Chapter One: The Remarkable Love of Vincent Campello

Chapter 1

Shiloh, City of Refuge

New Tejas Territory

February 12, 2044, before sunrise

Vincent Campello listened to two solid hours of the Righteous Brothers Greatest Hits the morning he kidnapped Carolyn Martin. He didn’t worry much about housekeeping or changing sheets—plenty of time for that later. The rabbits kicking around his stomach might be something like the Christmas Eve jitters he’d heard so much about. Never celebrated the holiday once in his extended life so no way to be certain.

He leaned against the fireplace mantle during Unchained Melody and stared at the humpback clock, smiling at something far away, then pushed off to finish chores. Pending abductions aside, the chickens need out to freerange, regardless.

Back inside, he shaved his head and beard, showered twice to kill time and applied Jovan’s Musk for Men, her favorite. Eleven minutes he spent staring in the medicine cabinet mirror wondering if today Carolyn might actually remember him.

###

Liberty, Texas

Dayton General Hospital

February 12, 2044

6:18 am

The oncology ward at Dayton General never bustled but this morning, it possessed the early morning desertion typical with a staff glued to vid-screens instead of bedsides. Vincent looked at the skeletal figure, folded on the bed amidst twisted sheets and saw only his beloved. Her body, broken by eighty-four years chained to crippling expectations, sixty of those underwater with a tyrannical  nightmare, now lay decimated by this final enemy, the tumor eating away her gut.

Carolyn never begged. She never asked twice. The tremor in her voice that morning almost broke him. Was it only five weeks ago? She waited on her sofa, Lord only knows how long, hands folded, knuckles strained white, requesting this one favor—his silence.

He made the call while she watched from the couch.

She wanted to stay home, to die alone like a cat curled up under the back porch step and expire without notice. Of all the countless things he could give her, this he could not. The passing of a princess  requires fanfare, an audience, a royal procession. She’d get that and more when the time came, but he had no intention of allowing her to slip outside his reach to the land of shadows. Not yet.

And when she finally left Liberty, the whole town was going to hear about it.

This morning, Carolyn lay still as death. He tensed, leaning in to check her pulse. The thready rhythm telegraphed hope beneath his fingers, sending the message loud and clear to stop with the theatrics already and complete the mission. He relaxed and allowed the hand to linger, caressing the curve between neck and shoulder. Like a holographic image, his gaze shifted between the body she occupied and the woman he cherished. Her eyelids fluttered, then opened to stare at the concrete wall beside her bed.

“I’m still here.”

Vincent smiled. She said the same thing every morning. “Not for long.”

She turned to her back and looked upward, catching Vincent’s gaze, then relaxed against the pillow. “You think God’s busy? Maybe He’s off creating a universe or something—”

“Never too busy to rescue a princess.”

Carolyn’s eyes narrowed. Her lips quivered, just a touch. “You remind me of someone.”

“Do tell.”

“His name was Vincent. Like yours.”

The big man squatted beside the hospital bed, just low enough to look her in the eye. He ran a hand over his head, worrying the stubble and grinned. “Tell me about him.”

Carolyn stretched toward Vincent and grabbed the rail. She rolled toward him, pulling with an arm liable to break any minute, every agonizing inch punctuated with a low groan.

Vincent winced and forced himself to let her alone. To move is to fight. To fight is to stay this side of eternity. Hard to remember sometime pain isn’t the real enemy.

Carolyn kept a tight grip on the rail and waved one finger in Vincent’s direction. “Served his country in ‘Nam. You’re way too young to remember and don’t you go listening to those revised history feeds, worse than useless.” She grimaced, closing her eyes tight against the pain, then looked up again. “Our country treated them shameful. Spit on them, called them baby killers.”

“So I heard.”

“His buddies came by the house all the time. Said he did big things, saved fifteen men in a rice paddy, single-handed. A real hero.”

Vincent’s grin stretched, taking off for his ears before getting lost in the crinkles. Three men, one stray dog and the only rice in that village rode around in their bellies. “And where’s he keeping himself these days?”

