Life blood, p.23
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       Life Blood, p.23

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  Chapter Twenty-three

  The monitor's picture was in color, but the predominant hue was brown.Where was this? The OR had to be somewhere in the clinic, but still . ..

  The space looked flawlessly sterile, obviously an operating theater,but it was certainly like none other on earth. The walls were not whiteor pale blue; they had the shade of stone and were decorated with Mayapicture writing and bas-reliefs. It was as though a sacred chapel hadbeen converted into a surgery. I guessed this was what he meant by"cosmetic changes." A door was visible on the right side of the screen,and moments later Alex Goddard strode through, coming in from thehallway.

  So, it must be right next door. God, the place looked ancient andhaunted.

  I watched as he walked over to a basin and scrubbed his hands, thendonned a white surgical mask. Next he flipped various switches on thewalls. Finally he put on a second mask that glistened like some greencrystalline material.

  What was that for? Then it hit me. A "jade" mask . . .

  That was something Sarah had mentioned in her ramblings. So she musthave seen this too. Which meant. . . not everything she described wasjust some drug-induced hallucination. The mask part was very real. . . .

  Now Marcelina was rolling a steel operating table, bearing adark-haired Maya woman, through the doorway. The patient looked likeall the others down in Baalum, except that she had a strange expressionon her face. She appeared to be tense and very afraid, as her eyes keptdarting around the room, then to the "jade" mask Alex Goddard waswearing--most likely papier-mache covered with shiny green granules.

  When she was in position, he walked to the corner and flipped anotherswitch, whereupon there started the deep droning of a chant, probablyfrom speakers in the walls, that sounded like Kekchi Maya.

  He bent over her and said something in the same language, after whichMarcelina placed a rubber mask over her nose and mouth. Her eyes stillfrightened, the patient uttered a few words, perhaps a final prayer,then inhaled deeply. As her eyelids fluttered, he turned and openedwhat appeared to be some kind of stone tableau, covered by its ownbas-relief. It was, I finally realized, merely painted fiberglass--thatwas what the whole room was--and inside were CRT monitors designed todisplay various vital life functions. As Marcelina helped him, he beganattaching sensors to the patient's body.

  When the woman's eyes had fully closed, he removed his green mask andtossed it into a box.

  It's all fake. The room, everything. Just like _Baalum_. But now he'sgot Sarah's mind caught in his thrall. I've got to make her understandnothing here is real.

  Marcelina was carefully watching the screens, her apprehension obviousas she fiddled uncertainly with the knobs.

  "Oxygen steady." Her voice was small and uneasy. "EKG stable."

  He immediately stripped away the sheet that had been covering thepatient. Beneath it was an open-sided gown colored in brilliant stripesof red and blue. He pulled it back with absent precision, then turnedto Marcelina.

  "Shave her and scrub her."

  With the woman now under sedation, Marcelina put on her own surgicalgarb: She pulled a blue plastic cap over her hair, then secured a whiteOR mask over her face. While she was finishing the preparations, heturned and walked to the far side of the room, where he abruptly seemedto disappear through the wall.

  What . . . There must be a panel there, a camouflaged door.

  He was gone for a moment, then reappeared carrying a long metal tubethat looked to be emitting white vapor. He next opened yet anotherersatz stone cabinet to reveal a microscope with a CRT screen above it.He took out three glass ampules from the tube--frozen embryos,undoubtedly--and placed them in a container. When he switched on themicroscope, its CRT screen showed him whatever he needed to know.Interesting. In surgery, he was coldly efficient, no "human touch."Here he was the "scientist" Alex Goddard.

  Next, Marcelina activated an ultrasound scanner and began running thewand over the woman's stomach. The screen above the table showed heruterus and her Fallopian tubes with flickering clarity.

  He'd been readying the embryos, and now he walked over and carefullyinserted a needle into the woman's abdomen--ouch--his eyes on theultrasound scan, which indicated the precise location of the needle'stip.

  I watched as the screen showed the needle on its way to itsdestination, a thin, hard line amidst the pulsing gray mass of heruterus. Seconds later all three embryos had been implanted with suchflawless precision it was scary.

  Did I want to undergo this deeply invasive procedure at the hands ofAlex Goddard? The very thought left a dull ache in my stomach.

  While Marcelina bandaged her and began preparing her for return towherever she'd been, he turned off the systems, then closed their"stone" cabinets.

  I thought back to some of the "hallucinations" Sarah had poured out.She'd mentioned the green mask, and she'd also relived some sinisterevent that seemed to her like disappearing down a long white tunnel.Was that her own anesthesia? Did he perform an in vitro on her too?

  I jumped as I heard the "bump, thump, bump" sound of the operatingtable being rolled out of the OR and back down the hall. For somereason I thought of the sound of fate knocking on the door, like deathcoming to take Don Giovanni. Did Alex Goddard have plans to take me,only with drugs and medical sleight of hand? It wasn't going to happen.

