Authors: Art Bourgeau
His tone was the same pseudo-compassionate one he
used in telling testicular cancer patients that their balls had to
come off. His bad-news voice. It made her sick.
"Tell me all about it," she said, trying to
"It's simple. We had an agreement and insurance
policies. When Cyrus died the insurance company paid your mother two
and a half million dollars, and she signed over to me your father's
stock in the practice."
"What about the other assets, the property?"
"Your townhouse and car went to your mother. All
according to the agreement. The rest—the cabin, the house at the
shore, the condo in St. Martin—stays with the practice."
"And you own it all—"
"Which brings me to my next point." Oh, he
was loving this. The segundo now numero uno. "In the interest of
cash flow, our accountant has recommended that Beverly take over
running the office and you be in charge of the lab."
"You're a registered nurse. It will work out
fine . . . And now I'm afraid we're going to have to cut this short.
This morning the police brought in sperm samples from the body of one
of those missing South Philly girls. They need the test in a rush."
Missy shook her head. "Let them wait. I want to
hear the rest of this."
"If you wish. As I mentioned, you'll be in
charge of the lab, including the employees who work there and the
work done there, subject, of course, to our supervision. With the way
the business is growing from our outside work and our city contract
I'm sure in a short time you'll pass your old salary."
"Pass my old salary? What do you mean by that?"
"I'm afraid your present salary of a thousand a
week, along with the benefits your father gave you, no longer
justifies itself. But as the lab business grows we will increase your
salary until you're back up there and beyond/'
"And what is my new salary?"
"We feel twenty-two thousand would be more in
keeping with the job. Naturally, as a stockholder you'll also be
entitled to any bonuses or shareholder salary increases."
There but for one word they would have had her.
"Shareholder". Nathan didn't get all the stock with his
buy-out. He only got her father's shares. With his original
twenty-five percent, plus her father's sixty-five percent, there was
still ten percent unaccounted for—the ten percent her father had
given to her. Don't panic, live to fight another day. She forced a
smile. "I guess I'd better get to work."
She could see they were disappointed in her reaction.
Good, that's how she wanted them. She did not go back to the linen
closet for a nurse's uniform. Those days were over. Instead, she went
straight to the lab.
The technicians looked up when she walked in. Nobody
seemed surprised at her demotion, and while she was gone they had
moved her things from her office to a corner desk with two windows.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad to spend more time here. Lab work had
always been her favorite part of the practice anyway . . .
"Are you okay?"
Looking up she saw Gladys, one of the technicians,
standing in front of her desk.
"Of course." And then, changing the
subject, "what's happening on that police work Nathan
"The sperm sample from the dead girl, one of the
teenagers missing from South Philly?"
"Cou1d be," said Missy.
"Terri DiFranco's her name. They're all done,
but Dr. Pollack wants to sign the report himself in case the police
should need his testimony."
Of course, anything to get his name in the paper, she
thought but did not say. "What else do we have, Grace?"
"There's a patient in number two examining room.
Dr. Pollack wants you to see him."
The patient, dressed in work clothes and boots, was
reading a copy of the morning edition of the Globe A lunchbox and
hardhat were next to him on the examining table. His chart said that
his name was Roland Morris and that he was there for a sperm count.
When he looked up from his newspaper uneasiness and
surprise crossed his face. She was accustomed to dealing with
patients embarrassed at dealing with a woman. She introduced herself
and said, "Mr. Morris, your chart says that you're here for a
sperm count. Do you have a sample of your semen?"
"Uh, yeah, sure."
He opened his lunchbox and brought out a small jar
that contained about a teaspoonful of white liquid. The substantial
volume was a possible but not certain indicator of a low sperm count.
She held up the jar to the light and noted that the contents were
"Mr. Morris, when did you do this?"
"Last night . . . just before I went to bed."
"And where did you keep the jar last night?"
"In the refrigerator. The lady I spoke to said
it would be all right."
She didn't ask which lady. That was no longer her
job, at least for a while. Instead, she went across the small
examining room and took a fresh vial from beside the sink.
"I'm afraid we're going to need another sample."
"You mean right now?"
"I'm afraid so. For us to do an accurate test we
need a fresh sample, not more than an hour old, and one that's been
kept warm not cold. It's kind of like hatching eggs. Everything's got
to be warm or it doesn't work."
"Where do you want me to do it?" he said,
the sound of Waterloo in his voice.
"Right here. I'll leave the room and when you're
finished just bring it back to the lab. I'll do the work and Dr."—she
looked down at the chart that listed the name of one of the younger
physicians—"Dr. Baker will give you the results."
Walking back to the lab with the old sample in her
hand, she was tempted to take the fresh one and smear it on the
toilet seat just before Beverly used it, then listen to her try to
explain a black baby to Nathan.
While she waited for her patient she called her
mother. Careful not to say too much with people around, she merely
asked if she could come out for a drink in the evening. Her mother
said, "Yes, of course," but there was a moment of
hesitation, as if she were going to have to rearrange some plans to
Next, she called Felix, reaching him at his
construction site. She told him that she had to see her mother early
in the evening, but would he come over for a drink later, around
midnight? He agreed, although he seemed a bit distant. Must be
because he was on the job, she decided . . .
Some ten minutes later her patient was back in the
lab with a fresh sample. She sent him back to the waiting room and
got to work.
