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Fear by Jeffery Deaver
The following is based on a speech I gave at the Milan, Italy, literary and arts festival in 2005. An original short story, entitled “Afraid,” provides the springboard for a brief discussion of my strategy of creating fear in fiction; I thought you might be interested in seeing some of the tricks of the trade in writing suspense. Be forewarned that I pause part way through the story to play professor, before returning to the tale.
“Where are we going?” the woman asked as the black Audi sped away from Florence’s Piazza della Stazione, where her train had just arrived from Milan.
Antonio shifted gears smoothly and replied, “It’s a surprise.”
Marissa clicked on her seat belt as the car plunged down the narrow, winding streets. She was soon hopelessly lost. A Milan resident for all of her 34 years, she knew only the city center of Florence. Antonio, on the other hand, was a native Florentine and sped assuredly along an unfathomable route of streets and alleys.
A surprise? she wondered. Well, he’d wanted to pick the location for their long weekend together and she’d agreed. So, she told herself, sit back and enjoy the ride. . . . Her job had been particularly stressful in the past month; it was time to let someone else make the decisions.
Slim, and blonde, with features of the north, Marissa Carrefiglio had been a runway model in her early twenties but then took up fashion design, which she loved. But three years ago her brother had quit the family business and she’d been forced to take over management of the arts and antiques operation. She wasn’t happy about it but her stern father wasn’t a man you could say no to.
Another series of sharp turns. Marissa gave an uneasy laugh at Antonio’s aggressive driving and looked away from the streets as she told him about the train ride from Milan, about news from her brother in America, about recent acquisitions at her family’s store in the Brera.
He, in turn, described a new car he was thinking of buying, a problem with the tenant in one of his properties and a gastronomic coup he’d pulled off yesterday: some white truffles he’d found at a farmers’ market near his home and had bought right out from under the nose of an obnoxious chef.
Another sharp turn and a fast change of gears. Only the low setting sun, in her eyes, gave her a clue of the direction they were traveling.
She hadn’t known Antonio very long. They’d met in Florence a month ago at a gallery off the Via Maggio, where Marissa’s company occasionally consigned art and antiques. She had just delivered several works: eighteenth-century tapestries from the famed Gobelins Manufactory in France. After they were hung, she was drawn to a dark medieval tapestry taking up a whole wall in the gallery. Woven by an anonymous artist, it depicted beautiful angels descending from heaven to fight beasts roaming the countryside, attacking the innocent.
As she stood transfixed by the gruesome scene a voice had whispered, “A nice work but there’s an obvious problem with it.”
She blinked in surprise and turned to the handsome man, standing close. Marissa frowned. “Problem?”
His eyes remained fixed on the tapestry as he said, “Yes. The most beautiful angel has escaped from the scene.” He turned and smiled. “And landed on the floor beside me.”
She’d scoffed laughingly at the obvious come-on line. But he’d delivered it with such self-effacing charm that her initial reaction–to walk away–faded quickly. They struck up a conversation about art and, a half hour later, were sharing Prosecco, cheese and conversation.
Antonio was muscular and trim, with thick, dark hair and brown eyes, a ready smile. He was in the computer field. She couldn’t quite understand exactly what he did–something about networks–but he must’ve been successful. He was wealthy and seemed to have a lot of free time.
They had much in common, it turned out. They’d both gone to college in Piemonte, had traveled extensively in France and shared an interest in fashion (though while she liked to design, he preferred to wear). A year younger than she, he’d never been married (she was divorced), and, like her, he only had one living parent; her mother had passed away ten years ago, and Antonio’s father, five.
Marissa found him easy to talk to. That night they’d met she’d rambled on about her life–complaining about her domineering father, her regret at leaving fashion for a boring job, and her former husband, to whom she occasionally loaned money that was never paid back. When she’d realized how moody and complaining she sounded, she’d blushed and apologized. But he hadn’t minded at all; he enjoyed hearing what she had to say, he admitted. What a departure from most of the men she dated, who focused only on her looks–and on themselves.
