The Dark Side of Desire
by David A. Stelzig
The heat. And the humidity, so high that sweat, unable to evaporate, trickled down the back, the face, and into the watcher’s eyes. And the black flies, no-see-ums Pa, called them. Tiny little fuckers, but their bite hurt like crazy.
Hunkered behind a rhododendron in Joppa Square, the watcher grew impatient. It had to be well past eight. Damn it to hell. She’s not going to show. But then, a light blue taxi turned from Joppa onto Cherry and slowed to a stop in front of the low-slung, yellow brick building.
The watcher’s pulse quickened.
Susan Eckland stepped from the cab, looked over her shoulder. In spite of the heat, she sprinted up the sidewalk and entered the building.
Susan stood with eyes closed, relishing the luxurious coolness that contrasted the hot, muggy air that had blanketed Maryland for the past five days.
She sighed. Opened her eyes. Rushed through the lobby and down the hallway to her laboratory. She needed to hurry. Jake would be here soon.
Once in the lab, Susan slipped on a protective, white-cotton jacket and yanked her long, blonde hair from beneath the collar. She picked up her research notebook, two test tubes, and the syringe she’d use to extract heart blood. Her unbuttoned lab coat flew open as she dashed into the hallway.
Her footsteps echoed in the silence as she hastened toward the back of the building, having decided to ride down rather than descend the darkened front stairway.
Susan punched the elevator button and heard the night-magnified roar of the motors and pulleys that began bringing the car to her floor. Nearby, a door opened and clicked shut. Susan spun around, her back now to the elevator, startled, yet relieved not to be alone.
“Hello,” she called out. Then, louder, “Who’s there?”
Silence. Except for her breathing, the elevator coming to a stop, and the door sliding open.
Continuing to watch for the person she’d heard, Susan groped behind her for the edge of the elevator. Her hand met resistance. Not the hardness of an elevator frame but the softness of fabric. A sleeve. A human arm. Turning quickly, her legs tangled. She crashed to the floor, the glassware scattering around her.
An old man in bib overalls and a crisply-ironed, buttoned-to-the-neck, faded blue work shirt, looked down at her and scowled.
“Jezebel,” he said through clenched teeth. A branched, purple blood vessel pulsated up each side of his shiny, bald head. He held a wide broom, and it seemed to Susan that he pushed at her, to sweep her away.
Susan recognized this strange little janitor as the person who’d sent veiled threats to her and Jake for months. But that had been in the daytime when the center had been crowded, and they’d dismissed them with laughter. Now, alone and at night, she panicked. She kicked out, as if trying to dig her heels into the hard tile floor. She gained a short distance, rolled over, scrambled to her feet, and bolted. Rounding a corner too quickly, she stumbled, smashing her head hard against the wall. She stood again and ran.
Susan skidded to a stop when she reached the front of the building. She looked back, relieved to see the empty hallway. That madman hadn’t followed her. She shivered. The air conditioning, so pleasant moments ago, now chilled her, and her skin felt clammy.
She glanced at her watch. Eight forty-five. Maybe I should leave. Jake’s plane would land in a little more than an hour. I could call a cab and surprise him at the airport. The brightly lit, crowded BWI. Or just return to my apartment and wait for his call.
“No.” That old fool isn’t stopping me. Hell, in a fair fight I could beat the crap out of him.
She shook her head. Frowned. Raised her hand. And gasped. An egg-sized lump above her right temple felt wet and sticky. Blood.
“What the hell?” She stared at her hand in utter amazement. Must have happened when I fell running from the janitor.
Susan sucked in her breath, and hurried back to her lab. She dug a tortoise-shelled compact from her purse and looked at her reflection. Inhaling loudly, she whispered, “Oh my God.”
Clotted and drying blood plastered a mass of hair to the side of her head. She moistened a paper towel with cold water from the laboratory sink and winced as she touched it to the side of her head. She pulled it back, stared at the bright red blotch now in the center of the towel, then tossed it behind her into the wastebasket by the door.
When Susan had repaired the damage as well as she could, she dropped her compact and mascara into her purse and slipped the strap over her shoulder. She replenished the glassware that had shattered at the elevator and, for the first time, realized she’d lost her research notebook. I’ll look for it when Jake gets here. I may be crazy enough to stay, but I’m damn well not going to go looking for trouble. She picked up a yellow legal pad to serve as a temporary replacement and walked into the hallway.
Choosing the stairs instead of the elevator, she descended to the basement and continued along the corridor. Almost at the animal lab, Susan stopped dead. Stood still. There’d been something. Footsteps?
