A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR 13
“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
– EDWARD BERNAYS, AUTHOR OF Propaganda
Noah had excused himself suddenly and then stumbled his way into the elegant stall in the corner of his father’s private restroom. You know you’re sick when you’re still vomiting ten minutes after the last thing was expelled from your stomach. He was still hugging the porcelain bowl, drained and wretched, feeling like he’d just capped off a marathon with four hundred sit-ups.
Once he was fairly sure the nausea had passed, he pushed himself to his feet, walked to the sink, and turned on the water as hot as he could stand. He let the basin fill and then bent and washed his face, let the heat try to revive him until he felt whatever flicker of energy he still possessed begin to gather. He stood then, dried himself with a hanging towel, re-buttoned and tucked in his shirt, and then used his sleeve to clear the steam from the ornate mirror over the lavatory.
His skin was as pale as a Newark Bay oyster, but while he was certainly beat he wasn’t quite out of commission yet.
The doctor had said these aftereffects could linger for up to a day, but would ease as the hours went by. He took another of the pills from his pocket and told himself that the worst of it was behind him now. He needed it to be, because in addition to coming to grips with what he’d just heard from his father, there was also a score he needed to settle before a certain young woman’s trail became too cold to follow.
As Noah hurried down the stairwell toward the mailroom he lost his shaky footing and nearly tumbled down the last half flight. The people he passed in the hallway stood back and gave him a wide berth; whether they sensed his illness or his anger, they obviously didn’t want to catch whatever he was carrying. He was breathing hard as he made the last corner, feeling chilled and damp under his clothes.
It’s not that he expected her to be at work that day, innocently sorting the mail as though nothing were wrong. But he was going to find her one way or the other, and this was the closest stop on the tour.
“Frank!” Noah called.
The department manager popped his head out from behind the sorting shelves. “Yes, sir.”
“Have you heard from Molly today?”
“No, sir. She was on the schedule but she ain’t been in. I called her agency about an hour ago and they haven’t got back to me yet.”
“Okay, thanks. Does she have, I don’t know, some emergency contact numbers down here, from her application?”
Frank looked a little surprised to be asked such a thing. “Maybe that’d be up in Human Resources, Mr. Gardner. All I could give you is the number of the place we hired her from.”
“You’re talking about that temp girl, Molly?” Another of the mail-room staff had apparently overheard the conversation, and he came nearer. “Somebody called here for her over the weekend. I picked up the voice mail when I opened up this morning.”
“Do you have that message?” Noah asked. “It’s important.”
“I deleted it, and I didn’t write anything down, since it was a personal thing. The fellow who called must have just tried all the numbers he had for her. He said her mama was in the hospital.”
Noah stood there and let that bit of news sink into his empty stomach. As it gripped him there he remembered what Warren Landers had said, up in his father’s office. It had passed in one ear and straight out his other, because, as usual, he was immersed in his own significance, as though the only bad things that existed were the ones that had happened to him.
We’ll make them sorry. That’s how Mr. Landers had put it.
“Uptown, Lenox Hill,” the man said, and then he leaned in and offered a quiet addendum. “None of my business, Mr. Gardner. But it didn’t sound so good.”
In the cab on the way uptown Noah had made two phone calls, one to the hospital’s automated system to find the patient’s floor and room, and the other to an old and trusted acquaintance who was now on her way to meet up with him at Lenox Hill.
Over a long-ago summer Ellen Davenport, of the East Hampton Davenports, had become his first real friend who was a girl. It was a new thing for him, because though they’d hit it off immediately, they both also seemed to realize that dating each other was the last thing they should ever do. They’d actually tried it once just to be sure, and the discomfort of that terrible evening was matched only by its comic potential when the story was retold by the two of them in later years.
Now Ellen was a second-year neurology resident at Mount Sinai Hospital across town. His call had caught her at the end of a twenty-six-hour shift, but, true to form, she’d told him that she’d be right over without even asking why.
