20 years earlier
Our Lady of Virtues Hospital
Near New Orleans, Louisiana
She felt his breath.
A presence that caused the hairs on the back of her neck to lift,
her skin to prickle, sweat to collect upon her spine.
Her heart thumped and, barely able to move, standing in the
darkness, she searched the shadowed corners of her room
frantically. Through the open window she heard the reverberating
songs of the frogs in the nearby swamps and the rumble of a train
upon faraway tracks.
But here, now, he was with her.
Go away, she tried to say, but held her tongue, hoping
beyond hope that he wouldn't notice her standing near the window.
On the other side of the panes security lamps illuminated the
grounds with pale, bluish light, and she realized belatedly that
her body, shrouded only by a sheer nightgown, was silhouetted in
their eerie glow.
Of course he could see her, find her in the darkness.
He always did.
Throat dry, she stepped backward, placing a hand on the window
casing to steady herself. Maybe she had just imagined his presence.
Maybe she hadn't heard the door open after all. Maybe she'd jumped
up from a drug-induced sleep too quickly. After all it wasn't late,
only eight in the evening.
Maybe she was safe in this room, her room on the third
She was reaching for the bedside light when she heard the soft
scrape of leather against hardwood.
Her throat closed on a silent scream.
Having adjusted to the half-light, her eyes took in the bed with
its mussed sheets, evidence of her fitful rest. Upon the dressing
table was the lamp and a bifold picture frame; one that held small
portraits of her two daughters. Across the small room was a
fireplace. She could see its decorative tile and cold grate and
above the mantle, a bare spot, faded now where a mirror had once
So where was he? She glanced to the tall windows. Beyond, the
October night was hot and sultry. In the panes she could see her
wan reflection: petite, small-boned frame; sad hazel eyes; high
cheekbones; lustrous black hair pulled away from her face. And
behind her . . . was that a shadow creeping near?
Or her imagination?
That was the trouble. Sometimes he hid.
But he was always nearby. Always. She could feel him, hear
his soft, determined footsteps in the hallway, smell his scent ---
a mixture of male musk and sweat --- catch a glimpse of a quick,
darting shadow as he passed.
There was no getting away from him. Ever. Not even in the dead of
night. He received great satisfaction in surprising her, sneaking
up on her while she was sitting at her desk, leaning down behind
her when she was kneeling at her bedside. He was always ready to
press his face to the back of her neck, to reach around her and
touch her breasts, arousing her though she loathed him, pulling her
tightly against him so that she could feel his erection against her
back. She wasn't safe when she was under the thin spray of the
shower, nor while sleeping beneath the covers of her small
How ironic that they had placed her here . . . for her own
"Go away," she whispered, her head pounding, her thoughts
disjointed. "Leave me alone!"
She blinked and tried to focus.
Where was he?
Nervously she trained her eyes on the one hiding place, the closet.
She licked her lips. The wooden door was ajar, just slightly,
enough that anyone inside could peer through the crack. From the
small sliver of darkness within the closet something seemed to
glimmer. A reflection. Eyes?
Maybe he was inside. Waiting.
Gooseflesh broke out on her skin. She should call out to someone,
but if she did, she would be retrained, medicated . . . or worse.
Stop it, Faith. Don't get paranoid! But the glittering eyes
in the closet watched her. She felt them. Wrapping one arm around
her middle, the other folded over it, she scraped her nails on the
skin of her elbow.
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
But maybe this was all a bad dream. A nightmare. Wasn't that what
the sisters had assured her in their soft whispers as they gently
patted her hands and stared at her with compassionate, disbelieving
eyes? An ugly dream. Yes! A nightmare of vast, intense proportions.
Even the nurse had agreed with the nuns, telling her that what
she'd thought she'd seen wasn't real. And the doctor, cold,
clinical, with the bedside manner of a stone monkey, had talked to
her as if she were a small, stupid child.
"There, there, Faith, no one is following you," he'd said, wearing
a thin, patronizing smile. "No one is watching you. You know that.
You're . . . you're just confused. You're safe here. Remember, this
is your home now."
Tears burned her eyes and she scratched more anxiously, her short
fingernails running over the smooth skin of her forearm,
encountering scabs. Home? This monstrous place? She closed her
eyes, grabbed the headboard of the bed to steady herself.
Was she really as sick as they said? Did she really see people who
weren't there? That's what they'd told her, time and time again, to
the point that she was no longer certain what was real and what was
not. Maybe that was the plot against her, to make her believe she
was as crazy as they insisted she was.
She heard a footstep and looked up quickly.
The hairs on the backs of her arms rose.
She began to shake as she saw the door crack open a bit more.
"Sweet Jesus." Trembling, she backed up, her gaze fixed on the
closet, her fingers scraping her forearm like mad. The door creaked
open in slow motion. "Go away!" she whispered, her stomach knotting
as full-blown terror took root.
A weapon! You need a weapon!
Anxiously, she looked around the near-dark room with its bed bolted
to the floor.
Get your letter opener! Now!
She took one step toward the desk before she remembered that Sister
Madeline had taken the letter opener away from her.
The lamp on the night table!
But it, too, was screwed down.
She pressed the switch.
No great wash of light. Frantically, she hit the switch again. Over
Click! Click! Click! Click!
She looked up and saw him then. A tall man, looming in front of the
door to the hallway. It was too dark to see his features but she
knew his wicked smile was in place, his eyes glinting with an evil
He was Satan Incarnate. And there was no way to get away from him.
There never was.
"Please don't," she begged, her voice sounding pathetic and weak as
she backed up, her legs quivering.
"Please don't what?"
Don't touch me . . . don't place your fingers anywhere on my
body . . . don't tell me I'm beautiful . . . don't kiss me . .
"Leave now," she insisted. Dear God, was there no weapon, nothing
to stop him?
"Leave now or what?"
"Or I'll scream and call the guards."
"'The guards'" he repeated in that low, amused, nearly hypnotic
voice. "Here?" He clucked his tongue as if she were a disobedient
child. "You've tried that before."
She knew for certain that her plight was futile. She would submit
to him again.
As she always did.
"'The guards?' Did they believe you the last time?"
Of course they hadn't. Why would they? The two scrawny,
pimply-faced boys hadn't hidden the fact they considered her mad.
At least that's what they'd insinuated, though they'd used fancier
words . . . delusional . . . paranoid . . . schizophrenic .
Or had they said anything at all? Maybe not. Maybe they'd just
stared at her with their pitying, yet hungry, eyes. Hadn't one of
them told her she was sexy? The other one cupping one cheek of her
buttocks . . . or . . . or had that all been a horrid, vivid
Scratch, scratch, scratch. She felt her nails break the
Humiliation washed over her. She inched backward, away from her
tormentor. What was happening to her was her own fault. She'd
sinned somehow, brought this upon herself. She was the one who was
evil. She had instigated God's wrath. She alone could atone. "Go
away," she whispered again, clawing more frantically at her
"Faith, don't," he warned, his voice horrifyingly soothing.
"Mutilating yourself won't change anything. I'm here to help you.
You know that."
Help her? No . . . no, no, no!
She wanted to crumble onto the floor, to shed her guilt, to get
away from the itching.
Fight! An inner voice ordered her. Don't let him force
you into doing things that you know are wrong! You have will. You
can't let him do this to you.
But it was already too late.
Close to her now, he clucked his tongue again and she saw its
pointy, wet, pink tip flicking against the back of his teeth.
In a rough whisper, he said, "Uh-oh, Faith, I think you've been a
naughty girl again."
"No." She was whimpering. There it was. . .that horrid bit of
excitement building inside her.
"Oh, Faith, don't you know it's a sin to lie?"
She glanced to the wall where the crucifix of Jesus was nailed into
the plaster. Did it move? Blinking, she imagined Jesus staring at
her, his eyes kind but silently reprimanding in the
No, Faith. That can't be. Get a grip, for God's sake.
It's a painted image, that's all.
