by Margaret L. Carter
Hard Shell Word Factory (www.hardshell.com)
Boston, August 1979:
He wore the night like a black cloak.
Shrouded in an illusion of emptiness, he knew any human eyes would slide past him as if invisible.
From the shelter of an alley between a pair of deserted office buildings, Neil scanned the front of the movie theater and the small, gravel-surfaced parking lot next to it. The stink of garbage and auto fumes filled his nose. From nearby streets he heard the rumble of cars, the occasional sigh of brakes. At this hour little traffic turned down the dingy side street where the cinema was located. Bored with waiting, he let his eyes drift over the marquee, reading "OUBLE FEATUR," followed by the titles of two recent slasher films. Appropriate.
Neil grinned above his shaggy, copper-red beard when a young man and woman appeared beneath the overhang in front of the theater. He'd expected to loiter until the second show let out. Too bad the girl wasn't alone. What the hell, he could handle both of them.
The parking lot's single floodlight cast a halo on the girl's blonde, shoulder-length hair. She wore sky-blue flared slacks and a matching sweater against the nip of the March night. Her aura glowed with the indignation echoed in her shrill voice and the staccato tap of her heels. "What the hell is the matter with you, anyway? How could you be so stupid, bringing liquor into a movie? I've never been so embarrassed in my life!"
The watcher noticed, beneath the young man's open brown leather jacket, the bulge of a flask in the hip pocket. "What's the big deal? So we got thrown out. The flick was lousy anyway." His abundant chestnut hair, brushed into an exaggerated bouffant and curling at the back of his neck, framed a delicately handsome face distorted by a pout.
"Oh, yeah? It was your idea to see those stupid second-run axe-murderer films in this crummy neighborhood."
"Forget it, let's go for a ride." He slipped an arm around his date's waist to pat her on the bottom.
The air crackled with her anger. "Are you nuts? I wouldn't ride around the block with you!" She squirmed away from his touch.
Staggering, he groped for her, then steadied himself against the smudged bricks of the nearest wall. "Come on, Lisa, the night's young." Judging from his lopsided smile, he considered that remark urbanely witty.
"My mother was right, for once," said the girl, her heels clicking on the sidewalk as she strode away from him. "I shouldn't have gone out with you in the first place, M.I.T. honor student or not. What do you get honors in, Party 101?"
When her date made another grab for her arm, she whipped around and smacked him in the diaphragm with her purse. He doubled over with a whoosh of breath. "Well, screw it! You can just walk home!" He stumbled across the lot to his car. Neil, still watching from across the street, heard the crunch of gravel and the boy's labored breathing.
Neil's own breathing was none too steady, either. The girl's anger stung his nostrils like ozone. He fought to quiet the rasping of his lungs and concentrated on veiling himself from the young people's eyes. Not that he had much to worry about, since they were too caught up in their fight to spare a glance in his direction. The boy's Corvette roared out of the lot and weaved down the narrow street. Brandishing her purse, the girl screeched after him, "Go ahead and kill yourself! I'm calling a cab."
Neil's tongue flicked over his dry lips. This encounter was working out better than he'd hoped. Now he could catch her alone and, with luck, away from the movie theater's lights. Sure enough, she threw one glance at the closed entrance of the theater and headed for the phone booth at the gas station next door instead.
Gliding soundlessly, he kept pace with the girl's hurrying steps. If she happened to look his way, her eyes would slip over him unseeing. Even consumed with lust, he easily maintained that much psychic control.
Her hair swung in rhythm with her rapid strides and her disjointed mutters of, "Stupid jerk -- macho airhead --" In the empty parking lot of the deserted gas station, Neil watched her lean into the phone booth and fumble through the directory with hands that shook from anger. She dropped a coin into the slot, listened to the receiver, frowned, and jiggled the coin return. After trying once more, she spat a curse and slammed the phone back into its cradle.
Out of order! Great!
She checked her watch and started walking back toward the theater. He decided to make his move now.
In a fluid blur he crossed the street to block her path. At the same instant he dropped the illusion that kept her from seeing him.
With a gasp, she froze. Her surge of panic went straight to Neil's head like a triple shot of hundred-proof rum. His hands clamped onto her arms. Her throat closed on the scream she ached to expel.
