Praise for the novels of James Tucker:
"A wonderful page-turning whodunit."-Nancy L. Snyderman, M.D., Medical Correspondent, ABC News
"Tucker is someone to watch...sly, unpredictable and cunning."-H. Paul Jeffers
"A page-turner! I couldn't put it down."-Valley News Dispatch
"A well-written, gripping first novel."-Tribune-Review
|Product dimensions:||4.22(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.12(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Six years later. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania The last light of day was nearly extinguished when Stanley Stilwell pulled his heavy Buick off Route 28 just before Harmarville. He inched his way down the long road so he wouldn't miss the sign for the plastic surgery clinic. There wasn't much traffic this late in the day, so Stilwell felt pretty relaxed. He was a short man, no more than five foot four, but powerfully built. Stilwell looked rough, not the sort of man anyone would dare to piss off deliberately, and he had a full head of gray hair that he wore longnot fashionably long in a ponytail, but long and greasy. He combed it straight back, and it stayed that way until he ran a comb through it the next morning. There was a huge scar that ran halfway down his right cheek, but when people thought about Stanley Stilwell, there was only one thing they could visualize: his nose. It had been broken at least five times and sliced up pretty badly by a hunting knife. Now it looked more like a snout, broad and flat up near his eyes, with a pair of huge upturned nostrils that were grotesquely out of proportion to the rest of his face. Stanley Stilwell appeared to be the hideous result of human crossbreeding with a pig. He couldn't stand the way he looked, and mirrors were something he carefully avoided.
As soon as he spotted the fancy sign he pulled the Buick onto the crunchy gravel shoulder, turned off the engine, and waited. The cheap sunglasses and baseball cap were probably a bit much now, what with the sun going down, so he took them off and tossed them on the empty seat next to him. He lookedaround, craning his neck as far as it wanted to go. He took advantage of the Buick's side and rearview mirrors to make absolutely certain he hadn't been followed. Rolling down his window, he worked up a mouthful of spit and shot it toward the white sign. Two times he read it, the second time aloud. "The Cutter Institute for Cosmetic Surgery." He spat again. "You better know what the fuck you're doing, Dr. Cutter, that's all I gotta say." He rolled the window back up and hecked the mirrors again.
The white sign was the centerpiece for a little garden, landscaped to perfection. Each of the letters carved into the wood was painted with a shiny gold enamel that spelled a class operation to Stilwell. The oval patch of ground surrounding the sign was groomed with wood chips that were a rusty shade of red. Sprouting up in little clusters were dozens of tulips and daffodils, all standing at attention. Wherever he looked it was pretty.
When he looked beyond the garden he saw robust boxwood hedges running around the periphery of the magnificent piece of property. An acre of green lawn ran up a gentle hillside to the surgi-center. He wondered whether the perfectly manicured grass might really be Astroturf.
If Stanley Stilwell had been a regular sort of guy he might have thought it looked like something at Disney World, but Stanley Stilwell wasn't a regular sort of guy. The closest he ever got to the Magic Kingdom was driving Route 95 on his way to Cocoa Beach with some hooker's head bobbing up and down in his lap.
He gazed up at the surgi-center, an impressive colonial-style building that looked more like a mansion in an expensive new development than a place to go for a face-lift. It had a pitched roof, white clapboard siding, dark green shutters, paneled doors, several trellises with flowering clematis, and a white porch. The only concession to its commercial purpose were the double glass doors where the front door should have been.
All of a sudden Stilwell was aware of a car coming up the road behind him. It's headlights looked like a pair of eyes watching him off in the distance.
Instantly he was filled with the sort of panic that makes brave men do crazy things. His hand shot under the seat and pulled out a small package wrapped in a greasy rag. It was pure instinct, an act he had performed hundreds of times over the years. Quickly discarding the rag, his hand slipped around the stippled grip of a Heckler and Koch USP pistol. The weapon was matte black, enhanced by both a laser sight and a six-inch silencer. It was loaded with ten hollow point .45 caliber bullets.
And, if it hadn't been stolen, it would have set Stanley Stilwell back nearly three grand.
His hands knew what to do without him looking down. He racked the slide and listened for the reassuring sound of the first bullet slipping into the chamber. If push came to shove he was ready. "C'mon," he hissed as he turned the key roughly in the ignition.
