by Jacqueline Diamond
A strange disappearance... a shocking accusation... a doctor’s fight for the truth. The fourth entry in the Safe Harbor Medical Mystery series!
As it turned out, the woman was real.
Not a figment of my colleague’s misbehaving perceptions. Not a delusion sparked by the misfires in his brain.
Real. Vaguely familiar. And disturbing, especially when encountered in this particular house.
Around seven p.m. on a Sunday, I’d received a call from Dr. Jeremiah Schwartz, who, like me, practiced obstetrics at Safe Harbor Medical Center. In a low voice, he’d urged me to pop over to his house.
“Eric, there is a woman present.” Despite his hurried manner, he spoke in his usual stilted way.
“And?” I’d prompted, reluctant to abandon an evening of sprawling alone on the couch, catching up on medical journals.
“I am uncertain she is real,” Jeremiah had said.
There are two questions I’ve learned not to ask my lanky colleague. They are: What the hell are you talking about? And, Why me?
I simply said, “Explain.”
He cleared his throat, always a monumental task considering his long neck. “She appeared at my front door, requesting to rent my spare room.”
“What’s unusual about that?” I grumbled. With Jeremiah, there was no point in soft-pedaling my irritation. When he isn’t focused on work, the noise in his head dampens his ability to detect nuances.
“Although I obtained permission from my landlady to seek a housemate, I have not advertised,” he informed me. “Also, my visitor neither telephoned nor messaged nor rang the bell. Through the front window, I spotted her on my porch. She claims to be a local ob-gyn, yet I have not heard of her.”
Safe Harbor may be a small town, but “local” encompasses a large area. Richly populated in every sense, Orange County, California is home to many doctors.
“What’s she doing right now, while you’re on the phone?” Delusions would, I presumed, suspend themselves when they became inconvenient, unlike real women. Or men, for that matter.
“She is measuring the room with a tape,” he’d said. “Please Eric. I have no one else to ask.”
Whether intentionally or not, he’d tapped into my weakness. I suffer from a misplaced hero complex, leaping to the aid of those perceived to be relying on me. My sister-in-law, Tory, claims it indicates a massive ego.
“I’ll be right over.” It was a short drive, and a mild end-of-summer evening. Also, as he’d indicated, who else could he call?
Jeremiah trusts few people with his diagnosis of schizophrenia. A successful physician and a high-functioning member of society, he deserves respect for overcoming the constant challenge of his disease, in my opinion. Not everyone would view it that way.
Downstairs, I explained that I had an errand to run. Tory and her father, Morris, both of whom had migrated into my house during the three years since my wife’s death, barely glanced up from their ferocious game of Go Fish at the kitchen table. Their ability to ignore me is among their more endearing qualities.
From my home on a bluff with a marginal view of the harbor, my electric car cruised inland. Traffic being light, I arrived within minutes at the cottage-lined streets of Jeremiah’s neighborhood.
I angled into a vacancy at the curb near his bungalow. In the lingering daylight, the blue walls and cream shutters glowed. Alongside the porch, bird-of-paradise plants thrust up orange-and-lavender spikes.
In this place, less than six months previously, another doctor had been found dead. Following a painful and complicated investigation that delved into the long-term consequences of sexual abuse and a subsequent attempt at revenge, she had been laid to rest. Her nurse, to whom she’d willed the property, had leased it to Jeremiah, who was unperturbed by lingering emotional overtones.
An instant after I rang the bell, he opened the door. Dark, piercing eyes regarded me from a height several inches above my own. He wore a pressed shirt and creased slacks, and appeared freshly shaved. He had always been fastidious, even when we met in medical school at Harvard more than a dozen years earlier.
This being my day off, I had thrown on jeans and a polo shirt. Not that I cared what impression I made on the lady in question. I had only to sweep my gaze across her, confirm or deny her existence, and depart.
Inside, the broad front room had gained fresh curtains since I helped Jeremiah move in. The worn carpet remained, and from the built-in cabinets at my left to the fireplace on my far right, only bare bones furniture and an entertainment system saved the space from nakedness.
“I am grateful for your assistance. I shall summon her.” My colleague swung around and called, “Hello? Doctor?”
In the hallway, floorboards creaked, and a young woman appeared. She was quite tangible, with long, ice-blond hair and dark-red lipstick. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to take so...” She eyed me as if a snake had slithered into the room and she was considering chopping off its head. “Dr. Darcy?”
“That’s right.” She did look familiar, but I failed to put a name to the face.
Jeremiah smiled, no doubt relieved that she was real. “Eric, this is Dr. Piper Blanchard.”
“Blanchard,” I repeated. Now, that rang a bell. More of a ring tone from ages past. Then it hit me. “Nicole’s sister?”
“Yes.” A crease formed between her eyebrows.
Nicole was one of the few women I had ever dated, and that was more than a decade past. Aside from that, my romantic history had been simple to the extreme. As a teen-ager, I fell in love with one girl and, aside from a short breakup, stayed with her through marriage and unto death.
During that separation, I’d connected with Nicole Blanchard, a passionate, volatile med school classmate. The affair had flashed across my horizon, as intense as a comet and as quick to burn out. A short time later, she’d left school, citing a desire to help her cancer-stricken mother.
Dimly, I recalled meeting this younger sister when she visited Boston. While I rarely forget a face, Piper had left little impression. However, I gathered she took a keen interest in me. More antipathy than interest, judging by her scowl.
“How is your sister?” I asked.
“You should know,” she said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Anybody care for coffee?” Jeremiah interrupted, as if we were chatting idly. Which, to a man oblivious to social cues, was the case.
We both declined. Piper wrapped her arms around herself, shivering despite her sweater.
“How did you hear about my extra room?” Jeremiah inquired, before I could quiz Piper further about her odd remark.
“From Brandy,” she said.
Brandy was the nurse who’d inherited the house. “How do you know her?” he asked.
“I work with her.”
The situation clicked for me. “You’re the new ob-gyn in Chuck Kane’s office.” Although Chuck has admitting privileges at Safe Harbor, he sees his regular patients in a suite in nearby Newport Beach.
“Brandy is your nurse,” Jeremiah summed up. “This indicates you are filling Alison’s position. Are you aware that she owned this house and was discovered dead in the bathroom?”
That ought to dash any interest in renting, I mused.
“Dark histories don’t bother me,” Piper replied. “How about you, Eric? Or maybe they appeal to you.”
I’d had more than enough of innuendoes. “Is there a problem about Nicole?” Perhaps, unjustly, she blamed our breakup on me. In fairness, people often recall past incidents differently, depending on their perspective, but I wasn’t the one who’d called it quits.
“You might say that. She’s been missing for nine years.”
“What?” Although my former lover had had a wild streak, people don’t vanish for such a long period without good reason. Or bad reason. “Under what circumstances?”
“The last anyone heard, she was heading here to talk to you.”
What nonsense was this? “I think I’d remember if...” A memory tickled, a phone conversation that had dropped from my awareness because it was unremarkable and had occurred at a distracted moment.
Vaguely, I registered Jeremiah inviting us to sit down, which we did—him and me on the sofa, Piper on a plastic resin chair. Thankfully for my jumbled train of thought, he resumed addressing his potential housemate. “I was acquainted with your sister, also.”
Her attention shifted to him. “How?”
“We were all in the same class at med school,” he told her. “She had a drinking problem.”
He’d noticed that? Jeremiah was full of surprises.
“Yes, she did,” Piper conceded. “How well did you know her?”
“Only slightly,” he said. “She and Eric dated after he and Lydia broke up. She and I dated then, too.”
“You dated my sister?” Her hands clenched in her lap.
“No, I dated Lydia. But I was never the man she loved.” An unaccustomed wistfulness crept into his voice. “After a few months, we returned to our normal relationships, Lydia with Eric and me with my studies. I do not know what became of Nicole after she left school.”
“But Eric does.” Her gaze drilled into me. “Isn’t that true?”
“I don’t have a clue why you assume that.” However, despite her irksome attitude, I supposed any insights might prove useful. “She did call me about nine years ago. I’d forgotten.”
