The Man in the White Suit
Patricia La Barbera
“Who is he?” Lori whispered, peeking into the waiting room. She pulled her surgical mask down and took a deep breath. Clove oil, acrylic, and tooth dust—dental-office smells. At least she’d have a break from halitosis and plaque.
Pearl hobbled out of the reception area, and shambled into the hall. “These ol’ knees killin’ me today.” She pointed with her chin. “Never saw him before,” Pearl said in a low voice. “Said his name’s Mr. Don. Doesn’t have an appointment. Some dresser, huh?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone in person wearing a white suit, and it’s so white, it almost glows.” Lori tilted her head. “His shoes are…” She squinted. “White crocodile?”
“That’s what I thought. Maybe he’s a ghost bridegroom. Wooooo.”
“Shh. He’ll hear you. I think he’s wearing a prom suit he snagged from the Salvation Army.”
Pearl grinned and cracked her gum. “He smells funny, too. Like someone lit a match.”
The man’s skin resembled wax. “Gold eyes?” Lori asked.
“Yeah, and up close you can see the thin red line around them.”
Lori scrunched her brow. “What does he want?”
Pearl moved close to Lori’s ear. “Said he wants to speak to Doc about a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” Pearl shrugged. “He’ll probably fall for it. We both know how much Doc loves to save money.”
“And get it.” Lori dug into her pocket. Darn. Why hadn’t she remembered to bring change? “Well, I’m glad our boss’s love of lucre made him buy the candy machine. I’ll never forget the day the blabbermouth bookkeeper told us about his not-so-secret, conflict-of-interest investment. Remember how horrified we were?”
“For about two seconds, and then we almost knocked each other down running to the lobby.” Pearl threw her head back and laughed.
Lori slouched against the wall while she giggled.
“The biggest candy machine I’ve ever seen.” Pearl’s face had a wistful expression. “You have to give him some credit.”
Lori folded her arms. “Yes, quite the entrepreneur—candy and cavities capital.” He’d parked it in the lobby so none of his patients would make the connection. The sneak. Not that anyone with her sweet tooth would complain.
“He’s such a cheapskate.” Pearl rolled her eyes. “If he thought he could get away with it, he’d even recycle dental floss.”
Lori laughed out loud and then slapped her hand over her mouth. On her last employee assessment, Doc had dinged her for “excessive displays of emotion.”
Pearl palmed her forehead. “I almost forgot. I read your poems.”
“You didn’t like them, did you?” If someone researched the word tortured, its information would include Pearl’s photo.
Pearl sighed. She raised her head, looking from side to side as if trying to figure out what to say. “Now, I know you’re young. It’s just that… Honey, you be in some kinda mood. Like yo’ man be missin’ a week, an’ then he roll in hungry. What you so mad about?”
She loved the way Pearl talked when she got excited. But when the phone rang, Pearl could snap into boring English. It reminded her of her own seedy-side-of-Boston influence that would sometimes break through when she fumed.
“Or is it just yo’ red hair?” Pearl pulled one of Lori’s corkscrew curls.
Lori swatted her arm and smiled. “Yeah, I guess I was in some kinda mood.” But Pearl knew her too well to ask why. She’d never liked Matthew, and had told her she was wasting her time dating him. When Pearl discovered he’d accepted a job on the West Coast, Lori would have to put up with her I-told-you-so jibes.
Pearl patted her salt-and-pepper bun and tucked in the stray wisps. “And how come yo’ poems don’t rhyme?”
“Nobody writes rhyming poems anymore. They’re not popular.”
“That ain’t true.” Pearl folded her arms. “Ah read Christian poems, and they be rhymin’.”
Lori dropped the subject. In the year she’d worked with Pearl, she’d never won an argument. She scanned the waiting room. The man in white held a magazine, a special issue on terrorism, its grisly cover a mosaic of hangings and bloody bodies. Whatever article he was reading, it had captured his full attention. His mouth cracked into a death grin, same as the ones she’d seen on crime-show corpses.
“I smell snake oil.”
“So…what did my receptionist say your name was?” He extended his hand across the desk.
“Mister Don.” The man in the white suit smiled, shook it, and sat opposite him. “An honor to meet you, Dr. Mizer.”
