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The Well of Souls 

Title: The Well of Souls

Series: Adventures of Constance Fairchild, 2

Author: Justin R. Smith

ISBN: 978-0-9787782-9-3

Product Code: BK0039

Format: Trade Paperback

Pages: 416

Release Date: June 2010

Cover Price: $19.95

Our Price: $15.95

 

 

 

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Book Jacket

 

Over centuries, the Fairchild family has used their vast fortune, business empire, and unscrupulous nature to become one of the most dominant companies globally, while also gaining control over a large portion of the American economy.
 

As the reluctant head of Horizon International Corporation—the family business—the eccentric heiress and college student, Constance Fairchild, is the last of the family line. Her demanding and lonely life spins out of control when her secretary, Angela dies in an apparent terrorist bombing at her company.
 

With her last breath, Angela makes Constance promise to look after her four-year-old son, Tim. Believing Angela died in her place, Constance does more than that—she adopts him. But in the days following the attack, mysteries begin to confound her as Constance learns that everything she thought she knew about her secretary—including her name—was false.
 

While seeking answers, Constance develops strange and terrifying psychic powers—giving her a view of the world she never imagined possible, and she learns that nothing at her company is as it appears. Trapped in the midst of corporate conspiracy, espionage, and unparalleled savagery, Constance must confront her Board of Directors and regain control.
 

Amidst shocking betrayals, the threat of mobsters seeking to kill her and her friends, pursuit by foreign intelligence services, the near-collapse of the American economy, and a terrorist conspiracy on American soil, Constance must use all of her power and resources to overcome her plight and save millions of lives—including her own and her son’s.

 


 

Book Excerpt

 

Chapter 1

A vast library surrounded me, its stacks stretching to the horizon, and I searched for a book.

Why couldn’t I find it? It’s something I saw every day.

“That book doesn’t exist anymore,” the librarian said.

“That’s impossible!” I screamed, running from the reference desk and down an aisle between the stacks.

A book flew off a shelf, tripping me: Scott’s Adventures in the Antarctic, the diary of his ill-fated expedition.

I crawled to the open book on the floor and read “...my feet are numb, and I can’t hold out much longer. For God’s sake, take care of my child!”

It was more a howl than a request. And it was directed at me.

I sat bolt upright in bed and glanced at the clock on my nightstand. It was four in the morning. I fumbled for the computer beside the clock and recorded the nightmare in my dream-database.

The dream radiated pain, death, and inevitability. It was the books, I realized: One no longer existed, and the other had been published long ago. They implied tragedy that—if it hadn’t already happened— might as well have.

I numbly eyed the reproduction of Picasso’s Night-Fishing at Antibes on the opposite wall— with its misshapen, dreamlike fishermen using lights to summon creatures from the depths.

What had I summoned tonight?

Then I slid into my black chenille robe and stumbled through the living room to the apartment’s roof-garden, tripping over its threshold.

Reflected city lights painted the overcast sky the color of bruised flesh. Millions of birds roosted on the city’s alcoves and ledges, as on the storm-battered cliffs of Newfoundland, or the Orkneys. At this hour, New York was a city of birds, as though built for them.

The dream demanded something of me.

I leaned over the roof-garden wall into the abyss that was Central Park and the concrete walls surrounding it. Even at this hour, Central Park South and Fifth Avenue were languid rivers of light. By day, the view was magnificent. Perhaps that’s why my grandfather, E. Rupert Fairchild III, had purchased this mid-Manhattan jewel-box— the Park Place Hotel—and built this penthouse apartment.

I returned to bed.

After tossing and turning for two hours, I resigned myself to getting up and staggered into the study.

Darkly stained Circassian walnut bookcases lined the room, and a massive art-deco desk and chair stood by the window. Three strips of track-lighting lit the bookcases and the poster opposite the window. Grandfather had shown good taste in designing this room.

The desk faced the door, of course: Grandfather never sat with his back to a door.

I gazed at the poster on the opposite wall: a beautiful Swiss landscape reminding me of my years in prep school. When I’d inherited this penthouse from Grandfather, I’d replaced his enormous scowling portrait with it.

“Don’t screw with me!” his portrait had bellowed. I’d wanted to destroy it, but Horizon International Corporation’s board had called it “corporate history.” After all, he’d founded the company to manage our family’s business interests.

At the time, one could have counted our family on one hand—and, now, on one finger. I banished the portrait to the Horizon International reception area. There, it snarls at visitors and staff alike—our corporate gargoyle.

How Grandfather could live under his own malignant gaze mystified me. Perhaps he had held meetings here and wanted to project his scowl from two directions at once. Or perhaps he was a victim of the threat mothers make to children, and his face had frozen in that expression.

I knew little of the man, though—other than the fact that he had murdered at least two people. If he could live with that, I guess he could live with anything.

What did my dream mean?

The phrase “stacks stretched to the horizon” intrigued me. Could it refer to Horizon International?

What a zombie I’d be today! 

*   *   *   *   *

 I changed into my powder-blue jogging outfit and took the elevator to the lobby. Last year, I’d discovered jogging and the wonderful way it made me feel.

Hotel staff had lowered the chandeliers to eye-level and were cleaning them. Others polished the marble walls and vacuumed the thickly-carpeted floor. The Hibiscus Court—my favorite of the hotel’s four restaurants—was a quiet kaleidoscope of mirrors and foliage.

As smoothly as possible, I stole past the front desk and out the door. Nobody noticed me.

