Wayne Summers opened his eyes to find himself in the dark, surrounded by the chirring and rustling of unseen birds. He tried to tell himself it was only a dream, but the feel of the rough mattress-ticking beneath him and the fetid, faintly ammoniacal smell of feathers and old newspapers and bird dung argued otherwise.
Wayne struggled blindly to his feet, heard a shrill hiss only inches from his head, then felt the buffeting of heavy, silent wings, followed by a sharp blow to his ear. He threw himself back onto the mattress and curled into a ball with his arms thrown up to protect his head -- he didn't know he'd been screaming until he stopped and heard the silence.
Then, filling the silence, the unbearable chirring and rustling again, the nervous tip-tap shuffle of hard claws on cage floors, the shuddering noise of birds ruffling their feathers for grooming. And, intermittently, the muffled beating of those heavy wings only a few feet away in the dark.
Unless, of course, it wasn't dark. Wayne brought his hand toward his face until his palm touched his nose -- there was no change in the quality of the blackness. For the first time it occurred to him that he might have gone blind -- but how would you know, how could you tell? He tried to think back, to remember how he'd come to be here, but the memories were so wispy that trying to catch hold of them was like grasping at smoke rings: the harder you clutched, the quicker they dissolved.
Whimpering softly, Wayne fingered his torn earlobe. Sliced clean through -- a razor-sharp beak or talon. Raptor, most likely: Wayne, an ornithophobe, knew from the studies he'd undertaken as part of Dr. Taylor's desensitization therapy that it had to be either a raptor or a carrion eater, and of the two, only the raptors had need of silent wings. Noise was not a problem for the carrion eaters -- their prey wasn't going anyplace.
The mattress beneath his ear was damp with blood by this time, and the panic was coming in waves, one big roller after another. Wayne knew he could forestall a panic-induced blackout (or, as Dr. Taylor called it, a vasovagal syncope) by breathing slowly from the diaphragm while tensing and relaxing his muscles. He also knew he could stop the bleeding by pressing the edges of the wound together with his fingertips. But he wasn't sure he wanted to do either. After all, he told himself as his consciousness slipped away, there are worse things in life than bleeding to death while you're asleep -- if he hadn't known that before, he knew it now.
But bleeding to death was not going to be an option for Wayne -- at least not yet. After only a few minutes of sweet unconsciousness, he was awakened by a sharp pinching sensation in his left earlobe. And since pinching that same ear was how Wayne's mother always brought him around after what she referred to as one of his "faint'nin' spells," he allowed himself the momentary luxury of pretending he was back home in the apartment they shared on Fillmore Street, and that he'd had a blackout and she was pinching him awake.
Then he opened his eyes and found himself lying in the dark with his hands now cuffed behind him. Someone or something was indeed pinching the torn edges of his earlobe together, and when he tried to pull his head away, the grip only tightened.
"Who are you?" Wayne asked into the darkness.
"Sssh, hold still."
Man's voice -- sounded like an older white guy. Familiar, but Wayne couldn't quite place it. "Why are you doing this to me?"
The pressure on his earlobe eased. "Looks like the bleeding's just about stopped."
Looks like? Oh, God, no. "Am I blind? Have I gone blind? Please, I have to know."
No answer -- just a pager beeping in the darkness, followed by the sound of receding footsteps.
"Please, can't you even tell me that?"
Footsteps, climbing stairs.
"Please, I -- "
But by then Wayne had his answer: a door opened at the top of a flight of open-treaded steps, admitting just enough light to assure him that his eyes still functioned, before closing again, leaving him with only the afterimage of the ghostly white, heart-shaped face of an enormous barn owl tethered to a perch above his head.
From the highway, the unremarkable three-story building on the lightly wooded rise looked like just about every other new office building in the Virginia suburbs west of Washington.
Which was exactly the point, noted FBI Investigative Specialist Linda Abruzzi, formerly Special Agent Abruzzi, as she pulled up to the guard kiosk in her '93 Geo Prizm. If all government architecture can be divided into two periods, before Oklahoma City and after Oklahoma City, the Department of Justice's recently opened auxiliary office building, though small, was definitively post-O.C. in design and construction, and its first, cheapest, and most effective line of defense was anonymity. No signs, no visitors, no press, no exceptions.
It was only when you got closer that you began noticing a few subtle distinctions. The kiosk, for instance, anchored two reinforced steel gates and was situated at the bottom of the approach road, a hundred yards distant from the building, while the parking lot was another fifty yards to the west: no one would ever get a car bomb near this federal building.
Add to those precautions reinforced roof and outer walls, acrylic windows thick enough to withstand a direct hit from one of the smaller handheld mortars, additional load-bearing interior walls to keep the whole building from collapsing in case a larger rocket did make it through, and a self-contained environment that could be sealed off floor by floor in the event of a chemical weapons attack, and you had a facility that was as close to impervious as was practicable for an aboveground structure.
When she flashed her credentials, which included an access pass entitling her to park in the garage under the building rather than the distant outdoor lot, Linda expected to be summarily waved through. Instead the guard painstakingly compared her face to the photo on her ID, which he then compared to the picture on a computer terminal inside the kiosk. Next he had her press her forefinger to a touch-screen pad, both so the computer could match it digitally to her file prints, and also to have it on file in case she turned out not to be Investigative Specialist Abruzzi.
"Thank you," said the guard, handing her badge case back to her. "Can you open the trunk for me, please?"
"Not from in here," said Linda, taking the key out of the ignition and handing it over to him. "This wasn't exactly the bells-and-whistles model." Linda had been a rookie SA working out of the San Francisco field office when she bought the Prizm six years earlier. Given the climate, there hadn't seemed to be any pressing need for air-conditioning, so she'd passed on the deluxe package, which included a remote trunk opener, and saved herself a few grand. Three months later, naturally, the Bureau transferred her to the resident agency in San Antonio, where AC was all but a necessity; she'd kept the car only out of sheer stubbornness.
