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Double Vision

By Ellie Hart

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2019 Ellie Hart

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Double Vision

When her cell phone rings, Giselle Cutler answers it—and finds herself speaking to a dead woman.

As Giselle and her partner Marta Perry get ready for the birth of their baby, the last thing they expect is to be drawn into another mystery. But there’s been a horrible mix-up with identification of a body found in the bay, and Marta’s supervisor Chrissy Burton is very much alive and desperate for their help.

Intrigue turns deadly as they uncover illegal organ transplants, black market sales, and ties to international terrorism. The killer is willing to do anything to keep the public from knowing how the transplant system really works, even if it means killing Giselle and Marta.

Double Vision

© 2019 By Ellie Hart. All Rights Reserved.

ISBN 13: 978-1-63555-386-4

This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, New York 12185

First Edition: March 2019

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Editor: Jerry L. Wheeler

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design By Tammy Seidick

By the Author

The Deep End

Double Vision

For G,

whose patience with animals and small children always amazes me.

Chapter One

I hate mornings. I was never a morning person like my sister, perky and ready for the day as soon as her eyes opened. I am the night owl of the family, better suited to activities performed under cover of darkness. I am more enamored with the sunset than the dawn, with the stars rather than the sun. And you can chalk it up to karma, fate, or payback, but I am in love with a lark.

The lark, however, is currently bent over the toilet, retching and moaning, cursing the day she decided to have a baby. I do my part, holding her head and handing her a glass of water, careful to keep my own nausea hidden. I am beyond elated we are going to be parents, but I am very glad she’s the one carrying our child. I would have chickened out as soon as I realized what the physical commitment involved.

“Can you call in to work for me?” Marta’s voice is muffled as she leans into her crossed arms, face hidden. “There’s no way I can even drive this morning.”

“Sure, babe.” I pat her on the shoulder, glad to be doing something besides waiting for her to stagger back to bed. “Should I tell them you’ll be out tomorrow as well?”

Marta’s only response is a grunt, followed by the sound of dry heaving. The obstetrician has assured us this phase will pass, and I can hardly wait. Marta doesn’t comment, at least not in words, whenever I try to encourage her. She’s gotten good at conveying her thoughts with a look, and I’ve gotten good at understanding what she’s trying to say, which is usually something along the lines of “get lost.” I’m sure she means it with love.

I leave her and head back to our room. I need to call in for her before her boss has a fit. Marta is one of the best social workers employed by Alameda County, and the amount of work she takes on would amaze anyone else. It certainly puts the rest of her office in a pissy mood whenever she’s gone. Just having to divvy up her caseload can send some of the less motivated employees ducking for cover.

My phone is ringing as I walk around the bed and stumble over the scuffed tennis shoes I dropped there the night before. Call it an atavistic response, but I always attempt to answer before it goes to voice mail. Why? I can’t tell you. It’s just one of my many idiosyncrasies Marta says she loves. When she’s not pregnant, that is. Right now, anything I do can irritate her without rhyme or reason.

“Dr. Cutler,” I say into the mouthpiece. I can hear the sound of frenzied barking in the background and have to grin. There’s only one person who can be calling me from the veterinarian clinic I run. “What’s up, buttercup?”

“Your butt on a platter, that’s what’s up. Did someone forget she promised to run the free clinic today?”

I groan. It’s my turn to oversee the monthly clinic for pets belonging to the homeless population. When I first volunteered, I figured a couple hours a month, give or take, would be the extent of it. To my surprise, we had enough dogs and cats—and even a couple of ferrets and a hairless rat—to fill two days’ worth of checkups, minor surgeries, and vaccinations.

“Lou, is there any chance you can get someone else to fill in for me? Marta’s tossing her cookies again, and I don’t think I can leave her on her own today.” I cross my fingers in a superstitions gesture. Dr. Louise Grafton, my partner at the clinic and an excellent vet in her own right, doesn’t suffer fools gladly.

I hear Lou give a snort on the other end of the line, and I grimace. That’s not a good indication.

“This’ll make it three times this month, Giselle. You two should have known what you were getting into when you decided to go the natural route, you know?”

You’re preaching to the choir. “Just chalk it up to newbies, Lou. So, whaddya say?”

“Fine.” Her voice has softened a tad, the first suggestion of victory. I stop myself from giving a fist pump. “But I’m keeping score, girlie.” She pauses, then adds in a much kinder tone, “Tell that woman of yours to sip ginger ale. That always helped me.”

“I will,” I say fervently, feeling as though I’d just taken down a brick wall with my bare hands. “And thanks, Lou. You’re a gem among women.”

Lou laughs into my ear, a hearty sound that makes me grin.

“And don’t I know it. All right, Giselle. See ya when I see ya.”

With that battle out of the way, it’s time to tackle Marta’s boss. She’s not as understanding as Lou, not by a long shot. I try not to think negative thoughts about the woman, I really do, but she’s never made it a secret how she feels about a child being raised by two women.

“We all know a child is better off with a mom and a dad,” she’s said before. “That’s what every child needs.”

That’s where I stop listening and begin thinking of ways to hex her. Just kidding, of course. Kind of. I’m still carrying on an imaginary argument with her when the ringing on the other end of the line stops and her voice mail kicks in. Interesting. This is a woman who is never late, never misses a day of work, and certainly never misses a phone call.

I leave my message, telling the machine Marta Perry will not be at work today or tomorrow, and then disconnect before a live person picks up. I only have so much courage to go around, and right now it’s all focused on the pregnant woman in my bathroom.

“Don’t you think you might be a little old for this?” I asked Marta that nearly a year ago, just before a size seven loafer came sailing across the bedroom, hitting me squarely between the shoulders. I learned two things from that verbal faux pas: never assume a woman over forty is too old for anything, and never turn your back on said woman.

