Shy and reclusive medical student Elaine Ross is warned she might have trouble dating after her only sister is brutally murdered by her brother-in-law, Dirk Stoner. Dirk, a handsome golf pro and the son of a billionaire developer, was convicted and executed amid a media frenzy that rivaled the O.J. Simpson trial. So when Elaine is coerced out to a nightclub and is unsettled by the advances of Jonathan Lewis -- a man whose mannerisms and gestures eerily remind her of Dirk -- she refuses to succumb to her paranoid fears.
But Elaine can't conceive of the twisted trail of bribes, blackmail, and murder that Dirk's billionaire father wove in an attempt to save his only son. She isn't aware that an FBI investigation linking the deaths of Dirk's prison doctor and a plastic surgeon has been inexplicably dropped. And Elaine has no way of knowing that the face in her nightmares is carrying a very real torch...for revenge.
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Sitting on the bed in what had once been Farah's room, Harry gazed around dumbly, his eyes glassy. Farah had taken most everything with her when she got married, and the room had been used as a guest room, but he had never stopped thinking of it as Farah's room. Memories of her lingered in these walls, in every nook and corner, her laughter caught and held forever and ever. All he had to do was look at the vanity table or the desk on which she used to do her homework and his reservoir of remembrances came rushing forward, now an exquisite torment.
Tomorrow, finally, he would get his revenge. Dirk Stoner would be executed, nearly four years after he had been convicted. Harry knew it was happening this soon only because Stoner had stopped the appeals.
"Mom's right, you know," he heard Elaine say and looked up at his younger daughter leaning against the doorjamb, arms folded, head down. "Attending his execution won't bring Farah back, Dad."
"Maybe it will bring me back," he said.
She looked up, their eyes meeting.
"You want to be a doctor, Elaine. Think of what's in here" -- he pressed his fist against his heart -- "as a cancer that tomorrow the state of California will cut out of me."
"Operations leave scars, Dad," she said.
Harry almost smiled. Elaine had always had a doctor's personality. She could cut to the jugular gracefully, perform the procedure, and retreat unscathed. "I have scars deeper than what I might get tomorrow," he said.
"We all have scars, Dad. They're not going away, ever." He saw the tears in her eyes and was silent for a moment.
For the first time since Farah's death, he seriously considered Elaine's reaction to all this. He had always thought about his own and Lil's sorrow, but what about Elaine's? She had suffered a great loss too.
"If you insist on going, I'll go with you tomorrow, Dad," she said.
"You don't have to do that, Elaine."
"I won't let you go alone, Dad," she insisted, "even though I hate the thought of looking at him one more time, even to watch him die, even by lethal injection."
"Yeah," Harry said. "From what I've been told, it will be just like looking at one of your patients at preop."
She nodded. "You're right, Dad. That's what it's like. Pancurium bromide to stop his breathing, potassium chloride for cardiac arrest, sodium pentothal to make him unconscious."
"Dr. Ross," he said nodding and contemplating her for a moment. Then he raised his eyebrows. "It should be Dr. Rosenberg, you know."
"That's our real name."
"I don't understand."
"My grandfather changed it to Ross to avoid the ethnic stigma and any possible inference that we were related to the notorious Rosenbergs. I always felt funny going to see my great-uncle Benny because he was my grandfather's brother, but his name was Ben Rosenberg and mine was Harry Ross. He always made fun of the change, too. 'So how is it with you, Mr. Ross?' he would ask me and smile."
Elaine laughed. "What other surprises do you have for me, Dad?"
"Nothing else," he said sadly and gazed at the floor again. "Nothing else."
"Don't go, Dad," she said after a moment.
"I have to go, Elaine."
"It will be a circus -- the media, demonstrators..."
"I have to go," he said again. "Thank God my parents didn't live to see any of this."
Lil's parents were still alive and remarkably healthy for people in their late eighties. They had attended only one of the trial sessions. They sat in the rear, listened, and then went home, too shaken by the details to return.
Now that the ordeal was truly coming to an end, Lil wanted Harry to put the matter to rest, to accept Farah's death, as she had finally accepted it.
Harry refused to accept it. His beautiful, talented daughter had been slaughtered, and even with Dirk Stoner's surprise legal capitulation, retribution had been slow in coming, as far as Harry was concerned. In more primitive times, when men were men, an eye for an eye would have been a quick and strong act of justice.
Immediate retribution was important. Why didn't our society see that? Time diminished the impact of the evil act, put it so far back in the memory that the horror was reduced to mere words and the victim drifted into a mere name, an old photo, a statistic.
