“Dr. Westphal may be a while, talking to this insurance man,” she said. “Do you want to talk to Grace?”
“Yes, I do.”
“I’ll get her. You come right through, Elliot.” She held the door open. I nodded at Tovarich and walked inside.
Betty walked back to her desk as Grace, the nurse who had been working the night Chapman got his test results, walked out from one of the examination rooms and met me in the hallway. “Elliot,” she said. “What have you heard?”
“Nothing. And it’s driving me crazy.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said. Grace was not avoiding eye contact. She’d dealt with people before who were in difficult—sometimes impossible—situations. She was there to help.
“When’s the last . . .
time you saw Sharon?” I asked.
“Well, I dropped off some patient records at her house Thursday morning because she was coming in late, and then I saw her at the office until closing. Nothing since then.” Grace bit her lip; she wanted to be more help than this.
“What can you tell me about that evening? Were you in the room when Sharon gave Chapman his test results?”
“No. She called him into the conference room alone.”
The conference room is a separate space outside the examination rooms where doctors and patients confer. But it’s rarely used for good news—you get that on the phone. Believe me, you don’t want to be in the conference room with your doctor.
“Isn’t that unusual?” I asked. “Doesn’t Sharon usually want someone in the room with her when she calls a patient in?”
“Yeah. I thought it was a little odd, but she said she’d do it herself, and I do what the doctors tell me to do,” Grace said.
“How did you find out the test results were incorrect?”
“As far as I know, we never had incorrect test results for Mr. Chapman,” Grace said. “We only got one set of films for him from the radiology lab. Those films were the ones Sharon brought in to the conference room with her.”
“But Betty said Sharon had gotten some new results back right before she left that night, and that whatever she saw there had really shaken her up,” I reminded her. “Weren’t those new results or updates of Chapman’s films?”
Grace shook her head. “No,” she said. “Those records weren’t for Chapman.”
“Another patient?” Was there another case involved in this business?
This time, Grace did avoid eye contact. “I don’t know,” she said.
My head snapped around in a blink. “What do you mean?” I asked.
Grace took a deep breath. “That was the weird part,” she said. “Sharon wouldn’t tell me.”
I didn’t get a chance to ask what that meant, because Toni Westphal appeared, shaking Tovarich’s hand at the exam room door. He actually bowed a little to her, but he didn’t leave. He just went back into the waiting room and, well, waited.
“I’m sorry, Elliot,” Toni said, pulling me aside. “He has a lot of questions that I can only answer by pulling the medical records, and I couldn’t tell him to go away.”
“It’s okay,” I assured her. “But why is he investigating a suicide? Does he really believe that Sharon did something wrong?”
“From an insurance standpoint alone, it’s extremely irregular for her to have kept medical records back,” she said. “It’s not like Sharon, and it worries me.”
“I don’t understand any of this,” I said.
“Neither do I,” Toni said. “I’ve known Sharon since she was a resident, and I’ve never seen her act like this. To just leave and not tell us where she is? Not tell
? It doesn’t make sense.”
I took a deep breath. “You’re assuming she left of her own accord,” I said.
Toni looked like I’d punched her in the gut. Her eyes got wide and she inhaled sharply. “Wow,” she said. “Is that what you think?”
“I don’t know what I think.”
“Elliot,” she said, sitting down on the spare desk chair. “I forget how much you still care about Sharon.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that your feelings might be getting the best of you. You can’t abide Sharon leaving, so you decide she’s been taken against her will.”
I blinked. More than once. “Toni, do you think Sharon really is covering up something about Russell Chapman’s death?” I asked.
“Honestly,” she answered, “I can’t be sure.”
didn’t want to talk to anyone at the practice anymore, so I said a polite good-bye to Toni Westphal and headed for the door. Tovarich, still in the waiting room, shook my hand and took a Comedy Tonight business card, promising to attend a showing as soon as the theatre reopened. I smiled at him, hopefully convincingly, and left.
