Miracle Cure

Harlan Coben

Prologue.

Friday, August 30

Dr. Bruce Grey tried not to walk too fast.

He slowed his pace, fighting off the temptation to sprint across the soiled floor of Kennedy Airport's International Arrivals Building, past the customs officials, and out into the humid night air. His eyes shifted from side to side. Every few steps he would feign a soreness in his neck to give himself the opportunity to glance behind him and make sure he was not being followed.

Stop it! Bruce told himself. Stop lurking around like a poor man's James Bond. You're shaking like a malaria patient, for chrissake. You couldn't look more conspicuous if you wore a sign.

He strolled past the luggage carousel, nodding politely at the little old lady who had sat next to him on the flight. The old woman had not shut her mouth during the entire trip, gabbing on about her family, her love of flying, her last trip overseas. She was sweet enough, just somebody's grandmother, but Bruce still closed his eyes and pretended to be asleep in order to get a little peace and quiet. But, of course, sleep had not come to him. It would not come for some time yet.

But maybe she wasn't just some sweet, little old lady, Brucie boy.

Maybe she was following you... He dismissed the voice with a nervous shake of the head.

This whole thing was turning his brain into sewer sludge. First, he was sure that the bearded man on the plane had been following him. Then it was the big guy with the slicked-back hair and Armani suit at the telephone booth. And don't forget the pretty blonde by the terminal exit. She had been following him too.

Now it was a little old lady.

Get a grip on yourself, Brude. Paranoia is not what we need right now.

Clear thinking, old pal that's what we're looking for.

Bruce moved past the luggage carousel an dover to the customs official.

"Passport, please."

Bruce handed the man his passport.

"No luggage, sir?"

He shook his head.

"Only this carry-on."

The customs officer glanced at the passport and then at Bruce.

"You look quite different from your photograph."

Bruce tried to force a tired smile to his lips but it would not hold.

The humidity was almost unbearable. His dress shirt was pasted against his skin, his tie loosened to the point of being nearly untied. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead.

"I. I've gone through a few changes."

"A few? You're a dark-haired man with a beard in this picture."

"I know- "

"Now you're a clean-shaven blond."

"Like I said, I went through a few changes." Luckily, you can't tell eye color from a passport photo or you would want to know why I changed my eyes from brown to blue.

The customs official did not appear convinced.

"Were you traveling on business or pleasure?"

"Pleasure."

"You always pack this lightly?"

Bruce swallowed and managed a shrug.

"I hate waiting for checked luggage."

The customs official swung his line of vision from the passport photograph to Bruce's face and then back again.

"Would you open your bag, please?"

Bruce could barely keep his hands steady enough to set the combination.

It took him three tries before it finally snapped open.

"There you go."

The customs official's eyes narrowed into thin slits as he rummaged through the belongings.

"What are these?" he asked.

Bruce closed his eyes, his breath coming in short gasps.

"Some files."

"I can see that," the official replied.

"What are they for?" "I'm a doctor," Bruce explained, his voice cracking.

"I wanted to review some of my patients' charts while I was away."

"Do you always do that when you're on vacation?"

"Not always."

"What type of doctor are you?"

"An internist at Columbia Presbyterian," Bruce replied, telling a half-truth. He decided to leave out the fact that he was also an expert in public health and epidemiology.

"I see," the official replied.

"I wish my doctor was that dedicated."

Again Bruce tried to smile. Again it was a failed attempt.

"And this sealed envelope?"

Bruce felt his whole body quake.

"Excuse me?"

"What is in this manila envelope?"

He willed a casual look on his face.

"Oh, that's just some medical information I'm sending to a colleague," he managed.

The customs official's eyes locked onto Bruce's bloodshot ones for a few long moments.

"I see," he said, slowly putting the envelope back in the bag. When the customs official finished going through the rest of the carry-on, he signed Bruce's customs dedaration and handed him back his passport.

"Give the card to the woman on your way out."

Bruce reached for the bag.

"Thank you."

"And Doctor?"

Bruce looked up.

"You might want to visit one of your colleagues," the customs official said.

"If you don't mind a layman giving medical opinions, you look awful."

"I'll do that."

Bruce lifted the bag and glanced behind him. The little old lady was still waiting for her luggage. The man with the beard and the pretty blonde were nowhere in sight. The big guy in the Armani suit was still talking on the phone.

Bruce moved away from the customs desk. His right hand gripped his bag with excessive vigor; his left hand rubbed his face. He handed the customs declaration to the woman and walked through the sliding glass doors into the waiting area. A sea of anxious faces greeted him.

People stood on their toes, peering out from all points with each swish of the glass doors before lowering their heads in disappointment when an unfamiliar face approached the threshold.

Bruce moved steadily past the waiting friends and relatives, past the bored limousine drivers with name signs held up against their chests.

He made his way to the Japan Air Lines ticket counter on the right.

"Is there a mailbox near here?" he asked.

"To your right," the woman replied.

"By the Air France desk."

"Thank you."

He walked by a garbage can and casually dropped his torn up boarding pass into it. He had considered himself very clever to book the flight under an assumed name very clever, that is, until he got to the airport and was informed that you could not have an international ticket issued under a different name than the one on your passport.

Whoops.

Luckily, there had been plenty of space on the flight. Even though he had to purchase another ticket for himself, reserving one under an alias had not been such a dumb idea. Before his actual departure date, no one could have found out what flight he was booked on because his name was not in the computer.

Pure genius on his part.

Yessiree, Brucie. You are a regular genius.

Yeah, right. Genius. Bullshit.

He located the mail slot near the Air France desk. A few passengers spoke to the airline representative. None of them paid him the slightest attention. His eyes quickly checked the room.

The old lady, the bearded man, and the pretty blonde had either left or were still going through customs. The only "spy" he could still see was the big guy in the Armani suit who now moved hurriedly through the sliding glass doors and out of the terminal.

Brace let loose a sigh of relief. No one was looking at him now. He turned his attention back to the mail slot. His hand reached into his bag and quickly slipped the sealed manila envelope down the chute. His insurance policy was safely on its way.

Now what?

He certainly could not go home. If anyone was searching for him, his apartment on the Upper West Side would be the first place they would look. The dink was no good at this hour of the night, either. Someone could nab him there just as easily.

Look, I'm not very good at this. I'm just your average run-of-the mill doctor who went to college, went to medical school, got married, had a kid, finished residency, got divorced, lost custody of the kid, and now works too hard. I'm not up to playing I Spy.

But what other choice did he have? He could go to the police, but who would believe him? He had no real evidence yet. Hell, he wasn't even sure what was going on himself. What could he tell the police?

Try this on for size, Brucie: "Help! Protect me! Two people have already been murdered and countless others may join them including me!"

Maybe true. Maybe not. Question: what did he really know for sure?

Answer: not a hell of lot. More like nothing. By going to the police, Brace knew he would do little more than destroy the clinic and all the important work they had accomplished there.

He had dedicated the last three years to that research, and he was not about to give those damn bigots the weapon they needed to kill the project. No, he would have to handle it a different way.

But how?

He checked once more to make sure he was not being followed. All his enemy spies were gone now. That was good.

That was a nice bit of relief. He hailed a yellow taxi and jumped into the backseat.

"Where to?" Bruce thought for a moment, mulling over every thriller he had ever read. Where would George Smiley go, or better still, Travis Mcgee or Spenser?

"The Plaza, please."

The taxi pulled away. Bruce watched out the back window.

No cars seemed to be following as the taxi began its journey down the Van Wyck Expressway toward Manhattan. Bruce settled back, letting his head rest against the seat. He tried to breathe deeply and relax, but he still found himself trembling in fear.

Think, goddamn it. This is no time to catnap.

First, he needed a new alias. His eyes moved left and right, finally resting on the taxi driver's name on the displayed license.

Benjamin Johnson. Bruce turned the name around. John Benson.

That would be his name until tomorrow. John Benson. Just until tomorrow. Now if he could just stay alive until then... He dared not think that far ahead.

Everyone at the clinic thought he was still on vacation in Cancun, Mexico. No one absolutely no one knew the whole vacation idea was merely a diversion. Bruce had played the role of happy traveler to the utmost. He had bought beachwear, flown down to Cancun last Friday, checked into the Cancun Oasis Hotel, prepaid for the week, and told the concierge that he would be renting a boat and could not be reached.

Then he shaved his beard, cut and bleached his hair, and put on blue-tinted contact lenses. Even Bruce had trouble recognizing the image in the mirror. He returned to the airport, left Mexico, checked in at his true destination under the name Rex feneto, and began to investigate his horrible suspicions.

The truth, however appeared to be more shocking than he had imaged.

The taxi slowed now in front of the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue. The lights of Central Rark twinkled from across the street and to the north. Bruce paid the driver, tipping him no more or less than the proper amount, and strolled into the lush lobby of the hotel. Despite his designer suit, he felt conspicuously sloppy. His jacket was heavily creased, his pants completely wrinkled. He looked like something left in the bottom of a laundry hamper for a week hardly what his mother would have called presentable.

He began to walk toward the reception desk when something he barely spotted out of the corner of his eye made him stop.

It's just your imagination, Bruce. It's not the same guy. It can't be.

Bruce felt his pulse quicken. He spun around, but the big guy in the Armani suit was nowhere in sight. Had he really seen the same man?

Probably not, but there was no reason to take chances. He left the hotel by the back entrance and walked toward the subway. He purchased a token, took the train down to Fourteenth Street, switched to the A train to Forty-second Street, cut cross town on the 7 train, jumping off the car seconds before the doors closed at Third Avenue. He changed trains haphazardly for another half an hour, jumping on or off at the last possible second each time, before ending up on Fifty-sixth Street and Eighth Avenue. Then

"John Benson" walked a few blocks and checked into the Days Inn, a hotel where Dr. Bruce Grey had never stayed.

When he got up to his room on the eleventh floor, he locked the door and slid the chain into place.

Now what?

A phone call was risky, but Bruce decided to take the chance.

He would speak to Harvey for only a few moments, then hang up. He picked up the phone and dialed his partner's home phone.

Harvey answered on the second ring.

"Hello?"

"Harvey, it's me."

"Bruce?" Harvey sounded surprised.

"How's everything in Cancun?".

Bruce ignored the question.

"I need to speak to you."

"Christ, you sound awful. What's wrong?"

Bruce closed his eyes.

"Not over the phone."

"What are you talking about?" Harvey asked.

"Are you still?"

"Not over the phone," he repeated, "I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow? What the hell is going?"

"Don't ask me any more questions.

"I'll meet you tomorrow morning at six-thirty."

"Where?"

"At the clinic."

"Jesus, are you in danger? Is this about the murders?"

"I can't talk any mo " Click.

Bruce froze. There was a noise at his door.

"Bruce?" Harvey cried.

"What is it? What's going on?"

Bruce's heart began to race. His eyes never left the door.

"Tomorrow," he whispered. "I'll explain everything then."

"But- " He gently replaced the receiver, cutting Harvey off.

I'm not up for this. Oh, please, God, let my mind be playing tricks on me, I'm not up for this, I'm really not up for any of this... There was no other sound, and for a brief moment Bruce wondered if his overactive brain cells had indeed imagined the whole thing. Maybe there had been no sound at all. And if there had been a noise, what was so strange about that? He was staying in a New York hotel, for chrissake, not a soundproof studio.

Maybe it was just a maid. Maybe it was just a bellhop.

Maybe it was just a big guy with slicked-back hair and a custom made silk Armani suit.

Bruce crept toward the door. The right leg slid forward, then the left tagged along. He had never been much of an athlete, had never been the most coordinated guy in the world. Right now, it looked like he was doing some kind of spastic fox trot.

Click.

His heart slammed into his throat. His legs went weak. There was no mistaking where the sound had come from this time.

His door.

He stood frozen. His breathing reverberated in his ears so damn loudly that he was sure everyone on the floor could hear it.

Click.

A short, quick click. Not a fumbling sound, but a very precise click.

Run, Bruce. Run and hide.

But where? He was in a small room on the eleventh floor of a hotel.

Where the hell was he supposed to run and hide? He took another step toward the door.

7 can open it quickly, scream my brains out, and run down the hall like an escaped psych patient. I could The knock came so suddenly that Bruce nearly screamed.

"Who is it?" he practically shouted.

"Towels," a man's voice said.

Bruce moved closer to the door. Towels, my ass.

"Don't need any," he called out without opening the door.

Pause.

"Okay. Good night, sir."

He could hear Mr. Towel's footsteps move away from his door.

Bruce pressed his back against the wall and continued to make his way to the door. His whole body shook. Despite the room's powerful air conditioning, sweat drenched his clothing and matted his hair down against his forehead.

Now what?

The peephole, Mr. James Friggin' Bond. Look through the peephole.

Bruce obeyed the voice within his head. He slowly turned and put his eye against the peephole. Nothing. Nada, as the Mexicans say. There was no one there, not a damn thing. He tried to look to his left and then his right And that was when the door flew open.

The chain broke as though it were a thread. The metal knob slammed against the point of Bruce's hip. Pain shot through the whole area.

Instinctively he tried to cover his hip with his hand.

That proved to be a mistake. From behind the door a large fist came flying toward Bruce's face. He tried to duck, but his reflexes were too slow. The knuckles landed with a horrid thud against the bridge of Bruce's nose, crushing the bones and cartilage. Blood flowed quickly from his nostrils.

Oh, Jesus, oh, sweet God...

Bruce stumbled back, reaching for his nose. The big guy in the Armani suit stepped into the room and closed the door. He moved with a speed and grace that defied his great bulk.

"Please " Bruce managed before a powerful hand the size of a boxer's glove clamped over his mouth, silencing him. The hand carelessly knocked against the flattened nostrils, pushing them upward and sending hot surges of pain through his face.

The man smiled and nodded politely as if they had just been introduced at a cocktail party. Then he lifted his foot and threw a kick with expert precision. The blow shattered Bruce's kneecap.

Bruce heard the sharp cracking noise as the bone below the knee snapped. His scream was muffled by the man's hand tightening against his mouth. Then the giant hand pulled back just slightly before slamming up into Bruce's jaw, fracturing another bone and cracking several teeth. Gripping the broken jaw with his fingers, the man reached into Bruce's mouth and pulled down hard. The pain was enormous, overwhelming. Bruce could feel the tendons in his mouth ripping away.

Oh, God, please... The big man in the Armani suit let Bruce slide to the floor like a sack of potatoes. Bruce's head swam. He watched through a murky haze as the big man examined a blood stain on his suit.

The man seemed annoyed by the stain, upset that it would not come out at the dry cleaner. With a shake of his head, the man moved toward the window and pulled back the curtain.

"You picked a nice, high floor," he said casually.

"That will make things easier."

The big man turned away from the window. He strolled back toward where Bruce lay writhing. He bent down, took a solid hold on Bruce's foot and gently lifted Bruce's shattered leg into the air. The agony was unbearable. Jolts of pain wracked his body with each slight movement of the broken limb.

Please, God, please let me pass out... Suddenly Brace realized what the man was about to do. He wanted to ask him what he wanted, wanted to offer the man everything he had, wanted to beg the man for mercy, but his damaged mouth could only produce a gurgling noise. Bruce could only look up hopelessly with pleading, terror-filled eyes. Blood streamed down his face and onto his neck and chest.

Through a cloud of pain Bruce saw the look in the man's eyes.

It was not a wild-eyed, crazed look; not a hateful, bloodthirsty look; not the stare of a psychotic killer. The man was calm. Busy.

A man performing a tedious task. Detached. Unemotional.

This is nothing to this guy, Bruce thought. Another day at the office.

The man reached into his jacket pocket and tossed a pen and a piece of paper on the floor. Then he gripped Bruce's foot, one hand on the heel, the other on the toes. Bruce bucked in uncontrollable agony. The man's muscles flexed before he finally spoke.

"I'm going to twist your foot all the way around," the big man said, "until your toes are pointed toward your back and that broken bone rips through the skin." He paused, gave a distracted smile, and repositioned his fingers in order to get a better grip.

"I'll let go when you finish writing your suicide note, okay?"

Bruce made the note brief.

Saturday, September 14

1.

Sara Lowell glanced at her wristwatch. In twenty minutes she would make her national television debut in front of thirty million people. An hour later her future would be decided.

Twenty minutes.

She swallowed, stood slowly, and readjusted her leg brace.

Her chest hitched with each breath. She had to move around, had to do something before she went nuts. The metal of the brace rubbed against her, chafing the skin. After all these years Sara still could not get used to the clumsy artificial constraint. The limp, yes. The limp had been with her for as long as she could remember. It felt almost natural to her. But the bulky brace was still something she wanted to toss in a river.

She took a deep breath, willed herself to relax, and then checked her makeup in the mirror. Her face looked somewhat pale, but that was nothing new. Like the limp, she was used to that. Her honey-blonde hair was swept back from her beautiful, delicate features and large doll-like green eyes. Her mouth was wide, her lips sensual and full to the point where they looked almost swollen. She took off her wire-rimmed spectacles and cleaned the lenses. One of the producers walked over to her.

"Ready, Sara?" he asked.

"Whenever you are," she said with a weak smile.

"Good. You're on with Donald in fifteen minutes."

Sara looked at her co star Donald Parker. At sixty he was double her age and a billion times more experienced. He had been on Newsflash since the early years, before the fantastic Nielsen ratings and a market share that no news show had ever seen before or since. Simply put, Donald Parker was a legend in television journalism.

What the hell do I think I'm doing? I'm not ready for something like this.

Sara nervously scanned her material for the millionth time.

The words began to blur. Once again she wondered how she had gotten this far so fast. Her mind flashed through her college years, her column in the New York Herald, her work on cable television, her debates on public TV. With each step up the ladder, Sara had questioned her ability to climb any higher. She had been enraged by the jealous chatter of her colleagues, the cruel voices that whispered, "I wish my relatives were famous... Who did she sleep with?... It's that damn limp."

But no, the truth of the matter was much more simple: the public adored her. Even when she got rough or sarcastic with a guest, the audience could not get enough of her. True, her father was the former surgeon general and her husband was a basketball star, and maybe her childhood pain and her physical beauty had also helped her along the way. But Sara remembered what her first boss had told her:

"No one can survive in this business on looks alone. If anything they're a drawback. People will have a preconceived notion that because you're a beautiful blonde you can't be too bright. I know it's unfair, Sara, but that's the way it is. You can't just be as good as the competition you have to be better. Otherwise they're going to label you an airhead.

You

"II get blown off the stage if you're not the brightest person out there."

Sara repeated the words like some battle cry, but her confidence refused to leave the trenches. Her debut tonight featured a report on the financial improprieties of Reverend Ernest Sanders, the televangelist, founder of the Holy Crusade a big, slippery (read: slimy) fish. In fact, the Reverend Sanders had agreed to appear for a live interview after the report was aired to answer the charges on the condition, of course, that News Flash display his 800 number on the screen. Sara had tried to make her story as evenhanded as possible.

She merely stated facts, with a minimum of innuendo and conclusions.

But deep inside Sara knew the truth about the Reverend Ernest Sanders.

There was just no avoiding it.

The man was pure scum.

The studio bustled with activity. Technicians read meters and adjusted lights. Cameramen swung their lenses into place. The teleprompter was being tested, no more than three words to a line so that the audience at home would not see the anchor's eyes shifting. Directors, producers, engineers, and gofers scrambled back and forth across a set that looked like a large family room with no ceiling and only one wall, as though some giant had ripped apart the outside so he could peer in.

A man Sara did not recognize rushed toward her.

"Here you go," he said. The man handed her several sheets of paper.

"What's this?" she ask eh

"Papers."

"No, I mean what are they for?"

He shrugged.

"To shuffle."

"Shuffle?"

"Yeah, you know, like when you break for a commercial and the camera pulls away. You shuffle them."

"I dor

"Makes you look important," he assured her before rushing off.

She shook her head. Alas, so much to learn.

Without conscious thought, Sara began to sing quietly. She usually restricted her singing to the shower or the car, preferably accompanied by a very loud radio, but occasionally, when she was nervous, she began to sing in public. Loudly.

When she got to the chorus of

"Tattoo Vampire" ("Vampire photo suckin' the skin"), her voice rose and she started playing the air guitar.

Really into it now. Getting down.

A moment later she realized that people were staring at her.

She lowered her hands back to her sides, dropping her well tuned air guitar into oblivion. The song faded from her lips. She smiled, shrugged.

"Uh sorry."

The crew returned to work without so much as a second glance. Air guitar gone, Sara tried to think about something both distracting and comforting.

Michael immediately came to mind. She wondered what Michael was doing right now. He was probably jogging home from basketball practice. She pictured all six feet five of him opening the door, a white towel draped around his neck, sweat bleeding through his gray practice jersey. He always wore the craziest shorts loud orange or yellow or pink Hawaiian ones that came down to his knees, or some whacko-designed jams.

Without breaking stride, he would jog past the expensive piano and into the den. He would turn on a little Bach, veer toward the kitchen, pour himself a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, and then drink half of it in one gulp. Then he would collapse into the reclining chair and let the chamber music sweep him away.

Michael.

Another tap on her shoulder.

"Telephone call." The same man who had handed her the sheets of paper handed her a portable telephone.

She took the phone.

"Hello?"

"Did you start singing yet?"

She broke into a smile. It was Michael.

"Blue Oyster Cult?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"Let me guess." Michael thought a moment. " Tton't Fear the Reaper?"

"No, Tattoo Vampire'."

"God, how awful. So what are you up to now?"

Sara closed her eyes. She could feel herself beginning to relax.

"Not much. I'm just hanging around the set, waiting to go on."

"Play any air guitar?" "Of course not," she said.

"I'm a professional journalist, for God's sake."

"Uh- huh. So how nervous are you?"

"I feel pretty calm actually," she replied.

"Liar."

"All right, I'm scared out of my mind. Happy?"

"Ecstatic," he replied.

"But remember one thing."

"What?"

"You're always scared before you go on the air. The more scared you are, the more you kick ass."

"You think so?"

"I know so," he said.

"This poor guy will never know what hit him."

"Really?" she asked, her face beginning to beam.

"Yeah, really," he said.

"Now let me ask you a quick question:

do we have to go to your father's gala tonight?"

"Let me give you a quick answer: yes." "Black tie?" Michael asked.

"Another yes."

"These big stuffy affairs can be so boring."

"Tell me about it." He paused.

"Can I at least have my way with you during the party?"

"Who knows?" Sara answered.

"You may get lucky." She cradled the phone between her neck and shoulder for a moment.

"Is Harvey coming to the party tonight?"

"I'm going to pick him up on my way."

"Good. I know he doesn't get along with my father "

"You mean your father doesn't get along with him," Michael corrected.

"Whatever. Will you talk to him tonight?"

"About what?"

"Don't play games with me, Michael," she said.

"I'm worried about your health."

"Listen, with Bruce's death and all the problems at the clinic, Harv has enough on his mind right now. I don't want to bother him."

"Has he spoken to you yet about Bruce's suicide?" Sara asked.

"Not a word," Michael said.

"To be honest, I'm kind of worried about him. He never leaves the lab anymore. He works all day and night."

"Harvey has always been that way."

"I know, but it's different this time."

"Give him a little more time, Michael. Bruce has been dead only two weeks."

"It's more than just Bruce."

"What do you mean?"

"I don't know. Something to do with the clinic, I guess."

"Michael, please talk to him about your stomach."

"Sara..."

"Talk to him tonight... for me."

"Okay," he agreed reluctantly.

"Promise?"

"Yes, I promise. And Sara?"

"What is it?"

"Kick some Southern-fried reverend ass."

"I love you, Michael."

"I love you too."

Sara felt a tap on her shoulder.

"Ten minutes."

"I have to go," she said.

"Until tonight then," he said.

"When I have my way with a famous TV star in her childhood bedroom."

"Dream on."

A sharp pain ripped across Michael Silverman's abdomen again as he replaced the receiver. He bent over, his hand clutched under his rib cage, his face scrunched into a grimace. His stomach had been bothering him on and off for weeks now. At first he had thought it was just a flu, but now he was not so sure. The ache was becoming unbearable. Even the thought of food now made his stomach perform backflips.

Bach's Seventh Symphony drifted across the room like a welcome breeze.

Michael closed his eyes, allowing the melody to work like a gentle masseur against his aching muscles. His teammates gave him unlimited shit about his musical taste. Reece Porter, the black power forward who co-captained the New York Knicks with Michael, was always goofing on him.

"How can you listen to this shit, Mikey?" he would ask.

"There's no beat, no rhythm."

"I realize that the musical ear of a Chopin does not compare with that of MC Hammer," Michael would reply, "but try to be open-minded. Just listen, Reece. Let the notes flow over you."

Reece paused and listened for a moment.

"I feel like I'm trapped in a dentist's office. How does this shit get you psyched for a big game? You can't dance to it or anything."

"Ah, but just listen." "It doesn't have lyrics," Reece said.

"And your noise pollution does? You can understand the words over all that racket?"

Reece laughed.

"Mikey, you're a typical whitey snob," he said.

"I prefer the term pompous honky ass, thank you."

Good of' Reece. Michael held a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, but the thought of even a sip nauseated him. Last year the knee, and now the stomach. It didn't make sense.

Michael had always been the healthiest guy in the league. He had gone through his first ten NBA seasons without a scratch before tearing apart his knee a little more than a year ago. It was tough enough trying to bounce back from reconstructive knee surgery at his age... the last thing he needed was this mystery stomach ailment...

Putting down his glass, Michael moved across the room and made sure the VCR was set. Then he turned off the stereo and turned on the television. Sara would be making her Newsflash debut in a matter of minutes. Michael fidgeted in his seat. He twisted his wedding band around and around and then rubbed his face. He tried to relax, but, like Sara, he couldn't. There was no reason to be nervous, he reminded himself. Everything he had said to Sara on the phone was true. She was an amazing reporter, the best, very sharp and quick. Well prepared and yet spontaneous. A bit of wise-ass sometimes. A sense of humor when it was called for. A bulldog almost always.

Michael had learned firsthand how tough an interviewer Sara could be.

They had met six years ago when she was assigned to interview him for the New York Herald two days before the start of the NBA finals. She was supposed to do a personal, non sports-related piece on his life off the court. Michael did not like that. He did not want his personal life, especially his past, splashed across the headlines. It was none of anybody's business, Michael told Sara, resorting to more colorful terms to get his point across and then slamming down the phone for emphasis. But Sara Lowell was not so easily thwarted. To be more precise, Sara Lowell did not know how to give up. She wanted the interview.

She went after it.

A jolt of pain knocked aside the memory. Michael clenched his lower abdomen and doubled over on the couch. He held on and waited. The pain subsided slowly.

What the hell is wrong with me?

He leaned back, glancing at the photograph of Sara and himself on the shelf behind the TV. He stared at the picture now, watching himself hunched over Sara with his arms locked around her small waist. She looked so tiny, so achingly beautiful, so goddamn fragile. He often wondered what it was that made Sara appear so innocent, so delicate.

Certainly not her figure. Despite the limp, Sara worked out three times a week. Her body was small, taut, athletic dynamite might be a better way to describe it. Sexy as hell. Michael examined the photograph again, trying to look at his wife objectively. Some would say it was her pale porcelain complexion that accounted for her unaffected appearance, but that wasn't what it was. Her eyes, Michael thought now, those large green eyes that reflected frailty and gentleness while maintaining the ability to be cunning and probing.

They were trusting eyes and eyes you could trust. A man could bathe in those eyes, disappear forever, lose his soul for all eternity.

They were also sexy as hell.

The phone interrupted his thoughts. Michael reached behind him and grabbed the receiver.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Michael."

"How's it going, Harvey?"

"Not bad. Look, Michael, I don't want to keep you. I know the show is about to go on."

"We got a couple of minutes." There was a crashing sound in the background.

"What's all that noise? You still at the clinic?"

"Yep," Harvey replied.

"When was the last time you got some sleep?"

"You my mother?" "Just asking," Michael said.

"I thought I was going to pick you up at your apartment."

"I didn't have a chance to get out of here," Harvey said.

"I had one of the nurses rent me a tux and bring it here.

It's just so busy right now. Eric and I are swamped. Without Bruce here."

Harvey stopped.

There was a moment of silence.

"I still don't get it, Harv," said Michael carefully, hoping his friend was finally ready to talk about Bruce's suicide.

"Neither do I," Harvey said flatly. Then he added, "Listen, I need to ask you something."

"Shoot."

"Is Sara going to be at the benefit tonight?"

"Shell be a little late."

"But she'll be there?"

Michael recognized the urgency in his old friend's voice. He had known Harvey almost twenty-four years, since a second-year intern named Dr. Harvey Riker took care of an eight-year-old Michael Silverman, who had been rushed to Saint Barnabas Hospital with a concussion and broken arm.

"Of course she'll be there."

"Good.

"I'll see you tonight then."

Michael stared at the receiver, puzzled.

"Is everything all right, Harv?"

"Fine," he mumbled.

"Then what's with the cloak-and-dagger phone call?"

"It's just... nothing. I'll explain later. What time you picking me up?"

"Nine- fifteen. Is Eric coming?" "No," Harvey said.

"One of us has to run the store. I have to go, Michael. I'll see you at nine-fifteen."

The phone clicked in Michael's ear.

Dr. Harvey Riker replaced the receiver. He sighed heavily and put a hand through his long, unruly, gray-brown hair, a cross between Albert Einstein's and Art Garfunkel's. He looked every bit of his fifty years. His muscle had turned to flab from lack of exercise. His face was average to the point of tedium. Never much of a hunk to begin with, Harvey's looks had soured over the years like a two-dollar Chianti.

He opened his desk drawer, poured himself a quick shot of whiskey, and downed it in one gulp. His hands shook. He was scared.

There is only one thing to do. I have to talk to Sara. It's the only way. And after that... Better not to think about it.

Harvey swiveled his chair around to look at the three photographs on his credenza. He picked up the one on the far right, the picture of Harvey standing next to his partner and friend, Bruce Grey.

Poor Bruce.

The two police detectives had listened to Harvey's suspicions politely, nodded in unison, jotted down notes. When Harvey tried to explain that Bruce Grey would never have committed suicide, they listened politely, nodded in unison, jotted down notes. When he told them Bruce had called him on the phone the same night he leaped from the eleventh-floor window at the Days Inn, they listened politely, nodded in unison, jotted down notes... and concluded that Dr. Bruce Grey had committed suicide.

A suicide note had been found at the scene, the detectives reminded him. A handwriting expert had confirmed that Bruce Grey had written it. This case was open and shut.

Open and shut.

The second picture frame on the credenza held a photograph of Jennifer, his former wife of twenty-six years, who had just walked out on him forever. The third photograph was that of his younger brother, Sidney, whose death from AIDS three years ago had changed Harvey's life forever. In the picture Sidney looked healthy, tan, and a touch on the chubby side. When he died two years later, his skin was pasty white where it was not covered with purple lesions, and he weighed less than eighty pounds.

Harvey shook his head. All gone.

He leaned forward and picked up the photograph of his ex wife He knew he had been as much to blame (more) for the failed marriage as she was.

Twenty- six years. Twenty-six years of marriage, of shared and shattered dreams, rushed through his mind. For what? What had happened? When had Harvey let his personal life crumble into dust? His fingertips gently passed over her image. Could he really blame Jennifer for getting fed up with the clinic, for not wanting to sacrifice herself to a cause?

In truth, he did.

"It's not healthy, Harvey. All that time working."

"Jennifer, don't you understand what I'm trying to do here?"

"Of course I do, but it's gone beyond the point of obsession. You have to take a break."

But he couldn't. He recognized that his dedication had gone off the deep end, yet his life seemed so minor when he considered what the clinic was trying to achieve. So Jennifer left. She packed and moved to Los Angeles where she was living with her sister, Susan, Bruce Grey's ex-wife. Yes, Harvey and Bruce had been brothers-in-law as well as partners and close friends. He almost smiled, picturing the two sisters living together in California. Talk about fun conversations.

He could just hear Jennifer and Susan arguing over which one had the lousier husband. Bruce would probably have gotten the nod, but now that he was dead the girls would raise him to sainthood.

The truth of the matter was that Harvey's entire world, for better or for worse, was right here. The clinic and AIDS. The Black Plague of the eighties and nineties. After watching his brother ravaged and stripped to brittle bone by AIDS, Harvey had dedicated his life to destroying the dreaded virus, to wiping it off the face of the earth.

As Jennifer would tell anyone who would listen, Harvey's goal had become an all-consuming obsession, an obsession that frightened even Harvey at times. But he had come far in his quest. He and Bruce had finally seen real progress, real breakthroughs when... There was a knock on his door.

Harvey swiveled his chair back around.

"Come in, Eric."

Dr. Eric Blake turned the knob.

"How did you know it was

"You're the only one who ever knocks. Come on in. I was just talking to your old school chum."

"Michael?"

Harvey nodded. Eric Blake had become a member of Harvey and Bruce's team two years ago when they realized that two doctors could no longer carry the patient load by themselves. Eric was a nice kid, Harvey thought, though he took life way too seriously. It was okay to be serious, especially when you dealt with AIDS patients all day, but a person had to be just a little loose, just a little quirky, just a touch loony to survive the daily ordeal of death and suffering.

Eric even looked tightly wound. His most distinctive feature was his neat, scouring-pad, red hair. When you looked at him, the expression clean-cut came to mind. Polished shoes. Good dresser. Eric's tie was always pressed and tied properly, his face freshly shaven even after forty-eight hours on call.

Harvey, on the other hand, had his tie loosened to somewhere around his knees, believed in shaving only when the growth began to itch, and would need a handgun to shoot his hair into place.

Eric Blake had grown up on the same block as Michael in a New Jersey suburb. When Michael first became Harvey's hospital patient, little redheaded Eric Blake visited him every day, staying as long as the hospital would allow. Back in those days Harvey was an overworked intern, but he liked to spend any free moments he could muster in the hospital with Michael. Even Jennifer, a hospital volunteer then, found herself drawn to the child. Very quickly Harvey and Jennifer formed a special rapport with this irresistible young boy caught up in a world of constant abuse.

Over the years Harvey and Jennifer watched Michael grow from childhood through adolescence and into manhood. They went to his basketball games and music recitals and award dinners, applauding his achievement like proud parents. They were there to comfort him after his beatings, after his mother's suicide, after his abandonment by his stepfather.

Looking back on it now, Harvey wondered if their close relationship with Michael magnified their own major marital problem: No children.

Maybe so. They tried, but Jennifer could never carry to full term.

Perhaps if she had, things might have been different.

Doubtful. Very, very doubtful.

Harvey wondered if Jennifer still kept in touch with Michael.

He suspected she did.

"Did you tell Michael " Eric started to ask.

Harvey interrupted him with a shake of his head.

"Not yet.

I just wanted to make sure Sara was going to be at the party tonight."

"Is she?"

"Yes."

"What are you going to tell her?"

Harvey shrugged.

"I don't know yet."

"It doesn't make any sense. Why when we're so close "

"We're not that close."

"Not that close?" Eric repeated.

"Harvey, look out there.

People are alive because of you."

"Because of this clinic," Harvey corrected.

"Whatever. When we let the results go public, we're going to go down in medical history next to Jonas Salk."

"I'm more worried about the present."

"But we need the publicity so that we can raise enough money to continue "

"Enough," Harvey broke in, glancing at his watch.

"Let's make a quick check of the charts and head over to the lounge." He smiled tiredly.

"I want to watch Sara's report on Reverend Sanders."

"No friend of the cause, that one."

"No," Harvey agreed.

"No friend."

Eric picked up a photograph from the credenza.

"Poor Bruce."

Harvey nodded but said nothing.

"I hope his death means something," Eric said.

"I hope Bruce didn't die for nothing."

Harvey moved toward the door, his head lowered.

"So do I, Eric."

George Camron removed his gray, pinstriped Armani suit, carefully folded the pants at the creases, and placed it on a wooden hanger. He had been forced to burn another Armani two weeks ago, and that upset him very much. Such a waste. He would have to be more careful with his wardrobe. Blood-stained silk suits raised overhead and increased expenses.

George, a very large man, enjoyed the finer things in life. He wore only custom-made suits. He stayed in only the most luxurious hotels.

He frequented only the finest gourmet restaurants. His slicked-back hair was styled (not cut, styled) by the world's most expensive hair designers (not beauticians, designers). He enjoyed manicures and pedicures.

He walked over to the hotel phone, picked up the receiver, and pressed seven.

"Room service," a voice said.

"Is there something we can get you, Mr. Thompson?"

The Ritz always referred to its guests by their names when they called.

The personal touch of a very fine hotel. George liked it. Thompson was, of course, his current alias.

"Caviar, please.

Iranian, not Russian."

"Yes, Mr. Thompson."

"And a bottle of Bollinger. 1979. Very cold."

"Yes, Mr. Thompson."

George hung up the phone and relaxed on the king-sized bed.

He was a long way from his humble beginnings in Wyoming, a long way from his military days in Vietnam, a long way from Thailand, the country he now called home. A wide variety of elegant hotel rooms was George's home now. The Somerset Maugham suite at the Oriental in Bangkok. The harbor penthouse at the Peninsula in Hong Kong. The corner suite at the Crillon in Paris. The presidential suite at the Hassler in Rome.

George checked his watch, turned on the television with the remote control, and switched to Channel 2. In a few minutes Newsflash, with Donald Parker and Sara Lowell, would be on.

George wanted to watch that show very much.

The phone rang. George picked it up.

"Hello."

"This is..." "I know who it is," George.

"Did you get the last payment?"

"Yes."

"Good," the voice replied.

The voice sounded nervous. George was not sure he liked that. Nervous people had a tendency to make mistakes.

"Is there something else I can do for you?" he inquired.

"As a matter of fact..."

Another job. Excellent. George had no idea who his employer was, nor did he care. He did not even know if the voice on the other end of the phone was calling the shots or merely a go between It did not matter.

This was a job where you asked no questions. George did his work, collected his pay, and moved on. Questions were irrelevant.

"I'm listening," he said.

"The last job I gave you... it went smoothly? There were no problems?"

"You read the papers. What do you think?"

"Yes, well, I just wanted to make sure. You have Dr. Grey's files?"

"Right here," George said.

"When do you want to arrange a pickup?"

"Soon. Have you been wearing the gloves and a mask like I told you?"

"Yes."

"And nothing else happened?"

George wondered for a moment if he should tell his employer about the package Bruce Grey had mailed at the airport. But no, it was none of George's concern. He had been hired to kill the man; make it look like a suicide; grab any files or papers he had on him; cut a page out his passport; and leave all money, personal effects, and identification untouched. Period. Nothing about mailed packages.

Except of course, it was his concern. He should never have let Grey mail that package. It was a mistake, George was sure of it, but there had been no way to stop him. He shook his head.

Maybe he should have done some more background checking before he signed on for this job. Something about it was not right.

"Nothing else," George said.

"You sure?"

George cleared his throat. Dr. Bruce Grey had made the job painfully easy. His checking into a high-rise hotel had been a blessing for George; it gave him the license to use whatever means he wished to illicit pain and solicit the suicide note. Any physical trauma inflicted on Dr. Grey would be hidden in the splattered mess on the pavement.

"I'm sure," George said.

"And in the future, don't make me repeat myself. It's a waste of time."

"I'm sorry." "You said something about another job?"

"Yes," the voice said.

"I want you to eliminate another... person."

"I'm listening."

"Is someone else with you?"

"No."

"I hear voices." "It's the television," George explained.

"Newsflash is about to go on. Sara Lowell's debut."

The voice on the phone sounded startled.

"Why... why did you say that?" A strange reaction, George thought.

"You asked about the voices," he replied.

"Oh, right." The voice tried to steady itself, but the strain was unmistakable.

"I want you to eliminate someone else."

"When?"

"Tonight."

"This is very short notice. It will cost you."

"Don't worry about that."

"Tine," George said.

"Where?"

"At Dr. John Lowell's house. He's having a large charity formal tonight."

George almost laughed out loud. His eyes swerved back toward the television. Dr. Lowell. Former surgeon general. Sara Lowell's father. That explained the bizarre reaction. He wondered if Sara would be at the party.

"The same method as the first two?" George asked.

"Yes."

George took his stiletto out of his pocket, snapped it open, and examined the long, sleek blade. It would be messy, no question about that. He considered his wardrobe and settled on the green Ralph Lauren polo shirt he had picked up in Chicago.

It was a little too tight around the shoulders anyway.

2.

Don't be nervous. Don't be nervous. Don't be nervous... "Five seconds."

The announcement tightened Sara's stomach. For a fleeting moment she almost started singing again. She forced her mouth to close, adjusted her spectacles, and waited.

I'm going to do fine. I'm going to kick some ass. I'm going to...

"Four, three, two..." The hand pointed toward the two people sitting at the desk.

"Good evening, I'm Donald Parker."

Please don't sing..."And I'm Sara Lowell. Welcome to News Flash

Dr. John Lowell's estate in the Hamptons was enormous. The Tudor mansion sat majestically atop ten handsomely landscaped acres. There was a grass tennis court as well as an indoor and outdoor swimming pool, three Jacuzzis, two hot tubs, a spacious cabana, a helicopter landing pad, and more rooms than Lowell knew what to do with. The house had been his grandfather's, a capitalist who had, according to liberal textbooks, raped and pillaged the land and its people for profits. John's father, however, chose to bypass the family business and become a surgeon. John had followed suit. He made a good living, though practicing medicine was not nearly as profitable as raping and pillaging.

In a few hours, the east wing would be packed to capacity with some of the wealthiest people in the world, all of whom had donated thousands to the Erin Lowell Cancer Center for the right to attend. John would have to smile a lot and be solicitous.