Mizer judged people by their shoes and watches. His shoes? Too flashy. But were they made from an albino crocodile? If so, then priceless. And his Rolex watch got a high rating. He also liked his formal style, the way he gave him the respect he deserved. “So, what is it that you wanted to discuss? My receptionist mentioned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Mr. Don gave the dentist a thin smile. “You get right down to business. You and I have a lot in common. With a little luck, I’m sure our association will be mutually beneficial.”
Impatience nagged Mizer. He tapped his Cross pen on the desk and cleared his throat. Checking his watch, he gestured with his other hand to continue. “Mr. Don, I am a very busy man. Please state your business.”
That disclosure evoked a wide predatory smile. Mizer recoiled, plastering his back against the frigid leather wing chair.
“Yes, Doctor. It’s just that what I have to tell you needs some preparatory explanation, and I—”
Mizer shot up. “If you don’t state your business immediately, I will order you to leave.” He leaned on his desk, closing in on Mr. Don and glaring at him.
Mr. Don squirmed. “Fair enough, Doctor. Forgive me.” The man paused a moment, and the doctor raised his eyebrows.
“Dr. Mizer, I’m offering you a free water fountain for the space of one year, spring water included.”
Mizer sat down again. The word free caught his attention. Too bad it would be free for the patients. Maybe they’d pay— No, even he couldn’t do anything so low. He still had some standards, didn’t he? Well, at least he had to think about his reputation. Besides how could he charge without people thinking he might be pocketing the money, unlike the case with the candy machine?
“What’s the catch?” Mizer folded his arms.
Mr. Don’s otherworldly eyes widened. “The catch? Why, Doctor. You crush me with your suspicions. There is no catch.”
Mizer frowned. “I don’t consider myself a gullible man.”
Mr. Don must have found that hilarious because he threw his head back and bellowed. He pulled himself together, though, and wiped his eyes with a startling red-silk handkerchief.
“Forgive me for laughing, but I never said you were gullible, Doctor.”
Mizer steepled his fingers. “Let me put this another way. What’s in it for you?” Was the guy some kind of whacko? The oddball clothes, the weird eyes. He sniffed. The obnoxious smell. Maybe he should call the police.
“I assure you, Dr. Mizer. I have good reasons for such an offer.”
“And what are they?”
It was Mr. Don’s turn to clear his throat. He coughed something up and deposited it in his handkerchief. The dentist caught a glimpse of it. A spider? Impossible. He pushed it out of his mind.
“Dr. Mizer, I consider myself a research scientist. I study people and their choices and actions.”
“At the water fountain?”
“Yes, and I will require putting in a camera to watch—”
The dentist put up his hand. “You never mentioned anything about a camera.”
Mr. Don tilted his head. “Would that bother you?”
“Yes, it would.” For one thing, he didn’t want anyone to see who visited him after hours, especially his wife. The dentist narrowed his eyes. “Oh, I get it. My wife hired a private detective. This whole thing is a set-up.”
“Interesting, but Dr. Mizer, you couldn’t be more wrong. That unpleasant business is something other researchers investigate.” Mr. Don twisted his lips. “However, there is something I should reveal about the fountain. Sometimes the water has…uh…unexpected effects.”
“I’d rather not say with people being so sensitive to the power of suggestion. Just don’t be surprised if—”
The dentist put up both hands. “Look, I don’t want any lawsuits, so we’d better just forget the whole idea.”
Mr. Don arched his eyebrows. “Perhaps a generous monetary incentive might cause you to reconsider.”
Mr. Don revealed his monthly offer.
“No, it’s not worth the risk.” Then he saw cash floating in the air. “What the—” He blinked a few times, and the bills disappeared. Mizer felt lightheaded. “That’s very generous of you, Mr. Don. I accept. It’s an offer I can’t refuse.”
“No, Doctor. You very well could refuse, but you didn’t.” Mr. Don gave him another predatory smile.
Had his teeth gotten bigger?
“So, do we have a deal, Doctor?” Mr. Don extended his hand, and Mizer shook it.
He’d never felt such a cold hand.
“The mouths beckon,” Lori said, passing Pearl in the hall. She stopped and sipped lukewarm takeout coffee. Naturally, Doc didn’t supply any. Just as well. She’d be afraid to drink it. He’d probably mix it with something gross to make it stretch, and just thinking about what that something might be made her stomach churn.
