by Lesley A. Diehl
This story was originally published by Untreed Reads. Check out more of Lesley’s writing on her page at Untreed: bit.do/lesleydiehl.
I turned to my husband. “Answer that, Dudley. I’m a little busy here.”
“My name’s not Dudley. It’s Fred.”
“Fine. Answer it anyway. Must be the scopolamine making me forget who you are.”
The doctor shook his head and made circling motions with his finger.
“Hey!” I sat up and pointed at him. “You were the one who gave me the drug.”
Fred or Dudley or whatever was the name of the man responsible for putting me in this position, turned his back on me and whispered into the phone.
“Later.” What’s-his-name, the man I loved right up until the last contraction, ignored me and continued to talk.
I grabbed his arm. “You’re supposed to be working with me, panting along, and cheering me on, not chatting on the phone. Where are my ice chips?” I knew my tone was accusatory, but I was not cheerful about how slowly this delivery was going. The other two each only took a matter of minutes. What was it with this kid?
“You told me to answer it.” He still held the phone to his ear, his usually tanned face drained of color.
I could feel another contraction coming on. I grabbed the phone out of his hand.
“What do you want?” That was what I meant to say, but instead all I produced were noises reminiscent of our dog’s gasping for air after an hour playing catch in the back yard.
The doctor signaled by shoving his palm forward in the air. “Push.”
Fred nodded, an encouraging smile plastered on his now greenish face.
“Is this Mrs. Baker?” I heard the voice on the phone say.
I blew out a strangled, “yes.”
“We need you to identify your mother’s body,” the caller said.
My husband dropped to the hospital floor.
I leaned over the side of the bed. “You promised me you wouldn’t faint this time. You lied.”
I pushed some more.
The caller still held the line despite the grunting from my end. “Could you come to the morgue this afternoon?”
“Not really. I’ve got a full schedule.” I tossed the phone to the midwife.
“Again.” The doctor positioned himself at the foot of the bed.
“Okay, but I hope you’ve got your catcher’s mitt on. I’m gonna give it my all.” I did.
A baby howled. Mine.
I couldn’t blame her. Such an antiseptically cold room after that warm comforting place. I’d yell too.
“Wake up, Fred. It’s over.”
“What is it?”
“It’s a baby, you dope. What were you expecting, a teddy bear?”
I was my mother’s daughter in many ways, most of them ways I didn’t like. I believe the term Fred used was
“But only when I’m in labor.” The delivery complete, I held the baby in my arms, peering closely at her. I had wanted her to look like Fred’s side of the family, tall, olive-skinned, with dark hair and eyes, like her two older brothers. No such luck. She was the spitting image of my mother, now deceased if I could believe the coroner’s office in Miami.
Fred leaned over me. “Your mother would have been so happy having a granddaughter with her blue eyes and blonde hair and…”
“…Fat butt and stubby legs. She might like it, but I wanted more for this kid. Besides, now that Mom’s gone, she’ll never see what those recessive genes produced.”
“Angela, you have blonde hair, a round little tush, and you’re petite.” Fred made it sound attractive.
I patted his cheek. “And I forgive you for fainting on me.”
“I think it was the shock of your mother’s death this time.”
“Right.” Whatever he wanted to believe. Fred was the sweetest man. Obviously the scopolamine had worn off and with it, my irritation at him as more than competent impregnator but inadequate labor coach.
“I’ve got to get myself down to Miami sometime tomorrow after the insurance throws me out of this room. They need an ID, but I’m not sure I can do it.”
“No, Fred. You met her only once, at our wedding, and that was over ten years ago. You can’t be expected to recognize her.”
That was my problem too. I saw my mother only now and then, probably once every two or three years. We were not close. She sometimes forgot she had a daughter, and when she did remember, she couldn’t recall my name. And, no, she did not have Alzheimer’s. She just wasn’t into mothering and never had been. She was, however, into rich men. She’d married five or six of them. I lose count. She outlived most of them and divorced the others. Mom did not have great staying power in relationships.
What she did have was an obsession with plastic surgery. She called it her “little hobby,” discovered when her first wealthy husband died. My dad was her real first husband, but he was not wealthy. He was just tolerant, and he paid for it by dying of a heart attack brought on by the stress of living with my mother for over fifteen years. Of course the doctors didn’t say that, but everyone thought it.
Because of the plastic surgery I never knew whom I was going to see when we got together. She was barely recognizable as the woman I remembered from my adolescent years. Her body and face didn’t move much anymore, so it was difficult to say if she was glad to be with me or not. Aside from channeling her personality when I delivered my three children, she and I did not have much in common.
