REMEMBRANCE NEVER DIES
Sleep brings no joy to me,
“You know, Dru, it isn’t personal,” Geoffrey Poole said. Cigarette smoke curled around his face, softening the lines graven deep in his brow. There was a tautness in the corners of his mouth when he frowned at her. “Not really. It’s business.”
Drusilla Neill sneered. “Don’t lie to me, Geoff.” Sick disappointment and rage roiled in her stomach and made her voice harsh. Her eyelid twitched. She had always known Geoffrey was a bastard but he had valuable contacts so she had cultivated him. Now he was exercising his power to get rid of her, destroying the career she had so carefully planned. It was obvious that Geoffrey had been using her at the same time she had been using him. Now he had no further need for her, he was discarding her like rubbish. She swallowed the bile that scalded the back of her throat. “I’ve given ten years of my life to this damned firm. Ten years! Now you treat me like a piece of crap you want to scrape off your shoe,” she said bitterly.
“Look, it’s out of my hands.” Geoffrey stubbed out his cigarette and regarded her dispassionately. She longed to jump over the desk and strangle him, or perhaps claw the smug expression off his face. “There’s a lot of competition out there. The economy isn’t what it used to be, and let’s face it, Dru, you’re not as good as you used to be, either. The company’s tightening its belt. Deal with it. You’re getting six months’ severance pay plus retention of benefits until the end of the fiscal year. You’ll land on your feet, I’m sure.”
“Ten years, Geoff.” Drusilla closed her eyes, swallowing back the incandescent anger that threatened to spill over and come roaring out in a violent black tide that would end in bloodshed. Blunt force trauma was looking like a serious option at the moment; Geoffrey had a shelf full of industry trophies that would be adequate to the task of stoving his skull in. Her fingers twitched in anticipation, and she curled her hands into fists. How dare he sit there and smirk at her! “Hell, I helped build this firm. I was the firm, once upon a time,” she choked.
“And I’m sure we’re all grateful.” Geoffrey’s voice lowered to an intimate burr. “You’re an excellent headhunter, Dru. You’ve just lost your edge a little. This is a good time for you to get out of the executive recruitment business for a while, recharge your batteries, come back to the field fresh and sharp and ready to kick ass.” She did not have to see him to know he was smiling, a pleasant and practiced expression that never reached his eyes. “When you’re ready, come in and we’ll try to find you a new situation.”
“Don’t forget to turn over your contact lists,” he said, the curve of his smile growing more acute and showing a lot of white teeth. “They belong to the company.”
She rose from the chair and turned, registering the presence of a bald and beefy security guard hovering just outside Geoffrey’s office. The man was clearly there to escort her out of the building. Shooting Geoffrey a last look that she hoped would convey the heartfelt message ‘Eat shit and die,’ Drusilla stormed out of his office and towards her own, shadowed by the guard. Fuming, she grabbed the few personal possessions that she had allowed herself to bring to work and slung her briefcase over her shoulder, trying to leave the premises before she exploded from sheer frustration and fury.
Drusilla never burned her bridges, even when the temptation to throw gasoline and lit matches was almost stronger than she could bear. However, grudges were another matter; those she cherished for years, hugging them to her secret heart. Someday, she would return to the firm in triumph, and Geoffrey Poole would grovel on his knees before she delivered the killing blow. The thought of seeing him broken made a little thrill run through her veins.
“Excuse me, Miss Neill . . . I have to check that,” the guard said apologetically, gesturing towards her briefcase. “For work-related papers and CDs. It’s policy.”
Drusilla bit the inside of her cheek until it bled. When she trusted herself to speak, she said with a mildness that surprised her, “Of course. Please do so,” and offered him the soft leather case that had been a gift from her domestic partner, Ann Leigh. He fumbled through the files inside. Drusilla squashed the urge to laugh in his face; the minimum-wage idiot clearly had no idea what he was doing. She kept vital information like her contact lists on CDs at home; Drusilla had always believed in backing-up whenever possible. Since she also had a touch of paranoia that insisted on contingency planning and worst-case scenarios, Drusilla had made copies of the firm’s database, too. When he was finished finding nothing— because she kept nothing vital at work—she took the briefcase and left the office, her heels clicking on the tiled floor.
The guard followed her, a silent and unwelcome presence in the elevator and through the lobby until she was out of the door and on the sidewalk. Drusilla stood still a moment, letting the sights, sounds and smells of the city wash over her and bleed away some small portion of her anger. Her eyes drifted closed again.
Traffic was a constant presence in the tangle of streets, the engines and wheels-on-asphalt hum turned to barely-acknowledged white noise by years of exposure. Garbage fermented in the gutter as usual. A homeless person wandered past, pushing a grocery cart and muttering to him/herself, leaving the throat-catching scents of urine and unwashed body and the sweet taint of rot lingering in his/her wake. The sweet-sour stench was almost enough to override the stink of car and bus exhaust. Drusilla looked up and watched a pigeon fluttering down to peck at french fries that spilled from a discarded fast-food franchise’s sack. Slowly, her blood pressure dropped to less dangerous levels, though her heart continued to jar her rib cage whenever she thought about Geoffrey-goddamned-Poole.
Hailing a cab, Drusilla went home.
Home was the Crowe Building, where she and Ann (an artist, whose mother had owned the building and bequeathed it to her daughter upon her death) lived in an extended penthouse apartment. Drusilla greeted the uniformed doorman on duty in the foyer and used her key-card in the elevator to bypass security. The elevator doors opened on the penthouse floor, where there was a little square black-and-red tiled vestibule that she had to cross before reaching the apartment and going inside.
