Start Reading Girl in the River

Even after a good stretch of untroubled time a girl might fret over which one of her mistakes was the worst ever. Until one day it struck her, when the biggest mistake barged back into her life. Bill Warsham was his name. Mae studied his princely profile and a chill slithered up the back of her neck as though he were skulking behind her, not bunched into a corner of the reception room with a scrawny guy scribbling on a pad, all their four eyes as big as 78’s. Poor Billy, he hadn’t even spotted her yet.

 

Police had shoved Mae up against the wall in a line with Dr. Ruth, another woman pressing her hands over her face, and a wide-eyed girl still buttoning up, who was surely dismayed at the turn her day had taken. Two cops fenced them in, slapping batons into their meaty hands. Out in the middle of the room, an officer had collared a fourteen-year-old, a spoiled brat if Mae had ever met one. She twisted in his grip. “Lemme go, you goddamned jerk! You know who the hell I am?”

Another flatfoot brandished his stick to force Virginia away from the reception desk while some clown rifled her drawer. A photographer spun around like a one-eyed dog in a meat-house. Bulbs popped and flashed the room white. Chairs were overturned, magazines scattered, a vase of glads knocked over and puddled onto the floor. The doorknob had smashed a fist-sized dent into the plaster when the whole gang burst through the door. No cause for that. Place wasn’t locked. Wouldn’t have hurt these officers of the peace to step in like gentlemen. Mae scanned the room. Who was in charge of this circus anyway?

A man in an olive uniform and black-visored cap stepped in front of Ruth and planted his feet wide apart. “Dr. Barnett.”

Ruth stood erect in immaculate white from surgical cap to polished oxfords. She flattened her palm against her bosom. “Sheriff Shrunk. What an honor.”

Warsham turned. His gaze landed on Mae and his mouth dropped open.

She shot him a narrow-eyed, nostril-flaring smile. “Billy.”

He colored. His reporter pal drove a quizzical look at him. Mae stared Warsham down, then turned back to the interrogation of her boss.

“Where are your lists?” the sheriff asked Ruth.

“Where’s your search warrant?” Ruth said in her reasonable tone.

“Don’t get legal with me. I want the names of all the girls you’ve butchered.” He flung his hand through the air as if to evoke a vast mass of women.

“I don’t butcher women.”

“The names of the doctors who send these girls to you. Where are they?”

“In the phone book, Sheriff. Look under physician.”

He smiled, not so nice, and nodded to the policeman at the desk. The cop upended Virginia’s drawer. Pens and pencils, a rat tail comb, emery boards, a tortoise shell compact, and menstrual belt spilled over her desk. He jerked open the file cabinet, sent bills, receipts, carbon paper, and catalogs into the air, then tipped over the cabinet.

The raiding party surged into the back, dragging everyone along but the patients. In the surgeries, they shoveled the instruments into a duffle bag—speculae, curettes, forceps, sounds, suction cannulas, including Ruth’s most prized surgical tools, the ones she’d had made to order. She watched grim-faced. They swept everything out of the cabinets—basins, drapes and sheets, jars of alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, and Churchill’s iodine. Glass jars shattered onto the tile floor, filling the rooms with fumes.

When they stormed into Ruth’s office, the men’s eyes popped out at the sight of her massive, hand-carved Chinese desk. A pudgy cop cleaned out every one of the nine drawers onto the floor. Stuck his hands into the spaces, crouched down to poke and rap the underside. “Got to be a hidden drawer. I’ll find it.” He raised his stick over his head.

“That’s enough,” the sheriff said.

Same scene back in the lounge. First the sound of sucking air as if the men were a pack of rubes who’d never seen anything but stick furniture and sheets over windows. Then they sacked it.

“Sheriff Shrunk.” The force of Dr. Ruth’s words commanded a brief silence. “This is an outrage.”

A brass grille was built over the radiator. The men pried it off, grunting and cursing, took them forever. And there they were, those old tools Ruth’s predecessor had left behind, crude and obsolete. Ruth, in a preposterous fit of paranoia, had worried the instruments would fall into the wrong hands and be employed in do-it-yourself abortions. Better than a knitting needle, Mae had joked. Ruth had shot her a dark look before she’d stashed them behind the grille.

