Nurse Nellie Pulaski was an old warhorse with forty years of experience, all of those forty years having been spent in the Emergency Room of Benton Memorial Hospital. She snapped and crackled in her starched uniform, her nurse's cap riding precariously on her gray corkscrew curls as she ruled the ER with an iron hand. The newer nurses, especially the younger ones, wore nylon uniforms and had long ago given up their starched caps. Some of them even wore sneakers, much to the disgust of Nurse Pulaski. She herself preferred the rubber-soled oxfords that were soundless and didn't make those little snicking sounds on the marble floor. Nobody died on Pulaski's shift. That was a given. Everyone at Benton Memorial, Los Angeles's finest private hospital, said the patients who were nearing the end waited for Pulaski to go off duty so they could go to their Maker in peace.
Nellie Pulaski was an in-your-face, gravel- and molasses-voiced, do-it-my-way-and-you'll-be-out-of-here-before-you-know-it nurse. She was loved, hated, and feared.
Dr. Sara Killian loved Nellie. She listened to her now, an amused smile on her face.
“Trust me, this is going to be a night to remember, Sara. It's a full moon. Every loony and his brother will be out tonight.”
Sara grinned as she popped a diet drink. “It's a harvest moon, Nellie. Forget that full-moon stuff. I have to admit, though, it hasn't been this slow in months.”
“That's because the whole town is at Dallas Lord's benefit concert. It should be breaking up soon. The concert I mean. Then there will be fender benders, fights, and all that stuff that goes with those awful concerts. We'll be jamming in here in another two hours. I've got my off-duty list right here in my pocket. I'm surprised you and your sister didn't go to the concert. My daughter is crazy about Dallas Lord and she's forty-three. She said he's better than Elvis on his best day.”
Sara pretended horror. “Better than Elvis! I don't think so.”
“I don't think so either. I did love the way he swiveled those hips of his. It's time for you to think about settling down, Sara,” she said, changing the subject in mid-flight the way she always did. “All these nice dedicated doctors are just waiting for you to give them the time of day.”
“I am not interested in dating or marrying a doctor. I don't do one-night stands, and that's all they're interested in right now. I started down that road twice, and it didn't work out. If and when I decide to get married, it will be to a plumber. I like my life just the way it is. Then there is the flip side to that coin. Maybe he just hasn't found me yet.”
Nellie snorted. “How can any man find you? You work double shifts and sleep the rest of the time. You have to do your share. That means getting dressed up and looking around on your own. Makeup helps. So do fashionable hairstyles.”
“Are you trying to tell me something, Nellie?”
“What's the point? You never listen. You need an image to go with that fancy Jaguar you drive. A ponytail and shiny nose aren't going to turn any man's head. Take right now. We're sitting here doing nothing. You could go into the lavatory, bounce up your hair a little, put on some makeup, and when the first patient comes inâand he will come inâhe'll feel better because you look good. Give it a shot, Sara. You do have makeup in that black bag you lug around, don't you? Do it!”
“I will not. I am what I am.” Sara's voice turned defensive. “There is nothing wrong with the way I look.”
“That's bullshit, Sara. I think you're afraid of men. If you aren't afraid of men, then you're afraid of commitment. I think you need to get laid!”
“Don't Nellie me. You're thirty-nine years old. So what if you bombed out twice. Just because it didn't work doesn't mean all men are like those two . . . bums. It's time for you to start thinking about a life outside the hospital. I don't want you to turn out like me.”
“Oh, Nellie, turning out like you would be wonderful. This hospital couldn't run without you. The best part is they know it. You're loved and respected, and there isn't a better nurse anywhere. You're probably the best nurse in the whole world. Patients get better because of you. You were meant to do what you do just the way I was meant to do what I do.”
