Arthur Wilburn’s face was steely and belligerent both by choice and a peculiar twist of fate. The physical traits of his lineage had been mirrored almost to perfection from father to son for the past five generations. It was precisely his perceived rebellion and almost palpable strength that drew women to him like crazed moths to a scorching flame. Yet nothing drove them madder than his thirty years old unwavering loyalty to just one of them: his wife Madeline.
The men were, as usual, of the opinion that women were a weak, sentimental, hopeless and brainless bunch. They were unanimously wondering how on Earth an insensitive, insolent and proud beast such as Arthur Wilburn had been able to fall so deeply in love with such a gracious French woman. She had been only nineteen at the time he’d met her in Paris. But it was more of a puzzle in the minds of these bitter ones how the sweet, poetic beauty could have ever harboured any feelings for him in return.
Obvious enough, the only one person who held the answer to the latter was Madeline Wilburn. A month spent at Arthur’s side thirty years ago in La Ville-Lumière had more than convinced her that he was an arrogant, loud-mouthed ox. A vain one too, at age twenty four. Yet it was enough to dig a little deeper to find a warm and tender Arthur with a vulnerable soul hiding from life’s blows underneath his pugnacious exterior.
Madeline got acquainted with the beauty and the beast of Arthur’s soul, and in a weird twist of fate she fell in love with both. It took her twenty years to learn that women are not destined to reform men. It took her further ten to get used to the bitter aftertaste of the realization. She still loved her husband with a lover’s passion, a friend’s fondness and a somehow motherly affection. But her heart had hardened along with Arthur’s face just as his soul slowly began to turn rigid and unyielding after the loss of their only child almost eighteen years ago.
At forty nine, Madeline didn’t show her age, but her smile bore no responsive warmth and her honey-coloured eyes had long lost the glow that had crowned her as the most beautiful woman in the society since her arrival in the Empire City in 1981. She was now an untouchable beauty whose dispassionate gaze sent icy shivers down people’s spines and drew a long trail of whispers behind her. Some compassionate, some reverent, but most of them bursting with boiling curiosity: was it her husband who’d turned her into cold stone, or her daughter’s kidnapping? Rumors that Madeline faced with dignified stoicism beneath which bled a broken heart. Too bad tonight was another endless party night when she would have to front again pitiful stares from married women, sympathetic handshakes from their males, and inviting nods from old matrons who never failed to skilfully allude to her marriage while they were diligently forecasting the weather.
Madeline sighed inwardly and started twisting her dark mahogany hair into an elaborate bun, absently pinning it. Maybe Elisabeth would have had dark mahogany hair too if she had survived. Maybe she did. Elisabeth… The name had ultimately been Arthur’s choice after a seven months long fiery debate.
“It is going to be a girl, Madeline,” Arthur had said the moment the pregnancy was announced. “We will call her Elisabeth.”
Madeline had looked at him with shock. Half because she had expected a different reaction from a man who had just found out he was going to be a father, but also bewildered by the choice of the name.
“Elisabeth sounds nothing like a baby, dear. It is awfully biblical. It means ‘God's promise,’ ‘Oath of God,’ ‘I am God’s daughter.’ You cannot possibly think of your child as a nun. It is pathetic,” she had said, her voice softly blurred by her French accent.
“It’s not biblical, it’s royal.” He had dismissed her argument with a wave of his hand.
Everything in Arthur’s life had to have majesty. From the way he behaved with those who surrounded him, from family and friends down to his servants, to the opulence of the parties he hosted, and the pompousness of his tenure when he dealt with his business partners. Even the condo he’d chosen as his residence in his apartment building in Manhattan's Upper Side was obscenely snobbish with its entirely French Louis XV style interior decoration. The condo was a modern building redecorated on the inside to borrow a classic, provocatively towering look. But that was Arthur, a pompous warm-at-heart who defied life’s blows by imprinting his belligerence in everything that belonged to him. And now it was his baby’s turn to be branded.
“I am not giving birth to a princess, Arthur.” Madeline had rolled her eyes with visible frustration, knowing too well she was fighting an already lost battle.
“Oh, yes, you are.” He had stubbornly crossed his arms over his chest and they stayed that way for another seven months until the name ‘Elisabeth Wilburn’ was elegantly printed with winding letters on a commemorative birth certificate. Not only had Arthur been right as to the sex of the baby, but a princess she was with her little face and minuscule hands poking out of silky white, porcelain doll clothes embroidered with the initials EW. So was she dressed the day of her kidnapping, in white.
Madeline finished sticking the pins in her bun and sprayed a hint of Poison behind her ears. It was almost six o’clock, and the table was being set for an early dinner. She was supposed to be downstairs supervising the butlers, not frozen in front of the mirror picking a forbidden lock she had sworn a million times not to tamper with anymore. Arthur’s heart would silently contract with pain if he knew what a cheat she was, breaking the promise not to obsessively push into her mind the same nightmare again and again, almost eighteen years on. Turning from her memory she left the room and descended the stairs with small, quiet steps, running the tips of her fingers over the lacquer of the balustrade.
The heavy velvet curtains had been already pulled closed in the dining room, although the sun was still up in the sky. The chandeliers were gleaming on the high ceiling, their soft radiance delicately mirrored on the silver cutlery.
Arthur’s face lit up at the sight of his wife. His features always softened in her presence, his heart too. She still melted him.
“You’re late,” he announced to her. He courteously helped her sit down, pushing the chair beneath her as she took her place at the far end of the table. His gaze quickly swept her.
She could see the unspoken discontent that briefly flashed across his face before he regained his composure.
Of course Arthur was unhappy. She was once more wearing black for tonight’s party. This was a battle that Madeline had won. There had been a few throughout their marriage. Black represented Madeline’s removal from their society.
“It is not even six, dear.” Madeline glanced at the hands of the Grandfather clock.
Arthur stood stiff with impatience in front of his chair.
“I don’t even understand why we have to dine at home when we are going to a party.” He forced himself to keep his voice down. “There will be plenty of food there. If we don’t leave right now we will be late, and the Devins will take it as a slap in their faces, you know them. They will think that we only went there out of perfunctory duty.” He finally sat down.
“Well, they would be right as far as I am concerned, dear.” Madeline heaved a sigh in irritation at the world he wanted to inhabit and drag her along to.
Eating before they went avoided the long tables where a decadent cornucopia of meals was arranged for the guests to take their pick. Those were the worst possible place to linger at a party. A whole herd of curious guests would without doubt corner her, sneaking skilful questions in between mouthfuls of food.
The sadness in her voice made Arthur jerk his stare to her face just as he was occupying himself with placing a napkin on his lap. He sighed.
“I think it’s time to stop pretending, Madeline,” he said, his voice now charged with tension and tenderness all at once. “Stop protecting my feelings, and let’s talk about it. You just can’t let go, that’s what it is. It’s not the fact that they gossip about the happiness of our marriage, or that they ask you personal questions about me.”
Madeline’s heart skipped a beat. She knew what was coming. “It is not what you think, Arthur,” she started feebly, averting her gaze.
“It’s not?” He stared at her nailing her soul, even though she wasn’t looking directly at him. “Can you tell me that every time you stand in front of the mirror you are not asking yourself if she would look like you?”
His words made her blink back tears, but she stood her ground, her back ramrod straight. He wasn’t being cruel, she knew that. It had taken her a long time to realize that his hurt ran as deep as hers, perhaps even more, because he bore her burden on his shoulders on top of his.
“Time is not a good healer, is it?” she said, her voice almost a whisper.
He forced a sad smile past his lips, desperate to quell her distress.
“This is because you never speak about your grief, Madeline. You just hide it, trying to protect me. I think that we are in bad need to talk about it and…”
His words died at the sound of the butler’s voice exploding with profound indignation across the walls. The old servant burst into the dining room behind a short, fat man, holding his chin up and his back straight with impeccable dignity as it was fit for a man of his station.
“Mr Rockwood, you are not permitted to walk in these premises, unless and until I announce your arrival and the Master allows you to enter,” the butler huffed at the unexpected guest.
Madeline’s grief receded into a corner for a moment. William had been their butler for seventeen years. He considered himself part of the family by now, taking more often than not the liberty to make rules of his own and terrorize guests and servants alike as he pleased. This was not the first time when a guest got rewarded with bluster for being a nuisance or for breaching the house rules.
The sound of George Rockwood’s steps crashing against the marble floor ceased abruptly, and the rumble of his heavy breathing filled the room. The investigator clasped his chest with fingers whitened at the knuckles while the other hand jerked outward in a silent prayer to his hosts to wait a little.
A tinge of alarm tickled Madeline at the back of her mind. She stood up and rushed to grab a glass of water then approached her guest with slow, reluctant steps. “It is all right, Mr Rockwood, take your time,” she said.
George Rockwood stared at her with wild, desperate eyes then his gaze roved over her husband’s face. “Mr Wilburn,” he managed to utter. “Mr Wilburn,” he repeated in a harsh gurgle, “I have news for you, sir, Madam… We found Miss Elisabeth!”
