EXPOSURES--CHAPTER 36 AND EPILOGUE: THE END!!
David lazily rubbed his eyes, and only when they focused did he remember where he was. He looked at his watch and realized he was supposed to be in the lobby in less than ten minutes. When he met Walker and Morgan his body ached, the result of troubled sleep.
Colonel Monterra picked them up in a green 1959 DeSoto. “We will look like everybody else,” the colonel said in response to their quizzical looks. “Do not worry, the engine is in top condition,” he assured them as they drove the two blocks to La Reina and parked a discreet distance away, behind a battered pickup truck. “We will stay in the car. There are two men on foot who will follow him for now.”
Jeffrey emerged from his hotel looking well rested and crisp in blue cotton twill trousers and a white shirt. Carrying a Mark Cross suitcase, he crossed the street and walked into the Banco Santa Verde just as the guard unlocked the doors.
Energy surged through David at the sight of Jeffrey and he fought the urge to leap from the car and pummel him right on the street.
“I know. You want to beat the shit out of him,” Morgan said, reading David’s thoughts. “This isn’t the time.” He began to whistle the “toreador aria” from Carmen.
“I could pick him off right from here,” Walker said as he peered through an imaginary gun sight on his finger.
“We have many men in the hills. They have spotted the place where we think she is being held, but they have instructions not to move in until they receive further orders. So far our blond friend has committed no crime in Santa Verde. We must wait,” said Colonel Monterra.
David felt they had waited an eternity before Jeffrey came out of the bank an hour later, suitcase in tow, and stepped into a Jeep that pulled to the curb.
“This is it,” the colonel said. “But we will not follow until they are beyond the outskirts of the city. For several miles there is only one road. My men will let us know which turnoff they take.”
* * *
Waves of nausea rolled over Brett and she tried to breathe deeply, hoping it would settle her stomach, but the dank, musty smell that permeated the shack only made her feel worse. Sweat trickled down her brow and only tossing her head from side to side kept it from accumulating in her ears.
When the nausea passed a few minutes later, she wondered if she should eat the next time the man brought her food. She had no idea what time it was, but the previous morning he had brought her the pan of water and a rag, and later he had brought fruit and rice, which she did not eat, and a small tin cup with water, from which she had taken two sips—enough to wet her lips, she had decided, but not enough to make her sick. But maybe it had—maybe it was the water. It was also time for her to be moved to the chair. It was uncomfortable and she was still tied, but she looked forward to it.
She waited, but no one came. When she heard the voices, Brett thought she was hallucinating. The man had not spoken to her since the first day and she hadn’t seen or heard anyone else. She inclined her head toward a crack in the wall and tried to quiet the beating of her heart, so she could understand what they were saying. There were only two voices to follow, and their conversation was liberally peppered with English. “. . . shoot her.” Why? She began to thrash and struggle, trying to break free. No one is going to come, she thought. Then she heard a car engine, followed by other voices, and she lay quiet again. “He just wants to make sure we uphold our part of the bargain,” said a vaguely familiar voice. “That’s right,” said a voice she recognized clearly. Why, Jeffrey? Her wrists and ankles were already raw and bruised, but as the tears began to roll down her cheeks, she tugged and twisted, oblivious to the pain.
* * *
About halfway up Mt. Drado, Monterra picked up the Jeep’s tread marks on the dirt road. When the colonel saw that they veered off through a tangle of brush and vines that almost hid a narrow trail, he said, “They are going exactly where we thought. We are in luck.” Grabbing his walkie-talkie from the dashboard, he gave instructions to his men, a dozen of whom were already in position. Farther along the trail, long-abandoned fields of sugar cane gave way to dense undergrowth and mahogany trees, and the car bounced over ropes of liana that, in its search for trees to climb, had grown across the ersatz road.
Finally, when the thick vegetation completely obscured the road, they continued on foot. Colonel Monterra and agents Walker and Morgan checked their revolvers, and David, feeling inadequately armed, hefted a fallen tree branch, carrying it like a club. Their progress was slow and the piercing calls of macaws proved the birds’ presence, even though they could not be seen. Bamboo plants, trees laden with green oranges, and huge bunches of plantains were within arm’s reach. A sudden rustling in the tall, thick grass prompted them to crouch in silence. Several feet in front of them a wild pig darted out, then disappeared again into the dense ground cover.
