© 1984, 2004 by F. Paul Wilson
Kindle edition: 2011
Repairman Jack awoke with light in his eyes, white noise in his ears, and an ache in his back.
He’d fallen asleep on the couch in the spare bedroom where he kept his DVD player and projection TV. He turned his head toward the set. A nervous tweed pattern buzzed around on the six-foot screen while the air conditioner in the right half of the double window beside it worked full blast to keep the room at seventy.
He got to his feet with a groan and shut off the TV. The hiss of white noise stopped. He leaned over and touched his toes, then straightened and rotated his lower spine. His back was killing him. That couch was made for sitting, not sleeping.
He stepped to the player and ejected the disk. He’d fallen asleep during the closing credits of the 1931 Frankenstein, part one of Repairman Jack's unofficial James Whale Festival.
Poor Henry Frankenstein, he thought, slipping the disk into its box. Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what everyone around him thought, Henry had been sure he was sane.
Jack located the proper slot in the rack on the wall, shoved Frankenstein in, and pulled out its neighbor: Bride of Frankenstein, part two of his private James Whale Festival.
A glance out the window revealed the usual vista of sandy shore, calm blue ocean, and supine sunbathers. He was tired of the view. Especially since some of the bricks had started showing through. Three years since he'd had the scene painted on the blank wall facing the windows of this and the other bedroom. Long enough. The beach scene no longer interested him. Perhaps a rain forest mural would be better. With lots of birds and reptiles and animals hiding in the foliage. Yes... a rain forest. He filed the thought away. He'd have to keep an eye out for someone who could do the job justice.
The phone began ringing in the front room. Who that could be? He'd changed his number a couple of months ago. Only a few people had it. He didn't bother to lift the receiver. The answering machine would take care of that. He heard a click, heard his own voice start his standard salutation:
"Pinocchio Productions...I'm not in right now, but if you'll—"
A woman's voice broke in over his own, her tone impatient. "Pick up if you're there, Jack. Otherwise I'll call back later."
Jack nearly tripped over his own feet in his rush to the phone.
"Gia? That you?"
"Yes, it's me." Her voice sounded flat, almost resentful.
"God! It's been a long time!" Two months. Forever. He had to sit down. "I'm so glad you called."
"It's not what you think, Jack."
"What do you mean?"
"I'm not calling for myself. If it were up to me I wouldn't be calling at all. But Nellie asked me to."
His jubilation faded, but he kept talking. "Who's Nellie?" He drew a blank on the name.
"Nellie Paton. You must remember Nellie and Grace, the two English ladies?"
"Oh, yeah. How could I forget? They introduced us."
"I've managed to forgive them."
Jack let that go by without comment. "What's the problem?"
"Grace has disappeared. She hasn't been seen since she went to bed Monday night."
He remembered Grace Westphalen: a very prim and proper Englishwoman pushing seventy. Not the eloping sort.
"Have the police—?"
"Of course. But Nellie wanted me to call you to see if you'd help. So I'm calling."
"Does she want me to come over?"
"Yes. If you will."
"Will you be there?"
She gave an exasperated sigh. "Yes. Are you coming or not?"
"I'm on my way."
"Better wait. The patrolmen who were here said a detective from the department would be coming by this morning. "
"Oh." That wasn't good.
"I thought that might slow you up."
She didn't have to sound so smug about it.
"I'll be there after lunch."
"You know the address?"
"I know it's a yellow townhouse on Sutton Square. There's only one."
"I'll tell her to expect you."
And then she hung up.
Jack tossed the receiver in his hand and cradled it on the base.
He was going to see Gia today. She’d called him. She hadn't been friendly, and she’d said she was calling for someone else—but she’d called. That was more than she’d done since she’d walked out. He couldn't help feeling good.
He strolled through the third-floor apartment's front room that served as living room and dining room. He found the room immensely comfortable, but few visitors shared his enthusiasm. His best friend, Abe Grossman, had, in one of his more generous moods, described the room as "claustrophobic." When Abe was feeling grumpy he said it made the Addams Family house look like it had been decorated by Bauhaus.
Old movie posters covered the walls along with bric-a-brac shelves loaded with the neat stuff Jack picked up in forgotten junk stores during his wanderings through the city. He wound his way through a collection of old Victorian golden oak furniture that left little room for anything else: a seven-foot hutch, intricately carved, a fold-out secretary, a sagging, high-backed sofa, a massive claw-foot dining table, two end tables whose legs each ended in a bird's foot clasping a crystal sphere, and his favorite, a big, wing-back chair.
He reached the bathroom and started the hated morning ritual of shaving. As he ran the razor over his cheeks and throat he again considered the idea of a beard. He didn't have a bad face. Brown eyes, dark brown hair growing perhaps a little too low on his forehead. A nose neither too big nor too small. He smiled at himself in the mirror. Not an altogether hideous grimace—what they used to call a shit-eating grin. The teeth could have been whiter and straighter, and the lips were on the thin side, but not a bad smile. An inoffensive face. As an added bonus, a wiry, well muscled, five-eleven frame went along with the face at no extra charge.
So what's not to like?
His smile faltered.
Ask Gia. She seems to think she knows what's not to like.
But all that was going to change starting today.
After a quick shower, he dressed and downed a couple of bowls of Cocoa Puffs, then strapped on his ankle holster and slipped the world's smallest .45, a Semmerling skeleton model LM-4, into it. He knew the holster was going to be hot against his leg, but he never went out unarmed. His peace of mind would compensate for any physical discomfort.
He checked the peephole in the front door, then twisted the central knob, retracting the four bolts at the top, bottom, and both sides. The heat in the third floor hall slammed against him at the threshold. He was wearing Levi's and a lightweight short-sleeve shirt. He was glad he’d skipped the undershirt. The humidity in the hall wormed its way into his clothes and oozed over his skin as he headed down to the street.
Jack stood on the front steps for a moment. Sunlight glared sullenly through the haze over the roof of the Museum of Natural History far down the street to his right. The wet air hung motionless above the pavement. He could see it, smell it, taste it—and it looked, smelled, and tasted dirty. Dust, soot, and lint laced with carbon monoxide, with perhaps a hint of rancid butter from the garbage can around the corner in the alley.
Ah! The Upper West Side in August.
He ambled down to the sidewalk and walked west along the row of brownstones that lined his street. Along the way he pulled out his Tracfone and dialed his office number, then a four-digit code. A recorded voice—not Jack's—came over the wire with the familiar message:
"This is Repairman Jack. I'm out on a call now, but when you hear the tone, leave your name and number and give me a brief idea of the nature of your problem. I'll get back to you as soon as possible."
After the tone a woman's voice started talking about a problem with the timer on her dryer. Another beep and a man was looking for some free information on how to fix a blender. Jack ignored the numbers they gave; he had no intention of calling them back. But how did they get his number? He’d restricted his name to the white pages—with an incorrect street address, naturally—to cut down on appliance repair calls, but people managed to find him anyway.
The third and last voice was unique: smooth in tone, the words clipped, rapid, tinged with Britain, but definitely not British. Jack knew a couple of Pakistanis who sounded like that. The man was obviously upset, and stumbled over his words.
"Mr. Jack...my grandmother—was beaten terribly last night. I must speak to you immediately. It is terribly important."
He gave his name and a number where he could be reached.
That was one call Jack would return, even though he was going to have to turn the man down. He intended to devote all his time to Gia's problem. And to Gia. This might be his last chance with her.
He punched in the number. The clipped voice answered in the middle of the second ring.
"Mr. Bahkti? This is Jack. You called my office during the night and—"
Mr. Bahkti was suddenly very guarded. "This is not the same voice on the answering machine."
Sharp, Jack thought. The voice on the machine belonged to Abe Grossman. Jack never used his own voice on the office phone. But most people didn't spot that.
"An old tape," Jack told him.
"Ahhh. Well, then. I must see you immediately, Mr. Jack. It is a matter of the utmost importance. A matter of life and death."
"I don't know, Mr. Bahkti, I—"
"You must! There can be no refusal!"
A new note had crept in. This was not a man used to hearing no. The tone had never set well with Jack.
"You don't understand. My time is already taken up with other—"
"Mr. Jack! Are the other matters crucial to a woman's life? Can they not be put aside for even a short while? My grandmother was mercilessly beaten on the streets of your city. She needs help that I cannot give her. So I've come to you."
Jack knew what Mr. Bahkti was up to. He thought he was pushing Jack's buttons. Jack mildly resented it, but he was used to it and decided to hear him out anyway.
Bahkti had already launched into his narrative.
"Her car—an American car, I might add—broke down last night. And when she—"
"Save it for later," Jack told him, happy to be the one doing the cutting-off for a change.
"You will meet me at the hospital? She is in St. Clare's—"
"No. Our first meeting will be where I say. I meet all customers on my home turf. No exceptions."
"Very well," Bahkti said with a minimum of grace. "But we must meet very soon. There is so little time."
Jack gave him the address of Julio's bar a few blocks uptown from where he stood. He checked his watch.
"It's just shy of ten now. Be there at ten-thirty sharp."
"Half an hour? I do not know if I can be there by then!"
Fine! Jack liked to give customers as little time as possible to prepare for their first meeting. "Ten-thirty. You've got ten minutes grace. Any later and I'll be gone."
"Ten-thirty," Mr. Bahkti said, and hung up.
That annoyed Jack. He’d wanted to hang up first.
He walked north on Columbus Avenue, keeping to the shade on the right. Some shops were just opening, but most had been going strong for hours.
Julio's was open. But then, Julio's rarely closed. Jack knew the first customers wandered in minutes after Julio unlocked at six in the morning. Some were just getting off their shift and stopped by for a beer, a hard-boiled egg, and a soft seat; others stood at the bar and downed a quick bracer before starting the day's work. And still others spent the better part of every day in the cool darkness.
"Jacko!" Julio cried from behind the bar. He was standing but only his head and the top half of his chest were visible.
They didn't shake hands. They knew each other too well and saw each other too often for that. They’d been friends for many years, ever since the time Julio began to suspect that his sister Rosa was getting punched around by her husband. It had been a delicate matter. Jack had fixed it for him. Since then the little man had screened Jack's customers. For Julio possessed a talent, a nose, a sixth sense of sorts for spotting members of officialdom. Much of Jack's energy was devoted to avoiding such people; his way of life depended on it. Also, in Jack's line of work he often found it necessary to make other people angry in the course of serving a customer's interests. So Julio kept an eye out for angry people.
So far, Julio had never failed him.
"Beer or business?"
"Before noon? What do you think?"
The remark earned Jack a brief dirty look from a sweaty old codger nursing a boilermaker.
Julio came out from behind the bar and followed Jack to a rear booth, drying his hands on a towel as he swaggered along. A daily regime with free weights and gymnastics had earned him thickly muscled arms and shoulders. His hair was wavy and heavily oiled, his skin swarthy, his mustache a pencil line along his upper lip.
"How many and when?"
"One. Ten-thirty." Jack slipped into the last booth and sat with a clear view of the door. The rear exit was two steps away. "Name's Bahkti. Sounds like he's from Pakistan or someplace around there."
"A man of color."
"More color than you, no doubt."
Jack thought about seeing Gia later today. A nice thought. They'd meet, they'd touch, and Gia would remember what they'd had, and maybe...just maybe...she'd realize that he wasn't such a bad guy after all. He began whistling through his teeth.
Julio gave him a strange look as he returned with a coffeepot, a cup, and the morning's Daily News.
"How come you're in such a good mood?"
"You been a grouch for months now, meng."
Jack hadn't realized it had been so obvious. "Personal."
Julio shrugged and poured him a cup of coffee. Jack sipped it black while he waited. He never liked first meetings with a customer. There was always a chance he wasn't a customer but somebody with a score to settle. He got up and checked the exit door to make sure it was unlocked.
Two Con Ed workers came in for a coffee break. They took their coffee clear and golden with a foamy cap, poured into pilsner glasses as they watched the TV over the bar. Some guy was interviewing three transvestite grammar schoolteachers; everyone on the screen had greenish hair and pumpkin-colored complexions. Julio served the Con Ed men a second round, then came out from behind the bar and took a seat by the door.
Jack glanced at the paper. "Where Are the Winos?" was the headline. The press was getting lots of mileage out of the rapid and mysterious dwindling of the city's derelict population during the past few months.
At ten-thirty-two, Mr. Bahkti came in. No doubt it was him. He wore a navy blue Nehru-type tunic. His dark skin seemed to blend into his clothes. For an instant after the door swung shut behind him, all Jack could see was a pair of eyes floating in the air at the other end of the dim tavern.
Julio approached him immediately. Words were exchanged and Jack noted the newcomer flinch away as Julio leaned against him. He seemed angry as Julio walked toward Jack with an elaborate shrug.
"He's clean," he said as he came back to Jack's booth. "Clean but weird."
"How do you read him?"
"That's jus' it—I don't read him. He's bottled up real tight. Nothing at all out of that guy. Nothing but creeps."
"Sonthin 'bout him gimme the creeps, man. Wouldn't want to get on his wrong side. You better be sure you can make him happy before you take him on."
Jack drummed his fingers on the table. Julio's reaction made him uneasy. The little man was all macho and braggadocio. He must have sensed something pretty unsettling about Mr. Bahkti to have even mentioned it.
"What'd you do to get him riled up?" Jack asked.
"Nothin’ special. He jus’ got real ticked off when I give him my 'accidental' frisk. Didn't like that one bit. You wanna take off?"
Jack hesitated, toying with the idea of getting out now. After all, he probably was going to have to turn the man down anyway. But he had agreed to meet him, and the guy had arrived on time.
"Send him back and let's get this over with."
Julio waved Bahkti toward the booth and headed back to his place behind the bar.
Bahkti strolled toward Jack with a smooth, gliding gait that reeked of confidence and self-assurance. He was halfway down the aisle when Jack realized with a start that his left arm was missing at the shoulder. But there was no pinned-up left sleeve—the jacket had been tailored without one. He was a tall man-six-three, Jack guessed, lean but sturdy. Well into his forties, maybe fifty. The nose was long; he wore a sculptured beard, neatly trimmed to a point at the chin. What could be seen of his mouth was wide and thin-lipped. The whites of his deep walnut eyes almost glowed in the darkness of his face, reminding Jack of John Barrymore in Svengali.
He stopped at the edge of the facing banquette and looked down at Jack, taking his measure just as Jack was taking his.
Kusum Bahkti did not like this place called Julio's, stinking as it did of liquor and grilled beef, and peopled with the lower castes. Certainly one of the foulest locations he’d had the misfortune to visit in this foul city. He was no doubt polluting his karma merely by standing here.
And surely this very average-looking man sitting before him was not the one he was looking for. He looked like any American's brother, anyone's son, someone you would pass anywhere in this city and never notice. He looked too normal, too ordinary, too everyday to supply the services Kusum had been told about.
If I were home…
Yes. If he were home in Bengal, in Calcutta, he would have everything under control. A thousand men would be combing the city for the transgressor. He would be found, and he would wail and curse the hour of his birth before being sent on to another life.
But here in America Kusum was reduced to an impotent supplicant standing before this stranger, asking for help. It made him sick.
"Are you the one?" he asked.
"Depends on who you're looking for," the man said.
Kusum noted the difficulty the American was having trying to keep his eyes off his truncated left shoulder.
"He calls himself Repairman Jack."
“The name wasn’t my idea. " The man spread his hands. "But, here I am."
This couldn't be him. "Perhaps I have made a mistake."
"Perhaps so," said the American.
He seemed preoccupied, not the least bit interested in Kusum or what problem he might have.
Kusum started to turn away, deciding he was constitutionally incapable of asking the help of a stranger, especially this stranger, then changed his mind.
By Kali, he had no choice.
He seated himself across the table from Repairman Jack.
"I am Kusum Bahkti."
"Jack Nelson." The American proffered his right hand.
Kusum could not bring himself to grasp it, yet he did not want to insult this man. He needed him.
"Very well...Jack." He was uncomfortable with such informality upon meeting. "Your pardon. I dislike to be touched. An Eastern prejudice."
Jack glanced at his hand, as if inspecting it for dirt.
"I do not wish to offend—"
"Forget it. Who gave you my number?"
"Time is short...Jack" —it took conscious effort to use that first name—"and I must insist—"
"I always insist on knowing where the customer came from. Who?"
"Very well: Mr. Burkes at the UK Mission to the United Nations."
Burkes had answered Kusum's frantic call this morning and had told him how well this Jack fellow had handled a delicate problem for the UK Mission a few years ago. .
Jack nodded. "I know Burkes. You with the UN?"
Kusum knotted his fist and managed to tolerate the interrogation.
"I suppose you Pakistani delegates are pretty tight with the British."
Kusum felt as if he’d been slapped in the face. He half started from his seat.
"Do you insult me? I am not one of those Moslem—!" He caught himself. Probably an innocent error. Americans were ignorant of the most basic information. "I am from Bengal, a member of the Indian Delegation. I am a Hindu. Pakistan, which used to be the Punjab region of India, is a Moslem country."
The distinction appeared to be completely lost on Jack.
"Whatever. Most of what I know about India I learned from watching Gunga Din a hundred times. So tell me about your grandmother."
Kusum was momentarily baffled. Wasn't "Gunga Din" a poem? How did one watch a poem? He set his confusion aside.
"Understand," he said, absently brushing at a fly that had taken a liking to his face, "that if this were my own country I would resolve the matter in my own fashion."
"So you told me on the phone. Where is she now?"
"In St. Clare's hospital on West Fif—"
"I know where it is. What happened to her?"
"Her car broke down in the early hours of this morning. While her driver went to find a taxicab for her, she foolishly got out of the car. She was assaulted and beaten. If a police car hadn't come by, she would have been killed."
"Happens all the time, I'm afraid."
A callous remark, ostensibly that of a city-dweller saving his pity for personal friends who became victims. But in the eyes Kusum detected a flash of emotion that told him perhaps this man could be reached.
"Yes, much to the shame of your city."
"No one ever gets mugged on the streets of Bombay or Calcutta?"
Kusum shrugged and brushed again at the fly. "What takes place between members of the lower castes is of no importance. In my homeland even the most desperate street hoodlum would think many times before daring to lay a finger upon one of my grandmother's caste."
Something in this remark seemed to annoy Jack.
"Ain't democracy wonderful," the American said with a sour expression.
Kusum frowned, concealing his desperation. This was not going to work. He felt an instinctive antagonism between him and this Repairman Jack.
"I believe I have made a mistake. Mr. Burkes recommended you very highly, but I do not think you are capable of handling this particular task. Your attitude is most disrespectful—”
"What can you expect from a guy who grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons?"
"—and you do not appear to have the physical resources to accomplish what I have in mind."
Jack smiled, as if used to this reaction. His elbows were on the table, his hands folded in front of him. Without the slightest hint of warning, his right hand blurred across the table towards Kusum's face. Kusum steeled himself for the blow and prepared to lash out with his feet.
The blow never landed. Jack's hand passed within a millimeter of Kusum's face and snatched the fly out of the air in front of his nose. Jack went to a nearby door and released the insect into the fetid air of a back alley.
Fast, Kusum thought. Extremely fast. And what was even more important: He didn't kill the fly.
Perhaps this was the man after all.
Jack returned to his seat and studied the Indian. To his credit, Kusum hadn't flinched. Either his reflexes were extremely slow, or he had something like copper wire for nerves. Jack figured Kusum's reflexes to be pretty good.
Score one for each of us, he thought. He wondered how Kusum had lost that arm.
"The point is probably moot," Jack said. "Finding a particular mugger in this city is like poking at a hornets' nest to find the one that bit you. If she saw enough of him to identify a mug shot, she should go to the police and—"
"No police!" Kusum said quickly.
Those were the very two words Jack was waiting to hear. If the police were involved, Jack would not be.
"They may well be successful eventually," Kusum went on, "but they take much too long. This is a matter of the utmost urgency. My grandmother is dying. That is why I've gone outside official channels."
"I don't understand this whole thing."
"Her necklace was stolen. It's a priceless heirloom. She must have it back."
"But you said she's dying—"
"Before she dies! She must have it back before she dies!"
"Impossible. I can't..."
UN diplomat or not, the guy was obviously a nut. No use trying to explain how hard it would be just to find the mugger. After that, to learn the name of his fence, find that fence, and then hope, that he hadn't already removed whatever precious stones were in the necklace and melted down the settings, were beyond the wildest possibility.
He shook his head. "It can't be done."
"You must do it! The man must be found. She scratched him across the eyes. There must be a way he can be traced!"
"That's police work."
"The police will take too long! It must be returned tonight!"
"The chances against finding that necklace are—"
Kusum's voice cracked on that last word, as if he’d dragged it kicking and screaming from an unused part of his soul. Jack sensed how much it cost the Indian to say it. Here was an inordinately proud man begging him for help.
"All right. I'll do this: Let me talk to your grandmother. Let me see what I've got to work with."
"That will not be necessary."
"Of course it will be necessary. She's the only one who knows what he looks like."
Was he trying to keep him away from his grandmother?
Kusum looked uncomfortable. "She's quite distraught. Incoherent. She raves. I do not wish to expose her to a stranger."
Jack said nothing. He merely stared at Kusum and waited. Finally the Indian relented.
"I shall take you there immediately."
Jack allowed Kusum to lead him out the front door. As he left, he waved to Julio who was setting up his infamous sign, Free Lunch: $5.00. Right under the Free Beer...tomorrow sign.
They caught a taxi on Columbus Avenue and headed downtown.
"About my fee," Jack said once they’d settled into the back of the cab.
A small, superior smile curled Kusum's thin lips.
"Money? Are you not a defender of the downtrodden, a crusader for justice?"
"Justice doesn't pay the bills. My landlord prefers cash. So do I."
"Ah! A Capitalist!"
If that was supposed to rile Jack, it did not.
"Plain old ‘Capitalist’ has so little color. If you don't mind, I prefer to be called a Capitalist Swine or, at the very least, a Capitalist Running Dog. I hope Burkes didn't let you think I do this out of the goodness of my heart."
"No. He mentioned your fee for the UK Mission. A rather steep one. And in cash."
"I don't take checks or charges, and I don't take physical danger lightly, especially when I could be on the receiving end."
"Then here is my offer...Jack: Just for trying, I will pay you in advance half of what the British paid you. If you return the necklace to my grandmother before she dies, I will pay you the other half."
This was going to be hard to turn down. The job for the UK Mission had involved terrorist threats. It had been complex, time-consuming, and very dicey at times. Normally he would have asked Kusum for only a fraction of that amount. But Kusum seemed quite willing and able to pay the full fee. And if Jack managed to bring back that necklace, it would be a bonafide miracle and he would deserve every penny of it.
"Sounds fair to me," he said without missing a beat. "If I take the job."
Jack followed Kusum through the halls of St. Clare's until they came to a private room where a private-duty nurse hovered near the bed. The room was dark—curtains pulled, only a small lamp in a far corner throwing dim light across the bed. The lady under the covers was old. White hair framed a dark face that was a mass of wrinkles; gnarled hands clutched the sheet across her chest. Fear filled her eyes. Her ragged breathing and the hum of the blower by the window were the only sounds in the room.
Jack stood at the foot of the bed and felt the familiar tingle of rage spreading through his chest and limbs. With all he’d seen, all he’d done, he’d yet to learn how to keep from taking something like this personally. An old woman, helpless, beaten up. It made him want to break something.
"Ask her what he looked like."
Kusum rattled off something in Indian from beside the head of the bed. The woman replied in kind, slowly, painfully, in a hoarse, rasping voice.
"She says he looked like you, but younger," Kusum said, "and with lighter hair."
"Short or long?"
Another exchange, then: "Short. Very short."
As the woman replied, she raked the air with clawed fingers.
"His eyes," Kusum said. "She scratched him across his left eye before she was knocked unconscious."
Good for you, Granny.
Jack smiled reassuringly at the old lady, then turned to Kusum.
"I'll see you out in the hall."
He didn't want to talk in front of the private nurse.
As he stood outside the door, Jack glanced at the nurses' station and thought he saw a familiar face. He walked over for a closer look at the Junoesque blonde—every man's fantasy nurse—writing in a chart. Yes—it was Marta. They’d had a thing a few years back in the days before Gia.
She greeted him with a friendly kiss and a hug. They talked about old times for a while, then Jack asked her about Mrs. Bahkti.
"Fading fast," Marta said. "She's gotten visibly worse since I came on. She'll probably last out this shift, but I'll be surprised if she's here tomorrow. You know her?"
"I'll be doing some work for her grandson."
As with most people Jack knew socially—and there weren't many—Marta was under the impression that he was a "security consultant."
He saw Kusum step out of the room.
"There he is now. See you later."
Jack led Kusum to a window at the end of the hall where they were out of earshot of patients and hospital personnel.
"All right," he told him. "I'll give it a try. But I make no promises other than to do my best."
Jack wanted to catch up with this creep.
Kusum exhaled and muttered what sounded like a small prayer.
"No more can be asked of any man. But if you cannot find the necklace by tomorrow morning, it will be too late. After that, the necklace will be of secondary importance. But I still want you to keep looking for the assailant. And when you find him, I want you to kill him."
Jack tightened inside but smiled and shook his head. This guy thought he was some sort of hit man.
"I don't do that."
Kusum's eyes said he didn't believe him.
"Very well. Instead, you will bring him to me and I will—"
"I will work for you until tomorrow morning," Jack said. "I'll give you my best shot till then. After that, you're on your own."
Anger flitted across Kusum's face.
Definitely not used to having someone say no to you, are you?
"When will you start?"
Kusum reached inside his tunic and brought out a thick envelope. "Here is half the payment. I will wait here with the other half should you return with the necklace.
Feeling more than a twinge of guilt at taking so much money on such a hopeless venture, Jack nevertheless folded the envelope and stuffed it in his left rear pocket.
"I will pay you ten thousand extra if you kill him," Kusum added.
Jack laughed to keep the mood light but shook his head again. "Uh-uh. But one more thing: Don't you think it would help if I knew what the necklace looked like?"
"Of course!" Kusum opened the collar of his tunic to reveal a heavy chain perhaps fifteen inches long. Its links were crescent-shaped, each embossed with strange-looking script. Centered side-by-side on the necklace were two elliptical, bright yellow, topazlike stones with black centers.
Jack held his hand out but Kusum shook his head.
"Every member of my family wears a necklace like this—it is never removed. And so it is very important that my grandmother's be returned to her."
Jack studied the necklace. It disturbed him. He could not say why, but deep in his bowels and along the middle of his back a primitive sensation raised warning. The two stones looked like eyes. The metal was silvery, but not silver.
"What's it made of?"
Jack looked closer. Yes, there was a hint of rust along the edges of a couple of the links.
"Who'd want an iron necklace?"
"A fool who thought it was silver."
Jack nodded. For the first time since talking to Kusum this morning, he felt there might be a slim—very slim—chance of recovering the necklace. A piece of silver jewelry would be fenced by now and either hidden away or melted down into a neat little ingot. But an heirloom like this, with no intrinsic value...
"Here is a picture," Kusum said, handing over a Polaroid of the necklace. "I have a few friends searching the pawnshops of your city looking for it."
"How long has she got?" he asked.
Kusum slowly closed his collar. His expression was grim. "Twelve hours, the doctors say. Perhaps fifteen."
Great. Maybe I can find Judge Crater by then too.
"Where can I reach you?"
"Here. You will look for it, won't you?"
Kusum's dark brown eyes bored into his. He seemed to be staring at the rear wall of Jack's brain.
"I said I would."
"And I believe you. Bring the necklace to me as soon as you find it."
"Sure. As soon as I find it."
Sure. He walked away wondering why he’d agreed to help a stranger when Gia's aunt needed him.
Same old story—Jack the sucker.
Once back in the darkened hospital room, Kusum returned immediately to the bedside and pulled up a chair. He grasped the withered hand that lay atop the covers and studied it. The skin was cool, dry, papery; there seemed to be no tissue other than bone beneath. And no strength at all.
A great sadness filled him.
Kusum looked up and saw the plea in her eyes. And the fear. He did his best to hide his own fear.
"Kusum," she said in Bengali, her voice painfully weak. "I am dying."
He knew that. And it was tearing him up inside.
"The American will get it back for you," he said softly. "I've been told he's very good."
Burkes had said he was "incredibly good." Kusum hated all Britishers on principle, but had to admit Burkes was no fool. But did it matter what Burkes had said? It was an impossible task. Jack had been honest enough to say so. But Kusum had to try something! Even with the foreknowledge of certain failure, he had to try.
He balled his only hand into a fist. Why did this have to happen? And now, of all times? How he despised this country and its empty people! But this Jack seemed different. He was not a mass of jumbled fragments like his fellow Americans. Kusum had sensed a oneness within him. Repairman Jack did not come cheaply, but the money meant nothing. The knowledge that someone was out there searching gave him solace.
He patted the limp hand. "He'll get it back for you."
She seemed not to have heard.
"I am dying."
The money was a nagging pressure against his left buttock as Jack walked the half block west to Tenth Avenue and turned downtown. His hand kept straying back to the pocket; he repeatedly hooked a thumb in and out of it to make sure the envelope was still there. The problem now was what to do with the money. It was times like this that almost made him wish he had a bank account. But the bank folks insisted on a Social Security number from anyone who opened an account.
He sighed to himself. That was one of the major drawbacks of living between the lines. If you didn't have an SSN, you were barred from countless things. You couldn't hold a regular job, couldn't buy or sell stock, couldn't take out a loan, couldn't own a home, couldn't even complete a Blue Shield form. The list went on and on.
With his thumb casually hooked in his left rear pocket, Jack stopped in front of a rundown office building. He rented a ten by twelve cubicle here—the smallest he could find. He’d never met the agent, nor anyone else connected with the office. He liked it that way.
He took the creaking Otis with the penny-studded floor up to 4 and stepped off. The hall was empty. Jack's office was 412. He walked past the door twice before pulling out the key and quickly letting himself in.
It always smelled the same: dry and dusty. The floors and windowsills were layered with dust. Dust bunnies clogged the corners. An abandoned spider web spanned an upper corner of the only window—out of business.
No furniture. The dull expanse of floor was broken only by the half dozen or so envelopes that had been shoved through the mail slot, and by an old vinyl IBM-typewriter cover and the wires that ran from it to the telephone and electrical outlets in the wall on the right.
Jack picked up the mail: Three were bills, all addressed to Jack Finch in care of this office. The rest belonged to Occupant. He stepped to the typewriter cover and lifted it. The answering machine beneath appeared to be in good shape. Even as he squatted over it, the machine clicked on and he heard Abe's voice give the familiar salutation in the name of Repairman Jack, followed by a man complaining of an electric dryer that wasn't drying.
He replaced the cover and went back to the door. A quick peek showed two secretaries from the shoe-importing firm at the other end of the hall standing by the elevator. Jack waited until the door slid shut after them. He locked his office, then ducked for the stairway. His cheeks puffed with relief as he started down the worn steps. He hated coming here and made a point of doing so at random intervals at odd times of the day. He did not want his face in any way connected with Repairman Jack; but there were bills to be paid, bills that he didn't want delivered to his apartment. And popping into the office at random hours of the day or night seemed safer than having a post office box.
Most likely none of it was necessary. Most likely no one was looking to get even with Repairman Jack. He was always careful to stay far in the background when he fixed things. Only his customers ever saw him.
But there was always a chance. And as long as that chance existed, he made certain he was very hard to find.
Thumb hooked again into that important pocket, Jack moved into the growing lunch hour crush, luxuriating in the anonymity of the crowd. He turned east on Forty-second and strolled up to the brick front post office between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There he purchased three money orders—two in negligible amounts for the phone and electric bills, and the third for a figure he considered preposterous considering the square footage of office space he was renting. He signed all three Jack Finch and mailed them off. As he was leaving, it occurred to him to use the cash to pay the rent on his apartment too. He went back and purchased a fourth money order, which he made out to his landlord. This one he signed Jack Berger.
A short walk past an art deco building to the side of the Port Authority Building, then across Eighth Avenue, and he was in Disney World North. He remembered when Times Square and environs were Sleazeville, USA, a never-ending freak show that would have put Tod Browning to shame. Jack had never passed up an opportunity to stroll through the area. He was a people-watcher and nowhere had there been such a unique variety of Homo sapiens low-lificus as in Times Square.
The block ahead had once been Exploitation Row, an almost continuous canopy of grind house marquees touting either triple-X sex, kung-fu imports, or psycho-with-a-knife splatter films from the Emeril Lagasse slice-and-dice school of moviemaking. You could walk along here in the rain and hardly get wet. Stuck in between had been hole-in-the-wall porn shops, stairways to "modeling studios" and dance halls, the ubiquitous Nedicks and Orange Julius stands, and sundry stores perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy—or so their window signs claimed. Mingling among the patrons of these venerable establishments had been hookers and derelicts of both sexes plus a startling array of epicene creatures who’d probably looked like boys when they were little.
All gone now, replaced by new legit theaters and outlets of the franchise factories. Donald would have no qualms about bringing Huey, Dewey, and Louie here.
Jack crossed Broadway behind the building that had given the Square its name, then turned uptown on Seventh Avenue. Set up on tables along the curb were chess and backgammon boards where a couple of guys would play anyone for a few bucks. Farther along were three-card monte setups on cardboard boxes. Pushcarts sold shish kebab, Sabrett hot dogs, dried fruits and nuts, giant pretzels, and freshly squeezed orange juice. The odors mingled in the air with the sounds and sights. All the record stores along Seventh were pushing the latest group du jour, Polio, playing cuts from their debut album onto the sidewalk. Jack stood waiting for the green at Forty-sixth next to a Puerto Rican with a giant boom box on his shoulder blasting salsa at a volume that would probably cause sterility' in most small mammals, while girls wearing tube tops that left their midriffs bare and satin gym shorts that left a smooth pink crescent of buttock protruding from each leg hole rollerbladed through the traffic with tiny headphones on their ears and iPods belted to their waistbands.
Standing directly in the middle of the flow was a big blind Black with a sign on his chest, a dog at his feet, and a cup in his hand. Jack threw some loose change into the cup as he slipped by.
Something about New York got to Jack. He loved its sleaze, its color, the glory and crassness of its architecture. He couldn't imagine living anywhere else.
Upon reaching the Fifties, he turned east until he came to Municipal Coins. He stopped in front and glanced briefly at the low-priced junk under the red and white We Buy Gold sign in the window—proof sets, Confederate paper and the like—then went in.
Monte spotted him right away.
"Mr. O'Neil! How are you!”
"Fine. Just call me Jack, remember?"
"Of course!" Monte said, grinning. "Always with the informality." He was short, slight, balding, with scrawny arms and a big nose. A mosquito of a man. "Good to see you again!"
Of course it was good to see him again. Jack knew he was probably Monte's best customer. Their relationship had begun years ago, after Abe had told him to buy gold. Krugerrands, specifically.
It's completely anonymous! Abe had said, saving his most persuasive argument for last. As anonymous as buying a loaf of bread!
So he'd bought some coins for cash, and sold them for more cash. He was supposed to report his profits to the IRS, but the IRS didn't know he existed and he didn't want to burden them with the information.
Jack had been in and out of gold since, and was buying it now. He figured the numismatic market was depressed, so he was investing in choice rare coins, too. They might not go up for many years, but he was buying for the long run. For his retirement—if he survived to enjoy it.
"I think I have something you'll really like," Monte was saying. "One of the finest Barber Halves I've seen."
"It's a 1901S."
There followed the obligatory haggling over the quality of the strike, bag marks, and the like. When Jack left the store he had the Barber Half and a 1909-proof Barber Quarter carefully wrapped and tucked in his left front pocket with a cylinder of Krugerrands. A hundred or so in cash was in the other front pocket. He felt far more relaxed heading back uptown than he’d been coming down.
Now he could turn his mind to Gia. He wondered if she'd have Vicky with her. Most likely. He didn't want to arrive empty-handed. He stopped at a card shop and found what he was looking for: a pile of furry little spheres, somewhat smaller than golf balls, each with two slender antennae, flat little feet and big rolling eyes: Rascals. Vicky loved Rascals almost as much as she loved oranges. He loved the look on her face when she reached into a pocket and found a present.
He picked out an orange Rascal and headed for home.
Lunch was a can of Red Hook Lager and a cylinder of Country Style Pringles in the cool of his apartment. He knew he should be on the roof doing his daily exercises, but he also knew what the temperature would be like up there.
Jack loathed his exercise routine and embraced any excuse to postpone it. He never missed a day, but never passed up an opportunity to put it off.
While nursing a second Red Hook, he went to the cedar closet next to the bathroom to stash his new acquisitions. The air within was heavy with the scent of the wood. He pulled a piece of molding loose from the base of a sidewall, then slipped free one of the cedar planks above it. Behind the plank lay the bathroom water pipes, each wrapped in insulation. Taped to the insulation like ornaments on a Christmas tree were dozens of rare coins. Jack found empty spots for the latest.
He tapped the board and molding back into place, then stepped back to survey the work. A good hidey-hole. More accessible than a safe deposit box. Better than a wall safe. With burglars using metal detectors these days, they could find a safe in minutes and either crack it or carry it off. But a metal detector here would only confirm that there were pipes behind the bathroom wall.
The only thing Jack had to worry about was fire.
He realized a psychiatrist would have a field day with him, labeling him a paranoid of one sort or another. But Jack had worked out a better explanation: When you lived in a city with a high robbery rate and you worked in a field that tended to get people violently angry with you, and you had no FDIC to protect your savings, extreme caution as a daily routine was not a symptom of mental illness; it was necessary for survival.
He was polishing off the second beer when the phone rang. Gia again? He listened to the Pinocchio Productions intro, then heard his father's voice begin to leave a message. He picked up and cut in.
"Don't you ever turn that thing off, Jack?"
"The answering machine? I just got in. What's up?"
"Just wanted to remind you about Sunday."
Sunday? What the hell was—
"You mean about the tennis match? How could I forget?"
"Wouldn't be the first time."
Jack winced. "I told you, dad. I got tied up with something and couldn't get away."
"Well, I hope it won't happen again." Dad's tone said he couldn't imagine what could be so important in the appliance repair business that could tie up a man for a whole day. "I've got us down for the father-and-son match."
"I'll be there bright and early Sunday morning."
"Good. See you then."
"Looking forward to it."
What a lie, he thought as he hung up.
Jack dreaded seeing his father, even for something so simple as a father-and-son tennis match. Yet he still accepted an occasional invitation to go back to New Jersey and bask in parental disapproval. It wasn't masochism that kept him coming back, it was duty. And love—love that had lain unexpressed for years. After all, it wasn't Dad's fault that he thought his directionless son had squandered an education and was going nowhere. Dad didn't know what his son really did.
Jack reset the answering machine and changed into a pair of lightweight tan slacks. He wouldn't feel right wearing Levi's on Sutton Square.
He decided to walk. He took Columbus Avenue down to the circle, then walked along Central Park South past the St. Moritz and under the ornate iron awning of the Plaza's park-side entrance, amusing himself by counting Arabs and watching the rich tourists stroll in and out of the status hotels. He continued due east along Fifty-ninth toward the stratospheric rent district.
He was working up a sweat but barely noticed. The prospect of seeing Gia again made him almost giddy.
Images, pieces of the past, flashed through his brain as he walked. Gia's big smile, her azure eyes, the way her whole face crinkled up when she laughed, the sound of her voice, the feel of her skin...all denied him for the past two months.
He remembered his first feelings for her...
With almost all the other women in his life the most significant part of the relationship for both parties had been explored in bed. It was different with Gia. He wanted to know her. He’d thought about the others only when there had been nothing better to think about. Gia, on the other hand, had a nasty habit of popping into his thoughts at the most inopportune times. He’d wanted to cook with her, eat with her, see movies with her, listen to music with her, be with her. He’d found himself wanting to get in his car and drive past her apartment house just to make sure it was still there. He hated to talk on the phone but had found himself calling her at the slightest excuse. He was hooked and he’d loved it.
For nearly a year it had been a treat to wake up every morning knowing he was probably going to see her at some time during the day. So good...
Other images crept unbidden to the fore. Her face when she learned the truth about him, the hurt, and something worse—fear. The knowledge that Gia could even for an instant think that he would ever harm her, or ever allow harm to come to her, was the deepest hurt of all. Nothing he’d said or tried to say had worked to change her mind.
Now he had another chance. He wasn't going to blow it.
"He's late, isn't he, Mom?"
Gia DiLauro kept both hands on her daughter's shoulders as they stood at the window in the front parlor and watched the street. Vicky was fairly trembling with excitement.
"Not quite. Almost, but not quite."
"I hope he doesn't forget."
"He won't. I'm sure he won't." Although I wish he would.
Two months ago she’d walked out on Jack. She was adjusting. Sometimes she could go through a whole day without thinking about him. She’d picked up where she’d left off. There was even someone new creeping into her life.
Why couldn't the past ever stay out of sight where it belonged? Take her ex-husband, for instance. After their divorce she’d wanted to cut all ties with the Westphalen family, even going so far as to change her name back to the one she’d been born with. But Richard's aunts had made that impossible. They adored Vicky and used every imaginable pretext to lure Gia and their niece over to Sutton Square. Gia had resisted at first, but their genuine affection for Vicky, their insistent pleas, and the fact that they had no illusions about their nephew—"a bounder and a cad!" as Nellie was wont to describe him after her third glass of sherry—finally changed her mind. Eight Sutton Square had become a second home of sorts. The aunts had even gone so far as to have a swing set and a wooden playhouse installed in the tiny backyard just for Vicky.
So when Nellie had called in a panic after she’d discovered Grace missing on Tuesday morning, Gia had come right over. And had been here ever since.
Grace Westphalen. Such a sweet old lady. Gia couldn't imagine anyone wanting to harm her, and no ransom demand had been made. So where was she? Gia was frightened and mystified by the disappearance, and she ached for Nellie who she knew was suffering terribly behind her stoical front. It had been only out of love for Nellie and her deep concern for Grace that she’d agreed to call Jack this morning. Not that Jack would be much help. From what she’d learned of him, she could safely say that this was not his sort of job. But Nellie was desperate and it was the least Gia could do to ease her mind.
Gia told herself she was standing here at the window to keep Vicky company—the poor child had been watching for an hour already—yet there was an undeniable sense of anticipation rising inside her. It wasn't love. It couldn't be love.
What was it, then?
Probably just a residue of feeling, like a smear on a window that hadn't been properly wiped after spring cleaning. What else could she expect? It had been only two months since the breakup and her feelings for Jack until then had been intense, as if compensating for all that had been missing from her aborted marriage.
Jack is the one, she’d told herself. The forever one.
She didn't want to think about that awful afternoon. She’d held the memory off all day, but now, with Jack due any minute, it all rushed back at her...
She was cleaning his apartment. A friendly gesture. He refused to hire a cleaning lady and usually did it himself. But to Gia's mind, Jack's household methods left much to be desired, so she decided to surprise him by giving the place a thorough going-over. She wanted to do something for him. He was always doing little things for her, yet he was so self contained that she found it difficult to reciprocate. So she "borrowed" an extra key to his apartment and sneaked in one day when he was out.
She knew Jack as a gentle eccentric who worked at odd intervals and odd hours as a security consultant—whatever that was—and lived in a three-room apartment stuffed with such an odd assortment of junk that she had attacks of vertigo the first few times she visited him. His latest "neat stuff"—an original red and green Little Orphan Annie Ovaltine shake-up mug and an official Tom Corbett Space Cadet badge—lay on the round oak table. That was another thing about the apartment: the hideous old furniture. And he was crazy about movies—old movies, new movies, good movies, awful movies. He was the only man she’d ever known who did not have a bank or credit card. He had such an aversion to signing his name that he didn't even have a checking account. He paid cash for everything.
The cleaning chores went smoothly until she found the loose panel at the rear of the base of the old oak secretary. She’d been polishing it with lemon oil to bring up the grain and make the wood glow. Jack loved oak and she was learning to love it, too—it had such character. The panel swung out as she touched it.
Something gleamed in the darkness within. Curious, she reached in and touched cool, oiled metal. She pulled the object out and started in surprise at its weight and malignant blue color. A pistol.
Well, lots of people in the city had guns. For protection. Nothing unusual about that.
She glanced back into the opening. There were other gleaming things within. She began to pull them out. As each gun was delivered from the hiding place, she fought the growing pang in the pit of her stomach, telling herself that Jack was probably just a collector. After all, no two of the dozen or so guns were alike. But what about the rest of the contents: the boxes of bullets, the daggers, brass knuckles and other deadly-looking things she’d never seen before? Among the weapons were three driver's licenses, and sundry other forms of identification, all with different names.
Her insides knotted as she sat and stared at the collection. She tried to tell herself they were things he needed for his work as a security consultant, but deep inside she knew that much of what lay before her was illegal. Even if he had permits for all the guns, there was no way the licenses could be legal.
Gia was still sitting there when he came back in from one of his mysterious errands. A shocked, guilty look ran over his face when he saw what she had found.
"Who are you?" she said, leaning away as he knelt beside her.
"I'm Jack. You know me."
"Do I? I'm not even sure your name's Jack any more.” She could feel the terror growing within her. Her voice rose an octave. "Who are you and what do you do with all this?"
He gave her some garbled story about being a repairman of sorts who "fixes things." For a fee he finds stolen property or evens scores for people when the police and the courts and all the various proper channels for redress have failed them.
"But all these guns and knives and things...they're for hurting people!"
He nodded. "Sometimes it comes down to that."
She had visions of him shooting someone, stabbing him, clubbing him to death. If someone else had told her this about the man she loved, she would have laughed and walked away. But the weapons lay in front of her. And Jack was telling her himself!
"Then you're nothing but a hired thug!"
He reddened. "I work on my own terms—exclusively. And I don't do anything to anybody that they haven't already done to someone else. I was going to tell you when I thought—"
"But you hurt people!"
This was becoming a nightmare! "What kind of thing is that to spend your life doing?"
"It's my job."
"Do you enjoy it when you hurt people?"
He looked away. And that was answer enough. She felt as if he’d shoved one of his knives into her heart.
"Are the police after you?"
"No," he said with a certain amount of pride. "They don't even know I exist. Neither does the state of New York nor the IRS nor the rest of the US government."
Gia rose to her feet and hugged herself. She suddenly felt cold. She didn't want to ask this question, but she had to.
"What about killing? Have you ever killed someone?"
"Gia..." He rose and stepped toward her but she backed away.
"Answer me, Jack! Have you ever killed someone?"
"It's happened. But that doesn't mean I make my living at it."
She thought she was going to be sick. The man she loved was a murderer!
"But you've killed!"
"Only when there was no other way. Only when I had to."
"You mean, only when they were going to kill you? Kill or be killed?"
Please say yes. Please!
He looked away again. "Sort of."
The world seemed to come apart at the seams. With hysteria clutching at her, Gia began running. She ran for the door, ran down the stairs, ran for a cab that took her home where she huddled in a corner of her apartment listening to the phone ring and ring and ring. She took it off the hook when Vicky came home from school and had barely spoken to Jack since.
"Come away from the window now. I'll tell you when he arrives."
"No, Mommy! I want to see him!"
"All right, but when he gets here, I don't want you running around and making a fuss. Just say hello to him nice and politely, then go out back to the playhouse. Understand?"
"Is that him?" Vicky started bouncing on her toes. "Is that him?"
Gia looked, then laughed and pulled on her daughter's pigtails. "Not even close.”
Gia walked away from the window, then came back, resigned to standing and watching behind Vicky. Jack appeared to occupy a blind spot in Vicky's unusually incisive assessment of people. But then, Jack had fooled Gia, too.
Jack fooled everyone, it seemed.
If Jack had his choice of any locale in Manhattan to live, he'd choose Sutton Square, the half block of ultra-high-priced real estate standing at the eastern tip of Fifty-eighth Street off Sutton Place, dead-ending at a low stone wall overlooking a sunken brick terrace with an unobstructed view of the East River. No high-rises, condos, or office buildings there, just neat four-story townhouses standing flush to the sidewalk, all brick-fronted, some with the brick bare, others painted pastel colors. Wooden shutters flanked the windows and the recessed front doors. Some of them even had back yards. A neighborhood of Bentleys and Rolls Royces, liveried chauffeurs and white-uniformed nannies. And one block to the north, looming over it all like some towering guardian, stood the graceful, surprisingly delicate-looking span of the Queensboro Bridge.
He remembered the place well. He’d been here before. He’d met Gia's aunts while on that job for the UK Mission. They’d invited him to a small gathering at their home. He hadn't wanted to go but Burkes had talked him into it. The evening had changed his life. He’d met Gia.
He heard a child's voice shouting as he crossed Sutton Place.
Dark braids flying and arms outstretched, a little slip of a girl with wide blue eyes and a missing front tooth came dashing out the front door and down the sidewalk. She leaped into the air with the reckless abandon of a seven-year old who had not the slightest doubt she would be caught and lifted and swung around.
Which is exactly what Jack did. Then he hugged her against his chest as she clamped her spindly arms around his neck.
"Where you been, Jack?" she said into his ear. "Where you been all this time?"
Jack's answer was blocked by a lump in his throat the size of an apple. Shocked by the intensity of feeling welling up in him, he could only squeeze her tighter.
All the time he’d spent missing Gia, never realizing how much he’d missed the little one. For the better part of a year he and Gia had been together, Jack had seen Vicky almost every day, becoming a prime focus of her boundless store of affection. Losing Vicky had contributed much more than he ever could have imagined to the emptiness inside him these past two months.
Love you, little girl.
He hadn’t truly known how much until this very instant. Over Vicky's shoulder he could see Gia standing in the doorway of the house, her face grim. He spun away to hide the tears that had sprung into his eyes.
"You're squeezing me awful tight, Jack."
He put her down. "Yeah. Sorry, Vicks."
He cleared his throat, pulled himself together, then grasped her hand and walked up to the front door and Gia.
She looked good. Hell, she looked great in that light blue T-shirt and jeans. Short blond hair—to call it blond was to say the sun was sort of bright: It gleamed, it glowed. Blue eyes like winter sky after all the snow clouds have blown east. A strong, full mouth capable of a wide, dazzling smile. High shoulders, high breasts, fair skin with high coloring along the cheeks. He still found it almost impossible to believe she was Italian.
Gia controlled her anger. She’d told Vicky not to make a fuss, but at the first sight of Jack crossing the street she’d been out the door and on her way before Gia could stop her. She wanted to punish Vicky for disobeying her, yet knew she wouldn't. Vicky loved Jack.
He looked the same as ever. His brown hair was a little longer and he looked as if he’d lost a few pounds since she last saw him, but no major differences. Still the same vitality, making the very air around him seem to throb with life, the same feline grace to his movements, the same warm brown eyes, the same lopsided smile. The smile looked forced at the moment, and his face was flushed. He looked hot.
"Hello,” Jack said as he reached the top step. His voice was husky.
He leaned his face toward her. She wanted to pull away but affected sublime indifference instead. She would be cool. She would be detached. He no longer meant anything to her. She accepted a peck on the cheek.
"Come in," she said, doing her best to sound businesslike. She felt she succeeded. But the brush of his lips against her cheek stirred old unwanted feelings and she knew her face was coloring. Damn him. She turned away. “Aunt Nellie's waiting."
"You're looking well," he said, staring at her. Vicky's hand was still clasped in his own.
"Thank you. So are you." She’d never felt this way before, but now that she knew the truth about Jack, the sight of him holding hands with her little girl made her skin crawl. She had to get Vicky away from him. "Honey, why don't you go outside and play in your playhouse while Jack and I and Aunt Nellie talk about grown-up things."
"I want to stay with Jack!"
Gia started to speak, but Jack raised a hand.
"First thing we do," he said to Vicky as he guided her into the foyer, "is close the door behind us. This may be a ritzy neighborhood, but they still haven't got around to air conditioning the street." He shut the door, then squatted in front of her. "Listen, Vicks. Your mother's right. We've got some grown-up stuff to discuss and we've got to get down to business. But I'll let you know as soon as we're through.”
"Can I show you the playhouse?"
"Neat! And Ms. Jelliroll wants to meet you. I told her all about you."
"Great. I want to meet her, too. But first—" he pointed to the breast pocket of his shirt—“see what's in there."
Vicky reached in and pulled out an orange ball of fur. "A Rascal!" she screeched. "Oh, neat!"
She kissed him and ran toward the back.
"Who or what is Ms. Jelliroll?" he asked Gia as he rose to his feet.
"A new doll," Gia said as brusquely as she could manage. "Jack, I...I want you to stay away from her."
Gia saw his eyes then and knew that she’d cut him deeply. But his mouth smiled.
"I haven't molested a child all week."
"That's not what I mean—"
"I'm a bad influence, right?"
"We've been through this before and I don't want to get going on it again. Vicky was very attached to you. She's just getting used to not having you around anymore, and now you come back and I don't want her to think things are going back to the way they were."
"I'm not the one who walked out."
"Doesn't matter. The result was the same. She was hurt."
"So was I."
"Jack,” she sighed, feeling very tired, "this is a pointless conversation.”
"Not to me. Gia, I'm crazy about that kid. There was a time when I had hopes of being her father."
The sound of her own laugh was harsh and bitter in her ears. "Her real father hasn't been heard from in a year and you wouldn't be much of an improvement. Vicky needs a real person for a father. Someone who lives in the real world. Someone with a last name—do you even remember your last name? The one you were christened with? Jack, you...you don't exist."
He reached out and touched her arm. She felt her skin tingle.
"As real as you."
"You know what I mean!" Gia said, pulling away. The words poured out of her. "What kind of a father could you be to anybody? And what kind of a husband?"
She was being hard on him, she knew, but he deserved it.
Jack's face tightened. "Very well, Ms. DiLauro. Shall we get down to business? After all, I didn't invite myself over."
"Neither did I. It was Nellie's idea. I was just the messenger. 'Get that friend of yours, that Jack fellow, to help.' I tried to tell her you were no longer a friend but she insisted. She remembered that you worked with Mr. Burkes."
"That's when we met."
"And the long string of deceptions began. Mr. Burkes called you a 'consultant', a 'troubleshooter.' "
Jack made a sour face. "But you came up with a better job description, didn't you: 'thug.' "
It jolted Gia to hear the pain in Jack's voice as he said the word. Yes, she’d called him that the last time she’d seen him. She’d hurt him then and had been glad of it. But she wasn't glad now to know he was still bleeding from it.
She turned away. "Nellie is waiting."
With a mixture of pain and frustration roiling through him, Jack followed Gia down the hallway. For months he’d nurtured a faint hope that someday soon he would make her understand. As of now he knew with leaden certainty that it would never happen. She’d been a warm, passionate woman who’d loved him, and unwittingly he’d turned her to ice.
He studied the walnut paneling, the portraits on the walls, anything to keep from watching her as she walked ahead of him. Then they were through a pair of sliding doors and into the library. The dark paneling continued in from the hall, encircling lots of dark furniture, overstuffed velvet chairs with antimacassars on the arms, Persian rugs on the floor, impressionist paintings on the walls, a Sony Trinitron in the corner.
He’d met Gia in this room.
Aunt Nellie sat lost in a recliner by the cold fireplace. A chubby, white-haired woman in her late sixties in a long dark dress adorned with a small diamond brooch and a short string of pearls. A woman used to wealth and comfortable with it. At first glance she appeared depressed and shrunken, as if she were in mourning, or preparing for it. But as they entered she pumped herself up and arranged her face into a pleasant expression, putting on a smile that wiped away a good many of her years.
"Mr. Jeffers," she said, rising. Her accent was thickly British. Not Hugh Grant British; more like a reedy Alfred Hitchcock. "So good of you to come."
"Good to see you again, Mrs. Paton. But just call me Jack. "
"Only if you call me Nellie. Would you care for some tea?"
"Iced, if you don't mind."
"Not at all." She rang a little bell on the end table next to her and a uniformed maid appeared. "Three iced teas, Eunice."
The maid nodded and left. An uncomfortable silence followed in which Nellie seemed to be lost in thought.
"How can I help you, Nellie?"
"What?" She looked startled. "Oh, I'm terribly sorry. I was just thinking about my sister, Grace. As I'm sure Gia told you, she's been gone for three days now...disappeared between Monday night and Tuesday"—she pronounced it Chewsday—“morning. The police have come and gone and find no evidence of foul play, and there's been no demand for ransom. She is merely listed as a missing person, but I'm quite certain something has happened to her. I shan't rest until I find her.”
Jack's heart went out to her, and he wanted to help, but...
"I don't do missing-persons work as a rule."
"Yes, Gia did say something about this not being in your line"—Jack glanced at Gia but she avoided his gaze—“but I'm at my wits' end. The police are no help. I'm sure that if we were back home we'd have more cooperation from Scotland Yard than we've had from the New York Police. They simply aren't taking Grace's disappearance seriously. I knew you and Gia were close and remembered Eddie Burkes mentioning that your assistance had proven invaluable at the Mission. Never would tell me what he needed you for, but he certainly seemed enthusiastic."
Jack was seriously considering placing a call to "Eddie"—hard as it was to imagine someone calling the UK Mission's security chief "Eddie"—and telling him to button his lip. Jack always appreciated referrals, and it was nice to know he’d made such an impression on the man, but Burkes was getting just a little bit too free with his name.
"I'm flattered by your confidence, but—"
"Whatever your usual fee is, I dare say I'll gladly pay it. "
"It's a question of expertise rather than money. I just don't think I'm the right man for the job."
"You're a detective, aren't you?"
"Sort of." That was a lie. He wasn't any sort of detective; he was a repairman. He could feel Gia staring at him. "The problem is, I'm not licensed as a detective, so I can't have any contact with the police. They mustn't know I'm involved in any way. They wouldn't approve."
Nellie's face brightened. "Then you'll help?"
The hope in her expression pushed the words to his lips.
"I'll do what I can. And as far as payment goes, let's make it contingent on success. If I don't get anywhere, there'll be no fee."
"But your time is surely worth something, dear fellow!"
"I agree, but looking for Vicky's Aunt Grace is a special case."
Nellie nodded. "Then you may consider yourself hired on your terms."
Jack forced a smile. He didn't expect much success in finding Grace, but he'd give it his best shot. If nothing else, the job would keep him in contact with Gia. He wasn't quitting yet.
The iced tea arrived and Jack sipped it appreciatively. Not a Lipton or Nestea mix, but freshly brewed from an English blend.
"Tell me about your sister," he said when the maid had left.
Nellie leaned back and spoke in a low voice, rambling now and again, but keeping fairly close to hard facts. A picture slowly emerged. Unlike Nellie, the missing Grace Westphalen had never married. After Nellie's husband was killed by an IRA bomb in London, the two sisters, each with one third of the Westphalen fortune, moved to the States. Except for brief trips back home, both had lived on Manhattan's East Side ever since. And both were still loyal to the Queen. Never in all those years had the thought of becoming US citizens ever crossed their minds. They very naturally fell in with the small British community in Manhattan consisting mostly of well-heeled expatriates and people connected with the British Consulate and the United Kingdom's Mission to the United Nations—"a colony within the Colonies," as they liked to call themselves—and enjoyed an active social life. They rarely saw Americans. It was almost like living in London.
Grace Westphalen was sixty-nine—two years older than Nellie. A woman of many acquaintances but few real friends. Her sister had always been her best friend. No eccentricities. Certainly no enemies.
"When did you last see Grace?" Jack asked.
"Monday night. I finished watching The Tonight Show and when I looked in to say good night, she was propped up in bed reading. That was the last time I saw her." Nellie's lower lip trembled for an instant, then she got control of it. "Perhaps the last time I shall ever see her."
Jack looked to Gia. "No signs of foul play?"
"I didn't get here until late Tuesday," Gia said with a shrug. "But I do know the police couldn't figure out how Grace got out without tripping the alarm."
"You've got the place wired?" he asked Nellie.
"Wired? Oh, you mean the burglar system. Yes. And it was set—at least for downstairs. We've had so many false alarms over the years, however, that we had the upper floors disconnected.”
"What kind of false alarms?"
"Well, sometimes we'd forget and get up at night to open a window. The racket is terrifying. So now when we set the system, only the downstairs doors and windows are activated. "
"Which means Grace couldn't have left by the downstairs doors or windows without tripping an alarm..." A thought struck him. "Wait—all these systems have delays so you can arm it and get out the door without setting it off. That must have been what she did. She just walked out."
"But her key to the system is still upstairs on her dresser. And all her clothes are in her closets."
"May I see?"
"By all means, do come and look," Nellie said, rising.
They all trooped upstairs.
Jack found the small, frilly-feminine bedroom cloying. Everything seemed to be pink or have a lace ruffle, or both.
The pair of French doors at the far end of the room claimed his attention immediately. He opened them and found himself on a card-table-sized balcony rimmed with a waist-high wrought iron railing, overlooking the backyard. A good dozen feet below was a rose garden. In a shady corner sat the playhouse Vicky had mentioned; it looked far too heavy to have been dragged under the window, and would have flattened all the rose bushes if it had. Anyone wanting to climb up here had to bring a ladder with him or be one hell of a jumper.
"The police find any marks in the dirt down there?"
Nellie shook her head. "They thought someone might have used a ladder, but there was no sign. The ground is so hard and dry with no rain—"
Eunice the maid appeared at the door. "Telephone, mum."
Nellie excused herself and left Jack and Gia alone in the room.
"A locked-room mystery," he said. "I feel like Sherlock Holmes."
He got down on his knees and examined the carpet for specks of dirt, but found none. He looked under the bed; only a pair of slippers there.
"What are you doing?"
"Looking for clues. I'm supposed to be a detective, remember?”
"I don't think a woman's disappearance is anything to joke about," Gia said, the frost returning to her words now that Nellie was out of earshot.
"I'm not joking, nor am I taking it lightly. But you've got to admit the whole thing has the air of a British drawing room mystery about it. I mean, either Aunt Grace had an extra alarm key made and ran off into the night in her nightie—a pink and frilly one, I'll bet—or she jumped off her little balcony here in that same nightie, or someone climbed up the wall, knocked her out, and carried her off without a sound. None of them seem too plausible."
Gia appeared to be listening. That was something at least.
He went over to the dressing table and glanced at the dozens of perfume bottles there; some names were familiar, most not. He wandered into the private bathroom and was there confronted by another array of bottles: Metamucil, Phillips' Milk of Magnesia, Haley's M-O, Pericolace, Surfak, Ex-Lax and more. One bottle stood off to the side. Jack picked it up. It was clear glass, with a thick green fluid inside. The cap was the metal twist-off type, enameled white. All it needed was a Smirnoff label and it could have been an airline vodka bottle.
"Know what this is?"
Jack screwed off the cap and sniffed. At least he was sure of one thing: it wasn't perfume. The smell was heavily herbal, and not particularly pleasant.
As Nellie returned, she appeared to be finding it increasingly difficult to hide her anxiety. "That was the police. I rang up the detective in charge a while ago and he just told me that they have nothing new on Grace."
Jack handed her the bottle.
Nellie looked it over, momentarily puzzled, then her face brightened.
"Oh, yes. Grace picked this up Monday. I'm not sure where, but she said it was a new product being test-marketed, and this was a free sample."
"But what's it for?"
"It's a physic."
"A physic. A cathartic. A laxative. Grace was very concerned—obsessed, you might say—with regulating her bowels. She's had that sort of problem all her life."
Jack took back the bottle. Something about an unlabeled bottle amid all the brand names intrigued him.
"May I keep this?"
He looked around awhile longer, for appearances more than anything else. He didn't have the faintest idea how he was going to begin looking for Grace Westphalen.
"Please remember to do two things," he told Nellie as he started downstairs. "Keep me informed of any leads the police turn up, and don't breathe a word of my involvement."
"Very well. But where are you going to start?"
He smiled—reassuringly, he hoped. "I've already started. I'll have to do some thinking and then start looking."
He fingered the bottle in his pocket. Something about it...
They left Nellie on the second floor, standing and gazing into her sister's empty room. Vicky came running in from the kitchen as Jack reached the bottom step. She held an orange section in her outstretched hand.
"Do the orange mouth! Do the orange mouth!"
He laughed, delighted that she remembered. "Sure!"
He shoved the section into his mouth and clamped his teeth behind the skin. Then he gave Vicky a big orange grin. She clapped and laughed.
"Isn't Jack funny, mom? Isn't he the funniest?"
"He's a riot, Vicky."
Jack pulled the orange slice from his mouth. "Where's that doll you wanted to introduce me to?"
Vicky slapped the side of her head dramatically, "Ms. Jelliroll! She's out back. I'll go—"
"Jack doesn't have time, honey," Gia said from behind him.
He winked at her. "Maybe next trip, okay?"
Vicky smiled and Jack noticed that a second tooth was starting to fill the gap left by her missing milk tooth.
"Okay. You coming back soon, Jack?"
"Real soon, Vicks."
He hoisted her onto his hip and carried her to the front door where he put her down and kissed her.
"See ya." He glanced up at Gia. "You, too."
She pulled Vicky back against the front of her jeans. "Yeah."
As Jack went down the front steps, he thought the door slammed with unnecessary force.
Vicky pulled Gia to the window and together they watched Jack stroll out of sight.
"He's going to find Aunt Grace, isn't he?"
"He says he's going to try."
"He'll do it."
"Please don't get your hopes up, honey." She knelt behind Vicky and enfolded her in her arms. "We may never find her."
She felt Vicky stiffen and wished she hadn't said it, wished she hadn't thought it. Grace had to be alive and well.
"Jack'll find her. Jack can do anything."
"No, Vicky. He can't. He really can't." Gia was torn between wanting Jack to fail, and wanting Grace returned to her home; between wanting to see Jack humbled in Vicky's eyes, and the urge to protect her daughter from the pain of disillusionment.
"Why don't you love him anymore, Mommy?"
The question took Gia by surprise. "Who said I ever did?"
"You did," Vicky said, turning and facing her mother. Her guileless blue eyes looked straight into Gia's. "Don't you remember?"
"Well, maybe I did a little, but not anymore."
It's true. I don't love him anymore. Never did. Not really.
"Sometimes things don't work out."
"Like with you and daddy?"
During the two and a half years she and Richard had been divorced, Gia had read every magazine article she could find on explaining the breakup of a marriage to a small child. There were all sorts of pat answers to give, answers that were satisfying when the father was still around for birthdays and holidays and weekends. But what to say to a child whose father had not only skipped town, but left the continent before she was five? How to tell a child that her daddy doesn't give a damn about her? Maybe Vicky knew. Maybe that's why she was so infatuated with Jack, who never passed up an opportunity to give her a hug or slip her a little present, who talked to her and treated her like a real person.
"Do you love Carl?" Vicky said with a sour face. Apparently she’d given up on an answer to her previous question and was trying a new one.
"No. We haven't known each other that long."
"He's really very nice. You just have to get to know him."
"Yucks, Mom. Yuck-o."
Gia laughed and tugged on Vicky's pigtails. Carl acted like any man unfamiliar with children. He was uncomfortable with Vicky; when he wasn't stiff, he was condescending. He’d been unable to break the ice, but he was trying.
Carl was an account exec at TBWA\Chiat\Day. Bright, witty, sophisticated. A civilized man. Not like Jack. Not at all like Jack. They’d met at the agency when she’d delivered some art for one of his accounts. Phone calls, flowers, dinners had followed. Something was developing. Certainly not love yet, but a nice relationship. Carl was what they called a "good catch." Gia didn't like to think of a man that way; it made her feel predatory, and she wasn't hunting. Both Richard and Jack, the only two men in the last ten years of her life, had deeply disappointed her. So she was keeping Carl at arm's length for now.
Yet...there were certain things to be considered. With Richard out of touch for over a year now, money was a constant problem. Gia didn't want alimony, but some child support now and then would help. Richard had sent a few checks after running back to England—drawn in British pounds just to make things more difficult for her. Not that he had any financial problems—he controlled one-third of the Westphalen fortune. He was most definitely what those who evaluated such things would consider a "good catch." But as she’d found out soon after their marriage, Richard had a long history of impulsive and irresponsible behavior. He’d disappeared late last year. No one knew where he’d gone, but no one was worried. It wasn't the first time he’d decided on a whim to take off without a word to anyone.
And so Gia did the best she could. Good freelance work for a commercial artist was hard to find on a steady basis, but she managed. Carl was seeing to it that she got assignments from his accounts, and she appreciated that, though it worried her. She didn't want any of her decisions about their relationship to be influenced by economics.
But she needed those jobs. Freelance work was the only way she could be a breadwinner and a mother and father to Vicky—and do it right. She wanted to be home when Vicky got in from school. She wanted Vicky to know that even if her father had deserted her, her mother would always be there. But it wasn't easy.
It always came down to money. She couldn't think of anything in particular she wanted desperately to buy, nothing she really needed. She simply wanted enough so she could stop worrying about it all the time. Her day-to-day life would be enormously simplified by hitting the state lottery or having some rich uncle pass on and leave her fifty thousand or so. But there were no rich uncles waiting in the wings, and Gia didn't have enough left over at the end of the week for lottery tickets. She was going to have to make it on her own.
She was not so naive as to think that every problem could be solved by money—look at Nellie, lonely and miserable now, unable to buy back her sister despite all her riches—but a windfall would certainly let Gia sleep better at night.
All of which reminded Gia that her rent was due. The bill had been waiting for her when she’d stopped back at the apartment yesterday. Staying here and keeping Nellie company was a pleasant change of scenery; it was posh, cool, comfortable. But it was keeping her from her work. Two assignments had deadlines coming up, and she needed those checks. Paying the rent now was going to drop her account to the danger level, but it had to be done.
Might as well find the checkbook and get it over with.
"Why don't you go out to the playhouse," she told Vicky.
"It's dull out there, Mom."
"I know. But they bought it especially for you, so why don't you give it another try today. I'll come out and play with you in a few minutes. Got to take care of some business first.”
Vicky brightened. "Okay! We'll play Ms. Jelliroll. You can be Mr. Grape-grabber."
"Sure." Whatever would Vicky do without her Ms. Jelliroll doll?
Gia watched her race toward the rear of the house. Vicky loved to visit her aunts' place, but she got lonely after a while. No one her age around here; all her friends were back at the apartment house.
She went upstairs to the guest bedroom on the third floor where she and Vicky had spent the last two nights. Maybe she could get some work done. She missed her art setup back in her apartment, but she’d brought a large sketchpad and had to get going on the Burger-Meister place mat.
Burger-Meister was a McDonald's clone and a new client for Carl. The company had been regional in the south but was preparing to go national in a big way. They had the usual assortment of burgers, including their own answer to the Big Mac: the vaguely fascist-sounding Meister Burger. But what set them apart were their desserts. They put a lot of effort into offering a wide array of pastries—eclairs, napoleons, cream puffs and the like.
Gia's assignment was to come up with the art for a paper placemat to line the trays patrons used to carry food to the tables. The copywriter had decided the sheet should extol and catalog all the quick and wonderful services Burger-Meister offered. The art director had blocked it out: around the edges would be scenes of children laughing, running, swinging and sliding in the mini-playground, cars full of happy people threading the drive-thru, children celebrating birthdays in the special party room, all revolving around that jolly, official-looking fellow, Mr. Burger-Meister.
Something about this approach struck Gia as wrong. There were missed opportunities here. This was a place mat. That meant the person looking at it was already in the Burger-Meister and had already ordered a meal. She saw no further need for a come-on. Why not tempt them with some of the goodies on the dessert list? Show them pictures of sundaes and cookies and eclairs and cream puffs. Get the kids howling for dessert. It was a good idea, and it excited her.
You're a rat, Gia. Ten years ago this never would have crossed your mind. And if it had you’d have been horrified.
But she was not that same girl from Ottumwa who had arrived in the Big City fresh out of art school and looking for work. Since then she’d been married to a crumb and in love with a killer.
She began sketching desserts.
After an hour of work, she took a break. Now that she was rolling on the Burger-Meister job, she didn't feel too bad about paying the rent. She pulled the checkbook out of her purse but could not find the bill. It had been on the dresser this morning and now it was gone.
Gia went to the top of the stairs and called down.
"Eunice! Did you see an envelope on my dresser this morning?"
"No, mum," came the faint reply.
That left only one possibility.
Nellie overheard the exchange between Gia and Eunice.
Here it comes, she thought, knowing that Gia would explode when she learned what Nellie had done with the rent bill.
A lovely girl, that Gia, but so hot-tempered. And so proud, unwilling to accept any financial aid, no matter how often it was offered. A most impractical attitude. And yet...if Gia had welcomed handouts, Nellie knew she would not be so anxious to offer them. Gia's resistance to charity was like a red flag waving in Nellie's face, making her all the more determined to find ways of helping.
Preparing herself for the storm, Nellie stepped out onto the landing below Gia.
"I saw it."
"What happened to it?"
"I paid it."
Gia's jaw dropped. "You what?"
Nellie twisted her hands in a show of anxiety. "Don't think I was snooping, dearie. I simply went in to make sure that Eunice was taking proper care of you, and I saw it sitting on the bureau. I was paying a few of my own bills this morning and so I just paid yours, too."
Gia hurried down the stairs, pounding her hand on the banister as she approached.
"Nellie, you had no right!"
Nellie stood her ground. "Rubbish! I can spend my money any way I please."
"The least you could have done was ask me first!"
"True," Nellie said, trying her best to look contrite, "but as you know, I'm an old woman and frightfully forgetful."
The statement had the desired effect: Gia's frown wavered, fighting against a smile, then she broke into a laugh. "You're about as forgetful as a computer!"
"Ah, dearie," Nellie said, drawing to Gia's side and putting an arm around her waist, "I know I've taken you away from your work by asking you to stay with me, and that puts a strain on your finances. But I so love having you and Victoria here."
And I need you here, she thought. I couldn't bear to stay alone with only Eunice for company. I would surely go mad with grief and worry.
"Especially Victoria—I dare say she's the only decent thing that nephew of mine has ever done in his entire life. She's such a dear; I can't quite believe Richard had anything to do with her."
"Well, he doesn't have much to do with her anymore. And if I have my way, he'll never have anything to do with her again."
Too much talk of her nephew Richard made Nellie uncomfortable. The man was a lout, a blot on the Westphalen name.
"Just as well. By the way, I never told you, but last year I had my will changed to leave Victoria most of my holdings when I go."
Nellie had expected objections and was ready for them:
"She's a Westphalen—the last of the Westphalens unless Richard remarries and fathers another child, which I gravely doubt—and I want her to have a part of the Westphalen fortune, curse and all."
How did that slip out? She hadn't wanted to mention that.
"Only joking, love."
Gia seemed to have a sudden weak spell. She leaned against Nellie.
"Nellie, I don't know what to say except I hope it's a long, long time before we see any of it."
"So do I! But until then, please don't begrudge me the pleasure of helping out once in a while. I have so much money and so few pleasures left in life. You and Victoria are two of them. Anything I can do to lighten your load—"
"I'm not a charity case, Nellie."
"I heartily agree. You're family"—she directed a stern expression at Gia—"even if you did go back to your maiden name. And as your aunt by marriage I claim the right to help out once in a while. Now that's the last I want to hear of it!"
So saying, she kissed Gia on the cheek and marched back into her bedroom. But as soon as the door closed behind her, she felt her brave front crack. She stumbled across the room and sank onto the bed. She found it so much easier to bear the pain of Grace's disappearance in the company of others—pretending to be composed and in control actually made her feel so. But when she had no one around to play-act for, she fell apart.
Oh, Grace, Grace, Grace. Where can you be? And how long can I live without you?
Her sister had been Nellie's best friend ever since they had arrived in America. Her purse-lipped smile, her tittering laugh, the pleasure she took in their daily sherry before dinner, even her infuriating obsession with the regularity of her bowels; Nellie missed them all.
Despite all her foibles and uppity ways, she's a dear soul and I need her back.
The thought of living on without Grace suddenly overwhelmed Nellie and she began to cry, quiet sobs that no one else would hear. She couldn't let any of them—especially dear little Victoria—see her cry.
Jack didn't feel like walking back across town, so he took a cab. The dark-skinned driver made a couple of heavily accented tries at small talk about the Mets but the terse, grunted replies from the back seat soon shut him up. Jack could not remember another time in his life when he had felt so low—not even after his mother's death. He needed to talk to someone, and it wasn't a cabby.
He had the hack drop him off at a little mom-and-pop on the corner west of his apartment: Nick's Nook, an unappetizing place with New York City's grime permanently embedded in the plate glass windows. Some of that grime seemed to have filtered through the glass and onto the grocery display items behind it. Faded dummy boxes of Tide, Cheerios, Gaines Burgers, and such had been there for years and probably would remain there for many more. Both Nick and his store needed a good scrubbing. His prices would shame an Exxon executive, but the Nook was handy, and baked goods were delivered fresh daily—at least he said they were.
Jack picked up an Entenmann's crumb cake that didn't look too dusty, checked the fresh date on the side and found it was good till next week.
"Going over to Abe's, eh?" Nick said. He had three chins, one little one supported by two big ones, all in need of a shave.
"Yeah. Thought I'd bring the junky his fix."
"Tell him I said 'lo."
He walked over to Amsterdam Avenue and then down to the Isher Sports Shop. Here he knew he'd find Abe Grossman, friend and confidant for almost as long as he’d been Repairman Jack. In fact, Abe was one of the reasons Jack had moved into this neighborhood. Abe was the ultimate pessimist. No matter how dark things looked, Abe's outlook was darker. He could make a drowning man feel lucky.
Jack glanced through the window. A balding, overweight man in his late fifties was alone inside, sitting on a stool behind the cash register, reading a paperback.
The store was too small for its stock. Bicycles hung from the ceiling; fishing rods, tennis racquets, and basketball hoops littered the walls while narrow aisles wound between pressing-benches, hockey nets, scuba masks, soccer balls, and countless other weekend-making items hidden under or behind each other. Inventory was an annual nightmare.
"No customers?" Jack asked to the accompaniment of the bell that chimed when the door opened.
Abe peered over the half moons of his reading glasses. "None. And the census won't be changed by your arrival, I'm sure."
"Au contraire. I come with goodies in hand and money in pocket.”
“Did you—?" Abe peered over the counter at the white box with the blue lettering. "You did! Crumb?” His fingers did a come-hither waggle. “Come to Papa.”
Abe Grossman defined the concept of rotund. He carried way too much weight for a frame that fell short of five-eight. His graying hair had receded to the top of his head. His clothes never varied: black pants, short-sleeve white shirt, shiny black tie. The tie and shirt were a sort of scratch-and-sniff catalog of the food he’d eaten that day. As Jack neared the counter he spotted scrambled egg, mustard, and what could be either catsup or spaghetti sauce.
Just then the door dinged as a big burly fellow in a dirty sleeveless undershirt came through.
"You got softballs? I need three, quick like."
"Softballs we don’t have," Abe said without looking up. His eyes never left the Entenmann’s box. "Hardballs neither."
The guy made a face. “No softballs? What kinda sports store is that?"
“The kind that doesn’t have softballs.” Abe removed his glasses and gave the man a withering stare. “I should explain my inventory?”
The guy left, slamming the door behind him.
Jack pointed at a softball-laden shelf to his right. "You’ve got at least a dozen right there."
He shrugged. “I know, but then this cake would be lonely while I dealt with him. An Entenmann’s crumb cake should never be lonely.”
Jack handed him the box. “You want me to leave you two alone?”
"Feh!” he said as he lifted the lid. “You really know how to hurt a guy." He broke off a piece of cake and biting heartily. "You know I'm on a diet." Powdered sugar speckled his tie as he spoke.
"Yeah. I noticed."
"I should lie? I'm on low carb—except for Entenmann's. That's a free food. All other carbs have to be counted, but Entenmann's is ad lib." He took another big bite and spoke around it. Crumb cake always made him manic. "Did I tell you I added a codicil to my will? I've decided that after I'm cremated my ashes should be buried in an Entenmann's box. Or if I'm not cremated, it should be a white, glass-topped coffin with blue lettering on the side." He held up the cake box. "Just like this. Either way, I should be interred on a grassy slope overlooking the Entenmann's plant in Bay Shore."
Jack tried to smile but it must have been a poor attempt. Abe stopped in mid-chew.
"What's eating up your guderim?"
"Saw Gia today."
"It's over. Really over."
"You didn't know that?"
"I knew it but I didn't believe it." Jack forced himself to ask a question he wasn't sure he wanted answered. "Am I crazy, Abe? Is there something wrong in my head for wanting to live this way? Is my pilot light flickering and I don't know it?"
Without taking his eyes from Jack's face, Abe put down his piece of cake and made a halfhearted attempt to brush off his front. He succeeded only in smearing the sugar specks on his tie into large white blotches.
"What did she do to you?"
"Opened my eyes, maybe. Sometimes it takes an outsider to make you see yourself as you really are."
"And you see what?"
Jack took a deep breath. "A crazy man."
"That's what her eyes see. But what does she know? Does she know about Mr. Canelli? Does she know about your mother? Does she know how you came to where you are?”
"Nope. Didn't wait to hear."
"There! You see? She knows nothing! She understands nothing! And she's closed her mind to you. Someone like that you don’t need."
Abe rubbed a hand across his forehead, leaving a white smear.
“Nu? You've never been ditched?"
"Abe...I can't remember ever feeling about anyone the way I feel about Gia. And she's afraid of me!"
"Fear of the unknown. She doesn't know you, so she's afraid of you. I know all about you. Am I afraid?"
"Aren't you? Ever?"
"Never!" He trotted back behind the counter and picked up a copy of the New York Post. Riffling through the pages he said, "Look—a five-year old beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend! A guy with a straight razor slashed eight people in Times Square last night and then disappears into a subway! A headless, handless torso is found in a West Side hotel room! As a hit-and-run victim lies bleeding in the street, people run up to him, rob him, and then leave him there. I should be afraid of you?"
Jack shrugged, unconvinced. None of this would bring Gia back; it was what he was that had driven her away. He decided he wanted to do his business here and go home.
"I need something."
"A slapper. Lead and leather."
Abe nodded. "Ten ounces do?"
Abe locked the front door and hung the Back in a Few Minutes sign facing out through the glass. He passed Jack and led him toward the back where they stepped into a closet and closed the door after them. A push swung the rear wall of the closet away from them. Abe hit a light switch and they started down a worn stone stairway. As they moved, a neon sign flickered to life:
The Right to Buy Weapons Is the
Right to Be Free
Jack had often asked Abe why he’d placed a neon sign where advertising would do no good; Abe unfailingly replied that every good weapons shop should have such a sign.
"When you get right down to it, Jack," Abe was saying, "what I think of you or what Gia thinks of you—will that matter much in the long run? No. Because a long run there won’t be. Everything's falling apart. You know that. Not much time left before civilization collapses completely. Meshugge Islamics are just the tip of the iceberg. It's going to start soon. The banks'll start to go any day now. These people who think their savings are insured by the FDIC? Feh! Such got a rude awakening they’ve got coming! Just wait till the first couple of banks go under and they find out the FDIC only has enough to cover a pupik's worth of the deposits it's supposed to be insuring. Panic you'll see. And that's when the government will crank up the printing presses to full speed to cover those deposits. Then runaway inflation just like Weimar Germany. Bushel baskets of—"
Jack cut him off. He knew the routine by heart.
"You've been telling me this for ten years, Abe. Economic ruin has been around the corner for a decade now. Where is it?"
"Coming, Jack. Coming. I'm glad my daughter's full-grown and disinclined toward marriage and a family. I shudder at the thought that a child or a grandchild of mine should be growing up in the coming time."
Jack thought of Vicky. "Full of good cheer as usual, aren't you? The only man I know who lights up a room when he leaves."
"A comedian he’s become. I'm only trying to open your eyes so you can take steps to protect yourself."
"And what about you? You've got a bomb shelter somewhere in the sticks full of freeze-dried food?"
Abe shook his head. "I have a place, but built for a post-holocaust lifestyle I'm not. And I'm too old to learn."
He flipped another wall switch at the bottom of the steps, bringing the ceiling lights to life.
The basement was as crowded as the upstairs, only there was no sporting equipment down here, The walls and floors were covered with every one-man weapon imaginable: switchblades, clubs, swords, brass knuckles, and a full array of firearms from derringers to bazookas.
Abe went over to a cardboard box and rummaged through it.
"You want a slapper or the braided kind?"
Abe tossed him something in a Zip-lok bag. Jack removed it and hefted it in his hand. The sap, sometimes called a blackjack, was made of thin strips of leather woven around a lead weight; the weave tightened and tapered down to a firm handle that ended in a looped thong for the wrist. Jack fitted it on and tried a few short swings. The flexibility allowed him to get his wrist into the motion, a feature that might come in handy at close quarters.
He stood looking at the sap.
This was the sort of thing that had frightened Gia off. He swung it once more, harder, striking the edge of a wooden shipping crate: a loud crack; splinters flew.
"This'll do fine. How much?"
Jack reached into his pocket. "Used to be fifteen."
"That was years ago. A lifetime one of these should last."
"I lose things." He handed over a twenty-dollar bill and put the sap into his pocket.
"Need anything else while we're down here?"
Jack ran a mental inventory of his weapons and ammunition. "No. I'm pretty well set."
"Good. Then let's go upstairs and we'll have some cake and talk. You look like you need some talk."
"Thanks, Abe," Jack said, leading the way upstairs, "but I've got some errands to run before dark, so I'll take a rain check."
"You hold things in too much. I've told you that before. We're supposed to be friends. So talk it out. You don't trust me anymore?"
"I trust you like crazy. It's just..."
"See you, Abe."
It was after six when Jack got back to the apartment. With all the shades pulled, the dark front room matched his mood.
He had checked in with his office; no calls of any importance waiting for him. The answering machine here had no messages waiting.
He had a two-wheel, wire shopping cart with him, and in it a paper bag full of old clothing—woman's clothing. He leaned the cart in a corner, then stripped down and got into a T-shirt and shorts. Time for his workout. He didn't want to—he felt emotionally and physically spent—but this was the only thing in his daily routine he’d promised himself he would never let slide. His life depended on it.
He locked his apartment and jogged up the stairs.
The sun had done its worst and was on its way down the sky, but the roof remained an inferno. Its black surface would hold the day's heat long into the night. Jack looked west into the haze that reddened the lowering sun. On a clear day you could see New Jersey over there. If you wanted to. Abe had once told him that if you died in sin your soul went to New Jersey.
The roof was crowded. Not with people, with things. Appleton's tomato patch sat in the southeast corner; he had carried the topsoil up bag by fifty-pound bag. Harry Bok had a huge CB antenna in the northeast corner. Centrally located was the diesel generator everybody had pitched in to buy after the 2003 blackout; clustered along its north side like suckling piglets against their mama were a dozen two-gallon cans of number-one oil. And above it all, waving proudly from its slim two-inch pole, was Neil the Anarchist's black flag.
Jack went over to the small wooden platform he’d built for himself and did some stretching exercises, then went into his routine. He did his push-ups and sit-ups, jumped rope, practiced his tai kwon do kicks and chops, always moving, never stopping, until his body was slick with sweat and his hair hung in limp wet strands about his face and neck.
He spun at footsteps behind him.
"Oh, Neil. Hi. Must be about that time."
"Right you are."
Neil went over to the pole and reverently lowered his black flag. He folded it neatly, tucked it under his arm, and headed for the steps, waving as he went. Jack leaned against the generator and shook his head. Odd for a man who despised all rules to be so punctual, yet you could set your watch by the comings and goings of Neil the Anarchist.
Back in the apartment, Jack stuck six frozen egg rolls in the microwave while he took a quick shower. With his hair still wet, he opened a jar of duck sauce and a can of Diet Pepsi, then sat down in the kitchen.
The apartment felt empty. It hadn't seemed that way this morning, but it was too quiet now. He moved everything into the TV room. The big screen lit up in the middle of a comfy domestic scene with a husband, a wife, two kids and a dog. It reminded him of Sunday afternoons when Gia would bring Vicky over and he would hook up the Playstation and teach the little girl how to shoot monsters or hunt for treasure. He remembered watching Gia putter about the apartment; he’d liked the way she moved, so efficient and bustling, like a person who got things done. He found that immensely appealing.
He couldn't say the same about the homey show that now filled the screen. He quickly flipped around the dial and across the cable, finding everything from news to reruns to a bunch of couples two-stepping around hip-to-hip like a parade of Changs and Engs dancing to a country fiddler.
Definitely time for part two of Repairman Jack's unofficial James Whale Festival. The triumph of Whale's directorial career, Bride of Frankenstein, was ready to run.
"You think I'm mad. Perhaps I am. But listen, Henry Frankenstein. While you were digging in your graves, piecing together dead tiss-yoos, I, my dear pupil, went for my material to the source of life..."
Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Praetorius—the greatest performance of his career—was lecturing his former student. The movie was only half over, but it was time to go. He'd pick up where he left off before bedtime. Too bad. He loved this movie. Especially the score—Franz Waxman's best ever. Who'd have thought that later on in his career the creator of such a majestic, stirring piece would wind up doing the incidental music for turkeys like Return to Peyton Place? Some people never get the recognition they deserve.
He pulled on a D12 T-shirt; next came the shoulder holster with the little Semmerling under his left arm; a loose short-sleeved shirt went over that, followed by a pair of cut-off jeans, and sneakers—no socks. By the time he had everything loaded in his mini shopping cart and was ready to go, darkness had taken over the city.
He walked down Amsterdam Avenue to where Bahkti's grandmother had been attacked last night, found a deserted alley, and slipped into the shadows. He hadn't wanted to leave his apartment house in drag—his neighbors already considered him more than a little odd—and this was as good a dressing room as any place else.
First he took off his outer shirt. Then he reached into the bag and pulled out the dress-good quality but out of fashion and in need of ironing. That went over the T-shirt and shoulder holster, followed by a gray wig, then black shoes with no heels. He didn't want to look like a shopping-bag lady; a derelict had nothing to attract the man Jack was after. He wanted a look of faded dignity. New Yorkers see women like this all the time, in their late sixties on up toward eighty. They're all the same. They trudge along, humped over not so much from a softening of the vertebrae as from the weight of life itself, their center of gravity thrust way forward, usually looking down, or if the head is raised, never looking anyone in the eye. The key word with them is alone. They make irresistible targets.
And Jack was going to be one of them tonight. As an added inducement, he slipped a good quality paste diamond ring onto the fourth finger of his left hand. He couldn't let anyone get a close look at him, but he was sure the type of man he was searching for would spot the gleam from that ring a good two blocks away. And as a back-up attraction: a fat roll of bills, mostly singles, tight against his skin under one of the straps of his shoulder holster.
Jack put his sneakers and the sap into the paper bag in the upper basket of the little shopping cart. He checked himself in a store window: Well, he'd never make it as a transvestite. Then he began a slow course along the sidewalk, dragging the cart behind him.
Time to go to work.
Gia found herself thinking of Jack and resented it. She sat across a tiny dinner table from Carl, a handsome, urbane, witty, intelligent man who professed to be quite taken with her. They were in an expensive little restaurant below street level on the Upper East Side. The decor was spare and clean, the wine white, dry, cold, the cuisine nouvelle. Jack should have been miles from her thoughts, and yet he was here, slouched across the table between them.
She kept remembering the sound of his voice on the answering machine this morning... "Pinocchio Productions. I'm out at the moment"...triggering other memories further in the past...
Like the time she’d asked him why his answering machine always started off with' 'Pinocchio Productions" when there was no such company. Sure there is, he’d said, jumping up and spinning around. Look: no strings. She hadn't understood all the implications at the time.
And then to learn that among the "neat stuff" he’d been picking up in secondhand stores was a whole collection of Vernon Grant art. She found out about that the day he gave Vicky a copy of Flibbity Gibbit. Gia had become familiar with Grant's commercial work during her art school days—he was the creator of Kellogg's Snap, Crackle, and Pop—and she swiped from him now and again when an assignment called for something elfin. She felt she’d found a truly kindred spirit upon discovering that Jack was a fan of Vernon Grant. And Vicky...Vicky treasured Flibbity Gibbit and for a while her favorite expression had been "Wowie-kee-flowie!"
She straightened herself in her chair. Out, damned Jack! Out, I say! She had to start answering Carl in something more than monosyllables.
She told him her idea about changing the thrust of the Burger-Meister place mats from services to desserts. He was effusive in his praise, saying she should be a copywriter as well as an artist. That launched him onto the subject of the new campaign for his biggest client, Wee Folk Children's Clothes. There was work in it for Gia and perhaps even a modeling gig for Vicky.
Poor Carl...he’d tried so hard to hit it off with Vicky tonight. As usual, he failed miserably. Some people never learn how to talk to kids. They turn up the volume and enunciate with extra care, as if talking to a partially deaf immigrant. They sound as if they're reading lines somebody else wrote for them, or as if what they're saying is really for the benefit of other adults listening and not just for the child. Kids sense that and turn off.
But Vicky hadn't been turned off this afternoon. Jack knew how to talk to her. When he spoke it was to Vicky and to no one else. There was instant rapport between those two. Perhaps because there was a lot of little boy in Jack, a part of him that had never grown up. But if Jack was a little boy, he was a dangerous little boy. He—
Why did he keep creeping back into her thoughts? Jack is the past. Carl is the future. Concentrate on Carl!
She drained her wine and stared at Carl. Good old Carl. Gia held her glass out for more wine. She wanted lots of wine tonight.
His eye was killing him. He sat hunched in the dark recess of the doorway, glowering at the street. He'd probably have to spend the whole night here unless something came along soon.
The waiting was the worst part, man. The waiting and the hiding. Word was probably out to be on the lookout for a guy with a scratched eye. Which meant he couldn't hit the street and go looking, and he hadn't been in town long enough to find no one to crash with. So he had to sit here and wait for something to come to him.
All 'cause of that rotten bitch.
He fingered the gauze patch taped over his left eye and winced at the shock of pain from even the gentlest touch. Bitch! Damn near gouged his eye out last night. But he showed her. Fucking-ay right. Bounced her around good after that. And later on, in this very same doorway, when he'd gone through her wallet and found a grand total of seventeen bucks, and seen that the necklace was nothing but junk, he'd wanted to go back and do a tap dance on her head, but figured someone would've found her by then.
And then to top it all off, he'd had to spend most of the take on eye patches and ointment. He was worse off now than when he'd rolled the bitch.
He hoped she was hurting...hurting real good. He knew he was.
Should never have come east, man. He'd had to geese Detroit after losing it with a pry bar on that guy changing a tire out by the interstate. Easier to get lost here than someplace like, say, Saginaw. Bad part was he didn't know nobody.
He leaned back and watched the street with his good eye. Some weird-looking old lady was hobbling by on shoes that looked too small for her, pulling a shopping basket behind her. Not much there. Ain't worth the trouble of a closer look.
Who am I kidding? Jack thought. He’d been trudging up and down every West Side Street in the area. His back was killing him from walking hunched over. If the mugger had stayed in the neighborhood, Jack would have passed him by now.
Damn the heat and damn the dress and most of all damn the goddamn wig. I'll never find this guy.
But it wasn't only the futility of tonight's quest that was getting to him. The afternoon had hit him hard.
Jack prided himself on being a man of few illusions. He believed in the a balance of life and based that belief on Jack's Law of Social Dynamics: For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. The reaction wasn't necessarily automatic or inevitable; life wasn't like thermodynamics. Sometimes the reaction had to be helped along. That was where Jack came into the picture. He was in the business of making some of those reactions happen. He liked to think of himself as a sort of catalyst.
Jack knew he was a violent man. H~ made no excuses for that. He’d come to terms with it. He’d hoped Gia could eventually come to understand it.
When Gia had left him he'd convinced himself that it was all a big misunderstanding, that all he needed was a chance to talk to her and everything would be straightened out, that it was just her Italian pigheadedness keeping them apart. Well, he’d had his chance this afternoon and it was obvious there was no hope of a common ground with Gia. She wanted no part of him.
He frightened her.
That was the hardest part to accept. He had scared her off. Not by wronging her or betraying her, but simply by letting her know the truth...by letting her know what Repairman Jack fixed, and how he went about his work, and what tools he used.
One of them was wrong. Until this afternoon it had been easy to believe that it was Gia. Not so easy tonight. He believed in Gia, believed in her sensitivity, her perceptiveness. And she found him repugnant.
A soul-numbing lethargy seeped through him.
What if she's right? What if I am nothing more than a high-priced hoodlum who's rationalized his way into believing he's one of the good guys?
Jack shook himself. Self-doubt was a stranger to him. He wasn't sure how to fight back. And he had to fight it. He wouldn't change the way he lived; doubted he could if he wished to. He’d spent too long on the outside to find his way back in again—
Something about the guy sitting in the doorway he just passed...something about that face in the shadows that his unconscious had spotted in passing but had not yet sent up to his forebrain. Something...
Jack let go of the shopping basket handle. It clattered to the sidewalk. As he bent to pick it up, he glanced back at the doorway.
