CHANGING THE GAME - ALBERT TUCHER
“I don’t think so,” Diana said.
She backed up a step and studied the man in the doorway. Something in his expression made a shocking contrast with his nurse’s uniform.
“No way,” she said. “I’m out of here.”
She turned and started walking toward the street. As she left him standing there, she fought the urge to run. Looking vulnerable might invite him to come after her.
“What’s the problem?” he said.
She tossed the word over her shoulder and increased her pace as much as she dared.
This part of Witherspoon Township was zoned for hulking McMansions and two-acre lots. The driveway seemed even longer than it had when she arrived. With every step she fought the urge to hunch over and make a smaller target.
She could have stopped and told him everything that felt wrong. “If there are two men involved, don’t make me think just one. If you’re not the client, don’t say you are. And don’t look at me like you’re wondering how much pain I can take.”
But he wasn’t entitled to an explanation. People who tried to change the game in the middle got nothing.
“You have something against the handicapped?”
Behind him in the foyer she had glimpsed a middle-aged man in a wheelchair. She felt a strong urge to defend herself, but she recognized the trick. He would say anything to get her to stop.
“Or male nurses?”
She didn’t answer that one, either. By now he was shouting to make himself heard.
Diana made it to the road and turned right, walking on the shoulder. Witherspoon was the kind of town that didn’t have sidewalks or curbs. At the corner she turned right again. Her Maxima came into view. She had parked where the client wouldn’t see her car and recognize it if he came across it again.
As she unlocked the driver’s door and climbed in, she checked behind her. Nobody had followed. The stillness of a suburban mid-afternoon surrounded her, without even a police car to break the spell. She could usually count on the Witherspoon cops to turn up and hassle her.
She started the car and drove to her home in neighboring Driscoll. In her kitchen she made coffee to keep her hands busy while she thought about the encounter. It seemed important to analyze it and draw lessons for next time.
The nurse’s challenges bothered her, although she knew she had nothing to apologize for. Paraplegics were nothing new to her. She had even worked for a quadriplegic once, but the man had talked honestly with her before the date.
That left the male nurse factor. She thought about the recent case of the serial killer nurse who had poisoned patients in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Some people had said, ‘Uh huh, male nurses,’ but she didn’t think she was one of them. The man she had just met reminded her of a few cops she had known, the ones who wore the uniform for what it could get them. But where was the profit in being a nurse?
That, she realized, was an easy question to answer. Insurance companies paid for nursing care. Insurance companies had money.
In other words, it wasn’t her business.
She had a late afternoon date with a safe, boring client who would clear her mind for her. The man always wanted missionary in the first fifteen minutes and then conversation for the rest of the hour.
It worked, until she got home a little after six and heard the phone ringing in the kitchen.
“Diana. It’s Phil Rangel.”
The name threw her for a moment.
“Dr. Rangel. What can I do for you?”
“It’s about Leah. I know you’re friends."
Diana had found Dr. Rangel and referred several other women in the business to him. A gynecologist who didn’t get judgmental was a good person to know.
“I just left her in the hospital. Morristown. An ambulance brought her in.”
“Somebody beat the hell out of her. I’m calling you because she never listed anybody to notify.”
“Next of kin would be a bunch of polygamists in Arizona,” Diana said. “They wouldn’t cross the street for her. Did she say who did it?”
“She didn’t have time. She‘s unconscious again.”
“On my way.”
Diana didn’t want to go, because she would end up talking to cops. Some of them didn’t care about her business, but others had been making a project of her for years. The way things were going, she knew which category would show up today.
But she went back to her car and drove the twenty-five miles to Morristown. In the hospital lobby she asked the volunteer where to go.
Leah had a double room on the fifth floor, but the other bed was empty and ready for the next patient. Diana approached and winced. She didn’t recognize anything but Leah’s bright blonde hair.
“The guy must have dumped her and left her for dead. He wasn’t wrong by much.”
Diana started. She hadn’t noticed Dr. Rangel in the corner to her right. It shouldn’t have surprised her that he had come back. Leah had that effect. Everyone wanted to protect her. What was wrong with the man who had done this to her?
“Where did they find her?”
“Near the baseball field at Morristown High School. Some kids practically tripped over her. The police don’t know where the assault happened, though.”
They both watched Leah, as her chest moved delicately. Diana realized that she was holding her breath, as if Leah needed all the oxygen in the room.
“Shouldn’t there be a cop here? In case she wakes up?”
“I pulled rank,” said Rangel. “I figured you wouldn’t want to talk to him, so I told him he was agitating my patient. He’s young. He’ll learn, but not tonight. Anyway, now that you’re here...”
“Sure. Thanks for the call.”