Monterra led, establishing a footpath with his thick-soled, high top leather boots, but fifty yards farther in the topography changed and the trail ended. Now they pushed their way through land completely claimed by vegetation.
“The place is just on the other side of this rise,” Colonel Monterra said, and then spoke into his walkie-talkie. “I will approach and identify myself. If they cooperate, stay in your positions until I signal you. If they resist, in any way, you know what to do,” he instructed his men.
Just as they reached the perimeter of a man-made clearing, David could see two ramshackle wooden structures. He lunged forward, only to be stopped by the colonel, who motioned to him to stay down and to the agents to fan out on either side of him.
Manuel Cissaro and another man, whom the colonel recognized as Manuel’s brother, squatted on the ground behind the Jeep counting packets of money. Jeffrey leaned against the side of the Jeep, cleaning his fingernails. The only other man they saw stood by the door to one of the shacks, tossing a knife at a target carved into the narrow trunk of a Castilla tree and the milky latex dribbled from the slits.
His gun drawn, the colonel stepped from cover and announced, “I am Colonel Monterra of the military police. Throw down your weapons and . . .”
Before he finished, Manuel Cissaro reached inside his jacket and pulled a gun. He was shot through the head before he could fire. For twenty seconds, the air rained bullets, then frantic birdcalls punctuated the hollow silence. David dashed across the clearing, his tree branch in hand, and burst into the cabin.
Brett lay drenched in her own sweat, sobbing hysterically.
“It’s me. It’s David. You’re going to be all right,” he said as he gently untied her. “We’re going to get you out of here.” He smoothed the wet hair away from her face, kissed her softly on the forehead, and lifted her from the bed.
Brett wanted to reach up and put her arms around his neck, but she did not have the strength. “David . . .” she whispered hoarsely right before she fainted.
“Put her in there,” the colonel said, pointing to the Jeep. “We won’t have to walk out of here now. They are all dead, except him . . . but it doesn’t look good.”
Jeffrey lay in a heap on a bare, sun-baked patch of earth. A red-brown stain marked the front of his white shirt like an insignia. Walker, still gripping his .38 automatic, crouched next to him, applying two fingers to Jeffrey’s neck to feel for a pulse, then turned to walk away.
“Wait . . . come back,” Jeffrey called. When Walker stood above him, Jeffrey said, “I have to tell you why I did this . . . in case there’s no time later.” He clawed at the hard ground with his fingernails, as if to hold on against the pain that tore through his chest. “Sven Larsen . . . you have to get Sven Larsen. I have tapes . . .”
“Who are you?” Walker asked abruptly.
“Lars Holmlund . . . the son of Karl Holmlund. That’s what this is for . . . to make Sven pay for what he did to my father.”
By this time, Morgan and Monterra had come and they formed a circle around Jeffrey.
“It was the plans. He stole the plans . . .” In gasps and spasms Jeffrey filled in the details of the Holmlund theft and his mission to avenge his father. “and there’s more. Barbara, his own daughter, told me that he had her husband killed. It’s all on the tapes. I never wanted to kill Brett. She just got in the way.” Blood now soaked his shirt and he was pale, but for the first time, a peaceful look crossed his face.
Monterra had two of his men carry Jeffrey to the car, but he died before they reached town.
* * *
“It’s all so crazy. How did he fool everyone for so long?” Brett’s voice was weak, and she looked pale and exhausted. Her wrists and ankles were swathed in gauze bandages and an IV dripped fluids into her body.
“I don’t know, Brett. It’s like he lived his whole life for revenge, and I’m not sure anyone understood but him.” David sat in a chair next to Brett’s ancient hospital bed. His eyes were red and a thick growth of stubble covered his chin. “I sensed something was wrong. I only wish I had stopped you.”