He hated doing that. During his controversial tenure as surgeon general in the early eighties, John Lowell had never learned much about diplomacy or political subtlety. He crusaded zealously to crush cancer, bulldozing whatever and whomever stood in his way. He declared war on cigarette smokers, claiming in an angry remark on national television, "Cigarettes are murder weapons, plain and simple. I feel no pity for smokers who give themselves lung cancer.

They don't care if they make other people sick with secondhand smoke or even if they give their own children a deadly disease. It boggles the mind how we put up with people who are so selfish and destructive."

The remark sent shock waves throughout the country. The tobacco industry lobbied to have John Lowell removed from office.

They failed, but not from lack of trying. Battle lines had been drawn on that day, and even though John was no longer surgeon general, he continued to fight.

"Hi, Dad."

John Lowell spun toward his elder daughter, Cassandra. She was wearing a bathrobe and sandals.

"Cassandra, where are you going?"

"Just taking a quick dip in the pool," she replied.

"But your sister is going to be on in a few minutes. All the house guests are coming inside to watch."

Cassandra's eyes clouded over, but John did not appear to notice.

"I'll only be a moment."

"You should come in with the rest of us and watch Sara."

Once again he failed to acknowledge the defiant glare in his daughter's eyes.

"You're going to tape the show, right?" she asked.

"Right."

"So I'll be able to watch my sister over an dover again. Lucky me."

"Cassandra..."

She ignored her father and strode away. Sara. Ibr Cassandra's whole life her younger sister's name surrounded her like thousands of tiny birds.

"Sara is sick."

"We have to take Sara to the hospital."

"Don't play so rough with Sara." To her father, Cassandra was never as pretty, never as kind, never as ambitious, never as smart as Sara.

Her mother had been different. Erin Lowell had loved Cassandra just as much as prettier, kinder, more ambitious, more hard-working, smarter Sara. God, how she missed her mom. It had been more than a decade now, but still the pain was fresh, constant, and occasionally all-consuming.

The heat was stifling again today and many of the guests had escaped the humidity with a dip in the pool. Most were beginning to head into the house to watch wonderful Sara's debut on News Flash But seeing Cassandra striding toward the pool, several of the men froze.

Cassandra was tall and wild-eyed, with wavy dark hair and olive skin.

She differed so from Sara that no one would ever suspect that they were sisters. To put it simply, Cassandra was hot. Burning hot.

Dangerously hot. Where Sara's eyes could best be described as gentle ponds, Cassandra's smoldered like coals.

Cassandra arrived at the pool and kicked off her sandals. With a slight smile she slipped her robe down off her shoulders. It fell to the floor, revealing a sleek one-piece bathing suit that struggled to contain her voluptuous curves. She stepped onto the diving board, knowing that all eyes were following her, and sauntered to the front.

Then, stretching her arms over her head, Cassandra dove in, the cool water tingling her skin all over. She began to swim the length of the pool, her long torso reaching forward with each stroke, her well-toned legs kicking ever so slightly. Her body sliced through the water effortlessly, leaving barely a ripple.

"It's almost eight o'clock," a voice from the house called.

News Flash is about to start."

Once again the women began to move toward the house, but the men could not free themselves so easily from Cassandra's spell. Oh, they strove to look casual, silently sucking in their paunches or putting shirts over all-too-obvious flaws. They walked by her slowly, trying desperately to sneak one last peek.

Cassandra stepped out of the pool and slowly made her way toward a chaise lounge. She did not bother to dry herself.

Reaching into the pocket of her robe, she withdrew a pair of sunglasses, put them on, and lay back, crossing her legs.

Cassandra appeared to be resting quietly, but behind her sunglasses her eyes were very much on the move.

She spotted chubby Stephen Jenkins, the sixty-two-year-old former senator from Arkansas. Stephen Uncle Stevie, she and Sara called him was an old family friend. He and John Lowell had gone to Amherst together, their wives had hosted parties together, their children had gone to summer camp together. It was all very sweet and nice. And let's be frank here having sex with the conservative minority leader of the United States Senate had been something of a challenge for thirty-something Cassandra. A sexual thrill, however, it was not.

"Hello, Cassandra," Jenkins called out.

"Hello, Uncle Stevie."

Cassandra had considered seducing the senator's handsome, single son as well, but Bradley was kind of a pain in the ass. And worse, he was Sara's friend. Every time they saw each other, the two of them gabbed for hours, ignoring Cassandra completely.

If Sara and Bradley had been lovers, Cassandra might have considered it. But they weren't. From the day of her marriage two years ago, Sara was dedicated to Michael to the point of absolute boredom.

Cassandra poured some suntan oil into her cupped hand and began to massage it onto her legs. From across the pool Senator Jenkins watched, his eyes wide and hungry.

"Stephenr Mrs. Jenkins called.

"Bradley?"

The senator looked away regretfully.

"One minute, dear."

"Hurry, everyone! Sara's on!"

The crowd moved quickly now. In a few minutes everyone was inside, watching the television. Cassandra lay back and closed her eyes. Sara was on national TV. Who gives a rat's ass?

Sara felt a knot form in her stomach. She knew that the Reverend Ernest Sanders was sitting in the next room, waiting to be interviewed.

He was good in an interview slick as a greased pig. If the Reverend Sanders did not like a question, he dodged it by an old, proven method: he ignored it. He could frustrate and fluster an interviewer with the best of them.

Most of Sara's report on Sanders and his Holy Crusade was taped, so she removed her glasses, took a deep breath, and willed herself to remain calm. She had gone over the report so many times that she knew every word by rote memory. She sung softly to herself and only listened to bits and pieces of the story.

Starting twelve years ago with only a few dozen members, the Reverend Ernest Sanders, former member of several white supremacy groups, built the Holy Crusade into a powerful movement encompassing thousands of members throughout the country. Combining what Sanders calls "deep, religious values" and "traditional American rights," the Holy Crusade has been blanketed in controversy from its inception... the IRS has confirmed that neither the Reverend Ernest Sanders nor his wife Dixie have filed income tax returns in twelve years... Reverend Sanders has spent as much as ten thousand dollars a day on himself and several young women during "missionary" trips to Caribbean islands without a single new member of the Holy Crusade to show for it... millions of dollars in Holy Crusade donations missing... the FBI is investigating corruption in the upper ranks of the Reverend Sanders... When the taped portion of the story was finished, the camera swung to pick up the familiar and comforting face of Donald Parker. Sara stopped singing all together.

"We have the Reverend Sanders here in our studio," Parker stated.

"Reverend Sanders, good evening."

Ernest Sanders appeared on a screen, rather than in person.

As on Ted Koppel's Nightline, guests rarely if ever sat in the same room as the interviewers. A toll-free number appeared below his image.

"Good evening, Donald." Sanders voice was pleasant, relaxed.

Sara felt the knot in her stomach tighten. The minister wore a light blue, three-piece suit, an obvious hairpiece, and a gold wedding band.

No watch. No other jewelry. Nothing ostentatious.

His face was gentle, trusting; the face of a dear uncle or friendly neighbor. His bright smile, one of his biggest assets, was firmly set.

"Thank you for joining us."

"Thank you, Mr. Parker." Donald Parker asked the first question.

"You saw the report, Reverend Sanders. Do you have any comments?"

Sanders' face was so damn calm that Sara wanted to scream.

"I am a man of the Lord," he said in a smooth, Southern drawl.

"I understand human desires."

"I'm not sure I follow you, sir."

"It's clear to me and the God-fearing people around the nation what is going on here. I do not think I need to lower myself to Miss. Lowell's level by answering her charges."

"No charges were leveled, Reverend Sanders," Sara broke in, putting her wire-rimmed glasses back on her face.

"Are there facts in the report you would care to dispute?"

"Do not be so sly, Miss. Lowell. I know what you are really after."

"What is that, Reverend Sanders?" He smiled.

"A name for yourself. A quick reputation. What better way than to try to drag the good name of a simple preacher through the mud? A man who preaches the Bible in all its glory, who helps those less fortunate "

"Reverend Sanders," Sara interrupted, "your personal income last year is estimated at over thirteen million dollars, yet you paid no income taxes. Can you explain this?"

The remark did not faze him.

"Unless I'm mistaken, Miss. Lowell, your family is not exactly economically strapped. I seem to recall that your father has a rather spacious mansion of his own. Should his finances be questioned, too?"

"My father declares his income every year," she replied.

"My father can explain where every penny comes from. Can you do the same?"

"Of course," he stated emphatically.

"Your lies and innuendos do not fool God's chosen people. Many have tried to distract the righteous from the path of the Lord, but the Holy Crusade will march on. The Holy Crusade will not allow Satan to succeed."

"Can you address these supposed lies?" Sara asked.

"Can you be more specific?"

Sanders looked up and shook his head.

"Satan uses words to twist goodness and righteousness and make it appear evil," he explained like a school teacher lecturing an insubordinate student, "but we will not be fooled. We live in a society today that is overrun with immorality, but we stand firm.

What has happened to family values and ethics in this country, Miss. Lowell?

God- fearing people like my wife Dixie and I can't raise our children in this society anymore. Children are forced to attend public schools where God has been expelled but homosexuals are welcome. Does the Lord not tell us "

"Excuse me, sir, but you were about to address the issues raised in our report."

"What issues? "tour show does not address the real issue in America.

I'm talking about Armageddon, Miss. Lowell. The members of the Holy Crusade understand what is happening.

They understand that we are living in an era of Sodom and Gomorrah, that heretics and infidels are attacking God. Dixie and I are doing the Lord's work, but He helps us along. He gives us signs which you choose to ignore."

"The report spoke of your financial "

"Take what you call the AIDS virus, for example," Sanders interrupted, his voice rising to a fever pitch.

"What you call the new phenomenon of AIDS is just the final chapter of Sodom and Gomorrah. God is clearly striking down the wicked, immoral homosexuals and perverts with His plague."

"Reverend Sanders "

"Why is that so hard for you to believe?" he asked quietly, his smile brighter now, his eyes twinkling.

"Most Americans believe in the Lord's work as transcribed in the Bible.

Why then is it hard to believe He can still act in our present age? We have no trouble accepting the plagues of ancient Egypt. So why is it so hard to accept the plague of modern America? And woe to him who does not take heed. The sinners, Miss. Lowell, there is no place left for them to hide. If AIDS is not a sign of what is to come, if AIDS does not make you accept the Lord as you only salvation and repent, then nothing will show you the light. You are doomed."

Sara closed her eyes and tried to keep her temper in check.

She knew that she should keep to her line of questioning, that it would be a mistake to get off the subject of his financial improprieties. But her temper had other ideas.

"And what about the other victims, Reverend Sanders?" she asked, struggling to maintain an even tone.

"The other victims?"

"Yes, what about the so-called innocent victims of AIDS, the newborn babies born with the deadly disease or the people who contract the virus through blood transfusions? How do you explain the fact that AIDS is now the leading cause of death among hemophiliacs?"

Again that damn smirk of a smile.

"I do not explain it, Miss. Lowell. I explain nothing. The Bible does it for me. Read the Lord's words and you will see for yourself. The Bible tells us that not all living creatures in Noah's time were cruel and heartless, yet the Lord chose to save only the creatures upon Noah's ark. And in the story of Moses, why were the innocent forced to suffer through the hosts of plagues that besieged Egypt? The Bible gives us a simple answer, Miss. Lowell. The Lord moves in mysterious ways. Who are we to question His ultimate plan? I know, I know, it's an old cliche, but it happens to be true. You cannot deny that the vast majority of those stricken with God's plague are abnormal people with perverse lifestyles, but yes, the innocent must on occasion pay for the sins of their brethren. That is why I ask all of you to return to God now, repent before it's too late. God will not allow a cure to be found until he rids the planet of the immoral " Nice move, Sam. She had played right into his hands, allowing the butt head to get on his soapbox and preach. It was time to knock him off.

"Reverend Sanders, why have you not filled out an income tax form in twelve years? Why have you and your wife Dixie not paid a penny of income tax in all that time?"

Donald Parker sat back and watched. He did not want to interrupt. The show's director signaled for a commercial break, but Donald waved him off.

"Miss. Lowell, you know the law as well as I do. This great country of ours works to protect religious freedom, despite what some communists and atheists try to do. You may have temporarily succeeded in throwing God out of school and murdering unborn children, but the tide is changing "

"Thank you, Reverend Sanders, but we were talking about your taxes. Please try to answer the question."

"I am answering your question, Miss. Lowell. Dixie and I are law-abiding citizens. We pay our fair share of taxes."

"How much income tax did you pay last year, Reverend Sanders?"

"Churches do not have to pay taxes. It's called separation of church and state. You can read all about it in the Constitution."

Sara readjusted her spectacles.

"I've read the Constitution, Reverend Sanders, but with all due respect, sir, you are not a church. You would certainly not suggest that people who work in the church should slide by without paying taxes, forcing hardworking Americans to carry the load for them, would you?"

His smile wavered, and for a brief moment there was a crack in the facade, allowing a quick peek at the cold soul beyond the smile.

"Of course not," he said.

"You twist everything around to suit your purposes, and the righteous know that. The righteous will not be swayed off the path of the Lord by your lies. I repeat what I have said all along. I have paid my fair share of taxes. This whole issue is nothing but a play by secularists to ruin my good name."

Donald Parker finally broke in.

"Thank you, Reverend Sanders. Well take a break and be back after this message. Don't go away."

"Dr. Lowell? May I speak with you for a moment?"

John Lowell looked up, obviously annoyed.

"Can't it wait until after the show, Ray?" "There's a commercial on now," Raymond said. Dr. Raymond Markey worked for the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington. A small man, his arms and legs looked too short for his body. Thick glasses magnified his small dark eyes fivefold, making him look more like a classic movie nerd than a medical doctor. In truth, Markey rarely practiced medicine anymore. His job as assistant secretary of the department threw him more into the political realm than he cared to admit.

With a deep sigh, John Lowell stood and walked out of the room. The two headed down the hallway together. When they were alone, Lowell said, "Okay, what is it?"

Raymond Markey's giant eyes scanned the hallway like two searchlights across a prison courtyard.

"He's coming to your party tonight."

Lowell's face turned red.

"What? I don't want that man in my house, I thought I made that clear."

"You did."

"It's too dangerous," he whispered.

"The timing of this party, everything."

"It doesn't matter," Markey said.

"He'll be here. I thought you should know."

Lowell cursed silently, his hands clenching into fists.

"That son of a bitch is going to destroy us all."

As the party got into full swing, the group of men surrounding Cassandra fought for center stage like vain actors. But Cassandra, used to such scenes, couldn't have cared less. She merely smiled brightly, seductively, nodding now and again but never really listening. they were all important men. Randall Crane owned a large chunk of several conglomerates. He had been featured on the cover of Fortune magazine looking very distinguished and serious. But he was boring. They were all deadly boring. If these men had not possessed staggering amounts of money, nobody would even pretend to listen to their self-indulgent horse manure.

The crowd of well-dressed patrons buzzed about Sara's debut on Newsflash. Cassandra's eyes swept over the mansion's large ballroom, recognizing most of the nearly three hundred guests.

Hypocrites, she thought. Like they really gave a flying shit about fighting cancer. They were here to be seen, to mingle and impress.

If that meant coughing up some money for charity, well, that was the price of admission. Being seen was the thing.

Randall Crane interrupted her thoughts.

"Do you know how I arrived here tonight, Cassandra?"

She barely glanced in his direction.

"No, Randall. Why don't you tell me?"

"By private helicopter," he said proudly.

"I just bought the bird. Seats eight. I have my own full-time pilot, co-pilot, and stewardess."

"Stewardess?" Cassandra repeated.

"On a helicopter?"

Randall Crane nodded.

"We traveled from the roof of my highrise on 47th Street to here in under an hour." "I'm very im, Randall."

The older man beamed.

"Do you want to take a ride in it" You won't believe how fast it goes."

She had bedded Randall Crane more than three years ago, and he lasted about as long as a fifteen-year-old boy on his first time out. The man had barely got his pants off.

"You should learn to slow down, Randall," she said with a wicked smile.

"Speed is not always a good thing, you know."

Watching Randall's face turn red, Cassandra spotted Michael in the back corner, standing in a corner with that nothing doctor friend of his.

Michael looked so damn handsome in his tux, the only man at the party who would dare to wear a purple flowered bowtie and matching cumber bund rather than the standard black. But that was Michael. He was always a little off center. Cassandra had not seen him for nearly six months, but he still looked fantastic.

It was strange really. Over the years Cassandra had stole nj all of Sara's boyfriends, starting with her first high school beau, Eddie Myles. Cassandra had orchestrated the seduction so that Sara would be sure to walk in on them.

Which she did.

Sara's eyes widened when she saw her boyfriend's pants lowered to his ankles, Cassandra kneeling in front of him. Her face had crumbled into anguish. But Eddie was only the first.

It became a game to Cassandra. A new challenge. Every time Sara risked trusting someone, her sister would pounce on him. With each seduction Sara's wounds bled anew. Insecurity began to nestle into her psyche. Sara became more self-conscious about her health problems. Her confidence withered away. Sarcasm became her defense. Cassandra watched her sister distance herself from the outside world. She dedicated herself to her studies, staying alone in her room, blasting that awful heavy metal music.

Eventually, there were no boys left for Cassandra to chase away.

But Sara had been playing possum. Somehow the sly bitch had landed the best of men.

Michael, the bastard. The gorgeous, wonderful bastard.

Cassandra stepped forward.

"Excuse me a moment, gentlemen."

The men parted to allow her to pass. Cassandra could not take her eyes off Michael. Six months had passed since they had last saw each other.

And a lot of things might have changed in six months.

Cassandra moved toward Michael.

Sitting in the back of a studio limousine, Sara could not keep still.

She tried to unwind from the excitement of the show, but the constant flow of adrenalin would not allow it. She rocked back and forth in the plush leather seat, her mind whirling with anticipation. She had moved from Blue Oyster Cult into the more contemporary sounds of Depeche Mode, but she still wasn't slowing down. Midway through

"Blasphemous Rumors," the limousine driver raised the soundproof window between them.

Good.

Soon she would see Michael. Corny to say, but the best part of days like these was reliving each detail with her husband.

Wincing, Sara snapped off her brace and rubbed her foot. Leg | braces had improved dramatically over the years, from the days | when she wore a heavy metal one that gripped like a power-vise to the modern fiberglass kind that felt more snug than compressing. Still, the brace was cumbersome and her leg throbbed painfully when she wore it a long time. She massaged her foot and lower leg with knowing hands. The blood began to circulate again.

Born two months premature, Sara had been a sickly child from the start.

Infections settled into her lungs, causing pneumonia and a childhood of health complications. The difficult birth had also permanently damaged a nerve in Sara's left foot.

As a child Sara had needed a brace and metal crutches to walk.

Now the crutches were gone, but the brace and occasionally a cane were still evident.

Her youth was filled with constant hospital visits and trips to medical specialists and therapists. During endless sunny summer days Sara was forced to stay shut up in her bedroom rather than play outside with other children. Tutors visited the house or the hospital because of all the school she missed. She had few friends. Schoolmates never teased or taunted her, but they shunned the strange child and treated her like some sort of outsider. Sara was not allowed to take gym class. She had to sit on the steps during recess. Other children eyed her warily, almost frightened by the fragile, pale girl as though she represented death in a place that only understood immortality.

No matter how hard she tried not to be, Sara was always different, always coddled, always behind. She hated it. As she got older, Sara learned that the limp and brace were not as difficult to overcome as people's perceptions. Whenever she suffered a setback, teachers were quick to offer her health as an excuse.

"It's not your fault, Sara. If you were in perfect health..."

But Sara wanted to scream every time they said that. She did not want to hear excuses or use them to justify her shortcomings she wanted to overcome them. Check that. She wanted to blow them away.

The chauffeur turned off the road and headed up the driveway. There were cars parked everywhere Rolls Royces, Mercedes, stretch limos of all varieties, cars with special government license plates. Some chauffeurs stood around the driveway, smoking cigarettes and chatting with one another.

Others stayed in the car and read newspapers.

When the limo reached the house, Sara snapped her brace back on, grabbed her cane, and proceeded as gracefully as she could toward the front door.

Michael took another sip of Perrier. There was a steady ripping pain in his abdomen, but he did not mention it to Harvey. He had planned to say something, but Harvey was so distracted tonight that Michael decided to wait. He watched Harvey's eyes shift nervously over the guests in the large ballroom. His overall appearance, always a touch disheveled, was a complete mess.

"Are you all right, Harv?"

"Fine," he replied quickly.

"Something on your mind?"

"I... what time is Sara supposed to show up?"

It was the third time he had asked.

"Any minute now," Michael said.

"What the hell is the big deal?"

"Nothing," Harvey answered with a tight smile.

"Your wife and I are having a torrid affair behind your back, that's all."

"Again? I hate it when you steal my women, Harv."

Harvey patted his paunch and tried to arrange his wild hair.

"What can I say? I'm a stud."

Michael took another sip of his water.

"What do you have planned for next week?" he asked.

"Next week?"

"Your birthday, Harv." "Oh," Harvey said, "that."

"You only turn fifty once, big fella."

Harvey sloshed down the rest of his martini.

"Don't remind me." "Fifty years old," Michael said with a whistle.

"Five big decades."

"Shut up, Michael."

"Half a century. The golden anniversary. Hard to believe."

"You're a pal, Mike. Thanks."

Michael grinned.

"Come on, Harv. You've never looked better."

"Yeah, well, I do get tired of beating off the women with a stick."

Harvey glanced over Michael's shoulder and spotted Cassandra walking toward them.

"Speaking of beating them off with a stick."

"What?"

"Sister- in-law alert."

"Where?"

Cassandra tapped his shoulder.

"Hello, Michael."

"Right behind you."

"Thanks." Reluctantly, Michael turned toward Cassandra.

"Good evening, Cassandra." "Long time, no see, Michael," she said, "Very long. Six months, I think."

"About that. You remember my friend Harvey Riker?"

"Ah, yes. The doctor."

Harvey stepped forward.

"Nice to see you again, Cassandra."

She nodded slightly, ignoring him, her eyes never leaving Michael's face.

"So how do I look this evening, Michael?"

"Nice."

"Nice?" she repeated.

Michael shrugged.

"Kind of noncommittal," Cassandra noted.

He shrugged again.

Cassandra turned her attention to Harvey for the briefest of moments.

"Dr. Riker, do you agree with Michael's assessment?"

Harvey cleared his throat.

"Uh, a lot of words come to mind, Cassandra. Nice is not one of them." She smiled briefly, her gaze back upon Michael.

"Michael, can we talk for a moment?"

"Look, Cassandra "

"It's okay," Harvey interrupted.

"I need to freshen my drink anyway."

They both watched him walk away. In front of the ballroom the band Dr. Lowell had hired finished their rendition of Tie A Yellow Ribbon and moved on to Feelings. The lead singer sounded like a cat caught in a cuisinart.

"Care to dance?" Cassandra asked.

"No, thanks."

"Why not?".

"I'm not in the mood. What did you want to talk to me about?"

"Stop being rude, Michael. I'll get to it in a minute. Pretend this is foreplay. You've heard of foreplay, haven't you?"

"I think I read something about it in Cosmo."

"Good. How do you like my dress?"

"Divine. What do you want?"

"Michael- "

"You're not really going to start this shit again, are you?"

"What shit?"

"You know what shit, Cassandra."

"I do?"

"I'm married to Sara, for chrissake. You remember Sara blonde, petite, gorgeous, lousy taste in music, your sister."

"So?"

Michael rolled his eyes.

"So why do you keep bothering me?

Why do you always come on like some soap opera harlot?"

She looked at him.

"You don't approve of me, do you, Michael?"

"It's not my place to approve or disapprove."

"So what do you think of me then?" she asked, sipping her drink.

"Really."

"I think you're great," he said.

"You're beautiful and funny and smart, but when you act like this" he shrugged "you kind of make me sick."

"You're so sweet." Her hand reached out and rested on Michael's chest.

Then she winked at him, leaned forward, and kissed his cheek.

"What was that for?" he asked.

She winked and pointed behind him.

"That."

Michael turned around. From the entrance way Sara stood watching them.

A few hours ago George had successfully stolen a car and changed its license plate. He circled the area near the Lowell estate for a little while, making sure he knew every possible escape route before parking in an abandoned lot several miles away. He spread goose-liver pate on a piece of toast and poured himself a red wine. Very young.

Beaujolais-Villages.

A perfect picnic.

When George had finished, he tidied the car, checked his watch, and drove back toward Dr. Lowell's mansion. He reached into the pocket of his Banana Republic khakis and took out his stiletto. He pressed the spring-release button with his thumb.

The long, thin blade shot out with a sleek pop.

Very nice.

He closed the blade and put it back in his pocket. Enough games.

Enough wine and song.

It was time to go to work.

3.

Harvey Riker helped himself to another martini.

His third. Or was it his fourth? He was not sure.

Harvey was not a heavy drinker, but lately he had found himself eyeing the bottle with new respect and desire. So much had happened the past few weeks. Why now? Why when they were on the brink of cornering and even destroying the AIDS virus did all this have to happen?

He handed the glass back to the bartender.

"Another," he said simply.

The bartender hesitated but then took the glass.

"Last one, okay?"

Harvey nodded. The bartender was right. Enough was enough.

He spun back toward the crowd. Michael was still talking with Cassandra. Man, she was something else. Talk about sizzle. A guy could get sunburn just standing near her. Make that sunstroke.

And how old is she, Harvey? Young enough to be your daughter, I suspect.

He shrugged. No harm in fantasizing, was there?

But his mind quickly returned to the other matter. The matter.

His bloodshot eyes scanned the room, but there was still no sign of Sara.

"Hello, Dr. Riker."

Harvey turned toward the familiar voice.

"Hey, Bradley, how you feeling?"

Bradley Jenkins, the senator's son, smiled at Harvey.

"Much better, thanks."

"Any problems?"

Bradley shook his head.

"Right now I feel great. It's like some sort of a miracle...1 just don't know how long it will last."

Harvey looked at the soft-spoken young man. Sara had introduced Harvey to Bradley years ago, well before Bradley had become his patient or even suspected he had AIDS.

"Neither do we, Bradley," he said in a serious tone.

"The important thing is to continue the treatment. Stopping in the middle can be more dangerous than the disease itself."

"I'd be crazy to stop."

"When is your next visit?"

Bradley never answered because his father stepped between them.

"Not another word," Senator Jenkins hissed at Harvey.

"Ibllow me." Harvey did as the senator asked. He followed him down the long corridor, keeping a yard or two between them. Senator Stephen Jenkins stopped at the last door, opened it, glanced back down the corridor to make sure no one was looking, and then waved for Harvey to enter. He closed the door behind them.

They were in Dr. Lowell's library now, a huge, two-level room jammed from floor to high ceiling with thick, leather-covered books. There was a sliding ladder to facilitate getting volumes from the higher shelves and a catwalk that circled the room like a running track. Dark oak was the color of the shelves, the floor, the furniture.

Senator Jenkins began to pace.

"You should know better than to speak to my son in public."

"We were just talking," Harvey said.

"This is a party. People talk."

"Do you know what would happen if people found out the truth about Bradley?" Harvey paused.

"Peace in the Middle East?"

"Don't get cute with me, Riker."

"Nuclear armageddon? The end of Friday the Thirteenth sequels?"

"I owe you, Dr. Riker, but don't push me."

Harvey's tone was brisk.

"You don't owe me anything."

"You saved my son's life."

"We don't know that. Only time will tell for sure."

"Still," the senator said, "it is encouraging. I'm very grateful."

"I'm. touched."

"I also heard about the death of your partner Dr. Grey. My condolences."

"Care to make a public donation to his favorite charity?"

The senator chuckled without humor.

"No."

"Then how about getting the Senate to vote us more funds?"

"You know I can't do that. The media and my opponents will tear me apart."

"For helping cure a deadly disease?"

"For spending the voters' hard-earned tax dollars to help a bunch of immoral, limp-wristed perverts."

"Like your son?"

The senator lowered his head.

"Low blow, Riker. Very low.

If it ever got out that Bradley was..." He stopped.

"Gay?" Harvey finished for him.

"Is that the word you're looking for? Well, it won't. Not from me, at least."

"Then I'll do what I can to help the clinic discreetly, of course." Senator Jenkins paused for a moment, thinking.

"Besides," he continued, "there are other ways to raise more money without involving me."

"Like how?"

"Make your results public."

"It's still too early."

"It's never too early," Jenkins said.

"You don't think there're rumors about your success in Washington? How do you think I found out about it? All you have to do is show the media some of your test cases. Show them that Krutzer kid or Raul Leander."

Harvey almost smiled.

"What about Bradley? The son of a senator would certainly draw more attention than a couple of unknown gays."

"You can't use him."

"Even if it means saving more lives or is your son the only homosexual worth saving?"

"You cannot use Bradley, Riker. That's final. Do you understand?"

"I understand, Senator. I understand that some things are more important than human lives like reelection campaigns."

The senator stepped closer. He was a big man and he towered over the smaller doctor.

"I'm getting a little tired of your moral outrage, Dr. Riker. You're out of your league here, and I've seen smaller mistakes ruin a man."

"Are you threatening me?"

"No, I'm warning you. Someone might decide to step on you if you become too bothersome."

Harvey returned the senator's glare.

"You must be mistaking me for somebody who gives a shit," he replied evenly.

"If my clinic goes down the tubes, a certain right-wing, narrow-minded senator from Arkansas would go with me."

Senator Jenkins shook his head. "You're so goddamn blind, Riker. You don't even understand what you're involved in here."

"So tell me."

"Your cause has more than its share of enemies," Jenkins continued.

"There are plenty of people who would not mind putting an end to your research. Powerful people."

"Like your Jenkins stepped back and shook his head.

"I'm just trying to save my son's life," he said softly.

"But there are important people who want the clinic closed...

permanently."

"I'm aware of that. I can handle it."

Senator Stephen Jenkins walked toward the door and opened it.

"No," he said, "I don't think you can."

Sara stared at Michael and Cassandra. Her hand gripped her cane to the point where her knuckles turned white. She fought off the desire to bash Cassandra with the same cane. She closed her eyes for a brief moment. Sara knew that she was playing into her sister's hand, that Cassandra was just trying to bait her. But Sara still felt a flush of anger and jealousy that colored her cheeks red.

Lord knows she should be used to Cassandra by now.

Sara cleared her throat and began to step toward them when somebody blocked her path.

"Good evening, Miss. Lowell."

Sara looked up, surprised.

"Good evening, Reverend Sanders." "Please," the minister said, his famous smile spread across his face, "a moment of your time."

He escorted her toward the empty corridor and out of view.

"I didn't expect to see you here," Sara began.

And what the hell are you doing here anyway?

"The Holy Crusade is a large contributor to your father's organization," he explained.

"Your father had no choice but to invite a representative from our organization. Since I've always wanted to meet the prestigious Dr. Lowell, I decided to be that representative."

"I see," Sara replied.

"Yes, Miss. Lowell, despite your biased hatchet job on the Holy Crusade and what we believe as God-fearing "

"I did not mention beliefs in my report," Sara interrupted.

"I discussed finances and taxes." Sanders smiled.

"You think you are so clever, don't you, Miss. Lowell? Do you really think that your petty report can hurt my ministry? You are a stupid woman. In trying to destroy me, you have done the very opposite."

Sara leaned against her cane.

"I don't know what you're talking about, but if you'll excuse me..."

She began to hobble back toward the party, but Sanders reached out and gripped her elbow firmly.

"The money has been pouring in since we went off the air, Miss. Lowell.

My 800 number is ringing like crazy. The free publicity from the show "

"Let go of me or start singing soprano."

His grip tightened.

"Your attacks on me have mobilized my supporters. The righteous see a threat, and they are rising to help-"

"Is there a problem here?"

Sanders released Sara's arm and spun quickly toward the voice. His smile was back in place.

"Why, you're Michael Silverman! The basketball star! I'm a big fan of yours. Pleasure to meet you, sir."

Sara watched as Sanders stuck out his hand. Michael's eyes were burning, his temper just barely reined in. Sara moved toward Michael and caressed his shoulder. Michael's muscles were taut and knotted. He continued to ignore the reverend's outstretched hand. A few seconds later Sanders withdrew it, his smile faltering just slightly.

"Yes, well, it was nice chatting with you all," Sanders rambled, "but I really must be going back to the party now."

"Oh must you?" Michael countered.

Sanders was sweating profusely now.

"I look forward to seeing you both at the party," he said.

"Good- bye, Miss. Lowell."

"Good- bye, Reverend."

Sanders turned toward Michael.

"Oh, by the way, Mr. Silverman, the Holy Crusade is a big supporter of Israel. I thought you should know."

Michael watched Sanders disappear down the corridor.

"Permission to beat his head in."

"Permission denied... for now."

"You never let me have fun anymore," Michael said, beginning to relax a little.

"I'm sorry."

"And he's a big supporter of Israel. Isn't that nice, honi bet some of his best friends are Jewish."

Sara nodded.

"He probably wants to convert."

"I'll perform the briss."

Michael hugged Sara tightly.

"You all right?" he asked.

"Tine," Sara replied. She took off her glasses and wiped them with Michael's handkerchief.

"So what have you been up to tonight, my valiant hero?"

Michael shrugged.

"The usual saving small children from fires, fighting crime in the streets, getting pawed by your sister."

Sara laughed.

"Cassandra can be a tad aggressive."

"Just a tad like Napoleon. You weren't upset, were you?" "Me?" Sara asked.

"Never. I did, however, feel this strong desire to bash her head in with my cane."

"That's my girl."

"You fought her off bravely, I suppose."

He put his fist to his chest.

"My chastity remains intact."

"Good."

"By the way, you were great tonight."

She arched her eyebrows.

"I meant on the show, silly girl. No wonder Sanders was pissed off.

You tore his ass to pieces."

"But he's probably right, Michael. All the expose will do is galvanize his supporters and gain him a few new ones."

"In the short run maybe. But even imbeciles learn eventually."

"They're not imbeciles. A little gullible perhaps..."

"Whatever," he replied, taking her hand.

"Ready to face your adoring public?"

"Not really."

"Good. Then follow me, my little kitten."

"Where?"

"You mentioned something earlier in the evening about my having my way with you."

"Did I? I don't remember."

"It was right after you referred to me as the Stud Machine."

"Oh," she said, moving toward the stairwell.

"Now I remember."

"Senator Jenkins!"

Stephen Jenkins turned toward the voice. His painted, vote getting smile, already applied to his jowly face, was holding up quite nicely.

"Hello, Reverend. How wonderful to see you!"

Senator Jenkins and Reverend Sanders exchanged firm handshakes.

Sanders, the senator knew, was one of the most influential men in the South. Over the course of the past decade, the religious right had been crucial in Senator Jenkins' reelection campaigns, and no one delivered their votes like the Reverend Ernest Sanders. If Sanders was on your side, he praised you as a descendant of the Prophets. If he was against you, well, Satan received kinder treatment in his sermons.

Luckily for Jenkins, the reverend had backed him. Without his grassroots support, the senator might have lost on the last go-around to that upstart liberal the Democrats had pitted against him.

"Thank you, Stephen. Quite a party, isn't it?"

"Oh, yes," Jenkins replied.

Without so much as a head nod or knowing glance, the two men stepped down the long corridor, out of earshot and sight.

Their smiles quickly dissolved away. Ernest Sanders leaned toward Jenkins' ear, his face tight and set.

"I'm not very happy about the guest list for this party," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"What the hell is Dr. Harvey Riker doing here?"

"He's very close to John's daughter," Jenkins explained.

"This is not good, Stephen. His being here... it helps give him a certain legitimacy, don't you think?"

The senator nodded, though he really did not agree. He also knew his old friend John Lowell was a hell of a lot more upset at Sanders being here than Riker. John had made it very clear he did not want anyone to know of his association with the televangelist.

"A lot has been happening lately," Sanders continued.

"We'd best prepare ourselves. I think we should all meet next week."

"Where?"

"At Bethesda."

The senator nodded again.

"Are you in town for long, Reverend?""

"No," Sanders replied.

"I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon. I only came up for the interview and... how should I put it?" He paused, thinking.

"To keep the holy coalition together."

Jenkins felt something cold skitter down his back.

"I don't understand."

Sanders looked straight at Stephen Jenkins.

"Nothing to worry about, Stephen," he said. "I'll take care of everything."

Several hours later Harvey Riker spotted Sara standing by herself near the bar. Finally, he thought, as something akin to relief drifted through him, a chance to speak with her alone. For the past fifteen minutes Harvey had watched Sara and Bradley Jenkins engage in what appeared to be a serious conversation.

They were interrupted by Bradley's father, who moved between them and pulled Bradley away. No surprise there. Harvey knew that Bradley confided in Sara. Senator Jenkins probably did too.

Sara was leaning against her cane, sipping lightly at her drink.

Harvey approached her.

"There you are," he began. " I've been looking for you all night.

Congratulations on the show."

She kissed his cheek.

"Thank you, Harvey. How are you doing?"

"Fine."

"And the clinic?"

Harvey shrugged.

"Okay."

"Did Michael speak with you yet?"

"About what?"

"About his stomach."

"No," he replied.

"What about it?"

Sara frowned.

"I'm going to kill him."

"What's wrong with his stomach?"

"He's been having terrible stomach pain for over a week now."

Harvey nodded, finally understanding.

"That explains his grimacing all night." "I can't believe him," Sara continued.

"He1 promised me he would speak to you."

"Don't blame him, Sara. I haven't been the most approachable company this evening. He probably thought it was a bad time."

"So what's wrong?"

"I need to talk to you about something important." Despite Harvey's earlier vow, he had gone well beyond that fourth martini.

He took yet another swish, enjoying the feel of the cool liquid circling in his mouth before he swallowed. He might have been a little tipsy earlier, but his mind became sober and alert now.

"It involves the clinic," he began slowly, weighing each word in his head before it passed his lips, "and I think it involves Bruce's death." He stopped.

He motioned with his hand.

"Let's take a walk." They moved through the French doors and out onto the broad expanse of landscaped grounds. Many guests were outside now, the party spilling from the crowded ballroom onto the lawn and formal gardens beyond. The two strolled in silence past the pool, the cabana, the tennis courts. Sara led Harvey down toward the barn where her father kept the horses. She opened the barn door, releasing the smell of hay and animals. They entered. A horse neighed.

"This is a beautiful estate," Harvey said.

"Yes, it is."

He stroked the broad forehead of a large grey horse.

"Do you do much riding?" he asked.

Sara shook her head.

"Cassandra's the rider in the family.

The doctors did not like the idea of me on a horse as a child so I never got into it."

"Oh."

"So why don't you tell me what's up?"

"You're going to think I'm crazy."

"Nothing new there."

Harvey chuckled and then scanned the area to make sure that no one was around.

"All right," he said slowly, "here goes. As you know, Bruce and I have been running the clinic for almost three years now, trying our best to keep all results secret and avoiding the press at all costs."

"I know," Sara replied," but I never understood why. Clinics and doctors usually crave media attention."

"Usually, yes. And I, for one, am never against seeing my smiling face on TV. But this is something different, Sara, something big. First, our treatment is experimental. In such cases even a rumor of success brings on expectations which probably cannot be met. Second, we are working with only forty patients, many of whom do not want their cases made public for obvious reasons. AIDS is still the evil plague in our society, one that inspires prejudice and discrimination of the highest order."

"I see."

"But a few new factors have entered the game."

"Such as?"

"Money," he stated flatly.

"We're running out of it and we need more badly. Without some public pressure on the federal government to extend our grant and without some outside donations, the clinic won't survive much longer, and..." He stopped.

"And there's something else," he said.

"Something you have to swear to keep to yourself."

"Go ahead."

"Swear."

She looked at him, puzzled.

"I swear." He sighed deeply.

"You've probably heard some of the rumors, Sara. No matter how hard we tried to keep things quiet, the word began to leak out. It started with the success of the drug on the isolated virus in the lab. Then we injected it in mice. Over time, the HIV was destroyed in virtually every instance. The same thing happened when we moved up to monkeys."

Sara swallowed.

"What are you trying to say?"

"You can't keep something like this a secret for very long," he continued, "and frankly speaking, we felt it was time to let the facts be known a little bit at a time, of course."

Her mouth dropped open. She had heard a vague rumor or two and dismissed them as wishful thinking.

"Do you mean...?"

He nodded.

"We have found a cure, or at the very least a strong treatment, for the AIDS virus."

"My God."

"It doesn't work all the time yet," he continued quickly, "and it is not a wonder cure in the classic sense. It is a long, often painful regimen, but in a number of cases we have had great success."

"But why would you want to keep that secret?"

He removed a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed the sweat from his face. Sara had never seen Harvey look so tense and strained.

"A good question," he replied.

"HIV, the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is a very tricky bug.

It was hard to know for sure if we were truly blocking its effect or if the virus was just taking it easy on us for a little while. HIV is constantly changing, mutating, even hiding inside human cells. We didn't know about the true, long-term effects of what we were doing.

Imagine, Sara, if we came out claiming to have a cure for AIDS only to find out we were wrong."

"It would be catastrophic," she agreed.

"To put it mildly. Plus we have the HHS to contend with."

"The Department of Health and Human Services? What do they have to do with this?"

"Everything. They're a giant bureaucracy and bureaucrats have a way of slowing things down to a crawl. The Public Health Service hell, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health all that is under the goddamn control of the Department of HHS."

"Bureaucrats on top of bureaucrats."

"Exactly. That's one of the reasons we kept our safehouse out of the country, where no one from Health and Human Services could interfere whenever they got bored or somebody's ego was bent out of shape."

"I'm not following you."

"You know that I served as a medic in Vietnam, right?"

She nodded.

"Well, I spent a lot of time in Southeast Asia. It's a quiet society.

