Read an Excerpt
Last Come the Children
Part OneTHE GATHERINGSeptember1It was early September and too cold even for a Wisconsin fall. A northwest wind blew an icy rain into gusty sheets that shook the light poles, drummed against windows, and blew the stray bit of trash before it down a street or an alley.A brooding, dark, fitful mood seemed to have come over Madison; cabbies snapped at their fares for no apparent reasons, bartenders were short with their drunks; and even the strippers at Horizon's, an eastside club, found it difficult to strut their stuff with any enthusiasm.On the opposite side of the city, in an obviously expensive two-story colonial, a party was in its last stages as the hour approached two in the morning.The woman had managed to drag her husband away from the wet bar, across the living room and into the vestibule, where she lost him again to a couple of his cronies who had been holding court half the evening on the staircase.Her name was Cheryl Rader. Late thirties, medium height, pleasantly good looking in a midwestern sort of way. No guile. No cunning. A little too thin, cheeks a bit too angular. Impatience in her features now. She had told Frank not to drink too much. Not this evening. But he hadn't listened.Elizabeth Surret, their hostess, who had been dispensing coats to the departing guests, touched Cheryl on the shoulder, then took her by the arm and led her away from the group."Do you want us to call you a cab?""I don't think so, thanks, Liz," Cheryl said, glancing back at her husband. "He usually lets me drive when he gets like this." Instantly she bit her tongue. Damn, she thought.Lon Surret had started Solar Products, Inc., two years ago, and already the company was number three in the state in supplying solar heating equipment designs for commercial buildings. But the man and his wife were Republican, straight-laced Wasps."Excess," Frank would mimic his boss in a low-pitched voice, "is the bane of our culture."Elizabeth patted Cheryl's arm. "Don't worry about it. We all know Franky. He's a go-getter. Needs to blow off a little steam every now and then. Lonnie was just telling me this morning how much he thought of your Franky."Franky ... Christ. Cheryl smiled uncertainly. "Thanks, Liz, I guess maybe he has been working too hard lately."The older woman smiled patronizingly. "How are the girls?""Fine. Happy that school has started, if you can believe that.""Our children always loved school," Elizabeth said.Frank had turned away from the others as two more wives came out of the living room to collect their husbands, and Elizabeth went to the hall closet to get their coats."I was just going to mix myself another drink," Frank said, bleary eyed."We're leaving," Cheryl snapped a little too sharply. "You've had enough.""You've had enough," he mimicked her, and the two men on the stairs chuckled.Cheryl turned away to get their coats. Her ears were warm. Her husband had always been, as Liz called him, a "go-getter." But over the last couple of years, since he had started with Solar Products, he had changed somehow. Subtly. But the change was there. He had become somewhat sharper of tongue, easier to anger, less understanding.But most of all a change had come into his eyes. Or rather the expression his eyes held.Part of that, Cheryl knew, was a direct result of his increased drinking. But which came first: the drinking which changed his moods, or his changed moods which caused his drinking?Pressures of the new job, he would have said to her."You have to understand, babes, that this will only be for a couple more years. Just until we're over the hump. And then ... .""And then what?" she would ask him at that point, but each time he would shake his head. It was as if he had some master plan that he could share with no one. Not even his wife.She was about to turn around, but Liz caught her eye as if she was trying to communicate something. The look only lasted a moment, then disappeared as Frank was saying his goodbyes to his boss, and Cheryl turned around, a smile on her lips.Lon Surret, a tall, stern-looking man in his late fifties, had come from the living room and was shaking Frank's hand."Glad you and Cheryl could join us this evening, Frank," he said, his voice rich, melodious. He turned to Cheryl, who had moved to her husband's side. "And if you ever want to give up this lovely wife of yours, you can send her over here."Bullshit. The single word popped into Cheryl's mind, and it startled her because she had almost said it out loud.Lon Surret kissed Cheryl on the cheek, and then they were pulling on their coats, saying their goodbyes to the other guests."I'm going to drive," she said as they stepped down off the porch into the wind and rain.Frank took her arm without a word and together they hurried to their Citation on the street.At the car Frank opened the passenger-side door for her, the interior light a haven in the pitch-dark night."Are you going to let me drive home?" she shouted."Nope," he said, and he went around to the other side of the car, opened the door, and slipped in behind the wheel."Damn it, Frank!" Cheryl could hear herself sounding like a shrew, but she couldn't help it. She got in and closed the door. He was drunk, the weather was bad and they lived across town. All they needed was for Frank to get an OWI ticket.Frank started the car, then flipped on the headlights and windshield wipers."Lon will go through the roof if you get a ticket," she said reasonably.He glanced at her as he slammed the car in gear, something menacing flashing in his eyes. "Fuck him," he said softly, and then turned back and pulled away from the curb.It wasn't like him, Cheryl thought. The change had been there before. Growing over the past twenty-four months, but tonight the difference was more pronounced. Stark."Frank?" she started uncertainly."Enough harping, babes," he said. "I'm tired. I just want to get home and get to bed. Just don't harp. Ease up a little bit."They turned at the corner and in a couple of blocks were on Verona Road heading back toward University Avenue where they lived, overlooking Lake Mendota.Frank's driving was normal ... . if anything, slower and more cautious than normal, for which Cheryl was grateful. But she was upset, and at the pit of her stomach the worry that had begun gnawing at her several months ago returned in full force.Forty, she thought. A hell of an age. Until now she had always dismissed the notion about midlife crises. Maybe for the losers. Or, as Frank would say, for people who didn't know what the hell they wanted out of life in the first place.But not for us. Never us.She snuck a glance at his profile. For some unfathomablereason the years were always much kinder to men than to women. Gray hairs, a few lines around the mouth and eyes and a thickening of the middle, were for a man sure signs of maturity, of character. For women they were certain signs of deterioration.Was that it? She stared out the windshield at the rain-slicked streets. Had she failed to look eighteen for Frank? Was he looking for his own youth by capturing someone else's?There was very little traffic at this hour of the morning. A truck up ahead, a car a quarter of a mile behind them. The traffic lights for the Beltline entrance flipped red while they were still half a block away as Cheryl turned again to her husband."I'm sorry, Frank," she said in a small voice.He glanced at her, the expression around his eyes tight at first, but then he smiled, and shook his head. "I guess I behaved like a prick tonight."Cheryl laughed, the relief sweet. It was her Frank. She leaned over in her seat to kiss him when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw the overhead traffic lights, still red, flash by."Frank ... ," she started to say, but at that instant the interior of the car was flooded with an intense white light.Headlights, the thought crystallized in her brain as Frank's side of the car erupted in a shower of glass and screeching, tearing metal, something slamming them over on their side, and then upside down.Cheryl hit her shoulder on the roof of the car which was somehow directly beneath her, while overhead, through the shattered windshield, she caught a brief glimpse of the highway, sparks flying like a Fourth of July display, and she was in the back seat, wedged on the floor, as the car continued to spin.Dust was everywhere. Something wet was in her left eye and she could smell the distinct odor of vomit. Yet she was in no pain as the car finally skidded to a halt on its top.An accident. It had been an accident. Frank had run the red light. Christ, Lon would be mad, would probably fireFrank. But the girls were all right. They'd be okay alone for a few minutes or so.It was dark, but she could sense something directly in front of her face. Like fabric. Maybe the seat.She yawned, and opened her eyes. Jesus, she had fallen asleep. There was something ... .Cheryl could hear sirens in the distance somewhere and she tried to turn her head. Then there were flashing red lights all around her. Strong hands were unbending her body, and there was rain on her face. Wind and rain.Someone was talking in the distance, and she could hear a police radio blaring and hissing, and she was lying on a soft bed and a warm blanket was on top of her."Frank?" she could hear her own voice. She was embarrassed that they had caused so much trouble.She turned her head as her stretcher was lifted up. Frank was lying on the street while a dark-haired man was pumping his chest. Another man in a white coat was racing toward Frank. He was carrying an oxygen bottle under his arm."Frank?" Cheryl cried, trying to rise up from the stretcher. "Frank!" she screamed. "He's dead! My Frank is dead!"
Frank Rader was drifting.There was a very strong white light in the distance, through a heavy fog. He was aware that he was not alone. There were others here with him. Indistinct shapes, and shadows scattered along an undulating plain.He had a sense of himself being in this place; he knew he was dead or dying. Yet he was also conscious--if that was the correct word--of being angry. Of feeling cheated."Franklin William Rader, it gives me the great pleasure to present to you the Presidential E Award, for excellence in service to industry and to your country."He had a sense of acceleration. As if he was being propelled faster and faster through the vague shadows toward the end of the plain ... toward the light that was at once comforting and frightening."Mr. Rader?""Yes.""Your accountant is here, sit.""Send him in.""Mr. Rader, it gives me the great pleasure to announce that you've become a millionaire."They were laughing at him, but he could not tell what it was about, although it was embarrassing.The gun was in his hand and it was coming up. Surret was below him, his eyes wide, his nostrils flared with fear."Yes!" Frank screamed. "Yes!"The white light began to recede faster and faster as the fog began to drift, and then blow away. In the distance, behind him, Frank could sense flashing red lights, rain on his face, and a woman screaming."Astaroth," he whispered.
Clinton Polk awoke with a start, his heart racing, his side cold with sweat as he carefully rolled over on his back.His wife, Susan, sleeping beside him, was curled up in a ball, her breathing regular, her long, strawberry-blonde hair spilled around her head on the pillow.For a long time he lay perfectly still, listening to the vagrant sounds of the house, listening to the rain and wind outside, until he became conscious of the fact he was cold.He looked over at the clock radio on the nightstand, which showed it was just a few minutes after two, and tried to think: had he forgotten to turn the furnace up when he came home?All in all it had been a fairly pleasant day ... a pleasant week ... except for the ongoing fight his department was having with the Board of Regents over funding for the project.It had started to turn cool Thursday evening, however, and by yesterday afternoon the clouds had come in and the weather forecasters were calling for rain possibly mixed with snow."Damn," he said to himself as he threw the covers back and got carefully out of bed.He tucked the covers back around his wife, grabbed his robe from the chair, and slipped it on as he stepped out into the upstairs hallway and groped for the light switch.Finding it, he flipped the switch on, but nothing happened. He flipped it on and off several more times, but still nothing happened. The hall light must have burned out up here, he thought. But then, so had the light downstairs.Strange. Probably a short somewhere.He carefully moved down the corridor toward the head of the stairs and, trailing his right hand on the banister, carefully descended."Clinton?" Susan's sleepy voice drifted down to him.He stopped and looked up over his shoulder, but he could see nothing in the intense darkness. "I'm going downstairs to get a drink. Do you want something?""It's cold," she called from her bedroom."I'll check the furnace,"he said, and waited for her reply, but it didn't come, and he continued down the stairs.They had been married only four years. He was forty, she twenty-seven. No children to bother with; they lived an orderly existence alone except for Bo, their black lab.He was an assistant professor of molecular biology at the University of Wisconsin and had been fighting with the Board of Regents for the past couple of months for funds to carry out a research project. No one seemed impressed with his proposals and, as it had been put to him by one of the regents:"Everyone is a little touchy at the moment about anything having to do with genetic engineering. Just bide your time for a few months, maybe as long as a year, and the money will be there, Clinton. I promise you."I promise you, Polk thought. Three little words that invariably seemed to accompany lies and deceit.It was even colder downstairs, and he wondered if a window hadn't been left open somewhere.He started across the vestibule when he stumbled over something on the floor, nearly pitching forward in thedarkness, just barely regaining his footing.He backed up a step, then bent down and reached out with his hands, like a blind man groping his way forward, immediately touching a big ball of fur. The dog."For God's sake, Bo ... ." The words died on his lips.The dog's body was stiff and cold. It was dead.Without thinking, Polk straightened up and went across the vestibule, where he found the light switch, and flipped it on. The hall lights, here and upstairs, came on. He went back to the dog stretched out stiff in the middle of the vestibule."Damn." He knelt down beside the animal again, and gently turned it over.The dog was definitely dead. Had been dead for some time. There were no marks on his body as far as he could see, but it struck him as very odd that rigor mortis had set in so fast.He and Susan had gone to bed around midnight, maybe a couple of hours ago at the most. At that time he had put the dog out, and had let him back in a moment later. Bo normally took his own sweet time for his nightly outing, but this evening the animal had come back whining and scratching at the door almost immediately.And now he was dead. Apparently long dead.Something else suddenly struck him, and he slowly turned and looked up at the light. It was on, as was the one upstairs.What the hell was going on? A minute ago, upstairs, the lights wouldn't work. The switch was bad. Obvious.The furnace clicked on and Polk could feel a warm blast of air coming from the hall register. He ran his fingers through his hair, tightened the belt on his bathrobe, and went back to the kitchen, where he unlocked the back door.Back in the vestibule, he carefully picked the dog's body off the floor and carried it through the kitchen, out the back door and across the yard, where he laid it down in the bushes beside the garage.It was bitterly cold outside, and the rain was beginningto turn to snow as Polk went back into the kitchen.In the morning he'd tell Susan. She had been very attached to the dog. Bo had taken the place of the child they'd decided never to have.He relocked the kitchen door and for a few moments stood leaning against it. The dog had probably gotten into someone's garbage. Maybe rat poison. Yet, as far as he knew, rat poison would not induce a stiffening of the muscle tissue so fast.Perhaps it had been some kind of a convulsive drug. Maybe someone had thrown out a prescription and Bo had gotten into it.He'd take the animal to a vet tomorrow on the way to work. There was always the possibility that someone had deliberately poisoned it. An autopsy would show what had happened.Polk went back through the house and in the vestibule checked to make sure the front door was locked. It was. And then he started up the stairs as the telephone rang, the strident sound startling him.He answered it on the second ring. "Yes?""Clinton?" It was Cheryl Rader. Or at least he thought it was Cheryl's voice, although it was hard to tell. She sounded distraught."Cheryl? Where are you? What's happened?""Thank God you were home. There's been an accident. It's Frank. He's been hurt."Polk looked at his watch, which showed it was just 2:15 A.M. "Where are you calling from?" he snapped."The hospital," Cheryl cried. "Madison General. Oh God, Clinton, it's terrible. I think ... Frank ... he's dead, I think. They won't tell me anything.""Jesus," Polk swore half under his breath."Clinton?" Susan called from the head of the stairs."Listen, Cheryl, stay right where you are. Susan and I will get dressed and be there within fifteen minutes. Just don't panic."There was a silence on the line."What's going on?" Susan called from the stairs as shestarted down. "Who's on the phone?""Cheryl?" Polk spoke into the phone. "Cheryl, are you still there?" Silence. He slowly hung up the telephone and turned as his wife came all the way down the stairs, clutching her bathrobe tightly around her neck."It was Cheryl Rader.""Has something happened?" Susan asked, instant deep concern in her eyes."There's been an accident, I think. She wasn't very coherent. Frank was hurt.""Oh Christ, where are they?""Madison General. I told her we'd be right there.""Oh, Christ," Susan said again, and she turned and headed up the stairs. "I knew something like this was going to happen.""What the hell do you mean by that?" Polk asked, hurrying up the stairs after her. She didn't answer him.