“Doc seemed real excited yesterday about getting his new water fountain. Too bad it was delivered after he left. I’m surprised he’s not here already.” Pearl nodded toward the waiting room. “Nobody seems to notice it yet.”
“How could anyone not notice the water fountain?” It reminded Lori of one those old-fashioned fortune-telling machines. But instead of the top having the scary gypsy, the glass part was round and held water. The tarnished-brass base resembled a tree trunk. “I’m surprised the water doesn’t come out of a gargoyle’s mouth. Is it just me, or does it look like a giant crystal ball? I’m not drinking from it.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what it looks like.” Pearl shuddered. “Maybe they’re scared of it. I won’t drink that water, either.”
Lori hugged herself. “White Suit scares me, too. Why would Doc have anything to do with him?”
Pearl, entering the reception area, turned to Lori and gave her a look that said “Why else?”
Lori sighed. “Money, of course. And Pearl?”
“Don’t forget to smile for the camera.”
She turned to it. “Ah will remember to flash mah pearly whites.”
Lori grinned and returned to her patient and his sore gums. “Okay, sir. Please open wide.” A scream blasted in from the waiting room. Lori jumped and dropped the mouth mirror. “What the—” She zoomed to the waiting room. Pearl, shock covering her face, stood behind the counter.
A patient in front of the spooky water fountain had an ear-to-ear smile. She leaned on her scuffed, yellowed crutches and held a crushed paper cup. She tossed it in the trash. “I can walk! I just know I can walk!” She threw down her crutches and pirouetted, laughing like a lunatic.
Lori took her arm to lead her back to her seat, but she pulled away from her. “I said I can walk.”
The other two patients scrambled up and mobbed the water fountain.
“Hey, no pushing. Please, stand in line so nobody gets hurt.” Lori, raising her eyebrows, looked at Pearl, whose eyes bulged.
The next man filled his cup. “Maybe I can get rid of my headache.” He rubbed his bald head. “And my toothache.” The man’s rheumy blue eyes showed sadness. “I’ve had both of them for more than two days now.” Baldhead drained the paper cup, and then his face creased into a smile. “Gone! My headache and my toothache.”
The last patient filled a cup, but hesitated. The pudgy woman had angry-looking sores on her face. She pointed to them. “Shingles. And they’re also on my back.”
“I had ’em, too,” Pearl said. “Hurt like hell.”
The woman raised her cup. “Down the hatch.” She swallowed the water and sighed. Then her face lit up. “The pain disappeared!”
Pearl scurried from behind the receptionist’s counter. “Your sores are disappearing, too. Lori, you see what’s happening?”
Lori blinked several times. “Y-yes, I see it. But I don’t believe it.” She looked toward where the crippled woman with the crutches had sat, but she must have left. Instead, a young woman of about twenty-one, gazing in a cosmetic mirror and primping, slouched in the plastic orange chair. She bore a strong resemblance to the crippled woman.
Lori took a deep breath and paced over to her. “Are you the daughter of the woman who was on crutches?” she asked, although she looked more like her granddaughter.
The woman gave her a mischievous smile. “Healing broken legs isn’t the only thing the water can do. I found the real Fountain of Youth.”
“You’re not the only one, kid.” Baldhead now sported thick, wavy black hair, and he ran his fingers through it. His rheumy eyes had transformed into those of the clearest sapphire, his wrinkles only a memory. He shook his head. “Amazing.” He jumped and clicked his heels. “Well, no sense stayin’ here. I gotta get me some new duds.” He winked at Lori and then sailed out the door.
With all the excitement, Lori had forgotten the pudgy elderly woman with the shingles. She turned to where she had stood, but saw a thin young woman wearing a dress that hung on her.
“Anybody have a belt I could borrow?” The young woman laughed as she scampered through the doorway.
Lori sank into a waiting-room chair. She looked at Pearl and shook her head. “How were those people so calm about what happened?”
“Maybe that’s another effect of the water.” Pearl shrugged. “We seem pretty calm, too.”
Lori shook her head again. “Speak for yourself. I’m not calm. I’m in shock.” She spied the crutches. “Better get rid of these before someone trips on them and Doc has a fit about a lawsuit.” She stashed them behind the counter.
