HEAT. Fever heat. The city is sick with a fever. It sprawls, steamy, inert, sunk in tropical torpor. The weather has been hot for weeks. It feels like years. The thought of the city in winter, covered in snow, is a pipe dream, a shimmering fantastic impossible vision. It is hard to believe there has ever been snow in the city, hard to believe the city has ever been cool. There is only the heat, a malign smothering force which hovers, relentless, over the buildings and the vacant lots.
People shuffle listlessly along the city streets. It is too hot to pick up their feet. It is too hot to move. Those who can afford it exchange air-conditioned cars for air-conditioned restaurants for air-conditioned houses. Those who cannot sit panting on their front stoops, languidly fanning themselves. The air is heavy with unshed water. Black beads of tar ooze from the softened asphalt of the streets. The dog days of August have arrived with a vengeance.
The row of brick houses on Broom Street is new—only a couple of years old—and cheaply built. Several of the air-conditioning units have been defeated by the unrelenting heat wave; and even though it is nighttime, the interiors they were installed to cool are hot as bake ovens. The inhabitants have raised their unscreened windows in a vain attempt to capture a breath of air. Near an open window someone is playing the Neville Brothers. The notes fall like leaden weights, muffled by the thick atmosphere. Drums dully thump-thump-thump, Evan Neville’s high pure voice cuts through the murk like a knife, singing about heat—emotional heat. About fever in the morning, fever at night. Like tonight.
He crouches, waiting in the dark, a deeper shadow among the shadows. He is dressed all in black: black jeans, black sneakers, black T-shirt, black gloves dangling from jeans pocket. He saw her leave several hours earlier. It was still light then and he was dressed differently. He keeps track of her movements; sometimes he is a delivery man, sometimes he hands out flyers, sometimes he is just a passerby headed for the neighboring park. But tonight he is dressed for business. Real business.
Her house is at the end of the row. The windows in the second-floor front bedroom are open. So is the kitchen window: ideal for a quiet entry, he notes. The night is deathly still with no breeze stirring. He had thought of waiting inside for her return. But the house is small and there is a chance she might see him. Sometimes he attacks in the early evening, but he prefers to catch them asleep. That way there’s no time for them to call 911. There is the risk that she might close and lock the kitchen window when she gets home, and he likes an easy entrance. It leaves fewer clues. But he is patient. Patience is the secret of his success. If he can’t get in tonight, there will be another opportunity. There always is.
A young man and a girl—the girl—approach, moving listlessly in the envelope of heat. They stop at the front door of her house. They are quarreling. He listens intently, leaning back invisible in the bushes.
“Come on,” the young man says. “Don’t be such a prude.”
“It’s too hot.”
“You’ve got air-conditioning. I’ll heat you up, it’ll cool you off.” He laughs at his own wit. His laughter is an intense, slightly hysterical jangle of noise. He has had a lot to drink.
“I said no. I told you, the air-conditioning’s gone bust. It’s too hot even to ask you in for a drink.” She sounds slightly relieved as she says this.
Despite his less than sober condition, her companion sees his chance and seizes it. “If it’s that bad, you’d better come back with me.”
“I said no,” she repeats, annoyed. “Look. It isn’t that I don’t like you. I just don’t want to sleep with you. Not now.”
“That’s not the way you acted last Saturday,” he says insistently.
“Saturday was … I had too much to drink last Saturday. Anyway, we didn’t. We nearly did, but we didn’t.”
“What makes you so sure? You were high as a kite,” he teases her.
There is a pause. Then she says, “We didn’t. I know we didn’t. I didn’t pass out.”
“I wish we had,” he says, his voice low and amorous.
There is a silence. The listener holds his breath. Damn, he thinks. The son of a bitch is going to queer it for me. He grits his teeth as he sees the two separate shadows meld. Then,
“No,” she says again, but her voice is tentative. “Not tonight. Please. I have a lot of work to do this week. I can’t let myself get tired. I shouldn’t even have taken time out to go to dinner with you. I have to concentrate on this case I’m working on. You know, the one I told you about.”
He takes hold of his opportunity. “Well, how you going to get any sleep in that hotbox? You said the air system’s broken. Look, I won’t touch you if you don’t want me to, but you’d better come back and sleep at my apartment.” He takes his keys out of his trousers pocket and waves them in front of her invitingly. “You can have the bed,” he says. “I’ll take the living room sofa. And stay there. Scout’s honor.”