In the dim light of the clock radio on the bookcase headboard, Fred Martin looked down at his sleeping wife.One strap of her negligee had slipped down off her shoulder and, before he pulled the covers back up over her, he bent down and kissed the nipple of her exposed breast. She murmured something in her sleep and then rolled over.For several seconds Martin stared at the back of her head, and then he turned, crossed the room and went out into the hall.A night light shone softly from the open bathroom door, and for a moment he stared at it."What if there was a fire at night, Fred?" Marion had asked a few days after they had brought their new baby home from the hospital."What if we couldn't find our way out of the house?"Was he smelling smoke?"We'd have to make it to the baby's room, and then outside. We'd have to have a light."Martin moved down the corridor to the bathroom and looked inside at the tiny night-light fixture plugged intothe socket over the sink.He turned and looked toward Jessica's door, every one of his senses straining, for an instant, for a sound or a sign that something was wrong.Was he hearing a cough?When one thing goes to hell, everything else follows suit.Martin shook his head and padded, barefoot, down the corridor into the living room of their three-bedroom ranch-style house. He went immediately to the bar that was set up in the bookcase, poured himself a stiff shot of vodka and immediately drank it down, shuddering at the harsh impact of the liquor on his system. He poured himself another drink, then got a cigarette from the case on the coffee table. When he had it lit, he sat down in his favorite chair in front of the television set and closed his eyes."Christ," he said to himself as he inhaled deeply on the cigarette. "Christ." The plain truth was that he was frightened.If they won ... everything. Promotion, most likely to a full partner in Creative Sales, Inc. Big money. Maybe seventy-five or eighty thou plus a year. A new house. New car. The entire shooting match ... including respect.If they lost ... if he lost ... there would be less than nothing. No promotion, no money, nothing but jail.Martin had never done anything really illegal in h life. Overtime parking. A U-turn once, a speeding ticket several years ago. But bribery of public officials was a criminal offense. Jail time.And yet (why the hell was his life lately punctuated with that phrase?) the agency was not really cheating the city of Milwaukee. If they did get the industrial development advertising contract, they would do a good job. A good job at a fair price.He heard the bathroom door close, and he opened his eyes. Marion must have gotten up.Martin and his wife were both pushing forty and had been married only five years. After college he had spent histime and energy in the advertising business. There had always been plenty of women, despite his basic shyness, but never the right woman until Marion had come along.Her story had been a sad one. She had married when she was twenty-five, and had two boys, three years apart. Seven years ago her husband and both boys had been killed in the crash of a light airplane, leaving her for a full year under psychiatric care.Their friends had been concerned about them having a baby so late in life, but both Martin and his wife had desperately wanted a family; he because he wanted to be a father, and she in some respects because she wanted to replace the family she had lost.He had to smile despite his worries. Having Jessica was wonderful. Better than he had thought possible. And now that they had her, there were no second thoughts, no doubts, only gladness.The toilet flushed, and a few moments later he heard the bathroom door open."Fred?" his wife called from the back of the house."In here," he said softly.She stopped just within the living room. "What are you doing out here? Can't you sleep?""Just got up for a cigarette," he said. He loved her very much at that moment. If Marion's personality had to be summarized in one simple sentence, it would have to be that she was a woman genuinely concerned about others."Are you coming back to bed soon?""In a minute," he said.She started to turn away, but then came back. "Are you all right, Fred? Do you feel okay?""I'm fine, Marion. Go on back to bed, I'll be right there.""Okay," she said, and she disappeared down the corridor.Martin stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray, then drank the rest of his vodka, got up and set the glass back on the bar. As he was about to turn away, Marion screamed, the sound piercing, animalistic in its intensity.His stomach flopped over as he raced for the corridor, bouncing off the wall. "Marion?" he shouted, but she continued to scream.For a moment he thought she was in the bathroom, and perhaps had fallen, but then with a sick feeling he realized that her cries were coming from Jessica's room.A crash of lightning lit up the room for just an instant as he came through the doorway, and he could see clearly that Marion was clutching their baby in her arms as she screamed.The thunder came then, powerfully rattling the windows, shaking the house as he leaped across the room to her."What happened?" he shouted. "What's wrong?""Jessica!" she cried. "Oh God ... Jessica ... our baby! She's dead!"It was impossible. It was a dream. And yet the way she was holding the baby Martin knew that it wasn't ... that it was really happening to them.Suddenly he became very conscious of time. It was racing by too fast. Crib death. Suffocation. A hundred things passed through his mind."Give her to me!" he shouted.Marion tried to back away. "She's dead ... ."Martin roughly grabbed Jessica from her arms, turned and raced back to their bedroom, where he hit the light switch and laid the baby on the bed, Marion right behind him."Call the doctor," he snapped as he hurriedly undid the baby's sleeper nightgown.The baby's face was blue, her little chest still. He laid his ear to her chest, but he couldn't hear anything over Marion's crying."Shut up," he screamed, looking up. "Call the doctor. Now!"Gently, but with shaking hands, he applied a regular pressure to the baby's chest with two fingers. Once, twice, three times, and then down on his knees beside the bed, he pried her mouth open, and placed his mouth over herentire face and blew gently. Her chest rose. He lifted his head up and Jessica's tiny chest fell. A moment later he blew into her mouth and nose again."The doctor," he shouted almost hysterically when he looked up the next time. Marion stood directly behind him, quiet now, her hands over her mouth to stifle her sobs.Again he blew into the baby's mouth, released, and blew again."Please ... Jessica ... please," he half mumbled to himself. Time was speeding by too fast. He was aware not only of the lifeless child, but of Marion behind him, of the storm outside, of everything.He applied the rhythmic pressure to the baby's chest again, five times, and then continued the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, but it wasn't working. He knew it wasn't working. The deep blue coloring on his baby's face had not changed. Jessica hadn't sputtered. Hadn't moved. They needed the doctor. The rescue squad.The telephone on the nightstand next to him rang, the sound seemingly louder than the thunder, and Martin reached out and grabbed it."Get off this phone!" he roared."Frank's been in an accident!" Cheryl Rader's voice came over the phone."Get off this fucking phone, Cheryl!" Martin screamed. "Send an ambulance out here. Our baby needs help!""It's Frank ... I think he's dead ...," Cheryl's voice screamed.
The ambulance, its red lights flashing, its siren wailing, screamed off South Park Street and raced up the curved driveway to the emergency entrance at Madison General Hospital.A doctor and two nurses were waiting with a Gurney bed, and, even before the ambulance came to a complete halt, they were yanking open the back door.Stan Shapiro, the ambulance attendant riding in the back with Frank and Cheryl Rader, knew his job well; hehad been doing this sort of thing now for almost eleven years. He pulled the oxygen mask off Frank's face, firmly moved the wife out of the way, and helped the nurses get the man's body out of the ambulance."Vitals are all steady now!" he snapped, shoving the ambulance stretcher aside as Frank's body was expertly flopped onto the wheeled bed. "His wife needs help!"One of the nurses stayed behind to help Cheryl, while Shapiro raced with the doctor and other nurse into the hospital, down a very short corridor and into the emergency room itself.The doctor ripped Rader's shirt open. He hooked his stethescope into his ears, and laid the pickup on Frank's chest.An intern had moved an EKG monitor next to the bed, while a nurse was taking Frank's blood pressure, and another was moving in with a rollabout cart loaded with bandages and other supplies."I want an ECG put on the man, stat, and set me up a saline drip," the doctor snapped. "Blood pressure?""140 over 90," the nurse said, reading the figures from the indicator on the cuff bulb.There was a commotion in the corridor as Cheryl Rader was led in. "Frank!" she screamed.The doctor looked up. "His wife?"Shapiro nodded."Was she injured?""I don't think so.""Take her to three. Get Larry down here to look at her," the doctor snapped, and he turned back to Frank as the nurses were cutting away his jacket and shirt, and then his trousers.A large angry bruise had already formed across Frank's chest where he had struck the steering wheel, and blood seeped from a cut on the left side of his forehead.The heart monitor machine's leads were attached to his chest, and the machine turned on, as another of the nurses was attaching several leads to his head, connecting him to the electroencephlograph, and the intravenous saline dripwas inserted in his left arm.Shapiro stared for a long moment at Frank lying on the table, then turned as his partner Bruce Ahern hurried in from outside."How is he?" Ahern asked."Looks like he'll be okay.""What?" the other man asked, coming up to him. "I thought he was ... .""So did I," Shapiro said shakily. Together they went to the ward secretary's cubicle and signed in, handing across a copy of their patient pickup and release forms."Your ambulance out of the way?" the secretary asked, stamping the forms."Sure is, Pat," Bruce Ahern said. "Someone else coming in?""Should be ... ," the pretty young woman said, but her telephone console buzzed, and she turned away and picked up the phone. "Emergency room," she said, listening a moment, her mouth tightening. "Yes," she said, then cleared the line and hit the hospital paging line."Dr. Blue from pediatrics, Dr. Blue from pediatrics to the emergency room, please," her voice sounded from the ceiling speakers throughout the hospital.Before she had repeated the message a second time, a young doctor and two nurses wheeling a small rollabout table raced down the corridor to the emergency entrance as an ambulance came screaming up the circular driveway.Shapiro and Ahern stepped around the corner from the ward secretary's cubicle and watched as an infant was loaded on the table and brought into the emergency room, one of the nurses helping the distraught parents past the ward secretary and into the waiting room, where Cheryl Rader had just been taken."Oh, God ... Cheryl," the woman cried, and Cheryl Rader jumped up from where she had been sitting, and the two women fell sobbing into each other's arms."Let's get the wagon back, it's been a long night," Ahern said, and Shapiro looked up at his friend and nodded."Yeah," he said. "I could use a cup of coffee."As they passed the open emergency room door, Shapiro looked inside. A nurse was cleaning and bandaging Frank Rader's cuts, and it just didn't make any sense. Shapiro had been certain that the man was dead. Dead beyond revival. Yet now it looked as if he was going to be all right.At the outside door a small BMW sedan screeched to a halt, and a man and woman jumped out as Shapiro and Ahern walked down the driveway and climbed into their ambulance.
The rain had stopped, finally, and the sky had begun to lighten to a leaden gray by the time Clinton and Susan Polk helped Cheryl Rader out the emergency door and down to where their car was parked. The air outside smelled clean and fresh compared to the antiseptic atmosphere of the hospital, and all three of them were glad to be away.Polk helped the two women into the car and then came around to the driver's side, but before he got in he looked back up at the hospital and shook his head.This night had been incredible, and it would take them months to recover from it, if they ever did completely.And now what would Marion do that her new baby was dead? This morning, and probably for the next twenty-four hours or so, she would be under sedation, in her own little world. But later, when she came out of it, she and Fred were somehow going to have to face the fact that their baby was dead. Somehow, they were going to have to live with it. And Polk felt that it would be impossible for them unless they had the help and the support of their friends.He opened the car door and climbed in behind the wheel. His wife and Cheryl were both in the back seat, not saying a word, just staring straight ahead, waiting to be taken home.Traffic was very light at this hour of the morning: a police car, a couple of trucks, and a few early-shift workers heading sleepily to their jobs.The streets were rain slicked, and at the Square, downtown,Polk had to swing out, away from a couple of tree limbs that had apparently been blown down in the storm."I knew something like this was going to happen," Cheryl said softly.Polk looked at her reflection in the rearview mirror. She seemed on the verge of collapse."Frank is going to be all right," Susan said."The doctor said he could come home in a couple of days," Polk added, but Cheryl was shaking her head."I mean about Fred and Marion's baby," she said."Hush, now," Susan said. "We're going to get you home and put you to bed.""The twins ... ?" Cheryl said, her voice rising."I called them. Everything is all right. They understand.""Oh, God," Cheryl cried, holding tightly onto Susan. "How is Marion ever going to handle this, Susan? How?""We're going to have to help her. Her and Fred. That's all.""What kind of night has this been?"What kind indeed, Polk thought frowning, remembering their dog, Bo. It had been a crazy night. He was very glad it was nearly over.When they reached the Raders' home on the west side of town, just off University Avenue, Polk pulled the car into the driveway, then helped the women out.Together they started up the walk to the pretty, two-story colonial, when the front door opened and Dawn and Felicity, the Raders' pretty, thirteen-year-old twin girls came racing down the walk to them."Mom, mom, are you all right? Is daddy okay? It's been on the radio! Mrs. Surret called and said if you needed any help she'd be right over!"The girls shouted and danced around their mother, both of them talking at once.Cheryl drew back for just a moment, but then the girls' enthusiasm and concern seemed to act as a tonic that she needed."Everything is going to be all right," she said to them."When's daddy coming home?" Dawn asked."Tomorrow or maybe the next day.""What are they doing to him?" Felicity asked. "Did he break something?""No," Cheryl said. "He got a few cuts and some bruises. That's all.""Then why does he have to stay in the hospital so long?" Dawn asked.They had reached the front door, and Susan stepped aside as the girls helped their mother."The doctor wants to make sure he doesn't have any injuries inside. They have to watch him for a couple of days," Cheryl said.Just inside the vestibule she turned. "Do you two want to come in for some coffee?"Susan shook her head and glanced at her husband. "No, we're going back home. It's been a long night.""I've still got to get to work sometime before noon this morning," Polk said.Cheryl came back to the door and hugged Susan and Clinton. "Thanks for being there with me tonight," she said, her eyes moist."I was up anyway when you called," Polk said.An odd expression came into Cheryl's eyes. "I didn't call," she said."Of course you did ... ," Polk started to say, but Susan nudged him."Really, Clinton, I didn't call anyone. The ambulance drivers brought us to the hospital, and a few minutes later you two showed up.""It's all right," Susan said. "It was probably the hospital.""It must have been," Cheryl said. "You sure you two don't want to come in for some coffee?""No, thanks, Cheryl. I think you'd better lie down and get some rest now," Susan said."Sure, and thanks again, you two. See you later today?""Of course," Susan said.For five of Stan Shapiro's years as an ambulance driver and attendant, he had been working with Bruce Ahern. Both men had served as medics in Vietnam, both had originally come from the West Coast, and both had decided on the quieter life in the Midwest.They had met at the university where they both had taken classes, had struck up a friendship, and finally a couple of years ago had moved into an apartment together to share the rent and utilities.Both of them were gentle men, kind, generally soft spoken. Part of that was because they had been born that way, but another, even larger contributing factor to their gentleness was a reaction to the oftentimes extreme violence they were witness to.Together they had pulled people from wrecked automobiles, had scraped up remains from the street, and had saved dozens of lives with their quick thinking.As another result of their work together, they knew each other better than most friends. Their relationship was a very special one. And this morning each knew that the other was bothered."The man was dead," Shapiro said. They were seated across the table from each other in the break room at the Capitol City Ambulance Service Center on King Street."You're damned right he was dead, Stan," Ahern replied. They had driven back from the hospital in silence, and had checked in without a word to each other. But now they could no longer hold their silence."Jesus Christ, he was as cold as ice," Shapiro said shakily, letting himself go. "I don't know why I even tried the resuscitator.""I felt it, too," Ahern said, his eyes wide. "So what happened?""I don't know. But no one would ever believe us if we told them.""But that's impossible, isn't it, Stan? I mean if he was cold, there would have been no way for him to come back. Isn't that right?"Shapiro nodded uncertainly."Then we were dreaming. That's all.""Twenty minutes from the time of the accident until we got there. That's no dream.""What are you trying to say, for Christ's sake?" Ahern shouted, jumping up. He looked down at his friend. "They'd put us away for this, man. Jesus H ... ."Shapiro looked up at him, his eyes moist. He shook his head. "Lots of things don't make sense, Bruce. We learned that in Nam.""You're saying just forget it?"Shapiro nodded.Ahern shook his head. "Never."2It was Sunday afternoon when Cheryl Rader picked her husband up from the hospital and they headed home in a loaner station wagon from their insurance agent. Over the weekend the storm had passed, leaving in its wake beautifully clear skies and a crisp, early-fall day."How do you feel, darling?" Cheryl asked as she drove.Frank had not said much at the hospital, and she was worried about him now. He seemed so morose.He looked over at her. "Sore," he said. "I feel like I've been run over by a truck."Cheryl forced a smile at the very bad joke. "Are you sure you're okay, honey?""Shit," Frank said, looking away. "I really fucked it up, didn't I? I mean, if I had let you drive, none of this would have happened. Christ, I could have killed you."Cheryl reached out with her right hand and caressed Frank's cheek. "It'll be all right. The girls are excited about you coming home. They baked a chocolate cake for you."Frank looked at her again, and Cheryl flinched inside. There was something different about him. A heaviness, a sadness. But he smiled. "They must have been worried.""Out of their minds," Cheryl said. "But everything is going to be fine now.""Did Surret call?"Cheryl shook her head. "But his wife phoned twice. She was over yesterday afternoon to make sure I was okay.""I probably won't have a job to go to, once he finds out what happened.""How will he ... ?"Frank cut her off. "The cops were up yesterday afternoon.I've been ticketed.""For what?""Drunk driving."Cheryl was confused. "I don't understand," she said."Don't understand what?" he snapped in anger. "How the cops could prove that I had been drinking? It's simple, the hospital authorized a blood alcohol test while I was unconscious.""But that's not right.""You're goddamned right it's not right, the pricks." He looked away. "I could go over there and blow the entire place away.""Frank!" Cheryl said sharply.Frank shook his head and turned back to his wife, a lopsided grin on his face. "Besides the fact it's going to cost me a few hundred bucks, Surret just might fire me.""I know, but don't add to our problems by getting yourself worked up. It won't help.""Right," he said dryly.They passed the University's Camp Randall Stadium in silence, and Cheryl turned west on old University Avenue. The traffic was heavier here nearer the school.For her, fall was always a time of beginnings, not endings, as it was for many people who lived for summertime. She had always enjoyed school, especially college, where fall meant a new round of friends, new classes, new social activities. September for her meant new projects, shopping for sweaters and knit hats.But not this year, she thought, sneaking a glance at her husband. She had a premonition that Frank was going to go through a very bad time this fall. The accident was only a part of it. If he lost his job, she didn't know how he would react, or how long it would take him to recover.On top of all of that was the news about the Martins' baby. She had debated telling him earlier, at the hospital, but somehow had not been able to bring herself to mention it. And now was certainly not the best time. Frank seemed so ... down, so different."It's too bad about Fred and Marion," he said, thesound of his voice startling her.She looked over at him. "What do you mean?""I mean about their baby. What the hell did you think I meant?""I ... ." Cheryl was at a loss for words.The expression on Frank's face softened, "Sorry," he said. "I guess I'm a little uptight right now. Things were just starting to get good at work.""Everything is going to be all right," Cheryl said.He nodded. "Yeah. But I damned near dropped my teeth when Susan told me about the baby.""Susan?"Again Frank nodded. "She was up to visit me yesterday afternoon.""I didn't know that.""She just dropped by to see how I was. I guess she assumed I already knew about Fred and Marion's baby. It's just so goddamned unfair. Christ, everything she went through seven years ago, and now this?"Friend or not, she should not have bothered Frank with something like that, Cheryl thought."We're all going to have to help," Frank was saying."Help?""Yeah," he said. "They're going to need their friends now more than ever before. On top of this, I think Fred's been having some troubles at work.""Marion hasn't said anything.""No," Frank said. "I don't think either of them would say anything. Maybe we'll have them over for cards on Wednesday, as usual."Cheryl was shocked into silence for a moment. "Frank?" she said. "Wednesday ... the baby's funeral is that day.""I know," he said. "Families and friends usually get together afterwards. Why not some cards? We've been playing cards every Wednesday night for nearly two years. Why not this Wednesday? It would certainly help them forget."Not by playing cards, Cheryl wanted to scream. But shewas too sick at heart to say anything more than, "I'll see."For an instant it seemed as if Frank would blow up, but then he calmed down again. "Give them a call, anyway," he said. "Call Clinton and Susan, too. Just see what they say."
