To Joan Benford, who lives in the memories of all who knew her.
The wailing of the newborn infant is mingled with the dirge for the dead.
I’m not afraid to die.
I just don’t want to be there when it happens.
Roller coaster: 1) a small gravity railroad ... with steep inclines that produce sudden, speedy plunges for thrill-seeking passengers.
—THE RANDOM HOUSE DICTIONARY
Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength; while loving someone deeply gives you courage.
A CANDLE IN THE WIND
A storm struck on the night Laura Shane was born, and there was a strangeness about the weather that people would remember for years.
Wednesday, January 12, 1955, was frigid, gray, and somber. At twilight thick, fluffy snowflakes spiraled out of the low sky, and the people of Denver huddled in expectation of a Rocky Mountain blizzard. By ten o’clock that night, a bitterly cold gale blew in from the west, howling out of the mountain passes and shrieking down those rugged, wooded slopes. The snowflakes grew smaller, until they were as fine as sand, and they sounded as abrasive as sand, too, when the wind blew them across the windows of Dr. Paul Markwell’s book-lined study.
Markwell slumped in the chair behind his desk, drinking Scotch to keep warm. The persistent chill that troubled him was not caused by a winter draft but by an internal frigidity of the mind and heart.
In the four years since his only child, Lenny, had died of polio, Markwell’s drinking had gotten steadily worse. Now, though on call for emergencies at County Medical, he picked up the bottle and poured more Chivas Regal.
In the enlightened year of 1955, children were being inoculated with Dr. Jonas Salk’s vaccine, and the day was near when no child would be paralyzed or die from poliomyelitis. But Lenny had been afflicted in 1951, a year before Salk tested the vaccine. The boy’s respiratory muscles had been paralyzed, too, and the case had been complicated by bronchopneumonia. Lenny never had a chance.
From the mountains to the west, a low rumble echoed across the winter night, but at first Markwell thought nothing of it. He was so involved with his own enduring, bile-black grief that sometimes he was only subliminally aware of events that transpired around him.
A photograph of Lenny stood on his desk. Even after four years he was tortured by his son’s smiling face. He should have put the photo away but instead left it in view because unceasing self-flagellation was his method of attempting to atone for his guilt.
None of Paul Markwell’s colleagues was aware of his drinking problem. He never appeared to be drunk. The errors he made in the treatment of some patients had resulted in complications that might have arisen naturally and were not attributed to malpractice. But he knew that he had blundered, and self-loathing only induced him to drink more.
The rumbling came again. This time he recognized the thunder, but he still did not wonder about it.
The phone rang. The Scotch had left him numb and slow to react, so he did not pick up the receiver until the third ring. “Hello?”
“Dr. Markwell? Henry Yamatta.” Yamatta, an intern at County Medical, sounded nervous. “One of your patients, Janet Shane, was just brought in by her husband. She’s in labor. Fact is, they were delayed by the storm, so she was well along when they got here.”
Markwell drank Scotch while he listened. Then, pleased to hear that his voice was not slurred, he asked, “She still in first stage?”
“Yes, but her labor pains are intense and unusually protracted for this point in the process. There’s blood-tinged vaginal mucus—”
“That’s to be expected.”
Impatiently Yamatta said, “No, no. This isn’t ordinary show.”
Yamatta said, “Not enough blood for hemorrhage, but something’s wrong. Uterine inertia, obstruction of the pelvis, systemic disease—”
“I’d have noticed any physiological irregularity that would’ve made pregnancy dangerous,” Markwell said sharply. But he knew that he might not have noticed ... if he had been drunk. “Dr. Carlson’s on duty tonight. If something goes wrong before I get there, he—”
“We’ve just had four accident victims brought in, two in bad shape. Carlson’s hands are full. We need you, Dr. Markwell.”
“I’m on my way. Twenty minutes.”
