Beneath his attic room, the house slept.
Stealthily, he made his way along the darkened hallway, stopping at a door with green, peeling paint, and heard the familiar scraping of wood on linoleum as the door opened inward. His callused, blunt fingers groped along the inside wall to his left, found the switch and flicked it on. Instantly, the cramped space was washed in harsh light from the single bulb hanging from the ceiling. A few pieces of scarred, make-do furniture included a single cot covered by a worn-thin, gray army blanket drawn so smooth and taut he could have bounced a quarter from its center. Though shabby, the room was painstakingly neat.
Wearing an air of contained excitement, he strode across the room to the calendar, which hung from the wall like a window-blind. It advertised A & R Realty in black lettering. Peeling back the months of September and October, he took the pen clipped to his shirt pocket, and drew a red circle around the "5" in the month of November. The fifth fell on a Sunday. Not that it mattered. The man regarded the carefully drawn circle for a few seconds then dropped the pages, letting them whisper back in to place. He moved to a table with rickety legs that managed to support his double hotplate and also served as his dining table. He opened the table's single drawer, and from beneath a red, plastic flatware tray that held only a steak knife, fork, spoon, can-opener and butcher knife, he withdrew a familiar, soiled and yellowing envelope. His hand trembled as he shook the picture from the envelope.
As he had for many months now, with almost religious dedication, he studied her features, letting his gaze travel over her long, shapely body. She wore shorts and a halter-top. Long brown hair blew in the breeze. She smiled out at him in open invitation, almond shaped eyes crinkling a little at the corners. Her feet were bare.
The wait was over. Finally. Triumph raced through him, settled like molten lava in his loins. He welcomed the almost painful arousal. Katie Summers. His patience would be rewarded at last. The debt would be collected.
On November fifth. The day he would kill her.
His eyes lowered to the butcher knife in the drawer, and he reached in and picked it up. He gripped the black wooden handle, liking the feel-the heft of it. Slowly, thoughtfully, he ran the thumb and forefinger of his left hand over the flat of the blade. Up and down, up and down. Stroking, stroking, until gradually a dull film crept over his eyes. Abruptly the rhythmic movement of his hand stopped. His eyes cleared. He tossed the knife back into the drawer where it clattered to silence.
No. That was not the way he would do it. It felt wrong. And everything must be exactly right. He'd waited a long time. As his gaze returned to the girl in the photograph, inspiration flashed in his mind. Yes, there was a much better way. A perfect way. A slow smile spread across his features-one that entirely missed his pale, cold eyes.
Ah, yes, Katie Summers, he thought. You will most definitely be worth the wait.
Katie Summers breathed in the tangy salt-sea air that wafted in through the screened windows of the Surfside Restaurant to blend with the aroma of freshly brewed coffee.
Outside the glass upper section of her window, she could see as white gulls dipped and soared, now gliding on a swift current of air, their free spirits causing Katie a moment of envy. On the horizon, setting October sun, a great orange disc, slid slowly into the sea, streaking the blue sky with spectacular mauves, pinks and gold, cutting a red-bronze path across the water. The scene took Katie's breath. She almost wished she'd brought her paints and easel. She would come here by herself sometime before winter set in, find a perfect vantage point, and paint to her heart's content.
Across from her, Drake Devlin said, "I take it you approve."
It both surprised and touched her to see the anxious expression on Drake's boyishly handsome face. "Approve?" she said, keeping her tone deliberately light. "A woman would have to be totally without romance in her soul not to appreciate all this." Teasing, she added, "The view-the champagne..." She grinned and sipped her wine. The bubbles tickled her nose. Looking at Drake over the rim of her glass, she decided she rather liked the smattering of freckles across his tanned cheeks. Maybe partly because she knew they came not from lounging on a sandy beach somewhere, but from long, hot days of toiling on his father's farm.
"For someone who's got his heart set on becoming a lawyer, Drake Devlin, you are an incredibly romantic man."
"Someone tell you lawyers aren't romantic?"
Drake drew forward in his chair, his gaze holding Katie's with an intensity that made her uncomfortable. "You inspire me, lady," he said softly, and clinked his glass against hers. "Here's to inspiration."
An innocent enough toast, and Katie drank to it. Yet she felt as if the air in the room had thinned slightly; she had the uneasy sensation of going too fast, and in a direction she wasn't at all sure she wanted to travel. Her hand moved to the frilly collar of her gold crepe blouse.
She found herself wishing for a cigarette; it would give her something to do with her hands. But she had given up that increasingly unpopular habit more than two years ago.
Returning her attention to the view outside her window, Katie began to get second thoughts about the wisdom of finally agreeing to a dinner date with Drake. Had she made a mistake?
Drake had been looking at her in that I-mean-to-possess-you way for over a month now. He refused absolutely to take no as a serious response to his repeated requests for a date. Katie was the only one surprised when he finally wore her down.
