First, Do No Harm
The Midnight Special
Scamming the Birdman
The Music Box Murders
The Enchanted Ear
The View from the Vue

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A Thomas Purdue Mystery


Larry Karp


Chapter One



And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three;
but the greatest of these is charity.
I Corinthians, XIII, 13

When she said, "Thomas, I've got a problem," I knew it was trouble. Trouble with a capital T, which rhymes with E, which stands for Edna. Twenty-plus years practicing neurology at a big New York hospital does that for you. A nurse at the other end of a phone line only has to say, "Dr. Purdue ..." and I know whether my patient needs a sleeping pill, an emergency tracheotomy, or a body bag.


"Can you come over?" Edna said. "I mean right over."


I started lacing my shoes. Morning sun poured over my face through the ceiling skylight. June in New York. Shakespeare in Central Park. Mets in first place. Girls in summer dresses. Great time to be alive. "Sure, Edna," I said. "I'm on my way. Are you all right?"


"Yes, I'm fine," she said. "It's that tinhorn Marcus Wilcox who isn't."


Who? I thought. Who's Marcus Wilcox? And why is she calling me about him? I flipped my half-read issue of The American Journal of Neurology onto the coffee table, snatched the portable phone off my shoulder where I'd been balancing it, jumped out of my chair, scooted toward the door. "Is Marcus sick?"


Short pause. Then Edna said, "Not sick, Thomas. Dead. I killed him."


Edna Reynolds lived on Lexington between 69th and 70th. At least a 45-minute hike from my place on West 16th and 8th Avenue; by subway, two trains with a transfer at Union Station. Better be a sport. I waved a cab over, and as the driver veered to the curb I hopped in before he stopped.


The cabbie, a small toad with a flat tweed cap low on his forehead, chuckled as I slammed the door. "Y'in kind of a hurry, Mac."


It wasn't a question, but I answered yes, then added, "I'm a doctor. Sick patient. Move."


He flipped the flag on the meter, chuckled again, chirped, "Man, I don't believe this. A doctor makin' a house call? Didn't think you guys did that no more."


"Special patient," I said. "Over to Lexington go! Pedal to the metal."


"Ho-ho money talks, huh, Doc?" The cabbie veered back into traffic, shot up 8th, cut off a UPS truck, then zipped in front of a moving van. "Sorry I ain't got no si-reen," he called over his shoulder. "Where to on Lex?"


It occurred to me I'd be smart to get out a block or two away from Edna's building. "Lex and Sixty-Seventh," I said.


"Gotcha, Doc. Mercy Mission on its way." The cabbie floored the accelerator, weaved cross-town on 23rd, damn near clipped a woman who'd zipped across the street in front of a Don't Walk signal. "Pinhead moron!"The cabbie extended his head out the open window as far as it would go. "Next time I'll take your goddamn ass off for you."


I tried to keep my eyes off the scrambling vehicles and pedestrians, mind on the situation at hand. Edna Reynolds murdered some tinhorn? Didn't compute. When I went to my first meeting of the New York Music Box Collectors' Association I was a freshman med student, and Edna was serving her second term as president. She spent hours talking to me about the history of mechanical music, showed me how to intelligently evaluate machines for purchase, even taught me restoration techniques. "It's because you're for real, Thomas," she said. "You love these silly things as much as I do. Otherwise, I wouldn't give you the time of day."


On the New York antiques scene Edna Reynolds was known as The Doll Lady. Not that there was anything doll-like about Edna; perish that thought. She was an imposing woman, Gertrude-Steinish in appearance and manner, with a penchant for setting her feet and speaking her mind in language salty enough to send any blood pressure in earshot skyrocketing. Edna's nickname came from the fact that she collected automata: elegant dolls and whimsical furred animals that move in charming and funny ways, usually to musical accompaniment. Edna was also an accomplished repairer and restorer, even created her own line of modern automata.


Edna was also my patient. Seventy-three years old, she'd been hypertensive for years, and after a couple of small strokes, a big one nailed her around the end of April. She spent a few weeks on Manhattan Medical's neurology service, then went back home with a nonfunctioning right arm and hand. The good news: Edna was a southpaw. The bad news: she needed two live hands to work on her automata. Edna never did have much patience with ineptitude, particularly her own. She was the terror of the Rehab Ward. The smiley-faced little tech who tried one morning to get her to weave a potholder refused afterward to go within three doors of her room. No question, Edna was a force to be reckoned with. But a killer? I couldn't see it.