They’d walked along the Arno, then strolled across the Ponte Vecchio, where a young boy tried to sell him roses for his “wife.” Instead he bought her a tourist souvenir: a Lucretia Borgia poison ring. She’d laughed hard and she kissed him on the cheek.
The next week he came to visit her in the Navigli in Milan; she’d seen him twice after that on business here in Florence. This was to be their first weekend away. They were not yet lovers but Marissa knew that would soon change.
Now, on their way to the “surprise” destination, Antonio made another sharp turn down a dim residential street. The neighborhood was run-down. Marissa was troubled that he was taking this shortcut–and troubled all the more when he abruptly skidded to a stop at the curb.
What was this? she wondered.
He climbed out. “Just have an errand. I’ll be right back.” He hesitated. “You might want to leave the doors locked.” He strode to a decrepit house, looked around him, and entered without knocking. Marissa noticed that he’d taken the car keys with him, which made her feel trapped. She loved to drive–her car was a silver Maserati–and she didn’t take well to the role of passenger. She decided to follow his advice and checked to make sure all the doors were locked. As she was looking at his side of the car she glanced out the window. She saw two twin boys, about ten years old, standing motionless, side by side, across the street. They stared at her, unsmiling. One whispered something. The other nodded gravely. She felt a shiver at the unnerving sight.
Then, turning back, Marissa gasped in shock. An old woman’s skull-like face stared at her, merely a foot away on the passenger side of the Audi. The woman must have been sick and near death.
Through the half-open window Marissa stammered, “Can I help you?”
Wearing dirty, torn clothing, the scrawny woman rocked unsteadily on her feet. Her yellow eyes glanced over her shoulder quickly, as if she was concerned about being seen. She then glanced at the car, which seemed familiar to her.
“Do you know Antonio?” Marissa asked, calming.
“I’m Olga. I’m the queen of the Via Magdelena. I know everyone. . . . ” A frown. “I have come to offer you my sympathies.”
“Why, the death of your sister, of course.”
“My sister? I don’t have a sister.”
“You’re not Lucia’s sister?”
“I don’t know a Lucia.”
The woman shook her head. “But you so resemble her.”
Marissa could hardly bear to look into the woman’s wet, jaundiced eyes.
“I’ve troubled you unnecessarily,” Olga said. “Forgive me.”
She turned away.
“Wait,” Marissa called. “Who was she, this Lucia?”
The woman paused. She leaned down and whispered. “An artist. She made dolls. I am not speaking of toys. They were works of art. She made them out of porcelain. The woman was a magician. It was as if she could capture human souls and place them in her dolls.”
“And she died?”
“Last year, yes.”
“How did you know her?”
Olga glanced one more time at the building Antonio had gone into. “Forgive me if I troubled you. I was mistaken, it seems.” She hobbled away.
Antonio returned a moment later, carrying a small, gray paper bag. He set this in the back seat. He said nothing about his errand other than to apologize that it took longer than he planned. As he dropped into the driver’s seat, Marissa looked past him to the opposite side of the street. The twins were gone.
Antonio shoved the shifter into gear and they sped away. Marissa asked him about the old woman. He blinked in surprise. He hesitated then gave a laugh. “Olga . . . She’s crazy. Not right in the head.”
“Do you know a Lucia?”
Antonio shook his head. “Did she say I did?”
“No. But . . . it seemed she was telling me about her because she recognized your car.”
“Well, as I say, she’s crazy.”
Antonio fell silent and wound his way out of town, eventually catching the A7. He then turned south onto the SS222, the famous Chiantigiana highway, which winds through the wine region between Florence and Siena.
