"Not since Mario Puzo’s The Godfather have I read such a fascinating, fast-paced novel that delves into the world of procuring and selling human organs! A must read!" — Amazon Reviewer
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.”
* * * * *
Near the Port of Houston
FBI Special Agent Pete Cortez was sitting in a booth in a recently remodeled Denny’s diner down near the Port of Houston. The waitress had just refilled his cup of coffee when a man dressed in blue jeans, white shirt and tie slid into the same booth across the table from him. He adjusted his hips slightly so that his holstered handgun did not jab him in the kidney.
The man placed his white Stetson cowboy hat on the seat beside him, brim up, and then folded his hands on the table. He looked up at the waitress, who was still standing at the end of the booth, a glass coffee pot in her hand. Her plastic name tag identified her name as Shirley.
“I’d like a coffee, too, ma’am,” he said, turning over the preset coffee cup in front of him so that she could pour. “Black, no sugar, please.”
The diner was packed with early morning customers, most of whom probably worked in one of the tens of thousands of blue-collar jobs at the Port. Many of them had momentarily stopped eating to look over at their booth.
“You reckon they realize we’re in law enforcement?” Cortez jokingly asked in an exaggerated, cornpone accent.
He was dressed in a dark blue suit, his standard issue Glock 19M handgun hidden from view of the diners. Neither were his credentials, which he kept in a leather portfolio tucked in the inside pocket of his suit coat.
On the other hand, everyone in the Lone Star State would recognize a Texas Ranger anywhere. For the out-of-staters, the iconic “star in a wheel” badge he wore pinned to his shirt was a dead giveaway. So was the big leather, cowboy-style holster hanging from his waist that secured his Sig Sauer P320.
“You, maybe, but definitely not me,” said Doc Gunther, a forty-year old Texas Ranger who, like Cortez, was temporarily assigned to a human trafficking task force in Houston.
The two men had been working together for the past month on an ongoing case centered in Houston’s massive port area.
“Well, let’s order our breakfast so that Shirley here can get back to work,” said Cortez, looking over at the waitress who was still waiting patiently at the end of the table.
Once Shirley had taken their orders and headed back toward the kitchen, it was Pete who spoke first.
“I’m being pulled off the task force to work on another new, high profile case,” he said, taking a drink of his coffee before setting the porcelain cup back down on the table. “I’m sure you’ve heard about it. It’s been all over the news for the past three days.”
“This is Houston, Pete. You’re going to need to be a little more specific.”
“Point taken. Remember hearing about that prominent cardiovascular surgeon who had his heart ripped from his chest cavity?”
The Ranger winced at the description. It was like something straight off the Sci-Fi channel.
“Oh, yeah, I’ve definitely heard about that one,” he said, shaking his head rapidly back and forth, the way a person does when he gets the creeps. “That was some seriously disturbing stuff, even for the psychos we tend to attract. Do y’all have any idea what the heck that was all about?”
Pete shrugged his shoulders.
“All I know is that there’s a big briefing over at Wells Fargo Plaza this afternoon at two o’clock,” said the FBI Agent, glancing down at his wristwatch. It was six-thirty in the morning.
“Why at Wells Fargo Plaza?” asked Gunther. “Murder is a state crime, not a federal crime. Doesn’t the city have an available conference room?”
Wells Fargo Plaza was a downtown skyscraper that housed, among other tenants, the offices of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas.
They paused in their conversation as Shirley and a helper delivered their breakfast orders, placing the plates in front of the two law enforcement officers.
“Well, for some reason or another, the U.S. Attorney has asked the SAC for me specifically,” said Cortez, shoveling a major load of scrambled eggs into his mouth. SAC stands for Special Agent in Charge and is the head of the FBI’s Houston division. “Anyway, the Bureau will be sending a replacement down here for me. Don’t know who yet.”
Now it was the Ranger’s turn to shrug his shoulders.
“Sounds like a nice change of pace,” he said, spreading some jam on a piece of toast before taking a bite. “I’ll bet Peterson is pissed that you managed to skip out of this crap detail down here at the Port.”
Cortez smiled. George Peterson, the SSA—Supervisory Special Agent—of the Transnational Organized Crime Squad at the Houston FBI, was his boss these days, ever since Jack Gonçalves had been promoted and transferred to the FBI headquarters in Washington several months earlier.
“Life is full of disappointment,” said Cortez, picking up a piece of crisp bacon with his fingers and taking a bite. “He’ll survive.”
* * * * *
The offices of Alhambra Americas occupied an entire floor of a four-story office building located near the Texas Medical Center in south-central Houston. An international medical conglomerate that was based in Spain, its U.S. headquarters was located in the Bayou City.
It operated hospitals in fifteen major cities throughout the United States, as well as in Montreal, Toronto, Calgary, and Mexico City. Alhambra Hospital Houston was in a separate building two blocks away.
A well-dressed woman in an expensive grey business suit made her way down the hallway to her corner office. She appeared to be deep in thought.
“Good morning, Cynthia,” a man’s voice called out from inside one of the offices. He pronounced it SIN-sea-a, the result of a thick German accent.
“Come see me in my office in a couple of minutes, Franz,” she called back over her shoulder as she continued down the hallway. “And bring a couple of cups of coffee with you. It has already been a long day and it’s still only nine o’clock.”
Two minutes later, a blonde man with closely cropped hair appeared in the doorway of the corner office, two large cups of coffee in hand. He was tall, probably six-three or six-four, and looked every bit like the professional soccer player he once was.
He was in his mid-thirties and his well-tailored blue suit fit slightly relaxed, not like the skin-tight suits you usually see celebrities wearing on television these days. In addition to being a fashion preference, it also enabled him to better conceal the Sig Sauer P320X COMPACT pistol he always carried.
