His head was thick, his thoughts disjointed.
His eyes swam.
He couldn't move.
His thoughts were jointed and jumbled. Out of sync.
Something was wrong . . . horribly wrong.
If only he could think. If only he could concentrate beyond the pain slicing like razors in his brain.
I'm dying. Please, someone help me.
He tried to force the words, but his tongue wouldn't work and he couldn't make more than a hideous mewling sound as he lay slumped over his desk . . . at least he thought it was his desk. Blinking with difficulty, he tried to focus but there was little light and the darkened images were blurry, as if he were looking at the world through a foggy wide-angled lens.
How had he gotten here?
He couldn't remember, but he sensed that he'd just woken up . . .
No . . . that wasn't right . . . he'd come in here to do some paperwork . . . yes . . . and then . . . and then what?
Caitlyn. This was about Caitlyn and the divorce! But why couldn't he move his hand? Or his leg? Or . . . or any damned part of him? Panic surged through him. He tried harder. Not one muscle budged. Jesus H. Christ, what was happening?
Music was playing. Soft classical. Baroque. Something he didn't recognize oozing through the hidden speakers surrounding the room.
What the hell was going on?
Concentrate. Pull yourself together. Don't panic. You're in the den at your house in Savannah . . . at the desk and the phone is on the corner of the desk where it always is . . .
So why the hell can't I fucking move?
Alarm tore through him and yet he felt a great lethargy, as if he might succumb to the darkness playing at the edges of his eyesight. Sweat beaded on his brow but he couldn't lift a hand to swipe the drops away. Behind him, he heard a footstep . . . or thought he did. Good. Someone was here to help him.
Or . . . not.
The hairs on the back of his neck raised. Adrenalin pumped wildly through his bloodstream.
Try as he might, he couldn't turn his head. Why? Was he sick? Drugged? Dreaming? Nausea gripped his stomach. How did he get this way? What had he done? Who the hell was behind him?
No one. There's no one there. No one evil for Christ's sake. You're freaking out. Get a hold of yourself! The phone! If he could just reach the telephone and dial nine, one, one . . . But his arm wouldn't move. His muscles were heavy . . . . unresponsive.
His heart jolted but his body didn't move.
The voice was hushed. Disguised? Or was that his imagination?
Again he strained to turn his head.
Again he failed.
"Josh? Can you hear me?" Soft. Seductive. And deadly.
Someone was calling to him. Maybe someone had come to help, to rescue him. But his hopes died instantly. If someone was going to help him, they would have rushed over. The whole situation was too damned weird. If someone truly was with him and not a figment of his imagination, then it was an enemy who had found him.
God help me.
Cool fingers touched his wrist. Inwardly he jumped. Outwardly he didn't move.
Who the hell was touching him, rubbing the inside of his arm? Checking for his pulse? Did he look dead? He couldn't turn his head, couldn't raise it off the desk to twist his neck and see who was tending to him just out of focus in his peripheral vision. A doctor? Oh, please, God.
Suddenly an intense light was flashed into his eyes, as if someone was examining him, checking for dilation. Desperately he attempted to make out an image, to see around the brilliance burning its way into his brain, hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever was holding the penlight. But there was no visage, just a foggy image of fingers encased in examination gloves and the faint tinge of cigarette smoke.
For God's sake, quit creeping me out and get me to the hospital!
The penlight clicked off. Darkness surrounded him and his vision was worse than ever. Bright rings of illumination still seared through his brain. He slumped lower on the top of the desk and an empty glass toppled, falling onto its side and rolling off the desk to land on the carpet with a soft thud. The cool fingers massaging his wrist didn't stop but he could barely feel them, hardly stay awake.
I'm alive, you idiot, can't you see that? Get me to a hospital! But the words were lodged in his throat, he couldn't force them out, couldn't make his tongue work. The only sounds were the ticking of the clock in the foyer, the whisper of the wind blowing through the French doors he'd left ajar and the beating of his heart. But instead of wild and frantic, his heart was as sluggish as his head, not jack hammering in fear as he would have expected. Maybe this was a dream after all. It was all so surreal. As if in slow motion.
