossible to summon enough concentration to read in French. She
stared blankly at the pictures; forgotten celebrities at even less memorable events. Do they write these things just
for hospital waiting rooms? Surely, no one reads them? It felt like ages before a man in a white coat emerged.
She struggled to remember medical words. Being born a Canadian gave her an advantage in France; in Canada, there are
enough bilingual signs and menus to keep some of the language ticking over, but who learned medical words?
English?’ How could he tell? Did that mean Danni was awake?
‘Yes. Is she all right?’
He sat down next to her — that had to be a bad sign.
‘We found her wallet, her insurance card and passport.
We know she is English; they sent me to talk to you, because my English is best.’
‘Yes, thank you.
How is she?’
‘I don’t know what to say. She is alive I think, but we have to breathe for her.
A ventilation machine, you understand? Her heart is beating but she does not breathe. Maybe she has some head
damage, we have to take X-rays, scans, you understand? Maybe she will need surgery. Did the helicopter take a
long time to come?’
Val tried to think.
‘She was alive. I tested her eyes, her pupils, they moved’
she said, pointing at her own eyes, searching his face to be sure he understood. ‘I got to her in a minute after
she fell. She had a pulse and I think I heard her heart. When I opened her eyes, the pupils got smaller, that’s
right isn’t? That meant she was alive didn’t it? I tried breathing straight away, you know by mouth-to-mouth,
and then the mountain patrolman came and he did some more. We stopped maybe forty-five seconds to get to the helicopter.’
Val watched his face; he looked disturbed.
‘Something is not right, the cardiogram is normal, not like a heart
attack but her muscles are very loose, le tonus, not right.’ He paused.
‘Oui, je comprends,’
He paused again. Val tried to think, tried to make sense of what he had said. Danni is not dead,
but something is wrong. She tried to think about the fall. It all seemed so fast. She must have hit her
head, but why did her legs fold up like that? There was something about the way she’d had fallen. In her
mind, she could see it again, and everything about it looked wrong. Nothing made sense. Slowly she came back in
‘What happens now, when will you do these tests? Can I see her?’
‘Of course, but
she is unconscious, on a ventilator, she cannot talk.’
‘I understand, but just a few minutes would help me.’
He stood up and took her hand to help her up, signaling the doorway with his other hand. He led her down a corridor
and stopped. He opened a cupboard next to the doorway and handed her a pair of overshoes. She carefully pulled
the blue polythene things over her feet, covering her shoes. She watched as he wiped his hands with alcohol gel and
copied his movements. The routine gave reassurance, but she could feel her heart in her mouth.
He pushed open the
door and something about the air changed, did they have positive pressure in intensive care? Why did hospitals smell
this way? You’d be able to tell where you were if you were blindfolded. She stepped into the room, staring
at the floor, not daring to look around the room until the doctor turned and led her towards Danni’s bed.
something scary about white sheets covering a body but she could see in a second Danni’s chest rising and falling as
the machine pumped. She recognized the familiar blond hair on the pillow, even though the breathing tube and the bandages
holding it in place almost covered Danni’s face. Val stood by the side of the bed and held Danni’s hand.
It felt warm and alive but the doctor’s words came back into her head — no tone — her hands and arms were
floppy. Val carefully slid Danni’s hand under the sheet, tucking it around to make sure her arm stayed on the
bed. The ventilator eased air in and out of Danni’s chest sounding like a small steam engine, lights on monitors
flashed and bleeped, wrapping Danni in a cocoon of medical technology, keeping her safe.
Val turned to the doctor, struggling
to stay calm. She felt terribly torn, desperate to go, to get out of the horrible sounds and smells of the hospital
and at the same time wanting to somehow breath energy back into Danni, to see her wake up, to get back to where they’d
been two hours ago.
‘Thank you so much, there isn’t anything I can do is there? Is there anything she needs?’
‘Where are you staying?’
‘An apartment, up in Meribel.’ She took the pad from him and
wrote the address and a number.
‘That’s my mobile phone, it works in France.’ He took the pad,
holding her hand briefly.
‘You go back there now; phone tomorrow, or come here, any time will be good.’
He opened his folder. ‘Can you tell this person?’ He held out Danni’s passport and opened it
at the back page. Val watched as his finger ran down to next of kin and it said Val Berry. Oh, how could Danni
‘That’s me.’ She said. She couldn’t begin to explain why Danni had
no one else.
‘You will be OK?’
Val stared into space, she wouldn’t be OK; she might never be the
same again. The thought of Danni under the white sheet filled her head. Danni hated white. His face looked
concerned, as though he wanted to be able to do something. Some remote control somewhere kicked into play.
be OK,’ she said.
He nodded. A nurse came through the door carrying a white polythene bag and handed it to
Val. Inside she could see Danni’s ski suit. The weight caught her by surprise, and she almost dropped it.
Putting her hand underneath she felt the ski boots. She nodded to the nurse, struggling to think what to say.
will phone in the morning?’ Val turned back to the doctor, glad to focus on something practical.
phone first thing to find out how she is but I’ll probably need to talk to you in the afternoon to find out what you
understand from your tests.’
‘Yes’ he said ‘the afternoon I think. Many things to do.’
Val stood up to go and the doctor solemnly shook hands, why do they always shake hands in France? The corridors
seemed twice as long. She had no sense of how the building worked, but eventually made it to the outside. The
bright sunshine and clear air felt like another world. She could only think of Danni and the suck - whoosh noise of
Somewhere, she had a car. She stared at the mountains rising thousands of feet above the valley
floor. She knew they were majestic, wonderful in so many ways, but right now it didn’t feel like that. Snow,
ice, skiing, all seemed to be part of another life. The thought flitted into her head that Danni would expect her to
ski again, but would Danni ever get out of hospital? Why were her muscles so floppy? Was her neck broken?
Was she paralyzed?
Driving back up the mountain was a grisly business. Small flurries of snow snaked across the
road; changing shape with each gust of wind and bend in the road. It felt cold and bitter and as she got higher the
snow thickened. It should have been the sort of magic journey every skier loves, climbing into fairyland where all the
rest of life is left behind. For Val everything had changed. Six hours earlier, she and Danni had put their skis
on and set off to fly around the mountains, living a dream that had become a wild nightmare.
It took an hour to get
back to the resort. Half way back to the resort Danni’s phone rang, buried in the bag with Danni’s clothes,
but she ignored it. She parked as the light faded. For two minutes, she just watched the layer of white get deeper,
covering the road and dusting people’s clothes as they walked by. In the distance, the slopes were disappearing
behind a veil, covering all traces of the day. In the morning, the world would look different, white, deep, and ready
for a fresh start.
Maybe tomorrow would feel better. Val struggled, still waiting for all the adrenaline to wash
out of her system. No sense in sitting in the car and freezing to death, she had to face the flat and Danni’s
things. She felt like just sitting and watching the snow flying aimlessly around the buildings. It had to be done,
confronted, and got through. The driving had made a difference. Muscles still ached, but at least she knew her
arms and legs worked. No sense in being like a snowflake, going any which way in the wind, settling wherever.
Danni wouldn’t expect her to drift; she’d always relied on Val as the steady rock, the one to come back to when
she needed a respite from all her wild schemes.
An inch of snow lay on the ground; astonishing how fast it came down.
Stepping out of the car, Val picked her way across the pavement and slid on the ice underneath the snow. Reflexes took
over, her left leg moving faster than she could think to balance the slide, and she came to rest still standing. The
jolt broke through the numbness for a second, and she thought, ‘The last thing I need to do is break a leg.’
The rush of new arrivals had died down. She asked a passing police foot patrol how long she could leave the car on the
street, and made her way into the apartment block and up to the flat.
Stepping in through the door, it all hit her again
and she collapsed in great sobbing tears. Holding her head in her hands and just letting it happen, she sat for ten
minutes as the sky darkened outside the flat and the steady fall of snow killed all the sound. She washed her face and
sat down again, then rolled onto her side clutching the tissues and resting her head on the pillow. In a few more minutes,
the sobbing had been replaced by steady breathing and she slept for two hours.
She woke with a start and it took a second
before it all came back.
Maybe a shower would help? She unzipped her ski suit, stripped off the rest of her clothes
and stepped into the cubicle. She let the hot water work for a long time, turning this way and that, trying to make
her body come alive. It made no difference; the numbness came from inside. Maybe eating would help.
the building opened onto the street, now blanketed with three inches of snow. She carefully drove the car round to the
underground parking and then found a restaurant, a small Italian place. She picked a table in the window, where she
could avoid the other customers. She took her time over a glass of white wine and stared at the snow piling up outside.
She looked composed, the tightly balled tissue in her left hand being the only sign that she was still on a knife-edge.
By the time the pasta arrived, another inch of snow had fallen, and another inch by the time she’d decided to skip the
Tiramisu and just have coffee and a brandy. She let the alcohol work its way down, sipping slowly.
She had no
one to talk to and nothing to do. All the way down in the car Danni had chattered. It had all seemed important
at the time but none of it meant anything now. All around her couples and groups chattered, scraps of conversation and
laughter drifting into her ears. None of it stuck in her mind, trivial foolish things only important to lovers, silly
jokes that only the wine makes funny, but the warmth mattered. People, life and energy, washed around the ragged ends
of her emotions, and she began to feel a ridiculous euphoria. It would be OK; Danni had got to the hospital in time.
She sipped the brandy and wished she could have told Danni. Danni would have turned it all into a story, a feature for
a magazine. Val gripped the table and drove her thoughts in the right direction.
‘Danni will write
about it,’ she muttered under her breath ‘she will get better. She will get better.’ She paid
the waiter and asked him what he thought of the weather, would it go on like this all night? He seemed to think it would
clear by morning. Outside she pulled her coat tightly around her and walked back to the apartment, avoiding the temptation
to see whether rushing about in the snow would be as much fun as in her childhood in Canada.
Back in the flat, she crawled
under the duvet. She lay there for half an hour with the day going round in her head. Tired, exhausted, but wide-awake,
whatever she did, that image came back of Danni falling down the slope, snow flying everywhere and a rag doll in a yellow
suit spinning, bouncing, crashing down the mountain in a cloud of snow. Why had she fallen like that, so loose, so out
of control? Another half hour of walking round the flat and watching the snow made no difference. She picked up
her phone, paged through a couple of numbers, pressed dial, and waited, looking nervously at her watch.
‘Jim, I didn’t wake you did I?’
A pause ‘Val, what’s the matter?’
Tears flooded down her face.
‘Jim’ she said in a croaking whisper.
‘Val, your voice sounds awful,
what’s happened? Take your time, I’ll hang on.’
‘Jim. Jim just hang on a minute.’
‘Val I’m listening, I’ll wait, if you can’t speak can you put Danni on?’
An awful moan
crept from her. Trying to stifle it, trying not to alarm Jim, she whispered,
‘Danni’s in hospital,
she’s unconscious on a ventilator.’ She struggled to get the sound out at all.
Are you OK, are you hurt?’
‘I’m not hurt.’
She heard Jim let out a long breath. ‘I
can listen all night.’ He said. ‘What do you need me to do?’ Just having him there helped;
she could feel his power. This was a man who had climbed mountains, held people on ropes over desperate cliffs, sat
with dying patients in the dark hours. Right now, almost nine hundred miles away, tied to her by a thread of electricity,
a trickle of electrons, she could feel him waiting, patient, and strong.
They talked for an hour, stumbling through
the day. Jim wanted to jump in the car to come and help, but Val slowly talked him out of that. Maybe tomorrow
when the doctors had done the tests then that might be the time.
‘Shall I give them your number’ she said
‘you’ll have more idea what they’re talking about if it gets terribly medical.’
I can ring them if you want.’
‘Can you ring Mary and tell her I don’t have much phone reception here.
I don’t think I can cope with talking to her just yet. If she calls, I’ll ignore it. Tell her to phone
you if she needs anything.’
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to come?’
‘No, not yet
anyway.’ Not now. Not now. Sleep now. She turned over and tried not to hear the suck and whoosh
of Danni’s ventilator as she finally drifted of to sleep.
Lombard walked with a menacing gait. Slow and poised, somehow giving off a force field around him so that he occupied
more space than the others. Lean and looking very fit, his quick gaze took in the room, the massive long table, the
wood paneled walls and leather-backed chairs. Everyone moved around cautiously, uneasy about being the first to sit
down, they formed up into small groups, seeking familiar faces amongst the general anxiety.
Carl strolled comfortably
to the head of the table and sat down. He leaned back in the chair, spreading one arm onto the back of the next seat,
a confident gesture to hide the frisson of doubt that crept in to the back of his mind. Long boardroom tables are hard
to dominate from one end, too many people are too far away and able to hide behind others. He surveyed the room, trying
to look as though he owned the place, in fact, knowing that he owned a very big share. He’d injected more money
into this company than they’d ever seen. As he watched them take their seats, just for those few seconds he had
them all where he wanted them.
When they’d all sat down, he got the first hint that he might not have it all his
own way. His Texan drawl seemed to bounce oddly off the dark walls. He started to feel tired, to feel out of place,
his pale suit and deep tan didn’t fit the sober, dark suited gathering. Flying overnight started to catch up with
him. He’d forgotten how much it takes out of you; even travelling first-class, he just didn’t get enough
‘Thank y’all for coming together so soon, specially on a Sunday.’ There were a few nods.
‘Is this some of your English Oak?’ he said, waving his hand towards the wood panels, trying to lighten the tone.
The question hung in the air, the silence increasing the pressure for someone to say something.
it’s walnut old boy,’ said a dry laconic voice from halfway back in the room. ‘They used the oak for
ships in the old days, I think. This has a better grain.’ Then feeling the silence around him the speaker
couldn’t help going on, ‘This is Tasmanian Walnut, especially imported years ago.’
help. The silence poured out of the walls, the dark suits looked at each other and waited.
Taking a deep
breath, Carl tried again.
‘Could we get some coffee in here? I don’t know about you guys but it’s
still night-time in my town.’
‘It should be here in a moment, perhaps we could introduce ourselves while
it’s on the way?’ This was an easy Home Counties accent, light, hanging on the air.
don’t you do that.’ Carl tried to keep the annoyance out of his voice, why didn’t he think of that.
‘You all know who I am but I’d sure like to know who y’all are and what you do.’
They went round
the room, functional, polite; directors, deputies; finance, sales, planning, personnel. Carl listened and made little
notes on the pad in front of him, trying to look as though it made sense, keeping his face a mask. The titles didn’t
really tell him what these guys did, it just made them seem more important and they were sizing him up. It ought to
be the other way around.
The coffee appeared; it gave a break, a chance to circulate and change the eye contact.
Carl still struggled, at home in the US he would have made a list; a blacklist of who to get even with, which scores to settle.
The company wouldn’t need all of these guys; sooner or later he’d have the pleasure of firing some of them, he
just had to figure them out.
One more shot to shake them up.
‘What do y’all think about changing the
name of the company? If we’re gonna make our name on a new product; get into cancer in a big way, should we get
ourselves a name to go with it?’
He felt a ripple around the room, who would break cover? He could see glances
being exchanged, an old face near the front smiled and raised his hand
‘It may be a good idea,’ he said.
‘We did consider it, but it can cost a great deal. We spoke to some branding consultants,’ he grimaced a
little, ‘they gave us a ball-park figure of half a million to do the work; you know searching copyright records, checking
out how it sounds in different languages, thinking about new graphics, testing customer reaction. None of it comes cheap.’
Carl watched for any other reaction.
‘Did you have something in mind?’
So, they were trying to put
the pressure back on him. Carl smiled ‘I just thought that we’re putting millions in here, it might be nice
to have something to show for it.’ His eyes locked with the old man.
‘Oh quite right’ he said,
seeming to give ground, ‘ but we do need to be careful. Imagine we brought in the name of your chairman, Mr. Vincent,
isn’t it? Dorton and Vincent sounds quite distinguished until you think of the letters. D and V isn’t
going to work for a pharmaceutical company.’ His lips crinkled in the slightest of smirk, ‘unless we just stick
to food poisoning, of course.’ Carl glared at him, the bastards were pulling his chain, well, that’s one
name on the list, he thought.
‘Sure’ he said ‘and VD don’t work so good either.’
Carl waited for the laugh and settled back in his chair, feeling as though he had at least won that exchange.
goes to show, there’s a lot in a name, that’s all I’m thinking about.’
* * *
Back in his hotel room Carl threw off his jacket, lay down on the bed and slowly
closed his eyes. He woke up cursing the phone and scowling at the clock that told him he'd had half an hour's
sleep. He picked up the phone struggling to get it in focus.
‘How d’yall get on Carlo?’
He’d know that voice anywhere.
‘Hey, Al, gimme a chance to wake up will ya, I don’t know what time
it is here.’
‘Take a shower, I’ll call back in ten.’
Hot water, steam, a big towel, a quick
fight with the kettle and figuring out which of the damn sachets gave him coffee, and the phone rang again.
I have to tell you, tough is the only word for it. The place is full of stuffed shirts. I lost count of all the lawyers
and accountants and you should have seen this incredible wood paneled boardroom. I felt like an alien.’
thought of the idea to just jump over there and shake them? You were gonna drag them in from home to see you on a Sunday
and show them who is boss.’ Even over the phone, the steel edge to the voice couldn’t be ignored.
Carl felt himself on the defensive.
‘Sure sure, don’t I know it.’ He gave ground; wriggling a
bit. How did Al do this? Five thousand miles away and he still had a hold like a vice.
‘I told you
we should bring them over here. Screw their wood panels.’ Al went on, ‘Let’s put them in some
concrete and glass, some high tech. Let’s pick up the pace.’
‘Sure, sure Al but it takes time.
