/ Language: English / Genre:prose_contemporary

Speaking of Lust

Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block

Speaking of Lust

“I dealt, didn’t I?” the soldier said. He looked at his cards, shook his head. “What do you figure I had in mind? I pass.”

The policeman, sitting to the dealer’s left-East to his South-nodded, closed his eyes, opened them, and announced: “One club.”

“ Pass,” said the doctor.

The priest said, “You bid a club, partner?” And, without waiting for a response, “One heart.”

The soldier passed. You could tell he was a soldier, as he wore the dress uniform of a brigadier general in the United States Army.

“ A spade,” the policeman said. He too was in uniform, down to the revolver on his hip and the handcuffs hanging from his belt.

The doctor, wearing green scrubs, looked as though he might have just emerged from the operating room. He was silent, looking off into the middle distance, until the priest stared at him. “Oh, sorry,” he said. “I pass.”

“ Two spades,” said the priest, with a tug at his Roman collar.

“ Pass,” said the soldier.

“ Four spades,” the policeman said, and glanced around the table as if to confirm that the bidding was over. The doctor and priest and soldier dutifully passed in turn. The doctor studied his cards, frowned, and led the nine of hearts. The priest laid down his cards-four to the king in the trump suit, five hearts to the ace-jack-and sat back in his chair. The policeman won the trick with the ace of hearts from dummy and set about drawing trump.

Play was rapid and virtually silent. A fire crackled on the hearth, and the clock on the mantel chimed the quarter hour. Smoke drifted to the high ceiling-from the doctor’s cigar, the priest’s cigarette, the soldier’s stubby briar pipe. Books, many of them bound in full leather, filled the shelves on either side of the fireplace, and one lay open in the lap of the room’s only other occupant, the old man who sat by the fire. He had been sitting there when the four began their card game, the book open, his eyes closed, and he was there still.

“ Four spades bid, five spades made,” the policeman said, gathering the final trick. The priest took up his pencil and wrote down the score. The policeman shuffled the cards. Ther soldier cut them, and the policeman scooped them up and began to deal. He opened the bidding with a diamond, and the doctor doubled. The priest looked at his cards for a long moment.

“ Lust,” he said.

The others stared at him. “Is that your bid?” his partner said. “Lust?”

The priest stroked his chin. “Did I actually say that?” he said, bemused. “I meant to pass.”

“ Which made you think of making a pass,” the doctor suggested, “and so you spoke as you did.”

“ Hardly that,” the priest said. “I was thinking of lust, but I assure you I entertained no lustful thoughts. I was thinking of lust in the abstract, the sin of lust.”

“ Lust is a sin, is it?” said the soldier.

“ One of the seven cardinal sins,” the priest said.

“ Lust is desire, isn’t it?”

“ A form of desire,” the priest said. “A perversion of desire, perhaps. Desire raised to sinful proportions.”

“ But it’s a desire all the same,” the soldier insisted. “It’s not an act, and a sin ought to be an act. Lust may prompt a sinful act, but it’s not a sin in and of itself.”

“ One can sin in the mind,” the policeman pointed out. “On the other hand, you can’t hang a man for his thoughts.”

“ Hanging him is one thing,” said the doctor. “Sending him to Hell is another.”

“ The seven deadly sins are all in the mind,” the priest explained. “Pride, avarice, jealousy, anger, gluttony, sloth, and lust.”

“ Quite a menu,” the soldier said.

“ Sin is error,” the priest went on. “A mistake, a tragic mistake, if you will. Out of pride, out of anger, out of gluttony, one commits an action which is sinful, or, if you will, entertains a sinful thought. Thus any sinful act a man might commit can be assigned to one of these seven categories.”

“ Without a certain amount of lust,” the doctor said, “the human race would cease to exist.”

“ You could make the same argument for the other six sins as well,” the priest told him, “because what is any of them but a distortion of a normal and essential human instinct? There is a difference, I submit, between the natural desire of a man for a maid and what we would label as sinful lust.”

“ What about the desire of a man for a man?” the doctor wondered. “Or a maid for a maid?”

“ Or a farmer’s son for a sheep?” The priest sat back in his chair. “We call some desires normal, others abnormal, and much depends on who’s making the call.”

The discussion was a lively one, and ranged far and wide. At length the policeman held up a hand. “If I may,” he said. “Priest, you started this. Unintentionally, perhaps, by voicing a thought when you only meant to pass. But you must have had something in mind.”

“ An altar boy,” suggested the doctor. “Or an altered boy.”

“ Nun of the above,” the soldier put in.

“ You should show the cloth a measure of respect,” the priest said. “But I did have something in mind, as a matter of fact. Something that came to me, though I couldn’t tell you why. Rather an interesting incident that took place some years ago. But we’re in the middle of a game, aren’t we?”

A gentle snore came from the old man dozing beside the fire. The four card players looked at him. Then the policeman and the doctor and the soldier turned their gaze to the priest.

“ Tell the story,” the policeman said.

Some years ago (said the priest) I came to know a young couple named William and Carolyn Thompson. I say a young couple because they were slightly younger than I, and I was not quite forty at the time, which now seems to me to be very young indeed. Let’s say that he was thirty-six when I met them, and she thirty-eight. I may be off slightly in their ages, but not in the age difference between them. She was just two years the elder.

They were an attractive couple, both of them tall and slender and fair, with not dissimilar facial features-long narrow noses and penetrating blue eyes. I’ve noticed that couples grow to resemble one another after they’ve been together a long time, and I suspect this is largely the result of their having each learned facial expressions from the other. The same thing happens on a larger scale, doesn’t it? The French, say, shrug and grimace and raise their eyebrows in a certain way, and their faces develop lines accordingly, until a national physiognomy emerges. Have you observed how older persons will look more French, or Italian, or Russian? It’s not that the genes thin out in the younger generations. It’s that the old have had more time to acquire the characteristic look.

The Thompsons had been married for a decade and a half, long enough, certainly, for this phenomenon to operate. And, spending as much time as they did together (living in a small house in one of the northwestern suburbs, working side by side in their shop) they’d had ample opportunity to mirror one another. Still, the resemblance they bore was more than a matter of shared attitudes and expressions. Why, they looked enough alike to be brother and sister.

As indeed they were.

William and Carolyn attended my church, though not with great regularity. I’d heard their confessions from time to time, and neither of them disclosed anything remarkable. I didn’t really get to know them until Bill and I were brought into contact in connection with a community action project. We got accustomed to having a few beers after a meeting, and we became friends.

One afternoon he turned up at the rectory and asked if we could talk. “I don’t want to make a formal confession,” he said. “I just need to talk to someone, but it has to be confidential. If we just go over to Paddy Mac’s and have a beer or two, could our conversation still be bound by the seal of the confessional?”

I told him I didn’t see why not, and that I would certainly consider myself to be so bound.

The tavern we went to, a busy place in the evening, was dark and quiet of an afternoon. We sat off by ourselves, and Bill told me his story.

He grew up in another city on the other side of the country. He had an older sister-Carolyn, of course, but that revelation was to come later-and lived with her and his mother and father in a pre-war brick house in one of the older suburbs. He and his sister took after their mother, who was tall and blond. Their father was tall, too, but dark-complected, and heavily built.

His sister taught him to dance, took him shopping, and clued him in on all the things a young boy was supposed to learn. She comforted him, too, when he got a beating from their father. The man was a drinker, he said, and sometimes when he drank Bill would piss him off without knowing what he’d done wrong. Then he’d catch it.

One night when he was thirteen years old he said or did something to upset the man and got a few whacks with a belt as punishment. Afterward, his sister came to his room. He had been crying, and he was a little ashamed of that, too, and she told him he’d had a punishment he hadn’t deserved, so now he was going to get a reward. Just as she’d taught him how to dance, now she would teach him how to kiss.

“ So you’ll know what to do when you’re out with a girl,” she said.

She sat next to him on his bed and they kissed. They’d kissed each other before, of course, but this was entirely different. Do you know how an unexciting activity may be said to be “like kissing your sister”? This was not like kissing your sister.

Over the next several months, the kissing lessons continued. She always initiated them, coming into his room when he was doing his homework, closing the door, sitting on his bed with him. This was very exciting for him, especially when she let him touch her breasts, first through her clothing, then with his hand inside her blouse. When she would leave his room, finally, he would relieve himself.

He was so occupied one day when, having recently left his room, she returned to it, opening his door without knocking and catching him in the act. He covered himself at once, but she had seen him, and she asked him what he had been doing.

“ Nothing,” he said.

“ You were touching yourself,” she said. “Right? But you shouldn’t have to do that, Billy.”

He said he couldn’t help it. He knew it was wrong, but he couldn’t help it.

“ I’m not saying it’s wrong,” she said, “but you shouldn’t have to do it yourself.”

She did it for him. And, from then on, that was how their sessions concluded, with her hand doing what his hand had previously done, and making a far more satisfying job of it. When they hadn’t had time together during the day, she would make a point of slipping into his room at night after he’d gone to bed. He would usually pretend to sleep, and without a word she would satisfy him with her hands and return just as silently to her own room.

One night she used her mouth. The next day he asked her if she would do that again, and she said, “Oh, you mean you weren’t really sleeping?”

Their play continued, and over time she led him on a veritable Cook’s tour of sexuality, which eventually included every act either of them could think of short of actual coition. Their pleasure was hampered only by the fear of discovery, and on more than one occasion they narrowly escaped having a parent walk in on them. Thus they limited themselves to relatively brief encounters, and had to avoid crying out in fulfillment. Quick and quiet, that was the nature of their coupling.

Not surprisingly, they dreamed of being able to spend an entire night together in safety and privacy. The sister raised the subject often, telling him just what she would like to do to him, and what she would have him do to her.

“ Maybe when we’re older,” she said. “When we’re both out of the house. Unless you find somebody else by then.”

But there would never be anybody else, he assured her. She was the only one he wanted.

What she didn’t point out in response, and what he knew without being told, was that what he wanted, what they both wanted, could never be. They were brother and sister. They could never be man and wife.

He couldn’t imagine himself with anyone else, couldn’t bear the thought of her in someone else’s arms. She was his and he was hers. How could he marry another woman, a stranger?

“ I thought of becoming a priest,” he told me. “If I couldn’t have her, then it would be easier if I never had to have anyone. Then the absurdity of the notion struck me. I was in bed with my sister, I was committing all kinds of sins with her, and the fact that I wouldn’t be able to go on committing them forever made me think I had a vocation. But I swear it seemed perfectly logical to me at the time.”

One day she had an idea. He was still a member of a Boy Scout troop, although he’d become less active. The troop had a camping weekend scheduled. Suppose he signed up for it? And suppose she drove to the encampment and picked him up down the road around the time the troop’s bugler blew Taps and turned in for the night? They could go to a motel-she’d take care of booking a room-and they could have a whole night together and get him back to camp before Reveille.

That’s what they did. On Friday night, he waited until his tent mate was sleeping, then slipped out and trotted down the road to where she was waiting. It was all set for the following night, she told him. The room was booked, and she’d bought some massage oil and something provocative to wear. She wished they could go there now, but she had to get home. She had an excuse lined up for her absence the following night, but not tonight, and she had to get home.

They got into the back of the car and she brought him off quickly with her lips and fingers. Then he went back to his tent and lay grinning in the darkness, thinking of his tent mate and the other boys, thinking what they were missing.

The following night, Saturday night, he feigned sleep himself so that his tent mate would finally shut up, and then had to lie there listening while the other boy brought himself to lonely fulfillment. Then, when the boy’s breathing deepened in sleep, he crept out and hurried to the appointed spot. The car wasn’t there waiting for him, and he worried that she wasn’t coming, worried that she’d come and gone, worried that something somehow had gone wrong.

Then the car appeared, and minutes later they were at the motel. She had already checked in, signing a false name on the register and paying in cash. She drove straight to the unit, unlocked the door, and led him inside.

