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A widow in Florida discovers the body in the coffin at her husband’s funeral isn’t his. Hunter McCoy, medical school professor and former intelligence agent, is asked to locate the missing body and anticipates a simple find-and-correct job. However, his search quickly turns deadly when he uncovers a sinister plot linking an international funeral business and a world-renowned neurological institute—a plot set in motion by a powerful and mysterious man, fueled by decades of hate and revenge.
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The woman took a deep breath, steadied herself at the piano, and began playing the complex piece. At that precise moment millions of specialized brain cells—cells reawakened from their dormancy—began infiltrating her cerebral cortex. They weren’t her own cells; instead they’d come from a donor.
During early embryonic development these very cells once coordinated the assembly of complex circuits in the donor’s brain—circuits that equipped the donor with an exceptional capacity for developing precision hand and finger coordination. Once they’d completed this task, sometime during early childhood, the cells had gone dormant.
Years later, after the donor had gone on to become a world-renowned concert pianist, some of these dormant cells were carefully removed during an outpatient procedure without the donor’s knowledge. The cells were cloned, mixed with an ingeniously crafted cocktail of molecules reawakening their genetic machinery—allowing them to once again generate and guide circuit development—this time in the woman’s brain.
But something had gone wrong. Something had changed within the cloned donor cells. Something deep in the workings of their internal machinery wasn’t stable. An internal clock had started ticking, and time began to run out for the woman.
Jenny Lahti sat back at the breakfast table on their balcony overlooking the harbor of Naples and watched her husband Charlie reading the guidebook, Naples: Things To See And Do. The twisted olive tree beyond the white-washed stone wall that separated their hotel balcony from the sharply dropping hillside to the tranquil sea below provided just enough shade to prevent them from squinting in the bright morning sun.
As she gazed contentedly across the harbor to Mount Vesuvius in the distant background, Charlie suddenly plopped the guidebook on the table with dramatic flourish.
“I have it, I’ve figured it out. We’re going to see the Roman ruins at Pompeii and Herculaneum.”
“Right, we catch a motor coach at the Piazza Garibaldi—about twenty minutes from here. It leaves in two hours. It’s an all-day guided trip and includes lunch. We’ll be back here at the hotel by six.”
Charlie clasped his hands behind his head with a smug, satisfied smile. “What do you think of that incredible planning?”
“Awesome, Charlie, truly awesome. The way you were able to sift through all that material and find the very one I’d carefully circled with my bright red felt-tip pen only adds proof to your amazing planning ability.”
Charlie scowled and leaned forward, adjusting his glasses. He examined the brochure more closely. With mock humility he said, “Why honey, you’re right, it is circled in red. I hadn’t even noticed.”
Jenny rolled her eyes heavenward and grinned, “Why me, Lord?”
They laughed at the old joke and finished their breakfast while eagerly anticipating the day’s adventure.
An attractive diminutive woman with light blond hair reflecting her Nordic heritage, Jenny was proud of how she’d maintained her looks since their last trip to Italy, thirty years earlier. Charlie had decided that a honeymoon in Naples would be the perfect way to start their lives together. She’d just graduated from the nursing program at Michigan Tech in Houghton and Charlie was a newly minted electrical engineer. They’d combined the joys of low airfares and Arthur Frommer’s gift to American travelers on a budget, Europe On $10 A Day, and planned their honeymoon. Frommer was right. They actually did it on ten dollars a day and had the time of their lives.
As she looked at Charlie now she knew it had all been worth it. With two lovely daughters, both happily married and gainfully employed, they were eagerly awaiting the birth of their first grandchild.
The ride to the famous volcano that had erupted in 79 A.D., burying the homes of Roman patricians in the seaside cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, offered Jenny and Charlie a chance to absorb the history of the area presented by an enthusiastic tour guide named Angelina. After lunch they began the climb to the crater where they were promised a spectacular view of the lava flows and the Bay of Naples. Both Jenny and Charlie had taken care of themselves, staying fit with regular exercise and healthy diets. Neither was worried in the slightest about the climb.
Jenny first noticed something was wrong about ten minutes into the ascent; Charlie wasn’t keeping up with the rest of the group. For some reason, he was lagging behind. She slowed down so he could catch up with her.
“What is it? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. It’s just my fingers feel funny, you know, kind of tingly. But I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? You know we don’t have to do this climb. We can wait until the others return from the crater and just tour the ruins instead.”
“No, no. I’ll be okay,” Charlie said, hiking up his pants and throwing his shoulders back.
They continued for a little longer, until Charlie said, “I can’t move my arm. I don’t know what’s wrong.”
Fully alarmed now, Jenny’s nursing training took over. She flagged down the tour guide and told her they were going back, Charlie needed medical help—now. The guide’s response was professional and caring. She called the tour office on her cell phone and after a moment told Jenny they were arranging for an ambulance to meet them at the bus park where they’d started the climb. They’d be taken immediately to the hospital.