“Probably gone on to Glory by now.”

“And did you like him some?”

“Some.” She smiled, her face folding along the perforated creases. “Once upon a time I loved him very much.”

Vincent leaned over the rail and stroked her face. “Carolyn—”

A convulsion contracted her features. She closed her eyes and sunk into herself, silent. Once she told him that when the pain arrived with reinforcements, she left to go window shopping in New York City, just her and a white poodle on a black leather leash covered in rhinestones, checking out the season’s hats in the Macy’s department store window. A 40’s style fishtail skirt and sky-high leather pumps and her feet never hurt a bit.

He leaned back on his heels and reached over the rail for her hand. It looked lost in his. He stroked the worn skin from wrist to fingertips until her face unclenched. Her eyes opened, staring toward the ceiling.

Vincent checked his watch. The quicker he moved, the sooner her pain ended for good. “Can you hear me?”

Her eyes never wavered from the ceiling.

“Rein in Fifi half a minute, princess.”

She turned her face to his but from her expression, she probably saw the doorman. “You remember what I told you yesterday? About the treatment.”

She smiled vaguely, no answer.

“When I get back, we’re going to blow this joint, you and me. You’ll need to say goodbye to your girls, hear me?”

Her eyelids fluttered down, then reopened to see him once again for the first time that morning.

“Princess?”

“I’m still here.”

Vincent sighed and scanned her face for any sign of recognition. He caressed her hair, letting the sterling strands fall through his fingers, then squeezed her hand before heading out to commit his first felony of the morning.

###

The main nurse’s station stood deserted. By 6:30 every morning, nurses and aides gathered near vid-stations across the oncology wing to give report to the incoming shift and curse the vid-charts. Sylvia Rodriguez stood by her screen, shifting the textboxes and chart sections floating around the display, trying to organize the mess masquerading as a patient’s chart into something vaguely coherent. Her feet hurt and she sure wasn’t in the mood for the usual morning gossip.

At sixty-two, she remembered paper charts. She remembered IT techs promising reduced workload and a paper-free workplace. She remembered how she almost quit and signed on with a shrimp boat.

Those idiots doubled her work, tying her to a display for hours on end, ensuring job security for themselves and their kind forevermore. A paper cut sounded pretty good right about now.

The young nurseling before her, fresh from virtual academy, oozed high tech savvy and lack of common sense. Probably never changed a bedpan in his short life. James Allen Kazinsky, fresh off the train from Michigan. Immigrants. Ought to be a law, keep the borders closed and these Yankees up north where they belong.

The screen showing Ms. Martin’s medical record blipped. The stupid thing kept recentering. Nurse Rodriguez blinked hard, then dropped her jaw, giving it a good waggle back and forth to relax the facial muscles. She shook her head, trying to get a better look at the display.

“Ms. Carolyn Martin, age eighty-three—no, make that eighty-four as of today. Well, that’s just great, isn’t it?”

“I’ll order up a cupcake.” James looked over the older nurse’s shoulder. He poked the screen and brought up the room feed. “Mind?”

“Keep to half the display. There’s nothing interesting.”

“Who’s this?” He pulled up a half screen of large orderly leaning over the bedside of Ms. Martin.

Sylvia squinted at the display. “Probably Campello. Nice man, visits a lot. We should all be so lucky.”

“Nice? Never heard that word and Campello in the same sentence before.” He shifted around, glancing at the screen, then down the hall toward his patient’s room. “Surly, angry, dangerous—and that’s just the PG list.”

“Don’t forget sexy beast.”

“So says the hematology contingent.” He looked back at the screen and shuddered. “So what’s he doing in Ms. Martin’s room so early?”

Nurse Rodriguez shrugged. Not relevant, not interested. She stabbed the screen, closing the vid-feed, and clearing the cache per protocol. James could spy later on his own shift.

