Catherine Galitza is assaulted in her own home, thrown down the stairwell, and left with serious injuries. As she recovers, she works to solve the mystery of her attacker’s identity, focusing on the barrage of nuisance phone calls she has been receiving for months. Catherine begins to consider the idea of a stalker, a watcher who has become obsessed, playing a silent role in her life. Two men are curiously intent on helping her discover the truth—Simon Jardine, her husband’s business partner; and Terry Devlin, a self-made Irish hotelier whom she has known since youth—but can they be trusted?
Finally, the police arrest a suspect, yet Catherine still feels the eyes of a watcher: Will she discover the true culprit before it’s too late?
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Keep Me Close
By Clare Francis
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Clare Francis
All rights reserved.
Leaden summer rain had seized the city. As the taxi inched along the humid streets, Simon felt a nervous dread. To see Catherine at last, to face the full extent of the damage, to get the whole awful business sorted out one way or the other! After the long hours at the hospital, the calls to the police, the sleepless nights, he felt as though he had been waiting for this moment for ever, though it was just – he knew it precisely – four and a half days.
The interminable journey also gave him more than enough time to brood with growing misgivings on the white roses that sat so obtrusively on the seat beside him. He had bought them hurriedly from Moyses Stevens at considerable expense, but now the arrangement seemed too formal, the roses too white, and he couldn't suppress the suspicion that they would be seen as glaringly inappropriate, more suited to a wedding or a funeral. The realisation irritated him excessively because with just a little more thought he would never have made such a ridiculous mistake.
Out of long habit, he reached for his mobile and began to make calls from the list he kept on the small white cards that fitted so neatly into his breast pocket. The list was long, it always was, yet after two calls he found himself staring blankly through the misted window at the streaming streets, the phone forgotten on his knee. A moment later he switched the thing off altogether, impatient with the cab's impossibly slow progress. At this rate there was a risk of getting to the hospital at the same time as Catherine's family, a prospect that filled him with dismay.
He called to the driver to try another route, only for the cab to enter a street that was completely blocked. As his frustration soared, the sweat sprang against his shirt, and he felt a familiar flutter high on his cheek: his certain visitor in times of stress. Removing his spectacles, he propped his elbow against the window and, finding the exact spot and angle, pressed two fingers hard against the dancing muscle until it subsided.
The cabbie cut down another side street; they began to make progress. Reaching the hospital at last, Simon resolved the problem of the flowers by thrusting them into the hands of some fellow arrivals, a shambling overweight couple bearing chocolates for some unhealthy relative. They stared at them with lumpen distrust, but he didn't waste time with explanations they wouldn't begin to understand.
The hospital was modern and showy, with expanses of steel and glass and the inevitable atrium. He followed the now familiar route along a suspended walkway past intensive care to the ward with the unpronounceable, vaguely African name. At the last set of doors he paused and, setting down his briefcase, peered critically at his outline, silhouetted in the glass. He smoothed his hair and flicked a hand over his lapels and viewed first one profile then the other, and saw a version of himself that was entirely as it should be: well-groomed, soberly dressed.
Typical of the shambolic way in which the hospital seemed to be run, there were unfamiliar faces at the nursing station for perhaps the fourth time that week, two pudding-faced girls, neither more than eighteen, both engrossed in paperwork and determined not to notice him. It was necessary to speak decisively before one of them would look up, and then in his general agitation he stumbled over Catherine's name, almost saying Langley instead of Galitza.
'Are you family?' the girl demanded curtly.
'I'm Catherine's solicitor,' Simon explained, producing his card. 'As well as a close —'
'Sorry, family only.'
'That's correct,' he agreed slowly and calmly. 'But – as I was trying to explain – I'm a close friend of the family and I have permission to see her. So long as the family haven't just arrived – have they? In which case I'll wait.'
The girl examined the card doubtfully. 'We've no instructions. I'll have to check.'
'But it was Sister Jones who called me,' Simon said with tight lips and a degree less patience. 'It was she who told me Catherine had regained consciousness. She knows I have permission to visit her.'
The girl was wavering. He tried to loosen his expression into something a little more friendly. 'You didn't say – have the family arrived yet?'
The girl went to check with the other nurse. 'No, but they're on their way over.'
'I'm aware of that. I was the one who contacted them, you see.'
A small exaggeration this – Simon had never attempted to contact Alice and by the time he'd got through to Duncan the old boy had already heard from the hospital – but it was enough to win the nurse over.
The nurse led the way down the corridor to Catherine's room and slipped inside. Through a chink in the curtained panel Simon could just make out the dark outline of a chair and a mass of shadowy flowers, but nothing of Catherine herself. He wasn't sure what to expect. It had been a couple of days since he'd last glimpsed her in intensive care, stretched out under bright lights amid a morass of equipment and wires. She would still be attached to tubes and machines that bleeped, he imagined, possibly to some even more disturbing apparatus which did not bear thinking about. But would she be drowsy or wide awake? Confused or coherent? When he'd made the hurried call to Duncan, the old boy had been too busy going through the motions of fatherly relief to provide any useful details.