After that, I kept my thoughts to myself. However, as I lean against the doorframe to our master bathroom and watch her wash her pale face under the tap, I begin wondering once more exactly what we’re getting into. Six more months of this, I think, not to mention the first eighteen years of the kiddo’s life. That’s a mighty long sentence for something I’m not even sure about.

“Did you call me in?” Marta turns to look at me, and I am struck by the new thinness of her face. I thought pregnant women were supposed to get, well, chubby, not look like someone who hasn’t seen a good meal for a while. I make a mental note to call the doctor myself as I paste on a smile.

“That I did, love. And I bought you an extra day as well.” I hold out one hand to her. “Let’s get you back in bed, and I’ll bring you some hot tea and toast, all right?”

Marta grunts in response, but she pauses next to me and winds her arms around my waist, leaning her head on my shoulder. I close my eyes and kiss the top of her head, careful not to hug her too tightly. This new Marta, the holy temple carrying a new life, feels frail underneath my own arms. You better be nice to your mama, I say silently to the baby. I’ve known her a lot longer than I’ve known you.

“So what did Lou want?” Marta raises her head so she can look into my face. “Let me guess: get your sorry ass to work.”

“Something along those lines,” I agree. “And how’d you know it was Lou on the phone?”

She rolls her eyes and untangles herself from my grasp.

“Are you going in?”

I follow her into the bedroom, watching her walk unsteadily toward the bed.

“Not a snowball’s chance in hell,” I say, pulling back the covers so she can climb in. “And she’s already got someone to cover for me at the free clinic, so it’s all good.”

She pauses and looks at me over her shoulder, one eyebrow lifted slightly. “Is that today?”

I nod, motioning for her to get under the blankets. “I’ll go tomorrow if they need me,” I say, tucking the comforter around her feet. “It really depends on how many come to the clinic today.”

Marta’s hair, cropped short and dark against the white sham, is an art form unto itself. A gel-stiffened strand is bent in two, creating a small hook that looks like it belongs on top of a peacock’s head. Her sideswept bangs nearly cover her eyebrows, and I reach over to push them back.

“No butter,” she says, and I agree. I’ve always loved taking care of Marta, and this pregnancy has given me ample opportunities to show her how I feel.

“Dry toast and hot tea coming right up, love.”

I smooth her hair back once more and head for the kitchen. It’s a chef’s dream in there, all stainless steel and granite, natural gas, and filtered water. Marta is the cook in this house, and I’ve missed her impromptu gourmet meals more than I let on. One can only stand so many pasta-based dishes, you know?

I’m just putting the bread into the toaster when my cell phone begins a maniacal rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” my latest ringtone choice. I don’t recognize the number on the screen. The area code is local, though, so I punch the green icon and answer.

“Dr. Cutler.”

“Is this Marta’s roommate?”

I grit my teeth, tempted to hang up.

“Yes,” I say, trying to sound halfway gracious. “How can I help you?”

“This is Chrissy Burton, Marta’s supervisor.”

Oh boy, I think. Here we go. I gird up my mental loins for battle.

“I’ve already called her in, Ms. Burton. Is there—”

“It’s not about Marta,” she says, her voice strident. “It’s about me.”

“Oh?” I can’t help if it I sound a tad cynical. “Is there a message you’d like for me to pass along?”

To my amazement, I can hear muffled sobs in my ear. Chrissy Burton is crying.

“Dr. Cutler, I really need to talk to you.” I hear her take in a shaky breath. “Please.”

Behind me, the toast has popped up, ready to be plated. I tuck the cell phone between my ear and shoulder, my head at an awkward angle as I reach into a glass-fronted cabinet for a small dish.

“Is it about your pet?” I ask as I open a drawer under the gleaming stove, pulling out a cookie sheet I press into service as a tray. “I’m not on duty today, but Dr. Grafton is at the clinic.”

“Pet? I don’t have a pet,” she says, a touch of snappishness underpinning her words. “As I’ve already said, this is about me.”

“Ms. Burton,” I say firmly as I assemble the bland breakfast, “I’m home today because my partner is very ill. Right now isn’t a good time for a phone call, so if there’s something you need to tell me, it needs to happen in the next minute or two. Please,” I add, not really meaning it.

“I’m sorry.” She sounds deflated, all the wind out of her verbal sails. “Would it be better if I call back in an hour or so?”

I make a snap decision, another one of my foibles Marta puts up with.

“Why don’t you come to our house? We can talk over a cup of coffee, if that’s okay with you.” I have to admit this woman has my attention, and I’m curious why she needs to speak with me, of all people. Plus, I want to size her up on my own territory. People can be completely different creatures when not in their comfort zones.

I hastily give her the address and a suggested time, and disconnect. Marta’s toast will be cold if I don’t hurry, and I debate making more. Haste wins out, and I walk as quickly as I can, balancing both toast and tea without slopping the steaming drink over the sides of the mug.

Marta is sound asleep, lying on her side with one hand tucked under her cheek like a child, her lashes making dark crescents on her pale face. I carefully back out of the room, heading to the kitchen with the tray still in my hands. I’m tempted to see if I can carry it waiter style, balanced on one arm, but decide against it. I’d probably drop it and wake up Marta with the sound of crashing dishes.

I’ve already showered and dressed, so I flop down on the couch and thumb through my emails on my phone. Chrissy Burton will be arriving shortly, and I want to be distraction-free when she does. Something behind her words, something she didn’t say on the phone, has me intrigued. Besides, I don’t want to make any noise while Marta is getting some much needed rest.

But a look at my Google News feed sends me reeling. According to the Alameda Dispatch, a body was found early this morning, floating in the water just off the Oakland side of the Bay Bridge, identified as Chrissy Burton of San Leandro.

