/ Language: English / Genre:antique

The Chosen

Edward Lee


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Restaurant manager Vera Abbot has come to The Inn to embark on the job of her dreams. But from the day she arrives, her dream turns into a harrowing nightmare. She hears strange footsteps, sees faceless figures in the dead of night…and is tormented by erotic dreams in which a hideous stranger makes love to her.

The past never dies. It only sleeps, waiting to unleash a new cycle of bloodshed and terror. For The Inn is a breeding ground for unspeakable atrocities. And now the time has come for Vera to be initiated into its secret world of depravity and horror—whether she wants to or not!

THE CHOSEN

By Edward Lee

Smashwords Edition

Necro Publications

— 2012 —

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THE CHOSEN

© 1993, 2012 by Edward Lee

This digital edition © 2012 Necro Publications

Cover, Book Design & Typesetting:

David G. Barnett

Fat Cat Graphic Design

http://www.fatcatgraphicdesign.com

a Necro Publication

5139 Maxon Terrace • Sanford, FL 32771

http://www.necropublications.com

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This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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For Jasmine Sailing

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The author, though in debt to many, would like to particularly thank the following cool people: Adele Leone; John Scognamiglio; Doug Clegg; Jack Ketchum; and Chara Mattingly (for all the great names!).

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PROLOGUE

Zyra withdrew the ice pick from the man’s throat. Her big eyes widened, sparkling. She loved to watch them bleed out.

“Ooo, lover,” she whispered. “That’s sweet.”

The naked body thrashed between her legs. Zyra leaned over and pinned him down, to watch his death throes more closely. Each raving beat of his heart emitted a thin jet of blood from the puncture, most of which shot up onto her breasts. She’d timed it just right—she liked irony: the points of three matrixes all touching at the same precise moment. It seemed to give the deed more meaning. It seemed to give it truth.

“Come on, baby,” she’d said earlier when they’d come in. A dump, she thought, glancing around. Lamplight blazed to reveal smudges on the walls; the room smelled of grease and old fried food. From a dark velvet portrait, Elvis sneered.

The redneck burped, fascinated as he pawed her impeccable physique. Zyra kicked out of her jeans, peeled off her top, and then hauled his pants off. She felt excited and hot. She straddled him right there on the tacky do-it-yourself carpet tiles.

“That’s right, baby. You just lay back and let Zyra make you feel real good.”

He beer-burped again, struggling under her to get out of his flannel shirt. Crooked teeth showed through his grin as he looked up. “You shore got yourself one hell of a killer bod, hon.”

Killer bod, she reflected. She could’ve laughed.

“Oh, yeah…yeah,” the guy began blabbering; Zyra promptly reached around and inserted him into herself. Not very big, she lamented. In her line of work, of course, she was used to much bigger, but he’d do. This was business, after all.

Her spread buttocks slid down, deepening the meager penetration. She thought of riding motorcycles as she leaned forward and ran her hands over his hairy, fat-layered chest.

“Good gawd, hon.” His eyes bulged in ludicrous ecstasy. A ball of lint filled his navel. “You shore’s shit feel good. Ain’t had me a scrap like this in a coon’s age.”

A coon’s age? She massaged his fatty pectorals as though they were breasts, while her own breasts swayed before his stupid, cross-eyed, redneck face. Poor little lover, she thought. He wouldn’t last long; they never did with Zyra. “That’s it, baby, that’s it,” she cooed.

His big rough fingers fiddled with her nipples. They plucked and pinched. His hips began to tremor; his face looked like a twisted balloon. Not yet, she commanded herself. He began to groan. Then—

Now.

Zyra’s climax released in a burst of vivid, hot spasms, when she felt the redneck’s own climax unleash. Ooooooo, she thought.

That’s when she jammed the ice pick into his throat.

He attempted to scream but succeeded only in gargling. Zyra smiled and held him down—she was a strong woman. He bucked beneath her like a just-gelded mule.

From the tiny puncture, the streams of blood emitted with a considerable velocity—it reminded her of a squirt gun. Squirt, squirt, squirt, on and on. This bizarre synchronicity fascinated her: his ejaculation exiting in time with his blood…

“Ready for my surprise?” she whispered. This was not a reference to the ice pick—as if that weren’t surprise enough!—but just another aspect of her demented lust. Weren’t writers always writing about sex and death? Zyra viewed this as a…literary pursuit…to further her orgasms as uniquely as possible—during the final convulsions of his life.

It seemed thrillingly perverse!

When she was done, she whispered, “Hope it was as good for you as it was for me.”

She leaned up. Blood dripped off her nipples. On a silly impulse she placed both hands in the center of the redneck’s chest and pushed down once very hard. A thread-thin stream of blood launched out of his throat and shot across the room. Wow! Zyra thought. The blood drew a high line along the wall and hit Elvis in the eye.

“I’d love to stay and chat, baby, but I’m afraid it’s bye-bye time for you.” She jammed the ice pick deep into the base of his skull and jiggled it around. The redneck stiffened once, gurgled a final objection, then died.

Muffled thumps beat from the bedroom. Zyra smiled when she heard the stifled shrieks. Lemi was in there taking care of the redneck’s little girlfriend. They’d come onto them at the bar, some frowzy hole called the Crossroads. Peanut shells carpeted the sticky floor; a country and western band ineptly twanged chords from the stage. “We all’s swingers,” the redneck had offered after the second pitcher of Carling. “How ‘bout yawl? Think ya might like ta come back ta our place fer a little partyin’?” “Sounds good to me,” Zyra had said. “Sure,” Lemi had said.

“And it was plumb one rat nass party,” Zyra now mocked. She was always talking to herself, or to dead people. “Thank ya much, yawl.” She sauntered nude into the bedroom. Lemi’s muscles tensed as he wrapped duct tape around the girl’s mouth. He’d already tied her hands behind her back. “Christ, Zy. You sure made a mess of yourself. Get cleaned up, will you? We’ve got to pop this blow stand.”

Zyra shook her head. “It’s blow this pop stand, Lemi. Get your quips right.”

He glanced up from the girl’s shagged head. “What’s a quip?”

So stupid, Zyra concluded. All men were. Her pretty bare feet left scarlet footprints to the bathroom. She showered quickly, turning her face and breasts into the cool spray. “Blub, blub, blub—bye,” she gestured, and watched the redneck’s blood swirl down the crusty drain.

She put her clothes back on as Lemi inspected the girl, who he’d lain out on the bed. He appraised her meticulously, like a housewife fussing over which melon was the ripest at the Safeway. “Hmm,” he considered. He rubbed some of her mousy lank blond hair between his fingers. “What a rat’s nest. We’re gonna have to do something with this.” Then he patted her buttocks. “And I’ve seen better asses, that’s for damn sure.”

“Quit complaining,” Zyra scolded, buttoning her fancy inlaid blouse. “We’re lucky to have her at all.”

“And look how skinny she is—Christ!” Lemi turned her over, frowning. “Practically just skin and bones.”

“We’ll get some meat on her.”

“Hope so.” He gave one of her breasts a squeeze, and seemed more satisfied. “Decent pair of tits, though, for such a lightweight. Firm” He patted her pubis. “Nice bush, too.”

“She’ll do just fine, Lemi,” Zyra exasperated. “How was she? You tried her out, didn’t you?”

“’Course I tried her out. Not bad. Tight.”

Zyra rolled her eyes. “Shit, Lemi, an elephant’d be tight, as hung as you are.”

Lemi chuckled. “She was pretty fiesty at first. But once old Lemi boy got in there with the rig—that took the fight out of her and fast. Not a half-bad tumble, as far as girls around here go.”

Zyra shook her head again. Men could be such pompous assholes, like having a big dick made them special. Zyra figured Lemi had more brains in his glans than his skull. She took a moment to look down at the girl. Zyra tried to feel sorry for her, but why should she? It wasn’t her fault it was a cruel world, was it?

The girl’s eyes bulged in terror, her thin chest heaved. She whined beneath the duct-tape gag as Lemi lashed her ankles and rolled her up in the sheets. “Get the stiff,” he said. “We gotta…blow…this…pop stand.” He scratched his head. “What a dumb quip.”

He carried the girl out to the van. Zyra went back into the living room. That was pretty dumb too. Living room? Dying room, she thought, smiling. She could still feel a tingle between her long, firm legs.

The redneck looked pallid as jack cheese, now that most of his blood had drained out of him. Zyra picked him up by his ankles, and dragged him like a big bag of leaves out of the bungalow.

The air had some nip to it; winter grew close. An errant breeze braced her, whistling through the trees. Zyra rolled the corpse into the back of the van alongside the girl. Then she slammed the doors shut.

“Start her up.” Lemi shivered in his flannel shirt. “I’ll take care of the joint.”

Hurry up! It’s cold! She gunned the van’s engine, cranked on some heat. A few minutes later, the secluded little bungalow burst quietly into flames, flooding the grove with wavering orange light and heat. Lemi jogged back out and climbed in. “Let’s googie, Zy.”

Boogie, Lemi. Let’s boogie—”

“Googie, boogie, I don’t give a shit. Let’s go home.”

Zyra wheeled the van down the long gravel drive. The flaming house shrank in the rearview, crackling.

Yeah, let’s go home. The main road took them toward the mountainside, into darkness, while the darkness took Zyra’s thoughts away into a silent, inexplicable joy. Every end is a new beginning, she pondered. It made her feel ageless.

“You know,” Lemi remarked, “I really like your hair that way. Glazed.”

“Not glazed, you idiot. Frosted. ” All she could do was shake her head and smile. It was hard to believe that men, however uniformly stupid, ruled the world.

“I can’t wait till things get started again,” he said, and relaxed back in the van seat.

Neither can I. The gagged girl in back shrieked in her throat. Zyra paid it no mind. It was a sound, among many others, that she’d long grown accustomed to. As she drove on, she got lost in more personal wonderings. It was a beautiful night. Crisp. Clear as crystal. The stars looked like a smear of luminous, cosmic spillage. There was beauty everywhere, if one looked closely enough…

Every end is a new beginning.

Indeed, this was their lot. They were always ending, and always beginning again.

The moon disappeared beyond the ridge when she turned up the narrow mountain road, toward home.

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THE OFFER

CHAPTER ONE

The kitchen was a madhouse.

Busboys fought with waitresses over racks of hot silverware. The hostess double-timed, coming in for water glasses and bottles of Evian, while full garbage cans were quickly dragged away and replaced with empty ones. “Get me some clean broil pans sometime this year!” one prep cook yelled. “Eat me!” the beer-bellied dishwasher yelled back. Cute waitresses bustled in and out, lost in the deep concentration of wine-list memory, the specials of the day, and the perpetual balancing act of carrying six entrees on one tray one-handed. “These salads have been up for five minutes!” the cold-line cook yelled. “Get ’em out of here before I start throwing them!” More preps shucked oysters, made hollandaise from scratch, and butchered lettuce heads to bits simultaneously. The swingdoors banged open and closed with equal simultaneousness, flushing the kitchen’s hot confines with periodic wafts of cool, reviving air.

It’s a madhouse, all right, Vera Abbot thought. She stood at the end of the hot line in a three hundred dollar vermilion evening dress. But it’s my madhouse.

In a sense it was. The Emerald Room was the best restaurant in town, and Vera Abbot was its queen. A year ago they were lucky to do twenty dinners on a weeknight, now they were doing a hundred plus. It was more than good fortune—Vera had used her foresight, her management skills, and good hiring sense to turn the place inside out. She’d also worked her ass off. The kitchen was like a multipart machine where the failure of one component would shut down the entire works. It was Vera who kept the machine properly tuned. If you wanted the best restaurant in town, you had to find the best people, bring in the best food, and offer the best facility. Vera had done all of that, and had transformed The Emerald Room from a glorified steakhouse to a state-of-the-art dining room.

She walked down the hot line, minding her high heels over the black slipmats. “Ready for the good news?” she asked the bulky figure at their dual Jenn-Aire ranges.

Dan B. jerked his gaze up from a pan of sautéed soft crabs, his tall white chef’s hat jiggling. He had every burner going with a different entree, not to mention the prime rib and the duck in the ovens. He smirked at her with a look that said Maybe it hasn’t occurred to you, but I’m kind of busy right now.

“The governor’s liaison just called,” Vera announced. “He’s bringing in a party of ten in twenty minutes.”

“Tell him to go to Burger King!” Dan B. close to yelled. “I’m running eighteen dinners per half hour since seven o’clock, and now he’s bringing in his stuck-up cronies? Christ, those guys eat like pigs! Last time they ordered two entrees each!”

“You can handle it, Dan B.,” Vera assured him. “You have my absolute and unhesitant faith.”

“I don’t want your faith,” the big chef sputtered. “I could use a raise, though, and while you’re at it how about getting me some secondary so I don’t have to do the jobs of three men six nights a week. And how about…”

Vera traipsed off, smiling. A good chef was never happy unless he was complaining. Dan B. was the best chef she’d ever known. No matter how well Vera ran the place, it didn’t amount to much unless the orders were superlative every time.

“Hey, gang!” he yelled. “Governor and his fat pals’ll be here in twenty! Get ready to bust your humps!”

The entire kitchen released a wave of moans.

Good staff worked best under pressure. The line preps didn’t even look up as she passed—they were too busy. Successful staff management involved the maintenance of respect and acknowledgement. Vera had pulled off both. Her employees respected her without fearing her, and they knew that good work would be properly acknowledged. They also knew that bad work would be properly acknowledged too, with a prompt invitation to take their skills elsewhere. Vera had honed The Emerald Room into a model of excellence, and in doing so, its reputation only attracted the most serious to its payroll.

“Would you please get me some clean broil pans!” the hot prep whined again. “You want me to start cooking the fucking fish under my Zippo?”

“You can cook it on my fat ass,” yelled back Lee, the dishwasher. His long hair swung in wet strings at his shoulders as he slammed full racks into the machine one after another. Then he rushed to the conveyor exit, madly unloaded the clean dishware, stacked it, and carried it to the shelves. Lee’s long hair and tremendous beer gut made him look like Meat Loaf on the skids. Vera dismissed his shortcomings: he drank on duty, griped to no end, waged nightly wars with the cooks—but he was a great dishwasher. Vera pretended she didn’t see the carafe of Wild Goose Lager that he’d secreted behind the machine.

“Like I don’t have enough to do,” he complained to himself. “You dumb fuckers make all the money and I do all the work. One day I’ll put my foot up all of you’re a—” He paused as if shocked, only then noticing Vera standing by the rack stand. “Oh, uh, hi, Vera. I, uh, I didn’t see you there.”

“Hello, Lee. Happy at work?”

“Oh, yes ma’am,” he stammered, then slipped away to carry more broil pans to the hot prep. Vera could easily put up with his manner. Any guy who would wash dishes all night, steam-clean grease-laden floors, and wade waist-deep in dumpsters—all for six dollars an hour—was worth putting up with.

She passed the coffee station. The kitchen’s din faded behind her. Going from the kitchen to the dining room was liken to going from one world to another. Humid heat traded places with cool calm, the racket of the dinner rush gave over to quiet conversation and light Vivaldi from hidden speakers. The maitre d’ was expertly pouring Perrier-Jouet for a table of state legislators. A troup of bussers prepared a large banquet table in back for the governor’s party. A smug critic from the Post meticulously sampled an assortment of appetizers: Oysters Chesapeake, grilled Muscovy duck, Crab Meat Flan, and a tuned-up variation of antipasto. He did not look displeased.

Even this late—9 p.m.—every station was full or close to it. The dining room, in three wings, was well appointed, leaning toward more of a social club ambience; Vera had seen to a complete face-lift when she’d taken over as R.M. Rich gray paneled walls rose to a high, raftered ceiling from which hung a great octagonal chandelier. Tapers flickered from inset cherry wood sconces; well-framed nautical artwork adorned the back walls. Vera had made sure to replace the old steakhouse furniture with real armchairs and oak dining tables. The east windows offered a spacious view of the lit city dock and the bay.

My baby, she metaphored. She stood by the service bar, gazing out into the quiet robotic activity of her employees. This used to be the place where diners came as a last resort, because downtown was booked. Now their weekend reservations extended a month in advance. Since the changeover, The Emerald Room had yet to receive a negative or even mediocre review. Whenever celebrities were in town, this was where they came to eat.

“Vera, you want to hear something strange?”

Glasses clinked. Vera peeked into the service bar. Donna, the night barmaid, talked as she automatically washed, scrubbed, and rinsed a flank of #8 glasses in the triple sink. She’d been hired as a big favor to Dan B. Donna was his wife. Donna was also a reformed alcoholic. Vera took her on with a condition: that she get on the wagon and stay there. “One fall, and you’re out,” she was informed. That had been six months ago, and Donna hadn’t had a drop since. Her return to sobriety had changed the telltale dark circles and pastiness into a fresh vitality. She was mid-thirties, sort of short and full-bodied. Twin short blond ponytails wagged as she vigorously bent to clean the bar glasses.

“Sure, Donna,” Vera answered. “I’d love to hear something strange.”

Donna stood up and faced her. Her eyes gleamed. “Someone’s been asking about you.”

“Let me guess. The county liquor board? The health department? Oh, I know, the feds, right? I knew I should’ve declared that sixty-cent tip I got last week when we were a waitress short.”

“You know that guy Chip, the manager at The Ram?”

“Well, I’ve known him for about five years, so I guess that means I know him.”

“Well, I was talking to him today, and he says this weird guy came in for lunch yesterday afternoon.”

“A weird guy. That’s not strange in this town.”

“So the guy asks Chip what’s the best restaurant in town, and naturally Chip says The Emerald Room.”

“Naturally,” Vera concurred.

“So then the guy asks Chip who’s the best restaurant manager in town, and naturally Chip says—”

“Me?” Vera asked.

“That’s right. You.”

This was obscurely flattering—being touted as the best R.M. in town to “weird guys.” But what was the point?

Donna rambled on, “And a couple of hours ago we ran out of ice, so I drove down to McGuffy’s to get some, and Doug Harris tells me the same thing. The same weird guy went in there for a drink and asked who’s the best R.M. in town.”

Vera’s brow lowered. “What did he say?”

“Same thing Chip said. You.”

At least I’ve got a good rep. Vera asked the next logical question. “Anybody know who this weird guy is?”

“No, no one’s ever seen him before. But Doug got his name. It’s Feldspar. Ever hear of him?”

“Feldspar? No.”

“Doug watched him leave; he parked in front of the Market House.” Donna paused for dramatic effect. “He was driving a brand-new red Lamborghini. Doug said it probably cost two hundred grand.”

Now Vera felt curious to the point of aggravation. Lamborghinis? Weird guy? What was this all about?

Donna raised a soapy finger. She had a way of making a short story long. “But that’s not the best part.”

