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“I wonder, too,” Carol said. Playfully, she slapped Paul’s shoulder. “You know what your trouble is, babe? You don’t have any scientific curiosity. Now come on. It’s your turn.”


After putting DEATH on the board, he hadn’t replenished his supply of letter tiles. He drew four of the small wooden squares from the lid of the game box, put them on the rack in front of him.


And froze.


Oh God.


He was on that tightrope again, teetering over a great abyss.


“Well?” Carol asked.


Coincidence. It had to be just coincidence.


“Well?”


He looked up at her.


“What have you got?” she asked.


Numb, he shifted his eyes to the girl.


She was hunched over the table, as eager as Carol to hear his response, anxious to see if the macabre pattern would continue.


Paul lowered his eyes to the row of letters on the wooden rack. The word was still there. Impossible. But it was there anyway, possible or not.


“Paul?”


He moved so quickly and unexpectedly that Carol and Jane jumped. He scooped up the letters on his rack and nearly flung them back into the lid of the box. He swept the five offensive words off the board before anyone could protest, and he returned those nineteen tiles to the box with all the others.


“Paul, for heaven’s sake!”


“We’ll start a new game,” he said. “Maybe those words didn’t bother you, but they bothered me. I’m here to relax. If I want to hear about blood and death and killing, I can switch on the news.”


Carol said, “What word did you have?”


“I don’t know,” he lied. “I didn’t work with the letters to see. Come on. Let’s start all over.”


“You did have a word,” she said.


“No.”


“It looked to me like you did,” Jane said.


“Open up,” Carol said.


“All right, all right. I had a word. It was obscene. Not something a gentleman like me would use in a refined game of Scrabble, with ladies present.”


Jane’s eyes sparkled mischievously. “Really? Tell us. Don’t be stuffy.”


“Stuffy? Have you no manners, young lady?”


“None!”


“Have you no modesty?”


“Nope.”


“Are you just a common broad?”


“Common,” she said, nodding rapidly. “Common to the core. So tell us what word you had.”


“Shame, shame, shame,” he said. Gradually, he cajoled them into dropping their inquiry. They started a new game. This time all the words were ordinary, and they did not come in any unsettling, related order.


Later, in bed, he made love to Carol. He wasn’t particularly horny. He just wanted to be as close to her as he could get.


Afterwards, when the murmured love talk finally faded into a companionable silence, she said, “What was your word?”


“Hmmmm?” he said, pretending not to know what she meant.


“Your obscene word in the Scrabble game. Don’t try to tell me you’ve forgotten what it was.”


“Nothing important.”


She laughed. “After everything we just did in this bed, surely you don’t think I need to be sheltered!”


“I didn’t have an obscene word.” Which was the truth. “I didn’t really have any word at all.” Which was a lie. “It’s just that.. .I thought those first five words on the board were bad for Jane.”


“Bad for her?”


“Yes. I mean, you told me it’s quite possible she lost one or both of her parents in a fire. She might be on the brink of learning about or remembering a terrible tragedy in her recent past. Tonight she just needed to relax, to laugh a bit. How could the game have been fun for her if the words on the board started to remind her that her parents might be dead?”


Carol turned on her side, raised herself up a bit, leaned over him, her bare br**sts grazing his chest, and stared into his eyes. “is that really the only reason you were so upset?”


“Don’t you think I was right? Did I overreact?”


“Maybe you did. Maybe you didn’t. It was Creepy.” She kissed his nose. “You know why I love you so much?”


“Because I’m such a great lover?”


“You are, but that’s not why I love you.” “Because I have tight buns?”


“Not that.”


“Because I keep my fingernails so neat and clean?”


“Not that.”


“I give up.”


“You’re so damned sensitive, so caring about other people. How typical of my Paul to worry about the Scrabble game being fun for Jane. That’s why I love you.”


“I thought it was my hazel eyes.”


“Nah.”


“My classic profile.”


“Are you kidding?”


“Or the way my third toe on my left foot lays half under the second toe.”


“Oh, I’d forgotten about that. Hmmmmmmmm. You’re right. That’s why I love you. Not because you’re sensitive. It’s your toes that drive me wild.”