Lori trudged back into the waiting room and plopped into one of the flimsy, uncomfortable chairs. She sat there awhile and then got up and cracked the blinds. “Oh my gosh! Isn’t that the woman who had the broken leg?”
Pearl, wincing, hobbled over to the window. “What she doin’ dancin’ in the street?”
“She must be in some kind of trance.”
Horns blared and brakes screeched. A Hummer swerved, almost hitting her. A bicycle rider sideswiped her, but she didn’t react. Then a white-and-gold Cadillac turned the corner, plowing into the woman and flattening her.
Lori and Pearl screamed.
The woman lay motionless in an expanding blood puddle, and soon an ambulance warning blasted.
Pearl hurried over to the ten-year-old TV and turned it on.
A news commentator had a somber expression. “…called the police because a young woman knocked on his door and claimed to be his sixty-year-old wife. He tried to close the door, but she pushed past him and ran into the kitchen, where she grabbed a knife. The man kept telling her she wasn’t old enough to be his wife. The frightened man dialed 9-1-1, but she ran after him with the knife. He wrestled it from her and stabbed her, but she struggled with him. She got the knife, and stabbed him. Police arriving at the scene found the woman dead. The man, critically injured, lived only long enough to tell the police what had happened.”
Pearl turned to Lori with a look of horror. “Do you think that was the woman with the shingles?”
“Who else would it be?” Lori hugged herself.
The phone rang and Pearl limped to the counter. “Good morning. Dr. Mizer’s office,” she crooned. As she stood there, her eyes widened. She gulped and hung up. “It was Mr. Don. I recognized his creepy voice. ‘Don’t you want to be young again, too?’ he asked. ‘No more arthritis?'”
Pearl’s eyes glazed over, and she stared at the wall. “That would be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“Are you crazy?” Lori grabbed her shoulders and shook her. “After what happened to those people?”
Pearl shuddered and faced Lori. Her eyes clear now, focused again. “I don’t know what came over me. I must have been crazy to even consider it.”
“Well, good. I’m glad you returned from Weirdsville. I wonder what happened to the patient formerly know as Baldhead. Maybe he’s still around the building.” Lori cracked the blinds again and peered through the window’s grime. “Hey, isn’t that the guy?” she said, pointing. “Oh no. He’s trying to drag a woman into the alley.”
Pearl joined Lori at the window.
The woman, screeching, struggled and kicked her assailant. A dark-suited man approaching the alley grabbed a pistol from under his jacket and sprinted toward them. He aimed at the man and shouted words Lori couldn’t understand. “The guy must be warning him.”
Then he fired. The man stumbled to a brick wall. He slumped against it for a moment. Then his body scraped down the brick until it hit the concrete, and a spreading blood pool framed it.
Lori wrung her hands. “This is terrible. We have to do something.”
Pearl grabbed her blouse near her neck. “Let’s smash the water fountain. Jesus, save us! That be devil juice.” She stumbled to the TV stand and hefted the clunky set.
Lori’s patient with the sore gums marched into the waiting room. “How dare you! I’ve been waiting…” He looked in Pearl’s direction.
She raised the TV higher and took a step toward him. Pearl’s face had her signature you-don’t-mess-with-me look.
The man whirled around and tripped getting out the door, but he scrambled up and disappeared.
Lori shut the door and rubbed her forehead. “Doc’s gonna kill me when he finds out—”
Heavy footsteps approached the office. Pearl still held the TV. The two women exchanged terrified glances. The door swung open, and the dentist’s bulk crowded the entrance.
“Where are my patients?”
“Don’t you dare threaten me!” Mizer seethed. He rose from his wing chair and paced. He turned his back to Mr. Don and stared out the window. What a coincidence. White Suit showing up that day, the Day of the Dead Patients, to check on the fountain. He should have let Pearl smash it.
Mizer marched to his desk and put two fists on it, leaning in. “I’m minus three patients. Patients who needed a lot of dental work. Expensive dental work.”
Mr. Don crossed his legs. “Please calm down, Doctor. I was just reminding you of our contract.”
“Your contract didn’t include what happened today to my patients.” If only he could wring his neck.
Mr. Don cleared his throat and pressed his red handkerchief to his lips.
Mizer took a deep breath and turned away. Was it the same one he’d had last time? He almost puked.