She found no sign of Ann or even human occupancy; the cleaning service left everything immaculate, not an article out of place. The apartment seemed cold, echoing and empty, as though inhabited by dusty ghosts instead of the living. Sighing with impatience, her anger held in check but not entirely abated, Drusilla discarded her briefcase, jacket and pashmina shawl, then kicked off her high heeled pumps. She fixed herself a dry martini at the bar in the cavernous living room and crossed to the iron spiral staircase that led up to the roof, where Ann had converted a nineteenth century greenhouse into a studio.
Their shared apartment was sparsely decorated in the minimalist style. The walls were done in pale golds and creams, the furniture heavy by contrast, all dark woods and brown leather upholstery. By common consent, none of Ann’s paintings were showcased there. Instead, Drusilla had scattered a few choice pieces of abstract art here and there, nothing too obtrusive, nothing too expensive. Everything in moderation, she thought, her fingertips numbing as the cold of the martini soaked through the glass. As the inheritor of an envious fortune, Ann could afford anything she wanted, but Drusilla’s pride would not allow a conspicuous show. She had insisted on them living within her means, not Ann’s. Now that she had lost her job . . . Light-headed with indignation, Drusilla gulped down the martini in a couple of swallows, wrinkling her nose at the sharp flavor of the gin. At least she could no longer taste blood or bile. For a brief moment, she wondered what Ann would do if she ran away. The stupid oblivious bitch probably wouldn’t notice until the bills had to be paid. God knew any trace of love had left their relationship years ago, leaving only a semi-comfortable habit behind.
She put the empty martini glass on a table, pulled on a pair of slippers and went up the stairs. The sun was shining; she blinked when the brightness struck her in the face and lanced into her eyes. Drusilla’s gaze shifted to the far side of the roof where the converted glass studio stood, perfectly poised to catch the northern light. In summer, the heat was oppressive, but it was late autumn now; there was a chill in the air that hinted of snow. Wrapping her arms around herself, she hastened towards the studio where it would be a few degrees warmer. It was really typical of Ann that she picked the most inconvenient place to work, Drusilla fumed as she walked.
Inside the studio, Ann was standing in front of an easel, wielding a paintbrush with delicacy. The canvas depicted a woman’s torso built up of mechanical parts, broken records, leather straps and ropes; the lower part of the woman’s face was visible, a suggestive glimmer of teeth behind vinyl-bright lips. Drusilla paused in the doorway, focusing on her partner’s paint-splattered face. Where Drusilla was dark—dark hair, dark eyes, ripe-olive skin—Ann was blonde and blue-eyed, her fair complexion peppered with freckles. Where Drusilla was lean and well-toned, her figure maintained by a strict regimen of work-outs, a personal trainer and a special macrobiotic diet, Ann had a layer of smooth fat beneath her skin that swelled into plump breasts and feminine hips. They were opposites in many other things as well. It amazed Drusilla anew that she and Ann had stayed together for the better part of a decade when they had so little in common. Then again, for the most part Drusilla got to have things her way, which was not exactly a ray of light but did count for something.
Finally, Ann shifted around and caught sight of Drusilla. “Dru!” she exclaimed, putting down the paintbrush. “You’re home early! Is everything all right?” Her eyes narrowed as she took in Drusilla’s expression. “Who died?”
“My career,” Drusilla said shortly. Anger simmering inside her, fireworks that fizzed and snapped behind her controlled façade. “They let me go.”
Drusilla held up a hand to halt Ann’s step towards her. “I’ve got six months’ severance, and benefits through the end of the year. I’m going to start looking for another job in a couple of weeks, put some resumes out, spread the news around to the other agencies. I’m sure I’ll find something soon.” Having her old firm’s database of clients would give her an edge.
Ann’s expression took on a worried pinch that Drusilla knew well. As always, it irritated the hell out of her. “There’s no hurry, Dru,” Ann said softly, hesitantly; it was apparent that she was reluctant to bring up an old bone of contention. Don’t go there, Drusilla thought, do not go there, trying to beam the order into Ann’s head, but the idiotic woman went on, “I make enough for both of us, you know that . . .”
“For God’s sake!” Drusilla shouted. The volume of her voice was loud enough to startle several nearby pigeons, who launched themselves off the roof in a noisy whirring of wings. Ann flinched, which only ratcheted Drusilla’s temper higher and scraped at her already raw nerves. She fought the urge to grab one of Ann’s finished paintings and start smashing everything around her, enacting a Grand Guignol of shattered glass and spilled paint and possibly spilled blood, too. Her teeth ground together as she struggled to remain in control.
Lowering her voice deliberately, Drusilla continued, “I’m not going to leech off you, Annie. We’ve talked about it and that’s not going to happen.”
Ann stared at her and after a long moment, nodded. “If that’s what you want, Dru.” There was a wary look in her eyes that pierced through Drusilla’s irritation.
“Let’s order Chinese, okay? My treat,” Drusilla suggested as a reward for Ann’s acquiescence.
That usually worked—Ann did not like to argue and would usually give in without much of a fight—but it seemed her luck was still bad today. Instead of her usual agreement, Ann backed away until she bumped into her easel. Whirling around, she managed to keep the canvas from falling. The line of her back beneath her paint-streaked T-shirt was rigid, setting off alarm bells inside Drusilla’s mind. Something was wrong. That’s just what I need after an already shitty day, she thought. Aloud, she asked, “Is there a problem?”
Drusilla had been expecting some tale of domestic woe, like a dripping faucet or a broken statue. She was therefore floored when Ann licked her lips, refused to meet her eye and said, “I’ve found someone else.”
It was as though the other woman was speaking a foreign language. Ann’s simple declaration made no sense at all. Drusilla waited, a slight smile frozen on her face, while her brain tried to process what Ann had just said.
“Did you hear me, Dru?” Ann asked. She turned around and began to fuss with her paints. “It’s Caroline Drayson. You know her, right? She has an apartment on the fifteenth floor; we run into her at tenant meetings. She runs the Drayson Gallery.”
Through lips stiffened with shock, Drusilla forced out, “Your exhibition.”
“Yes, I have an exhibition opening there . . . tonight, in fact. You remembered.” Ann paused. “I’m really, really sorry, Dru. You don’t know how sorry I am. It’s just that we’ve been going through the motions for a long time. I still love you, don’t get me wrong, but there’s . . . there’s this politeness between us, like we’re strangers living together. Like we’re two bodies sharing living space, never connecting, never talking. There’s no spark. It’s been months since you touched me with any sort of affection, let alone had sex with me. I know you don’t love me anymore. You can hardly stand to be in the same bed with me.”
Drusilla could not find it within herself to issue a denial. That would be a lie too great for either of them to swallow.
Ann went on, her shoulders tensed as if she expected a blow, “The thing is, I can’t live like that anymore. I know you’ve been having affairs and Caroline . . . well, she wants me in ways that you don’t.” She was holding an open tube of cadmium red; her fingers spasmed, sending a squirt of crimson onto the floor that looked disconcertingly like blood. “I’m sorry. This isn’t the best time, is it?” Ann let out a nervous laugh.
Surprisingly, there was no explosion of raw, molten fury, no sudden instinct to rend and maim. Drusilla went icy inside; frozen to the core with sleet running through her veins. Her thoughts were clear and cold. Ann was leaving her for someone else. When she had imagined this scene inside her head during nights when she lay awake, Ann snoring gently beside her, it had never occurred to Drusilla that it might be Ann who rejected her rather than the other way around. Stricken dumb, she could think of nothing to say except, “Do you still want me to go to the exhibition opening with you tonight?”
Ann’s eyes went wide at this apparent non sequitur. She squeezed out another blob of vivid crimson paint and said breathlessly, “Sure, Dru. Of course. I mean, Caroline and I . . . you’ve got time, I’m not going to throw you out until you find a new place, and this is your home, too . . .”
Drusilla turned on her heel and walked away, the babble washing over her, as incomprehensible as it had been at the beginning.
The gallery opening was a great success, but they always were these days. Ann Leigh was an artist who commanded high prices as well as fanatical devotion from collectors, and every piece had been pre-sold, sight unseen. Caroline’s fawning over Ann at the opening had been disgusting but Drusilla managed to pretend blindness and ignorance, helped by the fact that Ann’s guilt led her to flinch away from Caroline whenever Drusilla’s eye fell on them. Even better, more than one witness showed uneasiness at the attention Caroline was showering over Ann, which Ann had not seemed to reciprocate.
Drusilla’s plot was impromptu, the recognition and seizing of an opportunity before it passed her by. When opening her purse to locate her lipstick earlier in the evening, she had found some pills, pristine in their foil wrappers—roofies bought at a club months ago and forgotten. The presence of those little pills, and Ann’s apparent revulsion at Caroline’s advances, had germinated unbidden into a plan. Drusilla did not intend to allow Ann to go off into the sunset and play happily-ever-after with Caroline Drayson. That stuck-up cow had been sneering at Drusilla since their first meeting, making subtle put-downs and giving her disdainful looks whenever they passed in the lobby or met in the elevator. It was past time the woman was put in her place.
As for Ann, murder was almost—but not quite—too good for that lying, back-stabbing, ungrateful, deceitful little whore.
Drusilla grabbed her chance ten minutes before the gallery closed by slipping the Rohypnol into Caroline’s and Ann’s drinks. By the time the Drayson Gallery was emptied, the doors locked and the lights dimmed, both women were incapacitated by the drug. The rest was simple, each element locking smoothly into place as if Fate itself approved of Drusilla’s actions. This was not about revenge, she told herself. It was about taking control.
Drusilla took Caroline’s keys and went out with the last patrons, chatting and making sure they saw her walking towards the Crowe Building, which was about two blocks away from the gallery. She made sure the doorman saw her going in the foyer. She made sure the elevator key-card system registered her stopping on the penthouse floor. She made sure no one saw her using the other key—the one she took from Ann’s desk—that led to a hidden emergency stairwell that opened into an alley behind the building. Ann’s grandfather had had the exit installed on the quiet when other renovations were being done to the building because he suffered from a morbid fear of burning alive. The old man had not liked the idea of struggling with panic-stricken tenants to evacuate the apartment building if it should catch fire. No one knew about the stairwell except Ann and Drusilla; as far as she was aware, it did not show on any official plans, either. Before using the stairwell, she took a length of rope from Ann’s studio and coiled it up into a pink Prada messenger handbag. Guns could be traced; knives, too, and even non-visible blood-spray left traces for the police to find. Rope, on the other hand, was ubiquitous, available everywhere and accessible to everyone.
Back at the darkened gallery, in a storeroom marked ‘Employees Only’ that held crated paintings, stacks of prints, and empty frames as well as framing tools, Drusilla found both women semi-conscious, half-dressed and curled around each other on the concrete floor. It was clear they had retreated to a private place for lovemaking and succumbed to the drug. That made the culmination of her plan easy; she would not have to drag their dead weight around and risk leaving anomalous marks on their bodies for the coroner to interpret. She put the ends of the rope into Caroline’s hands and looped the rest around Ann’s neck. Squatting down, Drusilla settled her hands over Caroline’s and pulled the rope tight—tighter and tighter and tighter, while something dark and nasty in her soul gibbered its approval.
