I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand;
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.
—“A Dream of Death”
William Butler Yeats—1891
What goes out of your eyes also gradually leaves
—Persian sayingEvery April my mother used to host her own version of the traditional Passover seder. A mishmash of Hebrew, Yiddish, English, and Russian, it involved all Mom’s old union pals—Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans—who’d give rapid-fire thanks for the release of the ancient Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, and then launch into pre-chicken-soup tirades against General Motors, J. Edgar Hoover, and the FBI. I grew up thinking they were part of the religion.
I liked the Passover songs best. One of my favorites, “Dayenu,” a lively, repetitive reminder that “It would have been enough” had God brought us out of Egypt but not given us the Torah, and “It would have been enough” had God given us the Torah but not given us the land of Israel, must have had about twenty-seven verses. Sung after the ritual consumption of four glasses of wine, sometimes it had forty-three.
Dayenu, I found myself thinking when the whole mess was over. It would have been enough to get the snapshots in the mail.
* * *
The first snapshot came on March 20, camouflaged by a sheaf of “urgent” political messages, market circulars, coupon giveaways, and appeals from various charities about to go belly-up unless I forked over twenty-five bucks. My cat and I have an arrangement that allows me to throw most of my mail directly into the wastebasket. It is he, T.C., Thomas C. Carlyle, aka Tom Cat, who subscribes to Mother Jones and The New York Times Book Review. It is he who fearlessly lists his full name in the phone directory, warding off the heavy-breathers that mere initials invite. When I scoop the mail off the foyer floor, I sort it into two piles, one for me, one for the cat. His stack is always twice as high as mine, but I hold my jealousy in check.
T.C. gets nothing but junk. I used to read it; I know.
Not that the mail with my name on it is such hot stuff. Most of it might as well be addressed to Occupant.
But on March 20 the mail included one hand-addressed envelope, which I suspiciously examined for the telltale return address of a famous person. Some marketing gurus out there genuinely believe I’ll rip open a flap just to see what my old buddy Ed McMahon wants to tell me.
My tongue made an abrupt clicking noise, an involuntary response to the lack of a return address on the blue envelope—a shockingly misplaced statement of faith in the U.S. Postal Service as far as I was concerned.
Red Emma, my inherited parakeet, thinking I’d addressed her, began a stream of “pretty birds” and similar pap.
“Stick your head in a water dish,” I suggested. I’ve been trying to rid myself of that bird ever since my aunt Bea died. Or at least teach it to swear.
The envelope was party-invitation size, a bit larger than three by five. Not dime-store stuff either; it had the feel of stationery from a fancy box instead of a banded pack. I allowed myself a brief moment of speculation before slitting the top fold. I don’t know a lot of people who issue formal party invitations.
I might as well not have bothered to dredge up the few sociable names. Inside was no invitation, no letter, no card, just a color snapshot of a baby, an anonymous wrinkled raisin of a face swathed in a multicolored pastel thing the name of which I’d forgotten. My aunt used to knit them for the expected grandchildren of her mah-jongg ladies. They—the outfits, not the ladies—looked like little bags with zippers down the front and tiny hoods. I flipped the photo over, expecting some kind of birth announcement.
Just KODAK QUALITY PAPER repeated on a series of slanted lines from the upper-left-hand corner to the lower right.
A guessing game: Name that baby. On my desk I keep a magnifying glass, pencils, pens, scissors, and rubber bands in a coffee can. I polished the lens with spit and Kleenex. Under closer scrutiny, the baby’s face looked like a wrinkled prune. Turning my attention to the envelope—specifically, to the postmark: Winchester, Massachusetts—I flipped through a mental Rolodex.
I don’t know a soul in Winchester.
I slipped the photo under a corner of the blotter and proceeded with the bills. I study the phone statement like a hawk ever since Roz, my third-floor tenant, housecleaner, and sometime assistant, had a late-night vision and dialed a chatty Tibetan monk at my expense.
Exactly one week later, the second photo arrived. The envelope was the same sky-blue. No return address. Postmark: Winchester.
I’m no baby expert, nor do I wish to become one, but I pegged this tot for about a year old. Fair hair, light complexion, with wind-whipped crimson circles of excitement on her cheeks. I say “her” because the baby was wearing a frilly pink dress and tiny black patent Mary Janes so glossy they’d probably never touched the ground. The occasion could have been a first birthday party, although no cake was in evidence.
Nothing, as a matter of fact, was in evidence, just green grass and a couple of leafy elms.
I located last week’s photo and got out my trusty magnifying lens. Could have been the same baby, a year older. Could have been another kid altogether.
I was in no mood for games and thought about tossing the snaps in the trash along with T.C.’s Sharper Image catalog and his invitation to use a $6,000 line of credit with Citibank MasterCard.
But I didn’t.
The third came on April 3, one week later, right on schedule. I almost expected it. The little girl was wearing bibbed pink overalls and a matching pink-and-white-striped shirt. Same girl as in the second photo; I could see that now. She’d changed, maybe aged another year, but the eyes were the same shape, the mouth had the identical bow.
