Charles Atkins, MD
At 33, Tara Jeffries knew the truth; she’d never be a professional ballet dancer; instead, she was a legal secretary working for a man she loathed. What she didn’t know, as she stretched across to face the glowing red alarm clock set to go off in three minutes, was that she’d end the day a murderer.
She dragged her tall frame to the edge of the bed. Running her fingers through dark shoulder-length hair, she cradled her head and sighed. It had been another near-sleepless night, despite a fistful of pills
In the dark, her coon cat, Lily waited expectantly to be fed—mewing and batting her head against the side of the bed. Tara sighed, “at least you’re happy to see me.” Slipping her feet into worn pink slippers, she shuffled toward the kitchen. She pulled down a can of Tuna Delight as Lily twitched her tail against Tara’s bare shins.
Placing the bowl on the floor, her eye caught on something wrong in the hallway of her one-bedroom Hoboken apartment.
“Damn!” She stared, “not again.” She’d have to tell her shrink—Madeline Cooper—that it happened again. Not that it would help, probably lead to yet another pill. But there, in front of the door, she saw the proof that she’d been sleepwalking . . . and more. She could hear her psychiatrist’s questions as she attempted to put some reason to the irrational things that happened in the dead of night. Doctor Cooper would ask, “Who are you trying to keep out?”
Tara stared at the bizarre pyramid in her living room--the floral sleeper sofa comprised the base, two armchairs piled on top of that and a tumbled assortment of end tables and lamps all barricaded her front door. She knew that the question wasn’t ‘who was she trying to keep out,’ but rather, ‘who was she trying to keep in?’
Because far worse than her sleepless nights, was where she had to be--wearing a moderate amount of makeup, hose, flats and a skirt--by seven-thirty. As her thoughts brushed against that reality, a pit formed in her stomach. No, she wasn’t trying to keep anyone out. But her subconscious—as played out in last night’s redecorating was telling her something—stay home, don’t go to work.
As her long arms reached for the floor lamp that topped Mount Lazy Boy, she felt like telling her subconscious to shut the fuck up. It’s not like she didn’t know that the mid-town law office where she’d been working for the past thirteen years was killing her. She’d had enough heated conversations with her best friend—Carmen Lopes—over the idiocy of sticking with a boss who seemed happiest when humiliating her. At times she could almost laugh at how every sentence out of Harold Chapman’s mouth started with, “Goddamn it Tara!” Or, “Can’t you get one frigging thing right!” She’d still been dancing with an avant garde downtown troupe when she’d first taken the job, telling herself that it would pay the bills until her break--which never came--would come.
As she struggled to get the recliners off of the sofa, she was far-from laughing. As she’d told Carmen—repeatedly--she felt trapped. At thirty-three, there weren’t a lot of choices for Tara. She’d never be a dancer, and she wished in all the years that she’d been the star of Mrs. Baxter’s dance academy in Thomaston Connecticut; someone might have mentioned that at six feet four, she was way too tall for any major company. Tara’s rational mind knew that it was no one’s fault. The growth spurt that started when she was ten could not have been foreseen. Neither of her parents—both dead now—weren’t especially tall; it was just a freak of nature, a tiny pituitary adenoma that had pumped growth hormone into her system, before being detected, and then successfully removed. But the damage had been done, and her dream of dancing had died in stages. She’d even attended a fine arts college, where she’d ignored the writing on the wall, hearing what she’d wanted to hear, and blocking out the rest.
So, armed with a near-useless Bachelor of Fine Arts, she’d become a legal secretary who could type 110 words a minute. She’d told herself that it was just a way to pay the rent. But as the prime years of her dancer’s life passed, so did hope.
She’d been with the mega firm of Essex, Cooper and Hawthorne long enough to know that Harold’s temper and sadism were common; lawyers were creeps who advanced based on their ability to be aggressive. Problem was--few of them could leave it in the courtroom. She’d heard stories, and figured it was probably better to stay with the devil she knew.
Still, yesterday had been awful, and today there’d be hell to pay. “You really screwed up…Really really screwed up.”
The cat’s green eyes watched from the kitchen doorway. “Should I stay home, Lily? I know,” she said, meeting the animal’s gaze, “it’s only putting off the inevitable.”
By six-thirty a.m. Tara was on the PATH train, trying to think how she’d make it through the day. Yesterday’s screw up was definitely her fault. And part of it she knew was the new medication that Doctor Cooper—her latest psychiatrist and an expert in sleep disorders--had started her on.
