"Thoroughly chilling and engrossing...a breathtaking psychological thriller." LIBRARY JOURNAL
Back at college in the '70s, they called themselves "The Madison Seven"a close circle of friends inseparably linked by trust, loyalty, and love. Then one night, years later, they gathered at Julia Mallet's Manhattan apartment for a "Come-As-You-Were Party" and decided to play a game...
Tough, beautiful and independent, Julia Mallet feels her life is nearly perfect. She holds a high-profile executive position in an important advertising firm. She is raising a beautiful little daughter, Emily, without the inconvenience of a husband. And now "The Madison Seven" have come together once again to celebrate her thirty-fifth birthday...and to bring back a past that should have been left dead and forgotten.
Less than twenty-four hours later, a woman Julia barely knows is brutally and senselessly slain by a faceless psychopath. NYPD Detective Ray Burgess is a man pursued by shadows, a good cop who has stared too deeply into the face of evil, and his obsessive dedication is drawing him closer to Julia, even as a crazed killer strikes again and again.
The maniac has left a calling card behind that only Julia Mallet can read: the result of a post-hypnotic suggestion inadvertently lodged in six subconscious mindsthe dark residue of a harmless party game gone terribly wrong. Now Julia knows without question that one of her six dearest friends is a murderer...and is coming after her next.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.10(d)|
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From a distance, they resembled two tiny astronauts, swaddled in bulky down coats, ski masks covering their faces, steam puffing from their mouths. They moved stiffly across a field of luminous snow, the smaller one clutching a doll of some kind, walking backward, the older one advancing with outstretched arms.
The smaller child hugged the tattered doll tight.
The word was nearly swallowed by the whistling wind that swept curls of dusty powder from the snow's surface.
"Give it to me."
The two children faced each other, neither moving, one a head shorter than the other. Even beneath layers of puffy down, even from a distance, it wasn't hard to tell that both were girding for battle.
"Now." The taller child stepped forward. "Give it to me now. You know it's mine." The voice was high-pitched, reedy, but with the carefully enunciated staccato of a child imitating a reproachful parent.
Still clutching the doll, the smaller child stepped back, hesitated, then turned and ran.
"Give it back!" The other child set chase.
They lumbered across the white field, plunging forward more than running as their boots pierced the crisp shell of frozen snow.
What, exactly, were they fighting over? A doll, yes, but even seen from a distance, it was clearly not the cuddly kind of doll popular with little girls and even some boys. This doll-of-contention wore a red, pointed cap. Its face had the exaggerated features and expression of a clown, yet it wasn't exactly a clown — too gaunt, almost menacing. And one of its hands grasped something long and thin. A cane? No; though the doll was clutched in the smaller child's arms, it was evident that the object in its hand was being held aloft — brandished — like a wand.
The smaller child reached a chain-link fence at the far edge of the field, stopped for just a second, looked in either direction, then back toward the other child. The fence was seven or eight feet high, each link encased in shimmering ice. Climbing would be hard enough even without the ice. Impossible, holding the doll.
The smaller child scampered along the fence, eyes focused on the ground to the left, where the fence met the snow crust. The taller child cut across the snow before reaching the fence, gaining a few feet.
Suddenly the smaller child collapsed — no, the movement was more deliberate, like sliding headfirst into second base. A moment later, safely on the other side, the opening in the fence almost invisible behind the snow, the child turned.
"Leave me alone!" The high-pitched voice sounded tinny over the still whistling wind.
The taller child found the opening in the fence and shimmied through, though with greater difficulty.
The landscape turned scrubby, forcing both children to dodge squat, snow-laden bushes. Puffs of breath-smoke hovered above the two of them, as if powered by miniature steam engines.
The smaller child reached the crest of a gentle hill and turned to shout.
"Go. Away!" Panting out the words, one at a time. "Leave. Me. Alone."
Crunch-crunching through the crusty top-snow, the taller child closed the gap between them.
