Suzan Dwyer could not get Charles Lambert out of her mind.
She spent most of the night tossing and turning, and when she slept, she dreamt of young men on the metro platform who entered the subway cars and rode away. Just as they did so, the street elevator descended, and when the doors opened, a sentry of elderly men shuffled out. Suzan counted 32 seniors who all looked alike, stooped and wrinkled, with tufts of white hair along their shiny top pates, their flesh pale and crepe-thin. They all wore brown slacks and leather-patch jackets, as well as expensive watches that hung loosely on their thin wrists. Suzan heard their feet shuffling along the concrete with a swish and swoosh as they walked in the opposite direction from where she sat. Rooted to the bench, she watched, fascinated, as the old men trudged along and then disappeared into the shadows of the tunnel. Where were they going? Suzan wanted to call out to them, ask if one went by the name of Charles Lambert, but she found she could not speak or move.
When she awoke, Suzan thought back on her dream. Funny, how the subconscious worked, bringing up bits and pieces of her waking experiences and then splicing them with bizarre subjects and incidents, even taking away such things as speech and movement and adding assets like the ability to fly. Did this particular dream have any significance? Suzan rather doubted it, yet it served to spark her interest in the fate of Charles Lambert.
After showering and dressing, she joined Davis at the breakfast table. As usual, he drank one cup of decaf coffee, a glass of cranberry juice, and two pieces of whole wheat toast with all-fruit jelly, no butter or margarine. And as usual, he was impeccably dressed, today in navy-blue slacks, a slate-blue Brooks Brothers shirt and a silk tie of navy, cream and maroon stripes.
When he asked her what she had planned for the day, Suzan offered her standard reply—she would be wrapped up in the lab most of the day. Would she have time for lunch? She rather doubted it.
“That’s all right,” Davis told her. “I have two spinal surgeries this morning and they might take longer than expected. I’ll just grab something at the hospital cafeteria.” Unlike most cafeterias, the one at Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital where Dr. Davis Breen held operating privileges offered a variety of heart-healthy and low cholesterol food. He usually opted for the loaded salad bar.
Finished with breakfast, Davis dabbed his mouth with his napkin and stood, ready to head off to work. “So, we’ll connect tonight. Let’s order in, maybe Thai or Chinese, and rent a movie on demand. How does that sound?”
“Sounds great to me,” Suzan told him as she stirred low-fat creamer into her coffee, her breakfast choice today a bowl of all-bran cereal with soy milk and a handful of blueberries.
“See you later then, darling. Have a good day.” Bending over, he gave his lover-partner a quick good-bye kiss on the forehead.
Instead of reciprocating, Suzan merely nodded. “You, too, Davis.”
At the office, Suzan spent a couple of hours catching up on paperwork and then told her assistant that she would be leaving for an hour or so, returning after lunch. One nice thing about Vanda—she never questioned her boss’ intentions or agenda. She simply acknowledged Suzan’s directives and held down the fort when the doctor left the building, either for work or for personal reasons.
Today, it would be partly personal and partly work-related. And today she drove the Subaru, her destination Georgetown, particularly 654 P Street NW. When she found the address, Suzan grabbed a parking space across the street from the Lambert residence.
She mounted the three steps to the outside vestibule, intent on ringing the doorbell. But she hesitated for a moment. From what Charles Lambert told her, Suzan surmised that he lived with a woman, whether as a wife or partner. Plus, she assumed that the Lamberts resided in a flat or condo within the stately red-brick building, but it appeared they owned the whole townhouse, their names in script on a brass plate over the mailbox—C. & E. Lambert—the only indication of who lived within. She rang the bell and waited. A few moments later, a woman’s voice spoke to her from the speaker beneath the display.
“Hello?” the woman queried. “Yes? Who is it?”
Suzan automatically glanced up at the speaker. “Hello, I’m looking for Mr. Charles Lambert. Does he live here?”
The woman hesitated for a moment. “Yes, he does, but he’s not here at the moment. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Actually, I’m doing a follow-up. Mr. Lambert came to see me yesterday concerned about a certain medical problem he seemed to be experiencing. Oh...Let me introduce myself.” Whether or not the woman could see her, Suzan held up the laminated ID card she wore on a lanyard around her neck. “My name is Dr. Suzan Dwyer from the Institute of Applied Health.”
The woman’s voice contained a note of hesitation. “You say my husband came to see you yesterday because of a medical problem?”
“Yes. You see, I’m a blood specialist, and he thought I might be able to help him. Unfortunately, I dismissed him before gaining all the facts. That’s why I decided to come here today and see if there is anything I can do for him.”
