The cerebral and principled forensic pathologist Dr. Bodhi King confronts his most perplexing case yet in Flight Path, the sixth book in the series by USA Today bestselling author Melissa F. Miller.
When Bodhi King finds the first dead bird on the beach, he chalks it up to natural causes. Then he finds a second. And a third. He's camping on the Eastern Shore to re-center himself and recommit to Buddhism, not to play veterinary pathologist. But his tradition values all lives equally, and there appears to be an avian serial killer on the loose. Or is there?
Bodhi volunteers to uncover what's killing the birds. What he discovers leads him to an abandoned military bunker. There, a dysfunctional family feud, a counterfeiter of communications equipment, a dying man, and a cache of seventy-five-year-old crystals provide the answer he seeks--and put his life in danger.
Cut off from the outside world, Bodhi pieces together the puzzle. But in order to bring the truth to light and save himself, he'll have to reconcile his quest for nonattachment with his very real need for help and decide just how committed he is to walking the Noble Eightfold Path.
Release date: April 27, 2021
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Print pages: 300
Reader says this book is...: entertaining story (2) learned something (1) likable hero (2) quirky supporting cast (1) rich setting(s) (1) satisfying ending (2) unputdownable (1) realistic characters (1) terrific writing (1) unexpected twists (1)
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Melissa F. Miller
Eighteen months ago
The Offices of Thomas Workman, M.D.
Mike sank back in the soft leather chair and stared at his old friend, waiting for him to tell him what he already knew. Tom scrubbed a hand over his scalp, rifling his close-cropped white hair. Then he sighed, rested his forearms on the mahogany desk that separated them, and leaned forward.
“Mike …” he began, then paused.
“We’ve known each other a long time, Tom. Don’t beat around the bush.”
Mike’s doctor and long-time golf partner grimaced. “I think you must know. It’s not good news.”
Mike pressed his lips together and nodded. He’d had an inkling. And when Tom suggested meeting in his office to go over his test results instead of subjecting Mike to the indignity of a paper gown and a freezing metal exam table, that had been the confirmation.
Tom let his eyes close for an instant, then he opened them and met Mike’s gaze unwaveringly through his wire-rimmed glasses.
Even though Mike had known, his heart ticked up a beat. He caught his lower lip between his teeth, then he rested his elbows on his thighs and interlaced his fingers.
“Your lungs. Silicosis.”
Tom reached up and turned on his large wall-mounted monitor, then tapped a button on his computer. An image from Mike’s most recent chest x-ray appeared on the screen. Tom opened Mike’s chart with a bit too much force and the metal paper holder affixed to the top banged hard against the polished desktop.
Mike stared at the picture on the monitor. It was all shades of black and gray. It looked like nothing. But it felt like something every time he drew a deep breath or coughed or climbed a flight of stairs.
“Okay,” he said just to say something.
“I don’t know how I missed it. I’ve been looking for it forever, monitoring. I’ve gone back over the past five years of films. As recently as last year, it was mild. So mild. There was no indication that it would progress like this. That’s not how it happened with your father or your grandfather.”
Mike blinked at that. “You checked?”
“I ordered their charts up from the practice archives. My uncle Gus treated both of them, you know that?”
He shook his head. He hadn’t known.
“Both of them followed the same pattern. Chronic silicosis. Slow progression, developing after twenty years or more of exposure in both cases. Then a gradual five-year slide. A typical track for moderate exposure.”
Mike glanced over at the picture of his lungs uncomprehendingly. “This is different?”
“Yes. I don’t understand how it advanced so quickly. It should have taken another decade for you to start feeling the effects. To need prescription steroids or maybe supplemental oxygen.”
Mike’s mind flitted to his old man’s bronchodilator, always at his elbow, especially toward the end.
“So, I need to take steroids? Get an inhaler?”
Tom didn’t answer but asked a question of his own, the raw anger in his voice giving way to curiosity, “You implemented the safety procedures we talked about, right?”
“Yeah, years ago. When my dad retired. The air filtering, the N95 masks, the cleaning, all of it.”
Tom shook his head. “And you’re the CEO for crying out loud. You’re not working on the line.”
“No, but I did. For years.” His father had insisted he learn the business from the ground up.
