A Prescription for Murder (#4)
To see more literature about Zen and the Art of Investigation:
A Prescription for Murder
by Anthony Wolff (Ming Zhen Shakya)
Part 7: The Obscene Gallery
On Tuesday morning Karen learned that though she was not yet officially permitted to leave, she was not likely to be charged with any crime. Agnes’s death had been ruled accidental, with a parenthesis that said “medical misadventure.” The unofficial complaint was gross negligence in treating her friend and patient Agnes Celine, which constituted a civil action that, Marc lamented, several lawyers had advised him to take.
Marc and Tony were working in the downstairs office when Juan called Karen to ask about the paintings. “Any luck?”
“We can’t go up to the attic while Marc and Tony are in the house.”
“Leave it to me,” he answered. “Call me when they leave.”
Five minutes later Juan’s superior called Marc and asked if he and Tony would drive into the city to clear up some last minute details. Everything had happened so quickly and he needed a few more papers to be signed. Marc and Tony assured the captain that they’d be there as soon as they dropped Ramona and Dan Duran off at the Airport.
From her bedroom window Karen watched the two men drive off in the Buick. She called Juan. “They’re on their way. I’ll go up to the attic with Louisa. I’ll let you know what I see. I’ll take notes just for you.”
Louisa held up an old ring of keys. “I got them from José,” she explained. She went to a far door in the attic and began to try them in the lock. Finally one fit and the lock opened. She turned the door knob, pushed the door, and looked inside. “Here they are!” she exclaimed.
The paintings were all on individual easels and each had a large drop cloth covering it. She removed the first. It was a horrendous painting of fat Agnes. She was naked and completely filled the large overstuffed chair she sat in. Rolls of belly fat like unbaked baguettes lay one atop the other from her chin down to her ankles. She was fatter than she appeared in her graduation pictures. Marc had depicted her in the act of eating obscenely designed pastries. A penis eclair, anatomically correct, even to the scrotum that she retained in her hand, was in her mouth and her slitted eyes gleamed with pleasure as the custard filling ran down the many folds of her neck.
Shocked, Karen asked, “Did Agnes ever see this?”
“Yes, or so I was informed. José told the chef and the chef told Clara. Look at the window in the background. It’s Marco’s office window. You can see The Beagle’s gardens. You’ll see the same background in most of them.”
“And she didn’t try to destroy it?” Karen recovered the portrait.
“I heard that she had already destroyed hundreds of his child pornography photographs and made a deal with him that if he’d stop engaging in such pornographic stuff, she’d pose for him. So she posed. He lied. She later found kiddy porn in his desk. Since he broke their agreement she insisted that he destroy the painting. He made a quick copy which he burned in front of her out in the courtyard. This is the original. He hid it here in the attic. They moved to Arizona and then he and Tony started doing those investment seminars. Marc thought he had the only key. But José used to put some of her grandfather’s stuff up there and he had a key, too. She never knew that he kept her portrait.”
“When was this?”
“Maybe twenty years ago… when she lost the baby. And if you want to know how I know all this it’s because their previous chambermaid – she lives in Columbia now – did a lot of gossiping after Marc fired her. She wouldn’t play his games, if you get my drift. I asked José and he said it was true but that I shouldn’t talk about it.”
“I understand. Didn’t Agnes ever come up here?”
“No. I’ve never known her to come up. There were rats up here and then a colony of bats. She was scared to death of this attic.”
They moved to another easel. Louisa pulled off the covering. “This is the painting you were asking about. It was the last painting he did. Look in the background.”
Marc had painted a cradle with an infant’s arms and hands sticking up from the cradle’s side as if they were trying to grasp something. It struck Karen as the typical gesture an infant makes when it is hungry. Milk dripped from her nipples. Her hands were clasped behind her neck. Whether they were tied there, Karen could not tell. “This is outrageous.” She recovered the portrait.
They looked at several others. The portraits were all obscene or weirdly sadistic. “Here’s one of your policeman’s wife,” Louisa said, walking to the corner of the room. Karen’s eyes widened.
Louisa removed the cloth covering to reveal Maria Ruiz in the act of masturbating with an instrument of some kind. She was a beautiful blonde, but her lascivious expression was startling. “This is Maria Ruiz?” Karen gasped. The blue-eyed woman was about twenty-five years old. “Marc’s eyes are brown, aren’t they?”
“Oh, yes… he’s the ‘missing link.'” She laughed. “But I don’t think Ruiz knows who her lover was. He was in la-la land, I guess. He treated the kids like his own. They no more looked like him than if they were Martians. Stupid. You saw him the way he talked to Miguel. He’s got a mental problem.” She made circles around her ear with her index finger, indicating “crazy.” Then she recovered the portrait.
Karen could barely process the information. “You think you know someone…” She meant Marc, but Louisa incorrectly assumed she meant Juan.
“Yeah, you’d think a cop would be smarter… you know… be more aware of what’s going on with his own wife.”
“So Maria is still seeing Marc?” Karen tried to make the question seem casual.
“Far as I know. They started up again just before last Christmas. And they’re still at it. Marc was down here a month ago and she was with him the entire time. He didn’t re-paint her, though. Clara had believed him when he told her that if he were ever free, he make her mistress of The Beagle.” She laughed. “Sure.” She pursed her lips and made a sucking noise. “Paolo stepped up. He always had a thing for her. Shame he died.” She walked to another easel. “Let’s see if you recognize this one.”
Karen watched her teasingly remove the cover, doing a little dance as she revealed more and more of the painting. Slowly Estella Robles emerged from behind the covering. She was younger and slimmer than the woman Karen had met at the seminar and memorial service and had none of her good taste. In the painting she wore lipstick and eye makeup that had to have been Marc’s exaggerations. Her arms were splayed over the back of the wicker chair as were her legs over the chair arms. An animal, like a long-snouted raccoon, was between her legs, attempting to put its nose in her vagina. Notably, the portrait showed a long abdominal scar on her right side with the old fashioned staples running its length like railroad tracks.
“I don’t know why she has such a scar,” Louisa said.
“It look’s like the work of an old-time surgeon… a gall bladder procedure possibly. What is that animal?” Karen asked.
“A quash. That’s what the Belizeans call a coatimundi. Marc couldn’t paint fur. It made him so mad.”
“When did he paint her?”
“About ten years ago. She only wears one-piece bathing suits.”
There looked at a few other obscene portraits and, judging from their hairstyles, Karen assumed that they were before Louisa’s time. Louisa didn’t know their names. She finally indicated that they didn’t have time to look at any more.
They left the room, Louisa locked the door, and then they went downstairs to the second floor bedrooms. Karen went into her bedroom as Louisa hurried to the kitchen to return José’s keys to him.
The sight of the portraits could not easily be forgotten. They were there, indelibly so, in Karen’s mind. She did not know what to tell Juan. She did not know why Juan had asked her to inquire about Clara’s portrait. Why had he not mentioned Marc and Maria’s relationship? Did he not know about it? It was all so confusing. She thought again about the rule she had broken about seeing a patient socially. “Lord,” she whispered, “let this nightmare end.”
On Tuesday evening, the captain of police called The Beagle. He spoke to José and asked him to deliver a message: Karen Breiton was officially permitted to leave Mexico. She immediately wrote a thank-you note to Marc and in careful non-committal terms, expressed her condolences.
It was too late to enter Belizean customs. She couldn’t leave before dawn.
Part 8: Salvation
Early on Wednesday, José saw Karen put the note on the table in the foyer as she prepared to leave the house. She held the strap of her little carry-on bag on her shoulder as she hurried on, intending to hitch a ride to a Belize entry point.
José picked up her note and put it in his shirt pocket. As she walked toward the gate, he appeared, driving a motorcycle. He tied her carry-on bag to a shelf welded above the rear fender, and had her get on the seat behind him. Without saying a word, he drove immediately to the Belize crossing. She paid him $50 for his trouble, waved ‘goodbye’ and entered Belizean Customs. Once through, she accepted a ride down to Belize City.
Karen sat in her hotel room and looked at the sea and wondered whether she could practice medicine there in Belize if her license were revoked in Arizona. Surely, if she lost the case or if, as Marc probably hoped, the insurance company would make a quick settlement, she would become uninsurable which was tantamount to being unlicensed. And what, she wondered, would happen if Marc supplied a believable motive… say, a love triangle, and insinuated that Karen had deliberately written the lethal prescription. Tony had taken photographs of her in a bathing suit. With no effort Marc could convert the photo into a salacious portrait. “My God! My God!” she whispered, “What have I gotten into.” The settlement would be much larger and maybe… oh, she would have to consult an attorney to ask… she might be charged with murder or manslaughter. Law and Order shows began to agitate her imagination and she honestly believed that if she didn’t unburden herself to someone, she would burst or melt down or something! She needed to call a friend, but Karen had no friend with whom she could share such a problem. The fear of being professionally ruined became so great that she decided that she had to talk to someone. She called her mother and in a torrent of tears she sobbed out her story.
Her mother listened carefully and advised her to pray since she could use a little help from God at the moment. “I’m going to pray like crazy the moment we’re finished talking,” her mother said, “and I think you should, too. I’ll come out to help you, my dear girl. Can you give me your credit card information so that I can charge the ticket?”
For the first time in her adult life Karen got down on her knees at her bedside and prayed for strength to get through her ordeal. Her mother did not pray. Instead she called Adele Breiton, and the two women, coming immediately from two different parts of the world, began their decent upon the house in Arizona, determined to supply Karen with all the backbone she could possibly need.
