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It was a small ad— really only a scrap of torn paper propped against the dusty window. In the subdued hurry of Mulberry Street, she would have easily missed it if she hadn’t spotted the deft hand that placed it there. Sidling up to the side of the tall brick building, she had examined the ad, incredulously mouthing the words to herself.
“Wanted: hard-working young woman, preferably new to the area. Neat handwriting ideal. Punctuality a must. Apply within.”
Caution had not been a priority at that time, but survival was. She knew that as a young Irish immigrant recently fired, any job offer might be the last. It was for these reasons that, with a quick inspection of her long black dress, Ms. Maira Donovan promptly marched up the stairs. On the large wooden door hung a discolored gold plate that read:
Dr. Nathaniel Collins
381 Mulberry Street, New York City
Open all week; open to all
She hardly had time to appreciate the tarnished welcome before the door swung open with a shrill groan.
Like a tall, graceful gargoyle, Dr. Nathaniel Collins stared down at the much-shorter woman standing hopefully in front of him. An impeccable gray business suit sharply contrasted with her secondhand dress and shawl. His chiseled complexion was strangely pale, as if never exposed to sunlight, and not an ebony hair on his head was misplaced. For some reason, Maira felt herself to shrink away from his imposing stare, as if the grand weight of it was too much for her to bear. Ice blue eyes glared unblinkingly at her.
“May I help you?” His deep, smooth voice compensated for his other intimidating features; its pleasant grace immediately flooded Maira with renewed confidence.
With a cheery smile, she motioned at his window. “Ah saw ye put an advertisement up just now, and ah’m here to inquire.” Her soft, lilting Irish accent seemed to carry an anticipative laugh.
Dr. Nathaniel Collins looked at her intently, as if trying to estimate her abilities through a visual examination. “How old are you?” he asked curtly.
“Goin’ on twenty-one, sir. Just lost me employment with the Elton family, up on Fifth Avenue. Ah’ve been lookin’ for a new job for abou’ a week now, an’ hoped this might be it…depending, o’ course,” she rushed, “on what kind of position yer offerin’.”
“Purely business, I can assure you.” His affable smile gave him a much younger appearance—Maira guessed he couldn’t be much older than thirty. “It involves care for one of my patients…However, I will warn you,” he cautioned her, “this job is only temporary—a few days at most.”
“If it pays, ah’m interested.”
For a few moments, Dr. Collins hesitated, tapping a long finger on the door. A tight smile pulled at the edge of his thin mouth, and he crossed his arms. “You might just qualify,” he mused thoughtfully. “Can you read?”
“O’ course ah can!” Maira scoffed indignantly. “Ah can read and write and the whole lot.”
“And tell time?”
“Easily.” She pushed back a stray ringlet of auburn hair back proudly.
Then with an imperious sweep of his arm, Dr. Collins motioned her inside. “Please, come in,” he grinned, still staring intently at her. “I believe you are now employed…Miss?” His sentence ended in a question.
“Maira Donovan, sir.” She strolled inside, large brown eyes widening in admiration at the elaborate wooden furniture, plush carpets, and beautiful flower arrangements in the office’s foyer. Down the hall, she could see women in light blue uniforms skittering silently from room to room. They did not even glance her way.
Dr. Collins shut the door and motioned at an open room to the left. “If you would step into my study, Miss Donovan, I’d be glad to elucidate this position for you.”
Following the doctor into the study, Maira eased herself into a velvety chair and clasped her hands politely in her lap. “Is it another nurse ye be wantin’?” she queried promptly.
“Ah, no, not quite,” Dr. Collins laughed nervously, seating himself in a tall wooden chair behind a grand desk. He cast her another peculiar look and continued. “Before I can consider hiring you, Miss Donovan, I must hear much more about you.” He spread his hands expressively, as if attempting to explain himself to a child. “You understand, of course, I must keep my honorable patient’s privacy a priority in the case that your employment does not work out.” Dr. Collins shrugged and leaned over his desk, ice blue eyes watching her expectantly.
