He smelled like fresh kill, leaking blood.  Wet, organic, fecund.  From his nose, mouth, around the IV's, even his pee for Pete's sake.  Time was short but he had a plan to execute before submitting to the endless darkness.   He minded being stuck in the hospital nightmare ICU--nauseated and weak as a drunk cat, fluids of every imaginable sort being added and subtracted from his poor, trashed body.   But he had a point of focus that left him in his surroundings little of the time.  And, importantly, he had a good deal of time to think.  This went beyond obsession; obsession was feeble in comparison.   Like the weather this was huge and inevitable.  He would accomplish this goal in life--although that term was qualified in his case--or he'd come back after his impending death.

His nurse, Sandy, eased calmly up to his bedside.  He liked Sandy, the plain, soft talking, sandy haired nurse, probably in her fifties, and was glad when she was the one taking care of him.  It wasn't just that she worked calmly, confidently, quietly, talking to him only when he wanted.  And it wasn't just that she handled his IV lines with good, aseptic technique--which you'd think you could take for granted but couldn't. these days--not that it mattered in his case anymore but it was the principle.  It was her implicit respect for his situation that made him grateful.  He felt a gentle empathy from her that didn't tread on his heinous helplessness.  Didn't aggravate his pain, or alarm at the state of his diminishing body.  She was one of the rare ones that you could call an angel of mercy.

He knew he'd been poisoned and he knew who'd done it.  He didn't let on though.  The doctors were sending blood for every kind of creepy crawler that could infect a corpse.  They might or might not figure it out, after excluding every disease on the planet (Good insurance does allow for rip roaring medical care.)  If they did it would most likely be post mortem, and that was better because it would leave his playing field untrammeled.

Decent fellow.  Great reputation.  That's what people said about him.  He'd started out as a contractor and became a residential developer.  A very successful and rich residential developer.  

You wouldn't call him a pillar of the community, but he was the pillar of southeast real estate.  He got his materials and  work done pronto because suppliers and subcontractors knew that their pay would show up on time every time.  And his buyers got what they paid for.

He didn't have to cheat because he was smart enough and did it well enough to make his profits without the sly, measly tricks that some builders used.   He didn't underhandedly switch to cheesy materials.  Or use subs that were cheaper because they didn't know what they were doing--or would know what they were doing if they weren't hung over--or did know what they were doing but cut corners so they could collect and go cut corners at the next job.  His clients weren't subjected to exhorbitant demands for payment for purported extras that were actually part of the original contract.  He was one of the good guys.  He had satisfied customers.

The oceans of floral good wishes weren't allowed in the ICU so he asked to have them given to other patients.  He hated having visitors.  The horror on their faces was like a slap--both painful and humiliating.  They were shaken, rearing back wild eyed from physical calamity as well as their own minds' sulfurous demons they attached to death.  They'd mistakenly thought he had a chance for survival, otherwise, with no malice, they wouldn't have made the trip.

Sherry and he hadn't been close for...was it ten years already?  He'd worked too much and the necessities of tending a relationship took more time and energy than he had left at the end of the day.  Besides, like a worm in a bag, he didn't know how to even begin to get a grip on it.  His current, generous  swaths of time allowed him to give it thought, and he could see now that it was his drive for approval even more than for success that rode him so hard in his life.  It was too late to understand it, and  he regretted it but still didn't know how he could have done anything differently.  His wife was like a person hanging out the twentieth floor of a burning building – it was awful, and it was wrong, but earth bound and so far away, what could a mere human being do to make it not so?

He was glad when Sherry put on thirty pounds because it made him feel safer.  She'd be less likely to wander.  If she was less tempting, she'd have fewer temptations.   He actually did love her.  She was his prize.  More than he'd ever expected he'd have.  He'd just never found the hunger to fully own her.  Half was her fault though because she'd wanted better but stopped asking for better.  Her campaign fizzled out a decade and a half ago.  They'd settled for limbo.  But their devotion, germinated in their ecstatic beginnings, could not be extinguished by  the layers of wooden days.  They were both good people and respected each other for it.  Crummy things happen to good people.

The kids, Keith and Erin, thought he was a god.  The investment that he couldn't quite make in his marriage did go into his kids.  As a father he was exacting, consistent, and was always there for the parent teacher conferences, and usually the games and plays.  He didn't lose his temper.  When he saw it coming he had the crisis assessed and his response composed before it hit critical.  Maybe that did make him a sort of parental god.

Keith was pursuing architecture, no doubt because of his father's work, and Erin wanted to be an actress.  She was young and could redirect to another career if acting didn't work out, so he didn't bore the both of them with the lecture about having something to fall back on.   The kids had flown home from their schools when he'd gotten sick and they were ever present visitors.

