“Mister Yoder, I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but you have stage-4 pancreatic cancer.”
That was certainly not how Levi had expected his 9:00 a.m. follow-up visit with the doctor to go.
The gray-haired doctor sat across the table from Levi and nudged a box of tissues in his direction. A chill spread from Levi’s chest, sending a shiver through the middle of his back.
As if tissues could help anything.
“How can I possibly have cancer?” Levi’s fingers dug tightly into the arms of the padded red-leather chair as he leaned forward. “I thought cancer only happened in older people. I’m only thirty and I’ve lived a clean life. Doctor Cohen, I’ve never even touched a drop of alcohol or done any kind of drugs. Are you sure?”
Doctor Cohen stood, walked around his large mahogany desk and put a wrinkled hand on Levi’s shoulder. “Son, I’m genuinely sorry.” The doctor sighed, his breath smelled of the peppermint tea he’d been drinking. “I sent the biopsy samples to two different labs and they both came back with the same results. The radiology scans you had taken last week also confirmed the level of metastasis. The cancer has spread into your lymphatic system.”
Levi took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The tautness of his muscles relaxed as a feeling of resignation came over him.
“Is it terminal? How long do I have?”
Pulling a chair closer, the doctor sat across from Levi, their knees practically touching. “To be honest, I can’t tell you for certain. There have been experimental radiation treatments that we could try, coupled with multiple rounds of chemotherapy, but with this stage of your disease, I’m afraid that the odds aren’t good.” He leaned forward and with a solemn expression said, “My best estimate would be that without treatment, you might only have four to six months to get your things in order. With treatment, I’ll be frank, the statistics are poor. Only one percent have survived five years. Nonetheless, I’ve already made some calls and we’ve got world-class treatments that can hopefully improve those odds. I’ll do everything in my power to help you get through this.”
Levi’s mind raced as he absorbed the doctor’s words.
He’d always been known to those in his line of work as a fixer. He took care of issues that were either in the gray-area of the law or when the law had otherwise failed his client.
This morning, he had no answers for his own issues.
However, he knew there were a few things he needed to take care of right away.
He stood and shook the doctor’s hands. “Doctor Cohen, I know it must be hard to deliver such news. Thank you for being honest.” The doctor looked up at Levi, his eyebrows raised slightly. “I’ll be back in a couple weeks after I’ve set my affairs in order and we’ll talk.”
“But Mister Yoder, you really should start the treatments right away. I called Sloane-Kettering and I’ve gotten you into one of their treatment programs—”
Levi waved dismissively and turned toward the exit. “I appreciate it, but I’ll be back.”
As Levi opened the door and left the doctor’s private office, all he could think of was Mary.
When Levi walked into the bedroom, Mary tossed him a brilliant smile while she placed a record on the turntable. “I just bought an old record, you have to hear it.”
She’d already changed into her night clothes and the sound of Nat King Cole, one of Mary’s favorites, broadcast through the speakers.
“Love me as though there were no tomorrow…”
The haunting lyrics of the beautifully sung ballad brought up a lump in his throat.
Mary danced toward him with a dreamy smile on her face, enraptured by the sound of the music. Just as her gaze met his, she froze mid-step.
Never having been able to hide his feelings from her, Levi watched as Mary’s smile melted into an expression of worry.
He stepped closer, cupped his wife’s face in his hands and stared into her beautiful dark-brown eyes. Her face was framed by a thick mass of jet-black hair and she looked as beautiful as the day he’d met her.
As he explained what the doctor had said, his mind flashed back to when he’d first laid eyes on her. It was only five years ago when she’d arrived in America as Maryam Nassar, a twenty-two-year-old refugee from Iran. She spoke passable English and was responding to one of Levi’s ads for a personal secretary. The moment he first saw her; it was like he’d been struck by lightning. His skin had tingled and he’d barely managed to catch his breath.
They were married nine months later.
His chest tightened as Mary’s eyes widened with understanding and a storm of emotions flashed across her face.
Her dark eyes glistened with tears as her chin quivered and she exclaimed with her strong Persian accent. “But you prom—” She pulled in a deep shuddering breath and Levi reached for her, wrapping Mary in his arms.
“Honey, I know….” He pressed her to his chest and rubbed her back as she sobbed. Mary was the only person in her family who’d chosen exile during the Iranian revolution. None of her family had any deep religious convictions, yet the moment she left Iran and married a non-Muslim, she’d sealed her fate. She couldn’t go back. Mary had nobody else in this world, and that’s what made telling her about his prognosis so difficult.
