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WHERE EVIL LURKS

by

Robert D. Rodman


CHAPTER 1

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” began an old radio show. Who, indeed? In the 1940s, The Shadow knew. In the 1990s, in the thirty-first year of my life, I found out that evil may lurk in the hearts of women, too.

It was the last autumn of the twentieth century, in the city of Raleigh, on a crisp morning of Carolina blue skies punctuated by marshmallow clouds. The previous night I’d quietly celebrated the fifth anniversary of the remission of the breast cancer that had nearly taken my life. Statistics favored me now, not the disease. It was ironic, then, that that same day of closure would see the start of events that would be every bit as deadly and emotionally distressing as that terrible disease.

I was sipping coffee and working on the daily crossword puzzle. I had a six-letter word for threatening snake that went c--l--. I reviewed my snakes: krait, cobra, asp, mamba, adder, viper, rattler, hisser—but none fit. I racked my brains for the right word but it wouldn’t come. Idly, I gazed out the front window. That was the first time I saw her. She had parked her ice-blue Lotus facing the wrong way at the curb in front of my house. A lithe body unfolded itself from the low-slung vehicle. With a glance at my house number, she came with a resolute step up the walkway. An old pickup truck chugged by, the driver rubbernecking at the blonde in the suede skirt.

Ah, got it! Hastily I penned in coiler and put the newspaper aside. The snap of the car door when it shut had alerted Hank and Midas, my two greyhounds, whose ears had pricked up at the sound. The footsteps of the approaching visitor set them to barking.

I hustled my two would-be guardians into another room and went to the front door. I opened the door at the same moment that the visitor was poised to knock on it. She lost her balance for a second.

“Oh, sorry,” I apologized. “I saw you coming up the walk.”

She was unruffled, however. Looking at a slip of paper she asked, “Are you Dagny Taggart Jamison, the private investigator?”

“Yes, I am.” I opened the door fully and stepped back. “Won't you come in, please?”

She was an inch taller, a shade blonder, and two letters more curvaceous than me. Her clothes were immaculately tailored, and were a perfect match for the Lotus. Even her scent, I thought, had an element of the lotus blossom in it. Her only jewelry was a man’s wristwatch and two diamond studs. Golden hair flowed down to her shoulders and the blue of her eyes matched the blue of the sky. There was a hint of harshness, though, in an otherwise cover-girl face.

“What can I do for you?” I asked when she’d entered the house and we were standing facing each other in my living room. A soiled tank top I had carelessly thrown over a chair for later removal to the wash caused me a moment’s embarrassment, but she seemed not to notice or care.

“My name is Ashley Bloodworth. I believe you’re the private investigator who unearthed the pharmaceutical scandal in California. A couple of people were murdered by hanging that was made to look like suicide, if my facts are correct.”

“Yes, it was me, and your facts are correct, but I had some luck and a lot of help with the case.”

“I found your Web site,” she said, “so I know from your bio that you’re licensed in California as well as here. If my memory serves, it said you’d been in the service and afterwards got your degree at UCLA. Let’s see, what else?” She paused to smooth a perfect eyebrow with a finely manicured nail.

I cocked my head, curious to know what information on my home page was arresting enough to be remembered.

“Ah, yes, you had some law school education and I think it said your brother trained you to be a private investigator.”

“You have a good memory.”

“I also asked my legal firm to check you out—I hope you don’t mind. They said you have a reputation for being objective and discreet. That’s really why I’ve come to see you this morning.”

“Thanks for the compliment,” I said, blushing slightly, “but I just try to do a good job.” I held out my hand. “I’m pleased to meet you, Ms. Bloodworth.”

We shook hands. Her hand was cool and slight, but her grip was firm.

“Why don’t you come this way,” I said. “My office is back here.”

I led her through my outsized living room, past the old Bösendorfer grand piano, around the large dog beds to my sunroom-cum-office in the rear of the house. The greyhounds whined behind the door that kept them shut out.

“Coffee? It’s already made.”

“Thank you. Black, no sugar.”

I motioned her to the chair reserved for clients. When I purchased my home, it had a glass-louvered porch jutting out to the southeast. I converted this, along with some interior space, into an office. The chair in which I seat clients faces the bright exterior, while I always face the dimmer interior. This seating arrangement puts their features in high relief, the better for me to observe them.

After setting down cups of coffee for each of us, I took my seat and waited a few moments for her to settle comfortably. Then, leaning forward a little in my chair, I invited her to tell me what her visit was about.