A light fog shrouded the world, wafting the city’s distinctive fragrance: rotting trash and burnt coffee. I crossed the Grand Army Plaza, entered Central Park, and jogged on the Bicycle Path. Jogging without bodyguards felt odd and liberating. Normally we were quite a spectacle—a curvaceous teenage girl accompanied by huge men, their bulk swelled by body-armor and God knows what armaments.

While I’d always huffed and puffed like an asthmatic steam iron, they’d effortlessly matched my pace—even having casual conversations with each other. It was slightly embarrassing. They were cute, too, but older than me and spoken for. Sometimes they even chatted on their headsets with their wives or girlfriends. They’d never quite explained why I needed so much more security when jogging than at other times.

Sweating bullets after twenty minutes, I was thoroughly finished. I returned to the hotel, where Mr. Tisch—the third-shift desk clerk—spotted me coming in. Alone.

“Good morning, Mr. Tisch,” I said.

“Morning, Miss Fairchild. You went jogging...?”

“I know, I know... I couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to wake... those guys up.”

He raised his eyebrows, and I left for the elevator.

I showered and got dressed.

“Happy birthday, Miss Connie!” Tilda said.

Tilda—Matilda Appleby—was the middle-aged, regal Jamaican woman Grandfather had hired to manage the apartment. She supervised hotel staff when they did repairs, cleaning, and food-service, and ensured that the apartment was never vacant for long.

I’d long ago given up trying to get her drop the ‘Miss’ from my name. She believed “the forms must be observed,” whatever that meant.

“Thank you!”

“How old are you today?”

“Eighteen.”

“Eighteen!” she exclaimed, her eyes misting over. “When I was eighteen, I’d just stepped off the plane from Kingston. I had the whole world in the palm of my hand. Those were the days, indeed! Those were the days...” She shook her head and said, “Will you be wanting breakfast?”

“No thanks, Tilda. I’ll get something downstairs.”

“Well, give me a shout if you need anything,” she replied, sitting and opening one of her Town and Country magazines.

I threw my books and some corporate documents into a backpack and returned to the lobby.  

*   *   *   *   *

 It was 8 AM and the gift shop had just opened. I picked out a ladies’ sports watch, guaranteed water-resistant to a hundred meters.

“It’s my birthday present to myself,” I told the clerk.

“Happy birthday, Miss Fairchild!” she replied.

“Thank you!”

Then I descended the Hibiscus Court’s steps to its recessed floor and picked out a table in the center, ordering a newspaper, Oolong tea, and toast. I threw my backpack onto the opposite chair.

All I could see from here was the skylight above, potted palms, topiary hedges, and a concert-harp with music stand. The lady who played it came on at noon. Mirrored panels hid the surrounding lobby, making the restaurant seem larger and more secluded than it was. I might have been in a cloistered medieval garden or a Florentine palazzo. Anywhere but Manhattan.

I set the time and date on my new watch—Monday, September 5, 2018—and put it on. It fit perfectly.

Then I sipped my tea and glanced at the newspaper headlines: an economist saying the national debt would cause economic collapse, the Apostle Dunford on another big crusade, more indictments in the Saudi Oil scandal. Colorado Senator Norbert had introduced a bill slashing NASA’s budget if they didn’t fire Jack Szabo from the space program.

One item caught my eye: the so-called “big lead” in last year’s Shroud of Turin theft had turned out to be bogus.

Big deal.

I needed to finish my homework assignment. When I’d signed up for The Classical Egyptian Language, I’d felt drawn to ancient Egypt.

Did I live a past life there? The only past life I clearly remembered had ended in New York City, some nineteen years ago.

I opened my Ancient Egyptian reader and tried to decipher part of The Eloquent Peasant’s Plea:

“O—if you go to the Lake of Truth, you will sail in it with a sure wind!”

The beautiful phrase “Lake of Truth” appeared in the Chronicle of Sanehat, too, but was usually translated as “Sea of Truth”—even though spelled  rather than . A large lake could be an inland sea, I guess.

The Ancient Egyptians had poets’ souls and angels’ brains, I thought, yawning and rubbing my eyes, the hieroglyphs blurring into a parade of drunken cartoons...

I glanced at my watch and scooped up my books, exclaiming, “The trains better be running or I’m dead.”

“Condor’s moving,” my main bodyguard, Thomas Fields, said into his lapel and followed me.

He was a large, nattily-dressed ex-Secret Service agent of few words. At first glance, one could mistake him for an executive or diplomat. His dead eyes and his grim, piercing gaze dispelled that illusion. It even intimidated me. 

*   *   *   *   *

 With Mr. Fields in tow, I ran from the hotel lobby to the subway at Sixth Avenue and 57th street. The surrounding skyscrapers so closed off the sky I barely felt I’d been outside.

As I descended the steps, an incoming train’s gush of air swept past me, carrying odors of mold, earth, and hot cinnamon buns. People thronged the subway platform—we hadn’t managed to avoid the rush hour.

This upset Mr. Fields.

The train left, the rising whine of its motors echoing in the cavernous station. We’d missed it.

Five minutes later, another train screeched into the station and its doors popped open. Like water washing trash into a sewer, torrents of people sucked me and Mr. Fields through the subway’s open doors.

Passengers pressed against each other harder than in lovers’ most passionate embraces. The heat and humanity made me feel faint, although I couldn’t possibly have fallen down. And the noise was deafening.

“You work hard all your life, and what do you get?” a middle-aged man groaned. “They transfer you to New York.”

The squeal of steel on steel drowned out his friend’s reply.

“Cut it out, pervert!” a woman shouted to a man standing behind her. 

*   *   *   *   *

 By the time we reached West 4th Street, the mob had thinned out.

