Devil's Waltz Part 10

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We rode up to the SAP room at the top of the stacks. The search system looked no different from the terminals we'd just left: computers arranged in rows of partitioned cubicles. We found a free station and Jennifer searched for Munchausen-by-proxy references. The screen filled quickly. The list included all the articles Stephanie had given me, and more.

"Looks like the earliest one that comes up is 1977," she said. "Lancet. Meadow, R. 'Munchausen syndrome by proxy: The hinterland of child abuse.' "

"That's the seminal article," I said. "Meadow's the British pediatrician who recognized the syndrome and named it."

"The hinterland . . . that's ominous too. And here's a list of related topics: Munchausen syndrome, child abuse, incest, dissociative reactions."

"Try dissociative reactions first."



For the next hour we sifted through hundreds of references, distilling a dozen more articles that seemed to be relevant. When we were through, Jennifer saved the file and typed in a code.

"That'll link us to the printing system," she said.

The printers were housed behind blue panels that lined two walls of the adjoining room. Each contained a small screen, a card slot, a keyboard, and a mesh catch-bin under a foot-wide horizontal slit that reminded me of George Plumb's mouth. Two of the terminals weren't in use. One was marked OUT OF ORDER.

Jennifer activated the operative screen by inserting a plastic card in the slot, then typing in a letter-number code, followed by the call letters of the first and last articles we'd retrieved. Seconds later the bin began to fill with paper.

Jennifer said, "Automatically collated. Pretty nifty, huh?"

I said, "Melvyl and Orion-those are basic programs, right?"

"Neanderthal. One step above cards."

"If a hospital wanted to convert to computerized search and had a limited budget, could it go beyond that?"

"Sure. Way beyond. There are tons of new software programs. Even an office practitioner could go beyond that."

"Ever hear of a company called BIO-DAT?"

"No, can't say that I have, but that doesn't mean anything-I'm no computer person. For me it's just a tool. Why? What do they do?"

"They're computerizing the library at Western Pediatric Hospital. Converting reference cards to Melvyl and Orion. Supposed to be a three-week job but they've been at it for three months."

"Is it a huge library?"

"No, quite a small one, actually."

"If all they're doing is probe and search, with a print-scanner it could be done in a couple of days."

"What if they don't have a scanner?"

"Then they're Stone Age. That would mean hand-transfer. Actually typing in each reference. But why would you hire a company with such a primitive setup when-Ah, it's finished."

A thick sheaf of papers filled the bin.

"Presto-gizmo, all the gain, none of the pain," she said. "One day they'll probably be able to program the stapling."

I thanked her, wished her well, and drove home with the fat bundle of documents on the passenger seat. After checking in with my service, going through the mail, and feeding the fish-the koi who'd survived infancy were thriving-I gulped down half a roast beef sandwich left over from last night's supper, swigged a beer, and started in on my homework.

People who proxied their kids . . .

Three hours later, I felt scummy. Even the dry prose of medical journals had failed to dim the horror.

Devil's waltz . . .

Poisoning by salt, sugar, alcohol, narcotics, expectorants, laxatives, emetics, even feces and pus used to create "bacteriologically battered babies."

Infants and toddlers subjected to a staggering list of torments that brought to mind Nazi "experiments." Case after case of children in whom a frighteningly wide range of phony diseases had been induced-virtually every pathology, it seemed, could be faked.

Mothers most frequently the culprits.

Daughters, almost always the victims.

The criminal profile: model mommy, often charming and personable, with a background in medicine or a paramedical field. Unusual calmness in the face of disaster-blunted affect masquerading as good coping. A hovering, protective nature-one specialist even warned doctors to look out for "overly caring" mothers.

Whatever that meant.

I remembered how Cindy Jones's tears had dried the moment Cassie had awakened. How she'd taken charge, with cuddles, fairy tales, the maternal breast.

Good child rearing or something evil?

Something else fit too.

Another Lancet article by Dr. Roy Meadow, the pioneer researcher. A discovery, in 1984, after examining the backgrounds of thirty-two children with manufactured epilepsy: Seven siblings, dead and buried.

All expired from crib death.

7.

I read some more until seven, then worked on the galley proofs of a monograph I'd just gotten accepted for publication: the emotional adjustment of a school full of children targeted by a sniper a year ago. The school's principal had become a friend of mine, then more. Then she went back to Texas to attend to a sick father. He died and she never returned.

Loose ends . . .

I reached Robin at her studio. She'd told me she was elbow-deep in a trying project-building four matching Stealth bomber-shaped guitars for a heavy metal band with neither budget nor self-control-and I wasn't surprised to hear the strain in her voice.

"Bad time?"

"No, no, it's good talking to someone who isn't drunk."

Shouts in the background. I said, "Is that the boys?"

"Being boys. I keep booting them out and they keep coming back. Like mildew. You'd think they'd have something to keep them busy-trashing their hotel suite, maybe-but- Uh-oh, hold on. Lucas, get away from there! You may need your fingers some day. Sorry, Alex. He was drumming near the circular saw." Her voice softened: "Listen, I've got to go. How about Friday night-if that's okay with you?"

"It's okay. Mine or yours?"

"I'm not sure exactly when I'll be ready, Alex, so let me come by and get you. I promise no later than nine, okay?"

"Okay."

We said our goodbyes and I sat thinking about how independent she'd become.

I took out my old Martin guitar and finger-picked for a while. Then I went back into my study and reread the Munchausen articles a couple of times over, hoping to pick up something-some clinical cue-that I might have missed. But no insights were forthcoming; all I could think of was Cassie Jones's chubby face turned into something gray and sepulchral.

I wondered if it was even a question of science-if all the medical wisdom in the world was going to take me where I needed to go.

Maybe time for a different kind of specialist.

I phoned a West Hollywood number. A sultry female voice said, "You've reached Blue Investigations. Our office is closed. If you wish to leave a nonemergency message, do so after the first tone. In an emergency, wait until two tones have sounded."

After the second beep, I said, "It's Alex, Milo. Call me at home," and picked up my guitar again.

I'd played ten bars of "Windy and Warm" when the phone rang.

A voice that sounded far away said, "What's the emergency, pal?"

"Blue Investigations?"

"As in cop."

"Ah."

"Too abstract?" he said. "Do you get a p.o.r.no connotation?"

"No, it's fine-very L.A. Whose voice is on the message?"

"Rick's sister."

"The dentist?"

"Yeah. Good pipes, huh?"

"Terrific. She sounds like Peggy Lee."

"Gives you fever when she drills your molars."

"When'd you go private?"

"Yeah, well, you know how it is-the lure of the dollar. Just a little moonlighting, actually. Long as the department keeps force-feeding me tedium during the day, might as well get paid well for it on the off hours."

"Not loving your computers yet?"

"Hey, I love 'em but they don't love me. 'Course, now they're saying the goddam things give off bad vibes-literally. Electromagnetic crap, probably slowly destroying this perfect body." A burst of static washed over the tail end of the sentence.

"Where are you calling from?" I said.

"Car phone. Wrapping up a job."

"Rick's car?"

"Mine. My phone too. It's a new age, Doctor. Rapid communication and even faster decay. Anyway, what's up?"

"I wanted to ask your advice on something-a case I'm working on-"

"Say no more-"

"I-"

"I mean it, Alex. Say. No. More. Cellular and privacy don't mix. Anyone can listen in. Hold tight."

He cut the line. My doorbell rang twenty minutes later.

"I was close," he said, tramping into my kitchen. "Wilshire near Barrington, paranoid lover surveillance."

In his left hand was an LAPD note pad and a black mobile phone the size of a bar of soap. He was dressed for undercover work: navy-blue Members Only jacket over a shirt of the same color, gray twill pants, brown desert boots. Maybe five pounds lighter than the last time I'd seen him-but that still added up to at least 250 of them distributed unevenly over 75 inches: long thin legs, protruberant gut, jowls surrendering to gravity and crowding his collar.

His hair had been recently cut-clipped short at back and sides, left full at the top. The black thatch hanging over his forehead showed a few strands of white. His sideburns reached the bottom of his ear lobes, a good inch longer than department regulations-but that was the least of the department's problems with him.

Milo was oblivious to fashion. He'd had the same look since I'd known him. Now Melrose trendies were adopting it; I doubted he'd noticed.

His big, pockmarked face was night-shift pale. But his startling green eyes seemed clearer than usual.

He said, "You look wired."

Opening the refrigerator, he bypassed the bottles of Grolsch, removed an unopened quart jar of grapefruit juice, and uncapped it with a quick twist of two thick fingers.

I handed him a glass. He filled it, drained it, filled again and drank.

"Vitamin C, free enterprise, snappy-sounding business title-you're moving too fast for me, Milo."

Putting the glass down, he licked his lips. "Actually," he said, "Blue's an acronym. Big Lug's Uneasy Enterprise-Rick's idea of wit. Though I admit it was accurate at the time-jumping into the private sector wasn't exactly your smooth transition. But I'm glad I did it, because of the bread. I've become serious about financial security in my old age."

"What do you charge?"

"Fifty to eighty per hour, depending. Not as good as a shrink, but I'm not complaining. City wants to waste what it taught me, have me sit in front of a screen all day, it's their loss. By night, I'm getting my detective exercise."

"Any interesting cases?"

"Nah, mostly petty bullshit surveillance to keep the paranoids happy. But at least it gets me out on the street."

He poured more juice and drank. "I don't know how long I can take it-the day job."

He rubbed his face, as if washing without water. Suddenly, he looked worn, stripped of entrepreneurial cheer.

Devil's Waltz Part 10

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Devil's Waltz Part 10 summary

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