WE SPEND A few hours relaxing, reading, and drinking more tea, the rain a somber inhibitor of action. When the first slanting rays of sun begin to nibble at the windowpane, Charlotte says, “Okay, time to get moving. It’s fun just hanging out with you two handsome people, but we have work to do.”
Meredith smiles warmly at my sister. “You are quick with compliments,” she says. “Who compliments you?”
“Oh, Greg does. Our last name is Smart, and he is always telling me how apropos my name is.”
“He’s right. You are, and crafty, too. What do you see as the next item on our agenda?”
“I think the three of us ought to pay a little visit to Dr. Lyle Overstreet. I checked the schedule and he is on duty today. His standard steroid prescriptions seem excessive to me, if not downright suspicious, and, as of this moment, we can’t rule that out as a contributor to Claire’s death.”
“Ah,” I say. “The plot thickens. Even the good doctor could be a suspect.”
“I don’t mean to imply that he sought Claire’s demise, but he seems callous to the elderly folks here at Bigelow, and I would like to confront him with the possible consequences of his indifference.”
We begin the trek down the long corridors, the outside sunlight now making them less eerie, and I reach to take Meredith’s hand. She lets me.
The clinic area is nearly empty. I suppose, on a stormy day, a lot of folks settle in at home, though we do not have to go outside to reach the door labeled “Medical.”
On the way, we encounter Freda, sitting in the small library, reading the New York Times. She sees us passing and issues a thumbs-up, but when we are out of her sight, Charlotte whispers, “Don’t buy into that affirmation. She’s the crafty one.”
There is one window in the clinic unit, and through it I can see the trees in the garden of the Village, their naked limbs poking out and upward, looking gossamer and unworldly. The interior, by contrast, seems tidy and antiseptic, in fact markedly sterile.
A nurse greets Charlotte with a smile and a repeated nod. She seems stuck in that action, as if obsessively driven.
“Hello Penny,” Charlotte says. “We don’t have an appointment, but it is imperative that we see Dr. Overstreet.” She hesitates and for emphasis adds, “It’s about our dear friend, Claire, who passed last week.”
“I’m sure he’ll be happy to speak with you. He’s with one of our older octogenarians, who is suffering from an ingrown toenail.”
More than we need to know, I think. After all, medical issues are supposed to be confidential. Charlotte frowns.
We step back and sit in the small waiting area, and Charlotte says to Meredith and me, “She’s Overstreet’s special nurse. Has the same attitude about the elderly as the doctor. ‘They’re just old folks. Privacy doesn’t matter. They’re almost dead, anyway.’”
Her words stir me to thinking about the thin line between life and death. That, after all, is our language for categorizing a changeable thing into an inert thing. We are all composed of atoms, neurons, and electrons, recyclable and, in the end, recycled.
Creepy to think that way, but it helps me to realize how important it is to live fully each day.
Meredith catches my pensive mood and asks, “What are you pondering?”
I laugh and say, “The meaning of life.”
A bulky man, unshaven and dressed in white, approaches us and greets Charlotte.
“What can I do for you, Charlotte?” He is not hostile, but neither is he amiable. He is all business, with an attitude of ‘What sort of problem do I have to deal with now?’
“Dr. Overstreet, this is my friend, Meredith, and my brother, Greg. Meredith is Claire Hazelton’s granddaughter. We are on an expedition.”
“Oh. Tell me what sort? Seeking hidden treasure? Looking for a lost tribe?” He laughs at his own attempt at humor, which I find distasteful. Folks who think they are funny usually are not. He sours my mood.
“Let me get right to the point,” Charlotte says, her manner in keeping with his. I can see she is not enamored of this man, and will, herself, be all business. “The police are involved in Claire’s death. It is highly likely that it was not a natural event, but rather a crime, perpetrated by another.”
His face scrunches up into wrinkles, his mouth open, eyes wide, hand on his chin. The words that come are deliberate and slow: “You are speaking of murder.”
There is a long pause. “How can I help you?” he asks.
“I am helping, informally collecting information, for Meredith and the officials,” Charlotte says, coolly. “There are several possibilities. The detectives know that you have been prescribing steroids, and we have researched that a build-up in someone’s body can be dangerous. We also know that she was taking selenium, and that an overdose could be toxic. Besides that, we are concerned that Claire might possibly have suffered from serotonin syndrome, a result of taking the wrong meds. We would appreciate any insight you can give us about any of these details.”
He stares at Charlotte intensely, the impact of her words slowly, yet certainly, beginning to come through. That his actions might have been a factor in Ms. Hazelton’s death must, as the great bard wrote, give him pause.
“Aha,” he says, spins about, walks a few paces, and returns.
Penny, some yards away, looks startled and apprehensive.
“Elderly patients are…flimsy,” Overstreet says. “Steroids are like Ritalin, in that both give them energy and tone, without some of the side effects. And yes, if it is not monitored, it could cause illness–there are recorded cases of cancer with too much steroid consumption. But, I gather that Ms. Hazelton did not die of cancer.”
“You gather correctly, Doctor,” I say.
He gives me a nasty look, and says, “Then the steroid thesis is probably faulty. As to selenium, it is not a prescriptive drug, and can be purchased over the counter. Directions are clear about usage. Though she was blind, I presume she knew how to identify her drugs.”
“She had all her labels redone in braille. Her medicine cabinet was a splendid panoply of raised letters,” Charlotte assures him.
“Serotonin syndrome results from varied combinations of meds that trigger too much serotonin into the bloodstream. And yes, I have read of strokes or seizures, and even death as a result. But, since she did not suffer from fibromyalgia, which is a common diagnosis for using serotonin-enhancing meds, I don’t see how she would have an over-abundance in her system.”
“Yes,” Charlotte says. “But there is the possibility that labels were tampered with, and we are researching whether someone–the culprit, actually–planted serotonin-liberating drugs in her medicines.”
Overstreet smiles, not a friendly smile, but an insider’s smile, as if he knows more than anyone else.“There, you see. We diagnose and prescribe, and have little to do with whether elderly patients follow directions properly.” He stops, and adds, “The whole thing could have been a dreadful accident. They get confused. They make mistakes.”
“Grandmother,” Meredith says, with as much venom in her voice as I have ever heard, “did not make such mistakes. Someone did this to her, and we are going to find out who!”
Overstreet is taken aback. I have seen how he has been ogling Meredith–he is, after all, youngish and likely on the prowl–and now, this lustrous woman puts out a broad yet pointed challenge to the world.
“Of course,” he says, noticeably subdued. “Our records are open to the officials. There are no secrets. Now if there is nothing else, I need to get back to my patients.”
I see no one else in the clinic, so I don’t know which patients he means, but presume he needs to escape. As he returns, past a gawking Penny, and disappears into the back rooms, I say to my companions, “We have one religious zealot who likely hated Claire for her beliefs, and now we have a medical man who doesn’t realize he is engaged in elder abuse. It seems to me he couldn’t care less if these folks lived or died.”
“Older people are ignored in our youth-oriented culture,” Charlotte says, as we pass back down the extended halls. “Young folks enter a café or go to a concert, and their eyes skip over the silver-hairs as if they don’t exist. They look for the young and the beautiful, the vigorous and the spry.”
“Fear,” Meredith adds. “They can’t stand to see how they will someday look.”
“What’s their alternative?” I ask.
If you’re enjoying CHARLOTTE and would like to blog about book two in the series, ACCIDENT, please contact my publisher who will hook you up with a free copy!