Vera tapped her foot, waiting.

“Fifteen minutes ago, a nine-thirty reservation comes in. Want to guess what the name was?”

“Feldspar,” Vera ventured.

“Exactly. And he said he wanted an ‘interview’ with the manager.’’

Vera understood none of this. “What do you mean? A job interview?”

Donna laughed. “Vera, I doubt that a guy who drives a new Lamborghini is going to be looking for work as a busser. He said he wanted an interview, of the ‘utmost exigency.’ Those were his exact words. I took the call myself.”

Utmost exigency. No, he probably doesn’t want a job as a busser. “Nine-thirty, you said?”

“That’s right,” Donna verified. “You’ve got about ten minutes. Isn’t it mysterious?”

“Thanks, Donna.’’ Vera scurried off to the ladies room. Yes, it was mysterious, and she enjoyed mysteries. Was Feldspar an eccentric critic? The Emerald Room got them all the time, but even the most renowned critics didn’t drive two hundred thousand dollar cars. Then—

A buyer? she considered. An investor?

She hurried to freshen up. She checked her liner, powdered her nose, checked her coiffed, jet-black hair. Not looking too shabby tonight, she considered to the mirror. She adjusted the bust line of the low-cut evening dress; its vermilion chiffon gave off a warm, silky luster. Against her bosom glittered a brightly polished amethyst on a gold chain, a Valentine’s gift from an old boyfriend. The boyfriend hadn’t been worth a shit, but at least the necklace was nice. The stone’s crisp deep purple sparkled just right with her gold and sapphire earrings. But when she raised her hand to pat her hair back, a greater sparkle flashed in the mirror. Vera smiled automatically. Her engagement ring was beautiful—Paul had given it to her just last week. It reminded her of something more than what it was: the ring was a covenant, a piece of the future. She held it up, turned it in the bright light and watched it flash like a starburst. Yes, for a moment she knew she could see the future in its sharp-cut facets. The ring, and the bright likeness of herself which faced her in the mirror, reminded her how wonderful life could be, and how blessed.

««—»»

The valets scrambled. The red Lamborghini purred up into the entry court and stopped. The driver’s door didn’t open, it raised. Then a figure stepped out.

Vera, Donna, Dan B., and Lee watched discreetly from the double doors, peeking through the great front window into the court. “The valets are in the way!” Donna whispered. “I can’t see him!” Nor could Vera; she squinted between heads to catch a glimpse but only caught some vague dark shape. Just as vaguely, then, the shape claimed the valet stub and made for the entrance.

“Here he comes!” Donna whispered excitedly.

Lee scratched his beer belly. “Looks kinda short, don’t he?”

“And what’s that?” Dan B. squinted. “He gotta beard?”

“Come on, gang,” Vera complained. “It’s no big deal, it’s just some rich guy coming to dinner. Let’s get back to work.’’

The group disbanded. Vera remained in the kitchen cove, watching through the swingdoor window. She didn’t want to seem presumptuous; Feldspar knew that she knew he wanted to see her. Vera figured it was more professional to let the hostess seat him. When time came for this “interview” of “utmost exigency,” he would simply have to ask for her.

The hostess led him through the front dining room; Vera could only see his back. Dark suit, an unusual cut. Jewelry seemed to glitter on his hand. And Lee was right: Feldspar seemed short, as well as awkward. He slowly followed the hostess’s sleek shape as if walking with some equivocal caution.

No big deal, huh? Vera smiled to herself. If it’s no big deal, how come you’re standing here with your face glued to the window? Once again, the sense of mystery embraced her—it even titillated her. Who is this guy? What’s he want with me?

The hostess seated him at their best four-top in the window wing. Now Vera could only see him sideways from the rear. Stubby hands opened the menu. Feldspar seemed to study the entree list as if studying technical writing.

Was he disappointed? Let down?

Stop being silly, Vera suggested to herself. She went back to the hot line. Orders sizzled, tempting aromas sifted through the air. Vera looked off as the chef expertly pan-blackened two more orders of aged prime rib on the industrial eleven-inch burners.

“Relax, will you?” Dan B. Said. He spoke as he put an order of baby lamb chops up to go out. “You’re turning yourself into knots. Didn’t I just hear you say it was no big deal?”

Yeah, Vera thought. “I just hate being curious. What does he want? Why did he ask to see me?”

“He’s probably a wine distributor or something. Gonna drop a big check to impress you, then try to cut you a deal on whatever he’s peddling.”

Maybe. That sort of thing happened all the time; The Emerald Room’s wine list was coveted by every wine distributor in the county. Yet, for some reason, Vera felt certain that this was something else.

I’m sure that it is. But what?

««—»»

She’d kept tabs on him constantly, via the waitress. Feldspar had ordered the Flan and Calamari Italiano for appetizers, the smoked scallops salad, and Veal Chesapeake. He’d also ordered two snifters of Remy Martin Louis XIII, which cost seventy dollars a shot. The waitress had squealed when she’d come back to the kitchen.

“You look like you just won the lottery,” Vera remarked.

The waitress giggled. “Almost. His check came to one-eighty. He left me a hundred dollar tip!”

“I must be on the wrong end of this business.”

“And Vera. He wants to talk to you now.”

“Go get him, killer,” Dan B. chuckled.

Lee guffawed behind the dishwash conveyor. “Maybe he’s a pimp, Vera. Wants some new stuff for his stable.”

Assholes, she thought. Dan B. and Lee’s laughter followed her through the kitchen swingdoors. She felt foolish yet enthused. Outside, dinner was winding down. A Corelli violin sonata whispered beneath subtle dining room chatter and clinking coffee cups. In the window wing, a bulky shadow rose in silence.

“Ms. Abbot?” The voice was darkly genteel. A thick hand extended in greeting.

Vera smiled curtly, shook his hand. “You must be—”

“Feldspar,” Feldspar verified. “Please. Join me.”

Vera took a seat across from him. The table was clear now; a cup of coffee steamed between them. The candlelight seemed to blur her guest’s face.

“I apologize for the inconvenience,” the figure said. “I realize the hour, and how short time must be for you as the manager of this fine establishment. You are the manager, correct?”

“That’s right, Mr. Feldspar.” Behind him she could see the city’s late-night glitter through the window. Moonlight floated shard-like on the bay. It distracted her, making her avert her eyes from the man across the table.

Some manager, she caught herself. Managers were at least supposed to be interested in the satisfaction of their patrons. “How was your meal?” she asked.

“Preeminent.”

Now Vera could see him. He looked…odd, she evaluated. He seemed wide without being fat. He wore a black pinstripe suit—which looked like very good material—and a black silk shirt. No tie. The large pale face defied calculation as to age; he was old and young at once. His hair, as black as Vera’s, appeared oddly pulled back; an eloquently trimmed black goatee rimmed his mouth.

“Indeed,” he continued to compliment. “The finest meal I’ve had in some time.”

“That’s very nice of you to say. I’m glad you liked it. Would you like anything else? We have a wonderful assortment of homemade desserts.”

“Oh, no. No thank you. I’m not much of a sweets person.”

The moment held in check. Suddenly Vera felt childlike, looking at him in some kind of canted wonder.

“There’s something I’d like to discuss with you,” he finally went on. ”A matter of—”

“Utmost exigency.”

“Yes, yes. A…business proposition.”

Maybe Lee’s right, she wanted to laugh. Maybe he is a pimp. Several big rings glittered on his squab hands. A gold cuff link glittered F in tiny diamonds, and about his wrist she unmistakably noted the Rolex.

He must have sensed her distraction. “Forgive me. Of course, this must be a bad time for you. What time are you off?”

Vera fought not to stare at him. She felt certain he hadn’t come here to make a play for her. They were strangers. A business proposition, she reminded herself, yet still she shivered against the distraction.

What did he say? ‘‘I, uh…I’m off at midnight.”

“Fine. Would you care to meet elsewhere, then?” His hooded eyes seemed to recede in some of their gleam. “Or perhaps you’d prefer not to meet at all.”

“Oh, no, I’d be happy to,” she agreed too quickly. But why had she said that? Why hadn’t she first asked what exactly it was he wanted? The thought never occurred to her.

Feldspar nodded. “At your convenience, but of course. I’m afraid, though, that I’m quite unfamiliar with this city. Where would you care to meet? I’ll need directions.”

She couldn’t keep her eyes off the sparkling jewelry on his hands. Her consciousness felt like a split thread, twisting as it unwound. The confusion made her tipsy.

“How lovely,” Feldspar remarked.

“Pardon me?”

“Your amethyst.’’ His eyes gestured her necklace. “I’ve always found it to be the most attractive stone, regardless of price. True beauty must never have a price.” Then he turned his hand and showed his own amethyst set into a large gold pinky ring. “Your engagement stone is quite beautiful too.”

Now she knew beyond doubt that he wasn’t putting moves on her. If this was merely some sexual interest, why acknowledge her engagement?

“Thank you,” she eventually muttered. She had to visibly blink to get her mind back on track. What could it be about Feldspar that distracted her so?

“There’s a little tavern a block down the street,” she said. “The Undercroft. It’s quiet and quite nice.”

“Excellent. The Undercroft it is.” Feldspar rose and strayly straightened a lapel. “I’ll see you there at midnight. And thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to talk to you.”

Vera didn’t think to rise herself. She remained sitting there, looking up at this finely dressed, and strange, man.

She squinted. “But what exactly is it you want to talk to me about, Mr. Feldspar?”

“A job,” he said. “I’d like to offer you a job.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER TWO

Research, Paul thought. Yeah, that’s what this is.

I’m simply an observer.

It wasn’t that Paul didn’t trust himself—he was just bothered by conventions, by ideas. He knew he wasn’t going to do anything he shouldn’t do, but that did not fully legitimize the fact that he was an engaged man sitting in a singles bar.

Paul was a freelance journalist. Thus far he’d done over two hundred pieces for the area papers. Both the Sun and the Capital had offered him staff jobs, but Paul had turned them down. He liked to write about what he wanted, not some editor. It had been tough at first, real tough—when you were freelance, you were a man without a country. Yet, now, after five years, good writing and good ideas had made not only a name for himself but also a decent living. He liked social pieces, with a twist to give them some zing, some uniqueness. Apparently the papers liked them too; Paul hadn’t had anything rejected in several years. In fact, now they were actually paying him before his articles were finished, which was rare in freelance. It was an equally rare complacency: Paul Kirby had beaten the odds and was making it.

The Singles Scene: An Existential View. Paul liked the title. There’d been plenty of pieces on the area singles scene, but they were all fluff. The Sun had answered his query by commissioning it as a four-week series. Paul would investigate all of the local singles bars, describe each one, and then make a sociological comment. He didn’t just want to see the face, he wanted to look behind the face of this notorious chess match between the sexes.

So far he was not impressed.

Maybe he was too philosophical. Was he trying to philosophize something that was really barren of philosophy? Or maybe I’m too cynical, he considered. Before his involvement with Vera, he’d dated regularly, but never like this. If you were looking for love, a bar seemed the least likely place to find it. It was like trying to find health food at McDonald’s. Paul wanted to categorize the difference in perceptions—between single men and single women. Here, the men all seemed phony, and the women oblivious. It was a show of veneers of false faces and lust. It depressed him.

Kaggie’s, the place was called. It was starting to fill up. Big place. Two long bars, front and back, snazzy decor. The huge sunken dance floor stretched before a giant projection video screen. Above the pit the obligatory glitterball spun slowly, darting lancets of multicolored light. The air beat with music—some technopop bit by New Order, upbeat yet bleak if you listened to the lyrics. Paul felt buried in light, sound, and the motion of busy bodies.

This dump must’ve cost millions, he reflected. He ordered a Heineken but the keep brought him a Corona out of habit. Paul preferred not to drink beer that had the same name as the end of a penis. Subliminal advertising? he wondered and laughed. This place wasn’t selling beer—it was selling sex.

Lines: he jotted in his notepad. He’d heard some doozies already tonight. “Excuse me,” a glittery-dressed brunette had asked some tall guy with a black whitewall. “What’s a stuck-up, stone-faced asshole like you doing in a place like this?” “Looking to get laid,” the guy’d answered without a flinch. Paul had seen them leaving together after a few dances. Here were a few other winners: “Pardon me, but haven’t we never met before?” And, “Hey, baby, what’s the difference between a blow job and a Big Mac?” “What?” “Go out to dinner with me and you’ll find out.” And the best one of the night—a guy in a blue suit had walked up cold to a girl at the bar: “Hi, my name’s Dan Quayle. Can my father buy you a drink?”

But levity aside, Paul felt glum in disillusionment. These places were packed every night; plus, he’d seen many of the same people in a lot of the bars he scouted already. It seemed a way of life for them. How could anyone expect to find a true relationship in one of these dance catacombs?

Now the dj put on The Cure, a song called “Give Me It,” which about said it all. The crowd danced happily under the shroud of grim lyrics. Paul considered the dichotomy.

Then he considered himself.

I’m free of all this.

He was. It seemed an absolving realization. What made him more complete than anything else was Vera; his love for her was the last piece of his life fit firmly into place. He looked around him in this den of falsehoods, this den of lies, and knew how lucky he was. Paul had something real; these people didn’t.

I’m in love, he thought.

This realization, too, dazzled him. It seemed to purge him of mankind’s flaws. Love. Real love. Could there be any greater or more complete truth? He proposed to her only a week ago; she’d said yes immediately. It had been murder waiting, though: they’d been involved for two years but Paul knew in the first week that she was the one. Sometimes you just knew. You knew at a glance, you knew in a heartbeat—the essence of real love. It made him feel very grateful, to God, or fate, or whatever.

No relationship was perfect; too often couples failed because one side was left holding the bag of responsibility—one person making all the effort, the other making none. But Paul and Vera had grown into each other. They’d each made the effort to overcome life’s obstacles. It was almost too easy. That was how he knew it was real—the manner in which their bond had developed. Sometimes he could melt just thinking about her, seeing her in his mind: her beauty, her kindness, her ideals. He could not imagine being with anyone else in the world.

Paul’s love made him feel exalted.

“Excuse me. Aren’t you Paul Kirby? The writer?”

Paul glanced up. Two women stood to his right, a redhead and a blonde. “That’s right,” he said. “How did you know?”

“I saw your picture in the Capital once,” explained the redhead. “I’ve read a lot of your stuff.”

Paul felt distantly flattered; he was not used to being picked out of a crowd, especially in a bar crowd. He tried to think of an erudite reply, but some distraction pecked at him. Dots of light from the glitterball roved the redhead’s bare shoulders. She wore a short strapless black dress with a sash, black nylons, black heels. A knockout. The blonde looked less formal: a shiny blue blouse and designer jeans. She was slim, wan. Straight white-blond hair had been cut straight just below the bottom of her earlobes. She smiled meekly and said, “The City Paper said you were doing some articles on singles bars.”

“And that you’d be here tonight,” the redhead finished.

“Ah, so you girls came here just to meet me,” Paul joked.

“Maybe,” the blonde replied.

That was it. That was his distraction. Guilt. Single guy. Singles bar. Two single girls. Subconsciously he felt in violation. I’m an observer, he reminded himself, not that he needed to. He knew he wouldn’t cheat on Vera under any circumstance—he had no desire for anyone else. It was just the ideal that haunted him. But this was a good thing. He could talk to these girls, try to analyze them for their perceptions. It would make the article better.

“Actually, my name’s Dan Quayle,” Paul said. “Can my father buy you two a drink?’’

The girls laughed and sat down on either side. He ordered them each White Russians, a Heineken for himself, and rolled his eyes when the suspendered barkeep brought him a Corona.

Then the redhead leaned forward, eyes alight, and said, “So, Paul, tell us about your article.”

««—»»

At precisely the same moment, Vera Abbot strode through the entrance of another bar, a small brick-and-mortar tavern called The Undercroft. “The ’Croft,” as it was known to regulars, existed quite apart from the downtown hangouts and dance clubs. It was a bar with brains which attracted a specific patronage: beer connoisseurs, artists, writers, academicians, etc., not drunks, floozies, and sex predators. Ceiling rafters sported hundreds of imported beer coasters. Pennants decorated the front walls, from breweries as obscure as George Gale, Mitchell’s, and Ayinger. The long polished bar accommodated ten taps, and their inventory boasted over a hundred beers from all over the world. The ’Croft was not a place where one came to drink Bud.

Winter now had its teeth firmly set; Vera nearly shuddered in relief when she entered the ’Croft’s warm confines. Here everybody was everybody’s friend—almost everyone in the place, staff too, greeted her as she hung up her overcoat. Being here suddenly reminded her of the other less admirable bars in the area, and that reminded her of Paul, and the series of articles he was writing about local singles bars. Part of her didn’t like the idea of her fiancé surveying such places on his own, but that was selfish. Jealousy was one of many negative emotions that had never shown its face to their relationship. He was a professional writer; he’d been commissioned to write the series, and he was therefore committed to do so as effectively as possible. His dedication to his work was just more proof of his love. Before, he’d endeavored to be a good writer for himself—now it was for Vera too, and for their future together. She’d never had such easy mutuality in a relationship before, nor such unselfishness. It made her feel very stable with Paul, a verifier of his love.

It made her very happy.

Feldspar, the name seemed to pop upright in her mind. She’d almost forgotten why she’d come. Feldspar. The job offer.

Vera scanned the modest crowd. Down the bar three guys proposed a toast with Windex shooters. A couple at a side table leaned forward to kiss, while two art students argued over who was the more important writer: William Faulkner or Kathy Acker. Maybe Feldspar’s not here, Vera considered. Several friends who worked at the Radisson waved into her confusion. Maybe he lost interest. But what was his interest? Just what kind of job did Feldspar have in mind?

A smudge of darkness seemed to move, nearly glimmering; Vera sensed more than saw the squat figure rise. The back corner table by the fireplace, over which hung the ’Croft’s famous painting—a classically depicted nude woman lying in the woods before a ram and a goat. Feldspar, in his black Italian suit, smiled subtlety at her and bid the table with his jeweled hand.

“I got out a little early,” Vera hurried to explain. “I didn’t want to keep you waiting.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” Feldspar replied. “And again I’m grateful for your time. Please.”

Vera took her seat. Feldspar seemed to sit himself with some difficulty, as if he had a trick knee or something. It was the diaphanous black material of his suit that gave his shape the elusive shimmer. “I realize your time is precious,” he went on, finally settling himself. “But first, what would you like?”

Feldspar was drinking a Chimay Grand Reserve: Trappist ale in a huge bottle. He’d had several Courvoisier’s at the restaurant, plus two Remy’s, and now this. Yet he didn’t appear fazed at all. If Vera had drunk all that, she’d be on the floor. He’s paying, so what the hell? ”A GM would be nice,” she said.

