passed away July 17, 2008.
|A young but highly capable surgeon is retained by the State Department to perform a consultation and surgery on a head of state in the Middle East. The mission is complicated by a volatile political situation, for a cabal is poised to take over the patient's country. Only if the head of state survives can the cabal be thwarted. Josephine Briggs is the surgeon; Allen Maltby the State Department operative assigned to escort her safely to the patient. Their clandestine trip from New York through Europe to their destination is punctuated by the cabal's efforts to intercept them and by their reluctant but growing emotional awareness of each other.|
|The Scalpel's Tale
by Richard H. Brady
Allen Maltby emerged from the elevator, checked the floor directory, and turned left down the highly-polished corridor. His suit was conservatively modish, his attache case discreetly thin, his look confidently forty. Turning a corner, he approached a door, rechecked its number, and entered.
The waiting room was of moderate size. Brightly colored furniture was placed in such a way as to discourage occupants' curious gazes at one another.
The receptionist looked up. "May I help you?"
"I'm Allen Maltby. I was..."
"... referred by Dr. Cooper." She glanced unobtrusively at her appointment book. "Did you bring your records, Mr. Maltby?"
He raised the attache case slightly and smiled.
"Fine. Please have a seat. The doctor will see you shortly."
Maltby turned, absently scanned the periodicals fanned neatly on a table, then sat and viewed his surroundings. A snowy canvas on one wall gave way to a companion of ebullient spring foliage on another. The third and last painting captivated him. A horse, its rider clad for steeplechase, rose forcefully over a hedgerow toward the viewer. The oneness of the horse and its woman rider was striking. Allen leaned forward slightly in an attempt to study her expression more closely. The eyes, set deep, darted forward as if to sweep away the next obstacle. Blonde hair was tucked rigidly back from the temples and disappeared into her cap.
"Would you come in, Mr. Maltby?"
He snapped back to reality and followed the nurse. She led him into a small, neat office and closed the door, leaving him alone.
"I understand you carried your records?" The voice emanated from an open door over the sound of running water.
The sound of the water stopped and was followed immediately by the crinkling swish of a paper towel. A moment later a woman walked quickly into the office. Beneath a close hairstyle she wore the nondescript type of glasses which seem reserved for professional women. She was neatly groomed and wore little makeup. Her white laboratory coat was open, revealing a pleasing figure.
"Not bad for thirty-five," he thought.
"Hello, Mr. Maltby. I'm Doctor Briggs." She sat behind the desk and glanced expectantly at the attache case.
Maltby reached into his pocket and withdrew his wallet. "Doctor Briggs, I'm Allen Maltby from the Department of State. Are we likely to be interrupted?" He placed an identification card on her desk.
She studied it quickly, then looked up in surprise. "I believe I can be sure we aren't." She depressed the lever on the intercom. "No interruptions, Alice."
He opened the attache case on his lap. "I must insist, Doctor Briggs, that our conversation remain confidential."
"My conversations normally do, Mr. Maltby. I'm a surgeon."
"More than that, Doctor. The matter I'm here to discuss has to do with a very delicate situation in our foreign relations."
She leaned back and pursed her lips, quietly stretching a pencil between her hands. "What on earth could our foreign relations have to do with me?"
"I'm sure, Doctor, that you're familiar with the situation in the Middle East."
"Aware, perhaps, that a situation exists, Mr. Maltby. Familiar I'm not. I have a very busy surgical practice."
Maltby cleared his throat. "Yes, of course. Tell me. What are your feelings about our policies there?"
Josephine Briggs rose abruptly. "Really, Mr. Maltby. I'm extremely busy. I haven't time for public opinion polls. Now, if you have nothing further...."
"Doctor Briggs. Please!" Allen leaned forward in his seat. "This has nothing to do with a public opinion poll." He gestured consolingly. "I didn't realize you would prefer such directness."
"It's a requirement, Mr. Maltby. Illness doesn't wait." She remained standing.
"We have a consultation we'd like you to perform. Perhaps surgery."
She studied him carefully for a moment, then eased down into the chair once more.
