November 12, 2020

Angel Falling Softly (excerpt)

Chapter 1

The devil lives next door

Bedlam beat against the boards. The oaken beams shuddered. The reverberations echoed through the great hall of the manor house. The sound of thunder, perhaps. Or the Master slamming through the empty rooms in another one of his senseless rages. The child they’d brought him had not satisfied. He would beckon her soon enough, glower and remonstrate, pace lines on the drawing-room carpet, smacking the leather of his riding crop into the palm of his hand.

Always the same accusation: “You have wrung her dry! Do you hand a hard sponge to a thirsting man?”

Always her plea: “But there are three of us and only one of you!”

Always his dismissive answer: “You are children. You need hardly a drop!”

She closed her mouth and clenched her teeth and repeated to herself: I am not a child, and one day you shall know this.

Another harsh report. Milada’s eyes flew open. The darkness hung around her like funerary curtains. Her heart raced. She listened closer. No, these were not the echoes of the Master’s temper. It was not lightning, nor was it thunder. It was the sound of angry men and their fists pounding on the door.

Kamilla turned to her, eyes glowing in the dark. “What is going on?” she demanded. “What have you done?

The heavy iron hinges were beginning to give.

Chapter 2

Fortune favors the bold

The sonic boom echoed across the city from the West Desert bombing range, rattling the window frame. White light struck Milada hard in the face. She jerked her head away from the growing patch of sunlight. A draft of air from the vents had caught the curtains away from the glass. She covered her eyes with her hands and groaned. So early, and the day had defeated her already.

Milada climbed out of bed and pulled on her nightgown. After retrieving her cell phone from the dresser, she approached the window and cracked open the curtains. Then leaned back as a veritable blast of light sprang into the room.

From her safe vantage she contemplated the Salt Lake City metropolis. What a strange city it was, housing no more people than Yonkers yet filling a county half the size of Long Island. The urban landscape flowed down from Federal Heights and out from Temple Square like the gush from a fire hydrant flooding onto Brooklyn asphalt. Zoning was left to nature, and nature was an undisciplined commissar.

Her cell phone chirped. Jane’s wake-up call. “Morning, Milly,” Jane said in her always cheerful voice. “How are you finding Utah?”

“It is very bright,” Milada replied.

An understatement, to say the least. There was nothing subterranean here, no shade that was not filled with light. Late yesterday afternoon, waiting for the Hilton limo to pick her up at the airport, the air had been as hot as an oven and as dry as sandpaper.

On the phone Jane was saying something about Garrick. Milada shifted her attention back to her executive assistant as Jane said, “He left a note. ‘Ask Milly about the last time she’s had anything to eat,’ it says.”

Milada had to laugh, though she was really laughing at herself. A biting truth underpinned the kidding reprimand. She did not live by bread alone.

“Oh, and I have Kammy’s local phone and pager numbers,” Jane said.

“I should be seeing her later today, but let me have them anyway.”

Jane ran through the day’s itinerary. Milada half-listened as she talked, and mostly to the comforting familiarity of her voice. Two thousand miles, and it sounded like she was next door. Milada already felt a touch of homesickness. She not only understood her stepfather’s solitary ways, but she was starting to take after them. That’s what worried Garrick.

Jane said, “Your contact at Loveridge & Associates is Merrill Loveridge. Odds are they’ll push some flunky on you.”

“Just as well,” Milada replied. Most corporate officers equal to her in status were wont to treat her like a precocious teenager.

The hotel room phone rang. Jane heard it as well. “I’ll let you get that, Milly. That’s all I’ve got on my end.”

Milada said good-bye. The call was the concierge saying that her driver had arrived. Before returning to the bedroom, she paused again before the window. As she gazed down from her aerie on this unrolling sod of civilization, it appeared to her as Mars might have through Percival Lowell’s telescope: an exotic, unexplored country. No, it was definitely not New York. But she was intrigued by what its people had to offer her.

The game would soon be afoot.

Chapter 3

Only the good die young

Rachel folded her arms across her chest. The doctor stopped talking. He’d used a lot of acronyms: Jennifer’s ANC (absolute neutrophil count), her FDP (fibrin degradation products), and the wicked joker in the deck, GVHD (graft-versus-host disease). Nothing had changed: her daughter’s levels were all flat. In this business, no news was bad news.

But her husband nodded. He was the bishop, after all. Being understanding was his job. Not two years ago, over a span of six months he had blessed a newborn child, married the parents, and then conducted the funeral for all three. He understood that suffering came with the territory, that death was part of the job description.

The bishop’s wife did not. She hadn’t understood then, she did not now, and the good doctor hadn’t said a thing that meant anything to her. His empathy did not inspire in her any confidence. She didn’t care if he could feel her pain. She didn’t want him to feel, she wanted him to do.

“Tell me her chances.”

The bishop said, “Rachel—”

“Give me a number,” she insisted. Something she could hang her faith on. Otherwise, the substance of things hoped for was no better than a child’s wish for a pony on her birthday. We can’t afford a pony, dear. That’s what they were telling her.

The doctor pushed his hands into the pockets of his white lab coat. He shook his head somberly—he had somber down. She pressed. “Sixty-forty? Eighty-twenty? One out of ten? One out of a thousand?”

She was beginning to sound hysterical. But she knew they understood. Hysterical mother was her job description, and they were very understanding men. The bishop put his hand on her shoulder. It took all of her self-control to resist jerking free of him. She stood there, Lot’s wife turned to a pillar of bitter salt.

The doctor’s eyes briefly met hers. “There’s no way to say in cases like this.”

There are no other cases like this! she wanted to scream at him. This is my daughter—she didn’t come with a spare in the trunk! Instead, she calmly said, “So it’s all or nothing.”

The doctor sighed. Rachel took the sigh as a yes. Like boys shooting free throws: How about double or nothing, God?

In the waiting room outside the bone marrow transplant unit, a big picture window framed the Salt Lake Valley. The smoky city skyline shimmered in the midmorning sun. The Great Salt Lake sparkled in the distance, the brown-blue brine dissolving into a tan horizon etched by the rocky outlines of Stansbury and Antelope Islands and the hazy sky above.

The bishop said, “I’ve got to get back to work.”

Rachel searched out the golden spires of the Salt Lake Temple, dwarfed by the stressed-concrete-and-glass façade of the Church Office Building. She looked for Moroni and his trumpet, the angel perched on his golden ball like a little toy soldier, bugle raised toward deaf heaven. But it was too far away, the smog too thick on the ground.

The bishop said, “You’re squishing the dragon.”

She looked at the golden wyvern clenched in her fist. She relaxed her hand. The stuffed animal uncurled its wings in her palm. The bishop put his hands on her waist and kissed her on the cheek. For a moment, she melted at his touch.

And then he had to leave. Rachel remained at the window. I’m okay. What a lie that was. Her daughter was dying. She didn’t care if faith no greater than the grain of a mustard seed could move mountains. The mountains could stay put. All she was asking for was the life of one small child. So where had her faith been weak? What prayer, what blessing, what sacrifice hadn’t been good enough? She’d offered the marrow of her bones.

Children died all the time. She knew that. The Bromley child hadn’t been six months old. But if that was the way God was parceling out justice these days, he could stop being so ironic about it. They’d beaten the cancer. Now it was Rachel’s marrow that was killing Jennifer. She had a vicious immune system. Not content with her ovaries, now it was bearing down on her offspring. She drew air deeply into her lungs. Her heartbeat slowed. Time stopped. Nothing bad could happen.

She exhaled. Her shoulders slumped. One breath always followed the next. She returned to the sterile pale-blue room and sat by her daughter’s bed. Again, she found herself counting the breaths. She closed her eyes and shook her head to clear her ringing skull of the siren’s song. She reminded herself, reprimanded herself: there was still Laura, the daughter who would live, the daughter who needed her attention as much as the daughter who didn’t even know she was there.

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