Page 22


Both windows in the dining room faced the residence next door, which crowded close to Susan’s house. They were locked.


In the living room, she switched off the lamps. She sat in an armchair, sipping Merlot, while her eyes adjusted to the darkness.


Although her phobia had progressed until she had difficulty looking at the daylight world even through windows, she could still tolerate the night view when the sky was overcast, when no deep sea of stars awaited her contemplation. In weather like this, she never failed to test herself, for she worried that if she didn’t exercise her weak muscle of courage, it would atrophy altogether.


When her night vision improved and the Merlot lubricated the little engine of fortitude in her heart, she went to the middle pane of the three big ocean-facing windows. After a brief hesitation and a deep breath, she raised the pleated shade.


Immediately in front of the house, the paved promenade lay under the false frost of widely separated streetlamps. Though the hour was not yet late, the promenade was nearly deserted in the January chill. A young couple skated by on Rollerblades. A cat scurried from one drift of shadows to another.


Thin tendrils of mist wound between the few palm trees and the streetlamps. In the still air, the fronds hung motionless, so the creeping mist seemed to be alive, advancing with silent menace.


Susan couldn’t see much of the night-cloaked beach. She could not see the Pacific at all: A bank of dense fog had advanced as far as the shore, where it could be glimpsed only intermittently—high, gray, like a towering tsunami flash-frozen an instant before it would have smashed across the coast. The lazy mist writhed off the face of the fog bank, as cold steam rises off a block of dry ice.


With the stars lost above the low clouds, with darkness and fog partitioning the world into small spaces, Susan should have been able to stand at the window for hours, insulated from her fear, but her heart began to race. Agoraphobia was not the cause of her sudden apprehension; rather, she was overcome by a sense of being watched.


Since the night assaults had begun, she was increasingly plagued by this new anxiety. Scopophobia: fear of being watched.


Surely, however, this wasn’t just another phobia, not just an unreasonable fear, but an entirely rational one. If her phantom rap**t was real, he must at times keep her home under surveillance, to be sure that he’d find her alone when he paid a visit.


Nevertheless, she was concerned about acquiring new layers of fear atop her agoraphobia, until eventually she would be bound up like an Egyptian mummy, wrapped by smothering shrouds of anxiety, paralyzed and effectively embalmed alive.


The promenade was deserted. The palm boles weren’t wide enough to conceal anyone.


He's out there.


For three nights in a row, Susan hadn’t been assaulted. This all too human incubus was due. He exhibited a pattern of need, more regular than—but as reliable as—the pull of the moon on the blood tides of a werewolf


Often she had tried to stay awake on the nights she expected him. When she succeeded, exhausted and grainy-eyed by dawn, he never showed. Usually, if her willpower failed her and she dozed off, he paid a visit. Once, she fell asleep fully dressed, in an armchair, and she woke fully dressed, but in bed, with the faint scent of his sweat clinging to her and with his hateful, sticky issue clotted in her panties. He seemed to know, by some sixth sense, when she was sleeping and most vulnerable.


He's out there.


On the generally flat beach, a few low dunes rose at the outer limit of visibility, curving smoothly away into darkness and mist. An observer might be watching from behind one of them, although he would have to be lying prone in the sand to remain hidden.


She felt his gaze upon her. Or thought she felt it.


Susan quickly lowered the pleated shade, covering the window.


Furious with herself for being so shamefully timid, shaking more with anger and frustration than with fear, sick of being a helpless victim, after having been anything but a victim for most of her life, she wished fervently that she could overcome her agoraphobia and go outside, storm across the beach, kick through the sand to the crest of each dune, and either confront her tormentor or prove to herself that he was not out there. But she didn’t have the courage to stalk the stalker, wasn’t able to do anything but hide and wait.


She couldn’t even hope for deliverance, because her hope, which had long sustained her, had recently shrunk until, if given physical substance, it would not be visible through either a magnifying glass or the most powerful microscope.


Magnifying glass.


As she dropped the cord of the window shade, Susan picked up a new idea, turned it around in her mind, and liked the shape of it. Housebound by agoraphobia, she couldn’t stalk her stalker, but maybe she could watch him while he watched her.