After checking the trunk for explosives, the guard used a long-handled mirror to inspect the undercarriage, then stepped back into the kiosk and pushed the button to raise the right-hand gate. "Drive directly up to the building without stopping. There's a keypad at the garage door. Code today is three-two-zero-four -- don't write it down. Take the ramp to the subbasement -- space nine is reserved for you."
"Three-two-zero-four, subbasement, space nine. Got it, thanks."
"No problem." Then, under his breath, as the blue Prizm rolled through the gate and started up the hill: "Who'd you have to blow to park up there?"
Inside, the security precautions were no less stringent. A guard met Linda in the subbasement garage and escorted her to an elevator that communicated only with the lobby, where he turned her over to Cynthia Pool, an efficient, perfectly preserved clerk-secretary in her late fifties wearing a dress-for-success outfit from the early eighties -- tailored navy pantsuit, white blouse with a ruffled bow, black Naturalizers with stacked heels.
"Very impressive security," remarked Linda, as Miss Pool led her to a second elevator, which, to Linda's surprise, had buttons for six floors -- three of them turned out to be underground.
"None of it's for us, hon. We're only here because they needed our office space at headquarters."
The elevator doors slid silently open; Linda followed her guide down a series of white corridors remarkable for their featurelessness. No nameplates on the doors, all of which were blue, all of which were closed. No art on the walls, and the only signs were for fire exits.
"Now, pay attention to the route," warned Miss Pool, turning right, then left, then right again. "If you lose your way and wind up somewhere you're not supposed to be, you could find yourself up in Counterintelligence being interrogated with a rubber hose." She stopped abruptly and slipped the picture ID hanging on a chain from her neck into a slot mounted outside yet another anonymous-looking blue door.
"You're kidding, right?"
"Only about the rubber hose -- they're a little sensitive in Counterintelligence, these days. After you."
Exhausted from her long walk, Linda felt her legs start to weaken as she crossed the threshold, and sent up a quick prayer: Please God, not here, not on my first day. He'd screwed her over enough lately; she figured he owed her a favor.
And her prayer was answered, after a fashion: just inside the door stood a file cabinet tall enough for Linda to lean against casually while her legs recovered. It struck her as an odd place to put a file cabinet -- then she saw that the little anteroom was so crammed with free-standing metal cabinets, white cardboard record boxes, precarious stacks of perforated computer printouts, and collapsing slag heaps of overflowing red, brown, or buff accordion file folders that there was scarcely room left over for the secretary's desk and chair.
Miss Pool edged past Linda without comment and rapped with sharp knuckles on the interior door of the suite. "Linda Abruzzi is here."
"Already? Jesus H. Christ, the body isn't even cold yet." The voice was a little too hearty for nine o'clock in the morning, which fit the stories Linda had heard about her predecessor's drinking, part of his legend by now, along with his size, his eccentric wardrobe, his mastery of the Affective Interview, his heroism in the Maxwell case, and his open contempt for the Bureaucracy. "Come on in."
Linda let go of the file cabinet, found to her relief that her legs had regained their strength, picked her way across the crowded anteroom, and opened the door to see an enormous bald man in a plaid sport coat on his knees in front of yet another file cabinet.
"One question," said Special Agent E. L. Pender, FBI, soon to be Ret., marking his place in the roll-out bottom file drawer with his left hand, reaching up to shake Linda's hand with his right. "How bad did you have to fuck up to get sent here?"
"I take it you haven't read my personnel file," she replied. Even kneeling, he was so tall that Linda didn't have to stoop to shake his hand, which was roughly the size of a waffle iron.
Pender glanced pointedly around the windowless office -- if anything, it was even more cluttered with printouts, file folders, record boxes, and file cabinets than the anteroom -- and shrugged. "It's around here someplace. But I don't pay much attention to personnel records -- and if you'd ever seen mine, you'd understand why."
"I heard you had your own coffee cup hanging on the rack over at OPR," joked Linda. The Office of Professional Responsibility was the Justice Department's equivalent of an internal affairs division.
"Only a rumor. But they do know I take it black. Have a seat, take a load off."
Linda hesitated -- the only chair in the room was behind the desk, which was buried under yet another slag heap of computer printouts and file folders.
"Yes, ma'am," said Pender, reading her mind. "That's your chair, that's your desk, this is your office now." He took the file folder he'd been looking at and turned it sideways in the drawer before standing up.
"What about you?" Linda tested the stability of the desk chair, then lowered herself into it carefully, using both hands on the arms for balance the way the physical therapist in San Antone had taught her.
"I'm gone, I'm history. The eagle flies until the end of the month, but I had some vacation saved up, and it was use it or lose it. I only came in today to finish going through these old files, refresh what's left of my memory -- some idiot publisher's paying me a shitload for my memoirs. They're also paying somebody else a shitload to write them, thank God."
"But aren't you supposed to be training me or something?"
"For what? They're shutting down Liaison Support at the end of the year, when Steve McDougal retires. It's outlived its function -- everybody's on-line with everybody nowadays. That's why I asked how bad you fucked up -- no offense intended."
"None taken. I was afraid it was something like that."
"Now that I've seen you motorvatin', though, I'm guessing it has more to do with that." Pender cleared off a space and perched one enormous cheek on the edge of the desk -- his thigh was nearly as wide around as Linda's waist. "What's the story?"
Linda took a long, deep breath, let it out slowly. Might as well get this over. "MS," she said. "MS is the story -- I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis a few months ago."
Pender didn't miss a beat. "Dang," he said. "I hate it when that happens."
Not quite the reaction she'd been expecting -- Linda let out a startled laugh. "Yeah, me too," she said after a moment, then quickly changed the subject. "So what's my job exactly? What is it I'm supposed to do around here?"
"Do?" Pender snorted derisively. "Frankly, my dear, nobody gives a toasted fart."
"You okay in there, sweetheart?" Simon Childs tapped gently on the bathroom door. Sometimes Missy only wanted to be sure the pager would actually summon him; other times she did it out of pure mischief.
"Mo hah, mo hah."