“Doctor, I seem to remember warning you about unexpected effects, and in any event, you’ve either forgotten or never noticed the fine-print contract warning. Not to mention the generous monetary benefits I offered to persuade you to take a risk, and which your acceptance of, as indicated by your signature, proved your agreement to said risk.”
Still avoiding the sight of Mr. Don, the dentist could hear the smile, or maybe he should call it the death grin, in his voice. “I don’t care about the contract. I want you to remove the water fountain immediately.” The thought of paying for damages sickened him. He carried the minimum insurance. But bankruptcy was the least of his worries. Would he wind up in prison?
“Dr. Mizer, let’s not be too hasty. I’d suggest you consider how much money you could actually earn—perhaps the term rake in is more appropriate—with the water fountain if you expanded your options to include a more lucrative marketing program. You haven’t told anyone you were responsible for those unfortunate occurrences, have you?”
Mr. Don had turned into a fast-talking con artist. Mizer saw red and felt as though his head would explode. “I’d strangle you, but I’m facing enough bad publicity.” Mizer paced, running his fingers through his hair. “I was not responsible for those deaths,” he shouted, slamming his hands on the desk.”
“Perhaps not entirely, but they’re still dead, aren’t they?”
“This is not a debate. I’m warning you—”
“Dr. Mizer, can you imagine what would happen if you actually advertised what we’re arguing about right now—The Fountain of Youth?”
“You’re insane. Nobody would believe it.”
“You’re wrong, Doctor. They would believe it because they want it to be true. And can you imagine what people would pay for the promise of youth?”
His office filled with floating green bills, their numbers increasing until he could barely see the walls. He shook himself out of his daydream.
Mr. Don chuckled. “I would imagine that one-hundred-thousand dollars would be too low, wouldn’t you, Dr. Mizer? I’m thinking more in the range of a half million for each deliriously happy client.”
The mention of that amount made the dentist’s heart gallop and his breathing rev up. “That’s a lot of money, but what about the water’s side effects?”
With a wave, Mr. Don dismissed his concerns. “Five hundred thousand dollars per victim, I mean client. Think about it. You could collect millions before anyone would figure out what was going on with the unfortunate but-not-written-in-stone effects. And then your millions would be already safely ensconced in a foreign account.” Mr. Don chuckled again. “Those Swiss are so discreet. And then you could escape to whatever paradise on earth you desire.”
“But how could I advertise something like this?”
“Why, word of mouth, Dr. Mizer. It’s the most effective advertising. And I’ll even start you off with the first patient.” He sat back in his chair and folded his hands. A smile’s hint played on his lips. “I suggest you limit yourself to one patient a day, and each will have to be screened by me.”
The dentist chewed on the offer. When the what-ifs dissolved into the why not, he turned off all the clamoring alarm bells.
Chewing finished, he swallowed.
“Again, Mr. Don, your offer is one I can’t refuse.”
Mr. Don offered his trademark predatory smile. “And again I remind you, Dr. Mizer. You could have refused, but you didn’t.” He handed him the contract.
Mizer flipped through the document, and then scribbled his name.
“There is one thing we didn’t discuss. The Fountain of Youth will need a poster child. Before and after pictures. I want that to be your receptionist.”
“Let’s just say I noticed her facial-bone structure. She must have been a handsome woman in her earlier years.” Mr. Don sighed. “My demand… He coughed. “My choice of Pearl was also stated in the contract that you so carelessly read. What a shame this country’s educational system doesn’t put more emphasis on reading comprehension.” He folded his arms and twisted his lips as if savoring an inside joke.
Now even more alarm bells attacked the dentist, and he fought to squelch them. She’d worked for him…for how long? It seemed like forever.
Mr. Don’s eyes pierced him. Was he reading his mind?
“We all have to make sacrifices for the cause, Doctor. And think about it. She’d be getting youth and pain relief free for what costs other people a half million.”
Sacrifices? For what cause? Would Pearl eventually kill herself, too? But finally, after visions of cash, cars, and a castle, Mizer silenced the clanging alarm bells, but not a possible obstacle’s nagging. “What if there’s a problem? She may not want to be the poster child.”
