Chapter 12: AMBER BEADS

May 2025

Pandolf, California

Shelly returned home to her dark apartment. Struggling without Garcia’s help in her new experiment, stressed out at the hospital supervising junior residents, Lucky was now rarely home to vent to.

Lucky now spent all her free time with Harry. After finishing school, he was working in the family business and staying at Pandolf Hotel.  

The couple had invited her to join them for dinner that Saturday night. Over pasta at the Palatine Hill — her old haunt with Garcia — she admitted, “It’s been lonely, then I feel like a third wheel around you lovebirds.”

“We have lots of time for you,” Harry reassured her. “Lucky and I will be together forever, ’till death do us part.’” He winked at Lucky, who teased him back with a frown.

“Shelly,” he added, “I’ve been waiting to ask how’re you doing with the odd couple living downstairs?”

“You mean George and Charlie.” Shelly groaned. “Actually, they’re amusing.”

As they were finishing, the waiter brought their take-out order for the boys. Harry scrutinized the bill. “They get food here often?”  He showed them a scrawled note on the receipt: “Hi to Charlie from Nancy.”

 Lucky pushed her to go shopping in San Francisco. “Some new clothes, do a mani-pedi, visit my hairdresser, get your face done at Rucci’s, my guy there can help you find your look. You are so pretty in a healthy way.”

“I’ll think about it,” Shelly said.

“Perhaps someone needs to discover you first,” Lucky persisted. “I’m surprised it hasn’t happened yet.” 

But there was only one man for her.

As her mentor, Nepski worked closely with Shelly. He invited her to faculty journal clubs where she soaked up technical discussions involving the latest cancer treatments and advanced surgeries. With him, she practiced her presentation on the experiment suggested initially by Garcia. 

Shelly’s mornings started at 6:30 a.m. in the Doctors’ Lounge, a suite of rooms near the main hospital entrance. Soft Expressionist prints on the walls, a thick forest green carpet muffling sound, small tables, upholstered chairs and lounging sofas next to an electric fireplace, hot food was served, from sausage and eggs to oatmeal and fresh ground coffee, alongside fragrant pastries, dry cereals and seasonal fruit. Sitting with her mentor, nibbling at breakfast and chatting about everything from work, to books and movies, only the wedding band on his finger checked her romantic daydreams.

She had even met his wife. Last fall, Dr. Nepski had hosted a resident dinner. It was dusk. Pillows of fallen leaves under her feet, she walked to his home. Wearing her favorite rose jacket, its hood between her and the rare drizzle of warm rain, she left EZBuy carrying a gift bottle of “everyone knows this Napa Cabernet.” 

Pandolf’s on-campus store, EZBuy 24/7, paired an informed staff with an immense selection of wine, beer and liquor. Also selling sausages and cheeses, their wheels proudly displayed, salami, olives, crackers and dips, to-go fruit and vegetable trays, and bite-sized to giant desserts, EZ Buy was the local go-to place for a last-minute gourmet and organic selection. 

She could not afford to be more than an occasional shopper who, unable to resist the tempting displays, usually walked out with more than she planned. But most of its customers did not mind the premium prices, also grabbing overpriced toiletries and other essentials before they checked out — for the convenience of not leaving the hospital campus. 

When she had entered Nepski’s neighborhood, the sun was setting, dropping below the horizon, flaming — to brilliant yellow, oranges and reds — the remaining leaves of the old trees. The sidewalk wound around the edge of a cul-de-sac to the Nepskis’ brick and stone home. Pandolf owned the houses in this neighborhood where their tenured faculty lived. The heavy wooden door with the wrought-iron knocker was unlocked. Shelly walked into a large hall with vaulted ceilings and a massive chandelier sparkling with dozens of lights. She had heard gossip that Mrs. Nepski had just renovated the home, hiring a decorator from San Francisco. 

Standing side by side in the entryway, the Nepskis greeted her warmly. She handed Mrs. Nepski the wine. Barely able to look at her mentor’s wife, feeling hot and cold as jealousy flooded her toward this gracious and elegant woman, they made awkward small talk and she quickly slipped away when more guests arrived.

Walking around the first floor, darting from the periphery of one knot of people to another, she nibbled from trays offered by waiters. Then she moved to the basement where the caterers had set up a full dinner. The bar displayed dozens of bottles of different shapes, colors, and labels. Like cheerleaders, the bartenders smiled and danced, cocktail shakers in both hands.

