Death Drops: A Natural Remedies Mystery

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Photo courtesy Gallery Books (c) 2012
This fiction mystery is steeped in herb lore and natural remedies, yoga and meditation. Follow the story of naturopathic doctor Willow McQuade as she seeks to solve the murder of her beloved aunt whose flower essences herbal remedy may have been switched with poison. “Death Drops: A Natural Remedies Mystery” by Chrystle Fiedler is as engaging as it is educational about natural remedies and full-body health.

Death Drops: A Natural Remedies Mystery (Gallery Books, 2012) by Chrystle Fiedler is the story of Willow McQuade, a naturopathic doctor trying to figure out if her aunt’s flower essences, a natural remedy for stress, were poisoned resulting in her aunt’s murder. This book is a suspenseful fusion of mystery and natural remedies from flower essences and herbal supplements to yoga and meditation. This excerpt was taken from Chapter 1.

  Dear Dr. McQuade,
Help! I’ve been feeling anxious and stressed to the max ever since I started my new job. Is there anything natural I can take to help me chill out?
  Stressed Out

  Dear Stressed Out,
Have no fear. One of the best natural remedies for stress is flower essences, which help to correct emotional imbalances. There are thirty-eight flower essences, developed by Dr. Edward Bach in 1934. Just put a few drops of Bach Rescue Remedy–a combination of rockrose for terror and panic, impatiens for irritation and impatience, clematis for inattentiveness, star-of-Bethlehem for shock, and cherry plum for irrational thoughts–under your tongue and you’ll begin to chill big-time. You’ll find it at your local health food store.
  Willow McQuade, ND

Call me a nature nut. I love nature. I like to walk in nature, I use natural remedies, and I practice natural medicine as a naturopathic doctor in Los Angeles. So my “green exercise,” walking in the forest, this Friday morning fit right into that theme.

It was part of the reason I’d traveled to Long Island, two hours east of New York City at the beginning of June, wanting to absorb by osmosis nature’s finest in a preserve the Nature Conservancy called one of nature’s last, best places. I’d come back to my hometown of Greenport, New York, an idyllic fishing village turned tourist mecca, to stay with my beloved aunt Claire, master herbalist and owner of Nature’s Way Market and Café, for my annual summer visit and to rest and recuperate.

I desperately needed these two weeks away after a punishing spring that involved joining a new holistic medical practice in West Hollywood, traveling biweekly to consult at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, writing a blog and numerous articles for Nature’s Remedy–an online magazine–and handling a high-maintenance boyfriend, now my ex. More about him later.

Right now the forest, dappled in sunshine, was spread before me like a visual all-you-can-see feast. Splashes of color from blooming cosmos, hibiscus, and Rose of Sharon bushes saturated the landscape. Bluebirds cawed and flitted from tree to tree, while squirrels skittered down the path, looking for breakfast. The woodsy smell of foliage, flowers, and crusty earth was intoxicating. Through the canopy of trees I could just see a wink of clear, blue sky.

I’d driven to this nature preserve walk every day for the past week. Although it was just outside of town, I felt transported to Eden. I focused on being here now, feeling my legs move in rhythm with my breathing, one-two, one-two, concentrating on every butter-yellow-Croc-soled step, and making it a walking meditation.

Still, in spite of my best intentions, my thoughts kept returning to the conversation I’d had this morning with Aunt Claire, which had left me worried. I’d come downstairs from my bedroom on the third floor to discover her working feverishly on her computer. For years Aunt Claire was a real technophobe, but once she made the leap into the twenty-first century, she never looked back. She even used an iPhone.

She glanced up at me, smiled, and pushed a wisp of shoulder-length blond hair behind her ear. She was dressed in her usual casual style–a T-shirt, denim shorts, and hemp sandals–although the vegetarian message on her T-shirt, Love Animals, Don’t Eat Them, was anything but.

“Honey, did I wake you?”

I’d been sleeping in Aunt Claire’s guest room, across the hall from her bedroom, above Nature’s Way Market and Café for the past week and a half. I hadn’t heard her get up, probably because my white-noise machine was on. Although there weren’t the traffic sounds I was used to hearing in L.A., just the sounds of crickets to keep me company, I couldn’t break myself of the habit.