Markwell hung up, finished his Scotch, and took a peppermint lozenge from his pocket. Since becoming a heavy drinker, he always carried mints. As he unwrapped the lozenge and popped it into his mouth, he left the study and went along the hall to the foyer closet.
He was drunk, and he was going to deliver a baby, and maybe he was going to botch it, which would mean the end of his career, the destruction of his reputation, but he did not care. In fact he anticipated that catastrophe with a perverse longing.
He was pulling on his overcoat when a peal of thunder rocked the night. The house reverberated with it.
He frowned and looked at the window beside the front door. Fine, dry snow swirled against the glass, briefly hung suspended as the wind held its breath, then swirled again. On a couple of other occasions over the years, he had heard thunder in a snowstorm, though always at the beginning, always soft and far away, nothing as menacing as this.
Lightning flashed, then again. Falling snow flickered queerly in the inconstant light, and the window was briefly transformed into a mirror in which Markwell saw his own haunted face. The subsequent crash of thunder was the loudest yet.
He opened the door and peered curiously at the turbulent night. The hard-driving wind hurled snow under the porch roof, drifting it against the front wall of the house. A fresh, two- or three-inch white mantle covered the lawn, and the windward boughs of the pine trees were flocked as well.
Lightning flared bright enough to sting Markwell’s eyes. The thunderclap was so tremendous that it seemed to come not only from the sky but from the ground, too, as if heaven and earth were splitting open, announcing Armageddon. Two extended, overlapping, brilliant bolts seared the darkness. On all sides eerie silhouettes leaped, writhed, throbbed. The shadows of porch railings, balusters, trees, barren shrubs, and streetlamps were so weirdly distorted by every flash that Markwell’s familiar world acquired the characteristics of a Surrealistic painting: the unearthly light illuminated common objects in such a way as to give them mutant forms, altering them disturbingly.
Disoriented by the blazing sky, thunder, wind, and billowing white curtains of the storm, Markwell abruptly felt drunk for the first time that night. He wondered how much of the bizarre electrical phenomenon was real and how much was alcohol-induced hallucination. He edged cautiously across the slippery porch to the head of the steps that led to the snow-covered front walk, and he leaned against a porch post, craning his head out to look up at the light-shattered heavens.
A chain of thunderbolts made the front lawn and street appear to jump repeatedly as if that scene were a length of motion picture film stuttering in a jammed projector. All color was burned out of the night, leaving only the dazzling white of the lightning, the starless sky, the sparkling white of snow, and ink-black shuddering shadows.
As he stared in awe and fear at the freakish celestial display, another jagged crack opened in the heavens. The earth-seeking tip of the hot bolt touched an iron streetlamp only sixty feet away, and Markwell cried out in fear. At the moment of contact the night became incandescent, and the glass panes i
n the lamp exploded. The clap of thunder vibrated in Markwell’s teeth; the porch floor rattled. The cold air instantly reeked of ozone and hot iron.
Silence, stillness, and darkness returned.
Markwell had swallowed the peppermint.
Astonished neighbors appeared on their porches along the street. Or perhaps they were present throughout the tumult, and perhaps he saw them only when the comparative calm of an ordinary blizzard was restored. A few trudged through the snow to have a closer look at the stricken streetlamp, the iron crown of which appeared half melted. They called to one another and to Markwell, but he did not respond.
He had not been sobered by the terrifying exhibition. Afraid that neighbors would detect his drunkenness, he turned away from the porch steps and went into the house.
Besides, he had no time to chat about the weather. He had a pregnant woman to treat, a baby to deliver.
Striving to regain control of himself, he took a wool scarf from the foyer closet, wound it around his neck, and crossed the ends over his chest. His hands were trembling, and his fingers were slightly stiff, but he managed to button his overcoat. Fighting dizziness, he pulled on a pair of galoshes.