“Come in, Franz, and have a seat,” said Cynthia Fraser, CEO of Alhambra Americas. “Oh, and close the door behind you, if you can find a free hand.”
He handed her one of the slate blue ceramic cups with the Alhambra logo embossed on it. Holding it with both hands, she took a sip.
“Mmmm, I needed that,” she said, looking up at the ceiling while she savored the welcome taste of her regular morning pick-me-up.
It had been a stressful year for her, what with bringing on the new, though slightly unconventional product line. Her right hand brushed back a strand of her auburn hair, which had fallen across her face and was covering one of her eyes.
Here she was, still in her early-forties and already selected to lead the proof-of-concept phase for a bold new product that could be a game-changer for Alhambra Mundial. If they were successful, she would be given the responsibility for implementing the model throughout the entire western hemisphere. The stakes were sky high, but if she could pull it off, she would be able to write her own ticket in the multi-billion-dollar, privately held company.
She set the cup back down on her desk and leaned back in her chair.
“Okay, bring me up to speed,” she said, her tone and expression now all businesslike.
Although Franz Mueller’s official title was chief financial officer, his duties went well beyond simply keeping the books. He had been dispatched to the Houston office three months earlier by the corporate headquarters in Madrid to help Cynthia Fraser implement the new product line, to be her righthand man.
It was not that they did not trust her. In fact, she had developed a reputation throughout the company for her single-minded efficiency and ruthless determination to get the job done. What she lacked in physical stature— she was only five-five and weighed less than one hundred twenty pounds—she more than made up with her iron will and clear sense of purpose.
The real reason they sent him to Houston was because they wanted her to mentor him, to tone down his occasional tendency to use violence as his preferred means of persuasion.
“Okay,” he said in his German accent. “Shall I begin with the Etheridge situation?”
She nodded her head for him to proceed.
“The message has been delivered and the instruments are now out of the country,” he said, looking down at his well-chewed fingernails.
He thought it was really cool to refer to the killers as instruments. So was calling them pandilleros. He was really embracing this whole Texas thing.
“And our hesitant surgeon?” she asked.
“I personally delivered the package to him at his house last night.”
“Did he understand?”
“Yes, I think he understood,” he said, a cold smirk on his face. “In fact, I have no doubt that he received the message loud and clear, as you Americans are fond of saying.”
“Excellent,” she said, smiling. “Now let’s move on the upcoming budget.”
* * * * *
It was a beautiful summer afternoon in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, one hundred-forty miles south-southwest of Laredo. There was not a cloud in the sky and a slight breeze was coming in from the west.
Carmelita Vasquez oversaw the day-to-day operations at La Clínica Pública, or the Public Clinic, in the lower-class neighborhood of Guadalupe, just east of downtown Monterrey along the Rio La Silla. The daughter of university professors, her sense of social consciousness was heightened while attending nursing school at the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon.
When she was approached just before graduation and offered an RN position in Guadalupe at the Public Clinic, she jumped at the opportunity to provide healthcare services to those less fortunate than herself. That was ten years ago, and she had been there ever since, eventually rising to the senior nursing position.
The clinic was located in a dangerous section of Guadalupe and had been the frequent target of burglaries, mostly people looking for drugs to steal. That all stopped last year, about the same time that Doctor Cardenas began volunteering his services. The clinic occupied a simple two-story building, with the bottom floor for patients and top floor reserved for supplies.
The main entrance to the facility opened into a large waiting room filled with an eclectic assortment of both molded plastic and broken down old wooden chairs. Along the far wall, facing the entrance, was the reception desk, where two older women recorded the names and physical ailments of the patients as they arrived. Since nobody had any insurance, it was a fairly streamlined process.
Once people had registered, they did their best to find an empty seat in the waiting room, which was always filled to capacity with screaming children with runny noses, and adults appearing to be on the verge of coughing up a lung. The staff often joked that, if you weren’t sick when you arrived, you sure would be by the time you were eventually seen by the medical staff.
Patients were seen on a first-come, first-served basis, with the three nurses handling most of the patient care. Perhaps one in five was sent back to see whichever pro-bono doctor happened to be on duty at the time, with the nurses taking care of the rest.
It was an efficient system, with eight exam rooms in the back for the four medical practitioners. This allowed four patients to be seen at a time, while four more waited in the other exam rooms.
It enabled them to see hundreds of patients each and every day.
“Buenos tardes, Doctor Antonio,” she said, looking up and smiling brightly at the distinguished looking, gray-haired man as he walked through the private entrance into the clinic, which was located in the rear of the building. It was reserved for doctors and staff.
“Buenos tardes, Carmelita,” replied Antonio Cardenas, a prominent Monterrey physician who saw patients at the clinic two afternoons a week on a pro bono basis. “How does the waiting room look today?”
“Oh, it’s completely full, Doctor, just as it always is,” she said with a happy tone to her voice. “I expect the line will soon be stretching all the way down the street to the corner bakery.”
He nodded his head and smiled.
“Did we happen to receive a new list this week?” he asked casually.
“Yes, Doctor Antonio, as a matter of fact we did,” she said, handing him a white business-size envelope.
“It was delivered an hour ago, with instructions to give it to you, and only you, without opening.”
Doctor Cardenas took the envelope and walked back to his small office in the rear of the clinic.
“Give me about five minutes and then send me the first patient,” he said, opening the envelope as he walked down the hall. He pulled out a sheet of paper and scanned the contents.
Also inside the envelope was also a black thumb drive, which he removed and tucked into his pants pocket. He would review the files on it later, after he had returned home for the evening.
“Oh, and please have Pedillo bring me a cup of coffee,” he called down the hall. “It looks like we’re in for a long afternoon.”
* * * * *
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.