She wasn’t the type of person to let her emotions out freely, yet as Mary trembled in Levi’s arms, his throat thickened with regret. He could only imagine the fears she had going through her head. “I’ll make sure that you never have to worry about anything for the rest of your life. This will always be your home, no matter what happens, do you understand me?”
“I don’t need things, nor do I need Levi Yoder, the businessman. I need my husband.” Mary fiercely grabbed both of Levi’s wrists and stared at him with bloodshot eyes. “I love you.”
He’d only heard her say that a handful of times, each time had been a euphoric experience. Yet this time, it pained Levi to hear it.
Unlike the hundreds of people he’d helped in the past, this time, he couldn’t help the person he cared more for than anyone in the world. He couldn’t fix it.
“I’ll be with you as long as I possibly can, that much I promise you.” He sighed deeply and wiped the tears from Mary’s cheeks with his thumbs. “I love you more than you’ll ever know.”
She grabbed Levi tightly around his chest and they held each other in silence, knowing that no words would fix what they were both going through.
Yousef Nassar’s skin prickled with anxiety as he watched the laborers empty the ancient burial chamber of an early-Egyptian priest. It had been only two days since Yousef discovered the long-forgotten chamber, and already it was nearly empty.
Thieves! These men were all thieves, and knowing that he was in some way enabling this … the guilt gnawed at Yousef’s stomach.
Trying to ignore the men who were stealing irreplaceable artifacts, he turned back to the wall with the faded hieroglyphs and continued transcribing them onto his notebook.
With his mind focused on the task, the world and its goings on vanished.
Yousef flinched as he heard his name spoken in English, but with a heavy Russian accent. He turned to see one of Vladimir’s men, and despite the heat in the underground chamber, the man was dressed from head to toe in a black suit. The man’s chiseled face and stone-gray eyes showed no emotion.
The large man stepped closer and the sound of a small, albeit precious, amber bead cracked under his footstep. He pointed across the tomb toward the statue of Anubis with its arm extended and asked, “Vladimir had instructions in case such a statue was found. Has the ankh been packed properly?”
Yousef’s pulse quickened and he struggled to keep his face placid. “We didn’t see anything near or on the statue.”
The man’s jaw muscles clenched and relaxed. “You’re certain of this?”
“I am.” Yousef hitched his thumb toward the wall. “When you talk to Vladimir, let him know that some of what is written here needs to be preserved—”
“I’ll inform Vladimir of what’s been found.” The broad-shouldered man turned and the workers skirted out of his way as he walked stiffly toward the tomb’s entrance.
Yousef panned his gaze across the ransacked tomb and felt a similar emptiness within him. Despite his more-than-generous salary, Yousef couldn’t ignore the weight of his guilty conscience as the historical artifacts of his ancestors fled to another country.
Turning his attention back to the wall, he continued to transcribe the barely-visible hieroglyphs into his notebook.
Despite the lack of ventilation and oppressive heat, he felt a chill race through him as the meaning of a few of the images began to make sense.
The scenes depicted in the pictographic messages told of a time when southern and northern Egypt had yet to be unified.
“Yousef,” a woman’s voice whispered. “Have you gotten further in the translation?”
He glanced over his shoulder at Sara and asked in Farsi, “Did you…” he left the rest purposefully unsaid.
Breathing a sigh of relief, he reached up, gave his wife a brief kiss and smiled. “I really think this might be one of the earliest tombs we’ve ever encountered. This is definitely for the early First Dynasty.”
Sara leaned over his shoulder and peered at the notebook in his lap. “So, what do you have so far?”
He flipped to a prior page and scanned his notes. “Like you suspected, this is definitely a tomb of an early priest, but I don’t see the markings of Atum, the sun god. It’s something else. The messages are talking of a great war with the south. Here, listen to this…
“The land is aflame with disease and pestilence.
“A piece of the sun came down and it was a man—”
Yousef put his finger on the next symbol and frowned as he wracked his mind on how to best translate it into something meaningful. “Glowing like many stars in the night, his breath was like a crocodile.”
“What does that even mean?”
He shook his head. “Your guess is as good as mine. It doesn’t make sense. We’ll need to research that when we get back to the university. In fact, the next several passages seem nonsensical.” Yousef shifted his gaze to the remaining symbols he’d yet to transcribe. His eyes widened as he recognized one of the hieroglyphs. “My god, what could that mean?”
Sara pointed at two of the symbols on the faded wall. “The catfish and chisel … doesn’t that depict Narmer?”
