NEW YORK, ONE MONTH LATER

THE WOMAN IN THE HOSPITAL WAITING room whispered to her daughter.

"Is it her?"

The daughter shook her head. "I don't think so." Normally she wouldn't have been so hesitant. She was a great one for all the gossip magazines and prided herself on being able to spot a celebrity from fifty yards. Sunglasses and head scarves didn't fool her. But in this case...The woman did look a bit like her. A lot like her, if you broke down her face feature by feature. The cupid's-bow lips, the childlike dimple in the chin, the wide-set eyes and the delicate line of the nose. Yet somehow, put them all together, and her face looked...less. Less beautiful, less striking, less special. Combine this effect with the woman's drab clothes, the gray wool skirt and simple white blouse, and...no. No, it wasn't her.

"Mrs. Richards?"

The girl's mother looked up. "Yes?"

"You can go in now. Your husband's awake."

Mother and daughter filed out of the waiting room. As they passed the look-alike woman, both stole surreptitious glances. Close up she looked even smaller. It was almost as if she projected anonymity, the same way that other people, stars, gave off charisma or sex appeal. "Poor thing," said the mother. "She's like a little mouse. I wonder who she's visiting?"

GRACE WAS GLAD WHEN THE WOMEN LEFT. It was still only seven in the morning. She'd expected, and hoped, to find the waiting room empty. It was getting harder to be around people. Any people. Soon she would leave America for good. Find somewhere peaceful, a retreat where nobody knew or cared about her past. A monastery perhaps, in Spain or Greece, if they'd have her. They'll have me. That's what they do, isn't it? Offer sanctuary to sinners, to criminals and the poor. I qualify on all three counts. According to her new lawyer, she'd be entitled to federal compensation eventually. "It could be a considerable sum of money. Not as much as you've been used to, perhaps, but certainly seven figures."

Grace wasn't interested. Whatever the government gave her, she would send directly to Karen Willis and Cora Budds. She owed them her freedom, a debt that no amount of money could hope to repay. Besides, Grace had no use for money. All she wanted was to get away. But she couldn't leave yet. Not till she knew he was all right. Not till she had a chance to explain.

She touched the scar on her arm, from where the bullet had sliced into her. She had four similar scars, all on her right side, on her leg, hip and shoulder. Lucky to be alive, that's what the doctors said. And Grace had smiled and wondered, Am I? Am I lucky? It was amazing how quickly the body could heal. But the spirit was not so resilient.

Without Lenny, Grace Brookstein no longer knew what she was living for.

THE STORY OF THE SHOOT-OUT AT Le Cocon, and the sensational killing of John Merrivale and capture of Lenny Brookstein, had gripped the entire world. The Madagascan authorities made a token effort to prevent the Americans from flying Lenny back to the United States, but a personal phone call from the president, along with some promises of substantial U.S. investment in various Madagascan infrastructure projects, swiftly changed their minds.

Harry Bain briefed the local press. "Mr. Brookstein is returning to his home country of his own free will for urgent medical treatment. Once he recovers - if he recovers - his future will be determined by the U.S. Justice Department." It was Bain who'd gotten hold of the local police and sent reinforcements to Le Cocon that day. Once he finally heard Mitch's messages, he got right on the phone to the chief of police in Antananarivo and filled him in on everything.

"It would have helped if you'd been honest with us about your presence in Madagascar in the first place," the police chief said stiffly. "We could have helped." Harry Bain had had to grovel to get him to agree to send men up to the estate. But thank God he had. By the time they got there, Lenny Brookstein had been shot in the stomach and groin. Had Grace aimed a little higher, she would have severed his coronary artery and robbed America of its most sensationalistic and shocking trial since...well, since her own. As it was, after extensive surgery, Lenny survived. Before he knew where he was, the FBI had him heavily sedated and shipped back home on a military plane. It was over before you could say "human-rights violation," never mind "miscarriage of justice."

For two weeks it was unclear whether Mitch Connors would be so lucky. His life hung in the balance. Grace was terrified that it was a stray bullet of hers that had lodged itself in Mitch's spine, but the cops assured her it was John Merrivale who had almost killed him. When the police showed up, they screamed at him to drop his weapon but John continued firing indiscriminately, at Grace and at them. They'd had no choice but to take him out.

At first Grace was happy when she heard John was dead. But as the weeks passed, her happiness faded. What did it matter? What did any of it matter: John's death, Lenny's trial (for fraud and murder) and sentence of death by lethal injection, her own presidential pardon? None of it was going to bring her old life back, or help the people who'd been ruined by Quorum. None of it was going to make Mitch Connors get well, or bring Maria Preston, or Andrew, or that poor homeless soul from Nantucket back to life. The whole thing was so utterly, utterly pointless. Justice had become a mere word, letters on a page, empty of meaning. There could be no justice, no closure, no satisfying ending. The whole thing was a farce, a game. Grace herself had been pardoned, not because she was innocent, but because it was too much of an embarrassment for the authorities to admit she'd escaped from custody twice, and that it was she, not they, who had found Lenny and uncovered the truth about the Quorum fraud.

"I am convinced that Mrs. Brookstein was as much a victim of her husband's duplicity as the millions of others who suffered at his hands," said the president. And America applauded. "Of course she was. Poor thing." They had their villain now, their pound of flesh. Lenny Brookstein was being sent to Super Max in Colorado, the toughest prison in the land, home to the most dangerous Islamic terrorists and deranged child killers. The play was in its third act, and suddenly there was a vacancy for a convincing tragic heroine. Who better to fill it than Grace? After all, the show must go on.

