Richard disconnected the call with Summer and sat lost in thought, until his sister Harriet stuck her head into the room. She took in his blank expression and got curious. It took a moment for her words to register. Richard waved away her words of concern.
“Nothing is wrong. I just talked to Summer. You remember her don’t you?”
“You mean that girl from high school that you had a crush on?”
“I didn’t have a crush on her. We were just friends.”
“Yeah right, and denial is a river in Egypt.”
“Ha ha, where did you dig up that ancient joke? I haven’t heard that one since grade school.”
“The classics never go out of style big bro. Don’t change the subject. Why did you call Summer?”
“Joshua wanted me to see if she would do some checking up on Nicole. I asked her and she wanted to discuss it over a late dinner. She’ll be getting off duty soon.”
“That’s actually a good idea. So, why were you sitting in here with that weird expression on your face?”
“You need your eyes checked. I was just sitting here minding my own business. You should try it sometime.”
“Nah, I like minding yours more. So what are you going to wear for your date?”
“It’s not a date. We’re just meeting, so I can tell her what I know about Nicole.”
“If you want to impress her, then you definitely can’t go in what you’re wearing.”
“Are you listening to me? It’s not a date.”
“Hmm, let’s see what we’re working with. I hope you had sense enough to pack a decent pair of slacks and a nice shirt.”
Richard gave up on arguing and surrendered himself to his sister’s ministrations. He was actually glad to be distracted from the insecure thoughts plaguing him. I have no idea what I’m going to say, if she asks me what I’ve been doing since I left the force. If I tell her the truth, she’ll either look at me with disgust or pity. Even though I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell at anything romantic with her, I couldn’t bear to see her look at me with either expression on her face.
Thirty minutes later, Richard walked into a dimly lit bar and grill on the south side of town. He sensed Summer’s presence before spotting her at a table for two by the picture window. Their eyes met and her solemn expression blossomed into a smile that warmed him. They hugged and sat down.
Small talk moved on to reminiscing about high school. Richard talked more than he normally did, trying to steer the conversation away from his lack of a career and general direction in life. All the time he spent alone brooding had left him a little rusty, when it came to chatting with women. A few minutes in and his conversational reserves began running low. Richard was racking his brain for another safe topic, when the waitress served their meals and then Summer brought up the reason for their meeting.
“When you called me about Nicole, her name sounded familiar, so I did some checking. Turns out she’s a person of interest in an underground clinic investigation.”
“What kind of clinic?”
“They’re springing up in immigrant communities across the state. Illegal immigrants get injured or sick and don’t want to go to a hospital, because they fear exposure and deportation when some well-intentioned nurse or doctor asks too many personal questions. So, they go to these underground clinics where the staff may or may not even have medical training.
Recently, there were some seemingly connected suspicious deaths within the same community. There have even been rumors of black market internal organ sales which seem to be borne out by the fact that when autopsies were conducted on some of the bodies, they were missing major organs.
Nicole’s name keeps coming up. She was questioned a couple of times, but the family members of deceased victims and the injured victims who survived all stonewalled the investigation and refused to press charges. Immigrant communities are intensely private, close-knit groups intensely suspicious of law enforcement. So what is Nicole’s involvement with Rachel?”
Richard recounted everything he knew, starting with his mother’s amateur foray into investigating Nicole. Normally, Richard kept things like that to himself. He had learned early in his law enforcement career how dangerous letting people get close could be; to relax, let your guard down and volunteer personal information even to people who seemed trustworthy.
In his experience, women talked too much. Within minutes of meeting them, most were revealing their innermost thoughts and feelings. They tended to be equally generous in sharing other people’s secrets. Summer was different. She rarely revealed anything meaningful about herself to people outside of her inner circle and never repeated what anyone close to her said, without their blessing.
Summer was keenly observant and intelligent. At work when she spoke, people listened, because she only spoke after careful, logical deliberation of the facts and usually revealed something insightful. That was why he sought out her counsel. Her beauty and pleasant company were just icing on the cake.
Richard refused to allow himself to hope even for a second that he had anything even verging on a chance at anything more than friendship with her. He finished describing the events of the past weeks and gave her a few quiet moments to mull everything over. Richard was content to sip his beer and focus on cleaning his plate while watching the football game highlights on the wall-mounted, flat-screen television on the opposite wall.
It would be helpful to see how a level-headed law enforcement officer who wasn’t emotionally involved would perceive his situation. He understood Joshua’s need to do something about the growing threat Nicole appeared to pose. However, acting solely based on feelings and opinions was a risky proposition.
