Sunday, April 2
George Washington University Hospital,
Special Care Unit, 10:10 p.m.
The slow pound of Nicholas Marten’s heart sounded like a drum buried somewhere inside him. His own breath, as he inhaled and exhaled, resonated as if it were a movie sound track. So did the sound of Caroline’s labored breathing as she lay on the bed next to him.
For what seemed the tenth time in half that many minutes he looked at her. Her eyes were closed, as they had been, her hand resting gently in his. For all the life in it, it might as well have been a glove. Nothing more.
How long had he been in Washington? Two days? Three? Flown there from his home in Manchester, England, almost immediately after Caroline’s call asking him to come. He’d known the minute he heard her voice something was terribly wrong. It had been filled with dread and fear and helplessness, and then she’d told him what it was: She had a very aggressive, untreatable staph infection and was expected to live only a few days more.
For all the horror and shock of it, there had been something more in her voice. Anger. Something had been done to her, she told him, suddenly whispering as if she were afraid someone would overhear. No matter what the doctors said or would say, she was certain that the infection killing her had been caused by bacteria that had deliberately been given to her. It had been then, judging from sounds in the background, that someone had come into the room. Abruptly she’d finished with an urgent plea for him to come to Washington, then hung up.
He hadn’t known what to think. All he knew was that she was terribly frightened and that her situation was made all the worse by the very recent deaths of her husband and twelve-year-old son in the crash of a private plane off the coast of California. Considering the physical and emotional toll the combination of these tragic things would have had on her, and with no other information, Marten found it impossible to know if there was any basis at all for her suspicion. Still, the reality was that she was desperately ill and wanted him to be with her. And from everything he’d heard in her voice he knew he’d better get there as quickly as he could.
And he had. Within the day flying from Manchester in the north of England to London and then on to Washington, D.C., taking a taxi from Dulles International directly to the hospital, and later getting a room at a hotel nearby. That Caroline knew who he really was and the risk she dared subject him to by asking him to come back into the United States had not been brought up. It wasn’t necessary. She would never have asked if something wasn’t terribly wrong.
So he had come hurriedly back to the country he had fled four years earlier in fear for his life and that of his sister. Come back—after so many years and the differing paths their lives had taken—because Caroline had been and was still the one true love of his life. He loved her more deeply than any woman he had ever known and in a way that was impossible for him to describe. He knew too that even though she was happily married and had been for a long time, in some unspoken, even profound way, she felt the same about him.
Marten looked up sharply as the room door was suddenly flung open. A heavyset nurse entered followed by two men in dark suits. The first was broad-shouldered, in his early forties, with dark curly hair. “You’ll have to leave, sir, please,” he said respectfully.
“The president is coming,” the nurse said curtly, her manner abrupt and authoritative, as if she had suddenly become commander of the suits. A member of the Secret Service.
At the same instant Marten felt Caroline’s hand tighten around his. He looked down and saw her eyes were open. They were wide and clear, and looked into his the way they had that first day they met, when they were both sixteen and in high school.
“I love you,” she whispered.
“I love you too,” he whispered back.
She looked at him for a half second more, then closed her eyes, and her hand relaxed.
“Please, sir, you have to leave, now,” the first suit said. At that same moment a tall, slim, silver-haired man in a dark blue suit stepped through the doorway. There was no question who he was—John Henry Harris, president of the United States.
Marten looked at him directly. “Please,” he said softly, “give me a moment alone with her. . . . She’s just . . .”—the word caught in his throat, “died.”
The men’s gaze held for the briefest moment, “Of course,” the president said, his words hushed and reverent. Then, motioning to his Secret Service protectors, turned and left the room.
Thirty minutes later, head down against the world, barely aware of the direction he was going, Nicholas Marten walked the all but deserted Sunday-night streets of the city.
He tried not to think of Caroline. Tried not to acknowledge the pain that told him she was no more. Tried not to think that it had been little more than three weeks since she had lost both her husband and son. Tried to put out of his mind the idea that she might have been intentionally given something that caused her fatal infection.
“Something has been done to me.” Her voice suddenly echoed inside him as if she had just spoken. It resonated with the same fear and vulnerability and anger it had had when she had first called him in England.
