Sleep then my Princess
This was his night.
He killed the engine and waited inside his van as darkness fell. He saw a light come on in an upstairs window of the contemporary clapboard house across the road.
Reaching for the bottle on the seat beside him, he gulped a mouthful of water while continuing to watch the house.
When the light went off, he gloved up and climbed out of the van onto the quiet residential Santa Barbara Street where the sultry sea breeze caressed his face and set the palm fronds rustling. Their menacing shadows swooped and retreated on the lamp-lit sidewalk. He paused to wipe the beads of sweat from his forehead with a tissue and stuffed it in his pocket. Cautiously, he skirted the large oak tree beside the driveway.
The soft, flickering glow from a television seeped from under the curtains at the window as he crept across the lawn heading to the garage. Small stones scattered when he stumbled on the uneven pathway. Jesus, he cursed silently as he hesitated.
Thankfully, no dog barked. He pulled out a penlight, shone its beam low, until he reached the back entrance of the garage.
Once inside, hands trembling with adrenaline, he dropped the penlight. It clattered to the floor and went off. Cursing again to himself, he scrambled around in the dark until his fingers closed around it.
Opening the Ford, he leaned under the steering wheel, felt for the hood release and pulled it. Holding the penlight in his mouth, he lifted the hood and found the hydraulic brake fluid line. He pulled his wrench from his pocket, undid the nut holding line and eased it off with urgent fingers. Finally, he gently closed the hood.
Back in his van, he tried to still his trembling hands and ignore the nervous sweat soaking his shirt. He itched to rip the garment from his body.
About an hour later, the external house lights went on, and a tall, slim man and a boy carrying a stuffed animal appeared.
The father opened the garage door and secured the child into the Ford, went around and climbed in. He backed the vehicle onto the street and drove away.
He tailed them, keeping several car lengths away so as not to arouse suspicion, his heart thumping with anticipation.
The Ford picked up speed down the hill, took the first curve too fast and the next one even faster. It careened on two wheels at the next curve and flew over the embankment, tumbling end over end, tearing bushes and bouncing off boulders. Over and over the Ford pitched with bits of vehicle tearing away until it halted in the valley, wheels spinning. Breathing hard with pent-up pleasure, he stopped to see if the man or his son climbed from the battered vehicle.
When the Ford erupted into flames, he punched the air as the feeling of absolute power surged through him.
Stephani Robbins looked up from the slides of tissue cultures she was checking for signs of necrosis. Her back ached. She leaned forward and rubbed it.
Nina Mumszuk, her friend and co-worker, set down the cultures she’d seeded on the white bench top and pulled down her face mask. “I spent the weekend looking at houses in Mesa. Vassily thinks we should wait 'till we have more savings, but I want my own place.”
Stephani saved the results of the latest round of tests. “I should be buying, as there are still some bargains buys, but I’m not exactly sure where I want to live.”
Three capped and masked heads turned towards them.
“People used to say that you couldn’t lose with real estate.” Richard Dixon, her colleague and head tissue engineer, said. “Coffee anyone?”
“Just what I need. I’ll sort through the mail.” Stephani said.
Fred Lincoln returned to calibrating the injection robot.
“I’ll go,” Nina said. She glared at Fred’s back. “The usual, Richard?” When he nodded, Nina asked Stephani.
“Same here.” Stephani bypassed bench tops and let herself into the glass corridor that led to three offices. They always reminded her of linked rows of goldfish tanks, like the ones she’d longingly pressed her face against as a small child at the local mall. She tugged at the face mask ties that had caught in her black hair as she strode to her office.
Her forgotten morning cup of coffee was on her desk. She started to sort the mail into two piles, one for Richard and the other for herself, until she came upon a pink envelope without a return address or company logo, addressed to her:
Doctor Stephani Robbins, Senior Tissue Engineer
Rigby Research Inc.
55-78 Desert Sun Drive
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
The envelope had an embossed edge like an invitation.
Richard strolled in with two coffees and paused when he spotted her abandoned cup. “You already have a take-out.”
“That’s from this morning. Thanks. Just put mine on the desk.”
He took a sip and leaned over her shoulder. “Any of that for me, Doc?”
“Stop it. Just because I’ve got a few letters after my name.”
