By Bill Fitzhugh
Published by William Morrow & Company
March 2003; 0-380-97758-3; 448 pages
Unchain My Heart
Pete was hauling ass. He was driving a bloodred Dodge Viper with a 450-horsepower V-10. In his rearview Pete could see LAPD chasing as if he'd killed a cop.
It was daybreak. The sun warmed the particulates in the air above Los Angeles. Another tequila sunrise. They were in the hills of Encino. The roads were narrow and winding like a snake, but the Viper hung tight. After a series of daring turns, Pete assumed the confident look of a man who believed he had gotten away. He started to laugh until he fishtailed around a corner and saw ten police cars blocking the road.
There was only one way out, and it was a long shot. The sort of thing to make even a stunt driver hesitate. But Pete accelerated. There was a splinter of space between one end of the police barricade and a house on the corner lot. At the last second, with police firing like an antiaircraft battery, Pete cut the wheels. He slipped the Viper through the tiny space in a blister of sparks, shearing off both side mirrors. Pete saw a flash of Looney Tunes as he raced past a big-screen television in the living room. He crashed out the bay window on the other side and went airborne. When Pete landed, he lost control. His seat belt tore loose as the Viper rolled violently down the hill. It finally slammed to a stop against a huge metal light pole and burst into flames.
Almost immediately a dozen men and women with chemical extinguishers were putting out the fire. A woman raced over, dropping to her hands and knees. She leaned into the overturned car. She saw that the roll cage had buckled. "Hey! Mardell! You okay?." There was no reply.
His real name was Mardell Coleman. Pete was just a character in another over-budget action movie. Mardell was a stunt driver -- "was" being the operative word. His helmet had cracked like a three-minute egg, and he was slipping into a coma. "Get an ambulance!" the woman yelled.
As they dragged Mardell from the car, a Shotmaker camera truck pulled up. From his elevated seat the film's director looked down at the carnage, deeply saddened. He considered the trouble of finding a new driver, then turned to his director of photography. "I think that's a keeper, don't you?"
- - - - - -
Spence Tailor didn't really have a suit personality. There were only three occasions for which he would wear one: funerals, court appearances, weddings. Now that he was thirty-nine, the majority of his friends were already married, so he rarely got invited to weddings anymore. Like most people, Spence did his best to stay out of court, but he was a litigator, so it was hard to avoid altogether. When he was standing in the halls of the courthouse with his shaggy blond hair and his coat buttoned against his trim build, Spence could have been an older surfer going to trial for holding a little weed. He had a compassionate bearing and soothing brown eyes, but they weren't looking at a courtroom today.
Spence stood at the back of the crowd with hands folded as they lowered Alan Caplan's casket into the ground. Respectful and unobtrusive. He wasn't family, and he'd met the deceased only a couple of times, briefly. Still, he couldn't help but cry. The boy was just fifteen, a real sweet kid. Never even got his driver's license. How crappy is that? Spence thought.
It happened like this. Alan's father came to Spence for help late one afternoon, just walked in and sat down, unannounced. In his work Spence saw a lot of people in hard circumstances. Mr. Caplan looked exhausted and overwhelmed, unsure where to start. After a moment he got the words out. "Do you know how painful bone cancer is, Mr. Tailor?"
Spence looked at the weary older man and shook his head. "No, sir, I don't."
Mr. Caplan told the sort of story Spence had heard too many times. Fifteen-year-old with bone cancer in his femur and his scapula. Osteosarcoma. Unremitting pain. Expensive treatment the HMO deemed inappropriate and refused to pay for, knowing the patient would die long before a lawsuit might force them to change policy. Good way to keep costs down. "You can see how much he hurts." The words came hard. "It's awful being so close, standing right there, not being able to help your own child."
"How long did the doctors say he had, Mr. Caplan?"
"Long enough to suffer more than anyone should have to." He couldn't seem to look Spence in the eye. Too ashamed he couldn't do more. I spent all I had for some treatments, but they weren't enough." Mr. Caplan put a hand over his eyes. "All he wants now is to die, with some dignity, you know?"
"Yes, sir. I understand." Spence knew he'd take the case. Man's institutional inhumanity to his fellowman was the sort of thing that triggered a switch inside. Spence lived to fight for causes. But it wouldn't be easy. A lot of things working against them. He wished he could give Mr. Caplan assurances, but he knew the truth was better. I assume you know that, uh, euthanasia is illegal in California?"
Mr. Caplan wiped his eyes and looked at Spence. "What I know is, it's his life, and nobody -- not me, not the government, not some church group -- nobody gets to decide what he can and can't do with it at this point. Not now. He's going to die soon. He just wants to take control of the process instead of having it control him. He wants to make the last decision of his life, you know?"
Spence nodded respectfully. "Have you contacted any organizations -- "
Spence Tailor is a lawyer who actually cares about doing the right thing. Opting out of a lucrative career as a corporate shark, Spence chose instead to fight injustice on behalf of the poor and needy.
Spence's dear old mom, Rose Tailor, has advanced dilated cardiomyopathy and the rarest blood type. Waiting patiently, Rose has worked her way to the top of the UNOS transplant list. She's first in line for the next available AB-negative heart.
Meanwhile, the presidential election is three months away and the incumbent, President Webster, plans to run for a second term. All systems are go until his heart craps out while jogging for a photo op. President Webster needs a transplant if he's going to live through November 4th. But wouldn't you know it? He, too, is AB-negative. The odds of finding a heart are terrible.
But lo and behold, a heart becomes available and Rose goes to the hospital to await the harvest.
However, the White House chief of staff, unwilling to wait for nature to take its course, orders the FBI to swoop in, prompt the harvest, and steal Rose's heart in the name of democracy.
When Spence learns someone is trying to steal what rightfully belongs to his mom, he goes into action. Along with his reluctant older brother, Spence steals the heart and goes on the run, inadvertently kidnapping a beautiful cardiac surgery resident along the way.
The president's people -- the FBI and the Secret Service -- give chase hoping to get the heart back before its ischemic time expires.
The president's political opponent is Senator Peggy Check who happens to sit on an obscure Senate Intelligence subcommittee. When she hears terrorists have stolen the heart intended for her political opponent, the senator sends the CIA to make sure the terrorists succeed at their objective -- whatever it might be.
With his ingenious imagination and sharp, biting wit, one of America's brightest comic novelists takes us on a frenzied road trip featuring a broad satiric meditation on politics, democracy, the media, and the current state of the health care system. Ultimately Fitzhugh raises the question: What would you do if it was your mother?(back to top)
Bill Fitzhugh was born in 1957 and grew up in Jackson Mississippi. Fitzhugh began writing professionally in high school, through a Junior Achievement Program, in which he wrote and narrated a series of radio programs tracing the history of various rock and roll bands. He started workin the overnight shifts and after graduation he became the morning drive DJ at the station. Later, Bill attended Belhaven College, University of Southern Mississippi and then moved to Seattle to attend the University of Washington where he earned a degree in psychology. He collaborated on radio scripts with a friend and eventually moved to Los Angeles where has worked television and film. He and his wife still live in Los Angeles, California.