Elaine did not immediately take notice of the book which someone had placed on the pillow at the head of her bed. The volume's cloth binding was a soft beige color which blended quite well with the bedspread; besides, she was far too intent on other things, when she entered her room, to be observant of details. She locked the oak door and tested the lock, found it unyielding. She took the straight-backed chair from the desk in the far corner and carried it to the door, braced the back of it under the knob so that it acted as a barricade against the opening of the door even if someone should manage to pick the lock without first alerting her. That done, she took a quick shower to wash away the weariness of the day, slipped into a pair of blue and yellow flowered pajamas, and turned on the television. She knew that she was not going to be able to sleep for a long time yet, if, indeed, she got any sleep at all this night. Walking to the bed, she sat down on the edge, satisfied herself that the picture on the set was clear enough and that the volume was properly adjusted, then reached out to stand her pillow against the headboard as a comfortable backrest. It was then that she found the book.
For a moment, she thought it had been something she had been reading and which she had let lay there. But she could not remember it. Besides, all her books were inexpensive paperbacks.
The cover and the spine were devoid of lettering. She had to open the book to the title page to see what it was.
Recognizing the Possessed, a Detailed Guide to the Interpretation of the Damned and a Reference of Case Histories in Exorcism, by Anonymous.
Ordinarily, she would have found the excessively wordy title amusing. Now, however, it was somehow chilling, as she tried to put together a meaning for that string of phrases. What on earth would such a book be concerned with?
Turning the page, she found a handwritten note, faded with age. She read it twice before she understood that it was a prayer of sorts, twisted in its form and purpose but a prayer nonetheless:
Dear Jesus, Spirits of the Holy Dead, White Souls and Bemused Angels-watch over this book and keep this book safe. Be always conscious of the value of this book to mortals and see that it is transferred to those who require it, bringing light into an otherwise vast darkness. Make safe this book against the touch of those who would destroy it and the spells and stories it contains, those who would benefit from man's ignorance-meaning especially keep it from Satan, Spirits of Evil, Black Souls and Fallen Angels.
Below the prayer on the blank page, someone had drawn a cross. And below the cross was lettered, INRI, the Latin abbreviation for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
She had begun to suspect who had left the book for her. When she looked over the contents page and found that the book dealt with the possession of the living by the spirits of the dead, she was certain that either Jerry or Bess, and most likely both, was to blame.
What did they expect to tell her by leaving this book in her room? They must know that she would not be converted to accept their silly string of demons and ghosts, witches and warlocks, their world of spells and hexeroi and liberating chants. Certainly, too, the conversion could not be accomplished with a single book, even if she were amenable to their viewpoint.
She flipped through the pages to the first chapter and began to read the fine, sober print:
Some say that the Dark Things have passed into antiquity and that they no longer have meaning. It is now, these people tell us, in condescension they carefully nourish for those who would disagree with them, the Year of Our Lord Nineteen Hundred and Twenty-Eight. Such a year, they say, demands that man observe science as the only god and anti-god. In a time of automobiles and airplanes, of electric light and modern medicine, ghosts and spirits, so they assure us, have no place.
But they are ignorant. And they refuse to be taught the truth, so content are they in their blindness.
I, John Martin Stoltz, resident of York County, Pennsylvania, have therefore commissioned the printing of a thousand copies of the book you now hold in your hands. I have paid for the printing from my own pocket and do not wish profit on the venture. I will be content if, instead, those who own this book profit by the information it contains.
Elaine put the book in her lap and stared at the television screen for a long moment. A silly situation comedy was playing, one of those in which the wife is always an utter lamebrain and the husband continually misunderstands everything he hears and runs around half-cocked, messing up the situation even more than it was before he tried to fix it. Until that went off, at least, she might just as well see what Jerry and Bess had meant for her to understand.
Stoltz' introduction was a pompous mess, as smug throughout as in the first paragraph. And it was a tedious bore as well. Gratefully, she finished it and turned to the actual text which had been written by Anonymous sometime in the early part of the 19th Century.