As he walked down the hallway of the ward he saw three things: the crowd of people overflowing from the double doorway of the floor’s small chapel, a smaller knot of visitors waiting outside a single room down near the end, and Dr. Ellen Davenport, still in her wrinkled scrubs, waving to him from an alcove near the elevators.
Ellen gave him a hug when he reached her, and then held him away at arm’s length and frowned. “You look like hell, Gardner.”
“Thanks.” He was preoccupied, looking over the people milling through the hall, every bit as afraid that he might see Molly as that he might never see her again. Some of these people were looking back at him, too, and by their manner it seemed they knew who he was.
“Hey.” Ellen snapped her fingers in front of his eyes. “I mean it. You look like you need to lie down.”
“I need for you to do me a favor,” Noah said. There was a slight tremor in his hands as he retrieved the medicine from his pocket, shook out a pill into his palm, and swallowed it dry.
Ellen took the vial from him, rattled it, and held it close to her eyes. She looked at him again with a little more concern than before. “If you’re going to ask me to score you some methadone, I left my prescription pad in my other pants.”
“That woman in the room down the hall there,” he said. “I need for you to help me-I don’t know, line up a specialist, make sure everything’s being done. I just want her to be taken care of.”
“They’re pretty good at that sort of thing here, Noah.”
“Ellen, listen to me-”
Whatever Noah had been about to confess, he was interrupted by the approach of a stranger. It was an older woman, frail and thin as dry reeds, and from the corner of his eye he’d seen her come from the direction of that room near the end of the hall. The woman nodded her respect to Ellen, turned to him, and then spoke with a gentle gravity in her voice that said more than the words themselves would convey.
“She’s awake now. Somebody told her you were here, and she says she wants to talk to you.”
He stood just inside the open doorway, watching the remaining visitors say their good-byes before they quietly walked past him, one by one. Flowers were arranged all around the room, in baskets and vases and water pitchers, on extra rolling tables that seemed to have been brought in just to accommodate the overflow of gifts from well-wishers.
The door was closed by the last man who’d left, but still Noah stood where he was until Beverly Emerson looked over and smiled as best she could, inviting him to her bedside with a weak motion of her bandaged hand.
“We meet again,” she said. It was barely more than a whisper, spoken as though her lungs might hold the space for only a thimbleful of air.
There were bruises on her face and arms, dark, uneven spots within yellowing patches, and a bandage on her neck with a soak of crusted brown near its center. She was withered, already a shadow of the person he’d last seen on Friday night. The only thing that remained undimmed was that unforgettable spark in her light green eyes.
He had no idea what to say, but he said it anyway.
“You’re going to be all right.”
That brought a smile again, but she shook her head slowly and touched his hand that was nearest hers.
“We shouldn’t deceive ourselves,” she said. “I’m afraid there isn’t time.” She was measuring her breath as she spoke, managing only a few words of each phrase between shallow inhalations. “I don’t expect you to understand why Molly did what I asked her to do.” The grip on his hand tightened, as though all the strength she had was centering there. “You should blame me, and not her. But I hold the privilege of a dying woman now, and I want you to put everything aside except what I’m about to say.”
“My daughter is in danger. I need for you to promise me you’ll see her to safety.”
There were so many conflicting things hammering at his mind, but despite all that mental noise and everything that had happened, for once in his life he could see it all arranged in its true order of significance, and so he knew for certain there was only one thing to be said.
Her grip relaxed somewhat, her head rested back onto the pillow, and she closed her eyes. Soon a private little smile drifted into her features, as though she might have just then put the finish on a silent prayer.
“Thank you,” Beverly whispered.
He didn’t respond, but only because he didn’t want to presume to be the one she was addressing.
“I sent Molly away, but she isn’t safe yet,” she said. “She’s waiting now, near the airport. Look in the top drawer of the nightstand. She called and told one of the nurses where she’d be and they wrote it down for me.”
