I work on heads. From seizure disorders to migraines, most days I'm glad to practice medicine, particularly as the community's only female neurologist. Today, I'm not.
The clinical lines between sanity and insanity are often thin ones--on which I happen to stock my wardrobe and pay my taxes. Since early days in residency, I respected these boundaries. You quickly learn the power of a timely referral and collect your kudos when that patient becomes someone else's devil to pay. Five years into a successful practice, I thought I'd somehow settled into default mode, one that granted me immunity to, shall we say, operational cluster fuck.
I hadn't seen the half of it.
The brain is a fascinating neural network, and I've never doubted its ultimate authority or its terrible capabilities. Particularly when things go wrong.
Circumstances can get a little screwy when I get an admission to the emergency room. Patients who remain compliant with meds usually don't go fishing for trouble. Too much ER hits heavy on the pocketbook, especially here in Cedar Cove, where the words blue, collar, and disability all converge into an accurate demographic analysis.
With the leftovers of hurricane George's giving my wipers a run for their money, I know already that whatever awaits me at the hospital is wrong. You won't find it in the PDR or the American Journal of Medicine, but weather patterns and brain waves don't lie very often, and George's is turning out to be one helluva storm.
I park a stone's throw from the ER, kill the ignition, and watch the lateral rain. Glance in the back seat for the umbrella I didn't bring. Check my watch.
An hour ago my nurse informed me about this admission, a few untidy tidbits in tow. Turns out the unfortunate paramedic (a former linebacker) who made the harrowing ambulance run suffered a thorough drenching, plus some moderate-to-severe fingernail lacerations from the distressed patient I'm about to see.
"A neighbor called it in," she said. "They found her in the back yard screaming at the top of her lungs, exposing her boobs to the house across the alley." (She seemed to find that amusing, but I didn't like the implications.)
"I thought it was a seizure--"
"That came later," she went on. "Oddly enough, your new patient testified in court last week against the same neighbor on incest charges." She paused. "I hear all sorts of things about her house."
My nurse, probably the single most informed person in the county, is sharing with too much glee for my comfort. I'm not in the mood for the happy details about a paranormal living room. "I'll check out the fingernails."
My mental replay hits pause and here I am, watching the rain and waiting for a slack spot.
Inside, I add to the small lake forming in the gangway,remove a new pair of Ferragamo's I might've worn another time,and wade toward the control station. Behind me, rain slams into the automatic double doors hard enough to squall through the central vacuum seal.
The waiting room is virtually empty. Two desk clerks at the station banter back and forth, both competing for the prodigious gum-wad award and punching their phones for open lines. The computers are down; the phone lines, jammed.
Veraline Smedley, a perpetually sanguine LPN, meets me at the station with a grin and a towel. If she has her misgivings about whether or not her house is still intact, she doesn't show it. A dark part of me wonders if Veraline has ever had a migraine. She takes my shoes, hands me the towel and an admit chart,all with cheery efficiency.
"Better shake out your ears, Dr. Franklin." She produces another towel and begins drying my shoes. "Rain like that could soak clean through, you know."
Underneath my lab coat, my skirt clings around my legs like a used diaper. I'm not feeling chummy. "So that's what's wrong with half my patients," I mutter.
Veraline snickers as I bury my face in the towel. I open the chart.
The History & Physical gives the patient's name as Dinple A.Musslewhite. Dinple? A crapped-out spell checker in the secretarial pool, I'm thinking.
Veraline is finished with my shoes. I flip over a page.
"I'm afraid you've got a sleeper in 103." Her shrug nears apologetic. "We had to restrain her, and psychunit's full. Admitted her in grade A hysterics, if you get my drift."
I do. By the record I've got a cold one: they gave Dinple ten milligrams of Haldol an hour ago. I also note the ER physician's trademark palm tree under his signature, occupational code talk for something we call a royal (yeah, you'll want that vacation, Joy) pain in the ass.
Squirm back into my shoes and head toward room 103. According to the initial exam, I have a 33-year-old white female with a history of high blood pressure and unexplained migraines,admitted with a useless left arm.
