Novelist Mary Higgins Clark returns with “Just Take My Heart,” a new thriller centered around a mysterious medical phenomenon — one that involves transferring memories and personality traits from heart transplant donor to recipient. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter.
It was the persistent sense of impending doom, not the nor’easter, that made Natalie flee from Cape Cod back to New Jersey in the predawn hours of Monday morning. She had expected to find sanctuary in the cozy Cape house that had once been her grandmother’s and now was hers, but the icy sleet beating against the windows only increased the terror she was experiencing. Then, when a power failure plunged the house into darkness, she lay awake, sure that every sound was caused by an intruder.
After fifteen years, she was certain that she had accidentally stumbled upon the knowledge of who had strangled her roommate, Jamie, when they were both struggling young actresses. And he knows that I know, she thought — I could see it in his eyes.
On Friday night, he had come with a group to the closing night of A Streetcar Named Desire at the Omega Playhouse. She had played Blanche DuBois, the most demanding and satisfying role of her career to date. Her reviews had been wonderful, but the role had taken its emotional toll on her. That was why, after the performance, when someone knocked on the door of her dressing room, she had been tempted not to answer. But she had, and they all crowded in to congratulate her, and out of nowhere she recognized him. In his late forties now, his face had filled out, but he was undoubtedly the person whose picture was missing from Jamie’s wallet after her body was found. Jamie had been so secretive about him, only referring to him as Jess, “my pet name for him,” as she put it.
I was so shocked that when we were introduced, I called him “Jess,” Natalie thought. Everyone was talking so much that I am sure no one else noticed. But he heard me say his name.
Who do I tell? Who would believe me? My word against his? My memory of a small picture that Jamie had hidden in her wallet? I only found it because I had lent her my Visa card and I needed it back. She was in the shower and called to me to get it out of her wallet. That was when I saw the picture, tucked in one of the compartments, behind a couple of business cards.
All Jamie ever told me about him was that he’d tried his hand at acting and wasn’t good enough, and that he was in the middle of a divorce. I tried to tell her that was the oldest story in the world, Natalie thought, but she wouldn’t listen. She and Jamie had been sharing an apartment on the West Side until that terrible morning when Jamie was strangled while jogging early in Central Park. Her wallet was on the ground, her money and watch were missing. And so was the picture of “Jess.” I told the cops that, she thought, but they didn’t take it seriously. There had been a number of early-morning muggings in the park and they were sure Jamie just happened to be one of the victims, the only fatal victim, as it turned out.
It had been pouring through Rhode Island and Connecticut, but as Natalie drove down the Palisades Parkway the rain steadily lessened. As she drove farther down, she could see that the roads were already drying.
Would she feel safe at home? She wasn’t sure. Twenty years ago, after being widowed, her mother, born and raised in Manhattan, had been happy to sell the house and buy a small apartment near Lincoln Center. Last year, when Natalie and Gregg separated, she heard that the modest house in northern New Jersey where she’d been raised was for sale again.
“Natalie,” her mother warned, “you’re making a terrible mistake. I think you’re crazy not to try to make a go of your marriage. Running back home is never the answer for anyone. You can’t recreate the past.”
Natalie knew it was impossible to make her mother understand that the kind of wife Gregg wanted and needed was not the person she could ever be for him. “I was unfair to Gregg when I married him,” she said. “He needed a wife who would be a real mother to Katie. I can’t be. Last year I was away a total of six months in all. It just isn’t working. I honestly think that when I move out of Manhattan, he’ll understand that the marriage is really over.”
“You’re still in love with him,” her mother insisted. “And he is with you.”
“That doesn’t mean we’re good for each other.”
I’m right about that, Natalie thought, as she swallowed the lump in her throat that was always there when she allowed herself to think about Gregg. She wished she could talk to him about what had happened Friday evening. What would she say? “Gregg, what do I do about having the certain knowledge that I know who killed my friend Jamie, without a shred of proof to back me up?” But she couldn’t ask him. There was too much of a chance that she’d be unable to resist his begging her to try again. Even though she’d lied and told him she was interested in someone else, it hadn’t stopped Gregg’s phone calls.
As she turned off the parkway onto Walnut Street, Natalie realized she was longing for a cup of coffee. She had driven straight through and it was quarter of eight. By this time, on a normal day, she would already have had at least two cups.
Most of the houses on Walnut Street in Closter had been torn down to make way for new luxury homes. It was her joke that now she had seven-foot hedges on either side of her house, giving her complete privacy from either neighbor. Years ago, the Keenes had been on one side and the Foleys on the other. Today, she hardly knew who her neighbors were.
The sense of something hostile hit her as she turned in to her driveway and pushed the clicker to open the garage door. As the door began to rise, she shook her head. Gregg had been right when he said that she became every character she played. Even before the stress of meeting Jess, her nerves had been unraveling, like those of Blanche DuBois.
She drove into the garage, stopped, but for some reason did not immediately push the clicker to close the garage door behind her. Instead, she opened the driver’s door of the car, pushed open the kitchen door, and stepped inside.
She felt gloved hands dragging her in, twirling her around, and throwing her down. The crack of her head on the hardwood floor sent waves of pain radiating through her skull, but she could still see that he was wearing a plastic raincoat and plastic over his shoes.
“Please,” she said, “please.” She held up her hands to protect herself from the pistol he was pointing at her chest.
The click as he pushed down the safety catch was his answer to her plea.
From “Just Take My Heart” by Mary Higgins Clark. Copyright © 2009 by Mary Higgins Clark. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc., N.Y.