As Marissa gripped the handhold above the door in the car, they raced through Strada then past the magnificent Castello di Uzzano, then Greve and into the sparser region south of Panzano. This was beautiful country–but there was an eeriness about it. Not too many kilometers north, the Monster of Florence had butchered more than a dozen people from the late ‘sixties to the mid ‘eighties and here, south, two other madmen had not long ago tortured and slaughtered several women. These recent killers had been captured and were in prison, but the deaths were particularly gruesome and had occurred not far from where they were at the moment. Now that she’d thought of them Marissa couldn’t put the murders out of her mind.
She was about to ask that Antonio turn the radio on, when suddenly, about three kilometers from Quercegrossa, he turned sharply onto a one-lane dirt road. They drove for nearly a kilometer before Marissa finally asked, her voice uneasy, “Where are we, Antonio? I wish you’d tell me.”
He glanced at her troubled face. Then he smiled. “I’m sorry.” He abandoned the mystery and solemnity he’d been displaying. The old Antonio was back. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I was just being dramatic. I’m taking you to my family’s country home. It was an old mill. My father and I renovated it ourselves. It’s a special place and I wanted to share it with you.”
Marissa relaxed and placed her hand on his leg. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t cross-examining you. . . . There’s just been so much pressure at work . . . And trying to persuade my father to let me have a few days off–oh, it was a nightmare.”
“Well, you can relax now.” His hand closed around hers.
She lowered her window and breathed in the fragrant air. “It’s lovely out here.”
“It is, yes. Pure peace and quiet. No neighbors for several kilometers.”
They drove five more minutes then parked. He retrieved the gray bag he’d collected at that ramshackle place in Florence and then removed the suitcases and a bag of groceries from the trunk. They walked fifty meters along a path through an overgrown, thorny olive grove and then he nodded toward a footbridge over a fast-moving stream. “There it is.”
In the low light of dusk she could just make out the house on the opposite shore. It was quite an impressive place, though far more gothic than romantic–an ancient, two-story stone mill with small windows barred with metal rods.
They crossed the bridge and he set the suitcases down at the front door. He fished for the key. Marissa turned and looked down. Black and fast moving, the stream seemed quite deep. Only a low railing separated her from a sheer, twenty-foot drop into the water.
His voice, close to her ear, made her jump. He’d come up behind her. “I know what you’re thinking.”
“What?” she asked, her heart beating fast.
He put his arm around her and said, “You’re thinking about that urge.”
“To throw yourself in. It’s the same thing people feel when standing on observation decks or the edge of a cliff–that strange desire to step off into space. No reason, no logic. But it’s always there. As if–” He released her shoulder. “–I were to let go there’d be nothing to stop you from jumping in. Do you know what I mean?”
Marissa shivered–largely because she knew exactly what he meant. But she said nothing. To change the course of the conversation she pointed at the far shore, at a small white, wooden cross, surrounded by flowers. “What’s that?”
He squinted. “Again? Ah, trespassers leave them. It happens often. It’s quite irritating.”
After a moment he said, “A boy died here. Before we owned the mill. . . . He lived up the road. Nobody knows exactly what happened but it seems he was playing with a soccer ball and it rolled into the water. He fell in trying to get it. The water’s very fast–you can see. He was sucked into the sluice there and was wedged upside down.”
Marissa was claustrophobic. This thought terrified her.
“It took him a half hour to die. Now his relatives come to leave the memorial. They claim they don’t. They say the crosses and flowers just appear out of nowhere. But of course they’re lying. . . .”
Her eyes were riveted on the dark, narrow intake, where the child had died. What a terrible way to end your life. . . .
Antonio’s loud voice startled her again. But this time he was laughing. “Now, enough morbid stories. Let’s eat!”
Gratefully, Marissa followed him inside. She was relieved to see that the interior was very comfortable, actually cozy. It was nicely painted and on the wall hung expensive paintings and tapestries. Antonio lit candles and opened Prosecco. They toasted their first long weekend together and began to prepare dinner. Marissa whipped up an antipasto platter of marinated vegetables and ham but Antonio did most of the cooking. He made linguine with butter and the white truffles for the first course and trout with herbs for the main. She was impressed, watching his assured hands cut and mix and whisk and assemble. Enjoying his skill, yes, but she was saddened slightly too, regretting that her long hours at the shop prevented her from spending as much time as she would have liked in her own kitchen, making meals for friends.
