The phrase "conservative woman" stirs sneers in the corridors of academe, and also among the élite of broadcast journalism. Yet as one young woman's spring turns to summer, and then late summer, the rich harvest of laurels promised by her feminist credo matures among thorns and briars. Is it too late to plant something else, something new?
by Giles Maskell
ISBN: 0-9676054-3-1 $11.95 (paperbound)
Authors like Danielle Crittendon and Maggie Gallagher have recently examined the raw deal behind feminist extremism's fantasies. Yet as far as we know, this is the first novel which has defied PC fascism by adopting such a perspective. Experience the depth of intelligent social analysis in the richness of tautly written fiction.
"I did find the excerpt you sent to be very interesting and well written. Although it was short, I already developed an interest in the characters and wanted to know more about them and how they will fare." F. Carolyn Graglia, author of Domestic Tranquility: A Brief Against Feminism (Mrs. Graglia was preoccupied with mss. and grandkids when we contacted her at short notice)
"A novel both modern and moral. Allegorical in style, the story is
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This lyrical novel's time has come. As we enter a new millennium, we are beginning to understand just what "liberation" has cost bright young women in our culture: not just a chance at a stable family, but constant nagging doubts about the durability of all sexual relationships and an increased focus (in the absence of higher purpose) upon career. Cassie Cardogan is the prototypical New Woman. An adored fixture in TV newscasts with a new house in the suburbs and a sexy sportscar, she ought to be happy, according to all that she has ever been told. Instead, she finds that her latest assignment has led her into a sadistic beating and threats of more to come if she does not back off. Only the timely help of a complete stranger--a poorly shaved man passing on the night streets --permits her even to get back home. There the stranger and she forge an odd friendship, she convalescing, he watching for further signs of the stalker. When he leaves, this man whom she has come to call Stonewall (because of his origins in the Deep South and his strict courtesy) has grown very special to her.
Cassie clings to his memory (and to their parting promise of another meeting) as she sets about extricating herself from her "ideal" existence. Quitting her job and attempting to freelance, she discovers that the beating's trauma has left her almost paranoid. As she tries to work through its causes, she realizes that the subject of her interrupted story could scarcely have been behind the attack, after all. Indeed, she suspects more and more that forces within her own news organization sacrificed her in order to tar Steven Fleming's reputation for political reasons. Just as she is regaining her confidence, the sadistic assailant mockingly appears before her again at the mall. She decides that a vacation to the Land of Cotton could not be better timed, and flees the city.
But the idyll she had dreamed of fails to unfold. Not only does Stonewall (a recent widower) devote much of his time to his daughter, but he is rehearsing Cassie (or so she thinks) for the role of mother. Cassie had in mind a torrid weekend after which they would "see what happened". In contrast, Stonewall avoids sexually intimate situations with his daughter so near, and is not convinced, in any case, that intimacy without commit- ment has any future at all. They end up bickering, and Cassie returns to the far north feeling bitterly disillusioned.
In the ensuing months, her life verges on chaos. Freelancing does not pay the bills, her old contacts have secretly black- balled her from the profession, and every day brings another reminder that she is thirty- something and counting. A mortified Steven Fleming briefly wines and dines her... but is it to squelch lingering rumors of his involvement in her beating? His millions are not the dream she has been chasing all her life, anyway. In a state of extreme depression, she sees her assailant (who ironically names himself Stainwell) for the third time. She refuses to be scared off now, and he is pleased; for he proposes to her a kind of Nietzschean union wherein he will point her toward power and wealth beyond measure if she will only embrace his radical nihilism. Disgusted but wary, Cassie allows herself to be lured into a mysterious journey--at the end of which is Stonewall! Stainwell has somehow learned all about her private life (going so far as to parody her lover's sobriquet), and has deliberately brought the two of them together in the conviction that, once
her last illusions about Stonewall and love are gone, she will surrender to his bidding. His plan is insane, but frighteningly well articulated and finely tuned to the corruption of modern society. Though Cassie at last shakes him out of her life and accepts Stonewall's humble alternative, she remains aware that Stainwell's Siren song played through her and her generation's ears for so long that its infinite promises will not soon die away.
In the second chapter, Cassie is still recovering (psychologically if not physically) from a beating which intimidated her into quitting her high-profile job as a popular TV reporter. Her mysterious exit has made her the target of other newshounds; and that, coupled with her natural fear of going out in public again, makes a trip to the shopping mall something of an adventure.
