Waves of nausea overwhelmed me as I rushed into Turley’s Restaurant at noon that icy December day. A blast of hot air smelling of fish, burgers, onions and such sent me careening to the ladies room to avoid puking on the dining room floor. Amazingly, once I was inside the safety of the stall, I managed to avert the worst, containing my sickness to dry heaves. I hurried out to the sinks to make myself presentable for my lunch meeting with Bruce, the local dot-com millionaire who funds an experimental project that is a major part of my grief-therapy practice. I was a wreck. I'd had a miserable morning, I was late to a meeting with Bruce who prizes promptness, and my shaky queasiness exacerbated my anxiety about why Bruce had summoned me.
As I calmed my breathing and dabbed at my face with a wet paper towel, the ladies room door flew open, letting in a tall blond woman wearing designer jeans and a red ribbed turtleneck, topped with a necklace of multicolored glass beads. My best friend Elisa, looking stunning as always. We both jumped in surprise, then she darted over and enveloped me in a welcome hug. “Cleo? Honey, you look under the weather. Is the morning sickness getting worse?”
“Shhh,” I said. “Let’s not spread the news all over Boulder.” I wasn't ready to tell the world about my pregnancy, since I was only three months along, and Pablo and I aren’t married. So far Elisa and Pablo are the only ones who know.
Elisa pulled back, looking up and down the room. “Sorry for the blabbing, but you know me. Sometimes my mouth works faster than my brain. The good news is it looks like we’re alone in here. Now let’s fix you up a little,” she said, straightening my sweater. She grabbed a comb out of her bag and worked some magic on my hair.
I felt better right away. Elisa is like a big sister to me. The kind of sister who knows how to do stuff you don't, but never makes fun of you. She just helps.
“You’re a lifesaver,” I said, “but I have to run. I’m already late for my lunch meeting with Bruce.” I headed for the door.
Elisa waved me on. “Oh—you’re meeting Bruce! Well hang in there, honey, and call me later with the scoop.”
Back in the dining area, I scanned the room a couple of times. Didn’t see Bruce. Deep breath. Maybe I’m not as late as I thought? But no, there he is sitting with a petite dark-haired woman in a booth next to a brick wall. Unexpected. Bruce is a brilliant guy who works all the time. Divorced. No social life. Who is this woman and why did he bring her?
I hustled over to their table and slid into the booth across from them, my mind on autopilot running through possible menu choices that my gut would be willing to tolerate. “Sorry to be late,” I muttered, hoping my winning smile would distract from my tardiness. “Good to see you, Bruce.”
“Hi, Cleo, I thought you forgot. This is my sister, Gayle. She needs your help.”
Whew! A relief on that score. Good to know he hadn’t summoned me to talk about problems with the funding for my Contact Project.
Gayle gave Bruce a poke. “Whoa, Bruce. This isn’t a computer-programming job. It’s personal. Let’s take a few minutes before we dive in.”
“Okay, let’s order first, then talk,” he said, burying his face in the menu.
As we perused our menus, Gayle’s cell phone rang. She answered, and jumped up. “No,” she said sharply into the phone. “That’s not acceptable.” She turned to us. “I have to take this,” she said. “Be right back.” She dashed toward the door, talking intently into the phone with her hand over her other ear to block the restaurant noise.
“Gayle’s a real estate agent,” Bruce explained. “Her phone is her life.”
We sat quietly looking at our menus. Bruce isn’t much of a talker. He’s a techie. Brainy, but basically shy. Even though he’s forty-five and a self-made multi-millionaire, his social skills aren’t well developed. He’s one of those guys who goes around looking at the floor or off into the distance so he doesn’t have to make eye contact. Small talk is definitely not his forte.
Gayle darted back across the room to our booth. “Sorry,” she said. “I’m ready to order if you two are.”
I took a last look at the menu. Turley’s trademark is its healthy food, and in addition to more traditional lunch and dinner entrees, they serve breakfast all day. Knowing I needed protein for the baby, I decided on a garden omelet with mushrooms, spinach, and tomato with toast on the side. Hoped I could get it down with the help of a ginger ale. Bruce ordered a buffalo burger with a side of fresh fruit, and Gayle ordered the sesame spinach salad with the dressing on the side.
“So like I was saying,” Bruce began as the waitress left to turn our orders in, “Gayle needs some help from you.”
I turned to her. “Would you like to tell me about it?”
She took a deep breath and launched in to her story. “You’ve probably heard about the woman who went missing from the Rainbow Lakes Campground in the Indian Peaks Wilderness area a few weeks ago.”
“I did,” I said. “Do you know her?”
Gayle looked down at the table silently for a couple of minutes, her shoulders slumped as if the weight of her problem was a burden too heavy to lift. When she finally looked up, tears streamed down her face. “She’s my best friend, Sabrina—or maybe I should say she was my best friend. She’s probably dead. But they can’t find her and we don’t know what happened to her and that’s even worse.” She wiped her face with a tissue, but her tears continued to flow.