“That's my professional life. When I go home, I go home to a house with two cats and a dog that are just as old and cranky as I am. We eat in front of the television in our
and wait for the telephone to ring. Guess what, Sara, it doesn't ring. It doesn't ring because other people are busy with their families. My daughter lives in New York, and she never gets the time thing straight. I want you to find someone who will be the wind beneath your wings. I had that once, and I was a lot younger than you. It's a wonderful feeling. Now go fluff up your hair and put some makeup on. Dr. McGuire is going to stop by later with some catnip for me to save me a trip to his office. A vet is good, Sara. They make more money than some MDs. He has his own practice, his own house, a car like yours. Already you have something in common. He does things. He goes fly fishing, parasailing, and has a pilot's license. He knows how to cook and he irons his pillowcases. He cuts down a real tree at Christmas and throws a party that will blow your socks off. He's a good catch. I heard he was great in bed. People start those rumors all the time. Aren't you curious? Do it for me, Sara.”
“All right, all right!” Sara's voice was suspicious when she said, “How do you know he's good in bed?”
Nellie smirked, “I know.”
Fifteen minutes later, Sara returned to the ER, her hair curling loosely around her shoulders, her eyes sparkling behind subdued makeup, her brows more defined. Her lips were past the pink stage and glossy. Definitely kissable. “Are you satisfied, Nellie?”
“You clean up really nice. All you need now is one of those spandex dresses the younger nurses wear.”
“And have my circulation cut off. No thank you. This is it.”
“We can work on that later. You'll do. Ten-thirty. I say we trundle outside for a few quick puffs before all hell breaks loose. I have a bad feeling, Sara.”
“Don't tell me that, Nellie. I hate it when you spook me like this. It's quiet. We have quiet nights sometimes. Don't look for trouble.”
“We're so shorthanded. When you've been around as long as I have you recognize certain things. I'm hardly ever wrong. It's the way it is, Sara. Either I'm blessed, or I'm cursed. I wish I could quit smoking.”
“I wish you could too, Nellie. Oh, oh, here comes a patient. It looks like appendix to me the way he's doubled over. Take him to #3. The father looks worse than the kid. Do your thing, Nellie.”
A gurney appeared as Nellie whisked the father to Admitting before she raced back to #3, where Sara was pulling on a pair of latex gloves. “Dr. Joyce is on her way.” A thermometer was in the boy's mouth as Nellie strapped on the blood-pressure cuff. “Show me where it hurts. Ah, how about here, here, and here? Shhh, don't be afraid. I'm Dr. Killian, and this is Nurse Nellie. Do you want to tell us your name?”
“Mickey. Mickey Logan. I want my mom. Dad said Dr. Joyce is coming. It hurts bad.”
“I like that name. I think it's one of my favorite names. Because . . . I love Mickey Mouse. How old are you, Mickey? It's going to be okay. Your dad is right outside, and Dr. Joyce is on her way. So is your mom.”
The little boy's face scrunched up. I'm gonna be seven tomorrow. I never had a bellyache like this. Dad said it's bad gas.”
“Definitely elevated, 102,” Nellie said shaking down the thermometer.
“We're going to take a little blood from your arm, Mickey. I promise it isn't really going to hurt. It will sting at first. If you hold my hand real tight, you won't even feel the sting.”
“The white count is going to be off the chart. That appendix is boiling in there and no, I'm not psychic,” Nellie whispered.
“Damn, where's his doctor?” Sara whispered as she smoothed back the little boy's hair. He was crying openly now instead of trying to be a brave boy the way his father had instructed. “I want my mom,” he howled. “Give me some of that pink stuff. My mom always gives me pink stuff when I have a bellyache. Dr. Joyce calls me Sport.”
“Do you think you can wait for the pink stuff until Dr. Joyce gets here? It's important that you don't eat or drink anything right now. You hold my hand and let's see who can squeeze the hardest. If I win, I have to sing the Mickey Mouse song, and if you win, then you have to sing it. Do you know all the words?”