She apologized for having been late. “Mama wanted help folding laundry,” she said, “and I told her I was expected at Sandy’s, and she said Sandy could wait. And then he came home, and the two of them started going at it, and that gave me a chance to slip out. Oh, but I don’t want to waste time talking. I want to do everything. We don’t have to be quiet for once and I want to make noise. I want to make you scream.”

They both made noise, although no one screamed. They made love with the tireless enthusiasm of youth, and toward dawn she sighed and swore she couldn’t help herself and threw herself astride him and took him deep within herself.

Years later he would recall thinking that this was it, that they’d crossed a line. Up until then they had done everything but, and now they had done it all.

Before the sun was up she dropped him off where she’d picked him up, then headed for her friend’s house. “Sandy thinks I’m at a motel with a frat boy,” she said. “Little does she know. But she’ll let me in, and cover for me.”

His tent mate stirred when he returned, wanted to know where he’s been. The latrine, he said. The other boy went back to sleep.

He lay there and watched through the tent flap as dawn broke. He was a boy-fourteen now, he’d had a birthday since that first kissing lesson-but he felt like man. I just got laid, he told himself. I fucked my sister. A man, yes, and a sinner.

He wondered what his punishment would be.

Within hours, he found out.

Shortly after breakfast, after they’d divided into groups for morning activities, a Sheriff’s Office car pulled into the camp grounds. A tall man wearing sunglasses got out and talked to the scoutmaster. Then the two men walked to where Billy was sitting, trying to undo a bad knot in the lanyard he was making. It was kid stuff, entwining the plastic lacing to make a lanyard, and pretty tame compared to fucking your sister in a motel room, but if you were going to do it you might as well get it right.

The scoutmaster hunkered down beside him, his red face troubled, the perspiration beading on his large forehead. The Sheriff, or whoever he was, stood up straight as a ramrod. And the scoutmaster explained that there had been some trouble, that Billy was an orphan now, that both of his parents were dead.

Of course he couldn’t take it in. He was numb with shock. How could they be dead? He found out gradually, with no one eager to tell him too much too soon. They were shot, he learned, his mother three times, twice in the chest and once in the face, his father once, the bullet entering his open mouth and exiting through the back of his skull. Death for both was virtually instantaneous. They didn’t suffer, he was told.

And finally he was told who had done it. His father had come home drunk, and evidently there had been an argument. (He nodded as he took this in, nodded unconsciously, because this was something he already knew. But he wasn’t supposed to know it, because who could have told him? He’d been at the camp the whole time.)

The person who told him made nothing of the nod. Maybe it only indicated that this was nothing uncommon, that his father often came home drunk, that his parents often argued.

But this argument had an atypical ending, because Billy’s father had concluded it by taking a handgun from his desk drawer and putting three bullets into Billy’s mother and, in remorse or anger or God knows what, blowing out his own brains.

The boy knew whose fault it was. It was his, his and his sister’s. While they were crossing the last barrier, their father was murdering their mother, then sinning against the Holy Ghost by taking his own life.

As he remembered it, the ensuing days and weeks passed in a blur. While the authorities tried to find a relative who could take them in, Billy and Carolyn went on living in the house where their parents had died. No agreeable relative emerged, and the two were of an inconvenient age, too young to be on their own, too old to be placed in foster care. The officials shuffled papers and forgot about them, and they stayed where they were. Carolyn did the shopping and prepared the meals, Billy cut the grass and raked the lawn and shoveled the walk.

A week after the tragedy, they resumed sleeping together.

“ All we’ve got is each other,” she told him. “What happened’s not our fault. I’ll tell you something, it was going to happen sooner or later, and if we’d been home that night we’d have wound up dead, too. The way he drank, the way he got when he drank? And the way she provoked him? ‘Man Kills Wife and Self.’ If we had been home, it would have been ‘Man Kills Wife, Two Children, and Self.’ That’s the only difference.”

He knew she was right.

All they had was each other, and they loved each other. Socially, they withdrew further into themselves. For a year or two, this was unremarkable, a natural consequence of the family tragedy they had endured. Then, shortly after her eighteenth birthday, she announced that a boy had asked her on a date and she had agreed to go with him.

“ People get suspicious. ‘What’s wrong with her that she never goes out with anybody?’ They think I’m pretty, I ought to be interested in boys.”

“ Let them think you’re a lesbian.”

“ Believe me, some of them already think that. I’ve had some long looks from a couple members of the sisterhood, and one of them asked me if I’d like to come over and watch the last round of the LPGA at her house. Why would anyone want to watch golf, whether it was men or women playing? And why would I want to go over to her house anyway?”

“ I wish you didn’t have to go out with some guy,” he said.

“ You’re jealous?”

“ I guess so.”

“ I’m not going to let him do anything, Billy. But I think it makes sense to go out with him. And you’re going to have to start going out with girls.”

“ Or they’ll think I’m a fag?”

“ Or a retard.”

“ I don’t care what they think,” he said, but of course he did. Later he told her he wished they could be where nobody knew anything about them.

“ I’ve been thinking about that,” she said.

They put the house on the market and sold it, rented an apartment in a college town a few hundred miles away. She’d been given her mother’s maiden name as a middle name, and now she dropped her surname, and they lived together as William Thompson and Carolyn Peyton. She built up a collection of identification in that name, and enrolled at the college, and a year later so did he. The money from the house, supplemented by their earnings from part-time jobs, covered their tuition and expenses, and they had both always been good students. He took an accelerated program and they graduated together, four years after they’d sold the house.

Neither had made a single close friend during those four years. Neither had gone out on a date, or shown any interest in a member of the opposite sex. All they wanted was to be together, and they were confident their feelings were not going to change.

They got married. “We could just say we were married,” she told him. “When does anyone ask to see a marriage license? And I already feel married to you. More than married to you. But I want to do it all the same.”

“ And have kids?”

“ A baby with two heads,” she said. “That’s what you get if you sleep with your brother. Remember how kids used to think that? I’ve done some research, and it doesn’t necessarily work out that way. There’s a chance, though, that there might be something abnormal about the child.”

“ I don’t really want kids, anyway.”

“ Neither do I,” she said, “but that might change, for one or both of us. If it does-“

“ We could take our chances,” he said. “Or adopt.”

“ But for now,” she said, “all I want is you.”

And so they got married, and Carolyn Peyton legally changed her name again, back to Carolyn Peyton Thompson. And, as man and wife, they moved to the city where I came to know them. They went into business together, made a success of it, bought a house, and, well, lived happily ever after. They postponed the decision about children until they realized it had resolved itself; they were a complete unit now, they had been a complete unit from that first kissing lesson, and a child would be an unwelcome extra presence in their home.

Legally married, they came to feel less as though they had something to hide. So they were more inclined to make friends, more prepared to play an active role in the life of the community. They were, in everybody’s eyes, a decent and charming couple, attractive and personable and very much in love. And you could see at a glance that they belonged together. Why, they even looked alike. If you didn’t know better, you’d take them for brother and sister.

“And that’s it?” said the soldier.

The priest nodded. “More or less,” he said.

“ More or less,” echoed the doctor. “Is it more or is it less? Never mind. Lust, eh? Well, I suppose it was lust that got them started, but it sounds to me more like a love story than one of unbridled sexual passion. It’s not lust that keeps two people together for-what did you say? A decade and a half? No, that’s how long they were married. He was thirteen when she gave him his first kissing lesson and thirty-six or so when he told you about it, so that’s twenty-three years. If there’s some kind of lust that lasts for twenty-three years, I’d like a case of it sent to my quarters.”

“ And I’m not sure where the sin comes in,” the soldier said. “Unless the incest itself is the sin, and I suppose your church might call it that, but I don’t know that I would. Whom did they harm? And where’s the dissolute life to which sin’s presumed to lead? They became model citizens, from the sound of things. They had a secret, but what couple doesn’t have a few secrets, and who’s to say they do them any harm?”

A snore came from the old man seated by the fire.

“ My sentiments exactly,” said the doctor. “What I can’t figure out is why the fellow had that conversation with you. Incidentally, is it all right for you to recount it to us? You told him you’d consider yourself bound by the seal of the confessional.”

“ As you three don’t know the people involved,” the priest said, “and as I’ve changed their names, I don’t feel I’ve violated a confidence. The Church might see it differently, but I’ve long since ceased to be bound by what the Church thinks. My own conscience is clear on this subject, if on few others.” He turned to the policeman. “You haven’t said anything,” he said.

“ It’s a good story,” the policeman said. “There’s one question that occurs to me, though, but you may not know the answer.”

“ Ask it.”

“ I was wondering,” the policeman said, “whether anybody ever gave that girl a paraffin test.”

The priest smiled.

On the eve of their wedding (the priest continued) Carolyn cooked an elaborate dinner. Afterward they sat with cups of strong coffee, and she said she had something to tell him, something she was afraid to tell him. “If you’re going to marry me,” she said, “you should know this.”

From the time she was eleven years old, she said, their father had taken to coming into her room while she was sleeping. He initiated a pattern of sexual abuse which progressed gradually from inappropriate touches and caresses while she slept, or feigned sleep, to acts which required her to be awake and an active participant. For the last three years of the man’s life, the repertoire included sexual intercourse, and the man did not use a condom. She lived in fear that he would make her pregnant, but he managed on each occasion to withdraw in time, depositing his sticky gift on her belly.

Toward the end, though, he seemed to be considering impregnating her, and more than once said he wondered what kind of a mommy she’d make.

She hated him, and wanted to kill him. She hated her mother as well. Early on she had told the woman that he was coming to her room, that he was touching her. The woman refused to take it in. He’s your father, she was told. He loves you. You’re imagining things.

And so, on that Saturday night, while her father sat in front of the television set in a drunken slack-jawed stupor, she got the handgun from the drawer where he kept it, thrust the barrel into his open mouth, and pulled the trigger. When her mother came in to see what had happened, she leveled the gun and shot the woman three times. Then she wiped her own fingerprints from the gun, placed it in her father’s dead hand, and curled his fingers around it.

Then she went off to meet her brother, and arrived just a few minutes late. And, having just committed a double murder, and sure she’d be found out and sent to prison, she blotted it all from her mind and gave herself over to a last night of joy and consummation with her beloved brother.

But of course she was never found out. The murder-suicide scene she’d staged was good enough to pass muster, and no one ever took a good hard look at her alibi. Her friend, Sandy, kept her secret; it wouldn’t do to let out that Carolyn had been out cavorting with a boyfriend, nor would Sandy’s parents be comfortable with the knowledge that their daughter had facilitated such deception. So why not keep that little secret? Carolyn surely had enough tragedy in her life, with her father having killed her mother and himself. She didn’t need to have her sex life exposed to public scrutiny.

Nor did Billy’s alibi get much attention. He crawled into his tent after taps and crawled out of it at reveille. Case closed.

And so, on the eve of his wedding, William Thompson learned for the first time that his father was not a murderer and that his sister was.

The following day they were married.

“And lived happily ever after,” said the doctor. “A curious business, incest. More common, it turns out, than we used to think. No end of fathers, it turns out, lurch into their daughters’ beds. And they’re not always hillbillies or immigrants or welfare cases, either. It happens, as they say, in the best of families. As for brothers and sisters, well, what’s that but a childhood game carried to its logical conclusion?”

“ Playing doctor,” the soldier said.

“ Quite so. It must happen often, and who’d ever report it? If the two are close in age, if there’s no force or intimidation involved, where’s the abuse? It may be forbidden, they may be transgressors, but what’s the harm?”

“ I wonder how often they actually marry,” the policeman said.

“ Not too often,” the doctor said. “I can’t imagine marrying my sister, but then I can’t imagine fucking her, either. Truth to tell, I can’t imagine anyone fucking her.”

“ If you had a better-looking sister…”

“ Then it might be a different story,” the doctor allowed. “Speaking of stories, that’s a good one, Priest. How did it turn out?”

