CHARLOTTE PHONES me at the Blue Dolphin. After that riverside revelation, Meredith said she needed to be alone and drove me back to my motel. I read for two hours, ate a tuna sand- wich at the motel coffee shop, and was asleep by ten o’clock. Emo- tional exhaustion is far more overwhelming than physical; I slept for ten hours.
“It’s after nine o’clock. Are you up and around?” Charlotte asks.
“Yep. Showered, shaved, made awful coffee in my room, and am steamed up for a busy day.” I know there is less than a week left on my vacation, and I’ll be returning toCalifornia shortly. That alone weighs on me like a too-heavy barbell, especially since it means I’ll be saying goodbye again to Meredith, maybe for months or even a year.
“My pal, Oscar, opens his pharmacy at nine each morning. I wonder if you’d like to accompany me when I take him Claire’s prescription list?”
“It’s a bit too far for us to walk.”
“Silly me, of course. I’ll pick you up.”
She is at my motel in fifteen minutes and we head to a little shop- ping mall a few blocks from BigelowVillage.
“I’ve been thinking,” Charlotte says in the car, “about Meredith. Poor girl has lost a true companion, and we do not quite honor her position in all this. I believe my pursuit of a perpetrator, suspicious as I am, may prolong her sense of loss. I wonder how wise all that is.”
“It cuts both ways,” I say. “She is suffering from Claire’s death, of course, but she is also incensed that anyone would want to…well there is no other word but, murder her lovely grandmother. I think she needs closure, and uncovering the architect of this ugly deed would give it to her.”
“Good point,” Charlotte says as she maneuvers into a parking spot near a two-story brownstone building with a darkly tinted glass front. “Oscar’s pharmacy is in here. When residents of Bigelow need prescriptions filled, the Village driver will shuttle them here.”
There is an oversized window and a counter, standard for phar- macies, and along the walls a dozen drug varieties advertised as help- ful for depression, anxiety, prostate issues, restless legs, insomnia, and a myriad other ailments. I am reminded of how drug-saturated our culture is, and why children seem to slide so easily into using them; who decides which ones are the good ones?
A proprietor stands inside and greets us.
“Oscar here?” Charlotte asks the youngish man, dressed all in white.
“In back. Lots of prescriptions to mix up.”
“Would you tell him, please, that Charlotte Smart is here, from Bigelow Village.”
It takes three minutes and a grinning fellow turns a corner and appears at the counter. He leans over, as does Charlotte, and he kisses her cheek.
“Not the time of the month for your medicines,” Oscar says. “You must be on a mission.” He is tall and thin, not too far removed from a replica of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, and I imagine that headmirably adheres to all the vitamin and mineral and omega-3 food choices that bombard the public these days. He, also, is clad all in white.
“How did you get so smart, Double O? You must see two thousand customers a week, and here you are remembering my dates.”
“Ah, Charlotte,” he says, his lower lip thrust upward, “you are special, you know. Can’t forget the special ones.”
“This is my brother, Greg, visiting from California.”
He thrusts out a thin hand, mostly bone, yet grips mine with surprising strength. “A pleasure to meet you, Greg.”
“Likewise,” I say, and can’t help but feel his authenticity as well as his fondness for my sister.
“So, tell me your mission,” he says abruptly to Charlotte, the niceties over.
“See this? You remember Claire Hazelton, my friend who passed, over a week ago? I have some question about the medications she was taking. I want you to tell meabout this list, what is compatible with what, and what might be toxic if overdosed.”
“Aha,” he says, eyes gleaming as if getting into a meaty investigation will infuse excitement into his backroom tedium.
We are silent for a full two minutes as his trained eye peruses the list of prescribed medicines and supplements the doctors gave Claire. At last he says, “Mission accomplished. We have Hazelton’s record, but normally don’t look for patterns. This Dr. Overstreet loves to prescribe painkillers and ends up being a pain in the ass. I’ve had conversations with him about this, but he has a supercilious attitude about the older folks at Bigelow. Anything they complain about, he prescribes a steroid. Steroids are cumulative. A single one can relieve hurt and inflammation, but combine them or mix in too many, and you have a formula for hypoxia, which is a deficiency of oxygen reaching the body tissues. If the blood has insufficient oxygenation, it can lead to dizziness and eventually a brain deficit.”