“Dr. Mizer, you’re a graduate of dental school. That’s an accomplishment that requires a high degree of intelligence.” He rose and shook his hand. “It’s curious how resourceful a man becomes with the proper incentives. I assure you, Doctor, my eyes will be glued to the camera.” He started for the door, but turned and faced the dentist.
“I have confidence in your problem-solving abilities.”
“She’s just a tool,” the dentist muttered as he marched to the reception area. For a change, the leprous stained carpet of debatable color and the jaundiced walls didn’t bother him. No need anymore for trying to squeeze out renovations from the building’s management company.
All through his sleeplessness night, he’d reflected on Mr. Don’s offer. Near morning, he’d convinced himself he’d made the right decision.
“Pearl,” he barked.
She’d planted herself in front of a cabinet’s open drawer. Her fingers buried in the overstuffed file, she swung around. “Mornin’, Doc.”
“That’s Dr. Mizer to you now.”
Pearl, open-mouthed, just stared.
“Where’s Lori?” He fisted his hands.
“She…she went to get candy from—”
“When did she leave?”
“About a minute before you came up front. What’s this all about? The first patients should be here by now.”
“I cancelled them. Go to the water fountain.”
“Do it, and drink a cup.”
“Have you done lost yo’ mind?”
From the back waistband of his pants, he pulled a gun. “Do it now, or I’ll shoot you. And then I’ll shoot Lori.”
“Doc, you be actin’—”
“Don’t make me kill you.” He stomped to her and held the gun to her temple.
“Okay, okay.” She shut the file draw.
She scrambled to the fountain and filled a cup.
“Now hold it to your mouth.” He took a cell phone picture. “Now drink it all.”
Pearl drained the cup and wiped her mouth.
The phone rang.
She dragged her feet to answer it. Her eyes widened, and she banged the receiver down.
“It was him, wasn’t it?”
Pearl nodded. “He asked about my arthritis.”
“How is your arthritis?” the dentist asked, his voice guttural.
“Gone.” She held out her hands.
The ropy veins had flattened. The years disappeared in turbo speed. Mr. Don had been right. She was an attractive woman now.
He took another photo.
Lori bit her lip. He’ll kill her for staying away so long. “Hi, guys.” Lori breezed into the room, stopping short.
A young, sad-looking black woman sat in the reception area, elbow on the counter and chin in her hand.
“Who are you?” Lori approached her and tossed a half-eaten bag of chocolate-covered caramels on the counter. “Where’s Pearl?”
“I’m never eating his candy again.”
Lori’s blood ran cold. “Pearl, is that you?”
She nodded, and covered her face with her hands. “He pulled a gun on me and made me chug the Kool-Aid drink, I mean the water.”
“Yeah.” Pearl folded her hands. “Lord help us.” She closed her eyes. “Told me if I didn’t, he’d kill us both. The good news is my arthritis is gone. The bad news is I’m gorgeous again.” She shook her head. “How will Antoine and the kids react to this?”
“You don’t feel like doing anything weird, do you?”
Lori wished she sounded more positive, but remembering what had happened with the patients, Lori’s uncertainty matched hers.
“But if I do start acting… Promise me you’ll tie me up.” Pearl’s eyes pleaded.
“I’ll try.” But where would she get the rope? She wouldn’t say that to Pearl though. It might make her start acting weird.
Lori folded her arms. “So what’s Doc’s plan?”
“Dr. Mizer’s plan is…” he rasped.
They both jumped.
He stood in the doorway of the hall leading to his office. Lori had never seen such cruelty on anyone’s face.
“Part of the plan from now on is that I want both of you to call me Dr. Mizer.”
“Dr. Mizer, what’s the rest of the plan?” she said in the calmest voice she could manage. Lori also made her face as neutral as possible so it would seem as though she’d cooperate. Would her ruse work?
“I had a meeting last night with Mr. Don. He really is a brilliant man.” He flashed a short-lived toothy smile, his face’s cruelty returning. “But I digress. He offered me a chance to…”
Lori, her head clouded, listened to the details of Mr. Don’s proposal. The bizarre plan hurtled her even deeper into the Twilight Zone. But if she could accept the basic premise of a Fountain of Youth, which she had no choice but to accept after seeing it in action yesterday and today, how could any plan involving it be much weirder than the fountain itself?
“What if I don’t want to cooperate?” Pearl asked, teeth clenched.
