A Prescription for Murder (#1)

Ming Zhen Shakya
Ming Zhen Shakya
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A Prescription for Murder

by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)

To see all available chapters of “A Prescription for Murder” click here

Introduction

 

It is generally conceded that times change and with the times, rules change.  If there is truth in this, it surely confines itself to written or codified rules which are easily amended or repealed. The rules that have never been memorialized in ink persist through the ages and do not submit to alteration. Curiously, such rules generally seem to violate our personal sense of decency, and intuitively we want to disobey them for we assume ourselves to be immune to their unpleasant results.  The sad fact is that we cannot appreciate their value until we have broken them.

Nowhere, for example, is it written, and nowhere is it untrue that, “You should not lend money to a friend or relative.” And, “You should never sell your used car to a friend or relative on the installment plan.”  Only those who possess an instinct to gamble – and recklessly at that – or possibly those who are afflicted with a certain masochism that allows them to find pleasure in  dunning the deceitful or in pursuing legal means to force repayment will flout these decrees.

And so it is with the rule, “A doctor should avoid social contacts with patients.”  Persons who are perhaps too busy to make an appointment will use a social occasion to give their physician a detailed account of their urinary problems and expect to receive an accurate diagnosis over canapes.  A physician is likely to find that when greeting a patient his smile will be interpreted as having verified a prognosis of imminent death or of assured recovery.  There are other even more serious reasons for never breaking this unwritten rule, and these became clear to Dr. Karen Presley Breiton, a Phoenix, Arizona cardiologist, in the fall of 2014.

A solitary life that is also lonely is difficult to bear.  Dr. Breiton found herself burdened to the verge of breaking the rule against socializing with patients.  Doctors, she told herself, have human social needs, too.  At the age of 46 she had come to discover that the more time she dedicated to practicing her profession and participating in activities that were directly associated with it – attending the conferences, committees, and seminars – the less time she had to develop relationships through which she could vent the exhausting tensions of the day. When her late husband was home, which was not often, she irritated him with her often grizzly shoptalk.  If she spoke to her mother or her sister Grace, the conversation became a vehicle into which they could load their petty griefs and send them hurtling over the edge of some psychological cliff.  The calamity usually ended with Karen’s writing of a check. Nobody really cared to hear her opinion about a movie, a book, or a political candidate.  When she spoke to other professionals, they were too busy to exchange pleasantries.  When it came to medical talk, they had heard enough of it all day.

She worried about herself since she knew that normal gossip releases the little toxins contained in criticisms of a new hairstyle, or lover, or wayward child, and these little toxins are stored deep in the mind when they are not released; and there they may form a venomous source of neurosis or worse.

Her personality was changing.  She maintained the persona of a physician, but as a woman she was becoming decidedly odd.  She noticed how set in her ways she was, the routines she clung to – never needing an alarm clock to awaken her, never buying anything but the same half-dozen varieties of TV dinners, never dressing more fashionably than last year’s style, and always wearing her hair coiffed in a mode that went into the annals of fashion at least ten years before.  But such concerns did not solve the problem, they only contributed to its symptoms.

Middle-age, she concluded, was a complete misnomer, suggesting as it did a center point, a kind of sun around which the past and future things of life revolved. Increasingly, she found herself far from the center of anything. She was on an outside edge, like one of Notre Dame’s flying buttresses, supporting a roof which no longer sheltered her. And in this position she was vulnerable.

At noon on Wednesday, the last day of September, a patient, Agnes Celine, called Karen Breiton’s office. The doctor, being between patients, told her secretary Marge to put the call through; and Marge followed office procedure by placing the patient’s file on the doctor’s desk.

“This isn’t a professional call,” Agnes said, “it’s purely social.  I haven’t been home to Chetumal in ages, and Marc and I have some papers to sign with a lawyer down there. Marc’s brother Tony is going to be there along with another couple – so Tony suggested that we invite you to complete the sextet.”

“Me? I remember meeting Tony and his wife at some function or other a couple of years ago.  Why would he be suggesting me?”

“He remembers you, too.  Didn’t you know his wife died last year?”

“No.  I’m so out of the loop.  He was a vice president of some bank… and if I remember correctly he had his own investment company.”

“Yes, that’s Tony.  And he’s still handsome… and he’s got all his hair and no belly.  Life can be so pleasant down there this time of year.  The summer tourists have just left so the beaches are empty and you don’t have to wait to be seated at a restaurant.  Chetumal is just a stone’s throw north of Belize and of course there’s marvelous barrier-reef scuba diving if you’re into that sort of thing.  Other than that we have a sailboat… a 32 foot sloop. You’ll have a great time. Please say you’ll join us.”

A social invitation from a patient.  The words of regretful refusal came automatically. “Ah… I don’t think I can. But thanks for thinking of me.”

“You’re not getting off that easy.  Listen… my home down there is famous.  I’m serious. We have a huge exotic garden, a fabulous collection of plants started by my great-grandfather. The old ‘manse’  is a big old house named The Beagle after Darwin’s ship.  You can’t say, ‘No.’  Every human being has to hear the natives call The Beagle, the Bayahglay at least once before he or she dies.  Your time is up.”

“It sounds exciting.  But I’m stuck here with my cats.”

“You can board the cats.  It’ll be wonderful.  Columbus Day is October 12th, a Monday.  We’ll leave here early in the morning, Friday the 9th, and be back Monday evening. You can’t say no. It’s a national holiday.  The beach is beautiful.  You’ll love it.  The house has twelve bedrooms.  You’ll have your own room and bath.”

