Mood Swing: Chapter 1

Rishi was halfway out the window and onto the fire escape when I tackled him. Arms wrapped around my dog’s massive shoulders, I groped for his choke chain and yanked him hard. Half a dozen pigeons flapped skyward, squawking.

“Bad boy!” I paused to catch my breath, stroked his neck. “Don’t chase pigeons! God only knows what nasty diseases you might pick up if you ever catch one.”

The window shouldn’t have been open, I realized suddenly. I’d had it open last night, but only a few inches – not enough for Rishi to climb through. And I was almost positive I closed it. Suddenly uneasy, I led Rishi on a tour of my office. But he kept straining to get back to that window. The iron grate that burglar-proofs the window was swinging open on its hinges. The padlock lay on the floor and the key was gone from its nail beside the window frame. I’d already given any burglar in the vicinity more than enough time to get away, which was fine with me.  Despite my weekly self-defense class, I see no point in seeking out real danger.  

I was glad I had Rishi there to protect me and lend me courage. He’s leaner and rangier than a German shepherd, stockier than a Doberman, bigger than a Rottweiler.  Despite his forbidding looks, he’s a basically friendly beast, but sometimes it’s in my best interests not to let people know that. Now he was panting, drooling saliva from his enormous jaws, tugging at his heavy-duty choke chain. 

“Okay, Rishi, let’s see what you’re so excited about,” I said as he dragged me back to the window. Whimpering softly, he put his paws on the window ledge, leaned his enormous head out, and peered down into the back yard.

I followed his gaze. A motionless figure lay sprawled face down on the black asphalt in the courtyard below. The blackness threw the silhouette into high relief. The curly brown hair, the plaid flannel shirt were familiar.

Stephen Wright! My stomach lurched. I was virtually positive it was Stephen. He wore that shirt constantly, like a talisman, believing it had special protective powers. I’d tried to talk him out of it on more than one occasion, and he’d explained the symbolism. Ragged, stinky, too hot for summer – he knew, and he could care less. I had backed off. As a member of WellSpring Club, he had the right to dress as he pleased, within reason. And as Director of the psychosocial club for mentally ill adults on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, I had the obligation to let him make his own choices, also within reason.

Passing out in the back yard was not within reason. Stephen had been going to AA religiously, and he hadn’t passed out in months. Now he’d obviously fallen off the wagon. I felt a wave of fury mingled with guilt and regret – obviously our program hadn’t been enough for him.

I leaned further out the window. “Stephen, wake up! It’s Erika!”

No response. Evidently my voice didn’t carry down to the courtyard from my second-floor office, but I didn’t dare call any louder. It was early, just seven thirty, and people in the nearby tenements were probably still trying to sleep. Some of them were already dubious about having a psychiatric social club as a neighbor, and I didn’t want to make matters worse by screaming.

I pulled Rishi away from the window and out of my office. We ran down the two flights of stairs to the ground floor, through the dining room to the door that opened onto the back yard. I unlocked both dead bolts, climbed halfway up the concrete steps to the yard, then stopped aghast.

It was definitely Stephen. His face was hidden, but I recognized his build, with the masculine shoulders that tapered to a body so thin, I was always halfway tempted to take him out and treat him to a meal. But there was something awkward about the angle of his limbs, and a halo of thick, ropy blood surrounded his head and splattered across the asphalt.

I shut Rishi in the kitchen, crossed the asphalt and knelt, feeling Stephen’s neck for a pulse. Nothing.

Frantic, I dredged my memory for the CPR I’d studied at the hospital but never had to use. First step: “Stephen, can you hear me?” No response. Next step: call for help. Damn! My cell phone was upstairs, in my purse. I raced inside to call 911, then back to Stephen’s side. I rolled him onto his back, tilted his head back to open the airway and listened for breath. Again, nothing. I wiped his mouth with a tissue, placed my mouth on his. Two breaths. Was there a pulse? I placed two fingers at the side of his neck, felt only stillness.

