Telephone mouthpiece jiggling in front of her face, the young receptionist stared at me wide-eyed from behind my office counter. In the waiting room, visible through a small window, half a dozen women and a couple of men peered toward us.
My gut clenched at this threat. I couldn’t afford to overreact, however. It was the middle of the afternoon, I had to compensate for morning surgeries that had run late, and my patients were depending on their obstetrician-gynecologist to focus on their needs. “Who’s calling?”
“Your alarm company.” Glenda’s fingers fluttered. Always excitable, she was vibrating so hard her brown curls bounced.
Since I’d turned off my cell to avoid interruptions, the alarm company must have proceeded to my work number, which was second on their list. I picked up the handset, stated my password and name, Eric Darcy, and requested particulars.
A pane beside my front door had set off the alarm, a young man told me. I felt a surge of relief. That pane had been loose and might have fallen on its own. “Probably a false alarm,” I told him. “Can you shut it off?”
“Certainly.” Otherwise the alarm rings for ten minutes.
“Shouldn’t we notify the police?” Glenda asked after I hung up. “I mean, what if it’s terrorists or something?”
“I hardly think so,” remarked my saintly nurse, Farrah Ortiz. “Don’t worry, doctor. I’ll contact Mr. Golden. Maybe he can check on it.”
“Thank you,” I mouthed, and continued down the hall toward Room 5, annoyed that I hadn’t repaired the window and spared myself a shock.
My late wife’s stepfather, Morris Golden, had offered to get it fixed, but his head is too stuffed with recipes to retain much else. A caterer, he’d occupied my downstairs bedroom since my wife Lydia’s death nearly a year earlier.
Despite a few reservations, I’d invited him to stay with me. Never good with finances, Morris had been sleeping on a cot in his office, while I, as one of the world’s worst cooks, appreciated that he prepared tasty meals with a comforting Jewish influence. Also, having him around eased the aching void.
On further consideration, the possibility of a break-in seemed remote. I’d lived in that house since childhood, and the worst crime I could recall on my street was dog poop left on the sidewalk.
Then I remembered what might have tempted a burglar.
Lydia’s possessions, in the process of being sorted for storage or donation, were spread across the front room that once had served as her art studio. The idea of an intruder pawing through them revolted me.
During training, a doctor learns to ignore hunger, exhaustion and personal issues. They must wait their turn at the end of a long line of the sick and troubled. At that moment, the head of the line belonged to—I scanned the face sheet my nurse had dispensed—Malerie Nivens Abernathy.
Malerie was a legacy from my father’s era, before Safe Harbor Medical Center had been remodeled from a community hospital to one of Southern California’s top facilities for maternity and fertility care. She was the widowed mother of grown triplets, one of whom was also my patient.
She stuck out in my mind because of a family tragedy. I’d treated a second triplet prior to her murder six months earlier. Dee Marie Abernathy Tibbets had appeared initially to have died from a severe asthma attack. Then the autopsy revealed tiny hemorrhages in the eyes often associated with smothering or strangulation, as well as bruises on her arms consistent with a struggle. Ruled a homicide, the case remained unsolved.
Since then, I’d seen Malerie once, to adjust her blood pressure medication, since she requested that I supervise her routine care. Her reason for coming in today was listed as a consult. No details.
I knocked, opened the door and greeted the sixty-year-old woman seated on the examining table. Intensely red hair curled above a face creased from her former two-pack-a-day smoking habit. Rather than changing into an exam gown, she wore a pantsuit.
Malerie nodded coolly. “Hello, Eric.”
I didn’t remember her using my given name before. For a flicker of a second, even at thirty-five, I felt as if I were a kid and my late father was the real Dr. Darcy.
I flexed my shoulders beneath the white coat. “What brings you here today?” Since she hadn’t changed clothes, she must not expect a physical exam and, according to Farrah’s notes, her blood pressure was only slightly elevated. Her records displayed in the computer terminal indicated she’d recovered well from hip replacement surgery ten months earlier.
