RAIN WAS DRUMMING HARD against the windows when the midnight-to-8:00 rounds began at San Francisco Municipal Hospital. Inside the ICU, thirty-year-old Jessie Falk was asleep in her hospital bed, floating on a Percocet lake of cool light.
Jessie was having the most beautiful dream she'd had in years.
She and the light of her life, three-year-old Claudia, were in Grandma’s backyard swimming pool. Claudie was in her birthday suit and bright-pink water wings, slapping the water, sunlight glinting off her blond curls.
"Simon says, kiss like a butterfly, Claudie."
"Like this, Mommy?"
Then the mother and daughter were shouting and laughing, twirling and falling down, singing out "wheeeeeee," when without warning a sharp pain pierced Jessie's chest.
She awoke with a scream --- bolted upright --- and clapped both of her hands to her breast.
What was happening? What was that pain?
Then Jessie realized that she was in a hospital --- and that she was feeling sick again. She remembered coming here, the ambulance ride, a doctor telling her that she was going to be fine, not to worry.
Falling, nearly fainting back to the mattress, Jessie fumbled for the call button at her side. Then the device slipped from her grasp and fell. It banged against the side of the bed with a muted clang.
Oh, God, I can't breathe. What’s happening? I can't get my breath. It's horrible. I'm not fine.
Tossing her head from side to side, Jessie swept the darkened hospital room with her eyes. Then she seized on a figure at the far edge of her vision.
She knew the face.
"Oh, th-thank God," she gasped. "Help me, please. It's my heart."
She stretched out her hands, clutched feebly at the air, but the figure stayed in the shadows.
"Please," Jessie pleaded.
The figure wouldn't come forward, wouldn't help. What was going on? This was a hospital. The person in the shadows worked here.
Tiny black specks gathered in front of Jessie's eyes as a crushing pain squeezed the air from her chest. Suddenly her vision tunneled to a pinprick of white light.
"Please help me. I think I'm --- "
"Yes," said the figure in the shadows, "you are dying, Jessie. It's beautiful to watch you cross over."
JESSIE'S HANDS FLUTTERED like a tiny bird's wings beating against the sheets. Then they were very still. Jessie was gone.
The Night Walker came forward and bent low over the hospital bed. The young woman's skin was mottled and bluish, clammy to the touch, her pupils fixed. She had no pulse. No vital signs. Where was she now? Heaven, hell, nowhere at all?
The silhouetted figure retrieved the fallen call device, then tugged the blankets into place, straightened the young woman’s blond hair and the collar of her gown, and blotted the spittle from her lips with a tissue.
Nimble fingers lifted the framed photo beside the phone on the bedside table. She'd been so pretty, this young mother holding her baby. Claudia. That was the daughter's name, wasn't it?
The Night Walker put the picture down, closed the patient's eyes, and placed what looked to be small brass coins, smaller than dimes, on each of Jessie Falk's eyelids.
The small disks were embossed with a caduceus --- two serpents entwined around a winged staff, the symbol of the medical profession.
A whispered good-bye blended with the sibilance of tires speeding over the wet pavement five stories below on Pine Street.
"Good night, princess."
I WAS AT MY DESK sifting through a mound of case files, eighteen open homicides to be exact, when Yuki Castellano, attorney-at-law, called on my private line.
"My mom wants to take us to lunch at the Armani Café," said the newest member of the Women's Murder Club. "You've gotta meet her, Lindsay. She can charm the skin off a snake, and I mean that in the nicest possible way."
Let me see; what should I choose? Cold coffee and tuna salad in my office? Or a tasty Mediterranean luncheon, say, carpaccio over arugula with thin shavings of Parmesan and a glass of Merlot, with Yuki and her snake-charming mom?
I neatened the stack of folders, told our squad assistant, Brenda, that I'd be back in a couple of hours, and left the Hall of Justice with no need to be back until the staff meeting at 3:00.
The bright September day had broken a rainy streak in the weather and was one of the last glory days before the dank autumn chill would close in on San Francisco.
It was a joy to be outside.
I met Yuki and her mother, Keiko, in front of Saks in the upscale Union Square shopping district out by the Golden Gate Panhandle. Soon we were chattering away as the three of us headed up Maiden Lane toward Grant Avenue.
"You girls, too modern," Keiko said. She was as cute as a bird, tiny, perfectly dressed and coiffed, shopping bags dangling from the crooks of her arms. "No man want woman who too independent," she told us.
"Mommm," Yuki wailed. "Give it a rest, willya? This is the twenty-first century. This is America."
"Look at you, Lindsay," Keiko said, ignoring Yuki, poking me under the arm. "You're packing!"
Yuki and I both whooped, our shouts of laughter nearly drowning out Keiko's protestation that "no man want a woman with a gun."
I wiped my eyes with the back of my hand as we stopped and waited for the light to change.
"I do have a boyfriend," I said.
"Doesn't she though," Yuki said, nearly bursting into a song about my beau. "Joe is a very handsome Italian guy. Like Dad. And he's got a big-deal government job. Homeland Security."
"He make you laugh?" Keiko asked, pointedly ignoring Joe's credentials.
"Uh-huh. Sometimes we laugh ourselves into fits."
"He treat you nice?"