That morning I woke up at six thirty, hopped out of my cocoon of a bed, did my morning reading of inspirational authors such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Eckhart Tolle, and meditated for fifteen minutes. Feeling centered and at peace with the world, I dressed in shorts, a T-shirt, and my yellow rubber sandals and headed downstairs. On the way out, I found Aunt Claire working away in her office before the store and café opened at eight.

“I didn’t hear a thing.” I walked over to the desk, kissed her smooth cheek, and looked at the computer screen. “What are you working on?”

“The fountain of youth.”  

I blinked. “Say what?”

She chuckled. “I’m working with a company in New York on an age-defying herbal cream.”

“So that’s your secret.” I appraised her. Nary a wrinkle; clear, vibrant skin; sparkling aquamarine eyes. Aunt Claire glowed with vibrant health. Her calendar age was sixty-seven, but she looked a good ten years younger.

She pushed Send and reached for a steaming cup of herbal tea. It smelled delicious, like licorice and fennel. She pointed to the pot of tea on the desk and an extra cup. “You could say that. I first started using this specific combination of herbs when I was researching my book.”

Aunt Claire had written The Complete Encyclopedia of Herbs a few years ago and The Complete Encyclopedia of Herbs for Beauty last spring. She’d circled the world to complete her research, traveling from the Amazonian rain forests to the Himalayas. “The cream is full of herbs, antioxidants, and lots of other goodies.”

“Sounds great. And people are really into that kind of thing. I’d use it.”

She shook her head and smiled. “Sweetheart, you don’t need it. Your skin is beautiful, just like the rest of you.”

Giving her shoulder an affectionate squeeze, I circled the desk and caught sight of myself in the large, wooden-framed mirror on the wall. Not for the first time, I noticed how much I looked like my aunt Claire, instead of my own mother, a petite brunette. Although I was twenty-eight and Aunt Claire was sixty-seven, both of us were tall, thin, and blond, with angular features, good skin, model-like cheekbones, and excellent teeth. “The teeth of the tiger,” my aunt always said, as neither of us spent any time in the dentist’s chair.

Overall, we were presentable and personable. People liked us, a good thing, since I was a doctor and she was a business owner. I was glad the gene fairy had given me Aunt Claire’s characteristics rather than my mother’s. In fact, Aunt Claire felt more like my mother than my own mother did. She was a nurturing soul and accepted me the way I was. My mother always wanted me to be different, more like my sister, the “real” doctor, and less interested in “whoo-whoo” medicine, which is what she called my chosen profession.

I sat down and reached for the ceramic teapot, with its bold red-and-yellow floral design, and poured tea into the matching cup. The chair was comfy, as was the office, with overstuffed couches, bookshelves crammed with natural, new age, and vegetarian-themed books, and pictures on the wall of various herbs and yoga positions. Above the doorway was a sign with the word Peace in big, bold letters. On her desk in a place of honor was a picture of me receiving my degree in naturopathic medicine from the Southwest College of Natural Medicine and Health Sciences. Aunt Claire, my inspiration in all things natural, was the only family member to fly out for the ceremony.

My mother considered my pursuit of natural medicine foolish; why, she asked, hadn’t I gone to a real medical school like my sister, who graduated from Harvard? I was tired of trying to convince her that naturopathic doctors are “real” doctors, too.

Our training is rigorous, and I’d even stepped it up by learning from some of the best and brightest–namely, Ray Richmond-Safer, MD, a nationally renowned holistic physician (and bestselling author and talk show favorite) at the cutting-edge Arizona Center for the Advancement of Natural Medicine.

Unlike traditional doctors, naturopaths are taught to take into consideration a client’s entire body, mind, and spirit before rendering a diagnosis. After such an assessment, if I believed a patient (many of whom were bicoastal entertainment types: actors, agents, and studio execs) could benefit from more conventional medicine, I referred him or her to integrative doctor friends–those who had MD after their names but were open to natural medicine approaches–in L.A. or New York. My aunt Claire couldn’t be more proud and my mother, Daisy, more dismissive.

