After the apple had been cut in half, the halves had been sewn
together with coarse black thread.
Ten bold stitches were uniformly spaced. Each knot had been tied
with a surgeon's precision.
The variety of apple, a red delicious, might have significance.
Considering that these messages had been delivered in the form of
objects and images, never in words, every detail might refine the
sender's meaning, as adjectives and punctuation refined
More likely, however, this apple had been selected because it
wasn't ripe. Softer flesh would have crumbled even if the needle
had been used with care and if each stitch had been gently
Awaiting further examination, the apple stood on the desk in Ethan
Truman's study. The black box in which the apple had been packed
also stood on the desk, bristling with shredded black tissue paper.
The box had already yielded what clues it contained: none.
Here in the west wing of the mansion, Ethan's ground-floor
apartment was comprised of this study, a bedroom, a bathroom, and a
kitchen. Tall French windows provided a clear view of nothing
The previous occupant would have called the study a living room and
would have furnished the space accordingly. Ethan did too little
living to devote an entire room to it.
With a digital camera, he had photographed the black box before
opening it. He had also taken shots of the red delicious from three
He assumed that the apple had been sliced open in order to allow
for the insertion of an object into the core. He was reluctant to
snip the stitches and to take a look at what might lie
Years as a homicide detective had hardened him in some respects. In
other ways, too much experience of extreme violence had made him
He was only thirty-seven, but his police career was over. His
instincts remained sharp, however, and his darkest expectations
A sough of wind insisted at the French panes. A soft tapping of
The languid storm gave him excuse enough to leave the apple waiting
and to step to the nearest window.
Frames, jambs, rails, muntins--every feature of every window in the
great house had been crafted in bronze. Exposure to the elements
promoted a handsome mottled-green patina on exterior surfaces.
Inside, diligent maintenance kept the bronze a dark
The glass in each pane was beveled at every edge. Even in the
humblest of service rooms--the scullery, the ground-floor
laundry--beveling had been specified.
Although the residence had been built for a film mogul during the
last years of the Great Depression, no evidence of a construction
budget could be seen anywhere from the entrance foyer to the
farthest corner of the last back hall.
When steel sagged, when clothes grew moth-eaten on haberdashery
racks, when cars rusted on showroom floors for want of customers,
the film industry nevertheless flourished. In bad times as in good,
the only two absolute necessities were food and illusions.
From the tall study windows, the view appeared to be a painting of
the kind employed in motion-picture matte shots: an exquisitely
rendered dimensional scene that, through the deceiving eye of the
camera, could serve convincingly as a landscape on an alien planet
or as a place on this world perfected as reality never
Greener than Eden's fields, acres of lawn rolled away from the
house, without one weed or blade of blight. The majestic crowns of
immense California live oaks and the drooping boughs of melancholy
deodar cedars, each a classic specimen, were silvered and diamonded
by the December drizzle.
Through skeins of rain as fine as angel hair, Ethan could see, in
the distance, the final curve of the driveway. The gray-green
quartzite cobblestones, polished to a sterling standard by the
rain, led to the ornamental bronze gate in the estate wall.
During the night, the unwanted visitor had approached the gate on
foot. Perhaps suspecting that this barrier had been retrofitted
with modern security equipment and that the weight of a climber
would trigger an alarm in a monitoring station, he'd slung the
package over the high scrolled crest of the gate, onto the
The box containing the apple had been cushioned by bubble wrap and
then sealed in a white plastic bag to protect it further from foul
weather. A red gift bow, stapled to the bag, ensured that the
contents would not be mistaken for garbage.
Dave Ladman, one of two guards on the graveyard shift, retrieved
the delivery at 3:56 a.m. Handling the bag with care, he had
carried it to the security office in the groundskeeper's building
at the back of the estate.
Dave and his shift partner, Tom Mack, x-rayed the package with a
fluoroscope. They were looking for wires and other metal components
of an explosive device or a spring-loaded killing machine.
These days, some bombs could be constructed with no metal parts.
Consequently, following fluoroscopy, Dave and Tom employed a
trace-scent analyzer capable of recognizing thirty-two explosive
compounds from as few as three signature molecules per cubic
centimeter of air.
When the package proved clean, the guards unwrapped it. Upon
discovering the black gift box, they had left a message on Ethan's
voice mail and had set the delivery aside for his attention.
At 8:35 this morning, one of the two guards on the early shift,
Benny Nguyen, had brought the box to Ethan's apartment in the main
house. Benny also arrived with a videocassette containing pertinent
segments of tape from perimeter cameras that captured the
In addition, he offered a traditional Vietnamese clay cooking pot
full of his mother's com tay cam, a chicken-and-rice dish of which
Ethan was fond.
"Mom's been reading candle drippings again," Benny said. "She lit a
candle in your name, read it, says you need to be fortified."
"For what? The most strenuous thing I do these days is get up in
"She didn't say for what. But not just for Christmas shopping. She
had that temple-dragon look when she talked about it."
"The one that makes pit bulls bare their bellies?"
"That one. She said you need to eat well, say prayers without fail
each morning and night, and avoid drinking strong spirits."
"One problem. Drinking strong spirits is how I pray."