“ I don’t know that it did,” the priest said. “Two years or so after our conversation, Carolyn gave birth to a daughter. I christened the child, and she certainly looked like her parents, for all that you can tell when they’re that small.”

“ So they rolled the dice,” the soldier said. “Although I suppose someone else might have been the father. Artificial insemination and all that.”

“ Or else they’d have been swimming in the shallow end of the gene pool,” said the doctor, “and that’s dangerous, but not always disastrous. On the one hand you’ve got the Jukes and the Kallikaks, those horrible examples they tell you about in high school biology class, and on the other hand you’ve got all the crowned heads of Europe.”

“ When we have more time,” the policeman said, “you can tell me which is worse. Any more to the story, Priest?”

The priest shook his head. “I was transferred shortly thereafter,” he said, “and lost track of them. I hope things turned out well for them. I liked them.”

“ And I like your story,” the policeman said. “Lust. I could tell a story about lust.”

The others sat back, waiting.

I’m not much of a storyteller (said the policeman) and I don’t know much about sin. Not that I’m free from it myself, but that I was not trained to think in those terms. My frame of reference is the law, the criminal code specifically. I can tell you whether or not an act is lawful, and, if it’s not, I can correctly label it a violation or a misdemeanor or a felony. And even then my classification will not apply universally, but only in the jurisdiction where I lived and worked.

Determining what is or is not a criminal act is difficult enough. Determining whether or not an act is sinful, well, I wouldn’t want to touch that with a stick.


When I was still a young man, I was partnered with an older man named-well, let me choose a name for him, as the priest chose a name for his young couple. And I ought to be able to come up with something a little more distinctive and imaginative than William Thompson, don’t you think? Michael Walbeck, that’s what we’ll call my partner. Michael J. Walbeck, and the J stands for John. No, make it Jonathan. Michael Jonathan Walbeck, and everybody called him Mike, except for his mother, who still called him Mickey, and his wife, who called him Michael.

She was a beauty, his wife. Her hair was a heap of black curls that spilled down over her shoulders, and her face was heart-shaped, with dark almond-shaped eyes and a lush mouth. Walbeck was jealous of her. He’d call her eight or ten times a day, just to make sure he knew where she was. As far as I knew, Marie never gave him cause for jealousy, outside of always looking like she just hopped out of bed, and like she was ready at a moment’s notice to hop back in again. But he didn’t need cause. He was just a jealous man.

Meanwhile, he was running around on her. Here he was, talking about how he’d kill her if he ever caught her with another guy, and how he’d kill the guy, too, and at the same time he always had something going on the side, and sometimes more than one thing.

You’ve heard of guys who go through life following their own dick, and that was Walbeck. He said himself that he’d screw a snake if somebody would hold its head, and I’m not entirely certain he was exaggerating. He’d roust hookers and let them off in return for a quick blow job-it’s safe to say he wasn’t the first cop who thought of that one-but his real specialty was the wives and girlfriends of criminals.

That’s a little harder than getting a hooker to go down on you, but not by much. The first time I saw Mike in action, we had busted a guy who was cooking crank in his double-wide out on the edge of town. That’s methamphetamine, also known as speed, and it’s about as tricky to make as chili con carne. And cooking it’s a felony in fifty states, and we had this poor bastard dead to rights. His rights were what Mike was reading him, as a matter of fact, but he stopped in midsentence when he got a look at Cheryl.

I don’t know if she was his wife or his girlfriend, and I don’t remember her name, so for all I know it could have been Cheryl. Doesn’t matter. She was a blowsy girl, and in a few years she’d be a real porker, but now she was in her early twenties and she looked hot and sluttish. She had a wrapper on, I remember, and it needed laundering, and you could pretty much tell she wasn’t wearing anything under it.

“ Nice looking girl,” Walbeck told the mope. “You know, I wonder if there’s a way we can work something out.”

The guy got it before it touched the ground. “You see anything you like,” he said, “it’s yours.”

“ She’s got to do us both,” Walbeck said. “Me and my partner here.”

“ You got it.”

“ Eddie-” the girl said, whining.

“ Shut up,” he told her. “Like you’re gonna miss it?”

“ She’s got some shape on her,” Walbeck said. “She does us both, including we get to fuck her in the ass.”

“ No way,” the girl said.

“ I said shut up,” Eddie said. “You do that, I get to keep the stuff.”

“ The crank.”

“ The crank and the money both. You don’t confiscate nothing, and I walk, and for that you can fuck her anywhere you want. Cut a hole in her chest and fuck her in the heart, all I care.”

“ Eddie!”

“ Deal,” Walbeck said. He asked me if I wanted to go first. I shook my head and waited outside with Eddie, who professed not to care what was going on inside the trailer. I noticed, though, that he lit one cigarette off the butt of another, and smoked as if he wanted to burn up the whole cigarette in one furious drag.

“ He’s a prick,” he said. “That partner of yours.” I said something to the effect that nobody’d forced him to go for the deal. “Oh, it’s a good deal,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. She ain’t gonna miss another slice off the loaf, and who gives a shit about her anyway? But he’s still a prick.”

Walbeck was in there long enough for Eddie to smoke three cigarettes, and he was zipping his pants as he came down the trailer steps. “Nice,” he said, grinning. “I can see why you keep her around. You’re up, partner.”

You pass in a situation like that, you make trouble in your partnership. Like if you bend the rules for a storekeeper on your beat, let his suppliers park illegally when they’re making their deliveries, and he slips you a few bucks out of gratitude. If one partner takes it and the other won’t accept his cut, how are they going to get along?

So I managed a grin of my own and went up the steps and into the trailer. I wasn’t really in the mood, so I figured I’d just sit around long enough for the guy outside to suck down a few more cigarettes while Walbeck broke his balls some more. But I figured without the woman. I got one look at her, sitting on the edge of the bed with her soiled wrapper hanging open in front, her face and attitude showing vulnerability and sluttishness in equal proportion, and just like that I wanted her. My head thought I ought to be above such things, but my dick had a mind of its own.

She gave me a sad smile and took off the wrapper, and that settled that. I got out of my clothes, and she looked at me and her face clouded. “Jesus,” she said, “you’re about twice as big as your friend. I hope you don’t want to stick it the same place he did.”

I told her the conventional route would do.

“ You’re nice,” she said. “Go slow so I can really get into it, and you’ll be glad you did.”

Afterward, we stopped at a pay phone and Walbeck called his house. He talked to his wife, but that wasn’t enough reassurance, and he insisted we take a run past his house to see if there was a strange car in the driveway. There wasn’t, but two doors down on the other side of the street he spotted a car he didn’t recognize, and right away he called a guy he knew at DMV and ran the plate. The car was registered to a man named Shoenstahl, with a residence listed across town, but there was a family on Walbeck’s street with the same name, so it was probably a relative, and not some bastard nailing Walbeck’s wife.

“ You can’t trust them,” he told me. “Look at that choice specimen of trailer trash we were just with. Once you get past the surface, they’re all like that.”

I could have put in for a transfer, but Walbeck wasn’t the worst partner in the world. The tail-chasing and the jealousy weren’t endearing traits, but in other respects he was a fairly decent cop, and not as much of a pain in the ass to be harnessed with as some of them. I got used to him, and then he took the whole thing to another level when he met a woman I’ll call Joanie.

I was with him when he first caught sight of her. It was at a basketball game. Someone had given him tickets and he invited me to come along. I didn’t much like to hang out with Walbeck, I got enough of him on the job, but I like basketball and these were good seats. A few minutes into the first period he elbowed me and pointed. “The redhead,” he said, “Third row up and on the aisle.”

“ What about her?”

“ I gotta have her,” he said.

She was a striking woman, with a lush body and strong facial features. Flaming red hair, and that pale skin redheads have, the ones that don’t have freckles. I admired her myself, but it wasn’t a matter of admiration with Walbeck. He took one look at her and decided he had to have her.

“ If I don’t get to fuck her,” he said, “I’ll fucking die.”

She was sitting alone, with an empty seat next to her, and he was on the point of going over and taking the empty seat and hitting on her, when her companion turned up-her husband, although we didn’t find that out until later. He was a tall man with a mustache and a sport jacket that looked like it was made from a horse blanket, and he was carrying a tray with a couple of hot dogs and a couple of beers. He sat down next to the redhead, and before he sat down he looked over in our general direction.

“ He looks wrong,” I said, meaning he looked like a lawbreaker. Hard to say what makes a guy look right or wrong, but a cop gets so he knows. Unconsciously he’s adding up a whole batch of signs and mannerisms, and he knows.

“ He damn well ought to look wrong,” Mike Walbeck said. “That’s Harv Jellin. He’s got a sheet, he’s done state time. Now how in the hell does a skell like Harv Jellin get a broad like that?”

I shrugged and turned my attention back to the game, but Walbeck was lost for the evening, his attention taken up entirely by the redhead and the man beside her. “You know what I wonder?” he said. “I wonder just what Harv Jellin was doing two weeks ago Saturday.”

“ Two weeks ago-“

“ Two weeks ago Saturday,” he said, “which was the night a couple of mopes knocked off the Cutler warehouse. All of a sudden I like Harv for that one. I like him a whole lot.”

God knows we didn’t have anything like a lead in the warehouse robbery, and there was plenty of pressure to solve it, because the perps had left a body behind-the night watchman, dead from a single blow to the head. Within a few days we’d made an arrest, picking up a three-time loser named O’Regan.

“ We know you were just along to keep Harv Jellin company,” Walbeck told him. “He’s the one who set up the job and he’s definitely the one hit the watchman over the head. You’d never do a thing like that, would you? Hit an old guy over the head, crack his skull like an eggshell.”

“ I wasn’t even there,” O’Regan said.

“ We got you dead to rights,” Walbeck said, “and the only question is what kind of time you do. You roll over on your pal Jellin and you get the minimum. You hold out and you’re in the joint the rest of your life.”

“ I hardly know Jellin,” the mope said.

“ Then you don’t owe him a thing, do you? And he’s your Get Out Of Jail Free card, so you better remember how well you know him.”

“ It’s coming back to me,” O’Regan said.

Between O’Regan’s testimony and some artfully manufactured and planted evidence, Harvey Jellin didn’t stand a chance. His lawyer convinced him to plead to robbery and manslaughter, arguing that otherwise a murder conviction was a foregone conclusion.

When you enter a guilty plea, you have to stand up in court and say what happened. I was there, and you could see how it infuriated Jellin to have to perjure himself in order to dodge a life sentence. “I only hit him once,” he said of the dead watchman, “and I never meant to hurt him.”

He got ten-to-twenty. The watchman’s daughter told a reporter that was far too lenient, but it didn’t seem all that lenient to me, given that the sonofabitch hadn’t done anything.

Not that I wasted tears on him. Jellin had done plenty of other things we hadn’t been able to hang on him, and it was common knowledge that he’d killed a man in a bar fight, and probably one or two others as well. He went off to serve his time, and Walbeck got busy putting the moves on Joanie.

The wives of convicted felons are easy game, same as recent widows. They’re made to order for cops, and Walbeck wasn’t the first police officer to move in on a woman after sending her husband to the joint. He might have had a harder time if the redhead had known he’d framed Jellin, but she didn’t have a clue. Jellin had protested all along that he was being framed, or at least until he’d taken the plea, but criminals say that all the time, in and out of prison.

It took Walbeck a while, but he got her. And then he was stuck, because he couldn’t get enough of her.

“ She’s in my blood,” he said. “The woman’s a fucking virus.”

I’d never seen him like this before. It stopped him from chasing tail, because Joanie Jellin got all his attention. He didn’t turn down what came along-I don’t think he was capable of turning anything down in that department-but he quit seeking it out. And he spent every spare moment he could with the redhead.

The prison that housed her husband has an enlightened administration, and prisoners with good conduct privileges were able to receive monthly conjugal visits. The prisoner and his spouse would repair to a small house trailer, known inevitably as the Fuck Truck, where they could enjoy a romantic interlude of no more than an hour.