In 103, Dinple snores loudly, a wet washcloth thrown over her face. Some of my older patients tuck themselves in this way;my grandmother claimed she couldn't sleep otherwise.
I must remind myself that Dinple is only in her early thirties, an interesting dichotomy between the salt & pepper roots and the over-the-ear pigtails.
She also borderlines on morbid obesity, her arms spongy to examination, folds of tissue lapping under the elbows and behind the shoulders. Could easily pass for fifty.
Dinple stirs. I remove the washcloth, but her eyes remain shut. She's trying to find the sill behind the shades, but the Haldol has those peepers nailed. I watch her eyeballs roll under the lids.
Her left hand has regained some grasp reflex. She's gathering the top sheet in small neat tucks, ones you might find on a tuxedo shirt. I also confirm she's got a set of lethal sculptured tips. One inch, easy. The right index and middle nails are missing. Hell to extract acrylics from someone's jowls, I'm thinking. I chart her progress, glance at the vital signs monitor, and replace the rag.
I'm halfway to the door and contemplating the convenience of take-out Chinese before I'm sure (she's trying to talk) I heard what I thought I heard.
"Hee--" Her voice cuts the air like a rasp. "Hey. Doc."
I turn, (she's just lying there) expecting to see her looking my way.
But she's not. Her awareness of me is entirely subliminal.And I'm certainly not ready for what's next.
"Nice pumps," she says.
"Helluva seamstress," Veraline tells me.
So she needs those peepers, does she? I glance up from the chart. Do I see glee in Veraline's face? She's eyeing the front of my skirt with growing amusement.I pull aside my lab coat to see that somewhere between my car and the ER gangway, I've lost a pleat.
"Great with repairs and alterations," Veraline adds, "if you don't mind the wait."
"She's on disability," I note.
"That, too," Veraline replies. "Like I said - she's good. Sews for my girl. But if you use her - you're on her time."
On rare occasions I make house calls. Usually the person is bedfast or homebound, and Dinple Musslewhite falls into neither category. In standard practice, I would concede to see her only in a clinically neutral setting.
But I have a mangled skirt and a couple of other alterations in mind. I need a seamstress, and Cedar Cove has its limits. So here I am, turning down fifth street, the bad side of town, pulling to the curb in front of a small clapboard house.
The yard is neat, even cheery, next to the muckled brown particle board rotting around the pier and beam. Variegated pansies have survived the hurricane's spillover, and I see at once (they're everywhere) that Dinple is very fond of them,growing the diameter of tea saucers, germination I attribute with a reasonable amount of skepticism to generous doses of Fertilome.I bend down for (you know flowers just don't grow this big, Joy)a closer look. Also in the flower beds are yard signs for the three upcoming holidays: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. A sidebusiness, Veraline said. She's really quite good at this, as well, and she takes checks made out in her cousin's name. If you don't have the cash.
The screen door is flimsy, flapping back on its hinges.Over my knocking I can hear garbled radio transmissions coming from a police scanner just inside the door. The only light in the room is the incandescent glow of a portable television set,fifteen-inch stills of Roy Rogers in his younger years silently swarming over the picture tube. Every shade in the room is drawn.
Dinple is stretched out in a Barcalounger across the room just inches under a window unit turned on A/C full blast,watching the A & E rerun on mute. It is the middle of October and the room is respectively cold enough to match the D setting on my Frigidaire. I pull my coat together in front.
"The world's not the same without him," Dinple says. Her voice is barely audible above the static of the scanner and the steady hum of the air conditioner. I'm not sure about the nostalgia (she's a little young for that) concerning Roy Rogers.
As I look around me, however, I cannot shake my first impression that Dinple is actually much older than she claims.Aside from knee-deep piles of recent releases (a collection of videos that rivals Blockbuster's inventory) this might be anybody's grandmother's house.
"I have a pair of pants to be hemmed," I say. "Waist is too big. And this skirt."