“I admit that it sounds heavenly.  But I simply can’t…”

“Karen,” Agnes began, assuming the attitude of a mother who is manipulating a child by saying, ‘Well, have it your way…  but then you’ll never see the surprise I have in my hand for you,’ said, “Ok, then… I’ll  go ahead and call the next candidate on my list.  Some other time, perhaps.”  She paused as if she were ending a eulogy. “It was good talking to you.  I’ll see you in a few months for my annual.”

Karen winced.  “I didn’t know Tony Celine’s wife had died.  I’m so out of touch.  How can you be sure we’ll get the same airline reservations?”  Getting away from home with the handsome Anthony Celine? She’d be a fool to pass that up.  Actually, just getting away from home was incentive enough to accept.

“My cousin is a travel agent.  We have the tickets blocked-in.  Business class.  So you needn’t worry about travel expenses.”

“Are you sure he specifically wanted me to come along?” “Good grief! You cannot be so insecure.  Maybe you’re becoming bored with yourself.  The cure, then, is to become a devil-may-care beachcomber. Tony likes to search the sands for oddities. So will you. I guarantee that you will find a new you when you’ve got sand between your toes.”

“What is the weather like in October down there?”

“Iffy.  You need long sleeves.  I cannot lie about mosquitos. And shoes fit for mud… several pairs.  Although… the weather may be absolutely beautiful or it may rain continuously.  That’s the ‘iffy’ part.  Besides, you’ll love being around Tony.  He’s quiet, well-read, loves music, can dance…. What else can you possibly want?”

“Perhaps he’s still in mourning.”

“He remembers her fondly, but he’s not sad.”

Karen broke precedent and agreed to go.  She got the dates and told Marge to clear her appointments – from the 9th through the 13th of October. Then she opened the file to refresh her memory on the patient’s background.

Agnes Rodriguez Celine of Chetumal, Quintana Roo, was a U.S. resident but a citizen of Mexico, who became Karen’s patient in 2001.  Karen had treated her for arrhythmia, specifically bradycardia. Other doctors had recommended a pacemaker, but she adamantly refused the procedure.  She had been grossly overweight and the doctors had apparently thought that without the pacemaker she could die at any time.  She changed doctors.

Karen put her on a special diet and a yoga program and made her come into the office twice a week so that she could closely monitor her progress.  She lost 150 pounds and, particularly because she was young and her skin had not lost its elasticity, returned to what she had been in the years before she attended college and got married: a tall apparently healthy 130 pound woman.  Karen now saw her only twice a year for checkups, but she still considered her an active patient – one with a heart problem that required attention.

“What do I have to lose?” she asked her secretary.  “I could use a change of scenery. It’s a lot of flying for a long weekend, but nuts… I deserve a break. I think I’ll also get rid of this grey hair and get it done ash blonde.  Yes.” She called the stylist that women in Tony Celine’s circle used.

Then she went shopping for clothes.

 

Part 1. The Invitation and Arrival at The Beagle

 

Tony Celine picked Karen up at dawn and they chatted pleasantly as they drove to the airport in Phoenix to meet Agnes and Marc. They changed planes in Mexico City and, joined by Ramona and Dan Duran, a perky couple who appeared to be in their thirties, flew to Chetumal on the Caribbean coast. It was an altogether enjoyable trip.

José, The Beagle’s butler and chauffeur, his present occupation designated by an obsolete Mexican Army officer’s visor cap, picked them up at the airport in a Lincoln sedan. Since Agnes sat on Marc’s lap and Ramona sat on Dan’s, Karen could hardly refuse to sit on Tony’s lap; and the arrangement, though being awkward, made quick friends of everyone as they merrily proceeded to The Beagle.  José called ahead, and the estate gates were open when they drove through them at 9:30 p.m. Friday evening.

Dinner, prepared in accordance with Agnes’s diet, awaited them.  They had gone quickly to their rooms and then were seated in the dining room. Karen saw that all the amateurish oil paintings that were hung on the walls depicted menus that she had ordered for Agnes.  Meatless meals, featuring tofu, oatmeal, steamed vegetables, and the dinner they were now having: fish broiled in olive oil and onions, steamed vegetables, corn tortillas, non-fat yogurt seasoned with vanilla and raisins, and red grapes. For a moment, she felt as though her regimen was being mocked.  “Who’s the artist?” she asked, trying to sound as though she admired the work.

“Guilty,” Marc replied.  “I’m the resident artiste.” He gestured in a deliberately effeminate way that showed off his perfect profile and created a sharp incongruity between his blonde curls and delicate features and the rugged western clothing he wore.  He had traveled in boots, Levis, leather jacket, and a Stetson hat.

The meal was considered a late supper.  After a cup of strong coffee, Marc took everyone on a tour of the exotic garden.  “Agnes’s great-grandfather was a professional explorer,” he explained as he clicked on paneled switches of overhead lamps.  “He really was.  He collected plants, seeds, and shrubs from every part of the world…. from Borneo to Botswana, from Mumbai to Manchuria. He started taking snapshots with an old Kodak Brownie and quickly moved up to a hand-cranked moving picture camera and began a stock-footage film business, and then his son and grandson – Agnes’s father – joined him. By then they were using digital cameras. Between the three of them they photographed every little-known civilization on the planet, recording all the cultural oddities.  They also made money writing articles and consulting on Hollywood films.  But their main interest was medicinal plants.  Even though none of them had academic credentials, many universities would ask for their opinions.  The climate here is perfect and Mexico did not have the ecological laws in place that we have today.   I think they’ve got a dozen different kinds of marijuana, in case you’re interested.”