“Something has been done to me.” Caroline’s words came again. As if she were still trying to reach him, trying to make him believe without doubt that she had not been merely ill, but murdered.
What that “something” was, or at least what she thought it was and how it had begun, she’d told him during the first of the only two lucid moments she’d had since he arrived.
It had happened following the twin funerals of her husband, Mike Parsons, a well-respected forty-two-year-old congressman from California in his second term in office, and their son, Charlie. Certain she was strong enough to see it all through, she had invited numerous friends to their home to join her in a celebration of their lives; but the shock of what had happened, coupled with the almost unbearable strain of the funerals and the crush of well-meaning people, had overwhelmed her, and she’d broken down, retreating in tears and near-hysteria to lock herself in her bedroom, screaming for people to go away and refusing even to answer the door.
Congressional chaplain and pastor of their church, Reverend Rufus Beck, had been among the mourners and immediately sent for Caroline’s personal physician, Lorraine Stephenson. Dr. Stephenson had come quickly and with the pastor’s help convinced Caroline to open the bedroom door. Within minutes she had injected her, as Caroline said, “with a sedative of some kind.” When she woke up she was in a room in a private clinic where Stephenson had prescribed several days’ rest and where “I never felt the same again.”
Marten turned down one darkened street and then another, replaying the hours he had spent with her in the hospital. With the exception of the other instance when Caroline had been awake and talked to him, she had simply slept, and he had stayed by her side keeping vigil. Throughout those long hours health care personnel monitoring her condition had come and gone and there had been brief visits by friends during which Marten simply introduced himself and then quietly left the room.
There had been two other visitors as well, the people who had been immediately involved when Caroline had broken down at home. The first had been an early-morning call by the woman who had given her the “sedative” and prescribed her stay in the clinic, her personal physician, Dr. Lorraine Stephenson: a tall, handsome woman in her mid-fifties. Stephenson had exchanged a brief pleasantry with him, then read Caroline’s chart, listened to her heart and lungs through a stethoscope, and left.
The second had been congressional chaplain Rufus Beck, who visited later in the day. A large, gentle, soft-spoken African-American, Beck had been accompanied by a young and attractive dark-haired Caucasian woman with a camera bag slung over one shoulder who’d stayed pretty much in the background. Like Stephenson, Reverend Beck had introduced himself to Marten, and they’d had a brief exchange. Afterward he’d spent a few moments in prayer as Caroline slept before telling Marten good-bye and leaving with the young woman.
A light rain began to fall and Marten stopped to turn up the collar of his jacket against it. In the distance he could see the tall spire that was the Washington Monument. For the first time he had some concrete sense of where he was. Washington was not just the inside of an intensive-care hospital room but a large metropolitan city that just happened to be the capital of the United States of America. It was a place he’d never been, even though he’d lived all of his life in California before fleeing to England and could easily have visited. For some reason just being here gave him a deep sense of belonging, to one’s country, to one’s native land. It was a feeling he’d never had before, and he wondered if there would ever be a time when he could return from the exiled life he lived in Manchester.
Marten moved on. As he did he noticed a car coming slowly down the street toward him. That the streets were all but empty made the vehicle’s pace seem odd. It was late Sunday night and raining—wouldn’t the driver of one of the very few vehicles on the street be anxious to get to wherever he or she was going? The car came abreast of him and he glanced at it as it passed. The driver was male and nondescript, middle-aged with dark hair. The car passed and Marten watched it continue down the street, its speed never changing. Maybe the guy was drunk or drugged out or—suddenly the reflection became personal—maybe he was somebody who had just lost someone extraordinarily dear to him and had no idea where he was or what he was doing other than just moving.
Marten’s thoughts went back to Caroline. She had been the wife of a well-respected congressman who had become an increasingly popular figure in Washington and one who just happened to have been a close boyhood friend of the president, and the sudden, tragic deaths of both her husband and son had seen the political community embrace her with everything it had. It made him wonder why she would think “something had been done to her.” Why she would think she had deliberately been injected with a disease that would kill her.
Methodically Marten tried to assess her mental state over the last two days of her life. In particular he thought of the second instance when she had been awake. That time she’d taken hold of his hand and looked into his eyes.
