Authors: D.J. Palmer
morning, Nina called Dr. Wilcox's office with hope in her heart, eager to make that appointment, but her call was put through to the answering service. She spent the rest of her morning conducting a home visit with Michael Cooper, which took her mind off Simon and everything for an hour. The Cooper children had the day off from school, and Michael was working from home, so the timing was good for everyone. What did she learn? Marriage is hard. Michael was lovely. He and Wendy, as she found out, broke up because of the same behaviors she and Glen had been dealing withâtoo much other stuff and not enough them. The kids were fine at Michael's. It was a perfectly safe environment, and her recommendation would be for joint custody, end of story.
Not long after leaving the Cooper home, Nina's phone rang. She thought it might be Michael calling, letting her know she'd left something behind, but instead it was someone from Dr. Wilcox's office.
“I got your message just now. I'm sorry, we're trying to get to all of Dr. Wilcox's patients. There'sÂ â¦ there's been a terribleâ¦” Nina heard the sharp intake of breath over the phone. “There's been a terrible tragedy,” the woman finally got out.
“Oh, my God,” Nina said. “Is Dr. Wilcox all right?”
“No, she's not,” said the woman. “There was a home invasion.”
Nina had heard something about that on the New Hampshire news channel but did not recall that a victim had been identified.
“The doctors aren't sure she's going to make it.”
I met Ben in the library during lunch period to catch him up on the conversation with my father. We found a quiet corner near the biography section for us to talk. Reliving the conversation I had with my dad brought all those messy emotions right back to the surface. When the tears came, as I knew they would, Ben was at the ready with a tissue. It was sweet how much he cared, but I felt terrible about monopolizing our friendship with my problems.
“I'll tell you when you become annoying,” Ben said with a smirk that almost put a smile on my face.
“Thank you,” I said, dabbing my eyes, feeling exhausted and more than a bit embarrassed. Ben must have thought I went through the day crying.
“Do you remember the area code where he called you from?” he asked.
“It was an eight-oh-two,” I said. With my emotions so supercharged, I had forgotten to look up the location. Ben took my phone, and two seconds later he had the answer.
“Vermont,” he said.
“Vermont?” My voice inflection implied it was the last place in the world I thought he might be. “What's he doing there?”
Of course Ben couldn't answer, so instead he gave a shrug.
“Could be he's there. Could be the call was spoofed.”
“Caller ID spoofing,” said Ben, as if those extra words would jog some memory. “It's a hacker thing,” he explained. “You can make calls that look like they're coming from anywhere in the country, the world even. It's super easy to do, and I think it's even legal.”
“You don't own a cell phone,” I said, eyeing him suspiciously. “How do you know all that?”
“There are other ways to get on the internet, Maggie,” he said, kind enough to not punctuate his observation with a “duh.”
I took my phone from him so I could see what was on the screen, and there it was, clear as could be: an area code search showing 802 as belonging to the entire state of Vermont. We'd gone to Vermont a few times on family trips, including during the February vacation before Dad had disappeared. We went skiing at Jay Peak, a mountain near the Canadian border, and it was so cold that I spent most of the time in the indoor waterpark.
They had this ride called La Chute, which is French for “you'll scream your face off.” Riders enter a tube something like sixty feet in the air, and then drop almost vertically, going fifty miles an hour before you hit the loop, a 360-degree put-your-stomach-in-your-nose total freak-out. Connor wouldn't do it, but Dad would. We probably scrambled our brains riding that thing over and over again. Maybe that's why he snapped and had to go into hiding.
think he's in Vermont?” I asked.
Our librarian shushed me from behind her desk. I guess I'd shouted at the thought of yet another of my father's deceptions.
“I'm hypothesizing. It's a possibility,” said Ben, talking like a science teacher.
“And I know he loves to fish. He'd go every Saturday,” I said, feeling a powerful need to defend my father, trying to dispel the possibility of yet another of his lies. “So why not go there? Doesn't Vermont have great fishing?”
“Why go anywhere at all?” asked Ben.
“Back to that,” I said. “The big mystery is why he left in the first place.”
“Tell me again what he said.”
So I told him, as best as I could remember. I wished now that I had recorded the call, if only so I could've heard Dad's voice again. It had been a disturbing, strange, emotional, and confusing conversation. I kept hearing him crying; something I'll never forget.
“Sounds to me like it's really important to your dad that Mr. Fitch looks after you all, like with money and stuff,” Ben said, reflexively using Simon's last name, because we were in school. I nodded, having had the same impression.
“I get it,” I told him. “I just don't get why he can't come home, and why I can't tell Mom or Connor that Dad's alive and well. And why would he say he's done bad things and hurt people? And what did Mom do? He's blaming her for something and told me it can't go unpunished. What's that all about?”
Ben gave another shrug. “I don't understand my parents. How the heck can I understand yours? But he told you to make nice with Simon, right?”
Again, I nodded. “Yeah, make the peace because Simon's helping out financially and my dad can't.” I made it sound as if sucking up to Simon would be harder than taking one of Ben's math tests. “I suppose I could get Mom to quit her job. That would make Simon happiest of all.”
