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Ulster County, New York
For a dying man, George Bellamy struck Claire as a fairly cheerful old guy. The dumbest show she'd ever heard was playing on the car radio, a chat hour called "Hootenanny," and George found it hilarious. He had a distinctive, infectious laugh that seemed to emanate from an invisible center and radiate outward. It started as a soft vibration, then crescendoed to a sound of pure happiness. And it wasn't just the radio show. George had recently received word that his grandson was coming home from the war in Afghanistan, and that added to his cheerfulness. He anticipated a reunion any day now.
Very soon, she hoped, for both their sakes.
"I can't wait to see Ross," said George. "He's my grandson. He's just been discharged from the army, and he's supposed to be on his way back."
"I'm sure he'll come to see you straightaway," she assured him, pretending he had not just told her this an hour ago.
The springtime foliage blurred past in a smear of colorthe pale green of leaves unfurling, the yellow trumpets of daffodils, the lavish purples and pinks of roadside wildflowers.
She wondered if he was thinking about the fact that this would be his last springtime. Sometimes her patients' sadness over such things, the finality of it all, was unbearable. For now, George's expression was free of pain or stress. Although they'd only just met, she sensed he was going to be one of her more pleasant patients.
In his stylish pressed slacks and golf shirt, he looked like any well-heeled gentleman heading away from the city for a few weeks. Now that he'd ceased all treatment, his hair was coming back in a glossy snow-white. At the moment, his coloring was very good.
As a private-duty nurse specializing in palliative care for the terminally ill, she met all kinds of peopleand their families. Though her focus was the patient, he always came with a whole host of relatives. She hadn't met any of George's family yet; his sons and their families lived far away. For the time being, it was just her and George.
He seemed very focused and determined at the moment. And thus far, he reported that he was pain free.
She indicated the notebook he held in his lap, its pages covered with old-fashioned spidery handwriting. "You've been busy."
"I've been making a list of things to do. Is that a good idea?" he asked her.
"I think it's a great idea, George. Everybody keeps a list of things they need to do, but most of us just keep it up here." She tapped her temple.
"I don't trust my own head these days," he admitted, an oblique reference to his conditionglioblastoma multiforme, a heartlessly fatal cancer. "So I've taken to writing everything down." He flipped through the pages of the book. "It's a long list," he said, almost apologetically. "We might not get to everything."
"All we can do is the best we can. I'll help you," she said. "That's what I'm here for." She scanned the road ahead, unused to rural highways. To a girl from the exhausted midurban places of Jersey and the sooty bustle of Manhattan, the forest-clad hills and rocky ridges of the Ulster County highlands resembled an alien landscape. "It's not such a bad idea to have too many things to do," she added. "That way, you'll never get bored."
He chuckled. "In that case, we're in for a busy summer."
"We're in for whatever summer you want."
He sighed, flipping the pages. "I wish I'd thought about these things before I knew I was dying."
"We're all dying," she reminded him.
"And how the devil did I luck into a home health care worker with such a sunny disposition?"
"I bet a sunny disposition would drive you crazy." Although she and George were new to each other, she had a gift for reading people quickly. For her, it was a key survival skill. Misreading a person had once forced Claire to change every aspect of her life.
George Bellamy struck her as circumspect and well-read. Yet he had an air of loneliness, and he was seeking
something. She hadn't discovered precisely what it was. She didn't know a lot about him yet. He was a retired international news correspondent of some renown. He'd spent most of his adult years living in Paris and traveling the globe. Yet now at the end of his life, he wanted to journey to a place far different fromthe world's capitals.
Lives came to an end with as much variety as they were livedsome quietly, some with drama and fanfare, some with a sense of closure, and far too many with regrets. They were the slow poison that killed the things that brought a person joy. It was amazing to her to observe the way a generally happy, successful life could be taken apart by a few regrets. She hoped George's searching journey would be to a place of acceptance.
Those who were uninitiated in her area of care seemed to think that the dying knew the answers to the big questions, that they were wiser or more spiritual or somehow deeper than the living. This, Claire had learned, was a myth. Terminally ill patients came in all stripeswise, foolish, filled with happiness or despair, logical, loony, fearful
in fact, the dying were very much like the living. They just had a shorter expiration date. And more physical challenges.
