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Stitches In Time

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“I can see you now.”

The words, spoken quietly as Dr. Bergman poked his head out his office door into the corridor, barely registered in Steve McGarrett's consciousness. He continued to sit, unmoving except for the slow, steady rise and fall of his shoulders, and the occasional blink of unfocussed eyes staring blankly at the narrow seam where the floor met the wall. It took a nudge from his companion, Colonel Ken Hart, to get the detective to look up and acknowledge the presence of the coroner.

“What? Oh, Doc,” Steve said. He stood, pushing himself up and out of the metal-framed chair, his motions awkward as he gingerly cradled his left hand with his right. A gentle grip at his elbow helped steady him on his feet, and he glanced in surprise at the tall uniformed man standing beside him.

“Okay, Steve?” said Ken Hart.

“Yeah, let's go.” Steve followed Bergman in the door, through the stainless steel chill of the autopsy room that was the coroner's domain, and into a small office on the far side. Col. Hart trailed behind them, snagging a stool on the way and perching on it in the doorway.

Dr. Bergman waved an arm at the chair beside his desk. “Sit down over here, Steve,” he said, pausing at the small sink in the corner of the office to wash and dry his hands. He snapped on a pair of latex gloves, then reached for a small metal tray covered with an olive green cloth. “When I got the call that you were coming in, I had the emergency room send down a suture tray.” The doctor poked at the instruments which were laid out in a neat row. “It all seems to be in order, so let's have a look at that hand.”

The detective laid his left arm down on Bergman's desk, wincing at the movement. He watched as the coroner started to loosen the bloodied white cloths he had wrapped around his hand while still on the airplane. The wound from Ralston’s bayonet had bled profusely, right from the start, and his linen handkerchief had quickly become saturated. An additional square provided by Col. Hart had helped, but not much.

Bergman harrumphed softly under his breath, and picked up a pair of scissors. “I'm going to cut this away, Steve,” he said. “Try not to move your hand as I pull the edges away from the wound.” Working slowly, his touch gentle, the doctor snipped the fabric layers, finally peeling them back from the centre of Steve's palm.

Other than the slight tightening of his jaw, there was no visible reaction from McGarrett. Beside him, however, Ken Hart sucked in a deep breath at the sight of the long, angry gash on his friend's hand. “Good God, Steve,” he said. “That looks awful!”

“I'm sure it looks worse than it actually is, right, Doc?” Tight with tension, Steve's voice lacked its usual conviction.

Bergman frowned. “I'll reserve judgement on that until I've cleaned it up a bit,” he said. He picked up a small stainless basin and filled it with warm water at the sink. Setting it down on the desk beside Steve's arm, he moistened a square of gauze and dabbed gently at the darkened, drying blood.

Steve inhaled sharply, then visibly clenched his jaw and looked away.

The coroner watched his move through narrowed eyes. “Are you in a lot of pain, Steve?” he said. “Because if you are, I can give you a shot of mild painkiller, in addition to the lidocaine I'm about to inject into your hand. It will help you relax a bit.”

“I'm fine.” The response was short and clipped.

Dr. Bergman hesitated for a brief moment, then continued with his cleaning of Steve's hand. “Let me know if you change your mind,” he said. “I think you're going to be a while here. This is going to take some time.”

Once the dried blood had been wiped away, the damage to Steve's palm was much more visible. The bleeding had mostly stopped, but the cut caused by Rolston's bayonet was long and more than superficially deep. The coroner set down the bloodied gauze, and wiped his gloved fingers on a clean cloth before picking up a syringe filled with a clear liquid. “I'm sorry, Steve, this is going to sting a bit,” he said. “Remember, my offer still stands.”

Ken Hart flinched in sympathy as the doctor injected lidocaine into several spots in Steve's hand, often coming very close to the edge of wound, in an effort to produce the maximum effect of the numbing compound. The military officer watched his companion, but he saw nothing other than a further rigidness to his set jaw and a tightly clenched right hand.

The doctor was also monitoring his patient closely, although a bit more surreptitiously. He capped the syringe and set it down on the tray, then reached for a second, smaller one, only to find Steve staring at him with a raised brow. With a shake of his head he returned his gaze to the task at hand, laying out the fine surgical thread and preparing to insert the needle for the first stitch.

“Tough one, eh, Steve.” It was more a statement than a question from Bergman, spoken into what had become a long moment of quiet.

The silence stretched again, and Ken Hart stepped into the breech. “You saw the first two victims, Doctor,” he said. “And there was very nearly a third, today.” He shook his head. “Such a senseless waste...”

“ 'It's a pointless, vicious world we're trying to stay alive in, isn't it?' ”

Both Dr. Bergman and the colonel looked up at Steve's words.