She hesitates. It is a tempting prospect. Even with the electric fan and a cold shower, she won’t get much rest. But he makes the mistake of supposing he has won and puts his hand on her arm, touching her breast as he does so.
“No, I … Thanks, Tom, it’s very nice of you to offer. I really mean that. And some other time … It was a wonderful dinner, wonderful evening. It’s just this case. The firm is counting on me to pull it together by the end of the week. I can’t let myself get distracted.”
He can tell by the sound of her voice, which has traveled the road from uncertainty to firmness as she says this, that the time for changing her mind tonight is past. But he can’t help asking her, “How you going to get any sleep in this weather? With no air-conditioning?”
“I’ll manage.” She is determined not to go with him. Their kiss has made it clear to her that even with air-conditioning, she won’t get much sleep at his apartment.
“Well, then … What about Friday? Your case be wrapped up by then? Dinner after work?”
“It has to be. I said it would be. Sure, I’d love to.”
“Great. We’ll celebrate.” He moves in for another kiss, but she dodges and inserts her key in the door.
“Terrific. See you then. Six o’clock, same place?”
“’Night. Thanks, Tom. Super evening.”
The lock of the door clicks and she is gone. The alcohol has slowed Tom’s reflexes. He shakes his head to clear it like a dog coming out of water and stands uncertainly for a moment or so, then mutters, “Shit,” and shambles off.
The figure hidden deep in the shadows does not move. He will wait until the girl has taken off her clothes, turned off the lights in the house, climbed into bed, and gone to sleep. Even in this heat, even without air-conditioning, she is bound to sleep at first. The heat is like a drug. It drains the energy from people, knocks them out for a few hours, then it wraps itself around them like damp felt, smothering and waking them. But in a few hours it will be too late for her.
At first he hears a variety of night noises—the muffled sound of footsteps on pavement, the heavy drone of an engine as an occasional car passes along the city streets, the sharp yelp of a dog. Then there is unbroken silence. The watcher has not moved from his niche in the shadows. The lights in the house he is watching—the lights in all the nearby houses—have been extinguished for almost an hour. It is time.
Warily he moves over to the kitchen window, which she did not bother to close and lock before she went to bed, and climbs over the conveniently low sill. A beam of light from the street-lamp casts a cold glitter on the blade of a knife that hangs on a magnetized holder beside the window. It has a wintry gleam that is strangely attractive in the sweltering night. He snatches it up to see if it is as cold as it appears, and tests the edge with his finger. It is razor honed. It gives him an idea. It may be useful when he gets upstairs. It will serve as an artful persuader. He has never thought of using a knife before.
The idea pleases him. His method has been to hit the recalcitrant ones until they can no longer resist. But the knife is a far more elegant solution. He does not enjoy inflicting damage as much as he enjoys the fear in their eyes, their knowledge that he can do anything he likes to them, their realization that he holds absolute power in his punishing hands, the power of hurting, the power of life and death. When he hits them too much, too hard, they do not feel it after a while. They are no longer frightened, they are too numb to feel. But the knife! The knife will evoke a flicker of fear, a glitter of pure icy terror at the back of her eyes, a reflection of the sliver of steel he wields in his hand. And afterward, when she is filled to the brim with all the fear she can hold, he can use the knife to release it. In the blood. A river of blood, a torrent of blood. If he wants to. If he chooses.
He gazes, entranced, at the thread of shimmering light that runs along the edge of the knife blade. He wonders why the idea of using a knife has not occurred to him until now.
TOM IS SITTING AT THE BAR IN DUGAN’S IRISH PUB ON DELAWARE AVEnue, staring down into the third glass of bourbon he has had since leaving Janet. He is awash in alcohol, but fortunately heredity has endowed him with a hollow leg which still supports him, despite his overindulgence. On his way home he passed Dugan’s and saw by the lights that it was still open, so he decided to make a quick stop for a glass of something as a sop to his injured feelings before returning to his empty apartment. One glass has turned into two or three, and he is beginning to think that he gave up on Janet too easily. In retrospect he realizes that as he left, she was just beginning to weaken. But it is almost one in the morning. Only a few diehard drinkers are still lounging at the long old-fashioned mahogany bar, and the bartender has taken to looking significantly at his watch. Time to go home, Tom thinks to himself mournfully. Home to a lonely bed. Of course, he might make a swing past Janet’s place—it is not far away—in case the heat has kept her awake. Maybe she’s changed her mind, with the heat and all. Pretty thing, Janet; a real knockout. Tall, slender, long strawberry blond hair, bright turquoise eyes. He wasn’t just putting a letch on her, he thinks virtuously, he’s beginning to feel really serious about her. That’s why he wants her to get a decent night’s sleep.