She eyes the skirt with growing interest. "Let me see that." I fidget while she examines the damage, surprised at my own nervousness. Not like me.
"I talked to your nurse yesterday," she says. "My head swam all last week." She's through with the skirt and back to Roy Rogers.
Solicitations after hours and around grocery store freezer compartments are pretty much an occupational albatross. I try to handle each situation as efficiently as possible.
So I make the usual run of questions. No, she hasn't deviated from the recommended schedules of Sular and Vistaril;they're lined up alongside a dozen or more prescription bottles on a glass-covered coffee table. The other medications (all in her name) have expiration dates old enough to have treated my grandmother.
I don't get a reasonable explanation for this discrepancy aside from her claims she's not taking them anymore. Nothing stronger than Tylenol number four for her migraines, she assures me (although Codeine is clearly among the stash). I see right away this conversation is going nowhere. Some patients make hobbies of impressing, flustering, or outwitting doctors.
"I need to try these on," I say, holding up the pants.
Dinple motions toward the next room. "Switch is on your right." The wall switch turns on a floor lamp in the adjoining room. In the corner of my vision a gray cat takes flight from a king-sized bed, most likely headed for the next country. The mattress continues to ripple. I make a mental note that Dinple, among the fifties post-war furniture that furnishes most of her house, owns a Barcalounger, two color televisions, a ten-band Johnson police radio, a Sony broad-spectrum cordless telephone, and a full-motion water bed. So she goes for all the functional modern conveniences. I'm beginning to understand where her priorities lie.
On the walls are sepia prints: the Praying Hands centered over the television, the Little Boy Blue by his lonesome above this humongous water bed.
The cat has also used the room as a giant scratching post.Fine scratch marks are everywhere, up and down the bed's headboard, a chifforobe, and an otherwise handsome night stand.Wallpaper bubbles away from the Sheetrock, hanging in fine shreds. Exposed stuffing lies everywhere, balled up along the baseboards. I take a closer look at the walls with a growing realization (these are too high and too deep) about this cat.
A ten-tiered shoe bag crammed with vintage costume jewelry prevents me from completely closing the bathroom door. Dinple doesn't skimp on bathroom boudoir, either: wall-to-wall toilet waters, parfums, and dusting powders in a row, two clotheslines loaded with garter stockings and some plus-size peekaboos sag through the middle of the room. On the inside of the door is an autographed poster of Troy Aikman. Like I said, priorities. There's a small wall-mounted lavatory by the commode. I turn on the faucet for effect and look in the adjoining room, a sewing room.
The neatness by contrast is remarkable: a carefully appointed cutting table lined with five neat rows of color-coded threads, spools, and yarn. A couple of mannequins stand at attention near the sewing machine wearing neatly pinned suede jackets turned just so. A full-length mirror and dressing screen are placed at the other end of the room away from traffic.
I return to the sink, shut off the water, and spot something behind the commode, on the floor. A meager, but telling stockpile of Cutty Sark and tonic water, two rows between the wall and the footer. I have a patient questionnaire at the office on Dinple that denies alcohol usage.
I quickly change clothes, feeling watched. The phone (but it's not just that) startles me: a slight, but growing tremor in my hand, the ring finger locked down tight. I treat Parkinson's every day, but no, not me. I linger a moment, nursing my bum hand before dismissing this as simply dehydration and tucking it out of sight, in my coat pocket.
Somewhere in the house an answering machine lurches in gear with an unsettling squelch, its scratchy outgoing message on full volume, a fifteen-second clip of porno audio.
The caller hangs up.
In the living room, Dinple snores in the Barcalounger. I'm about to wake her when I notice the fingernails.
A frigging two inches now. They've been overhauled since her trip to the ER. I stall on waking her, evaluating my options. Maybe I should pin these pants myself.
With a bum hand, I fumble through the task. I leave the pants on the coffee table.
Outside, the wind has picked up. I'm about to shut the door behind me when I see an elderly man loitering around my Navigator.
"Better yell, if I was you."
I glance back (who said that) into the house. She's just lying there, eyes closed.
