I unhooked myself from the tangle of tubes and got dressed. While the nurses were busy with a patient in the next room, I snuck down to the ground floor in the elevator and ran out of Abbott Northwestern Hospital. My flight from Minneapolis to New York was taking off in three hours and 23 minutes. The flight itself was three hours. Six more hours, and I would be done and back in Minneapolis. Saving my reputation was better than staying here for some absurd mistaken diagnosis.
The Uber I ordered turned out to be a blue Suzuki that looked as battered as I felt. As we headed toward the airport, I replayed my conversation with the young doctor. My certainty began to waver. “Don’t worry,” he had smiled at me, fresh faced, a mere baby. In fact, probably I was his first patient. He seemed so eager and sure of himself. “We can do chelation to remove the poison. The treatment has a few unpleasant side effects but will save your life. You'll need to stay in the hospital for a while, though. I’d say a week. Don’t worry, you’re going to be fine.”
“Doctor, thank you, but I don’t have a week. I’m due in New York later this afternoon. And I’m fine now. I have just enough time to make my flight. Thanks for your help.”
Frowning, he’d crossed his arms over his chest and taken a step back from the bed. How dare a patient question his diagnosis! These doctors and their need to assert authority were something else, I had thought.
But now, as I reflected more about what he had said, that stab of doubt in my stomach grew sharper.
“Ms. Jones, you must appreciate the seriousness of your situation. You only feel better due to the medication. We believe you ingested polonium or a similar poison.” He had paused, then continued, as if telling me some highly confidential information. “You are, in fact, extremely lucky that my colleague, Dr.Blair-Smythe, was involved in the treatment of the Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko. Remember that case? The man poisoned with polonium-210 about fifteen years ago in England? And now, just recently, the Russian opposition critic Alexei Navalny. Dr. Blair-Smythe recognized the symptoms. There would be no reason for something linked to Russia to be here in Minneapolis — we assume you’re not a Russian spy, ha ha. We have notified authorities, of course, and will do extensive tests. But that’s for later. Seriously, Ms. Jones, for now, we have to start treatment. You do understand?”
This kid doctor had been talking nonsense, of course. Polonium poisoning? On the hunch of a fellow doctor? Notifying authorities? Jesus. It was more audacious than anything I had heard to date. No doubt the young doctor enjoyed reading John LeCarre.
It was then, sitting in Minneapolis traffic in an Uber, that a terrifying thought flitted across my mind. What if he was right? What if it was linked to Russia and to the reason I was now going to New York?
But no. That really was absurd. My stomach had settled down. I felt fine. I was fine. Still, something told me to Google the phone number and email for New York’s Presbyterian Hospital admissions. Not that I would need it. I just had a bug. Why had I even gone to Abbott? Only my agent and the editors at McMillan knew about this memoir and its secrets and allegations.
The Suzuki was stuck behind a stalled bus. But I still had time to get to the airport. I leaned back and ran through every detail of the afternoon, just to make sure. I had been feeling feverish since late yesterday. I had looked in the bathroom mirror, and grimaced at the lines etched into my forehead. When had I gotten so old? And how had I caught this bug? The fever was gradually joined by the feeling of someone grinding rocks in my stomach. Not now, I had thought. No time to be ill. Not after the conversation I’d just had with my agent. Do you want the good news or the bad, Anne had asked? I had opted for the good. McMillan, she said, with her tobacco-raspy voice, was considering publication of my memoir.
“So, what’s the bad news?”
“It's your first book, the allegations are explosive, and they’re nervous. They want to see you and be certain of all you have written — even after all the evidence you have provided.”
That had dampened my excitement, my vision of Hollywood, of dollar signs, of revenge.
“You have to get to New York by 4 p.m. tomorrow to pitch your book to the editorial board. Timothy Block, one of the editors, is still on the fence. Perhaps you know him? Used to be some State Department bigwig.”
Oh yes, I’d heard Timothy Block’s name from another former journalist I knew. He’d rejected her book about the Russians hacking American elections right on the brink of her signing a contract with McMillan.
“Don’t they know about Zoom?” I’d asked Anne.
“Timothy insists. He hates Zoom. And for some reason he persuaded them you need to be there. I booked you on United flight 3512 tomorrow and got McMillan to pay your way and put you up at some downtown Hilton. I’ll email you the details.”
An hour later, nausea began coming over me in waves. I was damned if I was going to miss this, stomach bug or no, I had thought. Not after this past year. Finally, I had done it. Fought off the years of depression and writer’s block. I was going to exonerate myself in the one way I knew how. I had gone at it like a demon. My old writing fervor had returned. I was on fire, just as when I had written stories as The Washington Post’s Moscow Bureau chief. Unemployed and broke, I hoped this tell-all book might even make me some money and salvage my credibility. Thank God I didn’t have to pay for the flight to New York!
