The Investigation of Us

This piece placed 2nd in NYC Midnight’s 2024 Short Story Contest (Round 1). Based on a true story. Who says you can’t blend creative fiction with family lawyering? Enjoy.

A brain surgeon and her ex-husband with Alzheimer’s become entwined in a Medicare fraud investigation, blurring the lines between personal tragedies and legal dilemmas.

Riggs Woolmer, Retired Science Teacher

Okay, focus. Branca told me what to say. It was important. What was it? Something about our finances, or was it our anniversary plans? No, no, focus on the question he just asked. He’s not smiling. Should he be smiling? Maybe he’s just trying to be professional. Or maybe he’s onto us. No, don’t think like that. Stay positive. But his eyes, they’re…searching, questioning.

“Mr. Woolmer—Riggs—tell me why you divorced Branca?” The man sits facing me on a bench in a park. He handed me paperwork with my name on it and Branca’s name on it. The box reads DECREE OF DISSOLUTION OF MARRIAGE. It’s signed by someone I don’t know. I put it on the bench.

He looks official in that crisp suit. People in suits usually mean something serious. He’s not a doctor, is he? No, Branca said something about an investigator. Right, that must be it. A crisp suit, blue tie—blue like scrubs, like Branca. No, he’s not a doctor. She’s a doctor. He’s an investigator.

“I—I can’t remember,” I say. Branca said something about falling apart. How to phrase it? Don’t mess this up. This is important for Branca and for us.

The man smiles. “You don’t remember why you left your wife of forty years?” The waves hit hard, like smashing into a wall and getting smothered by an ocean. A life without her is not worth living. Stay focused, Riggs. This isn’t real. She said something, remember it, damn it, Riggs. Wait, something about not living together for…medical reasons? Yes, that sounds right. Stick to that. But how to phrase it? Or did she say not to say that?

“My condition,” I say. The man sits up, reshuffling papers that he writes on.

“What about your condition led to a divorce?” He’s looking at me, expecting an answer. Does he know I’m lost? I can’t let him see that I’m…that I’m… what’s the word? Vulnerable? Compromised?

“I didn’t—I didn’t leave her,” I say. My god, how hard it is to think she’d leave me. But focus. Did she leave me? Why? It wasn’t because Matty died, was it? The man is waiting for an answer. What did she say—did she leave me? Tears sting my eyes. Maybe she did leave me, and he’s asking me why, but I don’t know. I remember Matty in the hospital after the crash. He didn’t have a chance.

The man’s face softens, and he hands me a tissue. “I understand this is challenging, Mr. Woolmer. So, you say she filed for divorce because of your condition?” Branca’s face reappears, and she tells me something I should remember. Remember, but don’t repeat, she told me. Remember, but don’t repeat. Tell him we didn’t work out, but don’t tell him…about the baby? Or should I tell him about the baby, but not that we didn’t work out?

“I don’t know,” I say. Damn it, I said something else.

“And you filed for Medicare immediately after this divorce, right?” The man leans in again, waiting for me again. It’s so hard to keep facts straight. Did Branca divorce me? She said something about Medicare…ah yes, assets, I remember. We had assets, but they were hers because I did something. I did something that wasn’t enough—maybe? What did I do?

He asks me another question. “Mr. Woolmer, you were a teacher. Do you remember that?” A teacher, yes! That was it. I wasn’t good enough because I was a teacher. No, Branca wouldn’t say that. I loved my kids. So many kids—even when we lost Matty the kids kept us going. I wasn’t good enough because what? Damn it, Riggs.

“Yes,” I say. That is all I can say because I can’t remember. The man writes on his papers. “But I wasn’t good enough.” He pauses, looking up at me. I am crying because I can’t remember if Branca left me. What did she tell me to say? Kids laugh and scream around us. The day is beautiful and warm, like our days on our porch after work.

The man looks sad, too. He closes his papers and tucks them into the suitcase. “Did she leave me?” I ask. Maybe he knows—how can I get him to tell me? Branca said so many things. I’ve forgotten. He picks up the paper from the bench and hands it to me. It reads, DECREE OF DISSOLUTION OF MARRIAGE. My god, she did leave me. No, Riggs, stop it. Did you see her yesterday, or was it a week ago? She said she would never leave me. But where is she now?

“Thank you, Mr. Woolmer, for meeting with me. I understand this was difficult for you. Your nurse should be here shortly to take you back to the residence. I’ll make my determination in the coming weeks. Take care.”