Agnes added, “There’s a whole section on hallucinogens and poisonous plants.  It’s quite amazing.  Students come down from Vera Cruz, Mexico City, from all over…  just to see the plants in the flesh, so to speak.”

Karen saw a large flower garden with familiar poppy plants.  “How many species of poppy did they bring back?”

“Oddly enough, this variety’s the only one that’s used for making opiates,” Marc said.  “This is “Papaver somniferum which yields the narcotic latex.  They use the bulbs and the stalks although its seeds can send you into dreamland, too.  These came from Thailand.  There are other poppies, but they’ve been bred for floral beauty.”

The entire estate, house and botanical garden, was surrounded by a high wall.  Red and apricot colored bougainvillea draped elegantly over the wall’s top and hid the iron spikes that protruded from the coping.  The estate’s overall layout had followed the old Spanish style.  From the road, which was lined with late-blooming Flamboyant trees, there was nothing but wall to see until the wrought-iron entrance gates came into view.  These gates opened into a courtyard around which the house was built.  A fountain, once used by the inhabitants of all the rooms, now supplied water to the tangled plants that surrounded it and then flowed into an underground culvert that emptied into the street’s gutter. The house, though large, was a “no-nonsense” style brick and had all the architectural flourish of a warehouse.  It was the gate that evidenced the family’s claim to aristocratic heritage. Gilded vines and flowers decorated its iron bars and when the two sides of the gate were closed, the inscription at their top came together to form a name.  As they walked down an alleyway from the garden to the front courtyard, Karen tried to read the name at the top of the gates, but seeing it from the back, the name was indecipherable.  “What does it say?”

“‘Cabeza de Vaca,’ which is an old and honored Spanish name,” Marc said.  “Agnes says hat it comes from one of her ancestresses… who showed the King of Spain a way to get across a high mountain pass and enabled him to win an important victory over the Muslims.  The pass was marked with the head of a cow and so the king said that her family should forever use that quaint appellation.  She has another name, her maiden name:  Rodríguez.”

“Ah,” Karen sighed as she now was able to read the name that topped the gate.   “Like the bullfighter Manolete. And what, as long as I’m showing my ignorance, were those gorgeous red flowering trees that lined the street?”

“They’ve got dozens of names.  We call them Flamboyant trees or Poinciana.  In Belize they’re called “Marriage trees.”

“How so?”

“They begin with these lovely flowers and then the seed pods come… enormous wooden pods that can hit your head like a rolling pin if you’re unlucky enough to be standing underneath one when it falls.”  And then he added, as if repeating a private joke, “And it’s always the husband who gets reality’s blunt force trauma.”

Agnes looked sideways at him and responded. “But Marc so rarely walks anywhere that he doesn’t have to worry about that particular death trap.” Her mouth contorted into an ugly smirk.

“There are others.”  She walked on and smiled. “As you can see by the buttresses every ten feet or so, the wall is unusually high… eight feet. My grandfather had tons of bricks imported from Jamaica.  There’s no red clay around here.  Everything is that ugly grey. The Crystal Palace had once been all the rage.  He admired it and would have loved to construct a glass house – but trying to enclose any collection in glass was out of the question… hurricanes batter the coast with depressing regularity.  He wanted to prevent cross pollination and, foolish as it seems, keeping the wall high couldn’t stop the wind, but it did create a barrier for pollen carried by animals. It also prevented people from wandering in.”

Marc added, “The original house was rather ramshackle and it seemed peculiar to have a tacky house surrounded by such a sturdy wall, so he rebuilt it later to accommodate such modern conveniences as plumbing, electricity, and the automobile. Although God knows, there weren’t many cars around in those days.”

They crossed in front of the house and returned to the garden through the alleyway on the opposite side.  A long rectangular section was devoted to housing machinery. “The garage,” Marc said, “as you can see, is wood. I bet you want to know what kind of cars are in there.  An old Bugatti?  No.  Nothing so rare.  Just my new Buick and the twenty year old Lincoln that brought us home from the airport.  It dates from when Agnes’ grandmother lived here. She weighed a ton,” he scoffed in an unpleasant way, “a ton more than Agnes in those days. It was either a Lincoln or a John Deere.  We chose the Lincoln. It does come in handy when we have heavy guests.”  Beyond the enclosed garages was a covered area which sheltered a Jeep and various implements: post hole diggers, roto-tillers and other machinery that Karen could not identify.

It began to rain, suddenly and hard. While the others returned to the drawing room for a nightcap, Marc stayed to shut down the lighting.  Wet, he quickly changed his clothes and joined them; and then, as the mantlepiece clock chimed eleven, someone pounded on the front door.

José, now bareheaded and wearing the white jacket of a butler, began a heated conversation with a woman who was begging for a physician’s help. Even accounting for dialectical differences and the distance that obliterated many words, Karen was able to understand her problem and assumed that she would be immediately summoned.  Instead, Marc went into the foyer and told the woman to take her husband into Chetumal.  He spoke Spanish. “We can’t help you here.  Take him to the hospital.”  But the woman persisted, and, calling Marc, “Don Marco,” begged him and José to remember that there was no bus or ambulance that would come. Her husband’s leg had gotten worse since she first asked to see the physician.  Marc repeated that he was sorry but there was no one there who could help her.

