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Almost every morning when I walked out of my apartment house on East Fifty-first and turned left toward Third Avenue there was a man sleeping up against the building wall; a young man half covered by the dirty blanket he was lying on. Or he might be awake, sitting up, hunched over, preoccupied with whatever it was he thought about. Sometimes he fixed me with startlingly penetrating eyes. Nothing unusual about any of this except that the young man had curly dark sideburns, thick glasses he never seemed to take off, a shiny, baggy black suit (likewise) and a yarmulke. My lover Eve, a fugitive in her teens from Hasidic Brooklyn, informed me the sideburns are called payess. She agreed with me it was strange to see such a person—Orthodox Jews being a famously tight-knit community—making his home on the street.
Each time I saw him my sympathy and curiosity were aroused, and each time I would pass him by without stopping. Occasionally Eve would spend the night at my place, and the first morning she set eyes on the poor guy (we were leaving for work together) she stopped, took a fiver out of her bag and tucked it into the crook of his arm. That was one of the days he was still asleep.
"You shouldn't have done that," I told her. "Now he'll never go away—assuming someone doesn't steal it before he wakes up."
"I pushed it down where it won't show. Anyway, you'll lose him when it turns cold."
"That may not be for another couple of months. It isn't that I wouldn't like to give him something," I justifiedmyself, "but I don't want him expecting a handout every time he sees me."
"Well, he didn't see anybody this time, so you're in the clear."
"But he'll still think it's a good spot for picking up money," I grumbled.
Why am I starting off like this? My story is about something else ... something that began a few weeks later, in October, on a morning after I'd got well past my conscience-nagger on the sidewalk. I was—here's where the story opens—going through the mail in my office when my secretary, Altagracia Rosario, announced that Dr. Stokes was on the phone.
I picked up and said good morning.
"Bert, can you spare me a few minutes?"
"If you can make it."
"I'll be right over."
T. Graydon Stokes, M.D., is Director of Westside General Hospital, sister institution to the Krinsky Research Center where I'm Director of Media Relations. I've been in his special good graces since a year ago when I bumbled my way into solving the murders of two Krinsky scientists, Frawley and Dixon. Since hospital and research center are separate entities, his path and mine don't cross very often. I wondered, as I made my way from Krinsky through the street-level corridor to the adjoining building, why Stokes wanted to see me.
"How about some coffee?" he greeted me as I walked into his office, maybe ten times the size of mine and handsomely furnished. He transferred a cup and saucer he was holding from his right to left hand so we could shake.
"That'd be fine."
"Have a seat." He nodded toward two club chairs and I chose one as he moved to the door and told his secretary "Coffee for Mr. Swain, please." I heard her ask, "Cream and sugar?" "Just black," I called.
Stokes came back and sat in the other chair, setting his coffee down on a small table between us. He was a slim, elegant, grayhaired man who looked the way a diplomat is supposed to look—and if he does, you distrust him. He also commanded a diplomatic aplomb that I'd had seen in action, especially at a public meeting where he'd defended Westside Medical Center's plans for a $100-million expansion program against hostile neighborhood residents. (Westside Medical Center includes the hospital, Krinsky and Manhattan Medical College, for which Westside General is the teaching hospital. The construction was now under way in spite of the noisy opposition.)
Waiting for my coffee, Stokes made small talk. How had I been? He'd seen a story in the Times that I must have had something to do with—a report on a new treatment being tested at Krinsky for Hansen's disease. I acknowledged I'd placed the story. He said I ought to be pleased with the coverage Krinsky had been getting; it showed I was on my toes. I felt flattered, which obviously was how he wanted me to feel, because after the coffee came and he'd instructed his secretary to shut the door behind her, he said he had a favor to ask.
"As you probably know," he began, "the police don't seem to be getting anywhere with the Jarrell case."
I nodded. I'd pretty much stopped thinking about it for exactly that reason. Donald Jarrell, a trial lawyer aged thirty-eight, had been a patient in Westside General, recovering from injuries of the head and upper body, when he was found dead in bed in the middle of the night—poisoned. Checking into the hospital, he had given a patently phony explanation of how the injuries had been incurred: a fall down some stairs—location unspecified. As for the poison that had killed him, post-mortem chemical analysis indicated it was an organic phosphate, some kind of cholinesterase inhibitor; but precisely which one, and how it had been obtained and ingested, remained a mystery.
Naturally, the press, radio and television had had a field day with this juicy affair. Murder? Suicide? In—of all places—a hospital, where patients were supposed to be under constant supervision. It certainly didn't make Westside General look good.
I was beginning to get the picture: I'd cracked Frawley-Dixon, ergo I was the man to tackle Jarrell.
Stokes's next words confirmed my reading: "It's the consensus among our staff and board of governors that we probably have nothing to look forward to from the police. Jarrell's death is a black mark against us—a mark we're going to have to erase ourselves. Or at least make a damn good try. You did such a superb job last time ... we need your help again."
Hardly an invitation to gladden my soul on an autumn morning crisp with promise. Assembling the pieces of that first puzzle had taxed my poor brain to the limit. It had taken time away from the public relations duties I'd been hired for. And it had been dangerous. I'd damn near got myself killed.
Setting aside for the moment the question of "superb job" (luck and dumb persistence had had a lot to do with my success), I really didn't feel like playing detective again. Even more than having to neglect my P.R. responsibilities, which I'd still be held accountable for, I didn't relish the possibility of being eliminated if someone thought my sleuthing was cutting too close to the bone.
"I'm flattered you people think I could erase the mark. I'm not at all sure I can. And there's another thing: my job. Krinsky still pays my salary but you're asking me to work for Westside General."
"No problem," said Stokes. "I've already spoken to Dr. Cromart and he'll lend you, part time." Cromart was my boss, Krinsky's director.
Deflated, I had to admit that Cromart probably did have the right to decide how to use me. And he's always sucking up to Stokes, I reminded myself. Stokes's M.D. is bigger than his Ph.D. If I say no, he's going to feel let down and I'll suffer his displeasure in one way or another.
Besides, I reasoned (why was I so quick to see the other guy's point of view?), Jarrell's death shouldn't be allowed to go unsolved. Murder in a hospital is like murder in a church—it undercuts the foundations of what little civilization we have left. If he was murdered, the murderer must pay.
And, let's face it, I was intrigued by the mystery. Now that I'd been offered the chance to work on it, I found I really wanted to know what happened.
Bertram Swain, pushover.
"I'll give it a try," I said.
Excerpted from NO GOOD DEED by Paul Nathan. Copyright © 1995 by Paul Nathan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.