Fruits of the Poisonous Tree

The Plot

Joe Gunther’s girlfriend, Gail Zigman, is raped, causing consternation and great pain not just to the two of them, but a media frenzy due to her political prominence, his involvement in the case, and her refusal to hide behind a shroud of anonymity. Instead, while Joe and his colleagues narrow in on the identity of her attacker, Gail is leading candlelight parades down Main Street, bringing attention to the true character of rape. But is the man the police nail for the crime the right one? Risking his friendship with Gail, the respect of his peers, and finally his own life, Joe doggedly keeps digging, hoping to find out if the man they have in jail is rightfully there, or if the evidence against him was fruits of the poisonous tree.

An excerpt from Fruits of the Poisonous Tree

To set the stage: In pursuit of a man believed to have raped Gail Zigman – Bob Vogel – Joe has been stabbed in the stomach, and now lies near death in the hospital.

What I remember comes to me in private mental snapshots-some slightly fuzzy or badly framed, some of people, others of ceilings, ambulance roofs, or views of the sky. All of them are in random order. The one constant theme, like music accompanying a slide show, is the pain. It is the pain, I’ve come to think, that stimulated my taking the snapshots in the first place. Whenever it hit badly enough, I came into focus, more or less, just as a dozing concertgoer might be jarred awake by an occasional off-key note, before nodding off once more.

There are many clear, full face, but troubled portraits of friends-Tony, Ron, Sammie, Gail, Billy… even my younger brother Leo, a butcher from Thetford and the gentle custodian of the remnants of my family. All there, I knew, to lend me comfort, to see how I’m doing, but all looking as if they’ve lost their best friend. There is one of Willy, of course, that’s a little different. He’s farther away, standing straight and viewing from a distance. When I wasn’t taking photos but just leafing through them until the next spasm woke me up – I came to think he was looking at me as he might a dead dog in the street. But then he’s a special case; and he did show up.

Toward the end, more lucid, although still keeping to myself in dark unconsciousness, I knew that’s what was going on-that they were visiting me-fitting themselves awkwardly in between the IV poles, the electronic monitors, the EKG machine, and a bunch of other equipment that kept a steady watch on me. But having no memory of their visits apart from these disjointed images-and judging solely from their expressions-I knew I wasn’t doing too well.

I eventually found that out for myself when the familiar painful stimulus led to a moving picture instead of a still. I watched in grimacing fascination as a young nurse, her eyes watchful, manipulated something below my line of sight. It was dark all around us, the only light coming from a freestanding gooseneck lamp she had beside her, and the familiar green, red, and amber glow from the various instruments plugged in all around me.

“Ow.”

She stopped, and turned to look at me, her face darkening in the shadow, which in turn highlighted the whiteness of her teeth as she smiled. “Good morning.”

I moved my head slightly to take in the surrounding gloom. “Morning?”

“Figure of speech. It’s two A.M. How are you feeling?” Her voice was soft and clear.

“Not too good. What are you doing down there?” To me, my voice sounded like it was coming from inside an echo chamber and my throat hurt like hell. I didn’t know if I was whispering or shouting.

“Changing your dressing. Sorry if it hurts a bit.”

I caught my breath at an extra jolt, remembering how painlessly the knife had slipped in. “He did a hell of a job, I guess.”

She smiled again, her eyes back on what she was doing. “That he did. He said lots of other people would’ve died from less. You’re a tough guy, Mr. Gunther.”

She hadn’t known whom I’d meant, and I was too tired to explain it to her. Also, there was something uplifting in the way she spoke, after all those grim-faced snapshots, and I didn’t want to ruin the mood. I passed out instead, launched on a new career of collecting movie loops-small segments of action, usually of nurses like her, sometimes of doctors-always brought on by the pain. Some of these loops had dialog, occasionally as coherent and reasonable as that first one, but they tended to be a little repetitive. The time of day and concern for how I was feeling were two popular subjects. And there were other times when the movie and the soundtrack were completely out of whack, when lips moved without sound and words floated by out of context. I got more of those grim looks at those times, and eventually, like a precocious toddler, I learned to keep my mouth shut when the audience frowned.

A breakthrough came when I woke not from pain, but from a gentle pressure on my forehead-something warm and smooth-a caress-and I opened my eyes to see Gail looking down at me.

“Smile,” I asked her.

She smiled-genuinely-the pleasure reaching the small crinkles near her eyes. “Hi. You’re looking better.”

I waited for the pain, for the lights to fade and the movie to end as usual-some of them had been that short-but nothing happened. I took advantage of it to study her more closely, in the flesh, instead of in the recesses of my mind. She didn’t look better. Her eyes were bloodshot, her hair tangled and unwashed, and her cheeks gaunt and shadowed with exhaustion.

“You look terrible.”

The smile spread to a chuckle. “Thanks a lot-you’re to blame for most of it.”

I felt a familiar tug on my ability to focus-my brain longing to return to its black hole of peaceful contemplation. My sight darkened and blurred. But I didn’t want to go this time. I shifted my weight slightly, and the hot poker did the rest-my eyes cleared and my mind resurfaced.

That obviously wasn’t all it did, however. Gail suddenly leaned forward, her expression intent. “Are you okay?”

I unclenched my teeth. “Yeah-sorry.” I raised an arm to touch her, to set her at ease, and saw a thin, almost bony hand come into view-pale, slightly wrinkled, and scarred by several old IV sites along the forearm. Instead of squeezing her shoulder, I flexed my hand several times, as if at a loss to explain its function.