Ben looked confused. “Why does he care if she's working?”
I laughed because I lived it and Ben didn't, but still, he'd picked up on something that had never made sense to me.
“He says it's because of meâI need my mom around more, I'm really fragile right now, and I need her full attention.”
“You seem to be doing fine,” Ben said. “More than fine. Like, you dealt with Laura Abel and all that stuff while your father was missing. That doesn't make sense. Maybe Mr. Fitch thinks
should be the one to make all the money.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“But Seabury's not cheap,” Ben added. “You'd think he'd be psyched your mom was making extra money.”
That was a head-scratcher for me, too. We all knew teaching wasn't a path to riches.
“Could be he has family money,” suggested Ben.
“Possible. My dad said he was going to check into Simon. Maybe he did. Maybe he found out Simon's rich and that's why he wants me to make the peace.” I paused because something wasn't sitting right with me. “But Simon has to rent out his house to afford ours,” I added.
A surprised look came to Ben's face. “Really? That doesn't sound rich to me. We have a ski condo that we rent, and it's like a super-big hassle. My dad is always complaining about renters, cleaning, maintenance, all that stuff. If he had the money, he wouldn't rent it to anybody.”
“Well, Simon rents his,” I said, not really seeing Ben's point. “It's got access to the lake and is close to skiing, so he says it's filled up pretty much all the time.”
“How much is the rent?” he asked.
“I don't know,” I said, annoyed now, because what did rent have to do with my father? “We don't really talk about it.”
“You've been there?”
I nodded. “We went swimming there once or twice, back when he was getting ready to move in with us.” I pursed my lips together like I had sucked on a lemon.
“So you know what it looks like?” he said.
Ben went to work on my phone. “What are you doing?” I asked.
“Trying to figure out how much rent he gets,” Ben said.
“We're trying to get a sense of how much money he's got, right? So this rent, plus his job, minus what your house costs, should tell us something.”
I didn't get a strong feeling that Ben knew exactly what he was talking about, because as kids we didn't deal with money. Even so, it was an interesting exercise, so I went along with it. Ben had pulled up all the rental properties in Seabury listed on Airbnb, which was one of the websites his parents used to rent their ski condo.
I looked through the pictures from the search results, but none of them were of Simon's place. He had a small ranch home with an attached garage and a nice green lawn. The listings here were cottages mostly, or places that looked like ski lodges, or extremely small houses that were right on the lake. Simon's place had a short walk down a narrow path to a small rocky beach where you could swim or launch a kayak or a canoe, neither of which Simon owned.
“So, none of these?” Ben said, as he scrolled through the list again.
Next, Ben checked out VRBO, another rental website he knew about. The properties here were similar, some were the same, but none were Simon's robin's-egg-blue ranch home. We checked Craigslist and a few other sites Ben found using Google, but again not one of them listed Simon's home.
rich,” I said. “I mean rich enough that he doesn't have to rent out his place.”
“Yeah, sure,” said Ben, a bit absently, because he was thinking of something. “But why bother lying about renting it?”
I fell silent until a thought struck me.
“I don't know why,” I said. “But I may know someone who might help us figure it out.”
Unable to sit still, Nina paced the tiled floor in the main lobby of Lakes Region General Hospital, waiting for Ginny and Susanna to arrive. Ginny cried upon learning the horrible news from Nina. She was Dr. Wilcox's patient as well, and Susanna had asked to join the quick noontime visit as a supportive friend.
She called Simon to share the terrible news. He stammered before he spokeâshocked, she thought, like everyone.
“So, she'sÂ â¦ she's definitely going to make it?”
Nina found his phrasing odd. He did not sound hopeful, but more like he couldn't believe it was possible.
“The doctors aren't sure,” Nina said. “I'm at the hospital now. Ginny and Susanna are on their way.”
There was a long pause.
“Okay,” he said, lengthening the word as if in thought. “That's just awful. I'm really sorry. Keep me posted, will you?”
Nina told him she would and said her good-byes.
As she waited, a recurring question spun a web through her mind, trapping her thoughts:
Who would have done this? Was it a patient? Someone with a grudge? Or was it simply a random attack?
Nina pushed aside those questions to focus on her friends. She realized it was the first time in ages that Las Tres Amigas had been together, but the grim circum
stances made it a joyless reunion. They hugged, Ginny dabbing at her eyes, causing Nina's eyes to fill as well.
“What have you heard?” Susanna asked.
“Let's go,” said Nina. “I'll tell you on the way.”
They signed in as visitors and followed the signs to the third floor, where Dr. Wilcox had been moved after leaving the ICU. To everyone's collective disappointment, she was asleep when they arrived. A sweet-faced nurse agreed to let them leave the bright bouquet Ginny had purchased, along with a card Nina had selected.
The cubicle was small and crammed with machines. Nina didn't know a thing about all of the tubes, IVs, and equipment hooked up to Dr. Wilcox, but she had no difficulty understanding the extent of damage someone had inflicted on her.
Gauze bandages covered much of her head, and hideous black-and-blue bruises made Dr. Wilcox's face somewhat unrecognizable.
