"King of Hearts"
The pile of folders on his desk barely showed a dent of progress, and it was well past ten. Asten finished notating in one more chart and transferred it to the out pile before setting his pen down and pulling his glasses from his face. He let out a long sigh of air, loosening his tie, just as the phone on his desk rang. It had to be the fellas again: he was long past due at Danny's for the poker game. Leaning his weary head into his hand he picked up the receiver.
"Dr. Asten," he said more brusquely than he had intended. "Yes, I know I'm three hours late, Quincy... Yes, I know all of you were looking forward to taking my money." He shook his pounding head, rubbing his right temple with his free hand. "Yes, yes I know I said I'd be there, and I'm sorry...look, Quincy...Quincy... QUINCY! I'm sorry, but I'm not going to make it to Danny's tonight, I've just got too much work on my desk, and that's all there is to it." He listened briefly to his senior medical examiner's complaints in regard to his absence and then said, "Tell the fellas I'm sorry, and I'll see you tomorrow morning." He shook his head again. "Yes, I will, I'll leave soon. Good night, Quincy."
Asten hung up the phone and allowed his aching head to fall into his hands. He rubbed his eyes which were irritated from strain, but then put his glasses back on his face, preparing to tackle the next stack of file folders waiting for him. But the discomfort he had felt earlier in his upper esophagus had returned, and Asten groaned slightly, reaching for the bottle of antacids on his desk. He popped several of them into his mouth and pressed his fingers into his breastbone for a minute or so, waiting for the burning sensation to pass. He glanced over at the half-eaten pastrami sandwich still sitting on his desk and realized it might not have been the best choice for dinner.
After a few minutes, he let out a breath of air and picked up his pen, armed to make a larger dent in the piles on his desk before morning. He pulled the top folder from a stack and opened it, quickly scanning through Quincy's report on the Thompson case.
"Oh good grief," he muttered aloud as he read Quincy's conclusion that the woman didn't die from injuries sustained in a car accident, but that she had instead been murdered by hanging.
He could hardly wait to inform Monahan in the morning so he could listen to the man's bellowing on the subject of Quincy and his complications. The mere thought of it gave Asten more heartburn. He reached for the antacid bottle again and popped three more tablets, continuing to read through the pages of Quincy's analysis.
It was going to be a long night.
"Read 'em and weep, fellas," Quincy said as he fanned out his royal flush.
"Oh for pete's sake," Monahan said, "will you look at that..."
"The King of Hearts lives, gentleman," Danny cooed, "just look at him."
"And I thought he was bluffing," Brill complained.
Sam laughed. "Brill, you know Quincy never bluffs!"
"So Asten's a no-show tonight, huh?" Monahan asked.
"Yeah," Quincy said as he pulled the chips in the center of the table toward himself. "Said he had too much work to do."
"Maybe he just thought he'd lose too much of his money to Quincy tonight!" Sam said, causing all the men to laugh - all except for Quincy.
"Seems to me he's been burnin' the candle pretty hard lately," Monahan commented.
Quincy shrugged. "Nah, he loves it, Monahan. Who else do you know likes to juggle ten phone calls from councilmembers, fill out three reports, and yell at me for being over budget all at the same time?" The men laughed and Quincy continued, "Besides, there's nobody as good at doing it all as Asten. I mean when was the last time you saw the man even break a sweat?"
"The last time you told him where he could stuff his budget cuts!" Sam answered.
"Oh Sam... I did not!"
"You did too, Quince, I heard you!"
Monahan dealt the cards and once again the concentration in the room shifted toward trying to topple Quincy's lucky streak...
Quincy walked into the lab and headed toward the coffee pot.
"Hey, Quince, where have you been?"
Quincy looked at his watch. "What? It's only 8:30...why do you say that as if I'm late?"
"Asten's been down here three times looking for you already, that's why."
"What does he want?" Quincy asked as he took as sip of coffee.
"Something about the Thompson case."
"I knew it," Quincy growled setting down the mug. "I knew he'd scream about that! If the woman was supposed to have died in a car crash, why were her vertebrae elongated and not snapped? Oh, I'm gonna give him an earful if he challenges me on this..."
