When down and out Jim Cherry wakes up in an alley in New York in the summer of '98, little does he know that the future of the world may well fall on his shoulders. Finding a free health check leaflet in his pocket, he heads off for a consultation with Consultant Surgeon Louis Dourner who diagnoses him with terminal cancer. Is this the end? Apparently not. Dourner offers Jim a lifeline. If he signs up with Section 16 of the US Army Medical Corps his cancer will be cured... But who is Doctor Louis Dourner and exactly what is the purpose of Section 16? Stripped of his whiskey and cigarettes, sixty-two-year-old Jim saddles up with a doomed desert reconnaissance mission to find out.
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New York City, a June morning, 1998.
Jim Cherry stood on the corner of 5th and E— but couldn’t remember why. He dripped with sweat, his crack hurt, his teeth ached and he stank. Today was not good. It was 10.00 a.m. and already the temperature had climbed past 93°F.
It was a cop. Commuter traffic was over, but a vagrant is always in the way in New York. Jim didn’t have the time to be held up right now so he flashed his receding gum smile.
‘What can I do for you, officer?’ The cop was young and that was a good start.
‘I’m sorry, but you can’t just stand there, sir.’
‘I know, but I just plumb forgot where I was going. Believe me I don’t wanna just stand here, it’s too f— hot and my head is killing me.’ Jim scratched his stubble.
‘You forgot?’ The cop moved upwind.
Jim shrugged. ‘I had a bad night.’
The young cop took out his notepad. ‘I guess every night’s a bad night for you huh?’ That was a generous observation. Jim warmed to the cop. ‘Can I have your name, please, sir?’
‘Sure, Jamerson Cherry, you can call me Jim.’
‘That’s with an ‘r’, don’t ask me why.’
The young cop smiled. ‘That’s a good name.’ He wrote it down. When he’d done he fixed his mouth in an empathetic line and added, ‘Well, Jim, I’d like to see you move along if that’s alright with you.’
‘Sure,’ but Jim didn’t move, he just scratched his stubble again and frowned. ‘As soon as I know where I’m going. I’m supposed to be somewhere.’
‘You have an appointment or something?’
That really fired Jim’s interest, ‘You see that’s the darnedest thing, I got this … Ah …’ Jim pulled out a sheet of paper from his pocket. He held it up. ‘I got this.’
‘What is it?’
‘A health check. A free health check.’ Jim handed the paper over to the young cop who had a quick read.
‘10.30, Jim, you got about ten minutes to get there. It’s gonna be a pinch. Mind if I come along?’
Jim shrugged. Everything was getting too hot.
‘Sure, but why would you want to?’
‘Do you have a fixed abode, Jim?’
‘Well, no …’
The young cop waved the free health check paper.
‘So how did you get this?’
Jim wiped the sweat off his neck and thought about it. ‘I woke up this morning and there it was.’
‘In my pants.’
‘And where were you?’
‘Oh, down an alley back there.’
‘So, you were sleeping in an alley and someone put this in your pocket during the night?’
‘About the size of it.’
‘And that’s why I’m coming along.’
‘To make sure you don’t get vivisected.’
‘I don’t want to see you get signed up to some illegal drugs trial, Jim. Let’s go see … what’s his name?’ The young cop took another look at the paper.
‘Louis Dourner,’ Jim said with a French embellishment.
‘Lew-ee Door-nay, that’s how you’re pronouncing it, Jim?’
‘You speak French?’
‘I had a French girlfriend once.’
‘Nice,’ the young cop stayed up wind.
‘He could be French Canadian.’
‘Okay, it says here he’s a surgeon. Let’s go check him out.’
Crow Street and then Orchard and the humidity starting to rise as they made their way towards the slips. Jim wore third-hand Chinos, one of the advantages of rooting around skips downtown, a frayed denim shirt, unbuttoned but still showing unsightly patches of sweat from this high pressure day and a pair of down at heel brogues without socks. Jim could easily cut it if he wasn’t a bum, but right now his crack did hurt and he did stink. He needed a shower badly and he could have murdered a drink, he didn’t think he could take another step without one.
‘Say,’ he said.
‘I could kill a beer.’
The young cop shook his head. ‘Me too. But let’s check this Dourner fellah out first. If he’s kosher I’ll give you some money for helping me do my job.’
That pulled Jim right up. ‘That’s … What’s your name, son?’
‘Dwayne,’ Jim rolled it around. ‘Well, that’s fucking sweet of you, Dwayne, and I swear you won’t get an ounce of trouble out of me.’ Jim walked on and over his shoulder he called out, ‘By the way I’m sorry I stink.’
‘No problem,’ Dwayne said. But Jim knew he was lying.
Orchard led into a tricky maze of alleys you wouldn’t be advised to enter if your only taste of crime was a parking ticket. Down here the streets narrowed and even the advertising boards had given up. The last boxer they promoted was Sugar Ray Leonard, the bolero face long faded to a petrified white.
Jim could have been taken for a boxer, he had the five foot ten frame and he looked the part. A badly stitched scar decorated his face from the left temple to the crown of his chin. His nose resembled a blunt hatchet, having been broken three times. He was skinny, so he bounced along like he was a seventeen-year-old middleweight, and yet he’d just broken sixty. It was the teeth that broke Jim’s heart. A couple of years on the street had destroyed them.
Jim couldn’t recall surgeries down near the slips; there was no money, only welfare and two job dead-beats without the wit to swap this indignity for a trailer home. Maybe Louis Dourner was a Christian and faith drove him to enrich his soul by giving free health checks to the unfortunate.
The address was the Mary & Our Savior Clinic. Jim had never heard of it. He imagined brown stone Catholic with cold rooms and religious oppression like the schools he’d lost some of his friends to in his youth. Instead he found a thin four-story concrete block wedged in the middle of history like a dental cap. It looked hastily built, like it was supposed to be temporary. But the idea of replacing it seemed to have been forgotten, just like the street, the people and the idea of removing the trash which clung to the sidewalk in papier-mâché cakes.
The door to the clinic was badly weathered and so warped it wouldn’t shut properly. An inch or two of gap yawned between itself and the jamb. The place looked deserted and Jim paused for a minute wondering if they’d made a mistake.