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The Devil You Know is a (nearly) direct sequel to book three of the Vampire Files, Bloodcircle,
and is full of spoilers for that novel.

While this story can be read on its own, you will enjoy it more if you have read Bloodcircle first.

 


 


This novel is a signed, numbered, limited edition printed on acid-free archival paper, available exclusively from Vampwriter Books.

Because of the volume of orders we regret we cannot do personal inscriptions.

We CAN do a personalized bookmark! Include whatever name you'd like on it when you order.

 

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An excerpt from

The Devil You Know

by P. N. Elrod

 

 

 

Jonathan Barrett and his reclusive girlfriend Emily were the only others like me that I knew of; we’re a rare breed. He’d been the one who’d made Maureen, who, some decades later, made me before vanishing out of our lives forever. We’d both loved her. She was a sore spot between us, though that was gradually healing. Barrett had been around since before the Revolutionary War, giving him a longer perspective on life, and he wasn’t above rubbing that in when he thought I needed reminding. Though our case with him was long over, I knew Escott kept in touch. Sometimes the mail would have an embossed envelope with Barrett’s distinctive copperplate handwriting on it. The fancy calligraphy was always made by a modern fountain pen, though, not a quill. He wasn’t the type to stand fixed in the past.

 

— Jack Fleming, Song in the Dark

 

 

Chicago, February 1938

 

The telegram arrived while I was throwing out that evening’s disruptive drunk, which involved shoving the barely conscious mug into a taxi and slipping a dollar tip to the driver. How he collected his fare later was his business so long as it was done away from my nightclub. As the cab chugged off, a uniformed messenger boy on a loud motorbike slipped into its place by the curb.

“Parking’s on the side,” I said, jerking my thumb that way, my mind still on the drunk. He’d guzzled about five bucks in booze in record time, broken thirty cents worth of glassware, and it had cost a buck to get rid of him. The balance sheet was still in the black, so I’d allow him inside again, but keep a better eye on things. He would return, too, being so far gone in his cups he’d never remember his eviction.

“Telegram for the boss,” the kid bawled over the bike motor, unimpressed. He cut the noise and, still straddling the saddle, slammed the kickstand down with an efficiency that only comes with practice. He dug into a big leather pouch strapped across his chest.

“That’s me.”

“Oh, yeah? Prove it.” He was half a year shy of his first shave, but had “Chicago tough guy” all over him like an old tattoo.

“You’re looking for Jack Fleming, you found him.”

“Don’t go kiddin’ me. You could be anybody.”

He had a point. I got out my wallet and showed him my driving license, an old press pass I carried for luck, and a quarter that had somehow appeared between my index and middle knuckles. A magician playing at my club had taught me a couple of sleight-of-hand tricks.

Still unimpressed, the kid squinted at my paper, made the two bits vanish, and slotted the corner of a yellow telegram envelope in the same space. “Thanks, Mack,” he said. The bike clattered to life. With a move reminiscent of a cowboy kicking his horse to a gallop, he bounced it off the stand and roared on to the next delivery.

Telegrams never bode well. A few years ago Western Union had tried to mitigate their bum reputation with the singing variety, but the kid had spared me from an a cappella solo in the street. I tore open the yellow envelope, worried about my parents in Cincinnati.

The first line told me the message was from Long Island, New York.

“Bad news?” asked Escott, not quite looking over my shoulder.

I managed not to give a start. During my tango with the drunk, Escott had obligingly held the club’s door open but I’d missed that he’d also come outside. When it suited him my occasional partner in mayhem was good at not being noticed.

I read the thing again to be sure I’d gotten it right. “Depends. It’s about Maureen.”

I passed over the flimsy.

 

FUNERAL ON 28TH. ADVISE ARRIVAL TIME

IF ATTENDING. BARRETT

 

“Dear God. He found her then,” my friend murmured, more to himself than me. Escott didn’t ask the obvious question right away, waiting a whole ten seconds so I could think things over. “Will you go?”

“Guess I have to.” That sounded cold. “I mean, I don’t want to, but I should.” That was even worse. “It’s been two years…and another five before them. I don’t want to go through that again.”

“Of course not. You’ve had your mourning. I expect Barrett has, too.”

I’d not considered how it might be for him.

“But perhaps he would welcome some simple company.”

Or he’d figured out a few things since my last visit in ’36 and wanted to have a word. But were that the case, he’d just turn up on the doorstep and punch my ticket.

“I’ll go pay my respects.”

       There, a good comfortable phrase, somber and appropriate. It put a safe distance between myself and old heartbreak. Seven years late I would stand by a graveside, say a prayer, and lay flowers down. Seven years late, but better than never knowing what had happened to her.

I owed everything to Maureen Dumont. Everything. Her dark gift had saved me a dozen times over.

Paying respects wasn’t enough, but nothing else was left.

 

  

Bobbi Smythe, my girlfriend, proved remarkably understanding about my attending the funeral of the only other woman I’d ever loved. I broke the news in her dressing room after her last set for the night, showing the telegram.

Part of me (there was a craven, petty coward tucked away in one of the darker corners of my skull) hoped Bobbi would get the jealous sulks and thus provide a reason to stay home. Instead, she offered to drive me to the station. I said I’d take a cab.

“And of course Charles and I will look after the club,” she said reassuringly, smearing cold cream on her stage makeup and wiping it off with tissues.

Yeah, yeah, I knew that, but was glad she couldn’t see my reflection in the mirror. I had a long face on. I could feel it.

“Take whatever time you need. You don’t worry about anything here.”

       I knew that, too.

“Unless you want one of us along?”

“I’ll be fine.”