Their teasing led to cuddling, and the cuddling led to kissing, and the kissing led to passion again. She reached her peak only a few seconds before he spurted deep within her, and when they finally parted for the night, he felt pleasantly wrung out.


Nevertheless, she was asleep before he was. He stared at the dark ceiling of the dark bedroom and thought about the Scrabble game.


BLADE, BLOOD, DEATH, TOMB, KILL...


He thought about the word he had hidden from Carol and Jane, the word that had compelled him to end the game and start another. After adding EATH to the D in BLOOD, he’d been left with just three letter tiles on his rack: X, U, and C. The X and the


U had played no part in what was to follow. But when he had drawn four new letters, they had gone disconcertingly well with the C. First he’d picked up an A, then an R. And he had known what was going to happen. He hadn’t wanted to continue; he’d considered throwing all the tiles back into the box at that moment, for he dreaded seeing the word that he knew the last two letters would spell. But he hadn’t ended it there. He had been too curious to stop when he should have stopped. He had drawn a third tile, which had been an 0, and then a fourth, L.


C...A. ..R...O...L...


BLADE, BLOOD, DEATH, TOMB, KILL, CAROL.


Of course, even if he was able to fit it in, he couldn’t put CAROL on the board, for it was a proper name, and the rules didn’t allow the use of proper names. But that was a moot point. The important thing was that her name had been spelled out so neatly, so boldly on his rack of letters that it was uncanny. He had drawn the letters in their proper order, for God’s sake! What were the odds against that?


It seemed to be an omen. A warning that something was going to happen to Carol. Just as Grace Mitowski’s two nightmares had turned out to be prophetic.


He thought about the other strange events that had transpired recently: the unnaturally violent lightning strikes at Alfred O’Brian’s office; the hammering sound that had shaken the house; the intruder on the rear lawn during the thunderstorm. He sensed that all of it was tied together. But for Christ’s sake, how?


BLADE, BLOOD.


DEATH, TOMB.


KILL, CAROL.


If the series of words on the Scrabble tiles had constituted a prophetic warning, what was he supposed to do about it? The omen, if it was an omen, was too vague to have any value. There was nothing specific to guard against. He couldn’t protect Carol until he knew from which direction the danger was coming. A car wreck? A plane crash. A mugger? Cancer? It could be anything. He could see nothing to be gained by telling Carol that her name had turned up on his rack of Scrabble tiles; there was nothing she could do, either, nothing except worry about it.


He didn’t want to worry her.


Instead, lying in the darkness, feeling icy even under the covers, he worried for her.


At two o’clock in the morning, Grace was still reading in the study. There wasn’t any point in going to bed for at least another hour or two. The events of the last week had turned her into an insomniac.


The day just past had been relatively uneventful.


Aristophanes was still behaving oddly—hiding from her, sneaking about, watching her when he thought she didn’t know he was there—but he hadn’t torn up any more pillows or furniture, and he had used his litter box as he was supposed to do, which were encouraging signs. She hadn’t received any more telephone calls from the man who had pretended to be Leonard, and for that she was grateful. Yes, it had been pretty much an ordinary day.


And yet...


She was still tense and unable to sleep because she sensed that she was in the eye of the hurricane. She sensed that the peace and quiet in her house were deceptive, that thunder and lightning raged on all sides of her, just beyond the range of her hearing and just out of sight. She expected to be plunged back into the storm at any moment, and that expectation made it impossible for her to relax.


She heard a furtive sound and glanced up from the novel she was reading.


Aristophanes appeared at the open study door, peering in from the hallway. Only his elegant Siamese head was visible as he craned it cautiously around the doorframe.


Their eyes met.


For an instant, Grace felt that she was not looking into the eyes of a dumb animal. They seemed to contain intelligence. Wisdom. Experience. More than mere animal intent and purpose.


Aristophanes hissed.


His eyes were cold. Twin balls of crystal-clear, blue-green ice.


“What do you want, cat?”


He broke the staring contest. He turned away from her with haughty indifference, padded past the doorway, and went softly down the hail, pretending that he hadn’t been spying on her, even though they both knew he had been doing exactly that.