“Fine.” Feldspar signaled the tablehop and ordered. He wasted no more time with subtleties. “I work for an investment company of sorts, one department of which is involved in exclusive resort facilities. We’re opening one in this propinquity.”

Vera opened her mouth, then closed it. He’s something, all right. “I hate to seem stupid, Mr. Feldspar, but I don’t know what propinquity means.”

He’d nearly flinched, as though the confession were absurd. “What I mean is, my superiors are opening a similar resort nearby. We’d like you to run it, or I should say, we’d like you to run the resort’s restaurant.”

Before she could make any response, the waiter brought her Grand Marnier. She sipped from the large snifter, luxuriating in the sharp taste and aroma. “I need to know more—”

“Details, but of course.” A thread of foam touched one side of his moustache when he sipped his ale. The ale looked murky, nearly crimson, with fine white sediment sifting in the glass like a snow orb. “We’re a renowned chain, and an exclusive one… Also a very private one. In other words, the name of my firm would be meaningless to you.”

“Try me.”

“Magwyth Enterprises,” he said.

“You’re right, I’ve never heard of it.” He must be exaggerating. Vera read all the hotel journals and trade magazines; how “renowned” could this company be if she’d never even heard of it? She made a mental note. Magwyth Enterprises. Look it up.

Feldspar stroked his trimmed goatee. “And I must add, in all due appropriateness, that our resorts are extravagantly successful.” He took another sip of his ale, held it in his mouth as if deliberating a fine wine. “To the extent that we have considerable capital at our disposal. We’re prepared to spend it, without restraint, in order to facilitate the best exclusive resort hotel in the area.”

Was Feldspar really a businessman, or a dreamer? Such endeavors, these days, cost multiple millions. This sounded like big talk to Vera, but then she reconsidered. Feldspar’s jewelry glittered at her; he was probably wearing enough rocks to pay her rent for a year. And she remembered the Lamborghini.

“Most of the renovations are complete,” he continued. “The restaurant is all that’s left to be finished, just minor details, which we’ll leave to you.”

“What exactly are you renovating?”

“An old manor just north of here.” He quickly produced a slip of paper, squinting at it. “Waynesville— that’s the name of the town.’’

Just north of here! Waynesville was north, all right—about a hundred miles north, right on the state line. Then…Old manorWaynesville…She had read something now that she thought of it. “Not Wroxton Hall,” she said.

“Yes,” he beamed. “You have heard of it.”

God! “Mr. Feldspar, Wroxton Hall is a dump, I’ve seen it—” And that she had, last year on a drive up to Eerie to visit some relatives. “Dump” was a compliment; the great Gothic mansion had been gutted, vacant for decades. And the location…“Why on earth did you choose Waynesville? It’s so…” She faltered; she mustn’t insult him. It’s the sticks. It’s the boondocks. Vera couldn’t think of a worse location for this sort of resort. This was mountain country, the northern ridge, and no major cities in a fifty mile radius at least. Just destitute little farm towns and some logging burgs. Fine dining would never make it up there. The whole idea was crazy.

“I know what you’re thinking.” Feldspar, again, produced that bewildering smilelike facial gesture. “And I understand your perplexity. As I’ve stated, our resorts are very private; a remote locale is an essential prerequisite for our patronage. You needn’t worry about an insufficient following.’’

But how could she not? And that wasn’t all Vera was worrying about. The locale was bad enough, but there was one thing even worse than that—

“You’re aware that Wroxton Hall has quite a past, aren’t you, Mr. Feldspar?” She twirled the pretty liquor around in her snifter. “In the twenties and thirties Wroxton Hall was a rather notorious—”

“Sanitarium,” he finished for her. His next chuckle was the most genuine yet. “Yes, Ms. Abbot, I’m quite aware of that, and the things that supposedly went on. But that was over fifty years ago.”

Vera wondered if that mattered. You could paint over a stain all day and the stain would still be there. “And you’re also aware ”

Feldspar maintained his chuckle. “Yes, Ms. Abbot, I’m well aware of the stories. But, really. We’re an enterprise, we’re business people. We don’t believe in ghosts.”

Neither did Vera, but that was hardly the point. “I just don’t think that anyone’s going to cater to a resort with a history like that.” Like…what, though? Vera didn’t know all the details, but she got a fair gist from the little she read of Wroxton Hall’s history. The hall had been leased by the health department as a convalescent domicile for the state’s most hopeless mental patients, and evidently some things went on that probably wouldn’t qualify as ethical health-care protocol. Questions arose as to exactly why the bodies of deceased patients wound up in military research labs, and still more questions arose as to exactly how these patients came to be deceased. There were also reports of the ward staff taking some considerable liberties with female patients. There was something about sadism, torture, pregnancies.

And, of course, something about ghosts…

It didn’t matter that this drivel had been fabricated by lore mongers and demented imaginations. Bad reputations had a way of lingering. Vera could see the ads now: Escape to Waynesville’s Romantic New Resort, Wroxton Hall, a Dreamy Little Getaway Complete with Torture Chambers and Luxury Suites in Which the Mentally Ill Were Raped and Murdered. Just the Place For You and that Special Someone to Get Away From it All and Mingle with a Delightful Coterie of Ghosts.

Christ, Vera thought.

“What is your current salary?”

She struggled not to smirk. But as ludicrous as it seemed to her now, this was still business. Why not at least see what Feldspar had to offer?

“Twenty-eight,” she said.

He stared back. “Well, I assure you, Ms. Abbot, we routinely pay our R.M.s many times more than that. More in the vicinity of a hundred thousand or so.”

Now it was Vera’s turn to stare. This was preposterous; no one paid R.M.s that much. ”A hundred thousand a year? Are you serious?”

“Quite.” He seemed to shrug. “In addition, there are many other benefits which, I should think, are rather standard.”

“Such as?”

“Well, two weeks paid vacation, travel expenses included. Free health insurance, free life insurance. Free room and board—”

“You’re kidding?” she questioned, astonished.

Again, Feldspar appeared as though nothing were amiss. “The inn has one hundred and sixty rooms. Some of them we’re reserving for staff. As upper management, of course, you would be entitled to a suite of your choice. They’re quite nice, I assure you. And there’s always the company car, for which we assume all expenses—”

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Vera interrupted. She could fathom none of this. She held her hands up, thinking, trying to assess this unassessible circumstance.

“If the money’s insufficient,” he added, “I’m sure we can come to a mutual agreement. Say, a hundred and…fifteen thousand?”

Vera flagged the tablehop for another drink. This must be a sham, she concluded. It MUST be.

“And, naturally, we will assume your moving expenses, plus a cash compensation.” From the black jacket, Feldspar next produced a check, which he slid across the table.

Vera picked it up. Stared at it. Gulped. pay to the order of Vera Abbot the amount of Ten Thousand Dollars—$10,000.00.

This was not a personal check; it was a precleared certified bank check. Unbouncable. Start-up compensation and moving remittance, it read on the for line. It was dated today.

“You’re offering me all this?” Her breath felt short. “You don’t even know me.”

“Personally, no,” he said. He poured more Chimay very steadily, careful to run the murky ale down the side of the glass to forestall a rise of head. “But as a manager myself, I know what I need to know about you with regard to my company’s business interests. I’ve dined in every restaurant in the city. Yours is by far the finest. I’ve made extensive inquiries as to the most efficient restaurant manager in town. Your name came up more than any other. That is all the knowledge of you I need. You, Ms. Abbot, are the person we want to run our restaurant.”

But Vera was still gaping at the check.

“And there’s another consideration, isn’t there?” Feldspar removed a black-and-gold cigarette case, then lit a Sobraine with a diamond-studded Cartier lighter. “I’ve been all over. I’ve been doing this for years. And I know that everyone has their dreams. What are your dreams, Ms. Abbot? I have yet to meet a restaurant manager whose ultimate long-term aspiration was not to one day own a restaurant of his or her own. With the money that we’re paying you, if you’re sensible financially, you would have sufficient funds to purchase your own establishment, most anywhere you like, in four or five years. Many of our R.M.s have gone on to do just that. Am I correct in my surmise?”

Vera could not dispute this; Feldspar was right. This was Vera’s dream, to some day own a place of her own…

And I could, she realized. At that salary, with all her major expenses paid by the company, she’d be able to save enough to buy her own place in cash. No assumed loans, no mortgages. If she invested the majority of her net, in four or five years she’d have more than enough.

But—

The image crumbled, a house of cards exposed to a sudden draft.

What are you thinking, you idiot? she asked herself.

“I’m engaged,” she said.

“I foresee no problem in that regard,” Feldspar promptly replied. “Your fiancé can move with you. The suites are not only well restored but quite large—”

“I’m engaged to a metropolitan journalist,” she explained. “He writes about cities, not farm towns. There’d be nothing for him to write about in Waynesville. His career would fall apart.”

“Then he can commute.”

“Waynesville is a two and a half hour drive at least.”

“Then he can remain here during his assignments, and be with you on weekends or some such. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Many upwardly mobile professionals maintain relationships around their separate careers.”

Upwardly mobile professional. She stared glumly at her drink. Is that what I am?

It’s your call, Vera, another voice seemed to trace across her mind. She could talk to Paul, but…it would never work. Driving nearly three hours each way every day? Or a weekend romance? Vera knew too many good couples whose bonds had snapped under such circumstances. This job offer was phenomenal. She’d be crazy to turn it down if she wasn’t—

If I wasn’t in love, she realized. But I am. And that’s more important to me than money.

That simple truth made her smile. She was in love. Suddenly nothing else mattered, nothing else at all.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Feldspar,” she said. “I appreciate your confidence in me, and I’m grateful for your generosity. But I’m afraid I can’t accept your offer.”

She handed the ten thousand dollar bank check back to him.

“Why not sleep on it?” the man suggested. “Think about it. Why not at least consider trying us out? We won’t hold you to a contract. Come and work for us on a probationary basis. If you don’t like it, or if, in fact, it does burden your relationship, then quit.”

A fair proposal, and a logical one. Vera could not deny that the offer excited her. But she knew. Sleeping on it wouldn’t change that, nor would trying the job out. She knew it would distance her from Paul. And she knew she would not risk that, not for anything.

“I’m sorry,” she repeated.

“Your mind’s made up, I can see.” Feldspar didn’t seem angry at all, nor disappointed. He’d made his pitch and he’d lost. He would simply have to find someone else. “It’s regrettable, and I’m certain that you would do wonderful things for our restaurant, as our restaurant would do wonderful things for you. But your priorities are set, and I see that they’re admirable. I must go now, Ms. Abbot—” Feldspar left a one hundred dollar bill on the table. “I thank you for your consideration, and I wish you luck in all your endeavors.”

“I wish you luck in yours,” she returned.

Feldspar awkwardly stood up, pushed his chair in. His jeweled hand glittered like tiny lights, particularly the amethyst in the gold pinky ring. In the odd man’s eyes, Vera saw it all: no, not anger or disappointment. It was sadness.

Feldspar smiled. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning; I’ll be staying at the Radisson tonight. On the off chance that you should change your mind, please contact me.”

“I will, Mr. Feldspar.”

“Good night then. I’m happy to have made your acquaintance.”

He turned and left. Vera’s eyes followed him out. It wasn’t a limp he walked with but a slight slow-step. Vera felt sad herself, seeing him leave. In a moment the short, broad figure had wended through the standing crowd and disappeared.

Vera finished her Grand Marnier. Something seemed to struggle in her psyche, but the notion quelled. Her love was worth more than money. She knew she’d done the right thing.

It was time to go home now, back to her life and to her love.

— | — | —

CHAPTER THREE

His mind seemed to disperse as though his skull had dissolved. Lights ran like smeared neon. Where am I? Who am I? He wasn’t sure. Gradually all that was real to him transposed with a thousand unreal ecstasies. Shapes moved like intent chiffon blobs through the close space of wherever he was.

What’s…happening?

He saw voices and heard tastes. Luxuriant scents touched him palpably as deft hands. From somewhere music played; he could see the notes floating from the speakers, a slow passacaglia by Bach. Each dark note seemed to approach him like an amorphous physical presence.

He felt skewered; he couldn’t move. He felt cosmically heavy and light as air at the same time. He could hear the blood push through the arteries in his brain.

“Watch,” a voice kneaded him.

He opened his eyes. The smeared lights dulled to pasty white, images congealing like lard, squirming.

When he realized what he was looking at, he screamed.

He was looking at his own body sprawled beneath him.

He felt his distant muscles seize, his tendons tighten. He watched his sweat-sheened chest heave in terror.

Wet, syrupy laughter launched about his head like a flock of great black birds.

The old Tercel coughed against the cold, then sputtered to start. Cracks had formed in the dash, the upholstery was peeling, and the brakes squealed as Vera pulled out of the lot and turned onto West Street. Even a company car, the thought drifted. I wonder what kind? An Iroc? A Mustang GT? Maybe a Vette! She knew she was being silly. Even a moped would be better than this clunker.

It was fun to think about, at least.

She knew she’d made the right decision. What other decision was there? To even consider taking Feldspar’s offer was nothing more than a fantasy. Still, she wondered what Paul would say.

The Tercel puttered on, hitching through gears. The heater blared cold air. She rounded Church Circle and veered onto Duke of Glouchester. Spectral blue lights illuminated the great dome of the State House, below the bright moon. Icy street lamps shimmering through the winter air made the streets look frosted. More light weirdly assaulted her at the turn before the bridge: an ambulance roving slowly with its red lights throbbing but no siren.

Her mind strayed as she traversed the bridge. The bay chopped, treacherously black with squirming tails of moonlight. Beyond, myriad sailboats and yachts bobbed in their marina slips. A hundred and fifteen thousand dollars a year, she mused. A higher tax bracket, but so what? With the free car, plus no rent or food expenses, she’d be able to bank fifty a year probably. She’d —

Stop it! she commanded herself, half laughing. A fantasy is all it’ll ever be.

She and Paul shared a decent two-bedroom apartment off Spa Road. It was nice, not too expensive, and all they needed. Paul used the second bedroom for an office, to write. They’d accepted the commonplace nuisances of apartment living—occasionally squalling babies, footsteps on the ceiling, and the explosive wee-hour arguments from the neighbors—as part of the deal. Soon they’d move to a townhouse, or maybe even a small home when they’d banked enough money for a decent down payment. Like most else in life, a relationship could only proceed one step at a time.

Vera parked. The lot stretched on coldly with dark cars. It wasn’t even midnight yet; she was home earlier than usual, which was a good thing, considering the crush of diners they’d had tonight. She felt seduced by the idea of a good night’s sleep.

The moon rose so brightly she squinted; her high heels tapped along the frigid sidewalk. She whisked herself up the steps, fleeing the bitter cold like muggers, and sighed at the gush of heat when she let herself in.

The living room was dark. Paul must be asleep. Despite her fatigue, the excitement still ticked: she couldn’t wait to tell Paul about the offer, but now it looked as if she’d have to wait till morning.

What will he say? she wondered again, more intensely this time. The question, now, seemed to shimmer, like the cold night, the moonlit bay, and Feldspar’s squat, jeweled hand and silky suit. She stood, suddenly stiff in the dark living room. Why was she thinking these things now? Maybe Paul would want her to take the job. Maybe he wants to move. He often mentioned a desire to write books someday. He could pretty much do that anywhere, couldn’t he? Vera’s new salary, plus the free room and board, would give Paul all the time he needed to write.

Why didn’t I think of that before?

Was she being selfish? Vera wanted the job—just not at the expense of her relationship. She was prejudging the situation. Perhaps Paul would be as enthusiastic about it as she was.

There was only one way to find out.

She went down the warm, dark hall, not even yet having taken off her coat. This was important, and the only way she’d know how he felt was to ask him. She’d wake him up and ask him.

But only a few steps showed her she wouldn’t need to. The bedroom light glowed in the door’s gap; he wasn’t asleep after all. Must still be up, reading. Paul read a lot of books, lots of philosophical fiction like Kafka and Drieser and Seymore, and a lot of sociology texts. Vera’s excitement carried her to the door, and when she opened it—

What the…

The scene divided her perceptions. Wrong apartment! she squealed at herself, forgetting that her key had unlocked the front door. She did not consider logic at this precise moment, she couldn’t. She’d walked into the middle of an orgy.

Her hands fell limp at her sides. At once her senses collided with the lewdest scents, sounds, and glimpses. Wrong apartment, she thought again, only now it was the limpest thought that had ever occurred to her, and the palest lie.

This was not the wrong apartment. It was her apartment—hers and Paul’s—theirs. This was their bedroom, their furniture, their carpet and their pictures on the wall.

This was their bed—

—on which now the most perverse scene unfolded.

Vera’s eyelids felt held open by hooks. Three nude figures crowded the bed. A skinny lank-haired blonde, whose wrists had been lashed to the bedposts, lay on her back with her legs splayed. Her eyes looked glazed; she was grinning stupidly. A man stood between her legs on hands and knees, his head lowered in steady cunnilingus. He looked like someone trying to push a peanut with his nose. Though his face was busily buried, Vera knew at once that the man was Paul.

A second woman, much more beautiful than the blonde, knelt aside. She grinned down fixedly, as if in supervision, stroking Paul’s back. She had perfectly straight, light-red hair that shimmered like satin, and large, erect breasts.

“Baby want some more?” she asked.

The skinny blonde wagged her head. On the night stand sat a small jar of some mauve powder. The redhead leaned across, stuck a tiny coke spook in the jar, then brought it to the blonde’s nostril, into which the small amount of powder instantly disappeared. The blonde went limp against her wristbonds, her grin widening. “Aw, God,” she moaned and lolled her head.

“That good, baby?”

“Aw, God…”

“How about you, Paulie?”

Paul’s head raised between the blonde’s canted thighs. He took the spoon, indulged himself of the whitish powder three or four times, then reburied his face into the blonde’s great spread of tawny pubic hair.

Vera watched all this as if watching a traffic accident—in remote horror. They hadn’t even noticed her standing there. The bright light felt raw in her eyes. Past the scene, on the dresser, sat a framed photograph of Paul and Vera arm in arm on the City Dock last Valentine’s Day.

Vera couldn’t even begin to speak. She felt encased in a block of concrete with only two holes through which to peer. Her impulse was to scream, to lunge forward—to react. But her body would not respond to the commands of her brain. All she could do was stand there, immobile as a post, and bear witness…

The blonde looked pallid, the deep lines of her ribs highlighting her malnutrition. A tiny tatoo showed at the center of her throat, a diminutive southern cross. Her bare feet churned in the sheets; her hips subtlely rose and fell against the dutiful attentions of Paul’s mouth. “I’m gonna come again, I’m gonna come again,” she kept murmuring through her stupor. Her wrists strained against the stocking bonds, tendons flexing.