At least some of Pearl’s feisty personality had returned. But she risked putting them both in danger if she wasn’t more subtle about her resistance. Lori tried to warn her with her eyes.
“The answer is…you don’t have a choice.” That predatory smile again. “But at least you should be grateful that I simplified the decision-making process.”
“What do you need me for?” Lori asked in a monotone.
“Not much. But you’re an added incentive for Pearl to cooperate. I sent the photos to Mr. Don. He’s handling appointment scheduling. But people are going to want to see someone in person who’s gone through the process.”
“Once they see the poster child, I mean person.” He gestured to Pearl. “I think they’ll accept that the before and after pictures are real.” He paused. “What time is it?” He checked his watch. “The first patient will be here in about forty-five minutes.”
“What about that pesky side effect?” Lori frowned.
He shrugged. “As you can see.” He nodded in Pearl’s direction. “The negative effect is unpredictable.”
Lori’s stomach sank. Who did he think he was kidding? Three out of three dead. A fourth counting the poor old man. The figures didn’t bode well for Pearl. Doc’s rationalizing didn’t fool her. Lori’s fears pointed to inevitable results but varied reaction times. But he just didn’t care who died. He’d be out of the country before anyone could pin anything on him.
“I’m going for a walk. I have a sudden craving for candy. Oh, that reminds me. Last night I got a special delivery from Mr. Don.” He dug in his pocket and removed a glass vial filled with red liquid. He put it in his palm, which he extended toward Pearl. “If you do have the urge to commit suicide, drink this. Your death will be totally painless.” He dug in his pocket again. “I also have a vial for today’s patient.” He handed it to Lori, and with a spring in his step, exited the office.
“I’m pouring these down the toilet. Give me yours.” Lori put her hand out.
“No, I’m keeping mine.”
“No, you’re not.” Lori struggled with her, but finally got the vial. She dumped the contents of both down the toilet, flushed it, and trashed the glass containers. Then Lori scooped her purse out of a reception area’s desk drawer. She dug into it and removed a small needlepoint pouch.
“Remember how Doc said we couldn’t wear religious jewelry?” She opened the pouch and took out her great-grandmother’s crucifix necklace. Lori slipped it over her head. “I used to wear this all the time for sentimental reasons, but there’s nothing sentimental about why I’m wearing it now.”
“I keep my cross in my pocket when I’m at work.” Pearl took it out and kissed it. “You should see some of them women in church. They be wearing crosses smothered with diamonds. Jesus ain’t had no diamonds on his cross. We should be wearin’ rough wood. And speakin’ a church, how long it been since yo’ behind warmed a pew?”
“Pearl, can we talk about this later? Now we have to think of a way to get rid of the water. We’ll ask a priest. Maybe the best way is to dump it somewhere deep in a forest. Just let it drain into the soil.”
“Doc won’t never let us do that.”
“We don’t have time to worry about the water right now.” Lorry scurried to the door and locked the deadbolt. “We’re not letting him or the patient in. If he tries to break the door down, we’ll call the police.”
“Yeah, and they’ll put us where everybody wears white suits.” Pearl folded her arms on the scratched-and-ink-stained, ghost-of-its-original-avocado-color counter and cradled her head. She groaned. “Mah knees be achin’ again.” She sat up straight. “Wait a minute.” She held out her hands. “Lori, it’s a miracle!” She gave her a dazzling smile. “Praise the Lord. Ahm old again.”
Lori hugged her. “I am so happy the old Pearl is back.”
The phone rang.
Pearl, fear shrouding her face, moved in slow motion and answered it. She mouthed the words white suit. Pearl put her hand over the mouthpiece. “He saw you lock the door.” She gulped. “He wants to talk to you.”
“No, first I’m breaking the camera.” Lori sped to a closet and grabbed a broom. She stood on a waiting-room chair and smashed the camera with the broomstick until it fell. Then she clobbered it some more. Lori picked it up the pieces, her horror building. “It’s…it’s just an empty box.”
Terror in her eyes, Pearl handed her the phone.
Could she reach him in time? She was on the fifth floor, and one elevator was out of order. The other, not dependable. What if it stalled? She’d take the stairs.
