The Passage Page 3

By the time she reached the motel the sun was rising; she felt the city waking up. Under the ashy light, she let herself into the room. Amy was asleep with the television still on, an infomercial for some kind of exercise machine. A muscled man with a ponytail and huge, doglike mouth was barking silently out of the screen. Jeanette figured she didn't have much more than a couple of hours before somebody came. That was dumb of her, leaving the gun behind, but there wasn't any point worrying over that now. She splashed some water on her face and brushed her teeth, not looking at herself in the mirror, then changed into jeans and a T-shirt and took her old clothes, the little skirt and stretchy top and fringed jacket she'd worn to the highway, streaked with blood and bits of things she didn't want to know about, behind the motel to the reeking dumpster, where she shoved them in.

It seemed as if time had compressed somehow, like an accordion; all the years she had lived and everything that had happened to her were suddenly squeezed below the weight of this one moment. She remembered the early mornings when Amy was just a baby, how she'd held and rocked her by the window, often falling asleep herself. Those had been good mornings, something she'd always remember. She packed a few things into Amy's Powerpuff Girls knapsack and some clothing and money into a grocery sack for herself. Then she turned off the television and gently shook Amy awake.

"Come on, honey. Wake up now. We got to go."

The little girl was half asleep but allowed Jeanette to dress her. She was always like this in the morning, dazed and sort of out of it, and Jeanette was glad it wasn't some other time of day, when she'd have to do more coaxing and explaining. She gave the girl a cereal bar and a can of warm grape pop to drink, and then the two of them went out to the highway where the bus had let Jeanette off.

She remembered seeing, on the ride back to the motel, the big stone church with its sign out front: OUR LADY OF SORROWS. If she did the buses right, she figured, they'd go right by there again.

She sat with Amy in the back, an arm around her shoulders to hold her close. The little girl said nothing, except once to say she was hungry again, and Jeanette took another cereal bar from the box she'd put in Amy's knapsack, with the clean clothing and the toothbrush and Amy's Peter Rabbit. Amy, she thought, you are my good girl, my very good girl, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. They changed buses downtown again and rode for another thirty minutes, and when Jeanette saw the sign for the zoo she wondered if she'd gone too far; but then she remembered that the church had been before the zoo, so it would be after the zoo now, going the other direction.

Then she saw it. In daylight it looked different, not as big, but it would do. They exited through the rear door, and Jeanette zipped up Amy's jacket and put the knapsack on her while the bus pulled away.

She looked and saw the other sign then, the one she remembered from the night before, hanging on a post at the edge of a driveway that ran beside the church: CONVENT OF THE SISTERS OF MERCY.

She took Amy's hand and walked up the driveway. It was lined with huge trees, some kind of oak, with long mossy arms that draped over the two of them. She didn't know what a convent would look like but it turned out to be just a house, though nice: made of stone that glinted a little, with a shingled roof and white trim around the windows. There was an herb garden out front, and she thought that must be what the nuns did, they must come out here and take care of tiny growing things. She stepped up to the front door and rang the bell.

The woman who answered wasn't an old lady, like Jeanette had imagined, and she wasn't wearing a robe, whatever those things were called. She was young, not much older than Jeanette, and except for the veil on her head was dressed like anybody else, in a skirt and blouse and a pair of brown penny loafers. She was also black. Before she'd left Iowa, Jeanette had never seen but one or two black people in her life, except on television and in the movies. But Memphis was crawling with them. She knew some folks had problems with them, but Jeanette hadn't so far, and she guessed a black nun would do all right.

"Sorry to bother you," Jeanette began. "My car broke down out there on the street, and I was wondering-"

"Of course," the woman said. Her voice was strange, like nothing Jeanette had ever heard, like there were notes of music caught and ringing inside the words. "Come in, come in, both of you."