The Ed Koch Queensbury Bridge came into view, its Manhattan approach supported on Guastavino tile vaults which formed the elegant ceiling of the Food Emporium Bridge Market and the restaurant Guastavino's. The luxury limo turned smoothly on one of the four lanes that made their way toward Roosevelt Island along the bridge. None of the three passengers in the car paid any attention to the outside world. George Rockwood sat ramrod straight on the edge of the seat, his face contorted by his boss’s visible unease.
Arthur Wilburn was indeed acutely aware that his wife’s breakdown and the complete havoc of emotions that were now shaking him were not matters that should be so openly displayed in front of a petty employee. He leaned back on the seat with reluctance, maintaining the springiness on the arch of his back, at times furtively patting Madeline’s hand. She kept wringing an embroidered handkerchief between clenched fingers.
“How sure are you that the person you found is in fact Elisabeth, Rockwood?” Arthur decided to ask in between his wife’s quiet sobs.
George Rockwood’s tension leaped a notch higher. “There is no doubt about that, sir. We ran three DNA tests in different laboratories. They all returned a ninety nine point ninety nine percent affirmative result,” he replied, his rasped voice echoing his emotion.
“Why ninety nine point ninety nine percent? What about the zero point zero one percent? Does that mean there’s a chance she’s not our child?” Arthur frowned.
“Oh, no, sir, nothing like that. No respectable laboratory will return a hundred percent result. No DNA paternity tests are currently hundred percent accurate. Besides, it’s a matter of liability, a legal thing. Ninety nine point ninety nine percent is the maximum percentage the laboratories can issue. It translates in absolute certainty,” Rockwood said, his tone reassuring. “Then we also had the Police tests confirming our own.”
A soft rapping sound made the men turn toward Madeline’s hands. She peeled her stare from the tear she’d made in the soft fabric.
“Why would Police need a DNA test, Mr Rockwood?” she asked, looking at him confused. “Don’t they have a database where they could have looked her up?”
“That’s the problem, Madam, or our strike of luck if I could say,” Rockwood said, settling into a softer style for the delicate woman who sat across from him. “Miss Elisabeth didn’t come up in any database. Not even a federal search returned any results. Police finished by contacting the Immigration Services, suspecting she was an illegal immigrant. Then they located a live image of her recorded on a patrol’s car dashboard some seven months ago when she…uhmm…” He paused to clear his throat, swallowing hard a couple of times before he picked up the sentence where he’d left it. “When she was caught after stealing from a senior citizen in Beverley Square.”
The collective gasp of horror that poured out of the Wilburns’ throat made George Rockwood want to sink so deep inside his seat until he would be totally engulfed, if that were at all possible.
“Stealing?” Arthur managed to croak. “Are you sure it was Elisabeth they caught?”
“So it seems, sir.” Rockwood nodded. “Police have undeniable proof of it. Apart from the video recordings, Miss Elisabeth’s voice was picked up through the police officer’s shoulder microphone when the offense was committed. Yesterday morning, police paid her a visit at the hospital as soon as they found out that her condition allowed her to be interviewed. They have forensically compared her voice with that recorded seven months ago and came up with a hundred percent accurate match. There’s no doubt whatsoever that it was Miss Elisabeth, I’m afraid.”
“But I don’t understand.” Madeline twisted her handkerchief, her pain palpable. “If she was caught by police seven months ago, why is it that they were not able to identify her back then? Why did they have to wait until she was taken half-dead to Elmhurst Hospital Centre after the hit and run accident?” she asked.
“Madeline.” Arthur touched Madeline’s knee.
She pushed out a pained sob.
Rockwood’s face kept steadily changing from pink toward beet red. “Miss Elisabeth wasn’t actually arrested that day, Madam. She attacked the police officer and was able to escape on foot before reinforcements arrived.”
Arthur stiffened. “Does that mean that my daughter will now be arrested and charged?” he boomed.
“Let’s not worry about that right now, Arthur.” Madeline forgot for a moment her own pain and started rubbing his arm.
He pulled away.
“We will deal with it when the time comes. What matters now is that we have found her, and we have to concentrate on her recovery. And to make her accept us.” Madeline frowned as a brand new torment started slicing at her heart. What if her daughter rejected her? Behind her words her heart contracted. As much as rejection was an undeniable possibility, she failed to understand how her daughter could not reach out to her.
“The doctors say that Miss Elisabeth is likely to fully recover, Madam,” Rockwood reassured her with all the gentleness he could gather. “They kept her in an induced coma to allow the brain swelling to subside, and woke her up when she was out of danger. They told me there will be some time before the amnesia fades away, but she will be most likely able to remember her entire past sooner or later.”
“I would rather her not.” Arthur ground his teeth.
“Arthur!” Madeline uttered.
Arthur wriggled on the backseat, giving himself a little distance from his wife. He shot her a frustrated look. “I can only start to imagine the sort of scum she is. I don’t want to know she is a thief.”
“Arthur!” Madeline repeated, staring at him appalled. “You are talking about our daughter. She was kidnapped when she was only one week old, mon Dieu! Do you think she chose her own fate, what she learnt throughout her life or what she became?”
Arthur’s heart sunk with remorse. “I was not passing any judgment, Madeline.” He reached out to take her hand to his lips then placed a delicate kiss on her knuckles. “I was merely expressing my dismay that something like this could have happened.”
Madeline stared back at him unconvinced. Arthur was rattled by the news and lost. For every dream he had had for his daughter, this was not one of them. He clearly felt like he was sinking in a myriad of emotions so complex he himself couldn’t understand, let alone take control of. Madeline couldn’t push away the feeling that her husband was already determined to set a threshold of expectations high enough to hush up all the affection he genuinely held for his daughter ever since she’d been born. “Then please make sure you show due patience and understanding.” She honeyed her warning with a velvety voice, only her cutting gaze giving away her displeasure.
Arthur returned her stare with a stubborn one, conscious that he couldn’t start a debate about Elisabeth’s education in front of his employee. A sudden realization rippled through him. “Rockwood, did you make sure that Police are not going to arrest her, now that she’s awake and ready to be discharged from the hospital?” he rapid-fired the question while straightening up.
George Rockwood came back from his deep thoughts with a solid startle.
“Yes, sir, I did,” he replied. “I contacted the area precinct and explained the situation. They will not intervene until Miss Elisabeth is released from the hospital. And Miss Elisabeth has been moved in the meantime to a private room. Two bodyguards have been placed outside her door. There is no way that someone could go past them, except for the hospital staff and visitors with security clearance.”
“What visitors?” Arthur looked at him disconcerted.
“Our own medical team, for instance,” Rockwood replied.
A frown deepened on Madeline’s forehead as she listened to the conversation. She suddenly leaned forward to press a button. The privacy screen dropped down halfway, and with it the backs of the heads of two bodyguards and the driver came into view.
“Gérôme, can you go a little faster?” she asked.
“I am afraid I cannot do that, Madame,” the chauffeur replied without turning his head. “There is a police car not far behind us. But we will be at the hospital’s main entrance in less than two minutes,” he reassured her.
With another push of the button the privacy screen went back up. Taut silence engulfed the ample interior of the limo for long seconds until Arthur decided to break it. “What does she know about us? What did you tell her?” He looked at Rockwood.
“I didn’t speak with Miss Elisabeth in person, sir, but a psychologist explained to her the situation,” Rockwood replied. “At this point in time Miss Elisabeth is aware that you are her real parents but that she only lived with you during the first week of her life.”
The limo stopped as his words came to a halt and again Madeline’s heart dropped. Her feet seemed to have a mind of their own as they managed to take her along the corridors, inside an elevator then down some corridors again. Her mind turned numb and barely registered Arthur’s voice at her side.
“Why didn’t the psychologist just tell her that we are her parents, period?” Arthur grumbled.
“We have to tell her the truth, sir,” Rockwood explained patiently. “As I said, Miss Elisabeth’s amnesia is likely to be only a temporary condition. Her memory will come back, and all her past with it. Maybe it’s not my place to say that, but I think that she will need to know that she can trust you. She will remember the places she’s been living at, the people she knows, her family if she has one, her boyfriend and so on. She may even be married for all I know.”
“Nonsense,” Arthur said, menace in his voice.
Rockwood flinched. “My apologies, sir, I didn’t mean to upset you. I just thought that marriage may be a possibility, considering that her kidnappers didn’t know her date of birth. Anyway, no marriage could be binding in the circumstances. Miss Elisabeth doesn’t have an identity and is underage. Here we are, room 31.” He counted off the last of the rooms.
Madeline drew up short next to her husband, her hand a hair’s breadth from the handle.
“How do you think she will react?” She looked at Arthur, her eyes huge showing the pain of the last eighteen years.
“Don’t worry, Madeline, everything will be all right,” Arthur replied a little gruff, having trouble containing his own emotions.
“Madam, there’s nothing to worry about,” Rockwood dared. “Miss Elisabeth is most probably fast asleep.” His gaze skimmed Madeline’s grieving face. He conceded Arthur the same respect. “The doctors decided to keep her sedated,” he elaborated. “You see, since her discussion with the psychologist, Miss Elisabeth became a little agitated, and tried several times to leave the hospital.”
“Mon Dieu!” Madeline covered her face with her hands. “Why would she do such thing?”
Rockwood suddenly found that his necktie was strangling him. A lot.
“Well… She was saying that she didn’t need counselling to recover her memory and get her life back,” he replied.
“Now you tell me?” Madeline’s words were obscured in her hands, hiding from the world, from Rockwood’s words. “So it is clear she does not want us.”
Arthur felt his inner kettle reach the boiling point. They were standing in the middle of a hospital corridor with two bodyguards not too discreetly eyeing them, not to count the curious passers-by. He was having one of the most personal conversations of his life just a breath away from the daughter they had lost eighteen years ago. He should be bursting through the door and to pull his daughter in an endless bear hug, letting the tears flow. But the reality was that he did not know what he was going to find behind that door. His hand locked on the handle, and it took everything he had to smash the door wide open.
When they finally entered the room, they found a bundle wrapped in hospital blankets. It was laying still in the middle of the bed, only a slow rise and fall of the chest giving a hint of life.
Madeline emerged from behind her hands and clenched the top of her bodice with rigid fingers, her knuckles white. She wished for her husband’s arm around her, but that time was long gone.
Arthur was floating in a world that belonged to him alone, his face ravaged by a storm of emotions. Madeline walked a pace behind him, wrapped in her own pain, neither meeting.
The door closed quietly behind them, leaving Rockwood and the guards outside. The couple tiptoed unsteadily toward the bed, their hearts drumming in unison hard enough to wake the dead.
A face came into view at the top end of the bundle, framed by a mass of dirty brown hair that must have accumulated a lifetime of tangles. A hand showed from underneath the blanket just as Elisabeth’s used to poke almost eighteen years ago from silky white, porcelain doll clothes embroidered with the initials EW. Only that this palm was callused, its skin rough and cracked. Black lines of dirt were visible underneath chipped fingernails, some of which bore the unmistakable sign she’d been constantly biting at them.
Madeline smoothed an agonizing cry with her hands and finally let the tears flow, slowly shaking her head with painful awareness. Her daughter had without any doubt suffered the most terrible fate until now, and God only knew if there was anything that could ever wipe it away from her heart and soul. For once, Arthur’s words raised no grounds for contradiction. By the look of it, Lizzie would be most certainly better off if she didn’t recover from her amnesia. Ever.
Silence floated around the room for what seemed to be an eternity, only interrupted by the soft beeping of the monitors. Neither Arthur nor Madeline dared to stir the air, too engrossed in studying the young woman’s features with desperate hunger and avid curiosity. They were hardened with unconcealed tension even as her chest rose and fell steadily, as if she were engulfed in a deep sleep.
“She doesn’t look anything like us,” Arthur dared to whisper after a while.
Madeline shot a side glance at him before returning her gaze to her daughter.
“How can you tell, dear, you have not seen her in eighteen years,” she whispered back. “And half her face is covered by this mass of hair, you cannot even figure out what is underneath.”
A pair of eyes snapped wide open from under the untamed fringe, making them jump back, startled. Elisabeth Wilburn’s pained, time-worn eyes emerged. She snatched the pulse monitor off her finger and reached out to the side table for a pair of glasses with enormous red, thick frames. She put them on, pressing them hard on the bridge on her nose with the pad of her forefinger. From the corner she now inhabited she stared at the couple who were standing in shock next to the bed.
“Who are you, people?” she asked, her voice raspy.
Honey-colored eyes. Madeline’s heart took a delirious leap. “We are…” she started, swallowing hard to force down the lump wedged in her throat.
“You must be Madeline,” Elisabeth cut over her, propping herself on her elbows. “You look like me. Or I look like you. Whatever.”
Arthur forgot for a moment the tumult of his emotion. Sadly, by the look of it, his daughter had only inherited a very shabby copy of Madeline’s features. But as much as this may start affecting Elisabeth once she’d got used to be around her mother, she’ll probably get over it. With time. No one can choose their looks, but they can always bring out their inner beauty.
Elisabeth shifted her gaze from Madeline to her father and looked him up and down, mild curiosity flashing through her features. This man who was standing in front of her had a granite-hard face, unable to display any emotion. He obviously had none. Just a stiff, pompous rat, Elisabeth assessed.
“And you must be Arthur.” She looked him up and down again, her gaze turning insolent all of the sudden. “Omigosh, you have a dinosaur’s name,” she murmured. “Never heard about nobody called like that.”
Arthur looked at her open-mouthed. Elisabeth was clearly traumatized, the child that he knew in his heart would not speak like this to him. His heart pounded painfully in his chest.
“I beg your pardon?” he asked gently, quite sure she’d meant something else.
“Are you deaf or somethin’?” Elisabeth squinted at him through her glasses. “Your name. A mummy could be called that. Not a man these days. Now did you hear what I said, Arthur?” she drawled, continuing her insolent gaze.
Arthur shot a side glance at his wife and took a deep breath. “We are your parents,” he said gently. “You can’t call us by our names. To you, we are ‘mother’ and ‘father’,” he said.
Elisabeth’s mouth fell open a little. “‘Mother’ and ‘father’? I don’t know you, dammit! You just turned up sayin’ you’re my parents, but I ain’t sure about that. And why the hell didn’t you come yesterday, huh? You knew damn well that I was awake.”
“I beg your pardon?” Arthur uttered without realizing that his voice had suddenly turned shrill.
Madeline bit her upper lip with despair. This was not how she had pictured their reunion. “Arthur.” She tugged feebly at the cuff of his jacket. “Our little girl is still traumatized.”
Guilt and profound shame washed over him all at once. His wife was right. His only daughter was sitting in front of him after having gone missing for eighteen years. She needed his support not his condemnation.
“We are your parents. You said it yourself, you look like your mother,” he started afresh, his voice now charged with the years of pain and longing. “We didn’t come yesterday because you had just woken up from the coma and needed time to adjust. It’s not because we didn’t want to. You cannot understand what we’ve been through since we were told that you had been found. You can’t even begin to understand how much we missed you, Elisabeth…”
“Elisabeth?” the messy bundle shot back at him. “Elisabeth? Hell no! That ain’t me. What now? Do I have my face stamped on a damn English coin?”
Arthur stared at her in utter disbelief, his face mirroring the sudden indignation that jolted through his heart. He had just laid his feelings at his daughter’s feet, and she had in response kicked them hard as if she were in the middle of a soccer field, hitting the ball to mercilessly smash it through the goalposts of his heart and soul. He opened his mouth to say something in return.
“Lizzie, this is your name, my dear,” Madeline pinched hard Arthur’s arm while her other hand ran gently along her daughter’s cheek. “You were taken from us when you were too young to remember. I will show you on your birth certificate when we get home.”
“I don’t give a damn about your papers,” Elisabeth countered. “I can’t be named like royalty,” she almost growled at her.
“All right, my dear,” Madeline conceded. “What is your name then?”
A deep frown settled between Elisabeth’s eyebrows. That was when her parents noticed that a big ball of superglue was adorning the glasses right above the bridge of her nose, where the frame must have snapped in two at some point in time.
“Dunno,” she answered. “Can’t remember a damn thing.” Her frown deepened as her gaze wandered restlessly over the blankets. “It’ll come back to me,” she said suddenly with forceful determination. “Definitely not Elisabeth.”
Arthur’s face started borrowing a reddish tint.
“All right, my dear.” Madeline smiled, sending an imperceptible elbow in her husband’s ribs. The message she sent was, once again, crystal clear. Elizabeth needed their support and love not disapproval. “We will talk about that when you feel better. Why don’t you get dressed and we will go home now?”
Elisabeth looked at her a little disconcerted. “Where’s home?” she asked.
“In Manhattan, the Upper Side,” Madeline replied.
“I know no home in the Upper Side,” Elisabeth countered. “I don’t know you either.” Her anger was palpable.
“Oh, for God’s sake, Elisabeth,” Arthur uttered. “You don’t know any other home, or anybody else for that matter. Just come with us.” His bluster turned into a plea to his lost daughter.
“My name isn’t Elisabeth.” Her chin shot up in defiance. “Just get the hell outta here and let me get changed.”
Arthur’s face turned dark like the darkest storm. “Watch your language, Elisabeth.” He forgot himself and raised his voice.
A spasm contorted Elisabeth’s face. She recoiled under the shelter of the blankets, only to straighten up the next moment, defiant and fragile all at once. Her chin was once again tilted up in the air, but unspoken fear lurked in the depths of her eyes. “You ain’t goin’ to tell me how to speak and what to say. I’m not your damn puppet, understand?” she defied. “Let me get changed now.”
“Arthur,” Madeline warned silkily, pulling him by the elbow toward the door. She sent a tentative smile Lizzie’s way and walked out silently. Once outside she waited for her husband to close the door behind him before opening her mouth again. “She needs time, dear.”
And that was all that was spoken between them for a good ten minutes while they stood still a few yards away from George Rockwood and the two bodyguards, their faces hard and unreadable. When the door to room 31 finally opened, they both summoned all their strength and years of relentless practice in the art of pretence to stifle a collective appalled gasp.