Sam watched Quincy storm from the lab, and he blew a low whistle. "It's going to be a bloody morning..."
As Quincy approached Asten's office, he could hear the agitated voices coming from within.
"Damnit Asten, it's a straight forward car accident, not a homicide," Monahan yelled, "I'm sick and tired of this. I'm up to my ears in cases I can't solve without your office finding more for me."
"Lt. Monahan," Asten returned, "I empathize with your workload, but Quincy is just doing his job. He can't help what he finds when he performs an autopsy."
"Dr. Asten," Councilman Wiley said, "I know that you're just trying to keep the peace, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to side with the police department on this; there simply isn't the manpower to indulge active imaginations."
"Imaginations?" Asten's raised voice carried down the outer hall, "My coroners do not use their imaginations when performing autopsies, Councilman Wiley, and I'll thank you to remember that in your future arguments."
"Look, Asten," Quincy recognized the voice as belonging to Lucy Evers, the president of the board, "I'm sorry that all of this is hitting the fan today, but I want to know why this department is over budget."
"I am not over budget, Mrs. Evers, I assure you, I checked the numbers last night, and we're close, but we're not over." Quincy walked in the side door then, and Asten glared in his direction, "Sit down and take a number, Quincy." He looked back at Evers. "As I said, we're on the line, but not over."
"I'm sorry Dr. Asten, but you're wrong." She pulled a computer printout from her briefcase and set it down on the desk. "As you can see, these are the numbers that were run for me first thing this morning, and you are $121 over your allotment."
Quincy couldn't believe what he was hearing, and sat down in a chair, watching in fascination as Asten attempted to field the battle of the bureaucrats.
"That's not possible," Asten defended, "I checked last night, and we were fine..." He grabbed the printout and began looking at it, but was interrupted by the intercom.
"Dr. Asten," his secretary's voice said, "Deputy Mayor Condon is on the line, he needs you right away regarding the citywide children's health initiative.
Asten pressed a button. "Tell him I'll call him right back, Patti, thanks."
"Asten," Monahan growled, "I don't have all day, can we put this Thompson matter to rest now that Quincy's here?"
"Put it to rest?" Quincy stood, yelling, "The vertebrae in the woman's neck were elongated, Monahan, explain to me how that happened while she was driving her car?"
"Are you tryin' to tell me that she didn't die in that car, Quincy? She wrapped it around a pole at the bottom of Laurel Canyon...I imagine more than just her neck was broken."
"That's just the point, Monahan," Quincy shot back, "her neck wasn't snapped it was stretched, as if she'd been hung."
"Didja find any rope burns on her neck?"
"No, I didn't. But the bottom line is that the bones were stretched, not snapped, as they should have been from a violent front to back motion."
"Asten, would you talk some sense into him?" Monahan said.
Asten looked at his coroner. "Quincy, are you sure that--"
"--Are you questioning my competence, Dr. Asten?" Quincy roared.
"Well, no, I didn't mean to--"
"--I'm sure of what I found, and my autopsy report stands."
"Dr. Asten, are you going to allow this subordinate to speak to you in this manner?" Wiley challenged. "Are you or are you not his superior?"
"--I am the reporting coroner, Mr. Wiley, Dr. Asten cannot change my findings and he knows it."
The buzzer on the intercom rang again and Asten's secretary said, "Dr. Asten, I'm sorry, but it's the deputy mayor again, and he says it just can't wait. What should I tell him?"
"I'll take it, Patti." Asten pushed the lit button on his phone and picked up the receiver. "Deputy Mayor Condon, how are--" Quincy could hear the man yelling over the phone line, and then Asten said, "I'm very sorry, sir, I was working on the verbiage last night, and I thought that I--" Condon's voice once again pounded through the telephone wire, and Asten swallowed hard, looking down at his desk. "Well, yes sir, yes, I quite understand. You have my full apolog--"
But Condon had hung up the phone. Letting out a huge breath of air, Asten quietly hung up the receiver, and immediately the barrage of complaints began all over again.