He noticed that his shirt sleeve was being pushed up his forearm by those gloved fingers. Higher the linen rode, exposing more of his arm. What the hell? Rolling his eyes backward, he hoped to make out whoever was with him, but he saw only shadows and movement, a dark figure and . . . a glint of something. Steel.
The blades were razor thin. Two of them. Scissors. Surgical scissors? But . . . but . . . Fear jetted through his bloodstream. Desperately he tried to move his arm. His feet. Any damned part of him, but he couldn't wriggle away, was forced to lay with his head on the desk to await his doom.
And doom came in the form of a shadowy figure with scissors.
This was crazy. Who was this person? What was with the scissors? Nothing good.
He heard a clip and saw a button fly off his cuff.
He nearly soiled himself.
His shirt sleeves were pushed higher, exposing his arm, his bare arm. He saw his white flesh, caught the glint of the blade.
His heart jolted.
The scissors neatly clipped a single hair from his forearm.
He jumped. But only on the inside. His nerves were flashing, but not connecting. He couldn't pull his arm away, could only watch as the scissors moved closer to the veins and arteries that webbed just beneath the skin. A part of him didn't care. Another part of him was silently screaming in panic.
"You know who I am, don't you?"
The voice was so familiar. Obscenely provocative.
He couldn't speak.
"You can think of me as Atropos."
Atropos? What the hell?
"Oh. That's right. You probably don't know about the three fates, do you? In mythology, there were three women who determined your fate. The daughters of Zeus were called the Moirai. Three sisters who determined a man's destiny."
Mythology? What the hell? The scissors winked in the light from the desk lamp. He shivered inside.
"There's Clothos, of course. She's the youngest and she spins the thread of life while the middle sister Lachesis is the measurer. She selects one's lot in life and determines how long that life will be."
The scissors came closer, their sharp point touching the skin beneath his eye.
He tried to flinch but remained as if cemented to the desk.
"Then there is Atropos. The strongest. Who actually ends the life by snipping that precious thread." She clicked the scissors.
The scissors bit at the flesh of his cheek, touching his eyelashes.
He felt nothing. No pain.
She held up his bare wrist.
The first welling drops of red blood rose to the surface.
Oh, God, no! Desperately he tried to jerk away. Succeeded only in grunting. Couldn't even cringe as the evil weapon took another nasty little bite, blood smearing the blade, fear jolting through him as he realized that the person he couldn't see was determined to slowly and methodically kill him.
This couldn't be happening! It had to be a dream. A nightmare. What demented person would do this? Oh, God . . . blood was flowing freely now, down his wrist and into his palm, running down his fingers to pool on the desk. Stop! For God's sake, stop!
Maybe this was just to scare him, maybe he wasn't going to die. Maybe someone was just making a cruel point. God knew there were enough people in this town who wanted him dead.
But a gunshot to the head would have done the trick.
Or a pill in his drink.
Or a knife in his damned heart.
Unless his would be killer was enjoying this . . . that it wasn't so much his death as his dying that mattered. Unless the sick bitch got off on the knowledge that Josh was helpless as he watched his own lifeblood trickle and spurt from his body. Gasping, realizing that he would slowly bleed to death, Josh moved his eyes to the glass humidor located on one corner of his desk. In the smooth, curved surface he saw his own pale reflection and just the hint of a figure, grotesque in the distorted glass, leaning over him.
For a second, his eyes locked with those of his attacker. He saw the face of his killer. A suggestion of a smile, the hint of satisfaction curved his murderer's lips.
All hope fled.
He recognized the warped face and he realized with heart stopping clarity that he was condemned to watch himself slowly bleed to death.
Pain thundered through her head. As if a thousand horses were stampeding through her brain. Her tongue was thick and a bad taste lingered in her mouth and there was something more . . . something bad, a sensation of oppression that seemed to pin her to her bed. Her heart was pounding wildly, her skin soaked in sweat, faint images of her dream . . . of Josh . .. of . . . walking up the brick path to his house cut through her consciousness.