At first Walbeck didn’t want her to go, but he had to agree that her absence would make Jellin suspicious. So he took to going with her, and he would make an expedition out of it, inventing some pretext to explain his overnight absence to his wife, and switching shifts with other cops or, more often, getting me to sign him in and out.

The evening before a conjugal visit, Walbeck and Joanie Jellin would drive to the town where the prison was situated and check in at a motel with waterbeds and porn videos. (“This is where they ought to have the goddam visits,” Joanie told him. “This beats the hell out of the fuck truck.”) With a fifth of vodka and one or another illegal substance to keep the party lively, the two would screw themselves silly all night long.

Then, in the morning, Joanie would drive to the prison to meet her husband.

Walbeck tried to get her to skip her morning shower. “You gotta be crazy,” she told him. “You want to get me killed? He smells you on me, he breaks my neck right there in the fuck truck. What’s he care, they tack a few more years on his sentence?”

She won that argument. But she didn’t argue when he wanted to take her straight to bed the minute she returned from the prison visit. While he embraced her, he would make her tell him in detail what she and her husband had just done.

“ I don’t know,” she said. “Sometimes I get the feeling you’re queer for Harv.”

“ I’m queer for you,” he said. “I can’t get enough of you. I could kill you, I could cook you and eat you, and I still couldn’t get enough.”

“ Don’t talk that way.”

“ I could suck the marrow out of your bones. Still wouldn’t be enough.”

The more time he spent with Joanie Jellin, the more certain he grew that Marie was having an affair. “He’s nailing her,” he told me, “and he’s doing it right in my own house. I walk in there and I can feel it. The air’s thick and heavy, like he’s still there in spirit.”

“ You like getting Joanie right after Harv’s done with her,” I pointed out. “Maybe you should tell Marie to skip her shower after.”

I was joking, but he didn’t see the humor, and I thought he was going to lose it altogether. “She’s my wife,” he said. “Somebody touches my wife, I rip his fucking heart out. I cut his dick off, stuff it down her throat and let her fucking choke on it.”

He became convinced not only that Marie had a lover, but that the man coordinated his visits to coincide with his own overnight stays with Joanie. He set a trap, telling Marie the same thing he told her whenever Jellin had a conjugal visit scheduled. He had to escort a prisoner who’d been extradited to another state, he told her, and he’d be gone overnight.

Then he staked out his own house, waiting. And of course he never saw a single suspicious car. Marie never left the house, and no one came to visit her.

The next morning, when he walked into his house, he was utterly certain someone had been with her. “Who was it?” he shouted at her. “Tell me who it was!”

“ I’ve been here all night,” she said, looking at him like he was crazy. “Alone, in a robe, watching tv. And then I went to bed. Michael, don’t they have somebody you can see? Like a psychiatrist? Because I think you should seriously consider it.”

“ He must have seen my car,” he told me. “Must have parked around the block, sneaked through the yards and went in the back door, then got out the same way.”

“ Maybe you’re imagining things, Mike.”

“ I don’t think so. Partner, you gotta help me out. Tuesday, when Harv has his next visit? What I want you to do is check my block. He won’t recognize your car.”

“ I don’t know what you’ve got planned for this guy,” I said, “but I don’t want to be a part of it.”

“ Believe me,” he said, “I want him all for myself. All I want from you is a plate number. I can take it from there.”

He drove off on Tuesday, and when I met him Wednesday afternoon he looked like he was running on empty. “Too much bed and not enough sleep,” he said. “Remember the first time I laid eyes on Joanie? That was all it took for me to know what was waiting there for me. She’s amazing.”

“ Maybe you could divorce Marie,” I suggested. “Marry Joanie, have her all for yourself.”

He looked at me as if I’d taken leave of my senses. “Number one,” he said, “Marie’s my wife. That makes her mine forever. Number two, why would I want to marry Joanie? There’s the kind of women you marry and the kind you don’t, and she’s definitely one you don’t.” He shook his head at my naivete. “If you were married yourself,” he said, “you’d know what I was talking about. Listen, did you do what I asked you to do? Did you find out anything?”

I lowered my eyes. “Bad news,” I said.

“ I knew it!”

“ She had a visitor.”

“ I fucking knew it. At the house?”

I nodded. “He was there for two hours. Then I had to leave, but he was still there when I checked back around dawn.”

“ The son of a bitch.”

“ I ran his plate,” I said. “I got a name and address.”

“ You’re a pal,” he said. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“ I wanted to,” I told him. “Waiting out there, thinking about what was going on inside your house, I started getting mad at him myself. I don’t know what you’ve got planned for him, and I don’t want to horn in on it, but I think I ought to be there to watch your back.”

“ Let’s go,” he said, then stopped himself. “Maybe I should stop home first,” he said. “Light her up a little, then drop in on lover boy.”

“ Of course, if you can tell her how you’ve already gone and cleaned his clock…”

“ You’re right,” he said. “Cut off his dick, walk in and tell her I brought her a present. Maybe I’ll put it in a box and giftwrap it so I can get a look at her face when she opens it. ‘What’s this, Michael? It looks familiar…’ ”

“ Be something to see,” I agreed.

I made a phone call and we got in the squad car. On our way he said, “You’re a damn good friend, you know that? And you know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna get her to fuck you.”

For a second I thought he meant his wife.

“ She’ll do anything I tell her to do,” he said. “Crazy bitch is wild. We’ll team up on her, turn her every way but loose.”

I didn’t know what to say.

We drove across town to a dead-end street in the old Tannery district. It was a bad block, and the address I had wasn’t the best house on it. It was a little square box of a house, with some of the window panes broken and weeds poking up through the litter on the front lawn. The paint job was so far gone it was hard to say what color it was.

“ Better Homes and Gardens,” Walbeck said. “I can see why he likes to spend the night at my place, the son of a bitch.”

“ That’s his car,” I said, pointing to a Chevrolet Monte Carlo with a crumpled fender and a busted taillight.

“ He parked that piece of shit on my street? You’d think he would have been ashamed.”

He led the way, marched right up to the front door. He put a hand on the butt of his service revolver and made a fist of the other. “Police!” be bellowed, as he pounded on the door. Then, before anyone could open it, he drew back his foot and kicked it in.

The shotgun blast picked him up and blew him back onto the front porch.

I was standing to the side when the gun went off, and I already had my own revolver drawn. The weasel-faced little guy in the broken-down armchair had triggered both barrels, and I didn’t give him time to reload. I put three slugs in his chest, and they told me later that two of them got the heart and the third didn’t miss it by much. He was dead before the shots quit echoing.

I knelt down beside my partner. He was still breathing, but he’s taken a double load of buckshot and he was on his way out. But it was important to tell him this before he was gone.

“ I’m the one,” I said. “I’ve been dicking your wife for months, you dumb shit. It was fun, putting one over on you, but finally we both got sick of having you around.”

I was looking at his eyes as I spoke, and he got it, he took it in. But he didn’t hang on to it for long. A moment later his eyes glazed and he was gone.

For a long moment the room was silent, but for the crackling of the fire and an impressive rumbling from the bowels of the old man dozing over his book. “There’s a metaphor,” the doctor said. “Life is just one long dream, punctuated by the occasional fart.”

“ That’s quite a story, Policeman,” the soldier said. “Quite a story to tell on yourself.”

“ It happened a long time ago,” the policeman said.

“ And you set the whole thing up. Who was the man with the shotgun?”

“ He was wanted in three states,” the policeman said, “for robbery and murder, and he’d sworn he would never be taken alive. One of my snitches told me where he was holed up.”

“ And the rest of it was your doing,” the priest said.

The policeman nodded. “Mea culpa, Priest. The call I made before we rolled was to the station, to let them know we were investigating a tip on a fugitive. I let the perp gun down Walbeck, and then I took him out before he could do the same for me.”

“ And made sure to tell your partner what had happened.”

“ I wanted him to know,” the policeman said.

“ And it was true, what you said? You’d been with his wife for months?”

“ For a few months, yes. Not as long as he’d been suspicious of her. His suspicions were groundless at first, but I was intrigued, and filled with some sort of righteous indignation at the way he was treating her. I’d have been less outraged, I’m sure, if I hadn’t deep down wanted to have her myself.”

“ And how long did you have her, Policeman?”

“ When I set up her husband,” he said, “I thought I’d wait a decent interval and marry the woman. But over the next several weeks I came to see why Walbeck cheated on her. It turned out the woman was a pain in the ass. The affair ran its course and ended, and she married someone else.”

“ And you didn’t worry she would let slip how you’d arranged her husband’s death?”

“ She never knew,” the policeman said. “As far as she was concerned, it was a death in the line of duty. He got a medal awarded posthumously and she got a generous widow’s pension.”

“ Because she was such a generous widow,” the doctor suggested. “Did the old fellow fart again?”

“ I think that was the fire.”

“ I think it was the man himself,” the doctor said. “And what did you get, Policeman? A citation for bravery?”

“ A commendation,” the policeman said, “and a promotion not long thereafter.”

“ Virtue rewarded. And the other lady? Joanie Jellin, the convict’s wife?”

“ I consoled her,” the policeman admitted. “And once again came to appreciate my late partner’s point of view. The woman did kindle the flames of lust. But I just spent a few afternoons with her and bowed out of the picture.”

“ No keeping her company on conjugal visits?”

“ None of that, no.”

“ The flames of lust,” the soldier said, echoing the phrase the policeman had used. “They cast a nasty yellow glow, don’t they? Lust ruled your partner, ran his life and ran him out of it, but wasn’t it lust that drove all the parties in your story? You, certainly, and both of the women.”

“ It was the story that came to mind,” the policeman said, “when the conversation turned to lust.”

“ Lust,” the soldier mused. “Is it always about the sexual impulse? What about the lust for power? The lust for gold?”

“ Metaphor,” the priest said. “If I am said to have a lust for gold, the man who so defines me is saying that my desire for gold has the urgency of a sexual urge, that I yearn for it and seek after it in a lustful manner.

“ And what of blood lust?” The soldier cleaned the dottle from his pipe, filled the bowl from his calfskin pouch, struck a wooden match and lit his pipe. “Is that a metaphor, or is it indeed sexual? I can think of an incident that suggests the latter.” He drew on his pipe. “I wonder if I should recount it. It’s not my story, not even in the sense that the priest’s story was his. That was told to him by one of the tale’s principals. Mine came to me by a less direct route.”

They considered this in silence, a silence broken at length by a low rumbling from the hearthside.

“ Was that another fart?” the doctor wondered. “No, I believe it was a snore. The old man’s a whole impolite orchestra, isn’t he?” He sighed. “Tell your story, Soldier.”

I believe it was Robert E. Lee (said the soldier) who expressed the thought that it was just as well war was so horrible, or else we would like it too much. But it seems to me that we already like it to a considerable degree. Who doesn’t recall George Patton proclaiming his love for combat. “God help me, I love it!” he cried.

Or at least George C. Scott did, in his portrayal of Patton. Was that accurate, or do we owe some Hollywood screenwriter for the creation of this myth?

I’m not sure it matters. It’s clear Patton loved it, whether he ever said so or not. And, while it’s quite appropriate that he was played by Scott rather than, say, Alan Alda, I’m sure the man was not entirely lacking in sensitivity. He may have loved war, but he was very likely aware that he shouldn’t.

But people do, don’t they? Otherwise we wouldn’t have so many wars. They seem to retain their popularity down through the centuries, and for all that they grow ever more horrible, we do go on having them. Old men make wars, we are occasionally told, and young men have to fight them. The implication is that older men, safely lodged behind desks, feel free to make decisions that cost the unwilling lives of the young.

But does anyone genuinely think there would be fewer wars fought if younger men were their nations’ leaders? The reverse, I think, is far more likely. The young are more reckless, with others’ lives as well as their own. And it is indeed they who fight the wars, and die in them, because they are often so eager to do so.

