Fan Mail – Daryl Wood Gerber

Midafternoon traffic was creeping along. Everyone on the road was edgy, thanks to the blistering heat. As I turned up the air-conditioning, I noticed two voice messages on my cell phone. Both were from my gynecologist, recorded earlier this morning before the office opened. Dr. Fisher always went to work by sunup, but she said she would give me my test results after the weekend. Why call me on Friday? Why hadn’t either rung through? My insides snagged. It had to be bad news. On the other hand, it was only a small lump. Probably nothing. Too impatient to wait, I pulled to a stop on the side of the road and played the first message. No one spoke; the message stopped abruptly. How I hated spotty reception in Lake Tahoe. I selected the second message. The doctor said, “Aspen,” and the call cut off again.

She’d sounded out of breath. In a hurry. I phoned her back, but after twenty rings and no answer, I ended the call. “Dang it!” I slapped the steering wheel on my Jeep and resumed driving, ticked off at my doctor, my body, and the world. At the junction near Tahoe City, dozens of cars were parked along the side of the road. Tourists in swimsuits and sandals, plenty of them with sunburns, stood bent over the rail at Fanny Bridge, named for the road crew foreman’s maiden aunt Fanny McGillicuddy Wilkerson, not for the countless people exposing their rear ends to passersby as they viewed the trout below. As I made a right turn toward town, out of nowhere a sedan whizzed past me and then abruptly screeched to a halt. I honked the horn. The driver flipped me off and opened the passenger door for a pedestrian, the jerk. While I waited, I drummed the center console concerned about Dr.

Fisher’s call. Why had she sounded so breathy? Why had she hung up after saying my name? Chill, Aspen. She could have done so because she realized she had her days wrong. She was busy. Heck, there were times I couldn’t figure out what day of the week it was until I consulted a calendar. Forcing worrisome thoughts from my mind, I drove through town and made a left on Polaris Road toward North Tahoe School. Minutes later, I waited in the carpool lane like all the other mothers, although I wasn’t a mother. A half year ago, my niece Candace moved in with me. When she first showed up, she was timid and confused and battling bulimia. Now, she was fourteen and fairly confident and could cook circles around me.

Candace loped to the curb and posed next to the passenger door, hand on one hip and fifteenpound book bag balanced on the other. She swiped perspiration off her forehead and threw a nasty look over her shoulder. I rolled down the window. “What’s going on?” “I’m hot and cranky. Everyone is.” “Well, lose the ’tude before you climb into the car.” “Can I drive?” “Not a chance.” “Aw.” She pouted then cracked a smile, making my breath catch in my chest. Sometimes she looked so much like me—dark hair, green eyes, the Adams’s turned-up nose—even I had trouble remembering she wasn’t mine.

Except for a few minor details like DNA, she could have been. That and the fact that I’d never had children. My ex-husband hadn’t wanted them. My boyfriend, Nick Shaper, did, but I refused to have a child without being married, and we weren’t there yet. I was thirty. Plenty of time. “In the next couple of weeks, I’ll let you behind the wheel,” I promised. Occasionally on a Saturday, I took Candace to an empty parking lot and allowed her to drive. I wanted her to be ready and fearless when she got her permit. “But not today.

Not with everyone behaving like a maniac.” “It’s the heat. It’s almost a hundred degrees.” Candace slipped into the car and fastened her seat belt. “How was your day?” “So-so.” “Was today’s final hard?” “Not too bad.” Candace was ready to be finished with homework and dive into summer. She had plenty of things planned. Waterskiing and hiking with her best friend, Waverly, and to my dismay, movies and beach trips with the new boy in her life, Rory. His name made me think of Irish brawls and free-for-alls.

Danger signs flashed in my mind. I nudged them aside. Parenting was proving to be one of the greatest challenges of my life. “Which final did you have?” I asked. “English. I think I aced the essays.” “Great.” Since obtaining official custody of Candace, I’d moved her education to the top of my priority list. For months, I’d tutored her so she would be ready to enter high school. When living with her mother—my sister, Rosie—she’d missed the first two months of eighth grade because she’d stayed home to take care of Rosie, who had suffered from a severe infection.

Luckily, Rosie had shared her love of books with Candace, so the girl was a good reader, but her math and language skills needed help. “What’s Monday’s test?” I asked as I made a right on North Lake Boulevard. “Napoleon to the present.” I moaned. She giggled. “Luckily, I like history.” “Glad to hear it.” History had never been my strong suit. My cell phone rang. I pressed the speaker button on the steering wheel.