“Ms. Jamison, please don’t be insulted if I ask you for an assurance of complete confidentiality. I’ve no reason to doubt you, but I do need to satisfy myself on this point. What I have to tell you is extremely personal.”

“I understand. Let me just say that I treat my clients with the utmost discretion. You can depend on that—you have my word on it. I wouldn’t stay in business long if I didn’t honor that code.”

Ashley Bloodworth straightened in her chair and tugged at the hem of her skirt. She cleared her throat, then said somewhat hesitantly, “It’s taken me a long time to arrive at this point, a length of time that may surprise you. I might have done this sooner, and I might have gone to a deluxe agency—no slight intended—but I want this to be a one-man—or I should say, a one-woman—operation. I don't believe I could tell a man my story.”

“All I can do is to repeat my assurance, but I need to add that what you tell me isn’t privileged, as it would be if I were a lawyer. I can be forced to testify in a court of law under oath, so if that’s a problem…”

“No, it’s not that at all. It’s just, well, feminine matters.”

“Then I think we’re on safe ground, Ms. Bloodworth.”

“Ashley, please, and may I call you Dagny? I’d like to dispense with some of the formality. I should guess we're no more than a year or two apart—‘of an age,’ as Jane Austen might put it.”

“Okay, that’s fine with me, uh, Ashley. I won’t betray your personal matters as long as there’s no question of perjury.”

“There won’t be. I have no crimes to confess, though crimes there certainly have been. I know I must put my trust in someone and I believe I can trust you.”

She looked directly into my face, her lips pressed together, her head nodding slightly forward and back.

“Perhaps I might begin with some background?”

“That’d be fine,” I said. “Go right ahead.”

“I was born into an old, southern, moneyed family. For me this meant private schools, the best church, a debut, fine clothes and jewelry, expensive cars, social connections, and of course no drinking and no sex.” She spoke detachedly, as if about a different person. “I conformed. I got good grades, and I was accepted right out of high school at Meriwether, just a few miles from here. The Bloodworth daughters were obliged to attend the most prestigious women’s college in the old Confederacy, whether through achievement or family influence.”

She paused to sip her coffee and asked, “Do you mind if I smoke?”

I didn’t, and I went and fetched an ashtray, which I placed next to her cup and saucer. She lit a slim, green, gold-filtered cigarette with a gold-colored lighter shaped like a harp. A whiff of smoke made me wistful and reminded me how much I once enjoyed the habit.

Ashley took another sip and continued, “Imagine college life in the late ’80s. You were probably a student then, too. You know things were wild. My parents warned me to abstain from alcohol and sex. That I should leave drugs alone went without saying.”

Memories of my own school days danced in my head as Ashley spoke. I saw my fellow students doing lines off the chem lab tables, using short pipettes to snort the powdery cocaine. I smelled the sweet smell of marijuana smoke drifting over the laurel bushes behind the science building, those same laurel bushes behind which girls occasionally abandoned their panties in their haste to dress after sex. My demeanor must have changed because Ashley paused for a moment as if expecting me to speak, but when I said nothing she went on.

“A wildness came over me, as it did with so many of us when we left home for the first time. We drank. We experimented with sex, and soon after with drugs. This is important. Or maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this?”

I shrugged. “Don’t worry. Even if the actual statute of limitations hasn’t expired, the practical limitation has. If they went back and arrested everyone who did drugs, half the Congress would be in jail.”

She took a deep drag. I had a nearly uncontrollable urge to bum a cigarette off her, which I fought off by crossing my arms over my chest, reminding myself of my recent malignancy.

“Cocaine was as plentiful at Meriwether as sugar at the dining tables,” she said. “Snow is white and money is green, and ever the twain shall meet. And Meriwether kids are sooo rich, and cocaine is—was—sooo sweet. Within months I was a cokehead, in with the in-crowd of cokeheads. When spring recess came in March, they asked me to pick up a delivery on my way back to school.”

She paused for another sip and crossed her legs, allowing a black pump to dangle from her foot. “I drove a Lamborghini then—a high school graduation gift. The trafficker wanted to hide the cocaine in the door panels but I wasn’t about to let anyone tear up my car’s interior. Why the hell should I have? I had the good sense not to speed in the Lamborghini because the damn thing was a cop magnet. I didn’t expect to be stopped or searched, so I put the half-pound of coke in the glove compartment. I didn’t even bother to lock it up.”

