Chapter 12: AMBER BEADS

May 2025

Pandolf, California

In California, Shelly Narayan was struggling without Garcia’s help in her new experiment and stressing out at the hospital supervising junior residents.

She rarely saw Lucky, who now spent all her free time with Harry at Pandolf Hotel. He had finished business school and was now working remotely for his family’s business.  

The couple invited her to join them for dinner at the Palatine Hill — her old haunt with Garcia. Over pasta, 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, “How’re you doing with the odd couple living downstairs?”

She groaned. “You mean George and Charlie, they can be amusing, I guess.” 

In a bag, the waiter brought their take-out order for the boys. Harry scrutinized the bill. He showed them a scrawled note on the receipt: “Hi to Charlie from Nancy.”

“They get food here often,” Lucky said. “Hey Shelly, what do you think? Before I leave town, let’s go shopping in SF. I need new clothes, we can do a mani-pedi, 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 how could Lucky even think that there was anyone but 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 about the latest cancer treatments and advanced surgeries. With him, she practiced her research presentation on the experiment Garcia had given her the idea for.

Today, Shelly’s morning had started at 6:30 a.m. as Nepski’s guest in Pandolf’s Doctors Lounge, a suite for Attending Doctors, with 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.

For breakfast, hot food was served, from sausage and eggs to oatmeal and fresh ground coffee, alongside fragrant pastries from a local bakery, dry cereals in colorful boxes and seasonal fruit. 

Nepski had steered the conversation away from a journal article and asked, “So, Shelly, Dr. Minkiwitz’s lab for a year or two — before you begin your fellowship?” 

His eyes now held hers, fingertips raised and touching. 

“OK,” he asked, “I’m curious. What about marriage, kids? I know an employer isn’t supposed to ask but I have a friendly interest.”

The word “friendly” stung. “I plan to focus on my career,” she said.

Sitting with her mentor, nibbling and chatting about everything from work to books and movies, only the wedding band on his finger — and everything it symbolized — checked her romantic daydreams.

She had even met Mrs. Nepski at a resident dinner in their home last fall. She had walked there from her apartment, pillows of fallen leaves underfoot, a drizzle of warm rain above, wearing her favorite rose jacket.

Stopping at EZBuy, she bought a gift bottle of wine. “Everyone knows this Napa Cabernet,” said the salesman. 

EZBuy 24/7 was Pandolf’s campus gourmet shop, which paired an informed staff with an immense selection of wine, beer and liquor. Also selling cheeses, their wheels proudly displayed, sausages, 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 selection. 

She could not afford to be more than an occasional shopper. Still unable to resist their tempting displays, she 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 campus. 

In Nepski’s neighborhood, the sun had been setting, dropping below the horizon, flaming — to brilliant yellows, oranges and reds — the remaining leaves on the old trees. Pandolf owned these homes for their tenured faculty. The sidewalk wound around the edge of a cul-de-sac to the Nepskis’ address. 

The heavy wooden door was unlocked, making its wrought-iron knocker a decoration. Shelly walked into a large hall with vaulted ceilings and a giant chandelier sparkling with dozens of lights. 

In the entryway, side-by-side, the Nepskis greeted her warmly. Mrs. Nepski was gracious and elegant, in her 30s. Feeling hot and cold as jealousy flooded her, Shelly handed her the wine, and after making awkward small talk, 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 crudites 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, a dispensary of different shapes, colors and labels. Like cheerleaders, the bartenders smiled and bobbled, waving cocktail shakers in both hands.

From the long table covered with white linen, she refilled her small plate and returned to the main 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. 

On the wall close to the landing, photos appeared to be family portraits, dating back to old black and whites of weddings, a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. More pictures climbed into the darkness of the upstairs landing, where she saw a faint glow — a sentient being? A grandparent? Kids doing homework? She had also seen two dogs with their trainer on the expansive grounds in the back. 

She felt foolish about her crush: Nepski was married, did not return her feelings and was her mentor. Then he was Jewish, and she was not.

Who was she? 100% agnostic. 

No, she was a halfie. While her Hindu grandparents had doted on her, she always  knew that she was “different” from her Indian cousins. 

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

In South Dakota, she had spent 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 visit began with her Asian pride in her mastery of multiplication tables and long division, while her rural relatives pulled tadpoles out of their pockets to scare her. After a few weeks, her cousins matched some of her number skills while she read 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, a strange world of white pioneer families centuries ago. Then her religious grandmother read The Chronicles of Narnia to the children at bedtime.

Living with her grandparents, church was compulsory. One day, the Sunday School teacher showed pictures of lovely Buddhist temples from her trip to Japan. Her “lesson”: This isn’t “Christian” but pagan, the “other” — to be appreciated but not embraced. 

She whispered to her parents about all the ways the church felt uncomfortable starting with her different skin color. But Papa 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 summers in South Dakota went by, where her inner voice grew nuanced while her unfolding mind thoughtfully filtered her speech — saving heated discussions and even confrontations for her parents after she returned home.

