Page 33 of The Final Diagnosis

“Of course! Dr. O’Donnell, how nice to hear from you!”

He had a sudden vision of her beside the telephone, the soft dark hair tumbled about her shoulders. Then he said, “I just called you in New York. They gave me the number here.”

“I flew down last night,” Denise Quantz said. “Father had a touch of bronchitis. I thought I’d stay with him for a day or two.”

He asked courteously, “It’s not too serious, I hope?”

“Not really.” She laughed. “My father has the constitution of a mule—as well as the obstinacy.”

He thought: I can believe that. Aloud he said, “I was going to ask you to have dinner with me in New York. I expect to be there next week.”

“You can still ask me.” The reply was prompt and definite. “I’ll be back by then.”

On impulse he said, “Possibly I could anticipate. Do you have a free evening in Burlington?”

After a moment’s pause she said, “Tonight would be the only time.”

O’Donnell calculated quickly. His office appointments would go on until seven. But if nothing else came up . . .

His thoughts were interrupted. “Oh, wait!” It was Denise Quantz again. “I’d forgotten. Dr. Pearson is having dinner with my father; I think I ought to stay.” She added, “Unless you’d care to join us?”

Mentally he chuckled. Joe Pearson might be surprised to find him there. Instinct, though, told him it was not a good idea. He said, “Thank you, but I think perhaps we’d better postpone it.”

“Oh dear.” Her voice sounded disappointed; then she brightened. “I could meet you after dinner if you like. Father and Dr. Pearson are sure to get into one of their chess games, and when they do that anyone else might just as well not be there.”

He found himself suddenly delighted. “That would be wonderful. What time will you be free?”

“About nine-thirty, I imagine.”

“Shall I call for you?”

“It would probably save time if we met downtown. You tell me where.”

He thought for a moment, then said, “The Regency Room?”

“All right; at half-past nine. Good-by now.”

As O’Donnell replaced the phone he had a pleasant sense of anticipation. Then he glanced at the clock again. He would have to hurry if he were to be in the O.R. on time.

The after-dinner chess game between Eustace Swayne and Dr. Joseph Pearson had been in progress for forty minutes. The two old men faced each other across a low rosewood games table in the same paneled library where, three weeks earlier, O’Donnell and Swayne had had their verbal joust. Only two lights were burning in the room—one from a single pendant shade immediately above the table, the other a dimly glowing rococo lamp by the hallway door.

Both men’s faces were in shadow, the light between them playing directly on the inlaid chessboard in the table’s center. Only when one or the other leaned forward to make a move in the game were their features defined momentarily by the lamplight’s outer edges.

At this moment both were still, the room’s deep silence hovering like a padded mantle over the pair of Louis XV beechwood wing chairs in which they sat. Eustace Swayne had leaned back. Holding a brandy glass of ruby crystal lightly between his fingers, he surveyed the game as it had progressed so far.

The previous move had been Dr. Joseph Pearson’s. A minute or two ago, gently cradling the white queen from the exquisitely carved Indian-ivory chess set, he had moved the piece a single square ahead.

Now, putting down the brandy glass, Eustace Swayne selected a pawn from his far right wing and transferred it two squares forward. Then gruffly, breaking the silence, he said, “There have been changes at the hospital, I hear.”

Beyond the lamplight, Joe Pearson studied the chessboard. When he was ready he leaned forward and moved a pawn on his left wing one square forward, countering the other’s advance. Only then did he grunt the one word, “Some.”

Again the silence, peace, the sense of time halted. Then the old tycoon stirred in his chair. “Do you approve these changes?” He reached forward and slid his bishop diagonally two squares to the right. Half humorously he glanced across the table in the semi-darkness. His expression said: Beat that line-up if you can.

This time Joe Pearson answered before he made his move. “Not entirely.” He remained in shadow, studying the other’s gambit, pondering the alternatives ahead. Then, slowly, still handling the pieces tenderly, he moved his rook one square to the left, dominating an open line.

Eustace Swayne waited. A minute passed, two minutes, then three. Finally his hand reached out for his rook and made a similar move to the same open line, meeting his opponent’s challenge. Then he said, “You have a means of veto for the future if you choose to exercise it.”

“Oh? What kind of veto?” The question was casual but the action which accompanied it swift. Pearson picked up his queen’s knight and swung it over the pieces, lodging it on a central square.

Studying the board, assessing the strength of his own position, Swayne said, “I’ve told Orden Brown—and your chief of surgery—I’m willing to give a quarter million dollars to the building fund.” With the last word he made a corresponding move to Pearson’s, sending his king’s knight forward until it reached the square beside the strongly lodged knight of his opponent.

A long silence this time. At the end of it the pathologist took his bishop and, swooping down the board, removed an opposing pawn. He said quietly, “Check.” Then, “That’s a lot of money.”