Damn! How many chest compressions? Fifteen sounded right. I placed both hands on his sternum, pressed down, started counting. Fifteen compressions, two breaths, fifteen compressions, two breaths….

The rhythm came back to me and my body took over. Still no response from Stephen, but I tried not to think about that. Minutes stretched into what felt like hours. Where the hell were the EMTs? My heart was thudding heavily, and I was gasping for breath. I couldn’t keep up much longer.

What had happened to Stephen? Was this an accident? A suicide? He was diagnosed bipolar, and his illness put him at high risk for suicide. I understood the danger all too well. No one at WellSpring knew it, but I shared Stephen’s diagnosis. I too was bipolar.

All at once, from inside the kitchen, I heard a wild salvo of warning barks. About time! I ran inside, grabbed Rishi’s leash and headed upstairs to the lobby. I opened the door and confronted two cops, a man and a woman. “Where are the EMTs?” I asked. “I told the operator a man may be dying.”

“They’re on their way, ma’am,” the man said. Even as he spoke, an ambulance was pulling up at the curb. “I just need to check out the scene first. Where is he?”

I led them into the back yard. The woman rushed immediately to Stephen’s side and squatted down, feeling for a pulse. Then she stood speaking to the other cop. Their tones were too low for me to hear, but the way she shook her head confirmed my worst fears.

Two Emergency Medical Technicians burst into the yard, lugging their paraphernalia. “You’ll have to step aside, ma’am,” said one. “We need room to work.”

“I’ve been doing CPR ever since I called 911.” My breath was still coming in gasps. “I don’t know how long. It felt like ages.”

The woman officer approached me. “You did the best you could,” she said softly. “Why don’t I take you inside now. There’s nothing you can do.” As she caught hold of my arm, I took a long last look at Stephen. A shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom of the yard, and goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace framed his head in a funereal display.  Stephen would have liked the picture, I thought. He had a lot of artistic ability. 

When I got back to the lobby, the front door was open. Outside on the stoop, two young white cops were talking with Stan Washington, an imposingly large man with mahogany skin and a grizzled beard, who virtually ran the club when I wasn’t around.  Apparently they had all arrived at the same time.  The cops were trying to figure out where to go and Stan wouldn’t get out of the way. I heard him saying something about a warrant and quickly stepped in to defuse the situation before it turned into a physical confrontation.

“I’ll take it from here, Stan,” I said, sidling into the narrow space between him and the cops.

“Down here,” said the woman officer, who had been right behind me. The new cops followed her while I briefly explained the situation to Stan. “I want you to keep the club members outside while I work with the police, okay?”

“The police should not be in this club without a warrant,” he said. Stan pretty much managed the daily operations of the club, but he was also a club member. Like the others, he was saddled with a heavy-duty diagnosis. Paranoid schizophrenia, in his case. I knew he’d had some bad experiences with the police in the days before he got his illness under control.

Standing so close to him, I felt as though I was bellying up to a sequoia. “Please, Stan, just keep the club members out and let the police in, okay? It’s what we have to do for Stephen.”

He looked at me intently for a moment.  “I understand the necessity.  Now that the soul has fled, the body belongs to the government. How did he die?”

“It looks as though he fell.” I was about to mention the possibility of suicide, but I stopped short. Could it have been an accident? A murder?  Too soon to tell. I was giving Stan a quick summary of the situation, trying hard to be objective, when one of the police officers returned with some yellow crime scene tape and strung it across the door. Great. Now Stan and I couldn’t get back in. 

A few seconds later the cop was back, glaring at Rishi. “I want you to secure this dog and remove it from the premises,” he said, as he lifted the tape so we could duck under. 

“No can do. I’m Director of this club. This is my dog and he stays with me.”

The policeman was standing stiffly with his hand on his service revolver, looking far too jittery. I realized I’d better modify my stance. “If you want, I can lock him in my office.” 

Just then a lanky man with a shock of red hair and a nubby gray sport coat ducked under the yellow tape into the lobby. “Is the dog friendly?” he asked. 