“Why don’t you come inside so we can talk.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lambert.”
When the door buzzer sounded, Suzan opened the polished oak door and stepped into the foyer. Immediately she felt as if she entered a museum or a smaller version of a European villa. A mammoth gilt mirror hung on the lily-green wall to her right, while beneath it sat an elegant Louis XVI table in white and gold and with painted pastoral murals along the sides. On the table rested a large decorative ceramic vase filled with spring tulips in a rainbow of colors. Light came from a crystal chandelier that hung from the plaster relief ceiling, the edges of wall and ceiling decorated with gilt leaf flourishes.
As the lady of the house came to greet her, Suzan studied her for a moment, finding her lovely and striking, with coiffed blonde hair softly framing her heart-shaped face. The woman wore a sky-blue chiffon dress, cream-hued, sling-back heels, and a pearl necklace with matching earrings. Her makeup appeared immaculate and elegantly subdued, her brown-gold eyes accentuated with dusky shadow, and her mouth expertly tinted with merlot-hued lipstick.
Next to her, Suzan felt dowdy in her khaki jeans and light blue top, her features simply bland even though she had powdered her face and swiped berry gloss across her lips before coming here.
“Hello, Dr. Dwyer,” the woman greeted and extended her hand. “My name is Ellen Lambert.”
“It’s very nice to meet you.” Although their handshake remained quick and curt, Suzan still felt an undercurrent of something she couldn’t quite explain as she briefly touched the woman’s soft, smooth flesh and smelled her delicate floral perfume.
With a pleasant smile, Ellen Lambert swept her arm toward the interior of the house. “Please come in, and have a seat in the parlor, doctor.”
“Thank you.” Suzan followed the woman into another museum-worthy room. This one contained a mix of furniture styles, modern to French provincial, the color scheme both bright and muted. In any other room, the décor might have clashed, but in here, the variety added a cosmopolitan and aesthetic touch. Before she sat down, Suzan admired the range of artwork displayed on marble stands, particularly the alabaster bust of an Egyptian woman wearing a headdress inlaid with turquoise and gold bands.
“You have a lovely and admirable collection here,” she commented.
“Thank you. I’ve acquired the pieces over the years through my travels, and some have been handed down to me by friends and family.”
Coming up behind Suzan, Ellen Lambert identified the Egyptian lady. “This bust represents the Princess Taduhipa from the last Egyptian dynasty. At the time, Egypt had been under attack by various invading forces, first the Persians and then the Romans. When the Romans finally conquered most of the Egyptian lands, the princess and her family took refuge in what is now Libya, but unfortunately, Tadu—as she was known—did not live very long in exile. She never married, although she had several passionate love affairs.”
“You know your Egyptian history,” Suzan commented as she turned to Ellen.
The woman smiled. “Yes, I do. I know the history of each piece, almost to the point of intimacy, as if I lived during that particular time in history.”
Suzan pointed to the unusual necklace made of ivory runes and what appeared to be animal fangs on a leather cord, displayed on a stand wrapped in faux leopard skin. “Is this from Africa also?”
“Yes, it’s a very rare Nubian necklace worn by a woman who was taken captive and forced to work as a slave in Egypt. Her name was Tirafa.”
“Well, it’s certainly an interesting piece of jewelry.”
“One of my prized possessions. Now then, doctor, would you like a cup of coffee or tea?”
“Oh, no thank you. I just stopped by to check on Mr. Lambert. But you say he’s not here.”
“No, actually, my husband left for Europe this morning to consult a specialist in Vienna.” As she spoke, Ellen Lambert walked over to an azure blue, modular chair and sat down, twining her ankles together neatly and very ladylike. “I don’t know what Charles told you, doctor, but my husband suffers from progeria, that is he has aged rapidly.”
“Really? I know something about genetics, and progeria is a genetic disorder found in children. The symptoms of aging begin at about five or six years of age and by the time the child reaches eleven or twelve, he or she may resemble an elderly adult.”
“I must be mistaken then,” Ellen corrected without batting an eye. “I certainly bow to your expertise, Dr. Dwyer.”
Suzan took a seat on the nearby chaise lounge, upholstered in deep purple brocade. “Well, I’m certainly no expert, but I’m sure the Viennese specialist will be able to pinpoint the exact nature of his disorder. I just hope for the best, Mrs. Lambert.”
“I do, too. Please call me Ellen.”
