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She was easy to spot.
Her skin was almost blue-white. As usual, at the corner she said goodbye to the other girls; he saw her part from the heads of pink hair, tight black curls, a blonde pixie cut. Watched her follow a narrow asphalt footpath that led around the corner to a pedestrian tunnel under the busy motorway.
He'd been in the tunnel, walked its sixty feet back and forth. He had done this most mornings this week, on his way to the office. No one noticed him. He was just a man wearing a suit, carrying a briefcase, going to work. When a lorry passed on the road above, the caged fluorescent lights that hung from the ceiling buzzed louder. Sometimes cyclists whizzed towards him through the tunnel, but they always stayed on their side of the yellow line painted down the centre of the path. Each day before he left the tunnel, he stopped and looked at the yellow paint, imagined it blotted by a puddle of blood, a small broken body stretched across the line.
Today, while he waited for her to pass by, he sat at a table next to the café window and flipped through the pictures they'd sent him. Four snapshots of the girl with long, dark hair. The girl, with a rucksack, on her way to class. On a sports field, wearing muddy football cleats. Sitting on a lawn, sipping a juice box. Walking home from school with a group of friends, passing in front of the café.
He had an allongé and ate a cannoli, slowly. He glanced at his reflection in the glass: a translucent, freckled hand, copper hair he had cut every three weeks at the salon. Ironed dress shirt, slate sports jacket.
As the girl left her friends, she flipped her dark hair from her collar. Locks splayed over her heavy rucksack.
He walked into his flat. It faced west and had beautiful evening light. Unfortunately, he had been distracted and let the kitchen get messy. White dishes streaked with jelly and tomato sauce filled the sink. Bloated bread and pizza crusts clogged the drain. He was almost out of clean cutlery; a collection of dirty utensils was sunk beneath two inches of water. Small islands of white and green mould floated on the surface.
He cringed at the sight and smell of the mess as he walked through to the living room. He hated letting things go like that, but this project had kept him too busy for housework.
He put on John Cage's "Cheap Imitation." The speakers wired in each corner of the room pulsed with eerie piano. He sat on his black leather sofa, pulled the photos from his briefcase and set them on the heavy marble coffee table. A trio of flies migrated out of the kitchen. He stood and shooed them, then poured himself a glass of Scotch. As he swallowed the smoky liquor he looked at the pictures again.
The one of her sitting on the lawn with her hair up was the best, he decided. He liked the pictures, but he almost didn't need them anymore. He would destroy them tomorrow, according to plan.
The books and DVDs they had sent him were in a long box under the coffee table. The kit they had sent was there too. He sat down again, popped the lid off the box and pulled out the blue satin pouch. He untied the string, felt the metal blade and the ceramic talisman inside. Then he closed the pouch and started to think about which film to watch that evening.
Before he'd met them, he didn't have these books or movies about the Blood Countess. It was a bit lonely. He went to work at the software company, input data and printed reports. He'd earned a promotion last year, but still his boss wanted him to go faster, produce more reports and numbers. Sometimes on Fridays he went to the pub with some co-workers. He went to the gym twice a week. But these were all things that everyone else he knew did too.
Then he met them, and learned about how the Countess killed hundreds of girls. How people helped her with the girls and the blood. It kept her beautiful. More beautiful and exciting than filling a computer with numbers or running like a rat on a treadmill.
He'd never hurt anyone before. But he'd always thought about it. About what it would feel like to attack someone, to hold his hand on their chest while their heart stopped beating. Once, he had poisoned a stray dog, stood over the mutt while it convulsed and died, but that didn't stop his thoughts. It only fed him, teased him. When he met them it was like they could sense it immediately, but instead of looking away or making an excuse not to talk to him in the coffee line, like some people did at his office, they liked him more because of his fantasies. And now he had instruction, inspiration. He had a goal.
Between melancholy piano notes, he heard a squeaking in the corner by the fridge. This building was old, so if he didn't remember to keep the holes plugged the mice got in. He would do the dishes, get groceries and plug the holes after he finished with the project. But for now, he'd only had time to pick up some sticky traps at the corner store last week.
He chose a DVD from the box and put it on the table. Downed the rest of his Scotch, then stood up from the smooth leather sofa. He saw the mouse in the sticky trap. Its body shook, strained against the glue that shackled its feet. He picked up the trap, held it upside down, then sideways. He was amused every time the rodent squealed louder.
He put the trap on the counter. Thumb on the mouse's right back leg. Snap. The next one. Snap. Both front legs. Crack, crack. He batted the trap between his hands, laughed at the loose shimmy of the animal's body above its broken limbs.
He found a clean paring knife in a kitchen drawer. The mouse's squeals were quieter; its eyes fluttered. "In a moment, mouse," he said as he stroked the top of its head. He ripped the dull knife through the fur and sinew of the mouse's neck.