Already high on her impotent terror, Neil forced himself to quell it, for it didn't want to deal with panic just yet. Gazing into her eyes, he soothed her with wordless murmurs. Gradually her fear melted away, until she stared at him in mindless docility.
"You need a ride," he said softly. "Come along, I'll take you home."
She nodded. Entwining his arm with hers, he guided her around the corner to his car. A quick scan of the area assured him that the street lined with shabby small businesses was safely deserted at this time of night. He opened the back door of his drab compact wagon, neither new enough nor old enough to attract notice, and shoved Lisa in. She landed on a threadbare Army blanket he'd picked up at a thrift shop for just this purpose. She stared at him with wide, empty eyes like Disney's cartoon Snow White lost in the woods.
Too easy! Damn it, they're all too easy!
But for now he had to accept her submission as an advantage. "I'm taking you home," he said in the same gentle murmur as before. "You sit back here and stay perfectly quiet. Understand?"
Again she nodded.
Neil drove to an elementary school in an lower-class neighborhood. Here, if he decided to indulge in the pleasure of letting her scream, nobody would come to her rescue. Pulling up beside the playground, well outside the circle of the nearest street lamp, he walked around to open the back door. He coaxed his victim, loose-jointed and half-asleep, out of the back seat.
At that moment he heard the growl of a defective muffler and glimpsed the headlights of a car turning the corner in his direction. Instantly he pulled the girl into his arms and crushed her to him. When the car's lights swept over them, Neil was kissing her with grinding force. His teeth cut her lip, and he tasted blood. Electricity rippled from his mouth down to his groin, sparking along every nerve.
The fire in his gut wouldn't let him wait any longer. As soon as the car vanished, he held the girl away from him, his hands squeezing her upper arms, and dropped the mental vise that had paralyzed her will. Her eyes snapped awake, bottomless wells of terror to drink from.
"You want to run away," he said in a mockingly soft voice. "All right. You can't scream -- you can't make a sound -- but you can run." He relaxed his grip.
When she tried to dart past him, he blocked her. "No," he said. "The other way."
She wheeled around and ran through a gap in the chain-link fence into the playground. On the blacktop her mid-height heels clomped awkwardly. In her panic she didn't pause to kick them off. Neil gave her a head start, watching her lurch under the metal frame from which two broken swings dangled. She threw a wild look over her shoulder. Blundering into one of the poles, she tumbled on the ground. Still he didn't follow. She scrambled to her feet and hurried on, limping now.
Neil lunged after her. The wind of his own headlong charge lashed him in the face. He halted a few yards from Lisa. Sobbing deep in her throat, she fell face-first on the blacktop. She barely managed to catch herself, scraping her palms on the rough surface.
Neil pounced. His full weight landed on the girl. For a few seconds he savored the way she writhed, helpless, beneath him. He smelled fear-sweat and fresh blood. Easing the pressure just enough to allow maneuvering room, he flipped her onto her back.
Her terror poured over him in searing waves, like an eruption of lava. Delirious, he feasted on it, his body convulsing in ecstasy.
His teeth ripped into the soft flesh of her neck.
Not that he couldn't be subtle, when the occasion demanded. But subtlety bored him. He found this way far more satisfying.
Afterward, he wrapped the girl's torn body in the blanket and carried it back to the car. It amused him to taunt fate by discarding his leftovers in conspicuous places. Tonight he'd thought of a deliciously outrageous location.
The smell of blood congealed around Roger like a coppery fog.
He stared down at the blonde girl slumped on the brick pavement, her head lolling to one side. He watched the glow of her body heat seep away into the night air, along with the blood from the gash in her neck. Crouching over her, he felt the glare of her sightless eyes boring into his chest. Did he know her? Surely not -- so why did the spectacle of her death paralyze him?
Why are you accusing me? I'm not your killer!
Then why were his hands sticky with clotting blood? Why did the taste of it linger in his mouth?
Roger cast a furtive glance around the courtyard. Behind him loomed the equestrian statue of Paul Revere, adding its stern judgment to the victim's silent reproach.
A voice in a remote corner of Roger's brain screamed for him to run. Instead he leaned closer, until his lips touched the wound.