The nurse reappeared. 'She's very drowsy. She's not up to much, but she's agreed to see you.'
The L-shaped room was dim, the blinds drawn against a day that was already overcast. Closing the door softly behind him, Simon waited in the angle of the room until his eyes had adjusted to the gloom. His nervousness came rushing back. His tongue felt thick, his shirt clammy against his back.
Soundlessly he moved forward into the pool of muted artificial light. Catherine lay flat under a thin coverlet that revealed the slightness of her body. He couldn't immediately see her eyes; her head was low, there was some sort of contraption under her chin and around her head, and wires and weights at the bedhead. Tubes were strapped to her arms, and two more emerged from beneath the coverlet and looped away through the bed frame, one to a machine on a stand that showed a green light, the other to a transparent bag half-filled with – he quickly averted his eyes.
He took a few steps towards her, the tension fluttering like a tribe of butterflies in his stomach. 'Hello, Catherine. It's Simon Jardine!'
A faint sound: gasp or sigh.
As he advanced into her field of vision her eyes swivelled down, searching for him, squinting uncertainly. Her entire head was held in a rigid cradle, he realised, a sort of surgical collar, but larger and sturdier than any he'd seen before, extending from her chin up and around the back of her head, like some bizarre Elizabethan ruff.
Her eyes narrowed again, she couldn't seem to focus on him, and, depositing his briefcase on the floor, he forced himself to move closer still, to the very edge of the bed.
'Simon?' Her voice was dry and cracked.
'Hello there.' In attempting to smile he felt his cheek give way again: a sharp shiver. 'How are you, Catherine?'
Her gaze widened, she looked at him with something like fear. 'Ohh ... Ohh ...'
For a moment he thought his heart would give out, it was beating so violently.
'Something's – happened?' she gasped with an effort. 'Something ... Tell me ...'
'It's all over now, Catherine. Nothing to worry about. You're in safe hands.'
She seemed to have trouble in understanding him, and he repeated the reassurances.
'But Ben? Pa?' she whispered. 'Has something —? Are they —?'
'They're fine. Really!' He produced a fiercely cheerful tone. 'Absolutely fine!'
'Yes! I promise!'
She closed her eyes and gave a long ragged sigh. 'Ohh ... I thought ... Ohh ...' Then, with a fresh wave of anxiety, she whispered, 'But where – are – they?'
'Oh, they'll be arriving any minute now, I'm sure. I just happened to be the nearest, that's all!' He heard himself laugh awkwardly. 'Your father's definitely on his way. He'd just popped home for a wash and brush up. I spoke to him as I left. He was just turning round to come straight back. And Alice – she'll be in after work, I expect. So you see?'
'But – Ben?'
'Oh, bound to be in soon! Been in twice a day, most days, sometimes even more.' Covering for Ben again, he thought with a burst of anger. How often have I had to do that?
She frowned at him. 'So why ... are you ... here?'
He blurted, 'Oh, I just thought I'd drop by, that's all!' What a ridiculous thing to say, he thought unhappily. I'm sounding like a complete idiot. This was his fate, it seemed: always to feel off-balance with Catherine, always to feel hopelessly awkward. 'No, it was more that' – he selected a more considered tone – 'I came to help out.'
'Help ...?' The idea seemed to add to her general air of puzzlement.
'To look after all the tedious things that Ben and Duncan don't want to be bothered with —'
But he had lost her. Her eyes were ranging back and forth in a slow incessant searching of the walls and ceiling. Finally she murmured, 'Where is ... this ... again?'
He gave her the name of the hospital.
'The doctor ... said ... an accident.'
'Yes, you bumped your head. You had us worried for a while, I can tell you, but you're okay now. You're in the very best of hands. We've made sure of that!'
The words came faintly, like small breaths. 'My head ...?'
'A nasty crack.'
'But it's not – it's ...' She lost this thought, or abandoned it, and after a moment her gaze came back to him. 'A car ...?'
'No. It was a fall, a nasty fall.'
'Fall ...' She took this in slowly, with renewed bafflement.
He thought: No memory, she has no memory at all. He could hardly believe it.
He leant over her so that she could look up at him without strain. He saw that the whites of her eyes had a jaundiced tinge, from medication perhaps, or some internal damage, while the irises, which in healthier times had been such an intense blue, seemed almost bleached of colour.
There was a terrible intimacy in being so close to her, in witnessing her defencelessness; he shuddered softly, with pity and wonder, and something like longing.
He said gravely, 'It happened at home. You fell from the landing.'
'In fact ... during a burglary.'
Alarm and confusion passed over her face, her mouth moved loosely. 'Burglary ...' Then, with another stab of anxiety: 'Ben wasn't ... there? Wasn't ... hurt?'