“Just teasing.” He grinned. “You’re always so serious. I’d do anything for a smile.”
If he could call her “doc” because she had a doctorate, then she could do the same for him. “Sure, Professor Dixon.” That didn't come out the way she'd intended. It sounded like she was being sarcastic. God, she wished she could be glib like Iantha, her half-sister from her mother’s second marriage, and get away with it.
“Now…now. I see you’re still getting loads of stuff forwarded from our L.A. branch.”
She took a sip of her coffee. The aroma reminded her of when her mom used to have one on the go as she got ready for work. Stephani had to be up and have her nose in her books.
“I’m not working two jobs for nothing. You’d better study hard and get a degree,” her mother had always said.
Stephani looked up to see Richard rake his fingers though his unruly black hair. He was always trying to tame it. A Harvard graduate, Richard had been headhunted by Rigby.
His hands were large with prominent veins on the back and his fingers were almost squared off. And she remembered from when they’d first met, he had a handshake with a sure grip.
“I’m beginning to wonder if our suppliers bother to update their records. I emailed them two months ago when I transferred,” she said.
“Obviously, none of them are as organized as you.”
“It doesn’t feel like that. After five years of research into healthy endothelial cells in stromal breast tissue, I should have made a breakthrough, not be agonizing that if I’d taken a different approach I’d be registering a patent for us now.”
“Shoulda, coulda. You’re too hard on yourself. We knew that finding a biological alternative to silicone wasn’t going to be easy.”
“Maybe I’m not committed enough.” Her phone rang. The girl at reception told her that Jack Theed, the representative from West Labs Equipment, had arrived for their meeting. “He’s early. Tell him I’ll be down in ten.”
“So after the fire at the lab in L.A. and having to move here and set up again, you still think you’re not committed enough?” he said.
‘Mm,” she shrugged. She should be grateful that the project still had funding.
“How are the RT241 trials looking so far?”
“It’ll be another thirty-six hours before we know anything.” She opened the pink envelope and found a letter on matching embossed paper.
“What have you got there?” Richard asked.
“An invitation, I think.” She unfolded the letter.
You are my Princess,
My only Princess,
I’ll make you happy,
When you are sad,
I’ll always love you
And treasure you forever
Though others won’t understand,
No one loves you more than I do,
So my Princess be true to me,
In your heart, you know I love you,
Soon, we’ll be together,
And you’ll be mine eternally.
No one loves you more than I do
Who the hell’s this from? She slumped into the hydraulic chair and edged backwards from her desk. Why would anyone send this corny poem to her? It wasn’t even Valentine’s Day.
“What’s wrong?” Richard asked.
She shoved the letter back into the envelope. “Nothing.”
“You sure?” Richard raised an eyebrow.
“How’s the new iPhone?” She needed time to think this through.
“Still working out all those Apps. I tell myself it can’t be that hard if a five-year-old can manage it.” Richard glanced down at her quizzically.
She fumbled with the jumble of envelopes trying to cover the one with the poem inside, but everything cascaded to the vinyl floor. Jesus, I’m a klutz.
He gathered them up.
“I can do that.” Dismayed, she watched him pile them onto her desk and swallowed as the letter fell out.
It was in his hands before she could reach for it. “Mind if I take a look?”
“Tell me is it okay for someone to send this to me?”
Richard glanced down at her. She found she had nowhere to hide from his searching gaze.
He read the poem. “Is this from someone you know?”
She shook her head. “I’m too old for star-struck teenagers to be writing me a love poem.”
“This is disturbing. Especially, since this guy thinks that you’ll be his forever.”
“Oh. Let me look again.” This time, she took in each word.
“I can’t think of anyone who would write this stuff.”
“My conclusion is some weirdo’s got a fixation on you.” Richard frowned.
“No one’s been following me. At least I don’t think so. Maybe we’re overreacting.”
“But what if it’s just a prank?” She’d had a couple of strange calls recently on her home phone even though her number was unlisted. Stephani picked up the phone but put it down when she saw, through the glass wall, Nina leave Laboratory 1 and come along the corridor towards them.
Nina knocked on the door and entered. Strands of her blonde hair had worked their way out of the disposable cap and fell across her face.
“I’ve almost finished loading the incubator, and wanted to check you still want me set the timer for thirty-eight hours.”
