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Just when smart people were deciding they'd had it with New York, I was listening to its siren song. My old friend from the days when we both wrote for the New York Record, Hazel Claflin, had called this morning and said, "There's an opening here in P.R. at the Krinsky Research Center. Your title would be Director of Media Relations. How about flying up for an interview?"
In the half dozen years since the Record had folded and I'd gone south, New York had been sliding closer to disaster. Kids were shooting each other in the schools or setting the homeless on fire, AIDS victims jammed the hospitals, potholes and drug addicts proliferated, corporations took off for gentler climes and lower taxes, hitmen and madmen roamed the streets.
From where I was sitting New York looked good.
At the moment I was half-turned from my computer, glaring out at Florida's most hated palm tree. Why would anyone hate a palm tree? If you don't like living in Florida, it's easy—and this particular tree happened to be smack in the center of my office window. It was always there—a constant reminder of what I'd settled for in life: blue skies, sand in my shoes and high pay for grinding out tripe for a supermarket tabloid.
The story struggling to be born on my monitor was about poltergeists; Inside Story had been neglecting them lately and had sent me to Pottsville, Pa., to report on the hi-jinks of one of the little nasties. Nothing had occurred while I was there, but the Previt family did include the requisiteadolescent—a sulky boy of fourteen (poltergeist experts believe adolescents set off the manifestations). A cracked mirror over the mantel and scarred dining room furniture were said to have been hit by a flying floor lamp, itself banged up. Neighbors who came to check me out confirmed that on previous visits they'd heard strange tappings in the walls.
Now, seated before my computer keyboard, I was trying to make something out of very little for dimbulb readers. The fact was, however, that my mind wasn't on poltergeists; it was playing with the possibility that I could quit my present idiotic employment for something high class in the Big, if rotting, Apple. According to Hazel, the P.R. job was suddenly available because the previous incumbent had just gotten the boot. She'd tell me why when she saw me.
Hazel was a very busy lady these days. She was Development Director for Westside General Hospital, with which the Krinsky Research Center was affiliated. Hospital and center were jointly engaged in a hundred-million-dollar building fund campaign.
"It sounds great," I'd said when she explained what she had in mind for me, "but my résumé—"
"What's wrong with your résumé? And incidentally, when you present your credentials in the world of medical science, you don't call it a résumé. It's a C.V."
"Curriculum vitae. I know. What's wrong with it is Inside Story. What kind of background is this for the top P.R. spot in a world-famous research facility?"
"How long have you been with The Junk Journal?"
I did a quick calculation. "Year and a half next month."
"When you put the C.V. together make it a year and a half of freelancing. Nobody has to know."
"But before that I was four years on Physicians Quarterly. A nothing publication."
"I've seen it—bought and paid for by the drug companies. It doesn't matter. You're a top medical science writer with terrific media connections."
I paused. Maybe it should have been a longer pause ... permanent. "How's the money?"
"Negotiable, but I'm sure at least as good as you're making."
I had to pay attention to that. I was the main support of my eleven-year-old daughter living with her mother in Toronto. If it hadn't been for my responsibility to Paula, I probably never would have gone to work for Inside Story after being fired from Physicians Quarterly for calling the editor a ball-less wonder. He'd refused to print my exposé on a chain of hospitals run by doctors who were cooking the books and gypping the IRS. I'd known he would. I was itching to quit but wanted to force him to terminate me so I could collect unemployment insurance while I looked for a situation more suited to my talents.
And where did I end up? The Junk Journal, as Hazel so aptly put it.
"When shall I plan to come?"
"I'll ask Cromart to set a date. He's the center director."
"I hope you know what you're doing," I said. "I could be the second Director of Media Relations to end up out on my ass."
"If you make me look bad I'll kill you."