Mysterious. No one interferes with your business. Bruce and I decided to keep all our lab tests tissue specimens, blood samples, that kind of thing in Bangkok, where they would be not very accessible."

"To avoid some of the bureaucracy?"

He nodded.

"While their function is certainly justifiable, the PDA, for example, has a habit of testing drugs for years to make sure they're safe.

You've probably read about all the experimental drugs the PDA won't allow AIDS patients to take."

She nodded.

"Never made much sense to me."

"It's a complex debate, but I agree with you. If AIDS is a terminal illness, what harm can it cause a poor bastard who's already on death row to experiment? What we at the clinic hope to do was to provide the PDA with so much evidence that any unnecessary delay would be prevented. At the same time we could test our compound without the panic and media attention that our results would cause." Sara thought for a moment.

"But couldn't you just show the government your results in secret?

They'd be sure to allocate more funds once they saw some positive results." He smiled.

"You forgot that the people who decide these matters are politicians.

Can you picture a politician being closemouthed about something this big? No way, Sara. They would try to milk this for all the votes it could get them."

"Good point."

"And one other thing. Not all the bigwigs are in favor of our program.

Your father, for one."

"My father's objections to your clinic are different," she snapped defensively.

"If he knew that a cure was being found "

"Perhaps I spoke too hastily," he interrupted.

"Your father is a dedicated healer and I would never question his commitment to stop human suffering. I don't agree with his stand on AIDS, but I understand that it is a difference of opinion, not ideology.

But there are others, Sara men like that bastard Sanders and his lobotomized followers who would do anything to stop our research."

"But I don't see what all this has to do with Bruce's death.

If you were so close to reaching your goal, why did he kill himself?"

Harvey lowered his head. His bloodshot and tired eyes stared down at his shoes.

"That's just the point."

"What is?"

He fiddled with the mixing straw in his glass.

"Let's say I wanted to prove to you that we really have found a cure for AIDS.

What could I show you to prove our claim beyond a shadow of a doubt?"

"Case studies."

He nodded.

"In other words, patients who have been cured, right?"

"Right."

"Bruce, Eric and I saw it the same way. The major part of our research is our patients, Sara. Obviously, if we can present to the world patients who are fully cured patients who are no longer HIV positive then we have the evidence needed to support our claim."

"Understood."

"The problem is that two of our best case studies Bill Whitherson and Scott Trian are now dead." "AIDS-related?" she asked.

He shook his head.

"Murdered."

The word hit Sara like a sharp slap.

"What?"

"They both died of multiple stab wounds within two weeks of one another."

"I didn't read anything about this."

"The murder of gays is hardly front-page stuff, Sara."

"Did you talk to the police?"

He nodded.

"They thought it was an interesting coincidence but nothing more. They pointed out other similarities between the two men both were gay, lived in Greenwich Village, had brown hair, etcetera, etcetera."

"They could be right," she said.

"It could be just a coincidence."

"I know," he agreed.

"I thought that too."

"But?"

"But now Bruce is dead."

"And you think his suicide is related to this?"

He paused and let out a deep breath.

"I don't think Bruce committed suicide, Sara. I think he was murdered."

Sara felt her mouth go dry.

"But how can that be? Wasn't a note found?"

"Yes."

"And wasn't it in Bruce's handwriting?"

"Yes."

"So how- "

"I'm not sure how it worked. It could have been a clever forgery or something I don't know."

Sara's face twisted into a look of puzzlement.

"Then you're saying that Bruce was thrown through the window?"

"I'm. saying that it's worth looking into. Bruce was supposed to be in Canctin on vacation. What kind of man flies home early from a vacation to kill himself? And something else."

"Yes?"

"A few minutes before Bruce died, he called me on the phone.

He sounded scared shitless. He said he needed to talk to me in private about something important. I'm sure it was about the murders. We only spoke for a minute or two before he suddenly hung up."

"Did Bruce tell you where he was?"

"No."

"Let me ask you something else," she continued, her mind racing now.

"Are there other good case studies you could present besides the two murder victims?"

"Yes. At least four others. I know this whole thing sounds crazy, Sara, and yes, I know there are a million more rational solutions to all of this. There could be a psychotic gay-basher hanging around the clinic who followed Whitherson and Trian home and killed them. It could even be another patient or a staff member.

But Sara, this is so big, so important. If and I admit it's a big if if someone murdered them because of their affiliation to the clinic and if that someone does the same to the others, it could mean a delay in proving that the treatment works. That delay could cost thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives." "I see your point," she said, "but why are you telling me?" Harvey smiled, though his face still looked weary.

"I don't have much, Sara. I'm divorced. I have no kids. My only brother died of AIDS. My father died years ago and my mother has Alzheimer's. I work all the time so I don't have a lot of friends."

He stopped now as if trying to summon up some additional strength.

"Michael has always been like a son to me. That makes you, well, the best kind of daughter-in-law. Whether you like it or not, you and Michael are my family."

"We like it," she said softly. She took hold of his hand.

"Have you told anyone else about this?"

"I'm going to tell Michael, but I wanted to speak to you first.

Eric, of course, knows. He's been wonderful since joining the clinic last year. I depend on him for everything."

"I'm glad he worked out so well."

"Yeah, well, Eric and I are both starting to question our sanity over this whole murder mess. We're not sure if we're complete lunatics or just a pair of paranoid conspiracy nuts. Working on a disease like this one can make you a little batty after a while.

Will you help me investigate this?"

"I'll get on it right away," she said.

"I have a friend in homicide, a Detective Max Bernstein.

"I'll speak to him about it. But I have another suggestion."

"What?"

She hesitated.

"Let me do a story on the clinic."

"Huh?"

"Well run it live on Newsflash. The positive publicity will force the government to refinance the clinic." "I don't know, Sara," he said.

"It might piss off Washington."

"So what?" she countered.

"You'll have all of America on your side after this report. The politicians wouldn't dare close you down." Harvey looked down and said nothing for a few minutes.

"Harv?"

"Can you keep our location and identity a secret?" he asked.

"No names of doctors, no names of patients, nothing like that?

I won't risk a patient's confidentiality."

"No problem."

He looked around, his eyes misty and afraid.

"If you think it will work..."

"It has to," Sara urged.

"Like you said before, it's time to let the world know."

Harvey nodded.

"Okay then. Do it." He shook his head, in some vain attempt to clear it. His face fought to look cheerful.

"Now let's change subjects for a while. How are you doing?" "Actually," Sara said with a hint of a smile, "I need a small favor."

"Name it."

"I need you to find me a good obstetrician."

Now it was Harvey's turn to look surprised.

"Jesus, Sara, are you...?

She shrugged, trying to contain her excitement. She wanted so damn much to say yes, to see Michael's face after a positive test result came back.

"Right now, I'm just late."

"Maybe this is an insensitive question, but what about your career?"

"No problem there. I can still tape the shows up until the birth and the networks love the publicity of a maternity leave. Boosts ratings through the roof."

"Can you be at Columbia Presbyterian tomorrow morning at ten?"

"Yes."

"Good. Ask for Dr. Carol Simpson. She'll know you're coming." He paused, his voice becoming serious.

"I know you and Michael have been trying for a long time, Sara. Have you told him?"

She shook her head.

"I'd rather wait for the results of the test.

I don't want to build up his hopes if it's just another false alarm."

"Do you mind if I meet you there?"

"I'd like that."

"Great.

"I'll see you then."

"Harvey?"

"Yes?"

"Don't forget to talk to Michael about his stomach. He won't say anything, but it's really giving him some problems."

"I'll speak to him right away."

George sat in his car behind lush shrubbery at the foot of Dr. Lowell's driveway. He checked his gold Piaget. Getting late. The party was winding down now. Most of the guests had already left.

George had been sitting in the car for hours, watching while his intended victim drove up the driveway in a shiny limousine.

The poor soul was in the large mansion now, enjoying Dom Perignon champagne and foie gras, hobnobbing with the jet set, never knowing that in a few hours the knife in George's hand would slit open his arteries and extinguish his life forever.

He examined the stiletto blade front and back. Even in the dark, it gleamed menacingly.

A limousine drove down the driveway and past him. George looked up. He recognized the license plate immediately. The familiar adrenalin coursed through his veins.

He turned the ignition key and followed.

4.

It was a two-on-one fast break. Michael had faced hundreds of them in his career, maybe thousands.

He watched as the New York Knickv number one draft pick, a scrawny black kid from Memphis State named Jerome Holloway, dribbled toward him with lightning speed. On Jerome's left ran the Knick's second round pick, Mark Boone, a big white guy from Brigham Young who looked like a giant farmhand. The two kids bore down on the old veteran with determination in their eyes.

Come to Papa, Michael thought.

Michael knew better than anyone how to defend two men against one: confuse them especially the man dribbling the ball.

The key was to make the Holloway kid throw an errant pass or to stall him long enough for Michael's teammates, his reinforcements, to arrive.

Michael head-faked back and forth, alternating between blocking Holloway's trail to the basket and picking up the free man Boone. He looked, he thought, suspiciously like a man having a fit. But that was okay better to shake up the rookies.

Jerome Holloway headed straight toward the basket. At the last moment Michael stepped in his way. Jerome leaped, his eyes desperately seeking Boone streaking down the other side. Michael almost smiled.

Once Holloway's feet had left the ground, he had committed. A mistake.

A pure rookie mistake. Predictably, the kid looked panicky and began to move his arms toward his chest, preparing to throw the ball to Boone.

Like taking candy from a baby.

Michael slid between the two, readying himself to steal the pass and head back down the court for a fast break in his favor.

He had done the same thing countless times before. Games had been decided by such a switch in momentum. Michael stepped forward and extended his hand into the passing lane, just as Holloway was about to release the ball.

But Holloway pulled back. The passing movement and panicked expression had been a fake. Completely out of position now, Michael watched while Holloway grinned, cupped the ball between his hand and forearm, and glided toward the cylinder.

The dunk crashed through the basket with remarkable force. The backboard vibrated from the assault.

Holloway landed and turned toward Michael. The grin was still on his face.

Out of breath, Michael managed, "I know, I know. In my face, right?"

Jerome shrugged.

"You said it, old dude, not me. But I do love playing against legends."

"This is just practice, kid. We're on the same team."

"Knicks to the end. By the way, nice shorts."

"You don't like them?"

"Pink and aqua flowers? Very hip."

They ran up court. Sweat soaked all ten players running through the scrimmage. Their bodies glistened in the dim light.

Michael felt hot, tired, and a touch out of shape. His stomach was not helping matters much.

The upcoming season would be Michael's twelfth with the New York Knicks. He had begun, like Holloway, as a number one draft pick.

Coming out of Stanford at age twenty-two, Michael had been a superstar his first year in the NBA, winning the Rookie of the Year Award and making the All-Star team. That same year the Knicks went from last place in the Eastern Conference to second place a twenty-game swing-around. The next year Michael led them to the finals, where they lost in a seven-game showdown to the Phoenix Suns. Two years later he collected his first NBA championship ring. He had won three in his career with the Knicks, been named to the All-Star team ten times, and been the league's leader in steals and assists for eight seasons.

Not bad for an old dude.

Michael, an all-purpose shooting guard, did it all. There were many who could score like him, a few who could rebound like!

him, a couple who could pass like him, but next to none whoj could play defense like him. Add it all up and you had the kin of player every championship team needs.

"What's the matter, Michael? Feeling your age. Haul ass!"

Michael could hear himself suck in air. The voice belo to the Knick's new head coach, Richie Crenshaw. Richie had a second round pick by the Boston Celtics the same year Michael was drafted by the Knicks. There had been something of a IT between the two during Crenshaw's playing days, but for the most' part it was an amicable rivalry. The two men always got along off the court. Now Richie Crenshaw was Michael's coach and still his good friend.

Eat shit, Richie, Michael shouted. But only to himself.

His lungs burned in his chest, his throat was dry. He was getting older, goddamn it even though the gods of health had smiled upon Michael for his first ten-plus NBA seasons. No injuries. He had had a boating accident a few years ago, but that took place off-season so it didn't count. Only two games missed in almost ten full seasons and those were the result of a minor groin pull. Remarkable, really.

Unheard of. Then something must have really pissed off the gods.

Michael had landed wrong in a game against the Washington Bullets, twisting his knee. To make matters worse, Big Burt Wesson, the Bullet's 270-pound enforcer, crashed into Michael on the play.

Michael's foot remained firmly planted on the floor. His knee did not.

It bent the wrong way backwards in fact. There a snapping sound and Michael's scream filled the stadium.

Out of basketball for over a year.

The cast on his leg had been enormous and about as comfortable as wearing a jock-strap made of tweed. He hobbled around for months, listening to Sara tease him.

"Stop imitating my limp. It's not a very nice thing to do."

"Great. I married a comedienne."

"We can be a comedy team," Sara had enthused.

"The Gimpy Couple. Well limp our way to laughter. We'll be as funny as a rubber crutch."

"Awful, Horrendous. Not even remotely funny. Stop."

"Not funny? Then we'll become a dance team. Limp to your left. Limp to your right. We can switch leg braces during a tango."

"Stop. Help. Police. Somebody shoot."

Michael and Sara had both recognized that he might not be able to come back; they were prepared for it. Michael had never been a stupid jock who thought that a basketball career would last forever. There was talk in the Republican party about running him for Congress when he retired. But Michael was not ready to call it quits. Not yet anyway.

He worked hard for a full, painful year with the therapist Harvey had found for him and rebuilt his shattered knee.

Now he was trying to get himself back into playing condition at the Knicks' pre-season camp. But while the knee felt okay in its vise-like brace, his stomach was slowing him down. He had promised Harvey last night that he would swing by the clinic before three o'clock for a complete check-up. With a little luck, Harv would take a few tests, see it was just some stupid bug again, give him a shot of antibiotics, and send him on his way.

Harvey. Jesus Christ, what was going on? Michael and Sara had gotten little sleep last night. They drove home, made love again in a tangle of party clothes, then sat up and analyzed what Harvey had told them.

If what Harvey said last night was true, if he had indeed found a treatment for the AIDS virus... One of Michael's teammates set a pick for him. Michael used the screen and ran from the left side of the court to the right.

He caught a glimpse of the wall clock and saw it was ten. Another hour, and then he would go uptown and see Harvey. At the Clinic.

Capital C in his mind.

Michael was not looking forward to that visit. Immature to say but the place gave him the creeps. He was not sure if it was the magnitude of the disease or his not-so-latent homophobia, but the place intimidated him. Terrified him actually.

To be honest, Michael had never been all that comfortable with gays.

Yes, he believed that homosexuals should be treated like everyone else, that their private lives were their own business, that discrimination against someone because of his sexual preference was wrong. He recognized that Sanders and his gang of mentally malnourished bigots were deranged and dangerous people. But still, Michael found himself making the occasional gay joke, referring to someone effeminate as "that big fag," keeping away from someone who was a "blatant fruit." He remembered when his teammate Tim Hiller, a good friend and apparently a ladies man, shocked the sports world by admitting he was gay. Michael had stood beside him, supported him, defended him, but at the same time, he distanced himself from Tim. Their friendship did not crumble; Michael just let it slowly slide away. He felt bad about that.

Back on the court the ball was passed to Reece Porter, | Michael's closest friend on the team and the only Knick besides Michael who was over thirty. Reece spotted Michael and tossed him the ball.

"Do it, Mikey," Reece cried.

Michael made a beautiful fake on the rookie Holloway, dribbled down the middle of the key, and laid up a soft shot.

As Michael watched the ball float gently toward the basket, Jerome Holloway came flying into view. The rookie smacked the ball with his palm, sending the orange sphere off the court and into the seats. A clean block.

Again the rookie grinned.

Michael held up his hand.

"Don't say it. Faced again, right?"

The cocky grin strengthened.

"The word Spaulding is imprinted on your forehead, old dude."

Michael heard the laughter. It was coming from Reece Porter.

"What the hell are you laughing at?"

Reece could barely control himself.

"Old dude," he managed between cackles.

"You going to take that shit, Mikey?"

Michael turned back toward Holloway.

"Take the ball out of bounds, hotshot, and dribble up while I cover you."

"One- on-one?" the kid asked in disbelief.

"You got it."

"I'll blow by you so fast you'll wonder if I was ever there."

Michael grinned.

"Yeah, right. Come on, hotshot."

Jerome Holloway caught the ball. He took two dribbles and began to accelerate toward Michael. He was six feet past him when he realized that he no longer had the ball.

"What the?"

Holloway spun in time to see Michael making an uncontested lay-up. Now it was Michael's turn to smile.

Jerome Holloway laughed.

"I know, I know. In my face, right?"

Reece whooped and hooted like a lottery winner.

"Bet your sweet ass, brother. You've been faced something awful."

"Guess so," Holloway agreed.

"You know something, Michael? You're a smart old dude. I bet I can learn a lot watching you." Old dude. Michael sighed heavily.

"Thanks, Jerome."

A whistle blew.

"Take five," Coach Crenshaw shouted.

"Get a quick drink and then I want everyone to take fifty foul shots."

The players jogged toward the water fountain all save Michael. He stayed where he was bent forward, his hand leaning on his knees. Richie Crenshaw walked over.

"I've seen you look better, Michael." Michael continued to draw in deep breaths.

"Appreciate the pep talk, Coach."

"Well, it's true. You wouldn't want me to lie to you, would you?"

"Maybe a little."

"The knee giving you problems?"

Michael shook his head.

"You look like something's bothering you."

"I'm " The next word never came out. A surge of white-hot pain pierced right through Michael's abdomen. He let loose a loud, short cry and clutched his belly below the ribcage.

"Michael!"

The shout came from Jerome Holloway. Wide-eyed with fear, the rookie sprinted back on the court. Reece Porter quickly followed.

"Mikey," Reece asked while kneeling beside him, "what is it?"

Michael did not answer. He collapsed to the floor, writhing in agony.

It felt like something was raking at his insides with sharpened claws.

"Call an ambulance!" Reece shouted.

"Now!"

Dr. Carol Simpson escorted Sara to the waiting area in the Atchley Pavilion. Located next to Columbia Presbyterian's main building, the Atchley Pavilion housed the private offices of the medical center's many physicians. When Harvey had taken Michael and Sara on a tour of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center last year, Sara remembered being awe-struck by the size of the center, to say nothing of its reputation.

There was Babies Hospital, the well-known pediatric hospital, and the Harkness Pavilion, where the private patients stayed. The Neurological Institute and the Psychiatric Institute, both housed in their own buildings, were considered the best in their field anywhere in the world, not to mention the Harkness Eye Institute, New York Orthopedic Hospital, Sloane Hospital, Squier Urological Clinic, Vanderbilt Clinic, and the massive, newly completed Milstein Hospital Building.

And all of this medical brilliance had been jammed west of Broadway between 165th and 168th Street in Spanish Harlem.

A block or two farther west and north was student housing for Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, again one of the most reputable and selective medical schools in the country.

But another five blocks farther north was J. Hood Wright Park, a respectable name for one of the original crack alleys, where passers-by can witness or partake in drug trafficking. Its proximity to the hospital, Harvey had half-joked, made it a convenient place to overdose.

One of the newest and smallest sections of the medical center, almost hidden from view, was near 164th Street. From the outside one would never guess that the broken-down edifice was dedicated to healing and experimental medicine. Named Sidney Pavilion after Harvey Riker's brother, this area of epidemiological study was cloaked in secrecy and security. No one could enter without the permission of Dr. Harvey Riker or Dr. Eric Blake. Staff and patients were kept to a minimum, and all had been specially selected by Riker and the late Dr. Bruce Grey personally. The medical center's board members rarely, if ever, discussed the new section in public.

Dr. Simpson showed Sara to a chair and then went to a window where she handed a test tube filled with Sara's blood to a nurse.

"Take this to the lab. Have them run a beta HCG stat."

"Yes, Doctor." "A beta HCG?" Sara asked.

" "Fancy talk for a pregnancy test," Carol Simpson explained.

"Doctors like to use code words no one else understands. Makes us sound more intelligent, don't you think?"

Sara liked Carol Simpson. Unlike so many others in her profession, there was nothing stuffy or intimidating about her.

Her relaxed attitude put Sara at ease.

"If you say so," Sara replied.

"Well, we have to do something to justify all the years of schooling and internship and residency besides having the M.D.

license plate so we can park illegally in front of Macy's."

"You do that?"

"Only during a sale."

At least forty other patients sat biding their time in the waiting room, sneaking glances from their magazines and wishing their doctor would call their name.

"Give me a ring this afternoon," Carol said.

"The results should be in by then." "Great," Sara said.

"And try not to worry. I know you're anxious, but try not to think about it too much. Do what I do when I need to distract yself: shop till you drop.

Urn; "Well, hello there, ladies."

Sara and Carol turned and saw Harvey coming toward them.

His entire person emanated exhaustion, Sara thought. His head tilted slightly to the side as though he were dozing; his back had curved into a slump.

"Hello, Harvey," Dr. Simpson said.

"Hello, Carol. How's my favorite patient doing, Doc?"

"Very nicely. We should know the test results in a few hours."

Dr. Simpson turned her head toward the people in the waiting room.

"Mrs. Golden?"

A massive-bellied woman looked up.

"Over here."

"Come on down. You're the next contestant." Harvey and Sara said good-bye and headed for the elevator.

"You're in good hands," Harvey said.

"Carol Simpson may be young, but she's already considered one of the top obstetricians in the country."

"I like her."

"Listen, Sara, about what I said last night..."

"Yes?"

"Well, in the light of day, my conspiracy theories always seem a little more whacko. Don't have me committed, okay?"

"Not yet anyway. Has the clinic really found a cure?"

"In some cases maybe most cases, yes. Like I said last night, it's still in the developmental stage and it hasn't worked on everyone but "

Harvey's beeper went off. He looked at the LCD digits coming onto the screen.

"Oh shit."

"What is it?"

But he was already sprinting toward the nurse's desk and picking up the phone.

"That number means it's an emergency."

He dialed and the phone was picked up on the first ring.

"Dr. Riker here." Pause.

"What? When?" Another pause.

"I'll be right there." He replaced the receiver.

"It's Michael. They just rushed him into the emergency room."

The corpse was in the trunk.

George drove onward. Last night the body in the trunk had been filled with life. He had hopes, dreams, goals, desires. Like most people, he probably just wanted to be happy, to find his niche in this world. He was probably a person struggling through life, trying to do his best, grasping at the few joys life offered and trying to dodge the many hardships. Now he was dead.

Dead. Gone. Nothing.

He was no more than decaying tissue, useful only to medical students and worshipped by only the grieving family. Why, George wondered, did people care so much about the empty shell of a man, the facade? Why did they treat the worthless flesh as something invaluable? Was it man's innate inclination to see only the outward mask of the human being and not acknowledge the soul? Or was George being too harsh on his fellow man? Maybe man just needed to take hold of something tangible when he was faced with the ultimate intangible.

Heavy stuff, George. Very deep.

He chuckled and lit a cigarette.

After Dr. Lowell's gala last night, George had followed the limousine until the long, silver automobile dropped the victim off at his apartment in the city.

p" Perfect.

A true professional, George had already cased the building and surrounding area. He knew his victim lived in apartment 3A. He knew there was no doorman. George parked the car across the street and moved into the apartment building. Taking the stairs it her than the elevator, he stopped in front of a door with a faded nailed to it.

George wondered why, with all his money, his ictim chose to live in this quasi-dump. He could live anywhere 7ifth Avenue, Central Park West, the San Remo Building, the )akota, anywhere. George shrugged, dismissing the thought, was none of his concern.

His fingers searched his pocket and removed a small tool.

Ie jimmied the lock twice, just as he had done at the Days Inn rith Dr. Bruce Grey. This time, however, he did not allow the mnd of the lock being disengaged to be audible. Surprise in combat, George had learned long ago, always gave you the upper hand. Bruce Grey had been suspicious so a simple knock on the door would not have brought him in front of the wooden portal unaware. For Bruce Grey had been prepared for an attack and was on his guard. But having the door smashed against him during a brief moment when he felt safe, when he thought the door was secure and no one was in front of it, that had been all George needed.

This victim, however, would not be suspicious. Unlike Grey, he had no idea that death had crept down his hallway. A knock was all George would need.

With the lock made useless, George put the small device back in his pocket and knocked.

A voice called out.

"One moment."

George heard the victim coming to the door. He wondered whether the man was so stupid he would open the door without asking who it was. But the voice called out again.

"Who's there?"

George knew that the man was standing right behind the door now, probably leaning forward to look through the peephole. l Without hesitation, George threw his full weight into the door.| The wooden planks crashed against the man standing behinc them, knocking him to the floor on the other side of the room. l George moved quickly. He closed the door and pounced upon his prey. His hand gripped the man's neck and he began to squeeze. There was a quick, choking noise and then silence. The man struggled, lashing out with his hands and kicking, but his blows were wild and imprecise. They did not bother George.

Maintaining his grip on the man's throat, George lowered his face to within inches of his victim's.

"There is only one way I will allow you to live," George said, his voice chillingly monotonous, as though he were reading a prepared text.

"And that is if you do everything I tell you. Deviate from what I say and you will die. Do you understand?"

The man's eyes bulged out from lack of oxygen and a surplus of fear. He managed a nod.

"Good. I will let you go. Call out or try to escape and you will know a pain very few have ever experienced."

He let go. The man rolled back and forth, retching uncontrollably.

George stood and watched the man's agony with something approaching boredom.

"We are going down to my car now," he said, when he thought his victim could understand, "just like a couple of buddies cruising the town. Do as I say without question and you won't be hurt."

The man nodded. His immediate obedience made things so much easier. If George had been forced to kill the man here, he would have to clean up the blood, get rid of any possible clues, and worst of all, drag a body to his car without anybody seeing.

Much more difficult.

They crossed the street together and George opened the trunk.

"Get in."

"But- " George grabbed the man's hand and squeezed, breaking two bones.

With his free hand George covered the man's mouth and snuffed out his scream. Then George readjusted his grip on the shattered hand, squeezed a little tighter, forcing the broken bones to scrape against each other and rip at the tendons. The man's face went white.

"I told you to do what I say without question. Will you remember that now?"

The man nodded quickly and ducked into the trunk. George knew the man wanted to ask if there would be enough air once the trunk was closed, but he did not dare. He had experienced pain. Pain, George had learned, can be a greater threat than death.

George looked down the street. Three men had just circled the corner and were coming toward them. They looked pretty wasted, each walking a wobbly line which more often than not crossed the others. George closed the trunk and drove away.

He found an abandoned road that he had used for this purpose before. He parked the car and grabbed the knife from the glove compartment. As per the instructions given to him on the phone, George slipped on surgical gloves and a mask. He felt like a doctor, preparing for a major operation.

"Scalpel," he said out loud. He laughed at his own joke.

George got out of the car and went toward the trunk. This was the part of the job George found most intriguing. He always wondered what was going through the victim's mind. A little earlier, his world had been normal, average, seemingly safe.

Suddenly, he had been threatened, assaulted, and locked in a trunk. No longer did he have any say in what happened to him.

What was going through his mind?

It was a fleeting thought. In the end, George knew it didn't matter.

For George only the finished job mattered.

When George opened the trunk, the man looked up at him with the eyes of a trapped animal.

"Wh... Wh... What...?"

George put his finger to his mask-covered lips.

"Shhh."

George reached down and grabbed the man's head to hold still. Then he gripped the knife and placed it below the man's nose, the cool blade directly below the nostrils. He lowered the handle toward the mouth, almost touching the lips, and drove) the blade upwards. It sliced through the thin tissue, through th cartilage, and into the brain.

Blood gushed freely. The body spasmed, but death was instantaneous.

The man's final gaze was locked on George, his eyes wide and uncomprehending.

George tugged the knife out and just as he had with the first two jobs, he stabbed the body two dozen times. Wet, ripping sounds accompanied his methodical undertaking. George's face remained calm as he drove the knife home over an dover again.

It was all very messy.

George knew that he would have to keep the body in the trunk for the night. Then he would be able to dump it in the appropriate area. With the others, it had not mattered where the corpse was found, but the voice on the phone had given specific instructions to leave this one in the alley behind a gay bar called Black Magic in Greenwich Village. At night, George knew, such places were filled with all sorts of bizarre happenings. They were crowded. He decided it would be safer to dump the body in the daytime when the area was empty.

Early the next morning George awoke refreshed from a wonderful, dreamless sleep. He drove back into the city and pulled up behind the Black Magic bar. A sleazy-looking dump, he thought. It reminded him of Patpong Street in Bangkok.

Patpong, Bangkok's famed red-light district, catered to heterosexuals, but everyone knew about the area two blocks farther north devoted exclusively to homos. And Pattaya, the popular Thai beach resort not far from Bangkok, had a whole street jammed with little boys who served their male customers without question or hesitation.

Pretty sick, George thought.

He stopped the car and stepped out. He glanced about the alley. No one. Dozens of stuffed plastic trash bags were piled by the bar's rear entrance. Rear entrance, George mused. How appropriate.

Taking one last look, George hefted the corpse out of the trunk, dumped it by the trash bags, climbed back in the car, and drove off. He had traveled three blocks when he glanced at his reflection in the rear-view mirror.

Damn. His hair looked horrendous."

5.

Sara limped along after him as Harvey sprinted toward the emergency ward. Ten yards in front of the entrance he almost slammed into Eric Blake, who was making a blind turn in the same direction.

"They paged you too?" Eric asked.

Harvey nodded. The two men barely broke stride as they I crashed through the door and into the waiting area. They immediately spotted Reece Porter.

It was Harvey who reached him first.

"What happened?"

"Don't know. Mikey just grabbed his stomach and collapsed.

He's in there."

"Come on, Eric."

The two doctors disappeared behind a guarded door reading No Admittance. A moment later Sara hobbled into the emergency ward.

Reece looked up, surprised to see her at the hospital already.

"What are you doing here?"

She ignored the question.

"Where is he? Is he all right?"

"The emergency room doctor is already with him. Harvey and Eric are in there too."

"What happened?"

"I don't know. We were scrimmaging like always, making jokes and all that stuff. We stopped for a break and a minute later..."

"A minute later what?"

"Mikey collapsed on the floor holding his stomach. We called an ambulance and I drove over with him. The pain seemed to let up a little on the way. When we got here, I told the nurse to page Eric and Harv."

"Is he conscious?"

"Yeah, he's awake. I bet it's just some food poisoning or something all that Chinese food he's eating all the time. Now answer my question: what are you doing here?"

"I had a doctor's appointment next door."

"Are you okay?"

His voice rang with the warmth of genuine concern. In the background Sara could hear children whisper, "Look, Mom, that's Reece Porter!"

Reece's six-eight frame was about average for the NBA, but it was semi-freak anywhere else. His height always drew fascinated glances.

"I'm fine," Sara said, hugging him tightly.

"Reece, thanks for going with him."

Reece shrugged.

"He's my friend," he said simply.

"And don't worry too much about Mikey. The man is blessed. Remember how scared we were the last time we met in a hospital? All that blood and everything?"

Sara did. Every year when basketball season ended, she and Michael had joined Reece and his Eurasian wife Kureen for a getaway-from-it-all vacation. Five years ago, when Michael and Sara were first getting serious, the four decided to charter a small cruise boat out of Florida and explore the Keys and the Bahamas. The past basketball season had been a particularly long one, ending when the Knicks bested the Seattle Supersonics in a grueling, bruising seven-game showdown. All four of them had been anxious to escape the world, the fans, and the press.

On the third day of the voyage Michael and Reece had gotten up early, hired a kid with a speed boat, and gone water-skiing.

The kid had gotten drunk and crashed the boat into a rock formation while Michael was on the water-skis. He had been rushed to a local Bahamian hospital, bleeding heavily, and spent the next three weeks in bed.

"I remember," Sara said softly.

"But Mikey is as one of the rookies would say a tough old dude. He'll be okay."

Sara tried to take solace in Recce's words, but something kept jabbing at the back of her mind, telling her that he was not going to be okay, that nothing was ever going to be okay again.

"what's going on?" Harvey asked.

The young resident with the name tag John Richardson looked up and spoke with quick precision.

"We're not sure yet. He's suffering severe abdominal pain. Physical examination is remarkable for the liver being palpable four centimeters below the right costal margin. It's extremely tender."

"Hurts like hell is more like it," Michael managed from his prone position on the table.

"Vital signs?"

"All stable."

Harvey moved toward the bed.

"Looking good, champ."

"Feel like shit, coach."

"I was only kidding. You look like shit too."

Michael managed a chuckle.

"I got the varsity in here now.

How's it going, Eric?"

"Fine. Should I page Dr. Sagarel, Harv?"

Harvey nodded.

"See you in a bit, Mike," Eric said.

"I'll wait here for you." Michael turned his attention back to Harvey.

"Who is Dr. Sagarel?"

"A gastroenterologist."

"Of course. I should have known."

"Jesus, Michael, look at your shorts. They're horrendous even by your standards."

"I ask for a doctor. I get a fashion critic."

Harvey probed the liver area.

"Does that hurt?"

"Like a son of a bitch."

Harvey straightened his back and turned toward the resident.

"Have you done the blood work yet?"

"Yes."

"Get him an abdominal flat plate done stat."

"I'll also need to get a better history," Richardson said.

"It could be something he consumed "

"Can't be. He's had this pain for weeks. And his skin is jaundiced."

Eric came back into the room.

"Dr. Sagarel will be here in about a half hour." "Michael," Harvey asked, "have you noticed anything unusual in your urine lately?"

"A Datson hatchback came out the other day."

"Hilarious. Now answer my question."

Harvey saw the fear gather around Michael's eyes.

"I don't know. The color's been darker maybe."

The doctor's exchanged knowing glances.

"What?" Michael asked.

"What have I got?"

"I don't know yet. Eric, make sure they do a Hep screen on the blood.

Also EBV and CMV titers. Then bring him down for an abdominal ultrasound."

"One step ahead of you."

"Now in English?" Michael asked.

"All the signs point to hepatitis," Harvey explained.

"Eric and Dr. Richardson are going to take you downstairs for x-rays now, I'll see you in a little while."

Dr. Raymond Markey, Assistant Secretary for Health of the Department of Health and Human Services, stared out the window at the lush green compound in Bethesda, Maryland. To him, the National Institutes of Health resembled a cross between a European spa and a military base.

From his corner office the wilderness seemed to stretch for miles. But Markey knew better.

He knew, for instance, that his big boss, the President of the United States, was about ten miles away, beginning his weekly brunch meeting with the Vice President. The two men met most Mondays for a light brunch and a heavy discussion. Raymond had attended a few of those brunches. He did not particularly care for the conversation or the food.

He sighed deeply, took off his glasses, and rubbed his eyes.

He was excruciatingly nearsighted. When he viewed the sprawling landscape without his glasses, the world turned into a large abstract painting. The bright colors bled into one another and seemed to move in a kaleidoscope pattern.

He put his glasses back on, turned away from the calming view, and glanced at the two reports on his desk. The first was marked "Confidential!" and there were numerous seal protectors on the envelope so that Markey could be sure that no one had opened it before him. The envelope was also specially treated so that its contents could not be read by holding it up to a light.

Any tampering left permanent scars. It was a lot of security, but ' sometimes every bit of it was needed. n The second envelope read "Sidney Pavilion, Columbia!

Presbyterian Medical Center, New York." The security surrounding this file, while significant, was somewhat more limited.

Assistant Secretary for Health of the Department of Health and Human Services a long and rather unimpressive title, Raymond Markey thought.

But he knew better. His office was in charge of the U.S. Public Health Service, controlling such agencies as the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Institutes of Health hardly an unimportant or ceremonial post.

Markey reached for his letter opener and slit the confidential envelope. He then laid the reports side by side. The regular report had been filled out by Dr. Harvey Riker and for the first time Dr. Brace Grey's signature had been omitted. Too bad. As for the confidential report... well, safer not to think about the source.

Repeating the name of the author out loud could prove hazardous to one's health. Even fatal.

Markey skimmed the files for obvious discrepancies. One jumped out at him immediately.

The number of patients.

According to Hiker's report, they had been treating forty-one patients, two of whom had been murdered in recent weeks.

Riker's write-up was factual, not drawing any conclusions, but he did mention the strange coincidence that two patients had died of multiple stab wounds within a couple of weeks of one another. Markey also noticed that Riker never referred to Grey's death as a suicide but as a "shock" and "death that made no sense."

Curious description, Markey mused.

He examined the reports again. The report stamped "Confidential"

stated unequivocally that there had originally been forty-two patients, not forty-one. Why the discrepancy? Markey wondered. Raymond doubted very much it was a mistake. No one made mistakes in these situations.

There was a reason for the discrepancy. All he had to do was figure out what.

Markey thumbed back to the beginning of the confidential report. He was sure that Harvey Riker was behind the discrepancy. He knew Riker well and did not trust him. Many years earlier, when Raymond Markey had been chief of staff at St. Barnabas Hospital in New Jersey, he had first encountered a brash, young intern named Harvey Riker. Even back then Riker hated rules and regulations. And now that those rules and regulations came from the government, Markey knew Riker was even more apt to bend them. The man had tremendous talent but very little discipline. He needed to be watched. Closely.

Ah, here it was. On page two.

Page two of the confidential report listed all the staff members and patients at the Sidney Pavilion. Markey shifted through Rikef's report until he found the patient list. He counted them.

Yes, forty-two in the confidential report. Forty-one in the doctor's report. Which name was missing from Dr. Riker's file?

It did not take long to find. The name might as well have been underlined.

His hand shaking, Raymond picked up the phone behind his desk. The office phone was probably bugged, but he carefully screened his private line on a daily basis. Can't be too careful.

He dialed. The receiver on the other end was picked up after three rings.

"Yes?"

"I have the confidential report. It arrived this morning."

"And?"

Markey swallowed.

"I haven't had a chance to go through it completely yet, but I think we better move fast. They're getting close."

"Then we might have to send someone to Bangkok. When can I get a copy?"

"I'll mail it out today."

"Good."

"There's something else."

"Yes."

"Dr. Riker is secretly working on an important patient," Markey said.

"He left the name out of his report."

"Who is it?"

"Bradley Jenkins. The senator's "

"I know who he is." There was a brief silence.

"That explains a lot of things, Raymond." "I know," Markey said.

"Get me that report right away."

"I'll send it out immediately. It'll be on your desk tomorrow morning."

"Thank you, Raymond. Good-bye."

"Good- bye, Reverend Sanders."

Still leaning heavily on her cane, Sara hobbled toward Michael's room.

So much was going on, so much happening at one time. Michael's illness, the possibility of being pregnant, and this weird mystery surrounding Harvey's clinic. Two patients murdered. Coincidence?

Maybe, but Sara did not think so. She made a mental note to call Max Bernstein when the opportunity arose. He might know something.

She turned the corner and pushed open the door to Michael's room. Her foot felt stiff today, more like an attached club than flesh and bones.

Michael looked up from the bed. His face brightened when he saw her.

She moved over to the bed and kissed him lightly.

"Feeling better?" she asked.

"Much," he replied.

"You scared me half to death, you know. I called my father.

He should be here soon." "Sara," he said, "what were you doing at the hospital today?"

She hesitated.

"I didn't want to say anything to you until I was sure."

Michael sat up, his voice unsettled.

"Sure about what? Are you okay?"

She nodded. His concerned, tender gaze plucked at her heart.

"You know about my time of the month?"

"I guess so," he replied.

"It was pretty well covered in seventh grade health class."

She chuckled but the anxiety still would not leave Michael's face.

"Well, mine is six weeks late."

His eyes widened.

"You're pregnant?"

"I don't know yet. The test results should be back in a few hours."

"Jesus, Sara, why didn't you tell me?"

She sat next to him on the bed and took his hand in hers.

"I didn't want to get either of our hopes up if it was just another false alarm. I hate to see the disappointment in your face..."

She turned away, but Michael gently tilted her face back toward him.

"Sara, I love you. Not being able to have kids is not going to change that."

She nestled her face into his chest.

"Mean it?"

He chuckled.

"Yeah, mean it."

"You got a lemon when you married me."

"Yeah, but a pretty foxy lemon. Great in the sack too."

"Fresh. You're supposed to be sick."

"I can still have a lewd thought now and again. Doctor said it's good for me."

"Tunny, I didn't hear him say that."

"What did you hear him say?"

"Something about the fact that your skin was jaundiced and you may have hepatitis."

"Well, is it true? Does my skin look jaundiced?"

She examined him.

"You look like a Ticonderoga pencil."

"Thanks."

"But a cute pencil."

There was a sharp knock on the door and then Sara's father peeked his head through the opening.

"Am I interrupting something?"

"Come in," Michael called out.

"I could use all the doctors I can get a hold of."

John Lowell entered the room. He was of average height and extraordinarily good looking. His neatly parted, full head of gray hair was the very definition of distinguished. His face boasted cheeks that dimpled when he smiled and a cleft chin, but one's gaze was immediately drawn to his eyes eyes as bright green I as Sara's. He crossed the room, kissed Sara, and shook Michael's hand.

"I think I'm a little out of my field of expertise here. Who I examined you?"

"Harvey and Eric you remember my friend Eric Blake?"

"Of course. I hear he is working with Dr. Riker at... at the | clinic."

John Lowell's face shadowed at the mention of the clinic. Sara and Michael both noticed it. Michael decided to let it slide; Sara did not.

"Yes, he is," Sara said.

"The clinic is making marvelous progress." "Good," her father said, his tone clearly ending any discussion of the clinic.

"Now then, Michael, what seems to be the problem with you?"

"They're running some test, but they think it's hepatitis."

"What specialist is Harvey recommending?"

"Doctor Sagarel."

John nodded his approval.

"Good man. Listen to what Sagarel says, Michael, not those two epidemiologist friends of yours." Sara said, "You know Harvey Riker is an exceptional physician, one of the top men in his field."

