Authors: Greg Iles
Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective
WHEN YOU’RE TOLD that your dying father has something important to say to you before he passes, two feelings flash through you: first, the sense that you’re in an Alexandre Dumas novel, that some momentous family secret is about to be revealed—the lost inheritance, your true paternity, something like that. But once that passes, you realize that such a conversation is only natural. Because death is the end, and if a man doesn’t speak before it silences him, then the things he holds closest die with him.
In a way, I’d been expecting my father to die since I was a senior in high school, when he had his first heart attack. By age fifty he’d had a triple bypass, when the operation was far riskier than it is now. But Tom Cage was nothing if not stubborn. No matter what setbacks he endured after that operation (and there were many), he just kept practicing medicine. Even with diabetes and severe arthritis, he outlived my wife, who was born thirty years after him. And when I moved back to my Mississippi hometown with my daughter, who’d become so paralyzed by grief that she couldn’t leave my side, it was Dad and Mom who accomplished the miracle that no therapist in Houston had been able to manage: returning a grieving child to normalcy. Seven years after that, when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and when, as mayor, I began fighting to get basic services like electricity restored to Natchez, my father—by then seventy-three—was still beside me, helping coordinate the effort to get critical drugs to displaced storm victims who had fled north to my hometown.
But this morning, as my fiancée, Caitlin Masters, and I stood in a boat on the Mississippi River, spreading the ashes of a young woman who had died for helping a friend of mine expose a ruinous evil in our midst, I got the call I’d been dreading for years. Dad had collapsed at his office. Only swift CPR by his chief nurse and defibrillation by his partner had stabilized him sufficiently to reach the ER. When Mom called me off the river, she told me Dad was sure he was going to die and needed speak to me—and only me—before the end. I needed to get there as fast as I could.
After Caitlin and I raced back to shore and docked the boat, I floored my Audi all the way to the hospital. For the twenty-five minutes that took, I was certain I would arrive too late. For twenty minutes, my father was dead to me. Yet when Caitlin and I sprinted into the intensive care unit, I was informed that despite suffering a serious myocardial infarction, Dad was alive and had a chance to survive. Natchez’s sole cardiologist had just taken off from the local airport to fly his family to Walt Disney World when the ER called his cell phone and told him my father was being brought in with a heart attack. Peter Bruen had immediately landed his plane and raced to the hospital. Within minutes he’d placed a new stent in one of Dad’s major vessels—a procedure almost never performed in Natchez, only in nearby cities like Brookhaven or Jackson—and that made the difference between life and death.
Bruen was completing that procedure when I reached the hospital. A whispering crowd had already gathered outside the cardiac cath lab, as doctors and nurses waited to hear the fate of one of their own, a man who had practiced medicine in Natchez for more than four decades and in the army before that. Everyone fell silent as they wheeled Dad out on a gurney and transferred him to the ICU; then restrained applause broke out as he passed from view and Dr. Bruen appeared.
During my first visit to Dad’s bedside, I was shocked. His white beard was always well trimmed, but now it looked oddly unkempt, his skin white and waxy. I took his cold hand, whispered that I was there, and asked what he needed to tell me. He opened his eyes and blinked several times, then pointed at his throat. I placed an ice chip in his mouth and repeated the question. He looked at my mother beside me, then croaked, “What are you talking about?”
I looked back at my mother, then after some hesitation asked her to leave me alone with him. Reluctantly, she agreed. After I assured Dad that we were alone, I asked once more what he’d needed to tell me. He said he had no memory of saying anything like that to my mother. I decided to let it go for the moment, and he was obviously relieved.
That was five hours ago.
The first two passed like a death watch, as a solemn parade of hospital workers visited the ICU, quietly paying their respects. But as time slipped by and more lab tests came in, Dr. Bruen came to believe that yet again—against the odds—my father would live to fight another day. During my second visit to the bedside, Caitlin and I told Dad and my mother that only hours earlier we had decided to get married. After a seven-year relationship, that news should have seemed anticlimactic, but somehow it didn’t. It actually brought a weak smile to my father’s face, and my mother cried, knowing how badly my eleven-year-old daughter has been wanting that. We decided to wait to tell Annie about both the engagement and Dad’s heart attack. For the time being, Caitlin would pick her up from school and take her back to work with her.
I’ve spent much of the time since making the necessary phone calls of a family crisis; various relatives are now arranging to fly in from around the country. Getting to Natchez in a hurry can be difficult. My older sister, who teaches American literature in England, boarded a Virgin Airways flight in London an hour ago, but that’s only the beginning of the logistical legerdemain it will take to bring her here by tomorrow afternoon. My dad’s two brothers should make it sooner, but probably not until ten or eleven tonight.
My mother hasn’t left Dad’s bedside. The hospital administrators have suspended their visitation rules for her, if for no one else. Had they not, they probably would have had to arrest her. Seventy-one herself, Peggy Cage has already taken on a ghostly appearance, her skin almost transparent, her eyes alternately hyperalert with fear and clouded by fatigue. Caitlin and I have tried to get Mom to yield her place, but she will not be moved. At 2:45 P.M. Caitlin left to pick up Annie and return to her newspaper, the
to manage the story that broke five days before Dad’s heart attack, one in which she herself played a part, and as a result almost died.