The creature who stepped out was no woman. Elisabeth’s hair looked very much like a straw broom stopping a palm below her shoulder blades, the thick, tangled fringe reaching halfway down her nose. Tan man leather boots with the laces undone encased her feet and grey woolen socks peeked from beneath the carelessly rolled back legs of her baggy jeans. She wore a thin faded jacket three sizes too big. Underneath it, a long, baggy T-shirt that bore a peculiar pattern of carnivorous flowers and graffiti style writing. The T-shirt was loosely held around her hips by a thick braided leather belt at the ends of which dangled two silver eagles.
George Rockwood’s eyes popped open in utter disbelief until his training kicked in. “Miss Elisabeth, what a pleasure. I’m George Rockwood. I’m honored to make your acquaintance,” he recited without thinking, staring in fascination at the creature.
Her eyebrows suddenly met in the middle underneath the strawy fringe, making the ball of superglue bulge out for him to see.
“Go to hell and take the ‘Elisabeth’ with you.” Lizzie gave him a revengeful nod. “Damn you people. You all speak like you come from another planet,” she muttered to herself as she stormed past him, only slowing down in front of her parents.
More pain lanced through Arthur. His daughter’s abuse of an employee was a blatant affront to him. Wave after wave of shattering embarrassment racked through his brain, only subsiding when Madeline’s delicate hand reminded him why he was there. The poor girl was his only child, and it wasn’t her fault that she’d been raised in the gutters. He tried to focus on the blessing of having her back. He and Madeline had a lifetime ahead of them to wipe away the harm that had been inflicted on their dear Elisabeth.
As they walked down the hall Arthur began to make plans for helping her in the only way he knew how. He would employ the most prestigious teachers to instruct her in the art of being a young lady. Beginning today with a lesson in dinner etiquette, for she most probably must be hungry, then with a series of intensive teachings commencing tomorrow. She would start piano and singing lessons, French and Latin courses, apart from a very thorough acquaintance with the subtlety of the English language. Dancing as well, as a side dish.
“Are we goin’, or you decided you wanna keep oglin’ me all night long?” the subject of his reverie bit out at him.
Arthur stared at her in silence for a long moment then turned around and closed the distance to his employee in a few brisk steps. “Run another DNA scan, Rockwood.” He leaned forward to whisper to the investigator’s ear. “Then another one. Until you come back with a hundred percent accuracy.”
Elisabeth Wilburn’s palms were stuck to the limo’s side window with the fingers fanned out, and her nose was so squashed on the glass, it looked like a pig’s snout from outside. She appeared to be staring in fascination at the corporate headquarters, expensive condos, art galleries and hotels that lined the side of the road. Yet for her the scenery rolled like a blurred image seen through teary eyes from a bullet train in full motion. She wasn’t crying though. Her thoughts were winding back to all that had happened since she’d woken up yesterday morning on a hospital bed. One moment blinking hard in confusion while everything spun around her in a crazy merry-go-round dance. The next, tearing away the intravenous tubes, monitors cables, creating so much chaos that made half the Trauma Department staff storm in as if she were about to push up daisies.
Then the doctor in charge had had a good look at her, blinding her with a handheld device while staring in the depths of her eyes. Wrestled her to hold her still while he fastened the blood pressure cuff around her upper arm, explaining that it was a medical device which had nothing to do with a restraint like those used by the authorities. Although she had no idea why he would say something like that. Once he was done poking at her he rearranged his disheveled lab coat, and the talking began. The questioning to be more precise, to which she had invariably replied the same couple words just like a parrot. Only that her voice had kept raising like lava in a volcano until it had turned into a hysterical screech. “I dunno!” Indeed, the fact that she couldn’t remember a damn thing about her life scared the shit out of her really bad.
Then the doctor had scratched his head, looked at her as if she were mad, and started talking a foreign language saying stuff like “amnesia, but no parahippocampal or entorhinal damage has been found.” She was sure these were the words, because she made him say them about ten times in a row until they were forever branded onto her mind. Parahippocampal and entorhinal. They sounded fun.
Soon after he left with his herd of nurses, other visitors started pouring in. At first, two police officers from the 70th precinct stopped by. They stared at her with suspicious eyes while they asked her about the same questions the good doctor had already asked. She had just stared back at them, saying that she couldn’t remember a damn thing, but she could reassure them that ‘no parahippocampal or entorhinal damage had been found.’ Whatever that was supposed to be. Then a twittering chick with six inches stilettos and Crazy Fuchsia painted lips shooed them out of the room and started the ‘counseling’. Which was the biggest bullshit Elisabeth had ever heard in her life. She was about to fall asleep when the chick mentioned the Wilburns. Cautiously.
There were some more tests to be run, but chances were that her long lost parents had been found. At first, the words ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ made Elisabeth’s eyes feel a bit watery, then a sudden rush of fury blinded her. Who the hell were those people, barging in her life to claim her, when she definitely had a life of her own? Too bad she couldn’t remember it right now, but it will all come back to her, and she would bet her damn ass that someone waited for her to return. A mother, a father, a lover. Or maybe no one? Still, she will wake up to a life she’d lived without Wilburns in it. How the hell could she call them ‘mom’ and ‘dad’ when she was… How old was she? Damn! She couldn’t even remember her name, and the chatterbox who was sitting in front of her was talking nineteen to the dozen, making her head spin.
The day had gone by, with no sign of the Wilburns. Oddly, she was hurt by this. So much for eager parents, she’d thought bitterly. Five times she’d tried to tiptoe past the hospital’s doors, five times she’d failed miserably. Of course, she was still wearing a hospital gown and had to walk around fisting together its folds at her butt, somehow looking as if she was in dire need to go to relieve herself and just couldn’t hold it. Security had finished by patrolling the corridor in front of her door until the sedatives kicked in. It had been fun after all, because she got to kick one of them in the groin.
The next day she had made another break for freedom but didn’t even reach the elevator’s door. Not by herself, anyway. She had been ensconced in one of the private rooms. It was there she’d discovered a universal truth; no matter where you were, the hospital food still sucked. Then the visitors had started to pour in once more. People from some DNA labs, sticking needles in her and draining blood. Then sedatives again.
She had woken up to the sight of two strange faces slightly leaning over her, groggily realizing that one of them mirrored her own. It was just that her own features were a pallid, shaggy copy of the enchanting beauty standing in front of her, tears streaming down her silky cheeks. So the Wilburns had finally decided to turn up.
Madeline seemed all right, although she was too damn weepy. The man though, Arthur the dinosaur, was a big pompous rat with an attitude, and Lizzie had taken so much pleasure in stringing him, although guilt had poked at her when she’d noticed Madeline’s sorrow. The woman seemed genuinely affected by this whole reunion thing and was getting the shock of her life both from seeing her arrogant husband behave like a stupid ass and from meeting her long missing daughter.
Elisabeth… Bah! She hated it. She’d wipe her butt with this damn name and flush it down the toilet. Her real name will come back to her soon enough. Lizzie will do in the meantime. Elisabeth! Only a puffed-up turkey like Arthur could think to call her that.
And suddenly, Lizzie couldn’t quite remember why she had recoiled in fear at the thunder of his voice back at the hospital. There was an agitation that had rattled her in lingering waves, settling stubbornly at the back of her mind. It must be the evil that nestled within the damn man.
“We are home.” Madeline’s crystalline voice claimed her attention.
Lizzie peeled her nose from the window to look out the open door at the chauffeur who stood stiff like a stick, staring somewhere ahead in the distance with a blank, unblinking gaze. She stepped out on the footpath, gawking at the luxurious apartment building that rose in front of her.
“I suppose you are hungry, my dear.” Madeline showed her inside the lobby with an elegant wave of her hand. “William will see that you have something to eat before you go to bed. As for your attire, we did not know your size, so we bought quite a few clothes. They are all stored in the walk-in-robe in your quarters,” she said.
“Huh?” Lizzie stared at her open-mouthed. “Don’t you people know English? What’s this? A disease or somethin’? It’s happenin’ to everybody, to the damn doctor too. What the hell is ‘attire’? And how can you store clothes in some damn coins?” she asked, following close behind Madeline inside the elevator.
“Oh, I am sorry, my dear.” Madeline patted her arm, stealing a furtive glance at Arthur’s clenched jaws. “We tend to use a snobbish vocabulary. Attire means clothes, and quarters can also have a different meaning than coins. Quarters also signify an accommodation such as an apartment, or a suite,” she explained. “In other words, what I wanted to say is that you will find quite a few clothes in your apartment, in your walk-in-robe.”
“So, I don’t live with you two?” Lizzie looked at her disconcerted.
“Of course you do,” Madeline replied.
A frustrated sigh escaped Lizzie’s lips as she rolled her eyes with indolence. “What’s wrong with you people?” she exclaimed. “I have my own damn apartment but I live with you. Can you make up your mind?”
Madeline looked at her daughter, pained about the life that she appeared to have lived and the world that she was coming from. She wanted to hug her, hold her until she found her feet. She knew however that Elisabeth would not like that.
The elevator’s door slid open and the breathtaking splendor of the Louis XV legacy that filled the huge open plan of the first floor of the condo came into sight. No piece of the high-style furniture had escaped the lofty look of the ebony carved in shallow relief, fanciful patterns of tortoiseshell and ivory inlaid on layers of veneer. In his thirst for authenticity, Arthur had also made sure that the taste for secrecy that pervaded society in the early 1700’s was incorporated in this resplendent décor. He had purchased articles of furniture that included hiding places which opened with squeaky springs.
“Holly crap,” Lizzie uttered. “You live in a damn museum.”
Arthur felt his temples drum in a savage rhythm. He bit his tongue, hard, tasting blood, knowing that Madeline would never forgive him if he alienated their daughter. “Watch your language, young lady,” he warned, trying to keep his voice down. Once again, his tone came out a shrill.
With the corner of her eye, Madeline saw her daughter flinch as if Arthur’s words had snapped across her skin like a whip. She turned to look at her in disbelief, only to see a little chin tipped up in defiance, and furious amber eyes staring from behind huge red-framed glasses that poked from underneath the untamed fringe.
“Come with me, my dear. The table is set.” Madeline sent her husband a dark stare and gently pulled Lizzie by the elbow.
“Good evening, Madam, sir.” the butler appeared out of nowhere, muting the commotion. He briefly looked the newcomer up and down with impassible eyes, not flinching or even blinking at her appearance. Madeline blessed him silently.
William opened his mouth again to speak, bowing slightly. “Welcome home, Miss Elisab…”
“Don’t you dare to say that name.” Lizzie frowned. “I had enough of this shit. My name isn’t Elisabeth. Get it?” She took two steps toward William, staring viciously at him. “You can call me Lizzie till I remember my name.”
“I shall do that, Miss Lizzie.” The butler bowed again, his face unreadable.
“Didn’t you hear me, man? Are you deaf or somethin’?” Lizzie took another step forward. “It’s Lizzie. Where did the ‘Miss’ come from, huh?”
“My apologies, Miss, but this is the house protocol,” William replied.
She racked a furious hand through her fringe and sighed heavily. “Damn if I can understand you, people. Where the hell is that food you were talkin’ about? I'm so hungry I could eat a scabby horse.”
“This way, Miss.” William waved gracefully.
She shook her head in disbelief and followed him, not once looking back to see if her parents cared to join her.
There was no scabby horse planted on the middle of the Louis XV dinner table. William had made sure though that the newest member of the family would have a meal worthy of the King of France and of Navarre who had lent his name to the noble furniture on which Lizzie was now resting her elbows. As the tense silence between the trio stretched forward, Lizzie finally reached out and tore the hind leg of a roasted piglet with her bare hands. She devoured it in less than three minutes, leaving a thick coat of grease around her mouth and on her cheeks. She wiped it off with the sleeve of her jacket and went on to attack the hors d’oeuvre, moaning at times with profound satisfaction, eyes half closed, as if this was going to be her last meal.
Arthur sat across from her as if he were paralyzed. His incredulous gaze continuously shifted from the sides of her face that looked as full and deformed as a hamster’s cheek pouches to the greasy fingerprints that she kept smudging on crystal glass and on the satin cloth that covered the table. Madeline sat next to him, the blush on her cheeks steadily turning to crimson.
Lizzie stood up out of the blue, her mouth still full with piglet crackling mixed with a bite of strawberry and cream tart. “Omigosh, that was dynamite,” she mumbled almost unintelligibly, squeezing out a soft belch. “Where’s my ‘quarters’?” she asked, heading for the door.
“That is it, my girl, I have had quite enough and so has your mother.” Arthur stood up. He turned to look briefly at Madeline who stared at him with anger. He shrugged it off. “Since we picked you up you have been rude, ungrateful and ill-mannered. Please go to your room and think about it.”
Madeline looked at him, her mouth dropped in shock. Her hurt gaze washed over him for long moments before she turned towards Elisabeth. “I will show you to your quarters,” she said, her voice begging for forgiveness on behalf of her rude husband.
Lizzie’s apartment was on the third floor of the condo, just as hers and Arthur’s, but right now they weren’t going to use the elevator. Madeline relished the chance of being alone with her strange daughter for a couple of minutes before having to go through the embarrassing task of showing her once again a foreign territory. In all fairness, Lizzie’s apartment looked nothing short of the museum she’d earlier talked about.
Madeline started toward the staircase with small steps. She stopped at the bottom of the stairs, her hand clenched on the lacquered balustrade, a deep frown starting to form in between her eyebrows. “Lizzie, I just wanted to tell you how much…” Her words died on her lips as she barely had time to pick up her skirts and almost run up the stairs behind her daughter. Lizzie was already leaping toward the top floor skipping two steps at the time.
“What?” Lizzie drew up short on the landing of the third floor and turned around, almost colliding with Madeline. She caught her mother by the arms just as she was about to tumble backwards down the stairs. Her gaze briefly met that of the woman who was now standing in front of her, panting hard with exhaustion, exhaustion dwelling in the depths of her eyes too, but of a different kind. Madeline was emotionally drained.
“Come,” Madeline squeezed the words out. “I will show you your apartment.” She stopped in front of huge double doors, turning to point to others that mirrored them across the hall. “There is Arthur’s apartment and mine.”
Lizzie just nodded and entered her suite. She skimmed the living room and the study with indifferent eyes as she strolled toward the majestic bedroom at the end of a long corridor. A four-posted, queen-sized bed stood in the middle, covered with satiny bed sheets and a dozen pillows.
“Here is your walk-in-robe, my dear,” Madeline called from behind.
Lizzie closed the distance to her mother in a few unhurried steps and peeked through the door. “Omigosh.” Her mouth opened as she stared over her mother’s shoulder at the large room. The walls were lined with racks full of dresses, coats and gowns, shelves filled with shoes and all sorts of accessories. They were all so elegant and expensive, she could swear she’d never seen anything like this in her entire life. For the first time since she had met her parents she was speechless.
“Damn! This is five times bigger than my…” she said without thinking then stopped. Her brain froze. A faint image of a closet-sized bedroom had just flashed through her mind for the briefest time. She gasped in shock and bewilderment, a part of her struggling to dig deeper to search for it again.
Madeline flinched. “Bigger than what, my dear?” she asked shakily, catching the fleeting look on her daughter’s face.
“I…I dunno.” Lizzie frowned. “I thought I remembered somethin’.” Her gaze flew back at the racks of garments and her face contorted with sudden fury. “What the hell do you want me to do with these clothes? I’m not a damn porcelain doll,” she lashed out.
Madeline’s eyes clouded, unsure of what had just happened. Then the realization dawned on her.
“It is all right, my dear. You do not have to wear them if you do not like them. I will see that they are removed in the morning and you will go shopping for what pleases you. It is that all right?”
The soft tone of her voice made Lizzie’s heart sink a little. “Yeah.” She nodded. “I’m gonna go sleep now,” she sent out the blunt invitation.
Madeline stood there in indecision, wringing her hands without thinking. “Lizzie,” she commenced softly, “I do not expect you to care for me and your father any time soon, all the more when your memory will be fully recovered. But I want you to know that ever since…” She stopped to swallow hard, blinking a few times to push back the tears. “Ever since you were kidnapped, we never lost hope. You have been in our hearts day in, day out. I am sure it is hard for you to understand what losing a child means to a parent, but I can only hope that someday you will be able to share our love for you. And Arthur… Arthur is not as bad as he seems. He is arrogant, but inside he is a good man and he loves you just as much as I do. It is just that he needs time too to adjust to who you are, because…” She hesitated a little over her choice of words. “What happened so far goes against the way he wanted to bring you up. He wanted you to be a princess, because of his own upbringing.” She blinked again a few times and turned away, her shoulders drooping. “Good night,” she murmured. Finally she shrugged a little and backed out of the door.
Lizzie followed her with her gaze, another deep frown settling between her brows. That woman was a monument to kindness and inner beauty. Now, what the hell was she going to do with her? She couldn’t make Madeline suffer, like she was itching to do with her pompous husband. She had deliberately behaved like a pig at the dinner table, just to see him puke in disgust. Yet it was harder and harder for her, only hours into their encounter, to do shocking things just for the sake of annoying him, as it was hurting Madeline as well. How the hell was she going to manage this damn situation? Pull the bastard away and give him a heart attack? She knew damn well it wasn’t going to happen. Madeline will always be around like an overprotective hen. Lizzie shrugged. It had been a long two days and there was more to come. She’d think about new strategies tomorrow.
Madeline descended the stairs with slow, quiet steps, at times wiping her eyes with the pads of her hands. Her back was straight and her chin up when she entered the dining room.
Arthur was standing near the mantelshelf, his face hard as steel, his hands linked behind his back. “Did she go to bed?” His loud voice rose as soon as he saw his wife walk through the door.
“Yes,” Madeline said, her gaze hurt and condemning.
“At least she will look presentable tomorrow, not like a beast.”
She took a few steps toward the window and remained standing there for a long time without speaking.
“I am afraid you will be disappointed,” she said after a while. “All the clothes we bought will go to charities tomorrow. She will not wear any of them. It is not her style. She will do her own shopping.”