I am not wholly without experience here. I saw combat in one war, and ordered men about in others. War is awful, certainly, but it is also quite wonderful. The two words once had the same meaning, did you know that? Awful and wonderful. The former we reserve now for that which we regard as especially bad, the latter for what seems especially good, yet they both have the same root meaning. Full of awe, full of wonder.

War’s all of that and more.

It is exciting, for one thing. Not always, as the monotony of it can be excruciating, but when it ceases to be boring it becomes very exciting indeed, and that excitement is heightened by the urgency of it all. One might be killed at any moment, so how can the body fail to be in a state of excitement? That, after all, is what adrenaline is for.

And there’s the camaraderie. Men working together, fighting together, united not merely in a common cause but in a matter of life and death. To do so seems to satisfy a fundamental human urge.

On top of that, there’s the freedom. Does that strike you as strange? I can see that it might, as there’s no one less at liberty in many ways than a soldier. His every action is in response to an order, and to defy a direct order is to court severe punishment. Yet this apparent slavery is freedom of a sort. One is free of the obligation to make decisions, free too of the past and the future. One’s family, one’s career, what one is going to do with one’s life-all of this disappears as one follows orders and gets through the day.

And, of course, there’s the chance to kill.

I wonder how many soldiers ever kill anybody. Relatively few have the opportunity. In any war, only a fraction of enlisted troops ever see combat, and fewer still ever have the enemy in their sights. And only some of those men take aim and pull the trigger. Some, it would appear, are reluctant to take the life of someone they don’t even know.

Others are not. And there are those who find they like it.

Lucas Hallam, if I may call him that, was to all appearances entirely normal prior to his service in the armed forces. He grew up in a small Midwestern town, with three brothers (two older than himself) and a younger sister. Aside from the usual childhood and adolescent stunts (throwing snowballs at cars, smoking in the lavatory) he was never in trouble, and in school he was an average student, in athletics an average participant. There are three childhood markers for profound antisocial behavior, as I understand it, and Luke, as far as anyone knew, had none of them. He did not wet the bed, he did not set fires, and he did not torture animals. (The pathological implications of the latter two are not hard to infer, but what has bedwetting to do with anything? Perhaps the doctor will enlighten me later.)

After graduating from high school, Luke looked at the vocational opportunities open to him, thought unenthusiastically of college, and joined the army. There was no war on when he enlisted, but there was by the time he finished basic training. He was a good soldier, and his eyesight was excellent and his hand-eye coordination superb. On the firing range he qualified as an Expert Rifleman, and he was assigned to a platoon of combat infantry and shipped overseas.

At the end of his hitch he was rotated back to the States, and eventually discharged. But by then he had been in combat any number of times, and had had enemy soldiers in his sights on innumerable occasions. He had no difficulty pulling the trigger, and his skills were such that he generally hit what he aimed at.

He liked it, liked the way it felt. It gave him an enormous feeling of satisfaction. He was doing his job, serving his country, and saving his own life and the lives of his buddies by killing men who were trying to kill him. Take aim, squeeze off a shot, and you canceled a threat, took off the board someone who otherwise might take you or someone you cared about off the board. That was what he was supposed to do, what they’d sent him over there to do, and he was doing it well, and he felt good about it.

The first time he did it, actually saw his shot strike home, saw the man on the other side of the clearing stumble and fall, he was too busy sighting and shooting and trying to stay behind cover to notice how he felt. The action in a full-blown firefight was too intense for you to feel much of anything. You were too busy staying alive.

Later, remembering, he felt a fullness in his chest, as if his heart was swelling. With pride, he supposed.

Another time, they were pinned down by a sniper. He advanced, and when someone else drew the sniper’s fire, he was able to spot the man perched in a tree. He got him in his sights and felt an overall excitement, as if all his cells were more intensely alive than before. He fired, and the man fell from the tree, and a cheer went up from those of his buddies who had seen the man fall. Once again he felt that fullness in his chest, but this time it wasn’t only his heart that swelled. He noted with some surprise that there was a delicious warmth in his groin, and that he had a powerful erection.

Well, he was nineteen years old, and it didn’t take a great deal to give him an erection. He would get hard thinking about girls, or looking at sexy pictures, or thinking about looking at sexy pictures. A ride in a Jeep on a rough road could give him an erection. He thought it was interesting, getting an erection in combat, but he didn’t make too much of it.

Later, when they got back to base, he went drinking and whoring with his buddies. The sex was sweeter and more intense than ever before, but he figured it was the girl. She was, he decided, more attractive than most of them, and hot.

From that point on, sexual excitement was a component of every firefight he was in. Killing the enemy didn’t carry him to orgasm, although there was at least one occasion when it didn’t miss by much. It did render him powerfully erect, however, and, when he was able to be with a girl afterward, the union was intensely satisfying. The girl didn’t have to be spectacularly good-looking, he realized, or all that hot. She just had to be there when he was back from a mission on which he’d blown away one or more enemy troops.

As I said, his tour of duty concluded and he returned to the States. The war receded into memory. Back in his hometown, in the company of people who’d shared none of his military experiences, he let it all exist as a separate chapter of his life-or, perhaps more accurately, as another volume altogether, a closed book he didn’t often take down from the shelf.

He found work, he dated a few local girls, and within a year or so he found one who suited him. In due course they were engaged, and then married. They bought a modest home and set about starting a family.

Now and then, when he was making love to his wife, wartime images would intrude. They came not as flashbacks of the sort common to victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but as simple memories that slipped unbidden into his consciousness. He recalled sex acts with the native prostitutes, and this made him guilty at first, as if he were cheating on his wife by having another woman’s image in mind during their lovemaking.

He dismissed the guilt. After all, you couldn’t hang a man for his thoughts, could you? And, if a memory of another woman enriched the sexual act for himself and his wife, where was the harm? He didn’t seek to summon up such memories, but if they came he allowed himself to enjoy them.

There were other memories, though. Memories of drawing a bead on a sniper in a tree, holding his breath, squeezing off the shot. Seeing the man fall in delicious slow motion, seeing him fall never to rise again.

He didn’t like that, and it bothered him a little. He found he could will such thoughts away, and did so as quickly as they came. Then he could surrender to the delight of the moment, untroubled by recollections of the past. That, after all, was over and done with. He didn’t hang out at the Legion post, didn’t pal around with other vets, didn’t talk about what he’d seen and done. He barely thought about it, so why should he think of it now, at such an intimate moment?

Never mind. You couldn’t help the thoughts that came to you, but you didn’t have to entertain them. He blinked and they were gone.

After his second child was born, Luke’s sex life slowed down considerably. The pregnancy had been a difficult one, and when he and his wife attempted to resume relations after the birth, they were not terribly successful. She was willing enough but not very receptive, and he had difficulty becoming aroused and further difficulty in bringing his arousal to fulfillment.

He’d never had this problem before.

It was normal, he told himself. Nothing to worry about. It would work itself out.

He tried mental tricks-thinking of other women, using memory or fantasy as an erotic aid. This worked some of the time, but not always, and never as well as he would have liked.

Then one day he used a fantasy about a woman at work to help him become erect, and, during the act, he tried to extend the fantasy to reach a climax. But instead it winked out like a spent lightbulb, and what replaced it was an involuntary memory of a firefight. This time he didn’t blink it away, but let himself relive the fight, the aiming, the firing, the bodies falling in obedience to his will.

His orgasm was powerful.

If it troubled him at all to have used memories of killing, any disquiet he felt was offset by the height of his excitement and the depth of his satisfaction. Henceforth he employed memories and fantasies of killing as he had previously used memories and fantasies of other women, and to far greater advantage. His ardor had waned somewhat even before the second pregnancy, as is hardly uncommon after a few years of marriage; it now returned with a vengeance, and his wife caught a little of his own renewed enthusiasm. It was, she told him, like a second honeymoon.

That set his mind entirely to rest. It was good for both of them, he realized, and if what he did in the privacy of his own mind was a little kinky, even a little unpleasant, well, who was harmed?

Memories would take him only so far. You used them up when you replayed them over and over. Fantasies, though, were pretty good. He would think of someone he’d noticed at work or on television, and he would imagine the whole thing, stalking the person, making the kill. He would spend time with the fantasy, living it over and over in his mind each time he and his wife made love, refining it until it was just the way he wanted it.

And then, perhaps inevitably, there came a time when he found himself thinking about bringing one of his fantasies to life. Or, if you prefer, to death.

“Hunting,” the policeman said. “Soldier, why the hell didn’t the poor sonofabitch try hunting? No safer outlet for a man who wants to kill something. You get up early in the morning and go out in the woods and take it out on a deer or a squirrel.”

“ I wonder,” said the priest. “Do you suppose that’s why men hunt? I thought it was for the joy of walking in the woods, and the satisfaction of putting meat on one’s table.”

“ Meat’s cheaper in a store,” the policeman said, “and you don’t need to pick up a gun to take a walk in the woods. Oh, I’m sure there are other motives for hunting. It makes you feel resourceful and self-reliant and manly, fit to hang out with Daniel Boone and Natty Bumppo. But when all’s said and done you’re out there killing things, and if you don’t like killing you’ll find some other way to pass the time.”

“ He’d hunted as a boy,” the soldier said. “You’d be hard put to avoid it if you grew up where he did. His brother took him out hunting rabbits, and he shot and killed one, and it made him sick.”

“ What did he get, tularemia?” the doctor wondered. “You can get it from handling infected rabbits.”

“ Sick to his stomach,” the soldier said. “Sick inside. Killing an animal left him feeling awful.”

“ He was a boy then,” the policeman said. “Now he was a man, and one who’d killed other men and was thinking about doing it again. You’d think he’d go out in the woods, if only for curiosity.”

“ And he did,” said the soldier.

He thought along the very lines you suggested (continued the soldier), and he went out and bought a rifle and shells, and one crisp autumn morning he shouldered his rifle and drove a half hour north, where there was supposed to be good hunting. The deer season wouldn’t open for another month, but all that meant was that the woods wouldn’t be swarming with hunters. And you didn’t have to wait for deer season to shoot varmints and small game.

He walked around for an hour or so, stopped to eat his lunch and drink a cup of coffee from the Thermos jug, got up and hefted his gun and walked around some more. Early on he spotted a bird on a branch, greeting the dawn in song. He squinted through the scope and took aim at the creature, not intending to shoot. What kind of person would gun down a songbird? But he wondered what it would feel like to have the bird in his sights, and was not surprised to note that there was no sense of excitement whatsoever, just a queasy sensation in the pit of his stomach.

Later he took aim at a squirrel and had the same reaction, or non-reaction. Hunting, he could see, was not an answer for him. He was if anything somewhat relieved that he hadn’t had to shoot an animal to establish this.

He unloaded his rifle and walked some more, enjoying the crunch of fallen leaves under his feet, the sweetness of the air in his lungs. And then he came to a clearing, and in an old orchard across the way he saw a woman on a ladder, picking apples.

His pulse quickened. Without thinking he slipped into the shadows where he’d be invisible. He stood there, watching her, and he was excited.

She was pretty, or at least he thought she was. It was hard to tell at this distance. He should have brought binoculars, he thought, so he could get a better look.

And he remembered that the gun’s telescopic sight would work as well.

He spun around, walked back the way he’d come. He was not going to look at the woman through a rifle sight. That was not what he was going to do.

He walked around for another hour and wound up right back where he’d seen the woman. Probably gone by now, he told himself. But no, there she was, still in the orchard, still up on the ladder. She was working a different tree now, and he could get a better look at her now. Earlier her back had been toward him, but now he was presented with a frontal view, and he could see her face.

Not very well, though. Not from this far away.

He took the rifle from his shoulder, looked at her through the scope. Very pretty, he saw. Auburn hair-without the scope it had just looked dark-and a long oval face, and breasts that swelled the front of her plaid shirt.

