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Forty-nine was too old to feel girlish excitement at the bleep of a fax machine-unless you happened to be a child of the sixties. One advantage of belonging to the generation that never grew up is that you never grow up. Moira guessed the fax was from Charlie. For a start, he was the only person she knew on the other side of the world working at 2:00 A.M. New York time. Secondly, he was the only person who sent her faxes, junk mail excluded. There was no reason for him not to fax at this hour; the fax machines single ring would not have woken her. But shed not gone to sleep. Maybe insomnia was contagious. Charlie never slept either. Maybe it was age. Just because you dont grow up doesnt mean you dont grow old, unfortunately.

She stood by the machine which shed installed in the tiny spare bedroom-Clares room-that she now called her office. With a sound between squeaking and rolling the thin, curly paper emerged into the tray. She started to read even before the guillotine chopped it. Surely there was more?

When the machine didnt bleep again, she reread the stark, cruel message and trembled.

She went to the kitchen to find the bourbon, downed a glass in one swallow, poured another. So she was dead after all, and Charlie had turned cold. In a way Clare had died a long time ago, and there was only so much mourning you could do for a smack addict who wasnt going to see forty. Even so, she could not stop the flashbacks. Clare had been such a cute kid, and so smart. In another city in another world she might have done something wonderful with her life. Moira went back to the living room, which was not much bigger than Charlies. She opened a window, looked down on the street. Jump or scream? She gave the world a lungful of abuse, closed the window, finished the glass of bourbon. There were choices, though, Clare. It wasnt all the fault of the world. I begged you to quit, begged you.

Taking a fresh glass to Clares room, she yelled at the walls: I tried to save you. I gave you everything I had. Everything. I lied for you. I cheated for you. Why wasnt that enough? Love is supposed to be enough, goddamn you. Whatever the circumstances, it was the smack that killed you. Did you have to be so fucking weak?

The glass was empty again. She returned to the kitchen, poured a fresh slug, collapsed into a chair. I did all I could to save her. In a way, losing Charlie was a crueler blow.

But Charlie was not cruel, merely very angry. How could she blame him? Hed caught her in another lie, a big one this time, those phony dental records they had persuaded her to take to Hong Kong. But its not the way you think, Charlie. I never joined the mob; I was only trying to save my baby.

Two more bourbons later she made a decision. She had told herself she wasnt going to watch Mario die at Mount Sinai. He had had a whole life full of women who could do that for him. She didnt need more grief because grief was what shed had a whole life full of. But now she would. And before he died, he would talk because she needed him to help her save her last relationship. There wasnt going to be anyone after Charlie. You knew things like that when you were pushing fifty.

Despite the hour, she telephoned the hospital. She used her old cop voice and her old cop manner to bully her way through to Mario, who wasnt asleep anyway and was glad to hear from her. He appreciated the opportunity to say good-bye to the only real love of his life he said, that schmoozer.

It was after nine in the morning by the time she had woken from a drunken sleep, washed, taken a couple of Tylenol for the hangover, telephoned for a cab, walked the four flights down from her apartment and was waiting on the pavement. She saw them in her makeup mirror as she was checking her mascara, two black kids no more than thirteen or fourteen; not small, though. You had to know the streets to read them: a downward glance exchanged, a whisper, a nod toward her handbag. She waited until they were nearly upon her in a run, then turned, kneed one in the groin and with an open palm thrust straight fingers into the others windpipe. She had to step over them (one writhing, the other coughing, both amazed) to reach the cab that was drawing up to the curb. The driver barely stopped moving for her to get in, then accelerated away while she was still closing the door.

You shouldnt have done that. The driver had a thick accent that Moira could not quite place. I saw from across the street.

She scowled. Kids around here, you know-

I mean, they coulda had guns. Even if they didnt have them, they could get them. Now they know where you live.

Moira smiled. She never waited outside her own apartment house. The address shed given to the taxi company was ten doors away. Streetcraft, you never really forgot it. She was pleased with herself. Love gave you the strength to fight back; experience gave you the technique. Come to think of it, forty-nine didnt need to be such a bad age for a woman. Ive found a man worth fighting for.

What accent is that? she asked the driver, to be polite.

Georgian. Georgia, ex-USSR, not USA.

Russian to her. When she was very young, the cabdrivers had sometimes been Russian, refugees from communism. Now they were Russians again, refugees from the new capitalism. It made you feel as if youd lived through a condensed historical cycle in which everything had happened except civilization. Shed tell Charlie; he appreciated that kind of talk. They had a faxual relationship. She forgot which of them had thought up that bad joke. Love was weird. A daughter dead again, a hangover like a hatchet through the skull, about to visit a terminally ill ex-husband-and she felt terrific because she had a fight worth winning. Trust me, Charlie, I can explain. And dont get killed, okay?

