Luke Osbourne drove two and a half hours north of Atlanta to the lake facility of the Atlanta Club to arrive after seven. Inside the clubhouse ballroom, more than two hundred guests, mostly couples, gathered in daisy-cluster conversation groups or sat at small round tables munching buffet-style dinner food served by waiters in white jackets and tuxedo pants. A layer of cigarette smoke hovered over the crowd dimming the lights of the two giant, wedding-cake-tiered, crystal chandeliers. The mood was buoyant. Wine and cocktail glasses were raised high in congratulatory toasts as sweat beaded on the brows of men in tuxedos, and the women—many in off-the-shoulder, full-length gowns—clandestinely dabbed hankies and tissues to their underarms. These were the donors who had helped make the new Eye Institute possible, and A.J. MacMiel had made it happen by wooing donors and securing public and private grants. He climbed onto the bandstand. He grabbed a microphone; the orchestra stopped with a drum roll. With a voice more exhausted than exuberant, he thanked the crowd for attending and for their generous giving. The bar would remain open until midnight.
Thank you, thank you.
At first, Luke chatted with MD colleagues he knew, then moved on to other stray singles or abandoned significant others. He had neither the social status nor the money to be considered for membership at the club. He tried to appear confident and justified in attending, although he didn’t really know why A.J. had invited him. After an hour, A.J.’s wife, Agnes, sought him out and took his hand with more enthusiasm than was warranted by their few brief meetings over the years. “Come,” she said. “I want you to meet my two babies.”
He’d met her daughters, Lucy and Elizabeth, more than a few times before. Now they were standing together near the band, and neither seemed to recognize him when he was introduced. Agnes immediately excused herself to work the crowd.
Lucy, a light-bronze-skinned, dark-eyed, stunningly beautiful woman of thirty-four or thirty-five stared at the singer on the bandstand without a word. She was a lawyer, famous for little tolerance for inferior intelligence. Engrossed in the music, she walked away.
“Impressive,” Luke murmured to Elizabeth, gazing at the revelers in the ballroom.
“I’m proud of what my father’s done,” she said. She shared none of the stunning characteristics of her sister. But she was not unattractive. Her delicate features and sharp blue eyes complemented her fair, blemish-free skin. But her slightly overweight figure, with sturdy legs and thick ankles had no resemblance to Lucy’s slim beauty.
“Were you involved in the institute?” she continued.
“Not directly,” he said. She seemed thoroughly bored, which, given the circumstances of conversation with someone she couldn’t remember, he decided was forgivable, if not understandable.
“Are you a donor?” she asked.
“I work with your father.”
“Oh.” She thought for a few seconds. “Haven’t we met before?”
“A few times,” he said.
Lucy returned, nibbling a bacon-wrapped scallop on a stick, and stared. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Mother just told you,” Elizabeth said. “Luke Osborne, isn’t it? He’s in daddy’s department.”
“The pleasure is mine,” he said, nodding slightly to Lucy and offering his hand, which she ignored.
“You don’t like lawyers, do you? No surgeon likes lawyers.”
“Don’t start,” Elizabeth said.
“I’m not starting,” Lucy said. “I stated a fact with which the doctor cannot disagree. Isn’t that right, doctor?”
Luke said nothing.
Lucy, her neck veins pulsing, looked at Elizabeth for many seconds now.
“Do you do malpractice?” Luke finally asked Lucy.
“She’s a defense lawyer,” Elizabeth said.
“I’m not an ambulance chaser, if that’s what you’re implying,” Lucy said, glaring at Elizabeth but talking to Luke.
“I don’t think that’s what he meant,” said Elizabeth.
“That’s what he thinks,” Lucy said.
“You can’t know what he thinks,” Elizabeth said.
“I worry about malpractice,” Luke said. “There are a lot of unnecessary suits.”
“A lot of unnecessary harm done,” Lucy said.
Lucy turned to see the singer again, who had started another song. “It’s not just the mistakes that piss me off, it’s the cover-ups.”
Luke did not agree to oversimplification and partial truth, but he kept quiet.
