Blood of the Tsar
A gentle spring breeze rustled the leaves of the yellow poplars that lined Waltham Street. The sun shone brightly, casting shadows on the sidewalk from the flower baskets that lightly bobbed back and forth on their little chains. Doors to the shops had been propped open, and the gentle notes of music carried down the street from one of the local restaurants.
With their sneakers slapping against the sidewalk in their haste, the school children skidded to a halt at the window to Richard’s Anecdotes. They pressed their hands and faces against the glass, hoping to see the little black cat waiting for them as he did every day. Their cries of disappointment could be heard all the way to the street corner when the purple bed sat empty. They continued home, their shoes dragging and scraping against the pavement.
In the basement of the little antique shop, Solomon paced back and forth by the door that led to the spiral stone staircase. He could hear the children, and he pawed at the door, willing his human to open it for him. He needed to collect his daily pets, to assess each child’s smell and assure they were well, but the woman didn’t hear him.
Dorothy Claes stared at an artifact encased in glass upon a long wooden table that ran the length of the antique shop. She scribbled in a notebook and flipped through a stack of files from a dusty box on the table beside her. Solomon trotted up to her and jumped on the table. Beneath the glass case was an intricately embroidered piece of cloth. Horses and soldiers in medieval battle armor were stitched with such detail as to appear almost alive. He sniffed at the case, adding more nose prints to the glass.
Dorothy scribbled in her notebook again, ignoring the swish of Solomon’s tail beside her. The Bayeux Tapestry was one of the oldest and most intact pieces of historical art she had come across in her time as a museum curator. It was also the only case she had found where Destin Hollanday and her father, Richard van Dame, had been on a Silver Fox mission together. After more scribbling, more tail flicks and annoyed paw licking from Solomon, Dorothy threw down her pen.
“This is useless,” she mumbled, pulling a decorative hair stick from her bun and letting her silver tresses fall around her shoulders. A rather physical representation of her deflating hope. “I’ll never find out what happened to Papa.”
Solomon mewed softly, walking across the glass case to nuzzle Dorothy’s hair. When he could sense her mood rise and tingle with happiness, he batted at the hair stick. It still contained traces of Red’s scent, who was one of his favorite playmates.
“At least I still have you,” Dorothy whispered, scratching the little cat behind his ear and petting him all the way to the tip of his kinked tail. The remnants of his fight with the Jólakötturinn would remain for the rest of his life, but they hadn’t slowed him down. Clearly, as the hair stick fell to the floor and Solomon followed after it. Still, it was enough to give Dorothy pause, enough to make her consider Robbie Hodge’s offer.
“Leave the Silver Foxes and I’ll release your father’s health records,” he had said only a month ago. She hadn’t seen nor heard from him since, though she always kept his card with her. Her hand brushed against its outline in her pocket instinctively as Solomon returned to the table, sans hair stick.
The antique phone by the door rang out, sending the little cat flailing, and the file Dorothy had been looking at cascading to the floor.
“Solomon!” she scolded, trying to gather as many papers as she could, the phone still clanging on its base across the room. She rose from the floor more slowly than she had a year ago and picked up the phone. “Hello?” she answered, breathless.
“Ms. Claes,” said a friendly Irish accent.
“Dr. Jon. Are you here already?” Dorothy looked at the time on her cellphone. “It’s only three—”
“I just landed at the airport,” he said. “I want to make sure you’re not going to cancel on me again.”
Dorothy’s shoulders sagged. She had avoided her last two physicals with Dr. Jon, but the pain in her knees was getting worse. Even if she was going to quit the Silver Foxes, the least she could do was get some proper medical care for her troubles before doing so.
“No, I’m not going to cancel.”
“Good,” said Dr. Jon. “Your father had the same aversion to me. I promise I don’t bite. We took care of the vampire king back in the eighties anyhow.”
Dorothy hesitated until Solomon winding around her ankles brought her to again. “I’m… glad to hear it?”