More hot. Simon had never had any trouble understanding what his kid sister was saying. He opened the door to see Missy stretched out in the deep clawfoot tub, waving her pink plastic pager over her head, and grinning from ear to ear -- oh, how that girl loved her bath. You had to keep an eye on her, though. She'd stay in the tub until she was one big wrinkle if you let her, but when the water got cold, she'd start fiddling with the taps, no matter how many times she'd been warned not to, and more often than not, she'd end up either flooding the bathroom or scalding herself.
And for a strange, out-of-time moment, as he approached the tub, Simon saw his baby sister not as she was now, but as he still held her in his mind's eye: a darling, round-faced, whitey-blond five-year-old Kewpie doll with a loving heart and an unquenchable sense of wonder. Then she broke the spell by bleating "Mo hah!" again in her deep-toned, uninflected voice. Simon blinked and found himself looking down at a naked, waterlogged, sparsely haired, morbidly obese, forty-nine-year-old idiot with a protruding tongue and slit eyes lost in folds of fat, whose pale skin was tinged blue as a result of the cardiac condition her doctors had predicted would prove fatal before another year had passed.
Best not to think about that, though. Simon and Missy had been abandoned by their mother after their father's death and were raised by a paternal grandfather as tyrannical as he was wealthy. After his death, it was just the two of them, their trust funds, and the hired help. Simon was fifty-one now; for forty-nine years Missy had been the only constant in his life, and no matter how often Simon told himself it was better this way, more merciful for her to predecease him than for him to leave her behind, he knew in his heart that he was going to be lost without her.
And so despite the doctors' warnings, Simon spoiled Missy outrageously -- why make her stick to a diet if she was going to die anyway? It was like the way the trustees had wanted to send her to retard school after their grandfather's death. They said she'd never reach her full potential otherwise. What did they know about Missy's potential -- or her happiness? If what made Missy happy was baths and food and Audrey Hepburn videos and staying home with Simon, then that's what she'd get. He'd had a huge water heater installed so she could bathe all day if she wanted to, and she had free rein in the kitchen, which he kept well stocked -- not an easy task: oh, how the old girl could pack it away, and oh, how she could pack on the pounds.
But then, Missy had always been chubby. In fact, when he and Missy were kids, Simon used to think of her corpulence as just another symptom of her Down syndrome, along with her moon face, her sloping forehead, her slanty eyes with their yellow-spotted irises, her flat-ridged nose, her protruding tongue, and her low-set, folded ears.
He knew better now, of course. "Okay, okay, I'll run some more hot. Get your piggies out of the way."
Missy drew her legs up. Simon reached down and pulled the old-fashioned, rusty-chained, cork-shaped rubber plug.
"Hey, hey, you braa'," she barked tonelessly.
"Take it easy, I'm just letting some of the cold water out, make room for the hot." He replaced the plug, opened the left tap, swirled the water with his hand to mix the hot in gradually, the way their old nanny, Granny Wilson -- Ganny, they called her -- would have. Then, splashing his sister playfully: "And watch who you're calling a brat, you brat."
Missy giggled and splashed him back, paddling the water with her chubby hands, which had only a single crease across the palm.
"Is that better?" Simon asked her, turning off the water and wiping his hands on the bath mat. As he stood up and crossed to the sink to get Missy a washcloth, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and smoothed back his wavy silver hair, which was receding decorously into a handsome widow's peak.
"Peedee keem." Peachy keen.
"Okay, then." He tossed the washcloth into the tub. "I have to go back down to the basement. Page me when you're ready to get out. And don't forget to wash your whoop-te-do." That had been Ganny's collective term for private parts, male or female.
"Wah yah whoodedo, you braa'!" Missy shouted angrily -- after all, she wasn't a baby -- and the washcloth hit the back of the door with a wet thud as Simon closed it behind him.
Last day on the job. For a secret sentimentalist like E. L. Pender, the whole morning had been fraught with significance. Alarm clock: won't need you no more, you little bastard. Shaving: why not start a beard now, after all these years? Hide those extra chins, at any rate. Clothes: one last chance to nail down his reputation as the worst-dressed agent in the history of the FBI. Universally loathed plaid sport coat, Sansabelt slacks that had spent the night on the floor, and his most comfortable wash-and-wear short-sleeved white shirt -- comfortable because it had been washed and worn to a point just short of decomposition. No tie, of course: odd to think that this was the last time that not wearing a tie would carry any meaning.
Perhaps the strangest part of Pender's morning came when he realized that he was strapping on his calfskin shoulder holster for the last time. He'd already decided he wouldn't be applying for a concealed weapons permit. Not much use for the Glock .40 on the golf course. Anyway, he'd never really bonded with it after the Bureau had taken away his SIG Sauer P226 for display at the FBI museum. It was the shoulder holster that really should have been behind glass, though: Pender was one of the last federal agents to wear one; everybody else had switched to the officially approved over-the-kidney holsters years earlier.
Like most secret sentimentalists, Pender suspected other people of being sentimental, too. Though he knew that save for Pool, the rest of the old Liaison Support gang were either retired or scattered by the Bureau to the four winds, he'd practiced acting surprised on the drive to work, just in case they had decided to throw a party for him.
The only surprise, however, had been the discovery that his replacement was a handicapped female who was no longer even a special agent -- and even that felt more like the last piece of the puzzle finally falling into place. Obviously the Liaison Support Unit, the assignment for ambitious young agents back in the late seventies, had in its final days become a dumping ground for employees the Bureau didn't know what else to do with.
arSo when Pender told Linda that nobody would give a toasted fart how she spent her time, it was only the unvarnished truth. But when he saw the hurt in her eyes, he quickly added: "That's the bad news and the good news."
"You have two and a half months to make whatever you want out of this assignment without Steve Too crawling up your ass."
"Steve Maheu, Steve McDougal's number two. Picture in the dictionary next to holier-than-thou. But with McDougal retiring, Maheu's too busy scouting a soft place to land to pay any attention to you, so you should be pretty much on your own."
"But for what? To do what?"
"To look for serial killers nobody else is looking for."
"Are there any?"
"It's a growth market, kiddo." Pender chuckled. "Now more than ever, it's a growth market."