Yousef nodded as he tried to glean meaning from the other nearby symbols. “It does, but it almost seems like the message is saying that this man who was a piece of the sun gave something to Narmer.”
He leaned in closer to the wall when the sound of something metallic bounced into the room.
Yousef’s yell was trapped in his throat as the grenade exploded.
Madison frowned as she suited up for her role as the mission’s standby diver.
“Maddie, stand down.” Jim whispered as he also shrugged into his diving gear. “It’ll be okay.”
It had been only fifteen minutes since they’d transferred onto a nameless ship off the coast of Turkey, but from the moment she set foot on the deck of the large diving vessel, Madison didn’t like anything about the mission.
There were five others on board, all of them seemed to be Americans, but it was pretty obvious that the ship was well shy of a standard Navy dive crew.
She clipped on her weight belt and leaned closer to Jim as he adjusted his dive vest. “This is crap.” She hissed in his ear. “They’re expecting us to do a mixed-gas dive at 400 feet and they don’t even have a full crew. That’s just a slap in the face.”
With a slight shake of his head he tossed her a lop-sided grin. “It’ll be fine. This looks like a pretty typical commercial dive setup.”
“It is?” Suddenly, Madison felt foolish for getting herself riled up. She’d become used to the standard twelve-man crew that the Navy employed, but she trusted Jim. After all, he’d been an explosives specialist and Master Diver for over fifteen years. He’d seen it all.
She took a deep breath and slowly let it out, trying to rid herself of her pre-dive jitters.
Jim snorted. “Sometimes the spooks take shortcuts.”
All of the travel under the cloak of darkness, skirting the spotlights in the Bosporus strait, the lack of specifics regarding their mission, it all suddenly made sense.
Madison turned her gaze suspiciously to the others on the ship.
Most of them were dressed like merchant marines, which meant they looked like a ragtag bunch of civilians. However, they seemed to know their way around a boat, expertly scrambling from one station to another. They were taking care of business.
There was one man who stood out from the rest of the crew. He was in his forties, blonde hair, dressed in khakis and wore a dark polo. He was no sailor. Madison wasn’t sure about the rest, but this guy screamed CIA.
Two of the crew were manhandling the platform while another operated the controls of the winch it was attached to. Someone else operated the dive console while the spook in the khakis approached and spoke with an authoritative tone. “Divers, we’ve got an old airplane wreck lying directly below us at about 380 feet. It’s been down there a long time and it has a pretty narrow cross-section. I should note that it looks like there was a landslide and part of the entrance is covered by the debris. Were it not for that, we’d have used an ROV to survey the interior.”
“What are we looking for?” Jim asked.
The man pressed his lips together and hesitated. “I’m sorry, but the exact nature of the aircraft’s payload is classified.”
“Classified?” Madison scoffed, feeling a rising sense of indignation. “You’re asking us to do dive onto a wreck we know nothing about and you’re not even telling us what we’re looking for? How the hell—”
“Enough!” The agent barked. “I’ll be asking you to be my eyes down there and tell me what you see.” He grabbed a box-like device that resembled a metal detector, pressed a button on the handle and an LED on the box turned on, giving off a green light. He handed it to Jim. “Take that down with you.”
Madison glanced at the device as Jim turned it over in his hands. The sealed metal box didn’t have any markings other than the now-glowing green LED.
“What is it,” Jim asked.
“If it starts flashing, I’ll want to know right away. It probably means you’re near one of the items we’re looking for.”
Jim nodded and hooked the device onto his dive belt.
The agent turned to the crew and spoke just loudly enough to be heard across the deck. “Are we ready? We’ve only got five hours until dawn breaks.”
Madison watched as Jim donned the dive helmet. One of the crew members began reeling out the umbilical that would be Jim’s lifeline and sole means of communicating up from the depths.
One of the men at the console yelled, “Comms check. Master Diver Uhlig, can you hear me?”
“Roger surface, hear you loud and clear.” Jim’s voice echoed through the dive console’s speaker as he gave a thumbs up and stepped onto the metal platform.
The platform swung over the side of the boat as the men called out instructions to each other.
Just as the winch operator began lowering the platform into the water, Madison made eye contact with Jim and he shot her a thumbs up.
She returned the gesture and recited the same prayer she did for every dive. “Guide us. Keep us safe. Let us live to dive another day.”
Madison worried as she sat in her gear. As the standby diver, she’d only be getting wet if there was an issue. It had been twenty minutes
“I’m at 375 feet. Panning the spotlight all around me and I’m not seeing anything yet. All I see is water in every direction.”
