Praise Her, Praise Diana
Call it life imitating art—author Maggie Edwards publishes a chapter of a book detailing seduction, murder and castration by a protagonist named Diana, and suddenly a woman code-named Diana begins to mimic her actions in real time. Women who have been abused find Diana to be an inspirational figure, and begin to fight back in her name. Soon violence erupting throughout New York City threatens to spiral out of control. As the police try desperately to identify Diana, Maggie's high-powered lawyer, Jane Larson, finds herself at the center of an investigation that threatens to upend the entire world around her.
Maggie Edwards sat cross-legged on the wooden floor of her front porch and gazed out at the dense early-morning mist. Her hands rested lightly on her knees, palms up, thumbs and forefingers touching. Her back was arched slightly and propped against a wicker sofa. Breathe. Count. Breathe. Keep the demon thoughts at bay.
She was in her mid-thirties, tall and slender, with deep-set emerald eyes, high cheekbones and a wide sensuous mouth. Her long blond hair had golden streaks in it from being outdoors and was pinned up in a ballerina’s neat bun. On a good day, she could easily pass for under thirty. On a bad day like this one, she felt like a hag.
Through the fog she could just barely see the white and purple asters that grew in a thick tangle at the edges of her yard. The long driveway, lined with maple and oak trees, had also been transformed into an Impressionistic blur. Beyond the veil of mist, she pictured in her mind the surrounding fields and forests and hills, with their mottled shades of yellow, red and orange in full autumn display.
Six years earlier, with the improbable proceeds of her first novel, Getting There, she purchased this house and the surrounding fifteen acres of land, including the barn, pond and dilapidated outbuildings. That first summer, she planted fruit trees and flowers and cleaned up the pond. She’d wanted to tear down some of the smaller structures and renovate the barn into bed-and-breakfast rooms. But the royalties from Getting There had soon slowed to a trickle, canceling those plans, and she hadn’t been able to write another book since.
She still heard from editors or agents who wanted to handle her next novel, but she rarely answered their e-mails or phone calls. She knew what they wanted. They wanted the heroic Marissa from Getting There to resume her sexual escapades—the minutely described couplings that had catapulted Marissa up the corporate ladder and into the position of Chief Executive Officer of a major corporation. Overnight, Getting There had become a widely read favorite of high school and college girls, and then of their mothers as well. She never had the courage to tell any of these still-avid fans that Marissa was dead.
Now the cell phone rang beside her, like an alarm jarring her awake from a deep sleep. Although she had set it on the lowest volume, the sound pierced her mantle of calm so completely that it seemed she could have heard the ringing a mile away through the mist, as the clanging of a buoy travels over water at night. Bad news, bad news. Death, death.
She let it ring. Twice. Three times. She had been expecting the call. Dreading it and desiring it at the same time.
The woman had contacted her many times before, introducing herself as ‘Diana’. She spoke in a heavy Eastern European accent, never disclosing her real name or any detail that might identify her—calling only from public pay phones in New York City.
“Hello?” Maggie said finally.
“Did you send it?”
Maggie inhaled and let the air out slowly with her answer. She took yoga classes to discipline her mind, but it didn’t work nearly well enough. Still, she did the breathing exercises, exhaling the cleansing breaths that never seemed to cleanse anything.
“Not yet,” Maggie said.
“Not yet?” The woman snapped, enunciating her response with robotic crispness, as if she were biting off each word and spitting it through the phone. “You fool! What moment will finally suit you? When the sheriff auctions your house? When they cart you away?”
Maggie took another deep breath.
“I keep telling you. It’s not the book I agreed to give Anthony, and I—”
“You’re lying, Maggie Edwards!” the woman shrieked. “That’s not the reason that you delay, day after day! It’s a better book than the one that foolish man wanted. And Heather has agreed to take it and make sure it is printed.”
“Heather would do anything for me at this point,” Maggie said softly. “I’m her hero. Author of Getting There.”
“So much the better. Infatuation will ease the pain if there are consequences. Did you seduce her? Is that why you have qualms?”
“I did not,” Maggie snapped.
Silence came from Diana’s end of the phone, although Maggie sensed that this unknown woman was amused by her weakness and enjoyed the pain she inflicted. When the woman spoke again, there was no attempt to cajole. The words were like stones thudding against Maggie’s head and torso.
“Then you will delay no longer. You are not a fool! Time has run out. You have no other choice. Tell the truth about Marissa, Maggie Edwards. Tell them how she ... died.”