An hour or so after hanging up, I’d leaned over the toilet just in time to vomit a torrent of something black and bitter. Then the room started to spin. I had grabbed my phone out of my pocket and called a neighbor, Janine. She drove me to the hospital where I was quickly wheeled into the ICU. Janine had made sure I had my driver’s license and insurance card, needed for checking into the hospital. But why had Janine brought my suitcase? Did she, too, think it was more serious than a bug? Or had I mumbled something about my trip to New York?
In the hospital bed, hooked up to a forest of tubes and clicking monitors, I had nodded off. Upon awaking the next morning, I heard a young man repeat my name. The doctor. He looked all of nineteen and was wearing a white lab coat complete with a shiny stethoscope that seemed overly large. Of course, his diagnosis had been wrong. Even if it hadn’t been, I thought, as I exited the Suzuki, New York Presbyterian was right next to where the meeting was to be held. Not that I would need it.
My flight had departed Minneapolis and arrived in New York without a hitch but my stomach was acting up and my hands were shaking when the plane landed at LaGuardia. I tried several times to unbuckle my seat belt before I was successful. A silver haired man in the seat next to me eyed my efforts warily but said nothing. While deplaning, I was overcome by a wave of nausea and almost dropped my purse and briefcase.
“Are you ok?” asked a flight attendant stationed at the exit door.
I nodded, and managed a tight smile as I walked past her. My stomach settled down by the time my Uber—an older model black Volvo that reminded me of a hearse-- shuttled me from the airport to McMillan. There, a brisk twenty-something brunette ushered me into a dimly lit oak paneled room with a long rectangular table in the center. My agent and three editors were seated in high backed black swivel chairs. Two of the editors were blonde women who looked to be in their forties, with blank expressions and elegantly styled suits. The frowning solidly built man looked vaguely familiar. He wore an ill-fitting navy blue suit and had a haircut that made me think more of law enforcement than publishing. Anne, my agent, as always, looked rumpled and in need of a cigarette.
“My name is Timothy Block. These are my colleagues Susan Miller and Natalie Simmons. I have to say I’m surprised to see you.”
Now it was my turn to frown.
“My agent told me I was invited to this meeting. Was she mistaken?” I glanced over at Anne. She looked down at her open laptop where she was busily drumming, seemingly oblivious.
Ignoring my question, he continued, “In your book, you make a lot of allegations against the State Department.”
“They’re not allegations. My facts are solid. You’ve seen all my documentation.”
Block started to open his mouth to say something. I noticed he had a slight facial tic. And then I recognized him. He had been a CIA fixer, with a different name, I’d met in Moscow through an embassy source. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled; my heart was beating double time. I had to act now and fast.
“I know who you are, Mr. Block. We met in Moscow when I was the Washington Post’s bureau chief there.”
Block stopped talking. He looked like he’d been slapped and started eyeing the door.
“I don’t have a lot of time so let’s put all the cards on the table. I left a hospital in Minneapolis to fly here. The doctor says I’ve been poisoned and need treatment or I’ll die. I thought he was wrong but now I know he wasn’t. Whoever poisoned me wants to make it look like Russian dirty work. Someone doesn’t want the public to know how the State Department does business in Moscow.”
Susan Miller suddenly sprung to life. “You did tell me when you first started working here that you worked for State in Russia, didn’t you Timothy? When was that?”
“No. You’re mistaken. It was in Ukraine,” Block said with a clenched jaw.
Natalie Simmons chimed in. “No, Timothy. I’m sure you said Russia. Five years ago. That would put you there at the time Ms. Jones was bureau chief.”
Timothy Block, hunched like a panther ready to spring, then jumped up and ran out of the room. We all sat stunned as the minute hand of the large round Seiko that hung high on the wall facing me clicked steadily. Minutes passed before Anne closed her laptop and began to drum her long, perfectly manicured red nails rapidly on the lid.
“I guess this means there are no further objections to the publication of this book? If this meeting is over, I could really use a cigarette!”
Everyone laughed, including me, even though my stomach was now on fire.
“When news gets out that someone tried to stop the book by poisoning the author, that will really drive up sales!” Anne added. The editors laughed again but this time I didn't join in because the room was spinning. Trying to stand, I discovered that my legs had turned to jelly.
“I hate to break up the party but can one of you help me get to Presbyterian? I’d really like to be around when the book comes out.”