The man at the dive operator’s console leaned into a microphone. “Diver, the current has pushed you seventy-five feet away from the cliff’s edge. If you turn to 255 degrees and move in that direction, you should see the ledge and the target.”
“I need more slack on the umbilical.”
Madison looked over her right shoulder and watched as one of the crewmembers reeled out more of the thick cable containing air and various communication lines.
Focusing on staying calm, she listened as the waves lapped against the side of the boat and the speaker crackled with the sound of Jim’s breathing.
He must be swimming.
“Surface, I’ve spotted the wreck. It looks like the front half of an airframe got sheared off and fell to the ocean floor. The back half is barely visible with all the debris covering it.”
The agent walked over to the console and pressed on the microphone button. “Diver, I’ll need you to clear a passage into it, the structure should be fairly wide open once you get in.”
The sound of Jim’s grunting echoed across the deck as she heard him exerting himself.
The console operator announced, “His heartrate has increased to 140 beats-per-minute.”
“Surface, I’ve cleared a wide enough opening. This must have been a recent landslide—”
“Why do you say that?” The agent asked with a worried tone.
“The debris was only loosely stuck together. It just sort of pulled away as I picked at it. Surface, I need more slack, I’m standing at the edge of the drop-off.”
The spool unreeling more of the umbilical made a loud clacking sound as Madison licked the salt crystals off her lips.
She closed her eyes and imagined herself down there as Jim spoke.
“Okay, what I’m seeing is obviously the remnants of an old bomber. I see the crumpled remains of the bomb-bay door laying on the floor ten-feet ahead.
“There’s lots of growth in the interior. Sponges and hints of coral. I see some rails attached to the floor and we’ve got two large metal racks on either side of the broken door.”
“What do you see on the racks?” The agent asked, his voice seemed inordinately tense.
“Nothing. They’re empty.”
Madison opened her eyes and glanced at the agent. He seemed to deflate just a bit as his shoulders sagged.
“Surface, the box you gave me. Is there anything you want me to do with it?”
“Yes, what light is showing on it?”
“You mean the green LED? It’s still glowing green, if that’s what you’re asking.”
“Wave it along the racks and the bottom of the cabin. See if the light changes at all.”
Madison watched as the agent paced back and forth. The frown on his face made the otherwise middle-aged agent look like he’d swallowed a lemon.
“No change in the LED, but wait. It looks like the lockdowns on the racks were sheared off, and not that long ago. The metal looks like it was pinched off by bolt cutters or something. There’s no encrustations or remnants of paint, and it has no patina. Definitely way after this thing crashed.”
“Damn!” The agent exclaimed as he turned away from the console and dug into his front pocket.
“Sir,” the sailor manning the console called to the receding agent, “is there anything else you want from the diver?”
“Just bring the guy back up.” The agent waved the sailor away as he retrieved a phone from his pocket and walked toward the front of the boat.
“Diver, you’ve given us the data we were looking for.” The console operator flipped open the dive chart and leaned closer to the microphone. “Start your scheduled ascent. First stop at 260 fsw for one-and-a-half minutes.”
“Copy that. Leaving the wreck and starting my ascent.”
As Jim began the slow ascent with the scheduled decompression stops, Madison’s focus shifted from the dive itself to the agent twenty-feet away with a phone pressed against his ear.
He was still pacing and talking animatedly to whoever was on the other end of the line.
With the light breeze blowing in her direction, she caught fragments of his conversation.
“… B-47 …”
“…Russia or Turkey.”
“…no detected radiation.”
Madison’s stomach did a somersault as she heard the word, “Radiation.”
Her eyes narrowed as the moody agent put the phone away and walked back toward the middle of the deck.
Even though she was still wearing her dive gear, Madison took a few steps toward the agent and waved for him to come closer.
The blonde-haired agent approached, his eyebrows furrowed with an expression of frustration. “What?”
The man wasn’t even looking at her, it was as if his thoughts were a million miles away.
“Are you seriously telling me that you asked us here to dive on a missing nuke?”
The agent stiffened, his gaze focused laser-like on hers as his expression turned to stone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
With a sudden surge of fury, Madison shoved the man, pointed at the ocean, and yelled, “You asked for Navy divers to go down onto a crash site that could easily have exposed us to radiation and didn’t tell us!” Her heartbeat thundered loudly in her head as she pulled in a deep breath and stared daggers at the agent.
He returned her stare unblinkingly and said nothing.