'Hurt? No! He got a couple of bruises, that's all. Nothing serious. They discharged him almost immediately. Four days ago now.'
'Four ...' She frowned, though he couldn't tell if it was the thought of the lost days or the burglary that troubled her.
The odd thing was that there was no visible bruising. Nothing to show for the fall but the dulled eyes and a deep pallor. In the sepulchral light her skin looked so white and smooth and polished that she might have been an alabaster effigy. Only the area beneath her eyes revealed the slightest trace of colour, a faint smudge of violet-blue far below the surface. The effect of this terrible perfection was dreamlike, hypnotic, and he could not look away.
'You wouldn't – lie?'
She had startled him. 'Lie, Catherine?'
'Ben? Oh – absolutely not!'
'You would – say?'
'Of course I would say, Catherine! How long have we known each other, for heaven's sake? How long have we been friends? Good God!' The laugh came again, a jarring sound that seemed to jump unbidden from his mouth. 'No, he's perfectly okay. Promise. Tough bastard. Grappled with the burglar and got a black eye for his trouble. And then – well, two stitches. On the cheek.'
The two stitches seemed to provide the authenticity she craved and for the first time since Simon had arrived she became almost calm.
Bending still lower, Simon whispered, 'Catherine, the police have asked if they can come and talk to you.'
Her expression was almost childlike in its incomprehension and it occurred to him that she was probably dosed up to the eyeballs with sedatives.
'To ask if you can remember anything about the attack. But, Catherine, you don't have to see them if you don't want to. Just tell me and I'll keep them away for as long as you like!'
'They just want to know if you can remember anything.'
'But I — No ...'
'You don't remember anything?'
He nodded sympathetically to give her more time. 'What about – oh – arriving at the flat? Nothing about that?'
A faint furrow sprang up between her eyebrows as she agonised over this.
'Or going upstairs?'
'No.' Then, as if his words had only just sunk in: 'Attack?'
He hesitated, wondering how much he could say without planting memories in her mind. 'Well, we don't know exactly what happened of course, but it seems that the intruder attacked Ben, then – well, who knows, he may have pushed past you, something like that. Anyway, somehow or another – you fell.'
He left it for a moment before prompting gently, 'You'd just come back from France.'
'France.' It wasn't a memory but a repetition.
'The intruder was already inside the house.'
Clearly disturbed at this, she began to breathe in snatches. 'No – nothing – nothing —'
'It's all right,' Simon interrupted hastily. 'It really couldn't matter less. Please don't worry yourself about it. Plenty of time for all that later. Plenty of time! I'll tell the police not to come. I'll tell them not to bother you.'
'Yes, I ... can't ... can't ...' She stared past him, the confusion chasing over her face like shadows.
'It's all right. It's all right.' He repeated the words over and over again because he couldn't think of what else to say, and because it thrilled him to be soothing her in this moment of fear and need, whispering to her like a lover in the night.
Her eyes became opaque, then closed altogether. If it hadn't been for the rapidity of her breathing and the slight crease between her eyebrows she might have been asleep.
Simon straightened up with the sense of a task completed, if only for the time being. She could recall nothing. It was a miracle, a blessing. No police, no hassle, no flashbacks, no nightmares. According to the information he had garnered from various medics concussion victims rarely recovered lost memories of events immediately surrounding a trauma.
Waiting quietly, he remembered the time he had first seen Catherine – when was it? – three years ago. No, he could be more precise than that – two years and eleven months ago – at Ascot. He had understood immediately why people should talk about her, why they should describe her as pretty, lovely, striking. Simon himself had had no hesitation in calling her beautiful, though then, as now, he would have found it hard to say exactly why. She had good eyes – extraordinary eyes – arresting, oval with a slight upwards tilt at the corners, and her hair, when it wasn't scraped back and dead-looking like this, was a rich browny-gold; yet her nose was by any standards rather long, while her mouth was a little on the wide side and very full. There was no one feature that could be described as exceptional, and yet taken together they had what his mother would have called an effect. From that first glimpse Simon had found it impossible not to be gripped by the sheer improbability of that brilliant face.
Later, when he'd had the chance to observe her, he'd become intrigued by her vitality, the way she moved and talked and held her head, by her low supple laughing voice and the warm conspiratorial glances she threw at those around her. She was the most vivid person Simon had ever met. He was in awe of this, and envious too, because, though he worked hard at every aspect of his life, enjoyment wasn't something that came easily to him. Watching Catherine sometimes, he was both fascinated and disturbed by the idea that such enjoyment of life could be acquired or learnt, that if he could only devote more time to the study of it he might be able to find the secret. But in his sombre and lonely heart he knew there was no secret, no trick, no easy way; it was simply that some people loved life and others had to take the promise of such things on trust.
Excerpted from Keep Me Close by Clare Francis. Copyright © 1999 Clare Francis. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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