The hushed creak of straining rope fibers was audible at first, then the sound was drowned out by the scrabbling of Ann’s nails on the smooth finished concrete. Ann’s eyes were wide and staring, the whites pink-tinged as blood vessels burst from the pressure of the rope. The soft pale flesh of her neck bulged over the top and bottom of the ligature as it dug deeper, drawing smears of blood. Faint retching sounds spilled out of her open mouth. Drugged, Ann was unable to put up much of a fight, which suited Drusilla since she did not want to have to explain scratches or bruises to the investigating detectives. The sharp stink of urine filled the air when Ann lost bladder control right before losing consciousness.
Drusilla continued to yank and twist on the rope long after the woman’s pupils dilated and fixed, becoming huge black holes with the narrowest rim of blue. The sight of the swollen, bitten and bleeding tongue peeping from between Ann’s lips was strangely exciting. Drusilla’s breath came in harsh pants; wetness gathered between her thighs, a slick sexual heat that sent blinding jolts of pleasure racing up her spine.
“Dumb bitch,” she grunted. “Did you think I was just going to let you go, after all the time I’ve invested in you? Did you think you could tell me what to do, like I was some pussy-whipped fool? You should’ve learned better, Annie. You should’ve known me better. It’s your fault, you stupid cunt. All your fault . . . ”
She put a hand under her skirt and rubbed herself, grinding down into the cotton crotch of her underwear until the pleasure reached its pinnacle and she climaxed, teetering on her high heels, whispering Ann’s name through the constriction in her throat. The stretched muscles in her thighs burned when she got to her feet.
Ann’s limp body reminded her of a discarded doll limp on the floor, her blonde hair streaming out around the horribly distended face. Caroline’s palms were grazed from the roughness of the rope; one of her manicured fingernails was torn. She was sedated but alive. Drusilla left the gallery knowing that Caroline would wake up in about eight hours with no memory of what had happened, the only evidence being Ann Leigh’s dead body, which would tell its own story.
Drusilla returned home via the secret stairway, taking her used wine glass with her so that the police would never suspect there had been a third person in the storeroom.
Once inside the penthouse, her clothing stripped off and put into a bag for the dry cleaner to pick up the next morning, Drusilla stepped into the shower. Already the evening’s events were taking on a dream-like aspect. Had she really killed her lover? Drusilla glanced down at her hands, blinking at the sting of warm spray in her eyes. Were they powerful enough to take a life? There was not a mark upon her—no tell-tale mark of Cain—that would show the world what she had done. Drusilla turned her face directly into the spray and let the water soothe her jangled nerves. It was over; even though it seemed like a dream, the deed was truly done.
Ann Leigh’s money had never meant much to Drusilla. Indeed, she had hated that part of their relationship, as people who did not really know them often believed Drusilla was a parasite, a good-for-nothing, leeching off Ann’s fortune. Ann had had no idea, of course; she was so often absorbed in her work that she forgot the outside world existed, preferring a semi-reclusive life where she could paint in peace.
However, just because she never wanted Ann’s money did not mean Drusilla ignored its reality. That fortune had been a never-acknowledged safety net, a retirement fund which Drusilla could dip into should she be inclined. Like many who inherited their wealth, Ann was careless with money, having never done without. Drusilla could remember lean years during college and after graduation, months when she had lived on cheap instant noodles and peanut butter sandwiches because she had needed to pay the rent more than she had needed to eat well. She had not killed Ann for her money but that had certainly been one factor contributing to the necessity of murder.
Besides, Drusilla thought, the water pounding on her head in a beat that echoed the rhythm of her heart, I earned it. Every damned penny for every damned day I had to put up with Annie’s crap. She was so clingy, so needy, always wanting me to be there, never able to let me go for five minutes so I could screw my head on straight. God, I hated her!
Which was why she had sought oblivion in one-night stands, in girls picked up at clubs or bars. Drusilla had liked surrounding herself with perfumed skin, waking up the next morning with marks she did not remember receiving, bruises in intimate places. She had loved painting their bodies with her lips and teeth, forgetting her domestic hell for a few hours. These affairs were brief stillborn things, unromantic animal releases that meant nothing; she had never given her telephone number or asked for one in return.
Drusilla reached for the taps and turned off the water. Steam rose around her, scented with sandalwood. A few stray droplets drizzled from the shower head, the plinking noise of their fall sounding over-loud in the confines of the glass-enclosed space. Wetness ran down her face and sheeted over her body; she opened the shower door and grabbed a towel from the heated rack. For the briefest of moments, she thought she felt someone watching her, an invisible but palpable brush of eyes against the back of her neck. Her skin prickled. Turning, Drusilla peered this way and that. The bathroom was swirled with steam, the mirror above the sink frosted over with it. She was alone.
She toweled herself dry and padded naked to the bedroom.
In a few hours, she would have to play the part of the shocked and grieving widow, and Drusilla was done with off-the-cuff plotting. This time, she wanted to be prepared.
The homicide detective’s name was Anthony Valerio. He had the keenest green eyes that Drusilla had ever seen, and a mobile mouth that reminded her of Ann. “Let’s go over this one more time, Miss Neill,” he said, his tone firm but apologetic.
Drusilla dabbed at her eyes with a crumpled tissue. Her grief was, in a way, unfeigned. Waking up without Ann next to her in bed was something of a shock. She had not been prepared for how much she might miss her partner, irritating though Ann had been in life. Drusilla had found herself starting awake, her hand seeking another body on the cold sheets. The apartment was too quiet; the silence was working on her strained nerves. She took a breath and focused on the detective’s black-bound notebook. Her alibi was set in stone, of course. It could be proven that she arrived in the apartment building well before Ann’s murder, and that she never left, thanks to the doorman’s testimony and the elevator’s security system that registered each use of the key-card.
