Alex Morse charged through the lobby of the new University Medical
Center like a doctor to a code call, but she was no doctor. She was
a hostage negotiator for the FBI. Twenty minutes earlier, Alex had
deplaned from a flight from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Jackson,
Mississippi, a flight prompted by her older sister's sudden
collapse at a Little League baseball game. This year had been
plagued by injury and death, and there was more to come -- Alex
could feel it.
Sighting the elevators, she checked the overhead display and saw
that a car was descending. She hit the call button and started
bouncing on her toes. Hospitals, she thought bitterly. She'd
practically just gotten out of one herself. But the chain of
tragedy had started with her father. Five months ago Jim Morse had
died in this very hospital, after being shot during a robbery. Two
months after that, Alex's mother had been diagnosed with advanced
ovarian cancer. She had already outlived her prognosis, but wasn't
expected to survive the week. Then came Alex's accident. And now
A bell dinged softly, and the elevator opened.
A young woman wearing a white coat over street clothes leaned
against the rear wall in a posture of absolute exhaustion. Intern,
Alex guessed. She'd met enough of them during the past month. The
woman glanced up as Alex entered the car, then looked down. Then
she looked up again. Alex had endured this double take so many
times since the shooting that she no longer got angry. Just
"What floor?" asked the young woman, raising her hand to the panel
and trying hard not to stare.
"Neuro ICU," said Alex, stabbing the 4 with her finger.
"I'm going down to the basement," said the intern, who looked maybe
twenty-six -- four years younger than Alex. "But it'll take you
right up after that."
Alex nodded, then stood erect and watched the glowing numbers
change above her head. After her mother's diagnosis, she'd begun
commuting by plane from Washington, D.C. -- where she was based
then -- to Mississippi to relieve Grace, who was struggling to
teach full-time and also to care for their mother at night. Unlike
J. Edgar Hoover's FBI, the modern Bureau tried to be understanding
about family problems, but in Alex's case the deputy director had
made his position clear: time off to attend a funeral was one
thing, regularly commuting a thousand miles to be present for
chemotherapy was another. But Alex had not listened. She'd bucked
the system and learned to live without sleep. She told herself she
could hack the pressure, and she did -- right up until the moment
she cracked. The problem was, she hadn't realized she'd cracked
until she caught part of a shotgun blast in her right shoulder and
face. Her vest had protected the shoulder, but her face was still
an open question.
For a hostage negotiator, Alex had committed the ultimate sin, and
she'd come close to paying the ultimate price. Because the shooter
had fired through a plate-glass partition, what would have been a
miraculous escape (being grazed by a couple of pellets that could
have blown her brains out but hadn't) became a life-altering
trauma. A blizzard of glass tore through her cheek, sinuses, and
jaw, lacerating her skin and ripping away tissue and bone. The
plastic surgeons had promised great things, but so far the results
were less than stellar. They'd told her that in time the angry pink
worms would whiten (they could do little to repair the "punctate"
depressions in her cheek), and that laymen wouldn't even notice the
damage. Alex wasn't convinced. But in the grand scheme of things,
what did vanity matter? Five seconds after she was shot, someone
else had paid the ultimate price for her mistake.
During the hellish days that followed the shooting, Grace had flown
up to D.C. three times to be with Alex, despite being exhausted
from taking care of their mother. Grace was the family martyr, a
genuine candidate for sainthood. The irony was staggering: tonight
it was Grace lying in an intensive care unit, fighting for her
And why? Certainly not karma. She'd been walking up the steps of a
stadium to watch her ten-year-old son play baseball when she
collapsed. Seconds after she hit the stairs, she voided her bladder
and bowels. A CAT scan taken forty minutes later showed a blood
clot near Grace's brain stem, the kind of clot that too often
killed people. Alex had been swimming laps in Charlotte when she
got word (having been transferred there as punishment duty after
the shooting). Her mother was too upset to be coherent on the
phone, but she'd communicated enough details to send Alex racing to
When the first leg of her flight touched down in Atlanta, Alex had
used her Treo to call Grace's husband, whom she'd been unable to
reach before boarding the plane. Bill Fennell explained that while
the neurological damage had initially not looked too bad -- some
right-side paralysis, weakness, mild dysphasia -- the stroke seemed
to be worsening, which the doctors said was not uncommon. A
neurologist had put Grace on TPA, a drug that could dissolve clots
but also carried serious risks of its own. Bill Fennell was a
commanding man, but his voice quavered as he related this, and he
begged Alex to hurry.