“Widowed white female, diagnosis stage four, advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. Scheduled for rad treatment this morning, bright and early.” Under her breath, she mumbled, “And a very happy birthday to you, Ms. Martin.”

She smacked the screen. The display blipped again, a cascading window filled the display, then winked out. “Holy Mother of Mercy, I hate these things.”

James reached around her and touched the lower right corner, bringing up the next screen.

She grunted. “Vitals stable, blood pressure trending lower since admittance.”

“I can read the screen.”
“Would you pipe down? This is how grownups give report in Real World.”

She pulled up the medication records. The screen flashed off completely, then reloaded of its own accord. Nurse Rodriguez ran a hand over her eyes and blinked hard. “Ms. Martin received her last dose of morphine at eleven fifty seven yesterday evening and has not requested her next dose.”

He looked over her shoulder.

“It says here she had ten milligrams at 6:32 this morning.”
She gave the screen a double take. “Then the chart’s wrong.”

“But it says—”

“—we were both standing right here at 6:32. The chart’s wrong.” She swiped at the screen again.

“With all due respect, you must’ve given her dose at some point. That’s your e-sig, right? The record updates automatically when the med’s checked out—”

“Don’t you think I know that?”

“—so either you gave her last dose or you checked it and—”

“Don’t even go there.”

“I was only saying—”

“Enough already!” Thirty-seven years, never took so much as a paperclip home and now some Yank has the nerve to suggest she stole a dying woman’s pain meds? Unbelievable.

Last night strained the boundary between legitimate work and slave labor. Two deaths and all the resultant red tape plus clean up. Fell asleep at the desk more than once, nodding off over the latte intended to prevent such things from happening. And that Campello came by just about the time she opened the narcotics cabinet and hung around to chat. What time was that? She gave Mr. Emberly his Valium, and Mrs. Chan her stool softener, and Ms. Martin’s room was right next door. . .

Terrific.

Sylvia switched to the next screen. Not like Ms. Martin ever asked for anything anyway. Always, that daughter of hers, the one with the spiked purple hair and the sagging dragon tattoo, standing by the desk bellowing out orders.

She switched over to the next screen and closed the subject.

###

Liberty, Texas

Dayton General Hospital

7:07 am

The waiting area near Carolyn Martin’s room stank of feet. The sourdough smell turned Brittany’s stomach long before the second cup of coffee had its way with her gizzard. Of course, dealing with Allison might have something to do with the sad state of Brittany’s digestive tract. Allison, the oldest and most upright of the Martin Klan was already halfway through her morning sermon.

“. . . life is sacred. You heard the doctor. He said she could have another six months.”

“And you believe everything the doctor says? They’ll say anything to avoid a family skirmish.” Brittany Nicole Martin ran a hand through the purple hair sticking straight up from her forehead. She looked over her bifocals at her older sister, fixing her with the Look of Doom perfected over sixty years of sisterhood. “Did you even look at her this morning? Color’s gone, barely catch a breath. Good grief, Allison. Why put her through all this?”

“Six months is six months. Time to amend her will, time to say goodbye to the grands, time to pray for your sorry soul.” Allison folded her hands, arranging them wedding band outward facing her wayward sister. “But then maybe you don’t want that.”

“Whoever gave you power of attorney ought to be drawn and quartered—”

“Let’s see—yes indeed, that would be mom.” Allison raised her unplucked eyebrows in a flourish of moral triumph, drat her sorry hide. “My decision’s final.”

“For heavenly days you two sound like toddlers squabbling over Hospice Barbie.” That would be Tara, the youngest, coming in right on cue playing her scripted role as peacekeeper. “Allison? Mom made it clear she doesn’t want any more treatment, we all heard.” She turned to Brittany. “Mom gave Allison power of attorney for reasons lost in the mist of the geriatric mind, but there it stands regardless. You two keep fighting over this, she’ll stubborn up and you know it.”

