Darla stumbled through the busy lunch crowd on Nicollet Mall. Sweat dripped from under her bangs and trickled down the sides of her face. She tugged at the hem of her top, a flaming orange knit; the thin fabric stretched insufficiently over her pregnant belly. The baggy denim skirt she wore restricted movement, wrapping around her legs at every step. She stopped to catch her breath, sucking air like an out-of-shape marathon runner, and glanced back.
Her gaze pinpointed on a man in the shadow of the bank building. No…she wouldn’t let him take her….the babies…
“You can’t have them!” she screamed at him.
Men in business suits parted around her and a young couple stepped off the curb to navigate away from her. In their haste, they bumped a BMW and set off the car alarm. Darla used the diversion to move again. Her sandals smacked the pavement in a fearful staccato.
She picked up her pace as she neared the intersection, gently stroking her swollen belly. A tiny foot pressed back against her hand as the babies moved and stretched in their compact world. “I won’t let them take you from me,” she promised.
A man stopped her from stepping off the curb. “Hold on. The light hasn’t changed, lady.” His glance slid quickly over her in the way most people avoided eye contact with the homeless and indigent.
She pulled back and wrapped her arms around her bulging midsection. “You can’t have them!” she hissed between clenched teeth.
“Have what?” His voice was kind and reminded her of Dr. Kapoor.
“Watch out, Mister, she might bite!” someone called from the back of the group waiting at the curb.
Laughter rippled forward and the older man turned. “You might show a little compassion…”
Darla felt a hand on the small of her back, and she was shoved directly into the path of an oncoming minivan.
Dr. Alicia Brock turned her back on the nearby nurse’s station and lowered her voice. “She didn’t make it,” she said. She adjusted the phone against her ear and scribbled a notation on the chart in her hand. “The male infant can be discharged by tomorrow afternoon, but the girl is experiencing problems. Her lungs are still weak. She’ll need to be watched closely in neonatal for a couple more days at least. There may be other complications. Twins usually have low birth weights, but being that they’re also five weeks premature…” There was no sense explaining everything to him. He didn’t want medical jargon. He wanted results.
The stress of the last few hours had forged a knot between her shoulder blades. She stretched to ease the tension and released a quiet sigh. The price this man was exacting from her would finally be paid, but would she be able to live with herself?
There was no choice. Dwelling on the past never helped anyone or changed anything. A woman died because she fell asleep at the wheel one night and mowed her down. If she’d called an ambulance, maybe things would be different. But she hadn’t.
Face to the wall, she surreptitiously wiped at her eyes with a crumpled tissue fished from the pocket of her white coat. Doctors don’t cry; they’re hard like flint. They encounter pain, death, and shattered lives, but never let it get to them. She had an instructor once say, “plastic-coat your heart if you have to, because feelings are a waste of a physician’s time.”
She listened stony-faced, and then cleared her throat. “You want me to do what?” she asked, gripping the pen so tightly she heard the crack of plastic. “But they’re twins. They should be together.”
The line was disconnected and she stood silent, unable to move or act naturally. Her heart continued to beat like a mechanical toy even as anguish moved in and took up residence.
Steven stood at the window of Frank’s corner office staring toward the cityscape. The Minneapolis IDS building rose above all others, reflective glass gleaming in the afternoon sun. It was an amazing view of the city from this vantage point, but he doubted his uncle took much time to enjoy it.
He turned around when Frank ended the phone conversation. His uncle shot him a look of triumph, but Steven felt a knot form in his stomach. The young doctor’s voice on speakerphone had been filled with enough tension to string a bow. He hated the fact that he was part of the reason for it.
“Are you sure this is the right course of action?” Steven asked. “Maybe we should wait. Give the infant a couple days to…”
“Are you questioning my authority?”
“No, I just…”
“Glad to hear it.” Frank laced his fingers on the desktop. “The baby is weak and sickly; a child with insurmountable problems, given its origin. We can’t take the chance that a doctor or nurse will notice something… and blood work would be done, experts dragged in to examine her, and the truth would come to light, destroying carefully laid plans that has taken years to conceive. Besides–it probably wouldn’t survive the week. So look on the bright side. The woman planned to have an abortion before we stepped in. We’re saving a life rather than taking one. Without our intervention, both babies would have been aborted.”
“Will she do what has to be done?” Even though the room was air conditioned, Steven felt a trickle of sweat slide down the back of his neck.
As nephew of the founding owner of Howard Pharmaceuticals, Steven was accustomed to being obeyed, but this request exceeded his level of authority. He knew what was necessary, but was relieved he didn’t have to voice the order. Let his uncle Frank play God, the position reserved for arrogant doctors and CEO’s.
Frank Howard reached for the intricately carved box on the corner of his desk and lifted the lid. He very carefully chose a cigar, leaned back in his chair and clipped the end with a guillotine cutter.
“She’ll comply. Her future in medicine depends on it,” he said. “When you control their fate, you control a person’s will. Any natural tendencies Doctor Brock may have to save that baby’s life are eclipsed by a much baser inclination. Self preservation.” He eyed Steven across the desk, a smirk of enjoyment on his thin lips. “The very same reason you’re doing what you’re doing.”
Steven frowned and straightened his shoulders within the confines of his suit coat. “I don’t think so,” he said, but he felt the truth squirming like pinworms beneath the surface.
Frank merely smiled and puffed, letting the silence speak for him. And it did, floating through the air like the smoke from his cigar, an ephemeral haze of inculpation.
He tried to rise above his uncle’s needling. The old man knew how to push all the right buttons. Perhaps this was a bad idea, but too much time had passed and whether or not he felt a twinge of remorse for what they started, he must go on. Like Uncle Frank said, “self preservation.” But he didn’t have to concede to it.
He stood, intent on escape. Frank always made him feel stifled, like a boa constrictor wrapped around his chest. He made decisions that affected dozens of employees everyday and still was unable to breath easily in his uncle’s presence.
“I don’t know what you have on that doctor, but I came into this of my own free will. I believe in this project and plan to see it through,” he said with a show of confidence to match his uncle’s cynicism.
Frank smiled, his tobacco stained teeth eerily yellow in the dim light of the desk lamp. “Of course you do. And you also want to make certain Serena never leaves. You believe a baby will insure that. That’s the basest form of self preservation.”
“How dare you!” His anger flashed bright, a flare of self-righteousness amid dark self-doubt. “My wife has never threatened to leave me.”
“Your wife is weak. Just because she hasn’t packed her bags doesn’t mean she hasn’t checked out. She’s only a breath away from pulling a Marilyn Monroe, and you know it. What kind of a mother will she be?”
The thought of his wife taking her own life was more than he could endure. He planted his palms on the desktop and leaned forward to glare into his uncle’s face. “You promised me that Serena and I would raise that baby as our own. You will not back out of our deal now. Serena will be just fine. She’s not as weak as you seem to believe. Don’t underestimate her–and don’t underestimate me.”
“Are you threatening me, son?” His uncle’s steel gray brows rose with the question, hovering like two birds of prey, although his voice held a touch of amusement.
Steven straightened and released a puff of frustration. He ran a hand over his close-cropped beard. “When can we have the baby?”
Frank took his time answering while he puffed on his cigar. “Andrew will have the necessary papers drawn up tonight to satisfy the hospital and your wife, and tomorrow afternoon you will have the son I’ve always dreamed of.”
“Fine. Then I’m going home to tell Serena.” Steven strode to the door, eager to be gone. The old man constantly pushed and then gloated when he lost his temper. The age-old game of power and control. He hated it. But without Frank he would probably be pushing paper at some entry-level position, trying to make ends meet, and he never would have convinced Serena to marry him.
But things never stay the same. They shift and morph and sometimes slide into a living hell. This baby was their last chance. He couldn’t stand to live any longer with those two D words hanging over him: death or divorce. Yes, he was afraid his wife would leave. He just wasn’t sure which road she’d take. After the last miscarriage, Serena had disappeared into herself. Her performance around the house was perfunctory, her attention divided between the daily rituals of here and now and someplace he wasn’t allowed access. She no longer spoke of children and evaded physical interaction like a virus.
She probably blamed him. He blamed himself. Was there a weak strand in his genes, something undetectable but deadly, that caused his children to die within months of their conception? The question haunted him, kept him up nights, as his wife sat rocking in the nursery across the hall from their bedroom, the creaking of her chair playing a lonely duet with the dull thud of his heart.
“I’d love to hear you explain away the absence of all the normal hoopla involved with adoption,” his uncle said. “Although, I’m sure you’ll do fine. A woman that desperate is usually quite open to deception. She probably won’t even ask the hard questions.”
The remark punctured Steven’s conscience like a Doberman’s fangs. He wished he didn’t have to lie to Serena. Perhaps someday she’d be able to understand that what he did, he did for her, and even accept the truth about the baby as a good thing. He assuaged his guilt by remembering that what mattered now was his wife’s mental state. She needed this baby to bring her back from the brink of despair and he’d already proven that lying was just one of the sins he was willing to commit to do so.
“You’re right,” he said. He turned to face his uncle. His fingers gripped the antique door handle. “She probably won’t. But that’s my job–to ask the hard questions. And now it’s too late.”
He pulled the door closed behind him and hurried past Frank’s secretary. Out in the hall he stopped to take a deep breath and exhale.
How could he feel doomed and elated at the same time? Was it the way his father felt when his plane went down, the moment before he died, knowing he was leaving this life but believing in a better one to come? Steven didn’t share that hope, but he thought he could relate. Being able to tell Serena she would finally have the child she longed for would make up for all the lines he’d crossed achieving that goal. At least he hoped the black marks against him would be erased. Good for bad. Even Steven.
“What are you thinking, letting my daughter and your idiot nephew adopt one of our test subjects? Are you crazy?” Senator Marcus Dunbar couldn’t contain his fury at Frank’s decision. He pulled a handkerchief from his suit pocket and wiped at his shaved head, damp with sweat. “I told you before I didn’t want Serena involved in this. She’s fragile enough. Another loss and I don’t know what she’ll do.” He paced to the window and back, breathing loudly through flared nostrils. He’d gained seventy pounds or so around his middle in the last couple of years, and was a heart attack waiting to happen.
Frank leaned back in his desk chair and laced his hands behind his head. He watched the senator puff and snort around his desk like a dog defending his turf. A sense of elation filled him. He finally had the upper hand. “I think you may have forgotten that the name on this building is Howard, not Dunbar. I’m in charge here.”
“If Serena would’ve listened to me, she’d be married to Devlin now and all of this would be moot,” he said, ignoring the jibe.
Frank laughed. “That’s old news, Senator. When are you going to get past it?”
“My nephew is not the idiot you like to portray. He’s a decent businessman and he wouldn’t do anything to hurt your daughter. But beyond that, he isn’t stupid enough to bite the hand that feeds him. Unlike his father, he has ambition, a dream of someday running this company. Whether or not that pans out is yet to be seen, but the possibility keeps him towing the line.”
“Maybe for now, but what happens down the line when he becomes attached to this child and decides to come clean with Serena?” Marcus stopped before Frank’s desk dead center and stared him down. “Hmm, what then?”
“He’ll tell her what he knows.”
“That’s what I’m saying!”
“But what he thinks he knows isn’t necessarily the truth.” He picked up his lit cigar from the ashtray and puffed. “He doesn’t know about the other mentally-ill women Devlin recruited from your precious homeless shelters, if that’s what you’re worried about. So you can rest at ease. Your daughter will never know her father–the great philanthropic senator–was involved in baby stealing.”
“Nobody stole anything.” Marcus settled into a chair on the other side of the desk, crossing his arms over his wide chest. He lost some of the blustery tone from his voice, sounding almost placating. “Those women agreed to become impregnated in exchange for room and board. They’d sell their own mothers for less. Believe me, those types have no business with a baby.”
“You don’t have to convince me.” Frank lifted the lid of his cigar box and offered one to Marcus, who declined. He relaxed back in his seat, and watched the big man across from him. “What are you so afraid of anyway, Marcus? That being a grandfather will make you appear old to your constituents or that your daughter will cheer up and be content to stay with my nephew forever?”
“I just don’t want to see everything fall apart now. I have a lot riding on this.
Frank grinned around the cigar clamped in his teeth. The senator was putty in his hands. Ever since he lost the democratic nomination for the presidency three years ago he’d been set on payback. And a man willing to do anything for revenge was a man he could use.
“Keeping the child in the family is like keeping our cards close to our chests. You have nothing to worry about. Everything’s in hand. Steven knows only what he needs to. Dr. Devlin and Dr. Kapoor are completely trustworthy, and the only woman to have her baby outside of this facility had a most unfortunate but fatal accident. Loose ends are my specialty. I never leave any untied.”
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