Once set in motion, the wheel of the truth cannot be stopped.
Forensic pathologist Bodhi King has an international reputation as the expert to consult when there’s an unexplained death cluster. So he’s not surprised when the call comes in about a troubling spate of deaths in a remote town on the U.S.–Canadian border.
He is surprised when he arrives in the tiny community tucked away in the mountains and every door slams shut in his face. The people there don’t want his help, even as their own are dying. It would be the easiest thing in the world to walk away, but that’s not the path Bodhi’s chosen to walk.
So he digs into the town’s dark crevices in search of the truth. But what he finds will force him to confront his own beliefs about courage, compassion, and the sanctity of life and of death.
Bodhi King returns in Chosen Path, the seventh book in the series by USA Today bestselling author Melissa F. Miller.
Release date: April 26, 2022
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Reader says this book is...: escapist/easy read (1) learned something (2) realistic characters (2) satisfying ending (2) terrific writing (2) trail of clues (1) entertaining story (1) likable hero (1) unexpected twists (1) unputdownable (1)
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Melissa F. Miller
This body is wasted, full of sickness, and frail;
this heap of corruption breaks to pieces,
life indeed ends in death.
The Buddha, Dhammapada, Chapter XI, Old Age, l. 148
* * *
Scandia Bluff, Vermont
Tuesday, just before lunch
Molly Hart, MD, eyed the phone for the eighth time in as many minutes. She could pick it up and call, right this second. Her uncle Al would have wrapped up his last patient appointment of the morning by now. She could picture him, sitting at the small round table in the staff room, methodically unwrapping the wax paper from the peanut butter and jelly sandwich Aunt Rachel had packed him. He’d smooth the wax paper flat, then fold it into a perfect square to save for the next day’s PBJ on wheat.
She smiled at the image, and her hand fluttered toward the receiver.
Call him. He’d love to hear from you regardless of … this.
Then her gaze shifted to the copy of the death certificate, its edges curling up from the surface of her scarred pine desk. Her stomach flipped, and her hand froze mid-air.
Or you could let the man enjoy his lunch, schmoozing with the nurses and residents and doing the New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s Tuesday, so it’s an ink day.
Uncle Al filled out the puzzle in pen Monday through Thursday, then he switched to pencil for the remainder of the week. Molly had never understood his reasoning. He always completed the puzzle, even on the harder days. When she’d asked about it, Aunt Rachel had laughed, then told Molly he’d claimed the switch to pencil was out of humility, but it was really superstition.
Superstition. It was silly for a man of science like her uncle to believe in such a thing. He and she were doctors. They believed in evidence, reason, clear cause and effect. Her eyes flitted back to the document. Somewhere, in the pile of papers on her desk, there was a manila envelope that held the photos she’d insisted on taking of Nikolas Lundgren’s stiff, cold body, but which gave no hint as to the cause of his death.
Death comes in threes. The thought popped into her mind. She wasn’t sure where she’d heard it.
Now who’s being superstitious? she scolded herself, but her heart wasn’t in it. Sure, maybe the human need to find patterns led people to find trios of death, but she couldn’t deny the hard, medical facts:
There’d already been two sets of three deaths in the six months she’d been here. Now, Nikolas Lundgren made seven. Seven otherwise healthy members of the community. Seven people with no underlying conditions of note, no serious health complaints of any kinds, and no infections at the time of death. Seven people who, by all appearances, had simply dropped dead. To be sure, her patient population wasn’t in perfect health. The dead had suffered from an array of common chronic conditions, but nothing acute, nothing that explained their sudden deaths.
She couldn’t sit around and wait to see if two more people would die to complete the pattern of threes. She couldn’t afford to. The tiny village’s population had been reduced by more than one percent since her arrival. As the only doctor in town, she ought to have an explanation for the rash of deaths. But she didn’t.
She exhaled loudly and snatched up the phone receiver before she could change her mind. Then she punched in her uncle’s mobile number from memory and rolled her neck from side to side while she waited for him to pick up.
“Molly-Dolly! This is a splendid surprise,” he boomed.
