Scanned by Highroller.
Proofed by .
Special thanks to Charlotte Abbott for her many valuable insights.
And thanks to the usual crew for their enlightened and discerning input: David Hartwell, Coates Bateman, Elizabeth Monteleone, Steven Spruill, and Albert Zuckerman.
Kate Iverson stared out the window of the hurtling taxi and wondered where she was. New York was not her town. She knew certain sections, and if it were daytime she might have had some idea as to her location, but here in the dark and fog she could have been anywhere.
She'd started the trip thirty minutes and who-knew-how-many miles ago in the West Twenties with a follow-that-cab scenario—I still can't believe I really said that—that moved across town and up the FDR Drive. The East River had served as a comforting landmark for a while, but as twilight had faded to night, the river fell behind, replaced by dark shapes and fuzzy lights looming in the fog beyond the roadway.
"What road is this?" she asked the driver.
Through the Plexiglas barrier came the accented reply, double-rolling the r's: "Bruckner Expressway." The driver's ID tag showed a dark mustached face with glowering black eyes and indicated he was Mustafah Salaam.
She'd often heard "the Bruckner" mentioned in the incessant traffic reports on New York City radio but had no idea where it was.
"This is Bronx," the driver added, anticipating her next question.
Kate felt a quick stab of fear. The Bronx? Visions of burned-out buildings and rubble-strewn lots swirled through her brain.
Oh, Jeanette, she thought, staring ahead at the cab they were following, where are you going? Where are you taking me?
Kate had stashed her two teenagers with her ex and taken a short leave from her pediatric group practice in Trenton to stay with Jeanette during her recovery from brain tumor therapy. The experimental treatment had been a resounding success. No ill effects… at least none that would be apparent to Jeanette's treating physician.
But since completion of the treatment, Kate had noticed a definite personality change. The Jeanette Vega she'd come to know and deeply love over these past two years was a warm, giving person, full of enthusiasm for life, with an opinion about everything. A delightfully edgy chatterbox. But slowly she had changed. The new Jeanette was cold and distant, rarely speaking unless spoken to, leaving her apartment without a word about where she was going, disappearing for hours at a time.
At first Kate had chalked it up to an acute reactive depression. Why not? What medical diagnosis can rock the foundations of your world more deeply than an inoperable malignant brain tumor? But depression didn't quite explain her behavior. When Jeanette should have been depressed—when she'd been told she had a literal death sentence growing in her brain—she'd remained her upbeat self. Now, after a miraculous cure, after regaining her whole future, she'd become another person.
Maybe it was a stress reaction.
Or a side effect of the treatment. As a physician Kate prided herself on keeping current with medical progress, so she was familiar with medicine's cutting edge; but the experimental protocol that had saved Jeanette seemed damn near science fiction.
Yet it had worked. The tumor was dead, and Jeanette would live on.
But would she live on without Kate?
That, Kate admitted, was what was really disturbing her. Nearing middle age—in darn good shape for forty-four, she knew, but still six years older than Jeanette—she couldn't help worrying that Jeanette had found someone else. Someone younger.
That would be so unlike the old Jeanette. But this new Jeanette… who could say?
Jeanette had been put on notice that her remaining time on earth was numbered in months instead of decades; she'd believed she'd seen her last Christmas tree, tasted her last Thanksgiving dinner. And then it was all given back to her. How could anyone's psyche survive that sort of trauma unscathed?
Perhaps the ordeal had caused Jeanette to reassess her life. Maybe she'd looked around and asked, Is this what I want? And perhaps, in some new back-from-the-brink perspective, she'd decided she wanted something else. More. Different.
At least she could tell me, Kate thought. She owes me that much.
Jeanette hadn't asked her to leave—she had the right since it was her apartment—but she had moved out of the bedroom they'd always shared on Kate's visits and into the study where she slept on the couch. No amount of questioning from Kate had elicited a reason why.
The not knowing gnawed at her. So tonight, when Jeanette had walked out the door without a word, Kate had followed.
Never in a million years would she have imagined herself trailing the woman she loved through the night. But things change. It hadn't been all that long ago that she never would have imagined herself loving another woman.
Up ahead, Jeanette's cab turned off the Bruckner and Kate's followed it onto a road the signs identified as the Bronx River Parkway. And after a few miles the city suddenly disappeared and they were in the woods—in the Bronx?
"Stay closer," she told the driver. "You're letting them get too far ahead."
She didn't want to come all this way just to lose her.
Then Kate saw signs for the Bronx Zoo and New York Botanical Gardens. More turns, each new road smaller than the last until they were traveling a tree-lined residential street.
"Are we still in the Bronx?" she asked, marveling at all the well-kept homes trailing by on either side.
"Still Bronx, yes," the driver told her.
How come it never looks like this on TV? she wondered.
"Keep going," Kate said when she saw Jeanette's cab pull into the curb before a neat brick colonial.
Her anxiety soared as a thousand questions cascaded through her mind. Who lived there? Another woman?
She had the driver stop half a block beyond. She watched Jeanette's cab leave her on the sidewalk and pull away. As Jeanette started up the walk toward the house, Kate opened her own cab's door.
"Wait here," she said.
"No-no," the driver said. "You must pay."
Nice neighborhood or not, this was still the Bronx, and a long way from Jeanette's apartment. Kate did not want to be stranded here. She glanced at the meter and fished the exact amount out of her wallet.
"Here," she said, keeping her voice low as she handed him the money. "You'll get your tip when we get back to the city."
He seemed to accept that, nodding without comment as he took the money.
She pulled her raincoat tightly around her. A chilly night for June. The fog was thinning and the wet street glistened in the glow from the streetlights; every sound seemed amplified. Kate was glad she'd worn sneakers as she padded along the street, keeping the parked cars between her and Jeanette.
When she'd approached as close as she dared, she stopped behind a tree trunk and watched Jeanette walk up the front steps of the house. Kate's heart ached at the sight of her: a yellow rain slicker and loose jeans hid her feminine curves; a Yankees cap hid much of her straight, jet black hair, but Kate knew those curves, remembered the strawberry scent of the shampoo Jeanette used to wash that hair.
Suddenly Kate wished she hadn't come. Who was going to open that door? Forty minutes ago she'd been dying to know, now she was terrified. But she couldn't turn away. Especially not now, because the door was opening and a man stood there, a heavyset fiftyish man with a round face and small eyes and a balding melon head. He smiled and opened his arms and Jeanette embraced him.
Kate's stomach lurched.
A man? Not Jeanette! Anyone but Jeanette! It simply wasn't in her!
Stunned, she watched Jeanette follow him inside. No, this couldn't be. Kate moved out from behind her tree and approached the house. Her sneaker slipped on a wet tree root and she nearly fell, but kept going, stumbling on until she reached the foot of the front stoop. She saw the name Holdstock on the mailbox and fought a mad urge to hammer on the door.
Then she noticed silhouettes moving back and forth within the front windows. More than two. What was going on in there?
Kate started toward the nearer of the two windows but changed her mind. Too much light out here. Wouldn't do to have a neighbor pass by and catch her peeking in. She backed away and moved around to the shadowed side of the house. There she crouched between a pair of azalea bushes and peered through the screen into the Holdstock living room.
Six… seven—no, eight people in the room. Three men, five women, of varying ages, shapes, and sizes, all taking turns embracing Jeanette as if she were a long-lost relative. And Jeanette was smiling—oh, God, how Kate missed that smile. Days since she'd seen it, days that felt like a lifetime.
An odd group. And even odder that no one seemed to be speaking. Not a word. Apparently they'd been waiting for Jeanette, for immediately after greeting her they all seated themselves in the circle of chairs set up around the room. And still no one spoke. Everyone seemed to know what to do: they joined hands, closed their eyes, let their heads fall back… and smiled. Jeanette and all the rest wore beatific smiles, so full of peace and contentment that Kate, for an instant, envied them. They looked as if they were viewing God herself.
And then they began to hum. Not a transcendental "oum," this was a single note, and it went on and on, without a trace of harmony. Everyone humming the same note.
What are you into, Jeanette? A prayer group? Is that what's happened? Your old pantheism couldn't handle a malignant glioma so now you've joined some rapturous fundamentalist sect?
Kate heard a sob and realized it had come from her. She sagged against the bricks, weak with relief.
This I can handle, this I can deal with. As long as you don't reject me… us… what we've built over the years, I know we can come through this.
She backed away from the window, turning when she reached the front lawn. She gasped as she found a woman standing not two feet away.
"You have had fears, and now they are eased, yes?" A deep voice with a Russian accent.
She looked middle-aged and wore a white hooded cape that fell below her knees. Dark hair framed her face. Kate stepped back when she saw the big white dog standing at her side. It looked like some sort of husky. Its eyes reflected light from the street as it stared at her, but she sensed no hostility.
"You startled me," Kate stammered, not sure how to explain her presence here. "I… I was just—"
"You think is perhaps religious group? At worst a cult, yes?" Her dark eyes flashed, her lipsticked gash of a mouth tightened into a thin line as she raised a crooked index finger; she used it to emphasize her words by jabbing it at Kate. "Not cult. Worse than cult. Much worse. If you wish to save the loves of your life you must stop them."
"What?" Kate said, baffled. What was she talking about? "I can't—"
"Of course not. You will need help. Here is number to call." Her other hand wormed from under the cape and held out a card.
Kate hesitated, not knowing what to make of this woman. She seemed composed but her patter was paranoid. And yet… she seemed to know about her… and Jeanette.
"Take it," the woman said, thrusting the card at her. "And do not waste time. Time is short. Call him tonight. No one else… only him."
Kate squinted at the card in the dim light. Getting so hard to read lately—the price to pay for passing forty—and her glasses were tucked away in her bag. She pushed the card to arm's length and angled it for a better view. A phone number and a name, handwritten in an old-fashioned cursive style. She couldn't make out the number but the name was written larger: Jack.
That was it—no last name, no address, just… Jack.
She looked up and found herself alone. She hurried out to the sidewalk but the woman and her dog were nowhere to be seen, vanished as if they'd never been.
Am I going crazy? she wondered. But the card in her hand was real.
The woman's words echoed back to her: If you wish to save the loves of your life …
She'd said loves, hadn't she? Yes, Kate was sure of it… the woman had used the plural. Kate could think of only three loves in her life: Jeanette, of course, but even before her came Kevin and Elizabeth.
Something twisted in Kate's chest at the thought of her children being in some sort of danger… needing to be saved.
But how could that be possible? Kevin and Lizzie were safe in Trenton with their father. And what possible danger could the hand-holding, regular middle-class folks in the Holdstock living room pose to her children?
Still the mere hint from someone, even an addled stranger, that they might be in danger jangled Kate's nerves. Danger from what? Attack? They were both teenagers now, but that didn't mean they couldn't be molested.
She glanced back at the house and thought she saw a curtain move in one of the front windows. Had one of the worshipers or whatever they were been watching her?
This was too creepy. As she turned and hurried back toward her waiting cab, more of the old woman's words pursued her.
And do not waste time. Time is short. Call him tonight.
Kate looked at the card. Jack. Who was he? Where was he?
Riding the Niner.
Sandy Palmer wondered what percentage of his twenty-five years he'd spent bumping and swaying along this particular set of subway tracks back and forth to Morningside Heights. And always in the last car, since that left him a few steps closer to his apartment.
Got to save those steps. He figured everyone was allotted only so many, and if you use them up too fast you're looking at early death or a wheelchair. Obviously marathoners and the hordes of joggers crowding the city parks either were unaware of or gave little credence to the Sandy Palmer theory of step preservation and reclamation. They'd regret it later on.
Sandy glanced around the car at his fellow passengers. Seven years now riding either the Nine or the One, starting with his first semester at Columbia Journalism and the frequent trips down to the Village or SoHo, now every damn day getting jammed in on the way down to midtown and back for his job with The Light. And in all that time his fellow riders still looked pretty much the same as they always had. Maybe a few more whites in the mix these days, but not many.
Take this car, for instance: Relatively crowded for a post-rush-hour run, but not SRO. Still a couple of empty seats. Working people—nurse's aides, bus drivers, jackhammer operators, store clerks, short order cooks, garment workers. Their skin tones ran a bell curve, starting with very black, peaking in the mid-browns, and tapering off into lily-white land. After growing up in Caucasian Connecticut, Sandy had had to get used to being a member of a minority on the subway. He'd been a little uneasy at first, thinking that people were staring at him; it took months before he felt comfortable again in his white skin.
The white guy dozing diagonally across from him on the L-shaped plastic bench they shared mid-car looked pretty comfortable. Talk about generic pale male—if Sandy hadn't been thinking about white people he probably wouldn't have noticed him. Clean shaven, brown hair sticking out from under the dark blue knit cap pulled down to his eyebrows, an oversized white Jets shirt with a big green 80, jeans, and scuffed work boots. The color of his eyes was up for grabs because they were closed.
Sandy wondered what he did for a living. The clothes gave no clue other than the fact that he wasn't white collar. Clean hands, not overly callused, though his thumbnails seemed unusually long.
The train slowed then and about a third of the passengers rose as signs announcing FORTY-SECOND STREET / TIMES SQUARE started slipping past the windows. The generic pale male opened his eyes to check the stop, then closed them again. Mild brown eyes. Definitely a GPM—an infinitely interchangeable example of the species.
Not like me, he thought. With my blond hair, hazel eyes, thick glasses, this big nose, and acne scars left over from my pre-Accutane teenage years, anyone could pick me out of a lineup in a minute.
New riders replaced those debarking almost one for one, spreading through the car in search of seats. He saw a slim young woman move toward a double seat at the very front of the car, but the man in it, a scraggly-bearded Asian guy in a stained fatigue jacket, with wild hair and wilder eyes, had his gym bag and a boom box on the empty half and he brusquely waved her away.
Wisely, she didn't argue—he looked like the sort who was heavy into soliloquies—and went elsewhere in search of a seat. Sandy figured that was a potential blessing in disguise because she was moving toward the middle of the car, toward him.
Keep coming, he thought, wishing he were telepathic. I've got your seat—right here next to me.
She looked about twenty or so, all in black—sweater, tights, shoes, even the wire rims on her tiny funky glasses. She'd done one of those shoe-black dye jobs on her short, Winona Ryder-style hair, which made her pale face—not Winona Ryder's face, unfortunately, but still pretty—look all the paler.
Sandy slid to his left, leaving half of his butt off the edge of the seat to give her plenty of room. She took the bait and slipped in next to him. She didn't look at him, simply opened her book and began to read.
Instead of rejoicing, Sandy felt his insides tighten. What now? What to say?
Relax, he told himself. Just take a deep breath, figure out what you can about her, and see if you can find some common ground.
Easy to say, but so hard to do. At least for Sandy. He'd never done too well with women. He'd been to a couple of the campus counselors when he was a student and they'd both said the same thing: fear of rejection.
As if someone needed a Ph.D. to tell him that. Of course he feared rejection. Nobody in the whole damn world liked rejection, but that didn't seem to stop people from courting it by coming on to each other with the lamest, sappiest lines. So why did the mere possibility of rejection paralyze him? The counselors liked to tell him the why of the fear didn't matter so much as overcoming it.
Okay, he thought. Let's overcome this. What have we got here? We've got a book-reading Goth chick heading uptown on the 9 express. Got to be a student. Probably Barnard.
As the train lurched into motion again, he checked out her book: Hitchcock by Francois Truffaut.
Bingo. Film student. Columbia.
Okay. Here goes.
He wet his lips, swallowed, took that deep breath…
"Going for your film M.F.A., right?" he said.
Nothing. She didn't turn her head, didn't even blink. She did move, but just to turn the page of her book. He might as well have used sign language on a blind person.
But he knew he hadn't imagined speaking, knew he must have been audible because the GPM opened one of his eyes for a two-second look his way, then closed it again. Reminded Sandy of Duffy, their family cat: a one-eyed glance—two would require too much energy—was the only acknowledgment that chunky old torn granted when someone new entered his presence.
So now what? He felt like he was back in high school after asking some girl if she wanted to dance and she'd just said no. That had happened only once but that once had been enough to stop him from ever asking anyone again. Should he retreat now? Slink away and hide his head? Or push it?
He raised his voice. "I said, are you going for your film M.F.A.?"
She looked up, glanced at him with dark brown eyes for maybe a whole millisecond, then went back to her book.
"Yes," she said, but she spoke to the book.
"I like Hitchcock," he told her.
Again to the book: "Most people do."
This was going nowhere fast. Maybe she'd warm up if she knew he'd gone to Columbia, too.
"I graduated from the School of Journalism a couple of years ago."
That did it, Sandy, he thought. That broke the ice. She's really hot for you now. Shit, why didn't you just keep your mouth shut?
He racked his brain for another line. He'd already been given the cold shoulder; nothing left to lose now. He'd swum beyond his point of no return, so he had to keep going. She was either going to let him drown in a sea of rejection or send him a lifeboat.
He smiled. Just the kind of crappy imagery his journalism professors had tried to scour from his brain. One had even told him he wrote the most cliche-ridden prose he'd ever read. But what was the big deal about cliches? They served a purpose in journalism, especially tabloid journalism. Readers understood them, expected them, and probably felt something was missing if they didn't run across a couple.
The sudden blast of music from the front of the car cut off the thought. Sandy looked around and saw that the wild-haired guy in the fatigue jacket had turned on his boom box and cranked it up to full volume. It was pumping out a sixties tune Sandy half knew—"Time Has Come Today" by the Something-or-other Brothers.
Back to the film student. Maybe he should dazzle her by mentioning his great job at the city's most infamous weekly tabloid, The Light, where his degree from one of the country's great journalism programs landed him an entry-level position one step above the janitorial staff—except in pay. Or how he's been doing interviews at every other paper around the city trying to move up from The Light and no one's calling back. That'll impress her.
Oh, hell, go for gold and let her put you out of your misery.
"What's your name?"
Without missing a beat she said, "Lina Wertmuller."
Not just unfriendly, she thinks I'm an idiot. Well two can play that game.
Sandy stuck out his hand. "Glad to meet you, Lina. I'm Henry Louis Mencken, but you can call me H. L."
To Sandy's shock she lifted her head and laughed. He'd made a funny and she'd laughed. What a wonderful sound, even if he could barely hear it over the blasting music.
And then the name of the group behind the song came to him: the Chambers Brothers.
Suddenly—other sounds. Shouts, cries, screams, and people stumbling, scrambling past him in a mad rush toward the rear end of the car.
"It's time now!" cried a voice. "Yes, it's time."
Sandy turned and saw the Asian in the fatigue jacket standing before the door at the front end of the car. His black eyes were mad, endlessly, vacantly mad, and he clutched in each hand a black pistol that seemed too long and too thick in the barrel. Then Sandy realized they were equipped with silencers.
Oh, Christ, he thought, shock launching him to his feet, he's going to start shooting.
And then he saw the bodies and the blood and knew that the shooting had already begun. Images flashed through his instantly adrenalized brain as he turned to run—not everyone from the front of the car had made it to the rear; the first to be shot lay where they'd fallen…
… like the Korean guy, maybe Sandy's age, with rust-colored hair and a Nike swoosh on his cap, sprawled on the red-splattered floor, facing Sandy with his headphones still on his ears, blood leaking from his nose, and black eyes staring into the beyond…
… like the heavy black woman in the two-piece sleeveless gray suit over a black polka dotted white blouse with starched pristine cuffs, lying face down, still twitching as the last of her life ran out from under her wig and stained the copy of Rolie Polie Olie that had spilled from her Barnes and Noble bag…
… or the others who'd hit the deck and now huddled and crouched and cringed between seats, holding up their hands palm out as if to stop the bullets, and pleading for mercy…
But they were asking the wrong guy, because the man with the guns was tuned to some other frequency as he shuffled along the aisle, swinging his pistols left and right and pumping bullets through the silencers. Phut!… phut! … phut! The sounds barely audible through the music as slugs tore into heads and tear-stained faces, sometimes right through the supplicating hands. He moved without the slightest hint of urgency, looking for all the world like a suburban homeowner on a sunny Saturday morning strolling his lawn with a can of herbicide and casually spraying the weeds he passed.
And somewhere up there, up front, someone's bowels had let loose and the stink was filling the car.
Brain screaming in panic, Sandy ducked and swung around and saw the GPM crouched behind his seat, facing the rear of the car, and he must have lost it because he was shouting something that sounded like, "Doesn't anyone have a goddamn gun?"
Yeah, asshole! Sandy wanted to say. The guy standing in the aisle has two, and he's coming your way!
Turning further Sandy came face to face with Lina or whoever she was and knew the naked fear in her blanched face must have mirrored his own. He looked past her at the rest of the screaming, panicked riders crammed like a mass of worms into the rear of the car, the nearer ones wriggling, kicking, biting, clawing to get further to the rear and the ones at the very back battling with all they had to stay where they were, and suddenly Sandy knew what the others had already discovered—that once you got back there you had nowhere to go unless you could find a way to open the rear door and jump onto the tracks at who-knew-how-many-miles an hour and hope that if you were lucky enough not to break your neck when you hit, you wouldn't land on the third rail and get fried to a cinder.
He saw a brown hand snake upward at the rear of the press, grip the red emergency handle, and yank down…
Saw the handle come free as the cord snapped.
And just then the Fifty-ninth Street/Columbus Circle station lit up around the train but it didn't slow because oh shit it was going to skip Sixty-sixth Street as well and not stop until Seventy-second.
Seventy-second! No wonder the gunman was in no hurry. He had his prey cornered like cattle in a stockyard pen and could slaughter them at will—kill just about everyone before the train reached its next stop.
Sandy saw only one chance to save his life. If he could get to the rear there, worm his way through the massed crowd, even if he had to do it on hands and knees—he was thin, he could do it—and get as far back as he could and crawl under a seat, maybe he could survive until Seventy-second Street. That would be the end of it. When the doors opened the gunman would take off or blow his own brains out, and Sandy would be safe. All he had to do was survive until then.
Another glance at the gunman showed him pointing one of his pistols down at someone Sandy couldn't see. The only visible part of the next victim was a pair of hands raised above the back of a seat, a woman's hands, mocha colored, nails painted bright red, fingers interlocked as if in prayer.
Even more frightening was the realization that this faceless woman and the GPM appeared to be the last living people between Sandy and the killer. Panic took a choke hold on his throat as he turned and lunged toward the rear of the car—oh sweet Jesus he didn't want to die he was too young and he hadn't really begun to live so he couldn't die now oh please not now not now—but the film student was there, half in, half out of a crouch and he slammed against her, knocking her over, and they both went down, Sandy landing on top as they hit the floor.
He was losing it now, ready to scream at the bitch for getting in his way, but more important than screaming was knowing right now, right this instant where the gunman was, so he looked back, praying he wouldn't see that impassive bearded face looming behind the muzzle of a silencer. Instead he saw the GPM, whose face was set into grim lines of fury and whose eyes now were anything but mild, and he was muttering, "Shit-shit-shit!" and pulling up the cuff of his jeans where something leather was strapped and then he was yanking a metallic object from the leather and Sandy saw it was a tiny pistol. At first he thought it was one of those old-fashioned Derringers women and gamblers carried in westerns but when he saw the dude work the little slide back and forth he realized it was a miniature automatic.
And now the GPM—Sandy was finding it hard to think of him as generic anymore but didn't have any other handle for the guy—was on his feet and moving toward the killer and Sandy wondered, What's he think he's going to do with that little pop gun? and then it went off and after the dainty little phuts of the killer's guns the sound was like a cannon in the confines of the subway car and the bullet must have caught the killer in the shoulder because that was where his fatigue jacket exploded in red, knocking him back and spinning him half around. He screamed in pain and stared with eyes full of shock and wonder and fear at this guy coming at him from out of nowhere. Sandy couldn't see the GPM's face as he worked the slide to his pistol again, just the back of his head and not much of that thanks to the knit cap, but he did see the woman who'd been the next intended victim crawl out from where she'd been cowering on the floor and scrabble past the dude on her belly, her teary eyes showing white all around, her lip-sticked mouth a scarlet 0 of terror.
Then the killer started to raise the gun in his good hand but the GPM was still moving toward him like an eagle swooping in on a field mouse, had that little pistol raised and it boomed again, the recoil jerking his hand high in the air, the second bullet detonating another explosion of red, this time in the killer's other shoulder, knocking him back against one of the chrome hang-on poles in the center of the aisle where he sagged, both arms limp and useless at his sides, and gaped at the relentless man moving ever closer. He roared and lunged forward, whether to head-butt or bite the GPM no one would ever know, because without pausing, without the slightest hint of hesitation the GPM leveled that toy pistol at the killer's left eye and let it boom again. Sandy saw the killer's head snap back and the impact swing him halfway around the pole before he lurched free to do a loose-kneed pirouette and collapse, half sitting, half sprawled against one of the doors, very, very, very dead.
And then the GPM was working the little slide on his little gun again, and a fourth boom, this into the tape player, reducing it to a thousand flying black fragments and stopping its incessant cries about time having come today.
Stunned silence in the car after that final report—only the rattle of the wheels and the whistle of the wind racing past.
The word batted around the inside of Sandy's head, bouncing off the walls, looking for purchase on the disbelieving, rejecting surfaces. Finally it landed and took root as Sandy accepted the glorious possibility that he would see tomorrow.
And he wasn't alone. Cheers and cries of joy arose from the multitude packed like sardines at the rear of the car. Some were on their knees, tears on their faces and hands raised to heaven, thanking whoever or whatever they called god for deliverance; others were laughing and crying and hugging each other.
"We're alive!" the film student under him said. "What—?"
Abashed, Sandy rolled off of her. "Sorry."
She sat up and stared at him. "God, I can't believe you did that!"
"Please," he said, looking away to hide his shame. He saw the GPM in a crouch, picking up something from the floor, but couldn't focus on what he was doing. Sandy had to frame an answer. How could he explain the terror that had taken control of him? "I don't know what came over me. I—"
"You shielded me with your own body!"
What? He turned and found her staring at him, her chocolate-brown eyes wide and wonder filled.
"I've heard of it and, you know, seen it in films, but I never believed—I mean, you were like some Secret Service agent!"
And then her face screwed up and she started to cry… huge racking sobs that shook her fragile body.
Sandy's befuddled brain finally registered that she thought he'd knocked her down and landed on her to protect her. What did he say to that?
But before he could respond he heard a voice call out behind him.
"We've got a lady who's still alive here! Somebody get up here and help her!"
Sandy turned and saw that the GPM had turned to face the rest of the car, but he'd first stretched his knit cap down to his chin. The effect might have been comical but for that deadly little pistol still clutched in his hand. What was going on here? A few moments ago he'd had his face out in the open for everyone to see. Why hide it now?
"Come on!" he shouted through the weave. "Someone move their ass up here, goddamn it!"
A young black woman with cornrowed hair, wearing white pants and a blue sweater stepped forward.
"I'm an OR tech. I know a little—"
"Well, come on then! Maybe you can save one of your fellow ewes!"
She edged forward, giving Sandy an uneasy look as she slipped past him and hurried to a woman who was moaning and clutching her bloody head. He understood her uncertainty. What he didn't understand was the anger in the GPM's voice.
"Why me?" the man shouted. "Why do I have to save your sorry asses? I don't know you, I don't care about you, I want nothing to do with you, so why me? Why did I get stuck with it?"
"Hey, mister," said a tall lean black fellow who could have been a minister. "Why you so riled at us? We didn't do nothing."
"Exactly! That's the problem! Why didn't one of you put him down?"
"We didn't have no gun!" someone else said.
"And this creep knew that. He knew he'd be dealing with a herd of human sheep. Losers! You make me sick—all of you!"
This was scary. The dude seemed almost as crazy now as the mass murderer he'd just killed. Sandy was beginning to wonder whether they'd traded one maniac for another when the train roared into the Seventy-second Street station. He saw the GPM pocket his pistol and turn toward the door. As soon as the panels parted he leaped through and dashed across the platform. In a flash he was lost among the crowd.
Keeping his head down, Jack dodged through the people waiting on the narrow platform. Pulled his cap up as far as the bridge of his nose and kept one hand on his face, rubbing his cheeks and eyes as if they were irritated.
Of all the luck! Of all the lousy goddamn luck! Why on my train, in my car?
Someone in that car had seen his face, would remember it, give out a decent description, and by tomorrow his likeness would be on the front page of every paper in the city and flashing across TV screens every hour.
Maybe I should leave town tonight. And never come back.
But his face would be plastered all over the national news as well—Time, Newsweek, the network and cable shows. He'd be on every newsstand everywhere. Even if the likeness wasn't good, sooner or later someone would make a connection and point a finger.
And then life as Jack knew it would be over.
Yanked off the cap as soon as he hit the stairs, taking them two at a time while he pulled off his football jersey. Stuffed that into the hat and wadded it all into a tight little bundle. Hit street level as a bareheaded guy in a white T-shirt carrying something blue.
Keep your head, he told himself. You've still got options.
But did he? At the moment he hadn't a clue what they were. Knew there had to be some but right now his adrenaline-addled brain was too wired, too pissed to think of them.
The Seventy-second Street station opened onto a wrought-iron fenced island in the middle of the perpetual vehicular chaos where Broadway forced its way on a diagonal across Amsterdam Avenue. His instincts wanted him in a full-tilt sprint away from the station, urged him to jump the fence and skip through the traffic, but he forced his legs to keep to a walk.
Don't attract attention—that was the key here.
Vibrating like a nitro-fueled hotrod at the start line, Jack stood with half a dozen other pedestrians and waited for the walking green. When it came he crossed and headed east on Seventy-second, which was perfect because, as one of the handful of two-way cross streets in the city, it was busy at this hour. No one else here seemed in a hurry, so he adopted a loose-limbed but steady amble to blend in. He slipped through the shoppers and the locals hanging out on this mild June night, all unaware of the bloody horror in the subway car a few dozen feet below. Two blocks ahead lay Central Park. The anonymity of its cool shadows beckoned to him.
What a horror show. He'd read about that sort of thing in the papers but never expected to be an eyewitness. What drove someone to that sort of mad carnage?
Damn good thing he rarely traveled without the Semmerling, but still he raged that he'd been forced to use it in front of all those citizens. Not that he'd had a choice. If he'd waited for someone in that crowd of sheep to save his ass, he and a lot of others would be as dead now as the poor souls splattered all over that subway car.
Why me, damn it? Why couldn't someone else play hero?
Hero… no doubt that was what they'd call him if he'd hung around, but that would last only the proverbial New York minute—right up until they escorted him to the cooler for illegal possession of an unregistered weapon and carrying said weapon without a permit. And sure as all hell some shyster would dig up the shooter's family and have them sue him for wrongful death and excessive use of force. And how long before the papers learned that he didn't have a job, or a known address, wasn't registered to vote or licensed to drive—hell, didn't even have a Social Security number? Then the tax boys would want to know why he'd never filed a return. On and on it would go, spinning out of control, engulfing him, ensuring that he never took another free breath for the rest of his life.
Jack picked up his pace a little once he crossed Columbus, leaving the shops and restaurants behind and walking through the ultra-high-rent district. Almost to Central Park West, he passed the two liveried gatekeepers outside the Dakota who kept watch on the spot where another gun-wielding lunatic had done his bloody work in 1980 and ended an era.
He crossed CPW and stopped at the mossy, soot-encrusted, rib-high wall of textured brownstone. The park lay just beyond… tempting… but if he entered here he'd have to exit somewhere else; his best bet would be to get out of sight as soon as possible. His apartment was less than half a mile from here. An easy walk. But first…
He stepped through an opening in the wall and entered the shadowed underbrush. Once out of sight he pulled his shirt from the cap and dropped it in a puddle. A dozen feet farther on he shoved the cap into a tangle of vines, then angled around and made his way back out to the sidewalk.
Keeping to the park side, he lengthened his stride and headed uptown. To his left, echoing along the concrete canyons, sirens began to wail.
Sandy Palmer crouched in an uptown corner of the Seventy-second Street subway platform with The Light's editor on the other end of his cell phone. The connection was tenuous from this underground spot, and he feared losing it at any second.
George Meschke's voice growled in his ear. At first he'd been pissed at being disturbed at home, now he was all ears. "You're sure you've got that number right?"
"As doornails. Two men and four women—I counted them twice before 1 left the car." Sandy peered through the controlled chaos farther down the platform. "A seventh victim, a black woman, was still alive but with an ugly head wound. The EMTs are just taking her away."
"You're amazing, kid," Meschke said. "I don't know how you kept your cool. I'd've lost it after going through what you've just told me."
"Cool as a cucumber," Sandy said. "That's me."
He neglected to mention that he'd given up dinner soon after the train had stopped. Even now—what, fifteen minutes later?—his hands were still shaking.
Those first moments were something of a blur. He remembered seeing the GPM run out, and his abrupt exit had seemed to throw a switch in the crowd. Suddenly everybody wanted out—immediately if not sooner. Sandy had had to pull aside the still sobbing film student from the mass exodus to keep her from being trampled.
As he'd helped her to her feet he'd realized he had a golden opportunity here: he was a trained journalist who'd witnessed a front-page crime. If he could gather his senses, focus on the details, and make the most of the fact that he was his own primary source, he could accomplish something here, something big.
"What's your name?" he'd asked the shaken young woman. "Your real name?"
"Beth." Her voice was barely audible, her skin so white she looked almost blue.
"Come on. Let's get you out of here."
As he'd moved behind her, guiding her, half supporting her, he turned and checked out the front end of the car… the sprawled bodies of the victims… the killer, whose upper half had fallen through the doors when they opened, lying half in and half out of the car… the OR tech still tending to the wounded woman… and the blood, good Christ, the blood—the whole end of the car was awash in pools of it. Who'd have thought people could hold so much blood? And the smell—books always described the smell of blood as coppery, but Sandy had no idea what the hell copper smelled like, only that the whole car reeked of death and unimaginable violence and suddenly he couldn't breathe and the hot dog and Mountain Dew he'd wolfed down on the run after work couldn't stay where they were, wanted out of him as urgently as he'd wanted out of that charnel house on wheels.
And so as he propelled Beth ahead of him and stepped into the marginally fresher air of the station, his stomach heaved and ejected its contents in a sour, burning arc that disappeared into the dark chasm between the train and the edge of the platform.
Wiping his mouth Sandy looked around and hoped that no one had noticed. No one seemed to. After what they'd all been through, vomiting was a nonevent.
He'd then become aware of the noise that filled the station—the cries, the moans, the wails of the survivors who'd just escaped mixing with the screams of the waiting would-be passengers as they got a look inside and turned away with wide eyes and slack jaws. He noticed some getting sick just as he had, or collapsing onto benches and weeping, or simply slumping to the concrete platform.
He'd also noticed others hightailing it up the stairs, those who either didn't want to be questioned by the police, or didn't want to get involved in any way.
Sandy very much wanted to be involved—up to his eyeballs.
He'd found an empty spot on an initial-gouged wooden bench and eased Beth into it. Behind him he heard the automatic doors hiss closed after their programmed interval. He whirled, afraid the train would leave, but no chance of that: the killer's body was blocking one set of doors from closing—they kept pincering his corpse, then rebounding, closing again, and rebounding…
A conductor trotted down, his annoyed expression melting to horror, his forward charge stuttering to a halt when he saw the carnage, reversing to a wobbly-kneed retreat as he staggered away for help.
Sandy noticed a woman nearby sobbing into her cell phone. "Nine-one-one?" he asked.
Good. That meant the cops would be here in minutes. Scanner-equipped stringers and reporters wouldn't be far behind. He didn't have much time to get ahead of them.
"You'll be okay if I leave you here for a bit?" he'd said to Beth.
She'd nodded but said nothing. She was sobbing again. He felt bad leaving her but…
"I'll only be a couple of minutes."
Sandy had hurried then down to the far end of the platform where he could have some privacy and hear himself think. He wondered why he wasn't coming apart like so many of the others. He had no illusions about his inner toughness—he'd had lessons in piano, tennis, even karate, but none in machismo. Maybe it was because he had a job to do, and when he'd finished he too would fall apart. He hoped not.
That was when he'd got hold of George Meschke. He hadn't been sure what he'd accomplish. The Light was a weekly, published on Wednesdays, and tomorrow's issue had already been put to bed. But Meschke was the editor, this was news, and he seemed to be the one to call.
Cops and emergency teams had flooded into the station and he related everything as he'd seen it.
"This is great stuff, Palmer. Amazing stuff."
"Yeah, but what can we do with it? This week's issue is set." Never before had Sandy wished so fiercely that he worked for a daily.
"Not anymore. As soon as I hang up with you I'm calling everyone in and we're going to scrap the first three pages. Redo them top to bottom. I'm going to rough this out pretty much as you told it to me. It'll be your story—your first-person account—under your byline with a front page go-to."
"My byline—front page? My byline?" Sandy resisted the urge to jump up and do an arm-pumping victory dance. This was not the time or place. "You mean that?"
"Damn right. Now get off the phone and nose around there. Pick up as much as you can. The Times, the Post, and the News will be stuck up on street level. You're the only one down below, Palmer, so milk this dry. Then rush down here and we'll see about doing a box feature. Hell, with an eyewitness on staff, we're going to be the paper on this story."
"You got it, George. But listen. I've thought of a headline."
"Give it to me."
"I don't think so."
"How about 'Nightmare on the Nine'?"
"Better. But let's leave the headline for later. Concentrate on your first-person opportunity down there."
"Sure. Talk to you soon."
Sandy snapped the phone shut and leaped up from his crouch. His nerve endings sang. Front page… his own byline… on a major story—the story of the year! This was better than sex!
As he started back toward the chaos, he realized he was probably grinning like a nerd who'd just lost his virginity. He wiped it off. And slowed his bounding pace. Had to be professional here. This was a monster leg up for his career and he'd better not blow it.
The NYPD had swarmed in and taken command. Plainclothes detectives and uniforms were everywhere, sectioning off the platform with yellow crime scene tape, stretching more between columns and across stairways.
They'd herded the survivors into one area. As Sandy approached he noticed some looking dazed, some still sobbing, one hysterical, a few trying to hide the large wet spots on their pants, all coming down from the adrenaline overload of fearing for their lives as cops tried to take statements from the more coherent ones.
Sandy wove slowly through the crowd, pausing to listen whenever and wherever he could.
"… and then out of nowhere, this savior appeared," said a stooped old woman in a wrinkled blue dress.
"What did he look like, ma'am?" said the female officer bending over her with notebook in hand.
"You mean he had long hair?"
"Can you tell me what he looked like?"
"We were not to look upon his face…"
Sandy moved on, pausing again by the tall ministerial black man he recognized from the death car.
"… and so then I spoke to him."
"Spoke to who? The second shooter?"
"We think of him as the Savior."
"We who were blessed enough to survive. When we were freed from the train, someone said, 'Who was he? Who was our savior?' And that's how we now refer to him."
"Can you give me a description of this 'savior,' sir?"
"Medium build, brown hair… I can't tell you much about his face because I didn't see it. He had this hat, you see, and he pulled it down to hide his face."
"How tall was he?"
"I'd say average height. Shorter than me, anyway."
Sandy kept moving, taking a circuitous route back to Beth, and along the way he kept hearing his fellow survivors trying and failing to describe this man they were calling 'the Savior.' He understood their problem: a guy so unremarkable seemed virtually invisible. Sandy had tagged him GPM for that very reason: he was a paradigm of the generic pale male.
He found Beth again but now she wasn't alone. A plainclothesman was seated next to her, his notebook held at the ready. Beth had her hands stuffed stiff-armed between her knees and was still shaking. Sandy knelt beside her. She jumped when he laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Oh, it's you," she said with a nervous flicker of a smile.
"And you are…?" said the detective.
"Sandy Palmer. I was on the train with Beth."
"Have you given a statement yet?"
The word no was approaching his lips when a subliminal warning from somewhere in his subconscious made him pull it back.
"Who's that policewoman back there?" he said, trying to avoid getting caught in a lie later. "I forget her name."
The detective nodded. "Were you able to get a look at the second shooter?"
"You mean the Savior?" Sandy replied.
To avoid a direct answer Sandy turned to Beth. "You saw him, didn't you, Beth?"
She shook her head.
"But you were right there, just a couple of feet from him."
"But I wasn't looking at him. I barely looked at you, if you remember."
Sandy smiled. "I remember."
"I mean, I saw his back when he went after the killer—wait! He had a name on the back of his shirt!"
The detective leaned forward, his pencil poised over his pad. "What did it say?"
Beth squeezed her eyes shut. "It was all such a blur, but I think it said 'Sherbert' or something like that that."
"Sherbert?" the detective said, scribbling. "You're sure?"
Sandy rubbed a hand over his mouth to hide a smile. "Chrebet," he offered. "I remember now. He was wearing a green-on-white Jets jersey. Number eighty."
"Christ," the detective muttered, shaking his head as he scratched out a line on his pad with hard, annoyed strokes. "I think we can figure it wasn't Wayne Chrebet."
"You know him?" Beth said.
"Wide receiver for the Jets," Sandy replied, then added, "That's a football team."
"Oh." She seemed to shrink a little. "I hate football."
"You didn't see his face?" the detective said.
"No. He had it covered when he turned around." She turned to Sandy. "You didn't see him either?"
Sandy wet his lips. An idea was forming. Its boldness tied his gut into knots but its potential made him giddy. It meant going out on a limb—far out on a very slim limb. But then, nothing ventured, nothing gained…
"I saw what you saw," he said.
"Shit," the detective muttered and slapped his notebook against his thigh. "What was this guy—invisible?"
"When can we leave?" Beth said. "I want to go home."
"Soon, miss," the detective said, softening. "Soon as we get names and addresses and statements from all you witnesses, we'll see that you all get home safely."
As the cop moved off, Sandy leaned close to Beth and whispered, "I'm getting stir crazy. I've got to move around. You'll be okay for a few minutes?" He didn't know why but somehow he felt responsible for her.
"Sure," she said. "Not like there aren't any cops around."
He left her and edged back toward the death car where flashes from the forensic team's cameras kept lighting the interior like welders' arcs. He noticed a cluster of three plainclothesmen and one uniform gathered outside one of the open sets of doors. Farther on, a man wearing latex gloves—from the forensics team, no doubt—examined the killer where he'd fallen through the doorway.
Sandy needed to be over there, needed to hear what these cops were saying, but he couldn't get his feet to move. One step past that tape and he'd be sent scurrying back with his tail between his legs to stay put with the rest of the survivors. But he wasn't just a survivor, he was the press too, damn it—the people's right to know and all that.
He tried to remember techniques from that assertiveness training course he'd taken last year but came up blank except for the old bromide about how the worst that could happen was that someone simply would say No.
But fearing rejection, of all things, seemed more than silly after what he'd just been through.
Sandy pulled his press card from his wallet and palmed it. A quick glance around showed no one looking his way. He noticed that one of the plainclothes cops was pretty big. Huge, in fact. Choosing an angle of approach that used the big guy's bulk as a shield, Sandy ducked under the yellow tape and sidled up to the foursome, listening, taking mental notes.
"… like the second shooter knew what he was doing."
"How you mean?"
"According to what we're hearing he got the crazy in the shoulders first, then blew him away."
"Fucking executed him's more like it. But what was he carrying? Nobody can tell us anything about his gun except it was real small."
"And holds at least four rounds."
"Not a .22, I can tell you that. Not a .32 either from the size of the crazy's wounds. Guy took his brass with him so we can't use that."
"The whole thing's weird—including the way he blew away the crazy. I mean, why not just do the head shot and have it done with?"
"'Cause if you miss that first head shot—and if we're talking about a tiny little barrel, there's a damn good chance you will—you're a goner because this Colin Ferguson wannabe's got a pair of nines and he's going to blow you away. So if you're smart you do what our guy does: you go for an arm and—"
"Seems low percentage to me. I'd go for center of mass."
"Fine—unless he's wearing a vest. And witnesses say the crazy was turned sideways when he took the first hit. An arm's bigger than a head, and even a miss has got a good chance at the torso, vested or not. So our guy goes for an arm and makes the shot. Now there's one less gun to deal with, and he's also a few steps closer. So now it's easier to take out the other arm."
"Sounds like he's been trained."
"Damn straight. Taking his brass with him says he's a pro. But trained by who? With both arms messed up, the crazy wasn't going to do any more shooting. Could've left him like that. But he finished him off."
