Author's Note: 10/2012 - I'm apparently tracking down whatever of my old fan fic I can find and archiving it here. I suspect this was written in the fall of 2003, under the pen name of AHR.
(Note: this story takes place around the time of the season 10 episode Out of Africa. It is slightly AU as the aired episodes will, I am sure, find some other means for Sam to make this discovery.)
"Has anyone seen Alex?" Sam burst into the lounge and directed her question at the room in general, regardless of whom she might be interrupting. Even starting a new job, she was not the sort to be cowed by the authority of doctors or to concern herself with the supposed obeisance of the nursing staff.
The low-lit room turned out to be empty except for Dr. Kovac, who sprawled on a stuffed chair by the lockers; head tilted back and eyes shut. His eyes flew open at her entrance, hazel green and blinking with confusion, his lashes long and dark against pale gaunt features.
For a moment, Sam's nurse's training kicked in and she thought he looked ill, but then she quickly turned annoyed as she remembered how Alex liked to tag along after Dr. Kovac, despite her orders not to. Everyone knew Kovac was working extra shifts; she'd heard rumors that he said he needed the money after coming back from some long trip. If Kovac had exposed her son to some bug because he was too concerned with his paycheck to think about others and stay home, well, she'd give him a piece of her mind!
But before she could, he rose wearily to his feet and shook his head. "He said he was going to find something to eat."
She nodded, turned back to the door. On impulse, she looked back over her shoulder. "If you're sick, you should go home," she said. "Don't infect the rest of us, especially my son, just because you have to pay off some vacation debts!"
He frowned, seeming puzzled at her words and the irritation in her tone. "I'm fine," he said, waving a hand in denial.
"Sure," she said. "You look fine," she added under her breath, "for a vampire…." That anemic pallor, that Slavic accent … if Alex ever came to the same whimsical conclusion, she'd never get him away from Kovac, she thought. The boy had an inexplicable curiosity for ghoulish things. Sam sighed and continued out the door on her quest. Her shift was over and she wanted nothing more than to find her wayward son, go home, and soak her cares away in a hot tub.
"What's that?" she demanded, as Alex looked up guiltily from where he sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by some of the contents of his book bag that had been haphazardly dumped on the rug. He had a miniature tape player in his lap, which he shut off as soon as she re-entered the living room.
"I thought you were taking a bath," he said defensively, as if it wasn't his fault he got caught; if she had done as she said they wouldn't have this situation right now.
Sam shook her head, not dignifying the protest with an explanation. "Where did you get that?"
"It was in the Lost and Found at the hospital," he answered. "I think it's one of those doctor's things – you know how they record their observations, like in the morgue during autopsies?"
Sam wrinkled her nose in disgust. "You're listening to an autopsy tape?"
"No – I mean – I've just seen them do that there and I think this was a doctor's too. It was at the end of the tape, and I re-wound it a little, and the guy talking on it said he was going to send the tape back with the patient since they didn't have any charts or anything. Now I'm rewinding it back to the beginning. Wanna listen?" Alex put on his most winsome smile as he hit the [rewind] button again.
Sam sank down on the floor next to her incorrigible son. Why couldn't he save the outrageous behavior for the weekend when she wasn't so exhausted? Then again, she was exhausted all the time. What single working mother wasn't? "First of all, mister," she said, frowning, "under no circumstances are you at liberty to go rooting around in the Lost and Found and it's certainly not okay to take things from there. This goes back tomorrow – clear?"
"Clear." Alex ducked his head, but then his face brightened with eager anticipation as the tape reached the beginning and came to a stop.
"And why would a Dictaphone be in the Lost and Found?" Sam added. She massaged the small of her back to relieve the ache caused by too many hours on her feet. "If it belongs to one of the doctors there, it would have been easy enough for them to find out who."