Certain phrases are commonly understood in the Arizona medical community even by people who can’t speak Spanish fluently.  Karen distinctly heard the woman say, “El doctor ya se fue y mi esposo está aún peor.” The woman’s voice grew more desperate.  “Como le dije antes, él se cortó con un machete. Su pierna está infectada. Ya no es capaz de caminar.”  She complained about the rain and mud and Marc replied that she had had plenty of time to take him to the hospital before it rained.  He summarily dismissed her and directed José to open the front door, but she continued to beg.  Karen left the drawing room and was disturbed to see the woman, who was much younger than she had expected, kneeling at Marc’s feet in the foyer, begging him to let her see the doctor.

“Necesitas ayuda?” Karen asked.

“Oh, Doctor!” the woman said, putting the accent on the first syllable, “doc,” instead of the second syllable as it was normally pronounced in Spanish. In perfect English with a tony accent, she repeated that while he was “in the bush” her husband had been cut by a machete, and it had taken him nearly five days to get home and in that time his wound had gotten infected.  He was in great pain and could not walk.

Marc grew agitated. “Look,” he said, “the man needs to be taken to the hospital – which is where he should have gone immediately.”

Karen looked at Marc and then José.  “It sounds serious.  Do you have any antibiotics in the house?”

“No. We don’t run a drug store here.” Marc did not attempt to soften his response.  Instead, he grew angrier. “There’s always something with these people! It’s after eleven o’clock.  They wait all day hoping that things will improve and when they don’t, and it’s their sleep that’s being disturbed, they send for a doctor.”

The woman continued to beg. “Please, Don Marco!”

Karen drew Marc aside.  “Marc,” she whispered plaintively, “I’m the one who took the Hippocratic Oath.  I can drive a Jeep. Just let me take a minute to change my clothes and, if you’ll be kind enough to have the Jeep brought around, I’ll go with her and even take her and her husband into the City hospital.  We needn’t disturb you, Agnes, or the other guests. She can’t hear what I’m saying, so I’m not putting you on the spot.  If you say no, then it’s no.”

“You’ve pretty much made that impossible,” Marc said. “She’s not a fool.  She knows what you’re asking me.” He spoke without any note of rancor in his voice. He turned to the woman and explained that he and the doctor would take her home in the Jeep and see what could be done to help.

The woman thanked Karen for her help.  “You are so kind,” she added.

As Karen went upstairs to change her clothes, she looked at a portrait that she had only glanced at before.  An enormous old woman, almost a caricature of a fat dowager, sat posed in an elaborate gilded chair wearing a kind of Winston Churchill expression of determined force.  Marc went directly out to the garage.

The Jeep was filthy with old caked mud that had become slimy in the wind-blown rain. Disgustedly, he returned to the house. “Miguel!” he shouted for the houseboy. He turned to Karen to explain, “I’m wearing a white dinner jacket, so I’m not in a position even to get into the driver’s seat and bring it around front much less change the flat tire it’s got.”  He turned to his other guests and snapped, “Excuse me, everyone.  It seems I have to play highway repairman.  With a little luck I’ll find some overalls!” He went upstairs, meeting Karen on the stairway as she came down suitably dressed for rain and mud.

José went into the dining room and spoke privately to Agnes.  “Yes,” she responded, “get the staff to make up a basket of our dinner leftovers… plus a few rashers of bacon and a tin of biscuits.  She probably hasn’t eaten all day.”

Karen and the woman whose name, she learned, was Clara, went into the garage and saw the Jeep with its right front tire flat.  This was the side of the Jeep she had seen when she looked at it earlier. The tire had not been flat then.  But she thought that between the overhead lights that were dimmed by so many swarming insects and the driver’s side being on the right side in the British style, she might have been mistaken.  Miguel came to the garage and with a brush began to remove the mud that caked the wheel hub. He began to look for a jack.  He moved quickly but could not find the jack.  She looked at her watch. It was 11:40.  Apprehensively, she looked at the house.  “What’s taking him so long?” she asked, expecting no answer from Clara who was pacing back and forth, anxiously biting her knuckles.

Miguel finally found the jack and raised the front of the chassis.  Now he began to look for a lug wrench.  At midnight, Marc appeared, dressed for a safari.  Incredibly, he wore a perfectly cocked Australian “slouch” hat; and while he looked as handsome as a catalog model, the idea that he would take the time to defer to his sartorial standards while a man lay in agony waiting for him, was breathtaking in its narcissism.  A kitchen maid, carrying a food basket, followed him into the garage.

Marc located the lug wrench and directed Miguel to loosen the wheel nuts which seemed to have been welded in place. He struggled until, at 12:30, the wheel was off and Miguel could begin the seemingly complicated task of pulling the inner tube from the tire away from the tire and rim.  “There’s a hole in the tube,” Marc said, matter-of-factly.  “I have to find it.”

“Have you no spare tire?” Karen asked.

“If I had one, don’t you think I would have used it?” he retorted.  Using a hand pump, Miguel filled the tube with air and tried to feel leaking air; but he could detect no tell-tale puff.  “Well,” Marc said, irritated, “we’ll need to fill a tub with water.”  Clara and Karen looked at each other, not knowing what to say to hurry the repair along.  As the tub slowly filled, Clara continued to pace back and forth, gnawing her fist in despair.

By 1:30 a.m. the patched inner tube was inserted into the old fashioned tire and rim.  Then, with a hand pump, Miguel began to inflate the tube.  It was nearly 2 o’clock when Marc announced that they were ready to go.

The rain was torrential.

Part 2: A Detective Responds

 

The Beagle was situated near a busy waterway, the delta of the Honda River and the seaport of Chetumal.  A hundred years before, except for scattered Indian villages the area was virtually uninhabited; but now many commercial vessels bound for Belize’s burgeoning markets clogged the seafront and waterways.  Frequent and fierce hurricanes had driven the Indian communities inland, and though the hacienda’s solid brick walls and secured slate roof could withstand even the worst storms, at night, in every season, the sounds of fog horns, ship’s bells, and grunting engines invaded the screened windows.