The woman stepped back from the door to let Jeanette and Amy into the front hall. Somewhere in the building, Jeanette knew, there were other nuns-maybe they were black, too-sleeping or cooking or reading or praying, which she guessed nuns did a lot of, maybe most of the day. It was quiet enough, so she supposed that was probably right. What she had to do now was get the woman to leave her and Amy alone. She knew that as a fact, the way she knew she'd killed a boy last night, and all the rest of it. What she was about to do hurt more, but it wasn't any different otherwise, just more pain on the same spot.


"Oh, you can just call me Lacey," the woman said. "We're pretty informal around here. Is this your little girl?" She knelt in front of Amy. "Hello there, what's your name? I have a little niece about your age, almost as pretty as you." She looked up at Jeanette. "Your daughter is very shy. Perhaps it is my accent. You see, I am from Sierra Leone, west Africa." She turned to Amy again and took her hand. "Do you know where that is? It is very far away."

"All these nuns from there?" Jeanette asked.

Standing, the woman laughed, showing her bright teeth. "Oh, goodness no! I'm afraid I am the only one."

For a moment, neither of them said anything. Jeanette liked this woman, liked listening to her voice. She liked how she was with Amy, the way she looked at her eyes when she talked to her.

"I was racing to get her to school, you see," Jeanette said, "when that old car of mine? The thing just kind of gave out."

The woman nodded. "Please. This way."

She led Jeanette and Amy through the hallway to the kitchen, a big room with a huge oak dining table and cabinets with labels on them: CHINA, CANNED GOODS, PASTA AND RICE. Jeanette had never thought about nuns eating before. She guessed that with all the nuns living in the building, it helped to know what was where in the kitchen. The woman pointed to the phone, an old brown one with a long cord, hanging on the wall. Jeanette had planned the next part well enough. She dialed a number while the woman got a plate of cookies for Amy-not store-bought, but something somebody had actually baked-then, as the recorded voice on the other end told her that it would be cloudy today with a high temperature of fifty-five degrees and a chance of showers moving in toward evening, she pretended to talk to AAA, nodding along.

"Wrecker's coming," she said, hanging the phone back up. "Said to go outside and meet him. Said he's got a man just around the corner, in fact."

"Well, that's good news," the woman said brightly. "Today is your lucky day. If you wish, you can leave your daughter here with me. It would be no good to manage her on a busy street."

So there it was. Jeanette wouldn't have to do anything else. All she had to do was say yes.

"Ain't no bother?"

The woman smiled again. "We'll be fine here. Won't we?" She looked encouragingly at Amy. "See? She is perfectly happy. You go see to your car."

Amy was sitting on one of the chairs at the big oak table, with an untouched plate of cookies and a glass of milk before her. She'd taken off her backpack and was cradling it in her lap. Jeanette looked at her as long as she would let herself, and then she knelt and hugged her.

"You be good now," she said, and against her shoulder, Amy nodded. Jeanette meant to say something else, but couldn't find the words. She thought about the note she'd left inside the knapsack, the slip of paper they were sure to find when Jeanette never came back to get her. She hugged her as long as she dared. The feeling of Amy was all around her, the warmth of her body, the smell of her hair and skin. Jeanette knew she was about to cry, something the woman-Lucy? Lacey?-couldn't see, but she let herself hold Amy a moment longer, trying to put this feeling in a place inside her mind, someplace safe where she could keep it. Then she let her daughter go, and before anybody said another word, Jeanette walked from the kitchen and down the driveway to the street, and then kept right on going.

Chapter TWO

From the computer files of Jonas Abbott Lear, PhD

Professor, Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University

Assigned to United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID)

Department of Paleovirology, Fort Derrick, MD

From: [email protected]

Date: Monday, February 6 1:18 p.m.

To: [email protected]

Subject: Satellite linkage is up


Greetings from the jungles of Bolivia, landlocked armpit of the Andes. From where you sit in frigid Cambridge, watching the snow fall, I'm sure a month in the tropics doesn't sound like a bad deal. But believe me: this is not St. Bart's. Yesterday I saw a snake the size of a submarine.

