Brevity Thirteen

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  The Paranoid Nurse

By Philip Gerard

 I'd spent the afternoon polishing the hull of my sailboat, which sat on a trailer in my front yard in Phoenix.  Now it was night.  I was standing next to it in the moonlight, admiring its pearly sheen.

A compact car pulled up to the bungalow across the street.  A woman wearing a white nurse's uniform got out. She'd just moved in recently. I'd seen her a couple of times before. She stood looking across the street, then came over.

"A beautiful boat," she said.

"I'm taking it up to Roosevelt Lake next weekend," I said.

"You're a writer," she said.

I had no idea how she knew that, but I told her that was so.

"Wait here."

She returned in a few minutes with a stack of files hundreds of pages thick. "Has anybody been around asking about me?" she wanted to know.

"What do you mean?"

"I used to work up in Utah, in a hospital. I found out some stuff.  I told my supervisor.  They fired me.  Then men came around and questioned me.  Wherever I go, they show up. Right after that, I lose my job."

"Men? What sort of men?"

She said, "You know -- FBI, Feds. They always drive unmarked Fords. Usually they take pictures of my house. I don't know what they do with the pictures."

I decided to humor her. "What's in the files?"

"The stuff I found out. Medical records. Some other documents from Federal agencies."

"Come inside," I said.

In my brightly lit living room, I examined the documents. They did, indeed, seem to be copies of legitimate medical records. But they might just as easily have been elaborate forgeries.  In places, the government documents were actually stamped "top secret."

They were identified as Army and Air Force reports on aerial spraying of live viruses over rural areas in the West. Other documents attested that bubonic plague had deliberately been introduced into military and civilian populations in the U.S.

There was indeed, that summer, an outbreak of bubonic plague in the outlying areas south of Phoenix -- a minor plague so medieval that it made the network news.

"Why are you showing me all this?" I said.

"I keep these files hidden," she said, glancing up nervously as a car pulled into our street.  She watched the front window till the headlights glanced off and disappeared.  "They want them back.  I thought maybe you could help expose this thing."

"I'm not a journalist anymore," I said.

"But you could help me find the right contacts."

"I'll ask around," I said.  I did know some people on the Arizona Republic, the same paper Don Boles had worked for before the mob blew him up with a car bomb.  I wrote book reviews.

"Thank you."  She gathered her files.

"You want me to hang onto these?"  I wanted a chance to look at them more carefully.  I knew a guy downtown, used to work for Army Intelligence.  He could tell me if they were fakes.

"I'll take them with me," she said. "You never know."

"Check back with me in a couple of days."

She said, "Don't take too long."

The whole thing sounded farfetched, another weird conspiracy theory by a lonely, overweight, overworked woman who couldn't hold a job.

The next, day, as I was leaving for the university, I noticed a man behind the hedge next door. He was wearing a blue suit.  He held a camera. A pparently, he had been shooting pictures of my house, the way real estate people will do.

"Hey, you," I yelled. "What are you doing there?"

He pivoted and ran half a block, jumped into a blue Ford, and drove off.

That evening, my nurse neighbor never came home from the hospital.  I asked around, but nobody knew what had happened to her.  In a few days the realtor came around and put a "FOR RENT" sign in the front yard.

I hauled my sailboat up to Roosevelt Lake and anchored it in a secluded cove where nobody could find me and tell me any more crazy stories I didn't want to hear.


Philip Gerard is the author of seven books, including Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life and Secret Soldiers: The Story of World War II's Heroic Army of Deception. He holds a Distinguished Teaching Professorship in the Creative Writing Department of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.


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