  I switched off the monitor and turned to stare at the computers. Whywere they here in this "place of miracles"? What did they hold? Maybethat was where I should be. . . .

  That was the moment when the heavy office door swung open and Marcelinaappeared.

  "Your room is ready now." Her English was heavily accented but sure."He sent me to show you. And I can wash any of your things if you like."

  My room? Whoa! Since when had I checked in?

  "Marcelina, we need to talk. What happened to Sarah the last time shewas here? Was she operated on like that woman just now?"

  I also planned to ask her about all the bizarre trappings surroundingthe procedure. Why was the woman so sucked in by his phony Mardi Grasmysticism? Had Sarah fallen for it too?

  "Sara was one of the special ones. You are surely blessed too. Youresemble her a lot." She looked at me, affection in her dark eyes, thenturned and headed out the door. "But come, let me take you up."

  Of course I resembled her; she was my cousin. But so what? I didn'tlike the odd way she'd said it. And what about my question?

  Watching her walk away, clearly nervous, I realized this was the momentI'd been dreading--when I had to make a decision about how far to playalong with Alex Goddard. Steve couldn't be reached, yet, but I stillmight be able to handle the situation on my own. The first thing to dowas to get down to Sarah and talk some sense into her. Then I had toarrange for a way to get us both out.

  So . . . probably the best way to accomplish that was to go along withmy own medical charade for a few more hours, to give me time to scoutthe scene and come up with a plan. A room would be a base to operatefrom.

  Still, I was feeling plenty of trepidation as we ascended the marblesteps to the second floor, which had a long, carpeted hallway withdoors along each side. Then, when we started down the hall, I caughtthe sound of a baby crying.

  "What's this floor for?" I remembered Alex Goddard had claimed it wasto provide a postpartum bonding period, but I wanted to confirm thatwith my own eyes.

  "This is the recovery ward and nursery. Here, let me show you." Shepaused and pushed open the door nearest us. I looked in to see a Mayanwoman resting on a high hospital bed and wearing a white shift, with anornate wicker cradle, wide and deep, next to her.

  Marcelina smiled and said something to her that sounded like an apologyfor the intrusion. The room was lit only by candles, but I did make outhow oddly the woman stared at me, as though she was seeing a spirit.Why was that? Because I was a _gringa _here in the middle of theforest? But it seemed something more.

  "The birth of a child is a sacred thing for us." Marcelina wasdiscreetly closing the door again. "When a woman carri
es a child shewill take walks to the _milpas_, to the river, to the orchards, just soher little one can be in its world. Then, after her baby is born, ourtradition holds that she should be alone with it for a week and a day.So their life's breath can become one."

  I could sense her heart was deeply entwined with the people here atBaalum.

  "Marcelina, how long have--?"

  "Well, what do you think?" said a voice. I looked around to see AlexGoddard coming up the stairs behind us. And my anger welled up again.Everything about him was just too . . . manipulating.

  He'd changed back to his black sweatshirt and jeans and was carrying atray. The costume event was over. In an instant Marcelina slippedquietly around him and headed back down the stairs, almost like arabbit startled by a fox. He smiled and moved past me.

  "All those trappings just now, the fake green mask." I decided tochallenge him head-on. Start forcing him to show his hand. "What's--?"

  "Merely a little harmless theater." He looked back. "The forest Mayalike to think they're being ministered to by a shaman." Then heindicated I should follow him. "By the way, in case you do get hungry,I brought you something you can have in your room if you like. Then youcan make yourself at home and rest a bit."

  Hold on. I was being given the illusion of freedom, but in reality Iwas nothing more than his prisoner.

  "That room next to your office. The steel door. What's in--?"

  "That's the heart of _Baalum_." Pride in his voice. "The real reasonI'm here."

  "You mean drug research?"

  He nodded. "Did you know the Central American rain forest easilycontains a hundred thousand plant species? Over half of allpharmaceutical drugs are derived from plants, yet less than one percentof those here have been tested for pharmacological potential. Still,the old shamans and midwives all know of herbs they claim can cureeverything from menstrual cramps to cancer." He smiled. "They also knowwhich ones have powerful contraceptive properties, which isparticularly helpful in my primary study, fertility and fetalviability. I take the specimens they bring and perform a roughscreening in the lab to determine if they're actually pharmacologicallyactive. If they do test positive, I then examine their effect on theblastocyst, the early form of embryonic cell formed just afterfertilization, to see whether they affect cell division and viabilityand . . . the miscarriage rate here is very low, so some of theseplants . . ." His voice trailed off as he pushed open the door of asuite at the end of the hall. It had a stone floor, a simple bed, andthrough the slatted windows the light of midday filtered through, alongwith the birdcalls of the rain forest. Any other time and place, I'dhave felt like I was staying at a rustic nature retreat.