“Okay,” he said. “I think I’d better get started, then.” He moved to place her hand down on the bed at her side, but she didn’t let him go.
“Do you know what we’re fighting against, son?”
“Yeah, I think so. Some pretty evil people.”
She offered a look that seemed to suggest his naïvete was something she longed for. “Ephesians 6:12-look it up when you get a chance.”
“I will,” he said.
“There’s more to you, Noah. More than you might be ready to believe. I knew of your mother many years ago, and the good she wanted to do. That’s what Molly saw in you: she told me. Not your father, but what your mother’s given you. And I see it, too.”
“I guess I’m glad somebody does.”
There was that tiny glint of a smile again. “Noah, from the Bible, you know?”
He nodded, and despite everything, he smiled a bit himself. “Old Testament.”
The weak hold on his hand tightened once again.
“He wasn’t chosen because he was the best man who ever lived,” she said softly. “He was chosen because he was the best man available.”
Out in the hallway he hadn’t made it five steps before Ellen Davenport caught up to him. She took him firmly by the sleeve, pulled him behind her into a nearby storeroom, and closed the door.
“I need to go, Ellen.”
“You need to listen to me first. I learned some things while you were in there just now. Who is that woman to you?”
“She’s the mother of a friend of mine.”
Ellen nodded. “Sit down.”
He could tell by her tone that he shouldn’t argue, and he pulled over a nearby stool and sat.
“What is it?”
“She’s going to die, you know.”
“How can you say that? She just took a bad beating, right? She’s not that old. They can fix anything with enough-”
“Shh. Now listen. There are some things we can’t fix, Noah. Whoever did this to her did something they knew we couldn’t fix.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can’t tell anyone I’m talking to you about this, understand? And not just because I could lose my ticket.”
“They gave her a beating, yeah, probably just for the fun of it. And then they poisoned her.”
A chill passed over him.
“What kind of poison was it?”
“Paraquat,” she said. She seemed to watch his eyes for signs of recognition but there were none. “Do you see now, the point they were trying to make? The animals who got to this woman? Paraquat is a pesticide. A weed killer.”
“A pesticide.” He’d heard what she said but he repeated it aloud, just to make sure he understood.
“It starts an irreversible fibrosis in the lungs-a scarring that progresses until you finally can’t breathe anymore. If that doesn’t kill you first, all the other organ systems begin to shut down, and then it’s over. There’s nothing we can do about it; we can’t even give her oxygen. That just makes it worse. She might have another day, or another week, but it’s obvious that they wanted her to suffer.”
“How do the doctors here know that’s what was used?”
“Well, it’s easy enough for the lab to pick it up, but in this case it was even easier than that. The people who did this, they left a veterinary syringe in her neck. It was still there when EMS responded to the call.”
Noah stood up, but too quickly, and he could feel the stubborn light-headedness threatening to return. “Where are those pills, the ones you took from me?”
She went to her pocket and handed him the bottle. “I wrote you some instructions for that stuff. Just go easy on it, okay? In fact, whatever you’re coming down from I’d recommend you just ride it out and stop self-medicating.”
“Good-bye, doctor. Thanks for everything.”
“I don’t know how you’re involved in all this,” Ellen said, “but you’d better know something, Noah. There are a million kinds of murder, but anyone who would do to a person what they did to her? It only means there’s nothing at all they wouldn’t do.”
The street address that had been scrawled on the hospital’s notepaper didn’t lead him to another of the so-called safe houses that Molly had described. When Noah looked up as the cab pulled to a stop he found he was outside what looked like a quaint family-style eatery, the Buccaneer Diner on Astoria Boulevard in Queens, about a mile from La Guardia Airport.
Inside the restaurant the lunchtime rush was winding down, with most of the tables emptying out and the floor staff busy doing cleanup and taking care of departing patrons at the register. But sitting alone in a booth near the back, in the nearest thing to a dark corner that was available in such a place on a sunny Monday afternoon, was the young woman he’d come to see.
