Authors: Catherine Coulter
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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First edition (electronic): September 2001
TO CURRY ECKELHOFF
Incredible competence aside, you’re a wonderful friend,
you’ve got a great sense of humor,
you’re generous to a fault,
and you’re a blonde.
Here’s to all of us hanging out
in the Pink Palace.
he night was black and calm, silent except for the mellow whine of the newly tuned Porsche engine, yet she heard the soft, sobbing voice pleading with her again, whispering low and deep. It never left her alone now.
No one else was near, it was just Jilly driving alone on the coast highway. The ocean stirred beside her, but with no moon out, it looked like an empty, black expanse. The Porsche, sensitive to the slightest touch of her fingers, gently swerved left, toward the cliff, toward the endless expanse of black water beyond. Jilly jerked the car back to the center line.
Laura’s voice began sobbing in her brain, then grew louder, filling her, until Jilly wanted to burst.
“Shut up!” Jilly’s scream filled the car for a brief moment. Her voice sounded harsh and ugly. It was nothing like Laura’s had been, like a small child’s sobbing, lost and inconsolable. Only death would bring peace. Jilly felt that voice, Laura’s voice, build inside her again. She gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead,
praying to herself, chanting for it to stop, for Laura to go away.
“Please,” she whispered. “Please stop. Leave me alone.
But Laura didn’t stop. She was no longer a child, speaking in a sweet, terrified voice. She was herself again, angry now, and this time foul words frothed from her mouth, spewing rage and saliva that Jilly tasted in the back of her throat. She banged her fists on the steering wheel, hard, harder still, rhythmically, to make the malevolent voice go away. She opened the window, pressed it all the way down and leaned out, letting the wind tear her hair back, and her eyes sting and water. She shouted into the night, “Make it stop!”
It stopped. Suddenly.
Jilly drew a deep breath and pulled her head back into the car. The wind whooshed through the car and she sucked in mouthfuls of the cold air. It tasted wonderful. It was over. Thank God, finally it had stopped. She raised her head, looking around, wondering where she was. She’d been driving for hours, it seemed, yet the dashboard clock read only midnight. She’d been gone from home for a half hour.
Her life had become whispers and screams until she couldn’t bear it. Now there was silence, deep and complete silence.
Jilly began counting.
One, two, three—
no curses, no whispers, no small child’s pleading, nothing, just her own breathing, the soft hum of her car. She threw back her head and closed her eyes a moment, relishing the silence. She began counting again.
Four, five, six—
still blessed silence.
soft, very soft, like a faraway rustling of leaves, coming closer, closer. Not rustling, no,
whispering. Laura was whispering again, begging not to die, begging and pleading and swearing she’d never meant to sleep with him, but it had just happened, he’d made it happen. But Jilly hadn’t believed her.
“Please, stop, stop, stop,” Jilly chanted over that feathery voice. Laura began screaming that Jilly was a pathetic bitch, a fool who couldn’t see what she was. Jilly stomped down on the gas pedal. The Porsche lurched forward, hitting seventy, eighty, eighty-five. The coast road swerved. She kept the car directly in the center of the road. She began singing. Laura screamed louder, and Jilly sang louder. Ninety. Ninety-five.
Damn you, go away!
” Jilly’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel, her head low, her forehead nearly touching the rim. The engine’s vibrations made Laura’s screaming voice convulse with power.
Jilly saw the sharp turn, but Laura yelled that they would be together soon now, very soon. She couldn’t wait to get Jilly, and then they’d see who would win.
Jilly screamed, whether at Laura or at the sight of the cliff dropping some forty feet to the heaped and tumbled black rocks below. The Porsche plunged through the railing, thick wood and steel, picking up speed, and shot out to the vast empty blackness beyond.
One more scream rent the silence before the Porsche sliced nose first through the still, black water. There was scarcely a sound, just the fast downward plunge, the sharp, clean impact, then the quick shifting and closing over, the calm water returning to what it had been just a second before.
Then there was only the black night. And calm and silence.
Bethesda Naval Hospital
jerked upright in bed, clutched at my neck, and doubled over as a god-awful pain ripped through me. I’d heard a man yell, just beside me, nearly right in my ear. I couldn’t draw a breath, I was suffocating. And a guy who wasn’t even there was yelling at me and I was dying. I finally managed to heave inward and suck in a huge breath.
I’d felt a mountain of frigid water crash down on me like the whale had closed down over Jonah. But I wasn’t drowning. I knew what drowning was, remembered it as clearly as if it had happened yesterday. I was seven years old, swimming with my older brother, Kevin, who was flirting with some young girls. I’d gotten tangled up in some underwater branches. It had been Jilly who’d jerked me out, smacked my back hard as I’d gagged and choked, until water gushed out of my mouth.
The dream wasn’t like that. It was as if I’d been hit by that water just a moment before there was, quite simply, nothing. Nothing at all. Just stillness, no pain, no questions, no fear, just an utter blank.
I swung my legs over the bed and stamped them hard on the ancient linoleum, savoring the sluice of pain that rumbled through my shoulder, my ribs, my collarbone, my right thigh, and other parts of me that were healing well enough so that gradually I’d dropped them out of my inventory. That delicious sharp pain brought me fully into my favorite hospital room, planted me firmly in the here and now, out from under water in a nightmare that had left me being nothing at all.
Still, when my feet hit the linoleum, the shock of the impact punched me back, and I nearly fell. I grabbed the bed railing at the head of the bed, took a deep breath, and looked around. My feet were still on the floor, flat on off-white linoleum that I’d come to hate in the past two weeks as much as those pastel green and tan walls. Leave it to the military to pick those colors. But you couldn’t hate when you were dead, so I was glad there was something there to prove to me that I was alive.
I’d been lucky, they’d told me. The blast hadn’t zeroed in on my heart or my head or anything vital. It was like I’d gotten hit by a two-by-four all over—a bit smashed here, a bone broken there, a muscle twisted out down lower. My feet and my back had escaped, with just faint bruises marching up my spine. The explosion missed my groin too, for which I was profoundly grateful.
I just stood there by my bed, breathing and savoring all the air that was here, all of it mine.
I looked down at my messed-up bed. I wasn’t about to fall back into that bed because I knew the dream still hovered, just beyond in the ether, much too close, waiting for me to sleep again. I wasn’t about to. I stretched, slowly and carefully. Still, every move brought a jab of pain from somewhere in my body. I breathed in deeply and walked slowly to the window of my hospital room. I was
in the newer hospital, built in 1980, a massive building attached to the original hospital, built sometime in the 1930s. Everyone there complained about having to walk miles to get anywhere. I wished I could walk even a part of a mile, and complain with them.
I saw a few starburst dots of light from the five-level open parking building across the way. The parking building as well as half a dozen support buildings were connected to the hospital by long corridors. I couldn’t see more than a dozen parked cars from where I stood. Lights spiked up from lamps set at close intervals throughout the landscaped grounds. There were lights even in among the trees. My law enforcement instincts told me there were no places for a mugger to hide—too many lights.
There hadn’t been any lights at all in the dream, just darkness, wet darkness. I walked slowly to the small bathroom, leaned over very carefully, cupped my hands under the water tap at the sink, and drank deeply. As I straightened, water ran down my chin and dripped onto my chest. I had dreamed I was drowning and yet my throat felt drier than that wool-parched, blistering air in Tunisia. It made no sense.
Unless I hadn’t been the one drowning. Suddenly, deep down, I knew. I hadn’t been the one to drown, but I’d been there, right there.
I looked around expecting someone to be there, close to me, right behind me, ready to tap me on the shoulder. For over two weeks since I’d been pounded into the desert sand by the bomb blast, there was always someone there just beside me, speaking quietly to me, jabbing me with needles, endless numbers of needles. My arms ached from all the shots and my butt was still numb in places.
I drank more water, then slowly raised my head,
careful as always not to move too quickly. I stared at the man in the mirror above the sink. I looked like oatmeal, gray and collapsed, like I wasn’t really alive. I was used to seeing a big guy, but the person staring back at me wasn’t at all substantial. He looked like a lot of big bones strung together. I grinned at him. At least I still had my teeth, and they were still straight. I felt lucky my teeth hadn’t been blown out when that bomb exploded and hurled me like a bag of feathers some fifteen feet across desert sand.
When my friend Dillon Savich, another FBI agent, saw me in the gym, he’d probably just shake his head and ask me where I’d stashed my coffin. I knew it would take a good six months before I could go toe-to-toe with Savich again and have a slim prayer of holding my own with him at the gym.
I took a deep breath, drank more water, and switched off the bathroom light. The figure in the mirror was shadowy now. He looked a lot better that way. I stepped back into the bedroom, to the stark outline of the single bed and the huge red digital numbers on the clock some friends had brought me, wrapped with a bright crimson ribbon. I looked at the clock. It was just seven minutes after three
. I remembered Savich’s wife, Sherlock, also an FBI agent, telling me when I was floating between pain and the oblivion of morphine that every minute that clicked by on the clock meant I was that much closer to getting out of this place and back to work where I belonged.
I walked back to the bed and slowly lowered myself down on my back. I pulled up the single sheet and thin blanket with my left hand. I tried to relax, to settle and ease my muscles. I wasn’t about to go to sleep again. I closed my eyes and tried to think logically and clearly about the dream. Yes, I’d felt water, but not really
drowning, just a shock of water pouring into me. Just a taste of water. Then nothing at all.
I raised my left hand and rubbed my fist over my chest. At least my heart had calmed down. I pulled in more deep breaths and told myself to stop the drama crap and think. Think cold, that was the rule at the Academy. I had to stop the panic and think cold.
It took me another couple of minutes to wonder whether it hadn’t been a dream at all, but something else. As clearly as I saw the face of the digital clock on the utility stand beside my bed, I remembered seeing Jilly’s face.
I didn’t like that at all. That was nuts, plain nuts. A strange dream where I was drowning, only not really, and for some reason Jilly was back there somewhere in my brain. I’d last seen Jilly at Kevin’s home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, at the end of February. She’d acted a little strange, no other way to put it, but I hadn’t really paid all that much attention, just tucked it away. Too much other stuff going on in my life, like going to Tunisia.
I remembered talking to Kevin about Jilly the day after she had flown in from Oregon. Kevin, my older brother, had just shaken his head. Living on the West Coast was making Jilly a little eccentric, and don’t worry about it. Nothing more than that. Kevin was career army, had four boys, and not a whole lot of time to be thinking about the oddities of his three siblings. It had been just the four of us for eight years now, since our parents died in a car accident, hit by a drunk driver.
I remembered Jilly droning on about all sorts of things—her new Porsche, her dress that she’d bought at Langdon’s in Portland, some girl called Cal Tarcher she didn’t seem to like, and the girl’s brother, Cotter, who
Jilly had thought was a vicious bully. She’d even gone on and on about how good sex was with Paul, her husband of eight years. There didn’t seem to be any particular point to any of it as far as I could see. Now what she’d said seemed more than just simply eccentric.
Was Jilly drowning in my dream?
I didn’t want to let that thought dig itself into my brain, but it had weaseled in with that dream, and it wouldn’t leave now. I was tired, but not quite as tired as just the day before or the day before that. I was mending. The doctors would nod their heads and smile at each other, then at me, patting my unbruised right shoulder. They had talked about letting me go home next week. I decided I would make it sooner.
I knew I wasn’t going back to sleep, not with that dream waiting for me, and I knew it was waiting, certain of it. I knew it was waiting because it didn’t really feel like a dream, it was something else. I had to deal with this.
I decided then and there that I’d give my right nut for a beer. I didn’t think it through, just pushed the call buzzer. In four minutes, according to my digital clock with its big red numbers, Midge Hardaway, my night nurse, stuck her head in the door.
“Mac? You okay? It’s really late. You should be asleep. What’s the problem?”
Midge was somewhere in her thirties, tall, with short honey-colored hair and a sharp chin. She was smart, reliable; you could count on her in a crunch. Whenever I’d drifted back to consciousness at the beginning of my stay here, she’d be right beside me, talking quietly to me, her fingers lightly stroking my arm.
I smiled at her with what I hoped was my best boyish
smile, filled with irresistible charm. I wasn’t sure she could even see it because the room was very dim, the only light coming from the corridor at her back. But I hoped she could at least hear all the effort I was putting into my voice. “Midge, save me. I’m in bad shape here. I just can’t stand it any longer. Please, you’ve gotta help me. You’re my only hope.”
The corridor light framed a smile that was at once sympathetic and filled with laughter that she didn’t bother to hide quite enough. Then she cleared her throat. “Mac, listen to me now. You’ve been out of commission for over two weeks. I guess since you’re feeling better, this could become more and more of a problem. But hey, hon, I’m married. What would Doug think? He’s got this temper, you know?”
Forget boyish charm. I tried for pathetic. “Why would Doug care? He isn’t here. He wouldn’t even have to know if you think it would upset him, which I can’t begin to imagine that it would.”
“Now, Mac, if I weren’t married, I’d be truly tempted, even though you’re not even close to batting a thousand yet in the health department. Hey, I’m flattered. You’re good-looking, at least you were in that photo they used of you in the newspaper, and you’ve got the use of both hands now. But the way things stand, Mac, I just can’t do it.”
“I’m really dying here, Midge. I’m not lying to you. Just this one time and I won’t beg again—well, at least not until tomorrow night. Just one, Midge. I’ll go slow. I’ve already got drool pooling in my mouth.”
She stood there just shaking her head back and forth, her hands on her hips, very nice hips I’d noticed nine days ago when I finally wasn’t so dulled from painkillers.
I sighed. “All right, if it’s really against your ethics, or Doug’s ethics. But I’ll tell you, Midge, I just don’t see why it’s such a big deal. And why your husband would care is beyond me. He’d probably be begging just like I am if he was in my shoes. Hey, maybe you could call Mrs. Luther. She’s tough, but maybe she’ll give in. I think she likes me, just maybe—”
“Mac, are you nuts? Mrs. Luther is sixty-five years old. For God’s sake, you can’t be all that desperate. Ellen Luther? She’d probably bite you.”
“Why would she do that? What are you talking about?”
“Mac,” she said with great patience, “you’re horny after two weeks of celibacy. I can understand that. But Mrs. Luther?”
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea here, Midge. I don’t want Mrs. Luther. I want you in that way, but you’re married, so I only think about that in passing, like any other guy would, you know, maybe once every five minutes or so during the day, maybe more the better I feel. No, what I’m dying for, what I want more than anything in the world, is a beer.”
“A beer?” She stared at me for the longest time, then she started laughing. That laughter of hers grew until she had to come into the room and close the door so she wouldn’t disturb other patients. She was doubled over with laughter, holding her sides. “You want a beer? That’s what all this is about? A damned beer? And you’ll go real slow?”
I gave her my innocent look.
She paused a moment in the open doorway, shaking her head and still laughing. Said over her shoulder, “You want a Bud Light?”
“I’d kill for a Bud Light.”
The Bud can was so cold I thought my fingers would stick to it. There couldn’t be anything better than this, I thought, as the beer slid down my throat. I wondered which nurse was hoarding the Bud in the nurses’ refrigerator. I drank half the can in one long slug. Midge was standing beside the bed, just looking down at me. “I hope mixing the beer with your meds doesn’t make you puke. Hey, slow down. You promised you’d make it last. Men, you really can’t believe them, not when it comes to beer.”
“It’s been a long time,” I said, licking beer foam off my mouth. “I just couldn’t help myself. The edge is off now.” I heaved a thankful sigh and took a smaller drink, realizing that she wasn’t likely to get me another beer. At least the terror of that nightmare was deep below the surface again, not sitting right there on my shoulder, waiting to whisper in my ear again. I had about a quarter of a can left. I rested it on my stomach.