When her plane landed in Jackson, Alex called Bill again. This time
he sobbed as he related the events of the past hour. Though still
breathing on her own, Grace had lapsed into a coma and might die
before Alex could cover the fifteen miles from the airport. A panic
unlike any she had known since childhood filled her chest. Though
the plane had only begun its taxi to the terminal, Alex snatched
her carry-on from beneath the seat and marched to the front of the
727. When a flight attendant challenged her, she flashed her FBI
creds and quietly told the man to get her to the terminal ASAP.
When she cleared the gate, she sprinted down the concourse and
through baggage claim, then jumped the cab queue, flashed her creds
again, and told the driver she'd give him $100 to drive a hundred
miles an hour to the University Medical Center.
Now here she was, stepping out of the elevator on the fourth floor,
sucking in astringent smells that hurled her four weeks back in
time, when hot blood had poured from her face as though from a
spigot. At the end of the corridor waited a huge wooden door marked
neurology icu. She went through it like a first-time parachutist
leaping from a plane, steeling herself for free fall, terrified of
the words she was almost certain to hear: I'm sorry, Alex, but
you're too late.
The ICU held a dozen glass-walled cubicles built in a U-shape
around the nurses' station. Several cubicles were curtained off,
but through the transparent wall of the fourth from the left, Alex
saw Bill Fennell talking to a woman in a white coat. At six feet
four, Bill towered over her, but his handsome face was furrowed
with anxiety, and the woman seemed to be comforting him. Sensing
Alex's presence, he looked up and froze in midsentence. Alex moved
toward the cubicle. Bill rushed to the door and hugged her to his
chest. She'd always felt awkward embracing her brother-in-law, but
tonight there was no way to avoid it. And no reason, really.
Tonight they both needed some kind of contact, an affirmation of
"You must have taken a helicopter," he said in his resonant bass
voice. "I can't believe you made it that fast."
"Is she alive?"
"She's still with us," Bill said in a strangely formal tone. "She's
actually regained consciousness a couple of times. She's been
asking for you."
Alex's heart lifted, but with hope came fresh tears.
The woman in the white coat walked out of the cubicle. She looked
about fifty, and her face was kind but grave.
"This is Grace's neurologist," Bill said.
"I'm Meredith Andrews," said the woman. "Are you the one Grace
Alex couldn't stop her tears. KK was a nickname derived from her
middle name, which was a family appellation: Karoli. "Yes. But
please call me Alex. Alex Morse."
"Special Agent Morse," Bill said in an absurd interjection.
"Has Grace asked for me?" Alex asked, wiping her cheeks.
"You're all she can talk about."
"Is she conscious?"
"Not at this moment. We're doing everything we can, but you should
prepare yourself for" -- Dr. Andrews gave Alex a lightning-fast
appraisal -- "you should prepare for the worst. Grace had a serious
thrombosis when she was brought in, but she was breathing on her
own, and I was encouraged. But the stroke extended steadily, and I
decided to start thrombolytic therapy. To try to dissolve the clot.
This can sometimes produce miracles, but it can also cause
hemorrhages elsewhere in the brain or body. I have a feeling that
may be happening now. I don't want to risk moving Grace for an MRI.
She's still breathing on her own, and that's the best hope we have.
If she stops breathing, we're ready to intubate immediately. I
probably should have done it already" -- Dr. Andrews glanced at
Bill -- "but I knew she was desperate to talk to you, and once
she's intubated, she won't be able to communicate with anyone.
She's already lost her ability to write words."
"Don't be shocked if she manages to speak to you. Her speech center
has been affected, and she has significant impairment."
"I understand," Alex said impatiently. "We had an uncle who had a
stroke. Can I just be with her? I don't care what her condition is.
I have to be with her."
Dr. Andrews smiled and led Alex into the room.
As she reached the door, Alex turned back to Bill. "Where's
"With my sister in Ridgeland."
Ridgeland was a white-flight suburb ten miles away. "Did he see
Bill shook his head somberly. "No, he was down on the field. He
just knows his mother's sick, that's all."
"Don't you think he should be here?"
Alex had tried to keep all judgment out of her voice, but Bill's
face darkened. He seemed about to snap at her, but then he drew a
deep breath and said, "No, I don't."