I put off identifying the body for three days, because Fred needed some bed rest. The deliveries were always hard on him. Aside from retaining some of the weight I gained with the pregnancy, I had accomplished my usual express lane delivery and recovery. No postpartum blues for this gal. The days following the birth were like discovering you misread your scale and you were really twenty pounds lighter not heavier. No running, of course, but skipping wasn’t totally out of the question.
I didn’t consider meeting one’s grandmother in a morgue the best experience for my newborn daughter, so I decided to view the body alone. Fred’s schedule of teaching at the community college would allow me half the day to pop up to Miami while he sat with the kids. I let Stella determine her schedule and found I could nurse her every two to three hours, enough time for me to drive from our home in Key Largo to the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office. If there was no accident on the twenty-mile stretch, the only road connecting the Keys to mainland Florida, it would take me an hour each way. I made it in under an hour.
A detective met me in the waiting area of the morgue.
“I’m Detective Estevez.” He shook my hand. “I’m sorry to inconvenience you this way with your new baby and all.”
Estevez scowled. I guess he didn’t think new mothers should be so honest, but, in my book, that’s another word for “acerbic.”
“I don’t understand why you couldn’t have asked Clay, her husband, to do it.”
“I guess you and your mother weren’t close, right?”
“Don’t get me started. I hardly knew her. So where’s Clay?”
“He’s been arrested.”
“For her murder. Someone saw him push her off the ship.”
That sounded reasonable. It probably was only a matter of time before one of her husbands tried to do in the woman.
“She was on a ship?”
“The Cosmetic Cruise. It was advertised as ‘seven days at sea—under the knife in paradise.’ The ship cruised to the Bahamas and nearby islands, and the women had their faces and other body parts sculpted by some plastic surgeon out of California.”
That was Mom. And that was the problem. If she’d had even more surgery onboard, there was no chance I’d recognize her.
“I don’t think I’ll be much help. Can’t I give you a tissue sample and you can use DNA?”
He laughed. “The labs are so backed up, it’ll take years. I’ve got a murder case I’ve got to clear.”
I shrugged. “I’m here so I guess I’ll give it a go.”
We walked up to a window and a curtain parted. I looked at the body. It was that of a woman who’d had a number of procedures, some old (taut skin surrounded by a sea of wrinkles), others new enough that the sutures hadn’t healed. Her color was somewhere between muddy water puddle brown and overcooked pasta beige with a tinge of yellow and green. It sure looked like Mom.
I leaned closer to the glass separating me from the body. “Maybe.”
“Maybe? What do you mean? It’s either your mom or it isn’t. Do you need more time?”
I considered his question. Maybe I did need more time with Mom, but that was out of my hands. She wasn’t interested when she was living, and now it was too late. Assuming the body was hers.
“I’ve got to go with maybe.”
Detective Estevez gave me a cop look saying I was wasting his time.
“I’d like to talk to Clay. Is that possible?”
“You’re sure you can’t make an ID? Take another look.”
“Detective Estevez, I am the mother of a newborn. Do you have any idea how awful baby poop looks?” By the expression of horror on his face, I suspected he was a father.
“Right. Well, then, you and I know it looks appreciably better than that body on the slab, so, no, unless you want me to have you brought up on charges of police brutality, I decline the opportunity to have another peek.”
He signaled to whoever was behind the curtain, perhaps The Great and Glorious Medical Examiner Oz, and the drapes closed.
“Now about Clay. I’d like to see him.”
“Why would you want to talk with the man who killed your mother?”
“I just do, that’s all.”
“You’ll have to clear it with his attorney first.”
Estevez made a call and, after some time getting the runaround from the DA’s office, obtained the name of Clay’s attorney. He then walked me out of the building. “Your failure to identify the body is making this case difficult for us, you know.”
“Think about if you were in my shoes. You think it may be your mother dead there, but you’re not certain. How would you feel?”
If I expected sympathy, I was disappointed. “Someone saw her being pushed off the ship. Who else could it be? Your mother, Mrs. Davis, never got off the ship, and everyone else did. It’s only logical. She has to be your mother.” By now the detective was shouting, drawing the attention of all the others in the parking lot. His face was an ugly shade of purple. I’d seen colors on skin today that rivaled that of my husband’s face when he fainted in the delivery room.
I left the detective in the lot flailing his arms in the air and yelling while I ran for my car. Actually, given the fact of having recently given birth, I did a modified skip to my car.
When I connected with Clay’s attorney by cell, he told me Clay was in the Miami-Dade holding facility.
“You can stop by there or see him tomorrow after he gets bailed out, if he gets bailed out.” The lawyer didn’t sound hopeful for Clay’s release.
“I may have difficulty getting down here tomorrow, so I’ll pay him a visit now.”
We stared at each other through the smeared, scratched Plexiglas separating us. I picked up the receiver and looked at it.
Clay nodded at the phone. “You put it up against your ear.”
I extracted a baby wipe from my purse, cleaned off the earpiece, and did as he said.
“Nice of you to visit. I’m sorry we never met before this, but I can assure you…”
I looked through the smudges at Clay’s face, round, soft, patient in its demeanor, the face of a man my mother would divorce, but not the face of a man who would kill her for it. A cop would say I couldn’t be certain he didn’t kill Mom. Maybe not, but after raising two sons, I knew all the looks, from genuine innocence to guilt masquerading as guilelessness. Any mother of boys developed this ability better than an FBI profiler.
I smiled at Clay, told him I knew he was innocent, and asked him if he could get his lawyer to wrangle a look at the body for him.
“I’m not sure I want to remember her that way.”
“Well, no one does, but I need a second opinion.”
“What are you saying?” He looked puzzled.
“Just do it, would you?”
Back in the car, I called Fred.
He sounded anxious. “The boys are fine, but I’m worried about Stella. I don’t know how to handle her.”
“Is she fussing? I left milk for her in the fridge. You just have to heat it up. You know the routine.”
“No, she’s not hungry, but she’s wide awake and she just lies there and looks at me.”
“Pick her up.”
“She’s a girl. I don’t know what to do with girls.”
“She’s a baby. The girl stuff doesn’t take over for a while. Think of her as one of the boys at that age, just dressed in pink.”
“She’s not in pink. She got one of the boys’ baby shirts on. It’s green and I’m worried it will affect her development.”
“It’s really too early to worry about that.”
“I don’t want to set her up for making an arbitrary decision about gender somewhere in the future.” His voice shook. Fred took this fatherhood thing to heart.
I suggested he change her shirt to another, the one with ruffles and scenes of tiny grey mice dancing in a field of flowers, pink, of course. This seemed to make Fred feel better.
“Before I let you go, there’s something else.” The anxiety returned to his voice.
What now? “Don’t let the boys eat the play dough.” I couldn’t remember if I’d warned him about that before I left or not.
“Don’t worry. The dog already took care of that.”
I sighed in relief. “What then?”
“Your mother’s closest friend, Vera Cleeve, called and wants to come by tonight to talk to you. She says she saw the man who pushed your mother off the ship and it was her husband Clay. It was your mom, right?”
I repeated the words I’d said earlier to the detective. “Maybe.”
“Have you talked to Clay? I don’t know why your mother wanted to divorce that man. Well, maybe now I know. He did kill her. But until that happened he was such a gentleman. And he had so much money.” Vera sat in the recliner rocker pushing herself back and forth. From the moment she entered the house she had been talking. I might have worried all that babbling and rocking meant she was distraught over Mom’s death if I hadn’t known Vera since I was a kid. She was a talker. I’d bet she did it at home with no one around. She seemed to like to hear herself, or maybe the feeling of her mouth opening and closing and her tongue moving made her feel more alive. She was pushing eighty after all.
I had to break into her monologue. “Could I…”
“So why do you think Clay did it? Another woman? No, that can’t be it. It has to be…”
“Vera!” This time I shouted.
“What, dear? Oh, you must be so torn apart by this. What with the new baby and all. It was a girl, right? Your mother would have been so…”
I hopped off the couch and leaned over Vera. “If you don’t stop talking, you’ll upset me, and that’ll upset the baby. Then she’ll start to cry. That’s sure to upset her stomach, and she’ll probably throw up, and then I’ll break out in hives, and we’ll have to run off to the twenty-four-hour walk-in clinic because my hives are usually accompanied by my throat swelling shut. I turn blue when that happens. Blue is not a good color for me, at least not the shade of blue I do. You don’t want to be responsible for my baby losing her mother as well as her grandmother, do you?” I gasped for breath. Talking to Vera so she’d listen was not unlike managing birth contractions, only there was no pushing.
“Heavens. You think I’m responsible for your mother’s death. Is that what you’re trying to tell me now?”
“Not at all, but I do have a few questions I’d like to ask you.”
She nodded and opened her mouth to speak.
I held up a cautionary finger. “Wait for the question.”
