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On an exceptionally hot and humid July fourth, Dexter Shaw turned a corner and all at once found himself back in the tense days and edgy nights of his youth. Perhaps it was the sight of the nubile young woman in her sleeveless halter top or the drugged-out young man sitting in the hot shade of a white-brick building, a somnolent dog at his side, a cardboard sign between his knobby, scabbed knees, scrawled with the message, "Please Help. Lost Everything."
On the other hand, perhaps it was something else altogether. Confronting the crowds milling through Union Square Park, he felt as if he were a swimmer, far from the teeming shore, guided and controlled by winds and currents seen only by him. He experienced this separation even more keenly as he edged his way into the human surf. Secrets had a way of making you feel alone even in the midst of a jostling throng. It was true. The deeper the secrets went, the more profound the isolation. The murmuring of lovers, the chatter of friends, the morse-code conversations of businessmen on cell phones, mundane all, and yet to him they seemed exotic, so far were they from his own life. Of course, this had been his reality for decades, but today his own anxiety had transformed these differences into knife blades whose edges he felt against his ruddy skin like an immediate threat.
He became aware of a tall, emaciated man with an unkempt beard hiding most of his face moving toward him.
"I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, amen; and have the keys of hell and of death!" the man shouted at Shaw, quoting Revelations. His hollowed-out eyes drilled into Shaw's, as if commanding his attention. "Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter!"
Shaw moved away, but the voice, shrill and hard as cement, followed him: "The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches!"
It was the voice of war, the herald of doom. Ever since he had gotten word of the pope's illness, he'd known with a chill creeping through his bones, even before the murders began. Unless he could find a way to stop it, the countdown to Armageddon had begun.
The nauseating stench of death filled his nostrils, the sight of spilled blood filled his eyes. Shaking off the visions, he made his way through the crowds at the Greenmarket where, moments later, he spotted the Eastern European. He was a Knight of the Field, an operative involved in wet work--that is to say, killing enemies of his organization, of which Shaw was definitely one. A moment later, he had melted into the throng.
At once, Shaw left the market, went into one of the department stores on the south side of 14th Street. There, he spent the better part of twenty minutes, moving slowly from section to section. The Knight of the Field picked him up in housewares, where Shaw perused a display of kitchen utensils. His tail was patient and, if Shaw's skills hadn't been honed to razor-sharpness, he might not have noticed him at all. The Knight looked different--he had rid himself of his sports jacket, wore instead a neutral-colored Polo shirt. He seemed fascinated by a set of fine china, then once again vanished, only to reappear in men's sportswear at the extreme periphery of Shaw's vision. He never looked at Shaw, not even in his direction. He was very good.
Shaw selected several dress shirts, moved toward the rear of the store where the dressing rooms were located. The Knight of the Field drifted after him, interested because of the emergency exit at the end of the corridor.
The first three dressing rooms were occupied, which suited Shaw's objective. Keeping his eye on the emergency exit, he kept going. The Knight moved behind him, silently closing the gap. Shaw could feel the man's approach, and he lengthened his stride. His pursuer, overcompensating, came at him too quickly.
Shaw spun around, threw the dress shirts into the Knight's face. As he did so, he drew a potato peeler he'd palmed off the display in housewares across the Knight's cheek. Shaw grabbed the Knight's shirtfront, slammed him into the empty dressing room on the right, kicking the door closed behind him. No Knight would follow him to where he met with his son, this he vowed.
"What good is this?" the Knight said, wiping his cheek. "Do you think you can stop us?" He laughed. "It's already too late. Nothing will stop us."
Shaw hit him in the side, just at the end of his rib cage. The Knight bent but did not break. He half turned, drove his cocked elbow into Shaw's chin. He'd aimed for Shaw's throat, but Shaw had just enough room to shift away. Still, the blow made pain explode in his head. The Knight followed up his advantage with a kidney punch. Shaw landed a blow on his sternum.
Beneath the harsh light, their reflections blurred, they fought in silent, intense fashion, striking and blocking like martial artists, feinting and parrying like fencers, using short, sharp, vicious blows dictated by the tiny room.
Until they stood locked together as if in a lover's embrace.
"You're finished," the Knight said. "It's the end."