They bled best when cut at the throat.CHAPTER 2
I moved across the Atlantic to speak to the man in the next room.
I am five minutes early, but the orderlies have him ready. Beige hospital pants and top, standard-issue sneakers: Martin Foster looks much like any other patient I might interview in a day. He's seated in one of Stowmoor's observation rooms and I watch him through the one-way window. He scrunches up his nose and cheeks to push up his tortoiseshell-framed glasses, then sticks out his lower lip slightly and blows his shaggy ginger hair off his forehead.
I know his file off by heart. He is thirty-one. He is five foot nine. No history of substance abuse. No prior criminal charges.
Two years ago, he abducted a fifteen-year-old girl who was walking home from school in Leeds. He beat her, restrained her and branded her palms with a small ceramic block that he heated with a blowtorch. The engraved block seared an imprint of the letter B, bordered by a circle of vines, into the girl's skin. He slashed her neck with a Renaissance-era dagger, bled her to death and bit pieces of flesh from her thighs. He said he believed her blood had the ability to wash away the freckles that still pepper his face and arms. Upon arrest, he told police he was paying homage to sixteenth-century serial killer Elizabeth Báthory.
I am one of his psychologists. Martin Foster is waiting for me to enter the examination room.
My family and friends wonder why I choose to do this. Spend the majority of my time in psychiatric facilities, around murderers, sociopaths, pedophiles. Insane and violent criminals. Even my boyfriend, Henry, sometimes says, "Watch it around those lunatics." I wonder if he worries I could catch it, be lured from my role of psychologist and succumb to some latent psychosis. Watch it, your sanity. Watch the line. What I don't say is that the line is hardly there. It's as blurry and fluid as the slope of the shore, from beach to the shallows to water over your head to the open sea. And I'm not really supposed to believe in that spectrum. I'm in the business of treating, of reforming those who stray from the norm. But we're all there on the slope. I think the difference is whether you've manoeuvred yourself into a position where your head's above the sea.
I do this because I want to know about extremes. About the sublime edges people retreat into and lash out from. I want to know about people who deviate from what society has authorized as acceptable behaviour. About their fixations and obsessions, those quick dark moments when the safety doesn't catch and they tell the lie, forge the cheque, steal the car, use the knife. What pushes them over the threshold of idea into action. Foster claimed he was pushed by Báthory. His obsession with her defines his violence and was the catalyst for the perfect and sudden bloom of his disorder.
The truth is, I don't spend the majority of my time with murderers, thieves or psychopaths. I spend most of it theorizing about them and analyzing their assessments. I assemble reports and photocopy files. I write articles and grant applications. And when I have the opportunity to be in a room with a patient, it's usually a brief and sanitary encounter, an intake assessment or an annual report. I read the file and the patient appears. I ask the pre-set questions and record the responses. It's clinical, it's detached and it's designed to be that way. The past actions of the patient, their sublime edges, become text, a piece of paper in a file.
I've been trained well. I push the paper and win the grants. I do the bulk of my assessments almost by rote. But with Foster, it's different. His case grips me, a boa constrictor. It breathes; he's more than text on a page.
I straighten Foster's chart, stack my folder on top and make sure I have two working pens. I open the door and walk into the room. "Hello, Mr. Foster. I'm Dr. Winston. We've met before briefly, with Dr. Sloane and Dr. Abbas." I sit down across from him.
"I remember." He leans forward, puts his elbows on the table. "You're the new girl."
I set my folder in front of me and line the pens up beside it. "I'm a new psychologist on your team, yes. I'm heading up your annual assessment this year."
He pulls his elbows off the table, slowly. "Wonderful." He crosses his legs, puts his hands behind his head. "Let's get on with it, then."
"In general, how are you feeling today, Mr. Foster?" I say, flipping open my folder.
"I'm quite fine, thanks." He smiles. He keeps looking at me. "Your hair looks lovely. A ponytail suits you, Dr. Winston," he says. "Very shiny, so much nicer than mine," he says, stroking his short red hair. "I haven't been able to get to the salon lately. Still, us gingers need to stick together, am I right?"
Involuntarily, I run my hand along my ponytail but stop myself halfway. "We're going to move right into the standard measures of this interview. I'm sure you've been administered questionnaires like this before. I'm going to ask you a series of questions—"
"You're not too freckled for a ginger." He's still staring. "Not freckled at all, really." Another smile. "Tell me some of your beauty secrets?"
"Mr. Foster." I pick up my pen and look directly at him. His grey-blue eyes don't blink. "Let's focus on the task at hand."
"But you know some of mine." He motions towards my stack of materials. "It's only fair you should share some of yours."
