Hard News

Chapter One: The Raid

The hammer was cocked. The warm metal of the barrel was pressed against the back of her head. Through the frizzy thickness of her dirty-blond hair, she could feel the heatand the intense pressure against her skull. He was pushing very hard.

He already had fired the gun several times, randomly through the open window toward the police. He also had critically wounded the mattress in her bedroom, for some reason clicking off a couple of rounds into the Sealy Posturepedic. Now the .38 revolver was aimed at her brains.

Outside the bedroom, the woman's two children huddled against the door, whimpering. The two girls - barely ages seven and five - wanted their mother and wouldn't leave.

SWAT teams from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Broward County Sheriff's Office and the Fort Lauderdale police surrounded the small home in the quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Coral Ridge, crouching and scampering among royal palm trees within the shadow of the grand, towering Presbyterian church on Federal Highway.

She was still on her knees. And he forced her to turn around now, to stare into his eyes and then into the short, dark barrel that looked to her like the portal of oblivion.

"Suck it!" he ordered her. "Suck it, God damn it! Just like you sucked him! Do it!"

Her head trembling, she placed her mouth over the gun barrel and looked helplessly up at him. Her sleeveless blouse was ripped and she wore nothing from the waist down.

He already had dragged her by the hair into the bedroom and forced her to remove her blue cotton shorts and black thong panties. Then he had raped her.

"Suck it good or I'll blow your head right off, God damn it!"

Tears streaming down her cheeks, she began to move her head back and forth along the warm metal, lips burning and twitching. And she closed her eyes and sniffed back the mucous from her running nose once and waited to die. More than anything, she wondered how much it would hurt to have her head splattered across the newly painted, white bedroom walls.

"Didn't I tell ya I'd come back! I told ya you'd never get rid of me!" he shouted as she swallowed the gun barrel.

"Mommy! Mommy! Let us in!" the two girls cried outside the bedroom door.

As the girls pounded tearfully on the door, two loud shots exploded. The woman heard the bullets go off and couldn't understand why she felt nothing. It hadn't hurt at all.

Then there was muffled groaning and she opened her eyes and found him laying face down on her new butternut bedroom carpet, bleeding from the shoulder and chest. Police officers in black bullet-proof vests burst into the bedroom and grabbed her arms forcefully, pulling her down the hallway and outside the front door. Her daughters waited there safely, crying and running into her arms.

The man had been her second husband, father to the youngest child. She had divorced him more than two years earlier but lately he had been hanging around, sometimes knocking on the door after her fiance left for work. And he had become threatening, demanding money and sex from her. She had known something bad was going to happen.

But no one would listen.

The police had said there was little they could do unless the man tried to harm her and a court restraining order had all the forceful effect on him of a raindrop against a sea wall.

And so on this Saturday morning, he had broken into the garage minutes after her fiance left to play golf, then smashed inside the house as she frantically tried to chain and bolt the kitchen door. He had held her hostage for more than four hours.

The woman explained all of this to me now slowly and calmly, arms around her children, sitting beside me on the front steps while police interviewed neighbors. A
Broward County sheriff's deputy walked by and told me to wrap things up soon - the other reporters were all long gone. And yeah, the ex-husband would live, the deputy answered. He'd moved just as the shots were fired, lucky for him.

By then I had already closed my notebook anyway, my pad filled with more quotes than I could use, and had been just listening quietly for a while, nodding sympathetically from time to time, smiling at the kids. I knew that my editors were expecting me back in
the newsroom before long. But the deeply shaken woman had begun to talk to me at a furious pace, spewing out details of her many past misjudgments about men and
relationships, apparently desperate for some type of emotional release.

An anxious glance at my watch showed that there was still some time before I had to worry about deadlines - what could a few extra minutes hurt? As a longtime cop reporter, I'd never been much good at the customary hit-and-run interviews anyway. Too often the people, the victims, got to me more than I probably should have allowed. I found myself wanting to help
them somehow, to provide a little consolation or encouragement or sometimes even simply a bit of money, whatever they needed most in their moment of crisis. But solace definitely wasn't in my job description and I never mentioned these suspiciously compassionate inclinations to my editors, of course. Excessive sympathy was just one of my many failings in this business, I had long ago concluded.

"So that was when I met Harold. You know, my fiance. But I told you his name already, didn't I? That's right, well anyway, Harold and I have been very happy but something like this makes you kinda gun shy about men and you wonder what could happen next time, ya' know? Still, it's not like this kinda stuff goes on everyday. I can't remember anything like this happening around Fort Lauderdale before, can you? Oh but yeah, that's right, you told me that you remembered some of these before, didn't you?
Sorry, I'm not thinking too clear right now," the woman rambled.

"Listen, don't worry about it. I'm just impressed that you can remember your own name right now, much less anything else. If I'd been through what happened to you today, I'd be a total basket case," I answered, smiling at her and then again toward the children.
The youngest was sucking her index finger. "It's like I said to you before - you're not the first woman in town whose ex-husband came after her with a gun. I don't want to get too graphic in front of the kids, but let's just say some of the other women weren't as lucky as you when things were all over. Fortunately, though, there's probably still a few nice guys left around South Florida somewhere who don't like playing with guns."

"Yeah sure, of course there are. I know you're right about that, guys like my Harold, I hope. Thanks, it's sweet of you to sit here and listen to all this. And ya' know something else? I have to tell you - you don't seem much like the other ones I talked to," the woman observed with a quizzical expression, pausing. "Reporters, I mean. I don't know what it is
but you're just a little different somehow. Maybe it's that you're one of those nice guys, ya' know?"

"Well, thanks, that's nice of you to say. But honestly, don't think too badly of the other reporters. Everyone's just busy today but most of them are pretty good people, not as different from me as you might think. Unless you mean I don't dress as well as the TV reporters and then I'd have to agree with you," I laughed, pulling on the half-untucked tail
of my frayed, once-white shirt. I glanced down toward my feet and chuckled again, shaking my head. "See what I'm talking about? One black sock and one gray one - I just noticed. Kind of a pathetic thing isn't it, a grown man who can't dress himself in the mornings? And I don't think these jeans have seen a laundromat for three weeks. I'm kind of like a Salvation Army version of a real journalist, I guess."

"No, don't be silly. All you need is the right girl in your life to help straighten up your wardrobe a little," the woman replied, relaxing a bit now despite the two children who began to squirm in her arms. "A big, handsome guy like you shouldn't have any trouble
finding a steady girl. And a woman's touch is all it's going to take, trust me about that."

