An actress running from her past finds escape with a man hiding from his future.
When someone wants to be lost, a home tucked among the Ten Thousand Islands off the Florida coast is a good place to live. A couple decent boats, and a deep knowledge of fishing and a man can get by without ever having to talk to another soul. It's a nice enough existence, until the one person who ties him to the world of the living, the reason he's still among them even if only on the fringes, asks him for help.
Father Steady Capri knows quite a bit about helping others. But he is afraid Katie Quinn's problems may be beyond his abilities. Katie is a world-famous actress with an all too familiar story. Fame seems to have driven her to self-destruct. Steady knows the true cause of her desire to end her life is buried too deeply for him to reach. But there is one person who still may be able to save her from herself.
He will show her an alternate escape, a way to write a new life. But Katie still must confront her past before she can find peace. Ultimately, he will need to leave his secluded home and sacrifice the serenity he's found to help her. From the Florida coast, they will travel to the French countryside where they will discover the unwritten story of both their pasts and their future.
Release date: May 7, 2013
Publisher: Center Street
Print pages: 368
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I rubbed my eyes, blew the steam off my Waffle House coffee, and steered with my knees. I was neither passing nor being passed. Just fitting in. Drawing no attention. Something I was good at. My speedometer was hovering around seventy-seven miles an hour as was the rest of the northbound herd of nighttime travelers. Hypnotized by the dotted line, I counted back through the days. Nine years? Or, was it ten? At first, they moved slowly. Each minute a day. Each day a year. But, sitting here, the days lined up like dominoes outside the windshield. Time had been both a blink and a long sleep.
In a little over seven hours, I had crossed from the southwestern-most tip of Florida to the northeast corner. I changed lanes, wound through the spaghetti junction where I-10 intersects I-95 on the north bank of the St. Johns River, drove south across the Fuller Warren Bridge, and exited beneath the shadow of River City Hospital—a collection of a half-dozen or so buildings that rose up and sprawled along the Southbank. Jacksonville may not be as well known as Chicago or Dallas or New York but its nighttime skyline is one of the more beautiful I’ve seen, and the hospital features in that sight.
I spiraled up the parking deck to the sixth floor just prior to the nine p.m. shift change. Twice the people moving to and fro made it easier to blend in. I checked my watch. I had plenty of time.
In the cab of my truck, shrouded in the darkness of the parking deck, I changed into my dark blue maintenance uniform and slid on one of several pairs of thick-framed prescriptionless glasses. I twisted my sun-bleached hair into a tight ponytail and tucked it up under a matching ball cap. I pulled a white breathing mask over my mouth, dug my hands into elbow-deep yellow rubber gloves, and clipped Edmund’s credentials over the flap of my chest pocket. At first glance, the credentials looked professional but anybody with a computer could determine rather quickly that Edmund Dantes was not and never had been employed with River City Hospital. ’Course, my plan was to not be around when whoever that was figured out that Edmund Dantes was really the Count of Monte Cristo and not a man working the trash detail. I fed earplugs up under my shirt and let them dangle over my collar while the unplugged end snaked around inside my shirt. With increased security concerns over the last decade, the hospital had been outfitted with dozens of live-feed, twenty-four-hour HD cameras and a host of rent-a-cops. The trick was knowing where they were, when to turn your back, lower your hat, or hug an exterior wall. Truth is, none of that explains my disguise but it had worked for years and would continue to do so as long as I did not draw attention to myself or stand out from the hospital’s more than one thousand employees. The trick was simple: Be vanilla, not Neapolitan.
For the most part, people are not observant. Experts have conducted studies on bank robberies from actual eyewitnesses. Seldom can two or more agree on who actually robbed the bank, what they were wearing, what they took, and whether it was man or woman. Point being, being invisible isn’t all that tough. In the last ten years, I’ve learned a good bit about being visible yet unseen. It’s possible. Just takes a little work.
On the ground floor, I grabbed a yellow trash cart stowed outside the loading dock. About the size of a Mini Cooper, it looked like the bed of a V-shaped dump truck on wheels. I leaned into it and followed it onto the service elevator, where I turned my back to the first camera. The cart served several functions: It gave me a reason—most folks don’t argue with a man who will take out the trash; it gave me a place to stow my duffel until I needed it; and it gave me something to hide behind. It also gave me something to shove between me and anyone after me, but I’d never needed it for that.
