Eve bit her lip and tried to remember Faith Chastain. She only had fleeting images of a haunted, petite woman who in moments of clarity could smile, her amber eyes intriguing and intelligent.
A dark stain discolored the center of the floor, and Eve backed away from what appeared to have once been blood.
You’re imagining things, she thought. You’re letting this gloomy, dark place with its history of evil get to you.
In the hallway, she walked past the other rooms, shining her flashlight into each doorway and seeing nothing other than emptiness. The bathrooms and showers were grimy and forgotten, infested by insects.
At the end of the hall, there was an empty linen closet and across from that doorway another closet with a second door at its back that led upward to the attic. It was locked, but this time one of her father’s keys slid easily into the dead bolt and turned. The lock clicked, and the door opened to a steep set of stairs that wound upward around a chimney to a long, narrow garret with exposed rafters and unfinished plank floors.
This had been her hideaway as a child. She and Roy had snuck up these twisting steps and spent hours playing make-believe games or spying on some of the patients and doctors. She cringed now as she thought about the peepholes they’d discovered that allowed them to view into the rooms below.
Including Faith Chastain’s bedroom.
Roy had spent hours numbering the tiny slits in the flooring with the appropriate rooms. Now Eve walked along the floorboards, ducking the cobwebby rafters and crossbeams, shining her weak light until she saw the number 207 written in a felt-tip pen and covered with dust and grime.
The wind whistled through the old rafters, sweeping through this oven of a chamber but not bringing any relief from the heat.
The place was creepier than she remembered it, and, she thought, if she closed her eyes, she could still hear the soft cries, the whimpers, the desperate whispers of some of the most tormented patients.
How many times had she and Roy looked down this very peephole into Faith Chastain’s room? Now, of course, she was embarrassed. How could she have been so uncaring, so callous, so ultimately curious?
“Forgive me,” she whispered but couldn’t resist the opportunity to look down that dime-sized hole once more, one created by the wiring for the overhead lamp in Faith’s room. As she did, she found herself staring at the damning crimson stain.
A shadow passed over the discoloration.
Her lungs constricted.
On one was in this decrepit hospital but her.
Feat splintered through her body. It’s just a shadow, a trick of light. It doesn’t mean anyone’s inside.
But she swallowed hard, and the back of her skull tightened as she strained to listen, not moving a muscle.
The shadow vanished.
As if it had never existed.
Light from the window…that was it…There was still some glass in the higher panes, and a tree branch could have swayed in the wind, blocking the sun…She had heard the wind up here, how it swept through the rafters. But there was no wind now. Not a whisper of a breeze skimming over the roof.
The shadow didn’t appear again.
Nor did she hear the sounds of breathing, or footsteps, or a voice…Perhaps she’d imagined the dark umbra that had been cast for a few seconds over Faith’s room.
But the skin on the back of her arms prickled in warning, and her insides had turned to jelly.
Just do what you have to do and get the hell out of here!
Moving more quickly now, she walked past a junkyard of old hospital bed parts and dresser drawers and medicine trays and God knew what else until she found a stack of cabinets. Old files. Long forgotten.
She bent to avoid hitting her head, while the beam of her flashlight, offering ever-weaker light in the sweltering attic space, swept side to side.
She saw the doll.
Her doll, one that she hadn’t seen in nearly twenty years, caught in the yellow sweep of illumination.
“Sweet Jesus,” she gasped, training the fading light onto a corner where an old, faded sleeping bag was pushed hear the tiny, dirt-covered window, a little nook where she had come and played for hours as a child. With her impish face and pleading tone, she’d managed to wheedle plates and forks from the kitchen staff, along with some of the cook’s key lime pie or pralines, then dragged her booty up here. She’d nearly forgotten about this little nook, and she hadn’t seen the Charlotte doll in so, so long.
Now the doll way lying facedown on the dingy sleeping bag that seemed to be losing some of its filling to mice.
Something didn’t feel right about this.
She didn’t remember leaving Charlotte here, and she’d been up here long after she’d had any interest in rag dolls. This one had been sewn and stuffed by her grandmother. Nana had even made a blue dress and pinafore then braided the doll’s brown hair and added a hat, as if she were a small girl at the turn of the century.
Now, as she edged closer, Eve noticed that Charlotte’s hat was tossed to one side, its ribbon ties askew. The doll’s braids had been clipped off and tossed away as well, leaving her plump head practically bald. Worse yet, Charlotte’s arms and legs were spread wide, and the hem of her dress was raised over her waist and fixed with a rubber band. Her panties were pulled down to the tops of her felt shoes, and her faded pink butt was sticking upward in the air in some weird pose.
“Sick,” Eve said, knowing she had never left Charlotte in such disarray. It was sexual and freaky and, she knew from her studies, the work of a psychopath. Here stomach turned, and a deep, clawing fear curled through her guts. As hot and stifling as it was up here, Eve was suddenly cold to the bone.
Who had been playing and left Charlotte like this? One of the mentally unstable boys who was a patient at the asylum years ago?
Was this just a tormented soul’s idea of a joke?
No, Eve, this isn’t random!
You know it.
Someone left the doll positioned this way on purpose. And they wanted someone, probably you, to find her.
Her mouth went dry. She swallowed back her fear and inched closer to the sleeping bag then reached down and turned Charlotte over.
As she did, her blood ran cold.
A scream worked its way up her throat and ended in a terrified gasp.
Charlotte’s button eyes had been clipped off, her pinafore slashed with jagged cuts made by pinking shears, and she’d been mutilated across her belly, the number 444 scrawled in blood-red ink.
And below the numbers was a single word.
The night, the Voice was clear.