Creative Sales, Inc., occupied a full floor of the First Wisconsin Bank Building, a fourteen-story edifice of green glass on downtown Madison's Square just across from the State Capitol building.Fred Martin stood on the street corner in the shadow of the building, waiting for the traffic light to change. He wanted to get away. To run away and hide so that no one could see what had left his heart, what perhaps had never been there.But there was nowhere for him to hide. Everyone around him, even the people on the street, in the passing cars, everyone had to know just by looking at him the terrible burden of guilt that was beginning to build inside. Beginning to throb like an uncontrollable wound.The light changed, and he trudged mechanically across East Washington Avenue, toward the ramp where he had parked his car this morning.Marion had come home from the hospital yesterday, but had slept most of Sunday afternoon, had been up for a few hours, then had gone back to bed.This morning when the alarm had woken him he had automatically risen, shaved, showered, and then dressed.Breakfast. Had he eaten breakfast? Walking now, he wasn't sure.His memory of this morning came to him in fits and starts. He remembered getting up, but he didn't remember driving downtown. He remembered walking to the bank building, but he did not remember crossing the lobby.The first startlingly clear thing that he remembered was stepping off the elevator on the tenth floor. The receptionist had looked up, then had half risen out of her seat."Mr. Martin ... ," she had sputtered.She knew! Christ, she knew!"Morning." He hurried past her desk, down the corridor and ducked into his office.His heart was pounding nearly out of his chest. If the receptionist knew, there was only one way she could have found out. And that was by reading it in the expression on his face. In his eyes.Words of sorrow. Condolences. Sympathy. Half the staff had tromped through his office, so that he hadn't been able to work. The Milwaukee Mayor's administrative assistant was out, and so was the city's chief engineer. No luck there."Go home, Fred," the words echoed and re-echoed in his mind as he reached the corner of Hamilton Street, and stopped."Milwaukee ... ." he had ineffectually protested."There's no contract that important. I want you to leave right now. I'll call Marion and tell her you're on your way."He had closed his office, gone down the corridor, past the receptionist, down the elevator and outside. It seemed as if his life was speeding up, catching up with him, and when he finally looked up, he was pulling into his own driveway with absolutely no clear idea how he had gotten home.When he had the car parked and the engine shut off, he buried his head in his hands and cried. For his dead child. For Marion and all that she had lost. And for himself. For what was happening to him.He was too frightened to run, and too frightened to stay, and he didn't know if he could handle it much longer without help.But what kind of help? And where could he seek it? And would they sympathize with him, or would they look at him as Marion had looked at him Saturday morning?He sat up, and held his hands up in front of him. If he had known more about CPR, maybe he could have saved the baby. Or if, instead of going into the living room for a drink and a cigarette, he had checked on Jessica first, thenmaybe he would have been on time.Slowly, mechanically, he got out of the car, trudged up the walk and let himself in.The house was quiet; Marion was probably still in bed. He crossed the living room and went down the hallway to their bedroom.The bed was unmade, but Marion was not in it. He moved silently down the hall to the bathroom and looked in, but she wasn't there, either.Then he turned and looked towards the baby's room. The door was open, and now he thought he could hear a soft mewing, almost like the sound a kitten might make.Very carefully, one step at a time, Fred moved to the open door, and looked inside.Marion was sitting on the floor next to the crib. She was still in her nightgown, her hair disheveled, and she held onto the crib's barred sides with both hands as the tears streamed down her cheeks, and a soft mewing sound came from her mouth."Marion?" he said softly.She turned and looked up at him. "Where did you go?" she asked, her voice barely audible.He came all the way into the room, looked down at her for a moment, and then sank down next to her, his legs folding beneath him."Fred?" Marion cried, and she reached out for him.He took her into his arms, and together they cried, yet part of his mind seemed detached from the rest of him. In that section of his brain he knew that, after all of this, he did not care that his baby was dead. He could not find the grief in himself for their lost child. The funeral had already been set for Wednesday, and yet he could find no room in his heart for sorrow. Only guilt. Guilt for not checking on the baby sooner. Guilt for not being able to save her life. And most of all, guilt for not feeling any grief."I'm going to see a psychiatrist," he said. "I don't think I can handle this much longet."Marion pulled away slowly, and looked into her husband's eyes. "What is it, Fred? What in God's name iswrong?""Why can't I be sorry my baby is dead?" he cried, the words torn from deep inside his heart.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon when Madison Police Lieutenant Stanley Klubertanz parked his thirteen-year-old Alpha Romeo coupe at Madison General Hospital. It had turned out to be a lovely fall afternoon, but Klubertanz was not in a particularly good mood.Earlier in the afternoon he had gotten a telephone call from Brenda Wolfe, the assistant district attorney, asking him to stop up for a little chat."Something up, Brenda?" he had asked. There had been something in the tone of her voice."Could be, Stan, but we're going to have to handle this through the back door, at least for the time being. Come up and I'll explain."Over the past few years he and Brenda had worked together on one thing or another. In fact, three years ago when his wife had divorced him and had taken their two children out to Los Angeles, she had mentioned Brenda's name as one of the reasons.But, for better or for worse, his wife was doing fine in L.A. as a department store fashion buyer. The kids were both doing fine in school. He had gotten a letter just last week that Sylvia was seriously considering remarriage. Wonderful guy. Loves the kids, kids love him.He hadn't known at the time whether she had sent him the letter to gloat, or was merely being considerate, for a change. He still hadn't decided which, and had twice nearly broached the subject with Brenda, but hadn't.She had been waiting for him outside her office in the City-County Building, upstairs from the detective division, and she had shown him inside without a word."Business or social?" he asked, slumping down in a chair.She went around behind her desk and sat down. "Business of the nastiest kind. Only, this time, I hope like hell I'm wrong."Klubertanz sat forward. Brenda was a good-looking woman in her mid-thirties. Her husband had run off with her best friend five years ago, and for a time she had turned off on all men. Until Klubertanz, she had never been on a date since her divorce.She opened a file folder, extracted a sheet of paper and handed it across. "Death certificate for Jessica Martin, a three-month-old baby."Klubertanz quickly scanned the standard form. Names, address, dates, times. Cause of death: suffocation. Not accidental suffocation. He looked up, his jaws tightening."There's a reason Maxwell sent this up to you?"Brenda sat back in her chair, obviously choosing her next words with extreme care. "The baby suffocated. That's all he could tell me without an autopsy.""Without an autopsy," Klubertanz repeated softly. There was a very cold feeling in his gut. "Lay it out for me, Brenda."None of this is official, Stan. Not yet. For now it's between you and me. Agreed?"Klubertanz nodded."A friend of Maxwell's, on the staff at the hospital, has some questions, that's all. I talked this over with them, and then phoned John McDonald, the hospital's counselor. He's agreed to meet with you this afternoon.""Who's this friend of Maxwell's?""The emergency room physician who was on call the night the baby was brought in.""You want me to go over and talk to them. Unofficially.""Something like that.""Are you going to seek an autopsy?"Brenda turned away and looked out the window of her fourth-floor office, toward Lake Monona a couple of blocks away. "Depends upon what you come up with, Stan," she said. She turned back. "I'm going to have to depend upon your instinct. If you think we should seek an autopsy, I'll do it, but I'm going to try to convince the judge to have it done immediately. This evening, and without the parentsbeing informed.""So that, if nothing comes up, the body can be released to the funeral home tomorrow?""Exactly," Brenda said."You're skating on some pretty thin ice, Brenda.""Damn it, don't you think I know that?" she snapped, trying to keep her voice low. "But, for Christ's sake, we're talking about possible murder here! An infant's murder.""What about the parents' background?"Brenda shrugged. "The mother is as good as gold, which really doesn't mean anything, but there might be something with the father, Fred Martin. He's a VP at Creative Sales, an advertising agency here in Madison. We've had a couple of complaints about some deal he's cooking up in Milwaukee. Nothing yet we can bring action on, but we're watching the situation.""Politics and child killing do not necessarily follow hand in hand," Klubertanz said dryly."Just look into this for me, would you? As a friend.""Sure," Klubertanz had said. He had left her office shortly after that and had driven directly over to the hospital to meet with McDonald and the attending doctor, William Bush.On his way up in the elevator he thought about his own children, Stewart and Melissa. They were seven and eleven. It had not been so long ago when they were three months old. And thinking about them, thinking about holding their tiny, very dependent bodies in his arms, made him angry.Child molestation was nothing new. Hell, it happened all the time, and would continue to happen. But it made Klubertanz sick at heart to envision an adult inflicting fatal wounds on a helpless child.The elevator doors slid open on the tenth floor, and Klubertanz stepped across the corridor to the receptionist's desk. She looked up and smiled pleasantly."May I help you, sir?""The name's Klubertanz. I'm here to see John McDonald.""Yes, sir," she said, picking up her telephone. "He's expecting you. One moment, please." She dialed a number and a moment later it was answered. "Mr. Klubertanz is here, sir," she said. She nodded. "Yes, sir," she said and she hung up the phone. "Down the hall, sir, third door on your left."At McDonald's door Klubertanz knocked once and went in. The secretary looked up at the same moment McDonald came out of his office.He was a tall man, impeccably dressed in a three-piece suit. There was a grim expression on his face."Lieutenant Klubertanz?" he said, coming across the room."Right," Klubertanz said, and they shook hands."Doctor Bush is on his way up. Care for some coffee?""No thanks," Klubertanz said, and he followed the hospital's attorney into his spacious, well-decorated office where they sat across from each other at a small conference table."How much has Brenda told you about this situation?" McDonald started when they were settled."Nothing other than there may be a question about the death of an infant here on Saturday morning."McDonald seemed to study Klubertanz for a long moment before he spoke. "You must understand the hospital's position.""I do," Klubertanz said. He sat forward. "I'm here unofficially for the moment, merely to talk with you and Doctor Bush. If, among the three of us, we think an autopsy is indicated, then I'll make that recommendation to Brenda. It'll go no further than that for now."McDonald seemed somewhat relieved. "Good," he said. A minute later Dr. William Bush, a young man in his early thirties with long flowing mustaches, came in, and McDonald introduced him."Bill phoned me on Saturday afternoon," McDonald explained to Klubertanz, and then he turned to the doctor. "Why don't you repeat what you told me?"The doctor glanced down at his hands, then looked updirectly into Klubertanz's eyes. "The baby ... the Martin infant ... was murdered," he said. "I'd bet almost anything on it."Klubertanz's gut was suddenly tied in knots. "What makes you think that, doctor?""I've seen plenty of crib deaths, and even accidental suffocation. Believe me, it happens all the time.""But?""But this one was different. There were slight bruises at the back of the child's head and neck, and I'll bet an autopsy will show a twisting of the spine where it attaches to the base of the skull.""Showing what?" Klubertanz asked."Showing that someone held a pillow over the baby's face with one hand, while holding the back of the baby's head with the other."The office was silent for a long moment. "Are you sure, doctor? Absolutely sure?" Klubertanz asked.The doctor shrugged. "As sure as I can be without the results of an autopsy.""Could it have happened accidentally?" Klubertanz asked. "Could the baby's head have gotten caught in the bars of its crib? Something like that?"Doctor Bush nodded slowly after a hesitation. "It's possible," he said. "But unlikely, I think."Klubertanz looked at McDonald, sighed heavily, then stood up. "I'll get back to Brenda this afternoon. You should have your court order to perform an autopsy by early this evening."
It had probably been poison, the vet had said, but he could not be absolutely sure. Clinton Polk found a parking spot half a block down from the Madison Police Department, got out of his car, locked it and hurried down the street.But who the hell would poison the dog? Bo had never been a nuisance. He had never been a barker, never gotten into other people's garbage, as far as Polk knew. So why poison the dog? Unless it was a crazy.Susan had taken it hard when he had told her, and yet she had not seemed surprised. Just as she had not seemed surprised when they had learned that Frank and Cheryl had been in the car accident.Disturbing.As Cheryl had said when they brought her home from the hospital yesterday: "What the hell kind of a weekend was this?"The front desk of the police department was busy with uniformed officers coming and going. Behind the long booking counter was a large, glassed-in room filled with electronic equipment--radios, Polk supposed--manned by half-a-dozen men and women in uniform.He approached the counter, and for a moment hesitated. One of the sergeants came up to him."Yes, sir?" the man said. He seemed harried."I want to register a complaint," Polk said.The sergeant pulled a clipboard filled with forms over to him. "Name and address?" he said tiredly.Polk gave him the information and the sergeant quickly wrote it on the form."Nature of your complaint, sir?""It's my dog," Polk said, and the sergeant looked up. "Someone poisoned him.""Are you sure?""Reasonably. I brought the animal to our vet this morning for an autopsy. He thinks it was poisoned.""I see ... ," the sergeant said. "When did this happen?""Sometime late Friday night or early Saturday morning.""Why didn't you call sooner?" the sergeant asked. He had stopped writing on the forms."I wanted to make sure first," Polk said. This wasn't going right. He suddenly felt foolish."I don't know if there'd be anything we can do for you, sir ... ," the sergeant started, but a tall, husky man in civilian clothes had come up to the counter, and he interrupted."What's the trouble, Smitty?""You look at it, Lieutenant. This is Mr. Polk. He says his dog was poisoned.""When?" Klubertanz asked, holding out his hand for the clipboard. The sergeant gave it to him."Late Friday night or early Saturday."Klubertanz quickly scanned the sergeant's notes, then looked up at Polk. "I'm afraid there isn't much we can do for you, Mr. Polk," he said. He put the clipboard back on the counter. "Do you have any other pets, or children?"Polk shook his head. The sergeant seemed harried, but this one seemed to have the entire world on his shoulders."I shouldn't have brought my complaint here.""On the contrary," Klubertanz said. "We'll make sure the patrol unit for your area is on the alert. And although we may not be able to help you now, if it happens again to someone else's pet in your neighborhood, we may be able to do something.""But probably not," Polk said.Klubertanz shrugged. "Probably not," he said. "I hope you understand.""I do," Polk said. "Thanks anyway."
