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Alex Morse charged through the lobby of the new University Medical Center like a doctor to a code call, but she was no doctor. She was a hostage negotiator for the FBI. Twenty minutes earlier, Alex had deplaned from a flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jackson, Mississippi, a flight prompted by her older sister's sudden collapse at a Little League baseball game. This year had been plagued by injury and death, and there was more to come -- Alex could feel it.
Sighting the elevators, she checked the overhead display and saw that a car was descending. She hit the call button and started bouncing on her toes. Hospitals, she thought bitterly. She'd practically just gotten out of one herself. But the chain of tragedy had started with her father. Five months ago Jim Morse had died in this very hospital, after being shot during a robbery. Two months after that, Alex's mother had been diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She had already outlived her prognosis, but wasn't expected to survive the week. Then came Alex's accident. And now Grace --
A bell dinged softly, and the elevator opened.
A young woman wearing a white coat over street clothes leaned against the rear wall in a posture of absolute exhaustion. Intern, Alex guessed. She'd met enough of them during the past month. The woman glanced up as Alex entered the car, then looked down. Then she looked up again. Alex had endured this double take so many times since the shooting that she no longer got angry. Just depressed.
"What floor?" asked the young woman, raising her hand to the panel and trying hard not to stare.
"Neuro ICU," said Alex, stabbing the 4 with her finger.
"I'm going down to the basement," said the intern, who looked maybe twenty-six -- four years younger than Alex. "But it'll take you right up after that."
Alex nodded, then stood erect and watched the glowing numbers change above her head. After her mother's diagnosis, she'd begun commuting by plane from Washington, D.C. -- where she was based then -- to Mississippi to relieve Grace, who was struggling to teach full-time and also to care for their mother at night. Unlike J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, the modern Bureau tried to be understanding about family problems, but in Alex's case the deputy director had made his position clear: time off to attend a funeral was one thing, regularly commuting a thousand miles to be present for chemotherapy was another. But Alex had not listened. She'd bucked the system and learned to live without sleep. She told herself she could hack the pressure, and she did -- right up until the moment she cracked. The problem was, she hadn't realized she'd cracked until she caught part of a shotgun blast in her right shoulder and face. Her vest had protected the shoulder, but her face was still an open question.
For a hostage negotiator, Alex had committed the ultimate sin, and she'd come close to paying the ultimate price. Because the shooter had fired through a plate-glass partition, what would have been a miraculous escape (being grazed by a couple of pellets that could have blown her brains out but hadn't) became a life-altering trauma. A blizzard of glass tore through her cheek, sinuses, and jaw, lacerating her skin and ripping away tissue and bone. The plastic surgeons had promised great things, but so far the results were less than stellar. They'd told her that in time the angry pink worms would whiten (they could do little to repair the "punctate" depressions in her cheek), and that laymen wouldn't even notice the damage. Alex wasn't convinced. But in the grand scheme of things, what did vanity matter? Five seconds after she was shot, someone else had paid the ultimate price for her mistake.
During the hellish days that followed the shooting, Grace had flown up to D.C. three times to be with Alex, despite being exhausted from taking care of their mother. Grace was the family martyr, a genuine candidate for sainthood. The irony was staggering: tonight it was Grace lying in an intensive care unit, fighting for her life.
And why? Certainly not karma. She'd been walking up the steps of a stadium to watch her ten-year-old son play baseball when she collapsed. Seconds after she hit the stairs, she voided her bladder and bowels. A CAT scan taken forty minutes later showed a blood clot near Grace's brain stem, the kind of clot that too often killed people. Alex had been swimming laps in Charlotte when she got word (having been transferred there as punishment duty after the shooting). Her mother was too upset to be coherent on the phone, but she'd communicated enough details to send Alex racing to the airport.
