Authors: Jeremy Bates
Scarlett opened her
eyes. Brightness. God, it was so bright
it hurt. She tried to piece together where she was, but her thoughts were
groggy and uncooperative. She could smell traces of disinfectant and iodine,
and then she could make out shapes. She was lying on her back in a bed—a
mechanized bed with those side railings so you didn’t fall out. Beside her stood
a blood-pressure monitor and an IV pole. A tube led from the bag hanging on the
pole to a needle that disappeared into a vein in her right forearm.
Okay, so she was
in a hospital. And it appeared to be a very nice hospital, evident by the
polished laminate flooring, high-gloss maple walls, and large-screen TV. Even
the linen on the bed was of high quality. The door to the bathroom was ajar,
and she could see gleaming blue-and-gray tile work, more maple, and
faux-granite countertops. There were no flowers or cards on the side table. She
took that to mean either one of two things. She’d only just arrived, and no one
had gotten wind of whatever had happened to her. Or she’d been in a coma for a
hell of a long time, and everyone had given up on her long ago.
her toes. They moved. She raised a hand to her head and felt a bandage, which
her fingers probed. A spot in the center of her forehead was sore and tender.
What had happened? Had she been mugged? Shot? Stabbed? In a car accident—?
It all came back
to her in a rush of images: Laurel Canyon Boulevard, bursting through the
guardrail, her stomach in her throat as she plummeted to the ground. She
remembered the crushing landing, bouncing wildly out of control down the
ravine, the tree…
But I’m alive.
The door to the
room opened and Sal strolled in with his head down, his eyes glued to a story
below the fold of the
Wall Street Journal.
Seeing him, Scarlett felt a
burst of gratitude and affection. He was here, back from Dubai. If she had the
strength, she would have jumped up and hugged him.
He wore a crisp
white shirt and navy merino wool suit, one of his made-to-measures from
appointment-only William Fioravanti in Manhattan. It was something Al Capone
might have fancied had he been around today. In fact, she often kidded Sal that
he resembled an Italian gangster. He had short-cropped black hair, hazel eyes,
and a generous Roman nose. And he was Sicilian, which sort of sealed the deal.
said, tossing the paper onto one of the leather chairs and rushing over. He
knelt beside the bed and took her hand. “
La mia bella donna.
After so long
apart, the feel of his touch and the sound of his voice and the smell of his
cologne all hit her like a truck, smashing through the cobwebs in her head, and
she realized suddenly just how close she’d come to never experiencing any of
those sensations ever again. The reality of her situation sank in with numbing
force. She’d been in a car accident, one bad enough to knock her unconscious
and land her in the hospital. She felt very fragile. Life felt very fragile.
“Is that all I am
to you?” she said, teasing him, happy to find she could speak. “Beautiful?” Her
throat was dry. The words were a papery whisper.
“What else is an
actress but a pretty face to look at?”
She wanted to
laugh, but a sob escaped instead. A tear tripped down her cheek. “Sal…” She swallowed,
tried to work up saliva. “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t know.
For speeding? For not paying attention to the road? For all the terrible things
she’d said to him after discovering the affair? She shook her head.
“How do you
feel?” he asked.
okay, I think. Am I okay?”
her, and something inside her chest that had been very tight loosened. “What
about this?” She touched the bandages around her head.
“It’s just a
“How long have I
been here? What time is it?” She glanced toward the window. The blinds were
drawn. No sunlight slipped in between the cracks.
“You came in this
afternoon. It’s about midnight now.”
Less than twelve
hours. Not as bad as she’d feared. “How long have you been here?”
“A couple hours.
I would have gotten here sooner, but we ran into some bad weather over the
Atlantic and had to detour.”
There was something she was missing here. Something about Sal coming back to
LA, coming for—
she said. “The party!”
about that. Gloria’s taking care of it.”
Her actual birthday was on December 13, nine days earlier. But because of
filming she’d postponed the celebration to today. She usually didn’t make a
fuss over birthdays, but this one, number thirty, was big, up there in
importance with sixteen and twenty-one, the last big fun one until you
seriously began dreading them. Over two hundred invitations had gone out. Every
actor who had made the headlines within the past six months would have been
there—not to mention executives from HBO, Castle Rock, Warner, and all the
other big studios. Sal had invited the mayor of LA and the former Vice
President, both of whom were his close friends. On top of the Who’s Who guest list,
a tabloid paper had paid her $2.5 million to photograph the event, the money of
which was supposed to go to one of her charities.