When Molly looked over and saw him walking up the aisle she stood and was suddenly overcome by a flood of tears she must have been barely holding at bay. She ran to him and threw herself into his arms.
In the cab on the way he’d given a great deal of thought to what he might say to her if he actually found her waiting at the end of the ride. Now that he was facing her all of the mental dialogue he’d rehearsed had winked right out of his mind. Nothing in his long history of skin-deep relationships provided any clue as to where to begin.
Not only did you break my heart, but you and your friends could have killed me with an overdose, all in the name of a hopeless cause.
I care about you, I was starting to believe in you, and now I don’t know if a single thing between us was real.
And of course, there was this one:
I think my father must have ordered your mother to be murdered, just as easily as he’d ordered his breakfast that morning.
There was too much, so Noah said nothing. Neither forgiving nor forgetting, he put it all aside for the time being and just held her for a while.
She’d asked about her mom in a voice that said his answer should be limited to any hopeful news. Noah told her that her mother was awake and speaking when he’d seen her, and that, despite her concerns for the welfare of her precious daughter, her spirits seemed good.
Molly took that in with a solemn nod, and then she laid out her situation.
Her traveling companions had gone on ahead to test the waters at La Guardia in preparation for their flight west toward less hostile environs. According to the news the DHS had taken the nation to high alert over the weekend, and that put the airports at the very highest level; this was obviously cause for concern. Sure enough, word had reached her that the first of her friends to pass through the TSA checkpoint had been singled out and pulled aside. They weren’t just searched and harassed, as had often been the case in recent years; this time they were arrested and detained.
Molly explained that she had to get out of town and make it to a rendezvous across the country as quickly as possible. Driving wouldn’t do; she had to fly in order to make it. The problem was how to get her safely onto a flight when her name might very well have made it to the top of the swelling watch lists of Homeland Security by now.
Noah was listening, and he was also studying her face as she spoke. The passing resemblance to that picture of his mother was almost gone now that she’d ceased to maintain it. That likeness had been subliminal at best, just enough to hook into his subconscious. But now, as they sat under the bright fluorescent lights of a Queens diner, he realized that there was absolutely no denying who Molly did look like.
And that gave him an absolutely brilliant idea.
Noah returned from the pay phone near the front door, sat down, and scooted halfway around the semicircular padded booth until he was near enough to her for privacy.
“Okay, we’re all ready.”
“What do you mean, we’re all ready? You made one call and shut down security at an international airport?”
“I did better than that.” He looked around a bit. “Did I see a carry-on bag?”
“Let me have it.”
Though she appeared to be totally flummoxed she reached to the floor by her feet, brought up her small duffel, and slid it onto the table in front of him.
Noah zipped the bag open and rummaged through, pulling out a baseball cap, a faded university jersey, and her small polka-dot makeup case.
“Do you have a pair of sunglasses? Wait, forget it, I’ve got mine.”
“Okay,” Molly said, “this is the part where you tell me what we’re going to do.”
“Have you ever wondered how celebrities and public figures avoid all the hassle the rest of us have to go through when they need to suck it up and fly commercial?”
“I’ve never thought about it.”
“They make a call like I just made. All the major airlines have a VIP liaison in the big cities, and there’s a service company we’ve used from the office, KTL, that’s going to grease the way even more. They’ll meet us at the curb and walk us right to the plane-”
“Hold it, hold it,” Molly said. “We aren’t celebrities, Noah.”
“No, you’re right. But I’m a rich kid from a powerful family, and it’s reasonable enough that they’d believe I could be dating a celebrity.”
“What are you talking about?”
He smiled. “I’m now dating Natalie Portman.”
She looked at him as though his head had just turned into a pumpkin.
“It’s perfect,” Noah said. “She’s an A-lister but she’s done mostly art-house films, so the average Joe probably couldn’t pick her out of a lineup. She’s about your size-”
“I don’t look like Natalie Portman.”