“It’s Doctor Molly-Dolly now, Uncle Al,” she teased.
Her dark mood began to dissipate almost instantly. Uncle Al had a talent for cheering you up when you didn’t even realize you were down. His patients raved about his bedside manner. Her mom said he had the demeanor of a whimsical elf.
“Of course, of course. But, in that case, it’s Doctor Uncle Al to you. To what do I owe the honor, my dear?”
She swallowed around the hard lump in her throat. “I need your help.”
Little Lotus Sangha
Tuesday, late afternoon
Bodhi King was cutting carrots in the community center’s cool, quiet kitchen. The sharp knife made a satisfying chop, chop, chop as it thwacked through one carrot and then the next. Each careful slice of the knife through the firm orange flesh of the carrot was a chance to be mindful, to pay attention, to practice gratitude. He gave thanks for the hands that planted the seed, watered the soil, and weeded the garden; the sun and rain that coaxed the green curly shoots of the carrot top up from the ground; and, finally, the vegetable itself. This carrot would join the mound of parsnips, beets, and purple potatoes that sat in the metal bowl at his elbow and fill the bellies of the sangha, nourishing the members.
When the cutting board’s surface was covered, he lifted it and used the side of the knife to slide the bright orange rounds into the bowl. As the pieces tumbled into the pile of root vegetables, an unfamiliar male voice spoke from the doorway.
“Your knife skills give you away.” There was a hint of amusement in the words.
He blinked and turned toward the door, cocking his head to study the speaker. An older man, balding, with a thick pair of bushy white eyebrows. Medium height, stocky and solid. Piercing blue eyes studied Bodhi back from behind a pair of small, round, rimless glasses.
He didn’t recognize the man, but there were no strangers in the sangha. The word translated loosely as ‘community.’ But a sangha, this sangha, was more than that—it was family.
He smiled at the man, curious. “What does my knife handling tell you about me?”
The man stepped across the threshold and peered down into the bowl.
“You make confident, methodical cuts. There’s no hesitation. And those might be the most uniformly sized carrots I’ve ever seen. Some might say you wield that chef’s knife with surgical precision. That tells me you’re the man I’ve been looking for.” He extended his right hand. “Doctor King. I’m Doctor Alvin Kayser.”
Bodhi rested the knife on the wooden block and wiped his hands on the apron tied around his waist before shaking the doctor’s hand.
“Please, call me Bodhi, Doctor Kayser.”
“Only if you call me Al. Like the song.” The older man’s grip was firm.
“You’ve got a deal, Al. Are you in need of an assignment?” He cast his gaze around the kitchen in search of a task for the newcomer.
Al chuckled. “No, no. I’m in need of a forensic pathology consult.”
Bodhi’s eyes widened in surprise, then surprise gave way to faint puzzlement. “Oh? Did Saul tell you that you might find me here?”
Saul David, the county coroner, was an old friend. It was conceivable that he’d sent Al Kayser to the sangha. But if he had, he’d made a lucky guess. Bodhi hadn’t talked to Saul in quite a while. Too long, really.
“Saul? No, Sasha sent me.”
Bodhi’s puzzlement turned to bewilderment. “Sasha McCandless-Connelly?”
She was the only Sasha he knew. But it had been months since he’d seen the tiny lawyer and her husband, Leo.
“The one and only.”
“I wonder how she …?”
“Her twins go to school around the corner. She walks by this meditation center every weekday. She told me she sees your bike in the rack outside most Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I took a gamble—seeing as how you don’t have an office or a listed telephone number.”
“Can’t get anything by Sasha,” Bodhi observed. He sidestepped the unasked question about his lack of a public profile.
The doctor gave a wry, knowing chuckle. “That’s for sure. She takes after her grandmother.”
“Sofia Alexandrov was a patient of mine for decades. That’s rarer than you might imagine. I’m a geriatrician. Most of my patients come to me after aging out of their primary care doctors’ practices. I’m the first stop on what’s usually a short, steep slide to … well, your speciality.”
“But not Sasha’s grandmother?”