"I'm sure that is so "

"And the clinic is on the threshold of a major breakthrough in the war against AIDS."

"I'm happy to hear that," John replied without enthusiasm.

"The sooner, the better. We need those funds elsewhere."

"How can you say that?"

"Let's not start this again, okay?" he said.

"It is a simple question of economics."

"Economics?" Sara repeated.

"Economics is more important than saving lives?"

"Please do not use that preachy, simplistic argument on me," her father replied evenly.

"I've used it too often myself in front of Senate subcommittees to fall for it now. The truth of the matter is that only X amount of dollars goes into health care and medical research. X amount. Period. Some goes to the Heart Association, some to my own Cancer Center, and then there is muscular dystrophy, rheumatism arthritis, senior citizens, whatever. We all compete for funds. Now AIDS comes along and gets an astronomical not to mention disproportional slice of that pie."

"You make it sound like some sort of contest," Sara said.

"Doesn't compassion "

"This is the real world," her father interrupted.

"In the real world you have to deal with economic realities. Fact is, every dollar spent on AIDS is taken away from those other organizations."

"Wrong," a voice pronounced. John Lowell turned. Harvey Riker stood in the doorway.

"Donations toward AIDS research are often raised separately," Harvey continued.

"Some perhaps," Lowell replied, "but Liz Taylor and her friends can just as easily hold garage sales for the Heart Association or the Cancer Center. And let me ask you, Dr. Riker, who is the major contributor toward your clinic here at the hospital?" Harvey paused.

"The federal government and the hospital board."

"And where would that money go if not to your clinic? Toward the cure of cancer or arthritis or heart disease, that's where. Many people will die of AIDS this year, but how many thousands more will die from either cancer or heart disease? Innocent victims who do not indulge in self-destructive and immoral activities "

"Listen to yourself," Harvey interrupted.

"You sound like Reverend Sanders."

Lowell stepped toward Harvey, his eyes blazing. '1 don't know Sanders personally, but don't you ever compare me to that money hungry pig, do you understand? And stop playing the naive academic. You know that there have to be priorities in medical research to deny that is to deny reality. Some illnesses have to take precedence over others."

"And you don't think AIDS should be a priority case?"

"The disease is almost one hundred percent preventable, Dr. Riker. Can you say the same about cancer? About heart disease?

About arthritis? That's why I voted against funding your clinic at the board meeting. Innocent people, people who weren't screwing strange men behind sleazy bars or jamming needles filled with poison into their veins are killed in horrifying ways.

People who weren't engaging in sexual acts that boggle the mind you're not stupid, Dr. Riker. You know that the gay community ignored all the warning signs. Epstein-Barr ran rampant through them, but they ignored it. Cytomegalovirus and a host of other viruses infected a frighteningly high percentage of the gay community, but they chose to maintain their wanton lifestyles."

"So promiscuity should be punished with death?" Harvey shot back.

"Is that what you're saying? Then a lot of heterosexuals better beware too."

"I'm saying simply this: they were warned. Anyone who spoke out against their wild sexual behavior anyone who tried to tell them to slow down was labeled a bigot and homophobic.

With viral infections plaguing the entire gay community for years, what did they expect to happen?"

"That's ridiculous."

"Is it? Weren't these men responsible for their narcissistic and dangerous activities? Weren't they in some way asking for this?"

"Dad!"

Harvey's voice was cool.

"They never asked to die, Dr. Lowell.

Try as you might, you cannot get rid of this disease by denying its existence. We're not talking about something that affects animals or strange creatures or some sort of subhumans.

Thousands of living, breathing human beings are dying horrible deaths from AIDS." "I know that," Lowell said, "and Lord knows, I hope those boys are cured. But the money being spent on AIDS is outrageous when self-control will stop its spread."

Harvey shook his head. "You're just plain wrong, Dr. Lowell even economically speaking. Do you know how much AIDS is ultimately going to cost us if we don't find a cure for it? Do you have any notion of the enormous expense in treating AIDS patients?

Every social and medical program will be drained.

Whole cities will go bankrupt from the medical bills."

"The patients should foot the bill themselves," Lowell replied.

"There are other priorities, other ways the board could have spent that money." His voice began to crack and Sara knew what was coming next.

She closed her eyes and waited.

"I watched cancer kill my wife," he continued.

"I watched it eat away at my Erin until..." He stopped then, his head lowered, his face anguished.

"And your commitment is admirable," Harvey replied. "I however, never got the chance to see my brother die. Sidney suffered alone while lesions and infections engulfed and destroyed his body. He was shunned, made an outcast by his own family including me. Most of these young men boys in their twenties and thirties, for chrissake die the death of a leper.

If this disease had hit any other segment of the population, the government would have reacted quickly and with lots of money.

But everyone thought it was merely a 'fag' disease, and who cares about a bunch of fags anyway?"

"They should have shown some self-control."

Harvey shook his head.

"You can't play God, Dr. Lowell.

While part of me agrees with your harsh statements on cigarette smoking, I have to ask you, sir, where do you draw the line?

Should thin people get priority over obese? Should people who ignore their doctor's warning about high cholesterol be told that they asked for their heart attack? Where do you draw the line, Dr. Lowell? And who gets to play God?"

John Lowell opened his mouth to continue the argument, then closed it.

His face was etched in exhaustion.

"The sad fact is that resources are limited. That means that tough choices have to be made."

"And who is going to make those choices, Dr. Lowell?"

John waved his hand as though dismissing the question. His voice took on a nervous, shaky edge.

"Enough of this now," he said.

"I want to hear about Michael's condition."

Police Lieutenant Max

"Twitch" Bernstein hated New York in the summer.

Too damn hot for a human to be in the city this time of the year. Not that Max knew anything else. He had been born and raised in Manhattan, went to college at New York University in Manhattan, lived with Lenny in Manhattan, worked as a cop in Manhattan. Homicide. Business was always good when you worked homicides in a place like Manhattan, but in the summer the whackos really came out of the woodwork.

Max parked his unmarked Chevy Caprice squad car (unmarked, his ass like a criminal wouldn't know it was a cop's car in a glance) and moved toward the police barriers. He did not look like a homicide detective.

He was too young, his hair too long and curly, his mustache too bushy, his nose and face just a little too long and thin. Actually, he looked more like he should be delivering pizzas than chasing killers.

He walked to the side of the building with a sign above the door that read

"Black Magic Bar and Grill." Max had visited the Black Magic in more liberated, fun-loving days when it was called the Butt Seriously.

More than once, actually. Always in disguise.

Used an alias too.

He flashed his badge at a couple of uniforms and proceeded down the alleyway. Sergeant WUlie Monticelli greeted him.

"How's it going, Twitch?" Willie asked.

Bernstein did not care much for his nickname. First of all he did not have a twitch. Yes, he fidgeted a lot, gestured wildly, bit his fingernails past the cuticles, played with anything he could get his hands on, blinked too much, never sat or stood still. Sure, everybody was always asking him when he had quit chain smoking.

But there was definitely no twitch.

"Better before I got this call," he replied.

"Looks like you put on a little weight, Willie."

Monticelli patted his stomach.

"Nice to meet someone who's not all caught up in the diet craze, huh?"

"Great." Bernstein took out his pencil, put it in his mouth, and chewed. It already looked like a much-used dog toy.

"What's the story here?"

"A garbage man found him half an hour ago. Wanna take a look?"

Already feeling his stomach churn, Max nodded and bit down harder on the pencil. He hated this part.

"Have to. It's why I'm paid the big bucks."

"Yeah, I can tell by your fancy set of wheels."

Willie walked over to the still form sprawled in the garbage.

He pulled the sheet back. Max swallowed away his nausea. Then he bent down and examined the mess that was once a living man.

"Jesus."

"Looks like the Gay Slasher is back," Willie said.

"Same M.O.

as the other two." "With one noticeable difference," Max said almost under his breath.

"And don't call him that, Willie. The press will dive all over it."

"They're gonna dive anyway."

"They ignored the first two victims," Max noted.

"They won't ignore this one."

"What makes you say that?"

"Do you know who this is?"

Bernstein looked down at the disfigured face and then up at Willie.

"His mother wouldn't recognize him."

"You're not going to like it."

"I never do."

"According to his wallet, his name is Bradley Jenkins. I checked him out. His father is "

"A U.S. Senator, I know." Max closed his eyes and turned away. He stroked his mustache.

"Right. Bradley lives on 12th Street. His father and mother have a house in the Hamptons. Weird, huh? Senator from Arkansas who vacations on Long Island?"

"Senator Jenkins has been living in the Northeast since he began going to school here as a boy," Max explained.

"I doubt the guy has spent five straight days in Arkansas, except during election campaigns."

"How do you know so much about it?"

Max's hand ran through his thick, dark curly hair several times.

"First of all, he's the Senate Minority Leader. Second, I read a newspaper now and again."

"And third?"

"Bradley is a good friend of Sara Lowell's. I met him once."

"Oh," Willie said.

"That's too bad. Think Sara will handle the story? It'd be nice to have a member of the press on our side for this one."

"I doubt it."

"Yeah, she won't waste her time with us anymore. She's big time now.

You see her on TV last night?"

Max nodded, pacing rapidly back and forth but traveling no more than five feet in any direction.

"You got today's Herald in your car?"

"Sure. Why?"

"Get it. I want to show you something."

Willie fetched the paper and handed it to Bernstein. Bernstein grabbed it and thumbed through the pages quickly, ripping several as he went along.

"Whoa, Twitch, slow down a minute."

"It's right here..."

"what's right here?" Willie asked.

Bernstein continued to rifle through the paper, the pencil still in his mouth.

"Did you read the society pages today?"

"Shit, no, I don't read that crap. But I did check out the box scores

"That should be a big help," Max said. He turned a few more pages, his right foot tapping the pavement impatiently.

"Bingo," he said at last.

"Take a look at this."

Willie looked over Max's shoulder. A page of photographs showed the well-dressed people who had attended Dr. John Lowell's charity ball the previous evening. Max pointed to the picture in the upper right-hand corner.

"There."

"Shit on a stick," Willie whispered.

The caption read: The luminous Sara Lowell enjoys the festivities after her triumphant News Flash debut with (right) her handsome hubby and Knick superstar Michael Silverman and (left) Senator Stephen Jenkins' dashing son, Bradley.

"It's him," Willie exclaimed, pointing to the photograph.

"It's Bradley Jenkins."

"Correct."

"Not much resemblance now. Maybe a little around the ears."

"Very funny."

"God, I hate these big cases," Willie said.

"Mayor'll be calling all the time. Everybody wanting answers."

"We might as well get started then. I want you to check the neighborhood. See if anybody saw anything."

"Sure thing. Someone must have heard something screams or a struggle or something."

Bernstein shook his head.

"I don't think the murder took place here."

"What do you mean?" "Take a look at the corpse," he continued.

"Bradley Jenkins has been dead since last night, right?"

"Looks like it."

"But at night this alley is packed with patrons of the Black Magic."

"Patrons. Is that what they call them now?"

Bernstein greeted the remark with a hint of a smile, oh, Willie, if you only knew... "Someone would have seen the murder if it happened back here last night. And there's blood only on the body none in the area.

If he had been stabbed a zillion times back here, the alley would have been sprayed with blood. No, I think Jenkins was killed somewhere else and his body was dumped here. That's where the M.O. is different. The body was moved this time."

Willie followed his young lieutenant's pacing, his head shifting back and forth as if he were watching a tennis match.

"Makes no sense, Twitch. There's a lot of places less risky to get rid of a body. Why here?"

"Don't know."

"You want me to find out if Bradley was gay?"

Max felt a powerful headache coming on and began to massage his temples with his fingertips. The son of a prominent, conservative senator found with multiple knife wounds behind a gay bar Tylenol wouldn't put a dent in this one.

"No need," Bernstein said. "I'll get the personal info from Sara."

"Send my condolences."

"Will do. I want the lab over every inch of this alley and I want this neighborhood canvassed. Ask if they saw anything out of the ordinary last night or this morning."

"Gotcha. Oh, one more thing."

"What?"

"Good luck with the press, those bastards. Next thing you know well have every loony in the area confessing or copy catting the son of a bitch."

Max nodded and clenched his teeth. The pencil in his mouth snapped into two jagged pieces, nearly cutting his gums.

It was going to be a bad week.

6.

"How are you feeling?" Sara asked Michael for the twentieth time.

"Fine," he replied.

"Ask again and I'm going to scream."

"I'm just concerned."

"Then do something constructive," Michael said.

"Liker

"Like lock the door and get naked."

"I stepped into that one, didn't I?"

Michael nodded.

A woman's voice from behind them said, "Hello, Sara."

They both looked toward the entranceway where Dr. Carol Simpson now stood. Chopin's Concerto in D minor played from the small CD player beside Michael's bed. Reece, of all people, had fetched it from the Knick locker room at Madison Square Garden and brought it to the hospital, claiming, "This shit makes me sick, but it might be just what of' Mikey needs." "Michael," Sara said, "this is Dr. Simpson, the obstetrician I was telling you about." "Nice to meet you, Michael," Carol Simpson said.

"Nice meeting you." "I heard you'd been rushed in," she continued.

"How are you feeling?" "Better, thanks," he said.

"Good," she replied.

"Since I knew you were both here, I thought I'd stop by personally to deliver the news."

Michael sat up. His lips felt dry. He tried to wet them with his tongue, but there was no moisture there either.

"News?" he asked.

"Yes. I have the results of Sara's test."

"And?" Sara prompted.

Carol Simpson stuck out her hand.

"Congratulations. You're pregnant."

Sara's hands fluttered toward her mouth. "You're sure?"

"Positive. About two months, I'd say."

Sara turned toward Michael.

"Did you hear that, hon?"

Michael nodded, not yet able to speak.

"Forgive me, Doctor," he managed.

"It's just..."

"No need to apologize. It's nice to see."

Sara wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close, smothering him against her chest.

"Well," Dr. Simpson said, "I have to be going back. Sara, want you to stop by and see me tomorrow morning, okay?"

"Okay."

Michael pulled away.

"Thanks, Doc."

"Take care of yourself, Michael. Congratulations again."

She left them alone.

Michael smiled.

"Do I have to start calling you Mommy soon?"

She nodded.

"And I get to call you Dad."

"Even in bed?"

"No. There I can still call you by your name."

"Hung Stallion?"

"Dream on."

"God, I can't believe it. We're going to be parents, Sara. You, me, and baby makes three."

They kissed.

"I love you, Michael."

"I love you too," he said, rubbing her still-firm stomach.

"Both of you."

As they kissed again, the phone rang. Michael reluctantly reached over, picked up the receiver, and said hello. After a brief pause he handed it to Sara.

"It's for you," he said.

"Who is it?"

He shrugged.

"Don't know."

Sara put the phone to her ear. A nasal, female voice said, "Please hold while I connect you."

There was one ring before the phone was picked up.

"Sara?"

"Max?"

"Jeez, you weren't easy to find. Took me over an hour to track you down. How Ve you been?"

"Never better."

"Glad to hear it."

She could almost see him chewing on his nails as he spoke.

"This isn't a social call, is it, Max?"

"No, it's not."

"So what's up?"

Max Bernstein let go a long breath.

"Bradley Jenkins was murdered. I need to talk to you right away."

They met half an hour later in a quiet corner in the hospital cafeteria. After a quick greeting Max said, "Everything we say here is confidential and off the record, okay?"

"Okay."

"Let me ask you something right off the top." "Go ahead," Sara said.

"Was Bradley Jenkins gay?"

"Yes."

Max had expected that answer. He nodded, his curly dark hair swaying with the movement. He put a fresh pencil into his mouth and began to chew. Then he crossed his right leg over his left, ran his hand through his curls, put his feet back on the floor, and then crossed his left leg over his right.

Bernstein was thirty-two years old, but he looked a good five years younger. Sara knew the police department for that matter the world at large considered Twitch Bernstein a bit of an enigma. Despite being homicide's number one lieutenant, he had no love of danger. He hated carrying a gun and had never used one in the line of duty. He was barely adequate with his fists, did not consider himself particularly brave, and tried to avoid violence whenever possible.

What he did like, however, was solving puzzles the bigger, the better.

And he was good at it. Damn good. No one knew for sure just how he did it, but Bernstein had the rare ability to plod and putter and shift and unnerve and fidget his way to the answer.

"My turn to ask a question," Sara said.

"What happened to Bradley and why did you want to know if he was gay?"

"That's two questions."

"Max..." "Just trying to keep things light," Bernstein said.

"We found his body this morning behind a gay bar in the Village."

"Jesus."

"The autopsy is not in yet, but we're sure he died from multiple stab wounds. We think... Sara, are you all right?"

Sara's eyes were wide, her face shockingly pale.

"Have there been other murders?" she uttered.

"What makes you say that?"

"Don't play with me, Max."

"We may have a serial killer on our hands," he said.

"I wasn't involved in the investigation of the first two cases, but two other men were killed in the same grisly way. We suspect that the same person committed all three murders."

"And why did you ask if Bradley was gay?"

"Because the other two victims were. The killer may be targeting the gay community. Now it's my turn. How did you know that there were other victims?"

"I assume you've met Dr. Harvey Riker," she began.

"Sure."

"You know that he is operating an AIDS clinic in here?"

He shrugged.

"So?"

"The first two victims what were their names?"

"Bill Whitherson and Scott Trian."

"Right. They were part of a select group of AIDS patients who were being treated in this clinic. It should be in your files."

Bernstein's leg began to shake.

"To be honest I haven't had a chance to go through them thoroughly yet.

I just got the case an hour ago." "Anyway, Harvey told me about it last night. That's how I knew."

"An obvious question was Bradley being treated here too?"

Sara lifted the coffee cup to her lips and took a sip.

"I don't know," she said.

"You'll have to ask Harvey."

"What do you mean you don't know?"

"Just what I said."

"Did Bradley have AIDS?"

"It can't leave this room," Sara said.

"It won't."

"The answer is yes."

"Was he being treated for it?"

"Yes, but I don't know where. It was a big secret, and I didn't want him to tell me."

"Why not?" he asked.

"You know who his father is, of course."

"Of course."

"The senator beat the crap out of Bradley when he found out that I knew about his AIDS. Bradley's father was terrified that the truth would be exposed."

"Because it would ruin him."

"Exactly. So we tried not to talk about it."

"I see." Max stopped, looked up toward the sky, scratched his neck where it met the top of his chest.

"Wouldn't Dr. Riker have said something to you if he was treating Bradley?"

"No way. The clinic is cloaked in secrecy. I do not know the names of any patients being treated at the clinic."

"Interesting." Max looked away for a moment, his hand moving up now to rub his face.

"So why did Dr. Riker speak to you about the two murders last night?"

She hesitated.

"I think you better ask Harvey that."

"Sara, you're not going to pull that 'can't reveal my source' crap on me, are you?"

"I'm afraid I'll have to for right now. But speak to Harvey. He can enlighten you better than I can anyway."

Max shrugged.

"Okay. Let's find him."

After passing two security checkpoints, Max and Sara found Harvey in his office in the Sidney Pavilion. He looked up from his paper-cluttered desk, his eyes red and weary.

"what's up?" he asked.

"Harvey, you remember Lieutenant Bernstein."

"Of course. Hello, Lieutenant."

"How's it going, Doc?"

"Fine, thanks," Harvey replied.

"Sara, I just finished talking to Michael. As we suspected, the abdominal ultrasound showed swelling in Michael's liver." "What does that mean?" Sara asked.

"It could mean a dozen things, but Dr. Sagarel, Eric, and I still agree that it is probably hepatitis. We should have the results of the blood test in another day or two. Chances are he'll need a couple of weeks here and at least a month of bed rest."

"And basketball?"

"Not this season, Sara. There's an outside chance he'll be able to play in the play-offs."

"He knows?" "I told him. His reaction was a little strange."

"Meaning?" "It didn't really bother him all that much. He told me the good news about your pregnancy. Hell, it was all he'd talk about." "Pregnancy?" Max.

"You didn't tell me."

"Hardly seemed the time." "Congratulations," Max said.

"Thank you. Harvey, Lieutenant Bernstein needs to talk to you."

Harvey stood and moved in front of his desk.

"Is this about what we discussed last night?"

"Might be," Max interjected, trying to sound professional but coming across like a bad actor in an old private-eye movie. He had never been good at the tough-guy bit.

"Is Bradley Jenkins a patient of yours?"

Harvey's face twisted into a look of confusion and annoyance.

"What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

Bernstein cleared his throat.

"Mind answering the question?"

"As a matter of fact, I do." His line of vision swung over to Sara.

"What's going on here?"

Sara looked over to Max, who nodded for her to go ahead.

"Bradley Jenkins was found murdered this morning," she said.

"What?"

"Multiple stab wounds," Bernstein said.

"We suspect that his death is related to the murders of two patients at your clinic, a Bill Whitherson and a Scott Trian."

"Jesus Christ."

"Now would you mind answering my question? Was Bradley Jenkins a patient at the clinic?"

Harvey moved tentatively back toward his chair like a man who had taken too many blows. He sat down and lowered his head into his hands.

"Sara," he asked after a few moments had passed, "can he be trusted?"

"Yes."

His eyes tried to lock onto Bernstein's, but the lieutenant's were busy dancing about the small office.

"Swear you won't let the media get it."

"Swear."

"Yes, Bradley Jenkins was a patient of mine a very confidential patient."

"How long had Bradley been receiving treatment here?"

"Not long. Four months maybe."

"And the other two Whitherson and Trian?"

"They were both here from almost the beginning."

"How long ago was that?"

"More than two years."

Max nodded. He finally took out his pad and used the pencil to write on it.

"Now why don't you tell me about last night's conversation with Miss. Lowell?"

Harvey looked over to Sara.

"You can trust him," she said.

Hesitantly, Harvey began by telling Max his suspicions that the murders were related to the clinic. Then he explained that they were close, painfully close, to finding a treatment for AIDS.

Max nodded vigorously, jotting pages of notes and listening without comment.

When Harvey stopped speaking, Bernstein said, "You said 'we' might have found a cure. Who is 'we'?"

"Mostly myself and my late partner, Dr. Bruce Grey and a new member of the team, Dr. Eric Blake."

"Blake's a friend of Michael's, isn't he?"

"Yes," Sara replied.

Max's eyes narrowed in thought. The pencil found its way back into his mouth.

"Dr. Bruce Grey... isn't he the guy who swan-dived through a hotel window a couple of weeks back?"

Harvey glanced toward Sara and then nodded.

"Interesting," Max said again.

"So what do you make of his suicide, Dr. Riker?"

"I'm not sure I make anything out of it," Harvey replied.

"Bruce committed suicide, I guess. That's what the police insist anyway. The rest of what I told Sara must have been some wild fabrications my overtired mind and overactive imagination invented.

It's crazy."

Max moved toward the chair in front of the desk and sat down.

"I enjoy crazy."

Cassandra tiptoed down the staircase. She was still a bit hung over from last night's festivities, but her headache was not nearly as bad as usual. She tried to put the pieces of the previous evening back together. She recalled some heavy-duty conversation with Michael. She vaguely remembered screwing Senator Jenkins in the cabana. She had some recollection of drinking too much.

But the part she remembered with startling clarity came toward the end of the party. Cassandra had made her way to the bar for one last shot before she called it a night. While waiting for the bartender to fill her glass, she started a conversation with a man who also seemed a bit inebriated. She knew who the man was, had met him a few times, but she had never paid him much (or any) attention. But no one else was around, and Cassandra was feeling particularly charitable.

When the guests began to leave over an hour later, Cassandra realized that she was still talking with the same man. Talking.

Not flirting, not hitting on, not being hit upon, not fucking. Just talking. And shit, she had to be seriously intoxicated. Under normal, more sober circumstances she would not waste a good spit on this guy.

But the man had been a perfect gentleman. He listened to her, to what she had to say. Oh she had seen men feign interest in order to get in her pants, but somehow she knew that this guy was actually interested in what she had to say.

Strange.

Even stranger, when she finally asked him if he wanted to go upstairs with her, he answered, "Not tonight." "Why not?" she asked.

The man shook his head and smiled.

"Didn't I see this once on the Twilight Zone? The homely man and the gorgeous woman switch places? I can't believe I'm saying this, but here goes I don't want to be just another notch on your belt."

"Excuse me?"

"I know, I know. I don't believe it either. Look, Cassandra, I'd give my right arm to spend an evening with you."

"So?"

He shrugged, holding up his hands helplessly.

"If I go upstairs with you now, that'll be it. But if I refuse, you might be intrigued.

You might want to pursue it though I can't help thinking that once you're sober you ll think this whole conversation was a nightmare." She smiled.

"You're giving away your strategy, Harvey."

"Yeah, well, I never was very good at this stuff and I'm a bit out of practice like twenty-six years out of practice. Do yourself a favor, Cassandra. Stay away from me. I'm trouble." "Now you really have me intrigued," she said.

"Nothing to be intrigued about," Harvey continued.

"I'm just a workaholic who spends every waking and sleeping moment in a hospital in Spanish Harlem. I have no time for a social life.

It was a fun evening, a wonderful distraction, but it's time I returned to Planet Earth." "I wish you'd reconsider," she said.

Harvey pounded the side of his head like he was trying to clear it.

"I'm dreaming, aren't I?" he asked.

"This whole conversation is a dream."

"Maybe. I guess we'll find out tomorrow."

Now it was tomorrow and for some strange reason, Cassandra wanted to see Harvey Riker again. One problem she had spent most of the morning trying to figure out what she should do next and had come up with nothing. Should she wait until Harvey called? Suppose he didn't? And talk about being out of practice it had been years since Cassandra questioned or cared if a man called her or not.

Then a solution had presented itself when her father came home.

"Where were you?" she had asked him.

"At Columbia Presbyterian," John Lowell replied, distracted.

"Michael was rushed there."

"Is he all right?"

"I think so. His friends are taking care of him."

"Harvey Riker?"

Her father nodded.

"They think he has hepatitis."

"I think I'll go visit him."

"Whatever. When are you going to go?"

"In ten minutes," she said.

"Good. I have a meeting in a little while, and I don't want anyone around when my appointment gets here. Understood?"

But that had been over an hour ago, which was why she was tiptoeing.

Her father's private meetings were just that private.

Bathed in secrecy. He would be furious if he found out she was still home. She crept down the hallway toward the garage. As she passed her father's study, she heard his voice come through the thick oak. He sounded very angry.

"Goddamn it, you shouldn't be here," her father shouted.

"Relax," another voice said, a voice Cassandra could not quite place.

"You said no one was home."

"Doesn't matter. I don't want you in my house."

"Stop worrying so much. There's work to be done."

Who the hell...? Cassandra carefully moved away from the door, her mind racing. The voice was so familiar. She had heard it before, she was sure of it. But where? And who did it belong to?

She was at a traffic light about a mile away when the answer came to her.

7.

"What I found in Dr. Grey's note," handwriting analyst Robert Swinster began, "is pretty rare."

Lieutenant Max Bernstein nodded.

"I know. It might just explain everything."

"Like what?" "Later," Max said.

"I have a million things to do."

"I can take a hint. I'm as good as gone."

Max shook Swinster's hand and patted his back.

"Thanks again, Bob. I really appreciate it."

"No problem, Twitch. I'm glad I could help."

Robert Swinster walked away from Bernstein's desk as Sara hobbled toward it.

"Hi, Max."

He smiled at her.

"Glad you could get here so fast. Have a seat."

Sara examined the man and his desk. All the usual signs were there his red eyes, the ragged edges of his fingernails, the thought lines in his forehead, the fingers twiddling with the pencil, the paper clips he had snapped in half lying all over the desk, the hand constantly rubbing his unshaven face.

For two days Max and his men had investigated the sensational murder of young Bradley Jenkins by the now-infamous Gay Slasher. A distraught Senator Jenkins had gone into hiding and would make no comments to the press about the rumors swirling around his son's death. His Senate spokesman continuously spewed a standard line the murder was clearly a ploy by certain subversive groups to destroy the senator's reputation and personal life.

Max had interviewed Senator Jenkins yesterday, after his son's funeral.

Bernstein had seen during his years in homicide what a tragedy like this could do to even the strongest of men, but he was still taken aback by the senator's appearance. His skin was ashen, his eyes wide and uncomprehending, his shoulder slumped, his whole demeanor defeated.

The senator had answered Max's questions in a flat, distant voice, but it seemed that the man knew very little that would help find the killer.

"Who was that?" Sara asked.

"Robert Swinster," Max replied, "a handwriting analyst. He was rechecking Bruce Grey's note."

"Did he find anything?"

The phone on the desk buzzed. Max put up a finger to signal for her to wait and picked up the receiver.

"Yes?"

"Daily News on line five again. ABC-TV on line eight."

"I'm not talking to the press right now," he snapped. He slammed the receiver back into the cradle.

"Damn reporters," he muttered.

"Enough to drive a man crazy."

"Temper, temper."

"Everyone keeps screaming how we're not doing our job. How the hell are we supposed to get anything done with the press breathing down our necks all the time? Bunch of vultures present company excluded, of course. You know something? I think the media hopes the psycho will strike again, the sick bastards."

"Comes with the territory," Sara replied.

"I know," Max said, "but the pressure on this one is unbelievable. At the press conference the other day I felt like fresh meat in front of starving Dobermans. And that's not the half of it. The mayor's demanding answers in that holier-than-thou way of his. Every gay activist is coming out of the woodwork accusing the fascist police department of discriminating against homosexuals. I've had a dozen phony confessions today alone.

Everyone suddenly wants to be the Gay Slasher." He took a deep breath.

"Ah, screw it. So how's Michael?"

"Feeling better. His teammates are visiting him now."

"Good. I needed to talk this over with you right away."

"Bouncing time, eh?" Max nodded and smiled wearily. Several years ago Sara had been instrumental in helping Max find a cop-killer who had randomly gunned down four of Max's fellow officers in one week.

Max had learned from that experience that he liked bouncing ideas off an intelligent listener, and Sara was about as sharp a listener as there was. Very often they said some crazy things to each other, came up with some crazy hypotheses, even called each other crazy, but eventually the irrational statements began to mesh with the more rational facts, often forming solid solutions.

"Is this case harder for you than most?" she asked.

"Meaning?"

"You know what I mean."

He smiled nervously, checking to make sure that no one was within earshot.

"It'd make an interesting news angle, huh? The fag detective in charge of finding the Gay Slasher?"

She said nothing.

"Sara, you're still the only one who knows aside from Lenny and my mother." He swallowed, his Adam's apple visibly sliding up and down.

"I wish I could say something, but do you know what would happen to me if the force found out?"

"I can imagine."

"I'd lose everything. I'd be lucky if they let me work as a meter maid."

"You don't have to explain yourself to me, Max."

He nodded, his eyes lowered to the floor.

"By the way, Lenny says hello."

"How is he?"

He shrugged.

"He's a nag, but I love him."

"As long as you're happy."

"You sound like my mother. Can we get back to the case now?"

"Okay" Sara said, "what have you got so far?"

"Not much. We got a wino who saw Bradley's body being dumped behind the Black Magic early in the a.m. We also located the car the killer was driving at the time. That's about it."

"Go on."

"It seems the wino, a Mr. Louis Bluwell, was sleeping off a couple of bottles of gin under some garbage bags when he heard the car and saw a man he described as 'a big monster' get out of the car and dump the body amongst the garbage bags. Mr. Bluwell said the car was a beat-up green Chevy. We found a car matching that description abandoned on Riverside Drive around 145th Street. There was a fair amount make that gallons of the victim's blood splashed all over the floor of the trunk. The car had been stolen the previous evening."

"Did the lab find anything else in the car?"

"One set of fingerprints the victim's. A few hairs all belonging to the victim." "Figures," Sara said.

"Anything else?"

"According to Mr. Bluwell, the man in the car was big a mountain-size guy with dark hair. No noticeable features."

"So what do you make of it?"

Bernstein leaned back, placing his hands together, the fingertips of his index fingers resting against his nose. He put his feet on his desk.

"I find it all interesting," he remarked.

"How so?" Sara asked.

"It just doesn't make sense."

"What doesn't?"

"Okay, help me here, Sara. What do we know so far? First, all three victims were homosexuals. Second, all three victims were being treated at the same AIDS clinic. Third, all three died of stab wounds within the past three weeks."

"So?"

"So take a look at the cases one by one for a second." Max sat up quickly, opened up his pocket pad, and read.

"Victim one:

Mr. Scott Trian. Trian had been found tied spread-eagle to his bed in apartment 8G at 27 Christopher Street. The corpse was found with twenty-seven stab wounds. The murderer sliced off Trian's left ear, both thumbs, and left nipple while he was still alive, we think. He also castrated Trian."

"Unbelievable," Sara whispered.

Max nodded.

"Even more unbelievable is that we've managed to keep the mutilation and torture away from the media."

"Won't last," Sara added.

"Someone will open his mouth."

"True enough, but until then I can use it to cut through all these phony confessors. When pressed for details about the killings, none of the confessing Gay Slashers knew about the mutilation or torture. They only knew what they had read in the papers. But we're getting off the subject. Let's move onto the second victim."

"Okay."

Bernstein wet his index finger and turned a few pages.

"Victim number two: Mr. William Whitherson. Mr. Whitherson's boyfriend, a Stuart Lebrinski, stepped out of their co-op on the Upper West Side to pick up some groceries. When he came back an hour later, Whitherson was dead. Twenty-three stab wounds.

There was no mutilation or signs of torture."

"There was no time," Sara said.

"The boyfriend was only gone an hour."

"Could be," Max allowed.

"But now things get really interesting. Victim number three: Mr. Bradley Jenkins." Pages were once again turned before Max continued.

"A limousine driver dropped Bradley off in front of his apartment building after the charity ball at your father's estate. One neighbor thought he saw Jenkins leave the building a few minutes later with another man the neighbor described as 'very big'."

"Probably the same guy the wino saw."

"Makes sense," Max agreed.

"Anyway, the next thing we know Jenkins winds up dead behind the Black Magic Bar and Grill.

Several patrons of the bar recognized Bradley from his photograph, but all swear that he had not been seen that entire evening."

"So? He was at my father's party until late."

"One other thing the lock on Bradley's apartment door was jimmied." "The big guy probably broke in," Sara said.

"I don't see what part of it doesn't make sense."

Max put down his notebook.

"Put the whole thing together, Sara. First, Bradley Jenkins comes home from the party. Then some big guy jimmies the lock and breaks in.

Fine, okay so far.

You with me?"

"Go on."

"Now from the looks of Jenkins' apartment, the struggle if there was one was painfully short. Then Bradley and the killer leave the apartment and drive off together. Based on the tremendous amount of blood in the trunk, we can speculate that Bradley was murdered while lying in the trunk of the car. No mutilation, but like the other two, approximately two dozen stab wounds cover his face, chest, and groin.

The killer keeps the body in the trunk overnight, wakes up the next morning, and dumps his body behind a gay bar."

"Maybe Bradley knew the guy," Sara said.

"Hold on, skip that. If they knew each other, there would have been no need for the jimmied lock."

Max managed a grin.

"And I was all ready to jump on you for being wrong."

"Sorry to spoil it for you."

"Never mind. But you're ignoring the more important question."

"Which is?"

"Why did the killer take Bradley out of the apartment in the first place? Think about it. Trian and Whitherson were both murdered in their apartments, right? The killer got them alone, did his thing, and left the mess. But not with Bradley. He went to the trouble of taking him out of the apartment. That meant the killer had to go to the trouble of stealing a car, one. Two, he had to risk being seen leaving the apartment as well as risk being seen getting rid of the body behind the Black Magic. Why? Why not just kill him like the others and get it over with? And why dump the body behind a gay bar?" Sara thought for a moment.

"I see what you mean. Look, Max, I know the heat is coming down on you, but I can't hold back much longer. I won't say anything about the mutilation of Trian, but I have to let the public know about the connection of the three victims to the AIDS clinic."

"Sara..."

"Someone is going to dig it up soon anyway, and now Bradley's father can't be hurt any more than he already has." She gripped her cane.

"More important, Harvey has decided to go public with the clinic's success. He needs to raise funds. There'll be an hour story on the success of his AIDS treatment on News Flash

Max whistled.

"Talk about a major scoop," he said.

"Could be Pulitzer here, Sara. I'd hate to see you miss that."

"Not fair, Max."

"I know. My bias against the press flaring up again. Sorry."

"Forget it." She watched him start to gnaw on his finger not the nail, the finger.

"Max, don't you think the connection to the clinic is important?"

"Crucial," he answered, removing his finger from his mouth and rubbing his face with the same hand.

"My people are checking out everyone involved with the place."

"That's the crux of the whole thing, isn't it?" she asked.

"I mean, everyone assumes that a psychopath is targeting gays, but he could really be after AIDS patients or, more specifically, patients at Harvey's clinic."

"Could be."

"What about Harvey's fear that someone is trying to sabotage the clinic?"

Bernstein stood up and began pacing in a small, tight circle.

"A possibility but a long shot. According to Harvey, nobody outside the clinic not the PDA, you, or anybody else knew how close they were to finding a cure. Sure, there were rumors, but people don't usually try to sabotage a rumor."

"I'm not sure I agree with you there," Sara said.

"We've both seen plenty of people act on a lot less than unsubstantiated rumors before."

"Granted, but look at it this way if someone wanted to destroy Harvey and Bruce's work, why go to the trouble of murdering all these people in such a grisly fashion? Why not just burn down the clinic? Or why not just kill...?" His voice trailed away.

"Just kill?"

Max swallowed.

"I was about to say, "Why not just kill the doctors?" There was a long silence.

"Max, what did the handwriting analyst say?"

"Bruce Grey wrote the note. No chance of it being a forgery."

"Does that mean he definitely committed suicide?" Bernstein paused, his hand still nervously massaging his chin.

"Not necessarily," he began.

"Because of the note in Grey's handwriting, the suicide was barely questioned. It was an open-and shut case."

"And now?"

"There's so many holes, Sara. I checked out Grey's history.

He seemed happy enough, normal enough, no signs of depression or mental illness."

"But if Bruce wrote the note "

"Ah, but haw did he write the note?"

"I don't understand."

"As you know, I took the liberty of having the handwriting analyst check the note again. But this time I had him look for other details."

"Such as?"

"For one thing, Swinster noted that the handwriting was unusually shaky. Words and letters ran into one another. It was definitely written by Grey the shape and design of the letters tell you that but it was not his normal handwriting. He was in a rush or under duress or something like that."

"Isn't that normal in the case of a suicide?"

"Not really. Usually, the handwriting is slow and even and fairly normal. Grey always wrote very neatly even when he scribbled down a prescription. The suicide note was uncharacteristically sloppy. It could have been I said could have been coerced."

Sara sat forward with her eyes opened wide. Her words came fast.

"Then what you're saying is that maybe Bruce was forced to write it,"

she nearly shouted.

"Maybe somebody put a gun to his head and made him do it."

"Calm down, Sara. We don't know anything of the sort yet."

"And if that's the case, Harvey could be in real danger."

Bernstein shook his head.

"Don't start building this into something it's not. There are a million better explanations for all of this. It could be something as simple as Bruce Grey being so cold his hand shook when he wrote the note. Or it could be that he was nervous at the thought of running head first through a window."

"You don't buy any of that."

Max pocketed his keys.

"But it sounded good."

"Where are you going?"

"To the Days Inn. I want to check out Grey's room."

"Hey, hey, Mikey, boy! How you feeling?" Michael looked up and smiled. Reece and Jerome piled into the room with a half dozen other Knicks.

"You guys are a bunch of the ugliest candy-stripers I've ever seen." "But look what we brought you," Jerome said, holding up a brown paper bag.

"What is it?" Michael asked.

"Hospital food sucks, right?" Jerome continued.

"Bet your ass," Michael replied.

"Two days of it and I'm already going crazy."

"And," Reece added, "everyone knows how you Jews love food from the Orient."

"You mean...?"

"Yup," Reece interrupted, "take-out from Hunan Empire."

"I think I love you guys."

"Don't get mushy on us, old dude."

"I'll try not to break down."

"So how you feeling, Mikey?"

"Okay."

"When you coming back?"

"Probably not till next season."

"Shit."

"Yeah, tell me about it. But guys, guess what?"

There was a pause.

"Reece already told us the good news," Jerome said with a wide smile.

"You're going to be a papa.

Congratulations, man."

They shook hands.

"Thanks."

The other players gathered around him to offer their congratulations.

"Hey, old dude, how you gonna teach me anything from a hospital bed?"

Jerome asked.

"Watch old game films," Reece suggested.

"See how Mikey played when he was in his prime."

"They had movie cameras back then?" Jerome joked.

Reece laughed.

"What the hell are you laughing at?" Michael asked him.

"You're only a year younger than me."

"I know. That's why I want you back with the team. I don't want to be the new 'old dude'."

"Swell. How's practice going anyway?"

"We miss you, Mikey," Reece said.

"Nice to hear."

"Yeah," Jerome added, "I miss blocking your shot and putting it in your face."

"Just hand over the food, Jerome, before my doctor seer it."

"Too late."

The tall bodies of the New York Knicks turned toward the door. Harvey stood leaning against the frame of the doorway.

"Hey, Harv," Reece said.

"How's it going, Reece?"

"Not bad."

"Would you and your cohorts mind if I have a few minutes alone with Michael?"

"Of course not."

"Good," Harvey replied.

"In the meantime I'll have one of the nurses bring you hoodlums over to the pediatric wing. There's a few kids in there you fellas might be able to cheer up." "Be our pleasure," Reece said.

"Come on, guys. Let's go."

Michael's teammates bade him good-bye and left. Then Harvey closed the door and moved into the room.

"So what's up?" Michael asked.

