- IV. –

 

Cathy awoke the next morning in an unfamiliar place and to the distant sound of rattling glass and silverware. She glanced around, trying to absorb her new surroundings before the sound grew nearer.

 

She was lying in a bed in another room (a REAL room, she thought). The walls were painted a dull gray. Ancient beige drapes were pulled tight across the room’s only window, allowing a few stray fingers of sunlight to creep into the room. The only other furniture was a worn armchair, a chipped bedside table and a dresser.

 

She saw two doors in the wall to her left. One out, one to a bathroom? It made sense, as she seemed to be in a makeshift hospital room.

 

Only after she satisfied her curiosity did she take stock of her own situation. She was lying in a hospital bed; gleaming metal rails rose on either side. An inactive IV stand was positioned to her left.   She examined her hands and arms and found bruises and small punctures in several places.

 

Cathy used her elbows to heft herself into a half-reclining position. She battled a wave of nausea and dizziness and forced herself to stay up. By slow degrees, with both hands gripping the side rails, she sat upright. Tiny black spots sparkled and flew before her eyes. She sat for a few moments, breathing as deeply and steadily as she could.

 

She raised her right palm, a little afraid to look. But there it was: Maggie’s scratchy handwriting. So...it hadn’t been a dream after all.

 

The rattle of dishes drew nearer, then stopped abruptly outside her room. She stared at the nearest door, holding her breath. A key turned in the lock and the door opened.

 

A tall, thin man in his late forties entered, pushing a metal cart in front of him. A few dishes and eating utensils were neatly arranged on a tray. He nodded to Cathy, then moved the cart close to her bed.

 

“You look much better this morning,” he said. He pushed a button on the left rail and raised the head of Cathy’s bed to an upright position.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“Dr. Stewart.” He gave her an appraising look. “I didn’t think you’d remember.”

 

“Remember what?”

 

“Me.” He pressed two fingers over her left wrist and counted off her pulse against his watch. “You’ve spent the past two weeks waking up. I’ve had you up and moving around for the last five days.”

Cathy shook her head. ”I don’t remember anything.”

 

The doctor finished checking her pulse. “Not surprising. But you’ll remember today. This is the first day you’ve spoken.”

 

“What day is it?”

 

“Sunday, November 19.” He drew the chair close to the bed and sat down. “Here.” He positioned the tray so she could reach the food. “Eat.”

 

She spooned hot chicken soup into her mouth, savoring each drop. Her eyes never left his face; she wanted to memorize every feature. He was not unusual in any respect: thinning sandy hair, a prominent nose, pale green eyes. The only remarkable thing about him was an air of utter fatigue, as if he hadn’t slept well for weeks.

 

Cathy finished the soup and drank from a tall glass of orange juice. She was careful not to expose the writing on her palm. “You said your name was Stewart?”

 

“Dr. Stewart,” he replied. “You’ve been my patient for three months.”

 

“I don’t understand any of this.” Dizziness washed over her again, and she resisted the urge to close her eyes. “I thought I was dead.”

 

“You almost were,” the doctor replied. He removed the tray and cart and brought his chair closer to Cathy’s bed.   His weary eyes never left her face. “You should’ve been, considering the massive dose of morphine in your body.”

 

“Please. Tell me what happened.”

 

The doctor sighed and leaned back in his chair. “It’s a long, ugly story. I’ll condense it for both our sakes.” He steepled both hands and stared at Cathy across his fingertips. “It all began with the black book.”

 

“The book Joe Maxwell gave me.”

 

“Yes. We were on the trail of that book for months.”

 

“Who is we?”

 

“I can’t tell you,” he said bluntly. “In fact, the less you know the better. Anyway, after you disappeared we knew Moreno had a copy of the book, but we couldn’t get to it. We conducted our own investigation, enlisting the aid of the authorities but never sharing our own small discoveries. Small though they were, they led us to you - and Gabriel.”

 

“What did you want with me?”

Stewart shrugged. “You investigated the book. You were beginning to make some headway in deciphering the code. We wanted whatever information you had.”

 

“To find Gabriel.”

