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The girl surrendered to a new series of spasmic tremors. She retched soundlessly and put her hands to her throat once more. The felt-tipped pen made a black mark on the underside of her chin.


Apparently, the mere mention of her mother frightened her. That was territory that would have to be explored, though not right now.


Carol talked her down, calmed her, and asked a new question. “How old are you, Millie?”


Tomorrow’s my birthday.


“Is it really? How old will you be?”


I won’t make it.


“What won’t you make?”


Sixteen.


“Are you fifteen now?”


Yes.


“And you think you won’t live to be sixteen? Is that it?”


Won’t live.


“Why not?”


The sheen of sweat had nearly evaporated from the


girl’s face, but again perspiration popped out along


her hairline.


“Why won’t you live to see your birthday?” Carol persisted.


As before, the girl used the felt-tipped pen to slash angrily at the notebook.


“Stop that,” Carol said firmly. “Relax and be calm and answer my question.” She tore the ruined page out of the book and tossed it aside, then said, “Why won’t you live to see your sixteenth birthday, Millie?”


Head.


So we’re back to this, Carol thought. She said,


“What about your head? What’s wrong with it?”


Cut off.


Carol stared at those two words for a moment, then looked up at the girl’s face.


Millie-Jane was struggling to remain calm, as Carol had told her she must. But her eyes jiggled nervously, and there was horror in them. Her lips were utterly colorless, tremulous. Beneath the rivulets of sweat that coursed down her forehead, her skin was waxy and mealy white.


She continued to scribble frantically in the note-


book, but all she wrote was the same thing over and over again: Cut cut off, cut off cut off... She was bearing down on the page with such great pressure that the head of the felt-tipped pen was squashed into shapeless mush.


My God, Carol thought, this is like a live report from the bottom of Hell.


Laura Havenswood. Millicent Parker. One girl screaming in pain as fire consumed her, the other a victim of decapitation. What did either of those girls have to do with Jane Doe? She couldn’t be both of them. Perhaps she wasn’t either of them. Were they people she had known? Or were they only figments of her imagination?


What in Christ’s name is happening here? Carol wondered.


She put her own hand over the girl’s writing hand and stilled the squeaking pen. Speaking gently, rhythmically, she told Millie-Jane that everything was all right, that she was perfectly safe, and that she must relax.


The girl’s eyes stopped jiggling. She sagged back in her chair.


“All right,” Carol said. “I think that’s enough for today, honey.”


Employing the imaginary wristwatch, she brought the girl forward in time.


For a few seconds everything went well, but then, without warning, the girl erupted from her chair, knocking the notebook off her lap and flinging the pen across the room. Her pale face flushed red, and her placid expression gave way to a look of pure rage.


Carol rose from beside the girl’s chair and stepped in front of her. “Honey, what’s wrong?”


The girl’s eyes were wild. She began to shout with such force that she sprayed Carol with spittle. “Shit! The bitch did it! The rotten, goddamn bitch!”


The voice wasn’t Jane’s.


It wasn’t Laura’s either.


It was a new voice, a third one, with its own special character, and Carol had a hunch it didn’t belong to Millicent Parker, the mute. She suspected that an entirely new identity had surfaced.


The girl stood very stiff and straight, her hands fisted at her sides, staring off into infinity. Her face was distorted by anger. “The stinking bitch did it! She did it to me again!”


The girl continued to shout at the top of her voice, and half of the words she blurted out were obscene. Carol tried to soothe her, but this time it wasn’t easy. For at least a minute the girl continued to wail and curse. At last, however, at Carol’s urging, she got control of herself. She stopped shouting, but there was still anger in her face.


Holding the girl by the shoulders, face to face with her, Carol said, “What’s your name?’


“Linda.”


“What’s your last name?”


“Bektermann.”


It was yet another identity, as Carol had thought. She had the girl spell the name.


Then: “Where do you live, Linda?”


“Second Street.”


“In Harrisburg?”


“Yes.”


Carol asked for the exact address, and the girl responded. ft was only a few blocks from the Front Street address that Millicent Parker had provided.


“What’s your father’s name, Linda?”