Karen had booked several connecting flights on Thursday, the 16th, and arrived in Arizona late Thursday evening. On the flight from Mexico City, she received a call from her mother asking her to pick up Adele at the Phoenix airport. Adele? “Why is Adele coming?” Karen asked.
“Because you need all the help you can get.” Her mother was already at home in Karen’s house. “Adele,” she insisted, “will bring that saber-like brain of hers. We’ll fight them together!”
Karen groaned and did a quick time calculation. She’d have to wait in the international section of the airport another hour for Adele to arrive from Paris. “In that case,” she said, “you can take my car – you have a set of keys – and drive down to pick us up.” The wait was one thing, the cab fare home in such a financially stressed time, was quite another.
The three of them arrived in the airport within an hour of each other. The two grandmothers gabbed and cooed over photographs until, as they approached Karen’s car in the parking lot, Adele turned to Karen and asked, “And how was your holiday, dear?”
“Fine,” Karen said. She had not thought her spirits could sag any lower, but Adele’s blissful unawareness was unbearable. She fought back tears as she thought that surely those closest to her would at least make a show of caring.
Her mother got behind the wheel. “Nearly a week at the beach and you have no sun tan?”
“Maybe she makes her fun time in ze doors,” Madame Breiton leaned forward to put her face between the two women in the front seats and winked.
“Gambling? Or something worse?” her mother wondered, turning to return the wink.
“Ah, we are sure it is not a man who occupies her,” Madame Breiton offered.
“She looks dyspeptic,” her mother said. She turned to Karen, “Are you dyspeptic?”
“Yes,” Karen said, “which is why as soon as we get home I’m going to bed.”
“I’m sure we’ll all sleep fine in our house,” Adele said definitively.
When they arrived at her house, Karen slowly climbed the stairs to her bedroom. Although the house had barely changed since both grandmothers had occupied it on their previous visit, with each step she heard Adele’s indignant criticism of the wretched taste in furniture and wall coloring and artwork. “Oh, how could this have happened? She used to have nice taste… well, acceptable at least. Quel aurait pu si mal?” Karen entered her bedroom, shut and locked the door, stripped off her clothing, got into bed, and cried half the night.
Rarely does the giver of a gift emotionally relinquish control of it. In his mind it is still his property and the recipient has merely been allowed to use it. The giver watches to see how closely the recipient follows the intended use of the gift. The receiver may never do anything with the gift that the giver would not have done himself. Adele Breiton’s scheme of buying the house in her son’s and daughter-in-law’s names, as Joint Tenants, had backfired. She had thought she’d give them the house as a gift and then she’d move in to be with her son and granddaughter and they’d be too grateful ever to ask her to leave or, being owners, would hardly move away themselves. She would be mistress of the house, not de jure, but surely de facto. As she looked around the house, she still regarded it as her property. Didn’t she pay for it, herself? Of course, it was part of the Breiton estate. And she was the family’s dowager.
It was a large house, and Karen had never understood that Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” applied also to houses. Her sister Grace, knowing about the big house Karen lived in alone, had once materialized with two delinquent teenagers in tow, filling three of the five bedrooms. Fortunately, New Jersey had a warrant out for her sister’s arrest, and when she was tracked down to the house in Scottsdale, Karen received the marshals as though they were gods.
Next came her mother, Elizabeth Presley, who, to Karen’s surprise, had quickly spent the large sum of money her husband had left her on trips to Paris and on a lady’s wardrobe. When she finally ran out of money, she moved into Karen’s house “to keep her company.” Though she had never complained about the appearance or the demeanor of Grace, her other daughter, there was absolutely nothing that Karen did that met with her approval. When Grace went to prison, her mother was “importuned” by the court into becoming a guardian of her two grandchildren and had to return to New Jersey and live on welfare checks from the state. But after Grace was released two years later, Momma had saved up enough money from the support checks to purchase a ticket to Paris, and the two grandmothers were reunited. But then, as soon as the teenagers reached majority, they experienced their own legal difficulties, and Grace needed Momma again, and Karen had to buy her a ticket home to Jersey. And finally, when Amalie gave birth to a colicky son and Adele begged for help, Karen happily gave her mother the money to return to France. Adele, too, had experienced financial loss, and so, after a year of baby-tending, the two impoverished grandmothers had come to Karen’s house for a short visit that culminated with their expensive trip to New York, and she had to ask them to leave. And now, thanks to the incident in Chetumal, the three women were living under one roof again.
On Friday morning Karen went to her office and was not surprised to learn through her secretary Marge that the hospital grapevine sizzled like a lit fuse with the news that Marc Celine apparently had begun to institute a malpractice suit against her. Although Marc was still in Mexico, a local attorney’s investigator had already questioned several members of the hospital staff.