Marissa set the table while he went downstairs to the wine cellar and returned with a 1990 Chianti from a famous local vineyard. A lover of wine, Marissa lifted an eyebrow and remarked that it was a wonderful vintage, hard to find; even the labels were collectors’ items. “You must have a wonderful wine cellar. Can I see it?”
But as she stepped toward the door he pulled it shut, wincing slightly. “Oh, it’s a mess down there. I’m embarrassed. I didn’t get a chance to straighten it. Perhaps later.”
“Of course,” she agreed.
He set the food out and, in candlelight, they ate a leisurely dinner, talking the entire time. He told her about the crazy neighbors, a bad-tempered tomcat that thought he owned the property, the difficulty he and his father had had in finding period accessories to restore the mill.
Afterwards, they carried the dishes into the kitchen and Antonio suggested they have grappa in the parlor. He pointed it out to her. She walked into the small, intimate room and sat on the couch, then heard the squeal of the wine cellar door and his footsteps descending the stairs. He returned five minutes later with two filled glasses. They sat together, sipping the liquor. It seemed more bitter than most of the grappas she’d had but she was sure that, given Antonio’s good taste, it was an expensive distillation.
She was feeling warm, feeling comfortable, feeling giddy.
Leaning back against his strong shoulder, she lifted her face and kissed him. Antonio kissed back, hard. Then whispered, “There’s a present for you in there.” He pointed to a nearby bathroom.
She rose and, in the room, found an antique silk robe on a hanger. The garment was golden, with tiny flowers on it and lace at the edging.
“It’s beautiful,” she called. She debated. Should she put it on? That would be a clear message to him. . . . Did she want to send it or not?
Yes, she decided, she did.
She stripped her clothes off, slipped the thin robe on then returned to the parlor. He smiled and took her hand, stared into her eyes. “You’re so beautiful. You look just like . . . an angel.”
His words echoed the line he’d used when they met. But there was something slightly off about his tone, as if he’d intended to say that she looked like something else and caught himself just in time.
Then she laughed to herself. You’re used to your father–parsing everything he says, looking for double meanings and subtle criticisms. Relax.
Marissa sat down beside Antonio once more. They kissed passionately. He pulled the clip out of her hair and let it tumble to her shoulders then took her face in both hands and stared into her eyes for long moment. He kissed her again. She was very lightheaded from his touch and the liquor. When he whispered, “Let’s go into the bedroom,” she nodded.
“It’s through there.” He pointed to the kitchen. “I think there’re some candles beside the bed. Why don’t you light them? I’ll lock up.”
Picking up some matches, Marissa walked into the kitchen. She noticed that he’d left the wine cellar door open. She glanced down the steep stairs and could see much of the room. It wasn’t messy at all, as he’d said. In fact, the place was spotlessly clean, well organized. She heard Antonio closing a window or door in another part of the house and, out of curiosity, walked quietly halfway down the stairs. She paused, frowning, staring at something under a table nearby. It was a soccer ball, half-deflated.
She recalled that the boy who’d drowned had been playing with a ball like this. Was it his?
Continuing down the steps, Marissa stooped and picked it up. The ball was a special one, commemorating one of Milan’s big wins last year; the date was printed on it. So it couldn’t have been the dead boy’s–Antonio had said he’d drowned when the previous owner was living here. But Antonio had been the owner for at least five years–which is when his father, who’d helped renovate the place, had died. It was just a strange coincidence.
But wait . . . Thinking back to his account of the incident, Marissa recalled that Antonio had said that nobody knew exactly what happened to the youngster. But if that was true, then how could he possibly know it’d taken the boy a half hour to die?
