ASKING FOR MURDER by Roberta Isleib

Chapter One

Spring, and a young woman’s fancy turns to Louis’ Lunch: broiled square hamburgers on toast, loaded with cheese, tomato, and onions.

I all but skipped the blocks from my psychotherapy office on Orange Street to the downtown New Haven, Connecticut green, where my friend Annabelle Hart practices sand tray therapy in an aging brownstone off Ninth Square. In order to celebrate the crocuses and daffodils and robins and the general hopefulness of the season, we decided to suppress our anticipatory worries about future middle-aged spread and trek to the home of the best burger on the east coast. Possibly the whole United States. My mouth had been set on a slow drool all morning.

I climbed three cement steps, pressed the buzzer next to Annabelle’s name, and tipped my face up to the sun, admiring the small red buds on the maple tree that was causing the sidewalk to heave as it grew. If that wasn’t a great metaphor for therapy—ha! No answer.

I hissed a small sigh. She was probably chatting with Dr. Frazier, the therapist down the hall. That young woman soaks up as much of Annabelle’s advice as my friend is willing to dish out. She took up residence in her office last fall with an attitude. With the subtlety of paper over rock or scissors over paper, she managed to communicate her certainty that psychiatrists have more status and skill than social workers, especially social workers who encourage their patients to play with little rakes in their miniature sandboxes. Rock over scissors. Bam.

But when the reality of handling a solo practice full of psychiatric patients without the safety net of one-way mirrors, case conferences, and close supervision hit home, Dr. Frazier—Dr. Frantic, as we call her in private—got a lot more friendly. Annabelle has a wealth of experience and a kindly way of sharing it, as I knew first from a year of her careful supervision and then through our growing friendship these last twelve months.

I leaned on the buzzer again. Nothing. I fished the cell phone out of my purse and speed-dialed her number. Her voicemail picked up. Feeling a little prickle of annoyance, I tried her office number—the line no one uses except her patients. Annabelle’s pleasant voice assured me that though she wasn’t available exactly at this moment, she’d get back to me as soon as she possibly could.

"It’s Rebecca," I said. "Butterman," I added, just in case. "Where are you?"

I perched on the brick wall beside the steps for half an hour, more annoyed by the minute—and hungry to the point of feeling nauseated. This was not at all like her. We’d confirmed our lunch date by e-mail only yesterday. A dark-haired woman in a black trench coat trotted up the stairs and poked Dr. Frazier’s bell. She pulled the door open when the doctor’s buzzer squawked. I grabbed the heavy door before it slammed shut. After waiting a decent interval so as not to spook Dr. Frazier’s patient, I slipped in after her. So much for the upgraded security the landlord had promised Annabelle and the other tenants after a recent rash of break-ins on this block.

I paused on the second floor landing outside Annabelle’s office. She sometimes complains that in spite of the double doors she and her colleagues paid to have installed, the offices aren’t adequately soundproof. I listened for voices. Maybe she’d lost track of time. All quiet.

It would be uncomfortable if I interrupted a session she was conducting with an emergency patient. On the other hand, even if one of her patients had shown up unexpectedly, full of angst and suicidal ideation, Annabelle would have taken the time to warn me that lunch was off. She knows how I get if I don’t eat. So I knocked, first a quiet tap-tap, then a more robust rat-tat-tat. She didn’t answer either one.

I trooped back down the stairs and checked my cell phone again for a message. As I pushed open the door, I heard a dull buzz. A tall woman with a fringe of blond bangs and a slight baby bulge at her middle was stabbing at Annabelle’s doorbell.

"Did you come from Annabelle’s office?" she asked, a frown on her face. "She’s not answering."

"She doesn’t appear to be in,' I said, not responding to the woman’s barely unspoken question: Are you one of her patients too?

"Crap!" she said with a small stamp of her foot. "I hope she didn’t forget. I hope she’s okay. I really need to talk with her today." She ripped a page off the pad hanging near the doorbell, scrawled a note, and tacked it to the mini-bulletin board screwed to the wall beside the door. She glanced at her watch. "Retail therapy instead," she said, brightening. "Even better."

I smiled tepidly and watched her stride down the sidewalk toward the New Haven green, trailing tendrils of perfume in her wake. Carrying a caseload of therapy patients is a little like having small children. Even when they’re concerned about you, they are most worried about the effects of your problems on them. Psychology types call this transference: buried childhood feelings rippling forward and settling into the current therapeutic relationship. New therapists find it curiously uncomfortable when grown adults relate to them as if they were a parent. Their parent. But it’s the nature of the beast—transferring conflicts from their past to your present—and what allows therapy to work. As Annabelle is forever reminding her office neighbor, Dr. Frazier, if you need nurturing, look outside your practice.