The engine roared to life. Stilwell's eyes were locked on the rearview mirror as he gunned the engine. The reflection of the approaching car was growing. Without setting the H&K down, Stilwell rammed the car into drive, one foot on the brake, one giving it the gas. The Buick was a coiled spring waiting to explode.
Closer and closer the car approached, creeping too slowly for someone on his way home from work after a long day. Quickly he shifted his eyes from the rearview to the driver's side mirror. Back and forth his eyes alternated, desperate for a glimpse of whoever was driving the car.
Stilwell was getting hyper, his heart racing faster than the engine, icy bullets of sweat popping out all over his body. The skin on the back of his neck prickled. He worked the gas pedal. Hearing the engine roar made him feel powerful, and he played with the gas like a hot-rodder about to explode at the start of a drag race.
His breathing was hard and noisy, as if he'd been running for some time. Spittle formed at the corner of his mouth, and his tongue shot out and licked it away.
Turn the car around. Turn the goddamn car around and put the sucker on notice.
A voice was screaming in his head, the words echoing as if he was in a great empty room. Without thinking, he pulled his left foot off the brake and the car lurched forward onto the road. Using both hands he yanked the steering wheel hard to the left. The Buick did not respond with the crispness of a smaller car, instead jerking heavily across the macadam toward the white sign and bright spring flowers.
In less than a second his front tires were three inches deep in the rusty red bark. Now the Buick was sideways on the road, as if he were setting up a roadblock.
Immediately Stilwell put the car into reverse without lifting his foot off the gas. A horrible grating noise erupted from the engine as if the transmission was about to fall out of the bottom of the car. Gripped with a fear that was growing with each passing second, he revved the engine, spinning the front tires in the soft earth and sending a flashy rooster tail of red bark flying up from under the car right in the direction of the white sign. The Buick headed backward. A single turn of the steering wheel and Stanley Stilwell was facing his challenger head-on. Roll down the window. Thirty yards to go. If he slows down....
Stilwell held up the H&K, steadying his wrist, taking aim. The Buick's engine whined as Stilwell clenched his jaw shut and pulled his lips back to expose two rows of yellow teeth. His foot stomped some gas to the roaring engine. How the hell did they follow me? In less than a second it happened.
The oncoming car slowly cruised by him.
In that brief moment he stole enough of a look at the driver to know exactly what had happened. All the panic. All the flowers that were destroyed. The rusty red bark that would have to be raked back in place. And the beautiful white sign that would probably need to be sprayed down with a powerful hose.
All for nothing.
The driver of the oncoming cara Buick just like the one Stilwell drove but newerwas a skinny old woman with white hair who was doing about twenty-five miles an hour in a forty-five-mile-per-hour zone. An old lady. Shit! After all he'd been through. After everything he'd seen, the people he'd done, the crap he'd taken. Faked out by an old broad who probably couldn't see two feet in front of her.
The Heckler and Koch slipped from his fingers and tumbled to the floor. Stanley Stilwell hated being reduced to this, freaking out over some old hag. He had to admit it, he was scared, terrified, as a matter of fact, that he would be found out. What a horrible way to live, hiding in one cheap motel after another. But in another week or two it would all be worth it. He could disappear forever. Leaning over so he could see his reflection in the rearview mirror, his fingers touched his horrible nose lightly. What was about to happen was the most important thing in the world to him, and he was prepared to do anything to keep his secret safe.
Twenty minutes later he summoned the courage to turn the car around, this time guiding the Buick away from the flower beds, embarking on the short trip up the cobblestone driveway to Marshall Cutter's office.
Jack Merlin had been standing in front of the large mirror in the wooden frame, engrossed for so long he didn't hear the front door open. He was at the top of the stairs of the cozy two-story clapboard house he had been sharing with Tory Welch for the past several years. They lived in Aspinwall, a quiet community with beautiful old homes across the Allegheny River from the city of Pittsburgh.
Although quite handsome in a Waspy sort of way, Merlin wasn't vain. Whenever he took the time to look in the mirror, he liked what he saw but was too busy to dwell on it. He never wasted time fluffing his hair or smoothing his eyebrows. How he kept his six-foot frame in shape was a bit of a mystery, what with putting in ridiculous hours starting up a practice in general surgery and devoting every other waking minute to Tory. His face was thin, and he sported medium- length brown hair that usually looked as though it needed a workout with a comb.
