Chapter One of Nostrum Conspiracy

CHAPTER 1

 

An instant turns into the tragedy of a lifetime when a bullet tears a pinky sized hole into the forehead of the woman you love.  It is especially painful when you’ve spent a lifetime ignoring her.

I allowed a single tear to follow the path of least resistance to the corner of my mouth, before wiping it with the tip of the tongue.  Savoring the slight burn from the salt, I tried to remember the last time I wept.  No luck there.  I’m sure I’ve cried before.  A man would have to be emotionally bankrupt to have never cried.

I’ve been such a jerk, but there’s one thing I know for sure, this is the first time I’ve shed a tear of joy.  Ginny is alive.  I don’t know how, but she is alive.  Somehow she survived the gun shot and still looks radiant.  By comparison, I feel like I’ve been kicked by an ornery mule.

Ginny doesn’t need the clothes her company designs to make her beautiful.  Even in a flimsy hospital gown, she is stunning.  Tall and athletic, her flawless legs led the eye upward toward a tight little behind, while waves of soft dark brown hair fell gracefully onto her broad swimmer’s shoulders spotted with a few freckles despite her olive skin tone.

Her eyes sparkle with life.  Even though I’ve known her as long as I can remember, I find their color difficult to pinpoint.  It is an unusual shade of blue or green that is best described as the color of a tropical sea.

The rest of Ginny’s face is equally magnificent.  She has an aristocratic high bridged nose set between wide cheekbones that narrow into a high forehead.  It is a beautiful face that is enhanced with the flush of radiant good health.  You might even say all true beauty is a reflection of good health.

As happy as I was to see her like this, I thought I might be hallucinating.  The last time I saw her she was lying in a pool of her own blood, pale and lifeless.  Yet now I find her in a hospital bed, the model of good health.  How the hell is that possible?

“You’re alive,” said Ginny.

I shook my head as if that would wipe away any illusions.  Still, there was no mistaking her musical voice.  It was time to test the waters.

“You died,” I murmured.

“I knew Slotter was going to pull the trigger before she did,” said Ginny.  “Everything happened so slowly.  When the hammer fell I only had one thought…deflect that bullet.  I knew, without a doubt, I could do it…but I failed.”

Kim Slotter was a war hero gone bad.  She had kidnapped Ginny and held her at an abandoned warehouse in the wrong end of town.  I took a ragtag group and tried to rescue her, but the heroic deed went south and we were shot by the bad guys.

“You succeeded in deflecting the bullet, but that shot was intended for me, not you,” I said.

Ginny absentmindedly massaged the spot just above her heart.  Without thinking I mirrored her movement and felt the bandages covering the exit wound.  I was lucky.  If the bullet had been slightly lower it would have killed me.

“You’re wounded,” she said.  “I failed.”

She thought only of protecting me and damn near got herself killed doing it.  Without thinking, I gathered her into my arms and held her tight.

I had never done anything so rash in my life and had a moment where I thought maybe I had overstepped a boundary between us.  The moment of doubt passed when Ginny melted into me like she had been there a thousand times before.

“You did not fail,” I said.  “It wasn’t Slotter who did this to me.  I was shot in the back by one of her minions.”

The brush with death opened my eyes to a few things.  Introspection has an annoying way of doing that.  The thing that hurt the most as we lay together in an expanding puddle of blood was the regret.

I couldn’t understand why I had ignored Ginny all of those years.  None of the reasons that once seemed adequate withstood the test of final judgment as we faced death together.

After the wave of grief passed, I wiped the tears from her shoulder and reminded myself that somehow she was miraculously alive and well.  The grief was replaced with self-doubt.  She couldn’t still be alive.  I must be dreaming, or worse, experiencing a psychotic break.