Determination and persistence showed in the square, slightly jutting jaw, and Katie had to admit to a certain admiration for those qualities. You didn't get too far in this world without them. She liked to think she also possessed her own fair share of determination and persistence, particularly when it came to her work. But she sensed in Drake a drive far more powerful than her own. It frightened her a little-made her feel threatened. Katie tended to shy away from serious, intense men. And Drake certainly was that.
Thinking about it now, she realized that it had been months since she'd accepted a date with anyone, serious or otherwise. Not that she didn't get a respectable number of offers, but somehow they rarely seemed worth the effort. Katie suspected she was fast becoming the stereotypical "old maid"-set in her ways, jealously guarding her "space," needing only her work to sustain her. Yet it was directly the result of that work which led to her high mood, and ultimately to her being here with Drake.
Despite Katie's insistence that she wasn't close to being ready yet, Mr. Jackson, her art teacher, had submitted several of her paintings to the local art gallery for showing. All were now garnering high marks from patrons and critics alike. Two of her paintings had even sold. Belleville was a small town, but it showed a strong appreciation for and awareness of the arts. The praise had done much for Katie's often flagging confidence, which her friend and mentor, Jason, put down to a lack of encouragement and support while growing up. Her parents had just been so busy ripping each other apart there wasn't much room for anything else.
It was not so surprising that, at thirty-six years old, reading favorable comments about her work in the local paper had a deliciously heady effect.
"Where did you go, Katie?"
"I'm sorry, Drake," she said, turning to him and flushing guiltily. "Did you say something?"
He raised an eyebrow then smiled, mildly accusing, at Katie. "We were drinking a toast to inspiration," he said. "Or at least I was." He smoothed his sandy, slightly receding hair across his broad forehead. "What were you so deep in thought about, Katie? Or is that an intrusion?"
"Not at all. Actually, it's sort of in keeping with your toast. I was thinking about my exhibit at the gallery." Said aloud, it sounded terribly immodest, self-absorbed, and insensitive. But she felt a kid's excitement at the success of her showing and wanted to share it.
"Your painting means a lot to you, doesn't it?"
She admitted that it did. My painting is everything to me. It ' s my life, my purpose. Unconsciously, she reached for a strand of long, beige-blonde hair, and thoughtfully began to wind it about her finger.
"I think it's great you have a hobby you enjoy," Drake said and Katie's fingers froze in mid-curl. Her hand dropped from her hair; the curl sprang loose. But before she could launch a verbal attack, a smiling young woman in a pink crocheted mini-dress approached their table, a basket of matching roses draped about her neck.
"Half a dozen," Drake said at once, already reaching into his back pocket for his wallet.
"No, please, Drake. I really don't want..."
She would have had to make a royal scene to stop him. Feeling a confusing blend of pleasure and annoyance, Katie arranged the roses in her glass of water. She couldn't resist sniffing their sweet, heady fragrance.
She decided not to let Drake's overly sexist and condescending remark spoil the evening. She doubted it had been deliberate, and he was, after all, knocking himself out to please her.
"The flowers are lovely, Drake," she said, moving the makeshift vase to the center of the snowy tablecloth. "Thank you." Drake caught her hand in his warm, strong grip. "They're not half as lovely as you, Katie." He gazed so dolefully into Katie's eyes that she had to look away. For a brief, panicky moment she almost laughed. As casually as she could manage, she slipped her hand free and placed both primly in her lap, as if for safe keeping.
A sheepish grin crossed Drake's face. "You're right. I do come on a little strong, don't I? I guess it's just that I've always had to work so damned hard for anything I wanted, I never learned there was any other way."
She, of all people, should have understood that. Katie wished she could say something that would erase the look of hurt from his face, but could think of nothing that Drake wouldn't take as further encouragement, so she remained silent.
"I don't mean to rush you, Katie."
After a pause, she said, "I know that. But-just friends for now- okay, Drake?"
"You got it." He looked relieved at the hint of promise in her words. Then, abruptly, he raised his glass to her. "In any event," he said heartily, "champagne is for celebrating, and I believe a celebration is in order."
More than receptive to having things on a lighter note, Katie raised her own glass, saying brightly, "Oh? What's the occasion? Your birthday?"
"Oh, much, much better than that. At least I think so, and I hope you'll agree."
He was keeping his tone deliberately mysterious, but it suddenly occurred to Katie what Drake's news might be. A rush of excitement coursed through her, replacing her discomfort of a moment ago. But she wouldn't guess aloud and ruin his surprise.
"Well, tell me, for heaven's sake. Don't keep me in suspense."
Drake's face lit in a wide, pleased grin. "Okay, I won't. Aside from the incredible fact of your sitting here across from me, no mean feat in itself, I might add, I think it's safe to say you might just be dining out with Belleville's own Perry Mason."
"Oh, Drake, you've done it. You've passed your bar exams," Katie said, impulsively leaning across the table to kiss his cheek. "Congratulations!" His boast had been made lightly, but she didn't have to be clairvoyant to see the pride of achievement written all over him. "And you're damned right it's something to drink to. So let's." Katie allowed her voice to take on a more warm and intimate quality. "I couldn't possibly be more pleased for you, Drake. And I am truly honored that you chose to share your special moment with me."