Same amount of information, too. Zero. I thought about missing kid cases, wondered whether I’d seen the girl on the back of a milk carton.
It was the briefest of thoughts. I shoved the three photos underneath the blotter. I guess I don’t feel right about tossing photographs. I keep them around, the way I save leftovers in the refrigerator.
The fourth photo arrived on the tenth of April. My Winchester correspondent had the U.S. mail figured better than I did. When I drop something in the blue box, sometimes it gets delivered the next day. Then I mail a letter from the same place and it takes a full week to make it to the same destination.
Number five, when it appeared, was definitely a birthday photo. A cone-shaped hat was tilted to one side of the girl’s head, secured by an elastic band under her chin. Was I going to get a new picture of this child every Friday for the rest of my life?
Kid was a heartbreaker, no doubt about it. It wasn’t any one of the features; it wasn’t the features at all. The eyes were too close together, the nose small and unformed. It was the grin, a light-up-the-eyes squint that could have melted polar ice caps. Maybe somebody was sending them to cheer me up at the end of each week.
They stayed on my mind, like a measure of half-forgotten music, a melody tantalizingly out of reach. Almost a week later, on Thursday, I spread the photos across my desk and went over the lot with the magnifying lens, speculating about relatives. My mother had no family, except for Aunt Bea, and she was dead. Aunt Bea had never married. I’d lost touch with my father’s kin even before his death. He’d never had much use for them. Was some long-lost cousin trying to slowly acquaint me with his or her offspring? Was this the opening salvo of a charity touch?
I do have a little sister, not a blood relation, but a sister from the Big Sisters Organization. Because of a sticky situation with her mom, I haven’t seen Paolina for over four months. Could the Big Sisters be trying to soften me up to accept a replacement child?
I put away the magnifying glass with a sigh, sarcastically congratulating myself on some truly momentous discoveries: The child’s face had thinned out as she’d turned from baby to toddler to little girl. Her hair had grown. The anonymous photographer had managed well-composed, centered shots with no chairs or lamps growing out of the kid’s head.
Brilliant detective work. With the photos laid out like a hand of solitaire, I could watch little raisin-face begin her transformation into a curly-haired, blue-eyed, blond American princess.
Paolina, my little sister, is Colombian, with chocolate eyes and shiny dark hair. Her face is too round for perfection, and will probably stay that way even after her cheeks lose their baby-fat chubbiness.
So who wants perfection?
I gathered the snapshots together like a pack of cards and aimed them at the wastebasket’s gaping mouth. At the last minute, I held the shot. Not that I figured they’d lead anywhere, but I found myself more intrigued than irritated by their presence.
After that night, I no longer thought about tossing them. I don’t trust anything to the trash.
Not since the attack of the garbage thief.Yes. The garbage thief.
I know it’s hard to credit. If I hadn’t been leaning out the window, I wouldn’t have seen it. If I hadn’t seen it—if, say, Roz had reported it to me the next morning—I wouldn’t have believed it. And if I’d been wearing any clothes, I’d have stopped it.
“If” is one of my least favorite words.
As it happened, I was bare-ass naked, seated cross-legged on a doubled-up futon that serves as a couch, my elbows propped on the windowsill, my face turned to a flickering sliver of moon. All the lights in my second-floor bedroom were off and my modesty, such as it is, was further protected by some twenty inches of wall separating the low futon and the sill.
A night-chilled breeze brushed my hair. If I closed the window, the screech of badly joined wood would break the silence and send a shiver up my neck. Instead of the deep sky, the barely budding elm tree, the moon, I’d catch a reflection of my sleepy face in the glass. Wide-set hazel eyes that I call green. Pointy chin. A nose broken often enough to acquire either “character” or a bump and a tilt, depending on the relative merits of flattery and honesty.
I left the window open. If I stared hard, I could see the full circle of the moon, the dark part defined by the silver crescent.
I’m an insomniac, a card-carrying member of the club. Since enrollment is secret, I’m the president of my own chapter and I make up the rules. Number one: “Don’t lie there. If you can’t sleep, get up and do something else.”
I recited the other commandments in my head.
“Get plenty of exercise.” Well, I sure do. I play killer volleyball three mornings a week. I swim laps at the YWCA pool.
“Eat right.” Definitely a failing. I’m a junk-food addict, and the thought of a nice warm glass of milk before bedtime makes me want to puke.
“Always go to sleep at the same time.” Sure. I’m a full-time private investigator, but when I can’t pay my bills, I drive a cab nights. There is no soothing regularity to my schedule.
“Don’t nap.” Who has time to nap?
“Cut out the caffeine.” Pepsi is a way of life to me.
I did quit smoking. I give myself extra credit for that.
Not for the first time, I considered sleeping pills, the scattering of Dalmanes and Halcions I’d inherited along with Aunt Bea’s house. I rejected them, as usual. Live with an addict and you grow wary of medication. Marry and divorce one, you practically convert to Christian Science.
“Exercise.” I went back to the second commandment because I thought I’d read somewhere that you shouldn’t try any strenuous activity within four hours of going to sleep. I glanced at my bed, shadowy in the moonlight, at the sheet-draped form of Sam Gianelli. Maybe he was my problem. Making love isn’t supposed to count as late-night exercise. It relaxes you, right? Makes you sleepy.