She clamped her lips together.
“Whose idea was it to go on this cruise? Mom’s? And you and she roomed together? Did she know Clay was coming along? Just what exactly did you see that night?”
“That’s more than one question.” She compressed her mouth tighter and crossed her arms. Vera never liked anyone trying to rein in her mouth. I reached out, patted her arm, and nodded. That seemed to mollify her.
“You know how your mother loved self-improvement?” She looked to me for confirmation.
“It was plastic surgery, not a seminar on the history of railroads in Florida.”
“Yes, but the boat had seminars too, you know. Anyway, she said she wanted to get away from Clay. He was beginning to annoy her. I guess he liked her just the way she was, but you know your mom.”
“Right, the self-improvement thing.”
“She asked me along for company. She had the surgery, and I played bingo most of the time. The last night out, she complained her pain pills weren’t working and said she was going down to the infirmary for something stronger. Between you and me, I think she had a thing for the doctor. Anyway, she was all wrapped up in one of those fluffy robes all the patients wore and her face was still bandaged.”
“No wonder I couldn’t tell if the body was Mom’s. The surgery was that recent?”
“Only the day before. She was one of the last patients he worked on.” She stopped talking. She looked as if she’d run down and needed to be wound up again.
I tried to be encouraging. “Don’t stop now. You were saying she went to the surgery for pills?”
“I had moved from where she left me to farther down the rail toward the back of the ship. When I looked forward to where we’d been, I saw her come from below through the automatic doors, walk toward the rail and look out over the sea. I yelled at her but she didn’t seem to hear me. Then Clay came out and simply picked her up and pitched her into the water.”
“Did you say anything to him?”
“No. He couldn’t see me. I was too far away and several pillars separated him from me.”
“But you’re sure it was Clay?”
“It had to be. He was tall and slender and had Clay’s full head of brown hair. Not many of the men on ship had hair. It wasn’t a cruise for families you know, so most of us were older.”
“But did you see his face?”
“It was Clay. I’m certain. It had to be. They had argued only hours before. Who else aboard ship had reason to
The next morning I sat at my computer with Stella sleeping in the crook of my arm.
“You could put her in her crib.” Fred smiled down on his sleeping daughter. He seemed more comfortable with her.
“I think the exposure’s good. The world is so high-tech I don’t want her left behind.” I signed onto the Internet and began my research. By the end of the morning and only several Stella feedings later, I knew something was not right with the cruise Mom had selected. Perhaps not unrelated to the imminent bankruptcy of the cruise line was the near illegal nature of the doctor’s surgical background. Dr. Banitwick had graduated from a medical school in California, but I could find no license to practice medicine in any state. Also interesting was he was a member of the Chi Do Rho fraternity at his alma mater. And so was Donnie Brookman, the owner of the cruise line company, Beautiful Cruises for You.
I left Stella with Fred in the late afternoon and headed north to the port of Miami. The office I was searching for was tucked behind the more opulent headquarters of a larger cruise line. I looked through the glass door with
“Beautiful Cruises” lettered on it and saw a deserted office. Had I come too late? Then I noticed a window to the left of the entrance. Behind it a balding, short man, sweating heavily, struggled with a heavy briefcase. Before he could exit, I pushed the door inward taking him off guard.
“We’re closed.” He looked frightened.
“Yes, you are, but you’re not going anywhere.”
“You’re an undercover cop, right?”
Okay. I could be. I nodded. I was wearing a prebirth outfit, a smock with an arrow on the front pointing downward toward my belly and reading “Guess Who?” He didn’t ask for identification, confirming either his lack of intelligence or television crime show deprivation.
“I knew it. I knew this would happen.” He dropped the briefcase on the floor and began crying. His nonstop babbling made me wonder if he and Vera were related.
“I can’t compete with the larger cruise ships, but I thought running this specialty cruise would save the line. Then comes the murder, and I’m worse off now than I was before. I’m finished. No money. And I’m sure there will be plenty lawsuits up ahead. Banitwick was a hack, as you already know. He could do only one nose and one chin, one set of lips. He didn’t even do facelifts. He just sutured faces and made like he did the lifts. I’m ruined.” He dropped to his knees and looked up at me with his hands in a position of prayer. “Help me.”
“Why should you take the wrap for this?” I flipped open my phone and called Detective Estevez.
“He had to have made some money off the plastic surgery cruise. Where is it?” Any pity I felt for the man had evaporated, so annoying was his constant crying.