Unless Verizon has recently installed a cell tower in the great beyond, I could swear that’s who I was just speaking with, the person I’m sitting here waiting for. I’ve made an appointment with a ghost.

Chapter Two

Chrissy Burton arrives with fanfare, her car performing a noisy rendition of misfiring cylinders and spark plugs as she parks in front of my house. I peer out the front window in time to see a curtain twitch in the neighbor’s window across the street, the self-proclaimed guardian of the ’hood. I tend to believe it’s an aspiration for vicarious scandal that motivates old Mr. Flores rather than a true desire to keep the neighborhood safe. Marta tells me I’m too cynical and Mr. Flores is a “lovely man” who tells her the funniest jokes whenever they happen to meet.

Chrissy, with whom I’ve briefly spoken before at department holiday parties, disembarks from the mustard-colored Nova and checks her phone before heading to my door. She is a living, breathing cliché of the underpaid state worker or she’s hanging on to a beloved car. Either one provides an interesting insight into the woman whose word is law at Alameda County Social Services. Folks who cling to the past tend to be high maintenance, just like the things they surround themselves with.

And folks who choose a career such as social work or teaching are either true saints or closeted martyrs. Marta is firmly ensconced in the first category, especially since she has to work with people such as Chrissy Burton. The clientele, she’s assured me before, are the impetus behind everything she does. If she could do her job without the politics, she’d be in heaven. Conscious I have already prejudiced myself, I paste on a smile and open the door.

“Come in, come in,” I say, forcing the words out between lips stretched wide in what must look like a parody of welcome. From the startled glance I get in return, Chrissy must agree with me. Something besides my deadhead’s grin has her set on edge, but I guess there’s nothing like hearing about your own death to start the day off on the wrong foot.

“Thanks for seeing me.” She looks around the entry hall with hesitation as if trying to decide where to go next. “Is Marta all right?”

“She’s sleeping right now, but it was a rough morning.” I’m not sure if I want to discuss my partner’s health with this woman, particularly after hearing her take on parenting.

I lead the way into our living room, its décor a modern take on Art Deco. Marta and I had both fallen in love with the remake of The Great Gatsby, and she had gone into a decorating frenzy, scouring estate sales and secondhand stores for facsimiles of the furnishings from the cottage where Nick Carraway, the story’s narrator, had lived.

The walls are papered in an overlying stripe interior decorators of the ’20s loved, and the furniture is solid walnut, upholstered in rich colors. A streamlined grandfather clock stands against the wall as if holding court, only its face telling how old it is. This is one of Marta’s favorite finds, although it took me a while to get used to its persistent chiming. Now I scarcely hear it unless I’m in a hurry.

“This is gorgeous!” She halts in the doorway, and I can feel my bias softening just a bit. “Did you have an interior designer do this?”

“Sort of, and I’m sure she’d be flattered to hear you say that.” I smile, gesturing to a carved sofa upholstered in muted gold and green. “Marta did it all. I’m just the muscle when it comes to things like this.”

I rub my arms as if I can still feel the ache from all the tugging and moving I’d done until Marta had been completely satisfied with the placement of every piece of furniture.

“Please, have a seat. Can I get you anything, maybe coffee? Or tea?” I almost ask if she’d like a beer and think I might get one for myself. That unsettled vibe she’s giving off is beginning to make me jittery as well.

“I’m not sure I should have any more caffeine.” She gives a rueful laugh, running one hand over her face. I can see it trembling from across the room. “I must’ve drunk gallons of the stuff since I heard from the police department earlier.”

Ah. Now we’re getting down to business. I’ll need a coffee, whether she does or not.

“Hold that thought.” I stand up and head toward the kitchen. “I’m going to make coffee, but I’ll grab a bottle of water for you, if you’d prefer.”

“Yes, thanks.” She stares out a window that looks out onto the side of the house. Marta has filled the narrow flower bed bordering the redwood fence with bulbs of every kind, mixing colors and types, ensuring something will always be blooming. I leave Chrissy contemplating the blossoms with a bemused expression on her face.

“Did I just hear you talking to someone?”

I jump sky high at Marta’s voice. She’s leaning against the granite-topped island, holding a bottle of water in one hand, the other resting across her stomach. I’m instantly at her side and put a steadying arm around her shoulders. She looks so pale and washed out next to the dark countertop.

“Hey, you need to be in bed, chica.” I gently tug her toward the doorway, but she resists, craning her neck as she tries to look past me. “Want me to bring you some more toast?”

“You didn’t answer my question, Gij. Who’re you talking to?”

“Chrissy Burton.”

“Wait. You’re talking to my boss? Here? In our house?”

I nod, mouth twisted in a sheepish smile. Marta ducks beneath my arm and walks to the living room, a purposeful set to her slight shoulders. Sighing, I follow her. Apparently she’s forgotten she’s still dressed—or undressed—in the see-through nightie she put on after the latest visit to the bathroom.

“Chrissy! What’s up?”

I skid to a halt just behind my partner, noting with amusement Chrissy is looking everywhere except at Marta and Marta is staring daggers at her boss. I don’t blame her. I’d probably feel the same if Lou showed up unannounced, especially if I was feeling as poorly as Marta.

“How’re you feeling, Marta?”

Chrissy directs the inquiry to a spot just behind my head. With a sigh, I back into the hall and grab a coat hanging in the hall closet. I place it on Marta’s shoulders, and she draws it around herself as she moves toward an armchair that sits near the sofa. Chrissy finally allows herself to make eye contact with us, two pink spots on her cheeks a giveaway of her discomfort.

“I’ve been better.” Marta’s tone is as wry as her expression. “So, to what do we owe the honor?” She shoots me a glance as I sink down into the other chair. I pretend not to notice. Chrissy is on her own with this one.