Her shoes crunched against dry leaves. The wind rattled through the branches of the oaks, billowing the Spanish moss. Somewhere nearby a dog barked and the smell of cigar smoke hung in the air. You shouldn't be here. Go run! Up the steps to the brick house that used to be her home. The door was cracked. A slice of light spilled onto the front porch. An invitation in a dark, sultry night. Don't do it. Don't go inside!
Dear God, what did I do last night? Caitlyn opened one bleary eye just a slit. She was so thirsty . . . and her entire body ached. Too much alcohol . . . Way too much. She was in her bedroom. The ceiling fan whirred overhead as dawn began to filter past the curtains. Images of the night before were hazy and out of sequence. She'd gone out to meet her sister . . . yes, that was it because . . . she needed to get out, to unwind.
Yesterday was Jamie's birthday.
Eerily, as if a dozen children were singing off key she heard,
"Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday dear Ja-mie-"
Caitlyn's heart squeezed. Her daughter would have been five.
If she had lived.
She closed her eyes again as raw pain tore through her. Jamie. Precious, precious baby. Snatched away when she was barely three-a cherub faced toddler. Oh, Lord, Caitlyn missed her child. So bad that at times she found it impossible to move forward, go on with her life. Now, on the bed, squeezing her eyes against the truth, she felt the familiar ache of the loss, so deep it scratched at her soul.
"It was your fault, Caitlyn. If you'd been half a mother, this never would have happened!"
Josh's accusations tore through her brain bringing the guilt, the ever present sense that she should have done more, that if she'd tried harder she would have somehow saved her child.
Don't even think about it. Don't listen to him and for God's sake, don't believe his poison! You know you did all you could to save her.
She let out her breath slowly, breathed deeply again, remembered what Dr. Wade had said about letting go of the negative energy, of finding herself, her new purpose. Slowly the grief subsided to a small, dark ache that lay just beneath her headache.
Man, it was a monster. She must've really tied one on.
Another sharp image sizzled through her brain.
Josh was in his office, but he wasn't moving. No. He was slumped over his desk, his arms at his sides, his neck twisted so that he faced the door. Blood had oozed from his arms, staining the carpet. His mouth gaped open, his skin pale, his eyes unblinking as they stared at her.
She sat bolt upright. God, what kind of a dream was that? Her heart slammed against her chest. Pieces of the nightmare slid through her brain only to disappear.
"Oh, God, oh, God, oh, God!"
Slow down Caitlyn. Breathe deep. It was only a dream. Don't fall apart!
Desperately she gulped air. Remembered all the techniques she'd learned in therapy, forced herself to rein in her galloping emotions. "Never again," she vowed. Whatever it was she'd drunk last night, she would never take as much as one sip again . . . but what was it? She blinked. Tried to remember. But nothing came except the brittle, jagged pieces of the nightmare.
"Jesus," she whispered. Once again, she'd lost track of time, hours of her life missing. She didn't even remember how she'd gotten home. An inkling that something was very, very wrong slithered through her conscious. She couldn't name it, but the sensation was strong enough to cause her skin to prickle.
You had a bad dream. That's all. Get over it. She drew in another long breath. She was in her own bed. Home. Safe.
With a mother of a migraine. Her head throbbed. Her throat ached and she smelled smoke in her hair from sitting too many hours in the bar. Oh, God, she'd really tied one on last night. She winced against the first rays of the new morning as dawn crept through the open window. A jasmine-scented breeze carried with it the sounds of fresh rainwater gurgling in the gutters. The French doors were slightly ajar and the lacy curtains lifted and fluttered, shadowed in places, darkened and stained.
Why was the door open? Had she opened it last night before crawling into bed because of the heat? Images of the nightmare stabbed into her conscious, mingling with blurred memories from the night before. She'd had a few drinks at a bar . . . somewhere on the waterfront. Or was that part of the disjointed dream, too? She remembered the noise of the band, and she could still smell the cloud of old cigarette smoke that had hung over the crowd. She'd drunk a little too much, well, a lot too much, but she'd managed to get home. Somehow. But that part was blank.