Company on the trip would have been good, but not for the funeral itself. This was something out of my past I had to settle for myself and then close the door. Instinct told me I had to do that one alone.

 “If you’re sure?”

“Yeah, baby. I’m sure.” I sat and watched her ritual of putting on all-new makeup. She was drop dead gorgeous without it, but I kept that to myself. She liked her warpaint, and I liked watching her primp. It took my mind off what was to come on Long Island.

“You’re the best, you know that?” I said.

She paused and glanced my way. Smiling.

Oh, yeah. She knew it.

 

  

Travel is a little more complicated when you’re a vampire, but not impossible.

That’s right, vampire: bloodsucking, sleep through the day Bela Lugosi stuff, only I don’t wear a tuxedo if I can help it, and I don’t own an opera cape.

Forget about bats and hypnosis, too. The former is myth, the latter a talent that’s been burned out of me. I can vanish if I need to—and that’s handy.

Especially when traveling.

To get to Long Island, I booked my light proofed traveling trunk on the Twentieth Century Limited and shipped myself east. The hard part was wrestling the thing out of the cab into the LaSalle Street Station and making sure it got on the right train.

When I woke the next night, the world outside my trunk no longer swayed along rails and had gone silent. I cautiously sieved out, trying to get a sense of the surroundings, but there wasn’t anything within easy reach. A faint wind teased at my invisible self, so I was outdoors, but where? It wasn’t the Grand Central Terminal…probably the local station closest to Barrett’s home, and how busy could that be at sunset?

I took a chance and went solid, taking a deep breath of what I assumed was chilly Long Island air, flushing the stale stuff from my usually dormant lungs.

Not a train platform but just as big, I abruptly recognized the grand porte cochère of the Francher mansion. Jonathan Barrett, Esquire, lived here with his lady friend, Emily Francher, who was richer than Midas and too reclusive for my taste. She had her reasons, I guess. What the hell, they were happy, and where they hung their hats was none of my business.

Per instructions sent by Escott, Barrett must have arranged for someone to deliver my trunk to the estate. It had been sitting out all day, but safe enough. This was a secluded property with a locked gate and a gatekeeper in residence. Still, I wondered why I’d not been trucked indoors.

I stretched out the kinks, not that I had any, only my clothes were creased. I was confident some Francher servant might be talked into ironing them into shape.

My memory of the last visit was clear, but not where it concerned the surrounding landscape. The road that led toward the front gate was…over there, lots of trees, bare for winter except for stretches of evergreens that hid the place from its neighbors. Somewhere behind the house to the north the land sloped toward the Sound. I took a second breath, this time noting the fresh tang of the sea in the chill.

Along the road to the gate was a large, unnaturally flat patch of ground. That had been where the original Francher house stood until it had burned down, taking Emily Francher’s mother with it. The ruins had been broken up and carted away, and what was left they pushed into the cellar, the gaps filled with dirt and bulldozed smooth.

Maureen’s remains had rested there for nearly seven years, her grave unmarked and unknown except by her clever, precocious murderer. If Escott and I hadn’t blundered in and upset things maybe a harmless cabby named John Henry Banks would still be driving his hack, and Emily Francher would still be getting out during the day.

There was no way of knowing. When you start looking into peoples’ secrets either nothing happens or all hell breaks loose. There’s usually no middle ground when murder is involved.

Maureen’s killer might well have taken more lives without our interference. I’d stopped her, and I’d not been thinking of future victims at the time. That night I allowed myself to be judge, jury, and executioner. Not something I was proud of, and it bothered me when I let it. Mostly I told myself that there’d been no other solution. It wasn’t the kind of case you could take to court: no evidence, no witnesses, no conviction, no justice.

Of course, coming here brought back the helpless anger I’d felt, but I’d known that would happen. Nothing for it but to take it on the chin and return home as soon as I could.

The flat patch on the land was gone—replaced by a big black pit. Piles of raw earth lay nearby with shards of burned wood sticking out like bones from a ravaged carcass. A diesel shovel, crane, and other heavy construction equipment were gathered around the hole like graveside mourners.

Not knowing where Maureen’s body had been in the ruins, Barrett had to excavate the whole thing. That could not have been easy. I was glad he’d found her, but God knows how tough it must have been for him. I don’t think I’d have been able to do it.

Behind me came the sound of a latch clicking, and I turned just as the front door swung wide.

Barrett looked at me; I looked back. It was a mutual sizing up. I could figure he was also comparing the man before him to the one in his memory and correcting the inevitable shifts that happen with the passage of time. I recalled him as being much shorter, but we were almost the same height. He hadn’t aged of course; like me, he seemed to be in his twenties, but there was a sad weariness in the set of his shoulders that added years to his manner.

He wore mud-smeared dark trousers, a wrinkled shirt, and ratty old carpet slippers on bare feet. Soon as the sun was down he’d have gotten right out of bed to see if his guest had arrived and had apparently pulled on whatever he could grab. Most noticeably, his hair hadn’t been cut in several months, hanging loose and ragged around his face, and he’d not shaved in at least a week. Last time he’d been neat as a cat and, I thought, just as smug. But he’d been working hard at a heartbreaking task, little wonder he’d gone downhill. It struck me as overdoing it, though.

He put his hand out. “Hello, Fleming.”

I returned the courtesy, keeping it brief. “Barrett.”

“Please, come in.” He stood back, allowing me to pass, though the doorway was so wide it wasn’t necessary.

As no one else was around for the job, I picked my trunk up. Without me inside it was light, just awkward. I took care not to bang it into anything, including my host.

“Put it anywhere,” he said.