Our guest silently looks down at her hands, clasped together on her lap, knuckles white and fingers tightly interwoven.

“I got a visit from the police early this morning, sometime before five.” She looks up, eyes bright with some emotion. I really am starting to need that coffee. “Apparently, the Alameda Sheriff’s Department thought it was making a next-of-kin notification.”

“‘Apparently’?” Marta leans forward with interest, the flaps of the coat falling open slightly. Even from where I’m sitting I can see the prominence of her collarbones, emphasizing the weight loss she’s had recently. “Why ‘apparently,’ Chrissy?”

“Because,” Chrissy says in a matter-of-fact voice belied by her twisted fingers, “they were there to tell me I’d been found dead in the bay.”

A woman has been discovered floating in the bay, something I already know because of my Google news feed. I also know the body was identified as Chrissy Burton, the gal now sitting across from me in my house. What I want to know is how the mix-up has occurred. Unless this is evidence of a stolen identity or someone who has—had—the same name as our guest, I can’t figure out how something like this happens.

“And I’m assuming you set them straight, right?” Trust Marta to get to the heart of the issue.

Chrissy nods vigorously. “Yes.” She gives a brief laugh that has no mirth in it. “Of course, it took me a few minutes to convince them. I had to show them my work ID, the key card with my picture attached. Even then I don’t think that some of them believed me.” Sudden tears appear in her eyes and begin running down her face. “And when they showed me a picture of the woman, I swear she looked just like me.”

Marta walks over to the sofa, sitting down beside Chrissy and putting a thin arm around her.

“Whatever is going on, we’ll help you figure it out. Won’t we, Gij?” This last part is directed to me, her head tilted and one eyebrow raised in question. Marta in warrior woman mode. I nod, acquiescing to a higher power. When she has her mind set on a course of action, she will not be deterred. This is what makes her a force to be reckoned with as a social worker. Whatever case she has, she fights for the client with all of her heart.

Her very big heart. I recall her tenacious efforts last fall on behalf of my—our—nephew Leif. If it hadn’t been for Marta’s solid presence, I might have fallen victim to the circumstances as well.

“When Marta promises you we’ll help, she means it.” I stand up, hands on my hips. “Marta, would you like that tea now?” I smile down at her fondly. “You were sound asleep when I came up to the room earlier.”

“Oh, please,” Chrissy begins, half standing, her hands held out in front of her as if warding off an attack. And maybe she is. “Take care of Marta first. In fact,” she adds as she checks her cell phone, “I probably should get going. I said I’d go down to the medical examiner’s office so they could take a cheek swab to check my DNA. Guess I have to prove I’m really me.” Marta cuts off Chrissy’s short, mirthless laugh with a fierce hug.

“You’re not going anywhere without us. Gij, I’ll have that tea and toast now, and then I’ll grab a shower.” My partner is in full-blown caregiver mode, putting her own current frailty aside. Chrissy settles back down beside her, some of the anxiety disappearing from her face.

And I’ve gone into full-blown worrywart mode. I’m physically stronger than she is, but I don’t know if I can carry an incapacitated Marta by myself. I’d hate for her to faint.

“If you think you’re up to it,” I say doubtfully.

I head to the kitchen and get out the bread, popping two more slices into the stainless steel toaster. While I wait for it to brown, I plug in the electric kettle, a throwback to my college days. I’d become fascinated with all things British, and having my own kettle made me feel a connection to a country I’d only read about or seen on television. Besides, it heated up water lightning fast, and I’d used it for making ramen soup more than I did to make tea.

I get out a seldom-used tray from the tall, narrow cabinet beside the fridge and place on it a small plate with plain toast and a mug of unsweetened hot tea. Marta’s tastes have changed since she became pregnant, something the doctor assures us is completely normal. It’s another reason I’m secretly glad she’s the one carrying our child. I can’t imagine giving up sweets or, even worse, not wanting them.

“Here you go,” I say as I place the tray down on the low rectangular butler’s table nestled close to Marta’s end of the couch. Its fluted edges are elegant yet functional, ensuring nothing will be able to roll off. “Try to eat something, love.”

* * *

Marta says she feels better after her shower and the little bit of food she’s managed to eat. Her color is better, thank goodness, but I know she’s not up to driving. So I drive instead, with Chrissy in the front passenger’s seat and the mama-to-be lying in the back seat.

The two women chat sporadically, mostly about work-related issues, while I concentrate on keeping my silver Honda CRV steady, not too fast, trying to time all the lights so I won’t need to make a sudden stop. Their conversation gives me time to myself, and I can’t help but recall the college writing class I’d taken and the professor who hated plot clichés with a passion.

“There are many reasons why falling back on a trope to move your story line is wrong, folks. The top of the list, though, is that it’s just plain lazy writing.” Mr. Harding had peered around the lecture hall from his perch on a tall stool, his back hunched and neck foreshortened inside the collar of his jacket.

I conjured up that memory because this entire situation has morphed into a trope of the highest degree: the unknown twin who commits some heinous crime and then allows an innocent look-alike to take the fall. How many Lifetime movies have revolved around that tired strategy? And how in the world did Marta and I get caught up in this?

I realize Marta has said something to me, and I drag my attention back to the present.

“Sorry, babe. I was miles away. What’s up?”

“I was just saying,” she begins, her words underpinned with some of her normal feistiness, “that you’re driving this thing like my grandma. Chrissy wants to get this over with sometime in this decade, love.”

I take a quick peek into the rearview mirror, pleased to see a sassy expression on her face. She’s definitely feeling much better. I reach over and crank up the radio, ready to put the pedal to the metal. My favorite local station is playing “The Boys Are Back in Town.” Perfect for Marta’s return to the land of the living. With a grin, I send the CRV surging forward and leave the traffic snarled behind us.