Her sister Jessie called the following afternoon, and they agreed to meet at the mall—with Little Cassie to round out the threesome, of course—the next day. It was an odd conversation, that phone call: never had a social outing been arranged in such terse, dry terms. Cassie was reminded of the time she wore a hidden microphone to interview a nervous informant who had asked to remain unidentified. (At the receiving end of the mike, naturally, was her camera man, adroitly positioning himself in response to each tip: Tim had said that even a recorded interview would be a drag without footage.) She had communicated then in just the same tight-lipped telegraphy: "There he is. In a dark van. I’ll keep him facing the museum."
She knew why she was short; after all, you’d think your own sister might read a headline often enough or surf over from the talk-and-game shows long enough to discover that you had been brutally attacked. She had said nothing to Jessie before so as not to alarm her—and, of course, she didn’t want to spoil her good deed now. (Or was it just pique: a haughty refusal to seek sympathy where none had been offered?) That Jessie should actually be mad at her about something, however, was almost too much to take. She felt the blood rising through her temples to her hair as it always did when she became embarrassed or furious; and the phone receiver at her ear struck her as a singularly immoral piece of technology for allowing a vacu-head like Jessie to play aloof while escaping scrutiny. At the end, she ached to say, "Oh, by the way, you’re welcome… for saving your life, you know? For sacrificing my name and career so that you could live long enough to find out who leaves the ER cast next?" Instead, she said, "Ten o’clock, right. See you."
Only while brushing her teeth that evening did her sin dawn upon her. Little Cass had given her a bunch of Crabtree and Evelyn soaps for Christmas (mother Jessie’s inspiration, naturally: last-minute purchase at the mall) to which she had affixed her own Pooh hairband—a perfectly useless contribution, but far the most precious item in the bundle, or indeed under Cassie’s Christmas tree. Her gaze no sooner alighted upon the Bear of Little Brain dangling ritually from a night light than her own gray matter gave a great heave: the girl’s fifth birthday had just come and gone, just two weeks ago! Jessie had been cold-shouldering her rather than lending moral support during this nightmarish month, first because no bundle of goodies arrived ahead of time from her rich-and-famous sister, then because none arrived late. All those acid injections of "if you’re not too busy" over the phone… yes, now she understood! She would have to make it up to them both. She smiled at the slightly haggard (but more poignantly beautiful) face in the mirror, confident that the steady hand of this aunt and older sister could restore peace—and relieved, as she dimly perceived, that now circumstances would force her to reveal her martyrdom. It wasn’t really all her fault, either. Jessie didn’t have to avoid the news just because it had made big sister famous.
The next morning, applying only a little cold cream and pulling a baseball cap down low on her forehead, Cassie shifted into "textbook" evasive maneuvers. She even took the wrong turn on Ennis and then parked for five minutes in front of a house for sale, just to see what shark fins broke the water in her rear-view mirror. Upon escaping the subdivision from the least likely exit, she found herself actually feeling cheerful. Why not? She had recovered her anonymity, she had avoided the trap which the Hemming family enemies had laid for her, and she was about to see her favorite five-year-old. Somewhere above the stoplights and street signs, the sun was very golden.
She strode jauntily across the mall parking lot and through the west entrance. The doors had just been unlocked, and a rotund, gray-haired security guard nodded a silent but genial greeting to her, as if seeing her first to cross the threshold was a fair harbinger for the day. She shook out her sails as she had not done since the assault, feeling healthy again and younger than ever. There were no abdominal twinges or nags (though sometimes a firebrand glowed deep down when she made a certain kind of movement, as just after she had bounded a bit too vigorously from tarmac to curb). A piano was being played live in the mezzanine, and its notes seemed to translate into music that same golden sun, which now shattered into a crystal rain through the lofty skylights. She pictured what it would be like to have Stonewall pacing along beside her right now, and realized that she had been thinking of him far more than of her niece.