After six years of residency, including one as chief resident, Jack Merlin had finally gone out on his own. Not surprisingly, he was immediately busy, seeing patients in his office at the Pittsburgh University Medical Center two days a week and operating the other three. Not only was he a superb clinician and technical surgeon, but he had an appealing personality, and the ability to communicate easily with his patients.
Over and over, for nearly an hour, Merlin had been practicing a sleight with an old deck of cards, working the torn remnants of a selected card between his fingers without once looking at his hands, training his gaze on his own reflection in the mirror to observe exactly what his audience would see. Although quite accustomed to performing before groups of all sizes, he wanted this particular trick to be flawless.
"Hey, Narcissus, since when did you have to practice that trick?"
It was Tory, breaking his reverie. She was halfway up the stairs, brushing a wisp of her shiny dark hair away from her face and tucking it behind her ear. Rolling her eyes at Merlin, she grinned. An assistant district attorney in Allegheny County, Tory worked almost as many hours as Merlin.
She was wearing a thin running suit, dark blue in color with a Nike swoop on the jacket. She had a runner's body, long legs and a body-fat percentage that was in the single-digit territory. Her skin was already reacting to what little sun Pittsburgh enjoyed, and it made her smile all the more radiant. Now that they were well into spring and the days were growing longer, Tory had resumed her runs home from the courthouse. On a good night she covered the seven miles in just under fifty minutes, bounding into the house looking so fresh and vital sometimes it was difficult for Merlin to keep his hands to himself.
Merlin returned the smile and immediately headed down the narrow stairs. As he gave Tory a kiss his fingers found the red elastic that held her short ponytail in place and released it.
"I've been practicing ever since I was asked to teach how I use magic in the management of pain to a group of med students," he answered with some bravado.
"So you're a professor now?" Tory mused. She slipped her hand into Merlin's and led him downstairs to the living room. The room was small and in need of some new furniture. What they had was nothing more than an eclectic gathering of the used junk each had brought to the relationship. Their one prized possession in an otherwise ordinary room was a watercolor of a creamy tranquil Cape Cod marsh the two had purchased at a small art gallery in Wellfleet last summer. "How'd this come about?"
"You remember Tanner Valdemar."
Tory plopped herself onto the sofa. Her fingers immediately fiddled with some loose threads on the upholstery as a wistful expression spread across her face. "Of course I remember him," she said ever so softly. As she fixed a mental image of the psychiatrist in her mind she couldn't help but smile. "He was wonderful to me. I like his weird hair and the way he talks with his hands."
Merlin chuckled when he thought about his colleague. Valdemar did have weird hair, a thatch of wiry steel wool that covered his head like a cheap toupee. And he did talk with his hands, moving them about animatedly each time he had anything to say in a social situation. "Anyway," Merlin continued, "Tanner's doing some sort of class for the medical students on hypnosis and pain management"
Tory furrowed her brow. "I thought you were a magician. I didn't know you knew anything about hypnosis."
"Obviously there's a lot you don't know about me."
"Okay, Svengali, do me."
"Many magicians dabble in hypnosis"
"What do you mean, 'do you'?"
"Hypnotize me. Make me think my belly button's disappeared or that I'm a duck," Tory teased.
Merlin waved her off with one hand. "Forget it."
"Hey, how 'bout turning me into a courtesan, and I'll fill all your erotic fantasies," Tory said with a sly smile. Her eyes squinted with delight.
"You already fill my erotic fantasies."
"C'mon Merlin, strut your stuff." Unable to resist the opportunity to chide him, she lowered her voice in a cheap Vincent Price imitation and said, "Put me under your spell. Look deep into my eyes." Then she held up both hands toward Merlin, and wiggled her fingers around like a hypnotist in an old movie.
"I don't do parlor hypnosis. Your belly button will have to remain exactly where it is."
"I got it," Tory said as a new idea popped into her head. Cupping both hands over her small breasts she bubbled, "Pamela Anderson! Turn me into Pamela Anderson and make me look like I'm shoplifting honeydews." Tory was laughing so hard she had to hold on to Merlin to keep from falling over.
Merlin shook his head. "How do you know I haven't already hypnotized you? You know how gooey you get every time I whisper how much I love you in your ear?" Merlin paused for dramatic effect. "And when I snap my fingers you start to"
"All right, Merlin. Take a lap. Gee, I shouldn't get you started." She leaned over and kissed him. "Seriously... could you hypnotize me if you wanted?"