When the kids visited looking stricken and almost as sick as he was, it didn't bother him too much.  Tolerance he could find for them.  When Sherry visited they did more talking than he would have thought, and it became clear to both of them that they still loved each other...significantly.  

Awareness of the unrealized closeness between them would be incomprehensible.  They did not have time for agonies.  They remembered their early life together with its erotic, transporting, beyond corporeal ecstasies, the "sports" injuries they'd incurred from sex related muscle strains, and how strangers on the street could see what they so transparently radiated, and smiled at them, sometimes making kindly remarks.  

Disciplined and courageous, under other circumstances he would have declared himself on his way out...who needs the torture...nix the tubes and lets meet fate head on...but it wasn't time.  

Talented in marketing, savvy in real estate, and good in construction and design, he'd never needed a partner. He was godlike professionally as well.  He'd carefully hand picked and relied heavily on his construction managers, the two meaty, driven Norsemen, Dale and Harvey.  And on skinny Jeb with his buzzard neck, his estimator/purchasor, who missed an occasional day or week due to overindulgence.  Delores, his accountant, was out of house; she was modest and thorough - very thorough - a bread and butter type whom he preferred over the high dollar jokers who didn't know how to bill at less than a thousand dollars a pop, and they weren't half as good as Delores was.  Working in high dollar quality more than quantity he didn't have the volume to warrant an in house real estate agent so there on the periphery was free lancing, deal-closing Fred, his shrewd, overgroomed agent who looked like a news anchor and was a lady's man only because he set the bar low.

As the father of our country believed, he also believed that a system (here a business rather than a government) should be structured expecting people's worst and not their best - with checks and balances.  Fred had every incentive to leave the purchase prices high, so Dale, Harvey and Jeb got a piece of the company profits, and they involved themselves in the big picture.  Before a substantial purchase they would double check comparables, and sometimes call the seller to get a feel for a deal.  They followed company business like it was their own.  Fred on his part was  in a real estate salesman's heaven, blessed with a golden egg laying goose.  His ever-buying, selling and commission paying customer.  And Fred had every incentive to keep his best client's multimillion dollar deals rolling and to keep his client in good business health.  He'd been a roofing contractor in a past life, and made himself part of the family and a snitch, making astute observations and reports about ongoing projects.  And Dale, Harvey and Jeb knew it.  

It could have been all the same to Delores whether the corporation did well or poorly, but she cared about the business.  He tried to make her feel like she was part of the team, always lauded her finer work for which she was inexpressibly grateful, and after which she'd usually reduce her modest charges.

It was an aggressive, hard driving team.  He compensated well and tried to foster commitment with trips, cruises and other pleasurable outings together .  But he always kept an open mind about mischief.  Sherry hated these affairs.  She couldn't put her finger on it but when she attended one of these good will events, spent time with the group--maybe because she wished she could compete successfully for him--but she always felt uneasy...sort of  hollow.

The big project recently was a change of pace.  It was a commercial complex.  Fred had pushed the idea of getting into rentals.  Building for yourself meant a lower up front investment, and who could argue with a steady influx of cash from rents.  It was a very good idea.  And then Fred could go on to manage it for ten percent

Fred had already lined up a property at a good price.  A great price in fact.  The three hundred and fifty acre rat condo, a n overgrown, stinking, garbage strewn property on the outskirts of the suburbs had been in probate, and the day it became available Fred insinuated himself into the office of the bereaved nephew/heir, and with his con artist skills had made the nephew want, urgently, impulsively, to rid himself of the failing property.  If Fred recognized guilt as a valid emotion, he'd have felt it.  

Now he--or his estate--was the owner of Fox Run, small business and light manufacturing office complex.

What helped the fire sale was the jungle of vegetation and mountains of filthy trash that smothered much of the three hundred and fifty acres of land.  It was a dump.  It needed purification.  It was obvious that preserving the forest of venerable, arching oaks and palms was essential for optimum value, occupancy and rental dollars, and so he opted for the expensive process of a selective cleanup rather than scraping the whole surface.  Dale set up his buddy, their usual landscaping contractor, who exterminated, scooped, handpicked and trucked out the trash, and sprayed herbicides to make the offending herbage vacate the premises.

Twenty acres of the parcel had become serene and green, the complex went up and now, as it came about, his heirs were the owners of Fox Run, small business and light manufacturing office complex.  And the three hundred and thirty more value enhanced acres adjacent to it.  The complex was beautiful in its fully occupied and park like predictability.  A humming center of upper middle class enterprise.  

Fred was uplifted by his new property management responsibilities because the renters were solid citizens - on time rents, no property damage, no disputes.  And for the bother of opening the envelopes and depositing the monies, the no-sweat thou a month was nice petty cash for his dates.  It wasn't that much money, but he liked the idea of dates being free for him too.