The Alameda County Coroner’s Office sits on a fairly quiet street in Oakland proper, its foundations sloping with the geography. I hit the parking jackpot, taking the only available space that just happens to be smack-dab in front of the walkway that leads to the coroner’s office. Marta may be coming alive, but I’m still careful of how far she’ll need to walk. I know better than to speak my concerns aloud, though. Marta hates being treated like a “cut glass figurine.”

I tend to think of her as a Fabergé egg, holding a priceless treasure within herself that not even I can see. Yet. Marta’s scheduled for an ultrasound in a few weeks, that miraculous scientific looking glass that will allow us to finally see the little person who’ll be joining our family.

“I hope this swabbing test won’t take too long.” Chrissy pauses at the top of the ramp to wait for us, her eyebrows pinched together with growing stress. “And I hope it won’t hurt.” She gives a false laugh. “I never was that good with pain. Probably why I’ve never had kids of my own.”

I just stare at her, trying to convey how clueless what she said is without saying a word. Marta wouldn’t like that, I know. I’d like to give this woman some pain right now, though, right between her eyes.

Marta just smiles at Chrissy, one hand resting protectively on her belly and the other tucked beneath my arm. “It’s not going to be a walk in the park, that’s for sure. It’s a good thing I’ve got Gij, otherwise I’d probably be scared shitless myself.”

Well said, Marta. Well said. I almost follow that thought with a head toss but stop myself in time. There’s enough tension here already without me adding to it. I realize Marta is poking me in the ribs while Chrissy gazes at me, one eyebrow lifted. I decide to play the poor hearing card.

“Sorry, guys. I totally missed what you said. Must be all the background noise.” I gesture at the myriad eucalyptus trees framing the street, their branches filled with brash, noisy crows. A murder of crows. I shiver and feel Marta’s hand tighten on my arm.

“I just asked you if you’d ever done any type of testing at your clinic.” Chrissy pulls open the glass-fronted door and steps back so Marta and I can pass in front of her. “I was thinking it can’t be much different, right? I mean, DNA is DNA.”

“True,” I agree as I guide Marta into the lobby of the coroner’s office. “And it should be something fairly noninvasive. Hair, for instance, or a cheek swab. Nothing too painful.”

I can’t help emphasizing that last word. Beside me I feel Marta sigh slightly. How she puts up with me I’ll never know. With a bright smile, I turn to face Chrissy.

“There’s the front desk. We’ll wait for you over there.” I point at a small grouping of chairs that look extremely uncomfortable, their molded plastic seats curved in that one-size-fits-all design. I think about the upholstered chairs and love seats in my clinic’s waiting room and can’t help feeling a bit smug. There’s something to be said for a private enterprise versus taxpayer-funded offices.

They whisk Chrissy away through a light-colored wooden door and down a hallway that smells of antiseptic. I notice it faintly from where we’re sitting, but Marta’s olfactory senses are on overdrive. She wrinkles her nose and covers it with one hand.

“God, I thought these places were more modern now. What’s with the morgue aroma?”

I shrug, my eye caught by a pile of magazines sitting neatly on a low scarred table. The editions are years out of date, of course, but the bold lettering on the top journal has me intrigued. “Are We Any Closer to Cloning Organs?” indeed.

Outside the window, I can see a cloud of black as the crows rise from the trees and fly off. A murder moving away from us, taking its shrill sounds to another part of the street. Try as I might, I have a feeling another murder has sucked us into its macabre vortex, courtesy of one Chrissy Burton.

Chapter Three

The ride back home is almost normal, a thin shield of casual conversation and observations covering the uneasiness each of us must feel. I know I do. I can’t recall a more odd situation than the one in which I’m now involved.

Chrissy refuses Marta’s invitation to come in for a coffee. I’m relieved. I’ve done my duty by this woman, and to be honest, I’m irritated Chrissy’s problem has become Marta’s. I’m almost gleeful as we stand outside watching the Nova pull away from the curb, its backfire an exclamation point to an unsettling few hours.

“Let’s get you inside and resting, love.” I guide her up the walkway into the house, giving Mr. Flores a cheeky wave with my free hand. He must be going bananas, watching the activity at my house without an inkling of what’s happening. It almost raises my spirits.

“Surprisingly enough, I’m not feeling too bad right now.” Marta sinks down onto the sofa, the cushions giving a small sigh of welcome as she settles back against the pillows. “In fact, considering I’m still off tomorrow and can sleep in, we could have a few friends in this evening. If you’d like to, of course,” she adds hastily. “I know you probably have to go in to the clinic in the morning.”

I kneel in front of the couch and put my arms gently around her, tempted to lay my head on her belly. I don’t want to hurt her, though. If she’s feeling as well as she says, I don’t want to jinx it. Instead, I confine myself to a few brief kisses before standing up again.

“Sure, if you want to. We haven’t seen Isobel and J.D. for a while. Or Maggie and Ann.” The last time I can recall the six of us getting together was in the fall, just before I went to Arizona to deal with my sister’s disappearance. Maybe it’s time to dust off the ol’ boogie shoes and let my hair down. “I can give them a holler, or maybe you can text them while I see what we’ve got in the fridge.”

Marta smiles up at me. She does look much better in spite of the day’s bad start and the morning’s jaunt into Oakland. I can’t resist kneeling back down and planting a tender kiss on her tummy. Marta places a hand on my head and gently runs her fingers through my hair, and my nearly dormant hormones stand to attention at her touch.

I’m just going in for a real kiss when the doorbell rings. Groaning, I drop my head for a moment before rising to my feet. “Hold that thought, love. I’ll see who it is and get rid of them pronto.”

