NICK LOOKED AT THE SANDWICH ON HIS DESK AND WRINKLED HIS NOSE. Mondays were always busy, so he generally brought lunch from home and ate at his desk. Today, though, he hadn't done so well as a chef. He lifted the top slice of bread and sniffed at the lunch meat, wondering if he should slice offthe green rind or toss the whole thing. The chips he'd sealed in a sandwich bag had been reduced to a greasy mass of shards. The apple, the last one in his crisper, was dry, wrinkled, and totally unappetizing.
He shoved everything back into the brown bag and heaved it into his wastebasket, where it settled with a satisfying clunk. Nick looked at his watch. One o'clock. Wonder if Anna's already eaten. He picked up the phone, punched in her home number, counted the rings, and felt his heart sink when the answering machine picked up. "Anna, this is Nick. Just calling to invite you to have a late lunch with me. I'll try your cell." He did, only to have his call roll over to voicemail on the second ring. He repeated the message with appropriate variations and hung up.
In the cafeteria, the chicken potpie on his plate tasted like sawdust, although all around him people were shoveling it in with great gusto. He managed to eat about half of it before he pushed it aside. Maybe some coffee and a piece of pie? No, he wasn't really that hungry, something so foreign to him that he toyed with the idea of asking of his internal medicine colleagues to give him a checkup. Then again, maybe what he felt wasn't due to a bug. Maybe the cause was a certain redheaded surgeon.
How long had he known Anna McIntyre now? A week? Two? Surely not long enough to feel this serious about her. Maybe this wasn't love at first sight, but at the very least it was "strong liking in less than two weeks."
The beep of his pager roused him from his self-analysis. He thumbed the button and checked the display: Dr. Wetherington—probably fuming because Nick hadn't finished his professional résumé for the promotions committee. Somehow, Nick didn't think his chairman would accept the excuse that he'd been too busy spending time with his new girlfriend. Maybe he'd have time to think up a good story on his way to the chairman's office.
"I've only spoken with these guys on the phone. You've seen them in person. What are your impressions of Green and Dowling?" Ross put down his chicken sandwich to listen.
Anna dabbed at her mouth with a napkin and tried to think of the right way to describe these men. "Green frightens me a bit. Remember the football player, Mean Joe Greene, who was supposed to be such a terror? Well, Mean Joe would be a pussycat compared with Lamar Green."
"What about Dowling?"
"So pale you'd think he never saw the sun. Lean and sinewy, losing his hair. Quiet, but I have this mental image of a snake ready to strike at any time."
"Which one would you rather deal with?" Ross asked.
Anna couldn't suppress a shiver. "Neither one. Green would come right after me. Dowling might stab me in the back. They scare me."
"Okay, we'll let that rest," Ross said. "Time to talk about something else."
Anna was surprised to learn that Ross liked the same kind of music she did, enjoyed the same movies she did, and in general was a real person. As he paid the check, she decided her first lunch with a lawyer hadn't been as bad as she'd feared, especially considering the precipitating circumstances.
They parted in front of the restaurant, with Ross promising to keep Anna posted on any new developments and extracting the same promise from her. She ransomed her car from the parking garage and pulled out onto Pacific Street. The laboratory where the pseudo-Anna McIntyre had received her HIV workup was on Grand Avenue, only a couple of miles in distance but light-years in economic status from downtown Dallas. Anna pulled up a mental map of the streets involved and set a course for the Metro Clinical Lab. She didn't recall the exact street address, but it shouldn't be too hard to find.
When Anna turned onto Grand, the neighborhood changed, and she locked her doors. Ahead, on the corner, she saw a onestory, red brick building bearing a sign in faded black letters: Metro Clinical Laboratory. The parking area at the side of the building resembled a road in Afghanistan after a mortar attack. Holes in the concrete threatened her wheels and suspension as she dodged right and left. She brought the car to a halt in the one empty parking space, the farthest from the building.