“Hello?” “Aspen, it’s me.” Nick usually sounded upbeat and energetic. Not this time. He sounded tired. A detective for the Placer County Sheriff’s Office, his work ran the gamut from breaking up bar fights to high-end crime. We’d been dating ever since he—we—solved the murder of my friend Vikki. “I can’t make dinner.” “Okay.” I hadn’t told him about the lump. I’d planned to tonight.

The conversation would have to wait. I was okay with that because, before we spoke, I wanted to get confirmation from Dr. Fisher that cancer had not infiltrated my body. “What’s up?” “There’s been a murder.” “Oh, no. Who?” “Dr. Kristin Fisher.” “Oh, no.” A flurry of emotions stuck in my throat as the doctor’s face flashed before me. Not forty-eight hours before, I’d sat white-knuckled on her examination table as she’d explained in measured, reassuring tones that I was going to be fine.

In the two years since I’d moved to Lake Tahoe, we’d had many conversations . about teenagers and family skeletons and women’s rights. “She was my gynecologist,” I said. “Mine, too,” Candace’s eyes filled with tears. I’d set up all sorts of doctor appointments for my niece after she’d moved in. Dr. Fisher had been one of them. “You and three hundred others,” Nick said. “She must have had the largest practice this side of Sacramento.” “When did she die?” I asked.

“How?” “No, Aspen. You don’t need to—” “Nick, I can handle anything since Vikki’s murder.” I’d been the one to discover my friend bludgeoned to death, and though I was only a process server working for my aunt’s detective agency, I’d delved into Vikki’s murder with a vengeance. Nick cleared his throat. “Dr. Fisher was killed early this morning. Her office assistant found her.” “Nick, she called me this morning. Early. The first call ended abruptly.

” “The first?” “She called back. I thought she was going to give me the results of a test. I—” Guilt roiled inside me. Had the killer attacked her as she was reaching out to me? If only I’d answered. “Tell me what happened.” “I don’t want you to investigate,” Nick said. “I don’t want you to relive . you know.” I liked that he worried about me. Other than my father, no man ever had.

“I understand, but at least tell me how she died.” “Are you on speakerphone?” “Yes.” Nick sighed, his reluctance obvious. I grabbed my cell phone from the cup holder and switched to telephone mode. I knew it was illegal to drive with it in my hand, but for Candace’s sake, I had to do it. “It’s just me now,” I assured him. “Go on.” “There was quite a struggle. She was stabbed in the abdomen. It was gruesome.

A scalpel was used.” My stomach lurched. I forced the bile down. “We found the weapon. Wiped clean. No fingerprints on it.” “Any suspects?” Candace cut me a sharp look. “Her nurse is in New York on vacation. Her office assistant was having breakfast with her boyfriend.” “Who else is on your list?” “Besides the multitude of patients,” Nick continued, “we’ll be questioning her ex-husband.

He’s a pediatric surgeon in Reno. We’ll be looking at the money angle, of course, because of the size of the practice.” “Considering the weapon, it sounds like a crime of passion. Spur of the moment.” “What was the weapon?” Candace asked. I silenced her with a look. “Did you review patient files, Nick?” “A few.” “Mine?” “Why? Do you have secrets? Perhaps another lover?” I welcomed his teasing during such a grim conversation. “As if. You’re all the man I can handle.

” After the debacle of my marriage, I hadn’t believed I could love anyone again. But Nick was different. Special. A man filled with integrity and courage. He had been by my side as I took on the responsibility of raising Candace. He’d helped me deal with her illness. How many men would have done that? “Most of the files were strewn on the floor,” he said. “A real mess. Detective King is going through all of them.” Kendra King was Nick’s number two in command.

“As one of the doctor’s patients,” he went on, “you’ll be contacted at some point. I’ve got to go. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.” “We’re going to the Tavern for dinner,” I said. “If you can swing by on your way home, please do. You’ve got to eat.” “Man, I hate this part of my job.” “I know.” I blew him a kiss and received one from him in return. Candace swiveled in her seat.

“Dr. Fisher was so nice. Who would kill her?” “I don’t know.” I rolled down my window to let the scent of pine inside, but the aroma didn’t calm me as it normally would. Sorrow gripped my heart and my mind was a jumble of thoughts. Who had killed Kristin Fisher and why? Chapter 2 “Did Nick tell you who the suspects are?” Candace asked as I maneuvered the Jeep around curves toward the Homewood Tavern, my go-to restaurant for more than a year. Over the past hour, she’d asked me numerous questions. I hadn’t provided any responses. She deserved my attention. “The doctor’s ex-husband is one.