Three hours later, the staff at the Clinica Mediterranea Hospital confirmed that Charlie had suffered a stroke and
he needed to stay overnight so they could evaluate the extent of damage.
The next morning, the young doctor who’d examined Charlie took Jenny aside. “Mrs. Lahti, a blood clot lodged in a small artery on the right side of your husband’s brain, the part that controls the left arm and hand.”
“What does that mean?”
“First of all, he was lucky the damage wasn’t more extensive. We’ve started treatment to dissolve the clot, but he’s not out of the woods yet. He’ll need therapy to help him recover his normal movements.”
“What do you recommend?”
“Well, if he were my father, I’d transfer him to the Caravaggio Neurological Institute in Sorrento for further evaluation and therapy.”
Jenny frowned with concern, “I’ve never heard of it.”
“They’re respected worldwide for their work with stroke patients,” the doctor told her. “They do a remarkable job. I’d be happy to arrange for the transfer if you like.”
Charlie’s recovery at the Institute was remarkable. Jenny made a mental note to thank the young doctor who’d referred them. The Institute and its staff were wonderful. It had been two and a half weeks since his admission and today had been a good day in therapy. Tony Pompa, the physical therapist assigned to him, seemed genuinely excited about his progress. Earlier that morning, Charlie had proudly shown Jenny that he could juggle five small balls in the air in an amazing routine. He’d never juggled anything before in his life. Tony had told him that learning to juggle was an excellent way to regain the control he’d lost. Charlie had always prided himself on his ability to overcome all obstacles and had been determined to succeed.
Two days later, when the second stroke hit, it was massive and hemorrhagic, meaning a blood vessel had ruptured in his brain. It occurred in a critical location called the Circle of Willis, a strategic arterial arrangement that supplies fresh arterial blood to both hemispheres. The result was catastrophic and Charlie was dead within minutes.
Jenny had only now begun to come out of the fog of the first stroke. Somehow she’d managed to call the girls and tell them what had happened. The people at the Institute had been very kind and put her in contact with Mr. Minnelli, the local representative of Final Care in Naples.
“Mrs. Lahti, Final Care understands the uncertainty and fear you must be experiencing,” Mr. Minnelli said in a warm soothing tone. “I’m truly sorry for your loss. Please know that our only business is helping people in your exact circumstance cope with the difficult logistics of transporting a deceased loved one from one country to another. I assure you we’ll handle all the necessary local and international paperwork, preparation of your husband’s remains and transportation and delivery to a funeral home of your choice.”
Charlie had been a vigorous man of sixty, still very much running his avionics software company, SkySoft, Inc., in Sarasota, Florida. Their home was just twenty-five minutes south in the lovely Gulf Coast city of Venice.
“For a flat fee of $8,500,” Mr. Minnelli continued, “we’ll take possession of your husband’s remains and make all arrangements for preparation and air transport back to the States. All we’ll need from you is the name of the funeral home you’d like to use. If you’re not sure, we can even make inquiries for you. Again, the fee is fixed, and our contract will assure you that no hidden charges will show up later. I’m sure the American Consulate verified the integrity of our company.”
“Thank you, Mr. Minnelli,” Jenny responded, beginning to feel better now that she seemed to be getting things under control. “The Consulate did highly recommend you, and you’ve been most kind. I’ll be using the Bremmer Funeral Home in Venice. My husband and I made arrangements with them a few years ago. All you need to do is contact them.”
“Very good, Mrs. Lahti. Again, we’re sorry for your loss, and you can rest assured we’ll take care of all arrangements from this point on.”
Jenny moved through the next four days in a blur. Final Care helped her arrange for a commercial flight back to Florida. She flew from Rome to Tampa, where her younger daughter, Fran, and her husband picked her up at the airport for the sixty-mile drive south to Venice. Her other daughter, Carol, and her husband were scheduled to arrive the next day for the viewing at 4:00 p.m. The funeral would follow one day later.
Jenny found the presence of her daughters a great comfort. The two girls and their husbands shared memories and stories of Charlie, helping her understand that life would still go on. They laughed and cried together and took some small comfort in the fact that Charlie’s death was quick and he apparently didn’t suffer.
The next afternoon they arrived early at Bremmer’s Funeral Home so they could be in place when guests began arriving. The owner, Willard Bremmer, greeted the family and invited them into the viewing room. Out of respect for their mother’s privacy, the daughters stayed back and allowed Jenny to walk alone up to the coffin. As she did so, Jenny hesitated, realizing that she hadn’t seen Charlie since the stroke that had killed him instantly five days earlier.
Approaching the open coffin, she gazed upward, delaying as long as possible the inevitable sight she knew would confirm once and for always that her beloved husband Charlie was really dead.
As her gaze dropped to the casket, the room began turning in circles. Beginning to feel faint, she gripped the side of the coffin, and just before collapsing to the floor her brain registered a confusing and horrifying reality. The body in the coffin wasn’t Charlie.