I was at one of those moments when you're forced to take stock of your life. How did I get here, where am I headed? What I'd accomplished by age forty-seven wasn't too impressive. Decreasing job satisfaction. Failed marriage, followed by meaningless affairs. It was hard to remember now that Doreen and I once had fun together. She was pursuing a career then in ballet; I was a reporter—a legitimate one. As it happened, I too liked to dance—ballroom style, to Goodman, Basie, Crosby, Ella et al. on the record player. I was even pretty good at it. The times I coaxed my wife into my arms, to lead her in fancy twirls and dips, may have been the best part of our marriage—for me.
We gave it up after Paula arrived. At two and a half she would show her displeasure when we took to the floor, forcing herself between our legs until we quit. Baby jealousy. Doreen may have been glad to call a halt; my kind of terpsichore was something she condescended to.
Well, no percentage in revisiting old regrets and resentments. I had this damn story to get out of my computer. And after that, a chance to gain back some of my professional self-respect in a new set of circumstances.
Hazel called back the next day, and at ten-thirty a.m. a week later I was in her office in Westside General Hospital.
This lady had never been beautiful or even pretty, but her face was a map of intelligence and humor. When I joined the Record she'd been in the midst of a hot affair with a TV reporter, and although I suspect it was real love on her part she survived the eventual breakup unembittered. By the time my own marriage collapsed Hazel had pitched a tent with somebody else, otherwise I might have gone for her myself. Today, both of us without any serious attachment, we were comfortable in a friendship where sex had been factored out.
My appointment with Dr. John Gromart, the man I'd be trying to sell myself to, was set for eleven.
I said, "Tell me what I have to know before I meet him."
"I'm going to. I like your suit." I was wearing my tropical pinstripe executive navy blue, reserved for summer life or death occasions.
"The first thing I want to know," I prompted, "is what happened to whoever had the job I'm looking at."
"Head of the purchasing department at Krinsky was inflating the bills on lab equipment and supplies and pocketing the overcharges. Been getting away with it for a long time. A new comptroller took over, discovered what was going on and fired him. It was supposed to be hushed up so the big givers on the board wouldn't know the center's bookkeeping was less than perfect. Unfortunately there was a leak—press and TV jumped in and your predecessor got bumped for not being able to control the damage."
"I'm not sure I could've done any better."
"That wasn't the first time he'd screwed up. All things being equal, you shouldn't have to deal with any messes for quite a while, and you do have pals in the press."
"I don't know how many are left."
"Stop being honest! Now let me draw you a plan of organization—you'll see where you fit in."
She put pen to yellow pad and in a minute tore off the sheet and handed it to me:
"Got the picture," I said.
"You notice the two-way arrow between hospital and Krinsky. They cooperate."
"Does the hospital have its own P.R. director?"
"Yes, but he'll keep out of your hair. You know what goes on in Krinsky?"
I had a pretty good general idea; it used to be part of my beat when I was with the Record. "Molecular biology. Genetic engineering. Cancer ... tropical diseases ... I suppose AIDS."
"Definitely AIDS. And there's a new leprosy project. All sorts of things."
"Leprosy? Is Hansen's disease a problem in this country?"
"It's getting to be. Immigrants ... from the Third World." She moved to the next topic. "Now, about our building fund campaign. The hospital and Krinsky both need more space."
"Hundred million bucks you said. How's it going?"
"Not bad. But there's community opposition, you'll run into some of that."
"What are they objecting to?"
"The new construction will cut off light and air, block views, bring more traffic, noise and pollution."
"How about the fact that a bigger hospital and research center should improve people's health?"
"Fine, as long as it's NIMBY—not in my back yard."
"Okay, what else do I have to know?"
"Cromart. He's not the easiest person to get along with. I hear the head of one lab may be planning to leave on account of him."
"Thanks a lot," I said, "for saving the good news until I got here."
"Oh, you can handle him. By the way, we call him Darryl. Behind his back."
"Why is that?"
"You'll see. Okay, let's go." She stood.
