But all I ever saw was the window-dressing. The real story was far stranger than anything I ever imagined. Hell, it was too strange for any serious reporter to risk handling it. No reputable paper would have printed it as news. If had known the truth, and if! had somehow gotten it published, I’d have destroyed my career.”
What the devil’s going on? Grace wondered. He seems obsessed with telling me about this in detail, compelled to tell me, even though he’s never even seen me before. Is this life imitating art—Coleridge’s poem reset in a rose garden? Am I the partygoer and Wainwright the Ancient Mariner?
As she looked into Wainwright’s beige eyes, she suddenly realized how alone she was, even here in the yard. Her property was ringed by trees, sheltered, private.
“Was it a murder case?” she asked.
“Was and is,” Wainwright said. “It didn’t end with the Bektermanns. It’s still going on. This damned, endless pursuit. It’s still going on, and it’s got to be stopped this time around. That’s why I’m here. I’ve come to tell you that your Carol is in the middle of it. Caught in the middle. You’ve got to help her. Get her out of the girl’s way.”
Grace gaped at him, reluctant to believe that she
had heard what she knew she had heard.
“There are certain forces, dark and powerful forces,” Wainwright said calmly, “that want to see— Shrieking angrily, Aristophanes sprang at Wainwright with berserk passion. He landed on the man’s chest and scrambled onto his face.
Grace screamed and jumped back in fright.
Wainwright staggered to one side, grabbed the cat with both hands, and tried unsuccessfully to wrench it off his face.
“Ari!” Grace cried. “Stop it!”
Aristophanes had his claws in the man’s neck and was biting his cheek.
Wainwright wasn’t screaming as he ought to have been. He was eerily silent as he wrestled with the cat, even though the creature seemed determined to tear off his face.
Grace moved toward Wainwright, wanting to help, not knowing what to do.
The cat was squealing. It bit off a gobbet of flesh from Wainwright’s cheek.
Oh Jesus, no!
Grace moved in quickly, raising the trowel, but hesitated. She was afraid of hitting the man instead of the cat.
Wainwright suddenly turned away from her and stumbled through the rose bushes, past white and yellow blooms, the cat still clinging to him. He walked into a waist-high hedge, fell through it, onto the lawn On the other side, out of sight.
Grace hurried to the end of the hedgerow, stepped around it, heart hammering, and discovered that
Wainwright had vanished. Only the cat was there, and it bolted past her, sprinted across the garden, up the back porch steps, and into the house through the half-open rear door.
Where was Wainwright? Had he crawled away, dazed, wounded? Had he passed out in some sheltered corner of the garden, bleeding to death?
The yard contained half a dozen shrubs large and dense enough to conceal the body of a man Wainwright’s size. She looked around all of them, but she could find no trace of the reporter.
She looked toward the garden gate that led to the street. No. He couldn’t have gone that far without drawing her attention.
Frightened, confused, Grace blinked at the sun-dappled garden, trying to understand.
The Harrisburg telephone book contained neither a listing for Mr. Randolph Parker nor one for Herbert Bektermann. Carol was perplexed but not surprised.
After she saw her final patient of the day, she and Jane drove to the address on Front Street where Millicent Parker had claimed to live. It was a huge, impressive Victorian mansion, but it hadn’t been anyone's home for a long time. The front lawn had been paved over for a parking lot. There was a small, tasteful sign by the entrance drive:
MAUGHAM & CRICHTON, INC.
A MEDICAL CORPORATION
Many years ago, this portion of Front Street had been one of the most elegant neighborhoods in Pennsylvania’s capital city. During the past couple of decades, however, many of the riverfront boulevard’s grand old houses had been razed to make room for sterile, modem office buildings. A few of the rambling houses had been preserved, at least after a fashion— the exteriors beautifully restored, the interiors gutted and converted to various commercial uses. Farther north, there was still a section of Front Street that was a desirable residential area, but not here, not where Millicent Parker had sent them.
Maugham & Crichton was a group medical practice that included seven physicians: two general internists and five specialists. Carol had a chat with the receptionist, a henna-haired woman named Polly, who told her that none of the doctors was named Parker. Likewise, no one of that name was employed as a nurse or as a member of the clerical staff. Furthermore, Maugham & Crichton had been at their current address for nearly seventeen years.