“All right, Ellen, and I’m Suzan. I take off the doctor appellation from time to time in order to feel more comfortable...and to make others feel more comfortable around me. Whether they realize it or not, most people act like patients when they find out I’m an MD.”
“Well, I certainly comfortable around you, Suzan. Do these people often tell you their ills, their aches and pains, real or imaginary?”
Suzan laughed. “They can’t help it. When they have a doctor in their midst who isn’t charging them an arm and leg, they jump at the chance to get free medical advice.”
“You said you specialized in blood work, is that correct?”
“Yes, blood disorders. Usually these disorders are genetic in origin. Not so with Hepatitis C. It’s an infection that invades the blood stream and causes an array of problems. I’m currently working on a drug to ease some of the symptoms if not eradicate the disease itself.”
Ellen leaned forward, her eyes shining like deep, faceted topaz. “How very interesting. I’d like to know more about your work.”
“Well, I’m usually in my lab at the Health Institute building in Arlington. You’re welcome to stop by during business hours.”
“I might just take you up on that offer.” Ellen added a light laugh, her voice akin to the tinkling of bells.
As they talked, the woman’s gaze seemed to bore into Suzan, as if she wished to read the doctor’s soul. Suzan should have felt uncomfortable, but she experienced that strange feeling again, a buzz in the pit of her stomach that radiated to her limbs and tingled. Her mind coursed with curiosity and expectation, even excitement. For some reason, she wanted to learn more about Ellen Lambert.
“In fact,” Suzan went on. “I’ll give you my business card which lists my personal cellphone number, so if you wish, you can call me after hours.” She almost added “day or night,” but stopped short of making herself too available.
“I find it a pleasure to chat with another woman, a professional woman,” Ellen mentioned as she tented her fingers and tapped together her fingernails, filed neatly to a medium length and coated with pearl-white polish. “I teach music, private lessons, and my students range from five to sixteen. So you see, I don’t always have the opportunity to converse with adults on adult topics. Oh, Charles and I talk constantly and freely; but as I said, I like to have conversations with women from time to time, get their perspective on matters whether important or not.”
Suzan had very little time to cultivate friendships, and the only woman she counted as a friend remained Vanda, her assistant. Of course, she had Davis, but a lover-partner was not the same thing as a female friend. The fact that Ellen Lambert seemed to suggest that they pursue a friendship interested and intrigued Suzan. Now she told Ellen about her lack of time and circumstances, and even explained her living situation with Davis.
Ellen listened thoughtfully and then suggested, “Well, you need a break every once in awhile, Suzan. Why don’t you come here and relax? You are very welcome, and we could have some coffee, tea and even brunch...or anything else you desire.” The woman’s gaze held a luminous glint.
After glancing down at her wrist watch, Suzan got to her feet. She had already used up the hour she had allotted herself and now needed to get back to the lab. “I thank you for the invitation, Ellen. And yes, I’d very much like to return here.”
Ellen stood as well. “I will give you my personal phone number. Please call anytime you wish.”
Suzan watched as the woman walked to the grand piano and took the top off a small ceramic box that sat on the sideboard. After extracting a business-size card Ellen came over to Suzan and handed her the card. It simply read in gold script: Ellen Lambert, Maestra, and with her phone numbers listed below for her cellphone and her house line.
Wanting to reciprocate, Suzan dug into her shoulder bag and found one of her business cards. When Ellen took it, she briefly glanced at the block of information listed on the front, Suzan’s title, degrees, the name of the building where she worked, the address, and three phone numbers, one for the office, one for the fax, and the other for her cellphone.
Suzan indicated the last number. “That’s the number of my personal cell. You can get me anytime.”
“Thank you, Suzan. Now let me see you out.”
Suzan walked with the woman to the front door and then paused to thank Ellen again for her time and interest.
“My pleasure,” Ellen acknowledged. “See you very soon, I hope.” Suddenly, she took Suzan’s hand, brought it to her mouth and kissed the top.
When she released her hand, Suzan quickly retracted her arm and blinked. “Yes, well...thank you again. I’ll call you.”
She had been taken aback by the woman’s almost intimate gesture. Then again, Ellen spoke of traveling throughout the world, and hand kissing was probably a continental thing, done as a gesture of affection and nothing more.
Even so, Suzan ran down the steps and across the street, her mind filled with conflicting emotions. And yet, despite the unnerving kiss and her need to get back to work, she had been fighting an urge to linger on and ask Ellen Lambert more questions about her background and interests.
Later, Suzan told herself. That’s if she decided to call on the woman again.