She took a final drag of her cigarette and stubbed it out. “I get bored on the main highway,” she continued. “I know the secondary roads that lead to Raleigh and I’m cruising down one with pine forest on both sides when the Lamborghini dies. It just ups and quits, dead, kaput. I coast onto the shoulder and try the cell phone but I don’t have power. I can’t even lower a damn window. I hang an old T-shirt on the hood ornament and begin to walk.”

She pursed her lips as she decided how—or whether—to go on. She withdrew a blue cigarette from a case that had a matte gold finish. She shut the case with a snap, put the cigarette between her lips, lit it, and took a deep, cancerous pull. I wondered if the blue paper added to the health risk. She turned aside to exhale a stream of smoke, which she followed with her eyes as it dissipated through the open louvers.

“What happened then?” I asked.

Ashley shifted her gaze back to me. “A break occurs in my memory," she said, speaking in a lower tone now. “On the other side of it, I find myself waking up in a hospital bed, tubes and bags everywhere. I don’t know if I’m dreaming or truly awake. I hear a beeping sound that I recognize from a TV hospital program. It’s my heartbeat.”

I was shocked by this unexpected turn of events. “How dreadful! What, did you fall and injure your head?”

“I’ll come to that,” said Ashley, uncrossing her legs and slipping her foot back into the shoe. “A nurse was there. She was asking me questions—difficult ones, like my name, my age, what kind of car I drove, how many fingers was she holding up, and who was the goddamn president. When she was satisfied with my answers, she beckoned towards the door and up show my parents, if you’ll pardon my down-home grammar. They're thanking the Lord and praising Jesus. I'd been unconscious for thirty-six hours and there was a possibility of brain damage. Their vigil had taken its toll. They were too tired to disguise their disapproval of what they thought I'd done.”

“God, you must have been so upset and confused,” I said. I was feeling agitated but didn’t have the benefit of lighting up, so instead I took a large swig of coffee, and immediately regretted it as it burned its way down my esophagus. I gulped in a deep, cooling breath of air and asked, “What did they think you’d done? I mean, how did you even get to the hospital in the first place?”

She ran her fingers through her hair, then shook it back into place; she brushed a rebellious wisp off her face. “A state trooper found me in my car, unconscious,” she said. "Cocaine powder was on my face, in my hair, in the upholstery of the car. I was gravely overdosed and near death. His quick action, and that of the EMS medics, saved my life, though not my memory.”

That struck a chord in me. When I was in the army, I trained to be a corpsman and part of what I learned was how to deal with ODs. But mostly corpsmen learn to treat battlefield trauma—and those were peaceful times. There wasn’t much trauma around, except for victims of auto wrecks and barroom brawls, and the civilian medics usually got to them first. Eventually I asked for Military Police training—anything to ward off the boredom of peacetime army life—and it meshed with the medical training.

Ashley’s voice broke my reverie. “You look a million miles away, Dagny.”

“Oh, I’m listening,” I assured her. “It’s just that I was thinking back to overdoses I’ve treated. I was a medic in the army once. You could’ve come out of this a lot worse, you know. Did you remember anything about the cocaine?”

“That was about the last thing I did remember, and I was scared that I’d be busted. Not even my father’s influence and money would get me out of it. A bit of cocaine on the lips is one thing; a half-pound in your car was entirely another. But all they charged me with was possession of six-tenths of a gram and driving under the influence. I got off with a fine and three years' probation.”

“You were lucky,” I said. “Don’t tell me they didn’t find your stash.”

“There was no stash to find. You’ll see.”

Ashley was going to tell the story her way, and she wasn’t going to be hurried.


CHAPTER 2

The dogs had their own tale to tell. They were tired of being locked up while hearing us talk. Their whines, which had at first been a quiet entreaty, became loud, demanding yelps.

Ashley said, “Feel free to let your dogs out, poor little things.”

“Uh, well, they only sound little. They’re greyhounds—little throats, big dogs.”

“That's fine. I need a break anyway.” She stood up and stretched her arms toward the ceiling, yawning unabashedly at the same time. Her blouse came adrift, exposing a narrow swath of bare midriff. I knew guys who’d pay money for that sight. She tucked everything back in and said, “I'd be happy to meet your hounds.”