“This is a broken arrow incident, isn’t it? Does the Navy know?”
Glancing at the other men on the deck he shook his head ever-so-slightly. “I’m sorry, but this isn’t something I can talk to you about.”
Madison took a step back and felt the rage drain from her as a cold chill seeped up the middle of her back.
Broken arrow. It was a military term for an incident involving a nuclear weapon.
Could the US have actually lost a nuke?
Or worse yet, did we lose a nuke and someone else reclaimed it ahead of us?
“Diver,” The console operator spoke into the microphone. “You’re now at 180 feet. Your heart rate is just a bit above normal. I’ll be switching you from heliox to air at 170 feet and then to a 50-50 mix at 90 feet.”
“Roger that, surface. Pausing at 180 feet.”
Jim was fine, and he’d be back up on the boat in another forty minutes or so. No harm done … this time.
She focused her gaze back on the agent whose expression seemed to have softened. “I’m sorry I shoved you.” Madison admitted sheepishly. Her temper was one day going to get her in some serious trouble.
The agent cracked a smile as he rubbed his chest. “Hey, I understand. And I am sorry, it just….” He left the sentence unfinished and chuckled. “Join the agency someday, and … aww hell, even then I’ll probably never be able to say anything. You know how it is.”
Madison nodded. She’d been read-in on more than a handful of highly classified matters before, and he was right. The list of people she could talk to about any of those things might as well have been zero.
Taking a seat next to the dive platform, she waited as Jim continued his slow ascent to the surface.
Leaning back against the side of the platform, Madison shivered as the agent continued pacing.
A nuclear bomb was missing.
The well-dressed bank manager glanced at Levi’s safe deposit box key and the gray-haired man gave him a slight nod.
“Follow me, Mister Yoder.” The man turned, stiffly walked into the bank’s vault and panned his gaze across the metal wall. He moved toward the far-right-most section of the vault and paused in front of the safe deposit box that held the same number that was on Levi’s key.
Pulling a key from his vest pocket, the manager inserted it into one of the keyholes on the front of Levi’s box. He held out his hand. “The key please, Mister Yoder.”
Levi handed the bank manager his key and the man inserted it into the remaining keyhole. Turning both keys at once, Levi heard the snick of a lock disengaging and his box slid out half an inch from its place on the wall.
Having already extracted his own key, the manager removed Levi’s key from the front panel of the metal container and handed it back to him. “Mister Yoder, allow me to lead you to a room where you may go through your belongings in private.”
Levi pulled on the handle of his safe deposit box and it slid smoothly out of its alcove.
Moments later, Levi found himself in a private room, smelling faintly of wood polish and leather. He closed the door and proceeded to open his box.
Withdrawing a thick envelope from his suit coat pocket, Levi placed it in the metal container. Within the envelope were several legal documents that Levi had arranged to be drafted regarding the house and his assets. Upon his death, everything would be placed in a trust and Mary would never need to worry about anything from here on in. Their home had been paid for and monthly expenses were automatically debited from the trust.
Levi felt some small comfort that he’d done all that he could to arrange for Mary’s needs.
Placing his hands on the safe deposit box, Levi bowed his head and sighed. The lump under his armpit, which he now knew was a tumor, had grown bigger over the last few months. It was the first of many that had spread through his body, but this one in particular throbbed angrily, keeping pace with his heartbeat.
He wasn’t going to have much more time with Mary, and that was the thing Levi regretted the most.
His throat tightened for a brief moment and Levi allowed himself to feel the sadness that he normally didn’t dare show in public. He’d overcome so many things in life, yet he knew this was going to be the end of him.
Levi wiped his eyes with the back of his hands and took a deep shuddering breath. He gave one last look at the contents of the box and just as he was about to close it, he spied a package he didn’t remember seeing before.
Reaching into the long metal compartment, he retrieved a sealed package that was a bit larger than the size of his hand and about the same thickness.
It was heavy for its size and Levi studied it with a puzzled expression. It was addressed to Maryam Nassar, Mary’s maiden name, yet the address on the package was their current place of residence. Heavily laden with postage markings, it had come from far away, yet it was still sealed.
“What in the world?”
Reaching into his pocket, Levi retrieved his folding knife. With a press of a button, the blade sprang open and he sliced at the package’s seal.
The box had been wrapped dutifully with many layers of adhesive tape and it took a few moments before Levi managed to hack through the seal.
He carefully lifted the cover off the package and a hand-scrawled note lay on the cloth-wrapped contents.