“You kind of do, actually, and we’ve got time to make a few tweaks before the limo arrives.” He reached over to smooth one of her eyebrows with the pad of his thumb but she ducked it and swatted his hand away. “Relax,” he said. “This is going to work.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s not going to work at all.”
He put his hand on hers, and though she still looked completely unconvinced, she didn’t pull away.
“Trust me,” Noah said.
• • •
Molly came back from the bathroom after ten minutes in there with her kit and a few instructions from Noah. She was in her Vanderbilt sweatshirt, her hair was up in a casual bun at the nape of her neck, and she’d done just enough to her lips and brows and lashes to suggest a layman’s conception of a movie star who was wearing no makeup at all. The great advantage of this whole thing was that when celebrities are out in public trying to avoid a mob of fans and paparazzi, the last thing they want to resemble is who they really are.
She sat and looked over, with one of her newly perfected eyebrows slightly upraised in a regal but skeptical arch. Noah gave her the baseball cap and his sunglasses to complete the disguise. She put them on, pulled up her hood, and checked her reflection in the silver side of the napkin holder.
“Perfect,” he said. “Absolutely perfect. Oh, wait.” He took her makeup kit and searched through its contents until he’d found a small dark pencil with a dull tip. “Lean your face over here.” Molly did, and he carefully and gently went to work. “Natalie has got two little tiny beauty marks, one here… and one… over here.” He leaned back, squinted, and studied his masterpiece. “That’s it. We can put a bit of powder on those on the way and they’ll be fine. Come on now, the car’s already outside.”
On the short ride to the airport he told her the backstory he’d given to Kyle, the executive service agent from KTL: Noah and young Ms. Portman had spent a wild weekend together painting the town, and things had gotten a little out of hand toward the end. She’d had her purse stolen, she wasn’t feeling well at all, and some nasty aggressive photographers had begun to bird-dog them. Now the mission was to spirit her out of the city while keeping her off Page Six of the New York Post.
As Noah had anticipated, this wasn’t an uncommon thing at all for KTL, and once they’d established who he was they accepted the rest of his story immediately. For a little less than two thousand dollars charged to his expense account-plus the cost of a full row in first class, to be billed separately-the plan was off and rolling with no further questions asked.
With the terminal in sight Noah took in a deep breath and then let it out on a slow count of ten. He looked over at Molly and she seemed to be meditating, or praying, hard to tell which, but any port was welcome in this storm.
“Now remember,” he said, “the whole idea is that you don’t have to deal with anybody. You don’t have to talk to anyone and you don’t have to make eye contact with anyone, which is good because your eyes are the wrong color. I told them you’ve lost your ID so no one’s going to expect you to show it. You’re in the big club now, you’re a hotshot movie star who’s had a few rough days of partying, and you’re in no mood for any inconvenience. That’s what we’re paying all this money to avoid. But just keep thinking all that in your head; our guy and I will do all the talking.”
True to his word, there ahead at the curb stood Kyle in his dapper suit, waiting with open arms at the appointed meeting place. The limo pulled to a stop, their host opened the door, and with a practiced sweep of his manicured hand he invited them into his care.
“Mr. Gardner, Miss Portman,” Kyle said. “Right this way.”
And right that way they went.
Most people know there’s a whole hidden part of Disney World the tourists never get to see. Underneath the sidewalks and behind the scenes, in a vast complex every bit as big as the park itself, this insider network of tunnels, workshops, machinery, and control rooms is where the magic really happens. Likewise, a major airport has its own sublevel of secrets, and our man Kyle held all the skeleton keys to this particular enchanted kingdom.
The trip through the public areas had been a breeze. The two men walked purposefully in front with Molly close behind them. For the most part they went unnoticed, though two or three random people did seem to sense that an incognito starlet might be moving in their midst. At every point along the way where the average passenger would have had to stop and deal with some slow, invasive procedure, there was a special someone stationed nearby to give the three of them a knowing wink, lift up the velvet rope, and wave them on through.