At a distance, she spotted Jessie and Little Cass poised beside the fountain (a strangely silent pair, the child sitting on the ledge, back to the merry waters, and pouting into the polished floor tile, the adult staring down at her as if having just finished a lecture). Jessie was wearing one of the three or four sweatshirts she owned which bore insignias of distinguished colleges she had flunked out of over the last ten years. The ample green folds made her resemble a limber, electric child herself—which she was, no doubt, on the inside; but her body had now weathered twenty-eight years (or was it twenty-nine?), two divorces, an alcohol detox program, about a dozen share-the-rent boyfriends who (some two or three of them, anyway) had accounted for several black eyes and one broken rib… that was a lot to hide under a sweatshirt. Were those folds meant, perhaps, to imply a bust that wasn’t there, despite the one venture into child-bearing? Jessie had grown so emaciated that she teetered dangerously on the border of anorexia (one of many dangerous borders defining her routine). That extreme thinness, her heavy drinking, and God knew what other habits had endowed her already with more wrinkles about the eyes than her celebrated older sister would have to battle, probably, over the next decade. Cassie imagined the scarcely fleshed skeleton under the sweatshirt and the bluejeans (into whose taut denim it slipped like a hand into a glove), the crow’s feet which were no doubt cleverly concealed by the still cute blonde curls trained to play around the temples (a shade of blonde which the shirt’s olive nicely accented); and as she blended the visible and invisible portraits, she almost stopped in her tracks. She had to fight back a hot, moist rush in her eyes. She suddenly understood just how ruined this girl had been by money, college, high expectations, and men—but those were the wrong terms, for there could be nothing new or sudden about that insight. Her mother never talked to her of anything (when she did talk to her) except Jessie’s various disasters. Mom had it all figures out: Dad’s fault, every bit. Jessie had fallen prey to the male sex, from which all other problems had flowed--and Dad had been the first predator.
But what Cassie understood now was something infinitely subtler, something which was just dawning on her. All of them had ruined her, had spoiled her—that petite, shy, beautiful blonde girl, perhaps once more beautiful than Cassie herself (or at least once destined to be more beautiful, though her destiny was stillborn). And before that delicate human sacrifice, once innocent, still innocent in some inexpressible way, sat the fully and patently innocent child who was herself of twenty-three years ago—not Little Cassie, but Little Jessie.
"God," she whispered into the neutral space which still concealed her. It was the prayer of someone who couldn’t pray, dedicated to a power she couldn’t believe in; but then, neither could she believe this vision. The full truth, when suddenly surprised around a corner, is often unendurable. She fought for another breath, a deep one. Thank God, she had protected Jess from all the hell she herself had just been put through. Thank God that something like a power of goodness (did it exist? could she face existence if it didn’t?) had given her that much strength, the strength which Stonewall claimed to see in her. Thank goodness that goodness didn’t depend on what she believed about it, but sometimes simply grabbed her like a benign assailant....
Jessie continued staring over her daughter’s hair into the gurgling water, mesmerized, and the girl continued studying the resplendent floor tiles. Cassie was within arm’s reach before they looked up.
"Jess," she exhaled in a voice which could not have been heard above the fountain. Her sister must have been alerted, instead, by the pause of the expensive gray jogging suit (gray wasn’t her color, but it tended to escape notice). Before the blank surprise on her face could solidify into a predetermined sullenness, Cassie seized her sister tightly by the shoulders and hugged her long and hard. She encountered neither resistance nor reciprocation, and smiled faintly into the blonde ringlets. From surprise to shock: Jessie must have thought she had lost her mind.
Her smile broadened as she drew back without releasing the bone-thin shoulders, and Jessie’s perplexity seemed to deepen. The mother’s silvered lids fluttered, and the green eyes darted almost imploringly to the daughter. Cassie knew what she was thinking: Why don’t you say hello to Little Cass—you never greet me first! Why did you hug me—that was LC’s hug! Who do you think I am?
As much to end this agony as to acknowledge her niece, Cassie turned and dealt a hug to the girl, who was gaping in no less astonishment than her mother. The open mouth and big wide eyes showed no trace of jealousy over being cheated out of a prerogative. They signaled the beginnings of fright, rather: the adult world had reversed its steadfast order, and anything could happen next.
"Do you know that your mom looked just like you when she was five?" Cassie beamed from one to the other, stroking the girl’s far lighter blonde curls with the back of her hand. "I think we should go have our picture made at the portrait studio, the three of us together. When you’re my age, you’ll look at the photo and say, ‘That was the year Aunt Cass forgot my birthday.’ And you know something? You won’t even remember what I got you on any of those other birthdays, or what I’m going to get you this morning. You’ll just look at that picture and remember how happy we all were at that moment."