“There’s naught much that’s very interestin’ abou’ me, ah’m afraid.” Maira nervously twisted a strand of dark auburn hair around her small finger. When she received no solace from the doctor’s cold stare, Maira briskly began. “Ah left Ireland to come to America when ah was naught more than nineteen. Ah hoped to send money back to me family, ye see. Ah found a job soon enough, workin’ as a maid for the Elton family but…” She attempted a smile, but it withered. “Ah’m afraid ah was fired just last week for losin’ me temper with the mistress o’ the house. ‘Twas a shameful matter.”
“Not to worry, Miss Donovan,” Dr. Collins consoled her gravely. “I still wish to offer you the position, provided that you are still willing. As you know,” he leaned back in his chair, “I am a doctor, and I have a great number of clients under my responsibility. Recently, I gained another patient, Mr. Orville Porter; he is an elderly gentleman and truly a wonderful character.” The doctor sighed despondently. “However, he is a bit…odd. Mr. Porter is known for his many eccentricities, and, quite frankly, my nurses will have nothing to do with him.” He chuckled, as if embarrassed to admit it.
“ ‘Tis as bad as that?” Maira’s freckled face furrowed in worry.
“Oh, he’s completely harmless,” Dr. Collins rushed to assure the young woman. “You do not have to worry about that.” He stared knowingly at her. “Mr. Porter is just…difficult at times, you see.”
Maira frowned. “Indeed? Ah hope ye will explain, sir.”
“Mr. Porter is known to behave irrationally.” Dr. Collins tapped his fingers together somberly. “For instance, he hates poor handwriting. Went into near hysterics once. On another occasion, a nurse didn’t give him enough aspirin for his arthritis… ” He furrowed his eyebrows. “You do know what aspirin is, don’t you?”
Maira swallowed hard. “Ah’m afraid ah don’t.”
“No matter,” Dr. Collins grinned widely. “I’ll show you later. In any event, if you accept the temporary position of care for Mr. Porter, then you would only need one day of training and then one day of work. In return, you shall receive thirty dollars in cash.”
The young woman’s mouth dropped open. “Thirty dollars?” she gasped. “For only two days o’ work?”
“That is correct. You have to understand, Mr. Porter is a, ah, valued client of mine; I would hate to lose his patronage.” Dr. Collins’ stare coolly bore down upon Maira.
Her grateful grin faded uncomfortably under the shadow of his cold stare, but she continued, “Ah’d be glad to take the job, Doctor Collins. When ken ah start?”
A ghost of a smile twisted the side of his tight-lipped mouth. “Immediately.”
That had been only a day ago, but already it seemed a week. Maira idly smoothed her light blue uniform over her knees and mused proudly, Thirty dollars for only two days…Maybe Doctor Collins would let me work as a nurse after this’. She gazed out the window of the carriage that bounced through the rough streets of New York City. Ah should think I’ve been trained enough… Doctor Collins had certainly been thorough with his training; no sooner had she accepted the position before he began to prepare her for “the inevitable shock of encountering someone in Mr. Porter’s condition”. First the doctor had Maira practice her handwriting.
“I insist on perfection,” he had declared firmly. “Now write this sentence out: dear Mrs. Billings, I would like to apologize for breaking your favorite china plate. I’m sorry for what I’ve done and never meant for this to happen. It’s my fault. Please forgive me. And sign your name.”
Even when she had produced five such notes, Dr. Collins demanded more, such as: “Dear friends of Mr. Porter, I am honored to care for Mr. Orville Porter,” and “To Whom It May Concern: I wish to express my sorrow for the death of the dodo bird. He died today by eating too many raspberries. I was the one who gave him too much. I tried to save him, but when I realized it was too late, I despaired. Please, don’t bother attending the funeral. Mary Douglas.”
The memory of the last, ridiculous note caused Maira to giggle as the carriage abruptly jerked to a stop. The driver promptly jumped down from his perch and swung the door open wide. “Here you are, miss: Ninth Avenue.”
“Thank you,” Maira pronounced carefully, dropping a few coins in his expectant hand. As the carriage pulled away, she stared admiringly at the nine-story apartment building. Maira quickly marched to the front door, anxiously glancing at the shiny silver pocketwatch Dr. Collins had graciously loaned to her. It was 9:24 a.m. She let out a sigh of relief; she was right on schedule.