I listen to this, and my untutored mind leaps to a conclusion, that Claire was probably not deliberately killed, but was erroneously stuffed with the wrong medicines by a careless doctor.
My sister is, I guess, less gullible than I, because she says, “Yet, such a prescriptive overdose may or may not lead to collapse, am I right? I mean, people do correct the condition when they feel burdened.”
“Oh, yes. Well, you know, steroids, by themselves, are supposed to increase strength and bulk up the body. Witness all those dumb athletes who got into trouble. But, over the years, the build-up can trigger side effects. I don’t know about Claire Hazelton, but she was a big woman, and I’d be willing to bet her size was a product of all those steroids Overstreet was stipulating.”
“Excuse me, Oscar, but we are of the opinion that Ms. Hazelton may have been the victim of foul play. Your testimony here seems to indict Overstreet as a careless doctor, yet I don’t catch any deliberate intent to harm.”
“Charlotte, Overstreet is a pompous, self-congratulating ass. None of my clerks likes him. And that’s without any of them, except me, having personally met the man. He’s a biased medical fool, but he isn’t a killer. No, I wouldn’t say he did anything deliberate.”
“So,” I insert, “do you have any thoughts about what might have been the cause of Ms. Hazelton’s demise?”
“Say again?” Charlotte asks.
“Selenium is a supplement that mixes with vitamin E to fight oxidation. It exists in nature, and is often taken as a supplement in pill form. We know, however, that too much selenium is toxic.”
“Go on,” Charlotte says.
“Claire Hazelton would pick up a plastic container of selenium– no prescription needed–every couple of weeks. Now, it says on the bottle, serving size one pill, which is one or two hundred micrograms. She was blind, of course, and it made it a challenge to pick up the correct container and follow the directions. The steroids were sometimes taken three at a time, but the selenium needed to be limited to one. Who knows if she grabbed the wrong bottle?”
“There were no bottles or plastic containers of any kind next to her body when she was found,” Charlotte says.
“Well, the result is not instantaneous. She could have overdosed and then put the bottles away, only to pass out several minutes later.”
“Or,” Charlotte says, almost as if talking to herself, “someone who was supposedly helping her with her selections might have…”
She lets the sentence hang in the air.
Oscar catches Charlotte’s implication and adds, “A study was done on five Chinese patients who exhibited overt signs of selenosis, and it was found they had eaten corn grown in selenium-rich stony shale. A selenium dose of as small as five milligrams a day can be lethal for many humans.”
“But, why take it at all?” I ask.
“Because it is an essential trace element, that comes from nuts, cereals, meat, fish, and eggs, and there are numerous studies that show when combined with a couple hundred units of vitamin E per day, it can be a potent antioxidant–meaning a tumor inhibitor.”
“So,” Charlotte says, “it is a necessary element in its proper dosage, but deadly when overdone.”
“You got it.”
“Thank you, Oscar. The steroids are the doctor’s excess, but the selenium is either an unfortunate error, or some miscreant’s deliberate sabotage of a woman who was ultra-vulnerable.”
“Got to get back in my cave,” Oscar says. “If you need anything else from me, let me know.”
“You are a sweetheart,” Charlotte says.
As we exit the glass-fronted building, she says to me. “I’ve known Claire all these years. Blind as she was, she never made errors like that. Her medications, as with everything else in her living space, were marked, either with raised letters, or with attached indicators. She was fastidious about her environmental needs.”
I think those words over for a minute or two, and, as we drive away, I reflect, “It becomes a slippery task of trying to figure out who wanted to do her in, and how he or she did it.”
Charlotte takes her eyes off the road for a moment and smiles at me. “We need to gain access to Claire’s room. Those pill bottles are still in there, and they may speak to us in the most illuminating ways.”
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