The fat cop unraveled the oilcloth packet, held the tools aloft, and gave them a triumphant shake, a fistful of shiny steel instruments, long and thin-tipped. A flash lit up the room.

Mae shook her head. Sonuvabitch. She should have quit when Leonard told her to.

 

********

“I didn’t expect it to be that professional,” Bud said. It was the day after the raid on Dr. Barnett’s clinic.

Deputy D.A. Bill Warsham gazed out the window of his office in the County Courthouse, his back to Bud Crick, reporter for the Oregon Journal. “You’d been told,” he said. “Hell, you’d been there.”

“Never back in the surgeries.”

Bill’s window framed the imposing peak of Mt. Hood and, on a good day, filled him with the confidence that he himself stood on that pinnacle with massive ridges of glistening white sloping away from his feet, possessed of a perspective afforded only those who were above it all—a view that revealed what was necessary and what was not and in which moments those judgments needed to change. When, for example, the business of getting rid of babies was no longer required. Or desirable. Especially now that the war was over.

“You saw the place,” Bud said. “Spotless, orderly, brilliantly lit. Smelled like soap and hot water.”

With his handkerchief Bill wiped the smudge off his window from Bud’s palm. “It’s a surgery, not a back alley.”

“It was an abortion parlor. And those furnishings?” Bud snorted. “Oriental rug in the office and that emperor’s desk. Darn near got smashed all to bits.”

Bill turned around. The reporter looked scrubbed and relaxed in a pressed shirt and bowtie in a godawful shade of orange. He’d plucked the alabaster statuette of Lady Justice off Bill’s shelf. “What’s your point?” Bill said.

Bud gripped Lady Justice by her feet and swung her through the air like a baseball bat. “What’s eating you?”

Bill grabbed a newspaper clipping off his desk and held it up.

It was a shot of Dr. Barnett’s lounge, three overstuffed chairs, a coffee table, and a big X drawn over a brass grille and, as if that weren’t enough to draw the reader’s attention, a curved arrow pointed at the X, which marked the “concealed compartment” where police had discovered the “hidden instruments of their evil trade.”

“That’s The Oregonian,” Bud said. “Not the Journal.”

“It’s cheap.” Bill tossed the clipping back onto his desk.

Bud smirked. “After we scooped ’em, what else could they do but go cheap.”

“Dr. Barnett’s surgical equipment was in plain view. She wasn’t trying to hide a thing.”

“Only guilty people hide stuff.”

“Our job is to clean things up, not smear a bunch of filth around in the papers. Or smash up a medical office.”

Bud held up his hands. “I’m on your side. Remember?” He sauntered over to Bill’s desk, picked up a framed photo and studied it. “Evelyn sure is a good-looking lady.”

Before he knew it, Bill was running a finger around the inside of his starched collar. Last thing Evie did every morning, right after she pecked him on the cheek, was cinch up the knot in his tie. He always left it there, figuring she knew best how to wrap a man’s neck.

A puzzled look spread over Bud’s face. “That nurse of Dr. Barnett’s, Mae Rose, you seemed to know each other.”

Half the night Bill had spent, twisting in the sheets, testing out ways to dodge the hard pitch of Bud’s inescapable curiosity about Miss Rose. “We worked together one summer at Norbert’s Hardware. When we were still in school.”

“Norbert’s?”

“Remember? Out on Thirty-ninth. Closed years ago.”

Bud’s eyes lost focus for a moment, no doubt to pop that fact into a mental file labeled Abortion Nurse Who Smiled at Bill Warsham. He must have had a thousand files stacked in his brain. Bud had a prodigious memory.

“Billy,” Bud said. “That what she called you?”

“You know, teenage girls, always making up a nickname.”

“What’d you call her?”

Bill picked up the clipping again and studied the picture of the brass grille, rubbing the tired pouches under his eyes. Maybe Bud had a point. They’d concealed a packet of surgical tools. The guiltier they looked, the worse it would go for them, and the better his position to assist Miss Rose. To earn her gratitude. To make her see things his way.

He looked up and shrugged. “Mae. What else would I call her?”

###

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