Authors: Nevada Barr
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery Fiction, #Mystery, #Crime & mystery, #Fiction - Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Mystery & Detective - Series, #Pigeon; Anna (Fictitious Character), #Women Park Rangers, #Mystery & Thrillers, #Ellis Island (N.J. and N.Y.), #Statue of Liberty National Monument (N.Y. and N.J.)
"Don't move. Don't move. Don't."
He was Caucasian, tall, badly dressed and in need of a haircut. All this Anna took in, in the two seconds it took him to absorb the unexpected turn of events. In his left hand was an old leather briefcase, badly battered. Anna had bought it for Molly when she graduated from medical school. At the time, it had represented two weeks' salary. Seeing it in a stranger's hand while her sister lay in intensive care brought on a rage so sudden and white-hot Anna forgot she held the thief at bay with only a chunk of pewter.
"I would very much like to shoot you," she said, and her voice was devoid of any humanity. "Think twice before you give me an excuse."
For a moment the word held no meaning, When she realized the thief had spoken her name, still she said nothing. Rage had welded shut her brain and jaws.
"Is that you, Anna? It's illegal to carry a gun in New York. Didn't Molly tell you that?"
The glare receded. Anna's brain was returned to her management. Familiar names, the familiar voice, banished fear but not the adrenaline high. She took the candlestick from the man's back.
"What are you packing these days? That felt like the bore of an elephant gun," the intruder said as he turned. Then he saw the candlestick and laughed. "You made me a believer. I'll send you the laundry bill."
"Frederick," Anna said stiffly. Frederick Stanton was an FBI agent, an ex-boyfriend; ex because he'd fallen for Anna's sister when he came to New York to help her with a stalker two years before. Came at Anna's request. Shock, relief--some strong emotion Anna couldn't identify--wiped her mind clear. She remembered the rudiments of the English language, but just barely.
"You wonder what I'm doing here," Frederick said helpfully.
"I do." Anna put the candlestick down carefully, as if unsure of her own strength.
"I got some of Molly's things." Frederick held up the satchel. "Music, pictures, things that might help--you know."
"I know," Anna said. Suddenly her legs were shaking too much to allow her to remain standing. She lowered herself into one of the cherry dining chairs and let her breath out slowly. "You and Molly have been in contact, then?" The words shamed her twice: once that she could be so weak as to feel petty betrayal when her sister was so ill, and twice that she could be so weak as to let Frederick see it.
Stanton didn't sit down. All elbows and knees like an awkward schoolboy, he stood in the archway, the briefcase clutched in both hands. He'd aged since Anna had seen him last. Features always comically too large for his face loomed even larger now that some of the flesh had melted away.
Stick-straight thick hair still fell over his forehead like black straw, but now threads of silver showed. "Molly's not been in contact with me," he said. "I haven't called ... I haven't talked to her. I don't even know if she knows I'm here. I went to the hospital this morning and they let me see her. Maybe she woke up once, but she didn't nod or anything."
The pain in his voice, and the knowledge that Molly had been true to her, picked up Anna's spirits considerably. "Sit down," she said, more sharply than she intended. "You're making me nervous."
Obediently, Frederick sat. Bony knees, bare and hairy, poked out from madras shorts worn too long. Sandals and socks finished the costume. Anna knew him too well to write it off as simple bad taste. Frederick enjoyed being underestimated, traded on it. "How did you get in?" she asked, just to have something to say.
Frederick looked sheepish. Another highly effective technique he'd mastered.
"You flashed your badge," Anna said flatly. "You are unethical scum, you know that, don't you?"
"Unethical scum," he agreed.
Suspicion returned to blight Anna's heart. "If you weren't in contact with Molly, how did you know she was sick?"
"NYPD," Frederick said. "After the threatening-letter stuff, I had a friend sort of keep tabs on her. Make sure she was okay."
"You had my sister under police surveillance for two years?"
"Part of the service, ma'am." When Anna didn't smile, he defended himself. "Not so fancy. Not official. Emmett would just call her office every couple of months, chat up the doorman now and then. It was the doorman who told him she'd been sick. I had annual leave built up. I'm vacationing in New York on Emmett's living room sofa."
