valley at the base of the hill right in front of him. Just past the other side of the road, a small, white house sat amidst a cluster of trees that threatened to consume it, their branches wrapping the old wooden bungalow within their bare limbs. The decaying white paint peeled in layers from the pale wood beneath, betraying the years of abandonment that had begun its slow road to dissolution.

    Biting the inside of his lip, Harry started with a lurch, forcing himself forward, his unblinking eyes still fixed on the house. Each breath came increasingly quickly, his chest shuddering, bordering on the verge of hyperventilation. Stumbling down the hill, he fought with his trembling legs, urging them onward with nothing more than the meek resolution of his feeble will, akin to an inmate’s final stroll down death row en route to his execution.

    Thoughts came in jumbles, fragmenting within his reeling mind. He was unable to even begin to comprehend them. It was all that he could do to keep himself moving forward. If there were anybody else who could do this task, he would have more than willingly stepped aside and allowed them to do so. But this was his curse, his cross to bear… and his alone.

    Stumbling up the shoulder of the road from the bottom of the hill, he gingerly planted that first step atop the asphalt, shuffling his feet slowly across the ice-covered surface. The wind raced down the road, shoving him with what felt like human hands from his right, trying mercilessly to knock him to the ground, to break him.

    Harry eased from the street onto the stone walkway leading up to the covered front porch of the house and stared, unbelievingly, straight ahead, his breath catching in his tight lungs. Thick roots from the mighty maples encircling the dilapidated house jut forth from the frozen earth, protruding from the long, untended lawn like fingers. The walkway in front of him was layered with several inches of snow, uninterrupted as far as he could see to either side. Bare branches rattled atop the roof of the house, scraping like fingernails on a chalkboard from side to side, bending to the will of the wind.

    Inching forward, he shuddered his way to the pair of wooden steps leading up to the porch. Grabbing hold of the thin, ratty railing tightly with both hands, he urged himself up the crumbling steps and onto warped wooden planks, bowing in attempt to pry their own rusted nails from the supports. The brass lockbox he had placed on the doorknob himself nearly two decades ago, rested on the porch between his feet, the solid metal loop that wrapped around the doorknob snapped right down the middle. He just stared down at it, fearing what he might see if he looked up.

    Reaching down with trembling fingers, he gripped the useless piece of brass tightly in his right hand and shoved it deep into the outer pocket of his dark blue parka. His lower lip squirmed against his upper, fists clenching at his sides, pumping and releasing several times before wrapping themselves into one final knot. A shot of pain ripped through his mouth at the beckoning of the frozen teeth that ground fiercely atop one another, tearing a sliver from the inside of his lower lip in the process. His breath shot like a bull from his nose while he summoned his failing courage, and with one quick motion he lifted his head and stared directly through the open front door and into the darkened house.

    His mind raced back to that night in 1972, the night that would forever change his life. It was still remarkably vivid in his mind; the smell of the heavily falling snow dampening the freshly shed aspen leaves still resonating in his senses. And more than anything, he could feel the full pangs of the terror, lashing out at him from deep within his chest, threatening to suck the air out of his lungs.