Drake surprised Katie by dropping his eyes, seeming almost shy. It was a side of him she had never seen before. "Your saying that means a lot to me, Katie. You can't know how much."
The waiter came and took their orders for dinner: the house specialty-seafood platters with baked potato and sour cream, steamed broccoli in cheese sauce. Katie felt relaxed for the first time since they'd arrived. She asked Drake why he'd waited so long to go to university. He must have been near her own age, and maybe closer to forty. "Why not-well, when you finished high school?" She had her own reasons for not having pursued her art career in the usual way, but she wanted to hear his.
"The Vietnam war came along," he said, a bitter note creeping into his voice. "That stopped me."
She nodded in understanding. "Yes. The war stopped a lot of people." Some permanently, she thought. "But I have no real regrets," Drake said, reaching for the carafe to refill both their glasses. "I believe if a man wants to live in a free country, he should be willing to fight for that freedom. I get a little sick of all the bleeding hearts."
Katie was taken aback by the venom in his voice. "A patriotic man?" she said. "Commendable."
"That didn't sound as if you meant it."
"I'm sorry, Drake," she said, forcing a thin smile. "Of course I mean it. It's just that, like a lot of people-bleeding hearts, as you call them-I can't help thinking there must be a better way of settling our differences than killing one another. We're all supposed to be so civilized..."
Drake folded his arms across his broad chest, leaned back in his chair. "And what do you think the answer is, Katie?" The question had a ring of challenge. Katie felt the evening beginning to sour. "I don't pretend to have the answers, Drake. I'm not smart enough. But I do care enough to question."
He looked at her in what seemed to Katie begrudging admiration. "Well said. And, of course, you're absolutely right. Let's not talk about it anymore." As though on cue the waiter came with their dinner.
The waiter removed the globe from the candleholder and lit the candle with a match from the card of matches in the ashtray. The tiny flame sent shadows to play on the white tablecloth, shadows that vanished as the globe was returned.
"Enjoy your meal," he said, flashing a young, toothy smile.
Outside the sun had gone down, leaving only a fading smear of color on the horizon. Only a few gulls still circled. Katie concentrated on her food. "This looks delicious," she said, picking up her fork.
The conversation moved on pleasantly enough, and Katie was relieved to have the strained moment behind them. Shortly into the meal, Drake asked her to accompany him to a dinner party being held in his honor on Saturday night. "Professor Walters' generous nature," he said. "Ordinarily, of course, I would have graduated with my class, but since spring means planting to a farmer and Dad's not as young as he used to be, that wasn't possible. But I'm not complaining. I was grateful for summer extension classes." Drake heaped sour cream on his baked potato.
"It must have been terribly disappointing, Drake, after all your hard work, not to be able to graduate with your classmates."
He shrugged and grinned. "Oh, I probably would have felt like the senior citizen of the crowd, anyway. Too, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to ask you to be my guest at dinner."
Katie had to marvel at Drake's special knack of always being able to find the silver lining in every cloud.
At Belleville General Hospital, Dr. Jonathan Shea, head of psychiatry, sat behind his desk staring blankly at the wall in front of him, his phone off the hook. It had been off the hook since he'd received the call informing him that one of his patients, Jodie
Williams, had OD'd on heroin, and was now lying on a slab in the morgue, her toe tagged for I.D. Sixteen, for Christ's sake. Sixteen and dead. Why hadn't he been able to reach her? He'd thought it was all going well. He'd thought there was progress. He glanced in disdain at the degrees and diplomas hanging on the wall like so many framed obscene jokes. What the hell good were they? What did they mean?
Sighing heavily, he replaced the receiver and remembered to put out a fresh box of tissues.
He had a patient waiting. A middle-aged man who would spend most of the session in tears. He was being eased out of his position as sales manager in a company he'd given faithful service to for over thirty years, as well as a piece of his soul. His whole identity was tied up in his job. He reminded Jonathan of Willie Loman in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." He even looked a little like Dustin Hoffman.
What was keeping Drake? For at least the tenth time, Katie glanced at her watch. Nearly eight-thirty. He was supposed to meet her here at eight. The storm must be holding him up. But surely he could have found a phone. Squinting, Katie peered through the plate glass window of The Coffee Shop for a glimpse of Drake's blue Pinto station wagon, but with the sky so black and the rain coming down with a vengeance, it was impossible to see anything.
Katie had accepted Drake's invitation almost without hesitation. Knowing what tonight meant to him, she could hardly have done otherwise. Actually, she found she was really looking forward to the dinner. It had been some time since she'd enjoyed herself in a social gathering, and, too, it would do her heart good to see Drake finally getting some reward for all his hard work and determination.
Where was he? She was beginning to feel slightly wilted in her new dress, and her feet hurt.