The wail of a siren lanced through his head. Leaping up, he whirled to face a dozen pulsing lights that spurted crimson beams. The siren shrieked louder, until the pain of it forced him to his knees.
It woke him.
Slowly Roger sat up on the damask-covered couch where he'd fallen asleep. The wan light that trickled between the drapes signalled the shift from day to evening. As he stretched out a hand to steady himself, he brushed the folded newspaper he'd been reading.
No wonder her face looked familiar -- here it is.
He picked up the second section of the paper and gazed at the high school graduation portrait of the blonde girl in his dream. No problem interpreting this dream; no need to search for some obscure symbolism or deeply buried conflict.
Buried, hell, it's right on the surface. Like a lump of rock jutting up through thin soil.
He'd read the article with morbid curiosity, rationalizing that the unidentified psychopath made an interesting case study. Fourth in a series of similar killings, this one featured the usual hints of unspecified "mutilation" and "unexplained volume of blood loss," rumors that the paper reported with the disclaimer that police spokesmen refused to comment on the details. This last murder differed from the others only in its brazenness, with the victim's corpse found outside the tall wrought-iron gates of the Old North Church.
Catching himself crumpling a corner of the newspaper in one hand, Roger loosed his grip and stood up to pace the dim living room. Why should he identify, even in nightmares, with a homicidal maniac like hundreds of others in casebooks and sensational tabloids?
Damn it, I'm not like that! I'm not.
He started for the bedroom, hoping to catch another hour of sleep before nightfall made that impossible.
The phone rang.
Blast -- should have turned on the answering machine.
The caller turned out to be Detective Lieutenant Kevin O'Toole, an acquaintance of Roger's in the Boston Police Department's homicide division. He got right to the point. "You read today's paper yet, Doc?"
"Yes. You're talking about last night's murder, aren't you?" On several occasions Roger had acted as a psychiatric consultant to the police, as well as providing expert witness services to the District Attorney in alleged insanity cases. So it wasn't hard to guess what the lieutenant wanted.
"Yeah." Roger visualized O'Toole running his fingers through his thinning shock of sandy hair, as he often did when perplexed. "So what do you think of this vampire killer, as they're calling him now? Friggin' newspapers!"
Think of him? I try not to. "It's a complex topic to handle over the telephone. Have you made an arrest?"
"No such luck. But there's something you could do for us. We could use a psychological profile -- you know, what kind of creep we should be looking for. How about it?"
Roger sank into the nearest chair, conscious of the way his heartbeat had accelerated since the beginning of the conversation. Damn, this is the last thing I want to get involved with! But if his unique perspective could lead to the criminal's capture, he felt obligated to accept the assignment. "Yes, I'd be glad to work up something, if you could send over a precis of the outstanding features of the various cases, along with the medical examiner's reports. I'll check some references and put together a written evaluation as soon as I can." Not that he would need to do much research, for he'd gathered material on blood fetishism for years, in a vain attempt to understand his own problem.
"Say, would it do you any good to see the latest body? I could get you a pass for the morgue, no sweat."
"No!" Roger forced himself to continue in a level tone, "The post mortem findings will tell me all I need to know about their -- condition."
"Thanks. Anything to get a handle on this guy -- and I'm betting he won't be turnin' himself into a bat," said O'Toole in the rich Irish accent he sometimes affected to throw suspects off guard. In fact, as Roger knew, the detective stood four generations removed from his immigrant ancestors.
"You have some evidence that it's a man?" Roger said.
"Not really, except that he -- it -- has to be one strong bastard, judging from broken bones on a couple of the girls. Anyway, I can't imagine a woman --" His voice echoed Roger's own revulsion at the murders.
"There was Countess Elisabeth Bathory, in late medieval Hungary."
"Countess, huh? With a castle and the whole nine yards?"
"Yes. In fact, she was imprisoned for life in a chamber of her own castle, after she was convicted of slaughtering hundreds of young women to bathe in their blood."
O'Toole gave a grunt of disgust. "What the hell did she do that for?"
"Supposedly she believed it would keep her young."
"Some beauty treatment! But isn't it rare for a woman to do crazy shit like that?"