The countryside turned even prettier and more bucolic as they wended their way northwest toward the Catskills Wilderness, a vast preserve of river-fed hills and forests. After a time, they approached their target destination, marked by a rustic sign that read, Welcome To Avalon. A Small Town With A Big Heart.
Her grip tightened almost imperceptibly on the steering wheel. She'd never lived in a small town before. The idea of joining an intimate, close-knit communityeven temporarilymade Claire feel exposed and vulnerable. Not that she was paranoid, orwait, she was. But she had her reasons.
There was no place that ever felt truly safe to her. The early days with her mother, even before all the trouble started, had been fraught with unpredictability and insecurity. Her mother had been a teenage runaway. She wasn't a bad person, but a bad addict, shot during a drug deal gone wrong on Newark's South Orange Avenue and leaving behind a quiet ten-year-old daughter.
Her life was transformed by the foster care system. Not many would say that, but in this instance, it was entirely true. Her caseworker, Sherri Burke, made sure she was placed with the best foster families in the system. Experiencing family life for the first time, she inhaled the lessons of life from people who cared. She learned what it was like to be a part of something larger and deeper than herself.
To appreciate the blessings of a family, all she had to do was watch. It was everywherein the look in a woman's eyes when her husband walked through the door. In the touch of a mother's hand on a child's feverish brow. In the laughter of sisters, sharing a joke, or the protective stance of a brother, watching out for his siblings. A family was a safety net, cushioning a fall. An invisible shield, softening a blow.
She dared to dream of a better lifea love of her own, a family. Kids. A life filled with all the things that made people smile and feel a cushion of comfort when they were sad or hurting or afraid.
This can be yours was the promise of the system, when it was working as it should.
Then, at the age of seventeen, everything changed. She had witnessed a crime that forced her into hidingfrom someone she had once trusted with her life. If that wasn't a rationale for paranoia, she didn't know what was.
A small town like this could be a dangerous place, especially for a person with something to hide. Anyone who read Stephen King novels knew that.
If worse came to worst, then she would simply disappear again. She was good at that.
She'd learned long ago that the witness protection programs depicted in the movies were pure fiction. A simple murder was not a federal case, so the federal witness protection programWITSECwas not an option for her. This was unfortunate, because the federal program, expertly administered and well-funded by the U.S. marshals, had a track record of effectively protecting witnesses without incident.
State and local programs were a different story. They were invariably underfunded. Taxpayers didn't relish spending their money on these programs. The majority of informants and witnesses were criminals themselves, trading information for immunity from prosecution. The total innocents, such as Claire had been, were a rarity. Often, witness protection consisted of a one-way bus ticket and a few weeks in a motor court. After that, the witness was on her own. And for a witness like Claire, whose situation was so dangerous she couldn't even trust the police, sometimes the only ally was luck.
Now the families she had been a part of so briefly seemed like a dream, or a life that had happened to someone else. She used to believe she'd have a family of her own one day, but now that was out of her reach. Yes, she could fall in love, have a relationship, kids, even. But why would she do that? Why would she create something in her life to love, only to expose it to the threat of being found out? So here she was, trapped into an existence on the fringes of other people's families. She tried so hard to make it work for her, and sometimes it did. Other times, she felt as though she was drifting away, like a leaf on the wind.
"Almost there," she said to George, noting the distance tracker on the GPS.
"Excellent. The journey is so much shorter than it seemed to me when I was a boy. Back then, everyone took the train."
George had not explained to her exactly why he had decided to spend his final time in this particular place, nor had he told her why he was making the trip alone. She knew he would reveal it in due course.
People's end-of-life experiences often involved a journey, and it was usually to a place they were intimately connected with. Sometimes it was where their story began, or where a turning point in life occurred. It might be a search for comfort and safety. Other times it was just the opposite; a place where there was unfinished business to be dealt with. What this sleepy town by Willow Lake was to George Bellamy remained to be seen.
The road followed the contours of a burbling tree-shaded stream marked the Schuyler River, its old Dutch spelling as quaint as the covered bridge she could see in the distance. "I can't believe there's a covered bridge. I've never seen one before, except in pictures."
"It's been there for as long as I can remember," George said, leaning slightly forward.
Claire studied the structure, simple and nostalgic as an old song, with its barn-red paint and wood-shingled roof. She accelerated, curious about the town that seemed to mean so much to her client. This might turn out to be a good assignment for her. It might even be a place that actually felt safe for once.