At Lexington and 67th I paid the cabbie, jumped out, waited a moment to let him peel away from the curb and disappear into uptown traffic. Then I coughed away his exhaust and walked briskly up to 69th Street.


Edna's neighborhood was mixed residential-commercial, apartments above street-level specialty shops, lawyers' offices, agents' dens, lairs of investment brokers. Here and there a full-fledged apartment building, holdover from days when people thought it made sense to live close to where they worked. Edna's building was one of these, a twelve-story brick structure that had once been light in color, consistent with the art nouveau canon under which the place had been constructed. In a swoopy sandstone oval above the entry, The Warburton was embossed in stylized letters. I sailed through the outer doorway into the vestibule.


Edna lived in Apt. 4F: 4-in-the-front. Edna Reynolds, said the name tag next to her bell. Not Reynolds, not E. Reynolds no linguistic fiddling to put off the burglar, rapist, or grifter who might prey on an elderly woman living alone. Edna Reynolds lives here, said the tag. Just try something funny.


I rang the bell. Practically before I removed my finger, Edna's voice came through. "Yes?"


"I'm here, Edna," I said.


"Oh. Good." The buzzer sounded.


I opened the door, trotted into the little elevator, began my slow ascent to the Fourth Floor.


Edna was waiting in her doorway. Tan silk blouse, red-and-brown plaid pleated woolen skirt. No old-lady cotton print sack for our Edna. Hair up in the customary gunmetal bun; face powder and just a bit of lipstick faultlessly applied. Large brown eyes, narrow nose, firm round chin. But her hands were clasped in front of her, and it didn't take anything like 20/20 to see how badly they were shaking. "Thank you for coming," she said. "I'm sorry to impose on you, but ..."


She reached for my hand. Like a mackerel at Gristede's flipping up off its bed of ice into my palm.


"No problem," I said, and walked past her into the apartment. I looked around. "Where is he?"


Edna closed the door. Her face was unusually red, and she seemed to be having trouble looking directly at me. "He's, uh ..." She pursed her lips once, twice, then blew out a mouthful of exasperation. "Well -- he's gone."


I began to feel a trifle exasperated myself. "Yes, I know he's gone, Edna you killed him. Where's the body?"


"Oh, shit, Thomas." She stamped her foot, sending a picture of a French automaton, a girl selling flowers, to a crooked angle on the wall. "He's not gone, dead. He's gone, gone. Left. Got up and walked away." I stared at her. She patted my arm. "I didn't kill him," she said, her voice softer now. "I just thought I did. Come in; I'll tell you about it."


She took my elbow, guided me through the living room into the kitchen, where she aimed me at a chair in front of a small white table. "Sit," she commanded. "I'll cut you a piece of my chocolate cake; no argument, please. You do drink regular coffee, don't you?"


I laughed. "Why should I argue about your chocolate cake? And yes, you know I drink regular coffee. Now, talk. What the hell happened here?"


Edna set up a pot of coffee as she began her story. Her apartment was Wonderland, packed with the beguiling automated figures she collected and restored lasting testimony, most of them, to the whimsical humor and ingenuity of a small number of French manufacturers a century ago. Beautiful bisque-headed dolls that played the harpsichord, or did a tambourine-dance, or lifted the top half of an egg shell to reveal a feathered, peeping chick inside. A white, furry rabbit who rose out of a cloth cabbage to chew a leaf with supreme arrogance. Dancing bears. Fiddling cats. Mephistopheles playing a mandolin as he does in Faust. Pierrot sitting cross-legged on the low edge of a crescent moon, strumming a guitar and every now and again sticking out his tongue, whereupon the moon would wink one of his blue, glass eyes. Hidden within the wooden bases or inside the bodies of the figures themselves were small comb and cylinder musical mechanisms. Edna's huge exhibit was near-magical. Whenever I left her place I needed to stand a moment and blink my way back before I could remember where I was going next.


The vigor with which my hostess was slashing off my piece of cake impressed me. "I'm in bad shape, Thomas," she snarled, taking care, I thought, not to look at me. "This goddamn stroke ... I make my living restoring old automata and building new ones, but for the past month and a half, I haven't done squat. And I've got very little in the way of cash reserves --"


"Edna, didn't you ... er, come into a little money last year? Same time I did?"