Brittany glared across the hospital lounge at Allison, cemented to her self-righteous pedestal. She’d thump the Good Book at every opportunity, even knowing mom got whacked in the process. And Tara—she wasn’t much better with her high dollar husband and her overachieving kids and her golf club membership. Perfect mom, perfect grandmother with an imperfect past. Mom’s illness was Life Interuptus in over-scheduled territory.

“How about we let treatment proceed today and see how she handles it. Easy enough to decide from there.” Tara looked at Brittany. “Agreed?”

Brittany nodded without speaking. Unless she found a way not to care, her oldest sister would hide behind her sanctity of life clause until mom lay gasping in agony, glowing with a radioactive halo of holiness.

Allison leaned forward and snatched a magazine from the table. “I don’t see changing my mind. Once you’re gone you’re gone.” She glanced again at Tara. “But I’ll give it due consideration.”

Silence boiled over with years of thrown hairbrushes and borrowed-without-permission shirts. Sorry lot—an oldest daughter, pillar of the community, Pharisee among Pharisees flipping magazine pages at a middle daughter, tattoos blazing, wearing ex-husbands like a vest. And a fifty-eight year old perpetual cheerleader just wanting to be somewhere—anywhere—else.

Brittany swallowed back a smile, letting the irony nourish her insides like breakfast.

From the edge of her peripheral vision, Brittany spotted the massive orderly rounding the corner with her mother’s chrome transport. She nudged sister three and rose, leaving sister one to figure it out on her own. No mistaking the driver. Only Campello towered over a stretcher to quite that extent.

There was something not right about that guy, something that niggled at Brittany like a faulty gallbladder. Why the fascination with Carolyn Martin, octogenarian of the vanilla tribe?

And what was it with Mom anyway, attracting these young buzzards? First Jerry the lawn guy, hanging around for months changing light bulbs and bringing in takeout and now this Vincent character. If either thought they’d get a penny from the estate, they were sadly mistaken. Tara’s lawyer locked down the family vault years ago.

Brittany rounded the doorframe in time to see Vincent, leaning over the bed cupping—cupping!—mom’s face in his massive hand.

“Baby, I’m here for you.”

The nerve. . .

Brittany cleared her throat and watched with satisfaction as the muscular back tensed.

###

Funny what fifty years of nicotine does to the voice. He’d know that scraping bark anywhere. Vincent looked back down upon his primary objective to see watery eyes, grey-blue with age positioned inches from his own.

“Today’s my birthday.”

“I remember babygirl.”

Muffled chatter brought his attention back around to the trio of semi-elderly women backlit in the doorway. He grit his teeth. The twitch was back, same spot. Right eye, dead center.

Exhale—

As the days of Carolyn’s hospitalization progressed, he noticed their attire blooming with color, maybe an unconscious effort to make up for their mother’s fading away. But Brittany, the one with the perpetual purple hair—never quite got use to the sight which of course, was probably the point.

“Morning sweet things.” An exaggeration bordering on criminal perjury, but as kin, they were entitled by association.

He felt the tentative hand tugging against the hem of his shirt and a tremor of anticipation ran through his mid-section, pulling his attention back where it belonged. He took a deep breath and refocused.

“My girls all made the trip. Can’t we start this radiation business tomorrow?”

“Not that simple, princess. Can’t just reschedule, too many people to coordinate.” He looked over his shoulder back at the gaggle of sisters. “She’ll be fine. Tequila shots by noon, my treat.”

The ludicrous image produced the desired effect, sending the sisters into a fit of nervous laughter fueled by weeks of waiting room coffee. Vin took the distraction to slip Carolyn from bed to stretcher in one quick turn of choreographed motion worthy of a Temptations dance routine. He turned back to Carolyn, eyeing him now from the confines of the railing padded with plastic pillow-like objects and hospital sheets.

“It’s gonna be a good day. Promise.”

