In honor of St. Valentine’s Day, here’s a free sample from my 1996 novel, VALENTINE.
The heroine, Jillian Talbot, has recently been plagued with cards and gifts from someone known only as “Valentine.” He is actually Victor Dimorta, a troubled man from her college class many years ago. Jill and three girlfriends played a nasty prank on Victor one Valentine’s Day back then, and he became violent with them and was expelled. (The prank involved the Sarah Vaughan recording of “My Funny Valentine.”)
By this point in the story, Jill has learned that “Valentine” is Victor Dimorta. What she doesn’t know is that Victor has murdered people since their college days, including his parents, and has been in prison for twelve years. But now he’s out with a new face and an agenda of revenge. The other three women are dead, murdered on the last three consecutive Valentine’s Days. Jill is the only one left, and the holiday is one week away.
In this scene, Jill wakes from a nightmare in her Greenwich Village apartment. It’s 4am, and she’s alone there — or so she thinks. Unfortunately for her, it’s the 1990s, and cellphones aren’t widely available yet…
(WARNING: Intense, disturbing content)
Friday, February 6
The music was coming from somewhere far away, and at first she couldn’t place it. Lush chords from a jazz combo, the lonely wail of a saxophone, and a woman singing in a low, achingly beautiful voice. It made her sad, this song, but it also made her feel uneasy.
The other three were dancing, swirling slowly around a large, dimly lit room as the music washed over them. They were in long, flowing, identically designed but differently colored chiffon gowns: pale blue for the blonde, pale pink for the brunette, and pale yellow for the redhead. Overhead spotlights shone straight down, forming pools of bright white light in the darkness. The graceful, pastel-shaded forms of the women moved sinuously in time to the music, gliding in and out of her view as they danced from light to shadow, light to shadow. She had not joined them on the floor, but was seated instead on a hard metal chair at a large round table before a wall of glass. She turned from watching the women to gaze out over the snowy, moonlit landscape stretching endlessly away from her on the other side of the windows.
Where was she? What was happening to her? And why did the singer’s plaintive voice fill her with dread? She knew this place and this music and these young women, if only she could think. If only she could concentrate. But there was something wrong with her. She couldn’t move. She sat heavily in the hard metal chair, aware of her bloated stomach and the pressure inside. The baby: that was it! The baby was kicking her, squirming around in her womb, a beautiful nucleus of life at her very center. She smiled despite the discomfort and the rising panic. My baby, she thought Our baby. Nate’s and mine . . .
Nate. Where was he? She turned from the view and looked swiftly around the room, searching frantically for her lover. Her future husband. Nate, she thought, opening her mouth and trying to form words. Nate! Where are you?
But no sound would come. It stuck in her throat, frozen there by her own mounting terror. And even if she could cry out, she knew she would never be heard over the music. It seemed to be getting louder, coming closer, filling her ears and her mind and her very soul until she could not move. Something was about to happen; she was certain of it. Something awful.
The sudden, horrible knowledge struck her so forcefully that for a moment she thought she had been slapped across the face. In one swift, violent flash, she knew.
Sharon Williams. Belinda Rosenberg. Cass MacFarland.
And the waves of music crashed against her, transforming from vague noise into distinct melody.
“My Funny Valentine.”
Valentine . . .
She opened her eyes and stared into utter blackness. The dark room swirled around her, as the dancers had done. She was hot, very hot, and her hair and her nightgown were drenched with perspiration. Her mouth was dry, her throat parched. But she was awake, she realized, and it had only been a dream.
Slowly, the whirling movement receded as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, and wave after wave of relief flooded through her. She was in her bedroom in her apartment on Barrow Street in Greenwich Village, New York, New York, United States of—
Then she became aware of the music.
It was coming from beyond the closed bedroom door, from the living room. From the stereo in the living room. That magnificent voice; that soft, insinuating melody . . .
“My Funny Valentine.”
The reality of it smashed into her, assaulting every sense. There was a swift jab of pain, a lurch of sheer terror just below her left breast, and for a moment she could not see anything. She held her breath, transfixed, unable to move, as the sharp, nauseating terror flowed down through every inch of her body.
Her first thought was to scream. But even as she opened her mouth and filled her lungs, some modicum of common sense, some primitive instinct of survival, took over. She brought her hand swiftly up and clamped it over her mouth before any sound escaped. In the same instant, the survival voice deep inside her began to bark instructions.
Get out of the bed.
Before she knew she had moved she was lying on the carpet, the bed between her and the bedroom door. She pressed herself down into the soft pile, listening.
The music. The hum of the refrigerator on the other side of the wall. Soft hissing from the radiator. Distant traffic through the closed window. Nothing else.
He’s not in the bedroom. He’s somewhere else in the apartment.
She lay on the floor, silently cursing herself. The only phone in the apartment was in the next room, her office. Now, too late, she realized the practicality, the sheer common sense of bedroom telephones.
She reached cautiously over to the wall next to the bedside table beside her and unplugged the lamp. It was a large, heavy brass affair, and its mate was on the matching table on the other side of the bed. She rose to her feet and quietly removed the blue parchment shade. She unscrewed the lightbulb and swiftly wrapped the cord around the base. Picking up the lamp by the neck, she raised the weighted base above her head as she crept over to the closet door on the other side of the room. In one swift, violent move, she threw it open.
She moved silently across the carpet to the bedroom door and pressed her ear against the wood, listening. Sarah Vaughan continued to sing softly.
She grasped the doorknob with her free hand, turned it, and yanked the door open. The heavy lamp was poised, ready to smash down on anything beyond the door.
The hallway was empty.
The office door across the way was open, as was the bathroom door next to it. She turned her head and peered down the hall toward the living room. She could see a dim light, a soft, flickering glow emanating from the other side of the couch. From the coffee table. A candle. It illuminated the room enough for her to see that it, too, was empty. She craned her neck and glanced quickly around the corner into the kitchen. Empty. Leaning forward, she surveyed the office. Empty. There was a closet in that room, but it was stuffed floor-to-ceiling with filing cabinets and summer clothes. Too crowded to afford room for a human body.
Holding the lamp above her, she stepped silently out into the hallway and crept over to the bathroom. She planted herself in the doorway and reached over to switch on the light.
From where she now stood she could see the entire apartment.
The song came to an end, and a moment later it began again. He had recorded it on a cassette tape, over and over. She could see the tiny green lights of the home entertainment center glowing in the dimly lit living room.
Slowly, inevitably, her gaze traveled over to rest on the last possibility.
The closet next to the front door.
She stepped quickly into the office, closed the door, and locked it. She was already across the room, reaching for the telephone, when she became aware of how cold she suddenly felt. Her gaze rose from the phone to the window above her desk.
It was wide open. A small, perfectly round hole had been cut in the glass just above the lock in the frame at the bottom.
She leaned forward, peering out onto the fire escape. Her gaze traveled down, down as far as she could see. The fire escape was empty.
The receiver was now in her left hand, and she was fumbling with the buttons of the dial, trying to remember the sequence of the numbers as she held the lamp aloft in her right hand. No use: she couldn’t think of anything. She dropped the receiver and fell immediately to her knees, throwing aside the rug in the center of the floor. Tara’s bedroom was directly below this room. Oh, please, God! She brought the brass lamp up in both hands and smashed it down to the floor. Three quick raps, then three slow, then another three quick. Again. And again. She beat out the tattoo over and over, staring all the while at the closed, locked office door, expecting at any moment the sharp, heavy pounding of his fists on the other side. . . .
Count to ten.
One, two, three, four—
Then, mercifully, it came, resounding through the entire apartment. Pound, pound, pound on the front door, followed by the loud, threatening shout of a seriously angry female cop.
“Open up! Police!”
She wasn’t aware of the fact that she had moved. The office door was open, and she was running, and she was now at the front door, staring at the closed door to the closet not six feet away. The pounding came again.
“Police! Open the door!”
Still brandishing the lamp, Jill reached out for the doorknob, shouting, “Tara, it’s me! Don’t shoot!”
She threw the door open. Her friend stood in the doorway in her bright Chinese kimono, legs apart, arms rigid in front of her, the .22 caliber Lady Wesson aimed at Jill’s heart.
They stared at each other for a moment, Tara with the gun and Jill with the lamp. Then, in a flash, the actress was at her side, aiming her weapon toward the interior of the living room. Jill raised a finger to her lips and pointed at the closet door. Tara nodded. Jill went cautiously over to the closet, reached for the doorknob, and glanced back at her friend. Her feet planted, arms rigid, aiming at the center of the door, Tara nodded again. Stepping aside, out of the line of fire, Jill turned the knob, threw the door open, and dropped to the floor.
She slowly rose to her feet, still clutching the brass lamp, and peered into the closet.
She turned back to her friend. Tara slowly exhaled and lowered the gun. Jill leaned back against the closet door, dropping the lamp to the floor beside her.
“He’s gone,” she said.
The song had come to an end, but now it began again, and the smooth, soft voice of Sarah Vaughan suddenly filled the room. Tara whirled around, instinctively bringing up the gun.
“What the hell—?”
“No!” Jill cried, and Tara once again lowered her weapon.
In the same instant, both women turned toward the source of the light. The tall red candle glowed, set in its own wax on the surface of the coffee table. Jill stepped forward, Tara right behind her. Silently, they stared down at the candle, and at the envelope next to it. On top of the envelope rested a small, flat black velvet box, six inches by four. A jewelry box, Jill thought, already reaching out her hand.
She pulled the envelope out from under the box and tore it open. It was another store-bought valentine, this one from Hallmark. Two tiny children with enormous eyes cuddled on the front. The boy was handing the girl a heart-shaped card. The scripted legend read:
“FOR YOU . . .”
As Tara peered over her shoulder, she opened the card. The printed words were:
“WITH ALL MY HEART!”
Underneath this, in the now familiar typescript, was the usual signature:
She dropped the card and the envelope on the table and picked up the jewelry box. Without hesitating, without thinking, she snapped it open. She stood rigid, staring down at the large, gaudy diamond ring that winked up at her.
It was attached to a severed human finger.
The box clattered down, spilling its obscene contents out onto the table. The first, involuntary thrill of horror came up through her, only to fade as quickly as it had begun. Tara gasped and stepped backward, away from it. Jill did not. She leaned down, inspecting the object more closely. She slowly reached down, picked it up, and held it next to the candle.
It was fake, of course, and a crude imitation at that. One of a million allegedly humorous vulgarities on sale at every novelty shop and amusement park in America. It was somewhat larger than life, for one thing, and the ring with the bit of glass in it was painted a dull, improbable copper color. The bright red, two-inch fingernail was too thick, almost as thick as the rubber finger itself. And the jagged, bloody wound at the base was nowhere near the color of actual blood.
Filled with contempt, with a loathing she had never felt before, she tossed the disgusting thing down onto the table. It actually bounced, landing silently on the Oriental carpet. The two women stared down.
Jill regarded the finger for a long time, thinking, He was here. He was in my house. In my home. While I slept in the next room, he came in here and did this insane, this unspeakable thing. He could just as easily have murdered me.
No, she realized. He doesn’t want to murder me.
He’s waiting for Valentine’s Day.
Belinda died on a ski slope, but it wasn’t an accident. Sharon had disappeared, and Cass had moved away to parts unknown. Yet, standing there, she knew that all three women were dead. She was certain of it, as certain as she had ever been of anything.
And now, she thought, it’s my turn.
She looked over at Tara, who stood shivering in her thin silk kimono, clutching her arms to her body. She summoned a smile for her friend, walked into her bedroom, and came back with her warmest blanket. Handing it to Tara as she passed, she proceeded to the picture window. The first, faint light of dawn slowly filled the dark sky as she stared out at the street, the opposite buildings, and the enormous cityscape beyond them. Windows. Thousands and thousands of windows.
The loathing had vanished, replaced by something else she’d only experienced once before, on the kitchen floor of the apartment on Central Park West, when she’d reached up and grasped the heavy iron skillet and brought it down on her stepfather’s head. Rage. Blind, naked, prehistoric fury.
Staring out at the city, she slowly filled her lungs. The shout that emanated from her crashed into the window and came back at her, smashing into her face, echoing through the room as if it were uttered not by her but to her.
“You’re dead, Victor!” she cried. “Do you understand me? You’re dead!”
Tara came up behind her and gently placed her hands on her shoulders. Then, Jillian Talbot reached for the cord and slowly, ceremoniously closed the curtains.
“What are you going to do?” Tara asked.
She turned around to confront her friend, noting Tara’s look of surprise when she saw the dangerous expression on her face.
“I’m going to stop this,” she said. “I’m going to stop it right now!”
(Copyright © Tom Savage 1996, 2017)