She looked as if she'd just taken a big bite from an unripe persimmon. "It came in, it went out." Light shrug.


"Excuse me, shouldn't have asked. None of my business."


"When I called you over here I made it your business," she snapped. Deep sigh. "Amazing how fast a pile of money can vanish. I gave some to my niece and her husband in Peoria: nice kids, why should they have to struggle? I paid off some money my husband once borrowed from a friend for an emergency. Emergency, spelled H-O-R-S-E."


As long as I'd known Edna this was the first she'd mentioned her husband. She saw me staring at the dull gold band gnawing into the flesh of her left ring finger. "Interest piles up after thirty-two years." She gestured toward her collection. "And of course I bought a few toys. Biggest bite, though, was to bail out Casson's son and granddaughter in Switzerland."


A half-century ago, Casson was the acknowledged world master in automaton restoration. Edna lived with him and his family while she was learning the trade.


"They'd opened an automaton museum, went in way over their heads, were about to lose the works ... along with their shop, tools, home. No way I could let that happen. But it pretty well wiped out my windfall ... so here I am, damn near broke. I always told myself I could sell my collection if I needed to ... and of course, I can. I could. Not very much longer and I'll just plain have to ... but the problem is, I don't want to." She looked around the apartment. "It'd be like selling off pieces of myself."


Edna slid the slice of cake onto a plate, set it in front of me. "Here, eat."


I picked up my fork.


She lowered herself into the chair opposite me at the table. The glance she shot at her right hand, resting on the table top, would have paralyzed it if such weren't already the case. "I need to get back to making money damn soon," she growled, "Or I won't have any choice. Unfortunately, that little goober Wilcox found out."


I let a mouthful of cake slide blissfully back and down, titillating every taste bud along its path. "This goober's someone I know?"


"Huh!" Snort of pure scorn. "Better you don't. Better I didn't. Little bastard runs one of those shamelessly frou-frou interior design shops; he found his way to me when one of his clients wanted a broken automaton fixed. Wasn't a whole lot of work, but I'll bet he charged the client through the snoot; after that he started picking up damaged automata cheap, and bringing them over. I fixed, he sold. And when he needed something in antique fabrics drapes, chair covers there he was at my door, could I help him?


Well, sure I helped him. I didn't like him, but can you like everyone you do business with? Then while I was in the hospital he came by with some work, and Bigmouth next door" Edna jerked a contemptuous finger toward Apartment 4-R "old Mrs. Wolper gave him a complete medical rundown on me."


I chewed, nodded.


"So for the last three weeks, starting the day I got back from the hospital, here comes Marcus Wilcox, pitching a daily fawn and grovel. He's heard about my misfortune,' oh dear, and he is so sorry. But maybe he can help. You know what, Edna I could sell some of these automata for you ...' As if I'd need his help for that. One phone call and I could sell any piece, and for full value, not the sixty or seventy percent I'd get from him on consignment. As many times as I told him no, there he was back the next day. Just dropping in to see how you're doing, Edna: any feeling coming back in the hand, any movement? No? I'm so sorry. But maybe I can help.' Oh, Thomas, I could just kill ..." Edna's voice faltered, "him."


"So I understand," I said. "What convinced you to try?"


"The way he behaved today. From the minute he walked through the door he was practically twitching. No foreplay, not a word about how's my hand and my arm. He's been thinking, he said; he has a great idea. I should consign my collection to him -- my whole collection. He knows he can sell it, and fast; then I'll have enough money to keep me the rest of my life. He's worried about me, all alone in this apartment with my useless right hand and arm. I've already had one stroke; what if I had another? Wouldn't I be better off in a ... oh, God, Thomas! In a goddamn care center,' one of those hellholes stinking of piss pots and Lysol. Marcus, the darling, would feel so much better with me there."


I shrugged. "Why didn't you just tell him no?"


"What do you think I did?" Edna seemed to expand in her chair. "Of course I told him no. But he kept right on talking. Without my automata to worry about, I could have my own apartment -- my own little apartment. Wouldn't be any trouble for me to keep up. Because you've got to face facts, Edna: you're not going to be able to take care of yourself very much longer."


My mouth full of cake, I rolled my eyes. This Marcus Wilcox had to be more dog-brained than dogged. Anyone who knows Edna Reynolds should know never to say anything like that.