Located in Greenwich Village, the subway station was in a quiet neighborhood of low buildings with bookstores and a fresh produce market. A light drizzle fell through the overcast sky, but I didn’t mind. It was refreshing.

New York University and Shimkin Hall were a pleasant ten-minute walk away—passing restaurants, a devil-worshipers’ shop, a flower shop, a Dunford Rapture Runway filled with singing people, and an art gallery.  

*   *   *   *   *

 My English class was in Shimkin Hall’s basement. The room’s aging fluorescent lights buzzed and flickered, casting a harsh glow that turned people into cadavers. I was early.

George Peterson slumped into the chair next to me and greeted me with a “Hi, Connie.” George was a gangly, pale, blond-haired boy a head taller than me and dressed in typical geek attire: a powder-blue shirt, jeans, and two pens in his shirt pocket. He also had acne—worse than mine.

“Hi, George.”

George and I had known each other casually for almost a year, studying together in the classes we shared: English and physics. I also helped him with his math.

“I’m metaphorically challenged,” I groaned.

“What?”

“This damned assignment. I don’t know where to begin.”

“The essay?”

“Yeah, the one on ‘Jack London’s Call of the Wild as Gay Manifesto.’ Maybe I should switch my major. To something that makes sense, like math or physics.”

Some time ago, I’d given up on him as a potential boyfriend. Once, I’d blurted out I had two tickets to a concert at Lincoln Center—and he’d nervously changed the subject. That had upset me, but the next time he asked to study with me, I agreed.

He liked being with me—that much was clear—but was afraid to go any further. And I’d accepted that. And I surely didn’t lack opportunities to date men. But somehow, I wanted George the Unattainable.

“I saw this at Barnes and Noble,” he said, holding up a book—Death in the Alps, by Jane Grey.

“You said you wrote books as Jane Grey,” he added under his breath. “It’s really good!”

“Thank you! I’ll sign it for you.”

I wrote:

 

George, my dear study-hall friend

Glad you liked the book I penned

—virtually Jane Grey and actually Connie Fairchild

 

“Do you make a lot of money from these books?”

“I don’t know. The publisher sends it all to a charity. Something called Child Reach.”

“Cool!” he said, his eyes misting over with longing and despair. “You’re... wonderful, Connie. I always knew that. Generous and wonderful. I wish...”

His voice trailed off, and he looked away.

“Oh, George... yes, I am generous but... it’s... easy for me to be generous. I’ll give you a copy of my other book.”

“I’d rather buy it.”

Class started.

The look George had flashed me made the hairs on my scalp stand up. I couldn’t focus on class and frankly, didn’t want to. I wrote a poem:

 

Fly—fly—golden child of the wind
Glow pure and keen against the so-sullen night
Seed-carrier in our seedling season,
Informing with a twinkling might.

 Arise, now, to dawn’s dread thunder
To skies burning with barren refrains
To Earth, parched and split asunder,
That dies in wait of healing rains.

 And then, when all is still and bright,
And pensive stars pierce the lucid night,
Wrap yourself in enchanted light;
And fling your restless soul in flight.

 

Some people chew their nails when they’re nervous; I write poems.

Hoping Professor Abrams didn’t notice, I put on my crystal headset, played Bach’s Art of the Fugue, and reviewed fifty pages of Horizon International Corporation’s “homework.”

 Unlike the homework my professors assigned me, my survival depended on this. Glowing yellow stick-on arrows pointed to places needing my signature.

Most of today’s documents concerned the Energy Division—building a plant in Nebraska to convert prairie-grass oil and cooking grease into diesel fuel by “de-gumming and de-acidifying” the oil.

Oil has acid in it?

Another document combined several divisional Mergers and Acquisitions Departments into a single division-level Mergers and Acquisitions. Audits would also be done.

A scribbled note fell out, and I picked it up and read it. It was from someone named Hector Milner, and it threatened “disaster” if I signed the papers without meeting him first. He must’ve bribed a secretary to slip it into my packet.

I hated it when they did this! I’d never second-guess my “able commander!”

I wasn’t even sure what these departments did, except that it probably involved mergers—and, I guess, acquisitions.

This wasn’t the first time someone had tried to undercut my CEO. Despite his saying we needed ambitious people, I hated them—these “players” who’d murder their mothers to get ahead. Two years ago, several of them had plotted to murder me—and almost succeeded.

I signed everything. 

*   *   *   *   *

 After class, George and I went for a walk in Washington Square Park. The rain had stopped, and the clouds had parted to reveal a hydrangea-blue sky.

A gray-faced, ancient man in a black overcoat fed a gathering flock of pigeons, and a bag-lady slowly pushed a garbage-filled baby-carriage.

Passing the park’s dormant fountain, we made our way toward the north end. In summer, kids my age frolicked in the fountain’s jets, sipped jug-wine, and smoked marijuana, creating a pungent haze that always made my stomach do somersaults.

From the corner of my eye, I spotted Mr. Fields watching us from a distance.

“Autumn is a strange and powerful season,” I said. “Something’s in the air. I just feel it.”

“Yeah,” he smiled. “I smell it too.”

“No, George!” I laughed. “It’s... it’s as if time is rearranging itself, somehow. As if new futures are... sliding into place. Centuries stream through every moment, and... you can feel them sometimes.”

George took my hand—a first for him. I stroked his hand with my thumb and he blushed. We found a damp bench and sat. Shards of broken wine bottles littered the area around our bench.

“Sometimes you sound like a friend of my family, Connie,” he said. “He’s sort of a shaman named Raven... uh... uh... Would you like to get together sometime? I mean, would you mind having dinner with me? If it’s convenient?”

