He was drifting, dozing, only dimly aware of surroundings that changed in random, inexplicable ways.
His surroundings didn't matter. Nothing mattered.
Abruptly, he was jolted out of his slumber. He gasped...and heard other gasps on all sides. Gasps, and muffled shrieks.
Still being jostled about, he realized he was in the first-class cabin of an airliner. He didn't know how he'd gotten there. And he wasn't buckled in, wasn't in a seat at all. He was just, somehow, there.
The plane was tumbling, out of control.
The shrieks were no longer muffled.
Suddenly, he knew. He recognized two of those shrieking voices. He picked out their terrified faces, saw the man trying desperately to shield the woman. He flung himself over them, tried to cover them both with his own broad body.
But he had no body.
The plane plummeted.
His eyes flew open and he sat bolt upright. He too was shrieking, or thought he was...but somehow, the shriek was coming out as a squawk.
A woman in a nurse's uniform grabbed him and tried to push him down. "Everything's all right," she said in a shaky voice. "Just lie back. Relax, relax!" Her eyes were wide, face white with shock.
But he wasn't about to relax. He found his voice and screamed, "My parents! Where are my parents?"
Llanview Police Commissioner Bo Buchanan was in his office, arguing vociferously with Acting District Attorney Daniel Colson. Lately, Bo spent so much time arguing with Colson that he could do it by rote, thinking less about what he was saying than about keeping the volume at an acceptable level.
The shriek that suddenly filled his mind was neither his nor Colson's.
If he hadn't been sitting, he would have staggered and possibly fallen.
Colson stopped in mid-rant. "Wh-what's the matter?" His demeanor changed, and he reached across the desk to grip Bo's arm. "Are you all right?"
"That...that scream," Bo choked out. "Didn't you hear it?"
Bo stiffened, pulling his arm free of the other man's grasp. But he couldn't keep himself from shuddering. "It was a woman."
It was Gabrielle.
Colson looked uncomfortable. "What's wrong with you? I have good hearing, and there wasn't any scream!"
Bo took a deep, steadying breath. Don't give this enemy cause to believe you're going nuts. Pretend it was a faint, distant sound.
He managed to twist his mouth into a rueful smile. "Guess I just heard brakes squealing somewhere. Too much police work - makes you associate every odd sound with crime."
"Uh, yes, I suppose it would." Colson was edging toward the door.
That, at least, was a welcome development.
But Bo couldn't shake the feeling that the woman he loved - thousands of miles away, returning with her ex from burying their son in Argentina - was in trouble.
Two hours later another visitor burst into the office.
Bo looked up and started to smile in recognition. But the smile died a-borning as he saw the other man's pale, stricken face.
"Larry! I'm always glad to see you. But...is something wrong? Have a seat." To receptionist Marcie Walsh, who appeared in the doorway with an apologetic, I-couldn't-stop-him look on her face, he gave an understanding nod. "It's OK, Marcie. Larry's an old friend."
Marcie withdrew, visibly relieved, closing the door behind her.
Doctor Larry Wolek collapsed into the proffered chair and buried his face in his hands. His whole body was trembling. But it took him only a few seconds to pull himself together.
He looked up and said shakily, "Bo, I-I actually have good news. Very good news! But...I also have to c-confess...that I've done something terrible. A crime. I expect you to arrest me."
Bo couldn't imagine having to arrest Larry, but the man was so obviously sincere that he didn't try to pooh-pooh the notion. He just said quietly, "Go on."
Larry took another shaky breath, looked his friend squarely in the face, and said, "Al Holden is still alive."
Bo needed a second to absorb that. Then he erupted out of his own chair. "What?"
Al - Gabrielle's and Max Holden's 22-year-old son - had died when he went into shock after an apparently successful liver transplant in which Gabrielle had given him part of her liver. Died in the hospital - it wasn't a case of a disappearance and never-recovered body. He couldn't be alive!
Larry cringed. "Bo...we all thought Al was dead. He flatlined, we tried to revive him, we couldn't. He was clinically dead. B-but...the medical examiner detected a heartbeat as he was about to start the autopsy. So naturally, he tried to revive him. And he did...sort of."
Stunned, Bo echoed, "Sort of?"
"Al had been deprived of oxygen for way too long. He was in a coma. And...and...all the indications were that it was going to be a deep, irreversible coma." Looking steadily at his friend, Larry said, "Just like Ben Davidson's."