“Yes,” Stephani said. “Let’s see if the enriched mixture will improve the cell growth.”
Nina glanced at the letter Stephani held. “Wedding invitation?”
“Someone’s sent me this poem. It’s not like the sort you’d get from an admirer but from….” She let Nina read it.
Nina stared open-mouthed. “Oie Boczi. Sorry. That’s 'Oh God' in Ukrainian. What is in their head? What are you going to do?”
“We’re going to inform security,” Richard said.
“Let’s go talk to the staff and see if anyone’s got any clues,” Richard said. “You could have yourself a stalker.”
Stephani, capped and gowned again, scarcely noticed the familiar smell of growth media and disinfectant as a moment of panic gripped her when two capped heads turned her way. She took a deep breath before she spoke. “Hey, guys.”
She swallowed the hesitation welling in her throat. “Can I ask you something?” Why did she have to deteriorate into a nervous wreck when it came to something personal?
She turned to go when Richard gave her a look that said ‘if you don’t, then I will’, so she pressed on, “I received a poem in the mail today. I don’t know if this is meant to be a joke. If it is, it’s not funny.”
“What’s the problem?” Melissa Toomey, the tissue-engineering graduate, closed the glass fume hood, peeled off her disposable gloves, stepped from behind the bench, and slipped down her mask to reveal a heavily made-up face.
“Have a read.” She slipped the poem from the envelope.
“Do you think he’s stalking you?”
“I hope not. Now I’ll be looking over my shoulder every time I go out.” She should secure the front door of her apartment at night. However, the thought of being in a locked space scared her more.
“Have you seen anyone suspicious, Fred?”
Fred added incubation media into an injection robot. A soft whizzing sound punctuated the air as a measured amount of medium squirted into test tubes.
Finally, he lifted his head and eased down the mask that covered his bulbous nose. “What?”
She repeated her question.
He raised his eyebrows. “As if I'd send you that! I’m here ‘till eight o’clock most nights. When would I have time?”
A typical answer from someone who still lived with his mother and wore pants up to his waist with two pleats that were perfectly formed on each side.
“Can you glance at this and see if it sounds like anyone you might know?”
“Oh, why did I even ask?” She turned from him. Fred, the resident guru in cancer cell research, had an IQ that was probably off the scale, but possessed no people skills.
“Give it to me,” Fred snapped.
“See the way he talks to me,” she said.
“Fred, that was out of line,” Richard said.
Fred flung the poem at her. “Let me get on with my work.”
“I hope someone will-”
“Stop your babbling,” Fred said. “I can’t concentrate.”
“Richard, are you going to let him get away with that?”
“Quit it, Fred. We’re adults and should behave as such.”
“I apologize. Happy?”
Did he even realize that he’d upset her and pretended to be contrite?
“No,” she said, knowing that it would have little impact on Fred. “Richard, how are the RT251 tissue cultures coming?”
“Promising. Still, it’s too early to say for sure.” He glanced at her with a questioning look.
Fred adjusted his mask and picked up the tray of test tubes partly filled with media and ambled, with a loaded tray, to the incubator. “Maybe, this guy’s obsessed with you.”
Her Mary Janes encased in disposable shoe covers made a shh shh sound on the floor as she followed him. “My God, Fred! What makes you think that?”
“The choice of words,” Fred opened the incubator door and began to put the trays inside.
“Are you okay?” Richard asked. “You’ve gone very pale.”
Clutching the poem, she rushed to her office, picked up the phone and realized she couldn’t remember the number. She looked it up on the computer and dialed security. When someone answered, she told them about the poem.
After she hung up, she gulped some cold coffee, called the police and was told someone would be over that morning.
“I’m glad you did that. If you hadn’t, I would have,” Richard said.
“How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to see you make that call.”
“I should be doing something.” She left her seat and paced to the window, which gave a view of cacti and succulent gardens with a backdrop of cloudless blue autumn sky against a scattering of eucalyptus trees, and back to where Richard was standing beside her desk.
“Easy now. Just calm down,” he said. “What did you plan to do this morning?”
She drew her palms up. “I don’t know. I can’t think.”
Richard hugged her. “Let me get some photocopies of that poem so I can ask a few people.”