Halfway into the terminal Kyle stopped along the wall, looked furtively both ways, and then keyed open a featureless gray door. Like some portal from rural Kansas into the Land of Oz, inside this door was a large VIP room with elegant furnishings and sitting areas, a bar and some bistro tables, and down the center, a privately staffed setup for dignified, one-on-one security screenings.
“And now, my troopers,” Kyle chirped, “just a quick run through the metal detector and then we’re on to preboarding for a nice, cool glass of champagne. Are we holding up all right?”
“I think we’re fine,” Noah said. Molly breathed an Oscar-worthy sigh of impatience and leaned her head against his arm.
As they approached the area with the X-ray conveyor a TSA employee got up from his chair, put down his magazine, and sidled up to his security post.
When he saw this man Noah stopped in his tracks so suddenly that Molly bumped into him from behind.
“Is something wrong?” Kyle asked, frowning.
“Excuse us for a minute,” Noah said. “I just remembered, we need to make a quick phone call.”
He walked Molly over to the telephone kiosk near the door they’d come in, well out of earshot of Kyle and the others.
“Damn it,” he whispered.
“What is it?” Molly asked. “They’re all over there looking at us.”
“Pretend you’re calling someone on the phone. I’ve got to think for a minute.”
Molly picked up the receiver, put it to her ear, punched a few buttons, and pulled him a little closer. “Now tell me what’s going on.”
“Check out the guy in the TSA outfit.”
She did. “So?”
“Are you kidding me? That’s a Star Wars geek if I ever saw one.”
Maybe it was the Luke Skywalker blow-cut, his mismatched socks below the nerdish cut of his high-riding uniform trousers, or the soul patch and horn-rimmed glasses, but everything about this man was screaming king of the fanboys, and that was really bad news.
“I don’t understand-”
Noah lowered his voice even more. “Natalie Portman is in all three of the Star Wars prequels.”
“You’re remembering this now?”
“I guess I hated those movies so much I’d blocked them out of my mind. But I’d bet my last dollar that dweeb knows Portman’s face like the back of his hand. You don’t understand these guys; he’s probably got a candlelit altar in front of her picture down in his mother’s basement.”
Molly leaned around him to take another stealthy look, and swallowed hard. “What do we do?”
“I vote we get out of here and think of something else.”
“No,” she said, and it sounded like the word was final. “We don’t have time. This is it. We’re here, let’s just do it.”
After a last few seconds to find his nerve, he nodded, fixed her hood and eased the brim of Molly’s baseball cap down a little lower, hung up the phone for her, and then turned around to face the music.
Noah went first, and he passed through the arch of the metal detector without a single blip. Kyle had stationed himself next to the X-ray tech at the luggage conveyor, no doubt ready to smoothly rationalize any oddities that might show up in his clients’ carry-on. Their one item, her duffel bag, went into the long machine and came out the other side with no objection raised.
But the TSA man gave Noah a careful, steady look, as if he were toying with the idea of a wand-sweep and a pat-down, just for good measure.
Along with the recent change in alert status, an official DHS directive would have come around to remind all stations, even this special-purpose one, of the key markers for suspicious activity-last-minute ticket purchases for one-way travel, no checked luggage, nervous or flustered behavior, identification papers not in order-and this little party matched every warning sign.
Kyle cleared his throat meaningfully from where he was standing. This subtle, perfectly pitched intervention was sent to remind the room that this trip had already been preapproved from positions much higher than their own, and these two very important people weren’t to be unnecessarily troubled by the rigors of the standard inquisition.
With some visible reluctance, the stern young officer nodded and gave a jut of his chin to let the first subject know he’d been provisionally cleared for boarding.
So far, so good.
Noah retrieved his belt and his pocket items from the gray utility tub, and prepared to put on his shoes. He’d just begun to let himself believe that they were soon to be home free when the piercing tweet of the metal detector sounded off behind him.
“Could you remove any metallic items and step back through for me, ma’am.”
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