Did she fight off her attacker?
Are those defensive injuries to her hands? Did her assailant use a knife?
Nina swallowed hard. Her gaze traveled back to the battered and bandaged face, taking in the horrific stain of violence.
“I'm so sorry,” she whispered. “Can I touch her hand?”
The nurse to whom Nina directed her question returned a quick nod. “She's heavily medicated, but I'm sure she knows you're here and I'm sure she's grateful.”
They stayed only a few minutes, as instructed, before taking themselves to the coffee shop across the street from the hospital. Nina got their drinks without needing to ask for anybody's order: a chai latte for Susanna, an espresso for herself, and a green tea for Ginny. It was a reminder of how close she was to these women, how well she knew their tastes, personality quirks, everything, and how little she'd seen them lately. Again, Nina found herself crediting Simon's prescience. She was no longer readily available to anybodyânot just her daughter.
Nina carried the drinks over to the table where Ginny and Susanna sat talking.
“I can't get over how awful she looked,” Ginny said, giving her tea a cautious sip.
The women talked for a time about Dr. Wilcox, the horror of her injuries, and how they might support her during the recovery process.
“Who do you think did this to her?” Susanna asked, her voice a whisper, as if the assailant could be nearby.
Nobody had a good answer. Nina contemplated sharing how she and Simon had planned to start couples therapy with Dr. Wilcox, but something silenced her. She knew the impetus was the tense exchange they'd had about Hugh. It would be hard, if not impossible, to talk about Hugh Dolan without telling her friends how she'd contacted him, his attempt at extortion, to say nothing of the reason he thought they should meet.
You're not safeÂ â¦
She had no desire to dredge up Ginny's and Susanna's growing concern about Simon. Soon the conversation segued from Dr. Wilcox and possible suspects to more familiar topicsâkids, town gossip, and committee nonsense. Everyone laughed when Ginny told a story about finding a mouse in her car, which really put an end to the pall that had made even mundane chitchat feel weighty.
“It's good to talk,” Susanna said.
Ginny's eyes turned serious. “We need to make it a priority to see each other more often,” she said with authority. “What happened to Dr. Wilcox is a wake-up call to us all. Any day could be our last.”
“You just never know,” Susanna concurred. “But Nina, you've got to own this more than anybody. We don't see you anymore.”
Nina tensed at the jab, which had hit on an uncomfortable truth.
“That's not true,” she said, feeling an immediate need to go on the defensive. “We've seen each other.”
Ginny and Susanna exchanged a knowing glance.
“Girls' weekend,” Ginny said. “Workouts you can't do with us because you have a home gym.”
She said “home gym” with her nose in the air like it was highfalutin'.
“Movie dates you canceled,” Susanna said, getting her phone out. “And we're not leaving here without making a firm plan for dinner. Let's go to Cucina Toscana again. I'm dying for the calamari. It was amazing. Nina, you would know that if you hadn't blown us off the last time.”
For a moment, Nina had no idea what Susanna was talking about, but then she recalled the evening Simon had gotten suddenly and violently ill, forcing her to cancel dinner plans at that same restaurant. Something else coalesced in Nina's mind, another memory, this one more recentâthe bottle of ipecac syrup she'd found under the bathroom vanity.
She had assumed Simon brought it in the confusion of packing. People often kept outdated meds around. Of course, it was plausible he'd packed it by accident. But something else was possible, too, Nina realized.
Simon could have used the syrup on himself.
Nina searched for a motive, some reason Simon would want to purposely make himself violently ill. Her thoughts flashed to Teresa, and to Chris, her obsessive boyfriend who'd faked having cancer to keep Teresa by his side. A fierce chill crept up her spine.
He wanted to keep me home
He wanted to keep me with him. Did Simon use Maggie that night as a ploy to keep me from leaving the house?
Nina put herself back in that moment, remembering how they had both been reluctant to leave Maggie alone, especially when Simon was so ill. Had it all been an act?
Could he be using Maggie now, manufacturing emotional problems for her to try and force me to leave work?
Nina came to the stunning possibility that Simon could be waging an elaborate bit of psychological warfare, instilling doubt and worry in her for his own gain. The word “controlling” tumbled through her mind once again.
“You okay, hon?” Susanna asked with a concerned look in her eyes. “You've gone a bit pale.”
“I'm fine,” Nina answered quickly. She knew her friends would have her back, that they'd be the first to pile on Simon, warn her away, but Nina wasn't ready to hear the accusations. This could well be in her imagination, and unless she had proof, she would continue to protect the life she and Simon were building together.
“Just thinking of Dr. Wilcox, is all.”
Ginny and Susanna acknowledged the shared sentiment with weighty expressions of their own.
Nina sipped at her espresso, contemplating her next move.
There was a bank nearby. She could make a quick five-hundred-dollar withdrawal and could probably sit down face-to-face with Hugh in an hour or two. She'd pick somewhere safe, crowded. She'd make sure there was good parking for a quick escape. He wouldn't try anything, not in daylight hours. A little bit of money to discover if there was any truth to his dire warnings suddenly seemed like a very wise investment.