"Give it to me. It's mine!"
The smaller child charged down the hill, sinking into a waist-high drift before clawing back to the surface and plunging down again. The pursuing child also sank down — there had to be a depression under the snow, or a ridge — but managed to get back on track.
The lower half of the hill was protected from the sun by a stand of trees to the west. The snow crust was harder there, and both children were able to run on its surface without puncturing it. In fact, they practically slid down the hill, skating on the shimmering, treacherous veneer.
A sharp whistle pierced the air. At the sound, the first child tried to stop, continued sliding, then fell to the side — perhaps deliberately, to gain some purchase on the slippery slope. Even the taller child hesitated for a moment.
A second whistle, louder. The smaller child looked toward the bottom of the hill, at the dark gash across the otherwise all-white landscape, disappearing to the north around a bend lined with pine trees. Train tracks, kept clear of snow from frequent use.
The smaller child started at the voice, looked up into the angry eyes peering out from the slit in the ski mask.
Another whistle, nearly deafening. Both children turned toward the noise, held to the awesome spectacle of the approaching freight train. Within moments it was passing by, car after car, endless. The earth trembled beneath them. The smaller child — perhaps frightened, perhaps simply cold from sitting on the snow — stood up and stared openmouthed as the cars passed, boxcars, tank cars, flatcars piled with lumber.
The taller one reached out to grab the doll; the smaller child cradled it just in time.
The protest was all but drowned by the passing train.
Again a mittened hand reached for the doll, now practically engulfed in the small child's down jacket.
"It's mine!" the tall one shouted.
"You said I could have it. You said I could."
The smaller child turned to face the red, snow-topped boxcars whizzing by.
The taller child raised both hands in front and paused for a split second, then shoved hard — sending the other child sprawling, propelled off the snow, tumbling headfirst down the hill.
The taller child looked up just in time to see —
A blur of blue snow jacket ... whirling black wheels, one after another ... swirling gusts of white snow ... patches of red here and there where —
It was as if the smaller child had vanished. And the taller child sat on top of the icy snow, as if waiting for the other to reappear, doll in hand, from beneath the train.
Minutes went by, boxcars and tank cars and flatcars by the dozens. Quiet finally returned as the train receded down the tracks.
The taller child stood up and slid down the hill, eyes averted from the flattened jacket and blue jeans on the track, staring instead at the tail of the train disappearing around the distant bend.
At the edge of the track the child finally glanced down, then quickly away, and started up the hill, panting, slipping, falling back. Three feet up, two feet back down again. Eyes red, tears welling up. I didn't mean it, I didn't mean it.
The child stopped halfway up and listened. The tinny notes were faint, muted by the snow. Had the tiny music box inside the doll been on all along? No. Then why was it on now? The music was irresistible, hypnotic, its very faintness drawing the child back down the hill.
Eyes averted, as before, the child approached the track, crouched, felt around the body ... looked squarely at it for one brief second, then grasped the doll and stood up.
The child stared at the doll, fresh splotches of red dotting its slender body, the music sharper now, more precise. "'Somewhere, over the ...'" The child switched off the music and turned to address the mangled heap on the track.
"He's my wizard." A step back, breath-smoke puffing from the mouth hole in the ski mask. "My wizard."
Hugging the doll, the child began the slippery climb to the top of the hill.CHAPTER 2
Saturday, January 28
Julia Mallet leaned over the bed and gently stroked her daughter's forehead.
"Want a song, honey?"
"You know, Mommy. I'll start. 'Somewhe-re-re, over the rainbow ...'" Emily had inherited her mother's throaty voice; on the phone, she was often mistaken for much older than her four years.
By the time they got to "'troubles melt like lemon drops,'" Emily's eyes were starting to close. Julia sang, "'Why, oh, why, can't I?'" solo and had turned to go when a burst of laughter from the party on the other side of the closed door got through to Emily.