Especially in the rear of the house, the side that adjoined the huge garden, the noise at night was  unbearable.  The inland safety of the Indian villages left a ten-mile wide swath of jungle which remained the habitat of howler monkeys and other nocturnal creatures that saw the eight-foot high wall as a simple challenge rather than an obstacle.  Often troops of spider monkeys would come over the wall to eat the fruits of the various trees or just to amuse themselves in the forbidden Eden.  No one had ever seen a large cat in the garden but so loud were the snarls, growls, and roars of what must have been jaguar and puma, or even smaller margay that no one doubted their nearness.

The Jeep proceeded slowly on the jungle trail, stopping often to let a boa constrictor or caiman move out of its way.  “Smaller animals run from an oncoming car,” Marc explained, “but the reptiles and amphibians are too damned stupid to get out of the way.  You can’t just nudge them. I’ve known caiman to bite through a tire and contrary to many people’s opinions, constrictors have teeth; and to have one of them whip its head around is not a pleasant proposition. So we beep the horn or rev the engine and wait.”

Clara and her husband Paolo lived in the village of Xecalitza that was separated from Chetumal by one of the Honda’s tributaries. Their house was an Indian-style one-room house that departed from tradition by having a ceramic tile floor except that in the room’s center there was a circular dirt fire pit that had been edged with chunks of limestone and various clay and metal cooking implements.  It had a thick conical thatched roof that amazingly kept the water from dripping down into the room, although when they entered and turned up the oil lamp, Karen saw a rat run along one the ceiling beams.

The sick man lay on a bed at the side of the room.  Mosquito netting surrounded the area of his bed but did nothing to dispel the stench of his pus-filled wound.  Karen lifted the netting and observed the flesh, discolored even in the lamplight. The cut was just above the knee, on the outer side of his leg. The entire area around the cut was swollen, leaving a gaping wound. There were other bruises and injuries she could not examine under such conditions.  She felt his pulse and was disturbed to find that it was extremely weak and also that he was completely unresponsive to her presence. Instinctively she lay the back of her fingers against his cheek.  “He’s burning up,” she said, lapsing into laymen’s terms.

Inadvertently, while lifting the net, she disturbed one of the props that prevented the net from drooping onto the bed.  It was a strange long pole and as she repositioned it, she saw that it was a  blow gun.   Marc saw her looking at it and said, “They use a blowgun to kill monkeys, sloths, and birds and an occasional snake. It’s their major source of protein.”

“This man must be taken to a hospital immediately,” Karen announced.

“Then this Jeep,” Marc said in a childish imitation, pointing at the Jeep that was half sheltered by the overhanging porch roof, “must either fly or swim to do so.  And since it cannot do either, it cannot cross the overflowing river that lies between this house and the outskirts of Chetumal.”

“There is a farmacia this side of the river,” Clara said.  “The curandero sent us to get medicine for Paolo there, but it didn’t help.”

“What medicine?” Karen asked.

Clara went to a table and brought two bottles of pills.  “These,” she said, handing them to Karen. “He also gave us penicillin pills, but Paolo threw them up.  He was so nauseous.”

Karen could not read the first label. “What is this stuff?” she asked.

Marc looked at the bottles and read, “It’s some kind of colon cleanse.  The other is quinine sulfate.”

From a dark corner of the room, an elderly woman who was rocking a baby suddenly called out, “Tiene paludismo.”

Karen looked at the labels incredulously. “Malaria?  Was he having an attack?”

The woman answered, “No. No tuvo un ataque.”

Karen stood in the center of the room. “Look!” she said aloud.  “He needs antibiotics and he needs hot wet compresses applied continuously.” She turned to Marc.  “Tell them how to use towels to apply hot wet compresses, one after the other.  It will draw out the pus and give him some relief. He needs to be awakened and given fluids.”

Marc Celine gave the instructions in Spanish. “What now?” he asked Karen.

“Let’s get to that pharmacy.” She turned to Marc who was still looking at the sick man. “Marc!” she called, “if we can’t get him to the hospital then we have to give him shots of tetracycline or penicillin… the best antibiotics the pharmacist has.  Meanwhile, tell them to get started with the hot-water compresses and the fluids.”  She lowered her voice.  “I’m in no position to debride the wound… but if we can keep him alive until the river lowers, they can do that at the hospital.”

Surprisingly, Clara insisted on accompanying them to the pharmacy. There was a large locked box that took up the width of the Jeep behind the two front seats, and it was necessary for Clara to sit against the tailgate. When Karen asked if she wouldn’t feel more useful helping her mother to change the compresses and keep the water at the right hot temperature, Clara merely shook her head.  “She’s not my mother,” she said. To Karen, the correction as well as the refusal were just two more instances of an implausible if not bizarre event.  “How did your husband get injured?” she asked.

“He was hunting javelina and came upon some tomb robbers.  They try to kill any person who discovers them for fear that he will go back and tell the authorities.  So they attacked Paolo.  He was lucky to get away with only a cut to his leg.  But it made walking back so difficult.  He didn’t get home for nearly five days.  The wound was already badly infected.”

Under his breath, Marc leaned towards Karen and said, “Believe that and I’ve got a bridge to sell you in Tampico.”

“Why didn’t he go directly to the hospital?” Karen asked.