So far, all they had were gut feelings and secondhand stories of admittedly strange goings on. It was entirely possible that there were reasonable explanations for everything. What he didn’t want was for someone to get hurt or worse over baseless accusations.
Richard was aware that his dislike and mistrust of Nicole could be coloring his perceptions. Having Joshua getting wound up and trying to goad him into doing something foolish wasn’t helping either. They weren’t kids anymore. One hot-headed violent act could mean serious jail time.
Summer stirred and Richard could see she had made her mind up about something. He leaned forward expectantly with this elbows on the table. She agreed that they were at a distinct disadvantage, due to having only circumstantial evidence. His mother and Rachel had both been asleep when Nicole supposedly pricked them with a needle. They didn’t see her do it and didn’t see a needle in her hand.
Summer also brought up the fact that in both instances, there had been at least one other person around who could have pricked them with the needle. Richard’s mother was groggy and could have been pricked by a nurse drawing blood or administering medication while she was unconscious. She awoke to find Nicole bending over her and in all likelihood, jumped to faulty conclusions in her confused and anxious state. Rachel could have been unduly influenced by her mother’s tale. Richard nodded appreciatively over Summer’s concise summing up of the situation.
“So, where does that leave us? I don’t know if I can just let it go. Mom will feel like a sitting duck and won’t be content to sit around and wait for Nicole to make her next move. To tell you the truth, I’m not comfortable with the idea that someone whom I care about could be seriously injured. Mom is still struggling to fully recover from her infection.”
“I don’t blame you Richard. If I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t sit on my hands either. But it would be foolish and more than a little dangerous to confront Nicole with only suspicions and threats. Don’t lay your cards on the table just yet. You need more information, before you can even draw any solid conclusions.”
“I realize that I’m too close to this thing to be completely objective. That’s why I wanted to talk to you. Are you saying that I should do some digging? Mom already tried and that didn’t go over too well.”
“I wouldn’t dig around in her past right now. It would be time consuming to try unearthing enough hard evidence to be of any use and you risk tipping her off, if someone who you interview decides to tell her about it. If you were anyone else, I’d say stay out of it. Nicole is a slippery one and from what I’ve heard, she can be downright ruthless when she feels threatened. That’s why no one will come forward with information, even though innocent people have died. The officer who was assigned to the underground clinic case believes that she may be the ringleader.
Unfortunately, with caseloads being what they are, this one is on the back burner right now. You’re a great investigator Richard. Follow her and see what she gets up to. If you find something useful, let me know and I’ll get the officer right on it. Just don’t confront or question anyone. We don’t want her getting wise and destroying evidence or having someone killed.”
Upstairs, Rachel tossed and turned in her narrow bed. She hadn’t so much fallen asleep as passed out, after Harriet helped her undress and climb between the sheets. Rachel closed her eyes. Almost immediately, her narcotized subconscious mind began dropping into a deep chasm of unconsciousness. Even sedated, the sensation of falling into blackness was disconcerting. It took a few moments for sound to register. Rachel gradually became aware of an unintelligible whisper which loosed itself like a horde of angry bees, buzzing around inside her head and increasing until it began to echo. The reverberations crowded out all other thoughts. All at once, she recognized Nicole’s voice chanting the words, “you’ll do anything to make it stop.”
A sharp pain in Rachel’s arm brought her back to reality, with the words still echoing in her mind. The stab of pain receded as quickly as it had come, replaced by a sudden itch. Rachel distractedly rubbed at the spot, preoccupied with the disturbing dream. Was that a dream? It didn’t feel like a dream. I think those were the words that Nicole whispered in my ear earlier tonight. What does it mean? As if on cue, the itching in her arm became so intense that Rachel reached over her nightstand and switched on a small lamp. What she took to be a needle prick in the crook of her left arm was surrounded by inflamed red skin. Rubbing it only made the itching worse. Rachel got up and walked across the hall to the bathroom, searching for medicated ointment. She eventually found an old battered tube of hydrocortisone cream and slathered it on her rash. The intensity of the itch died down. Rachel returned to her room and climbed back into bed, making a mental note to go the pharmacy.
Drowsiness did little to distract her from the itch continued to radiate from the patch of irritated skin. Rachel would doze off, only to be awakened minutes later by insistent itching. Applying more hydrocortisone cream did nothing to soothe the irritation. Rubbing graduated to light scratching, as the itch intensified.