But as the bartender pointedly begins to turn off the lights, Tom comes to the reluctant realization that no matter how altruistic his motive, it is too late to bang on Janet’s front door. Besides, he has a job to go to tomorrow, too. Time to roll on home. He waves amiably at the bartender. “’Night all,” he says, and wanders out the door.
THE WATCHER EASES HIMSELF ALONG THE LITTLE HALL OUTSIDE THE kitchen. Slowly. Each foot testing the floor for noise, gradually adding a little more weight and a little more weight, until he is certain that the boards will not creak loudly enough to be heard upstairs. In the small sitting room a fan whirs, blurring any other noise. He has drawn on his gloves so he will leave no fingerprints. In his left hand he holds a flashlight the size of a pen with a pocket clip which serves as the switch. It casts a coin of light in front of him, just enough to enable him to see where he is going. In his right hand he carries the knife he found in the kitchen, blade upward, and every so often he caresses the edge of it lovingly with his thumb. His eyes flick back and forth, from knife to light beam, back to the knife again. He cannot keep from looking at the knife blade for long. It excites him more than anything he has ever seen. He cocks his head upward. Was that a sound upstairs? Silence. Satisfied, he tests the first step of the staircase gently, gingerly, with his foot.
TOM FINDS HE IS AMBULATORY, BUT ONLY JUST. He is fairly steady on his feet, but in the dark the streets of Wilmington are strangely misleading to negotiate. Clouds driven by a night wind sweep across the sky, and he blames his difficulties in navigation on the pixilating moonlight. However, eventually he reaches his apartment building on Rodney Street, a rambling renovated dwelling festooned with gingerbread that originally housed a large and prosperous Victorian family, now turned into six reasonably commodious apartments furnished with all mod cons.
Tom reaches into his right hip pocket for his house keys. They are not there. Annoyed, he slaps his pockets in a search for them. No luck. He swears and puts a hand into each pocket, turning them all inside out, and finally in desperation inspects the interior of his billfold. Nothing. He grovels on the ground along the path that leads to the porch, paying special attention to the perennial border, but they are nowhere to be found. He seats himself despondently on the steps, resting his aching head in his hands. Where the hell, he asks himself, are his keys? He finds that as soon as he allows his mind a little leeway it begins to wander, but with an effort he manages to force it back on track.
Keys. Took them with him? Door to apartment locks on its own, might have left them inside. God! Never get in. Wait! On his way out, remembered he hadn’t checked mailbox, went back into foyer. Dropped them there?
He goes onto the porch and peers through the clear glass sidelights that flank the front door. A lamp in the hall is still lit, but he cannot see the glint a bunch of keys would make, either on the floor or on the low table in front of the tenants’ mailboxes. He turns the doorknob and pushes, but the door is incontrovertibly locked. Frustrated, he shakes it; and when this action produces no result, he sits down again to try to think where he could have dropped his keys.
THE WATCHER HAS REACHED THE TOP OF THE STAIRCASE. It was a slow ascent. He is a cautious man. Caution has saved him from capture more than once. And being thwarted only whets his appetite for the next attempt, makes it more exciting, gives the game an added spice. Anticipation is part of the thrill. The thought of the look that crosses their faces—first surprise, then sheer disbelief, then the slow hideous realization that this is real, not one of those nightmares that make the sleeper wake thanking God that it hasn’t really happened, that it was only a dream after all. Then fear, the stark unreasoning terrified comprehension of what is to come. That is the best time. After it is over he always feels the inevitable letdown. Until he begins to plan the next one.
While he is climbing the stairs, he feels a rush of air and hears a faint metallic clatter which grows louder as he nears the second-floor landing. At first it startles him; then he realizes that she must be running an electric fan in the bedroom as well as the one downstairs. All the better, he thinks; she will be less likely to be wakened by any noise he may make.