We can’t just drag these guys out of their offices. We’re paying them Al, they work, they work for us, we
don’t need the thing to fall over. I’m just here to case the joint. Remember? You can beat them
up when you feel like it.’
‘Were any of them any good?’ You couldn’t keep Al off the money
‘It’s damned hard to tell. I’m seeing them one on one the day after tomorrow. I figured
I’d give myself some time to get over the jet lag.’
‘OK, you’re thinking better already.
We talk after that. Get your head on their time zone. See them in the hotel or something; don’t let them
play a home game on you.’
Carl put the phone down and stared at it, shuddering a little. Why did he stand
here naked talking on the phone to Al Vincent? He felt like Al could see down the phone. He saw himself in the
mirror and paused for a second. OK, good, he liked what he saw; he shifted his hips a little to improve the profile.
‘Jesus.’ He breathed out slowly, rubbed his hair with the towel and turned to look at the time, struggling
‘Damn it the man is in the office and it’s barely eight over there, and it’s a Sunday.
Thirty years I’ve known that man; whenever the hell did Al come in at eight, the bastard.’ He looked back
at the mirror, turning sideways, preening, convincing himself. He bent one arm flexing his biceps, and smiled at the
mirror and said with mock sincerity,
‘Don’t let him get to you kid; you know what makes that man tick, get
some sleep. Stop talking to yourself and get some sleep.’
Screaming and whooping
The light streaming through the window woke Val, but she lay in bed with her eyes open for ten minutes. Eventually
her feet made it to the floor and she picked up her phone, sitting on the bed to dial the hospital number. It took a
moment to navigate the switchboard, get through to intensive care, and find a nurse who then insisted on finding someone else
who could speak English. No amount of protestations from Val that her French could cope made any difference.
Finally, she asked ‘How is she?’ Almost holding her breath she listened.
‘She is in the operating
theatre since an hour ago.’
‘What operation? Why is she being operated on?’ Val could feel
‘She has a fracture of the skull, maybe some bleeding inside the head, some blood clot pressing on
the brain. An operation is needed to take away the pressure.’
‘Is that why she is unconscious?’
‘Maybe. The doctors will tell you when the operation is finished.’
‘Has she broken anything
else? Is her neck broken? Why were her arms and legs so weak, so floppy?’
‘I’m sorry; you
ask too many questions for me.’ Val could sense the nurse distancing herself. ‘The doctors will tell
you. I don’t think anything else is broken, but you must ask the doctors.’
Val tried to get her breath
back, should she rush down there?
‘What time will they finish operating? Shall I come to the hospital?’
‘Please telephone later, maybe eleven thirty or twelve. If you come there is nothing you can do, but you can
come anytime if you wish.’ Val knew that the nurse wanted to end the call. What else should she be asking?
‘Does Danni need any clothes, should I brink her night dress?’
‘There is no need while she is with
us. When she wakes up will be soon enough.’ Yes, Val thought, when she wakes up — oh that sounded
so good — when she wakes up. She almost said it out loud but stopped herself.
‘Thank you, thank you
so much, I will phone at twelve.’
Val put the phone down and stood up, suddenly almost dancing. When she
wakes up! She flung open the curtains and gazed out at the new deep snow. Silence hung over the resort, a few
figures moved here and there, as the crews started to dig out the drifts around their lifts. She turned and with an
jaunty air danced into the kitchen and set the coffee machine going. She pulled her jacket and boots over her tracksuit
and went down to the little bakery in the lobby of the building. She could have found the bakery just by the smell,
and in two minutes was back in the lift with a fresh baguette and two croissants.
A rich aroma of coffee welcomed
her back into the flat. She poured a cup and sat on the chair in the window looking out at the scene below. Gazing
out across the slopes she knew Danni would have loved it, she’d have been out there as soon as anything moved.
Val could see it all cranking into action. Everywhere she looked cars and chairs were starting to go up the various
ski lifts. She drank the coffee slowly, almost reluctantly, as the notion dawned on her that she had to ski again.
She could almost hear Danni saying
‘If you funk it now you’ll never ski again.’ It felt like
a battle inside her head, as if Danni could see, watching her, egging her on, and insisting that Val got out there.
Was this crazy, what if she fell, who would look after Danni if she hurt herself? She couldn’t get the voice out
of her head; she had to be positive. She stood there in her underwear for five minutes trying to get control of herself
before eventually opening her suitcase and dragging out a one-piece ski suit. Something had to be different. She
found a balaclava and goggles. What happens if you cry wearing goggles? Do tears freeze?
She collected her
skis and boots, hardly daring to look in the locker at Danni’s things. It took five minutes to get to a lift and
onto a chair taking her up into the white mass above. There were hoots and yells from people already having a wild time
in the new powder. Danni would have been one of them. She paused at the top of the lift, taking a moment to adjust
her hat and goggles. She took a deep breath, and set off.
‘OK Danni’ she said ‘this one is for
you, whoops and all.’ She came off the lift into deep powder, the stuff of legends. Pointing straight down
the hill, Val picked up some speed, but the snow slowed things down. Cruising down the hill, with her skis invisible
under the snow, it felt totally safe. If you fell in this, you had a cushion a foot thick to save you. She bent
her knees and swept into her first turn, and then she had her rhythm, turn, turn, turn, slicing through the new snow, aiming
almost straight down the mountain in long swooping curves. The exhilaration started to come back — but if you
didn’t concentrate a hundred percent, you’d end up flat on your back covered in snow. Loose power flew up
from her ski tips six inches under the snow. Tiny flakes played across her face, touching the only skin still exposed
between the goggles and the balaclava, cold and tingling, sharp in contrast to the heat of the sun.
she shouted at herself. ‘You have to whoop and shriek.’ She could hear Danni saying it, laughing at
her; she would have been halfway down the slope by now, leaving a trail for Val to follow.
She did her best. Danni
would have screamed louder, gone faster but Val had made enough sound, done what had to be done. It’s hard to
tell a scream of agony from a whoop of joy. Terror and exhilaration mixed with pain and fear can make quite a sound,
and it would have to do. Not as joyous as it should be, sad and desperate at times, she swept down the mountain, screaming
defiance at cruel gods, wishing Danni could hear. She reached the bottom exhausted, her reserves of energy gone, sobbing
uncontrollably in the middle of the snowfield. Other skiers flew by, some yelling and whooping, others on the edge of
terror, while she wept. It must have been five minutes before someone came over to her, a couple, sliding to a stop
‘Are you OK?’ said a voice in slightly halting English.
‘How did you know I am
English?’ The man pointed to the stickers on Val’s ski poles.
are you OK?’ said the woman. ‘You look upset, are you hurt? Can we help?’ Val dabbed at
her face with her tissue. Put her goggles back on and tried to smile. After a long pause, she said.
friend crashed yesterday, she fell here on this mountain. They took her to the hospital. She’s still unconscious,
it sounds foolish; I had to ski again to put away my fear. It’s done now.’
‘The helicopter yesterday?’
said the man. ‘We saw it take someone. This is your friend?’ Val nodded, pulled her goggles
away to dab at more tears, and nodded again.
‘You did well to ski again. Do you wish to try some more or
shall we buy you coffee?’ This came from the girl. Val looked at them both. She found something optimistic
about this care and concern from total strangers. More of the world edged its way back into her confused head.
more run and then coffee’ she said. The two of them nodded and they turned back down to the chair lift.
The massive chairs, had room for five, so the three of them went up together. At the top Val looked at them seriously.
‘It is important to whoop and scream’ she said, ‘very important.’
‘Your friend did that?’
said the woman.
‘My friend is the best in the world at that’ said Val. They set off and all three of
them screamed and yelled the whole way down, a wild, windswept, celebration for Danni. Exhaustion swept over Val by
the time they got to the café. She’d laid some ghosts and now, when Danni woke up she could tell her that
she’d overcome the demons. She could be strong enough to deal with it, and strong enough to go on.
together drinking coffee, the Swiss couple listening as Val told them about Danni; not a sad story about crashing on a mountain,
but a tale about a life lived flat out; nothing spared to make the best of everything.
In the back of her mind, she began
to worry about the time. She had to be sure to call the hospital but the thought of sitting there in the flat, surrounded
by Danni’s things horrified her. She started to worry again. It might be equally hard to make the call in
a restaurant but maybe a terrace café would do. She had to go back to get her phone. In the emotional turmoil
to get to the snow, she’d left it behind. She left the Swiss couple, almost shoving them out on the slopes again,
telling them to get on with their holiday, assuring them that she would be fine.
She waved them away and set off
to quickly get the phone, and then she’d sit in a café and think, or not think. Maybe Jim would ring.
What if Mary rang, how could she face talking to Mary? How do you tell a thirteen year old that your best friend is
unconscious? Tell your daughter who’s spent the last three weeks telling you to take this dream holiday that it’s
turned into a nightmare. Thank God for mobile phones; if Mary’s number comes up, don’t answer — oh
God what if Mary has a problem — I only came to back Mary up. Stop. Take one thing at a time. If Mary
phones, I’ll call her back, or get Jim to phone. Talk to Jim, talk to the hospital. No one else!
The door to Danni’s room was closed and her phone was sitting on the table, she could grab it without thinking.
No problem, Val reached to pick it up and heard a muffled ring; she picked up the phone and then realized it must be Danni’s
phone. Where? She threw open Danni’s door and scrabbled through the clothes she’d brought back from
the hospital. By the time got to the bottom of the bag the ringing had stopped. Mark Baxter it said. Who
is Mark Baxter? Why does he keep ringing? Should she call him back – but what would she say? Better
to wait until she’d talked to the hospital.
The phone hunt had broken the spell and the flat held no more
horrors. She sat on the sofa and dialed the hospital. The charming doctor radiated reassurance. They had
operated on Danni and there had been no problems.
‘The blood clot is removed,’ he said, ‘and
there is no sign of brain damage but she still needs the ventilator. Sometimes this happens; sometimes the brain takes
a while to recover. Do not worry, come to visit later today and talk some more.’
Baxter in his Boxter
Mark Baxter had taken his eye off the ball. No question about it. All the work
that Danni had thrown at him had taken over his life. He’d been sucked in. She said she’d come to
him because he’d done the pathology on her melanoma, it all sounded so genuine, but since then he’d seen her operate.
The woman was a viral marketing genius.
She’d made such a simple proposition; Immunon is going to be the
next cancer miracle cure. She would make contact with cancer self help groups because she knew them all.
found out so much when I had my cancer.’
Well who wouldn’t, you had to believe her. She would
get the inside track on the drug trial because she knew Jim Brogan’s girlfriend. Could Mark be a darling and prescribe
the drug when she couldn’t get it any other way? Such a simple request, and of course he went along with her idea
that he was a cancer specialist, her cancer specialist. Just because he’d diagnosed her tumour, hardly rocket
science – a plastic surgeon cuts a black spot off her thigh and sends it down to the lab in a pot with a form that says,
“Is this a melanoma?”
All he had to do was write a few private prescriptions and feed the rumour mill.
Well that part was his idea, because the share price was bound to rise and he’d make a fortune. She’d get
to be a hero for speeding up access to latest blockbuster drug for all these poor cancer patients. That was what she
wanted and he’d been dragged along by her infectious enthusiasm; she simply could not be resisted.
was fun too, running all over the country with Danni, talking to groups, chatting to oncologists on the phone, conning them
into thinking he was doing a research project, he’d even bunged the forms into the ethical committee. Even that
took two days, he couldn’t risk it being a complete fake, and so he’d dreamed up some notion about researching
patients’ perceptions on the new drug compared to whatever they’d had before.
It all took time, and
now he was paying for it. He’d spent the last two days trying to catch up and repair the damage. Trading
stocks online had started as a hobby, but it made money and money is a hell of a hobby. It’s addictive too and
he’d been sucked into day trading and that’s even more addictive until it goes wrong.
Sitting in the dark,
staring at but the last forty-eight hours had turned it into a nightmare. Trades that had always worked, patterns he
knew backwards, were suddenly looking different. Everything unravelled and too many of the wrong risks all came crashing down
at once. He eventually saw the real trends and changed strategy, but a mountain of debt had accumulated.
about the room around him said success; two years of getting it right had helped him sink money into the furniture, the carpet,
and the paintings on the wall, the stereo, and the computer. Everything about the room gave loud messages about money
and fortune, top of the range, designer goods; everything except the hunched figure in front of the screen. Weary, unwashed,
he reached out and turned off the PC and simply sat in the darkness. The elegant digital clock moved on to four thirty,
and still the figure in the chair remained unmoved. His eyes were fixed on the wall, but looking somewhere that no one
else could see. He gradually pulled himself together, and turned the chair around.
In the dim light his gaze ran
over the paintings in front of him. He knew what they were worth when he bought them, but what would he get in a forced
sale? That could wait. If he sold now, the dealers would steal him blind; he must not panic, that way led to disaster.
He stood for a moment, a shrunken figure, looking nothing like the six-foot-one his tailor knew, and shuffled
out of the room to the refrigerator. He stood in front of the huge American machine, half-empty now, and pulled out
a carton of fruit juice and poured a glass. He drank slowly pacing around the kitchen, coming to rest in front of a
wall chart. His finger ran across the calendar stopping on today. An easy day; he knew he could do it in his sleep.
It took two minutes to down the rest of the juice, set the alarm for six thirty and be asleep in bed.
later he’d run three miles and had an apple and some pineapple in the blender.
‘How about that for
a virtuous breakfast’ he said out loud, hitting the button and watching the fruit smash itself into a thick smoothy.
With the other hand, he hit the coffee grinder and filled the kitchen with noise for a few seconds. He let go of both
machines and dumped the coffee into a cafetière. The kettle came to the boil. He poured the water onto
the coffee and set the plunger on top of it and then emptied the blender into a large glass and put it in the fridge.
Leaving the coffee to brew he stepped from the kitchen into the small bathroom next door. It took three minutes to
shower, and another to be back in the kitchen, standing in a black towelling robe, pouring coffee and retrieving the smoothy.
After all that efficient motion, he stood for a moment sipping coffee and looking out of the window. He loved his flat
at the top of a tower, not a massive apartment, but a great address in the middle of town. He surveyed the scene, getting
a feeling of superiority from seeing the people moving like ants so far below. He drank slowly; savouring the fruit,
play at it like a wine buff.
‘More pineapple tomorrow I think.’ He slid the glass into the dishwasher
and carried the coffee through to the living room, switching on the TV with a remote and settling himself into a recliner
chair. He put the coffee on the side table and eased the chair back halfway to horizontal, letting himself relax as
the twenty-four-hour news emerged. He drank the coffee before the weather came up, and he seemed almost asleep when
the headlines began to repeat themselves. The chair came back upright, and his eyes opened. Rolling out of the
chair he walked along the corridor to the bedroom, stepping briefly into the office to flip on the PC as he passed.
He shaved and then contemplated a row of shirts and ties.
‘What colour are we today?’ he said, eventually
picking a pale green shirt and silk tie. A suit came out of the wardrobe, and he stepped into his shoes. The hunched
figure of three hours ago had become six-foot one of slim, smart, perfectly dressed, success. He looked at the mirror
for twenty seconds. He couldn’t remember who had taught him that if you don’t look a million dollars you
won't get a million dollars. He heard the sound of the letterbox springing shut and a soft thud as some letters
hit the floor.
‘That better be my million on the Premium Bonds’ he called out at the retreating postman,
invisible and unable to hear through the thick door, designed to keep the sounds of the world out. He stepped back into
the office to pick up his briefcase and looked at the PC, reached out to turn it off and then stopped. He clicked open
Outlook and typed a new email.
I hope you’re enjoying the skiing. When you get this can you give me a call, I’d like to step up what we’re
doing. I think we could do a lot more, I’ve been talking to some of the oncologists and I’ve had an idea
how to get to more of them. Call me when you’re back.’
off the PC, picked up the papers for today, slid them into the small leather briefcase, picked up his keys from the door,
threw a coat over his arm and paused to look at the post scattered on the floor. He scowled at the letters, kicking
the meaningless junk mail out of the way and stepped out of the door.
As he came out of the lift, he nodded to
the man on the door.
‘Morning Dr Baxter, another busy day?’
‘As always Michael,
as always.’ He walked past the line of cars in the garage, eyeing up the models, mentally pricing everything.
I’m still holding my own he thought, as he placed his coat and briefcase on the back seat then settled into the front
of the Porsche. The engine roared into life, and the red car slid forward.
‘Here comes Baxter in his
Boxter’ he shouted above the sound of the engine — until I have to sell the damn thing to get the bank off my
back, he thought.
Fiona in the game, not on the game
Carl felt like a new man,
completely rejuvenated by a night’s sleep. Time to seriously mess with these guys. He paged through his
little notebook and smiled as he picked up the phone.
‘Hi there, can I speak to Marie please?’ He
hung on for a moment. ‘Hi there, Al Vincent gave me your name, I’m his chief accountant back in the US,
does that name ring a bell with you?’
He listened and nodded for a few seconds. ‘Sure. Alessandro.
I call him Al; it’s the same guy. I need a girl for some work that needs a little more brains and I’ll need
her all day. He said you were the one to call. The girl needs to know something about secretarial work?
I just need to make it look like I have a secretary for a couple of days while I do some business, but I want one that makes
the opposition jealous. I want one so darn dishy that she puts them off their stride. Do you get the picture?
I don’t need her to type or anything, just kinda look like the part, she can draw pictures for all I care but I want
her to look the part.’ Pause.
‘Well sure, that would be fine, just fine, what’s it gonna cost
me for a whole day?’ He jotted figures on a pad.
‘I’m talking all day, and maybe dinner in the
evening.’ He listened for a moment ‘and it needs to be the same girl all day.’ Listening, jotting
down more notes.