“Sure. That’s why we’ve been monitoring you. But, Mike, this goes beyond an accelerated case. It’s … acute. It came on hard, and fast. There’s no treatment for this. It’s too late for a lung wash, and you’re not a candidate for cellular therapy. I’m … I’m sorry. I can keep you comfortable, steroids and an inhaler might work for a while. Maybe supplemental oxygen. But the best I can do is try to get you on a transplant list. I’m sorry.” Tom’s medical veneer slipped, and he choked out the words.
Mike leaned forward to place a comforting hand on his doctor’s arm. “It’s not your fault, Tom, you did everything right.”
“I can’t understand it,” he said more to himself than to Mike.
For a moment, Mike considered telling him about the secret project he’d been working on after hours. How he’d grind and polish after the line shut down and the teams went home, working late into the night. He hadn’t run the filtering system, because it was noisy and he didn’t want anyone to know what he was doing. But he had worn a mask—usually.
He caught himself before he blurted out the confession and said, “Sometimes things happen, Tom. You’re a good doctor, and you’ve been a good friend.”
Tom’s Adam’s apple bobbed, and he cleared his throat. “Do you want me to call your daughter? Have her come get you?”
“No, don’t bother her. I drove myself here, I’ll drive myself home. In fact, please don’t mention this to her.”
“You know I wouldn’t. Criminy. Anyway, it’s against the law. HIPAA.”
“Sure, right. Could I just … have a minute?”
“Take all the time you need.” Tom clapped a heavy hand on Mike’s shoulder and headed out of his own office to give Mike some privacy.
Tom was halfway out the door when Mike said, “So a year?”
“If you’re lucky. Two if you’re damned lucky.”
“If I’m not?”
“Three months, maybe.”
“Well, I guess I’m gonna have to be lucky at least until the Club opens for the season. I can’t go to my grave without beating you on the back nine one more time.”
Tom laughed, and it seemed almost genuine, then the light flickered out of his eyes, his shoulders rounded, and he pulled the door closed behind him.
As the latch clicked softly into place, Mike dropped his forehead into his hands. Months wasn’t enough time. Not enough time to finish the project and secure his legacy. To make the little company that his father’s father started in 1944 a true international powerhouse.
His shoulders shook as he sobbed soundlessly.
He was close. So damned close. And he was going to fail. How was he going to secure his family’s place in history and take care of his daughter now? He’d had it all planned out. Now, he was going to need to take a different path.
Bodhi squatted in the garden and pulled the weeds from the earth methodically and at an unhurried pace. With each thorny thistle he dug out of the soil, he was mindful that he was giving nutrients and life to the tender green shoots by removing the choking weeds. And the seedlings would give back to him with herbs and vegetables and, if his luck held, plump, juicy berries.
He wiped his brow with a dirt-streaked glove then stood to stretch and crack his back. He surveyed his work. The vegetable plot was done. Now all he had left to weed was the wildflower garden he’d planted along the back fence. The flowers felt indulgent, but they were important. The riotous blooms in their bright colors brought joy to everyone who walked through the alley. Most of all the neighborhood kids, who loved to see the giant sunflowers peering over the top of the fence to turn their bright yellow faces to the sun.
He smiled at the thought as he walked over to the potting shed to exchange his trowel for a pair of pruning shears. His head was bent over the canvas tote that organized his tools when he heard Mrs. Parsons and Ms. Ingle chatting away as they took their daily stroll around the neighborhood, their arms pumping and their ponytails bobbing. He raised his hand in greeting and was about to call out a hello when the breeze carried Georgina Ingles’ sharp tone over the fence.
“I told her that we don’t want that kind around here.”
“You didn’t, Georgie.”
The two women stopped walking and faced off.
“I did. She wants to rent her house, that’s fine. But she should consider the feelings of the other people on this block. The ones who have to live next to her riffraff.”
Lolly Parsons clicked her tongue. “Riffraff?”
“Oh? You don’t agree? What word do you want me to use? Trash?”
“Oh, it’s all well and good for you to be high and mighty. Your house is paid off. I can’t afford to be underwater on my mortgage if property values drop.”
“You don’t need to worry about that. Property values are skyrocketing. Ever since those tech companies moved in the market’s been hot. That couple on the corner sold their little dumpy place for half a million dollars.”
“Oh, they did not.”
“Well, then she should sell instead of renting it out. And if you think I’m wrong to say so, well, we’ll have to agree to disagree,” Georgina sniffed.
