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Pepper Herman

Chapter Three


            The walls in the boardroom of Drayton Memorial Hospital were lined with portraits of previous hospital presidents.  Some had stilted smiles and looked dignified in suits and ties, while others chose to be remembered in their vested whites.

            In the center of the room, four physicians sat around an elegant mahogany conference table on which were placed carafes of water and bowls of peanuts. Donald A. Greyburn, chief of Oncology, sat at the head. His dedication to fitness was apparent by his youthful appearance for a man of sixty-two.  He had thick gray hair on a trim six-foot frame, a tanned complexion, piercing blue eyes, and presented an imposing air. One could sense a controlling demeanor about him.

            “Gentlemen,” he cleared his throat.,  “we’ve just initiated another one.  A former helicopter pilot in the Vietnam war.  He presently owns a helicopter parts plant which he funded with an inheritance from his father after the war.   He seems strong-willed, determined and has great possibilities.  Ben and I inadvertently found him through Craig Aspel, who has been his physician for some 20 years now.”  Passing around a medical history on Rob Marchand, he continued.  “We made false copies of his X-rays  for Aspel’s files indicating that he had a late stage brain tumor.”

            “We think you’ll agree he’s a likely candidate to the cause,” Benjamin Reiger, chief of Neurology spoke up.  “He’s already met with the Doomsdayers and, I understand, fit in quite well.  Questions?”

            After scanning the report, Thomas Dadero, head of the Pulmonary department, removed his horn-rimmed glasses.  “So what if he was a helicopter pilot

in Vietnam?  How do we know that he’s psychologically capable of carrying out this thing, or even if he really wants to.”

            Don Greyburn glanced at him with a wry smile.  “Why Tom, you said the same thing about Becca McKinnon.  Remember how you thought a nursery school teacher would be too chicken to make the commitment to Quincy when the time came?”

            “Agreed,” said Tom.  “But how does his ‘Nam experience translate to us here?”

            Reiger grabbed a handful of peanuts and tossed them into his mouth.  “Aspel’s records indicate that he still harbors hostility about the way they were abandoned over there.  He doesn’t trust the army, and there’s this guilt over spraying Agent Orange.  It’s a ‘thing’ with him. Actually, these headaches he’s been having are nothing more than Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.”

            Speaking with confidentiality, Greyburn said,  “Look, we’ve  all agreed, haven’t we, that the army’s secret germ warfare experiments have got to be stopped?”  He looked from face to face as they all murmured acknowledgment.  “Well, Marchand is perfect for this job.  Where else would you find a helicopter pilot willing to deliberately smash into a building, destroying himself and everything

in the warehouse to boot?”  He stared at them.  “I mean, he’s perfect.  We’re lucky to have found him!”

            “Okay, so assume that’s true,” said Joseph Rossigian, top man in Gastroenterology. “How do we get him on our team, so to speak?”  He removed his pipe from his mouth and began shaking bits of tobacco into an ashtray.

            “We don’t, Joe,” said Greyburn. “That’s the beauty of it.  We let the Doomsday Club do it for us.”  He clasped his hands in front of him.  “I’m more concerned that we deviated from our pattern. We chose a patient from a doctor’s files other than our own. If Craig Aspel ever found out....”

            “I don’t like it either,” replied Rossigian.  “It’s chance-taking.  We’ve always

chosen our candidates very carefully -- no family backgrounds to be traced back,  dedication to a particular cause, and the only second opinions they ever sought are sitting in this room.   We need to keep the control.”  Tapping the stem of his pipe on Rob’s report, he continued, “I see here that this guy’s got a wife, Cate.  I’m not happy with that.”

            Dadero interrupted.  “Your own patient, Ed Hambrick, has a daughter.”

            “It’s not the same thing, Tom, and you know it,” Rossigian replied with an air of petulance.

            Ben Reiger shifted in his seat.  “Craig Aspel’s not going to be around much longer anyway.  We all know he’s got a bad ticker and pops his digitaIis like candy.  Besides, I hear he’s retiring soon.”  Spreading his hands wide on the tabletop and leaning forward for emphasis, he continued,  “Look, I agree it’s chancy but I say we ought to try it this one time.  This goddam army thing is insidious.”

            Turning to Rossigian, Greyburn said, “Joe, Hambrick’s our catalyst.  You  think you can plant the army thing in Hambrick’s mind so that he can get through to Marchand?”

            “Listen, I was successful in pursuading him to join the Doomsdayers wasn’t I?  I don’t see that as a problem, Don.  I’ll work on it. “  Then, addressing the three of them, he said,  “Are we on for fishing at my lodge this weekend?”

            “Count me in,” replied Tom.

            “Sounds good to me,” said Ben.

            “I’ll bring the steaks,” Don added.

Popping some peanuts in his mouth, Tom Dadero rose. “I’d better go.  I’ve got to be in O.R. in ten minutes,” he said, glancing at his watch.

“Yeah, I’ve got patients,” Reiger responded as he quickly ran a comb through his brillo gray hair.

Don Greyburn, removing his glasses from his suntanned face,  stood up.  “Well, that’s it then. I think we covered some good ground here.  Have a good day, gentlemen.”


One Week Later

            The phone ... it was ringing off the hook.  Rob slid over to the night table, lifted it off its cradle and mumbled, “Yes?”

            Cate moved toward him and propped herself up on one elbow, concern in her eyes.  Her lips moved as she silently mouthed the words, “Who is it?”