Anna checked that the car doors were still locked before retrieving her purse from under her seat. Maybe she should check her messages at home before she went into the building. She flipped open her cell phone and noticed the icon that indicated one new voicemail message. Then she remembered.
She'd turned offthe ringer before going into conference with the DEA agents. She changed the setting and pushed the button to retrieve the message.
"This is Nick. Just calling to invite you to have a late lunch with me. Guess you're tied up. Call me when you get this message.I . . . uh, I . . . hey, I really enjoyed our picnic."
Anna leaned back in the seat and wondered how this had happened. A month ago she'd been totally focused on her career. Not much of a social life beyond an occasional date that almost never led to a second one. Now her professional and personal life were on the verge of ruin, but she had two men in her life, either of whom could turn out to be the Mr. Right she'd always hoped would come along.
She started to punch the number to call Nick, who had made it onto her speed-dial list soon after their first meeting. Then she stopped. She really ought to go inside and get this out of the way. She could call him from home or at least from the car after she was safely out of this neighborhood.
Anna unzipped her purse, dropped in the phone, and rummaged around until her fingers identified the tiny canister of pepper spray she'd carried since moving to Dallas. She'd never used it, but today she felt better knowing it was there. She moved the canister toward the top of the purse and left the zipper partly open. Then she unlocked her doors, looped the strap of her purse securely over her head and across her body, and stepped out. She beeped the doors locked once more and looked around her.
A half dozen homeless men crouched against the chain-link fence that formed the far end of the parking lot, next to where she'd left her car. They represented a veritable United Nations of colors and ethnicity, but they shared one characteristic: redrimmed eyes that seemed to stare right through her. The man on the end had a firm grip on the neck of a bottle protruding from a brown paper sack. She watched out of the corner of her eye as he drank, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and passed the bottle to one of his companions.
Anna dreaded turning her back on these men to walk the seventy feet to the front door. Don't run, she told herself. Just move along. They won't hurt you. She dropped her hand inside her purse and grabbed the pepper spray. Keys in one hand with her thumb on the panic button of the remote, pepper spray canister in the other. Take a deep breath. Start walking. The walk to the door seemed to take an hour, but she reached it with no consequences worse than a cramp between her shoulder blades from muscles taut as a violin string. Once inside the building, she dropped keys and canister into her purse and looked around for a receptionist.
"Help you?" The Hispanic girl sat behind a scarred desk against the back wall of the foyer. Straight chairs with ripped vinyl seat cushions lined the walls on either side of the room. A coffee table held several tattered magazines and out-of-date copies of two newspapers, the Dallas News and El Sol.
"I'm Dr. Anna McIntyre. I need to speak with your laboratory director."
"May I ask why?" The girl was civil enough, but apparently used to deflecting questions. She probably had her orders. A routine was in place, and any departure from it would present a problem.
"I'd rather discuss it with the director. Is he or she available?"
The girl shook her head. Anna could almost see the gears turning as the receptionist pulled up the appropriate response from her memory bank. "Our medical director is Dr. Gaston. His office is in Fort Worth, but he makes a visit here once a week. He was here yesterday. Would you like to come back next week?"
"Who's in charge here? I mean, right now, on the premises."
"I guess that would be our chief technician." Anna took a calming breath. "And that would be?"
"May I speak with her?"
"May I ask why?"
The dialogue continued like a bad imitation of an Abbott and Costello routine, but eventually the receptionist waved Anna through the door and into the laboratory. She was met there by a stout African American woman dressed in a flowered scrub top and navy scrub pants, the ensemble covered by a crisp white coat.
"Ms. Brown, I'm Dr. Anna McIntyre." Anna extended her hand.
"Pleased to meet you, Doctor. And it's not Ms. It's Miss. Anyway, you can call me Rhonda." She took Anna's hand and gave it a brief, firm shake, while never taking her brown eyes offher visitor. "How can I help you?"
"Is there somewhere we can sit down? This won't take long, but there's a bit of explaining that goes with it."