Elizabeth touched Luke’s arm, her face faintly flushed, and side-glanced at her sister. “Enjoyed seeing you,” she said.
He expressed pleasure at seeing her, unable to suppress his sarcasm.
She leaned toward his ear. “Sorry,” she whispered so Lucy wouldn’t hear.
Elizabeth disappeared into the crowd. Lucy gave him a sardonic smile.
“We’ve been having a spat,” she said. “She thinks I’m rude to the rich folk.” She paused, smiling ruefully. “We fight all the time. Since we were kids.” Her voice had softened a bit.
“May I bring you a drink from the bar?” Luke asked.
Lucy held up her full martini glass. “I get my own drinks,” she said, without a smile now. She turned and walked away with a little wobble in her gait. “Enjoy yourself,” she said over her shoulder.
He was relieved she was gone but he missed looking at her. Her beauty was the only pleasant memory about her. One glance could up the heartbeat of a dead man.
The crowd got louder. With drinks flowing, the intense chatter was punctuated with cries of mostly false delight, and occasionally angry outbursts, so that comfortable conversation became almost impossible. Luke wanted to leave. He walked up to A.J.
“Congratulations. A great party,” Luke said.
A.J. laughed and leaned over to whisper, “It’s all bullshit, Luke. You know it. I know it. They’ve given a fraction of what they should.”
That seemed a little ungrateful; these people were big donors, some had given more than a million dollars. Luke thought power had warped A.J.’s judgment over the years.
“I’ve got to get back. Surgery in the morning,” Luke said.
A.J. slapped him on the back. “I’ll walk with you to the car. I can’t hear in here,” he said loudly. “Did you valet?”
Luke had parked in the lot near the golf course. Outside, they walked side by side.
“I’d like to propose you for director of clinical research in the new building. There will be other candidates, of course, and the board will have final approval, but you’re my man. What do you think?”
Luke closed his eyes briefly and took a long breath. “I don’t know, A.J. I appreciate your thinking about me. But I’m a surgeon more than a research administrator, and I’m not sure it’s what I want to do at this stage of my career.”
“It would put a rocket in your ass, my friend. Boost you to the sky. It’s an opportunity that won’t come ’round again.”
The night shadows of mature pines that bordered the lot obscured the cars. They slowed their pace.
“Damn it!” Luke said, pointing to his sedan.
“You can’t drive it,” A.J. said. Luke’s sedan and two other cars were stripped. Tires, wheels, bumpers, mirrors, radio. The trunk lids were up, the trunks empty. “Done by pros,” A.J. said.
“Isn’t there some security?”
“They’ve increased patrols. They had a theft a couple weeks ago. The bastards come from the county road across the golf course. Big money in parts.”
“I’ve got to get a ride,” Luke said. “There must be people going back tonight.”
A.J. nodded. “Lucy’s going back tonight.”
“I thought you all were staying over at your place for the weekend.”
“We are. Until Tuesday. But not Lucy. She doesn’t like it here.”
The manager agreed to call the police and arrange towing, and Luke walked out the front of the club a few minutes later. The valet sat in a chair near one of the two columns that supported the portico jutting out from the main building over the drive. Two couples stood talking in the hot, humid night air.
“Dr. Osborne?” the valet asked.
Luke nodded. The valet waved in the direction of a red Porsche. The lights flashed and the car moved forward. Luke opened the passenger door.
“Lucy?” He bent down so he could see.
“Get in,” she said. Even in half-silhouette her profile was exquisite—a straight, well-proportioned nose, high cheekbones, and a graceful curve to her chin.
He fastened his seat belt. The interior air was humid with the sweet smell of alcohol mixed with flowery, freshly applied perfume and mint-flavored mouthwash. As she revved the engine, her foot slipped off the clutch. The car jerked and the engine stalled.
“You okay?” he asked.
“I’m not drunk,” she said testily, “if that’s what you’re implying.”
She started the car and drove cautiously down the curved access road that skirted the edge of the golf course on one side and the lake on the other. She eased through the stop sign at the T-junction with the county road. When she turned the wheel right, she pressed too hard on the accelerator and the car leapt forward. She was slow to compensate and the left tires went off the road. She braked to a stop.