From her first-floor office she walked me down the hall and, after a couple of turns, into a long corridor that connected the hospital with the Krinsky building. We became part of a small flow of traffic. Emerging at the far end, we made our way to a bank of elevators and took one up to the seventh floor. Here we stepped out into a sleek designer world. A carved black lacquer Chinese table held an oversize crystal vase containing at least two dozen silvery-pink roses. Underfoot was a springy light-gray broadloom that matched walls lined with vibrant prints, the artists identified for me as we passed: Diebenkorn, Motherwell, Rivers, and other contemporary Americans.
"Cromart demands the best—for himself," said Hazel.
She led me the length of the hall to the last door where we were greeted by a stylish secretary, then ushered into a large, walnut-paneled corner office. Dr. John Cromart was seated behind a partners' desk of imposing proportions; behind him, sunlight poured in through windows curtained with the sheerest of white net.
"Here's your man," Hazel introduced me. "Bertram Swain, ace medical science reporter and P.R. whiz. Bert, Dr. Cromart." With a nod my way: "See you later."
"Thank you, Ms. Claflin." As she left, the center director came round the desk, hand outstretched. "That's quite a buildup. Have a seat."
I chose one of two matching period armchairs. We sized each other up discreetly. Cromart had silver hair, neatly parted at the side and shining as though freshly shampooed. A narrow mustache accented the straight line of his mouth. His eyes were light, cool. He wore a suit that looked like the finest silk.
"So you want to be Director of Media Relations," he said. "Why?"
"Several reasons. I covered medical science for the old Record and I developed a lot of respect for Krinsky. I also made friends with other people on the beat. Most of 'em are still around ... good contacts. I can keep my cool in rough situations. I have a few markers I can call in if I have to. [Not true, but I was taking Hazel's advice re honesty.] I've gone on reporting research since I left New York; what I don't know I can pick up. I'd consider it an honor to be working here and I'll guarantee to do the kind of job you people deserve."
Cromart got to his feet and I wondered what kind of pronouncement he had to deliver that required standing. But saying nothing, he walked along the windowed wall behind him to the corner. There rested a golf bag, out of which he plucked a club. I wouldn't know a brassie from a niblick, but whatever it was, he carried it into the middle of the room, stopped, assumed a stance and took a swing. Hazel's "We call him Darryl" came into my head. I remembered that when Darryl Zanuck was head of 20th Century-Fox he'd been famous for conducting polo practice in his office. Meant, no doubt, to remind the underlings that they were not the most important thing on his mind.
After a few more swings, Cromart left off. "I've read your C.V. and taken a look at Physicians Quarterly. Hazel says there's no need to check your references—she'll vouch for you. Wish I had a woman who'd go to the mat for me like that. How much money are we talking about?"
I told him what I wanted, he told me what they could pay, which was more than I'd hoped to get. We set a starting date, two weeks from next Monday.
Now I'd have to do things like give notice, find a mover, pack, decide whether to sell or keep my Camry (a questionable asset in Manhattan) and say goodbye to my girlfriends, Miriam and Brenda. I was going to miss their cooking. And their beds. I'd miss Carolyn, too, though she was more of a fallback—a terrible cook.
Maybe there was something to be said for Florida after all. Well, too bad, fella—it's a little late in the day for that.
I sold the car the day before I left and arrived in New York feeling like a kid just starting school. Dear Hazel, with all she had to keep her hopping, had made time to check on possible apartments. Only one within my price range measured up to her standards. A quick look and I took it. It was on East Fifty-first Street on the second floor of an elevator building with doorman; one bedroom, a small neat kitchen, nearly adequate closets and a view of the street. It was actually more than I could afford, but if I avoided restaurants, the theater, female companionship, drinking, buying clothes, buying anything, I should be able to skin by. I reminded myself that money is flexible. In the days when Doreen and I were trying to work out our differences by going to psychiatrists, we never had any money yet managed to eat, keep Paula decent and take in an occasional movie.