The first third of the book was a compilation of the case histories upon which a thousand superstitions had grown, each more fantastic than the one before it. The first tale dealt with a boy named Zachary Taine who, according to Anonymous, was an infantryman in the Colonial Army during the Revolutionary War. He had come of good Boston stock and was well liked by all-until it was discovered that Zachary was a ghoul and that it was he who had been responsible for the crude violation of a number of recent graves in military cemeteries during seven months of 1777.
As if this were not gruesome enough, the second story was about a Philadelphia shopkeeper who, in 1789, murdered his family while they slept and went on a murder spree that eventually left four more dead before the sunrise.
The third piece concerned a Frenchman who, during the Napoleonic Wars, had been infected with lycanthropy and roamed the night streets of old Paris as a wolfman, preying on innocent citizens. The werewolf of Paris.
Elaine closed the book and put it down on the nightstand. She was disgusted with John Robert Stoltz, with Anonymous, and with Jerry and Bess as well. Who could ever seriously believe such stuff as that? It was all a lot of baloney!
She was angry, too, because she now saw what the old couple was trying to tell her, and she felt as if she were in the middle of a huge joke. Stupid. What they apparently believed about these recent events was so childish that she would never have imagined that anyone in the civilized world would actually hold to such notions. Could they honestly be convinced that Amelia Matherly's spirit had returned from the dead, carrying the long-lost knife, and had taken control of one of the family? Yes, they could. They were not merely having sport with a gullible girl. She was not the least bit gullible. But they were!
She got up, filled with impatient energy, and she paced the lines of the room as she considered what she would say to the old couple in the morning when she returned their ridiculous book. Here, she would say, is your fairy tale collection. I did get a few laughs from it. No, that was too abrupt, too much like a child's retort. But she would come up with something, something that would make them understand that she didn't want to be bothered with any more such gifts as Recognizing the Possessed
She was still pacing when the stone struck the window. It made a sharp, quick crack that startled her. She stopped pacing and turned to the glass, half expecting to see someone on the ledge, peering in.
There was only darkness.
A second later, another pebble, perhaps as large as a grape, rattled against the pane and fell back towards the earth.
Curious, she went to the window and pushed the heavy, amber drapes back even further until she had an unobstructed view of the black grass and the creeping shadows of the monstrous trees. For a moment, she did not see anyone. As her eyes adjusted to the lack of light, however, she saw the man. He was standing in the deepest shadows at the base of the largest of the nearby willows.
Just standing there, very still.
Then he moved.
Another stone snapped sharply against the glass, directly in front of her face.
The man dropped his arm and stood still again, looking up at her with a face she could not see.
Elaine turned and looked at the clock by the bedside. It read ten minutes past midnight. She could not imagine who would be standing outside her window, at such a late hour, trying to attract her attention by throwing stones.
The man did not move, even now, and he was well concealed by the shadows in which he chose to linger. She could only see the outline of him, dark black against the brown-black lawn. Otherwise, the night obscured even the nature of the clothes he wore.
She slipped the bolt latch which held the halves of the gatelike window together, then lifted the hook out of the ring at the top. She swung the halves outward, like shutters.
Who is it? she asked.
He did not reply.
It had occurred to Elaine that the man standing beneath the window might very well be the killer, trying to attract her attention for some inexplicable reason that only a madman could fathom. Yet she was not particularly frightened at the thought of confronting him like this. Twenty feet of horizontal space and twenty-five of verticle separated them. What could he do at that distance?
Who is it, please?
The man remained silent.
She leaned out, trying to get a better look at him, but she could not tell who it was.
Dennis? she asked, taking a chance, making the best guess she could.
He moved again.
This time, he did not throw a stone, but a rock as large as a baseball. It struck the stone wall of the house, two inches from the window frame, no more than four inches from her head. It struck with a sickeningly solid, businesslike smack!, then dropped back to the grass.
Elaine gasped and grabbed for the halves of the window to pull them shut again.
The second rock struck her shoulder and made her cry out, though fear had leeched the volume from her scream.