Then he caught himself, and the laugh faded. "I'm sorry, that was bullshit of me."
"Why do you say that?"
"When we started Liaison Support over twenty years ago, I promised myself I'd never forget about the victims. Even if I was only going fishing in the MMRs, I told myself I'd never forget what the job was really about. And I just did."
Linda looked away, moved by Pender's passion and commitment; maybe this might not turn out to be such a dead-end assignment after all.
"So what do we got?" she asked brusquely, when she was sure of her voice again. All Bronx, all business.
"I want you to take a look at a letter that came in last Friday. It gave me a chill." He began shuffling through the papers stacked on the desk. "And if there's one thing I've learned on this job..." Now he was back down on the floor again, rummaging through a stack of buff file folders with one hand, trying to keep it from toppling over with the other. "...it's to trust the chill." Then, distractedly, still rummaging: "What scares you, Linda -- what are you afraid of?"
"You mean, other than progressive paralysis, ending in death?" Linda tried to soften the bitter words with a laugh. When she'd first decided to fight for the right to keep her job, she had promised herself that if she won, the office would be a no-whining zone.
And it had been one hell of a battle: FBI regs stated clearly that special agents were required to be in "excellent physical condition with no defects that would interfere in firearm use, raids, or defensive tactics." In the end, however, the brass agreed to a compromise: reassignment with the bogus job title of investigative specialist, rather than special agent. Badge, no gun, same pay level, desk job, monthly physicals, and, most worrying of all, monthly psych evaluations: first sign of cognitive impairment, a common enough MS symptom, and they would wash her out entirely.
"I mean before the MS. When you were a kid, say, what was the thing you feared most?"
"Like a phobia?"
"That's easy, then -- snakes."
"What do you mean?"
"Did snakes just give you the creeps, for instance, or were you afraid to walk in the woods, or -- "
"We didn't have much in the way of woods where I grew up. But I definitely stayed the hell away from the reptile house in the Bronx Zoo. I passed out in front of it on a field trip when I was in college."
"Well, if you...Here we go." Pender had found the envelope he was looking for, and winged it up onto the desk. "If you multiply your fear of snakes by about a thousand, you'll have some idea what life might be like for Dorie Bell."
"Gee, thanks," said Linda.
"Don't mention it. Give me a holler when you're done -- I'll be down here someplace."
Johann Sebastian Bach's Six Suites for Cello Solo has long been considered a benchmark for cellists. Pablo Casals, who at age thirteen stumbled upon the suites in a secondhand sheet-music store near the harbor in Barcelona, practiced them every day for twelve years before he worked up the courage to play one in public, and it would be another thirty-five years before he felt ready to record the entire series.
Since then, every world-class cellist has had his or her go at the suites, but only the most gifted, the Jacquelines and the Yo-Yos, have even wrestled them to a draw, so it was probably an act of hubris for a twelfth-chair cellist like Wayne Summers to attempt them.
But Wayne, born poor and black in San Francisco's Fillmore District, had come late to his instrument, and as his teacher Mr. Brotsky always said, without at least a little chutzpah, a man never knows how good he can be or how far he can go.
Which was why every day for the past six years, whether he was working a day job, rehearsing with the symphony, or playing chamber music -- or all three, as sometimes happened -- Wayne made time to practice at least one of the dances from one of the suites. His favorite was the sarabande from the first suite -- there was something so damn sweet and hopeful about it.
That, then, was the piece Wayne, lying in the darkness with his hands cuffed behind his back, chose to practice first, in order to keep himself from going mad. To begin with, he ran through the sarabande in his mind, his left hand twitching the fingering behind him, the muscles of his bowing arm tensing and relaxing rhythmically. Midway through, he began diddle-dumming along, which started the caged birds chirring and singing again. Not the owl though -- the owl remained silent.
When he finished, Wayne heard polite applause -- the sound of one man clapping, somewhere across the room. But the Bach had worked its magic on Wayne: his mind felt clearer than it had since he'd first awakened, however many hours ago.
"Who are you?" he asked into the darkness. "Why are you doing this?"
No answer -- even the birds were silent. But the man was drawing nearer; Wayne could smell him now. He smelled like bubble bath. Cheap, strawberry-scented bubble bath.
"Are you going to kill me?" Wayne asked. It felt strange to be so calm at such a time.
"No." The voice was only inches away.
Thank you, Jesus. "What, then?"
"I'm going to let our feathered friends here do it for me -- eventually."
On the surface, Wayne remained calm, perhaps because beneath the surface something had already died -- hope, most likely -- leaving him nothing to do but ask the question again: "Why are you doing this?"
Instead of an answer, a rank smell, then the unpleasant sensation of something cold and clammy being rubbed against his eyelids. It was all so bizarre and incongruous that it took Wayne a few seconds to recognize the odor, and a few more seconds for him to put it all together. Liver -- the crazy fuck had just rubbed raw liver into his eyes.
And even then the significance of what had happened failed to dawn on Wayne until he heard a sound that drove every other thought, every other sensation but pure blind panic from his mind and consciousness: the rattle of the chain that tethered the barn owl to its perch.
A moment later came the buffeting of silent wings, and the strike. The first blow drove Wayne's head back violently against the mattress. The pain was indescribable -- Wayne rolled over onto his stomach and began thrashing his head from side to side to protect his eyes. The owl, starved and frustrated, half hopped, half flew from one side to the other, stabbing with its beak, trying to get at the liver smell, the blood smell.
Then it found the ear it had struck accidentally earlier, and contented itself with tearing at that until the man who had brought it to this place hauled it away from its prey and dropped a burlap sack over its head.
"Who are you?" screamed Wayne again, through the pain.
"I'll give you a hint," came the answer. "You know how people are always saying you have nothing to fear but fear itself? Well, that's me, buddy -- I'm fear itself."
Dorie is sitting on a couch somewhere, knees primly together. Across the room a television is playing, but she can't quite make out what's on the screen. Behind the television, a window. What floor is this? she asks herself. It makes a difference -- if she's a few stories up, there's no danger, but if she's only on the first or second story, she mustn't look up, mustn't glance at the window.