Dr. Jon laughed, and Dorothy relaxed. “I’ll see you in a few hours. No accepting any cases until I’ve finished with you. Doctor’s orders and that trumps Destin any day. See you soon, lass.”
Dorothy set the phone back on its base and returned to the pile of papers strewn across the floor. She carefully tucked the Bayeux Tapestry case back into the folder, giving each paper one last look. She had scoured the file what felt like a thousand times, hoping to find some connection between Destin and her father, some reason he wouldn’t tell her how Richard had really died. But nothing.
When the last of the papers had been gathered and reorganized, Dorothy pushed herself to her feet, knees cracking painfully, and the little black cat darting back and forth beneath her. A single scrap of paper came loose, and Dorothy watched it fall back to the floor. Solomon saw it too, his eyes dilating as it swept back and forth in the air until it was close enough to pounce on. He slammed it to the stone floor and bit the corner.
“Leave it,” Dorothy said, shooing him away. She picked up the paper and studied it. “How…” she whispered, opening the file in her hand. She had been through the dratted thing so many times, and yet she’d missed this.
The contents of the note made no sense. It was scribbled haphazardly, strange symbols interspersed with various language alphabets. She shoved the scrap of paper in her pocket and headed out of the artifact vault. Solomon bounded ahead of her, mewing with each stone step, and his kinked tail swishing with each disgruntled huff. They emerged into Dorothy’s apartment, and she pushed the bookcase closed behind her before righting the book on the shelf that acted as the latch.
She heard Solomon pad down the apartment stairs toward the antique shop. He jiggled the French handle of the door in his front paws and pushed it open, running straight for the front window and his little purple bed. Dorothy shook her head, stepping into the shop after him and closing the avocado-green door.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” said Aaron from behind the counter.
“Hello, Aaron,” Dorothy greeted her assistant. She scanned the contents of the shop, not taking in a single thing. She fidgeted with her blouse and paced between the rows of antiques.
“Everything all right, ma’am?”
Aaron set down the inventory book he’d been writing in and came to the front of the counter. He set his hands on Dorothy’s shoulders, steadying her nervous twitches.
“What?” she asked.
“Relax,” Aaron said, his light Jamaican accent soothing her nerves. “Dr. Jon used to take care of Richard. He’ll take care of you.”
Dorothy smiled, and she felt some of her tension melt away. “Thank you, Aaron. I’m fine. It’s just—”
“If he doesn’t, he’ll have me to answer to.” Aaron winked at her, then returned to his book behind the counter.
The next few hours passed slower than Mary Pat driving to the family reunion each year. Dorothy checked the time on her phone every few minutes, flitting back and forth from one email account to another. She checked the auction sites until she had clicked on the same fake Ming Dynasty vase four times. Finally, she found a polishing rag in the back room and set to work on an array of silver utensils that had been sitting on the same bureau for the last three years.
The bell above the door chimed for the second time that day, and Dorothy watched Solomon leave his bed to greet their guest. The man smiled, adjusting a large backpack over his shoulder and setting his briefcase on the floor. He was a short, husky man with a dark amber complexion, his hair flecked in salt and pepper.
“Well, hello, Solomon,” said Dr. Jon, reaching down to scoop the cat into his arms. “How’s that tail of yours?”
Solomon pushed into Dr. Jon’s chin. He wiggled in his arms until he hit the man in the face with his tail and jumped down.
“Hello, Dr. Jon. I don’t know if you remember me,” said Aaron.
Dr. Jon stepped over the cat who insisted on staying plastered to his ankles and approached the counter. “Aye, it’s Aaron, right?”
Aaron flashed a smile and nodded.
“You worked for Richard, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” said Aaron, standing a little straighter. “Now I work for Ms. Claes.”
“I’ll be out of a job soon if he keeps it up,” said Dorothy, joining the two men and holding her hand out to the doctor.
“Glad to see you didn’t scurry off before I got here,” Dr. Jon said, shaking Dorothy’s hand. “Do you have someone to take care of you for the next few days?”