She took Agnes Celine’s medical file from the cabinet and was not surprised to find an order for the medication written in the patient record. She had not made the entry, yet there it was. September 30th. Flecainide. Her hands trembled as she read the file. She called Marge into her office. “Bring your appointment book and tell me what do you make of this?” she asked.
Marge looked. “The last entry?”
“Yes. I didn’t make it. I’m trying to discover how it got there.”
“I don’t record prescriptions unless you tell me to.”
“Marge, that doesn’t answer my question. Do you know anything about this entry?”
Marge checked the dates. “I don’t remember her being in the office that day. My call-log shows that she called around noon that day, but no where do I show that she came in. Maybe when I went to lunch, Agnes came into the office and you didn’t make a note of it in the appointment book.”
The remark angered Karen. “What do I care about your lunch?” she snapped. “You may have been gone, but I was here. I did talk to Agnes on the phone, but she did not come in to see me. We spoke only on the phone. So don’t start any idiotic rumors about maybe she came while you were out to lunch. I’ve got enough lies to worry about without you adding home-grown rumors.”
“I’m sorry,” Marge winced. “If it helps, I didn’t tell anybody that business about maybe she came in while I was out.” She seemed to be contrite. “Look, since I canceled all your appointments when you called and told me to, there’s nobody coming in. If there’s nothing else, I was hoping to run some errands today.”
“Yes, go! And please don’t discuss this matter with anyone… anyone. By the way, what reason did you give the patients for my canceling their appointments?”
“I said that you were in Mexico and had taken ill. Everyone assumed you had some kind of Montezuma’s Revenge.”
“In a way, I think I’m feeling the revenge. Call before you come in on Monday to make sure I’m still alive.”
Marge Mahoney agreed to call, got her purse, and was out the door, leaving Karen to sit at her desk and stare at the file.
At 11 a.m. the investigator from her malpractice insurance company called. He wanted to go over “the potentials” of the case with her. “How about if I come right over?” he asked.
“Fine. I’ll be here.” So, officially there was “a case.” She covered her face with her hands and pressed her forehead against her desk. In her mind she could clearly witness Marge testifying that when she suggested that Agnes had come in during her lunch break and that Karen could have seen her then, Karen made such a fuss! She forbade Marge from repeating that possibility… to anyone. “It just gets worse,” Karen whispered.
The office door had opened and Juan Ruiz Montoya stood in the outer office doorway. “Anybody here?” he shouted.
She recognized his voice. “Come straight back.”
“And I didn’t expect to find you all alone.” He was casually dressed in blue jeans and a Tee shirt and cowboy boots. He slung on his shoulder an airline carry-on bag.
“I’m at the end of my rope waiting for my malpractice insurance investigator to arrive.” She smoothed her hair. “Tell me all the news. Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea, beer?”
“I’m kidding. No drinking. Although I may look like a vaquero, I’m working on a case. Good news.”
“If you’ve got any good news, for God’s sake tell me now.”
“Has Marc filed suit?” Juan asked.
“It’s in the preliminary stage. His lawyer’s investigator is asking questions around the hospital. They’re probably still figuring how many millions to ask for. And all those expenses going back and forth to Quintana Roo. Maybe they’ll drag it out to the spring when the weather’s better. They’re going to create a huge expense account.”
“I’m not dressed to take you anyplace fancy, but after we meet with the insurance guy, let’s get some lunch.”
“Where are you staying?”
“No place, yet. I wanted to find out if you were available and if you weren’t I’d go up to Vegas.”
“That’s great… just great. Things aren’t bad enough and I’m competing against Las Vegas.”
“Ok. Let me ask a few questions.” Juan sat opposite her desk in one of the chairs patients normally sat in. He casually asked, “I want you to think back for weeks or months. Did you ever have a woman… a probably pretty young woman… come to you for some ailment for which you wrote her some simple prescription and then she never came back?”
“I see a lot of patients here,” Karen said.
“I’ll get the appointment book. It’s on my secretary’s desk.” As she stood up, the office door opened and Alex Devers, the malpractice insurance detective entered. “Go on back to my office,” Karen said. “I’ve got interesting company… a detective from Mexico.” She indicated that he should follow her back.
“I thought you were cautioned about discussing this case with anyone,” Devers said brusquely, obviously meaning Juan.
“And I think that without Detective Montoya’s help I’d probably be facing a murder charge along with malpractice.”
Juan stood up, scratched his head, and winced. “The name is Ruiz. We affix our mother’s maiden name. It’s probably a hold over from the plague days.”
Alex Devers, splendid in a mostly linen business suit, looked disdainfully at Ruiz and sat down.
Karen, offended by his rudeness, raised her eyebrows. “You mean like posting the banns?”