"You're right," said Roger, "this is apt to be a masculine type of paraphilia." Shifting the discussion to a more general level distanced the subject enough to let him ask about a point left unmentioned in the newspapers. "Have any of the victims been raped?"
"No, it's like the crimes aren't sexually motivated."
"But there is no demonstrable connection among the victims, is there?" Roger asked.
"Not that we can find." Roger heard the weary perplexity in the detective's voice. "Looks to me like they were just unlucky enough to be in the wrong place."
"Opportunistic crimes." Roger nodded to himself. "Then it's probably sexual, simply not genital sexuality."
"You mean he gets off on the blood itself?"
"Probably." The immediacy of the crude phrase undermined Roger's precarious calm. He understood that aspect of the crimes all too well. "The fact that you haven't found semen on -- or inside -- the bodies doesn't necessarily mean the perpetrator doesn't ejaculate."
"He might jerk off later, you mean," the detective said. Roger's keen ears picked up a scratching sound -- O'Toole's ballpoint pen taking notes.
"Or he might suffer from ejaculatory incompetence and not be capable of, or even desire, that kind of release." The conversation was hitting too close to home again. "Listen, I can't possibly diagnose the case in a vacuum, and I'm sure you're too busy for this. Send the documents to my office, and I'll get on it right away."
"Okay, will do. Thanks, Doc."
After hanging up, Roger dismissed the idea of lying down again. That conversation destroyed any hope of sleep -- at least, sleep without nightmares.
At forty years of age, Roger Sean Gallagher Darvell, M. D., stood at the apex of his professional prime, and his patients were driving him crazy. This one, for instance, a slim brunette of only seventeen, with unblemished skin and naturally curly hair, dressed in a halter top and a snakeskin-tight pair of designer jeans. Through the partly open venetian blinds, the sun cast a barred pattern on her face, eyes glazed in hypnotic trance. The rest of the office lay in shadow, curtained by heavy forest green drapes that matched the deep-piled carpet. Seated on the leather-upholstered chair next to the couch where the patient reclined, Roger bent over her.
It wasn't her neurosis that disturbed him; it was the temptation she presented. His life would be much simpler if his secret obsession fitted into some currently fashionable pigeonhole. Numerous treatment programs existed for alcoholics and drug abusers. Even a weakness for conventional sexual harassment of female patients might conceivably be cured. Not this "weakness," though.
So he had to fight the urge awakened by his last patient of the afternoon. Showing up for her weekly appointment, the young woman had burst in babbling about an argument with one of her teachers. After hearing her out for almost half an hour, Roger had eased her into trance. He often used that method to calm agitated patients, much as it strained his self-control. The girl's vulnerability enticed him.
It's been so long, and this would be so easy!
As he stroked her forehead, deepening the trance, her skin seemed to burn his cool fingers. Her breathing and the throb of her pulse roared in his ears like waves on rock. The glow of her aura made the rest of the room fade into a gray fog. He leaned closer, his fingertips drifting to the warm hollow of her throat.
He shuddered in a spasm of disgust at his own behavior. No! I swore I would not do this again -- not here!
Less than a month before, he had succumbed to this temptation with another patient, and his office partner, Matthew Lloyd, had blundered in and practically caught him in flagrante. He mustn't repeat that risk. As it was, even Lloyd's shallow intuition had picked up the stress Roger couldn't completely hide.
Pulling back from the girl on the couch, he drew several deep breaths to steady his heartbeat and subdue the tumult of his desire.
He closed his eyes and fought to silence the imaginary whispers in his head. He visualized the speakers as a pair of imps, demon and angel, like the figures perched on the shoulders of a cartoon character.
The tempter with the horns and pitchfork murmured, You're not doing her any harm. A few cc's, she'll never miss it.
The amount is irrelevant, the haloed angel said. This is perverted, abominable.
It's no more than you owe yourself for the hours you devote to these people. A supplement to your fee, that's all it is. Like an old country doctor taking his pay in farm produce instead of cash.
The angel's wings quivered in outrage. It's no different from sexually molesting her while she's under hypnosis.
It is different -- it's different because you need this. You're half out of your mind with needing it, aren't you? She'll never know what you took, and you'll repay her for it with pleasure. Even if you can't let her remember.
