TWO TRAVELERS ON A SNOWY NIGHT
The snow billowed in with him as he entered the airport, the swirl of frigid wind behind him physically pushing him into the overheated warmth of the concourse area, the bright lights stinging his eyes after a dim world of ice, flashing headlights and post-solstice evening darkness. He hefted up his luggage, not needing to shake off the flakes, as they so wet they were already sliding off his shoulders into wet drifts.
Already warm, he unbuttoned his long leather topcoat, revealing a cream fisherman's sweater over smart tartan bellbottoms, and joined the queue to deposit his large suitcase and collect his boarding pass at check in. The battered duffel bag etched with his faded initials in permanent marker he kept with him, slinging it over his shoulder as he exited the queue with his boarding pass.
If he was aware of the young ladies giving him admiring glances, he didn't initially acknowledge it as he threaded his way through the crowd: men bundled in heavy coats with damp fedoras giving evidence to the wet weather, many women buried in furs or at least coats with fur collars, turbans and toques perched on their heads, children half-exploding with the excitement of the upcoming flight and the snow, some darting around with impatient remonstrances following them like puppies, all redolent with the scent of wet wool and camphor. He was tall and well built, straight brown hair shading to blond darkened by winter, brown eyes, an angular, rugged face still edged with smooth curves. One young woman in a trim ski suit frankly appraised him from shaggy top to brown-booted toe; this he did notice and reacted with an affable grin that managed to pass the message that yes, he had noticed, but now wasn't the time.
He glanced at his watch, considering making a collect telephone call, but calculated the time difference in his head and decided to wake neither his employer nor his friend. Perhaps if he was still waiting later he might chance the early morning.
Consulting his ticket, he took off with long strides in the direction of his gate, stopping at a newsstand to pick up a Hershey bar and the final edition of the Chicago Tribune. It was only when he'd left the main concourse and entered his own that above him the public address system blatted into life. "Attention, passengers. We regret to tell you that due to the storm conditions all flights have been postponed until further notice."
He gave a gusty sigh, but it was expected. He'd flown out of O'Hare enough times to know that in winter this was almost a given. It would throw all his connections off, Chicago to New York, New York back to London, but he'd arranged his return trip to take his time going home. Frankly, he hadn't expected to spend all his time in the airport, but he had a book, and cash enough for a good dinner and a beer at one of the plushy restaurants on the main concourse. For a second, his mind flickered briefly on trying to connect with the brunette in the ski suit, but the milling crowd made him shrug that notion off nearly as quickly as it came.
Once at the crowded areas around each of the gates, he gave up the idea of finding a seat near his own and quickly scanned the milling crowd, vainly trying to spy any empty seat at all.
Waitthere was one, next to a man who he swiftly calculated to be about his own age. He would have preferred someone of the opposite sex, but he supposed at six o'clock in the evening at a vastly crowded Chicago airport in a near-blizzard one couldn't have everything.
"This seat taken?" he asked the dark-haired man, gesturing at the chair.
"No. Feel free," was the response, in a deep voice that seemed to go with the dark, waved hair and the bright blue eyes. Evie, he supposed, would categorize him as a "fox," and he grinned pleasantly at the thought of her as he said thank you, set down his duffle, removed the stifling coat to arrange it over the usual hard airport seat as upholstery, and arranged his long-limbed form in the chair.
The dark-haired man went back to reading a magazine which he idly identified as the latest issue of a popular medical journal, and he fished the candy bar from his pocket along with his paperback and settled in for a good read himself. This was a science-based thriller by a newat least to himwriter named Crichton and he was soon absorbed in it.
Inevitably, the loudspeaker came to life again. "Attention, please! We are in need of a medical doctor at the lounge at the blue concourse. If you are a doctor can you please come to the Blue Concourse Lounge immediately?"
It had been some time since he'd traded in his sawbones training for forensic pathology, but he'd give it a crack. With practiced swiftness, he was on his feet, the book jammed back in his pocket and the coat over his arm, the duffel swinging from his arm, and when he turned toward the lounge he came eye-to-eye with the dark-haired man seated next to him, also on his feet, coat in hand, and what he realized now was a medical satchel in his hand.
"Excuse me," the dark-haired man said pleasantly, "but I'm going to try to help out at the lounge."