Hah. It makes me feel loose, slippery, and warm. But not sleepy.
I considered tossing a pillow at Sam’s head. Why should he sleep? Specifically, why should he sleep at my place when he could go back to his Charles River Park apartment? I padded over and kneeled down to reach for my guitar case. I’d ease it out quietly, go downstairs, and practice some finger picking.
The guitar was beyond my reach, centered under the queen-size mattress. Dear God in heaven, Roz must have vacuumed under the bed.
I crawled back to the futon and watched the moon disappear behind a sea of brightening clouds.
The car didn’t have its headlights on.
I heard it before I saw it, the closest streetlamp being twenty-five yards away. The motor sputtered to a stop near my driveway. The carburetor needed work.
A car door opened, but the dome light didn’t flash. The next sound puzzled me until I realized it was the creak of the trunk. Maybe the driver needed a jack to change a flat tire.
In pitch blackness?
By this time the car had my full attention.
I craned my neck, realized the limitations of my nakedness, and wondered where my clothes were. I felt like yelling “What the hell are you doing down there?” I kept quiet, realizing that the fast-moving moon would soon tell the tale.
It reappeared in a V-shaped break of cloud cover.
A heavyset guy was lifting one of my garbage cans into the gaping trunk of his car. I blinked and shook my head. When I opened my eyes, he was still there.
In my Cambridge neighborhood, barreling is an old and time-honored tradition. The rules are clear. Residents put out big items—old chairs and rickety tables and clunky washing machines—the last Thursday of the month.
It was the third Thursday of April. No one would expect to mine gold in a third Thursday trash collection. And who would rummage for the odd unreturned five-cent-deposit soda can in the middle of the night?
“Stop!” I hollered as loudly as I could. I didn’t want the sucker to get away with the trash can. I have only two of them, big wheeled ones that cost $39.95 apiece at the local hardware store. He turned his face and I ducked instinctively. I didn’t want to turn the lights on till I found a robe.
I scrabbled around on the floor until I touched cloth. Sam’s shirt—hardly long enough, but something to shroud me while I searched more diligently.
I snapped on the light. “Sam!”
“Huh?” He didn’t even roll over.
I grabbed my red chenille bathrobe, the one that clashes with my hair, out of the closet. How’d it get in the closet? Roz must have really gone on a cleaning binge.
“Wha’?” I heard Sam mutter as I ran barefoot down the steps.
I have three good locks on my front door. You can’t even get out of my house without a key for the deadbolt. My purse, with keys inside, was probably on the kitchen counter. Might as well have been on the moon. I ran to the living room and snatched the extra key from the top drawer of my desk. Then I raced back and let myself out in time to see the car two-wheel the corner and disappear.
With both my trash cans.
I stood at the edge of the driveway, in the same spot the cans had occupied a moment before, cursing under my breath, staring at empty darkness but seeing the speeding car, the screeching turn, the mud-smeared license plate. Four. Eight. The last two digits: a four and an eight. Definitely.
My gut reaction: Why me? I’m no rocket scientist. I have nothing to hide. And then I thought, goddammit, yes I do! I have plenty to hide. I don’t want anyone to know how much mocha almond ice cream I eat in a week, much less a single detail of my correspondence. I particularly don’t want the names of my clients spread around. They hire me for confidential reasons, and, within the law, I do my damnedest to preserve their anonymity.
I did a quick inventory of what I’d been tossing besides the cat’s junk mail. Had I received any checks lately? What cases was I still trying to collect on?
A missing husband whose wife should have thrown a farewell party for the bum instead of paying good money to find him living with her stepdaughter. A runaway son-in-law. A habitual bail jumper every private eye in New England has taken a run at . . .
I tried to catalog the trash, but my mind blanked at the scope of the task. And maybe the garbage thief wasn’t even after me. Maybe some garbologist was doing a study of Roz’s reject artwork. To me, it always looks like Roz frames and attempts to sell every botched endeavor, but what do I know about postpunk art?
Hell. I didn’t care if the target was Roz or me. I didn’t care if some grad student was doing a thesis on banana-peel disposal in the 02138 zip code. Whoever it was, the garbologist was going to have to research somebody else’s garbage.
I wiped my bare feet on the damp grass. Four-eight, four-eight, four-eight, I repeated. With my eyes closed, I teased my memory for details. Color: blue, maybe gray. Rectangular taillights.
I’d have to put a hook near the front door, hang the deadbolt key on it. Should have done it long ago, in case of fire. Of course, with the key hanging there, any burglar who came through a window would be able to open the door and steal the big items—the couch, the bed, the goddamn refrigerator, if he wanted it—as well as the usual small stuff.
I thought about thieves. I thought about garbage. I thought about thieves who steal garbage.
Now, empty trash cans have their uses. Landscapers use them to haul dead leaves and branches. The hawkers who sell soda outside Fenway Park use them to store ice.