            Rob assured her with a look that it was okay and said into the phone, “no problem, Ed ... no, I was about to get up anyway ... Hey, not to worry, honest ... Yes? ... Sure, I know where it is ...Okay, I’ll be there.  Give me a few minutes, okay?”  He placed the receiver back on its cradle.

            “Go back to sleep, hon.  That was Ed Hambrick.  I’m meeting him at the diner.  It’s almost eight anyway,” he said, stepping into his khakis.

            She pouted as she said, “But it’s Saturday.”

            “It’s all right, babe.  You know how it is when someone in the group needs to talk.”

            “You’re right, of course, sweetheart,” Cate said.  “I’m just being selfish.  I’ve really gotten to love those guys.  They’re special.  And can you believe how they’ve come to accept me as a part of them?  That’s really something, don’t you think?”

           “No, I don’t think,” Rob answered, rubbing her playfully on the behind.  “You’re one terrific human.  Hey, want me to bring you back a cinnamon bun or something, little southern lady?”

            “Yeah,” she said in a sleepy voice, “with raisins.”


                        Ed Hambrick was sitting in a booth in back of the diner.  As Rob approached, he stood up with a guilty expression as he extended his hand to Rob.  “Hey Rob, please forgive me.  I know I woke you up.  On Saturday morning, yet.  Is Cate angry with me?”

            “Nah, don’t sweat it.  What’s going on?  You okay?”

            “I ordered you some coffee.  How about a doughnut?”

           Rob poured some coffee from a carafe into his cup and took a sip.  “Maybe later,” he said.  “So what is it, Ed?”

            Ed’s face clouded over.  “Listen, Bro, remember at one of our meetings you told us you felt you had been fighting a war that was morally wrong?”

            Rob nodded.

            “You felt guilty about the Agent Orange thing, right?”

            Rob’s lips tightened.  “I mean, consciously, I knew it wasn’t my fault.  I trusted the army.  Who knew defoliants were going to take a toll in later years?  Who cared?”  He was raising his voice.  “That’s the problem.  The army didn’t fucking care.  And I’m left with the shakes and nightmares that still keep me and Cate up nights.”

            “Which brings me to my reason for calling you.  I just found out that there’s an abandoned warehouse on a small, uninhabited island in the Caribbean where the

            army just began conducting germ warfare experiments.”

            Rob stared at him.

            “Don’t ask me where I heard it, but trust me, it comes from a legitimate source.”

            “Bastards!” said Rob.  “What island?”

            “Ever hear of Little Turtle Cay?  It’s near St. Sebastian.”

Rob’s eyes widened in astonishment.  “That’s wild!  I knew a guy in ‘Nam, Octavius Gumbs, who was from St. Sebastian.  He was a demolition expert.  We called him The Scrounger ‘cause he could always finagle anything you wanted, for a price.  What a character.”  Shaking his head he continued,  “So that’s where the plant is!”

            Ed peered with intent at Rob.  “Rob, someone’s got to destroy that building.  What do you think?  I mean, this might finally be your chance to put all those demons to rest. Know what I mean?”

            Rob felt his stomach tighten.  “Jesus, Ed, I know we talked about my doing something, but ... Cate.”  He stared into space, a troubled expression on his face.  Slowly, he said, “On the other hand, there are so many things that went on in ‘Nam that I blame the army for.  I know I told you guys about the drugs and the Orange and the morale problem ...”  He paused.  “But I never told you about ... the fragging.”

            “Fragging?  What’s that?”

            “It’s hard for me to talk about it, Ed, and, of course, there’s no proof.  The Pentagon has always denied it, but ... some of us believe that an experimental chemical was used on some of the men.”

            “My God!  And what happened?”

            “What happened?  The guys got so hyped and gung ho on the stuff that they ... that they ...” He shook his head, unable to go on.

            Ed leaned toward Rob, his voice almost a whisper.  “That they what, Rob?  That they what?  C’mon Buddy.  It’s poisoning you.”

            Rob stared down at the table, enunciating each word as he spoke.  “That they even started killing their own men.  Shit!”  He stared into Ed’s eyes.

            There was silence.

            “Jee-sus,” Ed murmured quietly.  “What a fucking thing to have to live with.”

            “So you see why, when you talk about that germ warfare facility I ... but then there’s Cate to consider.”  He looked at Ed. “Let me think about it, will you, buddy?  I need some time.”

            “Take all the time you want, pal,” Ed replied.  “But Rob, if you do decide to do this thing, remember, it’s you, me, Molly and Diego -- we’re it.  No one else can know the truth -- Cate, the doctors, no one.  For the safety of everybody.  Agreed?”

            “Absolutely, Ed.  Cate wouldn’t be able to handle it anyway.  Better I go that way, than with her anticipating it.  Know what I mean?”

            Ed nodded. “Maybe you could say that you have a customer for helicopter parts, or something like that, and you must fly to the Caribbean for a few days -- say, right after Christmas.”  Ed noticed the stricken expression on Rob’s face.  “I know, kid.  I know.  I promise you one thing.  If you decide it’s a go, Molly, Diego and I will be with Cate every step of the way.” 

            “I know that friend,” Rob replied,  a warm expression crossing his face.

            “Any questions?” Ed concluded.

            “One,” said Rob.

            “What’s that?” replied Ed.

            “Can I have that doughnut now ... and a cinnamon bun with raisins ... to go?”

Chapter 4


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