When she’s my age? Cassie listened to herself release this prophecy, she who usually broke into a cold sweat at the thought of forty. She was stunned at what she had said. That made three of them: her little sister and her niece now appeared more dazed than ever, no longer even exchanging glances, but gazing up at her, rather, as if she were indeed a prophet in full spate. She hadn’t quite taken in all the golden electricity encircling them when she murmured, just audibly, "My big Jess and my little Jess!"
The girl finally asked with the profoundest curiosity, "Are you going to wear that hat?"
"That hat—for the picture?"
Jessie broke out laughing as she had not done for… for how long? Months? Years, maybe? How many years? She cupped her elegant but skeletal white hands over her lower face, bent double, and trembled at the shoulders so violently that Cassie, though laughing herself, wanted to catch her in a hug again just to stop the seizure, just to impart some of her own bodily warmth to the waif-like figure.
No, she would not have confessed the real reason behind her forgetting LC’s birthday—not now, not for anything. She had already straightened that out in her mind. But it was at this instant that the god she had been thanking let her down… or perhaps forced her to a new level. Or maybe (as she mused later) even God can’t shut up a reporter.
"Ms. Cardogan, is it true that the man who beat you up also threatened your family? Was it this little girl he threatened—this is your niece, isn’t it? Was it one man or more than one? Do you think they were sent by Steven Hemming?"
The universe had suddenly reversed polarities around this short, dimly but inconclusively feminine presence. Her formal questions about heinous crimes and corruption, rifled one after another in an automatic kind of cadence, violated the family threesome’s leisurely discovery of good years and ties that bind; her dark hair and cinder-colored suit did not belong in their blonde holiday; her hard stare reminded Cassie of a career-panhandler’s wall-eyed daze (a look she painfully came to know as a young reporter around the city jail), and seemed incapable of the wonder in their own eyes. A tape recorder was ostentatiously waved in full view (as the law required): to Cassie it had the menace of a weapon. All in all, she felt as if the sunshine had turned to smoke, though the evidence of its glory remained all about her.
When she could muster no reply, more questions poured upon her (somewhere deep beneath her stupefaction, she recognized the technique: keep turning up the heat until you get an explosion). She would not have offered a weaker defense if an unknown but prepossessing young woman had walked up, accused her of murder, and proceeded to slap her repeatedly with open hand, smack smack smack.
"I don’t know you," she finally babbled—which was true; this had to be a freelancer trying to score big where the pros, curbed by a regard for one of their own, had come up short.
"Are you expecting further trouble? Is it true that you intend to leave the country? May I ask… are you carrying a concealed weapon at this moment?"
Cassie flung a despairing look at her sister—not her niece (for LC was too young to decipher the horrors encrypted in these lightning transmissions), but her sister, the spoiled child grown to a ruined woman, as gaunt, scarred, and seared as a tree struck by actual lightning. If only she could have covered Jess’s ears… but already there was something in that china-fine face, a slackening of the features which betrayed amazement giving way to fatal recognition. Not that Jess could be understanding much of this: that was the problem. She would misunderstand, Cassie knew, the shadow of some dark doom as her inevitable lot in life, and the lot of all those who came near her. She would be thinking, "Now what?" at this instant.
"There’s a report, Ms. Cardogan, that you were not really beaten at all…."
"What?" gaped Cassie, her attention won back to the inquisitor.
The woman’s brow flickered, although her eyes never blinked. "Yes. One story has it that you were fired from Renfrew Enterprises, which then deflected public outrage by floating the story about your resignation…."
Deflected is good, thought Cassie sarcastically, what a hard little worker we are! "You followed my sister," she said between her teeth: the more combative circuits of her brain were starting to fire back up. "Damn you, you’ve been tailing my sister!"
She caught the cinder-gray lapels in her two fists and jerked the woman so abruptly, so closely, that the unfurrowed forehead struck the bill of her baseball cap and sent it rolling down her shoulders. The eyes blinked once—just one big blink, like a gulp.
"The other story—in this month’s Right Angle—is that you haven’t resigned at all, and that the whole incident is a hoax to defame the Hemming family."
It had to happen: when the rumor mill started turning, it quickly came full circle. Now garbage from both sides of the aisle was chasing after her mysterious withdrawal from public life, like debris going down a sewer.
Cassie sighed deeply and allowed the lapels to slip from her grip. As she leaned over to pick up her cap, she secretly scouted the horizons for camera crews. The coast was clear.