He was gripped by the conviction that the incongruous lightning had some special meaning for him. A sign, an omen. Nonsense. Just the whiskey confusing him. Yet the feeling remained as he went into the garage, put up the door, and backed the car into the driveway, the chain-wrapped winter tires crunching and clinking softly in the snow.
As he shifted the car into park, intending to get out and close the garage, someone rapped hard on the window beside him. Startled, Markwell turned his head and saw a man bending down and peering at him through the glass.
The stranger was approximately thirty-five. His features were bold, well-formed. Even through the partly fogged window he was a striking man. He was wearing a navy peacoat with the collar turned up. In the arctic air his nostrils smoked, and when he spoke, the words were dressed in pale puffs of breath. “Dr. Markwell?”
Markwell rolled down the window. “Yes?”
“Dr. Paul Markwell?”
“Yes, yes. Didn’t I just say so? But I’ve no office hours here tonight, and I’m on my way to see a patient at the hospital.”
The stranger had unusually blue eyes that conjured in Markwell the image of a clear winter sky reflected in the millimeter-thin ice of a just-freezing pond. They were arresting, quite beautiful, but he knew at once that they were also the eyes of a dangerous man.
Before Markwell could throw the car into gear and reverse toward the street where help might be found, the man in the peacoat thrust a pistol through the open window. “Don’t do anything stupid.”
When the muzzle pressed into the tender flesh under his chin, the physician realized with some surprise that he did not want to die. He had long nursed the idea that he was ready to embrace death. Yet now, instead of welcoming the realization of his will to live, he was guilt-stricken. To embrace life seemed a betrayal of the son with whom he could be joined only in death.
Markwell withdrew the key from the ignition. “Who are you?”
“That’s not important.”
“It is to me. What do you want? What’re you going to do to me?”
“Cooperate, and you won’t be hurt. But try to get away, and I’ll blow your damn head off, then empty the gun into your dead body just for the hell of it.” His voice was soft, inaptly pleasant, but full of conviction. “Give me the keys.”
Markwell passed them through the open window.
“Now come out of there.”
Slowly sobering, Markwell got out of the car. The vicious wind bit his face. He had to squint to keep the fine snow out of his eyes.
“Before you close the door, roll up the window.” The stranger crowded him, allowing no avenue of escape. “Okay, very good. Now, Doctor, walk with me to the garage.”
“This is crazy. What—”
The stranger stayed at Markwell’s side, holding him by the left arm. If someone was watching from a neighboring house or from the street, the gloom and falling snow would conceal the gun.
In the garage, at the stranger’s direction, Markwell pulled the big door shut. The cold, unoiled hinges squealed.
“If you want money—”
“Shut up and get in the house.”
“Listen, a patient of mine is in labor at the county—”
“If you don’t shut up, I’ll use the butt of this pistol to smash every tooth in your head, and you won’t be able to talk.”
Markwell believed him. Six feet tall, about a hundred and eighty pounds, the man was Markwell’s size but was intimidating. His blond hair was frosted with melting snow, and as the droplets trickled down his brow and temples, he appeared to be as devoid of humanity as an ice statue at a winter carnival. Markwell had no doubt that in a physical confrontation the stranger in the peacoat would win handily against most adversaries, especially against one middle-aged, out-of-shape, drunken physician.
Bob Shane felt claustrophobic in the cramped maternity-ward lounge provided for expectant fathers. The room had a low acoustic-tile ceiling, drab green walls, and a single window rimed with frost. The air was too warm. The six chairs and two end tables were too much furniture for the narrow space. He had an urge to push through the double swinging doors into the corridor, race to the other end of the hospital, cross the main public lounge, and break out into the cold night, where there was no stink of antiseptics or illness.
He remained in the maternity lounge, however, to be near to Janet if she needed him. Something was wrong. Labor was supposed to be painful but not as agonizing as the brutal, extended contractions that Janet had endured for so long. The physicians would not admit that serious complications had arisen, but their concern was apparent.