“Y-y-you remind me of my son,” I say. The man looks back at me. He stares.

Goodbye, Matty.


Branca Woolmer, MD

“We divorced on our wedding day.”

It’s too dramatic. I shouldn’t have. But I’ve said it, and the investigator writes. Did Riggs give us away? He couldn’t have gotten too far—he gets confused easily, and it’s more likely he thinks I’ve left him for good. They were smart to interview us simultaneously; there’s no way I could have gotten to him beforehand. If only he could understand how crucial this is. His condition… it’s not just forgetting names and dates; it’s losing parts of us. But I can’t let that distract me now.

We’re in this mess because Meinhart’s attending nurse, Stephanie, reported me. Because I reported her for not getting Riggs his medication on time. She was always disorganized, blaming staff shortages for her incompetence. And Meinhart was too cowardly to get rid of her. I haven’t seen her for a while.

“You reported half a million in assets on your financial disclosures in the divorce case.” The investigator—Brittany, or Lauren, or whatever her name is. Unlike what I’d expect from a federal investigator, she’s not wearing a nametag. She flips through her giant file. Our divorce case is in it—and we didn’t object to handing it over. I nod. “Yes, most of that was inheritance. It’s separate property under law.” I say this confidently, but during the divorce, the lawyers advised us that it was a far stretch to consider funds from Matty’s death decades ago as even tangentially separate. But I took it all—it was the only way Riggs qualified for Medicare. Everyone knew what we were doing. We were still in love. My assets alone wouldn’t have been enough for the both of us. I wanted a life, too; I wanted to retire with comfort. Now, I need it more than ever.

The Medicare investigator is young, like Stephanie. They could pass as sisters even: blonde hair, thin lips, and beady blue eyes. Stupid but dangerous. I wonder how she got into this miserable spot—maybe a failed degree in social work. So now, prosecuting the elderly for trying to seek services they should have received with their tax money somehow makes her feel better about herself.

She asks me why, cutting to the chase, her eyes hardly leaving mine. Is she looking for signs of deceit? Maintain eye contact and confidence. You’ve held a human brain; you can handle this scrutiny. And why wouldn’t I divorce a husband of 40 years with Stage 2 Alzheimer’s? I want to say I was a cold-hearted bitch, who didn’t want to take care of him anymore at the risk of a reduced quality of life. It hasn’t been easy post-divorce, living the same way we did and his condition deteriorating. So, there’s some truth to it. My poor Riggs, how can I feel or think this way after all you’ve done for me all these years?

“It wasn’t easy,” I say. “But it was for the best.” She writes some more.

“But from what I understand, he remains under your care at the hospital, correct?” Interesting choice of question. She’s probing, looking for inconsistencies. Stick to the facts, the rehearsed narrative. But don’t sound rehearsed. Natural, yet precise – like in surgery. I shake my head lightly, maintaining eye contact but softening it so it doesn’t appear threatening. A smile to indicate she’s wrong.

“No, I am not his treatment provider. I’m on the care team. His primary physician is Dr. Meinhart, whom I’ve worked with for many years and consider competent and reputable. It’s a multidisciplinary effort. Just because we couldn’t work intimately—-romantically—doesn’t mean I don’t care about him. We’re witnessing a cognitive decline in his case. This refers to the gradual impairment of cognitive functions such as memory, language, thinking, and judgment. I’m not a cold-hearted bitch.” She pauses—returning a crafted smile for my candidness. She raises an eyebrow, preparing another clever inquiry.

“Isn’t treating your ex-spouse at all a conflict of interest?” She thinks I’m bitter enough to kill an old man with Alzheimer’s. I knew this question would come up. Stay calm. Answer carefully. This isn’t just about protocol but our lives and our health. Could the lines be blurred? Not if Meinhart is the lead. I know he’s never there, and that’s our agreement. Riggs is a slow decline anyway. But Meinhart’s his lead, not me. I can’t be, not for any longer.

“Like I said, I’m not his treating physician. I am part of his care team; his treating physician is Dr. Meinhart. There is no conflict. The hospital certainly wouldn’t expect me to resign over a divorce and my ex-husband.”

Brittany—or Lauren—isn’t buying it.

“Why did you get divorced on your wedding anniversary?” This one’s easy.

“I don’t pick divorce dates; the court does. It was an unfortunate coincidence.” She buys this answer and seems to give back some of my credibility.

“Thanks for your time,” the woman says, packing her things. It’s time.