“I want to know what’s going on, and spare me the crap.” Her voice had a hard edge.
In every practice, there are patients whose names you dread seeing on the schedule, people who are demanding, manipulative or quick to threaten a lawsuit. Aside from the occasional sharp tone, however, Malerie had never struck me as one of those.
My father advised once that, in the face of hostility, I should take it slow, pay attention and avoid acting arrogant. “Please tell me what’s upset you.”
“I trusted your father. And that other doctor.” She must mean Isaiah Levin, Dad’s partner, with whom I still practiced. “I can’t believe they lied to me all these years.”
What a strange remark. “About what?”
“I saw her.” In her lap, Malerie’s blue-veined hands formed fists. “Getting on a bus. Did you think you could keep her secret forever?”
“Keep who secret?”
Her gray-green eyes narrowed, deepening a fan of wrinkles. “Don’t take me for a fool.”
I leaned against the counter near the small sink. “To be honest. I’m baffled.”
Malerie released a long breath. “Maybe they didn’t tell you. In that case, I could use your help.”
“Of course.” I awaited enlightenment.
“My daughters weren’t triplets,” she said. “They were quadruplets.”
I hid my astonishment as best I could. “Would you mind explaining?”
She lifted her chin as if bracing for an argument. “Since Dee Marie died, I’ve had vivid dreams about giving birth to four girls, not three. More like memories than dreams. I suppose you think I’m inventing this.”
“You mentioned a bus,” I said.
“Yesterday, driving on the boulevard, I saw her boarding a bus. She had the exact same color hair as my girls, and she moved gracefully, like Danielle, who took ballet for years. When she glanced up and flashed that lopsided smile, my heart nearly stopped.”
“Did you talk to her?”
“There was a lot of traffic. Before I could turn my car around, the bus vanished.”
If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck… “Could it have been Danielle or Doreen?”
“She was thinner and she had short hair,” Malerie said decisively. “Also, neither of my daughters rides the bus. And you know perfectly well I have no other children.”
While it could be mistaken identity, the Abernathy triplets were distinctive. All had off-center, twist-of-the-lips smiles and hair of an unusual flame-red shade. Danielle and the late Dee Marie, who were identical—developed from a single egg—had thin noses. Doreen, the fraternal one, had slightly broader features.
The sighting might have been a delusion or a coincidence, or indicate a need for new glasses. I wasn’t about to dismiss my patient’s concerns, however. Malerie was mourning her dead daughter, and I understood from experience the insidious and unpredictable nature of grief.
It was also feasible that her perceptions had been influenced by buried memories. “Let’s check your file.” I shifted to a position at the terminal.
When our paper records from past decades had to be digitized, it was impractical to transfer everything. As a result, the computerized data included only basic information about Malerie’s pregnancy and the triplets’ birth. The pregnancy had occurred naturally, not as a result of fertility treatments. My father had delivered the girls by cesarean section.
Wait—here we went—there had been a fourth fetus, early in the pregnancy. “Did my father mention Vanishing Twin Syndrome?” I asked.
“I didn’t have twins.” Malerie waved off her own comment. “Never mind that. What is it?”
“Sometimes a fetus spontaneously aborts—miscarries or is reabsorbed—usually during the first trimester. It’s estimated twenty to thirty percent of multiple conceptions lead to the loss of a fetus, for unknown reasons.” I hoped that was enough specifics. It’s a balancing act, providing information without overloading the patient.
Malerie shook her head. “That wasn’t a fetus I saw getting on the bus. There must have been a fourth live birth.”
I felt certain we could rule that out, but clearly something had happened. “Let’s eliminate a few possibilities.”
“Have you suffered a recent blow to the head?”
She stiffened. “No. And I don’t use drugs, except what you prescribe.” That would be blood-pressure medication.
“Do you take it with alcohol?” If misused, BP meds can cause confusion.
“I’m not a heavy drinker, Eric.” Her patience was thinning.