Neither was acceptable and I was thinking of giving myself a good hard pinch, when our tender moment was interrupted by a disapproving voice.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

A young nurse with a fake smile plastered across her face stormed into the room.  Her dirty blond hair had been hastily smoothed back, leaving a few stubborn strands that refused to comply.  Instead, they curled around a flushed cheek, as testament to her refusal to follow the straight and narrow.  On the opposite side of her face, a streak of dark mascara ran a quarter-inch from the corner of her left eye.

She was dressed in rumpled surgical scrubs and the buttons on her top were out of alignment.  She smelled of sweat from a quick tryst in some dark corner of the hospital.

Her name tag identified her as Nurse Nightshade.  She was trying hard to be perky, but failed miserably.  I had the sense Nurse Nightshade was trained to be upbeat, but it didn’t come naturally to her.  It was obvious she wasn’t pleased with me.

“This patient is in critical condition,” she said coldly.  “I’m going to change her bandage and afterwards you need to leave so she can get some rest.”

For someone charged with patient care, she was shockingly unobservant.  She hadn’t once looked at Ginny and seemed content to glare at me instead.

I nodded toward Ginny.  Nurse Nightshade followed my eyes.  At first she didn’t seem to register what was in front of her, but when it finally sunk in that Ginny was the model of good health, she muffled a small scream with her hand.

“That’s impossible,” gasped Nurse Nightshade.  “She’s at death’s door and Doctor Wiemp doesn’t expect her to make it through the night.”

It irked me that she gave more weight to what the Doctor said than what her own eyes revealed about Ginny’s condition.  Clearly, she was not at death’s door.  Ginny was alive and well.

I wanted to point this out to her, but resisted the temptation.

Instead I asked, “How do you explain it then…a miracle maybe?”

Nurse Nightshade ignored my question.  Instead she made the sign of the cross, as if that would somehow protect her from something she didn’t understand.  I can’t be certain, but I think I also heard her whisper something about God’s own miracle.

I wasn’t serious about the miracle comment, but that didn’t seem to matter much to her.  Once she completed the religious rituals, her nurses’ training took over and she busied herself with Ginny’s bandage.

At first she seemed hesitant, as if she feared what lay beneath it.  Her fear didn’t last long before she made up her mind to do her job and began to slowly remove the blood crusted dressing.

While she fussed with the bandage, I turned to ask Pony Tail what he knew about Ginny’s condition, but he was nowhere in sight.  Weird, I thought.  He had been dressed in nurse’s scrubs and hovering over Ginny when I walked into the room a few minutes earlier.  I sure didn’t hear him leave.

“Maybe the other nurse knows what happened to Ginny,” I said to Nurse Nightshade.

Her attention was on the bandage and I wasn’t sure if she heard me at first.  I was about to repeat it when she finally answered.

“I’m the only one working this shift,” she said.

“There was a male nurse in here a few minutes ago,” I said.

Since she ignored me, I added a description of Pony Tail to give her memory a boost.

“He’s in his mid-twenties, medium height, brown skin, and blond hair,” I said.

I still didn’t get a response from her, so I lamely continued with the description in the hopes something would register with her.

“He wears his hair long, but tied back in a ponytail,” I said.  “You can’t miss him.”

Nurse Nightshade was rude, but she was also working so I didn’t take it personally.  Besides, her focus was on carefully removing Ginny’s bandages and I didn’t want to distract her.  It almost felt random when she finally responded with a shake of her head.

“There’s no one like that here,” she said.

I gave up on Pony Tail and chalked it up as one more strange mystery to follow-up at a later time.

While the nurse fussed with the bandages I took a moment to look around the room.  Hospital rooms are places where I put on horse blinders, since it’s best not to see too much.  The rooms tend to be stark and filled with unpleasant odors.  For the most part, Ginny’s room was no exception.  However, it did have one interesting feature that drew my eye.

An odd picture hung on the wall next to the bathroom.  Most art work in hospital rooms is virtually invisible, but this one caught my eye.  It was a wreath, but I saw something odd hidden in its design.  I could very clearly see a snake eating a bird.  It appeared to be the same symbol vandals painted on Ch’ing’s wall.

