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Dead Ringer: Chapter Thirteen
Hello, all. Here is Chapter Thirteen!
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(Catch up here with CHAPTERS ELEVEN & TWELVE)
Monday morning dawned overcast and muggy, one of those summer days when you walk around with the feel of a wet washcloth on your face. The heavy atmosphere, along with the coming monster thunderstorm it likely heralded, had worked its way into my already jangled psyche, so that walking through the hospital lobby I wasn’t at all watching where I was going, and as I turned the corner to the elevators, I ran head first into Guy Trubiano’s exceedingly nice chest.
“Oh, my God, I’m so sorry,” I burbled, my face hot as his sturdy arms briefly went around me to help me recover my balance.
Guy laughed. “No problem.” He fixed his dark eyes on me. “Everything okay?”
“Oh, sure,” I said. “Just a little too pre-occupied, I guess.”
It looked like Guy wanted to say something more, but then he shrugged and patted my shoulder, saying, “Don’t worry. Really,” and he walked on past.
“Okay, well I hope you have a good day!” I called after him. “A better one, now that I…” but he was already out of earshot, and I got on the elevator, fussing at myself for being such a klutz, and scaring a quiet little man with glasses who huddled in a far corner and stared at the floor the entire way up.
I entered the Pastoral Care office to find Mavis slamming stacks of papers around on her desk, muttering, “Now, where is that gol-darn file?”
She shot me such an accusing look that my first instinct was to turn around and go right back out again. Instead, I took a deep breath, gave her a curt “Good morning,” and set off down the hall toward my office. I’d planned to glide past her desk, exuding dignity and above-it-allness, but the toe of my right shoe caught on a frayed edge of carpet, and for the second time in a matter of minutes I klutzed out, and tripped, catching myself on the edge of Mavis’s desk and ending with my face next to her steaming cup of coffee, my feet splayed out behind me.
We gaped at each other in shock, and then the most amazing and unwelcome thing, both of us laughed at the same time, and goddamn it if Mavis didn’t have a laugh that started somewhere south of Miami and bubbled up in an exuberant fountain of joy. What I’m saying is, Mavis had a spectacular laugh, one that made me feel all glad inside.
I didn’t like that at all. I wanted to keep the wall up. Mavis was a pain in my ass. But whatever it was between us that had gotten jarred loose wasn’t coming back together too quickly.
“You should watch where you’re going,” she said, trying to regain her general aura of pissyness, as I righted myself and straightened my shirt and adjusted my pants, but instead she hiccupped on a giggle and then snorted, which nearly set us off again.
I hurried into my office and put my nose into a series of grant reports, and she pounded away on her keyboard and barked her usual opinions into the phone regarding how poorly the people in surgery scheduling were running their office, but something had shifted.
I’d made Mark give me some of the phone numbers he’d gotten from our break-in at Weston Roper’s rented house. “C’mon,” I said. “I can log those hours for the PI paperwork.” I didn’t really care about getting licensed back then, but I hated feeling sidelined.
“Knock yourself out,” he’d said, and tore the piece of notebook paper in half, handing me a raggedy-edged scrap.
When Mavis had left for her lunch break, I shut my door so I could work my way through the list of phone numbers, calling each one and jotting notes as I went. The first was a stock broker, the second a local pharmacy, and I skipped the third number, recognizing it as Mark’s. The fourth was a dry cleaners.
It was the fifth one that made me sit up and take notice.
“Good afternoon, WindDancer. How may I direct your call?” A woman’s chirpy voice came on the line.
I was so caught off guard that all I could do was bumble, “Oh, I’m so sorry! Wrong number!”
“No problem, have a good day,” she said.
The wheels started turning, and I had to sit for a minute and digest this new information. Could this be where Rachel Roper had been all along?
WindDancer was a private hospital about fifteen miles outside of Brady. You can translate “private hospital” any way you like, but I’d suggest something along the lines of “a hospital for very rich people who didn’t like a lot of eyes on their business.”
WindDancer was where you went for plastic surgery and then hung around afterward, eating brie-and-smoked-salmon omelets with pesto-drizzled grilled red peppers for breakfast, reappearing weeks later as a perfectly retouched version of your former self.
If you had the money, drug and alcohol rehab there would be a vastly less terrible ride, with tastefully appointed rooms, gorgeous views, and a staff paid plenty well enough to be cloyingly patient.
They also had a beautiful hospice facility where loved ones could be gentled over to the Other Side in the lap of luxury, although I have to say, it sure looks to me like dying in a cashmere robe is still dying.
