The Blue Zone
It took just minutes for Dr. Emil Varga to reach the old man's room. He had been in a deep sleep, dreaming of a woman from his days at the university a lifetime ago, but at the sound of the servant's frantic knocking he quickly threw his wool jacket over his nightshirt and grabbed his bag.
"Please, Doctor," she said, running upstairs ahead of him, "come quick!"
Varga knew the way. He had been staying in the hacienda for weeks. In fact, the stubborn, unyielding man who had held off death for so long was his only patient these days. Sometimes Varga mused over a brandy at night that his loyal service had hastened his departure from a lengthy and distinguished career.
Was it finally over . . . ?
The doctor paused at the bedroom door. The room was dark, fetid; the arched, shuttered windows held back the onset of dawn. The smell told him all he needed to know. That and the old man's chest—silent for the first time in weeks. His mouth was open, his head tilted slightly on the pillow. A trickle of yellow drool clotted on his lips.
Slowly Varga stepped up to the large mahogany bed and put his bag on the table. No need for instruments now. In life his patient had been a bull of a man. Varga thought of all the violence he had caused. But now the sharp Indian cheekbones were shrunken and pale. There was something about it that the doctor thought fitting. How could someone who had caused such fear and misery in his life look so frail and withered now?
Varga heard voices from down the hall, shattering the calm of the dawn. Bobi, the old man's youngest son, ran into theroom, still in his bedclothes. He stopped immediately and fixed on the lifeless shape, his eyes wide.
"Is he dead?"
The doctor nodded. "He finally gave up his grip on life. For eighty years he had it by the balls."
Bobi's wife, Marguerite, who was carrying the old man's third grandchild, began to weep in the doorway. The son crept cautiously over to the bed, as if advancing on a slumbering mountain lion that at any moment might spring up in attack. He knelt down and brushed the old man's face, his tightened, withered cheeks. Then he took his father's hand, which even now was rough and coarse as a laborer's hand, and gently kissed it on the knuckles.
"Todas apuestas se terminaron, Papa," he whispered, gazing into the old man's deadened eyes.
All bets are off, Father.
Then Bobi rose and nodded. "Thank you, Doctor, for all you've done. I'll make sure word gets to my brothers."
Varga tried to read what was in the son's eyes. Grief. Disbelief. His father's illness had gone on so long, and now the day had finally come.
No, it was more of a question that was written there: For years the old man had held everything together, through the force of his own will.
What would happen now?
Bobi led his wife by the arm and left the room. Varga stepped over to the window. He opened the shutters, letting in the morning light. The dawn had washed over the valley.
The old man owned it all for miles, far past the gates, the grazing lands, the glistening cordillera, three thousand meters high. Two black American SUVs were parked next to the stables. A couple of bodyguards, armed with machine pistols, were lounging on a fence, sipping their coffee, unaware.
"Yes," Varga muttered, "get word to your brothers." He turned back to the old man. See, you bastard, even in death you are a dangerous man.
The floodgates were open. The waters would be fierce. Blood never washes away blood.
There was a painting over the bed of the Madonna and child in a hand-carved frame that Varga knew had been a gift from a church in Buenaventura, where the old man was born. The doctor wasn't a religious man, but he crossed himself anyway, lifting up the damp bedsheet and placing it gently over the dead man's face.
"I hope you are finally at peace, old man, wherever you are. . . . Because all hell is going to break loose here."
I don't know if it's a dream or if it's real.
I step off the Second Avenue bus. It's only a couple of blocks to where I live. I know immediately something is wrong.
Maybe it's the guy I see stepping away from the storefront, tossing his cigarette onto the sidewalk, following a short distance behind. Maybe it's the steady clacking of his footsteps on the pavement behind me as I cross over to Twelfth Street.
Normally I wouldn't turn. I wouldn't think twice. It's the East Village. It's crowded. People are everywhere. It's just a sound of the city. Happens all the time.
But this time I do turn. I have to. Just enough to glimpse the Hispanic man with his hands in his black leather jacket.
Jesus, Kate, try being a little paranoid, girl. . . .
Except this time I'm not being paranoid. This time the guy keeps following me.
I turn on Twelfth. It's darker there, less traffic. A few people are talking out on their stoop. A young couple making out in the shadows. The guy's still on me. I still hear his footsteps close behind.
Pick up your pace, I tell myself. You live only a few blocks away.
I tell myself that this can't be happening. If you're going to wake up, Kate, now's the time! But I don't wake up. This time it's real. This time I'm holding a secret important enough to get myself killed.
I cross the street, quickening my pace. My heart's starting to race. His footsteps are knifing through me now. I catch a glimpse of him in the reflection of a store window. The dark mustache and short, wiry hair.
My heart's slamming back and forth off my ribs now.
There's a market where I sometimes buy groceries. I run in. There are people there. For a second I feel safe. I take a basket, hide between the aisles, throw in things I pretend I need. But all the while I'm just waiting. Praying he's passing by.
I pay. I smile a little nervously at Ingrid, the checkout girl, who knows me. I have this eerie premonition. What if she's the last person to see me alive?
Back outside, I feel relief for a second. The guy must be gone. No sign. But then I freeze. He's still there. Leaning aimlessly against a parked car on the other side of the street, talking into a phone. His eyes slowly drift to mine. . . .
Shit, Kate, what the hell do you do now?
Now I run. An indistinguishable pace at first, then faster. I hear the frantic rhythm of quickening footsteps on the pavement—but this time they're mine.
I grope in my bag for my phone. Maybe I should call Greg. I want to tell him I love him. But I know the time—it's the middle of his shift. All I'd get is his voice mail. He's on rounds.
Maybe I should call 911 or stop and scream. Kate, do something—now!
My building's just a half a block away. I can see it now. The green canopy. 445 East Seventh. I fumble for my keys. My hands are shaking. Please, just a few yards more . . .
The last few feet I take at a full-out run. I jam my key into the outer lock, praying it turns—and it does! I hurl open the heavy glass doors. I take one last glance behind. The man who was following me has pulled up a few doorways down. I hear the door to the building close behind me, the lock mercifully engaging.
I'm safe now. I feel my chest virtually implode with relief. It's over now, Kate. Thank God.
For the first time, I feel my sweater clinging to me, drenched in a clammy sweat. This has got to end. You've got to go to someone, Kate. I'm so relieved I actually start to cry.
But go to whom?
The police? They've been lying to me from the beginning. My closest friend? She's fighting for her life in Bellevue Hospital. That's surely no dream.
My family? Your family is gone, Kate. Forever.
It was too late for any of that now.
I step into the elevator and press the button for my floor. Seven. It's one of those heavy industrial types, clattering like a train as it passes every floor. All I want is just to get into my apartment and shut the door.
On seven the elevator rattles to a stop. It's over now. I'm safe. I fling open the metal grating, grasp my keys, push open the heavy outer door.
There are two men standing in my way.
I try to scream, but for what? No one will hear me. I step back. My blood goes cold. All I can do is look silently into their eyes.
I know they're here to kill me.
What I don't know is if they're from my father, the Colombians, or the FBI. The Blue Zone
. Copyright © by Andrew Gross. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.