I did that and looked around. The enormous entry hall was different. There was now carpeting on the sweeping stairs. Emily Francher had been violently pushed down those steps, the fall killing her, couldn’t blame her for wanting a change. If it’d been me I’d have moved out altogether.

The Impressionist paintings remained in the hall, but the series of huge oil paintings depicting life before the French revolution were gone. The upper landing was less lively without them.

“Redecorating?” I asked, nodding at the blank walls.

“Somewhat. Donated that lot to a museum.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“I was tired of looking at them. Anyway, they were forgeries done in the 1850s. The museum knows it, which for some strange reason makes them a more interesting display.”

His speech pattern was his own, a British accent but not quite. If I’d not gotten used to hearing Escott all the time I’d have taken Barrett for an Englishman. He’d been born on Long Island, though, sometime in the mid-seventeen hundreds.

He shut the door and set the latch. The hall got darker. The curtains were drawn, appropriate for a house in mourning. He flicked a switch, and an overhead pushed back the shadows. The artificial light made him look more haggard. His eyes were usually a clear, intense blue, like the hot part of a candle flame, but were now faded and tired. “This way, if you would.”

I followed him across the entry to a parlor or sitting room or whatever it was. Big houses rattle me; they have too many doors and not enough names for the spaces behind them. There is never a simple living room, one to a customer, but two or three scattered around, and not one with a single comfortable chair.

Barrett clicked on a table lamp. The twenty-five watt bulb was good enough lighting for my sensitive eyes, but the corners remained stubbornly gloomy. Since books crowded the shelves on two walls I decided to risk calling this place a library, though odds favored there was another, bigger one lurking elsewhere in the joint.

“Make yourself at home, I’ll get some refreshment,” he said.

      I knew what that would be, but the “getting” part stumped me. He kept horses, both for riding and to provide a steady ongoing supply of fresh blood. Was he going to bring one in the house for the convenience of his guest?

He excused himself and went off. I wanted to get some questions out of the way, but he’d been raised in a time where civilized customs were followed come hell or high water. A faint echo of such old-time courtesies remained in some homes. My mother couldn’t imagine having guests over without first making sure they each had a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies at hand.

I wandered and read book titles. A few I recognized, but the rest were well before my time. The once important issues in the non-fiction works were either stale with age or about the kind of problem that’s never resolved. I opened a few to check printing dates, finding none more recent than 1890. Barrett didn’t look it, but the man was old.

Was this my future? If I got to be his age would I wind up with a house full of irrelevant books gathering dust?

Against expectation I found an overstuffed chair suitable for wallowing and tried to relax in it. The silence of the house pressed down, and I listened hard for any sign of activity. Except for a distant scuffing of slipper-clad feet and the slam of a door—my host going outside—nothing. Where was everybody?

Unpleasant words like mausoleum and tomb trundled through my brain. I vowed that if I ever got Emily Francher’s kind of wealth I would never inflict such a massive house on myself. This place gave me the creeps, which was saying something.

The chair abruptly ceased to be comfortable and turned into a smothering monster, which was crazy since I don’t have to breathe regularly. I struggled free and went to the room’s one window to pull open the curtain, revealing a long stretch of shaded veranda. It would be a pleasant place to lounge in the summer, but the fair weather furniture was stacked off to the side, some of it covered by a tied down tarp. Another batch was unadorned, though lengths of cut rope from its missing tarp lay on the flagstones like dead snakes.

A few steps down from the shaded area was a swimming pool, drained for the winter. Though bleak with snow and blown-in debris, it didn’t take much to remember young Laura Francher doing laps in that pool, her long blond hair streaming gracefully behind as she swam.

I have to stop doing this to myself.

I resisted letting the curtain drop on the memory and looked beyond the pool, seeking some hint of life on the estate.

The stables and horses weren’t within view, though there was a distant slice of twinkling gray that marked the Sound. I could see myself strolling down there to look at the water when the weather was fine. Not that I didn’t have the same opportunity in Chicago, but Lake Michigan wasn’t Long Island Sound. There’s a difference, and if I put some thought to it I might figure it out, but not tonight.

I let the curtain fall and checked the room again. No changes had taken place in the last minute; the old books stared back, lonely and bored. I recalled there being a radio in one of the other ground floor rooms, but wasn’t desperate enough to go looking.

With some relief I heard a door bang shut, followed by dish-clattering sounds. What was he doing? Or maybe it was someone else in the house…nope, same slippers scuffing, then a rattling and the squeak of rubber on the marble tiles, like a wheelchair. I couldn’t help but think of Maureen’s crazy sister.

This place was really getting to me.

Barrett came in, pushing an innocuous tea trolley.

I hid my relief, replacing it with brief puzzlement. A teapot, cups, and saucers were on the trolley.

At his gesture, I found a chair. He sat opposite and poured from the pot, prim as an old maid on Sunday. He offered me a teacup filled with still-warm blood.

It was the damnedest thing I’d seen in at least a week.

“Is it all right?” he asked.

“Uh…”

“Sorry, I should have inquired first. I assumed you might be hungry after your trip.”

“It’s great, really. I just never thought of having it like this.”

“Never?” He poured a cup for himself. “You prefer to take it on the hoof?”

“Uh…lately I buy a quart or two at the butcher and keep it in beer bottles in the ice box.”

“Doesn’t it go bad rather quickly?”

“I drink it off too fast. Saves trips to the Stockyards when I get busy.” The teacup had painted-on flowers, liberal gold edging, and I felt like an over-ripe sissy sipping from it.

Barrett didn’t seem to have the same problem. The delicate porcelain looked natural in his hands, not at all awkward. He finished half his portion and gave a little sigh of satisfaction.