"Yes." Merlin hopped to his feet and crossed the living room. He grabbed a stuffed chair and carried it to where Tory was sitting. Once he was seated directly in front of her, he began. "You comfortable?"
"Always," Tory answered and straightened up.
Actually Merlin had no formal training in hypnosis, but he knew enough to render a demonstration when asked. "All right. Why don't you close your eyes and hold both hands out in front of you."
Tory closed her eyes and held both arms out, hands palm down.
"First thing, you have to stop smiling." His voice had become smooth and reassuring and he watched the giddy smile disappear from Tory's lips. "I want you to feel relaxed. I want you to think about your breathing for a little bit and try to slow it down as if you were sleeping." Silently, Merlin watched Tory for almost thirty seconds, waiting for her breathing pattern to get into a relaxed rhythm. "That's good. Breathe innnnnnn, now ouuuuuut... goooood... innnnnnn... ouuuuuut... innnnnnn... ouuuuuut. Now think back to our trip to the Cape last summer. I want you to put yourself on the beach. Remember taking those rickety wooden stairs down the dune, carrying the towels? Smell the air... the salty sea air. Take a deep breath in and smell the ocean." Merlin watched Tory breathe with the relaxed, peaceful cadence of someone on the beach who was just about to drift off to sleep. "Listen to the sound of the waves as the tide comes in. I want you to be there. The bright sun is in your eyes."
Almost imperceptibly Tory's eyelids tightened. Merlin watched for this and studied her breathing for a few more seconds.
"There's a bucket in the sand, Tory. Can you see it?"
Tory's eyes moved beneath her lids. "Yes," she said evenly.
"Tory, tell me the color of the bucket."
"A red bucket," Merlin repeated slowly, letting the words hang in the air to reinforce the image. "Does the bucket have a handle?"
Tory nodded. "Yes."
"Innnnnnn. Ouuuuuut. Good. Breathe innnnnnn, breathe ouuuuuut. Smell the salt in the air. I'm going to hang the empty bucket on one of your hands." Merlin was deliberate in not saying which of Tory's hands was going to receive the bucket. Neither of her outstretched arms moved a fraction of an inch. "Good... innnnnnn... ouuuuuut... Feel the sun on your face... innnnnnn... ouuuuuut. Now Tory, I'm going to take a red plastic shovel and place a scoop of sand in the bucket." Merlin did not move a muscle. Instead he waited almost ten seconds before continuing. "All right, now a second scoop." He allowed another ten seconds to pass. "Here comes a third shovelful of white sand." Ten seconds elapsed. "I'm going to put another shovelful of sand in the bucket. Can you see the sand in the bucket?"
"Good. How about one more shovelful of sand?" Ten seconds. And then something amazing happened. Before Merlin could announce he was putting more sand in the bucket, Tory's right arm drifted downward, almost an inch below her left. "Another shovelful. Now the bucket's more than half full. Innnnnnn. Ouuuuuut. Here come two more shovels of sand."
Tory's right arm was drifting downward under the weight of the sand.
"Now, Tory," Merlin said, his voice like wet velvet, "keep the bucket on your hand but notice a green-headed horsefly is buzzing about." The corner of Tory's mouth flinched. The green-headed horseflies had been out in full force when they were on the Cape, inflicting brief but wickedly painful bites on any unprotected patch of skin. "The green- headed horsefly zips around, looking for a place to land. Bzzzzzzzzzz..." Merlin imitated the fly softly, holding the sound on his tongue as long as his breath would last.
Tory's right arm, heavy under the weight of the bucket and hanging beneath her left one, apparently started to get tired because it now was a full six inches lower.
"Notice that the green-headed horsefly is no longer buzzing about. It is nowhere to be seen... or heard. The wind is blowing. The waves are crashing. But no buzzing. You look about but cannot find it. Listen to the wind. Hear the waves. The green-headed horsefly is silent for one reason. It has landed."
Tory's breathing quickened. She'd been through the routine too many times before. The moment the horrible green- headed horseflies stopped dive bombingWham!you got bit, contorting your entire body in an attempt to shoo the wicked insect away, all the while scratching madly at the bite mark.