"Asten," Monahan growled, "I want an answer, now. I'm so far behind that I'm never gonna catch-up."
"Dr. Asten, you simply can't expect the board to allow slip-ups in your accounting that amount to such a large sum of money. Now I realize you've been quite burdened lately, but I simply cannot stand by and see such waste from this department. Either you tighten up this ship, or we'll find a captain who can!"
"Asten," Wiley bellowed, "I'm going to have to advocate for the police department and ask that your coroners not see mountains where there are only molehills. For the good everyone involved, I don't think this is unreasonable."
The intercom buzzer rang again. "Dr. Asten," Patti's voice said, "Ray Pressman's on line two, he wants to know when he can expect an answer regarding departmental participation in the upcoming charity event for breast cancer. What should I tell him?"
And Quincy saw the first beads of sweat break out on Asten's forehead.
He stabbed the button on the intercom even as the people in his office continued to scream at him. "Patti, tell Ray I'm too busy for this right now and to call back later!" He turned to Monahan and Wiley. "You two can take your manpower complaints and stuff them up your collective asses, I can't control Quincy, you know that; I haven't been able to control him at any time during the years that he has been here, why in the hell do you think I can make him change his mind today? If you're looking for me to put a muzzle on him because you don't want to be bothered to launch a murder investigation, you can just forget it! Now get out of my office!" He glared at the president of the board then. "And Mrs. Evers, I don't know how to tell you this, but last night at 11:46 PM, this department was not over budget by $121; the fact that it is this morning I cannot explain, but if you had chosen not to blindside me with the information, I might have been able to find the answer for you without you driving down here to confront me with it. Good day!"
Stunned, Monahan, Evers and Wiley slowly exited the office, leaving Quincy to stare at a man he suddenly wasn't sure he knew. Asten loosened his tie and reached for the bottle of antacids on the desk, shoving a handful of them into his mouth. And then the deputy chief coroner glared at his medical examiner when he realized Quincy was gaping in disbelief at him.
"What? Don't tell me you have something more to say this morning? I think I've already heard quite enough..." Asten rubbed his left bicep which had begun to cramp with tension. "Well?"
Quincy observed Asten for a moment, taking in the man's pale, sweaty face, while trying to reconcile the outburst he had just witnessed from a man who was almost always in control of himself. He pitched his voice softly, "Look, Bob, why don't you sit down for a minute and--"
"--Don't you 'Bob' me. I know when you're just trying to manipulate me, Quincy, and frankly, I'm just not in the mood for it this morning, do you hear? I'm not in the mood for it."
The pain in Asten's left arm caused him to grimace then, and Quincy stepped forward, forcing the man to sit down in his chair. "You don't look well, Asten. Are you all right?"
Embarrassed by the loss of emotional control that Quincy had witnessed, Asten looked down. "Yes, yes, I'm fine." When he felt the hand on his shoulder, he met the blue eyes staring at him in concern. "I'm sorry, Quincy," he muttered softly.
"You don't seem quite yourself this morning..."
Asten took in a large gulp of air, and then let it back out. "I'm just overtired; I worked pretty late last night trying to catch up." He nodded toward the piles on his desk. "But as you can see, I can't seem to get this mess under control."
Quincy gently squeezed the shoulder under his strong hand. "You will," Quincy said smiling, "you always do."
"Yeah, I suppose."
The intercom buzzed, and Asten pressed it, rolling his eyes. "Yes Patti, what is it?"
"Your wife, sir, line one."
"Did she say what it's about?"
"Yes sir. She wants to know what color you want her to paint the kitchen."
Asten shook his head and looked up at Quincy. "Dear God, do I care what color the kitchen is at this moment?"
Quincy laughed. "Red. Tell her to paint it red..."
"That way when she gets mad at you and throws marinara sauce, it won't show!"
Before Asten could offer a retort, Quincy slipped through the side door; but he made a mental note to check on Asten later - even though he hadn't pressed him, the medical examiner didn't like the stress he'd seen in his friend. He didn't like it at all.