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It was 2:15 in the morning when the telephone rang. Polly woke instantly. Her eyes were wide and her body tense before the phone had completed so much as a single ring. And as she woke, in the tiny moment between sleep and consciousness, before she was even aware of the telephone's bell, she felt scared. It was not the phone that jolted Polly so completely from her dreams, but fear.
And who could argue with the reasoning powers of Polly's subconscious self? Of course she was scared. After all, when the phone rings at 2:15 in the morning it's unlikely to be heralding something pleasant. What chance is there of its being good news? None. Only someone bad would ring at such an hour. Or someone good with bad news.
That telephone was sounding a warning bell. Something, somewhere, was wrong. So much was obvious. Particularly to a woman who lived alone, and Polly lived alone.
Of course it might be no more wrong than a wrong number. Something bad, but bad for someone else, something that would touch Polly's life only for a moment, utterly infuriate her, and then be gone.
"Got the Charlie?"
"There's no Charlie at this number."
"Don't bullshit me, arsehole."
"What number are you trying to call? This is three, four, zero, one . . ."
"Three, four, zero? I'm awfully sorry. I think I've dialed the wrong number."
That would be a good result. A wrong number would be the best possible result. To find yourself returning to bed furiously muttering, "Stupid bastard," while trying to pretend to yourself that you haven't actually woken up; that would be a good result. Polly hoped the warning bell was meant for someone else.
If your phone rings at 2:15 a.m. you'd better hope that too. Because if someone actually wants you you're in trouble.
If it's your mother she's going to tell you your dad died.
If it's some much-missed ex-lover who you'd been hoping would get back in contact he'll be calling drunkenly to inform you that he's just been diagnosed positive and that perhaps you'd better have things checked out.
The only time that bell might ring for something good is if you were actually expecting some news, news so important it might come at any time. If you have a relative in the throes of a difficult pregnancy, for instance, or a friend who's on the verge of being released from a foreign hostage situation. Then a person might leap from bed thinking, "At last! They've induced it!" or, "God bless the Foreign Office. He's free!" On the other hand, maybe the mother and baby didn't make it. Maybe the hostage got shot.
There is no doubt about it that under almost all normal circumstances a call in the middle of the night had to be bad. If not bad, at least weird, and, in a way, weird is worse. This is the reason why, when the phone rang in Polly's little attic flat at 2:15 a.m. and wrenched her from the womb of sleep, she felt scared.
Strange to be scared of a phone. Even if it's ringing. What can a ringing phone do to you? Leap up and bash you with its receiver? Strangle you with its cord? Nothing. Just ring, that's all.
Until you answer it.
Then, of course, it might ask you in a low growl if you're wearing any knickers. If you like them big and hard. If you've been a very naughty girl. Or it might say . . .
"I know where you live."
That was how it had all begun before.
"I'm watching you right now," the phone had hissed. "Standing there in only your nightdress. I'm going to tear it off you and make you pay for all the hurt you've done to me."
At the time Polly's friends had assured her that the man was lying. He had not been watching her. Pervert callers phone at random. They don't know where their victims live.
"He knew I was wearing my nightie," Polly had said. "He got that right. How did he know that? How did he know I was wearing my nightie?"
"It was the middle of the night, for heaven's sake!" her friends replied. "Got to be a pretty good chance you were wearing a nightie, hasn't there? Even a fool of a pervert could work that one out. He doesn't know where you live."
But Polly's friends had been wrong. The caller did know where Polly lived. He knew a lot about her because he was not a random pervert at all, but a most specific pervert. A stalker. That first call had been the start of a campaign of intimidation that had transformed Polly's life into a living hell. A hell from which the law had been unable to offer any protection.
"Our hands are tied, Ms. Slade. There's nothing actually illegal about making phone calls, writing letters, or ringing people's doorbells."
"Terrific," said Polly. "So I'll get back to you when I've been raped and murdered, then, shall I?"
The police assured her that it hardly ever came to that.