"Believe me, no woman in her right mind would want me. Way too much trouble," I said with a grin, standing up to leave. I took one step down the front stairs and extended my hand. "Thanks a lot for all your time. I appreciate it. And good luck. I really hope things go well for you and your family from here on."

Then I walked down one more stair, felt my right leg tug violently backward and stumbled over the last two steps, grabbing the handrail awkwardly to keep from tumbling on to my nose. I looked down and saw that my right shoelace was untied.

"See what I mean? It's just a sad thing," I said with an embarrassed smirk, leaning down to re-tie the shoe. For the first time since her ordeal, the woman smiled without looking tense and unnatural about it. Even her children thought my acrobatics were most amusing - and their giggles made me laugh. "I can get this way every now and then. The klutziness kinda comes over me for no particular reason. It's like my dad used to kid me
sometimes, 'I'll just call you Grace.' It's hopeless, I'm afraid."

After leaving the home, I began to wander around the palm-lined streets of Coral Ridge to collect color and quotes from stunned neighbors. This was a good story,
especially for the Saturday shift. Almost certainly it would go on 1A - the front page. Fort Lauderdale Herald-Sun editors loved juicy crime news, nearly as much as they loved news about yesterday's weather or traffic. It was, they insisted, what readers wanted. And so my pieces often got better play than reports about government or the economy or scientific breakthroughs or things that really affected anyone's life. But at least the prominent attention for my stories provided me with some extra on-the-job
compensation, a little ego boost from seeing my byline so often staring out at me from newspaper vending machines.

That was one of the few perks of my job. Not that I ever saw any reason to complain about things very much at my newspaper. God knows, the pay was by far the best of my life, enough money to finally push me solidly into the middle-class income bracket for
the first time. Unlike my colleagues, I was actually grateful for our annual 2.5 percent increase. No, the only real drawback sometimes was the cop beat itself, and I tried not to complain about that much either. It was just that the reporting challenges seemed very few these days on my grindingly routine assignments. For some reason, I had managed to remain mired on this same beat during my entire six years at the newspaper. All the promotions to better reporting positions osmehow had eluded me.

As I stood at the front door of one Coral Ridge home, an old man started to hand me the quote I had expected to get about the ex-husband, the same comment spoken about every screwball neighbor anywhere in the country who goes haywire with a gun - "He always seemed quiet and polite to me." But just then, my cellular phone rang.

"Hi, this is Jack Hanson. What's up?" I asked with some relief.

"Hanson, you creep, you wasting time as usual?" a woman's voiced chimed lightly. "They need you for something else. How are you doing out there?"

I laughed loudly. The voice needed no identification. This was Joni Caroso, one of the paper's best photographers - and my closest friend, in or out of journalism.

"Caroso, get off the line and put a real newsperson on, will you?" I teased. "What are you doing calling me anyway? Don't we have any editors in the newsroom anymore?"

"You should be glad it's me, Jack. Everyone else is in a panic. Will Spyler popped into his office for something and saw the newsroom a mess and just hit the roof," Joni explained. "Things have gotten really busy today but all anyone can do is scramble to clean up their desks because the boss happened to stop by on a Saturday. Anyway, they asked me to let you know that we've got some kind of cop story to check on and I get to keep you company on this one, you lucky guy. Are you almost through out there?"

"I've got all the basics but still have a few neighbor interviews to finish. What kind of story is it, Joni?"

"All I know is that we got a call a few minutes ago from the Oakland Park cop shop. They're working on some big tip and they're going to let the Herald-Sun go along for the ride," Joni said. "You'd better wrap it up fast there, Jack, and get to the Oakland Park
p.d., ok? I'll scoot over there now and stall for time for you if you're running late. Some guy named Detective Ornthrow says they're going to raid a weird medical clinic they've been getting complaints about. It's probably no big deal."

______________________________________________________

Oakland Park police were stationed at both doors of the home, maybe seven or eight officers and detectives. Standing on the front porch with Detective Ornthrow and Joni Caroso, I could hear noise inside. Someone must still be in there, I thought.

Ornthrow knocked hard on the door.

"Police. Open the door!" he demanded. There was no reply and he pounded several more times. "Police! We've had some complaints. Open up!"

When no one answered, Ornthrow ordered Joni and I off the porch as a large uniformed officer with a sledgehammer stepped forward. I could still hear some kind of talking from inside.

"For the last time, this is the police. We have probable cause to enter these premises. Open the door now or face immediate arrest. This is your final warning," Ornthrow shouted.

While Ornthrow moved to the side, Joni squeezed as close to the porch as possible for the best angle of the door, unintentionally bumping lightly against one cop, apologizing but never turning from the viewfinder, totally focused on the job at hand. She always surprised everyone that way.

Joni Caroso was a petite woman whose waves of rich black hair, track-runner figure and wide, inquisitive, licorice-black eyes soon beguiled most men. The warm radiance of her broad smile and the gently mischievous lilt of her voice also charmed other women. Even the slight limp in her left leg, the remnant of a high
school car accident, somehow only added an intriguing imperfection to her girl-next-door appeal. Joni loved to talk about cats and needlepoint and baseball and jazz and her large Italian family, especially her parents. She seemed exactly like what she really was - a genuine, loving, passionate creature. But once a Nikon was in her fingers, Joni turned into a top-flight shooter who usually snagged the most revealing, newsworthy pics - a determined pro and, if necessary, tough as tree bark on assignment.

"Stay with me at first when we go in, Jack," Joni said, moving to her right. "Watch my back but point anything out if it looks like a good shot, ok? I'm going to try to follow the first cops through the door."

"Ok, Joni. Sure," I answered. "Just do me a favor and back off a little if there's crooks still inside this house, all right? I don't want to have to call the photo desk and tell them that I let my best friend get shot up just to snap some picture of bad guys running from a room."

The officer with the sledgehammer took a vicious swing at the edge of the wooden door, as if trying to ring the bell at a carnival. The door flopped open, almost falling off its hinges and Ornthrow and the other cops swarmed inside as Joni and I quickly followed.

The place seemed deserted, apparently abandoned in a furious rush. To one side, there were two metal desks with phones and electric typewriters, filing cabinets and a fax machine. Most of the desk and cabinet drawers were wide open and empty. A few papers and several clear plastic hoses were strewn around. A large oxygen tank stood in one corner.

It looked like a home converted into some kind of medical office. There was a strange scent everywhere in the air. A fresh odor but far too pungent to be pleasant, so thick it was almost nauseating, like the smell outside after a thunderstorm only much more
intense.