Breathing rapidly, she dragged her gaze from Christ's tortured face
to the fireplace . . . cold now, devoid of both ashes and the
mirror above it, now an empty space, the outline visible against
the rosebud wallpaper. They said she broke the mirror in a fit of
rage, that she'd cut herself. That her own image had caused her to
But he'd done it, hadn't he? This devil whose sole intent was to
torture her? Hadn't she witnessed the act? She'd tried to refuse
him, and he'd crashed his fist into the looking glass. Mirrored
shards sprayed, hitting her, then crashing to the floor like
glittery, deadly knives.
That's what had happened.
Or not? Now, feeling the blood beneath her nails, she
What's happening to me?
She stared at her bloodied hands. Her fingernails, once manicured
and polished were broken, her palms scratched and further up, upon
her wrists, healed deep gashes. Had she done that to herself? In
her mind's eye she saw her hands wrapped around a shard of glass
and the blood dripping from her fingers . . .
Because you were going to kill him . . . trying to protect
She closed her eyes and let out a long, mewling cry. It was true.
She didn't know what to believe any longer. Truth and lies blended,
fact and fiction fused, her life, once so ordinary, so predictable
was fragmented. Frayed. At her own hands.
She inched backward, closer to the window, further from him, from
temptation, from sin.
Where was her husband . . . and her children, what had happened to
Terror burrowed deep into her soul. Confused and panic-stricken,
she blinked rapidly, trying to think. They were safe. They had to
Concentrate, Faith. Get hold of yourself! Zoey and Abby are with
Jacques. They're visiting tonight, remember? It's your
Or was that wrong? Was everything a lie? A macabre figment of her
She took another step backward.
"You're confused, Faith, but I can help you," he said quietly, as
if nothing had happened between them, as if everything she'd
conjured was her imagination, as if he'd never touched her.
Dear lord, how mad was she?
She spun quickly, her toe catching on the edge of a rug. Pitching
forward, she again caught her reflection in the window and this
time she saw him rushing forward, felt his hands upon her.
"No!" she cried, falling.
Blew apart as her shoulder hit the pane.
The window broke, shattering. Giving way.
With a great twisting metal groan, the wrought iron grate wrenched
free of its bolts.
She screamed and flailed at the air, trying to reach the window
sill, the filigreed barricade that hung from one screw, the bricks,
anything! But it was too late. Her body hurtled through the broken
panes, pieces of glass and wood clawing at her arms, ripping her
nightgown, slicing her bare legs.
In a split second, she knew that it was over. She would feel no
more pain. Closing her eyes Faith Chastain pitched into the
blackness of the hot Louisiana night.
Twenty years later
"I just wanted to call and say 'Happy Birthday,'" her sister said,
leaving a message on the answering machine.
Abby stood in middle of her small kitchen. Listening, she debated
about picking up the phone, but decided against it. She just wasn't
in the mood. She had spent most of the day at her studio in New
Orleans, dealing with kids who had their own ideas about what a
Christmas portrait should be. What she needed was a glass of wine.
Maybe two. Not her sister's long-winded birthday message.
"So . . . give me a call back when you get in. It's still early
here on the west coast, you know. I, uh, I'd like to talk to you
Abby. Thirty-five years is a major milestone."
In more ways than one, Abby thought as she reached into her
refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of Chardonnay she'd bought
nearly a month earlier when she'd thought her friend Alicia was
coming to Louisiana for a visit.
"Okay . . . so . . . when you get this, I mean, assuming you're not
listening to it right now and still refusing to talk to me, give me
a call, okay?" Zoey waited a beat. "It's been a long time, Abby.
It's time to bury the hatchet."
Abby wasn't so sure. She turned on the faucet and heard the old
pipes groan as she rinsed a wine glass that had been gathering dust
in her cupboard for the past two years.
"You know, Abby, this isn't just about you," Zoey reminded her
through the answering machine's tiny speaker.
Of course not. It's about you.
"It's a tough day for me, as well. She was my mother, too."
Abby set her jaw, reconsidered picking up the receiver, and once
again determined against it. Talking to Zoey today would be a
mistake. She could feel it in her bones. Digging in a drawer, she
found a corkscrew she'd owned since college and began opening the
"Look, Ab, I really, really hope you're not home alone and
listening to this . . . You should go out and celebrate."
I intend to.
The phone clicked as Zoey hung up. Abby let out a long breath and
leaned against the counter. She probably should have answered, put
up with all the falderal of birthday greetings, the fake cheer, the
gee-aren't-we-just-one-big-happy-family, but she couldn't. Not
today. Because Zoey wouldn't have let it go at that. There would
have been the inevitable discussion of their mother, and what had
happened twenty years ago, and then there would have been the
awkward and uncomfortable questions about Luke.
She popped the cork.
It was just so damned hard to forgive her sister for sleeping with
her husband. Yeah, it had been a long time ago, but there it was,
the wedge that had been between them for five years, ever since
Abby had learned of the affair.
But Zoey had dated him first, hadn't she?
So what? Abby poured the wine, watched the chilled, cool liquid
splash into the glass. Her conscience twinged a little at that,
even though she knew that Luke Gierman had proved to be no prize as
a boyfriend and worse as a husband. No damned prize at all.
And though Abby had divorced him, Zoey was still her sister. There
was no changing that. Maybe she should let bygones be bygones, Abby
thought, staring out the partially opened window where a slight
breeze, heavy with the scents of earth and water, chased
Twilight was just settling in this stretch of Louisiana, the
crickets and cicadas were chirping, stars beginning to wink in a
dusky, lavender sky. It was pretty here, if a little isolated, a
place she and Luke had planned to add onto, to become an
all-American family with 2.3 children, a white picket fence and a
minivan parked in the drive.
So much for dreams.
She pushed the window open a little further, hoping for relief from
Happy birthday to you . . .
The wind seemed to sigh that damned funeral dirge of a song through
the branches of the live oaks, causing the Spanish moss to shift as
dusk settled deeper into the woods. Off in the distance she heard
the rumble of a train. Closer in, at a neighbor's place down this
winding country road, she heard a dog barking and through the trees
she watched the ghostly image of a rising moon.
Her .35 millimeter camera was sitting on the counter near the back
door and the dusk was so still and peaceful, so intriguing, she
thought she might click off a few shots and kill the roll. The film
inside the camera had been there for a long time as she used her
digital more often than not. Leaving the wine on the counter, she
turned on the camera and flash, then walked to the French doors off
her dining room. Stepping outside, she positioned herself on the
edge of the flagstones. Ansel followed her outside, hopped onto a
bench located under a magnolia tree. Abby focused then clicked off
the last few shots of the tabby with the darkening woods as a
backdrop. The cat faced away from the house, ears pricked forward,
his eyes trained on the trees, his fur gilded by a few rays of a
dying sun. "Hey, buddy," she said, and the cat looked over his
shoulder as she took the last couple of shots with the flash
flaring in Ansel's gold eyes. Why not have a few pictures of this,
her thirty-fifth birthday? she thought as she turned to go
A twig cracked in the woods nearby.
Her heart jumped to her throat.
She spun around, half expecting to spy someone lurking in the
deepening umbra. Eyes searching the coming darkness, she strained
to see through the vines and brush and canopy of leafy trees. Her
skin crawled, her pulse jack-hammering in her ears.
But no human shape suddenly appeared, no dark figure stepped into
the patches of light cast from the windows.
Stop it, she thought, drawing in a shaky breath. Just . .
. stop it. She'd been in a bad mood all day. Testy and on edge.
Not because it was her birthday, not really. Who cared about the
passing of another year? Thirty-five wasn't exactly ancient. But
the fact that this was the twentieth anniversary of her mother's
death, now that got to her.
Still jittery, she walked into the house and called to the cat
through the open doors.
Ansel ignored her. He remained fixed and alert, his gaze trained on
the dark shadows, where, she expected a creature of the night,
might be staring back. The same creature who had stepped on and
broken a twig. A large creature. "Come on Ansel. Let's call
it a day," she urged.