"Probably didn't want to hear about 'yellow rage' for the next two years."
"Like I said—a fucking execution."
"You got complaints about that, McCann?"
"Maybe. Maybe I don't like executioners running around loose."
"Which is probably just why he took off. He—"
The black plainclothesman speaking caught sight of Sandy over the big guy's shoulder and pointed at him. "You are in a restricted area."
"Press," Sandy forced himself to exclaim, holding up his card.
Suddenly he found himself the object of an array of outraged expressions.
"How the hell—?"
"And an eyewitness," he quickly added.
That mollified them somewhat, until the big detective, the one they'd called McCann, florid faced with thinning gray brush-cut hair, looking a little like Brian Dennehy, stepped in for a closer look at his press card. His breath reeked of a recent cigar.
"The Light? Christ, he's from the fucking Lightl Aliens and pierced eyeballs! Oh, shit, are you guys gonna have a ball with this!"
"That was the old days. We're different now."
It was true. The new owner had moved The Light away from the shock-schlock format that had made it notorious decades ago—every issue with an eye injury on page three, with photo if possible, and an alien story on page five—into a kinder, gentler scandal sheet, concentrating on celebrity foibles.
"Yeah? I wouldn't know."
"Of course not," Sandy said, feeling braver now. "Nobody but nobody reads The Light. Yet somehow the issues keep disappearing from the newsstands."
"Probably those aliens," McCann said. "Tell me, did your journalist's powers of observation happen to register a description of the second shooter's face?"
Sandy had already settled on how to play this. He shook his head. "No. But I know someone who did."
He was suddenly the center of attention, all four of the cops who-ing like a chorus of owls.
Sandy pointed to the killer. "Him."
"A wise-ass," McCann said. "Just what we need." He gave Sandy a dismissive wave. "Get back on the other side of the tape with the other useless witnesses."
Sandy managed not to move. He couldn't let this happen. What could he say? One of his therapist's remarks about every relationship being a negotiation of sorts filtered back to him. Negotiate… what did he have to offer?
The gun. They'd been talking about the gun, wondering what kind, and Sandy'd had the best look at it.
"Okay," Sandy said, turning and staring to move away. "I came over here because I got a good look at his gun. But if you're not interested—"
"Hold it," said McCann. "You better not be playing any games here, newsboy, or you're gonna find your ass in a sling."
Again he had their attention. Now he had to play this just right. Negotiate. Give them something they needed, something real, and in return get to hang here where the action was. But he sensed that a direct quid-pro-quo offer would only land him in hot water. Damn, he wished he had more experience at this.
Okay, just wing it and hope they're grateful.
"He pulled it out of an ankle holster."
The detectives glanced at each other. The black one nodded. "Go on. You know the difference between a revolver and an automatic?"
"It looked like an automatic. I saw him pull back the slide before he started toward the killer, but…"
"Maybe it wasn't working right because he pulled the slide back before every shot."
"I'll be damned!" said the lone uniform. "Could be a Semmerling."
"A what?" McCann said.
"Semmerling LM-4. Supposedly the world's smallest .45. Saw one at a gun show once. Would have picked it up if I'd had the dough. Looks like a semi-auto—has the slide and all—but it's really just a repeater."
"How small?" McCann wanted to know. He was looking Sandy's way.
Sandy tried to remember. "Everything happened so fast… but I think"—he straightened his fingers and placed his palm against his hip—"I think I could cover it with my hand."
McCann looked back to the uniform. "That about right?"
A nod. "I'd say so."
"Sounds like a stupid piece to me," the black detective said.
"Not if you want maximum stopping power in a little package."
"C'mere," McCann said to Sandy, motioning him to follow.
Sandy stayed right on the big detective's heels. Oh, yes. This was just what he'd been hoping for.
But when they came upon the killer's corpse he wasn't so sure. Close up like this he could see that the man's shoulder wounds were worse than he'd thought. And his face… the right eye socket was a bloody hole and the remaining eye was bulging half out of its socket… his face was all swollen… in fact his head seemed half again its normal size.
Be careful what you wish for, Sandy thought, averting his gaze as stomach acid pushed to the back of his throat.
He swallowed and looked again at the corpse. What a photo that would make. He felt in his pocket for the mini-Olympus he always carried. Did he dare?
"Hey, Kastner," McCann said to the gloved man leaning over the killer. "Your best guess on the caliber—and I won't hold you to it."
"Don't have to guess. If these wounds aren't from a .45, I'm in the wrong biz."
McCann nodded. "Okay. So our second shooter wanders around with something called a Semmerling LM-4 strapped to his ankle."
"Not exactly government issue," the black detective grunted. "And hey, if the crazy was hit with a .45, how come his brains aren't splattered all over the car?"
"Because the second shooter was using frangibles," Kastner the forensics man said.
"Whoa!" said the uniform.
"Frangibles?" Sandy asked. "What's a frangible?"
"A bullet that breaks up into pieces after it hits."
"Lots of pieces that bounce all over," Kastner commented. "They're going to find puree du brain when they crack this guy's cranium."
McCann turned to the black detective. "Which brings us back to what I said before, Rawlins: an execution."
With McCann not looking, Sandy had his chance. Carefully he wormed his camera out of his pocket and pointed it toward the corpse. He couldn't risk a flash but the lights looked bright enough. He covered the flash with a thumb. A quick glance showed Rawlins and the others facing McCann.
"Doin' a crazy who's just blown away half a dozen good people and on track to do a dozen or two more?" Rawlins said, pursing his lips and shaking his head. "That's not an execution, that's putting down a mad dog. That's steppin' on a cockroach."
Keeping his face toward the cops, Sandy held the camera at hip level and started shooting.
"Maybe," McCann was saying. "But I like to know who's doing the stepping."
After half a dozen quick frames Sandy slipped the camera back into his pocket. He was sweating. He felt as if he'd just done a two-mile sprint.
"Easy enough in this case," Rawlins said, breaking into a grin. "We just roust all the average-height-medium-built-brown-haired white guys in the five boroughs and check their ankles for holsters."
"We'll find him," McCann said. "Guy does something like this, saves a carload of lives, he thinks he's a hero. He's gonna tell someone. No way he'll be able to keep his yap shut. And then we'll have him."
"And then what?" Sandy said, alarmed. They were talking about the man who'd saved his life. "What'll you do to him?"
McCann squinted at him. "Probably nothing. A lot of people are gonna want to give him a ticker-tape parade—I know you and everyone else on that car sure as shit will—but plenty of others won't be so keen. He may have saved lives, but he's also probably some sort of gun nut, and as of tonight he's a killer. Not exactly the perfect poster boy for civic responsibility."
"You want to lock him up?" Sandy said.
McCann shook his head. "Not particularly. But I do want to know who he is. Anybody who wanders through my precinct carrying that kind of firepower and who's able to use it to such deadly effect, I want to know about."
"But you have no description beyond average-height-medium-built-brown-haired Caucasian, right?" Sandy asked. The answer was crucial.
"Don't even have his eye color," Rawlins said.
Sandy almost blurted brown before he caught himself in the nick of time.
"Think the survivors could be protecting him?" the uniform said.
McCann narrowed his eyes and scrutinized Sandy. "How about that, Mr. Newspaperman? You and your friends here wouldn't be obstructing justice now, would you?"
Sandy's tongue took on a leathery taste and texture. He swallowed and tried to muster some indignation.
"If you mean did we all get together and cook up a useless description, how could we? None of us was in any state of mind for that kind of thinking. If you want to see what I had for dinner, detective, check out the tracks over there. We were all too sick with relief at just being alive."
"Even if they'd wanted to," Rawlins said, "I doubt they'd've had time. Let's face it: this second shooter was an average white male who hid his face and took off."
"Yeah, I guess so," McCann said. "Doesn't matter much anyway. Like I said: he'll turn up. Just a matter of time."
But I'm going to find him first, Sandy thought, as visions of talk shows and book contracts danced in his head.
The Savior… the second shooter… the GPM… whatever he was called, only one person in this whole city could identify him. And Sandy Palmer wasn't about to fritter that away. Simply having survived that death train would earn him a moment in the journalistic sun tomorrow. But what about the next day, and the day after that? He'd be—quite literally—yesterday's news.
But not if he held onto this ace in the hole… and played it right.
Mama Palmer didn't raise no dummy. A once-in-a-lifetime golden opportunity had been dropped into his lap, a chance to parlay his eyewitness status into an even bigger media coup: he'd find the Savior, wrangle an exclusive to his story, then bring him in.
He thought of reporters linked for all posterity with the sources of their greatest story: Jimmy Breslin and his Son of Sam letter, Woodward and Bernstein and their Deep Throat.
How about Sandy Palmer and the Savior?
Jack sat in the dark, sipping a Corona and watching his TV, terrified of what he might hear and see, but he couldn't turn it off. Started with Channel Five which kicked off its nightly news at ten, but tonight it didn't matter which New York station he chose; they'd all interrupted their regular lineups to cover the subway mass murder.
But the big hook, the story within the story that made this must-see TV, was the mystery man who had killed the killer and then faded away. Everyone wanted to know who he was.
Jack chewed his lip, waiting for the eyewitness description, the artist's sketch. Any moment now a likeness of his face would flash onto the screen. He cringed when he saw some of the survivors, people he recognized from the train, snagged by the cameras and microphones. Most hadn't much to say beyond how grateful they were to be alive and how they owed their lives to the mystery man, someone they'd labeled "the Savior." As to what this fellow looked like, none of those on camera had anything to add to the previously broadcast description of a brown-haired white male between twenty-five and fifty years old.
Relieved, Jack let his head fall back and closed his eyes. So far so good. But he wasn't in the clear yet. Not even close. Someone had to have got a good look at him; that kid trying to pick up the film student, for instance; he'd been sitting only a couple of feet away. Probably pouring his guts out to a police sketch artist right now.
Finallv the newscasters moved on to other stories and Jack found himself up and moving about the apartment, wandering through the rooms. Had a stack of videotapes set up for his Terence Fisher festival. He'd planned to start tonight, opening with Curse of Frankenstein, but knew he wouldn't be able to sit still through it. His two-bedroom place usually was plenty of room for him, but tonight it felt like a noose around his neck. Slowly tightening.
Got to get out of here.
And go where? He ached for Gia but she was out of town. As soon as school let out she'd packed up Vicky and flown to Ottumwa, Iowa, for a week-long visit with her folks, part of her ongoing effort to keep Vicky in contact with her extended family. Hated that the two women in his life were so far away, resented sharing them with other people even if they were blood relations, but he never mentioned that to Gia. Who knew how many more years Vicky's grandmother would be around?
Maybe just wander over to Julio's, stand at the bar, have a beer, and pretend it was just another night. But the TV would be on and instead of the Yanks or the Mets everyone would be watching the special reports about the subway murders and that was all they'd be talking about.
How about simply going for a walk?
But what if—he knew this was ridiculous, but the thought stuck with him—what if he passed somebody from the train on the street and they recognized him?
Possible, yes. The least bit likely, no.
And let's face it, he thought. Tonight I'm safe. No sketch yet. Tomorrow might be a whole different story.
Tonight could be his last chance to wander the city at will. Might as well get out there now and take advantage of it.
He showered and dressed in a completely different look: khakis, a light blue shirt with a button-down collar under a cranberry V-neck sweater to hide the Glock 19 in his nylon small-of-the-back holster.
On the way to the door he stopped and looked around the cluttered front room where he kept all his stuff. Old stuff. Neat stuff. Most people would call it junk—premiums, giveaways, and kitschy tie-ins from the pulp magazines, comic strips, and radio shows of the 1930s and '40s displayed on century-old furniture. Another generation's nostalgia.
What about his own childhood growing up through the seventies?
He remembered little and cared less. Why keep a Brady Bunch lunch box when you could have one with The Shadow staring at you from under his black slouch hat? A Radio Orphan Annie decoder, an official Doc Savage Club certificate… nothing from his own past was anywhere near as neat as those.
Gia, perpetually baffled at his attraction to this stuff, had often asked him why—why a lunch box or magic ring or cheap plastic doodad from any era?—and he'd never been able to come up with an answer. Didn't care to try. Some shrink-type could probably fabricate a deep-seated reason for his compulsion to accumulate ephemera with no connection to his own past, but who cared why? He liked it. Enough said.
But if forced to cut and run he'd have to leave all this behind. Strangely it didn't matter. It was stuff. Neat stuff, but still just stuff. He could walk away with barely an instant's regret. Gia and Vicky, though… being separated from them would be a killer.
Not going to happen, he told himself as he headed down the stairs for the street.
He'd do whatever it took to keep this one lousy incident from disrupting his life and his business.
His business… he hadn't checked his voice mail in a while.
Walked over to Broadway, found a phone booth, and tapped in his codes. One call. From a woman who said she'd been referred to him as someone who could help her with a problem involving a friend and a cult. Left her cell phone number but didn't say who'd referred her or any details about the cult or her problem with it. Decided she was worth a call back. An indefinable something about her voice appealed to him, made him want to work on her problem.
Glanced at his watch: 11:20. Might be late to call her, but he needed something to do and this could be it. A new customer with a new fix-it job would occupy his mind and time while waiting for the fallout from tonight's fiasco.
Dialed her number. When she answered he said. "This is Jack, returning your call."
"Oh. I didn't expect you to call back so soon." A nice voice; soft and mature. Not too old, not too young.
Good start, Jack thought.
"Some problems can wait," he said, "some can't. You didn't say anything about yours. I can meet you tonight if necessary."
"Gosh, it's late but…"
"Where do you live?"
"I… I'd rather not say."
"Not your street address, your section of the city."
"Oh. It's called the Flower District. It's—"
"Know it." Upper Twenties around Sixth, above Chelsea. "I can meet you anywhere you want down there in about fifteen minutes."
"Tonight? Gee, I don't…"
"Lady, you called me."
A pause during which he swore he could hear her chewing her lip.
"Okay. But someplace public."
Someplace public… could meet her on Forty-second Street. Few places in the city more public than the Deuce since Disney moved in. Maybe too public. Better to make it closer to where she lived…
Considered the Seventh Avenue Papaya on the corner of Twenty-third, but that was usually a madhouse this time of night. He grinned. Maybe he should freak her out and suggest La Maison de Sade, the S-and-M supper club next to the Chelsea Hotel. Wait—that was it.
"How about the Chelsea Hotel?"
Something not right here. "Thought you said you lived in the Flower District. You live down there and don't know the Chelsea?"
"I'm visiting. I'm from… from out of town."
"Okay then. It's right down Seventh from you. On Twenty-third. I'll meet you in the lobby. Is that public enough?"
"I don't know… this is so strange."
Hesitant. Jack liked that. He'd take a hesitant customer over a gung-ho out-for-blood type any day.
"Here's how we'll work it: I'll hang out there until midnight. If you change your mind and don't show, fine. If you see me and don't like what you see, just turn around and go back home and we'll forget the whole thing."
"That sounds fair, I guess."
"And you should know up front that I don't work cheap."
"I think it's a little early to haggle about fees. How will I spot you?"
"No problem. I'll stand out."
"I won't be wearing black."
A tiny laugh. "I've spent enough time here to appreciate that!"
Her laugh… something vaguely familiar there… an echo of a laugh from long ago, but damned if he could remember who or when.
"Do I know you?" Jack asked.
"Oh, I doubt that. I doubt that very, very much."
Probably right. She said she was from out of town and Jack didn't leave the city much.
She added, "I only heard of you a couple of hours ago."
"That's the strangest part. This woman I've never seen before gave me your number and said you could help."
"A stranger? What's her name?"
"I don't know. She had a Russian accent and a big white dog. She said to call you tonight… only you."
Got his number from a stranger… that didn't sit right, especially since the only people he knew with Russian accents were members of a Brighton Beach crew he'd had a brush with last year, and they weren't too fond of him.
A little extra caution might be in order here.
"You call someone you've never heard of on the recommendation of someone you don't know. You must be a very trusting person."
"No, I'm not. I'm just a very upset person. Maybe even a little frightened."
Thought he heard her voice threatening to crack at the end there. Okay. She sounded genuine. He could figure out later who the mystery woman was. For now…
"All right. I'll be dressed like Joe Prep; no way you'll be able to miss me in that crowd." Thought of something. "And remember, it's the Chelsea Hotel, not the Chelsea Savoy which is a couple of doors away. You want the big old red building with wrought-iron balconies all up and down its face and a red-and-white-striped awning over the entrance. Got it?"
"Okay. See you then."
Hung up and flagged a cab. As the driver headed down Broadway,
Jack wondered why he felt so determined to involve himself in fixing this woman's problem, whatever it was. He knew he was looking for a distraction, but it went beyond that.
Shrugged it off. Important thing was he was on the move, doing something instead of hanging around his apartment like a prisoner in a cell.
Sandy sat before one of the workstations in the darkened editorial pool, cursing as he tried by trial and error to decipher the workings of the unfamiliar program.
Once he'd figured he'd learned all he was going to at the crime scene, he got McCann to spring him and made a beeline for The Light offices just off Times Square. Immediately he'd had a face-to-face with George Meschke and the rest of the staff during which they'd listened with wide eyes as he recounted his tale. What a buzz getting the rapt attention of all those hardened pros.
Only Pokorny, good old smart-ass Jay Pokorny, the only other reporter on the staff anywhere near his age, had tried to rain on his parade.
"You sure you didn't stage this, Palmer?" he said, looking down at him along his long, thin, patrician nose. "You know, hire some guy to off people in front of you just so you could make the front page?"
"Only you'd think of that, Jay," he'd said.
"I could be home getting laid," Pokorny mumbled, and wandered away.
After Sandy had written up his first-person eyewitness account—sans the GPM's description, of course—he zapped it to Meschke's computer. From there it would go to the printers who were standing by, readying a double run of tomorrow's edition.
All he needed now to make this incredible evening complete was just one usable frame on that roll he'd given the photo lab.
At the moment, Sandy was on his own time, doing his own thing. That involved a program called Identi-Kit 2000. He'd seen a reporter using it once and learned it was loaded onto the mainframe. Tonight he'd found and accessed it, and was now trying to get it to work for him. A manual existed somewhere in the building, he was sure, but he couldn't go asking for it. Anyone hearing about a witness to a major crime who wanted to knowT how to use the computer equivalent of a police sketch artist would catch on fast to what Sandy was up to.
He wasn't doing too badly without the manual, but the program offered so many variations on facial features that he felt his mind going numb. He'd wasted a lot of time trying to guess the hairline, then realized that was a mistake. He'd never seen the GPM's hairline and if he got it wrong it would work against him. So he had the program stick a knit watch cap on the head and that solved that.
A truly amazing piece of software. Slowly, steadily, through trial and error, hit and miss, he'd seen the GPM's face emerge and take shape on the screen. Except for the damn eyes. He'd worked the chin, the nose, the lips until they were pretty close to what he remembered. But the eyes—when he raised them they looked too high, yet when he lowered them they looked equally wrong.
He closed his own eyes and tried to remember the man's face as he'd looked past Sandy's shoulder to check the station stop… brought it into focus and zeroed in on those mild brown eyes…
Wider. That was it.
Back on the screen, Sandy widened the eyes then moved them up just a tad.
It's him! he thought, feeling his fingers tingle. Damn me, it's him!
He saw a world, a universe of possibilities bursting open before him.
But only if he kept it to himself. If anybody else got hold of this he'd lose his exclusive… lose that glorious future.
Sandy glanced around. No one nearby. He mouse-clicked PRTNT, typed a "10" into the COPIES box, then turned off his monitor. He rose, stretched, and made his way as casually as he could to the printer. There he watched the sheets with that face, that wonderful generic face, sliding into the tray.
When all ten were done, he folded them once and buttoned them inside his shirt, then returned to the workstation.
Now… what to do with the Identi-Kit file? His first instinct was to delete it. But what if he needed to come back to it, maybe revise it? He didn't want to have to start from scratch all over again. He decided to label it GPM and leave it in the Identi-Kit folder. That way it would have no connection to him, and anyone finding it would think GPM stood for the initials of the guy in the drawing. Gerald P. Mahoney perhaps.
Sandy grinned as he closed out the program. Sometimes I'm so sneaky I scare myself.
He headed for the exit, gliding like a dancer through the maze of empty desks. A little shut-eye, then he'd be up early to catch the morning edition with his first byline. Maybe a call to the folks to make sure they picked up The Light so they wouldn't miss seeing how all those years of tuition were finally bearing fruit, even if he was working for a sleazbloid.
And then later tomorrow… starting the search.
Only problem was, he wasn't the least bit tired. In fact he was still totally wired. He wished he could drop into a bar where all his friends hung out and hoist a few beers while he blew their minds with his story of the subway ride to hell and back.
Trouble was, he didn't have a gang of friends. Not even one good friend, to tell the truth. Hell, he didn't even have a roommate. He still lived alone in the co-op his parents had bought in Morningside Heights when he'd entered Columbia. They still owned it and had been letting him live on there rent free since graduation—a great perk for him and a solid investment for them with the relentless rise in West Side property values.
Most of the time he didn't mind not having close friends. Acquaintances were perfectly adequate. But tonight… tonight he wished he had one person—just one—he could share this with. That film student, for instance. Beth. What was her last name? He could kick himself now for not getting her phone number. And the least he could have done was to have found her and said good-bye before he'd dashed back to The Light.
Typical me, he thought. A brown thumb with relationships.
And face it, what did he have to offer? Not as if he was setting the world on fire like some of the guys he'd known in undergrad. A few of his fellow English majors had gone on to brokerage houses and investments banks and mega-bonuses—English majors without a single business course to their names! And don't mention the computer geeks who spent every waking moment of their college years playing Ultima Online and then joined dot-coms in the Flatiron District to haul down six figures plus stock options. The market collapse had stifled their brags, but financially they remained light years ahead of Sandy.
When's my turn? he'd asked himself.
Well, he'd got the answer tonight. Sandy Palmer's turn was now. He'd always dreamed of breaking a big story, and now that dream was about to come true.
He kept flashing back to Woodward and Bernstein. Who were they before they connected with Deep Throat? Nobodies. But afterward they were household names. This story wasn't the caliber of Watergate, but it had the same potential for hooking public interest, and not just locally—nationwide eyeballs could be staring his way.
He tried to rein in the fantasies—never paid to get your hopes up too high—but he could feel them taking off, soaring in a high, jet-fueled arc.
Fifteen minutes of fame? Screw that. He'd do a network hour with Charlie Rose, be on all the talk shows. He'd be the man to know, the guy to be seen with, his name would pop up in gossip columns, his face a regular on "The Scene" page of New York Magazine as he's spotted attending film premieres, gallery openings, and literary receptions, and don't forget parties in the Hamptons where his dalliances would be mentioned in the "Sunday Styles" section of the Times.
Dalliances… oh, yeah. Those models and starlets just throw themselves at famous writers and journalists. No more worrying about relationships, everybody will want to know Sandy Palmer.
But first he'd have to find the guy.
That sobering reality brought him back to earth. This was not going to happen by itself. He had some work ahead of him. Hard work.
Out on the street Sandy flagged a cab. He'd already decided to splurge on a taxi home. He didn't think he could handle another subway ride tonight.
Jack knew it was her the moment she stepped through the door.
He'd been sitting in the Chelsea's intimate, marble-tiled lobby on an intricately carved sofa situated between the equally intricately carved fireplace and a metallic sculpture of some sort of jackal sitting atop an undersized elephant. He'd spent the waiting time admiring the vast and eclectic array of art festooning the walls.
The Chelsea had been a fabled haunt of artists and entertainers for decades, and nowadays most of them seemed to own clothes of only one color: black. So when this woman in beige linen slacks and a rose sweater set stepped through the door she stood out among the leather and lingerie habitues as much as he did. Her head was down so he didn't see her face at first, but the style of her curly honey blond hair and mature figure jibed with the voice on the phone.
Then she looked up and their eyes met and Jack's heart stuttered and missed a beat or two.
Kate! God, it was Kate!
Her voice, that little laugh—now he knew why they'd sounded familiar. They belonged to his sister.
Kate looked as stunned as Jack knew he must, but then her shock turned to something like fear and dismay.
"Kate!" he called as she started to turn away. "My God, Kate, it's me! Jack!"
She turned toward him again and now her face was more composed but hardly full of the joy one might expect at seeing her younger brother for the first time in a decade and a half.
Jack hurried up and stopped within a foot of her, staring.
"Jackie," she said. "I don't believe this."
Jackie… Christ, when had he last heard someone call him that? The word sundered an inner dam, loosing a flood of long-pent-up memories that engulfed him. He'd been the last of three kids: first Tom, Kate two years later, and Jack eight years after her. Kate, the natural nurturer, had half-raised him. They'd bonded, they'd been pals, she'd been the coolest person he knew and he'd fairly worshipped her. And then she'd gone off to college, leaving a hole in his ten-year-old life. Med school and pediatric residency after that. He remembered her wedding day…
Most of all Jack remembered this face, these pale blue eyes, the faint splash of freckles across the cheeks and nose, the strong jawline. Her hair was shorter and faintly streaked with gray; her skin had aged a little with a hint of crows feet at the corners of her eyes; and her face was a bit fuller, her hips a tad wider than he remembered, but her figure wasn't that much different from the one that had kept the boys calling all through high school. All in all his big sister Kate hadn't changed much.
"I don't believe this either," he said. "I mean, the odds are…"
He felt they should kiss, embrace, do something other than stand here facing each other, but they'd never been a huggy clan, and Jack had dropped out of his family and never looked back. Hadn't spoken a word to Kate in fifteen years. Until tonight.
"You look great," he said. And it was true. Even with very little make-up she did not look like a forty-four-year-old mother of two. She'd always been fair haired, but now she was a darker shade of blonde than he remembered. What a mane she used to have. "I see you've stopped straightening your hair. I still remember watching you use Mom's iron to flatten out your waves."
"Eventually you get to the point where you have to stop fighting your nature and just go with it." She glanced away. "Look. This was a mistake. If I'd had the slightest inkling you were the Jack I was calling, I never would have…" She let it trail off.
"Why not? If you've got a problem you should call family."
"Family?" Kate's eyes blazed to life as she turned back to him. "What would you know about family, Jackie? You vanished from our lives without even saying good-bye! Just a note saying you were leaving and not to worry! As if that was possible. For a while we didn't know if you were dead or alive. Do you have any idea what that was like for Dad? First he loses Mom, then you drop out of college and disappear. He almost lost it!"
"I'd already lost it, Kate."
Her eyes softened, but only a little. "I know how Mom's death—"
"Yes, you always insisted on calling it that, didn't you. It hit us all hard, and you the hardest perhaps, but Dad—"
"I've been back to see him."
"Only rarely, and only after he tracked you down. And I sent you all those letters, invited you to christenings and graduations and anniversaries, but you never responded. Not even to say no. Not once."
Jack's turn to look away, focus on a painting of a Manhattan street scene, but viewed at a crazy angle. Kate was right. She'd made a major effort to keep in touch, tried hard to bring him back into the family, and he'd snubbed her.
"Jackie, you've got a niece and a nephew you've never even met. They used to look at the wedding pictures and point to this young stranger who was one of the ushers and ask who he was."
"Kevin and Elizabeth," he said. "How are they?"
He knew them only from their photos. Kate was one of those people who sent out an annual here's-what-we've-been-doing-all-year letters with her Christmas card, usually accompanied by a family photo. At least she used to. Nothing at all from her for the last few years. Since the divorce.
"They're wonderful. Kevin's eighteen, Liz is sixteen, as if you give a damn."
Jack closed his eyes. Okay. Deserved that. He'd seen her kids grow up long distance, on Kodak paper.
But after he'd cut himself off and reinvented himself here in New York, how could he go back? He could never explain who he'd become. Tom, Kate, Dad especially—they'd never get it. Be horrified, in fact. Took enough to live his own life; didn't want to have to invent another life just for their approval.
"Look, Kate," he said. "I know I hurt people, and I'm sorry. I was just starting my twenties and coming apart at the seams. I can't change the past but maybe I can make up just a tiny bit of it to you now. Your friend and this cult you mentioned… maybe I can help."
"I don't think this is in your field."
"And what field would that be?"
"Appliance repairs, right?"
He laughed. "Who told you that?"
His father had called one of Jack's numbers years ago and heard an outgoing message that went: This is Repairman Jack. Describe the problem and leave a number and Ml get back to you. Naturally he'd assumed his son was some sort of appliance fixer.
"I make my living fixing other things."
"I don't understand."
"No reason you should. Let's go someplace where we can sit and talk."
"No, Jackie. This won't work."
He reached out and gently gripped her wrist. He felt at the mercy of the vortex of emotions swirling around him. This was Kate, his big sister Kate, one of the best people he'd ever known, who'd been so good to him and who was still smarting from the awful way he'd treated her. She thought badly of him. He had to fix that.
She shook her head, seemed almost… afraid.
Afraid of him? That couldn't be. What then?
"Look. This is my city. If I can't help out your friend, I'll bet I know someone who can. And if that doesn't work out, at least we can talk. Come on, Kate. For old times' sake?"
Maybe his touch did it, but he felt a change in her muscle tone as some of the resistance seeped out of her.
"All right. Just for a little while."
"Great. What are you up for—coffee or a drink?"
"Normally I'd say coffee, but right now I think I could do with a drink."
"I hear you. Let's hunt up a place without music."
He took his sister by the elbow and guided her out to the street, then up along Seventh Avenue, wondering how much he dared tell her about himself, his life. He'd play it by ear. The important thing was he had her with him now, and he wasn't letting her go until he'd done something to make up for the hurt he'd caused.
Kate stared at the man sitting across the table from her. Jackie… her little brother… though he was hardly little anymore. She supposed she should start calling him Jack now.
They'd come upon a place called The Three Crowns that Jack had said looked good. A fifty-foot bar ran down the right side, a row of booths with green upholstery along the left, all of it oak. Oak everywhere. But not too crowded. The patrons seemed a mix of straight couples and gay males of varying ages, par for the course in Chelsea. The lights and the sound from the TVs over the bar were low and they'd found an empty booth in the rear. No table service, so Jack had made the trip to the bar and just returned with a gin and tonic for her and a pint of Harp for himself.
She quickly downed half her drink, hoping it would help dull the shock still vibrating through her. Jackie! Of all people! And worse, she'd mentioned "my friend" and the cult on his voice mail. She couldn't let him know about her and Jeanette. Nobody could know. Not yet.
Jackie… Jack. A part of her wanted to hate him for the pain he'd caused everyone. Well, not everyone. Tom was too self-involved to worry much about anyone a few inches beyond his own skin. But damn, she and Dad had gone half crazy with worry over Jack.
Yet she looked at him now and felt an urge to smile, to laugh aloud. This might be a terrible time to run into him, but despite everything that had happened—not happened, actually—between them, she couldn't deny this heart-swelling joy at seeing him again. Jackie… she'd helped feed him and change him when he was an infant, read him stories and baby-sat for him into her teens. And look at him now. Lord, how he'd changed. He'd been a boy the last time she'd seen him—a senior at Rutgers, one semester to go, but still a boy. A dark and brooding boy after Mom's death.
She still sensed a darkness in him, but he seemed comfortable in his skin now. And how he'd filled out that skin. Jackie had been so skinny as a kid, now she could sense sleek muscles coiling under his shirt. But was that a healing laceration running from the edge of his hairline into his right frontal scalp? Yes, definitely. It looked about four weeks old. She wondered how he'd got it.
He'd said this was his city and she could believe that. He seemed to belong here, moved so easily down its streets. She couldn't tell whether it had adopted him, or he'd adopted it. Whatever the case, they seemed made for each other.
Little brother or not, she had to keep this brief. One drink, promise to keep in touch, then get out of here. Keep the talk on the family, the good old days when Mom was still ruling the roost, keep it off Jeanette and the cult. Kate would find another way, sans little brother, to deal with that.
So they talked.
Actually Kate found herself doing most of it. Mostly about Kevin and Lizzie; she touched—a very glancing touch—on her divorce from Ron, mentioned a few details about her pediatric group, and then ran out of steam.
"See much of Tom?" Jack asked after a lull.
She shook her head. "No. He's a judge in Philly now, you know."
"He's on his third wife now. Saw him briefly over Christmas. I didn't see it when you were younger, but you and he look amazingly alike. Put on ten years and twenty pounds, add a little gray to your hair, and you could be twins."
"My big brother," Jack said, frowning as he shook his head. "Of all things, a judge."
Wondering at Jack's tone of chagrin, she raised her glass for another sip but found only ice cubes.
"Time for another," Jack said, taking it from her.
Before she could protest he was up and moving away from the table.
Moves like a cat, she thought as she watched him go.
Time to change the subject. So far the conversation had been pretty much a one-way street. Now it was his turn.
"So," she said as he set the second drink before her. "Enough about me. I need some answers from you. Most of all, I want to know why you simply disappeared from our lives. Was it what happened to Mom?"
Jack nodded. "Indirectly."
I knew it! Kate thought. Knew it, knew it, knew it!
"We were all devastated, Jack, but why—?"
"You weren't there in the car when that cinderblock came through the windshield, Kate. You didn't see the life seep out of her, see the light fade from her eyes."
"Okay. I wasn't there. Neither was Tom. But Dad was and he—"
"Dad didn't do anything about it. I did."
"I don't understand," she said, baffled. "Did what?"
He stared at her a long moment, as if weighing an important decision. Finally he spoke.
"I found him," he said softly. "Took me a while, but I found the guy who did it."
"Who did what?"
"Who threw the cinderblock off the overpass."
The words jolted her. Jackie had gone out looking… hunting… by himself?
"How come you never said anything? Did you tell the police?"
He shook his head. "No. I took care of it myself."
"What… what did you…?"
Suddenly it was as if a mask had dropped from Jack's face. She looked into his eyes now and for an instant, the span of a single agonized heartbeat, she felt as if she were peering into an abyss.
His voice remained low, flat, as cold as that abyss. "I fixed it."
And then the mask was back in place and an old memory flashed though Kate's brain… a newspaper article about a dead man, battered beyond recognition, found hanging upside down from a Turnpike overpass not too long after Mom's death, and she remembered wondering if it might be the same overpass, and if so it should be torn down because it must be cursed.
Could that have been the "guy" Jack said he'd tracked down? Was that why the body had been hung from that particular overpass?
No… not Jackie… not her little brother. He'd never… he couldn't kill. It had been someone else hanging from the overpass. And this man he'd mentioned… Jack had simply beaten him up.
Kate wanted very much to believe that. She turned her mind from the other possibility, but it lingered like a shadow across the table.
"Did… what you did solve anything? Did it make you feel better?"
"No," he said. "I'd thought it would, I was so sure it would, but it didn't do a damn thing for me. And after I… afterward nothing seemed to make much sense. College seemed particularly pointless. I had to get away before I exploded. I dropped out, Kate—way out. Spent years in- a blind rage, and by the time I'd blown off some of it and locked up the rest, I'd burned too many bridges to go back."
"Maybe you told yourself that. Maybe that made it easier for you, but it wasn't true."
"It was. And is. My life and your life… they're different worlds. No way you'd understand."
"Understand what? This repair business of yours? Just what is it you fix?"
"Hard to say. Situations, I guess."
"I don't get it."
"Sometimes people have problems or get themselves into situations where the legal and judicial system can't help, or they're involved in something they can't bring to the system. They pay me to fix it for them."
An appalling thought struck her. "You're not some kind of… of hitman, are you?"
He laughed—a real laugh, the kind you can't fake—and that reassured her. A little.
"No. Nothing so melodramatic as that."
"Do you pay people off?"
"No, I just sort of… it's hard to explain. And not the sort of thing I can advertise on a billboard."
"Is it legal?"
A shrug. "Sometimes yes, sometimes no."
Kate leaned back and stared. Who was this man across from her? He'd said he lived on a different world, one she'd never understand, and she was beginning to believe him. He was like a stranger from a faraway planet, and yet in many ways he was undeniably still her little brother Jackie.
First Jeanette, now Jack… her own world, never a comfortable place these past few years, now seemed to be crumbling. She felt unmoored from her life. Wasn't there anything left she could rely on?
Jack said, "Now can you see why I thought it best for all concerned that I keep to myself?"
"I don't know." Earlier tonight Kate would have said no—nothing you could have done would have changed the way we felt about you. She wasn't so sure anymore. "Maybe."
"I think Dad has scoped that I'm hiding something. Know what he asked me last time we talked?" Jack grinned. "Wanted to know if I was gay."
Kate gasped. She couldn't help it. She felt as if someone had just dashed a bucket of cold water in her face.
"It's not all that bad," Jack said, seeing Kate's shocked look.
He wondered at that. As a pediatrician she must have run into her share of teenagers who thought or knew or feared they might be gay. Maybe that was still a big deal in Kate's white-collar, middle-class-citizen world. Around here it was no deal at all.
"He flat-out asked you?" she said, her eyes still wide. "Just like that? When?"
"Couple of months ago. It was when he was planning to come up from Florida and visit you and Tom. I was trying to deflect him from including me in his itinerary."
"What did he say? Exactly."
Jack wondered at her sudden intensity.
"He said something about how he realized there might be aspects of my life I didn't want him to know about—which was dead-on right—and then he said that if I was gay…" Jack had to smile here. "He could barely get the word out. Actually he said if I was gay 'or something like that'—he never got into what the 'something like that' might be—it was okay."
"He said it was okay?" Kate couldn't seem to believe it. "We're talking about our father, the Reagan Republican, the Rush Limbaugh fan. Dad said it was okay?"
"Yeah. He told me, 'I can accept it. You're still my son.' Isn't that a killer?"
Not that it changed a thing. His father might be able to accept a gay son, but he'd never accept how Jack made his living.
He saw tears in his sister's eyes and asked, "Something wrong?"
She quickly wiped them away. "Strange how some people can surprise the hell out of you." Eyes dry again, she looked at him. "Well, are you:
"No. Strictly hetero."
"But you never married?"
"No. I kicked around a lot when I was younger, but I'm pretty much settled with one woman now."
"Well, I'm settled, but let's just say she's got some issues about my work. How about you? I'll bet a lot of guys came around after the divorce. Seeing anyone?"
"Yes." A little nod, a little smile, but very warm. "Someone special."
"Are we going to hear wedding bells again?"
And now a sad look. "No."
Strange answer. Not at all tentative. Unless she was seeing a married guy. That didn't fit with the straitlaced Kate he remembered, but as she'd just said: people can surprise the hell out of you.
He'd never thought of his sister as a sexual being; she'd always been just… Kate. But smitten enough to be making it with a married guy… a sure recipe for hurt. He hoped she knew what she was doing.
"So much of what we do comes down to sex, doesn't it," he said. "Sometimes too much, I think."
"I mean it's a part of life, a really wonderful part of life, but not all of life. There's work, play, food, mind, spirit—lots of things. But I tell you, I run into so many people who seem to define themselves by their sexual preferences." Ibo many (
"Let's just say I don't hang with too many members of the middle class, and no members of the upper class. So yeah, many of the people I know do not have what might be considered 'normal' lifestyles."
"'Normal' being within two standard deviations from the mean?"
"Sure, why not. Everything's a bell curve, right? I'm talking about people on either fringe of the curve."
"Give me a for-instance."
He thought a moment, then remembered Ray Bellson.
"I did a fix-it for this guy once who was totally into bondage. Always wore black leather, had a belt made out of handcuffs, paintings of tied hands and feet on his walls, furniture made out of chromed chain… it went on and on. You'd sit and talk to him and he'd be tying and untying knots in this piece of cord he always carried around. It had completely taken over his life."
She sipped her G and T, then said, "Where do you think I'd fall on that curve?"
Weird question for his big sister to ask her little brother.
"Never thought about it, but I assume somewhere right in the middle. I mean, I don't see you squeezing into black vinyl and brandishing a whip."
She laughed—her first real laugh tonight. "I don't see that either. But I'm just wondering what qualifies someone for 'normal' on your bell curve."
Jack shrugged, not comfortable with pigeonholing people. "How did we get on this subject anyway?"
"You brought it up."
"Actually Dad brought it up."
"How did you feel when he asked you if you were gay?"
Jack noticed her eyes fixed on his, as if the answer were very important.
"I remember being sort of glad he wasn't wondering if I was a rapist or a pedophile."
"But you've never been attracted to a man?"
"Never. I'm as attracted to guys as I am to sheep, goats, and chickens. Which is to say, not at all. Zero chemistry there. In fact the idea of getting cozy with a guy—blechT
"But you're not a gay basher."
"I figure everybody's got a right to their own lives. You may own nothing else, but you own your life. So if you don't tell me how to live mine, I won't tell you how to live yours."
"You've got no problem with lesbians either?"
"Lesbians are cool." He tried to draw out the c like Beavis. Or was that Butthead? He always got them confused.
"Really." An amused smile played around her lips.
"Sure. Look at it this way. I've got a number of things in common with lesbians right from the get-go: we both find women attractive, and neither of us is interested in having sex with a man. Now that I think about it, I've got definite lesbian tendencies."
"You know many?"
"A few. There's a lesbian couple who're regulars at this bar where I hang. It's a workingman's place and a couple of the guys weren't exactly welcoming at first; but these gals weren't about to let that stop them, so they kept coming back and now they're part of the family. Anybody tries to hassle them now will find himself nose to nose with those very same guys who gave them a hard time at first. Carole and Henni. I sit with them now and then. I like them. They're brainy and funny, and you can, I don't know… relax with them."
"They know I'm not coming on to them, and I know they're not the least bit interested in me. Take sex off the table and a lot of games disappear."
"So being with them is sort of like being with the guys."
"Not quite. Guys have a whole different set of games. No, it's more like… like sitting here with you."
Kate's eyes widened. "Me?"
"Well, yeah. We may have a lot family baggage between us, but neither of us is trying to slap a move on the other."
She narrowed her eyes and gave him a sidelong look. "You're absolutely sure about that?"
"Hey, don't go weird on me, Kate," Jack said, laughing. "I'm the family weirdo, and one is enough."
"You still haven't told me where you think I fit on your curve."
"You're not going to let this drop, are you?'
"Not until you tell me."
"Okay. Let me ask you a couple of questions first. You can have love without sex, and sex without love, agreed?"
"What if you had to choose between them? What if you had to live the rest of your life with either no sex or no love? And by no love I mean loving no one and no one loving you. Which would you give up?"
Kate barely hesitated. "Sex."
"There you go. That's normal."
"That's it? That's your sole criterion for normal?"
"I never said it was mine."
"You chose love over sex, and the very fact that love is your choice makes it normal, because you're one of the most decent, honest, normal people I've ever known."
"That's not just circular reasoning—it's spherical."
"Works for me, Mrs. Wife-mother-pediatrician."
"Which is probably even more the norm these days. Hey, if I'm wrong, prove it."
Kate opened her mouth, looked as if she was about to say something, then closed it again. She glanced at her watch.
"I've got to go."
"But what about your friend and the cult?"
"I'll work something out."
She seemed afraid. Of what? What was she hiding?
"Is your friend into something illegal?" He couldn't believe Kate would be involved with someone who was but… you never knew. "Because that's okay. Most of the people I know—"
"No-no, nothing like that. She's recovering from cancer therapy and she's acting strangely. It's more psychological than anything else."
"Some of these cults can play rough if you interfere."
"It's nothing like that, Jackie… Jack. Really. I was upset when I called; now I think I was overreacting. I don't think I need to get you involved."
"Involve me," he said. "I'm here for you." Before she could put him off again, he grabbed a cocktail napkin and said, "Got a pen?"
"I think so." She fished one out of her shoulder bag and handed it to him.
"I'm putting down my number and the numbers of two people I've worked for recently—both women and, coincidentally, both doctors.
Before you write me off, you call them and see what they say. If you still don't want my help, I won't like it, but at least it'll be an informed decision."
She took the napkin but didn't promise to make the calls.
"Come on," Jack said. "I'll walk you home."
"I'm practically there already."
"Little brother does not let big sister walk the mean streets alone at night."
"I can walk beside you or six feet behind you, but you might as well resign yourself to the fact that I'm seeing you safe home."
Kate sighed, then smiled thinly. "Let's go then."
Out on Seventh they walked and talked about getting together again during her stay in the city and keeping in touch afterward until a neon sign down one of the streets caught Jack's eye: FYNYL VYNYL. He thought he knew all the used record shops in the city but this was a new one. Almost 1 A.M. and it was still open. He couldn't pass this up.