When the first leg of her flight touched down in Atlanta, Alex had used her Treo to call Grace's husband, whom she'd been unable to reach before boarding the plane. Bill Fennell explained that while the neurological damage had initially not looked too bad -- some right-side paralysis, weakness, mild dysphasia -- the stroke seemed to be worsening, which the doctors said was not uncommon. A neurologist had put Grace on TPA, a drug that could dissolve clots but also carried serious risks of its own. Bill Fennell was a commanding man, but his voice quavered as he related this, and he begged Alex to hurry.
When her plane landed in Jackson, Alex called Bill again. This time he sobbed as he related the events of the past hour. Though still breathing on her own, Grace had lapsed into a coma and might die before Alex could cover the fifteen miles from the airport. A panic unlike any she had known since childhood filled her chest. Though the plane had only begun its taxi to the terminal, Alex snatched her carry-on from beneath the seat and marched to the front of the 727. When a flight attendant challenged her, she flashed her FBI creds and quietly told the man to get her to the terminal ASAP. When she cleared the gate, she sprinted down the concourse and through baggage claim, then jumped the cab queue, flashed her creds again, and told the driver she'd give him $100 to drive a hundred miles an hour to the University Medical Center.
Now here she was, stepping out of the elevator on the fourth floor, sucking in astringent smells that hurled her four weeks back in time, when hot blood had poured from her face as though from a spigot. At the end of the corridor waited a huge wooden door marked neurology icu. She went through it like a first-time parachutist leaping from a plane, steeling herself for free fall, terrified of the words she was almost certain to hear: I'm sorry, Alex, but you're too late.
The ICU held a dozen glass-walled cubicles built in a U-shape around the nurses' station. Several cubicles were curtained off, but through the transparent wall of the fourth from the left, Alex saw Bill Fennell talking to a woman in a white coat. At six feet four, Bill towered over her, but his handsome face was furrowed with anxiety, and the woman seemed to be comforting him. Sensing Alex's presence, he looked up and froze in midsentence. Alex moved toward the cubicle. Bill rushed to the door and hugged her to his chest. She'd always felt awkward embracing her brother-in-law, but tonight there was no way to avoid it. And no reason, really. Tonight they both needed some kind of contact, an affirmation of family unity.
"You must have taken a helicopter," he said in his resonant bass voice. "I can't believe you made it that fast."
"Is she alive?"
"She's still with us," Bill said in a strangely formal tone. "She's actually regained consciousness a couple of times. She's been asking for you."
Alex's heart lifted, but with hope came fresh tears.
The woman in the white coat walked out of the cubicle. She looked about fifty, and her face was kind but grave.
"This is Grace's neurologist," Bill said.
"I'm Meredith Andrews," said the woman. "Are you the one Grace calls KK?"
Alex couldn't stop her tears. KK was a nickname derived from her middle name, which was a family appellation: Karoli. "Yes. But please call me Alex. Alex Morse."
"Special Agent Morse," Bill said in an absurd interjection.
"Has Grace asked for me?" Alex asked, wiping her cheeks.
"You're all she can talk about."
"Is she conscious?"
"Not at this moment. We're doing everything we can, but you should prepare yourself for" -- Dr. Andrews gave Alex a lightning-fast appraisal -- "you should prepare for the worst. Grace had a serious thrombosis when she was brought in, but she was breathing on her own, and I was encouraged. But the stroke extended steadily, and I decided to start thrombolytic therapy. To try to dissolve the clot. This can sometimes produce miracles, but it can also cause hemorrhages elsewhere in the brain or body. I have a feeling that may be happening now. I don't want to risk moving Grace for an MRI. She's still breathing on her own, and that's the best hope we have. If she stops breathing, we're ready to intubate immediately. I probably should have done it already" -- Dr. Andrews glanced at Bill -- "but I knew she was desperate to talk to you, and once she's intubated, she won't be able to communicate with anyone. She's already lost her ability to write words."
"Don't be shocked if she manages to speak to you. Her speech center has been affected, and she has significant impairment."
"I understand," Alex said impatiently. "We had an uncle who had a stroke. Can I just be with her? I don't care what her condition is. I have to be with her."
Dr. Andrews smiled and led Alex into the room.
As she reached the door, Alex turned back to Bill. "Where's Jamie?"
"With my sister in Ridgeland."
Ridgeland was a white-flight suburb ten miles away. "Did he see Grace fall?"
Bill shook his head somberly. "No, he was down on the field. He just knows his mother's sick, that's all."
"Don't you think he should be here?"
Alex had tried to keep all judgment out of her voice, but Bill's face darkened. He seemed about to snap at her, but then he drew a deep breath and said, "No, I don't."
When Alex kept staring at him, he lowered his voice and added, "I don't want Jamie to watch his mother die."
"Of course not. But he should have a chance to say good-bye."
"He'll get that," Bill said. "At the funeral."
Alex closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. "Bill, you can't -- "
"We don't have time for this." He nodded into the room where Dr. Andrews stood waiting.
Alex walked slowly to the edge of Grace's bed. The pale face above the hospital blanket did not look familiar. And yet it did. It looked like her mother's face. Grace Morse Fennell was thirty-five years old, but tonight she looked seventy. It's her skin, Alex realized. It's like wax. Drooping wax. She had the sense that the muscles that controlled her sister's face had gone slack and would never contract again. Grace's eyes were closed, and to Alex's surprise, she felt this was a mercy. It gave her time to adjust to the new reality, however fleeting that reality might be.
"Are you all right?" Dr. Andrews asked from behind her.
"I'll leave you with her, then."
Alex glanced at the bank of CRTs monitoring Grace's life functions. Heartbeat, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, God knew what else. A single IV line disappeared beneath a bandage on her forearm; Alex's wrist ached at the sight. She wasn't sure what to do, and maybe it didn't matter. Maybe the important thing was just to be here.
"You know what this tragedy has taught me?" asked the familiar bass voice.
Alex jumped but tried to hide her discomfiture. She hadn't realized Bill was still in the room, and she hated showing any sign of weakness. "What?" she said, though she didn't really care about the answer.
"Money isn't really worth anything. All the money in the world won't make that blood clot go away."
Alex nodded distantly.
"So, what the hell have I been working for?" Bill asked. "Why haven't I just kicked back and spent every second I could with Grace?"
Grace probably asked the same question a thousand times, Alex thought. But it was too late for regrets. A lot of people thought Bill was a cold fish. Alex had always thought he tended to be maudlin.
"Could I be alone with her for a while?" Alex asked, not taking her eyes from Grace's face.
She felt a strong hand close on her shoulder -- the wounded shoulder -- and then Bill said, "I'll be back in five minutes."
After he'd gone, Alex took Grace's clammy hand in hers and bent to kiss her forehead. She had never seen her sister so helpless. In fact, she had never seen Grace close to helpless. Grace was a dynamo. Crises that brought others' lives to a standstill hardly caused her to break stride. But this was different. This was the end -- Alex could tell. She knew it the way she had known when James Broadbent went down after she was shot. James had watched Alex charge into the bank just seconds ahead of the go-order for the Hostage Rescue Team, and he had gone in right behind her. He saw her take the shotgun blast, but instead of instantly returning fire at the shooter, he'd glanced down to see how badly Alex was hurt. For that concern he'd caught the second blast square in the chest. He wasn't wearing a vest (he'd taken it off upon learning that the HRT was going in), and the shotgun chopped his heart and lungs into something you saw behind a butcher's counter. Why did he look down? Alex wondered for the millionth time. Why did he follow me in at all? But she knew the answer. Broadbent had followed her because he loved her -- from a distance, true, but the emotion was no less real for that. And that love had killed him. Alex saw tears falling on Grace's cheeks -- her own tears, numberless these past months. She wiped her eyes, then took out her cell phone and called Bill Fennell, who was standing less than thirty feet away.
"What is it?" he asked frantically. "What's wrong?"
"Jamie should be here."
"Alex, I told you -- "
"You get him, goddamn it. This is his mother lying here."
There was a long silence. Then Bill said, "I'll call my sister."
On impulse, Alex turned and saw him standing near the nurses' station. He'd been talking to Dr. Andrews. She saw him disengage from the neurologist and lift his cell phone to his cheek. Alex leaned down to Grace's ear and tried to think of something that would reach the bottom of the dark well where her sister now dwelled.
"Sue-Sue?" she whispered, simultaneously squeezing the cold hand. Sue-Sue was another nickname based on a middle name -- a family tradition. "Sue-Sue, it's KK."
Grace's eyes remained shut.
"It's me, Sue-Sue. It's KK. I'm back from Sally's. Wake up, before Mama gets up. I want to go to the carnival."
Seconds dilated into some unknown measure of time. Memories swirled through Alex's mind, and her heart began to ache. Grace's eyes stayed shut.
"Come on, Sue-Sue. I know you're playing possum. Quit faking."
Alex felt a twitch in her hand. Adrenaline surged through her, but when she saw the frozen eyelids, she decided that the twitch must have come from her own hand.
"Kuh...kuh," someone coughed.
Alex turned, thinking it was Bill or Dr. Andrews, but then Grace clenched her hand and let out a sharp cry. When Alex whipped her head around, she saw Grace's green eyes wide-open. Then Grace blinked. Alex's heart soared. She leaned down over her sister, because though Grace was only thirty-five, her eyes were almost useless without glasses or contacts.
"KK?" Grace moaned. "Iz zah wu?"
"It's me, Gracie," Alex said, rubbing a strand of hair out of her sister's cloudy eyes.
"Oh, Goth," Grace said in a guttural voice, and then she began to sob. "Thang Godth."
Alex had to clench her jaw muscles to keep from sobbing. The right half of Grace's face was paralyzed, and drool ran down her chin whenever she struggled to speak. She sounded exactly like Uncle T.J., who'd died after a series of strokes left him without a shred of his old identity.
"Wu...wu have tuh thave Jamie," Grace gargled.
"What? I missed that."
"Havuh thave Jamie!" Grace repeated, struggling to rise in the bed. She seemed to be trying to look behind Alex.
"Jamie's fine," Alex said in a comforting voice. "He's on his way here."
Grace shook her head violently. "Wissen! Havuh wissen!"
"I'm listening, Sue-Sue, I promise."
Grace stared into Alex's eyes with all the urgency in her soul. "You -- have -- tuh -- thave -- Jamie...Gay-Gay. You thuh...onwe...one ooh can."
"Save Jamie from what?"
"Bill?" Alex asked, sure she must be wrong in her translation.
With painful effort, Grace nodded.
Alex blinked in astonishment. "What are you talking about? Is Bill hurting Jamie in some way?"
A weak nod. "Ee wiw...thoon ath I'm gone."
Alex struggled to understand the tortured words. "Hurt Jamie how? Are you talking about some sort of abuse?"
Grace shook her head. "Biw -- wiw -- kiw -- Jamie's -- thole."
Alex squinted as though trying to decipher some coded text. "Bill...will...kill...Jamie's...soul?"
Grace's head sagged in exhaustion.
"Gracie...Bill isn't my favorite person. You've always known that. But he's been a good father, hasn't he? He seems like a basically decent man."
Grace gripped Alex's hand and shook her head. Then she hissed, "Eeth a monther!"
Alex felt a chill. "He's a monster? Is that what you said?"
A tear of relief slid down Grace's paralyzed cheek.
Alex looked at the anguished eyes, then turned and glanced over her shoulder. Bill Fennell was still speaking to Dr. Andrews, but his eyes were on Alex.
"Ith Biw coming?" Grace asked in a terrified voice, trying in vain to twist in the bed.
"No, no. He's talking to the doctor."
"Dogtor -- duthend -- know."
"Doesn't know what?"
"Whuh Biw did."
"What do you mean? What did Bill do?"
Grace suddenly raised her hand and gripped Alex's blouse, then pulled her head down to her lips. "Ee kiwd me!"
Alex felt as though ice water had been shunted into her veins. She drew back and looked into Grace's bloodshot eyes. "He killed you? Is that what you said?"
Grace nodded once, her eyes filled with conviction.
"Grace, you don't know what you're saying."
Even with a partially paralyzed face, Grace managed a smile that said, Oh, yes, I do.
"You can't mean that. Not literally."
Grace closed her eyes as though gathering herself for one last effort. "You...onwe one...ooh can thop im. Too...wate...fuh me. I urd...dogtuh...out thide. Thave Jamie for me...Gay-Gay. Pleath."
Alex looked back through the glass wall. Bill was still watching her, and his conversation looked as if it was winding down. Alex had always known Grace's marriage wasn't perfect, but what marriage was? Not that Alex was any authority. She had somehow reached the age of thirty without tying the knot. After years of badge groupies and badge bolters, she'd finally accepted a proposal, then terminated the engagement three months later, after discovering that her fiancÉ was cheating with her best friend. In matters amorous, she was a ridiculous clichÉ.
"Sue-Sue," she whispered, "why would Bill want to hurt you?"
"Thum-one else," Grace said. "Wuh-man."
"Another woman? Do you know that for a fact?"
Another half-paralyzed smile. "Uh -- wife -- knowth."
Alex believed her. During her engagement to Peter Hodges, a feeling very like a sixth sense had told her something was amiss in their relationship. Long before there was any tangible clue, she'd simply known there was betrayal. If she had possessed the same instinct about conventional crimes, she'd already be an SAC instead of a hostage negotiator. Correction, she thought, I'm a common field agent now.
"If Bill wants to be with another woman," she said, "why doesn't he just divorce you?"
"Muhn-ey...dum-me. Would coth Biw miw-yens...tuh do that. Five -- miwyen...may-be."
Alex drew back in disbelief. She'd known that Bill had been doing well for some years now, but she'd had no idea he was that wealthy. Why in God's name was Grace still teaching elementary school? Because she loves it, she answered herself. Because she can't not work.
Grace had closed her eyes, seemingly drained by her efforts. "Tew...Mom...I tho-we," she said. "Tew huh...I be waiting fuh hurh...in heaven." The smile animated the living half of her face again. "If -- I -- make it."
"You made it, honey," Alex said, balling her free hand into a fist and holding it against her mouth.
"Well, look at this, Dr. Andrews!" boomed Bill Fennell. "She looks like she's ready to get up and out of that bed."
Grace's eyes snapped open, and she shrank away from her husband, obviously trying to use Alex as a shield. The terror in her eyes hurt Alex's heart, and it also thrust her into full-defense mode. She stood up and blocked Bill from coming to the bedside.
"I think it's better if you don't come in," she said, looking hard into her brother-in-law's eyes.
Bill's mouth dropped open. He looked past her to Grace, who was literally cowering in the bed. "What are you talking about?" he asked angrily. "What the hell's going on here? Have you said something about me to Grace?"
Alex glanced at Dr. Andrews, who looked confused. "No. Quite the reverse, I'm afraid."
Bill shook his head in apparent puzzlement. "I don't understand."
Alex probed his brown eyes, searching for some sign of guilt. Grace's fears and accusations were probably the product of a dying woman's hallucinations, but there was no doubt about the reality of her terror. "You're upsetting her, Bill. You can see that. You should go downstairs and wait for Jamie."
"There's no way I'm going to leave my wife's bedside. Not when she might -- "
"What?" Alex asked, a note of challenge in her voice.
Bill lowered his voice. "When she might..."
Alex looked at Dr. Andrews.
The neurologist stepped toward Bill and said, "Perhaps we should give Grace and her sister some more time alone."
"Don't try to massage me like that," Bill said irritably. "I'm Grace's husband. I'm her husband, and I'll decide who -- "
"She's my blood," Alex said with bone-deep conviction. "Your presence here is upsetting Grace, and that's all that matters. We need to keep her as calm as possible. Isn't that right, Dr. Andrews?"
"Absolutely." Meredith Andrews walked around Alex and looked down at her patient. "Grace, do you understand me?"
"Do you want your husband in this room?"
Grace slowly shook her head. "I wan...my bay...be. Wan Jamie."
Dr. Andrews looked up at Bill Fennell, who towered over her. "That's good enough for me. I want you to leave the unit, Mr. Fennell."
Bill stepped close to the neurologist, his eyes sheened with anger. "I don't know who you think you are, or who you think you're talking to, but I give a lot of money to this university. A lot of money. And I -- "
"Don't make me call security," Dr. Andrews said quietly, lifting the phone beside Grace's bed.
Bill's face went white. Alex almost felt sorry for him. The power had clearly passed to Dr. Andrews, but Bill seemed unable to make the decision to leave. He looked, Alex thought, like an actor on a DVD movie after you hit pause. Or that's what she was thinking when the alarm began to sing.
"She's coding!" Dr. Andrews shouted through the door, but the shout was unnecessary. Nurses were already running from the station to the cubicle. Alex jumped out of their way, and an instant later Bill did the same.
"Cardiac arrest," Dr. Andrews said, yanking open a drawer.
Because this was an ICU, there was no crash cart; everything was already here. The quiet cubicle suddenly became a whirlwind of motion, all directed toward a single purpose -- to sustain the life fast ebbing from the body on the bed.
"You need to leave," said a tall male nurse standing behind Dr. Andrews. "Both of you."
Dr. Andrews glanced up long enough to give Alex a moment of eye contact, then returned to work. Alex backed slowly out of the ICU, watching the final act of her sister's life unfold without any hope of playing a part herself. Ridiculous regrets about choosing law school over medical school pierced her heart. But what if she had become a doctor? She would be practicing two thousand miles away from Mississippi, and the result would be the same. Grace's fate was in God's hands now, and Alex knew how indifferent those hands could be.
She turned away from the cubicle -- away from Bill Fennell -- and looked at the nurses' station, where banks of monitors chirped and blinked ceaselessly. How can they focus on all those screens at once? she wondered, recalling how difficult it was to watch multiple surveillance feeds when the Bureau had a TV rig set up on a static post. As she thought about that, she heard Dr. Andrews say, "I'm calling it, guys. Time of death, ten twenty-nine P.M."
Shock is a funny thing, Alex thought. Like the day she was shot. Two searing chunks of buckshot and a half pound of glass had blasted through the right side of her face, yet she'd felt nothing -- just a wave of heat, as if someone had opened an oven beside her.
Time of death, ten twenty-nine P.M....
Something started to let go in Alex's chest, but before the release, she heard a little boy say, "Hey! Is my mom in here?"
She turned toward the big wooden door that had brought her to this particular chamber of hell and saw before it a boy about four and a half feet tall. His face was red, as though he had run all the way from wherever he'd started. He was trying to look brave, but Alex saw fear in his wide green eyes.
"Aunt Alex?" said Jamie, finally picking her out of the uniformed crowd.
Bill's big voice sounded from behind Alex. "Hello, Son. Where's Aunt Jean?"
"She's too slow," Jamie said angrily.
"Come over here, boy."
Alex looked back at her brother-in-law's stern face, and the thing that had started to let go inside her suddenly ratcheted tight. Without thought she ran to Jamie, swept him into her arms and then out the door, away from this heartrending nightmare. Away from his dying mother.
Away from Bill Fennell.
Copyright © 2006 by Greg Iles