Her arm ached miserably, but she managed to hold onto the gates of the window and swing them in. She slipped the latch bolt, jammed the hook into the ring at the top, and stepped back, out of line with the glass. When no third rock followed after several minutes, she drew the amber drapes, as if they would not only seal out the night, but would also wall off the entire incident, as if it had not happened.
She went into the bathroom and removed the tops of her pajamas so that she could get a good look at her shoulder. Where the rock had struck, the flesh had already begun to purple and swell. The bruise was as large as the palm of her hand and stung when she tried to touch it. She knew that, no matter how sore it was now, it would be twice as bad in the morning. It would feel as if she had been- stabbed.
She ran the water until it was icy, then used a washcloth to soak her wound until it was numbed. That done, there was little else she could do for herself. She dressed again and returned to the bedroom.
As she sat on the edge of the bed, she admitted to herself that the rock could have killed or at least given her a bad concussion. She had not wanted to think about that. But she was a nurse, after all. She could not avoid thinking about it for long.
He had tried to kill her.
On the television, a private detective was trying to run a car full of bad guys off the road. The chase raged up and down steep, narrow streets, along sharp embankments, rocking and heaving like a ship in bad seas as the camera took the place of the eye.
She knew she was stalling, that she was trying to keep from saying what she had discovered. The killer was most definitely one of the family. She had a ninety-five percent certainty of it before. Now, she was entirely sure, without the smallest doubt.
It was Dennis Matherly.
He had been motionless and silent, almost cautious, until she had called his name. That had been the trigger. At that, he had reacted quite violently. The police might not call that iron-clad proof, but it was enough to satisfy her. In the morning, she would call Captain Rand, and she would tell him the story. He would say, Is there anyone you especially suspect, Miss Sherred? And she would say, Yes. Dennis Matherly. Oh, she could almost write out the dialogue this minute! And even if Rand did not think her proof was very positive, he would begin to question Dennis. She did not think Dennis would stand up long to close questioning. The insane were easily pushed into betraying themselves. Or that was what she wanted to believe, at least.
She wished that she could have reached Rand earlier this evening. She might have been able to push the desk sergeant into something if Dennis hadn't caught her on the phone. That had been a bad moment.
She considered, for a scant second, going downstairs and using the phone to call the police right now. But that was a bad idea. The man who had thrown the rocks, the man in the shadows by the willow, was down there. Dennis was down there! With a knife, no doubt.
When she tested the door, she found that it was still locked and that the chair was still bracing the knob correctly.
She went back to bed and sat down and looked at the television. The private detective was bound and gagged in the basement of the villain's house, but he was using the sharp edge of a drainage grill to saw through the ropes on his wrists.
She found that she could not watch television programs. Her mind wandered into areas of thought which she wanted to avoid, and she could not keep track of the threads of the plot on the screen.
She attempted to pick up the paperback adventure novel which she had started the other evening, but she could not get interested in the danger which faced the hero and the heroine, for that danger had somehow paled and seemed petty.
Shortly after two o'clock in the morning, she balanced a number of bottles of makeup and perfume on the chair which was bracing the door. She set the bottles precariously between the tilted seat and the slanted rungs of the chair back. They would fall and clatter at the slightest attempt to force the door, and that would be sufficient to wake her.
But when she slept, she did not find peace. She dreamed of getting hit in the face by a rock, a large rock with jagged edges. In the dream, her nose was smashed in and her left eye was ruined. There was rich, red blood streaming from her wounds, and she way unconscious and perhaps dying
She woke from the same nightmare so often that, by four o'clock, she gave up trying to sleep. She picked up the book that Jerry and Bess had left on her bed, and she read some more about men and women possessed by the spirits of the dead and guided to do unspeakable things. She hoped that, by reading this nonsense, she could make herself angry again. Filled with anger, she would have no room for fear.
That was the idea.
But it didn't work.
She longed for the morning as she had never wanted anything in her life, and she greeted the pale dawn with childlike glee, watching the slow advance of the sun in awe.
Soon, it would be morning. Soon, it would be all over with.