‘Sure, sure, I know, that’s fine, so a thousand for the day, sure, that’s fine.
I ought to meet the young lady beforehand, just to discuss dress code and stuff like that.’
‘Well OK sure
if that’s the deal I’ll take her to dinner tonight, if that’s what it takes. Could be fun anyway.
I like to eat early, I’ll pick her up at six, your place will do fine.’
He put the phone down, chuckling,
mumbling ‘Al you old bastard, never even been in the town and you know who to call.’ He wrote the address
on the pad, picked up his jacket and strode out of the room, certainty in every step.
He strode into Reception and soon
monopolized one of the desk clerks.
‘I need a suite. I need a decent room I can do business in, big enough
for several people to meet, a desk, a table, high speed internet, all that stuff.’
‘We have a business centre
sir and that provides office facilities.’
‘I said a suite, I need it all where I can see it, totally private.’
‘I’m not sure we have that sir, the company said nothing about this when they made your booking sir.’
‘Those stuffed shirts wouldn’t know a day's work if it bit them. You’re part of a chain, is
that right? Get on to one of your other hotels — get me a suite — by tonight. Right? Nice and
relaxed, nothing too formal, nice low coffee table and some easy chairs. Somewhere in this great city, you have to be
able to get your hands on something as simple as that. Now you get on the phone, and I’ll go see what sort of
coffee you can rustle up in this charming little ‘ol hotel of yours.’
‘I understand sir. I’ll
see what I can do. Perhaps you would prefer something a little above the average, we have an arrangement with the Italian
coffee house next door, I don’t know whether you have any Italians in your part of Texas sir, but you can charge the
coffee to your room from there. I’ll see you shortly.’
That took his breath away a little; something
like service, with a bit of flair, hey maybe this city isn’t so bad after all.
‘That’s my man, OK
the Italian coffee it is.’ Carl half smiled at him, is it so obvious?
He admired the quality, no fuss, nothing
unusual, but like Italy from the first breath you took. The waiter might have just stepped off the street in Milan.
How do they do it? Not just style, not something skin deep, it comes from the blood and bones of these guys, every movement,
the shirt, the waistcoat, the napkin over his arm, the way he walked to the table, the attention. The coffee tasted
good before the waiter had even made it, and the biscotti, ah the biscotti…
Time slowed down, as though it had
dissolved in the water, tiny bubbles chased each other up the glass but even they seemed to have style. It all came
‘If uncle Vito could see me,’ he thought. ‘He’d have that old chessboard out by
now. Well those days are gone but that’s a smart guy back there in the hotel to spot the connection. I guess
that’s his job, front of house, see the little things, make the customers feel at home. What’s wrong with
looking Italian anyway, this is Europe. Who cares, let’s give the guy forty-five minutes to find my suite.’
He waved to the waiter and another cup appeared.
* * * * *
She looked just right. She claimed to know all the best restaurants in London. In half an hour, they were downstairs
in ‘Fifteen’ at a little table right at the end of the room. Sitting with his back to the wall, Carl could
look out over the restaurant and see Fiona in front of him.
‘Let’s get the rules straight kid, I’m
gonna tell you what to do and you’re gonna get paid a lot for doing it, but you don’t tell anyone else about any
of it, ever. It’s not kinky, or anything you might not do anyway, but there’s business behind it and I need
it to be my business and no-one else’s.’
She nodded, looking as though she’d heard it all before.
‘Clear?’ He said, with just a little more edge in his voice.
‘It’s what all the guys
‘Sure, I guess they do, but I think you’ll find this is just a bit different.’
do you want me to do?’
The question hung in the air, she turned as his eye line left her, looking past her shoulder
at the waiter who had just arrived.
‘Are you ready to order?’
She helped Carl though the menu, talking
him out of ordering steak.
‘It won’t be like Texas. Try something new.’
He picked the wine
himself and the waiter moved away.
‘I want you to play at being my secretary. I’m doing business with
a bunch of guys, seeing them one at a time in my suite. I want you there looking like my secretary, but I want you to
be as distracting sexy as you know how.’
‘You mean just sitting there crossing and un-crossing my legs?’
‘Worse than that, I want those guys getting flashes just when they don’t expect it. I want their mind
on what they might see next, I want half their brain thinking about whether you’re wearing panties, I want them off
their guard, disturbed. You get it? Can you do that?’
‘Like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct?’
He grinned at her. ‘You know that was just a film,’ she said, ‘just because you see her naked before
she put on the dress, it doesn’t mean they did the next shot that way. It’s all in the mind.’
‘Right on the button sugar — all in the imagination. That’s what
I want. I’ll give you five hundred extra if you don’t wear any underwear. How does that sound?
You can change when you get to the suite, no need to be walking about town like that, you might never get to me.’
She leaned forward conspiratorially, ‘I bet you’d like to dress me yourself,
just to make sure it’s right.’ Somehow she made it come real in his head. ‘Be fun wouldn’t
it,’ she said, ‘but is this for you or for business?’
‘I mean are you sure it works? I’m up for it, but are
you sure it will put these guys off? I mean what if they’re gay or something? Are you going to hire some
hunky window cleaner to appear at just the right moment?’
For a moment Carl stopped.
When he got up this morning it all seemed like such a good plan.
she said ‘they’ll be more upset by what they don’t see than what they do. Just like Sharon Stone.
I can wear a skirt so short they won’t need imagination, but that’s not the plan, is it?’
She was brighter than he expected and she had something about her, something familiar and edgy at the same time. Where
had he seen that before?
‘Were you ever a secretary?’
She laughed. ‘Yes, for a few years. They don’t teach secretaries that stuff, but I really am a properly
trained secretary, got to have something to go back to. In this business looks don’t last, charm and skills do.’
Carl looked hard at her.
know whether you’re talking yourself out of a job or into a job. You’ll be running my London office if you
keep on like this.’
The food arrived and he loved it. He read the story of
the restaurant on the menu.
‘So this Jamie guy, is he some sort of nut? He
took a big risk on this place didn’t he?’
‘You’re eating the food,
what do you think?’
‘I think someone round here can cook that’s for
sure.’ For five minutes they ate in silence. The Texan’s eyes roamed around the restaurant, taking
in the clientele. He glanced at Fiona
‘You must have been here before I guess,
taken here by some guys with money to throw around.’ She nodded. ‘Well that should help, you won’t
know the guys I’m seeing, but you’ll know the type, you’ll know what gets under their skin.’
She had it in her eyes, he could see it there, the more he looked at her, the more he thought she could handle anyone in the
room. ‘You could do this job I want done couldn’t you, do it better than I can think up, I bet?’
‘Maybe.’ One flash of the eyes and he knew she could do things he
couldn’t guess at. He had to keep himself under control, this is business, a woman like this can get to you.
‘OK, it’s a deal. I’ll leave it to you. Wear what you like.
Play it how you like, you’re there as my assistant, that’s what I’ll tell them and you do the business.
I just need a bit of an edge, something to get these guys on the wrong foot.’
don’t want me to take proper notes?’
‘No, I’ll tape the whole
thing, straight into my laptop, email it back home, I’ll have a typed version back here before you’ve put your
panties back on.’
‘You’re obsessed about panties.’
He grinned and relaxed for the first time.
‘Maybe I am at that. I’ll
have to watch that, no giving away weaknesses.’
They both laughed. The dessert
menu produced just what it promised and then coffee appeared. He watched the clientele some more.
‘Make sure I have your number kid, not the agency, your number, I’m gonna be back here a few times, I might need
some more help.’ He waved at the waiter. ‘Can you get me the check and call a cab for this lady, I’m
gonna walk a little ways.’
Betting on Fiona
They found Carl a suite.
Fiona came early. He tested the link to Houston, and it all looked good. Fiona set herself up in the corridor
with a table and an easy chair and a sign that said “Please Wait Here”. She sat and looked charming.
When the first director appeared, she held him there for five minutes, fussing over him just a little and she used all her
experience from the escort trade to size him up. Carl watched it all through the peephole and picked the right moment
to open the door. They went in together and she set about getting coffee. Just enough perfume and just enough
body language for the innocent victim to feel encouraged, being willed on by her in this tricky battle with the American.
She distracted, encouraged, and enticed, all at the same time.
Every visitor said more than they intended.
It didn’t matter what the men were talking about, she used her posture, her breathing, slight changes in her voice;
she knew when things were getting tense, when to flash a smile or get up to do something, when to play with the coffee machine
or pick up a pager. There were enough props for her to be able to be noticed whenever she knew there would be an impact.
She watched Carl out of the corner of her eye. He noticed the details; she had all the moves perfected, occasionally
showing just a bit more leg than anyone had a right to see and half glimpses of cleavage. Her clever blouse could somehow
be too loose and yet clinging, he could swear she had no bra and found himself watching to see if he could catch a flash of
nipple. She mesmerised, she had him going, and he knew the game. He’d paid for it. Somewhere in the
back of his mind it felt like a real good investment for all the wrong reasons.
They compared notes as each visitor
left. She adjusted the position of the tables and chairs a little, changing the angles, the eye lines, moving the coffee
and the papers as they spoke. It worked; he just had to keep his mind on the job. They stuck to the routine through
Some of the people he saw were relaxed and not even spooked by Fiona, too relaxed. He figured
it out. They were the ones with big shareholdings, they’d made a pile out of the deal, his deal, his money, they
were tied into a year’s work, but they had it all in the bank. Nothing mattered to them, happy enough to have
their brains picked, but they didn’t care if he didn’t ask the right questions. All these big shots were
done by lunch.
Over lunch he’d have been all over her, but she cooled it; subtly keeping him at arms length.
He knew she was flattering him, building his ego, remembering his good questions and the defensive reactions from some of
the visitors. It felt great, she had him believing in his own importance. He knew what she was about, but knowing
didn’t stop her doing it. As they got ready for the afternoon shift she flashed him a wicked grin.
you think any of them guessed right about the panties?’
Before he could gather his wits she had her finger on
her lips. One look said, ‘work before play,’ and he found himself really looking forward to the afternoon.
She kept it up right through till five and carried him with her; he picked holes in their arguments, got behind the facade
and had them all sized up. What a day!
‘How did it go?’ she asked, when the last one had left.
Her hair flicked across her face, and she still looked as sharp as the moment she arrived. ‘Did we do OK?’
‘You were great, they all told me more than they think they did, way more. You were kinda shy with
the second guy. What was going on there, did he say something I missed?’
‘I’ve met him before,
but I don’t think he remembered. It was years ago, but it just threw me for a second.’
your agency huh?’
‘No, not that.’ She shook her head vigorously. ‘It was my first
job, straight out of school. He fired me.’
‘Well he goes on the list, can’t say I liked him anyway.’
‘You can’t do that. You can’t fire him because of that. It was stupid, I probably deserved
Carl chuckled for a moment. ‘I don’t care what you did, if he couldn’t spot your talent
he deserves to go.’ He leaned back in the armchair, still grinning at her. ‘Hell, we are a great team.
Those were really the boring guys, there are some tougher nuts tomorrow, stuff I’m not so sure about.’
you want to spook them a bit more?’
‘Huh, you mean you’re gonna get longer legs overnight?’
‘That link to Texas, is it always on?’
‘Could be. Why?’
don’t you have them on video? Your secretary in Houston could take the notes live, for less than what you’re
paying me. We could go and get a projector, and you could have her six feet tall on the wall there.’
‘Interesting idea, does that put you out of a job?’
‘Up to you, they can’t send perfume
down those lines yet, but if you really want to wind up the pressure then get them both ways, charm and distraction at this
end, tech at that end. You’ll find out which ones can chew gum and walk.’
‘Honey you are
worth every penny, is there some place we can buy that kit at this time of night?’
‘There are half
a dozen places on Tottenham Court Road, we can get a cab but it’s quicker on the tube. Do you want to see the
‘You’re gonna take me?’
‘If I get dinner thrown
‘Deal. Say is this on the house or am I paying for the lesson?’
paid for all day anyway. Shall I put my panties back on?’
‘You mean, you... I thought
you said…’ She had him and he knew it. ‘Aw hell you’ve got me.’
just have to guess, just like the other guys, let’s go shopping.’
Danni looked a sorry sight. Her blond hair had been shaved away and green antiseptic paint made her scalp look
weird. The livid scar across one side of her head stood out; a dark bloody line curving above her temple, with black
sutures like ugly stubble all along it. A nurse fussed around getting ready to put some dressing on it; if she’d
come five minutes later it might have looked more civilized. The suck and whoosh of the ventilator punctuated every
conversation and the bleeping monitors played a strange harmony across it. Val took a disconcerting kind of reassurance
from the quivering green lines, signs of life, but not signs of normality.
Val held Danni’s hand for several
minutes trying to find the person under this cocoon of technology, but nothing came back. The muscles were just as floppy
and unresponsive as yesterday. Val whispered in the one ear that she could get close to.
here pet, right here. Don’t worry.’ What else could she say? Wake up Danni the snow’s
brilliant? Wake up Danni I’m scared to death by this. She squeezed her hand again and whispered ‘I’m
going to talk to the doctors now, I’ll come and see you soon.’ Can people hear what you say when they’re
The doctor did his best; showing her the X-rays with the hairline crack in the skull and explaining the
artery that had bled and put pressure on her brain. Val listened as carefully as she could, trying to take it all in
and thinking about what Jim would ask.
‘I have a very good friend who is a medical professor in England, could
he phone you? I don’t understand all these bones and things but he would know. Would that be all right?’
‘Yes of course.’ He wrote Jim’s name in his notebook and Val went back to the ward.
She sat with Danni for an hour trying to get used to seeing her face without the hair, trying to get used to the suck and
whoosh and the bleeping green lines. She could feel her own breathing falling into step with the ventilator until it
almost felt as if it breathed for both of them.
When people sleep they give off signs of life, they move, turn over,
sigh and snore, but Danni just lay still, inflating and deflating as the machine did its work. Val found herself whispering
the story of the morning into Danni’s ear, trying to convey some of the excitement of the new snow and something of
the care and attention of the Swiss couple. After an hour a nurse came to check the measurements and asked if Val wanted
a drink? It brought her back into the real world. She said goodbye to Danni and set off to find somewhere to eat
and phone Jim.
She drove aimlessly around the town, eventually parking in what looked like a friendly square. A
few minutes quietly walking around the shops settled her nerves a little and she phoned Jim.
“Hi, I’ve just
been to see Danni again.’
‘How is she? Any change?’
‘They did some sort of operation
in the night. They showed me an X-ray, some kind of hairline fracture on her skull and some bleeding inside. They
said they had to operate to relieve pressure. Does that make sense to you?’
‘Perfect sense. Did
she hit her head when she fell?’
‘I think she hit everything there was to hit, but all I couldn’t see
anything beyond a cloud of spray. We were on the steep part of Face, you know, the slope they used for the women’s
downhill at the Olympics, and she skied like the race was still on. Snow flying everywhere.’
are arteries just under the skull, between the bone and the coverings over the brain, if she cracked her skull she could have
damaged one of those and made it bleed. That makes pressure on the brain because the skull is a closed box, there’s
no room in there for a blood clot. Sounds like they were on the ball to spot it and deal with it.’
she hasn’t woken up Jim. I sat with her for an hour and she didn’t move a muscle. She’s warm
and pink and her chest goes up and down when the machine blows air in, but apart from that and all those bleeping machines
she could be dead. I know she isn’t because those machines don’t lie, but it feels awful.’
you ask them if they were happy for me to phone?’
‘Yes Jim, of course I did. Would you? I’m
sure it will all make more sense to you. All I can do is hold her hand and whisper in her ear.’
knock that Val. You’d be surprised what people can hear, I remember a woman who lay unconscious for weeks but
she remembered when they changed the curtains on the ward and that was two weeks before she woke up.’
mean Danni could be unconscious for weeks?’ The thought filled Val with horror. Could she stay out here
for weeks? Could Jim cope with the children that long? He anticipated her.
‘Don’t worry, if it
seems like she’ll be out for that long I’ll find a way of getting her back here; there are specialist agencies
that deal with moving patients, she could be flown back. I’ll talk to them about it. Don’t worry.
We’ll find a way; all you’ll have to do is drive back when you’re ready.’
Talking to Jim somehow
made the world seem like a safer place. Even eight hundred miles away he could do it. Val breathed a bit more
‘I don’t know what to do,’ she said. ‘I’m down here near the hospital, I
can’t window shop all day, but if I drive back up to the flat I’m almost an hour away from the hospital.’
‘Have you had lunch?’
‘Well why don’t you eat while I phone the hospital,
and then I’ll call you, and if you do need to hang around down there you’ll have to go and see a film or something.’
Val had finished eating when Jim called back. He’d had a long conversation with the doctors and they’d
started to form a plan. No one knew when Danni would wake up but they all felt confident that she would. All the
scans and tests had shown that nothing else seemed to be wrong, but they were still puzzled at her lack of muscle tone.
If that didn’t improve then some more sophisticated tests would have to be done, and then she’d have to move to
a more specialist hospital so, as Jim put it — that might as well be in England. Val could imagine the relief
of the local doctors after talking to Jim, if anyone could sort out exactly the right place for Danni to be then Jim could.
She could feel her anxiety going down as he spoke. It might take two or three days to make the arrangements, if Danni
woke up before then, no worry, Val would be there. If she drove back when they flew Danni home then she’d be back
a day or so before Mary. By the time he’d hung up her mind had cleared, she’d see Danni again and then go
back to the resort. She’d sort things out up there so that she could leave at any time and as soon as Jim had
made arrangements for Danni to be flown back then she’d be off. Flying back with Danni crossed her mind, but she’d
just be a spare part, one more thing for the medical team to worry about, and no use to anyone. At least she could drive
the car back and bring the luggage.