But this moron hadn’t tried to dump the trash on my front lawn. He’d sped off with Hefty bags full of juice cartons, catfood cans, and old newspapers smeared with parakeet droppings.
If he’d wanted the cans, why steal the garbage? If he’d wanted my garbage, why steal the cans?What with the garbage thief and insomnia, I didn’t stir until eleven o’clock the next morning. Sam had long since returned to Charles River Park, complaining that he hardly ever felt rested after a night at my place.
As I groggily crossed the hall, listening to a throbbing hum in my head and hoping the shower would ease it, the day’s mail hit the foyer floor with a thud.
Friday. Terrific. Time for another snapshot of little Miss Winchester. Well, she could wait till I’d washed up, eaten breakfast, lunch, or both, depending on the contents of the fridge. She could wait till I’d started my pursuit of the garbage snatcher.
How many light blue, or possible gray, late-model Firebirds had a four and an eight for their final two license-plate numbers? Was I sure it was a Massachusetts plate?
The thought almost drove me back under the covers. Instead I stood in the shower for ten minutes with the temperature at lobster-boil. Then I put in a full two minutes under ice water because somebody told me that cold water is better for rinsing conditioner out of your hair.
Dressed in jeans, sneakers, and a turquoise cotton sweater, I headed downstairs. I pass through the foyer on my way to the kitchen. No harm in stopping to take a peek, I decided. Give me an opportunity to bend over and shake out my wet hair, which I comb as infrequently as possible because it’s too thick and too curly and it hurts. I could view the day’s photo while chugging orange juice. No time wasted.
I sorted through the pile twice to make sure, but there was no blue envelope. I felt curiously deprived, as if I’d come to the end of a novel borrowed from the library and found the final chapter razored out.
The throb of my headache met its match in the smack of a hammer against a nearby nail.
“You like this here?” The voice came from an unlikely height. Perched on a chair, my tenant, Roz, had gained about a foot in stature. She’s short and I’m six-one. Our eyes were now on a level.
I said, “I thought you were going to check with me before you hung any more paintings on my walls.” To contrast with her fright-white hair, which she dyes more often than I shampoo, Roz was wearing skin-tight black pants and a redder-than-red T-shirt emblazoned with NINE OUT OF TEN MEN WHO’VE TRIED CAMELS PREFER WOMEN. I read it twice to make sure I’d gotten it right. I don’t know where Roz finds her enormous wardrobe of bizarre T-shirts. Maybe secret admirers send them.
She has a body, particularly in the T-shirt slogan area, that earns much admiration.
She plucked a nail from between her teeth. “I thought you meant just with offensive stuff.”
“This is not offensive?”
“What? You’re with the National Endowment for the Arts?”
“Just because it has vegetables in it doesn’t make it a still life,” I said. “What the hell is that man doing with that carrot?”
“You don’t like it?”
“Roz, this is not only my home, it’s my office. Clients come here. People who might otherwise consider hiring me.”
“Hang it someplace else, huh?”
I nodded my heartfelt agreement.
“Should I yank the other nail out, or try a different painting?”
“Depends on the painting.”
“I’ve got more vegetables. Acrylics really groove with vegetables.”
Whenever Roz needs subject matter, her first target is my refrigerator.
The telephone interrupted a promising aesthetic argument.
“Should I answer it?” she asked.
I nodded. “Stall while I get orange juice.”
I grabbed the carton from the fridge and raced back in time to hear Roz, in the nasal twang she deems secretarial, report that I was currently taking a foreign call on another line.
“It’s okay,” I said. “Geneva hung up.”
She glared at me. “Ms. Carlyle will be right with you.”
“Speaking,” I said crisply.
“Hi. Maybe you remember me. I’m the psychiatrist in the brown triple-decker two doors down.”
“Sure,” I said, “um—”
Maybe he’d had his trash stolen too. Maybe he wanted me to trace it for him. “What can I do for you?”
“You’ve been receiving photos in the mail.”
“Baby pictures. Kid pictures. Yes.”
I could hear him breathing. I wondered what he was waiting for. He exhaled again, inhaled. “I have a patient who’s been sending them. I’m sorry. I’d mentioned your name—as someone who wouldn’t be, um, a threatening presence, if she decided to investigate a certain matter . . .”
“She’s having trouble making a decision, and she thought she’d—I don’t know—prepare you in some way, in case she decided to seek your counsel.”
“Is she in your office now?”
“Yes,” he said. “She knows I’m speaking to you.”
“Does she want to see me, make an appointment or something?”
“Can you hang on a minute?”
I could hear indistinct muffled voices. I couldn’t make out individual words. I tried to remember what he looked like, this Keith Donovan. I remembered the name from some Homeowners Association meeting. Was he the pudgy guy who always complained about the neighborhood dogs? The area I live in, within spitting distance of Harvard Square, is thick with psychiatrists.
“She—my patient—wonders if you might see her now? I would come along.”
“I don’t usually have a consulting shrink present.”
“Is it out of the question?”
I reviewed my caseload. Tracking down the garbage thief was not going to earn me a fee.