Cheryl Rader stood at their darkened living-room window in shocked silence as Frank walked down the block and disappeared around the corner. He was limping slightly, his hands were stuffed deeply into his pockets, and his jacket collar was turned up against the chill evening wind."Frank," she said, half to herself. She reached up and traced a pattern on the window glass with her right index finger, then leaned forward and laid her head on the cool glass.The girls were upstairs, watching TV in their own room, and Cheryl supposed they were just as frightened and confused as she was. She knew she should go up to them, to comfort them, to tell them that daddy would be all right, and yet she could not move herself away from the window.It had started this afternoon. He had asked if she had called Fred and Marion yet to invite them over for cardsafter the funeral on Wednesday. She had been thinking about it ever since he had made the suggestion Sunday, and she had found the idea in very bad taste. She told him so, and he blew up.Thinking about this afternoon now made her shiver. Frank had literally gone berserk for a couple of minutes, smashing glasses and bottles in the liquor cabinet, throwing magazines and books around the living room, yelling about how everything was going to hell, even his own wife.He had calmed down after a while, and had been very apologetic, even charming; the old Frank. The girls had been outside during that outburst, but they hadn't been so lucky this evening. At the dinner table it had happened again. For the same reason."I'm not going to invite them anywhere for cards," Cheryl had said firmly. "I just can't. Not the day of their baby's funeral."The girls were watching the play of emotions across Frank's face. But he didn't say anything at first. For a few moments Cheryl hoped that he was coming around, that he was understanding what she was saying to him."They're going to need our help, Frank. But not that kind of ... ."Frank jumped up from his chair, knocking it over, picked up his dinner plate, food and all, and threw it across the room at the wall."Fuck you, broad!" he screamed, and then he had turned, stomped through the house to the hall closet where he had grabbed his jacket, and then had stormed outside."Frank," Cheryl said his name softly as she began to cry by the window. "What's happening to you?"3Klubertanz had spent half the night dreaming about his children in trouble. They were drowning in a gravel pit, falling off a cliff, crashing in a car, their little bodies crushed, and finally a faceless man was strangling them, their faces turning blue, and the telephone rang.He sat up with a start, his body greasy with sweat, and for the first moments he had trouble orienting himself to place or time.But then, slowly, he held his watch up to his eyes and read the luminous dial; it was a few minutes after three in the morning. The phone rang a second time.He swung his legs over the edge of the living-room couch, and stumbled across to the phone hanging on the wall in the tiny kitchen."Yes," he mumbled, still half in his dreams."Lieutenant Klubertanz, this is Sergeant Crebbs, dispatch," the familiar voice came over the phone."What have you got?" Klubertanz ran the fingers of his left hand through his thick brown hair."Double homicide. Should I call the captain?"The sleep fully left Klubertanz's brain. "No," he said. "Not yet. Give me what you have and I'll get out there.""It's an apartment house at 215 West Mifflin. Neighbors called it in a half hour ago. Eighty-two was out there and they went to investigate and found the bodies.""Shots?""No, from what we can gather the neighbors said they heard someone crying.""Who's out there?""The coroner is on his way, and I dispatched the BCI van. Thirty-seven and fifty-eight showed up for backup.""I'Il be there in ten minutes. I don't want anything disturbed.""Yes, sir," the dispatcher said, and Klubertanz hung up, went into the bathroom and splashed some cold water on his face and ran a comb through his hair.The remains of a TV dinner in its foil tray still lay on the coffee table and, as he stepped into his loafers and headed for the door, he had to shake his head. Basically, he was a slob, not even making it into his bedroom last night. His bad habits and worse hours were among the reasons Sylvia had left him.He hurried downstairs and out the front door to where his Alpha Romeo was parked, tossing his gun and jacket in the passenger seat.From what Klubertanz had read, Madison had been a sleepy college town in the forties and fifties. But all that began to change when the university grew too big. First came the drug subculture during the sixties, then the anti-Vietnam war movement in the seventies had placed Madison in the national news almost daily for a couple of years. The bombing of the Army Mathematics Center, the burning of the American flag on campus.From a sleepy little college town, Madison had grown, along with the university ... too large, too fast. And the city, like the college, had its growing pains. Murder among them.Traffic was almost nonexistent at this hour of the morning, and Klubertanz made it to West Mifflin in a little over five minutes.The BCI van had already arrived and was parked next to three squad cars, their red lights still flashing. A city ambulance and a civilian car which probably belonged to one of the assistant coroners were parked across the street. A small knot of people had gathered in front of the shabby, two-story apartment house, and to one side a television news crew had already set up its lights and was filming an interview with someone.Klubertanz parked just behind the van, got out of his car and was pulling on his shoulder holster and jacketwhen one of the uniformed officers whom he vaguely recognized came over to him."The lab people have started their photographs and dusting. The coroner is waiting for you to release the bodies."Klubertanz glanced at his name tag, and then headed toward the building. "All right, Wallace," he said. "What about the neighbors who made the call?""Just over here, sir," the cop said. "Do you want to talk to them first?""Sounds like a good idea," Klubertanz said. "IDs on the victims yet?""Yes, sir," Wallace said. He pulled out his notebook and flipped it open. "Stanley Shapiro, Bruce Ahern. Both white males. Shapiro was thirty-six, Ahern thirty-five."They had come around the BCI van, its back doors open, and approached one of the squad cars, next to which stood another uniformed police officer and two college-age girls dressed in bathrobes and slippers. One of them had her hair up in curlers."This is Lieutenant Klubertanz," Wallace said, and the girls turned around, their eyes wide. Frightened. It was the neighborhood. More rapes and murders here than anywhere else in Madison. Cheap rent."Which one of you ladies made the call?" Klubertanz said, keeping his voice soft.The girl with the curlers started to raise her hand, then felt foolish about it. "Me," she said in a small voice."Why'd you call us?""They were crying," she said, almost crying herself."People cry," Klubertanz said. "No reason to call the cops.""No, they were crying like they were hurt or something," the other girl said."I see," Klubertanz said. "So then you called us?"Curlers shook her head. "We went upstairs first, we see what was wrong. We knocked on the door and asked if they needed any help, but they wouldn't answer. They just kept crying.""But then they stopped, and we got scared, so we calledthe ... you guys," the other girl said.Klubertanz looked up at the house. The lights were on in the upstairs windows; several people were moving around up there."Did you know them well?" he asked, turning back."Sort of," Curlers said. "They were nice. Gentle, you know.""Gay?" Klubertanz asked.Curlers lowered her head. "Yeah," she said. "But they were nice."Klubertanz nodded his head. "I'd like both of you to stop down to my office later today. We'll need your statement. Okay?" He pulled out a business card and handed it to Curlers."Sure," they both said.Klubertanz entered the building, then started up the stairs. One of the lab men, his face white, sweat beaded on his upper lip, was coming down."That bad?" Klubertanz asked. The other man just nodded.At the head of the stairs was a short corridor with two doors leading from it. One of them was open and, even from here, he could smell the stench of human defecation. He took a deep breath, held it a moment, and then let it out slowly as he moved down the hall.Half a dozen men were at work in the small, tastefully decorated living room, and a couple of them looked up as Klubertanz stepped through the door, but no one was saying anything. To the right was a kitchenette, cut flowers in a vase on the tiny table. And to the left was an open door from which a camera strobe flashed once, then again.Don Maxwell, the Dane County assistant coroner, came out of the room a second later, grim lipped. He spotted Klubertanz."Haven't touched anything yet, Stan," he said. "But as a huge favor to me, be quick in there, will you? I want to get this over with."Klubertanz glanced again toward the open bedroom door. "Any preliminary guesses on cause of death?""Shit," Maxwell swore. "A two year old could tell you what they died of from just looking at them."Klubertanz turned his gaze to the young doctor. "Yes?""Disembowelment," he said, "among other things. Broken necks. Ruptured hearts. Suffocation. Their penises were cut off and stuffed down their throats." He shook his head."They were homosexuals.""I figured as much," Maxwell said, "but this isn't any love-triangle murder.""No?""No way, Stan. Whoever did that in there was nuts. I mean completely insane. Another Charlie Manson.""I'll make it quick," Klubertanz said, steeling himself.The stench from the open bedroom door was bad in the living room, but just inside the bedroom itself, it was nearly overpowering. Klubertanz gagged despite himself.The police photographer took a last photograph, then turned and left. Klubertanz was alone with the most gruesome sight he had ever seen in his life.The bodies--what was left of the bodies--lay side by side on the bed, the sheets completely red with gore. Their heads both had been twisted around so that they were nearly backwards, and from the doorway Klubertanz could see the raw meat of their genitals sticking out of their mouths. Their throats had been slit, and their stomachs and chests laid open, their organs spilling out in piles alongside them, and over the edge of the bed onto the floor.Klubertanz took a step farther into the room, but then his stomach began to flop over, his mouth suddenly tasted like copper, and he could feel the sweat rolling down his forehead. He turned on his heel and went back out, all the way into the corridor, where he took several deep breaths in a row.Maxwell had been right. This had been no lovers' quarrel. It was more, much more.It was just noon when Cheryl Rader pulled the station wagon into Frank's parking slot at Solar Products, Inc., in Femrite Drive.Frank had come home late last night, but he had gotten up early with the girls and had fixed pancakes, something he had not done for several months.At breakfast he had been bright, and in very high spirits, a paper sack on his head like a chefs hat, as he flipped the pancakes and sang opera in a deep voice.Dawn and Felicity had loved every minute of it, and had gotten into his mood so much that they sang opera with him, dancing around the table as they laid out the plates and silverware.They had gone off to school at eight, kissing their father goodbye. Cheryl had been in the kitchen, loading the dishwasher, when Frank came in dressed in a suit and tie."Off to the salt mines," he said, kissing her on the neck.She turned around and did a double take. She had assumed he would stay home at least another day or two. "You're going to work?""Sure," he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee to take with him. "Bill Myers is coming by to pick me up. Should be here any minute. I thought you might need the car today.""Are you sure you're feeling okay, honey?""I've got a little bit of a headache, and I'm still sore as hell, but I'll manage," he said. "I can't sit around here wondering how Surret is taking all this. It's driving me crazy."A few minutes later, when Myers' Honda Civic had pulled into their driveway, he had kissed Cheryl on the cheek and had left, his step light, a smile on his face.But at eleven thirty Frank had telephoned from work that he was taking the rest of the day off, and asked Cheryl to come and pick him up.He came out of the office building now, spotted her and started across the lot. He was limping, and he held his head at a funny angle.Cheryl slid over to the passenger side of the car, but he came to that side and opened the door."You drive,' he said in a choked voice, his face screwed up in a grimace."What's the matter?" Cheryl said, fear rising inside her."My goddamn head is splitting apart!" he snapped. "I told you I was having headaches. Jesus."Cheryl slid over behind the wheel. Frank got in the car and softly closed the door."Do you want to see the doctor?" she asked."Yes," he said, his head slightly cocked. "Just drive carefully.""All right, honey." Cheryl swung the car out and headed back into town.As she drove she kept glancing over at her husband. It was obvious he was in pain, and his complexion seemed sallow. She could see that he was holding himself against it. He seemed like a little boy, hurting, in need of comfort."Was everything all right at the office?" she asked.Frank looked at her out of the corner of his eye. "Surret was out of town. He won't be back until later in the week.""Does he know ... about the accident?""Yeah," Frank said. "There was a race down there to see who could tell him first."They made it to South Park Street within fifteen minutes, and Cheryl pulled into the lot at The Doctor's Park Center, a block from Madison General.By the time she was out of the car, Frank had already darted out and was halfway across the lot to the entry; she had to hurry to catch up with him.Together they went inside, up to the fourth floor, and entered the half-filled reception room.The nurse looked up and smiled. "Good morning, Cheryl. Mr. Rader.""Is Doctor Manklin in?" Cheryl asked.The nurse looked at the chart. "He's with someoneright now.""It's Frank," Cheryl said. "He's been having terrible headaches since the accident.""Are you in pain right now, Mr. Rader?"Frank carefully nodded his head."I'll fit him in right away, then." The nurse wrote something on a slip of paper and got up. "Just have a seat, Cheryl," she said. "Come with me, Mr. Rader."Frank followed the nurse down the corridor, and Cheryl sat in one of the easy chairs, picked up a magazine and started leafing through it.It had been too soon for Frank to return to work. She had known something like this would happen if he pushed himself. And yet, it had become impossible to tell him anything. The slightest provocation would send him into a rage. The girls were frightened, and Cheryl was deeply worried.Forty-five minutes later, a nurse came out into the reception room. "Mrs. Rader?" she called.Cheryl jumped up and went across to her. "What is it?"The nurse smiled. "Doctor Manklin would like to speak with you for just a moment." She showed Cheryl into the doctor's office.A couple of minutes later the doctor came in, softly closed the door behind him, and sat down behind his desk."What's wrong with Frank?" she asked."Nothing terribly wrong, Mrs. Rader," the doctor said. He had pulled out a prescription pad, and wrote something on it. When he was done, he tore the slip off and handed it across to Cheryl. "Get that filled right away. It's for a fairly strong tranquilizer.""All right," Cheryl said. "But what's wrong with Frank?""Besides a few bumps and bruises, nothing more than an aftermath shock," the doctor said. "Fairly common in cases like Frank's.""I don't understand.""Your husband was clinically dead for two or three minutes,Mrs. Rader. He is suffering from nothing more than the shock of it, the realization that he was technically dead for a short period.""Is there ... ." She couldn't complete the sentence."Brain damage?" the doctor asked. She nodded. "No, or at least there's none evident. If you're concerned, I could set up an appointment for him with a neurologist. But I don't think he'd find anything. Frank is in good health. His headaches and nightmares are nothing more than the result of shock.""Nightmares?" Cheryl asked."He hasn't mentioned them to you?""No. What kind of nightmares?""He didn't go into any great detail," the doctor said thoughtfully. "But from what I gathered he's been having the same dream every night, sometimes more than once in a night, in which he has just died, and is being drawn toward some kind of a strong light in the distance. He's frightened. Just as he is about to see what's beneath the light, he wakes up.""Does he need a psychiatrist?" Cheryl asked, sitting forward."I wouldn't advise it, Mrs. Rader. At least not for the time being. Try the Valium for a couple of weeks, and keep him home from work at least until next Monday."He rose, and Cheryl did too."He's getting a shot now which is going to make him very sleepy. Get him home as soon as possible, and put him to bed. Don't be surprised if he sleeps through until morning.""We have a funeral to attend tomorrow afternoon," Cheryl said. "Can he go?""He may be a bit dopey, but physically he'll be all right. But ... is it necessary he attend the funeral? It could bring on a fit of depression.""Our best friends lost their baby," Cheryl said. "We're obligated.""I see," the doctor said. "I'm sure he'll be all right.""Thanks," Cheryl said, and she left the office.Klubertanz' office in the Madison Police Department's Detective Division was a glassed-in cubicle on the basement floor of the City-County Building. He had been swamped with work most of the morning, including giving a brief press conference on the double homicide last night: names, occupations and a watered-down version of the cause of death.Later in the morning the girls who had heard Shapiro and Ahern crying had shown up to give their statements to a police stenographer. They told Klubertanz that they had given notice, and were moving back on campus, into the dorms."Not a bad idea," he had told them. They were nineteen or twenty, with a freshly scrubbed look about them. He wondered if his daughter would look the same when she was their age.He had sent out three teams of leg men to nail down the ambulance drivers' backgrounds, their friends, relatives, associates; and fill in a minute-by-minute chart of their last forty-eight hours.Mundane. Routine. Basic police work.The photographs and BCI van lab work results on the apartment were promised for this afternoon, and he expected that Maxwell would be phoning soon with the results of the autopsy.Someone knocked once on his door, and he looked up as Brenda Wolfe came in. She was smiling."Slumming today, counselor?" Klubertanz sat back in his chair.She closed the glass door behind her. "I had a hunch you'd forget," she said. She perched on the edge of his desk and looked at him, her eyes bright, guileless. He thought she was a pretty woman."Forget what?" he asked."It's noon, Stan. Lunch. Remember? You promised to take me to lunch today?""Oh, Christ," Klubertanz said, jumping up and looking at his watch. It was nearly twelve thirty. "I'm sorry, Brenda. I've been socked in all morning.""Ahern and Shapiro?" she asked, the smile leaving her lips for a moment.Klubertanz nodded."Anything promising?""Not a damned thing yet. And I've got a feeling this one is going to take a while.""Well, I've got one bit of good news for you.""I can use it," Klubertanz said, coming around his desk as he straightened his tie and rolled down his sleeves."McDonald called me from the hospital about the Martin baby.""What'd they find out?" Klubertanz asked."The doctor was wrong. It was an accident," Brenda said. "They found bits of paint from the crib's bars at the base of the baby's skull. The poor thing evidently got her head caught between the bars and a pillow."Klubertanz shook his head. "I'm sorry for the parents," he said, thinking about his own children. "But I'm glad it's not going to have to go any further than this. No one wins in a child molestation case."The telephone on his desk rang, and he picked it up. "Klubertanz.""This is Maxwell," the assistant coroner's voice came over the line. "There's going to be a delay with the autopsies on the ambulance drivers. Thought I'd better call and let you know.""Anything I should be aware of?""Bunches," Maxwell said, "but we're just not sure yet. We should be ready by tomorrow morning, maybe early tomorrow afternoon. I just don't know.""Can you give me a hint?""Yeah," Maxwell said. "But you wouldn't believe it. I don't, yet. It'll hold until tomorrow."4It was dark. There was a chill in the air, and the tiny room smelled of incense. Sister Francine Colletta, a diminutive nun of twenty-six, awoke with her heart pounding and the feeling that something was pressing down on her.For a long time she lay in the darkness, listening to the sounds of her long-familiar room in the residence hall of downtown Madison's Good Shepherd Church. Over the loud ticking of her cheap alarm clock on the nightstand, she could hear the wind blowing rain against the glass."There will never be loneliness in the ordinary sense of the word, when you have the love of a living God in your heart," she had been told in school.She had believed it then, as she believed it now. And yet she missed her mother, and brothers, and especially she missed her father--his wide gentle eyes, his smells of wool sweaters, pipe tobacco, and leather.Lying there, Sister Colletta pictured her family as she had seen them at graduation three years ago. Their eyes uplifted. Sad, proud smiles on their faces; pride that she had become a Catholic nun, sorrow that they had finally lost their little girl.She was lonely, God help her. She was. And yet she could not help it.She sat up, threw the covers back and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, her feet finding her slippers and stepping into them. The room was ice cold and she was shivering by the time she pulled on her robe.She was a small girl, five feet three and barely a hundred and five pounds, but she was perfectly proportioned, and had a pretty, scrubbed look about her.She opened the door and stepped silently out into the dimly lit corridor, hurried down to the residence chapel, and slipped inside.A half-dozen votive candles were lit in their holders to the right of the tiny altar beneath the statue of the Virgin Mary. A single dim light over the altar itself cast a soft glow over the crucifix on the back wall.She stared up at Christ's figure on the cross, tears coming to her eyes as she dipped her fingers in the holy water by the door and crossed herself."Yours will be the vows of poverty and obedience," her Mother Superior at school had told her. "Chastity and faith. As a nun you will wear a gold band on your ring finger, because in truth you will be wedded to Christ."But it was lonely at times. Cold. Frightening that the remainder of her life still stretched in front of her with no assurances that she would be able to maintain the goodness of a Mother Superior.She went forward, knelt at the altar rail, and looked up at the crucifix. Somehow, she still couldn't pray. Her heart still pounded wildly in her chest, her breathing was shallow, and the heavy feeling still pressed in on her."Merciful Jesus, help me in my hour of need," she spoke the words softly.The candles flickered in a chance draft, and without really knowing why, she crossed herself, got to her feet and hurried out of the chapel, back into the corridor.Her parents had come down from Bay City two weeks ago, for a visit, and Sunday morning, before they left, they had attended mass with her in the main church.Sister Colletta headed that way now, down the stairs and out into an enclosed courtyard.It was raining very hard as she dashed across the courtyard, and then into the side doors of the church. A flash of lightning, followed a second later by thunder, rattled the stained-glass windows and reverberated through the huge sanctuary.Softly she padded down the corridor, her heart pounding, and entered the nave from one of the doors by theconfessionals.From this angle she could only see the side of the altar; she could not see deeply enough into the apse itself to look at the magnificent wooden crucifix that hung from the ceiling far overhead. But she wanted to see it. She needed to kneel before it, and draw the same comfort from the figure she had drawn when her parents had sat next to her two Sundays ago.She crossed herself again with holy water, and started slowly toward the middle of the church, her head bowed, her hands held together in front of her."May the homage of my service be pleasing to Thee, O Holy Trinity," she prayed.There was a dark patch of something on the floor directly in front of her, and Sister Colletta stopped, her heart pounding even harder. It was blood. She could see that it was blood.She bent down to dip a finger in it. A shadow cast itself directly in front of her, and she looked up, her own blood running instantly cold, her heart skipping a beat, and her throat constricting so that she could not scream, or even move.A man, or an apparition, stood in front of her, his arms crossed over his bare chest, a malevolent grin on his lips. On his head and over his shoulders he wore some kind of shaggy fur cape, the figure of a goat's head at the top. He was nude from the waist down.