About to move from the window, she spotted Mrs. Cameron, her employer, coming out from behind the cash register, purposefully threading her way through the small tables toward Katie. Katie groaned inwardly, then, resigned to her fate, she smiled as Mrs. Cameron approached her.
"You mustn't frown so, Katie, dear, you'll make wrinkles." She patted the fat, white braids that encircled a broad, rather flat, Germanic face. "Don't worry. I'm sure your young man will be along soon." Shorter than Katie, Mrs. Cameron had to look up to speak to her, but that didn't stop her from being a formidable presence.
"I wasn't really worr..."
"Oh, of course you were," she cut in, dismissing Katie's denial with a wave of her plump hand. "It's perfectly understandable. Courtesy doesn't keep one waiting. Promptness, as we know, is the virtue of kings. And forgiveness the virtue of Christians. I expect it's the storm that's keeping him."
Katie couldn't help smiling. Mrs. Cameron had a seemingly endless supply of adages for every occasion, some of which Katie suspected she made up, and liked nothing better than the opportunity to quote them. Not that Katie didn't appreciate-well, at least the more amusing of them. As she appreciated the woman herself. Mrs. Cameron was a no-nonsense person who, after the sudden death of her husband six years ago, had taken her life into her own hands and built a thriving little business in The Coffee Shop. Her chronically flushed complexion was the result of high-blood pressure, the reason she'd given over much of the daily running of the business to Katie. She was here every night, though, and Katie suspected she'd be lost without The Coffee Shop. It had become a second home to her. Too, Mrs. Cameron liked to keep an eye on things. As she was doing now. Her sharp, black eyes on Katie were reminiscent of a mother bird's.
"My, aren't you looking pretty tonight? That lovely green dress matches your eyes perfectly. Real silk, is it?"
Katie said it was, and felt a pang of guilt thinking of the price tag. But she'd wanted to look especially nice tonight.
"You know, Katie, you could be a model. One of those high-paid ones, too."
"But what did you do to your hair, dear?" she questioned, beginning to circle Katie, frowning. "It looks-different."
A few heads turned to look. Katie touched a self-conscious hand to her new hairdo. The hairdresser had assured her the feathery, textured style softened the strong angles of her face, and was becoming. Katie had liked it, too.
"Just a new cut," she said.
"Yes, of course. Well, I suppose it's not so bad. I'm glad you left the back long, though it's not as long as it was, is it?" This last was said almost in an accusation. "Makes you look younger, Katie-like a schoolgirl."
Katie thought she liked "model" better. She wasn't sure that, at her age, she wanted to look like a schoolgirl. But she knew it had been meant as a compliment. At least she hoped so. With Mrs. Cameron, you could never be sure.
To Katie's enormous relief, a woman approached the cash register, bill in hand, and Mrs. Cameron had no choice but to hurry off to attend to business.
Katie turned back to the window. Aside from the darkness and the rain, there was only her own ghostly reflection in the glass.
A half hour later Drake still had not arrived, and Katie began to worry that he might have had a serious accident. Surely if it had been something minor, like a flat tire, he would have tracked down a phone by now. There had to be an awfully good reason why he would miss a dinner party given in his honor.
Was it possible that Professor Walters, unaware that Drake had invited a female guest, had already arranged for a dinner partner for Drake, and Drake was too embarrassed to face her with it? No, she was being ridiculous.
Then why wasn't he here? He'd seemed so pleased when she'd agreed to go with him. Katie shifted her feet in their two-inch heels and slipped a throbbing foot out of her shoe.
The rain, sounding like thunderous applause, was coming down harder than ever, though Katie hadn't thought that was possible. Behind her, dishes clattered, the cash register rang. Across the room a woman laughed, and Katie darted a look behind her.
You're being paranoid, she told herself, finding no one paying her the slightest attention. She'd been doing that a lot lately. Getting the creepy feeling that she was being watched, feeling eyes on the back of her neck, turning to look and finding herself quite alone.
The crowd had thinned to a few stragglers, but she knew that in an hour from now the place would be jammed with university students from B.U. The Coffee Shop, with its knotty pine walls and high-beamed ceiling, was a favorite Saturday night haunt. They came, bringing with them their ideals, their poetry. Much of it was dark and angry, a running commentary on man's inhumanity to man, also focusing on acid rain, oil spills and the nuclear arms race. They were young men and women on the threshold of uncertain futures. And they were frightened.
Katie thought they had good reason to be. She knew something about war. And thoughts of it brought, as always, memories of Todd Raynes, her young and perfect love, and a long ago letter telling her he was missing in action-lost somewhere in the steamy jungles of Vietnam.
"Missing"-a terrible word. Was he a prisoner in some war camp enduring atrocities she didn't even dare let herself think about? Was he lying wounded in some far off makeshift hospital? Did he cry out for her in dreams of a different life? Or maybe he was the victim of amnesia. And on and on it went. Never knowing for sure-that was the worst. She came to long as much for proof of Todd's death as she did for his return, which, even after all this time, filled her with a terrible guilt.