Marc whispered with childish agitation. “Because the story is more than likely that he was the one doing the tomb robbing and if the police sent men to investigate, they’d probably encounter a few archeologists who would relate how they had to fight off a grave robber.”

“Oh,” Karen said, tending to believe his version.

Clara decided to answer.  “Because our house was directly on his route.  The hospital is several kilometers away.”

Marc, Karen could tell by the tone of his voice, did not like to be contradicted.  “I’m having second thoughts about making this futile trip,” he said, continuing in his bratty voice. “The drug store closes at 10 p.m. The canvas roof on this contraption is worthless.  I’m soaked.”

The drug store was, as expected, closed.  Karen pounded on the door, hoping that someone lived inside.  The owner was, in fact, in residence.  He yelled to them that if they did not leave immediately he would call the police.  Marc turned to her and asked, “Are you happy now?”    Karen continued to bang on the door and the owner called the police.

Fifteen minutes later, an irritated plainclothes officer drove up in a large-wheeled pickup truck.  He rolled down the window, greeted Marc and Clara, and asked what the problem was.  Marc explained that the woman with them was an American doctor who needed a certain kind of medicine. The shop owner opened the front door and began to shake his fist at Karen as he shouted insults. Marc ignored him and made the introductions: “Karen this is Inspector Detective Juan Ruiz-Montoya.  Juan, Dr. Karen Breiton of Phoenix, Arizona.”

The detective looked at his watch.  In Spanish, he asked Marc why “La Belle Karen” couldn’t wait a few more hours and come when the place was open.  “Se had cerrado desde diez! Se abrirá a las ocho en punto.”

“You look like an educated man,” Karen said in an unfriendly tone.  “Can you speak English?”

“Yes,” he countered.  “Can you tell time?”

“Don’t be a smart-ass,” she said. “This woman’s husband has a critically infected leg…. a machete cut.  He should be taken to a hospital but I understand the river is at flood stage. He’s close to death.  They have a baby.  I need antibiotics and I need them immediately.  A syringe and needle, too.”

The detective got out of the pickup and talked to the pharmacist.  He lamented the great nuisance gringas invariably were and that it would probably be easier on everyone if the owner got the medicine she wanted.  It was then discovered that no one except the detective had any money.  Ruiz-Montoya took out his wallet and turned to Karen, “Doctor, you are in my debt.”

“I won’t forget it.”  She noticed that he was tall and rather handsome.

He caught her looking at him and asked, “Is something wrong?”

“No.  I was just thinking that you like a younger version of the Dos Equis man.”

“In fact, he is my son.  He married a gringa.”

As she climbed into the Jeep with the medicine, he shouted, “Doctor Karen, if I’m ever up your way and it’s the middle of the night and I need a doctor,  I know you won’t mind if I call you.”

“That depends on what is wrong with you,” she said, grinning.

He was still laughing as Marc started the Jeep and pulled away.

They arrived at Clara’s house at 3:30 a.m.  Paolo had died at 3.  Karen noticed that the baby was in some kind of hammock and that the old woman was crying as she prepared a bottle of milk for him.  Wet towels, obviously used as compresses, hung on a line to dry.  “Tell her I’ll be back tomorrow with some baby formula,” she said, turning away because she feared that she might start to cry, too.  She went outside and sat in the Jeep.

Marc came out of the house and got into the driver’s seat.  “Damned shame,” he said, starting the engine.

At the hacienda, Karen stripped off her muddy clothes and took a tranquilizer. She was exhausted but she was also angry.  Marc, she thought, didn’t have to be so negative and so bloody slow.

The suspicion strengthened until she promised herself that in the morning she would look in the garage. She had seen a stack of old tires… old cleated mud tires, and boxes that contained new inner tubes.  She’d find out if one of them fit the Jeep.  “Nobody can be so negative unless they’ve got an agenda,” she whispered to herself.  “And what the hell did Clara mean when she said that the doctor had returned?”  Clearly, Clara had been there earlier and at least Marc knew of it.  “Why had he said nothing?” she asked herself.

She lay awake for more than an hour, agitated by the inexplicable events and the noise of the passing ships until fatigue finally overtook calamity and she fell into a fitful sleep.

 

Karen’s life, until that night, had seemed untroubled, but in fact was not a happy life. The domestic relationships to which she had once been bound had vanished leaving her to drag their useless chains with her wherever she went. No one, she had learned, is ever free from the people, places, and things to which a strong attachment had once existed.

As Karen Presley she had married Henri Breiton, a pre-med classmate who had emigrated from France. He failed to pass the MCAT (a medical college admission’s test) and could not get into medical school, a failure which did allow him to discover the inferiorities of the American medical establishment and the detailed inadequacies of those who had a talent for mediocrity. He obtained his bachelor of science degree, and seemed never to be able to find a job that did not require him to bemean his dignity by filling out an application form, a sacrifice of honor to which he would not consent. As with Aesop’s Fox and Sour Grapes, it became increasingly difficult to conceal from his wife how she and her medical studies oppressed him.   He found it repugnant even to dine with someone who had touched a corpse that day, and then had touched one recently, and then had ever so much as been curious about a cadaver.  Only the refined taste of creme patissiere stuffed into the eclairs produced daily by a specialty bakery that was located half a block from their apartment could divert his palate’s attention sufficiently to allow a discussion of food.