“You know.” Lolly said slowly, “Chad Loveland did say someone broke into his truck last week. Stole his E-Z pass and some pocket change.”
“You see?” Georgina demanded with a ring of triumph.
Bodhi edged back into the shed before they noticed him, eager to avoid the sharp gossip and ill will flowing like poison off the tongues of the women in the alleyway. He stayed behind the potting shed, concealing himself until they turned the corner.
As he walked toward the flower bed, he thought about how cynical and hard his neighbors were. Unkind.
It wasn’t until he’d crouched to examine the flowers that he realized he was no different—standing there, in his garden, judging them.
He frowned. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it. His own cynicism, his inability to see the good, to feel compassion, lovingkindness for his fellow humans rose up to confront him. All he seemed to see was wickedness.
You’re off your chosen path.
He took a deep breath, rolled his neck, and returned to his task of weeding. The plants needed nourishment and care. He could consider his path later. Now, tend to the flowers. He was brushing mulch off some bright green daffodil shoots, when the thought materialized.
It’s the work.
Could it be? He’d gone to medical school for the same reason most people did—to help others. But once there, he discovered he wanted to help the dead, not the living. To bear witness to their stories, honor their lives, and treat them with dignity and care in death. And, for many years, he had.
But once he’d become known as a forensic pathologist with an aptitude for ferreting out dark secrets and evil motives, his work had changed. The cases he consulted on exposed him to so much murder and greed and hatred. It was an irony that he had chosen a right livelihood, the fifth factor of the noble eightfold path, in keeping with the requirement to choose an occupation that would do violence to no one. And yet it was harming someone—it was harming him.
The clarity was as bright and sudden as the sun bursting through heavy clouds on a gray day.
His mind was weed-choked. His heart was withered and dormant. He needed to tend to his garden by clearing out the decay and debris so that he could see the good in the world once more.
He finished his task, then packed up the garden implements and returned them to the shed. He went into the house, washed his hands at the sink, and dried them with a kitchen towel. Then he took a sip of cool water and pulled out his phone to call Bette. There was no point in putting it off.
She answered on the second ring. “Chief Clark.”
He raised a brow, puzzled by the formal salutation and crisp demeanor. “It’s me.”
He heard the creak of her chair and then the soft click of her office door closing.
“I know it’s you. I just had the mayor and one of the councilmen in my office. I could hardly say hey, ‘hot stuff.’”
He chuckled. “Is this a bad time?”
“No, it’s a great time. They were lingering, saying their goodbyes, and the ringing phone moved them right along. Johansson’s walking them out. So, please tell me you’re calling to say you’re getting in a day early.”
“I’m not going to be coming out this weekend after all.”
“A new case.” Her tone was resigned, accepting of the notion that he would interrupt their time together for a crime.
Of course, she was the chief of police. She would do—and had done—the same, many times.
“No, it’s not a case.”
“It’s a personal matter.”
There was a long pause. “Is this a business call?”
“Well, then, I guess it’s a personal call.”
“I suppose it is.”
“So you can share your personal matter. Unless it’s a secret?”
He grimaced. “No, it’s not a secret. I just need to spend some time alone.”
“Are you saying you don’t want to see each other anymore?” She was probing, testing.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying I need to take some time alone to think about some things.”
When she spoke next, her voice was firm but careful. “We talked about this. When you’re in a relationship with a person, you talk to them.”
She was right. They had talked about it. And he had agreed to do so. He searched his mind for the words to explain why he needed to be alone. The memory of the way he’d hurt Eliza Rollins with his careless words of wanting to be alone so many years ago reared up in his mind like a great fanged snake. Right speech was a necessity here.
“Are you there?”
“I am. I’m trying to think of the proper way to say this.”
“The proper way is to spit it out.”
“No. I don’t want it to come out wrong.”
“Fine, I’ll interrogate you. Do you need to be alone to think about us?”
He could answer this. “No. It’s not about us.”
“Ah, the old it’s not you, it’s me claim.”
“Actually, yes. Well … it’s not me, not exactly. It’s my place in the world.”
“Your place in the world?” she echoed.
“I can’t find the good anymore, Bette, because all I see is the bad. Evil. The depravity of human nature. You, of all people, must know what I’m talking about.”
