She ran. Blind in the dark, pursued by the dark, she ran. Desperately she ran. She could hear her footsteps on the paving, her breath panted audibly. Her legs carried her in long swift strides, without ache or fatigue … but never fast enough. He was behind her, so close behind her that, at any moment, she would feel his hand grab her shoulder. She tried to run faster; but she could not. Her pace remained eternally the same. She ran, and was pursued. There could be no rescue. She ran—
With a gasp, Natalie woke. It was dark, yes; but she was in bed, tangled in her sheets with the duvet flung half onto the floor. Something flew at her. She screamed and tossed it away. Only then did she realize her fingers felt fur. Only then did she hear a surprised, protesting mew.
“Oh, Sydney!” she gasped, fumbling for the switch on the bedside lamp. “Oh, baby, I’m sorry.” She could see him across the room, half under the chest of drawers. He looked up at her, bewildered and suspicious. “It’s okay, Sydney,” she coaxed. “I didn’t mean it. You just woke me up suddenly, that’s all.”
Her sweet, reassuring tones lured him slowly out. Finally, he made the bound to the bed, snuggled up under her chin, and let her stroke him. She comforted herself with the warmth of his body through her nightgown and his soft fur under her fingers. It was a long while before she could bear to set him aside and get up. Then he twined round her ankles, eager to remind her of breakfast. She acquiesced, going to the kitchen to spoon tuna into his dish and fill his water bowl before heading for the shower.
She had talked ad nauseam to detectives, would have to give evidence tomorrow, and yet again in a few months; and she was long since fed up. She stared blankly at the tiles. Water rushed down her skin. They say familiarity breeds contempt, she thought. I have contempt. But there is no way that going over and over what happened breeds familiarity—except with the night horrors.
She’d been offered diazepam to help her sleep, and turned it down. She might have made a mistake.
It was far too early to go to work. Nevertheless, as she dressed and ate, Natalie couldn’t think of anything urgent to keep her at home. She was in no mood for shopping, even if the stores had been open; and the idea of a walk in the park was close to terrifying. It was only just getting light; but that meant there was no point in detouring by the 27th Precinct to chat with Nick. She did debate heading for the loft. He would probably still be up. But he’d be tired—or as tired as a vampire ever got. If only they were on the same shift, their schedules would jibe; but not this month. It was easier, she finally decided, just to drive to the Coroners Building. There was always work to be done. And then she had her eleven o’clock appointment with the Crown Prosecutor.
She walked through the near-empty night-shift corridors, unlocked the door to her office, and went in. There were two bodies in cold storage; but they would have to wait till after her meeting. Autopsies took … well, as long as they took, each one presenting its own complexities; and there was always clean-up afterwards. She could hardly arrive with blood on her hands.
She swivelled her chair to face the computer, loaded an overdue report, and started to fill in the blanks. It was well over two hours later that she heard, through the door, sounds of the day shift coming in. By then, she’d finished three reports, varyingly due; filed one copy of each in the cabinets; and put the others in her out tray.
There was a tap at the door; and Grace came in. “The Pritchard and Lebowski results,” she said, waving a pair of file folders. Then she came over, put them on the desk, and bent to peer closely at Natalie’s face.
“You look awful,” she said bluntly, straightening up. “Natalie, did you have another of those dreams? I thought you said you were over them.”
“Oh, you know,” Natalie said. She sighed. “I’m all right really. It’s just that I never get enough sleep.” She added hastily, “I mean, I do get some. Most nights, in fact … if I don’t lie awake thinking, that is. Just … well, you know … some nights it’s hard to drop off. Of course,” she said, in an exculpatory tone, “if I’m on night shift, there’s the problem of getting my bedroom dark enough.”
Grace glared at her, arms akimbo. “You’re on day shift,” she said. “You have been for over a month, and—” She broke off, frowning. “Natalie, when did you get in this morning?”
“Only a bit early,” Natalie protested.
“You’re pale,” said Grace tartly. “You’ve got bags under your eyes; I can see that, even under the make-up you’ve put on. And I don’t even want to talk about your hair!”
Natalie’s hand flew up to pat her locks. “Oh, no! Is it that bad?” She gauged the look on Grace’s face. “I’ve to see Crown Counsel at eleven,” she said with dismay.
“Which case—?” Grace began, and then realized. “Oh!” She looked at the calendar on the wall. On it, the next few days were crossed out.
“I should go the hairdresser.” Natalie got up to fetch her purse off the top of the filing cabinet. Rummaging inside, she brought out a small address book; then she stopped. “There’s no time.” She glanced round at the clock. “Maybe after.”
Grace reached out and patted Natalie’s arm comfortingly. “If you look like this, then the jury will be certain to believe how awful it was for you.”
“Oh, thanks,” said Natalie wryly. “How to bolster my ego, Grace. Anyway, it’s the preliminary hearing. No jury.” Roger—“Jamieson” (she was damned if she was going to use his first name ever again)—had chosen not to go straight to trial. Not that there was a hope in hell the judge would just dismiss the charges. “Maybe,” she added wishfully, “I won’t be called.”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” said Grace frankly. “You’re the only living victim. There’s no more essential witness.”
Which, as Natalie realized ruefully when she spoke to the lawyer prosecuting the case for the Crown, was all too true.
“Let me take you through your evidence,” he said to her, passing her a copy. It was all too familiar, from the first encounter at the grocery store to the deadly date at Humber Nurseries. Natalie had, of course, left out the fact that Nick had literally flown to her rescue.
