I wrote this story, inspired by Dr. Andrew Weil, who I can’t stand. Saying that, the characters in this story and their actions are the products of the author’s imagination. This one is a more traditional length, around 5000 words.
Her half-inch long nails were buffed to a glistening sheen, the pink beneath blushing through unmarred by lacquer. Using his fingertips, he felt the delicate crests spreading from the base of her right middle finger — his favorite. As a blind man reads brail, as a botanist reads the growth rings of a fallen redwood, he discerned her life from the proteinaceous ridges and patterns of her fingernails. Delicate slopes revealed her veganism; no flesh had passed through her mouth in some time. Her last period had ended three weeks ago, hence the menstrual streak just entering the cuticular area. No discoloration, no clubbing, none of the common nail signs of disease he routinely observed in his clinic.
Doctor Peter Spark shifted his fleshy head to peer up at his patient’s face. He had not taken heed of her form as yet, nails always came first. Her name was Elsa Kevitz, which matched her appearance not at all. She had naturally wavy light red hair with matching freckles, no lipstick or other makeup adorned her face. She wore a black silk blouse and designer blue jeans. Beneath the silk her arms and torso were firm and sculpted, an exemplary support structure for her exquisite nails.
He continued to stroke her fingernails, examining each as if it were a separate entity, each deserving of his undivided attention. He felt her hand and forearm relax under his ministrations. Her face, at first held rigid, had drifted into an honest smile. With reluctance, he moved on to her hair, removing a few strands for analysis. He felt the bumps and depressions of her scalp, palpated the muscles, nodes and thyroid in her neck. He went through the motions, examining her body from head to toe, but truly, only the nails spoke to him.
* * *
After he left the examination room Elsa scanned the wall over the desk. It was decorated with a myriad of framed parchments with gold and multicolored seals: Doctor of Medicine, Stanford Medical School; Fellow of the International College of Integrative Physicians; Master’s degree in Botany. She’d been looking for someone to help perfect her body and mind, medical advice to compliment her vigorous training and knowledge, take her beyond the peak of her profession that she had already achieved. She’d been told that he was the best, very discreet, that she was lucky to get an appointment. She settled deeper into her chair. Okay, she thought, so what if he’s a bit off.
* * *
He returned to the exam room after a few minutes with a black leather satchel cradled under his left arm. After fishing around in the bag for a few moments he approached her, a metallic object clenched in his right hand flashing in the bright halogen light. She flowed to her feet, her left hand leaving the reflexology chart on the table and settling over her mid chest, her right hand extended out in front of her as if to ward him away. Doctor Spark’s Face took on a quizzical expression, he turned his eyes from Elsa to the titanium nail clippers in his hand then back to her. He quelled his excitement, “Elsa, relax.” He used what he considered his fatherly smile though he was only about ten years older. “Your nails are the gateway to your soul,” he held up the clippers, their dull bluish coloration matching his eyes, “I need a small sample for your analysis. It won’t hurt.” He kept his eyes on her face as her muscles slackened; she turned her right palm up, curled her fingers into a loose fist and gazed at her nails. She’s proud of them, he thought. “Elsa, nail analysis is the buttress of my technique, how we determine the correct levels of nutrients and supplements to balance your metabolism, extend life, make you stronger and sharper.” He’d remembered that her intake form had listed one of her prime goals was to increase strength, agility and mental acuity. His whole face sparkled with passion as he held out his palm.
She re-extended her hand toward him. “You’ll use the little finger.” She said it as a statement not a question.
“Of course, whichever you want,” he said, hiding his disappointment with a smile. He wanted her middle finger. Fifth digits were like paperbacks. He wanted an atlas, one of those big coffee-table jobs. Ah well, this would have to do. She would give him more eventually, they always did. He gripped her left fifth digit between his middle finger and thumb, the way a Russian grasps a cigarette. The titanium edge of the clippers, sharper than a shard of glass, snapped off half a centimeter of Elsa and the nail fell with a soft rattle into a sterile specimen container.
* * *
The clinic’s laboratory looked to be a cross between a modern medical facility and a set from a low budget Faustian play, complete with a human skull on top of a pile of dusty anatomy books. Standing at a workbench, Spark pushed aside a stone mortar and pestle containing partially pulverized bits of unlikely ingredients and began dissecting Elsa’s nail into three longitudinal segments. One segment was further divided into eighteen shards, each relegated to a test-tube that contained a few drops of various colored reagents. The second section of nail, the broader middle segment, he flattened between two glass slides and set it next to a Leica microscope sitting on a low table. He settled himself into his dark green Aeron chair with an “ahh,” the buttons of his white lab coat straining their tethering threads in a futile attempt to hold in his bulging body. He took the last fragment of nail and held it between his lumpy thumb and index finger inhaling gently while waving the freshly cut specimen under his nose. His face took on a serene guise and he popped this bit of Elsa into his mouth and began to chew.
