Vital signs dmb 2, p.27

Vital Signs dmb-2, page 27

 part  #2 of  Dr. Marissa Blumenthal Series


Vital Signs dmb-2

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  "No! Drunk," Tristan said.

  "Then he really opened up. He told me that in the PRC he'd been a member of a secret society, a martial arts organization called the White Lotus. He said that it was because of his martial arts ability that he'd been brought out of China by one of the Hong Kong triads called the Wing Sin.

  Apparently the FCA footed the bill. He led me to believe that they paid big bucks for him and his companion to be smuggled here to Australia."

  "But why?" Marissa asked. Tristan's story was going in directions she'd never anticipated. They seemed far afield from the issue of TB.

  "I had no idea," Tristan admitted.

  "But it all intrigued me.

  Seemed like a weird kind of program, especially since it was supposed to involve the government. I started thinking all sorts of things, like maybe it had something to do with Hong Kong being turned over to the PRC in 1997."

  "The last thing Communist China needs is in-vitro fertilization,"

  Marissa said.

  "Don't I know it," Tristan said.

  "Nothing made sense to me.

  So I tried quietly asking around the clinic again, but still I couldn't find anyone who would say anything about these visitors, especially anyone in administration. I talked to the director again, but he warned me to leave it alone. I should have taken his advice."

  Tristan tipped his head back and finished his beer. Standing, he asked Marissa if she was ready for another. She shook her head.

  She hadn't finished the one she had. While Tristan went back into the kitchen, she reviewed in her mind what he'd told her. it was certainly curious, but hardly what she'd come thousands of miles to hear.

  Tristan came back with a new beer and reclaimed his seat.

  "I know this all sounds weird," he admitted.

  "But I was convinced that if I could figure out why the Chinese were there, then I'd be able to explain the salpingitis cases. That might sound strange, but they were happening at the same time, and I was convinced it couldn't have been by chance. And whether the PRC needed it or not, I thought that these Chinese technicians were being trained in in-vitro techniques. When they were at the clinic, they were always in the in-vitro lab."

  "Do you think it could have been the other way around?"

  Marissa asked.

  "Maybe the Chinese were providing information rather than getting it."

  "I doubt that," Tristan said.

  "Modern technical medicine is not one of China's strong suits."

  "Yet around the time you're talking about," Marissa said, "the FCA did start to show a rather sudden increase in overall efficiency with their in-vitro. I read about it in the medical school library."

  "From having talked with Chan Ho for many hours, there's no way he'd be able to add to our technical knowledge."

  What about his companion?" Marissa asked.

  "The one who died."

  ""Chan refused to talk about him," Tristan said.

  "I asked him on many occasions. All I learned was that he was not a martial arts expert like Chan."

  "Maybe he was an acupuncturist," Marissa suggested.

  "Or an herbalist."

  "Possibly," Tristan said.

  "But I can assure you that FCA did not start doing acupuncture as part of the in-vitro protocol. But Chan did lead me to believe that he had felt responsible for his companion since he was afraid he would be sent back to the PRC after the bloke died."

  "Sounds like the companion was the more important of the two," Marissa said.

  "Maybe he did provide some knowledge or skill."

  "It would be tough to get me to believe that," Tristan said.

  "They were all quite primitive fellows. What I started to think about was drugs."

  "How so?" Marissa asked.

  "Heroin smuggling," Tristan said.

  "I know that Hong Kong has become the heroin capital for moving heroin from the Golden Triangle to the rest of the world. I came to think that the explanation for all this weird activity was the movement of heroin, especially since TB is endemic in the Golden Triangle."

  "So these Chinese duos were couriers?" Marissa asked.

  "That's what I was thinking," Tristan said.

  "Maybe the one who didn't know martial arts. But I wasn't sure. Yet it was the only thing that seemed to justify the money that had to be involved.