It wasn’t even ten in the morning yet, and already I was having a lousy day. When I arrived at Comedy Tonight after the walk from Family Medical Practice, the A-OK Plumbing van was parked outside, my father’s truck was a few spaces down, and Sophie’s Toyota Prius, loaded with books on choosing the right college, was around the corner. I chained my bike to the steam pipe on the side of the building and brought the front wheel inside with me. The forecast was for cold temperatures, but no snow, so I figured I could leave the bike outside. It was a tight enough fit in my office, and a bicycle in the lobby didn’t look very movie-theatre-like.
Once inside, I remembered that the plumbing problem meant that the heat was turned off, so I encountered an arctic Comedy Tonight. I found the expected chaos: my office door was closed and locked, a habit I’d picked up recently, but there was activity elsewhere. Off to the left, by the stairway to the balcony, the men’s room door was wide open, and there was a large red hose running out of the bathroom and across the lobby to the open doorway leading to the basement. The hose then went, I assumed, all the way downstairs. It was better not to think about what the plumber might have found down there.
Dad, in a snappy overcoat and leather gloves, stood in the doorway to the men’s room, pointing at something inside. “I think that’s it there,” he said to the unseen plumber. “Try the third one.”
I decided I didn’t want to know, and was unlocking the office door when I was frontally attacked by two irate females.
Sophie was pointing an angry finger at me and advancing like a third-grade teacher who has discovered a mischievous student writing in his social studies textbook with a crayon, but her down-filled aqua-colored parka somehow made her look less menacing. “Do you have any idea how much time I’ve missed?” she shouted. “I could have been taking an on-line seminar on college application essays!”
“So go,” I said. “Get into Yale. I’ll call you when we’re ready to open.” And she was gone before I could blink.
The other woman would be less easy to placate. Detective Sergeant Margaret Vidal is an imposing person, tall, muscular, and very attractive, in an intimidating way. She’d put on maybe five pounds since I’d seen her last six years before, and had exactly three gray hairs mingling with the black ones. She was also wearing an expression I associate mostly with my mother: disapproval.
“A girl drives for an hour and a half to help a friend through a difficult time, she expects at the very least that the friend will be there when she arrives, Elliot,” she said.
“Nice to see you too, Meg. It’s been way too long.”
She stopped advancing just as I got the office door open. I turned to her, and we fell into a hug. I held on to her beyond when I should have let go, but Meg is nothing if not a stabilizing presence, and at that moment, I needed some stability.
“I’m sorry, Elliot. Here I promised to come up to make you feel better, and I start by yelling at you. Let me start again: Where have you been?”
I filled her in on the information, however confusing, I’d gotten at Sharon’s practice. Meg listened, frowning, which I knew was her natural expression when trying to solve a puzzle. When I was researching
Woman at Risk,
I’d spent months observing her on a case, and we’d started every morning with me waiting for her to finish the
New York Times
crossword puzzle at her desk before beginning the day’s work.
“You know you should let Chief Dutton handle this, right?” Meg asked. We walked out of the office after I’d checked my e-mail, noted the lack of phone messages, and stashed the bicycle wheel. There wasn’t enough room in there for us both to sit, and besides, I had a nagging feeling there was something else to which I should be attending. But I couldn’t remember what it might be.
“Yeah, I know, and it’s not that I don’t think Dutton is good, or that he’s not working hard enough. I just can’t sit still and wait for the phone call. I don’t want to feel like there was something I could have done if . . .” Usually, I finish my sentences, but I was having an unusual amount of difficulty doing that today.
Meg nodded as we headed toward the balcony steps to sit down. I got close to the stairs, and suddenly, Dad registered in the corner of my eye. Oh yeah!
“Dad,” I said.
He didn’t turn his head; he was busy watching the plumber. “I don’t think it’s the one pipe, Elliot,” he said. “He’s made the right repair, and the water isn’t stopping.”
I decided to plow on as if he hadn’t told me something I didn’t want to hear. “Meg, you’ve met my father?”
Meg shook her head. “He seemed so busy, I didn’t want to bother him.”
So I turned to my father. “Dad, this is Sergeant Vidal.”