“I’ll drive,” Luke said.
“Shut up,” she said. She drove on, seemingly in control, but after half a mile stopped the car, got out, and walked gingerly heel-to-toe for a few feet then strode into the night, taking her keys with her. Luke sat barely moving for five minutes. She was still out of sight when he decided to walk back to the club and hire someone to take him into town. He was about fifty yards on his way when she reappeared.
“I’m fine now,” she yelled. He hesitated, wondering what was wise. A.J. was an important ally in the wars of academic medicine, and it was a risk to abandon his older daughter. Luke was sure A.J. was thinking of him as sort of a babysitter for the ride into town. He couldn’t let him down. Luke walked back. As he got into the car, Lucy took two white tablets from her purse and washed them down with a swig from a half-empty bottle of Coke she extracted from under the seat.
“Feeling better?” Luke asked.
She cleared her head with a firm shake from side to side before inserting the key in the ignition after two unsuccessful jabs. Twenty minutes later, without speaking to Luke, she stopped at the access ramp to the interstate to mount a radar detector from the glove compartment on the windshield and then accelerated on the up-ramp headed for Atlanta. He gripped the door armrest as she merged into traffic, passing three cars on the right until the merging lane tapered to an end. She jerked the wheel to change lanes a few feet in front of a pickup and then jerked again forcing the car into the far-left fast lane. Luke’s muscles tightened and he pressed his feet hard against the floor.
The moonless night left the countryside swept in darkness. He could make out shapes of houses and buildings, farms and fields, but no details. Then the car accelerated on the straightaway of the interstate. He leaned slightly left; the speedometer glowed a steady eighty-five.
“I’ve forgotten what Elizabeth does . . .” he said, to keep her thinking.
“She’s a schoolteacher. Fourth grade. Ridiculous, really. No real money of her own. She lives off what daddy gives her.” Her irritation coated her slow-minded words, but her tone was sharp and she seemed unwilling to talk about anything more.
The motor whined at higher intensity as she increased speed. She was still ten miles an hour over the limit.
The radar alarm went off. She braked and tucked in behind an eighteen-wheeler tanker.
“Bastards,” she said.
“That thing works pretty well,” Luke said of the radar detector, thankful it had slowed her down.
She didn’t comment.
A few minutes later, the detector sputtered and stopped, and she left the protection of the big rig, quickly accelerating. In the side rearview mirror the truck’s lights diminished like two fading stars at near light-warp speed.
“Where’s your wife?” she asked, now in overdrive at fifteen above the limit. “Delores, isn’t it?”
“Samantha,” he said. “We’re no longer married.”
She still concentrated on the road. “Divorce?”
He paused. “She killed herself,” he said.
The mention of Samantha brought guilt. He still thought he might have done more to prevent it. But he didn’t really miss her. Toward the end, she was hard to be around—tense and confrontational, a hollow, angry person—and he’d never really known her before or understood her after she died.
Lucy slowed in a stretch where trees and foliage provided good hiding places for police, and settled into the monotony of driving the interstate, now darkened by growing cloud cover. Her head slowly nodded . . . the car drifted to the right. She jerked awake, adjusting to keep on the road. But a few minutes later, the car lurched as it left the paved road, the bottom scraping gravel and rocks, and she whipped the wheel left and brought the car back on the road.
“Stop,” Luke said. “I want to drive.”
“You’re not fine. You’re falling asleep.”
“Relax,” she said. “I’m an excellent driver.”
Impulsive, he thought. And not safe at any speed.
She was silent for a while. After many minutes, she said with a newly apologetic tone, “I hate those parties of A.J.’s. I drink when I’m unhappy.”
“Why go?” he asked. She drove intently now, with a contemplative frown.
“He commanded us to be there,” she said. “He likes the family at fundraisers. It makes him appear magnanimous and paternal.”
“Isn’t he?” he asked.
She thought for a while. “You know him. He thinks about himself.”
Strange coming from her, the most self-centered by far in a covey of egotists.
She’d slowed down. “He doesn’t like what I’ve become.”
