Innocence 17

  The only visitor anticipated throughout the holiday was J. Ryan Telford, who even then oversaw the renowned collections of the city library and the associated art museum across the street from it. For years, the curator had contracted with Gwyneth’s father to catalogue and appraise his amassment of rare first-edition books and works of fine art, a small fraction of which were kept in the residence, the majority in a climate-controlled warehouse. Late on the afternoon of December 22, Telford was expected to deliver a year-end report to the house. When he arrived, he also brought with him a bag of fresh scones from the best bakery in the city and a jar of honey.

  From time to time, Gwyneth’s father had spoken of donating substantial portions of his acquisitions to institutions that he favored, and recently he had decided that the time for doing so had nearly come. Telford had long feared that his theft of key items in the collections might eventually be discovered; and it seemed that fateful moment would soon arrive.

  During the previous two years, to ingratiate himself, Telford pretended to embrace the older man’s enthusiasm for exotic honeys, and he learned the lingo of beekeepers and honeymakers. In a conversation some days before he arrived on the doorstep with lethal intent, he extravagantly praised an exotic creamed honey that he claimed to have purchased during a trip to Italy, although he would not reveal the plants from which the bees collected nectar. Arriving that December afternoon, he presented Gwyneth’s father with a bottle of the acclaimed ambrosia, from which he’d stripped the label. In a spirit of fun, he challenged his host to identify the unique flavor.

  They went at once to the kitchen, where Gwyneth’s dad uncapped the honey, breathed deeply of it, put out plates and knives and cups, and set about brewing a pot of tea. While his host was distracted, Telford tore open the bag of scones and placed it in the center of the table, the biscuits spilling from it as if from a cornucopia. Earlier, one scone had been cut in half, spread with another, benign creamed honey, and pressed together again. Telford put that one on his own plate, as if he’d just then split it. He stirred the knife in the honey but didn’t use any, and by the time that his host returned with the teapot, the curator sat at the table, ready to eat.

  All parts of the oleander plant are supertoxic, including the nectar, and symptoms of poisoning appear as soon as a minute or two after even a minimal dose of the toxin has been swallowed.

  Gwyneth’s father lavished the creamed honey on his scone, ate half of it with enthusiasm, trying to determine the exotic flavor, and started on the second half when suddenly he broke into a heavy sweat. His face paled, his lips went gray, and he dropped the scone to put one hand to his chest. With a sound that Telford likened to a baby gagging on pureed vegetables, the victim thrust up from his chair. Because oleander is a cardiac stimulator, his heart would have been hammering perhaps as much as two hundred beats per minute. Already finding it difficult to breathe, he collapsed to his knees, and then onto the floor, on his side, where he spasmed helplessly.

  Telford finished his own scone and then took his plate to the sink, washed it, dried it, and put it away. He poured his tea down the drain, rinsed and dried the cup, and put that away as well.

  On the floor, the victim vomited and died. If he had vomited sooner and emptied himself more completely, he might have survived. But honey’s fabled palliative powers and its sweetness helped keep the mass of poisonous quickbread in his gut.

  Telford wiped his prints from the handle of the honey knife and, holding it with a paper towel, put it on his dead host’s plate. Two scones remained. He wrapped them in the torn bag to take them with him, for they were delicious and would make an excellent late-night snack, but with lemon marmalade instead of honey, which he detested.

  From Gwyneth’s father, and from a few of the servants, Telford had learned of the daughter with social phobia who lived in seclusion on the fourth floor. And then one day he had seen her when he had been leaving her father’s second-floor study after a meeting. She was eleven then, and Goth was not yet her personal style. Head down, holding something to her breast that he couldn’t identify, she raced along a hallway and disappeared up a staircase, evidently heading for her high rooms.

  She was lithe and quick. A sprite, he thought, a sylph who lives wingless in the air. She seemed the fairest and most tender girl that he had ever seen, and he wanted her so passionately, so vehemently, that if her father and the household staff had not been present, instead just the two of them, he would have pursued her, dragged her down, and torn the clothes from her. He would have taken her without regard for the consequences.

  Although Telford had certain bondage games and minor physical cruelties that he enjoyed administering, he indulged in them only with discreet partners who took pleasure from receiving attentions of that kind. He had never forced himself on a woman, though he had often wanted to do so and had fantasized about rape. He had never been attracted to children before, either; but now he wanted urgently to break both taboos and take the young girl by force.

  Alarmed by the intensity of his desire, he restrained himself and managed to let the girl’s father escort him from the second floor, downstairs to the front door, without revealing his turbulent state of mind and fierce lust. In the nearly two years that followed, he thought of her often, and in his dreams, she served as his slave.

  Telford had already decided to murder Gwyneth’s father to ensure against the discovery of rampant larceny when, just a month before the poisoned honey, he saw Gwyneth again. He was waiting for the master of the house in the front drawing room when the girl, now thirteen, passed the open archway, hesitated, glanced at him with the expression of a startled doe, but said nothing and hurried away.