“Yes, probably,” Juan said with feigned interest. “If anyone here has just cause why these two should not be joined together…”
Karen, both groggy from lack of sleep and giddy at seeing Juan so unexpectedly, played along and laughed. “Speak now or forever hold your peace.”
“The plagued killed so many people,” Juan turned to Alex, deliberately trying to provoke him, “that surviving children often were separated and didn’t know that they were brother and sister. So, when the notices of the impending marriage were posted, some three weeks were given for people who might have known the families to come forward and reveal the sad possibility of incest.”
Devers put his briefcase on the floor beside the second chair in Karen’s office. “Interesting.” He looked at his watch. “The case?”
“Detective Inspector Ruiz has just asked me if I’ve had any unusual walk-in patients. I just got my appointment book. Make yourselves comfortable.” She opened the book at January 2, 2014. “Anything specific I should look for in the name?”
Ruiz rubbed his chin. “It might have a connection to a color.”
Alex Devers blurted out, “Uh, oh!” He apologized and said, “Please… go on.”
She studied page after page. The two men said nothing. Finally she reached June. “Here’s one. Odd name. Marielle Indigonne. I recall asking her about the origin of her name and she said it was Irish. I knew the name Inigo Jones, so it didn’t seem all that out of line.”
“Do you have her file?” Devers asked.
“Of course.” Karen went to the records’ cabinet and got the file for Marielle Indigonne. She read aloud some of the data. “Twenty-eight years old. She came in for an acid reflux problem – technically gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) – which she thought meant that she was having a heart problem. She had heard my name in the beauty parlor. She specifically didn’t want an OTC – that’s over-the-counter – medication since she said she had tried them all. I wanted to have tests run first, but as I recall she said she was going to a wedding and wanted something in case she got heartburn during the festivities. She didn’t smoke or drink coffee. I examined her. Her vitals were fine. She said she hadn’t lost or gained weight. A hundred twenty pounds. She only occasionally got the symptoms but that when she did, they were distressing. I gave her a hand-out for dietary advice… the usual recommendations. So I wrote her a limited supply of an Histamine-2 (H2) blocker. She agreed to have tests run when she got back. But she never returned.” She looked up. “That’s it.”
“What happens when you leave your office?” Ruiz asked. “On an emergency or for something personal. Is the office closed?”
“No. My secretary Marge comes in every day. Same time. Same station.”
“Does she lock up when she goes to lunch?” Ruiz asked.
“Certainly. The office door… but not all the filing cabinets.”
“Well, that is one way that the prescription entry could have been made in Agnes’ records,” Ruiz noted. “While Marge went to lunch, Marielle or whatever her name is, used a simple lock pick – I checked your door lock when I came in – and then she entered the office and made the entry in the record. Actually, in this case, it would have been last Friday while you were still airborne. According to a friend of mine at Interpol, if the patient files had been locked, she could have opened them, too.”
“Let’s call the number she gave,” Karen said, picking up her office land-line phone. A recording advised her to check the number and dial again.
“The address she gave,” Alex Devers noted, “is probably phony, too.”
“Let’s get up to date with where I am in the investigation,” Ruiz said. “By the way, call me Juan.”
“Ditto, Alex,” Devers said.
“I’ve figured out a few things…. mainly with the help of Clara’s sister, Louisa. What does the Bible say? ‘Cast thy bread upon the water…’ Well helping Paolo came back to you tenfold. I now know what killed Agnes.”
“Let’s have it!” Alex said, snapping open his briefcase.
Juan placed a photocopy of the original prescription on Karen’s desk. “First, notice anything wrong with it?”
“No. It looks like my writing. But I assure you–”
“Copying your signature is a simple matter. Look at yours. K scribble scribble B scribble scribble. Turn it upside down and any half-blind person could copy it onto one of your prescription blanks.”
“Oh, no. I keep my prescription pads locked in my desk drawer. It’s a special lock. Nobody gets into this drawer, and I have both keys.”
“Ok… ‘smart-ass’… isn’t that what you called me? Write me a prescription for a chile dog. Go ahead. Humor me.”
Karen opened her desk drawer and placed her prescription pad on her desk. She wrote Juan Ruiz Montoya. “Date of birth?” she asked.
Juan grinned. “Diez de Marzo, Mil novecientos sesenta y cuatro.”
“A good year for smart-asses.” She wrote 3/10/64. “Address?”
“None yet in Phoenix, Arizona.”
“I’ve got five bedrooms in my house. One is reserved for asses that are particularly clever.” She then completed the order for one chile dog ‘stat’ and signed the prescription.