"I was heading there myself," he confessed.
The dark-haired man assessed him swiftly. "Funny, I wouldn't have pegged you for a doctor."
"Neither did my mother. She expected me to go into football," he said cheerfully as they parted the crowd on the way to the lounge.
Once there he deferred to his companion since he was carrying a cache of supplies. An Allegheny representative and one of the security guards were standing over an older woman who was crumpled on the carpet, her face pale, her breathing shallow.
"I think she's just fainted with all the stress," said the Allegheny representative, a businesslike blond woman with short cropped hair and a crisp voice, "but I wanted to make certain."
"We'll check her out," the dark-haired man agreed, and knelt down to do a preliminary examination. Finally he extracted a small vial of smelling salts from his bag and gently waved it under the woman's nose. She roused slowly and sputteringly, her dark eyes at first uncomprehending.
"Ma'am, how are you feeling now?" the dark-haired doctor asked. His voice had changed from brisk to bedside manner.
"A little dizzy," she admitted.
He was surprised when the dark-haired man gave waved him over. "Give me a hand, will you, doctor?" And then to the Allegheny woman, "Is there some place she can lie down?"
"Certainly, in here," and she gestured to an inner door.
He helped balance the older woman as they made their way into an inner room, furnished comfortably with several full-length plush sofas, wing chairs, and small tables in muted earth tones with a subtle colonial style, and assisted with reclining her on one of the sofas. Two men sitting in a corner smoking willingly vacated the room until the dark-haired man had finished checking out the patient, whose name was Amanda Mullins, on her way home after the Christmas holidays to Des Moines. She admitted to him that she had been very rushed in getting to the airport and had not eaten since breakfast.
"All your vitals seem good," the dark-haired man finally said briskly. "I think the best cure for you is a good meal with a quiet sit-down somewhere. No alcohol, please. Miss?" This addressing the Allegheny representative. "Could you possibly have Miss Mullins escorted to the restaurant of her choice?"
"I certainly could," the representative said, "I'll do it myself. Thanks so much, doctor."
He waited as the dark-haired doctor repacked his satchel. "Sounds like a good idea, actually."
"Yeah. Thinking of a steak and a brewski myself."
The dark-haired man laughed. "Now that doesn't sound British at all."
He was surprised. "I'm not British."
"Odd. I thought I picked up something in your accent."
"Probably the years rubbing off. I've been living 'across the pond' for nearly ten years. Bagged a Rhodes scholarship, got immersed in what I love and never came back. Well, except to visit my family in Duluth at Christmas, which explains why I'm stuck here at O'Hare rather than sinking back in a lovely chair somewhere with a lovely girl and a lovely Guinness."
The dark-haired man's laugh was so unexpected that he immediately revised his initial opinion, which had been wavering at the "establishment square" level. "So what field of medicine are you in?"
"I'm not, anymore, which is why I let you take the lead on Mrs. Mullins, although I'm not that rusty. Changed horses in midstream. Went into forensic anthropology after a short detour in pathology."
"You're in the D-Squad?" was the amused answer.
"Buddy of mine in college with a morbid sense of humor used to call them that, the forensic crowd and the coroners-in-training. D-Squad as in Dead."
"I don't just work on the dead," was his expansive answer. "I impart wisdom from beyond the grave from my first lovesmummies!"
"You're as crazy as my college friend."
"It's what happens when my blood sugar descends to new lows."
"Then why don't we both find a restaurant before you end up in the basement, if you deign to share a table with a mere medical doctor."
"I'll adjust," he said, throwing the duffel over his shoulder again.
Fifteen minutes later they were seated in the Michigan Steakhouse at the opposite end of the main concourse, having squeezed past tables where the moods wavered from indignant to resigned. Someone with a mad sense of "mod" had redecorated the place since his previous trip, with starburst drop lights dimmed over the multicolor paisley patterns of the upholstered chairs, and when the waiter arrived he noted that suits and ties had given way to gold turtleneck sweaters overlaid with long dark vests monogrammed with the Steakhouse logo. The waiter himself sported a handlebar mustache and a stud in his left earlobe. Almost puckishly he requested dark ale and was gratified when they had one; his dinner companion settled for a Pilsner.