We stood outside an interrogation room watching Donnie sob his way through a confession. So far he’d admitted to stealing money from the company, failing to pay his creditors and his employees, and hiring someone he knew had no license to practice medicine.
“I’ve had calls coming in for the last twenty-four hours asking how to get in touch with the cruise line. The passengers are only now realizing they’ve been taken.” Estevez looked as annoyed as I felt.
A uniformed officer came up and tapped Estevez on the shoulder. “Excuse me sir, but some woman is here, saying she wants to turn in her mother. It’s related to the cruise line thing.”
Estevez and I turned to see a woman about my age followed by another woman with a bandaged face. A prickly feeling worked its way up the back of my skull.
“This,” the younger woman hesitated and gestured angrily at the other woman, “this person is not my mother, and I want her arrested for impersonating my mother, who is a dear, sweet woman. This one is a shrew. She couldn’t possibly be anyone’s mother.”
“Mom?” I asked.
Two blue eyes met mine.
“Fine. Then I want police protection,” said the bandage.
The younger woman turned on her companion. “I’m not going to hurt you. I just want you out of my life whoever you are. I fed you and ran errands for you since I picked you up from the cruise, but nothing I did was good enough, was it? Who the hell are you?”
“She’s my mother.” No maybe this time. I didn’t need to see her face. I could tell. “The police think you’re dead. What happened?”
“Not even a ‘so glad you’re not fish bait, Mom’?” the bandaged face asked.
“I never thought you were.”
“You said maybe the body was hers.” Estevez’s earlier annoyance at Donnie was now turned on me.
“You pushed me,” I retorted.
“I don’t care who she belongs to. Get her out of my life.” The woman who’d dragged Mom into the station looked desperate to unload her. “I’ve never met anyone so selfish, so demanding, so, so….”
The young woman nodded. Then worry crossed her features. “But where’s my mother?”
Another detective led the woman off to the morgue while Estevez, Mom, and I took up residence in one of the interrogation rooms. Estevez acted as if he was glad to have our cooperation, probably because he felt guilty over insisting I identify the other woman’s body as my mother’s, and so soon after giving birth. Motherhood has its advantages in law enforcement. Besides, I’d brought him Donnie. He owed me.
“Can I get you anything?” Estevez smiled at Mom.
“Yes, I’d like a mimosa and some fresh strawberries. I asked that woman for fruit, just a little fruit and do you know what she gave me? Canned peaches. Can you imagine?”
“Mom, don’t you think we should get you off to your doctor to have the bandages removed and let him take a look at those sutures?”
“I already removed the bandages. There are no sutures underneath. That doctor was a complete fraud. Knocked me out and did nothing. Well, nothing I can talk about I guess. Then he tried to kill me.”
“No. You mean your husband tried to kill you. I guess he confused you with another woman and bumped her off instead.” Estevez seemed anxious to put the pieces of his investigation together as soon as possible.
“Clay? Clay wouldn’t hurt me.”
“Vera saw him throw someone overboard. She thought it was you.” I reached out to touch Mom’s bandages. I was itching to get them off her, but she slapped my hand away. She was looking like a badly preserved Egyptian mummy.
Estevez interrupted our bonding ritual. “Maybe you can fill us in on why you think the doc tried to kill you and how.”
“A Diet Coke?” he offered.
She settled for that and a Snickers bar.
Mom squirmed around in the metal chair. “I don’t suppose you have anything more comfortable I could park my body in.”
“Just tell us what happened.” My body warned me I only had about an hour before I needed to return to my daughter.
“Don’t be sassy to me. This isn’t easy. I’ve experienced quite a trauma you know.”
Right, Mom. And I only experienced the recent delight of popping out an eight pound squalling watermelon. I said nothing, but gave her a look of impatience, one I knew she recognized because I’d copied it from her.
“Okay. I was taken in for surgery the morning before we docked. I woke up and was escorted back to Vera and my room. In the evening, she and I decided to walk on the deck. If she hadn’t been with me, Clay wouldn’t have recognized me from the other women similarly bandaged and wearing our snuggly white robes. By the way, those robes were the only good thing about that cruise. The food was awful.” She finished the candy bar and held out the wrapper to the detective.
“I could eat a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup now.”
“I’ll need another Coke to wash this down.”
The detective lowered his head into his hands, and I thought he was going to weep right there at the table, but he gathered his courage. He simply raised one hand and waved at the glass again. “Please go on,” he muttered from the tabletop.
She inserted the candy into the hole in the wrappings leaving chocolate stains on the bandages around her mouth.
“Let’s unwrap those dressings.” The mummy look was distressing me.