Freeing one hand, Shaw buried his thumb into the soft spot beneath the Knight's left ear where the carotid artery pulsed. The Knight, seeing his end, fought like a maddened beast, but no matter what he did, Shaw held on, tenacious as a bulldog. At last, the Knight lost consciousness, slipping to the floor.
Shaw took a moment to calm himself while he rearranged his clothes. He thought about what the Knight had said: "It's already too late. Nothing will stop us." Could it be true? he wondered. Could the Knights be further along than even he knew? The possibility chilled him to the marrow. It was now more imperative than ever that he talk seriously with Bravo. Whatever ill feeling stood between them, they must put it aside.
He stepped briskly back into the corridor. Quickly, with a keen and wary eye toward more possible Knights, he exited the store through the employees' entrance on 13th Street.
From there, he plunged into the heart of the Village, turning south onto University Place, then west onto 11th Street. Alone again, he might have slowed down, but instead he hurried on at the same alarmed pace. What breeze had existed in the park had died. A midsummer haze bleached all color from the sky, and the air was freighted which, combined with the stillness, clung to him with an unwanted intimacy.
So, despite all his precautions, they knew his location. Perhaps not so surprising, considering the meticulous planning behind the concerted attacks of the past two weeks, culminating with Molko's capture. Molko had been tortured and, when that proved fruitless, killed--an hour, perhaps even less, before Shaw had mounted a rescue mission.
Terrible luck. He and Molko had discussed the issue more than six months before the first killing. Molko, to his credit, had accepted Shaw's plan without protest. But within hours of the meeting, Molko had been taken, tortured and killed. Shaw had to assume that the enemy had the second key.
The keys of hell and of death.
He found French Roast, the café Bravo had suggested, and went inside. His son hadn't arrived as yet so he asked the pale question mark of a woman at the podium for an outdoor table. At the tiny metal table, he sat in the sun, ordered a café au lait and thought of the Knight of the Field, and of the prophesies of Revelations. He knew a lot about prophesies, far more than most people. "The things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter. . . ." He imagined that the words spewed out by the religious zealot referred to the war footing on which he found himself.
The café au lait arrived, and he tore open three packets of sugar. Taking the oversized cup in his two hands, he sipped and immediately thought, Goddamn French coffee. It's strong enough to strip the lining off my stomach. Where's some good old Maxwell House when you need it? Typical of Bravo to suggest this place, he mused. But then Bravo had spent the last three years in Paris, much to Shaw's dismay. Perhaps some of his colleagues' virulent anti-French sentiment had rubbed off on him, but that was not the reason for his displeasure.
Pushing the offending coffee away, he glanced at his watch. Where was Bravo, anyway? Twenty minutes late. Well, he was flying in from Brussels. Thank God he had consented to come to the family reunion after all. Jordan Muhlmann, the president of Lusignan et Cie, had sent him to Brussels for an important conference on risk management, but no sooner had he arrived than Shaw had talked him into coming.
"I'm best off not telling Jordan," Bravo had said from far-off Brussels. "He doesn't like change."
"I'm not surprised," Shaw had murmured.
"What? Dad, speak up. I can't hear you."
"I said you're doing the right thing, Bravo. Emma would have been devastated. Just get on the next plane to JFK and be done with it."
Truth to tell, Bravo must have wanted to come, because ever since he had informed Shaw that he had accepted the job at the multinational financial consulting firm of Lusignan et Cie, there had been a subtle rift between the two. Not that you could call it a war, exactly, but a certain chill had sprung up between them, their phone conversations shortened, their meetings less frequent. This was not what Shaw had desired--far from it. But experience had shown him that his son was as hardheaded as he himself was. Even though he had made it adamantly clear that he had wanted Bravo to continue his research work in medieval religions, his son instead had taken Muhlmann's highly lucrative offer. At least Bravo had continued the rigorous program of physical training he had insisted on.
Nevertheless, from the moment Bravo had met Muhlmann, the air had stunk of betrayal, but only to Shaw. While he never stopped loving Bravo, he had blamed his son, and, what's more, Bravo was smart enough to know it. But then again, Bravo didn't know the real reason Shaw had been so intent on him continuing his studies. How could he?
Tensely, Shaw watched the waiter navigating with a charming swing of her slim hips the narrow aisles between the round tables. She asked him if he wanted to order and he said not yet.