I can see the top of Mr. Flores’s head when I look through the peephole on the door. He is a small man, shrunken with age, and his sparse hair falls across his scalp like a baby’s. Sighing, I open the door and look down at him with barely disguised irritation, ready to send to him packing.

“Good afternoon, Dr. C,” he begins as he steps inside without an invitation. “Can I have a moment of your time, please?” His diminution of my name comes out as prissy rather than intimate.

“By all means,” I say through clenched teeth, extending an exaggerated flourish of welcome. “Marta’s in the living room, if you want to go in there.”

I follow him, giving Marta a look over his shoulders that says “not my fault” as he settles down in one of the armchairs, sitting on the edge with his back straight and his feet placed primly together. She barely stifles a grin before turning her attention to him.

“Mr. Flores, it’s so good to see you. How’ve you been doing?”

He looks at me briefly as if to show me he’s part of Marta’s social circle before focusing on her face with an expression of concern.

“I’m doing well, thanks. And hopefully you’re doing all right.” He nods at the soft swell of her belly. “Are the babies letting you rest?”

I can’t help it. I snort loudly as I slide onto the end of the sofa and lift Marta’s feet onto my lap.

“She’s not having twins,” I say. “We don’t have twins in our families.” I glance over at her almost guiltily. She’s the one doing all the work, after all. “At least Marta doesn’t, and that’s what counts.”

“Hmm.” It’s not much of a response, but he’s said a mouthful. He gives a slight shake of his head as if refocusing his thoughts before looking straight at me. “I came over to let you know you had a visitor after you left today.”

“Really.” The word comes out flat and cynical, elongated with sarcasm. But I’m not shocked. In fact, I suppose I’ve been expecting something like this ever since my first conversation with Marta’s boss. Life has become a Tilt-A-Whirl, everything slightly askew. “Did you recognize him? Her?”

“Him. He is skinny, with hair like this.” He uses one age-speckled hand to indicate a dramatic swoop of hair back from his face. I almost groan out loud.

“Sounds like Don Butler,” I say to Marta. “And did he drive a Volkswagen van, white on top with faded gold paint on the bottom half?”

Mr. Flores nods vigorously. “Yes. And he parked it in front of a fire hydrant. I almost called the police.” He leans back against the chair, arms folded high on his shrunken chest and mouth pursed in disapproval.

I chuckle despite my growing irritation. Mr. Flores, the keeper of the street. The guardian of our little galaxy. And full of useful information, as I discover.

“Well, thanks for letting us know.” Marta smiles across at our visitor, shifting on the sofa so she faces him directly. “So, tell me what else is happening? How’s your granddaughter? Any more news on her grades?”

I leave them chatting happily about various neighborhood doings and his granddaughter’s latest academic accomplishment. I need to make a phone call.

I pause just long enough in the kitchen to brew a cup of coffee on my trusty Keurig before heading upstairs to our bedroom. I’ve left the bed unmade, so I feel absolutely no sense of guilt as I kick off my shoes and crawl under the chilly covers. I can talk to Don from here just as easily as from a chair.

There is history between me and the intrepid investigative reporter for the San Leandro Times. He made a name for himself a few years ago, uncovering a very illegal payday loan company’s practice of adding hidden costs and raising the interest rate on a whim. His valiant actions helped thousands of unsuspecting borrowers recoup their money. However, when he stuck his twitchy nose into the drama that was my sister’s disappearance, he lost his patina of heroism for me and became just another newshound looking for a good headline.

Still, the fact that he came to my house following the surprise visit from Chrissy Burton has my radar on high alert.

San Leandro Times,” says the cheery voice on the other end of the line, mercifully cutting short a tinny rendition of “Dust in the Wind.”

“Don Butler, please.” I don’t explain the reason for my call. Thankfully, I’m not asked. I’m not sure I’d know how to define the reason anyway, given the odd set of circumstances I’ve already experienced.

I’m treated to the rest of the song while waiting for an answer. I finally hear a series of clicks and then Don’s voice: “You’ve reached Don, and I’m either on another call or out saving the world. Leave a message after the tone.”

Gag. His egotistical recording makes me think of Barry Dunwiddy, another reporter who thinks he’s a gift to the modern world. He wormed his way into our lives for a short time when we were in Phoenix last fall until we managed to shake him.

I ask him to return my call, leaving my cell number. Disconnecting, I toss the cell phone onto the bed and fold my arms behind my head as I stare at the ceiling. From the hallway, I can hear Marta bidding Mr. Flores goodbye, then the thud of the front door shutting behind him.

“You can come out now, Gij. He’s gone.” Her voice is light, reminiscent of her pre-pregnancy self. Is it possible she’s suddenly, miraculously past the worst of it?

“I’m not hiding,” I begin to protest, but my words die off when Marta appears in the doorway to our room, a mischievous smile on her face and a sassy tilt to her hips. I’m on high alert, my addled hormones not far behind. I hold out one hand to her, and she falls onto the bed beside me, her face already lifted for my kiss.

My last coherent thought is that Don Butler and his ilk can go to hell.

To my amazement, we sleep through what remains of the day, stirring only briefly whenever we accidently brush against one another in the tangle of sheets. Marta is definitely acting like her old self, and I do my best to match emotion for emotion, touch for touch. It’s as if she’s on fire, determined to burn away every barrier, real or imagined. Trust me, I’m not complaining.

When the sun breaks through the curtains the next morning, I’m both sated and exhausted. Too much sleep, I think drowsily. Or too much Marta. The thought has me grinning before my eyes are even opened.

“What’s so funny?”

I crack open one eye. Marta is standing on my side of the bed, her hair glistening as dark as a seal’s, fresh from her shower. She’s dressed, for goodness sake—dressed. And smiling.