"What?" I put my hand behind my back.
"He'll piss on your tires."
My eyes readjust to the darkness, and I can see that Dinple is definitely awake, twisting around and fighting with one of the rollaway shades. She finally gives up on the spring-loaded roller, yanks the shade aside, and looks out the window. "Keeps trying to get me to watch. I told him to keep it out of my flower beds."
"Who is that?"
Dinple grins. "A little neighborhood entertainment. Some of us don't get to see one every day, you know."
On the way home, I drive through the automatic car wash for the ten-dollar deluxe: wash, wax, air-dry, and tire cleaner.
"Why don't you refer her out?" my husband asks that night as we spoon in front of the fire. He's right, and I know it. A quick referral could save me a ton of grief. There's a couple of neurosurgeons less than an hour's drive who are building practices and eager for new patients.
"She won't go thirty miles to see another neurologist if she won't drive two to see me."
We can't seem to get around the inevitable.
"Guess there's always the unit. They seem to appreciate your business." He smiles - easy come, easy go.
I answer him with a snicker that borders on a snort. "Detox would never be the same."
He slips one leg between mine. "Sounds like this one could use a swift kick in the ass." He's looking more carefully at me now. "You usually don't let stuff like this get to you."
"You know, you're right." I sigh. "But I could use a seamstress, and I hear she's good with alterations."
He doesn't buy that one, either. And as I lay awake past midnight while my husband saws logs on the other side of his subconscious, I realize what I've been unable to bring myself to tell him, that what draws me to Dinple is beyond alcoholism,beyond cerebrovascular disease, beyond the vulgarities of poverty. I see the glee in their eyes, the fingernail gouges in the walls, and fight my own morbid curiosity as I consider the odds I'm about to encounter one of the purest forms of human evil.
I make a point to ask Veraline a few more questions while rounding at the hospital on Monday, with the sinking feeling I'm about to test the margins of Medicare denial with Dinple's insurance claims.
Veraline smiles. "She knows how to work the system, all right. Like ambulance service to the ER, for one."
"She doesn't drive, then?"
Veraline touches a finger to her nose and giggles. "A rusted-out Impala that starts some of the time, oh yeah. If anybody could ever run a scam on Medica-" She hesitates,looking uncomfortable. "-well, let's just say that for whatever reason, she parks the heap half a block up the street on the alley side. I think she doesn't like people knowing when she's home, you know, owing them sewing time and all."
I'm getting an oh-so clear picture. "What's with the answering machine?"
"Oh, that." Veraline laughs. "You heard it yet?"
"Once was plenty." She nods. "Won't take any prizes for chastity, but I understand there's a good reason."
There always is, I think.
"The obscene long-distance service salesman," Veraline says,in all seriousness. "You heard about him yet?" A flicker of awareness (you really don't expect me to believe that, now do you, Veraline) passes between us, way beyond chewing the fat. For in that brief nanosecond, I can see Veraline, full of glee, has just sold out. She's perfectly comfortable embracing the concept without entertaining a difference of opinion. Ever. When you gonna sell out too, Joy?
I shake off the thought.
"Harmless, really," Veraline adds.
Like Mt. Saint Helens, I'm thinking.
"Sure," I say, and tuck my hand in my pocket before she notices the tremor.
Three days later Dinple comes to the office in tears, a spill-guts consultation regarding her long-term substance abuse.Perhaps I was wrong about Dinple, after all. But I support her wishes to kick her addiction with a clinically measured amount of enthusiasm. Old habits rarely die young. My secretary is on the phone, confirming insurance coverage while we formulate a simple, but effective recovery plan using local resources like Alcoholics Anonymous and Home Health services. And for the next few days, the resting tremor in my right hand is gone.
Weekends I'm not on call, I usually throw on a favorite pair of faded jeans and putter in my organic herb garden. I've always enjoyed working in the dirt with my fingers in tight corners.Having a steady grip once again is a welcomed relief.
So I'm puttering between the rosemary and the sassafras when my husband hands me the phone. "Alterations are done," he says. I'm walking out the door when he hands me the phone a second time. "Fossil Agency," he quips.