I let Hank and Midas out, and they fell over each other to see who would be first to check out the guest. Ashley met them standing. She was a good sport and deftly parried the inquisitive muzzles before they could leave nose prints on the fine, shiny leather of her skirt. She gave each dog a rub behind the ears and a pat on their substantial rumps. Satisfied, they retreated to their large soft beds by the piano to watch the proceedings.

“They’re nice dogs. Did you rescue them?”

“I did, actually. They used to race and I got them when their careers ended. They were pals in the kennel where they lived, so they were put up for adoption as a pair. But anyway, I’m mystified about this half-pound of disappearing cocaine. Do you want to tell me about it?”

“I don’t mean to be mysterious or secretive. I’m just trying to relate events not as they happened in time, but as I came to realize them. So, let’s see. After I left the hospital I rested at home. The first couple of days I was dazed most of the time. I dreamt awful dreams, violent and terrifying, and when I was awake, I’d find myself wringing my hands or grinding my teeth. I hurt inside, too, and bled some. By the end of the week I realized that I’d been sexually assaulted, but of the event itself I could remember nothing.”

“You mean they didn’t figure that out while you were in the hospital?” I asked incredulously.

“I believe I was so close to death that they focused on cleansing out the cocaine and counteracting its effect. They found me alone in my car, dressed, unmarked by violence, but stoned literally almost to death. Rape wasn’t uppermost in their minds and so they missed the signs. But when I finally began to regain my senses, it was certainly uppermost in my mind.”

“Did you report it to the cops, or tell your parents?”

“I couldn’t. I mean, I didn’t know what had happened and I was terrified. Terrified of the law. Terrified of my parents. Even terrified of myself—terrified of being insane. I just hunkered down and waited.”

“Were you able to go back to school? I mean, how long did you stay at home?”

“I went back after a week, a changed person. I decided to take my education seriously, to make up the work I’d missed. I truly desired to redefine myself. There was the not-so-small matter of the missing cocaine. I said that I’d been robbed and forcibly overdosed. It was a prophetic lie, as it turns out. This helped break me out of the group I went with, and by the semester’s end I felt I could achieve my goals.”

“And this is your freshman year, right?”

“Yes, spring semester, and I was enjoying my new self a lot, except for one downer: I missed my April period. I attributed it to the trauma of the assault. When I missed in May, I blamed the stress of final examinations. When I missed in June, well, you can imagine and…”

My expression must have revealed my second occasion of incredulity on this subject because Ashley paused mid-sentence and restarted.

“Oh, I know. You’ve been raped and you’re missing periods. Deep down, you know you must be pregnant. All I can say is that the rape at the time was surreal, and I so very badly didn’t want to be pregnant—so very badly—that I practiced a naïve self-deception. But that’s what I did. What can I say?”

“Yes, of course you’re right. I don’t mean to be judgmental. What happened next?”

“My GYN confirmed it. I was fifteen weeks pregnant, but I hadn’t slept with anybody in six months. I may have been a druggie, but I wasn’t a slut. My parents were dead set against abortion, and I was too far along to be comfortable with the risks.”

“So you have the child now?”

“Children. I gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl.”

My eyebrows rose reflexively. Ashley caught my surprise but carried on despite it.

“My parents live in the old Bloodworth mansion, called Hatfield Hall. We have live-in servants and various extended family in the house. I left Benton and Jeanne-Renée in their care and continued my education. I had little time for babies.”

“And you didn’t know who the father was,” I said.

She smiled wanly and removed another designer cigarette from the gold case and lit it with a snap of the harp-shaped lighter.

I gestured toward the pot of hot coffee but she placed her hand over her half-filled cup.

“I graduated from Meriwether in three years with a double major in business and dramatic arts—I’d done some acting—and went on to earn my Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago. My research was on how to maximize short-term investments by the use of computer models of my own invention. I worked under the late Professor Victoria Krofmin, who won the von Hayek Prize in economics in 1989.”

I’m clueless about economics and economists and it must have showed.

“Oh, few people have heard of her outside academia,” Ashley explained. “She was an extraordinary woman, though, Dr. Krofmin. She’d been a successful psychiatrist before switching fields—she was truly remarkable.”

Ashley lost her train of thought, perhaps thinking of her old professor. The room darkened at that moment as one of the puffy cumulus clouds floated past the sun. The shadow on Ashley’s face tempered her features and drew them back from the brink of harshness. I adjusted the floor lamp to gain a tad more light.