The headache no amount of Excedrin would be able to quell throbbed behind one eye and she felt groggy, disconnected, as she glanced at the clock. Red digital numbers flashed. Twelve o'clock. Midnight? Noon? No way. Birds were just beginning to warble. It had to be early. Five or six. A god-awful time to wake up. The power must've been interrupted. It was the dream that had awoken her, the ragged, disjointed scenes screaming through her brain.
Her mouth tasted bad. Dry as cotton. Her stomach felt empty, as if she'd lost its contents sometime during the night. Swiping a hand over her sweaty forehead, she brushed back a clump of damp curls and felt something crusty. Her fingers were dirty or . . . or . . . what the devil was that smell? For a second she thought she might have thrown up, but the odor was metallic rather than sour and . . . and . . . oh, God . . . She held her hand in front of her face and saw the stains that had run down her arm. Dark purple. Thick and crusty, having seeped from the slices upon the wrists.
Blinking hard, she pushed herself up in the bed, higher against the pillows. Panic swelled. She fumbled for the light switch. Click. In a blinding burst of light she saw the blood.
Pooled on the sheets.
Scraped across the headboard.
Wiped on the curtains.
Smeared on the walls.
"No. .oh, God no!" Caitlyn bolted from the bed, her legs tangled in her nightgown and she fell face first on the apricot-colored carpet now stained red. "Jesus!" Dear God, what was this? She scuttled like a crab over the crusty carpet. It looked as if someone, or something had been slaughtered in this fifteen by twelve foot room. And you slept through it!
Her heart froze as she saw a hand print on the door casing, another wiped on the panels. She had to fight the nausea that climbed up her throat. Scared out of her wits, she scrambled to the bathroom.
Whose blood is this?
Yours. Look at you!
Her gaze landed on the mirror over the sink. Red stains smudged her face where her hands had swiped her skin and her nostrils were caked with blood. Her hair was matted and wild. Had she just had a horrid nosebleed, like the ones she'd had as a child and somehow managed to sleep through it? No . . . that wouldn't explain the nicks on her wrists. Nor the blood smeared everywhere in the room.
She remembered the open door . . . had someone done this to her? Fear knotted her stomach. Oh, God . . . but why? Who? She was beginning to hyperventilate, but forced herself to calm down. The blood wasn't all hers. It couldn't be. She was alive. Anyone who had lost this much would be certainly be dead. No one could have survived that massacre.
She leaned against the sink and tried to think. She did feel woozy, lightheaded, her migraine eating away at her brain.
Oh, God, what if the person who did this is still in the house?
No that didn't make sense. If someone had tried to kill her, he would have finished the job. The blood in her hair, on the walls, in the shower having dried. Time had gone by. So he was either scared off or took off.
Or you did it and left the door open.
No . . .But she couldn't remember, didn't know.
If the blood isn't yours, whose is it?
"I don't know," she whispered.
Maybe the victim's still in the house.
She glanced at the shower, the frosted glass was cracked, a bloody hand print visible.
God help me.
Steeling herself, she placed her hand onto the glass. She half-expected to find a dead body, eyes rolled to the ceiling, tongue lolling, red stains running into the drain. Nervously, she pushed the door open.
No one jumped out at her.
No half-dead body was sprawled over the tiles.
Dried blood was splattered and ran down the tiles in ragged rivulets. She felt her stomach turn. What had happened here? What? Her whole body was shaking as she raised her hand and found that it was the same size as the print on the shower door.
"Mother of God," she whispered. Think, Caitlyn, think. Don't panic.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror again.
How had this happened? Where had she been? Whose blood was smeared everywhere? Her knees gave way. She caught herself on the edge of the sink and leaned forward to splash cold water over her face to keep herself from passing out.
Maybe you're not alone. Maybe even now there's someone with you, someone downstairs. Someone waiting. She looked up quickly at her reflection. White skin, wild hair sticking up at odd angles, panic in her hazel eyes. The door to the verandah was left open and you don't remember doing it. Her gaze moved and in the mirror she saw an image of the door ajar, the curtains billowing and stained. She thought she might be sick.
Had some killer come in and she, suffering one of the black-out headaches, not heard him invade her home? But-there was no body. Nothing but her own hacked wrists and bloody nose . . . no one would come here to slice up someone and take away the body . . . no. Her head was pounding, leaping with wild ideas.