On his way up he balances lightly on his toes. The flexible rubber soles of the canvas shoes he is wearing make very little noise, even at ordinary times. At the head of the stairs the door to her bedroom is open, as he was certain it would be. He takes the precaution of switching off his penlight, though its slender focused beam would be unlikely to rouse the sleeper. But he no longer needs its assistance; enough light from the moon and a nearby streetlamp filters through the filmy curtains at the open windows to show him the way. Despite the fan whirring in the room, it is stifling in this narrow shoe box of a house, but he does not notice the heat. Now that his hour is upon him, he is cold with purpose, like chilled steel. Like the blade of the knife he is holding.
The double bed is set sideways to the bedroom door. The light from the windows discloses the form of the sleeper in a disordered nest of bedclothes. She wears nothing—it is too hot to bother with a nightgown—and her pale flesh is pearly in the dim light. Her lack of clothing disappoints him. He likes to see the horror in their eyes when he makes them take off their clothes; he likes to watch the way their hands tremble while they are undressing.
TOM GETS UP AWKWARDLY FROM HIS SEAT ON THE PORCH. He cannot remember how long he has been sitting there. But he thinks he knows where he left his keys. He remembers taking them out in front of Janet’s house when he was trying to persuade her to come back to the apartment with him. He must have dropped them there. What a bore. He’ll have to go back now to find them, or he won’t get in. But he’s tired. Why not wait till morning? No chance of breaking into his apartment—it’s on the third floor, and he’s not in the mood for mountain climbing—but he can take a catnap on the porch till dawn, which isn’t that far off now. He settles his back next to a pillar and closes his eyes. Then a thought strikes him. By now poor Janet will be hot as the devil. She hasn’t spent the last hour or so having a drink (or two, or three) in a comfortably air-conditioned bar. She has been fruitlessly trying to get some sleep in a house so blazing hot you could probably bake pizzas in it. By now she’ll be pleased and grateful to be carried off from her tropic inferno to an agreeably Arctic pad. He won’t try to get in bed with her, he thinks piously, oh, no, not he! She needs her beauty sleep for the day ahead. But when she realizes how pigheaded she’s been, how thoughtful he is, how sensible it is to stay at his place until her air-conditioning is fixed, then maybe tomorrow night …
The thought energizes him. He gets up again and moves off creakily in the direction of Broom Street.
BEING A CAREFUL MAN, THE WATCHER HAS CONSIDERED THE PROBLEM OF the open windows in the bedroom. He knew that was the room he would find her in, because of the light showing there before she went to bed. He has decided that he will make her close them once she is awake. All the windows in the little house are open except those in the downstairs front, so there is no point in taking her into another room. Besides, the next house in the row is vacant, with a For Sale sign planted in the handkerchief-sized garden in front of it, so even if she manages to scream before the windows are closed, it’s doubtful anyone will hear. In any event the humid night air dulls sounds so they seem faraway and dreamlike, particularly to people who are sleeping.
On padded feet he moves next to the bed. The flashlight is in his pocket now, but the knife still glitters in his raised right hand. With his left hand he covers her mouth and roughly shakes her into consciousness. Her rose-gilt hair catches the faint light that emanates from the windows. It has a warm gleam, unlike the chill of the steel.
She does not want to rouse into the hot dead air; he can feel her lips mutter protestingly against his palm. But despite her reluctance she begins to wake, and panics as she finds she cannot breathe because his hand is blocking her nostrils. Her eyes fly open. Even in the half-light he can see they are brilliantly blue.
He places the point of the knife so it pricks the delicate skin of her throat. “If you scream, I’ll kill you,” he hisses. “I’ll slit your throat to the bone.”
She stiffens. Clearly she has got the message, so he removes his hand from her mouth. The knife, he thinks triumphantly, was a masterful move. It delivers an instant message. It makes him feel powerful, more powerful than he has ever felt before. From now on he will always use a knife. It gives him more time to see the fear, to smell the fear, to taste it. A frisson of pleasure ripples down his spine as he watches the pupils of those blue blue eyes grow larger and larger from the terror seeping into them, until her eyes look nearly black.
“I’m going to rape you,” he tells her. “And if you make a sound, I’ll split you like a barbecue chicken. With this.” He takes the knife away from her throat and shows it to her. He waits for the full realization of what is happening to flower inside her. Her eyes widen. Her mouth forms an O of fright. She starts to scramble out of bed, but he pushes her back.
“You aren’t going anywhere,” he informs her. He holds her down on the bed, sets the knife on the floor where she can’t reach it, unfastens his trousers, and rapes her.