“When was that?”
I provided the exact date.
“Good memory,” Piper snapped.
“Not really,” I said. “It was the night before my wedding.”
“That would be a memorable date,” Jeremiah agreed.
His guest leaned forward angrily. “Why didn’t you help her?”
She appeared to have an entire mountain of assumptions, while I had only an anthill of facts. “With what?” I said. “She didn’t ask for help.”
“That’s why she came here!” Piper flared. “Was she too inconvenient? Just got in the way of your wedding, I suppose.”
Far from it. Nothing could have stopped me from marrying the woman who’d been my soul’s mirror since junior high school. But, contrary to Piper’s belief, her sister had made no request of any kind. “What would she have needed? Money?”
“Quit playing games!”
“It would be more productive,” Jeremiah interjected mildly, “to allow Eric to describe what happened, rather than to debate what you assume.”
The man had a logical mind. It made him an excellent diagnostician and, in this case, a sensible moderator.
Piper straightened, her back rigid. “Well, what did happen, doctor?”
Probing an amorphous lump of memory, I teased out the point at which the phone rang. I’d just returned from a pre-wedding dinner party, relieved to tug off my tie and suit jacket. I’d been staying in my father’s house—this one—in the downstairs bedroom during my residency. My soon-to-be wife had shared an apartment with friends, both of us saving money for the future.
“It was after ten and I was tired,” I said. “When she told me she was in town and asked to meet the next morning, I explained I couldn’t because I was getting married.”
“I’m sure that cheered her up,” Piper said.
I ignored the gibe. “She congratulated me and apologized for intruding. I asked why she was in town, but she seemed in a hurry to get off the phone. She did mention she’d been living in Juneau and that her mother—your mother—had recently died.”
“That’s it?” Piper pressed. “Nothing else?”
“Not that I remember,” I said. “Was she in trouble?”
“You could put it that way,” Piper muttered. “No one ever saw her again.”
While I regretted being unable to help, I didn’t understand the hostility. If only I were trained in interrogation like my friend Keith, a police detective. Still, I did diagnose diseases, a more or less similar process. “What symptoms... I mean, what kind of trouble?”
She stared past me. “I’m not sure.”
“Nine years ago, I was living in Seattle,” Piper said. “We didn’t communicate much.”
I applied more pressure. “How long before you figured out she was missing?”
“Six or seven months.” The words dragged out of her. “When I called to tell her I’d been accepted for my residency at U-Dub, her phone was out of service.”
Mentally, I translated that she’d stayed in Seattle to specialize in obstetrics at the University of Washington. “Did you try to find her?”
“Well, of course!”
With a visible effort, she reined in her ill temper. “I asked around. She’d sold the family restaurant to pay Mom’s medical bills. Friends and co-workers said she’d packed her stuff and driven off.”
“And no one had heard from her?”
“Not that they told me.” She glared. “It’s not like I had any reason to panic. I kept expecting her to get in touch, and then I was working crazy hours at the hospital. It wasn’t until I came up for air the next summer that I got really worried.”
“Did you hire a detective?”
“Naturally! What do you take me for?” Her nostrils flared. “He charged me a bunch of money for exactly zip.”
“No credit card use? No cell phone use? What about her car?” I’d learned something about how private investigators work since my sister-in-law became one.
“Which part of zip don’t you understand?”
She was losing her temper, and I might soon lose mine. Time to wrap this up. “What brings you here now?”
“Not that we aren’t glad to see you,” Jeremiah put in.
Piper weighed her answer carefully. Too carefully? “I ran into a cousin who’d seen my sister shortly before she vanished.”
“She had information?” Jeremiah inquired in the same bright tone.
She nodded tensely. “She remembered two things Nicole told her. That she was coming here to see Eric, and that she believed she was in danger.”
“This cousin waited nine years to share this?” I didn’t bother to hide my skepticism.
Again, the woman paused before answering, as if to measure her words. “She had no idea Nicole had gone missing. They weren’t close, and my sister was always a little flaky.”