"Two BLTs with fries," Francine called out in her shrill, nasal voice, pulling Katie up from her painful reverie. She again checked the time, then began buttoning her beige all-weather coat. Drake wasn't coming.
She'd suggested they meet here because she figured it would be easier for him than having to drive all the way out to Black Lake. Had he misunderstood? Was he perhaps at her front door now wondering why she didn't answer his knock? Well, not a whole lot she could do about it now, was there? She drew the hood carelessly up over her new hairdo, imagining the pitying glances of the waitresses and Mrs. Cameron. Maybe even Joey and Frank. Poor Katie, she ' s been stood up. Katie told herself "to hell with it" and pushed open the plate glass door.
A gust of wind caught The Coffee Shop's door with force, nearly whipping it from Katie's grasp. Head bent against the driving rain, she raced to the parking lot, her shoes slapping on the wet pavement as she made her way to the sanctuary of her car.
She slid the key in the lock, but the door was unlocked. Not like me to leave it unlocked. Katie practically flung herself inside, then groaned aloud to find the seat wet beneath her. Damn! The window on her side had been left open a crack. Strange. She quickly rolled it shut.
She turned the key in the ignition, said a silent "thank you" when the engine fired at first try. Often, when the wires got wet, the eight year old Ford sputtered and whined as if in pain, and refused to start.
Katie put the car into drive and eased out of the parking lot, stopping at the edge of the driveway. She looked both ways, having to briefly roll down the fogged side window again to see. She wiped the condensation off her windshield, then pulled out onto University Avenue and turned left toward the highway.
Rain lashed the windshield and drummed on the metal roof above her head. Katie turned the wipers up full, but it made no appreciable difference. She had to strain hard to see the white line on the road through the wavering wall of water.
There were few cars on the road. A couple of taxis passed. An occasional tractor-trailer swished by going in the opposite direction. A blast of air buffeted the car as if it were merely a toy, the sway causing Katie's stomach to lurch and her hands to tighten on the wheel.
She considered pulling off to the side of the road and waiting out the storm, but there was no guarantee it wouldn't continue for hours.
The trees along the avenue bent low to the wind. A branch had broken off one of them and lay in the road. Katie maneuvered carefully around it, consoling herself with thoughts of a long, hot soak in the tub. Her wet clothes were bone-chillingly cold, going right to the marrow. Katie shuddered at the thought of coming winter.
She switched on the radio for company and began to relax as soft guitar music floated into the small space with her, blending with the monotonous hiss of wheels on wet pavement. Music never failed to make the twelve mile drive home seem shorter, and tonight, for some reason, a little less lonely.
The strain of a day pacifying distraught customers and refereeing squabbles, which erupted all too frequently between the waitresses and the hot-headed cook, had been all but forgotten in thoughts of a pleasant night out celebrating Drake's good fortune. But now tiredness seeped into Katie's bones, overshadowing her initial disappointment and mild humiliation at being stood up.
An unkept date, after all, was hardly a major tragedy. And she was sure Drake had a perfectly legitimate reason for not showing up. She hoped Drake hadn't had an accident or his father had not taken a bad turn. Drake had had more than his share of suffering.
She liked Drake Devlin-liked him a lot. Given time, maybe...if only Drake wouldn't push so hard.
The rain had stopped, just a light drizzle now. She slowed the wipers and, minutes later, turned to the right off University Avenue onto the main highway. She saw car lights in her rearview mirror turn in the same direction, but gave them no thought.
Am I ready for a new relationship? Do I even want one? There'd been a couple of men in her life in the years since Todd, but nothing serious, at least on her part. They'd wanted more of her than she could give. It was as if, with Todd's dying, something vital in Katie had died as well.
With the ugly crumbling of her last affair, Katie had thrown herself into her work with renewed commitment. And painting had saved her sanity. Work demanded of you. But it gave back, too. Work didn't abandon you.
Abandon? Todd didn't abandon you, a small voice said. Todd died. He was killed in the war.
Was he? Was he really?
Todd Raynes' face-until the dream, or rather the nightmare from which she'd woken last night, bathed in perspiration, heart pounding- had grown hazy in her memory over the years, a face remembered mostly from a photograph on the dresser. She saw clearly now the shy grin, the warm brown eyes with their sweet blend of mischief and sensitivity. In the dream, however, Todd had not been smiling. What was the expression on his face? Rage? Fear? Try as she might, Katie could not recall, as she could not recall one detail of the dream. She could only feel the uneasy sensations it had left her with.
After she'd received the telegram telling her that Todd was missing in action, she'd been consumed with her loss and had sworn to be true to his memory always. Their love was meant to last, even after death, into all eternity. For her, there would be no other. And she supposed that in any way that really mattered, there hadn't been.
But it was, of course, a vow made not by a woman, but by a grief-stricken child, destined to be broken. Let go, she told herself now. Maybe that's what's wrong inside of you, why you can't sustain an intimate relationship, maybe even the reason for the nightmare. You've never let go.