Juan Ruiz went to her photocopier and printed a copy of the prescription. He then produced a bottle of white-out, a fine point black ink pen, and a small plastic ruler. As Alex watched, he carefully obliterated everything from the original that she had written. Where a black line had been touched by the white-out, he carefully restored it. Then he photocopied the new version. As long as I am this close to the original, I could always check Karen’s files to determine which printing company she used and which paper stock the company used. If I had time, I’d duplicate the stock. “But for now,” he said, writing with a blue ink ball-point pen, “I’ll just imitate Karina’s writing as best I can. I have a nice new blank prescription. I’ll write it for Juan Ruiz Montoya, today, born 03/10/1910, and my address is… Dante’s 8th Circle….and the medicine I need is… let’s see… a Viagra chile perro stat. Ok?”
“You’re asking me?” She laughed.
Alex tried to appear to be serious. “And isn’t the 8th Circle reserved for seducers and forgers. Which one do you plan to be? I mean… for a guy who needs Viagra…”
Juan laughed. “I’m taking your Fifth Amendment.” Then he turned the new prescription upside down and copied her signature. “But instead of seducer, you can try ‘forger.’ Did you or did you not just write me for a Viagra chile perro today?”
“You are a fool,” Karen said as he handed her the prescription. And then her eyes grew wide. “My God,” she said. “This absolutely looks authentic. All the same ink. Original ink. Date, Rx, Signature. I wouldn’t have ever believed it.”
She handed it to Alex who verified that it did indeed look like an authentic prescription. “If you cut this to size with a paper-cutter, it would be perfect.”
“Do you remember the note Louisa found in Agnes’s bed?”
“Yes, she had started to write Cerba or Cerbe and didn’t finish the word. I gave it to you.”
“And I’ve got a copy of it right here!” Juan explained to the insurance detective, “We thought it might have been ‘Cerberus’ the dog or even ‘Cerbatana’ – a blowgun. But I found out what it was. Cerbera Odollam.” He carefully spelled out the name. “Look it up,” he said.
Karen googled the name and was speechless. “I don’t believe it. It’s one of the most poisonous things on the planet. ‘The Suicide Tree.’ And its effects do mimic bradycardia. The heart slows down until the victim dies four to six hours later. Does The Beagle have one of these trees in the garden?”
“Yes, it does.”
As she read, she commented, “We have a very poisonous relative of this tree… oleander. You’ll find it everywhere in the southwest. My God. A few years ago a man trimmed his oleander bushes and thought he’d burn a pile of the cuttings. He had two pedigree dobermans that ran through the smoke and died. This stuff is wicked. How did you figure this out?”
“I figured out the fake prescription without anyone’s help. I should mention that anyone with a good computer can generate a prescription blank – he could photograph the blank and reproduce it, or try to generate his own prescription, but to have fonts that precisely matches Karen’s may be a problem. Usually a professional printer has distinctive fonts. The same is true with the paper. You’d need to have the identical paper. Also, forensics could determine how the ink got onto the paper. So, unless the fonts, ink, and paper were absolutely identical, the prescription would be declared a fake. A crook might as well take the easiest low-tech way and do what I just did.
“But the means of death? The whole town was buzzing with the story. Agnes died on Saturday, October 10th. She was cremated on Monday, October 12th. This seemed suspiciously quick. I talked to people Louisa had talked to about the Cerbe note. José told me that Louisa thought the word could possibly stand for Cerbera Odollam. He took me out into the garden and showed me the tree. I did a little research and I’m convinced that this is what happened. Marc… or somebody, let’s say, poisoned her with the toxic seeds of the tree. The jalapeña bread was actually served as small rolls that had a few nuts mixed in. He made sure she got the right one. But he needed a cover since everyone would say that they ate the same food. He certainly didn’t want her stomach contents tested for poison, so he used a fake prescription to account for her symptoms.
“But he intends to kill three birds with one stone. He’s screwing around with some woman or other. He can’t possibly be aroused sexually by dreary Agnes. So he gets rid of her. That was one bird. Agnes was rich. She was trying to find ways to distribute her assets – the university people wanted the botanical garden collection and Agnes wanted to give them the entire property, which is why she went to the attorney that morning; but, unfortunately, she got sick before they could make all the little decisions that go along with such an endowment. So now Marc gets everything. That’s the second bird he killed. But property is fixed. He needs the liquid stuff… money. Marc has a serious gambling problem and he once was, and maybe still is, a heroin user. He needs money and a quick settlement will do. So the third bird is a quick settlement from your malpractice insurance.
“Anyway, I had taken the prescription that was still in evidence to the capital to have a friend of mine in document forensics look at it. There was no doubt that the white-out system I just demonstrated was used. You never wrote that prescription. They can also see that the ink on the signature flowed backwards – as the pen pushes against the paper, it breaks the fibers in the paper in the direction the pen is moving. We write from left to right; the forger wrote from right to left – which made the fibers in the paper break in the wrong direction.”