“Heavens, no. Sofia was sharp as a tack and fit as a fiddle up until the very end. The weekend before she died, she finished the Sunday crossword in record time and placed third in a hula hoop contest.”
Bodhi smiled at Al’s obvious affection for his patient. “Any friend of Sasha’s grandmother is a friend of mine. Now what’s this about a forensic pathology consult? Do you have concerns about how one of your patients died?”
Al’s clear eyes clouded and his lower lip protruded. After a moment, he shook his head and sighed. “Not one—seven. And not my patients. A general practitioner in a small village way up in Vermont, near the Canadian border, has seen seven unexplained deaths in six months.”
Interest bloomed in Bodhi’s chest like a flower turning its face toward the sun. It was, perhaps, an unusual reaction to news of a spate of deaths. But he accepted it for what it was.
“A death cluster?”
Al nodded. “That’s what Doctor Hart and I are thinking. I called Sasha because I had a recollection that one of her friends is an expert in that area, and she told me I was right—you’re the man to see about an unexplained cluster of deaths. Molly … er, Doctor Hart, could use your help up there.”
Bodhi eyed the vegetables. He yearned to hear about the death cluster. But his first obligation was to the sangha.
“Let me put these in the oven to roast, then we can have a cup of tea in the herb garden.”
* * *
The herb garden was a dense, tidy patch of culinary and medicinal plants laid out in straight rows along the left side of the community center’s backyard and abutting a tall wooden fence. A small brick patio sat between the garden bed and the community center’s kitchen door. There was a round black wrought-iron table and a pair of chairs in the middle of the patio, and this is where they sat. To the right was a large vegetable patch. A flower bed hugged the back fence. And at the far end of the yard, early magnolias and dogwoods bloomed, filling the air with their soft, sweet scent.
Al took in the sights and scents of the soothing urban oasis, then cupped his hands around the ceramic mug of steaming oolong tea and eyed the forensic pathologist. He’d heard of Bodhi King. Who hadn’t?
Several years back—nearly a decade, now—the forensic pathologist had been all over the news. He’d established a connection between several young women who’d died of a viral heart infection after they’d consumed a contaminated energy drink. Al had followed the media reports out of professional interest at first. Then, the case had taken a weird, and—for Al—surprisingly personal, turn. Another pathologist had stabbed Sofia’s granddaughter in an effort to cover up a political scandal. By Sasha’s account, Bodhi had saved her life.
So it was no surprise the forensic pathologist’s name had stuck in Al’s legendary memory. After Molly’s call, he’d spent the better part of an hour trying to track down the forensic pathologist. He’d found a handful of newspaper articles detailing Bodhi’s brilliant investigative work as a consultant in puzzling deaths (not one of which included a quote from the man) and several articles in medical journals that he’d authored or coauthored, but no professional presence. No office, no website, no social media profiles. Al may as well have been searching for a ghost.
In desperation, he’d finally called Sasha. Three minutes later, he had a description of both Bodhi and his bicycle as well as directions to the sangha.
Now, he blew on his hot beverage. “Sasha wanted me to tell you hello, by the way. She said you should stop by the house sometime on your way home. The twins would love to see you. She and Leo, too, of course.”
Bodhi smiled and nodded his head, sending his wild curls bobbing. “I’ll do that. About your colleague’s death cluster—”
“Right, right. Down to business.”
“Please understand, I’m not trying to rush you. I do need to get back to the kitchen soon, though.”
“Of course. I’m grateful that you’re taking the time to hear me out. I’ll give you the short version. Doctor Hart is the only physician in a small Vermont village called Scandia Bluff. The nearest medical facility is a community hospital with no trauma center and no emergency room. And it’s an hour and a half away in good weather, which I’m told is a rarity.”
“In bad weather?”
“The village is at very high elevation. It sits on a mountaintop. Many of the roads are impassible during the winter and during mud season, which apparently encompasses early spring to early summer. In a true emergency, I suppose Doctor Hart could life flight someone down to a university hospital or over the border to Montreal.”
Bodhi wrinkled his brow as if he was trying to picture the small, remote village. Al wondered what he was envisioning. His own imagination failed him.