"He treats me sooooo nice," I said with a grin.
Keiko nodded approvingly. "I know that smile," she said. "You find a man with a slow hands."
Again Yuki and I burst into hoots of laughter, and from the sparkle in Keiko's eyes, I could tell that she was enjoying her role as Mama Interrogator.
"When you get a ring from this Joe?"
That's when I blushed. Keiko had nailed it with a well-manicured finger. Joe lived in Washington, DC. I didn't. Couldn't. I didn't know where our relationship was going.
"We're not at the ring stage yet," I told her.
"You love this Joe?"
"Big-time," I confessed.
"He love you?"
Yuki's mom was looking up at me with amusement, when her features froze as if she'd turned to stone. Her lively eyes glazed over, rolled back, and her knees gave way.
I reached out to grab her, but I was too late.
Keiko dropped to the pavement with a moan that made my heart buck. I couldn't believe what had happened, and I couldn't understand it. Had Keiko suffered a stroke?
Yuki screamed, then crouched beside her mother, slapping her cheeks, crying out, "Mommy, Mommy, wake up."
"Yuki, let me in there for a second. Keiko. Keiko, can you hear me?"
My heart was thudding hard as I placed my fingers to Keiko's carotid artery, tracked her pulse against the second hand of my watch.
She was breathing, but her pulse was so weak, I could barely feel it.
I grabbed the Nextel at my waist and called Dispatch.
"Lieutenant Boxer, badge number twenty-seven twenty-one," I barked into the phone. "Get an EMS unit to Maiden Lane and Grant. Make it now!"
SAN FRANCISCO MUNICIPAL HOSPITAL is huge --- like a city in itself. Once a public hospital, it had been privatized a few years back, but it still took more than its share of indigents and overflow from other hospitals, treating in excess of a hundred thousand patients a year.
At that moment, Keiko Castellano was inside one of the curtained stalls that ringed the perimeter of the vast, frantic emergency room.
As I sat beside Yuki in the waiting room, I could feel her terror and fear for her mother's life.
And I flashed on the last time I'd been inside an emergency room. I remembered the doctors' ghostlike hands touching my body, the loud throbbing of my heart, and wondering if I was going to get out alive.
I'd been off duty that night but went on a stakeout anyway, not thinking that one minute it would be a routine job, and the next minute I'd be down. The same was true for my friend and former partner, Inspector Warren Jacobi. We'd both taken two slugs in that desolate alley. He was unconscious and I was bleeding out on the street when somehow I found the strength to return fire.
My aim had been good, maybe even too good.
It's a sad sign of the times that public sympathy favors civilians who've been shot by police over police who've been shot by civilians. I was sued by the family of the so-called victims and I could have lost everything.
I hardly knew Yuki then.
But Yuki Castellano was the smart, passionate, and supertalented young lawyer who had come through for me when I really needed her. I would always be grateful.
I turned to Yuki now as she spoke, her voice choppy with agitation, her face corrugated with worry.
“This makes no sense, Lindsay. You saw her. She's only fifty-five, for God's sake. She's a freaking life force. What's going on? Why don't they tell me something? Or at least let me see her?”
I had no answer, but like Yuki, I was out of patience.
Where the hell was the doctor?
This was unconscionable. Not acceptable in any way.
What was taking so long?
I was gathering myself to walk into the ER and demand some answers, when a doctor finally strode into the waiting room. He looked around, then called Yuki's name.
THE NAME TAG over the pocket of his white coat read "Dennis Garza, MD, Dir. Emergency Services."
I couldn't help noticing that Garza was a handsome man --- midforties, six foot one, 180 or so, broad-shouldered, and in good shape. His Spanish lineage showed in his black eyes and the thick black hair that fell across his forehead.
But what struck me most was the tension in the doctor's body, his rigid stance and the way he repeatedly, impatiently, snapped the wristband of his Rolex, as if to say, I'm a busy man. An important, busy man. Let's get on with it. I don't know why, but I didn't like him.
"I'm Dr. Garza," he said to Yuki. "Your mother probably had a neurological insult, either what we call a TIA, a transient ischemic attack, or a mini-stroke. In plain English, it's a loss of circulation and oxygen to the brain, and she may have had some angina --- that's pain caused by a narrowing of the coronary arteries."
"Is that serious? Is she in pain now? When will I be able to see her?"
Yuki fired questions at Dr. Garza until he put up a hand to stop the onslaught.
"She's still incoherent. Most people recover within a half hour. Others, maybe your mother, take as long as twenty-four hours. Her condition is guarded. And visitors are off-limits right now. Let's see how she does tonight, shall we?"
"She is going to be all right though, right? Right?" Yuki asked the doctor.
"Miss Castellano. Take a deep breath," Garza said. "I'll let you know when we know."
The door to the ER swung closed behind the unpleasant doctor, and Yuki sat down hard on a plastic chair, slumped forward, lowered her face into her hands, and began to sob. I'd never seen Yuki cry before, and it killed me that I couldn't fix what was hurting her.
I did all that I could do.
I put my arm around Yuki's shoulders, saying, "It's okay, honey. She's in good hands here. I know your mom will be better really soon."
Then I rubbed Yuki's back as she cried and cried. She seemed so tiny and afraid, almost like a little girl.