"Mind if we stop in here for a sec?" he said.
"Not at all."
Inside, a guy with a shaved head and huge muttonchop sideburns looked up from behind the counter as they entered. "We're closing in about fifteen minutes."
"We'll only need one of those if you really know your stock," Jack told him.
"What I don't remember, this baby does," he said, patting the Mac to his left.
"Great. It's a single from 1971. A&M Records. 'Tried So Hard' by the Flying Burrito Brothers."
The guy snorted. "Yeah, right. The Dutch 45? I've got a waiting list for that one. Still haven't seen a copy."
Jack waved and turned back toward the door. "Thanks anyway."
"Flying Burrito Brothers?" Kate said as they returned to the sidewalk. "They're from my time. How'd you get interested in them?"
"Sure. You had all those Byrds albums."
"Oh, right. Back when I was horse crazy. They did that song 'Chest-nut Mare' and that got me into them and buying up all their old records. But how—?"
"You played their stuff so much I got to be a fan. And my favorite Byrd was Gene Clark. Still love his songs. So a couple of weeks ago, after buying myself a dual-deck CD burner, I decided to make the ultimate Gene Clark disk. And I want the version of 'Tried So Hard' that he sang with the Burritos. Trouble is, it was only released in Holland on a 45. The group took his voice out when they put the song on their third album."
"So you're hunting a 1971 record that wasn't even released on this side of the Atlantic. Kind of obsessive, no?"
"All your fault. The enduring influence of my big sister."
"Wow. Should I feel pleased or guilty?"
"Thanks a lot. As if I don't have enough…"
She never finished the thought because someone behind them said, "Hey."
Jack turned. He was pale, dressed in dusty black jeans and a rumpled long-sleeved shirt; looked all of twenty.
He said, "A spear has no branches."
Jack stared at him, baffled. "What?"
The guy blinked, as if coming out of a trance. "I need some money."
"Sorry about that," Jack said.
"You don't get it." He raised a shaky hand, showing a box cutter. "I need some money now." His desperation was palpable.
Jack heard Kate's sharp intake of breath. He guided her behind him with his left hand while slipping his right under his sweater and pulling the Glock from the small of his back. He held the pistol against the front of his right thigh where Kate couldn't see it.
"Look," Jack said, "I've had a bad day, a very bad day, and I'm in no mood for this. Try it somewhere else."
Looking as if he couldn't believe what he'd just heard, the guy waved the box cutter before him. "Money, man, or I start cuttin'."
"You don't want to start this, pal," Jack said. "You really don't. 'Cause if you do it's not gonna go down the way you were thinking." He raised the Glock a few inches and waggled it to make sure the guy couldn't miss it. "You see what I'm saying? So do yourself a favor and take a walk."
The guy's eyes angled down to the pistol, then back to Jack's face. He backed up a step.
"Hey, forget it, okay?"
"Forgotten," Jack said.
The guy turned and hurried away. Jack watched to make sure he kept going, then he turned Kate around and guided her ahead of him back toward Seventh, tucking away the pistol as they moved.
"I've never been so frightened in my life!" she said, looking over her shoulder. "My goodness, Jack, he had some sort of razor blade and you… you just talked him out of it! How on earth—?"
"I think that even though he was a mugger, he must be one of those naturally empathetic people."
"An empathetic mugger?"
"Sure. I told him I'd had a bad day and really didn't want to be bothered, and he understood."
"That's crazy! I've never heard of such a thing!"
"Happens now and then. You'd be surprised how many people like him respond to reason if given a chance."
Kate talked about the encounter non-stop until they reached the place where she was staying, an apartment in the mid-Twenties. Jack took one look and fell in love with the building. Its five-story brick front was lined with intricate terra cotta friezes, two per floor, one running along the floorline, the other arching over the windows, and in the keystone spot atop each window was set an open-mouthed face of some sort—animal or human Jack couldn't be sure in this light.
"What a neat building!" he said.
It stood out like a polished gem amid the debris of an otherwise purely commercial block of parking lots, print shops, frame galleries, and businesses dealing in wholesale fabric and sewing machine repairs.
"It's called the Arsley," Kate said. "The name's not anywhere on the building, at least not that I've seen, but that's what people who live here call it."
"I'll have to add this to my collection."
"You collect buildings?"
"Only neat ones. And this one is very neat."
"You're still saying 'neat'?"
"Never stopped." He snapped his fingers. "Hey, how about I take you on my Neat Building tour sometime?"
"I don't know, Jackie."
"I want to get together with you again before you go back to Trenton, Kate. I want Gia and Vicky to meet you too."
The need to reconnect with Kate was an ache in Jack's soul. He'd just got her back and couldn't let her slip away again.
Finally she smiled. "Okay. I think I'd like that. You have my cell number. Set it up and call me."
"I'll do that."
His delight was blunted as his mind darted back to the very real possibility that she was in some sort of trouble. She'd felt threatened enough to call a perfect stranger for help. Something was going on, something more serious than a friend acting strangely. Kate might say she didn't want his help, but that didn't mean she didn't need it. And if she needed help, like it or not, he'd see that she got it.
Then the briefest of hugs but the contact filled him with a protective fire.
Kate was his sister, damn it. Nobody was going to play games with his sister. Not on Jack's watch.
"Why did you follow me?"
Kate jumped at the sound of Jeanette's voice, turned and saw her standing at the end of the apartment's short front hallway. Kate had left Jack down on the sidewalk and had been expecting an empty apartment.
Jeanette was dressed for bed in her usual—an XXXL T-shirt that hung off one thin shoulder and reached almost to the knees of her long slim tanned legs; tonight's was emblazoned with the cover of the Indigo Girls' Come On Now Social album. Her dark shoulder-length hair was pulled back in a short ponytail. Her brown eyes fixed Kate with a reproachful stare.
Kate's first thought was, How does she know? Then she remembered the figure she'd thought she'd seen at the window of the Holdstock house. She'd had the impression it was a man but it must have been Jeanette.
And then guilt scalded her. She'd sneaked out behind the woman she loved and followed her like a cop tailing a criminal. But she'd done it out of concern.
"Because I'm worried about you, Jeanette. You're just not yourself and I—"
"You shouldn't have done that."
Kate sensed no anger in her voice, no threat, yet something in the words, a subliminal note in her tone, raised gooseflesh along her arms.
"I couldn't help myself. I'm so worried."
"Don't be. I'm fine. In fact I've never been better."
"But we never talk, and—"
"We'll talk soon," Jeanette said. "We'll talk as we've never talked before. I promise."
And then she turned and walked away toward the study at the rear of the apartment.
Kate trailed after her. "How about now?"
"No. Not now. But soon."
"Please, Jeanette. I'm… lonely without you."
Jeanette stopped and turned at the study door. "That's only temporary. Soon you'll never be alone or lonely again."
Kate was struck dumb. Before she could respond Jeanette closed the study door. Kate heard the click of the lock, just as she'd heard it every night since Jeanette had moved out of the bedroom. She felt her throat tighten.
I am not going to cry. I am not.
She was a grown woman, a mother of two, and a seasoned physician. She was an expert problem-solver, and she would solve this one. Somehow. And she would do it without tears.
Trouble was, she couldn't find a handle for this problem. Perhaps because her heart was breaking.
Kate stood in the center of the living room and looked around. Hardwood floors, an oriental rug, functional furniture, paintings by local artists picked up at street fairs—some they'd picked out together. The kitchen-dining area at the far end, which was not very far at all. A small, two-bedroom apartment with the second small bedroom converted to a study/office where Jeanette worked when she telecommuted to Long Island. She worked for a software company that designed custom databases for businesses. She could do a stand-up routine with her store of quips about the underdeveloped bodies and overdeveloped brains of the nerdy twentysomethings she worked with. A good dozen years older than most of them, she'd said she felt like a den mother most of the time.
But now her home office was back to being a bedroom. Four nights ago Jeanette had moved out of their bed to sleep on the couch in the office. No fight—they never fought—not even a mild disagreement. She'd simply picked up her pillow and moved out of the room. When Kate had asked—begged—for an explanation, all Jeanette would say was, "It's only for a little while. We'll be back together again soon."
Kate wandered into the little kitchen and saw the edge of a crumpled-up white paper bag sticking out of the garbage pail top. As she pushed it farther down to allow the lid to close she spotted the red and yellow McDonald's logo and froze.
She pulled out the bag and found a Big Mac container inside and her heart sank. More proof of the change in Jeanette who'd lived her entire adult life as a strict vegetarian. She wouldn't even eat eggs. Until now.
Kate leaned against the counter and ran the events of the past week or so through her head again, trying to make some sense of it all.
Jeanette had come home from the hospital her cheerful, acerbic old self, so wonderfully upbeat that the experimental protocol had worked. Like a condemned prisoner with an unexpected reprieve from death row.
But slowly she'd begun to change. Kate hadn't noticed it at first, but looking back now she could identify the subtle initial signs of Jeanette's progressive withdrawal. Sitting and staring out a window instead of rattling off her usual running commentary as she read the paper; gradually she abandoned the paper altogether, stopped listening to music, lost interest in TV. Originally she'd said she wanted to use her medical leave to work on her pet project—a CD-ROM-based in-teractive drama for women—but spent less and less time at her computer with every passing day; even stopped mentioning her plans for Int-HER-active, Inc., the company she hoped to start someday.
Silence. It gave Kate the creeps because this little apartment had always been filled with the sounds of life: music, the TV, sound clips from the computer—a multimedia melange combined with constant chatter. At thirty-eight Jeanette was a quasi-activist lesbian who had been out since her teens; Kate was a middle class mom of forty-four who still wasn't ready to come out. Their different perspectives had made for endless hours of lively discussion.
And food. Whenever Kate was up from Trenton, and that was every other weekend, they'd always gone out of their way to whip up at least one elaborate meal. But now Jeanette had lost all interest in cooking, leaving it to Kate. Not that Kate minded—after all, she was here to help all she could—but Jeanette could at least show some interest in the food. She consumed hearty portions but didn't seem to care what was on the plate. Homemade eggplant rollatini and Kraft macaroni and cheese straight out of the box were non-greeted as equals.
And then Jeanette had begun her disappearing acts, leaving without a word of explanation, without even saying good-bye.
Kate sighed. She felt helpless, and she wasn't used to that. An alien feeling…
Alien… that was what Jeanette had become. This was like an episode of the X-Files, or Twilight Zone. Jeanette seemed to be turning into someone else, a remote being who sneaked out to prayer meetings or whatever they were.
And tonight the surreality had been compounded by a strange woman giving Kate a phone number that turned out to belong to her brother.
Jack… he'd become someone else too, an unsettling someone else.
Was the whole world going mad, or just her?
But at least she still recognized her brother. Some of the old Jackie she'd known was still part of the new Jack; she wished she could say the same about Jeanette. And despite all his changes she'd found something intensely likable about the new Jack, something solid and dependable. She sensed that the boy she'd known had grown into an upright man, one who'd do what he said he'd do, honor his word, stay the course… all those old-fashioned virtues that might seem corny and hokey in this city, in this time.
The incident with that razor-wielding youth had left her shaken, but when Jack had put his arm around her on the walk home she'd felt so… safe. Was that the right word? Yes. Safe. As if an impenetrable transparent shield had slipped over her.
Feeling as if her limbs were cast in lead, Kate dropped into a chair. She grabbed the remote and thumbed the POWER button, not caring what was on so long as it broke this unbearable silence.
Fox News… and someone talking about a mass murder on the subway. Her first thought was of Jack, fear that he might have been caught in the gunfire, then she realized they were talking about something that had happened hours ago.
She shook her head… big sister still worrying about little brother, when it had been abundantly clear tonight that little brother was quite capable of taking care of himself.
But what about big sister? She wasn't doing too well.
Something Jeanette had said tonight sifted back to her.
We'll talk soon. . . we'll talk as we've never talked before. I promise.
It had sounded so sincere… a ray of hope. Why didn't it make her feel better?
And what else had she said?
Soon you'll never be alone again.
What did that mean?
One day at a time, Kate thought. That's the way I'll have to deal with this… one day at a time.
The pain wrenched Kate from sleep.
A sharp stabbing sensation in her hand—and the feeling that she wasn't alone in the room.
Terrified, she rolled over and fumbled for the switch on the bedside lamp. Finally she found it and turned it on. She blinked in the sudden glare and scanned the room.
Empty. But she'd been so sure…
The bedroom door stood open. From down the hall came a sound… the click of the study door closing. And locking.
Kate looked at her stinging hand and found a small drop of blood leaking from a puncture wound in her palm.
Sandy was up and out at the ungodly hour of 6:03 A.M., but the sun was ahead of him, peeking around the granite Gothic spires of St. John the Divine as he bounded along the sidewalk. He skidded to a stop before the newsstand and there it was: The Light. The headline took up the top half of the page:
A blurry photo of the dead killer occupied the bottom half. His photo! They'd found something usable on his roll.
And below that, the banner: EXCLUSIVE EYEWITNESS REPORT INSIDE! (see pg. 3)
"Yes!" he shouted and pumped his fist.
He snatched up an issue and opened it to page three and there he was: his first-person account boxed with his picture. Oh, no! They'd used the geeky photo from his HR file! But he forgot about that as soon as he started reading.
Butterflies fluttered up from his stomach and into his chest. This was his first Ferris wheel ride, his first look at the Magic Kingdom, his first kiss all rolled into one. He felt as if his head were about to float away.
"That is one dahlah," said an accented voice.
Sandy looked up and saw the swarthy newsstand owner holding out his hand.
"You must buy to read. One dahlah."
"Oh, yeah." He fished singles out of his pocket. "I'll take four."
He'd have access to virtually unlimited free copies at work but that wasn't the same. The ones in his hand came from a newsstand, from the street, and somehow that made them more real.
"Oh yeah, and I'll take a copy of that subway map too."
He checked out the front pages of the competition. The Post headline was okay—"SUBWAY SLAUGHTER!"—but he liked the News headline better: "NIGHTMARE ON THE NINE!" As expected, the Times was more sedate with "SIX DEAD IN SUBWAY MASSACRE." But both ran photos from above ground, mostly of the survivors as they emerged from the subway station. He looked at The Light again with his photo and its banner about his story. His story. A laugh bubbled up inside and he let it loose. When the newsstand owner gave him a strange look Sandy pulled open one of his copies and pointed to his picture.
"That's me, my man! Me!"
"Yes," the man said. "Very nice."
Sandy got the feeling the guy thought he might be scaring away his customers and wanted him to move on. So Sandy moved on, feeling lighter than air. Nobody could bring him down this morning. Nobody.
Stan Kozlowski lowered his copy of the Times and looked across the table. His shorter, heavier younger brother Joe had a copy of The Light folded in half and was pinning it to the table with the index finger of his good hand. Usually he bought the Post but The Light's front page photo of the dead gunner must have caught his eye this morning.
They occupied their usual table near the front window of Moishe's kosher deli on Second Avenue. The kosher part didn't matter—they'd been raised Catholic—but Moishe's was convenient, the coffee free-flowing, and the bagels unbeatable.
"You been reading about this guy on the train last night?"
He'd skimmed the stories to see if the Times knew more than last night's TV news. It didn't. And the mystery about this "Savior" guy had the whole city buzzing. Moishe's was no exception: Didja hear? The Savior this, the savior that. Whatta y'think? Blah-blah-blah. The story wasn't a day old and already Stan was sick of it.
"Yours say anything about his gun?"
"No. Not that I recall. I—"
"You guys figured out who he is yet?" said a squeaky voice with a Brooklyn accent sharp enough to cut steel.
Sally, their usual waitress at this, their usual table, had returned with her usual pot of coffee. Seventy if she was a day and built like a hunchbacked bird, she dyed her hair flame orange and applied eye make-up with a trowel.
Stan noticed how Joe slipped his scarred hand off the table and onto his lap. An automatic move. Seeing it caused something to twist inside Stan. Joe shouldn't have to hide any part of himself.
Two years now since the accident…
Accident, hell. He and Joe had called the fire an accident and stuck to the story so well that Stan caught himself every now and then believing it really was an accident. But the fire that had ruined their reputations and put them both out of business and scarred Joe for life had been no accident.
Joe hadn't been the same since then. Before the fire he'd been Joe Koz, top torch in the Northeast, maybe the whole coast, and no slouch with C-4 either. Now… well, he was damaged goods, and his ruined hand was only the visible part; he'd been damaged inside as well. He'd stopped caring. He never worked out anymore. Must have put on forty pounds while Stan had maintained his fighting weight. He was four years younger but now looked a good ten years older.
Stan looked up at Sally. "Who? This Savior guy? Why should we carer
"We might," Joe said. "We might care a lot."
Something in his voice made Stan give his brother a closer look; he noticed that Joe's face was set in grimmer lines than usual.
"Sure you do," Sally said, refilling their cups. "Especially if they offer a reward."
"If the city doesn't," Joe said, "I just might offer one myself."
Sally laughed. "You do that, Joe. You do that."
As she moved on, Stan stared at his brother. "What's up, Joe?"
"It doesn't say nothin' in the Times there about the kind of gun he used to whack the crazy?"
Joe smirked. "I guess bein' a college boy has its drawbacks. Even us lowbrow dropouts hit pay dirt once in a while."
They'd had a long running rivalry about who read the better paper. Joe had never finished high school. Stan had gone to college after Nam, earned a B.A. in English from Pace, not that he ever used it. All he'd ever needed to know he'd learned in Nam.
"Get to the point."
"One of The Light's reporters was on that train last night—right in the car where it all went down—and he says here this Savior guy used a tiny little .45 that he pulled out of an ankle holster."
Stan went cold. The Times articles had said the killer had used 9mm pistols with homemade silencers but hadn't mentioned a thing about the caliber of the Savior's gun or his holster.
"That doesn't mean it's him," Stan said.
"Yeah. I bet there's fucking thousands of guys running around with teeny-tiny .45s strapped to their ankles."
For the first time in two years Stan saw that old spark in his brother's eyes. He didn't want to douse it.
"You've got a point. It could be him. But don't get your hopes up."
"Get them up?" Joe grinned, showing yellow teeth. He'd never been much for dentists. "They're already up—way up. I hope to God it's him, Stan. And I hope if he doesn't show himself they track him down and drag him into the spotlight. Because then we'll see him, and then we'll know if he's our guy, and if he is he's gonna die!"
"Easy, Joe," Stan said. "You're getting loud."
"Like I give a steaming wet brown cruller! Damn fuck right I'm getting loud!"
He held up his left hand and waved it in Stan's face. Mottled shiny pink scar tissue gleamed under the ceiling fluorescents; it enveloped his index and middle fingers, fusing them into a single digit, and it swathed his ring and pinky fingers, joining them as well. The thumb too was scarred but remained separate.
"We've got issues with this guy, Stan. Serious business issues. But for me it's personal too." He began pounding the table with his good hand. "I've been lookin' for him two years, and if this is him, he's gonna die! I'm gonna blow him off the face of the fucking earth!"
Joe's final words echoed off the hammered tin ceiling of Moishe's kosher deli where patrons and staff alike stared at him in stunned silence.
I'm going to have to make some assumptions here, Sandy Palmer thought as he leaned over his subway map. He sat at his cluttered desk in the front room of his apartment and traced the Broadway line through the Upper West Side.
One indisputable fact: the Savior had taken off at Seventy-second Street. But had that been his intended stop or had he been forced by the circumstances? Had he been heading home or heading to work or on his way to his girlfriend's? Trouble was, the Nine went all the way to Van Cortlandt Park up in the Bronx.
Sandy stared at the face on the Identi-Kit printout propped up against the computer screen before him. Who are you, my man? Where do you live? Where do you hang? Where do I find you?
He couldn't see much choice in where to search. He'd have to assume that the mystery man either lived on or frequented the West Side around Seventy-second Street or somewhere above that.
He leaned back and rubbed his eyes. A lot of territory. Millions of people.
Well, no one said fame and fortune would come easy. Good journalism sometimes required a lot of legwork. He was up for it. He just had to hope he got lucky and—
The phone rang. Oh, no. Not his mother again. He'd called his folks last night to tell them about the shooting and his story in the morning edition. Bad move. Mom had lost it, crying for him to come back home where he'd be safe; Dad had kept his composure but agreed that Sandy should come home, at least for a few days. No way. He wasn't a college kid anymore. He was twenty-six and this was where he lived and worked. The conversation hadn't ended on a happy note.
He debated letting the answering machine pick up but decided against it. He got out half a hello when a gruff voice cut him off.
"That you, Palmer?"
Sandy recognized McCann's voice. And he didn't sound happy. Oh, shit, he was going to come down on him for sneaking that photo.
"Detective," he said. "Good to hear from you."
"I thought we had an understanding about that gun, Palmer."
"The second shooter's. We were gonna keep certain things out of the press."
"I haven't breathed a word about it being a Semmerling."
"Yeah but your piece mentions that he used 'a miniature .45.' That kind of narrows the field, don't it?"
Shit. He hadn't spilled that on purpose. Sandy felt like saying, I thought you didn't read The Light, but he wanted to keep McCann on his side. He could be a valuable resource.
"I'm sorry, Detective. I didn't know. I don't know anything about guns."
"Well, you should start learning."
"Look, I'm sorry. I'll be more careful in the future."
"See that you are."
And then he hung up, but Sandy thought he'd detected the slightest softening of the detective's tone before the connection broke. Good. He couldn't afford to burn any bridges. And McCann hadn't even mentioned the photo.
The intercom buzzed. Someone calling from the foyer. What now?
"Yeah," he said, depressing the button.
"Is this Sandy Palmer?" said a woman's voice. Young, Tentative.
"That's me. Who's this?"
"Beth Abrams. From the… the train last night?"
"Beth! Come on up!"
He buzzed her in, then surveyed his apartment. What a sty! He scrambled around picking up the dirty clothes and junk mail that littered the place. He tossed everything into the bedroom and closed the door on it. The place still looked a shambles.
Should've showered, he thought. He gave each armpit a quick sniff. Not great, but not offensive.
The printouts! Shit, he didn't want her seeing those. He slipped them into a manila envelope just as she knocked. He pulled the door open and she looked awful as she stood on the threshold, her pale face tear-streaked and shadowy half moons under her big dark eyes.
"Beth," he said. "How in the world—?"
And then she was tight against him, her arms locked around his back, sobbing her heart out. Oh, man, did that feel good. When had any woman, let alone an attractive one like Beth, thrown her arms around him? He closed the door and held her as she cried, absorbing her shaking sobs.
It took her a good ten minutes to regain control. He wished she'd taken more time. He could have stood there all day.
"I'm so sorry," she said, backing up a step and wiping her eyes on her sleeve. She was still all in black, dressed in the clothes she'd worn last night. "I didn't mean to do that, it's just that I'm such a wreck. I mean, I can't sleep, I can't eat, I wanted to go back to Atlanta last night but there were no flights that late and besides no one's home because my folks are touring Scandinavia and are somewhere in fucking Oslo right now and I tried to talk to my boyfriend about it and I thought he understood but after a while he let it slip that he thought it was awesome. Can you believe that? He thinks it would have been so awesome to have been there! So I just walked out and I need to talk to someone who understands what it was like, someone who was there too."
"That's me," he said. "But how did you find me?"
"I saw your picture in the paper and remembered you saying you'd graduated from Columbia so I called the alumni office as soon as it opened and they gave me your last address. I hope you don't mind."
"Mind? Are you kidding? I was trying to figure out how to get in touch with you but I never got your last name."
"And I realized I never really thanked you for what you did."
"What I did?"
"Stop being modest. You shielded me with your own body. I'll never forget that."
"Oh, that," he said as guilt spiked him. "Let's not make too much of that."
"How can you be so calm?" she said, staring at him. "How come you're handling this and I'm not?"
He'd been asking himself that same question. "Maybe because I was able to write about it. I had to confront my terrors; maybe focusing and putting them down on paper was some sort of exorcism."
Not to mention how my being there is going to make my career.
"There's another way to look at it," he added—this had just occurred to him and it was pretty good. "You have to figure, with all the millions of people in this city and all the subway lines and trains that run every hour, what are the chances of being caught on a subway car with a gun-toting madman? A zillion to one, right?"
Beth nodded. "I guess so."
"So what are the chances of getting caught twice? Think about that. The odds of either of us ever having a gun pointed our way again has got to be eighty zillion to one. So the way I look at it, I just survived the worst moment of my whole life. Everything from here on is a cake-walk."
"I never thought of it that way." She took a deep breath. "I can't believe this, but I think I feel better already. Just seeing you so together after going through the same thing I did makes it easier to handle."
Did that mean she was going to leave? Hello, have a good cry, feel better, then back to the boyfriend? No way.
"Want some coffee? Tea? I've got some good green tea."
"You know," she said with a twist of her lips which, on a day like today, had to suffice for a full-fledged smile, "all of a sudden that sounds good."
He started toward the kitchenette. "How about something to eat? I don't have much but—"
"No. I still can't think of eating. Just some tea would be great."
Good, he thought, because unless you're into chunky peanut butter and stale Ritz crackers, I'm afraid you're out of luck. The cupboard is bare, babe.
"Have a seat on the couch there and I'll start the water boiling."
What do I do now? he asked himself as he filled the kettle.
He'd been planning to start canvassing the Upper West Side with his printout. He'd called in sick at work, telling them he was still too shaken up to make it in. They'd all been understanding, even going so far as to offer him stress counseling, which left him feeling guilty.
But what he needed far more than stress counseling was a big follow-up story.
Then George Meschke himself got on the line and went on about how sales of this week's issue were going through the roof. Lots of the outlets had squawked at first at the double shipments they received, but now they were calling to say thanks—they'd sold out.
So Sandy was the man of the moment down at The Light, but that wasn't going to help him here at home. As much as he needed to find the Savior, he so wanted to make the most of this chance with Beth too. She'd come looking for him, damn it, so he'd be a real jerk to blow her off. Turn her away now and he might never see her again.
Shit. Why couldn't anything be easy?
"Do you take yours with sugar?" he called as he checked the bowl.
He usually snagged a packet or two from the coffee shops and delis when he remembered to, but it looked like he hadn't remembered in too long. Just a few white granules speckling the bottom.
Beth hadn't answered him so he headed back toward the front room.
"I hope you don't need—"
And as he moved, for a second, just a second, he had a vision of her lying on the couch, stripped of her clothing, her white skin stark against the dark fabric, open arms reaching for him as she offered herself in grateful repayment for what she considered an act of unparalleled bravery. After all, if he'd been willing to sacrifice his life for her safety, the least she could do was…
And there she was, lying on the couch…
… limbs akimbo…
… fully dressed…
… sound asleep.
Got to hand it to you, Palmer, he thought. You sure do have a way with women. A real knack for riveting their interest.
And then it hit him that this was perfect. She could sleep here while he started canvassing.
Yes! Like having his cake and eating it too.
He tiptoed into his bedroom and grabbed a pillow and blanket, then returned to the couch where he slipped the former under her head and tucked the latter around her body.
He found a pad and scratched out a note.
Had to go down to the paper. If you wake up before I'm back, please don't leave. We have LOTS to talk about! Sandy
He placed the pad where she had to see it, then leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.
"You're safe here," he whispered.
He grabbed the envelope with the printouts, tucked them into his knapsack along with his note pad, pens, and tape recorder—be prepared, as the Boy Scouts say—then eased himself out.
Life hadn't been great before, but it was definitely getting better. Not a bowl of cherries yet, but on its way.
"All right already!" Abe said when he finally opened the door in response to Jack's insistent knocking. "My hundred-yard sprint days are long past."
"It's known as the hundred-yard dash, Abe."
"Dash, sprint, whatever—I can't do it anymore."
Jack doubted that Abe Grossman, the balding proprietor of the Isher Sports Shop, whose belt length probably equaled his height, had ever sprinted or dashed a hundred consecutive yards in his life. He strode by him and headed down one of the narrow, canyonesque aisles teetering with hockey sticks and basketballs and safety helmets, heading for the counter in the rear. His nose started to itch from the dust that layered everything. Abe didn't do high volume in sporting goods. His real business was in the basement.
"Got the morning papers?"
Silly question, Jack knew. Abe read every issue of every local English language paper—morning, evening, weekly.
Behind him he heard Abe's mocking tone, " 'Good morning, Abe, my good and dear friend.' And a very good morning to you, Jack. My, but it's early, even for you. 'Yes, Abe, so sorry to barge in on you like this—'"
"Abe," Jack said. "I'm feeling just a bit frazzled this morning and I could use your help."
He hadn't slept well. The combination of the subway mess and running into Kate on the same night had kept him turning and pounding his pillow until dawn.
"'Frazzled,' says he; cranky, says I. But I should be one to quibble? He wants help but he asks for the morning papers."
"Yeah. I need another pair of eyes to help me go through every article on last night's subway killings word by word and—"
"For why? To see if the police got an accurate description of you?"
Jack stopped and turned so fast he almost lost his balance. He felt his blood congealing as he stared at Abe.
"What's not to know?" Abe said, slipping his considerable bulk past Jack—no easy feat in these confines. He waddled on and led Jack back to the scarred counter where the morning papers lay scattered. "A gun-toting crazy gets blown away by this nondescript mensch with a .45 the size of a kreplach and I should think it's Senator Schumer? Or Bernie Goetz back on the job?" He grinned. "So where's your halo, Mr. Savior?"
"But… but how?"
This was bad, very bad. If the connection was that obvious to Abe, how many other people had made it?
"The Semmerling, of course. You forget already who sold it to you?"
"Could've been another make. An AMT Backup or—"
"Could've, shmoud've. Who else but my dear friend Jack would go up against two autoloaders with a five-shot double-action piece?"
"Not like I had much choice."
"And you did have five shots, didn't you?" Abe's eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Jack. "A round in the chamber and four in the clip, right?"
Jack shrugged and glanced away. "Well… not exactly."
"Please don't tell me you started off with an empty chamber."
"I know it's safe but a loaded chamber bothers me."
"What if four hadn't been enough, Jack? What if you'd needed that fifth round? Where would you be now?"
Jack noticed a shift in Abe's tone. He glanced at his old friend's face and saw real concern there.
"So tell me: how close did he come to killing you?"
"What makes you think he came close at all?"
"You were outgunned and you had to work that farkuckt slide for every shot." Abe visibly shuddered. "You could have wound up in a body bag like the rest."
"To tell the truth. I think he was so shocked to see someone else with a gun that he didn't know what to do. Never occurred to him that he might have to defend himself."
"So you didn't need a fifth?"
"Didn't even need the fourth." Jack dropped the spent casings from last night on the counter. "Here's the brass."
"Very considerate of you. I'll recycle these and—wait: there's four here. I thought you said—"
"Used it to kill his boom box."
Abe winced. "Don't tell me: playing rap. Dr. Schnooky Ice or somebody."
"Nah. An old song I used to like, but I don't think I'll want to hear it again for a long while. Can we go through the papers now?"
"Newsday and the Times I've been through already. No detailed description in either."
That was a relief. "All right, you take the News and I'll take the Post." As Abe settled on his stool behind the counter, Jack scanned everything pertinent in the Post and found nothing.
"So far, so good."
"Nothing in the News either," Abe said.
Jack felt the tension coiled in his shoulders and along the back of his neck begin to ease. He spotted the Village Voice in the pile. No need to bother with that—a weekly wouldn't have a fast-breaking story like the massacre—but he couldn't resist a dig at Abe.
He tapped its logo. "I'm surprised, Abe. I didn't think you stooped to freebies."
"For the Voice I make an exception—but only because of Nat Hen-toff. Even when it wasn't free, I bought the Voice for Nat. Such a mensch."
"Right. Like I used to buy Playboy for the articles. 'Fess up. You read the Voice for the personals."
"You mean those ads that show pictures of beautiful woman but feel the need to have a banner reading FEMALE plastered across her tuchis to assure me that what I'm looking at is what I'm looking at? That I don't need."
The logo of The Light was visible at the bottom of the pile but Jack gave no sign that he'd seen it.
"Got any scandal sheets?"
"Not even The Light'?"
'"Especially not The Light. Grant me a modicum of taste."
"Not even as paper to line Parabellum's cage?"
"Parabellum wouldn't allow it. Never. Not fit for his droppings."
"But here it is."
"There. The Light—right in front of you."
"Oh, that. Well, I can explain. You see, I was looking for birdcage paper this morning and Parabellum spotted the headline and liked it so he made an exception. A momentary aberration on the part of an otherwise splendid and tasteful bird."
"Parabellum thanks you, I'm sure. But please don't tell anyone. He's very sensitive, and even those shlub park pigeons would laugh at him if they knew."
"My lips are sealed." Jack looked around as he tugged The Light from beneath the pile. "Speaking of Parabellum, where is the blue-feathered terror of the skies?"
"The perfect parakeet is sleeping in. You miss him? You want I should—?"
"No, let him sleep until we're finished. With my luck he'll drop one of his little packages right on some crucial para—oh, no!"
"SIX GUN SAVIOR" and "Exclusive Eyewitness Report" screamed at him. He opened to page three, almost tearing the paper in his haste. His gut clenched as he found a face he recognized staring back at him.
'Wit?" Abe said, leaning forward to get a look. "What's up? What is it?"
Jack's memory colorized the grainy black-and-white photo—dark blond hair, hazel eyes, fair skin, gold wire on the glasses.
"This kid! He was sitting a couple of feet away from me on the Nine last night."
The byline identified him as Sandy Palmer. Jack felt his palms growing moist as he read Palmer's first-hand account, dreading each new paragraph, certain that here was the one that would describe his features; and if not this paragraph, then the one after it. Palmer had nailed the shoot-out pretty much as Jack remembered it, but when it came to describing the so-called Savior, the kid came up empty.
"He was looking right at me," Jack said. "And 1 know I looked at him right before I made my move. He had to have seen me."
"You think maybe he left it out for some reason?"
"But why?" Jack didn't know what to think.
"Here, look," Abe said, rotating the paper so he had a better angle. "He's got an excuse. Listen: 'I know I saw his face at one time or another during the trip, but it made no impression on me. Neither did any of the other faces I saw before the shooting began. Ships passing in the night, every night, night after night. And that's sad, don't you think? This man saved my life and I can't remember his face. Perhaps this is a lesson for us all: look at the faces around you, really look at them. They're not just faces, they're people. Remember them. You may wind up owing your life to the person behind one of those faces.' " Abe grimaced. " 'Ships passing in the night.' Oy. So original. This is journalism?"
"Do you believe him?"
Abe shrugged. "I should think that if he'd been able to sit down with a police artist and give him anything useful, your punim would be on page one of every paper in town."
"Good point." Jack was starting to feel better. "You know, I just might get through this."
"Let's hope so. But the vultures already are swarming. Senators, congressmen, councilmen pushing and shoving to see who can be first to climb on top of those dead bodies to get better seen. Their stomachs should burst. They yammer about stricter gun control but what we're getting is stricter victim disarmament. Next thing you know one of the dead folks' relatives will be running for office on a victim disarmament platform, arguing for more of the same kind of laws that left their dead loved one defenseless."
"Irony ain't always pretty."
"It goes further. These shlubs like to hit up small businesses for donations. They don't know how good their farshtunken laws are for my real business, but they shouldn't come to me looking for donations. A krenk I'll give them."
Jack thought about Abe's real business, about the scores of pistols and rifles racked in the basement. He hesitated, wondering if he should ask, then plunged ahead.
"You ever wonder when you hear about something like this if it was one of your guns that did the killing?"
Abe sighed. "Yes, I do. But I'm careful who I sell to. That's no guarantee, obviously, but most of my customers are solid citizens. Of course, their buying a gun from me automatically makes them criminals. Felons even. But mostly they're decent people looking for a little extra protection who shouldn't want to be awakened in the middle of the night by stormtroopers when someone decides to collect all the city's registered weapons. Lots of ladies I sell to. These victim disarmers would rather have a woman raped and beaten to death in some back alley than let her carry a little equalizer. A brock on all of them!"
Uh-oh, Jack thought as Abe's face reddened. Here he goes.
"Gun laws they want? Make me king and gun laws they'll get! Random checkpoints day and night! If you're not carrying a weapon—bam! A fine! Three offenses and we lock you up! Last night would never have happened in my city! That meshuggener would have thought twice, three, maybe four times before trying what he did, and even if he'd gone ahead he'd have got off one, maybe two shots and then everybody would have opened up on him and a lot fewer bodies would've been dragged out of that car. And just imagine what the body count would have been if you'd been delayed a few minutes and wound up on the next train. Think about that."
"I have. And I'm also thinking you're crazy. You have any idea what this city would be like if you gave everyone a gun?"
Abe shrugged. "A period of adjustment there'll be, of course, during which a lot of defective genes will be removed from the pool, and during which I might maybe think about going on vacation. But when I came back I'd be living in the politest city on earth."
"Sometimes I wish the gun had never been invented."
"No guns?" Abe put his hand over his heart. "You mean a world where I'd have to make my entire living selling this sporting junk? Oy't Wipe such a thought from your brain!"
"No, seriously. I wouldn't mind a world where no guns existed."
But if one gun existed—just one—Jack wanted to be the man to own it. And since lots of guns already did exist, he wanted to own his share, and he wanted to own the best.
"Enough sky blue," Abe said. "You have plans for the day?"
Jack thought about that. Hadn't made any because he hadn't been sure he'd be able to show his face on the street. Now the whole day had opened up. Gia wouldn't be back until tomorrow but…
"Maybe I'll get together with my sister."
Abe's elevated eyebrows wrinkled his forehead all the way up to where his hairline used to be. "Sister? I remember you saying once you had one but since when are you in contact?"
"Since last night."
"What's she like? She'd like a good deal on a .32 maybe?"
Jack laughed. "I doubt that. Tell you the truth, I'm not sure yet what she's like. It's been a lot of years. But I hope to find out…"
Sitting alone in Jeanette's sunny kitchen, Kate cradled the phone after the last of three calls she'd made this morning.
The first had been to Kevin and Elizabeth—one of her twice-daily calls—before they ran out to school. They were sixteen months apart in age but, because of the timing of their births, only a year apart in school. The school year was drawing to a close and neither could wait for it to end, especially Kevin who, as a junior, thought he knew it all. She hoped he wouldn't muff his final exams. Liz was a sophomore and practicing like mad for her big flute solo in Telemann's Suite in A Minor with the school orchestra, nervous but handling it pretty well. Kate had promised again for at least the hundredth time to be back home next Monday to hear her.
And of course the lies continued—about how the person she was nursing back to health was a dear old college sorority sister who'd been living in Europe and had returned for cancer treatment.
So many lies… lies to everyone. Sometimes she wondered how she kept track of them all. She was so sick of lies, but she couldn't quit quite yet. She'd have to go on with this double life for two more years. Just hang on until Liz was eighteen and heading for college. Then she'd come out. With a bang.
But until then…
Kate ached to be back with the kids but knew she couldn't leave Jeanette in this state. She'd have to find some resolution to the situation before she headed back to Trenton this weekend.
The next two calls had been to complete strangers. She had no intention of involving Jack in her problems, but hadn't been able to resist the opportunity to peek through a window into her brother's life and perhaps learn something about the enigma he'd become.
The first had been to a fellow pediatrician, an infectious disease specialist working not far from here in a clinic for children with AIDS; the second to an endocrinologist named Nadia Radzminsky.
Kate hadn't let on that Jack was her brother, saying only that he'd offered their names as references. Both women had been effusive in their praise, but evasive when Kate had pressed for details about what he'd done to earn their regard. Alicia Clayton, the pediatrician, had said something to the effect that Jack didn't come cheap, but was worth every penny. Each had made it clear, though, that she could trust Jack with anything. Even her life.
Her younger brother was sounding a little scary. He was known as Repairman Jack… and for a price he fixed things… problems. How bizarre.
Not that my circumstances are exactly run-of-the-mill, she thought as she rubbed the healing puncture in her palm.
It hadn't been a dream. Something had pricked her palm last night. It couldn't be a spider or insect bite because she saw no tissue reaction. It looked like a needle had stabbed through the skin.
The thought gave her chills. With HIV and hepatitis C and who knew how many other as yet unrecognized diseases floating about, a puncture wound was not something she could brush off. She couldn't imagine Jeanette doing anything to harm her, but then she'd never imagined Jeanette behaving as she had the past few days.
Kate looked up at the sound of the study door opening and saw Jeanette, mug in hand, crossing the living room. She'd been hiding away all morning. Dressed in a loose red T-shirt and jeans, her feet snug in her well worn Birkenstocks, she looked wonderful. Jf only she'd smile…
"More coffee?" Kate said, putting on a hopeful grin.
"Just need to heat this up," Jeanette replied, her tone and expression neutral.
At least she doesn't seem as angry as last night, Kate thought. I suppose I should be grateful for that.
"What are you doing in there? Working?"
Jeanette didn't look at her as she placed her cup inside the microwave and started jabbing the buttons. "What's wrong—couldn't see enough through the keyhole?"
That stung. "Darn it, Jeanette, that's not fair! I'm not snooping on you!"
Jeanette turned toward her with a sneer twisting her lips, but then her whole expression changed, flashing from smugness to wide-eyed terror.
"Kate, oh please, Kate, help me!" she cried, staggering forward against the counter and gripping it with white-knuckled intensity.
Kate was out of her seat, moving around the counter. "Dear God, Jeanette, what's wrong?"
"Something's happening to me, Kate! I think I'm losing my mind!"
She grabbed Kate's forearms, her trembling fingers digging deep into her flesh, but Kate didn't mind. She could see in her eyes that this was Jeanette—her Jeanette—and she was terrified.
"You're okay! You've got me! I'm here for you!"
"You've got to do something, Kate! Please don't let this happen to me! Please!"
"Don't let what happen?"
"It's taking over!"
Oh, Lord, she sounded so paranoid. "It? What are you talking about?"
"Please, Kate! Call Doctor Fielding and tell him it's taking over!"
Wonderful things, buses.
Rarely during his fifty-two years had the old Terrence Holdstock used mass transportation, unless of course one included jetliners in the category. He had never ridden a bus. But the One Who Was Terrence loved buses. Took them everywhere. The more crowded the better.
He'd boarded one on Fifth Avenue—didn't know which line, didn't care. One was as good as another. He bided his time during the stop-and-go progress downtown, edging toward the rear, waiting to make his move. The packed bodies in the aisle, the smorgasbord of odors would have bothered the old Terrence, but the One Who Was Terrence didn't mind at all.
Finally he saw his chance: the skinny black woman who had been occupying his favorite seat—right side, by the window, next-to-last row—rose and debarked. Quickly he slipped past her seatmate, nestled his stocky frame into her vacated seat, and settled down for a nice long ride.
Yes, this was by far the best seat. From here he could watch nearly all the packed humanity within, and observe the streaming crowds of hosts on the sidewalk beyond the glass. He would spend much of today here, just as he had spent much of yesterday, and the day before.
The old Terrence, before he'd finally faded away, had been baffled by this behavior. And he'd been upset, incensed even, when the new Terrence had quit his job at the agency without so much as a good-bye to his accounts. But he'd never been terribly fond of that job anyway. And besides, what would being an ad exec matter after the Great Inevitability? There would be no such wasted activity as advertising in the future, but the old Terrence was too stubborn and, in the end, too frightened to realize that.
The One Who Was Terrence looked forward to the glorious new world. Of course he should: he was going to be instrumental in bringing it about. And then—
A sudden ripping sensation—not in his clothing, not in his viscera, but in his mind—jolted him. Something was wrong. Who—?
Alarmed, he searched and realized that Jeanette was missing; gone without a trace. Was she dead? This was terrible. He knew her address. He had to go there!
The bus was gasping to a stop at just that moment. The One Who Was Terrence lurched from his seat and fought his way down the aisle to the exit doors. He caught them as they were starting to close and slammed them back. He jumped to the pavement and immediately stepped into the street, looking for a cab.
He was frightened. Nothing like this had ever happened. It wasn't in the plan. It might ruin everything!
Just as suddenly as it began, it was over.
Jeanette released Kate's arms and staggered back to lean against the counter, as if dizzy. She blinked and looked at Kate.
"What just happened?"
"I don't know," Kate said, as baffled by this new shift in mood as she was by the first. Like turning a switch. "Don't you?"
