Anyway, here's an excerpt from the sub-plot about Charles Walker and his brother, Nick, who lies in a persistant vegetative state in their hometown in Arkansas.
These stock models helped to prevent "character drift" while I was concentrating on the major plot. The gentleman on the left is Brian H., one of the models for the microstock king, Yuri Arcurs. The photographer of the gentleman on the right is Kelly Cline, but I have no further information on her model. I do know she's in Washington or Oregon, and she photographs mostly food, and a look at her portfolio will make your mouth water...
Love in Smallfoot Alley -- Excerpt
Alden Ballard knocked softly on the door to room 110. It opened and the tall, thin man standing just inside held out his hand.
"Mr. Ballard? Charles Walker. Come in, have a seat."
They briefly shook hands and Ballard stepped into the room. He gave it a quick glance that appeared to be cursory, though his mind was never fully disengaged from investigator mode and his memory recorded more than he actually noticed at the time.
The right half was taken up with an occupied hospital bed and an array of equipment and paraphernalia of patient care. In the other half sat two upholstered chairs with a lamp table between. Heavy draperies along the outside wall so effectively blocked the light, one might surmise there was no window behind them. Except for a fixture on the wall dimly illuminating the bed, the only other light source was a table lamp between the chairs. It cast a golden glow that warmed the seating area but didn't reach the room's shadowy corners.
Charles Walker stepped to the one of the chairs and stood before it, waiting.
He was a good six, four to Ballard's five eleven, and well under forty, probably closer to thirty, to Ballard's half-century mark. Above shiny, brown loafers, he wore off white trousers and a matching cable knit sweater, both a bit loose, as if he'd recently lost weight.
They sat down and Walker said, "I appreciate your coming here. You probably don't often get requests for initial consultations in a patient's room at a nursing home. I'm going out of town for a couple of days. I wanted to spend as much time here as possible before I go."
Ballard nodded noncommittally, and Walker continued.
"The patient over there is my little brother, Nick. He's twenty nine. Until about two months ago, he lived in a small town in south Alabama and worked in the IT department of a medical research facility. On September twenty-fifth, I got a call from a hospital in Catesville, Alabama telling me he had been found unconscious in his car and they had been unable to revive him. He was in a coma. They couldn't tell me why. Nobody has been able tell me why--"
Walker's breath caught and he stopped talking. Ballard said nothing, and waited for Walker to regain his composure. His pain was palpable, and though they'd never met before this moment, and despite Ballard's ironclad rule to keep personal feelings out of his work, deep down inside, he felt a touch of Walker's grief.
Taking a deep, steadying breath in and out of his mouth, Walker steeled himself and resumed. "I want to know what happened to cause this."
"Do you suspect foul play?"
Walker shrugged and shook his head. "I don't know what to suspect. My bother was healthy, vitally alive, and deep down good. I want to know what turned such a wonderful human being into .... that. Can you help me?"
"What did you have in mind?"
"First, I need somebody to go through his stuff with me. While I was in Alabama, I had his belongings packed up and shipped back here. His apartment was furnished, so he had no furniture to speak of, just personal property. Clothes and books and CDs. A few electronics and small appliances -- TV, stereo, microwave, things like that. They're in a self-storage unit on Lake Street. Also had his vehicle brought back. I tried going through his stuff, but I couldn't do it by myself. Besides, I want someone with an objective perspective to go over them with me. Would you be willing to do that?"
Ballard nodded. "Sure."
"And then, I want to hire you to look into this -- to go to Alabama yourself, if necessary -- and see if there's anything, anything at all, that might possibly explain... this. Pollutants in the water or air, holes in the ozone, drugs or gang activity... anything. Any history of similar cases... and, yes, look for foul play. I'll pay you your daily rate rate plus expenses. I'm not incalculably wealthy, but I have more than enough money for that."
"I know. You're the president and CEO of Walker Industries."
"I guess you've done some preliminary background work on me."
"Yes. I didn't know about your brother, though. That's the sort of thing the media loves to trumpet. You're fortunate they don't know."
"I made a specific effort to keep them from finding out. Nicky doesn't deserve the public's morbid curiosity, either. So what do you think?"
"Do you mind if I ask you a few questions first?"
"Not at all."
"You said you didn't know what to suspect. Do you nevertheless have any suspicions?"
"There's something that makes me uncomfortable...maybe even suspicious."
"The place where he worked. Shield Biomedical Research Corporation. He took the job about a year ago. I didn't like it, I thought south Alabama was too far away, but he was all psyched about it. He didn't stay psyched for long. We never really talked in depth about it, but he said things now and then. I didn't think much about it at the time, but since this happened, I've gone back trying to remember everything he said, and some of it bothers me."
"What did he say?"
"First, he said he planned to look for another job after he'd been there a couple of years. He didn't want to leave before that because he didn't want his resume to make him look like a job hopper. But he was definitely planning to quit Shield in a year or so."
"Did he say why?"
"He just didn't like it. Except for his immediate supervisor, his co-workers were uptight and distant. He had no friends there, and Nicky thrived on friendship all his life."
"Did he complain about anything else there?"
"Only once that I remember. The place has contracts with the Pentagon to research medical solutions for military applications. They didn't tell him that before he took the job, and when he found out, he was thoroughly disgusted. He had nothing at all against helping soldiers injured or sickened by war, but he told me that we live in an era of high technology, and quoted an old Star Trek movie about how inventions for the good could be perverted into horrific weapons."
Silence descended as the men considered the import of that statement.
"I asked him if they were making weapons and he said no. But he believed anybody's research in that area could be converted into weapons if it wasn't highly guarded. Especially if they were connected in any way to the military establishment." He spread his hands. "That's all I remember for now. If anything else comes to me, I'll let you know. "
"One other question. Did he have any girlfriends?"
"Didn't mention any to me. I got the impression from his phone calls that he dated occasionally after he went to Alabama but different girls, nobody special. He'd got pretty serious about a girl when he lived in Memphis a few years back. Didn't work out, but neither one was bitter about it. I guess he just hadn't found anybody else since then."
Walker glanced at his watch. "You came highly recommended, by the way. Abel Johnson, a subcontractor for Walker Industries, told me you're a natural at getting people to talk without realizing they're being questioned, and that you have a remarkable faculty for blending in."
Ballard allowed a smile to break through on his nondescript face. "I wasn't always this transparent. It was something I had to learn and cultivate."
"But it's absolutely necessary if you're a stranger going into a small town to dig around -- especially when you don't know what you're looking for. So what do you think? Will you take the job?"
"Yes. I'll be glad to do what I can. I need a couple of days to wrap up a few matters. Also, I have a couple of long-term jobs I'm working on, so I'd have to divvy up my time between them. It might drag out a little. "
"That's fine. I appear to have plenty of time." He swallowed hard and glanced toward the bed. "They tell me if he receives sustenance, water and proper patient care, he could live like this for years."
He stood and Ballard followed suit. The detective's gaze went to the younger brother. They stepped to the side of the bed, and Walker laid a hand on his brother's head and stroked his hair back from his forehead with a thumb.
Ballard knew from previous cases that patients who did not come out of a coma the first few weeks likely never would, but would lapse into a persistent vegetative state, from which waking was impossible. Living for years under that condition ... was it a blessing or a curse?
"I'm truly sorry, Mr. Walker."
Ballard nodded. "Charles. I lost a little brother in Desert Storm. Life goes on but you never really get over it."