Chapter Three

On the first floor, as far away from Mister as they could get, the families and friends were waiting. Dozens of our associates and colleagues were packed in the offices and hallways, waiting for our rescue. A loud cheer went up when they saw us.

Because I was covered with blood, they took me to a small gym in the basement. It was owned by our firm and virtually ignored by the lawyers. We were too busy to exercise, and anyone caught working out would almost certainly be assigned more work.

I was instantly surrounded by doctors, none of whom happened to be my wife, Once I convinced them the blood was not mine, they relaxed and conducted a routine exam. Blood pressure was up, pulse was crazy. They gave me a pill.

What I really wanted was a shower. They made me lie on a table for ten minutes while they watched my blood pressure. "Am I in shock?" I asked.

"Probably not."

I certainly felt like it. Where was Claire? For six hours I was held at gunpoint, life hanging by a thread, and she couldn't be bothered to come wait with the rest of the families.

The shower was long and hot. I washed my hair three times with heavy shampoo, then I stood and dripped for an eternity. Time was frozen. Nothing mattered. I was alive, breathing and steaming.

I changed into someone else's clean gym clothes, which were much too big, and went back to the table for another check of my blood pressure. My secretary, Polly, came in and gave me a long hug. I needed it desperately. She had tears in her eyes.

"Where's Claire?" I asked her.

"On call. I've tried calling the hospital."

Polly knew there wasn't much left of the marriage.

"Are you okay?" she asked.

"I think so."

I thanked the doctors and left the gym. Rudolph met me in the hall and gave me a clumsy embrace. He used the word "congratulations," as if I had accomplished something.

"No one expects you to work tomorrow," he said. Did he think a day off would cure all my problems?

"I haven't thought about tomorrow," I said.

"You need some rest," he added, as if the doctors hadn't thought of this.

I wanted to speak to Barry Nuzzo, but my fellow hostages had already left. No one was injured, just a few rope burns on the wrists.

With the carnage held to a minimum, and the good guys up and smiling, the excitement at Drake & Sweeney waned quickly. Most of the lawyers and staff had waited nervously on the first floor, far away from Mister and his explosives. Polly had my overcoat, and I put it on over the large sweat suit. My tasseled loafers looked odd, but I didn't care. "There are some reporters outside," Polly said. Ah, yes, the media. What a story! Not just your garden-variety on-the-job shooting, but a bunch of lawyers held hostage by a street crazy.

But they didn't get their story, did they? The lawyers escaped, the bad guy took a bullet, the explosives fizzled when their owner hit the floor. Oh, what could've been! A shot, then a bomb, a flash of white light as the windows shattered, arms and legs landing in the street, all duly recorded live by Channel Nine for the evening's lead story.

"I'll drive you home," Polly said. "Follow me." I was very thankful someone was telling me what to do. My thoughts were slow and cumbersome, one still-frame after another, with no concept of plot or setting.

We left the ground floor through a service door. The night air was sharp and cold, and I breathed its sweetness until my lungs ached. As Polly ran to get her car, I hid at the corner of the building and watched the circus out front. There were police cars, ambulances, television vans, even a fire truck. They were packing and leaving. One of the ambulances was parked with its rear to the building, no doubt waiting to carry Mister to the morgue.

I'm alive! I am alive! I said this over and over, smiling for the first time. I'm alive!

I closed my eyes tightly and offered a short but sincere prayer of thanks.

* * *

The sounds began coming back. As we sat in silence, Polly behind the wheel, driving slowly and waiting for me to say something, I heard the piercing clap of the sniper's rifle. Then the thud as it found its mark, and the stampede as the other hostages scrambled off the table and through the door.

What had I seen? I had glanced at the table where the seven were staring intently at the door, then back to Mister as he raised the gun and pointed it at Umstead's head. I was directly behind him when he was hit. What stopped the bullet from leaving him and getting me? Bullets go through walls and doors and people.

"He was not going to kill us," I said, barely loud enough to be heard.

Polly was relieved to hear my voice. "What was he doing then?"

"I don't know."

"What did he want?"

"He never said. It's amazing how little was actually said. We sat for hours just looking at each other."

"Why wouldn't he talk to the police?"

"Who knows? That was his biggest mistake. If he'd kept the phones open, I could've convinced the cops that he was not going to kill us."

"You don't blame the cops, do you?"

"No. Remind me to write them letters."

"Are you working tomorrow?"