* * * * *
Three days later
it all went without any trouble, and although it felt weird, Val kissed Danni’s shaven head while the machine blew and
sucked. At least the green paint had gone. The ambulance set off to the airport and Val turned onto the motorway
ten minutes later.
She settled into the rhythm of the drive by the time the first tollbooth appeared at Chambery.
That provided a reminder that Danni wasn’t there when she had to stretch across to pay, but she coped without bursting
It took an hour to skirt around Lyon and she wondered if the plane had arrived back in England. She
pounded on until ‘Infinity’, the giant paper clip statue came into view as she joined the A6, even grinning slightly
as she remembered Danni’s comparison with the Angel of the North. Why do motorways have to have gigantic statues?
They couldn’t have known that she needed a gentle distraction from watching the trucks and waiting for Jim to call.
She stopped at the massive service station at Macon and phoned Jim, but he had nothing much to report. Danni had made
it across OK and was in ITU. Jim had visited her. She still needed the ventilator and nothing else had changed.
Jim did his best to sound reassuring, and said he’d call again later, they’d start doing some more tests to try
and find out why she was still unconscious, but these things happen.
‘Drive safely,’ he said, ‘take
your time, everything is under control.’
She sat in the restaurant watching the other diners. How come French
truck drivers eat piles of salad and ours live on pies and chips? The bustle of a lunchtime crowd surrounded her.
She’d sat here loads of time on her way to, or back from, some skiing holiday or other. It might be five hundred
miles from home but it felt like just down the road. She be up to the tunnel by ten, maybe, if she kept her foot down,
lose an hour on the clock changing to UK time, and maybe be home and in bed by one. Should she go home or go to Jim’s?
He’s bound to phone again later tonight, she thought, I’ll ask him then.
Just beyond Reims the road turns
north and comes down to just two lanes in each direction with no lighting. Val had to concentrate in the dark to be
sure she’d taken the right turn and relaxed when she saw the huge tourist sign welcoming her to Picardie. The
thrumming of the engine began to get into her bones. As she worked her way North the names of First World War battlegrounds
started to come up on signs. Mist swirled around the car as if the ghosts of forgotten armies were running across the
road. She could almost see the soldiers in the fog. North of Arras she caught a glimpse of the Canadian memorial
on Vimy Ridge. Tonight the starkly shattered columns of the memorial stand were just one more landmark. Val started
to worry about falling asleep and was looking out for a service station when Jim rang.
‘Just in time Jim, you can
keep me awake till I find some coffee.’
‘Is it that bad?’
‘It’s just been a long day
and it’s getting misty.’
‘Where are you?’
‘I passed Vimy a few minutes ago.’
‘Nearly there then, another hour maybe. Will it help you to stay awake if I talk about Danni or would you rather
not? You can call me when you stop?’
‘It’s OK; there’s no traffic and it might help.
What do you want to know?’
‘I’m puzzled by this floppiness, it seems out of proportion to the rest
of her injuries. Was she absolutely fine before the fall?’
‘I think so, she skied very fast.’
‘Yes but before that, earlier in the day?’
Val tried to think, remembering their arrival and Danni insisting
on dropping everything and getting on the slopes. Where had they gone? Nowhere much until they went up the lift
to the top of Face.
‘She did say something about getting her legs going. I think she said she’d zap
down to get her legs going, maybe something about them not getting going before then. Does that make sense?’
‘It might do, I’m just wondering what else might have been going on, something that might have set the fall
off, so we might be looking for what the fall did to her, and what did the fall; caused the fall — there might be more
than one problem. You know me, there’s something niggling me, something not quite right.’
little grey cells?’
‘No that’s Poirot, he’s a detective, whereas I’m an epidemiologist.’
‘I know, I’ve heard you say it, one body you get a detective, — you’re not suggesting there’s
ten more out there like Danni are you.’ She could hear Jim laughing at the other end of the phone.
he said ‘it’s patterns; epidemiology is about patterns, I like things to fit together. Something doesn’t
Val pounded on through the fog, relieved to hear Jim talk, to know he cared, Danni would be safe, and she
‘You can’t remember where the next service station is can you?’
quite a few, not so many big ones but they always have coffee in the petrol stations, you should get one of those in twenty
or thirty kilometres I guess.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ she said. ‘They just hide
when you want one.’
‘Are you going to come back here, I’ll probably still be up?’ She felt
another sprig of tension go. ‘I had thought about that,’ she said.
‘I wish you would. Why
don’t you stay here? Danni’s bound to be in hospital for a while, and you’ll want to be there.
When Mary gets back it’s just easy for me to keep an eye on her and Amy as just Amy one her own. In fact the two
together might be less trouble, I can give you some back up.’ Reassurance poured out of Jim. When you really
needed him he’d be right there, but the rest of the time he’d be in his research institute or lost in thinking
about numbers and patterns. That’s why she’d not married him, what difference would it make? He always
came when needed, but only then. Would marrying have changed that?
‘I’ll come to you Jim; you’re
right, I need the rest. I’ll ring you when I get out of the tunnel. I can see a coffee place coming up now,
so you go off and do clever things and work out what’s wrong with Danni.’
looks for plan B
‘So you’re Gerry the research man, huh?’
‘Director of Research,
yes, Gerry Mathews.’
‘Looks to me like you’re about 20 years younger than the rest of
these guys, you’re the whiz kid huh?’
Carl watched Gerry squirm at the name, but what else could you
call him? Carl had read the files; ten years in research labs working on protein chemistry, and hardly anyone expected
to understand a word he said.
‘I heard tell about you, these old guys bought you up. You must have
a pile in the bank, how come you ain’t on some beach some place, or did they tie you in?’
and almost made eye contact,
‘I came as part of the package, the company gave me what I wanted, and they
need what I’ve got. They can’t make these new drugs without me. This is a pretty old fashioned firm
Carl looked at his notes, glanced at Fiona to see what she made of the nerd sitting in front
of them. Gerry hadn’t really looked at either of them, Fiona rolled her eyes and moved a little closer, picking
up some papers and handing them to Carl as she moved. Gerry had to have gotten some of that scent. Carl couldn’t
miss it but there wasn’t even a flicker. Any thoughts Gerry had were obviously buried very deep.
glanced through the papers.
‘Ok Gerry, so how about you tell me all about this wonder drug of yours.
I talked to one of our guys back in the US, he liked it.’
The kid still looked really uncomfortable.
‘It’s hard to explain if you’re not a chemist’ he mumbled. ‘No offence, I mean, like
everyone can’t be a chemist.’
‘Try me son, but hey,’ he turned towards the computer
screen. ‘Say Marion are any of our boys around, no chance we could get someone on the line to talk to this good
old boy here?
Gerry whipped round, apparently seeing the screen for the first time, he watched intently as Marion
‘No one’s here yet, I think you’ve forgotten the time, Mr Lombard, there’s no one
here apart from me.’ Carl looked at his watch.
Fiona learned towards him, ‘It’s about
five in the morning over there; Marion came in specially for you.’
Gerry turned towards her. Carl
watched his eyes drift onto her cleavage, drawn like a magnet, ‘a boob man’, he thought. Gerry looked straight
at her for the first time.
‘Is that live to the States? What are you using?’
techie, ah ha. Now we’re getting somewhere.
‘Nothing very clever’ she said. ‘The
hotel has a good broadband pipe, so I got them to hook up a web cam at that end and we’ve got one here, free software,
nothing fancy, it does what we need.’
‘You could have come to my lab. I’ve got a lot better
than that, I videoconference all over the world, four places at once, I’ve been thinking about going up another gear,
if we start marketing this globally then we may need it.’ She turned slightly, looking down at the table to pick
up her coffee. Carl found himself leaning forward “you may just get half a nipple you lucky boy,” he thought
as she lifted the cup, and turned her shoulder to block his view. Carl could almost hear Gerry sigh.
you two’ said Carl, ‘let’s keep to the business, you can play with toys later.’
set up though,’ said Gerry. ‘None of the stuffed shirts here would think of that. You can talk to
me at the lab when you get back; or get your research guys. Get them to VC with me.’
Fiona cut in.
‘I’ll get the details from you when you go, there’s other things Carl wants to know.’ Carl’s
eyes flicked across at Fiona, thinking, “Gee this kid is good, what is it about her? I keep thinking I’ve
met her before, something about her face.”
‘Sure thing kid, now tell me about these trials, you’re
using some hotshot professor, some place. How come we don’t do this ourselves?’
some of the time, but we get significant kudos when we work with people who already have a good reputation. Also, to
tell the truth, this company doesn’t really have much of that sort of science in-house. It’s not like lab
work. Epidemiology and statistics is a specialist field, so I buy it in when I need it.’ He looked at Carl,
making eye contact for the first time. ‘We don’t have a mass of new drugs, so if we had our own people they’d
be hanging around doing nothing much of the time, I don’t want to pay for that, and I’m sure you don’t.’
Carl watched Fiona sit back, taking herself out of the eye line, making it easier to concentrate on Gerry, he
looked a little more comfortable, but still behaved as if Carl spoke another language. Surely it can’t just be
my Texan accent, Carl thought. Is the kid hiding something or does he just think he’s so much cleverer than I
Gerry kept going. ‘The real customers for our drugs are the doctors who prescribe. They’re
more likely to believe data from a trial if someone with a big reputation has done it. If we did everything in house,
they’d be suspicious; they might think we were hiding things, or, worst still, faking the results.’ Gerry
looked up nervously. ‘That doesn’t mean we do fake it. Um, it doesn’t mean anyone fakes it;
it’s just the way some people think.’
Carl grinned and sat back a bit further in his chair.
‘Ok, I know, I get the picture, I’m just winding you up.’
Gerry laughed, a quiet sort of strangled
laugh but it broke a bit more of the ice, he glanced at Fiona who gave him her best encouraging smile, “Hang in there,
you’re doing well” it said.
‘OK kid’ said Carl ‘we’re getting on the same
wavelength. Why does the trial take so long and cost so much?’
‘Immunon works by boosting the
immune system, the body’s natural defences, so in theory it could work on all cancers, a real wonder drug,.’
Gerry said it with some pride. ‘But that’s why there’s a problem. Every cancer is quite unique.
They all have different cells, grow at different rates, spread in their own particular ways. All that adds up to a tricky
question. How do you design a trial where you have a mixture of patients with different conditions? If you’re
doing something like a drug for high blood pressure it’s easy, just measure the blood pressure, and if it goes down
you have a winner. Most trials are about showing that a drug makes a difference and doesn’t do any harm.
Usually, there is only one endpoint, or at least not very many.’
Nods from across the table. A glance
at Fiona, more for moral support, Carl guessed. She tried to look as though she understood; Carl gave nothing away.
Carl knew no one could read his face; he’d spent a lifetime working at it. Gerry pressed on.
my drug it’s different. We could set up a different trial for each cancer. Some of them would take a lot
longer to report, but we thought maybe we could do several at once, better still, could we do it so that we could separate
out the individual cancers if we wanted to, or look at it all together, if that gives us a result faster.’ He
paused fractionally but now his own momentum drove him on. ‘Oh and add in the complication that each type of cancer
gets looked after by different doctors; surgeons take out your colon, breast surgeons do breasts, haematologists do blood
and so on. It makes for a lot of negotiating to keep it all in step.’
‘Sounds complicated, who
ties all this together?’
Marion’s voice came out of the computer.
‘How do you spell that?’
‘B-R-O-G-A-N’ he spelled out the letters, distracted
for a moment by the screen and the voice from Houston. Carl waited a second for Marion.
‘OK so tell
me about Brogan, some geek in a University is he? All brains and no balls, so we can make sure he does what we want?’
Gerry almost jumped. ‘Oh no, he’s not like that, quite the opposite, very clever, that’s
for sure, but tough, hard as nails, used to climb mountains, impossible to scare, totally straight.
sort of mountains?’
‘Big ones, I think; nasty ones, Alps, Himalayas, Andes, you name it. Nothing
shakes him.’ Something flickered across Fiona’s face, for a second she looked impressed. She glanced
at Carl, but Carl knew his own face was a mask. All those years of practice, eyes hooded, giving nothing away.
Gerry charged on.
‘See, the point is, if Brogan says the stuff works then everyone will believe it.
Like everyone — seriously. He costs money, he has a big set up, but because we’re using him we probably
only have to do one trial, if we use other people, less believable people, we might have to do more than one. You might
think Brogan is a risk because he can’t be bought. Uum I don’t mean that to sound bad, but you know what
I mean, but if we have a winner, like we think we have, then Brogan is a short cut. We’ll get through the regulation
stage and get all the approvals quicker, and that’s when the money starts to roll.’
will it take?’
‘We should have a good idea in two years. Maybe even quicker from some of the
fast killing cancers like lung and oesophagus, but for breast and colon and the other big numbers we’re probably talking
about two or three, maybe even five years.’
‘Why can’t we hit the streets singing and dancing
if it works on those fast killers?’
‘They are nasty cancers, they grow fast, but they’re mostly
caused by smoking, often difficult to get at, so we might see a big enough change to prove it works, but we still might not
save many people. Ninety percent of people with those cancers are dead in about two. Even if we doubled survival,
that’s still eighty percent dead. OK twice as many people surviving would be good, but the public health people
will still say that getting people to give up smoking is better value for money.’ He glanced at Carl’s fingers,
a brief panic rising, but they were clean, a non-smoker.
‘Sure, and they’d be right,’ said Carl,
‘do we have anything in that market?’
‘You mean for people giving up smoking? No.’
Gerry paused, caught for a moment, ‘I guess we could look at it, but it’s a crowded field.’
stood up, strolled over to the window.
‘Well, you’re not to know that back home they think I’m
a health freak. Let’s stick to the knitting. It’s a sound plan if you’re right about Brogan.
Maybe I should meet the man. Does he still climb, you said, used to climb?’
‘He gave it up a
while back; I don’t know the whole story. His wife left him; he has a daughter who lives with him. I think
he decided that risking your neck on ice halfway round the world didn’t fit with bringing up a kid. That’s
all I ever found out.’
‘Well he’d probably climb the legs off me anyway,’ said Carl, ‘bad
idea, but maybe we could get him to talk at a conference. Would he come and do some sort of presentation at an in-house
meeting, maybe over a dinner, if you told him the new boss from the US wanted to know all about it?’
might, I’m not sure if he approves of jetting around the world.’
‘Make a special note of that
will you Marion. We’ll find out.’ He paused. ‘So Brogan looks like a good bet, what can
It caught Gerry by surprise.
‘I don’t know. Um, there could be
some sort of side effect or something like that, or maybe it might not work at all.’
Gerry glanced sideways nervously; Fiona leaned forward, giving a flash of boob for encouragement. Carl smiled
inwardly. Smart girl; she didn’t miss a beat.
‘Well, you can’t find out everything in a trial.
Think about it. In a trial you test the drug on a few thousand patients, but once it starts to get used for real it
could get to millions. Something that goes wrong once in ten thousand times might not happen at all in a trial, or maybe
once. Not enough to see a pattern, but give it to a million people, and it happens a hundred times. That could
be a hundred inquests, a hundred bad headlines.’ Carl sensed Gerry disappearing again, hardly daring to look at
‘Sure kid but that’s down the pipe ain’t it. What about right now, any trouble right
‘One of the other drugs made a scare story, not ours, one of the other ones, similar sort of
idea, but it boosted the immune system so hard it nearly killed a few volunteers. You might have read about it.
Happened at Northwick Park Hospital. Of course, we know ours doesn’t do that, we’d have found out already.’
‘But?’ Carl homed in.
‘But, um, well, some of the trials in animals gave kind
of odd results, never did quite make sense of it, some of the rats died when we didn’t expect them to, chemistry looked
OK, no pattern to it, couldn’t replicate it, never did make sense of it.’ He looked up quickly. ‘Some
of that sort of stuff always happens, probably nothing, just random.’
‘Does Brogan know?’
‘Uuum, no I don’t think he does, um, should we tell him?’ He threw another nervous glance at Fiona.
‘No, no, we’ll let him find anything for himself, see how bright he is. What’s plan B?’
Everything went quiet. Gerry looked frantically from Carl to Fiona and back to the table in front of him
‘Plan B?’ he said. ‘I don’t think we have a plan B. Maybe your money coming
in is plan B.’ His voice could barely be heard. ‘I only offered the Brogan deal and that took some setting
up; he’s a hard man to get onside. No one asked for anything else’
Carl let him relax.
is a good plan, you’ve done your bit kid, but we still need a plan B, four or five years is a long shot without a plan
* * * * *
last visitor was Stephen Savage from sales, a rising star in the team, specially recruited to market Immunon. Young
and sharply dressed he took his time to sit down, taking in Fiona and the screen with the secretary in Texas.
picked up a cup of coffee from Fiona’s table and carried it across to his chair himself. He smiled at Fiona, sat
down and grinned at Carl.
‘Nice set up,’ he said, nodding at the screen. ‘She takes notes, and
you have it all down huh?’
Carl beamed ‘Sure, nice to be appreciated, I like to stay connected.’
‘I didn’t really come for that sort of conversation.’
Carl raised one eyebrow.
‘I thought we’d have a confidential chat, I could tell you how it is on the
inside of what you’ve bought. Not the sort of stuff I wanted someone to write down.’
‘Maybe you’d like to turn off that stuff first.’ Carl watched his face carefully
as he reached out to touch the keyboard. The screen blanked.
‘Could you pull out that lead as well
please, just so we can be sure she isn’t still listening in the dark.’
‘Kid, are you trying
to push me around?’
‘I’m just trying to get on the level, if you’re as sharp people think
you are, you don’t need all this stuff to stay on top. I admire it, I’ll give you that, you get a better
looking secretary in here than anyone we have, and you’re wired to home, and you’ve only been here a day.