The cat hissed.
His striped fur suddenly stood straight on end. His ears flattened
and his eyes rounded. Like a bolt of lightning, he shot across the
verandah and around the corner toward the studio. There wasn't a
chance in hell that she could catch him.
"Oh, ya big pussy," she teased, but as she latched the door behind
her she couldn't quite shake her own case of nerves. Though she'd
never seen anyone in the grounds behind her place, there was always
a first time. Leaving her camera on the dining room table, she made
her way back to the kitchen where the answering machine with its
blinking red light caused her to think of Zoey again.
Abby and her sister and had never been close, not for as long as
she could remember.
Damn you, Zoey, she thought as she picked up her glass and
took a long swallow. Why couldn't Abby have had that special bond
with her sister, that best-friends kind of thing which everyone who
did seemed to gushed on and on about? Could it be because Zoey and
Abby were so close in age, barely fourteen months apart? Or, maybe
it was because Zoey was so damned competitive with her
uncompromising I'll-do-anything to win streak. Or maybe,
just maybe, their antagonism was as much Abby's fault as her
"Blasphemy," she muttered, feeling the chilled wine slide easily
down her throat, though it did little to cool her off.
It was hot. Humid. The fans in the nearly century-old house unable
to keep up with the heat that sweltered in this part of the bayou.
She dabbed at the sweat on her forehead with the corner of a
Should she have answered the stupid phone?
Nope. Abby wasn't ready to go there. Not today. Probably not
It was twenty years ago today . . . The lyrics of an old
Beatles tune, one of her mother's favorites, spun through Abby's
head. "Don't," she told herself. No reason to replay the past as
she had for the last two decades. It was time to move on. Tonight,
she vowed, she'd start over. This was the beginning of Abby
Chastain, Phase II. She'd try to forget that on this very day,
twenty years ago, when her mother had turned thirty-five --- just
as Abby was doing today --- Faith Chastain had ended her tormented
life. Horribly. Tragically.
"Oh, God, Mom," she said now, closing her eyes. The memory that
she'd tried so hard to repress emerged as if in slow motion. She
recalled her father's sedan rolling through the
wrought-iron-filigreed open gates. Past manicured lawns toward the
tall, red-brick building where the drive curved around a fountain
--- a fountain where three angels sprayed water upward toward the
star-lit heavens. Abby, already into boys at the time, and thinking
of how she was going to ask Trey Hilliard to Friday night's Sadie
Hawkins dance, had climbed out of the car just as her father cut
the engine. Carrying a box with a bright, fuchsia-colored bow,
she'd looked up to the third story, to the windows of her mother's
But no warm light glowed through the panes.
Instead the room was dark.
And then Abby had felt an odd sensation, a soft breath that touched
the back of her neck and nearly stopped her heart. Something was
wrong. Very wrong. "Mama?" she whispered using the name for her
mother she hadn't spoken in a decade.
She'd started for the wide steps leading to the hospital's front
door when she heard the crash.
Her head jerked up.
Glass sprayed. Tiny pieces catching in the bluish light.
A hideous shriek rose in the night. A dark body fell through the
sky. It landed on the concrete with a heavy bone-cracking
Fear tore through her.
Denial rose in her throat. "No! No! Noooo!" Abby dropped the box
and flew down the steps to the small broken form lying face-up on
the cement. Blood, dark and oozing, began to pool beneath her
mother's head. Wide whiskey-colored eyes stared sightlessly
Abby pitched herself toward the still, crumpled form.
As if from the other side of a long tunnel she heard her name being
called. Her father's desperate, tense voice. "Abby, don't! Oh, God!
Help! Someone get help! Faith!"
She fell to her knees. Tears welled in her eyes and terror chilled
her to the bottom of her soul. "Mama! Mama!" she cried, until
strong hands and arms pulled her struggling body away.
Now, she blinked and gave herself a quick mental shake. "Jesus,"
she whispered, dispelling the horrific vision that had haunted her
for all of twenty years. She was suddenly cognizant of water
dripping from the faucet over the kitchen sink. Rather than shut
off the pressure, she turned it on full, until water was rushing
from the tap. Quickly, she cupped her hands under the stream, then
splashed the water onto her face, cooling her cheeks, pushing back
the soul-jarring memory and hoping to wash away the stain of that
Trembling, she snapped the dishtowel from the counter and swiped at
her face. What was wrong with her? Hadn't she just told herself she
wouldn't go down that painful path again? "Idiot," she murmured,
folding the towel and noticing her half-full glass of wine on the
"Get over yourself," she rebuked as she picked up the glass, looked
at the glimmering depths for a second.
"Happy birthday, Mom," she whispered to the empty room, hoisting
the stemmed glass as if Faith were in the room. She took a sip of
the crisp Chardonnay. "Here's to us." Her mother had always told
her she was special, that being born on her mother's birthday
created a unique bond between them, that they were "two peas in a
Well . . . not quite.
Not by a long shot.
A very long shot.
"Now, please . . . go away," she whispered. "Leave me alone."
She drained her glass, corked the bottle and stuffed it into the
refrigerator door. She had no more time for mind-numbing
nightmares, for a past that sometimes nearly devoured her. Tonight,
all that, was over.
Determined to get her life on the right track, she set her glass
onto the counter too quickly. It cracked, the stem breaking off,
cutting the end of her thumb. "Great," she growled as blood began
to surface. Just what she needed, she thought sourly. Opening a
cupboard, she found a box of Band-Aids. As blood dripped onto the
Formica she undid the little carton and discovered only one jumbo
sized Band-Aid in the box. It would just have to do. Awkwardly she
slipped it from its sterile packaging and wrapped it around her
She managed to swab the counter and toss the broken glass into the
trash before walking through a mud room and slapping on the light
of the garage. There, propped against a stack of wood was a sign
that said it all: For Sale By Owner. She picked it up then
carried it to the end of her long drive. She hung the blue and
white placard onto the hooks of the post she'd set into her yard
late that afternoon.
"Perfect," she told herself, even though she did have one or two
twinges of nostalgia about selling the place. Hadn't the little
bungalow been the very place where she'd tried once before to start
over, a haven chosen as the ideal place to patch a broken marriage,
a quiet retreat where she'd fostered so many hopes, so many dreams?
She'd crossed her fingers when she and Luke had bought the place.
She'd prayed that they would be able to find happiness here.
How foolish she'd been. Now, as dusk gathered and purple shadows
crawled across the grounds, she glanced at the cottage --- a cozy
little clapboard and shingle house that had been built nearly a
hundred years earlier. It sat well back from this winding county
road. The original structure had been renovated, added to and
improved on to the point that the main house consisted of two small
bedrooms, a single bath, and an attic with a skylight that she'd
managed to turned into her in-home office. The attached building
had once been a mother-in-law apartment which Abby had converted
into her photography studio, dark room and second bathroom.
Five years earlier, she and Luke had found this property, declared
it "perfect" and had spent several years here before everything had
fallen apart. Eventually he'd moved out of the house and onto other
women . . . no, wait. It was the other way around. The women came
first. Starting with Zoey.
Not that it mattered now.
Luke Gierman, once a respected newscaster and radio disk jockey,
had become New Orleans's answer to Howard Stern as well as a
chapter in her life that was finally and indelibly over. It had
been over a year since the final papers had been signed and a judge
had declared the marriage officially dissolved.
Snagging the hammer from the ground where she'd left it earlier,
Abby stepped back to study the sign, to make certain it hung
evenly, to read once again the words and phone number indicating
that this home was on the market.
She had been determined to set her life straight, had heeded what
all the experts had suggested, though, in truth, she'd thought a
lot of the advice had been useless. She'd tried to give their
marriage a second chane but that hadn't worked. They'd split; she's
stayed with the house. Her friends had all warned her about
suffering through the holidays and anniversaries and nostalgia
alone, but those milestones had passed and they hadn't been all
that bad. She'd survived just fine. Probably because she hadn't
really handed her heart to Luke again. And she hadn't been all that
surprised when his old tendencies for other women had
Luke would probably always suffer from an ongoing case of
A twig in the underbrush broke. Again! Glancing sharply toward the
shrubbery, the direction where the sound had occurred, Abby
expected to see a possum or raccoon or even a skunk amble into the
weak light offered by the single bulb hanging in the garage.