No sooner had the thought occurred to her than a blue-white flash of light battered the van's rearview mirror. A split second later came the warning blip of a siren.
Claire felt a sudden frost come over her. The tips of her fingernails chilled and all the color drained from her face; she could feel the old terror coming on with sudden swiftness. She battled a mad impulse to floor the accelerator and race away in the cumbersome van.
George must have read her mindor her body language. "A car chase is not on my list," he said.
"What?" Flushed and sweating, she eased her foot off the accelerator.
"A car chase," he said, enunciating clearly. "Not on my list. I can die happy without the car chase."
"I'm totally pulling over," she said. "Do you see me pulling over?" She hoped he couldn't detect the tremor in her voice.
"There's a tremor in your voice," he said.
"Getting pulled over makes me nervous," she said. Understatement. Her throat and chest felt tight; her heart was racing. She knew the clinical term for her condition, but it was the layman's expression she offered George. "Kind of freaks me out." She stopped on the gravel verge and put the van in Park.
"I can see that." George calmly drew a monogrammed gold money clip from his pocket. It was filled with neatly folded bills.
"What are you doing?" she demanded, momentarily forgetting her anxiety.
"I suspect he'll be looking for a bribe. Common practice in third world countries."
"We're not in a third world country. I know it might not seem like it, but we're still in New York."
The patrol car, black and shiny as a jelly bean, kept its lights running, signaling to all passersby that a criminal was being apprehended.
"Put that away," she ordered George.
He did so with a shrug. "I could call my lawyer," he suggested.
"I'd say that's premature." She studied the police car through the van's side mirror. "What is taking so long?"
"Heor sheis looking up the vehicle records to see if there's been an alert on it."
"And why would there be an alert?" she asked. The van had been leased in George's name with Claire listed as an authorized driver.
Yet something about his expression put her on edge. She glanced from the mirror to her passenger. "George," she said in a warning voice.
"Let's just hear the officer out," he said. "Then you can yell at me."
The approaching cop, even viewed through the side mirror, stirred a peculiar dread in Claire. The crisp uniform and silvered sunglass lenses, the clean-shaven square jaw and polished boots all made her want to cringe.
"License and registration," he said. It was not a barked order but a calm imperative.
Her fingers felt bloodless as she handed over her driver's license. Although it was entirely legitimate, even down to the reflective watermark and the organ donor information on the back, she held her breath as the cop scrutinized it. He wore a badge identifying him as Rayburn Tolley, Avalon PD. George passed her the folder containing the van's rental documents, and she handed that over, too.
Claire bit the inside of her lip and wished she hadn't come here. This was a mistake.
"What's the trouble?" she asked Officer Tolley, dismayed by the nervousness in her voice. No matter how much time had passed, no matter how often she exposed herself to cops, she could never get past her fear of them. Sometimes even a school crossing guard struck terror in her.
He scowled pointedly at her hand, which was trembling. "You tell me."
"I'm nervous," she admitted. She had learned over the years to tell the truth whenever possible. It made the lies easier. "Call me crazy, but it makes me nervous when I get pulled over."
"Ma'am, you were speeding."
"Was I? Sorry, Officer. I didn't notice."
"Where are you headed?" he demanded.
"To a place called Camp Kioga, on Willow Lake," said George, "and if she was speeding, the fault is mine. I'm impatient, not to mention a distraction."
Officer Tolley bent slightly and peered across the front seat to the passenger side. "And you are
"Beginning to feel harassed by you." George sounded righteously indignant.
"You wouldn't happen to be George Bellamy, would you?" asked Tolley.
"Indeed I am," George said, "but how did you"
"In that case, ma'am," the cop said, returning his attention to Claire, "I need to ask you to step out of the vehicle. Keep your hands where I can see them."
Her heart seized up. It was a moment she had dreaded since the day she'd realized she was a hunted woman. The beginning of the end. Her mind raced, although she moved like a mechanical wooden doll. Should she submit to him? Make a break for it?
"See here now," George said. "I would like to know why you're so preoccupied with us."
"George, the man's doing his job," said Claire, hoping that would mollify the cop. She motioned for him to sit tight and did as she was told, stepping down awkwardly, using the door handle to steady herself.