More than anything else Shaw wanted to mend the rift, more painful to him than he had ever allowed Bravo to know. Today had seemed to him to be the right time to start. The tradition of reuniting every July fourth that had been started by Dexter's late wife, Stefana, had been continued by their daughter, Bravo's older sister Emma, at the family townhouse in which she lived. Still, knowing his son as he did, he had been leery of rushing the rapprochement. But now, suddenly, he had run out of time. Circumstances not of his making had determined that he have the conversation he'd always imagined he'd have with Bravo, though not at this time and certainly not in this hurried manner.
Not that Shaw hadn't done his best to prepare Bravo for this moment. But then Jordan Muhlmann had stepped in and altered everything. Now he was not only Bravo's boss, he was his best friend. Never mind. Bravo was coming, and in a few moments both their lives would change forever. If Shaw had any doubts about his son, he had pushed them into the recesses of his exceptionally ordered mind.
He had faith that Bravo would be up to the task, no matter how daunting. He had to be. As the waiter moved out of his field of vision he saw a man crossing the street toward him. As he approached, Shaw felt his own muscles tense. The man picked up his pace and raised an arm. Then he was striding past Shaw, smiling, into the arms of a waiting woman, who embraced him with uncompromising passion. Just as Steffi had once embraced him.
Don't go there, he admonished himself. But there she was in his mind's eye in the hospital bed, little more than a skeleton, wasting away while he looked on helpless and enraged. What was life when you waited for death? Could it ever be more than that?
"I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, amen . . ."
The words came back at him with the force of a boomerang. If only Steffi hadn't died, if only. . . . But it wasn't meant to be. As his wife lay dying, his heart had broken.
"The keys of hell and of death. . . ."
Then he saw Bravo coming toward him and his heart leapt. He was sure that what he had done, what he was about to do, was the right thing--the only answer to the only question that mattered to him.
"Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter!"
He had already done that in the way he and Bravo knew best.
From the moment he saw his father sitting in sunlight at French Roast, Braverman Shaw was filled with conflicting emotions. The small boy in him wanted to run down the block, his arms open wide; the teenager wanted to thank him for the designated path he'd insisted on for his son, for Bravo had forgotten nothing of his studies in medieval religion, had lost little of the excitement he'd felt from the first day his father had cracked open the thick, illustrated book he kept by his bedside, introducing the child to the mysteries that would consume him for years to come. But the adult, who felt that he had been manipulated, took on the very attributes he hated most in his father, so that they came together not as father and son but as unstoppable force and immovable object. That term--immovable object--was appropriate, Bravo thought, for the man whose life and motives he found ever more puzzling and opaque.
Dexter Shaw stood. "It's good to see you again, Bravo."
They shook hands, formally and rather awkwardly, and sat down.
Braverman Shaw was thirty, taller than his father by a head, slimmer, but with the wide shoulders and long, powerful legs of a swimmer. In his own way, he was just as handsome. His hair was dark and curling, his eyes a blazing blue. He had the singular look of a seeker after knowledge, not of a risk management consultant. Emma had nicknamed him Bravo when she was six and Braverman was four. The name had stuck.
Bravo, eyeing the virtually untouched cup of café au lait, said, "Too much flavor for you, Dad?" He said it in a bantering tone--whether to break the stony silence or as a form of self-defense he couldn't say.
Either way, it rankled Shaw, ruffling feathers he'd prefer remained sleek and undisturbed, especially now. "Why must you do that?"
Bravo called a waiter over. "Do what?"
Bravo ordered a double espresso. When the waiter had gone, he said, "I was under the impression we provoked each other." He engaged his father's eyes with his. "Don't you enjoy it?"
"As a matter of fact, I don't."
The espresso came. It had been six months since the two had seen each other. An undercurrent of loss and a certain sorrow was passing between them, amplified by the prickly exchange. It was the particular friction that arises between two people who are too much alike. Without the buffer of his mother, who had died ten years ago, sparks often flew between them. This was true even before Jordan Muhlmann, whose mere presence seemed to have aggravated the problem, possibly because he was French and Dexter's dislike of the French was all too well-known to Bravo. We're both headstrong, Bravo thought. Not to mention opinionated, forceful and determined.
Dexter shifted in his seat. "I want to talk to you about your future."
