THE BRUTAL SLAYING OF GABRIEL MCGREGOR'S WIFE AND children was a story that gripped not just South Africa but the world. It was a Greek tragedy: the white philanthropist and his doctor wife, attacked by the very people they had spent their lives trying to save.
A few weeks after the killings, the gruesome drama took another, unexpected twist. Gabe McGregor walked out of Phoenix's office one lunchtime as usual. He hadn't been seen or heard from since.
Conspiracy theories abounded on the Internet: Was Gabe involved in the murders? Maybe Tara was planning to divorce him, and he had her killed to protect his fortune? He discovered the kids were not his and murdered them in a jealous rage? Had he killed himself out of remorse? Had he assumed a new identity and fled justice?
Of course, there wasn't a shred of evidence to support such lurid speculation. But that didn't stop tabloids around the world from dredging up every buried secret from Gabe's past, his drug addiction, his record for assault and battery, his investigation for fraud, dissecting each of them in salacious detail and salivating over their imagined "implications." Many people spoke up in Gabe's defense, among them the police investigating the McGregor killings, Robbie Templeton, the world-famous pianist and AIDS campaigner, and Dia Ghali, Gabe's former partner at Phoenix and a hero to many black South Africans. But their voices were drowned out by the baying of the mob.
Race relations had come so far in the new South Africa. No one wanted to believe that this beautiful white doctor and her photogenic children had been slaughtered by a gang of angry black men whom the cops had no chance of catching. Not when there were so many other, more interesting possibilities.
For those who knew Gabe and Tara, however, this was no soap opera. It was sobering, unimaginable reality.
Lexi was in her office in New York when she got word of the murders.
"But they can't all have been killed. Not the children, too. There must be some mistake."
There was no mistake. Lexi's first feeling was pure compassion. Poor Gabe. All of them, his whole family, gone! She wanted to call or write to him, but quickly realized how inappropriate that would be. She and Gabe hadn't spoken in more than two years. And for a very good reason. As she was fond of telling Robbie and anyone else who would listen, Lexi Templeton hated Gabe McGregor.
Lexi saw the world in black and white. She did not operate in grays. Ever since she was a little girl, playing with her dolls, she'd divided the people around her into two camps: friends or enemies.
Robbie was her friend. Her love for him, and her loyalty, were bottomless and would remain so all her life.
The men who kidnapped her were her enemies. Max was her enemy. Now, since her revelation on safari, Gabe was her enemy. Enemies must be destroyed.
Hovering above this black-and-white worldview loomed a single, even greater imperative: Kruger-Brent. Kruger-Brent was the beginning and end of everything. It was Lexi's religion. Her god. Max had stolen Kruger-Brent from her. That made him the greatest of all her enemies. But Gabe McGregor ran a close second. Not only had he outperformed Lexi in business, but he had also succeeded in keeping his soul intact. For this crime alone, he must be damned, eternally undeserving of her compassion.
And yet Lexi did feel compassion. How could she not? When she heard about Gabe's disappearance, she felt something even deeper. She imagined him alone in the bush somewhere, tortured, crawling away to end his life in unutterable grief and despair. And all at once the world became grayer. For the first time in her life, Lexi Templeton took a day off from work. She spent it in her apartment sobbing, unable to get out of bed.
David Tennant came to see her. A senior member of the Templeton board, David was a lawyer by training. He looked like a character from a Dickens novel. He wore full Victorian sideburns, carried a pocket watch, and had a long bulbous nose that always made Lexi think of Mr. Punch. But beneath his comic appearance, David Tennant was sharp as a tack. He was one of Lexi's most trusted advisers.
"What's Cedar International?"
Lexi assumed a look of studied blankness. "What?"
David Tennant wasn't buying the innocent routine.
"Cedar International. What is it? Or how about DH Holdings? Does that ring any bells?"
Lexi tried to brazen it out. "Of course. They're both offshore investment vehicles. Why do you ask?"
"Oh, I don't know." David Tennant smiled wryly. "I suppose I was just curious as to why you've been siphoning off Templeton assets into them like a South American dictator about to go on the lam."