On that we agreed. The horse blood—I knew the taste—was very good.

“Is Haskell still here?” I asked. He’d been in charge of the horses and had helped me draw blood from them in a hasty effort to save Barrett’s life.

“Yes, but he’s away on holiday along with the other servants. It seemed best to not have them around for the time being. We’re quite on our own.”

With interest I saw the whites of his eyes flushing deep red as the blood spread through him. Mine would look the same. “Miss Francher’s gone, too?”

“Yes. Away shopping.”

There’d been a slight hesitation to that yes. “Shopping?”

“Off in the city. Dress fittings and such, see some movies, take in a few plays.”

I drained off my cup and managed to put it and the saucer back on the trolley without breaking either. “You’re a piss-poor liar, Barrett.”

He snapped a glare my way, shoulders and spine stiffening. “I am no liar, sir.” But he didn’t challenge me to a duel, so I was on the right track.

“You left something out, though.”

“Emily has gone to the city, as I said.”

“And?”

“None of your damn—” He cut off and shook his head, slumping a little. “Oh, bloody hell.”

The room got quiet since neither of us had a heartbeat. I waited him out.

“What does it matter?” he finally muttered. “You might as well know. She left me.”

The hell? “You’re kidding.”

But his visible pain said it all, explaining his general scruffiness and fatigued manner. “When?”

He grunted, shaking his head again.

“But you were together for so long.”

He gave a soft snort. “Not really.”

Yeah, to someone his age those years with her were an eye-blink. “Anything set her off?” Maybe the massive exhumation within sight of the house had been too much.

“This was some while in coming.”

Escott should be here. He was good at this kind of stuff and friends with the man. Barrett barely knew me and wasn’t thrilled about it. Making no comment seemed the best way to get him to talk. In this silent house one of us would have to say something.

He put his cup down, made a fist, and thumped it gently against his chair arm. “The last year has been…difficult. But it started before then.”

I made one of those encouraging sounds in the back of my throat.

“The first few weeks after her change to this life were not easy, but we got through it, and things were wonderful for a time. And then it began to fall to pieces so gradually we didn’t see what was happening. We had rows over nothing yet didn’t talk about the real problems. Too afraid to, I suppose. There is a great security to being in love. One does not want to face the terror of its death, so you pretend it is still there, that all is well, and you don’t have to be alone.”

“Until you can’t take it any longer?”

“Yes. Even so. There comes the point where being alone is not such an unbearable state after all. So she left.”

“That stinks, Barrett. I’m sorry.”

He gave a small shrug. “Thank you. I appreciate your listening.”

“She’s gone for good?”

“She packed for an extended trip, took both maids along to look after her during the day, and went to the city about a month ago. Last week I got a card from some place in Florida so I’d know where to forward their mail.”

“You write to Charles about this? He never said anything.”

“No, I did not. Perhaps when you return you could let him know for me. I haven’t the heart to write. Family laundry, personal business, and all that.”

“Sure. No problem.”

He leaned back in the chair, looking introspective. “Though this is hardly familial. We never married, though I asked her. Just as well that we did not.”

I couldn’t help but feel a tug of sympathy and not a little selfish concern for my own situation. I’d proposed to Bobbi until she’d told me to stop. She loved me, but wasn’t ready to take that step. Though our situation was different from Barrett’s, I couldn’t help but wonder if the same thing might someday happen to us.

That lasted about three seconds until I came to my senses. Bobbi and I were crazy about each other and had been through too much together. We didn’t have fights, either. It helped that she was usually right, while I rarely bothered to form an opinion in the first place.

I tried to recall what I knew about Emily Francher. She was—with her determined reclusive nature and a predilection for wearing layers of diamonds—eccentric, but hadn’t struck me as being very interesting. Barrett obviously cared for her, but I never saw what the fuss was about. The only spark in her that I’d noticed had come from the jewelry.

She’d been bullied into marriage by her mother, ignored by her husband, and made a young widow not long after. The experience must have soured her on matrimony. Barrett may have overlooked that.

And then what? Years later her young cousin murders her; she wakes up in a coffin, disoriented, not remembering her own death. Barrett had been overjoyed that she’d made the change from dead to undead, but Emily had a hard time taking it in, I’d seen that much in her eyes. Confusion, fear, denial, anger, and who knows what else in those earliest moments when everything you know has been flipped upside down and inside out. The memory of my own difficult resurrection still gave me the heebies.

Escott and I left the next night, assuming Barrett and Emily would live happily ever after. Now I could see where things might have been less than perfect for them. They’d prepared for her possible return, but not Laura’s death and vicious crimes. How had that hit Emily? Did she blame Barrett? Did she blame herself? And why in God’s name had she continued to stay in this oversized museum with its bad memories? She must have come to her senses; a winter trip to Florida would blow out the cobwebs.

“She’s coming back, though, right?” I asked.

Barrett shrugged. “I expect she’ll return in the spring, but things are too broken between us to ever repair.”

“You sure?”

“I am. For all that I adore them, women are absolutely maddening, and  damn me if I can understand any of them. I do know when one has ceased to love me. I just wish…well, there’s nothing for it, it’s the devil of our condition.”

“What is?”

“That I cannot get roaring drunk and forget about her for a time.”

Actually, he could. If he got enough booze into one of his horses or fed from a drunk human—but I wasn’t going to share that with him. I’d turned into a dangerous lunatic when it’d happened to me.

“So you’re going to stay on here a few more months?” I wanted to change the subject.

“Longer than that. Emily offered me the house. I bought it.”

