Hot Iron: Part 5

9.

Kennedy peeked past the charting tablet in her hand at the half-mangled body of the comatose woman. An explosion had done this. She’d suspected as much, but now knew it as fact. She felt better somehow, more confident in treating her. They were burn victims, but also victims of attempted murder. Knowing the cause kept her from wondering, let her focus on the task at-hand.

Unfortunately, knowing what she did now required lying to Mendez or Torres’ visitors. While Melissa Fannon had already been cleared and green-lit for visitation, she wasn’t allowed to know the whole truth. Despite expecting the contrary, that didn’t make Kennedy’s job easier. The eyes-only files she’d been given had included a few pages of Q and A responses for anyone inquiring about their injuries, and eventually, their deaths.

As the story went, they’d been raiding a drug-den when stray fire ignited a propane tank. The resulting explosion mangled them, killing all responsible parties. Lies muddled the truth, of course, but given what Barnet had said it seemed necessary. Kennedy wasn’t one for lies though– Kevin’s constant pestering was proof enough of that– and it was difficult to produce even the most white of lies. The only thing comparable in her repertoire was a series of high-school drama classes so murky she wasn’t sure they’d existed. Eight-years of med school, in addition to the usual fog of age, had nearly ensured she’d forgotten them.

Nonetheless, she was expected to keep the story straight and screen anyone that came to visit. In time, she’d also carry out her patients’ arranged deaths and be forced to inform their families. That was going to be the hardest part. Lying was one thing, lying about their deaths upturned her stomach and wrenched her heart.

A man appeared in the doorway to Mendez’s room. Kennedy caught sight of him; he was tall, steel-haired, with baggy, wrinkled skin of olive complexion. He moved to speak, but his eyes swept the room. A quiet gasp escaped him as his face hit a brick-wall of reality. He inched in toward Mendez, fell to his knees beside her bed.

“Brittany,” he said breathlessly.

Kennedy watched the man carefully, jotted a note on the tablet, then pulled a cell-phone from her pocket. The scanner was easy cover, no-one would think twice about someone looking at a phone for a split second here or there. She eyed it while a progress bar sprinted forward. Its silent, invisible calculations, and sensor readings compiled. It flashed a “complete” message, instantly relaying the information to Barnet’s agency. A second later, another bar appeared. She’d been able to deduce its sifting of nearby electronic devices as it singled out new ones and scanned them for sensitive information. When it finished, a message vibrated the scanner, “Subject clear.”

The whole process took about five seconds. Enough time for Kennedy to slip the phone from her pocket, thumb the activator, eye it once or twice, then replace it. It was fast, efficient, and utterly heart stopping. So far, only two people had been scanned, Melissa and this man, and both had come back clean. What happened when they didn’t?

She shuddered at the thought, pulled a paper chart from the foot of the bed, marked it in a few places, then hung it back there. She took up a silent post beside the man. He wept as only a father might. The scanner might have confirmed their relationship had she bothered to check, but Kennedy had been a nurse– and a daughter, for that matter– long enough to sense the bond whose grief tainted the air.

She stood sentinel while his tears flowed. He knelt, half-hunched over the bed, and clenched one of Mendez’s hands in his. Kennedy thought to turn away, leave, but there was something to the man’s grief that asked her to stay. He seemed less afraid of grieving in front of her than being alone with his grief. The state lasted long enough that Kennedy felt no awkwardness nor compulsion to rectify it. When he finally wiped his eyes, pulled a tissue from a box beside the bed, he let out a chest shaking sigh.

“Thank you for staying. I know it’s rough watching… this”

Kennedy gave a weak smile, “It’s okay. I’m trained to handle it.”

He sank into the chair beside Mendez’s bed, eyes lingering on her, “I have been too, but until you’re on the other end, you don’t realize how difficult it is to keep composed.”

Kennedy understood with a look, “You’re an MD, then?”

“Retired Army Medic and surgeon.” His chest heaved with a sharp breath at the thought.

“You look young to be retired,” she admitted.

“Early retirement,” he corrected. He held out a level hand that shook uncontrollably, “Tremors, brought on by years of stress-triggered PTSD from the war.” She apologized, as people often do when at a loss and feeling empathy. He waved the hand off. “I get more money now than I did working– and that was a lot– and all I have to do’s sit on my ass and sign some paperwork once a week. I’m still active in the medical community, mind you, I just can’t perform surgery anymore.”