"Well, it was sorta not sitting out by itself," Alex admitted. "It was in the pocket of some old sweater." He reached into his school bag, pulled out the aforementioned sweater and sheepishly hand it to her. Before his mother could open her mouth to rebuke him further, his thumb found the [play] button and another voice was heard.
"Testing, one, two, three. Well, this seems to work fine." The accent was upper crust British. "It's October 2, 2003 at the clinic in Kisangani in the Congo and I've just arrived for my volunteer stint with the Alliance de Médecins Internationale. It's insufferably hot here. But quiet at the moment. So I'm kept busy sorting through a table full of medical supplies that have been donated by some hospital in the US, I believe. Quite an assortment – everything from mini-recorders to digital pulse oximeters to a microscope. Hang on – there's a Red Cross truck barreling up the road with some degree of apparent urgency…. I had better go see what it's all about."
Alex hit [stop]. "He doesn't sound like any of the doc's I've met at County. Does he to you?"
Foreign accents were common in the staff of all the hospitals in which Sam had worked – and County was no exception. But she had to admit that the only British accents she'd heard at County so far belonged to women and not men – the surgeon Dr. Corday and a medical student whose first name was Neela. She hadn't figured out Neela's last name yet. But no, no men with British accents. She shook her head.
"So I can keep it?" Alex's face lit up. If the tape really didn't belong to anyone at County….
"No." Sam's answer was firm. "This must belong to someone – we just don't know who yet."
Alex took that as an invitation to sleuth further and hit [play] again.
"I'm about to interview a young Congolese mother to obtain a medical history on the two patients that were brought in with her on the Red Cross truck. The first is a little girl, her daughter I'm told, who has apparently had a recent traumatic amputation of the right leg below the knee. She seems very shy and at first wouldn't speak to me at all. I had brought a Polaroid camera with me to Africa and so I took a picture of her sitting beside her mother and gave it to her, to watch being developed. That did the trick! She seems quite pleased now, and I think she'll cooperate. What's that?"
The tape stopped for a moment and then re-started.
"It seems they have the child's history already. Some of the staff here performed that amputation three weeks ago when the clinic at Matenda was attacked. I am to ask about the man they brought in, a white man. Appears to be in a coma. I don't know any more than that yet, except that he was at the same clinic three weeks ago and in apparent good health at that time."
The same voice continued then, but in French, asking pointed questions. A tired woman's voice answered in the same language. Behind them were the murmurs and bustle of several people apparently evaluating the patient. Sam strained to make out the English words in the background.
"Damn, his temp's 104! He wasn't that hot when we found him." (Found him? Sam wondered. An interesting choice of words.) The speaker was male; his accent was American. "Niven, what's the woman say? How long has he been sick?"
The Congolese mother finished her explanation in French and Dr. Niven reported to the others, translating her simple description into the terminology he would use himself.
"She says the patient exhibited signs of general malaise and headache first, lasting a couple days, followed by fever and shaking chills. This was perhaps as long as three weeks ago. "
Another short round of questions and answers followed in French. Niven translated the story into the recorder, raising his voice slightly for the others to hear.
"The Mai Mai – that is, rebel soldiers - came with guns and everyone in the clinic fled into the jungle. The patient carried this little girl, but collapsed with exhaustion when they reached safety this time. This time?"
Another sally back-and-forth in French took place.
"The clinic came under fire twice while she was there. The first time was when her daughter Chance was injured and as soon as the surgery was finished, your patient here ran with the girl in his arms to safety. By the time the clinic was attacked again, he had fallen ill and staggered as he carried Chance away from the fighting. They spent the night in the jungle. It rained hard. He shook with fever all night. Patrique – one of the clinic staff? – argued with him to take quinine, but the patient refused. The woman believes that he intended the medicine be used for a sick boy in their party instead."
More dialogue ensued in French.
"In the morning his fever was reduced but he was very weak. The others, except Patrique, herself and her daughter, had left. The rest were apparently afraid of what the Mai Mai would do if they were caught together. Madame, did the fever return?"
Niven caught himself and repeated the question in French.
The woman continued and even Sam, who spoke no French, could pick out the word "malaria". She realized that the word must be the same in French, and that in the Congo, everyone knew that periodic fevers were usually malaria.
"Niven, what else have you got for us?" The American barked impatiently from what was probably across the room.
Sam tried to envision what the clinic facilities in Kisangani would be like. Not like the ER at County, she supposed, with the new high-tech security in place to isolate the waiting patients and families in chairs from the trauma rooms.
"She says the paroxysms came at irregular intervals – chills, fever, sweating – lasting up to 12 hours. Sometimes he would sleep, exhausted, for 12 hours and when he woke, the cycle would start again."
"Crap," the American said. "Less than 48 hours between fever spikes."
Yet another accent chimed in - a woman's voice, in a cultured accent, authoritative and terse.
"Looks like plasmodium falciparum then – or could be multiple malaria strains that include falciparum. That is the most malignant strain we see here," she added for the new doctor's education. "Untreated for two weeks - there could be damage to the brain, lungs, kidneys, spleen. " She paused. "Yes," she added, "the spleen is enlarged."
"Start an IV…"
"Wait. If he's had quinine already there is an increased risk for blackwater fever. Ask the woman what treatment he has already had first."
Niven's voice returned on the tape. The Congolese mother replied and Niven translated for those on the treatment team that didn't speak French.
"When the others left them in the jungle – that was – two weeks ago? Maybe 15 days? There was one IV bag left, with whatever they had been using to treat the young boy who had malaria. Patrique was finally allowed to administer that to your patient."
The Congolese woman chattered on in French. While she did, Alex asked, "What do you think happened to Patrique? He was with them in the jungle; did he come back with them in the truck?"
"I don't know – sssh."
Niven's voice had returned.
"The child's mother says he didn't get much of the quinine; they were captured by the Mai Mai soon after. The patient was struck by one of the soldiers and lost consciousness. The IV was yanked out."
"We should never have left him there," the American doctor murmured, with tightly controlled anguish.
"He would not leave. We tried, John. There was nothing more we could do." The tone was soft, resigned; a woman's voice with a French-Canadian accent.
The African woman did not wait for further questions. She seemed to understand that they needed to know what had happened to the man, so that they could treat him effectively. French words flew out in a torrent.
"She says that the Mai Mai then brought more prisoners to the clinic. They took the men one by one to a tent for questioning and they beat them."
The tape continued rolling while Niven and the woman he was interviewing fell silent. There was a murmur of voices from where Sam imagined a gurney stood.
"Tenderness on the rib cage, here – but no displaced fractures." It was the American – John - speaking. A pause. "What's this?"
"Those scars are old," the woman with the Québécois accent answered. "From a different war. Let me clean up this dried blood here and see…. "
"I don't see any fresh bruises," the American called out after a moment. "Damn, I wish I could have fit a portable x-ray in my carry-on! Ask her if she saw any specific… um … physical abuse?"
Niven spoke to the woman, who remained quiet for several seconds before answering. When she did speak, the answer was short.
"No, they took her to a different tent during the interrogation," Niven said.
Sam paled and shut her eyes, understanding. She hoped Alex did not.
"But the beatings only took place the first day they were captured," Niven continued his translation. "The second day, the Mai Mai executed all the other prisoners."
No one spoke for a moment. Finally, the American doctor stammered out the question that was on everyone's minds.
"Why …? What happened …?"
The mother of the crippled girl answered in her rapid-fire French. At one point, Niven asked her to speak more slowly; he wasn't fluent. When she finished, he translated into the tape.
"She thinks it was two weeks ago that all the other prisoners were killed. She says Patrique was kneeling next to the doctor when he was shot in the head." Niven paused, added under his breath, "The patient is one of the doctors here? Oh, I see! He must have remained behind at Matenda with the patients who couldn't be moved." Then he continued translating. "Other prisoners were dragged to the main tent to be executed. The doctor's fever and chills had returned. By the time he was the last one left, she thinks he may have become delirious. He was praying, but did not seem to know where he was. At least, he seemed unaware of the soldiers surrounding him; he did not answer them when they spoke to him. Because he was praying, and wore a cross, and seemed at peace with his fate, the soldiers asked if he was a priest. He did not answer, but this woman told them that he was. She told them that they couldn't kill a man of God."
"That explains a lot," the American said. "Start quinidine IV 20 megs per kilo, with 5% dextrose. Do we have any doxycycline?"
"No, not until the next shipment arrives."
More French words streamed from the African woman, and ended with a child's voice asking a question.
"The woman reports that since then, the Mai Mai have left them alone. They got a little food; a little water. The doctor has been unable to eat much. In between fevers he had been lucid and he promised the child he would help her get a prosthetic limb when she was sufficiently recovered. But two days ago he suffered a seizure and he has been unresponsive since." He paused. "The little girl, Chance, asks if he will recover?"
The answer came from the doctor called Angelique.
"If this has degenerated into cerebral malaria, there is a complete recovery in 50% of cases and a partial recovery in another 25% of cases. It is fatal the remaining 25% of the time."
Soft footsteps sounded as the French-Canadian nurse stepped closer to the recorder.
"No, Angelique! We won't tell a little girl that!" She turned toward the little group around the microphone. "Chance? Le docteur va mieux. Il va mieux."
"She says he will get better," Niven added for the benefit of whoever might one-day listen to the tape.
"Not if we don't get him to better medical facilities," Angelique said. "As soon as he is stable, we need to transfer him to the hospital in Kinshasa."
"I can do better than that," the American said. "I'll make arrangements to medivac him back to Chicago."
Sam felt her ears perk and knew Alex's did too. "Back to Chicago?" Maybe the mystery of the owner of the tape would be revealed after all.
"Carter? You can do that?"
"I know somebody who knows somebody."
Alex hit [stop]. "There is a locker labeled Carter in the doctors' lounge," he said. "Suppose that's who the American doctor on the tape is?"
Sam shrugged. "But he's on leave of some sort, at least I think that's what I've heard. And you're not supposed to go in the doctors' lounge."
"So if he's on leave, maybe it's 'cause he went to Africa?"
"Alex, I just started working at County. I don't know much about anybody yet." She sighed. "But the point is, if he's not back from his leave yet, what's the Dictaphone recorder doing here?"
"Only one way to find out," Alex answered and hit [play] again.
The recording had obviously stopped and been re-started later.
"It seems the patient is now stable enough to be moved. Dr. Carter has indeed made arrangements to fly him all the way back to Chicago. I originally began this tape so there would be some medical record to accompany him – I still can't get used to the fact that they don't chart any patients here. But it seems now that Gillian – one of the nurses – will be accompanying him on his journey, so the tape will probably not be needed. But I'll send it along with her just in case. She could be delayed at Customs or something; in this climate of heightened security one never knows. The little girl, Chance, asked that I give the photo of her and her mother to Gillian for him too. It seems our patient was the doctor who performed the surgery on Chance while the clinic was under attack and that he remained in the war zone to care for her. She says her mother gave the doctor the cross he now wears, and she wanted to give him something too.
"So I'll shut this tape off now and give the whole thing to Gillian to take care of. It occurs to me that I never even learned our patient's name! But now there are more patients arriving who need medical care, and that is what I came for, so I guess I'd best be going."
The tape ended.
"Who's Gillian?" Alex asked. "Think the tape belongs to her?"
"I haven't met anyone named Gillian. Tomorrow we take the tape – and the sweater – back to the Lost and Found. Maybe when this Dr. Carter comes back, we can ask him about it then."
Alex knew he was getting off lightly. His mom was no doubt distracted by the contents of the tape or she'd have come up with some punishment for his "borrowing" something from the Lost and Found. He figured he'd better make himself scarce before it occurred to her that some disciplinary action might be in order, so he jumped to his feet. "Okay. Night, Mom!" he called over his shoulder and disappeared into his room.