“Come on by,” I said.He seemed too young. Perhaps I’d misunderstood. Maybe he was a therapist of some sort or other, but hardly the kind entitled to call himself “doctor.” With a haircut fresh off a Marine base and an eager grin, he looked like a big goofy kid. His tweed jacket and muted paisley tie had probably been chosen to make him appear older, and he must have inherited the half-moon reading glasses tucked into his breast pocket. He sure hadn’t aged enough to need them.
She was a willow-thin blonde with nervous hands. It took her ten minutes just to remove her raincoat, fingernails clacking against the buttons. She wasn’t paying attention to the task; her eyes were darting all over the place, noting the water stains on the ceiling, eyeing the furniture as if she were pricing it for an auction gallery.
I was glad I’d made Roz take the painting down.
I did some appraising of my own. The beige suit, piped in a darker shade, maybe six hundred bucks, and I constantly undervalue due to years of Filene’s Basement shopping. Double it to include the shoes, bag, and leather gloves. The raincoat had a plaid lining and a Burberry label. Her slim gold watch and massive solitaire diamond told me she could probably afford both a private eye and a therapist.
The skirt of the fancy suit gapped at the waist and bagged at the hip, as if she’d recently lost weight. Deep purplish-gray shadows tinted the skin under her eyes. A woman who spent mega-bucks on a precision wedge haircut ought to concentrate more on her makeup, I thought.
Keith Donovan made a ceremony of hanging her raincoat on the coat-tree while she fumbled with her gloves. Clasping her handbag tightly against her chest, she managed the single step down to my living room with an elbow assist from the therapist.
Normally I invite clients to sit in the chair across from my rolltop desk, but I hadn’t readied a second chair so I motioned them farther into the room. The woman chose my aunt Bea’s favorite rocker, with its needlepoint cushion and faint welcoming creak. Donovan waited for me to take the couch before selecting an easy chair.
The woman absorbed the surroundings with a practiced glance, and I wondered what deceptive conclusions she’d drawn from the antiques and Orientals. The room is exactly as my aunt left it when she died, except for the addition of my desk.
Her eyes fastened on the silver-framed photo centered on the mantelpiece. She mumbled and looked at me expectantly.
“Is she your daughter?” she asked in a low urgent tone.
“My little sister.”
“Do you have children?”
“Ms. Carlyle,” Keith Donovan said, “I’d like you to meet Mrs. Woodrow, Emily Woodrow.”
She twisted her hands, rubbed them along the length of her thighs, clasped them in her lap. Said nothing.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” I asked.
“You’ve been sending me pictures of your daughter?” I made it a question only by inflection.
“She looks like me, doesn’t she?” the woman said. On the surface her pale face seemed as passive and calm as an old portrait in an art museum, but I felt uneasy scrutinizing her. She had an odd voice, faint and hoarse.
“She’s beautiful,” I said. “Your daughter.”
The woman lowered her head suddenly. Her hair, falling in wings from a center part, covered her face, so I couldn’t tell if tears came with the wrenching sobs. I had a fix on her hoarseness now. Crying jags roughened vocal cords more quickly than Jack Daniel’s and cigarettes.
Donovan seemed to be studying his knuckles. I wondered if he was billing my time as one of the woman’s treatment sessions.
She did the hand routine again, her fingers rubbing her thighs as if she were searching for something to grasp or tear. Her long fingernails were unpolished and neglected.
“Is there something I can do for you?” I asked.
Color flooded her cheeks. Her chest rose and fell so quickly I thought she might hyperventilate and pass out. I hoped Donovan, young as he was, had some medical experience.
“Doctor,” she muttered to him. “I don’t know where to—”
“Would you like me to provide some background information?” he asked gently.
“Yes,” she said, seizing the words like a lifeline. “But first, I want—I’d like to give her this.”
It was a pale blue rectangle. I was going to get my Friday photo after all.
The envelope seemed identical to the ones underneath my blotter, but the enclosed photograph was a formal study, on thicker stock. The child . . . well, the girl wore a hat, but the floppy-brimmed straw was no cover for the fact that she’d lost her bouncy curls. I could practically see bones through her papery skin. She was gamely attempting her angelic smile, but it couldn’t make the jump to her sunken eyes.
I swallowed and was glad I hadn’t eaten breakfast.
Centered at the bottom, beneath a black border, elaborate calligraphy spelled out: Rebecca Elizabeth Woodrow. 9/12/85-1/6/92. The newborn in the hand-knitted bunting—funny how the word for the damn thing came back to me—the two-year-old in the pink striped shirt and bib overalls, hadn’t made it to her seventh birthday.
I glanced up. Emily Woodrow stared at my little sister’s photo with an intensity bordering on hunger. I was glad I held her daughter’s picture in my hand. It gave me something to look at, besides her face.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “She was beautiful.”
The woman tried to smile. A mistake. Her lips quivered.
“Mrs. Woodrow has been seeing me since her daughter’s death,” Keith Donovan volunteered, his voice low and soothing.
“Three months ago,” she whispered, as if she were reminding herself. Her hands were working again. The nail on the index finger of her left hand was broken, jagged. “Have you ever had a serious illness?” she asked abruptly.