The noise was louder now and I could tell that it was only the droning of a television. I made out scattered phrases of a news anchor saying something about worsening problems between the United States and the Caribbean island nation of Isla Rublo. "Dozens more
rafters...out in the ocean...leaving the Communist country in search of freedom...intensifying Florida's immigration troubles," was all I heard.

Joni and I walked around the front office together, wondering what this place was all about. The cops had received an anonymous tip that something "very dangerous" was going on at the home. Lives were clearly at risk, the tipster had warned. This had
followed several complaints from neighbors about suspicious activities there - an endless parade of cars, people in and out all day. But somehow this operation didn't look like anything much to me.

Just as well, I decided. At least when we returned to the newsroom, I could concentrate all my efforts on writing up thehostage story.

But just then, one of the cops in a side room down the hall shouted for Detective Ornthrow. His voice sounded urgent and I hurried to see what was wrong as Joni
followed me, her camera poised to shoot anything that moved.

When we stepped inside the converted bedroom, I noticed two more large oxygen tanks, plastic hoses of various lengths and an examining table. On the floor beside the table, a man lay collapsed and doubled over, as if in unendurable pain. His face was
frozen in a wild grimace and his right hand had contorted into a claw that clutched at his
chest. He wasn't moving.

"Jesus!" I almost shouted.

"Oh Good Lord, no!" Joni exclaimed, her face horrified as she slowly lowered the camera away from her eyes. This was not the sort of shot the newspaper would want to publish anyway, a dead body served up for our readers' breakfast tables. But it certainly was not the kind of picture Joni Caroso felt justified in snapping. I had known her to refuse to take unusually ghoulish or intrusive photos in the past, even when that meant later facing the wrath of her editor.

"Man, oh man! Look at this guy," Ornthrow said, bending down to feel the victim's neck for a pulse. "Christ. He hasn't been dead long, has he? He's not even cold yet. What the hell could have happened to him?"

"Whatever it was, it looks ugly. God damn," a thin, young uniformed cop said, chewing the back of his plastic pen, his eyes wide and unblinking.

"My God, that's just awful. Whatever happened to him, it must have been excruciating. This poor guy had to be in agony when he died," I observed sadly, shocked
by the grisly discovery.

"Yeah, and whatever the hell did this is still out there," Ornthrow pointed out. "And I just hope it doesn't do the same damn thing to somebody else. Not even a dog should have to die in that kind of pain. I don't know what this joint was into, but it scares the hell out of me. Man, look at that dead bastard's face. Christ, it scares the hell right out of me."
-------

Chapter Two: The Tip

Metro Editor Dallas LaPorte walked across the newsroom, winding her way among the rows of cookie-cutter cubicles that 1990s newspaper managers call "work stations." The rest of us still call them desks.

Her long, too thin but shapely legs strode with the deliberate purpose of a businesswoman delivering an urgent memo, though she was on her lunch break, carrying only a clear plastic container filled with romaine lettuce and a little red-wine vinegar. LaPorte understood the professional advantages of appearing perpetually busy whenever passing glass offices larger than her own. Intermittently, her small hips twisted to dodge reporters who rushed toward their phones. My little corner of the newsroom was mostly empty, though, since a herd of neighboring journalists had stampeded from their desks to eat and bitch together at The Poor House, our favorite downtown watering hole.

"I think you should ask her again, Jack. This is an important story and you're the best person to handle it," Joni Caroso suggested, standing beside me as she held two tuna sandwiches from the downstairs cafeteria. "Yesterday makes the second death in less than three weeks at some weird medical clinic. And from the sound of it, this victim must have died exactly like that guy we saw in the Oakland Park raid - in terrible pain, hands grabbing at his chest and everything. It's really awful. Who knows how many other people around South Florida are in real danger from the same thing? Someone needs to look into this."

"Joni, come on - give me a break. I've tried asking Dallas about this twice already. Hey, pull up a chair and relax," I responded calmly from my seat,
unwrapping a sandwich and twisting the caps off two bottles of water. "Here ya' go. Something to wash the fish down. No, it's no use. She just won't listen. Dallas handed me the same pat excuses she recites whenever I propose any investigation - too many daily cop stories to cover, can't spare me for that long, not enough evidence to justify a lengthy project. Etcetera, etcetera. You know the routine. If I ask again, she'll just get mad at me."

Joni Caroso wheeled over an empty chair from a nearby reporter's desk and sat down, looking into my eyes as if searching for something.

"Maybe you're right, Jack. I don't know. I just know you need to find some way out of the trap you're in at this newspaper," Joni said softly, her eyes still exploring, wide and gentle. Then abruptly they narrowed, glistening with a harsh intensity. "It really makes me angry with Dallas. As if she hasn't caused you enough misery already - professionally and personally! I don't know why some senior editor doesn't step in and do something about this situation. Besides, everyone around here knows the Herald-Sun needs a full-time reporter to investigate stuff in this crime-ridden, scam-happy county and that you're the best person to do it."

"Everyone except the only person who counts - Dallas LaPorte," I reminded Joni, munching eagerly on my tuna fish, several crumbs of bread drifting toward my dark blue shirt like snowflakes. "She runs metro. She'd have to press Will Spyler to create the position with money from her department. But we all know Dallas doesn't like investigations. She's a true believer in the give-'em-what-they-want school of journalism - all stories short and sweet, and if it bleeds, it leads."

"But you've already proven you can do the job really well. You did great with those two short investigations about police corruption before Dallas became your editor. And when they needed you to work on that 747 crash in the Everglades, you broke some major stories about maintenance problems until Dallas yanked you back to the daily cop beat," Joni reminded me, looking around for possible observers before brushing the crumbs from my shirt quickly. She smiled. "Sorry but there was tuna stuck to some of the bread on your shirt. Didn't want it to fall in your pocket and have you smelling like dead fish around cops all day."

"Maybe that's my problem. Maybe that explains why some people think I stink at this job," I laughed.

"You shouldn't even joke about things like that, Jack. I've heard cops, even reporters from other papers and tv stations, talk about how good you are," Joni corrected, glancing toward Dallas LaPorte's office. "And she has her own agenda. She doesn't count!"

"She's the only one who counts."

"No, you're the only one who counts."

"Oh, you know that I believe I can handle the job, Joni. That's not it. But that doesn't help anything unless I can get a shot at digging into some real stories," I pointed out. "Besides, you count. You keep all the fish crumbs off my shirt."

"And remind you to send a card for Mother's Day. And pick up six-packs of Sam Adams beer when we watch baseball at your apartment. And listen to you complain how tough it is to find an intelligent woman for a dinner date. What would you do without me, Hanson?"