Leaving the Nepskis home that night, she felt the same equanimity as in South Dakota and in Mumbai, a little more ready to accept being an outsider looking in, recognizing another boundary in her world, another calm relationship, this time a platonic one with her mentor: breakfasts, research projects and professional collaboration. Yet, she cried on the walk home.

Perhaps, Lucky would have advice for her. Before dinner that night, Shelly told her,  “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 drawing eyeliner at their shared bathroom counter.  “Whatever happened to not wanting to travel? Oh, wait, wait don’t tell me — her voice teased — this is for work.” 

“What do you think of Dr. Nepski?” 

Lucky shrugged her shoulders. “I only met him once, sounds like he’s always working, traveling and working some more.” 

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

Lucky had gone with her to a Nepski party for the residents.  Advising Shelly that professional success required networking, offering to be her plus-one, wearing the latest style fresh out of its plastic wrap, high heels, thick sooty mascara, 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 analytically observed on a sofa in some forgotten corner, plodding through a long, dull conversation with someone forgettable. 

Dr. Brickstone, the community OB doctor, had walked by her, alongside his pretty wife, not even seeing 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.”

She asked Lucky, “Do you remember Dr. Brickstone from Dr. Nepski’s party?” 

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

“It’ll be my first time going to Hawaii,” Shelly said, hearing something catch in her voice — feeling surprise and guilt 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 trying to lighten things up. I know exactly who you mean. But try to have a fun trip anyway. Hawaii will become one of your favorite places.

“Me,” Lucky continued, “sorry Shelly, this is not the time to tell you but this is something you need to know before dinner tonight.”

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

“It’s beautiful!” Shelly breathed deeply. “Have you set a date?” Excitement rose in her voice. “Oh please, don’t let my romantic failures cloud your happy sky.”

“No date yet,” Lucky said. “Honestly, I can’t wait to finish 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 be Connecticut, where his family business is based.”

“Should I tell anyone?” Shelly asked.

“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.”

So later at dinner, when Lucky suggested that some man needed to “discover her,” Shelly put her napkin on the table and rose. “Thanks for inviting me for dinner.”

Harry also began to stand up but Lucky said, “Wait, I still have to finish my wine.” 

Shelly and Harry sat back down.

“Shelly,” Lucky said, “I’m sorry.”

There was silence. Harry looked blankly from one woman to another.

Lucky continued, “But I was wondering if you‘ve heard from Dr. Garcia?”

“No, he’s still detained and no one knows when he’ll return,” Shelly snapped.

“Wow, yes,” Lucky said, “Charlie says George doesn’t like to talk about his dad. 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.”

Not far away, two FBI agents assigned to Garcia’s case scrolled through video-feed on monitors in a windowless room in San Francisco.

T’hodd, about 30,  clicked through pictures on Michaela’s phone: selfies, Charlie, George, other teenagers, media figures, web pages, animals, fashion, shopping lists, emojis and homework.

He stopped at one picture that showed the Pandolf campus map, marked with black arrows that led to its oldest section. Another hand-drawn map inside one building showed a rectangle neatly labeled “Arjun Jagdishwar Bhattacharya,” with six numbers below it.

“So the girlfriend took a picture of this map,” he said.

KaLisa, in her 40s with short grey hair, leaned back in her chair. “ICE will release Garcia soon — they figured out his arrest was mistaken identity. Still, I think we’re missing computer files. It’s not plausible he would just destroy all his work.”

“I gave you everything that the Indian medical chain said they had,” T’hodd said. 

“I know that,” she said impatiently,  “but Pandolf isn’t giving Garcia his job back. That’s suspicious, you’ll need to learn to see that, T’hodd. Now if he goes back to Argentina, we may never learn anything.”

“KaLisa, Garcia doesn’t do anything but work unless he’s in a relationship. There’s that resident doctor in his lab?”

“T’hodd, there’s nothing on any woman in Garcia’s life except that thing he wrote in his lab notebook — sounds prettier in Spanish: ‘Amber’s heart finally melted with mine. Now she’s back to stony and cold.’

They munched on leftover sandwiches from an office party. T’hodd went to the water fountain and refilled their styrofoam cups.

When he returned, another picture from Michaela’s phone was on the screen: Livingstone glared at the camera. 

“Cat does not like the girl,” KaLisa said, smiling. “Seriously, T’hodd, they send aliens to The Camp for less than what Garcia’s in for. Weird they’re letting him go. I’ll ask ICE to hold him just a little longer and see if this map guides us someplace? If it had been the FBI, Garcia would never have suspected that anyone was searching his apartment and hid everything. This is so frustrating!”

But the ICE woman was impatient with them. “Now if you guys had figured out sooner that this dead illegal was stealing Garcia’s identity, he wouldn’t be here in the first place. OK fine, just a couple more days we’ll hold him, but we’re crowded, you know, just ripe for another disease outbreak.”