"Did you know that Steven Hemming has fully denied any involvement in the beating?"
"Oh, really? I thought he would have turned himself in by now." Cassie smiled sourly into the broad, impassive face (not unattractive, actually—but what a dead-pan stare!) as she pulled the zipper on her jogging top’s pouch and felt for her small pocket book. "Look, you followed my sister. Okay. You can hardly expect me to shake your hand, but… okay. I know how the game’s played. I’m not angry any more."
For the first time, the face betrayed emotion: its waxen fixity seemed to melt slightly around the edges of the mouth, which sank. As if this person had cared about a pair of angry fists at her collar! She had cared, all right—she had been delighted that some unwitting confession was about to gush free.
"Don’t take it so hard," continued Cassie with open irony. "I’ve got something for you… if you’ll stop following my sister."
It was an idiotic proviso, wholly unenforcible; but it lent an air of authority to the proceedings. She saw the thin red lips tremble without quite parting. Theatrically, she slipped a paper out of her pocket book.
The woman’s stony face now grew extremely animated, leaping back and forth between the slender shred of paper and Cassie’s steady gaze. At last she nodded once, speechlessly; and, with greater conviction, she clicked off her tape recorder and dropped it into her coat pocket.
"I did some pretty bold things when I started out, too," chattered Cassie, now almost chummy, taking the woman by the elbow and leading her around to the far side of the fountain. Finding Jessie’s bewildered study over the gray woolen shoulder, she reassured her sister with a brief, firm glance: it was all she could risk. "Of course, you have to do these things to stake your claim. It’s dog-eat-dog—chacune pour soi."
"Where are you taking me?" interrupted the other. How different that question sounded!
"Listen. I have to be very discreet. Come here to the ledge with me, as though you were tossing a penny. We have to look natural, and the water will jam any microphones."
"But… I turned off my recorder, and we’re all alone."
"Well, dear, pardon my cynicism, but you might have a hidden mike, and I want a certain latitude to…"
"To deny what you’re about to say?" The hard eyes were beginning to flash more fluidly.
"To maneuver in, should someone try to trap me in a corner. I’m tossing you a bone, not the whole carcass. Besides… do you really think we’re alone? Are you sure? Mikes can zoom in now from hundreds of meters away, just like cameras."
And Cassie exploited her companion’s quick reconnoitre of the mall’s vast corridors to repeat her own check, for different reasons.
"So," muttered the woman close to her ear. "What have you got for me?" The cloak-and-dagger atmosphere was almost too potent for a straight face, but Cassie bit her lip.
"Looks like an ordinary sales ticket, doesn’t it?" she droned in the same vein, holding the paper over the shimmering waters.
"Yeah?" queried her fellow conspirator feverishly (it was a question), shooting Cassie an impatient glance up from the receipt.
Cassie bent close to her ear, and even rested a palm lightly on her back. "Look closer!"
The woman did so—and Cassie helped her along. One very light push, and a shrill scream pierced the air, followed instantly by an explosive splash which sprayed Cassie’s cheeks. Yet she laughed through the fountain’s cold tears, laughed as she had not done for months, or maybe years. How many years? Through the moisture on her lashes, she caught blurry images of Jessie and Little Cass in the same posture, though the tingle of their joy was drowned in renewed screams and leviathan sloshes. The golden triangle had been magically soldered back together by elves—or had never been as brittle, perhaps, as she had feared.
"You bitch!" spluttered an entirely new register in the woman’s voice.
"The spy who went into the cold!" howled Cassie. "Consider it a baptism into the business, honey. It doesn’t get any cleaner from here on!"
In the novel's fifth and final chapter, Cassie comes face to face with the stalker who has already beaten her brutally and threatened her family --but now she is in an entirely different frame of mind. The confronta- tion takes place on a psychological level, with the stalker vying for his victim's heart and soul. Some readers will recognize the Temptation of Christ in the background.
Then, for the third time, she saw him face to face. The devil’s lackey. Him.
She had lately grown so used to his image in her thoughts that his incarnate presence scarcely produced a tremor this time. It was a Sunday morning, clear and crisp outside, and she had felt the need to escape the city. She no longer bothered to call Jessie on this day of the week-not in the morning. Anyway, she had wanted to be alone. She had driven inland up the escarpment to a rest stop where the shores of two provinces were visible. Mounted upon a concrete barrier wall was a set of binoculars: you could insert a coin and see details of the city, both downtown and in the suburbs. The icy December breeze had nipped at her ears where they protruded from her bonnet; and the sunlight practically blinded her when she turned east, falling in almost lateral sheets as if it, too, blew forth gusts that stung.