Anna let his words sink in. Two years was a long time to sustain a crush.
"What have you got in the bag?" she asked abruptly.
"Boy, I'd sure like your take on this," he said as he opened the briefcase and began fishing things out. "I was lost, lemme tellya,
The woman hasn't got anything. Just rich tasteful stuff that's worthless, if you know what I mean." He babbled as he unpacked, talking as though he and Anna were old friends. In a way, they were.
There were three snapshots, each in its own frame: Anna in college in her shorty nightie, a scarf tied buccaneer style over long hair. Molly on the back of an elephant in Thailand. And a small photo in a frame no more than an inch and a half square of a gray cat. "Rajah." Anna picked the name out of a catechism of Fluffys, Bootsys and Tippys that had walked through their childhood on little cat feet. Frederick had packed a small boom box, a handful of CDs and a large silk scarf fringed in mossy green.
"I thought we could, well, drape it around the way women do. Color," Frederick said of the scarf. "And this perfume spritzer was on the dresser. She wore it. I can't forget the smell." Apparently remembering the circumstances, he stopped enthusing. "We could maybe sprinkle it on the pillow so she can smell something besides the hospital. Smell's supposed to be a primal kind of conductor." He was looking at Anna, seemingly genuinely in need of her approval. Unsure of how much she trusted him and miffed that he'd stolen her plan, she wasn't generous.
"Can't hurt," she said.
For a minute they sat without talking. Exhausted by the roller-coaster emotions of the day, Anna was content just to be a lump. Frederick's fidgeting brought her out of her trance. "What?" she asked irritably.
"I'd like to get back to the hospital."
"Yeah," Anna said. "I guess." She didn't move till he was up and unchaining the door.
Anna returned the key to the doorman and stepped back into summer in New York. East Coast weather, seemingly more capricious because she was unused to it, had gone from raining and fifty to steaming and eighty-five. Frederick hailed a cab and they rode uptown. She let him pay the fare and they entered Columbia-Presbyterian together.
The watch on Stanton's wrist let her know she'd managed to kill two hours.
And a painful and ugly death it was,
she thought sourly as she followed the FBI agent into the elevator. Before the doors could close, a woman in a wheelchair was rolled in. She was bent double under a dowager's hump, her hands gnarled with arthritis and grown to the chair's arms like gingerroot. Cottony hair was permed, a froth so thin scalp showed through. She smelled of talcum powder, like an infant. Anna quashed an urge to move away, separate herself from sickness, age and death.
Because she didn't know where else to look, she looked at Frederick. Whistling tunelessly, he was peeking into the leather satchel as though he had a treasure tucked away there. Oddly, that helped. She was able to meet the old woman's eyes, smile at her.
"We brought you stuff," Frederick said cheerfully as the nurse closed them in Molly's cubicle.
"Beware of geeks bearing gifts," Anna said.
"Your own stuff," Frederick told Molly's silent self. "That makes me a thief, but paradoxically trustworthy since they cannot be considered true gifts."
Anna plugged in the CD player and put on the first CD from the pile Frederick had brought. Dark notes, swelling with nostalgia, filled the room. Music that made Anna ache without knowing why, the score to a long sad movie she'd never seen. Picking up the jewel case, she read aloud: " 'Enya,
The Memory of Trees.'
Jesus, Frederick, couldn't you find some Guy Clark, some Etta James, something visceral? Enya would spirit away a beer-drinking good ol' boy." She turned down the transporting strains as Stanton arranged the pictures on a metal table near Molly's head. After he'd finished fussing, he sat in what Anna had come to think of in caps as The Red Chair. He took Molly's hand in his--a comfort Anna had dared not offer. "I'm here for the duration," he told her sister. "Should you wish to get rid of me, all you need do is open your eyes and say three times, 'Get thee behind me, Stanton.' You can dispense with swinging a dead cat around your head in the graveyard at midnight."
A faint scratching arrested their attention: Molly scratching at the sheet with clipped unpolished nails. As they watched, she opened her eyes, a flash of hazel between papery lids.