Rising above the irritating little squeaks of the others who infiltrated his brain with their wheedling demands.
“There is another you must sacrifice soon,” God told him, and he trembled on his bed, sweating, thinking of Eve. Was it her turn? Would she be one of those that God had chosen? Closing his eyes, he conjured up her face. So perfect.
Now, as a woman, she was beautiful.
Then, as a child, she’d been elusive.
She was the one he wanted.
God knew how much he wanted her. Wasn’t his lust for her the very reason the Voice had first come to him?
“Who, Father?” she whispered anxiously, his fingers curling over the edges of his quilt. “Who is to be taken? Tell me, and I will do Your will.”
He closed his eyes and concentrated. So soon after the others, he was to do the Lord’s bidding again. To take up his knife once more. To slay those who had so obviously infuriated the Almighty. This was his mission, his quest, for hadn’t the Voice promised if he did as he was bidden he too would be deified?
He would someday sit next to the Father in heaven…Tears filled his eyes at the thought. He just had to do the Voice’s bidding, to follow His instructions, to wash away his own sins…
Please, please may it be Eve’s time.
“There are those who sin,” the Voice said harshly. “Under the guise of innocence they walk the earth, guiding others, pretending righteousness, feigning faith. They are the worst of sinners, hiding behind all their sanctity, and they must be sacrificed, their artifice exposed to all. Sacrifice this one first and take the second…”
“Take the second? Take her where?”
There was only silence.
“Father?” he cried and wondered fleetingly if, as his mother had said, he was insane. Hadn’t that been what the doctor had diagnosed, the nurses had suggested, the nuns had pitied and prayed about?
And yet the Voice of God was real. It spoke to him. Had It not named him, called him the Reviver? Told him he would be deified? No, he could not doubt. He must believe.
“But Eve,” he finally said. “When will it be Eve’s time?” He’d seen her today at the hospital, lured there as he’d known she would be. Our Lady of Virtues belonged to her. To him. Soon, he thought, anticipation sliding through him. “Father?” he asked, hoping beyond hope that it was finally her time.
There was no answer, just the tomblike quiet of his room.
God was angry with him.
He knew it.
He’d been too bold.
“Thy will be done,” he said aloud.
Trembling with excitement, he rolled off his bed and fell to his knees. Bending his head, folding his hands over his mattress, he eagerly awaited his instructions, anxiously considered what would be his mission.
And God told him.
Sister Rebecca shivered in the church, a sudden premonition sliding through her soul. She realized that the reign of terror which had held everyone associated with the decaying hospital fast in its grasp was far from finished. The serene period of the last few months had been only a lull, a short time of peace meant to trick all of those involved, the proverbial calm before the storm.
Shattered by two brutal murders.
No doubt a new evil had been unleashed.
One that was, most likely, worse than the last.
“God be with us,” she whispered, the marrow of her bones turning to ice.
Should she got to the police?
Tell them what she knew? The secret she’d borne for three long decades?
God would let her know. She had to pray, to trust in Him.
“Father, please, please guide me,” she whispered, genuflecting before leaving the chapel and crossing the cloister again. As she passed beneath the overhang, she heard the sound of a crow cawing and told herself it was not an evil omen, not the heralding of Lucifer. Besides, she didn’t believe in such idiocies; her faith was much too strong.
But as she passed by the fountain, she thought she heard the sound of leather scraping against flagstones. A footstep.
At this hour?
She had to be imagining things. Her worries getting the better of her.
Nonetheless, her heart began to beat irregularly and she cast a glance backward, scanning the shadows not illuminated by the moon’s pale light.
Silently scolding herself, she kept walking while she murmured a familiar prayer, her footsteps moving faster than they had in a decade. “Our Father, who art in heaven…”
Another telltale scratch of a sole against stone.
Every muscle in her body froze. She gathered her breath. Perhaps she was being tested.
Turning, she saw no one. Nothing. Just the trailing flowers in the hanging baskets swaying in the breeze—
A dark form, lightning quick, flashed by, seen only in the corner of her eye.
“Who is there?” she whispered, her skin crinkling in premonition, her voice wheezing as her lungs crew tight. “Show yourself!” Was it her imagination? A trick of shadow and eerie light? Her peripheral vision deceiving her? Swallowing back her fear, she slid a hand into her pocket and twined her fingers in the beaded strands of her rosary.
Fear not, the Lord is with you.
She turned toward the convent door. She was just imagining thing. An old, foolish woman whose guilt was eroding her common sense.
In that instant, he sprang.
Out of the darkness.
A huge, shifting shape that landed against her back.
His weight was impossible to bear, and she started to crumple. Tried to scream, but a big gloved hand covered her mouth.
No, no, no!
She felt her spine crushing as he held her fast from behind.
His other arm arced upward in front of her face. In his gloved hand, a long blade caught in the moonlight.
Help me! Someone, please help me! Oh dear God, please.
Terrified, Sister Rebecca tried to scream, to bite, to fight, but his strength was overpowering.
The blade sliced downward.
Deep into her chest.
She gasped, gurgled, toppled to her knees. Her mind swirled, pain burning deep in her soul. Who would do this? She tried to see his face, but the darkness hid it. Her voice failed her, and she watched, unable to move, unable to warn anyone of the hideous terror that was to come.
He slipped through the open door of the convent as she felt her lifeblood ooze onto the smooth, timeworn stones.
He wasn’t finished.
There would be more killing.
And the secrets she’d tried so desperately to conceal would be exposed.
Father, forgive me, she silently prayed as the fog and darkness pulled at her consciousness, for I have sinned.
Excerpted from ABSOLUTE FEAR © Copyright 2007 by Lisa Jackson. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.