  But this wasn't some other time and place. And what about Steve? Wherewas he? Maybe he was somewhere worse. Thinking about him, I wasstartled to hear myself say . . .

  "Incidentally, I found out the man I've been trying to have a baby withdidn't show up at his hotel in Belize last night. He was driving therefrom Guatemala City. I'm very worried. I keep hearing about how peopleget 'disappeared' in this country. He's--"

  "Could his name be Steve Abrams?" Goddard turned back, still holdingthe tray.

  It was a moment that stopped my heart. For a second I wasn't even ableto speak.

  "How . . . did you know?" I finally managed to say. "I nevermentioned--"

  "That's the name they gave me. I received a call this morning fromGuatemala City. From Colonel Ramos's office, in fact. As you mightsuppose, he's well aware you're here, and he said you were seen diningnight before last at a downtown restaurant with a man by that name.They think he's in the country because of you, and they're trying tolocate him."

  I felt the life go entirely out of me. My God what was going on? Stevewas now the subject of a manhunt in a police state. Did he even know?

  "I told them you were here for purely medical reasons." He sighed withfrustration. "And that they were being irrationally paranoid but . . ."

  "So they don't actually know where he is, right?" I was still trying tobreathe.

  "As of this morning. If they did they wouldn't have called up here." Hewalked over and set the tray down on a rustic table next to the bed. "Iwouldn't worry too much about it. He's committed no crime. They justwant to make sure you realize your presence has not gone unnoticed."

  Dear God. What had I dragged Steve into? If they found him, what wouldthey do? I could only pray he was deft enough to elude them. If anybodycould . . .

  Then I looked at the tray. An empty syringe was there. Also, there wasa large bowl containing some kind of soup. I was finally growingravenous, but still . . .

  "What's this for?" I indicated the syringe.

  "I just need to take a little blood for some tests. Don't worry, itwon't hurt a bit."

  Hold on. How far do I have to play along to stay in his chess game?

  Then I glanced down again at the tray. "And what's in that bowl?"

  "Right now diet is crucial, so I've had Marcelina prepare you a healthybroth of soy extract and buckwheat and rainforest herbs that--"

  "What kind of rainforest herbs exactly?" I was starving, but no way inhell--

  "Medicinal ones. Part of your program of wholeness." He turned, withthat faraway look of his, and opened the window slats. Beyond them Icould see foliage, now alive with flocks of multicolored birds. Theforest was in full cry. "You know, so many drugs are waiting to bediscovered up here." He was gazing out. "Beyond this window is a giantpharmacy, but if it goes like the rest of the Peten, it'll soon bebulldozed to make way for more cattle ranches."

  He came back and picked up the syringe. That was when I noticed itdidn't seem to be entirely empty. It appeared to contain traces of ayellow substance, though maybe I was imagining. . . .

  "Look, about the blood test. I don't think--"

  "Consider it a free medical screening." He firmly gripped my arm as heplunged the needle into a vein. Seconds later he was capping off thesyringe, red with my blood. "I'm running a batch of tests thisafternoon, so one more sample won't make any difference."

  While he swabbed my arm with alcohol, I looked down again at the bowlof broth he'd brought. Forget about it. I'd find something in thekitchen later.

  "I want to go down and see Sarah." Get started immediately. Push andmaybe I could catch him off guard. "I'm very worried about her."

  "Of course." He nodded. "Whenever you wish."

  "I was thinking, as soon as possible."

  "Then I'll send Marcelina to take you, the minute she's finisheddownstairs. But I assumed you might want to at least unpack first."

  With that he disappeared as quietly as he'd come.

  I walked over and stared out at the birds flitting past the slattedwindow, feeling my hopes go up. The colors and the

  freedom. I wanted to be one of them, to take Sarah and just fly away. .. .

  Then, feeling vaguely drowsy, I settled myself down on the edge of thebed. The next thing I knew, though, the chaotic music of the birds hadbegun to sound amplified as though they were swirling down a long,echoing hallway. In spite of myself, I felt my consciousness begin todrift.

  Shit, that needle he just slammed into my arm. It wasn't to take bloodyou idiot. You suspected that, but he was too fast. Shit. Shit. Shit.Don't let him do it. Stay awake.

  But now the tunnel was growing. I pulled myself up and staggered inslow motion to the door and tried it, but it seemed to be locked. Icouldn't really tell, though, because the tunnel was swallowing me.

  No! I banged my head against the door, hoping the pain would bring meback, but the room just swirled even more.

  The tunnel. Now it was all around me, shadowy and dim. I thought Iglimpsed Sarah at the end of it, wearing a white shift, beckoning me,but when I reached out for her, to take us away, all I could touch wasempty mist.

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