When Alex kept staring at him, he lowered his voice and added, "I
don't want Jamie to watch his mother die."
"Of course not. But he should have a chance to say good-bye."
"He'll get that," Bill said. "At the funeral."
Alex closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. "Bill, you can't --
"We don't have time for this." He nodded into the room where Dr.
Andrews stood waiting.
Alex walked slowly to the edge of Grace's bed. The pale face above
the hospital blanket did not look familiar. And yet it did. It
looked like her mother's face. Grace Morse Fennell was thirty-five
years old, but tonight she looked seventy. It's her skin,
Alex realized. It's like wax. Drooping wax. She had the
sense that the muscles that controlled her sister's face had gone
slack and would never contract again. Grace's eyes were closed, and
to Alex's surprise, she felt this was a mercy. It gave her time to
adjust to the new reality, however fleeting that reality might
"Are you all right?" Dr. Andrews asked from behind her.
"I'll leave you with her, then."
Alex glanced at the bank of CRTs monitoring Grace's life functions.
Heartbeat, oxygen saturation, blood pressure, God knew what else. A
single IV line disappeared beneath a bandage on her forearm; Alex's
wrist ached at the sight. She wasn't sure what to do, and maybe it
didn't matter. Maybe the important thing was just to be here.
"You know what this tragedy has taught me?" asked the familiar bass
Alex jumped but tried to hide her discomfiture. She hadn't realized
Bill was still in the room, and she hated showing any sign of
weakness. "What?" she said, though she didn't really care about the
"Money isn't really worth anything. All the money in the world
won't make that blood clot go away."
Alex nodded distantly.
"So, what the hell have I been working for?" Bill asked. "Why
haven't I just kicked back and spent every second I could with
Grace probably asked the same question a thousand times,
Alex thought. But it was too late for regrets. A lot of people
thought Bill was a cold fish. Alex had always thought he tended to
"Could I be alone with her for a while?" Alex asked, not taking her
eyes from Grace's face.
She felt a strong hand close on her shoulder -- the wounded
shoulder -- and then Bill said, "I'll be back in five
After he'd gone, Alex took Grace's clammy hand in hers and bent to
kiss her forehead. She had never seen her sister so helpless. In
fact, she had never seen Grace close to helpless. Grace was a
dynamo. Crises that brought others' lives to a standstill hardly
caused her to break stride. But this was different. This was the
end -- Alex could tell. She knew it the way she had known when
James Broadbent went down after she was shot. James had watched
Alex charge into the bank just seconds ahead of the go-order for
the Hostage Rescue Team, and he had gone in right behind her. He
saw her take the shotgun blast, but instead of instantly returning
fire at the shooter, he'd glanced down to see how badly Alex was
hurt. For that concern he'd caught the second blast square in the
chest. He wasn't wearing a vest (he'd taken it off upon learning
that the HRT was going in), and the shotgun chopped his heart and
lungs into something you saw behind a butcher's counter. Why did
he look down? Alex wondered for the millionth time. Why did
he follow me in at all? But she knew the answer. Broadbent had
followed her because he loved her -- from a distance, true, but the
emotion was no less real for that. And that love had killed him.
Alex saw tears falling on Grace's cheeks -- her own tears,
numberless these past months. She wiped her eyes, then took out her
cell phone and called Bill Fennell, who was standing less than
thirty feet away.
"What is it?" he asked frantically. "What's wrong?"
"Jamie should be here."
"Alex, I told you -- "
"You get him, goddamn it. This is his mother lying
There was a long silence. Then Bill said, "I'll call my
On impulse, Alex turned and saw him standing near the nurses'
station. He'd been talking to Dr. Andrews. She saw him disengage
from the neurologist and lift his cell phone to his cheek. Alex
leaned down to Grace's ear and tried to think of something that
would reach the bottom of the dark well where her sister now
"Sue-Sue?" she whispered, simultaneously squeezing the cold
hand. Sue-Sue was another nickname based on a middle name -- a
family tradition. "Sue-Sue, it's KK."
Grace's eyes remained shut.
"It's me, Sue-Sue. It's KK. I'm back from Sally's. Wake up, before
Mama gets up. I want to go to the carnival."