She sped down the steps, clinging with a sweaty palm to the slippery banister, and praying she wouldn’t fall. On the second flight, she tripped but gripped the railing. She was almost at the third-floor when she missed a step and fell on the landing. Pain ripped through her shoulder. How bad was the injury? No time to waste. She scrambled to her feet and continued. Her movements became mechanical, and finally she reached the first floor.
Her shoulder throbbed and burned. She slumped against the rough concrete wall and stared at the looming double doors.
Was she crazy?
Why should she even try to save him after all he’d done? And what about the things he might do in the future? His greed had possessed him, now so out of control that he’d lost all his scruples under Mr. Don’s spell. His death would prevent many other deaths. Trying to catch her breath, she stood there for a moment. Her head ached, and she rubbed her forehead.
No, she couldn’t let him die.
She wouldn’t let Mr. Don pollute her, too. Wincing, she pushed one of the heavy doors, and stumbled into the lobby. Her shoulder aching, she eagle-eyed Doc.
He stood at the candy machine and pressed a button. The candy bar dropped.
Please don’t let that be the peanut butter crunch bar.
Holding her shoulder, she galloped toward him. “Doc, wait!”
He bent and snared the candy bar. Doc turned to her, his face showing annoyance. He ripped the package open.
She was only yards away and recognized the label. “Doc, no. Don’t eat that. The man in the white suit poisoned it,” she screamed.
“You’re crazy.” He took a bite and then collapsed on the marble floor.
Lori screamed, and bystanders gathered. “Stand back!” She knelt at Doc’s side and then leaned closer. Her crucifix grazed his chest. Lori felt for a pulse. He had one. She checked for bleeding and didn’t see any.
Doc opened his eyes and scanned the horde surrounding him. “What’s going on?”
“Dr. Mizer, I thought you were—”
“Dr. Mizer?” His face a question mark, he shifted his gaze to Lori. “You always call me Doc. Why am I in the lobby?” He started getting up.
Despite her shoulder pain, with gentle maneuvering she convinced him to lie down. “I’m calling 9-1-1.”
“Don’t you dare! I’m fine. Are we finished with today’s patients?”
“Hmm, Doc. That’s a complicated question.” She scanned the lobby. The swarm that had gathered had lost interest and dwindled.
Doc frowned. “It’s a yes-or-no question.” He locked eyes with hers, but he was the one who shifted his gaze first.
Beads of sweat bubbled on his forehead. She fished a tissue out of her pocket and wiped it. Then she kissed his brow. He didn’t scold her for an “excessive display of emotion.” He just smiled.
“Doc, what’s the last thing you remember?”
He squinted and gazed at the ceiling. “There was this weird guy in a white suit talking about some deal.” His focused his eyes on her. “That’s an interesting necklace. Is it an antique?”
She touched the crucifix. “Yes, it belonged to my great-grandmother.” Did he really call it interesting? Lori couldn’t believe her ears. And he didn’t harp at her for wearing it?
Doc closed his eyes.
She shook him. “If you won’t let me call an ambulance, at least rest here awhile. But it’s not a good idea to fall asleep after your fall. We’ll go upstairs soon. Pearl and I have an earful for you.” They’d give him the Cliff Notes version, and then Pearl would bully him into the ER. “Also a patient is going to show up that we’ll have to get rid of.”
Doc shook his head. “No, I’d never turn away a patient.”
Lori smiled and patted his shoulder. “I think… I know you will when we tell you the story.”
A herd of young business-casual guys, backslapping, arm-punching, and loud talking, exited an elevator. One said he had a joke, and they circled him. His posture conspiratorial, he spoke hushed words Lori couldn’t decipher. Then the man gestured with his hands, and the group broke into guffaws. “Jesus Christ,” one shouted.
To him a swear, but to her a prayer.
In a Tokyo high-rise office building, an executive wearing an impeccable gray suit sat behind his illegal ebony-wood desk. He beamed at the man in a white suit. “So, Mr. Don. I am very eager to hear about your once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Patricia La Barbera, MFA, is an author and an editor, who specializes in speculative fiction. She also teaches writing classes and judges writing contests. Patricia is a member of the Catholic Writers Guild and an active member of the Horror Writers Association. She organized SRQ Horror, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy Writers. She lives in the Sarasota, Florida, area with her husband. www.patricialabarbera.com