Someone was following her. She had read about stalkers, but they belonged in a different, violent world. She had no idea who it could be, who would want to harm her. She was trying desperately hard not to panic, but lately her sleep had been filled with unbearable nightmares, and she had awakened each morning with a feeling of impending doom. Perhaps it's all in my imagination, Ashley Patterson thought. I'm working too hard. I need a vacation.
She turned to study herself in her bedroom mirror. She was looking at the image of a woman in her late twenties, neatly dressed, with patrician features, a slim figure and intelligent, anxious brown eyes. There was a quiet elegance about her, a subtle attractiveness. Her dark hair fell softly to her shoulders. I hate my looks, Ashley thought. I'm too thin. I must start eating more. She walked into the kitchen and began to fix breakfast, forcing her mind to forget about the frightening thing that was happening, and concentrating on preparing a fluffy omelette. She turned on the coffeemaker and put a slice of bread in the toaster. Ten minutes later, everything was ready. Ashley placed the dishes on the table and sat down. She picked up a fork, stared at the food for a moment, then shook her head in despair. Fear had taken away her appetite.
This can't go on, she thought angrily. Whoever he is, I won't let him do this to me. I won't.
Ashley glanced at her watch. It was time to leave for work. She looked around the familiar apartment, as though seeking some kind of reassurance from it. It was an attractively furnished third-floor apartment on Via Camino Court, with a living room, bedroom and den, bathroom, kitchen and guest powder room. She had lived here in Cupertino, California, for three years. Until two weeks ago, Ashley had thought of it as a comfortable nest, a haven. Now it had turned into a fortress, a place where no one could get in to harm her. Ashley walked to the front door and examined the lock. I'll have a dead bolt put in, she thought. Tomorrow. She turned off all the lights, checked to make sure the door was firmly locked behind her and took the elevator to the basement garage.
The garage was deserted. Her car was twenty feet from the elevator. She looked around carefully, then ran to the car, slid inside and locked the doors, her heart pounding. She headed downtown, under a sky the color of malice, dark and foreboding. The weather report had said rain. But it's not going to rain, Ashley thought. The sun is going to come out. I'll make a deal with you, God. If it doesn't rain, it means that everything is all right, that I've been imagining things.
Ten minutes later, Ashley Patterson was driving through downtown Cupertino. She was still awed by the miracle of what this once sleepy little corner of Santa Clara Valley had become. Located fifty miles south of San Francisco, it was where the computer revolution had started, and it had been appropriately nicknamed Silicon Valley.
Ashley was employed at Global Computer Graphics Corporation, a successful, fast-growing young company with two hundred employees.
As Ashley turned the car onto Silverado Street, she had the uneasy feeling that he was behind her, following her. But who? And why? She looked into her rearview mirror. Everything seemed normal. Every instinct told her otherwise. Ahead of Ashley was the sprawling, modem-looking building that housed Global Computer Graphics. She turned into the parking lot, showed the guard her identification and pulled into her parking space. She felt safe here. As she got out of the car, it began to rain.
At nine o'clock in the morning, Global Computer Graphics was already humming with activity. There were eighty modular cubicles, occupied by computer whizzes, all young, busily building Web sites, creating logos for new companies, doing artwork for record and book publishing companies and composing illustrations for magazines. The work floor was divided into several divisions: administration, sales, marketing and technical support. The atmosphere was casual. The employees walked around in jeans, tank tops and sweaters.
As Ashley headed toward her desk, her supervisor, Shane Miller, approached her. "Morning, Ashley."
Shane Miller was in his early thirties, a burly, earnest man with a pleasant personality. In the beginning, he had tried to persuade Ashley to go to bed with him, but he had finally given up, and they had become good friends.
He handed Ashley a copy of the latest Time magazine. "Seen this?"
Ashley looked at the cover. It featured a picture of a distinguished-looking man in his fifties, with silver hair. The caption read "Dr. Steven Patterson, Father of Mini Heart Surgery."
"I've seen it."
"How does it feel to have a famous father?"
Ashley smiled. "Wonderful."
"He's a great man."
"I'll tell him you said so. We're having lunch."
"Good. By the way..." Shane Miller showed Ashley a photograph of a movie star who was going to be used in an ad for a client. "We have a little problem here. Desiree has gained about ten pounds, and it shows. Look at those dark circles under her eyes. And even with makeup, her skin is splotchy. Do you think you can help this?"
Ashley studied the picture. "I can fix her eyes by applying the blur filter. I could try to thin her face by using the distort tool, but - No. That would probably end up making her look odd." She studied the picture again. "I'll have to airbrush or use the clone tool in some areas."
"Thanks. Are we on for Saturday night?"
Shane Miller nodded toward the photograph. "There's no hurry on this. They want it last month." Ashley smiled. "What else is new?"
She went to work. Ashley was an expert in advertising and graphic design, creating layouts with text and images.
Half an hour later, as Ashley was working on the photograph, she sensed someone watching her. She looked up. It was Dennis Tibble. "Morning, honey."