” “No way. I met him. At the office.” “I didn’t.” And I was always with her for appointments. “You’d gone to get a coffee. He was nice.” Though still timid in some ways, Candace had strong opinions about murder and didn’t hesitate to voice them. Crime investigation shows on television had become her passion. “He was gentle.

” “Gentle people commit crimes.” “How did it happen?” Up until now, she hadn’t asked that question. I was hoping she would skip it. I shuddered as the few details Nick had revealed cycled through my mind. I chose the one that I could share. “There was a struggle. The office was a mess. Files were strewn everywhere.” “Maybe it was a robbery.” Candace tugged the hem of her white cable-knit sweater.

When we’d met in the foyer to leave for dinner, we’d laughed. We had dressed the same—sweater over jeans. “I’m starved,” I said, eager to change the subject. “Are you hungry?” “Sort of.” I pulled into a spot in the Tavern parking lot. As I set the handbrake, I gazed past the rustic building and caught a glimpse of the lake and surrounding mountains, which were a majestic purple in the waning light. The image helped me draw a deep calming breath. Lake Tahoe was magnificent. As long as the English Channel and half again as wide as San Francisco Bay, it shimmered with blues and greens that artists loved to recreate. We took the front steps two at a time and pushed our way through the restaurant’s saloon-style doors.

Inside, laughter and the strains of the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” greeted us. A few regulars standing by the colorful jukebox recognized me and waved. I waved back. The bar area was filled with sunburned patrons. People often forgot about how intense the sun’s rays could be in Tahoe’s altitude. The city was a mile above sea level. “Follow me,” I said to my niece. As was typical in summer, even after a hotter than hot day, the night was chilly. A fire crackled in the stone fireplace. The piquant aroma of burning wood was delicious.

I steered her into the bar toward one of the many oak tables for two, each set with a hurricane candle. Gwen Barrows, the owner of the restaurant and a good friend, was nowhere in sight. The newest addition to the staff, Peggy, a bony-shouldered bartender, was flipping channels on the television hanging above the bar. She stopped on ESPN, which was broadcasting the latest skateboard competition. “Hey, Peggy,” a red-faced man at the bar yelled. “When did you install the squawk box?” “Last week. Nowadays, people want to keep in touch with news and sports.” “Not me.” “This place doesn’t cater only to you,” she quipped. I tossed my leather tote on the chair and said to Candace, “Pepsi or Seven-Up?” “Pepsi with a cherry?” Despite her newfound confidence, she hadn’t quite learned how to give an order without a question mark.

“Peggy—” “On it,” she replied. “Pour me a glass of the house chardonnay.” Gwen diligently watched her expenses and income, but she never cut corners on liquor. There were more than ten quality beers on tap at all times, as well. In less than a minute, Peggy filled the order. “Aspen, can I pick some songs on the jukebox?” Candace asked. “Sure.” I handed her a couple of quarters. She grabbed her drink from the counter, sauntered toward the machine, and dropped in a coin. She depressed a button and seconds later her narrow hips began swaying in rhythm to the Eagles’ “Take It Easy.

” A girl after my own heart. I adored classics by the Eagles and Elvis and Sinatra, but I also enjoyed the latest from Beyoncé and Lady Gaga. “Hey, darlin’.” Gwen sashayed through the kitchen doors, an apron around her waist, white Vneck T-shirt revealing her curves, her red hair carelessly curly. “How’s my daredevil PI? Any Friday specials? Discounts on subpoenas or for tailing cheating husbands?” Not that she would need my services. Gwen wasn’t married. She had dumped her last philandering husband years ago. “I actually delivered a restraining order this morning,” I said. “On a runner.” “What’s a runner?” “A guy who has been on the move, changing address after address so he won’t get caught.

” “Aha. Inside lingo. I like that. Makes me feel like one of the team.” Gwen wanted me to quit my job and return to being a therapist, but I wouldn’t. Couldn’t. Dealing with emotionally troubled teens at the Bay Area Rehabilitation Clinic, also known as BARC, was not how I wanted to spend the rest of my years. The suicide of my last patient had nearly sent me over the edge. My current employment was stimulating and basically safe, seeing as most of my duties involved serving papers or following errant spouses from a distance. Gwen wiped perspiration off her upper lip.

“Peggy, pour me a water please.” Peggy moved away to handle the order. Gwen motioned in her direction. “That Peggy is as edgy as a hen in a rooster’s bedroom.” My friend’s southernisms tickled me. She’d moved to Tahoe from North Carolina years ago, but the accent and jargon had remained. “I don’t think that girl will last a month, you ask me.” “She seems good with the customers,” I said. “In nothing flat, she put that sunburned guy at the end of the bar in his place.” “Good.