“And you’re Brittany’s father?” He nodded. “Then you know she was injured—”

“I know the bullshit cover-story they gave you. I was in the army– Green Beret, Ranger, whatever they call it nowadays,” he said dismissively once more. Despite it, he retained his emotions enough that he did not appear outwardly hostile. “I don’t care how she was hurt, just that she receives the best treatment and recovers.”

She gave a small nod, “I promise my team will do its utmost best to ensure her health.”

He extended a hand to shake it, “Sorry, my mind’s… elsewhere. Roger Mendez.”

Kennedy shook it, repeated her name with “R-N” attached. Roger turned in his seat to watch his daughter breathe. Her banana-bags of fluids and meds were fresh, full, dripping their steady doses of anesthetics, antibiotics, and painkillers.

He surveyed the scene with professional detachment, “When Brit was six, she had a bout of leukemia. She was like this for a year straight. She’s been in remission ever since. I promised myself I’d never let her end up like this again…. a young fool’s dream, you know? To eradicate pain, evil, to be righteous and true.” He snorted a sarcastic breath. “All I care about now’s that she pulls through.”

Kennedy did her best to comfort him, “She’ll be fine in time, Dr. Mendez. I promise that. I imagine you know it’s standard protocol for a burn victim to be sedated with wounds this bad.”

He turned to look her full-on, “I assume you also know that nothing about these injuries are standard protocol– or you should, anyway.” She eyed him with confusion. “It’s never been standard protocol for Nurses to falsify medical information about patients.”

Kennedy winced, “Dr. Mendez–”

“Roger,” he interjected. “And please, I’m not going to ask you why. I just want to know one thing.” She gave a small, downward tilt of her head to allow it. “Is it the government making you do it? FBI, DOJ, that sort of thing?”

Kennedy wondered if she could be tried for treason for saying anything. She decided not to. Instead, gave only the slightest, smallest nod she could manage.

He sank backward in his chair, “I just hope the situation’s rectified sooner rather than later– for your sake, as well as my daughter’s.”

10.

The moment had come. It had been only days since Kennedy had been pulled off normal duty and forced to run the special-burn team. Torres and Mendez’s rosters were ready. Barnet was on-hand, hidden somewhere out of sight on the ward, to await the final stages of the plan. Kennedy was forced to do it herself. She would have to kill both of her patients, then inform their families that they would be taken to a morgue.

He’d given her four, filled syringes; two for each patient. One for now, to kill them. One for later, to hopefully revive them. She wasn’t sure why it needed to be done. Even in all of the legalese of her briefings, she still hadn’t gotten anything near a straight answer. Barnet had boiled it down as best he could; they needed the bad guy, “killing” the cops would bring out the bad guy, he’d intercept them.

She’d known as much to begin with, but it hardly answered the deeper question; why did she have to do it? The answer was even simpler than she wanted to accept, because no one would expect her to. An autopsy might reveal the cause later, but seeing as how things would never get that far, it didn’t matter.

She stood beside Mendez’s bed first, the room empty of all but its patient. She uncapped a syringe with a deep breath, stuck it in the IV, and pressed the plunger. It would take time, long enough for her to stroll across the hall, complete the process on Torres, and move away before kicking in. She left one room, entered the other. Before she could reach the conference room, nurse’s station alarms began to scream. They echoed down the hall, rending her heart and forcing her through the door.

As soon as the code went out, two NSA-teams disguised as crash response were dispatched to perform resuscitation. They acted it out until eventually calling time of death while Kennedy was forced to stand among one, panicking and working as though it were a real incident. She rifled and dug for meds in a cart they’d brought in, each one a benign placebo to keep up appearances without use.

The whole thing was a whirlwind of movement and sickness rising in her gut over unassailable guilt. When the time was finally called, she fell against a hallway wall between the two rooms and nearly full-on wept. Her tears were real, however manufactured the situation was, and everyone around felt them– just as they had Melissa Fannon’s, maybe more-so.

She took the long void between the rooms and the nurse’s station, eyes down and heart in her throat. The NSA had assured her no-one would suspect anything, but she doubted their grasp of reality. Having one patient die, who’d been otherwise stable, was one thing. Two looked like neglect, or malevolent intent. She kept her eyes averted, called Fannon, then Roger Mendez. Their voices equally cracked, their hearts broken, Kennedy’s with them.