By whose standards? Even old Doc Lloyd comments on how fast your patients improve, the demon insisted in its taunting voice.
The ends never justify the means, the angel retorted. And have you forgotten how you almost got caught last time?
You won't get caught, not if you're careful.
The angelic figure played its trump card. Never mind that, what about the Hippocratic Oath?
Roger opened his eyes, banishing the actors in his miniature psychodrama. As usual, the internal debate temporarily quenched his ardor. Now that he'd regained control, he once more leaned over the patient, his fingertips lightly touching her temples. He infused her with suggestions of serenity and self-confidence, reinforcing the trigger word he'd taught her to use for therapeutic self-hypnosis. He then woke her to full consciousness and sent her away.
Friday afternoon, thank God! Left alone, Roger packed the day's notes into his briefcase, locked his office, and walked out through the waiting room. He found the receptionist already gone and Dr. Lloyd also on his way out.
"It's five o'clock on Friday," said the older therapist, his florid, mustached face showing the vague concern that had Roger censoring his every word and gesture in Lloyd's presence. "Why are you still here?"
"I could ask you the same," said Roger, feigning a light response to the joke Lloyd's remark pretended to be.
"Touche," said Lloyd, pausing at the outer door. "But I'm not the one taking work home every night, weekends included."
"I find it easier to concentrate away from the distractions of the office." He couldn't mention his main reason for taking work home, to fill the sleepless hours between nightfall and dawn. A respectable resume of journal articles had grown out of his unconventional sleep rhythms.
"Every weekend, though? Good Lord, man, do you have a social life at all?"
"As it happens, I'm going to a party tonight." No need to mention that it was strictly a "duty" engagement -- and why couldn't Lloyd mind his own business, anyway? The man's persistent solicitude made Roger feel swathed in an itchy blanket.
I'm not being fair to him. He thinks he's showing friendly interest. But that awareness didn't reduce the irritation.
"Good, you should try that more often. Look, if you need a break, you know I can cover for you in case of emergency. Why not take a few days off?" He stepped closer and laid a hand on Roger's shoulder.
Roger stiffened. Uninvited touch always felt like an attack to him. Striving not to show his annoyance, he said, "I'll get that `break' when I make the transfer I'm planning." And it couldn't happen soon enough, a fresh start with a colleague who had no excuse for probing into his personal life.
Lloyd's smile faded. "Yeah. Too late to talk you into staying, I guess. You've got things practically settled with that lady psychiatrist in Maryland, haven't you?" He let out a long sigh. "Her gain, my loss. You're flying down to meet her -- when? Oh, yeah, Monday, how could I forget?"
Roger was sure Lloyd hadn't forgotten and was only making the remark for effect. The man was creeping toward retirement but far from senile. "Yes -- if we get along as well in person as we have through the mail, we'll sign the contract, and I'll start preparing for the move." He eased away from Lloyd's touch and shifted his grip on his briefcase, his other hand poised on the doorknob.
"Hate to see you leave."
"You know I've spent my entire life in Boston. I feel that staying here is no longer conducive to personal growth." That sort of reasoning always appealed to his partner. He couldn't admit the other motive, his hope that in a new environment he might find the strength to curtail or even overcome his compulsion. "Not that I don't appreciate all you've done for me over the years." That was true enough; he owed the older man gratitude for accepting him as an associate straight out of his residency and giving him a solid start in private practice.
"Well, maybe you do need a change. We all tend to get a little stale after too long in one place."
Roger couldn't take any more of Lloyd's informal diagnosis today. Next, I'll have to listen to another lecture on "burnout." Furthermore, the other man's body heat and pulse stirred the craving Roger thought he had managed to suppress. He said a curt goodbye and strode briskly to the elevator, gratefully shaking off his colleague before they reached the parking garage.
When he eased his black Citroen down the ramp and into the street, the late afternoon sun hurt his eyes even through dark glasses. Fortunately his condo, in a high-rise just off the Southeast Expressway, was only a couple of miles from the office. While his senses and emotions whirled in confusion, a detached segment of his brain maneuvered along the taxi-clogged downtown streets, darting through holes in traffic where a less skilled driver wouldn't dare risk the large, expensive car. His reflexes, operating on automatic, avoided several potential collisions without conscious awareness, while his mind dwelt on his unsatisfied need. Nausea roiled in his stomach. To make matters worse, he'd promised to attend that Harvard fund-raising concert tonight, followed by a party in Cambridge. He saw no way to get out of the commitment, since the hostess was a relative of his late mother.