As she strolled through the stately lobby and up to the clerk’s desk, she stared in envious awe at the crystal chandeliers and fine furniture. However, she quietly practiced pronouncing the words that Dr. Collins had made her memorize “so that Mr. Porter will not become agitated at having an Irish-born nurse.”
“I would like to see Mr. Orville Porter, please,” Maira told the clerk slowly. “I am here to give him his aspirin.”
“Room 29,” the clerk yawned, handing her a key. “You’re from Hall’s Nursing Agency?”
Maira began to nod when she stopped herself with a bewildered frown. “Hall’s?” However, the clerk had already turned away to dust the opposite counter. The young woman shrugged and quickly headed up the carpeted stairs. She checked the pocket watch again: 9:27. Doctor Collins had stressed the importance of punctuality to her: “Do not be late! If I find that you were one minute off of the procedure and schedule I have provided you, I shall withhold your money. Is that clear?”
At exactly 9:30 a.m., Maira knocked firmly on the door of Room 29. A husky voice answered her.
“Your nurse, Mr. Porter,” Maira enunciated precisely. “Mary Douglas.” The name brought memories of the quirky dodo bird note, but Doctor Collins had warned her about Mr. Porter’s dislike of the Irish. He felt that it was in her best interest if she temporarily changed her name.
“Come on in,” Mr. Orville Porter shouted roughly. “I’ve been waiting for you! I hope you’ve got plenty of aspirin.”
Maira entered the room with a cheery smile and a large, unmarked glass bottle in her hand. In it was a fine white powder. “I do, Mr. Porter.”
“This is aspirin,” Dr. Collins had gravely instructed her the day before. “It is a pain reliever that dissolves in water. At exactly 9:33, give Mr. Porter two teaspoons of aspirin in exactly half a cup of water. Ensure that he drinks every drop.”
Mr. Porter—a hefty barrel of a man with white tufts of hair sticking out at wild angles—eagerly seized the tall glass of water that Maira offered to him. “I hope you mixed it completely,” he grumbled. “My last nurse always made sure that it was done correctly.”
Maira closed the aspirin bottle and unconsciously reverted back to her Irish accent. “Ye had a nurse?” When Mr. Porter shot her a suspicious glare, she quickly amended her pronunciation. “I didn’t know that.”
“Didn’t your employer—what’s his name—tell you about Sarah?” Mr. Porter groused, lifting the glass to his lips. “Er…I think it’s Doctor Teller, isn’t it?” With three strong gulps, he downed the water.
“No, he did not tell me.” Maira carefully placed the glass bottle on an end table, swiftly recalling Dr. Collins’ words. “Whatever you do,” he had commanded her grimly, “do not mention my name. Mr. Porter thinks he still has his old doctor; it is just an extension of his mental depravity.” Thank the Heavens Doctor Collins is so thoughtful…Ah would be in trouble if he wasn’t. “I was told to stay here, sir, to make sure the aspirin works for you,” Maira painstakingly pronounced. “Just for an hour or so.”
“I suppose that’s fine,” Mr. Porter griped, settling deeper into his easy chair, as his eyes fell shut. “I think the aspirin’s helping already.”
Silently, Maira seated herself at the opposite end of the room, pulling out the pocketwatch. 9:36. In one hour, she reminded herself, she must go down to the lobby; that’s where Doctor Collins will be waiting. As she felt herself begin to drift off into sleep, she could hear Nathaniel Collins’ last warning that morning:
“If Mr. Porter experiences any difficulty breathing, do not be alarmed. It is merely a normal reaction that will soon pass.”
“Miss Donovan? Miss Donovan! Maira!”
Maira sat bolt upright, staggering to her feet. “What in the name o’ Heaven and…!” she gasped, struggling to focus on the tall figure in front of her.
“Miss Donovan! See to Mr. Porter immediately!” It was Dr. Collins; he was yelling at her.