The trip down was uneventful-sixteen hours in the air to La Paz, then a smaller government transport to Concepcion, in the country's eastern jungle basin. From here, there aren't really any decent roads; it's pure backcountry, and we'll be traveling on foot. Everybody on the team is pretty excited, and the roster keeps growing. In addition to the group from UCLA, Tim Fanning from Columbia caught up with us in La Paz, as did Claudia Swenson from MIT. (I think you told me once that you knew her at Yale.) In addition to his not inconsiderable star power, you'll be happy to hear that Tim brought half a dozen grad assistants with him, so just like that, the average age of the team fell by about ten years and the gender balance tipped decidedly toward the female. "Terrific scientists, every one," Tim insisted. Three ex-wives, each younger than the last; the guy never learns.

I have to say, despite my misgivings (and, of course, yours and Rochelle's) about involving the military, it's made a huge difference. Only USAMRIID has the muscle and the money to pull together a team like this one, and do it in a month. After years of trying to get people to listen, I feel like a door has suddenly swung open, and all we have to do is step through it. You know me, I'm a scientist through and through; I don't have a superstitious bone in my body. But part of me just has to think it's fate. After Liz's illness, her long struggle, how ironic that I should finally have the chance to solve the greatest mystery of all-the mystery of death itself. I think she would have liked it here, actually. I can just see her, wearing that big straw hat of hers, sitting on a log by the river to read her beloved Shakespeare in the sunshine.

BTW: congrats on the tenure decision. Just before I left, I heard the committee voted you in by general acclaim, which didn't surprise me after the department vote, which I can't tell you about but which, off the record, was unanimous. I can't tell you how relieved I am. Never mind that you're the best biochemist we've got, a man who can make a microtubule cycloskeletal protein stand up and sing the "Hallelujah Chorus." What would I have done on my lunch hour if my squash partner hadn't gotten tenure?

My love to Rochelle, and tell Alex his uncle Jonas will bring him back something special from Bolivia. How about a baby anaconda? I hear they make good pets as long as you keep them fed. And I hope we're still on for the Sox opener. How you got those tickets I have no idea.


From: [email protected]

Date: Wednesday, February 8 8:00 a.m.

To: [email protected]

Subject: Re: Go get 'em, tiger


Thanks for your message, and of course for your very sage advice re: pretty female postdocs with Ivy League degrees. I can't say I disagree with you, and on more than one lonely night in my tent, the thought has crossed my mind. But it's just not in the cards. For now, Rochelle is the only woman for me, and you can tell her I said so.

The news here, and I can already hear a big "I told you so" from Rochelle: it looks like we've been militarized. I suppose this was inevitable, at least since I took USAMRIID's money. (And we're talking about a lot of money-aerial recon doesn't come cheap: twenty thousand bucks to retarget a satellite, and that will buy you only thirty minutes worth.) But still, it seems like overkill. We were making our final preparations for departure yesterday when a helicopter dropped out of the sky at base camp and who should step off but a squad of Special Forces, all done up like they were ready to take an enemy pillbox: the jungle camo, the green and black warpaint, the infrared scopes and high-power gas-recoil M-19s-all of it. Some very gung ho guys. Trailing the pack is a man in a suit, a civilian, who looks to be in charge. He struts across the field to where I'm standing and I see how young he is, not even thirty. He's also as tan as a tennis pro. What's he doing with a squad of special ops? "You the vampire guy?" he asks me. You know how I feel about that word, Paul-just try to get an NAS grant with "vampire" anywhere in the paperwork. But just to be polite, and because, what the hell, he's backed by enough firepower to overthrow a small government, I tell him, sure, that's me. "Mark Cole, Dr. Lear," he says, and shakes my hand, wearing a big grin. "I've come a long way just to meet you. Guess what? You're now a major." I'm thinking, a major what? And what are these guys doing here? "This is a civilian scientific expedition," I tell him. "Not anymore," he says. "Who decided this?" I ask. And he tells me, "My boss, Dr. Lear." "Who's your boss?" I ask him. And he says, "Dr. Lear, my boss is the president of the United States."

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