"You look silly, Mommy. Everybody looks silly tonight."
"That's because I told them to dress silly," Julia said.
"Because it's my thirty-fifth birthday, and I asked everybody to dress the way they looked seventeen years ago, in 1977."
"Because that's the year I started college, and a lot of my college friends are here. It's a come-as-you-were party."
"Because I'm silly, okay?"
When she bent to give a kiss, Emily slipped an arm around her mother's neck to keep her close a minute longer.
"I love you ..."
Emily's eyelids were drooping. Her blond curls fanned out on the pillow.
"How much do I love you, Em?"
Her daughter spread her arms wide, and Julia stood up.
"Much as the Empire State Building," Emily mumbled just before her arms dropped and her eyes closed.
Julia shut the door to Emily's room and heard Steely Dan's "Hey Nineteen" over the roar of twenty conversations. Way back when ... in '67. She made her way through the apartment to the far corner of the living room and surveyed her guests. Emily was right, they did look silly: bell-bottoms, peasant blouses, granny glasses, beads — lots of beads. Midtown Manhattan sparkled beyond the large window that formed almost an entire wall of the room.
"Julia, you look fabulous. I love your hair — Pocahontas, right?"
Gail Severance looked especially silly in a flowing, lushly floral dashiki. Julia kissed her on the cheek.
"What kept you?"
Gail touched one of her earrings, a dangling silver peace sign.
"You think it's easy to pull a look like this together?"
She placed her hands on Julia's shoulders and turned her around to face a small decorative mirror.
"We haven't changed a bit since Madison. Except for the better."
Julia studied their images. Gail overstated everything, but she had a point. The fifteen pounds Julia had dropped somewhere along the way had added definition to her face, accentuating her full lips, long slender nose, and the big, green-brown eyes that were still her most striking feature. And Gail, a chubby freshman who by graduation had seemed too thin, now looked chic rather than anorexic, with her sunken cheeks, flat chest, and bony shoulders.
"I see Jared's on the prowl," Gail said. "He should wear a sign around his neck: 'Warning, one-night stand ahead.'"
Julia looked over the crowd and quickly spotted Jared DeSantis. He was easily the most attractive man in the room — Jared was always the most attractive man in the room.
"Marianne's here," Julia said. "She flew up from D.C."
"I saw Paula and Martin on the way in."
"Separate rooms, no doubt."
"Richard's here, too." Gail glanced at her friend and arched her eyebrows. "Alone."
"Forget it, Gail."
"His separation became official last week. He announced it the minute he saw me, like a credential."
"He's put on weight, hasn't he?" Julia said. "Poor guy must be literally eating his heart out since Kim gave him his walking papers."
"Heavy or not, it wouldn't hurt you to go out on a date once in a while."
"Don't start, please?"
A glass shattered somewhere in the apartment, followed by a burst of giddy laughter. Julia started to move toward the hallway, but Gail took her arm.
"Ever since Emily was born — make that "conceived" — you've been practically celibate."
Julia sighed. "Completely celibate, and so what?"
"It's okay to have a daughter and a sex life, you know."
"But a sex life is so ... time-consuming."
"If you didn't spend every spare minute boxing at that seedy gym you like so much —"
"Boxing is great exercise. Aerobically, it's better than the Stair-Master, the —"
"It's a substitute for sex, Julia. You know I always tell you the truth."
"Well, in my opinion, honesty is way overrated. And I need another drink."
Julia turned and headed for the bedroom bar, snaking through the crowd, stopping to talk every few feet, still a bit disoriented by the unlikely tangle of old friends, recent acquaintances, colleagues, neighbors.
Julia Mallet, this is your life.
"Great party, sweetheart." Jared DeSantis slipped an arm around her waist and pulled her toward him. "I never knew you were so popular."
"The drinks are free." Julia gently extricated herself from Jared's arm. "And half of the guests work for me."
"Well, you are 'advertising's top woman executive.'"