"No. I think I must have blacked out. First you were standing over there and now you're right in front of me and I don't remember you moving."
"'But you were talking to me, shouting, in fact. Something about 'it's taking over.'"
Shock mixed with uneasiness on Jeanette's face. "I said that? No, I… couldn't have said that. I'd remember."
"Why would I make that up, Jeanette?"
"I don't know. Taking over what?"
"You didn't get to it, but you seemed terrified." Kate stepped closer and placed a hand on Jeanette's arm. "Jeanette, I think you had a seizure."
She pulled away. "What? Epilepsy? Don't be ridiculous! I've seen seizures. I know what they're like. I wasn't shaking, was I? I didn't fall down and start foaming at the mouth."
"That's a grand mal seizure. But there are all kinds of seizures. Temporal lobe seizures can cause personality changes, bizarre behavior. I—"
"I did not have a seizure!"
"It could be the tumor, Jeanette. Maybe it's not responding as well as we thought. Or maybe this is an aftereffect of the treatment. We've got to call Dr. Fielding."
"No. Absolutely not."
"But just a moment ago you were begging me to."
"You must have misunderstood. Why would I want to see Dr. Fielding? I'm fine. Never felt better."
"Jeanette, please." The more Kate thought about what she'd just witnessed, the more concerned she became. She'd never seen such a dramatic personality shift—a real-life Jekyll and Hyde without the smoking potion. She felt the nape of her neck tighten. "This could be serious."
"It's nothing, Kate. Don't trouble yourself about it. Just leave me alone. I—" She turned her head sharply, as if listening. "Wait. Someone's coming."
Jeanette slipped past her and headed for the door. Before she was halfway across the front room the door swung open. A man stood on the threshold. Kate recognized him as the one who'd welcomed Jeanette into the house in the Bronx last night.
"How did you get in here?" Kate blurted.
His eyes briefly fixed on her—Kate hadn't been close enough until now to notice how small and cold they were—then flicked away. Neither he nor Jeanette bothered to answer her, but she noticed something metallic in his hand.
The realization that Jeanette had given him a key to her place made Kate queasy.
He stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. He held out his hands to Jeanette. "What happened to you?"
She shook her head and placed her hands in his. They stood staring at each other.
"Concerned," the man said.
Jeanette only nodded. They stared a few seconds longer, then Jeanette said, "Seizure."
With that they both glanced at Kate.
"What is going on here?" Kate said. "And who are you?"
"This is Terrence Holdstock," Jeanette said. "A friend."
"All right?" Holdstock asked Jeanette.
More staring, then Jeanette turned to her. "We're going for a walk."
A panicky voice inside was telling Kate not to let Jeanette go off with this man. She had this terrifying and wildly unscientific impression that there were two Jeanettes, and the one she'd known and loved was trapped inside this stranger and trying to claw her way out.
"I'll come along."
"No," Jeanette said. "We need to be alone."
Without another word, not even good-bye, they turned and left.
At any other time, Kate knew, she would have been crushed. But she was too shaken for that. Something was terribly wrong. The problem was neurological. It had to be. And the man who had worked on her brain was her oncologist, Dr. Fielding.
Her hand shook as she reached for the phone. She had to call Fielding. But after that… what? What could Fielding do if Jeanette refused to see him? That man Holdstock seemed to have some mesmerizing influence over her.
Which meant she should make another call. To her brother. Much as she'd wanted to keep him out of this, she couldn't discount how the two women she'd called this morning had said they'd trust Jack with their lives. Maybe someone like him was needed here, because Kate found the coldness in Holdstock's eyes as unsettling as Jeanette's behavior.
Could she trust Jack with Jeanette's life? She didn't have much choice.
God, she hoped she wouldn't regret this.
With aching legs and burning feet, Sandy plodded toward his apartment door, grimly certain that he'd find the place empty, Beth gone. Which would be in perfect synch with how he'd come up after a day of trudging through the Upper West Side: empty.
Can't expect to strike it rich first time out, he kept telling himself.
But he couldn't deny that the hope of a lucky lightning strike, however unreasonable, had nestled in his brain when he'd set out this morning.
So much for hope. By five-thirty he'd had it. He knew he should keep pushing but he'd run out of gas. The streets and sidewalks were jammed and he couldn't take any more suspicious looks or negative headshakes. He was tired of hearing "Never seen him before in my life," and even more tired of lying about why he was looking for the man in the drawing. So he'd packed it in.
Tomorrow was another day.
But what about tonight?
I could sure use some company now, he thought. Female company with big brown eyes and short black hair. Beth company.
But he couldn't allow himself to hope that she'd still be there. She'd probably awakened, maybe hung around a little, got bored, and went back to her boyfriend.
And then Sandy heard the music, the spellbinding strains of "It Could Be Sweet" from Portishead's first album filtering through his door. He keyed it open and stepped inside. The music engulfed him along with an odor. Food. Someone was cooking.
"About time you got back!" Beth said, smiling from the kitchenette. "I was getting worried."
Sandy tried to take it in. Bottles and jars and boxes on the counter—wine, Ragu, Ronzoni. A candle burning, the blinds drawn, music playing…
Beth's face fell. Something in his expression maybe.
"Is this okay?" she said. "I hope you don't think I'm horning in but I woke up and there was no food so I thought I'd cook us dinner. If you're not cool with that…"
Sandy couldn't speak so he held up his hand to stop her.
"What's wrong?" Beth said. "Say something. Look, if I've overstepped my bounds…"
What to say? Sandy thought. Then it hit him: try the truth.
"Sorry. I was kind of afraid to speak. I'm so happy you're still here I thought I'd cry."
Her smile lit the room. She ran to him and threw her arms around his neck. She hugged him, gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, then stepped back.
She said, "Jesus, you're something, you know that? So sweet! I've never met anyone like you."
"And I can't believe you like Portishead—at least I assume you like them because you've got all their albums. I love them. And not just because the lead singer and I have the same first name."
Lead singer? Sandy thought, still dazed. Oh, yeah. Beth Gibbon.
"You bought food?" he said. So lame, but it was the best he could do at the moment.
"Yeah. Are you anorexic or something? I mean, there was no food in this place."
Sandy's head was spinning and Beth was talking at light speed. Could she be a crankhead or something?
"I eat takeout a lot. Look, uh, Beth, are you all right?
"All right?" she said, laughing. "I'm miles better than all right. I don't think I've been so all right in years!" She dashed to the couch and picked up a handful of yellow sheets from his legal pad, the one he'd left the note on. "Look at this! Notes, Sandy! It's just so pouring out of me!"
"Notes about what?"
"About what? What else? Last night. I woke up and found your note and remembered what you'd said this morning and suddenly it was like wow! Insight! I am 50 psyched!"
"What'd I say?"
She grinned. "Oh, so you like Ray Charles too."
"Never mind. You said maybe you were able to handle what happened because you had to write about it. That the writing forced you to confront your reactions, that putting it all down on paper was some sort of exorcism. Remember?"
"Yeah." He vaguely recalled saying something like that. "Sort of."
"So that's what I've been doing! For months now I've been going crazy trying to decide what to do for my thesis film, and when I woke up this afternoon I remembered what you said and there it was, staring me right in the face!"
"Yes! It's going to be about what happened on the train last night. Not literally, of course, but metaphorically about having your mortality so shoved right in your face. And you know what? Ever since I started writing down these notes, I'm not afraid anymore."
She tossed the yellow sheets back toward the couch. They never made it. They fluttered instead like dying birds and fell to the carpet.
She threw her head back and shouted. "I'm saved!"
They drank the wine and talked as she cooked the spaghetti and spiced up the Ragu in some wonderful way. And they talked while they ate. Beth was twenty-four, from Atlanta, with an English degree from Baylor. Her folks were the sort who valued stability, she told him, and weren't all that crazy about her going for a film degree; it wasn't a career that guaranteed a steady income and benefits—like teaching, for instance.
And all the while Sandy ached for her but couldn't say so, couldn't make the first move.
Finally the wine and the food were gone. Sandy cleared the table with Beth. They were both standing at the sink when she turned to him.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Have you got something against sex?"
Sandy blinked in shock, tried to say no, but found himself stuck in a Porky Pig stutter. "M-m-m-m-me? No. Why would you say that?"
"Because I'm here and I'm as willing as I'll ever be and you haven't made a move. Not a single move."
That fear of rejection shit again, Sandy thought. Damn me! How do I get out of this?
"Well, look," he said. "I mean, after you gave me such a brush-off last night I thought maybe you might be, you know, playing for the other team."
He hadn't thought that at all, but it was a good cover.
Her grin split her face. "Me? A lez? Oh, God, that's such a riot!"
"It is?" It was the best he could come up with on such short notice.
"You were just a stranger on a train then." She nudged him. "And hey, how about that—I was reading a Hitchcock book no less. But now…"
Beth slipped her arms around Sandy's neck again and pulled his face down to hers.
"Now you're a guy who saved my life, or at least was willing to take a bullet for me, and then you calmed me down when I was so freaking out, and then you inspired my student film. Where the hell have you been all my life, Sandy Palmer?"
"Waiting for you," Sandy said.
And then her lips were sealed over his and she was hooking her right leg around him and tugging at the buttons of his shirt.
She wants me! he thought, his heart soaring. Wants me as much as I want her.
What a difference a day makes.
Kate was waiting outside on the front step as Jack neared the Arsley. She wasn't alone. In the fading light he could make out a tall, thin, stoop-shouldered man in a suit.
Who's this? he wondered.
He'd figured the easiest way to get to Pelham Parkway and back was to drive, so he'd offered his services. But he'd expected only Kate as a passenger.
Felt a smile start at the sight of her, and was struck again by what a good-looking woman she was. Dressed simply and casually in a fitted white shirt and black slacks, she still managed to project taste and style. Guy with her looked to be about her age, but on the homely side. Jack hoped this wasn't the "someone special" she'd mentioned last night. She could do a lot better.
He pulled his two-year-old black Crown Victoria into the curb before the pair. Kate leaned in the passenger window.
"Jack, this is Dr. Fielding, Jeanette's oncologist. He wants to come along."
Swell, Jack thought sourly.
Didn't know what Kate was getting him into, and a third party might tie his hands. She'd told him about Jeanette Vega, a dear friend from college recovering from brain tumor therapy with no one to care for her. And she'd told him about this Holdstock guy popping into Jeanette's unannounced with a key; that plus his apparent influence over Jeanette earned him a high creep quotient. Hopefully tonight's excursion would run smoothly, but Jack found cults generally creepy. Too unpredictable. Jonestown and those Hale-Bopp weirdos were prime examples.
But he smiled and said, "Sure. Why not?"
The doc slipped into the back seat and Jack noticed his dark hair, over-gelled and frozen into long shiny black rows left by his comb. He stretched a bony, long-fingered hand toward Jack. "Jim Fielding."
"Jack," he said, shaking Fielding's hand. "An oncologist who makes house calls. Am I witnessing an historic event?" He turned to Kate who was belting herself in next to him. "Hope you didn't use any illegal means of coercion."
"As opposed to legal means of coercion?" Kate said. "No, Dr. Fielding insisted on coming along."
"I'm concerned about Jeanette's bizarre behavior," Fielding said, "particularly the possibility that she might be developing a seizure disorder. She's fortunate a trained observer like Dr. Iverson was there as a witness."
Dr. Iverson? Jack wondered, then realized he was talking about Kate.
"I'd like to do a little first-hand observation myself. And if Jeanette won't come to me, then I'll go to her."
Sounds like a good guy, Jack thought.
Kate patted the seat between them. "Big car. Reminds me of Dad's."
"He's got a Marquis, same car but sold by Mercury. It's the state car of Florida."
"I wouldn't have thought you were a big-car type, Jack."
"You rented this just for tonight? Jack, you should have told—"
"No, it's mine. Sort of."
"Sort of how?"
"Just… sort of." Should he explain how he'd paid for the car but it was registered under someone else's name? Nah. "Don't worry about it."
"I'm not worried about it—just you."
Cars were an ongoing problem for Jack. With no officially recognized identity, he couldn't own one in the conventional manner. At least as a city dweller he had little call for one, but on those rare occasions when the need arose he wanted immediate access. Used to keep an old Buick registered under Gia's name but that arrangement had led to a dicey situation where Jack had been linked to the car and the car had been traced back to Gia.
Wasn't about to let that to happen again. He made a point of learning from his mistakes and so he'd hunted around for another way to have access to wheels that couldn't be traced to him. Came up with a beaut: find a guy equipped to field whatever a disgruntled target of Jack's work might toss his way, then clone his car.
After weeks of careful searching, Ernie, his documents guru, found just the man: Vinny the Donut Donate
Vinny D supplied muscle for a Bed Stuy shy; lived in Brooklyn Heights and drove a recent model Crown Vic—black, of course. Jack would have figured Vinny as more a Cadillac kind of guy, but when he looked in the Crown Vic's trunk he understood: big enough to hold three, maybe four bodies.
So Jack had Ernie make him up a set of tags and a registration identical to Vinny's; and a driver's license which, except for its photo, was a perfect match of Vinny D's. Then Jack went out and bought a Crown Vic like Vinny's—a banged-up version that he never washed, but the same make and model.
The thing Jack liked most about Vinny D was his perfect driving record. Ernie's probe of the DMV computer showed no points. Whether this was due to diligence and skill behind the wheel, or a liberal application of grease in official places, Jack neither knew nor cared. The important thing was that if Jack ever got stopped he wouldn't be hauled in as a scofflaw.
It wasn't perfect. Always the possibility of Jack and Vinny D winding up on the same street at the same time and Vinny just happening to notice that their tags were identical. But since Vinny kept his car in Brooklyn and Jack garaged his in Manhattan, and hardly used it, he figured the chance of that happening was practically nil.
"Do we have a plan?" Jack said. "Do we even know she's at this address?"
"It's the only place I can think of to start," Kate said. "She left with that man this morning and hasn't been back since."
Jack said, "I'm feeling a little left out here. You both know this woman and I've never met her. What's she like?"
Kate cleared her throat. "The Jeanette you'll meet tonight—if you do meet her—is not the same woman she was before her treatment."
"And just what was this treatment?"
"For a brain tumor—an inoperable malignant glioma."
Fielding added from the rear: "By far the most common primary tumor developing in the human brain and too often refractory to current therapeutic approaches."
Kate went on. "So when the diagnosis was made I did some research and found Dr. Fielding and his clinical trial. Jeanette qualified for his study and—" She turned in her seat toward Fielding. "Perhaps you can tell it best."
"Of course." Fielding leaned forward. "Jeanette's tumor was treated with a stereotactically administered recombinant adenovirus vector carrying the herpes simplex thymidine kinase gene, followed by intravenous ganciclovir."
"Oh," Jack said. "That clears that up." He glanced at Kate. "Anyone care to translate?"
Kate smiled. "I watched the whole operation. Under x-ray guidance, Dr. Fielding threaded a tiny catheter into the tumor in Jeanette's brain. He then injected the tumor with a special virus, a recombinant strain of adenovirus that's had a specific gene from a herpes virus spliced into it."
"Wait. Doc, you injected herpes into this woman's brain?"
"Not the herpes vims per se," Fielding said. "Just a piece of it. You see, the altered adenovirus is called a vector virus. I'm oversimplifying, but let's just say it's attracted to dividing cells, and wild cell division is what makes a tumor a tumor. When the vector virus meets the tumor cells it does what all viruses do: it adds its own genetic material to the tumor's."
Kate said, "Think of the vector virus as a Trojan horse, but instead of Greeks it's carrying this tiny piece of a herpes virus—"
"Thymidine kinase gene H5010RSVTK, to be specific," Fielding added.
"—which gets incorporated into the tumor cells along with the virus's own genes. Now, there's no specific drug that will kill malignant glioma cells, but we do have medications that will kill viruses. And one of them, ganciclovir, kills by destroying a virus's thymidine kinase gene."
"Exactly," Fielding said. "And so, after injecting Jeanette's tumor with the virus and giving it time to combine with the tumor cells, we flooded Jeanette with high intravenous doses of ganciclovir."
"Which made a beeline for the tumor," Jack said, getting the picture now. "The herpes gene acts as a homing device for the gan-whatever guided missile."
Fielding laughed. "Homing device and guided missile—I like that. I'll have to remember it next time I'm explaining the protocol to a patient."
Kate said, "The ganciclovir not only kills the tagged virus, it kills any cell carrying the thymidine kinase gene. And since the tumor cells now carry that gene…"
"Blammo," Jack said, filled with wonder. "No more tumor. Sounds like science fiction. Or maybe horror fiction. What kind of mind dreams up something like this?"
"I wish mine had," Fielding said. "But I'm merely following in others' footsteps."
"But who volunteered to be the first patient to have a virus injected into his brain?"
"Someone with nothing to lose. But lots of lab animals paved the way."
"So Jeanette is cured."
"Not completely," Fielding said. "At least not yet. Malignant gliomas are tough, resilient tumors. Her last MRI showed a marked reduction in the tumor's size but she'll probably have to undergo another course of therapy to finish it off once and for all."
Kate turned in her seat and looked at Fielding. "And you still don't see any possible link between the protocol and Jeanette's personality changes?"
Fielding paused before answering. "Getting a reprieve from what is in a very real sense a death sentence has been known to cause enormous psychological turmoil."
Which isn't exactly answering the question, Jack thought, but maybe he's worried about a malpractice suit.
Kate had given him Holdstock's address but Jack hadn't had the faintest idea how to get there. He'd checked out a map before leaving tonight and had the route pictured in his head.
Night had settled in by the time he reached Astor Avenue. He slowed to a crawl, watching for a number.
"There it is," Kate said, pointing to a brick house ahead. "The lights are on. I know Jeanette's in there."
"Okay," Jack said, pulling into an empty spot half a block down. "Now that we're here, what do we do? How do we confirm she's there?"
He was mildly uncomfortable with the situation. Too ad lib. Normally he'd have checked out the house in advance and have a plan in place. And he never would have brought anyone else along. But this was Kate's gig. He was along for the ride and to provide some backup if necessary.
Kate said, "I looked through the living room window last time."
"That's a little risky, don't you think? A neighbor could report us as peepers."
"That would be catastrophic," Fielding said. "My entire career would be in jeopardy if I were even charged as a Peeping Tom."
Your career? Jack thought. If Jack got hauled in for anything—from shooting a crazy on a subway to littering—he could kiss his freedom bye-bye.
"Just a quick look," Kate said, opening her door. "I'll go myself. I've never heard of a woman being charged as a Peeping Tom."
No way Jack was letting Kate do it on her own. He got out on his side, and Fielding did the same. Career or not, curiosity must have got the better of him.
"Let's make this quick, people," Jack said as he caught up to Kate on the sidewalk. "One look, then back to the car to discuss our next move."
"I'll bet they're having that ceremony or seance or whatever it was I saw last night," Kate said.
When they reached the house Kate didn't break stride. She trucked right across the lawn toward the lighted window on the side. Jack slowed, letting Fielding go ahead of him. He brought up the rear, doing a three-sixty scan of the area. A few neighboring windows facing this way but no sign of anybody at them. All probably watching TV. Okay.
Kate reached the window, went up on tiptoe, and stared inside.
Jack heard her excited whisper: "There she is."
As Jack approached, Fielding came up behind Kate and peered over her shoulder. Jack saw him lean closer, then jerk back as if he'd received a shock.
"Oh, no!" he cried. Jack winced at the volume. "Oh, dear God, this is worse than I thought!"
He lurched away from the window just as Jack got there. Through the glass—thankfully it was down—Jack saw eight people sitting in a circle holding hands. And that was it. No one appeared to be speaking. The eight of them just sitting there with these goofy smiles on their faces. He was about to ask Kate which one was Jeanette but she'd slipped away.
"Dr. Fielding!" he heard her say. "Where are you going?"
Jack looked and spotted Fielding heading around the front of the house.
"Inside! I'm not leaving here until I find out what this is about!"
Kate followed Fielding and Jack followed Kate and the three of them wound up on the front steps. Jack went to grab Fielding to try to calm him down and find out what had set him off, but too late; he began pounding on the front door.
Kate looked at Jack and he jerked a thumb toward Fielding with a questioning look. She shrugged her shoulders, obviously as baffled as he.
"Take it easy, Doc," Jack said. "We don't need to wake up the whole borough."
Fielding looked as if he was about to speak when the door opened. A heavyset man with thinning blond hair and eyes too little for his face—his looks fit Kate's description of Terrence Holdstock—stood gaping at his three visitors.
"Why, Dr. Fielding. What a surprise!"
"What's going on here, Terrence?" Fielding said.
"Just a meeting. A support group, you might say."
"Support for what?"
"For the ordeal we've been through, and for the wonderful future that awaits us. All thanks to you, Dr. Fielding."
"Yes, well, I'm glad you feel that way, but how did you all meet? I have strict confidentiality procedures. If someone in my office—"
"Nothing like that, I assure you. We met quite by accident."
''''All of you?" Fielding took a step forward. "Look, may I come in? I'd like to—"
Holdstock didn't budge. "I'm afraid not, doctor. We're right in the middle of our meeting. Perhaps some other time."
"No, please, I must talk to you, all of you."
Holdstock shook his head. "We're fine, doctor. And getting better every day, thanks to you."
"I want to see Jeanette!" Kate said.
"She will be home later. As for now, please let us be."
So saying, Holdstock stepped back and closed the door.
"No!" Fielding cried.
He raised his hand to hammer the door again but Jack caught his wrist before he could land the first blow.
"I don't think that's going to get us anywhere."
Fielding resisted for a second, then dropped his arm. "I guess you're right."
"That's it?" Kate said. "We're giving up? Just like that?"
"We're regrouping," Jack said. "Holdstock has the law on his side at the moment. This is his house and he's invited a bunch of guests over to hold hands. He can have the local boys in blue haul us off for disturbing the peace here. So I say we go back to the car and settle down and let Dr. Fielding here tell us why he hasn't been straight with us."
Kate looked at Jack as if he were crazy.
"Look at him," Jack told her. "Look at his expression. And that conversation with Holdstock. Could you make sense of that?"
She turned back to Fielding and her eyes narrowed. "What aren't you telling us?"
Fielding's eyes were haunted. "I know those people in there. They're all my patients. Every single one of them!"
"Jeanette is not the first in my clinical trial to exhibit personality changes," Fielding said.
Kate bit back her anger. She sat half turned in the passenger seat as Jack slowly cruised the empty, tree-lined streets. Fielding was a dark blob in the rear, lit occasionally by a passing street lamp.
"What do you mean?"
She could feel her emotions running wild, tugging her in all direc-tions. She wanted to charge back and drag Jeanette from that house; but she also wanted to hear what Fielding had to say. That might be more important right now.
"Over the past month or so I've had calls from the families of a number of patients in the study. They all complained of personality changes or strange behavior."
"Why didn't you say that when I called you this morning?"
"Because I didn't want you jumping to conclusions. And I couldn't handle a barrage of questions for which I had no answers."
"That's why the house call," Jack said, and Kate picked up on his tone… disdain or disappointment, or perhaps a little of both. "It wasn't for Jeanette's sake. It was for yours. There's been a screw-up somewhere and you're trying to cover your ass."
"I did it for many reasons," Fielding said. "I needed a first-hand look at this strange behavior that was being reported. I figured I'd start with Jeanette, then see if I could observe others. I never dreamed I'd find everyone in the trial in one room."
"Everyone?" Kate said. The night was warm but she drew her legs up under her to ward off a sudden chill.
Fielding was nodding. "All eight."
"What's the big deal about that?" Jack said. "They all went through the same thing, so—"
"They shouldn't know each other," Kate told him. "It's standard procedure in clinical trials to keep the patients anonymous. So, if they've never met during treatment and don't know each other's names, how did they get together?" She turned back to Fielding. "Any ideas?"
"Holdstock said by accident, but that's impossible. And how all eight recipients of the same vector strain managed to—"
"Same strain?" Kate exclaimed. "You mean they all were treated with the same virus?"
Fielding didn't reply.
Jack said, "I believe she asked you a question, doc."
"All right, yes," Fielding sighed. "Terrence Holdstock was the first, Jeanette the most recent."
Kate swallowed. She had an uneasy sense about where this was going. "What's different about that strain?"
"I have no idea."
"He's lying," Jack said.
"I am not!" Fielding sputtered.
"Trust me," Jack said, his eyes on the road, his voice flat. "He's lying."
How can he be so sure? Kate wondered. Or is he just guessing and trying to goad Fielding? Kate decided to weigh in with her own prod.
"One way to find out," she said. "Go to your medical center's practices and standards committee and ask for a full review."
"That won't be necessary," Fielding said quickly. "I've already reported it to the hospital board and to NIH."
"NIH?" Kate felt a wave of nausea. He wouldn't contact NIH unless it was something major. "Why?"
"That's the National Institutes of Health?" Jack said. "Down in DC?"
"Bethesda, actually," Fielding replied. "You see…" His voice shook and his words seemed to dry up. He wet his lips.
This is going to be bad, Kate thought. She gripped the edge of her seat, squeezing it. Oh, Lord, this is going to be terrible.
"You see," Fielding went on, "after connecting the complaints to the same vector strain, I took out the cultures and ran an analysis on the virus. It… it has mutated into two separate strains."
"Mutated?" Jack said. "Does that happen a lot?"
"No," Fielding replied. "That is, some viruses mutate frequently, but not adenoviruses. This was totally unexpected."
Kate closed her eyes. "Mutated how?"
"The original strain remained but the mutation had altered the thy-midine kinase gene."
"That's bad?" Jack said.
She said, "It means the mutated strain was injected into the tumor along with the original vector virus. But without the thymidine kinase gene the mutation is immune to ganciclovir. The drug killed off the vector virus and the infected tumor cells—"
"But not the mutation," Jack said. "Oh, hell."
"Right. That means that Jeanette and the others have a mutant adenovirus running through their brains."
"Is it contagious?" Jack said.
"Yes and no," Fielding said. "Adenoviruses usually cause mild infections—pinkeye is a common one—but are caught only from people shedding the virus. These people are not shedding the virus."
Kate turned to Fielding. "We've got to do something!"
"I told you: I've contacted NIH and they in turn should be contacting Jeanette within a day or two."
"I mean now!"
"What do you suggest?"
"Find a way to kill the mutation!"
"I've already begun testing various virucidal agents against it. I'm confident we can find an effective cure."
"But in the meantime," Kate said, "what about other complications?" She envisioned the viral particles invading Jeanette's neurons, multiplying inside, then rupturing the cell membranes and moving onto other cells, their numbers growing exponentially. "What about meningitis? Encephalitis? What about an abscess eroding into an artery and hemorrhaging? She could die, Dr. Fielding!"
"I'm working as fast as I can," he said. "But even if I had a cure in my pocket right now, it might not help us."
"What are you talking about?"
"Consider: why am I here instead of home? Because Jeanette refused to come in to be checked. How do we cure a patient who refuses treatment?"
Kate's stomach knotted as she remembered Jeanette's words this morning: Why would I want to see Dr. Fielding? I'm fine. Never felt better . . .
"It's a gray zone," Fielding was saying. "If the patients aren't complaining, if they deny anything's wrong and don't want treatment… you can see the problem, can't you."
Yes, she could.
A wave of fatigue swept over her, leaving her chilled and achy.
Fielding said, "I'll keep testing the mutation while we wait to hear from NIH. I'm sure a call from them will convince Jeanette and the others how serious this is and that they all need help."
But as far as Kate was concerned, Jeanette already did want help—she'd told Kate so this morning. Pleaded with her for help. And Kate was darn well going to see that she got it.
Stan Kozlowski had watched his brother becoming more and more agitated as he tore though the morning papers at their tiny kitchen table. By unspoken agreement they'd decided to eat breakfast at their pad this morning. Joe's outburst at Moishe's yesterday had drawn too much attention. They'd been just two of the regulars, Stan and Joe, no last names. Now Joe had no doubt become the regular with the scarred hand who'd gone into a screaming rage about blowing somebody off the face of the earth. With outstanding federal and state arrest warrants on each of them, discretion said to lay low.
"Nothing!" Joe said, tossing the News onto the floor where it landed in a heap next to the similarly discarded Post and Newsday. "You'd think one of the assholes on that subway car would have gotten a good enough look at their fucking Savior to give some kind of description. What about your Times there? Anything?"
"Lots of psychobabble about the personality types of the two shooters." With one man dead and the other missing, Stan was amazed at the bull these "experts" could sling without speaking word one to either man. "But if you mean anything like a police artist sketch, no."
"Shit!" He leaped up from his chair and gave the papers on the floor a vicious kick, sending them into fluttering flight against the far wall. Which wasn't very far at all. "It's him, I tell you. This Savior is our guy!"
Stan wasn't going to say, Easy, Joe, again. He'd already said it too often since yesterday morning.
"I know you want it to be him, Joe, but—"
"Oh, it's not just want, Stan. I can taste him. I can smell his stinkl My palm started to itch the minute I read about that tiny .45. He's our guy, Stan. He's the reason we're living in this shit hole. He's our fuckin' guy!"
Shit hole is right, Stan thought as he surveyed their crummy one-bedroom apartment.
How the mighty had fallen: from Upper East Side condo owners to fugitive Alphabet City renters—literally overnight.
All because of "our guy."
Whoever he was he'd come out of nowhere. And he came smart and tough. Whether he had a personal grudge or was hired for the job, who knew? Stan figured he was hired. A pro. Just like the two of them.
Fires and explosions—the Kozlowski brothers' specialties. All thanks to the U.S. Army and a tour in Nam.
Stan hadn't wanted to go to Nam, and if he'd stayed in college the war would have been over by graduation day. But when he'd flunked out in year one the draft board wasted no time scooping him up. Over in the provinces Stan learned all about C-4, became a gonzo expert at blowing up Charlie's booby-traps with the white clay-like substance. And he brought all that training home with him. He finished college after the war but the economy sucked then, so he'd gone into a business of his own, taking in Joe in as a partner, teaching him all he knew.
Together they'd made a good living. It was never personal. Somebody not making payments, somebody skimming too much, somebody talking too much, somebody at a point where he figured he'd been paying into his fire insurance policy long enough and decided it was time to make a withdrawal, they called Stan and Joe Koz.
They'd been a perfect team: Stan planned, Joe planted, and they took turns fashioning the bombs or mixing the accelerant.
Then "our guy" came along, interfered with their latest job—which turned out to be their last—causing a major botch that made them look worse than no-talent amateurs.
But that hadn't been the worst. Somehow he'd followed them back to their farm up in Ulster County and torched the house and the barn where they stored their C-4 and accelerants. And most of their cash.
Joe had ruined his hand and almost got killed trying to save that. And he'd failed.
But things got even worse. An investigation showed that the barn had housed a bomb-making operation; BATF was brought in and that was when the warrants started. Stan and joe had owned the place in another guy's name but he'd rolled over in a heartbeat when the feds came knocking. RICO statutes got invoked and everything they'd owned wound up impounded.
Plus Joe couldn't get his hand fixed because that kind of plastic surgery wasn't exactly done in back rooms, and hospitals asked too many questions.
Finally, now, no one would hire them. Like they were dead. Worse than dead. Like they'd never existed. Like, the Kozlowski brothers? Who they? Never heard of them.
All because of one guy. Our guy.
But Stan was not convinced that he and this so-called Savior were the same.
"I want him too, Joe. And if this Savior guy turns out to be him, fine. We'll get him. Together. But not in a way that's going to point a finger at us. We'll do him the way he did us: mess him up and then disappear without a trace."
"You're worried about attention? I want attention. I want everyone to know who did him and why. Because he took everything from us, Stan. Remember how we used to be? We was hot. We was Tiffany. We wore Armani to the fucking gym! We used to watch our ankles through our socks. Remember that?"
Stan remembered, but why dwell on it. "At least we're not doing time."
"Time? We are doing time! A jolt in the joint would be better'n this. This isn't living, it's fucking hell. No, wait. If hell was a shit-filled toilet with a broken flusher in the dysentery capital of India, I'd take it over this. You got that?"
"A guy with a combo of AIDS, brain cancer, and a colostomy's got it better'n us. No, Stan. I call the shots on this one. This gives me first dibs."
He held up his maimed left hand, thumb extended, the scar-fused fingers forming a shiny pink V. Someone seeing him do that on the street once had called out, "Live long and prosper," and Stan had had to pull Joe off the guy before he killed him.
"When I find the fucker I'm gonna tie him in a chair and get me a blow torch and make his whole face look like this."
Kate stood in the bedroom doorway and blinked at the sight of Jeanette smiling at her from the rocker in the sunny front room.
"Look who's a sleepyhead," Jeanette said pleasantly.
"Sitting and having coffee. Want some?"
Which Jeanette was this? Friendly though she seemed, it wasn't Jeanette number one, the one she loved; and it wasn't the silent and sullen number two. Could some third personality be emerging?
"No thanks. My stomach doesn't feel so hot."
In fact Kate's entire body didn't feel so hot. Chilled, rather. And achy. She'd been exhausted when she returned last night and had fallen into bed almost immediately. She still felt tired. She blamed that on the weird dreams that had haunted her all night. She couldn't recall any details beyond the fact that she'd awakened several times sweaty and unsettled.
"I thought you'd be upset about last night. I didn't mean to pry, but I'm concerned. I'm more than concerned, Jeanette. I'm worried sick."
"I know you are," Jeanette said. "I was pretty angry the other night, but now I realize you're doing it out of love. But don't worry yourself, Kate. I'm fine, really I am. And I've never been happier."
"But Jeanette, you're not… you."
Jeanette smiled warmly. "Who else could I be? I know it seems confusing now, Kate, but soon you'll understand. Soon everything will be made clear."
"By whom?" Kate said, wandering over to the kitchen area.
"It will come from within." She began to laugh—a good-natured laugh without a hint of derision.
"What's so funny?"
"I just made a joke."
"I don't get it."
A beatific smile. "You will, Kate. You will."
Kate noticed a jar of Sanka on the kitchen counter.
"Decaf?" she said. "Since when?"
"Since today. I think I might be drinking too much caffeine. Maybe that's what happened to me yesterday. I got a little wired."
The Jeanette Kate knew could barely move until she'd had her morning coffee.
"That was a lot more than caffeine overload."
"Kate, how many times do I have to tell you I'm fine?"
"But you're not fine. Dr. Fielding told me the vector virus mutated and you and the others may be infected with it."
She went on to explain the details of Fielding's story.
Jeanette seemed blithely indifferent. "A mutation? Is that what he thinks? How interesting."
"It's not interesting, Jeanette," Kate said, restraining herself from screaming the words. "It's potentially catastrophic! How can you just sit there? If someone told me I had a mutant virus crawling around my brain I'd be on the next plane to Atlanta and the CDC!"
"Has it occurred to you that Dr. Fielding might be wrong?"
That brought Kate up short, but only for a second. "A mutation in a recombinant vector virus is so unusual, I'm certain he wouldn't have told us if he weren't one hundred percent sure."
"But wouldn't I be sick?"
You are sick, Kate thought.
"Poor Kate." Jeanette smiled sympathetically. "Getting yourself all worked up. Why not just calm down and let Dr. Fielding worry about it?"
"Well, at least he won't be worrying alone. He's called NIH; you should be hearing from them soon. And he's already working on a way to treat the new infection."
"Kill the virus?" Jeanette said. She lost her smile.
"Even if I'm suffering no ill effects?"
"He infected you with the virus, so he's got to eradicate it. He can't very well leave you infected."
Jeanette sat silent, staring at the wall.
Is it finally sinking in? Kate thought. She prayed Jeanette was appreciating at last how serious this was.
Finally she looked at Kate again. "Who was that other man with Dr. Fielding last night?"
The abrupt shift of subject left Kate a little dizzy. "Man? Oh, that was my younger brother Jack."
Jeanette smiled. "Your brother… not much of a family resemblance."
How would Jeanette know? She hadn't come to the door with Hold-stock. Had she been peeking through a window?
"Will he be working with Dr. Fielding?" Jeanette said.
"I don't think so."
She don't know much about Jack's talents, but she doubted they lay in virology. He might wind up helping in other ways, though. She could see now how she might need him to come between Jeanette and Holdstock.
"I'd like to meet him," Jeanette said. "Does he know about you and me?"
Kate shook her head and felt that familiar tightening in her chest whenever she considered the prospect of coming out to anyone, especially a member of her family. She'd felt it last night when Jack had said that he thought it was about time he met this Jeanette. Kate had agreed but ducked setting a time and place.
"No. And I'd rather he didn't."
"Okay. We'll just be friends then."
More proof that Jeanette was not herself. The real Jeanette would have launched into a mini-lecture. She'd been out since her teens and fervently believed the closet should be a thing of the past. Not that Jeanette didn't appreciate the risks for someone in Kate's position, especially where child custody might be an issue. But here in this big city far away from Trenton, she'd have wanted Kate to come out to her brother, or at the very least consider it.
Okay. We'll just befriends. Uh-uh. That wasn't Jeanette. Not even close.
Jeanette added, "Why not invite him over for dinner tonight?"
"You're sure you don't have to go out?"
To another seance with your cult?
"I'd much rather meet your brother."
This third Jeanette was certainly easier to deal with than the second… but she still wasn't the real one, and Lord how Kate missed her.
"Jack's seeing a woman," Kate said. "He might want to bring her."
"Sure. I love to meet new people."
This could make for one strange evening, Kate thought. But on the positive side, she'd get to meet—what was her name? Gia. Such a warm light in her brother's eyes when he'd mentioned her. Kate wanted to meet the woman who had captured his heart.
Sandy felt good as he walked the West Eighties. No, check that, he felt totally fabulous. Life was da bomb. His ship was coming in. He could sense it just over the horizon, steaming his way.
Yesterday he'd been trudging door to door, store to store, dogged by a cloud of futility and a subvocal dirge droning on and on through his head about how he was attempting the impossible. Today he was bouncing along past the brownstones on the side streets and the endless variety of restaurants and shops along the avenues, grinning like an idiot.
"Beth," he whispered. He loved her name, the sound of it, the feel of it on his lips and tongue. "Beth-Beth-Beth-Beth-Beth."
They'd made love last night. Not just sex—love. Sweet and tender.
Not just two bodies, but two people with a connection. This morning they'd made love again, and it was even better.
After sitting in a coffee shop where they'd talked and talked, they'd split: Beth to a workshop and Sandy to the streets—he was still on sick leave; he just had to hope he didn't run into anyone from The Light while he was pounding the pavement.
He hated to leave her but all play and no work would very definitely make Sandy a dull boy. Very dull. But he and Beth would reunite tonight for dinner… and more.
As for the last forty-eight hours, Sandy could draw only one conclusion: anything was possible. And all things do come to those who wait.
That didn't make the task of finding the Savior any less daunting, but today he felt sure he'd succeed. He didn't know how long it would take but if he kept plugging he'd win the respect and renown he'd dreamed of. All he had to do was be patient. Rome wasn't built in a day.
He stopped before a bar named Julio's that sported a bunch of dead plants hanging in the window. The door stood open so Sandy stepped through. The dim interior, redolent of tobacco smoke and spilled beer, was bigger than he'd expected. The short bar curved around on his left; a sign hung over the stacked rows of liquor bottles: FREE BEER TOMORROW… He smiled; he liked that. But what was with all the dead plants?
Despite the early hour nearly half a dozen men stood at the bar smoking and sipping drafts. Sandy hesitated, then stepped up and placed his Identi-Kit printout before the nearest drinker.
"I'm looking for this man."
The fellow glanced at Sandy, then down at the printout, then back at Sandy. He had a worn middle-aged face, wore dusty work pants and a faded T-shirt that might have once sported a logo of some sort. A shot and most of an eight-ounce draft sat before him on the bar.
"Who the hell are you?"
Sandy was used to suspicious reactions. He went into his patter.
"I've been hired by the executor of his uncle's estate to find him. He's come into some money."
The man's eye's narrowed. "What's in it for me?"
Sandy couldn't count how many times he'd been asked that since he started searching. He'd finally come up with a reply that worked.
"Nothing from me, I'm afraid. I'm paid by the day. But that doesn't mean you can't work something out with this guy if you know him."
The man leaned toward Sandy. "You came to the right place," he whispered, his eyes shifting back and forth, his breath so sour Sandy had to grip the bar to keep from recoiling. "He's here right now."
Sandy jerked up straight and looked around. Oh, Christ! He's here? Right here?
But he saw no one who even vaguely resembled the man on the train.
"Right next to me!" the man said, then burst into a raucous laugh as he grabbed the printout and turned to his neighbor. "Ain't this you, Barney? Tell this fella here it's you and we'll both be rich!"
"Yeah that's me!" Barney cried. " 'Cept I'm better lookin'!"
Bastards, Sandy thought as they passed the sheet down the bar and back. Some of the others laughed, others just stared at him.
He held out his hand. "Very funny. Can I have it back now?"
"Naw," said the first drinker. "We're gonna keep this. Maybe start doin' our own search. Got any more?"
"That's my only one." Sandy had four more folded in his pocket but he wasn't about to let them know. "Please. I need it."
Barney said, "Hey, Lou, you know what I think? I think we should put my phone number on this, take it over to Staples, and get a hundred copies made. We plaster them all over the place and collect the reward."
No! Sandy thought, feeling a surge of panic. He couldn't lose control of that picture. It was his key!
"There is no reward! Now give it to me!"
He tried to grab the printout, reaching for it, but Lou roughly shoved his arm away.
"Watch it, kid. You spill my beer and I drink the next one out of your empty skull!"
"That's mine and I want it back!" Sandy said, his voice rising of its own accord. If he had to fight these old bastards he would. No one was going to screw up his future.
"Hey-hey!" said a new voice. '"What's going on, meng?"
Sandy looked around and saw a short muscular Hispanic in a sleeveless sweatshirt.
"Hey, Julio," Lou said, handing him the printout. "Fella here's lookin' for this guy. You ever seen him?"
Julio—Sandy assumed he was the Julio this dive was named after—said nothing for a long time, slowly smoothing his pencil-line mustache with his free hand as he stared at the paper. Then, without looking up, he began peppering Sandy with questions about who and why and what reward. Sandy gave his standard replies but they didn't seem to be flying.
"Yeah, I seen him," Julio said, finally looking at Sandy. His eyes were piercingly dark.
Sandy saw truth in those eyes and felt his heart pick up tempo.
"Not sure. Around. Tell you what, meng. I do you a favor. I hang this up by the bar and if anybody knows him, they call you. What your number?"
Sandy was about to give it to him when he noticed that Barney and Lou had somehow managed to position themselves between him and the door. And the three other men at the bar had all stopped talk and were staring his way.
Menace writhed through the air… something going on here…
"I…" Think. Think! "This is kind of embarrassing… I've been a little short lately and so my service was canceled."
"Too bad. You got more of these?"
"Not on me."
"Where you live?"
Sandy was alarmed at where these questions were going… they all seemed aimed at pinning down his location when they should have been about locating the man on the printout. What had he stumbled into here?
"I'm staying with a friend. She… she wouldn't like me giving out her address."
Oh, shit! he thought, wishing he could take that back. That didn't go with his story about his phone being turned off.
"I thinking now," Julio said. "I think I remember seeing this guy a lot in the park."
"What park? Central?'* That wasn't much help.
That was even worse. Riverside Park ran along the Hudson for miles, from the Seventies up past the GW Bridge.
"Any particular area of the park?"
"Yeah. I think I seen him playing basketball a couple time. Right down here."
"This end of the park? Great."
"Yeah. You look there. Maybe you run into him."
"Thanks a lot." Sandy reached out a tentative hand. "Can I have my drawing back?"
"No," Julio said, folding it and sticking it in his back pocket. "I think I keep this one."
Sandy was about to protest but something in the little man's face told him that would be futile.
"I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't show that around until I find that man and talk to him."
"If that is your wish."
The reply startled Sandy. Why so agreeable all of a sudden?
Julio made a tight, almost imperceptible sweeping motion with his right hand and Sandy heard Lou and Barney move back to the bar.
Julio grinned. "And when you find this guy, you tell him Julio sent you and he wants ten percent, you hear?"
"You got it," Sandy said.
He turned and practically leaped through the door to the safety of the sidewalk. He headed west without a look back.
Glad to be out of that place. All sorts of undercurrents flowing through it. Probably something illegal going on and he'd riled their suspicions.