No, Bravo thought at once, I simply can't do this again. "Dad, you're always wanting to talk to me about my future. I'm too old for lectures--"
"First of all, you're never too old to learn something new. Second of all, this isn't a lecture. I want to make you an offer."
"Does the State Department have you recruiting now?"
"This has nothing to do with State." Dexter Shaw leaned forward, his voice low, urgent. "Remember your old training?"
Again out of self-defense, Bravo glanced at his watch. "We're late, Dad. Emma must be wondering what's happened to us. Besides, I rushed in from the airport without any time to get her a present."
Dexter sat back and gave him a basilisk stare. "You know what I think? I think Muhlmann sent you to Brussels deliberately."
Bravo's head came up. He was like a dog on point. "Now don't start--"
"Muhlmann knows perfectly well about your annual family reunion."
Bravo laughed. "You're not implying that he set up an international conference just so--"
"Don't be absurd, but he could have sent someone else."
"Jordan trusts me, Dad."
A silence descended over them, thick with the implied accusation. Horns blared as a car lurched out into traffic, and with a metal clang the rear doors of a delivery truck opened.
Dexter Shaw sighed. "Bravo, can we call a truce? It is urgent that we talk. In the space of a week, the world has changed--"
"I told you this was urgent."
"I heard you, Dad."
"I don't want Emma--"
"To overhear. Of course not. We'll go for a walk, just the two of us, and you can make your pitch."
Dexter shook his head. "Bravo, it's not a pitch. You have to understand--"
"It's late and getting later." Bravo stood, putting money on the table. "You go on to Emma's while I forage for a present."
"I'd like to go with you."
"So she'll be pissed at both of us?" Bravo shook his head. "You go on, Dad."
As Bravo turned away, Dexter Shaw took his son's arm. There was so much to say, so much that needed to be communicated and now, at the eleventh hour, with bells tolling in his head, he knew that he should feel closer to Bravo than he ever had. Instead, there was between them a kind of chilly chasm he recognized as being of his own manufacture. He had tried to shield his son from the terrible responsibility of what was to come for as long as he could, but what, in the end, had he accomplished except to make him feel as if he wasn't trusted, as if he'd been manipulated for an unknown reason. Secrets, lies and the truth, he thought now, sometimes there wasn't much to choose from between them.
In any case, he had chosen, but it wasn't until this moment that he understood the depth of his failure. Steffi had warned him that it would come to this, Steffi who had known him--and their son--better than anyone. She had begged him not to involve Bravo in his shadow life--she'd ranted, wept, she'd flown at him like a hellion--and still he'd held fast to his convictions. My darling Steffi, wherever you are, please don't hate me. But of course she had, just as he knew completely and irrevocably that she had loved him with all her heart and soul. She could not have helped but fear him--that other Dexter Shaw who was rigid, rule-formed, intractable, who disappeared for days or weeks at a time into a world she of necessity only dimly knew. At last, spent and defeated, she had said to him, "You're like a rock, all of you --no blood, no feeling, no hope at all of change or movement. This is the life you will condemn Bravo to."
Tears welled in his eyes, the sudden onrush of unfamiliar emotions rendering him inarticulate. There was a chance now to change all that, but, no, it was too late. The die had been cast, what choice he'd ever had had been stolen from him. That was the essence he saw now in a moment of blinding revelation, the heart of the matter that Steffi never understood and he could never explain. In his world, choice was nothing but a dangerous illusion, offered up by a cunning devil.
For a moment, Bravo was shaken--his father never cursed. Whatever was on his mind was important, he knew that much. But now, really and truly, they had no time. Carefully he disengaged himself. His voice, when he spoke, was warm and conciliatory. "I'll be along soon enough, and then we'll have our talk. I promise."
Dexter Shaw hesitated, gave his son a resigned nod, turned and headed to the curb. Bravo watched him crossing the avenue, then turned and headed south. But where was he going? He suddenly realized that he had no idea what to get Emma. His father was the one who always knew what his children would like best. Reluctant as he was to feel once again the pressure of his father's judgment, he nevertheless swallowed his pride and, dodging traffic, jaywalked at a run across Sixth Avenue. By the time he'd gained the west side, Dexter was trotting up the stairs to the brownstone. Bravo called after him as Dexter went through the outer door.
