Jessica Fletcher's favorite gin rummy partner, Mimi Van Dorn, checks into the brand-new Clifton Care Partners, a private hospital that's just opened up shop in town, for a simple procedure—one that leads tragically, and inexplicably, to her death. Seeking justice in her inimitable fashion, Jessica decides to pursue her own investigation on the hospital and its shadowy business dealings.
On the trail of what initially appears to be medical malpractice, Jessica digs deeper and learns her friend was actually a victim of something far more sinister. Death is bad for business, but murder is even worse, and Jessica will find plenty of both as she races to bring down Clifton Care Partners before someone else flatlines...
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jessica Fletcher and Jon Land
“Well, Jessica, at least I wasn’t murdered.”
The quote read by the priest presiding over Jean O’Neil’s funeral was received with a smidgen of laughter from those who’d packed the Cabot Cove Community Church. She’d been the town’s librarian from the time I’d first moved to our town, fond of greeting me with lines such as “What will it be, Jessica—more books on poisons?” She retired a few years ago when her multiple sclerosis finally grew too bad for her to continue negotiating the stacks.
In lieu of a eulogy, Jean had penned brief snippets directed at any number of town staples. I thought mine would take the cake, until Sheriff Mort Metzger’s—“Well, Mort, I guess I’m going to get away with not paying those parking tickets, after all”—got a louder laugh.
Meanwhile, the snippet for Seth Hazlitt, Cabot Cove’s resident family doctor, raised merely a collective giggle:
“I think you can cancel my next appointment, Seth.” But then “Sorry, but I don’t have a forwarding address to send my bill” got a louder reception.
I hate funerals, but then again, I don’t know anyone who likes them. Jean’s was different in the sense that she’d beaten the odds at every turn: first by outlasting the dreaded disease’s debilitating effects and then by drastically outliving her expected life span. She’d even enjoyed a final renaissance of sorts, thanks to an experimental new treatment provided by the Clifton Clinic, aka Clifton Care Partners, a state-of-the-art private hospital that had opened just outside town and was about to celebrate its first anniversary. Billed as a “rejuvenation” clinic as well as a hospital, the Clifton Clinic had drawn a steady flow of outsiders to our once bucolic town year-round, further roiling those of us who remembered what it had been like when we could greet everyone in Cabot Cove by name.
I learned a long time ago that you can’t fight change; even the beloved home I’d shared with my late husband, Frank, was undergoing extensive renovations in the wake of a fire that had nearly claimed my life. Funerals always make me think of Frank, which, I suppose, is why I’ve come to detest them so much. Frank and I practically raised our nephew Grady, which meant he grew up witnessing my fits and starts of writing back in my days substitute teaching high school English. It had been Grady who’d plucked my first manuscript, The Corpse Danced at Midnight, almost literally from the trash and given it to his girlfriend at the time, who happened to work for Coventry House, the imprint that would ultimately become my first publishing house.
And if it weren’t for him, I’d probably still be filling in for others instead of filling in the plot holes I inevitably found through my rewrite process.
Listening to the priest wax on with more of Jean O’Neil’s testimonials left me feeling I should invite Grady and his family up for a visit soon. It had been too long since I’d seen them, especially young Frank, named after my husband, and more like a grandson to me, given that his namesake and I had raised his father through a great measure of Grady’s youth. And he so enjoyed blaming some of the business scrapes he’d gotten himself into over the years pursuing this scheme or that one on having a fertile imagination to match mine.
Thinking of Grady and his family also made me realize it had been too long since I’d spoken with George Sutherland, the Scotland Yard inspector who was the only man I’d ever actually dated since Frank’s death, though I’m not sure our get-togethers were dates so much as two friends enjoying some mutual interests and each other’s company.
In other words, dates.
Since Jean had no family, the Friends of the Library had taken on the task of arranging her service and funeral arrangements, and passed on a wake or memorial in favor of a reception to follow her burial in Cabot Cove’s local cemetery, which was part of the National Historic Register. As chair of the Friends, I had the official greeting responsibilities, which I was dutifully performing outside the church when I spotted Mimi Van Dorn approaching.
