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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group


A Novel

Frank Clevenger (Volume 4)

Keith Russell Ablow

St. Martin's Press



part one

Mahler's Tenth Symphony played on the BMW X5's stereo, but even that serene music did nothing to calm Jonah. His skin was hot with anger. The palms of his hands burned against the steering wheel. His heart pounded, squeezing more and more blood with each beat, flooding his aorta, engorging his carotid arteries, making his head throb inside the skull, somewhere within the temporal lobes of his brain. At last count his breathing had risen to eighteen respirations per minute. He could feel a dizzying undertow of oxygen sucking him inside himself.
His hunger to kill always began this way, and he always believed he could control it, ride it into submission down a long highway, the way his grandfather had broken sinewy colts on the plains of the Arizona ranch where Jonah had spent his teenage years. So cunning was his psychopathology that it fooled him into thinking he was greater than it was, that the goodness in him could overpower the evil. He believed this even now, with seventeen bodies strewn along the highways behind him.
"Just keep driving," he said through gritted teeth.
His vision began to blur, partly from surging blood pressure, partly from hyperventilating, partly from the milligram of Haldol he had swallowed an hour earlier. Sometimes the antipsychotic medication put the beast to sleep. Sometimes not.
Squinting into the night, he saw the distant glow of red taillights. He pressed down on the accelerator, desperate to close the distancebetween himself and a fellow traveler, as if the momentum of another--of a normal and decent man--might carry him through the darkness.
He glanced at the orange neon clock on the dash, saw that it was 3:02 A.M., and remembered a line from Fitzgerald:
In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning.
The line was from a short story called "The Crack-up," a title apropos what was happening to him--fine fissures in his psychological defenses giving way, splitting into bigger clefts, then into each other, becoming a gaping black hole that swallowed him, then rebirthed him as a monster.
Jonah had read everything F. Scott Fitzgerald had written, because the words were beautiful, and the places beautiful, and the people beautiful, even with their flaws. And he wanted to think of himself in exactly that way, to believe he was an imperfect creation of a perfect God, that he was worthy of redemption.
He was, at thirty-nine, physically flawless. His face suggested both trustworthiness and self-confidence--high cheekbones, a prominent brow, a strong chin with a subtle cleft. His eyes, clear and pale blue, perfectly complemented his wavy, silver-gray hair, worn just off the shoulders, pleasantly tousled. He stood six-foot-one and was broadly built, with long, muscled arms and a V-shaped torso tapering to a 31-inch waist. He had the rock-hard thighs and calves of a mountain climber.
Yet, of all his features, women commented first on his hands. The skin was tan and soft, covering tendons that fanned perfectly from knuckles to wrist. The veins were visible enough to hint at physical strength, without being so visible as to suggest destructiveness. Thefingers were long and graceful, tapering to smooth, translucent nails he buffed to a shine each morning. A pianist's fingers, some women said. A surgeon's, others told him.
"You have the hands of an angel," one lover had gasped, sliding his finger into her mouth.
The hands of an angel. Jonah looked at them, white-knuckled, clutching the steering wheel. He was within fifty yards of the car in front of him, but felt himself losing ground in his race against evil. His upper lip had begun to twitch. Sweat covered his neck and shoulders.
He opened his eyes wide and summoned the face of his last victim in that young man's last moments, hoping the image would sober him, in the way the memory of nausea and vomiting can sober an alcoholic, making repugnant the bottle that beckons so seductively, promising relief and release.
Nearly two months had passed, but Jonah could still see Scott Carmady's jaw drop open, utter disbelief filling his eyes. For how can a weary traveler, feeling lucky to get help with a broken-down Chevy at the side of a desolate stretch of Kentucky highway, believe the raw pain of his cut throat or the warm blood soaking his shirt? How can he make sense of the fact that his life, with all the momentum of a twenty-something's hopes and dreams, is screeching to a halt? How can he fathom the fact that the well-dressed man who has mortally wounded him is the same man who has spent the time not only to jump-start his car battery, but to wait fifteen minutes with him to be certain it will not die again?
And what minutes! Carmady had revealed things he had spoken of to no one--the helplessness sparked in him by his sadistic boss, the rage he felt clinging to his cheating wife. Opening up made him feel better than he had in a long, long time. Unburdened.
