Page 16

Finally, Hannaport smiled. “I think it’s a grand and generous offer, Dr. Tracy.”


“Then you’ll make the recommendation to the court?”


“Yes. Of course, you never can be sure what a judge will do. But I think there’s a pretty good chance he’ll see where the best interests of the girl lie.”


A few minutes later, in the hospital lobby, Carol used


a pay phone to call Paul. She recounted the conversation she’d had with Dr. Hannaport, but before she


got to the big question, Paul interrupted her. “You want to make a place for Jane,” he said.


Surprised, Carol said, “How’d you guess?”


He laughed. “I know you, sugarface. When it comes to kids, you’ve got a heart the consistency of vanilla pudding.”


“She won’t be in your way,” Carol said quickly. “She won’t distract you from your writing. And now that O’Brian won’t be able to present our application for the adoption until the end of the month, there’s no chance we’ll have two kids to take care of. In fact maybe the delay at the agency was meant to be—so we’d have a place for Jane until her folks show up. It’s only temporary, Paul. Really. And we—”


“Okay, okay,” he said. “You don’t have to sell me on it. I approve of the plan.”


“If you’d like to come here and meet Jane first, that’s—”


“No, no. I’m sure she’s everything you’ve said she is. Don’t forget, though, you were planning to go to the mountains in a week or so.”


“We might not even have Jane that long. And if we do, we can probably take her with us, so long as we let the court know where we’re going.”


“When do we have to appear in court?”


“I don’t know. Probably Monday or Tuesday.”


“I’ll be on my best behavior,” Paul said.


“Scrub behind your ears?”


“Okay. And I’ll also wear shoes.”


Grinning, Carol said, “Don’t pick your nose in front of the judge.”


“Not unless he picks his first.”


She said, “I love you, Dr. Tracy.”


“I love you, Dr. Tracy.”


When she put down the receiver and turned away from the pay phone, she felt wonderful. Not even the gaudy decor of the visitors’ lounge could get on her nerves now.


***


That night, there was no hammering sound in the Tracy house, no evidence of the poltergeist that Mr.


Alsgood had warned Paul about. There was no disturbance the following day, either, and none the day after that. The strange noise and the vibrations had ceased as inexplicably as they had begun.


Carol stopped having nightmares, too. She slept deeply, peacefully, without interruption. She quickly forgot about the flickering, silvery blade of the ax swinging back and forth in the strange void.


The weather improved, too. The clouds dissipated on Sunday. Monday was summery, blue.


Tuesday afternoon, while Paul and Carol were in court trying to obtain temporary custody of Jane Doe, Grace Mitowski was cleaning her kitchen. She had just finished dusting the top of the refrigerator when the telephone rang.


“Hello.”


No one answered her. “Hello,” she said again.


A thin, whispery, male voice said, “Grace..


“Yes?”


His words were muffled, and there was an echo on the line, as if he were talking into a tin can.


“I can’t understand you,” she said. “Can you speak up?”


He tried, but again the words were lost. They seemed to be coming from an enormous distance, across an unimaginably vast chasm.


“We have a terrible connection,” she said. “You’ll have to speak up.”


“Grace,” he said, his voice only slightly louder. “Gracie it’s almost too late. You’ve got to . . . move fast. You’ve got to stop it... from happening .. again.”


It was a dry, brittle voice; it cracked repeatedly, with a sound like dead autumn leaves underfoot. “It’s almost. . . too late. . . too late


She recognized the voice, and she froze. Her hand tightened on the receiver, and she couldn’t get her breath.


“Gracie.. . it can’t go on forever. You’ve got to put an end to it. Protect her, Gracie. Protect her


The voice faded away.


There was only silence. But not the silence of an open phone line. There was no hissing. No electronic beeping in the background. This was perfect silence, utterly unmarred by even the slightest click or whistle of electronic circuitry. Vast silence. Endless.


She put the phone down.


She started to shake.


She went to the cupboard and got down the bottle of Scotch she kept for visitors. She poured herself a double shot and sat down at the kitchen table.


The liquor didn’t warm her. Chills still shook her.


The voice on the phone had belonged to Leonard. Her husband. He had been dead for eighteen years.


PART TWO


Evil Walks Among Us...


Evil is no faceless stranger, living in a distant neighborhood.