“Thanks,” she said. His aftershave smelled of musk, and his shirt had the scent of freshly washed laundry that made her think of her mother, who spent her nights doing washing and ironing for the extra cash. It was comforting. “I should get back to work.”
Back in Laboratory 1, she picked up the slides and put them down then picked them up again. Maybe, she was making too much of this, and it was just a joke. If that was so, then why did this poem make her feel uncomfortable?
After a few moments, Stephani tried to view the slides and discovered that the microscope wasn’t working. She turned it off and on, to reset it. The images on the screen showed some minor bacterial growth. That was good. Two done and another twenty-two left.
God, the gloves felt wet on the inside from her clammy palms. Usually, she had no trouble concentrating. She forced herself to scan all of the slides and save them to the computer. She’d go back to them when she could focus.
Stephani deposited the slides into the refrigeration unit, binned the rubber gloves and face mask, and retreated to her office.
When her phone rang, she wrenched it from its cradle, dropped it and then finally uttered a flustered, “Good morning!”
She was told Jack was still downstairs at the reception waiting to see her.
“Shoot, I’d completely forgotten. Tell Jack I’ll be down in five.”
After a quick inventory check to see if the lab needed any more test tubes or other equipment that West Labs carried, she shrugged out of the lab coat and hurried into Richard’s office. “Can you call me when security or the police arrive?”
“Where are you going?”
“Jack’s waiting for me downstairs. Just call me when they arrive, and I’ll terminate my meeting with him.” She hurried out the door and was at the elevator when she remembered the order sheet and rushed back to retrieve it off her desk.
As she stepped back into the elevator, a chill ran through her. How long had this anonymous poem writer been stalking her?
The latest photos he’d taken of Stephani were perfect. He pinned them onto the wall amongst the others of her. The angle of the sun lit up her face and gave her a, childlike look, and those full lips of hers—so innocent, yet sexy. Her hair fell like a satin black curtain almost to her shoulders. So often he wanted to reach out and touch the soft strands of his Princess’s hair. “My one and only love,” he whispered.
“Pud, you down there?” his mother called.
Her voice was like metal scratching on glass. At least she didn’t call him ‘Puddles’ any more so anyone who heard would not make the connection to what his cruel nickname meant. Did she have to remind him that he had wet the bed until he was twelve? Nevertheless, who would hear nowadays? No visitors ever called. Besides, whenever he went to the shopping mall in Mesa, mother rarely tagged along. Many times when he’d been a teenager, he'd asked, no begged her, not to call him by that name. Cried, slammed his bedroom door, ran away a few times, and that whore had laughed in his face every time.
“I’m just finishing. I’ll be up for dinner in a minute.” He reloaded the color printer with photographic paper.
He stared at the collage of photos mounted on the wall. Moments in his Princess's life, captured forever on photographic paper. He reached out and gently stroked them one by one. His blood heated; he tingled all over and hardened instantly.
“I need you now.”
The floorboards above him creaked. He could picture his mother’s fat body, legs swollen from fluid retention, waddling from the kitchen and along the hallway towards the basement door. He hurried across the cement floor and started up the old wooden stairs. He did not want her poking her nose down here. “Coming, Mother.”
The door opened as he reached the top step.
“What are you doing, Pud?” A jar of spaghetti sauce in her hand, she peered over his shoulder to the room below.
He felt for the switch on the wall beside him while staring at her and turned off the light to the basement. “Just looking at some shots I took of my snow globes and figurals.” He moved forward, forcing her to retreat into the hallway.
“How many shots do you need of those fig…somethings anyway? How anyone can be interested in that useless stuff I don’t know! Why do you need them displayed in the showcase anyway?”
“They’re mine, and don’t you ever open that cabinet and touch them.”
Beads of perspiration glistened on her flushed face. Just the walk from the kitchen was enough to make her sweat with the effort and the heat. Her fleshy arms stuck out of a sack of a dress that strained across her ample bosom, and folds of wet stained fabric bunched under her armpits. She was always like that.
“What do you want?”
Hertha pushed the jar at him. “I can't get this open.”
After a couple of tries, he went to the kitchen to find something that would give him the traction he needed to remove the lid. His mother trailed behind him. Faded peeling wallpaper embossed with daffodils and daises brightened the drab room. Even the view from the window above the sink depressed him: a single velvet mesquite tree, some cacti, and the odd clump of yellow–brown grass that had died in the summer. “Where’s the dish towel, Mother?”
His gaze took in the once white bench top and the old fifties cabinets painted bright orange, the paintwork chipped and marked from years of use. “I need a towel or something to get a grip on this.”
“Don’t know what I’ve done with them.”
The stupid whore probably left them in the washing machine days ago. He wrapped the edge of the stained blue plastic tablecloth around the lid and unscrewed it. “Here.”
He watched her add the sauce to some ground meat in the saucepan. A plastic strainer with cooling spaghetti was on the sink.
“Why’d you cook it first? How many times have I told you I like spaghetti served hot?”
“So, you want it hot. It’ll heat up when the sauce gets poured over the top.”
“I hate cold spaghetti under hot meat sauce. The damned stuff tastes awful that way.”
“You’re too fussy. No wonder you can’t find a gal.” She added some salt and pepper to the mixture.
“Just shut your mouth about that. How can I bring a girl home with a mother like you, huh? Look at this place. You don’t clean. You don’t iron. This whole place is like the inside of a dumpster.”
“Now listen here, boy. I raised you on my own. You don’t know what that was like.”
“Don’t ever bring that up again! You hear!” I hate you…I hate you, he said to himself.
She jabbed the ladle into the sauce. Splatters of tomato sauce ran down the tiled wall and then pooled on the bench top. “Don’t talk to me like that! You should show me some respect.”
“Look at this. It’s stone cold.” He tipped the spaghetti into a bowl. “This isn’t cooking. Just once it would be nice if you did it the right way. You know that. Now I’ll have to nuke it. You can have yours cold if you want. I don’t care. I just don’t care.” He dumped her portion back into the strainer.
“That darned contraption! It’s too complicated,” Hertha whined. “I swear you need a goddamned license to use it.”
“Stephani will use it.” When she comes to live with us, he added silently. She would make him delicious meals. Roast turkey, even when it wasn’t Thanksgiving. Roast beef, with stuffed pumpkin. Home baked apple pie. He salivated at the thought. “Contraption? I don’t know why I bother.”
“None of your damned business.” He would get rid of the damned awful wallpaper when his Princess came to live with him. It should have been replaced when they first moved in ten months ago.
His mother was loath to spend a cent on this place. When she sold their last shack of a home and moved here to be nearer to him, the termites had chewed the floorboards in the third bedroom, but it wasn’t obvious at the time. Two of the windows were taped over to keep the broken glass from falling out, and the roof leaked in four places. It was ready to be pulled down, and that’s what the developer who purchased it planned to do. So long as the ground in the vacant lot behind their place remained undisturbed, his secrets would be safe. Hurried burials in the dark of the night carried out in silence were a thing of the past. He would not do those evil acts any more, he was almost sure of it.
When his Princess came to live with him…he saw mother stir the mixture. The fat from the beef formed pools around the edges of the pot. “Skim the fat off, Mother. You know how I hate greasy food.”
Hertha scooped up some of the glistening mixture with the ladle. She tasted it. “Mm. Fat never did me any harm.” Then she scooped some of the fat away with a spoon and splashed it into the sink.
“I hope it tastes better than the last time you made it.”
“Listen here…you’ve been eating my cooking since you were a baby.”
Spending more than a few minutes in her company made him angry. Why did she have to move here anyway? The distance had kept him sane. She’d kept saying that she was old and sick and needed to have her only son look after her. “You need a wash.”
She lifted her arm. “Had a wash the day before yesterday, I think.”
“Well, have one today before you go to bed…and for Christ’s sake, use deodorant. God, a man could keel over from the smell.”
“You think you’re a man? Don’t make me laugh.”
“You fat whore. No wonder father left you.” His hand ached to strike her. But he remembered what she used to do to him when he was naughty when he was little, and shuddered.
“He died in Vietnam.”
“That’s a load of crap. He didn’t want to come home to you!”
He’d hit the target. “What did you say?”
“Your father didn’t want you.”
“I know he loved me but couldn’t stomach seeing you again.”
“Love? He never loved you.”
“Stop it! Stop it! Fuckin’ shut up, shut your fuckin’ mouth, Mother. Hear!”
“Get the plates, Puddles.”
“Don’t you ever call me by that name again! Hear!”