“No,” I said.
“Then you don’t know what it’s like when a doctor looks at you in that special kindly way, and then he rips your heart out.”
I tried to guess how old she was. Forties by the hands. Thirties by the face.
“Do you want to tell me about it?” I shot Donovan a sidelong glance, but if he’d caught me doing my imitation of a therapist, he didn’t react.
She lowered her eyes and addressed the carpet in a voice as flat and melancholy as a foghorn. “There’s no place to start. No beginning. Becca seemed to get a lot of colds, maybe three times as many as the year before. And the fevers. Scary high fevers, where she’d just go limp, with her face flushed and her hair soaked.”
As she spoke, Emily Woodrow lifted a hand to her own hair, as if she were unconsciously feeling for dampness. She left her hand there, forgotten, suspended, and went on.
“One day I kept her home from school, even though she wasn’t running a fever. Her father says—said—I babied her. But the listlessness; it wasn’t like her. I called our doctor. He said bring her in—no appointment, just bring her in—and I was scared.” She swallowed audibly. “For the first time. I was always scared after that. He gave her a quick exam—eyes, ears, throat, heartbeat—and said she seemed okay. She went back to school, but I could tell she wasn’t right. She cried a lot, cried for no reason, and she’d never been a complainer. And then she got a bruise on the inside of her leg, big as an apple, but she couldn’t remember bumping into anything, and it didn’t go away, so I took her back to the doctor—I remember that day. There was such a wind howling; I held her hand. I thought she might blow away. She’d gotten so thin; she’d stopped eating. I bought her whatever she wanted. Pistachio ice cream . . .”
“Go on,” said Donovan.
She shrugged and glanced down at her expensive shoes. “Something was wrong with her blood. Platelets. He sent us to a specialist. And another one. They diagnosed Becca with ALL.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“Acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It’s ninety-five percent curable. That’s the cure rate. Ninety-five percent. They kept telling us that, over and over. When she lost her hair, when she couldn’t eat, not even applesauce like a baby, when she’d throw up every five minutes, too weak to turn her head, so I was afraid she’d choke on her own vomit, they always came back to that. Ninety-five percent.”
I didn’t like the way this was going.
“Mrs. Woodrow,” I said as gently as I could, my voice barely above a whisper, “I’m sorry. Believe me, I am sorry for your loss and your pain. But five percent die. If the cure rate is ninety-five percent, then five percent die.”
Emily Woodrow accorded my observation the same polite interest she might have given if I’d commented on the weather. “At first it didn’t matter. Nothing did. My daughter . . . my only child . . . There had to be a funeral and people came and people went and brought food and took food away. Casseroles and covered chafing dishes. Bread. Pots that steamed but never smelled. Nothing smelled, except the flowers. I didn’t want any flowers. I hate lilies. The first day, they’re beautiful, especially the star lilies, and by the second day, they reek. I remember I couldn’t go to her bedroom. I stood in the hall by her door, but I couldn’t go inside. I remember that. Her chair is at the kitchen table. I won’t let Harold take it away. I want to move, but Harold, my husband—”
Dammit, I ought to keep a box of Kleenex on my desk. She fumbled for tissues in her handbag.
“I was taking pills, medicine. Pills and water, pills and water. Waking and sleeping, waking and sleeping again. I never ate. There’s an oak outside my window. I watched its branches rustle. Empty branches. An empty tree. Dead, but living. Why should it be dead, but living? I thought I heard God talking to me. Just the once. He said—or she said—it was a whispery kind of voice: ‘If you don’t believe in me, it’s because you haven’t suffered enough.’ And I felt almost triumphant, as if I must have found some sort of religion—because I had suffered enough. Not like Becca, but enough.”
I glanced at the therapist, tried to send him the silent urgent message that this was his country, not mine.
“The funny thing is,” she went on, “I made phone calls and commitments. Friends would ring and say, ‘Where were you? Why didn’t you meet us for lunch?’ And I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I had these perfectly sane conversations, talking about books and gardening, and I made plans, and I don’t remember any of it. It was like floating in a fog bank. I never could see or hear anything clearly.
“I spent a lot of time thinking. Brooding. About what I’d done wrong. About why I was being punished. About how I hadn’t listened to her when she first said she wasn’t feeling well, about how I hadn’t taken her to the doctor soon enough, and then about how I must have taken her to the wrong doctor. Keith says I was angry, terribly angry, but I turned my anger inward . . .”
Keith. Not Dr. Donovan. I glanced at his pleasantly earnest, unlined face, and wondered who would choose a shrink so apparently unscarred by life.
Mrs. Woodrow seemed to have run out of steam. Even her hands lay idle in her lap.
“I’m sorry,” I said, again as gently as I could, forming the words with the care a child takes in trying to blow a large soap bubble, “but I don’t know what you want me to do.”
“I’m getting to it,” she snapped, her voice brittle, her eyes staring deeply into mine. “I can’t just tell you cold.”
I was sorry I’d interrupted. I’d seen the photos: the baby, the toddler, the child, the beautiful girl. I’d watched her grow.
