Donna Pickett had received a call that someone needed help fast, and had arranged to leave work and meet Clark in the parking lot. Clark would not go inside for a cup of coffee. "She felt like everyone could look at her and know what had happened," said Pickett. So they just sat in the car and, as Clark choked back tears, bits and pieces of her grisly story slowly tumbled out.

"I left my apartment at 9 p.m. on Nov. 1 to walk across the parking lot to my sister's," Clark testified in a preliminary hearing. "A man I had never seen before walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to make some money, . . . saying that he had four friends."

Returning home, Clark found she was locked out and the same man, who she said smelled of alcohol, approached her. "He told me to go with him and pushed me down the steps. He hit me with a hammer just enough so I'd know he wanted me to go with him. . . . I fought with him . . . he pulled my hair. We walked to the rear of the apartments . . . he told me to take all my clothes off."

While he struck her with the hammer, Clark said, the man forced her to commit sodomy.

"There were people looking out the windows," Clark recalled later. "But no one came to my aid. I was thinking, 'Please God, let somebody come help me!' "

Someone finally did summon police, who arrested a man at the scene. He was charged with forcible sodomy, abduction and assault--offenses that carry a potential sentence of five years to life."

Clark was taken to Alexandria Hospital. "They said, 'If you feel you need somebody to talk to,' " she recalled, 'call this number.'"

The number on the card was 971-8208, the 24-hour line at the Alexandria Rape Victim Companion Program, part of the city's Office on Women.

Debbie Clark was one of 183 sexual assault victims who called the number last year, and one of seven whose cases ended up in court. Some victims, afraid to call police, want only to talk anonymously. Others want someone to accompany them to hospitals or courts or refer them to counseling.

In Clark's case it was her sister who made the call when she realized she alone could not cope with Debbie's problems. A hotline volunteer contacted Donna Pickett, one of 45 volunteers in the companion program.

In the months ahead, as the gruesome details of the case unfolded--complete with bribes and death threats--Pickett was one of the few people to whom Clark could turn.

"I don't think I would have gone to court without her," said Clark.

The relationship between victim and companion varies with each case, but the aim is the same: "To get the victim back interacting with people," said Brenna Dean, volunteer coordinator for the program. "Sexual assault is a crime of power, control and humiliation. To the attacker it's better than killing someone because the victim dies a thousand deaths."

"We are for her to lean on, and to help her make her own decisions again," said Pickett. "But we can't make them for her."

Alexandria's Commission on the Status of Women established the companion program in 1975 because of concern about treatment of sexual assault victims.

"The program tries to change some of the preconceived notions about what is sometimes called the second rape--the court process itself," said Alexandria Commonwealth's Attorney John Kloch, prosecutor of most of the city's sexual assault cases since 1974. Kloch, who is handling Clark's case, was instrumental in setting up the program.

A full-time staff of two shares a $30,000 budget with two other health and safety programs in the city's Office on Women.

Pickett, 39, an accountant, said she became involved in the program last fall out of "awareness of what I was as a female, and that we should help each other." In the four months following Clark's first call to her, she has spent dozens of hours in almost daily conversations with Clark, some lasting several hours, and the case has taken most of her free time. She has a flexible work schedule, so on the days she was called away from work for court appearances, meetings with Kloch or just talking with Clark, she stayed at her office late into the evening.

"The only thing that Debbie asked me to do at our first meeting was to find out if the man was still in jail," said Pickett. "She was terrified." Pickett learned from police that the alleged attacker was still being held on bond, and called a grateful Clark right back.

It wasn't easy to get Clark to warm up to her in the beginning, recalled Pickett. Aside from the attack, what bothered Clark most were the people who had watched it through their windows. "She had a loss of faith in people," said Pickett. "She told me, 'How can I believe anybody anymore?' "

Pickett said she told Clark to call any time, day or night, and started checking in with her, "just to see what she was doing." Clark, the mother of a school-aged child, did not have a job. Pickett recommended a job bank and a family counseling service, but Clark didn't show up for any of the appointments.

Undaunted, Pickett kept suggesting options, but there were nights she lay in bed worrying about what her next suggestion to Clark should be. "I worried about not giving her the support to help her in making decisions on her own."

She also worried about the frantic phone calls from Clark, relating the strange things that were happening to her. One time a distraught Clark called to say that a woman who said she was the defendant's wife showed up on her doorstep with a baby and offered her $1,000 not to testify. Then, the night before the hearing, two men came to Clark's sister's apartment. "We are going to get that bitch," they warned her sister. "We will get both of you."

Each time, Pickett tried to calm Clark and warned her to be careful about leaving her apartment. She reported the incidents to Kloch's office, and reassured Clark that Kloch had had police patrols in the area stepped up. At one point, said Pickett, "Just hearing Debbie's fearful voice on the phone, I knew I had to do something to get her out of there." Pickett then found a place where Clark could house-sit for a few days and escape the threats for a while.