"This really is a very sensitive situation, Doctor, so if you'll please be patient with me I'm sure we can come to understand each other."
"I'm sorry I misunderstood your purpose, Mr. Maltby." She smiled apologetically. "I failed to take the differences in our professions into consideration. Mine requires directness; yours tends to be a bit more wordy."
He laughed. "I suppose we do develop a habit of beating about the bush." He looked down and became serious. "On the other hand, before we discuss this further I must be certain you understand our position. The case we're asking you to consider is, as I said, highly sensitive. Were news of our plans to leak, the whole world could become involved."
"You can rest assured I'll say nothing. As a doctor, I respect a confidence."
"And as an American?"
"I was an army brat, Mr. Maltby. My father was an officer in armor. My grandfather was in the cavalry. You can trust me."
"Fine." He was looking at the notes resting in the attache case which corroborated her statement. They were proving reassuringly accurate in other ways as well. Why, then, did he feel this apprehensive gnawing in his gut? He flicked her a quick smile and continued. "Then we'll talk more about it. If at any time you feel you'd rather not become involved in this, please say so right away and I'll stop. I can't reveal any more than is necessary at this time."
She nodded assent and waited.
"The patient we're considering is in the Middle East."
"Can he travel?"
"What's the current diagnosis?"
"First I think we'd better discuss the political aspects of the case. Then, provided you still want to do the job, we'll talk about the medical aspects."
"A certain cabal exists in the Middle East which is threatening to overthrow perhaps a dozen governments there in one swoop."
She raised an eyebrow. "The PLO?"
He shook his head. "No. They really don't have such high aspirations. All they want is to gain their own territory and, if necessary, to liquidate Israel." He tapped the attache case. "This group-they call themselves Kharga after the Great Oasis in Egypt-is much more dangerous, and much deeper underground. Anyway, they can leap at any time, but the one thing that stands in their way is their fear of one nation in that part of the world. If they can't control that one nation, they can't be certain of pulling the whole thing off. If they can, no doubt they can draw practically the entire Third World into their fold. Both the Allied and Communist bloc nations would be faced with a dilemma such as we've never before imagined."
"And this has been in the news?"
"Of course not."
"Well," she replied dryly, "your earlier statement-or was it a question-concerning my interest in the Middle East led me to believe I might have missed something in the morning paper."
There it was again, that troubling uncertainty. He shrugged it off. "Not exactly. However, I suspect you've heard the names of certain heads of state in that part of the world. That being the case, you'd have some feel for the flavor of the situation. Nevertheless, the head of state in the one nation concerned is gravely ill. Were he to die, the chances would be greatly enhanced for Kharga to carry out their revolution and takeover successfully. Were he to die, the chances of his government falling, or at least coming under the influence of the political opposition there, would be greater." He studied her. "Do you begin to understand me?"
She nodded without emotion. "I believe I do."
He forged onward. "What we want you to do is accept a commission from the Department of State to go to the bedside of that head of state, determine through your examinations what his medical needs are, and if you feel surgery is needed, to do the job."
"Just like that?"
"Just like that. Of course, you'll be well paid, and none of the arrangements would be your responsibility."
"And why me? I mean, regardless of the severity of the medical situation, there must be dozens of more capable surgeons in the United States who could carry more knowledge and experience to that bedside." She shook her head. "I fail to see why you've selected me."
"You have an excellent reputation within the medical profession, Doctor. Your colleagues have the utmost confidence in you."
"My colleagues have a great deal of confidence in many surgeons, Mr. Maltby."
"But in your case, you still enjoy relative obscurity with the public. What we need is a person like you."
"What on earth has obscurity with the public to do with this? Is the public to decide what's to be done?"
His mind raced with frustration. She had a way of so simplifying the situation that he was sure he looked to her like a schoolboy trying to explain away a playground scuffle. He braced himself, determined to parry her with his accustomed professionalism. "Members of Kharga are aware of the man's illness. They're also aware that we'll do all we can to provide the necessary medical assistance."
"If it's something that important you need one of the surgeons with an established reputation. You said yourself if this Kharga succeeds they'll throw the whole civilized world into dilemma. Don't you think such a predicament deserves your best shot? I do."