“Wonderful service, Jessica,” she said, taking my hand affectionately. “I’m sure it would’ve made Jean proud.”
“Thanks, Mimi. I sure do miss her.”
Mimi looked around the front of our old church, shaking the platinum blond hair from her face. Once her natural color, it now came courtesy of a bottle. Mimi was several years older than I, but you wouldn’t know that from her appearance. She joined the Friends of the Library as soon as she moved to Cabot Cove nearly a decade ago, and we quickly bonded over our mutual love of books. Not just reading, but the need to support the printed page and, especially, libraries. I recall a particularly contentious town council meeting in which we needed to beat back a proposal to relocate our beloved library to make room for yet another high-end housing development. But Mimi launched into an impassioned speech that left those council members flirting with voting for the proposal abruptly changing their minds.
“I leave you with this, ladies and gentlemen,” Mimi had concluded, turning to face the standing-room-only crowd. “This isn’t just a choice between books and buildings, wood and words; it’s also a choice between dreams and development.
Mimi won me there and we’d been close ever since. She was one of my closest friends in town, having taught me how to play bridge, canasta, and pinochle, though gin rummy remained my favorite. She had come from old money and had settled in Cabot Cove long before it became fashionable to do so. We seldom, if ever, talked about our personal lives, but rather our favorite books over the years. We rarely agreed, which seemed to draw us even closer. I’ve bonded with people over many things through the years, but never over anything as effectively as books.
“Well, I intend to make a sizable donation to the library in Jean’s name,” Mimi said. “Perhaps to name a new collection. What was her favorite genre?”
“Anything but mystery,” I told her.
“I’m being serious here, Jessica.”
“So am I. She was a fan of classical fiction and looked forward to the day, she used to say, when I finally wrote a real book.”
“Maybe, but only in part. She used to read my books only to offer me critiques of what she deemed the more relevant parts, all of three or four pages, normally. She did that for all forty-seven of my books, and I’ll miss her doing it when number forty-eight comes out.”
“A clever way of letting you know she’d read them.” Mimi nodded, dabbing her eyes with a folded-over handkerchief, more to keep her makeup in place than out of grief.
Mimi hadn’t seemed to have aged in the years I’d known her; if anything, she looked younger. I knew how vain she was about her appearance, just as I knew how loath she was to the surgical methods to which many women resorted. She’d become a health fiend in recent years and an obsessive follower of new diets meant to assure eternal youth. We’d first met when she caught me jogging along the sea and then again when I was riding my bicycle through town. She’d thought I’d eschewed driving to get more exercise until I confessed it was because I never learned how to drive.
“But I heard you had your pilot’s license,” she’d remarked.
“I do, thanks to my late husband, Frank, who taught me how to fly.”
“But not drive? Really?”
“Not a lot of accidents up in the air, Ms. Van Dorn,” I’d said.
“So long as you don’t run out of fuel,” she’d quipped. “And call me Mimi.”
“I’ll see you at the reception, then,” Mimi resumed today, angling away from me to cross the street toward her car, parked away from the funeral procession.
Most of the rest of the crowd had moved toward the parking lot that adjoined the church. I saw Mimi reach the street and noticed she’d dropped her handkerchief on the grassy strip we’d been standing on. I stooped to retrieve it, rising to see her pause in the middle of the road, speaking heatedly into her cell phone—as an SUV, an old Jeep Cherokee, suddenly wheeled around the corner, picking up speed, headed directly at Mimi.
I lurched into motion, charging into the street and practically leaping into Mimi just before the Jeep would have struck her, the two of us locked in an uneasy embrace as we spun to the other side of the road and squeezed between two parked cars.
“Jessica,” a white-faced Mimi managed to utter, stiff and pale with shock.
“One funeral for the day is enough,” I said, forcing a smile even though I was shaking like a leaf.
I walked off toward the car belonging to the Friends of the Library member who’d be driving me to the reception to get things prepared. Cocking my gaze backward to make sure Mimi was okay, I spotted her back on her phone, yelling at whoever was on the other end of the line. Then I peered down the street, as if expecting the old Jeep Cherokee to come roaring back.