“I’m such an
idiot,” she said, shaking her head and instantly regretting doing so as pain
flamed beneath the bandage. She put a hand to the sore spot. “I’ve ruined
The door to the
room opened again. This time a fiftyish doctor with a graying beard and a
ponytail entered. Scarlett had seen plenty of men sporting ponytails before, of
course. Just never a doctor. She wasn’t sure what to make of it. It was like
your doctor having tattoos—or worse, a bowtie.
Sal said, standing and shaking the doctor’s hand. “Scarlett, this is Dr. Blair,
the neurologist who looked you over when you came in.”
Cedars-Sinai, Miss Cox,” he said, coming to stand before the bed.
thought I was in the Beverly Hilton.”
gets a private room, Miss Cox. You can thank your husband for arranging that.”
He shifted the clipboard from his left hand to the right one. “I’m sure you’ve
noticed the bandage around your head. You hit it pretty hard in the
accident—hard enough to have lost consciousness for several hours at any rate.
Your forehead will likely be sore for a few days. But, as I’ve told your
husband, the X-rays and CT scan came back clean. No fractures or hematoma,
which is a good thing. How do you feel?”
groggy,” she said.
“Any dizziness or
“As opposed to?”
morning. I get migraines.”
He scratched some
notes down on the clipboard. “How often do you get them?”
“A couple times a
“How long have
you been having them?”
“A few months.”
More notes. “Any
change in diet? Change in sleeping habits?”
“Are you drinking
any more coffee or alcohol than usual?”
“No, no. It’s none
of that. It’s just stress. From work—and other things. My life’s been a little
Dr. Blair nodded,
but didn’t say anything right away. Scarlett found herself wondering whether he
knew about her and Sal’s marital problems. God knows the affair had been played
to death on all the television entertainment channels, including several
respectable news outfits. Not that she cared if he did know. She’d long ago
become desensitized to what the general public thought of her personal life.
“Welcome to the jungle,” her agent had told her six years back when she was
still starry-eyed after her first big feature film success.
Dr. Blair said,
“Are you feeling any nausea now?”
“Can you touch
She did what he
He held a finger
in front of her face. “Follow my finger, please.” He moved his index finger
left, then right. “Any blurred vision?”
She shook her
“It doesn’t seem you have any post-concussion symptoms. But I’d like to keep
you overnight for observation. I believe the police would also like to get a
statement from you. After that, in the morning, you should be good to leave.
However,” he added, “I want you to take it easy. That means nothing stressful
for the next seven to ten days. Understood?
said. “I have too much to do.” Her mind was already fast-forwarding to the
weekend. The calls and apologies she’d have to make. Rebooking the venue for
the party, sending out fresh invitations, the appearance Monday on
“Miss Cox,” Dr.
Blair said. “You said so yourself. You believe stress has been triggering your
recent spate of migraines. That sounds reasonable to me. On top of that, you’ve
just been in a serious car accident. You’ve suffered a mild to moderate
traumatic brain injury. True, you seem to be doing fine. But any sort of TBI
should be taken seriously. Just because you’re not currently exhibiting certain
symptoms doesn’t mean they won’t emerge tomorrow, or the day after that. And
the best prevention against that is to take a break, relax, slow down.”
“I really don’t
“I’ll keep an eye
on her,” Sal cut in.
“Make sure you
do. Now, I have to continue my rounds. A nurse will be in shortly.”
They thanked Dr.
Blair, and he left the room.
skeptically at Sal. “You don’t really think I need to sit around the house for
a week, do you?”
“You heard the
man, cara mia. You need to relax. Whatever you have to do can wait.” He took
her hand in his again and rubbed the top of it with his thumb. “It’s good to
She wanted to
tell him the same, but she bit back the words. She didn’t want to confuse her
gratitude at surviving the car accident with her still uncertain feelings for
Unable to meet
his eyes, she looked down at the hand holding hers. It was tanned, strong, manicured
nails, platinum wedding band on the ring finger.
said, clearing his throat. “What about we take a trip somewhere?”
her eyebrows in surprise. “You mean, just you and me?”