  " "That means the FCA has to be in the drug business," Marissa said. In her mind's eye she remembered the surprising opulence of the clinic. That lent a certain credence to what Tristan was saying. But if that were the case, how did TB salpingitis fit in?

  "I was planning on investigating it," Tristan said.

  "I intended to use my next vacation to go to Hong Kong and trace the trail back to Guangzhou if necessary."

  "What made you change your mind?" Marissa asked.

  "Two things happened," Tristan said.

  "First, the chief of pathology came back, and second, my paper came out in the Australian

  Journal of Infectious Diseases. I thought I was about to become professionally famous for describing a new clinical syndrome.

  Instead it turned out to be a king hit on me. As I said, I'd never cleared the paper with the administration. well, they went crazy. They wanted me to recant the paper, but I wouldn't. I got on my academic high horse and bucked the system."

  "The cases in your paper were real patients?" Marissa finally asked.

  "You didn't make them up?"

  "Of course I didn't make them up," Tristan said indignantly.

  "I'm not a complete alf. That's the story they put out. But it wasn't true."

  "Charles Lester told us you'd made them up."

  "That lying bastard!" Tristan hissed.

  "All twenty-three cases in that paper were real patients. I guarantee it. But I'm not surprised he told you differently. They tried to force me to say the same. But I refused. There were even threats. Unfortunately, I ignored the threats, even when they were extended to my wife and my two-year-old son "Then Chan Ho disappeared and things got ugly. My pathology chief wrote to the journal and said I'd manufactured the data, so the paper was officially discredited. Then someone planted heroin in my car which the police found following an anonymous tip. My life became a living hell. I was indicted on drug charges. My family was intimidated and tormented. But like an idiot, I stood up to it all, challenging the clinic to deny the existence of the patients whose names I had saved. Drunk on idealism, I wasn't going to give up. At least not until my wife died."

  Marissa's face went ashen.

  "What happened?" she asked, afraid to hear the rest.

  Tristan looked down at his beer for a moment, then took a swig. When he looked back at Marissa his eyes were filled with tears.

  "It was supposedly a mugging," he said in a halting voice.

  — Something that doesn't happen too often here in Australia. She was knocked down and her purse was taken. In the process, she broke her neck."

  "Oh, no!" cried Marissa.

  "Officially she broke her neck hitting the pavement," Tristan said.

  "But I thought the fracture resulted from a kung fu kick although I couldn't prove it. But it made me terrified for my son's safety. Since I had a trial to face, I stayed, but I sent Chauncey to live with my in-laws in California. I knew I couldn't protect him."

  "Your wife was American?" Marissa asked.

  Tristan nodded.

  "We met when I was doing a fellowship in San Francisco."

  What happened at the trial?" Marissa asked. was acquitted of most of the criminal charges," Tristan said.

  But not all. I served a short time in jail and had to do some community service. I got fired from FCA, obviously. I lost my specialty certification but managed to hold on to my medical license. And I fled out here to the outback."

  "Your son is still in the States?" Marissa asked.

  Tristan nodded.

  "I wasn't about to bring him here until I was certain it was over

  "What an ordeal."

  "I hope you will take it to heart," Tristan said.

  "You are probably right about your friend's death not being accidental.

  You're probably also right about your own life being in danger.

  I think you'd better leave Australia."

  "I don't know if I can at this point," Marissa said.

  "Please don't be as foolish as I was," Tristan said.

  "You've already lost a friend. Don't persist. Forget your idealism. All this represents something very big and very sinister. It probably involves organized Chinese crime and heroin, a deadly combination.

  People always think of the Mafia when they think of organized crime, but the Mafia is a Girl-Scout operation compared to the Chinese syndicate. Whatever is at the bottom of it all, I realized I couldn't investigate it on my own. Nor should YOU."

  "How could organized Chinese crime be associated with TB salpingitis?" Marissa asked.

  "I haven't the slightest idea," Tristan said.

  "I doubt there is a direct causal link. It has to be some unexpected side effect."