Many conditions can produce hallucinations, including tumors, dementia, mental illness and strokes. “Any blurred vision or numbness?”
“I am not imagining this!” she roared, loud enough to be heard outside the room. “I demand the truth, not a bunch of medical mumbo jumbo.”
That was my cue to retreat. Not too far, though. “I promise to talk to Dr. Levin, since he was here at the time, in case he recalls anything. But I’d be happier if we could run some tests.”
She launched herself from the table. I grabbed her arm to prevent a fall.
“Unless your father-in-law is putting magic mushrooms in my dinners, there’s nothing to test,” she snapped as she regained her balance.
Apparently Malerie subscribed to the meal service from Morris’s company. Golden Fine Foods had carved a niche delivering specialty dinners, including vegan, gluten-free and hypoallergenic.
“I didn’t realize you followed a special diet,” I said, hoping to restore civility to the conversation.
“I just enjoy his cooking.” She’d grown calmer. “I’ll hear from you soon then?”
I escorted Malerie to the exit, partly as a courtesy and partly to run interference if she ran into Isaiah. I’d rather not have her accuse him of deception in front of other patients.
When she’d gone, Farrah reappeared. Late in the day, her honey-brown hair was creeping from its bun but her controlled manner never faltered. “Mr. Golden’s at work. He wasn’t able to get away, so I took the liberty of contacting your sister-in-law.”
“Good. She has a key.” It had been long enough since Lydia’s death for me to start discarding her clothes and art supplies, but I couldn’t. When her younger half-sister Tory offered to do it, I’d accepted.
“She was at the detective agency,” Farrah reported. “She should be on her way to the house now.”
“Excellent.” A former policewoman who had worked crimes against properties, Tory was the ideal person for the task. Well, not entirely ideal. She didn’t always respect boundaries, especially mine.
Farrah produced another face sheet. About to hurry to the next patient, I remembered my promise to Malerie. “Is Dr. Levin around?”
“He left early.”
“Oh, that’s right. It’s Thursday.” My partner took off early two days a week to play golf. I made a mental note to ask him about Malerie in the morning.
Between patients, Farrah updated me. It wasn’t a false alarm. Tory had found the window smashed and summoned the cops.
Damn whoever had broken into my home! I loved that place, an imposing Tudor Revival striped with dark timbers and tall windows. No doubt the crook had assumed it was stuffed with valuables, but the electronics were old, except for my laptop, which I had carried to work. Aside from inherited pieces of silver cutlery and serving dishes, there were only Lydia’s things laid out in the conservatory.
What idiot would break into a house posted as having an alarm system? Perhaps they had assumed it was a fake notice. Or they’d heard that a doctor lived there and stupidly believed there’d be drugs lying around.
How much damage had they done? I dreaded what I might find. Too bad Vivien, our part-time housekeeper, had moved to San Francisco a few weeks earlier to be near family. She’d be better able than Tory to assess what might be missing.
An hour later, my sister-in-law called to report. As always, I felt a jolt when she spoke, because her voice was so much like her sister’s. “It was a quick in-and-out,” she said. “It appears the perp only went through the studio.”
“Can you tell what they took?”
“Yes, because I’ve been photographing Lydia’s stuff.” She took a long breath.
Even before she spoke again, I knew what was gone.
For my wife’s thirtieth birthday, I had commissioned a necklace to connect the tangled threads of her identity. The interwoven chains of silver and gold represented the father, Avram Silver, she’d lost to suicide when she was three, and the stepfather, Morris Golden, who’d helped raise her. The pendant was a large shimmering opal, her birthstone.
It had been her thirty-fifth birthday less than two weeks earlier that had prompted me to confront my loss by discarding some of her possessions and safeguarding others. I should have put the necklace in a safe-deposit box, along with a handful of other jewelry. Now, I discovered after reaching home, all that remained of them were the images on Tory’s phone.
