Chapter 44

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How often, Barlow wondered, had he seen on TV programs a family anxiously waiting in the emergency room for the outcome of a surgery on a loved one? The waiting, the pacing, the jerking of heads toward approaching doctors, frantic to hear any news. On the TV screen, those scenes constituted a classic cliché, yet here he was living the melodrama, feeling the same desperation the actors portrayed.

When he had arrived at the hospital, Pet was barely alive and unresponsive. Her vitals were weak, the ER doctor's face grim. Barlow hadn't been able to tell them much; he knew only that she had experienced excruciating pain in her stomach region.

He had called Mrs. Henning who now waited with him. Barlow told her everything he knew. He had also contacted the state police barracks about Howie Boy. It didn't take long until both Lieutenant Jardine and Trooper Johansson arrived. With Pet's life on the line Barlow figured it didn't matter much anymore whom he could trust.

Barlow gave them a complete accounting from beginning to end. Lieutenant Jardine immediately dispatched a pair of troopers to pick up Howie Boy from the hole in the ground where Barlow had left him. The lieutenant was angry over Pet not letting him know her hobby case was so politically sensitive. He admitted to Barlow how hurt he was that Pet hadn't trusted him.

"It wasn't so much a matter of trust," Barlow told him. "She figured if you knew, you would order her to stand down."

He pointed a finger at Barlow. "Damn right! I absolutely would have."

"And then we would never know. The Colliers would've gotten away with the murder of Neil Mantener."

The point hadn't mollified Pet's boss. "The two of you poking around resulted in the additional murder of a retired detective and the attempted murder of Petronia."

Trooper Johansson admitted to Jardine that Pet had asked him about the meaning of an administratively closed case. He beat himself up over not pressing her on the issue.

It was obvious to Barlow from the demeanor of both men, they cared a lot about her.

Although his mind was on Pet, one thing nagged at him. "What happens now? The Colliers have a lot of clout. Any chance they're going to wriggle out of this?"

Lieutenant Jardine fielded his question. "I'll be charging Howie Boy with kidnapping, assault, and attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. That much will definitely stick. I will also personally notify authorities in the State of Idaho and provide them with all the details. I'll even contact the media in Boise. I'm sure some enterprising journalist will see to it the citizens of that great state will become well-informed about the activities of their gubernatorial candidate. He'll be finished as a politician."

Jardine sighed. "As for the things that happened in the past and the death of Neil Mantener, that will be up to the district attorney. I promise you, I'll do everything possible to have the case reopened, officially this time."

It had been in the early morning hours, maybe around four when Barlow arrived at the hospital with Pet. A quick check of the current time showed half past noon. Pet had been in surgery for a long time.

A short time later, a doctor shuffled into the waiting room, dressed in scrubs, an obvious weariness in his face. The man looked like he needed coffee. Either that or a good stiff drink. "Who is here for Petronia Henning?"

Barlow, Pet's mother, and the two law enforcement officers stood. The doctor motioned for them to remain in their seats. "Petronia is in critical condition, but she's stable."

Mrs. Henning shot a hand to her mouth and started to cry.

"I won't sugarcoat it," the doctor went on. "The next twenty-four hours are going to be touch and go. Her injury was life threatening, but she's a young woman and strong. I'm optimistic."

"What happened?" Barlow asked.

"She suffered a ruptured spleen, likely from a severe blow. The resulting internal bleeding and subsequent infection..." He paused and shook his head. "She was a mess inside. The infection also spread to her pancreas. I can't even imagine the pain she experienced."

Petronia's mother sobbed and blew her nose. Barlow draped his arm around her.

"The damage wasn't repairable. We had to perform a splenectomy," the doctor explained. "A person can live without a spleen, but Petronia is going to have to make some life changes. She will be susceptible to infections for the rest of her life. Her liver will be assuming the duties of her spleen, so she's going to have to take special care to protect that organ. Obviously, she'll have to limit her alcohol intake from now on."

Lieutenant Jardine cleared his throat. "Will she be able to resume her duties as a state police trooper?"

The doctor ran a hand through his hair. "In time. She won't be able to do anything physical for many weeks, if not months."

Between sobs, Mrs. Henning asked, "Can I see my daughter?"

"She's sedated and will be for some time, but yes. You can have a brief visit."

Barlow watched as the doctor led her away.

The two troopers stood. Jardine addressed Barlow. "We're going to be on our way for now, but we'll be back later. I want to be involved with Howie Boy's interrogation."

From the veteran officer's steely expression, Barlow knew the interrogation would be long and unpleasant for Howie Boy. He wished he could be there too. He wanted to beat the man to death with his bare hands over what he had done to Pet.

After the troopers left, Barlow waited for Mrs. Henning. Some time later she finally emerged looking somber. "I barely recognize her. She looks so small and diminished."

Barlow embraced her. "You heard the doctor. She's young and strong. She'll get through this."

Petronia's mother freed herself from his embrace. "Go on. I know you want to see her. I'll wait here for you."

A floor nurse directed Barlow to Pet's room. He entered feeling apprehensive. Mrs. Henning had been spot on. She looked small with all the attached tubes, monitors, and oxygen mask. Barlow bent and kissed her forehead. He pulled up a visitor chair, sat, and took her hand.

"Hello, Pet. I'm sorry for what you are enduring. I'm sorry for asking you to get involved in the first place." He thought about the night of their breakup, long ago. "I'm sorry for everything you suffered because of me."

Barlow realized how tired he was, having been up for over twenty-four very intense hours. He closed his eyes, then opened them, worried he might fall asleep. He sighed. "I never thought I'd be moving back to Perry County and taking over Dad's company. Ten years ago, I would've told you it would never happen."

Barlow's return and solving of the mystery surrounding that fateful night made him contemplate whether he and Pet were actually destined to be, brought together again by some higher power. "Petronia Henning, I want you in my life. I need you. That is, if you still want me." He paused. "Will you give us a second chance?"

She was sedated and couldn't hear his words, but Barlow could swear she squeezed his hand.

She was sedated and couldn't hear his words, but Barlow could swear she squeezed his hand

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One more chapter to go!  Will Pet and Barlow get their happy ending?

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