Ch’ing is my martial arts teacher who mysteriously disappeared a few days ago.  When we searched his house for him, we found it had been vandalized.  For some unknown reason, they had spray painted the snake eating bird symbol on the wall along with the message, “It has begun.”

Nurse Nightshade removed the last of the bandages and gasped.  Since she was obstructing my view, I craned my neck to see around her, but still couldn’t see a thing.

I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I know I saw Slotter blow a hole in her forehead and a sick part of me wanted that hole to be there, so I wouldn’t have to face the possibility I was crazy.  The rest of me wanted Ginny’s forehead to be as smooth as a baby’s butt.

When Nurse Nightshade finally shifted positions, what I saw was a bit of dried blood that she wiped away.  Where there was once a hole the size of my little finger, now there was only smooth healthy skin.  There was no evidence Ginny had suffered an injury.

I was relieved for sure, but now I doubted my memory of the events at the warehouse.  Was Ginny really taken by an ex-special forces renegade and held hostage in a warehouse in West Louisville?

A group of us went to rescue her, but all hell broke loose.  I was shot.  Ginny was shot.  The only family I had left was trapped on the roof of a burning building.  I don’t know how Uncle Jim could have survived those flames.  Oh…and my crazy macaw, Bird, went down underneath a tank of a man.

The only person I care about who managed to get through it unharmed was my best friend, Eric.  When I awoke in the hospital, I found him sitting at my bedside.  It should have been comforting, but Eric was behaving strangely.  He seemed worried about more than recent events, but wouldn’t say what it was.

Then it got even weirder when my attorney, showed up with a Marine Colonel in tow.  The Colonel is in charge of some hush-hush military investigation involving Slotter, the special forces renegade who shot Ginny.

They offered me a deal to avoid prosecution for two murders I didn’t commit.  One of the dead men was my boss, John Biggs, who was found hanging from the chandelier in his posh corner office after he got a call from a federal prosecutor.

I’m a lawyer, by the way.  At least I was before the firm placed me on unpaid leave.  A spendthrift spouse and strangling medical bills for my mother’s long term healthcare have left me broke.  So, I took a job working as a body guard for a monk named Padma Ganesha.

He wrote a bestselling book about the happiest place on Earth.  Ginny somehow persuaded him to travel to Louisville and speak at a lecture series called, “Ideas to Change the World.”  It was held in an auditorium on Louisville’s waterfront called, the Center.  When I arrived, I found the security guard with a knife buried in his chest.

The evening went from bad to worse after Pony Tail started shooting.  Thirty-two hundred peace loving hippies fought their way to the exits, only to find themselves locked inside.  They are all dead now.  According to the news reports, there was a gas leak, but I was told by the Marine Colonel the gas leak is a cover story.

For some reason, the military wanted to cover up the truth and offered me immunity to keep quiet about what really happened.  The deal was a huge insult to my intelligence.  Even though I was in no mood to allow myself to be controlled by some military goon, I went along with it to get rid of them.

As soon as the Colonel left my room, I slipped out in the hopes of finding Slotter in the intensive care unit recovering from her own gunshot wounds.  Following Slotter’s arrest, a police detective stuck a pistol in her belly and pulled the trigger.  The Jack Ruby moment was motivated by vengeance for the death of the detective’s daughter at the Center.

Slotter had made a few enemies and we all wanted her dead, but it was beginning to look like she was under the protection of the same Colonel who was trying to hush up what really happened at the Center.

Instead of Slotter, I found Ginny alive and well in the intensive care unit.  I thought for sure she was dead and now I was beginning to doubt my own memory of what happened.  It was inconceivable that she took a bullet to the head and survived, let alone healed so quickly.  At least it was inconceivable to a sane person.

I shook off the self-doubt.  Something was amiss, but if Ginny survived by some unknown miracle, then maybe, just maybe, Uncle Jim and Bird also survived.  I could only hope, but for now I wanted to focus on what was right in front of me.  Ginny was alive and that was huge.