Had she actually come up here to be alone-was it not, instead, to meet him? She seemed to know that it was as soon as she turned to the crunch of gravel and found him slouching toward her. Standing here above the planet, her whole life and the lives of her friends and enemies at her feet, she found his appearance inevitable, perhaps predestined. Before that instant, no such mad notion could possibly have occurred to her. Now that she saw his dimpled smirk and unnaturally scintillant blue eyes bearing down upon her, she could think in no other terms.
As he drew up beside her, the moist lips twitched ever so slightly, and the lids flickered without blinking. He had been watching her for signs of terror, she knew; and, having spied none, he himself was taken aback. She saw his shoulders actually weave faintly backward in the breeze.
“Getting over your fear of me, Cassie? There’s nobody here but the two of us, you know.”
And he paused to gaze upon a lone car which had just sighed past their stop on the serpentine downhill road. It was a move to regroup: she could tell. For once she had him between her fingers and under the magnifying glass.
“You could have hurt or killed me at any moment during the last three months,” she droned, as if she had divined the power to draw him hypnotically into her own trance. “That’s not why you’re here.”
He had been blinking in spasms against the wind (or perhaps under the wind’s cover) for the last few seconds. Now he suddenly re-imposed a brilliant blue fixity upon his eyes.
“You’re right, Cassie! You’re a smart girl when you’re not scared out of your wits!”
He shouldered past her to the ledge which protected sightseers from fatal accident, intentionally brushing her breast with his sleeve. A quiver shot up from her diaphragm, but she kept her lips sealed over it and turned steadily with him. She knew that he was fingering her soul for points of terror as he had once poked her body to find the points of greatest privacy, of greatest pain.
They stood side by side before the concrete parapet, he leaning his elbows upon it, she as straight as the binoculars’ iron mounting to her other side.
“Look at it all, Cassie. The city. The river once tried to stop its sprawl, but now it’s strangling the water from both shores. Offices, banks, luxury apartments… slums, tenements, warehouses… the docks, the railroad yard… the Performing Arts Centre over there, like an overturned bowl… the university with that mausoleum they call a library… St. Gregory’s Cathedral… and almost out of view, your precious suburbs and the new mall where your sister used to work… it’s good that she’s doing so well in school, isn’t it? One less thing to worry about….”
She could feel him taking a peek at her; but she remained steadfastly erect before the barrier, surveying the high-rises and the raised highways, allowing her hair to play around her glazed eyes in the breeze, listening to the soughing fir trees a hundred meters below their rocky prominence.
“It could all be yours, Cassie. A little of it was yours before. It could be yours again, and all of it this time. It would be so easy… but you don’t know how to get it, do you? Money, fame, power-I could serve it all up to you on a silver platter. Because I know how! The only catch, Cassie, is that you have to ask.”
What a lame attempt! She felt her jaw grow firm, as if under the weak slaps of a baby, and she lifted it imperceptibly toward the sun. He wasn’t there yet-there, where he was leading her: he was still making feints.
“You think I’m joking? I could make you one of the most powerful women in the nation--in the hemisphere! I know them all, all the swells and the shakers. I was at university with their sons. They’ve entrusted me with all their dirty little secrets for years, and I’ve made the looming consequences go away for them… except that dirty secrets never go away! I’ve stuck them in drawers and boxes where nobody will ever find them-but I know where to find every one. Renfrew, Fleming, Kessler, Antonioni, Gilette… their strings all rest in my fingertips. I have only to apply the pressure, and all of that will topple like a house of dominoes!”
And he gestured violently at the urbanized plain spread before them like a tablecloth beyond the restless waves of fir. His movement set the collar of his overcoat free to flap in the unruly air.
“Still not impressed? You think I’m making it up? Or perhaps you take me for some psychotic stalker who has nothing better to do than paper his walls with your photos and research every detail of your personal life. In that scenario, I suppose this would be my pathetic attempt to win your admiration. If I were you, Cassie, I wouldn’t take much comfort in that version of things. In your place, I should be worried about what the lunatic might do if I refuse to humor him. He might grab me very suddenly and throw me over this ledge. What would stop him-fear of punishment? But there’s no one else here. And even if his crime were detected, he would receive no more than a few years in an institution. What’s he got to lose?”
