At first the pinprick sensation in the skin of her neck was so delicate that Harriet Gardener wove it flawlessly into the fabric of her dream. She was lying on a blanket next to Arthur, beneath an enormous maple at the edge of a meadow like the one on the farm where she had grown up, yet much larger, with wheat fields sweeping away to the horizon as far as she could see. As she watched the sun sinking in the west, she realized she had no idea where they were or how to find their way back home.
“Arthur, we’d better leave now,” she said. “We must have fallen asleep. It’s getting dark, and the mosquitoes are starting to bite.”
The pinprick grew sharper, more insistent. As she felt it penetrate her skin, she cried out in pain. A yellow jacket! Why now, so late in the day?
His hand clapped down hard on her mouth, with a brute force so utterly unlike Arthur that her eyes flew open in shock. The brilliance of the light made her blink. She’d been wrong. It was already night, and the meadow was nowhere to be seen. Now she was on a road, caught like a deer, paralyzed in the glare of a single headlight bearing down on her.
The dream had become a nightmare. She jerked frantically, willing herself awake, staring into the glaring light, a shimmering circle surrounded by inky blackness. A full moon, dazzlingly brilliant. No, a flashlight. As her eyes adapted with agonizing slowness, the familiar outlines of the furniture in her darkened bedroom brought her back to the barren reality of her present-day world, her world without Arthur. Now she could make out the black barrel of the flashlight, the ghostly white of the gloved hand gripping it. And in the shadows beyond, the looming contours of a strange man.
Why couldn’t she shake free of this nightmare? Why hadn’t he gone back into the limbo of bad dreams where he belonged? Now he was hovering above her, pushing her head down and back, deep into the pillow.
And the hornet was still stinging her. Her hands flew to her neck, swatted wildly at the source of the pain, but he blocked them effortlessly with a muscular forearm. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the flash of something silver.
Her mind raced in frantic circles as she thrashed ineffectually, trying to free herself. Her legs felt leaden, as if she’d been running up a hill so steep, she couldn’t take one more step. She willed her arms to move, to fight the numbness creeping over her, but they wouldn’t do her bidding. As she gave in to the unaccustomed feeling of no feeling, it occurred to her for the first time that she might be dying. So this is what it’s like, she thought. It’s not so bad, really.
All at once the breath caught in her throat. Her chest froze, and she couldn’t fill her lungs. I’m not ready! I want to come back! She stared up at the halo of light, past its shimmering edges at the dark figure beyond, sending him a silent prayer: save me from this horror. But he was motionless. She heard the soft sigh of his breathing. Then, in the distance, the mournful hoot of a barred owl. She used to hoot back to them, she remembered. A little conversation, kind of repetitious, just the same four notes over and over, but it was companionship of a sort. Especially in the stillness of the nights after Arthur was gone.
The halo of light was spilling over now, flooding the darkness, becoming a seamless gray fog. Something soft flitted across her eyelids, stroked them closed with infinite gentleness.
Arthur. You’ve come for me at last.
* * *
The trilling of the cell phone was so subtle that the sound carried barely twenty feet from shore, harmonizing with the chirping of the sparrows and the soft cooing of the mourning doves. If not for her dog Freia, Claire Lindstrom would have missed it entirely, but the big blond Labradoodle was dancing on the dock, wagging happily as she bounced around the little black instrument of torture.
“Good girl!” Claire murmured as she steered the kayak in for a landing. She’d taught the dog this silent pantomime in deference to the neighbors, most of whom didn’t appreciate being stirred from sleep by a salvo of barks, no matter how magnificent the sunrise.
Setting down the paddle, Claire grabbed the cell phone and peered at the caller ID. The number was Harriet Gardener’s.
A shiver swept over her, despite the rising heat of the early September day. As nursing supervisor for a couple of dozen home care clients, Claire was accustomed to getting calls at all hours of the day and night. Call her compulsive, call her a workaholic, but she’d made it clear to everyone on staff that she wanted to be brought up to speed on anything out of the ordinary, no matter what the hour. Most of the clients at Compassionate Care were elderly, and many were gravely ill. The aides knew better than to leave Claire out of the loop when it came to making judgment calls about the people in their charge.
But Harriet Gardener was in excellent health, physically at least. She suffered from mid-stage Alzheimer’s and needed supervision to prevent her wandering away or burning down the house with her absent-minded attempts at cooking. But she was strong, and she rarely came down with so much as a sniffle. For the time being, thanks in large part to her live-in aide Dahlia Douglas, her quality of life was excellent. But inevitably that would change. Although they tried not to show it, the fact that she was fated to endure many years of painfully slow decline, culminating in the eventual loss of all her mental and physical functions, distressed her overwrought family no end.
