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Pepper Herman


            The Philadelphia Sentinel newsroom was lined with rows of cubicles which were occupied by busy employees.  Avery Burnham sat before his computer, typing.  A noisy table fan, swerving slowly from left to right, was attempting to cool off the summer heat which permeated the small cubicle.  Amid the untidiness of his desk sat small framed pictures of various family members.  Burnham’s blue rep tie was loosened and pulled to one side and his shirt was open at the collar.  Sensing someone entering the enclosure, he lifted his head. 

            An elderly white haired man with sunken-in cheeks and pale complexion  stood before him.  His beige suit hung loosely on his withered frame.

            “Can I help you?” Burnham asked.

            “Are you Avery Burnham?” the stranger asked.

            “That’s me,” Burnham said, smoothing his white mustache.

            “Is there some place where we can talk in private?”

            Sensing anxiety in this man, Burnham stood and said, “Sure.  Follow me.”

            The two men entered an empty office whose inside wrap-around windows were covered with blinds which Burnham closed.

            The gray-haired stranger extended his hand.  “Remember me? I’m Dr. Joseph Rossigian.  You interviewed me about three years ago.  I’m from Drayton Memorial hospital.” 

Burnham cocked his bald head to one side.  “Oh sure, now I remember you.  You and the other doctors from Drayton built that facility for battered women in West Philly. Here,” he said, gesturing to a bridge chair, “how ‘bout sitting down?”

            “What I’m about to tell you,” Rossigian said, taking a seat, “...I mean ... I ... I’m worried that I might be implicating some other people.”  Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead.

            “Speak freely, Doctor.  Let’s consider this strictly off the record.  ‘Kay?”  Then seating himself behind the desk, Burnham asked, “What’s going on?”

            “I’m dying of pancreatic cancer and I know my time is limited. My wife died last year and I am now living in our small summer cabin in the Poconos.  I have no family left ... no one to turn to for help ...”  He paused, mopping his sweating brow with a handkerchief which he kept balled up in his palm. “This is very difficult for me, Mr. Burnham.”

            “Now take it easy, Doctor.  I got all the time in the world,” Burnham said, calmly.  “How ‘bout a glass of water or something?”

            Shaking his head, Rossigian said, “I lied to you, sir.”

            “About what?”

            “About my part in the manipulation of certain carefully chosen patients that we doctors thought could help us better society.”  Tears sprung to his eyes.  “In order to make them vulnerable to our needs,” he continued sobbing softly,  “we told

them they were dying of incurable cancer when, in fact, they weren’t physically ill at

all.”  He dabbed at his eyes. “We fabricated fictitious records and destroyed real

ones, we falsified X-rays ... I’ve been living this lie for such a long time now ... I just don’t want to die without telling the real story of what happened back then.”

He blew his nose into his handkerchief.

Burnham leaned forward in his chair and peered at him.  “Are you saying that some people died because of ideas you put in their heads?”

            “Yes, yes, I am saying that.  Yes,” Rossigian stammered, his jaw quivering.

            “Christ almighty!”  Burnham gasped.  “You mean that Internet article was legit?”

            “I’m afraid so,” he said in a whisper. 

            Leaning his elbows on the desk, Burnham clasped his hands together, rested his chin on them, and stared into space.  After a moment, he spoke.  “Jesus H. Christ! So that piece I did on the ... what was the name of that housing project ...?”

            “The Bayakinnon Home for Abused Women.  They’re the two who gave their lives,” he said, staring at the floor.

            “Of course.  It’s all coming back now.  The Quincy nuclear power plant and that drug lord ... are there others?”

             “The others are alive.  They are innocent victims and should be allowed their privacy,” the doctor said, with passion.

            “Holy shit!” Burnham ejected. He stared into space, shaking his head.  “So then, why come to me?”

            “I need to purge myself ... to talk to somebody about this. Somehow, after my first meeting with you, I felt I could trust you.”

            “Well, while I appreciate your vote of confidence Doctor  -- and, believe me,  I will keep my word to you and not divulge this information -- I think you ought to go to the police with this story right away.”

            “To do that, I’d have to implicate the innocent.  I’m not prepared to do  that.”

Burnham toyed with his mustache. “I think it is appalling that these doctors walk away unscathed.  There’s something morally wrong with that.”

            “I agree.  And I am a part of that,” Rossigian said, shaking his head in disgust.

Rossigian began to rise from his chair slowly.  

            Realizing his difficulty, Burnham hastened to help him.  “Doctor,” he said, 

“I can’t tell you what to do. Only your conscience can do that.  I respect the fact that you came here to talk to me.  But when you walk out of this office, you’d better be thinking of some way to resolve this situation.  Telling me isn’t good enough.”

            “You’re right, Mr. Burnham.  “I need to make peace with myself.  I’ll think of something.”

           Putting his arm around Rossigian’s shoulder, Burnham walked him slowly to the door and said, “I’m sorry, Doctor, really I am. Good luck to you.”

            “May I call on you again, if I need you?”

            “Sure you can.  Feel free.  Anytime.”

            “Thank you for your confidence.  I’m grateful to you.  You’re a good man.”

            Avery Burnham smiled.  “It’s not a problem.”


