Mayo Clinic Hospice, Rochester, Minnesota
The long corridor was silent, the bleached pine floor gleaming softly under the new coat of wax the cleaning crew laid down at 10:30. It wasn’t really pine, Imogen Page knew, just a veneer over plastic, peeling up near one corner in front of the door marked Exit. Real wood would make too much noise and noise was not allowed here. This was a place for quiet. Everything about it was quiet, the pastel walls, the nubbly cotton upholstery. Quiet plants, nothing fancy and tropical, hung in the rooms. Blinds let in only diffused light, telephones hummed rather than rang, doors closed slowly, gently on special hinges, never slamming. Everything was muted, quiet, expectant. Waiting for death.
The place was so wrong for Sam. Sam had never been quiet in his life. Sam who bubbled with life, with vitality, Sam who yelled rather than talked, guffawed rather than laughed. Sam could fill a room with himself. Big Sam, strong Sam, Sam who had protected her and cared about her. Her brother Sam.
He could not be dying.
Imogen turned from the window and looked at the man in the bed surrounded by plants and balloons and silly marker drawings. Hardly a man any more, just the elements of a man, skin and bones. Like some Renaissance painting of a death’s head. God he was small. He must have lost fifty pounds in the last three weeks.
He might live as much two months the doctor had said. But there is really nothing we can do for him.
But he was healthy and strong and alive last month, her mind shouted. Last month in Hawaii they had played in the waves outside the little house they were sharing, like the carefree teenagers they never had been, jumping up and down, chasing sand crabs, watching the palm trees wave at night. They had drinks in pineapples with happy faces attached to the outside by toothpicks, had tucked paper umbrellas behind their ears. One night they had walked so long on the beach—Sam telling stupid jokes, her laughing at them in a way she never laughed with anyone else—that they were too tired to make dinner and they had not even cared.
She had wanted to pound her fist on the doctor’s desk as he sat there smoothly weighing his words. Doctor Stephen Gold. He was her age, maybe a little older, and looked rich and well fed. He had the forearms of a tennis player, slightly tanned, and Imogen found herself wondering if he’d taken his wife (wedding band on his left hand) or his mistress (no tan line from the wedding band) with him to his most recent Medical Conference in the tropics. He had not gotten that tan in Minnesota and she could taste the remnants of his infidelity on the air around him. He was smug, the way someone can be who deals in the great mysteries, in Life and Death, capitalized. Life and death were her business too, but not like this. Not upper case, proper nouns. Not Sam. Not her brother.
What do you mean nothing? she had wanted to holler at the tanned philandering tennis playing doctor. Don’t you understand this is impossible? Don’t you understand that while you may leave here with your mistress for a quick fuck, when I leave I have nothing, no one beside Sam? Don’t you understand that he can’t die? He is Sam, strong, the strong athletic one. The Olympian. I am the one who should die, me, the smart one, the useless one, leave Sam. Please, she had wanted to plead, this is a mistake. Please, she had wanted to scream, this cannot be happening.
“I see,” she had said quietly. “The best thing you can do,” Doctor Stephen Gold continued, looking not at but over her, “would be to get him into a hospice. He needs more care than you can give at home, but he’ll be more comfortable there than in an intensive care ward. And there is nothing we can do for him here at the Mayo Clinic.”
“I understand,” she had said. And for the first time in her life, it was a lie.
Imogen Page was absurdly good at understanding things. It was her job to understand, to make sense of things no one else could explain, interpret inconsequential patterns—codes, riddles, chess patterns, stab wounds—into meaning. But suddenly, listening to the doctor, it had all broken down. From that moment on, she did not understand anything. Every day she understood less and less. Every day from that day she recognized less and less of Sam in the body lying on the bed in front of her.
Every day he went away a little more and now there was almost nothing left.
Moving slowly to remain quiet, she left the hospice room. She did not know why she bothered to tip toe, why she still bothered to leave when she had to cry. Sam had not opened his eyes in two days. He couldn’t hear them, the nurses assured her as they talk about his condition with her in front of him. He was no longer sentient, the doctors said. But she did not, could not believe them. She turned her steps into the veneer corridor.