 

The doctor nodded. “We knew enough about him to know that he would kill you. People are disposable to him, allowed to live until their usefulness expires. Our plan was to get you away from him, but it took months and a lot of unexpected luck before we were able to do that.”

 

“Luck?” Cathy asked.

 

“Luck in the form of your...friend. All previous attempts to penetrate Gabriel’s security force at the Sixth Avenue building were unsuccessful. We lost several people trying. But we kept our team in place, and the night he breached Gabriel’s defenses we were ready. We were right behind him.”

 

For the first time the doctor hesitated, as if uncomfortable with the story he related.

 

“Go on,” Cathy urged.

 

“Our team consisted of myself, another doctor, two armed men and a special agent.” He paused. “I think you should know her name. Terry Mitchell.” He paused again. “She deserves to be remembered.”

 

Cathy waited for him to continue. The room felt colder; she pulled the bedclothes tighter and listened.

 

“We planned to remove you from the building and leave Terry in your place. In the past couple of months she had undergone extensive plastic surgery in order to alter her appearance enough to…”

 

“You made her look like me.”

 

“Yes,” the doctor said. “We had photographs, videotape, everything we needed. She was you, right down to your voice and the scar on your face.”

 

“Oh my God,” Cathy said, fingering her left cheek.

 

Dr. Stewart’s words came quickly, as if he wanted to end the story in the least possible time. “We didn’t force her; it was her decision. She was a brave, tough lady, fully aware of the risks involved in this operation.

 

“When we found you, you had just given birth and were in the process of delivering the placenta. You were alert enough to tell us what had happened, and we immediately took measures to try to counteract the effects of the morphine. As we were assisting you, Terry removed her clothes and put on a hospital gown she found in a drawer. You began mumbling, fragments of sentences, nothing that made sense to us, but Terry memorized every word.”

 

“What did I say?” Cathy asked.

 

“Several different things. ‘We loved; there is a child.’ ‘Vincent.’ You apologized profusely, for what we didn’t know. And then there was this.” The doctor cocked his head to one side, as if straining to remember. “‘Though lovers be lost, love shall not, and death shall have no dominion.’ Does that mean anything to you?”

 

Cathy felt as if she could barely breathe. “Yes. Go on.”

 

“We heard helicopter rotors on the roof. Terry was supposed to follow the sound and see what she could find, then report back to us. But we realized that whoever she found would expect her to be near death. We had to improvise.”

 

“Improvise what?” Cathy demanded.

 

“We…I gave her an injection that would slow all her bodily functions and give her the appearance of death. I don’t know what went wrong.” The doctor looked from side to side, as if desperately searching for an answer. “I must have misjudged the dosage. She left to look for an entrance to the roof while we took you to a car we had waiting downstairs.”

 

“And your agent, Terry. What happened to her?”

 

“I came back for her. I went to the roof, but she wasn’t there. If was as if she had disappeared.”

 

“Vincent,” Cathy whispered before she could stop herself.

 

“So. That is his name. Apparently this Vincent took Terry back to your apartment, thinking she was you. We decided it was best to let the charade continue, up to and including the point when Terry was buried under your name.”

 

Cathy’s mind reeled. “But what about the hospital? Surely they would have done an autopsy.”

 

“Yes, of course, we covered that possibility as well. We had some very cooperative agents working within the hospital system, and we were able to make sure that the body autopsied under your name was the body of a woman who had recently given birth.” A humorless smile twisted his lips, then vanished. “I’d rather not tell you how we managed that particular deception.”

 

Cathy felt the blood drain from her face. There was nothing she could say, no question she could ask; it was pointless. The things that had been done in her name...

 

She groped for words. “I, I don’t know what to think. How to react. This is…”

 

“Horrible,” he supplied. He nodded thoughtfully. “You wake up from a coma when you should have died, only to find that you might as well be dead.”

 

“Why do you say that?”

 

“Come now, Miss Chandler,” he said, using her name for the first time. “You’re an intelligent woman. Surely you can understand the ramifications of this situation.”

 

“Why don’t you tell me?”

 

Dr. Stewart stood and began pacing, deliberately avoiding her eyes.  “You are officially, legally dead. You have no job; a new face sits at your old desk. Your bank accounts have been closed out, your charge accounts cancelled. Your apartment - your former apartment - has been subleased. Everything you ever owned is gone, forgotten.” He paused and sought her eyes. “Just like you.”