Neither the nurse nor I knew what to say in response to the sight of her perfectly healed wound.  It was Ginny who broke the silence.

“My father is still alive and I’m going to find him,” said Ginny.  “Will you help me, Grant?”

Ginny’s father had disappeared years ago.  For some reason, Slotter thought he was still alive and that’s why she kidnapped Ginny.  In some weird way, it must have given Ginny hope.  I didn’t think for a minute the man was still alive after all this time, but I wanted to be with Ginny and she wanted to search for him.

“Of course I will,” I answered.  “Where do you want to begin?”

“Brazil…he was last seen boarding a small plane for a tour of the Amazon Rainforest,” answered Ginny without hesitation.  “We’ll begin there.”

“That’s a long time for someone to be missing,” I said.

“I’ve never given up hope that my father is alive,” she said.  “One of the many reasons I opened a factory in Brazil was to pick up where the police left off with their investigation into his disappearance.”

“What did they tell you?”  I asked.

“Only that he charted a small plane and it never returned,” she said.

“Where was it chartered?” I asked.

“Manaus, at the mouth of the Amazon,” she answered.

“The Amazon Rainforest is huge,” I said.  “Do you know where he was headed?”

She shrugged.

“Nobody seems to know,” said Ginny.

Something was bothering me about this story, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  There were pieces of the puzzle missing and I had a nagging feeling I knew something about them.

“Do they know where the plane went down?” I asked.

“No,” answered Ginny.  “They spent a few days looking for the wreckage, but soon gave up when it couldn’t be spotted from the air.”

“Do you have plan?” I asked.

She nodded, but before she could answer, the nurse hit the emergency call button.

“You don’t just walk out of ICU,” barked Nurse Nightshade.  “You’re not going anywhere until Dr. Wiemp releases you.”

Ginny stiffened.  She looked like she was about to give the nurse a piece of her mind.  I don’t know about Ginny, but I don’t like to be told what I can or can’t do, especially by a stranger.

Still, no good ever comes from an unnecessary confrontation over something that is easily resolved.  It was time for diplomacy, but before I could speak, Ginny snapped at the nurse.

“I’m not your prisoner,” said Ginny.

Nurse Nightshade puffed her flat chest out as far as it would go.

“Rules are rules,” she said.  “You have to see the Doctor first.”

“Not if she doesn’t want to,” I said.  “As you can see, she’s in perfect health.”

The nurse shook her head.

“Who are you and what are you doing in my ICU outside of visiting hours?” she demanded.

Her attitude stunned me.  It was time to kick it up a notch, so I extended my hand to her.

“My name is Grant Li, Attorney-at-Law,” I said.  “This woman does not need your permission to leave.  Surely it’s not your intention to hold her against her will.”

Nurse Nightshade shrank from the extended hand, as if it held a poisonous snake.  She opened her mouth to speak, but then abruptly shut it again.  I think she was accustomed to patients following orders and our rebellion unbalanced her.

Between my martial arts training and law practice, I know a fighter when I see one.  Nurse Nightshade was a fighter and wasn’t about to lose a conflict with a couple of patients.  She shifted her focus to the hospital gown I wore and somehow managed to regain her sense of power.

“You are a patient in this hospital and there is blood seeping from your bandages,” said the nurse.  “Let’s get you back to your room before you hurt yourself.”

I wasn’t feeling my best and the bed rest she offered was tempting, but her tone annoyed me.  I was about to say something I might regret when I heard footsteps outside of the door.

An arrogant voice barked a little too loudly, “This better be a real emergency.”

A wave of relief passed over Nurse Nightshade’s face.  She could now pass the torch to someone else and that somebody happened to be wearing a name tag that identified him as, Jonathan Wiemp, M.D.

Dr. Wiemp was tall, but seemed much shorter thanks to a pronounced stoop.  In addition to the stoop, he had a sag in the back of his neck that reminded me of a cartoon vulture I had seen one Saturday morning years ago.

