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You are humoring me, Grace thought. Just coddling an old lady.


“Very well,” she said. “I’ll try changing his food. But if he’s still not himself a week from now, I’ll want you to give him a complete battery of tests.”


“Of course.”


“I’ll want an answer.”


On the stainless-steel table, Aristophanes purred, happily twitched his long tail, and looked infuriatingly normal.


***


Later, at home, just inside the front door, when Grace slipped the latch on the padded travel basket and opened the lid, Aristophanes exploded out of confinement with a hiss and a snarl, his fun bristling, his ears laid back against his head, eyes wild. He clawed her hand and squealed as she thrust him away from her. He sprinted down the hall, disappeared into the kitchen, where the pet door gave him access to the rear yard.


Shocked, Grace stared at her hand. Ari’s claws had made three short furrows in the meaty edge of her palm. Blood welled up and began to trickle down her wrist.


Carol’s last appointment on Friday was at one o’clock: a fifty-minute session with Kathy Lombino, a fifteen-year-old girl who was gradually recovering from anorexia nervosa. Five months ago, when she had first been brought to Carol, Kathy had weighed only seventy-five pounds, at least thirty pounds below her ideal weight. She had been teetering on the edge of starvation, repelled by the sight and even the thought of food, stubbornly refusing to eat more than an occasional soda cracker or slice of bread, often gagging on even those bland morsels. When she was put in front of a mirror and forced to confront the pathetic sight of her emaciated body, she still berated herself for being fat and could not be convinced that she was, in fact, frighteningly thin. Her prospects for survival had seemed slight. Now she weighed ninety pounds, up fifteen, still well below a healthy weight for a girl of her height and bone structure, but at least she was no longer in danger of dying. A loss of self-respect and self-confidence was nearly always the seed from which anorexia nervosa grew, and Kathy was beginning to like herself again, a sure sign that she was on her way back from the brink. She hadn’t yet regained a normal appetite; she still experienced mild revulsion at the sight and taste of food; but her attitude was far better than it had been, for now she recognized the need for food, even though she didn’t have any desire for it. The girl had a long way to go before she would be fully recovered, but the worst was past for her; in time she would learn to enjoy food again, and she would gain weight more rapidly than she had done thus far, stabilizing around a hundred and five or a hundred and ten pounds. Kathy’s progress had been immensely satisfying to Carol, and today’s session only added to that satisfaction. As had become customary, she and the girl hugged each other at the end of the session, and Kathy held on tighter and longer than usual. When the girl left the office, she was smiling.


A few minutes later, at two o’clock, Carol went to the hospital. In the gift shop off the lobby, she bought a deck of playing cards and a miniature checkerboard with nickle-sized checkers that all fit neatly into a vinyl carrying case.


Upstairs, in 316, the television was on, and Jane was reading a magazine. She looked up when Carol entered, and she said, “You really came.”


“Said I would, didn’t I?”


“What’ve you got?”


“Cards, checkers. I thought maybe they’d help you pass the time.”


“You promised you wouldn’t buy me anything else.”


“Hey, did I say I was giving these to you? No way. You think I’m a soft touch or something? I’m lending them, kid. I expect them back. And whenever you return them, they’d better be in as good condition as they are now, or I’ll take you all the way to the Supreme Court to get compensated for the damage.”


Jane grinned. “Boy, you’re tough.”


“I eat nails for breakfast.”


“Don’t they get stuck in your teeth?”


“I pluck ‘em out with pliers.”


“Ever eat barbed wire?”


“Never for breakfast. I have it for lunch now and then.”


They both laughed, and Carol said, “So do you play checkers?”


“I don’t know. I don’t remember.”


The girl shrugged.


“Nothing’s come back yet?” Carol asked.


“Not a thing.”


“Don’t worry. It will.”


“My folks haven’t shown up, either.”


“Well, you’ve only been missing for one day. Give them time to find you. It’s too soon to start worrying about that.”


They played three games of checkers. Jane remembered all of the rules, but she couldn’t recall where or with whom she had played before.


The afternoon passed quickly, and Carol enjoyed every minute of it. Jane was charming, bright, and blessed with a good sense of humor. Whether the game was checkers, hearts, or five-hundred rummy, she played to win, but she never pouted when she lost. She was very good company.