In front of her, on a familiar-looking coffee table, there's a big, glossy coffee-table book. She leans forward and opens it at random, but she can't make out the words, can't quite bring them into focus.
There are pictures, though. The first one she turns to looks like a bird initially; the picture is the only colored object in Dorie's black-and-white world, and so vivid it's almost 3D. Then she leans closer and discovers to her horror that it's not a picture of a real bird, but of a bird mask -- one of those elongated, feathered masks that a medicine man or a witch doctor might wear.
She quickly closes the book, then hears a tapping at the window. Don't look up, she tells herself -- whatever you do, don't look up.
But she does look up. She always does. And sees what she always sees: the face at the window. Or rather, the mask at the window -- the eyeholes are empty, there's no face behind it.
As always, Dorie Bell awoke from her recurring nightmare with the echo of her own scream ringing in her ears. And as always, there was no way to know whether she'd screamed out loud, or only in the dream. Fortunately, it didn't matter: she lived alone.
Of the approximately thirty million Americans who suffer from phobia disorders serious enough to require professional consultation at some point in their lives, forty-two percent are afraid of illness and/or injury, eighteen percent are afraid of thunderstorms, fourteen percent fear animals, eight percent are primary agoraphobics (people who are afraid of public spaces, largely because they fear they will experience a panic attack, sometimes involving a syncope, in public; there is, of course, an element of agoraphobia associated with almost all specific phobias -- the fear of having a panic attack is always more debilitating than the fear of whatever inspired the phobia in the first place), a surprisingly small seven percent are terrified of death, five percent fear crowds, and another five percent are afraid of heights; comprising the remaining one percent are the more exotic phobias, such as amathophobia, the fear of dust, siderodromophobia, the fear of railroad trains, and prosoponophobia, the fear of masks.
Dorie Bell, age fifty-two, of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, had been a prosoponophobe since age three. She had tried everything -- prayer, analysis, desensitization therapy, behavior modification, more prayer -- but had never been able to uncover either the source for her fear or a cure. The actual sight of a mask still triggered severe panic attacks, fear of accidentally encountering a mask still ruled her daily comings and goings, and mask dreams still haunted her nights.
And sometimes her afternoon naps as well -- she had fallen asleep on the couch in her studio while waiting for Wayne Summers, who was supposed to be driving down from San Francisco that afternoon. They had met the previous spring, in Las Vegas, of all places, where nearly a hundred phobics (or,
as they preferred to be called, Persons with Specific Phobia Disorder) had gathered for the PWSPD convention, and the two had become fast friends despite some rather striking differences between them, including age, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
Still struggling to shake off the psychic tatters of the dream, Dorie left the studio and went into the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea and check the time -- there was no clock in the studio, intentionally. She was surprised to discover that it was nearly four in the afternoon, which left her in a minor dilemma, as she was anxiously awaiting a response to her letter to Agent Pender and hadn't yet dropped by the post office today. (There was no home mail delivery in Carmel, largely because there were no street numbers on the houses; Carmel-by-the-Sea was a town that worked at being quaint.)
On the other hand, Wayne might be arriving any minute -- he was already several hours overdue -- and he would absolutely pitch a syncope if he had to wait outside with the jays, crows, thrushes, juncos, and warblers that inhabited the live oak in Dorie's front yard.
Black guy passed out on the front lawn: wouldn't that give the neighbors something to talk about, thought Dorie, hurriedly scrawling a note that read, "Wayne, come on in, back soon, Dorie," and tacking it to the front door, which she left unlocked for him -- you could still do that sort of thing in Carmel. Then she set off at a brisk walk for the post office, an eight-block round trip from there for most people, but twelve for Dorie, who had to take the long way around in order to avoid passing the African masks in the window of the Ethnic and Folk Arts Gallery.
There were, as of October of 1999, ninety-six art galleries and forty-one gift shops in Carmel; of necessity, Dorie had memorized the location of all the ones that displayed, or might display, masks visible from the street, so that she could detour around them. A relatively minor inconvenience, she knew, especially compared to the lengths an ornithophobe like Wayne had to go to avoid his betes -- as specific phobia disorders go, prosoponophobia wasn't the worst one to have. Except around Halloween, which, as Dorie was about to learn, had come two weeks early to Carmel that year.
No one watching Dorie Bell stride confidently down the hill toward the post office would have suspected her of being a phobic. She was a tall woman, broad-shouldered and full-figured, and she walked the walk in her Birkenstocks, paint-spattered overalls, and brown serape -- head up, long strides, arms swinging, colorful straw Guatemalan bag swinging, waist-length brown braid swinging, too.
But as she turned west onto Fifth Avenue, having detoured down San Carlos to avoid the Ethnic and Folk Arts Gallery, she was ambushed. Overnight a faceless white mannequin wearing the medieval costume known as a domino (hooded robe and eye-mask, all the more dreadful to Dorie for its simplicity: black and white, the mask stripped to its essence) had appeared in the window of Verbena, the upscale women's clothing shop on the corner of Fifth and Dolores.
Frozen in front of the window, unable to avert her eyes, just as in the dream, Dorie could feel her scalp tingling; bright pinpricks of color dotted her vision as the blood began to drain from her head. She knew what was happening -- her sinoaortic baroreflex arc, the mechanism responsible for the vasovagal syncope, was overcompensating for the sudden increase in blood pressure by dropping the pressure just as suddenly. But she also knew, after all these years, how to take charge, how to reverse the process.
Breathe, she ordered herself, closing her eyes to the m -- to the object that had triggered the attack. Deeeep and sloooow, deeeep and sloooow. Then up on your toes, back down, up and down, breathe deep; long, slow shoulder-rolls, get the blood circulating, never mind about making a public spectacle, you'd make more of a spectacle passing out on the sidewalk, and breaking your nose again for good measure.
Attagirl, can't be fearless until you've been afraid. Now turn away from the object, nice and slow, don't hyperventilate; now you can open your eyes...now you can take a step...now you can take another....