She talked to the driver about the Bronx-these days some of it was still like a circle of hell so famous they were selling tickets in purgatory-and looked out the window as they crossed the bridge into Manhattan. Traffic on the Harlem River crawled over slatecolored water shading up to light gray where the sun penetrated the clouds. Something about boats and rivers that didnt change the way cars and roads did. Shed been proud of this city once, still was up to a point. There were angles and perspectives, traditions even, that were timeless and gave the illusion that you were part of something of permanent value. But the truth was, its soul was shriveling. It was dirty. Shed watched while bluntness gave way to rudeness gave way to hostility gave way to homicidal rage, all in about thirty years. When brutality became the only effective means of communication with your fellow citizen, it was time to get out. Hong Kong? Youd better do some explaining first, girl.

The daydream stopped with the cab at Mount Sinai. When she told them what room Mario was in, the reception became tangibly more polite. She stood in the elevator, fuming just a little with an old rage: Captain in the NYPD and he gets a five-thousand-dollar-a-night room in Mount Sinai to die in.

The anger faded, though, when she saw him. The dextrose IV drip that stood by the bed on a pole wasnt hooked up to his body; the limpness of the plastic tube hanging down from it was a kind of analogue for the limpness of his two arms, which lay in parallel on the covers. She averted her eyes while she tried to catch up with the devastation that three short weeks had wrought on that fine body.

She bit her lip as she approached the bed. This was going to be more difficult than shed expected. Damn it, women were different from men, no matter what they said. More than two decades before this womanizing crook had reached her, and she still didnt know how to forget that; any man would have been able to kill that soft spot she felt opening somewhere in her guts, but she couldnt. She sat down in one of the chairs by the bed. Hed lost a lot of his hair too.

Thanks for coming. The voice was thin and faint, the smile forced. She could see from his eyes, though, that his mind was still alert.

Im not going to say you look terrific, Mario.

He lowered his eyes. Just a scratch. She smiled.

I forgot to bring you flowers. I meant to; then two kids tried to mug me, and I forgot.

They still alive, those two kids?

They laughed then, and tears came to her eyes. That had always been his secret, underneath the charm and good looks: It was the humor that women came back for. And maybe it showed a measure of courage, after all, to be joking at this stage.

You were fast and mean, worse than any man. Everyone said so. He put out a hand for her to hold. It was hard to believe how much that small movement seemed to cost him.

Ive slowed down a lot.

Coletti shook his head. I dont believe it, not you. If Id had one ounce of sense, I would never have let you go.

Dont do this.

You were right, and I was wrong. The mob- He tried to make a gesture like spitting. She nodded. I understand. I dont approve, but I understand. Im not twenty anymore, I know how things happen to people. You couldnt help being that kind of Italian-maybe.

Coletti shook his head. He spoke with agonizing slowness. Dont soft-soap me. I had a choice, like anyone. You know what, my uncle was in the hospital, I was twenty-five, theyd shot him old style outside his favorite restaurant on Perry Street. It could have been a screenplay, it was that corny. When I sat on the chair near his bed, I told him I was gonna join. I said to avenge him, but I meant because I needed that machismo. He pointed to a bunch of roses theyd sent him in a vase. He said: What you talk of is like that rose. It is very beautiful, but it can make you bleed.

Moira looked around the room. Sure enough, there were small mountains of flowers against one wall. Roses too. She sighed.

Mario, honey, I dont think I ever told you what I really had against you being in the mob.

Its evil. You were a good Catholic. You were right.

Naw, I was just being holier than thou; its an old Irish debating trick. What I really couldnt stand was the mob wives. So boring. The whole thing, I have to tell you, just bored the pants off me. You know, when your great-great-great-uncle went to see his uncle in his hospital bed way back in Palma di Montichiero when men were men, his uncle told that same story about the rose. Its even in books now, Mario. Its old.

The ravaged face on the pillow creased up in a chuckle. You still know how to hurt. With effort he turned to look into her eyes. Listen, the scam with the phony dental records? It worked. Thats how come I can die in peace. Dont tell a fucking soul or theyll waste you and her both.

The effort had exhausted him. His head sank deeper into the pillow, a contented smile on his face. Moira swallowed hard.

Why, thats great, Mario. Gonna tell me the details now? You know how an old cop like me gets to be an evidence junkie. And I really didnt appreciate being the mule, you know. If she hadnt pleaded with me over the phone to do exactly as you told me-

He nodded. I know. Thats why I asked one of my partners to come here today to meet you. He should be here now. Open the door. He said hed wait till I called him.