“I’ve attached a condition.” Swayne, on the defensive now, moved his king one square to the right. “The money will only be given if you remain free to run your own department in the hospital the way you want for as long as you choose.”

This time Joe Pearson made no move. He seemed to be musing, looking away into the darkness over the other man’s head. Then he said simply, “I’m touched.” His eyes returned to the chessboard. After a while he lifted his knight to a square so that the piece attacked Swayne’s now cramped king.

Eustace Swayne had watched the action carefully. But before making his own move he reached for a brandy decanter, filled Pearson’s glass and then his own. Putting the decanter down, “It’s a young man’s world,” he said, “and I suppose it always has been. Except that sometimes old men still have power . . . and the sense to use it.” Then, his eyes glinting, he reached down, picked up the pawn in front of his king, and with it captured the troublesome knight.

Thoughtfully Pearson stroked his chin with thumb and forefinger. Then he selected his queen, moved it six squares down the open file, and captured the black king’s pawn. “You say . . . Orden Brown, O’Donnell . . . they know this?”

“I made it plain.” The old tycoon took his king’s bishop and captured his opponent’s bishop on king’s knight five.

Suddenly Joe Pearson chuckled. There was nothing to show whether the game or the conversation had caused his amusement. But swiftly he reached out. He moved his queen beside the black king. Then, softly, “Checkmate!”

Though defeated, caught unawares, Eustace Swayne had watched admiringly. He nodded, as if to confirm his own judgment.

“Joe,” he said, “there’s no doubt of it—you’re as good a man as ever!”

The music stopped, and the couples on the dance floor of the small but fashionable supper club—one of the few which existed in Burlington—began drifting back to their tables.

“Tell me what you were thinking then,” Denise Quantz said. She smiled at Kent O’Donnell across the small black-topped table which divided them.

“Frankly, I was thinking how pleasant it would be to do this again.”

Very slightly she raised the glass she was holding. It held the last of her second old-fashioned. “To more thoughts of the same kind.”

“I’ll drink to that.” He finished his own scotch and soda, then signaled a waiter to repeat their order. “Shall we dance?” The music had begun again.

“I’d love to.” She rose, turning half toward him as he followed her to the small, dimly lighted dance floor. He held out his arms and she moved into them. They danced close together. O’Donnell had never been an expert dancer; medicine had left him too little time to become accomplished. But Denise Quantz matched every movement to his own. As the minutes went by he could feel her body—tall, willowy—moving obediently, anticipating the music and his own motion. Once her hair brushed lightly against his face; it brought with it a breath of the same perfume he had noticed at their first meeting.

The five-piece orchestra, unobtrusive, its arrangements carefully attuned to the intimate setting, was playing a popular ballad of several years before.

See the Pyramids along the Nile,

Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle,

Just remember, darling—all the while

You belong to me.

For a moment he had a sense of borrowed time, of existing in a vacuum, insulated, away from medicine, Three Counties, all the other things he lived with daily. Then the music changed to a faster tempo, and he smiled at himself for sentimentality.

As they danced he asked, “Do you come here often—to Burlington, I mean?”

“Not really,” she answered. “Occasionally, to see my father, but that’s all. Frankly it’s a city I dislike.” Then laughingly, “I hope I’m not offending your civic pride.”

“No,” he said. “I’ve no strong views one way or the other. But weren’t you born here?” He added, “Denise—if I may.”

“Of course. Don’t let’s be formal.” She looked at him directly and flashed a smile. Answering his question, “Yes, I was born here,” she said. “I went to school and lived at home. My mother was alive then.”

“Then why New York—now?”

“I think I’m a New Yorker by instinct. Besides, my husband lived there; he still does.” It was the first time she had mentioned her marriage. She did it now, easily and unself-consciously. “After we separated I found I’d never want to leave. There’s no other city quite like it.”

“Yes,” he said, “I suppose that’s true.” He was thinking again how beautiful this woman was. She had a composure, a lack of artifice, that younger women could rarely attain. But nothing of her suggested a retreat from femininity; rather the reverse. To Kent O’Donnell, holding her now, her body moving evenly against his own, she seemed infinitely desirable. He suspected she could be extremely sensual.

Deliberately he switched his thoughts away. This was premature. He noticed again, as he had earlier, the gown she had on tonight. Worn off-shoulder, it was a brilliant scarlet, of rich peau de soie, curved closely around her figure and falling into fullness only below the hips. At one and the same time the effect was dramatic, discreet, expensive.

It was a reminder of another thought that had occurred to him this evening for the first time—the fact that Denise was obviously a rich woman. They had arrived at the Regency Room almost together. He had parked his own car and walked to the night club’s street entrance when a gleaming Cadillac had pulled up, a uniformed chauffeur hurrying around to open the door for Denise to alight. They had greeted each other, then she had turned to the chauffeur, now standing discreetly in the background. “Thank you, Tom. I don’t think you need come back. I expect Dr. O’Donnell will drive me home.”