But it had disappeared.
The Cabot Cove Friends of the Library thought it fitting to host a reception at the library after Jean’s funeral. Her replacement, the great Doris Ann, had missed the ceremony in order to supervise the catering team’s setup and to make sure they didn’t damage any of the books in the process. Doris Ann didn’t greet me with the likes of “What will it be, Jessica—more books on poisons?” but she was always there to guide my research efforts, whether they be by traditional page or Internet site. Doris Ann had brought our little library into the twenty-first century, making it more popular, and relevant, than ever, and she’d jumped at the chance to organize the reception to honor her predecessor as Cabot Cove librarian.
Still shaken by Mimi’s nearly being struck by that Jeep, I ducked away from the funeral cortege and skipped the grave-site portion in order to help Doris Ann and to act as official greeter for arriving guests on behalf of the Friends. I’d been going to more and more funerals as I grew older—expected for sure, but no easier to stomach. When the number reached as many real-life murders as I’d solved, maybe I should take that as a sign to move somewhere where nobody was older than thirty.
Our little library dated back to the time when Cabot Cove had been no more than a fishing village, offering entertaining respite to wives while their husbands were at sea for weeks at a time. I can picture any number of them devouring Hawthorne and Melville, though I suspect Moby-Dick never ranked among their favorites. Losing themselves in this book or that by candlelight would’ve made for the ideal distraction from the long nights spent alone fretting over the fate of their husbands, while their children slept soundly. I like to think that the many readers of J. B. Fletcher come to my mysteries for a similarly entertaining distraction, and I revel more than anything in those who profess to have lost themselves in my books, for a short time anyway.
In addition to the classics, Jean O’Neil’s tastes in fiction seemed to run to more exotic, far-flung adventures, as she used her reading as a travelogue to visit places her deteriorating body prevented her from ever seeing in person. I recall she had a special fascination with Tahiti, but I never learned precisely why.
And now I never would. As Doris Ann and I supervised the efforts of Cabot Cove Catering in repurposing our local world of books, I tried not to fixate on the finality that came with funerals and the increasing number of them I’d been attending. I resolved again to reach out to Grady to schedule a visit.
The first guests started streaming in the very moment the setup was complete. Most seemed to bypass the cold cuts and salads for the dessert table, accompanied by old-fashioned urns of the coffee that Cabot Cove Catering was known for. Dr. Seth Hazlitt, Cabot Cove’s own resident physician, was grousing in a corner with cup in hand, looking warm and uncomfortable in a dark tweed suit that made for a stark contrast with the white or khaki linen garb that had long been his trademark around town.
“Hiding, Seth?” I said, tossing a smile his way.
“If I wanted to hide in a library, Jess, I’d take up post in the science section, since nobody reads science anymore.”
“There are far too many who don’t read anything at all these days.”
He toasted me with his cup. “Then it’s a good thing for you that there are enough that still do, ayuh.” Seth hesitated, his entire demeanor seeming to stiffen. “She fired me, you know.”
“Who fired you?”
“Jean O’Neil. I’d been treating her MS for years, even consulted with experts down at the Brigham in Boston for the latest treatments and protocols. Then she fired me.”
“I didn’t know a patient could fire a doctor.”
“Okay, replaced. With that clinic the zoning board approved for some ungodly reason.”
“Technically, the Clifton Clinic is a private hospital, Seth, and they didn’t need anyone’s permission in Cabot Cove because they set up shop outside our boundaries.”
“Still claim a Cabot Cove address, though, don’t they, Jess?”
“Like I said—technically.”
Seth took another sip of his coffee. “I think they killed her.”
“Multiple sclerosis killed Jean. She credited them with buying her another year, thanks to that clinical trial.”
Seth’s expression was hovering somewhere between a snicker and a snarl. “A clinical trial Brigham and Women’s Hospital knew nothing about.”
“It’s a big world out there.”