When I saw my new office in Krinsky I had a twinge of nostalgia for the hated palm tree. The window gave onto a courtyard that served as a delivery area. A truck was unloading metal tanks as I looked down four floors. On the windowsill were a couple of uninspiring plants of the sort that don't require much light and never flower but do have to be watered sometimes and hadn't been lately. Hazel, inspecting the office with me, said to throw those out and she'd replace them. Housewarming present.
A secretary, assigned to me blind, came in as we were leaving. She was a diminutive, olive-skinned young woman: Altagracia Rosario. As I was to discover, I couldn't have done better if I'd hand-picked her.
I spent the next few days going from lab to lab, meeting the center cast of characters and asking what they were working on. In one lab I fell head over heels in lust with a lovely young blond, name of Beth Martin. You'd think at my time of life a man would have simmered down about women, and as a matter of fact it was different in Florida where I had settled arrangements. Here in New York I had yet to find myself even one girl. A couple of sallies to singles bars had provided take-out sex, but I disliked singles bars—especially in the age of AIDS when caution chilled attraction. I wanted something better, a relationship.
Beth Martin, unfortunately, was not for me. That's what I told myself. She was too young—mid twenties at the most—and deserved to be with good-looking, energetic young guys. I resolved to put her out of my mind.
Much of what the lab workers said they were doing was over my head. Like the complicated method by which someone was trying to purify and decipher a substance put out by tumor cells—a protein that suppresses the ability of the immune system to fight the tumor. Or another researcher's technique for using monoclonal antibodies to learn how body cells respond to signals that announce the presence of infection. I promised myself that if and when such studies produced newsworthy information, I'd go back and get them explained again—and again—until I could explain them to science writers.
I phoned those I used to know from my Record days, taking the ol' buddy approach. I let them know I was now at Krinsky, ready to answer questions and arrange interviews with investigators. No one was wildly interested. Then, to prove to my boss that I was a self-starter, I came up with the idea of a monthly newsletter. It would report on projects under way, papers by our researchers appearing in journals, and so on. This would require a budget for printing and mailing, but I figured Cromart would approve and give the go-ahead.
"We're trying to contain costs not add to them," he said sourly when I'd stated my case.
"It should pay for itself," I argued. "Our contributors will see what their money is doing and give more."
"We're already putting the squeeze on them for the building fund!" What kind of a dolt was I to want to divert money from that? He emphasized my stupidity with a swipe of his niblick (?).
"You can handle him," Hazel had said. Ha.
My first crisis came in my second week. Hazel had mentioned that one of the lab heads might quit, and he did, taking his Nobel in physiology with him to a new job in Seattle. The delighted University of Washington School of Medicine trumpeted its coup, and immediately I was getting calls: Why was Dr. Philip Etcheverry decamping?
As soon as I'd learned Etcheverry was leaving, I'd gone to see him and persuaded him not to go public with his reasons—which had to do with Cromart. He'd agreed I could tell anyone who asked that he was making the move primarily to be near his son, who lived in Spokane. If cornered by reporters, he would back me up.
I had begun to lull the suspicions of my callers when POW! Copies of a petition signed by Etcheverry's colleagues fell into media hands. Addressed to Cromart with cc's to the center trustees, the complaint charged the director with responsibility for Etcheverry's resignation. It went on to list such gripes as his arbitrary policy decisions, his inaccessibility, his lack of leadership in a recruitment program for promising young scientists and his too-frequent attendance at conferences next door to golf courses.
Now the situation was beyond my control and word of it got into print and on the air.
Fortunately, most of the people I'd misled about Etcheverry's motivation realized that in my shoes they would have done the same. If they weren't likely to believe everything I told them from now on, at least they could continue to respect my professionalism.
Cromart, forced on the defensive by the protest, had to enlist me as an ally. With my advice and help he drew up a statement promising reforms. After this gesture of good will, outside interest in the troubles at Krinsky faded. There were other, more exciting, scabrous and gruesome stories elsewhere to feed the public's appetite. I knew, and Cromart knew I knew, that any actual improvements would fall short of what he'd guaranteed.