"Goodbye, Todd," she whispered in the small confines of the car.
Metallic rock music blatted out suddenly from the radio, seeming to mock her silly attempt at exorcism, and Katie reached angrily to switch it off. With the slight movement of her head, she found herself looking directly into the rearview mirror. Her eyes locked there. Screams bubbled up from the depths of her, wedged mutely in her throat. As sightless, unblinking eyes stared into hers.
Brakes shrieked as the car swerved wildly out of control, as if other hands were at the wheel, gripping it, wrenching it away from her. A great, dark wall rushed at Katie, and deep down in some functioning part of her brain where terror did not reach, she understood that the moment when she might have done something to prevent what was about to happen was gone. Glass exploded just before the swirling blackness swept her up into the crushing center of itself and Katie knew a terrible sadness.
And then she knew nothing.
Nothing at all.
A truck pulled slowly up behind the wrecked blue Comet. The man got out and strode to the driver's door, which had been flung open on impact. The front end was crumpled like tinfoil. The hood was up and clouds of steam hissed from the radiator. One surviving headlight lit a pale yellow path along the black, shiny pavement.
She lay unmoving, head lolling to one side, blood streaming down her face. For a moment he was only incredulous. Gradually, rage replaced the initial surprise, and he felt himself trembling. Letting out an animal cry, he drew back and struck her across the face with the back of his hand. The sound echoed in the stillness. Her head lolled to the other side. But no sound issued from her. No complaint. No! He would not be denied. He would not! Again, he struck her, harder this time, and again, tears of black fury welling in his eyes. Wake up! Wake up, bitch! Goddamn bitch cheated him. The sound of a car approaching forced him to get control of himself. He barely had time to take care of business, make it back to the truck and back a safe distance away before they came in droves. Cars stopped. Doors closed. A crowd gathered, seeming to come out of nowhere. Scavengers to the kill, he thought.
A woman's shocked voice, "Oh, my god, is she dead?" Frightened, urgent whispers, craning necks. Now a man's voice-urgent-a voice accustomed to giving orders, having them obeyed. The man in the truck hated him at once, a quick, seething, familiar hatred. "Someone call an ambulance. Who has a phone in their car?"
"I do," said another, and he heard the sound of running footsteps.
Slumped down behind the wheel, headlights off, the man watched in dull rage and frustration. He hadn't meant to kill her, goddamn it! Not like this. Only to shake her up a little, have some fun, get things moving. He'd waited so long, so patiently, given such close attention to each detail of his plan, going over it and over it in his mind. And now she was dead. Depriving him. Depriving him of his just revenge, damn her! He brought his fist down full force on the steering wheel, almost enjoying the leap of pain from his hand to his arm. Then a voice spoke to him, a soothing voice, wiser than his own. Maybe she isn't dead after all, it said. Maybe she only looked dead. You couldn't really be sure. There was so much blood. He felt the stickiness of it now on the back of his hand. Maybe she was just unconscious.
Sirens screamed in the distance, rising in volume as the ambulance raced nearer. Get the hell out of here! the voice commanded, and at once he slipped the car into gear, ready to obey.
At the last second he changed his mind. He had to know for sure. Switching on the lights, he edged closer to the scene. No one paid any attention, as, for the second time in ten minutes, he climbed out of the truck. Fixing his face with an expression of solemn concern, the man in the khaki slicker joined the throng of onlookers.
The siren wailed louder.
Monday morning dawned cold and gray, which seemed to Dr. Jonathan Shea fitting as he sat wearily behind his recently cleared desk. Drawn and unshaven, shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows, he dictated a letter of resignation to Jeannie Craig, his secretary of five years.
He stared past her as he talked. When he finished, he laced his hands behind his head, tilted back in the swivel chair and contemplated the square white ceiling tiles. With a bitter note of satisfaction he sighed heavily, and said, "Well, that's it."
The blond young woman peered at him with moist hazel eyes through round granny glasses. When she spoke, her voice shook, sending vibrations to the yellow pencil in her hand.
"Are you really not going to be working here anymore, Dr. Shea?"
"I'm really not, Jeannie."
"Well-what will I-I mean who will I be working for? Or will I-?"
Hearing the anxiousness in her voice, his hands came from behind his head and he straightened in the chair. Her face was merely questioning, but he saw the tension in her thin shoulders-tension he hadn't seen for a long time. Of course she would be worried. Why hadn't that occurred to him? She was a single mother with a five-year-old son to support. Damn! Why was it everything he did (or didn't do, a small voice taunted) seemed to effect someone else?
He raked his thick, straight black hair and tried for a reassuring smile. "Don't worry about your job, Jeannie. I'll recommend you. There'll be no problem." Surely he was not without a little influence.