Bravo ran all the faster, hoping to get his father's attention before Emma buzzed him through the inner door. He was mounting the front steps when the explosion blew out the front windows. The heavy front door, torn from its hinges, slammed into him, lifted him bodily, throwing him into the street.
Immediately, there came like ravens' cries the harsh screech of brakes, alarmed voices raised in anxious shouts, but Bravo, unconscious, was already oblivious to the growing chaos.
"No," his father said to him once again.
Bravo lifted his nine-year-old head with its inquisitive blue eyes and tousled hair. "Where did I make my mistake?"
"It's not a matter of making a mistake." Dexter Shaw knelt down. "Listen to me, Bravo. What I want you to do is use your mind and your soul. Intellectual pursuits will only get you so far in life because all of life's great lessons involve loss." He glanced down at the puzzle he had set before his son. "A 'mistake' is something mechanical--a wrong way of acting, maneuvering, thinking. A mistake is a surface thing. But beneath the surface--where loss manifests itself--that's where you must begin."
Even if Bravo hadn't understood every word his father used he couldn't mistake the meaning or the intent. Manifest, he thought, turning over the word in his mind. It was strange and beautiful, like a gem he'd once seen in a store window, gleaming, faceted, deeply colored and, somehow, mysterious. He could feel his father's intent, a living thing, as palpable and intimate as a heartbeat. He knew what his father wanted for him and, naturally enough, he wanted it, too.
I want to manifest myself one day, he thought, as he threw himself mind and soul into solving the puzzle his brilliant father had devised for him.
A sharp pain racked him, threatening to draw him far away, and he fought against it, fought as hard as he could. More than anything, he wanted to stay by his father's side, to complete the puzzle because puzzles linked son to father in a very private and mysterious manner. But another spasm of pain clouded his vision and his father's face flickered like quicksilver, swimming away into a mist of voices that all at once had gathered around him like a murder of crows. . . .
"At last. He's coming around."
"It's about time."
Bravo heard these voices as if through a wall of cotton. He smelled a masculine cologne cutting through a peculiar sickly-sweet scent. He began to retch, felt strong hands on him, wanted to shake them off but lacked the strength. He had trouble stringing two thoughts together, as if he no longer wanted to think.
On opening his eyes, he was presented with two hazy shapes. As his vision slowly cleared these shapes resolved themselves into two men standing over him. The older one was slight. He had very dark skin and Indian features; he was in a white coat--a doctor. The other, perhaps a decade younger, had a face as rumpled as his suit. Bravo noticed his jacket had one frayed cuff. The strong cologne was coming off him in waves.
"How are you feeling?" the doctor said in a slight singsong accent. He had cocked his head, like one of those crows Bravo had imagined. His coffee-black eyes scanned the electronic readouts flickering above Bravo's head. "Mr. Shaw, please say something if you can hear me."
The invocation of his family name came like a splash of cold water. "Where am I?" Bravo's voice sounded thick and peculiar to his ears.
"In hospital. St. Vincent's," the doctor said. "You've got some deep bruises, contusions, burns here and there and, of course, a concussion. But most fortunately nothing broken or burst."
"How long have I been here?"
The doctor checked his watch. "It's just about two days since they brought you in."
"Two days!" Bravo put a hand up to one ear, but the doctor's slim brown hand stopped him. "Everything sounds muffled--and there's a ringing. . . ."
"Your proximity to the explosion caused a degree of temporary hearing loss," the doctor said. "Perfectly normal reaction, I assure you. I'm relieved that you've regained consciousness. I don't mind telling you that you had us all a bit on edge."
"That damn heavy door saved you, Mr. Shaw, that's a fact," the younger man said in a heavy New York accent.
And then it all came rushing back--the sprint up the block, mounting the worn limestone steps, a fury of sound and then . . . nothing. All at once everything looked flat. He felt hollow inside, as if while he was unconscious some great hand had passed through skin and tissue to scoop out his insides.
The doctor's brow wrinkled. "Mr. Shaw, did you hear me? I said that within a matter of days your hearing will be unimpaired."
"I heard you." In truth, Bravo had received this news with an equanimity bordering on stoicism. "My father?"
"He didn't make it," the suit said. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Bravo closed his eyes. The room began to swim around, and he seemed to be having trouble breathing.
"I told you. It's too soon," the doctor said from somewhere over Bravo's head. Then he felt a warmth, a sense of calm enter his system.