But there was only silence. She realized, then, that the crickets
had stopped their songs, the bullfrogs were no longer croaking. Her
heart rate increased and involuntarily she strained to listen, to
notice any other sounds that were out of the ordinary.
She suddenly felt very vulnerable in this isolated area of the
Peering into the darkness, she sensed unseen eyes studying her,
watching her. A tiny shudder slid down her spine. She chided
herself for her own case of nerves. It was her birthday, she was
alone, and just thinking about her mother's death had left her
Relax, she told herself. Go inside. It's dark now and the
sign is finally up.
From the corner of her eye, she caught movement in the bushes, a
rustle of dry leaves. She froze, her nerves stretched taut.
A second later a dark shadow slid beneath the undergrowth. Her
heart kicked hard.
Then Ansel scurried from his hiding spot beneath the branches of a
leather wood and buck thorn. At her feet, he turned, stared into
the bushes from where he'd been hiding and hissed loudly.
She jumped, startled. "For God's sake," she murmured, putting a
hand over her racing heart. "Cut that out! What are you trying to
do, give me a heart attack? Well, you just about succeeded!" She
reached down and tried to pick him up. "I guess you're tense, too.
How about a drink? Wine for me. Fresh H20 for you."
Before she could grab him Ansel raced the length of the driveway
and through the open garage door. Nearly a quarter of a mile away,
the neighbor's dog began putting up a racket that could raise the
Anxiety scampered up Abby's spine. Her fingers tightened over the
handle of the hammer and, ridiculously, she felt again as if
someone was observing her. Don't get paranoid. Don't. You're not
like your mother . . . you're not crazy. So the Pomeroy's
Rottweiler was barking. So what?
Dismissing her case of nerves, she steadfastly walked toward the
house, her shoes crushing the first few leaves of autumn. Inside
the garage, she slapped the button to close the door, then walked
through the mud room to the kitchen where Ansel was seated on the
windowsill over the sink, his eyes trained outside, his tail
"What is it, buddy?" she asked.
The cat kept up its tense vigil.
"You know you're not supposed to be anywhere near the
Still no reaction.
Abby stood at the sink and stared through the glass into the night.
Looming black trees surrounded her small patio and garden. The
window was open a bit, the sounds of the night and the breeze
Again the dog barked. At the same moment Abby's cottage settled,
the old timbers creaking. Unnerved, Abby shooed the cat from the
ledge, slammed the window shut and flipped the lock. Though she
wasn't easily frightened, every once in a while she felt edgy, the
isolation of living alone getting to her.
But that was about to change.
If she accepted Alicia's invitation to move to San Francisco they'd
be roommates again, just like in college --- except for the fact
that they were both now divorced and Alicia had a five-year-old in
"Tempting, isn't it?" she asked the cat, who, rebuffed from his
perch on the window, slunk to a hiding spot under the table. "Fine,
Ansel, go ahead and pout. Hurt me some more."
The phone rang. Still feeling guilty about ignoring her sister's
call, Abby swooped up the cordless receiver without checking caller
ID. "Hello," she answered as she walked into the living room.
She stopped short and her heart nearly dropped through the floor at
the sound of Luke's voice. "Thanks."
"You're probably surprised to hear from me."
That was the understatement of the year. "More like stunned. You
were the last person I expected to call."
"Abs," he said, drawing her nickname out so that it was almost an
endearment. "Look, I know this is a difficult day for you because
of your Mom."
She wasn't buying it. She'd known him too long. "You called to make
me feel better?"
"I'm fine." She said it with complete conviction.
"Oh. Well. That's good," he said, surprised, as if he believed she
might still be an emotional mess, falling into a bajillion pieces.
"Wait! Don't hang up."
She heard the urgency in his voice, imagined his free hand shooting
out as if to physically stop her from dropping the receiver into
its cradle. He'd made the same gesture every time he wanted
something and thought she wasn't listening. "What, Luke?" She was
standing in the living room now, the room where they'd once watched
television, eaten popcorn and discussed current events.
Or fought. They'd had more than their share of rip-roarers.
"Look, do you still have that stuff I left?" he finally asked,
getting to the real point of his call.
"Oh, you know," he said casually, as if the items were just coming
to mind. "My fishing poles and tackle box. An old set of golf
clubs. Scuba gear."
"It's gone. All of it."
She glanced to the bookcase where their wedding pictures were still
tucked away with the rest of the photo albums.
There was a short pause and she knew she'd taken all the wind out
of his sails.
"What do you mean gone?" he asked and she imagined his blue eyes
narrowing. "You didn't give my things away, did you?" His voice was
suddenly cold. Suspicious. Accusing.
"Of course I gave them away," she responded without a shred of
guilt. "I gave you six months to pick up your stuff, Luke. And that
was way longer than I wanted to. Way longer. When you didn't show,
I called the Salvation Army. They took everything, including the
rest of your clothes and all that junk that was in the garage and
the attic and the closets."
"Jesus, Abby! Some of that stuff was valuable! None of it's
"Then you should have come for it."
There was a pause, just long enough for a heartbeat and she braced
herself. "Wait a minute. You didn't get rid of my skis. You
wouldn't do that. The Rosignols are still in the attic, right?" She
heard the disbelief in his voice. Walking back to the kitchen, she
threw open the refrigerator door and hauled out the wine bottle
again. "Jesus, Abby, those things cost me an arm and a leg. I can't
believe that you . . . oh, Christ, tell me that my board is in the
garage. My surf board."
"I don't think so," she said, shaking her head. "I'm pretty sure
that went, too."
"I bought it in Hawaii! And the canoe?"
"Actually I think that went to Our Lady of Virtues, a
"Our Lady of Virtues? The hospital where your mother--"
"It was for the church," she cut in. "The hospital's been closed
"You've completely flipped out, Abby," he accused. "You're as nuts
as she was!"
Abby's stomach clenched, but she waited. Didn't respond. Wouldn't
rise to the bait. Pulling out the cork while cradling the phone
between her shoulder and ear, she felt her injured thumb throb. She
wasn't crazy. No way. The only time she'd been close to mental
illness was when she'd agreed to marry Luke. Those "I dos" were
major points in the off-your-rocker column. But otherwise, knock
wood, she was sane. Right? Despite the sense of creeping paranoia
that lurked around her at times.
"This is a nightmare! A fuckin' nightmare. I suppose you even
tossed my Dad's thirty-eight?" When she didn't reply, he clarified,
"You know, Abby, the gun?"
"I know what it is." She didn't bother with another wine glass,
just pulled her favorite cracked coffee mug from the open
"That gun was my Dad's! He --- he had it for years. He was a cop,
damn it, and . . . and it's got sentimental value. You wouldn't
give it away!"
"Hmm." She poured the wine, didn't care that some splashed onto the
counter. "Kinda makes you wonder what the Salvation Army would want
"They don't take firearms."
"Is that so?" She took a long swallow of the wine. "Then maybe it
was the nuns at Our Lady. I can't really remember."
"You don't even know?" He was aghast. "You gave my gun away and you
don't know who has it! Jesus H. Christ, Abby, that pistol is
registered to me! If it's used in a crime--"
"Now, I'm not sure about this, so don't quote me, but I don't think
the Mother Superior is running a smuggling ring on the side."
"This isn't funny!"
"Sure it is, Luke. It's damned funny."
"I'm talking about my possessions. Mine!" She pictured him
hooking a thumb at his chest and jabbing frantically, angrily. "You
had no right to get rid of anything!"
"So sue me, Luke."
"I will," he said hotly.
"Look my name isn't U-Store-It, okay? I'm not a holding tank for
your things. If they were so valuable, you should have
picked them up around the time we were splitting up, or, you know,
in the next six or seven months, maybe?"