Cassie had felt the iron post holding the binoculars nudge the shoulder which was turned from him. Subconsciously, she was shrinking away. The solid contact made her fight back with conscious determination. She peered over the concrete ledge at the boulder-littered slope below, whose drop was very nearly sheer: their vantage was a rocky outcrop amid the sunswept swells of thrashing green. She saw a lone car labor around a bend in the tiny road at her feet, casting a hot gleam as its windshield cut a certain angle to the sun. It was probably the vehicle which had passed them five minutes earlier. Now it possessed the size and shimmer of a child’s toy.
Her lips parted, almost tearing, and the cold air knifed a direct passage into her lungs. “I could die. If it’s time, I could.”
She heard him strangely fidgeting at her elbow. From the corner of her eye, he seemed almost to writhe.
“My God!” he purred richly in her ear. “You’ve come very far! You’re almost free! For a woman, you’re about as close to freedom as it’s possible to come. And I did this-it’s my work! I’ve very nearly set you free!”
“I detest you.”
“Of course you do! That’s part of the freedom. Utter loathing for all of them-but a very special hatred for the one who drove you to see the truth! That hatred is stronger and purer than love.”
Focusing with furious concentration upon the silver ribbon of road below, she saw it rise to her, saw herself plunge toward it, in her imagination. She winced at the wave of vertigo, and bit her lips. “Yes. I hate you more than I’ve ever loved anyone.”
“Or ever will love anyone. The only true hatred is what you feel for me now, and the only truly pure emotion is that hatred. I made you see through them all-the TV station, your profession, your fair-weather friends, your sister… I even made you see through yourself. The corpses of your illusions are all strewn beneath us. You’ve lost everything you ever believed in because of me… and now you’re free! You could hurl yourself off the cliff to escape that freedom-the pure wind that blows too cold and sharp, the sun that shines too clear and keen-and you would molder in peace among their unknown graves. Or you could embrace your new freedom! You could coast in the wind and bask in the sun, like a giant bird of prey which sees every mouse peep from its hole a mile below. You could leap from this height and soar above them all!”
“If only I would ask your guidance!” she drawled, her lips curling in a wry smile under the chilly breeze’s blade, her eyes still riveted on the road. “And what form does this prayer take?”
The extent of his silence came closer to unnerving her than any of his veiled threats or impudent postures had done. When he did speak, his voice was hoarse and trembling with earnestness.
“The form of a prayer, precisely. You can beg me.”
To keep her gaze fixed below, she flexed her fists in her coat pockets until she felt the fingernails dig deep into her palms. Her jaws, too, worked so tight that she heard her molars creak against one another.
“Hah!” he laughed abruptly (a droplet touched her cheek: she couldn’t resist wiping it off, almost convulsively, upon her fur collar). “I can imagine what you thought I’d say! You cheap bitch! I would die a thousand times before I’d let you touch me!”
“So you hate me, do you?” she droned sardonically again, this time having to struggle only against an effusion of spite.
He detected the contradiction in which he had snared himself. The idea of such inconsistency must have concerned him vitally, for he at once mastered his passionate surge and sought to tidy up his logical tracks. “No, I… it’s not hatred with me. I’m free of that. I hate no one.”
“Because to hate would be to owe someone your freedom.”
“Yes… yes, exactly.” His voice was a blend of astonishment and enthusiasm: he had not detected the ridicule in her remark-not a trace of it. “Yes. Only gods are hated, just as only gods are prayed to. They give us freedom, for which we hate them. But if we embrace freedom and pray for more, they give us enough to devour the world. Now you… your kind, I should say, your kind before I set you free of them… you are tramps and trollops, mere pieces of meat hanging on the hook. They primp and preen you, and then set you in a box before men’s sofas and their beds, where every man of them is having sex with you over and over in the back of his mind as he watches you pout over the earthquake in Peru or flirt with the sportscaster. That’s why I stripped you down and then spanked your hidden treasures-I was just testing the goods. Taking off the wrapper and tenderizing the meat. That’s all you were back then, my dear: not even an animal, but an animal’s carcass kept fresh and succulent and blood-red to entice the customer. And you call it a career! A career! At least a whore gives honest sex-she makes a deal and keeps her promise! But you-everything that passed out your shapely lips-the slaughtered refugees in Africa, the nuclear meltdown in Russia-it might as well have been passing between your shapely thighs!”