“I forget them,” he said, squeezing her hand as hard as he could. Sara exerted just the right amount of pressure. “You're doing fine, Sport. Look who's here.”
The little boy opened his tear-filled eyes. “Who won?”
“I think you did. I guess I'm getting old,” Sara smiled. “Long time no see, Joyce. Nellie, what's the count?”
Nellie handed the pediatrician the blood report which had just come back from the lab. The doctor's keen eyes registered the abnormalities. “Let's get him prepped and into OR before that rascal decides to burst. Will you talk to Mickey's father? I don't think we have much time.”
“He's so little. He's scared, Joyce. When he's out of Recovery call me. I promised to sing to him. You wouldn't happen to know the words to the Mickey Mouse song would you?”
“Every single one. Hold on, Sport, we're going for a ride. Thanks, Sara.”
Sara nodded as she headed out to the waiting room.
“Mr. Logan, your pediatrician just arrived and has taken over. Mickey's on his way to surgery. Appendix is a pretty routine operation. You got him here in time. A little longer and his appendix would have ruptured. Mrs. Pulaski told me you signed all the necessary papers. Can I get you a cup of coffee?”
“No. One more cup today and you'll be peeling me off the ceiling. I'll wait here for my wife. She probably got held up in traffic. He's going to be okay, isn't he?”
“Yes. Do you happen to know the words to the Mickey Mouse song?”
“Are you kidding? I say them in my sleep.”
“Then I have a job for you. Write them down and give them to the nurse to give to me. I promised Mickey I'd sing it for him when he gets out of Recovery.”
“Sure. Sure, I'll be glad to.”
“Try and relax. I know, easier said than done. We'll talk later, Mr. Logan.”
“Thanks, Dr. Killian.” Sara nodded as she walked back to the ER.
“Here comes another one. In a limo no less. Let's go, Nellie, duty calls.”
“The last patient to arrive in a limo had an impacted bowel. The one before that had the DTs. What's your guess on this one?”
“Drug abuse,” Sara shot back.
Nellie pursed her lips. “You're probably right.”
Sara had only a brief glimpse of the man exiting the back of the limo before the orderly with his gurney blocked her view. Blue denim and boots. She sighed. Drugs. She could hear him even with the door closed. “C'mon, c'mon, man. This is serious stuff here. Can't you see him clutching his chest? Never mind the damn straps. I'll hang on to him. I don't want to hear about rules. Go, go, go!”
The voice continued to rail as the orderlies rushed down the hall to the ER. “He wasn't drinking. He doesn't do drugs. He's never been sick a day in his life. There are no records, man. Check him out, man. C'mon, C'mon, where's the damn doctor? I don't know what kind of insurance he has. Here, will five thousand cover it?” A wad of money flew through the air. “Take care of him. I'll build a new wing, a whole annex. Take care of my friend! Don't let anyone in here but me. Do you hear me?”
Sara came out of the cubicle. “The whole hospital can hear you. Go out to the waiting room and let us do our job. Right now we need a name. Pick up your money, sir.”
“Sure, sure, whatever you say. It isn't serious, is it? Look. Money is no object here. Get him the best. I want the best.”
Sara placed both her hands on the man's shoulders. Her gaze locked with his. She felt suddenly weak in the knees and didn't know why. “Look at me. I don't know if I'm the best there is or not, but right now I'm the best you've got. Now let me do what I've been trained to do. Just so you know, I'm the doctor.”
“A woman doctor! Jeez. Billy Sweet. That's his name, Billy Sweet.”
“Sit down and wait. I'll be back when there is something to report.”
Dallas Lord stared at the woman in front of him, a frown building above his eyes. He felt strange, almost as if he were someplace else and observing what was going on through someone else's eyes. “Okay, okay, I'm going to sit down and wait. Please, don't let him die. Billy is my best friend. Suddenly he just grabbed his chest, sweat was dripping down his face. I thought it was the lights and the sound. I'm going, I'm going. Just don't let him die.”