I want it just right, she’d said when he made fun of her. Your job is the only thing you love more than me.
He wished he could smile at the memory; it was a good one.
He looked up, startled. That was a word he hadn’t heard directed at him for a long time. “Yes?” He stood.
“Dr. Chinn will see you now. Go down the hall and turn right—”
“I know where his office is.” He went to the door, stood there, trying to breathe evenly. He was sweating and his palms were damp. His fingerprints would be all over the envelope.
“Doctor? Are you okay?”
He released a heavy sigh and opened the door.
The interior hallways and offices were filled with familiar faces. Nurses, physician’s assistants, radiology techs.
He forced his chin up.
One by one, the people he’d known made eye contact, recognized him, and looked quickly away. A few of them smiled awkwardly or waved, but no one spoke to him. He felt like a ghost passing through the land of the living. No one wanted to admit they’d seen him.
Some of the gazes were frankly condemning; that was the look he remembered, the one that had sent him running in the first place. Others, though, seemed embarrassed to be seen looking at him, confused by his sudden appearance. What did you say to a man you’d once admired who’d been prosecuted for killing his wife and then vanished for three years?
He walked past the row of women in hospital gowns waiting for mammograms, past the second waiting room, then turned onto another, quieter hallway. In the far end, he came to a closed door. He took a deep breath and knocked.
“Come in,” said a familiar voice.
Joe entered the big corner office that had once been his. Huge picture windows framed the Seattle high-rise view.
Li Chinn was at his desk, reading. At Joe’s entrance, he glanced up. An almost comical look of surprise overtook his normally impassive face. “I don’t believe it,” he said, remaining in his seat.
Li looked awkward, uncertain of how to proceed, what to say. “It’s been a long time, Joe.”
“Where did you go?”
“Does it matter? I meant to come by here and tell you I was leaving. But—” he sighed, hearing how pathetic he sounded “—I didn’t have the guts.”
“I kept your name on the door for nearly a year.”
“I’m sorry, Li. It was probably bad for business.”
Li nodded; this time his dark eyes were sad. “Yes.”
“I have some film I’d like you to look at.” At Li’s nod, Joe went to the viewbox and put the film up.
Li came closer, studying it. For a long moment, he said nothing. Then, “You see something I do not?”
He pointed. “There.”
Li crossed his arms, frowned. “Not many surgeons would attempt such a thing. The risks are grave.”
“She’s going to die without the surgery.”
“She may die because of the surgery.”
“You think it’s worth a try?”
Li looked at him, his frown deepening. “The old Joe Wyatt never asked for other men’s opinions.”
“Things change,” he said simply.
“Do you know a surgeon who would do it? Who could do it?”
“Stu Weissman at UCLA.”
“Ah. The cowboy. Yes, maybe.”
“I can’t practice. I’ve let my license lapse. Could you send Stu the film? I’ll call him.”
Li flicked off the light. “I will. You know, it’s an easy thing to reinstate your license.”
“Yes.” Joe stood there a moment longer. Silence spread like a stain between the men. “Well. I should go call Stu.” He started to leave.
He turned back around.
“Did any of the staff speak to you?”
“No. It’s hard to know what to say to a murderer.”
Li moved toward him. “A few believed that of you, yes. Most . . . of us . . . just don’t know what to say. Privately, many of us would have wanted to do the same thing. Diana was in terrible pain, everyone knew that, and there was no hope. We thank God that we were not in your shoes.”
Joe had no answer to that.
“You have a gift, Joe,” Li said slowly. “Losing it would be a crime, too. When you’re ready—if you ever are—you come back to see me. This office is in the business of saving lives, not worrying about old gossip.”
“Thank you.” They were small words, too small to express his gratitude. Embarrassed by the depth of his emotion, Joe mumbled thanks again, and left the office.
Downstairs, in the lobby, he found a bank of pay phones and called Stu Weissman.
“Joe Wyatt,” Stu said loudly. “How the hell are you? I thought you fell off the face of the earth. Damn shame, that hell you went through.”
Joe didn’t want to waste time with the where-have-you-been stuff. There would be time for that when Stu got up here. So he said, “I have a surgery I want you to do. It’s risky as hell. You’re the only man I know who is good enough.” Stu was a sucker for compliments.
“Talk to me.”
Joe explained what he knew of Claire’s history, told him the current diagnosis, and outlined what he’d seen on the film.
“And you think there’s something I can do.”
“Well, Joe. Your eyes are the best in the business. Send me the film. If I see what you do, I’ll be on the next plane. But you make sure the patient understands the risks. I don’t want to get there and have to turn around.”