It had occurred to Carol that Jane might once have been a patient of one of Maugham & Crichton’s physicians, and that her subconscious mind had made use of the firm’s address to flesh out the Millicent Parker identity. But Polly, who had worked for Maugham & Crichton ever since they’d opened their doors, was sure she had never seen the girl. However, intrigued by Jane’s amnesia and sympathetic by nature, Polly agreed to check the files to see if Maugham & Crichton had ever treated anyone named Laura Havenswood, Millicent Parker, or Linda Bektermann. It was a fruitless search; none of those names appeared in the patient records.
Grace stepped through the gate, into the street, and looked both ways. There was no sign of Palmer Wainwright.
She returned to her own backyard, closed and latched the gate, and walked toward the house.
Wainwright was sitting on the porch steps, waiting for her.
She stopped fifteen feet from him, amazed, confused.
He got up from the steps.
“Your face,” she said numbly.
His face was unscarred.
He smiled as if nothing had happened and took two steps toward her. “Grace—”
“The cat,” she said. “I saw your cheek.. . your neck. . . it’s claws tore out. .
“Listen,” he said, taking another step toward her, “there are certain forces, dark and powerful forces, that want to see this played out the wrong way. Dark forces that thrive on tragedy. They want to see it end in senseless violence and blood. That mustn’t be allowed to happen, Grace. Not again. You’ve got to keep Carol out of the girl’s way, for her sake and for the sake of the girl, too.”
Grace gaped at him. “Who the hell are you?”
“Who are you?” Wainwright asked, raising one eyebrow quizzically. “That is the important question right now. You aren’t only who you think you are. You aren’t only Grace Mitowski.”
He’s mad, she thought. Or I’m mad. Or we both are. Stark, raving mad.
She said, “You’re the one on the phone. You’re the creep who imitates Leonard’s voice.”
“No,” he said. “I am—”
“No wonder Ari attacked you. You’re the one who’s been giving him drugs or poison or something like that. You’re the one, and he knew.”
But what about the facial wounds, the gouged neck? she asked herself. How in the name of God did those injuries heal so quickly?
She pushed those thoughts out of her mind, refused to think about such things. She must have been mistaken. She must have imagined that Ari had actually hurt the man.
“Yeah,” she said, “you’re the one who’s behind all of these weird things that’ve been happening. Get off my property, you son of a bitch.”
“Grace, there are forces aligned. . .“ He looked no different now from the way he had looked when he’d first spoken to her, several minutes ago. He hadn’t looked crazed then; he didn’t look crazed now. He didn’t look dangerous, and yet he continued to babble about dark forces. “. . . good and evil, right and wrong. You’re on the right side, Grace. But the cat— ah, the cat’s a different story. At all times, you must be wary of the cat.”
“Get out of my way,” she said.
He took a step toward her.
She slashed at him with the gardening trowel, missing his face by just an inch or two. She slashed again and again and again, cutting only empty air, not really wanting to cut anything else unless she had no choice, just hoping to keep him at bay until she could slip around him, for he was between her and the house. And then she was around him; she turned and ran for the kitchen door, painfully aware that her legs were old and arthritic. She went only a few steps before she realized she shouldn’t have turned her back on the lunatic, and she wheeled to confront him, gasping, certain that he was leaping toward her, perhaps with a knife in his hand— But he was gone.
He hadn’t had time to reach any of the shrubs that were large enough to conceal a man, not during the split second her back had been turned. Even if he had been a much younger man than he was, in the very best condition, a trained runner—even then he couldn’t have gone more than halfway to the gate in such a short time.
So where was he?
Where was he?
From the offices of Maugham & Crichton on Front Street, Carol and Jane drove a few blocks to the Second Street address that was supposed to be the home of Linda Bektermann. It was in a good neighborhood; a lovely French country house, at least fifty years old, in fine condition. No one was at home, but the name on the mailbox was Nicholson, not Bektermann.
They rang the bell at the house next door and talked to a neighbor, Jean Gunther, who confirmed that the French country place was owned and occupied by the Nicholson family.