In the bedroom closet, above the hanging clothes, on the top shelf, was a vinyl carrying case containing a pair of high-power binoculars. In better days, when she had not been unnerved by the very sight of the sunlit world in all its vastness, she had enjoyed watching sailboat regattas staged along the coast and larger ships bound for South America or San Francisco.


With a two-step folding stool borrowed from the kitchen, she hurried to the bedroom. The binoculars were where she expected to find them.


Stored on the same shelf, among other stuff, was an item that she had forgotten. A video camera.


The camcorder had been one of Eric’s short-lived enthusiasms. Long before he moved out, he had lost interest in taping and editing home movies.


An electrifying possibility short-circuited Susan’s plan to survey the dunes for a concealed observer.


Leaving the binoculars untouched, she lifted down the hard-plastic case containing the video camera and associated gear. She opened it on the bed.


In addition to the camcorder, the case contained a spare battery pack, two blank tapes, and an instruction book.


She had never used the camera. Eric had done all the taping. Now she read the instruction book with keen interest.


As usual when pursuing a new hobby, Eric had not been saris-fled with ordinary tools. He insisted on owning the best, state-of-the-art equipment, cutting-edge gadgetry. This handheld video camera was compact but nevertheless provided the finest available lenses, near flawless image and sound recording, and whisper-quiet operation that would not register through the microphone.


Instead of accepting only twenty- or thirty-minute tapes, it could accommodate a two-hour cassette. It also featured an extended-recording mode, using fewer inches of tape per minute, which allowed three hours of recording on a two-hour tape, though the resultant image was said to be ten percent less clear than that produced at standard speed.


The camcorder was so energy efficient and the rechargeable battery pack was so powerful that two to three hours of operation could be expected, depending on how much you used the image monitor and the various other power-draining features.


According to the built-in gauge, the installed battery pack was dead. Susan tested the spare pack, which held a partial charge.


Not certain that the dead pack could be revived, she used the charging cord to plug the livelier battery into a bathroom outlet, to bring it up to full readiness.


The glass of Merlot was on an end table in the living room. She raised it as if making a silent toast, and this time she drank not for solace but in celebration.


For the first time in months, she genuinely felt that she was in control of her life. While she knew that she was taking just a single small step to resolve only one of the many grievous problems that plagued her, knew that she was far from truly being in control, Susan didn’t temper her excitement. At least she was doing something, at long last, and she desperately needed to be lifted by this rush of optimism.


In the kitchen, as she cleaned up the preparations for chicken marsala and took a pepperoni pizza from the freezer, she wondered why she hadn’t thought of the camcorder weeks or months ago. Indeed, she began to realize that she had been surprisingly passive, considering the horror and abuse she’d endured.


Oh, she had sought therapy. Twice a week for almost sixteen months now. That was no small accomplishment, the struggle to and from each session, the perseverance in the face of limited results, but submitting to therapy was the very least she could have done when her life was falling apart. And the key word was submitting, because she’d deferred to Ahriman’s therapeutic strategies and advice with uncharacteristic docility, considering that in the past she had dealt with physicians as skeptically as she did with high-pressure car salesmen, double-checking them through her own research and by seeking second opinions.


Popping the pizza into the microwave, Susan was happy to be relieved of the necessity to cook a complicated dinner, and she understood, almost with the power of an epiphany, that she’d held fast to her sanity through ritual at the expense of action. Ritual anesthetized, made the misery of her condition bearable, but it did not bring her closer to a resolution of her troubles; it didn’t heal.


She filled her wineglass. Wine didn’t heal, either, and she needed to be careful not to get bagged and then screw up the work ahead of her, but she was so excited, so adrenaline-stoked, that she could probably finish the whole bottle and, with her metabolism in high gear, burn it off by bedtime.


As Susan paced the kitchen, waiting for the pizza to be ready, her bafflement at her long passivity grew into amazement. Looking over the past year with new detachment, she could almost believe she’d been living under a warlock’s evil spell that had clouded her thinking, sapped her willpower, and shackled her soul with dark magic.


Well, the spell was broken. The old Susan Jagger was back— clearheaded, energized, and ready to use her anger to change her life.


He was out there. Maybe he was even watching from the dunes this very minute. Maybe he would skate past her house on Rollerblades now and then, or jog past, or ride past on a bike, to all appearances only one more California fun freak or exercise fanatic. But he was out there, for sure.