"Innnnnnn. Ouuuuuut. That's it, slow your breathing down. Let me put one last shovelful of sand in the bucket... there. Tory, I want you to notice something on your neck. Tiny legs tickling your skin, walking about, looking for the right spot. Someplace juicy. Someplace tender. The green-headed horsefly has found it and instantly you feel a lightening bolt of pain shoot"
Abruptly Tory dropped her right hand in an effort to slide the heavy bucket off her arm. In a single sweeping gesture she slapped hard at the back of her neck. Her hand made a loud smacking noise, then remained for a few seconds scratching wildly at her skin, nursing her wound. Now her breathing was hard and her cheeks flushed crimson.
Merlin's voice brightened considerably. "Tory, I want you to open your eyes."
Tory's lids fluttered lightly then opened. She squinted as if her eyes hurt from the sun. A sheepish smile crept across her face at the thought of what she had just been through. "My God! That was so real." Her fingers went back to her neck and scratched some more.
"You okay?" Merlin asked sympathetically.
"Yeah, but I can't stop scratching," Tory said and let out a little laugh.
"And that's why Tanner Valdemar asked me to help teach his class."
"You are incredible. I mean, that was so real I actually feel like there's bug bite on my neck that I can't stop scratching."
Merlin smiled the sweet, confident smile of success. As far as he was concerned, he could watch Tory scratching like a cocker spaniel all night long.
"Merlin, I mean it," Tory said. "I've got some kind of a bite or something. Is this one of your little tricks? Did you slip me some itching powder when you undid my hair?"
"Nooooo," he said, drawing out the word. "The power of suggestion, that's all."
"The power of suggestion, my ass. I know a bump when I feel one. Here, take a look." And with that Tory turned and lifted her hair off her neck.
Merlin leaned in close, close enough to get a whiff of her wonderful scent. "Bend forward." Then he used his hands to position her so that the light from the ceiling fixture illuminated her neck. "Well, you're right about feeling a bump, but it's not a bug bite. It's just a mole. I never noticed it before. No big deal."
"Is that bad? I mean, maybe it's new." A tone of concern crept into her voice.
"No, it's nothing. I guess I haven't been kissing that part of your anatomy enough."
Tory didn't seem to be able to remove her fingers from her neck. Her lips curled down into a frown and she looked pale. "Damn," she said.
"Hey," Merlin said softly, shifting from the stuffed chair to a spot on the sofa right next to Tory. "No reason to get upset."
"But you don't understand. My grandfather and my uncle died of skin cancer."
"It's only a mole. Nothing serious. It's not cancer."
"Cancer," Tory repeated, sounding fearful. "Oh, God," she said and her eyes got wet. "Maybe I need to have someone check me out."
"If there's one thing I know, it's your body." Merlin reached down and picked up Tory's right foot and smoothly untied her Saucony. He slid off the running shoe and then her sock. "I know how your little toes curl under just a bit." He kissed her foot. Then he undid the zipper on her jogging pants that ran from her ankle to her knee. "I love how gracefully your calves rise from your ankles and how you've got three freckles right here." He traced a triangle on her skin, running his finger from freckle to freckle. "And I'm not even going to remind you about your appendix scar, but I'll tell you something you probably didn't know. You've got two dimples on either side of the small of your back. And when you towel off and the light catches them just right, I practically pass out. I know everything about your face. The way your eyes crinkle up when it's sunny and the dozens of different smiles you have. I've spent so much time kissing and biting your wonderfully long, sexy neck that I can tell you for sure there are no other moles and now that I've seen this one I'm certain it's benign." Merlin smiled confidently.
Tory didn't seemed to relax. "I want it off."
"So, we'll get it taken care of. No big deal," he said reassuringly.
"Good. I'll cancel a few things and come to your office tomorrow"
"Not so fast. I thought we agreed I'm no longer your doctor."
"I trust you."
"No," he said definitively. "I'll refer you to someone else"
"Hey, I know. One of the secretaries at work just had her breasts done by someone she absolutely loved. A Dr. Cutter."
"Cutter and restore her," Merlin joked. "You don't need a plastic surgeon for something on the back of your neck. Besides, all he does is face-lifts and breast jobs."
"Is he good?"
Merlin considered the question. "He's terrific," Merlin finally admitted. "An absolute magician. And women adore him so much they keep coming back for more."
"Sounds like I have my man."