That bombshell made me blink. First, I didn’t know Barrett had that kind of money, and second, that Emily was capable of doing something so big. Perhaps waking up undead had woken her up in other ways. Suddenly young again, free to go anywhere she liked, and able to do just about anything she wanted without worrying much about consequences; it must have been a hell of an eye-opener.

“You like it here?” I asked, not thinking.

He shot me a strange look, and unexpectedly began to laugh until it turned into a coughing fit. It took another teacup of horse blood to clear his throat. “I should explain—this is my home.” He waved a hand, palm up, indicating a wider area. “The land, I mean. The land belonged to my family long before that damned rebellion forced us to move to England. When I finally came back to see what had become of the holdings I found that it had been confiscated and sold—illegally—to some upstart who wouldn’t part with it.”

      “You’ve been after it ever since?”

“Please, I’m no lost heir looking to reclaim my kingdom. I only wanted to make sure it was preserved and not divided up and sold off a bit at a time. Past owners have been sensible about that sort of thing. Those who were not always benefited from a talk with me.”

Which would certainly include a bout of hypnosis. It’s what I’d have done to change someone’s mind.

“It’s why I attended a party years ago in the old house. There had been upheavals in the Francher family and Violet—Emily’s mother—was an unpredictable harpy. I wanted to see what she was up to…and then I met Emily and everything changed.”

Great, he looked ready to slump over and start a fresh round of misery. At this point every subject would lead back to Emily. He wasn’t the only one missing the numbing effect of booze.

“You’re going to live in this big place on your own?”

“For the time being. Lord, man, you look horrified. What would you have me do?”

“Get out and go somewhere and do something.”

“What? Find work? Our nature rather limits our choices, though I understand you’ve done well for yourself. Sir, as I have the means for it, I am content to be a country gentleman until such time as it wearies me. I will not deprive some fellow in greater need by taking his job. In turn, I shall provide employment for a few good-hearted sorts who won’t mind seeing to the more mundane aspects of running this estate in exchange for a fair wage from a lenient master.”

Sitting around with nothing to do but watch someone else polishing the silver would send me straight into the booby-hatch.

Barrett read my face. “That evidently holds no appeal for you, yet you have a nightclub. Charles mentioned it in correspondence. What is it but another version of what I have here? You employ people and oversee something that provides you a goodly amount pleasure and pride.”

“It earns a living.”

“A minor disparity.”

He was full of spinach, but it was his house, he was my host, and further disagreement would be bad manners. Once in a while, when I made the effort, I could be polite with the best of them.

Besides, I understood what it was like nursing a broken heart. I just didn’t like thinking about it.

“I appreciate your listening,” he said again. “You’ve helped lift the weight of some of my personal distress and to forget others. Those must soon be attended, to; we’ve a sad evening before us, sir.”

Maureen’s funeral. “When do we…?”

“The pastor will arrive a little before ten.”

“That late?”

“I allowed for the possibility that you might be delayed.”

“Won’t he think a funeral at night is kind of unusual?”

“When I was younger all funerals were held at night. Perhaps not so late, though. No need to worry about him or anyone else—I’ve seen to the legalities and done a bit of influence on those concerned to keep this quiet. It lacks courtesy, but I’d rather avoid gossip. Lord knows there’s been enough, what with Emily selling and moving out, and that construction equipment tearing things up.”

“You hypnotized the workers, too?”

“There were no workers. I rented equipment, got instruction on how to use it, and did it all myself.”

That was impressive, though I had a hard time picturing him in overalls and heavy boots and operating a bulldozer. “To avoid gossip?”

“When one chooses to put down roots for an indefinite period, the less talk the better. I wish to have a quiet life here, and laborers telling tales at their favorite tavern would work against that endeavor. If anyone found out the real reason behind the digging I’d have no end of interest from the police. One may influence for a time, but it never lasts, as you well know.”

Did I ever. There was a homicide cop back in Chicago just waiting to put me away on general principles. Now that I couldn’t hypnotize him anymore I took pains to keep my head down.

“I’ve let the curious think I’m excavating with the idea of building a new guest cottage on the foundations of the old house. In due time I shall give it up as a bad idea and fill it in again. Perhaps I shall plant new trees. I never liked the land there being so unnaturally flat. But that’s for the future.” He straightened a little. “There is another issue, too. I wouldn’t mind your advice.”

“Oh, yeah?” He was just full of surprises. “On what?”

“It can wait until after the service. The pastor arrives at about ten, along with the hearse for transport.”

“Trans—what do you mean?”

“To convey Maureen to the cemetery,” he said gently.

“She’s here?”

“Of course. Where else?”

“I thought she’d be at the funeral home or a church.”

“Different times, different customs, Mr. Fleming. Her casket is…well, I’ll show you if you wish to pay your respects.”

That phrase again. It sounded better when he said it. “Yeah, sure.”

“It is sealed. As you might have guessed, things were not pleasant, but it was a duty I could not impose upon another.”

Until now I’d been able to avoid thinking about that aspect of Maureen’s disinterment. It’s what made Barrett the better man. I wouldn’t have been up to the task knowing that it meant seeing her like that. I looked at him, feeling pity and respect. “That had to be…”

“Yes, it was. But it is past. We will look after her and lay her to rest and remember better times.”

Okay, that was something I could do.

“I must beg your pardon, I’m in no fit state for company. If you will allow, I’ll correct things after I show you to your room.”

He rose and led the way back to the main entry to get my trunk.

Barrett was ready to take the trunk upstairs himself, but I got there first. We compromised, each grabbing one of the leather handles on each side. On the second floor he surprised me again, ushering me into what had been Emily’s room. The big bed and some feminine-looking furnishings were left, but everything else had been cleared out, not even her scent remained.