Two weeks later; Friday morning

            The summer turned out to be so oppressively hot and dry that the State of Pennsylvania began placing sanctions on water usage.  Once-green grass turned beige, and all types of plant growth began to wither .

            It was only the middle of September, yet trees were already beginning to turn their beautiful colors of autumn.

            In an attempt to restore his energy, Joe Rossigian doggedly pursued morning walks in the woods which surrounded his log cabin.  Each day became more exhausting for him as his condition worsened.  His weight had deteriorated alarmingly.  The pains in his back and belly worsened, and, though terminal, he resisted chemotherapy, relying instead on massive pain killers for comfort.

            He first walked slowly down the road to his RFD mailbox and placed a letter inside.  Just that small distance had him gasping for breath.  After pausing to rest a moment, he continued to the old wood shed behind his cabin, where he retrieved six one-gallon cans of kerosene normally kept on hand for the kerosene heater which kept the house warm in winter.  Lifting the canisters placed such a strain on him physically, that he was reduced to dragging the cans, one at a time, till they sat in equal distances around the cabin.  With painstaking effort, he proceeded to pour the contents of each can around the perimeter of the property till the entire ground was saturated with kerosene.  He returned the empty cans to the shed and entered the cabin. 

            He looked at his watch -- 11 a.m.  Greyburn, Dadero and Reiger would be arriving at anytime now for a weekend of fishing, relaxing and drinking.

            The plan had been set.  No turning back now.


            Judging from the odors emanating from the kitchen, the fishing had been gratifying.  Tom Dadero, a somewhat frustrated chef, was placing the pan-fried lake trout onto a large platter surrounded by freshly sliced Jersey tomatoes, while Don Greyburn uncorked chilled bottles of chardonnay and breathed bottles of  cabernet and pinot. 

Ben Reiger retrieved corn-on-the-cob from the boiling pot on the stove  and placed them on a tray.  Joe Rossigian sat in an easy chair watching the end of the golf match on TV.  The morphine had taken effect and he was comfortable.

            The large ceiling fan which hung from the cathedral ceiling circulated cool air around the room. They set up an ersatz dining table on the cocktail table in the living room with streams of paper towels and napkins substituting for table linen.   Plastic forks, knives and throw-away plates served as dinnerware.  

            “You make a mean trout, Tom,” Ben Reiger said, lifting a fork to his mouth.

            “Delicious,” Don added.

            At the end of the meal, Don produced some Partagas cigars and, while the three sipped cordials, Joe dozed in his easy chair. 

            After about three hours of playing Firehouse pinochle, they all decided to turn in.  Saying goodnight to Joe, who wished to remain in the easy chair for the night, they ascended the stairs,  and separated into their own rooms.  It was 10:30.

            For about an hour and twenty minutes, Joseph Rossigian sat in the darkened room staring into space, tears wetting his cheeks.  He thought of his beloved wife who had died two years ago -- how much he missed her. 

            He recalled his little sister’s rape scene once again and how a prowler had changed the course of his family’s life forever.

            He pictured Becca McKinnon and Diego Bayamon and his stomach pains increased.    

It’s time, he thought.  Arising slowly from his chair, he reached for the pack of matches sitting by the ashtray. He walked slowly toward the front door, turning one last time to look around the room, sadness overwhelming him.

            He opened the front door, lit the entire pack of matches and threw them outside.  Returning to his easy chair, he waited.

            The result was immediate as the trail of flames enveloped the cabin and swallowed it into its vortex within minutes.


Saturday, late afternoon

            News of the tragedy was reported in the Saturday edition of the Philadelphia Sentinel, its headlines splayed across the front page:



                                                   By:  Mary Jo Parker

                                                    Sentinel Staff Writer


                          A freak fire in the Poconos took the lives of four Drayton Memorial

                          Hospital physicians.  Attempts at rescue were thwarted by the

                          drought which caused the fire to spread to neighboring woods,

                          as firefighters struggled to contain the blaze.

                         According to their respective wives, the esteemed doctors were

                         on a fishing trip for the weekend, staying at the Pocono cabin of

                         the widowed  Dr.Joseph Rossigian, retired head of the  

                        Gastroenterology department. 

                        Besides Dr. Rossigian, the other three doctors who perished in the

                        fire were;  Donald A. Greyburn, head of Oncology,  Benjamin J. Reiger, head

                        of Neurology, and Thomas Dadero, head of the Pulmonary wing.

                        Cause of the fire is yet to be established.

            Avery Burnham was scanning through the mail on his desk when, suddenly, his attention was drawn to a familiar name -- Dr. Joseph Rossigian.  Without ceremony, he ripped open the envelope and began to read. 

            The letter held no surprises -- save the confession of the fire, which Rossigian  described in detail.  He absolved Burnham from his promise not to publish the story, as long as he was sensitive in his approach so as not to implicate “the innocent others,” as he put it.  Rossigian assured Burnham that he’d finally found a way to make peace with himself, and expressed his gratitude to him for his kindness and discretion.

Shaking his head in distress, Burnham removed a cigarette lighter from his pocket, set the letter afire, dropped the ignited remains into an empty trash basket and

watched while the flames quickly dissolved into ashes. 

He limped to the door and quietly closed it behind him.  

The End


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