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She was a star.
Queen of the Cosmos.
She was Beth Convey, killing machine with compassion.
She was in room 311 of Superior Court for the District of Columbia. The air was stale, stagnant in fact, but that was to be expected. Any courtroom where a high-profile trial was drawing to a close meant too many days with the doors closed, too many hours of body heat, too much anger, disgust, and sublimated violence for the air to be fresh. The overhead fluorescent lights gave off a relentless glare, and there were no windows that offered the relief of the outdoors; today was a blustery March afternoon. This third-floor room in the thirty-year-old courthouse was a ventilation-challenged, claustrophobic, wood-lined sarcophagus.
Still, the packed audience gave no indication they were unhappy with, or even noticed, the conditions. They sat silent, riveted, because hundreds of millions of dollars were riding on Beth Convey’s cross-examination in this headline-making divorce trial, and no one—particularly the press—wanted to miss a word.
Beth turned to the judge. "Permission to approach the witness, Your Honor." She was known for her ice-cold calm, which she felt she had probably inherited. After all, she was the daughter of Jack-the-Knife Convey, Los Angeles’s top criminal defense attorney. Annoyed, she realized she was sweating.
Judge Eric Schultz was a large man with a gravelly voice and thick eyebrows. He gave her a sharp look. Beth had kept the witness on the stand all day, and there was an edge to the judge’s voice as he said, "Very well. But move your questioning along, Ms. Convey."
She marched forward, her pumps soundless on the carpeting. Behind her she could feel the worried gaze of her client, Michelle Philmalee, while before her sat the object of her cross-examination: Michelle’s husband, industrialist Joel Mabbit Philmalee. A red flush showed
above his starched white shirt collar, and anger flickered in his eyes.
Pretrial, his lawyers had made what they called a "sensible" settlement offer of $50 million, a fraction of the value of his privately held corporation. It was insultingly low, and Michelle had refused it. Which had forced Beth into a tactic that could easily fail: She must make Joel Philmalee’s violent temper betray him in open trial, which was why she had kept him on the stand so long.
She had thought she had left all this behind. Although she had begun practice as a family-law attorney, she now specialized in international law. With her knowledge of Russian and Eastern European politics, her ability to speak a useful amount of Russian and Polish, and her hard-nosed business sense, she had done so well negotiating and cutting red tape in former Communist countries on behalf of Michelle Philmalee that Michelle insisted Beth represent her in the divorce, too.
Inwardly, Beth sighed. She would have passed the divorce case on to one of the firm’s other lawyers except that the managing partner had weighed in on the situation with an emphatic "absolutely not." The firm—Edwards & Bonnett—was determined to keep Michelle’s business, which meant keeping her happy. If Michelle wanted Beth, she would have her, and if Beth were a really good girl and won a healthy settlement package for Michelle, her reward would be a leap onto the fast track to partnership. No fool, Beth had gone to trial.
She stopped five feet from Joel Philmalee. A strong scent of expensive cologne wafted from him as he adjusted himself and glowered. His rage was building. She repressed a smile—and felt a rush of nausea.
She inhaled, forcing the nausea away. She made her voice flat, harsh. "Isn’t it true you gave the hotel chain to Mrs. Philmalee to manage in the beginning because you considered it a minor investment, and you thought she’d fail? Yes or no."
He looked straight into her eyes. "I assumed—"
She tapped her foot. "Yes or no?"
He shot a look of hatred across the courtroom to Michelle. "No!"
"Isn’t it true you tried to fire her, but she convinced you to wait for the fourth- quarter report, which confirmed the success of her expansion strategy? Yes or no."
"I suppose you could say—"
"Yes or no?"
"Never! Is that good enough? No! Never!"
Beth knew he was lying, but she could not force him to change his testimony here. What was important was that the judge had heard her raise the questions and that she was making Joel Philmalee furious at her. To him she had become yet another pushy, insolent, aggravating female, just like his wife.
Beth had presented testimony, minutes of meetings, and financial analyses that showed Michelle had often played the deciding role in the Group’s growth. Now she hoped to add a convincer without ever saying it outright: Joel was a wife-beater. There were rumors about it, and Beth knew they were true. The problem was Michelle wanted no official confirmation that she had been the victim of domestic violence, not even for a half billion dollars in assets. The battlefields of commerce had taught her it was far better their war over a financial agreement look like a contest between two titans of industry. In business, Michelle believed, she must never look weak.