She held up her hand. “Do not touch them.”
“But, Mom, they’re dirty and falling apart.”
“I don’t have any make-up on. They stay in place unless you care to get me my make-up bag from home.”
Estevez and I exchanged looks and shook our heads in unison. I was beginning to like this guy.
“You look fine, Mom.”
“I can’t imagine anyone wearing bandages better.” Estevez smiled. A little smile, but a smile. I liked him a lot. He really got Mom.
She crumpled the wrapper and the detective held out his hand. He trained really fast.
“Vera and I ran into Clay and he did his usual thing. Kept telling me he wanted us to work things out. ‘I am working things out, Clay. I’m filing for divorce. You and I are over.’ Then he said the most hurtful thing.”
“What?” I couldn’t imagine mild-mannered Clay saying anything mean to Mom.
“He said, ‘no divorce.’”
“That is mean. Your other husbands were more than happy to get out from under.”
She reached out and patted my hand. “I’m so happy you understand.” I got Mom, too.
“I was so distraught when he walked away that I told Vera I was going down to the clinic to ask the doctor for more pain medication. I left her at the rail and went to see the doctor. The nurse said he was on the phone and to wait. I could hear him talking in the next office. I wandered around the empty waiting room while she left to check on other patients still in the infirmary.” Mom stopped talking and looked around the room.
“Before I go on, I want you to guarantee me police protection.”
“You claimed earlier that the doctor tried to kill you.” The detective sounded skeptical.
“Tried, but failed. He killed someone else. He meant to kill me. A case of mistaken identity.”
“I don’t understand, Mrs. Davis.” Estevez rubbed his temple. “Why would the doc want to kill you.”
Okay, so he didn’t quite get Mom. Or maybe he was being coy. After serving as Mom’s waiter for the last ten minutes, he had to have an inkling why someone would want her dead.
“I heard some stuff I shouldn’t have, and he caught me eavesdropping.”
“Stuff. Like what stuff?” I had a bad feeling I knew where this was going.
“What scam?” Estevez was now all attention.
“The cruise line knew the doc was a fraud it seems and he was threatening to expose the line’s involvement in the scheme while he skedaddled out of the country. I kind of bumped into the drug cabinet while he was talking. He heard the noise and came out of his office. I dashed for the door and he followed. Once on deck, I hid behind a pillar, but he saw that other woman standing at the rail wearing the robe and bandages and chucked her overboard.” Mom licked the last of the chocolate off her fingers and sat back in the chair.
“How did you know who the dead woman was?” Estevez’s suspicious tone told me he didn’t quite buy Mom’s innocence in all this.
“I didn’t. I got lucky. I was wandering down one of the corridors looking for some place to hide. I couldn’t go back to my room. If he found out he’d tossed the wrong bait overboard, he would have come after me again. One of the stewards stopped me. I guess he thought I was the woman in a room assigned to him. He called me by the name of Mrs. Tribble and asked if I was all right, so I thought, what the hell, I’ll hide in her room until she returns or whatever. I told him I lost my key and he let me in. No one came to the cabin until the next morning when that awful person who dragged me in here earlier appeared and claimed I was her mother. I wouldn’t have let her take me off the ship if I’d known how poorly she intended to treat me.”
“Have a little sympathy. She thought you were her mother and she was taking care of you. Now she has no mom.”
Mother’s glance slid over to meet mine. “That bothers her, but thinking I was a goner didn’t seem to upset you much.”
“I thought you died the way you’d want to go, with a new face, a firm jaw line, a better nose, maybe even a tighter tush. Why would I be unhappy if you got what was most important to you?’
“I would have been dead.”
“But great looking.”
“But I’m no better now than before I set sail. Worse, actually. The doc didn’t do his job, he tried to kill me, I lost three nights in a row at the roulette tables, and then some woman treated me like trailer trash by feeding me canned fruit and microwave food. When I said I needed a drink, she offered me a Miller Lite. Someone owes me a new face.”
“Oh, yes you will.” The detective was leaning over Donnie, a threatening look on his face. “If you don’t, we’ll charge you with the murder.”
“I have his cell phone number, but he’s probably already left the country with the extra fifty thousand he demanded and I paid to keep his mouth shut. A lotta good that did me.” Donnie looked as if he had dropped at least twenty pounds since I first saw him. Interrogation done right is tough. No candy bars and no soft drinks.
Mom and I watched through the two-way mirror as Estevez worked on Donnie. The detective looked as wrung out as Donnie. Time interrogating my mother can do that to a cop.
