The police helicopter whizzed east over the Palisades. The cabin was filled with noise and activity. Esposito and David Hart were handcuffed in the tail of the craft amidst Bayliss and a dozen Special Ops. Paul Vane was wedged in the jump seat between Morty Greene and the pilot. A medic had dressed his wound. It was painful but not life threatening. Stein was an empty ghost, his face pressed against the plastic bubble, looking down over the terrain. Edna Greene sat alongside him and could read his thoughts. “Your baby will be all right,” she said. “I don’t believe any of these men would hurt a child.”
Stein nodded thanks. But not because he believed her.
Paul Vane nudged the pilot’s elbow and pointed down. “There it is.” The pilot brought them down over the loading platform. The deck foreman who had taken over for Morty Greene was a muscular Italian in a formfitting undershirt with a marine buzz cut and bright corneas that made him look continually startled. Bayliss held onto the bulwarks and picked his way through the matrix of limbs and weapons, positioning himself to be closest to the exit when the bird touched down.
They alighted on the Astroturf front lawn of the executive wing. Bayliss leaped out first. The paramedic helped Paul Vane down. Aided by an adrenaline high and unmindful of his wound, Vane led the unit around to the elevated side of the building where the executive office wing fronted the warehouse silos.
“You know the layout?” Stein asked.
“I’ve been here once or twice,” he said with a tight smile.
Inside, there were five corridors leading out from the central lobby. Bayliss deployed his men in groups to cover each artery of the wing. “The rest of you wait here,” he directed.
“Like hell am I waiting here,” said Stein.
“I’m not messing around with you, Howard. Stay out of the way!”
“This might be the time to mention that my name is Harry.”
The paramedic who had taken Vane down the hall to the bathroom to re-dress his bullet wound now came running back in a state of agitation. “Somebody’s locked in the girl’s loo.”
“Angie!” Stein bolted down the wing that the medic had just come from. The sound of muffled pounding could be heard from inside.
“Angie? We’ll have you out in a second.”
He tugged on the door but it was solid and locked and he couldn’t budge it. He yelled down the hall. “Does anyone have a key?”
Morty Greene had gotten his mother comfortably seated in the ergonomic chair in the main lobby and now ran up to where Stein was tugging on the door. He extracted a skeleton key that fit into the lock.
“I’m not going to ask how you have that,” said Stein.
“I appreciate that.”
The thick double door opened and Lila sprang out, a total wreck After a moment’s relief Stein looked past her. “Where is she?”
She could barely look at Stein, so wracked with guilt was she. “They wanted to take her picture.”
“You let her go off with strangers?”
“I know where she is,” said Vane.
Stein tried to hear relief in his voice but heard only restrained dread. Paul guided them through a door that looked like it led to an emergency staircase, but instead opened into a narrow corridor. It took a surprise dogleg to the left and seemed now to be angled upward. The perspective gave no evidence of elevation, but walking was more difficult. There was another security door at the end of the corridor. Stein’s blood froze at the sound of running water. Steady. Unabated. Neutral. The way it had run that night at Nicholette’s.
The doorway opened up onto a webwork of metal catwalks encircling an observation point fifty feet above an enormous open lake, two hundred feet around. One slender metal tightrope wire crossed above the center. Anyone traversing that bridge would feel like a Flying Wallenda. The bridge was vibrating.
A steady hum and splash emanated from the depths of the pit where epic-sized mechanical arms were rotating heavy steel mixing rudders through the liquid below. Through sluices at symmetrical points on the circumference torrents of ingredients cascaded into the lake. The roiling liquid formed a layer of foamy soap scum several feet high that looked like weary cappuccino.
The sound of Angie’s voice penetrated through every other sound, as it always had, all of Stein’s life since she was born.
“There!” Lila pointed down into the lake where archipelagos of glycerin islands dotted the surface. The not very solid masses were diminishing in size, from large islands to very small ones, and then disappearing into the mixing blades. Angie was kneeling adrift on one of the tiny glycerin islands. Her legs and her arms were bound.
Vane melted into a pool of shame under Stein’s horrified look.
Stein could only choke out, “You weren’t going to tell me?”
“He promised she’d be safe.”
“Angie, I’m coming! Hold tight.” In a spastic frenzy Stein tore off his shirt and ripped at his shoes, trying to pull them off without untying them.
“Leave them on,” Vane instructed. “The glycerin-alcohol tincture is more buoyant than water. You need the ballast. You have to pull her down to the bottom. Then swim through the drainage pipes.” Stein listened carefully. “You’re going to be under for at least sixty seconds. Tell her not to take too deep a breath. You won’t be able to get down deep enough with too much air in your lungs.”