If someone else had even stepped into the house, why hadn't the alarm gone off?
The door to the verandah isn't latched, you idiot. Obviously the alarm wasn't set. She leaned a hip against the counter and closed her eyes. This made no sense. None. And it scared the hell out of her.
Maybe you invited someone in. But who? And why? And if it was an intruder . . . why hadn't Oscar barked so loudly the entire neighborhood had woken up?
Where was he?
Scared to death she took another horrified look at the stains on the floor. Not the dog . . . not Oscar! Swallowing back her fear, she mopped her face with the sleeve of her stained nightgown and started for the staircase. She gave a low whistle.
Her throat tightened.
You'd better grab a weapon. Just in case.
She didn't keep a gun in the house, didn't believe in it. Biting her lip, she grabbed a small dumbbell, one she used when working out while watching television, then inched into the hallway.
Ears straining over the frantic beat of her heart, she listened as she moved. The house was still. Quiet. As if all were safe.
Pull yourself together. Do it, Caitlyn. Don't let fear paralyze you! Her fingers tightened over her weapon as she peered into the hall bath. It was empty.
Nervous sweat slick on her body, she slowly eased open the door to one of the other bedrooms and her heart tugged as it always did as she looked into the space that had been her daughter's. Jamie's favorite stuffed animal, a long, droopy-eared bunny was propped against the pillows of a double bed covered with a quilt hand stitched in soft pastels. Luminescent stars and clouds that she had painted for Jamie still covered the ceiling. But the room was empty and, she thought sadly, was starting to smell musty and stale, reminding her that her baby was gone.
"Happy birthday dear Ja-mie . .. " the discordant children's voices blared in her head.
Don't go there. Not now.
Her sweaty fingers tightened around the weight. Nervously she eased into her den with its drafting table and computer desk, just as she'd left it. Her desk, drafting table, computer all stood silent, the desk slightly cluttered. But no one was hiding in the corners or behind the closet doors. Turning, she spied a figure in the darkness. No! She gasped, before realizing it was her own reflection staring back at her from the full length mirror she'd hung on the door.
She nearly collapsed.
Come on, Caitlyn. Toughen up!
Silently she edged down the stairs, the fingers of her left hand trailing along the banister, her right fist coiled tightly over the weight. But no dark figure wielding a knife or gun leaped out of the alcove from the kitchen at her as she stepped onto the second riser. No gunshot blasted through the house. No-
She heard a quick, loud scrape.
The sole of a leather boot on hardwood?
Over the mad drumming of her heart she heard the hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of the hall clock. She wanted to call out to the dog, but decided to wait. But she forced herself to inch forward, her gaze sweeping the rooms. The living room was just as she'd left it, still smelling of the roses she'd cut and placed in the vase on the coffee table. No trace of blood.
She began to calm. The house felt empty. She checked the laundry room and kitchen where morning light was beginning to filter through the windows, the dining alcove with its view of the back courtyard. Every thing was in its place.
Except it looks like Charles Manson held a party in your bedroom while you were sleeping.
She heard a sharp bark.
She saw him through the bay window, a scruffy mutt scratching at the back door. She nearly collapsed in relief. "How did you get out here?" Caitlyn scolded kindly as the scrappy terrier-mix stood on his hind legs, and pawed frantically at the glass. The sound she'd heard. She unlatched the door and he flew into her arms. Ruffling his coarse mottled fur, she wondered if she'd left him out by mistake. Had she come home, let the dog out, then, because she'd had one or two too many cosmopolitans, wandered upstairs and forgotten him?
Why would you do that? Just so you could hack away at your wrists and suffer the worst nosebleed you've had in five years? You know, Caitlyn, Kelly might be right. You might just be losing it. Big time.
"What happened last night?" she asked the little dog as she set him on the floor, then opened a can of dog food and scraped the contents into his bowl while he turned quick tight circles. "You're not half as glad to see me as I am to see you," she assured him as she set his bowl on the floor. Tail whipping frantically he plunged his nose into the dish and ignored the fact that she patted him on his head. He'd been Jamie's dog, named after her favorite Sesame Street character, Oscar the Grouch for his rumpled fur. "See. . . we're okay," she said, but had trouble believing it herself.