For a moment, I wondered what exam was coming up that we’d have to study for. Then, it dawned on me he was asking me for a date.

“Sure, George. I’d love to! When?”

Before he could answer, my purse beeped. I was tempted to ignore it, but he’d ask what the sound was. I pulled out my phone—its red encryption light was lit. As I’d thought, it was my secretary, Angela, at Horizon International Corporation—they needed my approval for something.

I told her to wait until I came to the office later. She said it was an emergency and asked if I could come by one o’clock.

“Yeah, all right,” I muttered. They’d send a car for me.

“Who’s that?”

“I’m sorry, George, I didn’t mean to cut you off. It’s my family business. They want me for something.”

The entire time I’d known him, I’d avoided discussing my family, steering conversation away from these topics. No doubt he regarded me as a Woman of Mystery.

“Your family makes you work there?”

“I’m the only one in my family, George. My parents died... a couple years ago... and then my aunt and grandfather. I live alone, now, and the business supports me.”

“I wish I could afford to live alone!” he said. He lived in a dorm and always complained about his sloppy roommates and the lack of privacy.

“Actually, I don’t really live alone. I have a housekeeper who supervises... others.” And then I realized George had been right: I was quite alone.

Like muck from a pond-bottom, memories swirled through my mind. I shut my eyes, clenched my jaw, and clenched and unclenched my fists several times—determined not to cry. In spite of this, tears welled up in my eyes. I’d thought of my parents’ death before without being overcome. Why did it affect me so, this time? Because it was my birthday?

George quietly observed all of this. We sat for several minutes, without speaking.

“I’m very sorry,” he mumbled, looking at the ground.

“So am I.”

Then, he looked into my eyes and came so close our noses almost touched. He kissed me lightly on my lips—more the suggestion of a kiss than the act. I peered into his eyes, wondering what to do next. Time slowed and became electric, making the hairs on my arms stand up. I stroked George’s face with the fingertips of my open right hand. A light breeze blew an autumn leaf into his hair, where it trembled like a trapped paper insect. Then, I gently pulled his head toward me and kissed him, trying to bury my face in his, trying to hide from the ghosts swirling about me now.

After a minute, our faces parted, flushed, eyes half-closed. I took a deep breath, and George put his books on his lap and hunched over.

We said nothing.

“There’s something I’ve wanted to tell you,” George finally whispered.

“What is it?”

After a moment of deafening silence, he whispered, “I love you, Connie. I wanted to tell you that since last fall. When we started studying together... I had to take summer classes and was going to ask you for a date then, but you weren’t around. I was even afraid you weren’t coming back.” His voice trailed off into inaudibility, and he looked away.

I took a deep breath, wrapped my arm around his neck, and kissed him again.

“I would have loved to date you last summer, but I had to be out of town. My family business.”

We left the bench, bought hot dogs from a vendor, and ate. When we’d finished, I glanced at my watch and noticed it was 12:30. I said, “I’m sorry, George. I’ve really got to go. The office said I had to be there by one.”

“How about tomorrow at six? For dinner.”

“That’s fine. Where should we meet?”

“How about the Student Union?”

“I’ll be there, George. Until then...”

I ran back to the Student Union and ducked behind it. Then, I pushed the blue button on my phone—summoning my car. It picked up Mr. Fields and me five minutes later.

 

Chapter 2

My main chauffeur, Napoleon Jones, drove. He was a middle-aged man chiseled from a black granite mountain. He played jazz on the sound system as the car lurched and bumped its way through traffic.

My moment with George had been beautiful; I shouldn’t have run off afterwards. George said he understood, but I wasn’t sure I did.

Of course I knew why the company needed me: I was the thin thread from which it hung. Grandfather had worded Horizon International Corporation’s charter so that all ‘strategic decisions’ had to be approved by someone who had the name Fairchild, was a 100% stockholder, and was his descendant. Although no biologist, Grandfather had worshiped genetics.

For the past three years, I had been the only person on Earth who met these criteria. Grandfather’s dead hand bound us together, my company and me, with chains stronger than steel.

“This ain’t no camel race, fool!” Mr. Jones bellowed. “I fought these guys in Iraq, and now they’re here.”

“Calm down, Napoleon,” Mr. Fields said. “We’re in no hurry.” 

*   *   *   *   *

 We pulled into the Rumpole Building’s tiny underground garage. Its grimy, rib-vaulted stone ceiling gave it the appearance of a cathedral. I took the elevator to the top floor.

Horizon International owned the building, but its name only appeared on the top-floor office suite. This, of course, was Fairchild paranoia: Money and power are easier to keep if nobody knows you have them—if nobody knows you even exist.

Grandfather had named the building after a character in a novel he liked—Rumpole at the Bailey.

When the elevator door opened, a hundred voices yelled “Surprise!”

“Oh my God!” I whispered, covering my face.

Tilda and my secretary, Angela Pappas, wheeled out a huge flat cake. Angela had dark brown hair, an olive complexion, and green eyes. As always, she wore a prim navy-blue dress. Years ago someone decided that I, as the company’s owner, just had to have a secretary. Hence Angela.

Her duties mostly consisted in bringing me soda when I attended “Bored Meetings.” At one stupefying meeting, she rose above and beyond the call of duty and brought me a triple-shot espresso.

Last semester, I almost asked her to type my term-paper on The Anatomy of Devonian Fish. Explaining what I wanted would’ve taken longer than typing it myself, though.

In a black evening gown, my old friend Monika von Sachsen-Coburg played Happy Birthday on her violin. Her shimmering gown set off her natural blond hair and electric blue eyes.

She’d been my dorm-mate at the Lucerne Academy for Girls—the Swiss prep school we’d attended. We’d had many adventures together and, when I inherited the company, I’d appointed her father Vice President of International Affairs.

I saw too little of her these days.

She was a classic example of “be careful what you wish for; you might get it”. In prep school, she’d dreamed of being a violinist. Now, as a student at the Julliard School of Music, she spent every waking moment immersed in music.

Feeling like a deer caught in headlights, I made a wish and blew out the cake’s eighteen candles.

Angela took my school books, and picked her way through the crowd. One junior executive—I don’t remember his name—introduced me to his new wife. As I accepted a champagne-filled flute, the clink of metal tapping glass hushed the crowd. It was Abe Cohen, my company’s CEO.

Looking more like a professor than an executive, he was a wizened, bespectacled man in his mid-sixties. He held a glass of champagne in one hand and a cordless microphone in the other. He was almost a father to me.

“To the new people,” Abe began, “who have spotted this young lady hanging around the office and wondered who she was, I give you Constance Fairchild.”

I smiled and said, “Hi.”

Applause.

“This is not as dramatic as the first time I met her, three years ago. She fainted from hunger in front of my office, so I gave her my lunch.”

“He’s always acting like a Jewish father,” I said.

“In those days,” Abe continued. “I was the director of Revenue Accounting, and she said she’d completely change the company by her eighteenth birthday. I said I’d come out of retirement and fly up from Florida to see for myself. Because I was so generous with my lunch, she asked me to stay on as CEO.”

Laughter.

“Because I hate flying, I agreed, saving myself two trips.”

More laughter.

“At an age when most girls have nothing more serious on their mind than school and dating, Constance found herself an orphan and in the bizarre position of having to run the most powerful corporate entity in the world.”

What an exaggeration! I blushed and shook my head. Abe and the Board ran the company. My “contribution” was to stay awake during Board meetings and sign long documents. The one initiative I’d ever taken had driven a vice-president to resign in protest.

Abe finally wrapped up his speech with, “Well, I’ve bored everyone long enough. It’s your turn, Constance.”

With tears streaming down my face, I walked over to Abe and took the mike from him. Grandfather’s portrait scowled at me, and I stuck my tongue out at it. As I started to stammer something into the mike, a loud crash interrupted me. A gunshot?

Like everyone else, I looked for the source of the strange sound. Before I could say anything, there was a female scream followed by wailing. It came from one of the back offices and the voice sounded familiar. Angela?

Nick Obolensky, my Chief of Security, told us to stay where we were—he’d investigate. He was a soft-spoken, tall, wiry man in his early 50’s with slate-gray eyes, thinning gray hair and a painful-looking scar on his chin.

He carefully pushed his way through the crowd to the back offices. Ten minutes later, he returned and ordered the receptionist to call an ambulance. Then he called several of his own personnel on a lapel microphone.

“Stay out of your office, Miss Fairchild,” he said. “There is something horrible in there.”

The elevator arrived—Nick’s men with a stretcher. I vaguely recalled him saying many of his men were trained paramedics. They went into my office and returned ten minutes later, bearing Angela on the stretcher. They set her down and—using their lapel-transmitters—described her condition to the ambulance crew.

Dazed, I went over to Angela. Her face was a nightmare—a mass of red with no discernible features. She moaned and a slit opened at the bottom of her face.

“Don’t try to talk, Angela,” I said. “An ambulance is on the way.”

“Constance...” she wheezed. “Tim. Take care of Tim... promise...”

“I promise, Angela! I promise!”

She couldn’t hear me—she was unconscious now, and a sickening gurgling sound issued from her chest. A man with a video camera recorded the whole exchange and I glared at him, muttering, “Ghoul!”

Mr. Fields snatched the camera from his hands and erased its memory.

“Who’s Tim?” I said, to nobody in particular.

Another secretary said Tim was Angela’s son—he was in a day-care center in the building.

Did Angela have a husband? I didn’t recall her ever mentioning one. Realizing I still held the microphone, I said, “Does anyone know how to locate Angela’s husband?”

An elderly woman announced she was the Personnel Director. She disappeared into a back office for a few minutes.

When she returned, she handed me Angela’s personnel file. In the box labeled “Whom to notify in case of an accident,” Angela had written “Tim Pappas (?).”

A team of paramedics arrived.

“Any other victims?” one paramedic said.

“There’s another one in the back office,” Nick replied. “Dead.”

“You a doctor?” one paramedic snapped. “Did you even check for a carotid pulse?”

“A bit hard to do when she has no neck,” Nick growled. “And no head.”

“We’ll take this one to the Cornell Medical Center,” the other paramedic said.

“Where?” I mumbled.

“York Avenue and 69th.”

“OK—thank you.”

The paramedics lifted Angela and one of them punched the elevator button. When it arrived, two men in suits and a police officer came out and held the door open for the paramedics.

“Stanzi!” Monika exclaimed, calling me by my German nickname. “What happened?”

“A bomb went off in my office,” I said. “At least I think it was a bomb.”

“Yeah, it was a bomb, all right,” Nick muttered.

“I’ve got to pick her son up from the day care center,” I mumbled.

“I’ll go with you!” Monika said. “Will they let you pick up one of the children?”

“Good point!” I said and asked Mr. Philips—our Director of Human Resources—to accompany us.

“Wait!” Nick exclaimed. “I want more security on you before you go wandering off. And your subway-riding days are over, Miss Fairchild!”

“OK, Nick. I planned to go on a date tomorrow. At six.”

Nick simply nodded. Two additional guards joined Monika, Mr. Fields, and me.

When we arrived at the day care center, Mr. Hansen spoke to the woman who ran it while Monika and I waited. It was a room slightly smaller than my office had been. Big stuffed animals were scattered all over the floor and three children climbed on an odd-looking, colorful contraption.

That must be a playhouse. Two years ago, I’d demanded the company provide day-care facilities for employees. I hadn’t visited any of them until today—and it had taken murder and mutilation to bring me here. What a sorry excuse for a manager I was!

One child stood apart from the others—a sad, brown-haired boy whose haunting green eyes fixed me in an unblinking stare. His resemblance to Angela was striking. There was something very familiar about him, too, as though I’d met him before. I knew he was Tim Pappas.

“Where’s my mommy?” the solemn boy asked. The center’s manager introduced me to Tim and said the boy was four years old.

“We’re... we’re going to take you to her, Tim,” I stammered.

That didn’t calm him a bit: Like all children, he could read minds. We all went down to the street where my car picked us up. My security men followed in a second car. Our little motorcade drove to the Cornell Medical Center, a few blocks away. Luckily the traffic wasn’t bad.

Monika showed Tim her violin, and he plucked the strings. This calmed him down. Thank God she had come with me!

We found the Emergency Room and I spoke to the desk clerk. He asked about Angela’s health insurance, so I called the office and had him talk to my Benefits Coordinator. I also said I wanted Angela to receive the best of care, and would pay for it out of my pocket, if necessary. The clerk just nodded and grunted.

The six of us found seats in the Waiting Room. It reminded me of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, the central panel of The Last Judgment. A woman sat in the next row of seats with blood streaming from her nose, talking to a police officer. She was a ghastly sight—half her face was purple and swollen. I couldn’t help overhearing her story—her boyfriend had smashed her face with a bottle. She was very drunk.

Two paramedics wheeled a wounded gang-member in on a gurney, and the Hospital Security Guards got into a loud argument with other gang members, who wanted to accompany him into the operating room. They said they’d kill the doctor if their friend died. My security people positioned themselves between us and the altercation and fingered the firearms inside their jackets.

Two rows behind us, a teenage boy vomited and went into convulsions, rolling in his own vomit. Two orderlies ran over and jammed some object in his mouth.

“What a nightmare!” I muttered.

“My neighborhood hospital has a sign over the door,” one bodyguard said. “‘Do your cutting and shooting Wednesday; avoid the weekend rush’.”

In the midst of this, Monika—in her black evening gown and jewelry—started to play Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, to entertain Tim. He was spellbound. When she stopped, several people applauded.

A tired-looking, middle-aged Indian man in green surgical scrubs approached us and introduced himself as Dr. Joshi. He said Angela was suffering from a subdural hematoma, among many other things, and he needed authorization for emergency surgery.

“I’m her employer, and her personnel record lists no husband or relatives,” I said. “As far as I can tell, her son here is the only person in the world related to her. And he’s four years old.”

“If she has no next of kin, I can use my own judgment. With these Seventh-Day Adventists you can’t...”

“Yes,” I snapped, “Please do!”

He left.

I went to the gift shop and bought a coloring book and crayons for Tim. Monika packed up her violin and, in the midst of the chaos and confusion, Tim scrawled pictures in the coloring book, ignoring the lines.

“I don’t think there’s anything more we can do here, Monika. They’re about to perform surgery on Angela.”

“What about Tim?” Monika said.

“He can stay with me. At least a week, from the looks of things. Come on, Tim, honey. We’ve got to go.” Against my will, an image of Angela’s demolished face flashed through my mind. Yes—it would be at least a week. Probably much longer.

“Where’s Mommy?” Tim said.

“I want to take you to her,” I said, “but she’s very, very sick.”

Dr. Joshi returned with a clipboard and pen.

“No! I want to see Mommy!” he cried.

“My dear little boy,” Dr. Joshi said. “If she tries to talk, it will make her much, much worse. You want her to get better, don’t you?”

Tim slowly nodded.

To me, he added, “If she survives the next eight hours, she will probably improve.” I took a deep breath and signed the paper he held out to me.

“If she survives?” Monika said.

“I guess we should stop by Angela’s place to pick up some of Tim’s things,” I said.

“Do you have the keys to her apartment?” Monika said.

I didn’t. The duty nurse allowed me to sign for her purse. As we left, Tim started crying for his mother again. We met my car and drove to Angela’s apartment—someplace in Flushing, Queens. On the way, I called Nick.

“The police need your books as evidence,” he said. “Angela was carrying them.”

“I sure don’t want them anymore.”

“What was the other woman doing there?” Nick said. “Did you ask anyone to work in your office?”

“No.”

“We sent her fingerprints and DNA to the FBI,” Nick murmured. “They’ll get back to us by tomorrow—if her info’s on file. I have a feeling we’re not going to know much until we talk to Angela.”

“I’d be surprised if she were able to answer questions by tomorrow,” I said.

“You must be extremely cautious until we know more,” Nick said, with an audible sigh. “You have a date tomorrow. Do you have any similar plans tonight?”

“No.”

“Good. Stay indoors! I’ll increase security at the hotel, and I’ll arrange for special security on your date.”

“Was I the target?” I said. What a stupid question! Of course I was!

“I honestly don’t know. Everything hinges on identifying the dead woman. There’s one person missing from the office—a data-entry clerk named Diane Brumberg. She called in sick this morning. We’ll try to locate her.”

I said good-bye and hung up. Monika called her father from the car and explained what had happened. 

*   *   *   *   *

 Angela lived in a dingy apartment building in Flushing, Queens, on the corner of Main street and Sanford Avenue. Like its neighborhood, Angela’s building had seen better days. A graffiti-covered cardboard panel filled in a missing picture window framing the entrance, and cracked plastic panels adorned the lobby—the style, perhaps, of the 1960’s.

I spotted a mailbox marked “A. Pappas” and I pulled out a sheaf of mail—bills and catalogs.

We found Angela’s apartment, and two security men checked it. After they reported it empty, Monika, Tim, and I went in.

The place was tiny but spotless. It had two bedrooms, a bathroom, a living room and a kitchen that was a corner of the living room. A free-standing bookcase contained books, silk flowers, and a stuffed squirrel separating the two.

The walls and ceiling were a grimy off-white, and the wall opposite the entrance had a picture window that must have opened onto Main Street; I couldn’t tell in the dark. Threadbare forest-green carpeting covered the floor.

A large portrait-type photo of Tim hung over the TV set, and the opposite wall held a needlepoint of a cat with the caption “Man’s best friend.” A meowing cat jumped off the sofa and fled.

Tim ran into one of the bedrooms and slammed the door, and I followed. He lay in bed, face down, sobbing, and I kissed him—but he wouldn’t be consoled.

I searched the room for some things he’d need: pajamas, underwear, shirts, and pants. The room was nicely decorated with pictures of animals on the wall and stuffed animals on his bed. There was a little bookcase filled with children’s books. The room glowed with Angela’s love for Tim.

After gathering a few articles of clothing, I said, as gently as I could, “Tim. We have to go to my house now. What toys do you want to bring with you?”

“No! No!” Tim screamed. “This is my house! How can Mommy find me if I go? Mommy won’t ever find me! This is my house!” Shuddering sobs racked his tiny body. And all I could do was sob myself. I ran from the room.

“Look,” I said to Monika. “Maybe I should stay here with him tonight. Maybe he’ll calm down by morning.”

“You’ll sleep here?”

“I’ll stay here. I doubt I’ll get any sleep.”

We returned to Tim’s bedroom and I picked him up and tried to reassure him that we weren’t going anywhere tonight. Monika sang him a German lullaby.

“You may as well go home, Monika,” I said. “Mr. Jones will drive you.”

“Be careful, Stanzi!”

I nodded.

“Will spending the night here be a problem, Mr. Fields?”

“No,” he replied in his gravelly, Brooklyn-accented voice. “We’ll do a stake-out.” He reported this to his lapel microphone. 

*   *   *   *   *

 After Monika left, Tim began to calm down.

“Hey Tim,” I murmured. “What do you say we get something to eat? We’ll have to go to a restaurant, ‘cause I can’t cook to save my life.”

This momentarily took his mind off his mother, and he looked up at me, furrowed his brow, and exclaimed, “Tony’s. We go to Tony’s,” drawing out the first syllable of the word “Tony’s.”

“Sounds good, Tim! Then let’s go to Tony’s.”

Accompanied by four guards, we left the apartment and started down Main Street. It was dark—most of the street lights needed replacing.

“You’ll have to show me where Tony’s is, honey.”

Tugging at my hand, Tim dragged me two blocks until we stood outside “Anthony Marinelli’s Bar and Grill.”

People thronged the dimly lit bar. We pushed our way past them to a dining area in back. A jukebox played, but it was impossible to hear any music above the general din.

We found a table and sat. A middle-aged waitress recognized Tim immediately and warmly said hello. Then she eyed my security men and me.

“You know Tim?” I said.

She nodded and said, “Where’s Angela?”

“Angela’s had a terrible... accident... at work today and she’s in the hospital. Cornell Medical Center.”

“What happened?”

“Mommy’s very sick!” Tim said.

I nodded and said, “A bomb. I think it was meant for me. I’m her employer, and I’m looking after Tim for her. Maybe you can help me.”

“You look like a kid!” the waitress said.

“I’m eighteen.” I showed her my Horizon International ID.

She nodded uneasily, eying my security guards, and said her name was Marge.

“Do you know Angela very well?” I said.

“We chat sometimes when she comes in here. Tim looks like my nephew’s twin brother, so we got to talking one day. Isn’t he the cutest kid?”

“Oh yes—he is. Can you tell me anything about Angela? About her family, for instance?”

“Not really. She said she moved here from Iowa a few years back. She wanted to be an actress.”

“I didn’t know that!” I vaguely recalled seeing a copy of A Streetcar Named Desire on Angela’s desk. And I remembered last year’s Christmas party, when Angela had entertained everyone with uncanny impersonations of President Stone making a speech proposing “the death penalty for bad jokes,” and various movie stars saying other ridiculous things. She had talent.

“Yeah. She was very discouraged, though. She couldn’t even land a one-minute TV commercial. After three years of trying, she was ready to give up. She hated the idea of being a secretary, although she said it was a very cushy job.”

“Really?” I smiled.

“She had to bring a book to work so she wouldn’t fall asleep,” Marge replied. “She said you never asked her to do anything.”

“I’m a student—I don’t spend much time at the office.”

“How’s Angela doing?”

“Very bad,” I sighed. “The doctor said her condition is extremely critical.”

“Is there a chance she’ll... die?”

“Yeah. It’s possible, I think. The doctor said the next eight hours will tell.”

“What will happen to Tim?” Marge moaned.

“I gave Angela my word I’d look after him, and I will!”