Before being allowed to flee the hospital, she signed off on a form to transport them to a morgue across town via ambulance and police escort. After the families viewed the bodies, they would be transferred to an NSA safe-house. As Kennedy “left work early,” Barnet would meet her in the parking lot, delivered her to the safe-house to administer the second round of injections.

The experience was surreal. From the moment Kennedy administered Torres’ injection, reality became a sort of swirling abyss of terror. Contrary to what she’d expected, knowing it was a farce only made things worse. She was forced to lie, betray, and flee where she might otherwise stand and fight.

Barnet met her in the parking lot, consoled her along the drive. His words were muffled by phantom fluid around her head, her ears still ringing from the dual-monitors that reported the patients’ afflicted vitals. The city spun for an eternity until she half-slumped in the car-seat, edging on vomit. Barnet offered her a bottle of water from the back seat. She took it mindlessly, sipped it slow.

Everything had been simulated perfectly, as real as it could be. Kennedy feared it might have been. Paranoia took over, made her question if Barnet hadn’t been the man she should have feared– the person working for the free-agent, or maybe even the free agent himself. The only thing that kept her grounded was the reality of the image he’d shown her, and the hope that their ride would truly end with the officers’ revival.

Neo-Chicago was a blur of evening light and neon that reflected off glass and plexiglass surfaces. The electric palette of signs and billboards burned her eyes beneath fear that kept anything else from focusing. Nothing more of the city registered. Dirty asphalt and the mixed, historic-modern skyline of N-C’s concrete jungle were merely footnotes on unfocused eyes.

They came to a stop in something resembling a strip-mall on the city’s north-end. The place was as nondescript and bland as the rest of the upper-class looking buildings around it. Their seas of concrete and asphalt were broken up by expensive, precisely placed landscaping that added just enough green to confuse the brain. It was clear the idea had been to fool oneself into thinking they were no longer in Neo-Chicago’s infested metropolis. It was a poor illusion, Kennedy felt, especially given the inner-city skyline expressly visible to the south.

Barnet led her from the car, into a building whose upper and lower floors were divided between two offices. She ambled past a dentist’s office and up a short staircase. Barnet explained something about it being good cover, and that the two patients would be brought in the “back-way” to minimize gawkers. Kennedy wasn’t listening. She’d become hyper-focused on the two syringes in her pocket and ensuring they reached their destination unharmed.

Barnet opened the heavy, frosted-glass door that read “Williams Exports” in black vinyl on it. They entered to a typical office-scene; a reception area, a desk, and a blonde woman sitting there. If Kennedy would’ve had the mind to look, she’d have recognized the same, fine, golden hair she’d seen when everything had begun. Instead, she kept her eyes on the floor, hand sweating in her pocket as she rolled the syringes between her fingers.

The woman gave Barnet a sort of nod, as much a spook as he was, and returned her eyes to the computer screen before her. More surreality infected Kennedy, but she couldn’t dwell. She was led to an office behind the reception desk and the facade was put into its final stages.

She and Barnet entered a wide, deep room with patient beds clustered near one another in a corner. Monitors and machines were already prepared beside banana bags and I-Vs. Apart from the obvious venue-change, the set-up was identical to the hospital. Barnet resigned himself to silence as Kennedy took a seat near a bed to wait. Time passed in mental ticks and tocs that she counted to keep composed.

When the door finally opened again, Kennedy almost burst into tears from the relief she felt. Instead, she was instantly up, moving away to let the two, faux-teams of crash-respondents through. They paid her no mind, rushed the patients passed, and laid them over the beds. Two of them hurried the gurneys away, and the rest filed out behind them.

“Kennedy?” Barnet said, returning reality to her. “You’re on.”

She acted mechanically, moved to insert I-Vs, slap on monitor probes, and inject each of the patients with their death-antagonists. Once finished, she stood back to view them both, eyes seemingly unfocused, but actually taking in both heart monitors’ noiseless, flat-lines.

She held her breath, grit her teeth. Torres’ respiration spiked. A visible rise appeared on a line. It strengthened, spiked higher. Kennedy’s knuckles were white. Mendez’s respiration returned next. Torres’ pulse became rhythmic, erratic. Then, Mendez’s was spiking. A moment that Kennedy was certain she’d pass out in saw the heart monitors suddenly settle into regular, healthy rhythms.

She exhaled a breath that could’ve blown down weaker walls. Barnet patted her on a shoulder. She turned to look at him, face drained of color, “Bathroom?”

He pointed back at a door. She sprinted for it, fell through it to her knees, and vomited.

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