Night music, p.9
Night Music, p.9John Connolly
He, on the other hand, remained unaffected by it all. He’d been cleared in court, although some residual taint from the trial still adhered, but he’d kept his job, and she’d heard that he now had a girlfriend, too. She wondered if the girl knew about the trial. Probably not, or if he had been forced to disclose it, he’d surely have presented himself as the victim, falsely accused of a terrible crime by an unhinged woman, because that was the kind of bastard he was. Sometimes Carolyn thought about calling his girlfriend and telling her the truth. Carolyn knew her name, and where she worked.
God, she hated him. She hated him so much.
• • •
The card arrived on the first day of November. It was made of expensive stock, and came in a matching envelope with rough edges, the kind of stationery that cost more than a book. The note was handwritten. It read:
I can help you.
Below it, written in the same clear hand, was an address in the south of the city. No contact number, no e-mail: only the address.
Carolyn stared at the card for a moment before tearing it up and throwing it in the bin. She’d had her share of weird mail since the trial. Her identity was supposed to be secret, but sometimes she thought that every dog in the street must have been barking her name. She’d received printed quotations from the Bible, most of them alluding to the immorality of premarital sex, and implicitly suggesting that she’d got what she deserved. Those, at least, were marginally better than the ones that explicitly stated she’d got what she deserved and added words like whore and slut just in case the message wasn’t getting through. A few letters of support found their way to her as well, often from women who’d been through what she had, offering to meet her for a coffee and a chat if she thought it might help, but those she put in the bin along with all the rest. She didn’t think about the expensive card again, not even when she poured another half-eaten meal over it later that evening before taking a sleeping pill and embracing oblivion.
• • •
One week later, a second note, identical to the first, arrived in the mail. That, too, went into the bin, although only after a slightly longer period of hesitation.
When the third appeared on her mat, she did not destroy it.
• • •
The house was part of a pretty row built at the end of the nineteenth century, all well maintained and with new, or relatively new, cars parked outside. The houses had no front gardens, just narrow stone terraces that most of the residents had brightened with planters or ornamental trees, all except whoever lived at number sixty-five, before which Carolyn now stood, taking in the clean windows behind which the curtains were drawn, and the red front door with the paint that had just begun to peel.
She opened the gate, walked up the short path, and rang the doorbell. She heard no sound inside and wondered if the bell might be broken, but within seconds the door was opened by a tall, sickly woman with prematurely white hair and a face that appeared to be composed of skin without any flesh. It clung so tightly to the shape of her skull that Carolyn could see the whiteness of the bone beneath, as though her sharp cheekbones might at any moment erupt bloodlessly through their covering. Her eyes were gray-blue and protruded from their sockets like pale bubbles about to burst. She moved slowly and carried the weight of her impending mortality like a hissing black cat on her shoulder.
Carolyn wasn’t sure what to say. She produced the card and began to introduce herself, but the woman simply stepped back and gestured with her left hand, inviting Carolyn to enter. The hallway beyond was dark, lit only by a lamp with a thick yellow shade that absorbed more light than it dispersed. The red-and-white wallpaper was the kind of flock found in old bars, and the patterned carpet was so thick that it swallowed the soles of Carolyn’s shoes. Somewhere a clock ticked, but otherwise all was silent.
Carolyn stepped inside, and the door closed behind her.
Only then did she become aware of the smell.
• • •
It was later, once she had returned home, put her clothes in the wash, and showered to get the stink from her skin and hair, that she managed to place the odor. She recalled visiting the zoo with her parents, and the peculiar stench of the reptile house with its lizards and snakes, and the alligators that lay as still as stones in their ponds. That was the smell that pervaded number sixty-five, but she had no time to think about it while she was there, for the thin woman led her to a back room of the house dominated by a big bed, the adjustable kind found in hospitals. Beside it, in a wheelchair, sat another, younger woman, her legs covered by a tartan rug. The room was very warm, and Carolyn began to sweat.
The woman in the chair wasn’t beautiful, but she was striking. Her hair was long and dark, and streaked with silver on one side. Her eyes were green, and her skin almost as white as that of her companion, but touched with spots of red at either cheek. Only her mouth detracted from her looks, for it was very wide, and the lips were so narrow as to be barely visible.
“Hello, Carolyn,” she said. “My name is Amelia. The lady behind you is my nurse, Miss Bronston. We were hoping you’d come. Please, take off your coat and make yourself more comfortable. I’m sorry about the heat. I feel the cold terribly. May we offer you tea, or something else?”
Carolyn consented to some iced water. She thought that it might help her to cope with the temperature. The room really was stifling. Miss Bronston poured a glass of water from a jug in a corner. Carolyn sipped it and felt a little better. She cupped her hands so that her wrists rested against the glass. She’d read somewhere that it helped to cool the body.
“I’m not sure why I’m here,” said Carolyn.
“You’re here because you received the note.”
“Yes, but I don’t know what it means.”
“It means what it says. I can help you.”