“You’re not going into work, are you?” I lift myself up on one elbow, using the other hand to flatten down my recalcitrant night hair. “I called you in yesterday. For today, I mean.”

She nods in acknowledgment and sinks gracefully down on the bed, her weight tugging the covers from my shoulders. I wince as I struggle to sit up, my body sore from the night’s lovemaking. Marta, on the other hand, looks positively radiant and well rested. Glowing, I think is the word most often used for women in her condition. I’m definitely not glowing.

She leans forward and plants a kiss on my forehead, her nose wrinkled in reaction to my “morning aroma,” as we jokingly call it. Her sense of smell has been on high alert since the pregnancy, and I dive down under the covers, leaving only the top of my head and my eyes showing above the covers.

“Sorry,” I mumble. I do not want to be the cause of a dash to the bathroom for a visit to the porcelain throne.

She laughs at me and jerks the covers down. “Don’t be silly, silly. I was just kidding.”

She stands back up, one hand resting lightly on her belly. From this angle, it’s beginning to poke out at an alarming rate. Mr. Flores’s sighting of the reporter the day before creeps back into my mind and I shove it away. I can only handle one issue at a time, and my attention is fully on my partner right now.

I toss back the comforter and get out of bed in one smooth motion, putting my arms around her, pulling her close. I rest my chin on top of her wet hair and take a deep breath, inhaling the invigorating scent of mint and eucalyptus.

“Feeling well enough to use the good stuff, huh?” Since the early stages of the pregnancy, Marta has barely been able to tolerate the unscented soaps and shampoo we had to buy to replace the highly scented washes we normally use.

“Yes, surprisingly enough.” She leans back so she can look me in the eye. “I honestly feel fabulous today, Gij.”

“That’s good to hear, love,” I say, giving her a gentle squeeze. She might be feeling great, but I’m still very conscious of the other person who’s come between us, literally. When I hug her, I can feel the bump that means life as we know it is about to change.

“How about breakfast at the Vineyard?”

Her words take me aback for a second. It’s been a while since we’ve visited any restaurant, fast food or otherwise. The Vineyard is one of our favorite places to go. Just thinking about their signature eggs Benedict makes my mouth water.

“I’d love to, if you think you’re up to it.” I move past her and head for the walk-in closet to choose clothes for the day. A shower is definitely in order, and I’m looking forward to using my own shampoo and body wash again. That unscented stuff just doesn’t cut it.

“You have ten minutes,” she says, and then she’s gone, almost skipping down the stairs. I can hear her humming as she goes to the kitchen, a perky tune that fits the equally bright morning.

It’s hard to imagine anything ruining this perfect day, but Don Butler’s phone call comes just as we pull into the restaurant’s parking lot, casting a slight pall over the sunshine. Not really, but it certainly feels that way.

Marta gives a small sigh and leans back against the padded headrest, her eyes closed behind her fashionably oversized sunglasses.

“Sorry, babe, gotta take this.” I grimace apologetically at her as I answer the phone. “I’ll make it quick.”

“Dr. Cutler? This is Don Butler, San Leandro Times. I’m returning your call.”

“And I was returning your visit,” I say with mild amusement. One would think I’d been chasing the man. “One of my neighbors let me know you stopped by yesterday.”

“Ah. Well, yes.” I’ve stumped him. Maybe he’s never come up against the likes of Mr. Flores before.

“What can I help you with? I’m just about to go into a meeting.”

Marta’s rotating her forefinger, telling me to wrap it up.

“Is there somewhere we can meet?” he says. “I’ve got a few questions for you, if you don’t mind.”

“I’ll have to get back with you, if that’s okay.” We are polite, sidestepping any verbal mines that might explode, trapping us in a commitment.

“Not a prob. Hey, if it’s all right, I’ll call back in, what, two hours or so?”

“Sounds good. I look forward to your call,” I lie, disconnecting. Marta’s either heard both sides of the conversation, or she’s developed a sixth sense. I’m inclined to think the latter.

“What’s up with that?” She turns sideways with one hand on the armrest, ready to get out.

“Just a return call from that reporter. I left a message for him yesterday.” I open my door and get out. “Stay there and I’ll come around.”

Marta snorts but does as I ask. We’ve never been one for ceremony, viewing ourselves as a pair of strong women who are quite capable of getting our own doors, thank you very much. Why I’ve suddenly reverted to this almost archaic behavior surprises both of us, but she smiles up at me as I take her hand and tuck it into my arm.

“Thanks for taking such good care of me, love.”

“My pleasure,” I reply, dropping a brief kiss on her forehead.

The Vineyard is busy but not unpleasantly so, the tables and booths occupied with young professionals and retirees. The hum of voices is muted, and the acoustic music that plays in the background has never been overpowering. Thank goodness. Whether I like to admit it or not, the older I get, the more I tend to dislike music that causes conversations to be conducted at near-screaming levels.

It can make a real scream hard to hear. When one reverberates from the parking lot and startles the entire restaurant, I drop Marta’s hand and race back outside. From where I stop just beyond the front door, I see a woman lying on the asphalt, a distraught man kneeling by her side.

Chapter Four

The Vineyard is far from staid, but it has seen nothing like this before. The restaurant’s staff and clientele have spilled out on the sidewalk into the carefully manicured shrubbery, staring at the confusion in the parking lot. From where Marta and I are standing, arms around one another, I can see the man who was kneeling at the woman’s side. His hair is flying wildly about his thin, sun-darkened face, but the way he stands seems familiar to me, the way his uses his hands to tell a story. Maybe he’s a client at the vet clinic.

Making sure Marta has a place to sit apart from the gawping crowd, I push forward and approach one of the officers standing at the scene’s periphery. She is rapidly tapping a note or a text into an oversized smartphone and only looks up when I move in front of her and stop.