"Relax, Mr. Shaw," the doctor said. "I'm just giving you a bit of Valium."
Still, he struggled against it--the Valium and the tears that burned his lids, tears that leaked out onto his cheeks, humiliating him in front of strangers. "I don't want to be calm." He had to know. . . . "My sister. Is Emma alive?"
"She's in the room down the hall." The suit had taken out a pad and pencil. No PDA for him.
"Don't worry about her. Don't worry about anything," the doctor added soothingly.
"I need some time with him," the suit said gruffly. There followed a minor altercation, played out on the edge of Bravo's consciousness, which the suit ultimately won.
When Bravo next opened his eyes, the suit was looking at him out of liquid brown eyes, slightly red around their edges. Dandruff lay on the shoulders of his jacket like ash from a fire. Or an explosion. "My name's Detective Splayne, Mr. Shaw." He held up an ID tag. "NYPD."
Beyond the door, a conversation had started up, one voice old and querulous. The squeak of rubber wheels took them away. Bravo endured the deathly silence as long as he was able. "You're sure. There isn't any mistake?"
The detective produced two photos, handed them to Bravo.
"I'm afraid he took the brunt of the blast," he said softly.
Bravo looked at his father, or rather what was left of him, laid out on a slab. The second photo, unspeakably stark and therefore vile, was a close-up of his face. The pictures looked unreal, something from a gruesome Halloween prank. Bravo felt almost dizzy with sorrow and despair. His vision swam and, unbidden, the tears came again.
"Sorry, but I gotta ask. That your father? Dexter Shaw?"
"Yes." It took him a very long time to say it, and when he did his throat felt raw, as if he'd been screaming for hours.
Splayne nodded, pocketed the photos and went and stood by the window, silent as a sentinel.
Bravo wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. "How . . . how is Emma?" He found that he was almost afraid to ask.
"The doctor says she's out of the woods."
Splayne's words momentarily reassured him, before the full force of his father's death came rushing back to him, blotting out everything. Dimly, he became aware of the scrape of a chair's legs, and when he next opened his eyes, Splayne was sitting beside the bed, watching him, patient as a cat.
The detective said, "I know this is difficult for you, Mr. Shaw, but you're an eyewitness."
"What about my sister?"
"I already said."
"'Out of the woods.' What does that mean?"
Splayne sighed as he ran a huge hand across the worn facade of his face. "Please tell me what you remember." He sat still, hunch-shouldered, directing all his attention at the man lying on the hospital bed.
"When you tell me Emma's condition."
"Christ, you're a piece of work." Splayne took a breath. "Okay, she's blind."
Bravo felt his heart jolt. "Blind?"
"They've gone in and done whatever they could. The doc says that either she regains her sight in a week or two, or the blindness will be permanent."
"See, this is what I wanted to avoid." Splayne leaned forward. "You aren't gonna pass out on me, are you?"
With fingers like steel pincers, he steered Bravo's face in his direction, stared hard into his eyes. There was a slight cast to the left eye, as if something terrible had happened to that side of his face. Bravo caught the other's intensity, allowed it to bring himself back from the edge of panic and despair. His father dead, Emma blinded, all in the space of a single breath. It was too much, he couldn't accept it as the truth. There must be another reality out there--one in which his father had survived, where Emma hadn't lost her sight--if only he could find it.
"Mr. Shaw, I need you to tell me what happened. It's important, okay?"
"Yes," Bravo said in a reedy whisper. "I understand." He recounted as best he could what he remembered of the brief chain of events just before the explosion.
When he had finished, the detective looked at him. "To be honest, I didn't expect much more than that."
"Then why was it important to talk to me?"
"Hey, I gotta close this thing out, otherwise the paperwork will hound me like a bitch in heat."
Bravo felt a renewed surge of anger. "Do you know what caused the blast?"
"Gas leak in the basement. It was an old brownstone, maybe the heating system was in need of repair. The fire department's going over the place now." Detective Splayne's pen was suspended over the notebook. "One other thing, who's Jordan"--a quick glance down to his notes--"Muhlmann? He's been calling twice a day to check on your condition."
"He's my employer and my friend."
"That's what he told me. So. Anything else?"
Bravo shook his head.
"Then my work here is finished." With a sense of finality, Splayne closed his notebook. "I wish you well, Mr. Shaw."