“My husband and I have lived here for six years,”
Mrs. Gunther said, “and the Nicholsons were next door when we moved in. I think I once heard them say they’d lived in that house since 1965.”
The name Bektermann meant nothing to Jean Gunther.
In the car again, on the way home, Jane said, “I’m really a lot of trouble for you.”
“Nonsense,” Carol said. “I kind of enjoy playing detective. Besides, if I can help you break through your memory block, if I can uncover the truth behind all the sleight-of-hand tricks that your subconscious is playing, then I’ll be able to write about this case for any psychology journal I choose. It’ll definitely make my name in the profession. I might even wind up with a book out of it. So you see, because of you, kiddo, I could become rich and famous some day.”
“When you’re rich and famous, will you still talk to me?” the girl teased.
“Certainly. Of course, you’ll have to make an appointment a week in advance.”
They grinned at each other.
Using the kitchen phone, Grace called the offices of
the Morning News.
The switchboard operator at the newspaper didn’t have an extension number listed for Palmer Wainwright. She said, “So far as I know, he don’t even work here. And I’m sure he’s no reporter. Maybe one of the new copy editors or somebody like that.”
“Could you connect me with the managing editor’s office?” Grace asked.
“That would be Mr. Quincy,” the operator said. She buzzed the proper extension.
Quincy wasn’t in his office, and his secretary didn’t know whether or not the paper employed a man named Palmer Wainwright. “I’m new here,” she said apologetically. “I’ve only been Mr. Quincy’s secretary since Monday, so I don’t know everybody yet. If you’ll leave your name and number, I’ll have Mr. Quincy return your call.”
Grace gave her the number and said, “Tell him Dr. Grace Mitowski wishes to speak with him and that I’ll only need a few minutes of his time.” She seldom used the honorific in front of her name, but it came in handy in cases like this, for a doctor’s phone calls were always returned.
“Is this an emergency, Dr. Mitowski? I don’t think that Mr. Quincy’s going to be back until tomorrow morning.”
“That’ll be good enough,” she said. “Have him call me first thing, no matter how early he gets in.”
After she hung up, she went to the kitchen and stared out at the rose garden.
How could Wamwright vanish like that?
For the third evening in a row, Paul and Carol and Jane prepared dinner together. The girl was fitting in better day by day.
If she stays with us just another week, Paul thought, it’ll seem like she’s always been here.
The salad consisted of hearts of palm and iceberg lettuce. That was followed by eggplant Parmigiana with spaghetti on the side.
As they were starting dessert—small dishes of
richly flavored spumoni—Paul said, “Any chance we
could postpone the trip to the mountains for two days?”
“Why?” Carol asked
“I’m a bit behind in my writing schedule, and I’m at a very critical point in the book,” he said. “I’ve written two-thirds of the toughest scene in the story, and I hate to leave it unfinished just to go on vacation.
I won’t enjoy myself. If we left Sunday instead of tomorrow, that would give me time to polish off the end of the chapter. And we’d still have eight days at the cabin.”
“Don’t look at me,” Jane said. “I’m just excess baggage. I’ll go wherever you take me, whenever you take me.”
Carol shook her head. “Just last week, when Mr. O’Brian said we were compulsive overachievers, we made up our minds to change our ways, didn’t we? We’ve got to learn to make time for leisure and not let our work encroach on that.”
“You’re right,” Paul said. “But just this once—”
He broke off in midsentence because he saw that Carol was determined. She was rarely intractable, but when she did decide not to compromise on. an issue, she was about as movable as Gibraltar. He sighed. “Okay. You win. We’ll leave tomorrow morning. I’ll just bring along the typewriter and the manuscript. I can finish the scene up at the cabin and—”
“Nothing doing,” Carol said, emphasizing each word by tapping her spoon against her ice cream dish.
“If you bring it along, you won’t stop when you’ve reached the end of the scene you’re working on. You’ll keep going. You know you will. Having the typewriter within easy reach will just be too much of a temptation. You won’t be able to resist it. The whole vacation will go down the drain.”
“But I just can’t put that scene on hold for ten days,” he said pleadingly. “By the time I get back to it, the tone and the spontaneity will be lost.”