"That did it. I told the little bastard to get the hell out of my apartment and out of my sight, and then I -- well, I gave him a shove. And you know what he did, the idiot?"


I can't begin to imagine."


"He made a grab actually put his scuzzy hands on Josephine Baker there. I guess I didn't stop to think. Just picked up St. Cecilia and hit him, hard. Right on top of the head."


I glanced over to a small table in the living room where a foot-high bronze statue of the patron saint of music stood demurely next to a plaster image of Josephine Baker, smiling and resplendent in a sequined bra and feathered G-string. Wind the key in Josephine's back, music plays, sequins rotate, and feathers gyrate to a lively musical accompaniment. I burst out laughing, couldn't help it.


Edna chuckled. "You should've heard the thud. He went down like I'd poleaxed him."


"She conks to stupor," I said. "I gather you enjoyed that."


Edna nodded firm agreement. "Won't even try to deny it. But then I thought, my God, he's not breathing, and when I tried to find a pulse, I couldn't. That's when I called you; I came in here for the phone. But by the time I went back inside, he was rolling around a little and starting to moan. A few minutes later he was awake. Before he left he said I hadn't heard the last from him. I was a danger to myself and society."


I laughed again. "To yourself, no," I said. "But society? The man may have a point."


"Funny. He said he was going to file assault charges."


With reluctance I swallowed the last bite of cake. "I don't really think so. Remember, he owns a fancy decorator shop, probably caters to wealthy women. Imagine having it come out that he tried to pressure a poor disabled lady into selling her valuable collection, then actually grabbed one of the pieces. Bet his fingerprints are all over Josephine."

Edna couldn't help grinning. "Little bastard really did seem desperate. Bet you anything he's in a money bind, a big one."


"If he is, pressing an assault charge just for spite'd be about the last thing on his mind."


Edna sighed. "I hope you're right. Well, I'm sorry to've dragged you over here like this. I tried to call you again after Marcus left, but you were already on the way."


I reached across the table, patted her hand, said, "Forget it. I was just hanging around, waiting 'til the shops'd be open so I could run an errand.


"And" -- I pointed at my empty plate -- "where would I get a better piece of chocolate cake?"


Edna's eyes went watery. I was embarrassed, hadn't intended that. "You're a good friend, Thomas," she said softly. Very few understand what it means to be a friend, but you do. I don't know how I'd have managed the last three years without you. Let alone the last six weeks." I started to say something but Edna held up a firm left hand, palm up, in my face. "No, I mean it, Thomas. I'm grateful to you and I want you to know it."


"Fine." I waved off her obligation. "You brought a little excitement into my day. It's been routine, routine, routine for months now; I've been getting bored."


"Well, I'm sorry to disappoint you not having a corpse on the floor." The right side of her mouth curled slyly upward. "Particularly Marcus Wilcox's corpse."


"Don't give it another thought," I said. "I'm sure I'll find one soon. I'm overdue."


If I ever put together my top ten Wish-I'd-Never-Said-That List, those lines will be Number One.


From Edna's I hiked down Lexington, worked my way through the lunchtime crush of office workers and shoppers. No rush now. No need for lunch, either: Edna's cake would keep me fueled until supper.


At 63rd I turned east, strolled a block to Third, then half a block downtown, where I stopped in front of a shop-width plate-glass window displaying tables that could warp the heaviest floorboards, chairs capable of inducing lower back spasms within a ten-minute sitting, bronze statues of barely draped men and women twisted into postures unattainable by any living vertebrate. To the left of the window was a narrow doorway; above the window were curlicued gold letters: THE PALAIS ROYAL. More than a bit pretentious, but that wasn't important. What was important was Broadway Schwartz's report of a music box inside worth checking out.


Schwartz had called just before five the afternoon before to tell me to scope this music box. "Not what you usually buy," he said.


"But worth a gander. Definitely quality ... and different. Gorgeous burl walnut case on top of a matching stand, big enough to bury my Aunt Sadie in, and she's pushing three-fifty. I tried to get a look inside of it, but the dealer was one nasty Joe, slammed his hand on the lid, told me get lost. Still and all, I thought I'd better tip you."


Schwartz is an antiques picker, one of those gifted people who can spot a diamond in a pile of rhinestones, or a 2,000-year-old Grecian urn on a table full of modern reproductions. He's the antique world's equivalent of the dowser, the book scout, or the top-level medical diagnostician. Most of my best antique music boxes have come my way thanks to the perspicacity and loyalty of my energetic little friend. He knew if I saw the music box, liked it, and bought it, ten percent of the purchase price would be in his hands within twenty-four hours.