The fact that my mother would not support me in my chosen field was a constant source of friction between them. There had been many arguments and tears. Then, last September, when my mother was admitted to the hospital for heart problems, Aunt Claire wanted to help restore her health with natural remedies, but my sister rebuffed her. Now, even though my mother lived in Greenport and my sister lived in Southold, seven minutes away, the three women still weren’t talking.

“Have you been working on this long?”

Aunt Claire picked up a bottle of vitamins and turned the label toward me. “Green Focus, the company that makes this line of vitamins, approached me about creating beauty products after my book topped the New York Times nonfiction list last fall. I’ve been working on it all winter. You know I’ve always wanted to have my own line.”

I did. For as long as I could remember, Aunt Claire had been working on formulas to address different health conditions, first in her native Australia, then in London, then when she came to Greenport one summer to visit us and ended up training with master herbalist Nick Holmes, now her boyfriend of more than fifteen years (neither believed in marriage). I’d always been fascinated by stories about exotic Aunt Claire, a professional herbalist who’d traveled to distant lands like Japan, India, and China, so when she came to the East End, twenty years ago, I’d been a sponge ready to absorb everything about her.

She was fascinated by natural remedies and the way the body could use these cures to make itself well. Her curiosity was boundless, and she’d drawn me into her quest more than once. I’d been a guinea pig for her black tea compresses for sunburn, ginger-garlic soup for viruses, and special salve for poison ivy. She sold the ginger-garlic soup in the café, but the other remedies had never been packaged for her customers.

Creating and distributing her own line was a dream come true.

Sipping the tea, I savored the warm spices and kick of fennel and the happiness I felt for her.

“When will your anti-aging formula be on the market? Or should I say, in your market?” I smiled.

She beamed back at me. “I’m hoping Fresh Face, that’s the name of the line, will be on the shelves by year’s end. But for now, don’t say anything about it. It’s all very hush-hush. I’ve been instructed to keep it–what do you kids say? On the down low. They don’t want anyone to scoop us.”

The phone rang, startling her, which I found strange. Aunt Claire was usually as serene and immovable as a rock. She answered, “Claire Hagan here,” listened, and then covered the receiver with her hand and cocked her head. “Honey, this is going to take a while. Would you mind?”

“Not at all. It’s time for my morning walk anyway.” I headed for the door. As I did, Aunt Claire reached into her drawer, grabbed a small vial, and untwisted the cap. As she listened to the person on the other end, she furrowed her brow and emptied a dropperful of the contents into her tea. It looked like a bottle of flower essences that help relieve emotional upset and bring you back into balance. Was Aunt Claire worried about something? Thanks to her practice of meditation, yoga, and Zen thinking, she was always the picture of calm. I shook off the thought. It must be the new formula. As she said, she’d never worked on something like this. She probably felt as if it was her big break. Still . . .

As I crossed a footbridge over a small stream, my review of our conversation was interrupted by my cell phone ringing. A few yards away, an elegant, long-necked white egret glanced at me, and then promptly flew off. The phone’s caller ID said: Aunt Claire and showed a picture of her smiling.

Answering, I said, “Hello? Aunt Claire?” but the reception was terrible and I couldn’t hear her.

Several seconds passed with no reply. I disconnected the call and was about to dial back when I received another call from the same number. I answered again, wondering what was going on, when I was again greeted with static. Damn these cell phone towers, I thought. Reception in some places was the absolute its.

“Aunt Claire? I can’t hear you.”

Through the earpiece I heard garbled words, followed by a loud crash. Then the line went dead.

Not knowing what was wrong but already cursing myself for not staying at the store and waiting to find out what was upsetting her, I screeched her PT Cruiser to a halt in front of Nature’s Way and jumped out. Even though I was in a mad panic, I still couldn’t help but notice the care and attention Aunt Claire had paid to the three-story gingerbread Victorian exterior, with its bright yellow paint and red trim.