"I can't believe this!"
"Then don't, Luke. Don't believe it."
"Getting rid of my things is low, Abby. And you're going to hear
about it. I think the topic of the next Gierman's Groaners is going
to be about vindictive exes and how they should be handled."
"Do whatever you want. I won't be listening or calling in." She
hung up, teeth clenched. She kicked herself for not checking caller
ID before picking up the phone. "Never again," she promised
herself, taking another sip of Chardonnay, wishing the wine would
hurry up and dull the rage she felt boiling through her blood. Luke
had the uncanny ability to make her see red when no one else could.
She'd half-expected to feel some sort of satisfaction when he
finally learned that she'd tossed out his treasures, instead she
felt empty. Hollow. How could two people who had sworn to love each
other come down to this? "Don't let him get to you," she warned
herself, walking into the living room, where, despite the heat, she
grabbed a long handled barbecue lighter and started the fire.
Flames immediately crackled and rose, consuming the newspaper and
kindling she'd stacked earlier. She'd always kept logs in the
grate, ready to light in case there was a sudden power loss, but
tonight was different. She had a ritual she'd planned long before
Luke's unexpected call. Though it was still sweltering outside, she
had some trash to burn.
From the shelf near the stone fireplace, she pulled out her wedding
album. Upon her friend Alicia's advice, she'd kept the photographic
record of her big day for a year after the divorce, but now it was
time to do the nasty and final deed. Luke's call had only
reinforced her original plan.
She opened the leather-bound cover and her heart nose-dived as she
stared at the first picture.
There they were, the newly wedded couple, preserved for all
eternity under slick plastic. The bride and groom. Luke with his
athletic good looks, twinkling blue eyes and near-brilliant smile,
one arm looped around Abby who was nearly a foot shorter than him,
her untamed red-blond hair framing a small heart-shaped face, her
smile genuine, her eyes shining with hope for the future.
"Save me," Abby muttered, yanking the picture from its encasement
and tossing it into the fire. As she slowly sipped wine from her
cup and her thumb ached, its throbbing measuring out her
heartbeats. She watched the edges of the paper bake and turn brown
before curling and snapping into flame. The smiling, happy couple
was quickly consumed by fire, literally going up in smoke. "Until
death do us part," she mocked. "Yeah, right."
She glanced down at the album again. The next picture was of the
family. A group shot. She with her father and sister; he with both
proud parents and his two, shorter, not as successful, nor as
handsome, brothers, Adam and Lex. His sister Anna and her husband
were also in the picture.
"No time for nostalgia," she said as Ansel trotted into the room
and hopped onto the sofa. She tossed the picture onto the logs.
Eager flames found the new dry fuel and the page quickly curled and
Another sip of wine and the next picture, this one of Luke alone,
standing tall and proud in his black tuxedo. He was good-looking,
she'd give him that. Frowning, she realized she'd loved him once,
but it seemed a lifetime ago. He'd been a newscaster in Seattle,
his popularity on the rise. He'd come into her little studio for a
new head shot.
The attraction had been immediate. He'd joked and she'd been
irreverent, not impressed that he was somewhat of a local
celebrity. It had been her feigned disinterest that had intrigued
Only later, six months after their initial meeting, after he'd
proposed and she'd accepted did she learn that the reason he'd
shown up at her photography studio. He'd gotten her name from a
co-worker, an assistant producer, her sister, Zoey. No one had
mentioned that they'd been lovers. Oh no. That had only slipped out
much later, in the bedroom, no less, when Luke had uttered the
Nearly a month after the nuptials --- the nuptials where Zoey had
caught Abby's bouquet --- did it slip out that Zoey and Luke had
"Isn't that just perfect," she said now to Ansel. He climbed onto
the back of the little couch and settled onto the afghan her
grandmother had made. Yawning, he showed his thin teeth, and Abby
quickly stripped the rest of the photographs from their jackets.
One by one, she tossed the pictures into the fire, watched them
curl, smoke and burn.
"Ashes to ashes, dust to dust," she muttered as the fire began to
die. Finishing her wine, she silently vowed that tonight her life
was going to change forever.
Little did she know how spot-on her words would be.
He slipped between the boards of the broken fence and stared up at
the edifice where it had all happened so long ago. A surge of power
sizzled through his bloodstream as he stepped through the overgrown
bushes. Moist spider webs pressed against his face. He inhaled the
humid, dank scent of earth and decay.
Insects thrummed and chirped, causing the night to feel alive. The
wan light from a descending moon washed over the landscape of
broken bricks, dry, chipped fountains and overgrown lawns.
Where once there had been lush, clipped hedges, clear ponds covered
with water lilies and flashing with golden scales catching sunlight
in the darkening depths, there now was only ruin and disrepair. The
ornate red brick building with its gargoyles on the down-spouts and
clear windows was now crumbling and dark, a desiccated skeleton of
a once grand lady.
He closed his eyes for a second, remembering the sights and smells
of the hospital with its grand facade and filthy, wicked secrets.
Prayers had been whispered, screams stifled, a place where God and
Opening his eyes, he walked swiftly along a weed-choked path that
was, no doubt, long forgotten.
But not by him.
Twenty years was a generation.
Twenty years was a lifetime.
Twenty years was a sentence.
And twenty years was long enough to forget.
Now, it was time to remember.
From his pocket he withdrew a ring of keys and quickly walked to a
back service door. One key slid into the rusted old lock and
turned. Easily. He stepped inside and using a small pen light,
illuminated his way. He was getting used to it again, had returned
nearly two months earlier. It had taken that long to establish
himself, to prepare.
Silently he crept through a hallway to a locked door leading to the
basement, but he passed it and turned right, walking two steps up
to the old kitchen with its rusting industrial sinks and massive,
blackened and ruined stove. Over the cracked tiles, he made his way
through a large dining hall and then into the old foyer at the base
of the stairs where a grandfather's clock had once ticked off the
seconds of his life.
It was dark inside, his pen light giving off poor illumination, but
in the past few weeks he'd reacquainted himself with the dark,
musty corridors, the warped wooden floors, the cracked and boarded
over windows. Quickly he hurried up the stairs, his footsteps
light, his breathing quick as he reached the landing where the old
stained glass window was miraculously still intact. Shining his
light on the colored glass for just a second, he felt a quiver of
memory, and for the briefest of seconds imagined her dark
silhouette backlit by the stained glass Madonna.
He couldn't linger. Had to keep moving. Swiftly, he turned and
hurried up the final flight of stairs to the third floor.
To her room.
His throat closed and he felt a zing sizzle through his blood as
quick shards of memory pierced his brain. He bit his lip as he
remembered her lush auburn hair, those luminous golden eyes that
would round so seductively when he surprised her, the slope of her
cheeks and the curve of her neck that he so longed to kiss and
He remembered her breasts, large and firm, as they stretched the
blouses she wore, straining the buttons, offering glimpses of
rapturous cleavage. She wore slacks sometimes, but she had a skirt,
in a color that reminded him of ripe peaches. Even now he recalled
how the hem danced around her taut, muscular calves, hitting just
below her knees, as she climbed the stairs.
He felt himself harden at the thought of the curve of her legs, the
sway of that gauzy fabric, the way she would look over her shoulder
to see him watching her as she ascended the old staircase, the
fingers of one hand trailing along the polished banister as the old
clock tick, tick, ticked away his life.
His lust had been powerful then.
Pounding through his blood.
Thundering in his brain.
He'd never wanted any one thing the way he'd wanted Faith.
He felt it again, that powerful ache that started between his legs
and crawled steadily up his body. Beads of sweat emerged on his
forehead and shoulders. The crotch of his pants was suddenly
uncomfortable and tight.
He pressed on, to the upper level, his heart racing.
Room 307 was in the middle of the hallway, poised high over the
turn of the circular drive, an intimate little space where his life
had changed forever.