His eyes closed, he let the various flavors roll through his mouth, his tongue a precision instrument separating the sweet from the bitter, weighing the ratios and proportions. His lips were parted to allow the aroma to drift up to his nostrils. He leaned forward and peered through the eyepieces of the Leica. Using all his senses together he entered a state which he considered transcendental: science, knowledge and intuition melding into art. He was an explorer, a pioneer. With his left hand he focused the polarized light of the microscope and Elsa’s nail patterns came into view. To Spark, her face and hair and figure were but a vague mask. The glittering waves and matrices of her nails, brought out by the Leica’s precision optics and his sensory gestalt revealed her to him in a depth of understanding that others, pragmatic types with no mystical core, could never imagine.
Abruptly he froze, sat up straighter in his chair. He spat the masticated nail into his hand then carefully set it in a petri dish. He began peering intently into the microscope, shifting the magnification to high, playing with the polarization. After a few minutes, he moved to the specimen rack. Taking Elsa’s specimen tubes one by one, he held each to a color chart, precisely matching each hue, recording the result on a yellow pad.
“Damn,” he whispered.
* * *
Spark drove along the silky blacktop of Elsa’s gated community off La Jolla Shores Drive. His blue BMW 760 was in no way out of place amongst the sprawling estates and cemetery size lawns. He ran his right hand over the Emu skin briefcase at his side kneading the knobby leather like a childhood blanket. Out of my league, he kept thinking as he looked from one massive compound to the next. He thought of turning back; twice he slowed to do just that. Mail her the standard eight-page pie-chart filled analysis — her Wellness Report. Forget about his speculations and conclusions, the implied threat. No. He would not turn back; this was his chance, his ticket to the future.
He fumbled around in the center console for her address. Strangely his car’s built in navigation system had not accepted Elsa’s address as valid, had gone blank when he had driven through the guarded entrance to her neighborhood. The area was not blocked out leaving a gray gap in the electronic map; it was as if the adjacent neighborhoods had just squeezed this one out of existence. What kind of power did it take to cause a large chunk of real-estate to be invisible on a GPS? Maybe I shouldn’t have called her, hinted at my deductions?
He entered her property through a ten-foot wrought-iron gate that was open when he drove up. Once he’d entered the estate, he noticed it closing in his rearview mirror. He felt an ache in his left palm, looked down and saw fingers blanched white from his grip on the wheel. Sighing, he relaxed his hold and took three slow deep breaths, in through his nose out through his mouth. The house was 150 yards along a sinuous gravel path that wound its way through a grove of varied trees that must have been fifty strong. He parked beneath a huge oak that shaded a commercial size greenhouse.
Moving along a footpath toward the house, he draped his left arm over his midsection without thought to keep it from bobbing. The scene around him cut through his apprehension. Lush but tamed shrubs, hedges and small set off gardens lined the walkway. All was quiet but for the murmur of flowing water from brooks and scattered ponds. The plants were not labeled, but his mind dredged up name after name: Privet, Moonseed, Baneberry. He bent and picked a few oily leaves, waved them back and forth under his nose which wrinkled of its own accord. He began to wander, unease forgotten. He inspected plant after plant, taking specimens here and there, stuffing them into his pocket. He reveled in his ability to give name to most: Dog Button, Elderberry, Savin, Hemlock, Tanghin and English Nightshade.
He stood up, frowning, a Jimson seedpod in his hand, its soft sap laden spines sticking to his palm. He looked back at the grove of trees with a troubling thought, focused on a Central American Barbados Nut. He tried to swallow but had trouble moistening his throat. Aside from the oak he had parked under he had not seen one plant or tree that was not the source of a deadly poison.
Spark wiped sweat from his brow as he continued his hike to the house. His mind clouded by distraction, he failed to notice Elsa peering down at him from a second story dormer.
The front door of the mansion was heavy weathered teak. To the right of the door were five golden doorbell buttons. He tilted his head to the left, annoyed at having to make another decision and pushed the third one. The low throaty rumble of a bassoon reverberated through the door and seemed to rattle him from the inside. After half a minute the door swung slowly and silently open. He had expected some sort of servant, but there stood Elsa Kevitz, her light red hair in a tight bun wearing a loose kimono that ended at mid thigh and sashed about the waist.