I have things to say that could get me into trouble. If you don’t like what I say then you can fire me, but if
it isn’t written down then at least you can’t sue me.’
‘Fiona could write it down.’
‘She’s about to go round to that little coffee shop round the corner and bring us back some biscotti,
Carl eased back in his chair and smiled slowly, he’d played this kind of game before,
and there was nothing this kid could do to spook him. ‘Fiona honey,’ he said, without even turning his head,
‘could you pop round the corner and get us some coffee and biscotti, the guy on the desk will tell you where.
Take a break while you’re there and see if you can bring us back some of that coffee as well. This good ol’
boy will need some refreshment when we’re done. If he’s gonna be fired at least he can go with some decent
coffee to face the rest of the day.’ His eyes never left the young man, as the door closed he pulled the lead
out of the laptop and closed the lid.
* * * * *
In Texas the
screen blanked, Marion turned to a white-haired old man sitting in an armchair out of sight of the camera
sorry Mr Vincent there’s nothing I can do from this end; they’ve pulled the plug.’
have to get that smart-ass over here I guess, and find out what he really has to say. Damn fool Carlo should have put
in two cameras. He’s being spooked by that girl, did you get her name?’
‘I don’t think anyone said, Mr Vincent. She’s just someone Carlo hired over there,
she thought up the camera link and told me what to do at this end. Carlo said she came from that agency you told him
to call.’ Al nodded slowly. Marion glanced sideways at him. ‘She looks just like you.
I shouldn’t say this Mr Vincent, but were you ever in England?’
‘I don’t mind what you say Marion,
you’ve known me too long, but no, I never went to England. I might have to. I just might have to.’
He stared at the blank screen for a moment and then turned back to Marion. ‘That was the last man for Carlo, wasn’t
it. I guess I’ll get out of here. Thanks for all your help and coming in so early, in my whole life I never
knew this time of day.’
* * * * *
In London Carl
listened intently as the young man went on
‘You wanted a plan B.’
‘So you network as well as bullshit.’
‘I caught up with Gerry before I came in — he said he told you about Brogan. I don’t want to knock
it, it’s a good deal and Brogan is money in the bank when we get to marketing, but it takes a long time.’
‘I think that’s too long for you.’
‘Could be,’ Carl looked straight at him, if this kid
could tell what he was thinking then he should be working the tables. Carl raised one eyebrow a fraction, and the Stephen
‘Look, you have all the cards so you don’t need to mess around. I’ll tell you how I
see it. You’ve met all the old stuffed shirts that used to run this company. They’ve all got money
in the bank from this deal, your money as it happens, and they’re not hungry anymore. They won’t do anything
for you at any speed. I think you need speed. I don’t know where you got the money from for this deal, but
it didn’t come through any channels I’ve been able to track. Without meaning to offend, I think some of
it is your… um... Italian connections. I think you need a return on that money sooner rather than later.’
He looked up, Carl made sure he gave nothing away, happy to let the kid keep talking.
‘This drug Immunon, it could
be a winner; the word is starting to leak out. You’re living proof of that, you must have found out somehow, I
guess that’s why you put all this money into the company, but we have to get more momentum than we’ll get from
Brogan. That trial will give us respectability, it’s a fall back position, whenever we get challenged, but it’s
a slow burn. It gets us a product licence in the long run and sure we can make money after that, but we need a license
for each of those different cancers and that’s a lot of bureaucracy and it’s going to take time. I guess
what you don’t know is that we can market the drug without a licence.’ He looked up. Waiting.
Carl shifted slightly in his seat, leaning forward just a little.
‘Should I get my lawyers in right now kid, are
you on the level?’
‘One of the joys of the British National Health Service, lots of rules and a few back
doors in case the rules get in the way. Clinical freedom, the doctors must know best, that sort of stuff, good old British
tradition, if a doctor wants to, he can prescribe anything he likes. He just has to think it’s the best thing
for his patient. He takes a risk, of course, so docs don’t do it with any old thing, but they do it all the time.’
Carl didn’t move a muscle, but he thought fast. The kid thinks we got the money from the mob, close enough,
and he’s on the make, ambitious, but we’ll need to nail him down. This kid needs to meet Al, scare some
of the crap out of him.
‘Like when would doctors do that exactly? What makes them do that, kid?’
‘Drugs for children are a good example. More than half of the drugs that are used on children have only been
tested on adults. The companies have never bothered to apply for a paediatric licence, and the kids’ doctors take
the risk. It's not much of a risk, the cost of doing separate trials in kids is heavy, they're trickier to do,
ethics clearance is harder to get, so everyone turns a blind eye. There are other examples, it happens all the time,
especially when something new comes along. Doc says “nothing else works — patient’s only hope”
that sort of thing, and the patient gets the drug. It's a good old British compromise.’
‘Well, the catch is that it’s sailing close to the wind, if we deliberately marketed a drug
like that. That might be illegal, or at least breaching industry codes, but of course if we were pushed into it by the
docs and there was nothing written down about it anywhere in the company, we could probably slide home.’
kid, we might stay on the right side of a judge, but we won’t if we start to look like we're making big sales; they’re
gonna rumble us.’
‘We don’t aim for big sales. In fact, it’s best if we don’t even
try to make a lot on the price. If it costs a lot there’ll be resistance somewhere, but the sales aren’t
the issue; it’s the share price. We sell enough to let the market analysts see which way the wind is blowing,
we keep respectable with Brogan and the share price goes up. We aren’t a big outfit, really just this drug, and
some herbs and toothpaste. It’s not like there’s much gravity holding the share price down, no great mass
of other products acting as dead weight. A few good rumours, and up it goes. When it gets to the right point,
you can unload enough stock to get the Italian connection off your back, and I’ll sell mine as well.’
Carl struggled to keep calm, finally the kid had begun to get to him, but at that moment, Fiona swept in with a bag of biscotti
and a flask of coffee, did she listen at the door? Hell of a sense of timing if she didn’t.
guess you carry English money. Pay Fiona for this stuff, you can afford it from your pay rise.’
her purchases down on the side table,
‘It’s on the house’ she said ‘at least it’s on your
room bill, so nothing to pay me.’
‘They let you in on that did they? You get smarter every day.
So tell me,’ he said, turning to Stephen, ‘what did the stuffed shirts think of Fiona?’
spooked them a bit. I guess that’s the idea?’
‘I thought I might need some help I could rely
‘I think they spent some time making bets on what she was wearing.’ He looked up at Fiona
quickly with an apologetic look. ‘Sorry I didn’t mean that to sound the way it did.’
smiled with just the slightest hint of condescension. Carl had to admire her control, would she bite back he wondered?
‘We thought we’d give them something to think about,’ she said. ‘Were those perverts taking
bets on whether I wore a bra, is that what was on their minds?’
‘Something along those lines.’
the bet is?’
‘About fifty-fifty against the bra.’
Carl laughed out loud. ‘You
don’t know the half of it kid, I knew it would get those stuffed shirts going. So are you gonna tell us girl,
what’s the answer?’
‘I thought the idea with bets was that you put some money down.’
mean we have to pay to find out?’ Carl became more animated than he’d been all day. ‘What’s
She looked at the two of them and she half turned towards the door,
‘I seem to recall that
five hundred is the going rate.’ Stephen looked puzzled, but Carl knew what she meant.
and we get to see huh?’ He pulled five hundred dollars out of his wallet.
‘Will dollars do? I
don’t carry your money.’
Fiona reached for the money with one hand and undid her buttons with the other,
turning around and sweeping off towards the door as her blouse came off.
‘I’m going to take shower,’
she said ‘do you need me this evening?’ She stopped in the doorway for an answer.
‘No, I think
we’re all done when I’ve finished with this boy.’
‘Okay,’ she said ‘I’ll take
a shower and go, you’ve got my number if you change your mind,’ she said stepping out of her skirt and standing
naked in the doorway with her back to them. She turned her head.
‘Worth five hundred?’ she said, looking
back at them over her shoulder.
‘Nice to meet you,’ she said, nodding at Stephen,
‘maybe we’ll meet again.’
‘I sure hope to see you again,’ he said looking her up and down.
‘You never know’ she said flashing a smile over her shoulder as she shut the door behind her.
son you can calm down now and tell me more about how you’re gonna sell this drug to all these doctors without them knowing
you’ve done it. Good work kid, give me your name again.’
‘Stephen, Stephen Savage.’
‘Let’s try those biscotti and that coffee, then you can take me through it, I presume you do have a plan.’
They poured the coffee and sat down, Carl watched Stephen carefully, noticing just the hint of a tremor as he put the cup
down, he could see that the kid still only just believed the trick he’d pulled to get this far, and maybe he was still
a bit shaky after the waft of perfume and glimpse of Fiona that must be still freshly burned on his brain. Carl made
a mental note, ever ready to spot a weakness.
‘We don’t sell it to anyone,’ said Stephen. ‘Too
dangerous, we work through consumer groups. We’ve tested it already. We found this freelance journalist
and book-writer type, and she’s obsessed with the idea of the drug. It’s all arms length stuff. I
got some of our PR people to set her up to do some articles – they told her we’d need them when we start marketing.
We know she has a lot of contact with self-help groups. I got the PR people to show some interest in what
these groups thought of the drug. We’re slipping them some money, what the groups see is anonymous donations.
We make sure she has the contacts to get the drug. She thinks she’s getting it through some offshore source.
She tells the patients to take the drug to their doctors and ask whether it’s OK to take it, or she uses this tame doc
she has in tow and he prescribes it. One of them, her, or the tame doc, writes to the specialists in the Health Service
saying they’ve been able to get a small supply from abroad but maybe if they wrote to us here at the company we could
supply it. Gives them an email she says will work. After that it’s easy. We keep the price down so
that doesn’t raise any queries, and it all slides through. We’ve done a few. Works like a charm, no
one suspects anything.’
‘How do you know she’s straight, she might be setting you up for a piece in
‘It’s a slight gamble, but I’ve spent a lot of time on this. I let her
run for a while to see what she would do, she’s never met me; she thinks she’s ferreted her way into the company
and found a few sympathetic souls who want to help. I’ve sent a few spies to some of her groups as well, and they
all check out. I think she wants the glory of getting this wonder drug out to people. If she’s gunning for
anyone it’s the government and red tape she’s after, she thinks they hold things back too much.’
what do we do if some other journalist comes sniffing around; like they always do?’
‘We tell them about the
Brogan trial, get Gerry’s R&D guys to talk to them, not sales. Don’t let sales near them. We only
tell the docs they can have it off licence if they decide the patient needs it. If the journalists keep digging then
Gerry sends them to the legal department. They punch back a standard line and only admit that docs can get supplies
if the journalist comes up with an actual case. You know the one who says; 'I know someone who has got it.'
Then the lawyers tell them the legal position and ask them not to publicise it because we don’t want to get people’s
hopes up until the Brogan trial is finished.’
‘So it becomes the secret that everyone knows, but they don’t
write about it, and the only quote we give is “Wait for Brogan"’
‘You’ve got it.’
‘OK kid — Stephen — sounds like you’re on the case. I may need you to come to the US and tell
a few guys out there about this. You don’t want it all wrote down, and I don’t either; so this feels like
a weekend at a ranch somewhere. That suit you kid?’
‘Anything you say boss.’
up and strolled over to the connecting door and looked for Fiona. He turned back into the room. ‘OK, look
kid, I have to catch a plane, Fiona’s left already, will you call her,’ he said, handing Stephen a card.
‘Say thanks for all her help. I’ve cleared up all the stuff with the hotel. See if you can get Fiona
on some sort of retainer, so I can use her next time I’m here. She’s a bright kid, we need a few like her
don’t ya think.’
The fitter they are the harder they fall
It was late
in the afternoon when Val borrowed Jim’s parking space and walked across to the hospital; the alternative meant navigating
the new maze of traffic cones constructed each day to entertain the visitors. The NHS might be short of money but every
hospital Val ever saw seemed to be a building site.
Deeper in the hospital men in boiler suits armed with jackhammers
carried on their daily business of keeping everyone awake, at least they’d be clocking off soon. Finding intensive
care took a while, but Val just tried not to be annoyed by having to meander around the hospital following the carefully coloured
Outside the ward there was the usual ceremony of wiping off the germs she might have brought from the outside
world and donning overshoes to keep the rest in place. Val found it a calming process; it put you in the right frame
of mind, got you ready for the harsh brightness and alien sounds of high tech medicine in action.
Danni looked much the
same. Even under a white sheet and unconscious she managed to look elegant, or maybe I’m imagining it, Val thought.
Years of being amazed by Danni, and sometimes feeling like her country cousin, left an aura that she found hard to shake off.
The ventilator made a different sound here, somehow more assertive in the blowing phase, and a kind of resigned
sighing as it waited politely for the patient to exhale, before urgently blowing in more vital oxygen. There were the
usual screens with little green lines dancing along, giving some vital message to those who understood. At least there
was a chair near Danni’s head. A wooden chair indeed, and that surprised Val; it gave off a very solid and organic
air amongst all the metal and plastic.
Val sat down and smiled at the nurse who hovered with an air of matronly anxiety.
‘Am I OK here for half an hour?’ said Val. ‘They said on the phone that I could come.’
‘You’re Professor Brogan’s lady, aren’t you?’ Val had never been described as that,
but it would do, in fact it was an amusing thought. She’d have to tell Jim.
Val gave a slightly crooked smile
and said, ‘Well yes, I suppose so; we’re both friends of Danni’s. Someone has to look out for her;
she’s got no family. Has there been any change? It seems such an age since I saw her in France and that
was only yesterday morning.’
‘Not while she’s been with us. The doctors are doing lots of tests
so I expect they’ll tell you all about it when they’re ready.’
Val watched as the nurse shifted out
of hovering mode and into clinical efficiency.
Val had no idea how the nervous system worked, not at the level of brains
and nerves and muscles anyway. Motivation, depression, psychology, no problem, but knowing all that stuff told you nothing
about bangs on the head. Jim understood. She’d have to leave the brain working to Jim and concentrate on
what she thought Danni needed even if Danni couldn’t say. So Val told her about the snow and the hospital in France
and her own drive back. She told her the names of the nurses, when she could read their badges, and she promised that
she’d keep coming every day until she woke up.
There was hardly any change at all, Danni’s hands were still
pink, and thank goodness the scar on her head looked less livid. The clotted blood that had been dark red was now almost
black, but even that Val only saw for a few minutes while a nurse changed the dressing. Val waited until they finished
and no one seemed keen to make her move, so she talked on, pausing sometimes to think, or to watch. The nurses came
back to turn Danni, explaining that this had to be done every few hours to make sure she didn’t get pressure sores,
and there were whole rituals related to the breathing machine and other bits of technology that Val just watched in wonder.
Val talked briefly to the nurses and doctors when she had the chance, but no one seemed to have any idea how long it
would take for Danni to wake up, so this routine could go on for some time. No matter, Val thought, if all else fails
I’ll write some articles about it or a book or something, at least that way Danni can find out what she’s put
everyone through. The idea of Danni as a passive character in some sort of drama brought a wry smile to her lips, no
one would write such a script because Danni had always been the active one. She was still the centre of attention, but
here was a new situation, Danni stationary, and everyone else running round in circles, and Danni doesn’t even know,
well not unless she can hear my whispers. Will she remember when she wakes up?
It was when she noticed the routines
starting all over again that she realised how long she’d been there. Dusk was gathering by the time she got to
She came back to Jim’s house to find the girls in bed, well in the bedroom anyway, and Jim immersed in
studying papers strewn across the dining room table.
‘This looks like a really important mess.’
that trial of a new drug that I told you about. It’s a very complicated analysis, are you interested?’
‘This time of the night there’s not much other entertainment around here, and it makes a change from listening
to Danni’s ventilator.’
Jim’s face fell. ‘Was it rough? I’m so glad you stayed
here, at least there’s someone to share it with. Do you want to talk about it?’
‘No, tell me
about this, I need something else in my head.’
He looked at her carefully. ‘OK, OK, I’ll try
to keep it simple. It’s a new drug, really a new kind of drug as well. It’s a bit like a piece of
an antibody. It’s supposed to work by nudging the immune system so that it makes cancer treatment more effective.
It’s a simple enough idea, hard to invent of course, but testing it properly is really complicated. Every cancer
is different so the tricky question is do you try it out on each of them separately or can you lump all the different cancers
and treatments into one trial. You might get a quicker result, which is why they want to do it that way, but will it
be biased? What would be the right sample to work on? Presently we can cure eighty percent of people with some
cancers and twenty percent or less of some others. Should we only include the ones that we can’t cure, or should
we have an equal number of each? If we work on common cancers then we’d probably get a result more quickly, but
then we won’t know whether it will work on the uncommon ones.’
‘Can’t you allow for all that
in some way? All that clever maths that you do.’
‘Well I said it gets complicated, but that’s
what we’re trying to do.’
‘Who are we?’
‘Lots of people, different doctors in hospitals
all over the country. I don’t do the treatment, but I sort of coordinate it all.’
Papers littered the
living room, and a laptop lay among them, open at a spreadsheet full of figures.
Val waved her hand across the
room. ‘All this stuff, isn’t it just obvious from the stats? Why all the paper and working at home?’
‘I keep being distracted at work.’
‘But you’re the boss.’
I keep being interrupted. At least here I can spread it all out and keep at it.’
Jim smiled and took her hand. ‘Interrupting, yes, but not distracting, you’re
not asking me about something completely different.