"Hi," Anna said. "We're here."
Again the nails made their mute protest. "What?"
"Undo her hand," Frederick whispered.
Anna hurried to unfetter the hand away from Frederick. Mesmerized, they watched as it lifted. Hope turned to alarm as it strayed toward the feeding tube. As the fingers were closing around the plastic, Anna caught her sister's hand.
"No you don't."
The arm went back into its restraints. There was no resistance, and more alarming, not so much as a flicker of annoyance crossed Molly's face. Her eyes closed again.
"Damn." Tired to the point of weeping, Anna slid to the floor, stretched out legs traumatized from too much concrete and leaned back against the bed. From where she sat she could see Frederick's face, but he didn't seem aware she was watching him. Molly was older than Frederick by five or six years. Lying in the hospital bed, she appeared older still, sixty or seventy. Molly looked bad, frail and worn and colorless.
And Anna could see that to Frederick it didn't matter a damn.
New York City was farther north than Anna had pictured it in her mind. This close to solstice, its latitude was manifest in the twilight. Light lingered in the western sky long after sundown. The timelessness of a summer evening was the only taste of immortality most humans ever got, and as Anna cherished the soft golden forever, she wished she could capture it, carry it across the harbor to Molly's windowless world.
Dr. Madison had put Anna and Frederick out of the ICU at ten minutes past four. He'd walked with them as far as the elevator, making reassuring noises regarding Molly's progress. Anna had been grateful for his optimism and the extra attention, and for being rescued from three minutes alone with Frederick. She and Stanton parted ways at the hospital door, he seemingly as glad to be on his own as she.
Anna had grabbed a deli sandwich and caught a boat to Ellis Island.
Central Park, the city's one green space of any size, crossed her mind as a possible picnic spot, but the park had always depressed her. Many times, when she lived in Manhattan, Anna had gone there seeking the solace of nature only to be revolted by the mass of humanity swarming over its rocks and meadows. It put her in mind of the wedding feast in
fine and wonderful thing spoiled by crawling vermin. Probably because she was in no particular hurry now, had no appointments to keep, the connections of trains and boats had been perfect. Just after five she was ensconced on the sunset side of Island III with a Coke and her cheese and tomato sandwich. Island III was on the southern shore of Ellis, separated from the Island II buildings by a wide grassy field that had been an outdoor recreation area in the old days, used for baseball, picnics and physical therapy. On this last "island" were housed the morgue, a kitchen, a lab, the infectious disease wards and the living quarters for the nurses and the island's Immigration Commissioner. Laid out in a line, the buildings paralleled those of Islands I and II. The Island III buildings were connected by a long walkway sheltered by walls of glass girded by rotting mullions. At the entrance to many of the wards and in the nooks and crannies between the buildings had been gardens, places for respite and healing. These ancient gardens had become overgrown; they were as teeth of the jungle devouring the historic structures. Most were dense with greenery and impenetrable by anything more substantial than a chipmunk.
Anna had carried her soda and sandwich out through the old kitchen located halfway down Island III and sat on the crumbling steps of its rear door. Each of the structures had a stoop, much like those in neighboring Brooklyn. Ellis was largely man-made and thus expensive and labor-intensive. Land was not wasted. The concrete steps were mere yards from a stony breakwater that dropped into the harbor. Between the buildings and the sea was a strip of weedy earth. Broken rock, sharp and gray-white, formed a steep, unwelcoming beach. From her stoop, Anna had a wonderful view of Ms. Liberty's backside. The morgue kindly cropped most of the Jersey shore from the picture.
Having finished her supper, she pocketed the refuse and set out to explore the infectious disease wards. At eight-fifteen the last NPS boat would leave Ellis for Liberty. Patsy was staying late to finish up her part of the report on the carrying capacity of the monument; Anna would ride back to Liberty on the last boat with her. Till then she'd declared a holiday. Molly, Frederick, all of that, was shelved in a cupboard deep in the recesses of her mind, to be taken out tomorrow when she again braved the metropolis. The next three hours were hers.