She stared him in the eye for what seemed just a bit too long then spoke. “Welcome Doctor Spark.” She pressed her lips together, “I didn’t think real doctors still made house calls.” She stepped aside to bid him entry.
Was that a subtle insult? he thought, stepping through the high doorway. Why is she dressed like this? She knew I was coming. Does she hope to seduce me? “Thanks for having me Elsa.” He forced a smile onto his face. “I like to visit some of my patients at their homes; it frequently gives me novel insights into ways of helping them achieve their goals.”
She raised an eyebrow without speaking, turned and led him through a wide foyer. They passed an antique writing desk against the left wall that was probably worth more than his car. Above it hung what was undoubtedly an original Picasso, from his blue period. It depicted a man in the midst of a scream so palpable he thought he could hear it with his eyes. He turned back to Elsa and found her waiting for him to finish looking at the painting, watching him, again with that tight-lipped smile. She led him to a library where shelved books lined the walls from floor to the fifteen-foot ceiling. “Have a seat. You’re obviously a bit parched from walking the garden. I’ll get us something to drink.”
She must have been watching me, he thought. Garden? It’s more of a private botanical park. He laid his briefcase on a heavy oak library table that seemed out of place for the house. It had pits, scars and stains that looked to be accumulated over many decades of use. He sat in a similarly worn chair and removed a folder from his case.
Elsa returned with a tray containing a pitcher of water, a bottle of Caymus 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon and appropriate glasses. She poured a glass of the deep ruby-shaded wine and offered it to Spark.
“I think I’d better stick with water for now,” he said, but he was tempted by the Caymus. How could she know that it was his favorite?
“Suit yourself,” she took a sip of the wine before pouring him a glass of water.
He slid a blue covered report across the table to Elsa, her name embossed on the front in black script. She opened it while taking another sip of wine and flipped through the pages. Spark began elaborating on each chart as she examined it. Her body fat was next to nothing which was excellent, but her bone density was low for her age, which meant she should begin calcium and vitamin D supplements.
She held up a hand in front of him stopping his casual rant, her face stern but relaxed. “Alright Spark, what’s really brought you to my home?”
“Well I…” He started again. “In your nail analysis, I found significant amounts of ouabain, a poison derived from the seeds of a South African shrub.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out the oily leaves he’d picked earlier. Sniffing them again he then laid them on the table.
The words hit Spark like a brick, the tone so sharp and icy it pushed him back in his seat. “Well, um, do I really have to lay it out for you? I’m sure you know where this leads.
“I’m afraid you do Spark, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Well, fine.” He paused a moment. “You killed your husband.” He paused, waiting for comment. When none came he continued: “You poisoned him with ouabain causing ventricular fibrillation. The newspaper obituary I read called it a heart attack. But we know better, don’t we?”
“I still don’t see what makes you jump to this bizarre conclusion,” she said, standing and pouring herself another glass of wine.
Spark noted the grace with which she performed the simple act. He watched for the slightest tremor, saw none. Out of my league, again the thought ran through his mind. He pushed it aside and said, “Don’t you think the police would be interested to know that the nail segment that contained the ouabain corresponds in time to your husband’s death?”
She softened her smile, “I think you’re right Doctor. We do have something to talk about.” She held his eyes and shrugged her shoulders, causing the left side of her kimono to slip, exposing most of her left breast. Spark’s eyes darted to the indiscretion. A half second later he heard a muffled click and felt a burning in his left hand. He wrenched his head back to his left and screamed. A four-inch inlaid ivory handle jutted from the top of his left hand pinning him to the library table. He instinctively tried to grab at the knife with his free hand, but Elsa struck him in the front of his armpit with the tip of her thumb, jamming it deep into the brachial plexus. His right arm now hung limply at his side, unheeding his command to move it.
Elsa repositioned her kimono, sat on the edge of the table and waited. Once the screaming had degenerated into a whimper she spoke. “Yes doctor, I did kill my husband, but for reasons that you will never be privileged to know.”
Spark’s attention drifted to the floor. He was lightheaded; coherent thoughts were not happening. Elsa flicked a finger into the knife handle that bound him and his head popped up with a scream of pain.
“You remind me of my painting,” she said, and waited until she saw intelligence return to his eyes. “I should kill you for your feeble attempt to blackmail me.” She shook her head, then held his eyes. “You probably weigh 300 pounds. Disposing of your body would be a chore. Just think, Spark, your obesity may have saved your life.” She stood and walked around the table. “What do you say Spark? Do you want to live?”