Maltby nodded vigorously. "And so do we. But don't you see, Doctor? We're supposed to be discussing ability, yet you've shifted to a discussion of a surgeon's reputation."
"Famous surgeons have their reputations because of their ability."
"I'm sorry. We can't agree. They have their reputations because they've had an opportunity to prove their ability over a longer period of time. Nothing more." He shrugged. "Why, in a matter of time you'll have proven yours as well. It's merely a function of age."
She was silent for a few moments, reflecting. At last she looked up. "I'm sorry, Mr. Maltby. Your statements are very kind, very flattering. But with the stakes this high you have no alternatives. I can see no logical reason for your selecting me instead of one of the more established surgeons. There are several. Would you like me to recommend one to you?"
"No, thank you." He watched her calculatingly, saying nothing more.
"Then I presume you've studied your options and know which of them would be best for the complaint at hand-which, I might point out, you've not confided to me." She started to get up. "Thank you again for your consideration."
"Then you refuse?" He smiled inwardly at his composure.
"For the good of the patient, yes."
"But it's not for the good of the patient, you know."
She sighed tiredly. "Getting a reputable surgeon would not be for the good of the patient? Please, Mr. Maltby. You'd best leave medical judgments to medical professionals."
"Please sit down, Doctor." He said it quietly, but with an authority which stopped her.
"I think there are aspects of such a predicament as this which you've failed to consider."
Her eyes were riveted on him.
"Have you considered the consequences of sending one of our most famous surgeons to handle a case like this? Have you considered how a movement such as Kharga operates?"
"What are you talking about?" she snapped.
"I'm talking about their undercover people. Their operatives."
"Undercover people? Operatives?"
"Spies, if you will."
She threw up her hands. "Oh, come on now. Enough of the melodrama. A man is dying of some unspecified complaint, I'm asked to consult, and suddenly I'm embroiled in some vague little spy story."
"That's about the size of it, Doctor." Suddenly he placed the attache case on the floor and leaned forward, his eyes cold. "Organizations such as Kharga get moving because of spies. Yes, that's right. We try, politely, to refer to them as operatives or undercover people. But the street word is spies. They make it their business to know what's going on. Anywhere people are doing things which might affect their cause, they're there. Monitoring activities. Tapping information. Interdicting plans. Establishing countermoves. Disrupting. Destroying. Confusing."
"Thanks for the education," she bristled.
"Now, wait," he countered, relieved that he felt a comfortable stride developing. "Look at this situation. Kharga knows the man is ill. Nothing could be better for their cause than for him to die. Yet, for them to kill him-I mean step right up and assassinate him-would be to turn world opinion against them, maybe turn sentiment in the other target nations against them. So they let nature take its course, do the job for them, and they're home free. Now enter the United States, or the Russians, or Britain, or anyone else with people capable of keeping the man alive. This poses a threat to their cabal. Enough of a threat that they'll try to learn who's going, when, how. The whole recipe." He paused, modulating his tone. "Have you ever considered how a famous man is watched?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean the press. Take the surgeons with a big reputation. The press has someone watching their every move. Let one of them even plan to remove the wart from a pretty starlet's buns and tomorrow it's headlines for breakfast. We help them, Doctor. In America we help them. How long do you suppose it would take them to stop one of these men on his way to this patient? And how do you suppose they'd do it? Kill him? Kill or kidnap his wife or kids? Or maybe they'd be more subtle. Maybe they'd very coyly blow up the airliner somewhere out there over the pond where there'd be no remaining evidence." He shook his head quickly. "Not only would the head of state die, but we'd have lost a great surgeon plus umpty-ump other innocent people in the bargain."
"So you have the perfect answer. Right, Mr. Maltby?" She oozed sarcasm. "I mean, if you're faced with the possibility of losing a famous surgeon and God only knows how many others, avoid it at all costs. Instead, find yourself a substitute. Put her on an airplane, and if you lose her plus God only knows how may others, nobody knows the difference. The State Department avoids publicity of their latest snafu, and all you have to do is find another substitute. Right? You can keep pumping them out until hell freezes over, and who knows? One of them just might get through. If that happens there's an outside possibility that person has enough intelligence and skill and training to save your curiously unnamed head of state. You look good, your job is safe, and the only losers are the substitutes who went before, plus, of course, their companions on those airplanes."