Karen occasionally suspected that it was a compensating sense of the macabre that made him amorous; but she was too taxed with histology and biochemistry to give the suspicion any serious thought.  Pregnant, unexpectedly, she delivered her daughter Amalie late in August and was able to return for her second year of medical school without missing a lecture. Both parents had gained fifty pounds by this time.  She lost her excess weight within a few months.  He stayed home to watch television and to care for their daughter to whom he spoke nothing but French.  A chance viewing of Clouzot’s film, Diabolique, inspired in him an interest in film.  Photography, not being the exercise in frontal still-life he had supposed it to be, introduced the concept of angled viewpoints.  He ended his embryonic career in cinematography when he fell fifteen feet from an oak tree as he tried to climb high enough to capture the overhead view of squirrels in conflict during the autumnal dwindling of edible acorns.

Henri became their daughter Amalie’s wheelchair nanny, one who taught her an aristocratic level of Parisian French and the dogma and tenets of Auguste Escoffier’s gastric religion, the god of which could be worshipped properly only in the Hotel Ritz.  His parents, who now resided in suburban Paris, regularly sent VHS tapes of French Films and French cartoons and children’s shows.  Karen would return home exhausted after twenty-four hour shifts of “ward” duty and try to speak to her daughter in ways that suggested the scenes between Katherine of Valois and Alice in Shakespeare’s Henry V. “La main, de hand; les doigts, de fangres.”  Even Henri’s hand-picked cleaning lady who twice a week brought order to their wardrobes and dwelling, was from the Louisiana Bayou and spoke a Cajun French that Amalie quickly learned to understand.

It was an old story. He took their daughter to his father’s funeral – a service which Karen could not attend due to a series of conferences she was committed to attending – and then he launched a series of excuses to delay returning home.  His mother absolutely required his and Amalie’s comforting presence. It naturally followed that Amalie was enrolled in a conservative private school that regarded English, especially the American variant, as vulgar in its entirety as any four letter word scrawled on a graffiti covered wall.  Henri’s mother continued to pay the bills as Karen finished her residency in cardiology in Arizona, where the prevailing second language was Spanish – not French.

It often comes as a surprise to learn that accommodations we have made, sanguine in the assumption that we were acting to the benefit of all, were, in actuality, choices that constituted permanent concessions made against our own interests.  Henri did not want a divorce and apparently found the ambiance of Paris, which Karen found somewhat tinged with urine, sufficiently pleasant to overwhelm the coarser considerations of her profession.   She received cards, gifts, and flowers on Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, and her October birthday.  She spent agonizing Christmas holidays with her family in France, but always returned to her private practice in Arizona. Despite trying to learn French from books and cassette lessons, she could never follow a conversation in real life.  In normal speech, the words were spoken so rapidly that she felt as though she were grasping at smoke.

Most of all, she dreaded stilted conversations with her own daughter to whom she could not speak a coherent sentence in French and whose English was unintelligible.  She begged Henri to insist to Amalie’s teachers that she be given better instruction in English.  And while he always agreed that he would do this, Amalie instead mastered Italian and German.

Originally, it had been Madame Breiton’s intention to move to Phoenix so that she and her husband could oversee the care of her son and supervise the raising of her only grandchild. (It was essential that baby Amalie become a proper upper-class young French gentlewoman.)  She secretly contacted a real estate agency to locate a large house in the affluent Scottsdale community, just east of Phoenix.  The agency found the perfect home which she purchased, deeding it to Henri and Karen as Joint Tenants.  She wisely understood that if she put the house in her name alone, her “guests” could move out at will.  By putting her house in their names, they could neither leave their own home nor, in considerations of gratitude, ask her to leave.  In such a way, she would receive the attentions of an important guest while retaining the host’s control.  Had she anticipated the ease with which she was able to entice Henri and Amalie to remain with her in Paris, she would certainly not have bothered.  She instructed the real estate agency to represent her interests and manage the property. It was quickly and quietly leased to a group of old ladies.

Nature has a way of evening scores.  The Arizona climate, which Henri had often decried, had a salubrity that France could not replicate.  After one particularly damp Parisian winter, Henri, a heavy smoker, caught a cold which became pneumonia, and despite the valiant attempts of his physicians, he died.  He was buried in France.  Karen attended the funeral.  Her sixteen-year-old daughter wept and dressed like the widow.  Some people actually thought she was.  Karen stood on the sideline in a black suit and had the distinct impression that some of the mourners regarded her as a member of the mortuary’s staff.   Amalie, sixteen and stubborn, refused to return to the U.S.  Karen consulted the family attorney who advised her that any legal attempt she made to force her daughter’s return would drag on until the girl attained majority.  “Why,” he asked, “would you make an enemy of her?  Though geographically distant, she is still your daughter. She is also an American citizen.  Do you want her to change her nationality?  She can always come and live with you. You own a large home in Phoenix – exclusively, now that Henri is dead.”

This was news to Karen. “Can you give me more details about this house?” she asked.  It was then that she learned its address in Scottsdale and the name of the agency that managed it.  The news of this possession confounded her.  “Why had no one told me of its existence?” she asked.  The attorney clarified the issue.  “It was Madame’s intention to help you care for Henri there in Phoenix. She preferred to think of herself as a guest in your house than have you consider yourselves a guest in hers.  But then…Henri came to Paris. So she let the agent rent it.   Things happen, No?”

No, Karen thought.  Things like this just didn’t happen. But she smiled and nodded.  “Yes, I guess they do.”

“At any rate, it is yours now… not by bequest or any other instrument. You and Henri owned it as Joint Tenants which gives you the right of survivorship.  Somewhere along the way you must have signed a paper that seemed inconsequential to you. Well, since the agency corresponded faithfully with Madame and the taxes were paid and the rents collected, that’s where everything stood.  I’m afraid the house is now your concern.  You can deal with the agency or handle matters yourself.”