That dude drives me to drink.” Gwen lifted the hatch and moved behind the bar. As the plank slammed into place, the television volume grew in pitch. “Turn it down, bozo.” Gwen glared at a stocky man who had taken it upon himself to tweak the sound. He pointed to his ears. “I can’t hear.” “Get a hearing aid.” I took a sip of my wine. Gwen jabbed her thumb in the direction of the TV.

“Well, look who’s gone prime time.” I peered at the television screen. KINC Evening News was on. Gloria Morning, the reporter who had covered Vikki’s murder for the Tahoe Daily Tribune, had switched careers. She was now a coanchor on the year-old news station. “Do you think KINC will make a go of it?” Gwen said. “Who knows?” Reno was the strongest market in the surrounding area, boasting affiliates for NBC, ABC, and CBS. KINC, which was located in the town of Incline Village at the north end of the lake, had been making a play to become the main news source in the Lake Tahoe area. Its popularity had risen twenty percent since hiring Gloria. With a pixie face, Cupid’s bow mouth, and big doe eyes, Gloria was charming but not in the least intimidating.

A winning combination. “She reminds me of a young Katie Couric,” Gwen said. “Funny you’d say that. In time, she hopes to move to a major network.” After Vikki’s murder was solved, Gloria had begged me for an exclusive interview. I’d agreed. To my surprise, she had shown great sensitivity with her questions. Since then, we had become friends and met for coffee the first Friday of every month. Due to her busy schedule, I had yet to introduce Gloria to the Tavern, and more importantly, to Gwen. “Did you hear about this, Aspen?” Gwen pointed at the television.

A picture of Dr. Fisher had come into view. “Nick informed me. I’m so upset. She was my doctor.” “It’s harrowing. And here I thought Tahoe was once again serenity personified.” On the television, Gloria said, “Many of you know I had the opportunity to interview this popular doctor. The interview aired last night. Here’s a snippet of what she shared with me.

” Dr. Fisher’s cream-colored office appeared on the screen with Gloria perched on the patient’s table in a dressing gown. Dr. Fisher, who had turned fifty in February, though she barely looked forty, held a file in her hand. Her white jacket looked crisp and fresh. Her understated diamond necklace sparkled. “The most important thing when conferring with your gynecologist is to ask as many questions as you can.” Seeing her alive made every ounce of me ache. I swallowed hard. “Remember, you are responsible for your body.

” She smiled warmly into the camera. “I have an exhaustive checklist that I go over every time I meet with a patient.” She wasn’t kidding. I had answered the questions more than once. Like a blip on a radar screen, the interview vanished and Gloria, looking appropriately somber, reappeared on the KINC newsroom set. “Sources from the Placer County Sheriff’s Office reveal that the doctor’s ex-husband, Dr. Edward Bogart, a pediatric surgeon in Reno, is a person of interest.” I said, “Who leaked that?” “Dr. Fisher’s office assistant, I’ll bet.” Candace drew next to me and sipped her soda.

Shoot. She had been listening to the news report. The music on the jukebox hadn’t distracted her. How I wanted to protect her from the real world. She’d experienced enough suffering in her young lifetime. “Sweetie, this isn’t something you should be concerned about.” Candace gave me a look that only teenagers could manufacture, head cocked, mouth twisted with mock contempt. “Dr. Fisher was really cool.” “Yes, she was.

” “You know, murder is always about money or revenge.” “Okay, that’s it,” I said. “No more crime shows for you. I don’t care how attractive the leading actor is.” “C’mon.” I sliced the air with my hand, ending the argument. “What does Nick think?” Gwen asked. I kept mum. “Don’t try to pry anything out of her. She won’t say a word,” Candace said to Gwen.

“Hey, what if one of the patients got a bad prognosis and lashed out?” “Or didn’t like the doctor’s bedside manner?” Gwen said, leaning forward on her elbows, caught up in Candace’s ardor for villainy. “Or the killer was Gloria Morning?” Candace chimed. “Gloria wasn’t a real patient,” I said. “You don’t know that,” Gwen countered. “And are you excluding her because she’s a friend, because—ahem—you’ve thought friends were guilty before.” I moaned. Gwen was referring to when I’d suspected her of killing Vikki. Long story, another lifetime. Luckily, she had forgiven me my idiocy. I downed a swallow of wine.