But no matter. He'd got the break he'd been praying for. And Riverside Park was only a few blocks ahead.
Anticipation spurred him into an easy trot.
"Your sister?" Gia said, her blue eyes wide.
"The one and only."
Jack tapped the Crown Vic's steering wheel in mild frustration; they'd zipped out of the airport parking area but now the Grand Central Parkway was moving at a geriatric pace.
He'd picked up Gia and Vicky at LaGuardia after their flight in from Des Moines. Jack was stirred at how much these two meant to him. The anxiety he'd felt before the plane landed, his impatience when they weren't the first off, and then the throat-tightening burst of pleasure when they appeared: Gia, trim and leggy in jeans and a pink T-shirt, and eight-year-old Vicky running to him, dark brown braids bouncing behind her; picking her up, swinging her around, then hugs and kisses from both of his ladies. He still carried the glow.
"You've got a sister, Jack?" Vicky said from the back seat. "I didn't know you had a sister. Can I play with her?"
"Sure. She's my big sister, you know."
"Oh." Vicky's voice fell. "You mean she's old."
Jack drew in his lips, covering his teeth, and hoarsened his voice to sound like an old codger. "Yesh, she'sh sho old she'sh got no teeth, jusht like me."
Vicky laughed and said, "Is that a joke, Mom?"
Gia said, "Very loosely defined, yes."
"Goody! That means I can give you the present I brought you from Iowa."
"A present?" Jack said, exaggerating his surprise. "For me? Oh, you shouldn't have."
While Vicky was fumbling in her backpack, Jack's beeper chirped.
Only three people had the number, and one of them was sitting next to him. Had to be Abe or Julio. Checked the display: it read simply, J.
That bothered him. Julio usually left messages on Jack's voice mail. This was the first time he'd ever used the beeper. Something must be wrong.
"Got to call Julio."
"Want to use my cell phone?"
He shook his head. "Never know who else is on the line. I'll find a gas station."
Until recently Gia might have made a remark about his being paranoid. But a few weeks ago someone had traced the tags on her car thinking it belonged to Jack and she'd wound up with a couple of Bosnian goons hanging around outside her door.
"Where's my present?" he cried out, raising his right hand over his shoulder and thrusting it backward, palm up. "Gimme, gimme. I can't wait!"
A fusiform shape in a papery sheath landed in his palm. He glanced at it.
"Corn? You brought me an ear of corn? I'm at a loss for words, Vicks. No one's ever, ever given me a gift like this."
"Mom thought of it. She said to give it to you next time you told one of your jokes."
"Oh, she did, did she?"
He glanced at Gia who was staring straight ahead, wind fingers from the open window running through her short blond hair as a barely perceptible smile played about her lips.
Jack had been teaching Vicky to tell jokes. One of the many wonderful things about an eight-year-old was that even the hoariest, lamest one-liners got a laugh. She loved puns, and a joke the caliber of What's the difference between a fish and a piano? You can't tuna fish! was the absolute funniest thing she'd ever heard. Trouble was, Vicky practiced her act on her mother who had to listen to the same joke again and again and be expected to laugh every time.
"I think this calls for a new knock-knock, Vicks," Jack said. He had a really bad one he hadn't told her yet.
Gia groaned softly. "No. Please, God, no."
"Knock-knock," Jack said.
Vicky replied, "Who's there?"
"Who's there?" she repeated with a giggle.
Vicky was laughing now. "Who's there?"
"Not again! Banana who?"
"Who's there?"" She made "there" a two-syllable word this time.
"Orange you glad I didn't say banana again?"
Vicky dissolved into belly laughs. A child laughing—Jack couldn't think of a more wonderful sound. She went on so long that he began laughing himself. Only Gia seemed to miss the humor. She'd closed her eyes and thrown her head back against the headrest.
"The only good thing about knock-knocks," she said in a low voice, "the only thing, is that they're short. But now you've gone and taught her one that's triple length. Thank you, my love."
Jack pressed the ear of corn against the side of his head. "What's that? Your voice sounds husky. I can't ear you."
Vicky burst into another laugh so loud and hard that even Gia had to smile—though she hid it behind her hand.
"I got a million of 'em, Vicks. Want to hear another?"
"Let's talk about your sister instead," Gia said quickly. "How on earth did she find you?"
Jack took a moment to allow himself to switch gears. "It's complicated but in the end it comes down to this: this friend she's babysitting after brain tumor therapy has been acting weird and got herself involved with some sort of cult. A stranger gave her my number."
Gia frowned. "A stranger just happens to give your sister your number. Do you buy that?"
"I know it's one hell of a coincidence, but it happened. What else could it be? I know 1 was the last person on earth Kate was expecting to meet. You should have seen the look on her lace when she saw me. Looked like she'd been poleaxed."
"Still," Gia said, shaking her head. "Very strange. What does she look like?"
"Not too much like me. She takes after my father's side. But you can see her in person tonight if you want. She called this morning and invited us over for dinner."
"Yeah, well, I told her about you. Are you up for it?"
"Are you kidding? Pass up an opportunity to get first-hand dirt about you when you were in knickers?"
"I never wore knickers."
"I wouldn't miss it for the world!"
He spotted an Exxon sign and pulled off. Called Julio and heard what he had to say. When he returned to the car he must have looked as ill as he felt.
Gia took one look at him and said, "What's wrong?"
Time to tell her. "We had an incident on one of the subways while you were gone," he said, trying to be oblique.
"The bang-bangs," Gia said, catching on that he wanted to keep Little Miss Big Ears in the back seat out of the loop. With practice they'd managed to raise vagueness to an art. "That made the news even in Ottumwa."
"Then you've heard about the man they're looking for."
"The one they're calling the Savior?"
Jack looked at her and nodded. "Uh-huh."
Gia met his eyes, then she paled and jammed her hand against her mouth. "Oh, God, Jack, no!"
"What is it?" Vicky said from the rear. "What happened?"
"A car came too close, honey," Gia said.
"Oh." She went back to her Harry Potter book.
Gia stared at him. "I heard about it on the news. I worried about you, if you were one of the victims, but that lasted only an instant because then they were talking about someone who'd stopped the, um"—her eyes flashed toward the rear seat—"carnage and then taken off, and the first person I thought of was you, because you wouldn't let something like that happen, and you certainly wouldn't hang around afterward." She took a breath. "But I never really believed it was you. It must have been awful!"
"It was. But it's getting worse. Julio says someone was flashing what looks like a police artist's sketch of me around his place this morning. And from Julio's description it sounds like this kid from The Light who was sitting near me when it went down."
"The LightV Gia made a face. "What are you going to do?"
"Not sure yet. But I've got to do something."
Jack drove on with a cold weight in his stomach. Couldn't let this kid go on flashing his picture around the Upper West Side. Sooner or later—sooner, Jack bet—someone would recognize the kid as the eyewitness reporter from The Light and two and two would add up to him.
The good thing about the lower end of Riverside Park, Sandy had decided, was that it was narrow enough to allow him to see from one side to the other. Luxury midrise apartment houses climbed to the east, and the Hudson sparkled in the late morning sun to the west beyond the trees and the highway. The bad part was that the man he was looking for was nowhere to be seen.
He'd wandered from the Eleanor Roosevelt statue all the way to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial and back. The mild weather was drawing more and more people outdoors. He checked out the basketball courts, the sunbathers, the readers, the snoozers, the frisbee tossers, the dog walkers, even the baby carriage pushers, showing his printout to anyone he could collar.
No luck. Zero. Zilch.
A beautiful day but he wasn't in the mood to appreciate it as he stood near the bronze statue of a very young-looking Eleanor and wondered, Have I been had?
Could this Julio guy have sent him on this wild goose chase just to get rid of him so he could start his own search?
Sandy looked around, trying to decide whether to leave or hang in a little longer. He'd shown the printout to everyone in sight…
… except the man on the bench downslope from where he stood. When had he arrived? He slouched on the seat, chin on chest with his arms folded and a baseball cap pulled low over his face, catching forty winks.
Sandy walked toward him. He felt a brief flutter of apprehension about disturbing a sleeping man but he was determined to leave no stone unturned.
"Excuse me, sir," he said as he reached him. "Can I ask you a question?"
What happened next was a blur: the man did not look up but his hand darted out to grab the collar of Sandy's T-shirt, twisting it tight about his throat as he yanked him nearly off his feet to land in a half sprawl next to him on the bench.
Now the head turned and Sandy knew this face, the face he'd been showing people for two days, but he didn't know the eyes because the mild brown seemed so much darker now and so full of fury. He opened his mouth to cry out but the index finger of the man's free hand was in his face, an inch from his left eye, and he was talking through his teeth.
"Not a word! Not a sound!"
Sandy nodded four, five, six times. Sure, sure, he'd say nothing. That was easy. Couldn't speak if he wanted to with his tongue glued to the dry roof of his mouth.
Sandy's brain screamed: What did I do wrong? Why's he so mad? He's not going to hurt me, is he?
The man, the Savior, transferred his grip from the front of Sandy's shirt to the back, jerking him upright on the bench. He snatched the printout from Sandy's grasp and stared at it.
Maybe he's unbalanced, Sandy thought, feeling his body begin to quake. His thoughts flew in wild directions. Maybe he's as psycho as the killer on the train. Maybe he was going to start killing the passengers himself but the other guy started first and that's why he killed him because he'd wanted to do it.
Sandy struggled to calm himself. Stop being an idiot. The Savior had had that tiny little pistol. Hadn't been equipped for mass murder.
But sure as hell there was murder in his eyes now.
Sandy looked around. He was in a public place, people all around. Nothing was going to happen to him here.
But then anyone on the last car of the Nine the other night might have said that too.
"Where'd you get this?" the Savior said.
Sandy's attempt at a reply came out a croak.
The Savior shook him roughly. "Tell me!"
"I-I made it."
"You drew this?"
"Who else knows about it?"
"Just me. Look, I don't know what you're so mad—"
"How many copies?"
Sandy figured he'd better tell the truth. "A couple more on me. A bunch more at home."
"And where's that?"
He saw where this was going and didn't like it. He realized he was in the grip of a very dangerous man who was royally pissed. Detective McCann's words from that fateful night rushed back at him.
… fucking executed him… he's a pro …
Sandy's bladder squeezed. What had he got himself into? He needed some insurance, and fast.
"I left one in an envelope in my desk!" he blurted. "To be opened in case something happens to me."
Now he wished to hell he had.
The Savior stared at him for what seemed like an eternity, then released him with a shove. "Yeah, right." He held out his hand. "Give me the rest of them."
Sandy fished out the printouts and handed them over. The Savior folded them, then stared out toward the Hudson.
"Go home, shred those other copies, and mind your own business."
"But this is my business!"
"Dogging my ass is your business?"
"I'm a journalist. I'm not out to hurt you—"
"That's a relief."
"I just want an exclusive."
The Savior looked at him again. "A what?"
"When you come in, I want an exclusive on your story."
"You've heard the expression 'when hell freezes over'? Satan will be figure skating when I come in."
Sandy was stunned. Could he believe this? He'd figured the Savior was consulting with a lawyer and waiting for the media buzz to build to a howling frenzy before coming forward. That he might have no intention of coming in at all had never occurred to him.
"You can't be serious! You're a hero! You'll be on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the world. Instant celebrity"—he snapped his fingers—"like that! Any restaurant, any club in town—zip—you go right to the head of the line."
"Yeah? Is that how Bernie Goetz is being treated these days?"
The Goetz case—was that why the Savior was hiding? It did make sense. Goetz had wound up bankrupt with his life turned upside down and inside out by the trials and suits. But that wasn't going to happen here.
"Look, I'm no lawyer, but there's no parallel. Goetz's attackers hadn't killed anybody and they had no guns when he opened up on them. The guy you shot had two guns, had just murdered six people, and was only getting started. Goetz saved himself from getting mugged and maybe cut up, you saved other people's lives—lots of them."
"Yeah. Including mine. For which I'll be eternally grateful."
"Well, in return, you forget you ever saw me and we'll call it even."
Low-grade terror still crawled through Sandy's gut, but something in him refused to let him cave.
"Look, I can't. I've got a higher calling: the people's right to know."
"And your exclusive right to tell them? Cut me a break, kid. If I show up, I face a gang of charges: owning an unregistered weapon and carrying a concealed weapon without a permit, just for starters. You and those others are alive today because of multiple criminal acts on my part."
Criminal acts… what a great hook.
"Hey, don't worry about that. You'll be such a hero, what DA would dare bring you to trial? Instant celebrity! Think of it! Every door will be open to you. People dream about an opportunity like this!"
"Some people don't."
Didn't this guy realize what he was throwing away?
The Savior rose. "Like I said before: shred the drawings and forget about this."
He turned and started to move away.
"I can't forget it!" Sandy heard himself cry out. "This is my life! My future! I can make you come in! I can have that drawing in tomorrow morning's paper!"
The Savior stopped, turned, and Sandy quailed when he saw the look in his eyes. Maybe he'd overdone it; maybe he'd pushed this man just a little too far… pushed a man who shouldn't be pushed.
"You know… you make me wish I'd waited just a little bit longer before taking that guy out."
The realization of how much he owed this man slammed into Sandy now with the force of a runaway train.
He saved my life.
Talk about cliches. How many times had he heard people say that about saving just about everything but a life? Somebody finds a lost set of keys, helps finish a paper or report, provides a breath mint before an important meeting: You saved my life.
Not even close.
But with this man, it was a fact. Sandy knew he should be saying, You saved my everything. Sandy owed him his boxed byline in the paper yesterday, owed him last night with Beth, owed him the big fat hairy future he envisioned, a future he'd been planning to ride to on this man's back.
The Savior said, "Do your damnedest," and started to turn away again.
"Wait! Please! I'm being a shit."
"No argument here."
"Can't we work something out?"
"I doubt it."
"But there's got to be a way I can get my exclusive and you stay out of the spotlight."
Out of the spotlight… Sandy was still baffled by the man's reluc-tance to take credit for his heroism, but he owed him too much not to try and honor his wishes, no matter how shortsighted.
"I don't see how," the Savior said. "If you get your exclusive it means you've seen me. Then the pressure for a description is on, not just from your bosses, but from the cops—especially the cops."
"I could claim I'm protecting the confidentiality of my source."
"And then you're slapped with obstruction of justice. How many nights you think you'll last in Rikers before you cave?"
Sandy hated to admit it, but he doubted he'd hang on through an hour at Rikers. And then an idea struck.
"Not if I say you called me and I got the story over the phone!"
The Savior seemed to be considering this as he stood silent and stared at Sandy.
Finally he nodded. "That'll work. You go ahead and make up something—whatever you want. Say I said it and that'll be that."
"No-no. That won't cut it. I want this to be real. The truth."
They were talking about his future here. He couldn't base it on a fabricated story.
"The truth? Since when does anyone care about that?"
"I do. Pretty much."
The Savior stared at him. "You're not going away, are you."
Sandy mustered all his courage and shook his head. Would the man who'd saved his life, take it? He thought not.
"Sorry. I can't drop this. I just can't."
A long silence with the two of them standing statue still, facing each other, while growing moisture soaked Sandy's armpits.
Finally, "What do you want, kid?"
"I'll need some background, but I'm sure people will be mainly interested in how you learned to shoot and why you were carrying a pistol that night, and most important, what was going through your mind before and after you killed the killer."
Another pause, then, "Jeez, this is stupid, but if it'll make you go away—and I mean that: you go away and forget you ever saw me." He held up the printouts he'd taken. "And you get rid of the rest of these."
"Deal," Sandy said. Easy promise to make—the Savior had no way of checking.
"And I don't mean burn them. Burning causes suspicion and you'd be amazed what can be reconstructed from ashes these days. Tear them up into one-inch squares and flush them. Nothing more anonymous than a sewer system with eight million contributors."
"But there's one I can't get back. It's at a place called Julio's and—"
"I'll take care of that one."
And then it was suddenly clear what had happened this morning. Of course! The men in Julio's had recognized the man in the printout. Julio had sent Sandy here to the park, then called the Savior and told him where he'd be.
His excitement building, Sandy pulled the tape recorder from his knapsack. "Let's get started."
"Put that away. No recording. And we're not sitting out in the open here either. I've got a car nearby. I'll drive and talk, you take notes."
"Fair enough," Sandy said.
This is it! he thought as he followed the Savior out of the park. His blood tingled like champagne through his arteries. It's happening! It's all coming together! I'm on my way!
"You're retiring the Semmerling?" Abe said. "This I don't believe." Jack didn't want to believe it himself. He'd kept the tiny .45
strapped to his ankle for so long it felt part of him. This was like carving out a piece of his flesh. But in light of what he'd learned from Sandy
Palmer, he knew it had to go. So after ditching Palmer he'd come straight to Abe's and told him about his "interview."
"The kid knew all about it from listening to the cops on the scene.
One of them identified it from its description."
Bad enough to be caught with any weapon in this town, but to be caught carrying a gun the cops had issued a BOLO for…
Abe raised his. "A gun maven cop. Such luck you have."
"Yeah. Mostly bad lately."
He worried about this cub reporter or whatever Sandy Palmer was. Not that he was a bad kid, but too damn ambitious. He might make the wrong kind of compromises to get ahead—the kind that could land Jack in a lava pit.
And he lacked simple common sense. He'd got into Jack's car without an instant's hesitation. If Jack were more impulsive, or maybe had enough screws loose that he didn't care if Palmer had one of those drawings tucked away with a note, he easily could have killed him in the car and dumped him in any one of a dozen spots he knew around the city where he wouldn't be discovered for days, maybe weeks.
But he hadn't. The only thing he'd done to Sandy Palmer was lie.
Jack had led him to his car—making sure they approached from the side so he didn't get a look at the tags—and driven him around for nearly an hour while he filled the car with pure bullshit. Pretty good bullshit, he thought, considering it was created on the fly.
Palmer had taken copious notes, stopping Jack along the way for questions and clarifications. Finally Jack managed to scrape him off at a subway station, but not before the human remora had extracted his voicemail number just in case he had some "follow-up questions." Jack figured the number was safe—billed to a credit card registered to a nonexistent person.
"So what did you tell this crusading reporter?"
"I told him that the Savior was an orphan, in and out of foster homes and trouble until a cop gave him a choice of either getting booked on a B and E or joining the army."
"I see a movie already."
"I think it's been done. And Pat O'Brien probably played the cop. Anyway, Young Savior joined the U.S. Navy instead of the army and qualified for SEAL training. He received a medical discharge due to a back injury."
"And now he's a Jarbissener who—"
"Whoa. You lost me on that one. A farbiss-what?"
"A bitter, cranky person—you know how you get sometimes. The way I see it, such hatred this Savior has for society he's a recluse."
"Do you mind?" Jack said. "This is my life story I'm telling here. Let me tell it."
"So I can't add a little flavor, a little color?"
"An ex-Navy SEAL isn't colorful?"
"You a SEAL?" Abe laughed. "Obeying a drill sergeant? That I'd like to see."
"I wasn't a SEAL, but the Savior was."
"Do you even know what SEAL stands for?"
"Haven't a clue. But I'm sure an ex-SEAL like the Savior does. And although he has no official status with the government, he still freelances for certain government agencies."
"Is one known by three letters, the first of which is a C and the last an A, maybe?"
"He's not free to tell. But because of the nature of his government work he's always armed. Always. As a result he was able to save lives the other night. Also because of the nature of his work, he cannot allow his face to be made public."
"This is good. Such a screenwriter you would have made. A derivative hack, maybe, but that shouldn't disqualify you."
"But here's the icing: The Savior is baffled as to why he should be called a savior or a hero or anything of the sort. He only did what any other decent citizen would have done, had they been equipped to do so."
"That'll stir some talk."
"Right. Talk about something other than the Savior, I hope. Boy Reporter has his exclusive, making him happy so he goes away and leaves me alone. The cops try in vain to match the background described by El Savior to a real person, making them unhappy. They go back to watching and waiting, time passes, people forget about the Savior dude, and life gets back to normal."
Abe's eyebrows rose again, higher this time. "You're smoking something that potent and not offering any to your old friend Abe?"
Jack sighed. "Yeah, I know." No way this was going to fade away that smoothly. "But I can dream, can't I?"
"Dream away, but in the meantime I can offer you a true autoloader, better than your Semmerling."
"No. But you load an AMT Backup .380 with a half dozen MagSafe sixty-grain Defenders—keeping one in the chamber, please—and you'll have almost as much stopping power as you had with the Semmerling.
A new ankle holster you won't need because this will fit in the one you have, and best of all you'll need only one hand to keep firing because you won't have to work that farkuckt slide for every shot."
Life without his Semmerling… Jack supposed he was going to have to get used it. Wouldn't be easy.
He sighed. "Okay. Get me one."
Sandy sat in his cubicle at The Light and looked around. Finally he was alone and nobody close enough to see what he was doing.
He'd shown up early and received an astoundingly warm welcome that took him totally by surprise. People he barely knew had shaken his hand and clapped him on the back, asking him how he was doing, what it had been like, how he'd felt, how he was handling it, and on and on. Any other day he would have basked in their attention, but not now when he had a pad full of notes from the interview of his life burning a hole in his knapsack. It took a good half hour before he was left on his own.
And now, just when he was ready…
"Hey, Palmer," said a voice on his left. "When do you expect to be kicked upstairs?"
Sandy looked up to see Pokorny gazing over the top of the divider that separated their cubicles. With his long thin nose and thinning hair he looked like one of those old time Kilroy Was Here doodles.
"Seriously," he said, ambling around the divider to slouch his beanpole bod against Sandy's desk, "your story's all anybody's talking about around here."
Sandy shrugged, tried to be humble. "Yeah, well, I thought that night on the train was the worst of my life. Now it looks like it might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to me."
"You spun some gold, man." His envy was tangible.
"I don't know about gold. Someone handed me a lemon and I've been making lemonade."
He saw Pokorny wince and wanted to kick himself. I don't believe I just said that.
"What are you going to do for your second act?"
The question took Sandy by surprise. "Second act?"
"Sure. Now that you've got everyone's attention, how are you going to keep it?"
"I… don't know," Sandy said, playing dumb. "I never thought about it."
"You'd better think of something, my friend." He straightened from his slouch and patted Sandy on the shoulder. "You don't want to be a flash in the pan."
Condescending bastard, he thought as Pokorny slithered from sight. Flash in the pan was probably his fondest wish for Sandy.
But Pokorny didn't know that Sandy already had his second act scripted. All he needed was a little privacy to put it into production.
It took Sandy another half hour before he dared to pull out his cell phone and begin. He dialed The Light's main number and punched his way through the options tree until he got to an operator. Then he cupped his hand over the receiver and lowered his voice.
"I need to speak to Sandy Palmer."
"Do you know his extension?"
"No. But I must speak to him now."
"Here it is. I'll connect you."
The Savior was supposed to have gone though this same routine from three different pay phones during the first thirty minutes after he'd dropped Sandy off. It was his idea. He thought Sandy's walking in after two days off just in time to get a phone call from the city's number one mystery man was a little too pat. Sandy had to agree. So the Savior was to make sure he talked to a live operator each time and then leave hang-ups on Sandy's voicemail to show that someone had been trying to get in touch with him for a while.
Sandy jumped as his desk phone rang. He picked up the receiver, turned off his cell phone and began the charade of pretending to be talking and taking notes.
The Savior… Sandy wished he knew his name so he could call him something else. But what a cool guy. And what a life he'd led. This would make a great piece even if he weren't the Savior.
And that might be a problem. How to convince the editors that this was the real deal and not just some kook? The only way he could see to verify the caller's bona fides was the pistol. Sandy would say that the man on the phone named the make and model and explained how he'd used it. Only Sandy and the cops knew about the Semmerling.
Then the next question would be: Why you, Palmer? Why a nobody like you instead of some network anchorman or nationally syndicated columnist?
The Savior and I were on the death train together. There's kinship there. We're blood brothers.
That should work, Sandy thought. Sounds reasonable.
The editors would check with McCann about the Semmerling. Once that was verified, they'd believe. Because they'll want to believe. They'll be dying to run the story.
Of course that would mean another call, or maybe even a visit from McCann.
Sandy felt his sweat begin to run. That was when the going would get rough. McCann would want all the details. Sandy had only one lie to worry about. Just one. But it was a whopper.
He prayed he wouldn't slip up.
So this is Jeanette Vega, Jack thought, glancing at the slim brunette in fitted shorts and pale blue tank top as he stood in her kitchen and opened the second of the two bottles of merlot he and Gia had brought. Her hair was her striking feature—glossy black, parted on the left and severely pulled back into a single tight braid that reached below the nape of her neck; warm brown eyes, no make-up, a fading tan. Not the prettiest woman Jack had ever seen, but not bad looking. Kind of quiet, but nothing so abnormal about that.
Although he usually drank beer—and he'd had a couple at Gia's before cabbing over here—Jack was determined to do the wine thing tonight. And do it with gusto. Because after the day he'd had he felt he deserved an ambitious blood alcohol level, even if it meant reading tomorrow's Light with a hangover.
Maybe a hangover was the only way to go, because God knew what that kid was going to write.
But that would have to wait till morning. At the moment he meant to concentrate on Jeanette. And Kate too, of course. But Kate and Gia had their heads together in the living room, discussing Jack's boyhood he was sure. He hoped Kate wouldn't spill anything embarrassing like his bed-wetting problem.
Jack had filled Gia in as best he could on Jeanette's brain tumor treatment and subsequent personality change. That hadn't deterred her; she still wanted to meet Kate. Sitting at Gia's and sipping beer as he watched her work on a painting commissioned for a paperback cover had eased his Sandy Palmer-jangled nerves.
He glanced at Kate now and sensed that her nerves could do with a little easing. She wore a sleeveless cotton jumper and the humidity had made her honey blond hair curlier than usual, but she didn't look well tonight. Tired and worn. And jumpy. Something was eating her.
Jeanette on the other hand was cool and serene. She leaned against the kitchen side of the counter, physically three feet away, mentally somewhere at sea off Bora Bora. Seemed to be watching him open the wine, but her gaze was unfocused.
Jack rated his small-talk skills with those of the average geranium, and usually counted on others to carry the conversation load. But Jeanette was barely here. Had he bored her into a trance?
He glanced longingly at the couch. He'd much rather be over there where he could try and censor whatever Kate was telling Gia…
Kate said, "Our folks worried about him sometimes."
"Imagine that," Gia said with a wry smile. She wore a long summer dress that brought out the intense blue of her eyes.
Kate had taken an instant liking to Gia. She'd sensed that here was someone not only very pretty and very bright, but also very much her own person.
"He was something of a loner."
Gia sipped her wine. "He's still not much of a team player."
"He was on the track team but he ran cross-country. Not a lot of friends, either. But it was the movies that most concerned our folks. He couldn't get enough of those junky old horror and sci-fi movies."
"That hasn't changed."
"It would be a sunny Saturday afternoon and Jackie would—"
Gia grinned. '''Jackie? Oh, I love it!"
"That's what our mother called him and we all sort of picked it up. Anyway, on a beautiful Saturday he would say he was going to the park but if you drove by the local theater you'd see his bike chained to a post nearby. Every Saturday the Lenape would show two old horror-sci-fi movies in a double feature and he'd rather sit there alone in the dark than play with the other kids."
"That child was definitely father to that man." Gia said, pointing to Jack.
Jack and movies… Kate remembered when he was nine she heard Jack's alarm go off at two in the morning, then heard him pad down-stairs in the dark. When ten minutes passed and he hadn't returned, she went down to see what he was up to. She found him wrapped in his bedspread cross-legged on the floor before the TV with the sound very low, entranced by some cheap black-and-white movie. She told him to get back up to bed but he pleaded with her, saying he'd been trying to catch Invasion of the Saucer Men forever but it never played in the movies or on TV or anywhere anymore until tonight. He had to see it. He might never get another chance. Pleeeeease?
So she'd sat next to him under the spread, her arm protectively around his shoulders, and watched with him. She soon knew why no one showed it any more: Invasion of the Saucer Men was awful. But to Jack it was some sort of grail he'd finally found and he loved it. Looking back now it was a special shared moment, a closeness fated for extinction with the advent of the VCR.
Kate glanced over to where Jack stood with Jeanette. Would that life were still so sweet and simple.
And then she remembered: "The dip. I forgot to heat the dip."
The extended silence was getting awkward. Jack noticed that Jeanette's tank top revealed lean, muscular arms. Good deltoids, the kind that come only with weight training.
That looked like a conversation opener.
"You work out, Jeanette?"
"Hramm?" She blinked and returned to North America.
Jack cocked his arm in a bodybuilder's pose. "Do you work out?"
She smiled. "I used to, back when I thought that sort of thing was important." A shrug. "Now it seems kind of silly. So many things seem silly now."
Jack could see how being told you were going to die long before your time could change your perspective on just about everything. Especially working out. Not much point to a well-toned body if the next stop was a casket.
"You were at the house last night," she said, staring at him. "Why?"
Pretty damn direct question. How much could he say and not contradict anything Kate might have told her?
"I was just tagging along. Kate was worried about you and doesn't know the city, so I ferried her around."
"Everything's fine now," Jeanette said with a smile. "And getting better every day."
"Great," he said, holding up the open wine bottle. "Can I pour you some?"
Jeanette shook her head. "No, thank you. I don't need that anymore."
Good, he thought. That leaves more for me. And I do need it.
"Do I take it that means you've found a replacement?"
Another smile. "In a way."
Jack hoped this might provide a segue into this cult of hers, but his sister bustled into the kitchen before he could move on it.
"The dip," Kate said, pulling open the refrigerator door. "Hot avocado. Forgot all about it. And yes, Jack, I'll have another glass of that. So will Gia, I'm sure." She shoved a covered dish into the microwave and began jabbing buttons. "Just let me nuke this on reheat for a few minutes to warm it up. There. Now, where's that—?"
"Kate!" Jeanette wailed, her voice a terror-laden plea. "Oh God, Kate, why haven't you done anything?"
Her cry was so abrupt, so heartrending, that Jack nearly dropped the wine bottle. He stared at her agonized features and saw that her earlier remoteness was gone. The woman on the far side of the counter now was reaching out with her eyes, with her hands and arms, panic radiating from every pore.
"Jeanette!" Kate cried, turning Jeanette to face her. "What is it? What's happening!"
"I'm losing, Kate! I can't hold out much longer. Pretty soon there'll be nothing left of me! You've got to help me, Kate!" Her voice rose to a scream. "For God's sake help meV
And then her knees buckled. As she fell against Kate, Jack started around the counter to help but Gia was already there.
"Get her over to the couch!" Gia said.
The three of them helped the barely conscious Jeanette across the room where they stretched her out. Kate placed Jeanette's ankles on the arm rest, positioning them above the level of her head, then took her pulse. Gia ran back to the kitchen and started running water over a dish towel. Jack stood back and watched, a little shaken.
"This is what happened yesterday morning," Kate said. "Jeanette, are you—?"
"What's going on?" Jeanette said, shuddering and starting to sit up.
Kate tried to hold her down. "You had another one of those spells. Just rest for a moment."
"No." She struggled to a sitting position. "That can't be. How did I get over here?"
Jeanette was back to the remote woman Jack had met when he'd arrived; she seemed concerned but not as much as Jack thought she should be.
"We helped you," Gia said. Her face was pale, she looked shaken. "You almost passed out."
"This is the second time now, Jeanette," Kate said. "You can't go on like this. You've got to let Dr. Fielding check you over."
"He's an idiot."
"Then let's see someone else."
"What for? I'm fine." She shook off Kate's hand and rose to her feet. "Everybody just give me some space."
Kate and Gia stepped back.
"Please, Kate, would you ask Jack and Gia to go. I'd like to be alone."
Kate blinked. "Do… do you want me to leave too?"
"No, of course not. This is your home too." She turned to Jack. "I'm sorry. It was nice meeting you both. I know we'll meet again soon."
She turned and headed for a doorway at the far end of the room.
"I don't know what to say," Kate said when the door closed behind Jeanette. "She did this yesterday morning, and now again…"
"For a few moments there," Gia said, "she seemed like another person."
"A terrified one," Jack added.
Kate nodded. "I know. A true multiple personality disorder is so rare it's almost nonexistent… but I don't know how else to explain this."
"And why does she refuse to see a doctor?" Jack said. "If I'd just become another person for a few minutes and didn't remember it, I'd be on the phone demanding an appointment yesterday."
"Look," Kate said. "Why don't you two go on. I'm really sorry about this but—"
"Not your fault, Kate. Why don't you come out and catch a bite with us?"
"No. I should stay here in case she needs me. You two go ahead." She hugged Gia and kissed her cheek. "It was wonderful meeting you." Then she turned to Jack and hugged him.
He wrapped his arms around his sister and held her close. Had he ever done this? He couldn't remember. If not, he shouldn't have waited this long. It felt good, and would have felt better if not for a nagging fear for her.
"You're sure you don't want to come along?"
She stepped back and nodded. "I'll be fine. Call me tomorrow."
Jack didn't feel right about leaving her but didn't see any options. He opened the door.
"Okay. I will. First thing. And you have my home phone number. If you need me, you call, no matter what the hour."
In the kitchen the microwave oven dinged. The avocado dip was ready.
Jack and Gia took the stairs down.
"Did you see how Jeanette changed?" Gia said. "Isn't that the strangest thing you've ever seen?"
He knew they'd both seen stranger things, but…
"Yeah. Pretty damn strange. Creepy."
"I'll say," she said as they reached street level. She laid a hand on his arm. "And by the way, how come you never told me your sister was gay?"
"What?" He was stunned. His big sister, the pediatrician mother of two, a lesbian? Was Gia nuts? "How can you even think that?"
"Well, there may not be Melissa Etheridge posters on the wall, but there's a whole collection of Cris Williamson CDs in the rack, and if she and Jeanette aren't a couple, I'll remarry Richard when he returns."
They both knew her ex was gone for good—as in dead and digested. But Gia was way off here.
As they pushed through the front door into the night air Jack said, "Kate's not—"
And then it all came together. Of course she was. Kate was a giving person, but Jack suddenly realized she'd never take a leave from her practice and her kids to nursemaid some old sorority sister. When she'd said she was seeing someone special but foresaw no wedding bells, it wasn't a married man, it was a woman.
Jack turned and stared through the glass doors into the vestibule of the apartment building. "I didn't see it. How could I miss it?"
"With any other pair of women I'm sure you would have, right off. But your brain wasn't offering you options for your big sister's sexual orientation. So unless Kate showed up on a motorcycle with a shaved head and 'Bitch On Wheels' tattooed on her arm, you weren't going to see it. Her being a lipstick lesbian just made it harder."
"No wonder she seems to be walking on eggs when I'm around. Kate… I can't get over it."
"Does it bother you?" Gia said. "Come on, Jack, talk. You keep things in and stew about them. Don't do that here. Talk to me."
"Okay. Am I bothered? No. Anything Kate wants to be is fine with me. But am I shocked? Yes. Because I never saw it coming. I grew up with her, Gia. Never a sign, never a hint."
"At least not that you saw."
"Granted. I was a kid and I wasn't looking. But she always had boyfriends and… Gia, it's like the direction I always thought was north has suddenly become south. Should I go back and talk to her? Tell her I know and it's all right? Maybe that way she can relax around me."
Jack was used to knowing what to do in most situations, but here he was foundering.
"Since you asked," Gia said, "yes. Otherwise the two of you will go on dodging each other: she'll be hiding who she is and you'll be hiding that you know what she's hiding. But it's not my decision. And whatever you do, save it for tomorrow. Kate's got enough on her plate tonight, don't you think?"
Jack slipped his hand around the back of Gia's neck and kissed her lips. What would he do without her?
She brushed her fingers against his hair. "Not a good day for Repairman Jack, hmmm?"
"Well, Vicky's sitter is good till midnight. We could go back to your place and maybe, just maybe, if we think real hard, we might come up with a way to help you forget your troubles."
It had been a whole week. Jack felt more than ready.
"I think that's a perfectly wonderful—"
He noticed a woman standing across the street, staring. Not at them. Above them. She seemed to be in a trance. Something familiar about her face.
"What's wrong?" Gia said.
"Check out that blond woman over there. Do we know her?"
"Never seen her before."
Jack followed the line of the woman's stare and felt a stab of uneasiness when he realized she'd drawn a bead on the west corner of the third floor.
Gia whispered, "She's staring at Jeanette's apartment."
He looked at the woman again and now he recognized her. From the seance or whatever it was in the Bronx last night.
"I don't like this," Jack said. Not with Kate in that apartment.
"Look over there," Gia said, cocking her head to the left. "Down on the corner."
Jack spotted the man immediately. Although Jack didn't recognize him—a number of people at the seance had had their backs to him when he'd peeked in—he felt sure he was with the cult. Because he too was staring up at Jeanette's apartment.
How many more weirdos out tonight? he wondered as he scanned the block. He spotted none beyond these two.
Jack stepped to the curb for his own look at Jeanette's windows and spotted a human silhouette standing in one of them. A Bates Motel chill rippled across his shoulders. The open-mouthed terra cotta head glaring down at him from atop the window arch frieze only added to his unease.
Then the shadow disappeared from the window. Jack did a quick review of the apartment layout and decided it had to be Jeanette's study. Was she coming out to join the others?
"Let's move over here," Jack said, guiding Gia away from the vestibule's light wash and into the shadows.
Sure enough, minutes later Jeanette emerged. She crossed the street and joined the other two. The trio glided off toward Seventh Avenue.
"This is creepy," Gia said. Jack could feel her shiver as she clutched his arm and leaned against him. "Like some of those movies you make me watch. Where do you think they're going?"
"Looking for a cab to take them to the Bronx, I'll bet." But he didn't care about them. It was his sister who concerned him. "I've got to check on Kate."
He stepped back to the apartment house door and pressed the button labeled J. VEGA. Three times. Finally Kate answered.
"Kate, it's Jack. I just saw Jeanette leave. Are you all right?"
"Of course." Even through the tinny little speaker Jack thought her voice sounded thick with emotion. "Why wouldn't I be?"
"Can I come up, Kate?" He glanced at Gia for approval and she gave him a combination shrug-nod. "I'd like to talk to you."
"Not tonight, Jack. Maybe tomorrow. It's been a long day and I'm not feeling that great."
"You're sure you're all right, Kate?"
"I'm fine, Jack. Fine."
That last word, couched in a sob, tore his heart.
But she'd broken the connection.
Jack turned to Gia and slipped his arms around her. "I can't stand this," he said, pulling her close and resting his cheek against hers.
She caressed his back and whispered, "I know. You're the fix-it man and you can't fix this."
"I don't even know where to start."
"Let's go home. Things may look different in the morning."
But he doubted it.
Sandy found Beth in the kitchen making fresh coffee when he burst into the apartment with the morning edition.
"Ta-daaaa!" he cried as he held up the front page.
Beth shrieked and ran to him. She'd moved some of her clothes into his apartment yesterday; she was barefoot in tight little shorts and a T-shirt and she looked so good Sandy wanted to grab her and hug her, but she snatched the paper from him and held the tabloid at arms length, staring at the three-word headline large enough to read from a block away.
"'An exclusive interview for The Light by Sandy Palmer'!" she said, reading the italic refer running along the bottom. "Sandy! Your name's on the front page!"
"I know, I know! Isn't it awesome!"
"Totally! I've so got to read this!" She opened to page three. " ' "Call me anything you want," the man known as The Savior said. "The one thing I'm not telling you is my name." ' " She looked up at him and smiled. "What a great opening line!"
While Beth stood there reading, Sandy wandered about the front room, unable to sit or even stand still. Every giddy nerve in his body was singing a joyful tune and his stomach tingled, almost to the point of nausea. Today was without a doubt the best day of his life, and the best moment of this day was when he'd stopped in front of the newsstand and gaped at that front page. For a full minute at least he'd stood frozen, couldn't even reach into his pocket for the change to buy a copy. And during that minute he'd seen one person after another pass up the Times and the News and the Post and go for The Light.
Mine. My Light.
He'd sure as hell earned it. Yesterday he'd thought he was home free after weathering an intense grilling by George Meschke and the other editors; then McCann showed up and put Sandy in the hot seat, firing questions from all angles, obviously hoping he'd contradict himself. He pushed Sandy almost to the breaking point.
"Am I on trial here?" he'd finally shouted. "All I did was answer the goddamn phone! Since when is that a crime?"
And that had brought Meschke to his rescue. He'd told McCann they were satisfied with the story's authenticity and were running it in the morning. McCann reluctantly backed off.
"Well, at least we know he was a SEAL," the big detective had said. "Or at least he says he was. That's a boost. Only so many guys make it all the way through SEAL training. We'll get the Navy on this."
He'd extracted a promise that the make and model of the Savior's pistol would not be mentioned, then stormed off.
But beyond the front page, beyond the interview, was the fact that The Light, for the first time in its fifty-year history, was putting out a second issue in the same week. They'd contacted their advertisers, pulled out all the backlogged restaurant and book and theater reviews and packed them into the back pages to fill out the count. Then they'd contacted their distributor for delivery of a Special Edition that would be four times their usual run.
All because of moi, he thought. I'm making this paper go.
"Awesome!" Beth said, lowering the paper and fixing those big brown eyes on him. " 'We're all alive today because of a criminal act.' Totally, totally awesome!"
"You like it? You think it was well written?"
Sandy hung on her answer. Beth admired him, she made love to him, but he wanted her respect, too.
"Absolutely! But it must have been so weird talking to him on the phone. I mean, he saved our lives. I wish 1 could remember what he looked like, don't you?"
The question put Sandy on alert, blunting his high. He'd been dying to tell Beth about his meeting with the Savior, and a couple of times last night he'd caught himself just as he'd been ready to blurt it out. He was afraid he'd explode if he didn't tell someone soon.
But he couldn't risk it. Not even with Beth. If she let it slip, he would come under relentless pressure. Maybe he could tell her later, after things cooled down a bit. Or maybe he'd save it for his book on the Savior; what a great hook to be able to reveal that he'd actually sat and talked face to face with the mystery man.
"What would you do if you could remember?" Sandy asked.
"You mean, like if someone hypnotized me and suddenly I could see his face?" Her eyes lit. "Hey! That might be something I could use in my film!"
She jumped to the cluttered table he used as a home desk and jotted a few lines on a pad.
"But if you could remember," he repeated, "what would you do?"
She looked at him. "Tell you the truth, I'm not sure. Yesterday I would have told the world. But just a few minutes ago, while you were out, I was channel surfing and came across To Kill A Mockingbird. I love black-and-white films and I've seen it at least two dozen times. It was the scene where Scout and Jem are attacked in the woods, and then someone they don't see kills their attacker. Turns out it's Boo Radley, but Atticus decides not to tell anyone because it would ruin Boo's life. And it hit me: maybe the Savior is like Boo Radley—an otherwise harmless recluse who jumped in when he was needed, but whose life would be ruined by publicity."
"This guy's not harmless," Sandy said. "And no way anybody's going to mistake him for a mockingbird."
"Maybe not, but…" Beth shrugged. "What's he sound like?"
"Like a regular guy. No real accent I could identify." No lie there. He glanced at his watch. "I'm expected at the office."
Sandy had decided to get down to The Light so he could bask in the buzz. He expected some of the other reporters, especially the older ones, to be jealous, but he hoped most everybody else would be happy for him. Another round of handshaking and backslapping would be in order. And this time, without an interview to write up, he could relax and enjoy it.
And leaving now also meant he wouldn't have to tell Beth more lies.
"Okay," Beth said. She gestured to his desk. "Do you mind if I use your computer to start the treatment for my film?"
"Sure." Sandy considered the chaos of notes, newspaper clippings, envelopes, folders, and CD cases that littered the surface. "If you can find the keyboard."
Beth giggled as she started to sift through the mess. "I'm sure it's in here somewhere." She lifted a manila envelope and peered inside. "This anything important?"
"Yes!" Sandy said, louder and quicker than he wished. He knew that folder: the remaining Savior printouts. He tried to laugh it off as he reached out with forced casualness and eased it from her hand. "Notes for an article I'm planning. My editor'll kill me if anything happens to them."
Beth looked mildly offended. "I wouldn't let anything happen to them."
"Only kidding." He crossed his arms, trapping the envelope against his thudding heart. "The place is yours. Really. Rearrange that stuff any way you want."
