THE PRICE IS RIGHT
By Laney


Dr. Romano sneaked a peak at his visage in a small mirror he kept in his desk drawer. Satisfied with what he saw there, he didn't even feel the need of smoothing what little hair he had, he put the mirror back and began to shuffle through papers on his desk. Whether the shuffling was necessary or for effect, remained to be seen. An attractive, young woman showed at his door moments later. She tapped softly and he gestured for her to enter. "Joy Mattea, I presume?" He stuck out his hand in greeting, motioning immediately to a chair. "To what do I owe this honored visit, Joy? May I call you Joy?" The woman smiled.

"Of course," she answered, if I can call you Robert?" Romano was well pleased with the direction this conversation was headed. A beautiful woman, famous, award winning author, getting comfortable and cozy in his office. Perfect. "I need your help, Robert, and I am willing to do whatever it takes to get it." Romano cocked an eyebrow, now he was really interested. "I am writing a magazine article. I would be more than happy to give you credit in the article, or perhaps you would like a chance to meet some of my acquaintances, the governor, Stephen King, there are many others, or money, maybe you would like to get paid for your services?" Romano, being Romano had added his own wish to the list.

"I think we could come to some agreement." Romano leaned back in his chair and began to tap the tips of his fingers together. He was thinking how interesting it was that his capabilities were so well respected that the writing world had come to know of his skills, and he was now obviously on some list of respected references. He was held in such great regard, that authors were willing to offer "anything" for his services. Not so amazing, but the potential rewards were causing the hairs on the back of his neck to stand up. "What are you writing about, specifically?"

"I'm writing an article about Vukovar." Romano wrinkled his brow, trying to recall the meaning of the word, some virus, a new disease, what was this? How embarrassing to have to admit that he had no idea what she was talking about. Joy leaned forward in her chair. "Have you ever heard of it?" He couldn't very well lie.

"No. Afraid not."

"Would you like to see some pictures?" He couldn't deny his curiosity and leaned forward too. The woman reached in her case and brought out a small stack of pictures, which she began to spread out on the desk, one by one. "This is Vukovar, before." The pictures she was placing before him were of a small town, European looking. "This was the hospital." She pulled out a picture of a large building, the town must have been bigger than he had originally surmised. This was followed by several pictures of people in and around the hospital, doctors, nurses, children playing. Then she laid before him a picture of a burned out shell and he recognized the general lines of the hospital picture beside it. "This is the hospital after. It was targeted when the enemy attacked the town. The much smaller force of defenders managed to hold off the aggressors for an unbelievable three months, but, inevitably, lost in the end." The pictures she was laying before him now were of wounded people, corpses, shots inside the hospital where medical personnel were working on patients under tables instead of over them, with large gaping holes in the sides of the building. Then the pictures were of soldiers and medical personnel and wounded in a yard and being loaded onto buses. The pictures were distressing and Romano had seen enough.

"I don't see how I can help you with this, Miss Mattea." The next picture she placed before him caught his undivided attention. He reached down to pick it up. It was of a young man, kneeling with his hands behind his head. A gun was pointed at his temple, the holder of the gun outside of camera range. The young man stared neither at the camera nor at the person holding the gun. He was gazing off into space and seemed not in the least bit concerned that he was most certainly about to die.

"The soldier who took this picture and then sold it to me, said that the reason this man's life was spared, was because he so very much wanted to die. Most of the medical personnel and the wounded at the hospital were put on buses and sent to safety, although it was quite a perilous journey. Some male workers at the hospital, and top medical staff were taken by the enemy, as were support personnel in a satellite medical facility. Many were never heard from again. I want to interview this man. I want to know what happened to him after he was taken. He is a rarity and I think I could write an article about him that would be, at the very least, compelling and potentially, Pulitzer Prize material. I need him."

Romano still stared at the photo in his hand. Luka's face was much younger, less lined and his hair was jet black, no gray at all, but it was the same man, no doubt. Romano was awed at the lack of emotion in that young visage. Here he was, about to be shot, and he could care less. Amazing. It certainly made Robert less inclined to bait the man, and gave him wonder at the possibility that he could coerce Luka to do anything he didn't want to do. "So why don't you ask him for an interview? The guy speaks English, you know. Why come to me?"

"I have asked, and I have been told no. He won't return my calls, he won't see me. I need your help. I understand that he works for you. I believe that if you told him that he has to consent to the interview, he might do it. I will give you, and this hospital excellent publicity, I promise you." Romano continued to hold the photo. He leaned more towards a meeting with the governor, or maybe someone even better placed. He tapped the photo against the side of the desk, then tossed it into the pile before him.

"No, I don't think so, Miss Mattea. In fact, if I find that you have harassed Dr. Kovac on the premises of this hospital at any time, I will personally see to it that charges are brought against you. He has a job to do here, and I certainly wouldn't want him distracted, and to have a patient injured as a result. Is that clear?" Romano loved to do the unexpected. It was all he could do not to grin at the shocked expression across the desk from him.

The woman quietly swept the pictures on the desk back into her bag. He could see that her hands were shaking as she gathered the photos. He wasn't sure if it was from fear or anger. She rose nobly before him and said, "I believe that what I am doing is aiding the telling of history. I do not intend to hurt anyone."

