Page 27 of The Street Lawyer

One of the paramedics unlatched my seat belt, and they pulled me over the console and through the passenger door. "I don't see any blood," someone said.

"Can you walk?" a paramedic asked. My shoulder and ribs were hurting. I tried to stand, but my legs wouldn't work.

"I'm okay," I said, sitting on the edge of a stretcher. There was a racket behind me, but I couldn't turn around. They strapped me down, and as I entered the ambulance I saw the Jaguar, upside down and surrounded by cops and medics.

I kept saying, "I'm okay, I'm okay," as they checked my blood pressure. We were moving; the siren faded.

They took me to the emergency room at George Washington University Medical Center. X-rays revealed no breaks of any type. I was bruised and in terrible pain. They filled me with painkillers and rolled me up to a private room.

I awoke sometime in the night. Claire was sleeping in a chair next to my bed.

Chapter Fifteen

She left before dawn. A sweet note on the table told me that she had to make her rounds, and that she would return mid-morning. She had talked to my doctors, and it was likely that I would not die.

We seemed perfectly normal and happy, a cute couple devoted to each other. I drifted off wondering why, exactly, we were going through the process of a divorce.

A nurse woke me at seven and handed me the note. I read it again as she rattled on about the weather--sleet and snow--and took my blood pressure. I asked her for a newspaper. She brought it thirty minutes later with my cereal. The story was front page, Metro. The narc was shot several times in a gun battle; his condition was critical. He'd killed one dealer. The second dealer was the Jaguar driver, who died at the scene of the crash under circumstances still to be investigated. I was not mentioned, which was fine.

Had I not been involved, the story would have been an everyday shootout between cops and crack dealers, ignored and unread by me. Welcome to the streets. I tried to convince myself it could've happened to any D.C. professional, but it was a hard sell. To be in that part of town after dark was to ask for trouble.

My upper left arm was swollen and already turning blue--the left shoulder and collarbone stiff and tender to the touch. My ribs were sore to the point of keeping me perfectly still. They hurt only when I breathed. I made it to the bathroom where I relieved myself and looked at my face. An air bag is a small bomb. The impact stuns the face and chest. But the damage was minimal: slightly swollen nose and eyes, an upper lip that had a new shape. Nothing that wouldn't disappear over the weekend.

The nurse was back with more pills. I made her identify each one, then I said no to the entire collection. They were for pain and stiffness, and I wanted a clear head. The doc popped in at seven-thirty for a quick going-over. With nothing broken or tipped, my hours as a patient were numbered. He suggested another round of X-rays, to be safe. I tried to say no, but he had already discussed file matter with my wife.

So I limped around my room for an eternity, testing my wounded body parts, watching the morning newsbabble, hoping no one I knew would suddenly enter and see me in my yellow paisley gown.

* * *

Finding a wrecked car in the District is a baffling chore, especially when initiated so soon after the accident. I started with the phone book, my only source, and half the numbers in Traffic went unanswered. The other half were answered with great indifference. It was early, the weather was bad. It was Friday, why get involved?

Most wrecked cars were taken to a city lot on Rasco Road, up in Northeast. I learned this from a secretary at the Central Precinct. She worked in Animal Control; I was dialing police extensions at random. Other cars were sometimes taken to other lots, and there was a good chance mine could still be attached to the wrecker. The wreckers were privately owned, she explained, and this had always caused trouble. She once worked in Traffic, but hated it over there.

I thought of Mordecai, my new source for all information related to the street. I waited until nine to call him. I told him the story, assured him I was in great shape in spite of being in a hospital, and asked him if he knew how to find a wrecked car. He had some ideas.

I called Polly with the same story.

"You're not coming in?" she asked, her voice faltering. "I'm in the hospital, Polly. Are you listening to me?" There was hesitation on her end, confirming what I feared. I could envision a cake with a punch bowl next to it, probably in a conference room, on the table, with fifty people standing around it proposing toasts and making short speeches about how wonderful I was. I had been to a couple of those parties myself. They were awful. I was determined to avoid my own send-off.

"When are you getting out?" she asked.

"Don't know. Maybe tomorrow." It was a lie; I was leaving before noon, with or without my medical team's approval.

More hesitation. The cake, the punch, the important speeches from busy people, maybe even a gift or two. How would she handle it?

"I'm sorry," she said.

"Me too. Is anybody looking for me?"

"No. Not yet."

"Good. Please tell Rudolph about the accident, and I'll call him later. Gotta go. They want more tests."

* * *

And so my once promising career at Drake & Sweeney sputtered to an end. I skipped my own retirement party. At the age of thirty-two I was freed from the shackles of corporate servitude, and the money. I was left to follow my conscience. I would've felt great if not for the knife sticking through my ribs every time I moved.

Claire arrived after eleven. She huddled with my doctor in the hall. I could hear them out there, speaking their language. They stepped into my room, jointly announced my release, and I changed into clean clothes she had brought from home. She drove me there, a short trip during which little was said. There was no chance at reconciliation. Why should a simple car wreck change anything? She was there as a friend and a doctor, not a wife.

She fixed tomato soup and tucked me into the sofa. She lined up my pills on the kitchen counter, gave me my instructions, and left.

I was still for ten minutes, long enough to eat half the soup and a few of the saltines, then I was on the phone. Mordecai had found nothing.

Working from the classifieds, I began calling Realtors and apartment locating services. Then I called for a sedan from a car service. I took a long, hot shower to loosen my bruised body.

My driver was Leon. I sat in the front with him, trying not to grimace and groan with each pothole he hit.

I couldn't afford a nice apartment, but at the least I wanted one that was safe. Leon had some ideas. We stopped at a newsstand and I picked up two free brochures on District real estate.

In Leon's opinion, a good place to live right now, but this could change in six months, he warned me, was Adams-Morgan, north of Dupont Circle. It was a wellknown district, one I had been through many times, never with any desire to stop and browse. The streets were lined with turn-of-the-century rowhouses, all of which were still inhabited, which, in D.C., meant a vibrant neighborhood. The bars and clubs were hot at the moment, according to Leon, and the best new restaurants were there. The seedy sections were just around the corner, and of course one had to be extremely careful. If important people like senators got themselves mugged on Capitol Hill, then no one was safe.

Driving toward Adams-Morgan, Leon was suddenly confronted with a pothole larger than his car. We bounced through it, getting airborne for what seemed to be ten seconds, then landing very hard. I couldn't help but scream as the entire left side of my torso collapsed in pain.

Leon was horrified. I had to tell him the truth, where I'd slept last night. He slowed down considerably, and became my Realtor. He helped me up the stairs at my first prospect, a run-down flat With the unmistakable smell of cat urine emanating from the carpet. In no uncertain terms, Leon told the landlord she should be ashamed showing the place in such condition.