“Can I help you?” She tucks the cell phone back into a front uniform pocket and waits for my response, thumbs hooked loosely into her wide leather belt.

I have to tilt my head up in order to look directly into eyes so green their color must be courtesy of contacts and not DNA. Either way, I have to admit they’re rather nice to look at, compelling even. Focus, I warn myself.

“My name is Dr. Giselle Cutler, and I’m the one who called this in to 9-1-1.” I look over my shoulder toward the controlled chaos around the woman’s body and then back at the officer, who stares down at me impassively. “I’m involved marginally in the Chrissy Burton case and just wondered if this might have something to do with it.”

“I see.” The two words are mild, yet they send a wave of heat up my neck and into my face. I sound like a total idiot.

“Can I ask how you’re involved, Doctor? Marginally, that is.” She makes the request in a respectful tone, but I still flush. She’s probably already marked me down as someone who watches CSI. I do, but that’s beside the point.

The allure of those green eyes is beginning to fade ever so slightly. I’ve never been a fan of someone who passively jeers at others, particularly when the taunting is aimed in my direction. I straighten my shoulders and stare back at her. I feel as though I’ve been summed up and found wanting. Or guilty.

“My partner, Marta Perry, is a social worker for Alameda County.” Officer Green Eyes nods ever so slightly. Good. At least she’s following me. “Her direct supervisor, Chrissy Burton, was supposedly found dead in the bay yesterday morning. Actually, it was someone who has the same name and who looks like her, but it’s not Chrissy.” I’m not making much sense but it’s as clear as I can get under such scrutiny. “The real Chrissy Burton came to our house yesterday.”

She unhooks the radio from her belt. “Sarge, I’ve got the caller here, says she may know something about the vic.”

I just stare at her, too aghast to protest. I’ve said nothing of the sort. Has the woman not heard a single word I’ve said?

“Everything all right here?”

I turn to see Marta standing behind me, and I breathe a sigh of relief. She’ll know how to handle this. Her floaty top and delicate features give her a frail, ethereal appearance. She is far from either, though. I almost want to sell tickets to what I’m sure will become a showdown worthy of an audience.

“Officer, this is my partner, Marta Perry.” Marta nods graciously, silently, and slips one hand though my arm. Her presence is more than comforting. It’s strength giving, empowering. I decide to take on the law myself, and I incline my head at the officer. “She thinks I know something about the victim, the woman who was hit.”

To my amazement, Marta twists her mouth into a grimace. It telegraphs irony and sadness as brightly as any neon sign.

“You might not know her, love, but I thought I recognized her. If it’s who I think it is, her name is Beverly Strait, and she’s Chrissy’s PA.” She turns to the officer, who has begun tapping the phone’s screen furiously. “Is she going to be all right?”

Before the officer can answer, I break in.

“Wait a sec. You mean she works with you?” My brain is starting that Tilt-A-Whirl thing again, common sense slamming against incredulity with an almost gravitational force that dizzies me. “What’s going on here, Marta?”

She shrugs, a troubled expression on her face. “Your guess is as good as mine, Gij. That’s why we let the police deal with things like this, right?” She squeezes my arm softly. That’s her signal to move back, to separate ourselves from the action in the Vineyard’s parking lot. The gurgle in my stomach convinces me to listen. “Besides, if it really is Bev, someone will need to call Chrissy.”

“If there’s nothing else, Officer, I need to get Marta in front of some food. Gotta keep the little one happy.” I reach over and give Marta’s belly a pat.

Only the slightest lift of one eyebrow gives away any reaction. “Just need your full name and a good number to reach you, if necessary.”

To my amazement, this comment is directed to Marta, not me. After a quick information share and a promise to call the police department if she can think of anything that might be helpful, Marta tugs me back toward the restaurant. We make the brief walk in silence, and I can clearly hear the commotion that still surrounds the victim. I shiver suddenly, and Marta tightens her hand on my arm.

“You okay, Gij?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I lean over and deposit a quick kiss on her forehead. “I don’t know about you, babe, but I’m starving.” I keep my voice light, attempting to dispel the gloomy cloud that has settled over the morning “I could eat a horse.”

“Oh, gag.” Marta feigns disgust, pulling her hand away as she opens the door. “You can have the horse. I want a veggie omelet.” She grins at the hostess, who is listening avidly to our exchange. “I’d like to sit in the non-horse section, please.”

I shake my head as we follow the giggling hostess to a table in front of the window, clearly prime real estate, a place to see and be seen. Fabulous. A front-row seat to the drama going on in the parking lot.

Marta, attentive as always to my feelings, asks for a table farther back. I smile at her gratefully. The hostess flicks her ponytail, clearly put out. Some people, her eloquent back seems to say, just don’t appreciate the finer things in life.

We settle in our chairs, and I’m amused when I see the man sitting across from us take more than a passing glance at Marta. She’s lovely in a fine china sort of way, her skin almost translucent in the slanting sunshine. Unable to resist the devil on my shoulder, I lean over and gently place one hand on her cheek. There. Territory established. From the corner of my eye, I see him give a minute shake of his head and dive back into his newspaper.

“Should I text Chrissy, or do you think it’s better to call her?”

I have to mentally shake my own head and focus my attention on Marta’s words.

“That’s totally up to you, love.” I reach out and straighten the silverware lying in front of me, imagining they’re surgical instruments in my clinic. On second thought, no. I’ve seen shinier utensils in my own kitchen.

“Maybe I’ll just send a text right now, if you don’t mind.” She’s already reaching in her soft leather bag for her cell phone, belying the courtesy of her words. That’s Marta for you, though. She decides on a plan of action and makes you think it was your idea all along. Clever.

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