Shocked, she stumbled over to Mr. Porter’s chair, but Orville Porter was not there; a corpse stared crossly at her. For several seconds, all she could do was stare back, horror twisting her throat until she was speechless. Soon, she could sense Dr. Collins behind her.
“Did you not measure the aspirin?” He wasn’t shouting anymore; his smooth voice had dropped to a dark murmur.
“Ah did, ah swear ah did,” Maira whispered tearfully as her hands began to shake. “Ah was just so tired…After all that trainin’ last night, ah’d gotten no sleep…!”
“Did you not check the time?”
“Ah…Ah’m sorry…Ah dinnae mean…” Desperately, she checked for a pulse. There was none. She trembled violently, whirling around to face him. “Doctor Collins, what am ah to do?” Maira cried, brown eyes wide with fear. “Ah dinnae mean to kill him! Ah swear it! ‘Twas an accident!”
“That is not how the law will see it, Miss Donovan.” He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder, and his voice unexpectedly became kind. “I know you did not mean to kill Mr. Porter; it was merely an unfortunate accident. My dear,” he suddenly exclaimed in concern, “you’re shaking terribly! Here, sit down…” The doctor led her to a chair, and Maira fought to contain her sobs.
For a few more moments, the doctor stared at her unblinkingly, his ice blue eyes seeming to penetrate her deep fears. In an uncharacteristic expression of compassion, Dr. Collins set a black leather bag on the table with the aspirin bottle, saying, “Miss Donovan, I really can’t let you suffer this way. Here.” He pulled out a small object.
Through her tears, Maira looked at his hands. In one, he held an unmarked glass bottle. In the other was a small white pill.
“This will help you calm down. Then we can figure out how to get you out of this mess.”
Anxiously, Maira grabbed the pill from his hand. She wiped her tears away with the back of her hand and raised it to her mouth. Suddenly, she stopped. “What’s that?”Her voice was no more than a whisper.
Dr. Collins frowned at her abrupt question. “Maira, you really shouldn’t waste any time. You’re in a state of shock…” Before he could react, the young woman reached forward and snatched a sliver of paper out of the black bag; on the top, it said “Dear friends of Mr. Porter…”
The doctor was rendered speechless for several seconds as Maira began to skim the letter, terror kindling in her eyes. He quickly wrenched it away from her small hands, but the damage had been done.
“Doctor Collins,” Maira whispered, slowly raising to her feet. “That’s a suicide note…from me.”
“Shall I read it to you then, Miss Donovan?” Dr. Collins sneered as a hideous smile spread across his pale face. “I suppose you’ll want me to, since you’ve already ruined my surprise…Dear Friends of Mr. Porter, I’m sorry for what I’ve done and never meant for this to happen. It’s my fault. I was the one who gave him too much. I tried to save him, but when I realized it was too late, I despaired. Please forgive me. Signed, Mary Douglas.” Gently, Dr. Collins placed the forged note onto the end table next to the aspirin bottle. “You see, Miss Donovan, all of the training I put you through was not really to care for the ‘eccentric’ Mr. Porter.” The doctor giggled. “Mr. Porter was as sane as you or I…Maybe that’s not saying much.”
Maira couldn’t speak, slowly backing away.
“Mr. Porter is not my patient, nor my client; he was my business associate and financial advisor. Orville believed that I was guilty of allocating ‘unnecessary’ funds from my patients.” Dr. Collins shook his head reprovingly. “He felt that this was too low for his standards, and so he left. However, his standards weren’t too low for blackmail,” he growled. “I had to get rid of him, but I obviously didn’t want to publicize the nasty affair. Thus, I decided to hire some trusting girl—like yourself, Miss Donovan—who would have no idea that, although it seemed she was helping Mr. Porter, in actuality she was killing him. That would provide me with the opportunity to rid myself of Orville Porter without bringing unnecessary disgrace upon myself.” He scratched roughly at his throat and adjusted his tie. “That very opportunity walked right up to my front door, Miss Donovan; you did.”
“If ah had known, ah would never have…!”
“Sh, Maira,” Dr. Collins whispered soothingly, and suddenly his necktie was lovingly wrapped around her throat. “No one needs to ever know that.”