It was written in the feathery script common to many middle-eastern languages, which he couldn’t read.
He set the note aside, carefully flipped open the cloth wrapping and his eyes widened.
Nestled in the bed of gray cloth glistened a gold object unlike anything Levi had ever seen.
It was nearly the size of his fully-extended hand and looked very much like a cross, but instead of a vertical line running along the horizontal, the upper portion of what would have been the cross was instead an upside-down tear shape. Almost as if it was meant to hang from the overly large loop.
It seemed like a very strange thing for Mary to have received. After all, despite his own shock at the matter, she was an atheist.
“Why would anyone have sent you such a thing?” Levi furrowed his brow as he muttered, “And why wouldn’t you have opened it?”
He sat back as he stared at the golden object. It was probably a trick of the light, but for a moment, the golden coloration shimmered as if it were alive.
Levi lifted the object out of its box and hefted it in his hand. It was heavy and oddly warm to the touch.
“What is this—”
Without warning, every muscle in Levi’s arm grew taut, his fingers uncontrollably clenching the cross as a shock ran through his hand and up into his arm.
A burning sensation flooded his senses as he felt a searing pain in his hand. It was as if his palm had ignited.
An electric jolt raced through his nervous system as every inch of Levi’s body tensed, and just as soon as it had begun, his hand unclenched, the heavy object dropped onto the wooden table with a loud thud.
His breath coming in gasps and even though he’d never been electrocuted, Levi was sure that the feeling couldn’t have been any different. He winced at the throbbing pain he felt throughout his body and turned his attention to the palm of his hand.
Even though there wasn’t any blistering, he knew that would soon follow. The flesh on his palm was red and angry with whatever it was that the object had done to him.
Who would have sent such a thing to Mary?
His entire body ached from the experience as Levi steadied his breath and slowly flexed his sore hand. He glanced at the object lying only inches away from the box he’d extracted it from and was surprised at how different it now looked.
No longer did it have a shimmering golden hue, but instead it held a dull silver look to it.
As the heat from the palm of his hand crept up his arm, Levi wondered if the gold had been some type of poison.
He snorted ruefully and shook his head. “What difference does it even make at this point.”
Bring it, he challenged the menacing object.
He grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket and used it to carefully place the cross back into its box. As he slid the cover back onto the container he wondered aloud, “I wonder if Mary knows what this thing is?”
Driving home from the bank had been torturous.
His eyes felt sticky, had begun to burn and his mouth was parched.
He desperately needed a glass of water.
Levi’s body ached as the effects of a high fever took hold.
Either he was getting a terrible case of the flu or this was some unadvertised symptom of the cancer nobody had told him about. Whatever it was, it was dead set on making him as miserable as possible.
By the time he’d driven into his neighborhood, Levi was sweating profusely and his eyes were beginning to droop.
It was only the flashing lights of a police car that forced him out of his stupor.
Levi’s gaze focused on the officer in front of his home as he pulled into the driveway. He immediately set the brakes and painfully hopped out of the car as the officer standing in front of his front door turned in his direction.
The policeman glanced at a photo in his hand and then at Levi. “Lazarus Yoder?”
“Yes, officer. I’m Lazarus Yoder,” Levi’s heart thudded heavily in his chest as he wiped the sweat from his brow. Lazarus was his given name, but ever since he’d come to New York, he’d used Levi instead. “What’s wrong?”
“Mister Yoder, can we talk in private? I’m afraid there’s been an incident.”
Glancing toward the empty garage, Levi couldn’t fathom where Mary’s car was. Being a diabetic, she was always home at this time of the day to take her insulin shot. Had someone stolen the car? “I don’t understand. Have you talked to Mary yet? Maybe she heard something.”
The muscles around Levi’s chest tightened and he felt short of breath. The world began to spin.
The grim-faced officer placed a hand on Levi’s shoulder. “Mister Yoder, I think you’ll want to sit down for this.”
Levi glanced at the photo in the officer’s hand and the blood in his veins turned to ice. The photo was blood-stained and torn, but he recognized the image. It was his wedding photo. The same one he knew Mary carried in her purse.
It had been a week since she died and even though her funeral was yesterday, Levi only remembered pieces of it.
He’d passed out sometime during the ceremony, evidently due to the dehydration from the flu he’d been struggling with.
Lying in his bed, the nurse hung the bag of clear fluid on the IV pole. “I’ve pushed an anti-emetic through the IV’s access port, so the nausea should be under control soon.” She set a large plastic bottle of water on Levi’s nightstand. “Please try drinking as much as you can. If you can’t tolerate taking in fluids to maintain your hydration, Doctor Cohen says you’ll have to be admitted.”