“Can I add something about the color aspect of that woman’s name?” Alex asked and proceeded to relate a strange series of malpractice cases that had been paid out. “The Indigonne woman was not just a fluke. We had a case that we paid out to a patient’s family in Des Moines. There was something funny about the case… you know how you get a gut feeling that something’s wrong. We couldn’t prove a damned thing. But I called a friend of mine at the FBI. There apparently is a woman who is part of a little clutch of con-men. Did you ever see the movie, Reservoir Dogs? The characters take the names of colors. My guy tells me that she goes through the spectrum. She’s suspected of posing as Denise Redman, let’s say ‘Jane’ Oranne, then Mary Yellin, then let’s say Judy Green, and Barbara Bluestone – I forget the first names she used, but you get the picture. The Blue name was this past spring so the next has to be – if we stick to Roy G. Biv as the mnemonic for the rainbow spectrum – Indigo and last in the sequence will be Violet. This is absolutely fantastic! I gotta call my guy tonight and make his day.”
“Does this mean I’m off the hook for malpractice?” Karen asked.
Alex shook his head. “Not yet. We have a lot of evidence to nail down. However, barring the unforeseen, that’s exactly what it means. But we’ve got to catch these people. I need that forensic evidence.”
Juan demurred. “I just can’t hand you evidence. You need a law enforcement agency to request it.”
“No problem. I can made do with copies of your forensic document examiner’s report. And sure, if you want things official, I can get the FBI involved. They’re already be involved with some of the other scams the “spectrum” gang has pulled. I just made that name up, you understand. I don’t know what they call themselves.”
“It works for me,” Juan said. “What the hell can her story be? Going through the spectrum? Weird.”
“Could you guys take me out to a steakhouse to eat,” Karen pleaded. “I need a juicy filet mignon. Infra Red. I haven’t been able to eat properly in days.”
Alex suggested that they let him take them to the company’s golf club for lunch. “You have no idea how much I’m going to enjoy a steak that saved my company millions.”
After lunch Karen and Juan went to her home while Alex returned to his office to initiate a list of inquiries.
Karen had told Juan that she lived alone in a large house. He was therefore surprised when he saw that the privacy he craved was not to be his – at least as a guest in her home.
She prepared him for the encounter with her mother and her former mother-in-law. “I have a sitting room – a screened veranda – that can be accessed by French doors in the bedrooms. I have a refrigerator in my bedroom. There’s cold Dos Equis in it. Just get through two old ladies and their questions, and then head upstairs. My bedroom and the adjoining guest room are in the front of the house.”
Madame Breiton and Karen’s mother looked at Juan as though he were a huge roach. They took several steps back and in unison said, “Who is this person?”
“Mamá,” Juan said, unsure of which of them to embrace, “At last we meet!” He tried to hug them both. “Karina has told me so much about you. I know we’re going to be one happy family. And you will love my dear mother. She’s so anxious to meet you.” He had begun to inch towards the staircase.
“Your name?” Madame Breiton demanded to know. “And what is it zat you’re doing here?”
“Technically, I’m what they call, ‘A boy toy.’ An older model, of course.” He climbed the stairs two at a time.
“I’m very tired, Mother,” Karen said. “Save up your questions… write them down… and we’ll go over them later.”
They met on the upstairs veranda. Karen had gotten two beers from the small refrigerator. “Unfortunately, we must drink from the bottle,” she said. “I forgot to bring glasses up.”
Juan settled into a long chair. “It’s not just jet lag. I was running around Mexico like crazy. It’s not only murder and malpractice we’re dealing with. I don’t trust many people, so I had to do a lot of traveling and waiting to get to talk to the people I trust.
“One of my buddies explained some U.S. law to me. He said that if you sign a contract in say, Montana, you have to sue in Montana. So the swindlers would set up a little corporate office in, say, Las Vegas… and then they’d advertise the deal in, say, Atlanta, and they’d get the person to look at an investment opportunity and if he seemed to be on the hook, they’d give him a free trip to Vegas. They could also show him some land development opportunity there or let him see the video production of a foreign offering. And if he signed the contract in Las Vegas, then, when he didn’t get what he bargained for, he’d have to go to Nevada to sue. That means retaining Nevada lawyers and having to travel to Nevada to be present for hearings and pre-trial stuff… whatever is involved in the law suit.
“Most people can’t afford to do that… so they add up the costs and decide to do nothing. Marc Celine apparently got away with that for years. He’d create a kind of British atmosphere there at The Beagle and people felt at home. He is one slick guy. My friend told me that Marc had a phony Sioux chief take the marks on a tour of a part of the Yellowstone Park lands that he sold them for a fortune. The contracts were executed on actual Sioux Reservation Land. The marks’ lawyers told them by the time all the government agencies buried them under paperwork, they’d need Dracula’s help to breathe. The contract was signed on Indian land and the corporation was based in Bogotá. The scam made millions. Mostly they ran Ponzi schemes.”