The guy was young with short blond hair—and had a white gauze patch over his left eye. Jack felt his heart notch up its tempo. This was almost too good to be true. Yet there he was, keeping back in the shadows, undoubtedly aware that his patch marked him. It had to be him. If not, it was one hell of a coincidence. Jack needed to be sure.
He picked up the cart and stood still for a moment, deciding his next move. Patch had noticed him, but seemed indifferent. Jack would have to change that.
With a cry of delight, he bent and pretended to pick something out from under the wheel of the cart. As he straightened, he turned his back to the street—but remained in full view of Patch whom he pretended not to see—and dug inside the top of his dress. He removed the roll of bills, made sure Patch got a good look at its thickness, then pretended to wrap a new bill around it. He stuffed it back in his ersatz bra, and continued on his way.
About a hundred feet on, he stopped to adjust a shoe and took advantage of the moment to sneak a look behind: Patch was out of the shadows and following him down the street. Good. Now to arrange a rendezvous.
He removed the sap from the paper bag and slipped his wrist through the thong, then went on until he came to an alley. Without an apparent care in the world, he turned into it and let the darkness swallow him.
Jack had moved maybe two-dozen feet down the littered path when he heard the sound he knew would come: quick, stealthy footsteps approaching from the rear. When the sound was almost upon him, he lurched to the left and flattened his back against the wall. A dark form hurtled by and fell sprawling over the cart.
Amid the clatter of metal and muttered curses, the figure scrambled to its feet and faced him. Jack felt truly alive now, reveling in the pulses of excitement crackling like bolts of lightning through his nervous system, anticipating one of the fringe benefits of his work—giving a dirtbag a taste of his own medicine.
Patch seemed hesitant. Unless he was very stupid, he must have realized that his prey had moved a bit too fast for an old lady. Jack did not want to spook him, so he made no move. He simply crouched against the alley wall and let out a high-pitched howl that would have put Una O'Connor to shame.
Patch jumped and glanced up and down the alley. "Hey! Shut up!"
Jack screamed again.
"Shut the fuck up!"
But Jack only crouched lower, gripped the handle of the sap tighter, and screamed once more.
"Awright, bitch!" Patch said through his teeth as he charged forward. "You asked for it."
Jack heard the anticipation in his voice, could tell he liked beating up people who couldn't fight back. As Patch loomed over him with raised fists, Jack straightened to his full height, bringing his left hand up from the floor. He caught Patch across the face with a hard, stinging, open-palmed slap that rocked him back on his heels.
Jack knew what would follow, so he’d been moving to his right even as he’d swung.
Sure enough, as soon as Patch regained his balance, he started for the street. He’d just made a big mistake and knew it. Probably thought he’d picked an undercover cop to roll. As he darted by on his way to freedom, Jack stepped in and swung the sap at Patch's skull. Not a hard swing—a flick of the wrist, really—but it connected with a satisfying thunk. Patch's body went slack but not before his reflexes had jerked him away from Jack. His momentum carried him head first into the far wall. He settled to the floor of the alley with a sigh.
Jack shucked off the wig and dress and got back into his sneakers, then he went over and nudged Patch with his foot. The creep groaned and rolled over. He appeared dazed, so Jack reached out with his free hand and shook him by the shoulder.
Without warning, Patch's right arm whipped around, slashing at Jack with the four-inch blade protruding from his fist. Jack grabbed the wrist with one hand and poked at a spot behind Patch's left ear, just below the mastoid. Patch grunted with pain. As Jack applied more and more pressure, he began flopping around like a fish on a hook. Finally he dropped the knife.
As Jack relaxed his hold, Patch made a leap to retrieve the knife. Jack had half expected this. The sap still hung from his wrist by its thong. He grabbed it and smashed it across the back of Patch's hand, putting all of his wrist and a good deal of his forearm behind the blow. The crunch of bone was followed by a scream of pain.
"You broke it!" He rolled onto his belly and then back onto his side. "I'll have your ass for this, pig!" He moaned and whined and swore incoherently, all the while cradling his injured hand.
"Pig?" Jack said in his softest voice. "No such luck, friend. This is personal."
The moaning stopped. Patch peered through the darkness with his good eye, a worried look on his face. As he placed his good hand against the wall to prop himself up, Jack raised the sap for another blow.
"No fair, man!" He quickly withdrew the hand and lay down again. "No fair!"
"Fair?" Jack laughed as nastily as he could. "Were you going to be fair to the old lady you thought you’d trapped here? No rules in this alley, friend. Just you and me. And I'm here to get you."
He saw Patch's eye widen; his tone echoed the fear in his face.
"Look, man. I don't know what's goin' down here, but you got the wrong guy. I only came in from Michigan last week. "
"Not interested in last week, friend. Just last night...the old lady you rolled."
"Hey, I didn't roll no old lady! No way!" Patch flinched and whimpered as Jack raised the sap menacingly. "I swear to God, man! I swear!"
Jack had to admit the guy was good. Very convincing.
"I'll help your memory a little: her car broke down; she wore a heavy necklace that looked like silver and had two yellow stones in the middle; and she used her fingernails on your eye." As he saw comprehension begin to dawn in Patch's eye, he felt his anger climbing towards the danger point. "She wasn't in the hospital yesterday, but she is today. And you put her there. She may kick off any time. And if she does, it's your fault."
"No, wait, man! Listen—"
He grabbed Patch by the hair at the top of his head and rapped his skull against the brick wall. "You listen! I want the necklace. Where'd you fence it?"
"Fence it? That piece of shit? I threw it away!"
"I don't know!"
"Remember!" Jack rapped Patch's head against the wall again for emphasis.
He kept seeing that frail old lady fading into the hospital bed, barely able to speak because of the beating she’d received at this creep's hands. A dark place was opening up inside him.
He needed Patch conscious.
"Awright! Lemme think!"
Jack managed a slow, deep breath. Then another.
"Think. You've got thirty seconds."
It didn't take that long.
"I thought it was silver. But when I got it under a light I saw it wasn't."
"You want me to believe you didn't even try to get a few bucks for it?"
"I...I didn't like it."
Jack hesitated, not sure of how to take that.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"I didn't like it, man. Something about it didn't feel right. I just threw it in some bushes."
"No bushes around here."
Patch flinched. "Are too! Two blocks down!"
Jack yanked him to his feet. "Show me."
Patch was right. Between West End and Twelfth Avenues, where Fifty-eighth Street slopes down toward the Hudson River, sat a small clump of privet hedge, the kind Jack had spent many a Saturday morning as a kid trimming in front of his parents' home in Jersey.
With Patch lying face down on the pavement by his feet, Jack reached into the bushes. A little rummaging around among the gum wrappers, used tissues, decaying leaves, and other less easily identifiable refuse produced the necklace.
Jack looked at it as it gleamed dully in the glow from a nearby streetlight.
I've done it! Goddamnit, I've done it!
He hefted it in his palm. Heavy. Had to be uncomfortable to wear. Why did Kusum want it back so badly? As he held it in his hand he began to understand what Patch had said to him about it not feeling right. It didn't feel right. He found it hard to describe the sensation more clearly than that.
Crazy, he thought. This thing's nothing more than sculptured iron and a couple of topazlike stones.
Yet he could barely resist the primitive urge to hurl the necklace across the street and run the other way.
"You gonna let me go now?" Patch said, rising to his feet.
His left hand was a dusky, mottled blue now, swollen to nearly twice its normal size He cradled it gingerly against his chest.
Jack held up the necklace. "This is what you beat up an old lady for?" he said in a low voice, feeling the rage pushing toward the surface. "She's all busted up in a hospital bed now because you wanted to rip this off, and then you threw it away."
"Look, man!" Patch said, pointing his good hand at Jack. "You've got it wrong—"
Jack saw the hand gesturing in the air two feet in front of him and the rage suddenly exploded. Without warning, he swung the sap hard against Patch's right hand. As before, crunch and a howl of pain.
As Patch sank to his knees, moaning, Jack walked past him back toward West End Avenue.
"Let's see you roll an old lady now, tough guy."
The darkness within him began to retreat. Without looking back, he started toward the more populated sections of town. The necklace tingled uncomfortably against the inside of his palm.
He wasn't far from the hospital. He broke into a run. He wanted to be rid of this thing as soon as possible.
The end was near.
Kusum had sent the private duty nurse out into the hall and now stood alone at the head of the bed holding the withered hand in his. Anger had receded, as had frustration and bitterness. Not gone, simply tucked away until they would be needed, leaving a void within him.
The futility of it all. All those years of life canceled by a moment of viciousness.
He could not dredge up a shred of hope of seeing the necklace returned before the end. No one could find it in time, not even the highly recommended Repairman Jack. If it was in her karma to die without the necklace, then Kusum would have to accept it. At least he had the satisfaction of knowing he had done everything in his power to retrieve it.
A knock at the door. The private duty nurse stuck her head in. "Mr. Bahkti?"
He repressed the urge to scream. It would feel so good to scream at someone.
"I told you I wished to be alone in here."
"I know. But there's a man out here. He insisted I give you this." She held out her hand. "Said you were expecting it."
Kusum stepped toward the door. He could not imagine...
Something dangled from her hand. It looked like—it wasn't possible!
He snatched the necklace from her fingers.
It's true! It's real! He found it!
Kusum wanted to sing out his joy, to dance with the startled nurse. Instead, he pushed her out the door and rushed to the bedside. The clasp was broken, so he wrapped the necklace about the throat of the nearly lifeless form there.
"It's all right now!" he whispered in their native tongue.
"You're going to be all right!"
He stepped into the hall and saw the private duty nurse.
"Where is he?"
She pointed down the hall. "At the nursing station. He's not even supposed to be on the floor, but he was very insistent. "
I'm sure he was. Kusum pointed toward the room. "See to her."
Then he hurried down the hall.
He found Jack dressed in ragged shorts and mismatched shirts—he had seen better dressed stall attendants at the Calcutta bazaar—leaning against the counter at the nursing station, arguing with a burly head nurse who turned to Kusum as he approached.
"Mr. Bahkti, you are allowed on the floor because of your grandmother's critical condition. But that doesn't mean you can have your friends wandering in and out at all hours of the night!"
Kusum barely looked at her. "We will be but a minute. Go on about your business."
He turned to Jack. He looked hot and tired and sweaty. Oh, for two arms to properly embrace this man, even though he probably smells like everyone else in this country of beef eaters. Certainly an extraordinary man. Thank Kali for extraordinary men, no matter what their race or dietary habits.
"I assume I made it in time?" Jack said.
"Yes. Just in time. She will be well now."
The American's brow furrowed. "It's going to patch her up?"
"No, of course not. But knowing it has been returned will help her up here." He tapped his forefinger against his temple. "For here is where all healing resides."
"Sure," Jack said, his expression hiding none of his skepticism. "Anything you say."
"I suppose you wish the rest of your fee."
Jack nodded. "Sounds good to me."
He pulled the thick envelope from his tunic and thrust it at Jack. Despite his prior conviction of the impossibility of his ever seeing the stolen necklace again, Kusum had kept the packet with him as a gesture of hope and of faith in the goddess he prayed to.
"I wish it were more. I don't know how to thank you enough. Words cannot express how much—"
"It's okay," Jack said quickly. Kusum's outpouring of gratitude seemed to embarrass him.
Kusum, too, was taken aback by the intensity of the emotions within him. He had given up hope. He had asked this man, a stranger, to perform an impossible task, and it had been done! He detested emotional displays, but his customary control over his feelings had slipped since the nurse placed the necklace in his hand.
"Where did you find it?"
"I found the guy who stole it and convinced him to take me to it."
Kusum felt his fist clench and the muscles at the back of his neck bunch involuntarily. "Did you kill him as I asked?"
Jack shook his head. "Nope. Told you I wouldn't. But he won't be punching out old ladies for some time. Don't worry. He's been paid back in kind. I fixed it."
Kusum nodded silently, hiding the storm of hatred raging across his mind. Mere pain was not enough—not nearly enough. The man responsible here must pay with his life.
"Very well, Mr. Jack. My family and I owe you a debt of gratitude. If there is ever anything you need that is in my power to secure for you, any goal that is in my power to achieve, you have merely to ask. All efforts within the realm of human possibility" —he could not repress a smile here— “and perhaps even beyond, will be expended on your behalf.”
"Thank you," Jack said with a smile and a slight bow. "I hope that won't be necessary. I think: I'll be heading home now."
"Yes. You look tired."
But as Kusum studied him, he sensed more than mere physical fatigue. There was an inner pain that hadn't been present this morning...a spiritual exhaustion. Was something fragmenting this man? He hoped not. That would be tragic. He wished he could ask, but did not feel he had the right.
He watched until the American had been swallowed by the elevator, then he returned to the room. The private duty nurse met him at the door.
"She seems to be rallying, Mr. Bahkti! Respirations are deeper, and her blood pressure's up!"
"Excellent!" Nearly twenty-four hours of constant tension began to unravel within him. She would live. He was sure of it now. "Have you a safety pin?"
The nurse looked at him quizzically but went to her purse on the windowsill and produced one. Kusum used it as a clasp for the necklace, then turned to the nurse.
"This necklace is not to be removed for any reason whatsoever. Is that clear?"
The nurse nodded timidly. "Yes, sir. Quite clear."
"I will be elsewhere in the hospital for a while," he said, starting for the door. "If you should need me, have me paged.”
Kusum took the elevator down to the first floor and followed signs to the emergency room. He had learned that this was the only hospital serving the midtown West Side. Jack had hinted that he had injured the mugger's hands. If he should seek medical care, it would be here.
He took a seat in the crowded waiting area of the emergency department. People of all sizes and colors brushed against him on their way in and out of the examining rooms, back and forth to the receptionist counter. He found the odors and the company distasteful, but intended to wait a few hours here. He was vaguely aware of the attention he drew but was used to it. A one-armed man dressing as he did in the company of westerners soon became immune to curious stares. He ignored them. They were not worthy of his concern.
Less than half an hour later an injured man entered and grabbed Kusum's attention. His left eye was patched and both his hands were swollen to twice their normal size.
No doubt. This was the one! Kusum barely restrained himself from leaping up and attacking the man. He seethed as he sat and watched a secretary in the reception booth begin to help him fill out the standard questionaire his useless hands could not.
A man who broke people with his hands had had his hands broken. Kusum relished the poetry of it.
He walked over and stood next to the man. As he leaned against the counter, looking as if he wished to ask the secretary a question, he glanced down at the form. Daniels, Ronald, 359 W. 53rd St.
Kusum stared at Ronald Daniels, who was too intent on hurrying the completion of the form to notice him. Between answers to the secretary's questions, he whined about the pain in his hands. When asked about the circumstances of the injury, he said a jack had slipped while he had been changing a tire and his car had fallen on him.
Smiling, Kusum went back to his seat and waited. He saw Daniels led into an examining room, saw him wheeled out to x-ray in a chair, and then back to the examining room. After a long wait, Daniels was wheeled out again, this time with casts from the middle of his fingers up to his elbows. Kusum listened to him whining about the pain.
Another stroll over to the reception booth and Kusum learned that Mr. Daniels was being admitted overnight for observation. Kusum hid his annoyance. That would complicate matters. He had been hoping to catch up with him outside and deal with him personally. But he knew another way to settle his score with Ronald Daniels.
He returned to the private room and received a very favorable update from the amazed nurse.
"She's doing wonderfully—even spoke to me a moment ago! Such spirit!"
"Thank you for your help, Miss Wiles," Kusum said. "I don't think we'll be requiring your services any longer."
"Have no fear: You shall be paid for the entire eight-hour shift." He went to the windowsill, took her purse and handed it to her. "You've done a wonderful job. Thank you."
Ignoring her confused protests, he guided her out the door and into the hall. As soon as he was sure she would not be returning out of some misguided sense of duty, he went to the bedside phone and dialed hospital information.
"I'd like to know the room number of a patient," he said when operator picked up. "His name is Ronald Daniels. He was just admitted through the emergency room."
There was a pause, then: "Ronald Daniels is in 547C, North Wing."
Kusum hung up and leaned back in the chair. How to go about this? He had seen where the doctors' lounge was located. Perhaps he could find a scrub suit there that would enable him to move more freely about the hospital.
As he considered his options, he pulled a tiny glass vial from his pocket and removed the stopper. He sniffed the familiar herbal odor of the green liquid within, then resealed it.
Mr. Ronald Daniels was in pain. He had suffered for his transgression. But not enough. No, not nearly enough.
Ron jerked awake. He’d just been drifting off into sleep.
Goddamn that old bastard!
Every time he started to fall asleep, the old fart yelled.
Just my luck to get stuck in ward with three geezers. He elbowed the call button. Where was that fucking nurse? He needed a shot.
The pain was a living thing, grinding Ron's hands in its teeth and gnawing his arms all the way up to the shoulders. All he wanted to do was sleep, but the pain kept him awake. The pain and the oldest of his three ancient roommates, the one over by the window, the one the nurses called Tommy. Every so often, in between his foghorn snores, he'd let out a yell that would rattle the windows.
Ron hit the call button again with his elbow. Because both his arms was resting in slings suspended from an overhead bar, the nurses had fastened the button to one of the side rails. He’d asked them over and over for another pain shot, but they kept giving him the same old shit: "Sorry, Mr. Daniels, but the doctor left orders for a shot every four hours and no more. You'll have to wait."
Mr. Daniels…he could almost smile at that. His real name was Ronald Daniel Symes. Ron to his friends. He’d given the receptionist a phony name, a phony address, and told them his Blue Cross/Blue Shield card was at home in his wallet. And when they'd wanted to send him home, he'd told them how he lived alone and had no one to feed him or even help him open his apartment door.
They'd bought the whole package. So now he had a place to stay, three meals a day, air conditioning, and when it was all over, he'd skip out and they could take their bill and shove it.
Everything would be great if it wasn't for the pain.
The pain and Tommy.
He hit the button again. Four hours had to be up. He needed that shot.
The door to the room swung open and someone carne in. Not a nurse. It was a guy. But he was dressed in white. Maybe a male nurse. Shit! He didn’t need no faggot trying to give him a bed bath in the middle of the night.
But the guy only leaned over the bed and held out one of those tiny plastic medicine cups. Half an inch of colored liquid swirled in the bottom.
"For the pain." The guy was dark and had some sort of accent.
"I want a shot, clown!"
"Not time yet for a shot. This will hold you until then."
Ron let him tip the cup up to his lips. Funny tasting stuff. As he swallowed it, he noticed the guy's left arm was missing. He pulled his head away.
"And listen," he said, feeling a sudden urge to throw his weight around—after all, he was a patient here. "Tell them out there I don't want no more cripples coming in here."
In the darkness, Ron thought he detected a smile on the face above him.
"Certainly, Mr. Daniels. I shall see to it that your next attendant is quite sound of limb."
"Good. Now take off, geek.”
Ron decided he liked being a patient. He could give orders and people had to listen. And why not? He was sick and—
If only he could order Tommy to stop.
The junk the geek’d given him didn't seem to be helping his pain. Only thing to do was try to sleep.
He thought about that bastard cop who'd busted up his hands tonight. Said it was private, but Ron knew a pig when he saw one. Swore he'd find that sadist bastard even if he had to hang around every precinct house in New York until winter.
And then Ron would follow him home. He wouldn't get back at him directly—Ron had a bad feeling about that guy and didn't want to be around if he ever got real mad.
But maybe he had a wife and kids...
Ron lay there in a half doze for a good forty-five minutes planning what he'd do to get even with the pig. He was just tipping over the edge into a deep sleep, falling...finally falling...
Ron jerked violently in the bed, pulling his right arm out of the sling and knocking it against the side rail. A fiery blast of pain shot up to his shoulder. Tears squeezed out of his eyes as breath hissed noisily through his bared teeth.
When the pain dropped to a more tolerable level, he knew what he had to do.
That old fucker had to go.
Ron pulled his left arm out of its sling, then eased himself over the side. The floor was cold. He lifted his pillow between his two casts and padded over to Tommy's bed. All he had to do was lay it over the old guy's face and lean on it. A few minutes of that and poof, no more snores, no more yells, no more Tommy.
He saw something move outside the window as he passed by it. He looked closer. A shadow, like somebody's head and shoulders. A big somebody.
But this was the fifth floor.
Had to be seeing things. That stuff in the cup must have been stronger than he thought. He bent closer to the window for a better look. What he saw there held him transfixed for a long, long heartbeat.
A face out of a nightmare, worse than all his nightmares combined. And those glowing yellow eyes...
A scream started in his throat as he lurched backward. But before it could reach his lips, a taloned, three fingered hand smashed through the double pane and clamped savagely, unerringly, around his throat. The rough flesh was cool and damp, almost slimy, with a rotten stench. He caught a glimpse of smooth dark skin stretched over a long, lean, muscular arm leading out through the shattered glass to...what?
And then Ron felt excruciating pressure against his windpipe, crushing it closed against his spine with an explosive crunch! He arched his back and clawed at the imprisoning fingers, but they were like a steel collar. As he struggled vainly for air, his vision blurred. And then, with a smooth, almost casual motion, he felt himself yanked bodily through the window, felt the rest of the glass shatter with his passage, the shards either falling away or raking savagely at his flesh. He had one soul-numbing, moon-limned glimpse of his attacker before his oxygen-starved brain mercifully extinguished his vision.
And back in the room, after that final instant of crashing noise, all was quiet again. Two of the remaining patients, deep in chemical dreams, stirred in their beds and turned over.
Tommy, the closest to the window, shouted "Help me!" and then went back to snoring.
Bharangpur, West Bengal, India
Wednesday, June 24, 1857
It's all gone wrong. Every bleeding thing gone wrong!
Captain Sir Albert Westphalen of the Bengal European Fusiliers stood in the shade of an awning between two market stalls and sipped cool water from a jug freshly drawn from a well. It was a glorious relief to be shielded from direct attack by the Indian sun, but he could not escape the glare. It bounced off the sand in the street, off the white stucco walls of the buildings, even off the pale hides of those nasty hump-backed bulls roaming freely through the marketplace. The glare drove the heat through his eyes to the very center of his brain. He dearly wished he could pour the contents of the jug over his head and let the water trickle down the length of his body.
But no. He was a gentleman in the uniform of Her Majesty's army and surrounded by heathens. He couldn't do anything so undignified. So he stood here in the shade, his high-domed pith helmet square upon his head, his buff uniform smelly and sopping in the armpits and buttoned up tight at the throat, and pretended the heat didn't bother him. He ignored the sweat soaking the thin hair under his helmet, oozing down over his face, clinging to the dark mustache he had so carefully trimmed and waxed this morning, gathering in drops at his chin to fall off onto his tunic.
Oh, for a breeze. Or better still, rain. But neither was due for another month. He had heard that when the summer monsoon started blowing from the southwest in July there would be plenty of rain. Until then, he and his men would have to fry.
It could be worse.
He could have been sent with the others to retake Meerut and Delhi from the rebels...forced marches along the Ganges basin in full uniform and kit, rushing to face hordes of crazed sepoys waving their bloody talwars and shouting "Din! Din! Din!"
He shuddered. Not for me, thank you very much.
Luckily the rebellion had not spread this far east, at least not to any appreciable extent. That was fine with Westphalen. He intended to stay as far away from the pandies as he could. He knew from regimental records that 20,000 British troops were quartered on the subcontinent. What if all of India's untold millions decided to rise up and end the raj? It was a recurrent nightmare.
And no more East India Company. Which, Westphalen knew, was the real reason the army was here—to protect "John Company's" interests.
He had sworn to fight for the Crown and he was willing—up to a point—to do that, but he'd be damned if he was going to die fighting for a bunch of tea traders. After all, he was a gentleman and had accepted a commission out here only to forestall the financial catastrophe threatening his estate. And perhaps to make some contacts during his term of service. He had arranged for a safe, purely administrative job.
All part of a plan to allow him time to find a way to recoup his considerable gambling losses—one might say incredible losses for a man just forty years of age—and then go home and straighten out his debts. He grimaced at the enormous amount of money he had squandered since his father had died and the baronetcy had passed to him.
But his luck had run true here on the far side of the world—it stayed bad. There had been years of peace in India before he had come—a little trouble here and there, but nothing serious. The raj had seemed totally secure. But now he knew that dissension and discontent among the native recruits had been bubbling beneath the surface, waiting, it seemed, for his arrival. Here not even a year, and what happens? The sepoys go on a rampage!
It wasn't fair.
But it could be worse, Albert, old boy, he told himself for the thousandth time that day. It could be worse.
And it most certainly could be far better. Better to be back in Calcutta at Fort William. Not much cooler, but closer to the sea there. If India explodes, it's just a hop and a skip to a boat on the Hoogly River and then off to the safety of the Bay of Bengal.
He took another sip and leaned his back against the wall. It wasn't an officerly posture, but he really didn't give a bloody damn at this point. His office was like a freshly stoked furnace. The only sane thing to do was to stay here under the awning with a water jug until the sun got lower in the sky. Three o'clock now. It should be cooling down soon.
He waved his hand through the air around his face. If he ever got out of India alive, the one thing he would remember more vividly than the heat and humidity was the flies. They were everywhere, encrusting everything in the marketplace—the pineapples, the oranges, the lemons, the piles of rice—all were covered with black dots that moved and flew and hovered, and lit again. Bold, arrogant flies that landed on your face and darted away just before you could slap them.
That incessant buzz—was it shoppers busy haggling with the merchants, or was it hordes of flies?
The smell of hot bread wafted by his nose. The couple in the stall across the alley to his left sold chapatis, little disks of unleavened bread that were a dietary staple of everyone in India, rich and poor alike. He remembered trying them on a couple of occasions and finding them tasteless. For the last hour the woman had been leaning over a dung fire cooking an endless stream of chapatis on flat iron plates. The temperature of the air around that fire had to be 130 degrees.
How do these people stand it?
He closed his eyes and wished for a world free of heat, drought, avaricious creditors, senior officers, and rebellious sepoys. He kept them closed, enjoying the relative darkness behind the lids. It would be nice to spend the rest of the day like this, just leaning here and—
It wasn't a sound that snapped his eyes open, more the lack of it. The street had gone utterly silent As he straightened from the wall he could see the shoppers who had been busy inspecting goods and haggling over prices now disappearing into alleys and side streets and doorways—no rush, no panic, but moving with deliberate swiftness, as if they had all suddenly remembered somewhere else they had to be.
Only the merchants remained...the merchants and their flies.
Wary and uneasy, Westphalen gripped the handle of the saber slung at his left hip. He had been trained in its use but had never had to defend himself with it. He hoped he wouldn't have to now.
He sensed movement off to his left and turned.
A squat little toad of a man swathed in the orange dhoti of a holy one led a train of six mules on a leisurely course down the middle of the street
Westphalen allowed himself to relax. Just a svamin of some sort. There was always one or another of them about.
As Westphalen watched, the priest veered to the far side of the street and stopped his mules before a cheese stand. He did not move from his place at the head of the train, did not look left or right He simply stood and waited. The cheese maker quickly gathered up some of his biggest blocks and wheels and brought them out to the little man who inclined his head a few degrees after an instant's glance at the offering. The merchant put these in a sack tied to the back of one of the mules, then retreated to the rear of his stall.
Not a rupee had changed hands.
Westphalen watched with growing amazement.
Next stop was on Westphalen's side of the street, the chapati stall next door. The husband brought a basketful out for inspection. Another nod, and these too were deposited on the back of a mule.
Again, no money changed hands—and no questions about quality. Westphalen had never seen anything like this. These merchants would haggle with their mothers over the price of breakfast.
He could imagine only one thing that could inspire such cooperation: fear.
The priest moved on without stopping at the water stand.
"Something wrong with your water?" Westphalen said to the vendor squatting on the ground beside him.
As usual, he spoke in English. He saw no reason to learn an Indian tongue and had never tried. Fourteen major languages yammered across this God-forsaken subcontinent and something like 250 dialects. An absurd situation. What few words he had picked up had been through osmosis rather than conscious effort. After all, it was the natives' responsibility to learn to understand him. And most of them did, especially the merchants.
"The temple has its own water," the vendor said without looking up.
"Which temple is that?"
Westphalen wanted to know what the priest held over these merchants' heads to make them so compliant. It was information that might prove useful in the future.
"I didn't know there was a temple in the hills."
This time the water vendor raised his head and stared at him. The dark eyes held a disbelieving look, as if to say, How could you not know?
"And to which one of your heathen gods is this particular temple dedicated?" His words seemed to echo in the surrounding silence.
The water vendor whispered, "Kali, the Black Goddess."
Oh, yes. He had heard that name before. She was supposedly popular in the Bengal region. These Hindus had more gods than you could shake a stick at. A strange religion, Hinduism. He had heard that it had little or no dogma, no founder, and no leader. Really—what kind of a religion was that?
"I thought her big temple was down near Calcutta, at Dakshinesvar.”
"There are many temples to Kali," the water vendor said. "But none like the Temple-in-the-Hills."
"Really? And what's so special about this one?"
But the water vendor lowered his head and refused to respond any further. It was as if he thought he had said too much already.
Six weeks ago Westphalen would not have tolerated such insolence. But six weeks ago a rebellion by the sepoys had been unthinkable.
He took a final sip of the water, tossed a coin into the silent vendor's lap, and stepped out into the full ferocity of the sun. The air out in the open was like a blast from a burning house. He felt the dust that perpetually overhung the street mix with the beads of perspiration on his face, leaving it coated with a fine layer of salty mud.
He followed the svamin through the rest of the marketplace, watching the chosen merchants donate the best of their wares without a grumble or a whimper, as if glad of the opportunity. Westphalen tracked him through most of Bharangpur, along its widest thoroughfares, down its narrowest alleys. And everywhere the priest and his mule train went, the people faded away at his approach and reappeared in his wake.
Finally, as the sun was drifting down the western sky, the priest came to the north gate.
Now we've got him, Westphalen thought.
All pack animals were to be inspected for contraband before allowed exit from Bharangpur or any other garrisoned town. The fact that no rebel activity had been reported anywhere in Bengal did not matter; it was a general order and as such had to be enforced.
Westphalen watched from a distance of about two hundred yards. He would wait until the lone British sentry had begun the inspection, then he would stroll over as if on a routine patrol of the gate and learn a little more about this svamin and his temple in the hills.
He saw the priest stop at the gate and speak to a sentry with an Enfield casually slung across his back. They seemed like old friends. After a few moments, without inspection or detention, the priest resumed his path through the gate—but not before Westphalen had seen him press something into the sentry's palm in a flash of movement. If Westphalen had blinked he would have missed it.
The priest and his mules were beyond the wall and on their way toward the hills in the northwest by the time Westphalen reached the gate.
"Give me your rifle, soldier!"
The sentry saluted, then shrugged the Enfield off his shoulder and handed it to Westphalen without question. Westphalen knew him. His name was MacDougal, an enlisted man—young, red faced, hard fighting, hard drinking, like most of his fellow Bengal European Fusiliers. In his three weeks as commander of the Bharangpur garrison, Westphalen had come to think of him as a good soldier.
"I'm placing you under arrest for dereliction of duty!"
MacDougal blanched. "Sir, I—"
"And for taking a bribe!"
"I tried to give it back to 'im, sir!"
Westphalen laughed. This soldier must think him blind as well as stupid!
"Of course you did! Just like you gave his mules a thorough inspection."
"Old Jaggernath's only bringing supplies to the temple, sir. I've been here two years, captain, and 'e's come by every month, like clockwork, every new moon. Only brings food out to the hills, 'e does, sir."
"He must be inspected like everybody else."
MacDougal glanced after the retreating mule train. "Jaggernath said they don't like their food touched, sir. Only by their own kind."
"Well, isn't that a pity! And I suppose you let him pass uninspected out of the goodness of your heart?" Westphalen was growing steadily angrier at this soldier's insolence. "Empty your pockets and let's see how many pieces of silver it took to get you to betray your fellow soldiers."
Color suddenly flooded back into MacDougal's face. "I'd never betray me mates!"
For some reason, Westphalen believed him. But he couldn't drop the matter now.
"Empty your pockets!"
MacDougal emptied only one: from his right-hand pocket he withdrew a small, rough stone, clear, dull red in color. Westphalen withheld a gasp.
"Give it to me."
He held it up to the light of the setting sun. He had seen his share of uncut stones as he had gradually turned the family valuables into cash to appease his more insistent creditors. This was an uncut ruby. A tiny thing, but polished up it could bring an easy hundred pounds. His hand trembled. If this is what the priest gave to a sentry as a casual reward for leaving his temple's food untouched…
"Where is this temple?"