Next the redhead walked around the bed to fetch something. Midstep she stopped and turned. She grinned at Vera.

“Hey, gang. We have a guest.”

The blonde glared. Her breasts looked like nippled pancakes. “Get lost, cunt, unless you want your face rearranged. Find your own blow—four’s a crowd.”

“Now, now,” the redhead toyed. “We can be more polite than that, can’t we? Besides, she’s kind of cute, and I could go for some fresh pussy.” Her blue eyes sparkled at Vera. “Come on, sweetheart. Get out of those clothes. Let’s see how you taste.”

Vera stared back in the sickest shock. Paul’s head came up again, his mouth shiny. He looked at Vera for perhaps a second, seemed to make no recognition at all, then returned again to his oral duties. His tongue churned furiously.

“Don’t be shy. We’re all friends here, we’re good friends. Paul picked us up at Kaggie’s, he even paid for our drinks.” The redhead traipsed to the nightstand opposite, took something up in her pretty shiny-nailed hands. “Or maybe you’d just like to watch first. That’s okay. I like to watch too, like to get real wet and boned up, you know?” Her breasts stuck out like skin-covered glass orbs. She looked healthy, robust; lean but very shapely. Paul continued to maneuver his tongue against the blonde’s unruly thatch. Vera’s stomach roiled at the wet smacking sounds; it sounded like someone eating a sloppy meal, which, in a sense, it was. Vera dizzied at the zeal with which Paul devoured his seedy slat-ribbed companion. “Your boyfriend likes to be fucked,” the redhead proclaimed. “Did you know that?”

The comment seemed cavernous, echoed down from a high, rocky palisade. What did the woman mean? The lewd noises went on, enlaced with the blonde’s loud, slow moans. Then came a sliding, sucking sound, like opening a can of peanut butter, then an even worse slick clicking.

Whatwhat is…

The redhead scooped something out of a big jar. She came around to the foot of the bed—

what is she…doing?

Vera wanted to scream till her face turned red. Your boyfriend likes to be fucked. She saw now the lengths to which this obscenity would go. Her eyes erratically roved the redhead’s robust physique: the sleek, pretty legs; the thimble-sized nipples; the trim waist and gorgeous hourglass figure. A hot breath snagged in the redhead’s chest as she stickly applied something to herself.

Oh—my—God…

Regardless of the clearly feminine physical attributes, the redhead sported one feature that was not particular to her gender.

A penis.

Vera’s stare melted like a paraffin mask.

She’s got a… she’s got a…

The redhead was a transexual. At least that’s what Vera thought she must be, halfway through the procedure. This was a hideous parody, the near-perfect female physique made aberrant by male genitals. At first Vera thought it must be artificial, but a more intent inspection easily revealed its authenticity: the gorged purple glans, the veined shaft.

Also revealed was the label on the bigger jar: vaseline.

The redhead hummed contently, slicking her hideous erection with the lubricant. It looked huge, gorged stiff and throbbing. The redhead stroked it a moment, leaning her head back with closed eyes. Testicles large as eggs constricted in the dangling scrotum.

“Sandwich time, Paulie. Guess who’s the bologna.” The redhead glided her greased hand up Paul’s buttocks, then pushed him forward.

This is impossible, Vera tried to convince herself. This…can’tbe.

But it was. Paul crawled up the bed, then slowly lowered his hips. The redhead guided Paul’s penis into the moistened fissure of the blonde’s sex. She let him pump awhile. The bed groaned along with the blonde, whose legs flexed beneath Paul’s thrusts. Her bonds stretched against the brass bedposts. Paul plied her meager breasts and sucked red marks into her throat.

“That’s it, Paulie, nice and slow and deep.” The redhead continued to stroke herself. “Stick that cock in her right up to the balls.” Then she kneed up onto the bed, leaned forward. She carefully parted Paul’s rump and began to sodomize him.

Vera gulped as if swallowing a stone. Her bulged eyes strained against their sockets. The redhead, poised on her hands, paused a moment to grin at her. “Stick around, sweetheart. I’m gonna come up his ass so much it’s gonna squirt out his ears.”

Vera churned back, broke her paralysis, and tripped out of the room. Nearly mindless, she staggered down the dark hall, found the kitchen, and vomited into the sink.

Each eruption of vomit seemed to shake her heart loose from the seats of her soul. Yes, that’s what it felt like: emptying her soul as well as her stomach. Each spasm blinded her.

How long she remained bent over the sink she’d never know. The bedposts thumped the wall in the other room, squeals and chuckles fluttered behind stifled grunts. Vaguely she detected music—an organ work by Bach that she’d bought Paul for his birthday.

“Gimme more of that class A blow,” she heard the blonde hotly request. “I’m gettin’ ready to come again, and I wanna do a big toot while I’m gettin’ off.”

Vera walked numb out of the apartment. She let the front door close behind her. She walked down the stairs, out the lighted brick entrance, and into the cold night.

A single tear hitched down her cheek. She did not scream, she did not sob, she did not tirade.

All…gone.

She simply got into her car and drove away.

— | — | —

CHAPTER FOUR

Sunlight blared in her slitted eyes. Vera awoke shivering in the back of the parking lot at Mr. Donut. She’d slept in the car all night, in the bitter cold. Her lips felt like pieces of coral, her fingernails were blue. Frigid air circulated through the car: she’d left the motor running, to keep on the heat, but had run out of gas.

She stared into the sky.

No, she thought.

Several cars crawled by to the drive-in window. Faces peered at her. The sunlight felt like a mainline of memory, rekindling to her brain the disgusting scene she’d witnessed last night on her own bed.

No. No. No.

But it was no dream. It was all true, she knew it was. She could deny it forever and it would still be there. How many times had Paul promised his fidelity to her? How many times had he said I love you? None of that mattered now. Lies never mattered, did they? All his love, all that he’d said to her and promised her, was a lie. This truth terrified her: how you could love someone, live with someone that long, and then in a single, jagged moment realize that you never ever really knew that person at all?

Tears had dried to crust on her face. She leaned up.

How long had Paul been living this demented double life behind her back?

My God, she fully realized now. She brought her nearly frozen hands to her face, staring. How long had he been doing those things?

Drugs. Bondage. Transexuality.

He hadn’t even been using condoms, nor had that hideous redheaded she-male. Double life aside, how could Paul have been so thoughtless as to engage in such practices, with such people, and not even consider the risk to Vera’s health?

“Ma’am?”

Tap-tap-tap-tap.

“Ma’am?”

A face hovered in the glass—a city cop. It seemed to warp before her in the curved glass. He tapped his nightstick against the window incessantly as a bamboo drum.

“Are you all right?”

Vera got out of the car. She could imagine how she looked, nearly blue-lipped, shivering, and eyeliner streaked down her face. “I’m fine,” she said.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes!”

She began to stomp away, toward West Street, her heels rapidly clicking against asphalt.

“Wait up, miss. You sure you’re—”

“Yes!” she almost screamed at him. “Is it against the law to run out of gas in a fucking donut-store parking lot!”

She hurried off, leaving the cop to scowl. She didn’t even know where she was going. Where could she go? She couldn’t go home. I don’t have a home, she said to herself. She couldn’t even fathom returning to that apartment. A glance to her watch showed her the time: 10 a.m.

In an hour The Emerald Room would open for lunch.

Dan B., Donna. She’d make some arrangement to stay with them for a few days, until she could figure out what she wanted to do. The bank account was joint; after being caught, Paul was probably at the teller’s now, cleaning it out. She’d just have to scrape by until payday, get a place, restart her life.

Then she stopped.

Her mouth opened. The cold wind burned her eyes.

Feldspar.

Vera ran, suddenly a sleek maniac in a Burberry overcoat and high heels. Feldspar had told her he was staying at the Radisson. Checkout time was eleven!

On the off chance that you should change your mind, please contact me.

She ran on, stopped again, hopping, took off her shoes, and continued. Pedestrians gaped after her. A Yellow screeched to a halt when she dashed through a don’t walk crossing. Her feet pounded the stone-cold sidewalk, the air whipped against her face. Just as she turned into the hotel court, the gleaming red Lamborghini idled up to the light, which then turned green.

“Wait!” she screamed.

The car turned away, accelerated down West Street.

“Oh, no, oh, shit, wait!”

She scampered through pedestrians. The bottoms of her stockings wore out as she shouldered through clusters of business suits on their way to work. The Lamborghini had stopped before the red light at Cathedral Street. Vera’s lungs felt fit to explode:

“Wait!”

The light blinked green just as Vera trampled up. Feldspar’s goateed face looked astonished in the window. He leaned over.

The passenger door raised.

“Ms. Abbot—what’s wrong?”

“I—” Vera sunk into the plush leather seat. The door lowered closed automatically, sealing in the heat “I wanted to catch you before you left.”

Concern lined Feldspar’s broad face. “Something’s quite wrong, I can tell. What is it?”

Vera let the heat sink into her skin. How could she explain herself without sounding daft? The way she looked now, shivering, stocking-footed, must already have reduced her former credibility to the lowest ebb. So she would make no excuses.

“Mr. Feldspar, is that job still open?”

««—»»

He turned around and drove straight back to the Radisson, booked another room, and took her up. “What changed your mind?” he asked, and opened the door.

He’d rented a conference room. Vera took off her overcoat, for the first time since last night. Feldspar set an alligator-skin briefcase on the meeting table.

“Your fiancé turned out to be open to the idea?” he ventured when she didn’t answer.

He’s open to ideas, all right. “No. I never discussed it with him. We’re not together anymore.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Feldspar sat down, lit a Sobraine. “I do hope that it wasn’t the job offer that caused your separation.”

“It wasn’t,” Vera said. “It had nothing to do with it.”

“Well, it’s none of my business—your private life is your own. It’s distressing to see you like this, though. You’re obviously repressing a trauma.”

Am I? Of course she was. How could he not sense that, how could anyone? “If it’s all the same to you, sir, I’d rather not talk about that right now. Let’s talk business instead.”

“Ah, yes.”

Vera felt ludicrous. She’d lost her shoes on a mad dash through rush hour. Her vermilion dress was so crumpled it looked slept in, which in fact it was. Her lips were parched, and she could feel her makeup flaking on her face. Yet here she was, with a stoic business man, accepting a job for nearly four times her current salary.

First, Feldspar gave her back the bank check. Then he slipped her a sheet of paper. “This is our employment contract. It guarantees terms upon your signature. Before you sign, though, I must explain that the work won’t be easy. Expect to put in ten to twelve hours a day, six days per week.”

So what else is new? Vera signed the contract, the back copy of which Feldspar gave her to keep. “I’d like to elaborate now on some of the specifics,” he went on. The sweet cigarette smoke dispersed before his face. “As I informed you last night, we’re opening an exclusive resort; it’s a country-inn type of establishment.”

“Is the restaurant in the same building?”

“Oh, yes, and it’s quite well done. I can’t wait for you to see it.”

Neither could she, though she wasn’t sure if that was good or bad. “I’ll need to know what kind of staff you’re giving me.”

“There is none yet. As the restaurant’s manager, you will be expected to hire the restaurant’s staff. And do it quickly—we’d like to open in two weeks.”

“Two weeks?” That was no time at all. “And what about the menu, the wine list, who are your distributors, your delivery agencies?”

“That, too, will be up to you.”

“Mr. Feldspar, I think it’s great that you want a state-of-the-art restaurant, but that’s dependent on a whole lot more than an R.M. I could be the best manager in the world, and the restaurant would fail if I don’t have the right people. The first thing you absolutely must have is a great chef—”

“Hire one.”

“A skilled chef doesn’t come cheap. The guy we have at The Emerald Room gets paid forty thousand a year.”

“Pay him eighty,” Feldspar bluntly told her. “You know this business, Ms. Abbot; that’s why we’ve hired you, and we know that good staff won’t leave their current jobs for a pittance. Simply solicit the people you need. I should think that if you offer them twice their current salaries they’ll be most willing, especially considering the free room and board.”

Vera had forgotten about that. Feldspar had said he was reserving some of the hotel’s rooms for staff. She could hire people here, and get them to move.

Feldspar passed her another bank check, but the amount space was blank. Next he gave her a thin stack of employment contracts. “Pay them each, say, a thousand dollars for moving expenses, and give them their first week’s salary as a bonus. Waitresses and busboys might be a problem, since many are students and hence unable to leave the localities of their schools. Room service should be able to provide some people if that’s the case. Keep it light at first, you can always hire more staff as business picks up. But a good chef is essential, and whomever else you feel necessary to start-up operations.”

He just gave me a blank check, Vera realized in disbelief. He’s dead serious. These guys must have more money than King Tut.

“All right, Mr. Feldspar. I can do that.”

“And as far as distributors and inventory sources go, I’m sure you’re familiar with all the proper channels. Make the arrangements.”

That said it all. Feldspar wasn’t fooling around. Here’s the job. Don’t bother me with details, just do it. Period.

Yeah, she thought. I can do that.

“When can you be at the estate?”

Waynesville, she remembered. Staff. “I’ll need a few days to get the essential staff together. ”

“A few days, fine. But no more than that. We want things under way in—”

“Two weeks,” she recalled. “No problem.” Of course, it really was a problem, but she’d simply have to solve it. She realized the tremendous job ahead of her, yet in spite of that she felt anticipatory. She felt excited.

“What’s the name of the inn, by the way?” she asked.

“We’re simply going to call it The Inn.”

Original, Vera thought. It’s his place, he can call it whatever he wants. “How about the restaurant?”

Feldspar shrugged and crushed out his cigarette. “You choose the name. Something continental, I should think. Again, we’ll leave it to you.”

Vera joked to herself over the possibilities. Vera’s Hash House. Good Eats. The Boondocks Room. “How does this sound?” She paused for effect. “The Carriage House.”

Feldspar’s eyes widened slightly in a sudden approval. “An excellent choice, I must say.”

Easy to please, Vera thought. But now that I’ve got the name, I better get on with the job.

A knock tapped at the door. Feldspar let in a young and very beautiful blonde pushing a room service carriage. Truffles, Baci Chocolates, and Dniva Caviar. A bottle of Kruge sat wedged in a bucket of ice.

Feldspar poured two glasses of the fine champagne. He passed one to Vera, curtly smiling down. “A toast,” he proposed.

Vera raised the sparkling glass.

“To The Carriage House.”

Their glasses clinked.

««—»»

Feldspar parked the Lamborghini in The Emerald Room’s valet cul-de-sac. The large, cut amethyst on his pinky ring shined as he withdrew a final piece of paper. “Directions,” he said.

“I’ll see you in a few days,” Vera promised.

An equal promise, at least in a way, seemed to highlight the otherwise dark voice. “I believe that wonderful things await us in this venture, and tremendous success. I’m looking very forward to working with you, Ms. Abbot.”

“Likewise.” Vera shook the stubby hand. She felt—what? She looked once more at Feldspar’s features: the broad face, the goatee, the ink-black hair pulled back in a short ponytail—an absolute clash to the fine clothes and jewelry. Twelve hours ago, he was merely a weird-looking squat stranger; now he was her boss. She felt she could even consider him a friend. “Thank you for giving me this chance, Mr. Feldspar. I won’t let you down.”

“I’m quite certain that you won’t. But before you go, might I make one very trifle suggestion?’’

“Sure.”

“Get some shoes. Soon.”

Feldspar actually laughed as she got out of the sleek car. Vera laughed too, waving as he pulled onto West Street and drove away. Yes, she’d have to get some shoes—she’d have to get a lot of things. But far more important was what she already had—or in fact had been given: a chance at something big.

She stood before The Emerald Room, looking out into the busy thoroughfare. Passersby paused to gape at her, this tousled woman standing in freezing weather with no shoes and mussed hair. The wind slipped around her, but now she felt warm.

A second chance, she mused. That’s what this was, really. She had a good job here but no longer a life to go with it. It hurt to think of Paul, and of love in general. Love was supposed to be ultimate emotion between two people, the ultimate truth. Where was her truth now? It was all gone, it was all a lie and always had been. How could she live with that?

I know.

Very slowly, her left hand raised in the cold. The big engagement ring gave a crisp glitter in the sun. She slipped the ring off her finger and threw it into the middle of West Street.

Eventually a mail truck ran it over.

Time to move on, she thought.

— | — | —

CHAPTER FIVE

“Hey, Jor! Split-tail at twelve o’clock!”

The Blazer slowed. It was one of those big four-runners, souped up, with Binno Mags, Bell Tech springs, and tires that looked about a yard high. All the rednecks drove them; it was status. Jorrie Slade’s eyes thinned at his friend’s announcement—or, to be more accurate, his eye thinned, since the left one was glass. He’d lost it one night when he and Mike-Man were rucking it up fierce with some Crick City fellas out behind Duffy’s Pool Hall. Didn’t matter all that much to Jorrie, though; the right eye worked just fine, and that backwoods peter-licker who’d poked out the left one had wound up losing a lot more than an eye. Try his ears, his lips, and his balls. Jorrie was good with a knife.

Mike-Man, Jorrie’s best rucking pal, swigged on his can of Jax. “I say, ya see that, Jor?”

“I see it, all right, Mike-Man, my man. Looks like we’se gonna have our dogs in some decent poon after all. Shee-it.”

The Blazer’s high headlights and floods glared forward. A van sat stalled on the opposite shoulder, and stooping over the opened hood was one buxom full-tilt brick-shithouse blonde the likes of which neither Jorrie nor Mike-Man had ever laid eyes on—or eye, in Jorrie’s particular case. Beautiful long blond hair swirled in the wind. Her tight, broad rump jutted as she bent over, diddling with wires.

“Now I say, a pair of gentlemanly types such as us could not never ignore such a woman in distress,” Jorrie pointed out to his friend. “I mean, on a wicked night like this? Goodness, the poor thang could catch her death of cold, now couldn’t she?”

“That she sure could,” Mike-Man replied in full agreement, “and it just wouldn’t be Christian-like for two strong young fellas such as ourselfs to allow sumpthin’ like that to happen.”

Jorrie and Mike-Man exchanged laughter. You could call these two boys unipolar sociopaths, or you could call them pure-ass crazy motherfuckers—it didn’t much matter which. And as for this here foxy blonde stranded at the shoulder? No harm, really—not that they could see anyway. Hell, they was just two red-blooded American fellas out for a thrill. It wasn’t like such things never happened out in these parts, what with them creekers up in the hills and all, and them damn white trash buggers north of the ridge. And it wasn’t like they was fixing to kill her. They was just gonna poke her up a tad, give those fine womanly parts a working over, that’s all. Probably be doing her a favor, they figured.

Mike-Man crossed the line and stopped on the shoulder. The Blazer rumbled, lighting up the front of the disabled van. That’s when the blonde straightened up and faced them.

“My-my, I say, my goodness!” Mike-Man articulated.