“I have a picture in my mind,” the woman said. “And I can’t make it go away.”
She sat for a time, a statue frozen in her chair. Lines appeared and disappeared in her narrow face. Sometimes they seemed deeply etched; sometimes a superficial shading of the light. At the right side of her jaw, a tiny muscle twitched.
“You have to remember how hard it was for me,” she said finally. “I was taking pills, medicine. Did I say that?”
“It’s about the last day, her last day.”
“Did she die at home?” She flinched when I said the word.
“At the hospital,” she said, staring directly into my eyes, holding them with her gaze. “It was her regular chemotherapy session. The doctors had been, well, noncommittal. But encouraging, very encouraging. She was handling everything well . . .”
Her eyes were blue, an icy bottomless lake. “I have this picture in my head. The last day. It went wrong so fast. I was sitting near her, in a beige chair, on the right side of the bed, so close I could stroke her forehead. We were in the regular room, the one with the blue wallpaper. Blue wallpaper, with a white lattice pattern and flowers, yellow-and-gold flowers. Zinnias. I used to stare at the wallpaper when I couldn’t stand watching the pain in Becca’s face. Only for a moment; otherwise, I felt like I was deserting her. But there were times when I’d stare till there were only yellow and blue blotches. It was quiet. The regular nurse was present. She hadn’t had any trouble inserting the IV. Everything was ordinary—if horrible things, if your child’s pain, can ever be ordinary. And then there was a man in white, a man I hadn’t seen before, but he must have been a doctor. Bursting in like that. Yelling. And he pushed me out of the room, shoved me. And through a tiny window, I saw the mask over her face, over Becca’s face. He jammed it over her mouth, her nose. The noise she made, I hear it in my sleep—”
“It’s okay, Emily,” Keith Donovan said quietly. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”
Her silence was more unnerving than her sobs. She sat motionless, staring inward, seeing her child’s last moments with the intensity of a fever dream.
“Where was your daughter treated?” I asked.
The Jonas Hand/Helping Institute, created when the small Jonas Hand Hospital and the even smaller James Helping Institute merged in the late seventies, is housed in a dilapidated building in an area that swings between urban renewal and urban decay, teetering back and forth on the pendulum of local politics, never quite making it into the respectable zone. For years, there’ve been rumors of JHHI closing, or moving, but they’ve always proved false. JHHI endures, the major reason the neighborhood never quite succumbs to gang violence, racism, or sheer neglect. Said to be one of the nation’s top medical centers, it draws patients from as far away as Cairo and Santiago.
The locals bless the hospital for the police presence it commands. Most of them call the place Helping Hand, and believe it was named for some anonymous Good Samaritan. It’s no fly-by-night miracle-cure center, no south-of-the-border laetrile clinic.
Mrs. Woodrow rubbed her temples. “We took her there because of Muir, of course. Because of his reputation.”
I didn’t respond to the name. She looked at me as if I’d missed a cue.
“Dr. Jerome D. Muir,” Emily Woodrow insisted. The name did have a certain familiarity, like a name I might have read once in a newspaper.
“Wouldn’t Children’s Hospital have been the place to go?” I inquired. “Better known?” I’d certainly heard more about Children’s than I’d read about Muir.
“No. No,” Mrs. Woodrow said earnestly. “We checked very carefully. My husband does know doctors. He talked to them. We were afraid of a teaching hospital, of some enormous place where you never know who’s actually doing what. I mean, I realize medical students need to learn, and I know they need to learn on living people with real illnesses, but I thought, no, not on my daughter. So we chose JHHI. Because of Dr. Muir.”
Donovan said, “He’s the best man in the area, maybe in the country.” The woman seemed comforted by his assurance.
I asked, “Was Muir your daughter’s primary physician?”
“Do you think an error was made in your daughter’s medical care?” I asked Mrs. Woodrow.
“I don’t know.”
“Sounds to me like you want a malpractice attorney.”
“I don’t,” she said vehemently. “I can’t and I don’t. My husband is an attorney who works closely with doctors, setting up corporations, partnerships, that kind of thing. I can’t risk his livelihood by starting up a lawsuit based on shadows. I don’t know anything for sure. Maybe I dreamed it. Maybe the drugs I took afterward . . . maybe they altered my perceptions. . . .”
“You must have asked your daughter’s doctor what happened.”
“He explained. He explains, but it doesn’t make sense. He uses words I don’t understand, words with twenty syllables, and the next time I ask, after I’ve looked things up, he uses a different word and says I must have misunderstood him. And lately, he’s always out—on rounds or whatever. And the nurses, they don’t even bother to hide it anymore. They just whisper to each other. ‘It’s her again, the crazy woman.’ ”
A lawyer once told me that more doctors get sued because of rude receptionists than rotten care.
“You lost your daughter,” I said. “That’s enough to make anyone crazy for a while.”
I wondered what Keith Donovan thought about the nontechnical term, crazy.