"That's it? That's where the investigation ends?"
Splayne shrugged. "To tell you the truth, Mr. Shaw, it's where most investigations end. This is a big city, millions of people in it walking in shadows, running away from the light, crawling in the sewers like maggots. It's the maggots I get to spend time with, day in, day out. This here's clean and clear-cut compared with the shit I get most days. I swear, it's enough to hollow you out inside, turn even a hard-case optimist into a cynic." He rose. "Like I said, I'm sorry for your loss, but it's time I was getting to where I'm really needed."
Bravo, still fighting the effects of the Valium, twisted in bed. There was a question he'd wanted to ask. What was it?
"Wait a minute, did you talk to my sister?"
But Splayne had already gone.
Bravo lay back for a moment, his head swimming. The moment he closed his eyes his father reappeared. "All of life's great lessons involve loss," Dexter Shaw said and laid his hand on his son's damp brow. "Don't forget what I've taught you now."
With a growl, Bravo pulled the Valium drip from his arm, ripped off all the monitoring devices. He sat up, swung his legs off the high bed. The floor felt cold as ice to his bare feet, and when he put his full weight on them he was obliged to clutch the bed linens lest he fall. His heart pumped hard in his chest, and his legs felt as if their bones and muscles had dissolved during the forty-eight terrible hours he'd been unconscious.
He had to shuffle across the room to the door, and when he opened it he was confronted by an angry-looking nurse, clucking away like an offended nun.
"What have you done, Mr. Shaw?" She had a wide nose, a firm jaw and café-au-lait skin. "Get back in bed this minute."
She had reached out to turn him around, but Bravo checked her, "I want to see my sister."
"I'm afraid that's im--"
He held her eyes for so long she knew he wasn't going to back down.
"Look at you, weak as a newborn, you can't even walk." Still, his eyes would not let her go. At length, capitulating, she fetched a wheelchair, brought it around behind him. He sat down, and she pushed him forward.
Outside Emma's room he held up a hand. "I don't want to go in there like this. Let me walk."
The nurse sighed. "In her current condition she won't know the difference, Mr. Shaw."
"Maybe not," he said, "but I will." Hands on the armrests, he levered himself up. The nurse stood, watching him, arms crossed over her bosom, as he grasped the door frame and moved slowly into the room.
Emma, reclining on the bed, looked a mess. Not only her eyes but the upper half of her face was heavily bandaged. He sat on the edge of the bed, sweating alarmingly inside his gown. His heart was pounding so hard it threatened to squeeze through his rib cage.
"Bravo." Emma's voice, rich and musical, varied as an artist's palette, rose to him, the one word like a song.
"I'm here, Emma."
"Thank God you're alive." Her hand fumbled for his, found it and squeezed. "How badly are you hurt?"
"It's nothing compared--" He barely had time to choke off the rest of the sentence.
"Compared to me, you mean."
"Don't do that, don't you pity me."
"It isn't pity."
"Isn't it?" she said sharply.
"Emma, you have every right--"
"Don't be such a good sport!" She turned back. "Who should I be angry at, Bravo? Who did this to me?" Then she shook her head. "It's disgusting. I've had enough of terror and anger and self-pity."
With an enormous effort of will she smiled, and like sunlight flooding the room he saw her as she had been, carriage erect, her mouth open wide, honey-colored hair flying in the wind created by the stage fans, her huge emerald eyes, wide cheeks and generous mouth so much like their mother's, one hand uplifted as the aria emerged from her, glorious and full-born, as he always imagined Puccini had heard it when he'd first composed it.
"I've waited two long horrible days to feel you, to hear your voice." She took his hand again. "This makes me happy, Bravo, this cuts through my endless night. Even in my worst, blackest moments, I was able to rise above it long enough to pray for your recovery, and God heard my prayers and kept you safe." Her smile widened. "So now I want you to do the same--to rise above your anger and your self-pity. I want you to have faith, Bravo, if not for yourself, then for me."
Faith? Faith in what? he asked himself. His father had wanted desperately to tell him something, and because he had hardened his heart, because he hadn't been able to forgive him for his manipulations, he'd never know what was so important. His jaw clenched. Wasn't forgiveness a major component of faith?
"Emma, Dad is dead and you're--" His throat was filled with bitter bile.