Seconds dilated into some unknown measure of time. Memories swirled
through Alex's mind, and her heart began to ache. Grace's eyes
"Come on, Sue-Sue. I know you're playing possum. Quit
Alex felt a twitch in her hand. Adrenaline surged through her, but
when she saw the frozen eyelids, she decided that the twitch must
have come from her own hand.
"Kuh...kuh," someone coughed.
Alex turned, thinking it was Bill or Dr. Andrews, but then Grace
clenched her hand and let out a sharp cry. When Alex whipped her
head around, she saw Grace's green eyes wide-open. Then Grace
blinked. Alex's heart soared. She leaned down over her sister,
because though Grace was only thirty-five, her eyes were almost
useless without glasses or contacts.
"KK?" Grace moaned. "Iz zah wu?"
"It's me, Gracie," Alex said, rubbing a strand of hair out of her
sister's cloudy eyes.
"Oh, Goth," Grace said in a guttural voice, and then she
began to sob. "Thang Godth."
Alex had to clench her jaw muscles to keep from sobbing. The right
half of Grace's face was paralyzed, and drool ran down her chin
whenever she struggled to speak. She sounded exactly like Uncle
T.J., who'd died after a series of strokes left him without a shred
of his old identity.
"Wu...wu have tuh thave Jamie," Grace gargled.
"What? I missed that."
"Havuh thave Jamie!" Grace repeated, struggling to rise in
the bed. She seemed to be trying to look behind Alex.
"Jamie's fine," Alex said in a comforting voice. "He's on his way
Grace shook her head violently. "Wissen! Havuh
"I'm listening, Sue-Sue, I promise."
Grace stared into Alex's eyes with all the urgency in her soul.
"You -- have -- tuh -- thave -- Jamie...Gay-Gay. You
thuh...onwe...one ooh can."
"Save Jamie from what?"
"Bill?" Alex asked, sure she must be wrong in her
With painful effort, Grace nodded.
Alex blinked in astonishment. "What are you talking about? Is Bill
hurting Jamie in some way?"
A weak nod. "Ee wiw...thoon ath I'm gone."
Alex struggled to understand the tortured words. "Hurt Jamie how?
Are you talking about some sort of abuse?"
Grace shook her head. "Biw -- wiw -- kiw -- Jamie's --
Alex squinted as though trying to decipher some coded text.
Grace's head sagged in exhaustion.
"Gracie...Bill isn't my favorite person. You've always known that.
But he's been a good father, hasn't he? He seems like a basically
Grace gripped Alex's hand and shook her head. Then she hissed,
"Eeth a monther!"
Alex felt a chill. "He's a monster? Is that what you
A tear of relief slid down Grace's paralyzed cheek.
Alex looked at the anguished eyes, then turned and glanced over her
shoulder. Bill Fennell was still speaking to Dr. Andrews, but his
eyes were on Alex.
"Ith Biw coming?" Grace asked in a terrified voice, trying
in vain to twist in the bed.
"No, no. He's talking to the doctor."
"Dogtor -- duthend -- know."
"Doesn't know what?"
"Whuh Biw did."
"What do you mean? What did Bill do?"
Grace suddenly raised her hand and gripped Alex's blouse, then
pulled her head down to her lips. "Ee kiwd me!"
Alex felt as though ice water had been shunted into her veins. She
drew back and looked into Grace's bloodshot eyes. "He killed
you? Is that what you said?"
Grace nodded once, her eyes filled with conviction.
"Grace, you don't know what you're saying."
Even with a partially paralyzed face, Grace managed a smile that
said, Oh, yes, I do.
"You can't mean that. Not literally."
Grace closed her eyes as though gathering herself for one last
effort. "You...onwe one...ooh can thop im. Too...wate...fuh me.
I urd...dogtuh...out thide. Thave Jamie for me...Gay-Gay.
Alex looked back through the glass wall. Bill was still watching
her, and his conversation looked as if it was winding down. Alex
had always known Grace's marriage wasn't perfect, but what marriage
was? Not that Alex was any authority. She had somehow reached the
age of thirty without tying the knot. After years of badge groupies
and badge bolters, she'd finally accepted a proposal, then
terminated the engagement three months later, after discovering
that her fiancÉ was cheating with her best friend. In matters
amorous, she was a ridiculous clichÉ.
"Sue-Sue," she whispered, "why would Bill want to hurt you?"
"Thum-one else," Grace said. "Wuh-man."