“Well shee-it my drawers and my mama’s to boot,” Jorrie commented.

Her coat hung open, revealing breasts large enough to threaten to pop the buttons on her flannel blouse. She looked as if she’d been poured into them there jeans of hers, you know, those city-type jeans with the funny labels, like from Italy an’ shit.

Jorrie slapped Mike-Man on the back. “Now thems there is what my daddy would call one dandy set of milkers, boy. Like that famous chick Dolly Carton on all them supermarket papers, you know?”

“Yes sir. And that kisser on her? Looks like Vanner White or sumpthin’, or one of them prissy gals on Cosmerpolitan. ”

Jorrie polished off the rest of his beer. He drank Red, White, & Blue, on account of he was classier than Mike-Man about what he drank. “Man, we’se lucked out better than a coupla egg-suck dogs throwed in the henhouse tonight, ain’t we?”

“Yeah boy, that’s some fine gandering that there, and I’ll bet she’s got herself a bush on her you could plant a fuckin’ garden in.”

“We’se gonna be plantin’ more than gardens in that sweet stuff, just you watch, Mike-Man, my man. Don’t look like one of them stinky creeker chicks like we bust up all the time, either, and she’s sure’s shit no road hog. Bet she’s got one of them nice clean ‘n purdy coozes on her, don’t ya think?”

“Yeah boy,” Mike-Man concurred, still staring excitedly at her in the Blazer’s highs. “An’ I’ll bet she wears herself a lot of that nice city perfume like ya can buy in them fancy stores like Garfunkel’s and Ward’s and all.”

Jorrie gave Mike-Man another comradly slap on the back. His glass eye glinted in the expectation. “Come on, buddy-bro. My dog’s a barkin’ already. Let’s you and me put a little spark into this here little lady’s girly works.”

They climbed out of the Blazer. They left both doors open; they always did. That way it was easier to get to work on them. Just slide ’em in right across that big bench seat. Mike-Man’d hold ’em down with the knife from one side while Jorrie’d get them starkers from the other. It was a dandy system. They had it down pat.

“Hey there, purdy lady!” Jorrie greeted, and stepped up in his fine pointed shitkicker boots. A good point on your boots was always the ticket when you was gonna go out on a romp. For shakin’ down guys for their green, just one good hard kick in their works would take the fight outa the biggest and gnarliest of fellas, yes sir, or you hop up on the hood real quick like and give ’em a good kick in the chin. Then there was that time Jorrie’d been rucking it up with this stinky creeker gal out by Croll’s field, and Jorrie, see, he wasn’t all too keen on putting his pride and joy into that dirty stuff, what with the AIDS and the herpes and all, ’specially after he’d gotten himself a look at it, so he thought he might like a little of what his daddy called “mouth-lovin’,” but this dog-stinky creeker chick, you know what she said? She said, “You gawd-damn mama-fuckin’ cracker piece of shit! You just try puttin’ that in my mouth an’ see if I don’t bite it right off!” a comment which Jorrie, of course, did not take too kindly to, so what he did, he just gave that creeker gal one good swift kick in the spine, and that quelled her threatening protestations just as fast as shit through a city pigeon. Heard she was gettin’ around in a chair these days, and he figured it served her just right for saying something so downright awful. A gal’d have to be plumb crazy! Biogenic amine imbalance and sociopathy aside, when a fella the likes of Jorrie Slade tells you to entreat his genitals of the mouth, well you just better bone up and do it, unless you wanna spend the rest of your days rollin’ around in a chair, too, yes sir.

“I say, hey.” Jorrie smiled his great big chumly warm-hearted smile as he approached this ravishing, brick-shithouse-with-tits-like-ta-knock-your-socks-off blonde. “Me and my buddy here, we’se seen ya pulled over an’ all so we thought we’d stop and give you a hand.”

“Oh, you’re a godsend,” the blonde said, a relieved hand to her chest. “The engine just stopped cold on me. I don’t know what to do.”

Mike-Man played the game, scratching his head as he peered into the little hood. “Lemme see what I can do here, yes sir…”

“I really appreciate this,” she continued to gush. “It’s so cold out tonight. I’d be in a hell of a spot if you two boys hadn’t come by.”

“Now just you don’t worry yourself about that, sweetheart. Mike-Man here, he’s an expert on these kind of problems.”

“And you know what, Jor? I think I done found the problem already.”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” the blonde exclaimed.

“Well, not really, at least not for you.” Jorrie chuckled. “The problem, see, is we don’t give a flyin’ feed-bag full of Berkshire hogshit about your busted van, don’t ya know.”

The blonde turned to him. “What do you m—”

“See, the problem is you’re probably the hottest-lookin’ piece of angel food cake to ever cross these here parts, and me an’ Mike-Man here, we’se each got ourselfs a rock-hard dog that I think it would be a real good idea for you to take care of. That, sweetcakes, is the problem.”

The blonde screamed high and hard as Mike-Man got his big meaty arm around her neck and was dragging her back. “Don’t help none to scream,” Jorrie pointed out. “Ain’t no one around to hear ya. So just you go ahead and scream all ya like.”

It wasn’t more than a couple of seconds before Mike-Man had the blonde in the Blazer kicking up a storm across the big bench seat. “Ya hold still now,” he thoughtfully advised. “I’d sure hate to have to kill ya, as fine a set of hooters as you got.’’ She gagged, trying to scratch him, but went rigid when Mike-Man placed the blade of his pearl-handled Buck against that soft, smooth throat of hers.

“There now that’s better, ain’t it, sweetcakes?” Jorrie queried. “Let’s see what we’se can do about gettin’ you out of these here constrictin’ garments, hmm?” He yanked her sassy fancy-labeled jeans right on off and tossed them in the road.

“Check out them purdy panties!” Mike-Man enthused. They were frilly and pink. “Bet she bought ’em at Garfunkel’s!”

“Or maybe even Ward’s,” Jorrie ventured. He peeled them off likewise. Suddenly the cold moonlight reverted his ruddy face to a primordial mask. His glass eye stared. “And a shaved snatch, lookit that, Mike-Man! Don’t that beat all?”

“Sure’s hail does,” Mike-Man was quick to agree. “That’s damn sure the purdiest slab of pie I ever did see.”

The blonde lay shivering. Terror pried her eyes open. Those big firm breasts of hers quivered like turgid Jell-O when Jorrie busted open that nice flannel blouse. “Best pair I’ve seen in quite a spell,” he was cordial enough to compliment, and he didn’t waste no time getting his hands on them. His erotomanic one-eyed gaze reveled in their shape: big as they were they didn’t have no sag to ’em at all, not like a lot of these gals who sport an ample rack and wind up havin’ ’em swinging to their bellybuttons once they get out of the bra. No sir, these didn’t have no flop to ’em whatsoever, and Jorrie really took a fancy to that, just as he took a fancy to that pretty shaved box. He gave her breasts a good, thoughtful kneading, then began to fiddle with her lower. “Ain’t it cute?” he observed. “Bet if I squeeze it, it squeaks!”

Mike-Man chortled his companion on. “Yeah boy! Bet it squeaks like one of them rubber dog toys!”

“Please don’t please don’t please don’t,” the blonde whimpered over and over through gleaming, perfectly straight white teeth.

Jorrie made to unbuckle his pants. “Down boy! Down!” he joked, alluding to his current state of libidinal animation. “First I think I’ll treat this purdy shaved pie to a good ole in and out, then I’ll have me a good creaming on this dandy knockers, huh?”

“Yeah boy!” Mike-Man celebrated, keeping the knife in place.

Jorrie’s good eye roved up and down the blonde’s tremoring flesh. He jacked his trousers down his hips. His glass eye felt cold in his hot skull, and he was tremoring himself quite a bit now, so close to this hot dish. He climbed up between those long, lean, silky legs, but when he looked up again—

“What the—Hey!”

Mike-Man was gone.

Jorrie craned forward, straining his monocular vision past the open driver’s door.

“Where the fuck’s you gone!”

Then he heard a quick, slick, ever faint crunch!

And a groan from way down low in the gut.

Within the block of darkness beyond, Mike-Man fumbled back up into view, teetering and cross-eyed. Jorrie stared.

“Yeah boy,” Mike-Man managed to croak. His eye—, balls seemed to revolve. “I think, I say, I think we done picked the wrong gal to pull a romping on tonight…”

But what was wrong? Mike-Man’s voice sounded really low and shaky like when you’re sure-fire drunk and can’t even say the words proper. Jorrie couldn’t figure it until he took a closer look and realized the cause of his friend’s newfound speech impediment.

“Holy Sheeeee-it!” Jorrie screamed.

Mike-Man’s eyes rolled up, and he sidled over dead in the footwell. A long, shiny knitting needle had been stuck clear through his ears.

The blonde smiled up at him in the moonlight; she began to laugh. A shakedown! Jorrie realized. He flailed to crawl out over the blonde, but a hand reached in and snatched onto his hair. He was dragged out of the Blazer, spun around, and slammed back. “Howdy,” a youthful voice greeted him. Jorrie’s visions swirled—it was some young dude trying to take him down! Where’d he come from? The van! he realized. We done been set up! Jorrie maneuvered to defend himself. His fine, hard-pointed boots had never failed him in the past; he’d taken out a good many fellas a lot bigger than this dude. He reeled back, then lashed out to kick this fucker a good one right in the nut sack.

And missed.

The blonde was still laughing, leaning up on the bench seat to watch. Jorrie’s throat was grabbed, and the back of his skull was slammed once, twice, three times good and hard against the inside edge of the door. On the fourth whack! his glass eye popped out of its socket and shattered on the road.

He collapsed as if crushed.

“Hey, Zy. I’ll bet you thought I’d never get out here. ”

The blonde stepped over Jorrie, retrieved her designer jeans, and stepped back into them. “Actually I wish you would’ve waited a little longer. These two were a riot.”

Jorrie’s right eye dimmed; he could still see in blurred pieces. The dude was dragging Mike-Man toward the van, grabbing either side of the knitting needle as though it were a convenient carrying handle. The blonde was grinning down at Jorrie, buttoning up her jacket.

“Thanks for stopping to lend a hand. It was very charitable of you.”

Jorrie couldn’t move.

“Hey!” the dude said. “I like those boots.”

The blonde shrugged. “Help yourself. It’s not like this hayseed’s going to be needing them anytime soon.”

Jorrie felt his fine hard leather shitkicker boots pulled off his feet. The dude stepped into them. “Nice fit, fella. Thanks.”

The blonde departed to start the van. The dude, whistling “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses,” dragged Jorrie to the vehicle and threw him into the back.

His consciousness seemed adrift in a sea of dull pain. He felt heaped atop things. The van doors slammed shut. Jorrie’s one eye moved against its nerves. Mike-Man’s body lay limp upon several more bodies. One fella’s head had been crushed. Another fella lacked a head altogether. On the other side, though, Jorrie felt movement. His eye darted. More bodies lay atop one another, only these were alive. Three of them at least, all girls who’d been tied up and gagged. They squirmed together in shared terror.

The dude climbed into the passenger side. “Not a bad night,” he commented, taking a glance into the back.

‘Sure.” The blonde pulled onto the road. “But you’re going to have to be more thorough in the future, Lemi. He’s still alive.”

“Huh?”

“The guy with the boots. He’s still alive.”

“Oh. Well I’ll fix that splickety-lit.”

“That’s lickety-split, Lemi. Jesus.”

“Whatever.” This Lemi dude climbed into the back, ducking his head. He was still whistling. Jorrie gave a crushed grunt when he took the first kick in the middle of the spine. Suddenly his legs felt like dead meat. Next, the fine hard point of the boot rammed into his neckbone, quite effectively fracturing the #2 and 3 cervicular vertebrae, hence transecting the spinal column. Jorrie Slade’s brain went out like a light.

Candles flickered behind him from sconces set into rock. The Factotum stepped forward to the nave. It was damp down here, and strangely warm. Seepage trickled. The stone floor bore the vaguest shapes: blood, no doubt, decades old. The blood of all the people who’d been murdered here. Did their ghosts linger as well?

Ghosts, the Factotum pondered. He could have laughed.

He wore a garment akin to a priest’s black cassock, but the Factotum was no priest. He might be called a priest of sorts, yet only in the darkest connotation. The back of his bald head reflected the wavering candlelight—tongues of gentle flame squirming over skin. Beneath the cassock, his naked body felt purged, revitalized. He felt strong again. He felt good.

He breathed in the nave’s damp vapor. Untainted, fresh. When he closed his eyes, a smile touched his lips, for he saw things—the most wonderful things. Things like exaltation, glory, reward. In the onyx-black shapes behind his eyes, he saw tenacity and the sheer, crystal promise of infinity.

Such a blessing, he thought. His heart felt afire.

Such a blessing to serve.

— | — | —

CHAPTER SIX

“Carriage House, here we come!” Dan B. rejoiced.

“Hey, Vera?” Lee asked. “You think this Feldspar guy’ll let me have beer on the house?”

“I can’t wait to see this place!” Donna excitedly joined in. “I’ve seen pictures of it. It’s like a big Gothic mansion!”

Vera smiled.

Dan B. drove—the big Plymouth wagon he and Donna owned—and Lee rode next to him, tracing the upstate maps. Vera sat in the back with Donna. They were all the essentials Vera would need right off; secondary help she could hire from Waynesville. A large move-it! truck, which Vera had contracted for them, followed the wagon up the narrow winding roads of the northernmost edge of the county.

None of them had hesitated at Vera’s offer; Feldspar’s perks, cash supplements, increased salaries, and guaranteed employment contracts were irresistible. “Why not?” Dan B. had remarked. “This city’s getting old anyway. Besides, it’d be selfish for a chef of my extraordinary skills to deprive the rest of the world of his delights.” “Free room and board in a renovated suite!” Donna had exclaimed. “I’m there already!” And Lee: “Did I hear you right, Vera? You’re asking me if I’ll wash dishes for twelve bucks an hour instead of six? What do you think?”

The four of them quitting The Emerald Room without notice did not exactly elate the general manager, but there was no love lost there. He was an uncouth slob who frequently harassed the younger waitresses and had a propensity for leaving boogers on his office wall. Good riddance to him. The next day Vera had rented the truck and hired the movers. “What about your stuff?” Dan B. had asked when they were finished loading up. Vera hadn’t answered; she wasn’t ready to even talk about it much less actually return to the apartment and face Paul. He probably wouldn’t care anyway, she suspected. He’ll probably be happy when he finds out I’m gone. Instead, she’d bought some clothes and sundries with some of the money Feldspar had given her for coming on. She’d get her things from the apartment some other time, if at all. What did she really need, anyway? Her room would be furnished; the company was providing a car. Everything else she needed she could buy. Not ever seeing Paul again was fine with her; the few appliances they’d bought mutually he could have. And the old Tercel could sit in the Mr. Donut parking lot forever as far as Vera was concerned.

Talk about starting with a clean slate, she reflected.

The countryside was beautiful, plush, even in the grip of winter. Its openness seemed unreal, like a long-forgotten dream. The northern ridge rose as an endless expanse of pines, oaks, and firs. South, for miles and miles along State Route 154, farmland denuded of its fall harvest stretched on to an equal degree of endlessness. City life had smothered her; its smog and rush hour and asphalt and cement had veiled her memory of the countryside’s spacious beauty and peace. R.M. at The Emerald Room had been a good job but, she realized now, it had entombed her. There is life after the city, she amused herself with the thought. A better life.

“Come on, man, get with the map,” Dan B. complained at the wheel. “We almost there yet or what?”

“How about eating my shorts?” Lee returned, his lap full of a clutter of maps. “This thing says—”

“We’re about an hour away, Dan B.,” Vera verified. “It’s pretty much a straight shot up the route. Would you relax?”

“I’m excited, I can’t help it. I can’t wait to see the place.”

Neither can I, Vera wondered. If Feldspar was exaggerating, she’d know soon enough. A complete renovation of Wroxton Hall would cost millions. If Feldspar’s company had that kind of money to pump into refurbishments, she couldn’t imagine what kind of money he’d be able to sink into advertising and promotion.

“I don’t quite understand it all,” Dan B. queried. “This place is going to be like—”

”A country-styled bed and breakfast type of place,” Vera answered. “With a separate restaurant to cater to locals. Feldspar wants to target upper-market businessmen and rich people—a weekend get-away-from-it-all sort of thing. But he also wants a full-time restaurant to cater to the better-off people in the area. That’s where we come in. Feldspar says it’s cost-no-object; we’ll get to do pretty much what we want. He’s more concerned with the hotel operations himself. He’s entrusting the entire restaurant to me, or to us, I should say. The whole thing sounds really great, but what we have to remember is the only reason he’s paying us all this money is because he doesn’t want the headache. What he wants is a state-of-the-art dining room without having to worry about it himself.’’

“So if we fuck up,” Lee remarked, “our shit’s in the wind.”

“I’d put it a little more eloquently than that, but yeah. Feldspar seems like a real nice guy, but you can bet he didn’t get to where he is today by passing out second chances. If we don’t turn The Carriage House into something that meets all of his expectations, he won’t think twice about giving us our walking papers and finding someone else.”

“What are we all worried about?” Donna proposed. “We did it at The Emerald Room. We’ll do it here.”

“Damn right,” Vera said. “The Carriage House is going to blow Feldspar right out of his Guccis. I figure we’ll run with a menu close to what we had at The Emerald, but with a lot more exotic specials—”

“Just show me the kitchen,” Dan B. said.

“Feldspar’s talking anything and everything good. He doesn’t even care what the food invoices are. He just wants excellent food every night.”

“I’ll give him that,” Dan B. promised. “I’ll show him.”

“And excellent service.”

“I’ll give him that,” Donna said.

“And clean dishes, right?” Lee mocked.

“That’s right, Lee. Clean dishes. And I don’t want to see you sneaking carafes of beer into the back. This isn’t going to be like The Emerald Room—it’s going to be better. So I don’t want any fooling around back there. And no drinking during your shift, okay?”

Lee shrugged, smirking. “For twelve bucks an hour, I can even do that.”

Yeah, Vera thought. She felt proud. They were a team on their way to something new. This just might work.

She lounged back. Donna was reading. Dan B. and Lee continued to bicker back and forth over directions and exchange less than complimentary regards for one another, which was normal for a chef and a dishwasher. Vera took some time to just look around, let the vast countryside speed past her eyes. It was almost tranquilizing, the long open road, the encroaching ridge, and the fact that they hadn’t passed another car for miles. She felt free now, released from the cement confines of the city and from a relationship that had been false for God knew how long.

“Only one thing bothers me,” Donna suddenly said.

“What’s that?” Lee inquired. “Dan B.’s crane won’t rise anymore?”

“It rose just fine last night when I was at your mother’s house,” Dan B. informed him.