And even if I am partial to the smaller, key-wound music boxes, lovingly manufactured as one-offs during the 1830s, '40s, and '50s by skilled Swiss clock and watchmakers, I had to respect my pal's judgement. The instrument he'd described sounded circa 1880, likely a factory-produced musical ho-hum. But Broadway Schwartz said different, said quality, so I thanked him, hung up, called the shop. When the machine clicked in, I clicked off -- no point advertising my interest. Better to just go by in the morning.

I walked through the open doorway, looked around. The shop was smaller than I'd have thought, filled with massive furniture and statuary like the stuff in the window display. To the right, swoopy maroon drapes between two plaster colonnades struggled to create the illusion of a separate room behind. Clearly, the merchandising keywords at the Palais Royal were big and klutzy. Even the ceramic and glass pieces were huge: giant urns, pots, and oddly-shaped receptacles I couldn't begin to identify.


I spotted the owner -- I guessed it was the owner -- seated at a desk toward the back of the shop, studying me. As I studied back, I realized why the shop seemed so small: on the wall behind the dealer was a door. Back room storage? Special customers only?


The man acknowledged me with a tentative nod. Round face, lots of freckles, red hair. Open-necked white shirt, gray ultrasuede jacket. "May I help you?" he called in a high-pitched simper.


I walked over to face him across the desk, noticed a couple of small red objects on the floor next to his chair. Cinnamon red hot candies. "My friend said you have a music box I might be interested in. Schwartz. Broadway Schwartz."


When you've been picking as long and successfully as Schwartz, your name becomes an Open Sesame, grabbed up the instant it's dropped. But not this time. The man shook his head. "I'm afraid I don't know any Broadway Schwartz," he whined, giving the clear impression that such knowledge might fairly be taken as evidence of moral turpitude. "And in any event I rarely have music boxes; they're terribly hard to get anymore. Haven't had one in, oh, more than a year. Sorry, sir; I don't believe I can help you." He looked down at the papers on the desk in front of him, saying without words the interview was over.


"Were you here yesterday afternoon?" I asked. "Late in the afternoon, right before closing. Maybe one of your employees --"


"I don't have employees,'" the man said. "And yes, I was here yesterday, all afternoon. Now, let me tell you once more: I have no music box; I had none yesterday. Your friend, whoever he may be, is in error ... or perhaps having a little fun at your expense."


He reached into his jacket pocket, then popped something into his mouth. A wave of cinnamon washed over me. "Listen," I said. "I've known Broadway Schwartz for almost twenty years and he's never yet sent me chasing geese. If he said there was a music box here, there was a music box here. You don't want to show it to me, that's your call. But I am a serious collector, and if a music box is worth it I pay the going rate."


That got me the answer I was looking for. The dealer's cheeks reddened, eyes flashed anger and embarrassment. "Are you calling me a liar?" he snarled.


I had to restrain a snicker. With his unruly reddish hair, round, blotchy, freckled cheeks, and lips twisted into a sneer, he looked like Howdy Doody gone over to the dark side.


"Not necessarily," I said. "You might just have a bad memory. Maybe I can help it along."


While I was talking, the phone on the desk began to ring. Howdy flipped me a quick fish-eye, then grabbed the receiver and said, "Hello ... oh, Mr. Dunbar." His face went the color and consistency of library paste. "Yes ... yes, I know I said hold on just a minute, would you, please?" He lowered the phone, put his hand over the mouthpiece. "Get out of my salon," he hissed.


"Immediately. Otherwise I'll call a policeman." The receiver in his hand seemed to be vibrating.


No point pursuing further. If he did have a music box and I was convinced he did -- he had no intention of showing it to me.


Sometimes a dealer finds an item he knows he can sell to a particular customer, usually one who never argues price. Another prospective buyer may make a nuisance of himself as I was doing right then. Or maybe this music box was hot. Such things do happen and Howdy didn't strike me as a man inclined to muddy the waters of commerce with unnecessary questions. Whatever the explanation, after Schwartz made him nervous yesterday he probably hid the box away in the room behind his desk. Bottom line: lost cause.


I nodded, turned, and started to the front of the shop. Behind me, Howdy started talking again into the phone, softly. Too softly for me to be able to make out any words.