“You tried, David. It’s not your fault. I didn’t want to believe that Jeffrey could have been behind those crazy things that happened to me. His story about my grandfather having my father killed would explain why my mother hates him, but it’s so ugly. I don’t want to believe any of it.”
“You’ll have time to put everything into perspective. Right now, you’ve got to rest and get your strength back.”
“Excuse me, senora,” a doctor wearing a white lab coat interrupted them. “I have your test results. Aside from a little dehydration, you are fine. You are likely to feel lethargic, so you should get plenty of rest when you leave here, but you should feel no long-lasting physical effects from your ordeal. And do not worry. We gave you sedatives when you were admitted, but nothing that will harm your baby.”
“Baby?” Brett said hesitantly. “What baby?”
“You did not know, senora? It is the early stages, but you are very definitely pregnant. Congratulations. And to you, too, senor.” He shook David’s hand. Before he left the room he added, “We will keep you overnight, but you can leave in the morning.”
Brett remembered her nausea; it hadn’t been the water. “I didn’t know, David—honestly, I didn’t.” She looked down at her hands. “I stopped using birth control after Jeffrey and I . . .”
“You don’t have to explain.” David reached out and gently lifted her chin. “And I know you’ve been through a horrifying experience, but when I told you I love you, I meant it with all my heart. I want to be with you always.” Brett’s gaze met his; she saw the emotion in his eyes and the tears rolled down her face. “Maybe you need some time to sort out your feelings, but I want you to know that nothing could make me happier than the chance to love you and our baby.”
One of David’s hands rested on the bed and Brett lifted it, kissed his palm and cupped it to her cheek. “David, I need time to sort out a lot of things, but right now, the one thing I’m sure of is that I love you.” Brett smiled and drifted back to sleep.
* * *
Brett slept during the four-hour flight back to New York. David watched her, just as he had their first night together. He couldn’t believe that he had come so close to losing her.
When she opened her eyes, just as the plant began its descent into Kennedy, the first thing she saw was David, and she smiled. “Hi, I guess I missed the ride.”
“There wasn’t much to see. We were over the Atlantic most of the flight. Agent Morgan has arranged for us to clear customs on the plane since there’s an army of reporters waiting for you. Aunt Lillian will pick us up on the tarmac as soon as we land.”
Colonel Monterra had been more than happy to give an interview about his part in the rescue of the kidnapped American heiress, and he spared no details of the gruesome story, down to Jeffrey’s confession and his allegations against Sven Larsen. The press had become relentless in its pursuit of the story. One reporter even tried to bribe Lillian’s doorman for information, but changed his mind when the stalwart attendant threatened to break the reporter’s nose. Reports from Racine indicated that Sven was in seclusion unavailable for comment.
Lillian wept copious tears of relief when she saw her niece. “Oh, child, thank God you’re all right,” she said as she drew Brett to her bosom.
Even Albert allowed himself an uncharacteristic display of emotion, and discreetly wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes as he welcomed her.
Only when she sat in the backseat of the Bentley, between Lillian and David, was she finally certain that it was over and no more harm could come to her. The sight of the New York skyline brought tears of joy to her eyes.
As Albert approached the San Remo, they could see news vans in front of the building, so he turned the corner and let them out at the service entrance.
* * *
Brett walked through the apartment running her hands over the familiar furniture and objects, comforted by their reassuring presence. Lillian and David watched her progress silently. “I’m not going to break, you know,” she said, turning to them. “It’s just good to be home.”
Hilda had prepared a smorgasbord of Brett’s favorite foods. She downed a bowl of vegetable soup, two chicken breasts with dill sauce, an extra helping of cold new potatoes, and a dish of vanilla ice cream. David watched her ravenous zeal with amazement, and when she spied him out of the corner of her eye, she winked.
“I’m going home to shower and put on some clean clothes,” David said when they finished their meal. “Then I’m going by to see my parents. I have a feeling they’ve been a little worried.”
“I know that feeling, David, and you’re right,” Lillian said.
Before David left, Agent Morgan called to tell him that they had found the tapes Jeffrey had referred to and they did corroborate his allegations. An agent from their Milwaukee office had been sent to question Sven Larsen. He also told David that the tapes indicated that Jeffrey had been having an affair with Barbara in order to obtain information from her.