But we are civilized men, he thought sarcastically. We house our criminals; we dissect their psyches and analyze their evil; we build entire professions, mechanisms, industries, around them as one great euphemistic expression. He concluded it was all only an attempt to deny the most basic truth about ourselves: we can be utterly vicious and cruel to each other to satisfy our own selfish needs.
No, he would not accept it, but he couldn't get mad at Lil for trying to get him to do so. She had been and still was one of the prettiest women he had ever met. He always considered himself lucky to have found her and won her heart. He and Lil had become the most famous and successful real estate couple in the Valley. All the movie studio executives came to them to find homes. They were featured in regional magazines and on regional television shows, but the wedding of their local fame with their national renown was an uneasy marriage.
Harry was self-conscious about the way people now looked at him. He had become paranoid. He was the first to admit it. Since the trial and its aftermath, he questioned the motives of nearly every client. Were they really coming to them to find a decent place to live, or did they just want to go back to their friends and say, "Guess who we're using as real estate agents -- the Rosses. Yes, those Rosses!"
He and Lil had become "Those Rosses."
"Okay, Dad." Elaine said. "Good night." She gazed around the room for a moment and then left him.
He had such a feeling of emptiness.
Harry knew that Elaine felt he had favored Farah over her. He didn't think he had. Elaine was just a different kind of girl, more like Lil, cerebral, a reader, unafraid of being alone. Farah had been sociable, outgoing, more emotional, warmer, more dependent on him and his affection. Farah hadn't been subtle and complicated. There was never a question about what she wanted in life. She liked the recognition, the expensive cars and clothes, the adulation. She was admittedly and unashamedly vain. Her room had the big mirrors, the elaborate vanity table. She had bought all the workout tapes and moaned if she gained a pound.
Elaine was the class valedictorian, the writer, the deep thinker. She had a beautiful figure and Lil's naturally healthy complexion. Elaine was no four-eyed wallflower. She had boyfriends; she went to school dances and the prom, but she was far more career minded and independent and would, Harry believed, do what she had set out to do: become a doctor. He was very proud of her.
It was just that...just that he loved the sight of Farah waving from her convertible or rushing across the lawn to hug him or calling to him from her bedroom window or just stopping behind him in the living room and hugging him and then going on and on about her part in the school play.
Was she really dead? Could she be dead? When will I do what Lil and Elaine want me to do? he wondered. When will I accept it?
Maybe tomorrow, he thought. Maybe tomorrow.
Elaine stared out her window into the darkness. She couldn't stand this feeling of helplessness, this inability to say or do anything that would ease her father's pain.
Is this what it's going to be like for me when I'm a doctor and I confront terminally ill patients? she wondered.
And then she thought, Is my father ill? He wasn't half the man he had once been. His eyes were vacant much of the time. He looked lost, confused, almost brain-dead at times.
How she wished she had a medication, an anti-tragedy serum that she could simply inject into his arm to turn him back to the way he was. She laughed at how stupid that thought was, at how childish she could be, at how she could still fill her mind with little-girl fantasies. Sometimes that frightened her. It was as if admitting she was human would distract her from her destiny, would make her less of a doctor.
She gazed across the room at a doll Farah had given her years ago. Elaine had always wanted to be a doctor. Much of her make-believe had been built around that dream. She recalled examining that doll for Farah and deciding she had to put a Band-Aid on her leg. After carefully sterilizing the area, she had applied the bandage, and she and Farah had treated the doll like a patient in a hospital.
Everyone had thought it was cute.
The doll stared back at her with its glassy eyes seemingly full of sadness, two tiny pools of tears, matching her own.
Later she heard her parents talking softly, her mother still trying to get her father to change his mind about watching the execution. Elaine heard her soft sobs until they were both quiet. Neither would sleep tonight, she thought. How many sleepless nights had they both endured already?
Where do all your good dreams go when you don't sleep? she wondered.
Farah had believed there was a magical place for lost dreams, a place where they waited for happy dreamers.
She laughed at that and some of the other things her sister had said.
Then she closed her eyes and prayed she would wander into Farah's magical world tonight, especially tonight.
It was too nice a day for an execution. As if the state of California were a living person with an ego and a reputation, even this late in the day it provided bright sunshine, blue skies, warm breezes, and a clean, sparkling background for the myriad cameramen, satellite television feeds, and network anchors who filled the front yard of San Quentin.
"Look at this place," Elaine said as they parked their rental car. "Is this society sick or what?"
One of the reporters spotted them, and the group moved like one animal in their direction, microphones rising toward them like electronic antennae.
Elaine thrust her arm through her father's, holding on tight. "They want their pound of flesh," she muttered.