"We just got back results of the blood tests," Harvey began.

"You were HBV positive."

"Meaning?"

"You have hepatitis."

"Isn't that what you were expecting?"

"Yes and no."

"Explain, por favor."

"Frankly speaking, its all a little strange."

"What do you mean?"

Harvey crossed the room.

"You have hepatitis B rather than hepatitis A."

"Is that bad?"

"Ninety percent of all hep B patients recover fully within three to four months. With a little luck and some good training, you could even be back in shape for the end of the season and the play-offs."

"Great."

"But we'd like to take a few more tests, Michael," Harvey said, "including a T cell study and an HIV test."

Michael sat up, his eyes finding Harvey's and locking onto them.

"An HIV test? Isn't that " "Yes," Harvey, "it's a test which is supposed to indicate if you are carrying the AIDS virus."

"Why would I need one of those?"

"Its merely a precaution," Harvey continued.

"We're sure you don't have AIDS or anything of the sort. You're not homosexual and you're not an intravenous drug user, which means your chances of having it are next to nil."

"So?"

"So Eric and I discussed it. We also consulted Dr. Sagarel, the gastroenterologist. The thing is no one really understands how you contracted hep B."

"Some bad seafood maybe?"

"You're thinking of hepatitis A," Harvey continued.

"Hepatitis B is transmitted through blood transfusions, saliva, semen, stuff like that. Now I know you're going to want to slap me for asking, but I have to do it anyway. It's important that you tell the truth."

"Shoot."

"I know you love Sara, but have you had any extramarital affairs? Any at all. An indiscretion during a Knick road trip, anything?"

"No," Michael answered.

"Never."

Harvey nodded.

"Normally, we wouldn't think of going through with an HIV test, but when Eric reviewed your records, he came up with the fact that you had a blood transfusion after your boating accident in the Bahamas."

"But that was years ago."

"I know. If it were more recent, I wouldn't worry about it as much.

Nowadays we have the technology to screen blood donations so that the chances of a patient's receiving HIV contaminated blood are very remote. Back then the test didn't exist."

"So you're saying "

"I'm not saying anything. Look, Michael, Eric and I have HI Von-the-brain with the clinic and all. You don't have AIDS, I'm nearly positive of it. Under normal circumstances I would have just gone ahead and done the HIV test without telling you."

"So why didn't you? You didn't give me details about the other tests."

"Because the law requires that you sign a form, that's all."

"And Dr. Sagarel agrees with you and Eric about this?"

Harvey's face seemed to cloud over in hurt for a brief moment.

"Yes, Michael. He agreed."

"Harv," Michael began, "I don't mean to question your judgment " Harvey waved his hand.

"Don't worry about it, Michael. It was the right question to ask."

"So now what?"

"I'd like to draw some blood, if it's okay."

Michael shrugged, his eyes still scared. Then he nodded.

"You guys are the doctors." "Good," Harvey said.

"Give me your arm."

"Pick a vein, any vein at all."

Harvey did so, inserting the needle into the protruding blue line.

"Believe me, Michael, this is merely a formality."

"I hope you're right."

He finished taking the blood and withdrew the needle.

"I am," he said. He walked over to the door, opened it, and stepped into the hallway.

"Janice?"

As per Harvey's instruction, Janice Matley, his most loyal and trustworthy nurse, was waiting by the door. Harvey had brought Janice over from the clinic because he did not trust anyone with this task.

"Yes, Doctor?"

He handed her the blood sample.

"Give this to Eric or Winston only. Nobody else. If neither one of them is there, just wait."

She nodded and left. Harvey stepped back into Michael's room.

"When will you know the results?" Michael asked.

"In a week," Harvey answered.

"Now stop worrying like an old lady. There's no reason to think you have anything other than hepatitis."

Mr. Philip Adams, assistant manager of the Days Inn, unlocked the door.

"Here it is," he said.

"Room 1118."

"Damn," Lieutenant Bernstein said.

"Something wrong?"

Max took his finger out of his mouth.

"Hangnail. It's driving me nuts."

Philip Adams watched with something near horror while the police lieutenant used his teeth to rid himself of the annoying problem.

"Will there be anything else?"

"Has anybody stayed here since the suicide?"

"Actually, business has been a little slow right now so we've kept it vacant."

"Has the room been cleaned since the incident?"

"Oh, sure."

"Can you find me the maid who cleaned it?"

"She's off today."

"When will she be in?"

"Tomorrow morning."

"I'd like her to call me when she gets in."

"Of course, Lieutenant, but why are you investigating this now? The suicide was more than two weeks ago."

"Just trying to tie up a few loose ends," Bernstein explained.

"Can you also find me the receptionist who was on duty the night of the suicide?"

"Hector checked Dr. Grey in," Adams said.

"The police spoke to him already."

"When does Hector come in?"

"He's here now."

"Then please send him up."

"No problem."

"Has any work been done on the room since the incident?"

Adams coughed into his fist.

"We replaced the broken window he jumped through, of course."

"Nothing else?"

The assistant manager thought a moment.

"No, I don't think so."

"Okay, thanks."

"Here's the key, Lieutenant."

"I'll return it to you on my way out."

"Thank you."

Left alone, Bernstein paced the room in a circular pattern, hoping to get a feel for the surroundings. Then he closed his eyes and tried to step into the good doctor's shoes. He tried to picture Dr. Brace Grey checking into this hotel, taking the elevator up to the eleventh floor, unlocking the door, moving into this room.

Max imagined Grey trying to force open the window and finding that it was nailed shut. So what did Grey do next? He must have decided to take a running start and leap through the glass. Max pictured him backing up, sprinting forward, hurling his body against the glass, shattering it into small shards, slicing himself in the process. Not exactly a neat suicide. Very messy, in fact.

And painful jumping through glass could not have been a lot of laughs.

Something's wrong here, Twitch.

He nodded to himself. Why here? Why a leap? Why jump through glass?

It did not add up. The man was on the verge of a major medical breakthrough. He had been divorced for seven years already, had a kid he didn't see enough, loved to read, loved to work, was more or less a homebody. According to Harvey Riker and several of Bruce's friends, Grey rarely traveled and had only been out of the country three times his recent trip to Cancun, Mexico (taking a vacation before suicide?) and twice to Bangkok a few years back, where the clinic kept all confidential blood and lab samples and test results. Max had learned that Harvey and Bruce were paranoid about leaks, sabotage, government interference, that kind of thing hence the decision to have a safehouse way out in Bangkok. Might have seemed like unsubstantiated paranoia at the time but now... Bernstein stopped in mid-thought when he saw it.

His gaze fastened on the left side of the wall by the door, his eyes widening. He slowly crossed the room and examined the chain-lock, which hung from the wall and door in two separate pieces. The steel chain was snapped in two. Max bent forward to get a closer look when a knock on the door made him jump.

"Who is it?" he asked.

"Hector Rodriguez," a voice with a Hispanic accent called out.

"Mr. Adams told me you wanted to see me."

Bernstein opened the door.

"Come in."

The slight, dark-skinned man moved into the room. He wore a hotel uniform and a goatee that looked like it had been penciled onto his face.

"Mr. Adams said you have some questions about the suicide?"

"Hector, did anyone notice this before?"

Hector squinted at the chain-lock.

"I don't think so. No one's used this room since the suicide."

"Are broken chain-locks a common occurrence in this place?"

"No, sir, they're not. I'll have it replaced right away."

Bernstein wondered if the lock had been broken when Grey first came into the room. Somehow he doubted it.

"Do you remember Dr. Grey checking in?"

"A little," Hector replied.

"I mean, he jumped out the window a few minutes after he checked in. He couldn't have been in the room for more than five minutes."

"What do you remember about him?"

"He had very blond hair "

"I don't mean looks-wise. I mean, how did he act? How was he behaving?"

"Behaving?"

"Yes. Did he seem depressed, for example?" "No, not de. I'd say nervous was more like it. He was sweating like a pig."

"I see..." Bernstein's hands flew forward.

"Hold it a second.

Did you just say Dr. Grey had blond hair?"

"Very blond."

Max's eyes squinted in bafflement. He opened his file and looked at a recent photograph of Bruce Grey. The man in the photograph had black hair.

"Is this the man who checked in that night?"

Hector stared at the picture for a good ten seconds.

"I can't say for sure. He looked much different. He didn't have a beard and like I said before, his hair was blond."

Bernstein opened the file. He had tried to avoid the police photos because he was not fond of looking at splattered remains, but now he knew that he would have to look. He thumbed through the papers until he arrived at the first glossy photograph.

There was not enough face left to tell if there had ever been a beard, but even through the thick patches of blood, Max could see that the dead man definitely had blond hair. Like Hector said, very blond.

Max closed both the file and his eyes. Why the sudden appearance change? A new hair-do and quick shave for a leap through a window seemed a tad bizarre, to say the least.

"Tell me what Dr. Grey said to you when he checked in."

Hector looked up, trying to remember.

"Nothing special. He just said he wanted a room. I asked, "How many nights, sir?" and he said, "One."

"

"That's it?" "I said, Will that be cash or charge? and he said, "Cash." Then I gave him the key and he took off."

"Nothing else?"

"Nothing."

"You're sure." He thought a moment.

"That was it."

"He didn't have any special requests for his room?"

"No."

"He didn't ask for the room to be on a certain floor?"

Hector shook his head.

"I don't even think he looked at the number on the key until he stepped into the elevator."

Cold fear slid down Bernstein's chest. His finger went back into his mouth, but there was nothing left to chew except skin.

This whole thing was getting messy and complicated, too messy and too complicated. Bruce Grey had not asked for a special room.

He had not asked for a room with a view or a room near an elevator or one of those new no-smoking rooms. He had not asked for a room with a king-sized bed or a queen-sized bed or two separate beds. And most of all Bruce Grey had not asked for a room on a high floor. For all he knew, he could have gotten a room on the ground level.

"Is there anything else, Lieutenant?"

"No, that's it for now."

Hector Rodriguez turned to leave and then stopped.

"I saw your name in the Herald, Lieutenant. I hope you catch that whacko before he slices off somebody else's nuts."

Max's head shot up.

"What did you say?"

"Cutting off a man's balls. Pure loco, huh, Lieutenant?"

"Where did you hear that?"

"The evening edition. Front cover. What kind of a man does something like that? City's full of sickos."

Once again, Max rubbed his face and eyes with his right hand.

The press. The mayor. The gay activists.

Help.

8.

The ringing of the telephone jerked George out of his sleep. He awoke, as he always did, quickly, alert. He picked up the receiver before the second ring.

"Hello."

"Did you read this morning's paper?"

George sat up and checked his watch. The voice on the other end sounded different this time still agitated and strained, but now there was something else. More fear. Maybe even anger.

"No," George replied.

"Should I have?"

"According to the Herald, the Gay Slasher tortured and castrated Scott Trian before killing him."

"You sound upset."

"They were supposed to die quickly, damn it! I never said anything about torture or mutilation."

"If you're unhappy with my work " "Unhappy? You're a lunatic. I thought I was dealing with a professional, but you're a goddamn psychopath."

"I was following your orders," George said.

"The mutilation just speeds up the end result. It makes sense financially."

There was stunned silence on the other end.

George continued, "I assume you also read that everything went smoothly with Jenkins' murder. I dumped the body just where you wanted it."

" "Did... did you disfigure him?"

"He died from the first stab wound. The same with Whitherson."

"You're sure?"

"Don't make me repeat myself."

"Then just promise me you won't hurt any of the others." George almost smiled.

"I am merely the executioner, the one who pulls the switch or drops the gas pellet. But you... you are the judge and jury. You are the one who ordered their deaths." "No," the voice said slowly, "I am not."

Again there was silence. Then the voice said, "Promise me, George.

Promise me that no others will be needlessly tortured."

George paused.

"Okay. But I assure you it was for the best."

There was a long release of breath and then the voice said, "The situation is different now. You'll have to be more careful.

The police are going to start watching."

"Watching what?" George asked.

"The police force can't guard every faggot in Manhattan... unless there's something else."

"Something else? I don't understand." "I think you do," George said.

"Listen, I don't care who you are. I don't care why you want these people killed. It's not my concern. But I need to know what the police are thinking. I need to know what the real connection is between the victims so that I can prepare properly. Otherwise, mistakes can be made."

Silence.

"Can I assume," George continued, "that these men have more in common than being gay?"

"They're all patients at an AIDS clinic," the voice said.

"So that explains why you told me to wear the mask and gloves."

"Yes."

"And Dr. Grey worked at this clinic?"

"Yes."

"So let me get this straight: Trian, Whitherson, and Jenkins were all AIDS patients at a clinic operated by Bruce Grey?"

"Yes."

"And the police know this?"

"They know most of it. The rest they'll figure out."

"So they may look into Grey's suicide again."

"They might." George thought for a moment.

"I have an idea, but it'll cost you."

"I'm listening."

"I'll kill a couple of random faggots "

"No!"

"Hear me out. I kill a couple of faggots who don't have AIDS or aren't being treated at this clinic. It'll throw the cops off the track. Make it look even more like the work of a psychotic gay hater

"No!"

"Then I'll change the way I kill the next few.

"I'll make it look like an accident or better yet, a suicide. If these guys have AIDS and are on death row anyway, a suicide might not be looked into too closely."

"The police will be looking for something like that. You'll never get away with it."

"Worth a try."

"No. I want you to use the same methods unless I say otherwise."

George shrugged.

"Your money."

"And remember the only people who are to be put to death are the ones I say." "Not put to death," George said.

"Excuse me?"

"They're not being 'put to death," George continued.

"They're being murdered." "Do you eat here every day?" Sara asked.

"No," Eric Blake replied. They both slid their trays along the hospital cafeteria girders. The room was packed with doctors, nurses, lab technicians everyone dressed in white coats or blue hospital scrubs with the words

"Property of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center Removal From Premises Prohibited" emblazoned across the chest. Everyone looked exhausted, the men unshaven, the women baggy-eyed. Working 40-hour shifts can do that to a person.

Sara looked down at the hospital pizza and frowned.

"Eric?"

"Yes?"

"Is mozzarella cheese supposed to be green?"

"It's one of the better items on the menu."

"I think I'll pass."

"I can order in Chinese, if you'd like."

She shook her head.

"Michael would kill me. He hasn't eaten Chinese in two days and he's already suffering withdrawal pains."

"He always did love Chinese food."

They found a table toward the back where the room was relatively quiet.

"How's Michael feeling?" Eric asked.

"I haven't had a chance to check in on him today."

"About the same," Sara replied.

"He's taking a nap right now.

I don't know, Eric... he just doesn't look right to me."

"He'll be fine." Eric carefully opened his container of milk.

While everyone around them drank directly from the carton, Eric poured the milk into a glass and then lifted it to his lips.

"It's kind of spooky seeing Michael here though. Like a bad deja vu."

"What do you mean?"

"It reminds me of when we were kids," he said.

"Of when Michael's stepfather beat him."

Sara winced.

"He doesn't talk about it much."

"I know. I don't blame him. It was a bad time, Sara, best forgotten."

She nodded slowly, picturing Michael as a helpless child in a hospital bed. A flush of anguish and anger rose in her. Her mind traveled back five years to the first time she had learned about Michael's past, a few hours before she met him for the first time.

"I want you to interview Michael Silverman," Larry Simmons, managing editor of the New York Herald, told her.

"The basketball player?" she asked.

"Yup."

"Why? Basketball is hardly my area of expertise."

"I don't want a story about basketball. I want a story about Michael Silverman, the man. Look, the NBA finals are on now and everyone is applauding Silverman's skill on the court. But where did he come from? What made this Jewish kid from New Jersey become such a fantastic athlete?"

"Hasn't this story been done before?"

"Others have tried. Others have even dug up some of Silverman's tragic past."

"Tragic past?"

"It's all in the fik. But I don't want you to look at it right away.

I want you to start by going directly to Silverman."

"So why hasn't the story been done before?"

"Because Silverman won't talk to the press about his personal life.

Ask him about a jump shot or a quick move to the basket and he'll be as poetic as Proust. But ask him about his pre-college years and forget it."

"So what do you want me to do?"

"Get him to talk. Find out what he's all about. Be honest and open with him. If that doesn't work, be sneaky."

She laughed.

"And if all else fails, I'll hit him over the head with my cane."

"Now you're talking."

A half hour later she called Michael's apartment in the city.

"Mr. Silverman?"

"Yes."

"My name is Sara Lowell. I'm a reporter for the New York Herald." "Oh yes," Michael said, "I've read some of your work, Miss. Lowell.

I liked the expose you did on the housing commissioner last month.

Powerful stuff."

"Thank you."

"Now what can I do for you?"

Sara was somewhat taken aback. She had been prepared for an ogre, a man more than a little wary and suspicious of the press. But this man was very polite. Gracious even.

"I'd like very much to do an interview with you at your convenience."

"I see. Have you become a sportswriter, Miss. Lowell?"

"Not really."

"Then what sort of story do you plan on doing?"

"Oh, I don't know. Just a general piece on Michael Silverman off the court. Your interests, your hobbies. Let the fans get to know you a little better."

"Sounds like pretty dull stuff." "I don't think so," Sara said.

"From what I hear, you're a fairly interesting person."

"So," Michael continued, "all you want to do is a light piece on how I like to go to the theater, collect rabbits, garden in my underwear, stuff like that?"

"Sort of."

"I assume, Miss. Lowell, that you already know that I do not grant interviews on my personal life."

"I've heard something to that effect, yes."

"And you won't ask any personal questions? Nothing about my love life or my childhood?"

"You can always say, "No comment."

" Michael chuckled.

"You forget, Miss. Lowell, I read your column.

You don't do fluff. You probe and penetrate and usually go for the kill."

"Mr. Silverman, this article is nothing like " "Explain something to me," he.

"Why can't you reporters understand that my personal life is none of anyone's business?

Why can't you just report what happens on the basketball court and leave me alone?"

"The public wants to know more."

"Frankly speaking, I don't really give a shit what the public wants.

How come I never see a reporter's life story smeared across the headlines?

How come I never see a story on how you lost your virginity, Miss. Lowell, or about that wild college weekend where you had too much to drink?"

"No one wants to read about me, Mr. Silverman."

"Bullshit. No one wants to read about me either unless I'm scoring baskets."

"Not true."

"Listen, I'm not in the mood to be this week's tabloid story, okay?

Just leave me alone. And why do you have to play all the devious head games with me? Why couldn't have you been honest enough to admit what you were really after?"

She hesitated before answering.

"Because you would have probably hung up on me."

"Very prophetic of you. Good-bye, Miss. Lowell."

She heard him slam down the receiver.

"Eat shit, Mr. Silverman."

So much for his being a nice, easy-going fellow. She stood and headed for the door.

"Where you going?" Larry Simmons called to her.

"To Silverman's apartment."

"He agreed to the interview?"

"No. He hung up on me."

"So?"

"So sneaky didn't work. Maybe bouncing my cane off his skull will prove more persuasive." "Before you go," Larry said, "I think you should read his file after all." He handed her a manila envelope.

The file was short but potent. One page to be exact. Sara skimmed the sheet.

"I don't believe this," she muttered.

"I thought you might find it intriguing."

She read out loud.

"Born Beth Israel Hospital, Newark, New Jersey.

His father, Samuel Silverman, died in a car crash when he was five.

Mother, Estelle Silverman, remarried a year later to a Martin Johnson.

Between the ages of six and nine Michael had eight overnight hospital stays. His injuries were rumored to have been the result of physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather and included several broken bones and three concussions. When Michael was ten, his mother committed suicide by shooting herself in the forehead. Michael found her body.

He has no brothers, no sisters. Stepfather abandoned him after the suicide. Only living relative was paternal grandmother, Sadie Silverman, who raised Michael until her death when he turned nineteen."

She looked up.

"Jesus, Larry, you want me to go after this guy?"

"None of it has really been printed before because the details are too sketchy. Keep reading."

Her eyes found the spot where she had stopped reading.

"Michael got full scholarship to Stanford for basketball as well as piano." She paused.

"The guy's a pianist?"

Lorry nodded.

"That part is fairly well known."

"Academic All-American at Stanford four years in a row... reputation of being a bit of a ladies' man "

"That's the understatement of the millennium," Larry interjected.

"The man changes women like some men change socks." He smiled.

"Hope you don't get sucked in."

"Changes women like socks? Very tempting but doesn't sound like my type."

"No one is your type," Larry replied.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means," he said, "that you never date."

"I've got too much work to do."

"Excuses."

"And no one interests me right now, okay."

"Listen, Sara, I'm sixty-seven years old, have seven grandchildren, and have been happily married for forty-four years."

"So?"

"So you're going to have to find someone else. I'm taken." She smiled.

"Damn. You found me out."

"And don't be so quick to judge Silverman," he added.

"Look at his past. Would you want to get close to too many people if you had his childhood?"

She put the file on her desk.

"This story is beginning to sound like a piece of cheap sensationalism," Sara said.

He shrugged.

"Depends on how you handle it. Fact is, Michael Silverman is a sports idol. We Jews love him because so few of us can play sports. I mean, the last time there was a Jewish athlete this famous. well, you'd have to go back to Sandy Koufax."

"What's your point, Larry?"

"It's a great human interest story. A man who overcame incredible adversity to become one of the world's top basketball players. And he'd be a perfect role model for abused kids."

"Suppose he doesn't want to be a role model."

"Tough. He's news, Sara, big news. So the story is a bit sensational so what? You're a reporter and this is a damn good story."

"All right, all right. I get the picture. I'm on my way over there now."

"Sara?"

She looked up, startled.

"I'm sorry, Eric."

"Don't apologize. I know you've got a lot on your mind right now, but remember this all Michael's problems are in the past.

You two are going to have a baby together, and Michael has never been happier in his life."

Sara tried to smile, but it never reached more than the corners of her mouth. She sensed that Michael's past woes were not finished with him yet, that they were still potent enough to reach into the present and hurt him... "Mind if I join you two?" "Hello, Max," Sara said.

"Max, you know Eric Blake, don't you?" "I believe we've met," Bernstein said.

"How are you, doctor?"

"Very well, thank you," Eric replied as the beeper on his belt went off.

"If you two will excuse me, I have to go." "Emergency?" Max asked.

"No. Just time for rounds."

Max scratched his face hard, like he had fleas.

"Can I ask you a quick question before you go?"

Eric stopped.

"Of course."

"When was the last time you saw Dr. Grey alive?"

Eric thought a moment, "The day he left for Cancun."

"Did he look the same to you?"

"The same? I don't understand."

"I mean, was his hair still dark and did he still have a beard?"

"Yes," Eric said without hesitation.

"Why do you ask?"

"No reason. Thanks, Eric."

"Anytime, Lieutenant. I'll see you later, Sara."

"Bye, Eric."

Eric Blake neatly piled the garbage on his tray before leaving.

When he brought his tray to the window, he was the only one who took the time to sort his silverware.

Sara turned to Max.

"I called you three times today."

"Sorry. Its been a busy day."

"Are you getting much flak about the castration story in the news?"

Max's whole body seemed to shrug.

"Nothing I can't handle with a grenade launcher and tear gas."

"I can imagine. Okay, so what have you learned?"

He leaned forward, his right elbow on the table, his left arm thrown behind the back of the chair.

"First of all, Bruce Grey had blond hair and no beard when he allegedly jumped out the window. He also was wearing cosmetic contact lenses to change the color of his eyes. I checked with several of his friends, even the limousine driver who dropped him off at the airport. Bruce definitely had dark hair and the beard when he left New York."

Sara nodded.

"As you would say, "Interesting."

" "To say the least. But there's more." He quickly told her about the rest of his conversation with Hector Rodriquez at the Days Inn. Sara sat stunned, quietly listening.

"Then Grey didn't commit suicide," she said when Max finished.

"He was murdered, Sara. I'm sure of it."

"And someone wanted to make it look like a suicide," she said.

"Seems so," Max replied.

"Hmmm. Bruce's murder has to be connected to the stabbings, agreed?"

"Agreed."

"So why did the killer want to make Bruce's death look like a suicide while doing nothing to hide the fact that the other three were murdered?"

"I don't know," Max said. He stood up, circled the table for 10 apparent reason, and sat back down.

"Max."

"What?"

"You're playing with your hair again."

Bernstein looked up at his right hand. Strands of hair were apped around his middle finger as though it were a curler.

untangled his finger and put his hands on the table.

"Saves 3n a perm," he explained with a smile.

"So what else did you learn?"

He leaned forward.

"This morning I went through the personal possessions found in Grey's hotel room. Everything was there wallet, ID, cash, credit cards, briefcase, change of clothe seven passport."

"So?"

"There was no stamp for Mexico on the passport."

"No mystery there. You don't need to use your passport to go into Mexico. Just proof of citizenship."

"Then why did he bring it with him?"

She shrugged.

"What else did you find in the passport?"

"It's what I didn't find," he said.

"You know those pages where the customs officials stamp the country you're visiting?"

"Yes."

"One of those pages had been neatly clipped out of Grey's passport. You would never notice unless you looked at it closely."

Sara looked up at the ceiling.

"So the killer doesn't want anyone to see what was on that page. Maybe Bruce never went to Mexico. Maybe he went someplace else and the killer doesn't want us to know where."

"My thinking exactly. So I called the Oasis Hotel down in Cancun."

"Did he check in?"

"Yes."

She waited for him to continue but he just sat there, smiling.

"Max, stop playing games with me. What happened?"

"I called your old contact at customs and immigration."

"Don Scharf?"

"Right. I know I should have asked you first, but time was of the essence. Anyway, he remembered me from that case we did a few years back where that rapist fled to Puerto Rico."

"What did you find out?"

"Well, it took a while but we finally traced down where Bruce went."

"And?"

"And Bruce did go down to Cancun first. But he flew out of Mexico the very next day."

"So where did he go?" Max smiled.

"Bangkok."

"There's no question about it, Eric," Winston CXConnor, chief lab technician at the Sidney Pavilion, said with his Alabama twang.

O'Connor had been working for the clinic since its inception and, in fact, had not lived in the South since entering Columbia University eighteen years ago. Still, the years had not subdued Winston's deep Southern accent.

"Take another look at the Western blot. The band pattern is unmistakable."

Eric swallowed and reached out his hand. The wall clock, one of those noisy kinds that schools use, read 5:10 a.m. When was the last time he had left the clinic? Eric did a little quick math.

Forty hours ago. He needed sleep something terrible, but all of a sudden he felt wide awake.

He glanced down at the photograph and remained silent for a moment.

Eric knew what the readings meant, but he kept staring at them anyway, as though he could make the bands on the photograph slide lower or higher by just concentrating on them.

"Let me take a look at the ELISA test."

Winston sighed.

"We've already looked at it twice."

"I want to look at it again. You sure you used the right sample?"

Winston looked at him strangely.

"Are you kidding?"

"I want to make sure."

"You were standing here when I did it." Winston said.

"I don't make mistakes on these kinds of things. Neither do you."

Eric lowered his head.

"I know. I'm sorry."

Winston crossed the room and opened a door that looked like it belonged on a refrigerator. His hand reached in and extracted a plate.

"Here. And here's the digital read-out of the optical density."

"Get me the T cell study too."

"Again?"

Eric nodded.

"Here," Winston said a moment later.

"What the hell you looking for, Eric?"

Eric did not respond. He examined all the tests and studies at least a dozen more times. Somewhere in the background he could hear Winston sigh and curse under his breath every time Eric asked to look at the same thing again.

"For crying out loud," Winston half-snapped, "how many times are you going to view this stuff? There's no mistake here.

Shoot, we've never made a mistake on this test ever."

"It can't be," Eric muttered.

"It just can't be."

"We've had hundreds of positive HIV tests come through here," Winston continued.

"Why all the double-checking on this one? I've run the ELISA and the Western on this guy twice now.

There's no question about the results."

Eric moved to a chair as though stunned by a blow to the head. He slowly picked up the phone and dialed.

"Who you calling?" Winston asked.

His voice came from far away.

"Harvey."

"I'll put this stuff away then."

"No," Eric said.

"Harvey will want to look at it too."

"But both of us have already " "He won't believe us," Eric said.

"He'll have to see this one for himself."

9.

Harvey buttoned his shirt and smiled toward the rumpled bed. If Jennifer could see him now..."I still can't believe you're here," he said.

Cassandra leaned back on the bed and stretched. A thin, white sheet was all that covered her body.

"Why not? This is Day Number Four already, Harv."

"Happy?"

"Blissful," she replied. And it was true. From their first kiss she had felt intoxicated. It was strange, but even now she could feel her heart swell in her chest just thinking about him.

"No complaints?" he asked.

"Just one," she said.

"I don't care much for your hours." "I warned you."

"Yeah, but two hours a night?"

"Sorry." "Not your fault, I guess," she said.

"Anyway, it makes me appreciate my nine to seven at the agency more."

Harvey searched the clothes-cluttered floor, found a pair of pants crumpled in a corner, and put them on.

"When are you making your presentation to the airline?"

"Tomorrow. Northeastern Air. I have a meeting with their handsome marketing director. Jealous?"

"Should I be?"

She looked at him.

"No."

"Good," Harvey said with a goofy grin.

"Because I really like you."

She laughed.

"God, you're corny."

He shrugged.

"Just out of practice," he said.

"So what ad slogan did you come up with?" She thought a moment.

"Fly the friendly skies of Northeastern?"

"It's been used."

"How about

"We're Northeastern Airlines, doing what we do best'?"

"Sorry."

"I'm Candy, fly me'?"

"Might work if you show some cleavage." "No problem," Cassandra said.

"I majored in cleavage in college."

"I bet." He found a red tie crumpled into his loafer.

"I probably won't be back here until the day after tomorrow."

"I have to go home anyway. I'm running out of clothes."

"And leave my palatial penthouse?"

Cassandra glanced around Harvey's sloppy, one bedroom dump on 158th Street. She looked at him skeptically.

"Okay," he admitted, "Versailles it's not."

"A human dwelling it's not."

"Granted, it might need a little work."

"It might need a bulldozer."

"You are spoiled rotten." Cassandra smiled.

"Bet your ass." She sat up and put the pillow behind her head.

"Harv, is it true? Do you really have a cure for AIDS?" "Not a cure exactly," he said, tying his tie and then loosening it.

"More like a treatment."

"I had a good friend die of AIDS," she said slowly.

"He was my ad partner at Dunbar Strauss. God, he was so creative, so alive. I remember visiting him at the hospital until he was in so much pain he wouldn't let anyone see him."

Harvey nodded.

"It's an ugly disease, Cassandra."

"How does your treatment work?"

He stopped.

"You really want to know?"

"Yes."

Harvey sat on the edge of the bed and held her hands.

"AIDS," he began, "or Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome, does not, in and of itself, kill people. You see, the AIDS virus, known as HIV, attacks the immune system. It causes the immune system to break down to the point where the patient is readily susceptible to illness and infection. Eventually these illnesses or infections become fatal. With me so far?"

"I think so," she said.

"You're saying that the AIDS virus tears down the wall that protects you from disease."

"Exactly. How the HIV destroys the immune system is a bit complicated so I'll try to be as nontechnical as possible."

"I'm listening."

"Okay. The HIV attaches itself onto what are called T cells.

It then crawls inside the cells and destroys them. Still with me?"

Cassandra nodded.

"The part of the cell where the HIV first attaches itself is called the T receptor. In other words, the HIV searches around and is attracted to T receptors. Then it latches onto the receptors and moves in for the kill."

"Got it," Cassandra said.

"What we do at the clinic is inject our patients with a powerful, addictive drug we've created called SRI S and R stand for Sidney Riker, my brother. The negative side effects with SRI are many and unfortunately the patient needs to take larger and larger doses over a long period of time." "What does SRI do?" she asked.

Harvey squeezed her hand.

"Again, it's complicated, so let me try to cut through all the medical jargon. In the human body SRI greatly resembles T receptors, so the AIDS virus is drawn to the phony T receptors." "So," Cassandra said, "the HIV attaches itself onto the SRI T receptors rather than the real T receptors."

"Something like that, yes. It's almost like SRI is wearing a mask and disguising itself as a T receptor. The HIV is drawn to it, latches itself onto it "

"And then the SRI kills the HIV."

Harvey shook his head.

"I wish. One day it might happen that fast, but we're still years away from anything like that."

"So what happens?"

"Well, after the HIV latches itself onto the SRl's T receptors, they struggle. It's almost like a tug of war inside the immune system. At first, the HIV is really pissed off by all this. The SRI is actually activating the virus, stirring it up. We give additional and escalating dosages of SRI until the drug begins to wear down the virus.

For a while the effects of AIDS are put into a holding pattern.

Eventually, after a long, hard struggle, the HIV dies."

"SRI wins the tug of war."

He nodded.

"We believe so, yes. Several long-term patients have actually changed from HIV positive to HIV negative."

"Amazing."

"The problems are obvious. Aside from the dangers and addictive factors in SRI, we can save only the immune system.

If a person is in the latter stages of AIDS if a patient is already seriously ill with some AIDS-induced infection our cure will do little if any good. SRI can stop only HIV. It doesn't cure Kaposi's sarcoma, for example, or any of the other diseases AIDS may eventually give you.

As a result, we have to catch the virus early, before infections and disease settle in. And of course, more research is needed. We've only scratched the surface." Cassandra said, "You're sure to get the funds you need once Sara does her report."

"I hope so."

"What do you mean, hope so? Once everyone sees the evidence they'll support the clinic even my father."

Harvey slipped on his shoes and stood.

"That'll be the day."

"You'll see. He'll back you." "Maybe," Harvey said, more to keep the peace than anything else.

"But he's not the one I'm afraid of."

"Then who?"

"Dangerous whackos who are making a name for themselves off the deaths of young people. People like that Reverend Sanders "

"You think he's out to sabotage the clinic?"

"It wouldn't surprise me."

Cassandra rolled over, exposing the long smooth curve of her hip.

"He was in my father's study the other day."

Harvey spun back toward Cassandra.

"Reverend Sanders?"

"Yup." "But your father told me he didn't know Sanders personally."

"I heard him in my father's study the morning after the party.

They were arguing."

"Arguing about what?"

"I'm not sure."

"Cassandra, it's important."

She tried to collect her thoughts.

"I remember my father telling Sanders that he should never come to the house."

"What did Sanders say?" "He just told my dad to relax. I remember that Sanders sounded so cool. His tone was such a contrast to my father's angry one. Then Sanders said something like 'there's still work to be done." Harvey's body went rigid.

"Jesus."

"That's all I heard. I left after that."

"Are you sure " The phone rang. For a moment neither of them moved, their eyes locked onto one another's. Then Harvey lowered his gaze and moved toward the phone.

"Hello."

Eric's voice came in a rush.

"Get down to the lab, Harv. Hurry."

"What's the matter?"

"It's Michael, Harvey. Oh God, it's Michael." Michael the button and held it down. Slowly and with a whir, the bed began to move, curling his frame into a sitting position. He coughed twice into his fist and then smiled at Sara.

"Go ahead," she said.

"Take a sip."

Michael brought the plastic cup to his lips and drank.

"How's the orange juice?" Sara asked.

"Tastes like paint thinner," he replied.

"What time is it?"

"Seven a.m. Did you sleep well?" "Not really," he said.

"I don't like sleeping in separate beds." "Neither do I," Sara said, "but my bed is only a yard away."

"Makes it worse. Sort of like being able to see the Holy Grail and not grasp it."

"How poetic."

"To put it somewhat less poetically, I want your bod."

"And I yours," Sara said.

"Every time you stand up I see your cute little ass hanging out the back of your hospital gown. It drives me crazy."

"I know. I'm such a tease." He pushed the orange juice away and glanced up.

"So tell me, how's the story on Harv's clinic going?"

"We start shooting the interviews later today. It'll be hectic as all hell so I may not be able to stop in as much."

"Good. I'll be able to get a little peace and quiet."

"Not so fast, handsome. I'll still be able to come by around lunch and dinner. And I'll still be sleeping in that bed come this evening."

He grabbed her and they kissed.

"Can't get rid of you, huh?"

"Never."

They kissed again.

Behind them, the door opened. Sara turned and watched Harvey and Eric enter. Their grim expressions seemed to magnify into looks of tremendous pain when they saw Michael and Sara embracing. Sara took a second look at their faces, at the way they held their heads, at the way their hands stayed still in their pockets. And she knew. She knew without question or hesitation.

It was over. Everything was over. She held Michael closely, feeling his muscles stiffen. She wanted very much to scream.

Harvey stepped forward and closed the door.

"We need to talk."

10.

Jennifer Riker lifted her face toward the sun, enjoying the feel of the warm rays against her skin.

She passed a store window, stopped, took two steps backwards, and examined her reflection. The late forties, she thought, had not been particularly easy on her looks. Her petite figure was beginning to spread a little. The small lines around her eyes were deepening into full-fledged (no sense denying it) wrinkles. Her neck was starting to crease. She looked again and wondered for the millionth time if she had done the right thing:

if she had not, as so many had warned her, jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

She thought about it a moment before acknowledging that, in truth, there had been no choice. To stay with Harvey would have meant to wither away in a world of watching too many soap operas and feeling utterly worthless. To remain married would have meant playing the dutiful wife to a man who had dedicated his life to a cause and assumed those around him had chosen to do the same. Just looking at Harvey on those rare nights when he'd come home from the clinic, exhaustion blanketing his face and posture, made Jennifer feel inadequate and selfish. She had to get out.

And so she left. She made her escape before the weight of her depression had a chance to squash her spirit completely. She moved to Los Angeles where she now lived (quite happily, thank you) with her sister Susan and her young nephew Tommy. During her twenty-six years of marriage to Harvey, Jennifer had rarely ventured off the east coast, never visiting California, not even going as far west as Chicago. She and Harvey had been snobbish Northeasterners, believing that the only cultural life of the country bloomed within the boundaries of the original thirteen colonies.

But Los Angeles had its advantages over New York, albeit they were mostly the obvious. The warmer climate, for one; the warmer attitude, for another. Jennifer enjoyed the laid-back California lifestyle especially after the pressure of the last few years. And living with Susan had ended up being fun, almost like reliving her childhood in certain respects. Jennifer and Susan had always been close, confiding in each other even as small children. As they grew older, both sisters decided that they would always live near each other. Jennifer, older than Susan by two years, had gotten married first, to a doctor named Harvey Riker.

Almost in a rush not to be left behind, Susan married another doctor, Bruce Grey, a year and a half later. Harvey and Bruce quickly became friends and even medical partners while Jennifer and Susan continued to grow closer and closer. Everything was moving along perfectly until one minor problem began to snag up the works.

Bruce and Susan started drifting apart.

After a few futile attempts to save a dying marriage, Susan left Bruce, moving to Los Angeles and taking their seven-year old son, Tommy, with her. Jennifer and Harvey had been horrified when they heard. They started to feel isolated and afraid, and for the first time, Harvey and Jennifer began to question their own happiness and examine their own relationship. From then on, it had been only a question of time.

Jennifer closed her eyes and sighed. She took out a key, opened the door, and stepped inside the apartment. Almost immediately the phone rang.

"Hello?"

"Is this Mrs. Susan Grey?"

"She's not here at the moment. May I ask who's calling?"

"Is this Mrs. Jennifer Riker?"

"Yes, it is."

"Good morning, Mrs. Riker. This is Terence Lebrock."

"Oh, you're the executor of Bruce's will."

"That's correct. I just wanted to let you know that I sent a post office box key via overnight mail yesterday. You should be receiving it today."

"A post office box key? I'm not sure I understand."

"Dr. Grey kept a post office box in the main branch of the Los Angeles post office. I think it would be best if somebody clears out that box right away. There might be important papers in there." Jennifer thought for a moment. Odd that Bruce had a post office box in Los Angeles. Of course it could be the same one he had used during his two-year stint in the research department at UCLA, but why would he have saved it? She shrugged. It was probably another example of Bruce's compulsive personality.

"Don't worry, Mr. Lebrock. I'll clear it out today."

The silence was staggering. It filled the room, expanding, growing larger and larger until Sara was sure the walls around them were about to give way. First, there had been denial. How could it be? Michael had never experimented with homosexuality.

He had never been an intravenous drug abuser. He was not a hemophiliac who needed constant blood transfusions. He had slept with no one but Sara for six years. Any way you looked at it, Michael should have been a very healthy, thirty-two-year-old man.

Except he was not healthy. He was lying in a hospital bed with hepatitis B and a positive reading on an HIV test. His T cell count was dangerously low and the most obvious conclusion the doctors could draw was that Michael had received contaminated blood in the Bahamas after his boating accident.

He had AIDS.

She looked at him now. His handsome face showed no emotion, so strange for a man as filled with passion as Michael, a man who rarely hid thoughts and feeling behind a black expression. She thought about the first time she had seen that face, the first time she had ever spoken to him in person.

The door swung open and Beethoven's Sonata No. 32 in C minor escaped from the room and moved outside.

"Yes?" Michael said. He was surprisingly handsome, tall, of course, with broad shoulders. There was a towel draped around his neck, a glass of what looked like orange juice in his hand. Perspiration matted the ends of his hair together. He wiped his brow with the corner of the towel.

Sara nervously gripped her cane. She was about to stick out her right -hand for him to shake, but she suddenly realized that her palm was slick. Her honey-blond hair was tied back away from her face, accentuating her already prominent cheekbones.

"Good afternoon. My name is Sara Lowell."

He looked at her, startled.

"You're Sara Lowell?"

"You sound surprised." "I am," he said.

"You're not what I pictured."

"What did you picture?"

He shrugged.

"Something a little gruffer-looking, I guess."

"Gruffer- looking?"

"Yeah. Dark, curly hair. Cigarette dangling from lip with an ash about to fall off. Manual typewriter. Black sweater. A little on the meaty side."

"Sorry if I disappointed you."