A nurse tapped Grace on the shoulder.

"Good news. He's awake. Would you like to go in?"

MITCH LOOKED PALE AND THIN. HORRIBLY THIN. Grace tried not to look shocked. He must have lost forty pounds. When he saw her, he smiled.

"Hello, stranger."

"Hello."

There was so much to say, but in that moment Grace couldn't think of a single word. Instead she took Mitch's hand in hers and gently stroked it.

"They told me you testified against Lenny at the trial."

"Yes. I didn't have to go in person. They let me give a statement."

"He got the death penalty?"

She nodded.

"So your testimony must have helped."

"I doubt it. He admitted everything anyway. Once they knew about the murder, the die was cast. I think he wanted people to know how clever he'd been. He didn't seem upset at the trial. It was almost as if he were enjoying himself."

Mitch shook his head in disbelief. "He still doesn't see himself as guilty, does he?"

"Not in the least." She paused. "They're executing him today, you know. He waived all his rights to appeal."

For a few minutes they were both silent. Then Mitch said, "I know this is going to sound like a ridiculous question. But do you still have any feelings for him? Knowing, you know, that he's going to die. Does it upset you?"

"Not really." Grace looked thoughtful. "It's not so much that I have no feelings for him. It's more that I have no feelings, period. I'm numb."

Mitch squeezed her hand. "It takes time, that's all. You've been through so much."

"To tell you the truth, I don't know if I want to feel anymore. I want peace."

She stared out the window. It was late May, and spring was in its last glorious flush, the trees on the sidewalk exploding with blossoms, the blue skies alive with birdsong and joy. Grace thought, I'm happy that life goes on, that it's beautiful. But I can't be part of it anymore.

"Do you know who called me the other day?"

Mitch shook his head. "Who?"

"Honor. The FBI told her about Jack and Jasmine. He's decided not to seek another term as senator. They're getting a divorce."

"She called you to tell you this?"

Grace laughed. "I know. As if we could pick up where we left off. That's actually what she said to me. 'Can't we be sisters again?' Connie and Mike moved to Europe, so I guess she feels alone. Lenny said something similar actually, in the garden at Le Cocon. He thought I was going to stay there with him and John. That the three of us could hide out in Madagascar together and live happily ever after. 'Like old times,' that's what he said."

"Are you kidding me?" Mitch's eyes widened. "What did you say?"

"I didn't say anything. I shot him." Grace grinned, and Mitch remembered everything he loved about her. She thinks she's dead inside but she's not. She's just hibernating.

Grace stood up and moved toward the window. Mitch watched her, her graceful dancer's walk, the fluid ballet of her limbs. While he was the cop and she was the fugitive, he'd forced himself to keep a lid on his feelings. Now that it was all over, he could no longer hold them back. Longing hit him like a punch to the stomach.

I love her.

I want her.

I can make her happy.

"What?" Grace turned around and stared at him accusingly.

Mitch blushed. Had he spoken aloud? He must have. He propped himself up higher on the pillows. "I'm in love with you, Grace. I'm sorry if that complicates things. But I am."

Grace's face softened. She was fond of Mitch, after all. And he had risked his life to try to save hers. There was no reason to be angry with him. But love? No. She couldn't love again. Not after Lenny. Love was a fantasy. It didn't exist.

Mitch said, "I think we should get married."

Grace laughed out loud. "Married?"

"Yes. Why not?"

Why not? Grace thought about Lenny. About their beautiful wedding on Nantucket, her happiness as a young bride, her hopes and dreams. They hadn't just been crushed. They'd been incinerated, annihilated, scorched to dust and ashes along with the trusting, happy girl she had once been.

By nightfall, Lenny would be dead.

Grace could no more marry again than fly to the moon.

"I will never get married again, Mitch. Never."

Hearing her say the words, Mitch knew she meant them.

"I'm leaving."

Mitch felt his stomach lurch. Panic gripped him. "Leaving? What do you mean leaving? Leaving where? Leaving the room?"

"Leaving the country."

"No you're not. You can't!"

"I have to."

"But why? Where would you go?"

Leaning forward, Grace kissed him, just once, on the lips. It was a short kiss, not sexual, but loving, almost maternal. It made Mitch want to cry.

"I don't know where I'll go. Somewhere quiet and remote. Somewhere where I can live simply and in peace."

"This is bullshit. You can live simply with me." He took her face in his hands, willing her to listen to him, to love him, to let herself believe he loved her. "I can do simple. You want simple, you should see my apartment. It's so simple they repossessed my furniture."

Despite herself, Grace smiled. It was a tiny chink in her armor. Mitch jumped on it.

"You like that? Hell, if simple's what you're into, I'm your guy. I can even do flat broke. Cold Domino's pizza for breakfast? You got it. With a little more effort I can probably get them to cut off the electricity. We could sit in the dark under a blanket and hum."

"Stop it." Grace giggled.

Mitch brought her hand to his lips, kissing each of her fingers in turn. "I tell you what. I'll forget about marriage if you forget about leaving the country. Just...say you'll have dinner with me when they let me out of here."

Grace hesitated.

"C'mon! One lousy dinner. You owe me that much at least."

It was true. She did owe him.

"All right. One dinner. But I can't promise you anything."




Line : 76

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