Brett had gone to lie down. David and Lillian discussed Morgan’s call, and decided they would tell Brett about it when David returned.
Lillian was standing at the window, looking out onto the park, when Hilda called her to the phone. “It’s long distance, Mrs. Cox—your brother’s housekeeper.”
A few minutes later, Lillian peeked into Brett’s room and found her awake. “May I come in?”
“Of course, Aunt Lillian. I was just thinking about everything that happened. What’s wrong?” Brett asked, sitting up in bed.
“It’s your grandfather. He died a short while ago. I guess all this was too much for him. I didn’t know whether to tell you this or not, but he called this morning. He said he knew it wouldn’t make any difference, but he wanted me to tell you that he was sorry.”
“Grandfather’s dead? I don’t know what to say. I mean, I’m sorry. But what if the things Jeffrey said are true and he did kill my father? I know he’s your brother . . .”
“Hush, child.” Lillian took Brett’s hand in her own. “My brother was a very disturbed man. Agent Morgan called while you were resting. They found the tapes.”
And the tears came, not out of a sense of loss or bereavement, but the addition of one more ponderous burden to the load she was already struggling to carry was more than she could bear.
Lillian cradled Brett in her arms and they both wept.
“When are you going out there?” Brett asked a few minutes later.
“Sven made his own arrangements years ago. There is to be no funeral and he will be cremated. I’ll go out next week and close up the house until we decide what to do with it.” Brett’s phone rang. It was Lizzie.
“Brett. Are you okay? We just got a story over the wire about your grandfather. Do you know . . .?
“Yes, Lizzie. Thanks. We got a call about half an hour ago.”
“And, one more thing. Your mother gave a statement to the press late this afternoon. I haven’t seen it, but it will be on the six o’clock news. I don’t know if you want to watch. The story of your kidnapping and Jeffrey—well, you know, it’s the lead. Brett, I love you and I’m glad you’re safe. I talked to David and I’m going to stop by tomorrow. You should be feeling better then.”
“Aunt Lillian, what time is it?” Brett asked when she hung up.
“Almost six. Why?”
“Lizzie said that Barbara gave a statement this afternoon and it’s going to be on the news.”
Lillian got up and switched on the set.
“Updating our earlier story, Barbara Larsen North, the mother of the kidnapped heiress, Brett Larsen, and the daughter of Sven Larsen, the billionaire transportation magnate who died in his home today, apparently of heart failure, made this statement just a few hours ago.”
They rolled a tape of Barbara standing amid a swarm of reporters in front of her apartment building. Deep creases marred her forehead and dark circles were evident beneath her eyes. She had made no attempt to conceal them or to prepare for television cameras, and she wrung her hands nervously. “I am ashamed that I have to admit I was involved with Jeffrey Underwood. I loved him and I thought he loved me. He promised to help me get my rightful inheritance from my father.” Barbara looked away from the camera a moment, then resumed her statement. “Everyone keeps asking me about tapes. I don’t know about any tapes, but if there are some, and if they say my father was responsible for the death of my first husband, then it’s true. I have proof of that and he admitted it to me. I should have spoken up years ago.” Her voice wavered, but she continued. “I also knew that my father did something to Karl Holmlund, but I didn’t know what until Jeffrey’s confession. I didn’t know that Jeffrey planned to kidnap and . . . kill my daughter.” Tears coursed silently down her cheeks. “My daughter deserves this explanation. For many years she has paid a debt that she didn’t owe . . .I’m sorry.”
When she finished, she pushed her way through the crowd and disappeared into her building.
The anchorman commented. “Sven Larsen died today. His debt to society and to his family will remain unpaid . . .”
Brett had been mesmerized during the segment. As soon as it was over, she got up. “Aunt Lillian, I have to see her. I have to go over there.”
“Brett, child, let it wait. You can’t be up to it now.”
“It can’t wait. Nothing can be harder than what I’ve gone through in the last few days.” She pulled on a shirt and pair of slacks. “I have to go.”
