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Before I Say Good-Bye
by Mary Higgins Clark
Simon & Schuster, 2000
Fifty-two-year-old Winifred Johnson never entered the lobby of her employer's apartment building on Park Avenue without feeling intimidated. She had worked with Adam Cauliff for three years, first at Walters and Arsdale, and then she had left with him last fall, when he started his own company. He relied on her from the beginning. Even so, whenever she stopped by his apartment, she couldn't help feeling that one day the doorman would instruct her to use the delivery entrance around the corner.
She knew that her attitude was the result of her parents' lifelong
resentment over imagined slights. Ever since she could remember,
Winifred's ears had been filled with their plaintive tales of people
who had been rude to them: They use their little bit of authority on
people like us who can't fight back. Expect it, Winifred. That's the
kind of world it is. Her father had gone to his grave railing against
all the indignities he had suffered at the hands of his employer of
forty years, and her mother was now in a nursing home, where
complaints of supposed slights and deliberate neglect continued
Winifred thought about her mother as the doorman smilingly opened the door for her. A few years ago it had been possible for her to move her mother to a fancy, new nursing facility, but even that hadn't stopped the endless flow of complaints. Happiness -- even satisfaction -- did not seem to be possible for her. Winifred had recognized this same trait in herself and felt helpless. Until I smartened up, she told herself with a secret smile.
A thin woman, almost frail in appearance, Winifred typically dressed in conservative business suits and limited her jewelry to button earrings and a strand of pearls. Quiet to the point that people often forgot she was even around, she absorbed everything, noticed everything and remembered everything. She had worked for Robert Walters and Len Arsdale from the time she graduated from secretarial school, but in all those years neither man had ever appreciated or even seemed to notice the fact that she had come to know everything there was to know about the construction business. Adam Cauliff, however, had picked up on it immediately. He appreciated her; he understood her true worth. He used to joke with her, saying, "Winifred, a lot of people had better hope you never write your autobiography."
Robert Walters overheard him and became both upset and unpleasant. But then Walters had always bullied her unmercifully; he never had been nice to her. Let him pay for that, Winifred thought. And he will.
Nell never appreciated him. Adam didn't need a wife with a career of her own and a famous grandfather who made so many demands on her that she didn't have enough time for her husband. Sometimes Adam would say, "Winifred, Nell's busy with the old man again. I don't want to eat alone. Let's grab a bite."
He deserved better. Sometimes Adam would tell her about being a kid on a North Dakota farm and going to the library to get books with pictures of beautiful buildings. "The taller the better, Winifred," he'd joke. "When someone built a three-story house in our town, folks drove twenty miles just to get a look at it."
Other times he would encourage her to talk, and she found herself gossiping with him about people in the construction industry. Then the next morning she would wonder if perhaps she had said too much, her loquaciousness enhanced by the wine Adam kept pouring. But she never really worried; she trusted Adam -- they trusted each other -- and Adam enjoyed her "insider" stories about the building world, tales from her earlier days with Walters and Arsdale.
"You mean that sanctimonious old bird was on the take when those bids went out?" he'd exclaim, then reassure her when she became flustered about talking so much. And then he'd promise never, ever to say a word to anyone about what she had told him. She also remembered the night he had said accusingly, "Winifred, you can't fool me. There's someone in your life." And she had told him, yes, even giving the name. And that was when she really began to trust him. She confided that she was taking care of herself.
The uniformed clerk at the lobby desk put down the intercom telephone. "You can go right up, Ms. Johnson. Mrs. Cauliff is expecting you."
Adam had asked her to pick up his briefcase and his navy jacket on the way to the meeting today. Being Adam, he had been apologetic about the request. "I left in a hell of a rush this morning and forgot them," he explained. "I left them on the bed in the guest room. The notes for the meeting are in my briefcase, and I'll need the jacket if I change my mind and decide to meet Nell at the Four Seasons." Winifred could sense from his tone that he and Nell must have had a serious misunderstanding, and hearing it only bolstered her certainty that their marriage was heading for the rocks.
As she rode up in the elevator, she thought about the meeting scheduled for later in the day. She was happy that the location for the meeting had been moved to the boat. She loved going out on the water. It seemed romantic, even when the purpose was strictly business.
There would be just five of them. In addition to herself, the three associates in the Vandermeer Tower venture -- Adam, Sam Krause and Peter Lang -- would be attending. The fifth was Jimmy Ryan, one of Sam's site foremen. Winifred wasn't sure why he'd been invited except that Jimmy had been pretty moody lately. Maybe they wanted to get to the heart of the problem and sort it out.
