Roughly two decades later:
Saunders, now a police detective, went to see an old messmate, Lieutenant Fred Parker, in a VA hospital in San Francisco.
As he was about to enter his room a very young, dark-haired nurse kept him back. "Excuse me, Sir, would you like to visit Lt. Parker?"
"Yes - or is he not well enough to have visitors?" Saunders asked concerned.
"No, no, he is doing just fine; he will be able to leave tomorrow. But there is a second patient in this room, a Marines officer.
He arrived only the day before yesterday from Vietnam. The man has a back injury and I suppose he hardly got a wink of sleep last night.
He needs rest now. Please, keep your voices low, or perhaps you take Lt. Parker down to the cafeteria."
"I will, thanks for telling me."
Yet when Saunders opened the door, he heard that there already was some noise: Fred Parker was standing at the other officer's bed, annoyed.
"What's the matter with you? Do you think that being a Marine means you have to play hero? You think you're better than everybody else, right?"
The man in the bed seemed to be quite tall. He was lying on his stomach.
His clenched fists lay besides his head and his slim body looked tensed up.
Why did Parker yell at somebody who was obviously in pain? "Fred, what the heck…?"
Hearing his voice, both men turned their heads towards him.
The tall patient looked somehow familiar to Saunders… what was it?
The guy threw him a quizzical look.
"I'm sorry, do I know you?"
"What's your name?"
Immediately Saunders remembered where he had seen the brown puppy dog eyes in this clean-cut face.
The Marine was none other than the little boy whose life he had saved many years ago.
He was still no muscleman, but wiry and well-toned; he seemed to be in quite a bad shape though.
"Ed Brown!" With a few long strides Saunders reached the bed. For a few seconds he looked down at the patient, then at Lt. Parker.
"Fred, what's the problem here?"
"No problem, Saunders." Parker's voice did not sound convincing though.
"Come on, Fred, you know me. Don't try to fool me. Don't try."
Parker gave in. "Okay, the problem is that Mr. Marine here has to demonstrate that he is a tough guy!" he shouted angrily.
A flash went through Saunders' memory: A small boy insisting that his friend be saved first and therefore forcing him into risking his life – the exhaustion, because he had to go back to get Ed - the horrible moments when he had almost drowned – incredible fear and pain…
Never had he thought of it that way before, after all Ed had only been a child.
Could the brave child have grown into a boastful man?
Fred ranted on: "He thinks that he is superior to people needing painkillers. Too bad that nobody seems to notice!"
For a second Saunders was confused. He hardly recognized Ed as the man Fred tried to picture, and he didn't recognize Lt. Fred Parker at all.
What had happened to him in Vietnam to let him become that bitter and mean?
"Fred, I know this man. I can't believe that he hurt you enough to deserve being treated by you like this."
Fortunately, the door opened again and Fred's brother entered.
Fred turned around. "Come on, Sam!" he said unexpectedly for Saunders, "Let's leave these two old bosom-buddies to their old memories. I'm thirsty."
Together the Parker brothers left for a beer.
Saunders shook his head in disbelief, then he turned his attention back to the Marine.
"Ed, do you recognize me?" he asked softly.
Saunders laid his hand on his arm. It was covered with a thin layer of sweat. "What was this all about? Is it true that you are refusing painkillers?"
He had to wait until the officer managed an answer.
"Some guys - become addicted - to them. Don't wanna - take a chance."
Sounders' thoughts somersaulted. He pulled a chair to the bed and sat down astride it.
"Lemme get this straight, young man. You aren't just talking about guys in general. You mean - Lt. Parker is an addict?"
"You've said that, not me."
Thoughtfully Saunders ran a hand through his hair. Things fitted well together, too well: Fred had indeed acted like an addict.
Ed was right: a man could get into drugs quite easily, especially in Vietnam, where medication was often better available than adequate treatment.
Since Brown was most probably quite a bright fellow he might have found out about Parker having a drug problem.
Yet it was understandable that he did not want to denounce a fellow officer.
It was bad for the Marine though that he overreacted by refusing what he needed to get well.
"Ed, do you still trust me?"
Surprise showed in the brown eyes. Slowly the patient nodded.
"I will help Fred Parker without mentioning you. But let me talk to a doctor about your medication first."
Another nod followed, although less convinced.
Saunders found the doctor in charge in the doctors' lounge.
"He refused the morphine when we wanted to give him a shot the day he arrived. Instead I gave him some pills… no, wait… Lt. Parker was in the hallway and said that he would take them to his roommate. Maybe they never even reached the right patient. Perhaps I should have taken notice when the nurse said that the boy had not eaten anything in two days… I'm afraid we have to notify the police if Lt. Parker really did steal the drugs."
Saunders looked out of the window without seeing anything.