“Just something the friend of the first victim said, after we were finished questioning her,” Steve said, by way of explanation.

“With her husband away in Viet Nam, and her friend murdered, I can understand why she would feel that way,” the doctor said. “We all see enough evidence of that, sometimes on a daily basis.”

“Hmm…” The colonel shifted on the metal stool. “It’s your job. And mine, and Steve’s. But one thing we don’t expect is for our families to be exposed to it as we are. We all work long and hard to try and keep it from happening.” He frowned. “Unfortunately for that poor woman, the violence of her husband’s world crossed into her own… through no fault of either of them.”

“One of my officers once asked me why I just couldn’t let things go,” Steve said. “Why I always had to be the cop, and pursue it through.” He paused, turning his gaze towards Ken. “It was the same when I was in Naval Intelligence, as a young investigator. I was always at work, always on duty…”

Ken nodded. “Junior officers always bear the brunt of the long hours,” he said. “There were days I left work at midnight and was back before eight the following morning. Days where I didn’t even see my wife.” He took a deep breath, then added, “Not to mention training, then deployment.”

“It takes a special kind of woman to live with that,” Bergman said. “I was lucky. My wife comes from a military family. She knew what she was in for, even if I didn’t!” He touched the plain golden band on his left hand, absently spinning it around a couple of times. “She stuck with me through Korea, and she even puts up with my hours now!” A fleeting smile quickly faded, however, as he continued. “But she was never, ever threatened or targeted by anything to do with my service, or my work since.” The doctor shook his head.

“Mine knew, or at least, she thought she did.” Ken Hart was abrupt. “All ready to be a military officer’s wife. Until I was deployed for an eight-month tour and ended up staying for eighteen.” He waved off Bergman’s understanding gaze. “In the end, she wasn’t there for me to come home to.” For a long moment the man was gone, taken by a thousand-yard stare into the distant past. “I’ve never had the motivation, or the opportunity, for that matter, to give married life another try.”

There was silence for a minute or two, broken only by the occasional clink of Bergman’s instruments onto the tray beside him.

“Steve, you never married, did you.” It was part question, part statement, from Col. Hart.

“No.” Steve watched the doctor’s fingers move over the table where his hand rested, tying off yet another stitch. “The timing just never seemed right, somehow. Duty, and deployment, like you, Ken,” he said. “Then it just seemed like too much time had passed for me to think about a family. And now…” He shook his head. “Being a cop is dangerous work. I’ve had cases where my officers’ families were directly targeted! I watched them work through it, because they’re damned good men, and their wives, well, they’re strong, capable cop’s wives.”

“Easy.” Dr. Bergman said, setting down the suture and lightly resting his gloved hand on Steve’s clenched right fist.

“Yeah.” Steve took a deep breath. “The short answer is, Ken, I’m not sure I could ask any woman to put herself into that position for me. Now, or ever.”

The room was silent again for a time.

“This war has given us casualties in ways we could never have imagined,” Ken said finally. “Our soldiers in theatre, of course, that was to be expected. And in hospitals, both overseas and stateside.” He stood abruptly, jerkily, pushing the stool out from under him. “But how many families have been, or will be, torn apart by a man’s anger and violence that he carries home with him?”

“It’s a senseless waste of life.” Bergman’s words were spoken quietly. “Soldiers, civilians… victims all of them.”

“Amen.” Either or both of the other men could have said it.

“Okay, Steve.” The doctor placed a clean patch over the neat line of stitches on Steve’s palm, and gently taped it down. Reaching into a drawer of the desk, he pulled out a roll of gauze, and began winding it around his hand, using more tape to secure it above the wrist. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, take it easy for a while… Keep your hand elevated; even better, keep it in a sling for a few days! I can take you up through Emergency to get one.” He held up his hand to forestall Steve’s protest. “This also needs to stay clean and dry. You can stop by here to have the dressing changed each day. If you’re very good, I’ll be able to take the stitches out in about ten days.”

“Come on, Steve.” Ken Hart stepped forward. “I’ll give you a ride home.”

Dr. Bergman rummaged in his desk again, and handed the colonel a small bottle of pills. “Painkillers,” he said. “Make sure he takes one before you leave him. And then, Steve,” he added, looking the detective straight in the eye. “You need to take them, at least for a couple of days… the hand is very sensitive, not only to touch, but to pain when it’s injured.”

“I’ll take care of it.” Ken ignored Steve’s frown, and slipped the bottle into his pocket. “Come on, my friend,” he said again. “It’s been a long day.”

“Yes, it has.” Steve stood slowly, sombrely. “Thanks, Doc, Ken.”

Dr. Bergman watched as the men filed out, then picked up the suture tray and followed them through the dim, cool morgue. At least this time, his handiwork was walking away, not remaining behind on a table.