Something woke Cheryl Rader from a deep sleep. She opened her eyes and looked over at the clock on the nightstand. It was shortly after 3:00 A.M. Rain was spitting aginst the windows. As she turned over, she automatically reached out for Frank, but he wasn't there, and she sat up."Frank?" she called. Then she saw him.He was seated on her dressing-table chair, in front of the windows, dressed only in his pajama bottoms, his face buried in his hands. It sounded as though he was crying.Cheryl threw the covers off, scrambled out of the bed and hurried around to him. "Frank, what's the matter?"she asked. She reached out and touched his shoulder. His skin was ice cold, and she recoiled."Frank?" she said in a small voice.He mumbled something indistinct, and Cheryl knelt down in front of him. Gingerly she reached out to pull his hands away from his face, but for a moment she could not bring herself to touch him."It hurts," Frank mumbled."What hurts, darling? Is it your headache?" The doctor had said he would probably sleep until morning."The pain. I want it to go away. I can't stand it.""Do you want your medicine, Frank?""Make it stop."Cheryl jumped up, hurried into the bathroom, and with shaking hands opened the Valium tablets the doctor had prescribed and shook two out.She ran some cold water in a glass, and then hurried back into their bedroom. Frank had not moved, and was still mumbling about the pain."Here's your pills, darling," she said. She set the water glass down on the windowsill and, holding the pills in one hand, reached up with her other and pulled Frank's hand away from his face. His skin was still ice cold, and horribly clammy to the touch.She drew his hand down to his side, then pulled his other unresisting hand away from his face, and when he looked up at her she almost screamed.For a moment he was not Frank. For a terrible moment she was looking into the eyes of a stranger whose face was contorted into a mask of pain and fear. But then it passed. His features softened, melting back into her Frank."There," she said shakily, placing the tablets in his hand. "Take these right now; they'll make your headache go away."She turned for the water glass, but Frank had already put the pills in his mouth, chewed them once and then swallowed them.Cheryl put the water back, then helped Frank up from the chair and over to the bed. She pulled the covers upover him, sat down beside him, and brushed his hair away from his forehead. "It will be better in just a little while. But you have to sleep. Let the pills work, Frank."He was looking up at her, and although he was Frank again, Cheryl had the feeling that there was no recognition in his eyes."What's happening to me?" he croaked.Cheryl wanted to get into the bed and snuggle close to him, to comfort him, but she could not bring herself to do it. He was too cold, his skin almost oily."Sleep now," she said. "It will get better. I promise you." she said. "We'll see the doctor again. It'll get better."Frank's eyes fluttered and then closed, and after a while his breathing deepended and the grimace that had contorted his face went slack.For a long time, Cheryl stared down at her husband, worry, concern, confusion in her mind. Something had changed him. And she decided that she would take the doctor's offer to set up an appointment with a neurologist.After a while she got up from the bed and went over to the window, where she picked up the water glass. She looked outside, but for a moment what she was seeing did not register. It didn't make any sense. When she awakened, it had been raining. She was sure of it. The wind had been blowing the rain against the house.But the streets were dry! No breeze rustled the trees! It had not rained!
Monsignor Dominic Ferrari, dressed in his vestments, stepped outside, into the chill morning air, clasped the rosary entwined in his fingers, and started across the courtyard to the church.Behind him he could hear the soft shuffle of seven other priests heading for morning mass. It was just 6:00 A.M., and this was a seven-day-a-week routine.Comforting, Msgr. Ferrari, a man in his mid-sixties, thought. The Church and her rituals were a comforting oasis in a world of crises.Sometimes as many as twenty priests attended morning mass here at Good Shepherd, but in the fall, at the beginning of school, with all the other projects that traditionally were begun then, the numbers dropped for a time.Sad, Msgr. Ferrari had always thought, that his own brothers couldn't find the time in their schedules for a simple mass. It was the wellspring of his peace of mind, of his direction and reassurance, and of his reaffirmation of faith.In Amelia, his small hometown north of Rome, he had been an altar boy. And from the first time he had participated in the mass, he had known a comfort that went beyond ordinary words.Through Mussolini's era, his faith had never wavered, nor had it been shaken when he was sent away from his beloved Italy, here to the United States, twenty years ago.One of the younger priests stepped ahead and opened the side doors to the church and the others filed in, Msgr. Ferrari in the lead.At the doorway to the nave, they stopped a moment in silent prayer, then softly moved into the church, dipping their hands in the holy water and crossing themselves before they started, heads bowed, to the altar.Monsignor Ferrari was the chief administrator for church activities and programs in this section of Madison, and his work included the direction of a dozen social workers, two family psychologists, and the staffs of two parochial schools, as well as this church itself.His days were never dull, never completely peaceful, and certainly never free from strife. For him it would have been inconceivable to begin a day without mass, just as it would have been impossible to live without food or water. The offertory was his reason for existence."We offer Thee, O Lord, the chalice of salvation," he prayed, head lowered, "beseeching Thy clemency that it may ascend before Thy divine majesty with the odor of sweetness for our salvation and that of the whole world.""Merciful Jesus," someone behind him said, and Msgr. Ferrari was confused. The words did not belong."My God!" someone else said, much louder. Monsignor Ferrari looked up, angry with the unreasoning sacrilege, ready to lash out, but then he saw it, and he could feel the blood rushing to his face, his knees suddenly weak.Sister Colletta, or what remained of her nude, mutilated body, was tied, spreadeagle, to the crucifix hanging from the ceiling above the altar. Her blood had splashed down on the white linen altar cloth, and for a long moment Msgr. Ferrari simply could not believe his eyes. It was a sight from hell.His heart fluttered in his chest, his breath came in ragged gasps, and he could feel his bowels loosening.He tried to speak, but nothing would come out. He crossed himself, repeatedly, until strong hands took him by the arms, and physically turned him away."Quickly, brother, call an ambulance," someone was saying, and Msgr. Ferrari looked up; one of the younger priests was issuing orders."Call the police as well."Priests were running away down the aisle, running in the church, as the others led Msgr. Ferrari back out into the cool morning air."Are you all right, Reverend Father?" someone was asking him. It was his heart. They were worried that he would die.He managed to nod his head."We'll take you back to your quarters," the priest was saying, but Msgr. Ferrari managed to straighten up and pull away from their grasp."If the police are coming, I will see them," he said in a surprisingly clear voice. He half turned to look back at the church entrance, and then he shuddered. Five hundred years ago such a thing was conceivable. But today? Here? Impossible.
As the ambulance carrying the body of the young nun pulled away, Lt. Klubertanz closed his notebook and pocketed it. For a time he stood quietly in the courtyard,listening to the sounds of the city through the gate that opened on West Washington Avenue. Murder never made any sense, but this one was worse than most. Meaningless. Brutal."Busy week," someone said behind him. Klubertanz glanced to his right; Don Maxwell had come out of the church, lit a cigarette, and tossed the match aside."What do you make of it?" Klubertanz said softly, holding his anger in check.Maxwell shook his head. "I'm the coroner, you're the cop."Klubertanz waited. Although he didn't know Maxwell on a social basis, they had worked together for the past couple of years, and had built up a mutual respect and trust."If you want me to tell you that this is the work of the same crazy who snuffed the two ambulance drivers, you're going to have to wait until this afternoon. I might have something for you then.""No hints?""Like I said before, Stan, bunches, but we're just not sure yet. It's sorta crazy."Klubertanz knew enough not to push the man, not this early in the investigation, but when he had seen the nun's body hanging from the crucifix, he had felt instantly and very strongly that this was the work of the same person who had killed Ahern and Shapiro. He didn't know yet why he felt that, but the connection was there, nevertheless."I'll be in my office after lunch," Klubertanz said. "Call me as soon as you can talk.""Sure thing," Maxwell said.Klubertanz went across the courtyard and entered the residence hall. A priest just coming down the corridor directed him to Msgr. Ferrari's office at the front of the building.His secretary was in the outer office talking on the phone; Klubertanz waited respectfully until the young priest was finished."I'd like to speak with the Monsignor," Klubertanzsaid.The priest looked up at him, grim lipped. "You're Lieutenant Klubertanz?"Klubertanz nodded."The Reverend Father is waiting for you," the priest said, getting up from behind his desk, and opening a wide wooden door. "He's here," he said, sticking his head inside."Send him in," a frail old voice came from within, and the priest opened the door wide.Monsignor Ferrari was getting to his feet as Klubertanz entered the huge, well-decorated office. The priest softly closed the door behind him."Please sit down, Monsignor," Klubertanz said."'Father' will be sufficient," the old man said, sinking back into his chair. He was wearing a black hassock with white buttons up the front, and a skull cap on the back of his head. His face was pale, and his hands shook.Klubertanz took a seat across the wide, leather-topped desk from the prelate, and for a moment both men just looked at each other.Finally, Klubertanz spoke. "If this is too painful for you, Father, I could come back later."Monsignor Ferrari gestured with his right hand. "You have your work to do, my son. The sooner you have what information you need, the sooner you will be able to start.""I have most of what I need, Father," Klubertanz began, "but it would be helpful for our investigation if I could see Sister Colletta's personal file.""A copy will be provided you," the priest said."I'd also like permission to speak with her friends and coworkers here."Monsignor Ferrari nodded. "You may speak with anyone you wish." He bowed his head, unable for a moment to continue."I know this is difficult for you, Father. Perhaps it would be better if I returned later."The priest looked up, a defiant expression in his eyes."Centuries ago, things ... like this were common.""How so?" Klubertanz asked.The priest glanced away for a moment. "During the dark ages, there was a persecution of our people. Witchcraft, demonology, evil ... all common. We were the target."Klubertanz pulled his notebook out and flipped it open to the last page, checking what he had written."There was an inscription on the floor of the altar.""Yes?" the priest said. Klubertanz had the momentary impression the old man knew what was coming."It's in Latin, I think.""How was it written?""What do you mean, Father?""Was it written in ... blood?" the old priest said very softly.Klubertanz nodded, and the priest seemed to turn even paler. He held out his hand for the notebook, and Klubertanz handed it over.Monsignor Ferrari pulled a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from a pocket in his robe, carefully put them on, and then looked down at what Klubertanz had copied. The sixteen words had been written in the young nun's blood in large, bold letters on the marble floor of the apse just in front of the altar table."Haec commixtio, et consecratio Corporis et Sanguinis Domini nostri ... ," the old priest began softly in Latin, but he could not go on. He laid the notebook down, took off his glasses and wiped his eyes with a badly shaking hand."What does it mean, Father?" Klubertanz asked. "What do the words say?""Are you familiar with the Catholic Mass, Lieutenant?""Only slightly."Monsignor Ferrari nodded, but Klubertanz noticed that he carefully avoided looking down at the notebook. "The main point of the mass is the symbolic recreation of the Last Supper, at which our Lord consecrated the bread they ate, telling His disciples that it was His body, andconsecrating the wine they drank, telling them it was His blood. We celebrate it with wafers of unleavened bread and red wine. Communion, it is called."Klubertanz nodded, but said nothing, allowing the priest to gather his thoughts."At one moment in the mass, the priest breaks the wafer and it is comingled, as we say, with the wine. Body and blood. A prayer is said then. The most sacred ... ." He had to stop.Klubertanz held his silence. He could feel the hairs at the nape of his neck bristling."In English, we would say: May this commingling and consecration of the body and blood of our ... Lord Jesus Christ, avail us who receive it unto life everlasting.""Is that what is written, Father?" Klubertanz asked.Monsignor Ferrari shook his head. "Instead of 'unto life everlasting,' the Latin says 'unto eternal damnation.'"A chill played up Klubertanz's spine. "Any other differences?"Monsignor Ferrari took a deep breath and let it out slowly, as if he was girding himself for a very difficult task. "Substituted for the words 'our Lord Jesus Christ,' are ... ." He stopped again. "Are 'Domini nostri Astaroth ,' ... our Lord Astaroth."The priest crossed himself, closed Klubertanz's notebook and handed it back."What is Astaroth?" the detective said."In demonology, he is said to be the destroyer. The evil one. The devil, or one of his archangels.""Witchcraft?"Monsignor Ferrari seemed on the verge of collapse. "Someone said all or part of a black mass on our altar," he managed to stammer, and he buried his face in his hands and began to weep.5Clinton Polk stood next to his wife and the Raders as the pitifully small coffin was lowered into the grave. It was a lovely afternoon. The sun was shining and a light, warm breeze blew from the southwest."Dust to dust, ashes to ashes," the minister intoned, as Fred Martin held his wife in his arms. She was crying, although the doctor had given her a sedative, but Fred was stony faced.Clinton's wife, Susan, linked her arm in his as she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief, and he could feel the lump rising in his throat."We return the soul of the baby Jessica Martin, O Lord, to your care for everlasting happiness ... ."There were only a few cars parked below on the road through this section of Roselawn Cemetary, among them the hearse, the funeral-home limousine, the Raders' station wagon, the Polks' BMW, and half-a-dozen others belonging mostly to relatives of Fred and Marion.There had been no time, Polk thought, for little Jessica to make friends, to have acquaintances, to have past loves, or brothers and sisters, or any of the other rewards of a long, full life. None of that was represented here. Only a cheated fate.Polk thought briefly about his own mortality; wondered about his own funeral, and what it would be like; who would attend, and what words would be said afterwards.He looked down at Susan at the same moment she looked up. She shook her head slightly, more tears coming, and then looked away.The minister closed his book and came around the opengrave to the Martins, where he said something to them, holding Marion's hand.Words of condolence, of comfort, Polk thought. And yet, what could he say to help? What could any of them say?As the others started back down to the cars, Susan broke away and went over to Marion. Along with Cheryl, they moved slowly toward the path, and Polk waited for Fred to come over. Frank had moved to the open grave and stared down into it."Are you coming to the house, Clinton?" Fred Martin asked.Polk looked away from Radar, and into his friend's eyes. There was something there, or rather some lack. Not enough grief? Worry? Or was it guilt?"Are you sure it's what Marion wants?" Polk heard himself asking. He felt detached.Martin was nodding. "I think she needs to be with friends right now. I think we both do."Polk reached out and squeezed Fred's shoulder. "Sure thing," he said. "We'll follow you over. Are Frank and Cheryl coming too?"Martin looked over at Radar by the open grave. "I think so," he said. "I hope so." He looked back. "Frank wants ... wanted to have us all over tonight. To play cards."Polk was dumbfounded. He had forgotten about the crazy call he had gotten yesterday, but he had never suspected that Frank would have been stupid enough to call Fred and Marion."There's something wrong with him," Martin said. "Something different."Polk glanced at Radar again. He had been too wrapped up in his own problems recently to notice anything wrong with his friends. But standing there now, looking over at Frank, he couldn't help but wonder. Since the accident Frank had been different. Distant. Moody. Strange.Rader looked their way, almost as if he knew they were staring at him, glanced once again into the open grave and then came over to them. He had a bewildered look in hiseyes."I'm sorry, Fred," he said, his voice choked. "For you and Marion. I wish ... .""I understand," Martin said softly. "Thank you."For a minute they were all silent."I want to apologize for yesterday," Rader said. "To both of you. I don't know what got into me. I just thought that maybe we should all be together tonight."Something was wrong with him, Polk thought. It seemed almost as if he was in pain. "Are you all right, Frank?"Rader nodded. "I'll be okay. It's just that I've been getting these ... headaches since the accident.""Are you seeing a doctor?" Polk asked."Yeah. He gave me some Valium. Doesn't help the headaches, they just make it seem like I'm floating."That was it, Polk thought. It was because of the pills he was taking."Marion and I thought we'd have you all over to the house now," Martin said, "but if you'd rather not--""It's all right," Rader said. "We'll follow you over.""You're sure?"Rader nodded. "That's what friends are for."Together the three of them went down the path. Cheryl and Susan were waiting by the limousine; Marion had already gotten in the back seat. Both women hugged and kissed Fred and then he climbed in beside his wife. Frank closed the door, and the limousine pulled away."Are you and Frank going over there?" Susan asked Cheryl, who looked at her husband."I think so," she said."We'll follow you and Clinton," Frank said.As they drove across town Polk asked his wife how Marion was holding up."I don't know. It's too soon to tell, I guess."Polk had not told her about Frank's crazy suggestion that they get together for cards tonight. It would have worried and upset her. But now he wondered if he shouldn't ask Cheryl about it."How's Fred taking it?" Susan asked, breaking into his thoughts."I don't think he's accepted it yet. But he'll come through all right. It's Marion I'm worried about.""I know." Susan stared moodily out the window. "I guess it was pretty bad when she lost her first husband and boys. And now this." She shook her head.Polk reached out and patted his wife's knee. She looked at him, her eyes wide, and a little moist."We're okay, aren't we, Clinton?" The question startled him."What do you mean?""I mean about the lab. Your grant is going to be continued, isn't it?"Polk's jaw tightened as he thought about it. Administration and science never seemed to mix. They were like oil and water together. Yet the administrators were the ones holding the purse strings. "We'll know in the next few days," he said."What if it doesn't go through?" Susan asked."Don't worry about it," he said, wondering for just a moment if he even wanted to continue. Did he really want the project to go through? Did he? He managed a smile. "Worst comes to worst, I'll sell out to the Philistines, and go to work for Dow, Monsanto, Lilli or someone like that. Big bucks. Regular vacations. New car. The whole bit.""And you'd be miserable."Polk stopped himself from snapping that he was miserable now, so what difference would it make, and they drove in silence the rest of the way to the Martins' pretty, ranch-style house.The limousine was parked in the driveway along with several other cars, so Polk parked on the street. Frank and Cheryl pulled up a moment later."Let's not stay very long, okay?" Polk said. "I'm a little tired.""Me too," Susan said. "I didn't sleep worth a damn last night."They started across the street, expecting Frank andCheryl to be right behind them, but the Raders held back by their car."You two coming in?" Polk called.Cheryl looked over. "Go on in, Clinton, we'll be right there."For a moment Polk looked across at them, a funny feeling playing up the base of his spine. Frank had his back turned to them, and was looking at something down the street. Polk glanced that way, but there was nothing there except a couple of parked cars, and at the end of the block a stop sign.He shrugged, and he and Susan went up the walk, rang the bell and let themselves in.