When she returned to Phoenix, she drove immediately to the house and found it not only a beautiful house but one which was much closer to her office and the hospital to which she admitted her patients.  It was currently being advertised for rent.  She contacted the agency and ended the contractual relationship.  She notified the owners of her apartment of her intention to vacate and moved into her own home.  Yet, in her new home she felt as she had always felt… the occupant of a house that was haunted, not by ghosts that targeted her for their mischief, but a host of indifferent ghosts that she could neither vivify nor expel.

From the funeral service on, the perfunctory communications from her daughter plunged from monthly videocalls to greeting cards with an occasional photo to prove growth – should anyone express an interest.  Amalie married.  Karen attended the ceremony and reception.  The hugs and kisses were genuine and the happy photographs did not deceive.  But the communications dwindled after Amalie had two boys, and one day it occurred to Karen that she couldn’t pick her grandsons out of a lineup – if they were ever put in one.   She consulted a psychologist.

“My cat Milvis and I are ‘home-front exiles,'” she said. “And he only stays with me because I feed him. We have a contractual relationship.”

“Don’t sell animals too short,” the doctor advised.  “I’ve known pets who stay with their owners and starve with them or drown with them.  Human relationships are often based upon this kind of contract.  The lover gives tangible goods and services and expects the beloved to give intangible companionship and love in return.  I need not tell you that this attempt to cross-breed sacrifice with love produces only mule or capon relationships.”  She sniffed.  “Any expectations we have prove to be sterile. But your problem seems to have more to do with having zero contracts.  Are you uncomfortable around people?”

“People, no.  I get along well with people.  I just can’t find… well… it sounds so stupid, but I just can’t find anybody to love.”  She said it.  There.  That was the problem. “And,” she added, “I’m not in a position to gab with girlfriends at a Tupperware party or a coffee klatch. I don’t know any women with whom I can gab.”

“Divorcees,” the psychologist sympathized, “have it so much easier.  They have a ready-made list of relatives to gripe and gossip about.  But a widow, I fear, is doomed.  In conversational gamesmanship, a suit of interfering in-laws is always trump.”

“But that assumes one has a circle of friends with whom to gossip.”

“Yes, it does. Doesn’t it?  I suggest that you find something you like to do or always wished you knew more about… raising miniature roses or African violets… or orchids.  Take up photography… or ceramics – there is such a thrill about having one’s fingers in clay – or one of those weaving machines.  I have a friend who has one.  She’s Navajo and though she weaves on a mechanical loom instead of one of those back strap Indian contraptions, she still can produce exquisite and authentic Navajo rugs and blankets.  It all depends on the quality of the wool you use. There are so many grades.”

“Yes, many… qualities.”

She paid the psychologist’s consultation fee, finding yet another reason for being friendless.

She brooded even more about being alone.  She tried the suggested nostrums: she tried to get interested in African violets. They were not good companions.  Ceramics left her hands and cuticles so dry and brittle that a dermatologist at the hospital prescribed hand lotion and told her to wear no-thrill gloves when working with clay.

She strolled through museums and found the pictures pretty – for the most part.  She went to  church functions and chautaugua type university lectures.  She’d enter alone, praying that she’d leave, chatting happily with an eligible bachelor.  What she found were hard-up men seeking to prey on any one of dozens of women like her: single and financially successful – hosts for the parasitic.

In the Spring of 2014 everything changed. Her mother and mother-in-law – who had formed a strange but close friendship – decided to visit Karen “for a few weeks or so,” a visit Karen at first welcomed.

Without telling Karen, her mother had taken a Berlitz course in French and then had studied the language in a “continuing education” class given at a community college. She also managed to squander her savings going to visit Madame Breiton and Amalie in Paris. Adele Breiton welcomed the visits since she, being somewhat bereft of Euros, found the injection of dollars helpful.  Adele learned conversational English and the two women more or less conversed in both languages.

What was more amazing to Karen was that two disparate and disagreeable women got along well and joined a bridge club, went to the movies once a week, dabbled in costume design, and tried to raise six different bonsai trees. Her mother asked if she could borrow Karen’s charge account for a trip that she and Adele planned to make to New York to attend a fashion show.  Karen said, “Of course,” and provided the necessary plastic.  Both women bought expensive clothes on Karen’s charge account and went to expensive hotels while they attended horse races at Belmont Park.  When they returned, Karen found herself thousands of dollars in debt. As peope who are in debt to someone are inclined to do, they became irascible and treated Karen contumeliously. Not a day passed but they had stern advice about how she should improve her life, environment, personal appearance, and rid herself of the inclination to spend money on unnecessary things.  She resisted and they, like some law of momentum in physics, met her resistance, and with equal force transmitted it back to her.

The absence of friends – male or female – created a vacuum which seemed to suck-in all her rational thoughts.  Initially she responded to their cold stares and complaints by escaping to her bedroom in which she had installed a small refrigerator and microwave.  When she began talking aloud to herself in the mirror about getting her own place, she knew she had crossed into a forbidden zone.  She went downstairs and announced, “I need time to be alone, so I’m afraid the two of you will have to visit someone else.  And soon.  I think you should start packing now.  The subject is not up for negotiation.”  She would later be told that it is not always so easy to get rid of unwanted house guests.  But this time, the simple instruction to vacate the premises worked.

A starving kitten came into her back yard; and Adele tried to chase it away.  Karen ran after it and brought it into the house and began to feed it.

“Zat is an alley chat,” said Adele disdainfully, “un orphelin.”

“I love orphelins,” Karen replied.  “Do you require help in packing?”

Go to Issue #2