"I'll just tell Mom you poured your whiskey down the drain, and
when I left, you were on your knees thanking God for making
chickens so she could cook com tay cam."
"Never knew your mom to take no for an answer," Ethan said.
Benny smiled. "She won't take yes for an answer, either. She
doesn't expect an answer at all. Only dutiful obedience."
Now, an hour later, Ethan stood at a window, gazing at the thin
rain, like threads of seed pearls, accessorizing the hills of Bel
Watching weather clarified his thinking.
Sometimes only nature felt real, while all human monuments and
actions seemed to be the settings and the plots of dreams.
From his uniform days through his plainclothes career, friends on
the force had said that he did too much thinking. Some of them were
The apple had come in the sixth black box received in ten days. The
contents of the previous five had been disturbing.
Courses in criminal psychology, combined with years of street
experience, made Ethan hard to impress in matters regarding the
human capacity for evil. Yet these gifts provoked his deep
In recent years, influenced by the operatically flamboyant villains
in films, every common gangbanger and every would-be serial killer,
starring in his own mind movie, could not simply do his dirty work
and move along. Most seemed to be obsessed with developing a
dramatic persona, colorful crime-scene signatures, and ingenious
taunts either to torment their victims beforehand or, after a
murder, to scoff at the claimed competence of law-enforcement
Their sources of inspiration, however, were all hackneyed. They
succeeded only in making fearsome acts of cruelty seem as tiresome
as the antics of an unfunny clown.
The sender of the black boxes succeeded where others failed. For
one thing, his wordless threats were inventive.
When his intentions were at last known and the threats could be
better understood in light of whatever actions he took, they might
also prove to be clever. Even fiendishly so.
In addition, he conferred on himself no silly or clumsy name to
delight the tabloid press when eventually they became aware of his
game. He signed no name at all, which indicated self-assurance and
no desperate desire for celebrity.
For another thing, his target was the biggest movie star in the
world, perhaps the most guarded man in the nation after the
President of the United States. Yet instead of stalking in secret,
he revealed his intentions in wordless riddles full of menace,
ensuring that his quarry would be made even more difficult to reach
Having turned the apple over and over in his mind, examining the
details of its packaging and presentation, Ethan fetched a pair of
cuticle scissors from the bathroom. At last he returned to the
He pulled the chair from the knee space. He sat, pushed aside the
empty gift box, and placed the repaired apple at the center of the
The first five black boxes, each a different size, and their
contents had been examined for fingerprints. He had dusted three of
the deliveries himself, without success.
Because the black boxes came without a word of explanation, the
authorities would not consider them to be death threats. As long as
the sender's intention remained open to debate, this failed to be a
matter for the police.
Deliveries 4 and 5 had been trusted to an old friend in the print
lab of the Scientific Investigation Division of the Los Angeles
Police Department, who processed them off the record. They were
placed in a glass tank and subjected to a cloud of cyanoacrylate
fumes, which readily condensed as a resin on the oils that formed
In fluorescent light, no friction-ridge patterns of white resin had
been visible. Likewise, in a darkened lab, with a cone-shaded
halogen lamp focused at oblique angles, the boxes and their
contents continued to appear clean.
Black magnetic powder, applied with a Magna-Brush, had revealed
nothing. Even bathed in a methanol solution of rhodamine 6G,
scanned in a dark lab with the eerie beam from a water-cooled argon
ion laser generator, the objects had revealed no telltale luminous
The nameless stalker was too careful to leave such evidence.
Nevertheless, Ethan handled this sixth delivery with the care he'd
exhibited while examining the five previous items. Surely no prints
existed to be spoiled, but he might want to check later.
With the cuticle scissors, he snipped seven stitches, leaving the
final three to serve as hinges.
The sender must have treated the apple with lemon juice or with
another common culinary preservative to ensure a proper
presentation. The meat was mostly white, with only minor browning
near the peel.
The core remained. The seed pocket had been scooped clean of pits,
however, to provide a setting for the inserted item.
Ethan had expected a worm: earthworm, corn earworm, cutworm, leech,
caterpillar, trematode, one type of worm or another.
Instead, nestled in the apple flesh, he found an eye.
For an ugly instant, he thought the eye might be real. Then he saw
that it was only a plastic orb with convincing details.
Not an orb, actually, but a hemisphere. The back of the eye proved
to be flat, with a button loop.
Somewhere a half-blinded doll still smiled.
When the stalker looked at the doll, perhaps he saw the famous
object of his obsession likewise mutilated.
Ethan was nearly as disturbed by this discovery as he might have
been if he'd found a real eye in the red delicious.
Under the eye, in the hollowed-out seed pocket, was a tightly
folded slip of paper, slightly damp with absorbed juice. When he
unfolded it, he saw typing, the first direct message in the six
The eye in the apple? The watchful worm? The worm of original sin?
Do words have any purpose other than confusion?
Ethan was confused, all right. Whatever it meant, this threat--the
eye in the apple--struck him as particularly vicious. Here the
sender had made an angry if enigmatic statement, the symbolism of
which must be correctly interpreted, and urgently.
Excerpted from THE FACE © Copyright 2003 by Dean Koontz.
Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division of Random House,
Inc. All rights reserved.