"Don't flatter yourself, Caroso. I need you like I need a root canal," I replied while chewing, with a half-attempt to stifle a smile. "Besides, how many times have I heard all about those occasional blind dates that you hate but your girlfriends arrange for you anyway? And rushed over at 8 a.m. to jumpstart your car when your battery kept going dead for two weeks? And handed you a napkin when you laughed and soup came out your nose?"

Joni's eyes crinkled deeply in the corners, her black pupils glistening again though now in amused appreciation of my perry to her teasing thrust.

"Hanson, you're such a creep sometimes. You'll never let me live that down, will you? Is this the gratitude I get for keeping you from smelling all afternoon like a week-old haddock?" she laughed. "I guess then I shouldn't tell you that another big chunk of white tuna is stuck in your moustache, huh? Honestly, you'd just be lost without me. When are you going to admit that?"

"Hmmm. Well ok, maybe I do need you in my life for something or other," I said, wiping my moustache with a paper towel and grinning. "But hey, you know I can't confirm information like that about you. Certainly not when you're around to hear it. Might endanger my status as an objective observer."

"That would be a mistake, Hanson. No doubt about that," she said with a vague smile.

Joni looked down at her sandwich and broke off a piece with her fingers, then chewed the bite quickly followed by a sip of water. There was a pause that seemed slightly awkward. Had I said something wrong among all our joking? As relaxed as I normally felt around my friend, I tried always to remember the boundaries of our five-year platonic relationship - and to respect them. More than anything, I wanted Joni to feel completely comfortable in my company. My greatest fear was doing anything to jeopardize the powerful bond that we had developed, the intense friendship that we had built out of so many shared joys and shared miseries over the years, out of vacations in the Keys and rock concerts in Miami and bouts of illness and family deaths.

"Anyway Joni, you know I'd give anything to follow up on these two victims," I noted, quickly changing the subject. "I want to investigate this so badly I can't stand it. There's a great story here - I can feel that. Something very weird's going on."

"Then don't give up on this yet. Talk to Dallas again. Go to Spyler if you have to. Jack, you've dreamed your whole career about tackling the really important newspaper investigation, following some big story from beginning to end. You've told me that a thousand times and this could be your chance," Joni urged. "You know that the cops aren't going to do much about this thing. You said yourself that with these two deaths happening in different cities, each police department wants the other one to handle the case because it's so complex. But maybe you could find something out."

"Thanks, Joni. Look, your confidence in me means a lot. But you know me, kid," I answered, giving her arm a grateful pat. "I'm basically just a working stiff from the Rust Belt. Remember, my dad sweated in an auto plant in Detroit for thirty years and my mom baked Dunkin' Donuts ten hours a day just so our family could survive. I had to hold down three jobs to put myself through Eastern Michigan University. I'm grateful to have this cop beat - working for a big newspaper company, finally earning a good salary, driving a nice car for the first time in my life."

"But investigative work comes so naturally to you, Jack - the way you analyze things all the time, always noticing details, always curious. You were made for that kind of reporting. And after all your journalism experience in New England before you came to work down here, you should be covering more important stories in South Florida than the crime-of-the-day."

"Yeah maybe, but remember - that experience was the only reason I even got my foot in the door here, Joni. I didn't have a degree from some big-name journalism school. But at least I had covered some great stories during all those years on the political beat in Vermont and I'd cut my teeth on some investigations. I mean, even after I finally figured I really should try for a bigger paper in a bigger city and then sent out those 75 resumes and bugged the hell out of the Herald-Sun for this job, I was shocked when they actually hired me. And now after going through all that, I'm supposed to go to the mat over one story that my editors have no interest in? I'll tell you the truth, Joni - I'm scared to push Dallas too hard. You know our history together and you know how she feels about me. I don't want to end up out of a job after working so hard to get this far - which at least is a lot farther from the auto plants than anyone else in my family has had the chance to get."

Joni Caroso looked at me with that same searching expression as earlier. I thought her black eyes glistened briefly once more just before she smiled. She reached out with fingers that felt cool and delicate and soothing, laying them against the back of my hand.

"Jack, you don't have to explain anything to me," Joni assured me. "I understand. I really do and you're right. I'm sorry, I shouldn't push you like this. It's not fair."

"Nah, forget it. Anyway, I probably need a good push sometimes. Maybe I should try talking to Dallas again about this story," I acknowledged, leaning back in my chair and planting my feet against the edge of the desk. "I don't know what to do, really."

Without thinking, I bit off a sliver of fingernail and then played with it between two fingertips, absently feeling its ragged flatness against my skin. I noticed that my knee also was working up and down like an engine piston. Joni knew this side of me, though, and I felt no self-conscious need to conceal all the nervous energy.

"I think you have to do what you feel comfortable with, Jack. I wouldn't want you to do anything to lose your job. We both know how underhanded and spiteful Dallas LaPorte can be," Joni warned. "Sooner or later, things will change around here. Dallas will leave the Herald-Sun or newspapers will start hiring investigative reporters again or something. It's just so outrageous that she ever came to work here at all. You were doing well and she changed everything for you overnight."

I bit one more fingernail and smiled.

"It was kinda lousy luck, I admit. But it's like the bumper sticker says, I guess - shit happens, right?" I offered. "Hey, things could be a lot worse. At least I won't drop dead of a stroke on the floor of some assembly line like my dad did. At least I'm sitting behind a desk and wearing a white collar."

"Yeah, of course you're right, Hanson, as usual. Things could be a lot worse. You've got the right attitude. Hang in there," Joni said, glancing at the newsroom clock. She balled her sandwich paper up and shot it like a basketball into the waste can. "Listen, I'll talk to ya' later, ok? I've gotta run to an assignment in Coral Springs. I'll plan on coming over to your place around eight to watch the ball game. But hey Jack, one thing before I go - that's not really supposed to be a white collar you have on, is it? I mean, it looks awfully blue to me and I just want to make sure you're not washing your good shirts with the dark stuff again. Especially after that last fiasco when you put white shirts in with your brand new jeans and we had to bleach everything four times."

"Hey, no comment. Talk to my attorney. And you're late - go!"

We both laughed and Joni waved cheerily as she hurried off toward the photo room.

It was almost 1:30 p.m. now, with reporters trickling back from lunch and the newsroom just starting to vibrate with the typical afternoon hum. Some of my colleagues began to tap out long stories for the weekend, some called up sources for quotes, some simply sifted through wire stories and digested their meatball sandwiches. And a few editors scrolled the daily news budgets, anticipating the next in their endless series of meetings.