Arthur Freed turned to look, and smiled. “So you’re Meg,” he said. “Elliot told me about you, but he forgot to mention what a looker you are.”
I’d never seen Meg Vidal blush, but there it was. “You’re too kind. Arthur, isn’t it?” Meg and I had gotten to know a lot about each other in our time working together on
Woman at Risk
. She remembered more than I did; what was her ex-husband’s name, again?
Dad took her hand in both of his. “You’re here with news?”
“No, Arthur. I’m here to be with Elliot until the police find something.”
My father looked sad and sentimental. “You’re a good friend,” he said.
“So is Elliot. You did nice work.”
I decided to end this part of the conversation before we were arrested for public maudlin-ing. “What do you mean, we’ve still got water, Dad?” I asked.
His attention turned immediately back in toward the men’s room. “Not as much, but the leak is still there. And I don’t think his current plan is the right one.”
I considered walking inside to deal with the plumber, but my head wasn’t operating the way it’s supposed to, and I knew it. “Do me a favor, Dad,” I said. “If you could supervise this one, just make whatever decision you think is right, and tell me how much to pay for it, okay?”
Dad frowned. “I’m not going to let you spend all kinds of money if you don’t have to, Elliot.”
“That’s exactly why I trust you with this. Please.”
He smiled a little, and nodded. “But you tell me the minute you hear something.”
“No. I’m going to keep it to myself. Of course I’ll tell you.” I came close to hugging him, but was afraid that if I did, I wouldn’t be able to stop. Dad turned back, and walked into the men’s room with more determination than most men show when doing so.
I opened the door to the auditorium, and Meg and I took seats in the last row. If we’d been dating, and there had actually been a movie playing, it would have been perfect. Instead, it felt weird.
“It doesn’t make sense that Sharon wouldn’t tell her own nurse about the medical records,” I said when we’d picked up the conversation again. “That’s basic. It’s part of the process. Why wouldn’t she put them in the patient’s file?”
“You’re obsessing,” Meg said. “It’s natural, but you have to try not to do it.”
“If you’ve got something better to do, I’m listening,” I said. I hadn’t realized before how uncomfortable the seats in my theatre could be. No wonder I wasn’t drawing crowds. Wait. No. I wasn’t drawing crowds because nobody wanted to watch old comedies in a dilapidated old theatre; that was it. The seats weren’t the problem. Were they? Or was I obsessing again?
“Where was your head just now?” Meg asked gently.
“Business school,” I said.
“I wasn’t aware you’d gone to business school.”
We sat for a while longer. “If it’s a kidnapping,” I said out of the blue, “why hasn’t there been a ransom demand?”
“A good question. Maybe it’s not a kidnapping. Maybe your first instinct was correct, and Sharon is just off recovering from Chapman’s suicide. You might know your ex-wife better than the police do. Ever think of that?” Meg’s smile looked satisfied.
I shook my head. “She’s been gone a day and a half already. She knows the practice is open today. I would have heard from her by now, if everything was okay.”
A light flashes at the back of the auditorium, very faintly, when the phone in the office is ringing, so it doesn’t interrupt the showing, but so I can see there’s a call if I’m in the auditorium. When it started to flash, I made it from the back of the auditorium to the office in the amount of time it takes Harpo Marx to pull a hot cup of coffee from inside his trench coat. That means really fast.
I grabbed the receiver before I’d really stopped running, which in my office can be a serious health hazard. I came close to strangling myself with the phone cord and slamming headfirst into a file cabinet at the same time. It’s a wonder I’m insured at all.
Toni Westphal was on the line. “I went over what I said to you, and it seemed cruel,” she said. “I didn’t want you to think I believe Sharon did anything wrong. Not Sharon.”
After letting out my breath for what seemed like an hour, I told Toni it was all right, and we were still friends.
“I hope so,” she said. “And I thought of one more thing: That second file, the one Sharon wouldn’t show anyone. It wasn’t any kind of X-ray or film. It was a blood test; I know because I remember the orange sticker on the file, and that’s the one that comes from our blood lab.”