“Why don’t you wait for David?” Lillian asked, but Brett was already on her way down the hall.
“He can’t help me with this—no one can.” And she was gone.
Even though it had begun to rain, she had the cab let her off at the service entrance on Sixty-third Street. Brett huddled in the doorway, but by the time the building superintendent answered the buzzer, she was soaked. When she got upstairs, the maid informed her that Mrs. North had left strict instructions not to be disturbed.
“I’m her daughter, dammit! I have to see her!” She pushed past the startled maid and ran into the living room. “Where is she?” Brett demanded.
“She went upstairs a couple of hours ago, miss. She hasn’t been down since then.”
Brett ran up to her mother’s room and knocked on the door. “Barbara, it’s me, Brett. May I come in?” She rapped again, louder this time, then tentatively turned the knob.
Barbara lay in her bed with the white ruffled covers pulled snugly under her arms and the delicate white lace from the collar of her nightgown framing her face. At first Brett thought she was asleep, then she saw the empty pill bottle on the bedside table. She grabbed her mother’s hands. They were cold, and in her left hand, Barbara clutched a gold signet ring. “Mother, wake up!” Brett lifted Barbara by the shoulders and shook her. She put her ear to her mother’s chest and could barely hear a heartbeat, and her breathing was shallow. “Get help! Call an ambulance!” she screamed.
David burst into the waiting room, his hair and clothes were wet from the rain. “What happened? Are you all right?”
Brett recounted the horrifying discovery, the frantic efforts of the EMS crew, and the race to the hospital. “No one’s told me anything yet. David, I don’t know what I’ll do if . . .” Brett couldn’t finish the sentence.
“From what you’ve told me, she couldn’t have taken the pills more than a couple of hours before you arrived. They should be able to save her,” David reasoned as he took the chair opposite her. “Let’s try to stay calm and wait. At least the reporters can’t come in here.”
Lillian arrived a short time later and the three of them kept a vigil. After an hour, David made a trip to the vending machines in an alcove down the hall for overcooked coffee and a bag of salty popcorn. Periodically, Lillian went to the nurses’ station to see if there was word.
And throughout the long night Brett was riveted to her seat, as if by concentrating all of her energy on Barbara she could will her not to die.
It was almost dawn when a doctor came to the door.
“She’s out of the coma,” he said, “but she’ll be on a respirator for at least twelve hours, possibly the next twenty-four. She took a lot of pills, and she already had a fair amount of alcohol in her system, but it looks like she’s going to pull through.”
“Oh, thank God,” Lillian said.
“When can I see her?” Brett asked anxiously.
“She’s still pretty groggy. You can go in, but only for a few minutes. She won’t be able to talk for several hours yet.”
Brett squeezed Lillian’s hand, then David’s, and followed the physician to the intensive care unit.
She looked at Barbara through the glass for a minute. A mask covered her nose and mouth and was linked to the respirator at the head of her bed by transparent plastic tubing. Her eyes were closed and her wrists were secured to the steel bars of the bed with bands of cloth. We never had a chance until now, Brett thought as she listened to the rhythmic wheezing of the respirator. There was still so much they didn’t know about each other, but maybe they could heal their wounds together. David and Lillian tried to convince Brett to go home for a few hours, but she adamantly refused, so they waited with her.
When Brett crept into the cubicle, it was nearly five that evening. “Mother,” she whispered.
Barbara’s eyes flickered open. When she registered that her daughter stood beside her, she turned her head away. “I couldn’t face you.”
“You’ve punished yourself enough.” Brett looked at her mother and years of anger and confusion subsided.
“You should hate me.” Tears seeped from Barbara’s eyes.
“I don’t hate you . . .I never did.”
Slowly, tentatively, Barbara turned to face her daughter. “You look just like your father—you always did. He loved you, Brett, even before you were born. What day is this? It’s your birthday, isn’t it?” Barbara’s voice was weak and hoarse. “It was so hard
. . .”
“Mother, save your strength. We can talk later.” How strange that with everything going on, she remembered my birthday, Brett thought. Neither Lillian nor David had, and she herself had forgotten until she sat waiting in the hospital.