“Yes,” I said, figuring this was no time to suggest Rishi was anything other than a loveable cream puff.  “You can pet him if you want.”

“I’m Detective Dennis Malone.” He knelt down and gave Rishi a good rub around the ears. My dog groaned with pleasure.  “Good dog. I’ll be in charge of this investigation, okay fella?” He stood up and looked at me gravely. “I understand you found the body. Let’s go someplace quiet where you can tell me about it.”

“Okay. I’m Erika Norgren, by the way. The club’s Director. We might as well use the group room. It’s right through here.” I opened a tall, golden oak door at the back of the lobby and ushered him through, then stood smiling as he scanned the space. “This room is our pride and joy,” I said. “It was the main parlor back when this building was a townhouse. We use it for our community meetings, and the members like to hang out here, drink coffee, read the paper.”

“I can see why. It’s a beautiful room. Nice high ceilings.”

“Yes, and it has the original moldings. The fireplace is bricked up, but it has a great view of the backyard.” And of Stephen Wright’s body. Stop playing tour guide, Erika. This isn’t the time for it.

 We found seats at a table. Rishi crawled beneath it and settled down.

Dennis settled back in his chair. “So, Erika. I’m familiar with some of the people here, but we haven’t met.  How long have you worked here?”

“About five months.”

“This must be a heck of a thing to be faced with when you’re new on the job.”

I wasn’t about to play damsel in distress. “I’ve had better days,” I said crisply. “So what’s the procedure going to be? When can I start letting members back in the club?”

 “First, tell me what happened. Then you can show me around the building, and  we’ll see.  Why don’t you start with how you found the body?”

“Actually Rishi found him first. As soon as we got to my office, he took off across the room and tried to climb onto the fire escape. I thought he was after the pigeons.”

“Do you always let him run loose around the club?”

“Not when anyone else is here. But it was early, and no one was around, so I didn’t see any problem. I had no idea the window was open.”

“What were you doing at the club so early?”

“The air conditioner in my apartment conked out, and the heat was unbearable. I checked the forecast on TV, and that weather guy who gives the irritability ratings said today was going to be a nine out of ten. That’s why I didn’t want to leave Rishi at home. It would have been cruel and inhumane to leave him stewing in that oven. The club has really great air conditioning. Besides, I wanted to come in early to get a jump-start on the day. I often find I can get a lot more done –”

“Okay, Erika, I get the idea. Now let’s get back to what happened in your office.”

I told him what I remembered, then he took me over it again in more detail. Polite but thorough. Detective Malone was the archetypal Irishman – red hair, pale skin, startlingly green eyes.  Not normally my type, but he got along with my dog, and I liked the way he was handling this. As a trained counselor with a master’s degree in social work, I appreciate good interview skills. He was pulling information from me I didn’t think I had.

“Our club secretary Gloria Valdez and I locked up the club last night after we’d seen the last members out, and as far as I knew, it was empty. Gloria checked the top two floors while I did the three lower ones.”

Malone kept going over the bit about the window. Why was it open? “I don’t like canned air all day.”  Did I usually leave it open?  “No.”  Had I ever left it open before? “No” Why was it unlocked? “I don’t know.” Do you know where the key is? “No. The last time I noticed, it was hanging on a nail near the window, but it’s gone now.” Then he wanted to know about Stephen. Can you identify the victim? “Yes.  Stephen Wright.” Who would want to hurt him? “I can’t think of anyone.” Was he suicidal?  “Not to my knowledge.”  Who would know?  “His psychiatrist.”

He stared at me stonily.  “You’re not helping me, Erika.”

We were interrupted by an uniformed officer, who wanted access to the roof.  It took me a couple of minutes to find the ring of keys that Gloria kept stashed at the back of a file drawer, then locate the one labeled “roof.”  I extricated it from the ring, handed it to the cop, then put the other keys in an envelope and stuffed them in my pocket. 