“You got it. Thanks, Stu.”
“Good to hear from you,” Stu said, then hung up.
Joe replaced the receiver. Now all he had to do was speak to Claire.
He went back to the elevators, then crossed the sky bridge and headed into Swedish Hospital. He kept his gaze pinned on the floor. A few people frowned in recognition, a few more whispered behind him. He ignored them and kept moving. No one had the guts to actually speak to him or ask why he was back here, until he reached the ICU.
There someone said, “Dr. Wyatt?”
He turned slowly. It was Trish Bey, the head ICU nurse. They’d worked together for years. She and Diana had become close friends at the end. “Hello, Trish.”
She smiled. “It’s good to see you back here. We missed you.”
His shoulders relaxed. He almost smiled in return. “Thanks.” They stood there, staring at each other for an awkward moment, then he nodded, said good-bye, and headed for Claire’s room.
He knocked quietly and opened the door.
She was sitting up in bed, asleep, her head cocked to one side. The patchy hairless area made her look impossibly young.
He moved toward her, trying not to remember when Diana had looked like this. Pale and fragile, her hair thinning to the point where she looked like an antique doll that had been loved too hard and then discarded.
She blinked awake, stared at him. “Joey,” she whispered, smiling tiredly. “I heard you were home. Welcome back.”
He pulled a chair over and sat down beside her bed. “Hey, Claire.”
“I know. I’ve looked better.”
“You’re beautiful. You always have been.”
“Bless you, Joe. I’ll tell Di hi for you.” She closed her eyes. “I’m sorry, but I’m tired.”
“Don’t be in such a hurry to see my wife.”
Slowly, she opened her eyes. It seemed to take her a minute to focus on him. “There’s no hope, Joe. You of all people know what that’s like. It hurts too much to pretend. Okay?”
“I see it . . . differently.”
“You think the white coats are wrong?”
“I don’t want to give you false hope, Claire, but yeah, maybe.”
“Are you sure?”
“No one is ever sure.”
“I’m not asking anyone else’s opinion. I want yours, Joey. Are you telling me I shouldn’t give up?”
“Surgery might save you. But there could be bad side effects, Claire. Paralysis. Loss of motor skills. Brain damage.”
At that, she smiled. “Do you know what I was thinking about just before you got here?”
“How to tell Ali Kat that Mommy is going to die. I’d take any risk, Joe. Anything so I don’t have to kiss Ali good-bye.” Her voice cracked, and he saw the depth of her pain. Her courage amazed him.
“I’ve sent your films to a friend of mine. If he agrees with my diagnosis, he’ll operate.”
“Thank you, Joe,” she said softly, then closed her eyes again.
He could see how tired she was. He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “Bye, Claire.”
He was almost to the door when she said, “Joe?”
He turned. “Yeah?”
She was awake again, barely, and looking at him. “She shouldn’t have asked it of you.”
“Who?” he asked, but he knew.
“Diana. I would never ask such a thing of Bobby. I know what it would do to him.”
Joe had no answer to that. It was the same thing Gina always said. He left the room and closed the door behind him. With a sigh, he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes.
She shouldn’t have asked it of you.
He opened his eyes and stumbled away from the wall. Meghann stood a few feet away, staring up at him. Her cheeks and eyes were reddened and moist.
He had a nearly irresistible urge to wipe the residue of tears from her eyes.
She walked toward him. “Tell me you found a way to help her.”
He was afraid to answer. He knew, better that most, the double edge of hope. Nothing hit you harder than the fall from faith. “I’ve spoken to a colleague at UCLA. If he agrees with me, he’ll operate, but—”
Meghann launched herself at him, clung to him. “Thank you.”
“It’s risky as hell, Meg. She might not survive the surgery.”
Meghann drew back, blinked her tears away impatiently. “We Sullivan girls would rather go down fighting. Thank you, Joe. And . . . I’m sorry for the things I said to you. I can be a real bitch.”
“The warning comes a little late.”
She smiled, wiped her eyes again. “You should have told me about your wife, you know.”
“In one of our heart-to-heart talks?”
“Yeah. In one of those.”
“It’s hardly good between-the-sheets conversation. How do you make love to a woman, then tell her that you killed your wife?”
“You didn’t kill her. Cancer killed her. You ended her suffering.”
“And her breathing.”
Meghann looked up at him steadily. “If Claire asked it of me, I’d do it. I’d be willing to go to prison for it, too. I wouldn’t let her suffer.”
“Pray to God you never have to find out.” He heard the way his voice broke. Once, he would have been ashamed by such obvious vulnerability; those were the days when he’d believed in himself, when he’d thought he was a demigod at least.