“Sure,” he said,
pushing up his bottom lip. If lips could shrug, that’s how they’d do it.
“I don’t think
that’s such a good idea right now, Sal.”
“I meant what I
said about getting through this. I want this marriage to work.”
“I want it to
work too, I really do, but I don’t think the next step is us vacationing
“But it is,” he
insisted. “It’s exactly what we need.”
She searched his
eyes. “What about the hotel?” she said cautiously. “The opening?”
“I’ll have my
phone. I’ll keep in touch with the office.”
“I don’t know—”
“It’ll be good
“Humor me then.
What do you have in mind?”
“Something private, away from the crowd.”
“And lie around
on a beach?”
“What about a
safari?” he suggested.
surprised. “As in Africa?”
“Dubai’s on the
same clock as Kenya, or Tanzania. If there’s an emergency, and I have to get
back for whatever reason, it’s only a couple hours flight. You could come.
Check out the hotel. The movers and decorators are finishing up this week.”
considered it. In her head she saw an acacia tree silhouetted against a
sapphire sunset. Giraffes and zebras and elephants gathered at a watering hole.
Antelope grazing on the savanna. Elegant game resorts and tented camps. It
sounded nice. She could almost hear Elton John singing “Circle of Life
“All right,” she
said, warming to the idea. “I’m game.”
Like the devil
was known by many
names—blowfish, puffer fish, globefish, balloon fish, toadfish, more. The second
most poisonous vertebrate in the world, it was a nasty piece of work, its
neurotoxin ten thousand times more deadly than cyanide. If ingested, the poison
numbed the lips and tongue, induced vomiting and muscle paralysis, and
eventually caused death from suffocation. If you somehow survived, chances were
good you’d end up in a prolonged coma, cruelly conscious of everything
happening around you, a kind of hell on earth.
Damien Fitzgerald had one such
on the cutting board in the kitchen,
cold and dead. He picked up what the Japanese called a
single-edged carbon blade—and removed the eyes. He sliced a circle around the
mouth, stuck his fingers into the incision, and peeled back the skin. It came
off cleanly, like the shell off a hardboiled egg. A jelly-like substance coated
the denuded meat. He scrubbed it away with water and salt. Gutting the sucker
was the tricky part. Most of the neurotoxin was contained in the liver and
ovaries. If you ruptured either, the poison would seep through your skin and
into your flesh. So very slowly, with the precision and dexterity of a surgeon,
he removed the internal organs and filleted what remained of the meat into thin
strips, cutting upward against the bone. Afterward he placed the sashimi onto a
plate and poured himself a glass of a ’96 Domaine Laroche Chablis. Before he
could sit down and enjoy his dinner, however, his computer beeped.
a piece of the fish into his mouth—it was gelatinous but not fishy tasting—and entered
the study, where the floor-to-ceiling bookcases were filled with thousands of
books on the history of warfare. He was going through the centuries in
chronological order, a hobby he’d begun shortly after his wife and
eight-year-old daughter were brutally murdered nine years ago. He’d started
with the Battle of Megiddo in 1469 BC—or BCE, if you cared to be politically
correct—and was currently up to the Battle of Talasa in 751 AD, a conflict
between the Arabs and the Chinese for control of a major river in Central Asia.
The Chinese lost, which was a shame for them. Had they won, Central Asia today
might have been Chinese, not Muslim.
The computer, a
MacBook, was on the desk in the corner. He sat down in front of it and logged
into specially encrypted software. He had one new email message:
How’s my favorite
assassin, Redstone? If you’re not keeping up, the FBI is still holding its
collective dick over the last job. All they’ve got is the killer wears size 12
loafers. Next time don’t step in the fucking blood, yes? See the attachment,
per usual. There’s good news and bad news. Bad news—the first guy we used
fucked up, so you’re cleanup on this one. The good news—the mark’s going to
Africa for a few days, which, if you’re quick, should make things a little
easier than usual. Shit happens in Africa, right?
Good luck, God
the next several hours going over the information he’d been sent. Then he
booked the first flight leaving for Tanzania the following morning.