“I left the gallery right after the exhibition opening and went home,” Drusilla said. “Caroline said that she needed to speak to Annie about something . . . I don’t know what. Business, I suppose. Anyway, I took a shower and went to bed. The next morning, I realized that Annie hadn’t come home. I tried to call the gallery but there was no answer so I walked over there. Annie had a key to the front door of the gallery, in case she needed to stay late to arrange the paintings. Caroline gave it to her last week and Annie . . . well, she doesn’t . . . I mean, she didn’t…” Drusilla broke off and coughed.
“Take your time,” Valerio said, his ballpoint pen moving silently over the page.
“Annie was somewhat scatter-brained. She was always losing things, so I had the key on my key-ring.” Drusilla knew she looked terrible, her eyes sore and puffy, her nose running; it was amazing what a little ammonia would do. She had taken a few hearty sniffs of the stuff before letting the detective into the apartment. “I went there and . . . oh, God.”
“You found Ms. Leigh and Ms. Drayson,” he prompted.
“Yes. Annie was dead. Caroline was . . . I don’t know, drunk or something. I called the police.”
“Did you know that Ms. Drayson was apparently stalking Ms. Leigh?”
“What? I don’t understand.” Drusilla did not have to pretend her surprise.
Valerio’s green gaze was piercing and, somehow, also sympathetic. “We’ve had a look at her cell-phone records. She was calling Ms. Leigh at all hours of the day and night. There are records of flower deliveries; we’ve just started going through Ms. Drayson’s financial records, and it seems she was purchasing expensive lingerie, too. Nearly two thousand dollars worth of La Perla and Luxxa in the last couple of months, plus perfume, chocolate truffles that cost two hundred fifty dollars each from Knipschildt, bottles of Klug champagne . . . I think you get the picture. Now I’ve spoken to some of the other people at the exhibition. They say that Ms. Drayson was getting physical with Ms. Leigh, who didn’t seem to be encouraging it. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
Drusilla shook her head. “Annie and I were together for a long time, detective. We were always honest with one another. If she was having a problem with Caroline, I think she’d let me know.”
“Maybe. You’d be surprised how much a woman can hide from her partner. I’ve known married ladies being stalked whose husbands had no clue. The victims feel ashamed, like its their fault some asshole—pardon me—picked them as his favorite obsession. In about half of all cases, the situation turns violent. Granted, the majority of stalkers are men but female perpetrators aren’t entirely unknown.” Valerio leaned back in his chair. “Right now, Ms. Drayson claims to have no memory of what happened. Forensics puts her at the scene and her blood work’s come back negative. Of course, Rohypnol’s notoriously difficult to detect on drug tests, so there’s a chance that Ms. Drayson is mimicking the symptoms to give herself an alibi. If you can think of anyone else who might have a grudge against Ms. Leigh . . .”
Valerio’s drone faded into the background when Drusilla glanced over his shoulder. Fading sunlight streamed through the windows, painting the room in broad stripes of white-gold and honey, forcing the shadows to the edges where the walls met the floor. There, in the corner, where the gathered shadows were the thickest was . . . something. Drusilla squinted, trying to bring whatever it was into focus. The air was suddenly laced with the smell of oil paint and thinner—both of which she associated with Ann. As if this thought was a necessary catalyst, the shadows suddenly coalesced and Drusilla stared into the pale face of her dead lover, who stared back at her with glittering hungry eyes.
Drusilla froze in sheer terror. Those eyes—they were black outlined with the merest rim of blue—were boring into her, alight with a greed that Ann had never shown in life. Her heart banged against her ribs. Her chest jerked as she inhaled, breathing in the heavy industrial scent of paint. Her tongue tasted as though it was coated with turpentine. Cold sweat slicked her skin. Drusilla was being devoured by the dead woman’s gaze. She wrenched her eyes closed, unable to bear that awful appetite any longer.
“Miss Neill? Are you all right?” Valerio’s voice sliced through the fog. She opened her eyes, automatically focusing on the corner—and there was no one there. The shadows were just shadows, shifting as the sun continued to sink in the west.
Drusilla ran a hand over her sweaty face and swallowed hard. She managed to answer, “Yes, yes, I’m fine. Go ahead, detective.”
The look he gave her was skeptical, but Valerio closed his notebook and rose from the chair. “I think we have all we need at this time. You’ll have to come in and make a formal statement.” He brushed back a lock of dark hair that was hanging over the side of his face. “When the DA files charges, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, if you happen to remember anything else . . .” Valerio held out a business card, which she took between her fingers, handling the card as if it might transform into a shadow with hungry black eyes.
After Valerio was gone, she puttered around the empty space, suddenly wishing that she had not insisted on minimalist décor. Clutter would have softened the edges and the echoes. It would have dispelled some of the coldness that raised goosebumps on her arms, and would perhaps even have helped her forget what she had seen. The memory of the haggard figure with its appetite-filled eyes made her uneasy. Cursing her apparently guilty conscience—why develop one now?—Drusilla grabbed her purse and went out to seek some company.
It was good to get out of the oppressive atmosphere of the apartment, to let herself be lost in a sea of gyrating bodies at Themiskyra, one of the city’s hottest women-only clubs. Drusilla danced to the throbbing music, rubbed herself against other women, shook the sweat from her hair and laughed until her face hurt. The cocktails were good, lurid blue martinis adorned with impaled fruit slices. Drusilla danced and flung herself about with the abandon of a woman who needed to dispel nightmares. The evening wore on, strange women left the dance floor and more women took their places. Multi-colored lights beat behind Drusilla’s eyelids. Her mouth was sticky with cocktails and stolen kisses.