The girl’s charm and pleasing personality made it highly unlikely that she would go unclaimed for long. Some teenagers are so self-centered, spaced out on drugs, bullheaded, and destructive that when one of them decides to run away from home, his decision often elicits only a sigh of relief from his mother and father. But when a good kid like Jane Doe disappears, a lot of people start sounding alarms.


There must be a family that loves her, Carol


thought. They’re probably crazy with worry right now. Sooner or later they’ll turn up, crying and laughing with relief that their girl has been found alive. So why not sooner? Where are they?


The doorbell rang at precisely three-thirty. Paul answered it and found a pallid, gray-eyed man of about


fifty. He wore gray slacks, a pale gray shirt, and a dark gray sweater.


“Mr. Tracy?”


“Yes. Are you from Safe Homes?”


“That’s right,” the gray man said. “Name’s Bill Alsgood. I am Safe Homes. Started the company two years ago.”


They shook hands, and Alsgood entered the foyer, looking with interest at the interior of the house. “Lovely place. You’re lucky to get same-day service. Usually, I’m scheduled three days in advance. But when you called this morning and said it was an emergency, I’d just had a cancellation.”


“You’re a building inspector?” Paul asked, closing the door.


“Structural engineer, to be precise. What our company does is inspect the house before it’s sold, usually on behalf of the buyer, at his expense. We tell him if he’s buying into a heartache of any sort—a leaky roof, a cellar that floods, a crumbling foundation, faulty wiring, bad plumbing, that kind of thing. We’re fully bonded, so even if we overlook something, our client is protected. Are you the buyer or the seller?”


“Neither,” Paul said. “My wife and I own the place, but we aren’t ready to sell it. We’re having a problem with the house, and I can’t pinpoint the cause of it. I thought you might be able to help.”


Alsgood raised one gray eyebrow. “May I suggest that what you need is a good handyman. He’d be considerably cheaper, and once he’d found the trouble, he could fix it, too. We don’t do any repair work, you know. We only inspect.”


“I’m aware of that. I’m pretty handy myself, but I haven’t figured out what’s wrong or how to fix it.


I think I need the kind of expert advice that no handyman can give me.’


“You do know we charge two hundred and fifty dollars for an inspection?”


“I know,” Paul said. “But this is an extremely annoying problem, and it might be causing serious structural damage.”


“What is it?”


Paul told him about the hammering sounds that occasionally shook the house.


“That’s peculiar as hell,” Alsgood said. “I’ve never heard a complaint like it before.” He thought for a moment, then said, “Where’s your furnace?”


“In the cellar.”


“Maybe it’s a heating duct problem. Unlikely. But we can start down there and work our way up to the roof until we’ve found the cause.”


For the next two hours, Alsgood looked into every cranny of the house, poked and probed and rapped and visually inspected every inch of the interior, then every inch of the roof, while Paul tagged along, assisting wherever he could. A light rain began to fall when they were still on the roof, and they were both soaked by the time they finished the job and climbed down. Alsgood’s left foot slipped off the last rung of the ladder, just as he was about to step onto the waterlogged lawn, and he twisted his ankle painfully. All that risk and inconvenience was for nothing because Alsgood didn’t find anything out of the ordinary.


At five-thirty, in the kitchen, they warmed up with coffee while Alsgood filled out his report. Wet and bedraggled, he looked even more pallid than when Paul had first seen him. The rain had transformed his gray clothes—once a variety of shades — into a single, dull hue, so that he appeared to be wearing a drab uniform. “It’s basically a solid house, Mr. Tracy. The condition is really topnotch.”


“Then where the devil did that sound come from? And why was the whole house shaken by it?”


“I wish I’d heard it.”


“I was sure it’d start up at least once while you were here.”


Alsgood sipped his coffee, but the warm brew added no color to his cheeks. “Structurally, there’s not a thing wrong with this house. That’s what my report will say, and I’d stake my reputation on it.”


“Which puts me right back at square one,” Paul said, folding his hands around his coffee cup.


“I’m sorry you spent all this money without getting an answer,” Alsgood said. “I really feel bad about that.”