Merlin started to unzip the jacket of Tory's warm-up. Underneath she was wearing a white T-shirt that read YALE in blue letters, the Y and the E gracefully following the curve of her breasts. "He can take care of that little mole on your neck." Merlin reached out and gently began to massage her breasts. "But don't let him touch the old bulldogs. Cutter's good, but he's not God."
"Is that Stilwell with one L or two?"
Stanley Stilwell had just entered The Cutter Institute for Cosmetic Surgery and was ignoring the question asked by the beautiful young woman on the other side of the long black reception desk. He was looking back through the glass front doors at a reproduction of the Venus de Milo in a small garden.
Timidly, he had stepped into the world of Marshall Cutter and was overwhelmed by what he saw. An enormous tank filled with silvery bubbles and fish more intensely colored than a box of Crayola crayons. Polished wood. Furniture swathed in chintz and silky smooth leather. Crystal and fine china.
And the beautiful receptionist who was patiently attempting to enter Stanley Stilwell's information into the computer. "Mr. Stilwell," she tried again, sounding chirpy and sexy at the same time.
Stilwell had sidled up to the reception desk and leaned against it as if he were in a bar. Wherever he put his hand a moist print lingered on the shiny enamel. He looked the pretty receptionist up and down but did not smile at her, even though she grinned at him in the most appealing way. Not for a moment was he struck by her beauty, her lustrous black hair cropped close enough to reveal a high forehead and stunning face. She wore a pink sweater combination consisting of a thin pullover and a cardigan of matching fabric. Only a single button on the cardigan was fastened, the one over her breasts. Its intention was to draw eyes to her ample chest, but the effort was lost on Stilwell.
"Where's the doc?" he wanted to know in the kind of tone that gets fights started.
"Dr. Cutter's been expecting you. I believe he's in his office"
"We'll get him out here," Stilwell growled.
"Absolutely, sir," she said in her perky voice. "Why don't you fill out the forms in the living room while I let him know you're here."
"What kind of forms?" He didn't sound pleased with the prospect of filling out paperwork.
"Just some information about yourself, health questions, that sort of thing. Won't take but a minute." She held out a clear plastic clipboard with the forms and a pen. "By the way, how do you spell your last name?"
Stilwell didn't like the way things were going. "Who are you, anyway?"
"I'm Gretchen. I'm one of the receptionists." She smiled prettily.
Stilwell let out a sigh of exasperation. "Shit... it's Stilwell. S-T-I-L-L-W-E-L-L. No one said anything 'bout forms. Let's get the doc out here," Stilwell demanded as he took one step closer to Gretchen and snatched the clipboard away from her.
"He'll be right with you." Gretchen began to type something into her computer. "S-T-I-L-L-W-E-L-L, is that what you said?"
"Right. No, wait. That's not right." Stilwell was gripped with the sort of terror people feel when they have to introduce someone whose name they've forgotten. He rolled his eyes up in his head and silently recited the spelling of his name. "S-T-I-L-W-E-L-L. One L, then two. Ya gotta listen better."
"Okie doke," Gretchen agreed, typing the correction into the computer. "Everyone gets a little nervous when they come to the doctor's office. I know just how it feels. You just have a seat in the living room. Since tonight's only a consultation I can get you some sherry if you'd like."
"Who's that?" Stilwell sounded exasperated. He looked about, expecting to find another person to deal with. Finally, he shook his head as he glanced at the clipboard and checked out Gretchen's breasts for the first time. Then he headed in the direction of the room that Gretchen pointed out, which was not far away. It was a heavily decorated room, thick with draperies and carpet. He had his choice of flowery sofas and over-stuffed easy chairs. Small tables were scattered about the large room covered with ladies' magazines and huge lavish coffee-table books.
Stilwell sat stiffly in one of the easy chairs, looked about the empty room, and reluctantly began to fill out the health form. It took him ten minutes to fill in all the blanks and put checks in the appropriate boxes. When he was finished, he pushed himself out of the deep chair and was just about to move in the direction of the black reception desk when a man approached.
"Mr. Stilwell, I'm Marshall Cutter. Won't you join me in my consultation room?" Marshall Cutter was dressed in a perfectly tailored brown suit, a pale brown shirt, and blue tie knotted tightly at the neck. Even in the dim lighting of the hallway Cutter was an imposing figure, tall and lean, like a swimmer. A lifelong bachelor, he had fostered quite a reputation for squiring a number of different socialites around town, including several his magic scalpel had touched.