The connection was broken. Maggie gently placed the cell phone beside her on the floor, although she would have liked to throw it against a wall. Her heart was racing. She could feel the throb of blood in her temples. She closed her eyes to try to concentrate and recapture some semblance of calm. But the peaceful image of the autumn countryside was drowned out by the pattern of words drumming in her head.
How could she know?
Was this woman, Diana, real? Or was she imagined like those distant hills through the fog—a figment of an overwrought mind desperate for a way out?
Marissa was dead. She had no choice. Marissa was dead.
Tell the truth.
* * * *
She went upstairs to her bedroom where she had her laptop set up and typed an e-mail to Heather Blake of The New York Portal:
Here is the final draft, for better or for worse.
Your friend, M.
Still she hesitated, filled with the nagging sense that once the chapter left the privacy of her own computer, unknown consequences would follow. Her entire life would be beyond her control.
And yet, what the woman said was true—she had no choice.
She attached a file marked D-Ch 1, and pressed the send button.
~ Diana ~
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Diana. You may have heard of me. The Huntress. Goddess of the moon. Beloved of virgins. Never been kissed.
So anyway, I met this guy in a bar near his apartment in New York City. He thought it was by chance—two people locking gazes across a crowded room. I knew better.
It was a dark, dirty place filled with the smell of all the stale beer that had been spilled onto the wooden floor over the course of a half-century or so. When I arrived, his eyes were already bright from several drafts, although he probably would have fought you if you told him he was drunk. He liked to fight. He played rugby just for the fun of hitting people and being hit, and wore his cuts and bruises like trophies.
All the same, he had a surprisingly engaging smile, marred slightly by a cap on one of his front teeth that didn’t quite match the rest. Too bad. His hair was brown and medium length. Slightly tousled, it fell in a cascade over his forehead. His skin was very white, nearly blemish-free, except for a swath of freckles across his nose and cheeks that added to his boyish appearance. You would have liked him at first. I’m sure of that.
He patted the seat next to him at the far end of the bar and bought me a drink. I was wearing a short skirt, high leather boots, and no stockings. A long down jacket was draped over my shoulders like a cape, reaching to the floor.
He looked me up and down without apology, weaving this way and that, just a little unsteady on the barstool. He liked what he saw, apparently. With all the beer that had passed his lips that night, he didn’t notice I was wearing a blond wig. I was also wearing my blue contacts. He didn’t notice that either.
He told me a joke about dumb blonds and his hand slapped me on the naked part of my thigh as I pretended to laugh. A minute later, his hand returned to the same spot, tweaking me a little higher up the inside of my leg, like a mischievous child who is sure his antics will be forgiven. I pushed his hand away and he started describing his job and his boss, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t care about your life, tooth-boy.’ And then there was that hand again, creeping upward along my thigh, and he was chattering away and grinning roguishly at me as though that five-fingered appendage was operating independently of the rest of him, finding its own way in the world.
“What’s with the coat,” he asked me.
I moved my shoulders as if I were shivering.
“I’m cold,” I said, hunching over the bar and pulling my arms together. This had the effect of pressing my breasts upward against the unbuttoned top of my shirt. His eyes were glued to that triangle of soft, inviting flesh. There was no subtlety in him.
“I could warm you up,” tooth-boy said, obviously proud of his wit.
“I’ll bet you could,” I said, and stood up.
The air was cool and the pale clouds of our breath were caught by a light wind and dispersed as we walked down a deserted side street, westward into a neighborhood of small buildings, passing a row of worn brownstone stoops that extended onto the pavement. I had put on my down coat with its neutral unmemorable color, and I now had a similarly nondescript knitted cap pulled low over my ears. I liked the anonymity of it—the sense that a person passing would see just a slightly drunk guy leading a girl to his apartment and that, if anyone were asked, no essential part of me would stand out to be described.
His arm was around my waist, and he leaned against me to steady himself as we walked. At one point he stopped and pulled me to him, kissing me with his open mouth and wet lips and thick rancid beer breath. His left hand pawed at the front of me but couldn’t get past the armor of my coat.
“Not here, you animal,” I said to him and he laughed because he thought I was joking.
We lumbered along, trying to match our steps. There was no one on the street but an occasional rat skittering among the garbage cans. Soon we turned up the front stairs to his building and through the dingy foyer with its soiled carpeting and then up one flight where he struggled to get his key in the lock. Here I thought that if I wanted to leave I should do it now. Once I got inside, I knew I would not be able to stop myself. I was already thinking about a certain sunny meadow off a winding backcountry road on a beautiful spring day—the first really warm day of the year—and what was taken from me.