For the first time in many years, Bess was both at a loss for words and incapable of functioning. Usually, the white-haired, jolly woman was vivacious and talkative, abustle with the chores of her position as if she were a wind-up machine that could not stop until its mainspring wound loose again. Now, however, her ruddy complexion had turned a gray ash, sickly and defeated, and her almost nervous abundance of energy had drained from her and left her wilted, sagging.
I can't believe it, she said to Elaine, though she seemed mostly to be speaking to the wall in front of her.
It's all right now, Elaine said. It's over with now; there isn't anything you can do.
I should have known, Bess said, accepting the glass of water the nurse gave her but not bothering to sip of it. He was missing this morning. I said to Jerry, I said, he wouldn't have gone out before we got up and fixed his breakfast, now would he. And if he'd gone out sometime during the night, he should have come back. Unless something happened to him. She shuddered uncontrollably and blinked tears from her eyes. And something did, didn't it?
Elaine had often handled situations where children needed comfort at the death of parents or where parents were deeply grieved by the loss of a child. That was hospital duty that every nurse learned to cope with, though she might not like it much. But this was the first time she had run across grief over a dead pet, a black and tan mixed- breed cat.
Bobo was with us for eight years-until last night, Bess said. He has a little hatchway in our front door that he can use to go in and out whenever he feels like it. With all this going on with the Matherlys, though, I should have locked his hatch. I should have.
You couldn't have known, Elaine said, taking the old woman's hand and patting it. No one could expect you to-
I should have, Bess said. I should have known. After Miss Tamlin, I should have been careful even with Bobo. She looked up at Elaine with very clear, blue eyes and said, Bobo was a skitterish cat. He wouldn't have gone to anyone unless he knew them. You know what that means, Miss?
You think someone in this house killed him?
Bess looked very sober, and her eyes were lined with fear. In a manner of speaking, Miss. In a manner of speaking, it was someone from this house that did it.
Elaine thought of the feline corpse which she had seen lying in the garbage bag. It had been stabbed repeatedly with a sharp knife, then slit down the stomach as a final gesture. It had lain in that plastic sack all morning while Bess made breakfast, concealed by other pieces of trash which had been neatly wrapped around it. If the blood had not soaked through and collected in a puddle in the bottom of the bag, and if Bess had not noticed it and begun to empty the sack to discover its source, it would never have been found.
She did not know whether it was a good thing that Bess uncovered the cat's corpse or whether it would have been better all around if the cat had simply disappeared. It proved, in a gruesome way, that the killer was indeed a member of the Matherly household -if one could make the police see that there was a connection between the attempted murder of Celia Tamlin and the brutal slaying of the cat. On the other hand, having seen the mindless violence vented upon the cat, how could any of them think clearly enough to deal with a crisis if one should arise? Any fears that already plagued her-she knew-had begun to grow like cancerous cells, and she imagined the same would be true for everyone in the house.
Perhaps we should call Captain Rand, Elaine said.
Won't do no good.
Bess dabbed at her eyes with a tissue.
But you said that someone in this house was responsible. It seems very possible that the same person took a knife to Celia, someone deranged enough to-
I said it was someone in this house, in a manner of speaking, Bess corrected her.
I don't understand.
It wasn't no one living here, Bess said.
Elaine could not understand what point the old woman was trying to make. Just the same-
Let's go tell Jerry about Bobo, Bess said. He'll feel just so terrible awful about it.
It seemed to Elaine that they should call the police first, but she was a nurse who always put the values of her patient first-and Bess had become a temporary patient in her grief.
Jerry and Bess lived in an apartment over the garage, separated from the house by only a few steps. At the top of the outside stairs that led to their back door, Jerry came out to meet them.
Inside, while Bess tearfully related the tale of the discovery of Bobo's mutillated body, Elaine looked about the large, poorly lighted front room, fascinated by, at first, the singularly odd collection of furniture and, later, by the unusual volumes which filled the wall-sized bookshelves behind the sofa. The chairs were a mixture of padded, reupholstered monsters with heavy arms and high, deep backs, and heavy, unpadded rocking chairs which bore the scars of long use. All the lamps were floorlamps, the last having been bought no later than the late 1940s, a silk-shaded thing with gold tassels hanging around its rim, catching the light like hair and diffusing it. Some of the other pieces were Victorian, some early American and some in styles she could not identify. The room had the look of an auction platform in the country or perhaps the look of a room wherein each piece holds family memories and has been handed down from generation to generation for sixty or eighty or a hundred years. She supposed this last was true, since Bess and Jerry were surely paid enough to afford whatever they might wish. Obviously, they spent a handsome sum of money on books. And such strange books
She walked along the shelves, her head tilted as she read the titles: The History and Practice of Magic by Paul Christian, The Paganism in Our Christianity by Arthur Weigall, Natural Chiromancy by Rampalle, the two Pennsylvania Dutch hex books, The Long
Lost Friend and The Sixth and Seventh Books of Moses, a number of collections of unexplained, possibly supernatural events edited by Frank Edwards or Brad Steiger, The Study of Palmistry by Saint Germain
She looked up suddenly, aware that Jerry had addressed her.
Excuse me? I was absorbed in looking at your books.
I asked if you were aware of the ghost, Jerry said.
He was standing beside his wife where she had settled into the musty embrace of a large and utterly unattractive easy chair.
What ghost is that?
The Matherly ghost, he said.
Amelia's ghost, Bess added by way of further clarification.
I don't believe in ghosts, Elaine said.
The old couple looked knowingly at each other, then looked back at Elaine-as if they pitied her ignorance.
