Lamar Etheridge was working late that evening at his Houston medical office near the Texas Medical Center, catching up on a few last-minute odds and ends before calling it a night. He was alone, having already sent his office staff home several hours earlier. His schedule called for him to spend the next day working out of his satellite office in suburban Sugar Land, since a significant number of his patients lived out in Fort Bend County.
Lamar was a heart surgeon, one of the best in the business. At one time, he had been one of the true up-and-comers in his profession. Life had been good to him. No, good is not an adequate description. Life had been great to Lamar. He graduated at the top of his class at Harvard Medical, did his residency at Johns Hopkins, and his first position was at the Cleveland Clinic.
His professional life had been a smashing success, no question about it.
His personal life, on the other hand, was a train wreck, and that was putting it mildly. He was now in his early fifties and had been married four times. He had also been divorced three times, with a fourth probably not too far in the future. The alimony payments were killing him.
It seemed like, no matter how much money he made, it was never enough. He had seven children—four girls and three boys—and three of them were currently in college. Two more were in the pipeline, ranging in age from elementary school to a senior in high school. The eldest two were now married and off the payroll.
He had accepted a position at Houston Methodist Hospital, down at the Texas Medical Center, eight years earlier because it offered him a much higher earning potential than did his practice in Cleveland. It also afforded him the opportunity to put some distance between himself and his then-three ex-wives. Not that it helped. He had managed to marry once more while living in Houston, although the two had recently agreed to a trial separation.
Yeah, no doubt about it, his personal life was an unmitigated disaster…and a very expensive one at that.
Fortunately for him, he was also a skilled surgeon now in the prime of his career and so he was able to stay ahead of his mounting bills. His youngest child, from wife number four, was just now entering the first grade, so there was no relief in sight, especially not if he continued to repeat his marital mistakes.
After four disastrous marriages, he made himself a personal vow to be more selective in his choice of future mates, never once considering that the problem was probably him and not his entourage of former spouses.
In the quiet of his office and tedious attention to detail of reviewing files and forms, his mind jumped back to the unsettling conversation of several days earlier with the unpleasant German fellow. I don’t need money so badly that I want to be associated with a scumbag like him, he thought to himself.
Tuesdays and Thursdays were normally his days in Sugar Land, while the other three days were spent at the Texas Medical Center office. Both locations were only a twenty-minute drive from his home in River Oaks, just in opposite directions.
He was in a hurry to finish up his work because tonight he had a hot date with a woman in pharmaceutical sales, someone he had met at his gym about three weeks earlier. He didn’t know much else about her except that she was in her early-thirties and drop-dead gorgeous, as the saying goes.
He was just about finished reviewing a stack of patient files when he heard a sound coming from the reception area.
“Is that you, Tiffany?” he called out excitedly. “You’re early. I didn’t expect you until after seven.”
He didn’t hear a response, so he tossed the last of the patient folders he had been reviewing into the out box at the far corner of his desk. His office manager would return them to the file cabinets when she came in to work the following morning.
“Tiffany, honey, is that you out there?” he asked again as he walked out of his personal office and turned down the hallway toward the reception area.
“It’s just me, sugar,” she called out in a sweet, melodic voice that was delivered in a soft southern drawl. Mississippi probably, or maybe even Alabama.
“How about meeting me in one of the exam rooms?” he called out so as to be heard at the other end of the facility. “Our dinner reservation is not for another hour, so we have some free time to kill…if you know what I mean. I’ll join you there in just a minute.”
Then he added coyly, “You know which room I mean.”
You’ve still got it, big fella, he thought to himself, a wide grin spreading across his face as he made his way into exam room three, where they usually met on these kinds of occasions. He preferred it to the other rooms because there was a tad more space for them to spread out.
He was already well into the process of removing his shirt and tie as he walked into the room, leaving the door wide open behind him. He had stripped down to his boxer shorts by the time he heard the unmistakable sound of her heels clattering on the Carrara marble hallway floor as she approached the exam room.
“I’m in here, baby,” he called out playfully. “Come to Papa.”
Moments later, he froze in total shock. There, standing in the doorway wearing an electric green sundress and a wide brim sun hat, was a tall, slender redhead with bright blue eyes. The unexpected part was that standing behind her were two hulky men, scowls on their faces and their necks covered in tattoos.
“Papa has been a bad boy,” said Tiffany, her sweet, singsong voice having been replaced by a stern, more businesslike tone. “Mama’s friends are here to punish him.”
As the police investigating the incident would later confirm, no one heard his bloodcurdling screams as they reverberated throughout the otherwise empty office building.
* * * * *
“It’s done,” the woman said in a soft Southern accent.
She was speaking on her cellphone, which was synced through her car’s audio system as she drove up Montrose Avenue to her small condo on Westheimer Road. The suspension on her new Mercedes sedan did an excellent job of smoothing out the occasional pothole.
“Were there any problems?” asked the man on the other end of the line. He had a strong German accent, although his English was otherwise perfect.
“Did you get what I asked?”
“Yes, it’s packed inside a cooler in the trunk,” she said sweetly. “We double-bagged it in gallon-size zip-lock bags and then iced it down so that it doesn’t start to smell. I even placed a half dozen cans of soda in there in case I get pulled over by a policeman.”
“Let’s hope that doesn’t happen,” the man said, laughing softly. “What about the two pandilleros?” Pandillero is Spanish for gangbanger, a word he had picked up from a movie he had seen recently, although his German accent made his pronunciation of the word completely unintelligible.
“They’re on their way back home, much richer for the experience,” she said.
“Excellent. I will let all the appropriate people know,” said the man. “Just leave the cooler in your trunk. I’ll have someone swing by your garage tonight and retrieve the package so that you don’t need to worry about it smelling up your nice new car.”
“What do you plan to do with it?”
The man on the other end laughed ominously.
“It’s a gift of sorts. Actually, it is more of a warning message.”
* * * * *
An international medical conglomerate secretly creates a state-of-the-art surgical center within the Texas Medical Center district in Houston to perform organ transplants for wealthy patients desperate to find a suitable match at any price.