Julia rolled her eyes. Would she ever stop taking flak over that Madison alumni magazine article, which had seriously exaggerated her importance?
"I'm the top woman executive at Todman, DiLorenzo. There are plenty of more senior women in advertising, thank God."
"You'd never know it to look at that bunch." He nodded at the agency group huddled in the hallway. "All of them drinking white wine or club soda like good little scouts. Bet they'd wax the floors if you asked them to."
Jared pointed his beer at Gail, standing in front of the living room window, eyes darting nervously around the packed room.
"Is Gail planning to jump or what?"
Julia looked back at Gail. She was glued to the spot where Julia had left her, shielded by a gloomy expression that warded off all advances.
"Why don't you talk to her, Jared? For old times' sake."
"The old college try?"
Julia turned from Jared back to Gail.
"Parties bring out her armor. It's like she won't let anyone but her closest friends get past it."
"I wouldn't worry about Gail. She exudes something ..." He stared at her for a few moments. "I don't think she wants people to get past the armor. She doesn't need anyone else. There's nothing really ... hungry about Gail Severance."
"She's a cookbook writer."
"Ha-ha. I look at Gail Severance and I sense a woman who's satisfied. Contained, anyway."
Julia glanced at him. If anyone was qualified to appraise a woman's hunger, it was Jared. But Gail, satisfied? She might needle Julia about her social life, but Gail seldom dated and had never had even one long-term relationship with a man.
"I don't know, Jared. I look at Gail and I'm happy the windows are shut."
Jared took a hot mozzarella canapé from a tray.
"Classy party," he said.
"It's a lot of work. I don't know why I bother, except that it's my thirty-fifth birthday and there are so many people I want —"
"I know why you do it." Jared popped the canapé into his mouth. "Throwing a party puts you in control."
"In control of what? Three waitresses and a finger-food chef?"
"Your whole life is about control. Perfect job, perfect apartment, perfect daughter. And no husband to complicate things."
"You make it all sound selfish."
"Not selfish. But I'd love to be around the day Julia Mallet lets go of the control. That would be worth waiting for."
"I'll send you an invitation."
Jared ran a hand lightly over her cheek.
"Remember, back at Madison ..."
Julia swallowed hard. He wasn't going to bring up their one night together, second semester freshman year? Surely it had faded into a forest of such encounters, vivid though it remained in her own memory.
"Those nights in your dorm room when you used to hypnotize us?"
"Oh, right," she said, remembering. They'd get together, get high, and at some point Julia would hypnotize them, using a technique she'd learned from a psychology professor. Sometimes she'd manage to hypnotize nearly everyone in the room. Then she and anyone else not in a trance would think up complicated scenarios for the others to act out.
"That was fun," Julia said.
"That was control. Ultimate control."
She started to turn away, but he took her arm.
"We all have only one, maybe two real strengths, Julia. Yours is your determination, the power you have. You might as well accept it, make the most of it."
"I keep forgetting you were a psych major."
"It's the whole point of you, really, this authority of yours."
Julia sighed. Jared was probably right. His most appealing quality to women wasn't his looks, splendid as they were. It was his way of making a woman feel understood — completely, profoundly understood — that made his focused attention thrilling and scary and incredibly erotic.
"What's your one strength, then?" she said, wondering if he knew.
He closed his eyes for a few seconds, and when he opened them, his whole face lit up in a brilliant smile.
"This," he said with a shrug.
Julia felt a catch in her throat and put her arms around him. How long could he survive on that smile? At thirty-five, Jared had never held a job longer than it took to qualify for unemployment benefits. None of his friends, Julia included, could quite figure out how he supported himself, and he parried inquiries by mentioning the occasional acting or modeling job, his rent-controlled apartment, his meager wardrobe. No one pushed him too far on this; everyone who cared about Jared wanted him to be as perfect as he looked.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Perfect Angel"
Copyright © 1997 Seth Margolis.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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