Fear began to grow deep inside her. She heard the creak of his footsteps above her. She put the ball back and turned to the stairs. But then she stopped and gasped. On a stone wall to the right of the steps was a photograph. It was of Antonio and a woman who looked very much like Marissa, her hair dangling to her shoulders. They were both wearing wedding rings–even though he said he’d never been married.
And the woman was wearing the same robe that Marissa now wore.
She was, of course, Lucia.
Who’d died last year.
With stunning clarity, Marissa understood: Antonio had murdered his wife. The boy with the football had perhaps heard her screams for help or had witnessed the killing. Antonio had chased him and flung him into the stream where he’d been pulled into the sluice and drowned while the mad husband watched him die.
Her heart pounding, she walked closer to the sideboard underneath the photograph. There was the gray bag that Antonio had picked up in Florence. It was sitting beside the bottle of grappa he’d just opened. Marissa opened the bag. Inside was a bottle of barbiturates, half empty. A glance at the top of the sideboard showed a dusting of powder, the same color as the pills–as yellow as the jaundiced eyes of the old woman who’d come up to Antonio’s car.
It was as if he’d crushed some of the drugs.
To mix into her grappa, Marissa realized.
A searing wave of panic raced through her and pooled in her belly. Marissa had never been so afraid in her life. His plan was to drug her and–and then what?
She couldn’t waste time speculating. She had to escape. Now!
Starting up the stairs, Marissa froze.
Antonio was standing above her. In his hand was a carving knife.
“I told you I didn’t want you in the wine cellar, Lucia.”
“What?” Marissa whispered, weak with terror.
“Why did you come back?” he whispered. Then gave a chilling laugh. “Ah, Lucia, Lucia . . . You came back from the dead. Why? You deserved to die. You made me fall in love with you, you took my heart and my soul and you were going to just walk away and leave me alone.”
“Antonio,” Marissa said, her voice cracking. “I’m not–”
“You thought I was just one of your dolls, didn’t you? Something you could create and then sell and abandon?”
He started down the stairs, closing the door behind him.
“No, Antonio. Listen to me–”
“How could you come back?”
“I’m not Lucia!” she screamed.
She thought back to their initial meeting. It wasn’t an angel he thought she resembled when they first met; it was the wife he’d murdered.
“Lucia,” he moaned.
He reached up to the wall and clicked out the lights. The room was utterly dark.
“God, no. Please!” She backed away, her bare feet stinging on the cold floor.
She could hear his footsteps descending toward her–the creaking wood gave him away. But then he stepped onto the stone floor and she lost track of where he was.
No . . . Tears dotted her eyes.
He called, “Did you come back to turn me into another one of your dolls?”
Marissa backed away. Where was he? She couldn’t hear him.
A stream of hot breath kissed her left cheek. He was no more than a foot away.
She screamed and dropped to her knees. She couldn’t move forward, toward where she believed the stairs were–he was in her way–but she remembered seeing a small door against the far wall. Maybe it led to the back yard. Feeling her away along the wall, she finally located it, ripped the door open and tumbled inside, slamming it behind her.
Sobbing, she struck a match.
She found herself in a tiny cell, four feet high and six square. No windows, no other doorways.
Through her tears of panic, she saw an object on the floor in front of her. Easing forward, hands shaking, heart stuttering, she saw that it was a porcelain doll, its black eyes staring at the ceiling.
And on the wall were dark-brown streaks–blood, Marissa understood–left by the prior occupant of this chamber, Lucia, who spent the last days of her life in terror, trying vainly to scratch through the stone with her bare fingers.
The match went out, and darkness surrounded her.
Let’s hit the pause button, shall we?
I’d like to put on my professor’s tweed jacket for a moment and welcome you to Fear 101, also known as “How to scare the socks off your readers in a few easy lessons.” I’m going to offer some brief comments on how I incorporate fear into my writing. Don’t worry; we’ll return to Marissa’s plight in just a moment.
