Ashley Patterson was taking a hurried shower, late for work, when she heard the sound. A door opening? Closing? She turned off the shower, listening, her heart pounding.
She stood there a moment, her body glistening with drops of water, then hurriedly dried herself and cautiously stepped into the bedroom. Everything appeared to be normal. It's my stupid imagination again. I've got to get dressed. She walked over to her lingerie drawer, opened it and stared down at it, unbelievingly. Someone had gone through her undergarments. Her bras and pantyhose were all piled together. She always kept them neatly separated.
Ashley suddenly felt sick to her stomach. Had he unzipped his pants, picked up her pantyhose and rubbed them against himself? Had he fantasized about raping her? Raping her and murdering her?
She was finding it difficult to breathe. I should go to the police, but they would laugh at me.
You want us to investigate this because you think someone got into your lingerie drawer?
Someone has been following me.
Have you seen who it is?
Has anyone threatened you?
Do you know why anyone would want to harm you?
It's no use, Ashley thought despairingly. I can't go to the police. Those are the questions they would ask me, and I would look like a fool.
She dressed as quickly as she could, suddenly eager to escape from the apartment. I'll have to move. I'll go somewhere where he can't find me.
But even as she thought it, she had the feeling that it was going to be impossible. He knows where I live, he knows where I work. And what do I know about him? Nothing.
She refused to keep a gun in the apartment because she hated violence. But I need some protection now, Ashley thought. She went into the kitchen, picked up a steak knife, carried it to her bedroom and put it in the dresser drawer next to her bed.
It's possible that I mixed my lingerie up myself. That's probably what happened. Or is it wishful thinking?
There was an envelope in her mailbox in the downstairs entrance hall. The return address read "Bedford Area High School, Bedford, Pennsylvania."
Ashley read the invitation twice.
Ten-Year Class Reunion!
Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief. Have you often wondered how your classmates have fared during the last ten years? Here's your chance to find out. The weekend of June 15th we're going to have a spectacular get-together. Food, drinks, a great orchestra and dancing. Join the fun.
Just mail the enclosed acceptance card so we'll know you're coming. Everyone looks forward to seeing you.
Driving to work, Ashley thought about the invitation. "Everyone looks forward to seeing you." Everyone except Jim Cleary, she thought bitterly.
"I want to marry you. My uncle offered me a realty good job in Chicago with his advertising agency.... There's a train leaving for Chicago at seven AM. Will you come with me?"
And she remembered the pain of desperately waiting at the station for Jim, believing in him, trusting him. He had changed his mind, and he had not been man enough to come and tell her. Instead, he had left her sitting in a train station, alone. Forget the invitation. I'm not going.
Ashley had lunch with Shane Miller at TGI Friday's. They sat in a booth, eating in silence.
"You seem preoccupied," Shane said.
"Sorry." Ashley hesitated a moment. She was tempted to tell him about the lingerie, but it would sound stupid. Someone got into your drawers?
Instead, she said, "I got an invitation to my ten-year high school reunion."
"Are you going?"
"Certainly not." It came out stronger than Ashley had intended.
Shane Miller looked at her curiously. "Why not? Those things can be fun."
Would Jim Cleary be there? Would he have a wife and children? What would he say to her? "Sorry I wasn't able to meet you at the train station. Sorry I lied to you about marrying you?"
"I'm not going."
But Ashley was unable to get the invitation out of her mind. It would be nice to see some of my old classmates, she thought. There were a few she had been close to. One in particular was Florence Schiffer. I wonder what's become of her? And she wondered whether the town of Bedford had changed.
Ashley Patterson had grown up in Bedford, Pennsylvania, a small town two hours east of Pittsburgh, deep in the Allegheny Mountains. Her father had been head of the Memorial Hospital of Bedford County, one of the top one hundred hospitals in the country.
Bedford had been a wonderful town to grow up in. There were parks for picnics, rivers to fish in and social events that-went on all year. Ashley enjoyed visiting Big Valley, where there was an Amish colony. It was a common sight to see horses pulling Amish buggies with different colored tops, colors that depended on the degree of orthodoxy of the owners.
There were Mystery Village evenings and live theater and the Great Pumpkin Festival. Ashley smiled at the thought of the good times she had had there. Maybe I will go back, she thought. Jim Cleary won't have the nerve to show up.