‘There’s something odd going on. The doctors doing
the treatment are very enthusiastic about it, and that’s always a danger. If the people doing a trial are too
keen on one option they might manage to convey that to patients in some way and that might bias the results, so I’ve
been a bit worried about it all along. Makes me a bit of a killjoy with the docs treating the patients, but that’s
what they pay me for. Because of those worries I’ve been keeping an eye on the figures as they came in, that’s
the stuff in the computer over there. I can’t put my finger on what’s bothering me; it’s not the bias
I expected. It doesn’t make sense, so I brought it all home.’
‘Does it help to explain
it to someone else?’
‘Who knows? It might.’
She could see him struggle for a moment.
‘Jim don’t go right back to the beginning, it’ll take too long, just say it in one sentence.’
He laughed for a moment. ‘I’ll try. I think it comes down to this; it seems as though the fitter
that people are when they go into the trial the more likely they are to die, but they don’t die of cancer. That’s
crazy isn’t it? Fitter people ought to be more likely to survive. We had a score on how fit they were, we
put it in to make sure that the control group and the test group are about the same, do you see what I mean?’
don’t want to accidentally have all the fit people in the test group because it would make the drug look better.
Is that it?’ She’d listened to Jim plenty of times in the past, even written articles about some of his
work, it sounded like a good guess.
‘Pretty much.’ He grinned. ‘Pretty close, you’re
learning. Patients get allocated at random, but you could accidentally get a biased sample. You know, when you
shake a dice sometimes you do get double six twice in a row. You could get too many fit people in one group just by
chance, so you’d want to know whether that happened. OK, so far the two groups have very similar scores, so no
problem there, but in the test group there’s a correlation that shouldn’t be there. The fitter they are
the more likely they are to die. It’s not a massive effect, but it seems big enough to be real and it’s
been getting bigger as the trial goes on. It doesn’t make sense, what sort of drug kills healthy people and cures
the sick ones?’
Val loved the way he did this, if it didn’t feel right he had to keep digging away at it.
Of course if he were talking about gardening or sailing, or anything he’d be the same, and sometimes that could get
you down. It’s one of the great things about Jim, but it’s also a problem, if something is on his mind it
can exclude everything else, so there are times when he’s not the ideal company. What sort of relationship do
you have with a man like that? They’d ended up being sort of best mates, living intertwined lives in two houses.
Val surveyed the heaps of paper.
‘How long are you planning to go at this?’
‘Is that code for
you’ve had a hard day and you want to go to bed?’
‘I’m more worried about you burning the candle
at both ends.’
Jim looked up quickly, almost defensively and saw something else.
‘You want to talk about
Danni, don’t you?’
‘She seems just the same as when we were in France. Did you get a chance to
talk to the specialists? I tried asking the nurses but no one seems to know anything. I thought you could do all
the medical stuff.’
‘I talked to them on the phone, but I’ll go over and see them tomorrow. I
don’t want to hassle them too much, everything is safe and they’ll need a day or two to see what they think.
I know it feels awful, but unless she seems to be getting worse we just have to be patient.’
‘How could she
be any worse Jim? She unconscious and she doesn’t move a muscle.’
Jim squeezed Val’s hand for
a second. ‘I know it feels terrible but she is alive, her heart is working and the operation seems to have fixed
the bleeding. It just takes time.’
‘Could it be weeks and weeks?’
‘I really have no
idea, I wish I did. We haven’t got anything to go on. Is it important? Surely so long as she’s
alive and not getting worse, that’s the main thing.’
‘I’m worried about her things.’
Said Val. ‘I’ve put a message on her email but that only goes to people who email her. I’ve
got her laptop and I worry in case I should do something to make that secure. What if she was writing something and
there’s a deadline? Do you think I should go to her flat in London and see what’s on her computer?’
‘It’s easy enough to back up the laptop.’ Jim picked up a little plastic thing from the desk.
‘You can get the whole of a laptop on to one of these, it’s a mini hard drive, all the instructions are on it,
just plug it in and it will tell you what to do. The PC might be more of a problem just because we don’t know
how big it is. I guess the simplest thing to do is go down to the flat and see what there is, at least make sure everything
is secure. Do you fancy a trip to London? I’d come with you if I could get away, do you feel up to going
by yourself, you have a day before the girls get back.’
Val shrugged and sat down heavily in the armchair.
‘Yes of course I could go to London, but that’s not all of it. I don’t know why it’s so hard
to get Danni out of my head. It really is as if she’s trying to tell me something. I know that’s stupid,
people in a coma don’t send out telepathic messages. Put it another way, something’s bugging you, something
in all this data that you feel as though you’re supposed to see. What if my brain is doing the same thing?
What if there’s something about what happened, something I’ve seen without realising, something that’s trying
to get out? Would that keep nagging at me? You’re the doctor. How does the brain deal with that sort
of stuff, should I see an analyst?’
She watched him thinking.
‘It’s not necessarily a big
mystery, she’s had a big bang on the head and she’s not woken up yet. It does happen.’
seen her Jim. Do you think there’s more than just a bang on the head? I’m just sure there was something
about the way that she crashed that’s a clue, I just wish I could see it.’
Jim frowned at her.
‘Don’t go back into blaming yourself. You didn’t make Danni fall.’ She could feel his
gaze searching her face, what could he see? ‘OK let’s say for a moment that you’re right. Do
you dream about it? Is there anything that comes up every time?’
‘I do dream but it’s
never quite the same, and I tend to wake up pretty soon now. Sometimes I don’t get to the end of the dream.’
‘How often have you had the dream?’
‘I don't know, I don’t count, lots of times Jim.’
‘Which bits are always there?’
‘Danni falling, then sometimes I am tearing down the hill, other times
I’m at the hospital or driving down there.’
‘Is there always the bit where she falls?’
not certain, I try to forget it, but usually that bit I think, mind you that’s the bit that usually wakes me; Danni
hitting the ground like a rag doll, almost as though she’d died in mid air. I know she hadn’t but that’s
what it looked like.’
Jim still looked pensive.
‘I’m not a neurologist, but they haven’t
found anything that they can see that’s wrong with her brain. There’s no sign of damage from the clot.’
‘I know, but is there anything else that can wipe you out like that?’
Jim said nothing, disappearing into
‘It’s an interesting idea,’ he said eventually. ‘What if there’s some
other reason for not breathing, some sort of paralysis, it doesn’t feel very likely, but maybe there’s something
‘Perhaps you should talk to the other doctors about it, would they be upset if you
did that? I don’t want to make things difficult for you; I mean it can’t be any fun for those doctors and
nurses to have some Professor looking over their shoulder all the time. I shouldn’t be disturbing you, there’s
your mystery to solve.’
Baxter at the bank
Mark knew the bank would make contact,
but they were even sooner than he expected. He carefully smiled as he talked on the phone. He’d studied
reports that said you sounded better if you did, he’d trained himself, and he got it right.
I come and see you, I can’t manage today, shall we make it later in the week, I can work around most times.’
No matter what the situation, Mark knew how to sound confident, to not show any sign of weakness. He listened.
tomorrow morning about ten, that’s fine, I’ll see you then.’ He clicked the off button and paged through
the display to the calendar. He wrote “Bank” into the time slot, locked the keypad, and shoved it back in
‘The bastards,’ he muttered ‘the bastards, I thought I was good for at least another
month.’ He cut through the rest of the day and drove home long before the traffic got heavy, roaring into the
garage with as much bravado as he thought appropriate for his image. He waved at the man on the desk and kept his composure
as he went up in the lift, you never know who might step in.
He walked into the bedroom and carefully took off his jacket
and placed his trousers into the press, force of habit insisting on making sure that everything would look perfect tomorrow.
He threw his shirt and underwear into the laundry basket and stepped into the shower. Five minutes being hammered by
hot water improved his mood a little, and he started work. He needed a plan.
Two hours at the computer making notes
and calculations and he had the basic shape of it. He looked at the clock. Seven. He walked over to the
bed, set the alarm for seven forty in the evening and killed the light. Half an hour’s sleep would make a difference.
Several years as a hospital resident had given him the ability to recover sleep deficits quickly at any time of day.
They call it power napping now; whatever you call it, Mark Baxter could do it. He was sound asleep in two minutes and
hadn’t moved a muscle when the alarm went off. He got out of bed, pulled on a pair of chinos and ambled into the
bathroom. He cleaned his teeth and washed his face and buried his face in a small hot towel. He splashed cologne
in the right places, pulled on a light sweater, grabbed a casual jacket from the rail, picked up his phone, and keys, and
set off for the restaurant around the corner. The waiter nodded as he arrived and put a glass of sparkling water on
‘The pasta and a salad, no wine, I’ve got to work tonight.’ The waiter nodded and
Mark settled back in the chair sipping the water. He watched the other diners; always curious about human nature and
what made them tick, and quietly listened to the snatches of conversation around him. You never know what you might
pick up. He made himself eat slowly, thinking about his digestion and the evening ahead. If he were going to win
over the bank he would need to be on top form, he had to get the details right.
Just before nine he settled back
in front of the computer. He ran his eye over pages of material, made jottings on a pad and from time to time flipped
open a spreadsheet. Eventually, he started printing pages; first a set that went into a clear plastic folder then a
second set, less bulky, in a red folder.
* * *
The next morning in the bank, the manager opened the red folder
as Mark settled into a chair opposite him. He looked every inch the entrepreneur, confident, assured, with a plan already
prepared. Before the manager could settle, Mark started talking.
‘We haven’t met before have we?
I can understand why you wanted to see me. I thought it might help if I put a few things on paper.’
The manager smiled. Baxter knew the way that bank managers thought. Most of the people they see have just been
unlucky or careless, and it’s easy to intimidate them. They demand a business plan and show off how much they
know about money and ninety percent of clients will cave in. Baxter planned to be in the other ten percent, even though
his overdraft looked ridiculous.
‘I can’t deny that there is a problem,’ said Mark, taking more wind
out of the manager’s sails ‘many things that have done well in the past have suddenly gone pear shaped.
I gather it happens to a lot of traders, sometimes the market is a bit random and I think I just got caught; I took too long
to change my strategy, I can see that now. I’ve been trying to contain the losses and not sell everything at bottom
prices. Actually I’m surprised you haven’t asked to see me earlier.’ Mark steeled himself to
make very direct eye contact and held his gaze just long enough to see the manager’s confidence begin to waver.
‘As you can see I am very over-exposed, obviously the apartment and some works of art are there as security
but I think we’ll both do better if I trade and earn my way out of this, rather than trying to cut our losses in a fire
sale. You can make me bankrupt if you like, but I can’t see how you make much profit out of that.’
There was no threat left that the banker could make that Baxter hadn’t already put on the table.
not familiar with Dorton, this company that you’ve made projections on,’ the manager said. It sounded weak
and Mark sensed victory.
‘It’s a small pharmaceutical company that’s just had a big injection of American
money. I think I know why they bought into it; the company has a new drug, not licensed yet, but I know about it through
my research contacts. It seems very safe, and I have some experience of using it. I’ve done some work with
some consumer groups, cancer support groups, and prescribed it to a number of patients through that route.’
that legal? I mean, if it doesn’t have a licence how can you prescribe it?’
‘I can assure you
it’s quite legal; any doctor in this country can prescribe anything provided he tells the patient the risks. I
think the American company will pump money into this to get it to the market as fast as they can; I figure that the share
price will go up fairly quickly. Obviously nothing is certain, but the pharmaceutical sector and cancer drugs in particular
are cushioned against uncertainty to some extent; people are still going to get cancer, whatever the state of the economy.
I have one or two ideas about how I can increase interest in this through my cancer group contacts; I think that will produce
more demand for the drug. I suppose it’s a bit close to insider trading, but I don’t have any contact with
the management of the company itself, so I can’t see how it is too close.’
They spent another half hour looking
at the figures, but Mark knew he had him. The bank could not just close him down; they’d lose as much as he did.
Doctors were always good for the money in the long run, even if he spent the rest of his life paying it off. They wanted
to keep any potential loss within bounds. Mark came out of the bank with the biggest overdraft that he could ask for
and reckoning on being OK for six months, maybe a year, before they got seriously pissed off with him.
the apartment building he spent some time in the gym working off the adrenalin to make sure he had a clear head for tonight’s
attack on the Global Markets. He planned to get out of anything that won’t make money in six months and put all
his eggs in the cancer basket. It crossed his mind that this was the exact opposite of what Warren Buffet recommended,
but hell Buffet had time to play with, Mark Baxter couldn’t wait, beggars can’t be choosers. He checked
his emails again; still no answer from Danni, how long did she plan to ski for? He shrugged, nothing he could do till
she got back. He went to bed leaving the clock unset. He’d wake up when his body told him to.
Val stepped out of the tube station at lunchtime and turned north towards Danni’s
flat. As ever, Camden High Street thronged with people weaving past merchandise that spread out from the shops all over
the pavement. Heavy bass music rumbled aggressively out of several shops. The usual young men in dull hoody anoraks
asked her if she was all right, and she was tempted to say ‘I’m too old for that sort of thing,’ but just
smiled instead and passed them by. ‘Do I really look as though I want drugs?’ she thought, maybe it’s
a compliment that they still ask – I can’t look as though I’m completely past it.
Val knew why
Danni loved Camden, it is a fantastic place, bright and vibrant and a lot of black, but somehow even the black has a glow.
She turned into the market in Inverness Street bought a crepe from the little stall and carried on into Arlington road and
along towards the Holiday Inn. She’d intended to go straight to the flat but the crepe made her hungry and the
thought of more street food from Camden Lock market could not be ignored. She walked across the canal bridge and through
the square past the narrow boats to one of the alleys where every other stall sold food. She took two minutes to allow
the vendors to shout about all their different flavours and take in the smells before she picked up a selection and headed
back up Jamestown Road.
She ate lunch on the balcony watching the crowds walking along the canal, giving herself ten
minutes to absorb the energy before starting work on the flat. A glance at the place told you a lot about Danni – there
were personal touches everywhere, the paintings on the walls had flair, the notes on the fridge door had a flamboyant air,
and the furniture had style. The only thing missing was the music, if Danni had been here there something lively would
have been playing, but for now the silence reminded Val why she had come. She needed to make it all safe and collect
important things and then at least she could stop worrying that something terrible might happen while Danni lay in hospital.
Val had arranged for the post to be redirected as soon as she got back but there was a small pile in the hallway, most of
it junk. It took a few minutes to clear the fridge. Living here, Danni must eat out most nights, Val thought.
There were a few items of laundry scattered around the bedroom so Val picked them up and wondered about the bed linen.
She’d need a removal van if she took everything back to Birmingham but at least it seemed worth striping the bed and
leaving it open to the air. So far so good.
Val had tried to convince herself that there was little risk of burglary,
after all this was inside a block that had twenty-four hour security, but some of those paintings were expensive. She
carefully removed them from the walls and laid them on the floor under the bed with a blanket wrapped over them. Anyone
giving it a quick glance would just think Danni kept spare linen under the bed. Jewellery took up less space and Val
had come prepared; all of that went in a small case, which just left the computer and the desk.
It didn’t take
long to pick up the small number of papers and notes, Danni had never been keen on filing paper, and Val guessed that anything
that mattered had already been scanned into the PC. Danni’s laptop and camera were still in Birmingham with the
holiday luggage, which just left the desktop machine to deal with.
Val stood staring at the machine
for a minute and then extracted Jim’s note from her purse. She read it twice, took a deep breath and pulled the
plug socket from the wall. She disconnected all the wires at the back of the machine and paused for a second while she
dug a screwdriver out of her bag. The note said, “Undo the screws and remove the casing.” Easier said
than done, where were the screws? Five minutes of hunting around found several so she tried to lift the casing off the
machine. It took another minute before she realised that it slid backwards and it took another minute to get it completely
off. She stared at the innards of the PC and read, “Remove the hard disc.”
she muttered, gazing at the note in her hand and back to the machine several times, trying to fit the description on the paper
to one of the electronic gizmos inside the machine. Eventually she made a decision and wrestled the component free.
Squinting at the small print on the device she found some words that included 160 GB and decided that she must have the right
piece. She put the hard drive in an envelope and dropped it in her bag. She carefully slid the case back onto
the PC and replaced the screws. If someone broke in and stole this machine they would have a surprise when they tried
to make it go.
Relieved at the success of this work she sat on the balcony in the spring sunshine for another few minutes
to think. What else should she do? She found a pad and wrote a careful note to leave with the security men, giving
her contact details and asking them to pass on any messages or enquiries for Danni. She checked the answering machine
and was reassured to know that it had the same messages that she’d picked up from home. That would have to do.
She watched the activity on the canal for a few more minutes and then went round the flat making sure that she
had unplugged every appliance and all the lights were off. As an added precaution she turned off all the fuses except
the lights, picked up her bag, now filled out with Danni’s jewellery, papers and hard drive and locked up. The
security man took her note and promised to put something in the logbook so that the other guards would have the instructions.
He hoped that Danni would get better soon.
Val strolled down the road, had a coffee in the Café Nero at the bottom
of Jamestown Road and made her way back to the tube station.
Fiona back in the game
Savage put the phone down, grinning a little, and picked up his diary. He wrote ‘Houston !!!’ across a whole
week and sat back in his chair. He looked at the word for a few seconds and picked up the phone again.
can you get me some information about flights to Houston next week.’
He put the phone down and punched the air.
‘Yes!’ he said, walking around the room, hardly able to contain his excitement. As soon as he thought about
Texas, his mind raced. The big time at last – “I’ll need to get some new clothes, I have to look the
part,” he thought. What the hell do they wear on ranches in Texas these days?
He forced himself to
sit down and turned on his computer. He had to try to be cool, and look as though he did this all the time. If
anyone could tell that he’d never set foot outside England he’d just look like some sort of idiot who was way
out of his depth. He watched as the screen flipped through all its opening routines and demanded his password, finally
revealing a page of new emails. Struggling to keep his concentration he clicked his way down the page skimming his eyes
over each message as it popped up, his brain was on a jumbo jet halfway across the Atlantic.