I’m a suspense writer, not a philosopher or a psychiatrist. I’m concerned with fear only as it relates to storytelling. I’ve written “Afraid” to illustrate five essential fears that I regularly work into my writing. I’ll also share several rules that enhance the effects of those fears in my audience.
The first of the five is our fear of the unknown. Throughout the story Marissa never knows exactly what’s going to happen (and neither do we readers). At the beginning Antonio says, “It’s a surprise,” and I maintain the uncertainty established by that sentence for as long as I can. Marissa didn’t know where they were going, what the old woman meant, who Lucia really was, what Antonio was doing at the house in Florence, what was in the wine cellar . . . In fact, she realizes–too late–that she doesn’t really know Antonio at all.
The second fear is what we experience when others are in control of our lives–that is, we fear being vulnerable. Marissa is a shrewd businesswoman, intelligent and strong, and yet I’ve taken away all her resources. In “Afraid” Antonio is the driver and Marissa is solely a passenger, both literally and figuratively. At the end of the story, she’s nearly naked, in a remote country home, without a cell phone or weapon, trapped in sealed cell, at the complete mercy of a madman with a knife, and nobody even knows where she is. Can you be any more vulnerable than that?
The third fear is others’ lacking control of themselves. When people play by society’s rules, we aren’t afraid. When they don’t, we are. Psychopaths like Antonio have no control over their behaviors so we can’t reason with them, and they’re not governed by laws and ethics. The fear is greatest when the lack of control is within someone we’re close to. A random murderer or other criminal is bad enough but when people we know and are intimate with start acting strange and in threatening ways, we are particularly terrified. That’s why I made my two characters close and soon to be lovers.
The fourth fear I use in my writing is our own lack of self-control. I mention the inexplicable drive to throw ourselves off a bridge or cliff–an urge that we’ve all experienced in one form or another. Marissa fears giving in to this specific impulse but in my story I use the impulse as a metaphor for a broader fear: of her loss of self-control with regard to Antonio. I also ply Marissa with drugs to further weaken her self-control.
The fifth fear is actually a broad category, which I call the icons of terror. These are the images (often clichés) that make us afraid either because they’re imprinted into our brains or because we have learned to fear them. Some of the icons I used in this story are:
–The harbinger of evil (the old woman with the jaundiced eyes and the twin boys).
–The religious motifs and violent imagery in the tapestry Marissa was looking at when they met.
–The poison ring that Antonio bought for Marissa.
–The echoes of evil associated with a particular locale (the Monster of Florence–a real serial killer, by the way–and the fictional torture/killings on the highway between Florence and Siena).
–The dead boy.
–Dolls. (Sorry, Madame Alexander, but they can be just plain creepy.)
–The isolated, gothic setting of the vacation house.
–The windowless cell.
–Various phobias (Marissa’s claustrophobia, for instance).
–The occult (the flowers and cross left by the stream).
These are just a few of the hundreds of icons of terror that can be used to jangle readers’ nerves.
Finally, there are two rules I keep in mind when creating fear. One, I enhance the experience of fear by making sure that my characters (and therefore my readers) stand to lose something important if the threatened calamity comes to pass. This means the people in my books must be fleshed-out and must themselves care about losing their lives or about suffering some loss. Marissa wouldn’t be afraid if she didn’t care about living or dying, and readers wouldn’t be afraid for her if they didn’t care about her as a character.
Two, I always remember that my job as a suspense writer is to make my audience afraid but never disgusted or repulsed. The emotion that fear engenders in thriller fiction should be cathartic and exhilarating. Yes, make audiences afraid, make their palms sweat, and make them hesitate to shut the lights out at night–but at the end of the ride have them climb off the roller coaster unharmed.
That said, let’s get back to poor Marissa, shall we?
The match went out, and darkness surrounded her.
Marissa collapsed on the floor in panic, sobbing. What a fool I’ve been, she thought. . . . I’ll die here.