“Yeah, but what about your sister?”

“Would you two idiots shut up,” Vera snapped. She couldn’t imagine how Donna could put up with Dan B.’s profane sense of humor. “What were you saying, Donna?”

“The rep. It bothers me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Who’s going to want to spend big money staying at a country inn with such a reputation?”

Vera knew what she meant; she’d thought about that herself, and quickly came to the conclusion that they needn’t worry. “Forget it, Donna. It’s all a bunch of crap, and even if it isn’t, that stuff supposedly went on fifty years ago.”

“What stuff?” Lee turned around and asked.

Donna seemed enthused. “The Inn used to be a place called Wroxton Hall. It was a sanitarium.”

“What’s a sanitarium?”

“It’s a place where you study sanitation, you dick-brain,” Dan B. laughed. “Didn’t they teach you anything in reform school?”

“They taught me how to lay pipe with your mom,” Lee came back.

“Please, please, stop,” Vera pleaded. ”A sanitarium, for your information, Lee, at least in this case, is an insane asylum. Not like the mental hospitals of today. Back then they pretty much just locked the mentally ill away instead of treating them. That’s where they sent people who were schizophrenics and psychotics.”

“And male virgins, too,” Dan B. added. “So you better be careful.”

“Oh, that’s real funny,” Lee said. “Almost as funny as your last special. Remember? We ran out of veal for the medallion soup, so you used pork.”

“That’s right, skillethead, and you didn’t even know the difference, so blow me.”

“I’d need tweezers and a magnifying glass to bl—”

“And what Donna is just itching to say,” Vera interrupted, “is that this particular asylum ran into a few problems.”

“What kind of problems?”

“Well,” Vera hesitated. “Evidently, some people died there.”

“They didn’t just die,” Donna augmented. “They were murdered.”

Vera shook her head. “Donna, even if it’s true, no one will remember it. It happened too long ago.”

“Someone must remember it.” Donna held up the book in her lap. The Complete Compendium of Haunted American Mansions, the title read in silly, dripping letters. “This book just came out a few weeks ago. And there’s a whole chapter on Wroxton Hall.”

“Wait a minute,” Dan B. testily jumped in. “What’s the big deal? Some people got murdered in an insane asylum—so what?”

“They were tortured to death,” Donna said. “By the staff. And a lot of the local residents say they’ve seen ghosts walking around in the building at night.”

“Ghosts?” Lee said. “You mean the place is haunted?”

“Aw, relax,” Dan B. chuckled. “There’s no ghosts.

It’s just your mom with a sheet over her head, looking for some free peter.”

Vera rolled her eyes. What am I going to do with these three nuts? she wondered.

««—»»

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Vera,” Dan B. complained. “How much longer?”

“We’re almost there. It’s right up the ridge.” At least she thought it was. The access road wound upward; cracks spiderwebbed the old asphalt. Skeletal branches seemed to reach out, trying to touch them. The tall forest blocked out the light.

They’d passed through Waynesville twenty minutes ago, a sleepy, rustic little town. It looked poor, rundown. A simple turn off, the route brought them into the face of the northern ridge. A haphazard sign signalled them: wroxton hall in hand-painted blue letters, and an arrow. Get a new sign, Vera thought, nearly groaning. And all this brush would need to be cut back, and the access road would have to be patched, and…

That was all Feldspar’s problem. Again, she wondered about these “restorations”; The Inn would have to be more than merely impressive in order to attract patrons through this mess. Surely, Feldspar knew this.

“This can’t be right.” Dan B. whipped his head toward Lee. “If you’d get your hand out of your pants and watch the map, then maybe we’d know where we were going.”

“Relax, Dumbo,” Lee came back. “This is the right road. It says right here on the map, Wroxton Estates.”

The moving truck rumbled behind them up the incline. Farther up, Vera felt some relief. A contractor’s sign, RANDOLPH CARTER EXCAVATORS, INC., had been posted. They were fixing the road and cutting back the overgrowth. Soon, construction vehicles came into view, refuse trucks, chipping machines, tree-trimming crews. At last, the winding, dark road opened into crisp winter daylight.

“Jesus Christ,” Dan B. muttered.

Lee’s face flattened in astonishment. “I don’t believe what I’m seeing.”

The car slowed around a vast, paved court. Vera and Donna gazed over the men’s shoulders. Center of the court was a huge, heated fountain; Sappho in white marble poured twin gushes of water from her elegant hands. Great hedges had been trimmed to the meticulousness of sculpture. And just beyond loomed the immense edifice of Wroxton Hall.

“Somebody pinch me so I wake up,” Donna said in wide-eyed wonder.

“Jesus Christ,” Dan B. repeated.

Lee’s rowdy voice hushed in awe. “This place is gonna kick…butt.”

Vera could only stare. A single glance quelled all her doubts at once. It’s beautiful, she thought.

Huge, high as a castle, Wroxton Hall had been restored to a Gothic masterpiece. Its old bricks had been sandblasted to a new earth-red luster. Sheets of ivy had actually been replanted in the new grout. The first-floor windows stood ten-feet tall, each opening to smooth, granite-edged verandas. The building rose in canted sections. Awninged balconies protruded from the second-and third-floor rooms; garret-suites, like ramparts against the sun, extended along the top floor. The roofs of each story had been laid in genuine slate, with polished stone friezes running the entire length of each. The building, in whole, looked nearly a hundred yards long.

Words occurred to Vera. Magnificent. Gorgeous. Awesome. But none seemed quite good enough to be applied to what stood before her. Palatial. There, that was it.

Wroxton Hall was far more than a restored mansion. It was a palace. Feldspar had retained the beauty of its age while rebuilding the place at the same time. Extraordinary, Vera thought. Feldspar’s a genius.

The four of them got out but could only remain standing speechless in the court. Birds looked down on them from the roof’s fine iron cresting. Each frieze bracket sported a gargoyle’s face, and the corner boards shined in polished granite against the plush red brick outer walls. The new glass of each high, narrow window reflected back at them like mirrors.

Behind them the move-it! truck rumbled up and stopped, discharging two loutish hired hands. “Fuckin’ Dark Shadows, man,” the driver commented through a high gaze. “Some joint, huh?” the other one remarked. “Where’s Trump and Maria?”

This was better than Vera could ever even have conceived. Feldspar was quite right; Wroxton Hall provided a resort of the utmost exclusivity. The remote locale meant nothing now. Once word got around in the trade magazines, people from all over the country would be coming here. People from all over the world.

Her excitement surged so intensely it seemed to arrest her will to move. She attempted to step forward, toward the front steps, but found she could only remain where she stood, her gaze scanning the building’s incomparable exterior. When the reality of what she was seeing set in, her breath grew light, and she actually felt subtly dizzied.

Slate-topped red brick steps led to the double entry doors, sided by great polished-granite blocks which gave perch to lazing stone lions. More articulate friezework underlined the transom’s gray-marble ledge and stained-glass fanlight. Wedged directly center was a small keystone of pure onyx in which was mounted a round, cut amethyst as big around as a silver dollar.

Great brass knockers decorated the high, walnut doors. More gorgeous stained glass filled the sidelights, set into ornate, carved sashes.

“We live here?” Lee mouthed in astonishment.

“Yes,” Vera nearly croaked.

“Jesus Christ,” Dan B. remarked yet again.

“Are we going to stand here all day like four dopes,” Donna proposed, “or are we going to go in?’

A click resounded. Behind them, the heated fountain gushed. A black line formed in the elegant veneered walnut trim. Then the great front doors pulled slowly apart.

Feldspar stubbily stepped onto the wide stone stoop. He wore a fine heather-gray Italian suit, black shirt, and black silk tie. He let his eyes rove across their upturned faces, pausing. Then he smiled within the fastidiously trimmed goatee.

His voice loomed like the building: expansive, vast. “Welcome to Wroxton Hall,” he greeted. His broad, short hands opened at his sides, as a minister’s might, during the sermon. ‘Or I should say, welcome, my friends…to The Inn.”

— | — | —

CHAPTER SEVEN

Vera’s awe redoubled once she stepped past the inlaid foyer. Tall vases sprung with flowers stood at either side; Feldspar closed the front doors behind them. Dan B., Donna, and Lee all squinted off in different directions while Vera glanced upward at the great crystal chandelier. Its icelike shimmer seemed to hover.

‘‘The atrium,’’ Feldspar remarked, rather dully. “Satisfactory work, but I’ve seen better.”

I haven’t, Vera thought. If anything, The Inn’s interior was more magnificent than its exterior. Paneled walls rose thirty feet, adorned by great framed oil paintings of Victorian theme. A sharp scent of newness hovered, like the chandelier’s shimmer: newly cut wood, fresh shellac and stain, new carpet. Between the twin, curving staircases sat a beautifully veneered oak reception table; all of the atrium’s tables, in fact, were obviously of the exceptional quality, and centered before fine, plushly upholstered armchairs. The atrium had a classy, quiet feel to it, all soft, dark hues and dark wood, more akin to an English men’s club than a mere hotel entry. Statues in dark marble stood upon pedestals ensconced into the atrium’s paneled walls.

“This way,” Feldspar said.

They followed the odd man off to the right, to the lower west wing. A long wall of wooden lattice filled with myriad small glass panes ended at opened French doors. Above the door, off a black iron rung, suspended the mahogany sign in etched letters:

THE CARRIAGE HOUSE

Vera’s excitement strewed. Feldspar had spared no expense; this made The Emerald Room look like a rib shack. Fine, white linens over oak tables, quality wing chairs, plush, dark carpet. A long planter formed an aisle between the dining room and the kitchen entrance, full of a vast medley of fresh flowers. Tastefully framed rustic artwork, all original oils, embellished elegant, gray-paneled walls. Vera slowly wandered among the dining tables, and in rising awe she recognized the best of everything down to the most minute details. Le Perle silverware, Tiffany & Company saucers and cups, Homer Laughlin plates, Luminarc glasses, shakers, and table vases.

“You, of course, have final say on the serviceware inventory,” Feldspar told her, “should this prove insufficient.”

Insufficient? Vera could’ve fainted. She remembered her own inventory procurement when she’d taken over at The Emerald Room—a fortune, but nothing compared to this. If anything, Feldspar had spent more than he’d needed to.

“You gentlemen will want to inspect the kitchen facilities,” he went on, addressing Dan B. and Lee, and to Donna, “and the service bar and waitress stations.” Feldspar faintly smiled. “And I’m happy to say that, as of now, my affiliation with all technical aspects of the restaurant are at an end. In other words, should you find anything unsatisfactory about the facilities, voice your grievances not to me but to Ms. Abbot.”

“Oh, we’re quite used to that,” Donna remarked and laughed.

“Come on, Curley,” Dan B. said to Lee. “Let’s check out our gig.”

“Sure, Shemp,” Lee replied as the three of them made for the swingdoors to the kitchen.

Vera still felt prickly in her excitement. Panning her gaze, she could scarcely believe that this beautiful restaurant was, for all intents and purposes, hers.

“Conclusions? Comments?” Feldspar bid. He seemed suddenly worried. Could he possibly fear that The Inn’s refurbishment did not meet her approval?

“I’m still in shock,” Vera replied. “I couldn’t be more impressed. You’ve done an outstanding job.”

“I’m happy to hear you say that.”

“And we’ll do an outstanding job for you.”

Feldspar unconsciously diddled with his big amethyst pinky ring and the other bright jewelry that adorned his stubby hand. He was a complex man, and Vera could sense that complexity now very clearly. He was a man with a vast mission who, step by step, discharged each of his tasks like machinery. Vera paused to wonder about his direct conception of her. Am I just another gear in his machine, or does he see me as an associate, a real person? Probably the former at this point—this was business. Odd as he was, Feldspar was an extraordinary man, and she admired him. But she knew that she would have to prove her worth quite quickly in order for the admiration to be mutual. You’ll see, buddy, she thought. I’m gonna turn this pretty joint of yours into the best restaurant in the state.

“You’ll probably want to expend some time now on a closer examination of the facility. My office is in the west wing; let me know when you’re done here, and I’ll have someone show you your room.”

Before Vera could reply, Feldspar was moving back toward the atrium—not walking, really, but sort of half-ambling in that peculiar, faltering gait of his. The sudden quiet of his departure focused Vera’s speculations, even her dreams. She felt wistful and exuberant. With a little luck, a little advertising, and more than a little hard work, they would turn The Inn into a money machine.

Something clinked. Almost startled, she turned. A woman was pushing a wheeled cart full of crystal candleholders down the aisle along the planter. Through colorful splays of fresh, potted bluebells and poinsettias, she stopped—as if startled herself—and looked right at Vera.

“Hello,” Vera said. “I’m—”

How rude. The woman trundled away at once, more quickly. She must be one of the housekeeping staff. She better not be one of my staff, Vera thought. Not only was she rude, ignoring Vera’s introduction, but she was…

Gross, Vera determined. Not ugly as much as simply unpleasant-looking. An unattractive bun had been made of her dark, frizzed hair. Though she didn’t appear to be old, she seemed slightly bowed as she walked away, and short, husky. Vera glanced after the odd woman, frowning. I’m upper management, honey. You better start being a lot more cordial than that.

The cart’s casters squealed across the atrium, and the woman briefly gazed back at Vera.

Vera nearly winced.

The woman’s big, jowly face looked pasty as old wax. Large breasts sagged in the pale-blue staff uniform. And her eyes—her close-set and nearly rheumy brown eyes—gave off a very clear message of disdain, or even disgust.

««—»»

“We’re getting down to the wire on that first Kirby piece, boss,” said Brice, the layout director.

Harold Tate glanced up from his desk, which was, appropriately, a mess. Newspaper editors were entitled to have cluttered desks; it was their trademark. Tate was the editor for the City Sun, and his quickened smirk showed the extent of his concern. He’d been in this business long enough to realize the unnecessity of shitting a brick every time a journalist was getting close to a deadline. “Don’t worry about it,” he muttered back to Brice. “Kirby’s a pro, he’ll have his copy in on time.”

“What if he doesn’t?”

Tate smirked doubly. “If he doesn’t then I’ll put my foot so far up his ass he’ll be able to taste the dogshit I stepped in on West Street this morning. But don’t worry about it, it ain’t gonna happen. Kirby’s never missed a deadline yet.”

“That’s what I mean, boss. He’s usually a week early with each piece. If I don’t have his copy by tomorrow noon, we’re going to have to re-lay the entire section. That’s a fifteen hundred word block, plus a three-by-four picture grid. It’s not like we can fill it in with ads at the last minute.”

“Maybe we can fill it in with prints of me kicking you in the ass for bothering me with bullshit,” Tate proposed. “How many times I gotta say it? Don’t worry about Kirby; his copy’ll be in on time.”

“It’s just kind of weird—”

Tate glared. “You’re still here?”

Brice took a hesitant step forward, a lamb straying into the lion’s den. He was a worry wart but he was also a good layout man, so Tate tolerated him. The newspaper business was like any business—give and take. You want good people, you put up with their quirks. “I gave Kirby a call today,” Brice finally said.

“You have a nice little chat?”

“He hung up on me.”

Tate’s smirk quickly dulled. “What do you mean he hung up on you?”

“I was just double-checking, you know. This is the first time he hasn’t had his material in early. I thought maybe he forgot about it or something.”

“He better not have,” Tate remarked. “I’ve already paid him for half the goddamn series. What did he say?”

Brice’s eyes looked distant. “That’s the weird part, boss. He sounded hungover or something, or like I’d just woken him up. Didn’t even sound like he knew who I was.”

“All right, so he was tired. Big deal.”

“I reminded him of the deadline… ”

Tate tapped his blotter with a red pen. “And?”

“He hung up on me. Just like that.”

Tate gave this some thought. God knew he’d met his share of pretentious journalists, people whose egos were bigger than the fucking Sears Tower. But this didn’t sound like Kirby. Kirby was low key and very professional. He never caused a fuss and he didn’t make waves. And he’d never been known to be rude.

“Don’t worry about it,” Tate repeated after a pause. “Go back to the dungeon and haunt your own office. You let me worry about Kirby.”

“Just thought I’d let you know.”

“Yeah, yeah…”

Brice left. Tate couldn’t figure it. Maybe the kid was exaggerating…

Tate thumbed through his Rolodex, to the Ks. kirby, paul, west wind apartments. He dialed the number and waited.

Six rings, then: “Hello?”

“Kirby, this is Tate. One of my people says you’re lollygagging on the singles piece. Is—”

“Who?” Kirby’s voice drifted. “Who is this?”

Tate ground his teeth. “Tate, you know? Harold Tate? Editor and chief of the City Fucking Sun? The guy who just paid you three bills on a series for the Weekender—

“Oh, yeah. Right.” Kirby sounded drained, barely coherent. A pause lapsed across the line. “Don’t worry, it’ll be in.”

“Well it goddamn better be, son, and if you don’t mind my saying so, you sound like shit. You—"

Click.

The line went dead.

“How do you like that son of a bitch,” Tate muttered to himself, and hung up. Fucking writers, he thought. They’re all a bunch of fucking weirdos.

— | — | —

CHAPTER EIGHT

“This is unbelievable, Vera,” Dan B. enthused.

Vera strolled down the shining hot line, gazing. The kitchen was huge, and it had been outfitted to the max. Groen industrial ovens and braisers, additional deck ovens, and twin South Bend ranges with ten burners each. And behind the line: Vulcan friers, Blodgett roasters, and Cleveland/ALCO professional steamers.

Dan B. looked dismayed. “And it’s all brand-spanking-new. Feldspar could’ve saved himself forty or fifty percent buying used or rebuilt, but he didn’t.”

“I don’t think that’s Feldspar’s style,” Vera acknowledged. “He’s not interested in cutting corners.”

The cold line, too, was replete with the same: brand-new Bloomfield salad and soup stations, three Univex mixers, and Groen speed-drives, plus an array of shredders, slicers, graters, and grinders. The entire kitchen glimmered in stainless steel newness.

“Every chef’s dream, right?” Vera suggested.

“You ain’t kidding.” Dan B. walked, nearly in a daze, behind the lines, glancing astonished at an entire wall of Dexter/Russell cutlery, Wearever pots and pans, and Wollrath prep gear. “Service bar’s the same way,” Dan B. went on. “Donna’s in there having a baby rhino. And Lee…”

“Holy shit!” the voice exclaimed around the line.

Lee was running around like a kid under a Christmas tree. His chubby moon face bloomed in delight with each of his shocked glances to and fro. Then his belly jiggled when he stopped before a mammoth Hobart chain-washer, which could crank three hundred sixty racks per hour. Lee’s eyes widened in something like veneration. “It’s…it’s beautiful,” he stammered.

“Look at that,” Dan B. laughed. “He’s getting hard. It’s not the Hustler Honey of the Month, it’s just a dishwasher.”