“I beg your pardon?” Arthur’s voice boomed from behind.
Madeline whirled on her heels, turning to face him. “You heard me, Arthur. She will not wear any of them. Not even for the night.”
His face turned beet red under the spell of his fury. “Are you saying that she will sleep in that outrageous attire?” he spat at his wife.
“She will wake up stinking like a sewage rat. No, I will not I allow it. Not my daughter. Not ever.”
“You will let her do as she wishes, Arthur. She is your daughter, not an employee, not a company. You cannot run her.” Madeline’s voice thundered over his for the first time in their married life. “She is your daughter. You cannot make her what she is not. Give her time. There is no shame here in this, Arthur, only in your behavior.”
Madeline’s voice choked on the explosion of tears that started flowing down her cheeks in heavy streams. She suddenly found herself cocooned in his arms, her face nestled in the crook of his neck while he restlessly threaded his fingers through her hair.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured against her temple. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean it to happen this way. I suppose I expected a different Elisabeth when the news came in. The Elisabeth I dreamt of so many years. But I love her with all my heart, with all her imperfections. It is just that it will be very hard for me to adjust if she keeps behaving like she did today.” He stopped to kiss the top of Madeline’s head. “I will try to control my outbursts, to be calmer in her presence.” His arms kept rocking her gently.
Madeline pulled away after a long while and looked up at him, a feeble smile shying on her lips. “I am going upstairs to see if she is all right. I will be back in a couple of minutes,” she said.
Lizzie’s apartment was engulfed in darkness, but as Madeline made her way toward the bedroom a faint light shone from within splashing on the corridor’s carpet. She tiptoed her way to the door and peeked in. The bed was empty and a small lamp was lit on a bedside table. Her heart skipped a beat. Maybe the girl had tried to escape out the window? But there was no way she could reach the ground floor from that height.
Madeline stepped inside the bedroom and decided to check the bathroom and the walk-in-robe, although they both had the lights switched off. A lump of tenderness wedged at the back of her throat when she almost stumbled on the human bundle that lay on the carpet next to the bed, her head resting on a rolled blanket, another blanket covering her. She crouched down in silence and gently pushed away the mass of hair that covered Lizzie’s face, letting her fingers run down her cheek in a tender caress.
A hand of steel bolted through the air and clenched around her neck, squeezing as hard as a vise. Wide, merciless eyes as cold as ice met her panicked gaze for a moment. Then Lizzie let go and pushed a menacing growl through clenched teeth.
“What the hell? Don’t you ever sneak up on me again. Do you understand?” Lizzie snarled.
Madeline nodded, gasping for air. “I am sorry,” she managed to utter after a few moments. “I just wanted to make sure you are all right. Why are you not sleeping in your bed?”
Lizzie let herself fall back on the blanket. “It’s too damn soft, it feels like it’s gonna eat me up.”
“Do not worry, my dear, we will get you a firm mattress tomorrow,” Madeline said, reaching out to caress her daughter’s face once more. The same hand that had strangled her before wrapped around her wrist like a steely jaw. She pulled her arm back as if stung by a wasp. “I am sorry,” she whispered. “Have a good night.”
The soft sound of Madeline’s sobs wafted into Lizzie’s ears. She strained to listen to her mother’s footsteps growing fainter as Madeline rushed away along the corridor.
“Here is the money, my dear.” Madeline pushed a fat pile of notes into Lizzie’s hand. “Are you sure you do not want me to come with you?”
“Nah.” Lizzie wrinkled her nose, squinting at the elevator’s buttons through her fringe. “I’m not a two-year old.”
“So, where do you want to go?” Madeline inquired. “There are some reputable shops not far from here on Madison Avenue. I can instruct your chauffeur to take you there.”
The doors of the elevator opened in the lobby. Lizzie strode toward the exit with brisk steps without paying attention at what her mother was saying.
“I’m gonna go to Queens. Junction Boulevard.” She stepped on the footpath and drew up short, scratching the top of her head. “How the hell do I know about that?” she muttered.
“Your car is here, Lizzie. Gérôme will take you where you wish to go.”
Madeline moved purposefully toward the chauffeur who was standing stiff next to the open backdoor. “Gérôme, take Miss Wilburn to Junction Boulevard in Queens,” she ordered him. “And make sure you do not let her out of your sight, do you understand?”
“Yes, Madame!” he bowed slightly and closed the door behind Lizzie.
Junction Boulevard in Queens? Madeline worried as she watched the limo pull off from the curb. Where had that come from? Had Lizzie started recovering her memory? She walked back inside shaking her head, a pang of alarm shooting through her.
The limo once again crossed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, leaving behind Manhattan’s majestic skyline. Then the road got sandwiched between Halal markets, a plethora of Russian grocery, British import stores and designer shops that offered products at half the usual price. Amongst them, adding to the cosmopolitan panorama, were too many Asian restaurants to count.
The limo stopped on the side of the boulevard and Lizzie bolted out the door before the chauffeur got a chance to get out. She began a leisurely walk along the footpath, twisting her head left and right to stare in fascination at the colorful mass of people who carelessly brushed past her, speaking in every language except English. An overcrowded, foul-smelling Thai restaurant made her wrinkle her nose as she walked past its open doors.
“Yo, Vanilla,” a Dominican guy smirked at her from a take-away shop’s door.
She turned her head in surprise, wondering why the words sounded so familiar. She didn’t know the man’s face. Her gaze briefly swept over the shop’s window. She caught the reflection of two tall, solid men dressed in elegant business suits who were walking a couple of yards behind her. A rush of panic flushed through her without warning. But why would she panic at all? Oh, yeah. Police was after her ass for something they said happened before a damn car hit her and almost cracked her head in half. She hastened her steps, breathing hard, at times stealing furtive glances in every clean shop window she could find. There weren’t that many, but the thumping of feet behind her didn’t leave any doubt that the macho guys were on her tail.
A group of Koreans crossed the boulevard, unwilling to wait for the light to turn green. She took a deep breath and bolted forward, shouldering her way through them, oblivious to the swearing that trailed behind her.
“You, idiot.” An angry voice exploded as tires screeched in the middle of the boulevard and a car’s bumper brushed her leg.
“God dammit,” Lizzie yelled over her shoulder. “Pay attention when you drive, you stupid maniac!”
The thumping of feet behind her got louder, gaining on her as she ran for her life, blindly winding her way through the crowd.
She heard someone call from behind. “Miss, please stop.”
“The hell I will!” She panted.
Her feet started crashing faster on the hard concrete of the footpath. A savage drumming in her chest sent sharp shots of pain right up through her neck and brain and made her knees wobble. Faster, dammit! She poured the furious command into her mind as she turned into a side lane on her left. Huge trash bins lined the alley, waste overflowing from underneath their half open lids. The foul stench made her gag. Or maybe it was that vise that seemed to squeeze her chest, digging into it with a thousand claws.
The sight of a tall brick wall that blocked the end of the lane made her knees buckle. She wasn’t going to make it. It was way too high. And the thumping of feet was right behind her. Lizzie almost felt the men’s breath burning down her neck. She turned around without warning and with a big thrust planted the tip of her boot in the closest man’s groin. He crouched to the ground moaning in pain, his hands clutched around his hurt parts.
“Don’t you dare come near me, you bastard, or I’ll break your damn neck,” she spat the words out, raising her fists in the air.
The second man drew up short less than a yard away from her.
Then the claws that were digging at her chest started taking slice after slice off her heart. She propped her back against the nearest wall and slid down until she hit the ground, her knees drawn up and her forehead resting on them. Voices echoed somewhere in the distance, or maybe right next to her, but it didn’t really matter. She had to stop the claws from tearing her apart.
“Are you all right, Miss?”
She finally registered what was said to her.
“Are you all right?” Another voice echoed the first one.
Lizzie raised her head wearily and looked up, fixing her hazy gaze on one of the faces that leaned over her. “What the hell do you want from me? Leave me alone. I done nothin’ to nobody,” she whispered.
“Oh, no, Miss, you got it all wrong.” One of the men shook his hand vehemently under her nose, staring at her appalled. “We are your bodyguards.”
The pounding inside her chest started to subside slowly but surely. “Bodyguards?” she snorted. “Why the hell do I need bodyguards for? What'd I do wrong, huh?”
The men looked at each other disconcerted. “You did nothing wrong, Miss,” one of them replied. “We are employed to protect you. The entire Wilburn family travels around with bodyguards. It’s the house rule.”
“The hell with their stupid house rules,” Lizzie muttered. ”They live in a damn tomb, they need babysitters to follow them around and servants to wipe their asses”.
The men’s lips started to twitch. “We are sorry if our presence inconveniences you, Miss, but we have to do our duty,” one of them said.
She raked a hand through her fringe. “Stop Miss-ing me. Call me Lizzie. Until I remember my real name.”
“I’m afraid we can’t do that, Miss. House protocol.”
“Oh, the hell with the house protocol,” she snapped. “If you want to have a damn life while you follow me around, you’ll call me Lizzie. Capish?”
They nodded in unison, fighting hard the urge to burst into peals of laughter.