“What happened to all that money?”
“They don’t net as much as you’d think. Suppose you were among the first persons to invest in a Ponzi scheme. You put 100K in and were guaranteed an eighteen or twenty percent return. Depending on how the interest was paid to you, you’d get a regular statement showing how much your principal had earned. If you cashed in your stock after you had made $20,000 that means they had to give you back your initial 100K plus 20K of someone else’s money. Many people would elect to live on the interest of their investment and these folks usually got back what they put in. Some, made out even better. It was the last guys in line or the people who allowed their accounts to roll over and never took a nickel out who really got slammed.
“And then crooks who work in a group have many mouths to feed. That fake Sioux chief had to be paid; and no doubt he had a retinue that had to be paid. A chief doesn’t show up alone. Documents had to be forged; maybe fake Park Rangers had to be outfitted and paid; and aside from the operation’s cost, the crook’s own family would demand a luxurious lifestyle. Junior had to have a Corvette. The missus and the mistress have to shop on Rodeo Drive. Private school tuition. Lawyers and more lawyers. Maintaining their own “successful” front required an office and lots of honest people to pay… that goes for a home, cars, boats, planes, memberships in clubs, and so on. Swindlers are big employers.”
Karen was incredulous. “Tell me… was Agnes involved in any of this?”
“Good question! Not that anyone ever knew about or had reason to suspect. For that, I guess we can be grateful.”
“I can’t dismiss from my mind her initial phone call. Sure, she could have been duped into making it. They had my prescription paper so they really didn’t need me. On the other hand, I could have disrupted the whole scheme by some chance. But I was her physician of record and I was essentially present at her death. Tony must have been in on the scheme, too, unless it was just a coincidence that he got me out on the boat all day. And what about Ramona and Dan? Are they part of it?”
“Having you present in Chetumal gave credence to the prescription. Mexican pharmacists are not stupid people. When they see a strange drug ordered for someone, they check on the reliability of the physician. And that’s exactly what they did. You were in town, and Agnes spoke well of you. Marc probably said that you were unreachable – scuba diving in the barrier reef. So they filled it. But, as you say, it could have worked well without you… except getting into your files. It helped that it was daylight and the con-woman could get into your office on that crucial Friday and make the notation in the patient’s record that you prescribed the drug. Think about the time frame. The moment you were suspected of writing the lethal drug, you would have had someone check Agnes’s file. Not before. But after. And that means that they had to time it perfectly.
“How the others figured into this, is not my department. Actually, now that you are cleared of the prescription forgery, I’m involved only with Agnes’s murder. The financial crimes are someone else’s headache.”
“Was there any backlash about your fatherly advice to Miguel?”
“Chihuahua! You would have to bring that up. I was celebrating the discovery of the forgery. I went off the drunken end. But what I said that night was true. He’ll be destroyed. The question is when.”
“You know, when you asked me to look at Marc’s portrait of Clara, Louisa showed me other ladies who inspired him. I saw Estella Robles there.”
“Yes… she was part of his harem, too. That was about five or so years ago. She’s the one who’s trying to get Miguel into the family. She thinks he’ll destroy the portrait for her.”
“Does her husband know about it?”
“I don’t think so. My guess is that Marc holds it over her head when he needs her to get her husband’s influence when he got himself in a jam… an assault charge… a D.U.I. charge… that sort of thing.”
“What about their latest coffee scheme?”
“I know only about the coffee investment in Nicaragua. Our financial-fraud agents will approach with caution. It’s touchy because Robles is running for office and it would be unfair to implicate the victim and risk influencing the vote. In another few weeks the election will be over. Your SEC and our counterpart will handle that end. But there is something more going on there… I don’t know what it is… The Beagle is like a doomed ship. In today’s crime-world, it could be anything.”
After they finished their beer, Juan stood up and pulled Karen to her feet. “You left for Belize Wednesday morning. Today is Friday, October 17th. I have to be back in my office on Monday, the 20th. So I don’t have much time.”
“My head is swimming. I don’t think I can process all this. Marc and Agnes were so friendly to me for years. It is so hard to believe that someone you know and trust could do something like this.”
“It is because they are trusted that they can do it. Tomorrow will you take me to the Grand Canyon and tomorrow night I want to go to one of those cowboy bars and do some line-dancing… like Urban Cowboy, my favorite flick.”
“It’s a date. But how about if we fly over the Grand Canyon. If you don’t have much time, you won’t feel like line-dancing after walking around the Canyon.”
“I’m game for anything you say,” Juan mussed her hair. “Is it too late to go out tonight and dance?”
“I’ll change my clothes.”