Jonah remembered how a plea had taken the place of the disbeliefhe had seen in the dying man's eyes. It was not a plea for the answer to some grand, existential why? Not some cliché last scene from a movie. No. The plea was purely for help. So that when Carmady reached for Jonah it was neither to attack him, nor to defend himself, but simply to keep from collapsing.
Jonah had not stepped away from his victim, but closer. He embraced him. And as Carmady's life drained out of him, Jonah felt the rage drain out of his own body, a magnificent calm taking its place, a feeling of oneness with himself and the universe. And he whispered his own plea in the man's ear: "Please forgive me."
Jonah's eyes filled with tears. The road undulated before him. If only Carmady had been willing to reveal more, to peel back the last layers of his emotional defenses, to give Jonah the reasons why he could be victimized by his boss and his wife, what trauma had weakened him, then he might still be alive. But Carmady had refused to talk about his childhood, refused utterly, like a man keeping a locker full of meats all to himself--keeping them from Jonah, who was starving.
Starving, like now.
His strategy was backfiring. He had truly believed that summoning memories of his last kill would keep the monster inside him at bay, but the opposite was true. The monster had tricked him. The memory of the calm he had felt holding death in his arms and another man's life story in his heart made him crave that calm with every cell of his white-hot brain.
He glimpsed a sign for a rest area, half a mile away. He straightened up, telling himself he could go there, swallow another milligram or two of Haldol, and put himself to sleep. Like a vampire, he almost always fed by night; first light was just three hours away.
He veered off Route 90, into the rest area. One other car was parked there--an older-model, metallic blue Saab, with its interiorlight on. Jonah parked three spaces away. Why not ten? he chastised himself. Why tempt the beast? He gripped the wheel even more tightly, his fingernails digging into the heels of his hands, nearly breaking the skin. His fever spawned chills that ran up his neck and over his scalp. His ribcage strained painfully against his bulging lungs.
Half against his will, he turned his head and saw a woman in the driver's seat of the Saab, a large map unfolded against the steering wheel. She looked about forty-five years old. In silhouette, her face just missed beauty--her nose a bit large, her chin a bit weak. Crow's-feet suggested she was a worrier. Her brown hair was cut short and neat. She wore a black leather jacket. A cell phone lay on the dashboard in front of her.
Just looking at her made Jonah hungry. Ravenous. Here was a living, breathing woman, not twenty feet away, with a unique past and future. No other person had had precisely the same experiences or had thought precisely the same thoughts. Invisible bonds connected her to parents and grandparents, perhaps siblings, perhaps a husband or lovers, or both. Perhaps children. Friends. Her brain held data she had gathered, picking and choosing what to read and look at and listen to out of interests and abilities that were mystical and immeasurable parts of her. Of her, a being like no other. She harbored likes and dislikes, fears and dreams, and (this, more than anything) traumas that were hers and hers alone--unless she could be coaxed to share them.
Bolts of pain exploded into Jonah's eyes. He looked away, staring at the highway for most of a minute, hoping another car would slow to enter the rest area. None did.
Why did it always seem so easy? Almost prearranged. Even preordained. He never stalked his victims; he came upon them. Was the universe organizing to feed him the life force of others? Did thepeople who crossed his path come in search of him? Did they unconsciously need to die as much as he needed to kill? Did God want them in heaven? Was he some kind of angel? An angel of death? His saliva started to run thicker in his mouth. The throbbing in his head surged beyond anything like a headache, beyond any migraine. He felt as though a dozen drill bits inside his skull were powering their way out, through his forehead, his temples, his ears, down through the roof of his mouth, his lips.
He thought of killing himself, an impulse that had visited him before each murder. The straight razor in his pocket could end his suffering once and for all. But he had made only meager attempts on his own life. Shallow lacerations to his wrists. Five or ten pills, instead of fifty or a hundred. A drunken leap from a second-story window that fractured his right fibula. These were suicidal gestures, nothing more. Deep down Jonah wanted to live. He still believed he could make amends in this life. Beneath all his self-loathing, at the core of his being, he still loved himself in the unconditional way he prayed the Lord did.
He flicked on the BMW's cabin light and sounded a short blast of his horn, nauseated at secreting the first sticky strand of his poisonous web. The woman startled, then looked over at him. He leaned toward her and held up a finger, almost shyly, then lowered his passenger window not quite halfway, as if he wasn't sure whether to trust her.