“Hope you don’t mind,” he said, easing his end of the trunk down. “It’s the only bedroom that’s light-proofed and it has its own bath.”

The curtains looked to be inches thick, and the door to a large bathroom was open. If there’d been sheets on the bed and pictures on the wall it would have passed for a suite in a fancy hotel. “It’s great. If you don’t mind my asking, where’s Maureen?”

“Ah. Yes. This way.”

Downstairs again, he took me to the same room where Emily’s casket had been nearly two years earlier. That bothered me, but I couldn’t say why.

I hesitated; he went through, turning on the lights. They were also of low wattage, meant to soften things, I suppose. Futile.

Get it over with, he’s already done the worst part.

I made myself go in and saw pretty much what I’d expected.

Barrett had done her proud when it came to the flowers. He must have emptied a winter greenhouse. She’d loved roses. The color didn’t matter so long as it was a rose. Barrett had surrounded her with all kinds, along with carnations and other blooms I didn’t know.

As promised, the casket was closed. He’d picked a nice one, nothing fussy, but not cheap. The brass fittings gleamed like gold against the warm brown wood—until I realized they were gold or at least gold-plated.

I must have made a noise. He turned an inquiring eye on me.

“A problem?”

“I was just thinking what she might have said about this.”

He understood what I meant. “Yes. She would not have approved of the extravagance. I’m sure she forgives me.”

Half a dozen chairs were set before the casket. Too many, considering we were the only mourners, but it gave balance to the tableau, made it less lonely.

I took in the rest of the room as an afterthought and damned-near jumped out of my skin.

“Oh, my God,” I whispered.

Resting on an ornate easel was a life-size oil portrait of Maureen. It was at eye-level and disturbingly realistic.

Barrett gave me a moment, then stepped forward. “I had it painted in those years we were together. I…” He cleared his throat, for his voice had gone suddenly thick. “I wanted to see what she looked like in sunlight.”

I couldn’t speak. There was a knot in my own throat.

Memory is treacherous. It makes you forget too much of what’s important. It had taken from me the shine in her eyes, the color of her sweet lips, and a thousand other details.

Barrett murmured something and left us alone.

I pulled one of the chairs over and sank onto it, suddenly a tired traveler. The artist had done some trick with her eyes so she seemed to be smiling down at me.

She’d posed outside, drenched in sunlight so pure you could feel waves of heat coming from the canvas. Her clothing was a loose draping of material that imparted a timeless quality to the work. She held a brilliant spray of flowers, the originals long wilted and gone to dust, but their image preserved with her forever.

“I’ve missed you,” I said.

Maureen glowed back. She’d been happy, that was clear in every curve of her expression. Strangely, I didn’t mind that it had been Barrett who’d made her smile so. I’d seen that smile, too.

She’d changed me, and it wasn’t to do with my return from the grave. I’d loved her. A man doesn’t fall in love like that and not be permanently changed. Everything in my life to follow had been shaped by that love, up to and including how I now felt about Bobbi. Things were good for us because I’d learned the hard way just how fragile and brief a thing happiness could be.

I wanted to hear Maureen’s voice, hear her laugh again. Scraps of her tone if not her words survived in my memory. It wasn’t enough. She was gone, taken away forever by a stupid act of selfish, vindictive insanity, and it wasn’t fair.

At least I could look at her. Like Barrett, I’d also never seen her in sunlight under the intense blue of an untroubled sky.

Maureen suddenly blurred as tears welled and stung my eyes. I swiped at them. They kept coming.

I’d mourned for her before and had thought it was all out of me. The tears flowed despite that, and my chest ached from trying to hold things in.

Dimly, I was aware of water running elsewhere in the vast house. Barrett was taking a shower. Grief is a private thing. I don’t share that pain.

The rush of water meant he wouldn’t hear.

I’m not made of stone; alone in this hushed and private place I broke down and wept, truly wept for her.

 

  

Cleaned up, shaved, and in my good black suit, I waited in the parlor with Maureen, looking at her portrait, sometimes softly talking to her. It was crazy, but that was my business.

Barrett kept himself elsewhere in the house. He’d gone out to get a car from the garage and bring it around to the front, then retreated to his basement sanctuary. When the pastor and the others arrived he came up to answer the bell. I caught a glimpse as he crossed the entry hall; he’d gotten rid of the beard, washed and combed his too-long hair straight back, and was in a suit so sharp you could cut paper on the creases.

He brought the pastor in, introduced us, and smoothed over what might have been an awkward moment by explaining that this was a re-internment for the deceased who had died outside the country.

“It was her wish to be brought home,” he concluded.

“You show a great benevolence of spirit to go to such lengths, Mr. Barrett,” the pastor said.

“She was a good and kind lady, the like of which I shall not see again.”

“Were you related?”

“There was a distant blood relation between the three of us, yes,” he said with an absolutely straight face. He shot me a look, but I’d not made a sound, having successfully resisted the urge to snort.

“You gentlemen are cousins?”

“Several times removed,” I put in.

“Miss Francher the younger will not be attending?”

By that address I understood Emily assuming the identity of a young namesake invented for the purpose had been accepted by the community.

“Miss Francher will not be attending,” Barrett confirmed. “You may have heard she sold the estate to me and moved away.”

“I’m not one to pay mind to town talk,” the pastor said, proving himself to be as human as the next man with that fib. I decided I liked him and wondered if he’d crossed his fingers or would later do some sort of penance or prayer to get himself off the hook with his Boss.