From the long table covered with white linen, Shelly selected items for her small plate and then returned to the first floor. An enameled white iron railing curved upstairs and disappeared into the darkness of the second floor. Wide hardwood steps rose and wound along a cream-colored plaster wall with decorative painted moldings. 

Photos hung on the walls. Only able to see the ones close to the landing, they appeared to be family portraits, dating back to old black and white pictures of weddings, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. Looking up into the darkness of the upstairs landing, she saw a faint glow — a sentient being in the upstairs hall. A grandparent? One of the kids doing homework? She had also seen two dogs with their trainer on the expansive grounds in the back. 

She mentally ticked off reasons that she was foolish: Nepski was married, did not return her feelings and it may be unwise to have a romantic relationship with a mentor  — even if people disregarded that rule all the time. Then he was Jewish, and she was not.

Eating her dinner alone in the corner, she wondered. Who was she? Half Christian? Half Hindu? 100% agnostic. 

She was a halfie. While her Hindu grandparents had doted on her and her sister, she always  knew that she was “different” from her Indian cousins. 

“They’re still children. They don’t know yet what god to pray to,” she had heard her Indian grandfather tell someone as they pushed a grocery cart around some Mumbai supermarket.

In South Dakota, she had spent idyllic summers with her Christian grandparents on their 200-acre farm with no internet. There, she was a little brown girl among her blonde light-eyed relatives.

One South Dakota summer visit had begun with her Asian pride in her mastery of multiplication tables and long division, while the rural kids stuffed tadpoles into their pockets. After a few weeks, her cousins could match her number skills while she studied an old Britannica encyclopedia about frog life cycles.

On the farmhouse bookshelves, she read classics from her mother’s side, like the entire Little House on the Prairie series, fascinated by the strange world of Western pioneer families centuries ago. Then her religious grandmother would read to all of the children from The Chronicles of Narnia.

Sunday’s church was compulsory. One summer day in South Dakota, the Sunday School teacher discussed Buddhism and showed pictures of lovely temples from the teacher’s painstakingly detailed homemade documentary about her trip to Japan. Her “lesson”: This isn’t “Christian” but pagan, the “other” — to be appreciated but not embraced. 

On her phone, she whispered to her parents about all the ways the church felt uncomfortable starting with her different skin color. But her dad lectured her “to take the good with the bad. You can learn wisdom from every religion,” and “Make it so the next time they see someone who looks like you, they don’t have a bad stereotype about Indian people.” 

Many more childhood summers in South Dakota went by, as her inner voice grew softer while her unfolding mind thoughtfully filtered its expression. Questions for her father, heated discussions, even confrontations and finally peace —  came many years later.

After thanking her hosts, she quietly slipped out of the Nepskis home that night, feeling a little more ready to accept a platonic relationship with her mentor with similar equanimity: breakfasts, research projects and professional collaboration. Still, she cried on the walk home alone.

Perhaps, Lucky would have romantic advice for her. At their shared bathroom counter one evening, trying to sound as casual as possible, Shelly said,  “I’ll be going to Hawaii with Dr. Nepski for a conference, good preparation for the next two years in a lab.”

“Fun!” Lucky said, carefully wiping off make-up.  “Whatever happened to not wanting to travel? Oh, wait, never mind, it’s for work.” 

Hoping it was a neutral way to continue the discussion, she asked Lucky, “Don’t you think Dr. Nepski is a little odd?” 

Lucky shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows, sounds like he’s always working, traveling and working some more.

“I think it’s Dr. Garcia,” Lucky continued, “who is more than a little strange. We had old bachelors like that up in Maine when I was growing up, living by themselves at the end of old roads in primitive cabins, surrounded by woods – wannabe Thoreaus in their Walden hideaways. They would swing by for a mug of coffee with my dad and then be gone again for another few weeks.”

Shelly persisted. “Remember when you came with me to one of Dr. Nepski’s resident parties?”

Advising her that professional success required networking, offering to be her plus-one, Lucky went with her to a Nepski party for the residents.  Wearing the latest style fresh out of its plastic wrap, high heels, thick eyeliner, pink lipstick, and sparkles on her wrists, around her neck and in her pinned up blonde hair, she had been a man magnet. 

Meanwhile, Shelly had observed on a sofa in some forgotten corner, plodding through a long, dull conversation with someone forgettable. She had seen Dr. Brickstone, the community OB doctor with his pretty wife. They had swept by Shelly, not even noticing her. But after last week at the hospital, would Brickstone notice her now? 