The Savior had been right. These printouts were a liability. Sandy's session with McCann yesterday had driven home how badly the detective wanted the Savior. If he got him, bye-bye exclusive.
No question—the printouts had to go. He couldn't see any further use for them anyway. If he ever needed another copy all he had to do was call up the Identi-Kit file from The Lightfs system and print it out.
Beth picked up the newspaper from the desk and stared again at the headline.
"I still can't believe how lucky we were that a man with his training was on that train and in that car with us. I used to think I'd love to meet him—you know, give him a hug and say thanks—but after reading this I'm not so sure."
"Well, he doesn't exactly come across as the warm cuddly type."
"He's not." Sandy remembered the murderous look in the man's eyes. "In fact…" A vague impression had just congealed into a suspicion. He stood silent, trying to get a grip on it.
"What?" Beth said.
"I wonder how much of what he told me I should believe."
"You think he was lying?"
"Not completely. I'm pretty sure the part about being a Navy SEAL is true. I remember one of the cops on the scene saying things about the second shooter being well trained, but I don't know about doing secret work for government agencies. He hinted that he's involved in black ops and showing his face will blow his cover. But what if he's not undercover? What if he's hiding for another reason?"
"Like he's a wanted man."
"If that's true, I hope they never catch him."
"Even if they did catch him I bet I could get him off."
"You? I think you're great and all, Sandy, but how on earth would you manage that?"
He grinned. "By mobilizing the people. The pen is mightier than the sword, my dear. Never underestimate the power of the press."
"This is our guy, Stan."
Not this again, Stan Kozlowski thought as he looked up from his bagel and shmear.
They'd returned to Moishe's this morning and were back at their usual table. His brother Joe was hidden behind The Light's screaming headlines, with only his hands visible. Both of them. Joe wasn't bothering to hide the scarred left this morning.
"Where's it say that?"
Joe lowered the paper. His dark eyes glittered in his puffy face. "Right here where he says he freelances for government agencies but can't say which ones or what he does for them."
"Think about it, Stan." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "Maybe ATF traced the components of one of our little devices back to a point where they suspected us but couldn't make a case. So they hire this ex-SEAL to find our stash and blow it. That happens, what's the first thing the locals do? Call in ATF of course. Bang. They've got their case. Works for me."
Stan thought about that. He had a sense, what with how Waco took so long to go away, that ATF would be a bit shy about burning or blowing up buildings. But if the job was done by an outsider, someone who couldn't be connected to them…
"That would be illegal, Joe," he said, deadpan. "I refuse to believe that an agency of our government would stoop to something like that."
Joe smirked. "Yeah, of course. What was I thinking?"
"What are you thinking?"
Joe pulled a newspaper clipping from the breast pocket of his shirt and unfolded it on the table. Stan recognized the article from the other day—the eyewitness account. Joe stabbed a finger onto the photo of the writer.
"See this guy? Same one as talked to this fucking Savior in today's paper. What I'm thinking is I go hang around The Light offices and see what this microturd's up to."
"You mean follow him?" Sounded like a major waste of time.
"Yeah. Why not? Not like I got much else goin' on in the toilet I call my life these days."
Wasn't that the truth. For both of them.
And now that Stan thought about it, maybe this would be good for Joe. Even if he came up empty handed—as he most likely would—at least he'd be out and about instead of sitting in his chair in that litterbox apartment staring at the TV all day.
"Maybe I'll tag along," Stan said. "Just to keep you out of trouble."
He said it lightly, but he was dead serious. Joe was like a carelessly wired block of C-4 these days. No telling what might set him off.
"You look awful," Kate said to her reflection in the bathroom mirror. Pale, dark circles under her eyes… at least her eyes showed no signs of conjunctivitis. She'd been worried about adenoviruses lately, and that was a common symptom.
She checked her palm. The tiny puncture had healed. For a while, with the aches and malaise Kate had experienced two days after the wound, she'd feared she'd been infected with something. But today the aches were gone.
Not so the fatigue. The dreams had something to do with that, she was sure. Last night's had been the strangest by far. She'd spent the night flying over a landscape of coins—pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters, all the size of sports arenas, and all face down. And droning in her head a babble of voices, mostly unrecognizable except for Jeanette's and one that sounded like Holdstock's, drifting in and out, calling her name.
And then the dream had stopped.
Not too long afterward she'd heard Jeanette come in and go directly to her room.
And now here she was facing another morning feeling exhausted—physically, mentally, emotionally.
Part of her wanted to run. The emotional abuse from Jeanette—she'd found a way to make silence and indifference abusive—was almost more than Kate could stand. But she kept telling herself this was not Jeanette. Somehow her brain had been affected and her true self was crying to get out. The need to rescue the real Jeanette was the only thing keeping Kate here.
A buzzing sound… she opened the bathroom door. The vestibule bell. Someone down front wanted to get in. Jeanette had stopped answering bells of any sort—phones, doors—so Kate knew it was up to her.
Who on earth? she thought as she pressed the button and said, "Hello?"
"Kate, it's Jack. We need to talk."
Do we? she thought.
"Okay. Come up for coffee."
"Can you come down? We'll find an Andrews or something."
He sounded so serious. What was on his mind?
"Let me throw on some clothes."
Minutes later, dressed in jeans and a sweater, she stepped out of the stairwell into the building's lobby. Kate had left a note to Jeanette saying where she'd be. Not that Jeanette would care.
She found Jack, also in jeans but wearing a flannel shirt, waiting outside on the sidewalk. He didn't look too well rested himself. He stepped up to her and enfolded her in his arms.
"I know about you and Jeanette," he said in a low voice, "and it doesn't change a damn thing. You're my sister and I love you."
And suddenly Kate found her face pressed against his chest and she was crying—quaking with deep-rooted sobs. She tried to stop them but they kept coming.
"It's okay, Kate," he said. "Don't be afraid. I won't tell a soul."
She pushed free and wiped her eyes. "That's not why I'm crying. I'm glad you know. You can't imagine what a relief it is to stop hiding it from you, to come out to someone.'1''
"Oh… good. I spent half the night trying to figure the best way to word it. I didn't know how you'd react. I—"
She stretched up on tiptoe and kissed his cheek. "You did just fine."
She clung to him a moment longer, almost dizzy with relief and lighter in heart than she'd felt in years.
"Let's walk," he said. "I'm not yet properly caffeinated."
"But just let me hear it again, Jack," she said as they ambled arm in arm toward Seventh. "Does my being a dyke really not change a thing for you or were you just trying to make me feel better?"
He made a face. "You're not a dyke."
"Sure I am."
"No. When I hear 'dyke' I see a fat broad in work clothes and boots with a bad haircut and a load of 'tude."
She laughed. "It doesn't mean superbutch anymore. It's what we call ourselves. As Jeanette says, 'We're taking back the word.' " Or what Jeanette used to say, Kate thought as a wave of sadness brought her down. "But you're not answering the question."
"Okay, the question seems to be since I lie about myself to just about everyone every day, how can you be sure I'm telling you the truth."
"Not at all—"
"Or is it about whether I'm one of those politically correct liberal types who knee-jerks to this sort of thing?"
Had she offended him?
"So let's get a few things straight, Kate. I'm not PC and I'm not liberal—I'm not conservative or Democrat or Republican either. I operate on one principle: you own your own life, and that means you're free to do anything you want with that life so long as you don't interfere with other people's freedom to live their lives. It means you own your own body and you can do anything you want to it—pierce it, fill it with drugs, set it on fire—your call. Same with sex. As long as there's no force involved it's none of my business how you get off. I don't have to approve of it because it's not my life, it's yours. I don't have to understand, either. Which, by the way, I don't."
As he paused for breath Kate jumped in. "But that doesn't tell me how you feel."
"Feel? How does surprised and baffled sound? If you'd been a tomboy all your life and had never dated I could see it. But you had one boyfriend after another."
"Right. But no steady."
"Is that significant?"
"I didn't think so then, but 1 do now."
They found a little place on Seventh called The Greek Corner. She saw no one looking even vaguely Greek behind the counter, but the coffee smelled good. They took a table in a largely deserted glassed-in bump-out that would have been a solar oven if the sun had been out.
Jack sighed. "To tell the truth, Kate, I don't understand same-sex attraction. I know it exists and I accept that, but it's alien to me. I'm not wired for it. And then, of all people, you."
"You can't be more surprised than I was, Jack. But it's here. It's me. And there doesn't seem to be a darn thing I can do about it."
"But how? When? Where? Why? Help me here, Kate. I'm completely at sea."
"I'm still trying to figure it out for myself, Jack. You want to know when? When I knew? I'm not sure. Gay guys seem to know much earlier. With women it's not so easy. We're much more fluid in our sexuality—not my term, something I read. But it's true. We're much more intimate with each other. Sure I liked boys when I was a teenager. I liked dating, being courted, pursued. I even liked the sex. But you know what I liked more? Pajama parties."
Jack covered his eyes. "Don't tell me there were teenage lesbian orgies going on just a few feet down the hall from my bedroom and I didn't know."
Kate gave him a gentle kick under the table. "For crying out loud, Jack. Cool it, okay? Nothing ever happened. But there was a lot of contact—the pillow fights, the tickling, the laughing, the sleeping three to a mattress, two to a bedroll. Back then that was all considered normal teenage behavior for girls, but not for guys."
"And it was normal for me. I loved the closeness to the other girls, the intimacy, and maybe I loved it more than the others, but I never connected it with sex."
"When did that happen?"
"When did I know I was a dyke?"
Jack drew in a breath. "That word again."
"Get used to it. I found out about two years ago."
"Two years? You mean you never once…?"
"Well, in France—you remember my junior year abroad—"
"I missed you terribly."
"Did you? That's nice to know. I had no idea."
"Big boys don't cry."
"And that's a shame, isn't it. But anyway, I had an 'almost' or a 'pretty near' experience there but never gave it much thought afterwards because things are different in France. You remember that Joni Mitchell song, 'In France They Kiss On Main Street'?"
"Well, it's true. In France the girls kiss on main street—straight girls. They kiss, they hug, they walk down the street hand in hand, arm in arm. It's just a natural thing there."
It's February and her name's Renee, dark hair, dark mysterious eyes, tall, long-limbed and, at twenty-two, a year older. She's invited Kate to her family's country place in Puy-de-Dome for the day. The two of them are wandering one of the adjacent fields, talking, Renee so patient with Kate's halting French, when it begins to pour. They're drenched and half frozen by the time they reach the empty house. They strip off their sodden clothes, wrap themselves in a huge quilt, and huddle shivering before the fire.
Renee's right arm snakes around Kate's shoulders and pulls her closer… for extra warmth, she says.
And that's good because Kate wonders if she'll ever feel warm again.
Your skin is so cold, Renee says. And she starts to rub Kate's back … to warm her skin.
And it works. Only a few rubs and Kate is flushed and very warm. She returns the favor, sliding her hand up and down Renee's smooth back, her skin as soft as a baby's. Renee's long arm stretches to where her hand can rub Kate's flank, stretches farther still until it reaches her breast. Kate gasps at the electric sensation of Renee's finger's caressing her nipple and holds her breath as lips nuzzle her neck and the hand trails down along her abdomen. She feels as if something deep inside her is going to burst—
And then the sound of tires on the gravel outside—Renee's mother and little brother, back from the market with the makings for tonight's dinner. The spell shatters with shock and then a mad laughing dash to Renee's room where she lends Kate some clothes to wear until her own are dry. They go down to greet Renee's mother… and neither of them ever speaks of that afternoon again.
"What 'almost' happened?" Jack said.
"The details aren't important. It all receded into my subconscious—or maybe it was pushed, I'm not sure which—but the end point was that when I allowed myself to remember it, I looked on it as nothing more than an interesting but anomalous event. After all, I was free, white, and almost twenty-one, and it was the seventies when it was cool to experiment. I saw it as a brush with lesbianism but I knew I wasn't a lesbian. I moved on."
"To medical school."
"Where I met Ron. He was a good-looking, sensitive man and we had so much in common—middle-class backgrounds, similar families, both headed for medical careers. And he was crazy about me so it seemed a perfect match. I loved him, maybe not as much as he loved me, but there was a genuine attraction there and getting married was what was expected of me. So that's what I did. Ron's a good guy. A lot of formerly married women who've come out can tell horror stories about abusive relationships. I don't have that. I can't say I finally came out because I was mistreated. If anything, I mistreated him."
"As I heard it from Dad, he cheated on you."
"And I don't blame him. After Elizabeth was born I lost interest in sex. It's not that unusual, at least on a temporary basis, but for me it went on and on. Ron and I had a good marriage for a long time. I was a good wife and he was a good husband. But as the years went by, I kept feeling less and less fulfilled. That's a terrible word, but it's the only one that fits. Something was missing, Jack, and I didn't know what it was. Until I met Jeanette."
"You mean Sybil."
"Please don't do that, Jack," she said, feeling a flush of anger. "You didn't know her before this virus thing. She's the most exhilarating person I've ever met."
"All right. I'm sorry. You're right. I only know the Moony version of Jeanette. But still, is she worth all this turmoil in your life?"
"Jack, you can't imagine what I was like. I was no fun. Seeing my patients and doing okay as a mother, but I wasn't cutting it at all as a wife. Ron's a good man, and he was a considerate lover, but no matter what he did, it wasn't right. And I wasn't giving Ron what he needed, so finally he went elsewhere. I don't blame him, but he blames himself. And that breaks my heart. We'd been best friends. He thinks he broke up our marriage, but really, it was me."
"You, or Jeanette?"
"I didn't meet her until after Ron and I were separated. My pedi-atric group had decided to computerize and I knew nothing about com-puters—Ron was into them and so were the kids, but somehow the things never appealed to me. I figured I'd better get up to speed, so when I saw an ad for a computer course at the local Marriott designed for women novices, I signed up."
"Let me guess: Jeanette was the instructor."
"She moonlights from her programming job to do stints with a firm that runs seminars all over the country. She designed her own course, aimed strictly at female computerphobes. It's a bit of a cause for her, so women won't be relegated to the sidelines during the digital revolution."
Kate felt her throat tighten at the memory.
"You should have seen her, Jack. She was wonderful. Took control of the room with her presence. She kept it light but we could sense how she truly cared. And she was so funny, Jack. Hard to believe from what you've seen, I know, but she cracked us up with tales from the days when she worked for a computer problem hotline."
"Was there some sort of instant chemistry?"
"I couldn't take my eyes off her. She tended to wear tennis shirts and slacks and sandals; her hair was shorter then—she looked more butch than now, but at the time I chalked that up to computer geeki-ness. I wouldn't say I was in love, but when the class was over that first night, I was so captured by her I couldn't bear the thought of leaving her and going home. I wanted more. I approached her and asked if she gave private lessons…"
Jeanette gives her a long look, a little half smile gently twisting her lips.
"Lessons in what?"
"Why, um, computer lessons." What a question. "I need some sort of accelerated course."
"Why don't we discuss it over dinner?"
Kate loves the idea. The kids are home; she left them money for a pizza delivery. A hot meal with this fascinating woman is so much more enticing than snacking alone on a leftover slice or two when she gets home. She'll just have to let them know that she's going to be a little later than she'd planned.
"Sounds good," she tells Jeanette. "I just have to make a call first."
They settle on the Italian restaurant right in the hotel. Jeanette starts with a light beer while Kate has a Manhattan. Jeanette protests when
Kate orders a veal dish so she settles for spaghetti puttanesca. Over the meal, during which they split a bottle of Chianti, Jeanette does a lot of asking and Kate does a lot of answering.
When they're through she invites Kate up to her room where they can use her laptop to determine how much she knows and how much tutoring she's going to need. Wonderful idea. Kate's feeling so warm and relaxed and comfortable with this woman that she doesn't want the night to end yet.
She steps into Jeanette's room, dark except for the glowing screen saver on the laptop. She starts forward but never reaches it. Hands grip her upper arms, turn her around, soft lips find hers. Kate stiffens, instinctively begins to recoil, then gives in to those lips. Jeanette's hands move from her shoulders to the buttons of Kate's blouse, tugging at them, freeing them, slipping the fabric off her shoulders. She's insistent, will not be denied. And Kate has no will to deny her or to fight her rising heat, for a new sensation is filling Kate, something she's never fully experienced. Lust.
She lets Jeanette guide her to the bed, lets her take her on the flowered spread, and feels transported to a place she's never been before, another realm. And for the next two hours she has her first private lesson from Jeanette, but not in computers, as a patient, expert teacher tutors her in the ways of warmth and wetness.
"One thing led to another and… we became lovers. Then partners. And I began my double life. A very eligible divorcee in Trenton; half of a luppie couple here in New York."
"Luppie?" Jack said, then waved his hand. "Never mind. I just got it."
"Jeanette said her gaydar picked me out during class—she called me 'a Talbot's dyke'—but had no inkling that she'd be my first."
"But she's been good for you?" Jack asked, and she saw real concern in his eyes.
"I don't think I've ever been happier or felt more… whole. Jeanette has been wonderful to me and for me. She's so tuned in. She's been my guide into this world I barely knew existed, while I've smoothed some of her rough edges and taught her to take a longer view on some things."
After coffee and sweet rolls they left the Greek Corner and wan-dered up to the urban garden that defined this length of Sixth Avenue, the Flower District.
"Where do you go from here?" Jack said as they threaded through the foliage.
Potted greenery lined the curbs, everything from rubber plants to oversized ferns to small royal palms. The storefronts were riots of color—reds, yellows, blues, fuchsias—and behind them, inside, dimly glimpsed through condensation-layered glass, lay deep green pocket rain forests.
Last week Kate might have picked out some flowers for the apartment, but not today… not in a flower mood today.
"In two years, when Lizzie's off to college, I'll tell the kids and Ron. After that it won't take long for the news to leak to my patients, and then the you-know-what will hit the fan. I'll lose a fair share of them. Trenton may be the state capital but it's a small town at heart. People will decide they'd rather not bring their kids, especially their daughters, to a lesbian pediatrician. Especially when there are five other straight doctors in the same office. And that won't make my partners happy."
"So come to New York," Jack said, slipping his arm around her shoulder. "Lots of kids here whose parents won't care how you spend your off hours. And it'll be great having you close."
She leaned against him. "You can't imagine how much I appreciate being able to talk to you like this. And I'm sorry for going on so. Listen to me: the love that dare not speak its name cannot shut up. But I've had this bottled up for so long and I feel so… so alone right now."
"But you and Jeanette must have some friends. I mean, there's a huge gay community down here that—"
"Yes, but I'm a forty-four-year-old baby dyke who isn't out. That makes me a sort of pariah to the younger dykes, the grrrls, the twenty-somethings who've been out since their teens. They think we all should be out and eff anyone who doesn't like it."
"'Eff'?" Jack grinned. "Did you say 'e/f?"
"I always have trouble saying the F-word."
"That's because you're a square. Always were."
Kate sighed. She couldn't take offense. It was true.
"I'm still a square in so many ways. A square dyke—can you imag-ine? A walking, talking oxymoron. Born square, doomed to die from terminal squareness. It's just that I was always trying to set a good example—for you when we were growing up, and later for Kevin and Liz."
"And you did," he said softly. "Just as I'm sure you still do."
"I don't want to change the world or be part of a movement. I just want to be me. It's taken me so long to get to this point that I just want to relax and enjoy it. And I never cared what others thought as long as I had Jeanette. We're both a little old for the gay club scene; we'd have dinner at Rubyfruits once in a while, but mostly we cooked in and just enjoyed being with each other."
"No dressing up and going out on the town looking like Wild One Marlon Brandos?"
"Just being a vanilla dyke more than fills my deviancy quota."
"Don't call yourself a deviant."
"It means deviating from the norm. And that's what we dykes do."
"Can't help how you feel. Not as if you're hurting anyone."
"Not yet at least. But when I finally come out… who knows?" She shook her head. "All because of a chromosome… one lousy chromosome."
"There's a gay gene?"
"Maybe. But I'm talking about the Y-chromosome, the one that makes you male. We females have two X-chromosomes, but if I could change one chromosome, change just one of my X's to a Y, my feelings for Jeanette would be considered perfectly normal."
Jack gave a low whistle. "Jeez. You put it like that, what's all the fuss about?"
"Exactly. One chromosome. And if I had it, I wouldn't have all this terrible angst and dread about letting people know."
He grabbed her shoulder. "Just thought of something. Are you going to tell Dad?"
Kate shuddered. She had no idea how her father would react. She loved him. They'd always been close, but he had no idea. No lesbians in his world. What words could she use to tell him that his only daughter was one?
"I haven't decided whether he should be before or after the kids. Either way, that's when the you-know-what hits the fan."
"Would that be 'ess' hitting the fan, or doo-doo?"
Kate laughed and hugged Jack. "Both!"
She loved the man he'd become. What great luck running into him. And what a wonderful feeling to be out to him. It had been so easy.
She looked around and realized they were back at the Arsley. She almost dreaded going back upstairs and facing Jeanette. Who would she be today?
"Mind if I come up with you?" Jack said.
Does he read minds? she wondered.
"I'd like that."
She keyed her way through the front door but stopped Jack in the lobby. She had to make one thing absolutely clear to him.
"No one else can know what we've discussed this morning, Jack. Not till Kevin and Liz are both eighteen. It's not just for my sake but for theirs too."
"Okay, sure, but—"
"No buts about it, Jack. Ron doesn't know and I can't predict how he'll react. He's a good man and I think he'll be okay, but you never know. If he feels his masculinity has somehow been compromised, he may try to get back at me through the kids. We have joint custody now but he might sue, claiming that as a lesbian I'm an unfit parent—"
"It happens all the time, Jack. The courts can be rough on lesbians. But even if Ron accepts it, what about Kevin and Liz? The news will sweep through their school in minutes, and you know how cruel kids can be. Adolescence is hard enough. I can't add that to the load. When they're both in college I'll sit them down and tell them. Until then I've got to stay in the closet. Just like you."
"Me?" He looked shocked. "What—?"
"Yes, you. You're leading a double life just like me. You've got one face you show to the public but then there's this other side, this Repairman Jack thing that you've been hiding all these years—from Dad, from Tom, from me, and I'm sure from the police, since you've as much as said some of what you do isn't exactly legal. You've got your own closet, Jack."
He stared at her a moment, then nodded. "Never thought of it that way but I guess I do. Except I can't come out of mine. Ever."
"You did to me."
He shook his head, raised a hand, and waggled his pinky finger.
"T opened the door a crack and showed you this much. The rest stays inside."
"Because my closet's way deeper and lots darker than yours."
She expected to see sadness in his eyes but found only flat acceptance. He'd made choices and he'd live with them.
Just as she'd live with hers.
Jeanette was not in sight when Jack and Kate came in.
"She might still be asleep," Kate said.
Jack hoped not. He wanted to see what mental shape Jeanette was in before he left Kate alone with her. He also wanted another look at this woman who meant so much to his sister. He couldn't help but see her differently now. She was no longer Kate's friend, she was her lover.
"Who's asleep?" Jeanette said, stepping out of her room with a mug in her hand.
She wore an Oberlin sweatshirt and cut-off shorts. Nice legs. Great quads. She definitely worked out.
"How are you feeling?" Kate asked.
Jeanette beamed. "Absolutely wonderful. How about you? And Jack. So good to see you again. How are you?"
Jack glanced at Kate, saw the tight line of her lips, and knew how she was feeling. They were in the presence of Mary Poppins without the accent. Or maybe the Stepford Dyke.
"Just fine," Jack said. "We had a walk and a talk."
"I'm out with Jack," Kate said. "He knows everything."
Jeanette glided into the kitchen. "Isn't that nice." She placed her mug into the microwave and began punching buttons. "Not that it's going to matter."
Kate looked as if she'd been slapped. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing." Her smile broadened. "And everything."
She punched the START button and her grin died. Slack-faced and staring, she swayed.
"Jeanette?" Kate started forward.
Jeanette began mumbling, slowly, extracting the words like corks from wine bottles. "Kate… I… we… no… Kate, I'm almost gone. Can't hold out—"
And then the microwave oven chimed.
And Jeanette blinked and regained her smile as abruptly as she'd lost it.
"What?" Jeanette said. "Why are you staring?"
"You had another of those spells," Kate said.
"Don't be silly." She removed her reheated cup from the microwave and took a sip. "Mmmm."
"Jeanette—" Kate began as Jeanette brushed by her on her way out of the kitchenette, but Jeanette cut her off.
"Any plans for today, Kate?" She plopped herself in the rocking chair and smiled.
As Kate began another attempt at convincing Jeanette to make an appointment with Dr. Fielding, Jack stared at the microwave. Wasn't sure, but thought he remembered Jeanette having her 'spell' last night while Kate was nuking the dip. And now while reheating her coffee.
Could microwaves trigger these spells? Didn't know a lot about them, but if people with pacemakers were supposed to keep their distance, who knew what other effects they might have?
"Anyone mind if I make myself a cup of coffee?" he announced to the room.
Kate gave him an odd look and he knew what she was thinking: after all the coffee he'd drunk at the Greek place he should be floating.
But Jeanette said, "Sure, be my guest."
Found a mug, filled it with water, and stuck it inside the oven. This gave him a chance to look it over. Noticed the door wobbled on its hinges, and he found a crack in the lower right corner of the glass. Had it been dropped at some time?
Closed the door, set it for five minutes on high, and punched START. As it hummed to life he turned to Jeanette.
Nothing. She sat in the front room sipping and rocking and shaking her head no to everything Kate was suggesting.
So much for that theory.
But wait. Jeanette had been standing in the kitchen both times. Proximity could be a factor.
Hit the STOP button.
"Something wrong here," he said. "The microwave won't stay on."
"Sometimes the door doesn't catch," Jeanette said. "Make sure it's closed all the way."
Jack made a show of opening and closing the door, and pretended to press START.
"Nope. Still won't go."
"Men!" Jeanette said with an exasperated sigh as she rose from her chair. "You're only good for one thing."
Jack stepped aside to allow her to reach the microwave. "And what's that?"
Weird thing for a lesbian to say. Wasn't breeder a derogatory term among gays?
Watched her press START.
She dropped her cup, splashing Jack's ankles with hot coffee, and now her face had that slack look again, and she started mumbling.
"No… yes… this helps… what are you…"
"Jeanette!" Kate cried, rushing into the kitchen area. "It's happening again!"
She grabbed Jeanette's hand. "What's happening?"
"It's the microwave oven. Seems to have some effect on her."
"Then turn it off!"
"No," Jeanette gasped. "Leave… it on."
"Listen to her, Kate. It's a good effect. Like it's snapping her out of whatever spell she's under."
"The virus," Jeanette said. "The virus…"
"What about the virus?" Kate gripped Jeanette's shoulders and gently rotated her until they were face to face. "Tell me."
Jack retreated a step. Three people strained the tiny kitchen's occupancy limit. Let Kate handle it. She was the doctor.
Jeanette's tone changed—same voice, but suddenly more focused. "We do not want to speak of this."
"What do you mean, 'we'?"
Fractured again: "Wasn't me… don't listen to them. It's the virus… changing us."
"Changing you how?"
"My brain… our brains… reaching critical mass…" Another shift in tone. "No! We will not speak of this!"
Jeanette squeezed her eyes shut, seemed to be making a heroic effort to exert control. Might have been funny on a stage or in a comedy club, somebody doing a parody of a bad horror film about demonic possession or warring multiple personalities, but the fear-sweat streaming from Jeanette's pores was real. Jack sensed a once indomitable personality clawing for a fingerhold on her identity and his heart went out to her. He wanted to help her but hadn't a clue as to how.
"Tell me, Jeanette!" Kate said. "What's happening to you?"
"Eaten… eaten alive. Every minute… every second… less of me… more of them."
"Jeanette, that sounds so—"
The microwave went ding! Jeanette stiffened, blinked.
Damn! Jack quickly reached around Kate, punched another ten minutes into the oven and got it running again.
"E pluribus unum! E pluribus unum! E pluribus unum!…"
She kept repeating the phrase and Jack couldn't be sure which Jeanette was responsible. It seemed like a prayer, or a mantra, something you might repeat endlessly to drown out a sound or a frightening thought.
"Jeanette!" Kate still had hold of her shoulders and was shaking her. "Jeanette, stop that and listen to me!"
But she kept droning the same damn phrase.
And then Jack turned at the sound of the door opening and saw Holdstock rush into the room.
"What's going on here!" the pudgy man cried. He wore a gray, three-piece suit; his face was flushed and sweaty, as if he'd been running. "What are you doing to her?"
"Hey-hey!" Jack said, stepping toward him and straight-arming him to a stop. "Where do you get off barging in here?"
"I have a standing invitation," he puffed. He held up a key. "See? More than you have, I'm sure."
He tried to slip past, but Jack wasn't about to let that happen. He grabbed him by his suit vest.
"Whoa, pal. Just stay where you are."
And behind Jack the "e pluribus unum" chant continued.
"You take your hands off me! And stop torturing that woman or I'll call the police!"
"Will you?" Jack said. "I wonder."
But the threat did hold weight for Jack. Last thing he wanted was a couple of cops at the door.
"Let me go to her! Please!"
"Let him, Jack," Kate said. "Maybe he can explain what this is about."
Jack released Holdstock who lunged past him toward Jeanette.
"Listen to her," Kate said as Holdstock neared. "Do you have any idea what that means?"
"Of course," he said.
But instead of explaining he reached past Kate and unplugged the microwave.
"Hey!" Jack said as the chant stopped.
Jeanette sagged against Kate, then straightened and pushed away.
"It's all right, dear," Holdstock said, guiding her from the kitchen. "I'm here now."
"Get your hands off her," Jack said.
"Should I take my hands off you, Jeanette?" Holdstock said.
"No. No, of course not."
"You're coming with me," he told her, steering her toward the door. "It's not healthy for you here."
"Not so fast," Jack said, blocking their way.
Jeanette glared at Jack. "You! You're an enemy! You're evil! Get out of my house!"
"Jeanette!" Kate said. "Please!"
"I want you to stay, Kate," she said, keeping her eyes fixed on Jack, "but if your brother is here when I come back, I'm calling the police."
Jack didn't move. His gut told him he shouldn't let her go—for her sake—but if she said she wanted to leave, he couldn't see he had much choice but to let her.
Reluctantly he stepped aside. But only a little. Just enough to let them squeeze by.
As Holdstock brushed past, one arm around Jeanette's shoulders, Jack felt something sharp scrape against the back of his hand. He glanced down and saw a fine scratch. How had that happened? Hold-stock's near hand had been in his coat pocket as he'd passed.
He shrugged. Nothing serious. Probably just a pin from a cleaning tag. Barely bleeding.
He turned to Kate and found her still standing in the kitchen, a lost, confused look on her face.
"What just happened here?" she said.
"Damned if I know. You're the doctor. Have you ever seen anything like that?"
"Has to be the microwaves. But I know as much about microwaves as I do about string theory."
"I know they're a form of radiation—non-ionizing radiation. Depending on the wavelength, they're used for everything from radar to cell phones to cooking. But I can't believe Jeanette has a personality change anytime she gets near a microwave oven."
Jack took Kate's hand and brushed her fingers over the crack in the glass on the oven door.
"This microwave oven happens to leak."
Kate shook her head. "I still don't understand…"
"I've got a whole list of things I don't understand about this. And Holdstock is high on it. You told me he showed up right after Jeanette's first personality change, right? And now he pops in again. You think he's got the place bugged?"
Kate rubbed her upper arms. "Don't say that. I've read articles about people becoming ill from exposure to microwave snooping devices."
"A couple of months ago I spent a whole weekend with a group of paranoids who had crazy stories about any subject you could name. Among them were tales about CIA and KGB experiments using microwaves for mind control. Maybe they're not so paranoid."
"You're giving me the creeps."
"And what was she saying about the virus changing her brain? You think that could be?"
Kate looked miserable. "Jack, I don't know. It doesn't seem possible. It's an adenovims. Even mutated I can't imagine an adenovirus changing someone's brain."
Microwaves, multiple personalities, mutated viruses—Jack felt as if he'd stepped off a ledge into an underwater canyon.
"Maybe not, but I think the guy to contact is Fielding. I don't know about you, but this is way out of my league. Maybe you'd better get back to him."
"I'll do that right now."
"And while you doctor-talk with him, I'm going to run an errand. Be back in no time."
Jack had an idea he wanted to try. But he'd need some hardware first.
Sandy sat at his desk in a daze. This had to be the greatest morning of his life. He still couldn't believe the reception when he'd walked into the press room two hours ago—cheers and a standing ovation. George Meschke had met him in the middle of the floor to shake his hand and tell him that his edition—yes, they'd called it his edition—had been selling out all over the city.
And now his voicemail. He'd just finished listening to the last of nine messages. People he hadn't heard from in years—a former roommate, old classmates, even one of his journalism professors—had called to congratulate him. What next?
He looked up and blinked. Patrice Rawlinson, the perpetually tanned silicone blonde from the art department. Sure, she was faked and baked, but with those painted-on dresses she was everyone's dream babe.
He struggled for a reply. "Oh, uh, hi."
In the past when he'd said hello to her in the halls she'd always looked through him. A real Ralph Ellison moment. But now she'd come to him. She'd walked that gorgeous body all the way to his cubicle and spoken words to him. She'd said his name.
"I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your interview with the Savior. I hung on every word. That must have been so exciting to talk to him."
"It was." Please don't say anything stupid, he told himself. "It's a moment every journalist dreams of."
"You've got to tell me all about it sometime."
"Give me a buzz when you're free."
And with that she swayed off. Sandy resisted sticking his head outside his cubicle for an extended look at her, as he'd done so many times in the past. He was above that now.
"Tell me that wasn't Patrice's voice I just heard," said Pokorny from somewhere on the far side of the partition.
"It was, my man. It most certainly was."
Pokorny groaned. "I'm going to kill myself."
Does it get any better than this? Sandy thought, grinning.
No. It was positively intoxicating. Like a drug. And just as addicting. He didn't want to let this go. Couldn't. He needed more, a steady fix.
But what next? He couldn't let this be the pinnacle of his career—talk about peaking too soon! He had to come up with something equal or better. And the only thing he knew for sure that would fit that bill was another interview with the Savior.
But what was left to cover in a second interview? Rehashing the same old material wouldn't cut it.
But what if I challenge the initial material? he wondered.
He suspected that some of it wasn't true. In fact the more he thought about it, the surer he became that the Savior wasn't doing undercover work for the government. That was a little too glamorous, a little too Hollywood.
So what other reasons could he have to stop him from stepping forward to be acclaimed as a hero?
And then he remembered his earlier conversation with Beth. He'd been blue-skying with her but—
Sandy slammed his hand on his desktop. Christ, I bet that's it! The man has a criminal record. He's a fugitive! Some sort of felon with a warrant out for his arrest. And that's why he was armed!
He had his next hook: get the Savior to talk about his crime. Maybe he was an innocent victim, on the run because of a crime he didn't commit—
No, stop. You're getting Hollywood again.
Maybe he'd committed just one crime, or maybe he wasn't bad all the way through. He certainly did the right thing on the train. Maybe…
And then it all came together, driving Sandy to his feet, gasping like a fish out of water. He had it! A fabulous idea!
He fumbled a slip of paper from his pocket—the phone number the Savior had given him. He reached for his phone, then stopped.
No. No calls from here. Somewhere he was sure the paper kept a record of all outgoing numbers. Better a public phone.
Sandy hurried for the street. He was a man on fire, a man with a mission. He was going to do something wonderful, something that would repay the mystery man for saving his life. Talk about advocacy journalism! He'd be pulling off a journalistic coup to make today's story look like a weather report. Not just your common everyday, run-of-the-mill journalistic coup—the journalistic coup of the new century!
Can you spell Pulitzer?
Jack struck out at a hardware store and an appliance store, but finally found what he wanted at the Wiz. On his way back to Jeanette's apartment he stopped at a pay phone to check his messages. He groaned aloud when he heard Sandy Palmer's voice.
"Good morning, 'Jack.' Yeah, like I'm supposed to believe that's your real name."
Jack? How did he know—?
And then Jack remembered: the outgoing message on his voicemail began, "This is Jack…" He'd forgot all about that. Not that it mattered. Palmer thought it was phony anyway.
"Listen, we have to talk again. I've come up with an idea that's going to transform your life. We've got to meet. And don't blow this off, because what I've got to say to you is vitally important. Another reason you shouldn't blow me off is I've still got the drawing. Now don't get me wrong, because I don't want you to think I'm trying to blackmail you, but I'm pretty sure you weren't completely straight with me the other day—about your past, that is—so I don't feel bound by our little agreement to destroy the drawing. But we can let bygones be bygones and straighten all this out with one little meeting. Call and tell me where and when. And trust me, Jack, or whatever your name is, you'll be ever so glad you did."
He left his number and extension at the paper.
Jack slammed the receiver against the phone box. Then did it again. And again.
Now I don't want you to think I'm trying to blackmail you . . .
What else am I supposed to think, you rotten little bastard?
He had this frenzied urge to get his hands around Palmer's pencil neck and squeeze until…
Easy. Step back. Look at it again…
But short of killing the kid, Jack saw no quick and easy way to take command of the situation. Palmer controlled the deck. Jack would have to play it his way. For now.
He called Palmer's number and extension. With an effort he kept his voice low and even when he reached his voicemail.
"Same place. Noon."
Then he hung up.
He'd cooled a little by the time he reached Jeanette's apartment, but his mood was still cooking over a low flame.
Kate took one look at him and said, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing to do with this."
"Need to share?"
Jack considered that, almost gave in to the urge to tell her, but decided against it. The fewer who knew, the better.
"I'll be all right. But thanks." He opened his Wiz bag and produced a little white gizmo. "Looky. A microwave tester."
He set the oven for five minutes and started it, then ran the little tester along the edges of the door. The indicator started flashing red immediately and went into high gear when he reached the lower right corner with the cracked glass.
"That confirms it. Leaky oven." He hit the off switch. "How dangerous is that?"
"I did a search on Jeanette's computer while you were out."
"I'd think a doctor would know all about microwaves."
"Why? I haven't found a use yet for radar in my practice."
"That's why the first microwave ovens were called radar ranges. Microwaves are radiofrequency radiation—somewhere below infrared and above UHF in the frequency spectrum."
That meant nothing to Jack. "I know they're used for cell phone transmission. But what's the downside—besides brain tumors?"
"That's never been proven, and it seems unlikely since it's non-ionizing radiation. The main effect is heat. The guy who discovered the microwave oven was playing with different frequencies, looking for new radar applications, when he melted the candy bar in his shirt pocket."
"A true 'Eureka!' moment."
"I suppose so. The ovens work by causing vibrations in water molecules, creating heat. The strength of the transmitter and the frequency of the waves determine the depth of penetration and the amount of heat generated. The best documented ill effects in humans are cataracts and sterilized testicles."
Jack stepped away from the oven. "But no brain tumors."
"Not a one. But my search popped up lots of hits involving central nervous system effects—everything from memory loss to mind control. I don't know how factual they are though."
"So if this virus is having an effect on Jeanette's brain—"
"Which is the heart of the central nervous system."
"—maybe the microwaves disrupt that."
"But what about Holdstock? He was dosed with the virus too, but he walked right up to the oven and turned it off."
"Right. Forgot about that. Damn. So much for that theory."
"Pretty far-fetched anyway."
"Lot of far-fetched stuff going down these days," he said, thinking back on the events of the last couple of months. "And remember, I didn't come up with the virus-taking-over idea. That was Jeanette's."
"Well, rest assured, there's no virus taking over Jeanette's mind. But she might believe there is."
"Maybe that's the engine driving the Holdstock cult—some sort of shared delusion."
"You may have something there."
"Yeah, well, whether I do or not, it's something for the NIH boys to handle, not me. Did you call Fielding?"
Kate's face clouded as she nodded. "Yes. He said not to worry. He's been in contact with them daily and what seem like interminable delays are simply the normal bureaucratic process."
"Why do I get the feeling you don't believe that?"
"Because he seemed so nervous. I could almost hear him sweating."
"Well, his reputation and his career could be at stake."
"Because of a mutation? I don't see how. I think I'm going to call NIH myself and see what I can find out."
"Good idea. And while you're doing that, I've got to meet the press."
Kate smiled at him. "Do you know how many times you've said that over the last few days?"
"Too many, probably. Someday soon we'll sit down together and I'll tell you a few of them if you want." A select few, he thought.
"I'd like that very much," she said.
"Then it's a date. But for now I've got to run. Call you later."
"Aw, shit," Joe said. "The kid's going for a walk in the park."
"Maybe he is, maybe he isn't," Stan told his brother in a soothing tone. Joe was as twitchy and fidgety as he'd ever seen him. Like he had roaches crawling all over his skin.
They'd hung around outside The Light offices all morning, watching for this reporter, this Sandy Palmer guy. They didn't even know if he was in the building, so they called inside and got him on the phone. That settled, they waited. He finally came out around 11:30 and ducked into the subway. Guy could have been going home, out for a haircut, or to visit his mama. No way to know. But wherever he was going, Joe insisted on following. The reporter had jumped on the Nine so they did the same. On the outside chance he might be on the lookout for a tail, they'd split up—Joe in the car ahead of him, Stan in the one behind. Stan noticed Joe keeping his left hand in his pocket the whole time. The kid ever saw that, Joe would be tagged; he'd have to back off and let Stan do the tail solo.
When the reporter got off at Seventy-second, Stan thought he might simply be returning to the scene of the crime. But no, he headed straight for the stairs.
Topside, Stan and Joe each took a different side of the street and gave him a block lead as he headed west along Seventy-first. Waste of effort. The kid was in his own world, loping along without a single look back.
Stan had joined up with Joe at the corner of Riverside Drive where they hung back as the reporter ambled into the park.
Stan tried to show Joe the bright side.
"This might be something. If you remember, we set up quite a few meetings in parks in our day."
Joe rubbed his stubbled chin. "Come to think of it, I do. So how do we work this?"
Stan surveyed the landscape. Riverside Drive ran at a higher level, bordered on its west flank by a low wall overlooking the greenery that sloped away below it.
"We split," Stan said. "You take the high road and I'll take the low road—"
"And I'll be in wherever-it-is before ya."
"Scotland. Keep your cell phone on and I'll call you if I think he's made me or I see him heading back up to the street. Then you pick him up and—"
"Shut up!" Joe hissed. He grabbed Stan's arm, his fingers digging in like claws. "There he is!"
"Over there. Two blocks down. See him? In the baseball cap, leaning on the wall, watching the park."
Stan saw an average-looking guy. Nothing striking about him. Looked relaxed as all hell, taking a little fresh air while killing some time.
"You think that's our guy? Could be anybody."
Joe hadn't moved a muscle. His eyes were fixed on the baseball cap like a dog on point.
"It's him, Stan. I see him in my dreams, and I've been dreaming of this moment. You don't know how I've been dreaming of this moment." His breath rasped through his teeth. "The fucker! The fucker!"
"Easy, Joe. We've got to be sure. We—"
"/'m sure. God damn fuck am I sure! Know what he's doing? He's casing the park, watching this reporter make his entrance and checking him for a tail. If you'd gone down there he'd've spotted you and that would've queered it all. He disappears and the meet is off. But he's a dumb fuck. Figures if someone's tailing the reporter, whoever it is doesn't know what he looks like. Thinks he's sittin' safe and pretty up there with his bird's-eye view. But we know what he looks like, don't we, Stan. We know."
The longer Joe talked and the longer Stan looked, the more familiar this guy at the wall became. Stan was almost afraid to believe it was him, afraid he'd fool himself because he so very much wanted it to be him. Not as much as Joe, maybe, but still, some heavy debts cried out for payment—with tons of vig.
"You know, Joe… I think you might be right."
Joe was still staring. A heat-seeking missile that had found its target.
"Course I'm right." He reached into his jacket pocket. "I'm doin' him, Stan. Gonna splatter his IQ all the way to the river then take his head home as a souvenir! Make a soup bowl out of his skull and eat from it every fucking night!"
Stan gripped his brother's arm before he could pull his .38. The area was crawling with people.