"Hardly," he said.

"What are you doing here, Miss. Lowell?"

"Sara."

"Sara."

She sneezed.

"God bless you," he said.

"Thank you."

"Have a cold?"

She nodded.

"So what can I do for you, Sara?"

"Well," she began, "I'd like to come in and ask you a few questions."

"Hmmm. This whole scenario seems a tad familiar to me. Do you have a sense of deja vu too, Sara, or is it just me?"

"Depends."

"On?"

"On if you slam the door in my face like you slammed the phone in my ear." He smiled. "louche."

"Can I come in?"

"First, let me ask you a question," he said. He feigned taking a pencil out of his pocket and writing in a small notebook.

"Why the cane?"

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me," he continued in his serious, reporter-like voice.

"You're using a cane and you have a brace on your leg. What happened to you?"

"Playing role-reversal, Mr. Silverman?"

"Michael. Just answer the question, please."

"I was born prematurely, with permanent nerve damage in my foot."

"Was it bad when you were young?"

Her voice was soft.

"Not good."

She lifted her head and saw the gentle, almost soothing expression on his face. He'd have made a great interviewer, she thought, except there was an undeniable tension between them, a tension that was not all together unpleasant.

"You say you were born premature," he continued.

"Were there other complications?"

"Not so fast," she replied.

"My turn. When did you start playing basketball?"

"I don't know. When I was six or seven, I guess."

"Were you one of those kids who played all the time, who lived on the playground?"

"It was the best place to be," he replied.

"What do you mean?"

Michael did not answer.

"What were your other complications, Sara?"

"Lung infections," she said quickly. "So when did you start playing the piano?"

"When I was eight."

"Your parents hired a music teacher?"

A humorless smile came to his lips.

"No."

148 Haiian Coben

"Then who-"

"I think you'd better leave," he said.

"Let's change the subject."

"No."

"But I was just going to ask "

"I know what you were going to ask," Michael interrupted.

"How hard is this for you to understand? I don't want my personal life splashed all over the papers. Period."

"I just wanted to know the name of your piano teacher," she said.

"I thought you would want to give your teacher credit."

"Bullshit, Sara.

"Let's change the subject' is just another way of saying you want to try to attack from another angle. You figure if you keep probing, eventually you'll get what you want no matter what the cost."

"And what are the costs, Michael? Your story could give hope to thousands of children who are being abused "

"Jesus, how low will you stoop to get this story?"

"Don't flatter yourself," she replied.

"I want every story I'm assigned."

"Have you no ethics?"

Sara's fists clenched.

"Spare me the morality play. We reporters are great as long as we're telling the world what a wonderful guy you are. We're your best pals when we pat you on the back and help you get more endorsement money.

But oh, if we dare to criticize, if we dare to dig deeper "

"My personal life is none of anyone's goddamn business."

"Afraid I'll shatter your precious image? Afraid I'll make you look like something other than Superman?"

She could see him wrestling with his temper.

"Good- bye, Sara," he said with too much control.

"I really didn't want to do this."

"Go ahead. Slam the door in my face. I'll be back." "No," he said, "you won't."

"We'll see."

And then he closed the door in her face just as Sam let loose with another sneeze. Her breathing was shallow from the effects of her cold.

Sara wheezed, each drawn breath a painful struggle. She turned away from the door and huffed off.

"The man is a major league pain in the ass."

Back home, she began to re-read his file. As the words passed in front of her, her anger softened and then evaporated. Could she really blame him for being so defensive? His childhood read like something out of Oliver Twist. She sat back, laced her fingers behind her head, and sneezed again. Her breathing was still labored, even worse than before.

She had tried to dismiss it, but the truth was becoming more and more apparent. With something near terror, Sara knew what she had to do.

She reached for the phone and called her father.

The next morning the doctors confirmed Sara's diagnosis.

"Pneumonia," John told his daughter from her hospital bed. There were tears in his eyes.

"Third time for you in the last two years, Sara." "I know," she said.

"You have to slow down a little." Sara glanced up at her father but said nothing.

"Are you feeling okay?" he asked.

"Fine," she replied.

"How long will I have to be here this time?"

"The doctors don't know, honey. I can stay with you for a while, if you'd like."

She nodded.

"I'd like that very much."

John Lowell left his daughter's bedside at nine p.m. Sara did not want him to go. Irrational as it might seem, she hated being alone at night in the hospital. Despite all the time she had spent in hospitals, Sara was still scared to close her eyes, afraid that someone or something might sneak up on her. She felt like some movie character left alone to survive a night in a haunted house. It was the hospital sounds that made her shudder, the sounds that reverberated louder in the blackness and stillness of the night: footsteps echoing much too loudly against the tile floors; the constant beeping, gurgling, and sucking noises of lifesaving machines; the random moan of pain; the scream of terror; the squeak of wheels; crying.

Feeling lonely, Sara strapped on her Walkman and began to sing a little ditty by the Police. When her voice grew too loud ("Don't Stand So... Don't Stand So... Don't Stand So Close To Me!") the nurse came in, gave her a scolding glare, and told her to quiet down.

"Sorry."

She took off the headset and flicked on the television. She was immediately greeted by a sportscaster's voice.

"Great move by Michael Silverman. What a game he's having, Tom."

"Sure is, Brent. Twenty-two points, ten rebounds, nine assists. He's playing like a man possessed."

"And Seattle calls time out. The score in this fourth game of the NBA Championship Series New York 87, the Sonics 85. We'll be back at Madison Square Garden in New York City in just a moment."

Though not much of a sports fan, Sam watched the remainder of the game.

The Knicks won by five points, tying up the NBA finals at two games apiece. The series would now move to Seattle for the next two games and then back to New York if a seventh and final game was needed. She continued to watch as the inane sportscasters spewed out as many chiches as they could come up with while reviewing the game highlights.

After that there were interviews with numerous players and coaches, which lasted for another hour or so.

"Looking for me?"

Sara turned quickly toward the door.

"Who?"

Michael stepped forward from the shadows. His hair was still wet from his post-game shower.

"Miss. Nancy Levin," he said simply.

"What?" "You asked about my piano teacher. Miss. Nancy Levin. She was the music teacher at Burnet Hill Elementary School."

Sara swallowed, not sure what to say.

"It's past visiting hours." "I know," he said.

"I promised the security guard two tickets to a game if he turned the other way. One of the advantages of fame. Mind if I take a seat?"

Sam tried to speak but had to settle for a shake of the head.

"Thanks," he said.

"I called your office this morning and your editor told me you had pneumonia. He said you get it pretty frequently."

She shrugged.

"So I thought I'd pay you a visit. I hope I'm not keeping you awake."

"Not at all," she replied, finding her voice at last, "but shouldn't you be celebrating with your teammates?"

"We don't celebrate until we win four games. We've only won two so far."

"Didn't the reporters want to interview you after the game?"

He nodded, smiling.

"But as you well know, I don't really like interviews."

"Not even post-game victory ones?"

"Actually, I like those."

"So?"

"So I wanted to come here and see you, okay?"

She turned away from his steady gaze, summoning some inner strength before turning back to face him.

"How much does this championship series mean to you, Michael?"

"Do you always ask so many questions?"

"Occupational hazard."

"Well, how can I put it? It means everything to me. I can't tell you how many times I've dreamed about hitting the winning shot in the NBA finals. Since I was a little kid, winning the NBA finals has been my dream. Does that answer your question?"

"Yes."

"So how are you feeling?"

"fine," she said.

"Tired?"

"No." "Want to talk?" he asked.

She nodded.

"Under one condition," he said.

"It's all off the record. We're just chatting now. None of this can be used in a story. I want your word."

"You have it."

He stood and paced.

"What do you know about me?"

"The file is on the night table," she said.

"Read it."

He lifted the folder and opened it. Sara watched his eyes grow large and pained as they moved across the page.

"Is it true?" she asked him.

"Yes."

"All of it?"

"Yes."

And so they talked for the next hour until the nurse, a large black woman who was no basketball fan, found Michael in Sara's room, reprimanded him for being there after visiting hours, and threw him out.

The Knicks and the Sonics split the next two games, putting both teams at three wins apiece and setting up Game Seven at Madison Square Garden in New York. Game Seven mystical words for sports fans.

Twenty- four teams playing eighty-two regular season games each and four rounds of play-offs had come down to one final game to decide the championship.

Sara watched the game from her hospital room. She found herself cheering for the Knicks fiercely, for Michael most especially. With three seconds left and the Knicks down 102-101, the ball was passed to Michael. Sara felt her heart leap into her throat as Michael drove the lane and lofted a hook shot high over the outstretched hand of Seattle's seven-foot center. The buzzer sounded. The ball bounced on the rim twice, hit the backboard, and then dropped in for two points.

The game was over.

New York Knicks 103, Seattle Supersonics 102.

New York City went crazy. Michael's teammates, led by Reece Porter, mobbed Michael. Madison Square Garden rocked in a frenzied celebration.

Sara heard herself crying out with joy, her hands pounding the bed in excitement.

He had done it. Michael had done it.

"Yahoool" she shouted.

The same nurse peeked her head through the doorway.

"Miss. Lowell..."

"Sorry."

She watched the locker room scene, the champagne being poured on everyone's head, the rare joy of winning the NBA championship.

The Knick players and coaches were hooting and shouting and hugging one another in one of adult life's few moments of uninhibited, unashamed happiness. Sara tried to find Michael in the rejoicing horde, but there was too much confusion. Several Knicks were interviewed by the sportscasters, all singing Michael's praises, but the game's superstar was nowhere to be found. Some time later Sara heard footsteps approach her room.

"Hi," Michael said.

"What are you doing here?"

Sara's voice was angry. A hurt look, crossed Michael's face.

"What are you doing here?" she repeated, her tone no softer.

"You're supposed to be celebrating the greatest moment of your life, right? So what the hell are you doing here?"

Tears glistened in the corner of his eyes.

"I don't know," he said.

"What do you want from me? You said everything was true in that file, so I know you have a hundred bimbos to choose from "

"Sara..."

"So what do you want from me?"

He lowered his head.

"Why are you so angry?" he asked, his tone almost childlike.

She stopped. Her reaction had surprised her. Why was she yelling at him like this? Why did she feel so strange whenever she was with him a soaring and yet queasy feeling? Why was she acting so angry when, truth be known, she was so happy he was here?

"I'm just confused, Michael. I don't understand what's going on."

He moved closer.

"Neither do I, Sara."

"Why did you come here tonight, Michael? Why aren't you celebrating with your teammates?"

"I don't know," he replied.

"I... I just wanted to be with you, that's all."

And now he has AIDS.

AIDS. The word floated about the room like a poisonous vapor. Sara felt the tears come to her eyes and once again, she began to cry.

"It's okay," Michael whispered to her.

"Everything is going to be okay."

He had not cried a single tear since Harvey and Eric had told them the news two hours ago, and somehow his lack of response was the most terrifying thing. His body had shook, but his eyes stared off, lost, confused, thoughtful. What are you thinking?

Sara wondered. What are you feeling right now and why won't you share it with me?

Harvey and Eric had not yet left the room. Eric sat by the window, staring out over the impatient traffic on 168th Street.

Harvey paced.

"I want the truth," Michael said now, his hand tightening against Sara's.

"Can you cure this or not?"

Harvey stopped and turned toward Michael. His gaze met Eric's for a split second before resting on Michael's face.

"We want to give it a try. We believe it's very possible."

"Then lets do it."

Harvey nodded. "I'll have you transferred to the clinic today."

"Today?" Sara said.

"Can't it wait "No," Harvey replied.

"It can't wait. The earlier we start treatment the better. I want to warn you both now that this treatment is not pretty. You will be hooked on SRI and the side effects will be painful and unpleasant. For a while you will be a junkie, Michael. You will feel as though you need the fix or you'll die. And you'll be right."

The room slid gently back into silence.

"You two better go now," Michael said.

"You must have a thousand things to do."

Harvey signaled to Eric and they both moved toward the exit.

As Harvey opened the door, he turned back toward Michael.

"Think about what I said earlier, okay? You can do a lot of good."

Michael nodded. The moment they left, Sara threw her arms around Michael again, but he stiffened, his body cold and hard... like a corpse.

"Michael?" "I'm sorry," he said. His eyes shifted around the room, moving quickly from item to item as though looking for an easy exit. Sara rested her head against Michael's chest, and they stayed that way in silence for a very long time. The only sound Sara could hear was Michael's steady breathing, her head rising and falling with his chest.

Finally, Michael spoke.

"You should go, Sara." he said.

"You have your story to do."

"I'm not going anywhere."

"You have to," Michael said.

"The story is too important."

"I'll get Donald Parker to do it."

He shook his head.

"You should do it."

"To hell with the story, Michael. I want to stay with you."

Michael did not say anything for another ten minutes. He just remained silent, his lips curling around the teeth.

"Sara, I'm not sure I want you to go through this."

"You don't have any choice," she replied.

"And don't you dare play the brave martyr with me, Michael. You're not going to die.

You're not going to leave me and the baby here alone without you."

He smiled sadly and patted her stomach.

"We have Junior here to think of."

"That's right."

"Sara?"

"Yes?"

"I've been thinking about this for the past few hours," he said.

"And I want to go public with this."

"What?" "What they said makes sense " "They should have never said anything," Sara said.

"This is no time for you to be making decisions, Michael. You're vulnerable right now." He smiled again, sweetly, sadly.

"What's the point of delaying the inevitable, Sara? You know we have no choice."

Fear wrapped around her neck like a cold scarf.

"Please, Michael, think this through more. Don't just throw away..." "Throw away what?" he asked.

"It's over, Sara. There's nothing to throw away. I never let you do the story on the physical abuse I suffered as a child, and that was a selfish thing to do."

"Michael..."

"No, let me finish. It's really strange, Sara. When Harvey told me the results of the test, my thoughts became frighteningly clear.

I've been thinking this whole thing through. Harvey and Eric didn't say too much, but I know where they stand. They want me to go public with this." "Give it a little time," Sara said.

"You just heard. There's a lot of things to consider here. Think for a second about the discrimination. People will hate you for it. The NBA will probably say you're too much of a health threat to ever step on the court again, even if the virus goes into remission."

"So what? Look, I'm not a brave man. Maybe you were right all those years ago. Maybe the story of my childhood would have helped people understand child abuse, but I don't know I just couldn't live through it again. I didn't have the strength."

"It's okay," she said.

"It's not your fault."

"But, Sara, this is too big, too important. I can't just sit back again. I think Harvey knows that. He sees what his cure can do for people and so he puts everything else on hold. You heard what he said.

The publicity from my case could have the biggest effect on the AIDS epidemic since Rock Hudson died. I can't just walk away from that."

She just held him, her eyes squeezed shut.

"So I want this story done, Sara. And I want you to arrange a press conference for me for tomorrow morning."

"If that's what you really want," she said slowly, "then we'll do it.

But let's not talk about it right now, Michael. Right now, I just want you to hold me."

Jennifer Riker pushed open the glass door leading to Los Angeles' main post office. The air-conditioning pounced upon her. Poor Bruce, she thought. He had been a wonderful person in so many ways. A lousy husband, yes, but some men are just not built for marriage. Why had he done it? What could have been so horrible that Bruce had chosen to end his own life?

The tragedy had been hard on them all, especially young Tommy. Not surprisingly, Bruce's son had blamed his mother for his father's suicide.

"You killed him!" Tommy had yelled at Susan.

"It's your fault Dad died!"

And though Susan tried to argue with him, something inside her leveled the same accusation; something could not help but wonder what part she had played in Bruce's demise. Jennifer watched the guilt etch lines onto her sister's lovely face. Susan could not sleep at night. She barely ate. The situation reached the point where Jennifer began to raise the possibility of seeking professional counseling to help them deal with their grief.

But in the end Susan decided against it. She thought that what she and Tommy really needed was to get away from the world for a while and see if time and solitude could help them regain their ties and come to grips with Brace's death. They had left two days ago for a quiet retreat outside of Sacramento where there were no telephones and no outside distractions.

Jennifer walked up to the information counter.

"Could you please tell me where Box 1738 is?"

"Around the corner and to the left."

"Thank you."

A few minutes later Jennifer located the correct number, inserted the key, and opened the box. It was filled to capacity with junk mail and soot. She waved away the particles of dust and began to transfer the mail from the box into her tote bag.

Ed Mcmahon's picture was on one envelope, telling Bruce that he might have already won $100,000. Alas, the postmark showed that the letter was mailed last year. Too bad. Brace might have been rich and never knew it.

There were also several envelopes that looked like bank statements, postmarked seven years ago, and even a couple of medical periodicals, also from seven years ago. Nothing very interesting. Nothing very current, for that matter.

Her fingers continued to sift through the box's contents when they stopped suddenly at a large manila envelope. Jennifer paused when she spotted the familiar handwriting across the front. She tried to recall whose penmanship it was, but for a brief moment the name eluded her.

She closed her eyes, picturing the neatly formed letters in her head and trying to remember where she had seen them before. The answer came to her. Of course. It was Brace's handwriting. The careful shaping of the letters was unmistakable.

Jennifer turned the envelope around and tried to read the postmark.

When she was finally able to see the date clearly, her legs nearly gave way. August 30th of this year. She tried to swallow but her mouth felt too dry. August 30th. Bruce had died on August 30th. He must have mailed this letter a few hours before his death. And even stranger, he had addressed the package to himself.

Why had Bruce mailed himself a package right before he committed suicide?

Jennifer quickly dropped the package into the tote bag as though she were afraid to hold it any longer. Then she finished unloading the post office box and headed toward the exit.

She'd open the package later.

11.

Harvey felt the onset of another in what had become a series of powerful headaches. It was sometime around two a. m." and the hallways of Sidney Pavilion were silent, sleeping, recuperating. Harvey moved slowly down a darkened, empty corridor with dim fluorescent lights that buzzed like distant chainsaws. He opened the doors, each one sounding off its own unique creak, and looked in on his sleeping patients. He checked their IVs, their charts, their medications.

He walked into the last room on the floor, Kiel Davis and Ricky Martino's room. Both men were sleeping soundly. The forty or so clinic patients were broken down into two groups: in-patients who stayed in Sidney Pavilion and out-patients who came in on an almost daily basis for treatment. Usually, the members of these two groups rotated every three or four weeks so that no more than twenty-five patients were ever in the clinic on any given night. Right now there were almost thirty patients sleeping over.

Most had private rooms, but because of limited space, a few had been doubled up.

The overnight schedule rarely worked exactly as planned because each patient had different needs. Take Davis and Martino, for example. Kiel Davis, a homosexual from Indiana who had relocated in New York ten years ago, had spent almost two-thirds of the last eighteen months in the clinic, while over the same period of time, Martino, an intravenous drug user from the Bronx, had slept over less than six months total.

Harvey scanned their charts, listening to the gentle, deep breathing of their slumber. He closed the door behind him, headed toward the staircase, and jogged up one flight of stairs to the third floor his way of getting exercise. He heard himself wheezing from the effort.

Out of shape, he thought. 7 should stop using the elevator all together and always take the stairs.

But Harvey knew that the hitching in his chest was due to something beyond poor physical conditioning. The muscles in his forehead seemed to swell now, bunching up against the sensitive nerve endings. A fluttery sensation flitted sc ross his stomach.

He was scared.

Harvey stopped in front of the door that led to room 317, the only room on the floor that held a patient. He pushed open the door and leaned his head through the frame. The patient was at long last asleep, which had been no easy task in this case. Drugs had been necessary. Strong ones. Harvey had finally convinced Michael to take a couple of potent sleeping pills. They worked.

Actually, they were potent enough to work on a charging rhino.

Long shadows came in through the windows and reached across the room like giant fingers readying to close. Sara sat in a wooden chair at the side of Michael's bed, her hand clutching his. Even in the poor lighting Harvey could see anguish tightening the skin around Sara's cheekbones. Her lips quivered as though from cold, her eyes were moist. She had not yet acknowledged his presence, though she surely must have heard him open the door. Instead, Sara continued to look down at her sleeping husband. Harvey wondered if she was lost in her own thoughts or if she had simply chosen to ignore him.

Probably a little of both.

He looked again at the figure hunched over the bed. They were confident, at least, that Sara's HFV test would come back negative. She had already taken the test less than a month ago as part of her research for a story on AIDS testing at the New York Herald and it had been negative. While the virus was known to remain dormant for many years, it was still encouraging news for Michael and Sara and the unborn infant.

Harvey turned away from the pitiful sight and let the door close. He knew Sara was going through hell right now, worse even than Michael.

Standing aside and watching helplessly while a loved one suffered was often more difficult than the simpler task of suffering through the physical trauma. Harvey wished he could help. He wished that he could take Michael's place, that it was he rather then Michael who had to bear this great burden.

I But of course that was impossible.

| Cruel as it seemed, Michael and Sara would have to go through this ordeal alone. Crueler still, Harvey knew, was that he saw the possible benefits from Michael's situation. When Harvey considered the positive implications for AIDS patients generally and the clinic specifically the hope, the finances, the!j publicity he could not help but hope Michael would go public with his illness. Awful as it might seem, he realized that Michael's diagnosis could in the long run save thousands of lives. Michael could do for AIDS what no one since Rock Hudson or Ryan White I had done bring it home to the public, make it real, change the perspective of thousands, perhaps millions of people.

And that was why Sara was angry with him. Harvey had really not said very much, but his feelings on the matter were clear. Michael had been handed a responsibility that was bigger than all of them. A rare opportunity to do good had been thrust upon him. He could not just toss it away. And Sara saw that.

1, In her heart she knew what would have to be. But right now Sara's 4 mind was too clouded by her pain for her to see what was so clear. That was certainly understandable. Right now the rest of the world did not matter to her. Only Michael mattered. Protecting him.

So steam would eventually have to be blown off. The hurt would have to run its course before they could all look at things rationally, calmly. But not tonight. Tonight they needed to be left alone to ponder their fate. Saving lives could wait for another sunrise.

Harvey moved down the hallway in the direction of the clinic's laboratory. The night was absolutely still now. Harvey could only hear two noises: the heals of his shoes clacking against the cool tile and and the rustling noise coming from behind the lab door.

He froze. Winston and Eric had sealed all experiments and locked the lab door three hours ago. No one else had a key. And no one was supposed to be in there.

Don't panic. Maybe one of them came back to do a little extra work.

It wouldn't be the first time.

That was certainly true. Harvey slid closer to the door. The door's window had a shade pulled over it so he could not peer in. Instead, he pressed his ear against the pane. It felt cold to the touch. He listened. Nothing. The lab was quiet. He closed his eyes, straining to hear.

The rustling sound started up again.

Okay, no problem. It's just Winston or Eric. I'll just turn the knob, open the door and... His head hurt like a bastard now; the pounding in his forehead was almost audible. Harvey reached for the knob, grasped it, and turned.

The door was locked. An icy coldness glided through him. His hand flew away from the door. The lab door was never locked when someone was inside. Never. He tried to peer into the room through the tiny crack where the shade did not cover when he realized something that twisted his stomach. He looked down by the floor to confirm his fears.

No lights.

There were no streams of light coming through the shade opening or from under the door. The lights in the lab were off.

What kind of scientist works in the dark?

Seeing- eye scientists? Scientists with infrared glasses?

Sweat popped onto his forehead.

It still might be nothing. It still might be... Might be what?

He had no answer to stave off his mounting panic. Acting without conscious thought, Harvey's hand reached into his pocket for the key to the lab. He took it out and moved it toward the lock. From behind the door, Harvey heard a file drawer slam shut.

He swallowed in a deep breath, slid the key into the hole, and flung open the door.

The room was dark, the dim hall lights providing only a modicum of illumination. Harvey thought he saw a movement in the corner of his eye. He spun toward it, but there was nothing.

Could have been just his imagination. His hand reached out blindly, finding the light switch and flicking it up. The lights came on, the sudden brightness startling him.

At first he saw nothing unusual. The lab was neat, tidy. No loose papers were visible. The microscopes were covered with plastic. The test tubes sealed. Only one thing looked different and that one thing made Harvey's eyes widen. Suddenly Harvey forgot about things like caution and wariness. Gone were the worries that a dangerous prowler might still be in the lab, hiding, preparing to pounce. He stepped forward, concerned solely for the welfare of what lay beyond the jimmied lock on the other side of the room.

That was a mistake.

Without warning, something heavy slammed against the base of Harvey's neck. His body pitched forward. Sharp slivers of pain and numbness erupted throughout his skull. Harvey grasped his head between both hands as he folded at the waist and fell to the floor. His eyes closed.

Jennifer had a light dinner by herself, caught the latest Woody Alien movie at the Qneplex, one of those movie theaters that seemed to have more screens than clients, and arrived back at the house a little past midnight. She tossed the little airline bag filled with the contents from Bruce's post office box onto the couch and collapsed beside it.

For a few moments she did nothing other than stare at the Sabena World Airways logo on the flight bag.

Her mind traveled back ten years ten years since she and Harvey had flown on Sabena to Brussels to begin a European odyssey through Belgium, France, and Holland. First class. Champagne and caviar on board. What a magnificent trip. Alas, it had been the last vacation she had convinced Harvey to take. He, in truth, had not enjoyed himself. Relaxing, sightseeing, eating gourmet, being pampered in fine hotels that was just not for him.

The stupid fool.

All right, so she was bitter. She had a right to be. She had loved Harvey. Still did. But the man did not know how to live.

Oh sure, he could be funny and seemingly carefree and he was a far cry from some sort of bookworm, but he was obsessed with his work. With saving the world. Yes, she had married a dreamer and that had been great while they were courting. It had been romantic, even gothic. But it had worn on her after a while. His selflessness began to eat away at her lust for life, leaving her with little more than self-pity.

The stupid fool.

Bruce Grey had been dedicated too, but the man understood that there were limits. He was not nearly as naive and foolhardy as Harvey. Bruce saw reality. He knew that the two of them could not stop the mass suffering, only alleviate it a little. That was all a person could be expected to do. For Bruce, that had been enough. But not for Harvey Jennifer sat up suddenly. The manila envelope. The one Bruce had addressed to himself the day he died. She had not yet opened it. She slid over toward the Sabena flight bag, grabbed it, and rummaged through the horde of envelopes. It did not take her long to locate the packet in question. It was the thickest and heaviest by far. She extracted it from the bag and laid it on her lap. Bruce's name and address were clearly written in his own handwriting. So strange.

She walked over to the desk, took hold of the letter opener, and sliced open the envelope. Numerous papers, tubular styrofoam containers, and what looked like files streamed out like candy from a broken pinata.

With a sigh, Jennifer began to read them.

"Owww."

"Harvey?"

"My head," Harvey groaned.

"Harvey, can you hear me?" Sara asked.

Harvey's eyes opened slightly. The lights seemed particularly bright, pricking his eyes. He closed them, shaded them with his hand, and tried again.

"Harvey?"

"Yeah, Sara, I can hear you. Where am I?"

"You're still at the clinic."

"How long have I been out?"

"I found you half an hour ago," Sara replied.

His vision focused in on two faces. One beautiful, the other thin with a mustache and long nose.

"Lieutenant Bernstein?"

Max nodded.

"Sara called me. Are you all right?"

"Yeah, fine."

"Can you tell me what happened?"

Harvey tried to clear his head.

"In the lab," he began slowly.

"Someone was in the lab." Sara said, "I caught a glimpse of someone running down the hall, but I couldn't see the face."

"Whoever it was," Harvey managed, "hit me over the head."

"Why don't we start at the beginning, okay?" Bernstein suggested, taking out his pad and pencil.

"Tell us what happened." Slowly, Harvey told them what had occurred from the moment he heard the noise in the lab until he was knocked unconscious. When he finished, Lieutenant Bernstein stopped pacing and asked, "So what was he after?

What was so precious that you forgot a prowler was in the room?"

"My private files."

"Your what?"

"My private files. I keep them locked in there."

"You don't keep them in your office?"

"No. The lock and security around the lab is supposed to be much tighter than in my office. And the information I keep in those private files is usually derived from lab results. We all kept our private files in the lab."

Bernstein stared at his pad intensely.

"You keep saying 'private' files. What do you mean by that?"

"They contain personal information professional secrets, if you will."

"What kind of secrets?"

"Different things. Results from experiments, stuff like that."

"What kind of experiments?"

Harvey lay back down.

"Personal ones," he replied.

"You see, it pays to work closely with partners and to share all your findings, no question about it, but sometimes you need to work in private alone and without any outside interference and suggestions.

It's often the best way to make headway the one man working in solitude kind of thing. We understood and respected each other's private work."

"Who is 'we'?"

"Bruce, Eric, and myself."

Bernstein nodded, circling to the other side of the bed and then back again.

"Did Bruce Grey have private files?"

"Of course."

"Have you gone through them since his death?"

"Yes."

"Was there anything surprising in them?"

Harvey hesitated.

"Not really."

"What do you mean, not really?"

"I mean there were no major breakthroughs or anything like that. Bruce wasn't very big on independent research..." He paused.

"It might be nothing."

Bernstein leaned over the bed.

"Go on."

"Well, several of his important files were missing."

"What sort of files?"

"Patient files. Trian and Whitherson's, to name two."

"How about Bradley Jenkins'?"

"That one is still there."

Max stood back up, walked to the door, fiddled with the knob.

"I'd like you to give me a complete list of the missing files, and I also want to go through Grey's entire file cabinet as soon as possible."

Harvey nodded.

"I suspected as much. But do me a favor, Lieutenant. Don't let anyone else go through them. The information in those files is confidential and must remain so."

"I don't understand something," Sara interjected.

"Why would routine patient files be locked up with the private files?"

"There is no such thing as routine patient files in here," Harvey explained.

"Everything in here is confidential. We use codes here, never names, so that no one lab technicians, nurses, orderlies knows a patient's name. We often keep patients secluded from one another. Except for roommates, patients never see or get to know one another."

"Did Whitherson, Trian, or Jenkins know each other?"

Bernstein asked.

"No." "What happens when visitors come by?" Sara asked.

"Won't they see the other patients on the floor?"

Harvey shook his head.

"This whole place is compartmentalized. First floor is offices and visiting rooms we wheel the patients into private rooms so that the visitors never enter the actual patients' ward, which is on the second floor."

"Sounds like prison visiting hours," Max added.

"The situation is similar," Harvey agreed.

"The key thing to remember is that visitors never go into a patient's room."

Bernstein scratched his smooth right cheek hard, like a dog with a tic near his ear.

"Okay, so let me get this straight. The first floor has offices and visiting rooms. The second floor is the patients' ward. The third floor has the lab."

Harvey shot a quick glance toward Sara.

"And highly confidential patients are also kept on the third floor," he said.

"We normally keep no more than one or two patients up here."

"Was Bradley Jenkins one such patient?"

"Yes."

"Interesting." Max put his pencil into his mouth and looked up at the ceiling.

"So the prowler may have been trying to find out names of patients or the prognosis of a patient."

Harvey sat up.

"Could have been," he said, swinging his feet onto the floor.

"Where are you going?"

"I have to check my files." "Wait a second," Max said, snapping his fingers.

"Was there any patient recently admitted? Was there anybody whose identity you wanted to keep confidential?"

Harvey stopped.

"You can tell him," Sara said.

"Tell me what?"

It was Sara who responded.

"Michael was admitted today.

He has AIDS."

Not too far from where Sara, Max, and Harvey were talking, Janice Matley, the Sidney Pavilion's most trusted nurse, knew something was wrong the moment she opened the door. She sensed it. There was something about the stillness of the bed, the way the sheet was twisted around the body, the way the head lolled limply off the pillow. Janice felt a creeping dread in the pit of her stomach.

She knew.

Janice Matley was a heavy-set black woman in her mid-fifties.

She had been a nurse for the better part of thirty years and had worked for Dr. Riker and Dr. Grey for the past decade. She had been crushed when Dr. Grey committed suicide, absolutely devastated. Such a lovely man, poor thing. And a great doctor.

He and Dr. Riker had been perfect partners, complimenting one another like no other two men could. Dr. Grey was the heart, the team player, the one with the good bedside manner, the one who felt for every patient. Dr. Riker was the brains, the leader, the drive, the one who would do what had to be done and blind himself to the personal price.

And Dr. Eric Blake? Janice was not sure where she would place him. He was a bit of a paradox, that one. He too was dedicated, spending all his time in the clinic like Dr. Riker, but somehow he seemed distant, aloof. Oh, he cared about his patients immensely and Janice knew that Dr. Blake would follow Dr. Riker to the end of the earth and back, but he still seemed so... unfeeling. Maybe that wasn't fair. Just because she could not warm up to him did not mean he was not a nice man. He was a fine person, a fine doctor, and smart as they come. His patients and colleagues respected him greatly. He just wasn't... warm, that's all.

Janice stepped toward the patient with the blank facial expression of an experienced nurse. Inside, she could feel something tremble. She reached the bed and flicked on the reading lamp. Her knees went wobbly. The patient's eyes, glassy and uncomprehending, looked straight through her. His lips were parted and frozen. His arms felt almost brittle, like the branches on an old tree that would break rather then bend.

Janice ran for the door.

Max stared at Sara.

"Michael has AIDS?"

She nodded.

He collapsed into a chair.

"I don't know what to say, Sara." "He'll be fine," Sara said firmly.

He nodded, unsure what to say next.

"Who knows about Michael's condition?"

"Aside from us," Harvey replied, "just Eric and maybe one of the hospital nurses."

"Maybe?"

"There is a good chance that the nurse might recognize his face."

"Who's the nurse?"

"Her name is Janice Matley."

"You trust her?"

"Completely."

He shook his head.

"I don't care how much security you have around here, there is no way you're going to be able to keep this a secret." "We know that," Sara said.

"Michael has scheduled a press conference for tomorrow evening. It'll be covered live on News Flash

Bernstein's eyes squinted into small slits.

"Are you trying to tell me that Michael is going to tell the world he has AIDS?"

Sara nodded.

"And then you're going to do the report on SRI?"

"Not me," Sara corrected.

"I'm too close to this now. Donald Parker is going to do it." "And what exactly is Parker going to cover?" Max asked.

"The AIDS cure? The Gay Slasher connection? Senator Jenkins' kid being treated at the clinic?"

"All of it," Sara replied.

Max took the pencil out of his mouth and let go a whistle.

"That's going to be one hell of a story. The whole country is already talking about the Gay Slasher story. Wait till John Q. Public finds out that the murders are connected to a clinic that's found a cure for AIDS. And then add the fact that Michael Silverman has AIDS and is being treated at the same clinic." Bernstein shook his head again.

"It's going to be unbelievable."

No one said anything for a moment.

"Okay," Max said, "switch gears with me a second, Doc. You said the lab door was locked when you tried the knob, right?"

"Right."

"Who has a key besides you?"

"Eric and Winston O'Connor, the chief lab technician."

"Does this O'Connor know about Michael?"

"No," Harvey replied, "Winston doesn't know the names of any of the patients in here. Like I said before, the test results are coded. The people in the lab never see the names, only numbers.

In other words Winston O'Connor sees the test results, but he is 'blind' as to whom it involves. We even change their code numbers weekly so that they cannot be traced down."

"You're a cautious man, Dr. Riker."

"Almost paranoid, right?"

Bernstein was about to answer when they heard a shout.

Janice Matley stuck her head through the doorway.

"Dr. Riker, come quick!" Janice shouted, though she knew it was much too late.

"What is its

"Code blue! A patient's arrested!"

12.

Jennifer Riker scanned the contents in the packet.

Little of it made sense. First, there were the files.

Being a doctor's wife, Jennifer had seen plenty of patient files before but these were considerably more vague than most. Specifics were not jotted down more like Bruce's overall opinions and thoughts on the patient. A journal almost. She read the neatly typed name on the label of the first file: Trian, Scott.

She jumped back to the beginning of the file and saw a whole slew of numbers:

1/9 897a83 1/16 084c33 1/23 995d42 1/30 774c09 2/06 786m60 They continued in a similar pattern for two full pages. Jennifer went to the kitchen and grabbed a calendar. She guessed that 1/9 must stand for January 9,1/16 for January 16, and so on. She checked the calendar. January 9 was a Monday, as was every other day that followed. For some reason Bruce had jotted down a five digit number with a letter between the third and fourth numeral on every Monday.

Why?

She shrugged and continued to read. Very little of it made sense to her a lot of medical jargon but early on she read something that she understood all too clearly:

HIV positive. T cell count very low. Signs of Kaposi's sarcoma.

The word wasn't there, but Jennifer knew what Bruce was trying to say: AIDS. In fact she could not find the term anywhere in any of the reports, as though the very acronym should be avoided, whispered, never written in anything but easy-to-erase pencil.

AIDS.

She continued to read. A few pages later another paragraph gave her reason to pause. Bruce's handwriting was bright now, soaring, reflecting the mood he had obviously felt at this moment.

She had seen what the job of medical research could do to a man, the highs and the lows, how every setback brought on depression and every breakthrough a major high. Emotions swayed on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis:

Good news. Trian appears to be getting better. His progress is remarkably similar to the animal tests which proved so successful. It is hard not to get your hopes up when you chart it. The SRI has taken its toll on him, but for the first time he appears genuinely healthy.

Is it simply remission or something much more?

And ten months later:

We are finally ready. Harvey and I will know tomorrow.

I can't believe it. Both of us are so anxious that we keep snapping at one another and anyone who happens to be around us. Poor Eric. Harvey almost bit his head off for nothing.

He felt bad about it afterwards, like Harv always does when he loses his temper. Then he tried to make it up to him by repeatedly complimenting Eric on his work.

I can't blame Harvey for being a little edgy. This is it.

This is what we've been waiting for.

What was Bruce talking about? What were they waiting for?

Jennifer noted the date. Nine months ago. So much had happened to her in the last nine months leaving Harvey, moving to California but when Jennifer read what happened the next day, she realized how insignificant the changes in her life had been.

Bruce's words put her own private world back in perspective, and for the first time in many months she felt the hollow pang of inadequacy ripple anew from the distant recesses of her mind.

"My God," she uttered out loud.

"It can't be."

She swallowed and re-read the page, sure that she had misunderstood the words:

I am not ashamed to say that tears keep running down my face as I write this. Powerful emotions keep crashing over me. It's more than I can take. It's more than I ever expected to hear. But I'm getting ahead of myself so let me go back a moment.

"I'll try to be as precise as possible for the sake of posterity.

Harvey and I wanted to see the Trian results for ourselves. After all, this is hardly the kind of thing you wait for the lab boys to send you a report on. So we walked toward the lab with the controlled rush of school children heading for recess under a teacher's watchful eye.

Winston seemed surprised to see us. He asked what we were doing in the lab. I told him we wanted the results for 443t90. Why the rush?

Winston asked.

Harvey became a little impatient, which was certainly understandable under the circumstances, and told him to hand over the file. Winston did.

We were too nervous to open it in the lab so we did our "trying not to run" bit back down to my office.

Janice stopped us on the way to ask a question, but we just blew right by her. She looked at us like we had lost our minds. We hustled into my office and closed the door. Harvey handed me the file. I can't look, he said.

I opened it. Trian was HIV negative. His T cell count was almost normal. My heart leapt into my throat while Harvey stood without moving. I think he was in shock.

We called in Eric and told him the news. He and I began to shout and jump around like Super Bowl champs, but not Harv. He just stood to the side and looked off at nothing. What's the matter? I asked him. We've done it.

Harv shook his head. Not so fast, he said. We have a lot still to be done.

But look at the results, I insisted. He's HIV negative.

Harvey: Yes, but for how long? It's encouraging but what do we know for sure? We have to test him again.

Me: But this is just what we need to get the place going again. We needed this boost, this kick in the ass. The PHS will give us more money now. Our grant will have to be extended.

Harvey: Timing is everything.

Me: What does that mean?

Harvey: It means that we have to keep this quiet. Can you imagine the uproar if such news got out? The press, the scrutiny? We'll lose our anonymity.

Eric said nothing.

Harvey: No, my friends, for right now, we should tell no one. We will reveal little bits enough to maintain interest and finances but not enough for anyone to know for sure. In the meantime let's make sure everything is well documented. Send the sample to Bangkok on Friday.

Jennifer could not believe what she was reading. HIV negative? They had turned someone who had been HIV positive back into HIV negative.

The disclosure hit her like a heavyweight.

They've cured AIDS.

That was probably optimistic thinking, but the evidence was right in front of her. They had done it. Somehow they had found a cure for the AIDS virus. And Harvey had never mentioned it to her.

It was all so unbelievable. The startling revelation wearied her.

She put the file down and closed her eyes. She wanted just to rest them for a few minutes before continuing to read, but exhaustion got the better of her. She slid into the cusp between consciousness and slumber and her head tilted back. One question kept gnawing at the base of her brain as she glided down into a deep, sound sleep:

Why had Bruce committed suicide right after mailing out this packet?

Ralph Edmund, the county coroner, rolled the stretcher past Max. Ralph looked like a coroner to be more precise, a mortician.

Sallow skin, tall, thin body, thin black hair, long fingers. On the other hand he never dressed like a mortician. He wore loud colors, polyester prints, and ostentatious gold jewelry. He also did not act like a mortician. Ralph was emotional, loud, uncouth as all hell. Even better, he had the charming habit of chewing tobacco and spitting the black-yellow juice wherever and whenever he saw fit.

"I want the autopsy done right away," Max whispered to the coroner.

"Is that why you called me down here personally?" Ralph asked.

Max nodded.

"Check everything."

"Okay," Ralph replied, a thick ball of tobacco bulging in his cheek.

"I'll get to it later this afternoon."

"Now. Right now. And get all the blood samples you can out of him. I want you to run a full battery of tests on him."

"Like what?"

"Well go over it later."

"Hey, Twitch, why you whispering? He's not going to wake up. Ha!"