“Okay,” said Malone. “You might as well walk me through the club now.”

I was getting my breath back. “All right. Let’s start with the roof.”

Club members maintained a small roof garden where they grew flowers in buckets, broken pots and a couple of big wooden wine barrels. Watering the plants was a hassle, but the roof got full sun, so they preferred it to the backyard, which was usually in deep shade. In the early September heat, the roof was ablaze with showy annuals grown from seeds the members had ordered from catalogs and started indoors back in the spring. Pink and purple cosmos and cleomes were favorites, along with petunias, geraniums and dusty miller.   

I started for the parapet, intending to look down into the back yard, but Malone grabbed hold of my arm. “Don’t go over there. We don’t want to mess up the roof till the crime scene people check it out. Don’t touch anything, and don’t say anything to the club members until we’ve had a chance to interview them.”

His presence was reassuring, but his manner annoyed me.  Or maybe it was the heat up on the roof, where the sun had already begun to feel like a plumber’s torch on the back of my neck.

“You’re not going to interview them all, are you? That’s really going to upset some of them.”

He glared at me.  “I patrolled the streets around here before I got my detective’s shield, and I can tell you some of the people you’ve got here are real hard cases.”

“They are club members, Detective, not hard cases. Many of them are also extremely vulnerable.  They are dealing with serious disabilities, and generally doing it rather well.  I do not want you messing with them.  Do you understand?”

His eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.  “We will be interviewing people. That’s our job, Erika. But you can make it easier on everyone concerned by helping us out. We’d like an interview room, and once forensics is finished with the crime scene, I’ll need you to identify the body. Now, we’re going to walk off this roof exactly the way we came on.”

I showed him the layout of the building floor by floor, top to bottom. We agreed the conference room at the front of the second floor would be a good place for interviews. “That’s about it,” I said at last. We were on the ground floor in the dining room, right near the phone where I had first called 911.

“What’s over there?”

I followed his gaze to a barn-red door near the stairwell. “Oh, that’s the door to the basement. The boiler’s down there, all the mechanical stuff. There’s a pool table and a couple of weight machines, but we keep it locked unless someone wants to use it. It’s not really renovated, and we can’t seem to get rid of the musty smell. Stan’s in charge of the key.”

“Okay, we’ll check it out later.”

Uniformed cops seemed to be everywhere. A woman officer was stationed at the front door with a clipboard, making a note every time someone entered or left the building.  “She’s the recorder,” Malone explained. “Everyone coming in or out gets logged in.”

“How long will the crime scene tape be up?  How long do we have to keep the members out of the building?”

“Until I say so, Erika.” His lips curved in absolute confidence. 

“You’re going to have a street full of very hot, upset people. Do you think I could give them a time?” With a wave of my hand, I indicated the growing crowd outside. “Two hours, say?”  

He shrugged. “Whenever there’s a body, there’s always a crowd. Just so you know, this is my crime scene until I say otherwise. Once I decide you can let your folks in, I’ll expect you to keep them away from the backyard, the roof, and anyplace else we have a ribbon up. That means you keep out, too. The doors stay locked and off limits. Understand?”

“Okay. But they like hanging out at the tables in the group room, and the windows look out on the back yard.  What if somebody looks out and sees the body?”

“No problem.  We’ll be interviewing your clients anyway, and anything they see may help jog their memories. Or do you call them patients?”

“At WellSpring Club, we never use the term client, let alone patient.  The people who come here suffer from serious mental illness, but they’re able to function independently in the community, and they come here of their own free will. We provide a therapeutic environment, a safe space where club members can decompress, get their lives together, socialize, eat a good meal, maybe do some painting or writing. We also provide job training and career counseling.  And we prefer the term member, or consumer.”

Detective Malone presented his palms in a placating gesture.  “OK, but we’ve got a job to do here and member or consumer both sound awkward.  How about if I just call them people, or maybe folks?”

Finally, a breath of cool understanding.  “People or folks will do just fine,” I said with a smile.

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