The imperfect clergyman noticed the portrait and offered praise for the artist’s skill. Barrett discussed the painting’s history while sturdy guys in black suits took the casket from the room to load it into a hearse parked under the porte cochère. They came back for the flowers—two trips—and then it was time to leave.

We pulled on coats, hats, and gloves against the cold night. My snap-brim fedora looked racy next to Barrett’s aggressively somber Homburg, but then my hair wasn’t sticking out from under like a circus clown’s wig.

Parked a few yards behind the hearse was an impressive white Studebaker Champion; Barrett must have bought it from Emily along with the house. A nice car, but I preferred my newer two-door coupe.

“Blood relations,” I muttered, getting in.

“Perfectly true,” he said, starting the motor. He let it idle and warm up while the muscle brigade made adjustments to the loads of flowers. Some had to be put in with us, filling the car with the out-of-season smell of fresh greenery. As the estate sported a generous covering of snow from the last fall, I considered the miracles of modern living that made roses in February possible. It kept my mind off what was to come.

When things were resolved with the flowers, the hearse took the lead down the long drive to the main road. The white painted ironwork gate showing the name Francher was wide open, the gatehouse utterly dark, its shutters closed. I asked after the couple that lived there. The woman had been the head housekeeper, the man the gardener.

“The Mayfairs left not long after Emily’s accident.” There was no hesitation from Barrett on that last significant word. Apparently he was long used to referring to her murder in that way. “At first I thought I could influence them into accepting her changed condition, but she said it wasn’t something she wanted to force upon anyone. Mrs. Mayfair gave notice for the both of them, and they found employ with one of the Francher relatives in Connecticut.”

“Probably giving them an earful.”

“Hardly. She’s of a breed apart from most servants, very correct, intensely loyal, with no tale-telling. I can’t say her husband has the same disposition, but she’ll see to it he keeps his mind on his work.”

Nursing a broken heart or not, Barrett had a good life ahead, no loose ends from the old one lying around to trip him. If I had a suspicious mind I’d have thought he’d arranged it that way from the start. I only had his word on everything. For all I knew he’d done away with Emily, fired the servants, and had gotten me here to bump me off in revenge for Laura’s death.

Imagination can be an ugly, illogical thing. I’d been mingling with rough company for far too long. Escott trusted the man, and I could trust Escott. He was good at figuring people out, and didn’t waste time on bad guys unless it was to put them away. He also didn’t waste time on fools, which gave me hope for myself.

The road wound eastward, threading past various estates belonging to people who didn’t worry about money in the same way that others do.

Sometimes I’d see a mansion through the skeletal trees and thought about what living was like for those inside, but not for long since I didn’t know much about that kind of life, only what’d I’d seen in the movies. And how accurate was that?

I bet they all had really good cars, though.

Our parade eventually passed the gates of a very old cemetery on the grounds of an equally old church. The brake lights for the hearse flickered, then held. Barrett slowed and stopped, and we quit the Studie, standing out of the way while the men with the hearse did what they had to do.

I noticed Barrett slump again, head down.

“You okay?” I asked.

“This is difficult. Many of my family are buried here.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make him feel better. Uncomfortable, I thought of my own family and what the passage of the years would eventually accomplish. This wasn’t the first time it had crossed my mind, but I usually pushed it away, determined not to worry about things over which I had no control. I’d not told any of them about me; I didn’t know how or if I even should.

Maureen’s sister had known about her change, and that had ended in disaster. Barrett and I wouldn’t be here tonight if—

Damn it. Back roads named “if” were the worst. They wandered off in too many directions and no one had ever gotten anywhere traveling on them. But still…

I couldn’t help feeling that I’d failed Maureen. If she’d just come to me instead I could have done something to help, and she would have never gone to Long Island. I’d looked at that if from every angle for almost two years, and frustration was the only result. Her choice had been to seek out Barrett. He knew all the background and was the right one to go to, but it hurt that she’d said nothing to me. Maybe she didn’t want to have the new man in her life meeting the old one. Maybe she thought I wouldn’t have been able to handle it. Maybe—

Back roads named “maybe” were bad, too.

Whatever her reasons, she could never have anticipated a jealous fifteen-year-old girl would murder her.

The men lighted a few kerosene lanterns rather than using more efficient flashlights. I liked that. The glow from the flames softened and warmed things, though the shadows seemed to get darker. The big bare trees looked forlorn now, but in summer their shade would make things cool and peaceful.

“Barrett…is Laura here?”

His eyes sharpened for an instant. This was the first time I’d mentioned her. “No. She was taken to Connecticut. The Franchers have a family plot someplace. I’ve not been. I couldn’t stand to go.”

“Don’t blame you. This is a good place for Maureen.”

She was in a part of the cemetery so old that I didn’t see how they’d found room for her. I noticed headstones going back to the 1700s, and saw the name Barrett on some of them.

“The place picked itself. She’s…she’s in my grave.”

“Wha—?”

“That spot was mine. Once. For a day, until sunset when I woke. I never went back. It’s been empty all these years. I didn’t think she’d mind being with my family since hers was so disagreeable.”

He was the pip. He was also right. Maureen wouldn’t have minded.

Every so often Barrett took a deep breath of the chill air and released it as a long, slow sigh. I didn’t think he was aware of doing it. Then he spoke, his voice soft, “If only I had not been so blind about Laura…Maureen might still be alive.”

This was new. I’d never thought he might blame himself for her death. There was bitterness in his tone. He’d been mulling it over for a very long time.

“You’d have done something if you’d known,” I said. “You weren’t blind—Laura was just too good at hiding herself. Who in the world could have expected it? Not even Einstein could have figured her out.”    