The gathering was subdued, and although Cheryl and Susan had wanted to do the coffee-making and serving of sandwiches and snacks, Marion wouldn't allow it."It's my house and my guests, I'll do it," she had said stubbornly."Once she stops, it's going to hit her right between the eyes, poor dear," her sister from Detroit told Polk.Fred was at the bar mixing drinks. Except for the fact no one was smiling, and the noise level in the room was low, this could have been a party.Each time Marion came in from the kitchen, everything in the room stopped, until she had filled coffee cups, laid out more food or emptied an ashtray or two. When she was gone, conversations began again, and Fred continued mixing drinks.It was strange, Polk thought. Strange and uncomfortable. And he felt very much out of place.He got a refill on his brandy and water from Fred, and moved across the room to where Frank was seated by himself, staring morosely toward the opening to the hallway."How're you doing, Frank?" he asked, perching on the chair next to his.Frank jerked almost as if he had been hit, but he did not look up. "It happened in there," he mumbled.Polk didn't quite catch it, and he leaned forward in his chair. "What's that?""In there," Frank said a little more closely. "The baby. She was killed in there."Polk's stomach flopped over. "Jesus," he swore, looking around to make sure no one else had heard it, especially not Marion or Fred. "What the hell's the matter with you?"Frank suddenly jumped up from his chair. "In there," he said loudly.Everyone in the room stopped talking and looked up.Polk got up, set his drink down and grabbed Frank's arm, to force him to sit down, but Frank pulled away and rushed across the living room and down the corridor."The baby was killed in here," he shouted at the top of his lungs.Polk raced after him; Fred dropped the liquor bottle he was holding."The baby!" Frank screamed. "My God, the baby!" He had reached the baby's room, where he barged through the door and stopped just inside.Polk reached him a second later, Fred and the others right behind him."Frank?" Polk said, stepping closer.Rader turned to face them all, his face white and beaded with sweat, his eyes wide and filled with fear, his mouth contorted into an ugly grimace."The baby!" he screamed again. "The baby was killed here! Oh God, can't you see?""Frank?" Cheryl cried, pushing through the knot of people at the door.Frank backed up a step, his eyes fluttered, and he grabbed at his head with both hands and sank to the floor, crying in pain and agony.Outside it had clouded up and it began to rain but no one noticed that, nor did they notice Marion, who stood at the end of the corridor, her eyes wide, her right hand to her mouth as if to stifle a scream, as she stared at her husband standing in the doorway with the others.It was just past 5:00 P.M. when Klubertanz arrived at the Dane County Morgue, parked his car and hurried up the steps and inside. It had been a lovely day, weathetwise, but he was tired from his interrupted sleep of the last two nights, and in a sour, foul mood.Murder was bad enough. But three of them within a twenty-four-hour period, and all of them gruesome, was just too much to take.Maxwell was waiting for him just outside his office, a strange, pensive look on his face."I waited all goddamned afternoon for you to call," Klubertanz snapped, his leather heels barking hollowly on the marble floor."Sorry," Maxwell mumbled."What the hell gives? Two-hour lunches?""Take it easy, Stan," Maxwell said. "I wasn't about to call you until I was completely sure.""So now you're sure ... ."Maxwell was shaking his head. "No, I'm not. None of us are.""What are you talking about?" Klubertanz asked. He had been feeling strange ever since he had been called out on the Shapiro-Ahem murders. The feeling had come on again at the church, and now it was like a big bass drum booming in his head."Let's go downstairs," Maxwell said. "I'll try to explain what we've come up with ... or haven't."They went down through a metal door marked NO ADMITTANCE, and along a long corridor with gleaming, white-tiled walls and highly polished floors.Maxwell led the way through a set of swinging doors into a large room, one end of which was dominated by refrigerated body drawers. A steel rollabout table, a white sheet folded neatly on it, was standing beneath a large plateglass window that opened to the viewing room. The window was blocked now by curtains.Klubertanz had been down here more than once. He had never liked it, and he liked it even less now.Just inside the door was a steel desk with a single chair behind it. Maxwell opened one of its drawers and took out a bottle of bourbon and two coffee cups."Drink?" He asked opening the bottle.Klubertanz looked toward the body boxes and shrugged. "Why not? You're going to take your time telling me whatever it is you're going to tell me, anyway."Maxwell poured whiskey in both cups, handed Klubertanz one, then picked up the other and took a deep drink of it, shuddering as the whiskey went down.Klubertanz did the same, then sighed deeply. "I'm here, Don."Maxwell managed a nervous smile, and seemed to think for a moment about what he was going to say. "What do you know about death, Stan?"Klubertanz started to protest, but Maxwell held him off."No, I'm serious. What do you know about death? I'm talking about clinical death.""The courts haven't figured that one out yet.""I know," Maxwell said, nodding his head. He glanced over at the body boxes. "They're all dead in there," he said softly, and he turned back. "There's two kinds of death ... somatic and molecular. The first is nothing more than the cessation of normal functions. Heart stops. Lungs stop. Brain waves go flat.""Put them on a heart-lung machine, and they're technically not dead ... at least as far as the law is concerned.""Right," Maxwell said, "which leads us to molecular death, which is when the individual cells of the body cease functioning. No electrochemical actions. No heat produced. The body cools. Putrefaction begins, unless we hold it back for a little while with formaldehyde.""All right, I'm with you," Klubertanz said. He took another sip of his drink, the liquor warming his insides. The room was chilly, and smelled nauseatingly of antiseptic and something else he didn't want to think about."Which brings us to our problem," Maxwell said softly."Shortly after somatic death--true somatic death--when the individual cells begin winking out in molecular death, a number of the body's natural acids begin accumulating in the tissue. The protoplasm in the cells begins to coagulate, and what we call rigor mortis sets in.""The body gets cold and stiff.""Yeah," Maxwell said thoughtfully. He looked up a moment later. "Rigor mortis doesn't always happen. Sometimes it takes as long as a day, but it takes at least hours.""Not a very reliable method of determining time of death.""Totally unreliable," Maxwell said. He placed his cup firmly on the desk. "The problem with Ahern, Shapiro and Sister Colletta is placing their time of death with any degree of accuracy.""I'm not following you," Klubertanz said. "Witnesses heard the ambulance drivers crying. You showed up a few minutes later. Maybe an hour elapsed."Maxwell was nodding. "Both of them were stiff. Cold and stiff. Huge accumulations of acid in the body, and in every tissue we tested, the protoplasm had coagulated.""What are you saying, Stan?""Rigor mortis had set in at least twelve, maybe twenty-four hours, before we arrived.""Impossible.""Agreed. Digested food in their stomach put their time of death around the time the girls called us. Maybe an hour before we arrived."Klubertanz was having a difficult time with this, but he knew what was coming. "And the nun? It was the same with her body?"Maxwell nodded. "Some of the tissues in her body had already begun to rot. As if she had been dead for thirty-six hours.""Impossible."Again Maxwell nodded. "You're damned right it's impossible, Stan, but the tests don't lie.""Run them again.""What the hell do you think took us so long?" Maxwell shouted. "We ran the goddamned tests a dozen times. Every time, we came up with exactly the same results."Klubertanz finished the liquor in his cup, grabbed the bottle, and poured himself and Maxwell another drink. "Is there anything you know of, Don, any condition or drug, that could cause those symptoms?""Plenty. We tested for them as well. Negative.""You're the coroner; what are you telling me?"Maxwell was silent as he perched on the edge of the desk, his cup cradled in both hands. "I'm establishing the time of death according to witnesses and the other symptomology of the body. Stomach contents, coagulation of the blood and things like that. And I'm listing the cause of death in each case as numerous massive injuries.""How about the rigor mortis?"Maxwell looked up and shook his head. "No way, Stan. That's between you and me, and that's as far as it's going to go." He took a sip of his drink. "Every cause has an effect. I've seen an effect for which there is no known cause. But it does give us one safe bet.""Which is?""Whoever killed the ambulance attendants, also killed the nun."6It was Monday. The girls were at school and Frank was at work. The incredible week had come and gone. Cheryl Rader sat drinking coffee at the kitchen table, smiling. Everything was going to be all right now. Finally.Wednesday night they had taken Frank to the hospital, and all day Thursday the neurologist had run tests on him, with totally negative results.On Friday they had gone out to a movie, stopping for a pizza later, and over the weekend Frank had recarpeted their basement rec-room, pressing the girls into service, while Cheryl did the fetching of everything from carpet glue to beer and pop.Yesterday he had telephoned Fred and Marion to apologize for his bizarre behavior after the funeral, and when he got off the phone he was smiling, and his eyes were moist."What'd they say?" Cheryl had asked him when he came back into the living room.Frank had come over, sat down next to her on the couch and put his arm around her. "We all thought Marion was the one who would be needing the help and understanding?"Cheryl nodded."Well, she's the one giving it out." He'd shaken his head. "God, I was such an asshole." He had looked into Cheryl's eyes. "She said it was all right. Told me to forget about it, and told me to hurry up and get better from the accident. She said that they missed me."Cheryl felt a warm glow thinking about it. She had her husband back, and the Martins were going to be all right after all.She drank the last of her coffee, rinsed the cup out at the sink, and headed upstairs to start her housework. She was halfway through the dining room when the front doorbell rang.A salesman, she thought, going to the door. They always managed to show up when her hair wasn't fixed, no makeup, ratty old housecoat.The bell rang again just as she opened the door. "Not interested ... ." She choked off the words.Marion Martin stood on the doorstep, a strange, unsettled look in her red-rimmed eyes. Her hair was a mess, her lipstick smeared, and she was dressed in a sweatshirt, jeans and a pair of sneakers. She looked like hell."Good God, Marion, what's wrong?" Cheryl said, taking her friend by the arm and leading her into the house."I have to talk to you, Cheryl," said said, her voice husky. "We have to talk.""Of course we will," Cheryl said, leading Marion into the kitchen, where she poured coffee for both of them."Have you got anything stronger?" Marion asked. "Something to put in the coffee?""Stronger?" Cheryl realized what her friend wanted. "For God's sake, Marion, it's only nine o'clock in the morning.""I know," Marion said, hanging her head. "It's just that ... .""Just a minute; I'll get you something," Cheryl said, and she hurried to the living room where she rummaged around in the liquor cabinet, coming up with a half-full bottle of Almadén brandy.She was frightened now. It wasn't like Marion. At parties her friend hardly ever had more than a couple of drinks, and those weak. In fact, it was a friendly joke with all of them. They'd mimic her: "Make it a light one."Back in the kitchen, she poured a little brandy into Marion's cup, set the bottle on the counter, and then took her seat. Her friend sipped noisily at the laced coffee."Now what's happened, Marion?""I don't know, Cheryl.""What do you mean, you don't know?""It's so crazy. It's just different. I don't know what to do, or what to say or who to turn to." Marion closed her eyes for a second, took a deep breath and let it out slowly."Is it about the ... about your baby?"Marion nodded. "And Fred and Frank."Something clutched at Cheryl's gut. "Wednesday afternoon, Marion ... Frank is sorry, he didn't know what he was doing. The doctor said it was because of his accident."Marion stared at her, no warmth in her eyes. "It started out with Fred," she said, as if she hadn't heard Cheryl. "He's been worried about his job. Some advertising contract they've been having trouble with."There was something wrong, something very wrong. Cheryl could feel it thick in the air, and she wanted to tell Marion to go away and leave her alone. The weekend had been so pleasant. Please, dear God, she thought, please don't change that.Marion was continuing, her voice still husky. "Before the funeral, Fred told me that he thought he was going crazy. Said he thought he should see a psychiatrist.""Because of his work?" Cheryl could not help asking.Marion shook her head. "Because of our baby. He said he couldn't feel sorry that she was dead."Cheryl bit her knuckle. She didn't want to hear this! But she couldn't help herself."He didn't go to a psychiatrist, though, Cheryl. Instead, he talked to your Frank.""Frank?" Cheryl mumbled. She was cold."Frank filled his head with insane gibberish. Yesterday on the phone. And Fred is beginning to believe it. We argued all night.""What kind of gibberish?" Cheryl asked."It's about our baby. Frank told my husband that he knew a way to contact our baby."Cheryl stared at her friend. Fear. Confusion. Worry. And an ache beginning deep inside her."He wants to contact our dead baby!" Marion suddenly screamed. "My God, the man is insane!""Marion ... I ..." Cheryl started, but Marion cut her off."Fred is beginning to believe he can do it. He almost had me convinced this morning, Cheryl. What can I do?""Frank couldn't have said that. Are you sure you heard Fred correctly?""Don't say that to me! Jesus Fucking Christ, Cheryl, don't say that to me!"Cheryl's heart was pounding out of her chest. She didn't know what to say or do. What was happening? What in hell was happening?
It was shortly after 10:00 P.M., Monday, when Clinton and Susan Polk returned from the movies. He was tired, but pleasantly so. For a change, everything had gone smoothly at the lab. Three test results they had anxiously been awaiting had come back positive, which indicated they were heading in the right direction.The words of his major professor ran through his mind: "There must be years of hard work before a breakthrough of any significance comes about." Well, he had put the years in, and now it was time for that "significant breakthrough."They were so close he could feel it. Just a little more time. A little longer with the funding. They had weathered all sorts of storms: the annual budget dry-up; the general lack of trained, dedicated personnel; the sudden addition of a teaching load last year; and the brief whirl or negative publicity when the newspaper discovered that the Genetic Research Lab was playing around with cloned viruses. All of that had come and gone, each year the project growing a little larger, a little stronger. But now the Regents had stepped in and were fiddling with the flow of Washington money.He was staring into the open refrigerator without really seeing the contents, when Susan came in from the living room."Should I put on some coffee?" she asked.He pulled out a can of beer. "Not for me," he said,closing the refrigerator. "I'm going to drink this, then take a quick shower and go to bed.""Tomorrow's the big day?" she asked.He nodded. "The Regents met this evening. Willis said he'd have their answer for me first thing in the morning."She got serious for a moment. "What happens if they cut off your funding?"Polk shrugged. "Like I said, sweetheart, I'll probably go to work for one for the big chemical companies.""I'm serious, Clinton," she said."So am I," he said, opening the beer. "Our money will last through the end of this phase, which we should complete before Thanksgiving. After that, I'd be on my own. I'd probably wait until after the end of the semester and then start looking.""Is that--"The telephone rang. Susan answered it. "Hello."Clinton took another drink of the cold beer. Susan turned toward him."Yes he is, Doctor Willis," she said. "Just a moment." She held the phone out to him, and Clinton put his beer down on the counter, went across the room and took it from her."Good evening, Doctor Willis," he said pleasantly. Willis was his department head."I'm glad I caught you home, Clinton," the older man said. "The Regents finished up just a couple of minutes ago.""What'd they do?" Polk asked, his heart accelerating."Well, I've got some good news and some bad news," Dr. Willis said. "The general feeling is not to continue your project.""Did they read my report?" Polk asked, suddenly angry. "Do they realize just how close we are?""Simmer down, Clinton. That's the bad news; I did say I had some good news as well."Polk waited."Although they're disinclined to continue your project, they decided to table it for further study.""Which means what, Doctor Willis?""Which means they're giving you a little more time to strengthen your case," the older man said. "It's up to you now to convince them that the project is not only important, but that it poses no danger.""Danger to whom?" Clinton said, trying his damndest to control his anger."In Farnsworth's words, they're afraid that there'll be an accident. Someone will inadvertently dump one of your creations down the drain, and some kind of a monster will grow in the sewers.""Christ," Polk said. "They didn't read my report. Every virus we work with is genetically tagged for a lifespan of less than twenty-four hours.""Exactly," Willis said. "But Farnsworth wasn't budging. A lot can happen in twenty-four hours, he said."Polk wanted to argue his case right now, but he knew it came down to the simple fact that if he wanted the project to continue, he was going to have to coddle the Regents. It meant another round of report writing, even more time away from his work."Thanks for calling, Doctor Willis," he said, managing to maintain his control."It's not the end yet, Clinton," Willis said. "I want to see you in my office first thing in the morning. We'll put our heads together and see what we can come up with.""See you in the morning," Polk said."You know, I believe in what you're doing just as much as you do. It's work that has to be done. And will be done.""Yes, sir," Polk said."See you in the morning, then. Good night.""Good night." Polk hung up. For several long seconds he just stood there, until Susan broke the silence."Well?" she said."They didn't axe the grant money, but they're still thinking about it.""That's wonderful, darling," she said, coming acrossthe room to him."Just a stay of execution," he said glumly. "They want me to plead my case.""Then plead it, Clinton."Polk shook his head. "I don't know if I want to anymore!""Don't be a silly goose," Susan said. She took him by the hand and led him out of the kitchen. "When you finish with them, they'll not only extend your grant, they'll probably double it."Together they went upstairs. As Clinton took his shower, the hot water streaming down on his body, he tried to let his mind relax, tried to stop the worry from eating at his gut. But it was a losing battle, just as the battle with the Regents would eventually be lost.Damn it, he had a real contribution to make to science. To pure science, not the technology of products that industry was so interested in, and certainly not the middle-of-the-road course the Regents advocated.When he was finished, he dried off, brushed his teeth, and then the bath towel wrapped around his waist, went back into the bedroom.Susan had turned the lights low, had flipped the covers back, and was lying nude in the bed, a lascivious smile on her face.She had a lovely body; long, well-shaped legs, a slightly rounded tummy and large, perfectly-formed breasts. Her nipples were hard, and Clinton had to smile despite his worry."That's your answer for everything, isn't it?" he said gently. He didn't feel like having sex, but she obviously did."Take that silly towel off and come to bed, Clinton," she said, her voice husky.He hesitated a moment, and she rose, came over to him, pulled the towel away and led him back to the bed, where she made him lie down on his back. She was all over him, kissing his neck and his chest as she moved her pubis up and down his leg, but he wasn't responding.Without the grant money, he'd be finished at the university. There was no need for a scientist without a project."Clinton?" Susan whispered.He reached down and caressed her back. "I'm sorry," he said.She kissed his belly, then his legs, and finally took him in her mouth, but still he could not respond. There was no way he could go to work for industry. And without the stature a successfully completed project would give him, there would be no other opportunities for him."Oh, God," Susan moaned, rolling over, her legs squeezed tightly together."I'm sorry," Clinton said. "I'm sorry."