She added, “So KaLisa, just so you know, this rich trust fund guy, Dr. Campbell, just bought Garcia a ticket from Argentina to travel to Greece in a few days.”

“But why?” T’hodd exclaimed.

“Don’t know, that’s you guys’ job.”

The next day, accompanied by Pandolf security, the two located the Pandolf locker with the long Indian name. 

T’hodd put his mask on. “This place stinks.”

“You’ll get used to it,” KaLisa said.

The six-number code did not work. When they broke the lock, there was nothing inside. 

Then one of the Pandolf officers said that she knew Garcia’s son. 

“My partner and I already visited them once,” Bobbie said. “A tenant complained about these two kids living alone and how a girl was always over.

That evening, Bobbie and Andie visited the three teenagers who eyed them suspiciously. After their last visit,  the social workers had arrived. Shelly had been questioned, George’s aunt in Chicago was called and Lucky had to claim responsibility for Charlie. Michaela’s social situation was still under review in Family Services.

The cluttered living room smelled like pizza. “How’re you guys doing?” Bobbie asked. 

“Fine,” Charlie said.

“Well, George, we’re trying to get some information to help your dad get released. It looks like there was a map?” Andy asked.

“You mean he could be home soon?”

Andy shook his head. “I don’t know. But about the map?”

“Of course,” said George politely, “yes, the map of Pandolf. It was in my suitcase. I’ll go find it.”

“I also have a picture of it,” Michaela piped in.

The paper was located under some empty Chinese take-out containers.

“George, has anyone besides the three of you seen this map?” Andy asked. 

“My dad, he drew on it.”

“How long has it been in your suitcase?” 

“I don’t know.”

Taking the map, Andy and Bobbie left with barely a goodbye from the teenagers who gave them the side eye as they left.

After the officers left, Michaela said, “I think they picked a black woman to relate to me.”

“Who’s ‘they?’” George asked.

“Guys, are we going to talk about this again?” Charlie said. “I’ll go work on my statistics project.” He left the room.

Manny Garcia was released from ICE detention the next day. He called George immediately. “I’ll meet you at school tomorrow afternoon. We’ll take everyone — who wants to come —  out for a thank-you dinner.”

“And Dad, when you come back, I’ll move in with you?” 

“I hope so, George.”. 

After Garcia hung up, he looked down at the scuff marks on the worn vinyl floor of the holding center, marks of many life stories and journeys. 

What had happened to the child who once told him that when he heard his dad’s voice, he knew everything would be fine? How would he thank David? What kind of gift would Shelly enjoy?

Sunday night, alone in the apartment, Shelly prepared to sleep, 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,

Her phone buzzed. Against a background of a DNA helix, Dr. Garcia’s photo appeared. 

Finally, she thought, a month later, he is 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 evenly. “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 next morning, Garcia waited outside Dr. Nepksi’s office at Pandolf Medical Center. The tall wooden door had a brass plate: “Samuel Joseph Nepski, MD, Chairman, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.”

Nepski’s secretary was a heavy-set woman in her 60s who looked ready to retire. She barely lifted her head to acknowledge him before politely asking him to be seated. A few minutes later, she nodded at him and glanced at the door to give him permission.

Inside, Nepski sat behind a long antique desk and motioned him to sit.

“Manny,” he said abruptly, “we found things under the Drukker printer. Dr. Narayan told me she discovered you in the lab — while you were using them. She believed what you told her about doing ‘repairs’ and came to me because she was concerned about finishing the repairs. But when the technician came, he said you were tampering with the 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, and 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.”

Garcia glanced around at the familiar 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 clinic had reached out to me about purchasing the Drukker for their cancer treatment center. They were doing some pilot research and sent me patient data files to analyze.”

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

Incredulous, he stopped. “What’s an IRB, Institutional Review Board, Manny — there to prevent the abuse of trust of patients?  If these rules aren’t something you honor, you don’t belong here.” 

“Dr. Nepski,” Garcia protested, “I had no identifying information about who these patients are. The clinic is an international, reputable organization that obtained proper authorizations to use their de-identified files for investigational purposes.”

“What kind of data were you analyzing?”

“Many types: 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 series.

“Then I only destroyed my results because I knew somebody was spying on me. Since I didn’t know who it was, I wanted to protect the clinic and my work.”

But he had not destroyed the data, he thought, just downloaded files onto computer drives for Campbell, hiding them with his Soria 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 the lawyer that your sister retained in Chicago. My guess is they’ll want to speak to this clinic you consulted for.

“In America, we have a basketball term, ‘no harm, no foul.’ If Legal can verify everything you say, things may be OK. 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. “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, Dr. Nepski.”

“Manny, one favor before you leave. Dr. Safire is stuck in one of his projects using the Drukker. He really thinks it’s a fine tool for fertility research. Please point him in the right direction before you go.”

“Of course. Thank you again, Dr. Nepski.”

“Manny,” Nepski said, “ Come look out the window with me. I am proud of Pandolf, the best of the best.”

“Yes, sir.”

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

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 — 23 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