“Hey, what's your name there?” she asked, holding out her hands so that they could pull her up to her feet.
“And I’m Roy.”
She shifted her gaze from one to another. “You all right, Ben?” she tipped her chin down to his groin.
He shrugged a little. “I guess I’ll still be able to have kids someday, Miss. I mean, Lizzie. You have great reflexes.” He nodded with appreciation.
She landed a friendly slap on his shoulder. “Glad you’re okay. Let’s spend some cash then.”
Three and a half hours later the trunk of the limousine was full with dubious looking bags filled with heaps of questionable things. Heavy male boots and fake leather jackets, faded jeans and checkered shirts, graffiti-style printed T-shirts and a dozen pairs of fingerless gloves, all chosen with the cheerful approval of Roy and Ben, had eaten up half of Madeline’s money.
“We’re done.” Lizzie rubbed her hands in content and threw herself on the backseat of the limo, winking at Gérôme.
The privacy screen stayed down all the way back to Manhattan. She kept telling jokes until the chauffeur threatened to hit the first incoming car head on; he couldn’t see clearly as her jokes were causing blinding tears.
“We are home, Lizzie.” Gérôme voice turned serious all of the sudden. “Now you have to become ‘Miss’ again until our next getaway. It has been a pleasure.” He smiled over his shoulder before rushing to get off to open her door.
“Thanks, guys,” she said and slipped out of the limo.
“You there! Don’t move! You’re under arrest!”
Lizzie’s gaze snapped up to meet that of a policeman who stood only two yards away, his hand clenched on the grip of his gun. Another policeman was standing at his side, just as menacing.
She took a step back and hit the door of the limousine. Before she knew it the policeman had grabbed her shoulders, turned her around and twisted her hands behind her back.
She took a step back and hit the door of the limousine. Before she knew it the policeman had grabbed her shoulders, turned her around and twisted her hands behind her back.
“Hey! Let her go.” Ben’s threatening voice resounded somewhere at her side. She couldn’t see him, the policeman’s elbow was pressing her head down on the roof of the limo.
“You two, back away,” the other policeman yelled.
She suddenly started to struggle, blindly dropping down the sole of her boot hoping to crush the policeman’s foot. “Let go of me, you asshole,” she shrieked.
“Why are you arresting her for?” Ben shouted from behind.
“You are arrested for theft on October 12th 2010 in Beverley Square and for assaulting a police officer and causing him serious bodily harm. Do you know your Miranda rights?” the policeman who was holding her asked.
She tried to thrust her head back to hit him hard in the face.
Roy ran around the limo on the side across from her and almost threw himself over the roof, vehemently shaking his extended hands. “Lizzie, listen to me. Don’t fight him. Because if you do, this is going to turn really bad. Be good and we’ll get you out of there in a couple of hours. I swear.”
She forced her chin up to stare at him with wild eyes. “What the hell are Miranda rights?” she shouted.
“You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be held against you in a court of law. You have the right to speak to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you. Do you understand these rights as they have been said to you?” the policeman recited, forcing handcuffs around her wrists.
The claw started clenching and digging again in her chest, this time grasping her heart and draining blood. At least that was how it felt.
“912 to Command. We’ve got the 10-15. Returning to base. Over.” The voice of the policeman resounded next to her ear, reciting into his shoulder microphone.
“Gotcha, 912. Over and out.” Another voice wafted through a radio.
Two hands of steel wrapped around her upper arms and dragged her toward a police car that was parked behind the limo.
“Hey, don’t be rough with her, you bastards,” Roy yelled from behind. “We are going to lodge a complaint against you.”
“Watch your mouth, muscle head,” one of the policemen spat over his shoulder.
The same hands shoved her on the backseat of the police car and the door shut closed with a bang. Then her heart skipped a beat. And another one. The whole claw squeezing thing was doing it. Then everything went black.
The stale air in the courtroom was saturated with an unfortunate mix of odors of sweat, tobacco and cheap perfume. Arthur looked up for the air conditioning vents. They were definitely there. Not working though, he decided. Or maybe they were, but whoever had designed this room probably never thought that it would ever have to house such an impressive number of people at the same time. Whether they were crooks, lawyers or good citizens, he couldn’t tell. Maybe they were just gapers who had nothing else to do with their days. One thing was sure though: whatever their status, they were here to stay throughout the proceedings and hear every word that was going to be said by his daughter’s lawyers.
True to her bodyguards’ word, Lizzie had been released on bail within two hours of her arrest and Arthur had secured an urgent hearing on Friday, five days later. He had the best team of lawyers in town; he didn’t need more time to prepare.
The judge was sitting in his chair, looking foreboding with the weight of the office he bore. He appeared oblivious to the heat, stench and all the wriggling around the room, long used to his surroundings.
“Mr. Bradley,” he called with a throaty voice, leisurely perusing the documents spread in front of him.
The Prosecutor stood up slowly. “Your Honor,” he greeted.
The judge spent another minute looking at the papers. “Mr. Bradley.” He suddenly looked up. “I understand from the medical evidence before me and from the Defendant’s submission that the Defendant is amnesic and has no recollection whatsoever of the events she is accused of,” he said.
“That’s correct, your Honor.” The Prosecutor nodded his acknowledgment.
“Then why are you wasting my time with this case?” The judge stared, his gaze severe as he gazed at the offending prosecutor over the rim of his glasses.
“I beg your pardon, your Honor?” Bradley looked at him open-mouthed.
“Do you expect me to find Miss Wilburn guilty of a felony she cannot recall and is therefore unable to provide an account of?” The judge’s gaze narrowed.
The Prosecutor felt the stutter coming. “No... No, your Honor. But the evidence shows that the Defendant’s medical condition is most likely of temporary nature. I will therefore seek an adjournment of the hearing until such time she is fit to give testimony,” he said.
The judge raised his eyebrows. “Do you mean, you seek an unspecified adjournment in the hope that the Defendant’s condition will improve?” he asked. “Don’t even think about it.” He raised his hand just as the Prosecutor opened his mouth to reply. “You either have a case or you don’t have one. Miss Wilburn.” He turned toward Lizzie. “Step forward to the witness box, please.” His fingers danced impatiently back and forth in the air as he spoke.
“Go on,” Madeline whispered in Lizzie’s ear. “And remember what I said. Be polite with him.”
The thumping of Lizzie’s boots on the wooden floor made a few gapers rise off their seats to take a better look at her attire.
The judge stared at her with an unreadable gaze, only a twitch in his jaw giving away his displeasure. “Miss Wilburn, I will ask you a few questions, but before that you will have to be sworn in,” he explained.
Lizzie shrugged a little. She’d heard the judge say that the prosecution had no case against her and had for a moment been happy. Then again, that crashed when she realized that the man was bothering her, when he knew damn well she knew nothing about what had happened. Her frosty, defiant gaze left no room for misunderstanding as she made her way to the witnesses’ bench. She looked back at her parents then fixed the judge with a steady glare, her annoyance almost palpable.
A short, fat clerk swiftly moved toward the witness box and cleared his throat. “Do you swear by Almighty God that the evidence you shall give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
“No way,” Lizzie exclaimed.
“I beg your pardon?” the judge asked bewildered.
“I don’t swear on anythin’. Ever.” She raised a defiant chin.
“All right, Miss Wilburn, as you wish,” the judge grumbled.
The clerk started again. “Do you solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that the evidence you shall give will be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
“I guess…yeah, like you said.” Lizzie shrugged.
The clerk cleared his throat. “You need to say ‘I do’,” he prompted.
“Our daughter is an atheist. I can’t believe it” Arthur stared at Lizzie appalled.
“I do not think so, dear.” Madeline whispered, shaking her head. “I think she has a stronger sense of morality than the Bible itself.”
“What do you mean?”
“If you are swearing on the Bible, you are effectively swearing on everything God said. Yet the Bible does not forbid it. But the New Testament is very clear about one thing: Christians should not swear. Not to God, not on the Bible or on anything else.”
“Where did you read that?” Arthur looked at her bewildered.
“The Book of James. It says: ‘But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea: and your nay, nay: lest ye fall into condemnation,’” Madeline recited quietly, her gaze following her daughter’s moves.
“But this is a court of law, it’s different,” Arthur persisted stubbornly.
“Would you swear on the Bible if you had to give evidence in Court?” Madeline glanced at him.
“Of course I would.” He nodded.
“Then you would be a hypocrite, my dear,” she said softly, leaving him open-mouthed.
The judge cleared his throat noisily, making them flinch.
“All right, Miss Wilburn.” The judge looked at Lizzie. “Could you please explain your current condition? What do you remember from your past?”
“Not a damn thing.” Lizzie bobbed her shoulders in a sincere shrug.
“Miss Wilburn,” the judge looked severe, “profanity language is not permitted in this court. You need to understand that by law you must respect this institution and its members, including myself. It’s that clear?” he asked.
“What?” Lizzie asked.
“You cannot swear in this courtroom. Is that clear?”
“Damn clear,” Lizzie nodded. She was definitely going to get some fun out of this shitty situation, she decided, smiling inwardly. The judge was soon going to swallow his tongue, unless he conceded that there was no need to pester her.