“No, no, it’s more than that.” Lee grinned at Dan B. “It’s the best dishwasher in the world, and it’s even more beautiful than…your mom.”

Dan B. promptly gave Lee the finger. But Lee was right; the great machine was one of the best dishwashers in the world, and so was the three-stage glasswasher behind it. Vera realized that just the equipment in this kitchen probably cost upwards of half a million.

“Let’s not embarrass him,” Dan B. suggested. “Lee wants to make love to the dishwasher.” He took Vera by the arm, getting serious. “Come here. I want to show you something.”

Vera followed him to the end of the line, past a pair of five-hundred-gallon lobster tanks and customized Nor-Lake walk-ins.

“What’s wrong?” Vera asked. “Aren’t you happy about all of this?”

“Sure. But there’s something…I don’t know. Something’s not right.”

“Like what?”

“Like that Hobart machine, for one,” Dan B. said. “That’s a fifteen-thousand-dollar rig, it’s something you use for a banquet house or a mess hall. You don’t need a machine that elaborate for a country restaurant. And the same goes for all of this stuff—sure, it’s all great stuff, but it’s overkill. Feldspar’s got to be out of his mind dropping this much cash for a restaurant in a questionable location.”

Why are men always so skeptical? Vera wondered. “Don’t complain. If we work our tails off, and get in some good advertising, we could fill this place every night.”

“Come on, Vera. That’s wishful thinking. You and I both know that the chances for any new restaurant, anywhere, are less than fifty-fifty.”

“That’s why Feldspar’s going full-tilt, to up the chances.”

“Maybe,” Dan B. conceded. “But take a look at this.”

He led her next to a stainless steel door at the back of the kitchen. He pulled it open. Vera stared in.

“Can you believe this?” Dan B. inquired.

Vera shrugged. Okay, maybe Feldspar was going a little crazy with the money. What she was looking at, past the door, was another kitchen, nearly identical to theirs.

“A second kitchen just for room service?” Dan B. questioned. “Feldspar thinks business is going to be so great that he needs a separate kitchen just for the hotel orders? It’s ridiculous.”

“No, it’s not.”

Vera and Dan B. turned at the remark.

A young man stood immediately to their rear: tall, trim, wavy longish light-brown hair. Vera found him instantly attractive in a lackadaisical sort of way. He wore tight, faded jeans, a white kitchen tunic halfway unbuttoned, and old clunky line boots. He smiled, almost cockily, and extended his hand to Vera.

“You’re Ms. Abbot, right?”

“Vera,” she said.

“I’m Kyle, the room-service manager. And you’re…Don?”

“Dan B.,” Dan B. corrected, and shook hands. “The chef.”

“I heard what you were saying just now,” Kyle went on, “and I can understand where you’re coming from. I felt the same way when Mr. Feldspar first took me on. But I can tell you, Magwyth Enterprises has inns just like this all over the place, and not one of them has lost money yet. In fact they’ve all jumped into the black right off. So don’t worry about the location, or the fact that Mr. Feldspar’s spent so much money up front. The guy knows what he’s doing.”

“We didn’t mean to imply that he didn’t,” Vera hastened to say. First day on the job she didn’t need this guy running to Feldspar with negative implications. Immediately she viewed Kyle as her personal competition: room service would have an instant edge in gross receipts. Make friends with him fast, she warned herself. She’d been in the business too long to play hoity-toity.

“And I can tell you something else,” Kyle added, and flipped a lock of hair back off his brow. “You do good work for Mr. Feldspar and the sky’s the limit. But you have to prove yourself first. You have to show him what you’re made of.”

Vera repressed a sarcastic face. Kyle was showing his true colors right off the bat. It was the same as him saying: I’m the one to beat around here, and I’m not going to give you an inch of slack. “We appreciate the input, Kyle,” Vera eventually said.

Kyle glanced to Dan B., nodding. “I hear you’re pretty good behind the line. I’m looking forward to trying out some of your grub.”

“My ‘grub’ will knock your socks off,” Dan B. promised.

“Me, I do all the cooking for room service. I always have a standing bet with the restaurant chef, quarterly evaluation. Whoever comes out on top takes a C-note from the loser. Interested?”

“Sure,” Dan B. said. “I’ll take your money, no problem.”

Kyle laughed. “Okay, man, you’re on. It’ll be fun, you’ll see. Mr. Feldspar wants me to show you to your rooms whenever you all are ready. I’ll be over here in my gig.”

“Thanks, Kyle,” Vera said.

“See you all later.”

Kyle went into the room-service kitchen and closed the door behind him.

“What an asshole,” Dan B. concluded at once.

“Yeah, but at least he’s a good-natured asshole,” Vera said.

“And I didn’t like the way he was scoping your rib-melons.”

Vera squinted at him. “Whating my whats?”

“The way he was looking at your t-…your breasts.”

Vera nearly blushed. “He was not—”

“Of course he was, Vera. Christ, I thought the guy’s eyeballs were gonna pop out and land in your blouse. Talk about low-class. And how do you like that shit he was spouting about a quarterly evaluation? That snide punk probably can’t even cook microwave tater-tots. I’ll bet he thinks mahi-mahi is an island in Hawaii. If I ever lose a cook-off to him I’ll turn in my gear and jack fries at Hardee’s for the rest of my life. The punk.”

Chef rivalry, Vera realized. It was worse than the Redskins and the Cowboys. “Don’t get your dander up,” she advised. “Try and get along with him for now; we don’t need any personality conflicts before we even open.”

“And I’ll tell you something else.” Dan B. lowered his voice, as if Kyle might hear him through the steel doors. “Me and Lee saw a couple of really freaky types wandering around the place earlier. Maids or something. Looked to us like they were stoned on ’ludes. We tried talking to them, but they just walked away.”

“Yeah,” Vera acknowledged. She remembered the odd woman she’d seen pushing the cart of vases back in the dining room. She hadn’t spoken a word. “So what?” she allayed. “What do we care about the maintenance staff? They’re probably people Feldspar grabbed from some other inns, foreigners probably. They don’t talk to us because they probably can’t even speak English. Ten to one a lot of them don’t have green cards, so don’t make a stink about it. If Feldspar wants to run illegal labor in the background, that’s his business.”

“Really ugly too,” Dan B. articulated. “These two chicks looked like cave women in maid uniforms.”

“Be nice,” Vera scolded. “I don’t know which one of you is more sexist and insolent, you or Lee.”

“Me,” Dan B. asserted.

“You’re probably right. I’m going to check out my room now, and see what else this Kyle character has to say. Meantime, I want you, Donna, and Lee to go over every single piece of equipment in the kitchen. Make sure everything’s hooked up and wired properly, and keep a list of anything that doesn’t work. Also check out the dry stocks, see what Feldspar’s already got. We don’t want to find out on opening night that we don’t have any salt.”

“Got’cha.”

Dan B. went back down the line. Vera opened the big room service door and found Kyle marking things off on a clipboard. He looked phony, like an act. Vera had the notion that he’d been waiting for her all along, and wanted to appear busy when she came through.

“I’m pretty much done for now,” she announced. “Can you show me my room?”

“I’d be happy to.” Kyle put down the clipboard and grinned. “I don’t know about you, but I’m really excited. We’re gonna crank in some business. Did Mr. Feldspar tell you? The Inn’s already got its first four weekends booked in advance.”

“You’re kidding me.”

“Nope. Hundred percent occupancy. All ninety rooms.”

Vera doubted this. “He told me there were a hundred rooms.”

“Total to let, sure. The other ten are for the local room reservations, the ones on the second floor. Those are the ones you’re in charge of. Didn’t Mr. Feldspar tell you?”

“He told me,” Vera answered. You run ninety rooms and I run ten, but I’ve still got the restaurant. This was getting absurdly complicated. If Kyle was the room service manager, why shouldn’t he be in charge of all the rooms? “How many of my rooms are booked in advance?”

“None,” Kyle said.

Vera frowned.

She followed him to the opposite end of the RS kitchen. It infuriated her: if anything, Kyle’s kitchen was even more elaborate than hers, with more walk-ins and equipment. She stopped cold at the next sight. “Hey,” she said. “How come you’ve got four lobster tanks and I’ve only got two?’’

Kyle held back a laugh. “Look, Ms. Abbot—Vera— don’t get hot under the collar. Just because I have a bigger facility than you doesn’t mean that Mr. Feldspar thinks I’m any better than you. It’s business.”

“Business?” Vera objected. “What’s business got to do with you having two more lobster tanks than me?’’

Now Kyle did laugh, openly. “I don’t believe it. We’re having an argument over lobster tanks…

“And you’ve got more ranges, more ovens more convection steamers, more—”

“Stop and think a minute at what you’re saying. You run the restaurant, I run room service. I’ve got ninety rooms to handle, all you’ve got to worry about are the separate dinner orders.”

“Oh, and that instantly means you’re going to be doing more business than me?”

“Of course it does.”

“Back in the city I used to run a hundred and fifty dinners a night—that’s a lot more than ninety.”

“No it isn’t, not really. I’ve got ninety rooms, sure, but the average room books two people, and that’s three meals a day, not just one.”

Vera paused. He had a point… sort of. Perhaps she was letting a petty jealousy cloud her ability to see facts. “Well,” she attempted, “some of those people will be coming in to The Carriage House to eat.”

“Maybe, but I doubt it,” Kyle baldly told her. “Mr. Feldspar figures that most of your business will be from the locals.”

“Is that so?” she huffed.

“Like it or not, the majority of The Inn’s business will be from wealthy out-of-towners, a select clientele. That’s why he needs me running the RS.”

“Oh? And why is that? You’re saying that my people aren’t good enough to serve your ‘select clientele’?”

“Hey, you said it, I didn’t. I’m more experienced in this gig. I’m sure your man over there is a great chef, but there’s a difference between a great chef and a great room-service chef. It’s a different job.”

All right, all right, Vera tried to settle herself down. She was falling right into Kyle’s trap, fighting already for higher ground—and losing. “I see what you mean.”

“We’re a team, Ms. Abbot—Vera.” His grin remained subtly sly. “Let’s be friends. I’m not out to compete with you.”

Bullshit, she thought for sure. She’d run into plenty of Kyles in her career, people who come on as nice guys, yet they’re stabbing you in the back whenever they get the chance. Everything Kyle said made objective sense; nevertheless, she didn’t trust him for a minute.

At least he’s cute, she thought next. A moment later, though, when she considered the thought, she felt shocked. Vera was not a libidinous woman. Her sex life with Paul had been good, but that was over now. It didn’t seem part of her character to suddenly acknowledge her attraction, however remote, to some kid she’d met fifteen minutes ago.

Be a good girl, Vera. Forget about this guy’s tight ass and start acting like an adult.

“Come on,” he prodded. “You’re gonna love it. Mr. Feldspar says you have your choice of suites.”

Nearing the end of the RS line, they passed two elevators, rs staff only, one read, and room service delivery read the other. But suddenly he was taking her through a door which opened up behind the reception desk in the atrium, between the twin winding stairwells.

“I still can’t believe how beautiful the atrium is,” she commented. Once again, her gaze strayed out over the array of plush carpet and furniture, and the gorgeous artwork, statues, and flower arrangements. Kyle, however, seemed to take it all for granted, turning up the left stairs without a second glance.

“Let me grab my bags,” Vera said. “I didn’t bring much in the way of personal effects.”

“Forget it.” Kyle waved her up. “I’ll have the dolts bring it up later.”

“The what?”

“The dolts, you know. The housekeeping staff,” Kyle designated. “That’s what we call them. They’re good workers but not much in the smarts department.’’

Vera’s lip pursed. Dolts, she thought. “I don’t know what school of management you come from, Kyle, but tagging your manual labor with derogatory nicknames doesn’t exactly do wonders for employee morale.”

“Jesus, you’re touchy. I hate to think what kind of nicknames they have for us.”

Vera grabbed two of her suitcases, which the movers had left in the foyer. “At least let me take them,” Kyle insisted.

“I can handle it,” Vera replied.

Kyle grinned. “You’re pissed off, aren’t you?”

“No, Kyle, I’m not pissed off. I just think you’ve got a lot to learn about dealing with people.”

Kyle laughed. “Hey, I’m a nice guy—I swear. I’ll bet my next check you’ll be calling them dolts a week from now. They’re all immigrants from eastern Europe or something. Most of them can’t understand a word you say.”

“Oh, so that means they’re stupid? That means they’re dolts?”

“All right already, I’m sorry. Boy, you and me really are starting off on the wrong foot.”

Vera sighed, following him up the stairs. “Do they have green cards?”

Now it was Kyle’s lips that pursed. “That’s the wrong kind of question to ask around here. Mr. Feldspar got them from one of the other inns.”

“He’s got inns in eastern Europe?”

“Sure. Eastern Europe’s a boomtown now, are you kidding? Since the cold war ended, all kinds of U.S. investors are setting up shop over there. We’ve even got an inn in Russia.”

“And it’s making money?”

“Hand over fist.”

Vera contemplated this as she stepped onto the landing. She’d read that the Radisson and some other major hotel chains were opening in eastern Europe, but they were for travelers and businessmen. But what kind of clientele could Feldspar possibly have attracted to Russia? She couldn’t imagine such a business risk.

“They’re cheap,” Kyle was saying. “That’s all that matters.”

“What?”

“The dolts—er, excuse me. I mean the custodial engineers.”

Vera ignored him. He began to lead her down a similarly plush, dark hallway. But then she stopped. “Wait a minute,” she queried.

“What’s wrong now?”

The stairs, she thought. What the hell?

The twin staircases led from the atrium to the second floor. And ended. But The Inn had four floors, didn’t it?

“Why do the stairs end here? How do you—”

“Get to the third and fourth floors?” Kyle finished her question. “VIP entrance in back, by the parking lot and helipad.”

Odd, she concluded. She understood the desire to separate the high-priced suites from the cheaper rooms. But separate accesses? It seemed an indulgent expense. She couldn’t imagine the additional construction costs for such a nicety. On the other hand, though, rich people were often eccentric, and the more their eccentricities were pampered, she realized, the more frequently they’d come back and, of course, the more money they’d spend. When executed properly, it was a system that always worked in the long run.

It was the short run, however, that she worried about. How could such an expensive venture survive during start-up? Just how extensive was Feldspar’s marketing influence? And could she really believe that the first four weekends were already booked?

Worry about The Carriage House, Vera, she reminded herself. One step at a time.

Kyle opened the first door on the right, which, like all of the doors, was solid oak, and ornately trimmed. He stepped back to give her room. “Check it out.”

Vera set her bags down and slowly rose. For a moment she lost her breath. What faced her past the entry was not a bedroom but a great chamber like an eighteenth-century French boudoir. Soft pastel papers covered the walls, with high pine skirtings. Dark, plush V’Soske throw rugs bedecked the rich hardwood floor. Most of the furniture was restored antique: a beige scroll couch, a cherry wood highboy, a walnut chiffonier and inlaid night stand. Heavy velvet drapes, a deep avocado hue, were tied back before the white vanity and mirror. The room itself seemed nearly as large as her entire former apartment back in the city. Best of all was the huge four-poster bed hung with quilted dust ruffles and white mesh trains.

“Pretty decent pad, huh?” Kyle observed.

“It’s so beautiful,” Vera slowly replied. “I’ve always wanted a room like this.”

Kyle dawdled to the twin French doors and pulled them open, letting in the crisp winter air. “You’ll have a great view once the trenchers are done.”

Trenchers? Vera stepped out onto the high veranda, oblivious to the cold. The forest rose further up the ridge. Below, several one-story additions stretched. “Spas, pools, Jacuzzis, exercise rooms,” Kyle explained. “We’ll have tennis courts too, in the spring.”

This was magnificent. To her left, though, several big yellow trenching machines idled beside a long deep ditch which disappeared around an outcropping of trees.

“What’s all that?”

“We had to reroute the sewer and waterlines to the county junctures. The old lines are a hundred years old.”

It was another thing that must have cost a fortune. “In the meantime,” Kyle went on, “we’re still on the old system. But everything’11 be hooked up before we open.”

“What about the plumbing in the building?” she asked.

“All brand-new and refitted.”

They came back in and she closed the doors. “And the wiring?”

“The same. The building was gutted when Magwyth Enterprises bought it. Someone tried to burn it down years ago.”

“Why?” Vera asked, and immediately regretted it. She had a feeling what he would say in response. Ghosts…

“I’d rather keep you in suspense. How about later you let me show you around the whole building—the grand tour.” His cocky grin sharpened, and Vera remembered what Dan B. had observed. Scoping my…rib melons? She almost laughed. Dan B. had always been jealous; and it was like a brother’s jealousy—guarded, and negative about any man who expressed an interest in her. He hadn’t even liked Paul. Now she wished she’d listened to him. But was it her imagination, or was Kyle really leering at her?

“Sure, Kyle,” she said. “I’d love for you to show me around.” Perhaps she could turn his confidence game inside out, and use it on him. She could play games just as well as he could.

“Great. I’ll drum you up about seven. Is that all right?”

“That’s fine,” she assured, and finished with the thought, you phony tight-jeaned asshole.

He made to leave, then, but stopped. “I almost forgot. You do have your choice of rooms. I can show you some of the others if you want.”

She paused in the question, and looked around one more time. “No,” she nearly whispered. “This is fine… This is home. ”

— | — | —

CHAPTER NINE

Zyra pondered: What a beautiful night.

And it was: clear, starry, deep as heaven. The moon shone as a crisp, blazing rind of light. It summoned back many other, equally beautiful images, of blood and mayhem, of heads split apart like big ripe fruit, sharp blades sinking into random flesh, and chorales of screams—yes, such wondrous images, and many more, of times gone by. Zyra stood nude before the bedroom window. Her sex felt warm and tender in the denouement of her orgasms. Her appreciation for life felt as wide as her gaze.

What a beautiful night for murder, she thought.

She fancied the moonlight as a ghost’s caress. She could feel it on her skin; it seemed to purify her. What had nutty Mr. Buluski said earlier—earlier, that is, as in before she’d strangled him with the lamp cord? “Oh, pristine siren in radiant light. I bid thee now—be mine tonight.” What a nut. Oh, I’ll be yours, all right, she’d thought. I’ll be yours forever. At least this pair was interesting, and good for some laughs. She and Lemi had answered the personal ad they’d spotted in a magazine called The East Coast Swingers Guide: “luntville: Attractive (and endowed!) quirky couple seek same for concupiscent interlude.” Dumbass Lemi hadn’t even known what concupiscent meant. “It means they like to get it on, Lemi,” Zyra had had to explain. “And that’s just what we’re looking for.”

“Come in, come in!” Mr. Buluski had invited when they’d knocked on the door to his remote rancher which sat miles from any other dwelling along Route 154. “Why, you two are even more delectable than your photos!”