Dahlia wouldn’t have phoned at six a.m. without good reason. The possible scenarios played through Claire’s mind as she climbed out of the kayak and felt the cool water bathing her bare feet. Most likely Harriet had fallen, maybe broken a hip or hit her head. Or she might have slipped out and wandered away. When the agency first opened her case, Claire had done an exhaustive inventory of the house and supervised the safety proofing of the place, like a conscientious mother safety-proofing the home of a roving toddler. Every door and window that Harriet could possibly reach had been secured with a state-of-the-art locking device.
Still, even with an excellent aide like Dahlia, human error was always a possibility, and Harriet was maddeningly persistent in trying to defeat the locks. Harriet lived in a lovely old farmhouse on acres of rolling land, the kind of land that had once dominated this part of upstate New York. But urban sprawl was encroaching rapidly, and interlopers from the nearby mini-mansions took the curves of the narrow two-lane highway that bordered her property far faster than they should. Now in her late seventies, Harriet had been born there, and she and her family hung doggedly onto the old homestead, determined to let her die there. Claire just hoped today wasn’t the day.
Resisting the impulse to press the call-back button immediately, she shoved the cell phone into her waterproof tote bag, tied the kayak to the dock, and strolled with deliberate slowness back to the house, inhaling deep breaths of calming country air en route. As years of experience had taught her all too well, nursing is a high burnout profession. Claire had stayed in the field this long only by creating her own survival strategies. Keeping an invisible barrier between her personal and professional lives was the key to it all.
By choice, Claire was on call twenty-four seven, but she drew a careful line of demarcation in the physical realm. Inside the cottage, on the deck, even in the garage she had converted to a jewelry studio, she used the laptop and cell phone that tied her to her little community of beleaguered staff and clients. But the chains broke when she descended the stairs to the back yard and immersed herself in the delights of gardening, swimming, kayaking or simply lounging. By and large, she had conditioned herself to banish job-related thoughts when she reached her private sanctuary. Random thoughts of clients or staff broke through occasionally, like a dog lunging through an invisible electronic fence in pursuit of a rabbit or a cat, but usually the boundary held firm.
Not this morning, though. Halfway across the lawn, she had the cell phone out of the bag, her finger poised over the callback button. She jabbed the button as she set foot on the first step, and the phone was ringing by the time she reached the deck.
Dahlia answered on the third ring, her voice weak and shaky. “Harriet’s gone,” she stammered. “It must have happened sometime in the night.”
Claire’s heart sank. “But Dahlia, how could she get out without your knowing? Everything’s locked up tight. You sleep right across the hall from her, and I know you’re a light sleeper.”
“Not that kind of gone.” Dahlia’s careful diction had yielded to the earthy dialect she usually reserved for the other Jamaican aides, and the melodic lilt of her voice was incongruously at odds with her message. “She’s gone. I mean she passed. I don’t understand. She was fine when I tucked her in bed last night. She had such a strong heart, and you know how the family used to kid around with me. We thought Harriet would outlive us all.”
Just like my father. Claire shivered. She took Dahlia’s report, somehow got through the formalities, hung up. Then, suddenly wobbly, she sank onto a chaise. Nine years ago, on a flawless September morning much like this one, she’d gotten a call from the nursing home where he’d been admitted the day before, suffering from mild dementia. He had gone to bed ostensibly healthy, died sometime in the night. A previously undiagnosed cardiac problem, they said. Or, as Claire always thought of it, a broken heart. He’d been furious when her mother shunted him off to a nursing home against his wishes, vowed to get out if it was the last thing he did. He had fulfilled his vow, although not the way he planned.
He shouldn’t have died that way, abandoned and alone in an institutional bed. His death shocked Claire into abandoning graduate school and entering nursing. She found her way into home care, where she could help keep people away from those warehouses for the dying. All these years spent making amends, and now it had happened again.
* * *
Across the lake, Gabriel squinted through the telescope. Claire Lindstrom sprawled motionless on the chaise, her head turned toward the morning sun. Her wavy blond hair curtained her face from view. Too bad – he’d have liked to see her expression. When she’d made the call, her back had been turned. He felt a flash of anger. Watching was part of what made his work worthwhile, and she was depriving him of the pleasure.