I called the number again, this time on my cell phone. A slightly less-chirpy woman answered. “This is WindDancer.”
“Hi,” I said. “I’m a pastor looking for one of my folks and I think she might have been admitted there. Her name is Rachel Roper. She would have come in the last several days.”
I felt the frost in her voice even before she spoke. “Surely you know we don’t give out that kind of information,” she said. “We maintain the strictest confidentiality about all our clients.”
I waited till she was done scolding me, then said, “Well, if she is there, I’m pretty sure she’ll appreciate knowing I called, and I think she won’t be too pleased to be denied access to her spiritual advisor.” Then I added, taking a shot in the dark, “Nor will her brother, Weston.”
I waited a beat and a half.
“So if you would, please, give her this message. Tell her I am available to finish our previous conversation.”
My words were met with the kind of silence that made me think I was probably on target.
“Hello?” I said.
“I can neither confirm nor deny anyone by that name is here,” she said. Icicles.
“But you wrote it down, yes?”
She made me spell my name, then, and asked, “Will there be anything else?” Arctic chill.
“No, thanks. I certainly appreciate your help today!”
She hung up on me before I could finish dishing out my gratitude.
I hadn’t entirely misrepresented myself. Rachel had asked for me at the hospital, she’d followed up with Mark, and then called me in the middle of the night sounding desperate and seeking help. So I’d massaged facts a little about Rachel being “one of my folks.” A light massage, really. Almost the barest pat.
I heard Mavis return from lunch and waited for the incessant tapping on her keyboard to begin, but there was only the faintest rustle.
“Hello?” I called and walked slowly down the hall.
Mavis sat at her desk, her back to me, and turned when I came up behind her. Her face was flushed and her eyes bright.
“Are you all right?”
“Of course,” she snapped. “I’m just catching my breath. I was worried I’d be late.”
I glanced at the clock on the wall. She was ten minutes early.
“Okay. Good. Okay.” I pretended to believe her and got back to work with the grant reports.
I called Mark from my office before I left. “Busy?”
“A little. Why, what’s up?”
“I’m pretty sure Rachel is at WindDancer. I’m going to drive out there and see.”
“Ah,” he said. “WindDancer. Yeah, that makes sense. Glad you got a hit. I struck out with my calls — a couple realtors, a banker, and some UPS delivery guy’s mobile number.”
“I’ll let you know what I find out.”
It was a fifteen-minute drive out there, along narrow, curving country roads. The main building sat atop a hill surrounded by trees and meadows. The driveway wound up the slope through some hardwoods and opened onto a lane bordered on one side by a field with a small herd of Holsteins placidly chewing and on the other a grassy pasture in which a half-dozen Appaloosas and Quarter Horses dozed in the shade or nuzzled the ground. Several outbuildings were scattered around the property, one large enough to be an indoor-riding ring with stables.
The all-brick building looked sparkling clean and new, and was bordered by carefully manicured beds filled with azaleas and gardenias and all manner of seasonal perennials. Out back and to one side perched a white gazebo, flanked by several magenta Crepe Myrtles like sentries planted in the lawn.
Wide sliding-glass doors whispered me into an enormous vaulted lobby hung with a gleaming crystal chandelier that captured the afternoon sun and sent sparks of rainbows onto the creamy walls.
The place hollered, “Money! Money! Money!”
I approached the receptionist, and before I could give my name, a young nurse stepped from around the desk and greet me, saying, “Are you Reverend Blair? Mr. Roper’s been expecting you.”
Has he, now. Well.
I followed her up a curved staircase that looked like it belonged in a five-star hotel in Vegas, then down a long hall, lush green carpet squishing beneath my feet.
I won’t lie. My heart was pounding. The nurse turned a corner and gestured with her right hand down a side hall. “At the end,” she said, offering an unnervingly sweet smile. “Room 221.”
I walked to the end and found the room number. I gave three quick knocks on the door.
“Please, come in,” Weston Roper said cordially as he swung it open. He had a voice that was not unpleasant, a voice you’d want to trust. Except I didn’t.
He stood around 6’ 3” with broad shoulders and wore a mint-green v-neck golf sweater and tan slacks. His light brown hair was closely-cropped and his neatly trimmed mustache was salted with a few strands of gray. His gray-blue eyes were clear and direct, and he carried himself with the kind of ramrod straight that shouted ex-military.