Bo sank back into his chair. "Oh, my God," he breathed.
It was starting to make sense. Larry had been married to Viki Davidson's long-dead sister Meredith, was still close to Viki. He knew the hell she'd been going through this past year, as her adored husband - Bo's half-brother - lingered in that coma.
"Al was breathing on his own," Larry continued. "We couldn't withhold supportive treatment, couldn't just let him die. B-but...I couldn't bear to think of his family suffering the way Viki has. I figured it would be worse, because Al's so young and might live so long."
Instinctively lowering his already low voice, Larry glanced back toward the door. "And I knew about Marcie, a young girl, in love with him. I was thinking of her, maybe tying herself to a...a living corpse...for fifty years or more..."
Bo's heart was already aching at the thought of Gabrielle, his beautiful Gabrielle, nursing a comatose son for years or decades. But he said quietly, "Tragic as it is, how Marcie deals with this has to be her choice. The same with Al's parents. What I want to know is how you faked..." His voice trailed off.
"You're remembering, aren't you?" Bo nodded, but Larry spelled it out anyway. "I reminded Max and Marcie that they'd seen Al after his death, touched him and kissed him while he was still warm. Reminded Gabrielle that she'd said she crossed paths with him on the 'other side.' I tried not to be obvious about it - but I gave them the idea they shouldn't mar those memories by looking at and touching his...empty shell...after the autopsy and embalming."
"So the coffin was never opened," Bo mused. "There was no body in it?"
"That's right. What Max and Gabrielle took to Argentina for burial was just a weighted coffin." The doctor leaned forward earnestly. "The other medical people who had to be involved didn't understand what was going on, Bo. They were merely following my orders. I'm the only one who should be held responsible."
Bo didn't believe that, but it wasn't the reason he shook his head. "I still don't understand how you meant to handle this, long-term. Caring for a comatose patient is expensive, way beyond any ordinary individual's means. And health insurance won't pay for someone who's legally dead! What were you planning to do?"
Reluctantly, Larry said, "If...if it became clear Al really was going to survive long-term, I was going to...turn to...your father."
"My father?" Bo exploded. "Are you saying my father knew about this?" He wouldn't put anything past flamboyant billionaire Asa, who only a few weeks ago had used his influence to make one of his grandsons lieutenant governor.
"No, no! I swear, Bo, he didn't!" Larry's eyes suddenly brimmed with tears. "For God's sake, don't blame him! I only meant to confide in him if it became necessary.
"Remember, Asa adopted Al while he was married to Gabrielle. I think, deep down, he still has feelings for all of them - Al, Max, and Gabrielle. And Ben Davidson is his son..."
Bo grimaced. He disliked being reminded that Gabrielle had been one of Asa's dozen or so wives, even though they'd both had ulterior motives and the marriage hadn't been consummated. But everything Larry said was true. Asa, under all his bluster, was soft-hearted. He did still care for Al and his parents. He probably grieved over Ben every day of his life.
Asa undoubtedly would have gone along with Larry's scheme, if he'd learned of it after the faked death was a fait accompli. And for all his faults, his motives would have been as pure as Larry's.
"So you really could have made it work...but then, why did you decide to tell me?" Bo realized, with a pang of guilt, that he wished his friend hadn't told him.
To his surprise, Larry brightened visibly. "Remember I said I had good news? Al just came out of the coma! He's sitting up, talking - there's no sign of brain damage. He's going to be all right!"
Bo straightened in his chair, and at long last, he smiled. "That's wonderful! It will be up to him, then, to decide whether to press charges. And Al's one of the nicest young people I know.
"What happened? Did he just suddenly wake up, for no reason at all?"
Larry's face clouded again. "It was actually very strange. I wouldn't have thought it possible in a coma, but he apparently had a horrific nightmare, and the shock brought him back to full consciousness. He woke up screaming! About his parents - he thinks something terrible has happened to them."
Bo felt a stab of fear.
The scream I heard.
It wasn't Al's.
I thought it was Gabrielle's...
Larry was continuing, "So far we've been lying to him, and that's something else I feel awful about. I was afraid to hit him with another shock right away, by telling him what I'd done.
"The hospital room he's in doesn't have windows, so we told him it's the middle of the night, and that's why we haven't produced his parents or Marcie. We claimed his mother's still a patient, sound asleep in a nearby room. We've even tried to convince him he may have tapped in telepathically to a nightmare she was having.