“Ah.” He heard the telltale click of her pen as she tapped it against her teeth. It signaled that she was deep in thought. After a moment the clicking ceased. “I get it. I do see the worst in people. But I also get to see the best in people—because I serve the living, and they can change. If I arrest some punk kid for petty theft, it might be the wake-up call that puts him on the right path. All you can do is put people in the ground.”
“But finding the cause of death is doing good. You’ve helped bring closure to families and justice to killers.”
“I used to think that was a helpful thing to do. And it may be, on balance. But the darkness is poisoning my mind.”
“So are you saying you’re not going to do forensic consulting anymore?”
“I’m not sure. That’s why I need to go somewhere alone—to figure it out.”
“A silent retreat sort of deal. You could do that here, you know. The Prairie Zen Center’s right in town.”
“I can’t. You’d be too … there’d be too many distractions.”
A hint of amusement colored her voice. “Distractions, huh?”
“Yeah. Besides, isn’t there a new moon this weekend? I’m sure the Onatah Astronomy Club is getting together.”
She laughed her husky laugh. “I’m a big girl. You don’t have to come up with a way for me to entertain myself in your absence. So, go off and contemplate your place in the world and examine your nature. Take the time you need. But just know that you have someone to talk to about this stuff. You can talk to me.”
“I know. And I will,” he promised. “But before I can talk to you, I need to listen to me.”
just before midnight
Crystal trailed a fingernail around the condensation beading up along the outer rim of her cocktail glass. The crowded bar was humid, thanks to a combination of body heat and an underpowered air-conditioning system, and her caipirinha was sweating as much as she was. And she was sweating plenty. The trickle of moisture ran down her neck, through the hollow of her collarbone, and pooled in her bright pink halter top.
She lifted her heavy hair from the nape of her neck and twisted it into a thick mass of curls. Less come-hither than the long loose locks she’d spent nearly an hour perfecting, but the breeze across her bare neck was worth it. Besides, he’d already noticed her. It wouldn’t be long now.
She lifted the drink to her lips and sipped it, delighted when a sliver of melting ice slid down her throat. She sensed him approaching on her right and tilted her head to the left.
He leaned in over her right shoulder and tapped two fingers on the scarred, sticky bar. He smelled of soap and cedar.
“Hey, Ace, another beer,” he called to the grumpy, balding bartender, raising his voice just loud enough to be heard over the frenetic drums of the live band being ignored in the corner. He dropped an empty bottle on the bar.
The bartender nodded. The man turned his head toward Crystal, fast, like an owl noticing a mouse.
“And get the lady a fresh mojito.”
“Caipirinha.” Crystal and Ace the bartender corrected him in unison.
He raised his palms, my bad, and smiled broadly. “Caipirinha, then. Is this seat taken?”
She hooked her stiletto heel around the base of the stool and pushed it out. No, it wasn’t taken. She’d used a combination of death glares and blocking techniques to keep it that way just for this occasion.
“It is now.” She gave him a slow smile.
He mounted the stool and stuck out his right hand. “Red Serrano, Naval Aviator.”
She pumped his hand up and down, eyeballing his buzz cut. “I’m Crystal. Red, huh? Hard to tell, but you don’t look like a ginger to me.”
He dropped her hand and ran his palm over his shorn scalp. “Yeah, no. My hair’s dark brown when it grows in. Red’s a joke. The name’s Reid. Reid Serrano. Serrano, like the red-hot pepper. Reid Pepper, Red Pepper. Get it?”
She laughed. “Got it.”
Ace slid a fresh cocktail glass and a frosted beer across the bar and scooped up the old ones. “Red’s being modest. He’s also a top-notch fighter pilot. The squadron gave him the call sign ‘cause of the pepper thing, but also they say he’s the Red Baron reincarnated.”
Red laughed, but Crystal noted the gleam of pleasure in his eyes.
“Wow, you’re a fighter pilot?” She pitched her voice high and breathy.
She leaned in closer and raised the glass to her lips. “That must be so exciting. What’s the most dangerous mission you’ve ever flown?”
He grinned, and the skin around his eyes crinkled. His arm looped casually around the back of her barstool and his hand brushed against her bare back as he launched into his story. She shivered at his touch and smiled into her glass. Red Serrano might think he was the owl and she was the mouse.
But she knew better. She was the spider. He was the fly.
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