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For twelve years, the Jade Dragon on the Upper West Side of Manhattan had prided itself on exceptional food at very reasonable prices. As a result, on an average weekday its 175-seat capacity turned over twice, and on weekends as many as five times. Tonight, a warm Friday in June, the wait for a table was half an hour.
Seated in his customary spot, Ron Farrell was commenting to his wife Susan and their friends Jack and Anita Harmon on how the place had grown since he and Susan had first eaten there almost a decade ago. Now, although they had moved three times, they made a point of coming to the Jade Dragon alone or with friends every other Friday, almost like clockwork.
They were nearly done with a meal that the Harmons had proclaimed as good as any Chinese food they had ever eaten when Ron stopped in mid-sentence and began rubbing his abdomen. With no warning, severe cramps had begun knotting his gut, accompanied almost immediately by waves of nausea. He felt sweat break out beneath his arms and over his face. His vision blurred.
"Ronnie? Are you all right?" his wife asked.
Farrell took several slow, deep breaths. He had always handled pain well. But this ache seemed to be worsening.
"I don't feel well," he managed. "I've...I've just gotten this pain, right here."
"It couldn't be what you ate," Susan said. "We all shared the same-- "
Susan's face suddenly went ashen. Beads of perspiration sprang out across her forehead. Then, without another word, she lurched sideways and vomited on the floor.
Standing by the kitchen door of the crowded restaurant, the young assistant chef watched the commotion grow as one by one, the four customers at table 11 became violently ill. Finally, he reentered the massive kitchen and made his way nonchalantly to the pay phone installed for the use of the hired help. The number he dialed was handwritten on a three-by-five file card.
"Yes?" the man's voice at the other end said.
"Xia Wei Zen here."
The chef read carefully the words printed on the card.
"There are four leaves on the clover."
"Very good. You know where to go after your shift. The man in the black car will take the empty vial from you in exchange for the rest of what you are now owed."
The man hung up without waiting for a reply.
Xia Wei Zen glanced about to ensure no one was watching, and then returned to his station. Work would not be nearly so taxing for the rest of his shift. For one thing, there was a good deal of money awaiting him. And for another, there would be many fewer orders coming in from the dining room tonight.
The call came into the emergency room of Good Samaritan Hospital at 9:47. Four Priority Two patients were being transported by rescue squad from a Chinese restaurant twenty blocks away. Preliminary diagnosis was acute food poisoning.
Priority Two. Potentially serious illness or injury, non-life-threatening at the moment.
It was a typically busy Friday night. The nurses and residents of the large teaching hospital were already three hours behind. The twenty available treatment rooms were full, as was the waiting room. The air was heavy with the odors of perspiration, antiseptic, and blood. All around were the sounds of illness, misery, and pain--moans, babies crying, uncontrollable coughing.
"Ever eat at a place called the Jade Dragon?" the nurse who took the call from the rescue squad asked.
"I think so," the charge nurse answered.
"Rescue is on the way in with two probable food poisonings. Two more will be leaving shortly. Altogether, two men, two women, all in their forties, all on IVs, all vomiting."
"The numbers are okay for the moment. But according to the crew on the scene, none of them are looking all that good."
"Fun and games times four."
"Where do you want them?"
"What do we have?"
"Seven can be cleared if you can talk Dr. Grateful Dead, or whatever the hell his name is, into writing a few prescriptions."
"Perfect. Put whoever looks worst in there and the rest in the hall. We'll move them into rooms as we can. Might as well order routine labs and an EKG on each of them, too."
Ron Farrell grunted in pain as his litter was set on the emergency bay platform and telescoped up into transport position. He was on his side in a fetal position. The pain boring into his stomach was unremitting. Jack Harmon, who had quickly become even sicker than Susan, had been transported in the ambulance with him. Now, Ron saw him wave weakly as the two of them were wheeled through the automatic doors and into the commotion and fluorescent glare of the intake area.
The minutes that followed were a blur of questions, needles, spasms of pain, and examinations from people dressed in surgical scrubs. Ron was wheeled to a small room with open shelves of supplies and a suction bottle on the wall. The staff had addressed him courteously enough, but it was clear that everyone was harried. Ron's personal physician wasn't affiliated with Good Samaritan, as far as he knew. There was really nothing he could think of to do except wait for the medication he had been promised to take the pain away.
"You are feeling better, yes?" a man's voice said in a thick foreign accent that Ron could not identify.
Still in the fetal position that gave him the least discomfort, Ron blinked his eyes open, and looked up. The man, dressed in blue surgical scrubs like most of the ER staff, smiled down at him. The overhead light, eclipsed by his head, formed a bright halo around him and darkened his face.
"I am Dr. Kozlansky," he said. "It appears you and the others have developed food poisoning."
"Goddamn Jade Dragon. Is my wife all right?"
"Oh yes. Oh yes, I assure you, she is most fine."
"Great. Listen, Doc, my stomach's killing me. Can you give me something for this pain?"
"That is exactly why I am here," he said.
The physician produced a syringe half full of clear liquid and emptied it into the intravenous line.
"Thanks, Doc," Farrell said.
"You may wish to wait and thank me when...when we see how this works."
"Okay, have it your-- "
Farrell was suddenly unable to speak. There was a horrible, consuming emptiness within his chest. And he knew in that moment that his heart had stopped beating.
The man continued smiling down at him benignly.
"You are feeling better, yes?" he asked.
Ron felt his arms and legs begin to shake uncontrollably. His back arched until only his heels and the back of his head touched the bed. His teeth jackhammered together. Then his consciousness began to fade. His thoughts became more disjointed. His dreadful fear lessened and then finally vanished. His body dropped lifelessly back onto the bed.
For a full minute the man stood there watching. Then he slipped the syringe into his pocket.
"I'm afraid I must leave you now," he whispered in a voice free of any accent. "Please try to get some rest."