Lexi smiled. Perhaps charm would work where brazenness had failed?
"Relax, David. I'm not going anywhere. I set those companies up to make investments outside of Templeton's core portfolio."
"I'll say they're outside of our portfolio! We're a real-estate company, Lexi. Cedar International owns two paper mills, a failing diamond mine in the Congo, and a chain of European waste-disposal companies. DH Holdings owns an Internet bank and" - he consulted his notes - "a coffee-processing plant in Brazil. Have you gone quite mad?"
How typical of David to be so observant. And how irritating.
Forget charm. I'll try the angry-boss card.
"Templeton Estates is my company, David. I don't need you to remind me of our business plan."
"Don't you? Then would you mind telling me what all these acquisitions are for? And why the dodgy shell companies?"
Damn. She'd forgotten it was impossible to bully David Tennant. That must be why he was her closest adviser and why she'd allowed him to buy a 10 percent stake in her company.
He's entitled to an explanation. I just have to think of one that will appease him without revealing the truth.
"Look, perhaps I should have told you. But not all of these trades worked out as well as I'd hoped. I didn't want to appear, well, foolish."
"I knew they were risky deals, so I stripped them out of our balance sheet."
More silence. Lexi plowed on.
"If it looks as if there's no rhyme or reason to the portfolio, that's because there isn't. I set up Cedar years and years ago to buy up any wacky, failing business I thought looked interesting. It's been around almost as long as Templeton."
"I know. You registered it in the Caymans in 2010."
"Right." How the hell did he know that?
Lexi ensured she left a trail so complex and convoluted, no one should have been able to trace the company to her, still less link it with Templeton Estates.
I must have gotten careless. That can't happen again.
"I also noticed that two of the companies, the mine and the coffee plant, belonged to Kruger-Brent."
Actually, they all belonged to Kruger-Brent...once. With the others, I bought shares in the acquirers, then sold them on to my shell companies after a suitably discreet interval. I guess you didn't get that far, Sherlock Holmes.
Lexi kept her voice casual. "Yes. Purely coincidence."
David Tennant looked skeptical. Lexi had been becoming more and more secretive and reclusive recently. She'd been furious when a recent Vanity Fair article drew comparisons between her and Eve Blackwell, her agoraphobic aunt. Maybe the truth hurt?
"I should have told you, David. I'm sorry."
He softened slightly.
"As you say, Lexi, this is your company. Just don't bleed us completely dry, eh? Too many transfers of the size you've been making recently and our cash flow...well, I don't need to tell you of the risks."
After he'd gone, Lexi sat at her desk for a long time, thinking.
Her Jenga strategy wasn't working. She'd thought she could chip away at Kruger-Brent discreetly, making strategic acquisitions here and there without anyone connecting them to her. But David Tennant had already made the connection. More important, Kruger-Brent was showing no signs of imminent collapse.
I need a new strategy. Something bigger, bolder. I need to think.
It was time to face facts. Gabe's disappearance had shaken her deeply. She wasn't sleeping. She often found herself crying for no reason. Worse still, it was starting to affect her judgment at work. She had appeased David Tennant, for now. But she knew David. The man was a rottweiler. He never let go. Next time...
No. There mustn't be a next time.
She wrote an e-mail to her brother:
I've changed my mind. If it's still open, I'd like to take you up on your offer. I've been working too hard recently. I need a break.
Three weeks at Robbie and Paolo's farmhouse in the South African wine country might be just what the doctor ordered.
The week Lexi arrived in South Africa, Gabe McGregor was officially pronounced dead.
"It's a legal formality," Robbie told her. "No one knows for sure what happened. But given his state of mind and the length of time he's been missing...he hasn't touched his bank accounts. He left his passport in the office."
Lexi nodded. She had accepted weeks ago that Gabe was gone. Even so, having his death confirmed in the newspapers felt strange and sad.
I never got to say sorry. I wish he'd known how much he meant to me.
Robbie Templeton opened the lawyer's letter at breakfast.
"Oh dear, oh dear," Paolo teased. "Been harassing the busty sopranos again, have you? Bad boy."