He left the room. Diana went to the corner where he had waited for her and dragged the padded steel chair across the room to the bed. She sat on Leah’s right and made herself look at her friend’s brutalized face.
Leah was going to hell. She talked about it often, but it wasn’t hooking that had damned her. Her sin lay in disobeying the prophet of her community, who had planned to make her the eighth wife of a second cousin three times her age.
Or was it a third cousin twice her age? Diana couldn’t remember.
Leah had run away and somehow hitchhiked to Atlantic City without ending up dismembered in dumpsters across the country. Diana had found her on the boardwalk. Leah had insisted on becoming a prostitute, because it was the only career choice for a sinner like her.
She had done well in the business, once Diana had broken her of some bad habits.
“Why did you give him half his money back?”
“Well, he didn’t come.”
“That’s his problem.”
The door handle turned. Diana didn’t remember getting up, but by the time the door started to open, she had hidden herself behind the white portable screen between the two beds.
It’s only the cop, she thought.
But her hooker’s radar told her something different.
She had to listen hard for the footsteps that crossed the room. The visitor was wearing rubber-soled hospital shoes. Why didn’t that reassure her?
Diana risked a look around the screen. Even in three-quarter profile, the man in the nurse’s uniform looked familiar. He stood looking at Leah, but Diana suspected that he had more in mind than admiring his work.
She stepped around the screen.
“Here to finish the job?”
The nurse pivoted. She looked at the expression on his handsome surfer’s face and got ready to fight. But the door opened again, and a uniformed police officer entered. He did seem young. At twenty-six Diana felt almost like his mother. He glanced at the nurse but gave her a stern look.
“What are you doing here, Ma’am?”
“He’s a friend of mine, Officer.”
She turned to the nurse.
“Do you have time for coffee or something? We can do some catching up.”
She watched him thinking. If he was smart, he would realize that she had him cornered.
“Okay,” he said. “There’s a lounge at the end of the hall.”
Diana went to the door and opened it. He followed her out of the room. They walked side by side down the corridor. She could feel the cop watching them go.
In the lounge the nurse went to the coffee machine.
“What’ll you have?”
He fed a dollar into the machine and pressed buttons. The smell of bad instant coffee surrounded her. It combined with the ugly yellow paint on the walls to give her the beginnings of a headache.
She chose a table and took one of the four plastic chairs in the same shade of yellow. He set his coffee on the table and sat diagonally across from her.
“I have no use for insurance companies,” said Diana. “But I don’t rip them off, either. They always get their money back somehow.”
“What brought that up?”
“I meet a guy in a wheelchair. Somebody who gets close to him gets beaten half to death. That spells insurance fraud to me.”
He tried to stare her down, but she wasn’t impressed.
“What happened? Did he go stir-crazy, maybe threaten to ruin the plan? You shouldn’t have let anyone near him except your tame doctors.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know why I didn’t stay this afternoon? Because you lied when you didn’t have to. People like you always do. If you had told me on the phone that you were the nurse and your patient was the client, I’d have said, okay, fine. I think you learned your lesson with me and applied it to Leah.”
“Here’s the thing you probably didn’t know about us. Hookers, I mean. We’ve seen it all. We’ve done it all. I’ve been up close and personal with paraplegics before, and I know Leah has too. If I had to guess, I‘d say your partner’s not as disabled as you claim. Leah saw him move something that shouldn‘t have moved. And knowing her, she said something about it.”
“If you were right,” said the nurse, “you’d be making a big mistake right now.”
“I don’t think so. The cop back there just saw us together. Leah’s doctor knows me. If anything happens to me, who are the cops going to want to talk to?”
He glared at her. She looked back at him until he dropped the effort.
“I guess we have a stalemate,” he said.
He stood and drained his paper cup. The taste made him wince, and he threw the cup at the trash can in the corner. He missed. Without a word he turned and left the lounge.
A pay phone hung on the wall next to the coffee machine. Diana fed change into the slot and punched in a number that she knew by heart.
“My favorite law enforcement professional.”
“What do you need, Diana?”
“Couldn’t I just be calling to chat?”
“What, and ruin your reputation?”
“This is a little complicated. I’m in Morristown, but I need a Witherspoon detective. You know anybody I can talk to without getting a load of shit?”
“Probably, but I’ll need a reason.”
She told him about her date that didn’t happen, and about Leah, and the insurance fraud theory.
“Call me back in thirty.”
When she did, he told her, “Stay there and wait for Detective Pelsner.”
“I guess that nurse thinks you don’t talk to cops.”
“I told him I’ve done everything. It’s not like I’m changing the game on him.”
BIO: Albert Tucher is the author of over twenty published stories and four unpublished novels about prostitute Diana Andrews. Like most authors of hardboiled crime fiction, he is a librarian in his day job.