“It isn’t your fault. I’m convinced you did a thorough job. In fact, if I ever buy another house, I’ll definitely want you to inspect it first. At least I now know the trouble isn’t structural, which rules out possibilities and narrows the field of inquiry.”


“Maybe you won’t even hear it again. It might stop just as suddenly as it started.”


“Somehow, I suspect you’re wrong about that,” Paul said.


Later, at the front door, as Alsgood was leaving, he said, “One thought has occurred to me, but I hesitate to mention it.”


“Why?”


“You might think it’s off the wall.”


“Mr. Alsgood, I’m a desperate man. I’m willing to consider anything, no matter how farfetched it might be.”


Alsgood looked at the ceiling, then at the floor, then back along the hail that lay behind Paul, then down at his own feet. “A ghost,” he said quietly.


Paul stared at him, surprised.


Alsgood cleared his throat nervously, shifted his eyes to the floor again, then finally raised them and met Paul’s gaze. “Maybe you don’t believe in ghosts.”


“DO you?” Paul asked.


“Yes. I’ve been interested in the subject most of my life. I have a large collection of publications dealing with spiritualism of all sorts. I’ve had some personal experiences in haunted houses, too.”


“You’ve seen a ghost”


“I believe I have, yes, on four occasions. Ectoplasmic apparitions. Insubstantial, manlike shapes drifting in the air. I’ve also twice witnessed poltergeist phenomena. As far as this house is concerned..


His voice trailed away, and he licked his lips nervously. “If you find this boring or preposterous, I don’t want to waste your time.”


“Quite frankly,” Paul said, “I can’t picture myself calling an exorcist in to deal with this. But I’m not entirely close-minded where ghosts are concerned. I find it hard to accept, but I’m certainly willing to listen.”


“Reasonable enough,” Alsgood said. For the first time since he had rung the doorbell more than two hours ago, color rose into his milky complexion, and his watery eyes brightened with a spark of enthusiasm. “All right. Here’s something to consider. From what you’ve told me, I’d say there might be a poltergeist at work here. Of course, no objects have been hurled around by an unseen presence; there’s been no breakage, and poltergeists dearly love to break things. But the shaking of the house, the clattering pots and pans, the little bottles clinking against one another in the spice rack—those are all indications of a poltergeist at work, one that’s just beginning to test its powers. If it is a poltergeist, then you can expect worse to come. Oh, yes. Definitely. Furniture moving across the floor all by itself. Pictures flung off the walls, lamps knocked down and broken. Dishes flying around the room as if they were birds.” His wan countenance flushed with excitement as he considered the supernatural destruction. “Levitations of heavy objects like sofas and beds and refrigerators. Now mind you, there are some recorded cases of people being plagued by benign poltergeists that don’t break much of anything, but the overwhelming number of them are malign, and that’s what you’ll most likely have to deal with—if indeed you’ve got one here at all.’, Having warmed to his subject, he finished in an almost breathless rush of words: “In its most active form, even a benign poltergeist can completely disrupt a household, interfere with your sleep, and keep you so on edge that you don’t know whether you’re coming or going.”


Startled by Alsgood’s passionately delivered speech


and by the odd new light in the man’s eyes, Paul said, “Well.. . uh. . . it’s really not that bad. Not nearly that bad. Just a hammering sound and—”


“It’s not that bad yet,” Alsgood said somberly.


“But if you have a poltergeist here, the situation could deteriorate rapidly. If you’ve never seen one in action, Mr. Tracy, you simply can’t understand what it’s like.”


Paul was disconcerted by the change in the man. He felt as if he had opened the door to one of those


wholesome-looking types who turned out to be pushing crackpot religious pamphlets and who proclaimed the imminence of Judgment Day in the same bubbly, upbeat tone of voice that Donny Osmond might use to introduce his cute little sister, Marie, to a panting audience of Osmond fans. There was a disquieting zeal in Alsgood’s manner.


“If it does turn out to be a poltergeist,” Alsgood said, “if things do get a lot worse, will you call me right away? I’ve been fortunate enough to observe two poltergeists, as I said. I’d like nothing better than to see a third going through its tricks. The opportunity doesn’t arise very often.”

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