I scribbled my own note. A: was here for lunch. Hope you’re okay—call me! R. I no longer had time for the trek to Louis’ Lunch—besides, it wouldn’t be the same alone. So I stopped at Clark’s Dairy Restaurant on Whitney Avenue and picked up a cardboard container of pea soup and a grilled cheese on rye that shone with grease through its waxed-paper wrapper. Then I left the restaurant and returned to my office. Sigh. This was winter comfort food, not a spring splurge, and not nearly as satisfying as that burger would have been.

I used the remaining minutes of my aborted lunch hour to choose a question for my advice column and rough out an answer. I’m a clinical psychologist by day, but in the off hours, I whisk on my advice columnist cloak and write the Ask Dr. Aster column for Bloom! ezine. Sometimes the column feels downright silly; other times, profound. I love it most when it evolves into a Greek chorus of my life, that I didn’t consciously intend. This month, my twelve-year-old (a slight exaggeration) editor, Jillian, had asked for columns that fit the category "Bloom! In spring!" In other words, no downers, no freaking stages of grief, no miserable housewives in housecoats abandoned by their freshly-vital, chemically-driven husbands. The advice should be uplifting, encouraging, bursting with new life and new possibilities. Sigh again.

"Happy people don’t ask for advice," I told her.

"You’ll come up with something!" she chirped back. "I’ll check in with you later in the week."

Dear Dr. Aster:

I volunteer at a local charity that fights mental illness. I got involved because I believe in the cause, but I also hoped it might be a way to meet a nice guy with similar interests. (Isn’t that what you always recommend to your readers?) The people on my committee are smart, caring, dedicated--and all married, except for one widower who's slightly older than me though smart and attractive. Lately the married folks take every opportunity to push us together. There's a lot of winking and elbowing going on, and it's very embarrassing. He's a nice guy, but there's no chemistry between us—certainly not on my side! What can I do to stop the matchmaking? I’d hate to ditch the committee to escape the man.

Yenta's Volunteer Victim in Vermont

Dear Yenta’s Victim:

Gold stars are in order—I do recommend exactly the path you’ve taken. But oh dear, I had not anticipated this particular roadblock. One question: does Mr. Wonderful seem to feel the same lack of chemistry that you do? If so, it might be easy enough to enlist his help in shrugging off the well-meaning nudges. However, if he appears to have feelings for you, you’ll need another tactic. How about dropping a few not-so-subtle hints about the recent social whirl your new BOYFRIEND has swept you up in?

And here’s one more thought: Since you signed your letter "Volunteer Victim," don’t overlook your possible contribution to the drama that’s unfolded. Your fellow workers might be reacting to your subtly-sawing violin strings. Check to be sure you haven’t been moaning about your single status without being aware of it! If that’s the case, dost thou protest too much?

Keep up the good works and Happy Spring!

I saved the document—obviously Dr. Aster shouldn’t be in the business of recommending imaginary boyfriends. And the snippy finale would need a little honing. I walked out to the waiting room to collect my two o’clock patient, a serious, plain woman who almost always dresses in scrubs. Ariana is a Yale undergraduate struggling with her family’s expectations about becoming a doctor. For weeks, we’ve been nibbling around the edges of what it might be like to try another field—like art history, her one true love. It’s slow going with four generations of doctors in the family tree and no siblings to deflect the heat.

After Ariana’s appointment, I headed across town to the Connecticut Mental Health Center to supervise a psychology intern who was treating a patient suffering from chronic depression and a borderline personality disorder. She—the patient a little more than the psychologist—manages to alienate every mental health worker she sees. Including me, and I’ve never met her in person. I parked in the lot across the street, locked up the car, and set off at a near-trot. Yale New Haven Hospital sits just on the fringe of some of the poorest sections in the city, resulting in a jagged juxtaposition of the haves and have-nots and a steady string of minor muggings and car radio thefts.

By the time I emerged from the meeting, my mood had sunk lower. Nothing about the case was going well. The patient was hysterical and my student was too. Then I hit two red lights in two minutes along Frontage Road and sat fuming at the intersection in front of the hospital. A homeless girl thrust a ratty cardboard sign toward my open window: "Instead of pointing a finger, why not lend a hand?" the childlike scribbles read.

As she approached the car, I could see she was more woman than girl, in spite of the dirty jeans, pierced lip, and bare midriff. A thin, sour-smelling man hovered close behind her. Looking straight ahead, I rolled up the window, thinking a decent human being could have overcome their nervousness and at least offered one lousy crumpled dollar. I comforted myself by thinking about the item on the adult IQ test we psychologists often use. Question: "Why is it better to give to an organization instead of a beggar?" Acceptable answer: the organization has vetted the victims. I still didn’t feel that great about shutting them out.

As the light turned green, I pressed on the accelerator and sped away. My cell phone rang. I glanced at the screen—Bob—then pressed the little green phone icon.

"How’s your day going?" he asked.

"Not that great. Some days greeting customers at WalMart sounds pretty darn good."

He laughed. "Poor girl. How was your burger?"

"That’s the other thing, Annabelle stood me up."

"And knowing you, you’re thinking the worst," said Bob, his words the equivalent of a chuck under the chin. "Lighten up a little, sweetheart, she’s fine."

Which annoyed me even more. Bob and I have been seeing each other since Christmas—if "seeing" describes a series of long-distance phone calls and two weekend rendezvous when he was up visiting his parents in Connecticut. He’s relentlessly optimistic and cheerful—fine qualities, but perhaps not always a great match for me: Dr. Rebecca Butterman, queen of the worried, the sad, and the angry, with enough baggage of my own to load a large freighter. Bob was born equipped with rose-colored glasses; on good days, mine shift to pale gray. I’m still working on that.

"I am concerned," I said firmly. "In fact, if she doesn’t answer me this time, I’m going to break into her office."

"Whatever you need to do," Bob said without even a trace of sarcasm. "I’m so looking forward to seeing you Friday. And meeting Annabelle and her friend, too," he added. "Call me later when you find her, okay?"

I pressed end. While reveling in the hamburgers at lunch, Annabelle and I were supposed to hatch plans for this Friday night—the public unveiling for both of our boyfriends. The evening had to be handled delicately. What if one of us didn’t care for the other’s choice? A reasonable concern. What if the two guys went at each other like rabid dogs? Not that good old Bob would ever pick a fight. Good Old Bob. Gob, Annabelle had started to call him, just teasing.

I laughed out loud. I had been talking to myself in the latest column.

I checked my cell for messages again, but she’d left no word. Maybe she’d taken the day off for a last-minute trip to New York City to see her beloved Metropolitan Opera. But then why confirm lunch with me yesterday? Maybe she’d come down with the stomach flu and rushed home. I dialed her home number and left a message there.

Maybe a friend had showed up in big trouble. Annabelle would never turn someone down. More possibilities swirled forward: a car accident, a robbery, a murder. Ordinary people don’t leap to those kinds of conclusions, but I’m a little jumpy after stumbling across two murders in the last six months. I felt myself slipping into Dr. Frazier’s frantic range, something Bob would never understand.

I drove back to my office, dashed up two flights of stairs, and crossed the room to pull open the top drawer of my file cabinet. Taped to a white postcard in a folder filed at the back of the drawer, I found the key to Annabelle’s office. We had exchanged keys six months ago and signed notarized statements giving each other official permission to exchange professional help as needed. She was designated to take care of things at my office should anything happen to me. And I would take care of loose ends for her. This is important in our business. If a therapist has an accident or falls unexpectedly ill, or God forbid, dies, someone has to catch the patients left pinwheeling through psychological black holes without a net. Someone has to list the notices required by state law about the practice closing.

I forced myself away from that line of thinking. There would be a logical explanation. And we’d laugh over a drink, hopefully tonight. I could use a glass of wine right now.

I tucked the key into my purse, shut off the lights and locked my own office, then inched back over to Annabelle’s through the rush hour traffic. I parked illegally and trotted down the block to her building. A woman with a half-inch of gray roots growing out of her faded auburn pageboy sat hunched on the stoop, crying quietly. I couldn’t just step over her.

"Anything I can help with?" I asked, my voice coming out a little brusque.

She raised her face, streaked with tears. The purple bruising around her left eye had been badly disguised with foundation that was too dark for her pale skin. "I had an appointment with Ms. Hart," she said. "I’m sorry to trouble you." She struggled to her feet and limped to the bottom step, brushing a smudge of pollen off her expensive slacks. "I’m sorry."

I pasted on a sympathetic smile. "I’m a friend of hers," I said, touching her elbow. "Would you like to leave her a note?" I gestured to the corkboard.

Her eyes widened and she shook her head. "No!"

Understandable. Not everyone wanted other therapy consumers with poor boundaries perusing their private business. The pad had been Dr. Frazier’s idea.

"If you want to give me your name and number, I’ll gladly call you if I hear anything," I said.

"No," she said quickly. "Thanks anyway."

I extracted a business card from my wallet and handed it over. "Just in case," I said.

She tucked it into her pocket and scuttled down the walk.

I climbed the stairs for the second time today, took a deep breath—my pulse was pounding harder than one flight of stairs could explain—and unlocked Annabelle’s door.