It was on the company's long weekend, the escape to the Keys.  He was sure of it.  He was trying to indulge and get the most from his little corporate family.  Sherry was along feeling hollow.  He and Sherry had come to the dinner gathering late, and her gin gimlet and his rum and coke were waiting for them at the table.

He was sure that it was that night because it's when his throat and chest started to burn.  He wasn't a stomach trouble kind of person, but he'd seen the commercials and knew enough to take antacids.  And they didn't help.  And it didn't get better.  He made it home, was admitted to the hospital and still hadn't left.  His lungs were becoming inert slabs of sponge, and when oxygen by nasal cannula couldn't diffuse enough O2 into his blood through his crippled lungs, they forced it in through the tube.

He wouldn't have known about any special interest in the property's mineral rights if the nephew/heir/seller had not called him rabidly claiming deceit, and threatening law suits and worse.  

The mortgage insurance had been issued, the deed was entire, he owned all rights to the land.  But after the gruesome call he'd gone himself to the county record of deeds, and read of the history of the half century old maelstrom of transactions with the mineral rights and surface rights deeded separately much of the time.  Someone at one time had been very interested in what lay beneath.

What the doctors didn't know, and might never find out, was that he'd been cut down like a weed with the herbicide paraquat.  Colorless and tasteless, it would be unnoticeable in a rum and coke.  The poisoning cannot be halted or reversed.  An irrevocable death sentence.  He'd been executed...and in an inconsiderate way.

Paraquat is sequestered in body tissues but concentrated in the lungs.  Even a lung transplant would fail when the new lungs in turn sopped up the lethal compound.  No way out. A robust soul can chat comfortably with you for days while the grim reaper hovers, giddy for his guaranteed harvest.

Sherry didn't understand, but she of course would refuse him nothing.  He'd asked her to request, in his name, a company meeting, including Fred.  It would be in their administrative office at Fox Run where they kept the files.  She would relay for him that he'd been made aware of a possible title defect in the Fox Run property.  She would provide the stack of paperwork, that Delores would give her, for their perusal--which he expected to be intense and lengthy--and then leave.  Meeting at 9 PM; be sure to leave by 9:10 PM, then meet her sister at Rumors Grill.  Then he'd be done..

Delores, hardworking, thorough Delores, was the one who had picked up, after the fact, the murderous plot.  Faithfully pushing out the bookkeeping which had to go on even though all hearts were broken because their decent, generous friend and boss was still mysteriously ill, and getting worse after his seventh day in hospital, she'd overheard the nearly insane whispering in the adjacent office about oil under the Fox Run property...the exponential increase in it's value...and the brainstorming about acquisition...from the estate.

Dale, Harvey and Jeb knew that he would never sell--he had no reason to.  She'd heard the venomous, sweaty, rehashing of their spats.   This investment was successful and secure, and any pressure to buy would draw acute suspicion. 
How generous would an offer to Sherry--overwhelmed and in need of simplification---for the office complex have to be?  Without raising suspicions?She was terrified when she heard the stealthy refining of plans to make the purchase after a death that they took for granted, and when they finally referenced the poisoning as their doing.    Delores trembled, uncharacteristically dropping receipts on her desperately silent way out.

So it was Dale, Harvey and Jeb, but Delores, who was now at home and slamming down glasses of Chardonney, had to wonder about Fred too.  He was the one who sniffed out the property, and the company men weren't ones to dig into property history as long as the title insurance was issued.  Next morning, despite a vintage vertigo, Delores just happened to stop by Fred's office and just happened to remember to ask him if he had in his files a copy of the bill for the Fox Run mortgage insurance policy, and, if he didn't mind, a copy of the policy itself too.  If he could make copies for her it would save her a little trouble.  The rapacious, killing look that he shot her for a millisecond answered her doubts in the affirmative.

In a way he'd felt better when Delores told him that he'd been murdered.  It gave him something to do.  He didn't feel as weak.

On Tuesday at 9:30 PM a gas explosion killed Mr. Dale Hanson and Mr Jeb Brooks.  Mr. Fred Lee died of a heart attack en route to the hospital after being burned over 50 percent of his body, and Mr. Harvey Jensen was burned over 80 percent of his body, was in extremely critical condition and not expected to survive.  Fire investigators found the leak in the gas heater but didn't find the remains of the half burned candle that had been sitting exactly 2 feet off the floor.

On Wednesday, at the main office headquarters, Miss Delores Rush took fifty thousand dollars in cash from his personal office safe and gave it to Nurse Sandy Hall.  She then took fifty thousand dollars for herself, and locked the remaining one hundred thousand dollars in the safe to be recovered for his estate.

Even though she'd just lost her husband, and her yearning for a consummation of their lives would never be appeased, Sherry didn't know who to thank, but she no longer had that hollow feeling.