Bob understood the source of his claustrophobia. He was not actually afraid that the walls were closing in. What was closing in was death, perhaps that of his wife or of his unborn child—or both.
The swinging doors opened inward, and Dr. Yamatta entered.
As he rose from his chair, Bob bumped the end table, scattering half a dozen magazines across the floor. “How is she, Doc?”
“No worse.” Yamatta was a short, slender man with a kind face and large, sad eyes. “Dr. Markwell will be here shortly.”
“You’re not delaying her treatment until he arrives, are you?”
“No, no, of course not. She’s getting good care. I just thought you’d be relieved to know that your own doctor is on his way.”
“Oh. Well, yeah ... thank you. Listen, can I see her, Doc?”
“Not yet,” Yamatta said.
“When she’s ... in less distress.”
“What kind of answer’s that? When will she be in less distress? When the hell will she come out of this?” He instantly regretted the outburst. “I ... I’m sorry, Doc. It’s just ... I’m afraid.”
“I know. I know.”
An inside door connected Markwell’s garage to the house. They crossed the kitchen and followed the first-floor hallway, switching on lights as they went. Clumps of melting snow fell off their boots.
The gunman looked into the dining room, living room, study, medical office, and the patients’ waiting room, then said, “Upstairs.”
In the master bedroom the stranger snapped on one of the lamps. He moved a straight-backed, needlepoint chair away from the vanity and stood it in the middle of the room.
“Doctor, please take off your gloves, coat, and scarf.”
Markwell obeyed, dropping the garments on the floor, and at the gunman’s direction he sat in the chair.
The stranger put the pistol on the dresser and produced a coiled length of sturdy rope from one pocket. He reached beneath his coat and withdrew a short, wide-bladed knife that was evidently kept in a sheath attached to his belt. He cut the rope int
o pieces with which, no doubt, to bind Markwell to the chair.
The doctor stared at the pistol on the dresser, calculating his chances of reaching the weapon before the gunman could get it. Then he met the stranger’s winter-blue eyes and realized that his scheming was as transparent to his adversary as a child’s simple cunning was apparent to an adult.
The blond man smiled as if to say, Go ahead, go for it.
Paul Markwell wanted to live. He remained docile and compliant, as the intruder tied him, hand and foot, to the needlepoint chair.
Making the knots tight but not painfully so, the stranger seemed oddly concerned about his captive. “I don’t want to have to gag you. You’re drunk, and with a rag jammed in your mouth, you might vomit, choke to death. So to some extent I’m going to trust you. But if you cry out for help at any time, I’ll kill you on the spot. Understand?”
When the gunman spoke more than a few words, he revealed a vague accent, so mild that Markwell could not place it. He clipped the ends of some words, and occasionally his pronunciation had a guttural note that was barely perceptible.
The stranger sat on the edge of the bed and put one hand on the telephone. “What’s the number of the county hospital?”
Markwell blinked. “Why?”
“Damn it, I asked you the number. If you won’t give it to me, I’d rather beat it out of you than look it up in the directory.”
Chastened, Markwell gave him the number.
“Who’s on duty there tonight?”
“Dr. Carlson. Herb Carlson.”
“Is he a good man?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is he a better doctor than you—or is he a lush too?”
“I’m not a lush. I have—”
“You’re an irresponsible, self-pitying, alcoholic wreck, and you know it. Answer my question, Doctor. Is Carlson reliable?”
Markwell’s sudden nausea resulted only partly from overindulgence in Scotch; the other cause was revulsion at the truth of what the intruder had said. “Yeah, Herb Carlson’s good. A very good doctor. ”
“Who’s the supervising nurse tonight?”
Markwell had to ponder that for a moment. “Ella Hanlow, I think. I’m not sure. If it isn’t Ella, it’s Virginia Keene.”
The stranger called the county hospital and said he was speaking on behalf of Dr. Paul Markwell. He asked for Ella Hanlow.