Just inside the front door stood a little gold-incised Eastwood table, holding a scalloped silver tray full of business cards.


Automatically, I picked up one of the cards, scanned it. The Palais Royal, it said.Personal Lifestyle Designs for the Discriminating. Marcus Wilcox, Proprietor.


I glanced toward the back of the shop. M.W., Prop. was still engaged in earnest phone palaver. Marcus Wilcox how about that, Mel Allen? Small world, New York.


From Howdy Doody's Royal Palace I wandered up to the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park at 66th, to meet Schwartz and walk through The Midsummer Antique Show. Opening time was one o'clock; I was three minutes late. From down the block I could see Schwartz wearing out the sidewalk in front of the building. God forbid he wasn't first in; someone else would pick off all the good stuff. I sprang for two tickets, then rode my friend's wake through the door and into the hall.


After more than two hours we'd covered half the show. Schwartz looked disgusted. When a picker as sharp as Broadway Schwartz has empty hands after two hours of sniffing, you know you've got a lousy show.


For me, though, it was still entertainment. We stopped in front of a booth to size up merchandise; the dealer, a heavy man with pink-shot watery blue eyes and rouge-red jowls, ran eye-tape over us. Customers? Tire kickers? "Come on in, take a look," the man wheezed. "I sell things with peoples' names on them." He picked a glass paperweight out of his display case, held it out toward us. "Nice gold lettering, huh? Wilbur Rommel Dry Goods, Topeka, Kansas. Hey, see the phone number, seven-four-nine -- had it easy those days. And here" he put Wilbur down on the counter, snapped up a small bronze paperweight, a standing lion "Edwin Herman, fifty years. Guy must've been a Lion for half a century, can you imagine? And over there, see doctor's sign-shingle, came off of a house in Red Bank, New Jersey. Got lots of autographed pictures; guess you could call them my bread and butter. But y'know what're the best sellers go out as fast as I can get 'em in?"


I told him I couldn't imagine.


From beneath the brow of his ever-present black fedora, Schwartz's dark eyes shot me a warning. Suffering fools patiently is an important part of a picker's job description. Fools sometimes part with valuable items for peanuts, or pay through the schnozz for dreck. In addition, the antiques gossip network is wired better than any Bell System. Let a dealer put the kibosh on a picker for being a wise guy, and that picker might as well go downtown and file for unemployment.


"Pictures of dead people in their coffins," said the dealer, sotto voce. "If the name of the person's on the back. And babies, especially babies. Couple of weeks ago I went to an estate sale, picked up this five-by-seven of a kid in a coffin, had Our Dearest Little Jackie Womrath' written on the back. I put it out here, and just an hour ago two collectors damn near come to a fight over it. So I did a little auction, just the two of them. Got a hundred and a quarter -- howd'ya like that?"


"Cool," I said, and tried to visualize people who'd take up arms over photographs of dead babies, but my beeper interrupted my train of thought by vibrating against my left leg. I picked it off my belt, checked the red numbers. 555-6837. Man Med Emergency Room.


Who was calling from the ER? Med school semester had just ended; I was officially off-duty for two weeks. I always leave my beeper on, though, in case Sarah, my wife, needs to reach me in a hurry. Or Schwartz happens to spot something wonderful at a flea market.


I hoofed out to the pay phones in the lobby, called the ER. The receptionist put me through to Room 3, where Linda Martin, a tough, capable nurse from San Antonio, was allegedly in dire need of talking to me. "Oh, Dr. Purdue, thank goodness!" Linda breathed through the wire. "We got ourselves a li'l problem heah -- friend of y'all's, a Mr. Frank Maar."


More trouble with a capital T, this time rhyming with C, standing for Crank. Frank the Crank, my good friend and sometime co-conspirator, owner and operator of Wind-Me-Up, a hole in the wall on West 12th just off 7th, crammed with the finest musical antiques, collectibles, and novelties. Aside from his occupation, Frank owes his nickname to the most impressive bipolar disorder I've ever seen, and remember what I do for a living. My stomach did a barrel-roll. Frank hadn't attempted suicide, had he?


"Blunt trauma," Linda continued. "Ah know y'all're on vacation but he aisked me ... well, actually, tol' me ... to call y'all. Says he won't let anybody else touch him. Po' li'l X-ray tech was scared spitless."