With careful deliberation, he threaded the stretcher through the door whereupon the Daughters of Carolyn pounced from every angle, each trying to outdo the other with their show of devotion. They talked over, under, through one another while employing the Southern Patting Ritual, starting as Carolyn’s feet neared the door and continuing up the length of her body as it passed on by, three sets of hands patting away at whatever presented itself under the covers. She wasn’t hearing any of this but the way she smiled and kept her hands raised in benediction melted his black heart into a puddle of goo.

“Such good girls.”

Vinnie’s eyes resumed the crinkled position reserved for her. “Have to take your word on that.”

Out in the hall, Vincent scanned the perimeter and took note of the various personnel still clumped over the vid-charts. The injectible Carolyn got this morning didn’t play nice with opiates so a little sleight of hand, a keystroke here and there, and a potted geranium was having a really swell morning. Oh, Sylvia Rodriquez would catch the discrepancy alright. No getting anything past that little bulldog, but for her sake, he hoped she let it drop. Another hour and a missing dose of morphine would be the last thing on anyone’s mind.

If Sylvia balked over the medication records, he’d need more than his charming personality to get past her. He could take her out with the stretcher, no problem, but mowing down a woman who shared homemade tortillas with hungry orderlies three times her size didn’t sit well on an empty stomach. Maybe that Yankee nurse would try an intervention. Now that would be fun.

They cleared the nurse’s station at a brisk pace, the Yank in question made eye contact, then averted his gaze. Too bad. Vincent nodding in the general direction of the rest of the assembled staff who watched him pass, turning in unison like fans at Wimbledon. He stood apart from the crowd on a good day, but trying to blend dressed in hospital issue scrubs—surely the Good Lord could’ve made him just a little smaller considering.

The dark eyes darted about, intent on bringing down evil doers, fairly certain just about everyone was up to no good. Except Carolyn. Waiting for the elevator, he glanced right, left, then reached down to stroke her face with his fingertips.

A flicker of recognition lit the cloudy eyes. “You remind me of someone.”

“Do tell.”

He switched from fingertips to knuckles, brushing against the folds of her cheek. He loved the way her skin felt, soft and dry. Drat it all, he was going to miss that. His mouth relaxed, giving over to the second full grin of that morning. Bad when you take to counting.

“His name was Vincent too.”

“Don’t say.”

The silent chuckling started up, turning grin into bonafide smile.

“Ever tell you about him?”

“Tell me again.”

The ding of the elevator marked the whoosh of doors and nameless hospital drones poured out in rapid succession. Vinnie’s hand jerked back from face to rail. He pushed the stretcher over the threshold, lifting to relieve the severity of thump from Carolyn’s overtaxed body. As the doors slid to behind them, a lone doctor, stethoscope swinging wild, tried to make entrance at the last moment. He met two hundred forty pounds of Vincent and a glare that stopped many a braver man than the squeaky intern now in question.

“We’re full.”

The intern fell back, the dawning realization of his good fortune spreading across his fool-face. Doors hissed shut in rapid succession and no one else bothered another end run around Vin.

“Tell me princess.”

The eyes that closed with the opening elevator doors looked upward to Vinnie, then off past the faux wood paneling. “Lived next door, loved old cars. I’d go study in the garage while he worked. He cleared a workbench just for me, put in a light and everything.”

“Bet he liked having you nearby.”

“Never said.” Carolyn’s gaze shifted left seeming to peer beyond the confines of the elevator, looking further back through the years.

“What did he say?” Vinnie’s touch on her thin shoulder brought her back again.

“Can’t hurry love.” She looked straight up and Vincent thought she might be here with him, at least for this moment. She looked away. “His favorite song. He’d pull me out of the chair and we’d dance whenever it came on the radio. He danced very well, most big men can’t move that way you know.”

“Your sweetheart—”

“No.” It slid out with a breath, a mere sigh of negation, but the word pummeled his ears like a judge’s gavel. “Vincent didn’t belong to me.”

The effort of prolonged conversation closed in on her, head dropping to one side as Carolyn drifted away.

Vincent bowed his head to hers, the words whispered in her upturned ear like a prayer-

“Vincent always belonged to you.”

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