The woman hesitated, then lowered her own window.
"Excuse me," Jonah said. His voice was velvety and deep, and he knew it had a nearly hypnotic effect. People never seemed to tire of listening to him. They rarely interrupted him.
The woman smiled, but tightly, and said nothing.
"I know this would be, uh ... asking a lot ... but, uh ..." He stuttered intentionally, to sound unsure of himself. "My, uh ..." he said, with a shrug and a smile, "kind of died." He held up his cell phone. It was silver and looked pricey. He extended his arm and turned his wrist, checking the time on his shiny Cartier chronograph, a cabochon sapphire at the crown. He knew most people trusted others with money, either because they believed the rich didn't need to steal from them, or because they assumed the rich valued society's rules too much to break them. "I'm a doctor," Jonah went on. He shook his head. "Left the hospital about four minutes ago, and they're paging me already. Any chance I could, uh ... borrow your phone?"
"My battery is getting ..." the woman started, sounding uncomfortable.
"I'd be happy to pay you something," Jonah said. The offer was his way of leapfrogging the woman's better judgment by transforming his request for the phone into the question of whether she ought to charge him to use it. A generous person would offer it for free--which, of course, required offering it to begin with.
"Go ahead," she said. "Evenings and weekends are no charge."
"Thank you." He got out of his car and walked toward the woman's door, stopping a respectful distance away. Partly to trigger her instinct to nurture him, partly to discharge the electric energy coursing through his system, he stepped briskly foot-to-foot and shook his head and shoulders, as if freezing.
She reached out, handed him the phone.
He stood facing her, letting her take note of his chocolate-colored, quilted suede coat, his sky-blue turtleneck sweater, his pleated gray flannel slacks. Nothing black. Everything soft to the touch. He dialed random digits and held the phone to his ear.
"You can use it in your car, if you like," she said.
Jonah knew the woman's invitation to take her phone into his car reflected her unconscious wish that he would take her into his car. Healso knew that the more proper he was, the freer she would feel to fantasize about him and the more penetrable her personal boundaries would become. "You've already been incredibly kind," he said. "I'll only be a moment."
She nodded, looked back at the map, and rolled up her window.
He spoke loudly to be certain she would overhear him. The words reverberated in his ears. "Dr. Wrens," he said, then paused. "A fever? How high?" He paused again. "Let's start her on some IV ampicillin and see how she does." He nodded. "Of course. Tell her husband I'll see her first thing in the morning." He pretended to click the phone off and knocked quietly on the car window.
She lowered it. "All set?"
He had obviously finished using the phone. Her question meant she wanted something else from him, even though he doubted she would be able to put into words what that something was. He felt a stiffening in his groin. "All set," he said. "Thank you so much." He held the phone out, waiting to speak until she was holding the other end of it, until they were connected that little bit. "Maybe I can return the favor," he said. He waited another moment before letting go of the phone. "You seem uncertain where you're headed."
She laughed. "I seem lost," she said.
He laughed with her--a boyish, infectious laugh that broke the ice once and for all. The beast was fully in control. The pain in Jonah's head seeped into his teeth and jaws. "Where are you trying to go, if you don't mind my asking?" He rubbed his hands together, blew out a plume of frosty breath.
"Eagle Bay," she said.
Eagle Bay was a small town on the Adirondack Railroad, close to the Moose River recreation area. Jonah had hiked nearby Panther Mountain. "That's easy," he said. "I'll scribble out directions." Hehad chosen the word scribble to conjure the image of innocence, of a harmless man-child barely able to write, let alone plot and plan.
"I'd appreciate that," she said.
Jonah felt as though he had sufficiently weakened her defenses to push past them. The average woman lacked the internal resolve to protect her boundaries, except in the face of obvious danger. And this woman could not see him as an imminent threat. He was handsome and well-spoken. He looked wealthy. He was a physician. He had been called by a local hospital to help someone in distress. A woman in distress. Now he wanted to help her.
He came around the front of the Saab, hugging himself. Walking around the back of the car, leaving the woman's field of vision, might make her wary. He waited beside the passenger door, making no movement toward it. The less overt his demand to be let inside, the better his chances.