Carefully and quietly, he unlocked the door. He slipped inside to
stand in the very room where it had all happened.
Starlight filtered through the window, adding an eerie cast to the
familiar room. The heat of the day settled deep into the old
crumbling bricks of a building that, in its century-long lifetime,
had been the stage for many uses. Some had been good, others had
been inherently and undeniably evil.
Not that long ago . . .
Closing his eyes and concentrating, he conjured up the sounds that
had echoed through the corridors, the rattle of carts, scrape of
slippers, the desperate moans and cries of the tormented souls who
had unwillingly inhabited Our Lady of Virtues Hospital. Those
noises had been muted by the chant of prayers and echoing chimes of
But Faith had been here. Beautiful Faith. Frightened Faith.
Again his memories assailed him.
Not dulled by the passage of two decades.
In intricate detail, he recalled the scent of her skin, the naughty
playfulness of her smile, the sweet, dark rumble of her voice, and
the sexy way she walked, her buttocks shifting beneath her
His jaw tightened. The ache within him heated his blood, stirring
old desires, pounding at his temples.
He shouldn't have wanted her.
It had been a sin.
He shouldn't have kissed her.
It had been a sin.
He shouldn't have pulled her shirt down to expose her bare
It had been a sin.
He shouldn't have lain with her, his muscles soaked in sweat, her
hands gripping his shoulders as she'd cried out in pleasure and
It had been heaven.
Now, his fists balled at the agony of it all. To have wanted her so
badly, so achingly, to have tasted the salt upon her skin, to have
buried himself deep into the moist heat of her and then to have all
that sweet, sweet paradise wrenched away so violently, had been
excruciating. His teeth gnashed to the point his jaw ached.
He walked across the room, his hands at his sides, the tips of his
gloved fingers rubbing anxiously together. Faith. Oh, Faith. You
shall be avenged.
Carefully, almost reverently, he ran his fingers along the swollen
wood casing of the window and looked at the spot where her bed had
been. He remembered how this small room had smelled faintly of
lilacs and roses, how sunshine had streamed through the tall,
arched window where gauzy curtains often fluttered in the warm
Now, the small space was bare.
He ran his penlight over the rusted grooves where the metal
castings of the bed had dug into the floor. Tiny brittle carcasses
and droppings of dead insects littered the floor or were caught in
ancient webs. Dust covered every surface and the paint around the
windows and baseboards had peeled. The floral wallpaper had faded
and begun to curl away from the walls, deep brown stains running
from the ceiling and down the separating seams.
So much pain. So much fear. Still lingering. His lip curled as he
sensed silent recriminations where vile acts had occurred between
these four walls. So many wrongs had taken place here, so many evil
Anger, deep and dark, stole through his veins.
Finally, he could right all the wrongs.
Take his own revenge.
And it would happen.
Abby pushed the speed limit. She was running late and trying to
make up time as she drove into the city.
When the going gets tough, the tough get going.
Jacques Chastain's personal credo ran through her head as the
windshield wipers scraped rain from the windshield of her Honda.
She turned on her headlights to cut through the sheets of water and
the darkness of the storm.
She had tried to adopt her father's attitude, just as Zoey had, but
the truth of the matter was she'd just never been as strong as her
father or older sister . . . Again, she was more like her mother,
not only in looks but temperament.
Now, however, as she eased onto the freeway toward New Orleans, she
was stupidly listening to the radio and her ex-husband's radio
show. She'd warned herself not to, but tuning into the program was
a test for her. How much could she stomach, she wondered and
decided she could use a little of her father's toughness just about
True to his word, Luke had centered his call-in show on bitter
ex-wives, women who, he contended, had never gotten over the
despair and anger of their rejection. They were "losers" in the
matrimonial game, females who were desperate to marry again but
didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of doing so. Fat women.
Ugly women. Type-A bitches who didn't know their place in the
Luke was obviously still pissed by their conversation the night of
her birthday and was on a roll, really going for the jugular today.
He didn't seemed to care whom he offended. Divorced women bashing
was the mode of the day.
Seething, Abby itched to call in, to tell him how wrong he was, but
deep down, he knew it. His "viewpoint" was all about gaining
listeners, and both he and the radio station didn't care if his
audience liked him, hated him, or were merely fascinated with his
It made her sick.
Yep, it sure as hell was time to get out of New Orleans. Way past
time. She just had a little unfinished business in town and then
she was outta here.
Her tires sang over the wet pavement. A flock of pelicans flew
across the steel-colored sky as the skyline of New Orleans became
She was only listening to the program today to witness him make an
ass of himself over the airwaves. Since he'd warned her in their
phone conversation that he was going to rake her over the
proverbial coals, she wanted to hear the program herself rather
than have some friend phone her with the ugly play-by-play.
For the life of her, she couldn't figure out the appeal of his
show, but supposedly his audience was growing by exponential
numbers. Luke Gierman was a household name in New Orleans, his
radio program soon to be syndicated, if the rumors she'd heard were
true. Inwardly she groaned. Not only could she now be humiliated at
a local level, but nationally as well.
It was a sad commentary on the American public's taste. You've
tuned in, haven't you? She chastised herself. Since the divorce
she had studiously avoided listening to Luke the Liar. In the past
year, she'd only heard his rants a few times while surfing through
"Yeah, my ex is a real piece of work," he was saying, the tone of
his voice incredulous. "She makes Mata Hari look like the Virgin
More uproarious laughter.
"You're so funny, Luke," Abby growled, her fingers gripping the
wheel until her knuckles showed white. How could she have ever
thought she loved the creep?
"She really took me to the cleaners in the divorce and then had the
nerve to be bitter about it! What's up with that? I guess
ninety-eight percent of the assets weren't enough."
"She wants your ass, too," his side-kick Maury chimed in.
She should sue the son of a bitch for slander, but he'd just make a
circus of that as well, somehow get more publicity for himself,
paint himself as a victim and, in the process, mortify her.
She glanced down at her purse and considered grabbing her cell
phone, calling in and defending herself. She'd always been able to
verbally handle him, and she wanted like hell to defend herself and
every other divorced woman or man on the planet who had dealt with
a cheating, lying spouse.
The wheels of her Honda slid a little as she took a corner a bit
too fast. "Don't let him get to you." She was more angry with
herself than anything else and yet Luke's voice, the one that had
once whispered endearments, cracked funny jokes, even risen in
heated political debates for the downtrodden, was now loud and
" . . . you know," he was saying to his co-host, "I think all
divorced people go crazy for a while. And women are worse than men.
Some of them, like my ex, become sociopaths or else extremely
Maury the moron laughed.
"You won't believe what my ex did."
Here it comes. Her gut tightened. "She had the gall to get
rid of everything I cared about. Guy stuff. Skis-–Rosignols,
no less, my golf clubs, a hand-crafted surfboard from Hawaii . . .
and she gave them all to the Salvation Army."
"No!" Maury breathed into the mic. Abby pictured the short, balding
guy throwing a hand over his heart in mock-horror.
"Yep. And it worries me, you know?"
Yeah, right. Abby looked in her rearview mirror, saw a cop
car and felt her heart sink. She'd been so into the show, she
hadn't known that she was speeding, but one glance at the
speedometer told her that she was nearly ten miles over the limit.
She slowed just as the cop hit his lights and siren. Great.
Her heart sank. She pulled into the right lane, searching for a
place to pull over. The police car, colored lights flashing, siren
wailing, screamed past.
She lucked out. Let out a long breath.
That's what you get for listening to Luke's stupid
She started to switch stations when Luke said, "Don't get me wrong.
She's a beautiful woman. Sexy as hell. And smart. But sometimes I
think she's got more than one screw loose."
"She married you, didn't she?" the co-host joked, all in good
"Idiots," Abby muttered as she increased her speed.
Luke laughed. "Well, yeah, there's that, and her mother was
certifiable, you know. No kidding."