"Hilarious. Just find out what killed him." Max turned and moved toward Harvey. The doctor looked pale and exhausted.

"Where's Martino's roommate?" v

"Kiel Davis? I had him moved to another room. He's being sedated."

'1 want to speak with him."

"Later," Harvey replied. He shook his head.

"My God, I can't believe this." "What's to believe?" Max asked, flipping through his notepad.

"There was no visible trauma, no blood, no stab or gunshot wounds, no signs of a struggle. The victim was a patient at an AIDS clinic so we can assume he was in poor health. All signs point to death by natural causes, right?"

Harvey did not reply right away.

"Ricky Martino was no angel," he said at last.

"He was an intravenous drug abuser. He used to push drugs at a local high school."

"Irrelevant. How sick was he?"

"Actually," Harvey replied, "Martino was cured."

"He didn't have AIDS?"

"Not any more. His last test showed he was HIV negative.

He was still undergoing more treatment, of course, but he was on his way to a full recovery."

"Interesting," Max said.

"To be frank," Harvey continued, "I wasn't crazy about treating Martino."

"Why not?"

"Because he was a lousy candidate. For one thing, he was a heroin addict." "Then why did you?" Sara asked.

"With so many good candidates willing to give anything a try, why would you choose Martino?"

"Because we wanted a cross section of patients not just gay men. So Bruce brought Martino in. Brace liked Martino. He believed in him." "And you didn't?" Sara continued.

Harvey shrugged.

"Intravenous drug abusers, by and large, are a rather sordid group. I confess I'm no big fan of treating IVDAs not for any moral reason but simply because they are unreliable data. Addicts cannot be trusted. On top of that, most of them are already unhealthy from a lifetime of abusing their bodies, which makes their chances of fighting the disease that much slimmer."

"Then what do you think killed him, Doctor?" Max asked.

"I don't know." He paused to gather his thoughts.

"I just don't understand it. I was in this room less than an hour ago."

"Before you got hit on the head?"

"Right before."

"And Martino appeared fine?"

"He was breathing, if that's what you mean. Look, Martino was not the healthiest man alive, but he had nothing that would have lead to an acute death like this. And with the prowler in here tonight and all... it just seems like a hell of a coincidence."

Max folded his arms across his chest, his face twisted in heavy thought.

"If Martino was murdered, it puts this whole thing in a new light."

"What do you mean?" Harvey asked.

"New M. O." for one," he answered.

"No stabbing," Sara agreed.

"But what about Brace?" Harvey said.

"He wasn't stabbed either."

Bernstein nodded slowly and began to pace.

"Let's slow down a minute. Five people are dead, four patients, one doctor. Three Trian, Whitherson, and Jenkins were stabbed to death under similar, though not identical, circumstances." "We know all this," Harvey said impatiently.

"Just bear with me, okay? What do the three patients have in common?"

"They were gay," Sara began, "and they were all being treated at the same AIDS clinic."

"Now add Martino to the list, assuming he too was murdered."

"Then we can rule out a gay basher," Harvey noted.

"Martino was heterosexual." His beeper went off.

"Damn, I have to go."

"I'll need to speak to you later," Max said.

"I also want to see your files on the murder victims."

Harvey nodded and left. Bernstein stopped pacing and looked toward Sara gently.

"You must be exhausted. Why don't you get some sleep?"

"I feel fine."

"Sara..."

"Don't start this shit with me, Max. Crying and moping around is not going to help. I need something to distract me."

Max nodded, understanding.

"Okay, where were we?"

"Riccardo Martino."

"Right. Add him into the equation and what makes them all similar?"

"Two things," Sara answered.

"AIDS and the clinic. Like Harvey said, we can eliminate the gay connection since Martino was heterosexual."

"Okay, now let's move on to Dr. Bruce Grey. Add him to Whitherson, Trian, Jenkins, and Martino. Now what is the common denominator?"

"Only one thing," Sara answered.

"The clinic. Someone is targeting people associated with the Sidney Pavilion."

Max did not respond right away. He just looked off, his head slowly shaking, his teeth locating another corner of fingernail on which he could gnaw.

"We're missing something here," he said finally, "something big."

"Like?"

"Hell if I know."

"Do you think someone is trying to sabotage the clinic?"

"Could be."

She glanced at the clock above the door.

"I have to get back to Michael now. He'll be waking up in a little while."

"I'm going to check through Dr. Riker's patient files."

"Okay. I'll see you later."

"Sara? One other thing?"

"Yesr

"I'm saying this as a friend, not a police officer."

"Go ahead."

"You're blocking on Michael. It's going to hit you soon."

She moved to the door.

"I know, Max. Thanks."

He could hear the running water.

"No, no please..."

"Shut up, you whining punk."

Seven- year-old Michael looked up, his eyes tainted with fear. His stepfather was leaning over the tub. His blue work shirt, the name Marty sewed on the breast pocket in red script, was unbuttoned, revealing a ripped white T-shirt underneath. Marty's face contorted into a look of pure, dumb anger and hate. His breath reeked of liquor and tobacco.

"Get over here, Michael!"

"Please..."

"If I have to chase you, boy..." He never finished the sentence, allowing Michael's imagination to do it instead.

Michael tried to run, but his feet felt glued to the floor. He could not move. Marty reached his hand out and took Michael by the hair.

He tugged him forward and then down, forcing Michael's head under the water.

"You gonna mess around in my room again?" Marty shouted.

Michael could not answer. He could not breathe. He flailed his head back and forth, searching for air. But there was none. Water went down his throat and he began to choke.

Marty's grip tightened. His hand held firm.

"I didn't hear you, boy. You gonna mess around in my room again?"

Pressure built up in Michael's head. His lungs felt like they were about to burst. He could hear the water splash around him... Michael shot up out of bed. Sweat coated his skin.

Just a dream.

He looked around, almost expecting to see Marty's face in the corner of the darkened room. But his stepfather was not there.

Michael was alone in the clinic. The AIDS clinic. He had AIDS.

From the hallway he could hear water running. Someone washing up.

Someone cleaning out something. No reason to be scared.

He swung his legs out of the bed and stood. His body still trembled from the power of the dream, but at least he didn't feel any of the SRI side effects yet. He wrapped his arms around his chest and moved toward the window. He looked out. Not much of a view. Just a dirty alley. Garbage strewn everywhere. Two homeless men playing cards.

Overturned tin cans. Cats chewing on a chicken bone. The only thing that hinted at the sanitary conditions within the building was a startlingly clean white truck with the inscription

"Recovery Corporation of America Medical Waste Disposal" painted across its side.

Michael continued to stare.

Random thoughts and emotions ricocheted through his mind.

They moved so quickly that he could not make complete sense of them, like trying to read a license plate as a car speeds by you.

He tried to slow them down, but it was impossible. He caught just glimpses. In the end, one word became clear, blocking out all others:

Sara.

Funny, but Michael was not afraid of dying. Leaving Sara frightened him more. Alone. With the baby. The future meant something to him now. He had a stake in it, responsibilities. He wanted to stay with Sara, with the baby. So why did this happen now? Why show him what could be only to take it away?

Enough self-pity, Michael. You're making me sick.

He thought about the press conference he would have to give tonight on Newsflash and wondered what he was going to say.

He could just imagine the questions the reporters were going to hurl at him gleefully:

"Have you always been gay?..."

"Did your wife know?..."

"How about your teammates?..."

"How many boyfriends have you had?..."

And oh God, Sara, what am I doing to you? he asked himself.

All I ever wanted to do was protect you. Now, I'm throwing you in the middle of this. I wish I didn't have to. I wish I could just ignore it, blind myself from the truth. But I can't. Why should you have to suffer anymore? Part of me wants to push you away, to shield you from going through this whole AIDS shit with me.

But Michael knew he could never. Sara would never allow it. And he knew that if the roles had been reversed, there would be no way Sara could have persuaded him to let her go. None.

She would want to be there, and selfish as it might be, he wanted her there. He knew he would never make it without her.

He just wished he wasn't so goddamn scared.

"Michael?"

He turned. Sara stood in the doorway. She was so beautiful, so goddamn achingly beautiful... He felt tears come to his eyes, but he forced them back down again.

"I love you," he said.

She limped to the window and hugged him tightly.

He closed his eyes and held on.

"We're going to beat this thing, aren't we?"

She pulled back and looked up at him. A smile flirted with her lips.

"We're going to whip its ass," she said staunchly.

She embraced him again, trying so very hard to believe her own words.

The next morning Lieutenant Bernstein found Dr. Harvey Riker in the lab, checking through his private files.

"Anything missing?" the lieutenant asked.

Harvey shook his head.

"But someone went through them.

A couple of them are out of order."

"Michael's?"

"Yes. Have you heard from the coroner yet?"

Bernstein nodded. The fingers of his right hand busily twisted a paper clip into shapes it was never intended to achieve.

"There were traces of cyanide. Someone injected it into his right arm."

"So it was murder."

"Looks like."

Harvey let go a long breath.

"Did you speak with Kiel Davis yetr

"Yes. He saw nothing. He heard nothing. He knows nothing."

As Harvey was about to respond, Winston O'Connor stepped through the doorway.

"Good morning, Harvey."

"Hi, Winston. Win, I want you to meet Lieutenant Bernstein."

Winston O'Connor stuck out his hand.

"Pleasure, sir. Ain't you kinda young to be a lieutenant?"

Bernstein ignored the common question and busied himself studying the man. Fortyish, thick Southern accent, blond-turning to-grey hair, average height, open smile.

"You're the chief lab technician?"

"That's right," Winston twanged.

"What brings you all around these parts, Lieutenant?"

"Someone broke into this lab last night," Bernstein said, purposely not saying anything about Martino yet.

"You're kidding! A break-in here? What did they taker

"Nothing," Max replied.

"Dr. Riker walked in on them."

"You all right, Harv?"

"Fine."

"Where were you last night at around three in the morning?" Max asked.

Winston's face registered surprise.

"Am I a suspect?"

"No one is a suspect. I'm just trying to figure out what happened."

"I was home all night."

"You live alone?"

"Yes."

"Can anyone vouch for your whereabouts?"

"Why the hell would I need anyone to vouch for me?"

"Please just answer the question."

"No. I don't make a point of having witnesses watch me when I'm in my own home."

"What time did you leave here last night?"

"Around midnight."

"Were you the last one to leave the lab?" "No," Winston said, his voice an octave higher.

"Eric Blake was still here."

"Alone?"

"Yes. I just locked up some of the experiments, same as I do every night, and left him in here." Winston glared at the police detective, but Bernstein diverted his gaze, never allowing the man to look him in the eye.

"Can I go down the hall now to get a cup of coffee, Lieutenant, or do you need my mama's maiden name first?"

"Go."

Winston spun and left.

"Kind of touchy," Bernstein remarked.

"But a good man," Harvey added, "hard worker."

"How long have you known him?"

"Fifteen years."

"How long has he lived in New York?"

"I don't know. Almost twenty years."

Max stroked his chin.

"Interesting."

"What?"

"Nothing. I have a few more questions for you, if you don't mind."

"Ask away."

Bernstein's pacing commenced. He never looked in Harvey's direction as he spoke.

"How many confidential patients do you treat?"

"They are all confidential, Lieutenant."

"Okay, but how many are 'very' confidential, kept away from the rest of the patients behind that door down the hall with no window on it?"

"Right now, just Michael. I came up with the idea of the secluded room when we first started treating Bradley Jenkins."

"How did you meet Jenkins?"

Harvey went back to sorting his files.

"Through his father."

"And how did you meet his father?"

"He came to see me one day. Said he wanted to know more about what we were doing. I was wary, of course. Senator Stephen Jenkins is hardly one who normally sides with our cause.

After a while he said he had heard rumors that we could cure AIDS. I denied it, telling him our success had been miniscule at best. But he was adamant. That's when he told me about his son." "He admitted to you that Bradley had AIDS?"

"Yes, He was desperate, Lieutenant. He may be a bit of a fanatic, but his boy was sick and dying. He promised me he'd help the clinic discreetly if I took Bradley in."

"So you did."

He nodded and then realized that the lieutenant was not facing him.

"I didn't really believe he'd help. I was more hoping he wouldn't hurt."

"Jenkins took a hell of a risk trusting you."

"What choice did he have? He wanted to save his son's life.

We worked out extra security measures like we used with Michael hidden entrances from the basement and all that."

"Besides yourself, who knows the names of the patients in here?"

"That's the weird part. Practically nobody. Bruce knew. Eric knows many of the names, not all. And..." He stopped.

"Who else?" Max asked again.

"Dr. Raymond Markey."

"Who's he?"

"An Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services. We report to him directly."

"Do you trust him?"

"Not much. He's always been more of a politician than a doctor."

"But he knew Bradley Jenkins was in here?"

"No. We hid it from him."

"How did you manage that?"

"I lied."

"How?"

Harvey shrugged.

"I just left Bradley's name off the patient list I sent Markey."

"And this Markey guy never questioned it?"

"No."

"Does he know you've found a cure?"

"Yes and no. We tell him just enough so he can't pull back the money."

"And he just accepts your word?"

Harvey half-chuckled.

"Hardly. We always back up our claims with irrefutable evidence. A good researcher always guards against a charge of tampering with results. Just the accusation of falsifying data could bring down an entire clinic like ours. That's why I set up a system where at least two doctors work on each case always at separate times. It prevents any hint of wrongdoing."

"I'm not sure I follow."

"Take the blood work."

"The blood work?"

"The taking and handling of blood. If I did the original examination on a patient, Bruce or Eric would do the testing during the latter stages of the treatment and vice-versa. Let me give you an example. I diagnosed Teddy Krutzer as having the AIDS virus three years ago. As a result, Bruce was the one who handled the blood work when we tested to see if Krutzer had actually become HIV negative. Another example.

Scott Trian, the first murder victim, was first diagnosed with AIDS by Bruce Grey four years ago so "

"So you or Eric ran the blood test to see if he had been cured or not."

"Exactly. This way, we are able to head off anyone who might want to slow us down by throwing out false accusations of tampering."

Max shook his head.

"This case just keeps getting weirder and weirder."

"Not so weird," Harvey said.

"Oh?"

"I think it's pretty simple."

"Then why don't you let me in on it?"

Harvey stopped playing with the files and looked up.

"Someone is trying to destroy this clinic. Someone has found out what we have discovered here and wants to prevent us from showing the world.

It's what I've suspected all along. It's why I set up all these internal safeguards."

"But " "Look, Lieutenant, it's like I told Sara in the beginning. If I wanted to prove to you that I could cure AIDS, what would be the most convincing thing I could show you? Cured patients, right? Eliminate the cured patients and all I have is charts and graphs and tests and files that don't add up to a thing. I'd have to start all over again.

A vaccine could be delayed years." "Makes sense, I guess," Bernstein said without breaking stride.

"But let me ask you this. How many good test cases are still alive?"

"Three."

"Three cured patients left," Max repeated.

"Well then, all three need protection. They should be moved to a safehouse where no one will know where they are." "I agree," Harvey said.

"Then I have a suggestion for you, Doctor, that you might not like. I want to put them in a real safehouse."

"I don't understand."

"If this conspiracy is as big as you suspect, then anyone could be involved in this plot. They've already gone to extreme lengths and they probably won't stop now. I think it safest if no one, not even you, knows where they are. The less everyone knows, the less that can slip out. Or be forced out."

"Do you really think "

"Five men nave been murdered already," Bernstein interrupted.

"But these patients have to be watched by a qualified doctor."

"I have a doctor who has made a living keeping his mouth shut. You tell him what to do and he'll do it. If you need to see them yourself, I'll take you to the safehouse. Blindfolded."

Harvey nodded.

"Okay, sounds reasonable. But I want your word that the patients won't be touched without specific permission. If your doctor were to give them the wrong medication or take unnecessary tests "

"He won't, you have my word. I'd also like to go through the medical records of the four victims."

"Of course, Lieutenant, but let me ask you something."

"Go ahead."

"If this conspiracy is so powerful, how do I know you're not a part of it?"

Bernstein stopped pacing, looked up, and twirled his hair around his middle finger.

"Interesting question," he replied. And then he walked out the door.

Jennifer Riker woke up on the couch. The contents of the packet were scattered around her.

"I'll look through it later, she thought. She showered, dressed, and poured herself a bowl of Triple-Bran, the latest in a series of fad cereals that were supposed to cure everything from cancer to lockjaw.

It tasted like tree bark.

Her sister Susan bought all those crazy health foods, coming home from the supermarket exclaiming, "I just bought (fill in the blank), and my friend (fill in the blank) swears that this will make you feel one hundred percent more (fill in the blank)."

She sighed, carried the bowl back into the den, and sat on the couch.

She glanced at the file she had read yesterday.

Unbelievable. Harvey and Bruce had done it. Cured AIDS.

Turned an HIV positive into an HIV negative. Historic.

Jennifer picked up Scott Trian's file and fingered through the pages until she arrived at the spot where she had left off. She scanned down the page. There. The spot where Trian became HIV negative. She read on. Trian's condition progressed nicely now, though not without some setbacks. Bruce noted:

There are times when Scott is made so weak from the injections of SRI that I fear for him. Harvey and I talked about it last night. We both agree that we have to do something to lessen the side effects. Still, the alternative death from AIDS is far worse than what we are seeing in Trian.

The file held no more surprising revelations, just a few scattered notes about Trian's reaction to SRI. Bruce's last note read:

DNA? A vs. B

What did that mean? She shrugged, put down the file, and picked up another. Whitherson, William. His file was very much like Trian's.

Whitherson had also been transformed to HIV negative, but he had other problems:

Bill's family is so damn un supportive His father won't speak to him, and his mother feels trapped between her husband and her son, afraid to talk to Bill because her husband would see it as some sort of betrayal.

p" Horse's asses, both of them. The funny thing is Bill still loves them like mad. He calls them all the time. I hear him pleading over the phone in a hushed, defeated voice.

"But don't you understand? I'm dying." Still nothing.

And the same last note:

DNA? A vs. B. She read about Krutzer, Theodore, next. His pattern was very similar to the others with only a few noticeable differences:

Unlike Whitherson's family, Teddy's seems positively unbelievable. His father and mother have not only accepted their son's homosexuality, they seem to encourage it. His father invites Teddy's boyfriend to the house on weekends. They go fishing together.

And then further:

Another cured patient. It's too good to be true. Krutzer's illness had never been acute, nothing worse than a bout with hepatitis and a few skin rashes. And now he's cured. Harvey made a suggestion today which I think is valid. The conversation between Harvey, Eric, and me went something like this.

Harvey: You do all the testing on Krutzer, Bruce. Don't let anyone else but yourself touch this case. You do the tests in the lab yourself.

Eric: Why?

Harvey: Independent research. If different people handle different cases, then one man cannot be accused of tampering with the results. I suggest you try to bring in Markey on this one.

Me: Okay, I'll give him a call. I doubt he'll be interested.

Harvey: At least we can say we offered him the opportunity.

Eric: I'm not sure why we have to do this. We don't have time to play lab technicians.

Harvey: It's too important, Eric. We can't let there be any holes in our research for our enemies to exploit.

The rest of the files read similarly, each with its own unique twists and turns. Nothing odd about that. What was odd, however, was that they all ended with the same strange note:

DNA? A vs. B. Jennifer was about to reach for the last file when she remembered the small styrofoam containers. She glanced at them, stacked on the edge of the couch. Each one had a patient's name taped to the outside. She pried open the one that read

"Trian, Scott."

Inside were two small test tubes labeled A and B. What the...?

She pulled the small test tubes more like vials really out of the snug holders. Blood. They were blood samples. She examined the other styrofoam containers. All were the same. A patient's name taped to the styrofoam outside, two test tubes labeled A and B both filled with blood on the inside.

What for?

Then she noticed the small white envelope.

It had fallen under the couch and only a corner of it was visible.

Jennifer reached down and picked up the envelope. Plain white. No return address, no markings. The kind of envelope you'd buy at a five and ten. Bruce had written "Susan" across the front in his familiar scrawl. Jennifer turned the envelope over.

When she read what Bruce had written across the back seal, she felt her stomach drop into her feet. In small, plain block letters, it said:

TO BE OPENED UPON MY DEATH.

"Need some help?"

Max Bernstein looked up at Sara.

"Yeah, come on in. Where's Michael?"

"Being treated," Sara replied.

"Are those the patient files?"

Max nodded, a fresh pencil in his mouth.

"This sucker just gets weirder and weirder."

Sara sat down, unsnapped her brace and rubbed her leg.

"I'm listening."

"Okay," Max began.

"Here are the medical files for all the victims. Let's start with Trian. He was one of the first patients, admitted almost three years ago. Whitherson came in about the same time. Same with Martino, the intravenous drug abuser."

"And Bradley?"

"That's just it. Bradley is the oddball out. He was in here less than a year. He was in the middle of treatment. He was doing well, but he had not yet turned HIV negative. It doesn't fit. Did Harvey fill you in on our talk?"

"Did he tell you about his theory about someone trying to destroy the clinic?"

Sara nodded.

"It made sense to Michael and me."

"Made sense to me too, but there are so many holes. Take Bradley Jenkins, for example. Let's assume that these conspiracy guys are out to get rid of the cured AIDS patients the proof, to use Harvey's word.

Then why kill Bradley Jenkins? He was a new patient at the clinic. And why move his body behind a gay bar? And another thing. If you're out to do serious damage to a place and you don't care about killing a few people in the process, why pussy-foot around? Why not go all out? Why not burn down the Pavilion? Why not just kill Harvey and Eric and destroy their records?"

"I see your point."

"I don't know, Sara, something just doesn't fit. Why did the killer make the murders so obvious?"

"He's a psycho."

"A psycho who has penetrated the inner sanctum of this hospital? I don't think so."

"Maybe he wanted to distract everyone by making them think he was just targeting the gay community," Sara said.

"How so?"

"His first two victims were blatant homosexuals killed in a gruesome manner," Sara explained.

"The press was bound to pick it up. The killer knew that. He also knew that the world would immediately assume the murders were the work of a psychotic homophobe. No one looked deeper than that pat explanation at first. The world searched for the Gay Slasher, a man who murders homosexuals randomly, not a calculating killer intent on exterminating patients at a confidential clinic."

"But the press didn't go after the story that much until..."

"Until they killed the son of a famous senator," Sara finished.

"Which explains why he killed Bradley. It attracted media attention.

Everyone finally focused in on the Gay Slasher."

Max scratched his face, thinking.

"I see what you're saying, but it still doesn't jibe. Why did the killer move Bradley's body behind the gay bar?"

"So the world would know he was gay," Sara tried.

"The killer wanted everyone to think he was the Gay Slasher, a man who terrorized the gay community. Trian and Whitherson were known homosexuals. Bradley's sexual preference, on the other hand, was a well-kept secret. What better way to reveal the truth than to dump Bradley's body behind a gay bar in the Village?" "Okay," he said, "that's theory one. I'm not sure I buy it, but let's move on."

"I don't completely buy it either," Sara said, "but let me throw something else out at you. Could the killer just have been after Bradley?"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, could the killer have murdered Trian and Whitherson to make it look like a serial killer when the real target was Bradley all along?

Could someone have been out to destroy Senator Jenkins by "

"Forget it.

I thought about that already. It makes no sense.

Why kill Ricky Martino after the fact? Why break into the lab?

And what about the clinic connection? Are you just going to write that off as a coincidence? And what about Grey's supposed suicide "

"Enough already," she interrupted.

"I get the point. Forget I mentioned it."

"Sony" He stacked the files and pushed them away.

"Nervous about tonight's press conference?"

"Terrified. But I'm a lot more afraid of this disease."

Max nodded.

"Michael's strong, Sara. Harvey will cure him."

Harvey Riker picked up his private line.

"Hello?" "Hello, handsome," Cassandra said.

"I'd like to rip your clothes off."

"I'm sorry. You must have the wrong number."

"All the better," she replied.

"How did your meeting go with Northeastern Air?"

"It's not over yet. How's your day been?"

He considered telling Cassandra about Michael's condition but quickly dismissed the thought. It was not his place to say anything.

"Not good. We lost a patient last night. Murdered, we think."

"Another one?"

"Yes."

Cassandra hesitated.

"Do you really think that Reverend Sanders is connected to this?"

"I wouldn't put it past him."

"And my father?"

Harvey weighed his words carefully.

"It seems strange to me that the same day your father denied knowing Sanders personally, you hear them arguing in his study. Why did he lie to us? What was he trying to hide?"

Harvey's intercom buzzed before she could answer.

"Hold on a second, Cassandra." He pressed the intercom button.

"Hello?"

"Doctor Riker?"

"Yes," Harvey replied.

"There's a call for you on line seven."

"I'm in the middle of something here. Is it important?"

There was a small pause.

"Its Dr. Raymond Markey."

Harvey felt afraid. The Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services never called unless it was bad news.

"Hold on a second." He pressed a button.

"I'll call you back, Cassandra."

He pushed another button.

"Dr. Markey?"

"Hello, Dr. Riker. How are you this morning?"

"Not very well."

"Oh?"

"Another one of our patients died last night. He may have been murdered."

"Murdered?" Markey repeated.

"My God, Riker, how many does that make?"

Harvey caught himself just before saying the number four.

"Uh, three."

"What was the latest victim's name?"

"Martino."

"Martino, Martino... ah here it is. Riccardo Martino? Intravenous drug abuser?"

"That's him."

"So let's see. The other two were Trian and Whitherson. Both gay.

Multiple stab wounds. The same with Martino?"

"No."

"Then what killed him?"

"An injection of cyanide."

"My God, how awful. Terrible thing."

"Yes, it is. I'm really beginning to worry about the safety of my other patients."

"Yes, well, I wouldn't worry about that too much. I'm sure this is all nothing more than a terrible coincidence."

A terrible coincidence?

"With all due respect, sir, three patients all from the same clinic have been killed."

"Yes, but you're forgetting one important factor: Bradley Jenkins, the senator's son, was also found stabbed to death.

According to the police, he was murdered by the same man who killed Trian and Whitherson this so-called Gay Slasher. And Jenkins was not a patient at the clinic. I have your patient list right in front of me and his name is not on it."

Harvey froze, trapped. For some reason he was sure that Raymond Markey was smiling on the other end of the phone.

"Well, yes, but-"

"So there is nothing to worry about. Now if Jenkins had been a patient at the clinic, well, then we'd have quite a problem on our hands. Your reports would be inaccurate. And if that were the case, then everything in the reports could be questioned. We'd have to assume other discrepancies exist. All your studies would have to be re-examined and all your findings would be considered tainted. You could lose your grant."

Harvey felt something in his gut tighten. The show tonight.

The report on the clinic, on the murders... on Bradley Jenkins.

Lieutenant Bernstein's voice came back to him.

"What exactly is Parker going to cover?" Max had asked Sara.

"The AIDS cure? The Gay Slasher connection? Senator Jenkins' kid being treated at the clinic?"

And Sara's answer.

"All of it."

Raymond Markey did not speak for a few moments, allowing his words to float about, settle, and then burrow into the surroundings.

The son of a bitch already knows about Jenkins, Harvey thought.

But how? And why didn't I think of this before? What the hell is going on here?

At last Raymond Markey broke the silence.

"But of course," he said, "we both know that Bradley Jenkins was not a patient at the clinic so you have nothing to worry about. The deaths are nothing but an awful coincidence. Goodbye, Dr. Riker."

Raymond Markey put down the phone. In front of his desk Reverend Sanders sat smiling. Such an eerie smile, Raymond thought. So genuinely jolly, friendly, gentle. Not sinister at all.

What a mask it was. Incredible really as incredible as the man himself. Markey knew Sanders' history. Poor boy from the south.

Father was a farmer who ran moonshine across state lines. Mother was a drunk. Sanders had conned, clawed, and blackmailed his way out of poverty, stampeding over anything that got in his way.

He was shrewd. He knew how to manipulate people and consolidate a power base. His influence had started with the poor and uneducated and now stretched into some of Washington's most powerful circles.

Including mine, Markey thought.

"Done," Markey said, standing. He adjusted his red tie in the reflection of a picture frame. Raymond Markey always wore red ties.

They had become something of a trademark over the years.

Red ties and thick glasses.

"Good," Sanders said.

"Has your source come up with anything new?"

"Nothing. Just what we already know. A camera crew has been hanging out at the clinic, but everything is being kept hush hush

The reverend shook his head seriously.

"Not a good sign.

They might go public with Michael Silverman's illness."

"You don't think my call will stop them?" Markey asked.

Sanders thought a moment.

"I don't think Riker would dare publicize Jenkins' connection to the murders," he said.

"But if they've decided to go public with Michael Silverman, I don't see how your conversation with Riker is going to dissuade them."

"Maybe we should forget this whole thing," Raymond said tentatively.

"It may have gone too far already."

Sanders looked at him with burning eyes.

"Are you trying to back out, Raymond?"

"No, it's just-"

"Do I have to remind you why you agreed to help me in my holy mission? You were the one who never trusted Riker, disliked him personally and professionally. And I have that videotape right-" "No!" Markey shouted. He closed his eyes for a brief moment, his breathing shallow. His voice grew calmer.

"I'm still behind you one hundred percent, but you have to admit the conspiracy is cracking."

Sanders' smile returned.

"Conspiracy is such an ugly word," he said.

"I see it as more of a holy mission. The Lord is behind us in our crusade to do His work." Straight from his TV show, Markey thought in disgust.

Sanders' "holy mission" was to tell the world that Armageddon was upon them. And what better proof of the oncoming apocalypse than the AIDS epidemic.

After all, Reverend Sanders would shout into the microphone, AIDS is the modern equivalent of the plagues of Egypt. It strikes down the immoral without mercy. Yes, my friends, God is preparing for the final battle. For Armageddon. God has sent down a clear sign that we cannot ignore. God has sent down this incurable plague to rid the planet of the perverted, hedonistic scum. And soon the final battle between good and evil will be upon us, amen, praise the Lord. Who will be ready?

Who will bask in the light of God, and who will join the AIDS carriers in the fires of hell? We must arm ourselves for this battle, my friends, and we need your help to do it. Now is the time for those with untainted souls to give and give generously.

Then Sanders would show a few slides of how God's plague could ravage and pillage a human body into scraps of useless tissue and marrow. His mesmerized, horrified followers would stare at the screen in terror while the contribution baskets were passed among them. From the pulpit Sanders would watch the baskets fill and then overflow with green.

Ah, but if AIDS were somehow cured, if the Lord's plague were somehow lifted... well, that could throw a real socket wrench into Reverend Sanders' interpretation of the gospel.

Strange thing was, Raymond was convinced that Sanders really believed most of it. Oh, he knew how to fake a miracle and he sure liked siphoning off a lot of money, but he honestly felt that he was doing God's work here. When Sanders compared AIDS with biblical plagues, he saw a direct correlation. Why, he once asked Raymond, was it so hard to believe that God could function in the twentieth century just as well as he had in Biblical times? Did people think God had lost his power over the centuries?

"The point remains," Markey said.

"We're losing the base of our support."

"You're wrong, Raymond. They are still with us."

"How can you say that? Senator Jenkins "

"Stephen is grieving right now," Sanders interrupted.

"It must have been a terrible blow to find his son was an immoral pervert.

He will rejoin us when he comes to his senses."

Raymond looked at him incredulously.

"You can't be serious.

You know what he did. He sold us out."

"Yes, I know. And I don't like it. But he is still a powerful senator and we need him. I want you to call him, Raymond. Tell him I expect to see him at our next meeting."

"And when is that going to be?"

Ernest Sanders shrugged.

"Depends," he said.

"If Michael Silverman goes public with his illness, then I want you to call an emergency meeting right away. All of us."

"All of us? But Silverman is John Lowell's son-in-law."

Sanders chuckled lightly.

"Don't worry about Dr. Lowell. I'll take care of him." He stood, put on his coat, and walked to the door.

"After all," he reminded Markey, "John Lowell is one of us."

Harvey stormed into Michael's room, his eyes wide with panic.

"Sara, thank God I found you."

She was sitting on the side of Michael's bed. Sara and Michael had been going over his press statement. They had decided to make it as brief as possible.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"Where is Donald Parker?" Harvey asked.

"He should be here in a few moments. What's going on?"

Harvey's words rushed out.

"You have to speak with him.

He can't mention Bradley Jenkins' connection to the clinic."

"Why not?"

"Because it could jeopardize everything." Harvey quickly recounted his conversation with Assistant Secretary Markey, his sentences stumbling against one another.

"If Markey finds out I left Bradley's name off the progress reports, I could lose the clinic. All our findings would be labeled invalid." "Could they do that?" Michael asked.

"Markey will certainly give it his best shot. He's itching for an excuse to reallocate our funds. This would be just what he needs. We can't let him find out Bradley was treated here."

Sara nodded.

"I'll speak to Donald as soon as he gets here."

Cassandra woke up in a familiar state of disorientation and pain. The disorientation came from not knowing where she was, the pain from a massive hangover. The disorientation usually lasted only a few moments, just until her mind could scrape together enough outside stimuli to reconstruct the previous evening. The pain customarily clung to her a little longer.

"Harvey?" she called out.

No answer.

She groaned. She clasped her head between both hands, but the internal jack-hammer continued to rip through her temples.

By exerting herself, she was able to pry open both eyelids. She squinted in the harsh light, though the shades were pulled and all the lights were out. In fact, the room was fairly dark.

She groaned again.

It was a hotel room, not Harvey's apartment. A fancy hotel room. A travel brochure would call it 'lush" and "well-appointed."

In the distance a car honked its horn, but to Cassandra it might as well have been a blown amplifier from a rock concert taking place somewhere in her cerebrum.

"Shhh," she said out loud.

Her hands held her head in place, waiting until time glued her skull back together. She tried to remember what had happened. The meeting with Northeastern Air. Had they gotten the account? Not yet.

Northeastern's marketing director, a runaway egomaniac, had held off making a decision. Then they had gone drinking at the... at the Plaza, that's where she was.

What had they talked about? She couldn't remember. The marketing director, while good-looking, was obnoxious, overbearing, and conceited. A big-time phony. When he opened his mouth, shit came out.

She tried to recall what he had said, but the only thing she could remember him saying was "me, I, me, I, me, I."

Then what?

Pretty simple. The marketing director had taken her upstairs, fucked her, and left. It started coming back to her now. The sex was bad. He was a "poser," someone more interested in his appearance than in what he was doing, the kind of guy who would rather look in a mirror than at his partner. Might as well have been making love to himself.

Cassandra sat up and glanced about the room. Yep, he was gone, thank God. He had left a note on the night table. She reached for it and read:

Congratulations. You got the account.

He had not signed the note, just left his business card.

Christ.

She swung her legs off the bed and managed to stand. The room was like so many others she had been in spacious, beautiful, immaculate, expensive furnishings, clean sheets, thick towels. Only the best for Cassandra Lowell. Never a sleazy motel.

If you wanted to fuck Cassandra Lowell, you had to surround her with beautiful things. You had to take her to a classy place.

She was, after all, no cheap whore.

She was a classy whore.

She headed toward the bathroom. Standing outside the shower, she turned on the hot water and waited till the water steamed before stepping under the spray. She stood there for a very long time, letting the near-scorching water pound down on her. She lathered her body and rinsed off repeatedly. Forty-five minutes later, she dried herself off. Then she sat on the kingsized bed, cried for a brief moment, got dressed, and went home.

When she arrived at the Lowell mansion a few hours later, she grabbed a bowl of cereal and sat down at the kitchen table.

"Good morning, honey," John Lowell said.

Cassandra looked up. Her father was wearing a charcoal turtleneck, his hair neatly groomed, his cheeks flushed. Her father was still a good-looking man, she thought, but he had not had a serious relationship with a woman since her mother's death almost ten years ago. A shame and yet Cassandra wondered how she would feel if another woman were to light up her father's eyes the way her mother had.

Spiteful, probably. That would be typical of her.

"Good morning," she replied.

"Have you heard from Sara?"

"No. Should I have?"

Her father shrugged.

"I called the hospital. They told me Michael checked out this morning.

I called their house, but all I got was the answering machine."

"Did you try Dr. Riker?" she asked.

Dr. Lowell nodded.

"He hasn't returned my call. I don't think he will."

"Why not?"

"Let's just say that Harvey Riker and I are not exactly buddies."

Cassandra lowered her eyes. She felt something peculiar, something, she guessed, akin to shame.

"Still," Dr. Lowell continued, "it's quite strange."

"What is?"

"Michael has hepatitis B, which means he'll have to be hospitalized for at least three weeks. Why would he check out?"

"Maybe they moved him to another hospital." "Maybe," Dr. Lowell said doubtfully.

Cassandra remembered how quickly Harvey had hustled out of the apartment after Eric's call yesterday morning. She had not picked up much of the conversation, but Harvey's tone had been grave, nervous.

She had also heard him mention Michael's name before hanging up and rushing out the door without so much as a goodbye.

Is something seriously wrong with Michael?

"I have to go," her father said.

"If your sister calls, tell her she can reach me on the car phone." He kissed Cassandra on the cheek and walked toward the door. He had not asked where she had been the past five nights or with whom. When it came to sexual matters, her father liked to pretend nothing was amiss easier on the of' morals than the truth.

Cassandra thought about Harvey. She wondered why she had ended up in bed with that Neanderthal marketing director (what the hell was his name?) when things had been going so well... too well?... with Harvey.

Well, c'est la vie. It could be that she and Harvey were never meant to last. Or it could be that she had too much to drink.

Or it could be... or it could be that you're a worthless whore, Cassandra.

She closed her eyes. When she heard her father drive away, Cassandra stood and crept down the corridor toward his study.

It was time to put last night behind her. There were other matters, more important matters, to consider.

She knew that what she was about to do was wrong. She knew that her father's study was off limits, that she had no right to pry into his private affairs. But Harvey's words and maybe the need to make up for last night propelled her forward: "It seems strange to me that the same day your father denied knowing

Sanders personally, you hear them arguing in his study. Why did he lie to us? What was he trying to hide?" Indeed, she thought. What was or is he trying to hide?

Could he really be connected with Reverend Sanders? Could her father really have something to do with the trouble at the clinic?

She reached the door to his study, turned the knob, and entered. Her father's office was her favorite room in the house.

So spacious, with high ceiling, dark oak everywhere, thousands of books like Henry Higgins' study in My Fair Lady. She crept behind the large antique desk and pulled the side drawer. It would not open. She tried it again. Locked. She sat back in the plush leather swivel chair. Now where did he hide that damn key? Her hand felt around the underside of the middle drawer. A few moments later she felt something cool, metallic.

Bingo.

Her fingers closed around the small key and ripped away the ipe. She unlocked the desk and began to rifle through its on tents In the bottom right-hand drawer, she found his file of personal letters. She skimmed through them until she found one that piqued her interest. It was from Dr. Leonard Bronkowitz, the chief trustee at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital:

Dear John, I know this is going to upset you immensely, but the board has decided to go ahead with Sidney Pavilion.

Despite your rather persuasive arguments, a slim majority of the board members seems to feel that AIDS is an illness which has been ignored for far too long.

While many members agreed with your point that the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction now that the world has recognized the severity of the illness, the board also believes that Dr. Riker and Dr. Grey could make some serious headway into developing a vaccine for the virus. Aside from the benefits for mankind, such a vaccine could bring the hospital additional prestige, and in turn, finances.

I realize that this will hinder your own programs at the Cancer Center, but I hope you will support us in this new and exciting endeavor.

Sincerely, Leonard Bronkowitz, M.D.

And there was a letter from Washington dealing with the same subject:

Dear Dr. Lowell, The medical disbursements for this fiscal year have been allocated and I regret to say that there will be no funds for the new wing at the Cancer Center. We realize and respect the importance of your work, but the fact remains that New York City and, more specifically, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center have already received more than a lion's share of funds, most of which have gone to the center's new AIDS clinic, operated by Dr. Harvey Riker and Dr. Bruce Grey.

Personally, I believe your work is crucial and am disappointed in this decision, but since you are a former surgeon general, I am sure you can appreciate how these things sometimes work. The AIDS virus seems to me to be the public's

"Disease of the Week" or

"Flavor of the Month." It's the new "in" cause for everyone to rally around. I am confident that the public's interest will wane and tire soon and then they will have the ability to view this disease more rationally.

Take heart and know that there are others who feel as we do. I would be honored if during your next visit to Washington you would call me so that we can discuss the world of medicine. I very much value your opinion on a broad range of subjects.

Yours, Raymond Markey, M.D.

Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services

Cassandra felt ill. There was really nothing shocking in the letters.

She knew her father had been against the clinic from its inception, that he had complained bitterly about the "waste" of funds. What she had not known was the direct effect the Sidney Pavilion had had on his own cancer research. It was an either/or situation either the AIDS clinic or the new wing at the Cancer Center. Cassandra knew how much the Center meant to her father, but how far would he go to get funding?

Surely, he would never... The sound of a car pulling up the driveway made her jump.

A loud diesel engine. Her father's Mercedes. He was back already.

Shit! I thought he was going to be out all day!

Cassandra put the two letters back into the folder, put the folder back into the bottom drawer, and closed the drawer. In the background she heard the purr of the electric garage door opener.

What did I do with that damn key?

Her eyes scanned the desktop for the key. Nothing. She looked on the floor. Still nothing. The Mercedes was pulling into the six-car garage now. She had to get out of the office before he saw her. Damn it, where was that key? When she saw it a second later in the desk's keyhole, she wanted to slap herself for not looking there earlier. She wrenched it out as she heard her father turn off the engine and slam the car door shut.

She ripped a piece of scotch tape out of the dispenser on the desk and taped the key back under the middle drawer. She moved quickly now, getting up from behind the desk, slipping quickly to the door, opening it, turning right, and heading down the hall.