The Area Agency for Aging and Home Health is meticulous in recording its at-home observation. For this reason, I have received several calls already concerning our new patient Dinple Musslewhite. They know a ruse when they see one, and in the span of one week, she's inconveniently locked herself out of the house twice upon their arrival.
My blood is boiling as I pull up to the curb at 113 Fifth Street. Not a house call, I remind myself. Only here for the alterations. I'll fire her Monday when she comes in for a follow-up. Not a house call. I make these promises and at the same time fight an overpowering glee to go for the eyes. The car parked ahead of me has a promotional bumper sticker for the hospital, but I don't get the connection yet. I'm too busy seeing red, grabbing my cell phone and setting my car alarm,until I hear something (crying) in the back yard. It sounds half-human, half-cat. I steal my way around back, glancing frequently toward the house for signs of life.
The mewling grows louder as I approach the back yard, where the back door stands wide open, and there, doubled over the birdbath is (someone I know), a woman, her back to me, shoulders drawn together in pain, holding her face in a wad of paper towels. I hear the whine of a sewing machine starting and stopping, coming from the house.
"Veraline?" I jog toward her, and (she turns) though my body's trained not to be indecisive in such emergencies, I must will myself to continue to her, for Veraline has no face.
From scalp to chin her skin hangs in bloody ribbons, like somebody just fed her to a paper shredder. The eyes are thankfully still there, but the nose and mouth are useless flaps,the masseter muscles pared away from the jaw, both rows of teeth exposed. The perpetually sanguine Veraline now has a perpetual grin.
She has vomited into the bird bath, long white strands of partially digested food and mucus still dripping from her mouth.Her pitiful attempts to clean up and apply compression to her injuries with a fistful of two-ply paper towels sets my stomach on fire.
"On the ground, Veraline," I order.
To my relief, she sinks to her knees (grinning at me),amazingly coherent.
"Head to one side." I help her. "Can you breathe?"
A feeble nod before she retches again. I punch in the hospital emergency service on my cell phone, giving up on my right hand and using my left. I glance back at the house and its sounds of sewing and--singing. Back to Veraline. "Did she do this to you?"
Veraline's eyes answer me, bulging in terror, blinking fast against blood and tears. She's straining to see the house and trying to tell me something else. The ambulance service is on the line.
I put it together that Veraline's daughter... In five steps I'm on the back door stoop, barking nonstop instructions to the ambulance. I disconnect, tuck the phone in my jacket, and listen. (Singing, the sewing machine starting and stopping) Change my course. Instead of entering the back door, I quickly make my way to the other side of the house, where the sewing room is.
I step into the flower bed, crushing pansies as I make my way along the side of the house. A sharp north wind billows curtains out of the window before I notice (not curtains) that this thing is coming, in fact, from the sewing machine and through the window.
I move closer, soundlessly, starting and stopping with the machine. At the window I can see Dinple sewing two full reams of material together lengthwise, about twenty five yards of wedding satin alongside Navaho-print camper cotton. Single file along the white satin train are blood stains (blood roses), all remarkably similar in pattern. I move closer.
Veraline's daughter, frozen with terror, stands by one of the mannequins. I can see she's been crying. I raise a finger to my lips and try to produce my most reassuring smile.
The bitch sits at the sewing machine, hunched, hands darting around the sewing foot. She wears a Walk-man and sings a bad rendition of Amy Grant, her feet stomping out (kick-ball-change)a hyperactive two-step when she's not bearing down on the sewing pedal. Music blares full-volume out of the headset.
I watch her through a sewing cycle, starting and stopping.She stops only long enough to do one of three in succession, as orderly as the sewing room around her.
To her left is a professional steamer on a stand. Pressing as she goes, she scalds her wedding camper masterpiece every few feet. On the second stop, she sews a straight line rachet-rachet-rachet into her left index finger, disengages the wheel(and the needle), wipes down the entire sewing cam, and with her finger bloody to a pulp, spurts her own blood into a plastic mixing bowl on her right, continuing to sing and sew. The third stop, she dips her hand into the bowl and presses a fan of petal patterns, blood roses--onto the white satin train.