“I have a diagnosis, too,” I confess. She pauses. “It’s a rare form of Primary Central Nervous System Lymphoma. PCNSL. Riggs doesn’t know. Please don’t tell him.”

The woman says she’s sorry and then leaves. Whether it’s cancer or Riggs, time is running out at the hospital.


Sarah Spitzer and Steven Hull, Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General

Steven and Sarah are new. Younger than the average HHS employee, they’ve made a name for themselves as the Dynamic Duo: eager and sometimes indifferent, unraveling elaborate Medicare fraud schemes. There is no job too difficult for them. They revel—too much—in securing convictions of doctors, patients, and accomplices to save the federal government millions of dollars annually. Their pay is abysmal, and they are unglamorous positions. Steven, more than Sarah, takes great care to conceal his work at happy hours with friends. “I work with Health and Human Services,” he insists, clutching a cheap, wet beer bottle for as long as anyone bothers interrogating him. His best friend calls him the Grim Reaper, ruining old people’s lives.

“Mr. Woolmer looks like my dad,” Steven says. It’s the first time he’s mentioned his dad in a long while. His fifth-floor office is sterile, overlooking a dull, residential neighborhood. Sarah rolls her eyes and laughs. She wanted to go to medical school but couldn’t pass her MCATs. It’s only been a few years, but Steven thinks she enjoys prosecuting doctors because of it.

“Pretty sure Branca doesn’t look like your mom.” Sarah places her case file on his desk. She doesn’t know that Steven’s mom divorced his dad when he was fourteen. His parents fought for years over Steven joining the military at eighteen until the court said Steven was an adult and could choose his own path. He chose to run away, first to college and then to a tedious desk job with the feds, thanks to his mom. It wasn’t long until he found a knack for uncovering fraud.

“The old man confused himself so badly I can’t really tell if they’re divorced or not—he certainly doesn’t.” Steven plays with his ID card, settling into his office chair and milling through Sarah’s case file. It’s been a couple years since he talked to his dad. He wants to talk, but his father can’t get over the fact that Steven works for the feds. Like joining the military would’ve been any better—despite his father’s wishes.

“What do you think?” Steven says.

“There’s no way,” Sarah starts. “She’s got half a million in assets—they agreed she’d keep it, he qualifies, and they go on business as usual post-divorce.” Sarah doesn’t tell Steven about Branca’s cancer because she can’t believe it. Why would Branca confess to her, a failed doctor-slash-investigator?

Steven stopped writing early into his interview. The old man was so confused and unhelpful that following his thought train was more maddening than sitting back and enjoying the ride. Is Steven going to be Woolmer’s Grim Reaper? Woolmer appears in his head, sad and confused.

“Y-y-you look like my son.” His lips are cracked, contrasted by the wetness of his gaping mouth.

“Steven, you’re joking, right? This is an open and shut case of fraud,” Sarah cuts through, and Woolmer’s face disappears. Steven closes the file on his desk, flipping his ID tag behind him.

“I don’t know; I think she left him,” Steven recalls the pain on his father’s face when the divorce decree came in. He held it in the kitchen, staring at it, and cried like a baby. It was his father’s parenting time, and Steven always wondered if his mother did it to him intentionally.

“Who else gets divorced on their wedding day?” Steven adds. “It sounds real to me.”

“They didn’t pick their divorce date. The court did,” Sarah finds herself repeating Branca’s answer. She hesitates, wondering if the rest of their conversation was true. Doctors can be arrogant—but not because they’re lying. Maybe Branca wasn’t ripping off the system for overpriced machines. Sarah doesn’t doubt that Branca would ever risk her license, or maybe she would for Riggs. She doesn’t know what a care team is or how any hospital would let Branca get involved with an ex-husband. PCNSL doesn’t sound real.

“You think Stephanie lied to us?” Sarah watches Steven, who flips to Stephanie’s interview notes.

“She got fired for nearly killing a patient—not just mismanaging this guy. She’s not our best witness.” Steven tries hard to forget Woolmer’s drooling face. Would the Inspector really throw this guy in jail? Would Woolmer sit in a concrete cell, mulling over whether his ex-wife did it on purpose, to punish them for the son they lost decades ago? The son he looks like.

There’s a knock at the door. The assistant Inspector General walks in, smiling.

“Dynamic Duo—tell me you’ve got a verdict! Crazy case, isn’t it?”

Steven speaks, and Sarah doesn’t stop him.

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