“No. I’m sorry. I wanted to be a good mother, but every time I looked at you . . .I’m sorry.”
Brett brushed the tears from her mother’s face. “You just get well. It’ll be all right.”
* * *
The October day had dawned bright, and now the afternoon sun cast a glow as warm as a blessing over Cox Cove. The garden was abloom with Japanese anemones and marigolds and the trees formed patches of red and yellow around the property. The house brimmed with bunches of autumn foliage and fragrant bouquets of white roses.
“I’m so excited I can hardly stand it,: Lizzie exclaimed as she fastened the hook at the neck of Brett’s dress. “My best friend is marrying my brother.”
“And we’re making you an auntie—don’t forget that.” Brett stood in front of the cheval mirror in her room at Cox Cove, patting her still-flat stomach. Sheer ivory silk chiffon bordered in bands of satin formed the full bishop sleeves of her dress. A satin portrait collar framed her shoulders, and the bodice tapered to a fitted waist that gave way to a full ivory satin skirt with a silk chiffon overlay. Brett’s hair, parted on the side, fell in soft waves.
Lizzie adjusted the strand of pearls around Brett’s neck. They had belonged to Lizzie’s grandmother and she had worn them on her own wedding day. “There—something old and something borrowed. You look like a princess,” Lizzie said as she stood back to survey the whole picture.
“You told me that a long time ago, right in this very room. I didn’t believe you then, and I’m not sure I believe you now.” Brett laughed. She was happier and more content than she had ever been in her life.
Her grandfather’s legacy had presented a formidable challenge, and after weeks of meeting with Larsen attorneys and division heads, she had discovered that the corporation was structured in a way that virtually ensured its perpetuity. After conferring with David and Lillian, Brett had decided to take the next six months, until the baby was born, to learn everything she could about the inner workings of her company. She had already begun the arduous task of reading her grandfather’s annual reports. At the end of that time she would select a president who would handle the day-to-day operations of Larsen Enterprises, and would then divide her time between her family and her own career. Brett knew the task was difficult and that she had assumed an awesome responsibility, but she also knew she could do it. The past, for so long a dark, shadowy blotch, had been exposed, and although it would take time for her to understand all that had been revealed, the knowledge freed her and lit the path to the future.
“Come in,” Lizzie responded to the knock on the door.
“Oh, my!” Tears welled up in Lillian’s eyes at the sight of her grandniece.
Brett put her arms around her aunt and hugged her tightly.
“I just came up to bring you this.” She handed Brett The Book of Common Prayer, bound in ivory satin ribbon, to which a tiny nosegay of white roses had been attached. “I carried it when I married Nigel. I hope that you and David will be as happy as we were.” She kissed Brett lovingly on the cheek.
Lillian turned to leave. “Wait,” Lizzie called. “Brett, I’ll be right back, but I have to see how Joe is doing with Emma and Cameron.”
She had only been alone for a moment when she heard the door open. “Can I come in?” Barbara asked.
“Of course, Mother!”
Barbara took her daughter’s hands, and when she looked at her, she saw all the years she had missed. “You’re beautiful, just beautiful?”
And for the first time in her life, Brett believed it.
“You’ll be a wonderful wife and mother . . .and I love you. I’ll see you downstairs.” She kissed Brett and left.
The living room had been cleared of its regular furnishings and several rows of chairs were now filled with family and friends. Brett had decided not to be given away. She and David were giving themselves to each other. So as the opening notes of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” filled the stately mansion, Lizzie and her father, David’s best man, took their places in front of the fireplace. David, resplendent in a navy blue suit with a single white rose in his buttonhole, waited calmly at the bottom of the sweeping staircase as Brett confidently descended. They looked into each other’s eyes, expressing in a glance the joy in their hearts. As the music swelled, Brett took his arm and they headed down the flower-lined aisle.
“We have come together to witness the union of Brett Larsen and David Powell,” the minister began. “May this marriage be a course of unconditional strength and will; a perpetual haven from strife; a tranquil reflection of connected lives, and a ribbon of bright love through all their tomorrows. . . .”