"It's from Gabe McGregor's law firm. I've been asked to come to the reading of his will. According to this, I'm a beneficiary."
Lexi asked to see the letter.
"I didn't know you and Gabe were that close." She felt unaccountably jealous.
"We were friends. But I never would have expected anything like this. To be blunt, it's not as if I need the money. Gabe knew that."
"One always needs the money, Robert," said Paolo firmly. "I intend to become shamefully extravagant in my old age. Don't force me to leave you for someone younger and richer, cheri."
Robbie laughed. Lexi couldn't.
I've been asked to come to the reading of his will.
He really is dead.
Robbie hated lawyers' offices. They reminded him of sitting opposite Lionel Neuman as a teenager, the old man's rabbit face twitching as Robbie renounced his inheritance. What dark days those had been. And how happy he was now. Walking away from Kruger-Brent was the best decision he'd ever made. Even so, attorneys still scared him, and Frederick Jansen was no exception. One look at Jansen's severe, dark suit and craggy face crisscrossed with lines, like a clay bust left too long in the sun, and Robbie felt like a naughty kid again. It didn't help that the five other men in the room had all worn suits. Robbie, in jeans and an L.A. Philharmonic T-shirt, felt like a fool.
"The bulk of Mr. McGregor's assets were held in a family trust." Jansen droned on. The legalese washed over Robbie: "intestate...tax efficient structures...trustees making provision...distinguishing between bequests and wishes..." A few words took root in his brain, among them charitable endowments. When Gabe wrote his will, he'd expected to be survived by his children. In the event that he was not, his wealth was to be divided among a select group of charities, including the Templeton/ Cozmici AIDS Foundation.
"Sorry. If I could just interrupt you for a moment."
The lawyer looked at Robbie as if he were asking permission to deflower his daughter.
"How much, er...how much exactly would our foundation be in line for?"
Frederick Jansen's nose wrinkled in distaste. Was this man a fool? Had he not read paragraph six, point d, subsection viii?
"The percentage of Mr. McGregor's tax-deductible bequest - "
"Sorry again." Robbie held up his hand, his heart hammering. "I'm not very good with percentages. If you could give me an overall number. You know. Ballpark."
"Ballpark?" Frederick Jansen's jowls quivered with distaste. He couldn't imagine what had possessed his client to leave so much money to this vulgar, American queer. "Mr. Templeton, as is explicit in the document before you, your foundation stands to receive a lump sum in the region, the ballpark, if you will, of twenty-five million U.S. dollars. Now, if we could be allowed to move on with the reading?"
The lawyer repositioned his reading glasses and resumed his monologue, but Robbie was no longer listening. Twenty-five million! It was an astonishingly generous bequest from a man with his own charity to support. If there was a heaven, Gabe McGregor must undoubtedly be in it.
"Excuse me, Mr. Jansen." A nervous, plain-looking mouse of a woman appeared in the doorway. Robbie thought: Poor thing. I wouldn't be this fella's secretary for all the tea in China. "There's a gentleman here to see you."
Frederick Jansen's sour expression soured still further.
"Sarah. I made it perfectly clear I was not to be interrupted under any circumstances."
"Yes, sir. But - "
"Any circumstances! Are you deaf?"
"No, sir. But the thing is, sir..."
She got no further. A man appeared in the doorway. Frederick Jansen's mouth fell open. The papers slipped from his hands and fluttered slowly to the floor, like feathers.
"Hello, Fred." Gabe smiled. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Frederick Jansen knew Gabriel McGregor as a client. The other suits in the room had all dealt with him through their businesses or charities. Only Robbie knew Gabe as a friend. Jumping to his feet, he threw his arms around him.
"You sure know how to make an entrance! I suppose this means I won't get my twenty-five mil?"
Robbie joked in order to break the tension and to hide his own shock. Gabe looked terrible. He'd always been so big, a great, friendly bear of a man. The man standing in front of Robbie now had visibly shrunk. He must have lost fifty pounds. His face looked sunken and aged. But the biggest shock of all was his hair. The thick blond mop of old was gone. Gabe's hair had turned completely white.