The sound of the gavel hitting the wooden block reverberated around the courtroom as the judge tried to contain the peals of laughter that exploded across the walls in lingering waves.
“Miss Wilburn,” the judge uttered. “Have you heard a word of what I said?”
Lizzie cocked an eyebrow. “You bet,” she answered.
“Then you must have understood that you are under an obligation to treat this court with due respect. Would you kindly confirm that?” he pressed.
She nodded again.
“Say it out loud, Miss Wilburn, for the record,” the judge pressed.
“How many times do I have to say the damn thing?” Lizzie rolled her eyes mockingly. “I understand. I have to respect you. I didn’t say I wouldn’, damn it. Just ask me the questions and let me get outta here.”
The judge took a slow, deep breath. “Miss Wilburn, do you know what ‘contempt’ means?” he asked.
“No idea.” Lizzie shrugged.
“Then let me explain it to you,” he snapped. “It means open disrespect for the court. Precisely what I was talking about. So you better watch your language. This is the first warning. I don’t like counting too much.”
“Oh, mon Dieu!” Madeline exclaimed.
Lizzie nodded, stealing a quick glance at her mother. A pang of guilt shot through her mind, making her waver. She pushed it away with reluctant stubbornness, annoyed at her own reaction.
“All right then. Let’s continue.” The judge cleared his throat. “Are you able to recognize any of the two persons who are sitting on the right of the Prosecutor?”
Lizzie stared at the old man and at the police officer who in turn glared at her as if they wanted to shred her to pieces. “Nope.” She shook her head, sending the two men an almost imperceptible wink. “Who the hell are they?”
“Miss Wilburn, this is the second warning. Order! Order!” the judge yelled, hitting the wooden block with the gavel in an attempt to bring the roaring courtroom to silence.
Color drained from Madeline’s face.
The Prosecutor jumped to his feet and took a few steps forward. “Your Honor, if I may. I would like to question the Defendant,” he said.
“Go ahead, Mr. Bradley,” the judge waved his hand.
Bradley turned toward the witness box.
“Miss Wilburn, you stated you don’t know any of the two male persons who are sitting over there.” He turned to point toward the old man and the police officer. “Isn’t that the case that you are actually using your medical condition to shield yourself from any…”
“Objection, Your Honor,” Lizzie’s lawyer bolted up. “Counsel assumes facts not in evidence.”
“Sustained,” the judge agreed.
Lizzie kept shifting her gaze from one to another. “I don’t know any of those people,” she drawled. “I don’t know him either,” she pointed lazily toward the Prosecutor. “He better watch his ass for draggin’ me in here. I’ve done nothin’ wrong to nobody. I know nothin’ about stealin’ somethin’ or kickin’ some cop’s ass. Do you hear me?” She fully turned toward Bradley.
This time complete silence engulfed the courtroom, and Arthur could finally hear the cool air hissing out of the vents far above his head. There would be no way that this would escape the press. It would be all over New York by this evening.
The judge pushed his glasses down to the tip of his nose and looked at the Prosecutor. “The Prosecution’s application is hereby dismissed. The State is to pay the Defendant’s costs as agreed or assessed,” he recited. “Miss Wilburn is found guilty of contempt of the court. Her punitive sanction is a three days imprisonment in Rikers Island jail complex, effective at the conclusion of these proceedings if the prison’s intake capabilities so allow, if not at the earliest possible date.” The gavel hit the wooden block once more with unquestionable finality.
Madeline stood up, shifted her gaze from the judge to her daughter, and hit the floor before her husband could catch her.
The Honey-Soy Broiled Salmon had turned into a muddy puree in the gold-rimmed porcelain plate. Madeline stopped squashing it and placed the fork down. Two days now since Lizzie had been back from Rikers Island jail, and she hadn’t come down from her apartment, not even once. She was most probably traumatized down to the very bottom of her poor little soul, even though she had spent only seven hours in that horrible place, having been released early due to the never ending issue of jail overcrowding.
The cook was receiving special orders about five times a day, which meant that at least she was eating well. Other than that, no one was allowed to enter her apartment. A big poster clumsily written was stuck on one of the double doors: ‘DO NOT ENTER! Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.’ Although Lizzie had eventually summoned her two bodyguards and hadn’t shot them. They had remained locked in her suite for hours every day, invariably replying to Arthur’s irritated inquiry that Miss Elisabeth wanted them upstairs because she felt unsafe.
“This is preposterous,” Arthur thundered. “It is outrageous and improper for a young woman to hide in her quarters with two men.”
Now Madeline massaged her forehead with the tips of her fingers, feeling the tingle of an approaching migraine. “You heard what they said, dear.” She pushed out a sigh. “The poor girl is traumatized after being locked up in that horrible prison. She will probably have nightmares for the rest of her life. Of course she needs her bodyguards with her, it gives her a sense of protection.”
“And where do we come into that?” Arthur countered. “Shouldn’t she find her refuge in our arms instead of seeking it from two strangers? And why is it that when I walk past her doors and all three of them are inside, I hear something that sounds more like laughter than wailing?”
Madeline’s face turned menacingly dark. “If this is what you hear, then be happy, Arthur. It means that our daughter is healing and you should be grateful for it.”
He stared at her in silence, his lips slightly parted. Ever since Elisabeth was back, he had discovered a brand new side of his wife. She was a genuine warrior, fiercely protective of their daughter.
Footsteps coming down the stairs claimed his attention. In an avalanche of flying locks of dirty brown hair, floppy jeans, heavy boots and oversized shirts, Lizzie landed on the wooded floor, a huge smile flourishing on her lips for the first time since she’d been brought to the Wilburns’ home.
“I remember,” she shouted victoriously. “I remember every damn thing.”
Melanie covered her mouth with her fanned-out fingers.
“I beg your pardon?” Arthur uttered.
“I have a Momma and a brother Johnny…and I live in Queens. In South Jamaica, cuz’ we couldn’t afford a better place since dad turned up his toes.” Lizzie rolled on the balls of her feet, happiness written all over her face. “I’m gonna go home. Omigosh! It’s so damn good to remember.”
Pallor got hold of Arthur’s features. He stood up slowly, subconsciously flexing his fingers. “You are not going anywhere,” he said evenly. “You are our daughter. We are not going to let you go back to those impostors whom you call family. You will stay here with us.” He watched in fascination as Lizzie’s features turned instantly from heavenly joy to tempestuous fury.
“The hell I will,” she clenched her fists at her sides. “You can’t stop me. They’re my family, not you. I don’t know you. I lived with ‘em my whole life. I’m no ‘ultra-rich’ material like you people. I’m a Queens girl, and I’m proud of it right down to my bones. Capish?” Her eyes sparked with uncontained fury as she spat the words out, her chin up high. She sent him a curt nod then her gaze swept Madeline’s face. There was so much pain and torture there, her heart sank at the sight of it. “I’m sorry, Madeline,” she murmured. “I’ll come see you, promise.” And with that she headed for the door that led to the apartment building’s main staircase, ignoring the elevator that was just two yards away.
“Don’t you dare disobey me, Elisabeth,” Arthur’s voice boomed from behind.
She turned around and looked at him with dark, penetrating eyes. “My name is Jimmy,” she said.
Arthur took a deep breath. “Nonsense,” he exclaimed. “This is a man’s name. You obviously are still confused. You are not going anywhere, Elisabeth.”
Her gaze grew so dark, it was sinister. “Just try to stop me,” she snarled. “And stop callin’ me that idiotic name. I’m no Elisabeth. And no Wilburn either. My name is Jimmy, born Emma Wallace.” She turned around and walked out the door, slamming it so hard behind her it almost came out of its hinges.
Arthur stood paralyzed for what seemed an eternity. Then he suddenly came back to life and wrapped an arm around Madeline, dragging her to the nearest armchair just as she was about to collapse. He dug his hand deep into his pocket and pulled his cell phone out. He quick dialed a number with trembling fingers, almost letting the phone slip from his shaky hands.
“Gérôme,” he shouted. “Miss Wilburn is leaving the building. Get her bodyguards and catch up with her. You are already with her? Good. Then take her wherever she wants to go and call me with an address as soon as you get there.”
He hung up and dialed another number. “Patrick, we have a problem. I will give you an address in about half an hour. There is a Wallace family living there. I want to know everything about them. Social Security details, criminal records, known relatives both alive and deceased, their ethnic background and their past. But most importantly, how did they come to kidnap Miss Wilburn on July 7th 1993, or to adopt her, if this is what they did. Involve whoever you want into it. Private investigators, police, welfare services, I want a full report A.S.A.P.” He stopped to listen for a moment then started again. “No, I don’t want you to take any action against them until I know more.”
He hung up again and took a deep breath in, letting it out a second later in a long, tortured sigh. His gaze caressed Madeline who had now covered her face with both hands and sat quietly on her armchair, only the bobbing of her shoulders giving away her tears. He picked up the phone for the third time and dialed another number. This time, his voice wasn’t as desperate. He just took a couple of steps to stare out the window toward the building across the street as if he could see the man he was talking with.
“Albert, it’s me,” he said. “I think it’s time.”