"What else would I do tomorrow?"

"Just thought you might need a day off."

"I need a year off. One day won't help."

Our apartment was the third floor of a rowhouse on P Street in Georgetown. Polly stopped at the curb. I thanked her and got out, and I could tell from the dark windows that Claire was not home.

* * *

I met Claire the week after I moved to D.C. I was just out of Yale with a great job in a rich firm, a brilliant future like the other fifty rookies in my class. She was finishing her degree in political science at American University. Her grandfather was once the governor of Rhode Island, and her family has been well connected for centuries.

Drake & Sweeney, like most large firms, treats the first year as a boot camp. I worked fifteen hours a day, six days a week, and on Sundays Claire and I would have our weekly date. Sunday nights I was in the office. We thought that if we got married, we would have more time together. At least we could share a bed, but sleep was about all we did.

The wedding was large, the honeymoon brief, and when the luster wore off I was back at the office ninety hours a week. During the third month of our union, we actually went eighteen days without sex. She counted.

She was a sport for the first few months, but she grew weary of being neglected. I did not blame her, but young associates don't complain in the hallowed offices of Drake & Sweeney. Less than ten percent of each class will make partner, so the competition is ruthless. The rewards are great, at least a million bucks a year. Billing lots of hours is more important than a happy wife. Divorce is common. I didn't dream of asking Rudolph to lighten my load.

By the end of our first year together, Claire was very. unhappy and we had started to quarrel.

She decided to go to med school. Tired of sitting at home watching TV, she figured she could become as self-absorbed as I was. I thought it was a wonderful idea. It took away most of my guilt.

After four years with the firm, they started dropping hints about our chances of making partner. The hints were collected and compared among many of the associates. It was generally felt that I was on the fast track to a partnership. But I had to work even harder.

Claire became determined to spend more time away from the apartment than I did, and so both of us slid into the silliness of extreme workaholism. We stopped fighting and simply drifted apart. She had her friends and interests, I had mine. Fortunately, we did not make the mistake of reproducing.

I wish I had done things differently. We were in love once, and we let it get away.

As I entered the dark apartment, I needed Claire for the first time in years. You come face to face with death and you need to talk about it. You need to be needed, to be stroked, to be told that someone cares.

I fixed a vodka with ice and sat on the sofa in the den. I fumed and pouted because I was alone, then my thoughts switched to the six hours I'd spent with Mister.

* * *

Two vodkas later, I heard her at the door. She unlocked it, and called, "Michael."

I didn't say a word because I was still pouting and fuming. She walked into the den, and stopped when she saw me. "Are you all right?" she asked with genuine concern.

"I'm fine," I said softly.

She dropped her bag and overcoat, and walked to the sofa, where she hovered over me.

"Where have you been?" I asked.

"At the hospital."

"Of course." I took a long drink. "Look, I've had a bad day."

"I know all about it, Michael."

"You do?"

"Of course I do."

"Then where the hell were you?"

"At the hospital."

"Nine of us held hostage for six hours by a crazy man. Eight families show up because they're somewhat concerned. We get lucky and escape, and I have to catch a ride home with my secretary."

"I couldn't be there."

"Of course you couldn't. How thoughtless of me." She sat down in a chair next to the sofa. We glared at each other. "They made us stay at the hospital," she began, very icy. "We knew about the hostage situation, and there was a chance there could're been casualties. It's standard procedure in that situation--they notify the hospitals, and everyone is placed on standby."

Another long drink as I tried to think of something sharp to say.

"I couldn't help you at your office," she continued. "I was waiting at the hospital."

"Did you call?"

"I tried. The phone lines were jammed. I finally got a cop, and he hung up on me."

"It was over two hours ago. Where have you been?"

"In OR. We lost a litfie boy in surgery; he was hit by a car."

"I'm sorry," I said. I could never comprehend how doctors faced so much death and pain. Mister was only the second corpse I had ever laid eyes on.

"I'm sorry too," she said, and with that she went to the kitchen and returned with a glass of wine. We sat in the semidarkness for a while. Because we did not practice communication, it did not come easy.

"Do you want to talk about it?" she asked.

"No. Not now." And I really didn't. The alcohol mixed with the pills, and my breathing became heavy. I thought of Mister, how calm and peaceful he was, even though he waved a gun and had dynamite strapped to his stomach. He was thoroughly unmoved by long stretches of silence.

Silence was what I wanted. Tomorrow I would talk.