I'm not sure I care to imagine how many times she's sewn through her finger to create this monstrosity, or how much Valium was required. I can't get to her here, through this window, and my right hand is now virtually useless. The ring finger is locked down fast (won't move) with a tremor I know she will surely hear if she hasn't already seen.
I quickly return to Veraline (grinning at me), who's somehow holding her own. Shock is inevitable, but she's still breathing without assistance.
"Your daughter's okay." I take her hand. "Hang tight," I urge. "I'm going back."
I'm on the stoop in three strides this time, bursting into the kitchen, a quick inventory for an execution instrument to (kill the bitch) take care of things.
In here, the stench of a garbage dumpster: rotting bananas,onions, sour milk, and cat litter. The counter tops belch exposed and spoiled food. A flat of broken eggs with dried yolk is splattered up and down the cabinet doors. Shriveled, molded tomato and onion slices lay along the edge of the sink, whole heads of lettuce wilted to mulch. A five-pound coffee can overfilled with bacon lard is congealed to the top of the stove.The litter box, full of turd. A mountain of filthy dishes, pots,and pans rise out of the sink. Corpulent cockroaches dart outinto the light, feelers twitching.
In the next room, the starting, stopping continues. The hallway is crammed with yard signs, the same kind of obscene overproduction as that going on in the sewing room. No way she intends on selling all these things, and not only that - I now notice the walls (with reggae-style nail marks),caulked in with the same Tempera she uses to brighten the cheeks of the Missus Claus and dash the feathers on Turkey Gobble.
Spy a fifteen-inch iron skillet in the dish pile and yank it out with a clatter, slinging cockroaches across the room. In the hallway, a yard sign crashes to the floor.
Music (kick-ball-change) continues from the sewing room.
The skillet firm in my left, I slide along the wall toward the sewing room, my right ring finger locked down tight, and a tremor she can surely hear over everything else. I shove my useless hand inside my jacket, the skillet behind my back, and walk into the room.
Veraline's daughter is too terrified to move. She follows me with her eyes only.
Dinple continues singing with the blaring headset.
I stop by the steamer.
She makes two more cycles before she reaches up, turns off the headset, and grins at me.
I step back. It's more like a baring of teeth, lips curled,eyes darting from my face to my (pocketed) useless hand.
"Too bad you're not a lefty." Venom in her voice, eyes crazy-mean. I'm ready to strike - but I wait.
For in all of this, you see, I remain somehow mindful of the oath I took to first do no harm.
"Don't underestimate me." I tighten my grip on the skillet.
She picks up a scrap of cotton lining off the sewing table. "How's the hand?" Still jittering her feet and giggling,she starts bandaging what's left of her finger.
I ignore the question as I hedge closer to the steamer."Why Veraline?" I can hear her grinding her teeth.
She glances my way and continues winding the bandage around her finger. Blood instantly soaks through. "I told her not to mess with my cat," she says, matter-of-factly.
I am no longer surprised by anything that goes on here. I test the weight of the skillet.
"Try something better," I say.
She stops. "Think you've got this one all figured out,don't you doc?" She bolts off the sewing chair with uncanny agility, a seam ripper(out of nowhere) cocked just inches from my face. Veraline's daughter darts out the door and down the hallway. Water gurgles in the steamer, finishing with a hiss.
I also hear sirens.
"Don't underestimate me," she whispers, the seam ripper steady at my jugular, two-inch talons coiled around the handle.Her hand bleeds freely, dripping on my arm.
She doesn't seem to notice.
Over her shoulder, I can see the neighborhood entertainment is at it again, standing out in the street this time. He's pissing and watching Veraline.
"You don't know jack about real pain," she continues. "How somebody might need to rake the goddamn walls every fucking night of the week."
I'm calculating time and distance from the seam ripper to my face and the skillet to the nearest large bone.