True. “What kind of danger?”
“She didn’t specify.” Grimly, Piper added, “But she named you. You’ve admitted she contacted you.”
“If she felt threatened by me, why would she come here?”
“To confront you,” Piper responded. “She was never the type to let people push her around.”
Neither am I. I tamped down my frustration. Obviously, Piper believed more had happened between her sister and me, either in Boston or nine years ago, than was actually the case. “Confront me about what?”
“Quit lying and tell me what happened to her!”
Jeremiah spoke up. “In my observation, Eric never lies.”
“Thank you.” I reminded myself that having a loved one disappear under puzzling circumstances could fray your judgment. “Have you filed a missing person report?”
“Yes, in Juneau. It went nowhere,” Piper said bitterly. “It’s up to me to get justice for her.”
“But why relocate to Safe Harbor?” Jeremiah asked. “Did you not already have a practice in Juneau?”
“In Anchorage, actually.” Piper tugged at her pencil-slim skirt. “I had personal reasons for leaving Alaska. Then, right after I ran into my cousin, I read about this opening at Chuck’s practice. It seemed like fate.”
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
“A few weeks.”
“Why not call me straight away?”
She stopped twitching. “I’ve had a lot to do, meeting patients, submitting my credentials to the hospital. I assumed I’d run into you before long.”
“And now you have,” I noted. “Satisfied?”
“With what?” she said. “You’ve told me nothing.”
Except the date of my contact with Nicole, when she’d presumably been in town. Although unless someone checked the phone records, we couldn’t be sure where the call had originated. “You’ve got everything I know.”
“You could hire Eric’s sister-in-law, Tory Golden,” Jeremiah said. “She’s a PI.”
Bad idea. Tory, who’d worked with my friend Keith at the police department before joining a firm of private investigators, mostly operates out of my house. Having her dig into my personal history would constitute an invasion of privacy, as well as a conflict of interest on her part. Not that she’d hesitate to skewer me if the situation warranted it.
“She’s your wife’s sister?” Piper asked.
“My late wife’s, yes.”
She showed no surprise that I was a widower. I assumed she’d researched me in advance. “You get along with her?”
“A matter of opinion,” I said.
“She must know you well.”
“Too well.” I wasn’t convinced that would work in my favor. “You should choose someone more objective.”
Dropping the subject, Piper swung toward Jeremiah. “How much is the rent?”
He told her.
“Great. I’m sick of living in a motel. Can I move in next weekend?”
Damn. I’d been almost certain she’d pass.
“I will email you a sublet agreement.” Jeremiah took her contact data, shook her hand and saw her off. “You are frowning,” he commented when he rejoined me.
“I don’t like her,” I said.
“It is natural to dislike people who do not like us,” he observed.
“Very astute.” Why direct sarcasm at him? None of this was his fault.
“Do you suppose she noticed anything odd about me?” he asked.
“You were fine.” I didn’t suggest he share his diagnosis of schizophrenia with her. She might pick it up eventually on her own, but until she did, discretion made sense. Even other physicians can harbor prejudices against the mentally ill.
Although acquainted since med school, Jeremiah and I had only become friends recently. After his and Lydia’s brief involvement, I’d feared he might be stalking her when he followed my lead by applying for a residency in obstetrics at the University of California, Irvine. He’d bought a car identical to mine, got his hair cut by the same barber, and eventually rented an office in the same medical building as me.
Only later did he volunteer an explanation. While studying and practicing medicine, he had no difficulty concentrating. In private life, beset by mental phantoms, he’d floundered until he decided that, since Lydia and some of our colleagues liked me, he should adopt me as his template. As long as he behaved exactly as I did, he’d rationalized, he would appear normal.
Once he’d confided the truth, I’d stopped ducking through doorways to avoid him. Fortunately, he’d since gained enough self-confidence to reduce his copycattery.
As I took my leave, I hoped he wouldn’t become too fond of his new housemate. Not only had Piper insulted me, I was certain she hadn’t told us the whole truth.
Best case scenario: she’d find her sister, fast. But after nine years, that didn’t seem likely.
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