This background stir lulled me into a nostalgic mood as I remembered the Vermont newsroom where I had learned my trade over fourteen years. It was a feverish place - loud and filthy and smoke-filled, buzzing with the sense that everyone in the building worked somewhere important. It was a place where journalists furiously argued over everything and then bought each other drinks after work, where substance mattered more than appearance and where the news mattered more than anything.

When I first had arrived in South Florida six years earlier, the Herald-Sun was like that too. It even looked like a newspaper back then. But now it looked like what it had become - a publicly held corporation, beholden to stockowners.

The old dark, funky, tumbledown newsroom with ceiling fans, Old Florida all the way, had been replaced with insurance office post-modern. Like many changes at the paper, this one was mandated by The Sun Company, which had decided that its profitable Fort Lauderdale operation needed more upscale quarters and had constructed a new downtown high-rise. The scratched wooden desks were gone, turned into white-formica work stations with teal fabric dividers that partitioned off space among reporters and assistant city editors, dividing the room into little cubicles with all the personality of plastic. Nothing permitted on our walls, nothing left overnight on our desks. Maybe a dictionary and a thesaurus, a few reference books if you had them between bookends but Editor Will Spyler and his desk police really preferred that everyone tuck their books neatly into drawers with everything else. The Herald-Sun had a classic 90s newsroom - sterile as an operating room, exuding not creativity but conformity.

Maybe Dallas LaPorte was right when she talked about modern newspapers. Maybe the day of die-hard journalism was long gone.

Tilting far back in my office chair, knee bouncing nervously again, I slowly became more aware of the growing racket all around me, somehow pleasant and diverting now. It was the sound of a newsroom gearing up for deadline.

There was a dull chaos of noises - the plastic tapping of computer keys, the thud of footsteps quickly striding across the floor, the buzz of electronic printers, the whirr of fax machines. Ringing telephones, blaring TV newscasts. And always the background cacophony of voices, talking and laughing and complaining, all of it blending into one dissonant symphony of news. And I heard this cluttered, sweeping serenade punctuated by distinct bits of chatter among reporters and editors working nearby, their conversations clear for an instant like soloists singing above the strings:

"See, she doesn't understand I have a 36-inch column to write in the next couple of - "

"Yes, I'm a reporter from the Herald-Sun and I've been on hold for 10 minutes and I'm approaching deadline here. Why can't someone - "

"But just reading this sentence, Kevin, the average person is left wondering what to believe. You've got to change th - "

"You can call my editor any time you like! I can give you his number, if you want to try him right now and ask -"

"Kathy, are you doing the follow-up on the guy who got his face chewed off by an alligator? I think that's running tomor -"

"Don't give me that bullshit! I think my question deserves a good answer and I -"

"The copy desk needs it right now! The Palm Beach edition has an early deadline tonight and they want anything we have for th -"

And I remembered that all around me were people passionate about news, each enthusiastically pouring sweat into their work, covering this portion of the world from a hundred perspectives. Babs Weltch recounting a grisly murder trial and Kathy Emerson looking for quotes on a gator mauling and Zack Leibowitz gathering the recent high rainfall totals and Rafael Diaz sifting through county financial documents and Robert Cameron pleading for the name of Broward's most recent car accident victim. And across the room was foreign correspondent Tananarive Khahaff putting together an analysis about the rafters floating to South Florida from Cuba and Haiti and Isla Rublo. And tv critic Ed Loxley cranking out another caustic column on sitcoms and NFL reporter Dave Garcia assessing the Miami Dolphins' new backfield and food writer Lizza Evans summing up the sensuous pleasures of chocolate chip cookies.

All this and much more was happening at one moment in one large room for just one day's newspaper, all of it available to anyone the next morning for fifty cents. And when I thought about this, I smiled away some of the tension in my face and remembered why I ever became a reporter at all. And yes, I now decided, I would talk with Metro Editor Dallas LaPorte again about the need to launch an investigation into the mysterious deaths. As usual, Joni Caroso's advice had helped to clear my head.

When my own phone rang as I leaned back, I was startled, jerking precariously in my chair. I was forced to grasp frantically for the teal desk divider behind me, maintaining a wobbling balance in my chair, narrowly avoiding an embarrassing rearward flop to the floor.

"Uh, h - hello. Newsroom, J - Jack Hanson," I stammered.

"Yeah, Jack - it's Buddy Goldman," the voice almost bellowed. "Listen, I got something you might be interested in. Grab a pen."

Goldman was the Herald-Sun's longtime political writer and a close friend of mine, a high-strung little man who never wasted time in his columns or in his conversations. He talked loudly, his brash words wrapped in thick remnants of a Brooklyn accent. Goldman always got to the point quickly and expected everyone to do the same - if they didn't, he simply stopped listening. He wore oversize, pop-bottle-thick glasses and, in his constant agitation, tended to bump into people whenever he went in or out of doorways. But that same restless impatience made him a bulldog reporter, pursuing documents, asking questions, demanding answers all with an eye toward wrapping up the annoying details of the current story and getting on with something new.

"I had to run down to the printing plant today for something, doesn't even matter what, and I get stopped by this guy. Bob Jamison - you know him, Jack? An older guy in production. He recognizes me as a reporter 'cause he sees my column photo in the paper all the time or something. So he wants to tell me all about his wife," Goldman spewed out in a single torrent.

"Uh-huh," I squeezed in quickly before the next flood.

"So I say, 'Look, pal - I don't have time for this. Let's cut to the chase.' And he says there's something weird with his wife. She had throat cancer or something, but now she's over it. Except there's another problem now. And who should he talk to in the newsroom 'cause he thinks maybe his wife's in trouble."

"Huh? I don't get what you mea - "

"Yeah, so I said, 'Look, I'll pass your name and number to our cop reporter.' I'll give it to you, Jack, then I've got to get my ass over to City Hall. Here it is - Jamison. J-A-M -I -"

"Buddy, Buddy, just a second," I interrupted. "Why should he talk with me if his wife's in trouble? I don't get it. And what's that have to do with her cancer?"

"Didn't I explain that already? Christ, listen to me, Jack. Look, it's simple. His wife's taking these weird cancer treatments. And he thinks they might be dangerous or something. Ok? Anyway, write this down. J-A-M-I-S- "

"No, no, just a second, Buddy. I still don't understand what this has to do with me."