Mr. Buluski had, by the way, answered the door naked.

He was skinny, bald up top, and looked about forty, with this nutty, kinky, torqued-up enthusiasm stamped onto his face. “I do hope you’re all hungry,” he commented. “I’ve prepared a wonderful dinner!” Next, he’d introduced Mrs. Buluski, who was also naked save for pepper-red high heels. She looked about ten years younger, with poshly curled dark hair, and she was kind of cute and fat, which was fine. They didn’t all have to be high-fashion knockouts. Physical diversity was far more important. An additional point of note: her pubic hair had been quite expertly shaved into the configuration of a heart. “Please, friends, make yourselves more comfortable and join us in the dining room,” she urged.

“When in Gnome, do as the Gnomans do,” Lemi figured.

“That’s Romans, Lemi,” Zyra corrected.

Lemi shrugged. They both quickly stripped and took their seats at a long, maroon-linened table. “Oh, what beautiful young bodies,” Mr. Buluski gushed. “Such sights make my heart just sing!”

“He gets carried away sometimes,” Mrs. Buluski then informed them. “He’s a dreamer, a visionary. And he’s very, shall we say, deft of tongue.” The woman promptly winked at Zyra, who doubted that she was referring to his eloquence.

Mr. Buluski had prepared a glazed roast duckling, baby potatoes with bell peppers, and succulently steamed fresh asparagus stalks. The four of them then, as they dined, exchanged opinions upon such intense topics as the future of the Middle East, the difference in inflation rates during Republican and Democratic administrations, the ozone layer, and the possible psychological explanations for Michael Jackson’s addiction to plastic surgery. All the while, Zyra, who was not especially inhibited, felt distinctly embarrassed. Even psychopathic murderesses were not accustomed to dinnerside chats in the nude. This new insight into herself at least struck her as interesting. Events, however, became a trifle more interesting when Mrs. Buluski, large bare breasts bobbling, promptly stood up, remarked “Let me get out of these hot things,” kicked off her pepper-red high heels, placed her rather large derriere on the dining table, and began to masturbate with one of the larger stalks of asparagus. Mr. Buluski was then appropriate enough to comment: “You should see her when I serve corn on the cob.”

What a world, Zyra thought. There were all kinds, that was for sure. At least these two loose-screws were more diverting than the usual acquisitions; rednecks, prostitutes, runaways. Zyra had seen her share of bizarre things in her time, but she could never recall witnessing a portly woman with heart-shaped pubic hair masturbate with asparagus. No, she’d never seen such a thing in her life. Maybe I should try it someday, she considered.

Lemi wasted no time in sampling this new preparation for vegetables. Meanwhile, Mr. Buluski rose and suggested to Zyra, “My dear, shall we adjourn to my parlor of passion?’’

“Lead the way,” Zyra said.

He took her down the hall to a black-and-white art deco bedroom. Her body felt levitated when she lay back on the slogging waterbed. She looked down at herself from a ceiling mirror; it was fun watching this eccentric, reedy man do things to her. She thought of astral projection, of doppelgangers. Mrs. Buluski wasn’t kidding about her husband’s prowess of tongue—Zyra watched her own eyes thin lewdly in the mirror, vising his cheeks with her thighs. Her orgasms issued as a steady, tender pulse of waves. Mr. Buluski seemed delighted. Through a variety of positions, then, he eloquently muttered lines from some of the century’s greater poets: Stevens, Pound, Eliot, Seymour. Zyra’s next orgasms pulsed deeper and more precisely; she felt something in herself letting go.…

This realm of release wasn’t enough. Each abrupt, quivery climax left her groping for more.

It’s never enough, she thought through a sheen of sweat.

She sensed the approach of his own release, as one often wakes undetermined minutes before the alarm clock. He seemed surprised by her strength, and the vitality of her resolve when she pushed his bony body off of her, lay him back, and let his orgasm spurt warmly down her throat and into her stomach.

Then she said: “I have a surprise for you…”

And quite a surprise it was. Indeed, no, there was never enough, was there? That’s what made Zyra who she was. Mr. Buluski’s poetical quotes quickly changed over to high, wavering screams. He screamed long and hard through the delivery of her surprise. The screams provided a sweet icing for the finale of her desire, and she came yet again as she watched herself strangle Mr. Buluski in the overhead mirror.

Never enough, she pondered.

Mr. Buluski’s face turned dark blue above the ligature of the lamp cord. As more time went by, the face began to swell, much like a balloon. For a moment she feared it might pop.

She dragged him back out by the ankles.

“Have a good time?” Lemi asked.

“Yeah.” And she had, she always did. She dreamily redressed as Lemi finished tying up the chubby—and by now, the quite sated—Mrs. Buluski. “Me too,” Lemi confessed. “She’s a wild one.”

They loaded dead husband and live wife into the white step van, then returned to the quiet house. Zyra turned on all the gas burners on the stove and blew out the pilots. Lemi set the timer.

“I like you better as a brunette,” he said.

As they drove away, off into crystal darkness, the thought replayed in Zyra’s mind.

What a beautiful night.

— | — | —

CHAPTER TEN

“A touch of class,” Lee remarked. He lit the candles on the bay table by the west window, which offered a long view of the forest. Vera had decided to combine their evening staff meeting with dinner. “Don’t know what the hell we’re going to eat, though,” Lee went on. “Today me and Dan B. ran a stock check.”

“How’s it look?” Vera asked.

“Like we’re gonna be starving till The Inn opens. Nothing but dry goods and condiments.”

Vera hadn’t considered this. They couldn’t live on bread crumbs and salt. “We’ll be getting some shipments in soon. Until then we’ll have to rough it.”

Donna poured iced tea that she’d prepared from the service bar. “There’s no liquor inventory, either,” she said. “We might have a hard time finding a decent distributor this far out in the sticks.”

“Shit, you mean there’s no beer in this joint?” Lee asked, glancing worriedly at his beer belly.

“I’m working on it,” Vera said. “I think I got a deal with the company that services Waynesville. Their list looks pretty good.” Start-ups were always a hassle. Many distributors were slow, and many unreliable. Trial and error was the only way you found out who was good.

“Dan B. to the rescue,” the big chef announced. He lumbered out from the kitchen, bearing a large tray.

Lee smirked. “What are we having? Pine nuts and tomato paste?”

“Try eighteen-ounce Australian lobster tails,” Dan B. answered, and set the tray before them. A delectable aroma rose.

Donna nearly squealed in delight. “I don’t think we’ll have any problem roughing it on these.”

“I found ten cases of them in one of the walk-in freezers. A lot of langoustines and king crab back there too. There’s also a hundred pounds of frozen Greenwich shrimp we can use for stock base and toppings.”

Dan B. had thawed the tails, split them, and broiled them atop their shells with a pinch of spice. “Dig in, gang,” Vera said. The tails were delicious, moist and tender despite their size. When they were finished, Vera got on with business. “What I need first is a gauge of everyone’s impressions so far. Donna?”

“I don’t anticipate any problems from my end. I’m still as excited about all this as ever.’’

“Good. Lee?”

“I could use a beer, but other than that I’ve never had it so good. All my gear in the back is quality stuff. I’ll be able to handle rushes bigger than the ones we had at The Emerald Room without any backup. That Hobart dishwasher practically does all the work itself, and so does the glassware rig. They even have element driers in them.”

“Same goes for my gear, Vera,” Dan B. said, inserting another big dollop of lobster into his mouth. “Everything works great. Only thing I got to complain about is that Kyle motherfucker. He wants to start some shit, and I don’t like it. ”

“I know,” Vera said. “He wants to make us look bad and himself look good—brownie points. The best way we can counter that is to forget about it and just give everything our best. We can’t let room service show us up, and we won’t if we don’t let Kyle get to us. I know his game. Let me handle him.”

“And what about these funky-looking maids?” Lee observed. “Walking around here, giving us the eye, not talking. They’re treating us like trespassers.”

“In a way, we are trespassers,” Vera commented. “To them, we’re the newbies walking on their turf. Just stay on good terms with them, and they’ll get used to us. And don’t cause a stir; I think a lot of them are here without green cards.”

They all concurred, however reluctantly. Then Dan B. continued, “And there’s another funny thing. I was snooping around the room service side today after I inventoried our stock. I wanted to see what they had compared to us—”

“Let me guess,” Vera ventured. “They had twice as much stock as us.”

“That’s just it, I don’t know. All their pantries and walk-ins had padlocks on them.”

Vera’s brow rose. “What did Kyle say about that?”

“Nothing, he wasn’t there. In fact, I haven’t seen nimnose since earlier today when you and I first met him.”

Neither have I, Vera realized. And she hadn’t seen Feldspar either. After Kyle had shown her her room, she’d looked for Feldspar, needing the initial workman’s compensation and F.I.C.A. forms for her staff payroll, but Feldspar was not to be found in his office or anywhere, though she’d spotted his Lamborghini out in the lot. Perhaps he and Kyle had gone out on the grounds to supervise the tree-trimmers or the excavator crew working out back. “I’ll hunt him down later,” she remarked. “He said he was going to give me the twenty-five-cent tour tonight.”

Dan B.’s quick scowl made no secret of his emotions. “Better if you just stay away from the guy unless you’re with one of us. He’s got the hots for you fierce—”

“No, he doesn’t,” Vera dismissed.

“I don’t know about that, Vera,” Donna jumped in. “That guy’s a womanizer if I ever saw one—”

Then Lee: “And you should’ve seen the way he was—”

“I know,” Vera interrupted. “Gandering my rib melons. Dan B. was kind enough to point that out to me earlier, and if you want my opinion, I think you’re all being silly. I’m an adult, remember? I know how to handle guys like Kyle.”

She left them, then, to their objections, amused and mildly flattered. “I’m not kidding, Vera,” Dan B. continued to rant after her. “You be careful around that guy.”

Vera laughed and went out into the atrium. It was dark and quiet now; The Inn felt subdued. Someone had lit a fire in the huge stone fireplace. She could feel its heat crawl on one side of her face. The front offices occupied the lower east extension of the ground floor. Cool fluorescent lights buzzed down on her when she entered the short L-shaped hall. Again, Feldspar’s office, done up like a London banker’s, was empty. general manager, the door’s brass plaque read. It surprised Vera to find the office unlocked. There seemed to be many expensive curios about: Hummel ashtrays, a gold Mont Blanc pen set, and a beautiful gold-and-crystal carriage clock, not to mention a brand-new PC and Hewlett-Packard laser printer. She saw no harm in taking a quick peek into the top desk drawer. Rolls of stamps, clusters of keys, and an enameled cash box. Jesus, she thought. This guy’s not very security conscious. The cash box, too, was unlocked. She flipped it open and noticed a few bands of one hundred and fifty dollar bills. There must be ten or fifteen grand sitting here, she realized, squinting. Lucky for him I’m honest. She was about to reclose the drawer when she noticed something else.

She touched it, slid it out…

A gun.

Vera frowned. All right, it was legitimate for a general manager to have a gun, but that didn’t mean she approved. The gun itself, a revolver, looked big, clunky, and old, like an antique. Perhaps Feldspar owned it as a collector, but if so this whole thing made even less sense. Anybody could walk right in here and take all of this stuff, she thought. It was good to know that Feldspar trusted his people, but this was just plain stupid. She locked the door behind her when she left.

Around the bend came another office. Unlike Feldspar’s, it was locked. Vera frowned hard at its doorplate. room service manager. A third door read, simply, accounting. This addled her. Where’s my office? she complained to herself. Fucking Kyle gets an office but I don’t? Where do I do my work? The goddamn coffee station? A petty complaint, she realized, but it still pissed her off.

“I know what you’re thinking.”

Vera turned, almost startled at the voice. “Hello, Kyle,” she said when she recognized him. “I’ve been looking for you.”

His grin flashed white, even teeth. “You’re wondering where your office is, right?”

“Well…yeah.”

“It’s right here.” Immediately he produced a Philips’-head screwdriver and removed the accounting plate. Then he replaced it with a brand-new one. restaurant MANAGER, V. ABBOT.

That’s better, she thought. “Where are you moving the accounting office?”

“You and me, baby,” he jested. “We’re it. But you won’t have to worry about any of the auxiliary bills, like housekeeping and utilities. I’ll be doing all that myself, since I’m more experienced.”

You dick, Vera thought. “What makes you think you’re more experienced at accounting than I am? I’ve got a degree in restaurant and hotel management.”

Kyle shrugged. “A degree means nothing. I’ve been working for Mr. Feldspar for ten years. I know the ropes. Don’t get hot about it.”

Ten years, my ass. He couldn’t be more than twenty-five. What, he’d been in the business since he was fifteen?

Kyle stood with his hip cocked and arms crossed, smiling derisively. “Best way to learn is to just jump in there and do it, you know? I started at the bottom and I worked my way up, learned everything. When Mr. Feldspar first took me on, I was peeling potatoes and emptying garbage cans. Now I do the quarterly taxes and all the deduction schedules with my eyes closed.”

Big man, Vera thought. This was not worth going on with. “It’s getting late,” she changed the subject. “How about showing me the rest of the place before I turn in.”

“Sure.”

They left the front offices and recrossed the atrium. Firelight jittered about the carpets and paneled walls, prismed through the great chandelier. A coved door to the left of the reception desk took them down a long wide corridor appointed in dark hues and deep-green carpet. “Banquet room,” Kyle pointed through a set of double doors. Vera gaped at its size. “It’ll seat five hundred easy,” Kyle bragged on. “Got a couple smaller banquet rooms upstairs, on the third floor.”

“Mr. Feldspar anticipates a lot of banquet receipts?”

Kyle laughed. “You kidding? Most of our other inns haul in forty percent of gross receipts from banquets. You’ll see.”

“And I suppose you’re the banquet manager too, copping the two-percent commission?” Vera couldn’t resist asking.

Kyle chuckled. “Of course.”

Asshole asshole asshole! she thought, following him on down the wide hallway. He cockily muttered a designation, pointing to each door they passed: “Weight rooms.” “Saunas.” “Jacuzzis.” “Racquetball courts.” “Locker rooms.”

Vera was beginning to wonder if there was anything Feldspar hadn’t considered. They even had mineral baths, rooms for mudpacks, and, though it wouldn’t be completed till spring, a stable for horseback riding.

“Pool’s in here,” came Kyle’s next revelation. Another set of high double doors led to the long, dark echoing room. “Nice set up, huh?” Kyle bid. “Quarter of a million gallons.”

It was the biggest indoor pool Vera had ever seen. Heat seemed to float before her at once. Underwater lamps set into the sidewalls pulsed odd dark hues—blue, red, green—which melded under the lapping surface. It was an interesting effect; it seemed almost romantic. The pool itself had been built in a long tile-aproned T-shape, yet the dark underwater lights only illumined the straightaway; the extensions at the top of the T, in other words, were completely unlit. Vera could barely see the room’s end.

“We keep it heated to eighty-six degrees,” Kyle informed her. “You got any idea how much it costs to heat a pool this size?”

As she had probably a hundred times already today, Vera found herself considering costs. “A fortune,” she slowly answered Kyle’s question. And it must have cost several more fortunes to build.

“Let’s go for a swim,” Kyle said.

“What?”

“Come on.” He began to unbutton his shirt. “We’re upper management—we can do what we want.”

I should’ve known, Vera thought. Look at this guy. He was taking off his shirt right in front of her! Eventually, she made the excuse, “Sorry, Kyle. I don’t have a swim-suit.”

He chuckled abruptly. “Wear your birthday suit, that’s what I always wear. Or if you’re bashful, wear your underwear.”

Some tour this turned out to be. She would have liked to have seen the other facilities more closely, but Kyle had deliberately rushed by them to bring her here.

“You’re not a very smooth operator, Kyle. You’ve got to be out of your mind if you think I’m going to go skinny dipping with a guy I just met.’’

“Hey, sorry.” He passed it off with a shrug. “We’re both adults. I just thought you might want to—”

“Well, I don’t. I’m tired, and we’ve both got a big few weeks ahead of us.”

“All the more reason for us to relax, have a good time, right?”

“Wrong, Kyle.” Did he actually believe she would strip right in front of him? Good-looking men had a tendency to expect women to slaver at their feet. Nice try, pal, she thought. She couldn’t help but notice, though, Kyle’s attractive build. He was trim yet well muscled, with sturdy arms and a developed chest. Some sort of thin silver chain glittered about his neck.

“No biggie.” He flung his shirt over his shoulder. Then he cast her a last, snide smile. “Maybe some other time…when you’ve got a swimsuit.”

“Yeah, Kyle. Maybe.” Then again, maybe not.

“See you in the morning.” He walked out and turned down the hall. Vera frowned after him. Dan B.’s right.

But just a second later, Kyle quickly reappeared in the door way, his chest flexed as he grinned in at her. “Oh, and I just wanted to let you know, Vera. Don’t let the stories get to you.”

“Stories?”

“Yeah. The Inn’s haunted.”

Then he disappeared again. Vera wanted to laugh. Did he think he could freak her out? Perhaps he wanted to scare her for snubbing his skinny-dipping plans. What an idiot, she dismissed.

She smiled at her amusement. The Inn’s haunted. Yet for some reason she remained standing there, looking down the long straight body of the pool. The merged light floated languidly atop the water. Then she heard—

What was that?

Her smile faded. She thinned her eyes toward the very end of the pool, the unlit area. She heard a quick rush, then an even quicker dripping sound, then—

A door?

No, it was ridiculous. It must be her imagination.

Vera thought, for a moment, that she’d heard someone climbing out of the dark end of the pool.

— | — | —

CHAPTER ELEVEN

His visions churned. His mind felt caught on the grapnel of a convulsive tilting nightmare.

He was watching himself…

But it was a nightmare, wasn’t it? He lay awake on the bed, the sunlight like a bar of white pain across his eyes.

A nightmare, he thought. Yeah. Hastily as it seemed, the conclusion helped him feel safe again.

It was a nightmare.

“Jesus Christ,” Paul Kirby muttered. The clock’s digital dial read 5:23 p.m. He’d slept the entire day away, which wasn’t like him at all. He was a writer, sure, and generally writers slept late. But… Five in the evening? he questioned himself. Must have picked up the flu or something.

Vera wasn’t here—of course not, she worked at two. Paul attempted to get out of bed, and an abrupt pressure in his head sent him right back down. Hangover, he realized, wincing. This was no flu. He’d been out drinking last night, hadn’t he? And—Holy shit!—was he hungover.

Slower this time, he got up. A glance in the mirror made him groan: naked, pale, dark circles like charcoal under his eyes. He curiously raised a hand to his face, and noted an excess of stubble. It felt like more than a day’s growth.

He stared into the mirror, bloodshot eyes going wide…

Vera, he