“Herbert Bektermann.”


“What’s your mother’s name?”


That question had the same effect on Linda as it had had on Millie. She rapidly became agitated and began to shout again. “The bitch! Oh, God, what she did to me. The slimy, rotten bitch! I hate her. I hate her!”


Chilled by the combination of fury and agony in the girl’s tortured voice, Carol quickly quieted her.


Then: “How old are you, Linda?”


“Tomorrow’s my birthday.”


Carol frowned. “Am I talking to Millicent now?”


“Who’s Millicent?”


“Is this still Linda I’m talking to?’


“Yes.”


“And your birthday is tomorrow?”


“Yes.”


“How old will you be?”


“I won’t make it.”


Carol blinked. “You mean you won’t live to see your birthday?”


"That’s right.”


“Is it your sixteenth birthday?”


“Yes.”


“You’re fifteen now?”


“Yes.”


“Why are you worried about dying?”


“Because I know I will.”


“How do you know?”


“Because I already am.”


“You’re already dying?”


“Dead.”


“You’re already dead?”


“I will be.”


“Please be specific. Are you telling me that you’re already dead? Or are you saying that you’re merely afraid you’re going to die sometime soon?’


“Yes.”


“Which is it?”


“Both.”


Carol felt as if she were in the middle of a tea party at the Mad Hatter’s house.


“How do you think you’re going to die, Linda?”


“She’ll kill me.”


“Who?”


“The bitch.”


“Your mother?”


The girl doubled over and clutched at her side, as if she had been struck. She screamed, turned, staggered two steps, and fell with a crash. On the floor she still clutched her side, and she kicked her legs, writhed. She was obviously in unendurable pain. It was only imaginary pain, of course, but to the girl it was indistinguishable from the real thing.


Frightened, Carol knelt beside her, held her hand, and urged her to be calm. When the girl eventually relaxed, Carol quickly brought her all the way back to the present and out of the trance.


Jane blinked, stared up at Carol, and put one hand on the floor beside her, as if testing the truth of what her eyes told her. “Wow, what am I doing down here?”


Carol helped her to her feet. “I suppose you don’t remember?”


“No. Did I tell you anything more about myself?’


“No. I don’t think so. You told me you were a girl named Millicent Parker, and then you told me you were a girl named Linda Bektermann, but obviously you can’t be both of them and Laura, too. So I suspect that you aren’t any of them.”


“I don’t think so, either,” Jane said. “Those two new names don’t mean anything more to me than


Laura Havenswood did. But who are those people?


Where did I get their names, and why did I tell you I was any of them?”


“I’ll be damned if I know,” Carol said. “But sooner or later, we’ll figure it out. We’ll get to the bottom of all this, kiddo. I promise you that.”


But what in God’s name will we find at the bottom, down there in the dark? Carol wondered. Will it be something we’ll wish we’d left buried forever?


***


Thursday afternoon, Grace Mitowski worked in the rose garden behind her house. The day was warm and clear, and she felt the need for some exercise. Besides, in the garden she wouldn’t be able to hear the telephone ringing and wouldn’t be tempted to answer it. Which was fine, because she wasn’t psychologically prepared to answer the phone just yet; she hadn’t decided how to deal with the hoaxer the next time he called and pretended that he was her long-dead husband.


Because of last week’s torrential rains, the roses were past their prime. The last flowers of the season should have been at the peak of their beauty right now, but many of the big blooms had lost a fifth or even a fourth of their petals under the lashing of the wind-whipped rain. Nevertheless, the garden was still a colorful, cheery sight.


She had let Aristophanes out for some exercise.


She kept an eye on him, intending to call him back the moment he headed off the property. She was determined to keep him away from whoever had poisoned or drugged him. But he didn’t seem to be in a rambling mood; he stayed nearby, creeping among the roses, stirring up a moth or two and chasing them with catlike single-mindedness.


Grace was on her hands and knees in front of a row of intermingled yellow and crimson and orange flowers, hand-spading the earth with a trowel, when someone said, “You have a magnificent garden.”