"Let's just say you won't get it yet. Listen, Robbie, can you do me a favor?"
"Of course. Anything."
"I'm pretty sure some people in the lobby recognized me when I came in."
Robbie thought, I wouldn't bank on it.
"The press'll be here in a minute. I can't go home. Any chance I could hide out with you and Paolo for a while?"
"Of course. As long as..." Robbie hesitated, not sure how to put it. "You're sure it wouldn't bring back too many painful memories?"
Gabe and Tara had stayed at Robbie's compound last summer with their children. It had been a magical vacation for all of them.
Gabe was touched by Robbie's concern. "It's okay. The memories aren't painful. They're all I have."
"Fine, then. In that case, let's get out of here."
Robbie had a hundred and one questions he wanted to ask Gabe. Me and the rest of the world. But they could wait. The main thing was to get him home and fed, away from the prying eyes of the media.
He's family now. He's one of us. Paolo and I will protect him.
When Robbie walked through the door of the farmhouse arm in arm with Gabe, Lexi fainted. When she came to, tucked up in bed in one of the guest rooms, she had a lump on her head the size of a duck egg.
"Sorry." Her voice was hoarse. "I think I must be more exhausted than I realized. I thought I saw Gabe. It was so real! As if he were standing right next to you. Do you think I need a psychiatrist?"
"Unquestionably." Robbie grinned. "But not because you're seeing things. It turns out our friend Gabriel isn't quite as dead as we all thought he was."
An old-man version of Gabe appeared at Lexi's bedside.
She promptly passed out again.
It was a full twenty-four hours before it sank in that Gabe was not only alive, but here, at Robbie's house, with her. While Lexi came to terms with reality, Gabe washed, ate and slept for the first time in weeks. By nightfall, the story had leaked into the media that Gabriel McGregor was back from the dead. It took the press about a minute and a half to discover his whereabouts. Luckily, Robbie and Paolo's estate was completely hidden from prying lenses, set back behind a long driveway and surrounded by an impenetrable wall of trees. Paolo persuaded the local police to place a ban on low-flying helicopters. Once they realized there was no picture to be had, the paparazzi reluctantly slunk back to Cape Town, pitching camp instead outside Phoenix's offices. Gabe couldn't hide out with Robbie Templeton forever. Eventually he'd have to surface, and when he did, they'd be waiting.
For the first week, Gabe slept eighteen hours of every twenty-four. At mealtimes he ate well but in silence, exchanging occasional grateful smiles with Robbie and Paolo. He barely looked at Lexi.
A doctor was called. He gave Gabe a clean bill of health. Not wanting to risk any more press leaks, Robbie contacted his godfather in New York, Barney Hunt, and asked him to fly out and examine Gabe.
"I'd say he's in good shape mentally," said Barney, "considering the magnitude of the trauma he's just been through. He's allowing himself to recover."
"But he barely speaks," Robbie protested. "He won't say where he's been all this time. He hasn't mentioned Tara or his children once. If I get one 'pass the pepper, please,' that's a good day."
"He'll talk when he's ready. How about Lexi? How's she doing?"
It seemed like an odd non sequitur. "Lexi? She's okay, I guess. Mad as a box of frogs, obsessing about Kruger-Brent as always, but what's new. She came out here to relax, which I took as a good sign."
"And is she? Relaxing?"
"Gabe showing up kind of threw her. I don't know. She's been out of the house a lot. Riding. Do you think I should be worried?"
"No, no." Barney Hunt smiled reassuringly. "I'm fond of your sister, that's all. I care about you both. As does your father."
Robbie stiffened. It had been years since he'd seen Peter. Their estrangement now was as wide and deep as it had ever been.
"I've got enough on my plate right now with Gabe and Lexi," he said defensively.
"I understand," said Barney. "Just remember, your father is not going to live forever. Gabe has years to work through what he's feeling. So does Lexi. But you and Peter..."
"Thanks, Barney. I'm okay. We're okay."
The conversation was closed.