“Mom, we need to go now. I’ve got a hungry newborn to feed. Don’t you want to meet your granddaughter?”
“Sure, honey. Later. This detective needs help.” She flapped her hand at me with a dismissive flip and walked into the interrogation room.
“I’ll call the doc and tell him I’m still alive. Then I’ll threaten to go to the cops unless he does my face. The way he should have done it the first time.”
I walked in behind her. “Forget about your face, Mom. This guy doesn’t do faces. He kills people.”
Estevez stepped in front of me, desperation written all over his face. “Let’s think about this. I think your mom has a great idea.” He said this while gritting his teeth.
“Don’t be absurd. He tossed one woman to the fishes and now you want to use my mother as bait to catch him. I’d rather throw her into a tank of hungry sharks.”
“Oh, thanks, honey, but it’s my civic duty. Think of all those poor women who woke up looking the way they did when they went to sleep.”
Mom called the number Donnie had for the doctor. She arranged to meet him later at an address in south Miami, a kind of clinic, the doc said. Estevez claimed the area was mostly rundown apartment buildings and warehouses. Mom discarded her bandages and her eyes twinkled at the prospect of working with the cops. Or was it that she really imagined she’d get free plastic surgery?
I dropped her at her condominium in Coral Gables. Instead of going all the way back to Key Largo, I met Fred and the kids at a McDonald’s off the last exit on the Florida Turnpike before it merged into US 1 in Homestead. I fed Stella and told her she was soon to meet her grammy. She showed her delight by letting out a loud burp followed by a smell
I won’t describe. I quickly changed her and handed her back to her dad.
“I should come with you. For protection.” Such a macho stance was not typical of Fred. He was worried.
“The cops will protect us from the doc.” I rubbed Stella’s back.
“I meant from your mother.”
I knew he wasn’t trying to be unkind. What he really meant was “don’t leave me here with these kids and a dog producing Technicolor turds.”
I looked at my watch. “I’m going to be late, honey.” I patted him on his arm, gave everyone except the dog a kiss and ran for my car. When I looked back, Fred, kids, and dog were moving around in the family SUV like a football team at practice.
“Your bag,” yelled Fred. I ran back and got it, then sped off. Once on the turnpike, I settled back in the seat and reached for a piece of gum from my purse, but it wasn’t my purse. In his flummoxed state, Fred had handed me the diaper bag. To be fair, I was in such a hurry I didn’t notice. Oh, well. I had my driver’s license and wallet in my back pocket of my jeans, which were still too tight to be zipped in the front. I pulled my smock down over my stomach.
Mom was still applying her make-up when I pulled up.
“Estevez wants to move on this thing as soon as possible.” Of course he did. Then he could take a vacation, retire or resign and forget about mothers. I turned off the curling iron and took her cosmetic bag out of her hands.
“I don’t have a thing to wear.” She entered her walk-in closet and began looking through the clothes hanging there.
I knew there was no sense losing my patience, so I decided to join in the seriousness of the decision-making process.
“It is a big moment, I agree, so I’d select something eye-catching, but casual. How about this?” I pulled a turquoise warm-up suit off the clothes bar, hoping I could fool her into thinking I actually cared about what one wore to arrest a killer.
“Not dramatic enough.”
She spent the next ten minutes selecting and rejecting outfits.
The doorbell rang. Thank goodness. I was about to drop her in a Neiman-Marcus bag and deliver her to the nearest thrift store that dealt in secondhand mothers.
I dashed to answer it.
“It’s Detective Estevez, and he wants to get going. Now.”
“He’ll have to wait.”
Estevez looked as if he were going to cry. I held up my finger and whispered to him. “I’ve got an idea.”
“The detective told me they just released Clay and he should be here any minute. So I guess you want to wait for him. Right?”
She walked into the living room wearing the turquoise warm-up suit. “I’m ready. Let’s get it on.”
Estevez was right. The so-called clinic location was in a crummy section of Miami off the southernmost end of I95 before it spilled into even crummier neighborhoods.
“My men are already here.”
Estevez made Mom wear a wire, something she was reluctant to do at first until she found out she wouldn’t have to pull up her shirt and expose her stomach. “I gained a lot of weight in captivity at that woman’s house eating canned stuff and drinking beer.”
They planted the tiny device in her earring. She was very happy, but kept tugging on her ear.
Estevez reached over and grabbed her hand. “Please don’t do that Mrs. Davis. You might pull it out. All you have to do is go in and get him talking about how he threw the other woman overboard. A confession would be good. Not that your testimony about seeing him kill her isn’t enough.”