Startled, she looked up and saw a thin, jaundice-skinned man in a rumpled blue suit that hadn’t been in fashion for many years. His shirt and tie were hopelessly out of style, too. He looked as if he had stepped out of a photograph taken in the 1940s. He had thinning hair the color of summer dust, and his eyes were an unusual shade of soft brown, almost beige. His face was composed entirely of narrow features and sharp angles that gave him a look halfway between that of a hawk and that of a parsimonious moneylender in a Charles Dickens novel. He appeared to be in his early or middle fifties.


Grace glanced at the gate in the white board fence that separated her property from the street. The gate was standing wide open. Evidently, the man had been strolling by, had seen the roses through a gap in the poplar-tree hedge that stood on the outside of the fence, and had decided to come in and have a closer look.


His smile was warm, and there was kindness in his eyes, and he seemed not to be intruding, even though he was. “You must have two dozen varieties of roses here.”


“Three dozen,” she said.


“Truly magnificent,” he said, nodding approval.


His voice wasn’t thin and sharp like the rest of him. It was deep, mellow, friendly, and would have seemed more fitting if it had issued from a brawny, hearty fellow half again this man’s size. “You take care of the entire garden yourself?”


Grace sat back on her heels, still holding the trowel in one gloved hand. “Sure. I enjoy it. And somehow. . . it just wouldn’t be my garden if I hired someone to help me with it.”


“Exactly!” the stranger said. “Yes, I can understand how you feel.”


“Are you new in the neighborhood?” Grace asked.


“No, no. Used to live just a block from here, but that was a long, long time ago.” He took a deep breath and smiled again. “Ah, the wonderful aroma of roses!


Nothing else smells half so pretty. Yes, you’ve got


a superb garden. Really superb.”


“Thank you.”


He snapped his fingers as a thought occurred to him. “I ought to write something about this. It might make a first-rate human-interest piece. This fantasy-land tucked away in an ordinary backyard. Yes, I’m sure it would be just the thing. A nice change of pace for me.”


“Are you a writer?”


“Reporter,” he said, still taking deep breaths and savoring the aroma of the blooms.


“Are you with a local paper?”


“The Morning News. Name’s Palmer Wainwright”


“Grace Mitowski.”


“I hoped you might recognize my byline,” Wainwright said, grinning.


“Sorry. I don’t read the Morning News. I take the


Patriot-News from the delivery boy every morning.” “Ah, well,” he said, shrugging, “that’s a good paper, too. But of course, if you don’t read the Morning News, you never saw my story about the Bektermann case.”


As Grace realized that Wainwright intended to hang around awhile, she got off her haunches, stood up, and flexed her rapidly stiffening legs. “The Bektermann case? That sounds familiar.”


“All the papers reported it, of course. But I did a five-part series. Good stuff, even if I do say so myself. I got a Pulitzer nomination for it. Did you know that? An honest-to-God Pulitzer nomination.”


“Really? Why, that’s something,” Grace said, not sure if she should take him seriously but not wanting to offend him. “That is really something. Imagine. A Pulitzer nomination.”


It seemed to her that the conversation had suddenly taken an odd turn. It wasn’t casual any longer. She sensed that Wainwright had come into the yard not to admire her roses and not to have a friendly chat, but to tell her, a complete stranger, about his Pulitzer nomination.


“Didn’t win,” Wainwright said. “But the way I look at it, a nomination is almost as good as the prize itself. I mean, out of the tens of thousands of newspaper articles that’re published in a year, only a handful are up for the prize.”


“Refresh my memory, if you will,” Grace said.


“What was the Bektermann case about?”


He laughed good-naturedly and shook his head. “Wasn’t about what I thought it was about. That’s for damned sure. I wrote it up as a tangled, Freudian


puzzle. You know—the iron-willed father, with perhaps an unnatural attraction for his own daughter, the mother with a drinking problem, the poor girl caught in the middle. The victimized young girl subjected to hideous psychological pressures beyond her understanding, beyond her tolerance, until at last she simply—snapped. That’s how I saw it. That’s how I wrote it up. I thought I was a brilliant detective, digging to the deepest roots of the Bektermann tragedy.

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