Early the next evening Susan answered the doorbell. Clinton had come home from the university in a foul mood, his arms loaded with IBM printouts and lab books, and after dinner he had closeted himself in his study, working on the "stupid, kissass" report.Frank Rader was standing on the doorstep, a cardboard box in his arms. "Hi, Susan, is Clinton at home?""Sure," she said, surprised. "Come on in."He kissed her on the cheek, then went into the living room. Aftershave lotion or cologne. Very nice, Susan thought as she closed the door and followed him."Didn't Cheryl come with you?" she asked.Frank had set the box down by the coffee table, and when he turned around he was grinning. "No," he said. "I just stopped by for a minute. How about fixing me a drink, and then get your husband out here? I have something for you.""What is it?" Susan asked. On her way to the liquor cabinet she eyed the box. Its flaps were closed, and she had no earthly idea what it might contain. But she loved surprises."Not until I have my drink, and Clinton is out here," Frank said. He seemed to be in a very expansive mood, almost joyful."How about a straight brandy?" Susan asked."That'll be fine," he said, sitting down on the couch and stretching his legs out.She poured him his drink and brought it across to him. "Just a hint?" she asked."Not a clue." Frank sipped at his drink. "Now go get Clinton. Hurry up."Susan went back to the study and stuck her head inside. Clinton was at his desk, the lab reports spread out in front of him."What do you want?" he snapped."Frank's here. He's got something for us.""Frank?" Clinton said, putting down his pencil. "What the hell does he want?""He's got something for us. Come on."Grumbling, Clinton followed Susan back out into the living room.Frank's grin widened. "You can get back to your work in just a minute, Clinton," he said. "But first of all I want you and Susan to open this box. It's a little present.""How are you feeling?" Clinton asked."Never felt better," Rader said. "Now go on, open the box."Susan reached down to pick it up."Don't pick it up, just open it," Frank said.She knelt down beside the box and gingerly opened the flaps. A small black muzzle, with a tiny red tongue, licked at her fingers, momentarily startling her, but then she had the box all the way open, and a tiny black lab puppy fairly exploded out into her lap, piddling all over her in its excitement."Clinton!" Susan squealed in delight."What the hell?" Polk started, but Frank cut him off with a smile."I heard about what happened to your dog, so I thought you two needed a replacement."Clinton had gotten down on the floor. The puppy leaped off Susan's lap and raced around in circles, jumping up to lick his face, then racing to Susan and back again."He's darling," Susan said."Then you'll keep him?" Frank asked.Clinton nodded. "That was damned nice, Frank."Rader got to his feet. "Cards tomorrow night. Eight o'clock, my place?""I don't know," Clinton said, and Susan immediately thought about the afternoon of the funeral."Are you sure?" she asked."Absolutely," Frank said. "Fred and Marion will be there. And I think we all need it. It's been a hell of a week and a half.""We'll see," Clinton said after a moment."Be there," Frank said, and he left, closing the front door behind him.A few seconds later Susan could hear his car starting up, and then drive away. She turned to her husband."Did you tell him about Bo?"Clinton looked at her, a strange expression on his face. "No," he said. "I thought you had."7There are moments when absolutely everything is as perfect as it will ever get, and lying back in her warm bath, Marion Martin felt that this was one of them. For the first time in two weeks, she was at peace with herself and her surroundings.No worries. No strife. Even her grief was beginning to fade around the edges, especially if she did not focus on it. And she no longer felt guilty about her outburst in front of Cheryl. It was all a dream now.Retreat from reality, a psychiatrist would have called it, and she would have agreed. But for the moment, just this moment, it was wonderful.Dreamily she thought about how it had been a year ago, when she was pregnant with Jessica. There was happiness and joy in her life. Expectation. Plans for the future.She languidly turned her head as Fred appeared at the open bathroom door."We're going to be late," he said, shattering her peace.Marion sighed deeply and sat up in the tub. "I'm not going, Fred." She turned away, not able to look him in the eye."Yes, we are," he said. "They're our friends, and we're going to be with them tonight." He came the rest of the way into the bathroom and sat down on the toilet, his arms resting on his knees. "It's exactly what you need.""No," she said defiantly. She wanted to scream."You've been brooding around this house ever since ... ever since the funeral. It can't go on."She turned to him, angry. "You want to go over there so Frank can fill your head with insanity. Is that what you want?""For Christ's sake, Marion! All I want is to get you out of the house. Play a little cards. Have a couple of drinks, a few laughs with our friends.""I don't feel like laughing."Fred hesitated a moment. "I've already accepted. They're expecting us. Susan and Clinton will be there, too."The grief, the sorrow, the worry all came back to her in a rush. "Frank Rader is crazy, but you're worse if you believe what he says," she snapped."Bullshit," Fred said softly. He got slowly to his feet, turned and shuffled, like an old man, out of the bathroom."Fred?" Marion called. What had she done? "Fred?" she shouted again, but there was no answer. She climbed out of the tub, hurriedly dried herself, then threw on her bathrobe and went out into the hallway.She went into the living room, but he wasn't there. Through all of this she had been selfish. She realized that now for the first time. Her baby had died. Her world had been crushed. Her grief was all encompassing. Her. Her. Her ... .She hurried back down the hall to their bedroom, but he wasn't there, either. Jessica was his first and only child. Their doctor had recommended no more children.The kitchen, she thought as she went back out into the hallway, but then she stopped, her eyes straying to the baby's room. The door had been closed. But now it was open.Slowly she forced herself forward, toward the open door, and the closer she came, the more vivid her memory of that night became. It had ben raining. Thunder and lightning. That's what had awakened her. That's what she told herself, but it wasn't true."Fred?" she called in a weak voice.Just before the doorway she stopped, unable to take the last two steps. Unable to bring herself to look inside at the crib."Fred?" she called out a little more loudly. Her kneeswere weak, and her eyes were misting."I'm here," Fred said from behind her, and she spun around, her heart thumping, as he came down the hall to her. He had a drink in his hand."Where were you?""In the kitchen," he said. "I needed some ice." He looked beyond her to the baby's room, then back at her. "Did you go in?"She shook her head, afraid to look over her shoulder at the open door. Afraid what it would do to her."Put the crib in the garage, Fred," she said.His eyes narrowed, and she could see that he was having just as hard a time as she was, but he didn't say anything."Please?" She felt as if she was fighting for her life, her sanity."All right ... tomorrow," he said.She shook her head. "No, tonight. Right now," she said. "I'll get ready while you're doing it. We'll go to Frank and Cheryl's. Tomorrow we'll cover the wallpaper. Put some paneling up. I'll get new curtains."Fred took his wife in his arms. "Take it easy, darling," he said.She was shaking, frightened of the deep black thing that lurked at the back of her mind, ready at any moment to emerge and completely engulf her. Now she was crying, the tears streaming down her cheeks, her entire body wracked with sobs. It was the first time she had let herself go since their baby had died."That's right," Fred was saying, the words meaningless but his tone comforting. "That's right, darling, let it all go."
"You're jealous, Clinton! Jesus," Susan Polk said. She looked at his reflection in the vanity-table mirror."Bullshit," Clinton said, his back to her as he rummaged in his bureau drawer for a pair of socks.They had been arguing since shortly after he had come home from the lab around five thirty. At first he had been adamant about not going to the Raders' tonight for cards,but Susan had put her foot down, and he had finally, reluctantly agreed. Yet he could not stop arguing, finding fault. Nit picking."Then what's the big deal?" She turned in her chair to look directly at him. Their new puppy, which they had named Puppy, was cringing by the door, where it had piddled.Clinton had found his socks, and straightened up to face her. "It's no big deal," he said, obviously fighting for control. "It's just that I find it a little odd that one of my colleagues tells me he saw my wife and friend having lunch together, but when I get home my wife doesn't bother mentioning it.""You have lunch with your little lab assistants damned near every day of the week.""Yeah, ten of us at a time. And I work with them.""Frank and Cheryl are our friends!" Susan shouted, exasperated. The puppy whined. "I was shopping downtown, happened to run into Frank and he invited me for lunch. What the hell is wrong with that?""Nothing," Clinton snapped. "Not a goddamned thing." He glanced at the puppy. "And the goddamned dog has pissed all over the floor again." He stalked off into the bathroom and slammed the door.Susan stared at the door, listening to his running water in the sink, and she knew exactly what the problem was. It had happened to them a couple of times before. It was the sex thing.Whenever a lab project of his was going sour, he would turn off on sex. Not only would there be a lack of interest, he would become unable to perform.She got up and went across the room, where she patted the cringing puppy, then opened the door so that it could go downstairs.Back at the vanity table, she looked at her reflection in the mirror. No lipstick, mascara only on one eye. Very sheer bra and bikini panties.There was a thirteen-year difference in their ages that most of the time made absolutely no difference to theirrelationship. And yet, if she was honest with herself, she knew that the difference was there, and would become more pronounced as they grew older.Just how honest did she want to get with herself, she reflected. Honest enough to admit that she had married Clinton because he reminded her of her father?Susan shuddered now, thinking back to when she was sixteen and had her first sex. Her father had found out about it. He had simply made an appointment for her with a campus doctor for a pelvic examination and a prescription for birth control pills.She had thought he would be disappointed in her. But he hadn't been. He had been wonderfully understanding; gentle with her feelings.And then he had died, and there was Clinton, so much like her father. The same mannerisms, the same gentleness. And she had fallen head over heels in love with him.The toilet flushed, bringing her out of her thoughts about the past, focusing them on the present.How honest did she want to be with herself? Honest enough to admit that she had jumped at the chance to have lunch with Frank Rader? Honest enough to admit that she found him sexually attractive?She and Frank had flirted during lunch, in a kidding manner."Don't let Clinton find out about our meeting like this," Frank had laughed."I won't tell him as long as you don't breathe a word to Cheryl. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned," she had quipped, and they both laughed.It had been an innocent, chance meeting. Or had it?The bathroom door opened and Clinton came out, a sheepish grin on his face. She turned around to him."I'm sorry," he said."Me, too," Susan said, a wave of love for him washing over her. Yet there was a tinge of guilt there, too. "I should be flattered that you were jealous of me."Something flared in his eyes, but then the gentle grin returned. "It's been a bitch, that grant thing hanging overmy head. I just can't think straight."Susan got up and put her arms around him. "It's barely seven," she said huskily. "We've got plenty of time." She was moist already, and she could feel her nipples hardening."Not now ... ," Clinton said, his voice choked.Susan ran her hands up and down his bare back as she moved her body against his. God, she needed him now. "Clinton. Please.""I can't," he said."Let's try, honey," she said, nibbling at his earlobe, kissing his neck. "Let's just try."He pulled away, and looked down at her, an expression almost of anguish on his face. For an instant she felt a stab of pity for him, but that made her angry. Not so much at him, but at herself. She knew that eventually he would come out of this by himself. And she also knew that when she worked herself up like this, there would be nothing for her but frustration.She turned away and went back to the vanity table where she sat down, her knees together, her heart beating rapidly.Clinton remained where he was standing, and as she looked at him in the mirror, she recalled the cologne Frank Rader had been wearing the night he had brought them the puppy. He had also been wearing it today at lunch.8Cheryl poured herself a cup of coffee as the twins argued about who was going to rinse this time, and who was going to load the dishwasher.It was shortly after 6:00 P.M. Frank had gone down to the basement directly after dinner with the admonishment that the girls were to help their mother. But they seemed incapable of doing anything without an argument."I rinsed last night," Dawn screeched, holding the box of soap out of her sister's reach."Yeah, well, I scraped all last week," Felicity cried in a piercing voice.Cheryl turned and glared at the girls, exasperated. They were good kids, their only major problem being their age. At thirteen they were right in the middle of adolescence. Periods. Icky boys versus yummy boys. Andy Gibb, the Bee Gees and Scott Baio. Bras. Bikini underpants inscribed MONDAY, TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY. Seventeen magazine. Seventeen was their Bible. If it wasn't in Seventeen, then it was wrong or gross."Mo-th-er," Dawn wailed."Enough," Cheryl snapped. "I want the arguing to stop, I want the dishes washed, and I want this kitchen cleaned before I come back downstairs.""But it's ... ," Felicity started.Cheryl cut her off. "Felicity Ann!""Yes, mother," her daughter said, and Cheryl turned to Dawn, who also said, "Yes, mother.""You girls can help lay out the snacks," Cheryl said, her voice softening. "I'm sure there'll be some left over. You can watch the TV in the rec-room.""Dad says we have to stay in our room tonight whencompany comes," Dawn said. Although they were identical twins, Dawn, who had been born first by four minutes, seemed to be the older, more mature of the two of them."When did he tell you that?""Just before supper. Can we take the little TV up with us?"Cheryl went to the door that led down to their finished rec-room and opened it. The lights were on."Frank?" She stared down the stairs."Don't come down here," he shouted up at her, and she stopped."What are you doing?" she asked.He came to the foot of the stairs, a grin on his face. "It's a surprise," he said brightly. "Now go on back upstairs and get ready.""The girls said you wanted them to stay up in their room tonight. We're not going to play cards down there, are we?""Nope," Frank said, his grin even wider. It was as if he was excited about something."Then ... ."He cut her off. "Go on. Get out of here. You'll find out soon enough."Cheryl hesitated, but then turned and went back up to the kitchen, where she refilled her coffee cup.The girls had obviously been listening to the exchange. They had bright, expectant looks on their faces."What kind of a surprise, mother?" Dawn asked."You've got me," Cheryl said. "I guess we're all going to have to wait until your father lets us know. Now get busy with this kitchen; I'll be down in fifteen minutes."The Polks and Martins would be here at eight, which left Cheryl less than two hours to shower and change clothes, then come down and prepare the snacks, get the bar ready and make the house presentable.She didn't mind the extra work, but she had been surprised that Fred and Marion had accepted Frank's invitation. Yet, on reflection, she was glad they had. It hadbeen a couple of weeks now since that terrible night, and all of them needed a life. Especially Marion. Cheryl only hoped that her friend would not bring up her crazy story again. It was frightening.The girls were staring at Cheryl, and she realized that she had been daydreaming. She smiled. "What are you two waiting for?"Dawn bounded across the room, threw her arms around her mother's neck, and kissed her on the cheek. "I love you, mom," she gushed.Felicity was right behind her, and she hugged and kissed her mother."What's this all about?" Cheryl asked, a warm, comforting feeling spreading from her middle.The girls grinned impishly."Oh no, you don't," Cheryl said, laughing. "You two are going to do the dishes.""We know that, mother," Dawn sighed theatrically. She looked at her sister, who shrugged. "It's just that--me and Felicity been talking--about you and dad."Cheryl's heart skipped a beat, but she said nothing."It's just like it used to be," Dawn said. "I mean with daddy." She shrugged."Daddy isn't crazy anymore--" Felicity started."Retard!" Dawn snapped. "We just want you and daddy to be happy, mother."Cheryl didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Instead, she nodded, seriously. But the moment was broken then, and the girls went back to the dishes.After a moment Cheryl left the kitchen and headed upstairs.Frank had been happy all day, but his mood had seemed a little off key. He had seemed too animated, too quick to make jokes. And he had been secretive. The girls had loved it. Cheryl hadn't. It seemed phony.In the bedroom, she sipped her coffee, then set the cup down and looked at herself in the mirror. Christ, crows' feet already, and gray hair that was almost impossible to keep up with, no matter what tint she used.She went into the bathroom and looked at herself again, this time in the full-length mirror on the door. She stepped back and turned sideways, pushing her tummy in with both hands, then letting it out.Not really all that bad, she told herself appraisingly. Ass just a little too big for her liking, tummy a little too full, and thighs just a little too thick.She closed the door all the way, then slowly undressed, tossed the clothes down the laundry chute, and stepped into the shower. Turning the water on as hard and as hot as she could stand it, she let the spray stream down on her chest and stomach, her muscles relaxing, her skin tingling.It had been two and a half weeks now since the accident, and she and Frank had not made love in all that time. She hadn't really given it much more than a fleeting thought over the past eighteen days, but for some reason it hit her strongly now.They had always had a warm, loving relationship in bed. Frank was gentle and understanding. Maybe not as in tune with her needs lately but still a good mate.She missed the sex part at night when the girls were asleep in bed, the house was quiet and she would snuggle close to him. In the dim light from the clock radio, his long, dark, well-muscled body never failed to excite her. Even as the thought of it did now.She missed him inside of her. It was as simple as that. Yet she knew damned well that the neurologist would say that it was nothing more than another of the reactions to the accident, and would fade.But she wanted him now. Right now, this very minute.She was finished in the shower five minutes later. Wrapping a towel around her wet hair, she opened the bathroom door.Frank had just come in to the bedroom. She stopped in her tracks."Is that what you're going to wear tonight?" he asked, grinning, almost as though he was drunk.Unaccountably, Cheryl felt the gooseflesh rising on her arms and legs. "I thought I might," she said, trying tokeep her voice light.Frank continued to stare fixedly at her for several long seconds, and she felt uncomfortable under his gaze."What's the matter?" he asked, sensing her mood.She shook her head. "I'm cold.""Put some clothes on, then." He chuckled, sat down on the bed and took off his shoes. The strange feeling in the room was suddenly broken.She crossed over to him and, taking his face in both hands, bent down and kissed him on the lips. He gently patted her buttocks."I'm not finished downstairs yet," he said when they parted. "I just came up to take a quick shower and shave.""We've got the time ... ."Frank shook his head. "Nope," he said. "Later, maybe.""Then don't drink so much tonight; you know how you get when you do," she said, biting her lip the moment the words were out of her mouth.Frank's expression darkened. "Maybe you should serve tea," he snapped.She stepped back as he stood up. "I'm sorry, Frank. I didn't mean it the way it sounded.""Oh?" he said, raising his right eyebrow."Frank?"He brushed past her, went into the bathroom and, without bothering to close the door, undressed and stepped into the shower."Goddamn it," she said to herself as the shower began. She pulled out some clean underpants and a bra. "Goddamn it to hell."