Beth agreed, and although the strategy had made her job far harder, it was their only hope. Unlike community-property states, the District of Columbia made no assumption there would be a fifty-fifty split in divorce, which was what Michelle wanted. Instead, its laws allowed judges broad discretion.
Beth fought back another wave of nausea and plunged ahead. "Mr. Philmalee, isn’t it true that your wife bought and sold, sat on boards of directors, traveled extensively to evaluate properties, and created Philmalee International completely on her own? Yes or no."
He leaned forward. "No! She did everything under my orders. I’m Philmalee Group!"
"Please confine yourself to yes or no, Mr. Philmalee." She could not seem to catch her breath. Her heart was racing again. Last week, her internist had diagnosed stress as the cause of her periodic breathlessness and told her she must slow down. Only thirty-two years old and already she had to ease back on her work? Nonsense. This trial was too important.
Joel Philmalee turned angrily to the judge. "Do I have to put up with this, Your Honor?"
Judge Schultz shook his head. "You were given ample opportunity to settle."
"But my ingrate wife wants half my goddamn company!" He shot Michelle a look of scorching rage.
Michelle tightened her lips, her face grim. She was a tiny woman, compact and fashionable in a quilted Chanel suit and red-rimmed Armani eyeglasses. She gave no evidence of the turmoil and loneliness of which Beth had caught glimpses. Michelle’s isolation was something Beth understood. She and Michelle had made their work the centers of their lives. Beth had never regretted it, and from what she had observed, neither had Michelle.
Beth forged on: "The operative word for you is our, sir. Yours and Mrs. Philmalee’s. ‘Our company.’ The Group. You both worked—" She stifled a gasp. A dull pain gripped her chest, and sweat slid hot and sticky beneath her suit. No. She could not be sick now. She was so close to winning—
Joel’s hands knotted. "My wife didn’t do jack shit!"
The judge spoke up, "Mr. Philmalee, I’ve warned you about your language. Control yourself. Next time I’ll hold you in contempt."
With an effort, Beth forced her voice to remain calm. "She did everything. Isn’t it true that without her you’d have nothing? She gave you the money to start. You took credit for her ideas—"
"Objection, Your Honor!" thundered Joel’s attorney.
"Overruled," the judge said firmly. "Continue, Counselor."
Beth pressed on. "She planned tactics and told you how to implement them. Take the Wheelwright transaction. Oak Tree Plaza. Philmalee Gardens—"
"No! No! No!" Joel Philmalee jumped up. The flush that had been hovering just beneath his ears spread in a red tide across his leathery cheeks.
The judge hammered his gavel.
"Even Philmalee International—" Beth persisted, herself risking being held in contempt.
At which point Joel Philmalee had had enough. "You bitch!" He leaped over the rail straight at Beth.
Beth’s heart seemed to explode in pain. It felt as if her rib cage would shatter. The pain was black and ragged and sent jolts of electricity to her brain. She tried to take a breath, to stay on her feet, to remain conscious. She had been an achiever all her life. Michelle deserved half of the Philmalee Group. Beth needed to go on fighting—
Instead, she collapsed to the carpet.
Joel Philmalee did not notice. He bolted past her toward his wife.
Her little face twisted in terror, Michelle whirled so quickly to escape that her glasses flew off. Screams and shouts erupted from the audience. Cursing, Joel grabbed Michelle from behind.
Just as his hands closed around her throat, a dozen journalists in the audience seemed to come alive. They cascaded down the aisle. Within seconds, two had pulled him off Michelle.
Courthouse security rushed into the room, and as order began to reassert itself and Joel Philmalee was handcuffed and forced through a side door, someone noticed Beth Convey was still lying where she had fallen.
"Did she get hurt?" the judge asked, alarmed. "Check her, Kaeli!"
The bailiff sprinted to the unconscious woman, dropped to his haunches, and felt for her pulse. Frantically, he adjusted his fingers. "Nothing, sir."
As the courtroom fell into a stunned hush, he leaned lower, his cheek an inch from her mouth, waiting for a breath. He stayed there a long time.
At last, he looked up at the judge. His eyes were large with shock. "She’s dead. I’m sorry, Judge. I don’t see how, but Ms. Convey’s dead."