As soon as she got that plastic wood under her feet, she began to run. Gulping for air, she made it to the women’s room and locked the door behind her. Imogen Page would not let anyone see her cry, turned away from the mirror so she wouldn’t have to watch it herself. She backed up against the door, pressed her shoulders to it, and sobbed. Arms crossed over her chest like an ancient Pharaoh’s mummy, she leaned her head against the cold mint green tiles of the walls and screamed with rage, tiny screams that only she could hear in her head. Despair and anger flooded over her in waves and she felt buffeted by them, hurtled against the sides of her empty, lonely being. Just as suddenly as it came, the storm hovered, and disappeared. She found herself huddled in the corner of the tiled room, her hands gripping her thighs, her eyes squeezed shut.
She cleaned her face with the rough paper towels in the hospice bathroom and that pink powdered soap they used to have in the elementary school locker room the year they lived in Oregon, the year before—
When she had scrubbed away the signs of her tears, she returned to Sam’s room.
He was just as she’d left him, but the room tasted different to her. Faintly peppery. She looked around and saw that his hand had moved. She reached out to replace it over his stomach, over the other one, in the proper handshake of death, and his eyes opened.
“Gigi.” He did not say the word, just mouthed it, but she knew what it is, knew he was saying her name, his name for her. He pinned her with his gaze and lifted his arms slowly, slightly, into the air.
“Do you want me to prop you up?” she asked, rushing to his side, pushing the button that bends the bed forward.
She looked at him, expectantly. He shook his head and, grasping one of his thin wrists with the other—those gold medal winning wrists that had been so supple—raised both arms in the air in a circle.
“The bed is up as high as it will go, love,” she whispered, moving close to him.
A tear of frustration leaked from his eye. His mouth, lips cracked and dry, was open part way. He smelled like plastic bedclothes and decay. He lifted his joined arms again.
A circle. Like a glass. Imogen grabbed the cup of ice shards that stood ready on the table beside the bed. He must be thirsty. “They like to suck on the ice, when they can’t eat any more,” the nurse had said. Imogen held a small piece of ice tenderly to his lips.
Sam jerked his head away, lifted his arms again.
She was trembling with inadequacy now. “I don’t know what you want, Sammie,” she said, pleading. “I don’t know how to give you what you want. I don’t understand.”
He looked at her again, right at her, with his eyes clear in a way she hadn’t seen in weeks. They were the eyes she knew again, pure blue eyes like hers, trying to tell her something. There was a plea there, a message. A question she couldn’t read.
Her eyes stung and there was a lump in her throat. She would never swallow again she thought.
She turned the light on over him, adjusted his pillows, tried again with the ice, almost manic now, trying anything, brushing tears out of her eyes before he could see them, but he just kept looking at her, a little sad. Finally, he raised his arms in a circle again and mouthed a word.
Brother and sister stared at each other, for the first time unable to communicate, each one trapped by their own weakness, their own blindness. There was love in his gaze at her, so much love, and fear, but there was something else too, and she could not fathom what it was.
At last, Sam leaned back into the pillows she had arranged, his arms fell down, and his eyes closed. Resting. She listened as he took a breath, shallow, peaceful, and another one. Another. There was a horrible rattling sound, a sound Imogen would dream of forever. It was the sound of death, the last sound, the last breath.
He was gone.
In desperation, she had wrapped her arms around him, cradling the wispy haired head against her shoulder, holding on to him, holding the life inside him, hugging it in with her body, but it was too late.
There was no more life. There were no more breaths left. Sam was gone.
Gone. It was then that Imogen understood. At that moment she understood, that too late moment, understood what the linked arms had meant. She understood with a crashing clarity. And the understanding, when it came, was worse than death and worse than sadness.
She sat and held Sam’s hand in her own, rocking back and forth, crying silently, holding on until the fingers were stiff and cold. Then she placed them on his chest and summoned the nurse. That night she walked out of the hospice for the first time in two weeks. She did not notice the weather or the size twelve foot prints outside her brother’s window or the fact that someone had plowed her car our for her. She did not feel sad or angry or any of the things she expected to feel. She tasted, for the first time in her life, nothing.
The obituary reported that Samuel Page died at 4:54 AM on Saturday, of a blood infection. The Olympic Gold Medalist in Fencing, it went on to say, was survived by his sister, Imogen Page, the FBI agent who had solved The Connoisseur killings.
The obituary was wrong.
Imogen did not know that yet, would not know it for a long time. But the man reading it in the airport lounge did.
When he was done with it, he carefully folded the paper and slipped it under the arm of his hand-tailored over-coat. The camel cashmere fabric was great with his tan complexion, and several women turned to look at him as he strolled by. He could feel their gazes on his back. He wore aviator sunglasses so his eyes weren’t visible, but at 6’4” he was hard to ignore.
He played a game in his head, guessing what people were saying about him as he passed. “Isn’t that—?” he guessed the brunette in the tight red sweater sitting at the bar asked the bartender. The bartender would nod. “Sure is. Like to be in his shoes, I tell you.”
“I’d like to be in his pants,” the brunette would say. “Playing with his you know what.”
The man in the camel coat worked to keep back a smile. People always said things like that about him. He knew how he looked: rich, powerful, successful, well groomed. A man without a care in the world. And he knew it was true. Or almost.
Because, as it happened, he was very care-ful. Full of care. Very careful indeed. A bright, boyish chuckle at the pun erupted in his throat, and evaporated as quickly as it had come. No time for that right now, he chastised himself. He was that other man now, the man that did not laugh. And there was still so much to do. So much to see to.
So many people to take care of.
Las Vegas, Nevada. Four days later.
Benton Walsingham Arbor knew something was wrong the minute he stepped out of the cockpit of his plane. Absent from the tarmac was the light blue 1966 Thunderbird convertible that should have been waiting for him to slide into the driver’s seat; present instead was a brand new chrome Arbor Motors X37 with J.D. Eastly behind the wheel. That told the whole story.
“What happened to Sadie?” Benton asked as he closed the distance at a run. “Which hospital is she in, how bad is it, has someone seen to Eros, and who is flying in from Mass General?”
J.D. glanced at Benton through the tobacco colored sunglasses he always wore and said, “Good to see you too, Benton.”
There was no love between the two men at the best of times, and this wasn’t one of them. He and J.D. usually limited their communication to long, tense silences. Benton said, “Tell me what the hell is going on.”
“Nothing has happened to your grandmother.”
“Then why the are you driving?” Benton asked, ready to get out of the car. He hated not being in the driver’s seat and J.D. knew it, even knew why. But the man wasn’t budging.
He said, “Something else has happened,” maneuvering around the plane and out of the airport, turning onto Tropicana. “Something bad, Benton.”
As a veteran cop, Detective Sergeant John Dillinger Eastly had delivered a lot of bad news in his time, but Benton could tell that this time he was struggling. J.D. said, “Rosalind is missing, Benton. Presumed kidnapped.”
Benton forced himself to breathe. Think. Said, “Ransom demand?"
"Not yet. We don’t know how long she’s been gone, but the last time anyone spoke to her was yesterday morning. We just found out at eight-thirty this morning when the spa called because she failed to show up for her massage appointment."
“Everyone’s on the case. This should fall under my jurisdiction since I’m overseeing the Violent Crimes Task Force while the boss is in Texas—“
“What is she doing there?” Benton asked, thinking maybe he could get her back for this.
“She’s working on the twelve bodies of those women they found when they were tracking the space shuttle debris. Active serial killer case.”
Or maybe not.
J.D. went on, “I called the FBI and told them we at Vegas Metro would prefer it if they let us handle Rosalind’s disappearance ourselves, and I also notified the CIA. Given what she’s been working on it seemed wise.”
Rosalind Carnow was one of America’s foremost nuclear physicists. She was also Benton’s closest friend and, according to the tabloids, his paramour. That was pressing the truth but it was true that they had known each other since college and had served as each other’s dates for every important occasion for the past seventeen years, from debutante balls to banquets at the White House. In the past, Benton had asked her to marry him a dozen times at least and each time she had said no. Each time, it was rumored, he had respected her more.
Rosalind had come to Las Vegas a week before Benton to meet with some scientists from the University of Nevada, and have a few days of pampering before the madness of the Las Vegas Invitational began. This would be followed by a party celebrating Sadie's recent wedding to Eros, the God-like Greek half her age with whom she had been living (“in sin, glorious glorious sin” as she told everyone), for the past three years and who she had quietly married the week before. Rosalind was supposed to be spending the next few days wrapped in mud and seaweed and covered in hot rocks and cool towels at the hotel spa, while Benton disappeared into the mountains for four days of solo rock climbing. After that, Benton was supposed to show what the new line of Arbor motors cars could do on the track at the Invitational, and Rosalind was supposed to watch, and make faces at him and chastise him for still racing when he was much too old. And they were supposed to go to dinner and gamble a little and laugh a lot and not dance because Rosalind hated to dance. It was supposed to be a lovely ten days.
That was how it was supposed to go. That was how he had planned it. Everything always went the way he planned.
"Damn it," Benton said, pounding a fist into the beryl wood dash board. "Damn damn damn. I should have thought of this. I should have been here. I should not have let her come by herself."
J.D. said, "Are you done?"
"What? Showing emotion? Does it bother you?"
The dark glasses flashed in his direction. "Actually, I meant trying to find some way to make this your fault."
J.D. gripped the steering wheel harder and to Benton it was a toss up, the man trying to keep from laughing at him or ripping into him. Except that J.D. Eastly didn’t laugh. When he finally opened his mouth it was to say, “If someone wanted to take Rosalind, they would find a way to do it even if you were lying in bed next to her.”
“You know what?” Benton said, barely waiting for him to finish. “I don’t want to talk about it right now.” Letting ‘with you’ hang. “I want to think some things through.”
J.D. shrugged and kept his eyes on the traffic in front of them.
Benton stared down at his clenched hands, opened them, and smoothed his palms over non-existent wrinkles in his faded jeans. Despite the sun pouring through the sunroof of the sports car, it was cold inside his sweater. The rust colored cashmere one, the one Ros had given him for Christmas that year. He'd worn it and his jeans because that was how she liked him best and he loved to make her happy. "You almost look relaxed when you're dressed like that," she teased him, running her hand through his hair. "Of course, I know better."
She did. She knew him better than almost anyone and what he felt for her went deeper than for anyone else. She depended on him, had been depending on him for more than twenty years. They argued constantly about everything from quantum mechanics to the merits of silk umbrellas, but only once in the nearly two decades of their friendship had they ever really fought.
"Jason," Benton said aloud without realizing it.
J.D. nodded. "I wanted to wait for you to get here before we called. I thought you should be the one to tell him."
Jason Carnow, Rosalind's sixteen year old son, was the product of her brief and tempestuous affair with Walter North, her advisor during her first year of college. In love with Rosalind himself, Benton had been furious when he learned of the affair and the two of them had not spoken for a year. Not until the winter night Rosalind showed up at his dorm room without a coat but with a baby in her arms. Benton had paid off the waiting taxi, taken them in, and from that day on been the closest thing to a father Jason had ever really known.
At sixteen, it was clear to everyone that Jason Carnow had inherited not only his mother's classic good looks, but also her genius. He had finished high school two years early and instead of going on to college, he'd taken a job helping catalogue lizard species in Costa Rica. The only thing he cared about more than lizards was his mother, and he was every bit as protective of her as Benton.
"There's no reliable way to reach him," Benton said finally. "He's camped somewhere deep inside the rain forest. I haven't even gotten an email from him in three weeks. And it’s probably better. At least until we know more facts. He would not take it well. He'd go out of his mind worrying about her."
J.D. said, “If you’re done thinking, let me tell you about our progress."
The way he drove it took them less than five minutes to get the rest of the way from the airport to the hotel, but that was plenty of time for his report.
"So you—the police—have nothing," Benton summed up as they pulled into the hotel driveway.
J.D. heard the correction as they got out of the car, Benton blaming him but pretending not to be, typical, not saying what he really meant. He decided to ignore it. "Nothing yet. But the CIA has already got agents on the ground and it’s getting Metro’s, and my, full attention."
J.D. broke off as a swarm of reporters descended on them. The clicks of a dozen shutters going off were drowned out by the shouted questions of the press.
"Do you know who has her?"
"What have they asked for?"
"Is it true you were going to leave her for the Countess of Lille?"
"Is there any evidence that terrorists are behind the disappearance?"
Channel four, all the networks, even Newsweek, J.D. noticed, scanning the crowd and ignoring their questions. Pretty good turn out. He watched Benton handle it all smoothly, answer the questions, smile for the cameras, and wondered how he could do it without hating himself. Did he not care? Or was he just so used to being the center of the show?
The crowd surged like a tide and ebbed to one side at the insistence of the Bellagio security guards, and a woman in a well tailored taupe suite with a clip board appeared in front of them. She said to Benton, "I'm so sorry about that, Mr. Arbor. We tried to get rid of them before you got here but...." Her voice dropped and she looked warily at the reporters. "You are in your regular suite on the third floor, Villa 303. The police finished half an hour ago and we sent housekeeping up so everything should be in order. We are all very concerned about Doctor Carnow."
Benton took the key and gave her in exchange one of his famous smiles but J.D. saw it vanish as soon as they were past the press. Not waste that good stuff on peons he was thinking as Benton said, "You sent over a forensics team. That means you think she was taken from the room."
"It was the last place anyone saw her.” They walked by the elevators and toward the door of the service stairs that led up the two flights to the VIP villas. Stepping inside, they nearly collided with a bellboy who was struggling to keep hold of a hairless rat terrier wearing a Burberry's sweater.
The bell boy stopped and stared at them, surprised to see guests in the stairwell, but his attention was immediately diverted when the dog turned around and bared its teeth at his neck. "Calm down, Lancelot," he said, quickly taking the last flight of stairs down to the kitchens and the dog dining room. "Please, Lancelot, it’s just me, your friend, Cyril."
Benton nodded in the direction of the disappearing dog and said, "I see my cousin Julia is here."
"She and Cal arrived a few days ago. Second honeymoon. Or third. I lose count."
J.D. kept his tone neutral and he knew Benton wouldn’t press him. Julia was one of the reasons for the tense silences between the two of them. At least, that’s what Benton thought.
"You said the suite was the last place anyone saw Rosalind," Benton reminded him as they stepped from the flecked linoleum of the service corridor onto the plush carpet of the third floor hallway. "Who was the last person to see her?"
"Chambermaid. Her name is Selina Cortez. She came to make up the room Friday around ten thirty in the morning and Rosalind asked her to stop back in later. Selina got the impression that there was someone with her."
Benton frowned. "Someone with her? The kidnapper?"
"If it was, then the kidnapper is someone Rosalind knew. Selina thought there was someone in the bedroom. A man."
"The chambermaid saw a man with Rosalind?"
"She didn't see him. She just had the impression that there was someone else there." The shadow of relief in Benton's expression gave J.D. an unwanted flash of sympathy for him. He knew for a fact that there had been a man sharing the bedroom with Rosalind. He'd keep that to himself, he decided, as well as whatever his forensics team turned up from the sheets and towels he had sent over, although he was positive it wouldn’t be much. At least not much conclusive. J.D. knew what the tabloids did not, that Benton and Rosalind’s relationship had for years been more of a friendship than a love affair, but he also knew how Benton reacted whenever he thought Rosalind was seeing someone else.
"I'll want to see that forensics report," Benton said. "I am sure you weren't thinking about withholding it from me."
"Of course not, Mr. Arbor."
Benton picked up his pace and J.D. let him go, sauntering behind and only catching up with him as he reached suite 303. Before either of them could ring the bell, the door was opened by a distinguished looking man in a tuxedo and white tie who bowed to them both.
"Good afternoon, gentleman," he pronounced with a deep British accent. "I am the butler."
J.D. looked at the man's hotel issued plastic name tag. Pete Greer. San Antonio, TX. He wondered which part of Texas he picked up his accent in.
Benton said, "Good afternoon, Pete. Could you—"
Whatever else Benton might have said was cut off by a voice from beyond the foyer, exclaiming, "Oh, Benton, thank God you are here."
Seven words which J.D. knew Benton had heard a thousand times and never tired of. He saw Benton turn the smile on again and followed him into the living room beyond the entry hall. Benton’s grandmother was there flanked by his cousin Julia and her husband Cal on one side, and Eros on the other. Behind them, on the terrace, two uniformed police officers were conversing with a guard from Bellagio security. Next to them was the taupe velvet chaise lounge that Rosalind always claimed, her favorite scarf still draped over the side.
A romance novel in Spanish was lying open on it, part of her attempt to teach herself the language before she went to visit Jason in Costa Rica. An orchid plant and a glass with a smudge of purplish-black fingerprint powder stood on the round table along side it. To J.D. it looked like a memorial to a life interrupted.
It must have looked that way to Benton too because he seemed to snap into action. He jammed the piece of Juicy Fruit gum into his mouth, leaned toward J.D. and said, "I want the security tapes, all of them, from the hotel starting from the two days before Rosalind disappeared and going until right now. I want her phone records, both here at the hotel and her cell phone. And I want to be deputized by you so I can partake in the investigation."
J.D. said, speaking slow on purpose to piss Benton off, "Partake? Don't you mean take over?"
“Very funny.” Looking now at the butler, “I would like a large pot of coffee, very strong, and a gallon of orange juice, no pulp."
“That has already been taken care of, sir,” the butler said. “Detective Eastly sent over orders this morning.”
Benton turned to J.D. looking, for the first time, genuine. And surprised “You didn’t—”
J.D. put up a hand. “Look, whatever there is between you and me, it has no place here. Only Rosalind matters.” He thought it came out sounding like he meant it.
Apparently Benton did too. He held out a hand to shake and said, "Thanks." Then he crossed into the living room, bent to kiss his grandmother on both cheeks and said, "Don't worry, Sadie. I'll take care of Rosalind. I've got the situation under control."
Under control—under control—under control, Benton repeated over and over again bending forward and standing up mechanically like a marionette, as the man sitting in front of the television set rewound and replayed the end of that scene on the security tape later that night. The screen flickered spasmodically in the dark room, carving frightening shadows in his features. He was sitting much too close to it, he knew, but no one was going to yell at him about it. No one ever did.
Stop. Start. Stop. Start. Under control. Under control.
"Liar liar pants on fire," he taunted the television as Benton endlessly repeated his jerky bow. "I'm the one with the control. Remote control," he added, waving the black box in his hand. "Get it, Ros? Remote control?" He turned toward the woman in the La-Z-Boy recliner next to his. She was sitting straight up and the way he'd spread the blanket, you couldn't even tell she was bound into the chair. Even where the clear fishing line was visible, it was hard to see in the dark room. All and all it was such a cozy scene, the two of them at home watching TV. He smiled at her. "Pretty funny, huh?"
Rosalind did not say anything, just kept staring at the screen with eyes still blank from shock and the sedative he'd given her. They were always like this at the beginning, he knew, but he was still disappointed. He liked it when his friends laughed at his jokes. And Rosalind had such a nice laugh.
Oh well, there was always tomorrow. And the day after that. And the day after that. He'd take care of Rosalind. He had everything under control.