"Too many witnesses, Joe," he said quickly. "What good's doing him if it's going to land us in the joint? Like you said before, we've got to send a message here. This is the guy that blew up our stash, our cash, and our reps. We got to do him in kind. Blow him to hell. A public blow. And then we can say, remember that guy who got blown to chili con carne back in June? That was the guy who blew our farm and wrecked Joe's hand. We found him and did him. Did him good."
He felt Joe's arm relax as he nodded, still staring at the guy.
"Yeah. All right. And not just him, but him and everything he owns and everyone around him. You don't mess with the K Brothers."
Stan knew it would never be the same. They'd never completely salvage their reps, but at least they'd have evened some of the score. That counted for something.
"How you want to handle this?"
"He's looking for someone tailing the reporter. But we'll be tailing him. We find out where he lives, then we do him. And no waitin' around, Stan. We do him tonight!"
Sandy checked his watch: 12:30. He'd been wandering around the park for half an hour now. The message had said same place, noon. The noon was clear enough. And Sandy had assumed "same place" meant same bench. So he'd waited there for a while, but no Savior. He wondered if he should call the Savior "Jack." He didn't know if that was his real name, but it was better than the Savior.
After fifteen minutes on the bench he'd got up and wandered around. Maybe "same place" had meant the park in general. But another fifteen minutes of trudging up and down a ten-block length had yielded no sign of the man.
Looked like he'd been stood up. What now? He'd threatened the Savior with the drawing, told him he hadn't got rid of them. Not true. He'd torn them up and flushed them down a toilet in one of The Light's men's rooms. But he could print out another from the computer in minutes if he wanted to. But did he want to?
He remembered what Beth had said about To Kill a Mockingbird. Did he have a right to drag Boo Radley into the spotlight just for a story?
But the analogy didn't hold. He was here to do the Savior a favor—the biggest favor of his life.
Sandy checked his watch again. He'd give him another fifteen minutes, then—
Sandy jumped, looked up, looked around—the Savior stood by a tree twenty feet away. He cocked his head down the slope toward the highway.
"Wait a minute or two," he said, "then meet me in the underpass."
Sandy watched him walk off, waited the requisite time, then followed. He found him waiting in the shadows of a concrete arch that supported a short span of the West Side Highway. Noise from the traffic above rumbled through the space.
"Look," Sandy said, approaching him, "before we go any further I just want to say—"
The Savior held up his hand for silence and scanned the park behind Sandy.
"If you're worried about my being followed, I wasn't."
"Probably right," he said. "Didn't see anyone tail you into the park, but you can never be sure about these things."
After a moment of narrow-lidded surveillance, he turned to Sandy. "What's the story, Palmer? We gonna play games, is that it? I thought we had an understanding: you get your interview, I never hear from you again."
He sounded pissed, and had a right to be, but Sandy had figured the best way to play this was not to allow himself to be put on the defensive.
"No games," he said. "I just don't think you were playing straight with me. I don't think you're working for the government, and I'm not so sure you were ever a Navy SEAL, either."
"True or not, what's the difference? You got your story, the paper's selling out—"
"How do you know that?"
His mouth twisted. "Had to go to three newsstands before I found a copy. Which means your bosses must be happy. You're a big shot now. Where's your gripe?"
Sandy resisted the urge to wipe his moist palms on his pants. This was a dangerous man and he had to be careful how he spun this. He'd mentally rehearsed his spiel for the last hour. Now it was show time.
"No gripe at all. It's just that I figured out the real reason you don't want your face in the papers, why you don't want anyone to know your name: you're a wanted man."
Bingo. The Savior had been scanning the park again, but when he blinked and stared at Sandy, he knew he'd struck pay dirt.
"Hear me out. I figure it had to be a felony. A misdemeanor wouldn't put you into hiding. So you're either wanted for a crime or you've jumped bail or escaped prison."
"Got it all figured out, don't you."
Sandy shrugged. "What else can it be?"
"Should have known I couldn't fool you." The Savior shook his head and looked away. "The orphan part is true, but I made up the part about the cop telling me to join the army or go to jail. I've been in and out of trouble most of my life. Got picked up after knocking over a liquor store."
"A liquor store…" Sandy was afraid to ask the next question. "No one was shot, were they?"
"Nah. I just flashed a starter pistol. But that didn't matter; got charged with armed robbery. Couldn't plea down. I was only nineteen at the time. I wasn't going up for that, so I jumped bail and I've been on the run ever since."
"Are you wanted for anything else?"
The Savior didn't answer immediately. He was staring past Sandy again. Finally he pursed his lips and said, "Shit. Move back."
He shoved him against the sloping concrete wall of the underpass.
Sandy turned to see this guy about his own age in cut-offs and a T-shirt and a scraggly attempt at a beard racing a crummy looking bike full tilt down the slope toward the underpass. He clutched a gray handbag and kept looking over his shoulder.
His eyes widened as he entered the underpass and saw that it was occupied, but the Savior gave him a friendly, reassuring wave and said, "Hey, how's it goin'?"
"Not bad," the guy panted.
Then a lot of things happened quickly, too quickly for Sandy to process fully. Suddenly the Savior was moving, taking a quick step forward and kicking the bike's rear wheel. The guy lost control, hit the curb, and went flying over the handle bars. Sandy watched in shock as the Savior kept moving, following the man as he sailed toward the pavement, leaping as he landed chest first, and landing with his heels driving into the guy's upper back. The muffled crunch of breaking bones turned Sandy's stomach, as did the man's scream of pain.
What the fuck? Sandy thought.
"That was my mother back there!" the Savior shouted. He crouched beside the writhing man who was trying to rise but couldn't seem to get his arms to work. "You just rolled my mother!"
"Aw, shit!" the guy said, his voice a faint wheeze.
"My mother!" he screamed, his face reddening.
"Didn't know, man!" he groaned, every syllable wrapped in pain. "Didn't mean nothin'!"
The Savior turned to Sandy, his eyes wild. "Your turn to be a hero," he said, pointing to the gray handbag beside the man. "Take that back to the old lady he knocked down back near the top of the slope. Tell her you found it on the grass."
Sandy could only stare, stunned.
"Come on, Palmer. Move! I'll meet you over by the basketball courts." He bent again over the fallen man and screamed, "My mother!"
"I know, man," the purse snatcher grunted. "I'm sorry… like really… sorry."
He gave Sandy another look, then trotted out the opposite end of the underpass, leaving Sandy alone with the stranger. Gingerly he stepped closer, picked up the handbag, then beat it back to the sunlight and the park.
The Savior's mother? Was she in the park? Was this her bag?
He spotted a cluster of people near the top of the slope and jogged toward them. An old woman sat on a bench in the center of the cluster, sobbing. Her knees and hands were scraped, her stockings torn.
"… just pushed me," she was saying. "I don't know where he went. I never saw him."
The Savior's mother… Sandy shook his head. Not likely. The old woman was black.
"Did you lose this?" Sandy said, edging into the circle around her.
She looked up and her tear-filled eyes widened. "My bag!"
"Where'd you get that?" said a beefy guy, eyeing Sandy suspiciously.
Sandy handed the bag to the woman, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder and stuck to the story.
"I was walking down by the highway and found it."
"Everything's here!" the woman said, opening her wallet. "Oh, thank you, young man! Thank you ever so much!" She pulled out a couple of twenties. "Let me reward you."
Sandy waved her off. "Absolutely not. No way."
The beefy guy slapped him on the back. "Good man."
Sandy made a show of checking his watch. "Look, I've got a meeting," he said to the man. "Will she be all right?"
"We called the cops. EMTs are on their way."
"Great." To the old woman he said, "Good luck to you, ma'am. I'm sorry this happened."
She thanked him again and then he was on his way down the sloping path toward the basketball courts, trying to process the events of the past few minutes. He'd led a sheltered life, he knew. His exposure to violence while growing up had been limited to a few schoolyard shoving matches. But all that had changed with the bloodbath on the train. His baptism of fire.
But in some strange way he found this new incident even more disturbing. The Savior had acted so quickly, with such decisiveness—one moment the purse snatcher had been cycling by, Sandy had blinked, and next thing he knew the man was flat on his face with two broken or dislocated shoulders and the Savior screaming at him about his mother.
What was that all about?
And more frightening had been the terrible dark joy in the Savior's eyes as he'd hovered over the downed man. He'd enjoyed hurting him. And he'd done it without the slightest hesitation. That was very, very scary. And even scarier was the thought now of dealing with him one on one.
Sandy began to sense that he might be in over his head, but he brushed it off. He wasn't here to threaten this man; he wanted to do him a favor.
But would that matter if he was dealing with a psycho? In an instant the Savior had changed from regular guy to mad dog. And why had he even bothered with the purse snatcher? If the Savior was a wanted felon, why would he interfere with a fellow criminal?
None of this made any sense.
He found the man leaning against the high chain link fence bordering the asphalt basketball courts. He started moving away as Sandy approached, motioning him to follow. Sandy caught up with him in a small grove of trees.
"Why here?"' he said, looking around and noticing that they were partially hidden from the rest of the park. He was uneasy now being alone with this man.
"Because your picture's been in the paper twice this week. Who knows when someone will recognize you?"
"Yeah?" Sandy said, suddenly aglow. Someone recognizing him on the street. How totally cool would that be. "I mean, yeah, sure, I see what you mean."
Sandy sensed that Mr. Hyde had disappeared. The Savior seemed to have returned to Dr. Jekyll mode.
"So tell me," the Savior said. "How are you going to change my lowly criminal life?"
Sandy held up a hand. "Wait. You tell me something first: What was all that business about your mother? She wasn't your mother."
"She could have been. My mother would be about her age if she'd survived."
Sandy sensed a big sign saying PROCEED NO FURTHER, so he switched to the other question that was bothering him.
"All right then, tell me this: why did you, someone who supposedly wants to avoid the spotlight, get involved in that?"
He gave him a puzzled look. "How could I not? If he'd taken off the other way I wouldn't have run after him, but he was passing right in front of us. To let him sail by would be… like…" He seemed to be searching for the words. "It would make me into an accomplice—an accomplice in rolling a little old lady. Uh-uh."
Sandy stared at him and experienced a flash of insight that seemed to point the way toward getting a handle on this man.
"I think I understand you now," he said, nodding. "You can't tolerate disorder yet you're trapped in a world where everything is spinning out of control."
"I'm not trapped anywhere."
"We all are. But you're doing something about it."
"Are you crazy?"
"Not at all. Look what just happened. A robbery. That's wrong. A prime example of the random disorder afflicting our lives."
"That is life. Been happening every minute of every day since some cave man decided he didn't feel like hunting and tried to steal his neighbor's brontoburger."
"But you made sure this one didn't happen. You reordered the disorder."
"Are you on drugs or did you run out of your medication? You make it sound like I'm out patrolling the streets trolling for wrongdoers. I'm not. This went down right in front of me. And he passed right by me. And I knew what I could do at no cost to myself. Period. End of story. End of discussion."
"End. Of. Discussion."
"You ever heard of Nietzsche?"
"Sure. The music guy, right?"
"I doubt it. He was a philosopher."
"Jack Nitzsche? Nah. Used to play piano for the Stones."
"Friederich Nietzsche. Friederich."
"Fred Nitzsche? Who's he? Jack's brother? Never heard of him."
He's putting me on, Sandy thought. He's got to be. But his expression was deadpan.
"He's been dead about a hundred years," Sandy said. "I studied him in college. You really must read him. The Will to Power will crystallize so much of who you are."
"Crystallize… just what I need right now. To get crystallized. Look, forget philosophers and get down to you and me. What do I have to do to get you out of my life?"
Sandy felt as if he'd been slapped. "Hey, look, I'm trying to help you here."
"I think we both know who you're trying to help."
"Damn it, I can bring you in from the cold."
The Savior laughed. "You can what?"
"Are you wanted for anything besides that liquor store robbery?"
He stared at him. "Where's this going?"
"Just tell me."
"I haven't exactly been trying to draw attention to myself."
Sandy's mind raced, barely keeping up with his thumping heart. This was exactly what he'd hoped for. One crime—a felony, yes, but years ago when he was a teenager. Now he's grown, living on the fringe, but keeping his nose clean. A fugitive, an outcast, but when law-abiding citizens were under the gun, when their lives were in deadly peril, who stepped into the breach and saved them? This man, this criminal.
Oh, dear sweet Jesus, this has major motion picture written all over it. Got to secure the rights.
"I can get you amnesty!" Sandy blurted.
The Savior squatted and dropped his face into his hands. He rubbed his eyes. "I don't believe this."
He's overcome with emotion, Sandy thought.
"I can!" Sandy said. "I can start a campaign. Look at the lives you saved that night. How can they not grant you amnesty?"
"Very easy," he said, looking up at him now. "They just say no."
"They won't be able to say no. You don't know the power of the press. I'll make them bring you in from the cold."
The Savior rose to his feet again. "How do you know I don't like the cold? Maybe I'm a goddamn polar bear!"
"I don't believe that. Because nobody wants to be a nobody when they can be a somebody—a really big somebody!"
"You're wasting your time. And mine too." He turned and started moving off.
"Wait! You can't walk out on this! It's the chance of a lifetime!"
"For you, maybe." He didn't even look back. "I'm out of it."
Alarmed, Sandy started after him. He had to talk to him, had to change his mind. And then he stopped as he realized he didn't need his cooperation to do this. He could singlehandedly create a ground-swell of sympathy for the Savior… and he wouldn't have to stretch the truth in the slightest.
First, a piece telling how he'd spoken again to the Savior, and how the man had confessed that his real reason for not coming forward was that he's a wanted felon. Sandy would say nothing of the crime—didn't want the cops to scoop him by using police records to identify the Savior before he did—but would portray him as a decent man guilty of a single youthful mistake, who'd escaped prosecution years ago, but last week had repaid his debt to society in spades, repaid it in a manner far more fruitful than incarceration, repaid it with saved lives instead of lost years. Next he'd get testimonials from other survivors—starting with Beth. Then he'd interview the mayor and the police commissioner and the DA and put them on the spot: what about amnesty for this hero? Will the one bad deed he committed as a teenager live on while the enormous good he did wind up interred with his bones?
The words weren't just flowing, man, they were gushing!
The whole campaign was taking beautiful shape in his mind. He could see the other major papers being forced to take up the issue—whether pro or con, who cared?—and from there the debate would spread to the national news magazines like Time and Newsweek. If he could get this ball rolling it could carry him into People Magazine.
And once he achieved amnesty for the Savior, it would be up to the man himself to accept it or reject it. Either way, Sandy's debt to him would be paid.
He headed back to the subway, excitement spurring him to a trot. He couldn't wait to get started.
"Are you okay, Jack?" Kate asked.
He'd returned to Jeanette's apartment straight from the park and hadn't been able to sit still.
"A little edgy, that's all," he told her.
Not a little edgy—a lot edgy. Even maximum edgy didn't quite cover it. He felt like a pin cushion. All the while in the park he'd had this feeling of being watched but had never been able to spot anyone who seemed interested in him. The feeling had followed him back to Jeanette's.
He stood at the window now, watching the street, scanning lor anyone who looked like he didn't belong. Saw a couple of guys having a smoke outside the print shop, another pair unloading rolls of fabric and lugging them into the wholesaler shop. But no lurkers.
He chalked up the feel to Palmer's crazy plan.
The kid had no idea what was involved here. An amnesty for him would mean coaxing the IRS, the BATF, and the FBI to sing harmony with the New York State Attorney General and the DAs of most of the five boroughs. Right. And the Jets are going to win the next six Super Bowls.
And Nietzsche? And "in from the cold"? Where did he come up with this stuff? That kid had to get out more.
Jack turned away from the window. "What did you hear from NIH?" he asked, anxious to move the talk away from his mood.
Kate shook her head. "Nothing good. Everyone I talked to was very closed mouthed."
"I couldn't find anyone who would admit that they'd heard from Dr. Fielding, and couldn't find anyone who'd admit that they hadn't."
"Typical bureausaurus run-around."
"That's what I figured but…"
"But it just doesn't feel right."
She nodded. "Exactly."
"You think Fielding might not be telling us everything?"
"Not sure. But that's the vibe I'm getting."
Jack had to smile. " 'Vibe.' How seventies."
She shrugged. "That's where I spent my teens." She reached for the phone. "I've had enough of this tiptoeing around. I'm going to call Fielding and ask him point blank—"
Jack gently gripped her arm. "Point blank tends to work better face to face. Where's his office?"
"NYU Medical Center."
"Along First Avenue?" That was due east from here—Twenty-seventh would take them right to it. "Road trip?"
"Why not. We'll pay Dr. Fielding a little surprise visit." She started toward the door, then stopped. "But what if he doesn't want to talk? What if he stonewalls us?"
Yeah, he might try that. But Jeanette was important to his sister, which made her important to Jack. No stonewalls today. Jack would be along to see to that.
"He'll talk," Jack told her. When she gave him a strange look he added, "People just seem to open up to me. It's a gift. You'll see."
"Yeah," Joe said, "but how do we know if that's where he lives? Maybe he's just visiting."
Stan Kozlowski chewed the inner surface of his cheek as he stared at the ornate apartment building on West Twenty-seventh. This had to be the sixth time Joe had asked that same question, and Stan was just as much at a loss for an answer now as the first time.
They'd followed their guy here after Riverside Park. Not so hard.
He hadn't seemed to be on the lookout for a tail, but they'd taken every precaution, giving him so long a lead one time they almost lost him.
They'd seen him go into this building. Since they couldn't follow him inside, they'd found a shady spot on the same side of the street and kept watch on the entrance.
"Only one way to find out," Stan told him. "Tail him everywhere he goes, and wherever he keeps coming back to, wherever he spends the night, that's where he lives."
"Since we don't know his name or anything about him—"
"We got that whisper that his name might be Jack."
"A 'might-be' doesn't help us. And Jack isn't exactly a rare name.
Don't see how we've got much choice except to watch and wait."
"I can't wait, Stan. Been waitin' too long already."
"Just hang in there, Joe. A week ago we had no hope of ever seeing this guy again. Now we've got him in our sights."
"Ka-powT Joe said, grinning.
"Ka-pow is right. We—hey, isn't that him?"
Yes. Definitely him. And he wasn't alone. He had his arm around a blonde.
"Shit," Joe said softly as they pressed back against a wall. "He's got a babe. Ain't that sweet."
"If she's a live-in, bro, we may have found his crib. But let's keep on him, just to be sure."
"Oh, yeah," Joe said, grinning as he rubbed his scarred hand with his good one. " 'Cause we want to be sure."
Stan watched the couple turn and head for Sixth Avenue. This was kind of fun. And the best part was that he hadn't seen Joe enjoying himself this much in years.
"All I can say," Dr. Fielding said, spreading his hands in a helpless gesture, "is be patient."
Kate watched the light glisten off his gelled black hair as he sat behind his desk in his cluttered office on the third floor of the Solomon and Miriam Brody Center for Clinical Research. Kate knew the marble halls of this two-story, brick-faced building well. She'd been here enough times with Jeanette.
Fielding had looked rattled when they'd barged in—Jack had not accepted any excuses from the receptionist—but had settled back into his self-assured role of physician-priest. Kate was familiar with the type; she'd met enough of them in her work.
He'd sworn he'd been in touch with NIH daily, and that he was as anxious as Kate for their help.
"But she's getting worse by the day," Kate said, keeping her voice calm though she wanted to scream.
"I know, I know." He shook his head mournfully. "But we're dealing with a bureaucracy the size of the Pentagon."
An overstatement, Kate knew. So did Fielding, apparently. He glanced at Jack—something he'd been doing repeatedly. Maybe because Jack had announced upon entering that his sister had some questions and hadn't said a word since. He'd simply sat and stared at Fielding. Kate found his basilisk act unsettling; she could only imagine how Fielding felt.
Abruptly, Jack came to life. He slapped his hands on his thighs and stood.
"Well, I guess that's it then." He extended his hand to Fielding. "Thanks for your time, Doc."
Fielding rose and they shook hands. "I'm sure we'll have this all straightened out soon."
"One more question," Jack said, still holding Fielding's hand. "Why are you lying?"
"What? How dare—"
Jack's grip shifted and suddenly he was holding Fielding's thumb, bending it, twisting it. Fielding groaned as his knees buckled.
"Jack!" Kate said, stepping toward him. "Dear Lord, what are you doing? Stop it!"
"I apologize for the strong-arm stuff, Kate," he told her. "If we had time I'd find another way. But since time is tight—"
"I'll call security!" Fielding gasped. He brought his free hand up to try to break Jack's grip but that only allowed Jack to trap his left thumb as well. "The police!"
"Fine." Jack spoke softly, calmly, as if giving a passerby directions to the nearest subway. "But that won't stop me from dislocating both your thumbs and putting a three-sixty twist on each of them. You're a doctor. You figure out how long it'll be before you can use them again, if ever. The cops may come, but you'll have to live without opposable thumbs. A lower life form."
"Jack, please!" She'd never imagined her brother like this—an irresistible force, implacable, glowering with the threat, the promise of violence. He was frightening, terrifying. "He doesn't—"
"Truth!" Jack said, voice rising as he gave both thumbs a quarter twist. "You haven't called NIH, have you. Not even once. Am I right?"
Fielding whimpered as sweat beaded his livid face. Finally he nodded.
"You bastard!" Kate said.
Jack looked at her. "The B-word?"
Kate ignored him and stepped up to Fielding's desk. Just a heartbeat ago she'd felt sorry for the man—she hated seeing anyone hurt—but now she wanted to grab his brass pen set and brain him. It had taken Jack a mere thirty seconds to melt away Fielding's mask, reducing him from distinguished colleague to weasel.
"Why not?" she cried. "Explain!"
"Please?" he panted, nodding toward his trapped hands.
Jack released the left, but kept a grip on the right. "We're waiting."
Fielding took a deep breath. "The vector virus didn't mutate."
Kate was stunned. "But if there's no mutation, why—?"
He looked away. "It's a contaminant."
Now she understood.
"So what?" Jack said. "Either way, Jeanette's got the wrong bug in her brain, so—"
"He can't be blamed for a wild mutation," Kate told him. "Not unless he exposed the virus to ionizing radiation. But a contaminant… he's wholly responsible for that. No excuses there. A contaminant makes him look very bad."
"You slug," Jack growled. "Just for the hell of it I ought to—"
"No… please…" Fielding whined.
Jack shoved Fielding's hand away, sending him back into his chair where he cowered.
Kate closed her eyes and gave herself time to pull her turbulent thoughts together. She knew the next question but hesitated to ask it, feared the answer. But someone had to.
"What is the contaminant?" she said.
"That's just it. I don't know. It's unlike any virus I've ever seen. Seems to be in a class by itself."
Oh, no. Kate's stomach lurched. "How did this happen?"
"I'm baffled," Fielding said. "We keep all the cultures under lock and key, with a sign-in, sign-out procedure."
Jack said, "You mean someone would want to steal a virus?"
"No, of course not. It's simply to insure that only authorized personnel—people who know the protocols of handling viruses—come in contact with the cultures. It's designed to prevent the very thing that happened: contamination."
"Looks like your people need a refresher course," Kate said.
She noticed an uneasy expression flash across Fielding's face.
"Wrong?" Fielding said. "Nothing."
"Tell her," Jack said. He interlaced his fingers and popped his knuckles. Fielding jumped at the sound.
"We had, er, something of a breach in the security procedures."
Jack leaned closer. "What kind of something?"
"An unauthorized person gained access to the viral cultures."
Kate felt sick. "Some sort of terrorist?"
"I doubt that. I might never have known if I hadn't learned about the contaminant. I went back and checked the sign-in records and found a name that didn't belong."
"Anyone we know?" Jack said. "Like Holdstock, maybe?"
"No. I found only one entry, dated months ago." He sifted through the papers on his desk and came up with a Xerox of a sign-in sheet. He pointed to an entry he'd circled in red. "There. 'Ms. Aralo.' But we have no one named Aralo in the institute, let alone with clearance to the viral lab."
"Wait a minute," Jack said, grabbing the sheet and staring at it.
"What's the matter?" Kate asked. "Do you know her?"
He shook his head. "Never heard of her. But something about that name…" He stared awhile longer, silently mouthing the name, then handed it back. "Forget it. Whatever it was, it's gone. Probably nothing."
But Kate could see it still bothered him.
"Well, if you remember anything, please let me know immediately. No one here remembers a thing about this person, not even who allowed her to sign in."
"Do you think this Aralo woman contaminated them?"
"I have to assume so. She signed for my adenovirus cultures. But I keep asking myself why. What purpose could anyone have in contaminating cultures used to fight brain tumors?"
"Some professional rivalry?" Kate suggested.
Fielding shrugged. "I'm not exactly breaking new ground here; more like fine tuning a protocol."
"How about germ warfare?" Jack said.
Fielding smiled for the first time since they'd arrived—a small, condescending twist of the lips. "With an adenovirus? Highly unlikely."
Jack glared and spoke through his teeth. "I meant the contaminant."
Fielding's smile vanished. "Also unlikely. It doesn't seem to cause any symptoms."
"Other than personality changes," Kate said.
"If that. We can't be sure. But even if it does, that's not a terrorist scenario. They want terror—something of epidemic proportions like ebola where people are dropping like flies in pools of bloody excrement. From what I've learned so far about the contaminant it isn't air or fecal borne."
"Then it's blood borne?" Kate said, feeling a chill.
She glanced down at her palm. The puncture wound had healed. But had something entered through that little break in her skin?
"I believe so," Fielding said. "If only Jeanette or Holdstock or one of the others would cooperate, I might have a handle on it. I'd love to see if they've formed any antibodies. It's a strange virus that can occupy the cerebrospinal fluid—at least I'm assuming that's where it's concentrated—without causing any sign of encephalitis or meningitis."
"Which are?" Jack said.
"Anything from fever and headache to paralysis, seizures, coma, death."
Jack looked at her. "Jeanette looked pretty healthy this morning."
"Physically, she's been fine," Kate said.
But what about me? she wondered.
She felt okay now, but she remembered mild aches and chills and a headache yesterday and the day before.
"That's what's so puzzling," Fielding said. "There seems to be virtually no immune response—at least nothing that's clinically apparent. If only I could get a sample of blood…"
"We're going to let NIH worry about that," Jack said. "Aren't we."
"And the CDC," Kate added.
Fielding paled. "Look. I'm Jeanette's best hope. I'm way ahead of everyone on the contaminant. I've already started testing virucidal agents against it."
"And?" Kate said, praying for some good news.
"No luck so far." He licked his lips and spoke quickly. "But at least I know what doesn't work, and when I find one that does, I'm sure I can reverse the effects on Jeanette and the others. I've already started laying the groundwork for a polysaccharide vaccine against the contaminant."
"Good," Jack said. "Now the big boys can pick up where you left off."
Fielding pressed his palms together as if in prayer. "Please give me a little more time. I can do this faster than those big bureaucracies. They'll take forever to start meaningful research."
"Forget it," Jack said.
Kate opened her mouth to agree, but a wave of indecision swept over her, clogging the words in her throat.
Maybe Fielding's right. Maybe he can do more alone than those lumbering bureaucracies.
No. That was ridiculous. She had a duty to let NIH and the CDC know about a new virus that causes personality changes.
The indecision mounted… Why not give Fielding some time? With such low danger of contagion, why not wait… for Jeanette's sake. Just a few days…
She shook her head. Where did these crazy ideas come from?
"Kate?" Jack said.
She looked up and found Jack and Fielding staring at her. Fielding's face was hopeful, Jack's expression said, You can't be having second thoughts about this.
And that look broke through the wall of indecision.
"Call them now," she said, pushing out the words. Pain lanced through her skull as she spoke them.
"Right," Jack said. "I see you've got a speakerphone. Use that. We'll listen."
"No, please. I—"
"If you call CDC," Kate said, fighting to control her voice, to keep from screaming at this man, "you can salvage something of your reputation. If I have to make the call, I'll tell them how you refused to report a wild contaminant, and then you can kiss your career good-bye."
Fielding made the call.
Kate sat with Jack, listening to the speakerphone as Fielding wove his way through the CDC maze until he found the right someone in the right office who could handle his problem. Dr. Paige Freeman, who sounded as if she couldn't be over twelve, gave him specific instructions on how to overnight the sample to Atlanta.
Kate personally oversaw the sealing, packing, and shipping of the culture. They even waited for the FedEx man to pick it up.
Dr. Fielding had been subdued during all this, but his resolve appeared to stiffen as they were leaving.
"It's not fair, you know. I always follow strict anti-contamination procedures. I can't be held responsible if someone deliberately contaminated the culture. It's just not fair!"
"You believe in fair?" Jack said. "I suppose you believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy too. You think fair just happens? It doesn't. You want fair, you make fair."
Kate looked at Jack, surprised by his sudden intensity. What was he getting at?
But Fielding seemed to understand. He nodded, saying, "I still say I'm your friend's best hope. I've got a head start on this and I'm going to keep after it. If I'm going to get stuck with the blame for the contaminant, then I might as well take the credit for discovering how to control it. You watch. Before the CDC has even begun to roll, I'll have the solution for you."
Kate thought him overly optimistic but didn't want to discourage him.
"Thank you," she said.
"And if I could just get a sample of Jeanette's blood," Fielding said, "it would certainly speed the process."
"We'll see what we can do," Jack told him.
After they'd left Fielding's office, Kate asked, "How do you think we're going to get blood from Jeanette?"
He shrugged. "You'd be surprised. Lots of ways to get blood."
Kate sighed and let it go. At least the experts were on the case now. She knew the Center for Disease Control, despite its worldwide renown, was neither infallible nor omnipotent, but it had access to the best virologists in the world. She felt confident that a solution was on the way.
But just as her spirits began to lift, they dipped. Would she need treatment too? Although she had no way of knowing for sure, and did not want to believe it, Kate suspected that Jeanette had infected her with the rogue virus.
Why? Why would Jeanette do such a thing to her? She shuddered at the thought of an unidentified organism taking up residence in her body, invading her cells and multiplying. What could it be doing to her?
Stan paid the cabby and joined Joe at the curb.
"What do you think they were doing over at that medical center?" Joe asked.
They'd followed their guy and his woman over to the East Side, hung around First Avenue for what seemed like hours, then tailed them back here to their starting point.
"Think he's got cancer or something?"
Stan didn't remember a sign on the building that said anything about cancer. What was going on in Joe's head?
"How would I know? And what difference does it make?"
"Because if he's got the Big C, maybe we don't do him right away. Maybe we wait and watch him rot for a few months, then do him."
They stood way up toward Sixth near a framing place where they had a long view of the front of the apartment building. Their guy hadn't gone in yet. He hung outside the front door talking to his lady.
"That'd sort of be like putting him out of his misery, don't you think?"
Joe kept staring at their guy. "Maybe, but I don't want no lousy tumor putting him away. We gotta do that. We gotta be the ones that sign his death certificate. Ain't that right?"
Stan wondered if Joe meant 'death sentence' but didn't get to ask because suddenly Joe was grabbing his arm.
"Shit! What're they doin'? They're splittin'!"
Their guy had wrapped his arms around his girl in a clinch that had the look of a good-bye hug.
"Get moving!" Stan said. "Other side of the street. Follow him if he takes off."
Although he worried about Joe losing control while tailing this guy, he couldn't risk going himself. Stan still looked pretty much the same as he had two years ago. This guy would recognize him if he spotted him. Joe, with his extra forty pounds and semi-beard had a better chance of going unnoticed.
Joe was on his way. "What're you gonna do?" he said over his shoulder.
"Follow her inside. See where she lives."
Sure enough, the couple disengaged and their guy started walking away. Stan got moving, quick-walking along the street side of the parked cars as the woman turned toward the front door of the apartment building. She keyed the lock, pulled the door open, and stepped inside. Stan dodged to the sidewalk and dashed for the door, catching its edge with barely an inch to spare.
As he stepped into the vestibule he spotted the elevator standing open at the far end, but it was empty. Where the hell…?
Directly to his right he saw a door marked STAIRWAY swinging closed, and heard footfalls echoing. Keeping at least a flight between them, Stan followed her up to the third floor. As he stepped out into the hallway he spotted her to his left, moving. Stan turned right and ambled down the hall in the opposite direction. He fished in his pocket for his keys and dropped them on the carpet. While stooping to pick them up he watched her out of the corner of his eye, saw her disappear into a doorway.
When her door had closed, he reversed and hurried toward it.
Pleased, Stan headed back to the stairway.
Now we know where she lives, he thought. Let's hope that's where he lives too.
That feeling again.
Jack did a slow turn, giving the small, crowded platform of the Twenty-eighth Street subway station a full inspection.
Somebody watching him. Could feel it. Trouble was, the Friday afternoon rush hour was just getting started and he was surrounded by a horde of possible suspects.
The question was who? Probably some member of Holdstock's cult. Jeanette and Holdstock he'd recognize immediately, and maybe a couple of others, but not all. One of them could be standing beside him right now… or behind him…
That possibility pushed Jack back from the edge of the platform.
Why follow me?
To keep tabs? Or find out where he lived?
The notion jolted him. That was where he was headed now: a stop home to run a few errands, then return to Kate's later with the car, in case they needed to take another trip to the Bronx.
The uptown 9 rattled into the station then, and the crowd pressed forward. Jack held his spot, watching for the slightest hint of undue interest in the commuters eddying around him.
But the watched feeling persisted.
Keeping to the rear of the press, Jack shuffled with the rest toward the nearest open door. He squeezed aboard backward, the tips of his shoes barely inside the door line, and waited. As soon as the doors began to move he stepped back onto the platform. He turned and scanned the length of the train as all the doors slid shut, watching for someone else making a last-second exit. But everyone stayed put as the doors closed, sealing all the passengers within.
The train began to roll, rumbling out of the station. Jack watched the windows, searching the visible faces for signs of surprise or anger. He saw only boredom and fatigue.
Had he let the train go by for nothing? Maybe. He knew he had paranoid tendencies—with good reason, he always insisted—and this wouldn't be the first time he'd expended extra time and effort because of a vague suspicion. He considered it time and effort well spent. Never be too busy to walk that extra mile… just in case.
And he was going to do a little extra walking right now—over to Eighth Avenue to catch a train there.
Started to move, then stopped, noticing something.
The feeling of being watched… gone.
Stan had found a spot on Seventh Avenue to wait for Joe. He'd just settled himself onto a shady bench near the Fashion Institute when his cell phone rang.
"Lost the fucker," said Joe's voice.
Even through the tiny speaker Stan could feel the heat of his brother's barely suppressed rage.
"He spot you?"
"Couldn't have. I kept my distance and he never even looked at me. Fucker must have a sixth sense or something. You pin down his apartment?"
"Sure did. Three-C. Checked the mailbox downstairs. Says the place belongs to 'J. Vega.'"
"J. Vega, eh? 'J' as in 'Jack'? I like it. You keep an eye on the door so we know when he comes back. I'm goin' home to put a few things together."
"What few things?"
"I'll show you when I get back. See you soon."
Stan hit the OFF button. If Joe wouldn't discuss the few things on the phone, that meant they weren't legal. But Stan had a pretty good idea of what Joe was going to put together. Something that went boom.
Kate approached the door cautiously. Who could be knocking? No one had buzzed from the vestibule. She peeked through the keyhole, half-expecting to see Jack. Instead she found a heavyset man in coveralls.
The voice filtered through the closed door. "Bell Atlantic, ma'am. We got reports of line trouble all through the building. Any problems?"
"No. I don't think so."
"It's with incoming calls."
She wished he'd speak louder. Did he say incoming calls? How would she know if an incoming call hadn't got through? What if Jeanette or Jack—or, dear lord, one of the kids—were trying to get through to her.
Kate reached for the knob, then hesitated. She'd heard horror stories about situations like this—rapists posing as servicemen. She slipped on the chain latch and opened the door a few inches.
He looked convincing with his gray coveralls and toolbox.
"Can I see some ID?"
He undipped the badge that hung on an elastic tether from his pocket and handed it through. It certainly seemed authentic, and identified the man as Harold Moses, Bell Atlantic employee. But the photo…
Kate looked up again, comparing the picture to the real thing.
"I know, I know," he said with a sheepish grin. "I quit smoking and I'm the size of a house."
The smile did it for Kate—the same as in the photo.
"Is there any way you can come back later? It's not my place and—"
"Well, it's late and if I don't do it today it could be another week. We've got trunk line problems all over the city."
No incoming calls for a week? Kate unlatched the door and handed back the badge.
"Okay. I guess you'd better check it out."
"Only take a couple of minutes," he said, stepping past her and looking around the front area.
Immediately Kate wished she hadn't let him in. She hadn't sensed it when he was in the hall, but now, enclosed in the same room with him, she found him frightening. He seemed so tense and he radiated… something. She couldn't put her finger on what it was but it seemed malevolent, as if his overstuffed coveralls were bursting with rage instead of flesh. And those narrow eyes, darting everywhere, as if searching…
But when he spoke he was all business. "How many phones you got, ma'am?"
"Three," she told him. She wanted to run out into the hall but kept her cool. "One in the kitchen and two more in the bedrooms."
He placed his toolbox on the kitchen counter and she noticed for the first time that he wore an oversized work glove on his left hand—only his left.
"Okay. I'll work through this one; but I'll need you on one of the others."
"Any particular one?"
He shrugged. "Your choice."
He barely looked her way, didn't seem at all interested in her. Kate began to relax. This strange business with Jeanette seemed to have shifted her imagination into high gear.
After an instant's hesitation she started for the bedroom. "Okay. What do I do?"
"Just pick it up and keep talking. Don't dial—just talk. Count from one to a hundred if you want. Anything."
He waved his left hand as he spoke and Kate saw that some of the fingers of the glove looked empty and others looked stretched to the limit.
Wondering if his deformity was congenital or accidental, Kate entered the bedroom; she picked up the receiver and started counting.
She heard the kitchen phone come off the hook. "That's good," the serviceman told her. "Keep it up. Don't stop."
Through her receiver she listened to him whistling softly as he rummaged through his toolbox. She heard tape rip and wondered what he was doing, but the phone cord didn't stretch far enough to reach the door. She looked around for her pocketbook and saw it on the dresser. At least she knew he wasn't pilfering her wallet.
After three minutes or so she heard a series of beeps through the receiver, then the man's voice.
"Okay, ma'am. All set."
Kate hung up and returned to the front room to find the man snapping the clasps on his toolbox.
He nodded. "Yours was okay. Have a nice day."
"You too. Thanks."
As she closed the door behind him she wondered at her earlier apprehensions. Just now he'd seemed a different man, calm and serene, as if he'd been relieved of a great burden. Almost… happy.
How silly she'd been.
Joe opened the rear door of the car, dumped his toolbox on the floor, then dropped into the front passenger seat.
Stan looked at him. "Fine. And now that it's done, you mind telling me just what it is that's done?"
Half an hour ago Joe had arrived in this stolen Taurus and parked it downstream from the apartment building. He'd looked like a new man—showered, shaved, and dressed like a serviceman. He'd been coy, refusing to say what he was up to until he'd done it.
"Left a little gift for our guy. I was afraid I wasn't going to get in, what with that obsolete Bell Atlantic ID from the old days, but she bought it."
"Lucky. How big a gift?"
Joe grinned. "A brick."
"A whole brick?"
Stan closed his eyes. Before the Feds had closed in they'd managed to salvage part of their stash of army-issue C-4—foot-long bricks, two inches wide and an inch thick, neatly wrapped in olive-drab cellophane. Lovely stuff. Stable enough to play catch with, still soft and moldable at minus-seventy degrees, no extrudation even at one-hundred-seventy.
In Nam he'd come up with other uses for it beyond explosions. Starting fires, for instance. Cut an inch-thick slice off a block, put a match to it, and instant fire. Stank but it burned hot enough to ignite wet wood. One thing you had to remember, though, was if you wanted to put out burning C-4, you drowned it. You did not—repeat, not—stomp on it. He once saw a guy lose the front end of his foot trying that. Stan even learned the meaning of detonation velocity, and that C-4's was a devastating 8,100 meters per second.
And Joe had set a whole brick of it in that apartment. Shit.
He pressed the buttons that raised the windows and swiveled toward his brother.
"Joe… an old building like that… you just might bring the whole thing down."
A beautiful building… a shame to mess it up.
"Yeah, maybe. But probably not."
"At the very least it'll take out most of the third floor and both apartments above and below his, and blow off the whole front of the building."
Joe stared at him. "And your point is…?"
"He hasn't come back yet. He might not come back before it blows. It might not even be his place."
"Oh, it's his all right. His girlfriend told me it wasn't her place, so that means it's his."
"All right, let's say it is his place. What if he's out all night? If the place blows without him there, then we've tipped our hand. He'll know—"
"He'll know that his girlfriend is dead and that he's next." Joe's voice dipped to a cold rumble. "Let him stew awhile, let him suffer a little, let him be scared, wonderin' when the next shoe's gonna drop. I almost hope he doesn't come home in time. I want to be in the crowd and see his face when he finds what's left of his building."
"It's not our style, Joe. We always placed just the right amount in just the right place to get the job done with a minimum of collateral damage. We were surgeons, Joe."
"Yeah, well, this is a special case. This will send a message that if you mess with the Kozlowskis you die. And not only do you die, but your family and friends and neighbors die. You mess with the K brothers you invite a whole shitload of death and destruction. So think twice. Think three times. Better yet, don't think about it at all."
Stan sighed. No talking to Joe on this.
He glanced in the rearview mirror where he had the apartment house entrance framed. The car seemed far enough away to be safe from the bigger chunks of debris. And it would be downstream from the explosion, which meant they'd be able to cruise away immediately after the blast.
He watched a black Crown Victoria pull into a space directly in front of the doorway. He had to smile. Here was a guy probably thanking his lucky stars for finding such a primo parking spot. He wouldn't be thanking anyone if his car was still there when Joe's bomb blew.
"Joe!" Stan whispered when the driver stepped out of the car. "Take a look!"
Joe did a casual one-eighty in his seat, then jerked up straight when he recognized the man on the sidewalk.
"Yes!" He started punching Stan on the shoulder. "Yes-yes-yes-yes!"
"When does this go down?"
"Soon," Joe said softly. "But not soon enough."
"You let him inV Jack said, not quite believing this.
Kate shrugged. "He had a Bell Atlantic ID, with his picture and everything. What was I supposed to do?"
Jack didn't want to go into how easy it was to fabricate photo ID. Someday he'd show Kate his extensive personal collection. But maybe it was all right. Maybe the guy had really been from the phone company and Jack was making more out of this than he should. But the fact remained that Terrence Holdstock seemed to know too much about what went on in this apartment. Maybe one of the bugs had gone bad and he'd sent someone to replace it.
"All right, what did he do while you were here? Tell me exactly."
"I… I don't know exactly. You see, he needed someone talking on one of the extensions while he…" She flushed as her voice trailed off. "Boy, that really sounds dumb, doesn't it."
Jack wanted to shout Yes! But this was Kate, so kept his voice level.
"It's okay. You simply don't have a fine-tuned sense of paranoia."
"Like me. How long was he alone in here?"
"Five minutes tops."
Jack looked around the front room. This wasn't good. The guy could have hidden any number of bugs in a zillion places, or—
Wait. Kate had said the guy carried a Bell Atlantic ID. Bell Atlantic didn't exist anymore.
He motioned Kate closer and cupped his hands around her right ear.
"Ignore anything I say out loud from now on," he whispered. "Got it?"
She gave him a puzzled look but nodded.
"Only five minutes?" he said aloud. "I guess he couldn't have stolen anything significant in that time. Nothing missing, right?"
He motioned for Kate to chime in.
"Missing? No. Everything's here."
The best thing would be to go home and retrieve his bug detector for a 5-to-1,000 MHz sweep of the room. And he might yet have to do that. But for now a simple visual check would have to suffice. All he needed to vindicate his paranoia was to find a single bug. After that it was like being a little pregnant—didn't matter how many more there were, he'd know they were under surveillance.
Which could work to his advantage by allowing him to spread some customized disinformation to the listeners.
He turned on the radio—loud—and started with the kitchen wall-phone. A seemingly obvious place, but only to someone looking for a bug. He disassembled it but found nothing. A search of all the lighting fixtures and the undersides of the counters and cabinets yielded nothing either.
Time for another perspective: he lay on the floor and slithered around like a snake, looking for anything that didn't belong. His joints felt a little stiff, his muscles sore. He wondered why. Hadn't done any-thing strenuous lately. And it felt kind of good to lie down. If he had a choice between a nap and hunting for bugs right now, he knew which one he'd take. But he had to keep looking.