He came back to earth with
a crash as he read through the next email.
‘What?’ he said, shouting at the computer, ‘what do you
mean? Jesus how can that happen?’
He sat back in his chair starring at the screen.
Stephen I thought I should copy this on to you; I got this the last time I tried to email Danni.
Thank you for your email. We regret to inform you that Danielle Foster was badly injured last week in a skiing accident
and will be in hospital until further notice.
All the usual guff about virus
checkers followed, but the stark message stood out in the middle of the page.
He starred at it for ten minutes before
picking up the phone.
‘Rhonda have we got contact details for Danielle Foster, a phone number or something?’
He paused ‘sure, sure, just drop Houston for a moment and see what you can find on her, something urgent has come
up… No, don’t try to get her, just let me have the number when you find it.’
He put the phone
down and stared back at the screen.
‘Jesus, who’d have thought it’ he muttered ‘one minute she’s
bouncing around trying to change the world and then bang. What the hell could have happened?’
The phone rang
again; he picked it up and wrote down two numbers.
‘Thanks Rhonda, just what I needed.’
He clicked the
cradle to cut off the connection and started dialling. After four numbers he stopped and put the phone down. ‘Think
boy, think. No one knows who you are and it had better stay that way.’ But who could he get to phone?
He toyed with using one of his sales team, but he stopped short of calling him.
It took ten minutes to think of Fiona
and it took another ten to get her booked for dinner.
She swept in looking as expensive as anything in the restaurant
and joined him at the bar.
‘It’s lovely to see you again. Did you just need company or is this part
of that standby deal you were talking about?’ She still had the same presence, the memory of the last time he’d
seen her still haunted him, but tonight she was a picture of elegance.
‘It could be lots of things,’ he said.
‘Would you like a drink or shall we eat?’
‘Eat, I’m starving’
They studied the menu
and ordered as though they had known each other all their lives; she had a way of putting anyone at their ease, but he was
‘How much of all that stuff with Carl do you remember?’
‘He said to forget it the second
I went out of the door.’ She grinned at him, provoking, teasing.
‘OK so this is on the company, and
we might want you to do some work for us.’
‘How much do you pay for memory restoration these days?’
What did Carl pay her, a grand a day? A lot of bread, hell, two minutes with her and it felt like a bargain.
give you what Carl gave you, how much memory will that bring back?’
‘Do you want a verbatim record
typed out in triplicate or just the general gist?’
He sat back in his chair. ‘How did Carl pick you,
I mean, he flies in from Texas, phones an escort agency and picks up someone who knocks the socks off anyone who looks at
her, and has the brains of a chess champion, you do play chess I suppose?’
‘Of course, what decent escort
doesn’t, look why don’t you just tell me the problem.’
‘OK, it’s like this, and this is
just between us; you remember the plan to market the drug through consumer groups.’
think you were in the shower when I told him about this woman who was our contact with the groups, Danielle Foster, she’s
some sort of marketing guru.’
‘You’re right I missed that bit. I’ve read about her; I would
have remembered if you’d mentioned Danielle.’
‘She was badly injured in a skiing accident last week.
She’s in hospital, I don’t know the details but it sounds like she’ll be there for a while’
head jerked forward and her hand dropped to the table, for a second the elegant poise wavered.
‘Good heavens, how?
She could ski, really ski, I’ve read stuff she wrote about it. What happened?’
‘I have no idea,
one of my men who keeps in touch with her just copied me an email, someone put a message on her auto responder. There’s
no way we can get back in touch by email; we’ll just get the same message again. The problem is that she’s
our contact with all these patient groups and people who were taking the drug. We need some way of getting her contacts.
Some way of doing what she did.’
‘What’s this to do with me?’
‘I need someone who
can nose around. Maybe you can try her phone numbers, see whose dealing with things, say you were someone she’d
been in touch with, see whether you can get hold of her contacts or something. Find some way in. There’s
no way anyone directly from the company can do that, too risky, could undermine the whole strategy.’
toyed with a piece of chicken.
‘Is it legal, doing that? I mean pretending some story like that, isn’t
it some sort of invasion of privacy?’
‘I don’t know if she has much privacy, it sounds like she’s
She looked at him carefully ‘I think even people in a coma still have rights,
if they don’t then they should. Look, let’s get this clear. I took up escorting because it paid well,
and I thought I’d make a bit of money while I looked good. I know where I am with the law on escorting.
I don’t want to get into anything illegal.’
Suddenly he was confronted by hard-nosed business sense coming
out of her, where did she get that? OK so she’s no pushover but maybe that made it better.
sure.’ He paused, how honest should he be? He shrugged ‘I just couldn’t think of anyone else.
You're as bright as hell, can you think of a way in?’
‘On a grand a day?’
a standard consultancy fee.’
‘I’ll think about it, I guess I don’t have to say I’m part
of some cancer group, or even that I’d spoken with Danni, I could just be someone who wanted to get in touch.
Did she have a family? What will I be getting into? There must be some upset people somewhere.’
know, I don’t even know where it happened, not sure how we could find out.’
‘How come you don’t
just hire a detective or someone to check it all out, it’s not your standard escort work.’ Right again,
why had he asked her? Instinct, he just had some sort of instinct that this sassy woman could walk through any problem.
What was it about her?
‘I know I’m a devious little bastard, but what this needs is an amateur, if we use
a professional detective, what if they got rumbled? It’d all go pear shaped, be traced back to us. You’re
a woman. Women care about cancer, read the papers, it happens all the time. Women don’t need a reason to
care about cancer, no one questions it; no one says “what’s it to you?” If anyone gets at you, tell
them you’re fed up with escorting, looking for some meaning in your life, all that shit, women say it, you must have
She leaned across the table, put her fingers under his chin and lifted his face up to meet her eyes.
‘You are a devious little bastard and it’s your ass on the line isn’t it, not the company, not Carl.
Let’s be clear, the only thing we have in common is that you’ve seen my ass and I can see yours. When I
look deep in your eyes all I see is thousand pound notes. I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but I’ll
find a way, and I’ll start as soon as I see a few grand on account; all those nice management consultants I’ve
put up with over the years call it a mobilisation fee, you know the routine? Is it a deal?’
There was something
delightful about her hand under his chin and being insulted by her had strangely erotic quality, but he couldn’t keep
‘Deal’ he said.
‘How do I bill you?’
The hand still held his chin.
‘Just bill me for your days, call it market research.’
‘Could you send me some sort of contract, just
in case you drop dead?’
‘If I drop dead, this’ll drop with me. If I owe you you’ll have
to get in touch with Carl, but don’t go asking anyone in the company over here.’ The fingers wrapped around
his chin squeezed slightly, he loved it but it could have been his throat.
‘Write down Carl’s number, I need
‘You’re a hard bitch.’
‘No I’m not, I’m soft and
charming and you know it, I’m just not stupid.’ The hand relaxed and stroked his chin; she pushed a notebook
in front of him.
‘Find a blank page and write, then get your chequebook out and give me four grand in advance and
I’ll start work as soon as it clears.’ He wrote, slowly, savouring the continuing contact. The fingers
left his chin and picked up the book and the cheque.
‘You poor little pervert,’ she said ‘you’d
have preferred it if I had you by the balls, wouldn’t you.’
Amy stood outside the station looking for Mary. The massive glass front of Gare de Lyon Part-Dieu towered
above her. The French family that she had been staying with were looking anxiously at the time. TGV trains don’t
hang about for ages at the station; they had barely ten minutes left.
Amy scanned the concourse outside the station again,
what should she do if Mary didn’t come?
‘If she doesn’t come I’ll have to wait,’ she said,
speaking slowly, not wanting to risk trying it in French. ‘I can’t leave Mary here all on her own.’
‘But you will miss the connection in Paris.’
Amy started to say there’s always another train but
then she saw Mary, staggering across the pavement, dragging her suitcase behind her. Why was she limping?
her bag and ran across to her.
‘What’s the matter with your leg?’
‘I’ll tell you on
the train. Are we still in time?’
A slim middle-aged lady came up to
them, running with tiny refined steps, giving an incredible air of haste while actually moving only just faster than walking.
‘Vous etes Madamme Oudain?’ said Amy.
The woman inclined her head and slowed her pace to an elegant stroll.
‘You must be Amy,’ she said, with just the slightest hint of an accent. ‘We have yet, five minutes
The TGV rolled out of Lyon dead on time, Amy waving to her French hosts until they were out of sight
while Mrs Oudain and Mary stowed their luggage and settled into their seats. As she sat down Amy said.
what have you done to your leg?’
Mary laughed, ‘It’s not bad really.’
‘But you were
‘I banged it with my suitcase.’
She laughed again, glancing
at Mrs Oudain. ‘I fell off a bike. Can you believe? I mean, like totally crashed off.’
looked puzzled. ‘Where did you get a bike from?’
‘My family are very keen on ‘Le Cyclisme’
you understand?’ said Mrs Oudain.
‘They loaned me a bike,’ said Mary. ‘I was
pretty OK, but it was a dead fast bike, really light and all racing stuff, drop down handlebars and thousands of gears and
everything. It was a lot of fun, we went miles.’
‘And you fell off.’
‘I did something
wrong with the gears and I think the chain jammed or came off or whatever. Anyway one minute I’m whizzing along
and the next thing I slid off the road and hit the grass at the edge and went flying off. I’ve got the most humungous
‘Poor you, no wonder you’re limping.’
‘It doesn’t hurt really, except
if I knock it in one or two places. It’s funny, I must have just caught it right to make a bruise.’
you going to show me?’
Mary glanced at Mrs Oudain again.
‘Not here, I’d have to take my jeans
off. We’ll have to go to the loo, I mean it’s so big you have to see the whole thing.’
end of the carriage there was an indicator that told them the toilet was unoccupied and Amy was able to marvel at Mary’s
injury. Starting half way down her rib cage on her left side and extending down to her knee Mary had a mass of red,
blue and blue-green colours under her dusky skin.
‘God if your skin was a pale as mine it would look terrible.’
‘It’s funny it doesn’t hurt isn’t it?’
‘The skins not actually broken anywhere,
I mean, like it hasn’t bled or anything has it. Did you skid along on the ground.’
of, there was grass and mud, you know, quite soft, I think I kind of skidded and bounced, like the way you go down a water
slide at the swimming baths.’
‘Does it hurt if you poke it?’
‘Not much,’ Mary backed
towards the wall, ‘but you don’t need to try.’
‘No I won’t honest. Did you get a
doctor to look at it or anything?’
‘No, Mrs Oudain did ask, but I couldn’t see the point. If
it had been bleeding or if it hurt, I suppose I might, but what’s the point?’
Mary pulled up her jeans, buttoned
her blouse and pulled her sweater back over her head. ‘I took some pictures in the mirror.’
put them on Facebook.’
‘No silly – to show my mum.’
‘Was the bike alright?’
‘Yeah, fine, well once we’d put the chain back on I rode it all the way back.’
The girls rejoined
Mrs Oudain. Amy was impressed with her command of English. She was charming, chic and relaxed but it meant that
the two girls had to be polite and couldn’t discuss anything about the two families they’d stayed with.
two hours they were in Paris and set off across town on the Metro. The two girls stuck close together; fortunately they
had arrived after rush hour so the crowds gave them some space to breath. For the girls this was the scary part of the
journey, they both knew of people who had been robbed on the metro so they were ready. The reassuring presence of Mrs
Oudian didn’t stop them burying all their valuables in hidden pockets and they having their anoraks zipped up.
By the time they reached the Gare du Nord they were sweating but still in possession of everything they started with.
the station they met the rest of the school party and Mrs Oudain said goodbye, her parental duties completed.
bet she’s off to the shops’ said Amy, ‘does she look that elegant all the time?’
much, it just seems to be some sort of knack that the French have. All her friends were like that.’
minutes later they were watching the French countryside shooting past. They had lunch and made it back to their seats
before the train went into the channel tunnel. By the time the Eurostar stopped at Ashford they had just about exhausted
all their stories about their two weeks in France. Mary was still squinting at Amy’s pictures on her Ipod.
‘It was really cool them lending you a camera.’
‘Well he was a photographer; he had a whole shop
full of cameras. It’s not like you need film or anything these days. I uploaded all the pictures off his
computer so they’ll all be at home by now.’
‘It’s still pretty cool.’
they loaned you a bike.’
‘Yeah, but you can’t fall off a camera.’
As they slowed down into
Waterloo Amy phoned Jim.
‘Hi dad… Yeah were both fine, we didn’t miss the train or lose anything.
Where are you going to wait?’
The journey back in the car became a subdued affair as soon as Jim and Val told the
girls about Danni. There were lots of questions but no answers. Val told them about her few days in France and
Jim explained a little about intensive care, but there was little else to say. They stopped for petrol at Oxford and
the two girls spent the rest of the journey asleep in the back seats.
Back at Jim’s house the girls were excited
by the news that Mary and Val were staying and the girls soon disappeared to Amy’s room. As they got ready for
bed Amy said. ‘Are you going to tell your mum about your bruise?’
‘Would you tell your dad?
Amy shrugged her shoulders, ‘I suppose,’ she said.
‘I don’t want to worry mum.
I mean it’s just a bruise; she’s got enough to worry about with Danni being ill.’
a very big bruise.’
‘Yeah but does that matter? It doesn’t hurt.’ Mary turned over
in bed. ‘ You’re not going all doctorish on me are you?’
‘You mean like my dad. As
if!’ Amy put out the light. She knew what Mary meant, having a doctor for a father did make her aware of
things that other people might ignore, but this was more curiosity than concern, at least until she woke up the next morning.
‘Is your house extra hot?’ said Mary, almost as soon as she woke. ‘I’ve been sweating buckets
in the night.’
‘Perhaps it’s being in the top bunk, maybe it’s hotter up there. Maybe you
caught some dreaded plague in France. Have a shower and see if you feel better.’
Amy watched Mary’s
feet swing down from the bunk above her.
‘I feel tired and sweaty, like I’d been in a sauna or something.
I’ll have a shower and I’ll be OK’
* * * * *
‘Dad, did you once tell me about some disease when you get sweats at night?’
Jim continued reading the papers in front of him.
‘Well what was it?’
‘Several things give you
night sweats. What were we talking about?’
‘I can’t remember dad, that’s why I’m
asking you.’ A hint of exasperation crept in to Amy’s voice, just enough to make Jim look up briefly.
‘Sorry love, let me see. TB can do that, so can Hodgkin’s disease. By itself it’s hard to
know what it means unless there’s other symptoms, like coughing with TB or maybe bruising if it’s a blood disorder
like Hodgkin’s. Why?’
‘Mary was sweating a lot last night.’
‘Well maybe she
was too hot. Was she in the top bunk?’ Jim turned the page.
‘And she has this huge bruise.’
Jim put the papers down and focussed all his attention on Amy.
‘Go on… No, hang on a moment.
Has she told Val?’
‘She doesn’t want to worry Val, you know, because of Danni and all that. She
fell off a bike in France and skidded along the ground a bit, but the bruise is totally huge. She says it doesn’t
hurt or anything, but it’s all down one side.’
‘And she was sweating last night?’
and like she woke up drenched — she’s having a shower now, but I felt her pillow. It’s soaked.’
Amy could see Jim’s face change. ‘That’s not good is it dad?’
Jim looked uncomfortable.
‘The worst thing it could be is not good, but it’s not a good idea to only think the worst.’
you going to tell Val? I mean I could like push Mary to tell her, you know I could say I asked you, or make out it was
something I’d read about or whatever.’
‘You look worried. Will Mary be bothered that you talked
‘Well it’s going behind her back bit isn’t it, but like, I had to didn’t I, I mean
what if it was something that ought to be fixed?’
‘What if we all went swimming? Would the bruise be
obvious if we did that?’
‘Oh yeah, you couldn’t miss it, and Val would be bound to see in the changing
room. When can we go?’
‘What about tomorrow evening? You’ve both got school but we could
go after that.’
* * * * *
Every Monday morning Jim held
a meeting for everyone in his unit. Sometimes it only took a few minutes; it never took more than two hours. Jim
always sat at one end of the room, younger students thought it meant that he could see who came in late, but those with longer
memories knew that he needed to see the clock on the wall. Years ago when they all sat in random places the meetings
sometimes went on for hours.
‘I have to leave at ten today,’ he said. ‘You all know my friend
Danni is in the ITU, and I need to spend some time getting myself up to speed on what’s going on. Sorry.’
There were murmurs of sympathy around the room.
‘OK. Lets just stick to key stuff, updates on the Immunon
Nat looked at Alice, who shrugged.
‘Me again, I suppose.’ She glanced nervously
at her notes and turned to the rest of the group. ‘Last week we looked at all the deaths in the first six months
of the trial, and we got this odd finding that there seem to be too many non cancer deaths in the intervention group’
‘And?’ said Jim.
There was a catch in her voice. ‘Now we’ve looked in a bit more detail
and they are high, but they’re odd as well.’ Her fingers on her notes trembled slightly as she turned the
page and looked at the next and then back to the first page. ‘If we separate the deaths caused by the cancer from
the ones where the patient died of something else then you’ll see what I mean.’ She stood up and walked
over to the overhead projector to show a slide. ‘The deaths are in the fitter people.’ She paused
for effect, and looked at her two colleagues for encouragement.
‘We think that counts as something odd going on.
The good news is that less people die of cancer in the treatment group, but it’s not much help if something else gets
you. The cancer deaths are in people with a low fitness score, but as far as we can see it’s not a sort of selective
effect. It’s not that the cancer kills off all of the unfit people, leaving only the fitter people to die of something
Jim looked around the room. ‘Anyone got any questions?’
spoke up. ‘Well what did they die of?’