“Yes, yes I want to live.” He looked to his hand. The blade was parallel to and between the third and forth metacarpal bones of the palm. He recalled the anatomy of the hand. From the position of the knife he doubted that there were any severed tendons, nerves or major vessels.
She watched him examine his hand. “I hope you appreciate the skill involved in not maiming you more severely.” He looked up and met her eyes, fearful to look away.
“If you wish to continue your putrid existence, you will pay close attention and do exactly what I say.” Spark nodded. “You will go to an emergency room and tell them that you stabbed yourself on a kitchen blade while attempting to…” She scratched her right cheek. “Let’s say, dismember a chicken. You will not research me or my deceased husband in any way. You will forget this visit ever occurred.” Her eyes pierced him as sharply as her blade. “Do you have any doubt that for the foreseeable future I will be aware of every move you make?”
He nodded vigorously. Then seeing her frown, realized his mistake and said, “no, no!” shaking his head in the negative.
“Good. And just so you understand how ludicrous your plan was, my husband was cremated, so no charge of murder could ever be proved.” She stood, began to walk away and then turned her head over her shoulder: “Don’t go anywhere, I’ll be right back.”
Twelve minutes and eighteen seconds later, according to the grandfather clock sitting in its custom nook amongst the book shelves, Elsa returned. She came up silently behind him and said his name into his right ear. He only jerked his hand slightly, but screamed nevertheless. She set a packet of 4×4 pads and a roll of gauze on the table. She had changed into a pair of black jeans and a maroon cotton shirt. “Can you move your right arm yet?” she said.
“It should be reasonably functional in a day or two. You’ll probably have no residual paralysis after a couple of weeks.”
“Probably?” he said.
“Sorry Spark, while the blow was precise, the effect can be somewhat unpredictable.” She went back to her tight-lipped smile.
“My hand, please,” he said through gritted teeth.
She watched him sweat, unable to wipe it from his face, his eyes twitched and watered as the salty fluid dripped into them. “Soon. But first swallow this.” She held up a large blue capsule.
“What’s it, what is it?”
“Just a little insurance.” She set the capsule on the table in front of him and pushed the glass of water next to it.
“No, I won’t.” He looked her defiantly in the eye, but after a couple of seconds couldn’t hold the stare and looked back down.
“Yes, you will, or you will not leave here alive.” She laughed for the first time today. “I hate clichés. Don’t worry, it won’t poison you.”
He raised his head again, “why do you need to threaten me further? I’ll do what you say.”
“Spark, you have me all wrong. I don’t make threats; what I’ve made you is a promise.”
He tried to swallow, but all it did was cause the back of his throat to ache. “How do you expect me to take the pill with no hands?” Without a word she strode around the table and took the capsule. He didn’t open his mouth.
“Open up.” She held the capsule in front of his face. He kept his mouth clamped shut. “Okay, have it your way.” Standing behind him she swung her right arm around his neck with her elbow under his chin — a classic choke-hold. He bucked and struggled for six seconds as his brain was deprived of blood flow then went limp. She wrenched open his mouth, tossed in the capsule then poured in a sip of water. Tilting his head back with her left hand she caressed the front of his neck initiating a swallow reflex.
Thirty seconds later Spark began to regain consciousness. He tried to raise his hands to his neck and the tug of the knife had him screaming again. This time he stopped quickly, looked around, “Where’s the pill?”
Instead of answering, she grasped the knife in her right hand and slid it from the table and Spark’s flesh, her motion so fluid that he barely realized that his hand was free. She dressed his wound with the supplies she’d brought.
“Don’t you have any antiseptic?” he said, and then thought, What an idiot.
She snickered for the second time. “I recommend you call your favorite hand surgeon. You are a doctor, right? Or, of course, you can head to the ER as I suggested earlier.” She stood and walked over to a column of shelves, pulled a book and flipped pages for a couple of minutes.
What the fuck is she doing, he thought. “What are you doing?” he said. She flung the book onto a small side table and he saw the title. Eight Million Ways to Die by Lawrence Block.
“Just needed to give the capsule a few minutes to get to your intestine.” She looked over at him now with the face of a poker champion. “Alright Spark, here’s the line.” She sat across from him. He followed her every movement, his eyes drawn to her fingernails. He remembered their feel, their appearance and taste. How, a few days ago, could he have thought that he was in control of this woman? She noted his gaze and flashed her finger-tips in a rapid slice through the air three inches in front of his neck, his right hand failing his command to rise and protect him.