I, too, played a central role in that case, but while I’ve been besieged by interview requests, I’ve declined them all. Hardly enough time has passed for me to process the enormity of what took place within the bounds of our little city, the oldest continuous settlement on the Mississippi River. From inside the
—a riverboat gambling casino docked at Natchez—an international crime ring secretly ran a high-end dogfighting and prostitution operation that attracted high-stakes gamblers of all kinds: high-rollers from Las Vegas, NFL players, rap artists, and dogfighters from around the world. The smashing of that ring has led to the exposure of a Chinese connection: a money-laundering, human-smuggling kingpin from Macao named Edward Po, whom the Justice Department and the CIA have been pursuing for years. With the help of her father’s media group, Caitlin has pushed this story as hard as she can, earning the enmity of the U.S. intelligence establishment in the process.
Both Caitlin and I lost friends during that case, and partly as a result of that, I changed my earlier decision to resign as mayor. Even my father urged me to stay the course and serve out the remaining two years of my term, despite his initial advice that I not seek the job in the first place. To my surprise, I’ve learned that the passion of a crusade to save one’s hometown can be a contagious thing.
My present dilemma is how to persuade my mother to leave Dad’s bedside long enough for me to ask him again what he needed to tell me. Perhaps the passage of time has improved his short-term memory, or eased whatever anxiety is keeping him quiet. Mom has scarcely taken a bite off the trays the nurses have brought, nor has she tasted the fare Caitlin brought in from a local restaurant. For now, I’m working in an uncomfortable chair in the single vacant patient cubicle in the ICU, which has become our informal command center for coordinating this crisis.
My PowerBook lies on the bed, along with my BlackBerry, a Martin Cruz Smith paperback, today’s
and work papers from City Hall. An hour ago, unable to deal with the constant barrage of calls from around the state and country, I switched my phone to silent and tried to focus on the novel. My effort was in vain. Again and again I found myself reading the same page while my mind wandered, filling with violent, rushing images from the past ten days. At one time or another during that period, all my family members were put under threat of death, two close friends of mine were killed, and I ultimately had to kill a man. For the first couple of days after that event, I felt I was dealing with it pretty well. But my father’s unexpected heart attack coming on the heels of all that seems to have triggered a delayed shock reaction. Since I arrived at the hospital, doctors and nurses have shaken or squeezed my arm to bring me out of a kind of fugue state. One doctor even suggested that I have a neurological exam, given the savage fight I endured only days ago. But the odd trances I’m slipping into feel more like the result of emotional shock than physical trauma.
Rubbing my eyes hard, I focus on the novel again. For a couple of minutes Smith’s poetic descriptions of modern Russia draw me out of myself. But then the muted pulses and beeps of the medical gear outside the cubicle lull me into a kind of half sleep. When the glass door to my left slides open, I’m expecting a nurse or administrator to tell me they need the cubicle for a critical patient. Instead I find my father’s youngest brother, Jack Cage, looking down at me with concern.
“My God,” I say, glancing at my watch, afraid that I’ve slept away six or seven hours. But I haven’t. “How the hell . . . ?”
Uncle Jack smiles. “You know I was never much for waiting.”
Jack Cage is seventeen years younger than my father—effectively from a different generation altogether. While Dad lived through the Depression as a boy, Jack was a classic baby boomer. He sported long hair, rode a motorcycle, and barely escaped serving in Vietnam, thanks to a congenital hearing problem. Though I seldom saw Jack when I was a boy, I idolized him. Unlike Dad’s other brothers, who spent their lives in one branch or another of the military, Jack moved to the West Coast and worked in the aerospace industry. By the mid-1980s, he’d switched to the computer business, and now he lives in comfortable semiretirement in Mountain View, California. Jack still has longer hair than most men his age (though it’s silver-white now), and his eyes have not lost their youthful twinkle.
“Why didn’t you call ahead?” I ask, getting to my feet and hugging him.
“I’ve been calling you for the past half hour. Your cell kept kicking me to voice mail.”
“But why didn’t you call from California?”
He draws back, still squeezing my arm as though to hold me up. “We talked, didn’t we? I just didn’t want to give you guys any false hope that I could get here this fast.”
you get here?”
A familiar, enigmatic smile tugs at his mouth. “A friend of a friend has a plane.”
I glance at my watch again, doing the math. “Must be some plane.”
“Hey, I wasn’t going to let my big brother go down without saying good-bye, just because the airlines have lousy route tables.”
Jack’s buoying presence feels semimiraculous, as though I’ve surfaced from a dark maelstrom. “Has Mom seen you?”
“Not yet. I saw her through the glass, hunched over the bed with her arm on Tom’s legs. I didn’t know if I should just bust in there.”
WHEN MY MOTHER sees Jack, tears fill her eyes. She hugs him for a full ten seconds, pulls back and looks at him as though she can’t believe her eyes, then hugs him again. After convincing herself that he’s really here, she gently takes my father’s hand and squeezes it.
“Tom?” she says near his ear. “Tom? Look who’s come to see you.”
Dad’s eyes flutter, then open and slowly focus as he turns his head toward us. A faint smile touches his lips. “I’ll be damned. It’s Tonto.”
Mom is softly rubbing Dad’s arm, as though he might fade into nothingness at any moment. “You’re the first to make it in,” she tells Jack. “Phil might be in late tonight.”
“I cheated,” Jack says with a smile. “But don’t tell Phil that.” He steps forward and takes Dad by the hand. “How you doing, Kemosabe? Not so great, huh?”
“Better than the friends I read about in the obituaries this morning.”