‘Where did they die?’ said another voice.
looked back at the girl doing the presentation.
‘Carry on Alice, do we know?’
‘We have a bit
of a problem there because some of them were abroad. Four are in Switzerland, for instance, and two in France.
The UK ones are from things like running for a bus, playing squash, gardening. They all seem to be collapses of some
sort. Some are just found dead, like the gardening ones and some were seen to collapse, but no one could revive them.
We can give you a complete list but in some cases the diagnosis is pretty vague.’
‘The Swiss ones aren’t
suicides are they?’
‘We didn’t actually think about that.’ Alice looked at Nat, his face
was blank and for a second she hesitated.
‘People do go to Switzerland for assisted suicide don’t they, um
but these people were actually pretty fit. So they wouldn’t need assistance would they, if they wanted to kill
themselves they could do it here. Does that make sense?’ She looked back at Jim. ‘If I’m
allowed to guess I think it looks more like they were going to Switzerland for the fresh air, mountain walks, and all that
sort of thing. There’s something about the timing too, all of them had been abroad for at least a week.
If you were going there to kill yourself would you hang around for a week sight seeing?’
She hesitated, almost
as though she was listening to an inner voice and turned back towards her seat. ‘I’ve been there’
she muttered, blinked a way a tear, looked up at Jim and said ‘I do know about cancer, I’ve talked to people who
wanted to kill themselves, it doesn’t feel like that.’
Another voice in the middle of the room said ‘Frances
Chichester always claimed he went running up mountains to get fit when he had cancer and supposedly it went away.’
‘Most of these lot won’t remember Chichester,’ said Jim, ‘but you’re right, I think that story
is in his biography.’ He stopped for a moment. ‘OK so we have some sort of theory — these people
have cancer — they’re getting better — they feel very fit, and they set about life as a result.
They’re not seeing themselves as sick. Are they taking risks they shouldn’t take? Is the drug making
them euphoric or irresponsible? Is there any way this can be related to the drug? That’s what we need to
know. We can’t allow the drug to go on the open market if it’s doing something lethal, but we haven’t
got enough evidence yet. I can’t even see how we could put out a warning. We can’t exactly say “Beware
this drug may make you feel great” can we.’ Laughter erupted all round the room.
‘So what should
we do?’ said Alice.
‘You’ve done a good job Alice, but we’ve got to take it further. I
think we need everything we can find out about these deaths. You’ve got the death certificates, try and find out
if there were any witnesses. Be sensible, but most relatives will be happy to talk to you if you treat them with respect
and tell them about the drug trial. They may well know anyway. Any volunteers to help Alice?’
hands went up, one said ‘Do we get to go to Switzerland?’ The whole room erupted again, and they all looked
‘I don’t rule it out,’ he said ‘but try the telephone first.’
The mirth died
down as Jim said, ‘I need to hit the books to research what’s happening to Danni, I think we’ve done enough
on this for today. Any other business?’
* * * * *
Jim settled at his desk and started pulling up web searches on brain death. It would be a grim subject at the
best of times but worse still when the image of a friend of yours comes into your head alongside every clinical description.
It took only a few minutes to find the protocols that described current practice in the UK. Simple enough, but how many
possible conditions were there that could be confused with brain death. It had been years since Jim had worked with
brain damaged or unconscious patients and he wanted to make sure that he didn’t say anything stupid or ask daft questions
when he went back to talk to the specialists again. Worse still he could feel his emotions intruding as he worked.
His logical brain told him that anyone in his position would be biased; it might invalidate any opinion he came to.
No matter, he told himself, I’ll see what I can find, and the hospital doctors will just have to see what they make
Half an hour later he had a pile of print outs and bookmarks to dozens of web pages when there was a knock on
Alice half stepped though the door and stood holding the handle, shifting from one
foot to the other.
‘It’s OK, you can come in.’
‘Um well I was worried, I mean was that alright,
I didn’t get too hung up?’
‘You were fine.’
‘About the suicide business?’
‘You were fine.’
‘It’s just that, well, um, when I had my cancer I thought about it —
not for long or anything but, well I was only fifteen, and you never know what you’re going to think next.’
The words came rushing out and she collapsed into a chair. ‘I still think everyone can tell.’
the only thing they can tell is that you know your stuff and you care about cancer. Everyone has hunches; you just have
to take them as far as you can, test them to destruction. If you don’t think those deaths were suicides it’s
probably as good a guess as anyone else. We can’t ask the patients and if the death certificates don’t tell
us the only other shot is talking to the relatives.’ Jim paused for a second. ‘I can’t think
of anyone better to do that than someone who’s been there.’
As he spoke the phone rang, Jim glanced at Alice
who waved her hand in a gesture that said pick it up, I don’t mind.
‘Jim, can you drop everything and get
to the hospital.’ Val’s voice made Jim sit up. ‘There’s something the matter with Mary,
a teacher’s taken her to the casualty, and Amy’s gone with her. I couldn’t make sense of what they
were saying. As soon as they said hospital my brain went soft. Something about a big bruise, but I don’t
know how she did it. I’m sure she’s fine really, but it scared me.’ It all came flooding out
in one burst.
Jim started to say something about Mary’s bruise but couldn’t think where to start and
Val’s voice cut though everything. The words didn’t matter, the voice said, “drop everything and help”.
‘OK, I’m on my way. You’re on hands free, right?’
speed. Drive carefully; another minute won’t make any difference. OK, Hang up and I’ll call you as
soon as I’m on the road.’
He put the phone down, grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair and turned
‘A bit of an emergency?’ she said. ‘Val’s daughter Mary — I’ll have
* * * * *
Val felt her tension unwind
one notch. Jim might look like an absent minded professor, but hit him with an emergency and he is a rock. Val
used to wonder where it came from until she got him talking about mountaineering. He climbed a lot, tough stuff where
you have to depend on the people you climb with. She knew you simply didn’t progress on to that unless you could
stay cool when the going got rough. He never talked about climbing unless you really pressed him. There was something
there that Val had never gone into, his wife leaving was part of it; did the climbing scare her or did it take him away too
much? She left, and he stopped serious climbing, Val knew that. He had Amy to look after so maybe that must have
tied him down, you can’t take chances with your life if you’re a single parent with a child, well some people
might; but not Jim.
She knew he’d be back on the phone in a couple of minutes, and she’d feel better.
Concentrate on driving. Stay cool, stay calm, and get there safely.
Val knew the road, and she could see
no traffic to speak of, but that didn’t stop it being an awful drive. Her limbs weren’t actually shaking
but they felt as if they were trembling inside, she just kept trying to take deep breaths and look at the road.
the phone rang again she clicked her earpiece and felt another notch of tension drop when she heard his voice.
are you now Val? How far have you got?’
‘I’m about six miles from the hospital.’
I’m a few miles behind you. Don’t go too fast, how do you feel? You don’t sound good.’
‘All over the place, my muscles feel like jelly.’
‘Where are you exactly? What can you see
‘Road, a lorry in front of me.’
‘Can you see past it or are you going to follow
‘I don’t feel safe to pass it, it seems like a terribly difficult thing to do.’
still don’t know where you are, have you passed that pub with the big car park?’
‘Yes, have you got there yet?’
‘Stay behind the truck till you get there and
pull into the car park, I’m not far behind you, I’ll drive you. We can pick up your car later.’
She let out another breath. She knew she could have driven all the way herself, but it felt like a really good idea
to have Jim drive. Amy and Mary were at the hospital, they had a teacher with them, they must be safe, but having Jim
as an anchorman felt a whole lot better.
* * *
The teacher met them at the door. She showed them where to
sit and told them where the girls were, but couldn’t stay. Val tried to adjust to the pace of the hospital.
She could feel her pulse still racing but everyone around hem seemed to have something to do. A minute ago she’d
felt as though she was at the centre of a storm; now she could be a snowflake on the edge of it for all the notice anyone
A minute later a white coated figure appeared and strolled towards them holding a clip board.
Mary and Amy your girls?’
‘Are they sisters?’
Jim said ‘No Amy’s
my daughter and Mary’s Val’s. They’re just good friends. Are they OK?’
wrong with Amy, she just came with Mary and Mary’s fine really. She just has a huge bruise all down her side.
She said she fell off a bike in France.’ He paused, thinking, and Jim sensed that he wanted to say something else.
There must be something on his mind and he kept looking at Jim as though he should know him.
‘She says she’s
been sweating a lot at night, do you know anything about that?’ It seemed an odd question; Val frowned, and turned
to look at Jim.
‘She’s only been back from France a day. I don’t know. How would I tell?
Is there some kind of test? Why does it matter?’
The doctor tried to smile, ‘Well the sweating doesn’t
matter by itself.’
Jim interrupted. ‘It’s one of those symptoms that happens along with other
things in some illnesses, part of a pattern, it helps the doctor know what tests to do.’
The figure in the white
coat turned to look at Jim and his face fell.
‘I’m sorry sir I just realised.’ His voice caught
slightly, ‘you’re Professor Brogan aren’t you?’
Jim nodded. ‘There’s some blood
tests you want to do, is that right?’
The young doctor nodded and looked relieved that Brogan had cottoned on so
quickly, though Val still looked puzzled.
Jim said. ‘You get on and get it organised, tell us where
the girls are and I’ll talk to Val.’
The doctor signalled to the sister hovering in the background and set
off back along the corridor.
‘If the two of you could wait here for a moment, I’ll take you along to the
girls as soon as the doctor has finished.’
They sat down and Val looked at Jim. Her eyes said it all; she
didn’t have to ask.
‘It’s just possible that there’s something wrong with Mary’s blood,
that might be why she’s bruised a lot, or it may just be that she’s kept quiet about falling off the bike because
she’s embarrassed about it.’
‘She doesn’t really do embarrassed, Jim. What blood problems,
is it something she caught in France?’
Jim looked serious and held Val’s hand.
Jim, out with it, what?’
‘They need to look at the white cells in case she has something like Hodgkin's
disease or leukaemia.’ The remains of Val’s composure collapsed. Jim pulled her towards him and held
her until the sobbing stopped.
‘It’s been a hell of a day. Let it out Val, I know it’s
not much point in me saying this, but mostly they get kids better from those things these days, and it may be nothing.’
Jim held Val until the sister reappeared.
‘You can see them when you want to,’ she said, ‘third cubicle
on the left.’
Jim nodded. Val’s head came up.
‘Is there somewhere I can wash my face?
I don’t want the kids seeing me like this.’
‘Just over there.’ Val got up, put her hand
on Jim’s shoulder for a second then set off for the ladies. In two minutes she returned, not a picture of calm
but more like the old Val. They went to see the girls together.
Both of them were talking at once for a while,
but they did eventually calm down enough to get the story out of them.
‘It really doesn’t hurt, it’s
just a massive bruise and the teacher freaked out in gym class, she seemed to think I must have broken my leg or something.
It’s just a bruise.’
‘But it’s a very big bruise love, why didn’t you tell me about it.’
‘What does it matter how big it is?’
Val looked at Jim for a second, ‘If there’s something
wrong with your blood it can leak out more than it should and that makes the bruise,’ another glance at Jim to check,
‘that’s why they want to test your blood.’
‘Mum, will I have to stay here while they do tests?’
‘I don’t know darling; I suppose it depends on what they find. If it’s something simple I expect
we can go home soon.’ She looked at Jim again, but the slightest shrug of his shoulders told her he didn’t
* * * * *
It took a moment
for Jim to realise that Val expected him to do something. He stood up and set off along the corridor and somehow in
three steps changed from being a concerned onlooker to being a famous professor. Jim put his head into the sister’s
office and asked whether she knew the whereabouts of the paediatrician; she pointed to an office across the corridor.
Jim knocked and went in. It didn’t take long to get clear that nothing much would happen until Monday. He
couldn’t see any problem in Jim taking them all home and phoning to confirm the results of the tests.
think it’s Hodgkin's don’t you?’ said Jim. ‘I don’t want to put you on the spot, but I need
to make plans to get Mary and her mum through this, they’ve had some other bad shocks recently and this won’t
help. Did you find any glands?’
‘One, I think. It feels like it, and it looks like it but we
won’t be sure till we see the tests.’
Jim nodded. ‘Thanks, I’ll go and get them
home, I’ll phone a bit before five, if that’s OK, if they’ve got anything from the lab they’ll have
it by then won’t they? I’ll bring her up on Monday morning anyway. Do you want me to phone your boss,
you know, protocol, so he knows I’m involved?’
The young doctor smiled, ‘Thanks
Prof. It’s OK I’ve got to phone him anyway, he’ll probably give you a call on Sunday, has he got your number?’
Jim nodded. ‘We often work together.’ He let himself out and found his way back to the
cubicle where the girls were waiting with Val.
‘We can go. We can phone up this evening for the results if
they’ve got any. We’ll have to come back on Monday. I expect the consultant will call me over the
weekend, so we might as well be off.’ A quick glance at Mary and Val told him that they wanted to be out of the
‘We might as well all go home in my car, I can collect yours from the pub later on.’ Val picked
up her bag, instinctively looked around for anything left behind and started to move towards the door, without saying anything.
Jim put his arms around the two girls, and they set off for the car. The girls enjoyed having the rest of the day off
school, but Val had to work hard to stay calm. Computer games and soap operas kept the girls occupied until Jim disappeared
into his office to call the hospital. They were all waiting when he came out.
‘I got through to the lab
about your blood tests,’ he said, looking at Mary, ‘they can’t tell for sure what it is so they will have
to take a piece out of that little gland they found on your neck and look at it under a microscope on Monday. They just
push a very thin needle into it so they can suck a piece out to look at.’
Mary looked worried ‘Will
it hurt? Is it dangerous?’
‘The needle doesn’t hurt much, a bit like getting your ears pierced.
Is that what you meant?’
Mary looked a bit confused so Jim carried on. ‘If you meant the lump, is the
lump dangerous? Well if it’s what they think it might be then yes it’s dangerous if we don’t do anything
about it. If it’s treated straight away then most likely it’ll get better. That’s what happens
to nearly everyone with a lump like that, especially when it’s been discovered really early, like yours.’
Val watched Jim, searching his face for every hint of meaning. ‘What is the treatment?’
might just use radiation, you know, powerful X-rays, but sometimes they use chemotherapy, it depends on what the blood tests
and the needle biopsy look like.’ Mary looked puzzled.
sometimes it’s tablets, sometimes injections, or through a drip feed, like a blood transfusion.’
don’t get it’ she said. ‘It doesn’t hurt or anything, I feel fine.’
at her carefully with a gentle smile ‘I know, that’s because it’s been discovered very early. Maybe
you or Val would have spotted it in a few weeks if it went on getting bigger, or if new lumps appeared. In a way, falling
off that bike was lucky, it got you examined by a doctor who was looking for lumps and bumps.’
‘Is that what
would happen if we left it?’ said Val, ‘more lumps would appear?’
‘That and a few other things,
more sweats at night, feeling ill, blood problems, it depends how fast it grows, and they’re not all exactly the same.’
‘I don’t have any of that’ said Mary, ‘well apart from the sweating.’
met Jim’s, ‘when you say most people get better what do you really mean.’
Jim knew he couldn’t
fool Val, ‘It depends which trial you look at, they’re never all the same, different trials have shown slightly
different results, but for very early stages like this, between 75% and 95% get better. Some recent trials are even
better than that.’ He turned towards Mary. ‘And if you’ve only got one lump then it’s
most likely the better end of that.
* * * * *
the girls had disappeared again Val said.
‘Do you need to work tonight or can we talk?’
to work really, I’m getting behind with some things I wanted to do, but you and Mary come first.’
were you going to do?’
‘I’ve been trying to dig up some more background to try and make sense of what’s
happening to Danni. I think I need to know more so I can ask the right questions when I see the gang that are looking
after her. Right now I feel as though I’m just being bounced along. On top of that I’m still thinking
about that other stuff that you saw the other night. We had a team meeting about it this morning. I’ve got
other people working on it, but you know me.’
‘That new cancer drug?’
Jim nodded. ‘There’s
still a mystery, it’s not the cancers that are killing people, but it doesn’t make sense that healthy people in
the treatment group should be more likely to die of other things.’
‘Is the drug curing the cancers?’
‘Well it seems to be, so far, but it’s too early to say for sure.’
‘Should Mary take it?
I mean if it’s better than the old treatments or it makes them work better, or whatever it was that you said, then shouldn’t
she have it straight away?’
‘No. Well not unless she’s in the trial and that’s not up to
‘But you’re in charge of it all.’
For a moment Jim looks slightly exasperated.
‘No I’m not, I‘m co-ordinating it. It’s not the same thing. Each patient has their own
doctor, they have to decide who’s suitable for the trial and all the patients have to be randomised. If Mary’s
doctor thinks she should be in the trial, then that’s fine.’
Just for a second
a hint of irritation crept into Jim’s voice. ‘We have to make sure that patients are allocated to the different
treatments at random, otherwise the result will end up being biased. It’s the only way.’
I want Mary to have the best.’
‘Val we don’t even know for sure that she’s got Hodgkin’s
yet, they don’t have all the tests back. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.’
The doorbell rang.
‘Who can that be at this time of night’ said Val. ‘Were you expecting someone?’
Oh, yes, it’ll be the taxi I called. Your car is still at the pub, remember. I called a taxi back when I
phoned the hospital. I figured one of us ought to stay with the girls, so I ordered a taxi so I can go and get your
car. You don’t want to drive do you?’
‘No. I want just Mary to be better. She sighed,
leaned back in the chair and closed her eyes. ‘Go and get the bloody car.’