He glanced at Kate who was staring at him as if he were crazy as he wriggled out of the kitchen into the dining area, checking out the underside of the chairs, the table—
Jack's saliva drained away as he stared at the bomb duct-taped to the underside of the table. And no question it was a bomb—fine wires running from a tiny travel alarm clock to the ends of a block of either Semtex or C-4.
"What is it, Jack?" Kate said.
Looked for the readout on the alarm clock but it was dark. Had the battery died? Couldn't risk it. Might already be too late. Had to get Kate out of here as fast as—
Wait. Nothing sophisticated here. In fact a pretty basic piece of work. Could see the ends of the blasting caps jutting from the plastique. All he had to do…
"Jack, what did you find?"
Jack dried his hands on his pants and reached up to the bomb. His fingers trembled as he gently tugged the caps from the plastique—the one in the left end came loose first, then the right. As they fell free, dangling from the clock, Jack ripped the plastique from the underside of the table and rolled away.
Panting, sweating, he lay on his back with closed eyes, pulling himself together.
"What is that?" Kate said.
Jack sat up and looked at the block. As soon as he saw the olive drab wrapper he knew it was C-4.
"Enough plastique explosive to make a real mess of this building."
One of Kate's hands flew to her mouth while the other fluttered behind her, searching for a chair. It found one and she dropped into it.
"No!" Her blue eyes were wide in her ashen face. "You can't… you must be mistaken!"
"I wish I were."
"But that looks like modeling clay."
Jack lay the C-4 on the floor and reached back under the table. He found the little clock, ripped it free of its securing tape, and held it up.
"And here's the timing device."
He placed the clock on the kitchen counter, found a carving knife, and chop-severed the wires to its two dangling detonators, scarring the Formica in the process. Had to be done. Blasting caps can do some mean damage on their own.
Kate had risen from the chair. She eyed the timer like she might a snake. She opened her mouth to speak but no words came out.
"I know," Jack said. "Who and why, right?"
She could only nod.
"Let's think about that," he said.
Possibilities were buzzing through Jack's head like a swarm of killer bees. He retrieved the brick of C-4. Holding that in one hand and the timer in the other, he did his thinking out loud.
"Here's the situation: We've got two people living in this apartment at the moment, one of them acting real strange. The other resident and her brother hear the strange one say some weird things, things they maybe weren't supposed to hear. The strange one's cult leader arrives out of nowhere and removes her from the premises. A couple of hours later someone calling himself a phone repairman shows up, maneuvers himself into being alone in this room, then leaves. Immediately after that we find a bomb. Let's guess who the target might be."
Kate slumped back into the chair, shaking her head. "No. I can't believe it. Jeanette would never—"
"She's not really Jeanette anymore, is she. But for your sake let's give her the benefit of the doubt and say that she may not have known. But that doesn't change the fact that someone wants you, and perhaps me as well, out of the way. Permanently."
Someone wanted to kill his sister. Even the hint of such a thing should have sent him into a wall-punching rage. But the brick of army-issue C-4 in his hand cooled him, chilled him. Reminded him of a pair of brothers he'd been hired to deal with a few years ago. What were their names…?
Kozlowski. Right. Stan and Joe Kozlowski. They'd put the arm on somebody who hired Jack to take the arm off. And he had. Found the K brothers' stash and torched it.
The stash had been chock full of C-4 bricks exactly like this one. Lots of domestic bombers made their own; not hard to do if you don't mind working with red nitric acid. The international set tended to favor
Semtex, usually of Czech origin. But the K brothers had built their rep with ultra-reliable U.S. military-grade C-4. Word was that Joe K had hijacked a truckload in the nineties, enough to stock them up for decades. Jack was sure that other bombers had sources for army C-4, but still… this olive-drab wrapped brick bothered him.
Could I be the target?
Didn't seem possible. This wasn't his place. And the Kozlowskis had vanished. With just about every law enforcement agency in the US looking for them, they'd gone to ground and no one had seen or heard from them in years. Everything else pointed to Holdstock and his cult, but Jack couldn't bring himself to get on that train just yet.
"What do we do?" Kate said.
Good question. He looked at the little travel clock. The LED display had been disabled. Why? Only reason he could think of was so the glow from the numerals wouldn't give away the bomb's location.
Which could mean the bomb had been timed to go off later, after all the lights were out. Later… when odds were highest that the occupants would be home and in bed.
But what time had it been set for? The answer might be important.
Jack stepped to the window and looked down at the street. Watched the cars and the pedestrians cruising through the fading light. Someone down there might be the bomber; then again, the bomber might be miles away. But Jack would bet that, come the moment of the blast, the bomber—or the one who'd hired him—would be nearby, watching, waiting. Because this amount of C-4 was gross overkill. Irrational. Something more than simple murder going down here. Jack could all but feel the raw emotion radiating from the brick of plastique in his hand.
He turned to Kate. "Will you be all right if I leave for a little while?"
"Do you have to go?" He could tell from her eyes that she didn't want to be alone here.
"I think so. It could be important."
"Okay. Just don't be long."
"I won't." He'd disappeared on her once; he wouldn't again. "By the way, you haven't noticed anything around the apartment about escape routes during a fire have you?"
He needed to find a way to leave unseen.
"Nu? You're thinking maybe the Kozlowskis?"
The innards of the travel alarm clock lay spread out between them on Abe's work bench. The Isher Sports Shop was officially closed but a call to Abe had brought him back. Since disassembling a bomb timer was not something either of them wanted a curious passerby to witness through the store window, Abe had suggested they move to the basement.
"That's just it," Jack told him. "I don't think it. It's against all logic. But my gut keeps saying otherwise."
"So listen. A man shouldn't ignore his guderim."
They sat in a cone of light, surrounded by Abe's true stock in trade—things that fired projectiles or had points and sharp edges or delivered blunt trauma. Unlike the chaotic arrangement on the upper floor, these items were carefully shelved and neatly racked.
Jack watched as Abe's stubby but nimble fingers resoldered the tiny wires from the display to the circuit board. Jack was no good with electronics. He could use the equipment, but the innards baffled him.
"There!" Abe said as the display lit with the time.
"Neat," Jack said. "Now check the alarm."
Abe pressed a button and 3:00 appeared.
"Three A.M.," Jack said with a sick coil in his stomach. If he hadn't found this today, tomorrow he'd have awakened without a sister. "The son of a bitch."
"You have a next step in mind?"
Abe stared at him. "You don't look so good. You feeling all right?'
Did it show? He felt tired and achy. Irritable too.
"I'm okay. Nothing that can't be cured by a good night's rest and finding the guy who made this."
"Well, while you're figuring how to do that, I should tell you that I ordered your new back-up pistol. Should be here in a few days."
"I don't know, Abe. I'm having second thoughts about giving up the Semmerling."
"Listen, schmuck, a .45 that small stands out too much for a guy who shouldn't be noticed. Like a signature, that pistol."
"Wait," Jack said as a thought detonated in his skull.
"Just stop talking a minute." Realizing he'd snapped, he added, "Please."
Like a signature … like all his jobs, Jack had tried to work his fix on the Kozlowskis from the sidelines, looking to move in, cripple them by blowing their stash, and then take off without ever making direct contact. But it hadn't worked that way. They'd shown up at their farm when they were supposed to be in the city and he'd had to shoot his way out. He'd used his Glock mostly, but he'd needed the Semmerling at one point. The Kozlowskis had seen the Semmerling, and seen his face…
And if they read the papers… and saw mention of a tiny .45… and decided to follow the reporter who claimed he'd been in touch with its owner…
"Damn him!" Jack pounded the workbench with his fist.
"Sandy Palmer! He damn near got Kate killed! I ought to wring his scrawny neck!"
He explained to Abe.
"Possible," Abe said, nodding. "Very possible."
"What am I going to do about him?"
"The reporter? I think maybe you should worry about the Brothers K first, don't you?"
"Them I can handle—especially now that I know who I'm dealing with. But Palmer… I think he sees me as some sort of cryptofascist comic book character. He was quizzing me about Nietzsche today—can you beat that?"
"Nietzsche? Have you ever read Nietzsche?"
"Don't try. Also Sprach Zarathustra? Unreadable."
"I'll take your word." He pounded the bench top again. "What a nightmare. Palmer's like a junkie—he'll keep biting my ankles until I lose it and strangle him or he slips up and exposes me. He thinks he's got this idea that I can make his career. Thinks he wants to be a great journalist, but what he really wants is to be a famous journalist."
Abe shrugged. "A product of the Zeitgeist. But listen: sounds to me like he admires you. If he sees you as some sort of comic book hero, then maybe you should play to that. Comic book heroes have boy sidekicks, don't they?"
"You mean, if I'm Batman, let him think he's Robin?"
"More like that boy reporter who was always tagging along after Superman." Abe snapped his fingers. "What was his name? Timmy…"
"Yeah. Get Jimmy Olsen's focus off you and onto something else."
Abe shrugged. "I should know? You're Repairman Jack. Me, I'm just a lowly merchant."
At least it was an approach, a possible way out of this mess. But Jack didn't have the faintest idea how to make it work. Yet. This would take thought. In the meantime, he had to deal with the Kozlowskis.
"Okay, lowly merchant. Show me your wares. I've got a feeling I'm going to need some specialized equipment to help me through the night…"
"It's quarter to three, Jack. Aren't you ever going to sleep?"
Exhausted, Kate leaned in the doorway of the bedroom. Jack was a silhouette against the window overlooking the street.
"Not tonight, I'm afraid."
He turned toward her and she jumped when she saw two glowing green spots where his eyes should have been. Then she remembered the strange headgear he'd donned before turning out the lights and mumbling something about night vision.
He'd brought it back from his trip, coming and going via the roof somehow. He'd been gone almost two hours—the longest two hours of her life. When he'd returned he'd said almost nothing, and seemed even grimmer than when he'd left. He didn't look good. Pale, a glassy cast to his usually clear eyes. She chalked it up to stress. More than enough of that going around. She wondered how she looked to Jack. Probably worse.
At least the bomb was gone. He'd said he'd left it back at his place.
"Can I make you more coffee?"
He lifted his mug. "I'm set, thanks. Why don't you go lie down, close your eyes, and try for some sleep."
"Someone tried to bomb us! Someone wants us dead! How can I sleep?"
"I've got the watch. Nothing's going to happen while I'm here, I promise you. You're tired; sleep will come if you let it. Trust me."
She did trust him—more than anyone. And she was desperately tired. She needed sleep but even more she needed the escape it offered from the gnawing anxiety that had seeped into her.
She stepped back into the bedroom and crawled under the covers; she lay flat on her back, folded her hands between her breasts, and closed her eyes.
I'll pretend I'm dead, she thought. Why not? That's what someone wants.
Lord, what a thought. What had happened to her life? Facing the fact that she wasn't the all-American soccer mom she'd always thought herself to be had been tough, but she'd finally come to accept being bent in a straight world. She'd thought her life was turning topsy-turvy then, but that was nothing compared to this past week.
And poor Jeanette… where was she now? What was she doing?
Are you thinking of me, Jeanette? she asked the dark. I think of you constantly. Does a single thought of me ever cross your mind? Or are you so taken with this cult that nothing else matters?
And Kevin and Elizabeth… she'd been away from them too long… had to get back to them… she's…
No. Not floating. Flying. She has multiple transparent wings jutting from her shoulder blades, vibrating in a buzzing blur, propelling her through a hive-like structure, a glowing golden maze of myriad stacked hexagonal tubes that stretches away in all directions, reaching into infinity.
And in the air about her, a hum, myriad voices joined in singing a single note.
As she flies on she sees that the tubes are not empty. People within them, faces staring out at her, strangers, but calling her name.
Kate… Kate… Kate…
Who are these people? There seem to be millions of them, but with only half a dozen different faces. She's never—
And then Kate recognizes Jeanette reaching for her from one of the tubes, smiling, calling her name. Kate turns toward her, but as she nears, Holdstock lunges from an adjacent tube, clawing for her. Kate veers away and comes face to face with another Jeanette… and another… thousands of Jeanettes calling her name, the sound so loud, deafening.
Kate… Kate … Kate…
She flees, soaring through the hive at blinding speed, zigging and
zagging, dodging this way and that until she sees an opening in the wall. She flashes through into the outer darkness. It's cold and lonely-out here, especially after the warmth and light of the hive, but darkness or no, she knows she must keep going, must flee those voices that never tire of calling her name.
Kate… Kate … Kate…
The voices slow her, pull her back, prevent her from reaching escape velocity. Finally her outward momentum ceases. For a single heartbeat she pauses, suspended between the hive and open space. Then she begins falling backward. She turns and sees the hive from away and above. It's blue and brown and cloud swirled…
"Fuck!" Joe shouted. He pushed back in the passenger seat and began kicking the dashboard. "Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"
Stan checked his watch again: 3:14 and no explosion.
"He must have found it!"
"Think about that, Joe. You think he'd still be up there if he found a whole block of C-4 in his apartment? No way. He'd be heading for the hills."
"So you're sayin' I fucked up, is that it?"
Stan heard the menace in his brother's tone. Had to tread carefully. Lots of pride at stake here. Better simply to lob the question back.
"Joe, no rig you've ever made has ever misfired, right?"
"But something did go wrong tonight. What? What's different about tonight?"
"Nothin'! I made the simplest damn fucking rig ever! I always keep in my head what you told me when we first started out: Keep it simple—the more bells and whistles, the more chances for a malfunction. So I had no bells and whistles. And I used two detonators instead of one, just for insurance."
"You said you disabled the display. Could that—?"
"Naw, I triple checked it, reconnecting and disconnecting. The clock advanced each time. The alarm stayed set for three. The rig was sweet. He found it. I tell you, Stan, the fucker found it."
Stan didn't want to mention Joe's scarred-up hand and how he was pretty sure that was why his rig had failed. Hard to solder fine wires when one of your hands looks like melted wax.
"So let's go back to my question: what's different about tonight?"
"I told you: Nothin'!"
"But there is: how you're burning up. Every time we've done a job it's been business, pure and simple. Never emotionally involved. Never knew the people on the receiving end. But tonight's not like that. We want this guy. And when you get emotions involved, things go wrong."
"That wasn't it, Stan. I—"
"How big a hard-on you got for this guy, Joe? Think about it."
Joe sat silent, staring out the windshield. Finally he shook his head.
"Shit." His voice was laden with disgust. "I fucked it up."
"It's all right," Stan told him. "The night's not over yet." He started the car. "You get out and wait here. Watch the place while I go cook up something."
My turn now, he thought. And this time no mistakes.
Jack sat huddled under a blanket, fighting to keep his eyes open. Four-thirty-five and he felt miserable. Must have picked up a flu of some sort. Great time to get sick.
First he'd been wracked by chills, and just when he'd reached the point where he feared he'd never be warm again, he'd broken out in a drenching sweat, so profuse he'd had to snag a towel from the bathroom to dry off.
The aftermath was weakness and lethargy. Too weak to keep standing at the window, so he'd pulled up a chair. Down the street, to the left, his Viper-1 night goggles had spotted a Taurus pulling away at 3:20 or so, leaving a man standing in the deep shadows of the sidewalk. But even at maximum magnification he remained a featureless blur.
A Kozlowski blur, Jack was sure.
This was why he'd remained on watch: for a moment like this, to confront the bomb setter face to face.
Problem was he was in no shape to confront anyone. An arthritic old lady in a wheelchair would be a challenge right now. The Kozlows-kis would mop up the street with him.
All he could do was watch and wonder. He knew the man in the shadows was watching the apartment house door; but where had the car gone? What was the driver up to?
And then the Taurus was back.
Jack stiffened. When had that happened? He flipped up the night goggles and checked his watch: 4:50. Must have dozed off. Damn!
There, almost directly below, a man crossing the street, moving away. Getting into the driver side of the Taurus.
Jack's heart began hammering. Where'd he come from? Had he been in the building? Set another bomb, a bigger one, in the lobby maybe?
He watched the Taurus. It stayed put. Good sign. A bomb in the lobby big enough to kill the people in a third-floor apartment would take out half the block. But their car was parked in the blast zone.
That meant a smaller bomb, if any. But where?
He'd have to go down and check.
That was when the second bout of chills slammed him…
"What if the fucker sleeps till noon?" Joe said from the back seat where he'd stretched out.
Stan yawned. He still sat in the driver seat, eyes on the mirrors, mirrors on the Crown Vic.
"Then we get him at noon."
Long night. When was the last time they'd stayed out till sunup? The sky was brightening but the streets remained quiet. The city started moving a little later on Saturday mornings.
"Yeah, well, whenever it is, let's hope we have better luck with your rig than mine."
"We will, Joe. Because I stayed cool while I was making it. And I kept it simple."
Stan liked to call it the Kozlowski Kar Krusher. A quarter brick of C-4 sandwiched between a remote electronic detonator and an aluminum-insulated refrigerator magnet. He wasn't the first to rig one, he was sure, but he'd perfected it to the level of art.
Too bad it wasn't legal to sell them. He'd often imagined an infom-ercial for the Kozlowski Kar Krusher…
Got an annoying neighbor? An in-law who's making you crazy? A
boss who's on your ass all day? A wife who's taking you to the cleaners in divorce court? Sure you do!
And you probably thought you just had to put up with it, just had to grin and bear it, right?
Well, think again!
The Kozlowski Kar Krusher changes all that! It's so easy! And safe too! Reduce your problems to rubble in just three easy steps! Here's all you do:
First, identify the car of the one who's darkening your days.
Second, walk by the target car and stop to tie your shoe. While you're kneeling, simply slip the rig under the car and let the magnet attach itself to the frame. No need to get in the car or under the hood, no dicking around with ignition wires. Simply place the Kozlowski Kar Krusher under the driver side, the passenger side, the rear compartment, the gas tank: the choice is YOURS!
Third, just straighten up and walk on.
And that's IT! Blow the bastard or the bitch to hell whenever you want! What could be easier, or more fun?
But that's not all!
If you're dealing with a suspicious type who has a remote start on his car, or a cowardly type who sends someone else out to start it while he's safe in the house, no problem! The Kozlowski Kar Krusher has got you covered! YOU are in control. Just wait till the human blot on your existence is in the car, then press the red button on the Kozlowski Kar Krusher Remote Detonator (batteries not included) and BOOM! Bye-bye bitch! Bye-bye bastard!
But wait! There's more!
Why blow up the car in front of the target's house? Why be so ordinary? The Kozlowski Kar Krusher allows you artistic expression, lets you choose the venue of your enemy's demise! How does mid-span on the Brooklyn Bridge sound? Or right in front of City Hall? Or better yet, in your ex-girlfriend's driveway! With the Kozlowski Kar Krusher you don't simply eliminate the problem—you make a statement!
The Kozlowski Kar Krusher! Regularly $119.99, but now, for a limited time only, get two for $200!
Wouldn't that be something, Stan thought. Wouldn't that be a pisser.
He shook himself out of his reverie and checked the Crown Vic again in the mirror. He'd attached the rig under the driver side. When it went, the C-4 would shred the car and leave nothing recognizable of whoever was sitting inside.
Stan had decided to take no chances. As tempting as it would be to follow the guy around and wait till he was near a cop car before hitting the button, Stan knew getting cute could backfire. A traffic glitch could put the rig out of range of the detonator, or a stray transmission from a two-way radio on the wrong frequency could set it off when they were too close. Keep it simple, stupid, and blow the guy to hell right there in front of his own building.
He stiffened as he saw the apartment building's glass front door swing open. A man stepped out and leaned on the door as it closed behind him.
"Check this guy out," Stan said. "Is that our boy?"
Joe's head popped up, looking through the rear window. "That's him all right. That's the fucker. Looks like shit, though. Like he's been smokin' rock all night."
The guy did look a little wasted as he slumped there looking up and down the street. That was what had made Stan unsure about him a moment ago. Here was a guy who'd been moving like a cat yesterday, but this morning he looked like a tired old hound.
Stan glanced at his watch. "He's an early bird."
"Nah," Joe growled. "We're the birds. He's the fuckin' worm."
Stan pulled the remote trigger from his shirt pocket. It was shiny and black, the size of a cigarette pack. He extended the transmitter aerial but left the little hinged red metal guard in place over the button.
As he watched the guy step away from the building, digging in his pants pocket as he moved, Stan thought, Please be going for your car keys.
And he was. A keychain appeared in his hand; he selected one and stuck it into the lock.
"Gimme the button," Joe said, thrusting his good hand over the back of the front seat. "I gotta do this. I just gotta."
"Just wait a sec. We're in no hurry here. Plenty of time. He's ours when we want him."
"You think I don't fuckin' know that?" Joe said, voice rising. "Just gimme the button!" %
The guy had the door open and looked about to duck inside, but then Stan saw him step away from the car and go back to the apartment door.
"We missed him!" Joe shouted. He started pounding the seat back. "Shit!"
"Easy, Joe," Stan said as he looked around and spotted a young black woman striding their way along the sidewalk. Her route would bring her within a few feet of their car. He stuck the trigger back into his pocket. "Keep it down. We got company. We don't want nobody remembering us."
"We shoulda done him soon as he opened the car door," Joe hissed.
"Uh-uh. Worst thing is to blow it too earjy. We only hurt him instead of killing him now, we might never get another chance. He probably forgot something. He'll be back."
Sure enough, a minute later the guy appeared again.
"All right, so I was wrong."
As Stan removed the trigger again from his pocket, Joe snatched it from him.
"Damn it, Joe—!"
"It's all right," Joe said. "I'm cool, I'm cool. I'll wait till he's sealed in, I promise."
Stan didn't like this. Something about the whole setup was gnawing at him. He didn't like Joe with the trigger, but that wasn't it. Maybe it was the way the guy was standing inside his open car door scanning the street, like he was looking for something? Did he suspect?
Stan glanced around for the black girl—gone. Nobody else on the street now—no cars, no pedestrians…
As the guy slipped behind the wheel and closed the door, he heard the button guard click back and Joe say, "Now, baby, nowV
And in that instant Stan knew what was wrong and he reached for Joe's hand, screaming, "NOOOOOO!" as he tried to keep his brother's joyful thumb from jamming down on the button.
The explosion rocked the pavement as the car dissolved in a dazzling cloud of flaming debris. Jack ducked below his dashboard in case a piece came flying through the windshield. His big car was well insulated, muffling much of the sound, so his ears weren't ringing when he stepped back onto the sidewalk to survey the damage. A deep hole smoked in the pavement where the Taurus had been parked; the cars fore and aft of it were crumpled and burning, sending up dark twisting spirals of smoke. Shattered glass, twisted metal, and fuming pieces of plastic were strewn everywhere. The blast had broken auto and building windows up and down the street; alarms blared and rang and whooped; an unfortunate tree near the blast had been stripped bare and its leaves were still fluttering back to earth.
Jack closed his eyes against a wave of weakness and nausea—not because the bomb had been meant for him, but because he was almost too sick to stand. If he'd felt this bad a few hours ago he never would have found the bomb.
Good thing he'd pushed himself then. Sneaked down to the street via the fire escape of a neighboring building and crawled along the gutter to his car. His Viper goggles had allowed him to spot the bomb on the undercarriage. He'd removed it and, again with the aid of the goggles, made his way to the Taurus. Recognized Stan Kozlowski behind the wheel; took a bit longer to peg the heavier man with him as brother Joe. At that point it took Jack about a nanosecond to decide what to do. These guys were too dangerous to leave running around.
So he'd attached the bomb to the Taurus's underbelly and crawled away.
Barely made it back to Jeanette's where he collapsed with an alarm clock next to his ear. Just after sunup he'd staggered down to the street, hoping he'd be the only one up and about. On a mostly commercial block like this he should have been, but he'd spotted this black woman approaching the K brothers' car, so he'd gone back inside until she passed.
Okay. No more Kozlowskis—no more bombs for Kate to worry about. Looked up. Jeanette's windows had escaped damage. Saw Kate's strained face through the intact glass directly above, looking down. He waved that he was okay.
"What happened?" said a voice behind him.
Jack turned and saw a fiftyish fellow in jogging shorts and a NYAC sweatshirt.
"I don't know," Jack said. "I stopped to tie my shoe and next thing I knew I was flat on my back."
The man looked at him strangely. "You don't look so good. Are you okay?"
Jack ran a shaky hand across his face—the chills were back so he didn't have to fake the tremor. "If my lace hadn't come loose I would have been right down there by the blast. I'd be… dead!"
"Oh, man, talk about luck. I'd frame that shoelace if I were you." He looked around. "Anyone call nine-one-one?"
Just then the sound of sirens filtered through the morning.
"I guess so," Jack said.
"I'm going down for a closer look," the jogger said.
"I think I'll stay right here."
The braver souls and the too curious were filtering out of the Arsley, but otherwise the street remained deserted. Jack edged away, back up toward Sixth Avenue. When a howling pair of blue-and-white units screeched onto the street, he slumped himself into a doorway, head down, allowing himself to look as ill as he felt. As soon as they roared past he was up and moving again, heading east, but not quickly enough to raise suspicion.
On Sixth he walked down to the Twenty-third Street subway station and hopped the first train heading uptown. The car was almost empty and it felt good to sit down. Another chill shuddered through him.
How the hell did I catch this? he wondered. Flu season's long gone.
After listening yesterday to Fielding talk about the contaminant in his cultures, a viral infection now was unsettling. But he remembered
Fielding's mention that the contaminant didn't cause any symptoms. That was comforting, because Jack had symptoms aplenty.
Needed to get home, needed major rack time under a pile of blankets.
"The phones haven't stopped all morning," George Meschke said. "The response has been wild, beyond anything I imagined."
Sandy sat in his editor's office, leaning back, his ankle resting on his knee. Last week he'd have been on pins and needles, hoping he wasn't going to get chewed out about some little mistake. Now he was totally relaxed. Chillin' with the bossman. Because he was in the catbird seat. Circulation was soaring. Ad revenues this week alone had been equal to the entire first quarter's.
And all because of one person, Sandy thought. Moi.
He said, "I knew my amnesty idea would strike a chord."
"But what a chord!" Meschke said, running both hands through the few remaining stands of hair atop his head; his thick mustache was the same shade of gray. "It's Saturday morning and people have already read the story and are burning up the phone lines! Amazing!"
Equally amazing, Sandy thought, glancing around at the otherwise deserted editorial area, is that it's Saturday morning and I'm at work. And what's truly mind-blowing is I'm glad to be here.
"They should be calling City Hall," he said. "That's where it'll do some good."
"Speaking of which, you need to talk to City Hall yourself. I know it's Saturday, but see if you can track down the mayor and the DA and the police commissioner for their reactions. We need something for Monday." Meschke rubbed his hands together and grinned like a little kid. "Can you imagine? We've just had a Saturday issue, now we'll have another on Monday. Four issues of The Light in one week! Who'd have believed it?"
Monday edition or not, Sandy was not anxious to do those interviews. Any other time he'd have been chomping at the bit, but after this morning's issue he knew he wasn't going to be the most popular guy with the city brass, not after putting them on the spot like this.
But that's the game, he told himself. They of all people should know you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.
"I'll see who's still in town."
"We've got to milk this, Sandy. Every extra issue we put out brings in more advertisers and more readers, many of whom—we hope—will stay with us when we go back to weekly."
Back to weekly… suddenly he was depressed.
"And I want you to know," Meschke said, lowering his voice and leaning forward, "I talked to Harness about you. How you deserve recognition for what you've done for the paper. He's ecstatic about how things are going and agrees completely." He winked. "Be prepared for a surprise in your next paycheck."
"A bonus?" Sandy said. "Cool!"
But his thoughts were ranging ahead. Calvin Harness was the publisher and major stockholder. No doubt he was ecstatic because the bigger profits and higher profile from Sandy's articles enhanced the chances of The Light being bought up by one of the big national chains. Harness would clean up. Meschke's stock options would put him on Easy Street as well. But Sandy… what did he have?
Time to get out the old resume, he thought. Bring it up to date and start sending it out. Strike while the iron was hot. But until he wrangled himself an offer at one of the big three in town, he'd have to find ways to keep his name in the news.
And the only way he knew to do that was the Savior. He had to push the amnesty for all it was worth, find a way to make it national.
Jack kicked off the covers. The chills of an hour ago were gone. Now his skin seemed to be steaming. Sheets were soaked, sweaty T-shirt and boxer shorts plastered against him.
Thirsty. Mouth parched, lips flaky as he ran his dry tongue over them. Needed something wet. Tried to sit up. Almost made it half way. Flopped back onto the soggy pillow. Tried again with the same result. Last time he'd felt this weak he'd been bleeding to death… last summer… sitting in a chair in the next room… and the last time he'd had a fever like this had been directly after that… from infection in the wounds… Doc Hargus had pumped him full of antibiotics and pulled him through, but it had been tough going.
No wounds this time, just dying of thirst. And water, lots of icy bottles of gloriously wet Poland Springs, lay stacked on the bottom shelf among the beers and Mountain Dew in his fridge just a dozen or two feet away in the kitchen.
Might as well be in Westchester.
This was scary. Sick and sweating without taking in any fluids… he could wind up dehydrated… leaving him weaker still… a steady downward spiral…
Jack closed his eyes, gathering strength for another try.
"Here," said a voice.
He turned his head and started at the sight of an older woman standing at the side of his bed. She was thin, her thick black hair streaked with gray and pulled back into a bun, wearing a gray sweatsuit with pink piping. Couldn't see her feet but he'd bet she was wearing sneakers.
Questions about who she was and how she got into his locked apartment rose in his brain but were pushed aside by the sight of what she held in her hand.
A glass of water.
"Drink," she told him. She rolled the r.
Jack was already reaching for it as she spoke. The glass was wonderfully cool against his palm. He raised his head as far as he could and gulped it down, spilling precious drops in his haste, then let the enormous weight of his head drop back.
"More," he rasped. "Please."
"In a moment," she said. Her accent… Russian. Take Natasha Fatale, add thirty or forty years, stick her in a jogging suit… this was her. Where was Boris?
And then Jack saw the dog sitting beside her, an enormous pure-white malamute. It cocked its head and stared at him.
Hadn't Kate said something about an old woman with a Russian accent and a dog… the woman who'd given her Jack's number?
He tried to raise himself up on his elbows but sagged back. The water had left him less thirsty but no stronger.
"Who are you and how'd you get in here?"
"That does not matter. You must—"
"It sure as hell does matter. This is my place and my door was locked—quadruple locked."
"Listen to me," she said urgently. "You must fight infection and you must win."
"Only a flu of some sort."
"If only that were so. Is not flu. Is same virus that is in the others, in your sister's lover as well as in your sister herself. Is in you too."
Fielding's virus? The contaminant? Never mind how she knows about it; if she's right…
"That can't be. Fielding said it doesn't cause symptoms and it's only spread through blood."
"And did you not bleed yesterday?"
Oh, hell. Holdstock. The scratch on my hand as he passed by on his way out of the apartment with Jeanette.
"Jeez, did you say Kate…?"
The woman nodded; sadly, he thought. "Four days ago."
"Wait. If I was infected only yesterday and already this sick, why didn't she—?"
"She cannot fight it. None of them can fight it."
"You're talking crazy. If she couldn't fight it she'd be sicker, and she's fine."
The woman shook her head. "Only you can fight it."
"Yeah, right," he said. He closed his eyes. All this talk was exhausting.
"Do not speak," the woman said. "Save strength and listen: virus will spread. It will infect many, and the many will infect many others. There will be war between those infected and those not, war such as we have never seen, turning man against woman, parent against child, child against parent, brother against brother."
"It didn't happen with AIDS so why—?"
"Is different. Virus will spread like wind. All harmony, all trust will vanish as uninfected kill infected, kill those they merely suspect of being infected. But infected will fight back, striking from within, spreading their disease. The bloodshed, the death, the hatred, the terror—this planet has seen terrible things but never on such a scale. For there are so many more of you now, and no one—no one—will be spared."
"What's so bad about this virus? What does it do to you?"
"That is no matter. Virus is not end, virus is simply means."
"Means to what?"
"To what I have told you: war, hate, death, fear, pain, destruction."
"Who the hell wants that?"
Jack forced his eyes open and looked at her.
"And who's that? The devil?"
She shook her head. "You know. You have met. Adversary feeds on human misery, on discord, on chaos. Virus will create feast."
No doubt about it, the lady was a loon. And she'd invaded his home—brought her damn dog too—and Jack was powerless to make her leave.
But she had another glass of water in her hand. He took it and gulped it down. Maybe she shouldn't leave.
"How do you know all this?"
"I watch. Always I watch."
"Why tell me? I'm just one guy. Go to the government."
"Government cannot stop virus. Only you. You must stop virus. You are only one."
"I couldn't stop a lame kitten right now."
"You must. Is war and you are warrior."
"I don't join armies."
"Is no army. Just you. And one does not join. Is chosen. Others go before you. All dead except one, and he is too old. You have been chosen."
"Like hell I have."
"Stop virus before it spreads, or all you love will perish." She turned and headed for the bedroom door. "I leave you now."
Jack felt the temperature drop. No… more chills. He pulled the covers back over him.
"Lady, who are you?"
She and her big white dog stopped at the door and looked at him. "I am your mother."
Nonplused, Jack struggled for a reply. She was nothing like his mother. Finally he resorted to a simple statement of fact.
"My mother's dead."
"She was your birth mother," she said. "I am your other mother."
And then she was gone.
Jack felt a shiver of fear slip among the fever chills. He knew he'd imagined the woman, but her words had struck resonances that still rang through his brain. Her warning about something that fed on misery and hate…
And then the phone rang. Jack snaked a wavering hand over to the night table and wrapped his fingers around the receiver.
"Hello," he croaked as he shuddered with a chill.
"Jack, is that you?" Gia's voice. "You sound terrible."
"Sick," he said. "Fever. Delirious. Wouldn't believe the hallucinations I'm having."
"I'm on my way."
Good, Jack thought as he heard the click on the other end. Gia will know what to do.
He tried to hang up the receiver but didn't have the strength.
Kate jumped at the sound of the key in the door, thinking, Jack's back. Thank the Lord.
She'd been a wreck all morning. Jack had tried to ease her mind by telling her that the bomb he'd found had been meant for him, not her. Had he expected her to be relieved that her brother was some madman's target? Well, she wasn't. But he'd said he had a good idea who the bombers were and how to protect himself and her from them.
At least that had allowed her to go back to sleep. But then Jack had been up at dawn, looking terrible, all sunken-eyed and exhausted, saying he had to go out and instructing her to stay away from the windows and not worry if she heard a loud noise.
A few minutes later a car exploded on the street below.
Not Jack's, thank the Lord. His was still out there when she'd looked, and he'd waved up at her. She'd hoped he'd come back up, to tell her he hadn't blown up that car. She didn't want to believe he'd done such a terrible thing. Even if someone had been trying to kill him, he'd endangered everyone on the block.
But he must have done it, must have known it was coming. Why else would he have warned her to stay away from the windows?
But then instead of returning, he'd walked off.
He hadn't told her where he was going, but it didn't matter. He was back now.
But it was Jeanette who stepped through the door. And Holdstock. And others, six more men and women of varying ages, trooping in, all smiling at her with the open friendly faces of old friends. She knew them, she'd seen them through Holdstock's window.
Jeanette had brought her cult home.
"Hello, Kate," Jeanette said, beaming. "I've asked some friends over to meet you."
Kate swallowed. "That's nice."
They didn't seem threatening—if anything their expressions virtually glowed with amiability. So why then did she feel this cold dread seeping up from her stomach?
"I was so worried about you," Jeanette said, taking Kate's left hand and pressing it between both of hers.
Kate felt rather than heard a strange hum in her head, a faint, faint echo of Jeanette's voice.
"Were you? Why?"
"Why, the explosion, of course. When I heard about it and realized it had happened right on our block, I wanted to fly here. But then I learned that no one had been hurt except two men with criminal records, and I was so relieved. But still, I didn't think you should be alone."
That odd hum continued, but Kate sensed that she truly had been in Jeanette's thoughts, and that warmed her.
"That's nice, but—"
"So I brought my dearest friends to keep you company. You remember Terrence, don't you?"
Holdstock stepped forward, smiling warmly as he offered his hand. "I know we didn't get off on the right foot, but I'm sure I can make amends for that."
Kate didn't want to shake hands with this man, but how could she snub him with a radiant Jeanette still clutching her left hand? She extended her right, Holdstock grasped it—
—and the hum in her head grew louder.
Something wrong here! She tried to pull free of Holdstock but his grip was like a steel clamp.
"Let me go!"
"Don't be frightened, Kate," Jeanette said, smiling reassuringly while clutching Kate's other hand. "It's all right. Trust me, it's all right."
The others were moving forward. Holdstock held out his free hand and one of them, a woman, took hold of it—
—and the hum in Kate's head increased—
—and then someone took the woman's hand and stretched out his hand to another—
—and the hum in Kate's head further increased, a roar now, like the ocean, and her heart was a panicked rabbit, battering itself against the cage of her ribs, trying to break free—
—and someone took his and another took hers and the roaring doubled and tripled and she felt her strength slipping away and through her blurring vision she saw Jeanette free one of her hands from gripping Kate's and reach it out to another hand, the last free hand in the world, and Kate saw them touch, closing the circle—… and suddenly all is peaceful.
Kate's vision blurs as she descends into a deep pool of tranquillity, leaving no ripples, no trail of bubbles as she sinks.
There, says a soft, sexless voice that seems to come from within and without, from nowhere and everywhere. Isn't this better? Isn't this wonderful, the most wonderful feeling you've ever known?
And it is wonderful, a feeling of complete acceptance, of absolute belonging, of soft arms lovingly enfolding her and drawing her to a motherly bosom.
Her vision clears and she sees the others, the eight who've formed the hand-holding circle of which she is now a part.
Is this why Jeanette was sneaking off to the Bronx? she wonders. Is this what she was experiencing when I watched her through the window?
The Everywhere Voice answers. Yes. That was when The One Who Was Jeanette was like you and could experience oneness only by touch. Now that she is of the Unity she is with us always, dwelling within the oneness.
Kate isn't sure she follows that but it doesn't matter. What does is this glorious feeling of peace, of belonging. All the anxieties and uncertainties these past few years about the course of her life and where it will lead her, all the fears about revealing her true self to the children are gone, vanished as if they've never been. She can barely remember them.
Unconditional love and acceptance, simply for being. This is the way all of life should be, all the time.
And it will be.
No, Kate thinks. You've got it wrong. It's human nature to fear what's different.
Human nature can be changed.
Kate is about to laugh at the absurdity of this when a thought strikes her. The Voice reminds her of Jeanette's, but Jeanette's lips haven't moved.
"Who are you?" she says aloud. "Whose voice is this?
It is us, all of us. The Unity.
"Then why do you sound like Jeanette?"
Because that is who you feel most comfortable listening to. But it's not the One Who Was Jeanette. It is all of us.
Kate looks around and sees the eight of them, Jeanette, Holdstock, and the rest, nodding in unison.
Kate senses an alarm bell trying to ring, to warn that this is all wrong, that she should not be conversing with voices in her head. But the cotton-thick ambiance of peace and harmony smothers it, and all that seeps through to her is confusion.
"I don't understand."
We have been united. We are one. We are the Unity. We know each other as no others have known us, even more intimately than we have known ourselves. Every thought—
"You can read each others' minds?"
We are each others' minds. We share every thought, every emotion.
Kate feels a twinge of fear. Is she crazy? Are they?
Don't be afraid.
And now a stab of terror. They know what she's feeling!
You need not fear the Unity. We love you. You are our sister.
"But why me? And how—?"
And then Kate knows.
The virus. The mysterious contaminant in Fielding's cultures.
Yes! It brought us together, repairing the faults in our brains, linking our minds into this glorious Unity.
"And me?" She looks at Jeanette. "I was infected, wasn't I. Why?"
You were following the One Who Was Jeanette, spying on her—
"I was concerned!"
And we sensed that. But we also feared that your loving con-
cern might turn into interference, and since we are at a delicate stage of development, we brought you into the Unity.
"But I wasn't asked! You had no right!"
The niggling alarm sounding within Kate has escalated, clamoring through the swaths of bliss, but still so faintly.
It was never a matter of i/, Kate; merely a matter of when.
"What do you mean?"
We are the future, Kate. You are witnessing the conception of a new day for humanity. This is where the new world will begin—with us, with the nucleus of the Unity. And you will be part of it, Kate—a part of the Cosmic Egg that fuels the Big Bang. As we gather more and more minds to expand the Unity—
"Wait. Gather how?"
Infiltrate their nervous systems, just as we've done with you.
"You're not going to ask them either?"
Of course not. They'd never agree.
"How can you justify—?"
We know what is best, Kate. The Unity is the future. Disconnected intelligences running loose are the past. Now that we exist, they are as relevant as dinosaurs: too prone to conflict, too inefficient.
"We haven't done so bad. Look at the diseases we've conquered. And now that we've mapped the human genome, there's no telling what miracles we can accomplish."
But at such a cost! War, racism, hatred. And no matter what your science can do, it cannot mend the basic flaws in human nature.
"You've got something better?"
Yes! A world where all minds are united, where differences in race and gender no longer matter because all minds are equal."
A vision takes shape before her eyes, a sunny landscape checkered with fields of wheat and corn. And closer in, people working those fields.
A world where hate and suspicion disappear because every thought is known, every lie is exposed.
The vision shifts to a factory where contented workers operate weaving machinery and clothing production lines.
Where no one is a stranger and no one is an outsider because no one is excluded. Because all are one.
And now Kate sees a cluster of buildings, a classic Midwest small town with people walking on the sidewalks and in the streets, dropping off produce and picking up clothing. And though no one's smiling, no one looks unhappy; merely intent, industrious.
The Voice glows with anticipation. Won't that be a wonderful world?
"World? That's not a world. That's a hive."
A long pause as Kate feels her thoughts and feelings being sifted. Then…
We understand. You are not yet far enough along for full integration. But as days pass you will learn, Kate. You will come to appreciate our benefits, just as you will come to accept our inevitability… the Great Inevitability.
Inevitability… she wonders about that. She thinks about Fielding and about the CDC and NIH and feels those thoughts sucked from her mind, like a shucked oyster slurped from its shell.
Yes … Dr. Fielding… we owe him much and yet… he knows so much about us… too much perhaps. We heard what he told you yesterday.
Suddenly she's listening to Fielding's voice repeating his parting words in his office yesterday…
IfVm going to get stuck with the blame for the contaminant, then I might as well take the credit for discovering how to control it. You watch. Before the CDC has even begun to roll, I'll have the solution for you.
Startled, Kate says, "Did you just take that from me?"
We could have, but no… we were there, listening ourselves.
In my head… listening. Kate is too stunned to respond.
You had an opportunity then to help the Unity, Kate. You did not have to insist on Dr. Fielding immediately contacting the Center for Disease Control. We tried to tell you, tried to make you see that bringing in government agencies so soon was not in the Unity's best interest, but you wouldn't listen.
Kate remembers her unaccountable indecisiveness yesterday, the difficulty she had telling Fielding to make the call.
"You were influencing me?"
Merely trying to let you see our side.
Kate is reeling. Her thoughts are no longer private. How much longer will she be able to call her thoughts her own, her actions her own? How long before she's doing things against her will? How long until she has no will?
You see, Kate? There's the problem: will—too many wills. You shouldn't have to worry about your will or our will. Within the Unity there is only one will. It makes life so much simpler.
But Kate senses something… a subtle shift in the Unity's mood, a hint of uncertainty. And she realizes that this oneness of theirs is a two-way street. They can see into her mind, but she can also see into theirs. Not clearly, not deeply, but enough to gather impressions.
"You're afraid, aren't you."
A dark ripple through the enveloping bliss. No. Of course not. We are the future. We are inevitable. We have nothing to fear.
But Kate can't be sure whether that's true belief or merely wishful thinking.
"What if Fielding finds a virucide that works against you? Or better yet—a vaccine? What happens to your inevitability then?"
He will not. He cannot. He hasn't enough time.
"He's got plenty of time. You're hampered by your nature. You're a blood-borne infection. It'll take decades—"
Kate gasps as a wave of joyous anticipation washes over her, blotting out her fears and suspicions