I ache to take this bait, to see what I could win from his cat-and-mouse. But I've been trained well. "Please answer the following questions with a yes or no response ..."
I lead him through the standard battery and check anger, violent thoughts, sleep patterns, mood. I'm on question seven before he deviates.
"Do you often feel anxious or concerned about day-to-day matters?" I ask.
"Well, that depends," says Foster.
"It's yes or no. Do you often feel anxious or concerned about day-to-day matters?"
"These questions, if you'll forgive me, Dr. Winston, are rather dull."
"I appreciate your patience in answering them, Mr. Foster. We're almost through. So, do you often—"
"Feel anxious, yes, you've repeated the question once already. Well, I suppose it depends on what my day-to-day matters entail. And how you define feel. I believe most people say that they feel things right away. Like if something happens to make them upset, they're upset right then. But I don't see it like that."
It's a yes or no answer. I shouldn't, but I indulge. "Oh?"
"It's like I see the feelings first, and then I feel them later. Do you know what rage looks like? It's exquisite. And love. They're all beauties, radiant. I see them, like pictures."
"And this is important to you?"
"Very. Imagine if you could see emotions without feelings, appreciate them with your eyes, with your mind. Feelings limit the senses."
"But you feel at some point?"
"Yes, but later. Later."
I circle "no" for question seven.
"And you?" he asks. "Do you feel anxious day-to-day? A lovely girl like you in here with us loons?" He smiles.
I try not to smile back. "As a professional, I object to the use of the term loons."
"But seriously, Dr. Winston. It doesn't rattle you? You don't look over your shoulder when you leave at night?" He says this in a soft, cajoling voice.
This time, I bite. "Why would I do that? If the loons, as you put it, are in here."
"Well, before we were in here, we were out there. You never know who may be about, Dr. Winston." He grins, adjusts his glasses and presses his torso against the edge of the table.
"A risk we all take, Mr. Foster. Now, to finish ..."
I insist that he stick to yes or no for the remaining three questions. When I finish, I stack my folder on top of his chart and stand to leave.
"What was your first name again?" Foster asks.
"I didn't say. It's not of any relevance."
"Do you know someone wrote about me? In a psychology journal. Someone named Dr. Danica Winston. The library here gets all the journals. I ripped out the article. I keep it in my room."
I grasp the back of the chair. "Oh? It has your name in it?"
"No. But I know it's referring to me."
I never thought he'd read the article.
"Well, there have been many things written about you," I say. "Your case attracted a lot of attention in the papers."
"The papers!" says Foster. "Oh, they love me! But they'll print anything remotely sensational. This was an article in a psychology journal." He lowers his voice and says in a mock-professorial tone, "It's quite serious."
Bill, the guard, raps on the door. "Everything okay?" he mouths through the small wire-reinforced window.
I nod to him, push in the chair and look at Foster. "You should be careful about ripping pages out of library material. Good afternoon."
I knock on the door and Bill lets me out.
I walk down the hall to my office, careful to take even, measured footsteps even though I want to skip with excitement. My first solo interview with the infamous Martin Foster.
Back in my office I open Foster's chart, place copies of the assessment questions inside and file it neatly under F in my increasingly full drawer. I've only been here a week and a half but already the patients' assessments seem relentless, a steady onslaught of interviews and filing. I thought I would get a break from administrative drudgery after I finished the long string of paperwork to apply for this fellowship at Stowmoor. It seems as if the last six months of my life have been devoted completely to filling out forms and asking for letters of reference and writing a perfect statement of intent. And as Carl, my graduate supervisor, reminded me again and again, as prestigious as my fellowship is, it's not a permanent position. Moving to England means I'll have to log extensive, supervised clinical hours before I can become officially chartered here. And those hours won't count towards certification if I move back home.
But still, I took the leap. And now I'm here, on Foster's case. I slide his file into the cabinet. My fingertips quiver and not even the fluorescent office lights can mask my glow.
"So it went well, did it?"
Dr. Abbas steps into my office. He does this at the end of most afternoons. I haven't figured out if he's checking up on me or just trying to be friendly. "That look on your face—it's a look of satisfaction. Brilliant," he says.
"Oh, yes. The session went well," I tell him.
"Very good. Heading out for the day now?"
"I'm on my way." I log off my computer and tuck my notepad into my desk drawer. "Are you leaving too?" I ask.
"Not quite. I've got a late one." He runs his hand over his short black hair, which hasn't yet started to show any grey, even though his beard is salt and pepper. "Last-minute appeal tomorrow or something." Dr. Abbas specializes in addictions, and he's often called in to testify as an expert witness.
"Right, then," he says, turning towards the hall, "if you hurry you'll still catch the 5:45 train."
Excerpted from Quiver by Holly Luhning. Copyright © 2011 Holly Luhning. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted November 27, 2012
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