Moira crossed the floor to open the door to the corridor. The Chinese man on the bench stood up and stretched out his hand.

Pleased to meet you, Mrs. Coletti. It was a New York accent. If she closed her eyes, he could have been an Italian American or a New York Jew.

She shook his hand without enthusiasm. He was shorter than she was, no more than five-four, in an electric blue silk suit with Italian cut. He was almost as round as he was tall with a jutting chin. At that height the air of unassailable authority was borderline absurd, except for the eyes. There was nothing phony there; they were genuine reptile. He gestured for her to return to the hospital room.

Moira, meet Danny Chow, the real capo di tutti capi.

Chow half closed his eyes. Please.

One of the most powerful men in the Western world. Head of the 14K Triad Society worldwide. But dont tell anyone.

Chow raised a hand. I said please.

Hes agreed to come here today out of respect for you as Clares mother. Right, Danny?

I have the greatest admiration for your daughter, Mrs. Coletti. She is a visionary. I think youll agree that weve gone to exceptional lengths to ensure her safety. Were a caring organization, Mrs. Coletti. We look after our people.

Thats good, Moira said.

Tell her, Danny. Tell it all.

Chow gestured for Moira to sit down by the side of the bed while he stood.

Communists, Mrs. Coletti. He raised a finger. Excuse me, but fucking Communists. They have a criminal mentality, maam; their whole outlook is based on lies and deception. Other organizations have embraced the late twentieth century with intelligence and enthusiasm; we have grown. We are businessmen now; we abhor violence and use it only when strictly necessary. If the average man has difficulty in fully comprehending the nature of international commerce in our time, such that certain quaint regulations outlaw some of our activities, then thats a cross the businessman has to bear. We understand: The most advanced in any society have always to suffer the consequences of being out in front.

But Communists, maam-Neanderthals, primitives, cavemen, power freaks, criminals, pure and simple. It was a business deal like any other. A certain figure prominent in the Peoples Liberation Army required a certain commodity for his purposes. Not having immediate access to that commodity myself, I contacted my good friend and business associate Mario Coletti. He in turn worked his contacts until that commodity could be located, its price verified according to the market, freight, forwarding and profit margin added, a certain sum for risk included, and a deal was struck. A deal, maam, is sacred. When we cease to honor deals, civilization will fail; well be back to bows and arrows. Now the nature of this particular commodity is such that we would not trust it to our usual couriers.

Three of our best people were chosen, two from my firm, one from Mr. Colettis: your daughter, Clare, courageous, beautiful, a trailblazer in her own right. All is going well. The commodity, together with certain sample items that we feel may be of interest to the purchaser, arrives safely at its destination. Handover is days away, days away. Then what happens? Tell Clares mother, Mario. Im ashamed of the primitive side of my own race and pray for the day when they shall be raised from out of their ignorance.

Moira closed her eyes while the two men shared the pleasure of explaining their scam in detail, down to the miniature camera used to photograph the victims mouths and the sample bites in gum that the local mob dentist had insisted on. The dentist was an artist, they said. They were talking about lives, heroin, weapons-grade uranium, but the minds behind the words were adolescent; My ex-husband has about five days left on earth, and dear God, he still hasnt grown up.

When they had finished, Moira forced a smile. Thats brilliant. Thank you for telling me. The general, he doesnt know you diced up his own men?

Of course not, maam. He may suspect, and he may better understand that international commercial organizations such as ours are not to be trifled with, but of course he will never be sure. The possibility will be there, goading him like a thorn-and perhaps leading him eventually to the light. Im pretty confident he will see the error of his ways, if he hasnt done so already. It may seem cruel to you, Mrs. Coletti, but in our business credibility-face, as we Chinese say-is everything. Chow looked at Mario with an indulgent smile. I think its safe to say we increased our credibility in the international community quite a bit. It was David and Goliath, and David won again.

Unless Clare and the others are found, Moira said. I guess the general will want to close the credibility gap if that happens.

Chow smiled benevolently. We are a powerful, rich and well-connected organization, Mrs. Coletti. You have my word, that will never happen. We know he watches the airport, which is why we are keeping them safely for the time being in Hong Kong. They are being given plastic surgery. At an appropriate moment they will be brought back to this country and given new identities.

Moira nodded, stared at the floor for a moment, then put a hand on Marios arm. You did well, honey. You came up trumps.

The face on the pillow smiled gratefully.

| The Last Six Million Seconds | c