And the danger was behind her, both physically and temporally. Nor did she abandon her errand, instead detouring another three blocks out of her way, only to return home empty-handed -- no letters in her box, from Pender or anybody else -- to an empty driveway and empty house: no Wayne, either.
By six o'clock, Dorie was concerned; by eight, she was worried; by ten she had already left three messages on Wayne's machine and another two on his mother's.
A few minutes after eleven the phone rang; Dorie snatched the receiver off the cradle, barked "Where the hell are you?" and was told, in no uncertain terms, to watch her language. Vera Summers, who double-shifted as a private nurse, was Dorie's age, a praise-shoutin', hymn-singin', tee-totalin', no-cussin' Baptist, and not to be trifled with. Dorie apologized. "Sorry, Vera, I thought it was Wayne."
"Apologize to Jesus, not me. But listen, sugar, I ain't seen Wayne since church yesterday morning. Didn't come home last night, didn't call, nothing. You do see him first, you warn him he better duck next time he see his mama. He show up there, you have him call me. Meantime I'm 'onna see if I can get hold of my brother Al, on the police, grease some wheels."
"Okay, stay in touch."
"I will. I wouldn't worry too much, though -- it wouldn't be the first time that boy stayed out all night, tomcattin' around."
But Dorie did worry, because she knew something Vera did not know. God damn it, she thought, picking up the phone again -- how many more of us have to die before somebody listens?
"Hello?" The man on the other end of the line sounded peeved.
"Hi, it's Dorie. Did I wake you?"
The voice softened. "Oh, hi. No, no problem -- I'm a night owl. What's up?"
"Remember Wayne Summers?"
"He was the only black guy at the convention."
"Right, right, the ornithophobe. What about him?"
"He's missing," said Dorie. "He was supposed to be coming down today, but he never showed up."
"Maybe it slipped his mind. From what I recall of the boy, he did strike me as being just a tad flaky."
"No, I talked to his mother. She doesn't know where he is either -- she said he didn't come home last night."
"Has she filed a missing persons?"
"Not yet -- but her brother, Wayne's uncle, he's a cop, he's gonna look into it."
Attenuated silence, then the snick of a lighter and a hissing inhalation (the unmistakable sound of somebody toking up), followed by a spluttering cough (the unmistakable sound of somebody blowing a toke).
"You okay?" Dorie asked.
"Yes, yes," he snapped. "Just calming my nerves." It didn't sound to Dorie as if he'd had much success. "Listen, Dorito, I'm sorry to hear about Wayne -- I'm sure he'll turn up -- but I have to ask: why on earth are you calling me?"
Up until now -- up until Wayne -- Dorie had restrained herself from taking her suspicions to any of her new friends from the PWSPD convention. The phobic community was the last place you wanted to start a panic. And her theory -- that somebody was going around the country murdering phobics and trying to make it look like suicide -- did sound a little paranoid, if not downright fantastic, not just to the authorities she'd contacted, but to her own ears as well. The letter she'd sent Pender was an umpteenth draft, and the only way she'd managed to get that one off was to seal the envelope and drop it into the corner mailbox without reading it first.
But what had seemed like caution this morning felt more like denial this evening. Dorie took a here-goes-nothing breath and let 'er rip. She told him about the deaths of Carl, Mara, and Kim, about her correspondence with the Las Vegas, Fresno, and Chicago police, about the letter to Pender -- she laid it all out, and when she had finished, the silence on the other end of the line was so complete she thought at first the connection had been broken.
"Hello? Hello, are you still there?"
"Yes, yes -- just trying to find my Valium."
"Hey, take it easy on the meds," Dorie cautioned him. "I can't afford to lose any more friends."
"I'm more worried about you. If your suspicions are accurate -- and I'm not at all sure they are, despite my now shattered nerves and pounding heart -- you're in more danger than I am, a woman alone and all that."
"I think we're all at risk here," replied Dorie. "In fact, I'm thinking about posting this on the chat room."
"No!" The response was unhesitating. "There are a lot of unstable personalities who visit that chat room. Something like this might drive some of them over the edge. Panic attacks, agoraphobia, maybe even suicide."
"Then what -- "
"First of all, calm down. I'm not without resources myself. I'll make a few calls, contact a few people. I'll let you know what I find out, you let me know what you find out. And in the meantime, let's keep this between us -- we don't want to throw the whole community into a panic."
"You think so?" said Dorie doubtfully.
par"I know so. Look, I have to go now -- sounds like Missy just woke up."
"Say hi to her for me -- and for God's sake, be careful."
"You too. Good night, Dorito."
"Good night, Simon."
Monday had been a lonely day for Missy. Simon had given Tasha, her attendant, the week off, then spent all morning in the locked basement. And after lunch, instead of taking her to the park as he'd promised, he'd installed her in her bedroom with her favorite Audrey Hepburn videos (Charade, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Wait Until Dark), a snack tray, and strict instructions not to leave the room unless she had to use the toilet.
Then he was kind of distant all through dinner and hardly paid any attention to her. It was a good dinner, though: hamburgs, Tater Tots, applesauce, and Little Debbie snack cakes for dessert -- she gobbled down three before he even noticed, and he didn't make her eat any green veggies. Plus Simon cooked it for her himself, which made it extra good.
After dinner Simon sent Missy back upstairs, then went down into the basement, and didn't come back up until halfway through The Original Ten O'Clock News. Missy never missed The Original Ten O'Clock News -- she had a major crush on Dennis Richmond, the handsome black anchorman. Once Simon took her to the telethon and she met him in person and gave him a dollar for those poor children in their wheelchairs.
But even after Simon came up from the basement, he didn't pay any attention to Missy -- just went into his room and closed the door. Missy kept expecting him to come kiss her good night, but he didn't. She fell asleep with the light and the TV on but woke up in the dark with the TV off -- she'd been awakened by the ringing of the telephone. From across the hall she heard Simon talking. She got out of bed and knocked on the door of the master suite. No answer -- she opened it anyway, crossed the bedroom, and stuck her head into Simon's little office. He was at the computer.