“Because you’re a lawyer?”
“I don’t think it’s that.” Although her driving was better, her speech was still fuzzy-edged.
A.J. must have been a bear of a father—authoritative, uncompromising, unreasonable. “He always seems proud of you,” he said truthfully.
“He treats Elizabeth well. She’s his own. She has his nose, those arched brows. She’s not as smart as he is, but she thinks like he does.”
There were no physical similarities between Elizabeth and Lucy. Lucy had cured-leather tan skin; dark, hard eyes; reddish-brown, shoulder-length hair. She was about five feet five, and her figure was thin and muscular, yet indisputably feminine, and her clothes were perfectly tailored, in contrast to Elizabeth, who was about the same height and wore altered, expensive designer clothes but was a little too chunky in spots, making it seem as if nothing exactly fit.
“I have five siblings,” Luke said. “Each their own person.”
“But you get along well?”
“I guess,” he said. “Better than most . . . although I rarely hear from them anymore, except for my sister who’s in grad school at Princeton . . . journalism.”
“She’s your favorite?”
“I feel protective of her. She’s the youngest.”
“I don’t like Elizabeth most of the time,” Lucy said. “I don’t like to be around her.”
He said nothing.
“Few know. And it’s never discussed. But I’m the adopted one,” Lucy said. “It’s tiresome.”
Adoption was new to him.
“I never do anything right,” she added.
“They say that?”
“Of course not. It’s how they act.”
“They chose to adopt you, didn’t they? They must have wanted you.”
“I’m told father flew down twice to Puerto Rico to check me out. I was thirteen months old when they got me. My real name was Lucy Rivera. I think they probably adored me until Elizabeth came along two years later.”
“You seem to have everything . . .”
“Except pride and respect.” She’d sobered a little, but still the booze made her maudlin.
“I don’t believe that,” he said. “They seem proud of what you’ve done.”
“They’re racist. Oh, they don’t hang people, but deep down in never-tell land they don’t think colored folk can think or reason like whites. They still like looking down on those “pickaninies” that tap dance for coins in New Orleans, for Christ’s sake. Mother says, ‘They’re ohhh, sooo cute.’”
“You’re their daughter.”
“Adopted daughter. Believe me, there’s a difference. And I’m black.”
“I thought you’re Puerto Rican.”
“My great grandfather on my mother’s side was black. That’s what A.J. said once to me.”
“You’re still Puerto Rican. Anyway, that doesn’t make them dislike you.”
“Bullshit to that. For years they talked about it. As if adopting me was a magnanimous gesture to the underprivileged—in mind and body.”
She should quit drinking, Luke thought. Alcohol muddled her brain.
“Well, no one would know you’re black,” he said. “Stop worrying about it.”
“That’s a racist thing to say.” Her tone was testy again. “Why would I worry about being black? I worry about parents who see me as inferior and embarrassing because they think I’m black.”
“You know what I mean?”
“You meant I’m black but can pass for Puerto Rican. I don’t like that. The world should see me as who I am.”
“No offense,” he said. She’d made this argument before.
She passed a car and pulled back into the right lane. After thirty minutes, her head seemed to clear a little more. She was speeding again. “I got a little crazy back there,” she said, flashing a smile. “I didn’t mean that stuff about family,” she said, her voice softer. “Elizabeth is great in her own way.”
She slowed as they approached the city. Ahead, under an exit sign, orange and white reflective cones glowed in the headlights.
“Is the exit closed?” she said.
“There’s an arrow,” Luke said.
She leaned forward, squinting. “I don’t care about arrows. Can we get off?”
“No barriers I can see.”
She turned right too late to cleanly clear the cones. Bang, bang, bang. The fourth cone caught on the undercarriage. She geared down, cut the wheel left, then right. The cone freed and the scraping stopped.
He turned to look out through the rear window. “There’s a cone on the highway.”
“You want me to back up against traffic for a cone?”
“It might be dangerous. Stop here. I can walk back and move it.”
“‘That’s ridiculous,” she said. “It’s reflective. No one can miss it.” She drove on.