He had never been so excited in his life. He unzipped his pants, freed himself from his underwear. His cock was huge, and fiercely erect.

He touched himself, then returned his hand to the rifle. His finger curled tentatively around the trigger.

He thought he must be trembling too much to take aim, but his excitement was all within him, and his stance was rock-solid, his hands sure and skilled. He aimed, and drew a breath, and held the breath.

And squeezed the trigger.

The bullet took her in the throat. She hung on the ladder for a moment, blood gouting from the wound. Then she fell.

He stared through the scope while his seed sprang forth from his body and fell upon the carpet of leaves.

He was shocked, appalled. And, of course, more than a little frightened. He had taken life before, but that involved killing the enemy in time of war. He had just struck down a fellow citizen engaged in lawful activity on her own property, and for no good reason whatsoever. His sharpshooting overseas had won him medals and promotions; this would earn him-what? Life in prison? A death sentence?

He left the woods, and on the way home he dropped his rifle in the river. No one would note its absence. He’d purchased it without mentioning it to his wife, and now it was gone, and as if he’d never owned it.

But he had in fact owned it, and as a result a woman was dead.

The story was in the papers for days, weeks. A woman had been struck down by a single shot from a high-powered rifle. The woman’s estranged husband, who was questioned and released, had been arrested twice on drug charges, and police theorized that her death was some sort of warning or reprisal. Another theory held that mere bad luck was to blame; a hunter, somewhere in the woods, had fired at a squirrel and missed, and the bullet, still lethal at a considerable distance, had flown with unerring aim at an unintended and unseen target.

Luke waited for some shred of evidence to materialize and trip him up. When that didn’t happen, he realized he was in the clear. He could do nothing for the woman, but he could put the incident out of his mind and make certain nothing like it ever happened again.

He could, as it turned out, do neither. The incident returned to his mind, its memory kindling a passion that heightened his relations with his wife a hundredfold. And he found, after his initial fear and shock had dissipated, that he felt no more remorse for the woman’s death than he had for those enemy soldiers he’d gunned down. If anything, what he felt for her was a curious gratitude, gratitude for being an instrument of pleasure for him. Every time he thought of her, every time he relived the memory of her murder, she furnished pleasure anew.

You can probably imagine the rest. He went to a nearby city, and in a downtown motel room he mounted a hollow-eyed whore. While she toiled beneath him, he whipped out a silenced small-caliber pistol and held it to her temple. The horror in her eyes tore at him, but at the same time it thrilled him. He held off as long as he could, then squeezed the trigger and spurted into her even as the life flowed out of her.

He picked up a hitchhiker, raped her, then killed her with a knife. Two states away, he picked up another hitchhiker, a teenage boy. When he stopped the car and drew a gun, the boy, terrified, offered sex. Luke was aroused and accepted the offer, but his ardor wilted the moment the boy took him in his mouth. He pushed the youth away, then pressed the gun to his chest and fired two shots into his heart.

That excited him, but he walked away from the death scene with his passion unspent and found a prostitute. She did what the boy had attempted to do, and did it successfully as his mind filled with memories of the boy’s death. Then, satisfied, he killed the woman almost as an afterthought, taking her from behind and snapping her neck like a twig.

He was clever, and it was several years before they caught him. Although the impulse to kill, once triggered, was uncontrollable, he could control its onset, and sometimes months would pass between episodes. His killing methods and choice of victims varied considerably, and he traveled widely when he hunted, so no pattern became evident. Nowadays there may be a national bank of DNA evidence, evidence that would have established that the semen in the vagina of a runaway teen in Minneapolis was identical to that left on the abdomen of a housewife in Oklahoma. But no such facility existed at the time, and his killings were seen as isolated incidents.

And in some cases, of course, the bodies he left behind were never found. Once he managed to get two girls at once, sisters. He killed one right away, raped the other, killed her, and withdrew from her body in order to have his climax within the first victim. He threw both bodies down a well, where they remained until his confession led to their discovery.

A stupid mistake led to his arrest. He’d made mistakes before, but this one was his undoing. And perhaps he was ready to be caught. Who can say?

In his jail cell, he wrote out a lengthy confession, listing all the murders he had committed-or at least as many as he remembered. And then he committed suicide. They had taken his belt and shoelaces, of course, and there was nothing on the ceiling from which one could hang oneself with a braided bedsheet, but he found a way. He unbolted a metal support strip from his cot, honed it on the concrete floor of his cell until he’d fashioned a half-sharp homemade knife. He used it to amputate his penis, and bled to death.

“What a horrible story,” the policeman said.

“ Dreadful,” the priest agreed, wringing his hands, and the doctor nodded his assent.

“ I’m sorry,” said the soldier. “I apologize to you all. As I said, it wasn’t my own story, for which I must say I’m heartily grateful, nor was it a story I heard directly, and I daresay I’m grateful for that as well. It may have been embroidered along the way, before it was told to me, and I suspect I added something in the telling myself, inferring what went through the poor bastard’s mind. If I were a better storyteller I might have made a better story of it. Perhaps I shouldn’t have told it in the first place.”

“ No, no!” the doctor cried. “It wasn’t a bad story. It was gripping and fascinating and superbly told, and whatever license you took for dramatic purposes was license well taken. It’s a wonderful story.”

“ But you said-“

“ That it was horrible,” the priest said. “So Policeman said, and I added that it was terrible.”

“ You said dreadful,” said the doctor.

“ I stand corrected,” the priest said. “Horrible, dreadful-both of those, to be sure, and terrible as well. And, as you said in your prefatory remarks, awful and wonderful. What do you make of young Luke, Soldier? Was he in fact a casualty of war?”

“ We gave him a gun and taught him to kill,” the soldier said. “When he did, we pinned medals on his chest. But we didn’t make him like it. In fact, if his instructor had suspected he was likely to have that kind of a visceral response to firing at the enemy, he might never have been assigned to combat duty.”

The doctor raised an eyebrow. “Oh? You find a lad who qualifies as Expert Rifleman and you shunt him aside for fear that he might enjoy doing what you’ve just taught him to do, and do so well? Is that any way to fight a war?”

“ Well, perhaps we’d have taken a chance on him anyway,” the soldier conceded. “Not so likely in a peacetime army, but with a war going on, yes, I suppose we might have applied a different standard.”

“ What passes for heroism on the battlefield,” said the priest, “we might otherwise label psychosis.”

“ But the question,” the soldier said doggedly, “is whether he’d have found the same end with or without his military service. The bullet that killed that first sniper put him on a path that led to the jail cell where he emasculated himself. But would he have gotten there anyway?”

“ Your lot didn’t program him,” the policeman said. “You didn’t have a surgeon implant a link between his trigger finger and his dick. The link was already in place and the first killing just activated it. Hunting hadn’t activated it, though who’s to say it wouldn’t have if he got a cute little whitetail doe in his sights?”

The priest rolled his eyes.

“ Sooner or later,” the policeman said, “he’d have found out what turned him on. And I have to say I think he must have at least half-known all along. You say he didn’t have sadistic sexual fantasies before the first killing, but how can any of us know that was the case? Did he state so unequivocally in this confession he wrote out? And can we take his word? Can we trust his memory?”

“ Sooner or later,” the doctor said, “his marital sex life would have slowed, for one reason or another.”

“ Or for no reason at all,” the policeman said.

“ Or for no reason at all, none beyond familiarity and entropy. And then he’d have found a fantasy that worked. And someone some day would have paid a terrible price.”

“ And the origin of it all?” the soldier wondered.

“ Something deep and unknowable,” the doctor said. “Something encoded in the genes or inscribed upon the psyche.”

“ Or the soul,” the priest suggested.

“ Or the soul,” the doctor allowed.

There was a rumbling noise from the direction of the fireplace, and the doctor made a face. “There he goes again,” he said. “I suppose I should be tolerant of the infirmities of age, eh? Flatulent senescence awaits us all.”

“ I think that was the fire,” the policeman said.

“ The fire?”

“ An air pocket in a log.”

“ And the, ah, bouquet?”

“ The soldier’s pipe.”

The doctor considered the matter. “Perhaps it is a foul pipe I smell,” he allowed, “rather than an elderly gentleman’s foul plumbing. No matter. We’ve rather covered the subject of lust, haven’t we? And I’d say our stories have darkened as we’ve gone along. I’ve lost track of the hand. Shall we gather the cards and deal again?”

“ We could,” the priest said, “but have you nothing to offer on the subject, Doctor?”

“ The subject of lust?”

The priest nodded. “One would think your calling would give you a useful perspective.”

“ Oh, I’ve seen many things,” said the doctor, “and heard and read of many others. There’s nothing quite so extraordinary as human behavior, but I guess we all know that, don’t we?”

“ Yes,” said the priest and the policeman, and the soldier, busy lighting his pipe, managed a nod.

“ As a matter of fact,” the doctor said, “there was a story that came to mind. But I can’t say it’s the equal to what I’ve heard from the rest of you. Still, if you’d like to hear it…”

“ Tell it,” said the priest.

As a medical man (said the doctor) I have been privy to a good deal of information about people’s sex lives. When I entered the profession, I was immediately assumed to know more about human sexuality than the average layman. I don’t know that I actually did. I didn’t know much, but then it’s highly probable my patients knew even less.

Still, one understands the presumption. A physician it taught a good deal about anatomy, and the average person knows precious little about his or her own anatomical apparatus, let alone that of the opposite sex. Thus, to the extent that sex is a physiological matter, a doctor might indeed be presumed to know something about it.

So much of it, though, is in the mind. In the psyche or in the soul, as we’ve just now agreed. There may well be a physical component that’s at the root of it, a wayward chromosome, a gene that leans to the left or to the right, and a new generation of doctors is almost certain to know more than we did, but will they be revered as we were?

I doubt it. For years people gave us more respect than we could possibly deserve, and now they don’t give us nearly enough. They see us as mercenary pill-pushers who do what the HMOs tell us to do, no less and no more. Lawyers sue us for malpractice, and we respond by ordering unneeded tests and procedures to forestall such lawsuits. Every time a fellow physician anesthetizes a pretty patient and gives her a free pelvic exam, why, the whole profession suffers, just as every cleric gets a black eye when one of the priest’s colleagues is caught playing Hide the Host with an altar boy.

Lust. That’s our subject, isn’t it? And do you suppose there’s a physiological explanation for one’s tendency to natter on and on in one’s senior years? Is there a gene that turns us into garrulous old farts?

My point, to the extent that I have one, is this: As a physician, as a trusted medical practitioner, as a putative authority on matters of the human anatomy, I was taken into the confidence of my patients and thus made more aware than most people of the infinite variety and remarkable vagaries of human sexuality. I saw more penises than Catherine the Great, more vaginas than Casanova. Saw them up close, too, with no fumbling around in the dark. Told husbands how to satisfy their wives, women how to get pregnant.

Why, I knew an older man who had a half dozen women, widows and spinsters, who came to him once a month on average to be masturbated. The old duffer didn’t call it that, and I don’t even know if he thought of it in those terms. He was treating them, he confided, for hysteria, and the treatment employed an artificial phallus hygienically hooded with a condom. He wore rubber gloves, did this doctor, and seemed genuinely offended at the hint that he might be getting more than a fee for his troubles. As to my suggestion that he might send them home with dildoes and a clue as to how best to employ them, he grimaced at the very idea. “These are decent women,” he told me, as if that explained everything. And perhaps it did.

I have become inclined, through observation both personal and professional in nature, to grant considerable respect to the sex drive. The urgency of its imperative is undeniable, the variety of its manifestation apparently infinite. I will furnish but one example of the latter: One patient of mine, a lesbian, married another woman in a ceremony which, if unsanctioned by the state, was nevertheless as formal a rite as any I’ve attended. My patient wore a white gown, her spouse a tuxedo.

After a few years they parted company, without having to undergo the legal rigors of a divorce. My patient began living as a man, and eventually took hormone treatments and counseling and underwent sex-change surgery. And so, quite unbeknownst to her, did her former marriage partner. They are now pals, working out at the gym together, going to ball games together, and looking for nice feminine girls to hook up with and marry.

Infinite variety…

But, entertaining as their saga may be, I wouldn’t call it lust. Lust is desire raised to a level that prompts unacceptable behavior-how’s that for a definition? And I can think of no clearer example of that than a fellow I’ll call Gregory Dekker.

Dekker was a serial rapist. That’s spelled with an S, not a C, lest you imagine some lunatic having it off with a bowl of Cream of Wheat, or working his way one by one through a box of Cheerios. His sexual desire was strong, though probably not abnormally so, and he satisfied it in one of two ways-by rape or by masturbation. And, when he masturbated, the images in his mind were rape fantasies.

Rape, we are often assured, is not truly sexual in nature. Rape is a violent expression of hostility toward women, and has nothing at all to do with desire. The rapist is wielding his phallus as a weapon-a sword, a club, a gun that fires seminal bullets. He is getting even with his mother for real or imagined abuse.

What crap.

Oh, surely hostility may play a part in his makeup. And surely there are some rapists who are acting out their primal dramas. But, if the chief aim of the act is to inflict pain and damage, why choose such an uncertain weapon? Why reach for a gun so apt to jam or misfire?

Rape, you see, requires an erect penis. And a successful rape culminates in orgasm and ejaculation. And who would imagine that all of this takes place in the absence of sexual desire?

Rape, I submit, is often nothing more or less than the sexual activity of a sociopath, a man lacking conscience who, as he might tell you, quite sensibly seeks to satisfy himself sexually without having to resort to candy or flowers, sweet words and false promises. He doesn’t have to take his chosen partner to dinner or a movie, doesn’t have to feign interest in her conversation, doesn’t even have to tell her she looks nice. Why, he proves she looks good to him, good enough to throw down and ravish. Isn’t that compliment enough?

I’ve no clear idea what makes a person grow up sociopathic. Is it in the genes? The upbringing? I don’t have the answer. Nor, in fact, do I know much about Gregory Dekker in particular. He was never a patient of mine.

Susan Trenholme was, however.

She was a remarkably ordinary young woman, neither beautiful nor plain. Her hair was light brown, not quite blond, and her figure was womanly, and fuller than she’d have preferred; she was always trying new diets and over-the-counter appetite suppressants, all in an effort to lose five pounds over and over again. She was, I suppose, no more neurotic in this area than most young women; if they were as obsessed about their height, they’d all put on weighted boots and suspend themselves from the ceiling.

Susan met a young man in college and lived with him for two years. They drifted apart, and she was twenty-six years old and living alone when Gregory Dekker caught up with her in the parking lot of her apartment complex, knocked her to the ground, fell on her, and told her not to struggle or make a sound or he’d kill her.

Looking into his eyes, she knew he was serious. And she became convinced that, whether she cried out or remained silent, whether she struggled or acquiesced, her fate was sealed. He would kill her anyway once he’d had his pleasure with her.

In fact she had grounds for this assessment, beyond what she was able to read in his eyes. A rapist whose description matched her assailant had committed a string of rapes in the area within the past several months, and had left his two most recent victims for dead; one recovered, one was dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. Unlike the monster in your story, Soldier, Gregory Dekker was not given to lust-murder; he killed only to avoid being caught.

And he would have been easy to pick out of a lineup. If Susan Trenholme looked ordinary, Gregory Dekker surely did not. Whatever the cause-a drunken obstetrician misusing his forceps, a mother who dropped him on his face in infancy-Dekker was an heroically ugly young man. His schoolmates, perhaps inevitably, called him Frankenstein, and they had reason. Extensive facial and dental surgery would have helped, no doubt, but his parents couldn’t have afforded it, if they even thought of it.

Dekker probably assumed he could never have a woman other than by force. He was almost certainly wrong in that assessment. Some women find ugly men particularly attractive, and others respond to qualities other than appearance. I knew one woman, for example, who held that there was no such thing as an ugly millionaire.

Well, Dekker was no millionaire, nor did he have other attractive qualities, so perhaps rape was a sound choice for him. In any event, it worked. When he wanted a woman, he took her. Sometimes this happened in the course of his work, which was burglary; he broke into homes and offices, grabbed cash or something readily converted thereto, and fled. If there was a woman on the premises, and if he liked her looks, he would take her as automatically as he would take her jewelry.

In Susan’s case, he saw her at a supermarket, followed her to her car, then tailed her in his car and assaulted her, as I’ve said, in her parking lot. And would very likely have left her there, dead or dying, if she hadn’t taken action.

She didn’t resist, didn’t cry out. On the contrary, she did everything she could to make things easier for him, and, after he had entered her, she wriggled pleasurably beneath him and began uttering little moans and yelps of pleasure.

And she proceeded to do what countless of her sisters have done, not on the gritty pavement of a parking lot but in the sweet embrace of the marriage bed. To wit, she faked an orgasm.

It must have surprised the daylights out of her partner. I don’t know what sort of fantasy life Gregory Dekker may have led, but he wouldn’t have been the first rapist to persuade himself that a potential victim actually longed for his embrace, that a woman taken initially by force might be rendered passionate by his lovemaking, and might enjoy it as much as he did. None had shown any sign of enjoying his attentions in the past, but who was to say that his luck might not change?

If he’d entertained such fancies, he must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Because here was this creature, moaning and twisting in his arms, and ultimately wrapping her legs around him and crying out Yes! and telling him, as he lay exhausted in her arms, what a great lover he was and how she’d always dreamed of a man like him and a moment like this.

Did it enter his mind that she was putting on an act? Even if he believed her, wouldn’t it be safer in the long run to bash her head in or break her neck?

He may have thought so, but she tried not to give him time for thought. She kept cooing at him, telling him how wonderful he was, talking about the extent of her excitement and satisfaction, running a loving hand over his distorted features, raising her head to kiss his misshapen mouth.

And then, as if unable to help herself, she fell upon him and behaved, well, like an impressionable White House interne.

By the time she was finished, she had effectively saved her life. Dekker believed what she wanted him to believe-that he’d excited and satisfied her and left her begging for more. And beg she did, wanting to know if she would see him again, if they could do this with some frequency. And wouldn’t it be even more wonderful in a bedroom, with the lights lowered and soft music playing, and the comfort of a mattress and clean cotton sheets?

They made a date for the following night. He was to come to her apartment at nine. He got there at eight and rang her bell at ten, confident by then that she hadn’t set up a police ambush. She met him with a drink in hand and soft music playing, telling him truthfully enough that she’d been worried he wasn’t going to come.

He made an excuse, but later, at the evening’s end, he told her how he’d staked out her building to see if any cops showed. “Just give me a minute,” he told her, “and I’ll hook your phone lines up again. I pulled them before I came in, in case you were planning to make a call.”

“ I wouldn’t do that,” she said.

“ Well, I know that now,” he said. “But I had to be sure.”

Before he left she made him a cup of cocoa. After he left she stood at the sink, rinsing the cup, and pondering the curious situation she was in. Her rapist was her lover, and she was fixing cocoa for him.

He saw her the next night, and the night after that. When he came over the following day he had a sheepish expression on his face. She wanted to ask him what was the matter, but she waited, and he got around to it on his own.

“ I may not be much good to you tonight,” he said. “On account of what came up this afternoon.”

“ Oh?”

He was working, he said, prowling apartments, seeing what he could pick up, and this woman walked right in on him. “Last thing I wanted,” he said, “but there she was, you know?” And he got this little-boy smirk on his face.

She let her excitement show in her face. “Tell me,” she said.

“ Well, I did her,” he said.

“ Tell me!”

“ What, you want the gory details? You know something, Susie? You’re as bad as I am. What I did, I was behind the bedroom door, you know, waiting for her, and she walks through and bingo, I got one hand over her mouth and the other grabbing her tits. Little tits, way smaller than yours, but they were nice.”

The room was dark, the curtains drawn, and the woman never got a look at his face. “So I didn’t have to, you know, do her.”

“ Kill her.”

“ Like you have to do if they get a good look at you. But it was dark, and I got some tape over her eyes before they got used to the dark. So she never saw my face and she never saw my dick, so what’s she gonna tell them? What it felt like?” He laughed, and she laughed with him. “There’s guys who get a kick out of, you know, finishing ’em off. Personally, I think that’s sick. Waste of good pussy, you know?”

“ But sometimes you don’t have a choice,” she said.

“ That’s it exactly. Sometimes you don’t have a choice. And if I got to do it, well, it doesn’t bother me. You do what you gotta do. Anyway, who told her to come home in the middle of the goddam afternoon? She’s supposed to be working, so what’s she doing at home?”

“ She deserved it,” she said.

“ Probably half-wanted it,” he said. “Like you the first time. Except this one wasn’t like you, she was crying and making a fuss. Nice, though.” He chucked her under the chin. “When I was done with her,” he said, “I thought, oh shit, I’m not gonna be much good to Susie. She finds out, she’s gonna be pissed.”

“ I’m not, though. It’s exciting. Tell me what you did.”

The report included anal intercourse, and she pouted when he told her. “We never tried that,” she said.

“ Well, most women don’t like it.”

“ I’m not most women,” she said. “Oh, what have we here? It looks as though you’re going to be able to do something after all. My goodness!”

He left finally, after downing a cup of cocoa to soothe his stomach. His stomach had been bothering him lately, and he agreed that the cocoa would probably help.

Two nights later, she told him how it excited her to think of him raping another woman. “I only wish I could have been there,” she said.

“ You’re some crazy dame,” he said admiringly. “What would you do? Watch?”

She nodded, moistened her upper lip with the tip of her tongue. “Maybe help,” she added.

“ Help?”

“ I could hold her hands,” she said. “Or…”

“ Or what?”

“ I don’t know. Maybe do stuff.”

“ Like fool around with her?”

“ Maybe.”

“ Like how?”

“ Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe, you know, touch her. Do things to her.”

“ You ever been with a woman?”

“ No.”

“ But you’ve been thinking about it.”

“ Well,” she said, “if she couldn’t do anything, you know. Like if she was tied up? And I was in control?”

“ You are one crazy bitch,” he said.

“ Well.”

“ Man,” he said, “now you got me going. Maybe we could, you know, pick somebody out, follow her home. Or if I was working and I found somebody, like, I could call you. Or…”

She had a better idea. There was this woman she knew, a former co-worker. A honey blonde, creamy skin, good breasts.

“ You’re hot for her,” he said.

The woman was attractive, she allowed. And she knew how they could decoy the woman to a motel, where he could have a room booked. And they’d be waiting for her, and when she came in…

He helped her plan it out. “One thing,” he said. “This broad knows you. And she’ll know who lured her to the place, and anyway she’ll see you when we do her, she’ll see both of us. Unless you’re telling me she’s gonna like it?”

“ No,” she said. “She’s not going to like it.”

“ Well then,” he said. “You got to realize what’s gonna have to happen when we’re done. When the party’s over, she ain’t gonna turn into a pumpkin.”

“ I know.”

“ What I mean, I’ll have to do her.”

“ We’ll both do her.”

He shook his head. “I don’t mean do her like have sex with her. I mean do her so she’s done. Finish her, is what I’m saying.”

“ I know.”

“ And you’re okay with that?”

“ Maybe I’ll help,” she said.

A few days later they were driving around, and she pointed out the woman she had described. He was excited and wanted to take their victim immediately, decoy her into the car, take her out into the woods and leave her there when they were finished. “It’s better if we let her come to us,” she insisted. “We set a trap and she walks right into it. And we can take our time, and do everything we want.”

“ Right now’s when I’m horny,” he said.

She grinned. “I can take care of that,” she said.