“No way would Gloria, or anybody I know for that matter, do something as horrible as—” I stopped short. Tears surfaced. I willed them to stay put. “As horrible as what?” Candace reminded me of an alert kit fox with its ears perked up. “Do me a favor.” I aimed a finger. “Go see if there are any French fries available in the kitchen.” Candace hated being dismissed, but she went anyway. “What else is bothering you?” Gwen laid her hand over mine. “You’re as tight as—” “A snare drum?” I asked.

“I was going to say a top.” I shrugged. My ex was a conductor. Out of habit, I’d learned to compare things to musical instruments. “I was waiting for some news from Dr. Fisher.” “About?” “I have a lump.” Gwen signaled Peggy to tend the bar and left her post. She perched on the stool next to mine. “You never noticed it before?” “Nope.

” “Did your mother have any lumps, benign or otherwise?” “No.” My mother had been fifty-five and in good health when she and my father were killed. I’d never know the odds of whether she would have contracted breast cancer. “And Rosie?” “Not to my knowledge,” I said. My older sister was a mess. Using heroine and more had ravaged her body. Detecting breast cancer, I imagined, was low on her list. Seeing as I had no desire to call and ask, the secrets of her medical history would go with her to her grave. “Hey, Gwen, refills,” yelled a guy at the end of the bar. Gwen scanned the area.

“Where did Peggy go?” She huffed. “Darlin’, I’ll be right back.” She went about her business with the elegance of a dancer, arms moving rhythmically as she emptied old drinks and poured new ones. Left alone, I mulled over my last conversation with Dr. Fisher. She’d told me that knowing one’s genetic history was not as reliable as it used to be. Now, one in eight women would develop breast cancer. Even women without a family history of the disease could get it. I could be a statistic. When Gwen returned, she covered my hand with hers, the warmth reassuring. “The results were due when?” “Monday, but with the murder . ” I hung my head in shame because I was thinking of my own problem and not Dr. Fisher’s death. Gwen squeezed my hand. “Ask Nick to let you peek in your file. He can do that. After all, somebody will take over the doctor’s practice. They’ll be reviewing everything. For all you know, they may already have an interim physician seeing to emergencies.” With three hundred patients’ files needing to be sorted out, mine, in the big scheme of things, was insignificant. Other patients had to come first. I sat straighter. Other patients . “Gwen,” I said, “Candace may be right.” “About what?” I pulled my cell phone from my tote and dialed Nick. When he answered, I said, “I think your killer may be a patient or someone related to a patient. Not Dr. Fisher’s ex-husband.” “Why?” he asked. “Call it professional courtesy, but another doctor knows how long it would take to rearrange all of those files on the floor. A patient with something to hide is who I’d suspect.” “Aspen . ” I pictured Nick scratching the stubble on his chin, trying to maintain his composure. “I think it’s one of the patients, too,” Candace said over my shoulder. She set a plate of fries on the bar along with a bottle of catsup. “Because there was no reason to throw around the files unless he was covering up something. He was angry.” I said, “He could be a she.” “Freshen your soda?” Gwen said to Candace. “Yes, please.” Candace leaned in to me. “Tell Nick that when I get angry, I break something. Like when I broke that perfume bottle after Mom called.” I winced, recalling the incident all too vividly. A gallon of Clorox had been required to remove the stench from the bathroom. I told Nick Candace’s theory. “I’m theoried out,” he said. One of the reasons he had left the San Jose Police Department and found a position with the Placer County Sheriff’s Office was because there had been too much murder, too much blood. Dealing with repeated savage acts had damaged his soul. The homicides cropping up in Lake Tahoe had to be magnifying the pain. “Good night. I’ll call you tomorrow.” “I miss you,” I said, knowing I wasn’t overstepping. He needed to be wanted as much as I did. Our respective divorces had pared a pound of trust from our hearts. Nick said to a woman who’d yelled his name in the background, “I’ll be right there.” To me, he said, “I miss you, too.” As I pocketed my cell phone, worry cut through me. The sheriff’s department was understaffed and overburdened. What if Nick and his crew couldn’t solve Dr. Fisher’s murder? She deserved justice. No, no, no, Aspen. Stand down. If I interfered, I could lose Nick. We had boundaries. He did his job; I did mine. Plus, the memory of a gun aimed at my head last January still made me shudder. And what would Max say? Maxine Adams, my aunt and the owner of the private investigation agency where I worked, had opinions on everything from the daily forecast to the balloting process. When it came to taking risks for no reason, she was more of a mother hen than Nick. No, I would keep my nose out of it. If only I could shake the memory of Dr. Fisher calling me and uttering my name.

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