"Another woman? Do you know that for a fact?"
Another half-paralyzed smile. "Uh -- wife -- knowth."
Alex believed her. During her engagement to Peter Hodges, a feeling
very like a sixth sense had told her something was amiss in their
relationship. Long before there was any tangible clue, she'd simply
known there was betrayal. If she had possessed the same instinct
about conventional crimes, she'd already be an SAC instead of a
hostage negotiator. Correction, she thought, I'm a common
field agent now.
"If Bill wants to be with another woman," she said, "why doesn't he
just divorce you?"
"Muhn-ey...dum-me. Would coth Biw miw-yens...tuh do that. Five
Alex drew back in disbelief. She'd known that Bill had been doing
well for some years now, but she'd had no idea he was that wealthy.
Why in God's name was Grace still teaching elementary school?
Because she loves it, she answered herself. Because she
can't not work.
Grace had closed her eyes, seemingly drained by her efforts.
"Tew...Mom...I tho-we," she said. "Tew huh...I be waiting
fuh hurh...in heaven." The smile animated the living half of
her face again. "If -- I -- make it."
"You made it, honey," Alex said, balling her free hand into a fist
and holding it against her mouth.
"Well, look at this, Dr. Andrews!" boomed Bill Fennell. "She looks
like she's ready to get up and out of that bed."
Grace's eyes snapped open, and she shrank away from her husband,
obviously trying to use Alex as a shield. The terror in her eyes
hurt Alex's heart, and it also thrust her into full-defense mode.
She stood up and blocked Bill from coming to the bedside.
"I think it's better if you don't come in," she said, looking hard
into her brother-in-law's eyes.
Bill's mouth dropped open. He looked past her to Grace, who was
literally cowering in the bed. "What are you talking about?" he
asked angrily. "What the hell's going on here? Have you said
something about me to Grace?"
Alex glanced at Dr. Andrews, who looked confused. "No. Quite the
reverse, I'm afraid."
Bill shook his head in apparent puzzlement. "I don't
Alex probed his brown eyes, searching for some sign of guilt.
Grace's fears and accusations were probably the product of a dying
woman's hallucinations, but there was no doubt about the reality of
her terror. "You're upsetting her, Bill. You can see that. You
should go downstairs and wait for Jamie."
"There's no way I'm going to leave my wife's bedside. Not when she
might -- "
"What?" Alex asked, a note of challenge in her voice.
Bill lowered his voice. "When she might..."
Alex looked at Dr. Andrews.
The neurologist stepped toward Bill and said, "Perhaps we should
give Grace and her sister some more time alone."
"Don't try to massage me like that," Bill said irritably. "I'm
Grace's husband. I'm her husband, and I'll decide who -- "
"She's my blood," Alex said with bone-deep conviction. "Your
presence here is upsetting Grace, and that's all that matters. We
need to keep her as calm as possible. Isn't that right, Dr.
"Absolutely." Meredith Andrews walked around Alex and looked down
at her patient. "Grace, do you understand me?"
"Do you want your husband in this room?"
Grace slowly shook her head. "I wan...my bay...be. Wan
Dr. Andrews looked up at Bill Fennell, who towered over her.
"That's good enough for me. I want you to leave the unit, Mr.
Bill stepped close to the neurologist, his eyes sheened with anger.
"I don't know who you think you are, or who you think you're
talking to, but I give a lot of money to this university. A
lot of money. And I -- "
"Don't make me call security," Dr. Andrews said quietly, lifting
the phone beside Grace's bed.
Bill's face went white. Alex almost felt sorry for him. The power
had clearly passed to Dr. Andrews, but Bill seemed unable to make
the decision to leave. He looked, Alex thought, like an actor on a
DVD movie after you hit pause. Or that's what she was thinking when
the alarm began to sing.
"She's coding!" Dr. Andrews shouted through the door, but
the shout was unnecessary. Nurses were already running from the
station to the cubicle. Alex jumped out of their way, and an
instant later Bill did the same.
"Cardiac arrest," Dr. Andrews said, yanking open a drawer.
Because this was an ICU, there was no crash cart; everything was
already here. The quiet cubicle suddenly became a whirlwind of
motion, all directed toward a single purpose -- to sustain the life
fast ebbing from the body on the bed.
"You need to leave," said a tall male nurse standing behind Dr.