La Clinica de Salud Publica was actually a converted elementary school and didn’t much resemble a hospital at all. It was a long, one‑story brick building with huge windows and a rusted swing set out back. Becker headed up the crumbling steps.
Inside, it was dark and noisy. The waiting room was a line of folding metal chairs that ran the entire length of a long narrow corridor. A cardboard sign on a sawhorse read oficina with an arrow pointing down the hall.
Becker walked the dimly lit corridor. It was like some sort of eerie set conjured up for a Hollywood horror flick. The air smelled of urine. The lights at the far end were blown out, and the last forty or fifty feet revealed nothing but muted silhouettes. A bleeding woman . . . a young couple crying . . . a little girl praying . . . Becker reached the end of the darkened hall. The door to his left was slightly ajar, and he pushed it open. It was entirely empty except for an old, withered woman naked on a cot struggling with her bedpan.
Lovely. Becker groaned. He closed the door. Where the hell is the office?
Around a small dog‑leg in the hall, Becker heard voices. He followed the sound and arrived at a translucent glass door that sounded as if a brawl were going on behind it. Reluctantly, Becker pushed the door open. The office. Mayhem. Just as he’d feared.
The line was about ten people deep, everyone pushing and shouting. Spain was not known for its efficiency, and Becker knew he could be there all night waiting for discharge info on the Canadian. There was only one secretary behind the desk, and she was fending off disgruntled patients. Becker stood in the doorway a moment and pondered his options. There was a better way.
“Con permiso!” an orderly shouted. A fast‑rolling gurney sailed by.
Becker spun out of the way and called after the orderly. “?Donde esta el telefono?”
Without breaking stride, the man pointed to a set of double doors and disappeared around the corner. Becker walked over to the doors and pushed his way through.
The room before him was enormous‑an old gymnasium. The floor was a pale green and seemed to swim in and out of focus under the hum of the fluorescent lights. On the wall, a basketball hoop hung limply from its backboard. Scattered across the floor were a few dozen patients on low cots. In the far corner, just beneath a burned‑out scoreboard, was an old pay phone. Becker hoped it worked.
As he strode across the floor, he fumbled in his pocket for a coin. He found 75 pesetas in cinco‑duros coins, change from the taxi‑just enough for two local calls. He smiled politely to an exiting nurse and made his way to the phone. Scooping up the receiver, Becker dialed Directory Assistance. Thirty seconds later he had the number for the clinic’s main office.
Regardless of the country, it seemed there was one universal truth when it came to offices: Nobody could stand the sound of an unanswered phone. It didn’t matter how many customers were waiting to be helped, the secretary would always drop what she was doing to pick up the phone.
Becker punched the six‑digit exchange. In a moment he’d have the clinic’s office. There would undoubtedly be only one Canadian admitted today with a broken wrist and a concussion; his file would be easy to find. Becker knew the office would be hesitant to give out the man’s name and discharge address to a total stranger, but he had a plan.
The phone began to ring. Becker guessed five rings was all it would take. It took nineteen.
“Clinica de Salud Publica,” barked the frantic secretary.
Becker spoke in Spanish with a thick Franco‑American accent. “This is David Becker. I’m with the Canadian Embassy. One of our citizens was treated by you today. I’d like his information such that the embassy can arrange to pay his fees.”
“Fine,” the woman said. “I’ll send it to the embassy on Monday.”
“Actually,” Becker pressed, “it’s important I get it immediately.”
“Impossible,” the woman snapped. “We’re very busy.”
Becker sounded as official as possible. “It is an urgent matter. The man had a broken wrist and a head injury. He was treated sometime this morning. His file should be right on top.”
Becker thickened the accent in his Spanish‑just clear enough to convey his needs, just confusing enough to be exasperating. People had a way of bending the rules when they were exasperated.
Instead of bending the rules, however, the woman cursed self‑important North Americans and slammed down the phone.
Becker frowned and hung up. Strikeout. The thought of waiting hours in line didn’t thrill him; the clock was ticking‑the old Canadian could be anywhere by now. Maybe he had decided to go back to Canada. Maybe he would sell the ring. Becker didn’t have hours to wait in line. With renewed determination, Becker snatched up the receiver and redialed. He pressed the phone to his ear and leaned back against the wall. It began to ring. Becker gazed out into the room. One ring . . . two rings . . . three– A sudden surge of adrenaline coursed through his body.
Becker wheeled and slammed the receiver back down into its cradle. Then he turned and stared back into the room in stunned silence. There on a cot, directly in front of him, propped up on a pile of old pillows, lay an elderly man with a clean white cast on his right wrist.