  In spite of her Goth style or perhaps because of it, he wanted her more intensely than before. Thereupon he knew that when he fed her father poisoned honey, he would time it to the Christmas season when just she and the old man were in the house, and when the latter lay dead in the kitchen, he would spend a most satisfying night on the fourth floor.

  He would have to kill her, of course. But he had always known that he could kill if the reward was great enough. He was a man of considerable sophistication.

  Because of the recent ability of the authorities to identify perpetrators by their DNA, he would dispose of her body by taking it to some remote location, drenching it with gasoline, and setting it afire. First, however, he would have to break all of the teeth out of her corpse and keep them to avoid identification through dental records.

  The house was in fact a mansion, and it included a garage in which four vehicles were stored. He would load her body in the trunk of her father’s Mercedes S600 and drive it away for burning.

  After she had been reduced to blackened bones and greasy ashes in the abandoned rock quarry that he’d found well outside the city, he would return the car to the garage. He would go into the house to open the front door and leave it that way, with some object belonging to the girl left on the threshold to prevent the door from closing. He would depart by a side entrance. After an investigation, the police would believe that the highly neurotic and fearful daughter, having found her father dead, fled the house. And when they never found her … Well, it was a big and sometimes dangerous city where thirteen-year-old girls, possessing more street smarts than Gwyneth, disappeared with regularity.

  The curator was surprised not by his depraved desire or by his capacity for extreme violence, but he was amazed at how quickly and elegantly—and with what cunning detail—he planned the disposal of her corpse. He almost felt as if there might be a second self within him, another and even more confident J. Ryan Telford who had been waiting, perhaps impatiently, for him to recognize their combined potential.

  Now, on the night of the murder, Telford went from the kitchen into the house manager’s office. He found a desk drawer divided into compartments and devoted to keys: those for the four vehicles, for the front door, and for numerous other locks, all tagged and clearly labeled.

  He did
not use the elevator, lest he alert Gwyneth, but climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. The landing offered a single door that granted access to her apartment. As quietly as possible, he disengaged the lock, entered a foyer, and closed the door behind him.

  Leaving the foyer, Telford found himself in a large drawing room furnished with antiques and emblazoned with at least a score of huge red poinsettias to provide it with the spirit of the season. The girl admired poinsettias, and her father gave her everything he could to compensate for her cloistered existence.

  The curator found her on a window seat in her bedroom, back against the niche wall, legs drawn up on the upholstered seat, in full Goth, the cityscape as her backdrop. She was reading a book.

  The instant Gwyneth saw him, she knew that something monstrous had happened to her father and that something no less horrific might soon happen to her. She realized that a mere scream would not save her, and that her only chance would be to encourage him to believe that she was even weaker, more shy, and more timid than he thought.

  As he approached her, she looked down at the book, as if she were so detached from the world that she didn’t understand what his appearance meant, and she pretended to read, although in such a way that he would know it was mere pretense and that she was afraid. He pushed a button on a wall plate and put down the automatic pleated shades that covered the windows beside her. He sat on the window seat near her feet and watched her pretend to read, enjoying her attempt to hide her fear.

  After a minute or two, he told her that her father was dead, and he described in detail what he had done and the consequence of a good dose of oleander toxin. Because he wanted so much to see her grief, she grew determined to deny him tears. She failed to have that degree of self-control, and the tears came, although she didn’t sob or make any sound. By the thirst in Telford’s voice, Gwyneth knew that her tears excited him. She made no effort to blink them away, for they had become a tool with which to manipulate and deceive him.

  He didn’t touch her yet. From what her father had told him, he knew the anguish that the slightest touch would cause her; therefore, he savored the dread with which she anticipated his hand on her skin.

  In fact, when he finished telling her about her father’s fate, he began to explain what he was going to do to her, where he would caress her and all of the ways by which he would enter her. “When I’m finished with you, cutie, you’ll wonder why a simple touch once offended you, and you’ll feel soiled so deeply that there will be no hope of ever being clean again. It’ll feel like not just one man violated you, but as if the whole world rubbed up against you and used you.”

  She didn’t need to fake her tremors. The pages of the book rattled in her hands, and she put it down beside her, though she still did not look at him. She crossed her arms over her breasts.

  He spoke of a certain pleasure that a girl could give to a man, and he asked her if she had ever dreamed of doing that. He had a list of obscene questions, and he kept pressing them upon her so that it almost felt as if he were touching her.

  At first she said nothing, but then a strategy occurred to her. She didn’t think her father would have told him more about her than that she suffered from social phobia; and perhaps a member or two of the household staff had given him another few details. She had not yet spoken, and perhaps he knew so little about her that he could be led to assume that an inability to speak was part of her condition. The more neurotic and emotionally disabled he believed her to be, the more convinced he would become of his absolute power over her, and the more likely it would be that he might grow careless.

  As Telford continued his salacious monologue, he watched Gwyneth with the sharp stare and hunger of a wolf circling a lamb. Now she responded not merely by cringing and drawing into a huddled posture on the window seat, but also with wordless sounds of misery and tortured apprehension. When he demanded answers to his lewd questions, she strung together half-words and short clusters of syllables that meant nothing, grunts and sputters and thin mewls of distress that might have inspired pity in another man, though Telford had no pity. After a few such exchanges, he arrived at the conclusion that, although she could read, she was incapable of speech, that she was either limited by some physical impediment or by a developmental disability.