I was skeptical about what he said. I’ve found my boys tend to smile a lot when they lie to me, and Estevez was showing enough teeth to hypnotize a dentist. Obviously he had doubts about Mom’s story or how she might be perceived testifying before a jury of people who might not share her fascination with rhinoplasty.
“Then you say, ‘Now what about my facelift?’ Think you can get him to believe you’re serious about having work done? It’s a stretch after what he tried to do to you.”
“Just look at me. Don’t you think I need a little nip and tuck, detective?”
Estevez glanced at me with a terrified look on his face.
I took pity on the guy and got him off the hook.
“Oh, the detective will tell you look fine, but we gals know the truth, right, Mom?”
“This way we can get him for the murder and for running a clinic with no license, the whole ball of criminal and medical malpractice wax.” Estevez looked happy again.
I found the scheme a bit much, but as long as Mom believed she’d get a new face in return for her cooperation, I knew it was a go.
From across the street we watched as Mom approached the door, knocked, and was let in.
The conversation skimmed along as planned, but after she said “what about my facelift?” all we heard was a door open and close, followed by silence. We waited a minute or two, and then we broke into the front entrance and through a door, which led into a make-shift operating theater, a small room draped in plastic curtains. Mom lay on a table not moving, not breathing.
“I think he killed her.” Anger flooded through me. Destroy Mom’s dreams and her life? He’d pay. I rushed through the back door to the operating room and into an alley where a man dressed in a white lab coat ran for a car parked at the end of the building.
I yelled at him to stop as Estevez attempted to get by me, but my elbow accidentally caught the detective in the nose. The doctor took out his keys and inserted one into the car door giving me enough time to grab his sleeve. Then I used the only weapon at my disposal, the diaper bag. I hit him with it. He went down with a solid thunk, covered by the contents of the bag—bottles, diapers, baby clothes, and, most unfortunate for him, some used diapers Fred had tucked into the bottom.
“Help. I’m being gassed.” The ersatz plastic surgeon rose to his knees and began vomiting.
“Hold your noses,” I warned Estevez and his men. Estevez signaled several of his bolder men in. They held their noses and handcuffed the doc.
I ran back into the clinic in time to see Mom’s eyes open.
“Thank goodness.” I wrapped my arms around her.
“So how do I look?” She fluttered her eyelashes.
Mom was furious at all of us. She waved off Estevez’s comment that she’d been very brave. “If you’d waited another few minutes I could have gotten what I deserved.”
I thought about replying to that, then decided I was being ungracious.
“But, Madam,” said Estevez, “we made the case because of you.”
“Oh, who the hell cares. Look at me! I’m a mess.” She held a tiny compact mirror up to her face as we traveled in the squad car back to the station.
“Don’t be silly, Mom. You deserve the best. Not some second-rate cutter who might make you look older rather than younger.”
She sighed. “I’ll have to reschedule, won’t I?”
“Meantime you can meet your new grandchild. Stella. She looks just like you. I think.”
“I’m not crazy about babies, you know that.”
The two of them stared at each other for almost a full minute. Stella squeezed her eyes shut and let out a wail. Mom squeezed hers closed too and handed the bawling bundle back to me.
“This baby is going to cost you when she hits her adolescence.” Mom looked into the hall mirror and fluffed her hair.
“Look at that overbite. And her ears stick out. You could try plastering them back with scotch tape. I did that to you.” She gave me a look. “It didn’t help much.
“Better watch the calories. She’s gonna be a little piglet.”
“Mom, she’s less than a week old. Babies change a lot.”
A horn honked outside the front door.
Mom grabbed her sweater and roll-on bag. “That’s my taxi. Well, I’m off to the spa in Scottsdale.”
I knew what she meant by “spa” was a center for plastic surgery. She was hell bent on that facelift.
By now Stella had calmed down. Fred and the boys gave Mom goodbye kisses. The dog hid under the couch. I gave Mom a quick hug, and, Stella in my arms, I walked with her out to the car. Another vehicle pulled up behind her cab. It was Clay. She opened the cab’s door and threw herself into the back seat.
“I have nothing to say to you,” she yelled at Clay.
“I give up. I’ll pay for your surgery. Anything. Just don’t leave me.”
There was a pause as Mom thought it over. The door of the cab opened and Clay got in. I watched them drive off together. I guess love is better the second or sixth or so time around, especially if it’s with someone you barely recognize, and you’re smart enough to give the gift that you need to keep on giving—surgery.
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