The children’s wing was located on the fourth floor. The bell chimed with each floor as the camera above me filmed the top of my hat. The doors opened and the smells flooded me. I filled up, welcomed the memories, emptied myself, and filled up again.
River City Children’s Hospital is considered one of the finest in the country—as are those who work here. What they do isn’t easily measured as kids aren’t easy patients. Most walk through the front door with two ailments—the one you can diagnose, and the one you can’t. Knowing this, the doctors attack the first, then slowly work their way deeper. To the real wound. Doing so gives the kids reason to smile when reasons are tough to come by. It’s slow work. Painstaking. And the endings aren’t always happy. Despite their pedigrees, technology, and best of intentions, there are some hurts that medicine simply can’t fix.
That’s where I come in.
I’d wrapped each gift in brown paper, tied it with a red ribbon, and attached a simple card—a squared, preprinted white sheet of paper. Each read, “Merry Christmas. Found this on my ship and thought you’d enjoy. Get well soon. I’m always in need of new mates. You’re welcome on my ship any time. Pirate Pete.” I added a gift card to the TCBY yogurt store on the first floor of the hospital. Fifty dollars would buy them yogurt for months on end and since most of the kids could stand to gain a few pounds, it was a good fit. The guy that ran the yogurt place, Tommy, was a big, Santa-looking softy with two chins, hands the size of grizzly paws, a smile that could light up most any room, and the wingspan of a zeppelin. And since he was a hugger, he hugged everybody that stepped foot through his door. Figured if the kids didn’t like his yogurt, they could at least get a hug. Most got both—along with a double scoop of gummy bears or crushed Oreos.
I exited the service elevator, routed around the nurses’ station, hugged an exterior wall, and emptied the first of several trashcans. I took my time—hunched, slow, a slight limp—looking at no one and inviting no one to look at or speak to me. Circling the fourth floor gave me eight cans to empty and a constant view of the nurses’ station. After the third can, the nurses vacated their desk, and I turned ninety degrees toward the library.
Around here, hats are a big deal. It’s not required but the walls are lined with hat hooks and most everybody wears one that can change daily. Literally, there are hundreds. All shapes, sizes, personalities, and attitudes. From umpteen styles of cowboy hats to ball caps to feathered things to visors to painter’s hats to stockings to berets to watchman’s beanies, to you name it, this place is spilling with hats. It began years back, when one of the patients—a young girl—started wearing a large, flamboyant purple hat with an even larger peacock feather spiraling out the top. Didn’t take long for the trend to catch on. Whenever she was asked why she wore it—which was often and usually on television—she’d flip the feather and say with a mile-wide smile, “Because what I can imagine is bigger than what I see.”
There were fourteen new kids plus the twelve who had been there long enough to hang artwork on the wall. That’s twenty-six. Including staff and nurses, I had counted on forty-seven. Some, like the staff, had been there a long time so I knew their names. Others, like the new kids, I still knew very little about. It’d taken me months and several trips up here just to get them all straight.
When I walked in, Grant, Randy, and Scott were gathered around a game console playing a Kung Fu Panda game. Reading the body language, I could tell Randy was winning. Raymond and Grace Ann were lying on the floor—reading. Lewis and Michelle were sitting at a table playing checkers. Andrew sat staring out the window overlooking the river, talking to himself. Others sprawled on beanbags, recliners, and sofas around the room. Most wore hats and their choices were as different as they were.
I scanned the room, noting each face, and double-checked my mental list.
Grant was eight, often wore camouflage pajamas, liked macaroni and cheese with chicken nuggets from McDonald’s, and wanted to live in a house on stilts with a swing in each room. I got him a couple of Paulsen books. Hatchet and Brian’s Hunt.
Teresa was twelve, liked fried okra and fried chicken, wanted to live in Italy, did not like needles, had a lot of artwork hanging in her room, and especially liked to draw castles. Each with a prince in shining armor. The Once and Future King and Princess Academy for her.
Randy was turning ten, liked cheeseburgers, Nike shoes, the music of Justin Bieber, and had a stuffed lion on his bed. A box set of The Chronicles of Narnia.
Raymond was soon to be fourteen, wanted to live in a submarine or on a farm with dirt bikes, and would like to be able to talk one day and work as a news anchor. He has a rather vivid imagination. Voracious reader. The Lord of the Rings for him. Another box set and I threw in an older copy of both The Hobbit and The Silmarillion.