Ashley told Shane Miller of her decision. "It's a week I from Friday," she said. "I'll be back Sunday night."
"Great. Let me know what time you're getting back. I'll pick you up at the airport."
"Thank you, Shane."
When Ashley returned from lunch, she walked into her work cubicle and turned her computer on. To her surprise, a sudden hail of pixels began rolling down the screen, creating an image. She stared at it, bewildered. The dots were forming a picture of her. As Ashley watched, horrified, a hand holding a butcher knife appeared at the top of the screen. The hand was racing toward her image, ready to plunge the knife into her chest.
Ashley screamed, "No!"
She snapped off the monitor and jumped to her feet. Shane Miller had hurried to her side. "Ashley! What is it?"
She was trembling. "On the... the screen - "
Shane turned on the computer. A picture of a kitten chasing a ball of yarn across a green lawn appeared.
Shane turned to look at Ashley, bewildered. What?"
"It's - it's gone," she whispered.
She shook her head. "Nothing. I - I've been under a lot of stress lately, Shane. I'm sorry."
"Why don't you go have a talk with Dr. Speakman?"
Ashley had seen Dr. Speakman before. He was the company psychologist hired to counsel stressed-out computer whizzes. He was not a medical doctor, but he was intelligent and understanding, and it was helpful to be able to talk to someone.
"I'll go," Ashley said.
Dr. Ben Speakman was in his fifties, a patriarch at the fountain of youth. His office was a quiet oasis at the far end of the building, relaxed and comfortable.
"I had a terrible dream last night," Ashley said. She closed her eyes, reliving it. "I was running. I was in a huge garden filled with flowers... They had weird, ugly faces... They were screaming at me... I couldn't hear what they were saying. I just kept running toward something... I don't know what...." She stopped and opened her eyes.
"Could you have been running away from something? Was something chasing you?"
"I don't know. I - I think I'm being followed. Dr. Speakman. It sounds crazy, but - I think someone wants to kill me."
He studied her a moment. "Who would want to kill you?"
"I - I have no idea."
"Have you seen anyone following you?"
"You live alone, don't you?"
"Are you seeing anyone? I mean romantically?"
"No. Not right now."
"So it's been a while since you - I mean sometimes when a woman doesn't have a man in her life - well, a kind of physical tension can build up...."
What he's trying to tell me is that I need a good -
She could not bring herself to say the word. She could hear her father yelling at her, "Don't ever say that word again. People will think you're a little slut. Nice people don't say flick. Where do you pick up that kind of language?"
"I think you've just been working too hard, Ashley. I don't believe you have anything to worry about. It's probably just tension. Take it a little easier for a while. Get more rest."
Shane Miller was waiting for her. "What did Dr. Speakman say?"
Ashley managed a smile. "He says I'm fine. I've just been working too hard."
"Well, we'll have to do something about that," Shane said. "For openers, why don't you take the rest of the day off?" His voice was filled with concern.
"Thanks." She looked at him and smiled. He was a dear man. A good friend. He can't be the one, Ashley thought. He can't.
During the following week, Ashley could think of nothing but the reunion. I wonder if my going is a mistake? What if Jim Cleary does show up? Does he have any a how much he hurt me? Does he care? Will he even remember me?
The night before Ashley was to leave for Bedford, she was unable to sleep. She was tempted to cancel her flight. I'm being silly, she thought. The past is the past.
When Ashley picked up her ticket at the airport, she examined it and said, "I'm afraid there's been some mistake. I'm flying tourist. This is a first-class ticket."
"Yes. You changed it."
She stared at the clerk. "I what?"
"You telephoned and said to change it to a first-class ticket." He showed Ashley a slip of paper. "Is this your credit card number?"
She looked at it and said slowly, "Yes..."
She had not made that phone call.
About the book:
Computer whiz Ashley Patterson is convinced she is being stalked. Coworker Toni Prescott has a penchant for Internet dating and little time for anyone else. And Alette Peters prefers quiet weekends in the arms of a beefcake artist. They know virtually nothing about each other--until the three women are linked by a murder investigation that will lead to one of the most bizarre trials of the century.
Spellbinding and inexorably engaging, Sheldon's masterpiece is perhaps the best thriller ever penned down by a writer.
Snippet from A Fine Balance
- Rohinton Mistry
Snippet from The Underground Railroad
- Colson Whitehead