He had recovered all of his former venom, and now he had to stop again. She listened to his laboring breaths with no emotion at all in her, utterly mystified by the violence of his transport.
“That, at least, was before I freed you,” he panted, groping for that prophetic richness of tone which had vanished in his explosion. “You’ll never be one of them again now. You’ve seen too much-I’ve shown you too much. Even if a squad car were to pull up this instant and take me away forever, you could never be one of them again!”
As much as she detested this creature, and as palpable a sense of his derangement as she was beginning to register, she realized that what he had just said about her was entirely true. Her pupils darted over the escarpment stretching hundreds of meters to either side beneath her: she almost turned her stare full upon him.
“As for… as for the means of your acquiring power….” His deep, lilting voice was back. “Obviously, you must use your beauty to advantage. Marriage is still the fastest way to improve one’s condition, for both men and women. You could nudge your irksome mate out of the picture once you eased the reins connubially from his hands. Fortunately, our nation remains rife with well-bred asses whose mere name carries authority but whose blood has grown anemic. Steven was the right idea, but-you could do so much better! Poor Steven!”
“So you do know him!” She did turn now: her head snapped around as though she had been slapped.
“Of course I know him-we went to school together. Ah! You think he paid me! You think he financed your conversion experience!” A different laugh, as merry and cadenced as a peal of bells, came from this appalling man. He reared back from the parapet and bared his perfect white teeth to the sun. “You have absolutely no idea, do you? Ah, what a shame you didn’t defy me and take your story public!” His jocularity (what a comrade-in-pranks he must have made at school-what a jolly good fellow) choked him momentarily, and he had to cough the next words clear. “But the sport was quite entertaining enough, as it was. Poor Steven!”
“I think I’ve heard just about enough,” she announced. She didn’t know how many steps she might get toward her car, but it was time to find out. Her right hand closed instinctively around the keys in her pocket, and her thumb ran over the cluster in search of a sharp edge or a point.
“I agree,” he said at her elbow as she veered away from him. Now, at last, she was beginning to quiver like a leaf. She was certain his grip would close upon that elbow in a fraction of a second-and she was just as certain that she would wheel around and claw his face with her keys at the first touch. But to her bewilderment, the only manifestation of his evil presence at her retreating shoulder continued to be his purr. “It’s evident that you’re not quite ready to seek the ultimate freedom I offer you. Frankly, I didn’t expect you to be. With women especially, there are dozens of false steps before the definitive leap is made.”
His words blended with the homely crunch of gravel as though he were lecturing her on how to get her car to run well in winter. She had almost reached the tomato-red door of her Mazzerati, and still the inevitable struggle for life or death had not been joined. In fact, his voice started to trail away toward his own vehicle.
“The truth is that most women never make it all the way to freedom-none at all that I have ever known. The Marquise de Merteuil, alas, was a fictional character: it was the Marquis de Sade who was real. Certainly your sister is pulling away from the precipice very quickly and burrowing into the comfort of lies along with all the other small rodents and nematodes. Too much light for eyes too weak. My conversation with her earlier this morning was most tedious.”
So that was to be this encounter’s climactic act of force: not a gun’s muzzle, but another veiled threat against her sister! Her shoulders shot straight back as though a gun or knife had indeed been prodded menacingly between them. For an instant which had something of the infinite about it, she gazed over her sportscar’s low red roof. She might have extended an arm and touched it… but she had sensed all along that it was out of reach in the corridor of reality she had entered, just as she now divined that she would have to go with him somewhere. The keys which seemed to burn her fingertips-as the ticket to escape, as the cutting edge of self-defense-would perhaps never slide into the ignition switch again. Not in her grasp. Even as a weapon… no, self-defense was now irrelevant. The only edge which might save Jessie would have to be murderously sharp or deep.
The rift upon a suspended time mystically aloof from action had sealed itself without a seam. She slowly turned a half-circle to face him where he waited before his black sedan. Waited for her to make this turn. To ask… perhaps to pray. But she wouldn’t even ask. Instead, she very deliberately crossed the ten meters now separating them. An idea descended upon her and wouldn’t blow away, but sent a shiver to her heart, rather, like the breeze. Yet it also warmed some recess of her heart like the midday sun whenever the breeze briefly abated. If she could just get him back to the concrete barrier, she could hurl herself over and drag him with her.
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