“With your problem. With David Reese. Please, sit.”
Behind Carolyn, Miss Bronston pushed an upright chair into position. Once Carolyn was seated, Miss Bronston turned and left the room, pulling the door closed behind her.
“How do you know about him?” asked Carolyn.
“I followed the case in the media.”
She waved a lazy hand at a pile of newspapers on the floor to her right. Beside her, on a small table, lay a folder of cuttings. Carolyn recognized the one on the top, which dealt with her rapist’s acquittal. Weeks had passed before she’d been able to read it herself.
“I monitor a lot of such incidents,” said Amelia. Her voice was so soft that Carolyn had to lean forward to catch every word. It was like listening to a message formed by the hiss of escaping gas. “It wasn’t hard to find out his name, and yours. I’m sure I’m not the first person to have contacted you about it. People are resourceful, particularly when driven by the desire to torment another.”
She caught Carolyn’s look of surprise.
“Don’t worry, I haven’t been reading your mail,” Amelia assured her. “But there is a pattern to these events, and I’m not the only one with an interest in cases like yours. There are men—and women, too, I regret to say—who take a great deal of pleasure in taunting the victims of sex crimes. If I could, I would wipe them from the earth, each and every one of them.”
The tone of her voice changed, and Carolyn heard the rage in it. In that moment, she wondered if that this woman had once suffered just as she had, but Carolyn didn’t care. It had been a mistake to come here. Amelia just wanted company, someone with whom to share her misery, but Carolyn’s pain was her own. She wasn’t inclined to mix it with another’s.
“Your note promised that you could help me,” said Carolyn. “How: by talking? I already have a therapist. She doesn’t help much, but I don’t need another, paid or unpaid.”
Carolyn stood and placed the now empty glass by the jug.
“Thank you for the water,” she said, “but I think I should leave.”
“Sit down,” sa
And Carolyn sat.
“How angry are you?” asked Amelia.
“With David Reese?”
“That’s not good enough. I need more. How much do you hate David Reese?”
“More than I’ve ever hated anyone in my life. I wake up hating him, and I go to bed hating him. He took everything from me, but his life goes on. He’s happy. He has a good job. He has a girlfriend. It’s as though what he did to me never happened. He raped me, and he got away with it.”
“Do you want to see him punished?”
“Yes, more than anything.”
“Then we can punish him. You only have to say the word.”
“Punish him how?”
“What does it matter? You hate him and want to see him suffer. That can be arranged.”
“Are you talking about hurting him, or—?
Carolyn didn’t finish the question. She’d spent enough time dealing with police and barristers, and sitting in a courtroom, to have learned caution.
“Let’s just say that we don’t deal in half measures,” said Amelia, “and he will never again do to another woman what he did to you.”
Could Amelia be serious? Now that the possibility of retribution had been raised, Carolyn shied away from it.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Of course you don’t,” said Amelia. “But this is not an open-ended offer. The world has no shortage of men like David Reese, or women who’ve suffered at their hands. If you don’t accept our offer, someone else will.”
“Are you serious?”
“Yes. Serious as death.”
Carolyn’s head was swimming. If anything, the room seemed to be growing warmer, and that smell . . .
“I really would like to go now,” she said, and she felt that she was asking permission.
“Then go,” said Amelia. “Nobody is stopping you.”
Carolyn got to her feet again. She swayed, but managed to keep her balance. The door opened behind her, and Miss Bronston entered to show her out. Carolyn wondered if she’d been listening at the keyhole.
“A lot of thoughts will go through your head over the coming days,” said Amelia. “Among them may be an urge to talk to a lawyer, or even the police. I would advise against it. If you decline our offer, then we ask only that you enable another to accept, should the situation arise, and we wouldn’t like to be forced to protect ourselves. Anyway, who would believe you? They didn’t believe that you’d been raped, did they? Why should they give credence to anything else you might tell them?”
Amelia smiled, and her mouth grew thinner yet.
“Go, Carolyn, and consider what we’ve discussed.”
Amelia turned her face to the light streaming through the window behind her, basking in its warmth, and a pale tongue popped from her mouth and licked at her cracked, dry lips.
• • •
Carolyn drove home, and the farther she got from Amelia, and Miss Bronston, and number sixty-five, the more absurd it all began to seem until, by the time she had showered and poured herself a glass of wine, the whole encounter had taken on the complexion of a dream. She tried to watch some television, but found herself unable to concentrate on the screen. Eventually she gave up and went to bed. She poured herself some water so that she could take her sleeping pill, and the coldness of the glass against her skin brought her back to that warm bedroom. She looked at the small white object in her hand, and for the first time in months she set this crutch aside.
That night, she dreamt that David Reese was raping her again. When she woke, the sleeping pill was in her hand and on its way to her mouth almost before she realized what she was doing. It took all of her will not to drop it on her tongue and swallow. Again, she laid it on her bedside table, but she did not go back to sleep. She was too frightened of what might be waiting for her in her dreams.