  Words are the wellspring of the world, and language is the most powerful weapon in the ancient and still unfolding war between truth and lies. Telford stood a foot taller than Gwyneth, weighed twice her hundred pounds; he was bold where she was timid, cruel where she was gentle. When he realized she couldn’t speak to plead or to accuse, or to shame him, he was further inflamed by her helplessness. Into his eyes and across his flushed face came an expression so brutish and so carnal, Gwyneth feared that in addition to all the ways that he promised to abuse her, he would at the end of the ordeal tear into her with his teeth.

  He no longer called her Gwyneth. He didn’t call her “girl” anymore, and he didn’t even deign to address her as “you.” He had several names for her, all of them coarse, many of them obscene.

  At last he ordered her off the window seat and to the bathroom adjoining her bedroom. He said, “I want the nose ring for a souvenir and that red bead on the lip. We’ll scrub away all the stupid Goth stuff, so I can see the little girl beneath, the fragile bird that so desperately wants to be a hawk.”

  With coltish unsteadiness, making thin sounds of distress, Gwyneth preceded him into the bathroom. Step by step, she frantically considered ways to distract him or to tumble him off his feet so that she might have a chance to run, but he was strong and made stronger by his lust, by his profound desire to commit those cruelties and ultimate transgressions about which he had previously fantasized.

  In the spacious bathroom, he ordered her to undress. She feared that if she hesitated he would slap her, that the slap would open in him a door to an even darker place than the one his mind currently inhabited, that it would lead to a sudden acceleration of the planned rape and murder. Tears still slid down her face, smearing her Goth makeup, tears for her father, not for herself, and her tremors were uncontrolled. As she began to unbutton her blouse, she turned away from him, facing the vanity, eyes downcast, as if desperately modest.

  She heard him pull the drain-control lever that engaged the stopper. She raised her head to look into the mirror above the vanity, not at herself but at what lay behind her, and she saw him in reflection as he leaned over the tub to crank the hot-water faucet. In that posture, he was at last vulnerable. She spun around and shoved him hard. He toppled into the bathtub, crying out in pain as the gushing water scalded him.

  The elevator would be far too slow, and if she stumbled and fell as she raced down the stairs, Telford would catch her. He might snare her easily anyway. Darting through the open bathroom door, she heard him floundering out of the tub, and instead of sprinting through the apartment to the front door, she went directly to the nightstand on the right side of her bed, yanked open a drawer, and snatched up the small aerosol can of Mace.

  She knew that he was almost upon her. She turned, saw him three steps away, and thumbed a stream of the chemical into his eyes, as her father had instructed. Telford cried out. As if he had collided with a wall, his forward motion became a backward stagger. She seized the advantage, squirting him in the nose and mouth.

  Mace causes no permanent injury but is highly effective. Tears burst forth, vision blurs completely, and a kind of blindness-with-light ensues for a few minutes. Inhaled even slightly, it forces the target to struggle for breath, and although he is in no peril, he feels as if he might suffocate.

  Even disabled, breathless, unable to see anything but smears of color that melted together without form, Telford swung both arms wildly, frantic to strike a blow or catch a fistful of her hair, or snare her by an article of clothing. She dodged, crouched, scurried away from him, out of the bedroom, through the rest of the apartment, where the delicate poinsettias, against which she brushed, scattered broken scarlet bracts in her wak
e, just as the promise of the season now lay broken beyond repair.

  She descended the stairs two at a time, crashing to each landing with both feet, and came off the sixth flight into the foyer without once daring to look back. She hurried out into the early night, where the air was as cold and moist as that in an icehouse, although the settled soot and the hard edges of the city were not yet masked by the first snow.

  Four doors to the east stood the Billingham mansion, equal to—though more pretentious than—her father’s house. The front steps were flanked by broad stone walls on which rested two massive carved-stone lions in the position of the Sphinx, heads raised and faces solemn, blank eyes gazing toward the street not as if alert for prey, but as if watching for the first rough beasts of Armageddon.

  The Billinghams, known to her by their family name but never glimpsed, were on an extended stay in Europe and the street swarmed with traffic; therefore, Gwyneth made no attempt to cross the four busy lanes, but instead ran to the watchful lions. The flanking limestone walls diminished as the stairs ascended, and she scrambled onto the farther of the two, lying atop the polished-granite cap, beside the lion, which was at least twice her size. She eased her head forward to look past the big cat’s chest, west toward her father’s house.

  Never did she consider screaming for help, because whoever might respond to her would want to protect her or console her, and their natural inclination would be to reach out, to take her hand or pat her shoulder or put an arm around her, and she could not tolerate being touched. They would ask questions that she must answer. She didn’t wish to hear their voices, because then her required response would allow them to hear hers. She was loath to share with strangers any part of her true self, not even her voice, which she had never shared with her father’s household staff.