An excerpt from
The Devil You
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
— Jack Fleming,
Song in the Dark
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.
“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
“You’re looking for Jack Fleming, you found
“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
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
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
“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
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
“Take whatever time you need. You don’t worry
about anything here.”
I knew that,
“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
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
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.
“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
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
“Somewhat. Donated that lot to a museum.”
“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
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
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.
“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
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
“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.”
“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.”
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”
“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.”
“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
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.”
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
“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
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
Maureen’s funeral. “When do we…?”
“The pastor will arrive a little before
“I allowed for the possibility that you
might be delayed.”
“Won’t he think a funeral at night is kind
“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.”
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.
“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
“Of course. Where else?”
“I thought she’d be at the funeral home or a
“Different times, different customs, Mr.
Fleming. Her casket is…well, I’ll show you if you wish to pay your
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
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
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.
Get it over with, he’s already done the
I made myself go in and saw pretty much what
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
I must have made a noise. He turned an
inquiring eye on me.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“You gentlemen are cousins?”
“Several times removed,” I put in.
“Miss Francher the younger will not be
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
“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
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
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
“Don’t blame you. This is a good place for
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
on some of them.
“The place picked itself. She’s…she’s in my
“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
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
He shook his head a little. “Don’t you mean
“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.”
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
“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
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
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
“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