The reporter who led the pack threw his question at them from six feet away, just to be first. "How do you feel today, Mr. Ross?" The mob gathered around them.
"Good. I feel good for the first time in years."
"What about those people demonstrating against the death penalty out there?" another reporter asked.
Harry gazed for a moment at the posters and signs and listened to the voice droning over the portable loudspeaker.
"I doubt that anyone out there has had a daughter brutally murdered. If anyone has, and still wants to grant the killer mercy, then that parent didn't love his child more than he loved his own life. People are killing their children a second time when they grant mercy to murderers," he added.
The cameras clicked. The reporters ate it up. Pens were writing as quickly as Harry spoke and gave them the valuable sound bites.
Harry and Elaine moved toward the entrance.
"Did you know that Philip Stoner is going to be in the room with you, Mr. Ross?"
Elaine kept them moving.
"Lending his son comfort," another reporter interjected.
"Will you speak to him, and if you do, what will you say?"
Harry spun on them.
"Dad," Elaine pleaded.
"What will, I say? I'll ask him what he did to raise such an animal," Harry said.
"You haven't had any conversations with Mr. Stoner since his son was convicted of murdering your daughter?" a young female reporter asked, shoving her microphone in his face. Harry gazed at her. She had eyes like Farah's. For a moment he imagined Farah there beside him instead of Elaine, looping her arm through his. Then he blinked back to reality.
"What in hell would I do that for? That man would spend twenty million dollars in a heartbeat if he could keep his son alive. I can't do anything to keep my daughter alive. I can only visit her grave."
"Soon Philip Stoner will be visiting his son's grave," someone in the rear of reporters' group declared.
Harry nodded. "And then finally, finally, Philip Stoner will understand what my life has been like since his creature killed my daughter," Harry said.
"Leave him alone!" Elaine shouted. "Don't you think this is hard enough for us?"
"What are your feelings today?" the young female reporter demanded, ignoring Elaine's plea.
"I feel you're all a bunch of animals," Elaine said and turned herself and Harry firmly away.
Harry saw the fury in his daughter's crimson face. She was pretty when she was angry, as pretty as Lil, he thought and felt a sudden pang of pride.
"Lucky you came along," Harry said, "to ride shotgun."
"I knew it would be like this. Horrific."
He nodded. "I'd walk through fire to see this, Elaine."
"I know," she said sadly.
It saddened him too that he had turned into a beast of revenge. But what about the early days? he thought to himself as if he were really two people now. He remembered Farah accompanying Dirk to his golf tournaments, flashing her beautiful smile, wearing those designer outfits that put her on the covers of sports, fashion, and entertainment magazines as well as on the society pages of big newspapers. What about their interviews on the talk shows?
What about the parties, the way Dirk's fame had rubbed off on them and helped his and Lil's real estate business, people wanting to meet them, their celebrity growing -- and then the waking up: Farah's discovery that Dirk was having one sleazy affair after another, his picture with other women in the rag magazines.
What an embarrassment for all of them, but especially for Farah.
Harry truly felt like a man on a roller coaster, shooting downward with her, crashing toward some dark tunnel, never anticipating the depth of their fall, a fall that had brought him here to an execution, an execution that Stoner himself had finally found inevitable. The day of retribution was upon him. His father's wealth and power wouldn't change that.
Would Harry put it all to rest after this? He lived with the fear that Lil might be right in believing that Dirk Stoner might continue his murderous rampage and kill him and subsequently Lil and Elaine as well.
Once in the observation room, Harry saw that, through the glass window, all the witnesses would have a clear view of Dirk Stoner when he was brought in for his execution.
Harry and Elaine took their seats right up front, trying not to look at anyone else. Harry saw the empty seat at the other end of the row and assumed it was being held for Dirk's father.
Philip Stoner was nearly eight years older than Harry. He was a tall, very slim man who reminded people of Henry Fonda. When he entered the witness room, he was somber, but to Harry he was disgustingly distinguished, even now.
He didn't look at Harry and Elaine. He sat with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. No one spoke. It was as if they had all gone underwater and had to hold their breath.
Elaine held her father's hand firmly. He felt her squeeze as the tension built in her body. "Are you all right, Dad?" she asked softly.
"Yes," he said. His heart was pounding.
"I can feel your pulse," she said. "Breathe deeply, Dad. Easy."
"Okay, Doc," he muttered. He tried to swallow, but his throat felt full of sand.
Harry hadn't set eyes on his ex-son-in-law and the murderer of his daughter since Stoner's last court appearance. He recalled when Farah had first told him she was going to date Dirk Stoner. Farah and two other models had been invited to a film premiere in Westwood, and Farah had met Dirk in the lobby after the screening. He had offered to take her to the party and she had accepted. "He isn't what the gossip magazines make him out to be, Daddy. He was polite, even a bit shy," she had told Harry, "And he is soooo handsome in the flesh."