"Who called?" A stranger would have heard Hoo-haw, but as always, Simon had no trouble understanding Missy.
"Dorie. She said to say hi to you."
Missy decided to tease him a little. "Talking to your girlfriend. Simon's got a girlfriend."
"Missy, I'm in no mood for your nonsense. Now, go back to bed before I get serious."
Uh-oh. When Simon said "serious," he meant "mad." When Simon was mad, sometimes he did things he was sorry for later. But the sorry didn't help much if you were the one he did the things to. "I love you?" she whispered cautiously.
"I love you, too," said Simon, turning his back to the door. It wasn't as though he'd had that great a day, either. That's what comes from trying to do too much too fast, he told himself. The total darkness, then that stunt with the liver -- greedy, Simon, greedy. And now, what with Dorie Bell stirring things up, it would have to end sooner than he had planned. For Wayne and Dorie both.
Still, spilt milk and all that. And perhaps when Wayne knew the end was coming...
Simon could feel his pulse quickening at the thought. Yes, that's it, he told himself, that's what we're in this for. Then he realized Missy was still standing forlornly in the doorway. He spun his chair around again. "Hey, sis, what do you say, how 'bout pancakes for breakfast?"
"Peachy keen," replied Missy, picturing the Mrs. Butterworth's bottle, which always made her giggle. "I love pancakes."
"I know you do. Now, go to bed -- I have to go back down to the basement."
"I don't like the basement. It's scary."
"I know," he said. "That's why you mustn't go down there, not ever."
"You do," she said intelligibly. She could manage her oo sounds pretty well. And as Simon knew, her speech difficulties stemmed from the way the congenital Down's flattening of the palate forced Missy's tongue to protrude, and were not indicative of her level of comprehension.
"I have to," he said.
"Ha hunh," she replied, waving a chubby hand.
Have fun. Simon found himself wondering, as he slipped on his new D-303, single-tube, dual-eye, night-vision goggles with built-in two-stage infrared illuminator, whether somehow Missy didn't understand a lot more than even he gave her credit for.
Something was wrong.
Since regaining consciousness, pain, thirst, and hunger permitting, Wayne had spent the last few hours working his way through the Bach suites numerically, and doing rather well, too, until he got stuck on number five, the one Casals called the tempestuous suite. The problem wasn't that he didn't have the music with him -- he knew the score by heart. But he just couldn't seem to get number five going.
Then, in his mind's ear, he heard old Brotsky: the tuning, Mr. Summers, the tuning. He'd forgotten to drop the A string down to G -- a little trick Bach had employed to enhance the cello's sonority. After that, the piece went relatively smoothly, although it was interesting to note that even on an imaginary instrument he still sometimes stumbled over the same difficult intervals that had always given him trouble.
He played with his remaining eye firmly closed. Funny how total darkness made you want to shut your eyes, he thought. Otherwise it was too vast, like the blackness of space -- you felt as though if you let go, you'd tumble through it forever.
But even with his eye closed, he was so sensitive to light that he knew when the door at the top of the stairs had been opened, however brief and faint the glow. He did his best to ignore it, concentrating all the harder on the Bach.
As for the birds, a curious thing had happened. It might have been the result of such an extreme application of Dr. Taylor's desensitization therapy. Flooding, the technical term for overwhelming a phobic with the object of his fear, was considered by some psychiatrists to be the most effective form of phobia therapy, but few patients or psychiatrists had the stomach for it, and the malpractice carriers weren't crazy about it either -- when it failed, it failed big time. Or perhaps it had something to do with the fact that he and the birds were all fellow captives, but whatever the reason, Wayne's ornithophobia had vanished: he found that birds no longer frightened him. Except for the owl, but as that was no longer an unreasonable fear, it no longer qualified as a phobia.
Somebody probably should have locked me in a room with a bunch of birds years ago, thought Wayne during one of his more lucid moments. He even started to chuckle.
Think of the money I'd have saved on therapy.
Laughing out loud, now. LOL, as they said in the PWSPD chat room.
Miracle cure for ornithophobia. Not cheap, though -- cost you an eye and an ear.
LOL a little too hard.
Also guaranteed to improve your cello playing. Play even the most difficult pieces with your hands tied behind your back.
Shrieking with laughter. Lucid no longer. Couldn't stop if his life depended on it. Birds skittering around in their cages.
My new friends.
Shrieking and sobbing.
My fine new feathered friends.
Just sobbing, until he'd sobbed himself out. Then it was back to Bach. Number six -- the bucolic.
And this time, Mr. Summers, remember to retune your instrument before you begin.
Much better, thought Simon, when Wayne began to lose his composure. Fear comes in flavors, but the purer it was, the better -- nothing chased away the blind rat, or made Simon feel more alive than the terror of a severe phobic. And these new Generation 2 technology goggles were really something -- $1,899 over the Internet, but worth every penny. The detail was astounding, especially when you switched on the optional infrared spot/flood lens intended for use in total darkness. You could see every twitch, every quiver, every tear and every drop of fear sweat, and even the darkest blood. All in shades of green, of course, but you got used to that quickly enough, and the padded headgear distributed the one-and-a-half pound weight of the goggles evenly, and thus made it easy to bear -- Simon thought of himself as having a long, aristocratic neck and a delicate build.
But when Wayne left off sobbing and went back to that intolerable, infernal finger twitching, Simon intervened for the first time since the owl attack.
"I think I'm going to let the smaller birds have you now," he said quietly.
"Fuck you, Simon," replied Wayne. He still didn't remember much after the recital Sunday evening, but the voice of the man who had called himself fear itself, particularly when he said the word buddy, had triggered one of those wispy, smoke-ring memories: standing out on Van Ness with his cello case, eyes averted from the sight of the Civic Center pigeons while he waited for a cab. Shiny silver Mercedes convertible pulls up to the curb, Simon Childs behind the wheel.
Hey, buddy, I thought that was you, what a coincidence, can I give you a lift someplace?