“It’s brand new,” the doctor had said, with a quirky smile, “but it works.” She’d listened as the potential side effects were rapidly explained, and signed the release forms. The good thing about Doctor Cooper—and why she’d sought her out-- was Marian Cooper got new medications before anyone else. The catch was, in order to get them, Tara had to enroll in the studies that Doctor Cooper did for the various pharmaceutical companies. It meant keeping a journal and recording any positive—or negative—effects the pills might have. It also meant that all of her medications were free, courtesy of the drug company. In this case it was an oval blue pill inscribed with “PJ485”.
The first night she’d taken it, she’d found it useless. The next night—as the doctor had instructed—she’d doubled the dose, but still spent a night of broken sleep and restless dreams, where humanoid crabs in ballet slippers chased across midtown. In desperation, she’d called Doctor Cooper who told her to again double up. Tara did, and followed the pills down with 20 milligrams of Ambien, two of Xanax, and the last of her Halcion, which she would not tell the doctor about, and would certainly not record in her journal. That night—Tuesday--for the first time in months, she got a solid four hours. That was yesterday, but she’d felt weird in the morning, sluggish, and not quite real—and whole chunks of time she couldn’t recall.
As she boarded the train, she wondered if Harold would be waiting, ready to pounce. Yes, she knew that every Wednesday Harold’s billable hours for the week needed to make it to the downtown accounting department by close of business. She always double checked to see that they’d been sent and received. But somehow, somewhere, things got messed up; the electronic transfer was never received. By the time Tara called to check, the damage had been done. Harold, who lived paycheck to paycheck in a Soho loft, where he was no stranger to cocaine and anorectic lingerie models, would not get paid. More than that, his absence of billable hours would be noted by the senior partners.
As the packed train pulled into the station, Tara found it hard to move. Her head felt floaty, and for an instant she wondered if perhaps this were just a bad dream, like the dancing crabs. Then the doors banged open and she got pushed out onto the platform. She struggled to get her bearings, as the train thundered away and nausea raced from her belly to her throat. She grabbed a pole, as warm subway air swirled around her; she tried to steady herself. Maybe she was getting sick. Maybe she should have stayed home.
“No,” she swallowed, and tried to breathe. He’d only call and keep calling until he’d found her. “You’re so screwed.”
Ten blocks away, Marian Cooper, MD typed up her monthly paperwork, as she chatted on the phone with the representative from Porter-Jones Pharmaceuticals.
Doctor Cooper, who had turned forty less than a month ago, was at the top of her game. With a thriving Manhattan practice, two young sons, an anesthesiologist husband and a dream brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, she knew that these were the good years. As she multitasked through her weekly conversation with a man she jokingly referred to as Gravy Train Bingham, she calculated what her current crop of human subjects was worth.
“So,” Mr. Bingham asked, “you have the five enrolled in the PJ485 study.”
“All a go.” She answered, thrilled that the medication seemed to work.
“None, knock wood. It’s looking really good, David,” she replied, as she stared at her monitor and clicked off the little check boxes that indicated none of her patients had reported side effects or adverse reactions.
“Fantastic! You got anyone else to enroll? I got the go ahead for an additional twenty slots, they’re trying to beef up the numbers, and you know I’d much rather give them to you. I know you take this seriously.”
“Of course I do,” she answered, wondering if she should mention the calls she’d received from Tara Jeffries, about how the medication hadn’t worked at the target dose. As she’d not heard back again, she’d assumed the increased dose had done the trick. She’d call Tara later to verify. “You know, I might have another three. How quick do you need them?”
“You know what it’s like, Dr. Cooper. By the time we hit phase three, everyone’s itching to cross the finish line and get the FDA sign off. Could you get them by the end of the week?”
Marian Cooper had no trouble with the math, if she could round up another three subjects, at $20,000 a head; she’d be sitting pretty. But experience had taught her that while three might enroll, one of those would probably be disqualified or be unable to tolerate the medication, in which case she got nothing; the rule was they had to complete the study. “Put me down for three,” and she clicked the file closed, attached it to an email and sent her weekly data report to the Porter-Jones number crunchers.
Feeling exhilarated, and thinking about the kitchen she and her husband had been salivating over at the Pier Home Show, she pulled up her patient list. With a whole five minutes before her next appointment, she scanned the names and highlighted in pink any potential subjects for PJ485.
Attorney Harold Chapman considered himself a young Turk, stocky with a receding hairline and closets filled with Hugo Boss and Armani, he’d made junior partner at thirty, pulled home a seven-figure salary—not including the year-end bonus--and his billable hours always made it into the top ten-percent. His massive desk and two walls of built-in bookshelves were strewn with expensive tombstones—ornamental paperweights made of crystal, granite and brass that commemorated the completion of big mergers, buyouts, and the other bread-and-butter business of a major corporate player. He had two large windows facing east, and his next promotion—which was inevitable--would land him a corner office.
As he’d done every Thursday since joining the firm of Essex, Cooper and Hawthorne, Harold’s first matter of business was to see how his hours stacked up. When he’d clicked onto the company’s Intranet site, his jaw had dropped. There was a frigging zero next to his name.
It was now seven a.m.—he’d been there since six—but even though he knew she’d be on the train he’d called Tara’s home and shouted into her machine. “Jeffries, where the hell are you? What the hell happened?” He slammed down the receiver.
He’d fumed and paced. It wasn’t just that they’d laugh at him, it was the reality of the bills that came; huge bills—a forty thousand dollar mortgage payment; he owed his dealer eight “G”s for two ounces of amazing blow, there was the Mercedes, and he’d just ordered two-dozen custom shirts from Brooks.
When Tara finally showed—five minutes late for God’s sake!—he was ready.
“What the fuck happened, Tara?” He didn’t wait for her to get to her desk, and he didn’t care that there were others in the office. “Where are my billables?” He stared up at her, she reminded him of some stupid brown-eyed giraffe; and he hated the fact that even wearing flats, she was a head taller. He banged a fist on her desk. “Where are my fucking billables?”
“What?” he shrieked. His face was beet red.
“I don’t know; they didn’t go through.”
Silence filled the bullpen—the large windowless room where the secretaries and two paralegals did the bidding of the three partners in the office.
Harold looked at his audience, and then back at Tara; her lower lip quivered and she wouldn’t look him in the face. “My office, Now!” He wanted to hit her. He wouldn’t do that of course, but he was going to make her pay. “Move it! Now! I can’t believe what an incompetent…” And hurling abuse at her, and not caring who heard, he stormed to his office.
Gordon Rochambeau moved quickly down Fifth Avenue, he was 24 and already a soloist for one of the major New York ballet companies; one of the same troupes that fifteen years earlier would not even audition a too-tall Tara Jeffries. At six feet, and with skin the color of mocha and a taut physique with single digit body fat, he desperately wanted to make the next cut, to be a principal dancer, with the choice roles and a full page picture in the program. That’s why every day he secretly made an early class before doing barre with the company.
His thoughts were focused on yesterday’s coup, where he’d been asked to understudy for the role of the prince in Swan Lake. This was his big break, and he knew that no matter what, when his chance came he’d need to hit that stage and leave no doubt that he could out dance the aging Russian, who’d been headlining the company for the past decade.
Lost in thought, he startled at the sound of breaking glass. A woman screamed, and he heard shouts. His head whipped around as something heavy fell from a height. His heart jumped as he looked at a gaping hole eight-stories up in an East-facing building. And then he saw her…his breath caught.
“Look,” a man next to him stopped and pointed, a crowd gathered. Gordon pushed through to get a better view, because there, up in the window, was a twirling dancer. He’d later struggle to put words to the beauty of this impossibly tall woman, perched on the edge of disaster, her supporting leg pumping up and down as she made effortless fueté turns high above the city. Remnants of the shattered tempered glass framed the beautiful dancer in a halo of prismatic rainbows. Tears formed in his eyes, as he watched the perfection of her technique, her arms strong and fluid, her expression triumphant, and her gaze fixed in space, until the absolute last moment when her head whipped around, only to come back to the exact same spot a millisecond later. She was a goddess—like Shiva or Kali--holding nothing back while perched above certain death.
Around him, traffic stopped as commuters struggled for their cameras and picture phones. Gordon stared, reminded of why he’d wanted to dance…needed to dance. That tall woman, spinning around and around, was the reason; it wasn’t his picture in the program or the leading roles, it was this, the creation of beauty . . . freedom . . . life.
He gasped, as hands from inside the building grabbed for her. She wavered, “No!” Gordon shrieked, along with the crowd, as she lost balance. They were killing her, but then as it seemed certain she would fall, the hands managed to hang on to her mid-section and pulled her back into the shadows behind the shattered window.
Applause filled the street.
“Did you see that?” a man next to him blurted, unable to contain his excitement.
“Yes,” Gordon gazed at the now empty window, as the first siren screamed.
He looked down, and through the crowd realized that something had fallen from the window . . . someone had fallen from the window.
He pushed closer, as the circle of spectators tightened around a navy clad man covered with sparkling shards of tempered glass—clearly dead—one eye staring up at the sky the other turned to the asphalt as dark blood slowly oozed. Gordon looked at the body, and realized that the last thing this man must have seen was the beautiful dancer spinning in the window. He found that comforting.