The scene was deceptively idyllic, like a watercolor on the cover of an L.L. Bean catalog. The slender blonde in a turquoise tee and khaki shorts stretched on the forest green, Adirondack-style chaise, her skin still summer tanned. The big dog, its hair a shade lighter than Claire’s, lying nearby on the lawn that swept down to the water. The kayak, a nifty accent in fire engine red, pulled up on the beach, the lake sparkling in the morning sun, encircled by deep green hills.
Maybe he should start painting again. He’d taken a couple of courses in college, and the instructor had told him he had talent worth pursuing. The network kept him fairly busy, but although the number of assignments was increasing, there were still stretches of inactivity. And painting might bleed off some of the nervous energy he felt when he’d successfully completed a mission.
Last night, for example. The old lady’s death had progressed perfectly, exactly as planned. He had shone the flashlight full into her face, watched the confusion, the slow dawning of comprehension segueing into terror, the creeping paralysis as the drug took hold. Even after the breathing stopped, the eyes clung desperately to life. It was hard to pinpoint the exact moment she crossed over, but he kept the light focused on her face for a full five minutes as he watched the life glow fade from her eyes. Then, still wearing the latex gloves, he closed her lids.
Death by paralysis had to be ghastly, but at least the suffering was short-lived, infinitely superior to the endlessly prolonged agony and degradation that modern medicine inflicted on the chronically and terminally ill. He’d had his fill of that in the nursing career he’d abandoned.
The new affiliation had come as a godsend, and the money wasn’t half bad. But the role they’d cast him in was too limited, too predictable. The powers that be had cautioned him to follow their protocol precisely. No room for creativity or improvisation. He was just a cog in a much larger machine. But that could change with time. If he played by their rules, they promised, the potential for advancement was virtually limitless.
He watched through the scope as Claire climbed off the chaise. She raked her fingers through her hair, daubed at her eyes. He caught a glimpse of her elegant features before she turned and headed for the house. Before long she would probably be at Harriet Gardener’s place. He wished he could join her there, savor her reaction. But that was out of the question.
He’d called in his report hours ago, and a day of enforced idleness yawned in front of him. All at once he knew how to spend it: he would drive to New York City, pick up some supplies at that discount art supply store in SoHo. Pearl Paint, on Canal Street, near Chinatown. He’d be down and back before nightfall, and if they had a new assignment for him, they could always reach him on his cell.
He decided to buy oil paints. They had a squishy, sensuous feel that was more satisfying than acrylics. Cadmium red light would be perfect for the kayak, and it was good for mixing flesh tones, too. He wanted to do justice to Claire.
When Claire entered Harriet’s bedroom an hour later, she saw at once that Dahlia was right: Harriet Gardener was definitely, unequivocally dead. Her lips were pale, her skin strangely translucent. Lifting the sheet, Claire saw the telltale signs of livor mortis, the purplish puddling on the undersides of the arms and legs. As a formality, she checked the vital signs. There was no pulse, no breath, and Harriet’s skin was already cool to the touch. Still smooth and soft, however – Claire flashed back to the way Dahlia used to massage Harriet head to toe with aloe lotion. Harriet loved the sensation, and the massages were one of the ways Dahlia calmed her down when she was feeling agitated, lost and confused.
“That feels so good, Sissie,” Claire had heard Harriet say. “I’m so glad you came back to live with me again.” She had trouble remembering Dahlia’s name, so early on she had taken to calling her Sissie, and a little while after that, she had begun confusing Dahlia with the older sister who had died many years before. Dahlia accepted the new identity with grace and good humor, the way she accepted everything else about Harriet.
Turning away from the bedside to face Dahlia, seeing the unshed tears in the aide’s luminous brown eyes, Claire felt her own eyes well with tears. Impulsively, she reached out to Dahlia and they embraced for a long silent moment. Then Claire pulled back in a valiant effort to reclaim a semblance of professionalism. “I’m so sorry, Dahlia. I know how close you were to Harriet.”
The aide was weeping openly now. “She was a wonderful woman. She took me into her home and her heart like her own daughter. But the Lord knows best. He has called her to a better place, and now she is at peace.”
Claire envied Dahlia her belief and wished her own were as strong. True, Harriet’s death was a blessing in its way, cutting short a life that would have grown increasingly painful and pointless as the Alzheimer’s ravaged her mind and body. But the woman was blessed with a sunny disposition and a strong constitution, and she still had a robust appetite for life. Her death was puzzling in its suddenness, and it left questions in its wake.
“Was Harriet in any distress last night?” she asked Dahlia. “Did she complain of any unusual pain or discomfort?”