No, really, Elaine said. When you're a nurse and you've had to study medicine and biology and chemistry, and when you've read lightly in the other sciences, it just isn't possible to believe in things like that any more. She wanted to say more, but she restrained her impulse to lecture.
She realized now that she should have expected something like this from the moment that she had seen the nature of their library. This was not the first couple she had ever met who professed a sincere belief in the occult, in supernatural goings on, curses and hexeroi and ghosts. At one time, she had gotten angry and had tried to argue the superstitious out of their silly beliefs, but now she understood that such a task was Herculean, all but impossible. After all, not everyone looked upon the world quite so sensibly as she did. She would always have to tolerate the most fanciful of philosophies in other people-but she did not have to like it. And she did not. Usually, when she saw that scenes like this were inevitable in any relationship with other people, she excused herself. The discovery of the dead cat and all the previous tension of the Matherly house, however, had dulled her perceptions a bit.
We've educated ourselves, too, Bess said defensively, though Elaine had not meant to imply that they were poorly educated. Even the best educated and the most intelligent people became involved in occultism, searching for some reassurance they apparently did not find in their daily lives or in their regular church attendance.
We haven't delved into the sciences which you mentioned-medicine and biology and such, Jerry said. But we have read and studied the sciences of the occult.
They're hardly sciences, though, Elaine said.
Some think they are.
Elaine did not answer, and she felt much better for having held hen tongue. She liked both of these old people and did not wish to become involved in some petty and bitter argument about something so silly as the existence of demons and witches and-ghosts.
But Jerry was not satisfied. He said, Perhaps if you heard about the Christmas Eve murders, you'd believe in ghosts after all.
I've heard about them.
From whom? Bess asked. Jake?
Yes. And the Bradshaws.
Neither of them would tell it all, Jerry said to his wife.
Course not, Bess agreed.
Jerry said, They wouldn't have told you about the knife.
I heard that, all the terrible details, Elaine said.
But did the Bradshaws or Jake tell you that the knife Amelia used was never found?
Elaine recalled the story as Jacob Matherly had told it. Amelia had killed the twins and then had stabbed him. She had fled the room and had broken her neck on the stairs while fleeing from-whatever a mad woman might imagine was chasing her. The knife should have been found alongside her or somewhere between the nursery where she wounded Jacob and the spot where they had found he body.
A mystery, isn't it? Bess asked.
She seemed to have recovered from her grief for Bobo, and she leaned forward in her chair, her eyes bright and her lips curved in a gentle smile.
She hid it somewhere, Elaine offered.
Why would a madwoman take the time to hide a knife when her guilt was plain enough without it?
Why would a madwoman do anything? she replied to Bess by way of another question. She had lost all her reason, remember. She was not behaving logically. You can't try to reason what she did and why.
What you say may be so, Jerry offered. His voice was breathy with expectancy which Elaine found unsettling. But, then, why didn't a search turn up the knife?
Who searched for it?
Bess said, They gave us all a hard time for a while when they couldn't find the knife. Especially Jake, poor man.
Why especially Jake? Elaine asked.
Fools! Jerry said, shaking his head at the very thought of the police.
The police had some notion or other that Jake might have-might have taken the knife to the children, pushed Amelia down the steps and then cut himself to make it look like he'd been attacked. Bess clucked her tongue. You know Jake. Could he ever have done a deed as black as all that?
No, she said. I can't see how.
Cops finally learned about Amelia's grandfather being in a place for the insane, and they quit poking around.
Elaine felt a bit dizzy. She wanted a breath of fresh air and some light-neither of which this tightly sealed, dimly lighted room could offer her.
Jerry continued the argument for the existence of a ghost. Then, it was about a year after the murders that we began to hear the wailing of a child, late at night. It carried through the house, into most every room.
Gordon and Dennis were children then.
This wasn't like that, Bess said. It was an eerie wailing, not like a baby wanting water or comfort. It was one of the dead children calling out to us, is what it was.
A little fresh air. Yes, that would be all she needed.
And some light, of course.
And then the cards, Jerry said. The cards told us that the ghost would come back some day.
Cards? Elaine asked. She hoped that, by hurrying them along, she would be able to leave sooner.
Jerry and I went to a reader in Pittsburgh, Bess said. Janey Moses was her name. You heard of her?
Jerry said, She was one of the most famous readers in the East, and maybe the most famous. Her mother and father were gypsies. Her mother was an Albanian, and her father was Polish. Her mother's mother was a white witch who cured ailments to earn a living after her husband died. And her brother Leroy was the seventh son of a seventh son-and he died in Janey's arms.
Bess wanted to tell some of it. She twisted in her chair and said, Janey Moses was only part of her name, the easiest part to say. She laid out the cards and read them to us, and she said that the knife hadn't been hidden at all. She said that the ghost of Amelia Matherly, when it rose from her dead body, had carried the knife away. And she said that was a sure omen that the ghost meant to return some day. And she was right. It has returned.
After all these years, Jerry agreed.
Some light, away from these shadows
A little air
That was all she needed.
Excuse me, she said. I really ought to check in on Jacob and see how he's doing. It's really past time for that.
The time had not passed, really, but the excuse worked well enough. A moment later, she was hurriedly descending the stairs to the lawn. She rushed back toward the kitchen door of the main house.
She stopped on the threshold, however, suddenly aware that the house was no better a place than the darkened living room of the old couple's apartment.
Bobo lay dead in that kitchen.
And, somewhere in the great house, the knife which Amelia Matherly had used on the children lay hidden where her bloodied fingers had placed it just before her death
Elaine turned away and hurried out into the sunshine that spilled across the well-tended lawn. She was not certain where she was going, but she knew she had to be alone for a while, to think this thing out.