“Becca looked like me, but she wasn’t like me,” the woman said fiercely. Her jagged nail snagged a beige stocking. She tore it loose, ripping a hole. Didn’t notice. “She was matter-of-fact. She accepted what was. Whatever they did to her, whatever those doctors and nurses did to her, she simply assumed they were doing their best. Even when she was so weak she could hardly talk, she never blamed me. She never blamed anyone. She cried when she couldn’t go to her friend Jessie’s birthday party, but she didn’t cry because she had leukemia. She just wanted them to make her well again. So her hair would grow back, and she could jump rope on the playground. And they said they would, and they didn’t.”
Children died. Parents lived. It broke your heart. Before I could open my mouth to tell her I couldn’t help her, she sped on.
“I want you to tell me, assure me, that nothing, absolutely nothing unusual or odd or wrong went on. I owe that much to Becca. To Becca and myself. I need to hear someone say it, before I can go on.”
“You want me to talk to her doctor?”
She licked her lips, spoke rapidly, softly. “I need to know that everything that could have been done was done, and done right. That no one could have done more. I don’t want to sue anybody. I don’t need money. I have money.”
“I’m not a whiz at medical terminology,” I said.
“I could help with that,” Donovan volunteered.
I turned on him. “Do you think this is necessary? Or wise?”
“You mean, do I think it will help Mrs. Woodrow?”
“Yes,” I snapped, surprised to find myself angry. I didn’t need any psychiatrist to tell me what I meant.
He paused, considering his words. “I think it may help to close off this area, wall up the past. So she can move forward.”
“Move forward,” Emily Woodrow repeated, shaking her head slowly. She kept moving her head back and forth as if she’d forgotten how to stop.
I sucked in a deep breath, tried to find another way to say what I needed to say. Couldn’t. This is what came out: “Mrs. Woodrow, I’m sorry, but I have to say this. Your daughter is dead. What Dr. Donovan means when he says ‘move forward,’ what he means is that no matter what I discover, no matter what I learn, your daughter will still be dead.”
Her eyes closed and she flinched as if I’d hit her. I glanced at Donovan. He inclined his head slightly as if I’d said the right thing, but it didn’t make me feel any better.
She wanted to write out a check immediately. I persuaded her to take a day to look over my standard contract, suggest any changes. I assured her that she could mail me the check.
I don’t usually go out of my way to avoid prompt payment. Usually I demand it, but there was something about this case—probably the woman’s visible pain—that made me want to stall. And what was the hurry? I asked myself. It wasn’t like the events had occurred yesterday.
She teetered on her heels when she stood to leave. Since she had her doctor along, I didn’t feel required to see her out.
When she reappeared in the doorway, clad in her Burberry, her index finger to her lips, I was surprised. Surefooted now, she glided across the room till she was well within whispering range.
“He thinks I’m looking for my glove,” she murmured. “Tell me quickly: Do you own any stocks? Do you speculate?”
“No.” I thought she was probably mad but I answered. It was something in her eyes. An intensity, a brilliance.
“Do you work for yourself?”
“For anyone else?”
“I drive a cab.”
“Green and White.”
“I can check on them. Do you own a gun?”
“Can you use it?”
“Have I what?”
“Used it. Killed with it.”
“Would you do it again?”
“If I had to.”
“What does Cee Co mean to you?”
“Seiko? The watch people?”
She handed me a slim envelope. “This is for you. Keep it. And stay here for me. On hold. Don’t take any other client. You’ll get something in the mail or by messenger. Keep it safe. Keep it for me.”
“Wait. Wait just a minute. Hire a safety deposit box.”
“No. It has to be this way. Please. You have to.” For a moment, her fierce gaze faltered.
“What is Cee Co?” I asked.
She ignored the question.
“Are you in danger?” I asked, louder this time.
“I don’t think so.”
“Why ask about guns? Do you need protection? Are you afraid?”
“Afraid? Afraid of what? There’s nothing to be afraid of now. When you’ve lost everything, there’s nothing left.”
She swiveled her head, as if she’d heard a noise, footsteps. All was quiet.
“No,” she murmured softly, turning to stare at me again. “No, I take that back. You’re right: I am afraid. I’m afraid I’ll forget her someday.” Her voice was a choked whisper, and the words came faster and faster. “Forget the feel of her hair. Forget the moment I named her. Forget the creases under her eyes when she smiled—”
“Did you find it?” Donovan hovered at the door. Instinctively I slid the slim envelope under my blotter, out of sight.
Emily Woodrow, her gait unsteady, yanked a glove from beneath the rocking chair. I hadn’t seen her plant it.
“Here it is,” she said automatically, the mask almost back in place. “Sorry to have troubled you.”
“I’ll be in touch,” I said.
She shot me a warning glance. “This is something I won’t discuss on the telephone. I cannot discuss it over the phone.”
“If you’ll do as I’ve asked,” she said mildly, her fierce eyes hooded, “everything will be fine.”
Sure, I thought.
“Ms. Carlyle,” she said, turning back as she reached the doorway.
“Your little sister—”
Her voice faltered. She bit her lip and took a deep breath before she could go on. “She’s very beautiful.”
LINDA BARNES is the author of ten previous Carlotta Carlyle mysteries and winner of the Anthony and American Mystery Awards. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and son.