Stein maneuvered slowly out over the thin, vibrating, wire bridge. When he was positioned nearly above Angie he closed his eyes and plunged. Feet first. Stein had never learned to dive; he had never liked water. At the moment of impact he curled his knees to his chest, gulped a breath and cannonballed through the surface of the viscous liquid.
At the bottom, the tubes, like two giant nostrils, snorted out the impurities from the pool; the ferrocycrosulphate, the flecked mica flecks of phenol2Yisobutyltryptophane. He could do this, he told himself. He would propel himself up to the surface now.
The first twenty feet up was dessert pastry. Easy. Sweatless. He was a seahorse, bobbing to the surface. Squinting, he could see the outlines of the bottoms of solid mass. The hype about the shampoo was right in one regard, it didn’t sting his eyes. He could see translucent outlines. Then he hit the glycerin level. It was like swimming through a five hundred foot clam. He had no more breath and began to flounder. His body thrashed. His neck arched, desperately pushing his nose toward the surface. At last, with a thwop, he surfaced through the membrane into fresh air.
Soapy bubbly air filled his nostrils. He coughed and gagged and nearly puked.
Her little iceberg of glycerin had dissolved into a smaller islet and was drifting inexorably toward the lip of the upper level of the pool, from where it would plunge into the mixing section, where the steel blades whirred.
“I’ve got you, honey. We’re ok.”
Stein maneuvered himself to her and bit through the duct tape used to bind Angie’s arms. The shampoo made it come off a little easier. When he had pulled the tape off her hands and feet he held her face in his hands. Her eyes were wild like a deer trapped in a forest fire.
“Are we going to die?”
“Remember the time I pulled that cactus needle out of your eyelid and you had to sit perfectly still? And I told you it would hurt like hell for ten minutes and then it would be ok?”
“You pulled it and it bled and we had to go to the hospital.”
“This time it’ll be different,” he smiled.
He reached his arms out and eased her down into the lake. They held onto their dissolving life raft. “Get your clothes all heavy and goppy,” he said. “We’re going to take a deep breath and dive down to the very bottom. We’re going to see a couple of tubes and we’re going to swim right through them, until we get to the other side. We’ll have to hold our breath until we count up to sixty nice and slow in our minds and when we get there, we’ll be fine. Are you ready?”
“The same tube or different tubes?” Her voice was tremulous.
“What do you mean?”
“Do we both go in the same tube or different tubes?”
“That’s just what we’ll do. Are you ready?”
She nodded, yes.
They breathed, they held hands, they jack-knifed their bodies, and they dove down. Stein counted his fingers off in front of her face as they descended. One, two, three, four. They reached the bottom at ten. The water was less viscous but darker down here. He could sense only the dark shapes of the open pipes. He pointed at the openings in front of them, to the tube on the left. She swam toward it, her hair pasted to her neck like a mermaid. She lost heart for a moment. Stein pushed her by the heels and propelled her in. And he followed.
Stein thought of the seals he used to watch frolicking in the pool in Central Park Zoo, where Stein Senior had taken him on occasional weekends. One cub was Stein’s favorite. He was rambunctious, with whiskers only on one side of his mouth. Maybe the other side had been bitten off or never grew in, but it gave him an air of amused contemplation, as though he were thinking what prank he could pull next. He loved to waddle up along the hot rocks and get behind anyone who was snoozing in the sun, snuffle his snout down in good leverage, and shove his victim rolling fins-over-flippers into the cold water. Elder seals barked at him and tried to discipline him but he was incorrigible, and whenever they got too close, he’d dive into the water himself and become pure exuberant motion. That was how Stein tried to envision himself now, that every moving part of his body was an act of propulsion.
He kept mentally counting. At forty-two his lungs began to implode. He could see, he thought, a lightening at the end of the tunnel. Forty-four. Forty-five. He reached forty-eight knowing it was over for him. He saw himself at the zoo. Where Stein senior had died. At age forty-eight. He visualized Angie standing there with him watching his father die. He knew that couldn’t be possible. She wasn’t born yet when his father died. He dreamed that he tried to yell to her to swim on without him. But the power in his brain shut down. The screen went black.
He never felt himself being grabbed by the hair and pulled through the last few feet of the pipe and lifted out onto the casement alongside the purification tank. He was unaware of the EMT giving him CPR or of the expulsion of liquid from his lungs. He was aware of Lila taking his hand and helping him up to sitting position, and when she saw that he was all right, she nodded to Angie, who was able look at Lila but not at her father until she knew.
Lila helped Stein to standing. His feet squished in his shoes. He could still barely breathe and the world was pixilating through the membrane of placental soap that still surrounded him. “I don’t mean to trivialize what you’ve been through,” Lila said, “but your hair looks absolutely lustrous.”