She seemed to hesitate, again, her face registering what looked like a textbook struggle between the instinct for self-preservation and the quest for self-reliance. Self-reliance won. She reached across the passenger seat and pulled open the door.
Jonah climbed in. He held out his hand. It trembled. "Jonah Wrens," he said. "It must be ten below, with the wind chill."
"Anna," she said, shaking his hand. "Anna Beckwith." She looked confused as she let go, probably because Jonah's hand felt warm and clammy, not cold.
"Do you have a pen and paper, Anna Beckwith?" Jonah asked. Speaking her name would make them seem less like strangers.
Beckwith reached behind Jonah's seat and rummaged through her handbag, finding a felt tip pen and leather address book. She flipped to a blank page and handed the open book and pen to him.
Jonah noted that Beckwith wore no engagement ring or weddingband. She did not smell of perfume. He started writing out random directions, to nowhere. Stay on 90 East, to exit 54, Route 9 West ... "I take it you're not from around here," he said.
She shook her head. "Washington, D.C."
"Are you a skier?" he asked, still writing.
"No," she said.
"A hiker?"
"I'm just visiting a friend."
"Good for you." He glanced at her. "Boyfriend?" he asked matter-of-factly. He went back to writing.
"College roommate."
No boyfriend, Jonah thought. No wedding band. No perfume. No lipstick. And not the slightest hint of homosexuality in her manner or tone. "Let me guess ..." he said. "Mount Holyoke."
"Why would you guess a girl's school?" Beckwith asked.
Jonah looked at her. "I saw the Mount Holyoke sticker on your back window when I drove in."
She laughed again--an easy laugh that showed the last of her fear had melted away. "Class of '78."
Jonah did the math. Beckwith was between forty-five and forty-six years old. He could have asked her what she had studied at Holyoke or whether the college was close to her home or far away. But answers to those questions would not give him access to her soul. "Why a girl's school?" he asked instead.
"I really don't know," she said.
"You chose it," he pushed, smiling warmly to take the edge off his words.
"I just felt more comfortable."
I just felt more comfortable. Jonah stood at the threshold of Beckwith's internal, emotional world. He needed to buy enough time to cross it. "Do you know Route 28?" he asked.
"I don't," Beckwith said.
"No problem," Jonah said. "I'll, uh, draw everything out ... for you." Without thinking to, he drew a line up the page, then another, shorter line intersecting it at something close to a ninety degree angle. He noticed the rudimentary cross on the page and took it as a symbol that God was still with him. Hadn't Jesus, after all, absorbed the pain of others? And wasn't that Jonah's aim? His thirst? His cross to bear? "Why would a coed campus have made you uncomfortable?" he asked Beckwith.
She didn't respond.
He looked at her, saw a new hesitancy in her face. "Sorry to pry. My daughter's thinking of Holyoke," he lied.
"You have a daughter?"
"You seem surprised."
"You don't wear a wedding band."
She had been studying him. She was coming closer. Jonah felt his heart rate and breathing begin to slow. "Her mother and I divorced when Caroline was five," he said. Then he delivered Beckwith this talisman, harvested from Scott Carmady's soul, now a part of his own: "My wife was unfaithful to me. I stayed longer than I should have."
That fabricated self-revelation was all the license Anna Beckwith needed to begin revealing her true self. "I was always shy with boys," she said. "I'm sure that's the reason for Holyoke."
"You've never married," Jonah said.
"You sound so sure," Beckwith said playfully.
Jonah kept writing out his haphazard map, not wanting to interrupt the stream of emotion flowing between them. "Just a guess," he said.
"You guessed right."
"I wasn't exactly marriage material myself," he said.
"I had two brothers," she said. "Both older. Maybe that ... I don't know."
Jonah heard a whole world within the way Beckwith had said the word older. There was resentment and powerlessness in it--and something more. Shame. "They made fun of you," he said. He couldn't resist looking at her again. He watched her face lose its mask of maturity and become open and innocent and beautiful. A little girl's face. He thought to himself that he could never kill a child. And with that thought, the pain in his head fell off to a dull ache.
"They teased me quite a bit," she said.
"How old were you?"
"The worst of it?" She shrugged. "Ten? Eleven?"
"And how old were they?"
"Fourteen and sixteen."