A month later, on a fine, moonlit night in April, a Washington, D.C., 911 operator took a call at 10:12: A motorcycle accident had just occurred in Rock Creek Park, apparently one man injured. The caller gave directions.
Within four minutes, paramedics and the police arrived on the scene, just as a new Lexus was pulling away. The Lexus turned sharply back onto the shoulder and screeched to a stop, its rear wheels sending gravel pinging against a metal guardrail. A distinguished-looking gentleman in an expensive business suit jumped out of the driver’s seat and hurried back through the nighttime shadows to where the paramedics were bending over the fallen motorcyclist.
His face distraught, the Lexus driver’s words poured out with a slight accent: "I am thankful someone called you. Can you help my friend? I did not know what to do, and I have no cellular phone, so I thought I should drive for help. I was late, yes? I was hurrying home to meet him. Then—terrible!—I saw him and the motorcycle lying beside the road." His voice rose. "He was always riding that motorcycle. I told him and told him to wear a helmet, but he never would. He was unconscious when I found him. Is he going to be all right?" He took a deep breath. His lips trembled as he watched the paramedics lift the victim onto a gurney. He looked like a diplomat or a wealthy businessman, a fact that was not lost upon the paramedics.
The lead medic said politely, "Please move out of the way, sir. He’s got a serious head trauma, and we’ve got to get him to the hospital. You can follow us, okay? What’s his name?"
"Ogust. Mikhail Ogust," the man said eagerly. "Which hospital will you take him to? He and I have known each other many years, across many continents. You would not believe-–"
The paramedic nodded. Obviously the fellow was having a hard time dealing with his friend’s injuries. As he helped load the unconscious victim into the ambulance, he told the man the name and address of the hospital.
At the same time, a policeman who had been measuring the skid mark on the street approached. "I’d like to ask you a few questions, sir."
The gentleman turned. "Oh. Oh, yes. Of course. Certainly."
As the ambulance sped off, beacons flashing, siren wailing, the policeman wrote down the man’s name, asked him to relate what he had seen, and told him they would try to locate the Good Samaritan who had phoned in the accident. It looked as if no other vehicle had been involved.
The moment the policeman released him, the man climbed into his Lexus and drove straight to the hospital. There he discovered Mikhail Ogust had been pronounced dead on arrival. Everyone was very polite and considerate, aware Mikhail Ogust had been his dear friend.
The man bowed his head. Two tears slid down his cheeks. The nurses offered their sympathies and told him to go home, that there was nothing more he could do. He nodded, unable to speak, and trudged from the hospital.
A half hour later he arrived at his multimillion-dollar estate in Chevy Chase, set deep in thick woods and hidden from the road. Considering the enormity of the day’s events and the radical action he had been forced to take as a consequence, he should have been weary to the bone. Instead, he was exhilarated.
At the house’s side entrance, the one most convenient to the garage, he tapped his code into the security system, opened the door, and strode through the kitchen and down the hall toward his den and home office. As he passed his bedroom, he caught a glimpse of himself in the long mirror of his closet.
He stopped in the doorway and appraised what he saw: A handsome older man in a dark Saville Row suit and silk tie. He moved his wrist, and his gold cufflink and Rolex watch caught the hall light and glittered. His face seemed full and prosperous, the chin lifted as if life’s wealth were his due. His carriage was not haughty so much as positive, certain. He gave every appearance of solidity, a man of his time who would offer no surprises and could be utterly relied upon. It was the image he cultivated in this new world. The once-powerful official; now the successful businessman; the gentleman who might be a wealthy philanthropist, certainly a pillar of the community.
Satisfied, he continued down the corridor, allowing himself to grow taller, straighter, thinner, more athletic. To do this, he stripped away the inward pretenses of his current character. Like any accomplished actor, he had no need to stare into a mirror to see how this changed him as he knew exactly what he really looked like. More importantly, he understood who he was, despite the different appearances he presented to different audiences. This was a reality he allowed only those closest to him to witness. They were few, his true friends and associates, and always had been. Fewer every year. A man who did great things could not have friends.
He smiled to himself as he walked into his den, picked up the telephone, and dialed. As soon as his associate answered, he spoke in rapid Russian: "Da, it’s me. The fools believed it all. Everything’s fine. We can proceed."
The heart pounded against her ribs like a mighty fist. Its insistent beat drove her to swim up from the darkness. For a moment, terror shook her, and she had no idea where she was. She fought confusion, forced herself to pay attention: She could hear the whoosh and click of many machines. The air was cool, and her nose stung with the smell of antiseptic. . . .
A man’s voice penetrated her grogginess: "Ms. Convey? Wake up. You’re in the cardiac intensive care unit now. Do you know your name? Ms. Convey?"
Her words were a whisper. "Sure I do. But it’s a secret. Shhhhhh. . . . You have to tell me yours first."
The transplant surgeon chuckled. "Travis Jackson here. Remember? You came through the surgery with flying colors, Beth. You’ve got a healthy new heart. Open your eyes. What do you think about all this?"
She was aware of pain muted by morphine. She pushed away the feelings of disorientation . . . and concentrated on her chest: The cadence of her old heart—erratic and sometimes no more than a frail pulse—was gone, replaced by a beat so strong it seemed almost to thunder. Exhausted joy swept through her, and she lay motionless, smiling. She had a new heart.
She opened her eyes and let out a long stream of air, aware of how—suddenly— she could breathe easily again. "Love this heart, Travis. It’s got rhythm. I want to keep it forever."
"That’s what I like to hear." He was in his sixties. His face was lined, and he smiled down at her through rimless eyeglasses perched on the end of a slightly hooked nose. "It’s a healthy heart, a first-rate match for you. I didn’t even need to give it an electric shock to get it started. And your first biopsy shows no sign of rejection."
Her head was clearing, the grogginess abating as a sober awareness of what had happened took hold.
"How can I ever thank you enough?"
"I know it seems trite, but the answer is by living a long and healthy life. That’s what I care about, and that’s my reward." His voice was warm. "You’re young. We’ve caught this thing so fast the rest of your body hasn’t had time to deteriorate. I expect you to have a natural life span."
"I’m so sorry about my donor’s death. But I’m so very grateful, too. . . ."
"I know. Of course you are."
Her smile faded as the morphine swept her back toward unconsciousness. As her eyelids closed, the surgeon studied her, feeling the awe and triumph that kept him excited about this grueling area of medicine. A month ago, Beth Convey had been barely alive, rushed in from the courthouse by paramedics, who had used a portable defibrillator to restart her heart. Because she had no history of heart problems, her internist had been sloppy; he had wrongly diagnosed stress as the cause of her shortness of breath and racing heart, when the reality was that her ventricles were diseased and she was in end-stage heart failure, probably from a viral infection she and her internist had both brushed off the previous winter as a lingering cold.
He remembered how pale she had been when he had first examined her. Ghostly white, really. But that was not the worst of it. As the weeks passed, her skin turned a bilious yellow, her mind grew confused, and she had weakened to the point where she had trouble chewing food. All the result of a heart that could no longer pump adequate amounts of blood and oxygen.
But now, just hours after surgery, their conversation showed her mind was functioning again. And, too, there was the color of her skin, now a healthy peach. To outsiders, this was evidence of the so-called miracle of a heart transplant, while to him it was simply what happened when everything went right.
He smiled with relief, thinking that she seemed especially alive, vital, as she dozed in the hospital bed. She was tall—five-foot-ten—and slim. A beautiful woman with a straight nose, sculpted cheekbones, and a crown of golden hair who, judging by the way she had looked when she had arrived, wore little makeup and downplayed her attractiveness. The doctor found that intriguing—a woman who wanted to be judged by something other than her beauty.
The cardiac ICU always smelled of disinfectant. Beth had grown so accustomed to the odor over the past three days since her surgery that she hardly noticed it. She was thinking about this because the double doors had just swung open, and the odor of percolating coffee was floating in, making her salivate.
Then she flinched. A stab of fear shot through her, and she tensed. Surprised, she stared at what she told herself was simply an odd sight: Two hospital aides dressed completely in surgical green were rolling an old exercise bicycle into her state-of-the-art intensive care room. But there was something about the first aide that had startled her. Made her a little afraid. She studied him, his assured movements, the aggressive shoulders. Now she remembered him from before her surgery. His name was Dave, and he had a gentle touch. He had never been anything but kind.