Poor Fred, he thought. He had not chosen to become injured and addicted to medication in Vietnam. Perhaps he hoped getting hold of more painkillers if Ed complained about needing them.
And poor Ed, who'd had the misfortune to become his roommate.
"No. I'm a police officer myself. Let me handle the legal part. Yours is relieving Brown's pain and providing professional help for Parker's drug problem."
"I will take care of that immediately."
When Saunders came back to Ed's and Fred's room he found the Lieutenant bending over the Marine's bed.
"Where do you hide them? Where do you hide them?" he kept repeating under his breath.
"Hey, what are you doing?" asked Saunders.
Stepping closer he saw that Parker was shaking Ed roughly – didn't he know what he did to the man with his back injury?!
"Fred, knock it off!"
Parker didn't react. He was trembling, but his hands grasped the weakened man's shoulders as he tried to get him to tell where he had hidden his painkillers.
Saunders recognized a cold turkey when he saw one. Words would not help.
Forcefully he started to pull Fred's hands away from the helpless victim.
Fred fought the police officer with unexpected vigor. Saunders needed all his strength to get him away without hurting Ed any further and then restrain his attacker.
When Parker felt that Saunders gained the upper hand, he wrest himself free and fled. It sounded as if he bumped into a serving trolley.
Saunders didn't care about the ruckus out in the hallway.
Ed had grabbed the frame of his bed with both hands. His fists were closed so tightly that his knuckles turned white. His eyes were squeezed shut and he was gasping for air.
Someone came into the room. Saunders heard a cry. He glanced towards the door.
For a moment the dark-haired nurse stood there like petrified. "Oh my G… hang on, Sir, I'll get a doctor!"
Seconds later Saunders let two of the men in white coats and an older nurse take his place at the officer's bed.
In a few words he explained what had happened then he let the staff do their job.
When he came out into the hallway Anne Carson, the young nurse, was still standing there, trembling, tears running over her face. Sympathetically he pulled her into a hug. His broad shoulders were what she needed right now. "Easy, does it. He'll be fine, don't you worry."
After quite a while she broke away and tried to dry her tears. "I'm sorry, Sir. It's just… they did not believe me when I said that something was wrong… and he needed help so badly… and I didn't know what to do…"
"It's all right. I understand."
"I have to go back to work now. Thank you, Sir. For everything."
Saunders went back into Ed's room. Fred's personal belongings were being removed. The poor guy would have to be moved to the psychiatric department.
Brown rested on his side. An IV provided him with what he needed.
Saunders noticed that he was breathing steadily now. The angular face was still pale, and his eyes a little glassy, but for the first time he seemed to be relaxed. The medication had taken effect.
"How are you?"
"Fine." This had to be an outright lie, but it was what Saunders had hoped to hear.
"Ed, did you notice right away that Lt. Parker was abusing drugs?"
The Marine nodded.
"Why didn't you tell anybody that you had not got any medication? Why on earth?"
"How could I without blowing the whistle on him?" Finally Brown was capable of voicing an entire sentence in a row, although his voice was only a whisper.
"Well, I can understand that, although it isn't much more reasonable than not wanting to be rescued in that tunnel, remember?"
Ed's parents had kept all the newspaper articles about that explosion.
Much later he had understood how much pressure he had put on Saunders. The man could have lost his life because of him…
But he was still not ready to accept that the life of a handicapped child should be worth less than anybody else's.
And he was sure that Saunders felt the same way.
"You'd have gone back anyway, wouldn't you?"
Saunders grinned. It was true. "Is Lenny still alive?"
"No, but he lived to see his 25th birthday – a wonderful person spreading joy and laughter over everybody around him."
"That's what you needed, joy and laughter, right?"
Ed Brown seemed to be a rather earnest young man. But since he looked quite embarrassed Saunders dropped the topic.
"It looks as if you did the workout I recommended to you."
For the first time a smile went over Ed's face. "Yes, I did, and I also went to college. My hero, my shining example was right all along."
To Saunders it felt quite special to have been someone's hero without even knowing it. "What do you intend to do when you get out of here? They won't send you back to 'Nam."
"I would like to join the police. I want to protect the weak and the helpless, if not as a soldier, then in law enforcement." Meanwhile he had realized that Saunders was a police officer. "After that I'll make my own choices, I promise."
His smile became wider and made him look very young and boyish.
It would have been strange if… "Hey, there has already been made a choice without asking me, right? What is she like?"
The pale patient blushed right up to the ears. "Pretty, slim, dark-haired…a nurse…"
"… and her name is Anne*, right? Extremely nice girl. Invite me to your wedding!"
"How'd you guess?! But up to now I have never even talked to her. She may say no."
"There's only one way to find out."
*We know from the series "Ironside" that Anne didn't say no. For more see episode 3.26 "Tom Dayton is Loose Among Us".
Thank you again, "Hamlette" and "Jodm", for your big help!