How could Harry have blamed her for her lack of insight and her gullibility? he thought as he waited for Dirk Stoner to come through that door to the death chamber. Hadn't he, too, been charmed by the man?
"I have a lot of money," Dirk had once told Harry over a cocktail in the clubhouse. "I'm not going to deny it, Harry. I'm not like some of these wealthy people who pretend they don't have a cent. I'm a millionaire because of my victories on the golf course and because of the trusts my father has set up for me. I'm actually a multimillionaire," he bragged sotto voce. "But until I met Farah, my life was empty. She has a way of making me feel good about myself. Know what I mean?"
Of course he knew what Dirk meant. It was what his daughter did for him too. This was a girl who had so much love and life in her that she infected people with happiness, Harry thought. But she was always a little girl, trusting, ready to be surprised and excited, ready for some new experience, a little girl who loved presents, loved adulation, loved to be loved. She really believed Dirk Stoner loved her so devoutly that he wouldn't betray her. She didn't want to believe he was unfaithful; she would rather discredit the messenger, but she confronted Dirk with the information and he confessed because he was arrogant enough to believe she would always forgive him. She was heartbroken, but she did forgive him.
That was the first of the little compromises Harry blamed for the eventual tragedy. Dirk hadn't been strong enough. There were the usual excuses: he was on the road alone too much; he was handsome and pursued by groupies.
True to his nature, Dirk Stoner saw forgiveness as weakness, an open door. Farah was too embarrassed to mention the other infidelities until things grew nastier, and then she confronted him more aggressively.
The divorce settlement was relatively quick. Right from the beginning, the public sided with Farah. Dirk became unpopular on the golf circuit. He began to lose more regularly, drink more, use cocaine more often. His descent continued until somewhere in his distorted brain, he found Farah and blamed her for his failures and new dark lot in life. He developed the obsession that if he could win her back, he would win back his old self, and so began the stalking, the endless solicitation, and eventually the vicious, psychotic murder, a descent into the maelstrom that would hit rock bottom and come to an end today.
The witness room filled. Someone coughed. Someone whispered. The door was opened, and Dirk Stoner, wearing hip chains and shackles, was led into the death chamber.
His dark brown hair was longer and his complexion was pale. There was hesitation in his steps, evidence of last-minute panic. Gone was that familiar Stoner arrogance. He looked worse than pale. He looked like a corpse, his terror-filled eyes shifting madly from side to side, his tongue licking his lips.
Dirk gazed at the witnesses, holding on his father for a moment, then panning the faces, and finally focusing on Harry and Elaine. Harry felt Elaine's hand tighten like a vise around his fingers. She was actually hurting him with her fingernails, but he didn't move, didn't utter a sound. Dirk's gaze remained fixed on her. There was a look of raw rage for a moment and then a crazed smile that quickly evaporated as the preparations continued.
Harry saw the way Dirk's hands shook. He felt the man's trembling. He knew they put a diaper on condemned men to avoid an embarrassing event.
What he didn't want to see was the man hold himself together. Finally, finally, there will be an end to this self-centered, spoiled, conceited excuse for a human being, Harry thought. Such men should fall apart in the shadow of their own impending doom.
Dirk looked at his father again as if he hoped he could wave his hand and stop the execution. Harry glanced at Philip Stoner.
Elaine saw the direction of his gaze and leaned in to whisper. "His father looks like stone," she said.
Harry nodded. Why was Philip Stoner here? Harry wondered. Was this the way he offered comfort to his son? What sort of comfort could that man give anyone anyway?
Dirk was asked if he had any final comments to make.
He looked at his father first. "I didn't do anything to embarrass my family," he said. "I want you to know that, Dad."
Stoner lowered his head.
"What does he expect now?" Harry muttered to Elaine, "Does he want his father to get us all to forgive him?"
Then Dirk turned and fixed his eyes on them.
Harry felt the heat in his face, but he kept his glare. He wouldn't let a man about to die intimidate him, not this man.
"I didn't do it, and I miss Farah as much as you do. This is a mistake! It's a terrible mistake!" he screamed.
He seemed to crumble, lose his legs completely. The guards held him up for a moment. There was a soft undertone of murmuring.
Harry started to rise.
"Don't, Dad," Elaine said, pulling on his arm.
"The bastard. He wants us to feel sorry for him."
"He wants you to lose your composure, Dad. Don't give him any satisfaction."
