On the morning flight in, I sat next to Irwin, a bulky, rumpled, oversized manufacturer's rep for a line of pharmaceutical machinery. An engaging fellow, he was conversant in Latin and German and bubbled over with baseball lore and astute insights on events social and political. I was headed to a professional symposium and he for some sort of medical convention. He seemed affable enough and this was my first visit to New Orleans, we agreed to meet for dinner. I told him my hotel, the Crescent, but forgot to ask his.
We had exchanged business cards, but after changing clothes and enduring two agonizingly long-winded speakers, by late afternoon I'd mislaid his card. As I grew hungry, I thought about calling a few of the bigger hotels, but then I couldn't remember his last name. It was something vaguely Slavic, perhaps Polish.
It was one of those stultifying late summer days when even the breeze off the river didn't help. I ventured briefly onto my hotel's inner veranda, but the oppressive heat and humidity drove me back inside. Suddenly exhausted from my long trip and a tedious day of note-taking, I retreated to the cool comfort of my room and ordered from room service. By eight, when it was almost dark outside, I was comfortably full, stretched out on the bed watching the Braves throttle the Cubs on cable.
I had almost nodded off when someone knocked softly on my door. For a long moment I considered getting up to answer it. But I knew nobody in town except this Irwin fellow, and I was no longer in the mood for conversation. Had he phoned, I certainly would have answered, but moving seemed like too much trouble. I lay inert and after a few minutes imagined that I heard footsteps moving away from my door.
Half undressed, I fell into an uneasy slumber. I awoke from some ugly dream to what I fancied was a muffled scream down the corridor. Unbolting my door, I cautiously peered in both directions but saw and heard nothing. It was past midnight. I stripped off the rest of my clothes and went back to bed.
I overslept and missed both breakfast and the morning's first workshop. By noon I was feeling punk; one of my infrequent migraines was inbound and my empty stomach had turned sour. In search of seltzer, I ducked into the bar, where a newspaper lay open next to the register. A headline thrust at me:
MIDWEST MAN STABBED IN CITY HOTEL
The hastily-written front page story said that one Irwin Patrinic, 43, a salesman from Moline, Ill., had been found murdered in a ninth-floor room at the Crescent Hotel.
My testicles crawled into my belly. A shiver flashed down my spine: My room was on the ninth floor. I systematically searched each of my pockets yet again; this time I came up with the misplaced card. The machinery merchant was Irwin Z. Patrynic—just one letter different from the name in the paper. It had to be the same man.
Suddenly ill, I hurried to the men's room and knelt before the porcelain, my mind reeling even as my guts tied themselves in knots. Yesterday Irwin was alive. We had cracked wise together about airplane food and the little indignities of traveling coach. He'd mentioned a wife, children, parents. Now he was a corpse: According to the paper, he had been savagely beaten, perhaps tortured, and his throat slit from ear to ear. Was it he who had tapped on my door? Had I answered the door, might I have saved his life?
Wracked with guilt, I returned to the bar and snatched up the newspaper. There was a little more to read: The victim, identified from the contents of his wallet, was not registered at the hotel and the room where he'd been found was that of a Jesuit en route to a mission in the Amazon. The priest's luggage was in the room, but he had not been seen since checking in.
I tried to push this out of my mind and continue with workshops and symposia, but it was all too much. At noon, tottering from the migraine, I retreated to my room, hung out the "Do Not Disturb" sign, threw the deadbolt, took my prescription painkillers, went to bed, and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
When I awoke the next day it was well past noon and the events I had come to attend were all but over. I decided to skip the farewell cocktails and fly home at once. I checked out and let the doorman hail me a cab.
The driver was an older man, deferential but overtalkative. "I see you survived the Crescent Hotel," he chirped.
I nodded, unwilling to be drawn in.
"Did you see that priest before he got himself murdered?" he said, persisting.
Not wanting to continue the conversation but unable to stop myself from setting him straight, I answered,
"He wasn't a priest. A machinery salesman from Moline."
"That's what the cops thought at first--didn't you see the TV? Come to find out, the priest in that room had gone by the archdiocese, picked up some money—thousands!—and then disappeared. So they sent somebody down the morgue. That body wasn't no salesman. It was the padre! Whoever killed him, they musta took his cash, then put that salesman guy's wallet in his pocket."
So Patrynic might be alive, I thought, still confused.
We pulled up to the curbside baggage check-in and I hopped out, eager to leave New Orleans. I cleared the TSA checkpoint with no time to spare; my flight had already been called. Hurrying toward my gate, I stumbled and fell to my knees. As I got up I saw, from the corner of my eye, the unmistakable bulk of a man I knew among a group boarding a Brazilian flight. It took me a moment to put it together: black suit, white shirt and Roman collar. A priest—but his arms were too long for the jacket. At the boarding door, Patrynic paused to look over his shoulder. For an instant our glances met. The look on his face made my blood run cold.
I was obliged to recite this story to three different policemen, and then an FBI agent, so of course I missed my flight.
© Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. I'll be posting weekly. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.