The two briefly shook hands, then Cutter led his patient down the darkened hallway, past several small examination rooms toward the only room on the corridor that was lighted.
Before Stilwell entered the room he paused in the doorway and looked about. For a man whose idea of a living room was a grimy sofa and a television set, Cutter's private office was magnificent. Paneled walls. A patterned carpet on the floor. Elaborate crown molding. Two huge windows looking out on a small garden illuminated from above by brilliant floodlights. An antique desk and chair stood on one side of the room, while two leather sofas faced each other on the other side.
"Why don't we sit over here?" Cutter suggested as he strolled across the thick carpet on his way to the sofas.
"You said if I came late no one else would be here," Stilwell declared from the doorway.
"Please," Cutter said grandly. He was standing with his hand out, the consummate host, in a pose he supposed Stilwell might never have seen before.
Stilwell made a face and padded across the room to take a seat.
"We have a new computer system. Gretchen's been helping with the conversion of data. There's nothing to be alarmed about. I have a lot of patients who want privacy, men and women in politics and television. Having someone arrive after hours is nothing out of the ordinary."
"Yeah, well, I want to keep this as hush-hush as possible, if you know what I mean."
"Of course," Cutter said somewhat magnanimously.
"Which reminds me, the day I get cut, who all's gonna be here?"
"Personnel will, as I assured you, be kept to a minimum. My anesthesiologist, Brian Trilby, and, of course, my medical assistant. But all front office personnel will be given the day off."
"So I won't be seeing what's her name... Gretchen... again?"
"I don't believe so."
Stilwell leaned forward toward the doctor. He waited for a few seconds to let Cutter know something important was coming. "You listen to me, Doc. I only want to say this one time. What I'm going through here is real fuckin' important to me. I bet you know what I mean."
"I believe I do," Cutter said quietly but with utmost confidence.
"Not so fast. I may seem all sweet and nice sitting here on this fancy furniture with all these pretty pictures on the wall, but my looks are my life. I don't like crowds. I don't like forms. For crissake, I don't want to discuss how to spell my name or where the fuck I live. And I don't give a crap about your computer. I ain't some broad coming in at night for a tit job so her friends at the country club don't know she's getting blown up. Okay? It's the three of you and that's it. Am I making myself clear?"
If Cutter was unnerved by the crude talk he hid it well. He sat very calmly, legs crossed, and when he finally spoke his voice sounded as relaxed as a disk jockey on an easy listening FM station. "Mr. Stilwell, I understand precisely how important your privacy is. That's why I suggested we meet after hours, and why I will give our front office staff a paid holiday."
"And that's why you're so expensive."
"No, I'm expensive because I'm good. Now, with that out of the way, let me tell you what I have in mind for you."
Stilwell brought his finger to his nose and flicked it. "Not a lot of details, Doc. Just the skinny."
Cutter studied Stilwell's coarse features. "You've got some very good features that I want to bring out. You'll be given general anesthesia so you won't feel a thing. I'll do a routine face-lift to tighten everything up. That loose skin under your neck will be gone. Then I'll fix that scar on your cheek." Cutter paused to study Stilwell's nose. If he was having trouble looking at it, he hid his feelings. "Then I'll work on your nose. I'll take a small flap of skin from your forehead and use it to reshape your nose. Your nostrils will be smaller and they'll be in proportion to the rest of your face. The whole thing will take about six hours but it will knock twenty years off. Your own mother won't recognize you."
Stilwell considered Cutter's plan, nodding silently to himself until Gretchen's voice called out, "Goodnight," from another part of the surgi-center. "That's it." He sneered at Cutter. "If I have to hear that bitch's voice one more time, I'm gonna bust this place up but good."
Stilwell had crossed the line. Cutter was now thoroughly disgusted. "Listen to me. I can't work like this. I'm sorry to have to tell you this, Mr. Stilwell, but I don't believe I can operate on you."
"Huh?" Stilwell sounded surprised. "You don't got no choice."
"Listen to yourself. You're threatening me. I'm not going to operate on someone who threatens me. Goodnight, Mr. Stilwell."
Stilwell rose to his feet. He didn't seem put off or disappointed. This wasn't the first time in his life he had to convince someone to do things his way, but he was determined to leave the Heckler and Koch in his car. His hand disappeared inside his corduroy jacket and withdrew a thick roll of cash held in place by a doubled-over rubber band. He held it up for Cutter to see the hundred-dollar bill on the outside. Slipping his index finger under the rubber band he gave it a swift yank and snapped it in two. The tightly coiled money unfurled and Stilwell dropped it on the floor at Cutter's feet. Stilwell smiled. "So what's with the statue in the garden without the arms? Don't that scare the broads away?"
Table of Contents
Altering the Face of Crime: A Message from Author James Tucker
I am truly excited about Tragic Wand, the third in my series of medical thrillers featuring general surgeon -- and amateur magician -- Jack Merlin and his soul mate, Assistant District Attorney Tory Welch.
Merlin has finished his chief residency at the Pittsburgh University Medical Center and is busy building his medical practice. One evening his interest in hypnosis catches Tory's attention. She coaxes him into a simple demonstration of parlor hypnosis that results in her discovering a mole on her neck. With a family history of cancer frightening her, she heads off to renowned plastic surgeon Marshall Cutter for a quick consultation.
Cutter is one of the most popular plastic surgeons in Pittsburgh. He is the doctor to perk up a pair of sagging breasts or tuck away a wrinkle or two on the neck. Appointments are nearly impossible to secure, so Tory is quite surprised to find his office nearly empty when she arrives. Strangely enough, the staff seems equally surprised to see someone in an otherwise empty waiting room. Nevertheless, Tory is shown to an examination room, where she is told to put on one of those embarrassingly flimsy gowns.
Without warning the door opens and the most hideously vile man she has ever seen enters the room. He, too, is dressed in a flimsy gown. Instantly he becomes enraged to see another patient. Demanding to know who she is and why she is there, he terrifies Tory. When her answers don't satisfy him, he attacks her.
The man's name is Stanley Stilwell, and he has a secret that he will protect at any cost, even if it leads him to murder.
The action in Tragic Wand takes place in and around the intensive care unit of the medical center, as well as the swank offices of Marshall Cutter. As with Abra Cadaver and Hocus Corpus, medicine is not merely a backdrop to a series of grisly murders. In Tragic Wand, the workings of the ICU in a busy teaching hospital, and the determination of when a dying patient is actually dead, play pivotal roles. Tragic Wand examines the sacrosanct relationship between physicians and their patients and puts it to the ultimate test when the doctor's very existence is at stake.
I hope you enjoy it!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this after reading "Hocus Corpus". That book had some depth to the characters. "Tragic Wand" has an incredibly dull and transparent plot coupled with some unreal actions solely to complete the plot, such as it is. A quarter way through the story, the killer is obvious. The reason I hung in there until the end is book does give a unique view of Pittsburgh.
This author continues to mature with each new book. Tragic Wand is even better than Tucker's two previous Merlin books. This whodunnit had me on the edge of my seat until the very last moment. Fearing for the safety of the two protagonists, I found myself reading late into the night. Tucker's descriptions are terrifyingly real. I know this sounds a bit trite, but this is truly a medical thriller you cannot put down. Prepare to be sleep-deprived!
In Miami Beach, the place to go for plastic surgery is the Phillips Cosmetic Surgery Center run by Raymond Phillips. His clientele consist mainly of society matrons who desire a younger look. Once in a while, Raymond takes on cases where the patient, wanted by law enforcement officials, need to disappear. As Raymond works on one of these individuals, someone kills his anesthesiologist, which forces the surgeon to disappear. Six years later in Pittsburgh, society matrons cluster around the Cutter Institute for Cosmetic Surgery. Stanley Stillwell goes to the clinic for extensive surgery in order to vanish. However, Stillwell sees another patient at the facility and simply goes berserker. He almost chokes Tory Welch to death. When Stillwell calms down, surgery is performed on him. However, he soon learns that Welch is an assistant DA. He kidnaps Tory and her boyfriend Dr. Jack Merlin, planning to kill both of them. However, before he can complete his ugly deeds, a masked intruder sticks an ice pick into his brain, killing him. Jack and Tory have solved homicides before and team up to try to uncover the truth. TRAGIC WAND is an exciting fast-paced mystery that will appeal to readers who enjoy subtle twists in their plots. The hero is a surgeon whose hobby is magic in which he explains the tricks. Tory is a superb partner and heroine in her own right. However, James Tucker's tale belongs to the story line in which sleight of hand leaves the audience wondering who are the puppets and who are the puppeteers? Harriet Klausner