Lexi lay in bed, unable to sleep. In two days' time, she would head back to New York. Back to reality. The vacation with Robbie was supposed to have cleared her head. But she felt more confused than ever.
Gabe was alive. That was a good thing. Obviously. So why did his presence in the house make her feel so...so what? There was no word for it. Lexi and Gabe moved past each other like ghost ships on a hopeless sea. Sometimes Lexi felt him watching her. Almost as if he were waiting for her to say something. But say what?
Sorry I don't know how to talk to you? Sorry your wife and kids got their throats cut? I'm glad you're alive, but I wish you'd get the hell out of my brother's house?
At other times, she sensed hostility in his gaze. He felt something for me on that safari years ago, and we both know it. Does he blame me for that? Do I make him feel guilty?
Lexi didn't understand Gabe's passivity. If she were in his shoes, she would be filled with bloodlust. She would think of nothing but wreaking terrible, righteous revenge on those who had slain her family. But Gabe showed no anger. No hatred. Lexi couldn't understand it.
She looked at her bedside clock. Four A.M. Her mind was racing. There was no hope of sleep. Hauling herself wearily out of bed, she pulled a bathrobe over the old pair of Robbie's pajamas she was wearing and tiptoed downstairs. Maybe a cup of warm milk would help.
"What are you doing here?"
Lexi jumped a mile.
"Jesus, Gabe. You scared me."
Gabe was lurking in the half shadow, his face eerily illuminated by the first pale rays of dawn sunlight.
"I couldn't sleep."
"Welcome to my world. You know, when Collette was born, we got no sleep for a year. Tara and I would fantasize about how great it would be to wake up late on Sunday mornings. Now I can wake up as late as I like. But I never make it past dawn. Never."
God, it was so inadequate. What a small, useless little word. Like firing a water pistol into a volcano.
"I was going to do it, you know. I was going to kill myself."
"Gabe, really. You don't have to tell me this."
"But then I thought, Why should I be allowed to rest in peace, after what I did? I should have to wake up every day, every day, and see their faces. Hear their screams."
Gabe started to cry. Lexi stood rooted to the spot, unsure what to do. Then instinct took over. She wrapped her arms around him.
"It wasn't your fault."
"It was!" he sobbed. "It was my fault. I should have been there. If I hadn't been late. If I hadn't stopped to change that stupid tire! Oh God, Lexi. I loved them so much!"
He clutched at her like a drowning man clinging to a buoy. Then suddenly he was kissing her, they were kissing each other. Lexi could taste the hot salt of his tears in her mouth, his face pressed against her cheek, her neck, her breasts. There was a terrible desperation to the way he ripped her clothes off, pulling her down onto the cold flagstone floor. As if by making love to her he could somehow bring himself back to life.
He entered her with an anguished cry, like an animal in its death throes. Lexi gripped him tightly to her. Closing her eyes, she could feel the pain flowing from his body to hers. It's all right, Gabe. It's all right, my love.
In the beginning, Max used to make love to her the same way. Desperately. As if Lexi could save him. But that was another lifetime. Gabe was not Max. Gabe was good and decent and kind. Gabe was suffering because he had loved. Max suffered because he could not love. Because he was broken.
Maybe Gabe and I can save each other?
When Robbie came downstairs later that morning, he found his friend and his sister fast asleep on the couch, entwined in each other's arms. He smiled.
Paolo put on some coffee. "I wouldn't look so happy if I were you." He nodded at the sleeping lovers. "That's trouble."
"Why? You said yourself that Gabe should find somebody. That he needs love to live again."
"Yes, but Lexi?"
Robbie bridled. "Why not Lexi? God knows she could use someone normal in her life. Someone to break her of this obsession with Kruger-Brent."
"I love your sister, Robbie. You know that. But lovers can't 'fix' each other."
Robbie thought: You're wrong. What about us? We fixed each other.
"Give it a chance. She loves him, you know. I'm convinced of it. When he went missing, she pined like a lost puppy. Lexi acts tough on the outside, but she feels things deeply."
Paolo said nothing.
He hoped he was wrong, for all their sakes.