In the midst of a dance, she saw someone watching her, a pale haggard face barely glimpsed between the crowd of dancers as they swayed in place. Drusilla’s laughter died. Black eyes rimmed in blue, hungry and greedy, eating her alive… She screamed, the sound swallowed by the techno-beat. Drusilla stumbled and turned away, although she could still catch a residual smear of white and black and blue in the corner of her eye. She pushed through the close press of bodies, gagging at the reek of competing perfumes, aerosol deodorants, hairspray, alcohol, sweat, smoke and sour vomit. Women shifted all around her. Drusilla spat someone’s hair out of her mouth and tried to orient herself. Was the bar that way? What about the exit? She wanted, no, she needed to get out, out now!
Panic thrummed. The overheard lights strobed, stutters of white creating freeze-frame moments that lasted only a second and were gone, erased by a pulse of darkness only for new poses to be illuminated. It was like an old-fashioned film, a reel of flickering celluloid and images of a ghost stalking her, a dead Ann prowling through the crowd. Drusilla sobbed. Someone bumped into her and she fell painfully to her knees. Drusilla’s hand was almost stepped on. She cursed and tried to rise, but a hip jostled into her, then she was kicked in the thigh. Balance gone, she fell again, her knees taking the brunt once more. The only thing she could see was a forest of legs that seemed to stretch for miles.
Drusilla swallowed her rising gorge. In front of her was a thin young woman in a knee-length skirt; the white fabric was crumpled and wrinkled, dark streaks of some spilled liquid—wine, perhaps—running from waist to hem. In the pattern of the spill, Drusilla could detect the outline of a pair of eyes, staring into hers. A mobile mouth, the lips grey and outlined in black, opening to let out a whisper that could be heard over the music, “Dru . . .”
She screamed again and scrambled away on her hands and knees, not caring about knocking anyone over in her desperate bid to get away.
“Bitch is trippin’!”
“Watch out, you stupid cunt!”
Drusilla keened in the back of her throat and continued to shuffle away from the dance floor. Once she reached the edge of the elevated space, she simply let herself roll over, crashing onto a table. Half-empty cocktail glasses and beer bottles scattered and smashed under the impact. She panted and clung to the table, drawing her legs up until she was curled in a fetal position. Warm wetness soaked into her dress; she did not know if it was blood or alcohol, and she did not care. Hands touched her. She shuddered, muscles twitching.
“Are you okay?” someone shouted in her ear. Drusilla saw it was a Themiskyra employee, probably a bouncer; one of those steroid-pumped bodybuilder types who looked like a man in bad drag. “Do you need an ambulance? What’ve you been taking, hon? Coke? Ecstasy? Special K? Meth?”
“Nothing,” Drusilla shouted back. Her fingernails dug into the surface of the table. The employee was wearing a tight black T-shirt with a white labrys on the front; under the strobe lights, the labrys burned with an actinic light that hurt her eyes. “I’m fine. Just got disoriented for a second, and somebody shoved me.”
She could tell by the tightening of her lips that the woman did not fully believe her story, but since Drusilla seemed lucid, there would be no action taken against her. The employee helped her slide off the table, brushing her dress clean of debris with firm but careful strokes of her palms—professional touches, impersonal, with not a hint of impropriety—and checking her for injuries as well. The roll of the woman’s biceps stretched the sleeves of her T-shirt in a manner that Drusilla found herself appreciating. A nametag stuck to the front of her shirt read ‘Katherine.’ Deciding that what she had seen on the dance floor was just a hallucination and that she deserved some comfort after her fright, Drusilla gave Katherine a slow, lazy smile and ran her fingertips across the front of the woman’s shirt, grinning as a nipple furled hard under her touch.
Katherine slanted a glance at her. A surprisingly delicate hand covered hers. “Not here, not now,” the woman said to Drusilla, leaning down to speak directly into her ear. The warm puffs of air on her skin made Drusilla shiver. Katherine’s breath smelled like cinnamon and cigarette smoke. “There are rooms upstairs. Meet me in Number Eight in ten minutes.”
Libido raged a moment with the lingering traces of her fright, but the adrenaline in her blood demanded release. Drusilla nodded, allowing her hand to linger a moment longer on Katherine’s, and walked away towards the bar to fortify herself with a drink before pushing her way through the loiterers on the broad stairway.
Number Eight was decorated in deep purples with splashes of orange and red. The crimson bedspread had most of its velour rubbed off and was mottled with cigarette burns. Drusilla wrinkled her nose at a dental dam that had been discarded behind the door. Apart from a cheap gold-framed mirror—the glass was cracked and cloudy—the only furniture in the room was the bed. There were no windows, and the ceiling was low enough to give Drusilla a touch of claustrophobia. The piney odor of disinfectant hung in the air.
It was a sordid place for a rendezvous. Her skin crawled at the thought of rolling around on that seedy looking bedspread. Drusilla was beginning to think this was not such a good idea when the door banged open, startling her. She jumped back, her heart in her throat. Standing in the doorway was not Katherine, but a woman she had never seen before. The stranger’s silhouette was short and squat. Frizzy hair backlit by the fluorescent light in the corridor outside created an aura around a face made unreadable by shadow.
“Who . . . who are you?” Drusilla asked, feigning a bravado she did not feel. She had a can of pepper spray in her tiny purse and hoped she would not need it.
The woman came inside and shut the door, leaning back against it as if to prevent Drusilla from leaving. “What have you done? What did you do to her?” she asked. Her face was round and pale, as though she was rarely exposed to sunlight. A muted bass-beat from the pounding music downstairs vibrated up through the floor, setting Drusilla’s teeth on edge.