Squinting at the sign in the early morning sun, I realized again how much I loved this place. My aunt’s store, my home away from home, and most delightful, home to natural remedies. I’d been introduced to many of those elixirs as a teenager, after my Aunt Claire returned to the States from the UK to be near my mom and opened the store. Brightly colored posters in the windows announced everything from “CoQ-10 on Sale!” to “Yes, We Have Burt’s Bees!” to “Scrumptious Organic Raspberries!”

Thousands of tiny white lights hung from the roof, and on top of the building stood a ship’s weathervane, a nod to our village’s nautical heritage. Three white metal tables and chairs had been placed on the porch for al fresco dining.

I sped up the path lined with perennial plants of every size, shape, and color that Aunt Claire had bought, nurtured and watered faithfully, bolted up the steps, and pushed at the fire-engine-red front door. It was locked. In a town as safe as this, I found it odd that she’d bothered to do so, unless she wanted to make sure no early bird customers drifted in. Reaching for my key, I slipped it into the lock, pushed the door open, and stepped inside. It was eerily quiet. I looked around and, not seeing her, called her name several times. “Aunt Claire? Are you okay?” I felt panic rise in my throat.

Getting no reply, I headed farther inside, past the bright and cheery café section, with more white metal tables and chairs; bookshelves bursting at the seams with volumes on everything from vegan eating to yoga to meditation; and the oversize corkboard displaying the daily specials along with funky artwork and postcards from customers around the world. The smell of patchouli filled the air, giving the space a warm, musky scent.

I walked past the kitchen and the wood-paneled, square checkout station, which was situated in the middle of the bright green-and-blue space, facilitating attention to customers’ needs. Featured at the checkout station were items that were likely to be bought spontaneously, such as lip balm, stress mints, bug repellent, and bars of organic milk chocolate, along with magazines like Nature’s Remedy, Yoga Journal, and Natural Health. The sun coming through the skylights spilled over the entire area, bathing it in an ethereal glow. Pushing open the office door, I peered inside to where I’d left her only an hour before. Aunt Claire’s teacup sat empty, as did her chair.

Turning around, I walked back into the store, past the display of eco-friendly cleaning products, to the produce aisle, which led to the stairs. Perhaps Aunt Claire had felt ill, headed upstairs to lie down, and fallen. I hoped not. The stairs were narrow and winding; one slip, and you could really hurt yourself.

But I didn’t get that far. As I rounded the corner, I spotted her.

She lay in the fetal position on the floor, the bottle of flower essences resting next to her left hand. Her tabby cats, Ginger and Ginkgo, a brother and sister she’d adopted from a local animal-welfare foundation, were circling her, mewing. Had she fainted?

Dropping to my knees, I put my head to her chest. Was she breathing? No. Oh, God. Her eyes were closed and her face was pink, as if she’d stayed in the sun too long.

I put my head to her chest again and hoped against hope that I was wrong. No, she wasn’t breathing. I grabbed my iPhone, called 911, and then started to perform CPR. But it was no use. She didn’t respond. I kept trying. Moments later the EMT’s arrived and took over. After a few minutes of trying to resuscitate her, they told me that Claire was gone. The shock of her death reverberated through me. I wanted to throw up.

As I fought back nausea, my gaze landed on the bottle next to her left hand. I bent over her and inspected it. It was the flower essence Mimulus, which is taken for “Fear of worldly things, illness, pain, accidents, poverty, of dark, of being alone, of misfortune. The fears of everyday life. These people quietly and secretly bear their dread; they do not freely speak of it to others,” according to its creator, the British doctor Edward Bach, who’d discovered and patented the power of certain flower essences in 1934.

I went to the desk and got a napkin in case someone’s fingerprints besides Claire’s were on the bottle and carefully picked it up by the top of the dropper. When I opened the top and smelled the liquid inside, it didn’t smell like any flower essence I’d ever used with patients. Had someone put something into the bottle with the intent to kill?

My world tilted on its axis. Aunt Claire had been dealing with something big. Something so foreboding that she’d chosen this cure. And it had killed her.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Death Drops: A Natural Remedies Mystery, published by Gallery Books, 2012.

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