Her fear made no sense. She forced herself to smile. "You’ve got to be kidding, Dave. An exercise bike? It’s for me, isn’t it?" She continued to study him, still feeling uneasy.
"Yes, ma’am. It surely is for you."
As he and the other aide locked it into place, her doctor, Travis Jackson, arrived. "Your new biopsies look good." She had convinced him to give her a report as soon as he arrived to see her. Patience was not her strong suit. "No sign of rejection or infection. Temperature, pulse, respiration are normal. Everything’s on track."
"Thank God," she breathed. She eyed the bike suspiciously. "Dave says this is for me."
"Remember the bargain: You get a new heart, but in exchange you have to take excellent care of it. Come on. The bike’s been disinfected. We’ll help you."
She was incredulous. "Now? But it’s only been three days. I mean—"
"I know. Everyone thinks it’s going to take weeks to get strong enough to begin exercising. Maybe even months. Not true. Three days is standard operating procedure for transplants that go well, and yours has gone exceedingly well. Come on. Up with you. This is the beginning of your daily workouts."
Nervously she eased her legs over the side of the bed. The second aide put sanitized tennis shoes on her feet. She stood up, tethered by hoses and tubes and strapped up with electrodes and radios that would signal if her heart faltered. She had a long surgical wound down her chest, hidden beneath her hospital gown. Sharp pains radiated from it and then dulled, assuaged by morphine.
The doctor took one arm, and Dave was suddenly at her side to take the other. Again she flinched. She was definitely acting strangely. A cold draft shot up her naked backside. She struggled to reach behind to close her gown.
She sighed. "Oh, the indignity of it all."
"Reminds you you’re alive." Dr. Jackson chuckled. "That’s not too bad a payoff."
They helped her to the bicycle. Even the simple act of walking two yards was a production, but she was surprised at how strong she felt. Once she was astride the bike, Dave headed for the door. Her gaze followed him, relieved to see him go.
"Show me what you can do," the doctor said.
She pedaled slowly, and sweat broke out on her face. "Isn’t this enough?" she panted. "You want me to bike up Mount Everest in my condition? Have you forgotten I almost died?"
"You did die. You’re doing fine." His gaze alternated between studying her and checking his wristwatch. "Okay, stop. That’s enough."
Sweating, she sat back and let her feet circle to a stop. She watched as he analyzed the effects on her heart. At last, she gave in to her nervousness and asked, "How are my readings?"
"Good. Actually, beautiful. If I were less modest, I’d congratulate myself."
"I appreciate your modesty. It becomes you."
He laughed. "My wife says something similar." His glasses caught the glare from the fluorescent lights and glinted as he wrote on his clipboard.
"I know it seems too soon to ask, but I’d like to know what I’m facing." She hesitated. It seemed to her that she had arisen from the dead like a phoenix, and it all had made her feel oddly, uncomfortably transformed. A sense of longing for her familiar past swept over her. "When can I go back to work?"
"You miss it, don’t you? Well, I don’t blame you. I’d feel the same. But first we’ve got to make sure all your medicines are regulated, and you’ve got to get on an exercise-food-sleep regimen so you can regain your strength and we can fine-tune for future problems. That way, when you go back to the office, you’ll be in great shape, and we won’t have to worry about organ rejection, infection, or any of that sort of unpleasantness." He gave her a smile of understanding. "That means you’ve got to figure on at least a year for recuperation."
She was shocked. "A year? My firm’s going to forget who I am!"
"I doubt it. From what I hear, you’re something of a hotshot."
She did not contradict him, but he obviously knew little about high-stakes Washington law firms. The city was littered with the corpses of last year’s young hotshots.
As he and the second aide helped her off the bicycle and back into bed, the doctor asked, "Is there anything you’d especially like now?"
She nodded. "A drink. Vodka. Stolichnaya." She hesitated. Where had that come from?
The doctor laughed. "Vodka’s a little much for now. Besides, I thought you were a wine drinker."
Puzzled, she added lamely, "You’re right. I guess I was just thinking we should celebrate with something stronger. I’ll have fruit juice. Mango." She no longer drank hard alcohol of any kind. The last time she’d had vodka was in law school, when she had been an aficionado of it, but as the surgeon and aide left, she could taste its white-hot fire in her mouth, as fresh as if she had just downed a shot.