The creep hadn’t visited her for three successive nights, but he followed a pattern of need that all but assured he would come to her before dawn. Even if she could not fend off sleep, even if she was somehow drugged and unaware of what he was doing to her, she would know all about him in the morning, because with a little luck, the hidden camcorder would capture him in the act.


If the tape revealed Eric, she would kick his sorry ass until her shoe would need to be surgically removed from his cheeks. And then get him out of her life forever.


If she caught a stranger, which seemed highly unlikely, she would have proof for the police. As deeply mortifying as it would be to surrender a tape of her own rape into evidence, she would do what she must.


Returning to the table for her glass of wine, she wondered what if... what if...


What if upon waking she felt used and sore, felt the insidious warmth of semen, and yet the tape showed her alone in bed, tossing either in ecstasy or in terror, like a madwoman in a fit? As though her visitor were an entity—call him Incubus—who cast no reflection in mirrors and left no image on videotape.


Nonsense.


The truth was out there, but it wasn’t supernatural.


She raised the glass of Merlot for a sip—and took half of it in one thick swallow.


28


Like a shrine to Martha Stewart, goddess of the modern American home. Two floor lamps with fringed silk shades. Two big armchairs with footstools, facing each other across a tea table. Needlepoint pillows on the chairs. The living-room fireplace to one side.


This was Martie’s favorite spot in the house. Many nights during the past three years, she and Dusty had sat here with books, quietly reading, each lost in a separate fiction, yet as intimate as if they had been holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes.


Now her legs were drawn up on the chair, and she was turned slightly to her left, sans book. She sat quite still, in a languid attitude, which must have looked like the posture of serenity, when in fact she was not so much serene as emotionally exhausted.


In the other chair, Dusty tried to settle back in an assumption of calm consideration and analysis, but he slid repeatedly to the edge of his seat.


Occasionally halted by embarrassment, more often silenced because she couldn’t help pausing to marvel at the weird details of her own demented behavior, Martie recounted her ordeal in short installments, resuming her story when Dusty gently encouraged her with questions.


The very sight of Dusty calmed her and gave her hope, but Martie sometimes could not meet his eyes. She gazed into the cold fireplace as if hypnotic flames licked the ceramic logs.


Surprisingly, the decorative set of brass fireplace tools didn’t alarm her. A small shovel. Pointed tongs. A poker. Only a short while ago, the sight of the poker alone would have plucked arpeggios of terror from her harp-string nerves.


Embers of anxiety remained aglow in her, but right now she was more afraid of another crippling panic attack than of her potential to do violence.


Although she recounted the attack in all its gaudy detail, she couldn’t convey how it felt. Indeed, she had difficulty remembering the full intensity of her terror, which seemed to have happened to another Martie Rhodes, to a troubled persona that had briefly risen from the muck of her psyche and had now submerged again.


From time to time, Dusty noisily rattled the ice in his Scotch to get her attention. When she looked at him, he raised his drink, reminding her to sample her serving. She’d been reluctant to accept the Scotch, fearful of losing control of herself again. Ounce by ounce, however, Johnny Walker Red Label was proving to be effective therapy.


Good Valet lay by her chair, rising now and then to rest his chin on her bent legs, submitting to a smoothing hand on his head, commiseration in his soulful eyes.


Twice she gave the dog small cubes of ice from her drink. He crunched them with a strangely solemn pleasure.


When Martie finished her account, Dusty said, “What now?”


“Dr. Closterman, in the morning. I made an appointment today, coming back from Susan’s, even before things got really bad for me.”


“I’ll go with you.”


“I want a full physical. Complete blood workup. A brain scan, in case maybe there’s a tumor.”


“There’s no tumor,” Dusty said with a conviction based solely on hope. “There’s nothing serious wrong with you.”


“There’s something.”


“No.” The thought of her being ill, perhaps terminal, caused Dusty such dread that he could not conceal it.


Martie treasured every line of anguish in his face, because more than all the love talk in the world, it revealed how much he cherished her.


“I’d accept a brain tumor,” she said.


“Accept?”


“If the alternative is mental illness. They can cut out the tumor, and there’s a chance of being what you were.”

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