Grace Ann was thirteen. She wanted contacts and then Lasik, followed by plastic surgery to shorten her nose because she wanted to be an actress. She loved Oprah, and more than anything, wanted out of her wheelchair. I got her The Color Purple and Jewel.
I’m not sure how old Steve was. Thirteen, maybe, based on the zits on his cheek. He was studious, wore glasses, carried a briefcase—though I’m not sure it contained anything—and he talked of going to law school like his father, who I suspect was a figment of his imagination. I got him a couple of Grisham’s thrillers, including A Time to Kill and The Pelican Brief.
Scott had to be close to ten and wore a two-holster belt every day to chemotherapy so I got him eight Louis L’Amour books, starting with The Sacketts.
Isabella was just five, so I got her two pop-up picture books: Beauty and the Beast and Finding Nemo.
Knowing these details isn’t all that tough. Each wrote their hopes, dreams, likes, and wants in an essay that one of the staff had taped next to the photo on their door.
I pushed the cart between the Christmas tree and the camera on the wall and made a fair showing of emptying the adjacent can. Having replaced the dirty can liner with a clean one, and using the cart to hide my movements, I placed the gifts at the foot of the tree, turned my back, and began my slow retreat. My rule was simple and I’d never broken it—get in, do what I came to do, and get out. Never dally. Frankenstein was safe behind the woodpile as long as he did not venture out. But staying behind the trash cart was all the more difficult on Christmas Eve.
I pushed, one wheel squeaking. The noise drew Andrew’s attention. He turned, looked at me, half smiled, and said, “Merry Christmas.” His knees tucked up into his chest. He’d gained a few pounds. Looked better. His hair was growing out. I could see the bulge of the PICC line beneath his shirt just below his left collarbone. I nodded and said nothing.
I took my time, glancing at each out of the corner of my eye. Noting changes. Progress. Setbacks. Growth. Weight loss. These were the long-timers. The might-not-make-its. The poster children. The I-wish-I-was-anywhere-but-heres.
One last can. I pushed the cart into the library, hovered above it, letting my eyes scan the shelves. My old friends whispered to me. Most people enter a library and don’t hear a thing. Eerie silence. I stand between the shelves and hear ten thousand conversations occurring all at once. Each ushering an invitation. The noise is raucous.
Blue slippers appeared at my feet. It was Sandy. She was nine. Red haired, freckled, and allergic to most everything on planet Earth. Anaphylactic shock had twice put her in a coma in the ICU. For her I’d left a set of The Enchanted Forest Chronicles and Anne of Green Gables. She, too, wore a white mask over her mouth. She tugged on my pants leg and pointed. “Mister, please.” The Wizard of Oz rested above my head. I reached up and pulled it down. The worn cover and familiar feel. I remember when I’d bought it. Where I was.
I handed it to her and winked. She giggled and disappeared back into the game room. I placed a new liner in the can, wondering how the Wizard would have responded had the Tin Man said he was allergic to the Emerald City.
I backed out, and about the time I reached the door, Michelle beat Lewis in checkers and walked to the tree. The ribbons caught her attention. She knelt, digging. She slid the pile out onto the floor before her. “Hey! Look!”
The kids rallied. Michelle played Santa, passing out gifts. I lingered, untying and retying a trash bag. Making a poor show of making myself look useful.
Life has not always been so distant. So set apart. There were times when I lived in the middle of it. When I knew great emotion. Drank straight from the fire hose. Sucked the marrow. Stuck my finger in the socket. This was not one of those. This was a cheap counterfeit but it was as close as I could get.
I wanted to peel off my hat and mask and the name that wasn’t mine, and sit in the middle while the misfits fell and piled up like pick-up sticks around me. Then we’d crack open a worn cover and I’d read, and the words would do what medicine can’t, won’t, and never will.
Of the six million species on the planet, only man makes language. Words. What’s more—in evidence of the Divine—we string these symbols together and then write them down, where they take on a life of their own and breathe outside of us. Story is the bandage of the broken. Sutures of the shattered. The tapestry upon which we write our lives. Upon which we lay the bodies of the dying and the about-to-come-to-life. And if it’s honest, true, hiding nothing, revealing all, then it is a raging river and those who ride it find they have something to give—that they are not yet empty.