But then, from outside the cell, she heard Antonio’s voice, sounding suddenly quite normal. He called, “It’s all right, Marissa. Don’t worry. There’s a light switch behind a loose stone to the left of the door. Turn it on. Read the note hidden inside the doll.”
What was happening? Marissa wondered. She wiped the tears from her eyes and found the switch, clicked it on. Blinking against the bright light, she bent down and pulled a folded piece of paper from the hollowed-out doll. She read.
The wall to your left is false. It’s plastic. Pull it down and you’ll see a door and a window. The door is unlocked. When you’re ready to leave, push it open outward. But first look out the window.
She ripped the plastic away. There was indeed a window. She looked out and saw the footbridge. Unlike before, the property was now well lit with spotlights from the mill. She saw Antonio, with his suitcase, heading over the bridge. He paused, must have seen the light through the window of the cell and knew she was watching. He waved. Then he disappeared toward the parking lot. A moment later she heard his car start and the sound of him driving away.
What the hell’s going on?
She pushed the door open and stepped outside.
There was her suitcase and purse. She tore off the robe, dressed quickly with trembling hands, and pulled her cell phone from her purse, gripping it the way a scared child clings to a stuffed animal. She continued with the note.
You are safe. You have always been safe.
I am on my way back to Florence now, nowhere near the mill. But believe that I’m no psychotic killer. There is no Lucia. The old woman who told you about her was paid 100 euros for her performance. There was no little boy who drowned; I put the flowers and cross by the stream myself before I came to pick you up at the station today. The football was merely a prop. The blood on the wall of the cell is paint. The drugs were candy (though the grappa was real–and quite rare, I may add). The photograph of me and my “wife” was created by computer.
As for what is true: My name is Antonio, I have never been married, I made a fortune in computers, and this is my vacation house.
What, you are wondering, is this all about?
I must explain:
As a child I spent much time in loneliness and boredom. I immersed myself in the books of the great writers of horror. They were terrifying, yes, but they also exhilarated me. I would see an audience watching a horror film and think: They are scared but they are alive.
Those experiences moved me to become an artist. Like any truly great musician or painter, my goal is not simply to create beauty but to open people’s eyes and rearrange their views and perceptions, the only difference being that instead of musical notes or paint, my medium is fear. When I see people like you who, as Dante writes, have lost the true path in life, I consider it my mission to help them find it. The night in Florence, the night we met, I singled you out because I saw that your eyes were dead. And I soon learned why–your unhappiness at your job, your oppressive father, your needy ex-husband. But I knew I could help you.
Oh, at this moment you hate me, of course; you are furious. Who wouldn’t be?
But, Marissa, ask yourself this question, ask it in your heart: Don’t you think that being so afraid has made you feel exquisitely alive?
Below are three phone numbers.
One is for a car service that will take you back to the train station in Florence.
The second is for the local police precinct.
The third is my mobile.
The choice of whom you call is yours. I sincerely hope you call the last of these numbers, but if you wish not to–tonight or in the future–I, of course, will understand. After all, it’s the nature of art that the artist must sometimes send his creation into the world, never to see it again.
Furious, tearful, quivering, Marissa walked to a stone bench at the edge of the water. She sat and breathed deeply, clutching the note in one hand, the phone in the other. Her eyes rose, gazing at the stars. Suddenly she blinked, startled. A large bat, a dark shape in the darker sky, zig-zagged overheard in a complex yet elegant pattern. Marissa stared at it intently until the creature vanished over the trees.
She looked back to the stream, hearing the urgent murmur of the black water’s passage. Holding the note into the beam of a light from the side of the mill, she read one of the numbers he’d give her. She punched it into her phone.
But then she paused, listening again to the water, breathing in the cool air with its scent of loam and hay and lavender. Marissa cleared the screen of her mobile. And she dialed another number.
© 2005 Jeffery W. Deaver