    Professional life for Harry had begun with the most noble of intentions. Like his father before him, he had been drawn into the field of medicine, not by the promise of the largely bloated paychecks, but by the desire to help people. Trite though that may sound, in his case it had been true. There had been those wonderfully long summer days in the small mountain town where he had grown up, riding in the passenger seat next to his father, pipe jutting from his stone jaw, driving down those washboard-riddled country roads. At first, it had seemed like a never-ending series of house calls, but the older he got, and the more he began to understand the intricacies of the profession, the more he became completely in awe of his father. The man had dedicated his life to the betterment of those around him, taking payment in whatever form the patients were able to provide. Be it the tough and stringy meat from their mountain grazing herds of cattle or the often awkwardly designed hand-made garments that Harry had ended up wearing to school to considerable discomfiture. There was even a short period when he had been embarrassed by his father, by the fact that all he seemed to do was work, yet they still lived a mere notch above poverty in that trailer in the middle of the woods. But that had all changed in one single instant after he had witnessed his father climb through the shredded metal of a wicked traffic accident and pull a horribly mangled, blood-drenched man from the wreckage. The man’s eyes had rolled back beneath his crimson-soaked brow, his limp and swelling tongue parting his lips. He looked beyond dead; nothing more than a slab of meat that his father leaned over like a hungry scavenger. But there had been magic in his father’s hands. His old man had stopped the bleeding from the gusher beneath the man’s armpit and seemingly brought him back to life right there on that dirt crossroads in the middle of nowhere without the help of a dozen nurses and surgeons. It was at that precise moment that he knew there was nothing in the world he wanted more than to be just like his father.

He had raced through his undergraduate studies and graduated at the top of his class in medical school. It had been a rough road; sacrificing his personal life for the sake of his professional. First dates had been few and far between, and there had been only a handful of seconds. But it had never felt as though he had given anything up because his heart had always been in it, at least until he was off on his own.

It wasn’t until the end of his residency that he got to see the true face of modern medicine, the business of it. And it was enough to turn his stomach. Patients in need of treatment were being turned away because they couldn’t afford to pay. Others were being shipped across town, regardless of the consequences, to the community wards. He had been there at the start of what would become managed care, as doctors and their practices, hospitals, and patients alike were being bought and sold on the open market. Profits were being placed ahead of patient welfare.

The bottom line was filling the morgue.

After finishing his tenure in the emergency room, the thought of negotiating his private practice with the financial powers that be was more than he could stomach. His own father had been forced to close the doors of his practice, and managed care had, in all senses of the word, killed him. The now old man’s practice had crumbled in a matter of years and he sat alone in a folding chair in the wild grasses in front of the trailer staring off into the woods, while Harry’s mother had slowly died from abandonment in that desolate double-wide in the middle of nowhere.

Being a doctor was supposed to be noble. To be able to help give life, to save life, was a gift bordering on the divine. It was never meant to be a business; never meant to be proprietary.

And there he found a little loophole, without sacrificing his soul.

He had taken a post working for the state. They had been bowled over receiving an applicant with his credentials. Understandably, the best and the brightest were lured to the private sector by the calling of fame and fortune. Those that somehow couldn’t cut it were the hiring pool which the state had no choice but to fish from for the low paying jobs and the long hours they were forced to demand.

Harry became a field operative for the State of Colorado Medical Advisory Board. His first salary had been $18,500 in 1972, paltry even for the times, but it had been closer to the job his father had done decades before, and as close as he was going to come to truly helping people without forsaking the Colorado wilderness for some mosquito-infested grass hut on the snake-infested banks of the Amazon.

He followed up on the care of children within the system: in orphanages, foster homes, and recent adoptions, providing care when need be, but mainly ensuring that their health and physiological needs were being met by their state provisions. He treated inmates in prison on a rolling schedule, and helped to oversee worker’s compensation claims in some of the larger meat packing plants in the area. These were the dregs of society, the people that corporate medicine would rather see lying beside the road in a gutter full of blood than on one of their pristine, stainless steel tables being treated by one of their overpriced surgeons. These were Harry’s people.

It wasn’t his initial calling, but it was enough. He could wake up every morning and look himself in the eye. And he knew that he was helping people, especially those who actually needed it.

Then, one bitterly cold morning, on a day not so different from this one, everything had changed.

He could remember tossing the manila envelope with the case information onto the passenger seat of his tan Buick Century and sliding behind the wheel. Watching his breath form a frozen cloud in front of his eyes, staining the inside of the windshield, he had turned the key in the ignition several times before the car had finally come to life. The snow had just begun to spit lazily from the barely clouded sky at that point, just tiny flakes at first, and the

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