Evil has a wholesome, hometown face, with many eyes and an open smile.


Evil walks among us, wearing a mask which looks like all our faces.


—The Book of Counted Sorrows


7


TUESDAY, after winning temporary custody of Jane Doe, Paul went home to work on his novel, and Carol took the girl shopping. Because Jane had no clothes except those she’d been wearing when she’d stepped in front of the Volkswagen last Thursday morning, she needed a lot of things, even for just a few days. She was embarrassed about spending Carol’s money, and at first she was reluctant to admit that she liked anything she saw or that anything fit her well enough to buy it.


At last Carol said, “Honey, you need this stuff, so please just relax and let me buy it for you. Okay? the long run, it won’t be coming out of my pocket anyway. I’ll most likely be reimbursed either by your parents, by the foster children program, or by some other county agency.”


That argument worked. They quickly purchased a couple of pairs of jeans, a few blouses, underwear, a good pair of sneakers, socks, a sweater, and a windbreaker.


When they got home, Jane was impressed by the Tudor house with its leaded-glass windows, gabled roof, and stonework. She fell in love with the guest room in which she was to stay. It had a cove ceiling, a long window seat inset in a bay window, and a wall of mirrored closet doors. It was done in deep blue and pale beige, with Queen Anne furniture of lustrous cherrywood. “It’s really just a guest room?” Jane asked, incredulous. “You don’t use it regularly? Boy, if this were my house, I’d come in here all the time! I’d just sit and read for a little while every day—read and sit there in the window and soak up the atmosphere.”


Carol had always liked the room, but through Jane’s eyes she achieved a new perception and appreciation of it. As she watched the girl inspecting things—sliding open the closet doors, checking the view from each angle of the bay window, testing the firmness of the mattress on the queen-sized bed— Carol realized that one advantage of having children was that their innocent, fresh reactions to everything could keep their parents young and open-minded, too.


That evening, Carol, Paul, and Jane prepared dinner together. The girl fit in comfortably and immediately, in spite of the fact that she was somewhat shy. There was a lot of laughter in the kitchen and at the dinner table.


After dinner, Jane started washing dishes while Carol and Paul cleared the table. When they were separated from the girl for a moment, alone in the


dining room, Paul said quietly, “She’s a terrific kid.”


“Didn’t I tell you so?”


“Funny thing, though.”


“What?”


“Ever since I saw her this afternoon, outside the courtroom,” Paul said, “I’ve had the feeling that I’ve seen her somewhere before.”


“Where?”


He shook his head. “I’ll be damned if I know. But there’s something familiar about her face.”


Throughout Tuesday afternoon, Grace expected the phone to ring again.


She dreaded having to answer it.


She tried to work off her nervous energy by cleaning the house. She scrubbed the kitchen floor, dusted the furniture in every room, and swept all the carpets.


But she couldn’t stop thinking about the call: the paper-dry, echo-distorted voice that had sounded like Leonard; the odd things he had said; the eerie silence when he had finished speaking; the disquieting sense of vast distances, an unimaginable gulf of space and time.


It had to be a hoax. But who could be responsible for it? And why torment her with an imitation of Leonard’s voice, eighteen years after the man had died? What was the point of playing games like this now, after so much time had passed?


She tried to get her mind off the call by baking apple dumplings. Thick, crusty dumplings—served with cinnamon, milk, and just a bit of sugar—were a suppertime favorite of hers, for she had been born and raised in Lancaster, the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country, where that dish was considered a meal in itself. But Tuesday evening, she had no appetite, not even for dumplings. She ate a few bites, but she couldn’t even finish half of one dumpling, though she usually ate two whole ones in a single meal.


She was still picking disinterestedly at her food when the telephone rang.


Her head jerked up. She stared at the wall phone that was above the small, built-in desk beside the refrigerator.


It rang again. And again.


Trembling, she got up, went to the phone, and lifted the receiver.


“Gracie. .


The voice was faint but intelligible.


“Gracie. . . it’s almost too late.”


It was him. Leonard. Or someone who sounded exactly like Leonard had sounded.


She couldn’t respond to him. Her throat clutched tight.


“Gracie.. .“


Her legs seemed to be melting under her. She


pulled out the chair that was tucked into the kneehole


of the desk, and she sat down quickly.