He feigned retreat. "You make us sound so very crass."
"You certainly appear so."
"We aren't so naive that we'd place you on an airplane, destination hospital bed, and let it go at that."
"Well, just how would you do it?"
"Doctor Briggs, I'm very serious."
She said nothing, waiting, sensing thinner ice.
"No word of your departure would be announced. You'd leave the United States for a vacation. Nothing more. It happens every day, doctors going to Europe for vacations."
"But you said the patient is in the Middle East."
"Yes, he is. Therefore, the departure of a relatively unknown American doctor for a European vacation should attract no notice at all. Once there, you would drop out of sight, be transported to the Middle East, and after you were finished we'd insert you back into Europe for your trip home. No one would ever realize you'd had anything to do with it."
She pondered the plan, then shook her head. "It's all too pat. There has to be a loophole in it somewhere."
"None. Some of our best planners have created this operation."
"How do I get from Europe to the Middle East?"
"The Department of State will take you every step of the way." He paused, anxious now for the commitment. "Before I can say any more than that we have to know whether or not you'll consent to do the job."
"What's the illness?"
"What about the kidney? Many things can go wrong with the kidney. Few of them are that serious. Perhaps one of their own surgeons could handle it and save you the trouble."
"There are complications."
"What are they?"
"Heart. It's all in here." He indicated the attache case.
"What about the timing? Time must be a factor if it's as serious as you say."
"Departure will be in three days. As soon as our briefings are over."
"I mean on the case," she prompted in exasperation. "Certainly other American physicians and surgeons have read the case. What urgency has been assigned the situation by those who have reviewed it?"
"He may be all right for a week or ten days. No longer."
"I'll read the history. I'll want to make my own evaluation on the basis of my reading."
"Then you'll go?"
She sidestepped. "Not necessarily. There are other considerations. For instance, you're sending me all the way to the Middle East to perform surgery. Who's to assist? Who's going to administer the anesthesia? What about the matter of the team knowing what's going on? I can't very well do surgery if the people assisting don't even understand me."
He smiled. "Do you remember a fellow by the name of Peter Turnbull? I believe he was in your class in medical school."
She snapped him a surprised look. "What about Peter?"
"He's an anesthesiologist now. He's working there in the Middle East. The embassy already has him primed to do it, and he's safe."
"Okay, that takes care of one problem, maybe two. Peter could also help out with the language barrier. But what about my surgical assistant?"
"I believe you know a doctor by the name of Barrow."
"He'd be great if you could get him, of course."
"He's already enroute. He's going the other way, through the Orient."
"What about the other necessary parts of the team?"
"Scrub nurses. Where do you get even one scrub nurse who knows what she's doing?"
"There's a team of three already there."
"They don't know the language."
"They're nationals there."
"Then they don't know our language. I can't work with a nurse who can't understand what I want when I want it. I can't wait for an interpreter if things get tight."
"They're American trained. They went to school here."
They were silent, measuring each other for a moment.
"What other objections could you possibly have?" he asked finally.
"I'd feel much better if I knew my travel contacts," she shot back, changing course abruptly. "It's uncomfortable for me this way."
"There'll be no problems. All the contacts along the route are being briefed very thoroughly."
"That's not the point, Mr. Maltby. I don't know them. Perhaps it's a little Victorian of me, but it just makes me uneasy, flying off to Europe to meet and travel with someone I've not met and of whom I know absolutely nothing."
"All those involved are State Department people."
"What's that supposed to mean? Some of the most dedicated rogues on earth are State Department people. You know it and I know it."
"Well, what in the name of God do you call doctors? I mean, Jesus. You're a good one, granted. Most are. But there's always that certain percentage who are on the twilight fringes of respectability. As you locate and identify them you cull them out. So do we. But you can bet the people in an operation like this are highly reliable."
