(Fiction) Not too late for what?

“I haven’t actually met Dr. More,” the young clerk behind the desk explained apologetically.

“Isn’t this his office?”

“One of them,” he nodded. “He sees patients here on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”

“Looks like I’m in luck.”

“But he hasn’t been here since I started a few weeks ago.”

“That is his name on the door, right? Next to Doctors Caldwell and Burton?”

“Yes,” he said, unsure if he was being trapped into admitting something.

“Who’s your manager?”

“I’m sorry, is this a police matter?”

“Yes, actually.” It was partly true. “It’s important I speak with Dr. More as soon as possible. What’s his name?”

“Well, Ms. Singleton runs the office. She just stepped out, but—”

“I’ll wait,” I said with a polite smile.

The two other patients in the narrow room glanced up at me as I sat and went back to their screens. I pulled Bea Goswick’s file from my shoulder bag and opened it to the sticky note I’d been using to hold my place. The file was a mess. It hadn’t simply been set on fire. It had been dumped into a pile and drizzled with lighter fluid. I could still smell it. By the looks of things, she’d changed her mind pretty quickly and stomped on the burning pile. When that didn’t work, she doused it with water. Anything that wasn’t charred was warped and faded. And it was all out of order. She hadn’t reorganized it. She’d simply stuffed everything back however it fell. What was left read like conspiracy fodder, a collection of unrelated deaths from around the world covering a span of 30 or more years: a Jewish mystic in Denmark, an aid worker in Ethiopia, a Shinto priestess, a 13-year-old Tibetan Lama. A lot of it was so damaged as to be illegible. Any normal person would’ve drawn one conclusion only: that its collector was emotionally unhinged. The problem was, I wasn’t getting anything from it either.

I flipped through the next few warped photos and unfolded what was left of an article clipped from the Post. I couldn’t read most of the text, but the date and part of the title were clear. I took out my phone and searched the website. I sat up when I saw the name Alonso White, the man whose mural memorial the chef had visited a few days earlier. What did it mean?

I heard a door shut in the back. When I looked up, the clerk was gone. A moment later, a stern-faced older woman in platform heels walked toward me from the hall. Her plastic name tag said SINGLETON.

“Dr. More isn’t here,” she said. “You can leave a message with his service.”

“I’ve been doing that.” I stood and closed the file. “I’ve left numerous messages over the last several weeks. He hasn’t gotten back to me.”

“Then give your message to me,” she said. “I will make sure he gets it.”

She was around 60 and wore no makeup. Her hair was parted in the middle and fell below her ears. There were three thin, parallel scars on the side of her face near her right eye.

“I can’t wait any longer. I need to speak to him. Today.”

He’s not here,” she stressed.

I motioned to the narrow waiting room, whose handful of occupants were watching me out of the corners of their eyes like school kids afraid to be called on in class. “So none of these patients are his?”

“Dr. Caldwell has taken Dr. More’s patients while he’s on sabbatical.”

“That’s funny. He never mentioned a sabbatical. Seems to me a professional health care provider might let his patients know if he were planning an extended absence.”

“All his patients were made aware. Perhaps you weren’t listening.”

The implication was clear.

“I’m sure I would’ve remembered.”

“Then you’ll have to take that up with Dr. More when he gets back.”

“Is he coming back?”

“Your questions have been patiently answered, Detective. This is harassment.” She stepped to the desk and picked up the receiver to the phone like she was going to dial 911. “Please leave.”

“If he’s not here, then you won’t mind me looking in his office.”

She’d moved out of my way and left a clear path to the back, but she dropped the phone and stepped back in front of me as soon as I moved. “This is private property. You can’t just walk in.” She pointed to young clerk, who was staring at the confrontation in disbelief. “Christopher, please dial the police and tell them we’re being harassed.”

The young man picked up the phone from where it rested but hesitated to dial.

“You keep using that word,” I said to my adversary. “Is it supposed to scare me? What’s wrong with a quick peek? If you have nothing to hide.”

She crossed her arms and planted herself.

I turned to the younger colleague. “Well? What are you waiting for? Make the call.”

The elder nurse sighed and turned for the door to Dr. More’s office. It was already shut. She pulled a mass of keys from her waist and locked it. I caught the sign on the next door down. It said DR. ALAN CALDWELL, same last name as the couple who moved into More’s house, according to the neighbor.

I walked forward and opened it over the nurse’s objection. There was a nice glass-topped desk, some chairs, two framed degrees with giant matte borders, a sofa to one side, a credenza at the back. There were tribal masks on the wall by the door, facing the desk, and when I turned my head to look, I caught a glimpse of a wasp. It crawled through the eye of a faded Balinese mask and disappeared, like it was hiding. The nurse pushed me back and shut the door. My temple felt like it was going to explode. I didn’t even want to touch it. All I could do was wince.

She shouted something. I couldn’t hear it, but I saw her lips move. I saw her brow crease in anger. And then I saw her breath, like a bright cloud.

“Shit.”

I looked around the waiting room at the shocked faces, staring at me in confusion and fear. I looked at the pair of uniformed security guards who walked, as if in slow motion, through the office door. I couldn’t hear any of them. The whole room was silent. But their breath puffed like steam, as if they were trudging through the snow in the dead of winter. It billowed from their nostrils with every breath.

I started shivering. The pain at my temple was so intense, I thought my skull had cracked. Then I saw my own breath.

“No . . .”

I could feel it coming. I could feel it out there. Waiting.

The dire hunter.

I pulled free of the first security guard’s grasp and stormed through the door, room still shrouded in silence. I skipped the elevator and went right to the stairs. I made it two flights before I was shivering so bad that I couldn’t walk. It was like I’d been sleeping in snow. I was chilled to the core. I fell back against the block wall and slid down until I was sitting with my back to the corner of the landing. I was shaking. My teeth were chattering. I couldn’t hear it, but I could feel them rattling against each other.

I stared ahead at a tree line. White-barked birch trees with bands of black stood in an irregular row, marking the boundary of a forest. The interior was dark. It was nighttime. The only light came from the full moon reflected on the snow. I was squatting in a clearing, staring at the silent forest. Everything was still. There wasn’t even a hint of a breeze. I squinted into the darkness, between the branches. It was in there. I knew it. I couldn’t see anything, but I knew it was in there, looking back at me.

The wolf with three eyes.

I knew also that it had been stalking me through the still forest. I couldn’t see it. But I knew. I caught glimpses of its footprints in the snow from where it had walked out of the clearing and into the forest, which was still lush and green, despite being under a blanket of white. Here it was seemingly the dead of winter, yet none of the leaves on the trees have fallen. In fact, they were as bright and full as spring. It was beautiful, but also incongruous and disturbing. I think it meant it’s not too late.

But not too late for what?


 

excerpt from “To the White of the Bone,” the third mystery in my forthcoming five-course conundrum, FEAT OF SHADOWS. Part 1 releases next month!