He’d always lived and practiced in major metropolitan areas and had lobbied his niece to turn down the job in Scandia Bluff. He’d tried to persuade her to continue her job search, find a thriving practice in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, somewhere close to family, not to mention civilization.
But Molly had been unmoved. Scandia Bluff’s only physician was a general practitioner in his nineties who wanted to bring someone on to help with the practice so he could retire before he hit the century mark. She’d insisted Scandia Bluff needed her in a way Philly or Pittsburgh didn’t; and, when Al put emotion aside, he couldn’t really argue that point.
After she’d accepted the offer, but before she’d moved up to Vermont, the GP had died in his sleep. So Molly had, by necessity, hit the ground running. She was trying to find her way in the tight-knit community while keeping the practice alive. The poor woman had her hands full without a death cluster.
Al shook his head at Molly’s predicament and returned to his narrative. “The village is very small. The population was just under six hundred people at the last census.”
Bodhi’s eyes widened. “So seven deaths is a significant loss.”
“What makes Doctor Hart think there’s a common cause of death? How are the patients presenting?”
“That’s just it. They’re not presenting. Nobody’s complained of feeling unwell. There’s no evidence of a viral infection spreading through the village. Folks are… well, they’re dropping dead without warning.”
“You and I both know otherwise healthy people don’t simply drop dead.” Bodhi cocked his head and eyed him.
Al spread his hands wide. “Of course not. I should say they appear to be dropping dead without warning. That’s why she’s perplexed.”
“Any common threads among the deceased? Were they related? Did they all work at the same place? Share well water?”
Al shook his head. “She says half the town is related at least distantly, but none of the dead came from the same household or immediate family. They didn’t have a common employer. And I’ll confess I didn’t think to ask her about the water source. This isn’t my area of expertise, I’m afraid. I’m out of my depth—and so is she. That’s why I’m here. She needs help from someone who knows what he’s doing.”
“Has she reached out to the medical examiner?”
“Yes. Under Vermont law, the sudden death of a person who’s in apparent good health is a reportable death. So she called the medical examiner’s office the first six times. But in all six cases, the ME’s office declined to investigate. No investigations, no autopsies. She’s written ‘old age,’ ‘undetermined natural causes,’ or the combination of ‘old age, undetermined natural causes’ as the cause of death seven times in six months.”
“Seven, not six?”
“The most recent death just happened yesterday. She’s filled out the death certificate, but she’s holding off entering it into the state database. She’s trying to get in touch with an out-of-state family member to see if they’ll consent to an autopsy, but she’s not hopeful.”
Bodhi sipped his tea and fell silent for a long moment. Then he lowered the mug to the small table and peered at Al. “Don’t take offense, but why’d she call you? As you say, this isn’t your speciality.”
“I’m not offended. It’s a fair question. She called me for two reasons. One, all the deceased were over age sixty-five. Now, that’s not what I consider an advanced age.” He paused to chuckle, then said, “And not only because I am well past it. But, in the modern era, sixty-five isn’t old. With good nutrition, comprehensive health care, and a social support system, many people live productive, happy lives for decades after that.”
“You say there are two reasons Doctor Hart called you. What’s the second one?”
“She’s my niece,” he said simply.
“She didn’t know who else to call, so he reached out to her old uncle Al. I told her I’d do everything I could to find someone capable of helping her. That’s you. So—will you help her?” He exhaled and studied Bodhi’s face.
Bodhi eyed him back, lifted his mug, and drank his tea. After a beat, he stood and pushed back his chair.
“I will. I’m intrigued by the cluster, and the village itself sounds like an interesting place. If you’ll give me your niece’s number, I’ll call and make the arrangements. Right now, I need to stir my vegetables so they don’t stick to the bottom of the roaster. Would you care to join us for an early supper?”
“That’s very kind, but I need to get back to my office.” As Al declined the dinner invitation and rose to his feet, a wave of sheer relief washed over him.
Molly was out of her depth, and he couldn’t help her. But he was certain he’d found someone who could.
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