“Nicholas,” she’d said weakly. “I—” Her mouth had been dry and her breathing labored. Just speaking took enormous effort. “I was to . . . have . . . been . . . on that plane with . . . my husband and my . . . son. There was a . . . last-minute change . . . of plans . . . and I . . . came back to . . . Washington a . . . day . . . earlier.” She had stared at him intently. “They . . . murdered my . . . husband and . . . son . . . and now they have . . . killed . . . me.”
“Who are you talking about? Who is ‘they’?” he’d pressed gently, trying to get something more tangible from her.
“The . . . ca . . .” she’d said. She’d tried to say more but it had been as much as she could do. Her strength gone, she just lay back and fell asleep. And she had slept right up until those last moments of her life when she’d opened her eyes and stared into his and told him she loved him.
Thinking about it now he realized the little she had told him had come in two sections, one quite separate from the other. The first had come in snippets: that she was originally to have been on the ill-fated plane with her husband and son but a last-minute change of plans brought her back to Washington a day earlier; what had happened at her home after the funerals; and finally what she had told him when she’d called him in England, saying she was dying from a staph infection caused by a strain of untreatable bacteria that she was certain had been given to her deliberately. “The . . . ca”—what she’d started to say when he’d asked her to explain it, and who the “they” were she was referring to, he had no idea.
The second section had come from utterances she’d made in her sleep. Most had been everyday things, calling out the names of her husband, “Mike,” or her son, “Charlie,” or her sister “Katy,” or saying things like “Charlie, please turn down the TV” or “The class is Tuesday.” But she’d said other things too. These had seemingly been aimed at her husband and were filled with alarm or fear or both. “Mike, what is it?” Or “You’re frightened. I can see it!” Or “Why won’t you tell me what it is?” Or “It’s the others, isn’t it?” And then later, a sudden fearful blurting—“I don’t like the white-haired man.”
That part he was familiar with because it was a piece of the story she had told him when she’d called him in Manchester and asked him to come.
“The fever came less than a day after I woke up in the clinic,” she’d said. “It got worse and they did tests. A white-haired man came, they said he was a specialist but I didn’t like him. Everything about him frightened me. The way he stared at me. The way he touched my face and my legs with his long, hideous fingers; and that horrid thumb with its tiny balled cross. I asked him why he was there and what he was doing but he never answered. Later they discovered I had some kind of staph infection in the bone of my right leg. They tried to treat it with antibiotics. But they didn’t work. Nothing worked.”
Marten walked on. The rain came down harder but he barely noticed. His entire focus was Caroline. They had met in high school and entered the same college certain they would marry and have children and be together for the rest of their lives. And then she had gone away for the summer and met a young lawyer named Mike Parsons. After that, his life and hers changed forever. But as deep as his hurt, as badly as he had been wounded, his love for her never diminished. In time he and Mike became friends, and he told Mike what Caroline and only a few others knew—who he really was and why he had been forced to leave his job as a homicide detective in the Los Angeles Police Department and move to the north of England to live under an assumed identity as a landscape architect.
He wished now he had gone to the funeral of her husband and son as he’d wanted to. Because if he had he would have been there when she’d broken down and when Dr. Stephenson had come. But he hadn’t, and that had been Caroline’s doing. She had told him she was surrounded by friends and that her sister and husband were coming from their home in Hawaii, and that, considering the danger surrounding his own situation, it was better he stayed where he was. They would get together later, she’d told him. Later, when things had quieted down. She’d sounded alright then. Shaken maybe, but alright, and with the inner strength to carry on that she’d always had. And then all this had happened.
God how he had loved her. How he still loved her. How he would always love her.
He walked on thinking only that. Finally, he became aware of the rain and realized he was nearly soaked through. He knew he had to find his way back to his hotel and looked around trying to get his bearings. That was when he saw it. A lighted edifice in the distance. A structure embedded in his memory from childhood, from history, from newspapers, from television, from movies, from everything. The White House.
At that same moment the tragic loss of Caroline caught up with him. And against the rain and the dark, and with no shame whatsoever, he wept.
Copyright © 2006 by Allan Folsom. All rights reserved.