  "Did you know that FCA is controlled by a holding company that also controls all the Women's Clinics in the States?"

  "I do," Tristan said.

  "That was part of the reason I went to work for FCA. I knew that they were planning to expand around the globe primarily because of their in-vitro fertilization technology.

  Marissa touched Tristan's arm. Even though her loss was different, she felt the kinship of shared tragedy.

  "Thank you for talking with me," she said softly.

  "Thank you for being so open and trusting."

  "I hope it has the desired effect of sending you home at once," Tristan said.

  "You must give up this crusade you are on."

  "I don't think I can," Marissa said.

  "Not after Wendy's death, and not after all the suffering that the TB salpingitis has caused me and so many others. I've come this far and risked this much.

  I have to find out what's going on."

  "All I can tell you is that a similar compulsion ruined my life and killed my wife," Tristan said. He sounded almost angry. He wanted to talk her out of her foolishness, but seeing the glint of determination in her eyes, he knew it would be in vain. He sighed.

  "I'm getting the idea that you are a hopeless cause.

  "If you have to proceed, then I suggest that you contact the Wing Sin Triad in Hong Kong. Maybe they will be willing to help — for a price. That was what I was planning to do. But I have to warn you that it will be dangerous since the Hong Kong triads are notorious for violence, especially when heroin is involved; the amounts of money are astronomical. The heroin alone coming from the Golden Triangle is worth over a hundred billion dollars a year."

  "Why don't you come with me?" Marissa said.

  "Your son is safe in America. Why not follow up on what you had planned to do years ago? We can do it together."

  Tristan laughed aloud.

  "Absolutely not," he said.

  "Don't even try to tempt me. I ran out of idealism two years ago."

  "Why would FCA and the Women's Clinic be involved with drugs?" she asked.

  "Just for the money'? Wouldn't they be risking too much?"

  "That's a good question," Tristan said.

  "I've asked it myself.

  My guess is that they might be part of a money-laundering scheme. The clinic needs lots of capital for continued global expansion."

  "So the Chinese coming from the PRC are couriers for money or drugs or both," Marissa said.

  "That's my guess," Tristan said.

  "But that brings me back to the tuberculosis," Marissa said.

  "How does that fit in?"

  Tristan shrugged.

  "As I said, I don't have all the answers. I suppose it has to be an inadvertent effect. I don't have a clue as to how the women pick it up. TB is usually an airborne infection.

  How it gets to the fallopian tubes is beyond me."

  "That's not how you make a diagnosis in medicine," Marissa. said.

  "All the symptoms and signs have to be related directly to the main diagnosis. Almost always it is one disease. I think TB has to be considered central to the problem."

  "Then you're on your own," Tristan said.

  "There's no way I can explain what's happened with that caveat."

  "So come with me," Marissa begged.

  "You certainly have as much at stake as I do in learning the truth."

  "No!" Tristan said.

  "I'm not getting involved. Not again.

  Recently I've been thinking that enough time has passed and I've saved a lot of money, enough to take my son back and move someplace far away, maybe even the States."

  "Okay," Marissa said.

  "I guess I can understand." Her tone said she didn't understand at all.

  "Thank you again for talking with me." The two stood up. Marissa stuck her hand out and Tristan shook it.

  "Good luck," Tristan said.

  Marissa squinted as she stepped outside into the blazing hot sun. She walked to her car and looked in at the dust. She was not relishing her ride back to Windorah, nor the odyssey back to Charleville the next day.

  She got into the car as carefully as possible to avoid raising a dust cloud. After starting the engine, she drove out of the Wilmington

  Station, waving to a few of the stock men working on a run of fence. She hung a left and started back toward Windorah.

  As she drove through the forbidding countryside, she reviewed everything Tristan had told her. Although she hadn't found out anything new about the TB salpingitis, she'd learned much she'd never expected, all of it disturbing. Perhaps the most disturbing was the suggestion of foul play in Tristan's wife's death. If Tristan was right, Marissa felt that lent greater plausibility to the idea that the sharks had been deliberately attracted by the two men tossing the chum. And if that were the case, her own life was in jeopardy.