Jeannie had come to him as a patient five years ago following the birth of her child. She'd been raised in an unloving foster home by strict, fanatically religious people, and had run away at seventeen. Hardly surprising that she would be easy prey to the first man who offered her a kind word and a little affection. He remembered how she would suddenly burst into tears, wring her hands, often quoting self-damning scripture-fire and brimstone stuff. They'd done a good job on her. Her self-esteem was practically nil. After six months in analysis, he'd known she had basic secretarial skills acquired in high school, and on impulse, since his own secretary was leaving to get married, he'd hired Jeannie. He'd never been sorry.
"What will you do?" she asked, breaking into his thoughts. She sounded stronger. The tension had left her shoulders. Jeannie would be okay. She'd come a long way.
He gave her a wry grin. "Maybe I'll just be typical and write a book."
"That sounds exciting," she said, smiling at him. "What will it be about?"
"I don't know. Maybe you can come up with some ideas for me."
She just looked at him.
"Or maybe I'll find work as a mechanic. I used to be pretty good with cars when I was a kid."
Her smile twitched. "Oh, Doctor Shea, you're joking, aren't you?"
He managed a laugh, admitted he was. The idea, however, was not without appeal. Cars didn't feel.
"I've loved working for you, Dr. Shea," Jeannie was saying. "Working for someone else-well, it won't be the same."
"No, I guess not. Maybe it'll be better."
Hurt leapt into her eyes, and he silently cursed himself for his insensitivity. "I'm sorry, Jeannie. That was sweet of you to say. I'm just-well, I'm not . . . "
"I know. It's Jodie, isn't it? You think it's your fault. It isn't, you know."
He was touched at her loyalty, however misplaced. Anyway, Jodie was only part of the reason he was leaving Belleville General Hospital.
He came around from behind his desk and took Jeannie's hand in his. "I've enjoyed working with you, too, Jeannie. You're a special lady, and don't you ever forget that. You're also one hell of a secretary, and whoever gets you will be very, very lucky. I'm going to miss you."
Her fair skin reddened, and he saw her eyes behind the glasses brim over with tears. "Thank you," she said, her voice breaking.
Jonathan crossed the room and stood looking out the window at the grayness outside without really seeing it. "Well, if you'll just type that up, Jeannie, I see no reason you can't take the rest of the day off. You've cancelled all my appointments." He would likely have to stay on a couple of weeks, clear things up. But not today. He couldn't see patients today. He would also have to go see Milton Evans, the administrator. He couldn't avoid that, as much as he would like to. "You have cancelled my appointments, Jeannie?"
"Good. So get out of here. Go get that great kid of yours and take him to the beach."
"Dr. Shea, it's October. Anyway, the sun isn't shining."
He turned to see her looking at him oddly. Burying his hands in his pockets, he grinned at her. "You know, you're absolutely right. Well, how about a shopping spree, then write yourself a check; I'll sign it. Call it a bonus. You deserve it. Buy yourself a Halloween costume. Go trick or treating."
She giggled, a nervous giggle. "The hospital pays my salary."
"Oh. Of course. Then I'll write you a personal check."
Her smile wavered as she stared at him. "Dr. Shea, are you all right?"
"Fine, Jeannie. Just fine."
Clutching the notepad and pencil to her chest, the girl moved toward the door, hesitated. Casting one last worried backward glance at her employer who had turned back to the window, she slipped out the door, closing it softly behind her.
"Code ninety-nine, code ninety-nine," came the female voice over the sound system. "Dr. Miller to emergency. Dr. Miller, please report to emergency at once."
Poor Dr. Shea, Jeannie thought, wishing there was something she could do to help. Something to repay him for all that he had done for her.
It was during her second month in analysis that she fell madly in love with Dr. Shea. She'd begun dressing with care for their sessions, trying desperately to make him notice her as a woman, to love her back. She'd been totally out of control, buoyed by her fantasies, soaring to exquisite heights one minute, plummeting into black depths of despair and self-hatred the next. It was a bad time for her. The worst.
It couldn't have been too great for Dr. Shea, either, she thought, flushing a little, remembering. Especially when she began making those middle of the night calls to his house when she couldn't get to sleep for thinking of him. Not once did he make her feel a fool for her feelings. His voice ever calm and caring, he would explain again and again about transference and dependency, until gradually she was able to put their relationship into perspective. Dr. Shea was a good man. He was moody was all.
Funny, though he'd often told her to call him Jonathan, she could never quite bring herself to. Calling him by his first name-well, that would be showing a lack of respect. She heard herself on the telephone to him, saying, "I love you, Dr. Shea," and smiled to herself. It was really quite funny when you thought about it.
The woman's voice seemed to come from far off, faintly, as though carried on ocean waves.
Once Todd had telephoned her from Vietnam, and his voice over the telephone lines had sounded like that.
"Katherine Summers-Miss Summers? Wake up now. The doctor is here to see you."
Someone calling out to Aunt Katherine. But Aunt Katherine is dead. The voice grew louder, insistent, grating along Katie's nerves, making her aware of the throbbing pain in her head. She longed to tell whoever it was to go away, but the effort to speak was too great.
"Miss Summers. Open your eyes. That's a good girl."