Rachel lay in bed, asleep. One arm was draped across her chest, the other tucked under the covers. Standing at the window gazing out was a man I didn’t at first recognize. Then he turned and looked at me.
“This is WindDancer’s chaplain,” said Weston.
“Hello, Lamar,” I said. “I didn’t know you had a gig here.”
Lamar Gustafson passed himself off as a quasi-Buddhist New Age priest. I knew of him from the monthly clergy group I attended just often enough to remind myself why I was such an infrequent flyer there. Lamar drove a late model Mercedes, never missed a chance to mention his time at Harvard Divinity, and had a way of swaying his head when he was trying to make a point that put me in mind of a cobra. And now here he was, gawky and weird as ever.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name,” he said. He pulled this shit every time we met.
“Blainey,” I said, nodding at him across the room.
“Ah. Yes,” he said, and went back to looking out the window.
“Ms. Blair,” Weston said, “Rachel has spoken very highly of you.”
I worked hard to keep my surprise tamped down. “I’m glad I could be of some help to her.”
“She told me everything,” he said. “She felt terrible about having come to you in the first place, but when these fantasies take hold, she is completely helpless in their grip. I told her I wasn’t angry with her, but that she had put you in an uncomfortable position.”
I wondered what he meant by everything.
“Not at all,” I said. “I have been concerned, though. When we last spoke, I was certain she was in some distress. You should know, I was alarmed enough that I filed a police report.”
I thought I detected the slightest shift in Weston Roper’s facial expression. “Ah, that was you she was talking to, then. I’m sorry you were troubled. One of the orderlies came in to find her trying to pull out her IV, and he overreacted. He’s young and very new here,” he said. “He panicked and caused a bit of a scene.”
“Ah,” I said. “I see.”
“He’s been dismissed, of course,” Weston said.
“Of course,” I said.
The awkward silence that followed was interrupted by Rachel’s quiet voice. “Blainey? Is that really you?” Her head was turned toward us, her eyes half-open. I moved over to stand next to the bed and took one of her hands.
“How are you?” I asked, fairly certain she couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me. I tried to read her face, but whatever was in the IV had made it go soft.
She gave a deep sigh. “I’m fine,” she said. “I had a bad couple of days and Weston did what he knew he had to. I think I really gave him a scare. I’m sorry, Wessie.” She spoke past my shoulder and gave her brother a wan smile, but startled me by giving my hand a fierce squeeze.
“Oh, Pumpkin, don’t apologize. Not your fault. Not your fault at all,” her brother said. Rachel continued to grip my hand.
I turned to Weston. “Would you mind if Rachel and I had a moment of prayer together?”
“Oh, of course,” he said and took a step backward, but I continued to look at him until he got the hint and walked across the room to join Lamar.
I leaned in and put my mouth close to Rachel’s ear. “Are you alright?” I whispered.
“I think so,” she whispered back. “It’s all been so confusing. What day is it?”
“Monday,” I said. “Did you tell me the truth about your daughter?”
“Why is your brother lying about it?”
“He’s ashamed and embarrassed for me,” she said.
“Why are you here?”
“I think I had…an episode,” she said. “I don’t remember much.”
“Do you remember calling Mark?”
“You called me in the middle of the night,” I said. “Do you remember that?”
“Yes,” she said. “I was afraid.”
But just then I heard Weston moving toward us, and I could tell by how her body tensed that Rachel heard him, too.
She whispered, “Please find her,” and squeezed my hand again.
“Amen,” I said, a little too loudly and made the sign of the cross on her forehead, partly to divert her brother’s suspicions but mostly because I wanted to cast a net of protection over Rachel Roper and in my helplessness didn’t know how else to do it.
“Thanks for coming,” Weston said, all the while inching me toward the door and into the hallway. Lamar still stood at the window staring out.
Weston took my arm. “I’ll walk with you,” he said.
I turned and looked at Rachel one last time and gave her a wave. Her cinnamon-colored hair fanned out over the pillow and her extraordinary blue-green eyes were pooled with tears.
“I will continue to carry your concern in prayer,” I called out to her, and she nodded and gave a smile that caused her pale face to become suddenly dazzling for a brief moment. “I promise, Rachel,” I added.
At the top of the stairs, Weston released my arm. “I’m sure your visit meant a lot,” he said. “She’s emotionally quite fragile right now.
I felt his eyes on me all the way down the stairs, through the foyer, and to the wide front door, and when I turned to look back, he was still standing there, watching.
Out on the horizon, jagged bolts of lightning flashed in the blackening sky.
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