She had been on call at Hunterview.  Brickstone’s patient had begun to hemorrhage in a Cesarean Section, and a Pandolf specialist came in to help. Shelly had joined in the two-hour operation to remove the woman’s uterus and control her bleeding. Tension written on his face,  Brickstone had not left the patient’s side until dawn. As Shelly departed to do rounds, he muttered to her, “Well, Pandolf hasn’t yet built a robot to do what we just did.”

“Do you remember Dr. Brickstone from the party?” she asked Lucky.

“How can I forget finally meeting him, after all the stories you tell me about Hunterview?”

“It’ll be my first time going to Hawaii,” Shelly said, hearing something in her voice — surprise and guilt perhaps — about a new wave of fantasies: dinner, a walk on the beach and maybe even calling her mentor “Sam?”

Her housemate turned around and fixed her gem-blue eyes on her. Running a large comb through wet blonde tangles, she only said, “Oh Shelly.”

“OK, you know that I’ve got a crush on him.”

“Dr. Brickstone?”

At Shelly’s dumbfounded look, Lucky said, “Ok just teasing to lighten things up. I know who you mean. But try to have a fun trip OK. Hawaii will become one of your favorite places.

“Me,” Lucky continued, “I can hardly wait to finish my residency and go back to the East Coast. That’s what Harry and I have been talking about nonstop, about where we would like to settle down. It’ll likely have to be Connecticut, where his family business is based. And well… I should tell you.” 

She had then flashed the large diamond. “This happened last night.”

“It’s beautiful! Shelly breathed deeply. “Have you set a date?” Her excitement rose with her voice.

“Not yet,” Lucky said. “Harry has to tell his family. I have to talk to mine, my dysfunctional parents and my little brother, who hasn’t bothered to see me recently.”

Lucky was going to get married, well — of course she was — but I never might. 

Last week, over breakfast croissants and coffee in the Physicians Lounge, Nepski had steered the conversation away from a journal article. “So, you may work in Sally Minkiwitz’s lab for a year or two before you start your fellowship?” 

His eyes now held hers, fingertips raised and touching. “OK, I’m just curious. What about marriage, kids? I know that generally an employer isn’t supposed to ask. But I have a friendly interest.”

“I plan to focus on my career.”

Sunday night, Shelly prepared to sleep — alone in the apartment: teeth brushed, hair washed and in pajamas. It was only 8 p.m., but a good night’s rest — well-earned and glorious— called ahead when her phone buzzed. 

Against a background of a DNA helix, Dr. Garcia’s photo now appeared on her Genie. Finally, a month later, he was back.

“So Thoreau returns from Walden Pond. I mean, how are you, Dr. Garcia?”

Garcia explained the mistake behind his ICE detention, then thanked her for helping George.  Voice breaking, he said, “I don’t know how my son could have managed without you.”

 “He’s a nice young man,” Shelly said. “Will you be returning to the lab? I want to discuss my research with you.”

“I don’t know. I’ll meet with Dr. Nepski tomorrow. I’ll be at George’s apartment afterwards, so maybe you can come by, and I’ll update you. “

The following morning, Manny Garcia waited outside Dr. Nepksi’s office at Pandolf Medical Center. The tall wooden door had a brass plate: “Samuel J. Nepski, MD, Chairman, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.”

Nepski’s secretary, a heavy-set woman in her 60s who looked ready to retire, had barely lifted her head to acknowledge him before politely asking him to be seated. When she briefly raised her eyes again, she nodded and glanced at the door to give him permission.

Inside, Samuel Nepski sat behind a long antique desk and quickly got to the point. “Manny, after ICE detained you a month ago, we found tools and cables under the Drukker printer in the lab. Dr. Narayan discovered you in the lab while you were using them. She believed what you told her at the time about doing some repairs and then came to me because she was concerned you weren’t able to complete them. But when Drukker’s technician came, he said you were tampering with the computer’s printer.”

“That’s correct, sir.”

Nepski shook his head and then waved his hand around the room. “Look, you see there’s no lawyer here. I know the ICE detention was an awful error so I asked Legal if I could talk to you privately. 

“You’ve a family, a young son; you’ve never been in trouble before. Please help me to understand, scientist to scientist…father to father.”

Still standing, Garcia glanced at the familiar framed photos on the walls. The Hearst mansion was in one, with the Nepskis and their three children in the foreground. His son had also seen the world, just not in that comfort and security.