"You cheap, sick bastard!" Abby was stunned. This was beyond
"Okay, how about this, and you listeners, call in and let me know
if your ex has ever done anything this nuts. When I called my ex
the other night to wish her happy birthday and tell her I was going
to pick up the things I'd left there. . . Guess what? That's when
she told me she'd give it all away! Including my Rosignol skis . .
. now she knew I was planning a ski trip this winter, so how's that
"Ouch." Maury was in his element, adding a little punch. "Aren't
you taking your girlfriend on that trip?"
"Isn't she about twenty years younger than your ex?"
Abby's hands clenched on the wheel.
Luke continued, "So the deal was, we had an agreement that she
would store some of my things, including the skis, until I got a
bigger place since, in the divorce, she ended up with the house,
the car, the studio and just about everything else we ever
"You lying son of a bitch," Abby said through gritted teeth. She'd
paid him for his share of the house and studio and she had title to
her car, this little Honda, while he owned a Lexus SUV! Just
about everything was split right down the middle. She gnashed her
teeth and fumed. If she had any brains she'd turn off the radio or
find a station with smooth jazz or some calming classical
"So, get this, my ex claims she gave everything she was keeping for
me away, including a family heirloom, which just happens to be a
handgun. She says she donated it all, lock, stock and barrel so to
speak, to a charity."
"A charity?" Mock horror on the moron's part.
What a crock!
"Like I'm supposed to believe that any charitable organization
would take a gun. Of course it was a lie. But how safe does that
make me feel? Knowing that my psychotic ex-wife is literally
gunning for me with my father's sidearm, the weapon he was issued
from the police department?"
"You'd better change your address."
"Or start packin' my own heat," Luke said as Maury cackled
Abby couldn't stand it another second. She scrounged in her purse,
dug out her cell phone, flipped it open and quickly dialed the
station, the direct line to the radio show.
An even-toned female voice answered, "KSLJ. The Luke Gierman
Abby caught herself just in time. Before she said a word, she
snapped the flip phone closed. Don't engage him. Do not let him
know that you heard the show. Do not listen to that pathetic
drivel he calls entertainment or social commentary. Otherwise he
Muttering under her breath, she turned off the radio in disgust,
then realized she'd missed her exit off the freeway.
She simmered all the way into the city where she was scheduled for
a consultation for a wedding. Having to backtrack made her nearly
ten minutes late by the time she pulled into the driveway of a
gracious two-hundred year old home in the Garden District. Painted
a soft green, accented by black shutters and surrounded by
flowerbeds still ablaze with color, the house stood a full three
stories amid its tended grounds.
As she was climbing out of her car, her cell phone rang and she
looked at the luminous display. Another real estate company.
Probably the twentieth who had contacted her since she'd placed her
For Sale By Owner advertisement in the paper and hammered
her sign into her yard two nights earlier.
She let the call go to voice mail, turned off the phone then
grabbing her portfolio from the back seat, she ducked her head
against the warm rain and headed up the brick walkway to the front
door to meet with the bride, groom, and no-doubt the bride's
How ironic, she thought, that she'd burned her own pictures while
she carefully staged, planned and snapped pictures of dozens of
Who said God didn't have a sense of humor?
Where was he taking her?
Bound, blindfolded and gagged, Mary LaBelle sent up prayer after
prayer to God.
Tears rained from her eyes, soaking the cloth wrapped tightly over
her head, and her nose ran down onto the gag that had been thrust
so violently into her mouth. She felt as if she might retch, her
stomach heaved, but somehow she managed to force the urge back. She
didn't want to drown in her own vomit.
It was dark. She couldn't see a thing. She sensed she was in a
vehicle of some kind, a truck she guessed from the ride and sound
of the engine. She hadn't seen it, but he'd managed to push her
into a cramped back seat that was covered in plastic. The driver,
the guy who had jumped her from behind as she'd been jogging on the
trails of All Saints campus, had appeared out of nowhere, leaping
from behind a hedge running from the commons just as the rain had
really started to pour. Anxious to return to her dorm, Mary hadn't
seen him, had never caught so much as a glimpse of his face, just
felt his weight as he'd tackled her from the back, thrown a bag
over her head and subdued her by twisting her arm upward and
dropping her to her knees. She'd tried to scream, but he'd held a
gun to her temple; she could still feel the cold round impression
against her skin. She'd closed her mouth and accepted her
God would save her.
He always did.
If not, then it was because He was calling her home. Her faith
would sustain her . . . and yet as she listened to the tires hum
against the pavement and splash through water, she sensed that she
Please, Father, not yet. I'm young . . . I have so much to
offer. So much of Your holy work to do.
She bit back sobs when she thought of her mother and father. She
loved them both so much. She couldn't die tonight. No! She was a
fighter, and though small, was athletic. She had been on the tennis
team in high school and kept herself in shape. Hence the
But as the truck drove further into the night, her hopes died.
Where was this lunatic taking her? Why had he singled her out? Or
had it been random? Had she just been in the wrong place at the
wrong time? All her parents warnings, all their suggestions about
safety, she'd ignored them because she'd known God would take care
of her. And now . . . now what?
She wasn't naive enough not to understand what he probably wanted,
that he intended to rape and kill her. And she couldn't allow that.
Wouldn't. Fighting tears and panic, she quietly struggled against
the tape that bound her hands behind her back and the ropes that
tied her ankles together. If she could only get free, she'd find a
way to reach over the top of the front seat and wound him, maybe
strangle him with the tape he'd used to subdue her.
But murder is a sin, Mary . . . remember. And if you try to harm
him, he might lose control of the car. You, too could be
So what if they wrecked, she thought wildly. And if she killed a
man in self-defense, surely God would understand. Please, Jesus,
Even risking injury and a collision was better than what he had
Mary was certain of it.
But her bonds wouldn't move, not so much as shift a fraction of an
inch, no matter how much pressure she put on them, how desperately
Panic rose inside her.
She was running out of time. He wouldn't drive forever. She kept at
it, straining against the rope and tape while the miles, the
damning miles, rolled ever onward beneath the wheels of this big
truck. They were driving further and further away from Baton Rouge.
Further and further away from any chance she would be saved.
Fear chilled her to the bone.
Her arms ached, her legs were cramped and useless.
Mama, I love you, and I'd wanted to make you proud by joining
Daddy, forgive me for being stupid and letting this maniac grab me.
You warned me to always take my cell and never run after dark. You
gave me a weapon and I refused it . . . I'm sorry . . .
She felt the truck slow as he exited off a main road, probably a
freeway, and so, he was, no-doubt, getting closer to his ultimate
destination. New terror surged through her and she frantically
tried again to slide one hand from the grip of the duct tape. Her
heart was knocking, sweat running down her body, fear sizzling down
every nerve end.
Free yourself, Mary. God helps those who help
"It's no use," he said, jolting her. He hadn't said a word since
the attack. Not one. His voice was surprisingly calm. Steady.
Creating a fear that cut straight to her heart. "You can't get
Again she thought she might throw up. Who was this madman? Why had
he chosen her? His voice was unfamiliar, she thought, and yet she
wasn't certain of anything anymore. She was barely staving off full
"Only a few more minutes."
Dear Father, no. Please stop this. Intervene on my behalf. If
you want me with you, please let me come to you some other way, not
by the hand of a sadist, not so cruelly, not by a madman.
Trembling, she thought of all the martyred saints, how horridly
they'd died for their beliefs. She tried to steel herself, to find
her faith. If this was a test, or truly God's will, then so be it.
She would die stoically, putting all her faith in the Father.
Hail Mary full of grace. The Lord is with thee . . .
She felt the truck slow, then turn quickly, as if maneuvering off a
smooth road. The wheels began to jump and shimmy, as if going over
stones or cracked pavement. She strained to hear over the grind of
the engine, hoping for the sounds of traffic, for signs that they
weren't as isolated and alone as she feared. But the familiar rush
of passing cars, of shouts, or horns had disappeared and any hope
she had left sank like a stone.
Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy
womb, Jesus . . .