She was humming as she poured the fresh sperm into a
small graduated cylinder to measure its volume in cc's, then checked
the pH balance to determine if it was acidic or alkaline. It was
mildly alkaline. Next she placed a drop on a slide and checked the
motility of the sperm under the microscope. Noting that approximately
seventy percent were active, she turned her attention to the
morphology, the shape of the sperms, which gave the configuration of
the heads. Sperm with small heads, pinheads as the technicians called
them, tended to be too weak to fertilize an egg. Not the case here.
She skipped the vicosity test, feeling sure it would properly liquify
in an hour but not wanting to spend the time. Then she diluted the
sample with five grams of sodium carbonate, one milliliter of
Formalin and enough distilled water to bring the liquid to a volume
of one hundred cc's, inactivating the sperm so that they could be
counted. The count came to slightly over eighty million, which was on
the low-normal side. Coupled with the mild alkaline quality, this
could explain the family's conception problem. If they were lucky,
all that would be necessary for the wife to get pregnant would be to
douche with a mild solution of baking soda and water before
Missy was just finishing the report when her phone
rang. It was Kate, the receptionist: "There are two policemen
out here about some lab work."
"Oh? Well, have them wait a moment," and
she sent Gladys out to bring them back to the lab.
Both men were in plainclothes—one balding, the
other stocky. The balding one introduced himself as Lieutenant Sloan,
and the stocky one as Detective Evans.
"What can I do for you, gentlemen?"
"We're here for the lab work on Terri DiFranco.
We called and were told it was ready," Sloan said.
"Gladys, has Dr. Pollack signed that report
"Yes, here it is."
Sloan nearly tore it from her grasp in his hurry to
see the results. When he saw them a look of disappointment crossed
"What you hoped for?" said Missy.
"Not by a long shot," replied Sloan.
LAURA COULD not get the sight of that girl's body off
her mind long enough even to begin work on the piece about Felix
Ducroit. All she could think about was the deserted depot and the
room with its candle-encircled pallet. And what went through the
girl's mind when Peter's hands closed around her throat.
She looked at herself in the mirror, her blue eyes
"You look a mess, like you've been on a
three-day drunk/' she said aloud to her image. She went back to her
desk, the sights and sounds of the newsroom all around her but far
away. Up to the moment she asked Sloan to show her the body, her
interest in the missing girls had been professional. A chance for a
good story. Afterward it became personal. She felt the pain, the fear
of death. It wasn't difficult for her; if anything it was too easy.
The breast cancer and the operation had seen to that. She knew, she
understood . . . She and the girl, she felt they were drawn together
by common secrets. She shook her head, trying to clear away the
thought. Be careful, she told herself. You won't do anybody any good
getting morbid about this. The girl is dead, you survived. Remember
that little detail . . .
The jangle of her phone brought her back to the press
of the immediate. She looked at her watch. Realistically she couldn't
expect to hear from Sloan for some time yet . . . who knew how many
details had to be worked out before he was ready to talk to the
press. Until then, there was her bargain with Will Stuart—first
deliver the piece on Felix Ducroit; then go for the Terri story.
She made some calls—first to Justin and Lois
Fortier at Lagniappe, and to Carl Laredo, the artist. Talking with
them, she was reminded of the evening they'd spent together, about
how Felix Ducroit with his grace and graciousness had saved the day,
or night, by taking a raving Missy Wakefield off their hands. No
doubt Felix had his own reasons for doing it . . . whatever variety
of bitch Missy Wakefield might be, she fairly poured sex appeal. Damn
her . . .
As it turned out, Carl wasn't able to help much.
Neither was Lois, except to remind her that Cynthia Ducroit, owner of
the Pine Street Charcuterie, was his ex-wife. Justin was a different
story. He and Felix had been boyhood friends, went back as far as
either could remember. Tales of playing cowboys and Indians and how
Felix always wore a black hat and he always wore a red one and of a
wooden horse Felix's father had made for them from a sawhorse and a
barrel were charming but not much help. Still, she was personally
taken by the image of these two very adult and handsome men as
children, Felix so dark, Justin so blond.
All Justin's tales were about a carefree Felix, a
quality hardly evident at Lagniappe the night they'd met. He had been
so quiet, apparently deep in thought. She found herself speculating
on what was on his mind, what was bothering him. More than that, his
preoccupied air attracted her. No surprise . . . brooding men often
affected her that way. "Too much Wuthering Heights as a child,"
she would tell those who noticed and asked about it. After she
finished talking with the Fortiers she called Cynthia and made a
lunch date. The two were casual friends, had been ever since Laura
had done a piece on female-owned businesses in Philadelphia—which
was when she had originally heard the
Felix Ducroit . . .
When Sloan finally called, she had just finished
talking to a fellow reporter from the New Orleans Times—Picayune
who assured her that she would send on anything they had on Felix
Ducroit. Sloan was calling from police headquarters, the
"Roundhouse," as it was called, and told her to meet him at
the Liberty Bell in twenty minutes. She grabbed her coat and was on
She parked in the underground garage on Fifth Street
across from KYW television and the Bourse shopping complex, then
proceeded across Independence Mall in the chilly drizzle. The Liberty
Bell was housed in a small brick, metal and glass building shaped
like a paper airplane. She went inside and while she waited for
Sloan, half-listened as a park ranger explained to a high-school
class that the crack in the bell was not what was important. Pay
attention, he said, to the words about liberty engraved near the top
and think about what they meant to all the different groups in
America throughout its history. The kids were in good spirits, and
neither the drizzle outside nor the lecture inside had dampened their
real enthusiasm—it was a day off from school. Watching them, so
full of youthful piss and vinegar, she couldn't help think about one
of the missing—a young girl whose body had been moldering in an old
depot in South Philly.