Beckwith suddenly looked anxious, in the same way Jonah's other victims had--as if she didn't understand why she would share such intimacies with a stranger. But Jonah needed to hear more. So he pushed ahead. "What names did they call you?" He closed his eyes, waiting for her emotional wound to ooze the sweet antidote to his violence.
"They called me ..." She stopped. "I don't want to go there." She let out a long breath. "If you could just give me the directions, I'd really appreciate it."
Jonah looked at her. "The kids at school used to call me 'faggot,' 'wimp,' things like that." Another lie.
She shook her head. "From the looks of it, you've really shown them," she said. "No one would call you a wimp now."
"Nice of you to say." He looked out his window, as if pained by the memory of his childhood traumas.
"They called me ... 'prissy pussy pants,'" Beckwith said.
Jonah turned back to her. She was blushing.
"I know it doesn't sound like the end of the world or anything," she went on, "but they just kept it up. They wouldn't let me be."
Jonah was with the eleven-year-old Beckwith now, seeing her in a pleated, navy blue wool skirt, proper white blouse, white socks, cordovan penny loafers. It was no accident her brothers had teased her most intensely as she reached womanhood, when they would be, consciously or not, focused on her pants and the soft folds of skin beneath them. And he intuited more toxic goings-on--from the way Beckwith had said that they wouldn't let her be. That sounded like code for sexual abuse. He stared at her, hoping she would strip her psyche naked and bathe with him in the warm pool of her suffering. "And besides the name-calling?" he said.
Beckwith stared back at him, the color slowly draining from her cheeks.
"How else were your brothers cruel to you, Anna?"
She shook her head.
"They tried to look at you?"
"I really have to get going," she said.
"They touched you," he said.
Suddenly, the little girl Beckwith disappeared, and the forty-five-year-old Beckwith sat rigidly in her place. "Honestly, it really isn't any of your ..."
Jonah wanted the little girl. He needed the little girl. "You can tell me," he said. "You can tell me anything."
"No," she said.
Jonah could almost hear a bolt sliding home, locking him out. "Please," he said.
"I need you to leave," Beckwith said.
"You shouldn't feel embarrassed with me," Jonah said. He wasstraining for air. "I've heard everything there is to hear." He tried to force a smile, but knew his expression had to look more wolfish than reassuring.
Beckwith squinted at him, then swallowed hard, as if she finally saw she was in the company of madness.
Jonah's head had started to throb. "Where was your father?" he asked, hearing the telltale anger seeping into his voice. "Where was your mother?"
"Please," Beckwith said. "Just let me leave." Yet she didn't try to escape.
"Why didn't they help you?" Jonah asked. He felt saliva drip from the corner of his mouth and saw in Beckwith's face that she had seen it.
"If you let me go, I ..." she started to plead.
The drill bits inside Jonah's skull started grinding again. "What did those little bastards do to you?" Jonah yelled.
"They ..." She started to cry.
Jonah leaned over her, bringing his mouth to her ear. "What did they do?" he demanded. "Don't be ashamed. It wasn't your fault."
Beckwith's face twisted into the panic and confusion that had seized Scott Carmady--horrified disbelief at what was happening. "Please," she gasped. "Please, God ..."
Her pleading was simultaneously excruciating and exciting to Jonah, a terrible and irresistible window on the evil inside him. He pressed his cheek to hers. "Tell me," he whispered in her ear. He felt her tears stream down his face. And he began to cry himself. Because he realized there was only one way to enter her soul.
He reached into his front pocket for the straight edge razor. He opened it mercifully outside her view. Then he placed a thumb under her chin and gently tilted her head back. She offered no resistance. He drew the blade quickly across each of her carotid arteries, severingthem cleanly. And he watched as Beckwith wilted like a three-day-old flower.
Blood began to drip down his cheek, mixing with his tears. He could not have said anymore whether it was his blood or Beckwith's, his tears or hers. In this pure and final moment, all boundaries between him and his victim were evaporating. He was free from the bondage of his own identity.
He wrapped his arms around Beckwith, drawing her tightly to him, groaning as he discharged the seed of life between their thighs, marrying them forever. He kept her close as her frenzy faded to exhaustion, until he felt his muscles relax with hers, his heart slow with hers, his mind clear with hers--until he was completely at peace, at one with himself and the universe.
PSYCHOPATH. Copyright © 2003 by Keith Ablow. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.