Guilt sledge-hammered into her, followed by fear. Drusilla edged backwards until her knees struck the edge of the mattress and she sat down abruptly, her lungs a gaping emptiness without wind. It took a moment before she found her voice. “Who are you?” she demanded.
From behind round-lensed glasses, the woman’s eyes studied her for a long minute, then she shook her head, frizzy curls bouncing on her shoulders. “You’ve got it bad, sister. Real bad. Death clings to you. You’ll never really wash it off.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Drusilla said, but she did. Oh God, she knows, Drusilla thought. She knows I murdered Annie. Did she see me? The story’s been in the newspapers. The mundane threat of blackmail was something she could handle. That would be blessedly ordinary after her ordeal on the dance floor. “What do you want?” she asked, feeling a bit more confident.
“My name’s Morgan,” the woman answered shortly. She tossed a business card on the floor. “Call me when you’re ready for some help.”
Drusilla did not answer. The woman left, shutting the door behind her. After about five minutes had passed and Katherine had not shown up, Drusilla got off the bed and picked up the card, turning the cream-colored rectangle towards a Japanese lantern that was the only source of light in the room. Embossed ink letters in an old-fashioned font read:
J. Morgan Balisarda
Speaker of the Dead?
A shadow moved against the wall. Gasping, Drusilla snatched her purse and ran out of the purple room, her momentary sang froid gone in a rush of terror that closed her throat, jamming a litany of denials and lies behind her teeth.
The funeral service was not as bad as Drusilla had anticipated.
There had been a great deal of press outside the funeral home, of course; the paparazzi scented a good story, and Caroline Drayson’s arrest for murder was the cherry on top of an already newsworthy cake. Many famous faces made an appearance, looking suitably grieved for the cameras. Ann Leigh’s funeral was almost a social event.
After the service, Drusilla chatted with John Devon, Ann’s lawyer, regarding her partner’s will. Although Devon was loathe to discuss details, he was able to reassure her that apart from a few bequests, the bulk of Ann’s estate was hers. Furthermore, the value of Ann’s paintings had doubled overnight; Drusilla told him that she wanted to arrange a sale of sketchbooks and studies as soon as possible. In the meantime, there was plenty of money in the joint account she shared with Ann; the rents from the Crowe Building went directly there, once a month like clockwork, deposited by the management firm.
It was a grey morning; rain slashed down out of a leaden sky, heavy and cold. Drusilla drove alone to the cemetery in a hired Mercedes, in the front of a long convoy of similar vehicles that wound in stately procession through the streets. They went outside the city to a peaceful green cemetery set amidst rolling hills, protected by iron fences and gates. Ann had chosen not to be immortalized with an ostentatious display. Instead, she had left instructions for a plain oak coffin and a simple memorial stone.
Apart from the money issue, there was this; Ann was too soft. She had the personality of a dishrag. She never denied Drusilla anything and she had always been quick to forgive any infractions. Drusilla found that acquiescence gratifying but, paradoxically, annoying too. She herself owned a flash-bang temper, a nature that thrived on conflict. Being able to browbeat Ann into submission on those few occasions that required it gave her no sense of triumph; a too-easy victory was dissatisfying on many levels. That was why Ann’s decision to end their relationship had come as such a shock. Who knew the woman had the guts? After nine years and seven months of comfortable routine, of letting Drusilla call the shots in everything except her painting, Ann had finally developed some self-interest.
A very inconvenient development, Drusilla thought, listening to the raindrops pattering on the umbrella. After all, it was Ann’s lovey-dovey nature, the safety and financial security she provided that had softened Drusilla’s edge, blunted her figurative teeth and made her give less than the 110% that the high-level executive recruitment field required. Drusilla’s humiliating dismissal from the firm was really Ann’s fault when one considered the facts.
At some point, whatever attraction and affection she had felt for Ann in the beginning had devolved into irritated tolerance, yet Drusilla had not been willing to let go just yet. Not when she could enjoy first-class trips to Tuscany and Venice and Paris when Ann wanted to chase inspiration in exotic climes; not when she had the benefit of five-star restaurants and designer boutiques where there were no price-tags. Drusilla had not wanted Ann’s money but she had allowed herself to be pampered by it. Hypocritical, she supposed, but no one would blame her for wanting to salvage some pride out of the situation.
Her attention was snatched back to the present by what sounded like a woman’s voice whispering in her ear, “Dru . . .”
Drusilla glanced around. No one had spoken to her. She waited, but the whispering was not repeated, and she began to relax again. Her mind was just playing tricks on her.
The coffin was being lowered into the hole by a hydraulic lift; the motor spluttered in the rain and the movement was slightly jerky, making the white lily-covered coffin shudder as it disappeared. Halfway down, the motor began to whine loudly. Something snapped with a sound like a gunshot, and the coffin plummeted the rest of the way down. It had been raining all evening and all morning, as though the heavens themselves mourned the loss of Ann Leigh, too. When the coffin struck bottom with a splash, a wave of muddy water surged out of the hole, covering the shoes of those not quick enough to jump out of the way. A man cursed loudly, bemoaning the loss of his four hundred dollar Italian shoes, and the solemn dignity of the proceedings was shattered.
Drusilla had to bite her lip to keep from laughing or screaming—or both.
After that little piece of theater—thank God the paparazzi had been forced to remain outside the cemetery gates—Drusilla drove back to the city, still alone. She was in no mood for company, and certainly not possessing the patience to accommodate any of Ann’s simpering artist friends. The road surfaces were slippery, the big Mercedes on the brink of hydroplaning as she rounded the curves. Drusilla did not like to drive that much; owning an automobile in the city was more of a pain than a convenience because of the constant traffic, the expense of a secure garage, the real possibility of theft or damage. There were always cabs available, or hired limousines if one needed to make an impact.