 

“No. I might not have anything material, but there are people who will remember me. People who still love me.”

 

“Of course they still love you, but only in the past tense.”

 

Cathy felt the words sink into her heart. She blinked away angry tears. “I’ve got to go back.”

 

“No. Under no circumstances can you return to the City. Gabriel may be dead, but he still has connections, men who would kill you in a second. His people are everywhere, including the police department. Unless there’s an underground for people who don’t exist, there is absolutely no way you can return to New York and expect to resume a normal life.”

 

Cathy avoided his eyes. She didn’t want to reveal the sudden hope flashing through her mind.

 

The doctor removed a bundle of clothing and shoes from one of the dresser drawers. He placed the bundle on the bedside table, then pulled a billfold from one of his pockets. “Here,” he said, handing her the billfold. “We’re only six blocks from a bus station, and there’s enough money in here to travel anywhere you want to go, except the City. All the money in the world couldn’t keep you alive there. Remember that.” He nodded toward the bathroom. “You can clean up before you leave.”

 

Cathy slipped out of bed, wobbling before finding her balance.

“I can’t allow you enough time to fully regain your strength,” the doctor said. His face and voice had grown even more fatigued as he watched her struggle to remain upright. “You must leave as soon as possible.”

 

“And you?” she asked. She couldn’t override her curiosity about this defeated-looking man who had committed such awful acts of desperation.

 

“Me?” He shook his head. A rueful smile played at the corners of his mouth. “I wouldn’t bet on it, but there’s a slim possibility that I’m going on to a better place.” He opened the door. “Come outside when you’re ready.” The door closed with a hush behind him.

 

Cathy clung to the bed with both hands. She took a few tentative steps. Her knees almost buckled. She leaned against the bed for a few moments, her heart racing. Anger seethed inside her; frustration, impatience, helplessness. She wanted to lash out at someone. Stewart. Pressing her lips in a tight line, she locked her knees and began moving. She would leave this place and get back to New York if she had to crawl every inch of the way.

 

***

 

After falling once on the cold linoleum floor, Cathy made it to the bathroom. She was unhurt, just bruised and sore.

 

She huddled on the yellow-tiled floor of the shower stall and let the hot water rain down on her until the water temperature grew uncomfortably cool. Soap and water faded the writing on her palm, but that didn’t bother her. By now Diana’s address and phone number were indelibly printed in her memory.

 

She avoided the mirror while brushing her teeth. A stale taste lingered on her tongue despite liberal doses of toothpaste and mouthwash. When she finally worked up the courage to confront the mirror, her reflection was shocking. Slender to begin with, she estimated that she must have lost at least 15 pounds, a good deal of it in her face. Every bone from her rib cage up pressed whitely against her pale skin as if trying to escape the confines of her flesh. Her eyes were bloodshot, sunk deep into their sockets.

 

She stared until she could no longer bear the sight of her wasted self, then turned away and dressed. The ill-fitting jeans, shirt and sweater hung on her like tattered rags flapping on a scarecrow.

 

She opened the door to her room and entered a deserted hallway. Several other rooms opened off the hall, which ended in a solid metal door at either end. She stayed close to the wall, leaning on its scant support. She saw no one and heard nothing but her own footsteps.

 

Dr. Stewart emerged from a room on her left. “How do you feel?”

“Weak. Disoriented. Hungry.”

 

“Here.” He handed her a plastic bag containing a granola bar and several pieces of fruit. “Eat this after you reach the bus station. Drink lots of liquids. Get some rest.” His voice was dull. He pointed to one of the doors at the end of the hallway. “Go through that door. It’s unlocked from the inside, but it will automatically lock after you close it. Turn left and follow the sidewalk to the street. Take another left and keep walking. You’ll reach the bus station in a few minutes.”

 

Cathy said nothing. She walked to the end of the hall and left without looking back.

 

The sun was blinding. She blinked for a few seconds, trying to adjust to the warm brilliance and the fresh air. The building behind her was an ordinary square office complex, one story, with stucco walls and few windows. Carrying the plastic bag, her billfold tucked deep into her jeans pocket, she walked toward the street.