Maneuvering in the high-end residential section on the outskirts of northwest Atlanta required new concentration. Two-lane roads snaked by heavily wooded lots with houses hidden in the landscaping, each home accessed by a private drive that could bridge a creek or a gulley, or mount a hill to circle in front of a majestic entrance. Many home fronts had columns two or three stories high.
The Porsche entered curves tight to the centerline as Lucy downshifted for control. Luke stared ahead into the dark. Police were rare on these side roads and she sped up at the height of a sharp curve, the car dangerously gravitating to the far side of the pavement. Only once did an oncoming car weakly illuminate the trees ahead . . . she geared down . . . and a few seconds later, as the Porsche crested the hill, she squinted in the glare of headlights. When the imageless dark took over again, with only the instrument panel glowing, they could see only a few car-lengths in the tight curves.
The Porsche descended a hill, curved right, and crossed a stone bridge. The road disappeared over a short, steep rise. The car rose as if on a ramp, giving a touch of weightlessness.
The eyes of a small animal reflected in the car lights, two bright holes in a dark background. The eyes disappeared when the headlights were directed away.
“Goddamn,” she screamed. It was some breed of poodle. Then it was out of sight.
She braked. She cranked the wheel. The car skidded. Tires screeched on dry macadam . . . a definite thump, but no feeling. “What was that?” Luke said. The dog, maybe.
The car lurched to the left, off the road.
Lucy’s head snapped forward and Luke braced his hands on the dashboard. The car went into a left-side-forward skid. She whipped the steering wheel left; the front wheels dipped into the roadside dirt.
The car rolled, going down, hitting a tree and turning one hundred and eighty degrees. The front lights went out as the chassis propelled backward and down. The rear end crunched with the scrape of metal and the cracking of glass.
“Are you all right?” Lucy asked. Luke couldn’t see her in the dark.
Within seconds, the shapes of tree trunks emerged in the night. Lucy was half out of the car.
“Are you all right?” she asked again, her voice quivering. “Talk to me!”
Luke moaned from a sudden sharp pain in his leg.
She was out of the car now, leaning toward him. One rear taillight still glowed weakly and her face took on an extraterrestrial hue.
“Can you open the door?” she asked. A pine trunk blocked the door a few inches to his right. A jagged lower edge was all that was left of the window.
“I don’t think so,” Luke said hoarsely.
“You’ll have to crawl over the gear box,” she said. “Can you do that?”
He clutched the wheel, pulled himself over the stick shift headfirst, and crawled out of the car. Lucy pulled on his shirt to help.
“Can you walk?”
He didn’t answer. Instead he rose slowly to stand and test his mobility.
She climbed on all fours up the side of a steep embankment. He followed, grasping saplings and tree limbs for support. At the top of the ravine, the centerline on the road was barely visible.
“We’ve got to find a house with a phone,” she said over her shoulder.
He followed her, a searing pain shooting up his leg with each step as he limped along.
Luke caught up when Lucy stopped at the entrance to a private drive to wait for him.
“What’s wrong with your leg?” she asked.
“We’ll get help.”
He followed her up the drive. The dark, pointed roof of an Elizabethan-style mansion cut a wedge into the barely illuminated, clouded night sky. Spotlights suddenly glared from the house and the top of the three-car garage. Lucy shielded her eyes with her hands.
“Stop,” a voice said. No one was visible.
“We tripped something,” she whispered. She turned toward the voice. “We had an accident,” she called. “My friend is hurt.”
Luke’s head was swimming; his good leg shook uncontrollably.
A man in a robe, pajamas, and dress loafers approached. He held a double-barreled shotgun, the barrels at eye level.
“Let me see your hands,” the man said.
“We’re not thieves,” Lucy said. She put her hands up high overhead.
“You,” the man said to Luke. “Up!”
Luke was too weak to raise them much above the shoulders. “Higher.” The man came closer and lowered his weapon. “My God,” he said, staring.
Lucy turned to Luke. “You’re covered in blood,” she said, almost accusingly.
Luke lay down on the drive.
“I’ll call an ambulance,” the man said. Luke blacked out.