On the appointed evening, he was waiting at the motel room when she arrived. “We’ve got half an hour before she gets here,” she said. “Did I tell you she’s selling real estate now? She thinks we’re a nice sweet couple, we want her to show us some houses. Well, we’re not that sweet, and we’ll be showing her more than she shows us. Honey, are you as excited as I am?”

“ Take a look.”

“ Oh God,” she said. “I can’t wait to see that going in and out of her.” They talked some about what they would do to the blond, and then she said, “Oh, before I forget,” and took a small unlabeled bottle from her purse. “For your stomach,” she said. “Is it still bothering you?”

“ Off and on. It’s worse at night.”

“ ‘ Intermittent pain, worse in the evening,’ ” she said. “I have this herbal doctor, I started to tell him about it and he was finishing my sentences for me. If you drink this it should cure it completely.”

“ What is it?”

“ A mixture of Chinese herbs, and it doesn’t taste great. But if you can get it down your troubles are over.”

He took the bottle from her. “How much are you supposed to take?”

“ All of it, if you can.”

He uncapped the bottle, shrugged, tipped it up and drained it. His face twisted. “Jesus, that’s terrible,” he said. “Anything tastes that bad, it must be great for you.”

“ He said it tasted pretty bad.”

“ Well, he got that right.”

“ And at first it may make you feel worse,” she said. “That’s a sign that it’s working. But after fifteen minutes you should feel great, so by the time our little blond friend gets here…”

“ She’s not so little. Pretty big in the tits department.”

“ Well, you’ll be ready for her.”

“ I’m ready for her right now,” he said. “Oh, shit.”

“ What’s the matter?”

“ I think this shit is working, that’s all.” He clutched his middle. “Oh, shit, that’s pretty bad. What’d you say it had in it? Chinese herbs?”

“ That’s what he said.”

“ Jesus, if chop suey tasted like this nobody’d eat it. I fucked a Chinese girl once, did I ever tell you about her? She was so scared I thought she was gonna have a heart attack. And it ain’t sideways, in case you were wondering.”

“ What’s not sideways?”

“ Her pussy. That’s what they say about Chinese women. You never heard that? Anyway, her pussy was the same as anybody else’s. Oh, Jesus, that’s bad.” He sprawled on the bed, rolling from side to side, wracked with spasms. “Jesus, it’s working. You sure I’m gonna be all right by the time the blond cunt gets here?”

“ She’s not coming.”

“ Huh? What do you mean?”

“ She was just a woman I pointed out to you,” she said. “I don’t even know her name. She’s not coming. It’s just the two of us.”

“ What are you-“

“ And that wasn’t Chinese herbs in the bottle. It was the same thing you’ve been getting in your cocoa every night, and it came out of a bottle marked ‘Rat Poison.’ ’’

He stared at her. She forced herself to meet his gaze. “I was giving you small doses,” she said, “but this is one big dose, enough to kill a hundred rats. But all it has to kill is one big rat, and you can puke your guts out but it’s too late now. It’s in your system. You’ll be dead in fifteen minutes, half an hour tops.”

“ Where are you going?”

“ I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I’m just getting comfortable. You can’t even get off the bed, can you? So I don’t have anything to worry about. You’re dying, and I’m going to stick around and see the show.”

“ Susie…”

“ Maybe I’ll touch myself,” she said. “Maybe I’ll make myself come while you’re busy dying. You want to watch me? Do you think you’d like that? Maybe it’ll take your mind off what’s happening to you. Maybe it’ll get you hot.”

The policeman was the first to speak. “I suppose she got away with it,” he said.

“ She was never apprehended,” said the doctor. “Never even questioned by the authorities. No one could connect her to Dekker, and the only risk she ran, aside from being discovered in the act, lay in the possibility that he’d left something incriminating among his effects. A diary, for instance, with entries detailing their relationship and their planned rendezvous at the motel. But that seemed unlikely, the man was functionally illiterate, and in the event nothing turned up to draw her into what investigation there was. And that was minimal, as you might suppose. Gregory Dekker’s death was ruled a suicide.”

“ A suicide?”

“ He checked in alone at a rundown motel and drank a bottle of rat poison. His prints were on the bottle, you know, and while it was unlabeled, one couldn’t down it thinking it was a fine Cabernet just reaching its prime. The stuff tasted like poison. Dekker, of course, thought it tasted like medicine.”

“ She planned it,” the soldier mused, “from the first cup of cocoa. It masked the taste of the non-lethal doses she fed him, which gave him the stomach aches.”

“ And probably accumulated in the soft tissues,” the doctor said, “if the lethal ingredient was in fact arsenic, as I suspect it was. And the stomach aches made him quick to down a larger dose of the poison, in the hope of a cure. Oh, yes, I’d say she planned it. And got away with it, if in fact anybody ever gets away with anything. That would be more in your line, Priest.”

The priest stroked his chin. “An undiscovered sin is a sin nevertheless,” he said. “One is hardly absolved by the temporal authority’s failure to uncover the sin and punish the sinner. Repentance is a prerequisite of absolution, and to repent is to acknowledge that one has not gotten away with it. So no, Doctor, I would hold that no one gets away with anything.”

“ A thoughtful answer, Priest.”

“ Long-winded, at least,” the priest said. “But I find myself with a question of my own. Yours, like all our stories, is a story of lust, and the lust would seem to be that of the ill-favored young man, whom you call Gregory Dekker. And Susan Trenholme’s sin, if we call her a sinner, would be a sin of wrath or anger. Blood lust, if you will. And yet…”

“ Yes?”

“ I wonder,” he said. “When did she decide to kill her rapist?”

“ When?”

“ After the initial act, certainly,” the priest said. “But would it have been before or after she arranged a second meeting? Did she at first plan to call the police and trap him, or did she know all along that she meant to kill him herself?”

The doctor smiled. “You have an interesting mind,” he said. “But who can say exactly when the idea presented itself? Her first concern was self-preservation. She feigned a physical response to save her own life, then made a date with him to give him further reason to let her live. At first she must have thought she’d have policemen at hand when he came knocking on her door, but somewhere along the way she changed her mind. Why, if she reported the crime at all, she’d have no end of unwelcome attention, and there was even the chance the man would evade justice. And, as she planned her revenge, yes, we can say that blood lust came into it.”

“ And was that the only sort of lust she felt?” The priest put his palms together. “She faked one orgasm to save her life,” he said, “but when she determined to punish the man herself, she drew up a scenario that called for her to engage in all manner of sex acts, and to simulate passion on several more occasions, and to fake a good number of orgasms. And was that passion simulated? Were those orgasms counterfeit?”

“ What a subtle mind you have,” said the doctor. “That’s what bothered her, you know. That’s what led her to tell me the story. In the parking lot, with his foul breath in her face and his body upon and within her, all she felt was revulsion. Her response was a triumph of an acting ability she had never dreamed she possessed, in or out of bed.

“ He never doubted the sincerity of her response. He thought he had indeed turned her on. But he hadn’t-she had turned herself on, and the experience, while profoundly disgusting to her on one level, was undeniably exciting on another.”

“ Awful and wonderful,” murmured the policeman.

“ Later, when she weighed her options, she knew that she would have to repeat her performance if she were to seek her own revenge. And the idea was at once distasteful and appealing. She had sex with him that second time, in her own apartment, in her own bed, and if anything she loathed him more than before. But it was not difficult to pretend to be aroused, and in fact she found she was genuinely aroused, though far more by her own performance and her own plans than by anything he was doing to her.”

“ And did she fake that orgasm, too?” the soldier wondered.

“ I can’t answer that,” the doctor said, “because she didn’t know herself. Where does performance leave off and reality begin? Perhaps she faked that orgasm, but faked it with her own being, so that he was not the only one taken in by her performance.” The doctor shrugged. “From that point on, however, her response was unequivocal. She looked forward to his visits. She was excited by their lovemaking, if it’s not too perverse to call it that. She was excited by him, and her excitement grew even as her hatred for him deepened. By the time she killed him, her sole regret was that she would no longer have him as a sexual partner.”

“ But that didn’t stop her.”

“ No,” the doctor said. “No, she wanted the pleasure of his death more than the pleasure of his embrace. But afterward she was appalled by what she’d done, and even more by what she’d become. Had she turned into a monster herself?”

“ And had she?”

The doctor shook his head. “No, not at all. She did not find herself ruled by her passions, nor did an element of sadism become a lasting part of her sexual nature. It was not long before a boyfriend came into her life, and their relationship and others that were to follow were entirely normal.”

“ So she was unchanged by the experience?”

“ Is one ever entirely unchanged by any experience? And could anyone remain unchanged by such an extraordinary experience? That said, no surface change was evident. Oh, sex was a little more satisfying than it had been in the past, and she was a bit less inhibited, and a bit more eager to try new acts and postures.”

They fell silent, and the room grew very still indeed. The fire had burned down to coals, and had long since ceased to crackle. The silence stretched out.

And then it was broken by the fifth man in the room.

“That’s very interesting,” said the old man from his chair by the fireside.

The four cardplayers exchanged glances. “You’re awake,” the priest said. “I hope we didn’t disturb you.”

“ You didn’t disturb me,” said the old man, his voice like dry leaves in the wind, thin and wispy, yet oddly penetrating for all that. “I fear I may have disturbed you, by breaking wind from time to time.”

The doctor colored. “I was impolite enough to remark upon it,”: he said, “and for that I apologize. We had no idea you were awake.”

“ When one has reached my considerable age,” the old man said, “one is never entirely asleep, and never entirely awake, either. One dozes through the days. But is that state of being the exclusive property of the aged? All my long life, I sometimes think, I have never been entirely awake or entirely asleep. Consciousness is somewhere between the two, and so is unconsciousness.”

“ Food for thought,” the soldier said.

“ But thinner gruel than the food for thought you four have provided. Lust!”

“ Our topic,” the priest said, “and it did set the stories rolling.”

“ How I lusted,” said the old man. “How I longed for women. Yearned for them, burned for them. Of course those days of longing are long gone now. Now I sit by the fire, warming my old bones, neither awake nor asleep. I don’t long for women. I don’t long for anything.”

“ Well,” the policeman said.

“ But I remember them,” the old man said.

“ The women.”

“ The women, and how I felt about them, and what I did with them. I remember the ones I had, and there’s not one I regret having. And I remember the ones I wanted and didn’t have, and I regret every one of those lost chances.”

“ We most regret what we’ve left undone,” said the priest. “Even the sins we left uncommitted. It’s a mystery.”

“ In high school,” the old man said, “there was a girl named Peggy Singer. How I longed for her! How she starred in my schoolboy fantasies! She was my partner for a minute or two at a school dance, before another wretched boy cut in. I couldn’t possibly remember the clean smell of her skin, or the way she felt in my arms. But it seems to me that I do.”

The doctor nodded, at a memory of his own.

“After graduation,” the old man said, “I lost track of her entirely. Never learned what became of her. Never forgot her, either. And now my life is nearing its end, and when I add up the plusses and minuses, they cancel each other out until I’m left with one irreconcilable fact. God help me, I never got to fuck Peggy Singer.”

“ Ah,” the soldier said, and the policeman let out a sigh

“ Women,” the old man said. “I remember what I did with them, and what I wanted to do, and what I hardly dared to dream of doing. And I remember how it felt, and the urgency of my desire. I remember how important it all was to me. But do you know what I don’t remember, what I can’t understand?”

They waited.

“ I can’t understand what was so important about it,” the old man said. “Why did it matter so? Why? I’ve never understood that.”

He paused, and the silence stretched as they waited for him to say more. Then the sound of his breathing deepened, and a snore came from the chair beside the fireplace.

“ He’s sleeping,” the priest said.

“ Or not,” said the doctor. “Neither asleep nor awake, even as you and I.”

“ Well,” said the policeman.

“Does anyone remember who’s deal it is?” the soldier wondered, gathering the cards.

No one did. “You go ahead, Soldier,” said the doctor, and the soldier shuffled and dealt, and the game resumed.

And the old man went on dozing by the fire.