He shook his head a little. “Don’t you mean Freud?”

“I meant Einstein. Freud might have, but you’re not him. It’s no one’s fault but Laura’s, and she’s gone now.”

“Yes. And just as well. She was an appallingly clever girl…I suppose it was for the best she took those pills.” He let that one hang in the air.

I’d worked on my poker face, but was glad he wasn’t looking at me. If my heart could still beat, it would have hammered hard for a moment. Barrett had figured things out. But was he going to do anything?

He drew another deep breath, then cleared his throat. “We’re here for Maureen, not the one who took her from us.”

Maybe not.

Or just maybe not here and now.

Or I could try kicking myself and stop being so damned paranoid.

Unexpectedly he dropped a hand on my shoulder. “Mr. Fleming, don’t ask me why, but Maureen loved us both, each in our own time. You are right: her death wasn’t my fault or yours. We’re better men for her life touching ours, however brief a moment. We can best honor her memory by never forgetting her.”

I mumbled something or other in agreement. He’d abruptly reminded me of my grandfather. The feeling I got was the same: that of an old man dealing with his pain by offering consolation to a much younger one.

“They’re ready,” he said. “One more walk.”

Thus did I find out I was to be a pallbearer. It wasn’t my first time, and I’d have just as soon shirked the honor. Hat in my off hand, I shared the weight of Maureen’s casket with three other men—Barrett paced slowly next to me, supporting his side—but it was a hard and heavy burden.

We set it down on the two-by-fours bridging the grave, and I was glad to back away from that gaping hole. Barrett caught my arm, preventing me from tripping over one of his relative’s stone markers. I grunted a thanks and composed myself to listen to the service.

Since the pastor hadn’t known Maureen, he limited himself to appropriate scripture with an emphasis on comfort for her two mourners. No hymns were sung, but we bowed heads in prayer, and I murmured along with the others. It was the bare basics, but done well. The pastor had an easy, sonorous voice, and read sincerely from his book. I liked what he read, and at the end I did feel comforted.

They lowered the casket; I picked up a bunch of roses and dropped it in after. Barrett did the same. The pastor said the ashes to ashes part. I had no idea what denomination he belonged to, not that it mattered. He’d done well by her.

Barrett cleared his throat again with a slight jerk of his head. I followed him from the grave.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“They’ll finish things when we’ve gone. Believe me, the sound of the earth falling in is not something you want in your memory.”

I could agree with that. I shook hands with the pastor and thanked him. Barrett took his turn, discreetly slipping the man a more tangible expression of appreciation, then we trudged off to our respective cars.

Barrett drove as before. Neither of us talked, but it was an oddly companionable silence.

The service was over, and I felt strangely lighter for it. Funerals are indeed for the living. I’d had that internal catharsis of saying good-bye; it was done. I’d spend the day in my room at the Francher house and leave at sunset tomorrow, taking the train back to Chicago and Bobbi. All I wanted was to be with her, and I was sure Maureen would understand.

We pulled in through the estate gates; Barrett didn’t bother to shut them. Perhaps he wasn’t as reclusive as Emily.

He followed the drive up to a point, then veered off, the Studie’s wheels churning uncertainly over the snow-caked lawn toward the site of the old house’s excavation. What the hell?

He cut the motor, shrugging a little in response to my look. “I’ll explain. If you would come with me…?”

The deepest night is like daylight to us, but he dug a flashlight from the trunk. Skirting the big piles of raw earth and mud-smeared trash, we moved closer to the pit, the heavy digging equipment looming like snoozing elephants. The wind had picked up and whistled a freezing note in my ears. I hunched futilely against its annoyance.

“This was dreadful work,” he said. “Brought back such a lot of unpleasant memories.”

All I could think was, that despite what he’d said earlier, he might have some archaic debt of honor to settle with me about Laura. Guys from his century fought duels for less. He could be planning to cosh me on the noggin and drop what was left into the deep end. A few minutes with the bulldozer would finish the job.

“I need your advice.”

So he’d said earlier. At the first sudden move I’d vanish.

“I left it here.”

In a broad space between the big machines was a roughly folded tarp with the remains of cut rope dangling from its eyelets. That must have come from the back porch where it previously covered the summer furniture. When I drew breath to ask a question the stink of decomposition from the excavation hit me between the eyes. Damn, why had he brought me here?

He pulled the tarp away, revealing an oblong wooden tool box. He squatted next to the box and opened it. The inside was packed to the top with snow. It being so cold and with the tarp for shade, there wasn’t much melting.

Barrett brushed snow from something about the size of a loaf of bread. With thumb and forefinger and no small distaste, he picked out the mud-smeared object from its icy nest and set it down across one corner of the box. Just so there was no doubt about what he wanted to show, he played the flashlight’s beam over the thing.

It was a man’s shoe—with the foot still in it.

 

 

 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

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Trade paperback, 8.5 x 5.5                147 pages 

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The first printing of 500 had an erratum with the author's name on the spine incorrectly spelled, apparently by a Lord of the Rings fan.  This new print run of 500 has had that fixed, along with a few typos spotted by an alert reader. 

The full story appears in this entry of her blog:

Stop the Presses! (Literally!)

The "500 Elves" erratum edition sold out. But here's what it looked like:

Typo to the left of them, typo to the right of them
Typo ahead of them; stacked, not sunder'd
Untouched by red pen or checkerspell,
Fresh from the Laser Printer of Hell
Into the Paste Orifice were sent the Five Hundred.

                                ---- Father Tim on LiveJournal

Copyright 2009 P.N. Elrod (and/or P.N. Elrond!) All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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