 “Dr. Nepski,” he said, “I am grateful for your trust in me. A private international clinic had reached out to me about purchasing the Drukker technology for their new cancer treatment center. As part of their pilot research, they sent me some of their patient data files to analyze.”

“Patient data!” Nepski slammed both hands on the table in front of him and stood up. “You have been experimenting on private health information without institutional approval.” 

Nepski stopped, incredulous. “What is an Institutional Review Board — there to prevent the abuse of trust of sick and vulnerable patients?  If these rules are not something you honor, Pandolf is definitely not your place.” He was shouting.

“Dr. Nepski,” Garcia protested, “I was given no identifying information about who these patients are. The clinic that sent me the data, an international, reputable organization, obtained proper authorizations to use the files for investigational purposes. Then I only destroyed my results because I knew someone was spying on me. Since I didn’t know who it was, I wanted to protect the clinic and my work.”

“What kind of data were you analyzing?”

“Many kinds: Tumor DNA sequences, molecular imaging, immunohistochemistry, radiographs, digital pathology slides and anything else the oncologists thought could be useful. Then only if the pilot results were encouraging, the clinic would buy the Drukker technology.”

I am lying. I am sorry.

Actually all the data had not been destroyed; he had downloaded the files onto computer drives. Fortunately, Campbell had found them and the laptop in the Pandolf locker.

“Dr. Nepski,” Garcia said softly, “my wife died of cancer. I wanted to help people who are terminally ill like she was.”

“You weren’t paid?”

“No, sir.”

“Well, I’ll let Legal know.” Nepski sighed. “They have talked to a lawyer that your sister retained in Chicago. My guess is they’ll want to speak to this clinic you consulted for at least.

“In America, we have a basketball term, ‘no harm, no foul.’ If Legal can verify everything you say, it may be OK to drop the matter. Please cooperate with them.”

Garcia kept his eyes on the floor as he said, “I am sure Pandolf doesn’t want embarrassment on my account.”

When he looked up, Nepski’s face was stony. “Dr. Garcia, good luck. I am sorry but I can’t give you a reference for future employment in the academic sector. We will confirm your dates of work here only.

“I did my best for you, Manny. Pandolf wasn’t going to pay you for the weeks you were absent, but now you’ll be paid your salary up to today.”

“I really appreciate it.”

“Manny, one favor before you leave. Dr. Safire is stuck in one of the experiments you were helping him with using the Drukker. He says it’s a fine tool for artificial human reproduction research. Please point him in the right direction before you go.”

“Of course. Thank you, Dr. Nepski.”

“Manny, I am proud to be here at Pandolf, the best of the best.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Come look out the window with me,” Nepksi asked.

They stood side by side, gazing at the large, bright Emergency Room signs that dazzled even in the daylight. Standing tall, Nepski turned to Garcia. “Pandolf’s Wayne Winston Mather Emergency Center was built during the Cold War. Our CEO is a member of the Mather family, Puritans who came to America in the 1600s. They fund our ER in perpetuity.

“It also remains an operational emergency shelter from the Cold War era and part of the Pandolf Mission Statement. In case of a catastrophe, we can care for our local community for a long time. Supplies, medications, equipment, generator power, wells, it has everything.”

“It’s good to be prepared, life’s unpredictable for sure,” Garcia agreed. 

Leaving, he added, “I am grateful for the opportunities I have received at Pandolf Medical Center. Thank you for your help and trust.”

Relieved that there had been no unpleasant surprises and even his salary would be paid up to today, Garcia left. The secretary looked up from her computer with an expectant expression and he smiled broadly at her. Had she expected him to be downcast? Like her boss, did she also think that Armageddon may be coming? That would be a reason to be anxious and depressed. Outside, he quickened his pace and merged into the anonymity of the street crowds.

Upon returning home, Garcia opened a wooden box and removed one item that the searchers had not taken: a string of amber beads that looked like an inexpensive necklace. To more discerning eyes, the 23 spheres might no longer appear to be cheap jewelry but possibly connected to a certain prime number — that of pairs of chromosomes in the human genome. They were not really made of amber but a biomatrix storage material.

On its lid, the wooden box had a mosaic of Surya, the Indian Sun god. Pia had loved gems. Garcia fingered the tiny stones in the picture: amethyst, chalcedony, garnet, agate, red jasper, sodalite, turquoise and aventurine in many colors. He gently squeezed the beads with affection. 

The king no longer needed this for his Porphyry project. Garcia placed the beads under hot running water and watched them dissolve into the sink drain. 

Next Chapter ⟶

⟵ Previous Chapter