"You're the cop reporter, right? And you wrote about those two stiffs they found - where was it? In Oakland Park and Wilton Manors, right? So you can talk to this guy Jamison and look into the thing with his wife yourself if you have any time or pass it on to your cop pals or whatever," Goldman explained. "I just figured I should phone you the tip. It sounded pretty crazy to me. Jamison thinks those guys might have died from the same cancer treatments his wife is taking. See what I'm saying to ya'? He says the whole thing is some big con job. Says he's paying thousands he can't afford to cure his wife and he's sure a lot of others are doing the same thing. And now he's afraid everybody's gonna just end up dead."
______________________________________________________

As I drove west from Fort Lauderdale, the interstate shimmered in waves of heat. The morning air already had the rainforest feeling of late summer, heavy and oppressive with humidity, and the sunshine was penetrating, unrelieved by even a single cloud.

The small, ugly warehouses and gaudy billboards near the airport, south of the city's downtown skyscrapers, faded into suburbia. Interstate 595 served as the unofficial dividing line between the sellers and the spenders in this portion of Broward County: strip shopping centers on one side, tidy homes on the other. Gray concrete and yellow billboards to the south, green lawns and red bougainvillea to the north. McDonald's and OK Tires. Windridge-on-the-Lake and Citrus Villa Estates. It was the usual, strange South Florida mix of the tacky and the tasteful, of the gross and the gracious. Palm trees were scattered everywhere along the flat landscape, their fronds dipping gently in the persistent breeze. Coconut palms and queen palms and royal palms rising among the orange trees and banana plants and hibiscus bushes, all adorning neat backyards and sometimes even the jumbled backlots.

Bob and Mary Jamison owned a small, square home in one of the hundreds of grandly named developments that sprawl like the patches of a great quilt near the Everglades. A nine-year-old white Honda Civic was parked in their driveway. As I arrived, a county truck cruised along the street clattering like a monstrous, broken chainsaw, spewing a white plume of mosquito repellant into the air. After two breaths, an oily, chemical taste oozed from my tongue.

Bob had given me his address the previous day and suggested I stop early in the morning, just after he left for the production plant. He preferred to be elsewhere when I introduced myself to his wife.

After I knocked, there was a pleasant question from behind the simple wooden door, and after my answer, a long pause. Then there was clicking and a metallic snap as the tumblers on the heavy lock turned and released the bolt. The door squeaked a little and a short, round woman slowly appeared in the shadows of a darkened hallway.

"I really don't have anything to say," Mary Jamison insisted. Only then could I tell that her voice rose and fell in the rolling, sensuous accent of an educated English woman. Her face remained in the shadows behind the door, but the whites of her eyes seemed to dart uncomfortably. "Please, do go away! I don't want you seen around here. I'm frightened enough as things are. I'd like to help you, Mr. Hanson. But I'm afraid I simply can't."

"But why not, ma'am? What's frightened you so badly? Is it a person? I don't understand. I'm really sorry to bother you but there are some important questions you might be able to help with. If I could just come inside for a moment."

Mary Jamison was a robust if tense woman, profoundly shocked when her family physician first had uttered "cancer" across the desk in her direction. The dreaded C-word had always been her worst fear. After the throat malignancy was diagnosed, she had suffered the horrors of radiation and chemotherapy but, more than a year later, the medical doctors pronounced her effectively cured. Their assurances, though, were not enough. Kicking her lifelong cigarette habit and planning regular check-ups were not enough. She had to feel completely certain that every molecule of disease was eradicated. After all, both her parents had died of cancer in their fifties, Mary explained anxiously. She was now 55-years-old.

A friend had recommended a chiropractor who had recommended an alternative medical practitioner who had recommended a cancer expert to her. And yes, the expert had found vestiges of the tumor lurking somewhere among her corpulent neck tissues. And yes, the treatments were helping. And yes, I was welcome to sit down but she already had said everything that she planned to say.

Mary's eyes looked perfectly circular and her face was full and friendly, if slightly misshapen, as though one side was naturally heavier than the other. She had short, fine gray hair that was faintly yellowed and with her lively step she seemed almost to hop across the room toward the long sofa. As she sat, though, her breathing sounded labored and her eyes sagged tiredly. Through the surface of this fatigue, a nervousness bubbled into view with the frequent tapping of a pinky finger and the occasional twitch of her mouth, the right corner sometimes contorting energetically toward her ear before relaxing into its accustomed smile.

When I first joined her on the sofa, Mary treated me as she would a sick dog that had wandered to her door - gently but warily, keeping me at a safe distance. I asked about the computer glowing from one corner of the room and, without elaboration, she answered that it was linked to an Internet chat site about jazz and classical music. Then I noticed a silver flute sitting beside the computer.

"Do you play the flute, Mrs. Jamison? I was just curious because I've always loved music myself, all types but especially jazz - all my life I've listened to the great jazz albums of people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I really enjoy playing the drums, though my parents couldn't afford to buy me my own drum set and now my apartment's too small for one. But I practice with drumsticks on a rubber pad at home and sometimes local jazz bands even let me sit in for a few numbers," I chattered casually. "I think playing music is really therapeutic, don't you?"

"Yes, actually, I do play the flute. And oh absolutely, you're right - music is therapeutic, no doubt at all about that," she answered, warming up to this subject. "I only began to play the flute three years ago but I practice for at least an hour every day. My dream is to play the Khachaturian flute concerto as a soloist for the local community college orchestra before I die. And I do believe there's a fair chance I'll make it, too. I already have the first movement down rather well, I think."

We prattled along in this way for a while and when her unwelcome dog had not bitten after fifteen minutes or so, Mary Jamison began to talk with me more easily, sharing a pot of tea and a plate of frozen shortbread thawed in the microwave. Nothing, though, was going to coax her into opening up about the cancer treatments.

"Even my husband doesn't know all the details," she explained softly, putting down her china teacup and saucer. "I'm awfully sorry. But I truly can't breath a word."

"I understand that you're very concerned for some reason, Mrs. Jamison. Have you been told not to say anything?"

"Lord yes! With every treatment, the doctor warns me against giving out a word about this to anyone. Unless it's to someone who's ill and needs his treatments. He's made that quite clear."

"How do you mean?"

"I've been told I'd be cut off - chop! - just like that if I speak even a word about it to anyone who's not his patient. The doctor says his work is too important to be hurt by anyone. He's sworn that he'd stop all my treatments - and let me die."

"He used those words?"

"Precisely those words," Mary answered calmly.
And then, after a moment, she started to cry.
______________________________________________________

Mary Jamison simply didn't know what to believe anymore. Her family physician said she was well. But her alternative doctor insisted that X-rays revealed a persistent tumor - a tumor that his treatments were wiping out. She couldn't decide if the therapy was helping or hurting. Sometimes she felt less energy than usual, tiring more easily, requiring longer nights of sleep. Still, how could she chance letting the malignancy spread? Her own mother had died from bladder cancer just four months after conventional doctors confidently announced that the disease had been eradicated.