She transfers the seam ripper to her right, wielding her bloody hand in front of my nose. "Blood sacrifice, doc. All the rage now. Blood is life." She snickers. "This is about becoming. And you thought this was about a seizure."
I'm beginning to follow. Dinple has had no intention of overcoming her illness, but propagating it. All this bizarre ritual is trained toward doing nothing more than buying time.Eternal psychedelia. Altered perceptions forever. She becomes from one generation to the next with these bizarre rituals and human sacrifices. Or so she thinks. Then again, I recall the dates on the prescription bottles. "Just how old are you?"
She throws her head back and howls in laughter. I realize then I really don't want to know, either. I glance (she follows)toward the window. "Your friend's back," I say.
I bring the skillet roundhouse fashion, full force into her femur, but not quick enough to miss the seam ripper that plunges deep into my left forearm. She topples backward as it hooks deep into the vein, spraying my own copper tonic in my face.
The skillet jounces off her hip with a thwack and sails out the window. On the floor Dinple howls, clutching her thigh, legs askew,rolling up, going for the knee-caps. I snatch at the steamer,flailing, toppling the stand in her way, my left arm on fire,struggling to the steam head, groping for the trigger. I find it just before her nails tear at my knees. I recoil (kick-ball-change) and somehow remain upright. My fingers slip off the trigger and on again for a two-handed squeeze and one-hundred pounds of steam pressure to the face. Dinple crawls away,howling and clawing her eyes, the stench of (three-day barbecue) second-degree burns filling the room.
I stumble to the window and collapse against the casement, a graceless pratfall into the pansies, swaddled in the bloody wedding camper train like an airline rescue chute.
The resident flasher has lost his spot to the ambulance,where they're loading Veraline (grinning) and her daughter.Somewhere in Dinple's house, over the howling, I hear the squelch of an answering machine.
The same day Veraline got a new face in Little Rock, Dinple hanged herself in the County Jail's holding cell. The state (with a docket eight months full) was set to prosecute Dinple Musslewhite in turn on two counts of attempted murder. My husband hands me the telephone. "Coroner," he says.
"Don't," I warn him. My practice is only now recovering from several weeks of slow schedule.
He shrugs. "You should've referred her out."
Seems the coroner, in the process of declaring death and removing the body, has stumbled over something interesting.
"I've never seen anything quite like this, Joy."
When a coroner says that, I take note.
Turns out the body they retrieved from the County's isolation unit was, according to the first on the scene, in a state of molting. Once unstrung, the carcass decayed at such a rapid rate, the medical examiner was unable to perform the standard autopsy upon its arrival at the county lab.
The jailer had allowed the prisoner unlimited access to books, among them a generous supply of manuals on divination and sorcery. Deep piles of paperbacks and hardcovers spilled off the cell's bunk. The chapter headings on blood letting, marking, and consumption were neatly dog-eared and underscored, especially those rituals purported to facilitate cell regeneration.
The possibility of Dinple propagating her miserable and bloodthirsty existence for yet another lifetime, and particularly for preying upon medical professionals, is not a topic I feel I can freely share at the hospital's next staff meeting. Until I can prove anything, I must keep this story to myself. If my conclusions prove true, somewhere out there is Dinple Musslewhite, alive and well, setting up shop and conspiring to lure her next victim.
By mid-June we're on our yearly vacation to Arizona. It's a scorcher of a Tuesday, and I'm draining a liter of Evian while studying the Road Atlas. We're plotting a more scenic route after getting lost. So I'm tracing the farm road options with a high lighter when I begin to notice the tremor again.
"Damn," I mutter. I try to shake it out. "Haven't had this in months."
"There's more water in the cooler," my husband reminds me."Want to pull over?"
The tremor is growing stronger.
"No, turn here," I say. I catch my reflection in the windshield. I see glee.
"But I think this is a residential district, hon." Hubby's puzzled.
I'm scanning the street. "I know."
I work on heads. The brain is a fascinating neural network,and I've never doubted its terrible capabilities. Particularly when things go wrong.