“One day, unexpectedly, Dr. Krofmin said, ‘Ashley, something is deeply troubling you. Eventually it will surface to your detriment. Have you ever considered psychoanalysis?’ This was a serious thing for one’s professor to tell one, especially when that professor is Victoria Krofmin, M.D., Ph.D.”

“Couldn’t she just help you herself, since she was a psychiatrist?”

“Not really. She didn’t offer, and I didn’t feel it appropriate to ask. But when I showed interest she referred me to a psychiatrist who did hypnotic therapy. I turned out to be a susceptible patient. We soon worked our way to that day in March. Hypnosis is effective for certain kinds of amnesia. You not only recover what you might ordinarily remember, but you also recall hundreds of small details and images that are usually lost to the memory. This is at once frightening and, I was assured, therapeutic. It took multiple sessions to bring it all back.”

Though it was cool in my office, small beads of sweat had formed on Ashley’s brow. The fingers of her right hand were worrying a loose strand of rattan on the arm of the wicker chair. Her face, more disciplined than her hands, was impassive, though the indefinable trace of harshness had returned.

Speaking in a near monotone, she went on. “I’m walking away from my broken down car. A minivan looms up the road. It sees me and begins to slow down. Something about it is ominous, but what can I do? I keep walking, trying to pretend I live in the neighborhood, as if the car and I are not connected. The van stops beside me and a man jumps out of the passenger side, and another man jumps out of a rear door, and I’m between them. They throw a blanket over me. In less time than it takes to draw a breath to scream, I’m in the van, blindfolded.”

“Jesus, so you’re recalling this under hypnosis?”

“That’s right. Until the hypnosis, Dagny, I didn’t remember any of it. You’ll see why I can’t tell a man. The moment they dragged me into the van I knew what would happen. I could hear the sounds of a third man, the driver, removing his clothes. It was pointless to struggle and I didn’t want to get beaten up. But I wasn’t going to be compliant either, or so I thought.”

Ashley was struggling to keep her composure. She tucked her hair behind her ears and smoothed her leather skirt. She pulled out a silk hankie and patted her forehead dry. The dogs, always sensitive to human moods, shifted uneasily in their beds.

“They removed my T-shirt and bra and pinned my arms behind me. Something touched my nipple. Pain exploded through my body. It was a cattle prod. Then the other nipple. I was so afraid they wouldn’t stop. That they’d torture me to death. I pleaded with them to stop. Someone growled in my ear the single word—Cooperate.

A single tear formed in the corner of one eye and tracked down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away with the backs of her fingers. I needed to be a good listener, so I swallowed my horror. It left a metallic taste in my mouth.

“I cooperated. I’d have thrown my own children into a fire. When they asked me to do things I didn’t think I could do, the cattle prod came out. When the three were finished with me, they tied my hands and threw me in a corner. One of them had searched my car and found the cocaine.”

I was shaking my head involuntarily, appalled by the images that Ashley’s words evoked. I reached forward and touched her hand. We made eye contact and my heart went out to her. I leaned back to listen. I didn’t want to break into her story.

“After an hour of getting high, they raped me again. Afterwards, they forced me to snort cocaine until I couldn’t anymore. The last thing I remember before I lost consciousness is them stuffing cocaine in my vagina and rectum. I know they tried to kill me that way. They dressed me and left me in my car. They spread cocaine around to make it look like I overdosed.”

She stopped and sipped at the tepid coffee. With her forefingers she wiped the tears from under each eye. She didn’t wear makeup, so there weren’t the dark smears that make us women look so pitiful when we cry. She lit another cigarette, this one red, sucked deeply and exhaled a great stream of smoke through her nose.

I fought to hold down the wave of nausea that surged in my stomach. My neighbor had just fired up his noisy old lawnmower, and whenever he came close to my house, the louvers rattled under the blast of sound. I walked over to close the ones nearest the mowing, which gave me a few seconds to regain my composure.

“Why have you come to me, why not the police? This is far too serious a crime for a private investigator.”

“Two reasons: discretion and motivation. The police lack both. If I guess right, you were named after a fictional character of great mind and courage. You demonstrated both qualities in your previous work—yes, yes, I know a lot about that case through my business network. You deserve credit.”

Ashley had changed within seconds from the victim of a hideous crime to a woman with her emotions in check, icily detached and goal-oriented.

“But what do you want me to do?” I asked.


“Simple,” she replied coolly. “You mentioned the father. It was ‘fathers’ actually. I want you to find them.”

END OF SAMPLE



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