The Martins were the first to arrive, a few minutes after 8:00 P.M., and as Cheryl let them in, Fred gave her a kiss on the cheek, a big smile on his face, but Marion held back."Go on in, Fred," Cheryl said. "Frank should be up in a minute."Fred went into the living room, leaving his wife and Cheryl alone for a moment in the vestibule."Are you feeling okay, Marion?" Cheryl asked. She was concerned for her. They had not spoken since the morning Marion had come over with her wild story about what Frank had supposedly been telling her husband. She looked a little wan now.Marion nodded, the motion birdlike. "Did you talk to Frank ... about what I told you?""Last night," Cheryl lied. The right moment had never presented itself to her, and in a way she was glad it hadn't."What'd he say?"Cheryl looked directly into her friend's eyes. "He said he was sorry. He was just trying to help.""Help?" Marion had raised her voice, and instantly lowered it. "Help? For God's sake, it's made Fred crazy.""I'll talk to him again," Cheryl said firmly. "But I'm sure Frank won't say anything more about it."Marion glanced toward the living room. "Fred is going to insist," she said, and looked back into Cheryl's eyes. "I'm frightened for him.""Don't be," Cheryl said. "Everything will be all right. You'll see."Marion wanted to believe it, Cheryl could see it written clearly on her face. But she could also see that Marion was skeptical. And she couldn't blame her.Frank had just come up from the rec-room as the two women entered the living room, and he rubbed his hands together, the smile back on his face."What'll it be, guys?" he asked. "Vodka and sour, Marion? A light one?"Marion had to smile, despite herself, and Fred chuckled. "Make her the light one," he said. "But I'll take anything and water, just as long as there's not much water.""Coming up," Frank said. As he mixed the drinks at the little bar next to the fireplace, the doorbell chimed."I'll get it," Cheryl said. She went back out into the vestibule."Give me a bloody Mary, light on the hot stuff," SusanPolk said as soon as Cheryl opened the door. Clinton stood just behind her, and he smiled. "Are we early?""No, you two are just fashionably late."Clinton was wearing a light sweater and tweed sportcoat, but Susan was dressed in designer jeans, high heels, a sheer blouse and nearly transparent bra, a light jacket over her shoulder."You're going to drive Frank wild," Cheryl quipped, just a tinge of cattiness behind the remark, and Susan laughed."You can call me the femme fatale," Susan said, flouncing past Cheryl into the living room. "Now, where's my drink?" she called out.Clinton raised his eyebrows in an attempt at mock despair, but Cheryl could see that something was really bothering him. "I don't know what the hell I'm married to, at times.""If she gives you too much trouble, you can always sleep on our couch tonight," Cheryl said lightly, linking her arm in his and leading him."What the hell are you trying to do, professor, seduce my wife?" Frank called from the bar."You're damned right I am," Polk said. "And it looks as if I might get lucky tonight."Again Cheryl got the impression that there was something in Clinton's voice that wasn't quite right. He crossed the room to Frank, got a brandy and water, and then sat down across from Fred and Marion.Susan had her bloody Mary, and she was perched on the arm of an easy chair by the fireplace. When Frank turned around Cheryl couldn't help but notice that his eyes strayed from her face to her breasts, the nipples just slightly visible, back to her face, and then he smiled. Clinton had noticed it, too, and his jaws tightened.But then the moment passed and Frank came across to Cheryl and handed her a Rhine wine and seltzer. He had at least a triple shot of straight brandy, no ice, which he held up in a toast."To the future, with good friends," he said seriously.Cheryl glanced at each one of their friends. Fred was smiling. Marion seemed worried. Clinton seemed as if he was on the verge of anger, and, unless she was terribly mistaken, Cheryl was certain that Susan was enraptured with Frank."To friends," Fred echoed, raising his glass. "These past couple of weeks would have been impossible without you."Everyone sipped at their drinks, the mood subdued, but then Susan broke the ice."Say, guys, do you know what Frank did for Clinton and me this week?""No, what's that?" Cheryl heard herself asking.Susan smiled. "He didn't tell you?" she asked, and she wagged her finger at Frank. "On top of everything, he's modest, too.""What was it?" Fred asked.Susan turned to him. "You know that someone poisoned our dog, the night ... a couple of weeks ago. Well, Monday Frank came over to our place." She paused for effect. "He brought us a puppy." She looked at him, smiling. "We've named it Puppy.""Yeah," Clinton said dryly. "The damn thing piddles everywhere except on the newspaper. Thanks a lot, Frank." He raised his glass.Everyone laughed. Cheryl thought it was a lovely gesture, but she wondered why Frank hadn't said anything to her about it.For the next hour, then, everything seemed to go reasonably well, as the drinks began to do their work, slowing them down, making them all relaxed, and a bit more mellow. It was crazy, but the later it got, the stronger the feeling became in Cheryl that something was about to happen. She would not have been a bit surprised if Clinton got up and punched Frank in the nose. All through the evening he had been unable to keep his eyes off Susan's breasts. And the more he looked, the more Susan seemed to love it.It was just ten thirty when Frank finished telling a verybad joke that elicited only a few bored chuckles. Frank got to his feet. He had drunk a little bit too much, but he still seemed in control."Enough of this nonsense," he announed."Cards," Clinton said. "It's about time. I don't think I could handle another of Fred's stories.""Have another drink, Clinton my boy, and my jokes are guaranteed to get better," Fred quipped."No cards tonight," Frank said. Everyone looked up at him. Cheryl felt a strange little thrill run through her stomach. "I've got something different planned for tonight.""Frank?" Cheryl said uncertainly. Fred was sitting forward on the couch, and Marion's complexion had turned pale."Guaranteed to amaze and delight you," Frank continued. He set his drink down and turned to his wife. "Keep them up here for a couple of minutes, then bring them down to the rec-room.""Frank?" Cheryl said again, but he had turned and hurried out of the living room. A second later they could hear him tromping down the basement stairs."What's going on, Cheryl?" Clinton asked, and she turned to him."I don't know," she said. "He wouldn't let me see what he was doing. It's some kind of a surprise."Marion got up and came over to Cheryl, where she bent down and, in a low, frightened voice, asked, "This doesn't have anything to do with what he's been telling Fred, does it?""I honestly don't know," Cheryl said, looking up into the woman's wide eyes.Marion straightened up. "I think I'd like to go home, Fred.""What's going on?" Clinton asked, also getting to his feet."He's just got something goofy planned, you know Frank," Cheryl said. "It's nothing to worry about. Honestly.""She's right, honey," Fred said, getting up. "It'll be okay.""You can come down now," Frank called from downstairs."I want to go home," Marion insisted.Cheryl got up and took her hand. "Frank is just going to play some kind of a silly game," she said. "Honestly. He wouldn't try to hurt you. It's just his way of entertaining us. He's trying to make us forget our troubles.""I think I'm going home, too," Clinton said.Susan had put her drink down, and she came across to them. "Don't be rude," she said irritably.Both Clinton and Marion looked at Cheryl, and she felt as if she was being backed into a corner, but there wasn't much she could do about it. "Please stay," she said.Clinton didn't seem very happy, but he finally nodded, and Fred took his wife by the arm, and she nodded as well."He's probably going to show us those dreadful home movies he took two years ago at the house up in Door County," Cheryl said, leading the way through the dining room. "If he does, I'll divorce him for sure."The basement door was open, and from downstairs there was a dim, flickering light reflecting off the paneled walls. The stairway light was off."Frank," she called down. "What did you do to the lights?""Mood, my dear," Frank's voice came from the rec-room. "Come on down."Cheryl looked at the others, shook her head, and then started down the stairs, trailing her right hand on the banister.At the bottom, she turned the corner into the rec-room. The sight that greeted her stopped her in her tracks."My God," she said.The couch and two easy chairs had been arranged in a semicircle across from a card table, behind which Frank stood. He was dressed in black choir robes. In the middle of the room, evidently painted on the carpeting, was a five-sided figure. At each corner of the figure a blackcandle, in a small holder, flickered, its feeble light reflecting off a plastic model of a human skull at the center."Come on and sit down," Frank said, gesturing to the couch and chairs."Frank, for Christ's sake," Cheryl snapped.Fred was peering, wide eyed, over Clinton's shoulder; Marion was still on the stairs, refusing to come around the corner.For a moment they all stood in silence, the grin finally fading from Frank's face. But then he finally shook his head."The hell with it," he said. "I was just trying to have a little fun. We need a laugh.""This is fun?" Cheryl said, her voice rising. What in God's name was happening to him? Or was she crazy?"Come on, you party poopers," Susan said, pushing past Cheryl and Clinton. "Let's at least catch the first act."She stepped around the pentagram, and sat down in one of the easy chairs."Come on," Frank coaxed, his smile back. "Step right up. The next show begins in one minute," he called out in a sideshow barker's voice."You're certifiably nuts," Clinton said, coming the rest of the way into the rec-room. He sat down on the couch, and a moment later Cheryl joined him, Fred and a very frightened Marion right behind her.After they were all seated, Frank went over to the door and closed it. When he turned around the smile was gone from his face. He took something that looked like a burned piece of toast from his pocket, held it overhead and started slowly back to the card table as he began chanting in a low, ominous voice: "I will take the bread of Hades and will call upon the name of my Lord, Astaroth."Susan tittered and Marion closed her eyes. Cheryl simply could not believe what she was witnessing."Oh Astaroth, I am not worthy that Thou shouldst enter under my roof, but only say the word and our souls here tonight shall be healed. May the body of our Master,Astaroth, preserve our souls into life everlasting."He had reached the card table, and he turned now to face the others. Cheryl could see sweat gleaming on his forehead as he looked up at the blackened bread. She wanted to jump up, turn on the lights and put a halt to this nonsense. But she could not. She could do nothing more than sit, gape mouthed, and watch her husband."What shall we render unto our Lord, Astaroth, for all the things he is about to render unto us?" Frank called out, still staring up at the bread. "I will take the sacrifice of eternal bliss and call upon the name of Astaroth for Clinton Polk's research grant, that the Regents may see his way."Cheryl sensed that Clinton, seated next to her, had stiffened, but still she could not take her eyes off Frank."I will take the sacrifice of eternal bliss and call upon the name of Astaroth for the infant Jessica Martin so that she may yet know her parents."Marion gasped, the sound very loud in the dark room."And for me, Oh my Lord Astaroth," Frank shouted, "I will take the sacrifice of eternal bliss and call upon your name for my salvation!"He laid the blackened crust reverently on the card table, pulled something from a cardboard box at his feet, and then straightened up."I will give praise to Beelzebub and Leviathan and to Asmodeus the temptor," he shouted. Over his head he held a small black rabbit by the ears. The creature was struggling and kicking. Cheryl felt her heart racing nearly out of her chest, her breath coming in short gasps."I will give praise and call upon my Lords and Masters, and we will be saved from our enemies!" Frank screamed.A flash of lightning, followed by a crash of thunder, shook the house as Frank slammed the rabbit on the table. Something in his other hand flashed in the dim candlelight and when he raised the rabbit overhead a second later, its blood spurted from a slit throat."Asmodeus!" Frank shouted. "Astaroth! Lucifer! May this blood preserve our souls unto Your service for lifeeverlasting."The rabbit jerked powerfully one last time, then its hind legs twitched for a few seconds, and finally it was still.Cheryl's heart began to slow down, and she caught her breath. Frank laid the dead rabbit in the box beneath the table, and he stood there now, blood all down the front of his black robe, looking at them, a silly grin on his face."Oh, Frank," Cheryl said softly, her heart aching for him."I heard her," Fred said, getting up. Marion stifled a sob, and together they shuffled across the room, opened the door and went upstairs.Susan's eyes were wide, but instead of being troubled, she seemed thoughtful, almost dreamy. Clinton got up and took his wife's arm, and they headed for the door."Frank?" Cheryl said a minute later. "Are you all right?""Yeah," he said, the smile gone from his face. "Go on upstairs. I'll be up in a minute.""We've got to talk ... ," Cheryl said, but Frank savagely cut her off."Get the fuck out of here!"She got up and, without looking back, went out of the rec-room and started up the stairs, tears welling up in her eyes.
Fred and Marion Martin drove home in silence, both of them deep in their own thoughts.For Marion it was as if something monstrous and black had descended upon her, blocking out all of her senses, making it seem as if she was locked in some dark vault.For Fred, the opposite was true. For the first time since their baby had died, he felt alive; he was acutely aware of his surroundings. Frank's ceremony had not been macabre; it had been thrilling, and somehow reassuring.He parked the car in the driveway, then helped Marion out of the car, up the walk and into the house.When he had the door locked, he turned to his wife and took her in his arms. She was shivering."Please hold me, Fred," she said shakily. "Please hold me."They kissed deeply, and when they parted Fred looked into her eyes. "I love you, darling," he said."I love you, too," Marion replied, her voice hoarse.He led her across the living room, down the hall and into their bedroom, where beside their bed he methodically undressed her, then picked her up and laid her atop the bed covers.She watched as he undressed, letting his clothes fall to the floor, and then he came to her, kissing her neck and her breasts, and soon they were making love with more passion than either of them had ever known.
Clinton Polk had always felt that his gift, which set him apart from most other people, was his ability to view the world objectively.But as he locked the kitchen door, turned off the lights and went into the living room, he knew that he would never be able to see Frank as anything but crazy.What the man had done tonight, the spectacle he had made of himself, was beyond what any rational person could accept.Frank needed to see a psychiatrist. And Clinton would tell Cheryl just that, tomorrow.Susan had put some soft music on the stereo in the dark living room. He came around the corner stopping a moment until his eyes adjusted, and then he could see her clearly where she stood across the room, and he went to her.She came into his arms, and they danced for a few minutes, all thoughts about Frank Rader, about the lab, and about the university's Board of Regents leaving his mind.And then, somehow, they were on the floor, and Clinton was pulling her jeans and panties down around her knees as she pulled open her blouse and ripped off her bra."Oh God, Clinton ... hurry, darling ... please,"Susan cried.Clinton tore his clothes off, and then he was inside her, her arms and legs wrapped around him as he pounded deeper and faster, his entire life reduced to this single act.
It was after 1:00 A.M. when Cheryl Rader slipped out of bed and put on her robe. She still felt the tingling afterglow of lovemaking, and as she looked down at Frank's sleeping figure, she felt a wave of love intermingled with the fear she felt for him.Softly, she left the bedroom and went to the twins' room, where she opened the door. They were both sleeping soundly, pop cans, potato-chip and pretzel bags strewn on the floor with their clothes.She hoped that they had heard nothing tonight. This all had been difficult enough without that.She closed the door, turned and padded down the hall to the stairs, and went down.Frank had told her that he had cleaned up the mess in the basement before he came up, but the pentagram had been painted on the carpet, probably ruining it. That, combined with the candle wax, and the ... blood from the poor rabbit, would mean they'd probably have to tear the carpet up and throw it away.At the basement door, Cheryl hesitated a moment, but then took a deep breath, let it out slowly and flipped the light switch on. She had to blink against the sudden brightness.Slowly, she went down the stairs, and at the bottom she steeled herself before she stepped into the rec-room.For several long moments she just stared, unable to believe her eyes.The furniture was back in its proper place. The card table had been folded and was lying against the wall. And the carpet looked fresh and clean. Brand new. No stains. Nothing.Cheryl went all the way into the room, and got down on her hands and knees on the floor, her face inches away from the carpeting.Nothing. There was nothing. The carpet was brand new. It wasn't even wet where Frank would have had to clean it.Nothing, Cheryl thought, looking up. She got to her feet and shook her head. Maybe she was going crazy. Maybe it was her.It was as if a chill wind was passing over her as she left the rec-room and headed back upstairs to bed.Copyright @ 1982 by David Hagberg