“Four twenty five,” called out a nurse, pulling down her mask.
Surgeon Jon Harvey looked down at the dead man on his operating table as the team shut off equipment around him. His name was Julius, an addict and dealer who’d been beaten to death by an unsatisfied customer. There was no one in the waiting room to notify, no grieving relatives to deal with.
Another surgeon had stood over Jon’s wife Gina three weeks earlier as life slipped from her body, on a table just like this one. We’re not gods, he thought, rehashing a phrase that had lost its meaning for him long ago.
“Dr. Harvey? You okay?”
“Sorry,” he muttered as he slid by the busy nurses and pushed open the operating room doors.
In the small locker room, Jon sat on a wood bench hunched forward, elbows resting on his knees, thinking dangerous thoughts.
If he could have saved Julius’s life, would that have been in the kid’s best interest? Is life everyone’s best option?
The hand of George Estrada, Jon’s favourite anesthesiologist, rested on his shoulder. “Sorry about the kid. You doing okay?”
“That’s a question impossible to answer honestly.”
“I’ll take that as a ‘no.’” George sat next to Jon. “Shit, I feel responsible.”
“I was the one who said getting back to work quickly would help you focus on something other than…Gina, but I think I was wrong about that. You should take some time off. Grieve. Drink. Run. Not necessarily in that order.”
Jon sat up, a smile forming and evaporating quickly. “I can’t argue with you, George. I shouldn’t be in the operating room.”
Jon rubbed the stubble on his shallow cheeks, and George noticed the tan line from his wedding ring.
“Go see the Chief of Staff. Take a few weeks off.”
The sabbatical began only days later, and Jon christened his first free morning with a long run in the hills around his Big Sur home Gina had nicknamed ‘Mount Olympus.’ The last quarter of a mile uphill was the test, always that last stretch, and his leg muscles complained as he finally stopped to open the security gate.
Lifting the cover of the keypad, Jon was about to punch in the number when his attention was drawn to a man standing in front of the steps to the porch. He was an older gentleman with wavy wisps of silver hair and a drawn, weary face, but there was nothing familiar about him. And how had he gotten on the property?
“Can I help you?” called out Jon as he walked warily up the driveway.
The old man exposed rows of stained teeth and extended a thin, white hand. “Dr. Harvey. So sorry for coming by unannounced.”
Jon stopped several feet away from the man, creating an awkward space. “You seem to know me, but I can’t say the same. What are you doing here?”
The man lowered his hand. His small eyes seemed unusually red, as if he’d been crying. “James Baxtrom. I knew your wife.”
Jon wiped sweat from his forehead and studied the man in the shabby black overcoat, trying to digest the odd bit of information he’d just offered.
“My wife never mentioned you.”
“I’m sure she didn’t,” said Baxtrom just above a whisper.
Jon reached into the small pouch he carried and pulled out his phone. ”So could you please tell me why you’re on my property? I have a locked gate for a reason.”
The man put up his hands. “I’m sorry. I just felt I should talk to you in person.”
“Gina. There are some things about her you might not be aware of.”
“What? Were you two having an affair?” asked Jon, a grin spreading.
“No, nothing like that, but I do have something important to discuss with you regarding your wife. Could we go inside and talk?”
Jon stood perplexed, looking at the man, then at his phone, then back at the old man, trying to put pieces together that didn’t fit. It was too much.
“What the hell. Come on,” he said, turning toward the front porch.
James sat stiffly on the couch, wearing his buttoned coat.
“No thank you,” said James.
Jon sat down with his bottle. “I don’t have any idea what you really want, but I do know this will make a great story to tell. So go ahead. How did you know Gina?”
“Right.” James looked down and picked at a thread. “Have you been to your wife’s grave since the funeral?”
Jon’s eyes narrowed. “What the hell kind of question is that?”
“I knew Gina. Bright, like you, but also adventurous…curious. She led a life over the years that I can only assume she kept secret from you, a life devoted to the occult.”
As the word “occult” crashed against the armour of scientific rationality usually protecting Jon, he set down his beer, grabbed the arms of his chair and started laughing. He tried to contain the loudest bursts by leaning forward and covering his face with his hands, but it took an embarrassingly long time to gain control of himself.
“I’m sorry. The occult? Gina was a psychologist. She had a Master’s degree from Berkeley. She published in professional journals…”
“I know, Jon. I was one of her professors.”
“It was an upper level seminar called, “The Mind, Mystics and Madness.” We looked at the effects of non-traditional forces on the functionality of the brain and perceived reality, such as drugs, religion, trauma and the occult. I’m afraid my own passion for the paranormal and things metaphysical rubbed off and she became enthralled with occult rituals and practices, and wrote quite a fascinating paper at the end of the term on the zombie mythology in Haiti.
“After the class, she kept in touch, asking me my opinion on certain practices. I don’t need to tell you this, but she travelled extensively, always under the guise of some professional purpose, but the trips were often taken to experience the occult first hand, séances, satanic rituals, black magic and such.”
“This is a bunch of bullshit,” growled Jon. “She never said a goddamn word about it.”
“You worked long, difficult hours. You’re a man of science. It doesn’t surprise me she didn’t say anything. But she knew she was going to die.”
A late afternoon fog began filling-in the valleys. A trick of light and clouds passed by the windows and darkened the man’s face.
“How did you know that? Her sister Chelsea and I told family and friends it was an accident. Chelsea wanted it that way. No one knew it was suicide but the police and the two of us.”
“Because she told me in a text. But she said I shouldn’t worry.”
“I’m losing my patience, Braxton, if that’s really your name.”
“She said not to worry, because it wouldn’t be the end. You see, a Brazilian shaman I know gave her a potion, a very powerful concoction, that could…I know how this sounds…raise the dead. Please, it sounds preposterous, but I personally witnessed this elixir bring two people back to life who were clearly dead.”
(Cont next column)