"No, go away," Katie managed through parched, swollen lips, aggravated at the bright cheerfulness of the woman's voice. It seemed like mockery when Katie felt so horrible. Why didn't she just let her alone? Let her sleep.
Katie tried to open her eyes. They felt as if there were weights attached to them. Through slitted eyes, she could make out the blurred white forms bending over her. The figures wavered, like pale ghosts, seeming to have no substance. Gradually, they drew into focus, then more sharply, as did the stark white walls. The smell of anesthetic was so strong in her nostrils she could almost taste it.
"My head hurts," she whispered.
"I'm not surprised," the doctor said, bending over her, peering into each of her eyes with a tiny light. His tanned scalp showed through thinning gray hair. "You have a nasty concussion. But we can give you something for the pain."
Straightening, he smiled at her. He looked pleased with himself for some reason. "I'm Dr. Miller, by the way. This is Nurse Ring."
"Ring if you need anything," she sang, and Katie groaned.
Dr. Miller laughed. "You must be on the mend, my dear, if you can recognize a warped sense of humor."
"Really, Doctor," the nurse said in mock indignation.
"But even if she doesn't make it to The Tonight Show, " he went on, "she's an excellent nurse. You're in good hands."
Looking into the two pairs of eyes that were watching her intently for a response, Katie understood that the lighthearted act was meant to reassure her, to keep her from feeling afraid. She wished she could feel more appreciative. She wished she could feel anything other than this sick, throbbing pain in her head.
"Could you tell us your name, where you live, that sort of thing?" the doctor asked. "Routine, but necessary, I'm afraid."
Her voice, when she spoke, came out weak and raspy. She felt as if she were trying it out for the first time.
"My name is-Katherine Summers." Of course. They hadn't been calling to her aunt at all, but to her. It was just that no one had called her Katherine since she was a child, and even then, only her mother. "Katherine Anne Summers," she said. "But everyone calls me Katie. I live in a house at Black Lake. It belonged to my aunt when she was alive." This last was said as much to clear it for herself as for anyone. To make her own existence real.
"Yes," the doctor said, smiling again. "I've heard of her. I knew the name rang a bell. She was a writer, wasn't she? Well, that's good, Katie. Do you remember what happened? What brought you here?"
"Yes." She didn't want to remember. Remembering made her head hurt worse. She licked dry lips. "May I have some water, please?"
A gentle hand supported the back of her head while the cup was placed to her lips. "Just a little now," the nurse said. "Sip it."
Her head again resting on the pillow, Katie closed her eyes. She shivered as the image flashed back to her. "Someone in the rearview mirror. A man."
Frowning, he bent lower. "I'm sorry, Katie. I didn't quite hear you. Can you speak up a little, dear?"
"Eyes-dead eyes. In the rearview mirror."
The effort of speaking took its toll. Her heart raced, her cotton hospital shirt was damp with perspiration. She caught the questioning look that passed between the two.
"Are you telling me," Dr. Miller said, making his words slow and deliberate, "that there was a-a dead man in the back seat of your car?"
At his look of incredulity, Katie struggled to sit up, but the doctor eased her back down on the bed. "Just lie still, please. You mustn't upset yourself."
"But they must have found the body."
"Perhaps they have," Dr. Miller said too quickly, "and they're just not making it public yet."
The nurse's smile was strained.
"I'm not crazy," Katie said.
"No one thinks you are, Katie," the doctor replied kindly. "But perhaps it's possible that-"
"I didn't imagine it," she cut in, fighting to keep her voice controlled and even, knowing that hysteria wouldn't help her cause. "There was a man in the back seat of my car, and he was dead. I swear it. My God, I saw his eyes. I'll never forget them. It's what made me lose control of the car." She stopped, sighing. "But I can see you don't believe me."
"Of course I believe you. At least I believe that's what you think you saw. Certainly something must have happened to make you slam into that telephone pole on the wrong side of the road."
A telephone pole. The dark wall that had rushed at her. "Yes," she said wearily, "and I've told you what it was."
After a moment of contemplation, Dr. Miller asked, "Was the man you-saw-someone you knew?" Katie could see through this new approach. He was afraid of upsetting her further, afraid of pushing her over the edge. The thought frightened her as much as anything. She wasn't used to being handled with kid gloves.
There was no choice but to answer. "No. At-at least I don't think so. But I can't be sure." Those eyes staring at her-it had all happened so fast. Katie closed her eyes against the mounting pain in her head, like repeated stabs of a knife inside her skull. She was beginning to feel nauseous.
"Are you experiencing more discomfort?" Dr. Miller asked.
She could only nod, imagining her fingers moving upward to gently massage her throbbing temples, but lacking the strength to raise her arms.
"Try to put the incident out of your mind for now, Katie," he said. "I've kept you talking for much too long. There'll be time later when you're feeling up to it. And you will be, I promise. You're coming along nicely. I expect that's hard for you to believe just now, feeling as you do. I'll have the nurse bring you something for the pain."
... continued ...