“Not in medicine, it’s not. I may be an old country doctor, but I’ve been working the Internet since I delivered the Mercer twins back in 1996, and I can’t find anything about this experimental protocol anywhere.”
“It bought Jean another nine decent months, Seth.”
“Which I couldn’t buy her.”
“I didn’t say that,” I said, the loudening hum of voices in my ear telling me the lobby was starting to fill up.
“You didn’t have to,” Seth Hazlitt said, in a tone I’d never quite heard him use before. “Jean did when she fired me. Go on now, Jess. Leave an old man to his misery and continue with your hosting duties.”
“Maybe I’d rather talk to you.”
He drained the rest of his coffee. “I need a refill,” he said, and walked off.
No sooner had Seth Hazlitt taken his leave than Mimi Van Dorn appeared in almost the very spot he’d occupied, looking none the worse for wear after nearly being struck by that Jeep Cherokee.
“You certainly know how to throw a bash, Jessica,” she said, as the many residents of Cabot Cove continued to stream in to pay their respects.
“I think the credit for that belongs to Jean.”
I reached out and brushed some stray crumbs from the jacket of Mimi’s designer suit. “Don’t want anything to make you less becoming, especially while wearing black.”
Her eyes scorned me. “Such a keen eye for observation, and yet the suit is charcoal gray.”
“So it is,” I said, still not able to tell the difference.
“And if it hadn’t been you, it would be stained with red right now and plenty of it. And I’d be somewhere else entirely.”
“When you write about murder for a living,” I said, making light of the situation, “it’s always nice to save a life from time to time. I was going to get a tea, but it’s coffee for you, of course.”
She smiled smugly. “Why, Jessica, you know I’ve given up caffeine.”
“Since she became my patient,” I heard a voice behind me say.
Turning, I saw a tall man with a silvery mane of hair who looked vaguely familiar. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure.”
The tall man extended his hand, about to introduce himself when Mimi cut in between us, handing him a small plate bearing a cookie identical to the one hers was holding.
“Jessica, this is Dr. Charles Clifton, director of—”
“The Clifton Clinic and Clifton Care Partners,” I completed, extending my hand to meet his. “I recognized you from your pictures in the local paper, Dr. Clifton.”
Clifton’s expression tightened. “Oh yes, those. And, please, call me Charles.”
He looked down at his cookie, as if to wonder where it had come from.
“Both gluten and sugar free, Doctor,” Mimi said, lowering her voice. “I checked with the waitstaff.”
“Well then, in that case, thank you,” Clifton said, taking the plate and leaving his cookie untouched. “No cheating, remember?”
My eyes darted between the two of them. “Mimi, you never mentioned that you were—”
She touched a finger to her lips, lowering her voice to a whisper. “Prediabetic? Because I didn’t want anyone to know about that or any other treatment I’m receiving.”
I left it there, understanding now what was behind Mimi’s more youthful appearance. Clearly, that “other treatment” referred to another of the Clifton Clinic’s well-advertised wares, specifically something called regenerative medicine, aimed at restoring more than just the appearance of youth and actually turning back the clock. I’d long laughed off the possibility of it working, but now, looking at Mimi . . .
“Well, I’d better continue my rounds,” I said, forcing a smile while hoping Seth Hazlitt hadn’t spotted us in the company of Charles Clifton.
I waited for the line to go down a bit and made myself a cup of tea, joining Sheriff Mort Metzger in front of a display of pictures of Jean O’Neil, most of them with the Cabot Cove Library as a backdrop with a variety of its patrons filling out the shots.
“She really made a difference in this town, didn’t she?” Mort said, without acknowledging me.
He’d come, appropriately enough, in uniform, leaving Deputy Andy to make the two of them a plate over at the serving tables.
“I’ll say she did, Mort.”
He finally turned my way. “Wish I’d known her better,” he offered.
“She built this place into a real library. Used to employ a fleet of volunteer high school students to deliver books to those in town who had trouble getting out.”