For what seemed like hours, but was probably less than five
minutes, he continued to drive and finally, at last, he braked hard
and the big rig slammed to a stop. She slid forward, then
Her heart jammed into her throat. This was it! She began to quiver
from the inside out. Terror slid through her veins.
Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the
hour of our death . . .
He cut the engine. Rain peppered the roof of the car. Mary could
barely breathe. Amen.
A door clicked open and she felt the sticky heat of the night
seeping into the interior as he climbed outside. She heard the
squish of his boots or shoes into the mud. Heard a thunk --- the
front seat being pulled forward?
A second later she was dragged roughly out of the car.
Her running shoes sank into deep loam and she nearly fell over. The
musky odor of the swamp assailed her and she thought of snakes and
alligators, merciless predators who were nothing compared to the
monster who had abducted her. She squirmed, trying to wrestle
"Stop moving!" he yelled and she felt a new fear. If he wasn't
afraid of speaking so loudly or sharply, they were alone . . .
totally alone. Oh, God this was it! She was going to die here in
the darkness, in what seemed like a bayou of sorts. "I'm cutting
your feet free, but if you try to run . . ." Again he pressed the
muzzle of steel against her temple, " . . . I'll kill you." She
nearly peed her jogging shorts. He was going to murder her anyway.
She knew it. If she got the chance, she was going to run. Better to
be shot in the back than raped for hours and brutalized in a dozen
sickening ways. She had to get away. Had to. The minute he cut her
feet free . . .
But he had anticipated her plan. In one swift motion, he cut away
the ropes on her ankles. Then he stood and sliced through the tape
binding her wrists and quickly grabbed hold of her arm in a grip
that was punishing and intense. Her shoulder sockets still hurt
from her arms being twisted behind her back but this, his touch,
was much, much worse. "Don't even think about it," he warned as if
he sensed she was about to bolt, then applied such painful pressure
to her arm that she squealed through the gag and dropped to her
He yanked her up roughly. "Let's go." Prodding her with the cold
muzzle of the gun and holding onto her arm with strong fingers, he
forced her forward.
She heard the sound of frogs and crickets, sensed the soft dirt and
leaves compact beneath her feet, felt the drizzle of warm rainwater
run down the back of her neck and drip from the tip of her pony
She thought she smelled a river nearby, but wasn't certain and
broke down altogether, sobbing wretchedly as she nearly stumbled
against something hard and unmoving. A tree? Rock? This was a bad
dream, it had to be. A horrid nightmare.
And yet she was wide awake.
"Step up," he ordered against her ear and she obeyed, her feet
catching a little as she climbed two steps, then heard him open a
screen door. A key clicked in a lock. "Inside."
Oh, dear God, this was the place where he intended to kill
Her throat closed as she smelled the dry, musty interior of this
hidden place. She thought she heard the sound of frantic tiny
claws, like rats scurrying for cover, and her skin prickled in
The screen door slapped behind her and she jumped.
She wanted to scream, to rail against him and God for abandoning
her --- like Jesus cried in agony upon the cross --- as her
kidnaper pushed and prodded her further into a room that smelled
unused, dirty and forgotten. As if this cabin or whatever it was
hadn't been used in years. Boards creaked under her feet. Her
throat was so dry she couldn't call up any spit.
Dread inched up her spine as she heard him close the heavy door. He
pushed her forward and she wondered if she'd fall off a ledge, be
thrown into some dark hole, a deep exposed cellar and be left here
to die. Whimpering, barely holding onto her bladder, she stepped
tenuously forward and then she heard it . . . a muffled noise, as
if someone else were in the room.
She nearly passed out.
Dear God, he hadn't brought her to a place where other men were
waiting, had he? Fear pounded a new, frantic tattoo in her heart.
Her stomach curdled and yet she smelled something, someone
A mixture of sweat, musk and cold, stark terror trembled over her
She'd heard of barbaric rites against women and braced herself for
whatever sick fate awaited her.
"Okay, now, be a good girl," he whispered into the shell of her
ear, his hot breath fanning the nape of her neck. "Do everything
just as I say and I won't hurt you. You'll be safe."
She didn't believe him for an instant.
His silky words were a trap. A trick she wasn't going to fall
She froze. Thought she would be sick.
He pressed the gun to her chest and she thought for a minute of
disobeying, but in the end, she did what he suggested. Knowing the
gun was trained on her, she pulled off her T shirt and slid out of
her shorts. Shaking, she'd never felt more vulnerable in her life.
Tears rained from her eyes. Fear clenched her gut. How many people,
men, were watching her? How many were going to touch her. Her
stomach retched and she thought she might pass out.
She froze in her jog bra and panties.
She didn't have to get completely naked?
"Now, put this on." She heard a zipper hiss downward and then she
was handed something soft and silky --- a dress? Fumbling, her
fingers nearly useless, she hurriedly bunched the smooth fabric and
found a way to step into it. She didn't know what it was, but it
would cover her nakedness and right now that was all that mattered.
"Turn it around," he ordered and blindly she bunched and rotated
the fabric, then pulled the dress upward, over her waist and higher
to cover her breasts. Awkwardly, she found the long sleeves and
pushed her hands through. Then he was behind her and he held one of
her arms again as he slowly pulled the zipper upward where it
stopped near her shoulders. His breath was hot. Nasty. Nearly wet
as it touched the nape of her neck.
Now . . . if she could just find a way to stop him. But that was
Slowly, still holding her with one hand, he trailed the barrel of
the gun against her skin, so that the cold metal caressed her
Goose pimples rose on her skin.
If she spun around quickly now, she might catch him unaware, be
able to knock the weapon from his hand, rip off her blindfold and
run like crazy. She was fast. And with the adrenalin pumping
through her bloodstream, she could run five or six miles without
stopping to catch her breath.
"Uh, uh, uuuuh," he murmured so close that she felt his chest
against her back, his erection, though the soft folds of the dress,
pressed into the cleft of her rump.
Her chin wobbled. He was going to rape her . . . and probably the
silent others in the room would have their turns with her,
Why? Oh, Father, why?
Run, Mary! Take a chance! So what if the gun goes off?
The arm holding her shoulder snaked around her waist, drawing her
tight against him. "Now, Mary," he rasped and she nearly wilted
when she realized he knew her name. She hadn't been a random
target. He'd wanted her for whatever evil purpose he had
planned. "Here's what you're going to do to save yourself. Are you
She nodded, hating herself. Hating him.
"You're going to take this gun and you're going to shoot it into a
"That's right, I'm going to put it into your hand, but you're not
going to turn around and kill me with it, okay? I won't let that
happen. My hand will be over yours. Like this, see . . ." He
pressed the gun into her shaking, sweating hand and curled her
index finger over the trigger. His strong grip guided hers and when
she tried to turn it, he forced the hand forward.
"All you have to do is squeeze."
Her whole body was shaking. This was insane. Crazy. She wasn't
going to shoot blindly into the dark. For a second she wondered if
this was some nutty college prank, the kind sororities and
fraternities were famous for, but she didn't believe it. She hadn't
pledged any house on campus and was going to drop out of All Saints
College soon. Besides, this overriding sense of pure, malicious
evil didn't have a drop of fun or jest in it.
It was no prank.
"Come on," he urged, his breath whispered out in excited little
bursts. She heard it again, that muffled cry --- laughter? Terror?
Where was it? Nearby? Far away? Someone hiding in a closet, or
watching her? One person? Two? A dozen?
So scared she physically shook, she knew that if it weren't for the
steely fingers pressed intimately over hers, the weapon in her hand
would have clattered to the floor.
If only this was a nightmare!
If only she would wake up in her dorm room!
"You've got five seconds."
No! Again the muffled noise.
Please, Father help me.
Do not abandon me, I beg of you.
I am your humble servant.
Have mercy on my soul!
He squeezed the trigger for her.
Bam! The pistol blasted, jerked in her hand.
A muted squeal came from somewhere nearby.
She smelled cordite and burning material and something else . . .
the stringent odor of urine?
Another tortured, strangled groan.
New terror crystalized.<