Mary was horrified by the thought of leaving her husband alone after thirty-three years of marriage.
"I'm not as worried for myself as for him. He'd never manage on his own, poor Bob. He's 61 and the man can't even boil water. Honestly, I'm afraid he'll just crawl into the grave with me and ask them to bury us both," Mary explained, one last tear trailing to her cheek, where it lingered and finally evaporated into the cool air conditioning. "And I have seven grandchildren. I adore them all, particularly the two youngest. Oh, you should see the curly hair on our darling little Diana. I don't want them growing up without their 'Nan' to spoil them."

Only one thing terrified her more than abandoning her grandkids and the man she deeply loved - the possibility that the cancer doctor might turn violent if his practice was even inadvertently betrayed.

She knew the physician who gave her treatments only as Dr. K. That's what everyone called him, though sometimes the head nurse referred to him as "Basil."

"Basil?" I asked. "Where is he from?"

"He's a countryman, luv. He's from England. Birmingham, I believe he told me. I'm not giving away anything by telling you that. He never warned me not to discuss his personal details," Mary said with a small spasm of her mouth.

Dr. K had told Mary that he was a top research physician subsidized by the British government, later ostracized for working with unconventional therapies. He had been forced to flee to the United States and work in secret because his treatments would put the drug companies and many doctors out of business. For that reason, Dr. K said, the medical establishment opposed him.

"In many ways, he's a charming man. I should say in his late fifties," Mary Jamison observed. "Sometimes he becomes so technical when he talks that it's hard to follow just what he means. He's extremely intelligent."

"But you're afraid of him."

"I'm afraid he might turn on our whole family if he felt I'd said anything to jeopardize his work. I'm frightened just having you in the house. I don't want my husband or children or grandchildren hurt on account of my actions. Or to see anyone outside my family attacked either," Mary replied, raising one eyebrow meaningfully toward me as her pinky finger rapped an unconscious rhythm. "Please luv, you really had best leave here. I can't say more about this business anyway. And I don't want any more trouble for our family than we already have."

Mary appeared to grow visibly weary now, as if from the weight of her dilemma, blankly peering toward her teacup. I immediately stood up. I'd gotten all the information I could get anyway. And clearly I had put the frightened woman through enough this morning. I quickly had come to like Mary Jamison very much.

But as I stepped toward the door with apologies and thanks, Mary popped up from the sofa as if all her energy had returned, writing down something on a small sheet of rose-colored note paper. Then she passed it to me.

It said: "Anna - 555-4623."

"Thank you, Mrs. Jamison. But who is Anna?"

"I shouldn't give it to you. It's her home number. I was frightened because I had no one to call if I suffered any reaction to the treatments," Mary explained. "You must promise never to say I gave it to you, though she may reason it out herself. Anna's a very bright, warm girl, and I can tell she cares deeply about her patients. I feel certain she would never mention anything to Dr. K that might threaten my treatments."

"Who is Anna, Mrs. Jamison?"

"She works with Dr. K, luv. Perhaps she'll feel it's all right to answer some of your questions. Anna knows quite a lot," Mary said. "She's his head nurse."

I looked at the sheet again and could only mumble a surprised, sincere thanks. She had delivered into my hands exactly the kind of source who might crack open this investigation for me.

"But please, luv - be very careful," Mary warned as I walked through her door and shook her hand in gratitude. "I don't know Dr. K well. But I've seen enough to imagine he can be a very dangerous man. Keep your distance from him, Jack. He's brilliant but I also believe he's capable of anything. Anything at all."
______________________________________________________

It was Monday morning and Editor Will Spyler was already on a tear.

Headlines were embarrassing. Desks were messy. Reporters were insolent. Columnists were idiotic.
All the senior editors seated around his large fishbowl office, which was glass on three sides, nodded constantly throughout this tirade.

At least he was right about the headlines. As I arrived in the newsroom, it was cloudless, eighty-seven degrees and humid with no rain predicted. Still wearing dark sunglasses, I picked up a Metro Final edition of the paper from the back hallway and read the lead 1A headline, stripped across the top:
"It's Wet, Wet, Wet!
More Rain Expected All Day"

"Did you see that front page, man?" political writer Buddy Goldman howled as I tossed the paper on my desk. "We had some drizzle yesterday and you'd think it was Hurricane Andrew. The Miami Sentinel leads with the president cancelling his European summit and the political implications of his plans to visit South Florida. And they also have a good piece on 1A about all the Isla Rublo rafters landing here. And we lead with this crap!"

"Oh, get over it, Buddy. Why should today's headlines be any better than any other day?" groused county reporter Rafael Diaz.

"Hey, what's the deal with Spyler?" I asked. "He's starting early this week. Do you know what set him off?"

"Who knows? Probably didn't get laid by Leutitia Slaughter over the weekend or something," Goldman said with a wry smile, referring to the metro graphics editor who had been spotted in many bars with Spyler, a married man. "He just likes to beat up on people for the fun of it. Spyler doesn't need a reason."

We could see Spyler standing in the large office, baring his gritted teeth and waving his arms wildly. This sort of outburst was fairly routine, happening perhaps twice a month, but the newsroom was treated about once a year to an even more entertaining spectacle: the full door-slamming, obscenity-screaming, vein-popping Spyler Tantrum, usually directed at some hapless editor who had committed a simple error of judgment. No one liked Will Spyler and few respected him but everyone feared him. He was a bully who ruled his staff by intimidation, using insults and threats as preferred management tools.

He was short and stocky, with stiff, stubby limbs and an almost completely bald head that seemed to rise to a point in the middle. Sometimes when he struck an enraged, melodramatic pose in his office, short arms outstretched straight from his sides and skin darkening to crimson, he resembled a fire hydrant about to blow itself apart. Spyler had been hired as managing editor of the Fort Lauderdale Herald-Sun just after the paper was purchased by the New York-based media giant, The Sun Company. He had assumed the top newsroom spot when the longtime editor committed suicide by jumping out his office window one afternoon before deadline. After that, all windows at the Herald-Sun were permanently sealed shut. Under the Spyler regime, it was a good thing.

Following Spyler's meeting, the glum, silent senior editors schlepped toward their offices to knock out hasty E-mail memos for their staffs, relating the latest mandates from on high. I noticed Spyler looking from his chair toward me now and I tried to seem terribly occupied, typing furiously on my computer keyboard. But it didn't help. He was coming out his door in some kind of huff, striding rapidly toward my desk.

He stopped beside Buddy Goldman and me, glaring at both of us.