Mort frowned. “And now our biggest problem is keeping people out period,” he said, his eyes narrowing on a pair of men who’d just entered the reception, one well below average height and the other well above it. “Thanks to Mutt and Jeff over there,” he continued.
Known pretty much only by those monikers, they had been elected to the zoning board a few years back, helping to spur the building boom in our town, which had boasted only 3,500 residents when I’d first moved here and for many years after. Now that number had swelled to nearly three times that many year-round, and as much as ten times during the woefully crowded summer months that were upon us now. I half expected the crowd of relative blue bloods to greet the practically inseparable pair with a chorus of boos, given the antipathy with which true Cabot Covers had come to view any of those responsible for the traffic jams that dominated even the side streets this time of year. Mutt and Jeff’s well-timed entry, though, had kept most from noticing their presence.
“They didn’t create the tide, Mort. They just drove the boat.”
“You use that language in your books, Jessica?”
“Good,” he said, accepting a plate of snacks from Deputy Andy and going on his way.
Freeing me to approach Mutt and Jeff, who’d retreated into the same corner in which Jean O’Neil had stuffed unruly kids.
“Gentlemen,” I greeted, smiling at the two men who’d spearheaded the movement to relocate this very building, “how good of you to come. I know how happy Jean would’ve been, given the board’s acceptance of my proposal to deem this building part of the historic register.”
They looked at each other, then back at me.
“Surely you recall our conversation and the petition I submitted, finishing Jean’s work. All the t’s crossed and i’s dotted, you said.”
Mutt and Jeff seemed to melt into the old wallpaper.
“You said you’d take the matter under advisement,” I continued, “and when I didn’t hear back from you, I took the liberty of informing the Friends of the Library of the zoning board’s magnanimous gesture in Jean’s honor, including that wonderful plaque proclaiming this as the Jean O’Neil House. Of course, if I’ve exceeded my bounds . . .”
“No,” Mutt said.
“Of course not,” Jeff added. “But we really should—”
“And I thought I’d make the announcement here, while we’re honoring Jean. Unless you object, of course.”
“No,” said Jeff.
“We don’t object,” Mutt added.
“That’s wonderful! Oh, and I’ve penciled you in to oversee the unveiling. I hope you don’t mind.”
“We’re flattered,” from Mutt.
“Just let us know when,” from Jeff.
“I’ll do that, gentlemen,” I said, backing away. “And the Friends will be picking up the cost of the plaque to spare you the expense.”
I swung away, not about to give them the chance to change their minds. I turned toward the post Doris Ann now manned behind the circulation desk and could picture Jean smiling at me in approval.
There you go, Jessica, I imagined her saying, behind that big smile she flashed even when she had little to smile about.
The plaque and the historical record made for a fitting testament to her legacy, to the point where I wasn’t about to let politics intrude on the process.
I couldn’t help but smile, too, as I returned to the role of unofficial host of the festivities.
And that’s when I heard the scream.
I swung around in time to see Mimi Van Dorn dragging the tablecloth covering what was usually a display of recently released titles, taking all the baked goods with her to the floor.
“Help, somebody! We need some help over here!”
I wasn’t sure if whoever had cried out was the same person I’d heard scream. Either way, I pushed myself through the clutter across the room, reaching a convulsing Mimi, in the throes of some kind of seizure. Charles Clifton followed a few steps behind me, starting to kneel over her with spoon in hand when Seth Hazlitt shoved him out of the way.
“Good idea, if you want her to swallow it. Let a real doctor do this.”
He replaced Clifton alongside Mimi’s frame and checked her pulse at the neck, turning her gently onto her side.
“That’s in case she vomits, which is common during seizures,” he advised Charles Clifton. “Watch and learn.”
Clifton tried to roll with the punch. “If I didn’t know better,” he said, crouching by Seth’s side, “I’d say it was an epileptic seizure.”
Seth didn’t so much as turn his head to regard him. “You don’t know better because you’re not her doctor—I am.”
Across the library lobby, I spotted Mort with radio at his lips, calling for the paramedics, no doubt. Seth, meanwhile, checked Mimi’s neck again. His finger moved up and down, then dropped to her wrist instead. The next instant found Mimi’s seizure stop with a final jolt, her features pale white and lips turning blue.