She knew they all would be concerned about the story that broke in today's newspapers, although she didn't feel any concern herself. In fact, she was rather impatient about the whole thing. The worst thing that ever happens in these situations, even if they get the goods on you, is you pay a fine, she told herself. You reach into your back pocket, and the problem goes away.
The elevator opened right onto the apartment foyer, where Nell was waiting for her.
Winifred saw the cordial smile of welcome on Nell's face fade as soon as she stepped forward. "Is something wrong?" she asked anxiously.
Dear God, Nell thought with sudden alarm, why is this happening? But
as she looked at Winifred, she could almost hear the knowledge
filtering through her being: Winifred's journey on this plane is
Adam reached the boat fifteen minutes before the others were due to arrive. Entering the cabin, he saw that the caterer had been there and left a selection of cheeses and a plate of crackers on the sideboard. The liquor cabinet and the refrigerator would have been checked and stocked at the same time, so he didn't even bother to look.
He had found that the casual atmosphere of the boat, combined with the social tone drinks gave a meeting, served to loosen tongues -- those of his associates as well as of potential clients. On these occasions, Adam's favorite drink, vodka on the rocks, was often plain water instead, a fact he skillfully hid.
Throughout the day he had been tempted to phone Nell, but then finally had decided against it. He hated to quarrel with her almost as much as he had begun to hate the sight of her grandfather. Nell simply refused to acknowledge the fact that Mac wanted her to run for his former seat for only one reason: he intended to make her his puppet. All that pious mouthing about retiring at eighty rather than be the oldest member of the House was a lot of baloney. The truth was that the guy the Democrats were putting up against him at the time was strong and might have staged an upset. Mac didn't want to retire; he just didn't want to go out a loser.
Of course, he didn't want to go out, period. So now he'd get Nell, who was high profile, smart, very attractive, articulate and popular, to win the seat -- and the power -- back for him.
Frowning at the mental image of Cornelius MacDermott, Adam crossed to look at the boat's fuel gauge. As he'd expected, the tank was full. After he had taken the boat out last week, the service company had checked it over and refueled it.
"Hello. It's me."
Adam hurried out on deck to give Winifred a hand as she stepped down to the boat. He was pleased to note that she had his briefcase and jacket under her arm.
Something was obviously distressing her, though -- he could tell by the way she moved and held her head back. "What's wrong, Winifred?" he asked.
She tried to smile, but it was a failed effort. "You can look right through me, can't you, Adam?" Clutching his hand, she made the long step onto the deck. "I have to ask you, and you have to be completely honest," she said earnestly. "Did I do something to make Nell angry at me?"
"What do you mean?"
"She wasn't at all like herself when I stopped by the apartment. She acted as though she couldn't wait to get me out."
"You shouldn't take any of that personally. I don't think it was you who caused her to act differently. Nell and I had a disagreement this morning," Adam said quietly. "I would guess that's what's on her mind."
Winifred had not released his hand. "If you want to talk about it, I'm here for you."
Adam pulled free from her grasp. "I know you are, Winifred. Thank you. Oh, look, here's Jimmy."
Jimmy Ryan was obviously ill at ease on the boat. He had made little attempt to clean up his appearance after spending the day at the job site. His work boots left dusty imprints on the cabin carpet as he silently followed Adam's suggestion to fix himself whatever he'd like to drink.
Winifred watched as he poured himself a particularly heavy scotch, thinking that she should probably talk with Adam about Jimmy later.
Still inside the cabin, Jimmy Ryan sat at the table as though ready for the meeting to start. When he realized, however, that Adam and Winifred seemed to have no intention of coming in from the deck, he got up and stood there awkwardly, but made no effort to join them.
Sam Krause arrived ten minutes later, fuming at the traffic and at the incompetence of his driver. As a result, he got on the boat in a sour mood and went directly into the cabin. With a curt nod at Jimmy Ryan, he poured straight gin into a glass and went out on the deck.
"Lang's late as usual, I see," he snapped.
"I spoke to him just before I left the office," Adam told him. "He was in his car and on his way into the city then, so he should be along any minute."
A half-hour later the phone rang. Peter Lang's voice was clearly strained. "I've been in an accident," he said. "One of those damn trailer trucks. Lucky I wasn't killed. The cops want me to go to the hospital and get checked out, and I guess I'd better, just to be on the safe side. You can either call off the meeting or go ahead without me -- it's your decision. After I see the doctor, I'm heading back home."
Five minutes later Cornelia II sailed out of the harbor. The light breeze had stiffened, and clouds were beginning to pass over the sun.
Copyright © 2000 by Mary Higgins Clark. All Rights
Reserved. Reprinted With Permission of the Author.