Once their orders were in, he stretched in his seat, then thrust out his hand. "It just hit me that we've been talking for a half hour and I have no idea who I'm talking to. The name's Gynt."
"As in Peer?" the dark-haired man asked in amusement.
"No relation. The rest of it's worsemy first name is Hamlyn...as in the Pied Piper. My dad was an English professor. An English English professor, you might say, with a fondness for Browning and a scholarship."
"Who just happens to have ended up in Duluth, Minnesota?"
"Actually, no. Mom was from Duluth. She was a grad student. They met on the quad, and the rest is historyand me."
"Afraid my history isn't half so interesting. Locke, as in the philosopher. Simon as after my grandfather. Grew up near Boston, Harvard Med. Lately of Carstairs General Hospital."
The beer arrived and Gynt sipped his with satisfaction. "Lately?"
"You what?" Gynt lowered his mug in surprise and gave a low whistle. "Listen, I've heard legends about that place. Top hospital in the country, everyone wants to go there. It's like that Star Trek episode, you know-'You die, Keptin, and we all move up in rank.' Dr. Schweitzer couldn't have gotten in that place until someone croaked. And you made it and then you walked? Why?"
"It's hard to explain." Locke arched an eyebrow at him speculatively. "Why didn't you stay with medicine?"
Gynt leaned back, lacing his hands together at the back of his head. "Well, I love my fellow man, y'know. I'm not a recluse, I like parties, with good friends, and good music, I love a good rock concert. And I love diagnosis, hunting down the clues, finding out what's behind the person's illness." He frowned. "But I realized I didn't want to spend my days patting Susie over the head and asking her about her doll, or exchanging chit-chat with old Mrs. Jones." He looked soberly at Locke. "Patients deserve more than some guy like me who can't be bothered to ask how their husband is feeling or if their kid passed the fifth grade. Mummies don't talk, and I get the thrill of the chase. I figure it's better for me. Besides, I have an alternate gig I enjoy."
"And what's that?"
"I help solve crimes." Gynt grinned with satisfaction, waiting for his dinner companion's reaction and was rewarded when Locke gave him a startled look.
"Police consultant?" he then hazarded.
Unexpectedly, Gynt asked, "What was that you were reading when I sat down?"
Locke looked puzzled. "This month's issue of 'The American Journal of Medicine.'"
"What did you think of the guest article?"
"The-" Locke checked the journal. "'Social Status and Criminality' by Adam Strange. H. Gynt, MD, PhD. Are you telling me you work with this Adam Strange?"
"Well, I'm certainly not working for the Sorcerer Supreme," Gynt joked, and when Locke looked blank, he added, "C'mon, comic books, man. Marvel comics. Doctor Strange, the Sorcerer Supreme."
"By the time I was comic book age, I was reading my grandfather's medical books," Locke responded.
"You and Adam would hit it off properly," was the wry retort.
"Wasn't Strange instrumental in revealing the fraud going on in the Cypress Foundation a few years back? That was a damn shame; I gave money to them myself."
Gynt countered, "I'm not going down that particular rabbit hole. Besides, I haven't solved your mystery yet. Why does a devoted dude like you walk away from a job at Carstairs?"
To his irritation, their steaks, fragrant and steaming, with hot buttered mashed potatoes and sweet corn on the side, arrived at the table, and the next few moments were occupied with knife and fork clashing against the plate. After assuaging the worst of his hunger, Locke fished in the pocket of his dark coat and extracted a piece of paper to pass across the table.
"'Wanted,'" Gynt read after finishing a forkful of the potatoes. "'ambitious doctor for established rural practice...'" He read on silently, then whistled. "Dixon Mills? Sounds like a town from a song my folks would listen to. What's the deal?"
"I've talked to the resident physician, an older man named Sellers. He took over the practice over twenty years ago, and he's getting up in years. It's primarily a farming community, patients scattered over dozens of miles, chiefly house calls, afternoon clinics, and overnight emergency calls. As the community has expanded, it's getting harder for him to cover all his patients. Mainly he's having trouble keeping any younger partners because the town is so remote. As he put it, 'the young folks want the bright lights of the big city.'"
"I can see their point," Gynt confessed. "I like living in London. Always something going on. Concerts. Theatre. The Carnaby Street scene."
"Murders and mausoleums?" Locke asked archily as he speared a piece of steak.