Wayne had always been a sucker for silver-haired white guys, not to mention silver convertibles; he'd almost made a move on Simon at the PWSPD convention last spring, but hadn't been able to decipher the decidedly mixed signals the older man was putting out.
The sexual signals weren't the only contradictions Wayne had noticed. Simon Childs was third-generation wealthy, obviously upper-crust, but though he was well-spoken, his speech was sprinkled with just enough street snarl to suggest that he'd spent some time mucking around down at the bottom of the pie as well. And yet he never swore -- Wayne had never heard so much as a hell or damn escape from those elegant lips.
Wayne had never seen Simon in a tie, either, even at the PWSPD closing banquet in Vegas -- his dress was always casual and comfortable, but expensive, and the drape of those casual, comfortable clothes could only have been achieved by a tailor. Part dandy, part roughneck, intelligent and well-read, but with little formal education, Simon Childs was also the most poised phobic Wayne had ever seen. Not a stiff white man's poise, either, but a loose, slouchy, long-limbed, easy kind of poise, so perfect it had to be studied.
But Simon's signals must have been clear enough last night, thought Wayne: he had a vague recollection of a wild ride in the convertible, top down, of wild laughter and champagne on a balcony, of undressing in a bedroom. But everything after that was a blank. Obviously Childs had slipped a roofie -- a Rohypnol capsule -- into the champagne.
Fuck you, Simon? Disappointed as Simon was to have been recognized so early in the game, he refused to stoop to Wayne's level. Simon took pride in not swearing, regardless of the provocation; it was his own private mental discipline, enforced at an early age by a few good beatings from Grandfather Childs, who didn't swear either, and reinforced when Missy began parroting his occasional epithet.
But Simon did feel rather foolish when he realized that Wayne had called his bluff. As part of his preparation for this latest round of the fear game (the preparation was as important, and nearly as engrossing, as the game itself), Simon had read a book on the making of Hitchcock's The Birds and learned that it was nearly impossible to get the smaller species, even the more aggressive ones, to attack on command. In the film it was all done with trick shots and chroma-key. And Simon would be the one who'd have to clean up the crap and get them back in their cages afterward.
"Wayne, listen to me -- this is important."
"Fuck you," repeated Wayne, closing his eye and returning to the Bach. In many ways the sixth suite was the least satisfying to play, perhaps because it had originally been written for some unknown five-stringed instru --
Whap! A hard blow to the temple. Wayne toppled sideways onto the mattress, but made no effort to get up again. Fuck it, he thought as he tuned the imaginary top string back up to A. When you're practicing an imaginary cello with your hands cuffed behind you, it doesn't make all that much difference whether you're sitting up or lying down.
At-teck the gigue, Mr. Summers, don't snyeak up on it. If Wayne concentrated hard enough, he could almost hear old Brotsky's Russian-Jewish accent. It's a dence, Mr. Summers, make it dence!
And so Wayne attacked it, and he made it dance -- in his mind his bowing action had never been freer, or more joyous, or, paradoxically enough, more under control. But there was a limit to his ability to maintain his concentration: he lost his place when Simon started kicking him.
"Wayne! Listen up, Wayne -- you have to do something for me."
That got his attention. The chutzpah, as Brotsky would have said. The sheer chutzpah. "What?"
"I need you to write something."
"Then you'll leave me alone?" For some reason, finishing the entire cycle of suites had taken on urgency for Wayne.
"Well, yes. But I'll make you a deal -- if you do as I ask, I promise I'll make it quick and painless."
* * *
In the end, it was neither quick nor painless, though when Simon originally made his promise, he sincerely believed he was telling the truth. In the fear game, the payoff was fear, not pain -- there was no advantage to prolonging Wayne's suffering.
But while Wayne was writing the note Simon required of him, Simon had a little too much time to think about what a disappointment Wayne had been and to convince himself that he would be entirely justified in making one last attempt to recoup his not inconsiderable investment of time, trouble, and cold, hard cash.
It was all to no avail, however -- the smaller birds might as well have been origami sculptures for all the effect they had on the so-called ornithophobe. Simon went so far as to try stuffing one of the canaries into Wayne's mouth -- no response other than that frenzied twitching of the fingers behind the back. Nor would the owl attack a third time, even after the blood started flowing again.
How long the beating lasted, Simon couldn't have said -- when he lost his temper, he lost all sense of time. But for several minutes after Simon collapsed on the bloody mattress, sobbing for breath, Wayne's fingers continued to twitch. It was like a nightmare, something out of an Edgar Allan Poe story -- Simon, who thought of himself as fearless, even managed to generate a little pretend terror by playing around with the notion that those blessed fingers would continue to twitch long after he cut the hands off.
But to Simon's mixed relief, the twitching stopped of its own accord after a few more minutes. Then it was over, except for the cleanup, which would have to wait until morning. For one thing, Simon was physically exhausted and emotionally drained; for another, despite all the soundproofing he'd installed in the basement, the noise and vibration from the jackhammer still might leak up through the vents and awaken Missy.
Copyright © 2003 by Jonathan Nasaw
The charmingly disheveled FBI Special Agent E.L. Pender is strapping on his nonregulation calfskin shoulder holster one last time on his last day on the job, showing the ropes to his eager successor, Investigative Specialist Linda Abruzzi.
Then a letter from Dorie Bell arrives at FBI headquarters. Last year Dorie attended a phobia disorders convention in Las Vegas. Since then, three attendees have died under suspicious circumstances. A man with fear of heights jumped from the nineteenth floor of a building. A woman with fear of blood managed to cut her own wrists in the bathtub. A third victim with fear of suffocation was found in the bathtub, with a plastic bag over her head.
"If you won't help us," Dorie begs Pender, "who will?" But it may already be too late: Dorie's friend Wayne Summers has now disappeared, too. Wayne's phobia is fear of birds. He's currently tied to a bed in a dark basement. And above his head, looms an enormous, starving barn owl.
Fear Itself pits Agent Pender, one of the more endearing sleuths in recent fiction, against a man as immune to fear as he is fascinated by it. It's a duel that will jolt you time and time again and force you to confront the inevitable question: What is your greatest fear?