Nuts! That was Frank in the grip of his Black Angel, as he called his depressive episodes. But blunt trauma? Did he trip in his shop and go sprawling? Get conked on the bean with a burglar's pistol? Take a total body bashing from a sadistic mugger, pissed at finding only a quarter in Frank's pockets? "What shape is he in?" I asked.


"Oh, he'll be okay," Linda drawled. "No loss of consciousness, looks like nothing's broken. But he's gonna hurt a while. Bruises all over his body, a few cuts. And burns looks like cigarettes."


"Be right over."


Schwartz came along, happy to be sprung from the Booth of the Living Dead. Besides, Frank was also his good friend. My wife Sarah insists that anyone who puts the three of us into a room together should be prosecuted for reckless endangerment of the community. When I tell Sarah that seeing people having a good time seems to make her nervous, she snorts and says yes, if it's people like Frank and Schwartz and me, I'm absolutely right. That makes her very nervous.


The sight of Frank in the ER nearly broke my heart. He was on his left side on an exam table, curled fetus-like, wearing only jockey shorts. An intravenous tube dripped saline into a right-arm vein. His arms and legs were masses of lumpy red abrasions and contusions, shoulders and abdomen dotted with angry blistered burns. Nothing from the neck up, odd. I touched his shoulder lightly, said, "Hey, Frank."


He turned his head just enough to take me into his gaze. Black eyes beamed hostility. "Go fuck yourself," he mumbled. "Le' me alone." Then he looked away again.


I knew not to be put off by Frank's downtime behavior. He wanted me there, all right, but he wasn't about to tell me that or more accurately, he couldn't. His Black Angel took no prisoners.


I'd tried for years to get Frank onto maintenance medication, some pharmacological concoction that might keep his keel a bit more even, but to Frank's way of thinking, chemicals are poisons and drugs are chemicals, so he'd have no part of them. I was tempted there in the ER to take advantage of the situation and start Frank on an antidepressant, but knew that'd run counter to his wishes. Besides, Frank spent much more time up than down, and when he was up he was cheerful and energetic in a way few of us can even begin to understand. How would I feel if I made him over into a bland, blah Mr. In-between? And in any event, as soon as Frank realized what he was getting, he'd refuse to take any more.


So no antidepressants -- settle for short-term, pragmatic treatment. With one eye keeping Frank in clear view I said to Linda, "I'm not going to give him any drugs he wouldn't want any, and really doesn't need any." I pointed at the IV. "You've got the admission blood work?"


"Uh-huh. Drew it when we started the IV. But it took three orderlies to hold him down."


I rested a hand ever so casually on Frank's shoulder. "Poor old Frank," I said. "He must really be feeling bad. Usually he's the nicest guy in the world ... and funny? He'd have you in stitches." I bent over to talk into Frank's ear. "Tell you what, Old Buddy. You need some X-rays, a CAT scan. Dr. Schwartz and I'll go along with you, won't leave you alone for a minute. You've got nothing to worry about."


As I patted Frank's shoulder, it heaved beneath my hand. Frank let out a honk, then started crying. Good. If he had to be depressed, let him at least be compliant.


I looked at Schwartz. "Got any better ideas than that, Doctor?"


Schwartz waved off the possibility. "Sounds right to me."


Linda fixed a highly dubious gaze onto Schwartz.


"Linda Martin," I said lightly. "This is Dr. Schwartz, from Mt. Sinai Neuro. He and I were up there, going over one of his cases when you called so I brought him along."


Linda's expression said if she and I were the only people in the room she'd tell me she'd grown up on a Texas ranch, and had no trouble identifying bullshit at first whiff.


"I'll give him a physical," I said. "Then we'll get X-rays, a CAT, check out the blood work. If he's neurologically stable we'll send him up to the ICU, twenty-four-hour observation and I mean observation. Someone keeping eyes on him every minute."


Her expression said she heard me loud and clear. Depressed people have nasty habits of jumping out windows or wrapping IV tubing around their necks.


"They should call me if there's any sign of internal bleeding or any other trouble otherwise I'll see him tomorrow afternoon, go from there. I know Frank. In twenty-four hours I'll be able to talk to him, find out what happened."


"You're going to be the responsible physician, then?"


"I'll write orders before I go."