"Well, it seems to me, that the people that made that history maybe want you to stay the hell out of it. Sometimes you just have to respect that." She turned without another word and scurried from the room. Romano sat thoughtfully for a moment and then headed for the ER. He ran into Kerry first. "Where is Kovac?" He growled.

"I don't know, check the board, why?" Kerry wasn't sure if this were good or bad. It was unusual for Robert to journey into the ER without a clear purpose and that purpose could mean trouble for the intended. He headed down the hall with Kerry in tow. Luka was sitting at the front desk, drinking a cup of coffee and looking over charts.

"Lucky Luka, today is your day." Romano clapped Luka on the back.

"Oh?" Luka turned to look over his shoulder at the other doctor, barely keeping the irritation from his face or voice. He had worked so many shifts in a row he had absolutely no reserves left and no self-control. He knew that if Romano pushed him he would flatten the guy and then would be looking for a new job, not something he wanted to do. Kerry had come up behind Romano and gave Luka a warning look.

"When was the last time you were off?" Romano moved around in front of Luka, who had stayed seated, thinking that maybe if he didn't tower over Romano, the diminutive doctor wouldn't get defensive and feel the need of hassling him.

"Are we talking, off so that I can sleep, or off for a day off?" Luka wasn' t being smart, he was truly not sure what the other man meant and he had worked so many double shifts lately that he was thrilled when he actually got to sleep a few hours in 24.

"I mean a day off, like normal people get."

"I don't remember. I would have to check."

"Go home. Take the next two days off. Be back here on Friday." Luka just stared at him.

"I don't understand. Did I do something wrong?"

"No. Just get out of here and go do something like a normal person. Go!" The last word was a shout and Luka stood immediately, took a quick look at Kerry and then headed for his locker.

"I think that was wonderful Robert. If anyone deserves time off, it's Luka, but I don't have anyone to take his place right now. You've left me in a bad spot."

"No I haven't dear Kerry. As always, I think of everything. I will be taking his place." At that, Romano turned to the board. "I'll take the rash in exam 2." He rooted through the charts; found the one he wanted and headed down the hall. Kerry stood watching, her mouth open in astonishment. Romano threw over his shoulder, "Don't stand there staring Kerry, I'm sure you have patients to see."

Several weeks later, Romano was going through his office mail when he came across a thick, 8X11 envelope. He slit open one end and dumped the contents on his desk. There, staring up at him, just like before, was the picture of Luka on his knees. He was on the cover of one of the newsmagazines, and the banner read, "personal interviews with people who lived through it." Romano was furious. After all he went through and the guy caved and gave the interview anyway. Maybe she found his price? He wondered what it was; money, meetings with important people, maybe a tryst with the lovely Joy? What would sway someone who had once seemed so brave and honorable?

Romano slammed down the magazine, then rolled it up like a club and headed for the ER. Kerry was shocked to see him back so soon. He had worked Luka' s shifts without causing too much trouble, but she had felt certain that he had had his fill of real work and she didn't expect to see him in their area again for quite awhile. Once again he asked for Kovac. "He's in exam 2 with a patient." She watched him stomp off toward the room, but this time she didn't follow. He seemed extremely agitated and if Luka were going to get blasted, it would be less embarrassing for him if there weren't any witnesses.

Romano entered exam 2 without a knock. Luka had finished with his patient and was giving instructions to the nurse. He followed Romano back out into the hall, where the other man proceeded to wave what looked like a rolled up magazine in his face. "What is this? Do you know what I gave up for you? She wanted me to demand that you consent to an interview with her and I said no. I could be having dinner with Stephen King right now, or maybe the governor, but instead I chose to work your shifts, and for what? What did you get out of this deal, Kovac? Huh? What was your price?"

Luka was completely confused but caught on that whatever it was that was being shoved under his nose was the culprit. He grabbed the magazine from the other doctor and unfolded it. His own young face stared out at him and he felt immediately betrayed. He had known that the article would come out, but he never thought that his story would be important enough to end up on the front cover and had never been led to believe such a thing could happen either. He had hoped it would die on the back pages of some magazine and the woman would go away and leave him alone. Now he realized he was looking at something that he would most certainly have to deal with.

He gradually became aware of Romano dancing in front of him, his agitation palpable. He was shocked to discover that the woman had gone to his boss to get him to talk, and more surprising was that Romano had protected him, not only that, but had tried to make amends. He knew he didn't owe this man anything, but also knowing how far out of character Romano had gone to defend him, he felt the need to explain. He handed back the magazine and motioned the other man toward the breakroom. He hoped it would be empty. Once inside he walked to his locker and gazed at the photo he had taped there, a picture of a windswept shoreline, of home. With a deep sigh he turned back around.

Romano stood inside the door, his arms crossed before him, still very angry. Luka moved over to him, then dug in his pocket for his wallet. "This is what she gave me." He handed Romano a small photo of two little boys in front of the hospital at Vukovar, one of the "before" shots Romano had been shown the other day in his office. One child looked to be about four, the other must have been around two, he was still in diapers and seemed not too steady on his feet. On closer inspection, a young man could be seen crouched down in the lower corner of the picture, his arms reaching toward the smaller child. The young man was Luka. "That is the only picture I have of my son." Romano's face lost its angry creases and a look of pure sorrow, probably a first for him, took over. He carefully handed back the picture.

"I'm sorry," was all he said and he turned and left the room. Luka gazed again at the photo before sliding it into his wallet, safe with the other one of his wife and daughter.



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