Spying? she thought. Am I crazy? Who would a cat be spying for? Catsylvania? Great Kitten? Purrsia?


She could think of other puns, but none of them brought a smile to her lips.


Instead, she sat with the book on her lap, wondering about her sanity.


9


THURSDAY AFTERNOON.


The office drapes were tightly closed as usual. The light from the two floor lamps was golden, diffuse. Mickey Mouse was still smiling broadly in all his many incarnations.


Carol and Jane sat in the wing chairs.


The girl slipped into a trance with only a little assistance from Carol. Most patients were more susceptible to hypnosis the second time than they had been the first, and Jane was no exception.


Again using the imaginary wristwatch, Carol turned the hands of time backwards and regressed Jane into the past. This time the girl didn’t need two minutes to get beyond her amnesia. In only twenty or thirty seconds, she reached a point at which memories existed for her.


She twitched and suddenly sat up ramrod-straight in her chair. Her eyes popped open like the eyes on a doll; she was looking through Carol. Her face was twisted with terror.


“Laura?” Carol asked.


Both of the girl’s hands flew up to her throat. She clutched herself, gasping, gagging, grimacing in pain. She appeared to be reliving the same traumatic experience that had panicked her during yesterday’s sessions, but today she did not scream.


“You can’t feel the fire,” Carol told her. “There is no pain, honey. Relax. Be calm. You can’t smell the smoke, either. It doesn’t bother you at all. Breathe easily, normally. Be calm and relax.”


The girl didn’t obey. She quivered and broke out in a sweat. She retched repeatedly, dryly, violently, yet almost silently.


Afraid that she had lost control again, Carol redoubled her efforts to soothe her patient, without success.


Jane began to gesture wildly, her hands cutting and stabbing and tugging .and hammering at the air.


Abruptly, Carol realized the girl was trying to talk, but for some reason had lost her voice.


Tears welled up and slid down Jane’s face. She was moving her mouth without the slightest result, desperately trying to force out words that refused to come. In addition to the terror in her eyes, there was now frustration.


Carol quickly fetched a notebook and a felt-tipped pen from her desk. She put the notebook on Jane’s lap and pressed the pen into her hand.


“Write it for me, honey.”


The girl squeezed the pen so hard that her knuckles were white and nearly as sharp as the knuckles on a skeleton’s fleshless hand. She looked down at the notebook. She stopped retching, but she continued to quiver.


Carol crouched beside the wing chair, where she could see the notebook. “What is it you want to say?”


Her hand shaking like that of a palsied old woman, Jane hurriedly scrawled two words that were barely legible: Help me.


“Why do you need help?”


Again: Help me.


“Why can’t you speak?”


Head.


“Be more specific.”


My head.


“What about your head?”


The girl’s hand began to form a letter, then jumped down one line and made another false start, jumped to a third line—as if she couldn’t figure out how to express what she wanted to say. At last, in a frenzy, she started slashing at the paper with the felt-tipped pen, making a meaningless crosshatching of black lines.


“Stop it!” Carol said. “You will relax, dammit. Be calm.”


Jane stopped slashing at the paper. She was silent, staring down at the notebook on her lap.


Carol tore off the smeared page and threw it on the floor. “Okay. Now you’re going to answer my questions calmly and as fully as you can. What is your name?”


Millie.


Carol stared at the handwritten name, wondering what had happened to Laura Havenswood. “Millie?


Are you sure that’s your name?” Millicent Parker.


“Where is Laura?”


Who’s Laura?


Carol stared at the girl’s drawn face. The perspiration was beginning to dry on her porcelain-smooth skin. Her blue eyes were blank, unfocused. Her mouth was slack.


Carol abruptly flashed a hand past the girl’s face. Jane didn’t flinch. She wasn’t faking the trance.


“Where do you live, Millicent?”


Harrisburg.


“Right here in town. What’s your address?”


Front Street.


“Along the river? Do you know the number?” The girl wrote it down.


“What’s your father’s name?”


Randolph Parker.


“What’s your mother’s name?”


The pen made a meaningless squiggle on the notebook page.


“What’s your mother’s name?” Carol repeated.

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