We ordered some food. Tim had a Salisbury steak with mashed potatoes. On Marge’s recommendation, my bodyguards and I had shrimp scampi. 

*   *   *   *   *

 When we returned to Angela’s building, a car with two more security men was waiting by the entrance. I went up with Tim and put him to bed, helping him to change into a pair of pajamas that looked like a superhero’s costume. One of my bodyguards asked if he could stay in the living room and I agreed.

Tim insisted I read him a bedtime story, so I found an odd book entitled Horton Hears a Who, by a doctor named Seuss.

Tim was asleep by the time I’d finished the story. I found some cat food in a cupboard and fed the cat. It timidly came out of hiding to eat, and then rubbed against my leg. It was a small gray and white tiger—still a kitten.

“What’s your name, kitty?” I said, petting it for a moment.

It meowed noncommittally.

Then I went into Angela’s bedroom and prepared to go to bed myself. I’d just sleep in my clothes. I pulled a computer from my purse and wrote a poem:

 

Childhood is a difficult time—
Each season—an arduous birth.
Playing amid unnoticed grime—
Drawn taut between Heaven and Earth.
Graven masks in memory’s shadows—
From times and tales long lost
Haunt their moonlit meadows,
Endowing lives—storm-tossed.
Each awakening stirs a fear—
No adult’s terror can match:—
To pristine eyes—new worlds appear—
New minds must grasp from scratch.
Where they find childhood’s courage, though—
Is a secret—only children know.

 

When I met him, I recognized Tim. We always recognize the people who will change our lives. As though we’re keeping appointments made before we were born, or in forgotten dreams.

Where have I met you before, Tim? I wondered, shutting my eyes. Years ago, I’d had a haunting dream of meeting an “ancient child”—who was both a little boy and older than the Earth.

The apartment was stuffy, so I opened a window. Angela had decorated her bedroom with needlepoint and pictures of herself and Tim. Issues of Cosmopolitan and Variety and travel brochures for Disney World covered the nightstand with a half-eaten candy bar on top.

I vaguely recalled Angela mentioning her vacation plans: she’d looked forward to taking Tim to Disney World.

Oh, Angela, poor Angela! I thought, my head throbbing. This is unbearable!

Exploring Angela’s apartment made me feel like a thief. Although this woman had worked for me for two years, I’d never known she had a son. It was like meeting her for the first time today.

Before curling up on Angela’s bed, I peeked into the living room. My bodyguard sat on the sofa, sipping a container of coffee and reading a magazine. His machine gun lay on the coffee table, its polished steel gleaming softly in the solitary light. And I realized there was an emotion worse than the malaise I’d felt all morning: Fear.

I turned out the light.

Amazingly, I managed to fall asleep—maybe it was nervous exhaustion. I don’t recall how long I slept. A few hours?

At 3 AM I awoke, drenched in sweat. A sickeningly sweet odor filled the room, as though someone had spilled a gallon of perfume. And I felt it—cold that chilled my bones.

“Mommy, Mommy, don’t go!” Tim screamed in his room. “I promise I’ll be good! I won’t make a mess! Please don’t go, Mommy! Please don’t go!”

“Damn!” my bodyguard muttered, peering into Tim’s bedroom. “Nobody there!”

The sweet stench vanished. I ran into Tim’s room, scooped him up, and took him to bed with me. 

*   *   *   *   *

 The next morning, I gave Tim his breakfast—cold cereal with milk and sugar—before calling the hospital. The cereal box had a picture of a pirate on it. I read and reread the list of ingredients on the box—putting off making the call.

Angela didn’t have any tea, so I drank a container of coffee my bodyguard handed me. On the refrigerator, I spotted a calendar with notations on it for meetings of an organization called “Parents without Partners.” So Angela had no husband. Perhaps she had friends there who could locate her family.

Finally—at about nine—I called the hospital. After being put on hold ten minutes, I reached Dr. Joshi who said Angela had passed away in the night, at three in the morning.

“Maybe it was just as well,” he added. “If she’d survived, she would’ve been blind, paralyzed, and horribly disfigured.”

My eyes tightly shut, I hung up the phone and pressed my forehead against the refrigerator.

I finally called Tilda and sobbed, “I need to ask you some favors.” First I asked her to have all the furniture cleared out of the green bedroom—the one next to mine. Then she should hire a moving company to transport the furniture from Tim’s bedroom to there. And finally, to come to Angela’s apartment with a camera and cat carrier.

“I’m sorry to dump so much on you, Tilda.”

“I can walk and whistle, Miss Connie!” she replied.

I gave her Angela’s address.

After breakfast, I dressed Tim and said, “A friend of mine is coming and we will have to go with her to my place. We’re going to take your bed and everything from your bedroom to my house.”

“Will we take Hamlet, too?”

Hamlet must be the cat.

“Of course, Tim. We wouldn’t go without Hamlet!”

Now I had to tell him. I decided to be direct. Tim was a child but he wasn’t stupid. He’d know if I lied to him.

“I have something else to tell you, Tim. Something horrible. Your mother has gone far, far away. Forever. She loves you and would like to be with you, but she can’t. She asked me to take care of you.”

“Is she in Heaven, like Daddy?” he said.

“Yes, Tim,” I sobbed. “She went to Heaven. I want you to think of me as a second mommy.” I hugged him and rocked him in my arms. He just cried softly; he didn’t protest or fight now. He knew.

A terrible resolve filled my soul: I’d find the people responsible for this. It was bad enough they were stalking me. Tim and Angela were defenseless innocents, and nothing could justify the injury done them. The perpetrators would feel the pain they’d caused—every last bit of it.


 

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