The smell of the dog food made her stomach quiver. She rocked back on her heels. What the hell had she done last night? Where had all the blood come from? Her bedroom looked like something or someone had been diced to ribbons. But she remembered nothing after going to the bar-what was the name of it? The Swamp. Yeah, the Swamp. She'd sat in a booth for a long time waiting for her twin sister Kelly to show up.
She'd noticed the bartender staring at her from time to time. Probably because he thought it odd she ordered two drinks-a Cosmo for her and a dry martini for Kelly, which, if she remembered correctly, she'd swilled down when Kelly had pulled one of her usual disappearing acts.
But aside from tackling both stemmed glasses and sucking the pimento out of three olives before chewing them, she remembered very little. Too little.
It had been noisy . . . loud hip-hop music at odds with the conversation and laughter and . . .
Like a razor slicing through flesh, a quicksilver image passed through her mind. She was in the foyer of the house she'd decorated, the paintings of thoroughbreds adorned the walls, the grandfather clock was standing guard at the foot of the stairs, the heels of her shoes tapped across the marble as she crossed to the open door of the den. The sound of a classical piece of music lured her to open the door and find her estranged husband looking up at her with sightless eyes, blood pooling beneath his desk chair.
Caitlyn gasped. Why would she think of Josh now? The image of his white, lifeless face flashed in front of her eyes again. Why would she envision him dead?
Because it was your daughter's birthday yesterday.
Because the bastard was divorcing you.
And because he was going to sue you for wrongful death. Of your child. Your baby. "Stop it!" She'd had a dream. No big deal. No harm done. She grabbed a bottle of water from the refrigerator, twisted it open and drank half it down only to feel it coming back up again. Fast. She doubled over the sink.
She threw up. Over and over. Until the dry heaves took over and she was wringing wet with sweat.
You should call your shrink. You're losing it!
But she couldn't. Doctor Wade had moved recently. So Caitlyn was fresh out of psychiatric help. Great. She hadn't bothered trying to find another therapist. Didn't want one.
Then the police. Call them.
Why? Because I had a nosebleed? Because I might have . . . in my drunken state . . . tried to slash my wrists?
Again. You might have tried again, that nagging voice in her brain reminded her.
If I call the cops, they'll haul me away. To the psych ward.
Maybe that's where you belong.
"No!" She glanced down at her arms and frowned. That other incident was a long time ago.
That "other incident" nearly cost you your life.
She didn't want to think of that. Not now.
First things first. She had to pull herself together. Calm down. Get a major grip. She needed to make sure the house was locked, then clean herself and tackle the mess upstairs. But first she'd call Kelly. Find out what had happened.
Maybe the blood upstairs is hers.
A new fear gripped Caitlyn and she frantically punched out the numbers to Kelly's cabin at the river, her "hideaway" as she called it. The phone rang. Once. Twice. "Come on, come on. Pick up!" The phone jangled a third time. Caitlyn leaned against the counter and willed her twin to answer. A fourth ring and then a distinctive click. "Hi-you reached me, but I'm not here. Leave your number!" She heard a flat beep as the recorder clicked on.
"Kelly? Kelly? Are you there? If you are, pick up. Now . . . .it's Caitlyn . . . I need to talk to you. I mean, I really need to talk to you . . . about last night. Please, call me back ASAP." She hung up slowly and tried not to panic. With a trembling hand she pushed the hair from her eyes. Was Kelly going out of town again? She had a business trip planned, but when?
Caitlyn's heart was racing. Faster and faster. Think, Caitlyn, think!
Kelly's cell phone! She redialed, then waited, silently counting the rings as she prayed her sister would pick up. One. Two. Three. Oh, no. "Please answer." Voice mail picked up. "You've reached Kelly's cell. Leave a message."
Just calm down. The answering machine beeped. "Kelly, it's Caitlyn. Give me a call. It's important." She hung up and considered driving out to her sister's cabin. But what good would that do? What good at all? If Kelly was around, she'd call back.
Or would she?
Sometimes Caitlyn wasn't sure.