  Marissa drove the car by reflex as she wondered what she could do to protect herself. Unfortunately she didn't have any particularly startling ideas. If people she didn't know wanted to kill her, how would she know who they were? It was hard to protect herself from the unexpected. Danger could come at any moment.

  Just then, as if to prove her fears, she became aware of an odd vibration. At first she thought her car had been tampered with.

  She glanced at the gauges and dials on the dashboard. All registered normal. Yet the vibration soon crescendoed to a roar.

  In a panic, Marissa gripped the steering wheel. She knew she had to do something fast. In desperation she slammed on the brakes and threw the steering wheel hard to the left. The car skidded sideways. For an instant, Marissa felt it was about to roll over.

  The instant Marissa came to a jolting halt, a plane thundered overhead, missing the top of her car by barely ten feet.

  Marissa knew then that the people who had killed Wendy had somehow found her. Now they would concoct an accident to dispense with her.

  Her car had stalled. Frantically, she tried to restart it. Through the windshield she could see that the plane had looped up, banked, and was now coming back toward her. In the distance it looked no bigger than an insect, but already its sound was rattling the car.

  With the engine going at last, Marissa put the car in gear. The plane was almost on her. Ahead was a lone acacia tree. For some crazy reason, Marissa thought that if she could get to the tree, it would provide a modicum of protection. She threw the wheel to the right to straighten the car, then gunned the engine. The car shot forward.

  The plane was headed right for her. It had dropped to less than ten feet from the ground. It was roaring along the road directly at her. Behind the plane, the dust billowed hundreds of feet into the air.

  Realizing she wasn't going to make it to the tree, Marissa slammed on the brakes again and raised her arms protectively in front of her eyes. With a thundering growl the plane came
at her, then pulled up at the last second. The car shuddered as the plane screamed overhead.

  Opening her eyes, Marissa floored the gas pedal again. Within seconds she had the car off the road and under the tree. Behind her she could hear the plane returning.

  Twisting in her seat, she faced around, fully expecting to see the craft coming at her. But instead, it was paralleling the road.

  As it passed by her, its wheels touched down. The high-pitched drone of its twin engines dropped to a deeper roar. That was when Marissa. recognized the plane. Inside was Tristan Williams.

  Relief quickly changed to irritation as Marissa watched the plane slow to a near stop, turn, then taxi back. When it was alongside her car, it turned again, facing down the road. The engine was cut and Tristan jumped from the cabin.

  He walked up to Marissa with his hat jauntily pushed back on his forehead.

  "Marissa Blumenthal!" he quipped.

  "Imagine meeting you out here!"

  "You scared me to death," Marissa said hotly.

  "And you deserved it," Tristan said with equal vehemence.

  Then he smiled.

  "Maybe I'm a little crazy, too. But I had to let you know that I've changed my mind. Maybe I owe it to my wife's memory. Maybe I owe it to myself. Whatever. I've got some holiday time and a lot of cash, so I'll go with you to Hongkers and we'll see if we can figure this thing out."

  "Really?" Marissa asked.

  "Are you sure?"

  "Don't make me reexamine my decision," Tristan warned.

  "But I couldn't let you wing off to Hong Kong by yourself under these circumstances. I'd feel guilty, and I've already experienced enough guilt for a lifetime."

  "I'm so pleased," Marissa said.

  "You have no idea."

  "Don't be too pleased," Tristan said.

  "Because it's not going to be any proper holiday, I can assure you of that. It's not going to be easy and it'll definitely be dangerous. Are you sure you want to go through with it?"

  "No question," Marissa said.

  "Especially now!"

  "Where are you headed at the moment?" Tristan asked.

  "I'm staying at the Western Star Hotel," Marissa said.

  "I was planning on driving to Charleville in the morning."

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