Bruce put his arm around Gayle’s shoulders and hugged her. More empathy than I would have expected from him, but then again until today I didn’t even know he had a sister. All I know about Bruce is what he told me in his grief therapy sessions after his eighteen-year-old daughter died from a drug overdose. He’s such a private person, he would have never come for grief counseling except that his business partner—who saw how paralyzed Bruce was after his daughter’s death—insisted. Bruce’s relationship with his daughter had been stormy for several years before she died, and his deep regrets that they hadn’t made peace had intensified his grief.
Gayle continued wiping her face as she struggled to regain her composure. But I could see grief winning out. "Take your time," I said gently. "I know it's hard to talk about."
Her face crumpled. “I’ve cried so much in the past few weeks that I’ve made myself sick,” she sobbed. “I’m totally devastated about Sabrina.”
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and collected herself. “Okay. I’m ready to tell you the story,” she said quietly. “I was part of the group at the campground—there were six of us who’ve been friends for years. We each went off separately on our personal journeys and Sabrina never came back. We searched, the rescue groups searched, the dogs searched, the helicopter searched. But no one has found her. And now they’re calling off the search.” She closed her eyes and leaned back in her seat.
The waitress showed up with our lunch. I took a quick bite, which actually tasted good. Bruce spread mustard on his burger and bit in.
Gayle picked at her salad. “I was blown away when Bruce told me about your Contact Project—that he actually talked to his daughter Charlene after she died and how he resolved things with her,” she said, her voice perking up a little. “At first I didn’t believe him when he said you put him in your apparition chamber. It’s so unlike Bruce to have anything to do with the paranormal. He debunks everything. When he told me he reached Charlene, and they forgave each other and said goodbye, I knew it was real for him.”
Bruce put his burger down. “I don’t debunk everything,” he said.
“Ha!” Gayle said. “Remember when I played the DVD of that movie, What the Bleep Do We Know? for you last year? You went on and on about how it misrepresented science, that it was pseudoscience, and quantum mysticism. You weren’t open to it at all, even though so many people liked it that it’s made over $16 million.”
Bruce scowled. “Gayle, the science was unsupported and incorrect. New Age hogwash. One of their so-called experts turned out to be a 35,000 year-old spirit from Atlantis.” Bruce gave her a self-satisfied grin as he speared a chunk of pineapple with his fork and returned to eating.
She laughed and gave him another poke. “Bruce, I’ve told you before, you totally missed the point. The movie is supposed to blow your mind, not engage it in an analysis. It’s about learning to become the creative force in your own life, instead of being a victim of circumstances. My friends and I have watched it over and over. We know group consciousness can change reality. If you looked up from your computer now and then, you’d see.”
They were off the track here, but I hesitated to break into habitual brother-sister banter. Also, I figured Gayle needed a few minutes to relax before we talked more about her missing friend. I focused on my lunch, thankful I could eat without gagging.
Bruce ignored Gayle’s jeers and turned to me. “Here’s the thing, Cleo,” he said. “Gayle needs to go into your apparition chamber and try to contact Sabrina to find out if she’s dead or alive. She needs to know and the sooner the better.”
Uh oh. As soon as Gayle said they didn't know whether or not Sabrina was dead, I should have guessed this was what Bruce wanted. But my apparition chamber is for grief-therapy clients who want to reach a loved one to resolve an issue, not for solving missing-person cases. I didn't want to refuse Bruce's request, but I had concerns about Gayle. “I understand that it’s hard not knowing what happened to your friend,” I said. “But the contact process may not make you feel any better.”
Gayle looked straight into my eyes. “It’s not about how I feel,” she said intensely. “It’s about how Sabrina’s sister Brandi has taken over Sabrina’s house and her son Ian. Sabrina would be furious. She expressly didn’t want that to ever happen. If she’s dead, everything is in trust for Ian, and I’m Ian’s guardian. But Brandi jumped in as soon as Sabrina went missing, and right now she has control. So I need to know if Sabrina is dead or alive.”
“I’m not sure the contact process can answer that question,” I said. “You could try to reach her, but if you do, it wouldn't constitute legal proof of her death, and if you don’t, that doesn’t mean she’s alive.”
Bruce broke in. “Actually I’d already thought of that,” he said. “I want you to do a thorough job. If Gayle can’t reach Sabrina, then the other women who were up there should try. In fact, why not start by meeting with all of them and telling them about the process. Get some of that group consciousness going. I’ll pay for your time—whatever it takes.”
Before I had a chance to think about how else to voice my reservations, Bruce slid out of the booth, stood up, and picked up his coat. “I have to go. You two can go on from here. Gayle can keep me updated.” He nodded at us and headed for the door.
“Oof!” Gayle said. “That’s my brother. Makes his point, and ducks out before the discussion gets complicated. But I suppose you’re used to his tactics.”
I shrugged. I'd have to go along, at least for a while. Not only had Bruce been very generous in funding my Contact Project, all he’d asked of me was that I operate professionally and that he remain anonymous as a funder. So even though the timing wasn’t ideal for me to get involved in a situation that smelled like trouble, I didn’t see any other options. “No problem,” I said. “Here’s my card. Call me and we can set up a time to talk more.”
Genre - Mystery
Rating – PG
Connect with Lynn Osterkamp on Twitter