Sam sat still on the floor and sank her head into her hands, thinking of the soft-spoken African woman and the story she had told on the tape. They were both single mothers. Their children were perhaps close in age. She couldn't help but picture herself in the other woman's place - her only child crippled; maimed by artillery; herself captured by enemy soldiers; not knowing each day whether their torment would end with their death…. Alex may be a handful, she thought; her job stress might seem though the roof sometimes. But maybe she should stop feeling sorry for herself. She was safe. Her son was safe. She didn't want to imagine the horrors of living in a war zone.
But she couldn't help it. It took a long time to fall asleep that night.
The next day Sam clocked in and headed directly for the Lost and Found. She felt in the sweater pocket to make sure the micro-recorder hadn't fallen out, but checked the wrong pocket first and her fingers felt a flat square object that she immediately identified without seeing. It must be the Polaroid that Niven had mentioned.
She pulled it out and a shadow passed across it as someone tall walked up behind her.
"Where did you get a picture of Chance and her mother?" Dr. Kovac asked, smiling with pleasure at the photo. He reached to take it from her hand, to examine it more closely, and for one second, Sam wondered how he could possibly recognize a family that had surely never left the Congo. And in the next second, everything became clear to her.
The rumors that Kovac had been away on a long trip – that he needed extra money now – the voice on the tape saying that, in lucid periods between fevers, the doctor promised to help Chance get a prosthetic limb – and Sam's own callous remark the night before about Kovac's selfish vacation debts.
Sam thought that perhaps she knew now the secret reason he was working extra shifts to make more money. Feeling chagrinned at her behavior toward him, she looked down and found herself staring at the photo of a solemn African girl curled in her mother's protective embrace. The dark red marks on their clothing, she realized, were bloodstains. Chance's blood. And perhaps some of the blood was Luka's too.
"It was – um – in a pocket in this sweater," Sam stammered. "Alex was exploring in the Lost and Found and…."
Luka's gaze fell to the garment. "Gillian thought she lost that at one of the airports," he said, remembering. "She had a lot to deal with at the time…." He paused; seeming to realize that Gillian had left Chicago before Sam had arrived at County. Sam wouldn't have any idea what he was talking about.
Sam shoved the sweater into his hands. "Look, I gotta go – my shift is starting," she said. "I just – I – well, I'm glad to see you're looking better."
Luka smiled. "I wasn't contagious, don't worry," he said, "Just a little anemic."
He didn't offer to explain. He wasn't the sort to talk about himself much, she realized. He fell into step beside her, shortening his long stride, as they headed toward the nurse's station. Sam flushed with anger at herself for jumping to conclusions and for treating him rudely. And that made her feel defensive and then irritated with Alex again for being responsible for her short temper and ultimately she ended up annoyed with Dr. Kovac for discovering this impatient and quick-to-judge side of her personality.
It's not really his fault, she sighed to herself.
"Look," she said, as he turned away from her to update the admissions board. She stepped up closer to him, to offer an apology away from the prying ears of the desk clerks nearby. "I'm sorry I was a little rough about you and Alex…."
The difference in their height was dramatic at this close proximity. "No, it's okay, I understand," Luka answered, dropping his head to meet her eyes. His black hair fell unruly across his brow. His eyes looked sad, she decided, but also kind. "I'll be leaving for Africa again soon anyway," he added, "so I won't cause you any more problems." Before either of them could say any more, a pair of EMTs burst through the ambulance bay doors with a patient covered with blood, and they both turned to help.
As Sam watched Kovac in action, she found herself wondering what other mysteries lay behind the Croatian doctor's calm, professional but reserved demeanor. There was something in those eyes that hinted at unexplored depths.
And, turning to the patient reluctantly, she found herself a little sorry that she would probably never have a chance to find out.
~ end ~