In sharp contrast to an exceptionally pointed chin, he had a wide forehead with four rows of deep wrinkles spread across it.  Thinning hair and grayish skin, gave him a haggard look.

It didn’t get any better as you moved downward.  A pot belly pushed the waist band of his slacks to the max.  I didn’t get a sense that the doctor took very good care of himself.

I guessed he was much younger than he appeared, but his clothes didn’t help him look his age.  They were old fashioned and added to his antique appearance.  From the faded bow tie, to the heavily worn wing tip shoes, he looked like he had been wearing the same outfit since 1958.

Nurse Nightshade must have seen something different in Dr. Wiemp, because she never once took her doe eyed gaze from him.  On the other hand, Dr. Wiemp hardly looked at her.  My feelings about her softened considerably when I realized it would eventually end badly for her.

“This patient wants to leave, Doctor,” said the nurse.

Dr. Wiemp scowled over the top of black rimmed glasses at Ginny.  Leaving was not part of his prognosis.  He expected her to be dead by morning.  I saw something else in his face.  This arrogant man disliked being wrong and found her recovery insulting.

“No one is leaving,” said Dr. Wiemp in a raspy voice that told me he was a heavy smoker.

I had one of those random moments we all have from time to time.  For some odd reason, Dr. Wiemp’s statement reminded me of the title to Jim Morrison’s biography, “No One Here Gets Out Alive.”  The disturbing comparison was all I needed to abandon diplomacy and shift into full blown lawyer mode.

“Unless you step aside and allow her to leave, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for false imprisonment,” I said to Dr. Wiemp.

He looked me up and down before digging a hand into his pocket and pulling out a smartphone.  He punched in a call and waited impatiently.

“We have a problem,” he said into the phone.  “Send security.”

“Has everyone gone completely insane?” asked Ginny.

“This is ridiculous,” I agreed. “We’re leaving.”

I took Ginny’s hand and gently pulled her to her feet.  At first, she submitted, but then looked down at her clothes.  I followed her eyes.  She was wearing one of those awful hospital gowns that invariably expose the patient’s behind.  In most instances, it’s a behind I’d rather not look at, but as Ginny cut a path to the closet I enjoyed a lingering look at a backside that was flawless in a Barbie doll sort of way.

I had seen her in a bikini a few days earlier and hungered for more.  I watched as she stuffed her things into a bag and grabbed my hand again.

As we headed to the door, I caught a glimpse of the nurse’s hateful glare.  She quickly cut her jealous eyes to Dr. Wiemp, who was standing in the door blocking our way.  He didn’t show any signs of yielding.

I looked straight into his eyes and with dead calm said, “You need to step aside, now.”

Dr. Wiemp’s arrogance seemed to dissipate.  For the first time, he was unsure of himself.  His eyes faltered and his gaze dropped to his feet as he stepped aside.  I led Ginny into the hall where we ran smack into two huge security guards.

Dr. Wiemp’s arrogance returned as he barked, “Take this man to the psychological services unit and put him in restraints.”

Of all the things he could have said, Dr. Wiemp managed to say the only thing that could send me over the edge.  Raw terror pushed me into berserker mode.  In keeping with my training, I savagely attacked the biggest guard first, delivering multiple blows to his vital points within the first three seconds.

He was out cold and on his way to the ground when I disarmed the second security guard and pressed the 45 to his temple.  I would have pulled the trigger too, but I heard something in Ginny’s voice that pulled me from the brink.

“Oh, my God!” said Ginny.  “Grant, no…please don’t!”

Her voice saved the guard’s life and it saved me from doing something that would have haunted me for the rest of my life.  In the face of what might have been my hands started shaking uncontrollably.  When I turned to Ginny, I was crushed by what I saw in her eyes.  I wanted to explain and took a deep breath to gather myself, but felt something stab me in the neck and then I was out cold.

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