Critics cry foul, claiming the tongue is a bloody butcher that blasphemes, slices, slanders, and damns—leaving scars, carnage, the broken and the beaten. Admittedly, story is a double-edged scimitar, but the fault lies not in the word but in the hand that wields the pen. Not all stories spew, cower, and retreat. Some storm the castle. Rush in. Stand between. Wrap their arms around. Spill secrets. Share their shame. Return. Stories birth our dreams and feed the one thing that never dies.
This is true for all of us—even those who hide behind masks, carts, and names that do not belong to us.
Andrew spoke first. His voice rising. “Hey! Pete was here!” Around here, Pete is an iconic hero but his identity is a mystery. Some think he’s a local tight-lipped charity. Others think a wealthy heiress in her late eighties who was never able to have kids. A well-respected business, or maybe a collection of businesses. A group of professional football players giving back. Over the years, several posers have stepped forward and claimed responsibility hoping to cash in on the notoriety, but nobody really knows. All anyone knows is that he shows up a couple times a year—specifically around birthdays and Christmas—unannounced and leaving no trace.
Raymond held his package and smiled. Speaking almost to himself. “He came back. He came back.”
The cart grew heavier. My feet dragged. Sweat beaded. I turned. Torn wrapping paper, and spent ribbons, piled at their feet. They turned the pages and smiles spread from ear to ear.
My window was closing.
But I was not finished. One gift remained. Liza wasn’t in the library so I exited, turned right, and made my way toward the far end of the hall. Room 424. The door was cracked. Lights dim. I rested my hand on the frame. I knew this room. Spent many a night in here. Long ago, it’d been Jody’s and had belonged to many children since.
I grabbed the present and pushed on the door. She was asleep. Her face pale. Hair stuck to a sweaty forehead. IV dripping. Her cheeks were pudgier—which was good in a ten-year-old survivor. Liza had been here longer than anyone. A house favorite. She could light up a room from down the hall. The artwork on her walls had been framed, evidence of her tenure. So had several pictures showing her with famous people who’d seen her on TV. A half-eaten, triple-layer birthday cake on the table next to her bed. Icing crusted in the corner of her mouth. Up here, you have two birthdays. The day you are born. And the day you are free. She’d been a Christmas Eve baby.
I stepped in, my worn boots squeaking on polished floors. I stood in the shadows and set the present on her nightstand, resisting the urge to place a cold, wet towel on her forehead. I hovered, watching her breathe. I did not know Liza, and she did not know me, but I’d known many like her and I’d watched her grow up in here. Watched her hair come and go and come again. Maybe it was her smile, the way the right side of her mouth turned up more than the left, but, of all of them, she reminded me that I was once alive. I stepped out of the shadow, slid my hand from the glove, reached across the chasm, and gently placed the back of my hand against her cheek. The fever had broken. When I turned to retreat, she spoke. Her voice cracked. “Thank you.” I turned and her eyes shifted from me to the present on the bedside and back to me.
She sat up and her eyes were drawn to the red ribbon. I retreated slowly to the shadows. She said, “May I?”
She untied the ribbon, untaped the wrapper, and unfolded the paper, careful not to tear it. She read the title and clutched the book close to her chest. Pirate Pete and The Misfits: The World Is Flat. The smile grew. “It’s my favorite.”
I knew that. I whispered and motioned with my fingers. “Open it.”
She did. Turning to the title page. It was signed. Not to her, because what are the chances of finding a signed copy for a girl named Liza when the author had been dead for a, well… a long time, but Elizabeth was another story, a more common name. She ran her fingers across the signature. Helen Keller at the Alabama pump house. “Elizabeth is my real name.” I knew that, too.
I drank from the fire hose.
She looked up. “Where’d this come from? Did my doctors find it?” Her head tilted. A quiet moment. “Did you find this?” The emphasis was pointed at me—as was her finger.
Lost in another moment, I forgot myself and was in the process of answering, “I…,” when heavy footsteps squeaked outside the door. I turned quickly, grabbed the trash bag from the bathroom trashcan, and almost bumped into a nurse walking into the room. I tucked my chin to my chest, threw the bag in the cart, cussed myself for being such a fool, and made for the elevator.
I’d made it halfway down the hall when I heard the same high-tempo squeaky footsteps. Her voice was elevated. “Excuse me, sir.”
I turned the corner and picked up a jog. The cart squeaking louder. I was almost running.