Seth rolled her back faceup and began performing old-fashioned CPR, rotating between breathing air into Mimi’s lungs and compressing her chest. I’d seen Seth in action before, but never like this, his face taut in grim determination and resolve, as if he were holding on to a rope he wasn’t about to let go of. Mimi’s body had stilled save for an occasional spasm. The color continued to bleed from her face, and her eyes seemed to be twitching beneath the closed lids.
Mort joined Seth on the other side of Mimi’s body, waiting for instructions that never came. Seth kept up with CPR right until the moment the scream of sirens announced the arrival of the Cabot Cove Fire Department, led by our chief, Dick Mann. A pair of paramedics I recognized from my own brush with death a few months back rushed past him, taking over the resuscitation efforts seamlessly, as two firemen wheeled a gurney across the lobby between the guests, who’d separated to create a route down the middle.
“I’m going with her!” Seth insisted as the paramedics eased Mimi atop the gurney and then raised it upright.
His comment drew no response from Charles Clifton, who remained stoic and still as she was wheeled right past him.
Mort and I were waiting when Seth emerged from behind the curtain where Mimi was being treated in the emergency room of Cabot Cove Hospital, both rising from our seats as he approached.
“An allergic reaction of some kind is what I’m thinking, or maybe an adverse reaction to some medication that quack prescribed her,” he said, his tone sharp and biting. “She’s critical but stable. Comatose at the moment.”
“Oh, no,” I heard myself say. “I was just speaking with her and she seemed fine.”
“Nobody knows better than you, Jess,” Seth told me, “that these things come on fast without any warning. Treated it a bunch of times myself, almost always with children.”
“Could Clifton have been right about an epileptic seizure?”
Seth stared at me instead of answering. “Mimi had become a patient of his, too, hadn’t she?”
“That answers my question. Man’s poaching all my patients. I ought to . . .”
“Careful there,” Mort said, smiling thinly as he squeezed Seth’s shoulder, “I don’t want to be looking at you from the other side of my jail cell.”
“It’s Clifton you should be arresting.”
“On what charge?”
“I don’t think that’s a crime, Seth,” I noted.
“How about practicing medicine without a license?”
Mort scratched his scalp through his still-full head of hair. “Think I read in the Gazette that he graduated from Harvard Medical School.”
“Sure, where he specialized in salesmanship.” Seth swung abruptly toward me. “What was Clifton treating her for, Jess?”
“Mimi didn’t say exactly.”
“How about not exactly, then?”
“Well,” I said, not wanting to get Seth any more riled up than he already was, “I think she may have been diagnosed with type two diabetes.”
“Of course, she was—by me. I’ve been pushing her to do something about that for years, but her A1c just kept climbing like a fireman up a ladder.”
“Well,” I started, instantly regretting it.
“I think Mimi may have also been a patient at Clifton’s Regenerative Medicine Department.”
Seth shook his head, scowling. “Regenerative medicine . . . It’s a fake, a folly, a sham, a joke. And if Mimi had bothered telling me what she was up to, I’d have told her as much. I sure would have.”
“It was her decision,” I said to him, my hand replacing Mort’s on his shoulder, remaining in place this time. “And she did look wonderful for her age.”
“She looked just as wonderful when I was treating her.”
“Well,” I followed, trying to lighten his mood, “you never have to worry about losing me as a patient to regenerative medicine.”
“Pardon my ignorance,” Mort said, “but what exactly is regenerative medicine?”
“Which one?” Seth asked him. “Because there are actually two. One based entirely on science and the other quackery.”
“Let’s start with the science.”
Seth continued to grouse. “In a perfect world, the goal is to find a way to replace tissue or organs that have been damaged by disease, trauma, or genetics, as opposed to merely focusing on treating the symptoms.”
“What about in a not-so-perfect world?” I asked him.