That evening, Dr. Cooper whipped up a family favorite of huevos rancheros, while her two boys--hands glued to joysticks--savored their half-hour of Spider Man PlayStation before supper. The Czech Au Pair was out for the evening, and any minute now Jonathan would walk through the door. She was eager to tell him about the unexpected boon from the drug company, and was fantasizing about the new appliances—all polished nickel—that they’d get for their new kitchen. And with that kind of extra cash, they could even get that gorgeous wrought-iron greenhouse where she could have her own herb garden.
The local news played softly on the plasma-screen on the counter, and as she layered grated cheddar and mozzarella over the refried beans, she glanced up to see her patient—Tara Jeffries—being hustled through a crowd toward a waiting ambulance.
She stopped dead, and with cheese-covered fingers grabbed for the remote and cranked the volume.
“In what’s being referred to as the midtown dance of death,” a woman reporter explained, “a legal secretary—Tara Jeffries age 33—allegedly bludgeoned and then pushed attorney Harold Chapman—a partner with the law firm of Essex, Cooper and Hawthorne, to his death. At this time the motive is not known, and Ms. Jeffries who was photographed by onlookers dancing in the window, is now being evaluated at a Manhattan psychiatric facility.”
Marian’s pulse raced as she viewed the choppy snippet that showed Tara pirouetting in the window. She’d meant to call her, but in the excitement of needing to get new subjects for the PJ485 study, it had slipped her mind. “Oh, no!”
With her eyes fixed to the screen, she fumbled for her palm pilot, found David Bingham’s cell number and dialed.
“It’s Marian Cooper. Tara Jeffries…one of our patients on PJ485, may have just killed somebody. I can’t believe it. It’s on the news and....oh my God, they’ve got her in handcuffs…”
“Shut up! Don’t say another word.” He stopped her in mid sentence. “I’ll call you right back.” Without waiting for her response, the line went dead.
Stunned by his rudeness, and shocked by the images she’d just seen, she heard the dial tone, and jumped when her cell rang.
Thinking it was David, she picked up.
It was her husband, Jonathan, “Hey Hon, I got held up at the hospital. I’m going to be another forty-five.”
She desperately needed to tell him what had just happened, “Jonathan,” and then the line for call-waiting clicked, and she stopped herself. “That’s fine; let me get the other line.”
“You sound weird, Marian,” Jonathan said. “Everything okay?”
“Something happened with one of my patients. I’m waiting for another call. Bye.” She clicked the line.
“Okay, Dr. Cooper. It seems you were mistaken,” David Bingham said, “Tara Jeffries was never enrolled in any of our studies. I’d recommend you check your records.”
“I don’t understand,” Marian said, “She was enrolled…”
David cut her off for the second time, “As I said, she was never enrolled. Porter Jones does not have a Tara Jeffries in their database. If in fact she was taking any of our experimental compounds—which I doubt she was—it would have been without our knowledge. Before you speak to anyone…Doctor Cooper, I suggest you review your records.”
“But just a few days ago…”
“Doctor Cooper,” David Bingham’s tone was forceful, no longer the convivial drug company representative. “This is not something to get cute with. If Porter Jones discovers that you’ve been diverting product to unapproved subjects, there will be serious consequences. I think you’ll find that Tara Jeffries was never enrolled. Good day.”
Alone in her room, Tara smiled as she remembered the mornings performance. How a swarm of uniformed men and women had led her through the crowd of adoring fans. Cameras all around, focused on her, clicking and whirring. One man, with dark lovely eyes had pushed his way through carrying roses—perfect and red. She’d wanted to take them, but found that her hands weren’t free. “They’re lovely, give them to the orphans,” she’d mouthed, letting her escort move her toward the waiting car.
A group of women, who had seemed familiar, clapped as she’d passed. Perhaps they were members of the corp de ballet? She couldn’t recall, but not wanting to be rude, she’d graced them with a dazzling smile. “Thank you,” she’d said, “thank you all.”
She’d soaked in the accolades, and the adoration, as she’d towered above them.
It had been a glorious performance—perhaps her best. But as she thought about it, she couldn’t remember what she’d just danced. Had it been Ondine and Odette—the black and white swans? The Sleeping Princess, Giselle—or had it been something abstract like an evening of Ballanchine variations? That could explain why the other dancers had been dressed in modern clothes. How strange to not remember. But as a hand had reached up to help her into the vehicle, “careful not to hit your head, Ms. Jeffries,” she knew that none of it mattered. Judging by her fans and the complete bliss she’d felt, she knew that the performance had gone well—one of her best.
Now, as she glanced around her sparsely furnished room—a bit gray for her taste--she wondered what was on the program for tomorrow, and feeling the need to move she hummed the opening bars of Coppelia, spread her arms and danced.