On Monday morning, Olivia Morrow sat quietly across the desk from her longtime friend Clay Hadley, absorbing the death sentence he had just pronounced.
For an instant, she looked away from the compassion she saw in his eyes and glanced out the window of his twenty-fourth-floor office on East Seventy-second Street in Manhattan. In the distance she could see a helicopter making its slow journey over the East River on this chilly October morning.
My journey is ending, she thought, then realized that Clay was expecting a response from her.
"Two weeks," she said. It was not a question. She glanced at the antique clock on the bookcase behind Clay's desk. It was ten minutes past nine. The first day of the two weeks--at least it's the start of the day, she thought, glad that she had asked for an early appointment.
He was answering her. "Three at the most. I'm sorry, Olivia. I was hoping . . ."
"Don't be sorry," Olivia interrupted briskly. "I'm eighty-two years old. Even though my generation lives so much longer than the previous ones, my friends have been dropping like flies lately. Our problem is that we worry we'll live too long and end up in a nursing home, or become a terrible burden to everyone. To know I have a very short time left, but will still be able to think clearly and walk around unassisted until the very end is an immeasurable gift." Her voice trailed off.
Clay Hadley's eyes narrowed. He understood the troubled expression that had erased the serenity from Olivia's face. Before she spoke, he knew what she would say. "Clay, only you and I know."
"Do we have the right to continue to hide the truth?" she asked, looking at him intently. "Mother thought she did. She intended to take it to her grave, but at the very end when only you and I were there, she felt compelled to tell us. It became for her a matter of conscience. And with all the enormous good Catherine did in her life as a nun, her reputation has always been compromised by the insinuation that all those years ago, just before she entered the convent, she may have had a consensual liaison with a lover."
Hadley studied Olivia Morrow's face. Even the usual signs of age, the wrinkles around her eyes and mouth, the slight tremor of her neck, the way she leaned forward to catch everything he said, did not detract from her finely chiseled features. His father had been her mother's cardiologist, and he had taken over when his father retired. Now in his early fifties, he could not remember a time when the Morrow family had not been part of his life. As a child he had been in awe of Olivia, recognizing even then that she was always beautifully dressed. Later he realized that at that time she had still been working as a salesgirl at B. Altman's, the famous Fifth Avenue department store, and that her style was achieved by buying her clothes at giveaway end-of-the-season sales. Never married, she had retired as an executive and board member of Altman's years ago.
He had met her older cousin Catherine only a few times, and by then she was already a legend, the nun who had started seven hospitals for handicapped children--research hospitals dedicated to finding ways to cure or alleviate the suffering of their damaged bodies or minds.
"Do you know that many people are calling the healing of a child with brain cancer a miracle and attributing it to Catherine's intercession?" Olivia asked. "She's being considered as a candidate for beatification."
Clay Hadley felt his mouth go dry. "No, I hadn't heard." Not a Catholic, he vaguely understood that that would mean the Church might eventually declare Sister Catherine a saint and worthy of veneration by the faithful.
"Of course that will mean that the subject of her having given birth will be explored, and those vicious rumors will resurface and almost certainly finish her chance of being found worthy," Olivia added, her tone angry.
"Olivia, there was a reason neither Sister Catherine nor your mother ever named the father of her child."
"Catherine didn't. But my mother did."
Olivia leaned her hands on the arms of the chair, a signal to Clay that she was about to stand up. He rose and walked around his desk, with quick steps for such a bulky man. He knew that some of his patients referred to him as "Chunky Clay the Cardiologist." His voice humorous, his eyes twinkling, he counseled all of them, "Forget about me and make sure you lose weight. I look at the picture of an ice cream cone and put on five pounds. It's my cross to bear." It was a performance he had perfected. Now he took Olivia's hands in his and kissed her gently.
Involuntarily she drew back from the sensation of his short, graying beard grazing her cheek, then to cover her reaction returned the kiss. "Clay, my own situation remains between us. I will tell the few remaining people who will care very soon." She paused, then, her tone ironic, she added, "In fact I'd obviously better tell them very soon. Perhaps fortunately, I don't have a single family member left." Then she stopped, realizing that what she had just said wasn't true.
On her deathbed her mother had told her that after Catherine realized she was pregnant, she had spent a year in Ireland, where she had given birth to a son. He had been adopted by the Farrells, an American couple from Boston who were selected by the Mother Superior of the religious order Catherine entered. They had named him Edward, and he had grown up in Boston.
I've followed their lives ever since, Olivia thought. Edward didn't marry until he was forty-two. His wife has been dead a long time, and he passed away about five years ago. Their daughter, Monica, is thirty-one now, a pediatrician on the staff of Greenwich Village Hospital. Catherine was my first cousin. Her granddaughter is my cousin. She is my only family, and she doesn't know I exist.
Now, as she withdrew her hands from Clay's grasp, she said, "Monica has turned out to be so like her grandmother, devoting her life to taking care of babies and little children. Do you realize what all that money would mean to her?"
"Olivia, don't you believe in redemption? Look at what the father of her child did with the rest of his life. Think of the lives he saved. And what about his brother's family? They're prominent philanthropists. Think what such disclosure will mean to them."
"I am thinking about it, and that's what I have to weigh. Monica Farrell is the rightful heir to the income from those patents. Alexander Gannon was her grandfather, and in his will he left everything he had to his issue if any existed and only then to his brother. I'll call you, Clay."
Dr. Clay Hadley waited until the door of his private office closed, then picked up the phone and dialed a number that was known to very few people. When a familiar voice answered he did not waste time in preliminaries. "It's exactly what I was afraid of. I know Olivia . . . she's going to talk."
"We can't let that happen," the person on the other end of the line said matter-of-factly. "You've got to make sure it doesn't. Why didn't you give her something? With her medical condition, no one would question her death."
"Believe it or not, it isn't that simple to kill someone. And suppose she manages to leave the proof before I can stop her?"
"In that case we take out double insurance. Sad to say, a fatal attack on an attractive young woman in Manhattan is hardly an extraordinary event these days. I'll take care of it immediately."
© 2010 Mary Higgins Clark