Nearly seven o'clock before I got Frank tucked safely away. None of the tests showed serious damage. "Worries me, though," I said to Schwartz as we walked down the steps from the hospital. "That wasn't anything like your usual going-over: nothing broken, no head damage, just a whole lot of really painful stuff on the body, arms and legs. Someone was torturing Frank -- why?"


Schwartz shrugged. "Beats me."


"Broadway ..."


"Huh? Oh ... sorry, Doc. Unintentional."


"All right. Problem is, I won't be able to keep him in-house more than twenty-four hours. Utilization review, good old insurance companies. But I don't like the thought of him going home, being by himself what if whoever worked him over comes back for another try? Think we can get Mick the Dick to stay with him for a while?"


Our friend Mick McFarland, aka Mick the Dick, was a young private detective with a build that made Arnold S. look like a 98-pound weakling.


"Yeah ..." Schwartz began slowly. "But I think I got a better idea."


In Schwartz I trust. "Shoot."


"Mick and Sandy live over on Second Av now, up in the Seventies. Nice new high-rise ..." he grinned wickedly. "They went yuppie, big-time. How about Frank goin' over there they got plenty of room, and the goons won't know where to even start lookin'. Then when he feels good enough to open the shop, Mick can go along with him."


Sandy was Mick's wife, as well endowed in the female manner as Mick was in the male. She worked part-time as an actress in soap operas, part-time as a pickpocket -- hence Schwartz's moniker for her: Soapy Sandy Stickyfingers.


"Makes sense to me," I said. "Want to give them a call?"


"Leave it to me, Doc. By the time you spring Frank, I'll have 'em on board."


Schwartz hopped a First Avenue bus uptown to Yorkville. Edna's chocolate cake was now an eight-hour memory; my furnace needed stoking. I trotted across 30th to 2nd Avenue, took a downtown bus to 10th, scorched into the Second Av Deli.


An hour later, my arteries pleasantly coated with fallout from corned beef, stuffed derma and cheesecake, I hiked up 2nd Avenue to 14th, then turned crosstown. Almost nine o'clock, daylight fading, warm evening air heavy with the perfume of flowers. All right, that was only because I was passing a florist shop, but so what? I gulped at the atmosphere as if it were ambrosia. A pretty young woman going east in a minimal silk frock smiled at me; I smiled back. Summer's gentle evening breeze, 78 degrees warm, tickling the city's happy bone with heady nachtmusik. Raw cold -- a thing of the past, drenching humidity something to bitch about in August. For now, just listen to the city's Ode to Joy.


A crew was filling potholes at the corner of 7th Avenue; I breathed in the tarry fragrance. A bouquet not to everyone's liking, but a whiff of tar on a warm summer evening always takes me back to the boardwalk at the Jersey shore, to the Garabedian Auction Gallery in Asbury Park where at the age of eighteen I bought my first music box, a lovely Swiss cylinder instrument that played six tunes on its twin combs. Cost me seventy-five dollars, at the time a pile of money. I paid for my treasure, carried it onto the boardwalk, found an unoccupied bench facing out to sea, sat down, put the music box on the seat next to me. Then I pushed the start lever. As the Waltz from Faust began to play I inhaled the pungent, tarry smell of the pine boards beneath my feet. Waves rolled in over the sand, retreated, came in again. Sun dropped into the water, colored the ocean orange; a breeze off the water cooled my face. The music box played "I Dreamt I Dwelt In Marble Halls." My life stretched before me like the flaming Atlantic Ocean: for every step I might move forward, the horizon would recede. I had all the time in the world.


Edna, Wilcox, Frank. A bum day, but as my late, New Age pal Shackie might've put it, maybe The Forces were about to hang me a U-ie. By the time I got back to my building I was feeling noticeably more cheerful. I slapped a fiver into the palm of an old guy lounging across the sidewalk from my door before he could even ask, then charged up the steps and inside. Up four flights to my apartment, two stairs at a time. As I pulled out my key, my upper lip was stiff, my pecker up. Go in, do a little work on a fantastic Reymond-Nicole overture box Schwartz rooted out of a west side estate a few months before, then fall into the sack smiling.


But as Fats Waller used to say: one never knows, do one?


I turned the key, walked into the room ... and found myself looking into the barrel of a handgun.


Behind the pistol was a young man with a scared but determined look on his face. Behind him, a rope hung down to the floor from the big hole the young man had obviously bashed through my skylight.


Some days are just no good. We should be able to declare them null and void, like misdirected checks.



End of Chapter One