“I was half unconscious,” she said. “I woke up to find Detective Knight leaning over me. I did not see exactly what happened. I don’t know.” Well, she did, of course. Nick had burst through the glass ceiling of the greenhouse and tossed her erstwhile boyfriend out onto a heap of manure. There had been so many times since when, to her shame, she wished so hard that he had drained the man instead. But he had not: he had held her, comforted her, and waited with her until the local police arrived.
The Crown prosecutor took her again through the evidence; and she realized from the slant of his questions that her involvement had badly complicated what had, originally, been a simple serial murder case. As pathologist, she had autopsied the bodies of the previous victims; as assistant coroner, she had been associated with the forensic investigation of the scene. As victim, she was ineligible to do either. All evidence had had to be reprocessed. “And, of course, this has had to be disclosed to the defence,” pointed out the Crown.
“Yes, I know,” said Natalie evenly.
“Doctor Lambert, I have to say that it remains a most peculiar circumstance that, having been part of the investigation into the earlier murders, you should then become a victim yourself.” The tone was bland, but Natalie winced. It did not go unnoticed.
“Now,” and the Crown’s voice became slightly more animated, “I know you’ve said nothing of this to officers of either the Peel Police or the Metro Police.” He patted the clipped sheaf of papers in front of him. “I have your statement, after all. I simply want to be sure that you don’t wish to change your story. It’s still not too late to amend it, you know. And I do need to know exactly what you’re going to tell the court when you’re on the witness stand.”
“I will be giving evidence, then?” asked Natalie.
“I most certainly intend to call you,” agreed the lawyer. “But what you say here,” and he patted the statement again, “may not be what you decide it best to say under oath.”
Natalie stiffened. “I don’t plan on changing my testimony,” she said firmly. “I told the truth.”
“Well, we can only hope that the other witnesses do not contradict you,” said the Crown suavely. “Detective Knight, in particular. Perhaps also Detective Schanke, who has evidence in the earlier cases with which the accused has also been charged I shall, you understand, be calling them to testify.”
God, the man talks to me as if he’s in court, thought Natalie. Then she realized that was precisely the effect he wished to convey, by formality to intimidate her with the awful might of the law, if indeed she were obfuscating the truth. What effect it might all have on a lay person, she couldn’t tell; but, as coroner, she was an officer of the court herself, and had given evidence as a pathologist far too many times to be flustered. “Can you be plain?” she said stiffly. “I get the distinct impression you have got some idea in your head.”
He eyed her sternly. “Were you undercover, running a sting?”
She was too surprised to speak.
He cocked a brow. “Yes? No? Was Jamieson a suspect?” He sat back, deliberately relaxed, and smiled at her. (It was not, she thought, a very convincing smile.) “Look, I can see how frustrating it must have been for Schanke and Knight. If they had a suspect, but insufficient evidence … well, I suppose one might argue that it’s commendable that they didn’t just set the guy up—”
“They wouldn’t do that.”
“Well, obviously they shouldn’t do that,” and he smiled again, “but it’s not that it’s never been done.”
She looked at him coldly.
“Yes, well … the point is that, instead, they decided to get an attractive female—you, in fact—to go undercover in a place that Jamieson frequents in the hope of enticing him.” He waited, and sighed slightly when he did not get the response he hoped. “Dr. Lambert, it would be so much easier if you just admitted it. Of course, the whole play should have been run by their superiors: Captain Stonetree, if not the Chief of Detectives. Of course, they should have used a woman police officer. Equally of course, they should have had adequate surveillance. It should never have been possible for Jamieson to give them the slip and take you to Humber Nurseries—which is not in their jurisdiction—and come so close to actually injuring you. So I do see why you are reluctant to admit the truth. I dare say your own superiors would not be pleased; I’m sure, even more, that you do not wish to get the detectives in trouble. However,” and he dropped the smile, “the defence is just as perspicacious as I am, Dr. Lambert. You are going to be in for a stiff cross-examination.”
Later, her hair freshly coiffed after an emergency call to her hairdresser, Natalie caught Nick just before he headed off to work.
“Well,” he said reasonably, after she’d recounted her day, repeated the accusation, and worked herself into a high state of indignation, “it’s as well to know in advance. At least you’ll be prepared. And, you know, it’s not such a foolish idea—I mean, it is to anyone who knows you, but he doesn’t, does he?” He smiled gently. “Come on, Nat. In ten years’ time, you’ll laugh about it.”
“I could have been raped,” she said flatly. “It’s not something I’ll laugh at.”
“I didn’t mean that.” He looked at her closely, and—barring the bouncy hair—saw the same things that Grace had. “Are you still going for counselling at the Mental Health Centre? Because they may ask about that, too.”
“‘Talking it out’ is overrated, in my opinion,” said Natalie bluntly. “Or maybe that’s just me. I suppose it helps some people.” Then, when Nick continued to look at her with worry, she added, “I’m more concerned to get that man off the streets and put him in prison where he belongs. Frankly, that’s what I really need. To know that it’s all over, and I’m safe.”
“I’ll keep you safe,” promised Nick, and wondered whether, if he tried again, he could hypnotize her into a good night’s sleep.
“I’ll tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” said Natalie. “So help him God.”
But when she saw him leave in the Caddy and drove herself home to her apartment, she ate barely half of her dinner. She turned the TV off ten minutes into her favourite show, read a dozen pages of a new bestseller without seeing a word, set her alarm, and went to bed early.
She ran. Blind in the dark, pursued by the dark, she ran. Desperately she ran. She could hear her footsteps on the paving, her panting breath. Her legs carried her swiftly … but never fast enough.
With a gasp, Natalie awoke. For a long moment, she gasped in terror; and then she turned her face into her pillow and wept.