In the meantime I'd done the job I was being paid to do. And, as lagniappe, won Cromart's permission to publish my newsletter. The first one came out and was a hit.
One Tuesday morning in June I was called to Dr. Ralph Wells's office. He headed one of the labs and I'd met him on my getting-acquainted tour. It was in his lab, incidentally, that I'd set eyes on Beth Martin. I looked for her now through an open doorway I passed, but she was not in my line of vision.
Wells was an informal sort—tieless, jacketless—and his office was unpretentious. Heavy-rimmed glasses rested halfway down his nose, but not in an old-fogey professorial way. The nose was decisive, and the set of the glasses gave you the sense that they were a tolerated nuisance. Wells's skin had good outdoor color; he wore his curly brown hair short.
"I guess you're our troubleshooter around here," he began as soon as we were seated, "and we seem to have a problem on our hands."
My heart sank. I'd already had a taste of problems, enough to last me for a while, and here we were again. So much for Hazel's prediction that I wouldn't have any messes to deal with for the foreseeable future. Her batting average was declining precipitously.
"Hopefully," Wells went on, "our little puzzle will solve itself in the next day or two—but if it doesn't, Krinsky doesn't need more bad press. If you know what I mean."
I owned that I did and inquired as to the nature of the puzzle.
"Yesterday one of my staff didn't show up—Faith Frawley. It happened I wasn't here ... I occasionally take Mondays off in the summer, to work around my place in the country, so I didn't hear about it till this morning. Faith's been with me for years, solid as a rock, and she's never been absent without notice. Naturally, I was concerned, so I asked Gordon Barnard—he's the junior investigator on a project with her—to see what he could find out. He'd already tried to reach her on the phone. Now he's just back from Roosevelt Island—that's where she lives. Excuse me." Wells's secretary had just announced through the open door, "Sergeant Brenner."
Wells picked up his phone. "Yes, sergeant.... What! That's wonderful. How did it— ... I see.... I see. I can't thank you enough." There was a rather long pause, then he said, "No. No, that isn't mine. He got that somewhere else.... Well, I guess it was easier for him to lie, to say it was all from the same place.... Yes, I'll drop around later to pick them up. And please thank the officers who ... Oh, probably early this afternoon, as soon as I can make time. Thanks again."
Replacing the handset in the cradle, he turned to me. "I'm in luck! Incredibly lucky in fact. I did something dumb last night—left my car parked in the street while I went into a coffee shop. I was only going to be about ten minutes, the street was brightly lit, it would have taken me as long to park in a garage and walk back as to sit at the counter and have a sandwich and coffee. So I took a chance—and in just a few minutes somebody stole my radio; but what's worse, they broke into the trunk and took a pair of candlesticks—Georgian, over two hundred years old. Some work was supposed to be done on them—a damnfool maid put them in the dishwasher, can you believe that? Anyway, I didn't know how I was going to tell the wife—but here they've been found!"
"That's great!" I managed to get in before he rushed on: "It seems the police have been keeping an eye on a certain fence and when the thief walked in with the stuff I'd just reported, they nabbed him."
"Usually you don't get things back," I said.
"I know. I never expected to. And I was kicking myself for bringing the car into town. Normally, I'd leave a wagon or the Jeep at the station in Mt. Kisco to be waiting for me when I get off the train on Fridays, but this time I had those candlesticks to take to Brooklyn. That's where the fixit man lives—Brighton Beach of all places, he's a Russian, part of that colony. It's pretty far out, so I thought the easiest thing was to drive. Well, I'm boring you with a long story...."
"No, and I don't blame you for feeling good about it."
Settling down to business again, he said, "I was telling you about Gordon Barnard. Did you meet him when you were in here before?"
"I don't remember him by name, but I might recognize him."
Excerpted from PROTOCOL FOR MURDER by Paul Nathan. Copyright © 1994 by Paul Nathan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved.