DOUBLEBLIND SNEAK PREVIEW
It was mid-morning, but Georgia didn’t dress up for work anymore. Her PI “uniform,” as she called it after she quit the force, used to be a pair of jeans, a T-shirt, and a blazer with lots of pockets, one of which hid her Baby Glock. Now she wore sweats and didn’t see the need to change. It wasn’t like she needed to impress a new client. She brushed her teeth, slashed lipstick across her mouth, and pulled her long blond hair into a ponytail, threading it through a Cubs baseball hat.
A sunny March day, the crocuses and daffodils were struggling to make their appearance, and the ground had that earthy fresh smell that promised spring. The change of seasons, as sure and predictable as a grandfather clock, provided a balm—a serenity of sorts—that Georgia hoped would soothe the world’s chaos.
Twenty minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot at Edens Plaza in Wilmette. A tiny Starbucks was wedged next to a department store that always seemed to be going out of business. On the other side of the coffee shop was a group of umbrellas, tables, and chairs. Susan sat primly in a chair under one umbrella. Her mother, an older version of Susan, with curly gray hair, a pair of fashionable pants with matching jacket, and excellent posture, sat next to her. Late seventies, Georgia thought.
Susan, like her mother, was smartly dressed in a beige designer pants suit, and her reddish auburn hair complemented the clothes. But Ellie, like Georgia, was in athleisure wear, slouched in the third chair. Four cardboard cups, steam wafting from their lids, sat in front of them. All three women were wearing masks. Georgia took hers out and put it on.
Georgia slipped into a chair beside Ellie. Ellie looked good, her dark curls wavy but not unmanageable, her eyes as gray as her sweats. She never seemed to age.
Ellie was appraising her, too, she noted. What did she see? A blonde, late-thirtyish woman, fit and trim, but a nose too big for her face, a chin that jutted out, and brown eyes to which she rarely added makeup. She wondered if she’d aged in the past year.
Ellie dropped her mask, broke into a smile, so broad and genuine that Georgia couldn’t help returning it. Ellie pushed one of the cups across the table. “Still a vanilla latte?”
“How did you remember?” Georgia lowered her mask too and took a sip.
Ellie shrugged, but that was the extent of their banter. Susan cut in. “Georgia, this is my mother, Evelyn.”
Georgia nodded. Should she get up and shake her hand? No. She’d wait until they left. If at all. No one shook hands during the era of Covid. “Ellie told me about your sister. That’s got to be hard. My condolences.”
Evelyn cupped her hands around her drink as if warming her fingers. “Thank you. It is hard. She’s…she was the only family I had left. We were twins, you know…” her voice trailed off.
“I understand.” Georgia said. So Evelyn was in her eighties. Looked good too. “How can I help?”
Susan sipped what turned out to be hot tea. “We want to know what happened to Aunt Emily. It’s just so weird that she didn’t tolerate the vaccine, when people much less healthy than her are doing fine.”
Georgia turned to Susan’s mother. “Have you been vaccinated, Mrs. Siler?”
“Call me Evelyn, and yes. I’ve had both. And a booster. I was sore for a day or so and had chills, but that was all.”
“So no reaction like your sister.”
“No.” A look of anguish came over Evelyn. “They did an autopsy but didn’t find anything out of the ordinary. The doctor said two to five people in a million die from a severe reaction.” She shook her head. “We just can’t figure it out. But I need to.”
Georgia understood. When someone close passed away in uncertain circumstances, the people nearest and dearest to them needed an explanation. They needed to make sure there was nothing they could have done to stop it. For their own peace of mind. For “closure.”
She hated that term, “closure.” A vague expression everyone was supposed to aspire to when grief struck. Why? Most people would never forget that someone close to them passed away. She knew from her days as a cop that if a person was missing, and the body finally showed up, knowing what had happened did help the grieving process. It was the word “closure.” An awkward word, devoid of emotion, that couldn’t possibly capture the storm of feelings unleashed by grief. Even when a relationship was toxic. Her late father had been a dysfunctional drunk, but Georgia still thought about him.
“Ellie said they’re checking with the manufacturer, right?”
Evelyn nodded. “The doctor said someone would. But he didn’t give me details.”
Georgia pondered it. “You know, it could be a health issue you don’t know about. Even Emily might not have known about it.”
“I doubt it. My sister could bench-press a hundred and fifty pounds. I can only do a hundred.”
Georgia almost smiled. Sibling rivalry? If so, it was gentle.
“And then when those other poor men died two days later… Well, I can’t help thinking all those crazy people who are against the vaccine—”
“Whoa,” Georgia said. “Speculation is way above my pay grade. At least at this point. I know how hard it is to accept a sudden loss.” Georgia’s father had dropped dead of a heart attack twelve years earlier. She had hated him when he was alive but was surprised how much she grieved. Matt, her boyfriend at the time, told her it wasn’t uncommon. “People used to being abused often miss their abuser.”
She pulled herself back to the present. “I haven’t seen anything in the media about this,” Georgia said. “Which is strange. A few months ago, when a few people got dizzy after getting their shots and went to the hospital, it was all over the news.”
Mrs. Siler shrugged. “I don’t know anything about that. Nor do I care.” She sat up stiffly. Her chest and her chin jutted out. “Susan told me what a good investigator you are. I would be more comfortable if you could look into it. I can’t sit around and do nothing. I just can’t. And of course, I will compensate you for your time.”
Susan shot Georgia an apologetic look that seemed to say, “Now you know what I’ve been living with all my life.” Georgia and Ellie exchanged a glance.
The morning Eden finally made up her mind dawned with a thick coating of snow that made her think it could be a signal from the Lord. If she was a Believer. Which she wasn’t. Anymore. She played it out anyway. He must know how much she’d been suffering. He was signaling that the suffering wouldn’t stop until she did something about it. And if her decision was the right one, the sun would reappear, warm, bright, and cheerful, and melt all the snow. Metaphorically at least. The thought surprised her and almost made her chuckle. Perhaps she had absorbed more of a spiritual mindset than she’d realized since her marriage to Porter. The Mormon religion, not so much.
She brought herself back to the day at hand and bit her lip. Porter hadn’t spent the night with her last night; he only came for sex once—sometimes twice—a week now. And those nights were rife with trauma. Porter would demand that Eden be a more submissive Mormon wife. Their marriage had been sealed in the Church. Didn’t she know what that meant? That it would last forever? At first she would remind him that they’d married so quickly she hadn’t known what was expected of her. She didn’t know what she was signing up for, and he hadn’t prepared her. Inevitably, though, he would lose patience and hit her when he was displeased with something she did or didn’t do. The children would cry, and he’d stomp out, spitting self-righteous indignation and venom.
Eden had learned to remain silent when he was verbally abusing her. She hoped it would stop the physical abuse. It didn’t. Porter’s temper always simmered, but given the slightest pretext, it would boil over. She could tell from the tone of his voice when he was building up to an explosion. His attacks made her feel lost and alone, the same way she’d felt when she lost Tony, her fiancé before meeting Porter. Now she’d come to hate Porter and their marriage.
But her decision to leave, to actually run away from the intolerable, materialized slowly, weighted by her love for the children. How could she leave them? She was terrified about what Porter might do to them in her absence. But how could she stay, take care of them, and permit him to continually violate her, in bed and out?
Elijah, six years old, had always been a handful, and he’d just started school. The teacher, herself a teenager, said he wasn’t able to focus for more than a few minutes. Although the teacher didn’t say it, Eden gathered that he was becoming volatile like his father and was mimicking Porter’s worst qualities. Like Porter, she was sure Elijah had ADHD, and his frustration with learning was turning violent.
Sariah, at eight, was curious, smart, and stubborn. Eden’s efforts to bond with Sariah were ruined by Porter’s insistent demands for respect and obedience. She was waiting for Sariah to explode with anger, and yet of all three children, Sariah seemed to share a special relationship with her father and often sided with him against Eden.
Then there was her oldest son, flaxen-haired Teagan, ten, docile, and quiet, who would do anything Eden asked. She would have to figure out a way to spirit them away in the middle of the night after she was settled somewhere new. Her eyes filled as she thought about being without them, however briefly.
After the past few months, though, she feared for her life. Porter’s only way to solve problems was through violence. It started one night when he’d slammed a slice of hot pizza in her face, after complaining that she forgot to order mushrooms. Another time he poured a bottle of beer over her head for buying Michelob, not Corona. The violence escalated with a black eye here, a swollen cheek there. What would be next? She couldn’t afford to find out. She hid the bruises and cuts with makeup, hats, and high-necked clothing.
The verbal abuse was crueler since the children were there to hear it. She could do nothing right. Cook, clean, care for the children. And don’t get him started on the way she made love. Listless, no desire. Everything she did or didn’t do was fair game. She didn’t understand the basic Mormon principles of marriage.
The real problems came when she could no longer stay silent and argued back. She tried to use truth and facts. She reminded him of the time he’d forced her head under the tub water until she choked and sputtered. And the time he beat her when she was pregnant with Elijah. She threatened to leave him if anything like that happened again.
He laughed. Actually laughed, saying he knew she’d never leave her kids. If she did, she would be shunned by the entire community and would never see them again. Then he beat her for daring to argue.
Over time something inside her split apart. Eden’s capacity to love and laugh seemed to disappear, leaving a shell of a woman whose only goal was to save herself and her children. But when? And how?
Now, Elijah yelled from another room. Sariah yelled back, and soon the two were embroiled in a bitter argument about who would be first in the bathroom. Eden sighed, threw off the covers, and got out of bed.