 

A few seconds later a muffled gunshot echoed from the building behind her, but she continued walking as if she’d heard nothing.

 

***

 

The six blocks to the bus station were interminable. Cathy placed one foot in front of the other, giving all her attention to staying upright and little to the houses and buildings she passed. The air was brisk; ruffling her hair and baggy clothing, but the warm sunlight baked into her and leached some of the aching cold from her body. After a few blocks, she began to look around. The street was populated with an orderly mix of older, well-kept homes and unobtrusive office buildings. The sidewalks were quiet. Traffic was minimal.

 

So, she thought, staggering a little as she walked further. It’s Sunday. Sunday in a small town in northern New York. (A tiny voice behind her eyes cried, “I don’t know where I am!” She paid little attention to it and continued walking.) After what seemed an eternity, she reached the small bus station. It, too, was nearly deserted. She made her way to the ticket counter.

 

“Where to, miss?” the clerk asked.

 

She didn’t hesitate. ”New York City.” She flinched at the thin sound of her voice and then quickly glanced around. Two old women and one old man were seated on benches here and there. None of them paid her any attention.

 

I’m paranoid, she thought. Don’t panic.

 

“Twenty-seven fifty,” the clerk said. “Leaves at ten-thirty sharp.”

 

Cathy’s eyes went to the wall clock. Nine fifty-two.

She pulled out the billfold Dr. Stewart had given her. Opening it for the first time, she was shocked to see a thick sheaf of twenties and fifties. She took her ticket from the clerk and stuffed the billfold and change in her pocket. Time enough to count it later.

 

After buying a cup of black coffee from a vending machine, she settled onto a wooden bench close to the ticket counter. Alternately sipping the coffee and eating an apple from her plastic bag, her eyes wandered back and forth between the wall clock and a large state map pinned to a bulletin board. She knew where she was now, a small town outside Syracuse, but it meant nothing to her. Did it matter? Was there anything in her life that truly mattered?

 

In mechanical fashion she continued eating, following the apple with a granola bar and a banana. She rinsed out her cup and filled it at the water fountain. As she returned to the bench, the two old women stared at her, then averted their eyes.

 

Cathy sipped the water, using the sleeve of her sweater to wipe her mouth. She flattened her right hand in front of her eyes, stared at the palm for a second, then clenched her fingers around the still visible ink as if clutching a talisman.

 

Now she understood everything Maggie had told her. She took the kind woman’s words of wisdom, added the burden of information Dr. Stewart had imparted, and spliced them together to create some semblance of a plan.

 

I’ve got to THINK. I can’t just dissolve into a puddle of grief. No one’s going to rescue me. I’m on my own. I know I can’t have my old life back. I’ve got to get to New             York...find this Diana and make her listen, make her help me. Find Vincent...does he still  love me? Oh my God. he HAS to. I can’t…

 

“Are you all right, honey?”

 

Cathy felt a light hand on her shoulder. She peered through a veil of tears and saw the concerned face of an elderly man who had been sitting by a window in the station since she arrived.

 

He handed her a paper napkin, which she used to wipe her eyes and nose. “Thank you,” she said, her breath coming in shuddering waves.

 

“Big problems,” the man said kindly. From the way he looked at her, Cathy knew he referred not only to her tears but to her overall appearance.

 

“Afraid so,” she replied, her voice a bit steadier.

 

The ticket clerk’s voice blared from a loudspeaker, announcing the departure of a bus for Boston.

 

“That’s me,” the man said. He patted her on the shoulder. “Things’ll get better, miss. They always do.” He tipped her a wink and she smiled back at him.

 

Things’ll get better, she thought. It was as good a philosophy as any.

 

“Now boarding for New York City!”

 

Cathy jumped at the announcement, reaching for a purse or a suitcase; her hand found the nearly empty bag of fruit. My luggage, she thought wryly. Guess I better get used to traveling light in this world.

 

After one last drink from the water fountain, she hurried outside and climbed aboard the bus. Settling into a corner seat at the back, she stretched out and closed her eyes. She was asleep before the bus reached the highway, four blocks away.

 

 Chapter 5