"You know them?"
"Then you should be able to tell me more about them before I leave."
"I'll introduce you personally," he smiled.
She looked at him in surprise. "They're here now?"
"Not exactly. I'll be there. I'm escorting you throughout the trip."
"Don't you think that'll be a little awkward? I'm supposed to be flying away for a vacation and...."
"... it would be the most natural thing in the world to go with a close acquaintance."
Her eyes widened. "Mr. Maltby. I've never done such a thing in my entire life. I will not compromise my respectability."
"What the hell has respectability to do with it? All we're doing is going on a vacation together."
"Together." Suddenly she was busily tidying papers on her desk.
"Yes, together. Come on, Doctor. This is a grown-up world we live in."
She abandoned the task, glaring at him. "And where will you have come from?"
"Anywhere. If you can't buy my being a new acquaintance with whom you feel a great deal in common, I'll be someone out of your past. Suddenly we've rediscovered each other. You have to remember, it's not for real. We're only giving it that appearance for the sake of convenience."
"Of course. Once this is over we'll probably never see each other again. But remember. We're only doing it now because it will afford you greater protection, fewer worries over making contacts, and less to remember."
"How did you do it?" she shouted, leaping from her chair in frustration. "How in the name of God did you ever manage to pinpoint me for this utterly ridiculous situation?" She strode to the window, then wheeled and stormed back to the desk. "I've never heard of anything so preposterous in my life. I just don't believe this is happening to me." She sat again, quickly, and looked the demand at him. "How did you find me?"
"Doctor Weintraub recommended you," he replied evenly.
"Doctor Weintraub?" she asked incredulously.
"Doctor Herman Weintraub."
"What on earth has Doctor Weintraub to do with it?"
"Let's just say he's a friend of the Department." He sat back and waited.
"When did you talk with him?"
"Our office talked with him yesterday."
She reached for the phone. "You'll excuse me, Mr. Maltby, if I seem somewhat skeptical of your story. The fact is, I am." She punched out the number exasperatedly.
He smiled and said nothing.
"Hermie? This is Jo Briggs. Not very well, thank you. Listen, Hermie. There's a gentleman in my office from the State Department and...."
"Tell him I'm a friend of Ben Feldman," Maltby broke in quickly, urgency flashing into his eyes.
She looked at him reproachfully, but obeyed. "He says he's a friend of Ben Feldman. He is?" She glanced at her watch. "Hermie," she continued, her tone mellowing, "I think I'd like it very much if you could come by my office as soon as possible." She listened. "I know that, Hermie, but this is placing me in a rather difficult position, and I get the impression it isn't a comfortable subject for the phone." Her eyes found Maltby but said nothing. "Thank you, Hermie."
She cradled the phone. "I think perhaps you should save your secrets until after we discuss this with Doctor Weintraub. He'll be here shortly."
He nodded. "Fine."
She shifted uneasily and resumed straightening the papers on her desk. At last she looked up. "Would you care for some coffee?"
"Thank you, yes. That would be nice."
She walked to the door. "Alice, would you bring us two cups of coffee? No, make that three. Doctor Weintraub will be arriving in a moment." She turned to Maltby. "Cream? Sugar?"
"Black," he replied.
"All black," she said through the door, then closed it.
"This Mr. Feldman," she said, returning to her chair, "is Doctor Weintraub's son-in-law, it seems."
"Yes, that's right."
"He's a friend of yours?"
"We work in the same office."
"Then you know Doctor Weintraub." It was more a statement than a question.
"We've never met," he replied. "Ben Feldman talked with him."
"And you say he recommended me?" She struck a waiting pose, her eyebrow raised almost reproachfully.
"Yes. His recommendation was...." He stopped short, whipping around quickly as the door opened behind him.
Alice entered, placing the three cups of coffee on the desk and glancing furtively from the doctor to her guest. All three were silent for a long moment.
"Thank you, Alice. That's all," said the doctor finally.
Alice started, nervously, and hurried to the door. Maltby and the doctor lapsed into a guarded silence, sipping their coffee and waiting.
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