The next day passed in an awful blur of tiredness and nerves. She did not leave the house, did not even shower and dress, and the memory of David Reese, and the pain of what he had done, returned more strongly than ever. That night, she held the bottle of pills in her hand as she lay in bed, and she knew that she would either take none or all. She sometimes dozed, but she did not sleep for long, and her body jerked her into wakefulness as soon as she began to dream.
The next morning she showered, dressed, made some toast and coffee, then returned to number sixty-five. Miss Bronston opened the door before Carolyn even had a chance to ring the bell, and Amelia was waiting for her in her chair, wearing the same clothes, the same blanket over her legs, and the same smile.
“Yes,” said Caroyln. “Do it.”
• • •
This was how it would unfold. Carolyn was to contact Reese—she could decide for herself how best to make the initial approach: by phone from a public phone booth would be best, Amelia said, and she should avoid e-mail because it left a trail—and admit that she had been wrong to pursue the case against him. Immediately, Carolyn balked, even though Amelia had only just begun to speak.
“Admit what?” said Carolyn. “I can’t do that. I can’t give him that satisfaction.”
“There will be worse to come before all this is over,” said Amelia. “Not only will you apologize for dragging him into court, but you’ll tell him that you enjoyed what he did to you, and that your shame at those feelings caused you to make your accusations against him. You’ll ask him to come back to your apartment with you. You’ll ask him for more of the same.”
“No,” said Carolyn. Her stomach turned at the thought, and she felt that she might be sick. Speaking to Reese would be bad enough, but she wasn’t sure that she’d be able to get those other words out of her mouth. As for the possibility of inviting him back to her apartment, and having him defile with his presence the only place in which she felt safe . . .
But that wasn’t really true, was it? She didn’t feel safe there. Only the pills helped prevent Reese from invading her dreams and hurting her all over again.
She slumped in the chair. She’d been fooling herself. She’d hoped that Reese’s punishment might be inflicted without her direct involvement, without having to do anything more than read about it later in the newspapers, but it was just the natural instinct of the coward: let someone else do the dirty work. I don’t want to see or hear anything that might disturb me. I don’t want to smell blood.
This thought caused her to notice that the stench in the room wasn’t as strong today, or maybe she was simply getting used to it. Even the heat wasn’t bothering her as much. She wondered what was wrong with Amelia. Cancer, probably. Everybody seemed to be getting cancer these days.
“How do you know that he’ll even agree to meet?” Carolyn asked. “Surely he’ll run a mile at the first sight of me.”
“He’ll agree because he’s arrogant and deluded,” said Amelia. “He’ll agree because you’ll only be confirming what he already believes: that he was falsely accused, that you lied to the court, and what you want more than anything else is another taste of him.”
It seemed inconceivable to Carolyn that Reese could see rape in those terms, but then she recalled the look on his face in the courtroom, and the way in which he had described what he termed as their “encounter.” If he really felt that he was the injured party, then he deserved everything that was coming to him.
“He has a girlfriend,” said Carolyn, but even to her own ears it sounded like a hollow protest, a last gasp of excuse.
“When has that ever stopped a man like him from taking his pleasures elsewhere?” asked Amelia, and that was the end of it. She instructed Carolyn to make a copy of the keys to her building, and the apartment itself, and told her that Miss Bronston would be in touch.
“Just get him back to your place” were Amelia’s last words to Carolyn, as she prepared
• • •
It was easier than Carolyn had anticipated, but harder than Amelia had suggested. She called Reese’s cell from a phone by the toilets in a shopping mall. It had taken all of her powers of persuasion to prevent him from killing the connection within the first ten seconds, but somehow she managed to get the necessary words out without stumbling or choking on them. She’d been practicing for days, and she thought that she sounded almost convincing. He agreed to meet her for coffee the next day in one of those greasy spoon cafés in which he wouldn’t ordinarily have been caught dead, but which meant that the chances of him being seen with her by someone he knew were virtually nil. That suited her just fine.
She arrived at the café early and ordered a horrible milky coffee. It didn’t matter. She took one mouthful and knew that she wasn’t going to finish it, and her hand trembled so much when she picked up the cup that most of the coffee ended up in the saucer anyway.
She jerked in her chair when she saw him appear, and something clicked painfully in her back. He was wearing a blue suit that was cut slightly too narrow for him, but then he had always dressed a little young for his age. He was handsome in a very conventional way, like a model from a cheap catalog. Watching him now, she couldn’t think what had ever attracted her to him to begin with. He wasn’t even her type, for God’s sake. She blamed it on the wine, but that was all she would blame it on. The rest was his alone.
He ordered a tea and took the seat across from her.
“It’s nice to see you again,” he said. “And under better circumstances than last time.”
He gave her a grin, the one she remembered from their first meeting, the one he probably thought made him look boyish and cute. She wanted to throw her coffee in his face, then break her saucer in two and grind the sharp edges into his eyes. Beneath the table, she dug the nails of her left hand into her thigh.
Night Music by John Connolly / Horror / Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes