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Chapter One:Overly Made Up Nympho
The man at the morgue was straight out of central casting. Pale, bloated face, long, skinny fingers, creepy black eyes. He actually grinned at Gaia as he pulled Ella's body out of the morgue's special refrigeration system. Gaia wasn't afraid of the guy -- she was never afraid -- but it didn't take too much imagination to picture the kind of things he might do after hours to the corpses in his care.
"Can you identify this woman, Ms. Moore?" the man asked, flicking his gaze over Gaia's body before raising his eyebrows at her.
"Her name is Ella. I mean...it was Ella. Ella Niven."
It sounded to Gaia as if her voice were coming from a speaker in some other room: fake, distant. Everything about the moment seemed fake -- the harsh, fluorescent lights, the antiseptic stink of chemicals, the cold metal surfaces -- everything, in fact, except the film of sweat forming over the pathologist's upper lip. Ella certainly didn't look real. Her skin was a sort of light blue-gray color, and her lips were completely white because of all the blood she had lost. Her dyed red hair had been pushed away from her face, and it resembled the kind of cheap clown wigs they sold on Bleecker Street.
Gaia thought Ella would at least appear as if she were finally at peace. People always said that about the dead. But Ella just looked...lifeless. Cold and lifeless.
Creepy Guy smiled again, holding out a form for Gaia to sign.
And then it was over.
The next thing Gaia knew, she was running down Seventh Avenue, determined to put as much space as she could between herself and the basement of St. Vincent's Hospital. Sometimes New York City just wasn't big enough. Her thoughts swirled like dead leaves breaking into fragments in an autumn wind. One more person was out of her life. Like her mother. Like Mary. Ella Niven was officially no more. Gaia was minus one foster mother.
A month ago, even a week ago, Gaia would have been happy to see Ella buried six feet under. The woman had done everything possible to make Gaia's life a living hell. Including sleeping with Sam Moon. But then --
Gaia took a right onto Christopher Street, skidding for a moment on the cold pavement. She dashed across the street, barely registering a splash into one of those slush puddles that guaranteed wet socks and frozen toes. At least it was a little warmer than it had been. It was already almost February, after all. Spring would be here soon. Gaia couldn't wait for the spring....
Maybe she should just stop thinking about Ella. Right. The coming spring meant making a fresh start. She should stop thinking about the past -- and in particular, about what she'd learned of Ella in the past few days. Her stepmother hadn't been a plastic, overly made-up nymphomaniac with an IQ of twenty. No. The real Ella had been a master of the martial arts, intelligent, and incredibly complicated.
Just like me. Well, maybe except for the intelligent part. But otherwise...
After another skidding turn, the Nivens' Perry Street brownstone swam out of the wintry darkness, like it had so many times in the past. The windows were dark. Lifeless. The place was deserted, a tomb. Gaia swallowed as she bounded up the steps, her wet sneakers slapping on the smooth stone. If she'd never thought of this place as home before, she didn't know what to think of it now.
She slid her key into the dead-bolt lock and opened the door. The house was cold; not that this was any big surprise. Gaia felt as if she hadn't been here in a year. It was strange; she had been here twice today already -- once to receive the call from the man at the morgue. The house had been cold then, too.
Even a week ago she would have been thrilled to come into the brownstone and discover that she had the place to herself. But now as she stood in the narrow hallway by the ticking grandfather clock, she realized that it felt less like a tomb and more like a movie set. In a way it was a set, a stage. A fake family had lived here, leading fake lives.
She started up the creaky staircase, averting her gaze from the cheesy photos that Ella had taken to enhance her image as a dumb bimbo. It was harder than ever to believe that Ella's husband, George -- ironically, an old CIA buddy of her dad's -- had insisted that this would be a real home. A place for Gaia to finally grow some roots after all those years of bouncing from one foster home to another...after her mom's death and her dad's disappearance.
A bitter bile rose in her throat. Gaia wouldn't think of her dad. Never again. He had engineered the destruction that had nearly consumed her.
Mary Moss would have found something funny about this situation, Gaia thought as her footsteps pounded up the stairs. She would have provided some old-fashioned gallows humor to make me laugh....
But Mary had met the same fate as Ella. She had been assassinated. Every time Gaia thought of the sleazy drug dealer's henchman who had taken Mary's life, she felt like punching her fist through a wall -- or better yet, through an assassin's face. She shook her head as she reached the fourth-floor landing. She still wasn't sure why Ella had sacrificed herself to the assassin's bullet, why Ella had claimed that she was Gaia. Or maybe she just didn't want to dwell on it. The tears that Gaia had shed when she saw Ella's dead body had been real. She'd hated her foster mother for so long -- and in the end, she'd seen the truth. They were kindred spirits. They were both utterly lost....
So maybe there was some humor in the situation. After all, when Gaia had first moved in, George had hoped that Ella would be a surrogate mother to her. Ha! It really would have been funny if it wasn't so pitiful and sad. For all she knew, George still believed that Ella had married him for love, that she'd had no hidden agenda, that she hadn't been mixed up with something twisted and evil and cruel. It was amazing, actually. How could somebody be so blind? Ella had done everything from "forget" to give Gaia phone messages, to sleep with Sam, to order a hit on Gaia's life.
On the other hand, Gaia knew all about willful blindness. She'd been wearing shades three feet thick for the first twelve years of her life. She hadn't caught a glimpse of her own father's true nature --
You're not going to think about him.
No. She had a new family now. She had Sam. She had her uncle. Oliver. Well, maybe she had Oliver. He'd promised to take her away -- then vanished as abruptly as he'd appeared. But she was certain he would contact her again. He had to. There was just no predicting when or how. Not with him.
And there was one more family member, too -- one more member of the odd and disparate little unit of people Gaia had allowed herself to become close with. There was Ed Fargo. But then, Ed might be another "maybe" as well. He'd been there from the very start, wheeling around the background of her life when she didn't know a soul aside from the freakish chess players in the park...but now he was spending way too much time with Heather Gannis. In fact, now that Gaia really thought about it, Ed had become the first male FOH. The first Friend of Heather's who didn't wear lipstick. (Although who knew what Heather made him do when they were alone together?)
A smirk curled on Gaia's lips. What Ed needed was a good dose of reality. Some wheelchair jokes and Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The kind of thing Heather would never provide.
Gaia sighed, reaching the fourth-floor landing. The door of her room groaned as she pushed it open. In the shadows the bedroom looked the same as it had the last time she'd been in it. It felt the same, too. Like a hotel room. Like a place to crash, but not a place where she belonged. It was temporary. It always had been. Gaia flicked on the light and began to throw items of clothing onto her bed.
Somewhere between the front door and the door of her bedroom, she had made a decision. She wouldn't stay in this house another day. Not another second. There was no reason. Even if her uncle Oliver didn't take her away, as he'd promised...well, she could always stay with Sam. Of course she could. She had to tell him about Oliver, anyway, about the possibility that she might be leaving New York for a while. Item by item the sum total of her possessions -- her life -- went into her ratty duffel bag: her cargo pants, her T-shirts and sweatshirts, the clothes that hung off her frame like potato sacks but still somehow couldn't conceal the muscles....
But who cared about her bulging biceps and thunder thighs? Sam liked the way she looked. That was all that mattered.
It took Gaia all of seven minutes to gather everything. She left the pair of Gap capri pants she had bought during a moment of temporary insanity hanging in the closet. Then she swung her duffel bag over her shoulder and opened the bedroom window. She wanted to leave this house the way she had most often when Ella was alive. She would climb out of the window. She would escape.
A final tribute to Ella, she thought, throwing her leg over the sill. A very fitting tribute.
Copyright © 2001 by Francine Pascal