"But he's still agitated. He doesn't know weeks have passed. He thinks he just fell asleep after Marcie left - but he knows he's in a different room, and he can't understand why we would have moved him in his sleep. We said we put him in a room closer to his mother's when it became available. But he isn't buying it.
"And he's still insisting that he's sure his mother isn't there at all. That she and his father have both been in some kind of plane crash."
"Plane crash?" Bo whispered.
At that moment a knock came at the door. Marcie opened it without waiting for Bo to respond. She stood in the doorway, alone and looking scared.
Bo thought at first that she might have overheard what they were saying. But no, the walls were solid and they hadn't been talking that loudly. She might have realized their voices were raised at times, but no one could have made out words.
Marcie stepped into the office and closed the door behind her. "Commissioner," she said quickly, "forgive me for interrupting. I thought you should hear this right away. You said Al's parents were coming home today. And...and..." - she gulped - "one of the officers just heard on the news that a plane has crashed in Argentina. Not many details yet, but it was a passenger liner headed for the U.S."
Larry Wolek gave a strangled gasp. Then he began murmuring, "Oh my God, oh my God." Over and over again.
Bo got to his feet, oddly calm. He walked over to Marcie, put a steadying arm around her, and with his other hand under her chin, gently turned her face up toward his. She trembled, but didn't resist.
"Marcie," he said quietly, " I have something to tell you. It will come as a shock. But part of it is good news. In fact, I'm sure you'll think it's the best news you've heard in your entire life..."
A half hour later the three of them entered Al's hospital room. Marcie had broken into a run, with Bo close behind her and a shamefaced Larry Wolek bringing up the rear.
Al was sitting up in bed, weeping in frustration as he struggled with two nurses. But from the moment he saw Marcie, he had no eyes for anyone else. "Marcie!" he almost screamed.
She was there, gathering him into her arms, before he'd finished calling her name. Then they were kissing and embracing, Marcie restrained only by her fear of hurting him.
As soon as they came up for air, Al was babbling, "Help me, Marcie! Everyone's been lying to me, I know it! Something's terribly wrong. My parents were in a plane crash. I can still feel my mother, but I can't feel my father at all -"
They'd agreed on what to tell him, but Bo was amazed at the quiet assurance with which Marcie did it.
"Listen to me, Al," she said gently. "You're right, they have been lying. The truth is...you're doing fine now, but you were in a coma for weeks."
"Yes. Like I said, you're doing fine. That's not a problem. But several weeks have passed. And - please don't ask me why, this isn't the time to go into it - but your parents really were traveling somewhere, on a plane. And...the plane apparently has crashed."
Al took it better than anyone had expected. He relaxed, rested quietly in her arms for a minute or so.
At last he said, "It's not a surprise. I knew. The worst thing was people denying it, trying to make me think I was crazy or something."
Larry Wolek winced, and Bo gave his shoulder a comforting squeeze.
Al looked up at Bo and said, "My father is dead - I'm sure of it. But my mother is alive. Scared, maybe hurt, but definitely still alive!"
Bo felt a weight lift from his shoulders. "Thank you for telling me, Al. I'm heading for the crash site to find her. I promise you she won't be alone among strangers an hour longer than necessary."
They clasped hands briefly, Al's eyes shining with relief and gratitude. Then Bo flashed a peace sign to Marcie - who, as she looked up at him, smiled brilliantly through her tears.
Larry Wolek slipped out of the room with Bo, leaving the young couple together. In the corridor, Larry leaned against the wall and said weakly, "My God, Bo, I can't believe what I've done. I let Max and Gabrielle go to Argentina to bury an empty coffin! It's my fault they were on that plane! I'll never forgive myself."
Bo sighed. "Life is never simple, Larry. From what you've said, Al might never have come out of the coma if he hadn't experienced the shock of 'seeing' his parents go down with that plane. And either of them would willingly have died to save him.
"So, who knows? Maybe you did exactly what you were meant to do."
Larry grunted. "Thanks for the thought. But I still expect you to arrest me."
"That can wait," Bo told him kindly. "You were right in thinking Al shouldn't be hit with too much at once. When he does hear the whole story, I doubt he'll press charges."
Then he gave a dry chuckle. "Besides, if I arrest you now, Colson will have you sentenced to life in prison before I get back from Argentina."