She placed her soft hands on either side of his face, as she had done when, as a child, he had become agitated and frustrated. She pressed her forehead to his. "I want you to stop and listen," she breathed in a musical murmur, "because I'm sure that God has a plan for us, and if you're filled with anger and self-pity you'll never be able to hear it."
His throat was clogged again with all the emotions boiling up from inside. "Emma, what happened that day?"
"I don't know. Honestly, I can't remember." She shrugged. "Maybe it's a blessing."
"I wish I could remember something--anything--about what happened."
"A gas leak, that detective said. An accident. Put it behind you, Bravo."
But he couldn't, and he couldn't tell her why.
"Now I need you to help me get to the bathroom," she said, breaking into his thoughts.
When Bravo stood up his legs felt stronger. They reached the bathroom without incident. She seemed strong to him, despite what had happened to her. Was that her faith he felt, deep and rippling like a stream at spring's first thaw?
"Come inside with me," she said, drawing him in before he had a chance to protest. She locked the door behind them, then opened her hand, revealing a pack of cigarettes and a small lighter. "I bribed Martha." Martha was her personal assistant.
She sat on the toilet and with surprisingly little difficulty lit up, drawing the smoke deep into her lungs and holding it there. On the exhale, she said with a laugh, "Now you know my secret, Bravo. The smoke gives my voice that depth the critics so rave over." She shook her head. "God works in mysterious ways."
"What does God have to do with it?"
At once, she stood up. "Oh, Bravo, I hear the anger, you can't keep it out of your voice. I wonder if you know how ugly it is, how it distorts the beautiful tenor of your voice."
"It's you who has the beautiful voice, Emma."
She stroked his cheek with her fingertips. "We both have Mama in us, only maybe--just maybe--I have a bit more."
"I know you thought Dad loved me more," he blurted out, because it had been on his mind.
"No, Bravo. He loved me, too, but you and he had some--I don't know--some special connection. It hurt me so to see the two of you at odds." Her face turned up to his. "Have you cried yet, Bravo? I know you have." Her fingertips traced the bandages over her eyes. "I envy you that luxury."
"The first few hours afterward when I was first hit with what I had lost I fell into a black pit. But faith is a tree, growing new branches even in the face of a storm. And when the time is right, those new branches bear fruit. It's faith that sustains me, faith that makes sense out of chaos, faith that holds the world together in the face of crisis." She took another, smaller drag from the cigarette. "I wish I could make you understand. When you have faith, despair is not an option. I grieve for Dad. Inside I'm crushed because a part of me has been ripped away and I'll never get it back. That, at least, I know you understand. But I also know that his death, the loss of my sight, either temporary or permanent, is for a reason. There is a plan for us, Bravo. My faith shows it to me, even without the use of my eyes."
"Was it God's plan to have Dad blown up, for Mom to waste away?"
"Yes," she said firmly and deliberately. "Whether you can accept it or not."
"I don't understand how you can be so sure. This is a part of you I never got, Emma. What if your faith is an illusion, what if there is no plan? That would mean that there was no purpose."
"No purpose we can yet see."
"Faith. Blind faith is as false as everything you rail against." Bravo thought of what Detective Splayne had said, and his hands curled into fists. "How can you live in such a world and not be cynical?"
"I know your cynicism is a facade, because cynicism is just another word for frustration," Emma said softly. "We spend so much time trying to maintain control over everything that governs our lives, but it's futile--and terribly frustrating--because, really, what can we control? Almost nothing. And yet we still seek the impossible, even knowing that it's a hollow pursuit. What can fill the void, can you tell me? No. But, listen, listen, when I let go of everything, when I sing, I know." Her cigarette had burned down, unsmoked. She must have felt the heat on her fingers because she groped behind her, flicked it into the toilet. With a brief angry hiss, its lit end winked out. "Bravo, the explosion may have taken my sight, but miraculously it left me my most precious possession--my voice is unharmed."
He held her tight then, feeling her substance, as he always had, ever since he could remember. "I wish I had your faith."
"Faith is a lesson to be learned, just like everything else in life," she whispered in his ear. "I pray that one day you'll find yours."
And in his other ear his dead father whispered: "Beneath the surface--where loss manifests itself--that's where you must begin."
Copyright © 2006 by Eric Van Lustbader