“Gracie. . . stop it from happening again. It mustn’t. . . go on forever.. . time after time. . . the blood. . . the murder. . .”


She closed her eyes, forced herself to speak. Her voice was weak, quavery. She didn’t even recognize it as her own. It was the voice of a stranger—a weary, frightened, frail old woman. “Who is this?”


The whispery, vibrative voice on the telephone said, “Protect her, Oracle.”


“What do you want from me?”


“Protect her.”


“Why are you doing this?”


“Protect her.”


“Protect who?” she demanded.


“Willa. Protect Willa.”


She was still frightened and confused, but she was beginning to be angry, too. “I don’t know anyone named Willa, dammit! Who is this?”


“Leonard.”


“No! Do you think I’m a doddering, senile old fool? Leonard’s dead. Eighteen years! You’re not Leonard. What kind of game are you playing?”


She wanted to hang up on him, and she knew that was the best thing to do with a crank like this, but she couldn’t make herself put down the receiver. He sounded so much like Leonard that she was mesmerized by his voice.


He spoke again, much softer than before, but she could still hear him. “Protect Willa.”


“I tell you, I don’t know her. And if you keep calling me with this nonsense, I’m going to tell the police that some sick practical joker is—”


“Carol. . . Carol,” the man said, his voice fading syllable by syllable. “Willa. . . but you call her. . . Carol.”


“What the hell is going on here?”


“Beware.. .the. . .cat.”


“What?”


The voice was so distant now that she had to strain to hear it. “The .. . cat ...”


“Aristophanes? What about him? Have you done something to him? Have you poisoned him? Is that what’s been wrong with him lately”


No response.


“Are you there”


Nothing.


“What about the cat?” she demanded.


No answer.


She listened to the pure, pure silence, and she began to tremble so violently that she had trouble holding the phone. “Who are you? Why do you want to torment me like this? Why do you want to hurt Aristophanes?”


Far, far away, the achingly familiar voice of her long-dead husband uttered a few final, barely audible words. “Wish. . .1 was there.. . for the.. . apple dumplings.”


***


They had forgotten to buy pajamas for Jane. She went to bed in knee socks, panties, and one of Carol’s T-shirts, which was a bit large for her.


“What happens tomorrow?” she asked when she was tucked in, her head raised on a plump pillow.


Carol sat on the edge of the bed. “I thought we might start a program of treatment designed to pry open your memory.”


“What kind of treatment?”


“Do you know what hypnotic regression therapy is?”


Jane was suddenly frightened. Several times since the accident, she had made a conscious, concerted effort to remember who she was, but on each occasion, as she felt herself coming close to a disturbing revelation, she had become dizzy, disoriented, and panicky. When she pressed her mind back, back, back toward the truth, a psychological defense mechanism cut off her curiosity as abruptly as a strangler’s garrote might have cut off her air supply. And every time, on the edge of unconsciousness, she saw a strange, silvery object swinging back and forth through blackness, an utterly indecipherable yet blood-chilling vision. She sensed there was something hideous in her past, something so terrible that she would be better off no: remembering. She had just about made up her mind not to seek what had been lost, to accept her new life as a nameless orphan, even though it might be filled with hardships. But through hypnotic regression therapy, she could be forced to confront the specter in her past, whether she wanted to or not. That prospect filled her with dread.


“Are you all right?” Carol asked.


The girl blinked, licked her lips. “Yeah. I was just thinking about what you said. Hypnotic regression. Does that mean you’re going to put me in a trance and make me remember everything?”


“Well, it isn’t that easy, honey. There’s no guarantee it’ll work. I’ll hypnotize you and ask you to think back to the accident on Thursday morning; then I’ll nudge you further and further into the past. If you’re a good subject, you might remember who you are and where you come from. Hypnotic regression is a tool that comes in handy sometimes when I’m trying to get a patient to relive a deeply hidden, severely regressed trauma. I’ve never used the technique on an amnesia victim, but I know it’s applicable to a case like yours. Of course, it only works about half the time. And when it does work, it takes more than one or two sessions. It can be a tedious, frustrating process. We’re not going to get much of anywhere tomorrow, and in fact your parents will probably show up before I’ve been able to help you remember. But we might as well make a start. That is, if it’s all right with you.”

***

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