“I’m sorry.” Disgust shadowed my sister-in-law’s heart-shaped face. Through the bay window, waning sunlight picked out chestnut highlights in her frizzy brown hair. “I left it in full view. Tempting.” Her gesture encompassed a rack of Lydia’s many-hued garments, a drawing table, shelving units packed with art books, brushes and paints, blow-ups of web designs, and open boxes of personal items I couldn’t bear to look at.
The room had been messy enough already. While I doubted the police had deliberately disturbed anything, someone had rummaged through the stuff. The disarray wasn’t improved by the black fingerprint powder dusted across some surfaces. I’d seen more of that in the main hall, around the broken door pane.
“Any idea who might have done this?” I asked.
Living on a cul-de-sac, we don’t get much traffic, foot or motorized. Also, whoever broke in had been smart enough to gain access via the front door, gaining a sixty-second delay before the alarm blared.
“It’s not a typical burglary,” responded Tory, who’d escorted the police through the house. “The other rooms seem fine. Maybe the alarm scared the guy off.”
“I wish it had scared him into a heart attack.” That might be overkill, but it reflected my anger.
In bustled her roly-poly, balding father. His remaining puffs of gray hair quivered with outrage. “Are you all right, Eric?”
“Yes, thanks,” I said. “I wasn’t here when it happened.”
“It could be traumatic.” An exchange of glances flicked between him and Tory.
I wished they wouldn’t fret about my supposedly fragile emotional state. Of course I grieved for the woman I’d loved for more than half my life, but I was in no danger of shattering. The less fuss, the better. I’d grown up here in silences, in the distances between people who often couldn’t be there for each other. It’s what I was used to, as Lydia had understood.
Still, I couldn’t complain about having them around. Tory had done me a favor today, while, as a housemate, Morris tried to be both unobtrusive and useful. He’d dealt with the laundry since Vivien’s departure and occasionally ran the vacuum, although I had the impression the noise scared him.
“Maybe the fingerprints will match a known felon or the police will catch a break going door to door around the neighborhood,” Tory said. “That necklace is distinctive. They’ll check pawnshops and Internet listings, and I’ll do the same, to be thorough.”
“Much appreciated.” No matter how much drama my sister-in-law stirred up in her personal life—there’d been quite a bit recently—she was good at her job.
“Is it okay for me to clean?” Morris asked. “The police didn’t leave any of that yellow tape strung around like on TV.”
“They don’t normally do that in a burglary,” Tory said.
“I don’t expect you to scrub the place. You’re a busy man,” I told her father. Except for a young woman he paid to assist in preparing and delivering the catered meals, he did most of the cooking himself. “We need a new housekeeper.”
Morris brightened. “I’ve saved the cards those cleaning services drop off.” He must have caught my scowl. “But we don’t want a bunch of strangers tromping through here. I’ll look for a reliable individual. With references.”
“Great.” I’d had bad experiences with crews that rotated employees. There was an unacceptable level of breakage and misplaced items.
“Cheese blintzes with blueberry sauce on the menu tonight,” he added.
“I’ll fix a salad.” Since Tory was staying in a motel, she’d begun joining us for dinner.
They scattered to their tasks. As my mood calmed, I noticed the accordion-style doors ajar on the double-wide closet. This room had once served as my father’s home office and held his old files. He’d brought them here after their contents were digitized, storing them in a metal cabinet so ancient we left it unlocked because we’d lost the key.
My father’s notes about Malerie might contain observations that hadn’t made it into the computerized version, including signs of postpartum psychosis. Unlike the depression referred to as baby blues, postpartum psychosis is a severe, relatively rare condition that could have gone untreated thirty years ago. The symptoms include confusion, obsessive thoughts about the baby, paranoia and delusions, and it can indicate an underlying issue such as bipolar disorder.
The cabinet drawers were neatly labeled in my father’s handwriting: A-L and M-Z. Shouldn’t be hard to locate Abernathy, I thought, and pulled on the top left drawer. It stuck, then creaked open.
But I wasn’t able to find Abernathy. Between Abbott and Abner, right where Malerie’s records should have been, there loomed a large gap.
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