"Don't know, sir." MacDougal was watching him eagerly, probably looking for a way out of dereliction charges. "And I've never been able to find out. The locals don't know and don't seem to want to know. The Temple-in-the-Hills is supposed to be full of jewels but guarded by demons."
Westphalen grunted. More heathen rubbish. But the stone in his hand was genuine enough. And the casual manner in which it had been given to MacDougal indicated there might be many more where it came from.
With the utmost reluctance, he handed the ruby back to MacDougal. He would play for bigger stakes. And to do so he had to appear completely unconcerned about money.
"I guess no harm has been done. Sell that for what you can and divide it up between the men. And divide it equally, hear?”
MacDougal appeared about to faint with surprise and relief, but he managed a sharp salute.
Westphalen tossed the Enfield back at him and walked away, knowing that in MacDougal's eyes he was the fairest, most generous commanding officer he had ever known. Westphalen wanted the enlisted man to feel that way. He had use for MacDougal, and for any other soldier who had been in Bharangpur for a few years.
Captain Sir Albert Westphalen had decided to find this Temple-in-the-Hills. It might well hold the answer to all his financial problems.
Jack awoke shortly before ten feeling exhausted.
He’d come home jubilant after last night's success, but the glow had quickly faded. The apartment had had that empty feel to it. Worse: he felt empty. He’d quickly downed two beers, hid the second half of his fee behind the cedar plank, then crawled into bed.
After a couple of hours of sleep, however, he’d found himself wide awake for no good reason. An hour of twisting around in his sheets did no good, so he gave up and watched the end of Bride of Frankenstein. As the dinky little Universal plane went around the world and said "The End," he’d dozed off again for another couple of hours of fitful slumber.
He now pushed himself out of bed and took a wake-up shower. For breakfast he finished off the Cocoa Puffs and started on a box of Sugar Pops. As he shaved he saw that the thermometer outside his bedroom window read 89°—in the shade. He dressed accordingly in slacks and a short-sleeve shirt, then sat by the phone. He had two calls to make: one to Gia, and one to the hospital. He decided to save Gia for last.
The hospital switchboard told him that the phone had been disconnected in the room number he gave them; no Mrs. Bahkti listed as a patient. His heart sank. Damn! Even though he’d spoken to the old lady for only a few minutes, the news of her passing hurt. So senseless. At least he’d been able to get the necklace back to her before she packed it in. He told the operator to connect him with the nursing desk on the old lady's floor. Soon he was talking to Marta.
"When did Mrs. Bahkti die?"
"Far as I know, she didn't."
A flash of hope: "Transferred to another floor?"
"No. It happened during the change of shift. The grandson and granddaughter-"
"You wouldn't like her, Jack—she's not a blonde. Anyway, they came to the desk at shift change this morning while we were all taking report and thanked us for the concern we'd shown their grandmother. Said they'd take care of her from now on. Then they walked out. When we went to check on her, she was gone."
Jack pulled the receiver away from his ear and scowled at it before replying.
"How'd they get her out? She sure as hell couldn't walk."
He could almost feel Marta shrug at the other end of the line. "Beats me. But they tell me the guy with one arm was acting real strange toward the end of the shift, wouldn't let anyone in to see her for the last few hours."
"Why'd they let him get away with that?" For no good reason, Jack was angry, feeling like a protective relative. "That old lady needed all the help she could get. You can't let someone interfere like that, even if he is the grandson. You should have called security and had them—"
"Cool it, Jack," Marta said with an authoritative snap to her tone. "I wasn't here then."
"Yeah. Right. Sorry. It's just that—"
"Besides, from what they tell me, this place was a zoo last night after a patient on Five North climbed out a window. Security was all tied up over there. Really weird. This guy with casts on both hands breaks through his room window and somehow gets down the wall and runs away.
Jack felt his spine stiffen. "Casts? On both hands?"
"Yeah. Came in through the ER last night with comminuted fractures. Nobody can see how he climbed down the wall, especially since he must have got cut up pretty bad going through the window. But he wasn't splattered on the pavement, so he must have made it."
"Why the window? Was he under arrest or something?"
"That's the really weird thing. He could have walked out the front door if he wanted to. Anyhow, we all figure the grandkids snuck old Mrs. Bahkti out during all the commotion.”
"What'd the guy who went through the window look like? Did he have a patch on his left eye?" Jack held his breath as he waited for the answer.
"I haven't the faintest, Jack. Did you know the guy? I could find out his name for you."
"Thanks, Marta, but that won't help. Never mind."
After saying good-bye, he cradled the receiver and sat staring at the floor. In his mind's eye he was watching Kusum steal into a hospital room, grab a young man with a gauze patch over his left eye and casts on both arms, and hurl him through a window. But Jack couldn't buy it. He knew Kusum would have liked to do just that, but he couldn't see a one-armed man being capable of it. Especially not while he was busy spiriting his grandmother out of the hospital.
Irritably, he shook off the images and concentrated on his other problem: the disappearance of Grace Westphalen. He had nothing to go on but the unlabeled bottle of herbal fluid, and had only a vague gut suspicion that it was somehow involved. He didn't trust hunches, but he decided to follow this one for lack of anything better.
He picked up the bottle from where he’d left it on the oak hutch last night and unscrewed the cap. The odor was unfamiliar, but definitely herbal. He placed a drop on a fingertip and tasted it. Not bad. Only thing to do was to have it analyzed and see where it came from. Maybe by some far out chance it was connected to whatever had happened to Grace.
He picked up the phone again, intending to call Gia, then put it down. He couldn't bear to hear the ice in her voice. Not yet. Needed to do something else first: Call that crazy one-armed Indian and find out what he’d done with the old lady. He dialed the number Kusum had left on the office answerphone yesterday.
A woman answered, her voice was soft, unaccented, almost liquid. She told him Kusum was out.
"When will he be back?"
"This evening. Is...is this Jack?"
"Uh, yes." He was startled and puzzled. "How did you know?”
Her laugh was musical. "Kusum said you'd probably be calling. I'm Kolabati, his sister. I was just going to call your office. I want to meet you, Repairman Jack."
"And I want to know where your grandmother is!"
"On her way to India," she said lightly, "where she will be cared for by our own doctors."
Jack was relieved but still annoyed. "That could have been arranged without sneaking her out the back door or whatever you did."
"Of course. But you do not know my brother. He always does things his way. Just like you, from what he tells me. I like that in a man. When can we meet?"
Something in her voice caused his concern for the grandmother to fade into the background. He old lady was, after all, under medical care...
"Are you staying in the States long?" he asked, temporizing.
He had a rule that once he was through with a job, he was through. But he had an urge to see what sort of face went with that seductive voice. And come to think of it, this woman wasn't a customer—her brother was.
Jack, you should have been a lawyer.
"I live in Washington, DC I rushed up as soon as I heard about grandmother. Do you know where the Waldorf is?"
"Heard of it."
"Why don't we meet in Peacock Alley at six?"
I do believe I'm being asked out for a date. Well, why not.
"Sure. How'll I know you?"
"I'll be wearing white."
"See you at six."
He hung up, wondering at his reckless mood. Blind dates were not his style.
But now for the hard part: a call to Gia.
He dialed Nellie's number. After precisely two rings, Eunice answered with "Paton residence," and called Gia to the phone at Jack's request. He waited with a curious mixture of dread and anticipation.
"Hello?" Her voice was cool, businesslike.
"How'd things go last night?"
"That's none of your business, Jack!" she said, her voice rising in anger. "What right have you got to pry into—"
"Hey!" he said. "I just want to know if there's been any ransom note or phone calls or any word from Grace! What the hell's the matter with you?"
"Oh...sorry. Nothing. No word at all. Nellie's really down. Got any good news I can tell her?"
"Are you doing anything?"
"Detective stuff. You know, tracing clues, following up leads. That kind of thing."
Gia made no reply. Her silence was eloquent enough. And she was right; wisecracks were out of place.
"I don't have much to go on, Gia, but I'll be doing what ever can be done."
"I don't suppose we can ask for more than that," she said finally, her voice as cool as ever.
"How about lunch today?"
"A late dinner, then?"
"Jack..." The pause here was long; it ended with a sigh. "Let's just keep this businesslike, okay? Just business. Nothing has changed. Any lunches you want to have, you have them with Nellie. Maybe I'll come along, but don't count on it. Capisce?"
He fought an urge to rip the phone out of the wall and hurl it out the nearest window. But he made himself sit there, say a polite good-bye, hang up, and place the phone gently on the table, right where it belonged.
He forcefully removed Gia from his thoughts. He had things to do.
Gia put down the phone and leaned against the wall. She’d almost made a fool out of herself a moment ago when Jack had asked her how things had gone last night. She'd suddenly had a vision of him tailing her and Carl to the restaurant and from the restaurant to Carl's place.
They’d made love for the first time last night. She hadn't wanted their relationship to get that far this soon. She’d promised herself to take this one slow, to refuse to rush or to be rushed. After all, look what had happened with Jack. But last night she’d changed her mind. Tension had been building in her all day since seeing Jack, building until she’d felt it was going to strangle her. She’d needed someone. And Carl was there. And he wanted her very much.
In the past she’d gently refused his invitations back to his place. But last night she’d agreed. Everything had been right. The view of the city from his windows had been breathtaking, the brandy smooth and burning in her throat, the lighting in his bedroom so soft it had made her bare skin glow when he’d undressed her, making her feel beautiful.
Carl was a good lover, a patient, skilled, gentle, considerate lover.
But nothing happened last night. She’d faked an orgasm in time with his. She didn't like herself for that, but it had seemed like the right thing to do at the time. Carl had done everything right. It wasn't his fault she hadn't even come close to the release she needed.
All Jack's fault.
Seeing him again had got her so uptight she couldn't have enjoyed Carl last night if he’d been the greatest lover in all the world. And he was certainly a better lover than Jack.
No...that wasn't true. Jack had been good. Very good. There had been times when they’d spent the whole night—
Nellie's front doorbell rang. Since Gia was passing by, she answered it.
A messenger from Carl to pick up the artwork she’d told him about last night. And something for her: a bouquet of mums and roses. She handed the messenger the artwork and opened the enclosed card as soon as the door was closed. I'll call you tonight. A nice touch. Carl didn't miss a trick. Too bad—
"What lovely flowers!"
Gia snapped alert at the sound of Nellie's voice.
"Yes, aren't they. From Carl. That was Jack on the phone, by the way. He wanted to know if there'd been any word."
"Has he learned anything?"
Gia shook her head, pitying the almost childish eagerness in the old woman's face. "He'll let us know as soon as he does."
"Something awful has happened, I just know it."
"You know nothing of the kind," Gia said, putting her arm around Nellie's shoulders. "This is probably all a big misunderstanding.
"I hope so. I really do." She looked up at Gia. "Would you do me a favor, dear? Call the Mission and send them my regrets. I won't be attending the reception tomorrow night. "
"You should go."
"No. It would be unseemly."
"Don't be silly. Grace would want you to go. And besides, you need a change of scenery. You haven't left this house all week."
"What if she calls?"
"Eunice is here to relay any messages."
"But to go out and have a good time—"
"I thought you told me you never had a good time at these affairs."
Nellie smiled, and that was good to see.
"True...quite true. Well, I rather suppose you're right then. Perhaps I should go. But only on one condition."
"You go with me."
Gia was startled at the request. The last thing in the world she wanted to do on a Saturday night was stand around in a room full of UN diplomats.
"No. Really. I couldn't—"
"Of course you can!"
"But Vicky is—"
"Eunice will be here."
Gia racked her brain for excuses. There had to be a way out of this.
"I've nothing to wear."
"We'll go out and buy something."
"Out of the question!"
Nellie pulled a handkerchief out of a pocket and dabbed her lips. "Then I shan't be going either."
Gia did her best to glare angrily at Nellie, but only managed to hold the expression for a few seconds before breaking into a smile.
"All right, you old blackmailer—"
"I resent being called old."
"—I'll go with you, but I'll find something of my own to wear."
"You'll come with me tomorrow afternoon and put a dress on my account. If you're to accompany me, you must have the proper clothes. And that's all I shall say on the matter. We shall leave after lunch."
With that, she turned and bustled away toward the library. Gia watched her with a mixture of affection and annoyance. Once again she’d been outflanked by the old lady from London.
Jack walked in the main entrance of the Waldorf at six precisely and trotted up the steps to the bustling lobby. Despite a hectic day he’d managed to get here on time.
He’d arranged for analysis of the contents of the bottle he’d found in Grace's room, then had gone down to the streets and looked up every shady character he knew—and he knew more than he cared to count. No talk anywhere about anybody snatching a rich old lady.
By late afternoon he’d been drenched with sweat and feeling gritty all over. He’d showered, shaved, dressed, and cabbed over to Park Avenue.
Jack had never had a reason to go to the Waldorf before so he didn't know what to expect from this Peacock Alley where Kolabati wanted to meet him. To be safe, he’d invested in a lightweight cream-colored suit and a pinkish shirt and paisley tie to go with it—at least the salesman said they went with it. He thought at first he might be overdoing it, then figured it would be hard to overdress for the Waldorf. From his brief conversation with Kolabati he sensed she’d be dressed to the nines.
Jack absorbed the sights and sounds of the lobby as he walked through it. All races, all nationalities, all ages, shapes, and sizes milled or sat about. To his left, behind a low railing and an arch, people sat drinking at small tables. He walked over and saw a little oval sign that read “Peacock Alley.”
He glanced around. If the Waldorf lobby were a sidewalk, Peacock Alley would be a sidewalk café, an air-conditioned model sans flies and fumes. He didn't see anyone at the outer tables who fit his image of Kolabati. He studied the clientele. Everyone looked well heeled and at ease. Jack felt very much out of his element here. This was not his scene. He felt exposed standing here. Maybe this was a mistake—
“A table, sir?"
A middle-aged maître d'hôtel was at his shoulder, looking at him expectantly. His accent was French with perhaps a soupçon of Brooklyn.
"I think so. I'm not sure. I'm supposed to meet someone. She's in a white dress and—"
The man's eyes lit up. "She is here! Come!"
Jack followed him into the rear section, wondering how this man could be so sure he had the right party. They passed a series of alcoves, each with a sofa and stuffed chairs around a cocktail table, like tiny living rooms all in a row. The paintings on the wall added to the warm, comfortable atmosphere. They turned into a wing and were approaching its end when Jack saw her.
He knew then why there had been no hesitation on the part of the maître d'hôtel, why there could be no mistake. This was The-Woman-in-the-White-Dress. She might as well have been the only woman in the room.
She sat alone on a divan against the rear wall, her shoes off, her legs drawn up sideways under her as if she were sitting at home listening to music—classical music, or maybe a raga. A wine glass half full of faintly amber liquid swirled gently in her hand. She bore a strong family resemblance to Kusum but was younger, late twenties, perhaps. She had bright, dark, wide-set, almond-shaped eyes, wide cheekbones, a fine nose dimpled over the flare of the left nostril where perhaps it had been pierced to set a jewel, and smooth, flawless, mocha-colored skin. Her hair too was dark, almost black, parted in the middle and curled at the side around her ears and the nape of her neck. Old-fashioned but curiously just right for her. She had a full lower lip colored a deep glossy red. And all that was dark about her was made darker by the whiteness of her dress.
The necklace was the clincher, though. Had Jack the slightest doubt about her identity, the silvery iron necklace with the two yellow stones laid it immediately to rest.
She extended her hand from where she was seated on the couch. "It's good to see you, Jack."
Her voice was rich and dark, like her; and her smile, so white and even, was breath taking. She leaned forward, her breasts swelling against the thin fabric of her dress as it shaped itself around the minute nipple-bulge centered on each. She did not seem to have the slightest doubt as to who he was.
"Ms. Bahkti," he said, taking her hand. Her nails, like her lips, were a deep red, her dusky skin soft and smooth as polished ivory. His mind seemed to go blank. He really should say something more. "I see you haven't lost your necklace."
That sounded good, didn't it?
"Oh, no. Mine stays right where it is!" She released his hand and patted the cushion next to her. "Come. Sit. We've much to talk about."
Close up, her eyes were wise and knowing, as if she’d absorbed all the wonders of her race and its timeless culture.
The maître d’hôtel did not call a waiter but stood by quietly as Jack took his place beside Kolabati. It was possible that he was a very patient man, but Jack noticed that his eyes never left Kolabati.
"May I get m'sieur something to drink?" he said when Jack was settled.
Jack looked at Kolabati's glass. "What's that?"
He wanted a beer, but this was the Waldorf. "I'll have one of those."
She laughed. "Don't be silly! I’ll bet you prefer beer."
“Well, yes. But only two kinds.”
“Foreign and domestic.”
She laughed again. “Do foreign.”
"Okay. Corona—no lime.”
What he really wanted was a Rolling Rock.
"Very good." The maître d’hôtel finally went away.
"How'd you know I like beer?" The confidence with which she’d said it made him uneasy.
"A lucky guess. I was sure you wouldn't like kir." She studied him. "So...you're the man who retrieved the necklace. It was a seemingly impossible task, yet you did it. I owe you a debt of undying gratitude."
"It was only a necklace."
"A very important necklace."
"Maybe, but it's not as if I saved her life or anything."
"Perhaps you did. Perhaps return of the necklace gave her the strength and the hope to go on living. It was very important to her. Our whole family wears them—every one of us. We're never without it."
Full of eccentricities, these Bahktis.
The Corona arrived, delivered by the maître d’hôtel himself, who poured the first glassful, lingered a moment, then wandered off with obvious reluctance.
"You realize, don't you," Kolabati said as Jack quaffed a few ounces, "that you have made two lifelong friends in the past 24 hours: my brother and myself."
"What about your grandmother?"
"Her, too, of course. Do not take our gratitude lightly, Jack. Not mine. And especially not my brother's—Kusum never forgets a favor or a slight."
"Just what does your brother do at the UN?"
Jack hated small talk. He really wanted to know all about Kolabati, but didn't want to appear too interested.
"I'm not sure. A minor post." She must have noticed Jack's puzzled frown. "Yes, I know—he doesn't seem to be a man who'd be satisfied with any sort of minor post. Believe me, he isn't. Back home his name is known in every province. "
"He is the leader of a new Hindu fundamentalist movement. He and many others believe that India and Hinduism have become too westernized. He wants to return to the old ways. He's been picking up a surprising number of followers over the years and developing considerable political clout.”
"Sounds like the Christian Right over here. What is he—the Oral Roberts of India?"
Kolabati's expression became grim. "Perhaps more. His singleness of purpose can be frightening at times. Some feared his rapid rise to power, which was why everyone was shocked last year when he suddenly requested diplomatic assignment at the London Embassy. It was granted immediately—no doubt the government was delighted to have him out of the country. Recently he was transferred her to the UN—again at his request. I'm sure his followers and adversaries back home are mystified, but I know my brother. I'll bet he's getting enough international experience under his belt so he can go home and become a credible candidate for a major political office. But enough of Kusum..."
Jack felt Kolabati's hand against his chest, pushing him back against the cushions.
"Get comfortable now," she said, her dark eyes boring into him, "and tell me all about yourself. I want to know everything, especially how you came to be Repairman Jack."
Jack took another swallow of beer and forced himself to pause. He had a sudden urge to tell her everything, to open up his whole past to her. It frightened him. He never opened up to anyone except Abe. Why Kolabati? Perhaps it was because she already knew something about him; perhaps because she was so effusive in her gratitude for achieving the "impossible" and returning her grandmother's necklace.
Telling all was out of the question, but pieces of the truth wouldn't hurt. The question was: What to tell, what to edit?
"It just sort of happened."
"There had to be a first time. Start there. Tell me about it. "
He settled into the cushions, adjusting his position until the lump of the holstered Glock sat comfortably in the small of his back, and began telling her about Mr. Canelli, his first fix-it customer.
Summer was drawing to a close. He was 17, still living in Johnson, New Jersey, a small, semirural town in Burlington Country. His father was working as a CPA then, and his mother was still alive. His sister Kate was in the New Jersey State College of Medicine and his brother Tom had just earned his law degree from Seton Hall.
On the corner down the street from his house lived Mr. Vito Canelli, a retired widower. From the time the ground thawed until it froze again, he worked in his yard. Especially on his lawn. He seeded and fertilized every couple of weeks, watered it daily. Mr. Canelli had the greenest lawn in the county. It was usually flawless. The only times it wasn't was when someone cut the corner turning right off 541 onto Jack's street. The first few times were probably accidents, but then some of the more vandalism-prone kids in the area started making a habit of it. Driving across “the old wop's" lawn became a Friday and Saturday night ritual. Finally, old Mr. Canelli put up a three-foot white picket fence and that seemed to put an end to it. Or so he thought.
It was early. Jack was walking up to the highway towing the family Toro behind him. For the past few summers he’d made his money doing gardening chores and cutting grass around town. He liked the work and liked even better the fact that he could adjust his hours almost any way he wished.
When he came into view of Mr. Canelli's yard he stopped and gaped.
The picket fence was down—smashed and scattered all over the lawn in countless white splinters. The small flowering ornamental trees that blossomed in varied colors each spring—dwarf crabapples, dogwoods—had been broken off a foot above the ground. Yews and junipers were flattened and ground into the dirt. The plaster pink flamingos that everybody laughed about were shattered and crushed to powder. And the lawn...not just tire tracks across it—long, wide gouges up to six inches deep. Whoever had done it hadn't been satisfied with simply driving across the lawn and flattening some grass; they’d skidded and slewed their car or cars around until the turf had been ripped to pieces.
As Jack approached for a closer look, he saw a figure standing at the corner of the house looking out at the ruins. It was Mr. Canelli. His shoulders were slumped and quaking. Sunlight glistened off the tears on his cheeks. Jack knew little about Mr. Canelli. He was a quiet man who bothered no one. He had no wife, no children or grandchildren around. All he had was his yard: his hobby, his work of art, the focus of what was left of his life. Jack knew from his own small-time landscaping jobs around town how much sweat was invested in a yard like that. No man should have to see that kind of effort wantonly destroyed. No man that age should be reduced to standing in his own yard and crying.
Mr. Canelli's helplessness unleashed something inside Jack. He’d lost his temper before, but the rage he felt within him at that moment bordered on insanity. His jaw was clamped so tightly his teeth ached; his entire body trembled as his muscles bunched into knots. He had a good idea of who’d done it and could confirm his suspicions with little difficulty. He had to fight off a wild urge to find them and run the Toro over their faces a few times.
Reason won out. No sense landing himself in jail while they got to play the roles of unfortunate victims.
Jack needed another way. And then, as he stood there, it leaped full-blown into his head. For years he’d done fix-its around town, but never anything formal. This would be different.
He walked over to Mr. Canelli and said, "I can fix it for you."
The old man blotted his face with a handkerchief and glared at him. "Fix it. Why? So you an a-you friends can destroy it again?"
"I'll fix it so it never happens again."
Mr. Canelli looked at him a long time without speaking, then said, "Come inside. You tell me how you do this."
Jack didn't give him all the details, just a list of the materials he would need. He added fifty dollars for labor. Mr. Canelli agreed but said he'd hold the fifty until he saw results. They shook hands and had a small glass of homemade red wine to seal the deal.
Jack began the following day. He brought in three dozen small spreading yews and planted them three and a half feet apart along the perimeter of the comer lot while Mr. Canelli started restorative work on his lawn.
They talked while they worked. Jack learned that the damage had been done by a smallish, low-riding, light-colored car and a dark van. Mr. Canelli hadn't been able to get the license plate numbers. He’d called the police, but the vandals were long gone by the time one of the local cops came by. The police had been called before, but the incidents were so random and, until now, of such little consequence, that they hadn't taken the complaints too seriously.
The next step was to secure three dozen four-foot lengths of six-inch pipe and hide them in Mr. Canelli's garage. They used a posthole digger to open a three-foot hole directly behind each yew. Late one night, Jack and Mr. Canelli mixed up a couple of bags of cement in the garage and filled each of the four-foot iron pipes. Three days later, again under cover of darkness, the cement-filled pipes were inserted into the holes behind the yews and the dirt packed tight around them. Each bush now had twelve to fifteen inches of makeshift lolly column hidden within its branches.
The white picket fence was rebuilt around the yard and Mr. Canelli continued to work at getting his lawn back into shape. The only thing left for Jack to do was sit back and wait.
It took a while. August ended. Labor Day passed, school began again. By the third week of September, Mr. Canelli had the yard graded again. The new grass had sprouted and was filling in nicely.
And that, apparently, was what they’d been waiting for.
The sounds of sirens awoke Jack at 1:30 on a Sunday morning. Red lights were flashing up at the comer by Mr. Canelli's house. Jack pulled on his jeans and ran to the scene.
Two first-aid rigs were pulling away as he approached the top of the block. Straight ahead a black van lay on its side by the curb. The smell of gasoline filled the air. In the wash of light from a street lamp overheard, he saw that the undercarriage was damaged beyond repair: The left front lower control arm was torn loose; the floor pan was ripped open exposing a bent drive shaft; the differential was knocked out of line, and the gas tank was leaking. A fire truck stood by, readying to hose down the area.
He walked on toward the front of Mr. Canelli's house where a yellow Camaro had stopped nose-on to the yard. The windshield was spiderwebbed with cracks and steam seeped around the edges of the sprung hood. A quick glance under the hood revealed a ruptured radiator, bent front axle, and cracked engine block.
Mr. Canelli stood on his front steps. He waved Jack over and stuck a fifty-dollar bill into his hand.
Jack stood beside him and watched until both vehicles were towed away, until the street had been hosed down, until the fire truck and police cars were gone. He was bursting inside. He felt he could leap off the steps and fly around the yard if he wished. He could not remember ever feeling so good. Nothing smokable, ingestible, or injectable would ever give him a high like this.
He was hooked.
One hour, three Coronas, and two kirs later, it dawned upon Jack that he’d told much more than he’d intended. He’d gone on from Mr. Canelli to describe some of his more interesting fix-it jobs. Kolabati seemed to enjoy them all, especially the ones where he’d taken special pains to make the punishment fit the crime.
A combination of factors had loosened his tongue. First of all was a feeling of privacy. He and Kolabati seemed to have the far end of this wing of Peacock Alley to themselves. The dozens of ongoing conversations in the wing blended into a susurrant undertone that wound around them, masking their words and making them indistinguishable from the rest.
But most of all…Kolabati…so interested, so intent upon what he had to say that he kept talking, saying anything to keep that fascinated look in her eyes. He talked to her as he’d talked to no one else he could remember—except perhaps Abe, who’d learned about him over a period of years and had seen much of it happen. Kolabati was getting a big helping in one sitting.
Throughout his narrative, Jack watched for her reaction, fearing she might turn away like Gia had. But Kolabati was obviously not like Gia. Her eyes fairly glowed with enthusiasm and...admiration.
The time came, however, to shut up. He’d said enough. They sat for a quiet moment, toying with their empty glasses. Jack was about to ask her if she wanted a refill when she turned to him.
"You don't pay taxes, do you.”
The statement startled him. Uneasy, he wondered how she knew.
"Why do you say that?"
"I sense you are a self-made outcast. Am I right?"
" 'Self-made outcast.' I like that."
"Liking it is not the same as answering the question."
"I consider myself a sort of sovereign state. I don't recognize other governments within my borders."
"But you've exiled yourself from more than the government. You live and work completely outside society. Why?"
"I'm not an intellectual. I can't give you a carefully reasoned manifesto. It's just the way I want to live."
Her eyes bored into him. "I don't accept that. Something cut you off. What was it?"
This woman was uncanny. It seemed she could look into his mind and read all his secrets. Yes—an incident had caused him to withdraw from the rest of "civilized" society. But he couldn't tell her about it. He felt at ease with Kolabati, but wasn't about to confess to murder.
"I'd rather not say."
She studied him. "Are your parents alive?"
Jack felt his insides tighten. "Only my father."
"I see. Did your mother die of natural causes?"
She can read minds! That's the only explanation!
"No. And I don't want to say any more."
"Very well. But however you came to be what you are, I'm sure it was by honorable means."
Her confidence in him simultaneously warmed and discomfited him. He wanted to change the subject.
"Any place in particular you'd like to go? Know some Indian restaurants—"
Her eyebrows arched. "If I were Chinese, would you offer me egg rolls? Am I dressed in a sari?"
No. That clinging white dress looked like it came straight from a designer's shop in Paris.
"I lived in France a while. Please: I live in America now. I want American food. I want shrimp."
"I know a great seafood place up on West 86th. I go there all the time. Mainly because when it comes to food I tend to be impressed more by quantity than by quality."
"Good. Then you know the way?"
"I do," Jack said, rising and presenting his arm. “Then let's go.”
She slipped into her shoes and was up and close beside him in a single liquid motion. Jack threw some bills on the table and started to walk away.
"No receipt?" Kolabati asked with a sly smile. "I'm sure you can make tonight deductible."
“I use the short form."
She laughed. A delightful sound.
On their way toward the front of Peacock Alley, Jack was very much aware of the warm pressure of Kolabati's hand on the inside of his arm and around his biceps, just as he was aware of the veiled attention they drew from all sides as they passed.
From Peacock Alley in the Waldorf on Park Avenue to Finn’a on the West Side—culture shock. But Kolabati moved from one stratum to the other as easily as she moved from garnish to garnish at the crowded salad bar where the attention she attracted was much more openly admiring than at the Waldorf. She seemed infinitely adaptable, and Jack found that fascinating. In fact, he found everything about her fascinating.
He’d begun probing her past during the cab ride uptown, learning that she and her brother were from a wealthy family in the Bengal region of India, that Kusum had lost his arm as a boy in a train wreck that had killed both of their parents, after which they’d been raised by the grandmother Jack had met the night before. That explained their devotion to her. Kolabati was currently teaching in Washington at the Georgetown University School of Linguistic and now and again consulting for the School of Foreign Service.
At Finn’s Jack watched her eat the cold shrimp piled before her. She didn’t peel them. Instead she dipped them shell and all into either cocktail sauce or the little plate of Russian dressing she’d ordered, then bit them down to the tail with a solid crunch. She ate with a gusto he found exciting. So rare these days to find a woman who relished a big meal. He was sick to death of talk about calories and pounds and waistlines. Calorie counting was for during the week. When he was out with a woman, he wanted to see her enjoy the food as much as he did. A big meal became a shared vice. It linked them in the sin of enjoying a full belly and reveling in the tasting, chewing, swallowing, and washing down that led to it. They became partners in crime. It was erotic as all hell.
The meal was over.
Kolabati leaned back in her chair and stared at him. Between them lay the empty pot of Jack’s bouillabaisse, an empty pitcher of beer, and the tails of dozens of shrimp.
"We have met the enemy," Jack said, "and he is in us. That was as good as a big steak."
"I don’t eat beef. It’s supposed to be bad for your karma."
As she spoke her hand crept across the table and found his. Her touch was electrifying—a shock ran up his arm. Jack swallowed and tried to keep the conversation going. No point in letting her see how she was getting to him.
"Karma. There's a word you hear an awful lot. What's it mean, really? It's like fate, isn't it?"
Kolabati's eyebrows drew together. "Not exactly. It's not easy to explain. It starts with the idea of the transmigration of the soul—what we call the atman—and how it undergoes many successive incarnations or lives."
Kolabati turned his hand over and began lightly running her fingernails over his palm. Gooseflesh sprang up all over his body.
"Correct" she said. "Karma is the burden of good or evil your atman carries with it from one life to the next. It's not fate, because you are free to determine how much good or evil you do in each of your lives, but then again, the weight of good or evil on your karma determines the kind of life you will be born into—high born or low born."
“And that goes on forever?" He wished what she was doing to his hand would go on forever.
"No. Your atman can be liberated from the karmic wheel by achieving a state of perfection in life. This is moksha. It frees the atman from further incarnations. It is the ultimate goal of every atman."
"And eating beef would hold you back from moksha?" It sounded silly.
Kolabati seemed to read his mind again. "Not so odd, really. Jews and Moslems have a similar sanction against pork. For us, beef pollutes the karma."
" 'Pollutes.' "
"That's the word."
"Do you worry that much about your karma?"
"Not as much as I should. Certainly not as much as Kusum does." Her eyes clouded. "He's become obsessed with his karma...his karma and Kali."
That struck a dissonant chord in Jack. "Kali? Wasn't she worshipped by a bunch of stranglers?" His unimpeachable source was Gunga Din.
Kolabati's eyes cleared and flashed as she dug her fingernails into his palm, turning pleasure to pain.
"That wasn't Kali but a diminished avatar of her called Bhavani who was worshipped by Thugges—low-caste criminals! Kali is the Supreme Goddess!"
She smiled. "Where do you live?"
"Take me there."
Jack hesitated, knowing it was his firm personal rule never to let people know where he lived unless he’d known them for a good long while. But she was stroking his palm again.
For certain is death for the born
And certain is birth for the dead;
Therefore over the inevitable
Thou shouldst not grieve.
Kusum lifted his head from his study of the Bhagavad Gita. There it was again. That sound from below. It came to him over the dull roar of the city beyond the dock, the city that never slept, over the nocturnal harbor sounds, and the creaks and rattles of the ship as the tide caressed its iron hull and stretched the ropes and cables that moored it.
Kusum closed the Gita and went to his cabin door. It was too soon. The Mother could not have caught the Scent yet.
He went out and stood on the small deck that ran around the aft superstructure. The officers' and crew's quarters, galley, wheelhouse and funnel were all clustered here at the stern. He looked forward along the entire length of the main deck, a flat surface broken only by the two hatches to the main cargo holds and the four cranes leaning out from the kingpost set between them.
His ship. A good ship, but an old one. Small as freighters go—2,500 tons, running 200 feet prow to stem, 30 feet across her main deck. Rusted and dented, but she rode high and true in the water. Her registry was Liberian.
Kusum had had her sailed here six months ago. No cargo at that time, only a sixty-foot enclosed barge towed 300 feet behind the ship as it made its way across the Atlantic from London. The cable securing the barge came loose the night the ship entered New York Harbor. The next morning the barge was found drifting two miles off shore. Empty. Kusum sold it to a garbage-hauling outfit. US.
Customs inspected the two empty cargo holds and allowed the ship to dock. Kusum had secured a slip for it in the barren area above Pier 97 on the West Side where there was little dock activity. It was moored nose first into the bulkhead. A rotting pier ran along its starboard flank. The crew had been paid and discharged. Kusum had been the only human aboard since.
The rasping sound came again. More insistent.
Kusum went below. The sound grew in volume as he neared the lower decks. Opposite the engine room, he came to a watertight hatch and stopped.
The Mother wanted to get out. She had begun scraping her talons along the inner surface of the hatch and would keep it up until she was released. Kusum stood and listened for a while, puzzled. He knew the sound well: long, grinding, irregular rasps in a steady, insistent rhythm. She showed all the signs of having caught the Scent. She was ready to hunt.
That puzzled him. It was too soon. The chocolates couldn't have arrived yet. He knew precisely when they had been posted from London—a telegram had confirmed it—and knew they'd be delivered tomorrow at the very earliest.
Could it possibly be one of those specially treated bottles of cheap wine he had been handing out to the homeless downtown for the past six months? The derelicts had served as a food supply and good training fodder for the nest as it matured. He doubted there could be any of the treated wine left—those untouchables usually finished off the bottle within hours of receiving it.
But there was no fooling the Mother. She had caught the Scent and wanted to follow it.
Although he had planned to continue training the brighter ones as crew for the ship-in the six months since their arrival in New York they had learned to handle the ropes and follow commands in the engine room-the hunt took priority.
Kusum spun the wheel that retracted the lugs, then stood behind the hatch as it swung open. The Mother stepped out, an eight-foot, humanoid shadow, lithe and massive in the dimness. One of the younglings, a foot shorter but almost as massive, followed on her heels. And then another.
Without warning she spun and hissed and raked her talons through the air a bare inch from the second youngling's eyes. It retreated into the hold.
Kusum closed the hatch and spun the wheel. Kusum felt the Mother's faintly glowing yellow eyes pass over him without seeing him as she turned and swiftly, silently led her adolescent offspring up the steps and into the night.
This was as it should be. The rakoshi had to be taught how to follow the Scent, how to find the intended victim and return with it to the nest so that all might share. The Mother taught them one by one. This was as it always had been. This was as it would be.
The Scent must be coming from the chocolates. He could think of no other explanation. The thought sent a thrill through him. Tonight would bring him one step closer to completing the vow. Then he could return to India.
On his way back to the upper deck, Kusum once again looked along the length of his ship, but this time his gaze lifted above and beyond to the vista spread out before him. Night was a splendid cosmetician for this city at the edge of this rich, vulgar, noisome, fulsome land. It hid the seaminess of the dock area, the filth collecting under the crumbling West Side Highway, the garbage swirling in the Hudson, the blank-faced warehouses and the human refuse that crept in and out and around them. The upper levels of Manhattan rose above all that, ignoring it, displaying a magnificent array of lights like sequins on black velvet.
It never failed to make him pause. So unlike his home. Mother India could well use the riches in this land. Her people would put them to good use. They would certainly appreciate them more than these pitiful Americans, so rich in material things and so poor in spirit, so lacking in inner resources. Their chrome, their dazzle, their dim-witted pursuit of "fun" and "experience" and "self." Only a culture such as theirs could construct such an architectural marvel as this city and refer to it as a large piece of fruit. They didn't deserve this land. They were like a horde of children given free run of the bazaar in Calcutta.
The thought of Calcutta made him ache to go home.
Tonight, and then one more.
Two more deaths and he would be released from his vow.
Kusum returned to his cabin to read his Gita.
"I believe I've been Kama Sutraed."
"I don't think that's a verb."
"It just became one."
Jack lay on his back, feeling divorced from his body. He felt numb from his hair down. Every fiber of nerve and muscle was being taxed simply to support his vital functions.
"I think I'm going to die."
Kolabati stirred beside him, nude but for her iron necklace. "You did. But I resuscitated you."
"Is that what you call it in India?"
They’d arrived at his apartment after an uneventful walk from the restaurant. Kolabati's eyes had widened and she’d staggered a bit as she entered Jack's apartment. A common reaction. Some blamed the bric-a-brac and movie posters on the walls, others the Victorian furniture with all the gingerbread carving and the wavy grain of the golden oak.
"Your decor," she said, leaning against him. "It's so...interesting."
"I collect things. As for the furniture, hideous is what most people call it, and they're right. All that carving and such is out of style. But I like furniture that looks like human beings touched it at one time or another during its construction, even human beings of dubious taste."
Jack became acutely aware of the pressure of Kolabati's body against his flank. Her scent…perfume? He couldn’t be sure. More like scented oil. She looked up at him and he wanted her. And in her eyes he could see she wanted him.
Kolabati stepped away and began to remove her dress.
In the past, Jack had always felt himself in control during lovemaking. Not a conscious thing, but he’d always set the pace and guided the positions. Not tonight. With Kolabati it was different. All very subtle, but before long they were each cast in their roles. She was by far the hungrier of the two of them, the more insistent. And although younger, she seemed to be the more experienced. She became the director, he became an actor in her play.
And it was quite a play. Passion and laughter. She was skilled, yet there was nothing mechanical about her. She reveled in sensations, giggled, even laughed at times. She was a delight. She knew where to touch him, how to touch him in ways he’d never known, lifting him to heights of sensation he’d never dreamed possible. And though he knew he’d brought her to thrashing peaks of pleasure numerous times, she was insatiable.
He watched her now as the light from the tiny leaded glass lamp in the corner of the bedroom cast a soft chiaroscuro effect over the rich color of her skin. Her breasts were perfect, their nipples the darkest brown he’d ever seen. With her eyes still closed, she smiled and stretched, a slow, languorous movement that brought her dark and downy pubic mons against his thigh. Her hand crept across his chest, then trailed down over his abdomen toward his groin. He felt his abdominal muscles tighten.
"That's not fair to do to a dying man."
"Where's there's life, there's hope."
"Is this your way of thanking me for finding the necklace?" He hoped not. He'd already been paid for the necklace.
She opened her eyes. "Yes...and no. You are a unique man in this world, Repairman Jack. I've traveled a lot, met many people. You stand out from all of them. Once my brother was like you, but he has changed. You are alone."
"Not at the moment."
She shook her head. "All men of honor are alone."
Honor. This was the second time she’d spoken of honor this evening. Once at Peacock Alley, and now here in his bed. Strange for a woman to think in terms of honor. That was traditionally men's territory, although nowadays the word rarely passed the lips of members of either sex.
"Can a man who lies, cheats, steals, and sometimes does violence to other people be a man of honor?"
Kolabati looked into his eyes. "He can if he lies to liars, cheats cheaters, steals from thieves, and limits his violence to those who are violent."
"You think so?"
"I know so."
An honorable man. He liked the sound of that. He liked the meaning that went with it. As Repairman Jack he’d taken an honorable course without consciously setting out to do so. Autonomy had been his driving motive—to reduce to the barest minimum all external restraints upon his life. But honor...honor was an internal restraint. He hadn't recognized the role it had played all along in guiding him.
Kolabati's hand started moving again and thoughts of honor sank in the waves of pleasure washing over him. It was good to be aroused again.
He’d led a monkish life since Gia had left him. Not that he’d consciously avoided sex—he’d simply stopped thinking about it. A number of weeks had gone by before he even realized what had happened to him. He’d read that that was a sign of depression. Maybe. Whatever the cause, tonight made up for any period of abstention, no matter how long.
Her hand was gently working at him now, drawing responses from what he had thought an empty well. He was rolling toward her when he caught the first whiff of the odor.
What the hell is that?
It smelled like a pigeon had got into the air conditioner and laid a rotten egg. Or died.
Kolabati stiffened beside him. He didn't know whether she’d smelled it, too, or whether something had frightened her. He thought he heard her say something in a tense whisper that sounded like "My gosh!"
She rolled on top of him and clung like a drowning sailor to a floating spar.
An aura of nameless fear enveloped Jack. He sensed something was terribly wrong, but could not say what. He listened for a foreign sound but all that came to him were the low hums, each in a different key, of the air conditioners in each of the three rooms. He reached for the 9mm Glock he kept under the mattress, but Kolabati hugged him tighter.
"Don't move," she whispered in a voice he could barely hear. "Just lie here under me and don't say a word."
Jack opened his mouth to speak but she covered his lips with her own. The pressure of her bare breasts against his chest, her hips on his, the tingle of her necklace as it dangled from her neck against his throat, the caresses of her hands—all worked toward blotting out the odor.
Yet he sensed a desperation about her that prevented him from releasing himself to the sensations. His eyes kept opening and straying to the window, to the door, to the hall that led past the TV room to the darkened front room, then back to the window. Without reason, a small part of him expected someone or something—a person, an animal—to come through the door. He knew it was impossible—the front door was locked, the windows were three stories up. Crazy. Yet the feeling persisted.
He did not know how long he lay there, tense and tight under Kolabati, itching for the comfortable feel of a pistol grip in his palm. It felt like half the night.
Nothing happened. Eventually, the odor began to fade. And with it the sensation of the presence of another. Jack felt himself begin to relax and, finally, begin to respond to Kolabati.
But Kolabati suddenly had different ideas. She jumped up from the bed and padded into the front room for her clothes.
Jack followed and watched her slip into her underwear with brisk, almost frantic movements.
"I have to get home."
"Back to DC?" His heart sank. Not yet. She intrigued him so.
"No. To my brother's. I'm staying with him."
"I don't understand. Is it something I—"
Kolabati leaned over and kissed him. "Nothing you did. Something he did."
"What's the hurry?"
"I must speak to him immediately."
She let the dress fall over her head and stepped into her shoes. She turned to go but the apartment door stopped her.
"How does this work?"
Jack turned the central knob that retracted the four bars, then pulled it open for her.
"Wait till I get some clothes on and I'll find you a cab."
"I haven't time to wait. And I can wave my arm in the air as well as anyone."
"You'll be back?" The answer was very important to him at the moment. He didn't know why. He hardly knew her.
"Yes, if I can be." Her eyes were troubled. For an instant he thought he detected a hint of fear in them. "I hope so. I really do."
She kissed him again, then was out the door and on her way down the stairs.
Jack closed the door, locked it, and leaned against it. If he weren't so exhausted from lack of sleep and from the strenuous demands Kolabati had made upon him tonight, he would have tried to make some sense out of the evening's events.
He headed for bed. This time to sleep.
But chase it as he might, sleep eluded him. The memory of the odor, Kolabati's bizarre behavior...he couldn't explain them. But it wasn't what had happened tonight that bothered him so much as the gnawing uneasy feeling that something awful had almost happened.
Kusum started out of his sleep, instantly alert. A sound had awakened him. His Gita slipped off his lap and onto the floor as he sprang to his feet and stepped to the cabin door.
It was most likely the Mother and the young one returning, but it wouldn't hurt to be sure. One never knew what kind of scum might be lurking about the docks. He didn't care who came aboard in his absence—it would have to be a fairly determined thief or vandal because Kusum always kept the gangway raised. A silent beeper was needed to bring it down. But an industrious low-caste type who climbed one of the ropes and sneaked aboard would find little of value in the superstructure. And should he venture below decks to the cargo hold...one less untouchable prowling the streets.
But when Kusum was aboard—and he expected to be spending more time here than he wished now that Kolabati was in town—he liked to be careful. He didn't want any unpleasant surprises.
Kolabati's arrival had been a surprise. He had thought her safely away in Washington. She had already caused him an enormous amount of trouble this week and would undoubtedly cause him more. She knew him too well. He would have to avoid her whenever possible. And she must never learn of this ship or its cargo.
He heard the sound again and saw two dark forms of unmistakable configuration lope along the deck. They should have been burdened with their prey, but they were not. Alarmed, Kusum ran down to the deck. He checked to make sure he was wearing the necklace, then stood in a corner and watched the rakoshi as they passed.
The youngling came first, prodded along by the Mother behind it. Both appeared agitated. If only they could talk! He had been able to teach the younglings a few words, but that was mere mimicry, not speech. He had never felt so much the need to communicate with the rakoshi as he did tonight. Yet he knew that was impossible. They were not stupid; they could learn simple tasks and follow simple commands—had he not been training them to act as crew for the ship?—but their minds did not operate on a level that permitted intelligent communication.
What had happened tonight? The Mother had never failed him before. When she caught the Scent, she invariably brought back the targeted victim. Yet tonight she had failed.
Could there have been a mistake? Perhaps the chocolates hadn't arrived. But how then had the Mother caught the Scent? No one but Kusum controlled the source of the Scent.
None of this made sense.
He padded down the steps that led belowdecks. The two rakoshi were waiting there, the Mother subdued by the knowledge that she had failed, the youngling restless, pacing about. Kusum slipped past them. The Mother raised her head, dimly aware of his presence, but the youngling only hissed and continued its pacing, oblivious to him.
Kusum spun the wheel on the hatch and pulled it open. The youngling tried to retreat. It didn't like being on the iron ship and rebelled at returning to the hold. Kusum watched patiently. They all did this after their first run through the city. They wanted to be out in the air, away from the iron hold that weakened them, out among the crowds where they could pick and choose among the fattened human cattle.
The Mother would have none of it. She gave the youngling a brutal shove that sent it stumbling into the arms of its siblings waiting inside. Then she followed.
Kusum slammed the hatch closed, secured it, then pounded his fist against its damp surface. Would he never be done with this? He had thought he would be closer to fulfilling the vow tonight. Something had gone wrong. It worried him almost as much as it angered him. Had a new variable been added, or were the rakoshi to blame?
Why was there no victim?
One thing was certain, however: There would have to be punishment. That was the way it always had been. That was the way it would be tonight.
Oh, Kusum! What have you done?
Kolabati's insides writhed in terror as she sat huddled in the rear of the cab. The ride was mercifully brief—directly across Central Park to a stately building of white stone on Fifth Avenue.
The night doorman didn't know Kolabati so he stopped her. He was old, his face a mass of wrinkles. Kolabati detested old people. She found the thought of growing old disgusting. The doorman questioned her until she showed him her key and her Maryland driver license, confirming her last name to be the same as Kusum's. She hurried through the marble lobby, past the modern low-backed couch and chairs and the uninspired abstract paintings on the walls, to the elevator. It stood open, waiting. She pressed 9, the top floor, and stood impatiently until the door closed and the car started up.
Kolabati slumped against the rear wall and closed her eyes.
That odor! She’d thought her heart would stop when she recognized it tonight. She thought she’d left it behind forever in India.
One had been outside Jack's apartment less than an hour ago. Her mind balked at the thought, yet there was no doubt. As sure as the night was dark, as sure as the number of her years—a rakosh! The knowledge nauseated her, made her weak inside and out. And the most terrifying part of it all: The only man who could be responsible—the only man in the world—was her brother.
But why Jack's apartment?
And how? By the Black Goddess, how?
The elevator glided to a smooth halt, the doors slid open, and Kolabati headed directly for the door numbered 9B. She hesitated before inserting the key. This was not going to be easy. She loved Kusum but he intimidated her. Not physically—for he would never raise his hand against her—but morally. It hadn't always been so, but lately his righteousness had become impenetrable.
But not this time, she told herself. This time he's wrong.
She turned the key and stepped inside.
The apartment lay dark and silent around her. She flipped the light switch, revealing a huge, low-ceilinged living room decorated by a hired professional. She’d guessed that on first sight. She could find no trace of Kusum in the decor. He hadn't bothered to personalize it, which meant he didn't intend to stay here very long.
She went down to two steps to the wool carpeted living room and crossed to the closed door that led to her brother's bedroom. It was dark and empty within.
She went back to the living room and called, louder now. "Kusum!"
He had to be here! She had to find him! She was the only one who could stop him!
She walked past the door that led to the bedroom he had supplied for her and went to the picture window overlooking Central Park. The great body of the park was dark, cut at irregular intervals by lighted roads, luminescent serpents winding their way from Fifth Avenue to Central Park West.
Where are you, my brother, and what are you doing? What awfulness have you brought back to life?
The two propane torches on either side of him were lit and roaring blue flame toward the high ceiling of the hold. Kusum made a final adjustment on the air draw to each one—he wanted to keep them noisy but didn't want them to blow themselves out. When he was satisfied with the flames, he unclasped his necklace and laid it on the propane tank at the rear of the square platform. He’d changed from his everyday clothes into his blood red ceremonial dhoti, arranging the one-piece saronglike garment in the traditional Maharatta style with the left end hooked beneath his leg and the bulk gathered at his right hip, leaving his legs bare. He picked up his coiled bullwhip, then stabbed the Down button with his middle finger.
The lift—an open elevator platform floored with wooden planks—lurched, then started a slow descent along the aft corner of the starboard wall of the main hold into the dark below. Not completely dark, for he kept the emergency lights on at all times, but these were so scattered and of such low wattage that the illumination they provided was nominal at best.
When the lift reached the halfway point, he heard a shuffling sound from below as rakoshi moved from directly beneath him, wary of the descending platform and the fire it carried. As he neared the floor of the hold and the light from the torches spread among its occupants, tiny spots of brightness began to pick up and return the glare—a few at first, then more and more until more than a hundred yellow eyes gleamed from the darkness.
A murmur rose among the rakoshi to become a whispery chant, low, throaty, guttural, the only word they could speak.
Kusum loosed the coils of his whip and cracked it. The sound echoed like a gunshot through the hold. The chant cut off. They now knew he was angry; they would remain silent. As the platform and its roaring flames drew nearer the floor, they backed farther away. In all of heaven and earth, fire was all they feared—fire and their Kaka-ji.
He stopped the lift three or four feet above the floor, giving himself a raised platform from which to address the rakoshi assembled in a rough semicircle just beyond the reach of the torchlight. They were barely visible except for an occasional highlight off a smooth scalp or a hulking shoulder. And the eyes. All the eyes were focused on Kusum.
He began to speak to them in the Bengali dialect, knowing they could understand little of what he was saying, but confident they would eventually get his meaning. Although he was not angry with them, he filled his voice with rage, for that was an integral part of what was to follow. He did not understand what had gone wrong tonight, and knew from the confusion he had sensed in the Mother upon her return that she did not understand either. Something had caused her to lose the Scent Something extraordinary. She was a skilled hunter and he could be sure that whatever had happened had been beyond her control. That did not matter, however. A certain form must be followed. It was tradition.
He told the rakoshi that there would be no ceremony tonight, no sharing of flesh, because those who had been entrusted to bring the sacrifice had failed. Instead of the ceremony, there would be punishment.
He turned and lowered the propane feed to the torches, constricting the semicircular pool of illumination, bringing the darkness—and the rakoshi—closer.
Then he called to the Mother. She knew what to do.
A scuffling and scraping from the darkness before him as the Mother brought forward the youngling that had accompanied her tonight. It came sullenly, unwillingly, but it came. For it knew it must. It was tradition.
Kusum reached back and further lowered the propane. The young rakoshi were especially afraid of fire and it would be foolish to panic this one. Discipline was imperative. If he lost his control over them, even for an instant, they might turn and tear him to pieces. There must be no instance of disobedience—such an act must ever remain unthinkable. But in order to bend them to his will, he must not push them too hard against their instincts.
He could barely see the creature as it slouched forward in a posture of humble submission. Kusum gestured with the whip and the Mother turned the youngling around, facing its back to him. He raised the whip and lashed it forward—one—two—three times and more, putting his body into it so that each stroke ended with the meaty slap of braided rawhide on cold, cobalt flesh.
He knew the young rakosh felt no pain from the lash, but that was of little consequence. His purpose was not to inflict pain but to assert his position of dominance. The lashing was a symbolic act, just as a rakosh' s submission to the lash was a reaffirmation of its loyalty and subservience to the will of Kusum, the Kaka-ji. The lash formed a bond between them. Both drew strength from it. With each stroke Kusum felt the power of Kali swell within him. He could almost imagine himself possessing two arms again.
After ten strokes, he stopped. The rakosh looked around, saw that he was finished, then slunk back into the group. Only the Mother remained. Kusum cracked the whip in the air. Yes, it seemed to say. You, too.
The Mother came forward, gave him a long look, then turned and presented her back to him. The eyes of the younger rakoshi grew brighter as they became agitated, shuffling their feet and clicking their talons together.
Kusum hesitated. The rakoshi were devoted to the Mother. They spent day after day in her presence. She guided them, gave order to their lives. They would die for her. Striking her was a perilous proposition. But a hierarchy had been established and it must be preserved. As the rakoshi were devoted to the Mother, so was the Mother devoted to Kusum. And to reaffirm the hierarchy, she must submit to the lash. For she was his lieutenant among the younglings and ultimately responsible for any failure to carry through the wishes of the Kaka-ji.
Yet despite her devotion, despite the knowledge that she would gladly die for him, despite the unspeakable bond that linked them—he had started the nest with her, nursing her, raising her from a mewing hatchling—Kusum was wary of the Mother. She was, after all, a rakosh—violence incarnate. Disciplining her was like juggling vials of high explosive. One lapse of concentration, one careless move...
Summoning his courage, Kusum let the whip fly, snapping its tip once against the floor far from where the Mother waited, and then he raised the whip no more. The hold had gone utterly still with the first stroke. All remained silent. The Mother continued to wait, and when no blow came, she turned toward the lift. Kusum had the bullwhip coiled by then, a difficult trick for a one-armed man, but he had long ago determined that there was a way to do almost anything with one hand. He held it out beside him, then dropped it onto the floor of the lift.
The Mother looked at him with shining eyes, her slit pupils dilating in worship. She had received no lashing, a public proclamation of the Kaka-ji's respect and regard for her. Kusum knew this was a proud moment for her, one that would elevate her even higher in the eyes of her young. He had planned it this way.
He hit the Up switch and turned the torches to maximum as he rose. He was satisfied. Once more he had affirmed his position as absolute master of the nest. The Mother was more firmly in his grasp than ever before. And as he controlled her, so he controlled her young.
The field of brightly glowing eyes watched him from below, never leaving him until he reached the top of the hold. The instant they were blocked from view, Kusum reached for the necklace and clasped it around his throat.
West Bengal, India
Friday, July 24, 1857
Jaggernath the svamin and his mule train were due to appear any minute.
Tension was coiled like a snake around Captain Sir Albert Westphalen. If he failed to net the equivalent of 50,000 pounds sterling out of this little sortie, he might have to reconsider returning to England at all. Only disgrace and poverty would await him.
He and his men huddled behind a grassy hillock approximately two miles northwest of Bharangpur. The rain had ended at midday, but more was on the way. The summer monsoon was upon Bengal, bringing a year's rainfall in the space of a few months. Westphalen looked out along the rolling expanse of green that had been an arid wasteland only last month. An unpredictable land, this India.
As he waited beside his horse, Westphalen reviewed the past four weeks. He had not been idle. Far from it. He had devoted part of each day to grilling every Englishman in Bharangpur on what he knew about the Hindu religion in general and the Temple-in-the-Hills in particular. And when he had exhausted the resources of his countrymen, he turned to local Hindus who had a decent command of English. They told him more than he wished to know about Hinduism and almost nothing about the temple.
He did learn a lot about Kali, though. Very popular in Bengal—even the name of the region's largest city, Calcutta, was an Anglicized form of Kalighata, the huge temple built to her there. The Black Goddess. Not a deity to take comfort in. She was called Mother Night, devouring all, slaying all, even Shiva, her consort upon whose corpse she stood in many of the pictures Westphalen had seen. Blood sacrifices, usually goats and birds, were made regularly to Kali in her many temples, but he’d heard whispers of other sacrifices…human sacrifices.
No one in Bharangpur had ever seen the Temple-in-the-Hills, nor known anyone who had. But he learned that every so often a curiosity-seeker or a pilgrim would venture off into the hills to find the temple. Some would follow Jaggernath at a discreet distance, others would seek their own path. The few who returned claimed their search had been fruitless, telling tales of shadowy beings creeping about the hills at night, always just beyond the firelight, but unmistakably there, watching. As to what happened to the rest, it was assumed that the pilgrims true of heart were accepted into the temple order, and that the adventurous and the merely curious became fodder for the rakoshi who guarded the temple and its treasure. A rakosh, he was assured by a colonel who was starting his third decade in India, was some sort of flesh-eating demon, the Bengali equivalent of the English Bogeyman—used to frighten children.
Westphalen had little doubt the temple was guarded, but by human sentries, not demons. Guards would not deter him. He was not a lone traveler wandering aimlessly through the hills—he was a British officer leading six lancers armed with the new lightweight Enfield rifle.
As he stood beside his mount, Westphalen ran a finger up and down the stock of his Enfield. This simple construction of wood and steel had been the precipitating factor in the sepoy rebellion.
All because of a tight-fitting cartridge.
Absurd, but true. The Enfield cartridge, like all other cartridges, came wrapped in glazed paper which had to be bitten open to be used. But unlike the heavier "Brown Bess" rifle the sepoys had been using for forty years, the Enfield cartridge had to be greased to make the tight fit into the barrel. There had been no problem until rumors began circulating that the grease was a mixture of pork and bullock fat. The Moslem troops would not bite anything that might be pork, and the Hindus would not pollute themselves with cow grease. Tension between British officers and their sepoy troops had built for months, culminating on May 10, a mere eleven weeks ago, when the sepoys had mutinied in Meerut, perpetrating atrocities on the white populace. The mutiny had spread like a grass fire across most of northern India, and the raj had not been the same since.
Westphalen had hated the Enfield for endangering him during what should have been a safe, peaceful tour of duty. Now he caressed it almost lovingly. If not for the rebellion he might still be far to the southeast in Fort William, unaware of the Temple-in-the-Hills and the promise of salvation it held for him and the Westphalen name.
"I've spotted ’im, sir," said an enlisted man named Watts.
Westphalen stepped up to where Watts lay against the rise and took the field glasses from him. After refocusing to correct for his near-sightedness, he spotted the squat little man and his mules traveling north at a brisk pace.
"We'll wait until he's well into the hills, then follow. Keep down until then."
With the ground softened by monsoon rains, Westphalen anticipated no problem following Jaggernath and his mules. He wanted the element of surprise on his side when he entered the temple, but it wasn't an absolute necessity. One way or another he was going to find the Temple-in-the-Hills. Some of the tales said it was made of pure gold. Westphalen did not believe that for an instant—gold was not fit for buildings. Other tales said the temple housed urns full of precious jewels. Westphalen might have laughed at that too had he not seen the ruby Jaggernath had given MacDougal last month simply for not handling the supplies on the backs of his mules.
If the temple housed anything of value, Westphalen intended to find it . . . and to make all or part of it his own.
He glanced around at the men he had brought with him: Tooke, Watts, Russell, Hunter, Lang, and Malleson. He had combed his records carefully for individuals with the precise blend of qualities he required. He detested aligning himself so closely with their sort. Worse than commoners. These were the toughest men he could find, the dregs of the Bharangpur garrison, the hardest drinking, most unscrupulous soldiers under his command.
Two weeks ago he had begun dropping remarks to his lieutenant about rumors of a rebel encampment in the hills. In the past few days he had begun to refer to unspecified intelligence reports confirming the rumors, saying it was thought that the pandies were receiving assistance from a religious order in the hills. And just yesterday he had begun picking men to accompany him on "a brief reconnaissance mission." The lieutenant had insisted on leading the patrol but Westphalen had overruled him.
During the entire time, Westphalen had grumbled incessantly about being so far from the fight, about letting all the glory of quelling the revolt go to others while he was stuck in northern Bengal battling administrative rubbish. His act had worked. The common assumption among the officers and noncoms of the Bharangpur garrison was that Captain Sir Albert Westphalen was not going to allow a post far from the battle lines prevent him from earning a decoration or two; perhaps he even had his eye on the brand new Victoria Cross.
He also had made a point of not wanting any support personnel. This would be a bare-bones scouting party, no pack animals, no bhistis—each trooper would carry his own food and water.
Westphalen went back and stood near his horse. He fervently prayed his plan would be successful, and swore to God that if things worked out the way he hoped, he would never turn another card or roll another die as long as he lived.
His plan had to work. If not, the great hall his family had called home since the eleventh century would be sold to pay his gambling debts. His profligate ways would be exposed to his peers, his reputation reduced to that of a wastrel, the Westphalen name dragged through the dirt…commoners cavorting in his ancestral home…better to remain here on the wrong side of the world than face disgrace of that magnitude.
He walked up the rise again and took the field glasses from Watts. Jaggernath was almost into the hills. Westphalen had decided to give him a half-hour lead. It was 4:15. Despite the overcast sky and the late hour of the day, there was still plenty of light left.
By 4:35 Westphalen could wait no longer. The last twenty minutes had dragged by with sadistic slowness. He mounted up his men and led them after Jaggernath at a slow walk.
As he had expected, the trail was easy to follow. With no other traffic into the hills, the moist ground held unmistakable evidence of the passage of six mules. The trail wound a circuitous path in and around the coarse outcroppings of yellow-brown rock that typified the hills in the region.
Westphalen held himself in check with difficulty, resisting the urge to spur his mount ahead. Patience…patience must be the order of the day.
When he came to fear they might be gaining too much on the Hindu, he had his men dismount and continue following on foot.
The trail led on and on, always upward. The grass died away, leaving barren rock in all directions; he saw no other travelers, no homes, no huts, no signs of human habitation.
Westphalen wondered at the endurance of the old man out of sight ahead of him. He now knew why no one in Bharangpur had been able to tell him how to reach the temple. The path was a deep, rocky gully, its walls rising at times to a dozen feet or more overhead, so narrow that he had to lead his men in a single defile, so tortuous and obscure, with so many branches leading off in random directions, that even with a map he doubted he would have been able to keep on course.
The light was waning when he saw the wall. He was leading his horse around one of the countless sharp twists in the path, wondering how they were going to follow the trail once night came, when he looked up and saw that the gully opened abruptly into a small canyon. He immediately jumped back and signaled his men to halt. He gave his reins to Watts and peered around the edge of an outcropping of rock.
The wall sat two hundred yards away, spanning the width of the canyon. It looked to be about ten feet high, made of black stone, with a single gate at its center. The gate stood open to the night.
"They've left the door open for us, sir." Tooke said at his side. He had crept up for a look of his own.
Westphalen snapped around to glare at him. "Back with the others!"
"Aren't we going in?"
"When I give the order and not before!"
Westphalen watched the soldier sulkily return to his proper place. Only a few hours away from the garrison and already discipline was showing signs of breaking down. Not unexpected with the likes of these. They had all heard the stories about the Temple-in-the-Hills. You couldn't be in Bharangpur barracks for more than a week without hearing them. Westphalen was sure there was not a man among them who had not used the hope of pocketing something of value from within the temple to spur him along. Now they had reached their goal and wanted to know if the stories were true. The looter within them was rising to the surface like something rotten from the bottom of a pond. He could almost smell the foul odor of their greed.
And what about me? Westphalen thought grimly. Do I reek as they do?
He gazed again toward the canyon. Behind the wall, rising above it, he made out the dim shape of the temple itself. Details were lost in the long shadows; all he could make out was a vaguely domelike shape with a spire on top.
As he watched, the door in the wall swung closed with a crash that echoed off the rocky mountain walls, making the horses shy and causing his own heart to skip a beat.
Suddenly it was dark. Why couldn't India have England's lingering twilight? Night fell like a curtain here.
What to do now? He hadn't planned on taking so long to reach the temple, hadn't planned on darkness and a walled-off canyon. Yet why hesitate? He knew there were no rebels in the temple compound—that had been a fiction he had concocted. Most likely only a few Hindu priests. Why not scale the walls and have done with it?
No…he didn't want to do that. He could find no rational reason to hesitate, yet something in his gut told him to wait for the sun.
"We'll wait until morning."
The men glanced at each other, muttering. Westphalen searched for a way to keep them in hand. He could neither shoot nor handle a lance half as well as they, and he had been in command of the garrison less than two months, nowhere near enough time to win their confidence as an officer. His only recourse was to show himself to be their superior in judgment. And that should be no problem. After all, they were only commoners.
He decided to single out the most vocal of the grumblers.
"Do you detect some flaw in my decision, Mr. Tooke? If so, please speak freely. This is no time for formality."
"Begging your pardon, sir," the enlisted man said with a salute and exaggerated courtesy, "but we thought we'd be taking them right away. The morning's a long way off and we're anxious to be into the fighting. Aren't I right, men?"
There were murmurs of approval.
Westphalen made a show of seating himself comfortably on a boulder before speaking.
I hope this works.
"Very well, Mr. Tooke," he said, keeping the mounting tension out of his voice. "You have my permission to lead an immediate assault on the temple." As the men began to reach for their rifles, Westphalen added: "Of course, you realize that any pandies hiding within have been there for weeks and will know their way around the temple and its grounds quite well. Those of you who have never been on the other side of that wall will be lost in the dark."
He saw the men stop in their tracks and glance at each other. Westphalen sighed with relief. Now, if he could deliver the coup de grace, he would be in command again.
"Charge, Mr. Tooke?"
After a long pause, Tooke said, "I think we'll be waiting for morning, sir."
Westphalen slapped his hands on his thighs and stood up. "Good! With surprise and daylight on our side, we'll rout the pandies with a minimum of fuss. If all goes well, you'll be back in your barracks by this time tomorrow night."
If all goes well, he thought, you will never see tomorrow night.
Gia stood inside the back door and let the air-conditioned interior cool and dry the fine sheen of perspiration coating her skin. Short, slick, blond curls were plastered against the nape of her neck. She was dressed in a T-shirt and jogging shorts, but even that was too much clothing. Only 9:30 and already the temperature had pushed into the high eighties.
She’d been out in the back helping Vicky put up curtains in the new playhouse. Even with screens on the windows and the breeze off the East River, it was like an oven in that little thing. Vicky hadn't seemed to notice, but Gia was sure she would have passed out if she’d stayed in there another minute.
Nine-thirty. It felt like it should be noon. She was slowly going crazy here on Sutton Square. Nice to have a live-in maid to see to your every need, nice to have meals prepared for you, your bed made, and central air conditioning...but it was so boring. She was out of her routine and found it almost impossible to work. She needed her work to keep these hours from dragging so.
She had to get out of here.
The doorbell rang.
"I'll get it, Eunice," she called as she headed for the door. Here was a break in the routine—a visitor. She was glad until she realized with a stab of apprehension that it could be someone from the police with bad news about Grace. She checked through the peephole before unlocking the deadbolt.
The mailman. Gia pulled open the door and he gave her a flat box, maybe eight by twelve inches, weighing about a pound.
"Special delivery," he said, giving her a frank head-to toe appraisal before returning to his truck.
The box—could it be from Grace? She checked and saw it had been mailed from England. The return address was someplace in London called "The Divine Obsession."
"Nellie! Package for you!"
Nellie was already halfway downstairs. "Is it word from Grace?”
"I don't think so. Not unless she's gone back to England."
Nellie's brow furrowed as she glanced at the return address, then she began tearing at the brown paper wrapper. As it pulled away, she gasped.
"Oh! Black Magic!"
Gia stepped around for a look at what was inside. She saw a black rectangular cardboard box with gold trim and a red rose painted on the lid. An assortment of dark chocolates.
"These are my favorites! Who could have—?"
"There's a card taped to the corner."
Nellie pulled it free and opened it.
" 'Don't worry,'" she read. "'I haven't forgotten you.' It's signed, 'Your favorite nephew, Richard!'"
Gia was aghast. "Richard?"
"Yes! What a dear sweet boy to think of me! Oh, he knows Black Magic has always been my favorite. What a thoughtful present!"
"Could I see the card, please?"
Nellie handed it over without looking at it again. She was pulling off the rest of the wrapper and lifting the lid. The strong odor of dark chocolate filled the foyer. As the older woman inhaled deeply, Gia studied the card, her anger rising.
Written in a cutesy female hand, it had round circles above the I's and little loops all over the place. Definitely not her ex-husband's scrawl. He'd probably called the shop, gave them the address, and told them what to put on the card. Or better yet, had his latest girlfriend do it. Yes, that would be more Richard's style.
Gia bottled the anger that had come to a full boil within her. Her ex-husband, controller of one-third of the huge Westphalen fortune, had plenty of time to flit all over the world and send his aunt expensive chocolates from London, but not a penny to spare for child support, let alone the moment it would have taken to send his own daughter a card for her last birthday.
You sure can pick 'em, Gia.
She bent and picked up the wrapper. "The Divine Obsession." At least she knew what city Richard was living in. And probably not too far from this shop—he was never one to go out of his way for anyone, especially his aunts. They’d never thought much of him and had never been reticent about letting him know it. Which raised the question: Why the candy? What was behind this thoughtful little gift out of the blue?
"Imagine!" Nellie was saying. "A gift from Richard! How lovely! Who'd have ever thought—”
They were both suddenly aware of a third person in the room with them. Gia glanced up and saw Vicky standing in the hallway in her white jersey with her bony legs sticking out of her yellow shorts and her feet squeezed sockless into her sneakers, watching them with wide blue eyes.
"Is that a present from my daddy?"
"Why, yes, love," Nellie said.
"Did he send one for me?"
Gia felt her heart break at those words. Poor Vicky...
Nellie glanced at Gia, her face distraught, then turned back to Vicky.
"Not yet, Victoria, but I'm sure one will be coming soon. Meanwhile, he said we should all share these chocolates until—” Nellie's hand darted to her mouth, realizing what she’d just said.
"Oh, no," Vicky said. "My daddy would never send me chocolate. He knows I can't have any."
With her back straight and her chin high, she turned and walked quickly down the hall toward the backyard.
Nellie's face seemed to crumble as she turned toward Gia. "I forgot she's allergic. I'll go get her—”
"Let me," Gia said, putting a hand on her shoulder. "We've been over this ground before, and it looks like we'll have to go over it again."
She left Nellie standing there in the foyer, looking older than her years, unaware of the box of chocolates clutched so tightly in her spotted hands, Gia didn't know who to feel sorrier for: Vicky or Nellie.
Vicky hadn't wanted to cry in front of Aunt Nellie, who always said what a big girl she was. Mommy said it was all right to cry, but Vicky never saw Mommy cry. Well, hardly ever.
Vicky wanted to cry right now. It didn't matter if this was one of the all right times or not, it was going to come out anyway. It was like a big balloon inside her chest, getting bigger and bigger until she either cried or exploded. She held it in until she reached the playhouse. It had one door, two windows with new curtains, and room enough inside for her to spin around with her arms spread out all the way without touching the walls. She picked up her Ms. Jelliroll doll and hugged it to her chest. Then it began.
The sobs came first, like big hiccups, then the tears. She didn't have a sleeve, so she tried to wipe them away with her arm but succeeded only in making her face and her arm wet and smeary.
Daddy doesn’t care.
It made her feel sick way down in the bottom of her stomach to think that, but she knew it was true. She didn't know why it should bother her so much. She could hardly remember what he looked like. Mommy threw away all his pictures a long time ago and as time went by it became harder and harder to see his face in her mind. He hadn't been around at all in two years and Vicky didn't remember seeing much of him even before that. So why should it hurt to say that Daddy didn't care? Mommy was the only one who really mattered, who really cared, who was always there.
Mommy cared. And so did Jack. But now Jack didn't come around anymore either. Except for yesterday. Thinking about Jack made her stop crying. When he’d lifted her up and hugged her yesterday, she'd felt so good inside. Warm. And safe. For the short while he’d been in the house yesterday she hadn't felt afraid. Vicky didn't know what there was to be scared of, but lately she felt afraid all the time. Especially at night.
She heard the door open behind her and knew it was Mommy.
That was okay. She’d stopped crying now. She was all right now. But when she turned and saw that sad, pitying look on Mommy's face, it all came out again and she burst into tears. Mommy squeezed into the little rocker and sat her on her knee and held her tight until the sobs went away. This time for good.
"Why doesn't Daddy love us anymore?"
The question startled Gia. Vicky had asked her countless times why Daddy didn't live with them any more. But this was the first time she’d mentioned love.
Answer a question with another question: "Why do you say that?"
But Vicky was not to be sidetracked.
"He doesn't love us, does he, Mommy." It was not a question.
No. He doesn't. I don't think he ever did.
That was the truth. Richard had never been a father. As far as he was concerned, Vicky had been an accident, a terrible inconvenience to him. He’d never shown affection to her, had never been a presence in their home when they had lived together. He might as well have phoned in his paternal duties.
Gia sighed and hugged Vicky tighter. What an awful time that had been...the worst years of her life. Gia had been brought up a strict Catholic, and although the days had become one long siege of Gia and Vicky alone against the world, and the nights—those nights when her husband bothered to come home—had been a battlefield, she’d never considered divorce. Not until the night when Richard, in a particularly vicious mood, had told her why he'd married her. She was as good as anyone else for rutting when he was randy, he’d said, but the real reason was taxes.
Immediately after the death of his father, Richard had gone to work transferring his assets out of Britain and into either American or international holdings, all the while looking for an American to marry. He'd found such an American in Gia, fresh in from the Midwest looking to sell her commercial art talents to Madison Avenue. The urbane Richard Westphalen, with his refined British manners and accent, had swept her off her feet. They were married; he became an American citizen. There were other ways he could have acquired citizenship, but they were lengthy and this was more in keeping with his character. The earnings of his portion of the Westphalen fortune would from then on be taxed at the much lower US rate rather than the British government's ninety-plus percent. After that, he quickly lost interest in her.
"We might have had some fun for a while," he said, "but you had to go and become a mother.”
Those words had seared themselves onto her brain. She started divorce proceedings the following day, ignoring her lawyer's increasingly strident pleas for a whopping property settlement.
Perhaps she should have listened. Later she often would wonder about that. But at the time all she wanted was out. She wanted nothing that came from his precious family fortune. She allowed her lawyer to ask for child support only because she knew she would need it until she revived her art career.
Was Richard contrite? Did the smallest mote of guilt come to rest on the featureless, diamond-hard surface of his conscience? No. Did he do anything to secure a future for the child he’d fathered? No. In fact, he instructed his lawyer to fight for minimal child support.
"No, Vicky," Gia said, "I don't think he does."
Gia expected tears, but Vicky fooled her by smiling up at her.
"Jack loves us."
Not this again.
"I know he does, honey, but—"
"Then why can't he be my daddy?"
"Because…" How was she going to say this? "Because sometimes love just isn't enough. There have to be other things. You have to trust each other, have the same values—"
"What are values?"
"Ohhh...you have to believe in the same things, want to live the same way."
"I like Jack."
"I know you do; honey. But that doesn't mean Jack is the right man to be your new father."
Vicky's blind devotion to Jack undermined Gia's confidence in the child's character judgment. She was usually pretty astute.
She lifted Vicky off her lap and rose to a hands-on-knees crouch. The heat in the playhouse was suffocating.
"Let's go inside and get some lemonade."
"Not right now," Vicky said. "I want to play with Ms. Jelliroll. She's got to hide before Mr. Grape-grabber finds her. "
"Okay. But come in soon. It's getting too hot."
Vicky didn't answer. She was already lost in a fantasy with her dolls.
Gia stood outside the playhouse and wondered if Vicky might be spending too much time alone here. She had no children around here to play with, just her mother, an elderly aunt, and her books and dolls. Gia wanted to get Vicky back home and into a normal routine as soon as possible.
"Miss Gia?" Eunice called from the back door. "Mrs. Paton says lunch will be early today because of your trip to the dress shop."
Gia bit down on the middle knuckle of her right index finger, a gesture of frustration she’d picked up from her grandmother many years ago.
The dress shop...the reception tonight...two places she most definitely did not want to go, but would have to because she’d promised.
She had to get out of here.
Joey Diaz placed the little bottle of green liquid on the table between them.
"Where'd you get hold of this stuff, Jack?"
Jack was buying Joey a late lunch at a midtown Burger King. They had a corner booth, each was munching on a Whopper. Joey, a Filipino with a bad case of postadolescent acne, was a contact Jack treasured. He worked in the city Health Department lab. In the past, Jack had used him mostly for information and for suggestions on how to bring down the wrath of the Health Department upon the heads of certain targets of his fix-it work. Yesterday was the first time he’d asked Joey to run an analysis for him.
"What's wrong with it?"
Jack had been finding it hard to concentrate on Joey or the food. His mind had been on Kolabati and how she’d made him feel last night. From there it flowed to the odor that had crept into the apartment and her bizarre reaction to it. His thoughts kept drifting away from Joey, and so it was easy to appear laid-back about the analysis. He’d been playing everything low-key for Joey. No big thing—just see if there's anything really useful in it.
"Nothing wrong, exactly." Joey had a bad habit of talking with his mouth full. Most people would swallow, then talk before the next bite; Joey preferred to sip his Coke between swallows, take another big bite, then talk. As he leaned forward, Jack leaned back. "But it ain't gonna help you shit."
"Not a laxative? What will it help me do? Sleep?"
He shook his head and filled his mouth with fries. "Not a chance."
Jack drummed his fingers on the grease-patinaed, woodgrained Formica. Damn. It had occurred to him that the tonic might be some sort of sedative used to put Grace into a deep sleep so she wouldn't make a fuss when her abductors—if in fact she had been abducted—came by and snatched her. So much for that possibility.
He waited for Joey to go on, hoping he would finish his Whopper first. No such luck.
"I don't think it does anything," he said around his last mouthful. "It's just a crazy conglomeration of odd stuff. None of it makes sense."
"In other words, somebody just threw a lot of junk together to sell for whatever ails you. Some sort of Dr. Feelgood tonic."
Joey shrugged. "Maybe. But if that's the case, they could have done it a lot cheaper. Personally, I think it was put together by someone who believed in the mixture. It’s got crude flavorings and a twelve- percent alcohol vehicle. Nothing special—I had them pegged in no time. But there was this strange alkaloid that I had the damnedest—"
"What's an alkaloid? Sounds like poison."
"Some of them are, like strychnine; others you take every day, like caffeine. They're almost always derived from plants. This one came from a doozy. Wasn't even in the computer. Took me most of the morning to track it down." He shook his head. "What a way to spend a Saturday morning. "
Jack smiled to himself. Joey was going to ask a little extra for this job. That was okay. If it kept him happy, it was worth it.
"So where's it from?" he asked, watching with relief as Joey washed down the last of his lunch.
"It's from a kind of grass."
"Naw. A nonsmoking kind called durba grass. And this particular alkaloid isn't exactly a naturally occurring thing. It was cooked in some way to add an extra amine group. That's what took me so long."
"So it's not a laxative, not a sedative, not a poison. What is it?"
"Beats hell out of me."
"This is not exactly a big help to me, Joey."
"What can I say?" Joey ran a hand through his lanky black hair, scratched at a pimple on his chin. "You wanted to know what was in it. I told you: some crude flavorings, an alcohol vehicle, and an alkaloid from an Indian grass."
Jack felt something twist inside him. Memories of last night exploded around him.
"Indian? You mean American Indian, don't you?" knowing even as he spoke that Joey had not meant that at all.
"Of course not. That would be North American grass. No, this stuff is from India, the subcontinent. A tough compound to track down. Never would have figured it out if the department computer hadn't referred me to the right textbook."
India. How strange. After spending a number of delirious hours last night with Kolabati, to learn that the bottle of liquid found in a missing woman's room was probably compounded by an Indian. Strange indeed.
Or perhaps not so strange. Grace and Nellie had close ties to the UK Mission and through there to the diplomatic community that centered around the UN Perhaps someone from the Indian Consulate had given Grace the bottle—perhaps Kusum himself. After all, wasn't India once a British colony?
"Afraid it's really an innocent little mixture, Jack. If you're looking to sic the Health Department on whoever's peddling it as a laxative, I think you'd be better off going to the Department of Consumer Affairs."
And Jack had been hoping the little bottle would yield a dazzling clue that would lead him directly to Aunt Grace, making him a hero in Gia's eyes.
So much for hunches.
He asked Joey what he thought his unofficial analysis was worth, paid the hundred and fifty, and headed back to his apartment with the little bottle in the front pocket of his jeans.
As he rode the bus uptown, he tried to figure what he should do next on the Grace Westphalen thing. He’d spent much of the morning tracking down and talking to a few more of his street contacts, but no leads. No one had heard a thing. He couldn't think of any new avenues at the moment.
Other thoughts pushed their way to the fore.
Kolabati again. She filled his mind. Why? As he tried to analyze it, he came to see that the sexual spell she’d cast on him last night was only a small part of it. More important was the realization that she knew who he was, knew how he made a living, and somehow was able to accept it.
No...accept wasn't the right word. It almost seemed as if she looked on his lifestyle as a perfectly natural way of living. One that she wouldn't mind for herself.
Jack knew he was on the rebound from Gia, knew he was vulnerable, especially to someone who appeared to be as open-minded as Kolabati. Almost against his will, he’d laid himself bare for her, and she’d found him..."honorable.”
She wasn't afraid of him.
He had to call her.
But first he had to call Gia. He owed her some sort of progress report, even with no progress. He dialed the Paton number as soon as he reached his apartment.
"Any word on Grace?" he said after Gia was called to the other end.
"No." Her voice didn't seem nearly as cool as it had yesterday. Or was that just his imagination? "I hope you've got some good news. We could use it around here."
"Well..." Jack grimaced. He really wished he had something encouraging to tell her. He was almost tempted to make up something, but couldn't bring himself to do it. "You know that stuff we thought was a laxative? It isn't."
"What is it, then?"
"Nothing. A dead end."
There was a pause on the other end, then, "Where do you go from here?"
"Nellie's already doing that. She doesn't need any help waiting."
Her sarcasm stung.
"Look, Gia, I'm not a detective—"
"I'm well aware of that."
"—and I never promised to do a Sherlock Holmes number on this. If there's a ransom note or something like that in the mail, I may be able to help. I've got people on the street keeping their ears open, but until something breaks..."
The silence on the other end of the line was nerve wracking.
"Sorry, Gia. That's all I can tell you now."
"I'll tell Nellie. Good-bye, Jack."
After a moment of deep breathing to calm himself, he dialed Kusum's number. A now-familiar female voice answered.
"This is Jack."
A gasp. "Jack! I can't talk now. Kusum's coming. I'll call you later!" She took his phone number and then hung up.
Jack sat and looked at the wall in bewilderment. Idly, he pressed the replay button on his answering machine. His father's voice came out of the speaker.
"Just want to remind you about the tennis match tomorrow. Don't forget to get here by ten. The tournament starts at noon."
This had all the makings of a very bad weekend.
With trembling fingers, Kolabati pulled the jack clip from the back of the phone. Another minute or two from now and Jack's call would have ruined everything. She wanted no interruptions when she confronted Kusum. It was taking all her courage, but she intended to face her brother and wring the truth from him. She would need time to position him for her assault...time and concentration. He was a master dissembler and she would have to be as circumspect and as devious as he if she was going to trap him into the truth.
She’d even chosen her attire for maximum effect. Although she played neither well nor often, she found tennis clothes comfortable. She was dressed in a white sleeveless shirt and shorts set by Boast. She wore her necklace, of course, exposed through the fully open collar of her shirt. Much of her skin was exposed: another weapon against Kusum.
At the sound of the elevator door opening down the hall, the tension gathering since she’d seen him step from the taxi on the street below balled itself into a tight, hard knot in the pit of her stomach.
Oh, Kusum. Why does it have to be like this? Why can't you let it go?
As the key turned in the lock, she forced herself into an icy calm.
He opened the door, saw her, and smiled.
"Bati!" He came over as if to put his arm around her shoulders, then seemed to think better of it. Instead, he ran a finger along her cheek. Kolabati willed herself not to shrink from his touch. He spoke in Bengali. "You're looking better every day."
"Where were you all night, Kusum?"
He stiffened. "I was out. Praying. I have learned to pray again. Why do you ask?"
"I was worried. After what happened—"
"Do not fear for me on that account," he said with a tight smile. "Pity instead the one who tries to steal my necklace."
"Still I worry."
"Do not." He was becoming visibly annoyed now. "As I told you when you first arrived, I have a place I go to read my Gita in peace. I see no reason to change my routines simply because you are here."
"I wouldn't expect such a thing. I have my life to lead, you have yours." She brushed past him and moved toward the door. "I think I'll go for a walk."
"Like that?" His eyes were racing up and down her minimally clad body. "With your legs completely exposed and your blouse unbuttoned?"
"This is America."
"But you are not an American! You are a woman of India! A Brahmin! I forbid it!"
Good—he was getting angry.
"You can't forbid, Kusum," she said with a smile. "You no longer tell me what to wear, what to eat, how to think. I am free of you. I'll make my own decisions today, just as I did last night."
"Last night? What did you do last night?"
"I had dinner with Jack."
She watched him closely for his reaction. He seemed confused for an instant, and that wasn't what she expected.
"Jack who?" Then his eyes widened. "You don't mean—?”
"Yes. Repairman Jack. I owe him something, don't you think?”
"Worried about my karma? Well, dear brother, my karma is already polluted, as is yours—especially yours—for reasons we both know too well." She averted her thoughts from that. "And besides," she said, tugging on her necklace, "what does karma mean to one who wears this?"
"A karma can be cleansed," Kusum said in a subdued tone. "I am trying to cleanse mine."
The sincerity of his words struck her and she grieved for him. Yes, he did want to remake his life; she could see that. But by what means was he going about it? Kusum had never shied away from extremes.
It suddenly occurred to Kolabati that this might be the moment to catch him off guard, but it passed. Besides, better to have him angry. She needed to know where he would be tonight. She did not intend to let him out of her sight.
"What are your plans for tonight, brother? More prayer?"
"Of course. But not until late. I must attend a reception hosted by the UK Mission at eight."
"That sounds interesting. Would they mind if I came along?"
Kusum brightened. "You would come with me? That would be wonderful. I'm sure they would be glad to have you."
"Good." A perfect opportunity to keep an eye on him. Now...to anger him. "But I'll have to find something to wear."
"You will be expected to dress like a proper Indian woman.
"In a sari?" She laughed in his face. "You must be joking!"
"I insist! Or I will not be seen with you!"
"Fine. Then I'll bring my own escort: Jack."
Kusum's face darkened with rage. "I forbid it!"
Kolabati moved closer to him. Now was the moment. She watched his eyes carefully.
"What will you do to stop it? Send a rakosh after him as you did last night?"
"A rakosh? After Jack?"
Kusum's eyes, his face, the way the cords of his neck tightened—they all registered shock and bafflement. He was the consummate liar when he wished to be, but Kolabati knew she’d caught him off guard, and everything in his reaction screamed the fact that he didn't know.
He didn't know!
"There was one outside his apartment window last night!"
"Impossible!" His face still wore a bewildered expression. "I'm the only one who..."
"Who has an egg."
Kolabati reeled. "You have it with you?"
"Of course. Where could it be safer?"
Kusum shook his head. He appeared to be regaining some of his composure. "No. I feel better when I know exactly where it is at all times."
"You had it with you when you were with the London Embassy too?"
"What if it had been stolen?"
He smiled. "Who would even know what it was?"
With an effort, Kolabati mastered her confusion. "I want to see it. Right now."
He led her into his bedroom and pulled a small wooden crate from a corner of the closet. He lifted the lid, pushed the excelsior aside, and there it was. Kolabati recognized the egg. She knew every blue mottle on its gray surface, knew the texture of its cool, slippery surface like her own skin. She brushed her fingertips over the shell. Yes, this was it: a female rakosh egg.
Feeling weak, Kolabati backed away and sat on the bed.
"Kusum, do you know what this means? Someone has a nest of rakoshi here in New York!"
"Nonsense! This is the very last rakosh egg. It could be hatched, but without a male to fertilize the female, there could be no nest."
"Kusum, I know there was a rakosh there!"
"Did you see it? Was it male or female?"
"I didn't actually see it—"
"Then how can you say there are rakoshi in New York?"
"The odor!" Kolabati felt her own anger rise. "Don't you think I know the odor?"
Kusum's face had resolved itself into its usual mask. "You should. But perhaps you have forgotten, just as you have forgotten so many other things about our heritage."
"Don't change the subject."
"The subject is closed as far as I'm concerned."
Kolabati rose and faced her brother. "Swear to me, Kusum. Swear that you had nothing to do with that rakoshi last night."
"On the grave of our mother and father," he said, looking her squarely in the eyes, "I swear that I did not send a rakosh after our friend Jack. There are people in this world I wish ill, but he is not one of them."
Kolabati had to believe him. His tone was sincere, and she knew of no more solemn oath for Kusum than the one he had just spoken.
And there, intact on its bed of excelsior, sat the egg.
As Kusum knelt to pack it away, he said, "Besides, if a rakosh were truly after Jack, his life wouldn't be worth a paisa. I assume he is alive and well?"
"Yes, he's well. I protected him."
Kusum's head snapped toward her. Hurt and anger raced across his features. He understood exactly what she meant.
"Please leave me," he said in a low voice as he faced away and lowered his head. "You disgust me."
Kolabati spun and left the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
Would she never be free of this man? She was sick of Kusum. Sick of his self-righteousness, his inflexibility, his monomania. No matter how good she felt—and she felt good about Jack—he could always manage to make her feel dirty. They both had plenty to feel guilty about, but Kusum had become obsessed with atoning for past transgressions and cleansing his karma. Not just his own karma, but hers as well. She’d thought leaving India—to Europe first, then to America—would sever their relationship. But no. After years of no contact, he’d arrived on these same shores.
She had to face it: She would never escape him. For they were bound by more than blood—the necklaces they wore linked them with a bond that went beyond time, beyond reason, even beyond karma.
But there had to be a way out for her, a way to free herself from Kusum' s endless attempts to dominate her.
Kolabati went to the window and looked out across the green expanse of Central Park. Jack was over there on the other side. Perhaps he was the answer. Perhaps he could free her.
She reached for the phone.
"Even the moon's frightened of me—
frightened to death! The whole world's
frightened to death!"
Jack was well into part three of the James Whale Festival—Claude Rains was getting ready to start his reign of terror as The Invisible Man.
The phone rang. Jack picked up before his machine began its routine.
"Where are you?" said Kolabati's voice.
"But this is not the number on your phone."
"So you peeked, did you?"
"I knew I'd want to call you."
It was good to hear her say that.
"I had the number changed and never bothered to change the label." He’d purposely left the old label in place.
"I have a favor to ask you."
"Anything." Almost anything.
"The UK Mission is holding a reception tonight. Will you accompany me?"
Jack mulled that for a few seconds. His first impulse was to refuse. He hated parties. He hated gatherings. And a gathering of UN types, the most useless people in the world...a grim prospect.
"I don't know..."
"Please? As a personal favor? Otherwise I shall have to go with Kusum."
A choice then between seeing Kolabati and not seeing her…not a tough call.
Besides, it would be fun to see Burkes's face when he showed up at the reception. He might even rent a tux for the occasion. They set a time and a meeting place—for some reason, Kolabati didn't want to be picked up at Kusum's apartment—and then a question occurred to Jack.
"By the way, what's durba grass used for?"
He heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end of the line. "Where did you find durba grass?"
"I didn't find any. As far as I know, it only grows in India. I just want to know if it's used for anything."
"It has many uses in traditional Indian folk medicine." She was speaking very carefully. "But where did you even hear about it?"
"Came up in conversation this morning." Why was she so concerned?
"Stay away from it, Jack. Whatever it is you've found, stay away from it. At least until you see me tonight."
She hung up. Jack stared uneasily at his big TV screen on which an empty pair of trousers was silently chasing a terrified woman down an English country lane. Something strange about Kolabati' s voice at the end there. Almost sounded as if she were afraid for him.
"Stunning!" said the saleswoman.
Vicky looked up from her book. "You look pretty, mommy."
"Smashing!" Nellie said. "Absolutely smashing!"
She’d brought Gia to La Chanson. Nellie had always liked this particular boutique because it didn't look like a dress shop. From the outside, with its canopied entrance, it looked more like a chic little restaurant. But the small display windows on either side of the door left little doubt as to what was sold within.
She watched Gia standing before a mirror, examining herself in a black crepe strapless cocktail dress. Nellie liked it best of the four Gia had tried on. Gia was making no bones, however, about what she thought of the idea of Nellie buying her a dress. But it had been part of the deal, and Nellie had insisted that Gia hold up her end.
Such a stubborn girl. Nellie had seen her examining all four dresses for a price tag, obviously intending to buy the cheapest one. But she hadn't found one.
Nellie smiled to herself. Keep looking, dearie. They don't come with price tags here.
It was only money, after all. And what was money?
Nellie sighed, remembering what her father had told her about money when she was a girl. Those who don't have enough of it are only aware of what it can buy them. When you finally have enough of it you become aware—acutely aware—of all the things it can't buy...the really important things...like youth, health, love, peace of mind.
She felt her lips quiver and tightened them into a firm line. All the Westphalen fortune could not bring her dear John back to life, nor bring Grace back from wherever she was.
Nellie glanced to her right on the sofa to where Victoria sat next to her, reading a collection of Mutts funnies. The child had been unusually quiet, almost withdrawn since the arrival of the chocolates this morning. She hoped she hadn't been too badly hurt. Nellie put her arm around her and squeezed. Victoria rewarded her with a smile.
Dear, dear, Victoria. How did Richard ever father you?
The thought of her nephew brought a bitter taste into her mouth. Richard Westphalen was living proof of what a curse wealth can be. Look what inheriting control of his father's share of the fortune at such a young age had done to him. He might have been a different person—a decent person—if her brother Teddy had lived longer.
Money! Sometimes she almost wished—
The saleswoman was speaking to Gia: "Did you see anything else you'd like to try on?"
Gia laughed. "About a hundred, but this is perfect." She turned to Nellie. "What do you think?"
Nellie studied her, delighted with the choice. The dress was perfect. The lines were simple, the black crepe accented her blond hair and clung everywhere it was supposed to.
"You'll be the toast of the diplomats."
"That's a classic, my dear," the saleswoman said.
And it was. If Gia kept to her current perfect size six, she could probably wear this dress ten years from now and still look good. Which would probably suit Gia just fine. To Nellie's mind, Gia's taste in clothing left a lot to be desired. She wished Gia would dress more fashionably. She had a good figure—enough bust and the long waist and long legs designers dream about. She should have designer clothes.
"Yes," Gia said to the mirror. "This is the one."
The dress needed no alterations, so it was boxed up and Gia walked out with it under her arm. She hailed a cab for them on Third Avenue.
"I want to ask you something," Gia said sotto voce as they rode back to Sutton Square. "It's been bothering me for two days now. It's about the...inheritance you're leaving Vicky; you mentioned something about it Thursday."
Nellie was startled for a moment. Had she spoken of the terms of her will? Yes...yes, she had. Her mind was so foggy lately.
"What bothers you?" It wasn't at all like Gia to bring up the subject of money.
Gia smiled sheepishly. "Don't laugh, but you mentioned a curse that went along with the Westphalen fortune."
"Oh, dearie,” Nellie said, relieved that was all that concerned her, "that's just talk!"
"You mean you made it up?"
"Not I. It was just something Sir Albert was heard to mutter when he was in his dotage and in his cups."
"My great-great grandfather. He was the one who actually started the fortune. It's an interesting story. Back in the middle of the nineteenth century the family was in dire financial straits of some sort—I never knew the exact nature and I guess it doesn't matter. What does matter is that shortly after his return from India, Sir Albert found an old diagram of the cellar of Westphalen Hall which led him to a huge cache of jewels hidden there since the Norman invasion. Westphalen Hall was saved. Most of the jewels were converted to cash, which was carefully invested, and the fortune has grown steadily since then."
"But what about the curse?"
"Oh, pay no attention to that! I shouldn't even have mentioned it! Something about the Westphalen line ending 'in blood and pain,' about 'dark things' that would come for us. But don't worry, my dear. So far we've all lived long lives and died of natural causes."
Gia's face relaxed. "That's good to know."
"Don't give it another thought."
But Nellie found her own thoughts dwelling on it.
The Westphalen curse...she and Grace and Teddy used to joke about it. But if some of the stories were to be believed, Sir Albert had died a frightened old man, mortally afraid of the dark. It was said he spent his last years surrounded by guard dogs, and always kept a fire going in his room, even on the hottest nights.
Nellie shivered. It had been easy to make jokes back then when they were young and there were three of them. But Teddy was long dead of leukemia; at least he hadn't gone "in blood and pain." More like fading away. And Grace was who knew where? Had some "dark thing" come for her? Could there possibly be something to—
Rubbish! How can I let myself be frightened by the rantings of a crazy old man who's been dead for a century?
Still...Grace was gone and no one could explain that. Not yet.
As they neared Sutton Square, Nellie felt anticipation mounting within her. There had been news of Grace while she was out—she was sure of it! She hadn't budged from the house since Tuesday for fear of missing word from Grace. But wasn't staying in the house like watching a pot? It wouldn't boil until you turned your back on it. Leaving the house was the same thing: Grace had probably called as soon as they left Sutton Square.
Nellie hurried up to the front door and rang the bell while Gia paid the driver. Her fists clenched of their own volition as she waited impatiently for the door to open.
Grace is back! I know it! I just know it!
But the hope shriveled and died when the door swung in and she saw Eunice's grim face.
The question was unnecessary. The sad, slow shake of Eunice's head told Nellie what she already knew. Suddenly she felt exhausted, as if all her energy had been drained off.
She turned to Gia as she came in the door with Victoria. "I can't go tonight."
"You must," Gia said, throwing an arm around her shoulders. "What happened to that British stiff-upper-lip-and-all-that attitude? What would Sir Albert think if you just sat around and moped all night?"
Nellie appreciated what Gia was trying to do, but she truly did not give a damn about what Sir Albert might have thought.
"And what am I going to do with this dress?" Gia went on.
"The dress is yours," Nellie said morosely. She didn't have the will to put on a facade.
"Not if we don't go tonight, it isn't. I'll take it back to La Chanson right now unless you promise me we're going."
"That's not fair. I can't go. Can't you see that?"
"No, I can't see that at all. What would Grace think? You know she'd want you to go."
Would she? Nellie thought about that. Knowing Grace, yes, she would want her to go. Grace was always one for keeping up appearances. No matter how bad you felt, you kept up your social obligations. And you never, never made a spectacle of your feelings.
"Do it for Grace," Gia said.
Nellie managed a little smile. "Very well, we shall go, although I can't guarantee how stiff my upper lip shall be."
"You'll do fine."
Gia gave her one last hug, then released her. Victoria was calling from the kitchen, asking her mother to cut an orange for her. Gia hurried off, leaving Nellie alone in the foyer.
How will I do this? It has always been Grace and Nellie, Nellie and Grace, the two as one, always together. How will I do it without her?
Feeling very old, Nellie started up the stairs to her room.
Nellie had neglected to tell her who the reception was for, and Gia never did find out. She got the impression it was to welcome a new high-ranking official to the Mission.
The affair, while hardly exciting, was not nearly as deadly dull as Gia had expected. The Harley House, where it was being held, was convenient to the UN and a short drive from Sutton Square. Even Nellie seemed to enjoy herself after a while. Only the first fifteen minutes or so were rough on the old woman, for immediately upon her arrival she was surrounded by a score of people asking after Grace and expressing their concern. All were members of that unofficial club of wealthy British citizens living in New York, "the colony within the Colonies."
Buoyed by the sympathy and encouragement of her fellow Brits, Nellie perked up, drank some champagne, and actually began to smile. Gia gave herself a pat on the back for refusing to allow her to cancel out tonight. This was her good deed for the day. The year.
Not such a bad crowd after all, Gia decided after an hour or so. The numerous nationalities, all well dressed, friendly, and polite, offered a smorgasbord of accents. The new dress fit her beautifully and she felt very feminine. She was aware of the admiring glances she drew from more than a few of the guests, and she enjoyed that.
She was nearly finished with her third fluted glass of champagne—she knew nothing about champagne but this was delicious—when Nellie grabbed her by the arm and pulled her toward two men standing off to the side. Gia recognized the shorter of the pair as Edward Burkes, security chief at the Mission. The taller man was dark, dressed all in white. When he turned she noticed with a start that he had no left arm.
"Eddie, how are you?" Nellie said, extending her hand.
"Nellie! How good to see you!" Burkes took her hand and kissed it. He was a burly man of about fifty, with graying hair and a mustache. He looked at Gia, then smiled. "Miss DiLauro! What an unexpected pleasure! You look wonderful! Allow me to introduce you both to Mr. Kusum Bahkti of the Indian delegation."
The Indian made a small bow at the waist but did not extend his hand. "A pleasure to meet you both."
Gia took an instant dislike to him. His dark, angular face was a mask, his eyes unreadable. He seemed to be hiding something. His gaze passed over her as if she were an ordinary piece of furniture, but came to rest and remain avidly on Nellie.
A waiter came around with a tray of champagne-filled glasses. Burkes gave one each to Nellie and Gia, then offered one to Mr. Bahkti, who shook his head.
"Sorry, Kusum," Burkes said. "Forgot you don't drink. Can I get you anything else? A fruit punch?"
Mr. Bahkti shook his head. "Don't trouble yourself. Perhaps I'll examine the buffet table later and see if you've put out any of those good English chocolates."
"Are you a chocolate fancier?" Nellie said. "I adore it."
"Yes. I developed a taste for it when I was with the London embassy. I brought a small supply with me when I came to this country, but that was six months ago, and it has long since been depleted."
"Just today I received a box of Black Magic from London. Have you ever had those?"
Gia saw genuine pleasure in Mr. Bahkti's smile. "Yes. Superior chocolates."
"You must come by some time and have some."
The smile widened. "Perhaps I shall do that."
Gia began to revise her opinion of Mr. Bahkti. He seemed to have gone from aloof to quite charming. Or was it simply an effect of her fourth glass of champagne? She tingled all over, felt almost giddy.
"I heard about Grace," Burkes said to Nellie. "If there's anything I can do..."
"We're doing all we can," Nellie said with a brave smile, "but mostly it comes down to waiting."
"Mr. Bahkti and I were just discussing a mutual acquaintance, Jack Jeffers."
"I believe his surname is Nelson," the Indian said.
"No, I'm sure it's Jeffers. Isn't it, Miss DiLauro? You know him best, I believe."
Gia wanted to laugh. How could she tell them Jack's last name when she wasn't sure herself.
"Jack is Jack," she said as tactfully as she could.
"He is that!" Burkes said with a laugh. "He recently helped Mr. Bahkti with a difficult matter."
"Oh?" Gia said, trying not to sound arch. "A security matter?" That was how Jack was first introduced to her: a security consultant.
"Personal," the Indian said, and that was all.
Gia wondered, about that. What had the UK Mission used Jack for? And Mr. Bahkti, a UN diplomat—why would he need Jack? These were respectable members of the international diplomatic community. What could they want "fixed"? To her surprise, she detected an enormous amount of respect in their voices when they spoke of him. It baffled her.
"But anyway," Burkes said, "I was thinking perhaps he could be of use in finding your sister, Nellie."
Gia was looking at Mr. Bahkti as Burkes was speaking and she could have sworn she saw the Indian flinch. She did not have time to confirm the impression because she turned to give Nellie a quick warning look: They’d promised Jack no one would know he was working for her.
"A marvelous idea, Eddie," Nellie said, catching Gia's glance and not missing a beat. "But I'm sure the police are doing all that can be done. However, if it—"
"Well, speak of the devil!" Burkes said, interrupting her and staring toward the entrance.
Before Gia turned to follow his gaze, she glanced again at Mr. Bahkti, who was already looking in the direction Burkes had indicated. On his dark face she saw a look of fury so deep, so fierce, that she stepped away from him for fear that he might explode. She searched the other end of the room to see what could cause such a reaction. And then she saw him...and her.
Jack…dressed in an old-fashioned tuxedo with tails, white tie, and winged collar. He looked wonderful. Against her will, her heart leaped at the sight of him—That's only because he's a fellow American among all these foreigners—and then crashed. For on his arm was one of the most striking women Gia had ever seen.
Vicky was supposed to be asleep. It was way past her bedtime. She’d tried to push herself into slumber, but it just wouldn't come. Too hot. She lay on top of the bedsheet to get cool. The air conditioning didn't work so well up here on the third floor. Despite her favorite pink shorty pajamas, her dolls, and her new Rascal to keep her company, she still couldn't sleep. Eunice had done all she could, from sliced oranges—Vicky loved oranges and couldn't get enough of them—to reading her a story. Nothing worked. Finally, Vicky had faked sleep just so Eunice wouldn't feel bad.
Usually when she couldn't sleep it was because she was worrying about Mommy. Sometimes when Mommy went out at night she had a bad feeling, a feeling that she'd never come back, that she'd been caught in an earthquake or a tornado or a car wreck. On those nights she'd pray and promise to be good forever if only Mommy got home safe. It hadn't failed yet.
But Vicky wasn't worried tonight. Mommy was out with Aunt Nellie and Aunt Nellie would take care of her. Worry wasn't keeping her awake.
It was the chocolates.
Vicky could not get those chocolates out of her mind. She’d never seen a box like that—black with gold trim and a big red rose on the top. All the way from England. And the name: Black Magic! The name alone was enough to keep her awake.
She had to see them. It was as simple as that. She had to go down there and look in that box and see the "Dark Assortment" promised on the lid.
With Ms. Jelliroll tucked securely under her arm, she crawled out of bed and headed for the stairs. Down to the second floor landing without a sound, and then down to the first. The slate floor of the foyer was cool under her feet. Down the hall came voices and music and flickery light from where Eunice was watching television in the library. Vicky tiptoed across the foyer to the front parlor where she’d seen Aunt Nellie put the box of chocolates.
She found it sitting on an end table. The cellophane was off. Vicky placed Ms. Jelliroll on the little couch, seated herself beside her, then pulled the Black Magic box onto her lap. She started to lift the lid, then stopped.
Mommy would have a fit if she came in now and found her sitting here. Bad enough that she was out of bed, but to have Aunt Nellie's chocolates too!
Vicky felt no guilt, however. In a way, this box should be hers, even if she was allergic to chocolate. It was from her father, after all. She’d hoped that when Mommy stopped home today she would find a package there just for her. But no. Nothing from Daddy.
Vicky ran her fingers over the rose on the lid. Pretty. Why couldn't this be hers? Maybe after Aunt Nellie finished the chocolates she'd let Vicky keep the box.
How many are left?
She lifted the lid. The rich, heavy smell of dark chocolate enveloped her, and with it the subtler odors of all the different fillings. And another smell, hiding just underneath the others, a smell she wasn't quite sure of. But who cared? The chocolate overpowered everything else. Saliva poured into her mouth. She wanted one. Oh, how she wanted just one bite.
She tilted the box to better see the contents in the light from the foyer. No empty slots! None of the chocolates was missing! At this rate it would take forever before she got the empty box. But then she forgot about the box. Chocolates…the chocolates…
She picked up a piece from the middle, wondering what was inside. It was cool to the touch but within seconds the chocolate coating became soft.
She held it to her nose. It didn't smell quite so good up close. Maybe it had something yucky inside, like raspberry goo or some such awful stuff. One bite wouldn't hurt. Maybe just a nibble from the outer layer. That way she wouldn't have to worry about what was inside. And maybe no one would notice.
Vicky put the piece back. She remembered the last time she’d sneaked a nibble of chocolate—her face swelled up like a big red balloon and her eyelids got so puffy all the kids at school had said she looked Chinese. Maybe no one would notice the nibble she took, but Mommy would sure notice her blown-up face. She took one last, longing look at the rows of dark lumps, then replaced the lid and put the box back on the table.
With Ms. Jelliroll under her arm again, she walked back to the bottom of the stairs and stood there looking up. Awfully dark up there. And she was scared. But she couldn't stay down here all night. Slowly she started up, carefully watching the dark at the top. When she reached the second floor landing she clung to the newel post and peered around. Nothing moved. With her heart beating wildly she broke into a scampering run around to the second flight and didn't slow until she’d reached the third floor, jumped into her bed, and pulled the sheet over her head.
"Working hard, I see."
Jack whirled at the sound of the voice, nearly spilling the two glasses of champagne he’d just lifted from the tray of a passing waiter.
"Gia!" She was the last person he expected to see here. And the last person he wanted to see. He felt he should be out looking for Grace instead of hob nobbing with the diplomats. But he swallowed his guilt, smiled, and tried to say something brilliant. "Fancy meeting you here."
"I'm here with Nellie."
"Oh. That explains it."
He stood there looking at her, wanting to reach out his hand and have her take it the way she used to, knowing she'd only turn away if he did. He noticed a half-empty champagne glass in her hand and a glittery look in her eyes. He wondered how many she’d had. She’d never been much of a drinker.
"So, what've you been doing with yourself?" she said, breaking the uncomfortable silence between them.
Yes—definitely too much to drink. Her voice was slightly slurred.
"Shoot anybody lately?"
Oh, swell. Here we go.
He tried a soothing tone. He wasn't looking for an argument. "Reading, trying a few videogames—”
"Which ones? Hitman? Grand Theft Auto? "
"—and watching movies."
"A Dirty Harry Festival, I suppose."
"You look great," he said, refusing to let her irk him as he tried to turn the talk toward Gia. He wasn't lying. She filled her black dress nicely. It made her blond hair and blue eyes seem to glow.
"You're not doing so bad yourself."
"It's my Fred Astaire suit. Always wanted to wear one of these. Like it?"
Gia nodded. "Is it as uncomfortable as it looks?"
"More so. Don't know how anyone ever tap-danced in one of these. Collar's choking me.
"It's not your style, anyway."
"You're right." Jack preferred to be unobtrusive. He was happiest when he could walk past with no one noticing. "But something got into me tonight. Couldn't pass up the chance to be Fred Astaire just once."
"You don't dance and your date will never be mistaken for Ginger Rogers."
"I can dream, can't I?"
"Who is she?"
Jack studied Gia closely. Could there be just a trace of jealousy there? Was that possible?
"She's..." He looked around the room until he spotted Kusum..."that man's sister."
"Is she the 'personal matter' you helped him with?"
"Oh?" he said with a slow smile. "You've been asking about me?"
Gia's eyes shifted away. "Burkes brought your name up. Not me."
"You know something, Gia?" Jack said, knowing he shouldn't but helpless to resist. "You're beautiful when you're jealous."
Her eyes flashed and her cheeks turned red. "Don't be absurd!"
She turned and walked away.
Typical, Jack thought. She wanted nothing to do with him but didn't want to see him with anybody else.
He looked around for Kolabati—not a typical woman by any standard—and found her standing beside her brother who seemed to be doing his best to pretend she wasn't there. As he walked toward the silent pair, Jack marveled at the way Kolabati's dress clung to her. The gauzy, dazzlingly white fabric snaked across her right shoulder and wrapped itself around her breasts like a bandage. Her left shoulder was completely bare, exposing her dark, flawless skin for all to admire. And there were many admirers.
"Hello, Mr. Bahkti," he said as he handed Kolabati her glass.
Kusum glanced at the champagne, at Kolabati, then turned an icy smile at Jack.
"May I compliment you on the decadence of your attire."
"Thank you. I knew it wasn't stylish, but I'll settle for decadent. How's your grandmother?"
"Physically well, but suffering from a mental aberration. I fear."
"She's doing fine," Kolabati said with a scathing look at her brother. "I have the latest word and she's doing just fine." Then she smiled sweetly. "Oh, by the way, Kusum dear. Jack was asking about durba grass today. Anything you can tell him about it?"
Jack saw Kusum stiffen. He knew Kolabati had been startled when he’d asked her about it on the phone today. What did durba grass mean to these two?
Still smiling, Kolabati sauntered away as Kusum faced him.
"What did you wish to know?"
"Nothing in particular. Except...is it ever used as a laxative?"
Kusum's face remained impassive. "It has many uses, but I have never heard it recommended for constipation. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious. An old lady I know said she was using a concoction with a durba grass extract in it."
"I'm surprised. I didn't think you could find durba grass in the Americas. Where did she buy it?"
Jack was studying Kusum's face. Something there... something he couldn't quite define.
"Don't know. She's away on a trip right now. When she comes back I'll ask her."
"Throw it away if you have any, my friend," Kusum said gravely. "Certain durba grass preparations have undesirable side-effects. Throw it away." Before Jack could say anything, Kusum gave one of his little bows. "Excuse me. There are some people I must speak to before the night is over. "
Undesirable side effects? What the hell did that mean?
Jack wandered around the room. He spotted Gia again but she avoided his eyes. Finally, the inevitable happened: he ran into Nellie Paton. He saw the pain behind her smile and suddenly felt absurd in his old-fashioned tuxedo. This woman had asked him to help find her missing sister and here he was dressed up like a gigolo.
"Gia tells me you're getting nowhere," she said in a low voice after brief amenities.
"I'm trying. If only I had more to go on. I'm doing what I—"
"I know you are, dear," Nellie said, patting his hand. "You were fair. You made no promises, and you warned me you might not be able to do any more than the police had already done. All I need to know is that someone is still looking.”
"I am." He spread his arms. "I may not look like it, but I am."
"Oh, rubbish!" she said with a smile. "Everyone needs a holiday. And you certainly seem to have a beautiful companion for it."
Jack turned in the direction Nellie was looking and saw Kolabati approaching them. He introduced the two women.
"Oh, I met your brother tonight!" Nellie said. "A charming man."
"When he wants to be, yes," Kolabati replied. "By the way—has either of you seen him lately?"
Nellie nodded. "I saw him leave perhaps ten minutes ago."
Kolabati said a word under her breath. Jack didn't know Indian, but he could recognize a curse when he heard one.
She smiled at him with her lips only. "Not at all. I just wanted to ask him something before he left.”
"Speaking of leaving," Nellie said. "I think that's a good idea. Excuse me while I go find Gia." She bustled off.
Jack looked at Kolabati. "Not a bad idea. Had enough of the diplomatic crowd for one night?"
"For more than one night"
"Where shall we go?"
"How about your apartment? Unless you've got a better idea."
Jack could not think of one.
Kolabati had spent most of the evening cudgeling her brain for a way to broach the subject to Jack. She had to find out about the durba grass. Where did he learn about it? Did he have any? She had to know.
She settled on the direct approach. As soon as they entered his apartment, she asked:
"Where's the durba grass?"
"Don't have any," Jack said as he took off his tailed coat and hung it on a hanger.
Kolabati glanced around the front room. She didn't see any growing in pots. "You must"
"Really, I don't"
"Then why did you ask me about it on the phone today?"
"I told you—"
"Truth, Jack." She could tell it was going to be hard getting a straight answer out of him. But she had to know. "Please. It's important."
Jack made her wait while he loosened his tie and unbuttoned the winged collar. He seemed glad to be out of it. He looked into her eyes. For a moment she thought he was going to tell her the truth. Instead, he answered her question with one of his own.
"Why do you want to know?"
"Just tell me, Jack."
"Why is it so important?"
She bit her lip. She had to tell him something. "Prepared in certain ways it can be...dangerous."
"Please, Jack. Just let me see what you've got and I'll tell you if there's anything to worry about."
"Your brother warned me about it too."
"Did he?" She still could not believe that Kusum was uninvolved in this. Yet he’d warned Jack. "What did he say?"
"He mentioned side effects. 'Undesirable' side effects. Just what they might be, he didn't say. I was hoping maybe you could—"
"Jack! Why are you playing games with me?"
She was genuinely concerned for him. Frightened for him. Perhaps that finally got through to him. He stared at her, then shrugged.
He went to the giant Victorian breakfront, removed a bottle from a tiny drawer hidden in the carvings, and brought it over to Kolabati. Instinctively, she reached for it. Jack pulled it away and shook his head as he unscrewed the top.
He held it under her nose. At the first whiff, Kolabati thought her knees would fail her. Rakoshi elixir! She snatched at it but Jack was quicker and held it out of her reach. She had to get it away from him!
"Give that to me, Jack." Her voice was trembling with the terror she felt for him.
Kolabati took a deep breath and began to walk around the room. Think!
"Who gave it to you? And please don't ask me why I want to know. Just answer me."
"All right. Answer: no one."
She glared at him. "I'll rephrase the question. Where did you get it?"
"From the dressing room of an old lady who disappeared between Monday night and Tuesday morning and hasn't been seen or heard from since."
So the elixir was not meant for Jack! He’d come by it secondhand. She began to relax.
"Did you drink any?"
That didn't make sense. A rakosh had come here last night. She was sure of that. The elixir must have drawn it. She shuddered at what might have happened had Jack been here alone.
"You must have."
Jack's brow furrowed. "Oh, yes... I tasted it. Just a drop."
She moved closer, feeling a tightness in her chest. "When?"
"Nothing. It's not exactly a soft drink."
Relief. "You must never let a drop of that pass your lips again—or anybody else's for that matter."
"Flush it down the toilet! Pour it down a sewer! Anything! But don't let it get into your system again!"
"What's wrong with it?"
Jack was becoming visibly annoyed now. Kolabati knew he wanted answers and she couldn't tell him the truth without him thinking her insane.
"It's a deadly poison," she said off the top of her head. "You were lucky you took only a tiny amount. Any more and you would have—"
"Not true," he said, holding up the still unstoppered bottle. "I had it analyzed today. No toxins in here."
Kolabati cursed herself for not realizing that he'd have it analyzed. How else could he have known it contained durba grass?
"It's poisonous in a different way," she said, improvising poorly, knowing she wasn't going to be believed. If only she could lie like Kusum! She felt tears of frustration fill her eyes. "Oh, Jack, please listen to me! I don't want to see anything happen to you! Trust me!"
"I'll trust you if you'll tell me what's going on. I find this stuff among the possessions of a missing woman and you tell me it's dangerous but you won't say how or why. What's going on?"
"I don't know what's going on! Really. All I can tell you is something awful will happen to anyone who drinks that mixture!"
"Is that so?" Jack looked at the bottle in his hand, then looked at Kolabati.
Believe me! Please, believe me!
Without warning, he tipped the bottle up to his mouth.
"No!" Kolabati leaped at him, screaming.
Too late. She saw his throat move. He’d swallowed some.
She raged at her own foolishness. She was the idiot! She hadn't been thinking clearly. If she had she would have realized the inevitability of what had just happened. Next to her brother, Jack was the most relentlessly uncompromising man she’d ever met. Knowing that, what could have made her think he would surrender the elixir without a full explanation as to what it was? Any fool could have foreseen that he would bring matters to a head this way. The very reasons she was attracted to Jack might have doomed him.
And she was so attracted to him. She learned with an explosive shock the true depth of her feelings when she saw him swallow the rakoshi elixir. She’d had more than her share of lovers. They’d wandered in and out of her life in Bengal and Europe, in Washington. But Jack was special. He made her feel complete. He had something the others didn't have...a purity—was that the proper word?—that she wanted to make her own. She wanted to be with him, stay with him, keep him for herself.
But first she had to find a way to keep him alive through tonight.
The vow was made...the vow must be kept...the vow was made...
Kusum repeated the words over and over in his mind.
He sat in his cabin with his Gita spread out on his lap. He had stopped reading it. The gently rocking ship was silent but for the familiar rustlings from the main hold amidships. He barely heard them. Thoughts poured through his mind in a wild torrent. That woman he had met tonight, Nellie Paton. He knew her maiden name: Westphalen. A sweet, harmless old woman with a passion for chocolate, worrying about her missing sister, unaware that her sister was far beyond her concern, and that her worry should be reserved for herself. For her days were numbered on the fingers of a single hand. Perhaps a single finger.
And that blond woman, not a Westphalen herself, yet the mother of one. Mother of a child who would soon be the last Westphalen. Mother of a child who must die.
Am I sane?
When he thought of the journey he had embarked upon, the destruction he had already wrought, he shuddered. And he was only half done. Richard Westphalen had been the first. He had been sacrificed to the rakoshi during Kusum's stay at the London embassy. He remembered dear Richard: the fear-bulged eyes, the crying, the whimpering, the begging as he cringed before the rakoshi and answered in detail every question Kusum put to him about his aunts and daughter in the United States. He remembered how piteously Richard Westphalen had pleaded for his life, offering anything—even his current consort in his place—if only he would be allowed to live.
Richard Westphalen had not died honorably and his karma would carry that stain for many incarnations.
The pleasure Kusum had taken in delivering the screaming Richard Westphalen over to the rakoshi had dismayed him. He was performing a duty. He was not supposed to enjoy it. But he had thought at the time that if all three of the remaining Westphalens were creatures as reprehensible as Richard, fulfilling the vow would be a service to humanity.
It turned out quite differently. The old woman, Grace Westphalen, had been made of sterner stuff. She had acquitted herself well before fainting. She had been unconscious when Kusum gave her over to the rakoshi.
But Richard and Grace had been strangers to Kusum. He had seen them only from afar before their sacrifices. He had investigated their personal habits and studied their routines, but he had never come close to them, never spoken to them.
Tonight he had stood not half a meter from Nellie Paton discussing English chocolates with her. He had found her pleasant and gracious and unassuming. And yet she must die by his design.
Kusum ground his only fist into his eyes, forcing himself to think about the pearls he had seen around her neck, the jewels on her fingers, the luxurious townhouse she owned, the wealth she commanded, all bought at a terrible price of death and destruction to his family. Nellie Paton's ignorance of the source of her wealth was of no consequence.
A vow had been made...
And the road to a pure karma involved keeping that vow. Though he had fallen along the way, he could make everything right again by being true to his first vow, his vrata. The Goddess had whispered to him in the night. Kali had shown him the way.
Kusum wondered at the price others had paid—and soon would have to pay—for the purification of his karma. The soiling of that karma had been no one's fault but his own. He had freely taken a vow of Brahmacharya and for many years had held to a life of chastity and sexual continence. Until...
His mind shied from the days that ended his life as a Brahmachari. Sins—patakas—stained every life. But he had committed a mahapataka, thoroughly polluting his karma. It was a catastrophic blow to his quest for moksha, the liberation from the karmic wheel. It meant he would suffer greatly, then be born again as an evil man of low caste. For he had forsaken his vow of Brahmacharya in the most abominable fashion.
But the vrata to his father he would not forsake: Although the crime was more than a century in the past, all the descendants of Sir Albert Westphalen must die for it. Only two were left.
A new noise rose from below. The Mother was scraping on the hatch. She had caught the Scent and wanted to hunt.
He rose and stepped to his cabin door, then stopped, uncertain of what to do. He knew the Paton woman had received the candies. Before leaving London he had injected each piece with a few drops of the elixir and had left the wrapped and addressed parcel in the care of an embassy secretary to hold until she received word to mail it. And now it had arrived. All would be perfect.
Except for Jack.
Jack obviously knew the Westphalens. A startling coincidence but not outlandish when one considered that both the Westphalens and Kusum knew Jack through Burkes at the UK Mission. And Jack had apparently come into possession of the small bottle of elixir Kusum had arranged for Grace Westphalen to receive last weekend. Had it been mere chance that he had picked that particular bottle to investigate? From what little Kusum knew of Jack, he doubted it.
For all the considerable risk Jack represented—his intuitive abilities and his capacity and willingness to do physical damage made him a very dangerous man—Kusum was loath to see him come to harm. He was indebted to him for returning the necklace in time. More importantly, Jack was too rare a creature in the Western World. Kusum did not want to be responsible for his extinction. And finally, he felt a certain kinship toward the man. He sensed Repairman Jack to be an outcast in his own land, just as Kusum had been in his—until recently. True, Kusum had an ever growing following at home and now moved in the upper circles of India's diplomatic corps, but he was still an outcast in his heart. For he would never—could never—be a part of the "new" India.
"New" India indeed! Once he had fulfilled his vow he would return home with his rakoshi. And then he would begin the task of transforming the "new" India back into a land true to its heritage.
He had the time.
And he had the rakoshi.
The Mother's scraping against the hatch door became more insistent. He would have to let her hunt tonight. All he could hope for was that the Paton woman had eaten a piece of the candy and that the Mother would lead her youngling there. He was quite sure Jack had the bottle of elixir, and that he had tasted it some time yesterday—a single drop was enough to draw a rakosh. It was unlikely he would taste it twice. And so it must be the Paton woman who now carried the scent.
Anticipation filled Kusum as he started below.
They lay entwined on the couch, Jack sitting, Kolabati sprawled across him, her hair a dark storm cloud across her face. A replay of last night, only this time they hadn't made it to the bedroom.
After Kolabati's initial frightened reaction to seeing him swallow the liquid, Jack had waited to see what she would say. Taking that swig had been a radical move, but he’d butted heads against this thing long enough. Maybe now he would get some answers.
But she’d said nothing. Instead, she started undressing him. When he protested, she began doing things to him with her fingernails that drove all questions about mysterious liquids from his mind.
Questions could wait. Everything could wait.
Jack floated now on a languorous river of sensation, leading he knew not where. He’d tried to take the helm but had given up, yielding to her superior knowledge of the various currents and tributaries along the way. As far as he was concerned, Kolabati could steer him wherever she wished. They had explored new territories last night and more tonight. He was ready to push the frontiers back even further. He only hoped he could stay afloat during the ensuing excursions.
Kolabati was just beginning to guide him into the latest adventure when the odor returned—just a trace, but enough to recognize as the same unforgettable stench as last night.
If Kolabati noticed it, she said nothing. But she immediately rose to her knees and swung her hips over him. As she settled astride his lap with a little sigh, she clamped her lips over his. This was the most conventional position they’d used all night. Jack found her rhythm and began moving with her, but like last night when the odor had invaded the apartment, he sensed a strange tension in her that took the edge off his ardor.
And the odor...nauseating, growing stronger and stronger, filling the air around them. It seemed to flow from the TV room. Jack raised his head from Kolabati's throat where he’d been nuzzling around her iron necklace. Over the rise and fall of her right shoulder he could look into the dark of that room. He saw nothing—
A click, really, much like the whirring air conditioner in the TV room made from time to time. But different. Slightly louder. A little more solid. Something about it alerted Jack. He kept his eyes open...
And as he watched, two pairs of yellow eyes began to glow outside the TV room window.
Had to be a trick of the light. He squinted for a better look, but the eyes remained. They moved, as if searching for something. One of the pair fixed on Jack for an instant. An icy fingernail scored the outer wall of his heart as he stared into those glowing yellow orbs...like looking into the very soul of evil. He felt himself wither inside Kolabati. He wanted to throw her off, run to the old oak secretary, pull out every gun hidden there and fire them out the window two at a time.
But he could not move. Fear as he’d never known it gripped him in a clammy fist and pinned him to the couch. The alienness of those eyes and the sheer malevolence behind them paralyzed him.
Kolabati had to be aware that something was wrong. No way she could not be. She leaned back and looked at him.
"What do you see?" Her eyes were wide, her voice barely audible.
"Eyes," Jack said. "Yellow eyes. Two pairs."
She caught her breath. "In the other room?"
"Outside the window."
"Don't move, don't say another word."
"For both our sakes. Please."
Jack neither moved nor spoke. He stared at Kolabati's face, trying to read it. She was afraid, but anything beyond that was closed off to him. Why hadn’t she balked at the idea of eyes watching them through a third-story window with no fire escape?
He glanced over her shoulder again. The eyes were still there, still searching for something. What? They appeared confused, and even when they looked directly at him, they did not seem to see him. Their gaze slid off him, slithered around him, passed through him.
This is crazy! Why am I sitting here?
He was angry with himself for yielding so easily to fear of the unknown. Some sort of animal was out there—two of them. Nothing he couldn't deal with.
As Jack started to lift Kolabati off him, she gave a little cry. She wrapped her arms around his neck in a stranglehold and dug her knees into his hips.
"Don't move!" Her voice was hushed and frantic.
"Let me up."