Once inside his air-conditioned apartment, with curtains closed and chain and deadbolt secured, Roger at last felt free to relax. Maybe he could fit in a decent nap before the evening's ordeal. He expected to enjoy the concert; the thought of the party, though, plunged him into depression. He would much rather spend the night reading a new Martha Grimes mystery or even working on case files. After removing coat and tie, he poured himself a tall glass of milk. As an afterthought he added a shot of brandy. Not for the first time, he wished it were easier for him to get drunk.
In the dim living room he put a Bach cassette on the stereo and sat in an Ethan Allen wing-backed armchair, sipping the milk. Though a staple of his diet, it was a poor substitute for what he really craved.
He turned hot with shame at the recollection of how he'd almost slipped this afternoon. He was as enslaved to his need as any heroin addict. Otherwise he wouldn't have considered using a patient again. Abstaining for so long -- over three weeks -- must have clouded his judgment. Guilt impelled him to hold off as long as possible between victims.
That's illogical, you know, he chastised himself. If drinking blood is wrong, the wrongness doesn't depend on the frequency. Even the rigidly traditional pre-Vatican-II Catholic Church in which he'd been reared hadn't endorsed such a mechanical, score-keeping approach to sin.
But I don't hurt them. I've never done any permanent damage, much less killed.
The rationalization didn't convince him any better than it ever did. To head off another round of self-flagellation, Roger leafed through the mail he'd deposited on the claw-footed end table on his way in. Two professional journals, an American Express bill, a supermarket ad -- and an envelope postmarked Annapolis, Maryland.
Good -- a letter from his prospective partner, Dr. Britt Loren. He added businesslike promptness to the list of virtues her correspondence with him had already revealed. Her letter confirmed their meeting in Annapolis the following Monday.
Right now, he had to get some rest to fortify himself for the evening. He downed the rest of the drink and retreated to the bedroom. Maybe the milk would enable him to sleep despite the void inside him that screamed to be filled. Look on the bright side, he reminded himself. I've held out for over three weeks. Maybe next time I can go for an entire month. Perhaps he could eventually condition himself to do without it altogether.
No violence haunted his dreams this time, just murky, half-formed visions that faded immediately upon waking. Wrenched awake at seven by the beep of the digital alarm clock, he stumbled through a cold shower, then went to the kitchen in search of something to damp down the fire in his gut.
He contemplated tossing a quarter pound of raw ground sirloin into the food processor with a can of beef broth. His stomach protested at the thought; he needed a stronger elixir to help him face crowds of people without losing control. Blood from live animals sometimes worked, an indulgence he had no time for tonight.
From the freezer he extracted a second-rate substitute, a container of cattle blood. Filipino and Vietnamese markets kept him supplied with the stuff, normally used as an ingredient in pudding-like recipes; he simply took care not to buy too much from any store at once. In the microwave he defrosted the package gradually, on a low setting, then warmed it to body heat. To dilute the viscosity and mask the dead taste, he whirled it in the blender with a cup of burgundy.
Pouring the concoction into a mug, he drank it at the living room window. He surveyed the view of the Charles River and the skyline of Cambridge until the setting sun began to strain his eyes. In the kitchen he rinsed out the cup and blender, contemplating the dregs with distaste. Thawed beef blood muted the craving but didn't satisfy. He needed the real thing.
Perhaps Mrs. Bronson's party would offer possibilities. Among all the women present, surely he could find an unattached one who would accept a ride home. Better than violating the doctor-patient boundary. Even if not much better.
He brushed his teeth to clean out the stale taste and dressed with his usual efficient speed. Knotting his tie, he examined himself in the bathroom mirror, relieved to note that his agitation didn't show on the outside. His silver-gray eyes gave him back a cool stare that could easily be mistaken for self-assurance.
The stereotype of an omnicompetent healer, he jeered at himself. Too bad it's an illusion.