“No, she seemed sleepier than usual, but that was all. I helped her with her bath, then helped her towel dry. I massaged her with the aloe lotion, the same way I did every night. You can see, she’s very fresh and clean. She looks so peaceful, don’t you think?”
“Yes, she looks beautiful.” It was true, Claire thought. Death had stripped years from Harriet’s face. The worry lines were gone from her forehead, and her expression was serene.
“I keep thinking there is something I could have done, something I overlooked.”
Claire was thinking the same thing, but sharing her misgivings with Dahlia would accomplish nothing other than to intensify the guilt the aide was already feeling. “These things happen sometimes, especially with the elderly,” Claire said instead. “There may have been some preexisting condition we didn’t know about, an undiagnosed heart problem, perhaps. I’ll telephone Dr. Hendel, but my guess is that he’ll pronounce the death over the phone. Then I’ll call the daughter in California, and the funeral home. As I recall, the family’s wishes are spelled out in the intake assessment I did when we opened the case.”
Calling Harriet “the case” sounded callous, Claire knew, but it injected some much needed professional objectivity into the situation, distancing the two living women from the body that lay beside them.
Dahlia fumbled in her shirt pocket, extricated a crumpled Kleenex, daubed at her eyes, then blew her nose loudly. “Should we do anything to get Harriet ready for the mortician?” she asked.
“You took such good care of her, there’s very little to do. First I’ll make those phone calls. Then we can just straighten her out a little and pull the covers up to her chin. After that, if you like, you can wait outside for the people from the funeral home. You can probably use a break.”
Tears reappeared in Dahlia’s eyes. “Thank you, Claire. Do you mind if I go outside right now? I have my period, and it isn’t good for me to stay in the same room with a dead person. It may sound silly, but in Jamaica we believe it’s very bad for a menstruating woman to stay with a corpse. We believe – ”
The last thing Claire needed right now was a discussion of Jamaican folklore. She rested a reassuring hand on the aide’s shoulder. “Never mind, Dahlia, no need to explain. Go take a break. I’ll tend to the body.”
Alone once more, Claire took comfort in the familiar routine of her nursing persona. First she phoned Dr. Hendel. His answering service picked up, of course – it wasn’t even eight o’clock yet. The operator said she’d page him immediately, and while Claire waited for his call back, she arranged the body. Harriet had been lying on her right side, her limbs bent casually as if still in the comfort of sleep. Claire rolled her gently onto her back, straightened her legs, folded her arms in the formal symmetry of death. Now, before rigor set in. She left her in the nightgown she’d been wearing, pink cotton trimmed with white lace. The body was clean, scented with aloe lotion and baby powder. Too soon for the odor of death.
She was just folding the sheet over the summer-weight blanket at Harriet’s chin when Dr. Hendel phoned back. As she’d expected, he decided a house call was unnecessary. Based on Claire’s description of the physical findings, he estimated the time of death at approximately four a.m., then told her to call the daughter and the funeral home. “You nurses are so much better at that sort of thing,” he said lightly.
His flattering tone rubbed her the wrong way, and she fought the urge to tell him exactly what she thought of his weaseling out of the hard part. “Okay, if you think that’s best,” she said with fake deference.
Next she dialed Joanne Hargreave, the daughter. The answering machine picked up. Not wanting to break the news to a tape, Claire was deliberately vague. “Joanne, please pick up if you’re there. I know it’s only five o’clock your time, and I’m probably waking you, but it’s important. It’s about your mother. There’s been an incident – ”
“What is it?” The voice, foggy with sleep at first, grew clearer by the second. “What kind of incident? What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but your mother passed away early this morning. I’m at her home now, with Dahlia, and I just got off the phone with Dr. Hendel. She died peacefully in her bed.”
There was total silence, broken at last by Claire. “Joanne, are you there?”
“I’m here. I don’t know what to say. I can’t believe it.”
“Neither can I. She was doing so well. Dahlia didn’t notice anything unusual when she went to bed last night. As far as the cause of death is concerned, it’s too soon to tell, but – ”
“Claire, stop. Please. I can’t stand to think about that right now.”
“Of course, I understand. Would you like me to call the funeral home? According to the plans we discussed – ”
“I remember what we discussed. Go ahead, do what you have to do. Sorry if I sound curt, but I’m still half asleep, and this feels so unreal.” There was a brief silence, then what sounded like a muffled sob. “Excuse me, Claire, but I’ve got to go make some coffee, give this a chance to sink in. I’ll make reservations for Frank and me to fly in today. We’ll probably land in Albany.”
“If there’s anything else – ” Claire heard a click and stopped mid-phrase. The line had gone dead.