“No, but I’ll—” Dorothy watched concern rise in Aaron’s face. “I’ll be fine. It’s the weekend,” she finished. “Besides, Mary Pat would probably cause more harm than good.”
Dr. Jon hesitated, casting a sidelong glance at Aaron.
“I’ll do it,” Aaron chimed. “Whatever you need, I’ll help.”
“No, it’s fine, Aaron—”
“It’s a good idea to stay off your feet as much as possible for the next few days.”
“They’re just cortisone shots, Dr. Jon. I’m not having surgery.”
Dr. Jon turned to Aaron. “She needs to ice every few hours and standing too long to cook is out of the question.”
Aaron nodded, avoiding Dorothy’s exasperated look. “I can handle it, sir,” he said.
“Good. Now, let’s get started, shall we?” Dr. Jon gestured toward the door to the apartments as Aaron returned to the counter, pulling his phone out and looking up what Dorothy only assumed were dinner recipes on the internet.
She sighed and held the door open, first for Solomon, and then Dr. Jon. The man nodded when he reached the landing at the top of the stairs. Richard’s old desk still sat to one side, covered with slightly neater stacks of paper, bills, and the odd cup of cold tea. He set his briefcase and medical bag beside the desk, continuing to take in the changes Dorothy had made.
“This should do just fine,” he said. He opened the bag and pulled out a set of blue medical scrubs. He handed them to Dorothy and began emptying the remaining contents of the bag onto the desk corner.
Dorothy looked at the scrubs in her hands, and her heart began to race. The day of Frank’s surgery came unwanted into her mind’s eye. The doctors had worn the same blue scrubs, though theirs had been covered in blood—Frank’s blood. The surgery had been successful, but there had been a risk. There had always been a risk. Somehow, even though she was sure she was misremembering, another memory flashed into her mind. She could see the nurses at the hospital huddled over her father’s body, checking machines, drawing blood, and all wearing the same blue scrubs.
Solomon seemed to appear out of nowhere. He gave one of his concerned little trills and rubbed against her legs. Dorothy exhaled, not realizing she had been holding her breath.
“Dorothy?” Dr. Jon asked.
Dorothy looked up, seeing something other than the pale blue scrubs for the first time. “I’m fine. Everything is fine,” she said.
“There’s nothing to be scared over.” A gentle smile spread across Dr. Jon’s face.
Dorothy nodded. “I know. I’m not. I—I haven’t been to a doctor in years. It—It never seems to bode well for my family.” She looked at the scrubs still clutched in her hands. “You had to know something about my father’s health.”
Dr. Jon straightened and sighed. “Dorothy, you know I can’t.”
“You say you can’t, but not that you won’t.” Her eyes held his gaze, firm and unyielding.
Dr. Jon was silent for several moments. He opened and closed his mouth as he gathered his thoughts. “The last time I saw your father, which was a few months before his death, he was perfectly healthy. He had a few minor kidney stones, but nothing life-threatening. And arthritis in his hands and knees, which we were treating with cortisone injections.”
“And after he died?” Dorothy pressed. “The coroner’s report is sealed away with his file.”
Dr. Jon bit his lip and shook his head. “Look, Dorothy, I joined the Foxes because I wanted to make a difference beyond my work at the hospital. I knew there was more for me out there than being stuck in a surgery room or in a lab. If I betray the Foxes, it’s all over for me.”
“What do you mean? I’m sure you’ll find another residency or retire or—”
Dr. Jon shook his head. “I’ve already said more than I should. When you’ve changed, I’ll run you through some breathing exercises to get your blood pressure down. It’s as high as a young man at a stag party.”
Dorothy looked down at the little cat who had remained by her feet, pawing at her legs. He gazed up at her with his bright green eyes, and not for the first time, she wished she knew what he was trying to say.
“I’m on your side, Dorothy,” stated Dr. Jon. “I really am.”
Dorothy turned, heading for the bathroom. “I’m not entirely sure what side that is, Dr. Jon.”