She interpreted the gesture. “You’ve been here a long time, Joe. Weeks. You came close to dying a few times.”

Her tightly controlled voice suddenly meshed with her ravaged appearance and I felt terrible about my earlier flip comment. I put the stranger’s hand to use and gripped her arm. “Gail, I thought about you-about being with you-just after he stabbed me.”

She smiled again. “Swell.”

I held onto her harder. “No. It was strange. It was peaceful, and didn’t hurt. I was just lying there in the water, thinking of how nice it would be to be with you. You were the one thing I could think of that helped.”

The words sounded awkward to me, unfamiliar and slightly juvenile. I was angered at my own lack of eloquence, knowing without being told of the hours she must have spent by my bed, putting aside her own pain so she could accompany me through mine.

“I guess it worked,” was what she said, but the smile lingered in her eyes.

I wanted to ask her how she was doing, if her own suffering at the hand of our mutual nemesis had eased any since we’d last visited. I wanted to find out what had happened to Bob Vogel, and what her reaction was to that. But it was all beyond me. My vision closed in again, I saw my hand fall away from her arm, and this time I couldn’t bring myself to move. Just as I shut down, I saw Gail lean forward to kiss me.

The next visitor I knew about was Leo, my brother, who woke me up as any truly professional butcher might-by getting a firm grip on the meat of my upper arm.

He smiled as I opened my eyes. “Jesus, Joey, you’re scrawnier’n hell.”

I focused on his tired face-broader and darker than Gail’s. “You don’t look so hot yourself,” I croaked, clearing my throat.

He slipped his arm behind my neck and tilted my head up to receive some cool water from a cup with a bent straw hanging out of it-his years of tending our invalid mother showing in his gentle dexterity. “I knew you’d want some of this-all that crap they had stuffed down your throat. I couldn’t believe it.”

I finished sipping and he laid me back, suddenly peeling back my upper lip and looking at my teeth. “Boy, we ought to do something about that, too. I brought a toothbrush, okay?”

I stared in wordless amazement at the brush he whipped out of his shirt pocket, his tired eyes gleaming with the bright glow of success. “That’s another thing I knew they wouldn’t think of. Has Gail tried to kiss you yet?”

“I don’t… I think so. I’ve been kind of groggy.”

He burst out laughing and produced a crumpled tube from another pocket, from which he slathered a thick dollop onto the brush. “God, no wonder she hasn’t said much-must still be catching her breath.”

I blinked a couple of times, trying to banish the tendrils of a deep sleep from my brain. “Leo, what’s been going on? Where am I?”

He raised his eyebrows and dipped the brush into the cup. “You don’t know? Open your mouth.”

I raised a hand to hold him off. “Don’t. I can do it.”

He handed it over cheerfully. “I doubt it.”

I took the brush and tried to use it, my fingers trembling with the effort. After only a couple of strokes, my entire arm felt heavy, and I missed my teeth completely, delivering a swatch of foam across my chin.

Leo shook his head, satisfied by his foresight. “Give me that. You’re making a mess.” He took it away and set to work, neatly and gently. “You’re in Lebanon, New Hampshire-the Hitchcock Hospital-and you’ve been under for three weeks, Joey-gram negative septicemia-that’s what they said you had. Fancy for blood poisoning. What the knife started, your own guts spilling into the rest of you almost finished. You had the docs scrambling a couple of times. Bad fevers, seizures, times you were delirious-you gave ‘em a run for their money. They tell me you lost forty pounds just lying here. By the way, who’s paying for all this?”

I gurgled something, and he shrugged, “Oh, right. Sorry. Here —” he brandished the all-purpose cup. “Spit.”

I spat.

“The reason I ask, you got first class all the way-police escort for the ambulance from the dam; helicopter ride up from Brattleboro; the best surgical team they had to offer here… You know how long they worked on you?”

I knew better than to try to answer. When Leo was on a roll, there was no point trying to stop him.

“Eight hours. Gail and I were sitting outside the whole time. They tried getting us to go home, but forget that. Anyway, it was the same bunch working on you the whole night. I thought docs were a little overpaid, you know? But when I saw the head guy-when he came out to tell us you’d pulled through the operation-he looked like he’d earned his keep. That son-of-a-gun looked beat. You know what I mean?”

He punched me gently on the shoulder and then immediately leaned over me, his eyes inches from mine. “Damn, you okay? Got a little carried away. That didn’t hurt, did it?”

“It’s okay, Leo.”

He was already massaging the shoulder with his big paw, doing far more damage than he had with the punch. He suddenly stopped again and took my face in his hands, as he might a small child’s. His face was serious and troubled, in abrupt contrast to the beaming expression he’d been showering on me so far. “You’re doing okay now, aren’t you? Feeling better?”

I tried to nod between his hands, and muttered through puckered lips, “Fine-a little tired.”

“I know you’ve been banged up before-even out like a light for a couple of days-but this time… I don’t know… You really had me scared. You actually died a couple of times, you know that?”

I tried shaking my head politely, with less success.

He glanced up at the machines clustered around me. “Hadn’t been for all this stuff-and all the people here-you would’ve been history.” He paused, his eyes gleaming brightly. “You scared the shit out of me.”

He gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, said, “Don’t do it again,” and disappeared as magically as he’d appeared.