“It’s just a fancy phrase used by the rejuvenation clinics that have sprung up around the country, almost strictly cosmetic,” Seth explained, his tone clearly disparaging. “Patients seek out the likes of Charles Clifton and his Clifton Care Partners to make them feel and look younger. Doctors like Clifton will claim they’re using never-before-tried methods when all they’re really doing is packaging promises aimed at wrinkle reduction, cosmetic cell treatment, body sculpting, and the like in a fancy new box. Lots of Botox, new approaches to face-lifts, the use of lasers, derm abrasions, face peels, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera,” Seth finished, sounding like he had tired of reciting the list himself.
“In other words,” I picked up, “antiaging, which fits Mimi Van Dorn to a T.”
“And now she’s in a coma. Do the math.”
“Hold on there, Seth,” Mort chimed in. “All we know now is that Mimi had a seizure. There’s no indication whatsoever at this point that it had anything to do with whatever treatments she was receiving at the Clifton Clinic.”
“Use your imagination.”
“I prefer to deal in facts.”
I cleared my throat, forming the words I needed to break the tension between two of the best friends I’d ever had.
“If you’ve got something to say, Jess,” Seth started, but let the sentence dangle there.
“You were treating Mimi for diabetes, right?”
“Type two.” Seth nodded. “If you want to call it treating her, since everything I said went in one ear and out the other. But I had her on meds and doing reasonably well, so don’t you go telling me she started some newfangled treatment at that charlatan’s clinic.”
“Not at all. I was merely pointing to a possible cause of her seizure.”
“So now you’re a doctor, too, Mrs. Fletcher?”
“You want to tell us what’s really bothering you here, Jessica?” Mort chimed in.
“Isn’t it enough my friend’s in a coma?”
“It would be normally, but I’m guessing you’ve got other thoughts on the matter.”
I shrugged. “Did I ever tell you how much I miss Amos Tupper?” I asked him, referring to his predecessor as Cabot Cove sheriff.
“Every time I point something out you don’t like.”
“There’s nothing like that this time, Mort.”
But that wasn’t true, at least not entirely. Something was plaguing me about the moments before Mimi had collapsed. It was there, then it wasn’t, and I just couldn’t put my finger on what my memory was toying with. Something out of place, something that didn’t quite fit, like a missing piece of a puzzle.
“Nothing,” I repeated, but I could tell Mort wasn’t buying it.
We went to the cafeteria, while Seth pursued an update on Mimi’s condition and worked to arrange a spot for her in the hospital’s intensive care unit.
Mort had his usual black coffee, while I stuck to tea.
“I saw Charles Clifton walk into the waiting room when we were leaving, Mort.”
“Uh-oh . . .”
“What’s the ‘uh-oh’ for?”
“Because whenever you mention seeing somebody, Mrs. Fletcher, there’s always something that follows, usually beginning with, ‘Maybe I should have—’”
“A talk with him,” I completed.
“See, you’ve proven my point.”
“What do you know about the Clifton Clinic?” I asked him.
“Pretty much the same thing everybody in town does. Private hospital that caters to a different crowd.”
“What kind of crowd would that be?”
“Only those who have full-service health plans or don’t mind paying out of pocket for services. They specialize in treating serious diseases with serious drugs, and they’ve got patients flying in from all over the country. I’ve seen Clifton Care Partners compared to the Mayo Clinic in one respect and to those shady European hospitals on another.”
“Runs quite the gamut, then.”
“With the actual truth likely to reside somewhere in the middle.”
“That multiple sclerosis trial drug bought Jean O’Neil nine extra months, Mort.”
“I wouldn’t mention that in front of Seth. He’s been the doctor of choice in Cabot Cove for so long, he tends to take such things personally. But nobody’s perfect and neither is medicine itself. I don’t have to remind you of that.”
I knew he was referring to the death of my husband, Frank, from heart disease and an autoimmune disorder that had left him especially susceptible to the kind of infection that ultimately killed him. Cabot Cove Hospital hadn’t been able to save him all those years ago, and neither had any of the elite places in Boston. His one chance, we were told, was an experimental procedure not yet available in the United States. We’d have had to go all the way to Sweden, and neither my private insurance nor the care provided by the Veterans Administration would cover that. Strange, ironic even, how I became a published writer only in the wake of Frank’s death and only now had the means to perhaps have prevented his passing.