Drusilla did not take her eyes off the road, but she loosened a hand from the steering wheel to turn the CD player on. The rental company should have put in her favorite baroque piece, Handel’s Sarabande. She gritted her teeth in minor frustration as her questing fingers failed to find the ‘Play’ button. “Goddamn it,” she muttered, her shoulders tightening. The beginning of a tension headache beat sullenly in her temples.
Rain slammed against the windshield, a near solid sheet of grayness. The windows were closed but cold seeped in anyway. Drusilla let out a soft curse, scrabbling at the CD player. Suddenly, the speakers blared the ponderous opening notes of Sarabande, making Drusilla flinch. She twisted the volume knob to the left, focusing on the CD player for the moment it took to get the sound adjusted to a more manageable level. When she glanced back at the road, she saw Ann’s unmistakable figure standing directly in the Mercedes’ path. The split-second glimpse was etched indelibly into Drusilla’s mind.
A white face, white as paper, with black eyes that resembled burned holes, flat and glittering in their depths. A glint of blue, electric as lightning. Gray lips rimmed in black. Colorless hair swept off the shoulders by the wind, tangled tendrils billowing up, surrounding the dead woman’s head—a ghostly Medusa, a malevolent doll, the embodiment of an appetite for destruction. Ann was hungry, and only one thing would satisfy her.
The music stopped. From the speakers came a woman’s voice. “Dru . . .”
Drusilla wrenched the wheel to one side, her foot slamming on the brake pedal. The Mercedes slewed around, wheels skidding on the rain-slick asphalt. Her breath hitched; icy terror rushed in her bowels, the sickness spreading outward and upward. Sweat pooled in the palms of her gloves, feeling like old grease against her skin. The Mercedes swept around 360 degrees, sending a spray of water cascading over the windshield that overwhelmed the wipers. Momentarily blinded, Drusilla clutched the wheel, desperate to resist the lack of centripetal force that threatened to send her flying to the other side of the car. When the Mercedes came to an abrupt halt, Drusilla banged her temple against the console. The blow was hard enough to cause crimson light to flash in her vision.
There was silence, except for the harsh rasps of her breath.
One by one, she pried her fingers off the wheel, and removed one of her gloves. The cool air hitting the sweaty, overheated skin of her hand was a relief. Drusilla touched her temple; it hurt like a bitch but there was no blood, just a tenderness that spoke of bruising. The engine had gone off. Removing her other glove, Drusilla turned the key, trying the ignition. The Mercedes purred back to life. She automatically checked the rear-view mirror before reversing the car back into the proper lane. Memory assailed her—black eyes, white face, open mouth—and she winced, but there was nothing reflected in the mirror except rain and the oncoming headlights of another car. Drusilla got the Mercedes moving again and slowly, her heart rate returned to normal.
I can’t do this anymore, she thought, gripping the steering wheel so tightly her hands ached as abominably as her head.
What frightened her more was that she was almost growing used to being haunted, if only by her own guilt. There were no such things as ghosts. The personality did not survive death. Drusilla believed that as firmly as she believed in profit and loss. Weren’t hallucinations caused by post-traumatic stress disorder? What she needed was medication, Drusilla decided. She had a doctor who would write prescriptions for his patients, no questions asked. There were already bottles of Ativan and Zoloft at home, which she had used in the past to help calm her nerves after a stress-filled day at work. Maybe what she needed was something different like Valium or Effexor or Xanax. One of her friends swore by a Japanese Kampo medicine called saiboku-to to reduce anxiety. She might try that, too.
Much calmer, although her head still hurt, Drusilla drove home. If her gaze kept returning to the rear-view mirror, as if she expected someone – or something – to be following her, it was just a bad habit. Nothing more.
Back at the apartment, Drusilla ordered Chinese to be delivered for a late lunch, not feeling like going out. There were a couple of bottles of Château-Grillet in the refrigerator, which was mostly bare since she had not gone shopping in a while. She ate Chinese food—brought to the penthouse by the oh-so-helpful doorman whose name she did not remember, but who was obviously angling for a generous Christmas bonus—straight from the boxes while sitting on the couch in the living room, watching re-runs of banal sitcoms. The remainder of the afternoon and evening was spent drinking expensive wine and going through some of Ann’s things, boxing up clothes and personal items. Drusilla thought she might try an E-bay auction rather than donating anything to charity; there were plenty of ghouls who would pay for an authentic piece of the dead artist’s life.
Just before bed, she took Xanax as well as a sedative, feeling that a good night’s rest would go a long way towards making her feel normal.
Sleep claimed her quickly. Drusilla had vague, unsettling dreams where undefined threats menaced her, but not enough to drive her awake. At a certain point she drifted in the shallow border between sleep and wakefulness, warm under the down comforter and unwilling to move. The faint smell of oil paints made her slide a hand across the sheets. Her knuckles connected with a softly curved body that scooted closer, pressing against her. Annie. The other woman’s breath ruffled her hair as Ann leaned in to press her lips against Drusilla’s temple, her breasts heavy on Drusilla’s arm.
Recollection caught up with her and Drusilla’s eyes snapped open.
She was alone.
Fully awake now and shivering in the aftermath of shock, Drusilla got out of bed, scrubbing her eyes with the heel of her hand. It was seven o’clock; the doctor’s office would open at nine. When she went to the bathroom to wash her face and brush her teeth, Drusilla looked into the mirror and gasped, her eyes widening.
The bruise on her temple was purplish-black, and vaguely shaped as though a pair of lips had pressed into her flesh and left a colorful, painful trace behind.