"Conundrums," Gynt amended.
"Have it your way." Locke finished his piece of meat, then put down his knife and fork. "I got off on Carstairs at first. The doctors were top-notch, so were the nurses. The most up-to-date equipment. A board of directors that keep the hospital as up-to-date as possible. Everything a doctorand his patientcould want. And some real chances to practice medicine, to track down those conundrums of yours and make someone well. On Wednesdays and Fridays we'd have the free clinic. We had patients with conditions that the halls of Carstairs hadn't seen in years. I felt like I was making a difference.
"Then the 'people upstairs' noticed me. A good thing, right? I thought soat first. More challenges. Instead they started assigning me cases that would 'take me places.' The governor's wife. Miss 'Richley Wrinkled,' ancient local heiress. The congressman's son. Miss Richley used the hospital as her private spa. The governor's wife was neglected and got 'sick' to get some attention. The congressman's son was fried every Saturday night and I was expected to treat whatever mischief he'd gotten into and keep my mouth shut. When I wasn't treating non-patients, I was attending this conference or that testimonial. It was like being trotted around a Thoroughbred stud ring. I don't want to spout genial platitudes to a selfish old woman or pump the next round of fiscal contributors for funds, and it's useless for me to stand up at youth clubs that think the young men and young women will listen to me counsel them against smoking a joint or having premarital sex. I'm not a social worker, I'm not a cop, and I'm sure as hell not a professional fundraiser. I'm a doctor and I want to practice medicine."
He went back to his steak with such ferocity that Gynt was afraid he'd split the plate. After a few more mouthfuls of his meal and sips of beer his face had lost its intensity, and he was able to look up with a wry grin. "You asked, after all."
"Does your-" Gynt looked back down at the journal advertisement Locke had handed him before returning it. "Does your Dr. Sellers know about your temper?"
"I don't believe I mentioned it, no," Locke admitted. "I tried to project sincerity and professionalism."
His dinner partner laughed. "Well, that was certainly sincere. So assuming this storm lets up sometime in the next week, where do you go from here?"
"I fly to Detroit, then get on an interstate bus for a few hours that drops me off to pick up a county bus. Four hours from then I'll be in Dixon Mills." He gave Gynt a speculative look. "Think I'll make it or not?"
"The former," Gynt said, "by sheer force of will if necessary."
"Well," Locke said, gesturing at the window behind Gynt, "I don't think I'll have that long to wait. Take a look," and when Gynt turned in his seat to glance out the vast expanse of glass, he could see that the snow was already thinning out and the lights of the snowplows were flashing in unison as they began to sweep a barely visible runway.
"Better finish off our dinner then," Gynt said practically, and what conversation was left turned to football, both the American and the English versions, and Gynt was just presenting the waiter with his American Express card when the public address system blatted to life.
"Attention, please. This is a first boarding call for the following flights: American Flight 451 to Washington, DC, stopping in Philadelphia, Gate 14. TWA Flight 1703 to Los Angeles with stops at Omaha and Denver, Gate 25. Pan American Flight 692 to New York City connection to London, England, Gate 32..."
"That's me, I'm afraid," Gynt said, waving a hand at the waiter, who nodded and presently brought the receipt for him to sign and handed him the carbon. He returned the card to his wallet and methodically collected his coat, novel and newspaper returned to his pockets, and his duffel. Locke rose from his seat. "Looks like you'll be home in time for breakfast. Crumpets and tea?"
"And kedgeree, eggs and bacon to boot. You'll still be riding on a bus to Dixon Mills by the time I get breakfast. Better get prepared for the long haul."
Locke shrugged. "What could happen on a bus ride?" He offered Gynt his hand. "Enjoy your mummies, Dr. Gynt."
"And your medicine, Dr. Locke."
He left the camaraderie of the restaurant for the chaos of the main concourse, the jostling and the bustling of many shoulders headed for many gates. His mind was already back in the cadence of London: imagining Evie's face when she saw the crazy Christmas jumper he'd bought her, reminding himself to ask Adam about the headless corpse that had turned up in Battersea... Yes, he'd be glad to be back in the city. Still, he mused, a sleepy little place called Dixon Millsand soon among them Simon Locke...
"They won't know what hit 'em," he thought cheerfully before stepping on the escalator.