The sound followed me around the corner. The effort caused her to breathe heavier and speak unnaturally loud. “Sir!”
To my left, the stairwell. I could ditch the cart and run but my cover would be blown. I pushed the elevator button, and fed the earbuds into my ears. I stood in front of the cart, which blocked me from her, and tapped my foot. The doors opened and I debated. If I stepped in, she had me cornered. Unless I wanted to hurt her—and I did not. If I ran, I could make it down and out the stairs and disappear to the Riverwalk around the fountain, but that would only ensure my escape. Not my return. And the latter was more important than the former.
I stepped in, pulling the cart behind me. Sweat beaded on my forehead.
The doors were closing when she appeared and shoved her massive arm between the doors. The elevator jolted. An out-of-breath nurse stood holding a half-eaten, triple-layer birthday cake smothered in icing. I pulled the noiseless earbuds from my ears. She smiled, caught her breath, leaned on the cart, and offered. “If this thing stays up here, we’ll graze on it for days, and I’m already knocking lamps off night tables as it is, so do a girl a favor and remove the temptation.” I wanted to tell her that her smile was beautiful. That she lit a dark room. That the world needed it, and her.
I did not.
I accepted the cake with a grunt and a nod, and she stepped out of the elevator. When the doors closed, I stood—conscious of the camera above me. I exited at the loading deck, made a serpentine path through the parking garage, up six flights of camera’d stairs to my truck, and didn’t peel off my mask, glasses, or hat until I climbed back up on I-95 and headed south.
I merged, tapped the steering wheel, and took my first bite of cake. The icing stuck to my lips. When I glanced in the rearview, the city skyline was brilliant and the hospital a white blur shrouded in halo.
Tears do that.
At five a.m., I found myself next to a parked tractor trailer at a rest area south of Melbourne. After the sugar rush, I pulled over, crashed, and slept—dreaming of laughter; tender, magnificent voices; of small victories and large defeats; of my place in the world; and days long, long gone. The idling diesel woke me—bringing me back. I stepped out, brushed the cake crumbs off my lap, and stretched—my neck stiff from sleeping against the window. I scratched my head and studied the highway. Jacksonville to the north. Miami to the south. I glanced at my watch and the date reminded me.
Today is Christmas. Time to see the old man.
Miami is known for its vice squad, year-round tropical weather, professional sports teams, wealth, fashion, art-deco design, and bikini beaches. Maybe none more famous than Miami Beach. Just south of Miami Beach, across a little stretch of water and past the Miami Seaquarium—the original home of Flipper—is a barrier island called Key Biscayne.
Key Biscayne is seven miles long by two miles wide. It is bookended by state parks, which means that the real estate in the middle is rather pricey. The Ritz-Carlton is here, as is an exclusive condominium called Sky Seven. Since the area is threaded with canals, many of the homes are waterfront and most owners have several boats. Just across Biscayne Bay on the Florida mainland sits Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, the University of Miami, and an old church shepherded by an even older man.
St. John the Divine always struck me as simple, which is odd given that Catholics are not known for understatement. I’m not knocking them; my best friend is Catholic. Actually, he’s my only friend but that’s irrelevant. The point is that his church has not been dipped in gold like a vanilla cone from Dairy Queen. It’s grand without grandeur. That’s not to say they’ve put no effort in it. The grounds are manicured. Lush. Succulent. Blooms everywhere. Hummingbirds gorging. Roses climb every arch and breezeway. Not a weed to be found. The thing on display here is not man’s handiwork. That strikes me because it gives me no reason to leave—and I’ve been looking.
I reached Miami by morning but given that it was Christmas, and given that they ran four services back to back, I made myself scarce until late afternoon, letting the crowd thin. A single black Range Rover was parked in the lot when I arrived. Looking more like me and less like the Count of Monte Cristo, I stepped inside, took a breath, and leaned against the heavy mahogany. I liked this place. Incense burned in the far corner. Candles flickered. They say confession is good for the soul.
Maybe that depends on what is confessed.
He sat at the far end. Hands clasped on his knees. The confessant knelt opposite. Between the scarf and the sunglasses and the bowed head, I couldn’t make out much but the curves suggested a woman in her late twenties. Maybe midthirties. She finished speaking, stood, and he handed her a tissue with which she wiped her nose, the skin below her eyes. A tr. . .
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