“I need to be getting back to the office,” Mort said, his coffee just about drained.
“And I think I’ll see if Charles Clifton is still about somewhere.”
Mort’s gaze narrowed on me. “Jessica . . .”
“Never mind. You wouldn’t listen anyway.”
I found Clifton in the hospital’s reception area in the main lobby. I’d caught up first with Seth, who was still in the process of working out the next phase of Mimi’s treatment. Her condition hadn’t changed, something I took as a positive, because not getting worse provided reason for hope. Seth had canceled his afternoon appointments so he could attend Jean O’Neil’s funeral and all that came after, so he was free to devote his attention to the crucial initial stages of her treatment.
“Dr. Clifton,” I said, rousing him from the magazine he was reading.
He rose from his seat in a rare gesture of chivalry. “Mrs. Fletcher, I didn’t notice you there.”
He had a stately demeanor about him that would’ve looked even more dignified if the skin didn’t look stretched across his face to mask age’s wrinkles and lines. He had the tanned coloring of a weekend golfer, though I suspected it was from cosmetics instead of the sun. His white hair, sprinkled with flecks of gray, papered his scalp without a single strand out of place, adding to my sense that his appearance had been chiseled over the aging skeletal structure beneath. He looked even thinner than I’d noticed back at the library, bordering on gaunt, which I supposed passed for healthy-looking in the minds of some these days.
“I thought I saw you entering the emergency room, Doctor.”
“Yes, to check on Ms. Van Dorn. I’m sure you’ve received the same update.”
He sat back down in his chair and I took the one next to it. “I was wondering if you had any idea what caused her seizure.”
“Most obvious would be something related to her diabetes.”
“Even though she’d sworn off gluten and sugar?” I said, recalling Mimi’s comment to that effect back at that library.
“Only recently. Her type two was dangerously close to type one, according to some standards, and I didn’t expect the changes in her diet to work overnight.”
“What do you know about endocarditis, Doctor?”
“You mean, besides the fact that your husband died of it?”
His comment threw me for a moment, the surprise obviously clear on my features.
“Ms. Van Dorn told me the whole story. She told me quite a lot of things, Mrs. Fletcher. You should know she held you in great esteem.”
“That means a lot to me, Dr. Clifton. We’ve grown very close over the years.”
“She envies your penchant for physical activity. All that biking around town. And Ms. Van Dorn also told me you were once a runner.”
“A jogger, actually. And I’ve taken it up again, thanks to the treadmill in the Hill House hotel’s fitness center.”
Clifton nodded, a slight grimace stretched over his expression. “Ms. Van Dorn also told me about the fire that claimed your house and almost claimed you.”
“It’s being rebuilt as we speak. Tell me, have you ever dealt with contractors?”
“As little as possible. I hear they’re even harder to talk to than doctors. As much as I’d like to believe otherwise, we can’t save everyone, Mrs. Fletcher, just like your late husband’s doctors couldn’t save him. Our success rate at treating cases of endocarditis as advanced as his is quite low.”
I studied his features, trying to get a better sense of him, but it was like trying to get a fix on a reflection in a cracked mirror. “Did Ms. Van Dorn tell you that, too?”
He shifted, the magazine sliding from his lap to the floor. “She must have.”
“Strange, since I don’t recall ever being that specific with her. Makes me wonder how exactly you came by the information, without a detailed study of my husband Frank’s medical records, of course.”
Clifton didn’t flinch. “I’m quite sure it was Ms. Van Dorn who told me.”
“Very kind of you to take the time out of your busy day to come check in on her.”
“Actually, I’m here to meet a new patient who’s arriving from out of town.”
I watched Clifton’s eyes drift across the hospital lobby toward the main entrance, narrowing as he rose from his chair again.
“And here he is, an old friend of yours, I believe.”
I turned to follow his gaze and saw George Sutherland striding toward us.