"Sorry, but I've got tests going and two other techs to supervise. If I can't do it right here, right now, you'll have to come back."
Anna sighed. She'd have to keep it simple, leave out the details, and hope Rhonda went along with her request. She told her about the lab report she'd received and asked if there was any way to identify the woman on whom the test had been run.
"Doctor, more than fifty patients come in here every day."Rhonda pointed to the open door to the waiting room. "Most mornings every one of those chairs is filled. As soon as somebody comes in here for us to draw blood, somebody standing along the wall takes the vacant seat. We check their paperwork, ask them to verify their name and birthday, take the sample and move on. So far as we're concerned, you are who your lab slip says you are."
"Well, can I ask the other technicians? Maybe they remember something."
Rhonda was already shaking her head before Anna finished."Dr. McIntyre, you ever heard of HIPAA?"
Of course, Anna had heard of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. Its most important provision, designed to protect patient privacy, had added another layer of paperwork for medical professionals already buried under reams of it. Before any medical information could be revealed, even to a patient's spouse or parent, the proper forms had to be signed. "You're telling me you can't help me because of HIPAA regulations," Anna said.
"I'm telling you that I could get in trouble just by talking to you about this. That patient—the one who told us she was Anna McIntyre—didn't list your name on the HIPAA form she signed."
"But I'm Anna McIntyre. So I can give you permission."
Rhonda shook her head and started to turn away. "Doctor, I've given you more time than I should already. Even if we went through all the legal hassling to get permission to talk about this, I'd still tell you the same thing. All the information we have about these patients is what they give us and what Lola out there at the desk copies offtheir insurance papers. We don't remember their faces or whether they have green hair or a big eye in the middle of their forehead. All I'm looking for is a good antecubital vein. Then, if the patient doesn't faint in the chair, we slap on a bandage, they're out and somebody else fills the spot before it gets cold." The last words were said over her shoulder and by the time Anna framed a reply, Rhonda was looking over a printer strip as it spewed from an automated analyzer.
It was obvious to Anna she'd gone as far as she could go here, with absolutely nothing to show for her efforts except the start of a massive headache. She thanked Rhonda, who acknowledged it with a wave. Anna turned and made her way back into the waiting room where the receptionist—presumably Lola—hardly gave her a glance before returning to her attack on the keyboard of her computer.
Anna spied a water fountain in the corner. She dug two Extra Strength Tylenols out of her purse, and washed them down with tepid water from the fountain. As soon as she got to a better neighborhood, she'd stop at a convenience store and get a Coke. Maybe the caffeine would help get rid of the headache.
In the parking lot, the collection of homeless men had dwindled to three, all leaning against the chain-link fence. The bag-in-a-bottle she'd seen earlier was no longer in evidence. Anna headed toward her car, fighting the urge to run. Easy now. Just like being in the jungle—don't show any fear. Halfway to her car, she pulled her keys from her purse and thumbed the remote.
"Hey, lady. You got any spare change?"
The largest of the trio, a stocky white man, eased offthe fence and began walking toward her. He hadn't shaved in days, and as he got closer, Anna decided he probably hadn't bathed recently either. The other two men didn't move, apparently content to watch the scene unfold.
"I asked if you got any spare change." He was directly between Anna and her car, standing easily with his hands on his hips. His breath smelled of cheap wine and dental decay.
"No. No, I haven't." She tried to move past him, but he moved with her, blocking her way.
"Well, maybe we should just see." He reached out for her purse and tried to wrestle it away from her, foiled for the moment by the strap across her chest.
"Help!" Her screams didn't produce any action from the two observers, who continued to watch with detachment. She tugged at her purse with her left hand, groping wildly for her pepper spray with her right.
The man dropped his hold on the purse and drew back his fist. Anna's hand closed around the spray canister and pulled it free. Her finger was on the button when she felt a jarring pain in the point of her jaw. She caught a glimpse of sky. A loud thud, like a football being punted, filled her head. Then nothing.