"I've got a few bones to pick with you two," he spat out angrily. "First of all, clean up your Goddamned desks, will you? I want it done within an hour. They're both pig sties and among the worst in this newsroom. And second, Buddy, I want to know if you call your column for Sunday's paper fair? What the hell was that? You applaud Republican county commissioners for proposing a Broward tax hike, then turn around in the next breath and attack the president for proposing a national tax hike. They're both for the same thing - education, for Christ sake! The whole column was full of hypocrisy and bullshit!"

"Look, Will, I'm sorry if I didn't make my point clear enough," Goldman began. "I was trying to explain that the president wants -"

"You didn't have a point to make! That's the whole Goddamned problem," Spyler interrupted. "You're always bashing the president. I happen to think Bull Guilford is doing a pretty damned good job so far. He's only been in office a year and a half. Do you have to jump on the bandwagon and hammer him like everyone else? I'm sick of it! If you can't be a little more balanced in your columns, maybe we'd better find someone else to write the damned things!"

"Sorry, Will," Goldman said meekly. "I'll try to do better this week." Even Buddy Goldman knew better than to argue when Spyler was in one of these moods.

"And as for you, Jack, I've about had it with your idiotic story proposals," Spyler said, frowning fiercely. "I overheard some of the smart-ass remarks you made Friday afternoon to Dallas LaPorte in her office. Her door happened to be open. Where do you get off hounding your city editor like that?"

"Geez, Will, I'm sorry but I didn't think I said anything smart-ass to her. I was just going over new information I've dug up about these medical clinics. Did Dallas complain to you about this?"

"No, she didn't complain. I just heard her voice level going up as you pissed her off and so I started listening. She already had told you twice before to forget about doing an investigation into those clinic deaths. But there you were again - proposing the same lame idea! Trying to explain how important you think the story is. And you wouldn't take no for an answer!" Spyler said, his face stretched into emphatic lines of anger.

"But Will - I wasn't attacking Dallas. Only trying to explain th -"

"I heard the whole nine yards, Jack. And I'm not impressed," Spyler snapped. "You don't have anything to hang an investigation on. Dallas runs metro and what she says goes! And if she wants you to cover whatever - I don't care if it's some Baptist church fudge festival - you cover it!"

"But Will, honestly, I have good leads. Can I just explain? See, I already know there's some doctor in Broward County giving illegal treatments to cancer patients. I know he charges thousands of dollars. And it seems almost certain this same guy was responsible for at least a couple of deaths in the last few weeks. The medical examiner says both victims had easily treatable forms of cancer - but both died of air embolisms in their heart. That doesn't seem like weak information to me."

"It's weak because Dallas LaPorte thinks it's weak! And if I hear you push her that way again, I'm going to suspend you without pay for a week," Will Spyler exploded, shouting at me. "That's insubordination in my book! You got it, Jack? Now you shape up and knock off this damned crusade. We don't need any prima donnas in this newsroom!"

Will Spyler spun around and stomped back to his office, where he slapped appointment books and note pads and newspapers down on his desk, as if to crush the final embers of his anger. I stared silently at my computer terminal, still reeling from the verbal bashing, and no one bothered me for a while.

Until everyone noticed Spyler roaring out of his office towards me again at full tilt. Then from surrounding cubicles, warnings came from muttered, unidentifiable voices: "Uh-oh!" or "Hang on, Jack!" or "Ahoy! Here comes Ahab again!"

"Jack, I've got something for you," Spyler said gruffly, holding a blue phone-message slip. "I was standing here this morning, looking at the rat's nest Goldman calls his desk, when your phone rang. I took this message and stuck it in my pocket. I got so Goddamned angry that I forgot to give it to you. Here, take it."

The message was from Bob Jamison, with his home number scribbled in large, fierce writing. It said: "Call right away. Extremely urgent."

His telephone rang six times before Bob finally picked it up.

"Oh, Jack. Yeah, it's you. Yeah. Thanks for calling me," a weak, unsteady, ancient voice said. I wondered how Bob Jamison could have aged twenty years since we last talked. "Yeah, see, I got something terrible to tell y - "

Then he dissolved into sobbing and couldn't say another word for almost a minute.

"Bob, what's wrong? Are you ok? Please, tell me what's the matter," I said softly over and over.

"It's Mary, Jack. She's dead," Jamison responded at last, his words heavy and hoarse. "They brung her home in a car. Stiff as a board and her face all twisted up like she was in awful pain. She died in a really bad way, Jack."

His voice choked into silence again. It was a good thing for me. I was so stunned by the news that part of my body actually felt as though the blood had drained from it, weak and shaky from my feet to my fingertips. I nearly dropped the phone and had no idea what to say to him anyway.

This was unimaginable. How could the middle-aged woman who felt so passionate about music, about her grandkids, about her husband - how could she suddenly be dead? Not so many days before, we had sat together in her living room drinking English breakfast tea and talking about Khachaturian, for Jesus sake! What possibly could have happened?

"M - My God, Bob! I - I just can't believe it! I'm so terribly sorry," I managed to stutter.

"I don't know what I'm going to do, Jack. My beautiful Mary! What am I going to do now? She was taking one of them treatments on Friday. I never even knew where the hell this clinic was at. And I'm just outside cutting the grass and next thing I know, our car drives up and some Spanish nurse gets out. She's yelling that something happened to Mary," Jamison recalled, struggling with every sentence. "Mary was all curled up in the back car seat. Just an awful thing to see. The nurse is crying and saying she's sorry, but then she runs away to another car waiting for her, like she's scared. And they ride off. That's the last I seen of her. She told me Mary had some kind of heart attack but my wife never had no heart problems before, Jack. It just don't make sense. Ohhh Lord, what will I do without my beautiful Mary?"

"Bob, honestly I feel so horrible about this. Is there anything I can do for you? Anything I can bring you or anything you need? Or maybe there's some kind of information I can help you find out? I'd be glad to help in anyway I can."

I waited through another prolonged silence on the phone. Then I heard a sudden, wheezing inhalation, a pause - and a raspy voice.

"Just find out for me, Jack. I got to know or I'll go crazy, I'll tell ya' the truth. Please find out! Oh, my poor, poor Mary!"

"Of course, Bob. Anything! Find out what, though?"

"Just find out what happened, Jack. You're a reporter. Look into this for me, will ya' please? I just got to know the truth, that's all," Bob Jamison gasped. "It don't make sense to me. Ohhh, what am I going to do now, Jack? Lord, I don't think I can take this. Please, Jack! I gotta find out why my Mary died so awful."

And then he utterly collapsed into the most heartwrenching sobs I had ever heard, finally croaked words that sounded something like "thank you" and hung up the phone.
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