Harry glanced at her and nodded. She was right. His rational, cool daughter was right.
He held himself together.
They began to strap Dirk onto the gurney. The witnesses could see his sobbing. Harry closed his eyes to it for a moment.
Elaine stroked his hand and then closed her own eyes and lowered her head.
Finally it was to be over.
The reporters were waiting more eagerly when Harry and Elaine emerged from the prison. The late afternoon sun was gone, and dark shadows seemed to ooze around them like demons of death.
Camera lights were already on, and more were illuminated. They blinded Elaine's and Harry's vision for a moment.
"Don't talk to them," Elaine urged.
For the first time since the verdicts, Harry didn't care to be on camera or recorded, but he wasn't going to show anyone his reluctance. It would be misinterpreted as weakness.
"I'm all right," he said.
"Can you tell us what happened in there, Mr. Ross?"
"The state executed a vicious murderer," Harry said dryly.
"Are you satisfied?" someone else called out.
"Satisfied? I know justice was done, but I won't be satisfied until my daughter is raised from the dead." He pushed their way toward the parking lot. He and Elaine got into the car quickly, questions being shouted at them, tossed at them like rice at a wedding. He took a deep breath.
"Do you want me to drive, Dad?"
"No," he said quickly and started the engine. Don't show anyone weakness, he told himself. He didn't want them to learn about the emptiness he felt and the disappointment.
"He didn't suffer enough, Elaine," he said as they drove away. "There was no bleeding, no electric shocks, no sound of gunfire, no wham of the hangman's noose, nothing to indicate death except the physician who examined him, read the EKG and pronounced him dead." He trembled with rage. "He could just as easily have died of heart failure in his cell and escaped the entire event."
"Let it go, Dad. Let it go," Elaine pleaded.
Harry had trouble swallowing. Was this what he had waited to see all these years?
"It's as if Farah was a minor player in all this, Elaine, her death barely a factor. She didn't get the consideration Dirk got -- the minister, the doctor, the psychologist. She didn't lay herself down to sleep and pray the Lord her soul to keep. She consciously faced the horrible awareness of her own impending doom, and she was in pain and alone and afraid. No priest stood at her side assuring her of eternal life. No friends and family gave her support. No officials handled her with dignity. She squealed like a hog and watched her blood seep into the carpet."
"Dad, stop it!" Elaine cried.
Tears were running down his cheeks.
"Pull over and let me drive," she said.
Harry suddenly screamed. He released a deeply held, horrible, grotesque cry and began to pound the steering wheel madly.
He had to slow down, stop, and pull over to the side as he raged from side to side, slamming his hands against the windows like a trapped animal in a glass cage and then pounding his fists on the dashboard until the pain shooting up his arm and into his shoulder brought it to a halt.
Elaine remained out of his way until he fell forward, exhausted, gasping, drooling, his stomach cramped. Cars whizzed by. Then she got out, went around the car, and opened his door.
As soon as she did, he leaned out of the car and regurgitated. She held him until he was finished.
"I shouldn't have eaten dinner," he muttered. "I had to be a big shot and put on an act for your mother and you." He sat back, closed his eyes, and waited for the waves of nausea to subside.
"Move over. I'm going to drive," Elaine commanded.
Bright lights in the rearview mirror brought him to attention. He sat up as a highway patrolman got out of his vehicle and strolled up to their car, a flashlight in hand. The beam hit Elaine in the face.
"What's the problem, ma'am?" the patrolman asked.
"My father got sick while he was driving, but he's all right now," she said quickly.
The patrolman held the light on Harry a moment and then moved the beam around the car before shutting it off.
"You're...Mr. Ross, aren't you?"
The patrolman looked at Elaine. "Then you people were just coming from San Quentin?"
"Yes," Elaine said.
"I'm really sorry. Can you carry on or would you like some assistance?"
"No, we'll be fine," Elaine said. She looked at Harry. "I'm going to drive the rest of the way."
"Well, again, I'm sorry, Mr. Ross. You and your family have been through hell," the highway officer remarked.
For a moment, with the shadows around him, the patrolman looked like some vision from the underworld, the shape of a creature in a nightmare, something the devil himself had sent to remind Harry that evil had a way of lingering, like the seemingly endless echo of a gunshot and a scream and all the waiting of the bereaved.
"Yes," Harry said. He moved over so Elaine could get behind the wheel.
"Take care," the patrolman said.
Elaine put the car into drive and started away.
She looked at her exhausted father, slumping in the seat. Then she gazed into the side mirror and saw the patrolman standing there watching them drive away.
In a wild part of her imagination, she thought. She heard the sound of laughter.
Copyright © 1998 by Andrew Niederman