“Alright, enough of this bullshit. That capsule I shoved down your throat is the apex of what you might call covert biomedical engineering. Its outer covering will dissolve in the first part of your intestines exposing an adhesive layer. This chemical will bind to the wall somewhere in your 20 feet of small intestines where it will remain for a period of time. I won’t tell you how long, maybe I don’t even know.” Again, the smile, her lips pulled taught. “After that period the entire capsule will dissolve and release a toxin.” She paused and took a long sip of her wine. She cleaned her upper teeth with her tongue and continued. “You are familiar with the poison that would be released.” She curled her fingers in front of her and peered at her nails.
Spark gasped, “You have poisoned me?”
“No, not yet.” She took another sip of wine, inhaled deeply. “Perfect,” she said. “You should try the wine; it’s probably the finest to come out of California this decade.” Without waiting for a response, she poured him a glass. He stared at the glass then grabbed it with his left hand, the bandages interfering with his grip. A small amount sloshed up and out onto the table. He ignored her frown, swirled the ruby liquid under his nose inhaling the aroma then sipped. He wanted to close his eyes, explore the nuances, but the look of her now impassive face across from him started him shaking. Well, if he died today, at least he hadn’t passed up the Caymus.
“I’m glad you like it. I would suggest you become a connoisseur. We’re not sure, but we think alcohol consumption will speed the process of the capsule’s dissolution. So I would limit your intake. Just partake of the very best.” She stood and reached into the front pocket of her jeans, removed a stoppered vial and handed it to Spark. He took it clumsily in his bandaged hand. She let him peer at the green liquid within for a moment then with a crane-like strike she snatched it from his grasp.
“So, what was that? You want me to take another poison?”
“On the contrary; you were just holding the enzyme that will release the capsule from the wall of your intestine and allow it to slip through the rest of your GI tract.” He stared at the vial as it disappeared back into her jeans. “You behave yourself and in a year or two I’ll slip you the enzyme.”
“How am I supposed to trust you?”
“I put trust in our doctor-patient relationship and look where that got me. I guess you’ll just have to hope that I’m more trustworthy than you.”
He stared at her, anger wanting to flair, but the truth of her statement burned to his core and he kept silent.
“I do want to thank you, Doctor Spark. Your report should be quite helpful in reaching my goals.” She smiled at him in a way that frightened him more than the knife blade. “So I’m going to do you a favor. I think it’s shameful when people don’t care for their bodies, and in your case it’s hypocritical. If you ever want to taste the cure to your dilemma you will take off 75 pounds.”
“What!” he screamed. “You can’t do this.”
“Oh, yes I can. You take off the weight or in a year or two or three, you’ll die. Look at you. Nobody will be surprised if you keel over one day of a heart attack.”
“I’ve tried, I can’t do it.” He buried his head in his left hand.
“Yes, you can,” she said in a patronizing almost baby-talk voice. “You’ve just never had the proper motivation.” He looked back up at her. “Now get the fuck out of my house.” He failed to jump and she added: “NOW!”
He sprang to his feet and headed for the door, had to return for his briefcase, kept his head down and did his best impression of a sprint.
* * *
Spark hauled himself from the pool after finishing his morning fifty laps. Before dressing he stepped onto his digital scale — 209 pounds — he nodded to himself.
At breakfast, he took small bites from his bran muffin as he flipped the pages of the Sunday paper. He took a sip of coffee, puckered his lips and reached for the sugar bowl. His eyes shifted to the scar on the back of his outstretched hand. He paused, then pushed the bowl away. A moment later his heart began to race. He felt a subtle tightness in his chest and the beginning of a cold sweat.
Shaking, he went to the kitchen cabinet where he kept his vitamins and supplements and fumbled open a bottle of Xanax. He chewed the bitter pill to hasten the absorption of the tranquilizer. He held up his left hand, peered at the back and imagined the ivory handle of the knife as fresh in his mind as it had been three and half years ago. His anxiety attacks happened at least twice a month and were indistinguishable from the early effects of ouabain poisoning.
His multiple attempts to contact Elsa Kevitz over the last two years had eventually resulted in one reply: “You’ll get the green stuff if and when I decide, maybe you got it already. Don’t ever attempt to contact me again.”
After ten minutes, he knew he was going to survive. If it were the ouabain being released into his gut he’d be dead by now. He went to his home office and tried to begin reviewing the manuscript of his second book: How to Motivate Yourself to Achieve Good Health.