If she had turned left instead, she would have seen her father standing at the end of the hallway, watching her with a stunned look on his face.

Donald Parker stood with stiff back, perfect posture, and a dark blue suit at the end of the hall. Forty years in the news business had taken him across all seven continents. Parker had covered the inauguration of every president from Harry Truman to George Bush. He had witnessed the first moon launch, the Tet Offensive, the Beijing massacre, the opening of the Berlin Wall, Operation Desert Storm. He had interviewed Gandhi, Malcolm X, Pol Pot, Khomemi, Amin, Gorbachev, Hussein. There was little he had not accomplished.

As Sara limped toward him, Donald Parker caught her eye and smiled gently. His eyes were bright blue, piercing and probing. The eyes of the perfect interviewer.

"Hello, Sara."

"Hello, Donald. Did you get my notes?"

He nodded.

"This is quite a story, Sara. The story of the year maybe. Why are you giving it up?" "I'm too close to it," she said.

"Personal involvement?"

She nodded.

"Does this have something to do with the statement your husband is making before the show?"

"I'd rather not say just yet." "Fair enough," he said.

"Any new developments?"

"Another patient, a Riccardo Martino, was murdered last night on the hospital grounds."

"What?"

"I have all the details here."

He took the piece of paper and read it.

"Good work, Sara."

"There's one other thing."

"Oh?"

"You can't mention Senator Jenkins' son on the air."

"I don't understand." She explained. He listened intently, nodding.

"Okay," he said when she finished, "I'll leave that part out."

"Thanks, Donald. I really appreciate it."

"And let me get something else straight. This Dr. Riker does not want to be on television?"

"Right. Dr. Riker wants to keep his anonymity. His assistant Dr. Eric Blake will handle the interviews."

"Okay then, I better get this thing wrapped up. Thanks for laying all the groundwork, Sara. You've left me with the easy parts."

"No problem," she said, walking away.

"And thanks for understanding about Bradley Jenkins."

Donald Parker watched her hobble away, leaning heavily on her cane.

Sara was a mesmerizing girl, an awesome beauty masking an awesome intellect. She was good at her job and Donald found his respect for her growing every day.

Unfortunately, he knew, her respect for him was about to be tested.

After tonight's show she would be more than disappointed with him. She would be furious. But Donald Parker had been in this business a long time, and he had developed a certain code of ethics over the years. He did not believe in ignoring important aspects of a story for the convenience of others no matter what the possible consequences.

And he was not going to leave Bradley Jenkins out of his report.

13.

Cassandra was about to say something she would later regret.

She had come to Harvey's office to tell him about the letters she found in her father's drawer. Instead, unplanned words poured out of her mouth.

"I have something to tell you," Cassandra began.

"Oh?"

She kept her head low, her eyes afraid to meet his.

"I spent last night with another man."

A brief flash of grief rushed through him, widening his eyes.

"The, uh, marketing director?"

She nodded.

"I see," Harvey said, his face calm now, showing nothing.

He circled back to his desk, sat down, and began to jot notes in a file.

"Is that all you're going to say?" she asked.

"What do you want me to say?"

"It doesn't bother you?"

"Do you want it to bother me?"

"Stop answering my questions with a question."

"I don't know what you want from me, Cassandra. You come in here and tell me you slept with another man. How do you want me to react?"

"I don't know."

"Why did you tell me?"

"What do you mean, why?"

"I would never have found out," he said.

"Why did you say anything?"

She opened her mouth, stopped, began to shrug, stopped, then said in a hesitant voice, "I wanted to be up front with you."

"Fine. You were up front. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of work to do."

"Wait a second-"

"I'm sorry, Cassandra. I really am. I thought we were happy together. I thought I don't know I thought we had something special."

"We do."

"Then we have different ideas about special. I can't afford to get my heart squashed again. It hurts too much. It affects my concentration, my work "

"It won't happen again. I swear. I never meant to hurt "

"It doesn't matter. I should have never let it come this far anyway.

It was a mistake from the beginning. I was a goddamn fool to think you could ever..." He shook his head.

"Goodbye, Cassandra." He lowered his eyes and began writing.

"Harv?"

He did not look up. His voice was more firm now.

"Goodbye, Cassandra."

She felt something odd, something hard and painful, form inside her own chest. She wanted to say something more, but his cold expression stopped her.

She turned and left.

"Michael's giving a press conference in five minutes."

Reece Porter stopped lacing his hi-top Nikes and looked up at his coach.

"What are you talking about?"

Coach Richie Crenshaw crossed the locker room, stepping over strewn sneakers, jockstraps, and long legs. The Knicks were in Seattle's Kingdome, preparing to play a preseason scrimmage against the Supersonics. thrust what I said. Michael is making a statement at the start of Newsflash."

"What kind of statement?" Reece asked.

"Hell if I know."

Jerome Holloway exchanged a confused glance with Reece.

"And it's being covered on national television?"

"That's right," Coach Crenshaw replied.

"I don't get it," Reece said.

"What the hell could Mikey have to say that a prime time news show would want to cover live?"

"Something about his hepatitis, I guess."

Reece shook his head.

Sports Channel or ESPN might be interested in covering something like that but not CBS."

"Besides," Jerome added, "the press already knows about his hepatitis."

Coach Crenshaw shrugged.

"Beats the hell out of me. Turn on the TV, Jerome, and we'll find out."

The rookie walked over to the set and flicked the switch.

Michael's teammates and coaches stopped what they were doing and turned their attention to the screen. Most of their faces displayed a sense of relaxed curiosity. But not Recce's. Something didn't make sense to him. An athlete, no matter how popular, does not make a live statement on a news show unless it is big news. Really big news. Something that transcended sports.

As Reece Porter watched Michael and Sara walk toward the podium, an awful feeling of dread flooded his chest.

George was in the middle of doing his third set of one hundred push-ups, his muscles bunching and swelling with each repetition, when he heard the advertising teaser:

"Stay tuned for a very special episode of Newsflash. What's the connection between a surprise statement from basketball great Michael Silverman, the Gay Slasher, and the story of the year about the AIDS epidemic? Watch Newsflash and see. Next on CBS."

George froze. Michael Silverman, husband of Sara Lbwell, son-in-law of John Lowell. Silverman had been at the charity ball on the night that George killed Bradley Jenkins. Now he was going to make a surprise statement on live television.

George wanted to hear what he had to say. He wanted to hear very much.

Of course an announcement by someone like Michael Silverman was hardly reason for concern, but what else had the TV blurb said? Something about a connection to the Gay Slasher.

Well, that should be interesting. And then there was the last thing that voice on the TV had said the story of the year on the AIDS epidemic. George shook his head. It was too much of a coincidence.

Michael Silverman, the Gay Slasher, the AIDS epidemic.

Someone had tied a few loose ends together.

The real question for George concerned Michael Silverman's announcement. The police already knew about the connection between the murder victims and the AIDS clinic, so it had only been a matter of time before it leaked to the press. But what did it have to do with Sara Lowell's husband? Was Michael Silverman connected with the murders? And if so, how?

Careful, George. Your job is to eliminate them, not figure out why.

True, but a man had to watch his back. George was being forced to take greater risks than normal. The Gay Slasher had become high-profile stuff. Now that the scrutiny was intensifying, logic dictated that he should learn more about the "why" of these killings in order to protect himself.

Damn it, why hadn't he checked this whole thing out beforehand?

Sloppy work, George. Very unprofessional.

George sprang up off the floor as the commercial ended. He' sat on the edge of the large bed and watched as Michael and

Sara walked toward the podium. Sara Lowell was very beautiful.

Incredible looking. Turning his gaze to Michael, George felt a sharp pang of envy.

That lucky son of a bitch slept with Sara Lowell every night.

George shook his head. Sometimes life was just not fair.

"I'm home," Max Bernstein called out.

"I'm in the bedroom," Lenny replied.

"Did you pick up some milk?"

"Yep. And a six-pack of Diet Coke."

Lenny walked into the den and kissed Max lightly on the lips.

"Tired?"

"Exhausted. How about you?"

Lenny nodded, taking the bundle from Max's arm.

"I spent seven hours in court for a case that was never called."

"What happened?"

"My client didn't show."

"Skipped his bail?"

"Seems so."

Bernstein shrugged.

"We cops catch them. You lawyers let them go."

"Yeah, but without us you'd be out of a job. By the way, I ordered a pizza. I figured you wouldn't want to go out."

"You figured right."

Lenny carried the bag to the kitchen.

"Are you going to be working this weekend?"

"Huh?"

"Stop biting your nails for two seconds and listen. Are you going to be working this weekend?"

"Probably, why?"

"It's my weekend with Melissa."

Melissa was Lenny's twelve-year-old daughter.

"I'll try to be around."

"I'd appreciate it. Oh, I rented that movie you wanted to see."

Max picked up the phone and dialed.

"Can't watch it tonight.

Newsflash is on in a few minutes."

"I almost forgot." Lenny came out of the kitchen.

"Max?"

"What?"

"Get your fingers out of your mouth before I shove them down your throat."

"Sorry."

"And who are you calling?"

"My apartment."

"Such a waste."

"Lenny, don't start."

"Why have you kept that empty apartment for six years? All you have in there is a telephone and an answering machine."

"You know why."

"Oh, that's right. You're afraid someone is going to find out you live with gasp-oh-gasp! a man. That you're an honest to-God, screaming faggot."

"Lenny.

"So you keep your swinging bachelor pad on 87th Street for show no, because you're paranoid. Wouldn't it be cheaper just to tell everyone that we're two single, homo studs who happen to live together?

Something like in Three Men And A Baby."

"What are you babbling about?"

"Three Men And A Baby. You remember the movie. Tom Selleck, Ted Danson, and Steve Guttenberg were all single and sharing an apartment and nobody worried about their sexual preferences. And what about Oscar and Felix on The Odd Couple?

Murray the cop never thought they were getting it on."

No messages on the machine. Max hung up the phone.

"You're a nag."

"And trim your mustache already. You look like Gene Shalit."

"Nag, nag. Did you feed Simon yet?"

"A few minutes ago. He ate eight goldfish the other day and he's downing another half dozen now. Want to watch?"

"I think I'll pass."

Lenny shrugged.

"He's your snake."

Max had bought Simon, a harmless garden snake, on a whim two years ago.

He thought it would be kind of cool to own a pet snake. Max, however, had overlooked one small problem he was scared to death of snakes. He loved Simon, liked to watch him slide about his cage and slither up to the screen on the top.

But he was afraid to touch him or go near him, for that matter.

And worse, the only thing Simon ate were live goldfish, which he caught in his laser-quick mouth and swallowed whole. You could actually see the outline of the struggling fish as it slid down Simon's thin body.

Gross.

Luckily, Lenny had taken a liking to Simon a rather sick liking, as a matter of fact. Lenny enjoyed inviting friends over to watch the feeding; they bet on which fish would be the last one eaten.

Very gross.

The doorbell rang. Lenny opened the door, paid the delivery boy, and brought the pizza into the den. Max watched him, remembering how his life had changed when he first saw Lenny's gentle eyes seven years ago.

1984, a year of transition.

The nights of anonymous sex, orgies in Soho, leather bars, and Caligula-like bathhouses were beginning to melt away under the blistering heat of the AIDS epidemic. Though he had lived in constant fear of being found out, Max had participated in it all.

How many lovers had he had? He had lost count. How many friends had he lost to the AIDS virus? That number too he had lost count. So many taken away, and now the dead were little more than a blurry blend of faces, vivacious young men whose lives had been suddenly, painfully, snuffed out. They were gone now and too often forgotten.

Why, Max wondered, did we all gorge ourselves on nameless, faceless sex? Was it merely for the physical thrill or was there something more? Were we trying to rebel? Or were we just releasing the pent-up anxieties of living too repressed for years in a straight society? What were we looking for in that mass of flesh? Or more important, what were we running away from?

Over the past seven years Bernstein had had more than twenty AIDS tests performed on himself all under assumed names and all negative. A stroke of luck and yet sometimes he felt guilty for not having contracted the virus, like an Auschwitz survivor wondering why he was still alive.

Lenny, on the other hand, had come from a conservative family. He married his high school sweetheart at the age of nineteen and they had a daughter a year later. He tried to suppress and deny his true sexual orientation, and for a while it worked. But by the fourth year of their marriage, he and his wife Emily knew that the heterosexual facade had finally cracked and broken away. The truth was revealed to their families, and Emily and Lenny parted as friends.

Max turned on the television. The two sat quietly on the couch, watching the television and holding hands.

Lenny leaned his head on Max's shoulder.

"I'm the best thing that ever happened to you, you know."

"Yeah, I guess you are."

A few minutes later they watched Michael and Sara walk toward the podium.

"Dad?" Cassandra called.

John Lowell did not respond. He continued to stare down at the old photograph.

"What are you looking at?" she asked softly.

He sighed deeply and placed the photograph down gently as though it were delicate porcelain.

"Nothing," he replied.

Cassandra crossed the room. As she suspected, her father had been staring at a picture of her mother. Tears flooded her eyes.

"I miss her too," she said.

"She loved you very much, Cassandra. She wanted you to be happy."

Cassandra nodded, reaching out her hand and touching the image of her mother.

"Sara just called."

"Where has she been?"

"She wouldn't say. She said we'd find out on Newsflash."

"On News Flash What does that mean?"

"I don't know."

John reached out, and for the first time in many years father and daughter embraced. Cassandra snuggled closer, feeling the wool sweater brush up against her. For a moment she forgot about the letters she had found in his desk. She forgot about Reverend Sanders' voice in her father's study, and she even forgot her own crazy suspicions. He was her father. She felt so right in his arms, like a small child again, so safe and warm and content and yet... "You're my whole world," he whispered.

"You and Sara."

They clung to each other with an odd sort of need. The need was surprisingly strong, like a ravenous hunger that grew as you ate.

Neither spoke, but they both knew that they were thinking the same thing. They could not say how they knew each other's thoughts, nor could they explain the awful feeling of doom that permeated the room.

This should have been a happy, tender moment, but something was lurking around the corner, something that wanted to rip and shred and destroy.

Cassandra broke away and they both looked at each other uncomfortably, as though they shared an embarrassing secret.

"The show's coming on."

"Right," he said.

They left the room then, no longer holding hands nor even touching.

Still, the warmth of his embrace stayed with Cassandra like a shawl wrapped around her shoulders. She watched her father turn on the television and felt a wave of love overwhelm her. He was such a gentle man, she told herself, a man who had dedicated his entire life to healing others. He would never hurt anyone. Never. She was sure of it. Positive. Her suspicions were nonsense. After all, a couple of letters and a meeting with Reverend Sanders hardly meant he was guilty of some sort of wrongdoing. As a matter of fact it meant nothing at all. She was glad that she had not told Harvey about the letters, that she had not betrayed her own father's trust.

Cassandra sat back now, relieved, confident, and trying like hell to ignore the irritating voice of doubt that still echoed in her head.

Flashbulbs worked like a strobe light, giving the illusion that Sara and Michael were moving in slow motion. They reached the podium together. Michael stepped forward while Sara stood behind him and to the side. Michael's head was lowered, his eyes closed. A few moments later he lifted his head high and faced the crowded room of reporters.

Sara watched him. He looked handsome in his grey suit with a solid blue tie, but the clothes were just not him. There were no wild splashes of color, no yellow and green paisley, no purple floral pattern, no funky polka dots so drab and... and lifeless for him. His face, somber, ashen, tired, matched the look.

He took a piece of paper out of his shirt pocket. His fingers unfolded it and his palm smoothed it out against the podium.

He glanced down at the statement, but he did not read the words.

His hand pushed the paper to the side and slowly his face tilted upwards. Then he just stood there for a few moments and said nothing.

Through the glare of flashbulbs, Sara could sense the unease in the audience. Murmurs began to stir and strengthen through the press corps. She moved closer to Michael, took his hand in hers and squeezed. The coldness of his hand startled her. Then he did something very strange. He turned toward her and smiled not a fake or tired smile, but a genuine, beautiful Michael smile. It comforted her and frightened her at the same time. The smile slipped away from his lips slowly as he turned back to the microphone.

"Yesterday," Michael began, "I learned that I have contracted the AIDS virus."

Immediate silence. The murmurs ceased as though they had been on a tape recorder that had been switched off.

"I am entering a private clinic which you will hear more about during this program. That's all I have to say. Thank you."

He stepped back, smiled anew at Sara, and took her hand.

"Let's get out of here."

The press attacked with both barrels.

"How long have you been gay, Michael?"

"Sara, how long have you known your husband was homosexual?"

"Is the marriage a farce?"

"Have you had sex with any of your teammates?"

With each question Michael involuntarily winced. Finally, he stepped back toward the podium to set the record straight. When he reached the microphone and the room fell silent, Michael turned away without saying a word. He bent down and kissed Sara's cheek.

"Like I said before, let's get out of here."

Harvey watched the report alone.

Being alone was fine with him. That was how it should be.

Cassandra had been a mistake from the start. Talk about your basic self-delusion he must have been taking major mind expanding drugs to think someone like her could be interested in someone like him.

Besides, he had the clinic. He could not afford distractions that would hinder his concentration and affect his work negatively.

He shook his head. Enough of this. There were much more important things to worry about than his creature comforts.

Harvey pushed Cassandra clear out of his mind and focused on the Newsflash report.

Donald Parker was doing an excellent job, presenting the facts without too much innuendo. To help the clinic keep its anonymity, the report did not give the name or address of the Pavilion. Thank God for that.

Harvey could just imagine the riots if the clinic's name and address were used in the report. Talk about bedlam.

Better still, only Eric's name was used in the report. The name of the "chief researcher" was left out. Perfect. Couldn't be better.

Parker had even given an 800 telephone number and an address for those who wanted to make donations to the clinic and suggested writing or telegram ming Congress to approve additional grants for the "unnamed"

AIDS clinic.

Donald Parker's blue eyes swerved forward, making contact with millions of viewers. Harvey could see why Parker was considered the best in the business. His intensity made you forget that you were watching television. He became a house guest, just a member of the family seated in the den instead of a studio.

"Even more glaring," Donald Parker's deep voice continued, "is the clinic's connection with the so-called Gay Slasher who has been terrorizing New York City's gay community for the past two months. In reality, the Gay Slasher might better be called the AIDS Slasher.

Here's our report."

His voice was now on tape.

"Young men found stabbed and mutilated they had everything to live for." Several snapshots of bloodied sheets draped over bodies, an arm or leg jutting into view, flashed across the screen.

"The world at large believed that a psychopath was hunting down members of the gay community. But new evidence has come to light which blows that theory right out of the water and draws a more devastating conclusion."

A proper pause.

"The so- called Gay Slasher is murdering AIDS sufferers. In fact, the murder victims all had one thing in common they were patients at the clinic we have been discussing tonight." After another proper pause, Parker continued.

"The first victim was Scott Trian." A smiling photograph of Trian came on.

"Trian, a twenty-nine-year-old stockbroker, was murdered in his apartment in the most grisly fashion imaginable. He was tortured and mutilated with a knife before he finally bled to death."

Bill Whitherson's image replaced Trian's.

"William Whitherson, a vice president at First City Bank, was the Gay Slasher's next prey. Over twenty stab wounds were scattered across Mr. Whitherson's face, neck, chest and groin. He was found in his apartment by his roommate, Stuart Lebrinski, who had left the victim only an hour before. The blood was still flowing from Mr. Whitherson's wounds when Mr. Lebrinski came back from the supermarket." The picture of Bill Whitherson faded away... and a photograph of Bradley Jenkins appeared in its place.

Harvey felt his heart constrict in his chest.

"Oh God, no.

Don't... "The murder of Bradley Jenkins, son of Senator Stephen Jenkins and a secret patient at the AIDS clinic, put the Gay Slasher on the map.

Bradley was found behind a gay bar in Greenwich Village " Harvey no longer heard his words.

"No," he whispered in horror.

"Do you know what you've just done?"

Reverend Ernest Sanders watched the report. It was bad, very bad, but Sanders did not get angry. Anger was a wasted emotion, one that clouded the mind, shoved away rational thought What he needed to do was think clearly.

Dixie was upstairs in the bedroom, passed out on the bed from too much wine. Again. Third straight night. But he loved her. She was an extraordinarily beautiful woman even his enemies confessed to that a far cry from the Tammy Faye stereotype of an evangelist's wife. She meant the world to him and so he lavished her with expensive gifts and the best of everything. Still, she despised him. He could see it in the way she looked at him every time he came through the door. His son, Ernie Junior, had grown into a handsome young man who worked in the ministry. He had learned the gospel well, was a passionate speaker, made a whole heap of money, and hated his father too. The repulsion in his son's face, Sanders thought, would make a blind man blush.

Luckily, Dixie, Ernie, and the two girls, Sissy and Mary Ann, all loved his money. Money was power, no question about it.

Sanders remembered how his father used to recite the Golden Rule he who has the gold makes the rules. And Sanders had the gold. The power.

The control.

And he had his job. His ministry. Funny how you are what people perceive. Some considered him a savior, a prophet, a man of God.

Others considered him an extremist, a cheap con man, a bigoted hypocrite.

What was the truth? Well, he had never had a vision from God like he said on his show. Jesus had never visited him in his bedroom at night.

He had never heard a mysterious voice or seen a real miracle. But so what? People wanted to believe.

People needed something, and he gave it to them. We need food, we need air, we need recreation and entertainment, and we also need to believe in something. The leftist liberals believed in their gods secularism, academia, the media. Didn't old-fashioned Americans have the same right? They need a strong leader, someone they could follow without question or doubt. Politicians used deception and slick packaging to create an image a person could trust. What was so wrong with a preacher doing the same?

To the critics who accused him of taking advantage of his followers, Ernest Sanders scoffed. Just take a look at his parishioners one Sunday morning, the exhilarated, rapt expression on their faces. How could you put a price tag on something like that? Take a look at how their eyes glowed as he spoke to them, their attention and trust never wavering. Yes, take a good look at these hard-working Americans who asked for no more than a few minutes of religious rapture, who wanted to believe there was something more than the boring grind they went through every day, who wanted to rely on the faith of God rather than just people.

Ernest Sanders gave them all that and more. And yes, he made a lot of money from it. Why shouldn't he? He made the world a better place and brought joy to thousands, maybe millions, of people. Maybe God hadn't shown him a burning bush or given him the power to walk on water. But he had given him the power to move people with his words and perhaps that was, after all, the way God intended it to be. No flashy miracles in this technological, bureaucratic era just the simple power to communicate His message.

Perhaps, Sanders thought, he was engaged in a holy battle and God had chosen him to lead the side of the righteous, to rally his troops, to lead them into the Promised Land... and to rid the world of the godless scum, to fight the evildoers who would try to stop him. Even to the death.

The Newsfksh credits rolled by. With a sigh, Sanders reached for the phone and dialed Raymond Markey's home.

"Hello?"

"Were you watching?" Reverend Sanders asked.

"Yes."

"Very distressing," Sanders continued.

"There is going to be a tremendous outcry."

"But Riker played into our hands when they mentioned Bradley Jenkins," Markey said.

"Now we have proof that his reports were falsified. His findings can be labeled invalid."

"Maybe," Sanders allowed, "but don't count on it. We can use it, but it might not be enough. We might have to consider other plans."

Markey cleared his throat.

"If you think it's necessary."

"It is. Now that Riker has brought Silverman into this, I don't see how we have any choice. I'll contact Silverman's stepfather."

"What do you want me to do?"

"Get on a plane to New York. I want you to confront Harvey Riker man-to-man." "Fine." Markey paused.

"There's one other thing."

"Yes?"

"The Gay Slasher killings it's all very strange."

"I know what you mean." Markey paused again before asking, "Who do you think is behind it?"

Ernest Sanders weighed his words carefully.

"To be honest, Ray," he said at last, "I really don't know."

14.

Early the next morning, Sara hobbled down the CBS corridor and pushed open the door to Donald Parker's office without knocking.

"You bastard."

Donald looked up from his desk. If he had been surprised by her outburst, his face did not show it.

"I've been expecting you."

"You lied to me."

"Sara- " "You said you would leave Bradley Jenkinsout of your report."

"Sara, I'm sorry but I just couldn't do it."

"Why not?" "Because I'm a reporter," Parker said.

"I was assigned to cover the story, the full story "

"Spare me the speech."

"Hold on a minute, Sara. You were biased on this one. Your judgment was clouded."

"What are you talking about?"

Parker adjusted his tie.

"It's simple. You don't leave out a vital aspect of a story to protect a friend."

"But I explained " "You explained what? That your friend, this Harvey Riker, lied to government officials? That he falsified reports?"

"He didn't falsify anything. He allowed Bradley Jenkins the right to confidentiality."

"Oh come, Sara, you didn't really expect me to give up the Gay Slasher story, did you? If I left Jenkins out of the report, what was the connection between the Gay Slasher's victims? The whole idea was that they all came from Hiker's clinic. I couldn't just skip over Bradley Jenkins, now could I?"

Sara leaned against her cane.

"You don't realize the consequences."

"Worrying about the consequences is not our job. You know that. We report the news and let the pieces fall where they may.

We cannot choose to suppress important facts in order to achieve our personal goals. Reverse our roles for a minute. If you were doing a story and I came to you and asked you to leave out a vital part of the story in order to protect a friend of mine a friend who tampered with government documents would you?"

"I didn't ask you to protect a friend. I asked you to protect the clinic. Don't you see? Your report could close them down."

He shook his head.

"No way. After the show last night, the public would never allow it.

The researchers at the clinic are overnight heroes. All of America is talking about them." "You still should have told me."

"Maybe I should have," he allowed, "but I didn't think there was time."

He crossed the room and stood in front of her.

"I'm sorry about your husband. He must be a very brave man to go public with something like this."

She nodded and turned to go.

"Thank you, Donald," she said curtly.

"I apologize for barging in."

Dr. Harvey Riker tried to read the report at his desk, but it was pointless. After watching the Newsflash report last night, i Si sleep had kept a safe distance away from him. Now that the evening had given way to sunrise, his mind still churned with the same questions and doubts. Had he made a grave mistake in allowing the report to be aired? It had seemed like the perfect idea, the perfect way to keep the clinic going strong, but he had forgotten to add in the Bradley Jenkins factor, a factor which could very well destroy the clinic.

What was going to happen now?

The intercom on his desk buzzed.

"Yes?"

"Dr. Raymond Markey is here to see you."

Harvey felt something twist in his abdomen.

"He's here? In the clinic?"

"Yes, Doctor."

Oh God, oh God..."Show him in."

Harvey sat back and began to gulp down large quantities of air. He waited, staring at the second hand of the clock above his door. It moved like it was being weighed down no sweep, just a grudging crawl.

Markey already knew. The son of a bitch knew about Jenkins before the show. But how?

"Dr. Riker?"

Harvey put on a smile that was way too broad.

"Dr. Markey, come in. What brings you here?"

"You don't know?" Harvey continued to smile, unfazed.

"Should I?"

"We need to talk."

Harvey was a touch confused by Markey's tone. He had expected the man to be cool, calm, sure; instead, there was an undeniable strain in his voice. The Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services was dressed in a blue pin-striped suit, black shoes that desperately needed a shine, and a solid red tie.

"Have a seat."

"Thank you." Markey fell heavily into the chair as though overcome by exhaustion.

"Some coffee?"

"No." He leaned back and crossed his legs.

"Dr. Riker, let me get to the point. I saw the television report on your clinic last night. I found it very informative... and disturbing."

"Disturbing?" Harvey repeated with the same stupid smile glued to his face. He wondered how much longer he would get away with the dumb act.

Not very, he surmised.

"I reread your findings and confidential reports last night," Markey continued.

"While they are not exactly contradictory to what the show said, they were, shall we say, vague."

"It was not intentional," Harvey tried, his brain scanning fiercely for escape avenues.

"You see, Dr. Markey, I did not want to make any wild claims before I had full documentation to back them up." "But the show said "

"Exactly. The show said I didn't. You know how the press operates. They exaggerate everything out of all proportion."

"Then the TV coverage was not your idea?"

"Absolutely not. The media came to me. They told me they heard about the clinic through a leak." An idea finally broke into view. Harvey seized it.

"They implied, Dr. Markey, that the leak came from Washington. Your offices, in fact."

That's it, Harp, lie like a cheap toupee. Put him on the defensive.

Markey tilted his head toward the ceiling, considering Harvey's accusation. Then he said, "Maybe the leak came from Michael Silverman or Sara Lowell? I understand that they are both good friends of yours."

Harvey shook his head.

"They knew nothing about the clinic until the day before yesterday when we diagnosed Michael as being HIV positive. That reporter from Newsflash Donald Parker knew about it over a week ago."

Markey looked at him doubtfully. He leaned forward.

"Forget that matter for a moment," he said.

"I think it's time we stopped dancing around and got to the heart of the matter."

"You're mixing your metaphors, Harvey wanted to scream. Panic and desperation coursed through him like tiny shards of glass.

"You lied to us, Dr. Riker. Your reports were falsified."

"Falsified?"

"You know what I'm talking about. You experimented on Bradley Jenkins.

There was no mention of him in any of your reports."

Harvey cleared his throat.

"A patient has a right to confidentiality, Doctor."

"Not in this case he doesn't. There were no studies on him, no lab test results, nothing."

"But- "

"You haven't changed, Riker. You still don't understand that there are rules that must be followed."

"I know all about rules."

"No, I don't think you do. You've always been the same, always looking for the easy way."

"Not the easy way," Harvey corrected, fighting to hold back his growing fear and rage.

"I look for the way with the least amount of bureaucratic bullshit to wade through. I look for the way that will save the most lives quickest." He stopped, not wanting to continue but knowing he was powerless to stop.

"You'd understand that if you were more of a doctor than a pencil pusher

Markey's eyes widened behind his thick spectacles. His whole face became two angry eyes.

"Who do you think you're talking to?"

"Dr. Markey, if you'd just listen "

"Do you understand the seriousness of your actions?" Markey interrupted.

"You could have your grant revoked. The clinic could be shut down and all your findings labeled invalid."

Harvey stared at him, frozen, afraid for a moment to speak or even move. Finally, his lips parted.

"Senator Jenkins forced me to keep Bradley's name out of the reports," Harvey said, grasping at anything to stay afloat.

"If you try to close us down, there will be a scandal like you've never seen before."

"The senator's good name has already been dragged through the mud," Markey replied.

"A little more isn't going to hurt."

"So what are you saying?"

"Simply this. I have a proposal for you."

Harvey looked at him, confused.

"Proposal?"

"What I am about to offer you is not negotiable. You either take it or we close the clinic. It's your choice."

"I'm listening."

"You have falsified reports which we both know is a very serious issue.

All your findings are tainted. We could disregard them all together... or we could allow you to build upon them."

"I don't understand."

"Michael Silverman is your most recently admitted patient.

Correct?"

"So?"

"Not much work has been done on him yet?"

"Very little. He's been on SRI for less than 24 hours."

"Good. We are going to watch his progress. I am bringing in my own men to monitor everything that happens with Silverman. They will chart every detail of his treatment. When and if he becomes HIV negative, we'll be able to reexamine your other findings and begin testing "

"It could take years!" "You should have thought of that before you tampered with NIH reports," Markey snapped.

Oh God, oh God, what do I do now? I'm trapped..."I didn't tamper with evidence," Harvey half-shouted.

"I tampered with a goddamn patient list, that's all. One goddamn name."

"The point remains. If you could falsify reports on one thing, you could do it for others."

"But we've already cured six patients."

"Only three of whom are still alive. And how do we know' that your findings on them are not distorted?"

"Test them, for chrissake!" Harvey shouted.

"I'm not going to let you get away with this. I'll do whatever it takes ".

"Simmer down."

"I'll go to the press."

Harvey was sure he saw fear in the man's face, but Markey just smiled at him.

"An unwise move, Dr. Riker. First off, I'll immediately cut off your grant. Then I'll reveal to the world that you falsified reports, that you would not allow us access to your patients, that you have never cured anybody, and anything else I can make up. Our PR men will make you look like some charlatan selling snake oil. You won't be able to get a job cleaning bedpans by the time they're finished with you."

Harvey's mind battled back his mounting panic.

"The facts will prove you're lying," he said.

"Eventually, perhaps if you haven't falsified them. But by the time they do, I'll already have stalled you into the next century."

Harvey stared at him in horror. He knew Markey was semi bluffing that he did not want to be forced into a confrontation, but what he was saying was also true. He could destroy everything. Even if Harvey cleared his name and proved that Markey was lying, it would take months. Years maybe. And in the meantime the money would stop. A cure would be delayed indefinitely.

Raymond Markey stood and moved toward the door.

"My people will be here tomorrow afternoon. Please inform your staff."

Michael came to consciousness slowly. He heard the TV. A man talking.

Sounded like the news. His eyes blinked open.

"Good morning, handsome," Sara said.

He felt groggy. His vision was blurred. He rolled over and kissed Sara, who was lying next to him. There was a book in her hand.

"Good morning, nurse. You better get out of here before my wife gets here."

"Funny."

"What time is it?"

"Almost noon. How do you feel?"

He tried to sit up.

"Like a small animal died in my stomach."

"Yuck. Guess what I have here."

"What?"

She held the book closer to his face. Michael squinted and read the title out loud. "1000 Names For Your Baby? I already thought of a name."

"Oh?"

"Moahmar."

"And if it's a girl?"

"That is for a girl. So what's happening?"

"Let's see. What do you remember last?"

He thought.

"Eric taking my blood, the little vampire."

"Well, nothing much has happened since then."

Their conversation was interrupted by the television.

"CNN Headline News. Today's major story surrounds the still unnamed AIDS clinic that is treating basketball star Michael Silverman.

Thousands of gay activists marched upon Washington today, demanding that the PDA approve nationwide testing of the little-known drug called SRI. Donations to the financially troubled institution have been pouring in from all over since the Neivsflash story aired last evening.

According to reports, the anonymous AIDS clinic has made amazing strides in its fight to cure the AIDS virus with injections of a new drug called SRI.

With us now is Dr. Eli Samuels from the Mallacy AIDS Center in San Francisco."

The doctor appeared on the screen, his left hand holding an earplug in place. On the bottom of the screen the words

"San Francisco, California" appeared in white.

"Dr. Samuels, what is the reaction of the medical community to last night's Newsflash story?"

"Cautiously intrigued," the doctor replied.

"Could you elaborate for us?"

"Certainly. While the press may want to have a field day by celebrating the discovery of this supposed cure, the medical community has to question the authenticity of the report. This unnamed clinic has released no results yet, no firm findings, has not written a paper for The New England Journal of Medicine or a similar periodical. It's all highly unusual."

"Are you suggesting fraud?"

"I'm not suggesting anything, but I do believe that the media and the medical community would be acting irresponsibly if we accepted these claims as fact without further evidence."

"Thank you, Doctor."

The anchorman spun his chair in order to face forward.

"In a related story, New York Knick basketball superstar Michael Silverman shocked the sports world last night with his announcement that he had contracted the AIDS virus. According to clinic doctors and last night's report on Newsflash, Michael Silverman contracted the virus during a blood transfusion in the Bahamas several years ago after a serious boating accident. There are those, however, who doubt the story and believe that the clinic is trying to cover up Mr. Silverman's true sexual orientation."

Another face came on the screen. Michael's body stiffened.

"It can't be," he uttered.

"Michael, what is it? What's the matter?"

Michael continued to stare at the image on the screen. The face had changed very little in the past twenty years. A little grey around the temples. A little more sag on the jawline and neck.

The overall appearance, however, was radically different. A tailored sports coat. Nice tie. Nice neat haircut. Just your typical, friendly Joe.

The anchorman continued.

"With us now from Lincoln, Nebraska, is Mr. Martin Johnson, the stepfather who raised Michael Silverman. Mr. Johnson, thank you for joining us."

"My pleasure, Chuck."

"Mr. Johnson, what do you think about the reports that your stepson contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion?"

Martin Johnson shrugged.

"Might be. I would never want to speak ill of the boy, but..."

"But?"

"Well, it seems to me that there is a far greater likelihood that he got it from one of his boyfriends."

The anchorman was nearly salivating.

"Then Mr. Silverman is gay?"

"Well, I wouldn't want to say that. I'd say he's more like one of those bisexuals. He's had plenty of sex with both men and women.

Started at a young age. But he prefers men, I'm almost sure."

Michael flew up from the bed.

"Turn it off!"

Sara grabbed the remote control and snapped the off button.

The picture turned into a bright dot before fading away.

"You okay?"

He nodded.

"Lying son of a bitch. I haven't seen him since I was ten years old."

Sara flicked the switch on Michael's portable tape deck. Bach gently blew into the room, but it did little to assuage him.

"It's strange," she said.

"Why do you think he'd lie like that?"

"Because he's a psychopath, that's why."

Sara shook her head.

"There has to be more to it."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm not sure exactly. I just have a feeling he wasn't acting on his own." "Could be," Michael said.

"So what do we do now?"

"Well have to work some damage control, come up with a counteroffensive, prove the slimeball was lying." "No matter what we do," Michael said, "some people are going to believe him."

"Yes, some people are going to believe him."

Michael shook his head.

"After all these years, after all this time, seeing his face again..."

On the other side of the country Jennifer Riker began to shake.

She could not believe what she was seeing on the television screen.

Like something out of a cheap horror movie, Marty Johnson had risen again. She had hoped to shut away the memory of his evil smirk forever, but now it was back, dragging painful images that would not go away into plain sight the bruises on little Michael's body, the black eyes, the concussions, the hospital stays, the absolute terror on the boy's face.

The sick bastard was back.

Jennifer let her anger fester, mount, become obsessive. She concentrated on it, encouraged it, and hoped that it would block out the more painful fact.

Michael has AIDS.

She shook her head. That poor kid. How many times had she said that about Michael? Thousands. Despite being born with looks, intelligence, and enough talent for ten people, bad luck had still tagged along after Michael like a faithful dog.

Jennifer glanced down at the coffee table. For the millionth time she read the name Susan on the envelope and wondered what to do. Last night she had considered trying to reach Susan but had decided it was foolish. Bruce was dead. Whatever he had written in the note would not change that fact. What was the rush? When Susan came back the note would still be here.

But now Jennifer was not so sure about her decision.

Something bothersome gnawed at the back of her brain. Brace's suicide, the mysterious package mailed to an unused California post office box, the murders, the SRI cure, the cryptic writing on the envelope:

TO BE OPENED UPON MY DEATH

And now Michael.

Her sadness at all this bad news had now transformed itself into something more, something deeper. Though she could not say specifically why, she felt frightened. No, more than that.

Petrified. She chastised herself for being paranoid, for seeing conspiracy in everything. But she could not shake the feeling.

Something was very wrong here, and it had something to do with Brace's medical files and that note to Susan.

Jennifer sat back, her head reeling in a rising spiral of uncertainty.

Harvey picked up his private line.

"Hello?"

"Please forgive me, you great big hunk. I want to be your love slave."

He closed his eyes and rubbed them.

"Cassandra, this really isn't the time."

Nervous pause.

"I'm... I'm sorry. I'll call back later."

"Please don't."

"I said I'm sorry. I can't take back "

"It's not that," he interrupted.

"I just don't have the time to get involved with someone right now."

"I blew it, huh?"

"No. It should have never happened in the first place." "But it felt so right. You said so yourself."

"Cassandra..."

"I was scared, Harv. And when I'm scared, I get stupid. I do dumb things. I... I have a tendency to destroy whatever I care about before it dies on me, you know?" "I understand," he said. He stopped, took a deep breath, and then continued.

"Why don't we just take it slow, okay? Go one step at a time."

"You mean it?" He half-smiled.

"Yeah."

"Why the change of heart?"

"I remembered something Sara once said about you."

"My sister?" "She said you had a heart as big as all outdoors despite what you think of yourself."

Pause.

"Sara said that?" she asked incredulously.

"About me?"

"Yes. I think she wishes you two were closer."

"I think I'm falling in love with you, Harvey."

He let a small chuckle pass his lips.

"Like we just agreed, let's take it slow."

"I'd like that."

"Good- bye, Cassandra."

"Good- bye, Harvey."

George picked up the telephone.

"Good afternoon," he said.

"Good afternoon."

! i

"I've been waiting for your call," George said.

"I know. I'm sorry."

"And I've been waiting for the rest of the money you owe me."

Pause.

"I know that, George. I'll have it for you soon. I promise."

"Plus ten grand."

"For what?"

"Late fee. An extra ten grand a week."

His employer let loose a long sigh.

"Okay. An extra ten thousand dollars." "Tine then," George said.

"Do you have another job for me?"

"Yes. But this one is going to be very different and more than a little tricky."

"Go on."

"Did you see Newsflash last night by any chance?" the voice asked.

"Of course."

"Then you'll appreciate how difficult this job is going to be."

"That's my problem," George said.

"You just worry about paying me."

"Understood."

"When do you want the job done?" George asked.

"Tonight."

"That doesn't give me much time."

"This situation has changed now," his employer said.

"It has to be tonight."

"Okay, but it'll cost you."

"101 pay it. I swear." George sighed.

"So who is tonight's lucky faggot?"

From the other end of the phone, George heard a throat being cleared.

"Michael Silverman."

15.

Ll Dr. John Lowell looked across his desk at the plump man. He tried to mask the naked hatred from his face, but he knew that it was pointless. Reverend Sanders could see his expression of loathing; it did not seem to bother him.

"Thank you for seeing me," Sanders began.

"I appreciate you finding the time in your busy schedule."

"We only have an hour," Lowell replied impatiently.

"What do you want?"

Sanders stood and strolled about the spacious study.

"This is really a beautiful room, John," he began, his smile locked on autopilot.

"Every time I'm in here, I feel so... so at home. It's a wonderful study."

"Never mind that. My daughter will be home in a little while."

"So?"