Susan held her breath. Waited. Five seconds. Ten. She felt her breath quicken and heard the wild pounding of her heart, but nothing more. She shook her head and walked the last few feet to her destination.
Susan entered the animal lab and locked the door behind her. A pleasant, slightly pungent odor tickled her nose and added a comforting familiarity to the small, brightly lit room. The single door opened onto a passageway between banks of cages that, like pews in a church, were arranged perpendicular to the aisle.
Cages lined the entire right side of the aisle. Four rows of left-side cages stood near the door. Three stainless-steel tables, each surrounded by tall metal stools, filled the space behind them.
Gentle chewing sounds and the occasional low grating of a food dish sliding across a screened cage floor, acted like a soothing balm. Normal sounds. Daytime sounds. Susan hummed softly, while jotting information onto her legal pad and transferring a small, metal contraption from a cabinet to the first worktable. Still humming, she walked to the cage of her favorite.
She smiled as the New Zealand rabbit, bred specifically for biological research, hopped to the front of the cage. She pulled the basket forward and Baby put both front feet onto the rim. She picked him up, scratched behind his ears, and carried him to the table.
“Sorry, Baby. Have to stick you again. It’ll hurt, but you’ll be good as new in a couple hours.”
Baby snuggled in Susan’s arms until they approached the restraining cage. He kicked then and would have escaped, if she hadn’t been prepared.
“C’mon, Baby,” she said, holding the animal a bit more tightly. “It’s not as bad as all that. Calm down and next time I’ll sneak you some lettuce.”
She positioned the frightened rabbit into the cage, on his stomach with his legs extending front and back, the top of the cage pressing against his body and holding him in that position. Feeling along Baby’s left rib cage, she located his heartbeat. She then picked up the syringe, brushed a strand of hair out of her face, and slowly advanced the needle into Baby’s soft, quivering body. She felt it pass through the thin layer of muscle, into the thoracic cavity, and then into the heart. She pulled back on the plunger and watched the syringe fill with the crimson fluid.
The door to the laboratory burst open.
Susan’s hand jerked, ripping the needle laterally through the rabbit’s heart.
Baby squealed an eerie, high-pitched scream of death.
Susan finished filling the syringe and withdrew it with shaking hands.
The laboratory lights snapped off.
Susan gasped. “Jake? For God’s sake, Jake, don’t play games.”
Wait, Jake’s plane won’t land for another hour. But if it’s not Jake? Had to be somebody with a key. The janitor.
Susan’s teeth clenched. This time that bastard’s going to pay.
She turned and stepped toward the center aisle. Froze. Suddenly, a noise, small but sinister. A body bumping into the cages? Her heart pounded. She quietly removed her shoes, hugged them to her chest, and reached for her purse. Her hand touched the syringe filled with rabbit blood and instinctively closed around it.
The metal legs of the stool next to her screeched on the concrete floor. The son of a bitch stood next to her, less than an arm’s length away. Standing in the narrow space between the table and bank of cages. And blocking her only avenue of escape.
Susan kept her composure for an instant, but only that. She emitted a low keening from her throat and lunged headlong for the relative safety of the hallway. She simultaneously banged a stool with her knee, heard “oomph” as she made contact with her assailant, and felt a violent burning pain in her chest just above her right breast.
Howling with terror, with tears streaming down her cheeks, she threw her shoes in front of her and raced through the dark. She crashed into the door. Searched wildly for the knob. Her hand swung into the switch and the room flooded with light. Inexplicably, bright red blood painted a large section of the door. A smaller swath recorded the path her arm had traveled to find the light.
Her left hand still gripped the blood-filled syringe.
Arms snaked around Susan and squeezed. Driven by fear and anger and fueled by adrenaline, she pivoted, broke the hold, and swung the syringe in a great circle toward the body of her enemy. And then her mouth dropped open.
Her assailant grabbed Susan’s wrist and shoved it so the syringe continued its arc. But at an increased velocity. And now, skewing back toward her.
The needle punctured Susan’s chin, creating a path for the barrel of the syringe, which slammed through her tongue and the roof of her mouth, the needle shooting straight to her brain.
As her body crumpled, her attacker punched the plunger, and the contents of the syringe, a full five milliliters of rabbit blood, exploded into Susan Eckland’s cerebellum.
Susan lay on the floor with unseeing eyes staring at the ceiling. Her attacker leaned over, felt the side of her neck with latex-gloved fingers, smiled, and then withdrew the small knife protruding from Susan’s chest.