The day of the preliminary hearing on the case, Pickett nervously chain-smoked in Kloch's office while waiting for Clark, who was late. "I feel angry," Pickett said, upset at the thought that Clark might not show up. "I woke up 10 times last night worrying about this whole thing." Clark finally arrived, 15 minutes late.

In the courtroom, Pickett placed her arm tightly around Clark's shoulders when the defendant walked in. Afterwards she took her out for a glass of wine. "She was almost in a state of shock and admitted she had no place to go," said Pickett. "Two days before Thanksgiving! You just want to scoop them up and bring them home, but it's against the policy."

Often there is a fine line between what a counselor wants to do for a victim and what she should do for herself. "We try not to foster dependency on the companion," said Jo Ewell, the program director. "But still, when someone has been really helpful, it's hard to keep that right distance."

Companions also often find it hard to keep their emotions under control. "One night I woke up with a screaming nightmare, something I haven't had since I was a pre-teen," said Pickett, who has gone about as far as a companion can go in assisting a victim.

"It has taught me a lot about dealing with some of my own problems," she said. "And none of the training can really prepare you for it. Sure, you have doubts about whether you can do it or not, and even I have been surprised at the situations I have handled."

Though few cases go as far in the courts as Clark's, Ewell said, "I would expect that type of close work and care from any volunteer."

"Donna has always been there whenever Debbie needed emotional support and practical suggestions of ways to put her life back together," she said. "She's been dedicated, extremely supportive and very professional."

Companions will stand by a victim, she said, regardless of whether she chooses to prosecute.

As the trial date neared, Clark's life was a nightmare. The threats frightened her. She was haunted by the images of people watching as she was being attacked.

She was still unemployed and told Pickett she could not emotionally handle a job hunt until the trial was over. Her family problems continued, and she suffered bruises and a concussion in a fall on ice. Some neighbors urged her to drop charges so the man could be with his family at Christmas.

She and Pickett spoke several times a week, but communication between the two broke down at one point, when Clark disappeared for eight days.

"I felt inadequate when I couldn't find her, I felt useless," Pickett said, "and I couldn't help thinking, could I have done more?" Clark finally called to say that she had "needed some time to think" and was considering suicide, something companions are trained to expect. They talked about it several times and eventually Clark dropped the subject. She received more threats, bogus phone calls and visits from strangers--but now they simply made her more determined to go to trial.

On Christmas Eve, Clark found a wrapped package outside her door. She told Pickett later she had been thrilled to find it because her child, who lives with a relative, has a habit of coming by and leaving presents for her. But when she opened it, she found a dead rat.

Pickett, who acted as a liaison between Clark and the police and court authorities, called Commonwealth's Attorney Kloch when she learned this latest twist. Kloch asked for a police investigator to be assigned to the case.

Then in early January, Clark discovered that her alleged attacker was no longer in jail; he'd been released Dec. 1 on a $3,000 cash bond. The belief that he remained behind bars had been her only comfort.

Clark was crushed.

"I don't feel like I have been treated too fairly," she said bitterly. "He was out of jail a month and I didn't know. I told Donna Pickett I was just beginning to feel good enough to walk outside and not be afraid. Now I haven't been going out hardly at all."

Pickett said she had had no warning of the man's release and was shocked to learn of it. "I think there was some communication problem." She said she felt frustrated that she had not been able to tell Clark about it sooner and help her deal with it.

According to Kloch, a victim would "almost have to call daily" to the police to keep tabs on whether her alleged attacker had been released on bond. If a police investigator is assigned to a particular case, said Kloch, the investigator usually informs a victim if a defendant has posted bond. In Clark's case, no investigator was assigned until after the rat incident.

Clark predicted that, once free on bond, her alleged assailant would not show up in court again--"and I went through a lot for nothing."

Clark and Pickett arrived on time for the trial and sat waiting for the defendant. Clark seemed stronger than she had at the hearing, but was still extremely nervous. As the minutes ticked by and the defendant still had not shown up, Pickett made small talk to keep Clark's mind off the wait.

The alleged assailant never showed up. The judge issued a bench warrant for his arrest and revoked the bond.

One month later, police are still searching for him.

Clark is still bitter and is having a hard time putting her life back together, fearing that her assailant is out there somewhere. She also is reluctant to sever contacts with Pickett, with whom she still talks from time to time.

Pickett said she "feels like the heavy" in Clark's life because she keeps hammering away at her about finding a job and "starting to make her own decisions again."

"I wouldn't want anyone to think I was cold and I didn't care," said Pickett, "but a lot of people are never caught. You have to go on with your life."