TOM’S PROGRESS ALONG THE NIGHT STREETS OF WILMINGTON IS ERRATIC. He is not as drunk as he was, but he had been very drunk indeed. He squints at the street signs he passes to make certain he is going in the right direction, since between the night, the heat, and the booze, the terrain seems strangely unfamiliar. It is only a ten-minute walk from his place to hers, but in the dark it seems much farther, since now that he has got the wonderful idea of being Janet’s knight-errant, he is impatient to carry out his quest. At long last, however, he rounds the corner next to her house. The streetlamp provides a source of light that evokes a small answering gleam on the ground beside the front steps. It catches his eye and he gets down on his knees to inspect it hopefully. What luck! His key ring. Now he has access to a sanctuary where he can take his damsel in distress. Gleefully he picks up the keys and carefully, lovingly, stows them in his pocket.
THE WATCHER HAS FINISHED. For the moment. He picks up the knife and ponders what he will do next. She watches him, thoughts skittering frantically back and forth inside her mind like mice terrified by a cat. He places the point of the knife on the tender flesh of her stomach, and she cannot repress a squeak of fright.
“Shut up,” he tells her conversationally. “Or I’ll gut you. Like a fish. Ever seen what they do to fish?” He prods her with the knife and she bites her lips, locking them together with her teeth to keep from screaming. Rape, then, was only the beginning. What else will she have to endure? Is there any chance for escape? She is certain he is going to kill her. Eventually. She feels that to be killed at once would be a blessing. The blackgarbed figure stands between her and the door to the hall, and she is wearing nothing that would serve as protection against attack with the knife. Her flesh shrinks from the thought of the knife. It will rip and rend and shred her flesh. If he did not have the knife, she would try to slip past him. Once down the stairs … But it is the dead of night. There is no one on the street to help her. And he has the knife.
He moves away from the bed, his eyes fixed on her. His attacks have never been in the middle of the night before. They have been early in the morning before his victims were awake or in the forepart of the evening, when he was worried about an interruption, when he had to be quick, when he lacked the luxury of time. Now that he has so much time, it is like having an entire birthday cake all to himself. He has time to spare for whatever he may choose to do; he has the leisure and the power to experiment. And he has the knife.
In his delight over the potential of the weapon he picked up by chance on his way into the house, the Watcher has forgotten about the open windows. They are recalled to his memory by a muted shout from the street below.
“Janet!” yodels Tom. “Oh, Janet, your swain returns. Come to the window, my lady fair.” Tom has decided upon the method direct to summon Janet from her unquiet bed. Not for him the doorbell or a pounding on the front door.
When they hear Tom, Janet’s face and the face of her attacker wear strangely similar expressions. Both hearers are completely astonished. An instant later the Watcher’s expression turns to one of naked fury. A wild hope assails Janet. She opens her mouth and screams as loudly as she can, a scream that reverberates in her own ears, crashing inside her skull like an echo of itself.
“Help, Tom! Help! For God’s sake help me!” she screams and, still shrieking like a calliope, rolls off the bed, rolls under the bed in an attempt to avoid the knife.
The Watcher, enraged at this unexpected unsettling of his plans, rounds the promontory of the bed and kicks out at her as the readiest means of assault, then seizes a projecting foot and begins to drag her out from under the bed with one hand, the blade glistering evilly in his other fist, waiting until enough of her is exposed for him to make good use of it. But the bull-like roar that floats up through the bedroom windows and the thumping he hears on the door below make him decide quickly that flight is a wiser option.
“Janet! For Christ’s sake! What’s wrong? Hold on, I’m coming!”
The agreeable haze of alcohol cushioning Tom’s brain has evaporated at the ring of terror in Janet’s voice. The small house vibrates with the blows he is raining on the flimsy door with his sturdy shoulder, hammering away at it like a battering ram. He has almost made up his mind to break out the mullions of one of the front windows when the lock gives way and the door flies open.
Shouting, “Janet! Janet! Where are you?” at the top of his lungs, he races up the stairs which the intruder ran down only seconds ago; and stops at the bedroom doorway when he hears a voice—unrecognizable, if he had not known it must be Janet’s—say, “Here. Here I am.”
She crawls out from under the bed, holding a sheet which she has pulled down and decorously wound about her. He helps her to stand, putting his arms around her to keep her upright. In a small shrunken voice she says, “Thank God!” and bursts into a deluge of tears.