Lying in bed with a clear tube trailing from his arm, Levi glanced up at the nurse and shook his head. “Alicia, you seem like a nice enough lady and I know you mean well….” His head fell back onto his pillow, his energy completely drained.
He winced as he turned to face her.
All of the muscles in his body ached as if he’d been working out nonstop for a week.
He ached from head to toe, but his joints seemed particularly affected. He felt like an arthritic old man, but the aches and pains were nothing compared to the burning he felt in the tumors where his cancer had spread.
It reminded him that the flu was the least of his issues.
Alicia, a dowdy middle-aged nurse from Doctor Cohen’s office studied him with sympathetic expression. “I do mean well, and I’ll be back in the morning to check on how you’re doing.”
“Okay,” was the only response Levi could muster as he closed his eyes, trying to ignore the pain wracking his body.
He must have fallen asleep, because when he awoke, the sun had broken through the gap in the beige-colored bedroom curtains and blazed its early-morning welcome onto Levi’s face.
The fever was gone.
His eyes weren’t burning anymore and the aches had subsided, yet he still felt … odd.
The sounds of the morning seemed somehow louder than ever before, almost as if he’d previously had cotton balls in his ears and they’d just been removed.
In the front yard, Levi heard the birds calling to each other as somewhere in the distance a school bus’s air brakes engaged.
Levi glanced at the old-fashioned windup clock on the nightstand as it ticked loudly, the second hand moved with each tick.
Suddenly, the sounds vanished, and for a moment it seemed like the world had paused … and then started right up again as the clock continued ticking, the birds chirped and the bus disengaged its brakes, moving further down the street.
Shaking his head, Levi yawned and stretched his arms over his head, felt a tug on his arm and an IV pole fell on top of him. Levi lurched into a sitting position, his gaze shot back and forth across the room as he frantically absorbed his surroundings.
He ripped the IV out of his arm and flinched as the tape that held the clear tube in place tore from his skin. The odd slithering sensation of the plastic tube withdrawing from Levi’s vein sent a shiver of revulsion through him.
His skin tingled as he swung his legs out of bed and glared across the room. Grabbing some of the gauze from the nightstand, Levi cleaned the blood that had begun oozing down the side of his arm and pressed it against the site where the IV had been.
The bottle of water was empty.
“What the hell’s wrong with me?” Levi muttered and shook his head to clear the cobwebs. He hadn’t slept more than two hours at a time since Mary’s death, and suddenly twelve hours had vanished without him remembering a thing.
He stared suspiciously at the empty IV bag and wondered what else the nurse had put in there.
He stood, feeling remarkably steady for a person who’d felt like death warmed over just the night before.
Levi winced as he felt the burning lump under his armpit.
“Can’t I ever catch a break?”
He’d previously not felt anything from the dozen or so tumors growing throughout his body, but for some god-forsaken reason, they now all felt like red-hot pokers. Not good.
As the tumor under his arm throbbed, Levi turned back to the nightstand and the world seemed to pause yet again.
The clock’s second hand was frozen and Levi counted aloud, “1 … 2 … 3 … 4 … 5” before the hand ticked.
He turned to look outside and suddenly the clock began ticking again with a normal cadence.
“I’m losing my mind.”
Levi grimaced through the throbbing pain coming from more than a dozen points in his body. He took a few deep breaths as he focused on the IV pole lying on the ground.
He knew what he needed to do.
Moments later, Levi was dressed, grabbed his car keys and left the house.
He had someone to visit.
As Levi raced along the North State Parkway toward Doctor Cohen’s office, the frustration within him grew.
“After all I’ve been through, he should have leveled with me.”
Something had happened to Levi last night, but he couldn’t quite make out what it was. Doctor Cohen must have had Alicia put something other than just anti-nausea drugs in that IV.
Everything around him seemed more intense. Colors were more vivid than ever before, the sounds of the birds flying overhead, the noise of the cars on the highway, they were all clearer, more distinct. His skin tingled annoyingly as the wind blew across the hair on his arm. It was as if he could feel each individual hair waving in the wind. A car raced past him on the left and without even looking at it, he could hear the whoosh as the six metal cylinders plunged in and out of the engine in near-perfect harmony.
Levi itched at the burning spot near his armpit and frowned. It had been the place where he’d found the first tumor. The lump that was normally there felt different. Was it smaller? Regardless, what was there seemed hot to the touch, almost like a burning ember buried under his skin.
“Damn you, Doc. What’s going on?”
Levi walked into Doctor Cohen’s office, the blonde receptionist looked up from the novel she’d been sneaking a peek at and smiled brightly. “Good morning, Mister Yoder. I don’t think you have an appointment today.”
“Is Doctor Cohen in the office?”
“He’s working on his charts, but—”
Levi walked past her and barged into the doctor’s private office.
With piles of patient folders on his desk, Doctor Cohen was busy scribbling in one of them, looked up from his stack of work and his eyes widened.
“Alicia told me you were stuck in bed.” The pen fell from his hand and rolled off the desk. “I was going to come over this afternoon to check on things. Are you okay?”
The heated tingling Levi felt throughout his body fueled his anger. “What the heck did you put in that IV? Everything feels strange, almost like I’m high or something.”
The old man stood, leaned heavily against his desk, and stared at Levi. “What are you talking about? You were given a saline drip and something for your nausea.”
Levi stared at the old man’s confused expression and began feeling foolish for suspecting something nefarious. “I’m sorry, maybe it’s just … I don’t know.” He rubbed at the burning sensation coming from the tumor on the side of his neck and gritted his teeth. “First things first, why does it feel like I’m on fire?”
“I don’t understand.” Doctor Cohen walked purposefully around his desk, and closed his office door. He put his hand on the side of Levi’s face and the furrow between his eyebrows deepened. Turning Levi’s face to the side, he probed at the lump on his neck. “That’s not right….” The old man lifted Levi’s left arm and probed with his fingertips along several spots, up to and including the armpit, which was throbbing painfully with heat.
“What’s not right? Don’t tell me, let me guess. I’m dying.”
The elderly doctor took a step back. “Take off your shirt.” The doctor’s humorless expression brooked no argument as he donned a pair of rubber examination gloves.
Levi stripped to his waist and as the doctor prodded under both of his arms and the sides of his chest, Levi asked, “What do you see? What’s wrong?”
“You never took any of the radiation treatments or any chemical therapies since your diagnosis?”
“No, I didn’t exactly see the point.”
“I don’t understand,” the doctor muttered. “Levi, it seems like the tumors infiltrating your lymphatic system have all shrunk. The few I’m detecting are very hard and warm to the touch, and the others … well, I just thought you had more than just the ones I found. Nonetheless, I want to biopsy some of these to see what’s going on.”
Levi sighed. “Go ahead. Do what you think you have to.”
Pacing back and forth in the waiting room of the Sloane-Kettering Institute, Levi couldn’t figure out what could be taking so long.
He’d visited Doctor Cohen several days ago and that yielded nothing but lots of full-body scans and needles. Upon Doctor Cohen’s insistence, Levi spent this morning being prodded by more doctors at Sloane-Kettering and it was now late afternoon and he was still in the waiting room, having read through every magazine they had in the otherwise empty room.
Somewhere in the distance, Levi heard the sound of raised voices, one of whom sounded like the voice of Doctor Cohen.
Leaving the waiting area, Levi followed the ever-increasing sound of two people arguing, walked past several offices and stood outside a set of closed doors labeled “Radiology and Histology.” The voices were muffled by the doors, but Doctor Cohen’s nasal tone was unmistakable as he argued.
“Frank, all I can tell you is this. Three days ago, that patient entered my office complaining about a burning sensation. I palpated some of his lymph nodes and confirmed the presence of abnormal growths, which I biopsied and brought here.”
“Doctor Cohen, I’m telling you that there’s no way those biopsies you brought me and the ones I took this morning are from the same person. I don’t mean to be rude, after all, you were my histology professor in med school. But are you sure you didn’t mix something up? I couldn’t feel any swelling or anything out of the ordinary in my exam. I felt bad putting than man through another biopsy, yet I did it anyway based solely on what you said.”
Levi removed the bandage from his neck and rubbed at the spot where the Sloan-Kettering cancer specialist had biopsied him. Rubbing his fingers along the side of his neck, he couldn’t find a hint of any swelling where the biopsy had been taken.
Leaning against the yellow cinder-block wall as the doctors continued to argue, the room wavered unsteadily. Levi shoved his hand into his shirt, accidentally popping off a button as he felt along the crook of his underarm. He couldn’t feel the hard burning nodule, which had been there only a couple days before. “How’s that possible,” he muttered to himself.
“Based on the biopsy and the PET scan results I just received, all I can tell you is this: that man in the waiting room doesn’t have a thing wrong with him.”